Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - What Prevents Us?

I learned the story from today's reading in Acts as a young boy.  I suppose the elements of Philip running alongside the chariot and such made for a good Bible Story.  The baptism of the Ethiopians eunuch was also one the first reports of people from outside Judaism becoming followers of Jesus.  My impression is that this story is reasonably well known among church folk.  But for much of my life I never appreciated the significance of that eunuch's question, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"

I grew up in North and South Carolina at a time when Christian faith was almost a given.  Given such a setting, it was hard for me to appreciate the barriers that might have prevented that Ethiopian eunuch from being baptized.  To begin with, he wasn't Jewish, and during the First Century, the fledgling Church had a huge internal fight about how to receive such folks.  For a while the view was they had to become Jewish first, being circumcised if they were male, adopting the Jewish dietary restrictions, and so on.  It took quite some time, probably not until after Paul's death, that the Church in Jerusalem came around to the idea of people being baptized without first converting to Judaism.

But that wasn't the only problem for this eunuch.  The Old Testament forbade eunuchs from being a part of "the assembly of the LORD."  There are also Old Testament verses excluding foreigners.  And so the eunuchs question, "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" might well have been answered, "Quite a few things, I'm afraid."

This passage in Acts clearly depicts a new day when old exclusions no longer apply.  The baptism of this eunuch enacts the prophecy of Isaiah 56 that envisions a new day when foreigners and eunuchs are welcome, a day when God's house becomes "a house of prayer for all peoples."

It is very difficult for us, so far removed from the situation of the early Church, to appreciate what a huge step it was to get beyond all that might well have prevented that eunuch from being baptized.  It is hard for us to realize the dissension and infighting that occurred when a few Christian missionaries began ignoring the official barriers and baptized foreigners, Gentiles, even eunuchs.

I am inclined to think that issues around gay ordination and the Church's relationship to LGBT people are our own struggling with the eunuch's question, "What is to prevent?.."  But beyond these struggles, I wonder if the Church doesn't have many other issues that prevent us from reaching out to the world around us.  Much like early Jewish Christians who assumed that being Jewish was a fundamental part of the faith, a lot of us assume that being Christian is fundamentally rooted in "going to church" on Sunday where there is a choir, hymns are sung, and a preacher delivers a sermon.

I wonder how often we in the traditional church might have the opportunity to help someone who, in some way, is wondering, "What is to prevent me from becoming a part of this Jesus thing?"  And I wonder how often our own assumptions get in the way and prevent us from being much help.  I sure hope I would not have answered that eunuch by rattling off the prohibitions that prevented me from baptizing him.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - What Pleases God

Both of this morning's psalms are songs of praise, and the second has verses that speak of God taking no delight in the strength of the horse or the speed of the runner (perhaps in our day it should say the power of our tanks and aircraft or the prowess of our soldiers), "but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him,in those who hope in his steadfast love."

If you've ever spend much time with a Bible, you've surely seen it recommend "the fear of the Lord." Sometimes people try to say that this doesn't speak of being frightened of God but rather of awe. That is true to a point, But the Bible does think that God's presence is genuinely terrifying. All those places where God or God's emissary says, "Fear not," to someone who has just hit the deck are not telling the person she shouldn't have bowed down in fear. Instead it's more of a "Don't worry, I come in peace," sort of statement.

Of course Jesus does seem to soften God's image a bit.  But Jesus didn't get executed because he was so sweet and nice.  He terrified people enough that they had to get rid of him.

I wonder sometimes if we haven't so domesticated God that awe, much less fear, is nearly impossible for us.  Some Christians seem to have made God such a BFF (an online term meaning best friends forever) that the relationship sounds like something between a couple of 12 year old girls.  Some of these folks are so downright perky about God that it leaves me feeling a bit ill, but that's my personal problem.  And while there are plenty of Christians who envision a God who is more than happy to send millions of folks off to hell for eternity, this God is only dangerous to other people, never to them.

