Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Spiritual Life as a Quest (A sermon from Job 23:1-9, 16-17)

Job believed God was responsible for the good and the bad that happened to people on earth. So after the first series of catastrophes where he loses family and fortune he says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

When Job is afflicted with painful soars all over his body and when his wife questions his loyalty to a God who would do this to him, he says, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

When Job’s friends first hear of his troubles the text says “they met together to go and console and comfort him. . . They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

If only his friends had continued that course. If only they would have absorbed some of Job’s frustration and anxiety without trying to correct him or set him straight. But when Job opens his mouth they open theirs.

Chapter 3 begins: “After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job said: ‘Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived! Let that day be darkness.” The day of his birth is not all Job curses. He curses God. He accuses God of being unjust. He questions God’s integrity. The phrase about the “patience of Job” couldn’t be further from the mark. It’s more like the defiance of Job.

Each of Job’s friends speak in three rounds and Job replies to them in turn. But basically their message is the same. They defend their view of God. They defend a theology of reward and retribution. They are unable to simply be with Job in his suffering and confusion. They are sure Job has sinned and that his suffering is God’s just treatment for his wrongdoing. Their theology usurps any compassion they might have or express for their friend. They are certain they are right. One way to read the book of Job is a protest against all theological certitudes.

A wall-eyed pike is put into an aquarium. He is fed for a number of days with little minnows. Then, in the middle of the experiment, a glass partition is placed down the middle of the aquarium so that the pike is now confined to one side.

Then the researchers drop minnows on the other side. So when the poor fish goes for the minnows he hits himself against the glass. He circles and hits it again. He tries a third time, but he is now hitting the glass a little less hard. After a few more times, he’s just sort of nosing up against the glass. He has a feeling he is not going to get those minnows. Pretty soon, he just swims around in circles and ignores the minnows on the other side.

At this point, those doing the experiment take out the glass. The minnows swim right up against the gills of the pike and the pike doesn’t even try to eat them. The experiment ends with the poor old pike starving himself to death.

The experiment could be a parable about the way we order our lives based on certitudes, assumptions, and beliefs that we accept as a given. Even when these certitudes are hurtful and harmful to others and ourselves, even when our assumptions diminish our lives and the lives of others, we don’t question them and still cling to them even though they are killing us.

Why do we do that? Why do some religious people, maybe many religious people favor doctrine and certitudes over compassion and grace? Could the root cause possibly be our own fear or insecurity? Could it stem from the ego, from our need to be right and to fit everything into its neat compartment? Could it be pride which stems from our need to be God’s favored people (the religious term here is blessed)? Ironically, our faith can actually become a way for us to avoid any real transformation. Our religious worship and practices can become a way to simply confirm our prejudices and make us feel better or more special than others.

As I said last week most of us look to our religious doctrines and our sacred scriptures to confirm the answers we already have, that we are already convinced of. Rarely do we read our sacred texts and allow them to evoke questions that take us beyond our certitudes and already held beliefs. Rarely do we read our sacred texts and allow them to confront and challenge our beliefs?

* * * * * * * * *
Life isn’t fair. If we find ourselves better off than others it is NOT because we are more worthy or more favored by God. If we find ourselves worse off than others it’s not because of some wrongdoing – though it is true that sometimes we bring disaster on ourselves. But God doesn’t single us out. As Jesus said God the sunshine and the rain fall on the just and unjust.

The book of Job challenges all conventional and popular religion that says wealth and success and health is the result of the blessing of God and that misfortune is the result of the punishment of God. In reality, it’s the luck of the draw. Now it is true that some of us squander our opportunities, but the fact that we have these opportunities in the first place – opportunities for an education, access to health care, to be able to pursue some career and engage in productive work, to enjoy life – these opportunities are ours by luck of the draw.

I told someone the other day I wish everyone on this earth could have the opportunities I have been given to enjoy life, to make the most of life. And I am extremely grateful for these opportunities. But these opportunities did not come to me because God favored me over others, and they could be gone in an instant. God wants all people to be able to experience the opportunities I have known in my life. I have been lucky. Most of these opportunities relate to things over which I have had no control – the context of my early childhood – I was brought up in a loving family, my time and place in history, my physiology and genetics, the many influences that have helped form me, and on and on. I have had no control over many of these profoundly shaping influences. On the other hand, because of genetics or poverty or lack of a caring, nurturing environment, there are others who have very limited opportunities in life. Life isn’t fair.

