When God Asks for Difficult: A Pastor Pottymouth Production

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “The Prophet Isaiah”

If you do not like cursing, do NOT read this entry. Pastor Pottymouth is on duty. I will delete any comments about language use.

Isaiah 6:1-13

The Book of Isaiah is some crazy shit.

We start with the reality that there are no fewer than three distinct sections of the text we call Isaiah and that within each of these sections we can detect editing that attempts to provide a little theological coherence for what is otherwise a collection of writings documenting centuries’ worth of experiences. It’s God’s hodgepodge.

To be sure, there was a historical Isaiah of Jerusalem, who began his ministry in the 730s BCE. There are specific references to historical kings—Uzziah, Hezekiah, Ahaz—that places us within a specific time period, but the biblical chronology sometimes conflicts with nonbiblical records, which, of course, were themselves written with heroes in mind, even when the historical events themselves showed otherwise. All of this to say, we are dealing with history but a history that has many versions, sometimes within the very same text. We should not get lost looking for facts in a field of truth.

We know that Isaiah was attached to the Temple in Jerusalem. Up north, in the kingdom that broke away from Judah after the death of Solomon—owed to a forced labor practice that highlighted the failures of a royal theology that didn’t serve anyone except those at the top—they had their own traditions, sacred places, theology, and sense of community. Owed to their geographical position, they faced an ongoing threat of Assyria, the superpower of the moment and a testimony to the capacity for human brutality. The north, sometimes referred to as Ephraim, was forging an alliance with Syria, who wished to develop a coalition to stop the Assyrian menace. They were asking Judah, the south, to join.

Enter Isaiah 6. Now, I used to pay good quality money for substances that would make me see trippy shit. God has the primo hallucinogenics. The Temple, which itself is an axis mundi, a place where the divine and human meet, suddenly becomes a portal to the heavenly court. Seraphim, which, according to Robert Alter in his definitive, beautifully-written The Hebrew Bible: Translation and Commentary, are possibly made of fire (but then why do they need the tongs?) or (start screaming now) are FLYING SNAKES. These six-winged beasts hover around God, singing “holy, holy, holy.” Isaiah can see the hem of God’s garment.

Shit is wild, yo.

But it is the content of the transaction between Isaiah and God that continues to beckon, challenge, befuddle, and inspire those who wrestle with the Word. Isaiah speaks:

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

The winged, flying snakes of fire with motherfucking feet go into action.

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

The theology here is potent. Isaiah, like Abraham and Moses before him, felt unworthy of God’s anointing. Most clergy I know wrestles with both the arrogance and humility that comes with claiming to work for God. Do I really believe that God has chosen me? How COULD God choose me, fucked up as I am? Here, God forgoes the usual methods of affecting ritual cleanliness; it is performed in the Temple, yes, but there are no priests or ritual sacrifices. God directly purifies Isaiah. The Law is circumvented.

I believe that Christians should be very careful in passing judgment on Jewish Temple practices because doing so can quickly descend into antisemitic tropes (whether consciously or not). In my reading, the critique transcends the specific Temple example used by God: Isaiah’s experience represents what should happen in God’s house: human beings knowing that no sin or defect of character is powerful enough to keep us from God.

To use an overused expression: God does not call the qualified, God qualifies the called.

But that call can be a bitch. God asks the heavenly council whom he should send to represent them. Isaiah responds with words uttered by Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Samuel, and Saul before him: “Here am I, Lord” Then he adds: “Send me.” God drops the hammer.

And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
1Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”

Remember that history we discussed above? How the north, Ephraim, was aligning with Syria to ward off and defeat Assyria, the great superpower? That’s key to understand what is going on here. God is charging Isaiah with a fool’s errand, at least when measured by typical metrics. Isaiah is to go to the people with a simple message: trust in God, not in Syria. Do not make alliances with people who are hostile to our God and our values.

This is another area in which Evangelical fundamentalism has so fucked up the common understandings of prophets and politics, it seems that the only way to interpret this passage is that God promotes a xenophobic, nationalist theocracy. Such is not the case.

