When We Don’t Like God: A Sermon Reflection on the Binding of Isaac

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The Binding of Isaac by Caravaggio, inspired by the Genesis narrative

Stories convey meaning. This is a simple observation on its face, but it is important to keep at the center of any consideration of scripture. No matter the context in which a story is situated, is told, is received: there is meaning conveyed. Imagine that you have just heard this Abraham/Isaac story for the first time. You know that it is meant to tell. you something about God, something about the nature of faith, and perhaps something about ourselves. These seem reasonable, general assumptions to hold. A story does not exist for the sake of itself.

So you’ve heard this for the first time. You’ve learned that this God made a covenant with Sarah, that she would conceive and bear a son for Abraham named Issac, and this God–whom you may or may not know from previous stories is named El Shaddai–has fulfilled the promise. You may or may not know that Abraham also has a son named Ishmael, who was born to an Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar.* You may or may not know that Hagar was visited by an angel and told that God was going to fulfill the covenant promise to Abraham, that of a bloodline and land, through two sons. Ishmael and Isaac.

Perhaps you are surprised, then, to hear it said by this God, “Take your son, your only son Isaac…” But it is not his only son, you might retort. Perhaps Sarah’s only biological son, but not Abraham’s.  With or without the knowledge, I imagine what really grabs your attention is God’s request to take Isaac, of whom God explicitly states to Abraham I know you love this child, and take him to a land called Moriah for the purpose of sacrifice.

Deeply unsettling, no? What kind of God would do this? 

You may not know of Moriah or how far away it is when the place is first mentioned but you quickly learn that it takes three days to get there. And Abraham has brought along two other young men, who are unnamed. You might speculate about whether Ishmael might be one of them, but such is a rabbit hole you need not burrow. You have enough to consider.

Three days. A party of four and a donkey. Hours of walking. It seems unlikely that they do so in silence. There is no evidence to suggest that Abraham has told the unnamed duo of God’s request. Three days of walking, eating, drinking, passing conversations settling into silence with only the sound of footfalls to be heard, morning greetings, and evening prayers. The mind boggles to think about what transpires on the journey.

The text beckons us to inhabit Abraham’s heart and mind. The details offered in the text are remarkable, from the gathering of the wood, the loading of the donkey, the instructions to the young men, the journey to the altar by father and son. So. Much. Detail.

Do you find yourself tortured by what isn’t written? So many questions. How could you, Abraham? How did you keep anyone from knowing? And what of the boy? The eagerness and excitement on his face. An important journey with his father, going to a mountain to meet God. Oh, Isaac. No matter what occurs, you will be forever changed. 

And then, the call of Isaac to Abraham.

“Father?”

“Here I am,” the patriarch responds. In Hebrew, hin-nē(h) anî bēn, the same reply that Abraham gives when God calls his name. You likely notice this but have little time to reflect upon it, carried away as you are by the developing plot. Isaac notes the presence of wood and fire, but wonders of the sacrifice.

Where’s the lamb, papa? 

Dagger to the heart! I can’t imagine a person of any compassion not feeling punched in the gut. The trusting child looking to his father. Oh, Abraham–what must you be feeling? One of the two sons born to him, necessary elements to covenant fulfillment, looking up at him with well-known eyes. A child who trusts his earthly father is told to trust a heavenly one as well.

“God will provide the lamb for a burnt offering,” Abraham says, knowingly. Is he angry? Scared? Is he questioning God? Does he have moments in which he almost tells Isaac, he has words on his lips only to stop, confused and frightened? One does not mess with gods. 

It’s in the knowing that we have pain, is it not? Isaac is blissfully unaware until the moment in which he is not. Caught by patriarch, he is trussed up upon the altar with knife at the ready.

It is almost too much. Artists as disparate as Caravaggio and Bob Dylan have speculated upon, have envisioned, have embodied that moment described in the Hebrew as שְׁחֹ֖ט (lish·chot), as sacrifice. Suddenly, a voice comes from the heavens, but it is not the voice of God. It is the voice of an angel of the Lord (mal·’ach Yah·weh) that calls out, speaking first Abraham’s name–again, “here I am”–before instructing him to replace the child with a ram caught in the thicket. Abraham then conducts the first Jewish rite of substitutionary sacrifice.

The angel also relays God’s reasoning: Because I know that you fear me, I won’t make you kill your son. The Hebrew word for fear, יְרֵ֤א (yā·rē), is used in a variety of contexts so we cannot limit its meaning to a specific one. Fear of God, it seems, is what we must give.

You may or may not notice that this story is attached to a place name; I think that depends on who you are and how you hear.

But there we have it, the story that is supposed to tell us something about God, about the nature of faith, and about ourselves. Millions of pages have been written on this story. Far too much to even hit upon in one sermon-length reflection.

Let us, however, consider how the three Abrahamic faiths relate to the story. In general–again, space constraints–Judaism notes the prohibition of child sacrifice as practiced by the Canaanites, and the nature of faith. What these observations mean specifically once again depend on how you locate yourself in the story, and of whose faith we are speaking. Abraham’s? Isaac’s? What about Sarah, the mother who has been told nothing, who has no idea that when her husband and only biological son set out, it is with the intention that only one return? Who’s faith?

