Thursday, February 02, 2017

When you say, "Do not fear"

Copyright: eakachaileesin / 123RF Stock Photo
During times of turmoil, uncertainty, and real and perceived threats, people feel afraid and express their fears. Christians often respond by reminding those in fear that Jesus said, "Do not fear" (or some similar line). While technically biblical and theologically correct, this well-meaning saying misses the praxis of Christianity and has a number of problems.

First, it can be condescending and dismissive. It can show a lack of empathy and and compassion. Too often the statement is made strictly because of biblical and theological concerns. There is no attempt made to understand, listen, and enter into the fears and concerns being expressed. The statement is made from a position of safety and power. Too often the ones making the statement really don't have anything to fear (or have much less to fear) because they aren't directly affected; they have the means to weather the storm.

Second, it can be shaming. Sometimes the statement is made with the implicit accusation that "fear is a sin" (because it goes against Jesus' command). It may be accompanied by statements such as "if you trust God, you don't have to fear" with the implicit corollary, if you do fear, then you aren't trusting God. So not only can "do not fear" be a source of shame, it can lead to even greater fear by introducing doubts about their fidelity to God.

Third, it ignores reality. As already mentioned, it is easy to say "do not fear" by someone who has relatively little to fear. It ignores the reality of those who are afraid. It ignores the reality and truth of experience of a group of people in order to maintain some kind of abstract theological orthodoxy. It ignores the very real pain and emotions of people by telling them that those are not valid. It is offering alternative-facts and trying to get them to accept it.

If you're going to say, "Do not fear," then it needs to be preceded by and accompanied by action. It needs to come from a position of empathy and compassion. It needs to come after entering into the hurts, pains, and fears of those experiencing them. Jesus was able to say, "Do not fear," because he became human and was part of the community that was experiencing the very things that led to fear.

But Jesus also did not leave things with just words. He took action. When assailed by a storm, Jesus took action to calm it (Matthew 8, 14). When a father was afraid for his girl's life, Jesus restored it (Mark 5). Christian communities are good at offering words, but too often actions are lacking. The Epistle of James has a few things to say about the failure to follow through. Once Christian communities take the time to listen and understand, they must take concrete steps to address and confront the sources of fear. It may mean risking comfort and security. It may mean going against popular opinion and against established traditions. Are there individual Christians and communities that are willing to come alongside the fearful and walk with them in their fight? If not, you might as well drop "Christian" from your name.

When you say, "Do not fear," it had better be more than just a theological exercise in orthodoxy.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Immigration EO and PTSD

Copyright: siamphotos / 123RF Stock Photo
This weekend's (January 28-29, 2017) stories in the aftermath of the Executive Order issued and signed by President Trump, placing (ostensibly) temporary restrictions on non-citizens from certain parts of the world from entering the United States has awoken anxieties and fears that I've personally experienced. Even though Japan is not one of the restricted nations, and I don't have any cause to believe I would be a target of the EO, the experience is all too familiar.

During my high school years, I attended a boarding school. During my first year there, I was a victim of theft, having a number of valuables stolen from my dorm room. Among them was my passport. I reported the theft to the police, filled out a report, contacted the Japanese Consulate and had my passport reissued. And I thought that was the end of it.

Would I be surprised and dismayed. Because I became the victim of identity theft, long before it became common parlance. The thief (high school student) apparently had gang ties, and my passport ended up in the hands of an international terrorist group (again, long before this was a popular concern). 

Even though I had a replacement passport and valid visa, from that point on and for many years, I was taken to secondary screening every time I had to re-enter the United States. The process could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. There is not feeling quite like that, when you know you've done nothing wrong, you know you've followed all the proper procedures, you know you have all the right documentation, yet one person can determine the entire fate of your life in those few minutes. There is nothing like anxiety and fear that arises from that. I came to dread traveling itself, because of this.

In my case, the final episode occurred in 1990 when I obtained my permanent residency visa at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and traveled to Los Angeles. I figured that because I had gone through all the background checks, health checks, and held the permit, I shouldn't experience any major problems. But that was not the case. 

The INS (remember, this is before Dept. of Homeland Security's consolidation of agencies, forming CBP and ICE) agent rejected the visa and sent me to secondary. There I waited. Different nightmare scenarios flashed through my mind. After quite some time INS officers and a LAPD detective entered. There they questioned me - what was I doing, where am I going, and then asked about ties to extremist and terrorist groups. This was the first time I understood why all the previous times I had difficulties on entry. The responses and my demeanor apparently satisfied them, because the detective told me that he could not believe I could ever have been or be a terrorist. Then he explained briefly that a passport with my name was on a red flag list, associated with a Japanese terrorist group. He said he would make sure things would get properly cleared and cleaned up. INS issued me Permanent Resident status, and for twenty-five years now, I haven't had a problem.