I'm not wishing for any sort of fire and brimstone God here, but surely any God who can create galaxies and black holes, whose vastness is beyond our understanding, yet wins victory via a cross, has to be a little intimidating.

Perhaps it's just me and my Presbyterian upbringing, but I worry sometimes about having rationalized and theologized God into a concept or an idea.  And such things exist only in the abstract.  Ideas and concepts can certainly be powerful.  They can lead to great good or great evil.  But ultimately, they are under the control of those who come up with them.  I doubt that can be said of a real God.

Sometimes I wish that God would be a bit more obvious with me, maybe even scare me a bit.  Sometimes I think it might help my faith immeasurably to tremble in the presence of a the Eternal Almighty.  And according to the psalm, God might enjoy it, too.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Faith and Arrogance

I was watching the Colbert Report last night, and a guest on the show was Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.  This group has a pledge they ask politicians running for office to sign promising that they will not raise taxes.  The pledge must be witnessed by two people and a copy is kept in a safe belonging to Americans for Tax Reform.  And according to Mr. Norquist, huge numbers of those running for Congress in 2012, along with all the current Republican presidential candidates save Huntsman (Norquist thought his pledge would be forthcoming), have already signed it.

In the course of the interview Stephen Colbert asked if there could ever be any sort of circumstance that would make raising taxes a good idea.  Could any event or crisis warrant raising taxes on anyone?  Mr. Norquist did not even hesitate a second.  His answer was simply, "No."

It seems to me that once a persons stance on an issue, any issue, reaches this level, it is no longer a political position.  It is an article of faith.  Raising taxes is bad, period.  Discussions about when doing so might be appropriate or necessary are not allowed because it would go against the faith.

Positions on the left and right can become articles of faith.  But when they do, thinking on the matter ceases.  Mr. Norquist did not need to pause and consider whether some scenario might justify higher taxes because he has faith that tax increases are absolutely bad.

The Bible is pretty clear that divorce is a bad thing.  In one place Jesus goes so far as to say divorce violates the 10 Commandments, that those whom God joins together no one is to separate.  But if we treat this prohibition on divorce as an absolute article of faith, then we have to say to a woman who has been horribly abused, beaten, and is likely to be killed by her husband, "Sorry, divorce is bad and you can't have one."

Clearly, we're not willing to say that as a society.  Even those of us who think that divorce is against God's will can envision some situations when it is necessary.  But Mr. Norquist cannot do so in the case of taxes.

It makes me wonder what allows some things to become such an article of absolute faith.  I don't think it requires "bad" people.  I suspect that Mr. Norquist thinks himself a good man who is doing something to help the country.  He is acting faithfully, insomuch as he understands what is good and right.  But how do we know that our articles of faith deserve such as status?

The founder of my theological tradition spoke of humans as idol factories.  That's idol, not idle.  John Calvin said that we are experts at creating things in which we place our absolute trust, a trust that rightfully belongs only to God.  And religious people are in no way exempt from this problem.  In today's gospel reading and in the passage from Acts we read of Jesus' trial and of the persecution against the early Church, events carried out by people who, to one degree or another, presume they are acting on behalf of God.  They are acting against people who have challenged and threatened some of their deeply held articles of faith.

Frederick Buechner once said something about doubt being the ants in the pants of faith.  Doubt is necessary for faith to grow and mature.  And I wonder if doubt and self reflection aren't also necessary to keep faith from becoming arrogant as well as idolatrous.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Sunday Sermon video - Provision and Testing

Sermons on YouTube have better quality video.

Spiritual Hiccups - A Compassionate, Gracious, Destroyer

Reading Psalm 145 this morning, I saw that "The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made."  A little later I read that the LORD "is gracious in all his deeds."  I was feeling pretty good about God and then came the end of the psalm that assured me that "The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy."