In Christianity, it is difficult not to draw parallels to Jesus. God substitutes a ram for Isaac only to later substitute the paschal lamb, the sacrificial lamb, with God’s son, Jesus. Therefore, the passage is about the nature of faith and also of God’s sacrificial love.

In Islam, the specific son is not named. It might be Isaac, it might be Ishmael. Interestingly, neither Sarah nor Hagar is mentioned by name, either. The story is not limited to one son, one moment, one act of faith; it is so universal, we can find ourselves in a variety of roles within a single lifetime. Sometimes Abraham. Sometimes Isaac. Sometimes Sarah. Sometimes the donkey. 

What can we take from this that is of use?

That within the three religions that were launched by Abraham, we have three general viewpoints that have infinite specifics between them. Yet the story continues to do what it is meant to do, to bring us into a space in which we seek, we discern, we look for a God we cannot ignore. Despite our objections, our heartsick, our anger, our desperation, we are pulled, inextricably, back to this tale.

I may love you God, but right now I don’t like you very much.

Sometimes, it is the struggle that matters more than what happens at the end. It is about the impossible choices we make and why we make them. And it is about a God who is to be found, even in the midst of the unthinkable. Amen.

*I’m selective about linking Wikipedia, but this article is an example of how valuable such a free source of researched information can be.

The Revelation Equation: Is God a Hater?

revelation.jpgRead Revelation 1:9-2:7

A Troubling History

The Book of Revelation tends to bring out the worst in people. Hucksters with collars and racists with badges are disposed to like the enigmatic text because it is intimidating. The Eastern Orthodox do away with it completely in liturgy;* the pre-Vatican II, Tridentine Catholic Church required laity to have a family Bible, but only to record vital statistics and to be regarded with awed reverence. Revelation inspires terror of a coming, violent judgment, something religious art and literature has captured for centuries. Revelation was like a loaded gun left in an infant’s crib.

Protestantism scoffed at the Church keeping the Bible out of the hands of the laity; this has had mixed results. Scholarship has been an important part of Protestant traditions, and there is no doubting the impact this has had on religious literacy. But once the doctrine of sola scriptura mixed with anti-intellectualism, white supremacy culture, and the notion that anyone claiming to be anointed by the Spirit can call themselves pastor, Christianity found a new way to be hate-filled and violent.

I wrote earlier about my trepidation regarding Revelation. And once again, I feel like this month-long examination of the text via passages selected by Luther Seminary’s Narrative Lectionary Project was directed by the Holy Spirit. Why? This is the time in which all of us need to be confronting our fears and misconceptions, and determine who we are.

On ἀποκάλυψις 

The Greek word is ἀποκάλυψις, a combination of ἀπό (away) and καλύπτω (cover), is used in at least three distinctive ways that impact our study.

  1. An apocalypsis is a revealing or uncovering of something. In its simplest sense, it is a vision or a dream that reveals something previously hidden. The Hebrew Bible is filled with examples of dreams and interpretations of dreams. These are apocalypses, but the meaning is not to be found in a literal reading of the dream. Symbolism abounds.
  2.  The term can also refer to the revealing of the true natures of good and evil. This is generally tied to eschatological expectations, that is, the end of time as we know it and the uncovering of God’s eternal rule. This is the most common interpretation that Evangelicals offer for the Book of Revelation, but as Christopher Rowland points out in the New Interpreter’s Commentary, there is no definitive argument to be made that John of Patmos, the author of the text, was describing a vision from God portending a literal future event. While there is also no irrefutable evidence that the text is an account of a symbolic dream only, there is more of a case to be made for the latter.
  3. Which brings us to the third point: ἀποκάλυψις refers to a literature type. Clear-cut examples are the Book of Daniel and the Enoch cycle. Again, according to Rowland, the purpose of this literature type is to present contradictions and cognitive dissonance to shake us from our realms of comfort. These texts are made to be unsettling, for the message is about how to follow God in a world that is openly hostile to God’s call.

Working Interpretations

In Revelation 1:9-20, we are presented with a fantastical description of the Risen Christ. To argue that this, in any conceivable way, is a depiction of the historical Jesus is ludicrous. It is part of the problem with American Christianity. How could anyone think that Jesus literally had a sword for a tongue or furnace eyes? Frankly, I am sick of hearing that we must agree to disagree or to allow others to present opinions as fact. This is clearly symbolism.

Notice that this Christ whom John sees is surrounded by lampstands, but not lamps. Seven, a number that appears throughout the text, is symbolic for, among many things, completion. The seven churches do not provide a complete, detailed list of all in existence–there were certainly more by the time John wrote in the late first century. Rather, it symbolizes the unbroken and complete Body of Christ. The Risen Christ stands surrounded by the seven lampstands because he is the light of the world. The double-edged sword as a tongue might represent how having the gospel on your lips will help you defend yourself in an evil world. It’s two edges might mean that Christ’s call brings us both God’s comfort and God’s requirements.

In Revelation 2:1-7, we read of people who were zealous and eager when they first accepted Christ, and in their jubilant love, they performed good deeds. They fought off the temptations that lead to a life outside of gospel commands, but the world wore them down. No longer do they love as they once did; no longer do they act as divine agents. He calls them to remember the circumcised hearts they had before they became jaded.

