"For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6).
The core message at the heart of every major faith tradition echoes through the halls of time: Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Jesus himself is credited with stating it that succinctly. Our various religious institutions often obfuscate that clarion call behind layers of added (or odded?) interpretation.
Christianity often dominates the religious landscape of America. So, why does so little seem to change? The message of Jesus is as radical as it is straightforward. So why do we as a society act as though we just don't get it? The answer to that is equally simple. The Danish philosopher, theologian and ethicist, Søren Kierkegaard, stated the answer flat out more bluntly than any other I've yet heard. He said, "The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we as Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined."
Kierkegaard, I believe hit the nail squarely on the head. We pass our time asking, "And who is my neighbor?" because we don't want to get on with fulfilling our calling. We often prefer to hedge. It was true in the time of Kierkegaard in the 1800's, and it is true today. As Christians, I believe that is why we place Jesus on such a high pedestal. If we claim his example to be beyond our reach to fulfill, we are able to excuse our own indolence, and we hope that God won't notice us being spiritual slackers.
Loving God and neighbor... it's the main thing. Let's admit we get it and get on with being it in the world.
"By calling ourselves progressive, we mean we are Christians who find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in dogmatic certainty - more value in questioning than in absolutes." (From The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity)
In a bygone age, our ancestors tried desperately in the face of life's uncertainties to find eternal certainties to which they could cling. In our own time, some mainstream religious bodies have done likewise. By enshrining the religious culture and in some cases the worship forms of the 18th or at best 19th centuries, they revere the form at the expense of the substance, all the while telling us how thoroughly contemporary and relevant they believe themselves to be.
It was philosopher and mystic Alan Watts who suggested that to be spiritually authentic and to remain relevant in the time in which we live, we must become less concerned with standing on a firm foundation and more concerned with learning to swim. And he is correct. If we try to stand firm in the ocean, we drown. Likewise, if we hold fast to religious forms that no longer serve their original function, we do spiritual violence to ourselves, and -- if we cling to them in a sufficiently shrill manner -- to others as well. Is it worth intellectually twisting ourselves into pre-modern pretzels to hang onto those things? Is it worth the potential harm we can inflict on others?
To work on embodying a more open-minded outlook, try this affirmation: "The search for truth is its own reward. Even when that truth is unanticipated or challenges my preconceptions, I will honor it."
Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the [realm] of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.
— Luke 13:29-30
The image of God's eternal realm throughout the scriptures is one in which the doors are flung open wide, and any who wish to may enter into it. That is an awfully inclusive vision. I think sometimes that its very breadth is at least in part what terrifies some folks. After all, people who are different from “us” might take the divine invitation seriously. The Revelation of John pictures the culmination of time this way, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). In fact, the “outsiders” pictured in this image far out number the “insiders.” Perhaps there is indeed as the hymnodists have repeatedly informed us “a wideness in God's mercy,” a wideness that goes far beyond our innate human capacity to accept others. It is a recurring theme. It just may be that this is yet another aspect of our heritage as God's children into which we must grow as we and our society mature.
On the other hand, perhaps it is the very sorts of reversals that this passage from Luke's Gospel points out that also serve to make people uncomfortable. And so it should. If we are the “insiders,” the ones with something to lose and we cling to that privilege for our sense of security or our pride of place, then a reversal is pretty clearly exactly what we need to gain a different perspective. While Luke does not state that such reversals always happen, clearly they happen often enough to be significant and worth our notice.
The challenge is what it has always been: to learn to view ourselves and others through the divine lens, to realize that despite what we regard as major differences, there is only one humanity. We must find ways to heal the painful rifts that humanity has itself created with its artificial and arbitrary distinctions.
The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and [God's] compassion is over all that [God] has made.
I've had the opportunity to get to know many people of faith personally over my 19 years of pastoring congregations. Many of those people learned and absorbed very negative messages about God. In fact, some of those people absorbed these negative messages to such a degree that it was spiritually debilitating for them.
Sadly, many individuals have been raised to simply accept messages proclaimed from the pulpits of their churches without any critical thought whatsoever. The idea is that this somehow demonstrates absolute trust in God. My problem with that line of thought (or lack of thought) is quite simply this: God gave each of us a mind as well as a soul, and I believe God expects us to make use of both in every area of life.
