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.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sermon–When Zeal Consumes (1 Kings 19:1-18)

The following is the manuscript of the sermon I preached at the Presbyterian Church. The key question is: What does God’s response and actions found in 1 Kings 19:1-18 say about Elijah’s actions of 1 Kings 18?

When encountering today’s passage, many sermons focus on the “still, small voice” (v.12). A common theme is how God’s voice can’t be heard in the busy-ness and noise of life, and that we need to get away if we want to hear him.

Another approach might be to take Elijah’s anxiety and fear in running away from Jezebel and go into a discussion of how he ought to have trusted in God and stayed put, or perhaps a message about how to cope with discouragement and depression.

I think there is good case and support for each of these approaches. Yet what struck me as I read through the passage this time was what I perceived as similarities to Jonah chapter 4. It’s a short chapter so I’ll read it now in its entirety.

Jonah 4:1 Now this greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is this not what I said while I was still in my own land? This is the reason that I fled before to Tarshish, because I knew that You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abundant in faithfulness, and ready to relent from punishment. 3 Therefore, Lord, take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

4 Then the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

5 So Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city and made for himself a booth there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the Lord God appointed a plant, and it grew up over Jonah to provide shade over his head, to provide comfort from his grief. And Jonah was very happy about the plant. 7 But at dawn the next day, God appointed a worm to attack the plant so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah so that he became faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

9 Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”

And Jonah replied, “It is right for me to be angry, even to death.”

10 The Lord said, “You are troubled about the plant for which you did not labor and did not grow. It came up in a night and perished in a night. 11 Should I not, therefore, be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people, who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (MEV)

So here are particular points of similarities to note:

  • Both Elijah and Jonah had fled
  • Both ask God to take their lives
  • In both cases, God’s response comes in simple questions
  • Both situate themselves in a solitary place
  • God provides miraculous provisions in both cases
  • Wild natural events occur in both stories
  • God asks questions twice
  • In both cases the response from Elijah and Jonah repeat their first responses
  • In both cases God’s final response is about a large number of individuals

What shall we make of this? Is it merely coincidence? The book of Kings was placed into its final form sometime during or closely after the Jewish exile in Babylon. The book of Jonah was composed sometime after that. I think it is entirely possible that the author of Jonah used the story of Elijah as a kind of template, and perhaps even as a parody rebelling retelling of the earlier account. A number of commentators suggest that there could be some connection between the two stories.

Also, according to a number of Jewish traditions regarding Elijah’s story, they see God’s command to Elijah to anoint Elisha as his replacement, and to begin traveling the region anointing leaders, as a punishment of Elijah. In other words, Elijah’s response to God’s query (in 1Ki 19) is found wanting, and Elijah is placed on a retirement path. This too, aligns with the story of Jonah where at the end is found God’s rebuke of Jonah.

The rebuke is that Jonah had perceived God incorrectly, that Jonah’s desires about those who are “against God” are inappropriate. And so I began to wonder if something similar could be seen in Elijah’s story.

We need to back up and quickly review Elijah’s story prior to 1 Kings 19. Elijah was called to speak against Ahab and announce a drought. For three years the drought continued while Elijah was hidden and provided for, first through ravens and then through a widow in a foreign land. At the end of the three years God commands Elijah to “go and present [himself] to Ahab, and [God] will send rain upon the earth” (1Ki 18:1). Elijah does so and sets up a showdown between his God, and Baal and Asherah. It takes place on Mt. Carmel where Elijah’s God is shown to be the victor and Elijah commands the people to seize and kill all the prophets of Baal and Asherah, which they do. And this is where chapter 19 picks up with Ahab telling his wife, Jezebel, of what had happened. She gets angry and declares Elijah a traitor and enemy of the state. Elijah flees.

Now, the frequent interpretation I’ve heard growing up in the church of this preceding set of stories is how wonderful it is that God showed himself to be right, and how fitting it is that evil was destroyed. It’s a “Go God!” story, showing how God will vindicate himself.

But is it really?

Often when we read stories like these, we make the assumption that because things turn out in favor of God and the righteous, that what happened must be right and God’s will. In this case because God sends down fire on Mt. Carmel, it must have been his will, and that the subsequent action taken by Elijah was also God’s will.

But was it really?

What if Elijah was overstepping his bounds? What if Elijah had assumed things about God and was acting upon his own ideas about how he thought God would respond and about what he thought God wanted?

I’ve already laid out some evidence from Jonah and from Jewish commentators as to why an alternate reading is plausible. Now I’d like to show why I think the text of 1 Kings 18 and 19 itself supports this alternate interpretation.