But what about…

A parishioner waited until I had greeted everyone before pulling me aside after the sermon and he said, “All this information helps and I am feeling better about a month of this, but you didn’t talk about God hating people. I’m wrestling with that part. Aren’t we supposed to love everyone?” I told him I struggle with 2:6 as well, that I plan to approach it in subsequent weeks, which is true. What I didn’t say, but will now, is that I was afraid if I opened that can of worms, I might say something that I regret.

I have made no secret about my commitment to justice, specifically for trans persons, Muslims, and persons of color. I have been criticized for alienating others. I am not looking to relitigate these issues because I feel they have been settled to various degrees, but I am acutely aware of the weight my words can have, especially in worship. Given what has happened over the last 48 hours, my heart has been filled with anger, disgust, frustration, and even hatred. I’ve been drinking the poison of my own making. I think others have as well.

But address it we must. John of Patmos writes that God hates the Nicolaists, a Gnostic group whose beliefs are not entirely known. Perhaps they followed a form of antinomianism, the notion that the Law is abolished completely by Christ. We are rightly wary of the notion that God hates anyone. This wariness is largely owed to the genocidal history of the Church. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, yes, but he prioritized those who were most oppressed by both religion and the State. Jesus stood up to those who abused their power so as to victimize others. Jesus did not let his heart be filled with anger and vengeance, but he made it clear that there are requirements. To argue otherwise is to ignore why Jesus went to the cross to die. When we blithely say it was for the forgiveness of sins, but ignore Jesus going to the cross in solidarity with those whom God calls blessed, we turn the Gospel into something that supports the vile, ugly, pervasive, and violent prejudice that has been with this country since its founding.

I’m okay with God hating white supremacism. It is foolish of us to think that reason and listening with compassion will gain anything except people more people in harm’s way because we don’t have the courage to stand up and be of account. We should not let ourselves hate people–which is most difficult because white supremacists are not good people–but that does not mean we have to act like they have a reasonable position. In fact, there is no room at the table.

I have no doubt that detractors will go to the trope, “Here’s the so-called tolerance of the Left; they only tolerate what they agree with.” Bullshit. It is a pernicious lie that all worldviews must be given equal credence. And while those on the far Right will claim that it is “PC culture” that has descended us into a world of relativism and hostility to facts, that is not the case. I argue that it is directly related to anti-intellectualism, faux-patriotism, and two political parties that don’t care about anything except “winning.”

What’s It All About? 

What do we do in a world that is full of hatred, lies, corruption, and deception? We look to the light of Christ. And I am not talking about some pie-in-the-sky, abstract notion of Jesus. Rather, the Jesus who stepped between religious fanatics and a woman about to be stoned to death. The Jesus who hung on a cross and showed compassion for one hanging next to him. The Jesus who went to a man chained by villagers on the outskirts of town. The Jesus who walked into Gentile territory, let a perpetually menstruating woman touch him, spoke truth to power, stood up for God’s message and never descended into hatred. In a world in which there are lots of lampstands without lamps, the light of Christ can help us see.**
*Many thanks to Rev. Lathe Snider for this bit of information.

**Just a reminder, I am not an exclusivist. I acknowledge that there are infinite paths to God, the Spirit, Creator, the Truth. This is the one I choose and I write from within the tradition but do make claims that I am right and everyone else is wrong.

On Christology, Part I: Eyerollers Welcome

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I love Jesus.

I also understand that the statement makes a good number of people cringe. This makes sense, given that it so often is followed by judgmental statements meant to describe the flaws of those on the receiving end of the invective. I don’t love that Jesus. I don’t even want to know him.

But if you want to understand me you’ll come to understand that I love Jesus. My well-known conversion story–schizophrenic brother committed suicide and I began my fifteen-year path to the pastorate–is part of it. I wrestled intellectually with the Jesus I believed in for years; my doctrine was sound, but my life was not. The process of submitting to God unfolded over the course of years and would be as tedious to read as it would be to write; suffice it to say, after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I was able to take the necessary steps to create a life that allows me to live with health issues: Therapy with an amazing doctor; a medication protocol that strikes a good balance between managing the most troublesome aspects of bipolar and not so heavily altering my mental state that I lose a sense of self; recognizing and actualizing the need to work exclusively in the village; communicating clearly (and apologizing when I don’t) my needs when bipolar is winning; and myriad other issues.

But the biggest change has been quitting drinking. I tried for years to quit. I would make promises to myself and others that I would break. I let my alcoholism impact all areas of life, dragging others into it as well. My first marriage ended for many reasons, but the biggest was I chose alcohol over everything else, even when I acted like that was not the case. I didn’t do it maliciously–few drunks do–but as soon as I was able to regulate the need to drink because of mental health issues, the final piece necessary to quit was in place.

I attribute all of that to Jesus.

Christology literally means “words about Christ.” In seminary, all students are required to take at least one course in systematic theology, which involves writing a synthesized explanation for the major questions that arise when talking about belief in the Christian God. It is impossible to write a cohesive systematic theology by compartmentalizing each aspect. What one believes about Jesus informs what one believes about the sacraments, the means of grace and salvation, theological anthropology, and the ends of existence. I had this sorted out intellectually, but four years ago I began to feel the need to no longer just preach and teach, but rather to live the principles embodied in and through Jesus Christ.

