“IN BETWEEN” FAITHFULNESS — November 27, 2016

“IN BETWEEN” FAITHFULNESS

Advent I 2016

Preached at Trinity Cathedral, Trenton, NJ.

Advent expects a new world order.  Messiah will come and establish God’s own utopia, where there will be no more competition for well-being, where we’ll all be better off because everyone is well off, because the good of each is part and parcel of the common good.

Advent warns: cosmic upheaval will be required to get there.  Stars will fall.  Violent earthquakes will level mountains and raise valleys.  Climate change will flood deserts and dry up fertile farm land.  The very foundations of society will have to be shaken down to clear the ground for dramatic reversals.  Every human society privileges some at the expense of others.  When the gap between rich and poor becomes too wide, when unjust systems become too brittle for midcourse corrections, there’s nothing for it but “comes the revolution” that destroys the old to start again.

Advent warns: things will get worse before they get better.  Powers- that-be will do their damnedest (I use the word advisedly) to hold on to power and privilege.  The more desperate they get, the more ruthless they’ll become.  Advent warns: God’s strategy will be to let the powers of darkness play themselves out and do their very worst until they have exhausted their strategies and resources.

Advent expects: Christ will come in judgment to establish a new world order.  Advent warns: Whenever there is dramatic social change, for better for worse, there will be chaos in between.  Advent is that “in-between” season.  How are the people of God to keep faith when the world flies apart at the seams?

Most of us are old enough to have had a taste of chaos, when the pillars of our lives crumble or disappear, when the basics that we took for granted crash and burn.  Children lose parents, partners lose spouses to death, divorce, or jail.  Hard working bread-winners suddenly lose jobs, because the company moves or is bought out and downsized or because treacherous colleagues wanted them out of the way.  One way and another benefits get cancelled, and there is no money to pay the rent and buy food.  Our bodies let us down so that we can no longer do the very things that we thought made us useful and gave zest and purpose to life.  Or, we are confronted with that medical death sentence.  Some here at Trinity even know what it’s like to be caught in the middle of a violent civil war surrounded by slaughter and dismemberment.  When the world as we know it goes to smash, how can we to avoid falling apart with it?

Many of us here have learned the answer.  It is precisely in the midst of chaos that we come to know and feel what is always a reality:  God is the ground of our being.  Christ is the sure foundation.  In the midst of chaos, we must cling to God for all we’re worth.  We must hold fast to Christ our rock, so that we experience at the core of our being why “all our hope on God is founded!”  God loves us with an everlasting love that will not let us go forever.  We are safe in the clutches of Christ’s crucified and resurrected hands!

Biblical chaos is not brief.  The bible warns: the old world order will hang on “for a time, a time, and half a time.”  The bible teaches: the only way to retain our integrity is to root and ground ourselves in God and–by who we are and what we do and say–to keep on bearing witness to those core values that life together with God, companionship with Christ, have taught us to share.

Which values?  Archbishop Tutu, that veteran of chaos, of faithful testimony to entrenched but collapsing old world orders, makes them plain:

“Good is stronger than evil.

Love is stronger than hate.

Light is stronger than darkness.

Life is stronger than death.

Victory is ours through Christ Who died for us and rose again!”

In the midst of conflict and chaos, Archbishop Tutu faced up to the apartheid prime minister and grinned the invitation: “why not come over to the winning side?”

Love is stronger than hate.  Most hatred is defensive.  It credits the other with being a real threat to who we are and what we mean.  Hatred easily believes that we will not be safe unless those others are destroyed, or made to go away, unless their style is cramped so that they cannot live into their full potential.  But God is Boundless Love.  What makes us all safe at bottom is that there is enough life to go around and enough love to go around, because Divine love is generous, has a positive tendency to share itself out, to create room for us to be.  Rooting and grounding in God’s love, is what enables us to love family, friends, and neighbors.  And rooting and grounding in God’s love will make us strong to love our enemies, too.  We come to realize that because in God there is enough life and love to go around, God can be good to our enemies without being any less good to us!

Light is stronger than darkness.  Truth is stronger than lies.  We all know, lies can be persuasive.  We have all watched people get ahead by lying and playing false with others.  Because lies don’t correspond to anything real, they allow us more flexibility.  The current flack about “Fake News” on the internet shows how lying allows us to make up whatever we want.  All the same, Truth is stronger than lies.  Compared to Truth, lies are ephemeral, flimsy and fleeting, there’s nothing to them because they aren’t grounded in reality.  Besides, God is Truth.  Lies may hold sway “for a time a time and half a time.”  But Christ the Truth will come to judge the world.  Lies will be exposed for what they are.  Lies will not be allowed permanently to stand.

Rooting and grounding in God’s Truth, safely planted in the really Real reality of God, we learn that we afford to face the world as it really is, that we have nothing to gain by trafficking in lies.  Whether or not we can do something practical to stop them, we are nevertheless called to bear witness to the Truth, to frustrate complacency and cover-ups by calling a spade a spade, to keep it up “for a time a time and half a time,” for all seasons.  The Gospels assure us: bearing witness to the Truth is even a way of loving the liars, because it is a way–like Gandhi and Martin Luther King–of recalling them to their own true selves.

Life is stronger than death.  Divine life is creative.  Life-forces build up.  St. Paul says that Death is the Creator’s enemy, because it tries to tear down and destroy what God has made.  Rooting and grounding in Divine life, convinces us that we have to stay constructive.  The old may have to go to make way for the new.  But we will not be on God’s side when we make wreckage and ruin our principle aim.  The bible’s God has no permanent commitment to flawed and twisted human institutions.  But “God hates nothing that God has made.”  The Love of God is powerful and persistent to fit each and all of us for Christ’s eternal reign.

Victory is ours through Christ Who died for us and rose again.  To the extent that we are rooted and grounded in God, to the extent that we let Love and Truth and Life take hold of us, we have come over to the winning side.  Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus encourages the disciples with the seemingly ridiculous idea that faith moves mountains.  Geologically, mountains are among those stable features of the environment, the ones from which we get our bearings.  Our dysfunctional criminal justice system can seem immovable as a mountain.  The culture of lies and cover-up in high places can seem as fixed and unbudgeable as sunrise and sunset.  Death-dealing policies that deprive people of food and housing, meaningful work and medical care, that slam the door on asylum-seeking refugees, can seem to have an iron grip.  Jesus challenges: a mustard-seed’s worth of faith can move those mountains.  Staying rooted and grounded in God, relentlessly bearing witness, doing what we can to make nuisances of ourselves and turn things around–this is the stuff that moves mountains.  One day when we least expect it, the Son of man will come like a thief in the night, and we will wake to discover that ominous mountain range is no longer there.

In the in-between time, we can make Archbishop Tutu’s declaration our creed:  “Good is stronger than evil.  Good is stronger than evil.  Love is stronger than hate.  Light is stronger than darkness.  Life is stronger than death.  Victory is ours through Christ Who died for us and rose again.”  Thanks be to God!

QUESTIONING AND DISPUTING AUTHORITY: Medieval Methods for Modern Preaching — November 25, 2016

QUESTIONING AND DISPUTING AUTHORITY: Medieval Methods for Modern Preaching

 

A version was published in the Expository Times.

Modalities of Preaching:

Christian preaching conveys the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ.  John the Baptist, Jesus, His apprentice disciples were heralds of a happening, who announced the coming Kingdom and exhorted people to prepare the Lord’s way.  Post-pentecost preachers proclaimed what had already begun to be: how God had fulfilled Divine promises to Israel by raising Jesus from the dead.  From earliest times, Christian preaching also had a textual dimension.  We proclaim the Good News as contained in, transmitted through the lens of Holy Scripture.  Arguably, discourse that is not somehow based on, got to do with the Bible, is not preaching, because the Bible is a medium of God’s Word to us.  Notice, I did not say, “the, one and only medium.”  On the contrary, Jesus Christ, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, was, is and ever shall be the principal medium of God’s message.  Likewise, there are centuries of tradition and Christian reflection, our own prayerful encounterswith the Holy, and the whole earth filled with the glory of God.  But–for Christians–the Bible is the pre-eminent textual medium.  As Scripture says, it is written for our learning, as a primary tool in our spiritual formation and a vehicle of Divine communication with us.  For every Christian, it is both daily bread and duty–as the Advent-II collect says–to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” Holy Scriptures.  As Bishop Charles Gore declares, we must put ourselves to school to it, especially to those parts we find least palatable.  We are to keep at it every day of our lives.

This means that the preacher’s job is not merely to herald–to relay the simple message, “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand!”–but also to edify by explaining what it means, the better to bring it to bear on our own lives.  This was necessary at first when Christianity was new-fangled: Luke 24’s post-resurrection Jesus gives the disciples a Bible study lesson; the Acts of the Apostles represent Paul as arguing the Scriptures sabbath after sabbath, to figure-ground shift hearers into fresh interpretations in every town to which he goes.  It is all the more necessary now that Christianity is old-fashioned, guilty by association with the establishment, with centuries of failure to effect substantial improvements in the way human beings behave (e.g., to bring an end to genocidal tribalism, global economic injustice, racism, sexism, and homophobia).  Centuries of intra-Christian controversy prove, for us not-yet-fully-sanctified humans, the sense of Scripture is far from plain.  But this fact is exacerbated by the lost familiarity with the bible in the current generation.  My conclusion is that today’s preacher needs–among other things–to be a teacher, who first builds up knowledge of the canon, and then models how to question and dispute authority.  Medieval methods for modern times!

