This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Covenant Within Everything.



Jeremiah 31:31-34

I.
            The prophet Jeremiah had a difficult career.  He heard God’s Word coming to him, clearly requiring him to convey to his people a message that they did not want to hear.  Jeremiah prophesied destruction and calamity for his country.  And he was received as we might expect him to be.  While some people respected him as a prophet, he was also almost universally hated.
            All the things God intended for the Israelites had, by the time of Jeremiah, soured into corruption.  The people of God had repeatedly and chronically fallen into exactly the kind of nation God did not want them to become.  In the commandments of the Torah, God gives them a pattern and model for a good and blessed community, based on justice, equality, and divine law. 
            God shows them how not to be like Pharaoh.  But over the next 500 years they are repeatedly tempted and succumb to idolatry, leading to injustice.  So that Israel and Judah were barely distinguishable from any other nation.  They followed after kings, almost all of whom were bad.  They allowed the rich to get richer and ignored the cries of the poor.  And they tolerated and even enthusiastically embraced the worship of idols of other gods.
            All this was connected.  It was the falling into idolatry that led to a centralized political regime and an unjust economic order.  God does not demand that they reject other gods just out of blind jealousy.  Following these idols was part of a whole social system which allowed power and wealth to flow mainly to the elites who were already wealthy and powerful.  The nation of the Israelites had become little more than a second-rate imitation of the corrupt and unjust regime they had escaped from in Egypt, half a millennium before.
            And what Jeremiah predicted was simply the natural consequence of that.  In fact, God sends numerous prophets over this period to warn the people that, if you do this, if you fall into idolatry, you will inevitably create a political economy that is wildly unjust.  And this kind of imbalance cannot last for very long until the system adjusts and rebalances itself.  These episodes were experienced by the people as some kind of catastrophe, whether it be a military or natural disaster.
            God made the world to work in a certain beneficial way.  God gave the people a detailed manual of how to live peacefully in the world as God created it.  The people reject that law and insist on living according to their own religious, economic, social, and political ideas, thus creating a system that is out of synch with the world as God made it.  That kind of regime is unsustainable.  It is not based on reality, and it inevitably collapses.
            Almost everything Jeremiah prophesied about was bad.  He knew that the biggest collapse, reckoning, rebalancing, and consequence was about to happen.  He also knew that, by this time, things had gotten so corrupt that there was no avoiding the coming disaster.  They have lived by the sword of injustice and inequality, and like every nation that takes this path, they will die by injustice and inequality, in this case at the hands of the Babylonians.

II.
            In chapters 30-33 of his book, the disaster has already at least started to happen.  The Babylonian army has come.  Jerusalem has been destroyed.  The Temple built by Solomon is burned down.  And the cream of Judah’s society is in the process of being deported far away to Babylon.  The people have endured horrors beyond imagination: the slaughter of babies and children, crushing famine, indiscriminate murder, forced relocation, enslavement, rape, comprehensive destruction of property, and so on.  There is almost nothing as horrible as losing a war.
            Into this maelstrom of catastrophe and death, Jeremiah still gets words from the Lord.  These words are never a smug  “I-told-you-so.”  There is no satisfaction about the fact that everything Jeremiah has been warning them about has come to pass.  In fact, I hear Jeremiah saying what Jeff Goldbloom said in the movie, Jurassic Park, when his dire warnings came true: “I hate being right all the time.” 
            In these chapters, Jeremiah begins to talk about the other side of this mess.  After the disaster, after the world has regained some semblance of balance, after the people have endured the horrific consequences of their centuries of messing up, after all that has blown itself out, then the people will be able to experience God’s love again. 
            Because God’s love is deeper and stronger and more pervasive than the storms we bring down on ourselves on the surface, as awful as they are.  God still made the world, God still created creation and sustains it in equilibrium, God is still in charge and still has a plan and a will and a model for us to follow and participate in.  God’s will is to save, and to heal, and to liberate, and to redeem.  Nothing will ever keep that from ultimately happening.  It is the deepest meaning of all creation.  It is the grain of the universe and we only experience catastrophe when we insist on going against it.
            Throughout this season of Lent our readings from the Old Testament have all centered on the theme of covenant.  We saw God’s covenant with Noah, in which God promises never again to destroy the Earth, and requires that the people respect life.  There was the covenant with Abraham, where God establishes a particular family through which all the families of the Earth will be blessed.  And there is the covenant with Moses, when the people were liberated and the law was given.  They are all the same covenant, the same agreement or deal that God makes with people, just with different levels of specificity and detail.  God never revokes any aspect of the covenant.