Regular readers of the blog or those who know me irl will know about the Beloved Community Project. I have thrown myself into the life of the village because I believe that God has provided me the milieu in which I can preach the gospel through the work I do, most often without even saying the name of Jesus. As we’ll talk about in this series, I believe the statement, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” But I do not believe that it indicates the exclusive passage a spiritual life. In following Jesus, I have discovered that the truth is almost always found by following love. I have discovered that a rich, meaningful life is, as Jesus says, understanding that “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.” I am a Son of Man, the male offspring of a male father–there are multiple ways in which the term is used in biblical documents; in the book of Ezekiel, we see the example I employ above–and by trying to serve various communities, I feel more alive than ever.

But I don’t think everyone will necessarily experience this, nor do I think that my approach is superior to others simply because I believe in Jee-suhs.

I have been a biblical scholar for most of my career; I wrestle with the Bible each and every week I am in the pulpit, which is most Sundays. I take the Bible seriously, but not so I can condemn others to hell while ignoring my own legion of sin. I read the Bible because it helps me in this deconstruction of a false self and the taking on of Christ, like a warm cloak over my cold flesh. I preach to share history, theory, words of comfort, and to issue loving commandments to take Christ into the community with us, ears opened and mouths shut. St. Francis is ever my pastor: Preach the gospel at all times, Aaron, and for God’s sake shut up unless words are absolutely necessary. 

This project will reflect the tangy mix that is Pastor Aaron (PA). I love theology and sharing ideas with people; I’m a pastoral theologian. I have little use for theology that does not help us live the gospel in our lives, as we are able and as we discern; the Jesus I know helps me to view situations with a long view toward love, he gives me a nudge when I’m acting selfishly or Iif  am benefitting from myriad privileges because it is just easier to remain quiet; and he, in ways I will explain, brings me the greatest and most overwhelming joy in life.

I know, I used to roll my eyes, too. And I totally understand if you just did. Christians and Christianity deserve the disdain and skepticisms many hold. I never run away from that here, which is easy because I do not have the “goal” of converting anyone. I plan to explicate my working Christology here, so when I go out into the world I can focus on being a servant in the ways that people need. I hope that you’ll come on the journey, and please feel free to share with anyone you think might be interested.

Sin-talk (Or Tautologically, Hamartiology)

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Who is this who even forgives sins?

Sin is a sticky wicket. On one hand, we can hardly deny its existence. We might disagree on what constitutes sin, but on a fundamental level we who follow the Abrahamic God must confess the reality of sin. Genesis reports that sin begins with knowledge of good and evil. Have you ever really thought about that before? I imagine you have, I mean this more as an invitation than an inquisition: think about the fact that our foundational myth maintains that in knowing the difference between good and evil we encounter sin. It is not a simple choice of good or evil; it is not a cut-and-dried division of evil bad, and good, well, good. Good intentions can still lead to evil acts. Evil can have attenuating good. The reason forgiveness is so messy is because sin is slippery.

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Sin is in the nuances. Sin is missing the mark, in terms of etymology. Both the Hebrew and the Greek words have the same meaning. A term that comes from archery. To miss the mark. How, though, do we measure this miss? Inches can translate to miles, depending on your metric. A centimeter on the highway is not the same a centimeter on a map. Sin is in the nuances.

We began our talk by weighing hands, and we have not yet considered the other one. Sin-talk can leave scars. Sin-talk too often is spoken in abusive language. Sin-talk plants seeds of self-hatred that blossom into shame. Augustine blathered on in sin-talk. He looked at an infant suckling at a breast and saw a bag of skin filled with sin. John Calvin felt Augustine was too forgiving, and summarized the essence of humanity with two unforgettable words: total depravity. Jonathan Edwards agreed when he described humanity as being held by a gossamer thread over the pits of hell in his infamous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Perhaps you, like me, know people who use the word “escape” to describe their relationship with the Church. An escape from abuse. An escape from homes in which sin was screamed about but words of grace were barely whispered. When sin becomes an obsession, when the purpose of sin-talk is to spin purchase-less tires in the mud so that they will splatter it over all in its path, when SIN is rendered in capital letters but love is shunned like a four-letter word, we miss the mark. We sin in our sin-talk when it is not a dialogue with love.

Sin is not uniquely an Abrahamic concept; the Hindu notion of karma and the Buddhist concept of dukkha are similar. Both sin and karma are seen as impacting life in this world and the next; both sin and dukkha, which translates best to unsatisfactoriness, hold that humans cause harm because we act with certainty when we should act with trepidation. We mistake the part for the whole. We privilege the ego, the self, the individual. Most religions, on some level, provide practitioners methods to recognize the pain they have effected; to discern the causes of this pain; to offer restitution and seek forgiveness from those harmed; and to commit to methods that will prevent a repeating of the same behaviors, thoughts, words, or deeds. Sin-talk that is aimed at transformation and progress is good talk. But far too often, rare is the good talk of sin.

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Jesus knew how to talk about sin. He wasn’t shy about bringing it up, but always for a purpose. Yes, sometimes he was harsh; for those drunk on religious certainty, Jesus promised a hangover. For those being haughty in their heads—“If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner”—for them, Jesus might pull out the somewhat passive-aggressive, but always effective story-told-to-one-person-but-clearly-aimed-at-others technique. Simon, I have something to say to you. Jesus brought up sin, but always with the objective of unsticking those who were mired in the mud; no spinning tires, no indiscriminate splattering here. Jesus may have spoken of sin loudly from time to time, but he always bellowed the good news of grace and forgiveness. Who is this who even forgives sins?