Beginning with Lectio: “Read, mark, learn!”

Even nowadays, fields of inquiry have a canon, which every professional must learn and know her way around.  Ancient education was no different, except that it could not rely on the easy access of on-line materials and printed books.  This meant beginning with lectio, with lectures, literally with reading out the text for students to commit to memory or copy down.  Ancient and medieval literal commentaries were riveted on verbal detail.  After outlining the structure of the passage, the the teacher would examine textual difficulties, compare one manuscript with another, perhaps suggest emendations.  The teacher would highlight unusual words, offer etymologies, comment on distinctive grammatical or literary constructions.  Finally, the teacher would sum everything up by paraphrasing the meaning, before moving on to the next line.

One goal of homiletical explication de textes is to get the text into the hearers’ memory, to get the work as a whole into their psycho-spiritual “blood stream,” to imbed it in their unconscious, so that it will come back to them in time of need.  My generation know how this works: we spent our childhoods learning our memory verses, reciting John 3:16, the ten commandments, the beatitudes, I Corinthians 13, Philippians 2, etc.  Public and private bible reading, regularly sung canticles and metrical psalms contribute to the same project.  Evidently, Jesus was drawing on memory verses when He cried, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34) or when He yielded, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit!” (Lk 23:46)  So, too, Pope John XXIII on his death bed: his mind was gone, but his lips kept saying, “Ego sum resurrectio et vita!”  “I am the resurrection and the life!”

This kind of Biblical preaching also rends the veil of elementary misunderstandings.  I remember how surprized we children were to learn that the King James words of institution–”Drink ye all of it!”–didn’t mean that God would be angry if we failed to drain to the dregs our plastic cups of grape juice; again, that “Study to show thyself approved unto God” (2 Tim 2:15) wasn’t warning us to work hard in school.  Explication de textes puts pupils in a position to avoid stupid, silly questions and to focus on matters of substance instead.

Inward Digestion: Many Kinds of Questions

Reading itself gives rise to questioning and disputing, once interest moves beyond ipsissima verba to the meanings that the text is trying to convey.  (1) Puzzled questions about what the author intends seek answers in other parts of the same work.  This effort gives rise to disagreements about which other passages are most relevant, and disputants mount arguments to defend both sides.  (2) It also begets queries about the internal consistency of the work in question.  Matthew’s Jesus says that not one dot of an ‘i’ or cross of a ‘t’ shall perish from the law (Mt 5:18); yet Jesus heals and the disciples thresh wheat on the Sabbath day (Mt 12:1-14).  More difficult, Matthew’s Jesus says (Mt 5:22) that whoever is so angry as to use contemptuous language, to call a brother a fool, is liable to hell fire; yet later (Mt 23:13-36; esp. 17), Jesus calls the Pharisees blind fools and other insulting names.  In Acts 9, Saul’s companions hear a voice but see no one; in Acts 22, they see the light but don’t hear the voice.  John’s Jesus says both that flesh is of no avail (6:63) and that eating His flesh and drinking His blood are necessary and sufficient for eternal life (6:53-58)–passages much disputed in Reformation sacramental theology.  Within the same discussion, St. Paul both forbids and permits Christians to eat meat offered to idols (I Cor 10:14-30; cf. 21 & 25-27).

Not only are there prima facie contradictions within works.  (3) Because the Bible is a library, there are clashes across books as well.  Which is it?  Ezra and Nehemiah insist that God commands ethnic cleansing (the putting away of Samaritan wives and half-breed children), while Ruth advertizes how King David had a Moabite great grandmother and Jonah dramatizes God’s concern for people of all nations.  Which is it?  Deuteronomy and many prophetic passages understand foreign conquest as Divine punishment on national apostacy, but deutero-Isaiah casts Israel as the Suffering Servant who will make God’s glory known world-wide.  Which is it?  James warns against saying that anyone was tempted by God (1:13-14), but Synoptic temptation narratives agree that it was the Spirit of God Who drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Mk 1:12: Mt 4:1; Lk 4:1), and the Lord’s prayer begs God not to lead us into temptations of the same kind (Mt 6:13; Lk 11:4).  Which is it?  One epistle declares that the Kingdom of God does not come through anger, while another merely cautions: “Be angry, but sin not.”  Which is it?  Jesus forbids divorce except on grounds of porneia (Mt 19:3-9), but St. Paul allows a Christian converts to divorce if that is the wish of their pagan spouse (I Cor 7:15).

(4) Still other questions arise because the texts underdetermine their application to life situations.  The Gospels themselves forward examples.  Does the decalogue’s prohibition against graven images (Ex 20:4-6) mean that Jews should never handle coins stamped with Caesar’s likeness?  or only that they shouldn’t use them to pay the temple tax? (Mt 22:15-22; Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26)  How could standard legal interpretations of levirate marriage be correct if there were a resurrection from the dead? (Mt 22:23-33; Mk 12:18-27; Lk 20:27-40)  Are some of God’s commandments more important than others, or are they all on a par? (Mt 22:34-40; Mk 12:28-34; Lk 10:25-28)  Fast-forwarding, we might ask in the same fashion, does the command against murder (Ex 20:13) apply to foetuses or to infants under a week old?

(5) Where canonical texts are concerned, inquiry presses beyond issues of internal coherence and consistency, to whether they fit with the rest of what we believe.  Once I preached a homily that made an assumption about the historical location of a given Bible story.  Sitting in the congregation was a colleague who was an expert on this period.  Afterwards, when I asked whether I had got it right, he replied: “Oh, I assume that in worship we use ‘church-speak.’  I have no expectation that it will correspond to anything historical!”  John Chrysostom begged to differ: commenting on Matthew’s story of the wise following a star, he protests, “We know real stars don’t behave like that.  It must have been a rational spirit producing a star-like appearance!”

Certainly, medieval authors were not content to leave the Bible floating loose–like fiction, fairy tales, or mythology–from their other belief systems.  Medieval theologians held that Truth is one, and that the Bible–if true–should be compatible with what reason and experience teach.  The structure of the medieval quaestio was designed to begin the process of integrated understanding.  First, a “yes or no” question is posed; then pro and contra arguments are mounted using premisses from canonical texts or traditional authorities; then an answer is formulated that often takes the form of a via media that learns something from both sides.  “Can the predestinate be damned?”  An affirmative answer seems to be demanded, because philosophy teaches us that free choices are contingent, and (some) theology insists that eternal destiny corresponds to the individual’s moral record, which can flip-flop in and out of mortal sin right up to the last gasp!  The witness of the Bible seems to demand a negative reply: “the call of God is irrevocable” (Rom ); and Divine predestination is certain.  Again, “will any humans be reprobate?”  Matthew 25 would suggest that some will, because it has God separating sheep from goats and herding the latter into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels (25:41).  But according to Acts, God wills that all humans be saved, and the Divine will cannot be thwarted.  Again, did the world have a beginning in time?  The Vulgate of Genesis 1:1 seems to say so, but Aristotle offered powerful philosophical and scientific arguments that time could have neither beginning nor end.  A more recent puzzle of the same sort would be whether human beings evolved from lower life forms, given the geological record on the one side, and Biblical witness on the other–that God is said to have made us in God’s image (Gen 1:26), by making mud-pies and breathing into us His breath of life (Gen 2:7).  For medieval school theologians, beginning and intermediate-level inward digestion of canonical texts, was a matter of questioning and disputing authority.  Medieval universities made questioning and disputing the medium of instruction for all subjects, and thereby institutionalized disagreement as a tool of analysis, of discovery, and of reintegration.

A Strategy for Preaching: Impudence or Honor?

My thesis is that this medieval method of questioning and disputing authority is an effective strategy for Christian preaching today.  Every teacher knows what Anselm pointed out in the eleventh century: questions, arguments pro and contra are more provocative than line-by-line exposition, more apt to shift pupils at their desks and people in the pews out of a passive into a more active posture, the better to win through to spiritual truths for themselves.  Many in our congregations are already asking themselves such questions, sometimes pointedly, sometimes in an inchoate way.  As professionals, we preachers are supposed to have the knowledge of Scripture and the competence in theology to focus them, to marshall the relevant texts, to lay out and weigh alternative solutions.  When we question and dispute Scripture and tradition, we demonstrate how to do it effectively.  However penetrating our analysis, the most important thing is not that the congregation should be convinced by our conclusions but that over time they should be thrust into the adult role of questioning and disputing authority themselves!

Reformed and reforming Christians may protest that this is just one more theologically scandalous medieval idea.  Don’t Calvin and Luther–like Augustine their mentor–often insist that–given Who God is, given that God’s ways are higher than our ways–it is impudent to question them?  If our sensus divinitatis were not clouded by sin, our trust in God would be unreserved, we would not dispute God’s Word but defer in humble submission.  Even now, the preacher should stick to explication de textes, use a hermeneutics of harmony to render the plain sense.  Secular learning should not be allowed to stand in judgment of the Bible.  Preachers should give themselves over to Holy Scriptures to be read, interrogated, and judged by the Bible, not the other way around!