Being a person of faith in any serious way means knowing what God requires of you and who you are in God. If you claim to follow a God who calls for you to be a person of compassion, generosity, understanding, justice, and love—as almost every spiritual and religious tradition does, in wonderfully varying ways—yet you are selfish, greedy, oppressive, and murderous while living and supporting societies and cultures that are equally rapacious, don’t expect human beings to be your salvation. If you know God calls you to be different than the world, but you choose to chase earthly things, can you really be surprised that things go to shit?

This is a tough concept and I can understand why some people think it is malarkey. But please bear with me. I think a major problem throughout the history of religion is that it has been and is used to control, manipulate, subjugate, and enslave people while those in power prosper and play pious. What God is saying to Isaiah is: tell the people the harsh truth that if they really did what I tell them to do, none of this bad shit would be happening. But they won’t want to hear it. Your success will be measured in how few people listen to you. But don’t shy away from the message that God cares about how we treat one another. God’s call to Isaiah was to preach how compassion, mercy, justice, and love will save us, not plans for war made with people who kill us given the opportunity.

To be fair, things get a bit more fucked up.

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
    and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
    and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
 Even if a tenth part remain in it,
    it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
    whose stump remains standing
    when it is felled.”[c
The holy seed is its stump.

Let’s start with how beautifully human Isaiah’s question is: How long will I be grinding, God? How long is this gig? God does not use a clock to answer but rather lets Isaiah know of the logical consequences of what happens when the people do not heed the words of the prophet. Cities will fall, houses without families will emptily stand, and those who survive will be sent far away. And of those, more will be burnt until only a remnant will remain. The holy seed. *

Isaiah was to deliver this message to a people who did not want to hear it. He came without the cultural credentials, but he was certain in his charge. We can have conversations about whether Isaiah’s vision should be understood literally, metaphorically, or a combination of the two; we can have conversations about the content of Isaiah’s message, but it seems overwhelmingly obvious to me that Isaiah, like the social justice prophets before him, understood Israel and Judah’s corporate sin to be evident in the conditions of oppressed and marginalized peoples throughout the land. Isaiah is not screaming at women trying to access affordable gynecological care. He is not attacking LGBTQ people or immigrants. That’s not prophecy. That’s being a fundamentalist asshole.

The only theology that matters to me is a theology that meets us on the streets, that helps us traverse a violent, oppressive world without giving in to desires for vengeance and destruction. I believe deeply that if we were to concentrate on the things God does require—not a judgment of others but the cultivation of a community that affirms the blessedness of all—we would live in a better world.

Sadly, too many people feel this is the real crazy shit.

______________________________________________________________________

*My Hebrew Bible scholar friends will forgive me for not going as deep into the history and context as we might otherwise but I try to write things accessible to interested readers. However, it is important to note that the material generally associated with the historical Isaiah of Jerusalem, Isaiah 1-39, was also edited, perhaps by what is known as Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, found in chapters 40-55. So there are questions as to whether the historical Isaiah was specific about the Diaspora, the scattering, that happened when the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians and all other comers, laying waste Jerusalem and razing the First Jewish Temple in 587/6 BCE. The prophet Jeremiah, who I will write about in next week’s blog, is an important source regarding this time and the people who did return under Cyrus the Persian in the first decade of the sixth century BCE.

I just had to say something, didn’t I?* A pastor responds to outside missionaries

IMG_1423.JPGI saw the placards as we rolled past Mills Lawn on Elm Street. Turning onto Short from Walnut, I saw the bearers. Two women, at least in their 60s, bedecked in the long dresses and long hair that often accompany Holiness movement communities. I sighed as we turned right on Xenia and looked for a parking space. “I think this is something to which a town pastor must respond,” I said, getting out of the car.

Mimi and I have a ritual: Monday mornings at the Sunrise. We love the people who work the shift. It is generally a very townie time to be downtown. We each invariably order the same thing. They know us so well, they once started our order while we were still waiting for a table to come open. By the time we sat down, the food was coming up.