Good to all, compassionate to all that God has created and gracious in every deed, yet God destroys the wicked.  God seems conflicted.

I don't know that there is a conflict within God, but there is certainly a tension in the pictures of God the Bible gives us.  The Bible certainly plays up the compassionate and gracious side, in both Old and New Testament.  But there is no denying the judgment side, in both Old and New Testament.  And I sometimes think that the popular conflict between "the God of the Old Testament" versus "the God of the New Testament" arises because people resolve the tension in the Bible's picture of God one way for the Old Testament and the other way for the New.

We humans have difficulty with tension and paradox, and so we tend to resolve them.  Some folks tend toward the judgment side.  God weighs the evidence and rules.  Measure up and it's great; fall short and too bad for you.  And despite the Protestant emphasis on grace and faith, a surprising number of Christians still seem content with an image of "the good" in heaven and "the bad" in hell.

But others tend to focus more on the grace and compassion side.  My own tendencies are in this direction.  God forgives.  And what with God being love and all, perhaps God simply forgives everyone. 

Problem is that resolving the tension in either direction requires ignoring large parts of Scripture, having certain Scriptures trump others, or utilizing some sort of cumulative weighing of judgment texts versus compassionate texts.  But to my mind, none of these methods really work.

Instead, we need to live with the tension that is given us.  I'm not talking about a biblical literalism that takes every sentence of Scripture to be factually, historically accurate.  Rather I'm talking about reading of Scripture that takes seriously the fact that it consistently pictures a God of love, grace, compassion, and judgment.  And when we opt for one picture over another, we may simply be flattening our image of God into something that suits us.  That's why people with my tendency can fall into the "cheap grace" problem that Dietrich Bonhoeffer so elegantly critiqued in The Cost of Discipleship.

God loves us, cares for us, forgives us, and goes to unbelievable lengths to draw us back into right relationship with God and one another.  But God also cares deeply about how we live, about whether our lives conform to the true humanity and community God intends for us.  God is no doting grandparent who pats us on the head and gives us ice cream no matter what we do.

I don't know precisely how to fully integrate this tensions within these truths about God.  So I think I'll simply insist that both sides of the tension are somehow true, and let God sort the rest out.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Sermon text - Provision and Testing

Genesis 22:1-14
Provision and Testing
James Sledge                                                        June 26, 2011

From time to time I’ve wondered whether we ought to use the updated version of the Lord’s Prayer rather than the traditional one that we say every Sunday.  Many of us learned that traditional version growing up, and we can say it without even thinking.  It rolls off our tongues with ease.  But of course it is a bit archaic.  Who says “Thy” anymore?  And “Lead us not into temptation.”  I like the modern version.  “Do not bring us to the time of trial.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about it, but the Lord’s Prayer has several short petitions.  We ask for daily bread, forgiveness, and protection from trials or testing; temptation if you prefer.  This prayer Jesus gives says that we depend on God for three essential things, our basic needs or daily bread; forgiveness, being restored to right relationship; and finally, help in our trials, tests, and temptations.  The prayer seems to assume that testing is a part of faith, but it asks God not to bring us into it, not to give us more than we can bear.
I found myself thinking about the Lord’s Prayer as I was wrestling with the very troubling story of God testing Abraham by commanding him to kill his son Isaac.  The notion that God would ask someone to kill his child is troubling enough, but if you’re familiar with the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, you know that this threatens the very promise God has made to Abraham from the beginning.