Medieval school theologians would protest that their method has been misunderstood.  They question and dispute authority, not to mock or reject or refute it (medievals all believed the Bible, the creeds, and the pronouncements of early ecumenical councils to be infallibly true), but to pay it the honor of active attention, to dig down deeper into it, the better to understand it.  As Anselm says, faith seeks understanding, and understanding is the mean between faith and sight.  We begin with faith that receives God’s Word and takes it in.  Questioning and disputing chews instead of swallowing whole; like cud-chewing cows, chews again and again to derive the maximum nourishment.  So far from dismissing, questioning and disputing honors the truth-claims of Scripture: it is because we assign them presumptive weight that we bother trying to discover how they can be consistent with the deliverances of reason and experience, with the settled claims of history and natural science, with arguments from ethics and philosophy.  Why shouldn’t it be the preacher’s job to to question and dispute authority with the goal of theological clarification, with the aim of teaching his congregation how to work their way towards an integrated, God-governed, Christ-centered world view?

Put otherwise, questioning and disputing–like asserting, exhorting, and exclaiming–are forms or modes of speech.  Any of them can be deployed with different motives for contrasting purposes.  There are the child’s puzzled questions, raised with openness and curiousity: “How is God my daddy, when I already have a mommy and a daddy?”  “Does Jesus get wet when I put His Body in my mouth?”  “Why did God drown the Egyptian chariot drivers?  Why does God let people kill animals to eat?  Doesn’t God love them, too?”  There are school theology’s analytical questions, pressing towards a coherent world view.  Common in academic and polemical contexts is the challenge and riposte of competitive questioning that hopes to score, even humiliate the presenter.  The Gospels instance loaded or trick questions posed to double-bind the respondent into convicting himself out of his own mouth.  For instance, Jesus’ enemies demand, “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mt 22:17; Mk 12:14; Lk 20:22) “Is it lawful to divorce for any cause?” (Mt 19:3)   But Jesus Himself is champion in this genre: “was the baptism of John from heaven, or from men?” (Mt 21:25; Mk 11:30; Lk 20:4)  “If the Messiah is David’s son, how does David call him ‘lord’?” (Mt 22:41-46; Mk 12:35-37; Lk 20:41-44)  The Gospels also narrate borderline accusatory questions: “why don’t Your disciples fast or wash?” or “why does this man eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man [= Lazarus] from dying?” (Jn 11:37)

The Gospels frown on malicious trap questions.  What Luther and Calvin find incompatible with faith are accusatory questions that blame God or charge God with wrong.  Matthean and Lucan temptation narratives (Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-12) show how disputation can turn diabolical.  But preaching that questions and disputes in the medieval manner, motivated by eagerness to learn and a desire to process honest puzzlement, why, what could be objectionable about that?

Daring Blasphemy: Friendly Questioning?

Nevertheless, we Christian preachers will be derelict in our duty if we venture only so far as courteous, if energetic and vigorous, analytical questioning and disputation.  For the Christian Gospel cuts to the heart of what is at stake between God and human beings: does God love us?  Does God even care about us?  Can we relate to God in ways that are appropriate to God and wholesome for us?  The Bible insists that God has a history of covenant-making–with the patriarchs, with Israel, with the human race; that the heart of Who God is, is revealed in covenant love and faithfulness.  The Bible also is unflinching in its acknowledgement that horrendous things happen to God’s people.  The Bible equivocates but we know, not only do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, millions of people lead entire lives of unrelieved misery and degradation.  Catastrophes happen–9/11, the Boxing Day tsunami, hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Pakistan–which kill and maim whole communities without regard to individual values, accomplishments, or contributions.  While AIDS orphans multiply by the millions in Africa, and genocide continues in Darfur, family violence–physical and sexual and emotional abuse–thrives in outwardly respectable European homes.  These big issues prima facie contradict the Bible’s claims about Divine goodness and make debates about biology and the virgin birth look pathetically academic.

My contention is that–in a world such as this–we cannot be true to our callings as Christian preachers without pressing those accusatory questions banned by Luther and Calvin–ones that challenge the character and purposes of God.  Faithfulness demands that we question and dispute, not only the Bible, but the authority that is Godself.  Happily, the Bible urges us on, with role models reassures us: when we do so, we are not inciting rebellion; we are demonstrating how to be friends of God in troubled times!

Questioning and disputing God’s authority is the privilege and responsibility of God’s friends.  Among other things, a friend is an alter ego, one who is granted standing to call the other to account, to speak up to say whether–by engaging in a given action or behavior–the person can be true to him/herself.  Friends are also committed to exchanging, so far as possible to entering into one another’s points of view, to appreciate how the other sees and values their surround.

Thus, YHWH counts Abraham a friend, takes Abraham into His confidence and shares the Divine plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham girds up his loins and disputes YHWH’s policy of collective punishment.  “Far be it from You to slay the righteous with the wicked!”  “Should not the judge of all the earth do right?”  YHWH concedes: to be true to Himself, He must instead show a bias towards mercy; instead of destroying whole cities because of a wicked minority or even a perverse majority, He should spare whole cities for the sake of a small number of righteous persons.  Abraham keeps disputing: fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, ten!  (Gen 18:17-33)

If Abraham intercedes on behalf of strangers, Job claims patriarchal privilege to plead his own case.  After two chapters of Stoic resignation that would make Calvin proud–”the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21); “shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10)–Job pours out his complaint, for anguished chapters details how things look to him.  He insists on the facts as he sees them: that his record is righteous, that his suffering is incommensurate with any wrongdoing, that his woes are so pervasive that he wishes never to have been born.  Job experiences himself as one friend betrayed by another, deeply wounded and angry but still holding out hope that God is Who Job had thought Him to be.  Job still trusts God enough to dispute God’s wisdom and goodness and to call God to account.  Job’s discourse is saturated with bitter irony that twists the texts of Scripture to hurl them back in God’s face.  Job “sins with his lips”: “You slay the innocent with the guilty!”  “You are more a chaos monster than a creator!”  “What is man that You are mindful”–so delight in torturing–”him?”  “Go pick on someone Your own size!”  Job’s human friends are afraid of Job’s blasphemous accusations and–despite their initial good intentions (Job 2:11-13)–back off, defend God, blame the victim, and emotionally abandon Job to his own devices.  By contrast, God counts Job a friend, beginning, middle, and end: in the beginning, when He praises Job to the Satan (Job 1:8); in the middle, when God veils His presence so that Job will not “melt down” into incoherence and be unable to articulate his case (cf. Job 9:27-35); and in the end, when God condemns Job’s human friends for not telling the truth about God the way Job did (Job 42:7).  Job told the truth about how the situation looked and felt to him.  God reciprocates, favors Job with the intimacy of face-to-face vision, and shares with Job Godhead’s contrasting point of view (the YHWH speeches of Job 38-41)–all of which leaves Job dumbfounded (42:5-6) as he predicted it would.

The book of Job as we have it re-presents a God Who is in favor of questioning and disputing, One Who recognizes the “size-gap” between God and creatures, One Who contrives (by holding back) to make space for His tiny human partners to make their case and say their piece.  Once again, it is Job, and not his sychophantic theological friends, who sees God; Job, the quintessential patriarch who presses the blasphemous question, who disputes the Creator’s competence and goodness.  Job is the one who experiences how suffering can penetrate to the core, and Job is the one who experiences the God Whose ways are higher than our ways.  And so Job is the literal expert–among humans, the one who knows whereof he speaks.

The book of Job makes clear how Christian preachers are called into a ministry of double identification.  Like the patriarchs and prophets, we cannot back off from trafficking with the God Who drafts us into service.  We cannot preach unless we–like Abraham and Moses–say our daily “yes” to God’s claim on our lives.  No more than Moses or Jonah, do we have the option of backing off from the people to whom God sends us.  When our parishioners sink into affliction and begin to rail at God, we dare not play the part of Job’s friends.  We need instead to follow God’s lead in giving them permission.  We should already have imitated Job’s chutzpah in our preaching, to inspire courage to engage the conversation, to furnish examples of how to mount the arguments and vent with full candor, how to give God a piece of our minds the way–when something outrageous happens–a real friend would do.

Put otherwise, John’s Jesus explains how God invites all of the elect into the Father-Son-Paraclete friendship circle (Jn 14-15).  But because of the size-gap and because of the kind of world in which God has placed us, God has always had severe communication problems, difficulties in reaching an understanding with His merely human would-be friends.  To overcome this, God has chosen patriarchs, formed a people, called prophets and preachers; moving on from oral tradition, God has caused Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; and God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ.  However much we Christian preachers are called to explication de textes, we are above all a medium of God’s message, called to question and dispute authority, the better to demonstrate what it is to be friends with God!

 

RESURRECTING THE COSMOS —

RESURRECTING THE COSMOS

The Great Vigil of Easter 2013

Preached at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, Chapel Hill.

We begin in the dark, because God is dead.  The dastardly deed was done yesterday, when we, the people of God, killed God.  Our crime was suicidal.  God is the Maker and Maintainer of all things.  If the Creator is dead, creation must be dead, too!

We have listened to the lessons.  In the bible, creation isn’t ex nihilo, and death doesn’t mean annihilation.  God creates the world by ordering chaos.  Chaos isn’t nothing.  Chaos is stuff in a mess, stuff that lacks any inward power to give it shape or definition, to pull it into regular patterns of being and doing.