First, in the command God gives to Elijah about returning to Ahab, God’s command is to “present himself [Elijah] to Ahab” and then the rain will return. There is nothing here about God commanding a showdown or a demonstration of power. This reminds me of Moses and his action at Meribah (Numbers 20). In biblical interpretation, Elijah is seen as a type of Moses, so it should not be surprising that the chronicler of Elijah might allude in some ways to Moses’ life events. At Meribah, the people are complaining about a lack of water. God commands Moses to speak to a rock, but instead, Moses, in his anger, strikes the rock twice. In spite of Moses’ actions God supplies water, but Moses is punished by not being allowed to enter the Promised Land. In this story Moses oversteps God’s commands and carries out his own desires. Perhaps the chronicler of Elijah is alluding to this story about Moses. I believe it is quite likely that the entire showdown at Mt. Carmel (that also, incidentally, uses water) was of Elijah going beyond God’s command. God still manifests himself through a sign, but it can be interpreted as not what God desired to happen. And the slaughter of the prophets of Baal? Quite possibly overzealousness on Elijah’s part, and his imitating surrounding culture in how opposing prophets were handled by victorious powers.

When God finally speaks to Elijah (in 1Ki 19) after fleeing Jezebel, there is no commendation of Elijah’s prior actions. Rather there seems to be a sense of rebuke. Elijah’s response is that he was defending God’s honor (“I’ve been zealous for the Lord”), and by pointing out that he was all alone in this, perhaps seeking some kind of pity and affirmation. But God offers neither. This happens twice. And Elijah’s response is identical both times.

In between the two conversations a violent storm, an earthquake, and fire come, but God is not in any of them. These are metaphors associated with violent judgment. But when God finally speaks, it is not through any of them but rather, in “a still, small voice.” Perhaps this is an explanation that the fire that came down on Mt. Carmel was more about Elijah’s desires rather than God’s. Perhaps this is God trying to tell Elijah that power and violence are not the means of reaching the hearts of people. I think here, Jonah’s story is the counterpoint, where merely speaking changes people’s hearts.

God asks again what Elijah is doing here, and Elijah gives an identical response, word for word. It seems clear that Elijah has failed to comprehend God and his methods of working with humans, even with those that fail to acknowledge him. Jewish commentaries suggest that Elijah’s failure was to consider God’s mercy and compassion as greater than his power and vengeance. It appears his zeal has consumed his ability to be merciful or to even think about it as a possibility. There is still work for Elijah, but it is in wrapping up his time on earth and appointing a successor.

I hope you can see now that Elijah's confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, often seen as an example for us to confront forcefully those we think are opposing God, could be the antithesis of what the storyteller in this passage really wanted the reader to understand. In the broader picture, this could be a story about people overzealously claiming things for God that God himself wants no part of.

I think we should be extremely wary of any claims to force, power, and violence as tools that God desires or uses. I think we should be very careful in how we defend God, if we ever feel the need arises. I think we need to re-read the Bible with more nuance and not automatically assume that because something turned out okay, God must have desired things to come about in the manner described. I think our frequent desire for judgment and vengeance is more a reflection about our nature than about God’s. I don’t think we can ever exaggerate the magnitude of God’s love, mercy, and compassion.

Whenever we are confused about how to respond to another person, favor the way of love, mercy, and compassion – with no ulterior motives and with no strings attached. Don’t let your zeal for God consume your mercy and love for others.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Religious tracts and stuff I used to believe

moment_photo_67072ECDThis showed up in my mailbox today. Whenever something comes in a plain envelope with “Truth” on it, I start to develop shakes and hives (okay, not literally, but psychologically). And when the word “Triumphant” is right in there as well, I know whatever is in it is probably crap. (Oh, and nice use of alliteration. Your homiletics prof would be proud.) The worst part about all this is that even though I would have never associated myself with fringe groups that send out this junk, I would have nodded in agreement with quite a bit of what is contained in it.

I’d normally have thrown it out without a second glance, but curiosity got the better of me. Question such as, how bad is it? Is there anything new or different that they’ve added? How fringe is it?



So the front artwork is the all-too-typical black-and-white line drawing. And of course it’s all about the good ol’ U.S.A. with the standard themes of patriotism and liberty under some sort of attack (in this case the text refers to 9-11).






The usual scare tactics and fear-mongering with little or no biblical support. Note the call-out and larger type.






And of course when it comes to apocalyptic prophecies, it’s all about secret knowledge and conspiracies. Note, too,  the implied association of America as a special entity favored by God.




moment_photo_7CCD0358Ah, we can’t leave without first singing the refrain, “The Roman Catholic Church is evil!!!” Somehow the Vatican is going to unite everyone and everything against “True Believers.” Pope Francis – a tool of the devil.





All the bad and shocking stuff that happens around us and in the world? God. You read it right here. Because getting our attention is the most important thing, no matter what it takes – killing thousands via terrorism, wars, natural disasters, etc. Because in the end what happens to a single individual on earth doesn’t matter if many more are saved to get to heaven. Oh, and the 9-11 at the beginning? It was the 9-1-1 call (not pictured) from God to get our attention.


With PR like this, God doesn’t need enemies.