But reading about the EO yesterday and how it has already effected so much havoc at ports of entry and with people and families, I feel like I'm having to push away those past feelings of anxiety and fear. I do believe I have some PTSD (or something similar) associated with those past experiences. I've been able to slowly allow myself to be okay with travel, but I feel like I might not be okay again after hearing afresh the experiences that I've personally known. 

I know what it feels like to face the prospect of your life being completely upended by a decision of one person. I know what it feels like to have to consider returning to a country in which you hold citizenship, but is not your home. I know what it feels like to face being torn away from family and friends on the other side of that agent. 

If you don't know what this feels like, maybe it's time you shut up and listen and learn empathy.  

Monday, November 14, 2016

Maintaining Momentum Beyond Fear and Anger

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This past week has been whirlwind of emotions for many of us who have been frightened by Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, certain of his supporters, and the aftermath of him becoming President-Elect. At least some of us had opened the possibility that he might actually govern differently than he campaigned. But his early picks of advisors for the transition and staff once he is inaugurated have pretty much dashed that hope.

So where do we go from here?

The field of psychology and study of history shows that fear and anger, while strong short-term motivators, are terrible for long-term momentum. Fear and anger are strong emotions that cannot be maintained. Our psyches become normalized to the new realities and the body chemistries generated by these strong emotions are harmful long-term. We should not, must not, rely on fear and anger to carry us through.

So what can we do?

We need to turn our current strong emotions into habits of action. We need to cultivate and work on actions that become a part of our regular lives: actions that welcome the stranger, actions that show compassion and respect, actions that look for ways to reduce bigotry and bullying, actions that foster empathy and love. We need to find ways to make a habit of going out of our comfort zones to make connections with people outside of our normal circles.

We need to find ways to keep informed via reliable sources. And we need make it a habit to give to organizations whose purpose is to fight hate and promote equality.

We have to turn our current negative, but very strong, emotions into positive habits that lead to change. Otherwise what Trump and his rhetoric have ushered in will become the new normal.

Personally, I do a few things to follow my own advice, and what I wrote above comes from my own experience:

  • I am a volunteer victims advocate for the local domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy organization. It helps me keep grounded with real people who work with the issue and with victims of violence and abuses of power.
  • I work with substance abuse issues in our community. This helps me see that issues don’t have easy, black-and-white answers or solutions. This helps me see that people are complex beings, and that I cannot impose solutions onto anyone.
  • I donate to Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Their regular e-mail and print newsletters keep me abreast of religious liberty issues as they apply not just to a segment of Christians, but to all people or all religions and the non-religious.
  • I just donated to Southern Poverty Law Center. I believe that the work they do in fighting acts of hate and raising awareness of instances of hate and hate crimes is especially vital going forward.

You might find some of these that work for you. And there are plenty of other ways to cultivate positive habits to combat fear and hate, and change the world for the better. My exhortation to you is that you find at least one or two ways.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Nothing and Everything Changed

America, two days following the 2016 national elections, hasn't really changed that much in most practical ways; yet, in another sense, everything has changed. The latter didn't hit me until this afternoon while I was out walking about our small town. It's a single town on a small island in Alaska, accessible only by air and boat. So the people who reside here are pretty much the same, year in, and year out. So really, Tuesday hasn't changed a thing in this town.

Yet, there was something different inside of me. See, I am non-white and an immigrant - fitting two of the categories (of many) which have been marginalized and attacked during the election campaign. I've lived in the U.S. for many years and in this town for the past ten. And even yesterday, as I was walking about town, I didn't really feel that different.

But today, something changed. Not the environment, the town, the people who I encountered and with whom I interacted. But something in my psyche, my emotional health, and psychological well-being. I felt suspicion and uneasiness. I was on higher alert for threats and dangers.

Intellectually, I know that the chance that something has changed so much in this town that I would actually be a target and victim is probably infinitesimally low. Yet the election of Donald Trump and the tacit approval of the rhetoric that goes along with that has attacked my psyche and emotions. And if that can happen to me -- who I acknowledge as fairly privileged in many ways, has never been overtly been a target of racism or hate, and in many ways never will be -- how much more fearful are those who actually have been victims and targets?

Even if you aren't a racist or bigot, your celebration of Trump hurts. Even if you really do love immigrants and would never do anything to harm them, your refusal to strongly denounce hateful talk is damaging. Even though (giving the benefit of doubt) that most Trump supporters really do care about people around them, your silence speaks volumes about what you value and what you don't. 

Your admonition to us to "stop whining" tells us what we're feeling doesn't matter. Your admonition to us to "learn that we can't always have our way" is telling us that our concerns are invalid. When you tell us to "suck it up" and place the "nation first," it's telling us that diversity is only of value when it conforms to traditional Evangelical Christian, white European, cis-gender views. Or to put it another way, diversity is only valued as a token.