In my upcoming book on the Gospel of Mark, I make the argument that early Christian storytellers used unnamed women as paradigms of proper discipleship. We see it in the Syrophoenician woman who tells Jesus about the dogs who get scraps from the table; in the hemorrhaging woman who is healed because she dare break the taboo of touching a man not her husband while she was in her menses; and in the woman with the alabaster jar. We return to the triple tradition—remember that? the material shared by Mark, Matthew, and Luke—but once again Luke’s emphases and additions are telling. Only Luke has this story that Jesus relates about the relationship between forgiveness and gratitude. It’s a wonderful story; it makes sense to both ear and heart. Great debts require great forgiveness. Great forgiveness results in great joy. There is little subtlety to Jesus’ approach; we know both about and to whom Jesus is speaking.

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But scripture is about more than the events in the story world. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and about the woman, but he’s also speaking to us about us. About our sin. If you’re like me, you’re thinking of that worst sin. Details aren’t important. We should be careful not to brag on our sin. Still, chances are you have it; most of us do: that thing we did. Or said. Or didn’t do or didn’t say. That way we missed the mark by so much the arrow plunged right into someone’s heart. Jesus beckons us to receive the forgiveness that relieves burdens, that lessens yokes, that changes lives. The forgiveness that cancels debts. “Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus says to the woman. “Because you believed, you are saved from your sins. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” He says to her.

He says to us.

The Pharisees are shocked by Jesus’ audacity, but I don’t think that is what Luke is wanting us to be shocked by; I don’t think this passage is ultimately about the Pharisees being judgmental or Jesus being ostentatious. I think it is about how knowing that you are forgiven impacts the way you live.

By all rights, this unnamed woman puts a target on her back the minute she takes it upon herself to touch a man who is not her husband. Add to that the reputation Jesus has as being one who is dedicated to God, and he might as well be a walking X for her. Forbidden. Her very existence is deemed a threat to God by the established authorities; she is the embodied bridge too far. They believe that God cannot reach her. Even if they were to confess Jesus the Messiah, never would it be assumed that Jesus’ holiness could overpower her sin. We can rest assured that all the Pharisees believe that Jesus leaves the building unclean. The fact that she has a reputation for being especially sinful makes this a potent cocktail. Stonings start in such ways. But straight to Jesus’ feet she goes, weeping tears of gratitude and using her hair when no towel is proffered. Of course, it is important that the person to whom she tends is Jesus, but in some ways it really doesn’t matter. She has no verbal guarantee that Jesus will respond positively; she has no assurance that she will not be targeted when he leaves; what she has is an internal knowledge—what the Greeks call gnosis—that she is more than sin. She is more than the ways she has missed the mark. She knows that she is a child of God; with this knowledge, she gives herself permission to love life. To express her gratitude. She does this before Jesus ever utters a word about forgiveness. What he proclaims is not a magic spell; he does not speak something into existence; he merely diagnosis a pre-existing condition. She is forgiven.

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Let us not mistake forgiveness for permission. Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer called it; that notion that forgiveness exists so that we can continue to create suffering as a result of our selfishness, to look away again and again because of our fear, to proclaim God’s forgiveness with our lips but to close our hearts to what it entails. Forgiveness is a pay-it-forward transaction. We don’t have permission to hurt others just because forgiveness is available. It is a reality that pushes our frame of reference outwards. When we understand that nothing we can do puts us inextricably outside of God’s love, we stop seeking ways to prove God wrong. We still sin, but not in the same ways. We still hurt others, but not without recognizing the harm; not without seeking reconciliation. We see being forgiven as the pre-existing condition, not sin. And this unnamed woman who tends to Christ’s body—the role that we in the Church are to play until God returns, that of tending to the Body of Christ—this woman shows us what living life knowing that you are forgiven looks like. And for that, let the people of the Church say Amen.

amen

Looking for a Job: God’s Nationalism

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I’ve written previously on deciding to move to the Narrative Lectionary, which has included a series on 2 Corinthians and Job. Job is always a tough one; it is a long book, with the most complicated poetry in the Tanakh; there are vast differences in hermeneutical positioning; and it has some unsettling details, such as God and Satan wagering and individual human life seeming not to matter (like how Job’s children are “replaced” at the end with new kids). Job is one of those texts that requires a big commitment from both pastor and congregation if a sermon series is going to work.

There are so many great books and articles about Job that even a half-assed literature review would take months to compile. So, I have given some links above that provide a good starting place for anyone wanting to make a serious go at Jobian theory; personally, I recommend Gustavo Gutierrez‘s seminal work On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of Innocents, which presents the biblical narrative as being the foundation of liberation theology. One of my best memories from early in graduate school–I think I was 24 or so–is of studying the text under the guidance of a Jesuit priest who was instrumental in my coming to Jesus Christ in the wake of my brother’s suicide. Job is a text that I have been wrestling with on and off for about fifteen years. And the recent world events have once again confirmed the contention that God is still speaking through the scriptures.

