Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Do not do as I do

We don’t have to look far to see the hypocrisy of “Do as I say not as I do,” play out in today’s geopolitics and our American culture. We are in the mind-numbing throes of the silly season in which the never-ending barrage of political ads are quick to point out the lies and hypocrisies of the “other party,” and political advisors “scrounge” for any and all opportunities to shade the truth a bit to capture the minds of those who want to validate their pre-conceived opinions.

Thank God we don’t see this hypocrisy in our churches and synagogues! Really…just look around. Protestants and Catholics criticize each other and, in their own way, attempt to keep their clubs “private” by maintaining “status quo.” Ironically, they behave more like the church from which they believed themselves to be so different. Both seem willing to listen to Pope Francis, up to a point that is, and acknowledge the least of our brethren who are left out and disenfranchised. But… let’s not get crazy now… and dare admit them as part of their communities. We have rules, you know. Yet perhaps the most pernicious of all rules are not those committed to paper and by laws but those that reside in our minds and hearts. These consume us from the inside out both on personal and institutional levels.

When you look at the way Jesus criticized some of the Jewish leaders of his day (Matthew 23:1-12), it seems to me that the common thread was one of ego. Matthew pointed out their hypocrisy, as they used their religion to massage their own egos to make themselves feel important. The truth of the matter is that religion has always been incredibly susceptible to being corrupted into just another way for us to feed the unhealthy pride that lurks in the corners of our insecurities. You know, that righteous pride that tempts us to try to make ourselves look more moral or better than others. Let’s face it you were all brainwashed. Just who is the “you?”

When we indulge the temptation to “exalt ourselves” at the expense of others, aren’t we really only reinforcing our own insecurities? If my sense of worth depends on my being better than you, then I will be searching for or manufacturing areas in which I am superior. Inevitably we will have to shade the truth and lie to ourselves and now the malignancy that takes up residence in our hearts and minds, metastasizes and becomes a vicious circle of security, pride, ego.

The solution to that kind of religious egotism that is manifest in the unhealthy need to “exalt ourselves” over others is surprisingly simple. We must just let go of our hurt and not just pay lip service to letting go and stop feeding those insecurities. And the way to let go of the hurt is to embrace the central truth of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed: God loves and accepts us—unconditionally. There is nothing we can do to earn it. Then who are we to determine who is more lovable or acceptable? When we look at others that way, instead of trying to “exalt ourselves” above others, we can care about them enough to serve them.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Power of Love Vs. The Love of Power

It was only natural for Jesus to be prepared for the question, after all the Pharisees and Jewish elite were lying in wait and trying to trap him. Hadn’t he already been rightfully accused of breaking Jewish laws? He preached and healed on the Sabbath; he defied the purity and dietary codes; consorted with women, some of questionable reputation, in public and was pretty free with his use of God’s good name. The Pharisees accused him of blasphemy when he forgave sins. So the deck was already stacked against him when he was put to the test as to which is the greatest commandment. I have to think that Jesus was well prepared for the answer.

In (Matthew 22:34-46) he summed up the first five commandments in one great commandment, “love God with all your heart, soul and mind.” And covered the next 5 in the second, “love your neighbor as yourself.” In a way, Jesus is saying the Ten Commandments, (the Decalogue), is one commandment and he is saying that no rule, no piety, no custom, no tradition, is more important than loving God completely. God is love and is omnipresent and cannot be contained by and in any man made law, culture or tradition.

While Jesus offers up the two Greatest Commandments as his answer, he is not contravening Moses or the prophets. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Hebrews 1: 1-2, that in the past God spoke through our forefathers through the prophets at many times in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. How is it different?  Jesus preached the power of love as opposed to the love of power. Rules at a specific time and place may serve a purpose, rules for rules sake are a means to exert control and satisfy the agendas of the so-called ruling class.
Progression is not the same as contradiction. An artist begins by making   a sketch and applies his tools to the canvas bit by bit until the whole picture (apparent to his mind from the start, though not to the beholder’s) finally emerges. And parents teach children rule upon rule until they are capable of making decisions for themselves. In time, as children mature into adults, they are capable of understanding why these rules were important in their developmental years, when in fact, their brain was not fully developed. Wisdom emerges through experience, and the mature mind is capable of making those rules a part of its being and “moral compass.” They are internalized and become who we are.
“And yet the arguments over whose Law is greatest become mired in the deep darkness of struggles for power.  At the Vatican, the Pope himself has been denied, by his own Cardinals, the tender words of mercy he sought to extend, on behalf of his church, to those who have been made scapegoats in the righteousness games that too many clergy – and laity – piously play.  If you are simply dispensing information, (and Jesus said to the lawyer questioning him, and the Pope is saying to the College of Cardinals) your days are numbered.  (Laws, history, learning as a product) can be codified, recorded, and dispensed.  A seedbed is a different matter.  It is baptism into a mystery – an experience of God – a relationship with God and those who have been touched by the Divine.  Mystery is not something that is simply learned, it is absorbed and the few that choose to offer that gift have a future.  For those that don’t offer that mystery, there isn’t one.”  (Frederick Schmidt, Patheos on October 17, 2014.).
“The Bible begins with the creation of the universe and ends with the re-creation of the universe. It goes on at its beginning to describe the fall of man in a garden and paradise lost; it concludes in a garden with paradise regained…For at last God’s kingdom has been consummated. All creation is subject to him. And the blessings of our final inheritance will be due to his perfect rule.” (John Stott, Understanding the Bible, p 152)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

So, what is your answer, Yes or No?