God has promised to make of Abraham a great nation, which naturally requires descendants.  And even though Abraham is old and Sarah is barren, God promises they will have a child.  Abraham and Sarah tried to help the promise along via a child by Sarah’s servant girl Hagar, but God’s promise is a child to Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac is the fulfillment of that promise.  Isaac is the promise embodied, but now God says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
But despite the horrific nature of God’s command, Abraham, that consummate man of faith, behaves just as he did when he first met God and heard the command, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  Once again, without so much as a word, Abraham goes, even though this terrifying, new command threatens all that Abraham holds dear.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has pointed out that there is a striking symmetry in this story.  Three times Abraham is addressed, and each time he responds, “Here I am.”  The first and third time Abraham simply does what God or God’s messenger says.  But in the middle exchange, Abraham speaks a second time.  He answers Isaac’s question about there being no lamb saying, “God himself will provide.”  And the whole story hinges on this hope.
Give us our daily bread.  Save us from trial and testing.
Most religious people are happy with a God who provides, but a God who tests, who demands absolute loyalty even when it threatens our hopes, plans, and dreams is troubling, even disturbing. 
But if religious people are prone to seek a God of provision only, much of our modern world is organized around the premise that God neither tests nor provides.  America worships the self-made man or woman, the person who is dependent on no one and answerable to no one.  The hubris found in much of American business, the obscenely widening pay gap between workers and executives, and the collapse in 2008 of the financial house of cards built by those running our financial system, all bespeak an arrogance that imagines itself neither dependent on nor beholding to anything or anyone. 
And even we who are religious have come to accept this as how things are.  And we’ve relegated God to some vague, spiritual realm.  We can scarcely imagine a primitive God like the one in Genesis who demands terrifying loyalty, but who also provides.
Give us our daily bread.  Save us from trial and testing.
There is something primitive about this story in Genesis, and it offends our modern sensibilities.  We’re too sophisticated for the sort of God found here.  We expect a reasonable and rational God, one as sophisticated as we are.  And we want nothing to do with a God who is dangerous, who puts us in difficult situations, whose sovereignty will not adjust to us.
Many Christians deal with this story’s offensiveness by saying that it is from the Old Testament, that it was from a very different era where different rules applied.  I’m not sure this really helps very much, but it does conveniently forget that Jesus finds himself in a similar position to Abraham.  God calls him to go to the cross, and when Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane, it is clear he does not want to.  This is a severe test.  But in the end, much like Abraham, Jesus goes to the cross, trusting that God will somehow, even in the face of death, still provide.
And of course, Jesus says to each of us who would be his disciple that we must take up our cross and follow him.
Give us our daily bread.  Save us from trial and testing.
Provision and testing.  A stark tension exists between these in the story of Abraham called to sacrifice Isaac, a tension that I think most of us would like to exclude from our religious life.  But as frightening and primitive as this story is, I’m not sure that genuine faith can exist without this tension.  For that matter, I’m not sure that any deep and abiding relationship can exist without this tension between provision and testing.
Human beings are meant for relationship, and so we all need what can only be given to us by another.  But deep relationships such as a marriage require commitment and trust.  Such things are generally easy to give early in a relationship.  But marriages must stand the “test” of time.  Couples will likely face times when some other path seems easier, when they will be tempted to “meet their needs” elsewhere. They must live in that tension of provision and testing, daily bread and temptation, before it can truly be said, “Now that is a solid marriage.”
I am more than happy to blame some of the more terrifying aspects of our Old Testament reading today on it being the product of a violent culture where sacrifice, even human sacrifice, was well known.  I am willing to assign some of the “primitive” aspects of the story to the dust bin of history.  But I fear that this in no way mitigates the vital dynamic of faith the story bears witness to, this tension of provision and testing, daily bread and temptation. 
Jesus invites each of us to follow him, and in so doing to discover the shape and meaning of our true humanity, as well as the remarkable love and grace and hope that God has for us.  But following Jesus is an act of radical trust.  We can only walk the path Jesus shows us by turning away from other paths, by rejecting the siren calls of consumerism and consumption, by rejecting the urge to hate and hurt, by loving and giving ourselves to others as Jesus did.  To follow him, we must make choices and decisions, sometimes very difficult ones – decisions not to follow certain others, not to walk some very popular paths.
Give us our daily bread.  Save us from trial and testing.
I do like to think that this story of sacrificing Isaac is more metaphor than history.  But even then, it is more than a bit frightening.  Yet Abraham is able to go, and we are able to live faithfully in the face of difficulty, fear, and uncertainty on the hope, the hope that sustained Abraham, the hope that sustained Jesus on the cross, the hope that God will indeed provide.  That is, in the end, the hope and promise of resurrection.  God will provide.
Thanks be to God!