I was hoping to gather my thoughts over breakfast when Mimi pointed out that they were on a wait. No biggy, I thought. As we walked past a group of four tourists and into the restaurant, they followed immediately. A woman asked if she could sneak past, even though she had already put their name in. I said, “The host will come around in a second. We’re not cutting.” She and another lady then moved into space right next to people eating; just, milling about and assuming that this very successful restaurant is staffed by people who don’t know that there is a small waiting area and people go outside. They’re still talking about how they don’t want to lose their spot. I said to Miriam, “I don’t like the vibe in town today. Let’s go to Tom’s. ”

We stepped out and walked toward the Little Art. I look again at the women and they were speaking to people passing by. Dammit, I thought. I told Miriam she could go ahead, and I crossed the street.

**

“Hello,” I say.

“Hello,” one woman returns, eyeballing me in a way with which I am most familiar. My beard, locs, tattoos, muscles; the ever-present Monday Jesus Christ Superstar t-shirt; they all add up to danger. She takes a step back.

“I’m pastor of the church right there. I just want to let you know that Jesus is very well represented here. We’ve had committed, Christ-infused people with long, deep ties to this community for nearly two hundred years. We don’t need outsiders coming in to deliver a message regarding Jesus, especially this way. We have at least half-a-dozen pastors toiling in the vineyard of Yellow Springs right now. Jesus is doing just fine.”

“Then why did God ask us to come here?” she retorts.

“I don’t even know how to respond to that, ma’am. Because your claim that God sent you here seems in direct contradiction about what I know to be true. I grew up here. I have committed the whole of my life to Jesus Christ. I have been a pastor in this village for five years, and I know the fruits that God has born from the countless seeds sown by Christ-loving people.”

“I’ve never heard of one Christian asking another Christian to leave,” she says.

“Ma’am, I’m not asking you to leave. What I am saying is that if you were really concerned about the souls of people here, why did you not contact those of us who toil in the vineyard? Why not come and talk to us? This is not doing anything to help those of us who love Jesus and who will still be here after you leave.”

“Okay, you’ve had your say.”

“Yup, God bless.”

All I hear is laughter as I walk away.

**

In a way, my approach was confrontational. I imagine that there will be those who feel that I should have gone in with a carrot rather than a stick. Establish mutual love for Christ, ask questions, be more invitational; I get it. Because I have done it in the past and it goes nowhere. I’ve spent two decades studying and living Christianity. I’ve lived in this part of Ohio for the overwhelming majority of my life. I know their techniques, their theology, their assumptions. They are treating this town as a mission field.

Missionaries only go where they feel that Christ is not represented or to places they believe are openly hostile to God. That must always be kept at the forefront. The earnestness of these Christians cannot be denied; they sincerely believe that Satan takes root in communities unless there are soldiers in God’s army actively fighting against him. They will not recognize as authentically Christian any Jesus-believer who does not share their Manichean worldview, replete with racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and nationalism wrapped up in a millennialist-based eschatology that would make the Qurman community say, “Whoa, lighten up y’all.”

Was it comfortable saying these things to my elders? No. I didn’t relish it. I didn’t enjoy it. I wasn’t angry. But I couldn’t just roll me eyes and walk on. I just had to say something.

**

Paul writes in Ephesians 4:4-5, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” It is important to remember that Paul was writing while in prison, awaiting trial before Nero that most certainly would result in a death sentence. In this epistle, which was not addressed to the people of Ephesus as it is an encyclical and meant for all members of the Body of Christ, Paul uses seventy unique Greek words that are not found in any of his other authentic epistles.

Ephesians operates as a diptych, with two panels (Eph. 1-3; 4-6) facing one another. In the first part, Paul writes about what must happen inside each person: we must hold ourselves up against the example of Christ and see that we are found wanting. Understanding that we need God in order to transform, we replace ourselves with Christ. We begin to live in Christ. Paul does not say how this must happen; he understands that each experience will be different, but if it results in you pulling up a chair at the table of Christ and saying, “I’m all in,” then that is the faith Paul is talking about.

In the second half, Paul connects this idea of Christ unifying each of us to your true selves with how the Body of Christ must function. This is something most often misunderstood by missionaries such as those who are currently downtown. When Paul writes about “one faith,” he is not arguing for a uniformity of belief. This is not a credal proposition. How could he have made such a claim? Paul was referred to as an apostle by his followers, but such as a term that was only applied to those who knew Jesus. Paul did not. Paul had an experience of the risen Christ, which no one could substantiate except Paul himself. The whole of his life was meant to evidence that even those who never knew the historical Jesus can be filled with the Spirit and can be used by God for the glory of the gospel.