Throughout the Bible there are conflicting images of God as both vengeful and loving; it's true. There are also verses that enjoin us to stone disobedient children. I know of no one — including some of our more conservative spiritual siblings — who take these passages to heart as deeply as we might expect. Why? Well, our intellect comes into play and informs how we process and understand such passages.
Unfortunately, many people accept the vengeful image of deity without ever stopping to ask, "Is this consistent with what I know of who God is and my own lived experience?" So, sadly many people are raised to go through life believing that they are unacceptable to God or that God is picking on them for some aspect of their identity or behavior.
Perhaps, being human beings themselves, our predecessors occasionally got it wrong. Perhaps when they believed that they had a divine imprimatur to commit genocide in order to claim plots of land it was more grandiose self-indulgence than divine directive. Perhaps the psalmist actually had it right that God is "gracious and merciful and abounding in steadfast love." Perhaps God really is "good to all" and divine compassion really is "over all that [God] has made." If our culture could just learn to embrace the depth of that truth, maybe our lives would be the richer for it.
Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, "Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor." But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, "Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.
Jesus, it seems, had a unique ability to interact with and to relate to people who were different from him. We see it transpire over and over again throughout the gospel accounts. And even though the disciples as a group generally just grumbled quietly about such antics, their sharpest rebuke of Jesus seems to happen here in the home of Simon. The disciples, it seems, were willing to party at the home of Simon who lived with a serious skin condition, but this ointment incident was just a bridge too far for them.
Cultural shifts, it appears, are all well and good, but only when they have no cost attached. The unnamed woman's act of generosity toward Jesus is regarded as wasteful by the disciples. Is it then wasteful when we are generous? Do any of us think of our charitable contributions to houses of worship and other non-profit groups with that mental framework? Probably not. Then why do we treat such basic human rights and freedoms this way?
Think I'm exaggerating the situation? Just this week, with editorials discounting the need for federal hate crimes protection, with same-sex marriage still an open question in states across the country, with Lt. Dan Choi being unceremoniously booted from the military for nothing more than being authentic and real, with Fort Worth police raiding gay clubs on the very anniversary of Stonewall, with several targeted attacks on individuals around pride celebrations across the country, with the Employment Nondiscrimination Act still not the law of thee land, I really have to raise the question: are we so different than the early apostles. We talk a good game about generosity of spirit, but when the moment to make a difference arrives, as a society, we tend to close our eyes and wait, hoping it will pass. We don't want our own apple-carts of privilege overturned.
Our society's attitude appears to be that all people are created equal is great so long as some remain more equal than others. Culturally and spiritually, we tend to prefer the status quo to change. That's a given. But are we so stingy of heart as a nation, that the majority will perpetuate continued injustice on a grand scale rather than make the simple choice to share what they enjoy equally with others. I hope not.
Most people today cringe when they see footage of George Wallace stridently proclaiming, "Segregation today.... segregation tomorrow... segregation forever.” In retrospect, reasonable people wonder how anyone could take pride in racist ideology. We shake our heads in disbelief at the misguided preservation of privilege of some on the backs of others. We ask, "How could they not see? How could the not get it?" Yet is what we are doing today as a people really any different? If we miss this pivotal moment as a country, how will history remember us a generation from now?
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.
- 1 Timothy 6:6-8
Sometimes, I wonder why people go to church. And too often, it seems that the one thing people are chasing, like greyhounds chasing a mechanical rabbit, is the promise of eternal life. In fact, there are far too many people who begin a walk of faith rooted in insecurity and the fear of death and who continue to pursue it doggedly for the rest of their lives. Is that what religious faith and spirituality have come to? Celestial fire insurance? Is the sole reason to believe so that we have a guarantee against becoming a "crispy critter"? I think not.
In a similar vein, we find the people who determine their self-worth by their net worth. How ludicrous that is! Yes, it's nice to feel reasonably secure, but beyond a certain basic level, it begs the question, "How much is enough?" And why do so many people feel that more is always better? Are our self-esteem and our identity as people synonymous with the square footage of our homes?
It is extremely counter-cultural in a consumerist age to advocate "living small" when every message we receive from the dominant culture tells us that we should be living large and having more . . . of everything. I recently ran across the web site of a company that produces homes in range of 100 to 900 square feet. What a mind-blowing concept that is! It goes completely against the grain, I know. There's not a lot of space, but that means you don't need a lot of "stuff" to fill it.