III.
            Here, God talks about a “new covenant.”  This is not a new covenant in the sense that the old ones are now defunct or overridden.  A better translation might be that it is a “renewed covenant.”  The original covenant is given another layer of specificity and focus.  In this case the covenant will no longer be exterior to the people.  Now God’s Word is going to be placed within them.  That’s how this expression of the covenant will “not be like” the preceding one, which the people broke.  It will not be “out there” in nature, as if nature were separated from us.  It will not be “out there” as words on a page or even inscribed on stone.  Those media require interpretation.  People have shown themselves to be brilliant at keeping the letter of the law, but shattering its spirit.  We know how to hear what we want to hear from anything “out there.”
            But here it says that, “after those days,” “the days that are surely coming,” that is, in the fullness of time, outside of our temporal alienation, then and there the keeping of the law and the knowledge of God will be something humans know interiorly, in themselves, in their bodies and hearts.  No more will people be able to claim that they didn’t get the memo.  The memo will be shown to be written inside them.
            I think the law was always written inside of us.  All the versions of the covenant were true from the beginning of creation.  God reveals them to us in sequence according to what we are able to handle and absorb.  The law is written inside of us because the law is the basic principle of creation and life.  It is already in the matter, the atoms, molecules, cells, and sinews of our bodies.  We are born with the knowledge of God within us, even Calvin says this in the famous opening sentences of the Institutes.
            This new and final manifestation of the covenant will ratify the egalitarian and democratic nature of the covenant from the beginning.  Remember how Noah’s covenant included everyone, even animals?  Remember how the law given to Moses did not accept the practice of having some people more equal than others?  Here it is the same thing.  Because the law is written inside each person everyone shall be equal before the Lord.  “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.”  The least and the greatest are now equal where it counts, in the knowledge of God.  It is the ultimate leveling of society.  Everyone is welcome at the table.  Everyone has knowledge worth sharing.

IV.
            Jesus comes into the world to fulfill this passage.  He comes to unlock the knowledge of God that God has written on people’s hearts.  Did you ever notice how, when Jesus heals someone, he very often says to them, “Your faith has made you well”?  It is as if Jesus sees himself as the catalyst that activates something inside of people, something they already have.  He reveals and realizes their faith, their trust in God’s love and power to heal.  In his presence, people come into contact with their truest selves, and their truest selves are whole and healthy, blessed and good.
            Jesus comes to be the message here, where God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  For now, when God looks at us, God doesn’t see our sin.  God does not see our violence and selfishness.  God does not see our greed and corruption.  God looks at us and sees, deep within us… the One who is truly and fully human.  God sees the One whose humanity we share, who became flesh to dwell among us, who emptied himself to share our existence even to the point of sharing our death.  God sees Jesus Christ.  God sees the Son.  And in his name and for his sake, God forgives our iniquity and remembers our sin no more.
            In our gospel reading for today some foreigners ask to see Jesus.  And it’s significant that they’re foreigners, Greeks, because the standard view was that Gentiles were not included in the people of God and God has not written the law on their hearts.  But when two of them are led by the Spirit to come to Jesus, Jesus sees that God has put this knowledge within them as well.  And he takes it as a sign that his ministry has finally reached beyond the boundaries of the Jewish nation.  This ever-broadening inclusiveness was the purpose of God’s covenants from the beginning.
            So Jesus announces that, ”The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  And he goes on to describe his ministry:  “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.  Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”
            The Word, the covenant, the law that is written on our hearts is an open invitation.  And knowledge of the Lord means the realization that God’s love demands the giving up of our own agendas, our own hierarchies, our own exclusive theologies, our own bigotry even.  It is to set all that aside and enter into God’s healing forgiveness.
V.
            “The house of Israel” has a way of expanding.  It expands to embrace those who find within themselves God’s law, written on their hearts, written in the very substance of their bodies, of the flesh they share with the Lord.  It expands to embrace all who trust in Jesus and rely upon the love of God revealed in him.
            What is this renewed Israel?  What kind of community is Jesus forming, as he fulfills the passage among us?  How do we access and activate the law of God written on our hearts?  Where is the faith, the trust, within us that will make us well?  How are we going to be a gathering of disciples that understands the necessity to “die” like the grain of wheat in order to bear much fruit?
            “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” says Jesus.  It is not about our little individual life, but it is about all of life, it is about life itself, the power and direction God has placed within the creation from the beginning. It is no coincidence that the natural world so often reflects and expresses deep spiritual truths like resurrection.  That’s why Jesus uses so many illustrations from nature. 
            Jesus Christ is the Word of God by whom everything was created in the beginning.  He is the articulation of God’s love and he embedded that love, that transforming, redeeming, overcoming power, at the heart of all of life.
            The community he gathers and then sends out in mission into the world is one that knows the Lord.  It sees things from this wider perspective where all is included in the dance of God’s life.  From this perspective it’s all good.  There are no hierarchies, no one is least and no one is greatest.  From this perspective we can be a community of forgiveness where we don’t remember the sins of others, but cherish their blessedness, even if they don’t know it.
            We are to be a community of joyful obedience, trusting in Jesus and following him, so that in the end we may be with him, in God, with God’s law of love, justice, and peace written on our hearts.
+++++++

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Cost of the Truth.