From the beginning, our faith tradition has been about the transforming power of God through Jesus Christ. The kerygma, the oral proclamations, spread in numerous languages, meeting people where they were; the gospel as we have received it is by definition an experiential one. Sadly, history has shown that Christians are far, far too concerned about how a person ended up at God’s table rather than the fact that God brings us all as equals.

In Paul’s vision for Godly community, we must have respect for the myriad ways in which God can reconcile humans to God’s self. God points to a shared baptism. Again, this was not just a credal formula. It was a public testimony, even in the face of danger, about inward grace. It was not a call that everyone should be baptized in the same way or for exactly the same reasons. Rather, Paul’s call to a shared faith and baptism was meant to be a radical invitation into God’s diverse, Spirit-infused community.

**

I have to imagine that I am now, or will soon be, a story these ladies share. Based on their derisive laughter as I departed, I’m sure I will be seen as a demon, a fallen soul, a deceiver, a fill-in-the-blank. Just like with an encyclical: the community name in the greeting is left blank so that the reader/teller of the epistle can insert the name of the one being addressed. Rather, in my situation, I’ll be a mirror for all their fears and assumptions. In that way, what I did is a certain failure. My words will only strengthen their resolve and might, in the end, increase the frequency of their visits.

But I just had to say something, didn’t I?

*The title should be read in the voice of Dr. Venkman with the sarcasm tone set on 11. I’m not conducting a poll.

**This was updated to correct tense issues.

Threshold moments: On moving onward

 

As a kid, I fell in love almost every day. My emotions were so overwhelming, the only way I could negotiate existence was to let the feelings pour from me toward others. This made me an intense little dude. I’ve gotten better at controlling the emotions, but I’m an intense bigger dude. I discovered early that music is instrumental (see what I did there?) in helping me feel understood, in providing me an outlet for my myriad emotions. Boyz II Men’s debut album Colleyhighharmony holds a very special place in my heart. I wore out two copies of the tape inside of a year. My brother, who listened to Black Flag and Fugazi, wanted to kill me.

This past weekend, I informed the congregation of my intention to step down as the pastor. The date is still TBD, but it will be sooner rather than later. Sunday’s service was incredibly emotional; the predominant feeling, though, is love. It is mixed with no small degree of lament but ’tis love all the same.

There are times in our lives in which we find ourselves between identities, between worlds, between the past and a future yet to settle into the present. The liminal phase. Like a child undergoing a rite of passage to enter the community of adults. Behind them an identity they can no longer claim; in front of them, an identity they have not yet earned. Liminal. From the Latin lamen, meaning threshold.

There is rarely a single, lone factor that pushes a person to a threshold. For me, considerations financial and professional certainly have factored in. I would be lying if I said otherwise. There are reasons I will not share publicly—and privately only with a very select few—but the main reason I will: I believe that the Spirit is moving me onward.

I sometimes hesitate to use language like this because many are rightly suspect when Christians talk about following the direction of God. Too often such statements are followed by actions aimed at controlling and condemning others. For me, discernment means months, if not years, of continued work on deconstructing the ego while listening for the still, small voice. It means confronting the overwhelming emotions that come with fear: fear of losing love, or leaving what is familiar, of not being able to control what comes next. It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday, indeed.

I am returning to my home denomination, the United Church of Christ, to serve as an intentional interim pastor. This means that I will not serve an individual congregation for longer than two years; my job will be to help them identify who they have been, where they are now, and what God is offering for the future. My job will be to eliminate my own job, in a way. It is a John the Baptizer position, clearing the one for the one who is to come.

I’m sad. But I’m also excited.

Damn those thresholds.

 

 

 

“I’m washed in the blood of the Lamb, so I’ll be the biggest jerk I can”: On the surprising depth of Paul’s theology of the cross (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

huge-tiny-.gifThere are times when I hear about the religious beliefs of others and I shake my head, wondering how anyone could believe such claptrap. Take, for example, Scientology. Like, seriously. How could anyone believe the story of Xenu and thetans? Then I remind myself that the Christian story is absolutely outlandish. It defies logic to the point of absurdity. We forget this to our detriment, and today’s words from the Apostle help us to confront the fact that God purposefully has used the preposterous to reveal the nature of God’s power.