Animals have souls, forces that work in secret to form limbs and lungs, nerves and brains, mouths and claws.  Sheep are animated by power on the inside that gets their organs moving “in synch”–teeth for chewing, stomachs for digesting, eyes for peering, legs for frolicking and running away from wolves–all working together to enable sheep to “do the sheep thing.”  When the animal dies, its body gets disconnected from the soul that held it together as a functioning system.  The stuff out of which it was made loses integrity.  The corpse rots.  Dust returns to dust.  Just as often, animals get eaten, so that what was their stuff becomes part of, gets taken up into the being and doing of something else.

The world as we know it is full of many and various things.  For them to make a cosmos–a universe–they have to be organized into interactive systems.  Not only do they have to be spatially arranged–Mercury closest to the sun, then Venus, then planet Earth before Mars.  Their activities need to become regular and predictable.  Think of the inverse square law, elliptical orbits, water dissolving sugar, Einstein’s matter into energy conversion, the speed of light…  The bible tells us, right from the start: an orderly world is no accident.  Divine power exercised on purpose is what holds the universe together.  God is the force operating on the inside to persuade all things to work together for good.

In the bible story, God proceeds methodically: first separating the elements and setting up distinctive environments; then making all kinds of living things and welcoming them into their homes–birds to the air, fish to the sea, plants and cattle to the solid ground.

Making arrangements for human beings made in God’s image, was and is more challenging.  God invites us into harmonious life together with God and other creatures.  God calls us to experience the whole universe as a society, a body-politic held together and animated by God, its esprit de corps.  God is the One, the only One, Who can underwrite this project.  This is because God is life, life that is self-sustaining, life that does not depend on the existence or the destruction of anything else.  For all else, God is the source of life and its only reliable sustainer.  We are meant to receive life, not as a thing to be grasped, but as a gift from a Boundless Source.  Because God recognizes that animal life is not self-sustaining, God cuts a covenant, setting out a life-style of courteous consumption: human beings will be generously provided for so long as they honor God as the source of life and show respect for God’s other creatures.

Because courtesy does not come naturally to human beings, God works hard to civilize us into harmonious living.  God prescribes liturgies in which we “act out” the fundamental truths of our existence.  Old-time sacrifices of first fruits and first born acknowledge that all life belongs to God by voluntarily offering life back to God, the source of life.  Eating and drinking sacrificial foods reminds us how we are entitled neither to life nor to the necessities of life, but receive both as gifts from a Boundless Source.  God also guides us with the gift of God’s law.  Ten commandments reinforce the message that God is the vital organizing center of the universe and that we must treat our fellow human beings with respect.  Warnings not to over-use–to give the land a sabbatical from planting, to allow the livestock time to rest; in harvesting, to leave rows of grain and fruit on the tree so that the landless poor, immigrants, and travellers will have something to gather–all of these teach courtesy towards God’s other creatures.

Courtesy does not come naturally to us, because we are animals in a world of real and apparent scarcities, animals who have a “darwinian” counter-credo written into our genes.  Animal-instincts insist that we are entitled to life and to the necessities of life, that preserving life is entirely up to us, and that we are therefore entitled to do whatever it takes to secure it.  Our very flesh drives us to live “darwinian,” which leads to the proverbial “struggle for existence” in which only the fittest survive.

Because animal life by nature is not and cannot be self-sustaining, because animals by nature are mortal, our efforts to secure immortality for “us and ours” becomes a desperate effort to control–the better to consume–life-sustaining resources.  Its logical conclusion is the demand that “us and ours” be the unifying principle of the universe, the organizing principle that presses everything and everyone else into service to meet our needs.  Aristotle and how many other humanists down the centuries declare: “Man”–ahem, yes, they meant ‘man’–“is the measure of all things.”  The cosmos is anthropocentric.  The whole material world–its basic earth-air-fire-water elements and all other life forms–were created for the sake of human beings!  With tribes and clans and nation-states down the centuries, we take our turn in imagining that we are God’s chosen people, that we are the climax of world history, that all of those earlier civilizations rising and falling have been leading up to us!  The bible bears witness how civic religion goes further to press the gods into service as mascots, genies in the bottle who exist to grant our wishes and promote our aims!  Friday consummates the blasphemy, when the people of God kill God, murder the heir so that the vineyard may be ours!

We have had a day to ponder the consequences.  God is dead.  But God was the animating principle, the organizing force of creation, of human personality, and of harmonious society.  God is dead, and they have reverted to chaos.  Top soil has thinned, waters are fouled, the air is full of toxic chemicals, the climate has gone crazy.  Individually, we caricature God’s image, while human society oozes injustice like sewage into polluted streams.

The bible makes its diagnosis explicit.  God is a center that will hold, because Divine life is self-sustaining.  God keeps on being and doing without needing to gobble up anything else.  By contrast, human life is not self-sustaining.  Making human life the center of all things is life-wrecking, life-devouring, life-destroying.  It is a recipe for medium-run chaos.  It is a recipe for death.  Vigil lessons rehearse: everything is dead, because human beings are slow of heart to believe that God can be trusted to keep on giving the gift of life forever.

The Vigil dramatizes this verdict.  Easter is not simply about bringing a worthy individual back to life without the magic tricks of ICU.  The scale is cosmic.  Easter is about the resurrection of all things.  The Vigil “acts out” God stepping back in as organizing principle and center, to order chaos, to bring all creation–earth-air-fire-water elements, human personality and society–back to life.

In the bible story, God’s first words in creation were ‘let there be light!’  Therefore, the Vigil begins by striking new fire.  Just as primal time was organized by the heavenly bodies–day and night divided by the sun’s regular motion, weeks and months counted by the waxing and waning of the moon–so in the new world order time is marked by Christ, the alpha and the omega, the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.  Christ is the context within which we hear our history of Divine dreams wrecked and ruined, of rising hopes that God will intervene to re-order chaos again.

We continue with the blessing of the water.  Just as the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep, so we call down breath of God to rout the demons, to blast away the halitosis of man-is-the-measure-of-all-things self-centeredness.  We hover over the deep, blow a psi for ‘psyche’, purifying what was poisoned into the water of life.  We plunge the phallic pascal candle into the water three times as outward and visible sign of Divine-life-giving fertility.  We sprinkle holy water towards the four points of the compass, to wash away the violence with which we have polluted the earth.

Holy water is a solvent.  We plunge candidates for baptism into it, we soak ourselves with healthy doses of it, to die to the old world order centered as it was on “us and ours,” vowing to live into God’s new world order that centers in Christ.  We come at last to the eucharistic feast that feeds us with food fit for the reborn, risen, and re-organized.  We eat Christ’s Body and drink Christ’s Blood as proof of our intentions: from now on to let Christ be our functional center, from now on to live by His Life!

OUT-OF-BOUNDS POWER —

OUT-OF-BOUNDS POWER

2 Cor 8:7-end,  Mark 5:21-end

Preached at Christ Church cathedral, Oxford, 2009

Mark’s Jesus strides out of the wilderness into ministry saturated with holiness and pulsing with power.  Holiness is out-of-bounds power, a total cleanser on a mission to ‘wash the dirt’–that is to say,  any and every kind of dysfunction–‘right down the drain.’  Given who we are, what we are, and where we are, we human beings need to traffic with out-of-bounds power to flourish in life.  Mark’s Gospel warns, like it or not, out-of-bounds power is the environment in which we live and move and have our being.  And so the evangelist tells stories to give us a clue as to what we might expect from it, to drop hints as to how we might go about getting the Good out of it.

Consistently and repeatedly, Mark’s episodes drive home the obvious point that out-of-bounds power so outclasses creatures that it is impossible for them to control it.  Disease-and-madness producing demons recognize its approach as their eviction notice: ‘We know who You are, Jesus of Nazareth.  You are the Holy One of God!’  They may try plea-bargaining.  Like the Gerasene demoniac’s Legion, they may be reduced to begging: ‘Don’t make us homeless!  Give us sheltered housing!  We’ll vacate the humans if You let us possess these pigs!’   Out-of-bounds power concedes only to outwit: the pigs stampede off the cliff into the end-time abyss, into the mouth of hell, right back home where demons belong!

More strikingly, Mark represents out-of-bounds power as something that Jesus Himself is unable to control, at least in His human nature.  In today’s story, the bleeding woman believes, and is right to believe, that she can ‘catch’ it by contact.  Jesus perceives power flowing out of Him, but–like static electricity–the transfer is triggered without His prior knowledge or consent.

Second, relative to human standards of propriety, out-of-bounds power is rude.  It can almost be counted upon to misfit human priorities and sense of timing.  In today’s story, Jairus wants Jesus to come and prevent the worst from happening: ‘heal my little daughter before she dies’.  ‘Ain’t no hurry!’  In the bible, out-of-bounds power regularly fails to respond to our human sense of urgency.  Even merely created powers can sometimes prevent disasters (e.g., cautious driving averts the traffic accident that causes paraplegia) that they would be unable to turn around.  Occasionally, out-of-bounds power does come through with ‘nick of time’ rescues and ‘skin of the teeth’ escapes.  Remember the Exodus: how Israeli’s were pressed up against the sea and Pharaoh’s horses and chariots were advancing from behind, almost breathing down Israeli necks before God parts the waters to allow Israel to pass over and then floods the path when the Egyptians follow in pursuit.

