Paying Cash

Matthew 25.1-12

Years ago I heard a memorable sermon on this text. The preacher was so angry at the women who had the oil and did not share it that he flat out preached against the text, condemning the women for being cruel. He preached instead about sharing and God’s economy of generosity.

On the face of it, his concerns make sense because the women are not Being Nice (which our parents and school teachers have assured us is the Essence of Christianity). And yet, deciding that “the women are being bad because they’re not sharing and God wants us to share” seems to be pretty much the opposite of the point in this parable. So what happens if we start with the assumption that the women might actually be right?

To even get to that assumption, we have to realize that this text is part of the apocalypse in Matthew. This chapter has three stories about the end times, three warnings about how time is short and that judgment is unexpected, therefore “keep awake!” The stories are intended to be warnings, they are supposed to be about judgment and if judgment is going to actually judge then it is going to have to say “no” as well as “yes.” The Greek word for judgment/making a decision is krisis which we took straight into English as “crisis.” The word for ‘a judge/person who decides’ is krites from which we get “critic.” These are not happy words of fluffy bunny hope, they are words of warning and part of a call to faithfulness in the face of our own urge to avoid hard work.

Even more, they are calls for us to live wisely and that is the second place where people trip when confronted with this text. “There were ten women” we are told, “five were wise (sophoi) and five were foolish (moroi).” We’ve taken this as a charge to “be smart” instead of “stupid” (the Greek word moroi is the root of “moron” after all, so those five must have been hopelessly dumb right?) But doesn’t that just make the smart women extra mean? They had foresight and wisdom, they were smarter than ‘those poor dumb girls’ and yet they still wouldn’t help.

By making that assumption, we have crossed another line because sophoi means “wise/thought-full” not “smart” while moroi are “unthinking/thought-less” not “dumb.” There is often little real difference between the two from the outside, but the fundamental principle is very different. You see, a wise person is someone who is using their ability to think to the fullest. The raw power of their mind is not the question, at issue is the insight they bring to their life. Insight, wisdom, thinking-ness can be brought to bear by anyone. It is the product of a life well lived and deeply reflected upon.

It is this reflection that is key. If we reflect upon and use our life experience to the last molecule, to the very edge, we gain wisdom. If we work with what we have been given and use it until the covers fall off, we are the sophoi. If on the other hand, we approach our life experience with our heads down and a really good raincoat to keep out the bad stuff, we can get through the whole thing pretty unscathed and go back to watching TV with our minds scarcely more activated than your average sheep.

If the notion of ovine contentment does not appeal however, we are going to have to work. This work cannot be done by proxy (because it’s our life and no one else’s) nor can we simply coast on our parents’ insight (because they are not us and lives are not interchangeable). We’re going to have to do something that will cost us. To use the saying, we are going to have to “pay cash for it.”

Paying cash is not something we like to do. Actually giving markers of value to someone else feels like a loss and so we avoid doing so. We whip out our card and then get it back with a little receipt we can ignore until we get the monthly bill. Paying with credit is much less painful and much more popular (this is why cruise ships give you a shipboard charge card instead of letting you pay with cash. You pay more with a card and thus they get more money from you).

But paying cash is pretty much the marker of real life. The saying is even used for situations when money is not the currency in which we pay. In military situations people talk about “paying cash for the objective” and it has nothing to do with putting money in someone else’s hand. The bill is paid in blood and bodies, in broken hearts and damaged spirits. But when that bill is paid, we paid it by God and its ours.

This insight from the world helps us understand something about the seemingly selfish young ladies. What if the oil they didn’t share was unshared because they couldn’t share it. What if the oil was the product of spiritual experience of lived faith? What if they didn’t share because they had already “paid cash” for it and it was therefore part of who they were spiritually? They could no more share this than they could share the memory of a summer day or a perfect kiss.