There is a palpable fear being experienced by those who have been devalued by Donald Trump, his campaign, and some of his outspoken supporters. I hope that President Trump will have the strength, courage, and discipline to reject measures and policies that devalue and dehumanize any number of groups of people. I hope that Congress and the judiciary will act as real checks and balances, if President Trump oversteps.

When you say you care about those who aren't quite like you; when you say that you want to protect and help the marginalized; when you say that you don't hate immigrants and people whose religion aren't yours -- we need you to actually vocalize that loudly and to act strongly to support what you claim. We need you to actually go outside your comfort zones; to listen to people who are terrified, to people who are physically ill from what has happened; to denounce any kind of hate and dehumanization. Because if you don't, even if you say you're not a racist or bigot, your silence communicates something very different. We need to know we can trust what you say.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Move Forward and Rebuild

Lectionary Year C, Proper 27
OT Reading: Haggai 1:15b-2:9

Sermon at First Presbyterian Church, Petersburg, Alaska on November 6, 2016.

Introduction

When we look around and observe the world around us, it’s difficult not to see the many problems, troubles, conflicts, divisions, and plain ugliness that seem omnipresent. There seem to be no easy solutions; and sometimes we wonder if there are any solutions at all. In the more pessimistic recesses of our minds, we think that maybe the world has gone so off track that it is on an irreversible downward trend into utter chaos and wreckage.

Many, faced with such a dark and uncertain future, understandably look to the past — when things seemed to be better, when things seemed more certain, when things and people seemed to be in their proper places, when there seemed to be order and predictability. And the temptation to try to recreate the past grows strong.

Old Photos

Nostalgia

There is a term for this which you’ve probably guessed; it is nostalgia. Alan R. Hirsch describes nostalgia as a yearning for an idealized past — “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory — not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.” (http://elitedaily.com/life/science-behind-nostalgia-love-much/673184/)

That sounds negative, but studies have found that nostalgia can help people cope with negative life events, depression, and even eases facing death.

Here are a few paragraphs in a New York Times article from 2013:

Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.

“Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function,” Dr. Routledge says. “It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.”

“Nostalgia helps us deal with transitions,” Dr. Hepper says. “The young adults are just moving away from home and or starting their first jobs, so they fall back on memories of family Christmases, pets and friends in school.”

(http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/09/science/what-is-nostalgia-good-for-quite-a-bit-research-shows.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)

Scientific American reports “situations that trigger negative emotions, feelings of loneliness, and perceptions of meaninglessness cause people to become nostalgic.” (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/the-rehabilitation-of-an-old-emotion-a-new-science-of-nostalgia/)

Dr. Hal McDonald, in Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/time-travelling-apollo/201606/the-two-faces-nostalgia) describes two kinds of nostalgia. The first is restorative nostalgia, in which the person tries to recreate (or restore) the past into the present. The second is reflective nostalgia, in which the person savors the experience without trying to recreate it.

He writes:

These two types of nostalgia represent fundamentally different attitudes toward the past, and it is this difference that largely determines whether our memories of those happy days of yore will evoke feelings of joy or of sadness…

Restorative nostalgia is really a kind of homesickness—a homesickness for the past—more akin to the original pathological definition of nostalgia than to our current view of the term…

Reflective nostalgia, on the other hand, accepts the fact that the past is, in fact, past, and rather than trying to recreate a special past experience, savors the emotions evoked by its recollection.  This acknowledgment of the irretrievability of our autobiographical past provides an aesthetic distance that allows us to enjoy a memory in the same way that we enjoy a movie or a good book.

As you might guess, the latter, reflective nostalgia, is a more healthy response than the former, which tries to recreate (in vain) an idealized past.

Back from Exile

This brings us to the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon. Or at least a few of them. The prophet Jeremiah, early in the exile, had written and told them:

5 “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. 6 Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! 7 And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7 NLT)

Many had settled in Babylon and felt no need to return to their ancestral lands and face inevitable hardships there.

Cyrus had decreed that the Jews could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple there. But the work had not really begun. The people went and worked on their individual homes and fields. The prophets had prophesied that their return would result in blessings (c.f. Ezekiel), but the people only saw reminders of destruction, desolation, and daily experienced difficulties.

Nearly twenty years had passed. And now the prophet Haggai rose to declare to the people that the current sad state of affairs was due to their neglect in rebuilding the Temple.

Not the Prosperity Gospel

At this point it should be said that Haggai could be used to support a prosperity gospel: i.e., that God blesses those who contribute toward his demands, and curses those who neglect him.

But it is important to note that the ancient temple is not equivalent to the present day churches or denominations. Neither should the temple be limited to spiritual and religious facets of individual and societal life.

The ancient temple was the center of religious, spiritual, social, and economic life. It was the hub of community and connections. A healthy temple meant healthy society and community. It was the place of celebrations. It was where relationships between human and deity, and between humans were restored and strengthened.