Job is experiencing that firsthand. Who do you think has more faith? Job’s friends who offer the same old conventional answers or the defiant Job who refuses to give in or give up, but keeps crying out and questioning and seeking some sort of resolution with God? Job is not patient, but Job sure is persistent. Job’s friends are just pitiful.

If his friends would have just listened to him and empathized with him, rather than repeating their conventional answers maybe they would have grown in their faith, maybe they would have become more. But they are stuck in their certitudes and self-righteousness. And the pitiful thing is that they think they are being true and loyal to God.

On the cover of the Courier Journal on Wednesday of last week was a picture of Al Mohler, president of SBTS, and with the picture was a quote where Mohler says that even if science eventually proves that homosexuality is caused by biology that discovery  would not force the church to abandon its position on the sinfulness of homosexuality, that reality, contends Mohler would not nullify what he says is the clear teaching of scripture or validate same-sex attraction. In other words, says Mohler, I believe what I believe what I believe, and nothing is going to change my mind. Mohler believes what he believes without question. Al Mohler reminds me of the friends of Job.

Jonathan Merritt of the Religious News Service had a very good piece in the latest edition of Baptists Today. He points out the trend among conservative Christian leaders to oppose the normalization of same-sex relationships. Merrit points out that in Mohler’s most recent book Mohler bemoans the normalization of same-sex relationships some 39 times. Merrit quotes other such as senior vice president of the Family Research Council who argued that evangelicals who want to normalize same-sex attraction is in his words an “offense to God and the Gospel.” Popular pastor and author John Piper called this trend “the new calamity” in America.

After citing these examples, Merritt points out that a cousin to the word normalizing is the word tolerant. So what these Christians are arguing is that anything that would increase tolerance of same-sex relationships should be resisted. Merritt points out that this automatically leads to marginalizing and ostracizing, banishing and shunning. He points out that the one who resists the normalization of LGBT couples wants them pushed out to the margins, outside circles of respectability.

He concludes his piece with these words:
          “I’ve tried to imagine Jesus approving of such tactics. Jesus is a man who offers his disciples a glimmering gold standard for relating to others: ‘Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.’
          “The most rigid religious leaders in Jesus’ day, like those in ours, complained that offering outsiders a seat at the table somehow legitimized them. But Jesus didn’t seem to care. He kept welcoming them to the table anyway.
          “Those the religious leaders rejected, Jesus received. Those whom the religious leaders pushed to the margins, Jesus welcomed to the center. Jesus was focused on building bridges while the religious leaders were focused on building barriers.
          “Some things never change. It is time for the faithful to set aside the scare words, take a long view, look our neighbors in the eye and walk the way of Jesus.”

Let me ask you: What’s more important to you – being like Jesus in the way you love others or in being right? Would you want to be like Job’s friends who feel they must defend their view of God even though it means afflicting more suffering on their friend? Or would you rather be like Job and have the courage to confront and challenge the God you think is being unfair? Of course when we contend with God we are really contending with our beliefs and assumptions about God aren’t we? Because that’s all we have. We live by faith.

Sam Keen says that when he changed from identifying himself as believer to a searcher he came to adopt “the quest” as a metaphor of his willingness to live with and wrestle with the perennial questions that he says underlie the mythic answers that religion offers. I like that image.

Let me ask you: What would it mean if you adopted the image of a quest as your image of the spiritual life? Are you someone looking to explore new places or are you entrenched where you are and will not move?

I will close with these questions: What difference might it make in your life if you decided to think of the spiritual life as a journey where new places are visited and new discoveries made, rather than as a fortress that you feel you have to defend and protect? Would that make a difference in the way you think about God? Would that help you to become a more accepting, welcoming, loving, and compassionate person? Would it make you less critical and judgmental? Would it give your life more joy and meaning?

Our good God, I pray that our consideration of the unchangeableness of Job’s friends in contrast to Job’s willingness to take the conversation to new places even if he is somewhat defiant and bold will challenge us to be willing to take the conversation about you and your will and way in the world to new places that might actually invigorate us and energize us and empower us to be the sort of people who reflect the love and compassion of Jesus and are willing stand up to injustice even though it might be costly. Give us the courage and will to move out of our safe houses and explore new lands. 