I wonder how many of us could live in a space like that. For that matter, I wonder if I could. It would definitely require one to pare down one's possessions to a bare minimum, keeping and treasuring what's really important instead of having things simply for the sake of having them.
This approach flies in that face of the logic that says we need ever larger homes, which requires us to have ever more things to fill them. In fact, a few people I know have so much "stuff" that they have filled their homes and garages and have to rent additional storage places to keep their overflow.
How much is enough? Do people ever feel content with anything anymore? Or does everything simply taste like more? Are we capable of living lives with meaning and purpose beyond acquisition and accumulation? Or have we each become mere cogs in the economic machine?
Then they said to him, "John's disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink." Jesus said to them, "You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days."
I think it was Auntie Mame (I could be wrong) who once quipped, "Life's a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death." I would assert that she was right. In the midst of the tremendous abundance we have as a nation, so many seem to have so little. In fact, increasing numbers of people are finding it more and more difficult just to make ends meet.
The critics of Jesus observed that he and his disciples ate and drank whereas John's disciples fasted and prayed, virtually all the time; John's disciples followed a more ascetic practice. I have to wonder if maybe this observation is part of what defines us as Christians, indeed as people of faith across the board: little seems to become much when Spirit gets involved, not because of some miraculous magic but simply because Spirit softens the human heart enough to share what one has with others. That's a fundamentally different mode of being in the world, a totally unselfish approach to life.
Maybe another aspect of the observation made by Jesus' critics is also significant: For us life is a celebration. Why? Because God in Christ is always with us — even after Jesus' physical presence left the earth — and we are able to experience that living presence in ways that make a difference not only in our lives but also empower us to make a real difference in the lives of others. So, even when we DO fast, we are able to seek out and find the positive in that experience too!
Jesus said, "Again, the [realm] of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. "Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the [realm] of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his [or her] treasure what is new and what is old." —Matthew 13:47-52
Too often in the world today church groups seem to be behaving as if they were the arbiter of who is “in” and who is “out.” But that is not the role of the church or of individual Christians. Our job quite simply is to go fishing. In this passage from Matthew's Gospel, Jesus makes it quite clear that we are to cast a wide net, without consideration of who, where or how the “fish” might be caught. We do not get to choose to cast our net only for one particular kind of fish, but rather we are called to cast our net broadly. If the realm of God can be likened to a net cast into the open sea, then the question for us becomes, “How often to we try to make that open sea into an aquarium?” (i.e. into something we can control . . . or think we can.) Seriously, do we take it upon ourselves to determine who belongs or who doesn't or how they should interact? Or do we in some way try to domesticate the Gospel, refashioning it in our own image? Some denominations have entire books that delineate what people must or must not do. This parable clearly identifies that as a solely divine province. It is interesting, though, isn't it how some groups manage to portray that God dislikes the same people that they do?
Ultimately, human beings are sorted out, we're told, by God through the angels. The righteous receive joy beyond description and bask eternally in the divine radiance; the evil are cut off from God. But really this decision is not even in God's hands but in ours. After all, it is we who decide to do things that help others or harm them. It is we who decide to be good stewards of our environment or not. And it is we who decide to treasure the relationships God has placed in our lives or to regard people as disposable, as merely a means to an end. So, ultimately we have very little room to complain about our assigned “final destination.” We make our choice with every word we utter and every decision we make. The really interesting thing that happens as people begin to walk a spiritual path in a consistent way is this: When we begin to comprehend the vast power that we actually possess and the awesome responsibility to wield it well, we cease to covet God's role, and we begin to more fully appreciate our own. In effect, we stop trying to be God, and we get on with the business of just being us.
When we become learned and when we mature in our faith, we become like the scribe referred to by Jesus, one who brings out of the divine treasury both what is new and what is old. Throughout my ministry I have met all sorts of people. One area where I've seen this played out is in the arena of music. I have met people who were not able to accept any music in church that was written after Mozart when he was three. I have also known people who saw no value in any church music that was more than ten minutes old. Jesus makes the point that as scribes trained for the furtherance of God's realm we bring out of the divine treasure both the old and the new. Personally, I have grown to appreciate the entire range in both music and theology. And although I myself might occupy only one point on that spectrum, I have come to know and respect many people who are in vastly different points on that continuum. The wisdom of God it seems is always trying to broaden us, always trying to break us open, always beckoning us to see beyond our own issues and our own stuff. Faith is relational, and it is up to each of us to do the relating, with God and with each other.