More often than not out-of-bounds power forgoes prevention in favor of reversal.  In today’s story, Jesus interrupts his walk to Jairus’ house to have a conversation with the bleeding woman who touched Him.  During the delay, Jairus’ daughter dies with the result that Jesus arrives after it is already too late.  This is a rehearsal for the passion narrative at Gospel’s end, when Jesus is not ‘escaped’ from the cross by hosts of descending angels; out-of-bounds power does not excuse Him from drinking His cup of wormwood and gall.  From the perspective of out-of-bounds power, why bother to prevent what it can more than make good on?  Why rush in to keep someone from dying, when–after a few minutes, the proverbial three days, or the closing age–out-of-bounds power can so easily–‘speak the Word only’–make us rise?  (Of course, from our side, there could be an answer to that question!)

Out-of-bounds power is unique and has its own etiquette.  Because out-of-bounds power is out-of-bounds, it cannot be counted upon to meet, but it is sure to exceed our expectations.  Jairus believes that Jesus can keep his daughter from dying.  But what Jesus actually does is raise her from the dead.  The bleeding woman is confident of a cure for her bodily ailment.  But Jesus is not content to barge through crowds letting His out-of-bounds power scatter effects where it may.  With Jesus, out-of-bounds power is in service of a personal transaction.  Jesus demands to know, ‘who touched me?’, not to scold but to extend a Kingdom-welcome: ‘daughter, your faith has saved you!’   Hemorrhaging shows that she is not self-contained, make her ritually unclean because she symbolizes a leaky society in danger of losing vitality and definition.  Levitical rules have ostracized her from polite society, classified her as ‘untouchable’ for twelve years.  Jesus is determined to make explicit what her bodily cure symbolizes: she is God’s own daughter, a legitimate heir to covenant promises.  Like passport control to returning travellers, Jesus proclaims, ‘Welcome home!  Welcome to the Reign of God!’

Out-of-bounds power is humanly uncontrollable.  But Mark shows how, because out-of-bounds power is personal, it can be approached in more and less promising ways.  The stories immediately before and after today’s reading illustrate bad strategies.  When Jesus crosses the lake to Gentile territory, exorcizes Legion demons from the raging madman, and rehouses them in a herd of pigs, the locals request–politely but firmly–that Jesus get out of town.  Jesus is an alien saturated with alien power.  He has already upset the applecart.  Who knows what He will do next?  High time for Him to take His out-of-bounds power and go back where He belongs.

When Jesus does go home, acquaintances and neighbors react with jealous resentment.  Jesus is a local boy, but out-of-bounds power now makes Him out of the ordinary, and so ‘alienates’ Him from His roots.  Locals move to cut Jesus back down to size.  But this means pretending His out-of-bounds power isn’t really there and and so deprives them of its benefits.

By contrast, Jairus and the bleeding woman come to Jesus because they believe that Jesus has wonder-working power, and because they hope that they will be able to connect with its wholesome effects.  Their contrasting strategies reflect their different social positions.  Jairus is a well-respected ruler of the synagogue, who reasonably believes that he can win access to Jesus’ out-of-bounds power through personal networking.  Unlike most religious establishment characters in the Gospels, his faith is genuine and his request humble, because he thinks Jesus’ out-of-bounds power puts Jesus higher on the spiritual totem pole than ordinary-but-faithful, faithful-but-ordinary synagogue rulers.  Jesus responds to Jairus’  straight-forward sincerity, but challenges him to believe even more.  By contrast, the bleeding woman is wily.  She has no social connections that could win her an audience, but she is confident that she can steal a cure by touching him in the hustle-bustle crowd.  Jesus surprizes her with the news that healing was hers for the asking, that wholesome social networks are to be grounded in Him.

Today’s morals from Mark’s stories are many: first, that out-of-bounds power is for life, but it will not prevent our deaths because resurrection is in our future.  Out-of-bounds power is alien to our nature, but not alienating because it is personally possessed by a member of the human family.  Because out-of-bounds power is personal and for us, it strikes a balance between the stability our sanity requires and extravagant interruptions that do better for us than we can ask or imagine.  That’s why we should approach with confidence, whether with humble petition or wily indirection; that’s why we should accept Jesus’ invitation to become the media of its manifestation, modern witnesses to out-of-bounds power making itself at home with human beings.

Understanding Mind, Heart of Wisdom — November 24, 2016

Understanding Mind, Heart of Wisdom

I Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14

Preached at St. Michael’s Trenton, 2015

 Today’s story about King Soloman is meant for presidential candidates and politicians.  The punch line is that they should want to begin like King Soloman.  They should not enter the race unless they long to become good shepherds of a great people.  They are not fit to lead unless they realize how hard that is, unless they have the humility to beg God for an understanding mind, a heart of wisdom.  So far as I know, no one here is about to join the ranks of the presidential contenders.  All the same, today’s story is meant for us, too, because in a democracy it is important for not only the candidates but also the voters to be wise.

People get into politics for lots of reasons.  Today’s story mentions two that loom large.  High office puts people in a position to get rich.  They can broker their power for kick-backs.  “I can get you an immigration visa, if you treat me to a luxury vacation or give my ne’r-do-well son a job.”  “I sponsor bills that benefit your business, and you make large donations to my campaign.”  And these are just the things we read about in the newspaper.

High office also brings power and notoreity.  These can be addictive.  Desperation to stay in office drives some of the more perverse dynamics of American politics today.  Karl Rove was explicit: running for office is an advertising campaign.  To market your candidate, you take polls to sample the hopes and fears and biases of the electorate.  Then you tailor the candidate’s speeches and tv ads to pander to their prejudices and play on their fears.  Even leaving Trump out of it, try these recent samples: “If we don’t close the borders, they’ll take away your jobs!”  “Terror has become a way of life!”  “The Islamic state exists because they hate everything we believe in.”  “Our constitution makes clear: there’s no place for gays or atheists in America.”  Or that West Virginia election flier a few years ago: “if the liberal establishment passes gay marriage, they’ll take away your bibles next.”

When God appeared at the sacrifice to grant the new king a wish, Soloman didn’t ask for riches or honor.  He acknowledged his inadequacy before the task, and begged God’s help.  Wise voters demand nothing less of candidates: to win our support they need to give evidence of an understanding mind and a heart of wisdom.

Wisdom means centering on the right values.  Worthy leaders are dedicated to pursuing the common good.  King Soloman has inherited the job of ruling “a great people.”  Wise leaders are realistic.  A great people is not just a lot of individuals “doing their own thing.”  Government expenditures are not just waste or robbery.  They fund the infrastructures needed to organize large populations, to make life together–private projects and corporate ventures–possible.  Roads and trains, post office and telecommunications, hospitals and schools are conditions of the possibility of creative entrepreneurship and cultural expression.  Wise voters demand leaders who are inventive to build up and maintain those infrastructures that support our common life.

Wise leaders have a passion for justice.  The bible teaches: justice is what love looks like on a communal scale.  Our founding fathers speak of “equal opportunity.”  However difficult that is to define theoretically, we all recognize when it isn’t there.  America is a democracy.  At least since 1965, we were supposed to be committed to equal opportunity to vote.  It is revolting to learn how politicians have schemed and connived for decades to undermine it.  They had minds to calculate means to unjust ends, but they did not have a heart of wisdom.

Equal opportunity is just beginning to mean equal access to health care.  The president himself admits: Obama Care isn’t perfect.  Wisdom’s challenge is: then come up with another alternative that will get as many covered and more.  Jesus Christ healed the sick.  What excuse do politicians have for not wanting to expand Medicaid?  Or invent something better!  Wise voters demand leaders with compassion.

Martin Luther King appealed to the American dream.  Some of us here are old enough to have participated in it.  Wisdom doesn’t have to reach for the Golden Rule.  “Do as you’re done by” will get us there.  If we have profited from institutions and policies that gave us a chance to make something of ourselves and to become people who could make a contribution, then we have a responsibility to pass it on.  All but the native Americans are immigrants.  How could wise voters buy this politician’s explanation: “when my forbears came, the economy could absorb more workers.  But that’s changed.  So we should close our borders and deport those who try to sneak across now”?

In a “great society” citizens need education.  When Bob and I moved to California in 1972, community colleges were free; the state college system charged about $100 per semester; and the university cost roughly $600 per year.  Most first generation college students don’t come from private day schools, and they can’t afford the Ivy’s.  Universal education was part of the great American experiment to level the playing field.  Wise leaders work overtime to build up institutions that expand a great people’s horizons.  Wise voters do not fall for the anti-intellectualism and tax moratoria that dry up scholarships and erode our public schools.

Wisdom integrates core values.  And wisdom is intelligent.  Wise is the opposite of foolish, the contrary of stupid, idiotic, and ignorant.  Wise voters will not be satisfied with negative campaigning and name-calling, with sound-bites and slogans.  Wise voters demand substance: leaders who will analyse social problems, brain-storm strategies and work out solutions.  Wise voters will not be entertained by debates that “one-up” without confronting nitty gritty issues and weighing honest options.

Wise voters demand leaders who dream dreams and see visions… leaders who are so convinced of the dignity of every human being, who so believe in our collective creativity, that they will be able to inspire us, to recall us to our higher selves.  Some of us remember an inaugural address in which the new president challenged: “ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”  Some of us remember how another president made bold to delcare war on poverty.  We have also lived through presidents who preached a different gospel: (I heard it with my own ears) “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for yourself!”  Now we can’t even get congress to increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans.  After all, “it’s not a crime to be successful!”  “We have a right to keep what’s ours.”