In his parables Jesus invites the listener to be part of the story by relating explicit scenarios that were relevant to the listener’s world. These parables also serve as implicit invitations for them to see something else beneath in the narrative. From time to time Jesus would insert a clever device or provocative form of speech, i.e., an aphorism, in which a specific piece or element would prompt the imagination and become an indelible memory. And so it is in this week’s Gospel (Matthew 22: 15-22). Jesus uses the coin to illustrate and memorialize in the mind’s eye of the listener his answer which typical of Jesus, was in the form of a question and asks, “what do you think?”

Over the centuries, many Christians have based their attitudes toward government on this passage. Some have thought that Jesus' statement establishes two separate realms, Caesar's and God's. This interpretation strikes many Americans as obviously correct, given our separation of church and state. In this historical context, Jesus’ words had little to do with taxation or political authority in general. Jews in the first century paid several taxes: tithes to the Temple, customs taxes, and taxes on land. Yet, the people were not questioning taxes but rather their question  specifically was concerned with whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar who as the emperor of Rome and the son of Augustus, represented the head of an imperial domination system, and was purported to be the “son of God.” In essence, even possessing the coin was tantamount to idolatry and a violation of the commandments.

The President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, David Lose writes that three of the most powerful words in the world besides "I love you," are "I don't know." To many of us in our culture, these words seem like an admission of failure. It’s as if our admitting any kind of ignorance somehow undermines the validity of our education and degrees. How could that be? But just maybe we don’t know and just maybe telling another person that we don't know provides them an invitation to share what they know or, sometimes even better, to join you in figuring something out. This becomes especially true when you pair those three words with four others: "What do you think?" Isn’t that what we do in our Jesus Way Bible Study?
So back to the question put to Jesus in our Gospel. It was a trap. Either way a yes or no answer would have gotten Jesus in trouble. "Yes" would have discredited him with those who found the imperial domination system unacceptable. "No" would have made him subject to arrest for sedition. So is Jesus saying that we owe nothing to a false God like Caesar and should reserve all things for the true God? Or is he inviting us to recognize that while we may owe the emperors of this world some things like taxes, we owe God other things, like our whole selves? Perhaps Jesus is inviting us to put aside our attachments and allegiance to the material and temporal things of this world that our coins can buy and invite our ultimate devotion to God?  I don't know. What do you think? Or is Jesus advocating a retreat from the economic and political dimensions of our lives and helping us recognize that all of these things are part of God's “divine economy?” As such, is Jesus inviting us to set the stage for our transformation…by putting on the mind of God in all of our decisions in what we do, buy, and how we spend our time? The whole world is God's including us. What do you think?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen

 A few months back we received a hand delivered rather large 8 x 10 envelope by a private messenger service. Not recognizing the return address I was at first unwilling to accept the envelope, but noting the considerable expense of the courier service, I decided to accept it.
To our amazement, it was a strikingly beautiful embossed invitation to a private wedding ceremony along with an accompanying letter describing specific instructions as to travel and lodging. The invitation was to the wedding of the year between George Clooney, the “world’s most eligible bachelor” and forgive me, People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” and the strikingly beautiful Amal Alamuddin, a noted civil rights attorney educated at Oxford and NYU Law School and former clerk for Justice Sotomayor.
Why us? I met George with his father an old friend, many years back when he was an unknown aspiring young actor. (Frankly, I was a much bigger fan of his late aunt, Rosemary Clooney, the popular singer of the 50’s.) So why us?
The accompanying letter described our pre-arranged all expenses paid travel to and lodging in a private villa in Venice. We were to provide our passport information to an intermediary who had scheduled our travel via private jet leaving and returning to Teterboro airport at a specific date and time. Information as to the wedding was private and confidential and asked that we sign a security bond insuring our willingness to comply. No other communications were required or frankly permitted.
Needless to say, we were excited at first but then began to wonder how we would fit in. While we had the requisite formal clothes required for the wedding, we began to wonder how we would interact with this elite jet set of  luminaries, likely to be in attendance? While I am usually not at a loss for words and can talk to anyone, I am not a movie goer and don’t follow or really care or know about any of the new Hollywood stars. In fact, while Clooney seems to be a nice enough guy and somewhat of a philanthropist, I’ve only seen one of George’s movies on TV. And while we really love Venice, we realized we would have little time to ourselves and be somewhat confined to our designated luxurious villa with lots of strangers for 3 days. Having come up with enough reasons (or excuses), we decided that it wasn’t worth it, so we regrettably declined the invitation, although we signed the confidentiality agreement.
What would you have done if you were in our shoes? Most of our family and friends thought we were nuts for declining this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Our readings in (Matthew 22: 1-14) this week speaks of a different wedding. Jesus tells of a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son and invited everyone to attend. But they all declined. Hurt and insulted he sent his servants into the streets to collect anyone and everyone and see to it that they came to the wedding. One attendee came without being properly groomed or dressed and was thrown out.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus makes curious comments about the marriage of heaven and earth and our being prepared for the event.
 OK our invitation to George Clooney’s wedding was fictitious; it was made up and, not unlike Jesus’ parables, intended to bring the question home. What would I really do? What would you do?