I think it can be difficult for Westerners, particularly Americans, to understand how the temple could be the center of so much of community. We value individualism, we tend to strictly segregate different spheres of our lives, and religion is certainly in a decline. But at least from anecdotal, personal experience that I’ve had in Japan large temples and shrines still form a major part of the economy through tourism and festivals; they are still focus of major celebrations and places where families and community come together; where life’s petitions, dreams, and goals are offered up.

When Haggai claims that the peoples’ neglect of the temple was the cause of their life problems, we can see how that can be reasonable logic. Haggai’s accusation is that the people were so concerned about their individual survival and comfort that they had neglected the well-being of the community. It is not the prosperity gospel, at least not in the present-day sense of the phrase in which God blesses individuals in a quid pro quo fashion. Rather it is a declaration that when the community looks after everyone in the community, God can multiple the sum of their efforts for the good of the entire community.

What is Wealth?

Stanley Hauerwas, at Duke University, drawing from Millbank and Pabst, theologians and philosophers, to describe wealth in terms of

goods that can be shared together such as intimacy, trust, beauty. The goods that should determine how we live are embedded in the practices of honour and reciprocity which are developed over time through the habits sustained by a tradition. The formation of such traditions depends on the existence of people of wisdom who can provide the judgments necessary for responding to new challenges while remaining faithful to the past.

People who so live do not think their first task in life is to become more wealthy or powerful as individuals. Rather wealth is best thought of as what we share in common, such as parks, or practices to which all have access, such as medicine. In other words, the post-liberal strategy is exactly the opposite of the liberal assumption that assumes that social practices of mutual assistance should be eliminated, while at the same time encouraging our desires for wealth and prestige. The liberal desire for the well-being of the individual not only ignores the goods built on gift relations, but in effect destroys the habits that make such relations possible.

(http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/11/02/4567512.htm)

Exhortation Heeded, But Things Don’t Look Good

The people heed Haggai’s words and begin the process of temple reconstruction. About two months later, Haggai offers a new word, the passage that was read this morning.

It appears that the people have been hard at work, but progress is slow. And what they have to show for it isn’t much. It is also possible that among the people are some elderly Jews who remember the first temple. Whether it is they, or the younger generation recalling the stories of old about the first temple, what they see before them is sorely lacking. They are discouraged. If their well-being and future rely upon God accepting the results of their construction, it doesn’t look very good. They have good reason to be concerned.

Suffering from Restorative Nostalgia

The people are suffering from the first, bad kind of nostalgia: restorative nostalgia. They want to recreate the new temple to resemble the first in its physical and religious grandeur. That’s, after all, what Ezekiel appears to have prophesied.

This kind of nostalgia can cause harm in many ways. It can halt progress — because the new can’t possibly be as good as the old, why bother? People can get stuck in the past. It can lead to feelings of depression and discouragement.

Or it can cause people to turn against each other — I know how it’s supposed to look like, so why can’t you just obey my instructions? Or, I know better than you, I’m the expert, so your opinions and ideas are worthless. Or, are you trying to sabotage the project with your less-than-perfect plans? People become divided, one group against another.

God Invites Reflective Nostalgia

Through Haggai, God offers a word of reflective nostalgia — the good kind of nostalgia. Haggai reminds the people of God’s faithfulness in their lives. The past cannot be recreated; but the past offers reminders that can strengthen and encourage the people to move forward.

God says, “I am with you.” He declares, “My spirit remains among you, just as I promised when you came out of Egypt. So do not be afraid.”

It is an invitation to remember how God has been with them, all the way from their beginnings in Egypt. It is an invitation to reflect on the power and strength of God to sustain and deliver.

It is a declaration that God does not dwell in the past but he is always a part of the present. God cannot be summoned by recreating the past. The people must move forward to where God is taking them.

God Is Found Where His People Work

God is already among them. The temple isn’t where God resides. God is where the people are doing the work of restoring God’s glory by their efforts to rebuild, restore, and heal community.

The returned exiles seemed to think God couldn’t come and bless them until the temple was complete and functional; and that the degree of blessing depended on the physical magnificence of the structure. What they heard was that their very efforts were where God could be present and manifest his glory.

Haggai exhorts the people to do the work. As long as they are doing the work of building community to reflect God’s image, God will be with them and bless them. Other nations will hear and wonder. They will be curious and come. And peace will be the result.

Fantasy or Reality?

Does this sound too good to be true? Is Haggai describing a fantasy?

I think the key point to remember is that the work we do for God is not to secure blessings for ourselves, or for our families, or for our church, but to bless the whole world. When Abram was first called by God, the blessings offered to him were so that the entire world would be blessed through him. I believe that is still God’s desire and his purpose for the church.