Why be faithful? (Job 1:1-12, 20-22; 2:1-10)

This is a strange story to say the least. Terrible things happen to Job because God gets in argument with Satan. Satan here is a member of the heavenly council, not the symbol of evil we come to know later in the New Testament. With God’s permission Satan inflicts great disaster.

In most of the Old Testament God was believed to be the cause of both good and evil. For example, Amos who prophesied in the first half of the eighth century B.C.E. asks: Does disaster befall a city, unless the Lord has done it?” And the implied response is: Well, of course God has done it. God brings blessing and God brings disaster. That’s what God does.

Satan says to God: “Have you not put a fence around Job and his house and all that he has?” This is why he is staying the course, suggests Satan. So God decides to let Satan go after Job to prove Satan wrong.

I hope you understand that this story is fiction. Scholars would call this sacred myth. It is a kind of extended parable. Job is actually a form of protest literature. There is a sense here where the whole quid pro quo tit-for-tat system of meritocracy is being challenged. In Job this whole idea of God sending blessings and curses is being subverted. Job calls into question conventional understandings of God’s relationship to human suffering.

This is, by the way, the beauty and power of scripture. Our sacred texts bear witness to an ongoing lively debate about what constitutes God’s will. Our scriptures reflect the constant struggle by people of faith to discern God’s way and will in the world.

In my little book Being a Progressive Christian I tell the story of receiving an e-mail from a representative of SONday Distributors. The company had a special deal going on for churches. For just ten dollars each (regular forty dollar value) we could get a shipment of ANSWER Bibles. Their goal, she wrote, was “to plant an answer Bible in 10,000 homes, organizations, and establishments in communities across America.”

Of course, you can imagine the answers that are given in the answer Bible can’t you?  The answers no doubt reflect the doctrinal beliefs and assumptions of those who produced it. So what they believed would have determined the questions

Normally I would just click “delete,” but for some reason I couldn’t resist having some fun. So I responded: “No thanks, Paula (not her real name; I’m protecting the guilty). I’ve heard enough ANSWERS in my day, but if you ever get a Bible that invites people to ask the hard QUESTIONS let me know.” She didn’t care much for that response and let me know she didn’t care. She warned me that I was living dangerously. God might just zap me for my irreverence and she closed with: “I say this with the love of Jesus in me.”

What I have discovered is that those of us who go looking for answers in the Bible tend to find the answers we are looking for. Isn’t that true? We already have the answers, which we have acquired from parents, church, family, friends – all related to the particular way we were socialized into our particular religious context. We use the Bible to support what we already believe. We all do this – we all project the answers we want to find into the biblical text. I do it too. Maybe the most important question is: What do we want to find? Because that question actually gives us some indication where we are on our spiritual journey. It tells us something about our level of spiritual maturity.

If we approach the Bible honestly and openly then the Bible will raise a lot more questions than it ever answers and one of the great questions the book of Job raises relates to unjust suffering. Here the question is: Why be faithful when it seems that God is against us?

Terrible things happen to Job. He loses everything, his family, land, money. After the first go-around he says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Keep in mind that Job was operating out of a theological framework where God controlled and micromanaged everything, where God was responsible for everything.

After the second go-around when Job loses his health and has soars break out all over his body he still says, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Again, notice the theology of reward and retribution. God brings good and bad. But still Job is faithful.

But all of this raises the question: Why Job? Why be faithful to God when all hell breaks loose? Why remain loyal to God when God doesn’t seem to be holding up God’s part of the bargain? Job’s wife tells him to curse God and die.

In C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape letters a senior devil whose name is Screwtape offers advice to his nephew, Wormwood, whose assignment is to undo the faith of a recently converted Christian. Screwtape tells Wormwood that God wants to fill the universe with creatures who reflect God’s own life. But God cannot force the process.

He tells Wormwood that God cannot override human will, that God cannot work with indisputable or irresistible power, for God wants creatures who become like God on their own free will. And then Screwtape offers this warning, “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of God seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” Why would one continue to obey God when by all appearances God is not being fair? Job was asking: Why is God against me? For many of us the question is: Is there really a God?