            Interviewed by Rachel Maddow the other day, Sen. James Inhofe said the following about global warming: “I thought it must be true until I found out how much it cost.”  That is a direct quote.    
            Let’s analyze this remarkable statement.  At first, he thought the scientific consensus that global warming is happening and that humans have contributed to it, was true.  He trusted the science, witnesses, evidence, and testimony which is in massive and substantial agreement around the world on this question.  But he changed his mind when it was pointed out to him how much it will cost to address the global warming problem.  So he changes his view of what is true based on cost.  Therefore, for Mr. Inhofe, truth is founded, not on facts or evidence, but on cost.  If something costs too much, then it can’t be true.  And then, based on the cost, he chooses to find “scientists” more willing to tell him a “truth” he can afford.
            Let’s think of some other possible examples of this kind of reasoning.
·      --On December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt tells congress: “I thought it must be true when I was told that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  I have decided to find some reporters who can reassure me there was no attack.  Any talk of an attack must be a hoax.”
·      --“At first I thought it must be true when my doctor said I have cancer.  But when I found out how much it was going to cost, I decided it must not be true.  Now I will find a doctor who will give me a diagnosis I can afford.”·   
·      --Upon receiving the news that the planet is actually round, Christopher Columbus believes it and starts to plan a trip to India by sailing west.  However, when he discovers how much such an expedition will cost, he decides that, no, the earth must really be flat after all.
·      --“I thought it must be true when people told us our daughter had musical talent.  However, when I found out how much it was going to cost to get her good lessons and a decent violin, I decided she really doesn’t have any talent after all.”
·      --“I thought it must be true when the soil and water samples showed a high level of environmental toxins on my property.  However, when it was pointed out to me how much it was going to cost to clean it up, I decided they must be wrong.  Here, can I get you some tap water from my well?”  
            Not liking what science was telling him, Inhofe starts looking for evidence to back up what he has now decided, purely on the basis of cost, to be the truth.  The working definition of truth here, then, is that truth is whatever I decide I can afford.  Truth is whatever doesn’t cost me anything.  Truth is whatever it has to be to keep me prosperous.
            And these people call liberals relativists!
            Global warming is about as true a fact as science can come up with.  It’s not just a hypothesis, as it may have been 40 years ago when I first heard about it.  Now there is a boatload of empirical evidence to back it up, from receding glaciers, to acidifying oceans, to the bleaching of coral reefs, to measured increases in CO2 in the atmosphere, to more volatile, severe, and shifting weather patterns, to a gradual rise in sea levels, to changes in the dates when plants bloom and their ranges, and so on.  You don’t have to be an environmental scientist anymore; anyone who is paying attention knows that global warming is happening. 
            Plus you have to be unreasonably credulous and mired in denial to imagine that this increase in temperature is disconnected from the simultaneous increase in the atmospheric levels of CO2 and other known greenhouse gases that has happened since the industrial revolution, and the depletion of rain forests which absorb CO2.  That’s just a coincidence?  The fact that the level of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing has nothing to do with the fact that industry has been pumping prodigious amounts of carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere for 150 years?  The fact that the rate of warming almost exactly mirrors the rate of the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not relevant?  All this is somehow disproved by the emergence of a few snarky e-mails at the University of East Anglia?  (Where?)  People whose entire methodology is about openness and objectivity are supposed to have conspired to perpetrate this “hoax,” which would have required an astounding level of secrecy and malice throughout the entire scientific community, all so they could gain… nothing?      
            I am sure that there are dissenters among scientists about almost anything, and that the number of such dissenters increases when they are well-rewarded by moneyed interests.  It takes more gumption and courage than most people have to say no when a large multi-national corporation offers you a healthy sum to spin the interpretation of data in a way that benefits them.  It takes no depth of character to tell a culture what it wants to hear to allow it to continue in its comfortable ways. 
            Remember there have been scientists who have testified that both tobacco and radiation were actually good for you.  Plus there are always scientists whose parochial corner of the world gives them partial data, which may point in a direction different from a wider selection.  And there are scientists who find it appropriate to comment on areas of research they know nothing about.  And many scientists live in an academic environment that rewards novelty, and a media environment that rewards controversy; and both of these environments also have a great deal to lose if global warming is true, because of what it will cost their corporate masters.  What is amazing to me is that the consensus on this remains so solidly broad when there are such powerful forces militating against it.     
            But for Inhofe, the determiner of truth is cost.  That is truly breathtaking.
            For science the determiner of truth is empirical evidence.
            For Christians, however, the determiner of truth is the Word and Spirit of God.  I know global warming is happening, not so much because science and observation say so, but because God’s Word and Spirit say so.  Throughout the Scriptures we find a pattern: idolatry leads to injustice which leads to disaster.  The manifold idolatries of our economic regime, which is to say: the worship of profit, markets, and economic growth, and the turning of sins like greed, lust, and gluttony into “virtues,” have led to wall-to-wall degradation of the planet and people.  We see this injustice (as God defines justice) in the yawning inequalities between the wealthy and everyone else, the addiction to militarism, weaponry, and war, and a politics that is completely controlled by lobbyists for big money. 
            Whenever this happens, some kind of reckoning is inevitable.  The out-of-balance world will be put back in balance.  Invariably this comes in the form of political, economic, and/or natural disaster.  Pharaoh’s injustices attracted 10 plagues.  Israel’s injustices were always attracting conquest by stronger powers, not to mention droughts and plagues of locusts.  Babylon’s injustices were answered by its fall to the Persians.  Rome’s injustices eventually attracted the barbarian invaders.  (The Book of Revelation describes in nightmarish terms the ways all such empires implode and collapse.)
            Having raped and pillaged with impunity for centuries, having developed in capitalism the most comprehensive and thorough engine of death and destruction in history, one that has laid waste to large parts of the planet, and enslaved and/or murdered countless people, it is absurd to imagine that there would be no cost.  The systematic, institutionalized avarice and waste of industrial capitalism is the infection.  Global warming is the fever the planet is using to kill it.
            Inhofe is right.  The cost of addressing global warming in any significant way is enormous.  Our whole economic system will have to go.  Biblical prophecies of the rich being made poor will come true.  When the monster goes down, the parasites attached to the monster, like Mr. Inhofe, will go down too.  If for him this tremendous cost was what made him reject the truth of global warming, for those who follow the Word and Spirit of God it is the cost that proves that a reckoning like global warming is true. 
            If it’s not already too late, the fact is that if we don’t change our unjust systems, God will change them for us.  It won’t be pretty.  But in the end a new world, a new system, a new order, one based on God’s love, peace, justice, and equality, will be born.  That’s what we wait for and anticipate.  In the meantime we should gather in communities where there is no room for exploitation and profit, where life is respected and cherished, where violence is rejected, and there all who trust in the Lord have all things in common, distributing to all who have need.  (Acts 2:45)   