Sunday Sermon audio - Provision and Testing

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - And Also Many Animals

Sometimes when I am reading the Daily Lectionary texts, a line will jump out at me.  There is not always any rhyme or reason to this.  Many of the psalms appear over and over in the daily readings, and I have read them repeatedly.  But then one day a verse grabs me that had not before.  Today I was reading Psalm 36.  Near the middle, as it is speaking of God's faithfulness, righteousness, and judgments, suddenly this line jarred me.  "You save humans and animals alike, O LORD."

Not only am I not sure why this line touched me today, but neither am I sure what the line is doing in this psalm.  It doesn't seem much connected to the other things said there.  There is nothing else about animals in the psalm.  Did the psalmist simply need something to pair with humans to make the poetry come out right?

I don't know, but this is not the only place in Scripture where animals make, to my ear, an odd entrance.  My favorite is the ending of the book of Jonah.  Jonah is angry at God for sparing the city of Nineveh after the people repented in response to Jonah's prophecy.  In the very last sentence of the book, God says to Jonah, "And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"

And also many animals?  That's what God pulls out for the grand finale of the closing argument?  That's supposed to make Jonah more sympathetic when he was upset that God hadn't slaughtered men, women, and children?

Sometimes people of faith can act as though everything in creation except us is an unimportant afterthought.  Despite Scripture verses  saying that all creation awaits redemption (see Romans 8:18-25), Christians often speak as if salvation were simply about our souls being whisked off to be with God while creation itself gets "left behind."  But Jesus says not even a sparrow's demise escapes God's notice.  And the psalmist insists that God "saves humans and animals alike."

It makes me wonder if we can truly be people of faith without considering ourselves a part of and intimately intertwined with all creation. 

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Conflict in the Congregation

In the book of Acts, Luke presents a picture of the early Church that at times is remarkable, idealized, and almost utopian, but at other times that Church must deal with problems and conflicts that fly in the face of that idealized picture.  And so at one moment we hear that all believers shared all their belongings and property to help those in need, but then we hear about some believers who lied in order to hide some of their assets.  And despite the report that "there was not a needy person among them," today's reading tells us that Hellenist believers complained about Hebrew believers neglecting their widows, widows being some of the most vulnerable people in that society.

I've long suspected that Luke is doing two things by giving us these varying portraits of that first Christian community.  On the one hand he insists that a Spirit filled community can indeed live in ways that vividly present God's coming reign to the world, in ways that are remarkable and quite different from the ways of the world.  But Luke also knows that the faith community is not immune to the brokenness of the world.  The ways of the world will creep into the community and so the Church must be innovative and creative in maintaining the peace, unity, and purity we are called to in Christ.

Little is known about the conflict in today's reading.  Perhaps the "Hebrews" are Aramaic speaking locals while the "Hellenists" are Greek speaking Jews not originally from Palestine.  But whoever these groups are, they are different enough that these differences have become a source of division.  One can feel superior or inferior.  One can be "better" Jews than the other.  (Recall that all these first Christians still think of themselves as Jews.)  One can practice the faith "better" than the other.

Whatever the particulars, an Us-Them problem undermines the unity of the Church.  And so seven Spirit filled men, apparently Hellenists based on their Greek sounding names, are commissioned to special service so that divisions will not threaten the Church.  (We Presbyterians draw our ordained office of Deacon from this story.)