Let’s establish a few important things. Paul is writing in response to a letter the church in Corinth sent to him, a letter which is lost to history; Paul is writing to a mixed community, Jew and Gentile together, that is struggling to co–exist without reverting to division and confrontation. Most potently, Paul centers his theology in an impending end-time, an apocalyptic eschaton that will happen within a generation. Paul puts a lot of eggs in that basket. Of course, Jesus has not come back yet. On that count, Paul is way wrong.

But today’s passage shows that Paul’s theology of the cross is much deeper than simply believing that the blood of the lamb washes you clean, requiring nothing more of the individual until Christ comes back. Sadly, this is what often passes for Pauline theology. I describe it as, “I’m washed in the blood of the Lamb, so I’ll be the biggest jerk I can.” In fact, Paul seems to purposefully refrain from using some of his favorite eschatological sayings in these early verses; his focus in on what God has done, not what God will do. Paul’s message to the church in Corinth is: “Look, you’re reverting to these positions of division and making something profoundly simple unnecessarily complicated. I’m passing on to you the same thing that I learned, that Jesus was handed over to the authorities, tried, beaten, crucified, killed, and on the third day, raised. That’s all you need. Understand this and you will be unified. This is wisdom, everything else is foolishness.”

I’ll admit, this is a theology one might rightfully fear. It appears, perhaps, to require that a person believes in something fantastical and absurd because, well, Jesus. Literally, “because Jesus.” And we Christians are largely responsible for such a shallow understanding of Paul.

Paul’s argument is sophisticated, a reality expressed more clearly through the original Greek than it is in English. It is important to establish two things right off the bat: one, Paul sees the world as transient and therefore no wisdom can come from it; and two, creation is fallen, and the world is in active rebellion against God. So, again, why do we expect wisdom from human endeavors? Any attempt to engage Paul’s theology has to accept these assumptions. Paul believed the end of the world would be an act of wisdom.

Eschatology is not at the center here, as I mentioned before because Paul is using harsh language to describe what God has done in the world through Jesus. Paul juxtaposes σοφία τοῦ θεοῦ (wisdom of God) with μωρία (moria), a word often translated as “foolishness.” However, μωρία is actually the root word for moronic. So, Paul is saying, “There’s the wisdom of God, and then there is the moronic claptrap given by the world.”

Paul then goes a step further. He says, “What passes for wisdom is moronic. The people whom the world elevates as wise are morons.” They believe that might makes right, that God is always on the side of the victor, that wealth and power are always signs of divine favor. When the moronic passes for wisdom, how then is God to be heard?

Remember that Paul is writing to a community of Jews and Gentiles, often called Greeks by Paul. “You Greeks love your wisdom,” he says. “And you Jews love your signs,” he adds, able to speak from experience about both as a Hellenized Pharisee. God, therefore, has flipped both of these conventions like Jesus rearranging tables in the Temple: God’s wisdom is that a peasant, itinerant Jewish preacher submits to the crushing power of religious and civic authorities, turning the cross, a sign of torture and imperial oppression, into the definitive symbol of God’s redeeming, liberating grace.

Think about that: foundational to our faith claim is that Jesus teaches us how to live the life we are designed to live by being rooted in the knowledge that God’s love, compassion, mercy, and justice prioritizes the least of these. As an eternal reminder of the seemingly absurd notion that God would side with the poor and the oppressed, we have the wisdom of the cross. It is in and of itself a scandal, something embarrassing, something that draws the ridicule and ire of the world, but it reminds us that God’s love is subversive. God’s love takes us to uncomfortable and difficult places, but our assurance is that God is with us. God is Emmanuel.

I get chills just thinking about the potency of this theology for our own time. However, that does not mean that Paul’s cross theology is not still problematic. Perhaps you, like me, are sometimes resistant to Paul because of how Paul has been used in damaging ways across the millennia. Yet, imagine how powerful and liberating this message must have been in the first century as the war drums between Rome and Jewish rebels became increasingly louder until they burst in 70 C.E. when the Temple was destroyed. Think of how immediate Paul’s theology of salvation makes God if you are poor if your whole life is spent being denigrated by others, called foolish, told you are unworthy of God? God’s wisdom, God’s redemption, begins by seeing that God defies categories.