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Snake on a Stick.


Numbers 21:4-9

I.
            The Israelites are in the desert, having been liberated by God from slavery in Egypt.   At Mt Horeb, they have received the commandments in which God teaches them how to live together without falling into the injustice and oppression of Pharaoh’s tyranny.  And they continue to move through the wilderness, stopping for long periods at various oases. 
            They are headed for Canaan, but instead of directly invading, they are going to approach it in a roundabout way from the east.  So they leave their camp near Mt. Hor, and they get on a trade route called The Way to the Red Sea.  Their intention is to swing around the land of Edom.  “But the people became impatient on the way.”  Again.
            While they are out there, the people fall seven times into rebellion.  Seven times they question God’s wisdom and goodness in delivering them.  Seven times they complain about the accommodations.  Seven times they decide to wax nostalgic about how great things were back when they were slaves in Egypt.
            “At least then we had security,” they say.  “Not like now when we are always at risk, on the edge of dehydration or starvation, attack, or disease.” 
            Sometimes when we experience liberation we get floored by the new responsibilities and challenges that freedom brings.  This is especially true if we are still being formed in our freedom and our deliverance has not yet been fully realized.  Sometimes we get tired of our liberty.  And suddenly the days of our bondage start looking attractive in hindsight.  The people somehow wish they were back in Egypt because at least slavery was secure.  It was familiar.  They were used to it.  It is kind of like a recovering addict might recall how much fun it was to get wasted.  Or it’s like an ex-con who can’t handle fending for himself on the outside, who is so used to the prison routine that real existence in the world overwhelms him.  And he starts to miss his prison.  Perhaps you can think of some other experiences that were horrible at the time, but later on, in hindsight, look really pleasant.  (I can think of a few family vacations like that.)
            “The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’”  “This miserable food” refers to the miraculous manna God was sending them from heaven.  Manna was apparently very nutritious… but also numbingly boring to eat day after day after day.
            This is the last time the Israelites will have this tendency to complain and get homesick for Egypt.  After this business we will hear about with the snakes, they are cured of wanting to go back.  They will still fall into faithlessness from time to time.  But from now on it will be to other temptations than the falsely remembered delusions about the comforts they had in Egypt.