A little history is necessary, and you’ll forgive me for not providing links to every historical point I make; if anyone questions something or would like some citations, I can provide those in comments or IM. But in the main, being able to make claims about history is why I have accrued these degrees over the years, and seeing that this is a blog and not a dissertation, I’m going to forego the bibliography except to say that this is a great place to start.

If you look at the covenant between God and the people as mediated by Moses, the covenant is not with individuals. It is with a community; a community that will become a theocracy under the leadership of the kings: Saul, David, and Solomon. Scriptures are divided as to the wisdom of a monarchy. Of course, with the death of Solomon in 922 BCE we see a split in the kingdoms, with the Omri and Jehu Dynasties operating up north, and the Davidic line continuing down south. Rival fiefdoms impact subsequent theologies. Nationalism reigns. Then the North falls to the Assyrians around 721 BCE; the South hangs on until the Babylonians destroy the First Jerusalem Temple c.587/6 BCE, which begins the Diaspora, ending the period often known as Classical Judaism.

What faces the people during this time are fundamental questions: Who are we outside of the land, the Temple, and the Davidic line? Who are we when these are taken away? How do we know God? How do we know ourselves? Who are we? The answer that emerges is: We are a People of the Book.

So we have to ask, was it false sense of nationalism that did in the people? Is there anything to suggest that a faulty understanding of community can pollute the individual life? 

Let’s resume the history. The Babylonians are defeated by Cyrus the Persian, who enacts a much more benign and enlightened formed of occupation. Cyrus allows for those in exile to return to their homeland; Cyrus gives them money to build another Temple, and promises religious freedom (pay your taxes; always pay your taxes); but Cyrus reasons that peace will more likely prevail if people are allowed to keep their languages, customs, religions, and traditions. The problem becomes, a lot of people living in exile did not want to return. They have intermarried; converted; have no memories or attachments to Hebrew culture. So those that do return are among the more religious and devout. And in return for his kindness, Cyrus is declared a messiah (anointed one) in Hebrew scripture.

Until this time, individuality didn’t really exist. Certainly not in the way that it exists today. God’s concern was with the survival of the community; and the theology that develops is one in which the community is punished corporately for individual sin. (See, for example, the defeat at Ai as a result of the sin of Achan.) We can see it as a cycle that runs from the Book of Joshua through II Kings. The people turn to other gods; Hashem raises up an enemy; the people cry out, and God takes pity upon them; God raises up a shofet (temporary, charismatic leader or judge) who establishes peace throughout their lifetime; the leader dies, and the cycle repeats.

The human person, therefore, is a microcosm of the macrocosm. How so? Well, what is wrong within our own lives can be explained with the same interpretative lens. Physical or mental disability? Sin. Poverty or poor social standing? Sin. Notice how in the Book of Job, all the comforters essential offer the same advice? “Repent!” And Job remains insistent that he has done no wrong, which we are listener/readers in the story know to be true. God kinda allows God’s self to be pulled into a grotesque wager that has odious consequences for Job and those around him. Job challenges the notion that he deserves punishment because he is without sin, and Job is right.

Generally, I think, it is our instinct to side with Job. We feel his righteous indignation. This God who wagers and seems almost as insecure as a current presidential nominee is not a God with whom I am comfortable being in relationship. Job’s question are our questions. Job’s defiance our defiance. But what if we are being led down the garden path?

Let’s take a step back and really look at what is going on. It is understandable why, but Job is pretty focused on himself. He keeps saying that he does not deserve what is happening to him because he is not a sinner. We can argue all day long about how this can be true, as every person but Jesus (for us Christians) is a sinner, but the narrative is clear: Job is pious in every way. He is God’s pride and joy. So we should take that for what it is meant to be: a statement regarding the relationship between calamity and sin. Maybe the point of the book is not Job’s innocent suffering, but rather it is about our continuing belief that sin and punishment are related. We see the effect, personal disaster or catastrophe, and we assume that it is deserved because of a sinful cause; if we see destruction in our own lives and maintain that we are sinless, we begin to point at others we believe to be deserving of punishment but are left unscathed. This is the foundation of the theodicy question: why do bad things happen to good people. Or, perhaps even more puzzling, why do good things happen to a hate-filled, orange umpaloompa who can’t rub two brain cells together?

Believe me, believe me. It’s puzzling.

What if the Book of Job is about tearing down bad theology? Maybe Job’s piety arises because he believes he is rewarded for it. And maybe the authors of the Job text are setting forth a corrective to theologies that do a great deal to separate people, to make us afraid of one another, that embolden our judgments and mute our compassion. Because if someone deserves what they are getting, are we really motivated to help them in times of need?

In chapter 14, Job cries out that even the cut down tree has a hope of rebirth and resurrection, but the human person does not. The best for which we can hope is Sheol and the soothing darkness of eternal death. A belief in an afterlife and/or bodily or spiritual resurrection has not yet taken root in Judaism at this point; the Book of Job is part of that. Job’s use of imagery is part of a long tradition in Hebrew writings to employ tree metaphors in connection with messianic figures. God will act for the survivial of the corporate body, for the community, for the covenant people. Job demands justice and hope for himself. He argues for the dignity of the individual. And he is criticizing, I think, the nationalism that had overtaken people’s compassion and sense of connectedness.