I think for far too long the church has been preoccupied with her own security and place in the world. Like the returned exiles during their first twenty years, the church is too often concerned about accounting and finances, membership rolls, and her pursuit of temporal influence and power. Too often the church neglects the people and community just outside her, sometimes literal, walls.

I believe the words of Haggai are still relevant for the church today. We need to rebuild the temple — no, not necessarily the physical church or congregations — but the image of God that we who claim to be followers of Christ represent to the world. The church must rebuild the picture of God that those outside her metaphorical walls see inside.

Is that impossible? Is that too hard? Has the image been so destroyed that it can’t be rebuilt? Is the destruction and desolation too much to bear?

Haggai’s words should still ring true for us today. God is with us. Just as he rescued Israel from Egypt, brought the exiles back from Babylon, helped them rebuild the second temple, gave us his perfect image in Jesus Christ, and sustained the church through two millennia, his Spirit remains to strengthen and lead us today. “Do not be afraid,” God commands.

Rebuild God’s Temple Today

We can rebuild God’s temple in our world today. We can restore the image of Jesus Christ that has been destroyed by religionists. We do it through our love, compassion, and faithfulness to the people of this community. We do it through our efforts to foster harmony and peace among peoples, especially among those with whom we disagree. We do it through our attitudes and actions that value people and relationships first.

We were placed on this earth to bless others. We were saved by Christ so that we would know his purpose and be given the power and strength to do this difficult but rewarding work. We have been given the ministry of reconciliation, of rebuilding people and relationships that have been broken. Let us come together and work together to restore the image and glory of God in his temple, the church, us.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon–Soliloquy of a Prodigal God

imageThis sermon explores similarities between the parable of wayward Israel in Hosea 11 and the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Questions explored include: What is the nature and character of God, what does it mean to be created in the image of God, and what does it mean for us to be holy as God is holy?

Sermon preached at the Presbyterian Church on July 31, 2016. Below is the manuscript text.

Texts: Hosea 11:1-11; Luke 15:11-32; Hosea 6:6a; Hebrews 1:3; 1 Peter 1:16


Introduction

If you, as a parent, had a child who persisted in making bad choices and even deliberately rebelled and rejected you, how would you feel? What would you do? If and when this child returned, what would be your response? Yell at them? Make them prove they’ve changed? Shame them? Keep reminding them of their guilt? Or rejoice at their return? Love them? Accept them? Restore them into the family as your child?

If you were this child who had deliberately rebelled and rejected your parents, would you ever return to them? What would you expect from them upon your return? What would you want from them upon your return?

Parable Of Wayward Israel

Hosea chapter 11 is a parable – a parable about wayward Israel. In this parable, Israel is pictured as a son of God, and God is described using maternal imagery. Israel is rescued from Egypt who had been abusing him, and God has given life and healing to bring up Israel through his childhood.

Yet Israel is not content with what God has done. Israel longs to return to Egypt. And if a return to Egypt isn’t possible, then he wants to be with Assyria. Power is often attractive, even if it is abusive. To be associated with an entity of power makes the one associating feel powerful, even if they end up victims.

God reveals that his wish will come to pass, but that the result will not be what Israel expected. Instead of security and prosperity, he will find himself embroiled in death and destruction. He will discover that God does not come rushing in to intervene and deliver.

Yet God is moved with compassion and when Israel finally comes to see why he has suffered calamity, and in response returns to God, God will accept him back. There will be no rebuke, chastisement, or punishment. God will accept Israel back, restore him, and return him to his home.

Parable Of The Prodigal Son

In Luke 15, there is another parable about a parent and a wayward child. It is probably quite familiar to most, if not all, of you. We know it by the title, The Prodigal Son.

Here’s the short version: there are two sons and the younger, for whatever reason, determines that he no longer wants to live within the confines of his father’s household. He asks for his portion of the inheritance and goes away to a far country. There, this son squanders the inheritance. Alas a famine hits the land and with his fortunes gone, he ends up in one of the most reviled jobs available: that of feeding pigs. He is so famished that he wishes he could eat the feed being given to the swine. In a moment of clarity, the son realizes that even the least servant in his father’s household is given enough to eat, and as a result decides to return home. He prepares a speech of contrition in which he asks to be given quarter, no longer as a son, but as one of the servants.

When the son approaches home, his father sees him, and moved with compassion, the father runs to meet his returning son. Before the son can even get the first sentence of his prepared speech out of his mouth, the father has directed his servants to reinstate the lost son back into the family to his former place as son.

A grand party is held, welcoming the son home. The older son hears the commotion, asks about it, and is quite displeased, because he had not gone astray like the younger, but has instead sacrificed all his life in service to his father. The father tries to talk to this older son about why they are celebrating, because a family member who had been lost has returned.

God's Soliloquy

The central and vital portion of Hosea 11 is the center section, in which God reveals her (remember, this passage is depicting God in traditionally maternal terms) thoughts (and I’ll continue to use feminine pronouns for God throughout this sermon). It is a soliloquy in which she speaks about her initial reaction, her emotions, and then her conscious choice about what to do in response.