II.
            Now one of the symbols for the idolatrous regime in Egypt was a serpent or snake.  If you’ve ever seen pictures of Pharaoh’s crown, it was a golden snake, protecting the emperor’s head.  Snakes were considered holy in Egypt; they were associated with the ruling class of Pharaoh.  For the Israelites, the snake would have represented the oppression and temptations of Egypt.
            So when the people complain yet again about the inconveniences of the desert, and when they start missing Egypt, God seems to say, in effect, “Okay, you guys love snakeland-Egypt so much, perhaps you would benefit from a reminder about what snakes are really like.  Maybe you need a mnemonic device to help you recall your miserable existence under the snake-king Pharaoh.”
            So we are told that, “Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”  Snakes appear and wreak havoc among the people. 
            Now most English translations say “poisonous snakes”, but the Hebrew literally says “fiery serpents”.  In fact I was surprised to see that the actual word is “seraphim,” which are usually a species of angel.  It makes me kind of wonder if these were normal snakes, or something far worse.
            This infestation of snakes was horrible enough to shake some sense back into the people, who learn their lesson.  They remember that life under the snake regime in Egypt was not so good.  What they nostalgically recall as security, was really constant anxiety and stress.  The good food they remember wasn’t all that great either.  No doubt the Egyptians fed them the minimum they needed so they could keep working.
            Life as slaves of the Egyptians was like living in a viper pit where one wrong step could attract severe punishment.  It was a ruthless and brutal existence.  And, in facing these snakes in the wilderness, the Israelites realize they want no part of it ever again. 
            “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’  So Moses prayed for the people.”
            They are penitent, sorry, remorseful, and they confess their wrong.  So Moses intercedes for them with God.  In praying to take away the serpents or snakes, Moses is in effect exorcising them of these unrealistically rosy memories of Egypt.  The challenges and difficulties of freedom are vastly preferable to the oppression they endured under Pharoah.

III.
            God tells Moses the solution.  “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’”  Now, as a general cure for snakebite, this isn’t going to work.  If you are bitten by a copperhead, finding a picture of one in the encyclopedia and staring at it won’t cure you.
            So what is the point of this strange prescription?  How does looking on the image of a snake heal a person who has been bitten by a snake?  Why would God, who has just finished telling them not to make any graven images of anything, tell them to make an image of a snake?  Why does God say that if you meditate on this image for a while, a person will be healed of the effects of being bitten by a snake?
            The prescription is not a cure for ordinary snakebite.  It is a cure for rebellion and for their desire to return to oppression and slavery in Egypt.  That is where the people really need healing.  The more profound ailment here is not just literal snakebite.  It is this deluded, nostalgic wish to relinquish their freedom, and go back to where they were forced to exchange it, and even their very lives, for a meager subsistence on whatever the Egyptians deigned to let fall from their table.
            It is as if God is saying, “Whenever you feel snakebit by the urge to return to bondage and oppression, indeed, whenever you feel like maybe that system wasn’t so bad, and you want to start implementing elements of it among yourselves, look on this image of a snake and remember what it was really like.  Remember that they passed a law requiring you to kill all your infant boys.  Remember that they made your work harder at will.  Remember the ten plagues this corrupt and unjust system drew down upon itself.  Remember what happened to the army when they tried to follow you into the sea.  When you see this image of a snake, remember the burning, consuming horror of slavery.  And then, remembering, turn away from it and turn to the God who gives you freedom and gives you a law so you can live in peace and justice.”
            “So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”  Whenever the challenges and ambiguities of freedom start to seem not worth it, then the people were to look at the snake and remember what it was really like.  And then turn to God’s law, and live!