The book of Acts will go on to wrestle with an even bigger Us-Them problem, that of Jews and Gentiles.  That division has longed ceased to be much of an issue for the Church, but there is no shortage of issues and labels with which to divide ourselves.  Many churches in America are still racially segregated.  There are scores of denominations.  Some congregations are working class and others filled with professional sorts.  And even within congregations divisions arise over worship and music styles, political issues, the types of ministries the congregation should support, and so on.

In having to deal with conflict and division, it seems we are not so different from those first Christians in Acts.  But in terms of how we deal with conflict, too often we look less like them.  Too often, a real desire for unity and the leading of the Spirit seem absent.  Much like the partisan politics of our day, we want our side to win.  We want unity achieved by getting others to conform to our way.

Despite its reports of an idealized Church that seems an impossible dream to many of us, the book of Acts does not shy from speaking of the conflicts and divisions that arise in every human community.  But it does insist that these conflicts need not tear us apart, and they do not require winners and losers.  However they do require allowing the creative wind of the Spirit to blow through our communities and show us new and better ways.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - One of Those Days

Psalm 123:3  
Have mercy upon us, O LORD, 
    have mercy upon us, 
for we have had more than enough 
    of contempt.

Ever have one of those days when it seems that what you do makes no difference, that it simply doesn't matter?  I imagine that all of us have them occasionally.  I certainly do.  Such feelings are not always "reasonable."  They can arise on days when nothing terrible has happened.  Maybe it's some cumulative impact, or maybe I just got up on the wrong side of the bed. 

Regardless, there are times when it is easy to resonate with the words of today's psalm.  While I'm not feeling like the object of anyone's contempt, it's just one of those days.  And it would sure be nice if God showed up in some significant way.

God often does.  Some of my most vivid spiritual experiences have emerged on the heels of some of my lowest moments.  Sometimes I wonder if it takes such moments, times when I feel vulnerable, for God to get through to me.  When things are going well I am whirring along, often too busy for God.  Sometimes it seems to require "one of those days," even a succession of them, to peel back the insulation of busyness, activity, and "competence" that shields me from God.

It can happen in other relationships as well.  People can get caught up in their routines, going through the motions of life while failing to nurture the relationships that really matter.  Sometimes it takes something to jar us out of such routines, to strip away the insulation that keeps us from actually being there with and for the other.

It's one of those days, God, and I've had enough of it.  Have mercy on me.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Primitive Faith

Today's reading from 1 Samuel relates the misfortunes that befall  Philistines who have captured the Ark of the Covenant in battle.  Each town where the ark takes up residence is soon struck with plagues of tumors and such.  It's the kind of thing that has little contact to the version of Christian faith I've lived around all my life, although it might be right at home in an Indiana Jones movie.

This is most surely a primitive religious story featuring a religious artifact with strange and dangerous powers, an artifact with the power both to curse and to bless.  But I am way too sophisticated for such a primitive religion or the primitive god it implies.  I have no use for a god who is dangerous or unpredictable.  My god must be reasonable, rational, and benign.  I want a god who will improve the quality of my life but make few demands on me in the process.

I am quite certain that some biblical notions of God are very much colored by the violent, tribal, holy-war world view of the ancient Near East.  It is to be expected that they saw God in ways colored by ways of life they took for granted.  But does that make my "sophisticated, enlightened" view of God any more accurate than theirs.  Indeed, sometimes my sophisticated, enlightened view of God envisions a god who is all but superfluous to everyday life in the 21st century.  My god is often relegated to spiritual pick-me-up duties, along with the occasional get-me-out-of-a-jam request. 

Sometimes I wonder if a "primitive" view of God might not have something to recommend over my own.