We will discuss the ending of Job next week, but for right now let us wrestle with this: maybe God promises to stay with communities because we are most fully human when we are in relationship with one another? But God will not support those communities that place their identity into nationalism. And perhaps God is asking us to pull down those structures and systems that keep people out of relationships? Systems that keep people from affirming one another where they are instead of trying to convince them that they deserve their pain. Perhaps when we ask God why there is not justice and equality, God asks us the same thing. Maybe God is saying, I gave you everything you need to understand what is important. What have my prophets said unto you? What outrages have I sublimated out of love for you? Why do you keep hurting each other? Why do you mistake the nation for the community?

We are living at a time in which a politician is promising that he is the only one who can save us. He wants to build walls both literal and metaphorical. He promises that he is our voice. Our redeemer. When Job says, “I know my redeemer lives” we must ask ourselves, what does this mean? If God is our redeemer, how is God operating in our lives? What has God given to use individually that we can contribute to the larger community? What are the fruits of the Spirit that allow us to comprehend the ways in which persons are deemed “others.”

We Christians should be very wary when a person promises to be imbued with the unique ability to save us. Because we kinda already have that covered pretty well. Like, full coverage with zero deductible covered. What comes with that assurance, though, is the responsibility to speak truth to power, to set ourselves against signs and symbols that deny persons their full humanity and dignity. And we should understand that God calls us to be in relationships. We cannot be concerned with ourselves more than we are with others; we are intimately connected. All as part of God’s plan.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

 

Street Gospel in C-Sharp Minor

I saw him first out of the corner of my eye as I walked from the church to Speedway for my morning gallon of caffeine. Early 20s, solid build. Astride a lowrider bicycle, one hand was upon the handlebars and the other clutched something against his leg. A bag was slung snugly against his back as he rode aimlessly in between and around the pumps. Clear blue skies and a not-too-warm sun shone down through morning cool air. My first thought was, That’s kinda dangerous. I wonder if I should say something? 

Initially, I meant it in reference to riding amidst gas pumps with distracted people driving and playing Pokemon simultaneously. I just worried he would get hit or someone would start yelling at him (likely a tourist in my mind, but one never knows). But then I realized that I was wanting to say something for another reason. Black kid riding a bike can be a justification for a stop. A questioning. A shooting. And if you had told me a five years ago that I would think this, I would have responded: Outside Y.S. Sure. But not here. Never here. Then Paul was killed. Violent behavior in the YSPD has occurred very recently as well. Of course, there are wonderful officers on the force and I personally speak to the Chief rather frequently, in both support and a taking to task, all to try to make sure that officers and villagers know one another; but that sadly doesn’t matter. Paul was known in the village. The two people recently subjected to excessive (and despite the internal investigation conclusions many believe unjustifiable) force were locals. As Roland Deschain of The Dark Tower says, the world has moved on. This is not the same village it once was, at least in terms of policing. The thought of potential violence was heavy on my mind as I walked into the station to get my ridiculously large cup of Diet Pepsi. I resolved myself to not say anything to him because I didn’t want him to feel unwelcome, and I also didn’t want to appear to be a White person trying to tell an adult Black man what to do. He’s grown, I thought. And knows much better than I what it takes to live while Black. 

I exited and started back to the church. And then I heard him.                                           “Would you like to hear a word?”                                                                                                                 I wheeled around. “A word on what?”                                                                                                       “The only word that matters,” he said. I realized for the first time that he was holding a Bible in the hand not controlling the bike. He opened to a page in Revelation as I sidled up to him and smiled. He read. I closed my eyes. Normally, I am almost repulsed by Revelation, at least the way it is presented and used. I’ll be honest that I like my apocalypses from Daniel and my eschatology from Isaiah. But the selected passage was lovely. About humility. About seeking glory not from riches of the coin but rather wealths of the spirit. A wealth of justice. A wealth of compassion. A wealth of comfort, residing in the bosom of Christ. He finished and I smiled.

“Amen,” I said. I did not move as we smiled at each other.                                                                  “May I tell you something, brother?” I asked. He nodded.                                                                   “I’m pastor of that church right there,” I said, pointing at the stately stone structure of First Presbyterian. His eyes widened. “No way!” he exclaimed. I held out my arms, showing him my many religious tattoos. “Jesus Christ is the foundation of everything I do, everything I am, everything I am called to be.” I could tell that he was starting to think this was a reproach or a haughty rebuke. I caught his eye. “Thank you. Thank you for sharing a word of Scripture with me. You have ministered to me at a moment when I needed it.” I remained silent about my earlier fears and thoughts. I simply existed in the moment. I asked his name, which he told me. And there in the Speedway lot, we held hands and prayed.

He told me that he felt the tug of the Holy Spirit, prompting him to speak. I affirmed that his presence had been a great blessing to me. We laughed and praised God and parted ways. I fell into church work: finishing the bulletin, taking a meeting, completing a paper for the doctoral program, putting together details for the Gospel Fest. When the office manager left I hadn’t looked at the clock in hours. The rumbling in my stomach made it known that food needed to happen or not even a gallon of Diet Pepsi was going to keep me upright. I was about to walk into Tom’s when I saw the young man across the street attempting to proselytize a local (and international) celebrity we all know and love. I’ll call this celebrity Big Homie. For those of us who grew up here, seeing Big Homie is not a big deal but for others it is, so we locals try to be really protective of him. Big Homie was with some locals I know well so I sauntered over and began chatting with the director of the African American Culture Works, which sponsors the Gospel Festival held at First Presbyterian. “Hey, Rev.” Big Homie shot at me. It seemed I had alighted upon a solid theological discussion; the young man had voiced frustration that people were not wanting to listen to the Word.