The point of these stories in Matthew 25 is that time is short and life has to be lived fully, completely, and deeply. This story reminds us that living means living our life to the very ragged edges and that this will mean paying cash to gain the insights and wisdom of being spiritually alive (sophoi) as compared to wallowing in ovine contentment (moroi). This is not fair, it is not nice, and by God it looks downright mean from the perspective of Precious Moments Jesus, Fluffy Bunny Church.

But Fluffy Bunny Church is for children, unformed and uninformed beings who do not even understand that there could be more “further up and further in.” And in this season of the year Jesus himself challenges us to dig deeper, to go further, and to become more fully the living beings we were made to be.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What Kind of Love

1 John 3.1-3

There are lots of kinds of love in this world. It can be simple, complex, confused, angry, and a whole lot of other kinds may cross our heart and our life. Thus the question raised by 1 John is worth asking “what kind of love exactly has the Father given us?”

John’s writing is very dense so the first part of reading this text requires exploring the layers. To do this, the following is a personal translation with a good bit of expansion.

See, behold, pay attention, look closely! (The Greek word means all of those things). Look at the kind, the type, the variety of love God has given to us. It’s the kind of love that results in us being called “children of God” and not just being called children but actually being children of God. Beloved, we are already God’s children even though we do not know exactly what that means. We do however, know that when Jesus is revealed in all his fullness, we will be like Him because we will see Him just as He is. And all the ones having this hope in (upon) Him purify (dedicate) themselves just as he is pure (dedicated).

The kind/type/variety of love God has given results in our being called children and not just called but actually being children. To understand this idea we need to take a side trip into the German idiom that developed around the Taufschein. It is a baptismal (Taufe) certificate (Schein) which is issued to German children. People who are baptized and then do nothing toward developing their life of faith are thus called Taufscheinliche “baptismal certificate-ly” people. These are the sort of people (one could argue) that have the name of Christian but lack the being. To go back to the text, they are called Children of God but are (arguabley) not actually be-ing Children of God.

But in our case, not only are we called children of God, we actually are children. While it is true that we don’t yet understand exactly what this means in our life and our living (“it has not yet been revealed”) we do know that when we truly see God in depth and truth, oiur seeing will change our be-ing so that the very nature of who we are will be transformed to be like Jesus. The Greek is even more emphatic. In our seeing, we will be like (homoi) Jesus in our be-ing. Our seeing will change our being to be like God.

This is a pretty significant premise, a powerful hope to have. The hope that when God finally shows us the very heart of God, we will be transformed by the vision to be like God. This may skate along some uncomfortable terrain for people, but it is actually part of our theology. The concept is called theosis the notion that our life of faith is leading us into union with God. The idea is even biblical, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere.

And here we see it again, the hope that, in spite of our un-knowing and failed understanding, God will reveal His heart to us and in that revelation, we will grow/change/become like that very heart. In a real sense, this is out at the edges of our understanding and words really do fail us to explain and understand what is being said. Knowing that this is unknowable, let’s go on with the text.

The people having this hope (yes, it is a present tense participle, not a static ‘you’ve got it in your pocket’ thing) purify themselves. The word  for ‘purify’ is agnizdo and much inner agony and other inflicted anger has come from it. We picture ‘purity” as an unchangeable, static nature, a perfection toward which imperfect humans strive by getting rid of the “impure.”

This certainly has been the approach of one kind of spiritual practice: the creation of a long list of “don’t do this either” to add on to the Big Ten. Practitioners of this art picture themselves a bit like Drill Instructors charged with screaming us into perfection. With an earnest heart and longing for God they will seek to beat us into heaven with a club. Applied with a merciful hand, this can be just the rolled up newspaper to the nose we need. Applied without mercy, it is the cry of the Holy Warrior seeking a New Crusade with the battle cry “Deus Vult!

If we allow ourselves to get stuck on “pure” and “purify” as the task of beating the evil out of ourselves (and, “because we love them,” out of other people) we can miss something else in the text. You see, agnizdo also means “dedicate” and “give for the sake of” which means that we can also read this as “those having this hope in [Jesus] dedicate themselves/give up the self, just as He dedicated himself/gave himself up.” Now that is a rather different version of “purify.”