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Sunday Sermon video - Trinity and Creation: Unflattening God


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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Sermon audio - Trinity and Creation: Unflattening God

Sunday Sermon text - Trinity and Creation: Unflattening God

Genesis 1:1-2:4a; (Matthew 28:16-20)
Trinity and Creation: Unflattening God
James Sledge                                            June 19, 2011, Trinity Sunday

On Trinity Sunday I’m reminded of something my favorite Theology professor, Doug Ottati said a number of times.  “Functionally, most of us are Unitarians.”  He wasn’t talking about what we “believe,” but how we actually conceive of God.  We may sing “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” we tend to reduce God to one of those persons.
Since it’s a trinity, there are at least three possibilities.  Some folks become Unitarians of the Spirit.  Quakers tend in this direction.  For such folks, God is conceived as Spirit. 
Others go with a Unitarianism of the Son.  For them, God is Jesus.  Their prayers are addressed to Jesus, and his name is invoked repeatedly in these prayers.
But among Presbyterians, and probably most mainline Protestants, the hands-down favorite is Unitarianism of the Father.  God is Father.  Some pray to “ Father God.”  It isn’t that Jesus or the Spirit are discounted.  They are important, but they are junior partners.  The Father is God and, Jesus and the Spirit are derivative in some way. 
This Unitarian tendency is understandable.  The Trinity is profoundly unpictureable.  But I think this is the Trinity’s true genius. 
It insists on a God beyond our ability to fully picture or understand, a God who will not easily be manipulated or managed for our own purposes.
One of the fundamental problems with religion is that it wants to manage God and God’s blessings.  Religion tells you what you need to do or believe in order to get on God’s good side, to be saved, to get rich, to go to heaven, and so on.  But this attempt to manage God requires flattening God into something manageable.  It requires reducing God to something more like us, who conforms to our ideas and ways of seeing the world.
This flattening, managing tendency impacts how people handle passages such as the Creation account we heard this morning.   Some hear straightforward history and science.  Others hear a mythic description of the grand ordering of the cosmos.  But in both cases, the story is often slotted into preconceived notions about God and flattened so that it fits whatever religious management strategies we prefer.  Rarely is the story allowed to do its deep, theological work of opening us to a God who is, finally, beyond our conception.
The opening of Genesis is epic poetry, liturgy and praise, having more in common with the Psalms than with history, science, myth or philosophy.  And contrary to religious management tendencies that imagine it written for our use, it is addressed to Hebrew exiles in Babylon, at a moment of extreme crisis.  The promises of Yahweh their God seem to have failed.  The Babylonian gods have proved mightier.  Jerusalem and God’s Temple lay in ruins; God’s chosen people are captives.  Their very survival as a people is threatened, and their understandings of their God and their relationship to that God have been shattered.
In the midst of this crisis, the Israelites care nothing of how long it took for the world to be created, how old it is, or how it is ordered or structured.  What they need is a new and expanded understanding of God, of God’s relationship to Creation and to them. 
The poem seeks to provide that.  And while it shares elements common to the creation myths of Babylon and other Near Eastern peoples, those elements are dramatically recast to give a remarkable, new picture of God.  This God looks vastly different from typical, Near Eastern gods resembling human rulers and potentates.  This God does not need Creation or feed on its produce.  This God is no local deity, but a God who speaks into being the vast cosmos that is the object of God’s care and delight.  Over and over the poem repeats the refrain, And God saw that it was good.  The “good” here is not a utilitarian good.  This is an aesthetic good.  God saw that it was grand, glorious, wonderful, beautiful.  This wonderful creation abounds with the blessing and fertility God speaks as creation joyfully responds to its Creator. 
Finally God creates humans.  They are spoken into existence just like the rest of creation, but there is something different here.  Humanity bears the image of God.  The language is odd, and it gets mangled in translation.  Humanity is spoken of in the singular.  So God created the human in his image.  In the image of God he created him (her, it).  But then the poem shifts to the plural.  Male and female God created them.  Whatever this image of God is about it isn’t about maleness or femaleness.  God’s image applies to the human creature.  But sexual diversity exists within the creatures. 
Over the centuries there has been much debate about where in humanity the image of God resides; reason, language, and self-awareness are all suggested.  But the poem speaks of none of these, only of dominion over the earth, authority over all God has spoken into being.
And here those religious management tendencies kick in.  People imagine creation as ours to do with what we will, to bend to our will, to exploit, little more than a resource at our disposal.  But this requires flattening God back into a human looking ruler who exercises dominion and authority as we humans do.  But the God pictured in the poem does not coerce or exploit.  This God only speaks, calls, and blesses.
And on this Trinity Sunday, we also hear Jesus, God the Son, say, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  But consider the way Jesus exercises authority; a gentle grace that beckons the hungry and thirsty to come to him; a patient grace that invites us to discover our true humanity in the ways he lives and teaches.  Here truly is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. 
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  Here is the Old Testament image for God and for Israel’s kings.  God’s exercises dominion and authority as a caring shepherd.
But if God’s understanding of authority is surprising, perhaps the most striking and radical element of the Creation poem is Sabbath.  Sabbath evolved into a day of worship and a rule to follow, but here Sabbath is simply about rest.  God rests – not because God is tired or worn out, but because things are complete.  This God who rules by gracious invitation exhibits no anxieties that creation will spiral out of control.  Which would seem to say to us made in God’s image that the world will not come apart if we do not exert maximum effort 24/7.  Creation is safely in God’s hands and we are free truly to rest.[1]
Sabbath is a radical idea in our anxious world where endless striving is the preferred way.  Sabbath blurs the distinctions between rich and poor, powerful and powerless.  In the true rest of Sabbath, no one lords over another; no one competes with another; no one seeks advantage over another.  All are at peace because all are at rest.
“Not possible,” we say.  And we flatten God back into a manageable deity who fits into our image of how the world should work, a god who plays by the world’s rules, a god who blesses our plans and schemes rather than inviting the world into the wonderful, new possibilities of God’s dominion and authority. 
Trinity.  God is Spirit.  God is Son.  God is Father.  God is all of these which means that God cannot be reduced to any of these, nor flattened into a generic go we carry around in our pockets to use as we see fit.  God is too big, too beyond our grasp, too wonderful; too grand, beautiful, and glorious for us to do anything other than stand in awe, to lose ourselves in worship and praise.  And finally, to give thanks that Jesus invites us, and the Spirit fits us, to enter into this unpictureable relationship that is the Trinity.
Thanks be to the Triune God!