In Luke’s parable of the prodigal son, we aren’t told much about the father’s thoughts between the son’s departure and his return. But in Hosea I think we are given some of those thoughts and how God processes them. It gives us a look into the character and heart of God. As we examine God’s internal monologue, we can learn a little more of what it means to be created in the image of God.

Where Did I Go Wrong?

One of the first thoughts that go through God’s mind is a review of all that has been done in caring for and raising the child. In this specific case of Israel, God recounts how Israel was delivered from an abusive environment, taught him how to walk, provided him with food, wounds healed, and shown love and care. Yet whatever God did, Israel did not seem to remember; and the more God called, the more determined Israel was to go away.

Similarly when we are rejected or attacked by those we tried to care for, our thoughts return to the times when we had given of ourselves to them. It is a part of being created in God’s image, that we too, build memories and look back on them.

It's Okay To Feel Frustrated And Angry

When we think about God and emotions, we intellectually know that God has them. We read places where God loves, where God becomes angry, where God weeps. But I think we also have this image of God whose emotions are so perfect that in practical terms God doesn’t actually feel. I think it seems almost heretical to picture God who struggles with conflicting emotions and feelings and having to make a choice about how to respond.

That’s why I think the central section of Hosea 11 is so important. We are given a peek into the struggle within God’s heart and mind. Now, it is a human writer, writing in the language of poetry, but if we as humans feel conflicting emotions and we are made in the image of God, I think we can picture God who struggles with emotions.

So God looks back at all that she has done for Israel and yet Israel rejects her. God looks at the military and monetary powers of the world that Israel has turned to, and sees how they will be Israel’s downfall and destruction. Is it any wonder God feels frustrated and angry?

Those of us who are parents and those of us who have been around a little longer than others, have developed a pretty good sense of what foolish decisions made in inexperience and immaturity can lead into. We keep repeating the same instruction to our children, yet it seems they make the same poor decisions over and over. “Will they ever learn?” we ask ourselves.

On one hand we want to rush in and keep them from suffering consequences. Yet we know that we can’t keep doing that forever. We become frustrated and angry. And I think this is what God is saying to herself in Hosea. God doesn’t want to see Israel destroy himself, but God has to let Israel see for himself what happens when he stops trusting in God and in being content with what God has provided.

A key point to make here is that God is not willing suffering to come upon Israel to “teach him a lesson.” Neither has God somehow “ordained” that disaster come upon Israel. What God is doing is honoring the freedom of choice that Israel has made. Love and freedom have to exist together, if love is to be love. Freedom isn’t freedom if its consequences aren’t allowed to come to pass. A love coerced or manipulated isn’t love at all.

Just as parents allow themselves to be rejected and hurt, God too, can be rejected and hurt by humans in order to maintain the integrity of divine love.

What Matters Is What's Done With Anger

The natural human inclination is to lash out and seek revenge upon those who have hurt us. Sometimes, even to our own children. In our frustration and anger, we want to teach them a lesson. Discipline is good, but have we sometimes excused punishment as discipline? I wonder how many times I’ve punished my own children to try to make myself feel better at the expense of providing actual discipline.

We are given a sight into God’s struggle in Hosea. God’s anger seems to want to take it out on Israel. Yet the memory of their earlier years and God’s love eventually extinguishes anger with compassion. God will not act impulsively like a human being. God will act counter-intuitively from human norms. Instead of judgment and raining down punishment, God will act with caring, compassion, and love.

I’ve sometimes heard that God’s primary attribute is holiness. When this is said, it is often in terms of God’s sinless perfection and thus how sin cannot exist in God presence, justifying God’s wrath, anger, and judgment. But what we read in Hosea is that God is holy because she chooses to act in a way very different from humans by foregoing anger and judgment, but instead acting in mercy and compassion.

The biblical definition of holy or holiness has to do with difference and alienness between God and his creation. Perfection and sinlessness can be a part of that, but they are not its entirety, as it is sometimes described. What we read in Hosea is that God is holy because he chooses to act so differently than humans would had they been in a similar circumstance.

Hosea 6:6a reads, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Jesus quotes this verse twice in Matthew:

Matthew 9:13

13 Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 12:7

7 And if you had known what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.

Since Jesus is the exact representation of God (Hebrews 1:3), what we read in Hosea should not be seen an exception but the actual character of God that has always been. The parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 and the parable of wayward Israel in Hosea 11 describe the same God. Both parables depict a holy God who behaves quite contrary to a natural human, but instead offers full acceptance and restoration.

When Christians are commanded to “be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16; c.f., Leviticus 19:2), I don’t think the command is primarily directed at becoming sinlessly perfect. I believe it means to act like God - with compassion and love - in all situations, even in those where we are rejected and hurt. We were created in the image of God. Sin has marred that image, but through Christ we have been given the Holy Spirit whose work is to restore the original image of God in us.