America is “a great people.”  But history records: all societies rise and fall.  They begin with energy and determination organized around a dream.  The lure of “yes, we can” keeps us scrambling, working, daring and risking to make our dream come true.  When it becomes a reality for enough people, enthusiasm calms.  The situation stabilizes.  The economy grows. And the infrastructure gets developed.  Stagnation sets in when the society loses its flexibility, its willingness to keep making midcourse corrections until the dream is realized for everybody.

King Solomon began well, but he did not end so well.  He gave in to us versus them: a member of the tribe of Judah, he imposed forced labor on the northern tribes.  He relied on marriages to make alliances and expand borders, and built temples for his foreign wives’ gods.  Borders were enlarged in his life time, but the kingdom was divided in the next generation and eventually conquered.

America’s joints are stiffening.  So many politicians try to hold onto their positions by pandering to the worst in us.  We need wise leaders who will bring out the best in us.  Wise voters will demand leaders who aren’t afraid to insist on a course of physical therapy, to put America through some pain to get it moving again towards liberty and justice for all.

 

NO WINE! —

NO WINE!

John 2:1-11

Preached at Trinity Cathedral Trenton, January 2016

Weddings loom large in the bible because Bridegroom and Bride are a favorite way of imaging who God is to us and who we-the-people-of-God are to God!  Marriage marks a new way of being in the world, not only for the couple, but for the entire network of people who care about them.  In Jesus’ day, the groom was supposed to put on a week-long sumptuous feast for the whole village, as an outward and visible sign of his competence for stepping up to this new role, to manage a household and to provide.  At Cana, there is a crisis in the making: the groom is about to be embarrassed.  The supply of wine is exhausted.  Mary is paying attention, and informs Jesus: “They have no wine!”  Jesus replies: “Not our problem!  Not my wedding!  My hour has not yet come!”  Everyone knows, there are some mommas that you don’t mess with!  Mary refuses to take “no” for an answer.  Jesus complies.  Marching over to the six stone jars of purification, he commands: “Fill them with water!”  “Draw some out and take it to the steward!”  “Why have you saved the best to the last?”

The bible tells how even before creation, when Israel was only a twinkle in God’s eye, God had his heart set on an arranged marriage of God with the people-of-God.  God’s purpose in making this world was life together.  God was out to establish a Great Society in which the good of each individual harmonized with the common good, and no one had anything to gain by interfering with the flourishing of anyone else.  God worked with Jacob’s family to form a nation to be the prototype of God’s social experiment.  God befriended patriarchs, furnished commandments as guidelines for organizing life together, sent judges and prophets to teach best practices and to correct flawed policy implementation.  God appointed priests and designed liturgies to focus the national purpose.  Cleansing rituals were established to restore relationships when things went wrong.  Washing hands and clothes and pots were meant to be outward and visible sign of their inward and spiritual commitment to clean living.  Worse than individual sins were the twisted ways we organize life together that make us all party to privileging some and degrading others.  Torah tells: God is allergic to social injustice; in liturgical language, “a holy God cannot dwell with an unholy people.”  Social injustice acts at a distance to pollute the Temple.  Cleansing requires animal sacrifice.  Torah tells: the life is in the blood.  The animal’s pure life symbolizes the pure life the nation and its leaders were supposed to offer.  Splashed at the base of the altar, the blood “catches” the positive charge of Divine holiness which neutralizes the negative charge of systemic evil.  Blood sprinkled on the altar in the holy of holies where God hovers and on the people, reasserts kinship: God and the people-of-God share the same life!

Mary protests: “they have no wine!”  God the Bridegroom has made provision, but what God provided so far had not and has not yet established that Great Society, where justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.  All of us are still living in dysfunctional social institutions.  We have learned how to survive them.  We have learned how to work around them.  We have learned how to work against them, to make a way out of no way.

Yet, adjusting to them, acquiescing in them, has cramped our style, forced us to trim our sails.  Institutions are supposed to make it possible for us to do our work, to acquire the skills we need to make the most of our creativity.  But when society is organized to benefit some at the expense of others, when powers-that-be force us to control ourselves not just in ways that will make us more effective but in ways that make us more convenient for others–such toxic social systems wound us, make it almost impossible for us to rise up to full stature.  Here is a sure sign that God’s Great Society has not fully taken hold: that powers-that-be demand that some be smaller than they really are so that others can feel as big and as important as they think they need to be.

For so many, our society is still a cage, a prison incarcerating those who are held back and used for the benefit of others.  “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were just a dream for Travon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown.  “Liberty and justice for all”– is that even a dream for youth already criminalized for minor drug offenses?  Don’t all dreams turn to nightmares for people in solitary confinement on Riker’s Island?  When will the blood of the Lamb flood Wall Street to upend our economic priorities?  Politicians are fixated on financial institutions that are “too big to fail.”  But the bible’s God was supposed to protect the “little people” who are too small to tromp on.  Mary protests: “they have no wine!”  Whatever is going on with those stone jars of purification, it isn’t enough.  “Don’t give me that ‘my hour has not yet come’ stuff!  Your hour has, too, come, because they have no wine and it is past time to do something about it!”

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hour has not yet come.  The scene of Jesus’ wedding is not Cana but Golgotha.  At Cana, Mary enlists Jesus to save the bridegroom’s face.  But Calvary mocks Divine competence for setting up house-keeping, God with the people of God.  Religious leaders are so resistant to Jesus as Way-Truth-Life that they murder the bridegroom.  So far from celebrating the Great Society as God’s crowning achievement, Golgotha mocks Jewish kingship in three languages, and scars Jesus’ forehead with a crown of thorns.  Irony saves the plot: the Word becomes flesh to make those stone jars of purification obsolete by filling them with the wine of his blood.  Which being translated means: Holy God can’t wait to get married until the bride is all cleaned up, because the only way to turn the likes of us into fit citizens of the Great Society is to move right in with us, to flood us with Holy Spirit, to cohabit with us as teacher and partner for life!

The Spirit of God is the Spirit of prophecy.  Until the Great Society is fully manifest, the Spirit of God is at work, nudging us all to be prophets.  In today’s Gospel, Mary shows us how.  Mary is sharp-eyed to recognize.  Mary is bold and relentless in calling attention.  Mary refuses to take ‘no’ for answer.  Mary models the prophetic impatience: “your hour has, too, come.  They have no wine, it’s past time, and you have what it takes to do something about it!”  Put otherwise, until the Great Society comes, it is our job to make nuisances of ourselves and to nag!

Job nagged God, Mary nudged Jesus until they got action.  Don’t think that nagging God is blasphemous.  God knows that our sense of timing is out of sych with Divine calculations.  Jesus encourages us to pray with importunity (with chutzpah).  The elect waiting the end time constantly sigh: “how long, O Lord, how long?”  God wants us to screw up our courage, knows that incessantly demanding that God do something, is one way of sharing God’s own impatience to establish the Great Society once and for all.

Especially in a democracy, we are called to nag our elected officials.  It is our job to stay alert, to spot social evils ripe for uprooting, and to demand that they use their power to do something about it.  We are the watchers God has set to “call a spade a spade,” relentlessly to protest when they “play politics” instead of governing and cater to campaign contributors at the expense of the common good.  When legislators become callous, when governors mock human misery–so far from saving their faces–it is our job to expose them, to put them to shame for their failure to provide.

Finally, in this election year, we are called to demand candidates who dream dreams and see visions, “yes-we-can” leaders with the skill and intelligence to make dreams come true.  As Christians, we should refuse candidates who pander to the worst in us, instead of working to bring out the best in us.  As Christians, we should make it unmistakably clear that we will not vote for leaders who do not share God’s passion for justice.  We will cast our vote only for restless leaders who refuse to be satisfied until we all drink the wine of justice, the best wine that has been saved to the last!

KEEPING FAITH AT THE POLLS —

KEEPING FAITH AT THE POLLS

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith!”

In a little over two weeks, the 2016 election campaign will be over.  The presidential candidates will have “finished the course.”  Almost all of us can agree, however, that they have not “fought the good fight.”  To a jaw-dropping degree, not only in solo campaign speeches but in the nationally televized debates, candidates have majored in name-calling and character-assassination.  To put it mildly, neither party has been meticulous with the truth.  As Christians we know, only Jesus Christ is the perfect leader.  It is idolatrous to accept any merely human being as the savior who will make everything alright.  No merely human individual, no political party is smart enough or powerful enough or good enough to do that.  Whether we are ancient Israelis demanding a king, or American voters electing a president, the bible teaches, we are sinners choosing among sinners.  So in a way, all that rhetoric is overkill.  In words and behavior, both candidates point to the obvious.

In a leader, character does matter.  But it makes a difference in a complicated way.  We are not electing a president to be our friend.  We are choosing someone to preside over our country.  America is a great social experiment, framed by our constitution and bill of rights.  The president is supposed to take the lead in designing and working with Congress to implement social policies that will make the American dream become a reality for our people.  When it gets down to doing the job, the president will have to dig deeper than sound-bites and slogans, to get into nitty gritty complications of how to inch forward with measures that work for everyone.

To fight the good fight, presidential candidates would have had to be resolutely issues-oriented, to present policy proposals well worked out and grounded in the facts, about growing jobs, promoting public safety, and strategizing our international relations.  To fight the good fight, presidential candidates would need to point the way to social arrangements that would bring out the best in us, instead of stirring up the worst in us, whether it be fear of “the other” or bad-faith rejoicing when rivals trip and fall.  By not fighting the good fight, they have made it more difficult for voters to make a constructive decision.  Often it seems as if each is glad to win as “the lesser of two evils,” by threatening that it would be disastrous to have their opponent in the White House.