“You can’t go up to them and use it like an assault weapon,” Big Homie said. “You don’t know their path. You’ve got to show them with how you live.” He got up. “I don’t smoke crack,” he said, walking quickly to the edge of the flower shop and then back toward us like a man on the hustle. “So if somebody comes by whispering offers of crack, I’m not going listen. In fact, I might be hostile. You see, you don’t know if people are interested in your product.” Big Homie had made his way back to the flower show; he leaned up against the edge of the building. “But if you post up and wait, the people who need you are going to come.” I nodded and smiled.

Big Homie is a deep Muslim, yo’.

He kinda nodded at me and I picked up the conversation; we talked about the parable of the sower, and how our responsibility is to sow the seed. “We cannot be responsible for the quality of the soil or where the seed lands. What we have to do is be as gracious and abundant as possible in spreading the seed, confident that in God roots will be developed in fertile soil. Your passion of the ministry is awesome; I love that you are out here sweating and trying to share with people your joy. Christ has changed your life and you want to share that. But know that, as Big Homie said, your call is to people who want to receive what you have to offer. Please come worship with us, brother.” We hugged and I took the picture you see above.

Street Gospel in C-sharp minor.

 

 

 

Augustus*/Pilate 2016: The Preferred Ticket of Megachurch Pastors

Listen to this:

If you are anything like me, you are having this reaction:

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So Pastor Robert Jeffress, who once said that trans* friendly businesses were more of a threat than Daesh (no shit), has come out in favor of Donald Trump because he is a strongman. Okay. That’s a stupid thing to want–you’ve got a doctorate, Bob; read a book on the rise of fascism in 20th century Europe–but it is not totally unreasonable. We’ve seen that on all the continents. And while I think it is a ridiculous political desire, I have to admit that it is one that has shaped politics in the past. Generally for the worse, but people do pull the lever for a strongman. Fine

But the asinine contention that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount would not make sense for governance (which is in itself not necessarily a wrongly stated position) because Jesus didn’t claim that it was a governing philosophy shows the danger and limitation of biblical literalism. To wit, Rev. Dr. Strongmanwanter believes that Christians should be against homosexuality because it is in the Bible. Yet Jesus says exactly zero things about homosexuality. But, you might object, there are prohibitions elsewhere. Yes, there are; kinda. But Jeffress argues that the Bible does not say anything about government.

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Yeah, no. Evidence? The Torah. Kiiiiiiinda filled with laws about how the covenant community should be formed and governed. Now, there are a lot of caveats. And Christian fundamentalists most often don’t get that the covenant code is not for us; Jewish fundamentalists often forget that the laws are applicable only in a Jerusalem that contains the Temple. Despite the nuances that most certainly are not being discussed in any real form here, it is safe to say that the Bible is absolutely concerned about how a society is governed.

Reasonable people will hopefully agree that Jesus was Jewish and was interested in helping to reform and rejuvenate the religion. (Marcus Borg’s Jesus, A New Vision, is a great starting point for people wanting to understand this perspective.) He wasn’t a law-maker, but he was a law-interpreter. In the Jewish tradition this is know as midrash. Notice how Jesus often says, “You have heard it said, but say to you…” and then goes on to say something that emphasizes the Spirit of the law over the letter of the law? That’s midrash. It’s kinda a big deal.

See, we Christian pastors need to read more than the Bible because we are charged with midrash. It is what we do with our sermons. We need to read books about the Bible. About history. Archaeology. Sociology. Linguistics. Literature. And the good pastor knows this; he has an impressive education from schools that I might not have chosen to attend, as I am not a Southern Baptist, but that are accredited by reputable services and that is no joke. Seminaries lose accreditation if they do not follow strict guidelines; schools like Liberty University don’t get accreditation or try to create their own agencies to circumvent the standards. All of this to say that Jeffress knows better. He knows that Jesus’ words directly relate to the power dynamics that exist between people and the religious hierarchy; the people and the Romans; the Jewish hierarchy and the Romans; and how they pertain to the people’s relationships between themselves. I find it most probable that Jeffress has read or is familiar with Walter Wink’s work on the roles power plays in Jesus’ vision of the faith. In a nutshell, Jesus is anti-strongman. Jesus’ entire ministry is about the kin-dom of God, which he imagines (according to John Dominic Crossan) as God sitting on the throne of Caesar.

Jesus was inherently political is the Greek sense of the word; politics is that which relates to the people. In many ways, our weekly liturgy (which means “work of the people”) is a form of politics, because it concerns our relationship with God (and one another). For Jeffress to argue that the Bible supports a “strongman” is ludicrous. If God likes a strongman, why does David win? If God likes a strongman, why did Jesus come as a carpenter and submit himself to the cross?

I don’t like to question other people’s faith, but Jeffress’s words make me think he would have made a great campaign manager for the Romans.

aaaaa

*The author is aware that Tiberias was emperor during Jesus’ ministry and execution. But Tiberius/Pilate doesn’t have the same zing 😉