IV.
            In today’s gospel reading Jesus himself remembers this very story.  He says, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  At first glance it may be a mystery why Jesus chooses this analogy.  How exactly is looking at Jesus anything like looking at this bronze image of a snake?
            When Jesus talks about how he will be lifted up, he means when he is nailed to the cross.  When the soldiers drove the nails into his hands and his feet, the wooden cross was probably on the ground.  It was just easier that way.  But then the whole cross, with Jesus on it, had to be raised up to a vertical position.  It had to stand upright. 
            And Jesus knows that his lifting up will be like Moses’ lifting up the image of a snake in the sight of the people in at least three ways.
            First of all, there is no difference between Pharaoh and Caesar, represented by his agent, Pontius Pilate, the man who had Jesus crucified.  If the snake on a stick was to remind them of the horrors of one dictatorial, imperial regime, Jesus on the cross reminds them of another.  But the meaning is the same: those are godless regimes of pain, horror, injustice, exploitation, and fear.  God is saying, “Do not forget what that kind of regime is about.  Do not forget that if you give one person, one class, all the wealth and power, this is the inevitable result: terror, torture, and death.” In other words, don’t forget what you have been liberated from.
            Secondly, just as the people were supposed to look at the image of the snake and remember their own sinfulness and foolishness in murmuring, complaining, and fantasizing about going back to Egypt, now when we look at Jesus on the cross we remember that human selfishness, fear, ignorance, and greed put him there.  Our recapitulation of these sins, generation after generation, continues to bring suffering and death to our neighbors all over the world.  So don’t forget how easily you become part of the problem.
            And thirdly, the point of both of these being lifted up is healing, salvation, and life.  God heals the people and saves them by exhibiting victory over the power that had enslaved them.  In Christ’s cross, God saves by absorbing and taking on all of this sin and violence and suffering and fear and hatred… and death.  And he redeems it, and transforms it, and shows it to be the way to a new life beyond the power of death.

V.
            For Jesus’ lifting up does not stop on the cross.  He continues to be raised up in his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into heaven, and even in the way his followers lift him up by living according to his commandments and example, and teaching others to do the same.  He is always being lifted up.  And we who follow him are always being lifted up with him.
            The bronze snake on the pole became a sacred object for the Israelites.  They kept it and eventually placed it in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Centuries later, though, King Hezekiah had to destroy it because the people were worshiping it as an idol.  The people had made a symbol of their liberation from idolatry into an idol.
            The cross of Jesus can become an idol too.  When it stops reminding us of the horrors of injustice and slavery; when it no longer convicts people of their own sin in participating in injustice; and when the rulers co-opt it as a symbol of their own power or even a pointed warning of what happens to dissenters… then even the very cross of Jesus can become an idol, as when conquering armies bring slaughter and slavery to indigenous peoples “with the cross of Jesus going on before,” which has happened all-too-often in history.
            The cross of Jesus becomes for us the tree of life, the source of healing, salvation, redemption, and liberation when we keep in our hearts the next words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
            So the lifting up of Jesus on the cross is the sign of God’s love and salvation, not God’s condemnation.  Condemnation comes into the world, not from God, but as something people inflict upon themselves by failing to trust in God’s love and trusting instead in their own wisdom, power, and wealth.  And so, in following and subjecting themselves to the Pharaohs and Caesars of this world, they turn God’s good creation into a place of pain, exploitation, and death.  We do this and invent a snakebit existence characterized by treachery and poison.
            But in Jesus Christ, God comes into the world for life.  And in meditating at him on the cross we see, not God’s judgment, not God’s condemnation, but God’s great mercy and love in giving life to us and to the whole world. 
            What gets defeated on the cross is our hubris, violence, greed, self-centered short-sighted ignorance.  Liberated from bondage to these forces we are free to follow Jesus in lives of compassion and peace, justice and kindness, healing and blessing.  The cross is our pathway from darkness to light, from curse to blessing, from sickness to health, and from death to life.

           


Monday, March 12, 2012

Ten Commandments for the 99%.


Exodus 20:1-17

I.
            In the book of Exodus, the children of Israel escape from slavery in Egypt.  God intends to make of them a new nation, even a new kind of nation.  That nation is going to be the opposite, the alternative, to the kind of regime under which they had suffered so much in Egypt.
            God knows, and the Bible says as much repeatedly, that if people are left alone and free to do as they please, what invariably happens is that the strong, the wealthy, the lucky, the attractive, the healthy, and the smart gradually rise to the top.  They use their endowments to get increasingly rich and powerful.  Society starts developing different strata of classes.  Eventually you end up with a regime like that of Egypt: Pharaoh and his lackeys at the top controlling all the wealth and power, and at the bottom a class of oppressed slaves who do all the work. 
            This system works very well for the people at the top, and they see nothing wrong with it.  They will even convince themselves that the slaves have a good life because of their beneficence.  But for the people at the bottom it is a comprehensive disaster.  And the Bible is always written by and for the people at the bottom.
            God wants to prevent the Israelites from becoming anything like the Egyptians.  In other words, the Israelites did not escape from Egypt so they could set up their own oppressive regime like Pharaoh’s.  No.  The Israelites have experienced the horror of slavery, and they don’t want that to happen to themselves or anyone else.  God will instruct them how to live together in a completely different and contrary way. 
            They will not be adopting and implementing the corrupt and violent ways of Pharaoh.  Instead, God will give them a divine law to govern their society.  Even wealthy and powerful people will be subject to this law.  The purpose of this law is to prevent wealth and power from accumulating among only a few.  This law makes everyone equally subject to God.
            The heart of this law is the Ten Commandments.  God gives the people the Ten Commandments with the purpose of preventing them from becoming an oppressive regime of wide social and economic inequalities like Egypt.  The Ten Commandments give us a society of equality, mutual accountability, justice, and a common subjection to a higher power: God.
            Every single one of these commandments is a brake on the power of the powerful.  Each one rejects some specific tactic that people like Pharaoh use to consolidate, implement, and increase their own power.  Each one intentionally directs our attention away from the powerful, and turns it to God who is above all.  The Ten Commandments are a regulatory regime designed to inject balance into society by bringing down the powerful and lifting up the weak.