Sadly, our candidates have not fought the good fight.  But that does not lighten our responsibility as Christian voters to base our choice on which of them is most likely “to keep the faith.”  This, too, is complicated.  We learned in school how our bill of rights guarantees religious freedom.  This means that it is illegal to deny people the vote or the opportunity to own property or to run for public office because they are Jewish or Moslem or Roman Catholic.  By contrast with England, no religion is established in America.  In our pluralistic society, we are usually not in a position to choose and it would not be appropriate to select candidates on the basis of whether they subscribe to the Nicene Creed or use the Book of Common Prayer.  Nevertheless, the bible’s God is advertized as out to create a just society.  We  need only to scratch the bible’s surface before we hit some core principles that we should hold our elected officials to–a faith that Christian voters should require candidates to keep.

Let’s start with the Second Great Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself!”  Understood as a principle for social policies, this doesn’t mean that we have to like or have “warm fuzzies” towards the people next door.  It means something more like acting as if we have nothing to gain by denying our neighbors the necessities of life, nothing to lose by making sure that our neighbors have access to the good things of life.  The necessities of life include food and shelter, medical care and education, safety that protects life and limb so that we can pursue our own goals and mind our own business without getting in one another’s way.  Loving your neighbor means acting and holding powers-that-be to account to adjust the social system to allow neighbors their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Of course, talk of neighbor-love is tribal.  We are perhaps ready to think we have a stake in promoting the interests of people who are in the same boat as we are.  But Torah cuts across this natural human tendency to privilege us and ours over them and theirs by expanding the commandment’s scope to apply to resident aliens.  Torah teaches that social policies for distributing goods and opportunities must be based on the premiss that we have nothing to lose by providing, nothing to gain by denying immigrants life’s necessities and a chance at the good things of life.  Torah’s reason is simple: Israelis have an obligation before God to look after immigrants, because they were once immigrants themselves!  Sermon-on-the-Mount Jesus is more radical still, when he commands us to love our enemies.  However much we disapprove of one another, however much they may want to deny us, we must act and demand that our public officials act as if we have nothing to lose by securing, nothing to gain by denying our enemies the necessities of life.  The bible is challenging us to break out of tribal “us vs them” thinking, as our baptismal covenant puts it, to respect the dignity of every human being.  Really, it’s very simple.   As followers of Jesus, we are called to hold politicians and public officials to the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you!”

The bible’s God is realistic.  God our creator knows of what we are made.  God also knows that the world in which we live and move and have our being is a place of real and apparent scarcity.  Real-world politics generally, the 2016 presidential campaign in particular exploits our fears that there is not enough to go around, urges that we have a lot to lose if we organize society in such a way as to guarantee a piece of the pie to them.  Torah cuts through such darwinism with a realism of its own.  First, the bible’s God knows that we are too scared and too stupid to organize an economic system that will deliver equality.  The bible’s God does not command that everyone should get the same.  The bible does not problematize the fact that some eat steak while others chow down on beans and rice.  The bible does not get hot and bothered about the fact that some will walk or ride a bus while others drive Lexus SUVs.  The bible’s God aims snake-belly low, when God demands that we organize our society so that everyone gets a decent standard of living–enough to eat, safe shelter, good medical care and schools, the chance to get a job.  Here is a fact that checks: even in conditions of scarcity and economic downturns, America is rich enough, if only we elect leaders who will put their minds to it, to see to that.

Second, the bible’s God cuts across human society’s tendency to spawn inequalities by modelling a bias towards the worst off.  Torah teaches, a God-pleasing society will distribute social resources by beginning with the poor and disadvantaged, by asking what we need to do to make sure they start getting a decent standard of living, one that gives them the chance to do better and make something of themselves.  Good and godly government does not abandon those most in need to scramble for crumbs and left-overs.  Good and godly government gives top priority to changes and adjustments in the system that make things better for them.

So, what faith should Christian voters demand that public officials keep?  Really, it’s very simple.  We should be voting for the candidates who are most apt to make provision, most likely to change the system and invent the structures that will guarantee a decent standard of living to each citizen, beginning with the worst off.  We should be voting for candidates most able to resist privileging some at the expense of degrading others.  Sisters and brothers, we are all sinners, and our choices are among sinners.  We should be voting for those most likely–when they fall–to repent and turn again, to be caught up in God’s own vision of a society where justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.

STRANGE EXORCISTS —

STRANGE EXORCISTS

Mark 9:38-50

First posted on the Episcopal Cafe 10/2012

In Jesus’ time and ours, many people work hard to eradicate the worst evils: evils that gerrimander societies into rich versus poor, have’s versus have-not’s, people that matter versus others who don’t count; diseases and traumas that bipolarize, dissociate, and twist psyches; physical maladies that make life difficult and full community participation impossible.

In Jesus’ time, not only systemic social evils, but also mental illness, blindness, deafness, crippling paralysis, seemed super-human, humanly insuperable.  In Jesus’ time, people reasoned: if the causes were something humans could handle, conquest would be within human reach.  In Jesus’ time, they concluded: since life’s worst evils are overwhelming, they must be traced back to super-human malevolent powers.  Because life’s worst evils do not simply erase, but distort and caricature, such powers must be personal, cruel and deliberate in mocking what creation was meant to be.  We have to admit, they have a point.  No matter how much we know about biochemistry and systems dynamics, don’t we still call the most insideous evils “diabolical” and “demonic”?

In Jesus’ time, the cure for individual and social demon-possession was exorcism.  The exorcist “channeled” super-natural power to rout demons.  Mark’s Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, a fortiori a powerful exorcist who strides into ministry to send the demons packing.  Mid-course, Jesus ordains disciples with the authority to proclaim Kingdom-coming and to cast out demons.  Onlooker exorcists perceive that the name of ‘Jesus’ is–more than ‘abracadabra, please and thank you’–an efficacious magic word.  The disciples are indignant, want to sue the copycats for trademark infringement.  But Jesus counters: “don’t forbid them!”  Using the name of ‘Jesus’ and finding that it “works” could well be the first step that slippery-slopes them into discipleship!

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples are the insiders and the “strange” exorcist is the outsider.  In today’s pluralistic America, the situation is reversed.  Many lefties here work overtime to uproot social injustices, to provide for the poor and homeless, to defend prisoners and the powerless, to open up educational opportunities.  Many take for granted that a core allergy to human degradation, a deep revulsion at environmental exploitation, are part of what it is to be a decent human being.  For many, religion is at best a non-starter, more likely superstitious nonsense, worse still, pious irrationality that could easily turn divisive and do more harm than good.

So, there they are, secular humanists in the best sense, speaking truth to power, championing what is good and wholesome.  And here come the Christians, working alongside them, standing up for the homeless, supporting transitional housing and drug treatment programs, sponsoring prisoners on work leave.  To secular humanists, we are the strange exorcists.  We are the ones who, despite seeming normal, hold silly religious beliefs.  (I remember sixties activists who compared faith in God to believing in fairies!)  Political theorists scramble to figure out how people with deeply contrasting world-views can fight for the same causes or live and work together in the same town.

One approach popular among political scientists is to forbid us to use the name of ‘Jesus’ (and for that matter to prohibit Catholics from wearing crucifixes or Moslem women from donning the hijab).  We are told to compartmentalize, to cordon off our religious convictions from our humanitarian sensibilities, to base our social-justice work on “public reasons,” on motivations that all decent human beings can be expected to share.  Compartmentalization tells us: people with different world views can live and work together in the same place, so long, and only so long, as we ground our public life on the least common denominator of shared commitments.

If we agree to this, we may still give our secular social-activist partners pause.  They will have to ponder how our passion for justice can co-exist with deep-seated religious delusion.  They will be challenged to consider whether it is really possible for the same people to be so rational and high-minded and yet so crazy at one and the same time.  It is barely possible that for some the question would flicker, whether religion is only (in the words of Tony Blair) for “nutters” after all.

Nevertheless, compartmentalization is a bad bargain for us, first, because it is an invitation to psycho-spiritual fragmentation that puts human decency in one cupboard and the “God-thing” in another.  Compartmentalization not only invites us to see, but calls on us to make sure that our faith is separate from our deep-seated social and political convictions.  This move turns faith in God into a fifth wheel that does no work, into something irrelevant to what we most care about in our lives.

Compartmentalization is an unfaithful and spiritually misleading strategy.  It is not as if our passion for justice is one piece and our supernatural beliefs are a different piece and the one has nothing to do with the other.  No!  Remember St. Augustine’s famous exclamation: “O God, you made us for yourself.  Our hearts are restless until they rest in you!”  Our passion for justice, our hungering and thirsting for righteousness, are rooted in our hungering and thirsting for God Who is the source of all righteousness.  Our heart’s revulsion to cruelty, our anger at oppression, our rage at the rape of the land: all of these arise from our natural bent towards honoring God by honoring God’s likeness in all God’s creatures.

Compartmentalization is tempting, because we can be aware of our passion for justice and of our belief in God without being conscious of the deep-structure rooting of the one in the other.  To experience the connection, we have to “act out” our longing for God in fervent prayer.  Prayer awakens us to God deep within us, stirring up our longing for God, rearing us up into family-resemblance that shares God’s loves allergies.