So let’s thing about this. What would keep you going? Why would a person want to keep doing what is right and good and loving who feels forsaken by God and questions the very existence of God? Why be faithful to God when every trace of God seems to have disappeared. I can’t answer that question for you. But what I can do is share with you why I think I might want to keep going.

Two things, I think. First, I would like to think that no matter what would happen I would still be able to trust my inner experience of God in my deepest self. Or perhaps if I couldn’t trust my inner experience of God at the moment, I could at least trust the memory of past experiences of God. Now, this is not anything I can explain or defend rationally because it’s my experience.

A good analogy can be drawn from the movie Contact. If you have never seen the movie I highly recommend it, because it raises questions about what is real and how do we know what is real. Dr. Arroway, played by Jodi Foster has this amazing experience but all the outward, external evidence suggests that nothing happened at all. Almost all the evidence suggests that nothing happened. But she has her experience that tells her differently. So she appeals to the committee appointed to investigate what happened to her to accept her testimony on faith. The irony is that faith, prior to her experience, was something she had always been extremely critical and dismissive of. But she knows what she experienced. I know what I have experienced. It’s not possible for you or anyone else to know my experience. But these experiences of God are open to all of us, and they are all unique experiences.  
The New Testament is full of this sort of thing. For example, in his letter to the Romans Paul talks about how the Spirit (capital S) bears witness with the human spirit that we are children of God. Paul is talking about an inner experience of God that affirms who we are. Can I or anyone prove this? No. One has to have the inner experience to know it. Until you have the experience all one has is the testimony of someone else who has had the experience.

The writer of 1 John says, “By this we know that we abide in God and God abides in us because God has given us of his Spirit.” In other words, I know because I know. I know that I am in God and God is in me because I have experienced God. So the question is: How much can I trust this inner experience? I suspect that much of what Jesus taught about the character of God he discerned through his own inner, personal experience of God, which brings me to the second reason.

The second reason I would like to think and hope that I would be faithful when all outward traces of God disappear is because of what I have come to see in Jesus of Nazareth. This is a more rational kind of experience than simply an inner-mystical experience, but it is still somewhat subjective. It is still rooted in personal experience.

I have invested a lifetime in the study of the Gospels and have come to the firm conviction that if any human life best reflects what God is like and what God intends for human beings it is the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In the stories about Jesus and in the stories Jesus told, in the stories of Jesus’ life and work in the Gospels, I have come to know/experience God. There is something that rings true about what he taught about God and the way he lived for God and God’s cause, and the way in which he embodied the wisdom of God.

But once again, I can’t prove that Jesus reveals the character of God. I can commend the life and teachings of Jesus to you as a source of wisdom, grace, and truth. But you have to encounter this reality for yourselves.  

I resonate with the twelve in John 6. Jesus taught the broader group of his followers some very difficult things, which was very hard for them to accept. In fact, it was too hard for many of them. So they defected, they decided they didn’t want to be followers any more. After most of them left, Jesus then turns to the twelve and says, “Do you want to leave too?” And they say, “Where would we go. You have the words of life – your words are true, honest, and real. You are the most authentic person we have ever encountered. We trust you. So where else would we go?”

I would hope that no matter what happened I would be able to say that too. Where else could I go to discover what a full, authentic human life looks like? Surely if there ever was a life that embodied the character of God it is the life of Jesus of Nazareth? Obviously I can’t say for sure, but I hope that I would continue to follow Jesus even if all hell broke loose. I hope that I would be able to trust my inner experience of God and the life of Jesus as God’s revelation of God’s will and way no matter what would happen.

Now, you have to ask yourself: Would I be faithful if all hell broke loose? If I became a modern day Job would I still keep doing what is right and just and fair and good?

O God, there is so much we don’t know. We don’t know how we would respond if we underwent a series of devastating blows to our family and fortune. We don’t know how we would respond if all traces of you seemed to disappear. But we hope that we would be faithful. We hope that we would still cling to your love and goodness. May our participation in this table now affirm that hope. In the name of Christ our Lord. Amen

Monday, October 12, 2015

Who represents Jesus? It may not be who you think!

Who best represents Jesus? Those who profess Jesus as Savior, but side with the elite, the powerful, the rich, the oppressors? Or those who stand up for and stand with the little ones? Who is actually for Jesus and who is actually against Jesus? It may not be the persons we think.