Lent reminds us that God’s message has been consistent across time. If we want to know God, we must love others. We must reject false wisdom, push back against the moronic promises of a world that is at war with peace. What God has done through Christ is purposefully absurd on the face of it. Who would look for a God made manifest in a rebellious, heretical, provocative, and thoroughly debased Jewish preacher who ended his life nailed to a tree? The answer? Those who know that God is not to be found in the structures of power that oppress those whom God has prioritized. Our faith claim is ridiculous and worthy of ridicule if we believe that money brings happiness, violence brings peace, fear brings loyalty, and morons bring wisdom.

Lent faces us with big questions. What does the cross mean? What does it point us to? What does it reveal about God? And when we pick up our own, what are the contours of the cross? What is the wisdom we take upon our backs as we march toward our own metaphorical crucifixions? What will we die to in the world when we are resurrected in God’s wisdom? Who is the God we have discovered in the unlikeliest of places? Let us keep our eyes fixed on the City of David and continue to kick up the dust on the Jerusalem Road. Amen.

A Very Beatles Advent: Joy and Blackbird

The Church year begins in darkness. This should come as no surprise: the first act of creation, according to the Book of Genesis, was done in pitch black. Granted, we’re dealing with two different types of darkness here. Genesis darkness is literal. The darkness of Mark 13 is more metaphorical, with promises of literal darkness to come.

Amos told of a coming darkness that could be stopped if the people began treating the least of these with compassion. Isaiah warned of an imminent darkness that could not be stopped because people did not listen to the prophets. Both manners of darkness came, the former through the falling of the northern kingdom and the latter with the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. But the darkness of both contained a promise a coming light, a breaking-in of grace amidst chaos and pain, that would end the darkness forever. This was called the Day of YHWH.

The text for our first Sunday in Advent is from Mark 13, often called the “Little Apocalypse.” The word “apocalypse” literally means “revealing, uncovering, or revelation.” An apocalypse is not necessarily about the end times, although it can be, but rather refers to the revelations of the true natures of good and evil. As we saw when considering Amos and Isaiah, God frequently said, “Y’all think you want the Day of YHWH, but you really don’t. You oppress your own people, you serve the false idols of avarice and indifference, and worst of all you do so in my name. The reckoning is coming, so get ready.”

When considering Mark 13 we must point out that it does not have the literary structure of an apocalypse and really should not be called such. It is not an apocalypse, but what concerns us is the content of the chapter. Jesus is warning his followers in graphic detail about the trials and tribulations that await them in the last days. He warns them about false prophets and Messiahs who will lead them astray. He beseeches them to stay true, even as darkness closes in all around them.

I will quickly note that many scholars, myself included, do not believe that the historical Jesus said these words; for those interested in knowing more about that, catch me outside worship and we can talk.

But what begins in Mark 13:24 is a theological shift that impacts the development of Christianity. The Day of YHWH mentioned throughout the Hebrew Bible becomes the Parousia, the Second Coming of Christ. Though the sun be darkened, the moon opaque, the stars burning out, and the powers of heaven themselves shaken, the Son of Man will come like the light of creation, bringing together agents of heaven and earth.

The lesson from the fig tree and the need for watchfulness expressed in vv. 28-37 reiterate points made earlier in chapter 13. But they present us with curious messages. Jesus—whether he said these things or not—throughout his ministry uses examples from nature to illustrate his message: “Behold the birds of the heaven . . . consider the lilies of the field.” Here, the leaves on the tender branch of a fig tree signal the season of summer.

But Jesus warns the listener/reader, those who receive the text, that while the season may be known the hour is not. “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” Do not fall asleep, Jesus says, but keep awake. Like Paul writes, we are looking through a glass dimly.

Advent begins with the promise of God’s light and grace breaking into the world, overshadowing darkness and chaos with hope. In one way, it does not matter whether or not we believe in a literal, physical return of Jesus. What matters is that God promises a reason to hope. A reason to scan the dark horizon for that pinpoint of light that will burst into existence.