II.
            Like the entire Bible, the Ten Commandments are not given primarily to individuals, but to a community.  When Moses comes down from the mountain he doesn’t give every individual their own Xeroxed copy to go home with and study on their own.  No.  He reads the Commandments aloud to the whole assembly.  These are not just private or personal moral choices.  The Commandments represent the shape of a whole community’s life.  They are addressed to the nation of the Israelites and by extension to God’s people generally.
            The first three commandments have to do with our relationship to God and the prohibition of idolatry.  Injustice and inequality are always based on idolatry.  Idolatry is the lifting up of some created thing and worshiping and serving it as divine.  Religious idolatry has always gone hand in hand with the social idolatry in which some people are lifted up as special, divine, and worthy of obedience, some people are the source of ultimate authority, some people are entitled to have all the wealth and power.  Hence the social expression of idolatry is injustice: one class oppressing another.
            The prohibition of idolatry means that God is above all this, and everything down here is of relatively equal value compared to God.  The difference between gold and basalt is negligible, compared to God.  So is the difference between Bill Gates and some guy living in a homeless shelter.  The Commandments have us focus on God in order to relativize and place on the same level every earthly thing and person.
            Pharaoh claimed to be a god.  Medieval kings claimed to rule by divine right.  A few months ago, the head of Citibank actually said he thinks he’s an instrument of God’s will!  To this hubris and idolatry the Commandments categorically say, “Absolutely not.  From God’s point of view none of us is any better than any other.”  We are all under God.  We are all subject to God.
            This means that we are all accountable to God and required to keep this law.  No one is above it.  In this life the same rules apply to all.  And whenever you get the wealthy and powerful making one set of laws for themselves, and a different set of laws for everyone else, then you have idolatry and injustice.  
            Whenever, for instance, an institution becomes “too big to fail” and has thus immunized itself from any kind of accountability, and can even be rewarded for wrongdoing… that would be a form of idolatry souring into injustice.
            So, for instance, the main way we take the Lord’s name in vain is not when we impulsively curse when we hit our thumb with a hammer.  I’m pretty sure God overlooks that.  It is when the powerful and wealthy have made themselves more important, more essential, more authoritative, and more free than anyone else.  Because then they are usurping the role, and sometimes even the name, of God to themselves.  They have become little Pharaohs.

III.
            The hinge of the Commandments is number four: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”  This is where the Commandments shift from dealing with our relationship to God, and turn to addressing our relationships with each other.
            Left to their own devices, the Pharaohs of the world will demand constant work and production from their servants.  This is one of the ways they make themselves into gods.  They will insist that they are the lords of your time, which means they own you.  Slaves worked seven days a week.  There are many, many workers in the world today who are compelled to do the same.  Indeed, some of us force ourselves to work this much, so thoroughly have we bought into the ideology and idolatry of work and consumerism.
            The Sabbath is important because it removes one day in seven from the demands of production.  The Sabbath principle is extended to include the Sabbath Year, every seventh year, and eventually the Jubilee Year, every 50th year or so, in Leviticus 25.  In the Jubilee, all debts are cancelled and all property reverts to its original families of ownership.  There is no practice in which we see more clearly the intent of the Sabbath to undermine wealth inequality than the Jubilee.  The Jubilee is a direct assault on the excessive acquisition of wealth and on unregulated economic growth.
            The Ten Commandments appear in two places in the Bible; here, and in Deuteronomy 5.  The rationale for the Sabbath commandment is different in each.  Here, the people are to keep the Sabbath in imitation of God’s creative work.  They rest on the seventh day because God rested on the seventh day of creation.  But in Deuteronomy the reason is because when they were in Egypt there were no days off.  They rest on the Sabbath now as a way of rejecting Pharaoh’s ruthless seven-day work-week.
            On the Sabbath, freedom from work is for everyone.  From the highest people in society to the lowest, to aliens and foreigners, to even animals!  Everybody gets a break.  The Sabbath insists that the main reason for human existence is not economic growth.  It is not working and producing and consuming and creating wealth.  But, as the Westminster catechism says, “the chief end of human life is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.”
            Oppressive leaders and institutions hate the Sabbath because they idolatrously imagine themselves to be god.  And the Sabbath represents what is to them a theft of one-seventh, that’s over 14%, of the wealth that other people’s work would have given them.  The stockholders would never stand for it.