This is the notion that what we are doing in our spiritual life is this: having our hope in Jesus, we dedicate ourselves to becoming the Children of God we are already. Instead of focusing on what we want to avoid, the impurity of it all, we focus on becoming open to what Jesus is already doing in us. We look to see and to know Him more completely, to focusing on what we can reach toward instead of what we must avoid. (For those of you who are really up on your spiritual practice vocabulary, this is part of the Via Positiva the spiritual path of affirmation in contrast to the Via Negativa the path of denial).

Our “purity” then is something of a measure of how open our hands (and hearts) are to recieve what God might put in them. A way to consider how completely we give our lives over into the care of God, how dedicated we are to God flowing through us instead of our own will to power. In this openness we can truly see what kind of love God has for us.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Semper Reformanda

Reformation Sunday

Here it is at last, the 500th Sunday of the Reformation. The traditional Reformation Sunday is a celebration of history and victory in the theological controversies of the 16th century. While long on history and panoply, it tends to end up as”church under glass” a celebration of the trophy case, the church we were.

The real slick folks who have done their memorization will whip out the old slogan ecclesia semper reformanda est “the church is always reforming” and talk about the ongoing re-formation of the theological world into Luther’s image. While they talk about its ongoing nature, it’s clear that, to their mind, the reforming part has been completed. Except of course, that it hasn’t.

The semper really means exactly what it says, the church is always re-forming, always changing because we are always changing. But wait you say, isn’t God eternal and unchanging, “the same yesterday, today, and forever?” Yes, what’s your point?

The culture we live in changes, the people we are change, the things that worry us change but none of that has anything to do with changing Jesus. The church is the Body of Christ and we are united in him but our changing doesn’t change him.

In fact, to borrow an idea from object oriented programming (OOP), the church is an instantiation of the Jesus object. Instantiation doesn’t change the object (in fact, that’s part of the point of OOP) but the instantiation does inherit qualities from its environment which it combines with the object so two instantiations will both be valid but are unlikely to look the same.

Given this reality, that the church is a changing instantiation of an eternal being, how are we supposed to approach Reformation celebrations?

The first and most important part is to ditch the church under glass thing. Yes, the arguments of the 16th century were pretty earth shaking but if we keep the insights gained through those arguments in a trophy case, we’re never going to live and grow from them. For that matter, we all know what happens when we put living things under glass.

Our best hope is to get a terrarium to form, a quaint little wildland full of ferns, moss, and other small plants. They can work, they can live for a long period, but they are stunted things that can only grow so large. The worst case of course is that the whole thing dies.

Neither of these options seem all that appealing. So church under glass is just not going to work. What will work however is asking ourselves about the goals of the people then: their impulse to faithfulness, their longing for God and the way this drove them deeper into becoming people of God.

The specific arguments of the time are interesting in that they help us understand the subtlties of church argument and give us compassion for our own fights. For that matter, Luther’s own approach to handling change in the church is pretty amazing and worthy of a re-reading even today. He says, in essence, that telling the truth, preaching it unfailingly, will convert hearts and that converted hearts are the strength for change. This is a massive contrast to our (very modern) impulse toward torches and pitchforks.

If however we are bent on studying the past in order to refight old wars, as if historic victory declares us righteous forever, we should read a bit more history first to see how that war turned out. We should also note the way our legacy of triumphant anti-catholicism has played out over the years. We may even want to consider how our enthusiastic division of the Body of Christ is pretty much anti-Christ.

As a call to individual and corporate faithfulness, the reformation is a powerful reminder that “our princess is in another castle” and therefore that we can go “further up and further in” to life. As a powerful reminder that God is still actively interested in the shape of our lives, it is a glorious invitation to our asking  “what work of peace can I do today?” As an invitation to celebrate that “we won that game against you a long time ago” however, it’s just pointless. The past informs the present but the present, if it is to be a living present and not a frozen diorama, cannot simply repeat the past unless we really think that “doing the same thing over and over again” is a good idea.