Regardless of personal politics, I imagine most if not all of us agree that it is a dark time. There are oppressive regimes around the world, natural disasters are coming quickly and with greater force than recorded memory. Our own country is fractured and angry. Divisions amongst our people and with other nations are deep and entrenched. Even the choice between “Happy Holidays” and “Merry Christmas” is postulated as part of a war upon our religious tradition. I don’t know about you but I am tired. Beaten down by the nonstop onslaught.

Our Church year begins in darkness. But the candle of hope is lighted. We have glimpsed the flicker of light that is like a spark within our hearts. And God will keep lighting flames—peace, then joy, then love—until the bright light of Christ explodes like the original light of creation. The light of life.

But now we huddle in darkness, eyes fixed on hope and one another, knowing that soon and very soon, we are going to see the king. Amen.

Not that kind of God: American Pharaoh and Exodus 3

 

bushIn the ancient world, if you were enslaved it was because your deity had been bested in the heavenly realm. The battles of human beings simply played out what had already been decided in the noumenal world, the realm of reality far removed from the puny humans. The realm perfection. So the enslavement of the Hebrew peoples was confirmation that their God was, well, not much of a god.

In the main, ancient cosmogony operated on the principle that the deities should be the main concern of humans, not the other way around. If calamity befell an individual or community, it was because the patron(ess) deity(ies) had been wronged or were upset. The capriciousness of these goddesses and gods is well-captured in myths. Over 5,000 years ago, humans could not fathom a divinity who would not place self-interest first over the well-being of persons.

But there was the belief that staying in the good graces of these powerful forces would result in divine benefits and protections. Dances, songs, sacrifices, offerings, rituals: all of these were efforts to appease the fickleness and fecklessness of the mighty spirits. Defeat in war, enslavement, occupation, and destruction were seen as the gods’ problems, though. The notion that God could raise another army to humble and chastise God’s people was pioneered by the Israelites.

But we’re talking about the Hebrews. Israel at the time of Moses was just an idea, a name attached to Jacob. Israel, which means “wrestling with God,” was not yet a place. The use of “Israelites” in the text reveals at least two things: the account was written from a point of retrospection and after the establishment of Israel proper, which doesn’t really happen until the time of King David, c. 1000 BCE.

The theology in Exodus 2 is revolutionary. Let’s read it again: “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.  God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

Notice the verbs, the actions: groaned, cried, rose, heard, remembered, looked, took notice. This shapes a theology.

  1. Human cries and groans of suffering rise to God. Certainly, other gods have heard cries of affliction, but not from slavery. These reach the noumenal world.
  2. The cries are heard. These are not ritual actions, dances, ceremonies, etc. These are laments and anguishes directly related to the culturally assumed defeat of the Hebrew God, at this point still known as El-Shaddai.
  3. God remembers an agreement, not to point out human error but as an act of self-discovery. It is hard to picture this as an omniscient God though, right? Did God forget?
  4. God looks upon the Israelites. Imagine being told that you are seen even in the most horrendous of circumstance. Not only seen, but…
  5. God notices the cries of suffering. Your pain matters. It does not go unaddressed.

These actions largely frame what is described in 3:1-15. The Burning Bush is like God’s first Skype call. But let’s go deeper than literalism. God has mastery over the natural world. Fire needs fuel. It is the only way that fire can sustain itself. But fire is not so good for the kindling. Yet here, fire and fuel are in symbiosis. The fire does not consume the bush, yet it need not spread elsewhere to remain alive.

From this harmony comes God’s voice.

“Moses, Moses,” God calls. Moses responds with the words we first heard from Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, and now, from one not of their genetic line. “Here I am.”

God’s response is theological. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham…” Abraham’s descendants are not determined by blood alone, but also by faith.

God does not demand that those enslaved offer sacrifices to him. Not yet. This God does not send a tweet saying that these cries of anguish and affliction are unfair because liberation is a communal effort. God does not sigh and say that the damn Hebrews want everything done for them. No. God does not.

God lays out a plan. Notice the action words: observed, heard, know, deliver, bring. And God does not expect worship until the people have been delivered to Sinai, just as God promises.