Praying our way into recognized connection, cancels fragmentation, and reveals God to be the ground of our personal integrity.  Prayer exposes how there is not enough to us on our own to fight the good fight.  To revert to biblical language, our social-justice battles are not with flesh and blood but principalities and powers.  What keeps us from “burning out” is that our zeal is rooted in the fierceness of God’s own passion for justice.  In this sense, we “channel” it.  The Power that is with us is stronger than the forces that are against us.  And, so, come hell or high water–and we know, they do come–the struggle will go on!  Mother Teresa and her nuns understand the importance of prayer in consciously connecting us with our ground.  Every day, they spend as much time contemplating the Blessed Sacrament as they do on the streets.

But isn’t there a danger that digging down to recognize God as the root of human decency, will alienate us from our allies, make us intolerant and intolerable?

Not necessarily.  Prayer and reason agree: if God is the root of our passion for justice, God is its root in each and every human being.  Roots are below ground.  God is sneaky.  People do not have to believe in God, for God to be at work in them, stirring them up to love what God loves and to be revolted at what God cannot stand.  Everyone is a temple of the Holy Spirit.  Marvelous as it is, the gift of faith is no occasion for “holier than thou.”

Neither does recognizing God at the root have to turn us into obnoxious ‘are-you-saved-brother’ evangelists.  Holy Spirit works to bring people to the knowledge and love of God according to unique individual syllabi.  Everywhere and always is not the time to make our faith explicit.  Happily, abstraction is an alternative to compartmentalization.  If I tell you that my study is rectangular, I abstract from its exact size or wall-color, but I do not thereby imply that its shape exists without any size or that its walls have no color.  In fact, shape could not exist without a size; walls, without a color.  But I can explicitly call attention to one without mentioning the other.  Likewise, we can at times abstract various aspects of our beliefs from their theological roots.  We can join secular colleagues in declaring that torture is wrong everywhere and always, that people are too entitled to food, housing, and healthcare just because they are human beings.  Unlike compartmentalization, abstraction is not spiritually fragmenting.  Not always mentioning God is compatible with our being fully aware that God’s own passion is what drives us!  And in the long run, integrity, not fragmentation, may pique other people’s curiosity enough to ask: why do you stick with this?  what is your bottom line?  Our faithfulness will have earned the right to tell them, to use the attention that our deeds have earned to point to God who makes it all possible!

ARRANGED MARRIAGE —

ARRANGED MARRIAGE

Jeremiah 1:4-10, I Cor 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

Preached at St. Philip’s Durham, Epiphany 4 2010

When the bible tries to tell us something about Divine-human relationships, it reaches for human social models.  God is father, and we are God’s adoptive children.  God is mother, who leads us with cords of compassion and bands of love.  God is patron of the twelve client tribes.  God is king, and the people of God have sworn a covenant to obey Divine commands.  Because God is personal, each of these models shows us something about Who God is to us and who we are to God.  Because Divine personality is rich and multifaceted–like most human beings, many things to many people–we do well to map multiple models on top of one another.  Because God is really too big to squeeze into any merely human social system, each and all of the analogies inevitably carry some distortion.  Often biblical portraits fight with one another: how can the incomparable Lord of all, come not to be served but to serve?  how can Almighty Power, YHWH God of armies, be beaten and brutalized to death on a cross?

The bible does not stop with mind-boggling paradoxes, however.  Sometimes its pictures seem downright unedifying and distasteful.  How often do the prophets portray YHWH as an enraged cuckold husband on the verge of destroying His two-timing wife?  (Answer: lots.)  What about today’s story of the call of Jeremiah: “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you!”–that’s “know’” in the biblical sense!  Jeremiah is the bride in an arranged marriage.  God has contracted for him, sealed the deal before Jeremiah was even born.  Like bedouin wives, Jeremiah is in no position to refuse.  No point protesting that he is only a boy, not ready for such intimacies, ‘a young thing that cannot leave his mother’.  God appears in order to take possession.  God will fill Jeremiah with God’s own Words.  Jeremiah will writhe like a woman in childbirth until he spits them out, brings forth the tidings God has chosen him to bear.  God doesn’t even bother wooing Jeremiah the way He did Abraham with promises of land or dynasty.  God doesn’t dangle a life of luxury in high society before Jeremiah’s eyes.  God doesn’t even give him a kid to make merry with his friends.  No!  Life-together with YHWH will be no way to win friends or influence people.  When Jeremiah keeps on giving birth to the Word of the Lord, reproducing prophecies like rabbits, people will regard him as at best a nuisance and at worst a traitor.  Jeremiah is sure to make enemies, who will plot to kill him.  So far from ‘Cinderella’s happily ever after’, life-together with YHWH will mean hard times ending in exile.  What YHWH promises is that they will get through it together, and that God will preserve his life.

In Hebrew bible stories, God and the people of God have a stormy marriage that cycles and re-cycles through the sequence covenant/honeymoon/growing disobedience/ mounting warnings/dire punishment/fresh beginnings.  Jeremiah is born into troubled times.  His career as prophet of doom falls in the bad-news phase.  By contrast, Christmastide Gospels advertize Jesus as the Savior Who inaugurates the good-news era.  Holy Spirit pours down on Jesus with assurances of Divine favor.  Just last week, we heard Luke’s Jesus publish His triumphant platform: release to captives, sight to the blind, debt moratoria on maxed-out credit cards and mortgages.  But today’s reading–like Obama’s first year in office–thuds us back to hard realities.  Jesus’ career will also wind and rewind the downward cycle: gracious teaching attested by signs and wonders/amazement followed by scepticism/words of judgment/plots on his life.  Luke’s Jesus journeys towards the cross.  Followers take up crosses daily.  Luke’s Jesus promises: we will stick together in our trials, but the parade route dead-ends on Calvary’s hill!

Scandalous as it sounds, uncomfortable as it feels, the arranged-marriage model has truths to tell.  The first is that we belong to God whether we like it or not.  We are God’s creatures.  God made us because God wanted to and for God’s own reasons.  We have nothing to say about it.  We were in no position to ask to be born or to demand not to be born, for the very simple reason that we did not exist aeons ago or in the now of eternity when God formed Divine plans.

The second is that life-together with God is something that we can’t avoid.  This is not because God is some kind of tyrranical authority figure or coercive bully, but because of what Godhead is and what we are.  Godhead exists by the necessity of its nature.  Godhead couldn’t not be.  Creatures are by nature dependent.  Godhead is the source of the being and well-being of everything other than Godself.  Nothing other than God could do or be anything if God were not there creating and keeping them in existence, working with worms to wiggle, with cows to chew cud, with hawks to soar, and with acorns to grow up into mighty oaks.

Neither are God’s personal creatures designed to be persons in isolation.  Human infants are born full of potential.  But human children locked in a closet or raised by the wolves do not become human persons, even if they survive physically.  Babies have a chance to become personal selves only if from the beginning they are surrounded by persons who work overtime to draw out their capacity to be persons.  So also and all the more so, omnipresent Godhead surrounds and enfolds us, nudging us and enabling us to become selves who can reach out to make personal contact with other selves, selves who can even stretch into conscious and intentional personal relationship with God.

The third is that God claims us as partners in creativity.  God is creative by nature.  When God spoke light into the darkness, there was no conventional wisdom for God to follow.  In the now of eternity, God conceived the fantastic project–really quite a bizarre idea when you stop to think about it; but then Omnipotence should do the hard as well as the easy–of polishing up material creation, earthen vessels until they shine with Divine glory, until they dazzle with truths about Who God is and how God loves.  Because God is a doer, God made material stuff dynamic and active.  Because God is Life, God stirred and zapped the chemicals, watched them gurgle for centuries until they coalesced into structures that support life.  Because God is personal, God rolled up Divine sleeves to make mudpies in Eden, to huff and puff us full of Holy Spirit.  God made us for deliberate, conscious collaboration, because God wants creation to mean something, not just through an order imposed upon it from the outside, but to mean something from the inside, through the sense that we and God make of this world together.

The fourth is that God wants us as lovers.  The real reason why we exist at all is to love God above all and for God’s own sake, and to enter into God’s passion for the world God has made.  God envisions a cosmic household characterized by courtesy, which allows everyone space, time, and resources to be who they are.  God calls on us to set the tone by becoming people who are patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, irritable or resentful, not glad when rivals and enemies fail or get what’s coming to them.  God knows, we can’t run on empty.  Everywhere and always God is present to persuade us to take down our defenses, so that we can experience ourselves as God’s Beloveds and find our safety in the embrace of Resurrection Power.

Fifth and finally, the bible stories tell us (and this is the disanalogy) that God–unlike bedouin husbands–has taken the for-better-for-worse vow.  God and the people of God are an odd couple.  Because God is so big and we are so small, because God’s ways are so much higher than our ways, it’s hard for us to get our bearings.  Because God is rich and resourceful enough to make good on anything, the bible’s God has the habit of waiting to step in and make things right only after it is already too late.  God knows, this can be strenuous, even ruinous for us.  God demonstrates Divine Love in Jesus, the Word made flesh to live a really human life, to stick with it for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health, faithful til death.  This is the Divine Lover’s most dramatic gesture–God plighting God’s trothe on the marriage bed of the cross–all to convince us that God–though ridiculously ambitious for us–can be trusted not to demand more of us than God demands of Godself!