Posted in reflection | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Heart Writing

Jeremiah 31.31-34

Reformation Sunday is a big thing in the Lutheran Church, particularly in this the 500th anniversary of Luther’s first “nailing it to the church.” Usually there’s a lot of bombast and fanfare for a day like this, loud celebrations with an ever so subtle theological veneer on the “we won, you lost”  party. The actual scripture chosen for the day is usually ignored in favor of a bit of ‘rah, rah’ Catholic bashing and ‘we’re so awesome’ self-congratulation.

But the text is not incidental to the day and the fundamental call to faithfulness in the face of the sleepy, comfortable appeal of “we’ve always done it that way” is actually pretty important. The Old Testament reading for this day is the same one appointed for Maundy Thursday and it talks about hearts, both broken and written upon, and a torah (teaching) that is given in love.

In order to read this text rightly, we need to clarify two Hebrew words.

The first one is torah. It is usually translated “law” and in our Lutheran Law=Bad, Gospel=Good reading of scripture, generally considered the Big Meanie side of God. It’s the nit-picking, often incomprehensible, minutia obsessed stuff that makes Leviticus soooooooo boooooring (and the place good intentions to “read the whole bible” go to die). In truth, torah is actually the teaching of God, the body of life and understanding that gives us a future in hope. Viewed this way, God’s Law is actually a thing desired instead of a long list of fun things we’re not supposed to do.

The second word is the verb we’ve translated “put” as in “I will put my law into their hearts.” While it is true that natan (source of the name “Nathan”) can mean “put” its more common meaning is “give” as in “to give a gift.” So what God says here is “I will give my teaching within them, I will write in upon their hearts.”

All of this happens within the context of the new covenant God is making with us. The need for a new one is based on the ending of an old one. There’s a whole world of heartbreak behind that ended covenant, just as there is behind every divorce. ‘I was their love, their husband, and they left me’ is a recurring theme throughout the Old Testament and if we’ve lived long enough and attempted to love others, we know what that heartbreak feels like at a deep and visceral level.

But God is not content to moon about over lost love, instead choosing to begin again, to start anew and what a start it is.

In the old days, the covenant was a contract, an enforceable collection of rules that could be made to work with enough grim determination. But relationships that follow rules only when they are forced to do so are relationships soon to end in frustration and exhaustion. The answer to externally forced relationships is something where the power for “yes” comes from the deepest part of our being. In othr words, when the “yes” is written in our hearts and not just on a tablet.

To begin our new relationship, God bypasses the old external, judicial enforcement model for one based on hearts. Furthermore, in the Hebrew understanding of the world, the heart is not the seat of emotion as much as it is the very core of our being-ness. When a thing is given onto our heart, it is written into the center of our being. When that thing is the teaching of God, the very power that gives our lives stability and well… life itself, it becomes a powerful, transformative force.

The point if the Reformation is not that Our Side won the argument and now we can rest on the old victories won by those long passed. The point is that God wants to write the teaching of life on our very hearts so that our “yes” to life comes from who we are at our deepest. Or, as one author put it “Faith is the Yes of the Heart.” Reformation Sunday then is the day our hearts again acknowledge that God’s yes to us in Christ calls forth the active, living, personal yes of faith from our life.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Explaining Evil

Isaiah 45.1-7

It’s a common “gotcha” for the “anti-faith” people, “If God is all good and all loving, why is there evil?” The formal field for discussing this topic is theodicy and parodies of this question abound (including this one asking “why did God allow the Star Wars Prequels?”).

Note: I say that this question is posed by “anti-faith” people to distinguish militant agnosticism (“I don’t know and you don’t know either”) from simple questioning agnosticism (“I don’t know but I wonder”). These are people who are Completely Certain that there Is No God and are out to bludgeon you into submission to their idea. They seek converts to their cause rather than simply asking out of curiosity, kind of like those “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?” “misionaries” whose questions mask an agenda to defeat your worldview. 