The revelation of God’s name is a sermon unto itself, and one that I’ve already delivered in past years. Today, let us notice, though, that one translation of YHWH is “I am.” From Abraham to Isaac and on through Jacob, we’ve understood their words “Here I am” to be a reference to themselves.

Let’s perform a through experiment. Picture the words “here I am” as though they are hovering before you, like the Sesame Street reading lessons. Now, place a comma after “here.” Here comma, I am. What happens if we read their words as though they are calling upon God, not identifying themselves.

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What happens in Exodus 4 is fascinating from an anthropology of religion perspective. We see the commissioning of two new roles within the nascent faith. The first is that of prophet, literally “mouthpiece.” Moses is charged with proclaiming the words that God has just delivered to him. Moses, as will many after him, claims that he is not up for the job. This ticks God off a bit, so he suggests Moses’ brother.

This just goes to show you, if you want something done just get a loudmouth named Aaron.

Aaron is a Levite, which from this point forward is the tribe of priests. Moses is the first prophet, Aaron the first High Priest, at least according to the Israelites who wrote down this story nearly a millennia after it happened. However it happened.

However, it happened. On some level, significant things occurred that allowed for these theological breakthroughs. A God who hears. Who cares. Who will send human agents to bring about liberation and community. A God who is in this with us. A God of verbs.

There are cries of anguish and suffering coming from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The storm was not punishment for sins. It does not represent the defeat of a god or the failures of the peoples on the islands.

We have a president who is centering himself and his ego whilst people are enduring an unimaginable hell. Let us call out to God both here comma I am, and here I am. We are God’s people. Us. I know that it’s overwhelming. We can’t do everything. In trying to do so, we do nothing. Not well, anyway.

But we can always remind ourselves that if God observes, hears, knows, delivers, and brings, we should as well. We may not be Moses or Aaron, but we are those who stand in relationship with a God who models for us the proper response, especially when we are being ruled by a despotic Pharaoh.

God understand the anger and cries of frustration whilst an inept, bumbling clod makes haphazard decisions that crush lives, while then using the State-enforced propaganda to gaslight people into disbelieving their own lying eyes. What are you talking about, the Nile isn’t red! Don’t believe the FAKE NEWS, there is plenty of food, water, and assistance. The place is teeming with it because of the beneficence of Pharaoh.

Let us all remember our verbs, our action words, and follow God. Amen.

No, the end-times are not coming and stop saying so

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Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
Mark 13:5-8

As millions of people are displaced from Harvey and are fleeing from the path of Irma as Jose is poised to strike the same areas, we see once again a parade of religious charlatans declaring these natural disasters to be evidence of God’s wrath against gays, or liberals, or pescatarians who secretly go to the Long John Silver’s three towns away every other Tuesday.

I just spent the last month preaching on Revelation; click here to read the first installment in the series. Apocalyptic literature such as Ezekiel, Daniel, Enoch, and Revelation, are not meant to be read literally. This is not a heretical or even a mildly radical statement. By design, the literature type plays with storytelling conventions, presents seeming contradictions, uses coded and unsettling language to describe how one survives calamities. The basic message always is, no matter how bad it gets don’t stop being a good person. Don’t stop loving, seeking justice, and taking care of one another. There will be lots of distractions, but don’t be fooled.

I wear many hats, but the one I have worn the longest as a person in the field of theology and religion is that of a Markan scholar. Mark 13 is errantly called the little apocalypse, but the chapter perfectly reflects ancient wisdom about what to avoid when disaster has struck, as was the case in 70 CE, the year when the Romans razed the Second Jerusalem Temple and expelled Jews from the city. Jesus followers gathered around the Markan narrative were a mixed lot, meaning there were Jews and there were Gentiles. They heard the promises of safety and comfort from the religious establishment and the Roman government. Beware, the Markan Jesus says, of those who come with motives other than the love of God.

These hurricanes are unimaginably awful. They are powerful, destructive, capricious, and uncaring. They do not have in them motive or judgment, but if we are to perhaps take one away let it be this: we are seeing the ravages of climate change faster than predicted. The continued assault on reason and cooperative action must stop. These storms will keep coming, not as a result of God’s wrath, but because of our own intransigence and capitalist greed.

So to all those saying this is an act of God, I say: Keep Jesus’ name out your mouth.