[1] See Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982) pp. 35-36.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Beware of... Pastors?

I follow someone on Twitter who tweets under the name nojunkjustjesus.  This person doesn't seem to have much use for traditional church congregations and denominations.  The tone is a little shrill and over the top.  There is also a lot of over-generalizing about the Church.  But I keep following this person because there is a grain of truth in the tirades against people like me and the denominations and congregations we serve. 

In today's gospel reading, Jesus warns his followers, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets."  In Jesus' day, "scribes" were teachers and experts in the Law.  They were esteemed religious and community leaders.  And in that sense, they occupied a role not so different from  the traditional one many pastors have filled in their communities. 

Things are rapidly changing in our culture, but many congregations still expect their pastor to have connections to the Chamber of Commerce, participate in one of the local service clubs, and give invocations at civic events.  Given this civic standing of pastors, they were often expected to drive a certain sort of car and to dress in the same attire as other important local business folks.  

Change a few words in the above quote from Jesus, and he might be heard talking about pastors.  That's a bit unnerving, for a pastor.  "Beware of the pastors, who like to walk around in long robes and love to be greeted with respect..."

I suspect that most pastors enter their vocation out of a true sense of calling, seeking to live out their faith.  But the call to follow Jesus and work for the kingdom he proclaims is often in tension with other calls, calls to make a living, to provide for a family, to support a congregation and denomination the pastor loves, and so on.  Add to these a little natural human ambition and ego, and it can be very difficult to separate God's call from other motives. 

Jesus said, "Beware of..."  I wonder what he warn us about if he walked our streets today.

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