I tend to call this field “the-idiocy” because it starts people out in the false position of having to defend a childish version of God against reality. GooeyWarmComfort Church has spent so much time and effort preaching Precious Moments Jesus(tm) that the notion of God as Fluffy Bunny making the world wonderful through the power of niceness is assumed to be a real and valid thing instead of the horrid burlesque of love that such a thing truly is. Having gotten the person of faith to buy into the notion that they must defend Precious Moments Jesus(tm) against charges of “being mean,” the anti-faith questioner can pose this conundrum and giggle at the gyrations that ensue. Well Bollocks to that!

The false image of Fluffy Bunny Jesus is a lie I will not defend. Nor will I try to “explain” why there is evil. It’s a stupid question right up there with “why are there little sisters?” How exactly it happened doesn’t matter, the Ultimate Cause (and thus target for our blame) is immaterial. This is because blame works backwards and requires us to live backwards. What’s important is that evil exists, what we’re going to do about it, and what God is already doing about it.

Besides, there is no simple explanation for evil (or little sisters) go ahead, try to give a simple A because of B explanation. Sure “mommies and daddies love each other very much” (except for the times they want to stuff each other in the dumpster) and a pair of X chromosomes do tend toward girl-ness but the mystery of Undiluted Evil that is the Little Sister? Nope, it’s not that simple. (Yes, I am the older brother, why do you ask 🙂 )

And while I hope I’ve made my point about our idiotic and perspective dependent view of “what is evil” and why finding “The Cause” is a waste of time, life, and energy, I’m now ready to tackle Isaiah 45.7 This is it, the big “God made evil” verse and even the most simplistic study of the Hebrew won’t let us make it “nice.”

“I form/shape light (“let there be light“) and create darkness (“and darkness was on the face of the deep“), I make shalom (peace/wholeness) and create ra (evil/bad things). I, the LORD, make all these.” There it is with no space for misunderstanding or space to weasel out, God builds/creates bad stuff. The word for build/create is the same one from Genesis 1.1 “In the beginning God created.” So what are we supposed to do with this?

Defenders of Precious Moments Jesus(tm) will try to explain that it isn’t really evil, it’s a declaration that everything that happens is a demonstration of God’s power “I, the LORD do all these.” But they get really wierd in the face when you ask “So, you’re saying that God sent that storm/made that parent beat their kid?” Most of the time we’re told “Hey! Look at that shiny Gospel thingie over there, let’s talk about that.”

As I said before, I really don’t care exactly how it came about, only what we’re going to do about the evil we experience and what God has promised to do (and has already done) to finish it. If pushed, I’d note that humans have a seemingly infinte appetite for doing evil all on our own. An old B’nai B’rith poster said it best. Surmounting a picture of Hitler and his adoring crowds was the saying “The question is not ‘where was God?’ The question is ‘where was man?'”

That parent beating their child? Where did the heritage of violence come from that they are venting on their child? Where are the neighbors, schoolmates, and coworkers? Where did the story come from that “violence is an OK solution to frustration?” or that “I just snapped” is a valid excuse?

That woman being raped at a party? What are the stories in the assaulter’s mind that say this is OK? Where did those ideas come from? Where are the other folks at the party (remember that Steubenville rape? Lots of people took pictures as if this profound violation of a human being were some cute selfie). Where are the social pressures that lead to questions like “was she asking for it?” instead of “How DARE he?” Remember Mr. “twenty minutes of action?” Who taught his dad that rape was OK? Who didn’t teach the rapist that his dad was stupid? For that matter, where are the fans who could have taught the jocks that their sports ability does not make them gods on earth to whom all things are permissible?

God made the world in which we live and the weather systems that move across the face of sea and sky. Hurricaines are sparked by thunderstorms that come from atmospheric convection. They are fed by sea temperatures and spun by the turning of the earth. It is easy to complain of the pure arbitrariness of storms but God did not build homes in the Houston floodplains. God didn’t challenge zoning maps to exclude areas from the flood zones or build homes below the high water mark upstream of water control dams. God doesn’t enforce the poverty that pushes the weak and vulerable into positions where they are even more vulnerable than before. God doesn’t operate payday lenders, title loan companies, or redline neighborhoods.