IV.
            The final six commandments are about our relationships with each other.  Basically they prohibit disrespect to parents, as well as murder, adultery, theft, perjury, and even envy.  Every one of these commandments responds to tactics used by the powerful in society against the powerless.  These sins all indicate an imbalance of power that is exploited by the strong against the weak.
            All of these commandments have to be seen within the larger framework of the first three commandments, which require a single-minded loyalty to God.  Once we affirm that God is the real power, the true judge, the ultimate authority, the One whom we must believe and obey in life and in death, then all of our earthly, horizontal relationships with others are aspects and reflections of this primary allegiance.  All our uses of power are usurpations of God’s power.  “Do not judge,” says Jesus, “So that you will not be judged.” 
            In our interpersonal relationships as well as in our economic and political systems, God says do not be like Pharaoh.  Do not make yourself out to be a parent in the sense of claiming for yourself authority over others.  Do not put yourself in the place of God over another. 
            Jesus says: “Call no one your father, for you all have one Father, who is in heaven.”  One Father, one Creator, one Authority, one Lord: God.  Not any human person, except the One who became flesh to dwell among us, full of grace and truth: Jesus. 
            You are not the lord of someone else’s life; only God is.  Murder takes God’s authority, making yourself the arbiter of another’s life and death.  Adultery makes your agenda the most important thing in a relationship, even in other people’s relationships.  Stealing makes yourself the lord of someone else’s property, property that ultimately belongs not to any individual but to God.  Lying makes yourself the lord of truth, as if your story was more accurate and important than God’s story.  And envy is a rejection of what you have, it is a dissatisfaction which indicates lack of faith in God, and leads to murder, adultery, stealing, and lying.
            All these were useful tools of Pharaoh in oppressing people.  Don’t do them, says God.  Don’t do them to each other.  And certainly don’t invent for yourselves political and economic systems that do them as a matter of policy.

V.
            In our gospel reading for today, Jesus goes to the Temple to celebrate Passover, the great holiday of the Israelites’ liberation from Pharaoh’s bondage.  And what he finds is an establishment that has embraced the values and practices of Pharaoh.  “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Jesus shouts, his voice echoing off the stone walls, resounding over the sounds of bleating animals and angry, yelling people.  Don’t turn God’s house into a marketplace.
            Jesus knows that the marketplace is where the “haves” tend to rule, and the strong often take advantage of the weak.  The marketplace can be where people and animals and goods are reduced to commodities that have a price tag.  Jesus knows that the values that frequently rule in the marketplace are those of Pharaoh, not God who gives all we need to us for free.  And this business in the Temple was practically offering God’s salvation for sale, not unlike the selling of Papal Indulgences in the 16th century, against which the Reformation was a rebellion.
            It could even be argued that Jesus’ injunction to “stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” provides a rationale for the Ten Commandments.  If creation belongs to God, and may be termed God’s “house” – and the Temple was explicitly a representation of God’s creation – then the Commandments are about not following Pharaoh’s road in making the world a marketplace where the strong and rich have their way, taking things God gives for free and selling them to others at a profit.  
            This we know,” said Chief Seattle, “The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth.”  And the Earth belongs to God, according to Psalm 24.  The Ten Commandments are a comprehensive guide to living together in peace on God’s holy planet.  They call upon us to live without hierarchies, without superiors and subordinates, without violence, without fear and selfishness, in humility and sharing, in generosity and grace, without hoarding, without inequality, without greed, without winners and losers.
            If we place God first in our lives, we will see each other as equals.  If we live in obedience to God’s law, reflected and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, we will avoid a lot of self-inflicted misery.  And we will find ourselves dwelling in a community that anticipates God’s Kingdom.
            This is unlikely to happen in the larger world.  But it has to happen first here.  Among us.  In God’s church, the community of disciples of Jesus, the Word of God.  If it doesn’t happen here, it won’t happen anywhere, and the church has no reason to exist.  But if it does happen here, among us, then it can start to happen out there in the world as well.  
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