An episode in the Synoptic Gospels of Luke and Mark bear this out. Luke’s version reads:

John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-50).

The key word here is “us.” The disciples are offended that the one engaging in works of healing and liberation in the name of Christ was not sanctioned or credentialed by their group. Their interest seems to be one of control, gatekeeping, and promoting group exceptionalism. Jesus challenges them (and us) to think in terms of a larger story and in broader patterns.

There are hints in Mark’s version of the story that Mark was concerned with conflicting Christian groups within his church context (Mark 9:38-41). Luke’s context is less specific and more inclusive. If we follow Luke’s lead then by extension we can apply this to any group, Christian or some other religious faith or no religious faith at all.

In both Mark’s and Luke’s narrative, just prior to this interchange the disciples had been arguing about who is the greatest in God’s realm. In response Jesus embraces a little child and according to Luke’s version says, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest” (Luke 9:48).

In that culture a child represented not only someone of low status, but one of society’s most vulnerable members. There were no laws protecting children’s rights.

Clearly, mercy and justice extended to the little ones, work done to bring healing and liberation to the most vulnerable in society is work done in the “name” of Jesus – that is, it is work that reflects Jesus’ character and values, his love, compassion, and justice.

Let’s suppose I have a friend who does not claim to be a Christian. Nevertheless, he stands up for a coworker who is being treated badly and discriminated against. Such courageous action will probably cost him advancement within the company or maybe even his job. My friend is acting in the “name” of Jesus whether he recognizes it or not. He is reflecting the compassion and justice of Christ, even though he may not claim to know Christ at all. This is similar to what the writer of 1 John says about love, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16b). Whenever a person acts in love, God is present in that person, whether he or she professes to know God or not.

Our response to the little ones – our actions and inactions, what we do or fail to do reveals at any given moment whether we stand “for” Jesus or “against” him.

Recently Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders gave a speech at Liberty University, the school founded by the late Baptist minister Jerry Falwell. Bernie Sanders is not a Christian. He is Jewish, though he does not claim to be a deeply religious person. He expounded a vision taught by Jesus in the golden rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them to do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). He quoted that text and he quoted Amos: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (5:24).

He said that it would be a hard case to make that we are a just society, a society that lives by the golden rule. He pointed out the massive injustice in terms of income and wealth inequality. He said there is no justice “when so few have so much and so many have so little.” He noted that our country has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth.

He said, “there is no justice when low income and working class mothers are forced to separate from their babies one or two weeks after birth and go back to work because they need the money that their jobs provide.” Again, he pointed out that we are the “only major country on earth that does not provide paid family and medical leave.” 

One evangelical Christian, a twice graduate of Liberty University posted on the internet a sermon he preached based on Sanders speech. The sermon went viral. In the sermon he compared Bernie Sanders to John the Baptist confronting the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of the religious establishment of his day. This evangelical Christian graduate of Liberty University said:

“As I heard Bernie Sanders crying out to the religious leaders at Liberty University, in his hoarse voice, with his wild hair, this Jew, and he proclaimed justice over us. He called us to account for being complicit with those who are wealthy and those who are powerful and for abandoning the poor, ‘the least of these’ who Jesus said he had come to bring good news to. . .

And lightning hit my heart in that moment. And I realized that we are evangelical Christians, that we believe the Bible. . . . And yet somehow, we commit to the mental gymnastics necessary [in interpreting scripture] that allows us to abandon ‘the least of these,’ to abandon the poor, to abandon the immigrants, to abandon those who are in prison.”

He said that when he heard Sanders he heard Jesus saying in the Gospel of Matthew that when you care for the most vulnerable, when you care for the little ones, you care for Jesus, for Jesus said, “When you have done it for the ‘least of these’, you have done it for me” (Matt. 25:40).

In contrast consider presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, professing Christian and former Southern Baptist minister. By all appearances Huckabee doesn’t seem to care for the little ones much at all, or for that matter any non-Christian minority, whereas the non-religious Jew Bernie Sanders seems to care a great deal.

So who best represents Jesus? Who best reflects the “name” (character, values, and work) of Jesus? Who is “for” what Jesus is for and who is “against” what Jesus is against? 

(This was first published at Baptist News Global)