In other words, while it’s fun to complain that God Makes Evil, we seem to be doing just fine in “keeping up with the Jonses” in the doing evil business. God is a convenient target for our wrath because if we can blame God, we don’t have to look at the cultures in which we live and to which we assent. Which finally brings us back to my point: where it came from is less important than what we are going to do now and what God has promised will be the final conclusion of this agony.

I won’t defend God against charges of “doing evil” because it is pointless. The “god” I am supposedly defending is bigger and more complex than my understanding can encompass. Furthermore, God is quite capable of self-defense if it seems important.

I’ll even be daring enough to point out that we cannot see the end (telos) of all things and thus cannot see the good fruit which can come from horrible things. We don’t know and no matter how enthusiastically we want to be supreme judge of Good and Evil, we really aren’t qualified. This, again, is why I’m focused on what we will do in response to evil and how the God who calmed the storm and raised Jesus can be relied upon to “make all things new” even the evil things.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Discerning Caesar

Matthew 22.15-22

We love to talk about this as a discussion of money and taxes, arguing about whether it actually is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. The more creative among us will perhaps talk about what money actually is (a medium of exchange and store of value that’s more convenient than a wallet full of yaks) and suggest that it is our misunderstanding of money that leads to it being the root of all kinds of evil.

In our current social situation, these are actually quite valid moves. Particularly given the category error into which we creep when dealing with money: ascribing deep metaphysical meaning to something which is just a convenient way to trade goods and services. There is however, a much deeper spiritual issue involved here.

You see, the roman coins about which the people were arguing had the image of a human ruler who claimed to be DIVI CAESAR (as the inscriptions had it). In other words, the coins had pictures proclaiming a human being was divine. So using them was either flat out idolatry or a “close enough as makes no never mind” approximation of same.

So in a totally snarktastic kind of way, Jesus was looking these Pharisees in the face and saying “Dudes, I had no idea that behind your holy exterior beat the heart of a total idolater.” (I have indeed taken some liberties with the translation but that is part of the jab in Jesus’ words).

Beyond this, there’s an interesting bit of grammar that’s worth a look. Jesus says “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s” (ta kaisaros kaisari) “and to God the things that are God’s” (kai ta tou theou to theo). The ta here is the important part here because it means “that which is its own.”

We’ve taken this to be something on the order of “what is its property” but this structure comes up in John’s Jesus Song, particularly verse 11 “[Jesus] came to what was his own…” So the ta here is what is “appropriate to, constituent of” more than “the property of.” So what Jesus is talking about here is giving what already is part of the fullness of the person to whom the thing is given.

If we are going to give ceasar what is ceasar’s, how do we figure out what that is? Could I interest you in the spiritual practice of discernment? This is the process of spiritually “seeing” what actually is instead of what we’ve been told is there. It’s the work described as “testing the spirits” and the better we discern what truly is God’s and what is proper to/the property of Ceasar.

While Jesus and the Pharisees were arguing about coins, I want to expand that argument to look at what we have and are inside. Some of our ideas, habits, and hopes come as a gracious gift from God, a longing for union and life which leads, lures, and sometimes downright seduces us into Life. Some of our ideas, habits, and hopes come from.. elsewhere. Thus our discernment work involves sorting through both the junk drawer of our home, determining what it is that promotes life and what is pointless clutter, and the junk drawer that is our life.

In all this we have a powerful ally. The same Jesus that upends our nice orderly lives is also working with us to re-build, re-order, and (foreshadow allert!) re-form those same lives. He feeds us with the words of scripture, the chance to love each other and ourselves, and the sacraments around which we gather weekly. By feeding our lives on these constant reminders of grace and presence, our lives are carried forward by the deepest tide in the affairs of men which, lifting us in its flood, leads on to glory.

Posted in Preaching | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment