Monday, April 29, 2013

Inspired to Behave Foolishly

Two very different lectionary readings got me thinking today about religious behavior. The first is a passage from Jeremiah. The prophet finds himself imprisoned because he refuses to accommodate the demands of civil religion. He will not say, "God bless America," or in his case, "God bless Israel." Instead he insists that God will give Babylon victory over Israel. Imagine a prominent pastor in 1942 saying that God was on Japan's side, and you get some sense of how many people must have viewed Jeremiah.

The second passage features a sinful woman who crashes a dinner party Jesus attends, then proceeds to kiss his feet, wash them with her tears and hair, and finally anoint them with expensive ointment. The Pharisee hosting the dinner party is appalled, as we no doubt would be if someone did this when we had the pastor over for dinner. Of all people, religious folk should no how to behave with decorum. But of course Jesus praises the woman and rebukes his host.

One of the endless challenges for meaningful Christian faith is the constant pressure for religion to serve convention, current social mores, morality, and the basic social order. And this challenge seems little lessened by the fact that scripture regularly shows us God's representatives refusing to bend to such expectations. Jeremiah and Jesus refuse to play this game, and it is costly for both of them.

I recently saw the movie 42, the story of Jackie Robinson's entry into Major League Baseball. There is a scene where the Brooklyn Dodgers have traveled to play Cincinnati, a city on the Kentucky border and a hotbed of virulent racism. Pee Wee Reese, a Dodgers player from Kentucky, has received nasty letters from folks back home about the upcoming games. When he goes to Branch Rickey's office to complain about this situation, Rickey shows him file after file of letters threatening Robinson's life and that of his wife and child if he plays.

When the Dodgers take the field in Cincinnati, the abuse is almost unimaginable. The scene is one of unadulterated hate. At which point Pee Wee Reese walks from shortstop over to first base and puts his arm around Jackie Robinson. Then he simply stands there, looking into the crowd and smiling. (The historicity of this event is debated.)

More than 65 years later, it is easy to sentimentalize this scene and to imagine that we would have done the same. But history suggests otherwise. One of Martin Luther King's great frustrations was the number of sympathetic, white Christians who nonetheless urged him to slow down, to take it easy, to wait. King's book, Why We Can't Wait, is written largely to such folks, including white pastors who had written to him, concerned over the Civil Right movement's potential to destabilize society.

It is more than a little disturbing to consider how frequently Christianity, with notable exceptions, has stood on the sidelines while the winds of God's Spirit were blowing, too afraid to buck those religious pressures to support decorum and the current order of things. And I find myself wondering why this is so.

This is simply an off-the-top-of-my-head thought, but I wonder if there isn't some correlation between how real and vivid the presence of God is to how willing people are to act more like Jeremiah or Jesus. I'm thinking here of something akin to the feeling of falling in love. When people fall in love, they sometimes seem to take leave of their senses. They are willing to act in ridiculous and foolish ways under the influence of love. The Bible seems to expect a similar thing when we truly encounter God. It is such an overwhelming experience that we desire to do anything for God, to love God with all that we are and have.

What are your experiences of God that made it possible to do something daring, foolish, or outside your comfort zone? Where are those places where God is real and vivid enough that you get caught up in God's agenda? What spiritual practices do you need to cultivate in order to nurture a deep love of God so that you would do almost anything for God's sake?

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