Conclusion

Back to the questioned I asked at the beginning. If you were a parent whose child deliberately rebelled, rejected, and left you, and then came back, what would you do? I’d like to think that most parents would rejoice and accept their child back into the family and home. If we, as human parents would do that, how much more is God willing, happy, and eager to accept her wayward children back.

A parent-child relationship is different than one between siblings. What if it was your sister or brother that threw a bomb into the family, caused disaster, abandoned the family, lived a less-than-upright life, tarnished the family name, and then returned? Would you be as willing to accept them back? This is the position of the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable.

The older brother sincerely believed that belonging to the family meant keeping the family name clean and respectable, by all means necessary. Which included keeping out anyone who might tarnish it, even if it was your own brother. But the father comes out to instruct him that it isn’t about sacrifice - doing your duty - but about mercy - lifting up and restoring the fallen.

God, in Hosea’s parable, tells us that is what makes her different from all other gods – by rejecting anger and instead following compassion.

Jesus, in the parable recorded in Luke, tells us that the Father God, who really is the same as the God in Hosea, is moved to action by compassion.

The message for us, from both the Old and New Testaments, is to develop that kind of compassionate heart for the world. When we are mistreated, misunderstood, ridiculed and rejected, we must transcend anger and transform the passion generated by it into compassion. This is utterly impossible for humans, because it is a holy activity, and one that can be accomplished only through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds.

Let us choose today to have the Holy Spirit give us holy compassion with which to engage the world and all God’s children. Let us be holy, as God is holy.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sermon–Live and Love Beyond Lists

Text: Galatians 1, 13-25.

The famous “fruit of the Spirit” passage is included in this reading. Is that (and the corresponding “works of the flesh” list) Paul’s message and focus?

Manuscript of sermon preached at the Presbyterian Church.


Whether we admit it or not, most of us love lists. We make task lists, packing lists, shopping lists, bucket lists… And when we’re not making lists, we consume lists made by others: 22 Insane Sales to Shop This Weekend; 12 Sad Snacks That People Actually Made for Themselves; 24 Refreshing Ways to Drink Your Tea This Summer. (These were headlines I found at BuzzFeed, a popular site that posts listicles.) One of the most influential management and personal development lists is found in Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Lists simplify many things in life, often help get us motivated, and allow us to be efficient with our time and effort.

Which brings us to Galatians chapter 5. If BuzzFeed had existed in the first century, we might have seen headlines such as “Paul Says Beware These 15 Signs of Fleshly Behavior” or “8 Habits of Highly Effective Christians by the Apostle Paul.”

Yet, by focusing on these lists we might be missing the more important messages of Galatians.

I’d like to read today’s reading again, but omitting the two lists. You’ll see that the natural flow is uninterrupted.

5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law… 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Paul’s point is not about the lists of virtues and vices that he includes, but rather about themes that occur at a broader level:

  • Freedom vs. slavery
  • Freedom vs. self-indulgence
  • Love vs. self-indulgence
  • Life in the Spirit vs. fleshly desires
  • Live in the Spirit vs. life by law

Freedom, love, and life in the Spirit come as a unit. On the other hand, slavery, self-indulgence, fleshly desires, and law come as an opposing unit. Verse 17 makes this clear that the two cannot coexist: “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.” This section of Galatians is telling us that our focus need not be on lists of virtues and vices, on making efforts at behavior modification, but that our focus is to be on living by the Spirit. The result will be that the items on the lists will naturally take care of themselves.

So what is the problem with lists? What is the problem with laws? For some possible responses to these questions, we need to step back and look at some of the reasons Paul wrote this particular epistle.

At this point in history, there is no separate “Christianity.” There are individuals and groups that follow Jesus and his teachings, but they are considered a sect of Judaism. Torah observance is a critical identifier of Judaism. Up to this point, for a non-Jew to become a Jew meant conforming to the Torah, and for males, undergoing circumcision. But in the emerging Jesus-sect of Judaism, not only are they not observing feast days and disregarding food laws, they are not requiring circumcision. This new sect is going directly against the boundary markers of what identifies and separates a Jew from everyone else. This boundary marker is important because it is considered the sign of the covenant. The failure to strictly adhere to the Torah, in many Jewish minds, was the reason for God rejecting them and sending them to Babylonian exile. There is perceived safety in conformity; in clearly identifying who is in and who is out. Laws and lists have allowed humanity to define divisions since the beginning of tribes up to and including this present age. Our brains are wired to categorize and group, to identify insiders vs. outsiders. But that is not how the Christian community is to operate.

The heart of this letter to the Galatians is found in 3:27-29:

27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Paul vigorously and adamantly rejects any boundaries relating to nations, race, gender, or social standing when it comes to the value and worth of any human person. At the same time by reading his other letters, we know that Paul does not automatically reject cultural customs and tradition; he does not say that Jews must cease being Jews and Greeks cease being Greeks in order to belong to Christ. Rather, he writes that these distinctions don’t define who is in and who is out of Christ. But Paul is advocating ideas that go directly against centuries of Jewish tradition and expectations of piety and belonging.

Now I’d like to return to our reading starting with chapter five, verses 1 and 13:

5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… 13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.

Freedom is a key concept here. Freedom is often seen as an absence of constraints, but that is not what Paul has in mind here. In verse 13 Paul tells his audience that self-indulgence is not an appropriate use of freedom, but that becoming slaves to one another through love is the proper use of freedom. Clearly then, there are different types of “slavery” that Paul brings into his discussion. One type is a yoke that believers must avoid, while slavery to one another is one that we must enter into.

What is the “yoke of slavery” that must be avoided? In this letter Paul has been railing against conforming to the Torah. He has likened it to the “slave woman” Hagar. Yet originally the Gentiles did not have the Torah. But Paul is now writing that conforming to the Torah will be submitting again to a yoke of slavery. So this yoke must be broader than the Torah. Paul has already told his readers how Gentiles were formerly enslaved in 4:8-9,

4:8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. 9 Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?

We must not miss the highly charged accusation of equivalence that Paul is making here: That there is something about conforming to the Torah, which was given by God, that in practice is equivalent to serving pagan objects of worship.

Religion nearly always develops a power play of some kind. Because God or some powerful being is at the top, it is easy for human worshippers to think that paying sufficient homage secures blessings or avoids disaster. Then power hierarchies develop with some people becoming mediators of the power based on level of religious knowledge and expressions of piety. Even if such hierarchies aren’t formalized, an informal hierarchy often exists and adherents judge and measure themselves and one another according to written and unwritten lists and laws.

This is one the primary reasons why Paul is so harsh toward the law in this epistle. It too often becomes basis for judgment, condemnation, shame, divisions, and exclusions. They are used to consolidate power in a few, and keep the masses in place by enforcing conformity and uniformity in a community. A threat of exclusion from a community that teaches that belonging is required to be with God, is a powerful deterrent against nonconformity. A list that shows how well you are or aren’t doing in your spiritual walk with God can become a point of pride, if you’re doing well, but a source of terrible shame, if you aren’t. Paul’s solution to this universal corruption of power is his command to focus one’s efforts on serving one another in love.

He continues in chapter 5, verse 14,

5:14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Notice that he writes “the whole law.” Not just those that involve human to human relationships. The whole law, including the ones that involve human-divine relationships. What I think Paul is trying to say to his audience is that contrary to what all former religions have valued, piety and what we think is faithfulness to God is not what God primarily wants from his worshippers. True devotion, piety, and faithfulness to God in the newly formed Jesus community is found in service to one another. We worship God through our love for one another. It isn’t about access to, or the acquisition of power. Rather, it’s about what we can do to empower every person around us.

But also note that self-care is part of the process of loving. When any of us neglect appropriate self-care we fall into one of two ditches: resentment or self-righteous pride, and sometimes both. When we take care of those around us as we do with ourselves, there is an appropriate balance. Everyone’s needs are met, the community flourishes, and God is glorified.

So why does Paul include those pesky lists? It almost seems like he has exchanged these new vice and virtue lists for the Torah. Couldn’t these lists be used the same way that the law was earlier? (And we know that they have been used to measure, judge, and shame; both self and others, in the millennia since they were penned.)

First, their intent is illustrative. Paul has been writing somewhat abstractly. In the middle he gives a “for example…” He’s saying, “If you see a cluster of these things together in a community, here’s what it’s signifying.”

Secondly, Paul wrote to a community that was assumed to already be walking by the Spirit. Our individualistic culture often assumes an individual application for his community-directed writings. The lists are not meant to be used to evaluate yourself or others.

Thirdly, items in these lists are not intended to be taken in isolation. They are to be seen as ongoing and regular practices of whole communities that signifies whether a community is obviously walking or not walking by the Spirit. An occasional failure is not an ongoing practice.

In the end, Paul’s focus isn’t on either of these lists. It’s about how the entire community has an ethos that works to build one another up, to meet the needs of one another, to break down partitions and walls that divide, yet at the same time to honor and respect unique contributions that differences bring to the community, to continue to grow a vision that sees beyond codified lists and laws and sees the imago dei in every person.

Good news! Lists don’t define who you are. You need not be a slave to lists to gain and maintain some kind of a fictional spiritual standing. You are free to love, lift up, and empower every person within your sphere of contact. No more putting people into boxes and drawing boundaries! This is the worship God desires. This is the worship that God wants from his family community.

Let us pledge to live and love beyond lists. As Paul wrote, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” Not lists.