How Can You Mean This?

MatthewdIt is claimed that Susan B. Anthony once said something like this: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”

I’ve noticed the same thing. Have you ever know anyone to say in their defense: “I myself wouldn’t have a problem with THAT, but the Bible says that God is against it, so I must follow God first.”

Meanwhile in Congress, the GOP is intent upon cutting SNAP by 40 BILLION dollars. All the while, a significant number of them are receiving PERSONALLY tens of millions of dollars in farm subsidies. You see, we must do this they claim, because these people who are receiving free food are lazy, they are becoming a “take” culture, while they themselves are simply being given some help, ironically in the food production arena, to keep America’s food shelves healthy and full.

Mathewwrong

And do you know what they claim is their moral justification for what they do? Why it is Paul’s statement in Thessalonians:

“In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.”

They do not of course answer the burning question of “where are the jobs”, a bellowing demand they make of this President every week, if not every day. Yet, someone people should starve because those who receive food assistance are undoubtedly unwilling to work. Work at what, they don’t say.

Yet of course all this is so much a lie. Forty-seven percent of all recipients are children under 18. Eight percent are seniors. Forty-one percent live in households where someone works full or part-time. Less than 10% of recipients receive any other type of assistance. Nobody speaks louder or more clear than the GOP when it comes to veterans. Yet over 900,000 veterans currently receive SNAP.

Those are the facts.

What of the moral argument?

It too is utter nonsense and bespeaks the usual literalist reading of scripture that these fundamentalists indulge in.

I have some personal experience here for I’ve talked with a number of people who I’ve known since childhood who tell me all about Paul’s statement in defense of their agreement with Republican goals to cut SNAP funding. They of course first start by telling me of their personal anecdotes, stories of acquaintances or relatives who get assistance and either brag or are “known” not to really need it. This is almost immediately followed by complaints that “I’m tired of working so hard for these freeloaders. My taxes are already through the roof because of Obama.” (Note that taxes in general have gone down under President Obama’s administration, but of course people believe what they want to perpetuate the myth they are living with.)

Then of course comes the scripture. “Even Paul said that those who do not work shall not eat” This is often followed by the incredulous statement that “Everyone knows that Jesus was against government!”

So there we have it. Jesus doesn’t like government and so as all  fundamentalists tell me, these things should be left up to the Church. Yes. Well, nothing is preventing the “Church” from taking on the job. Nothing has been preventing them from doing so for over two thousand years. Somehow or other, they haven’t gotten the job done. So please don’t tell me the Church should do it.

And the thing from Paul? Well, IF one were to actually read Paul with some understanding of what his letters are about, one might get a clue that this is not a statement that should EVER be taking literally.

Looking first at Paul’s overall theology, it is clear that he, like many others in the movement, expected the return of the Lord within their own lifetimes. Indeed, in his first letter to them, he calms them and reassures them that those “who are still alive for the Lord’s coming will not have any advantage over those who have fallen asleep.” (1Thess 4:15) Much of Paul’s teaching on marriage for instance is based on his believe that the Lord would return within most of their lifetimes. Thus he counsels that those who can maintain celibacy, should not marry. Those who find it difficult should marry rather than engage in promiscuity.

Secondly,  it is not completely accepted that 2Thessalonians, from which the “no work, no eat” comes from, was actually written by Paul. Be that as it may, Paul is writing again to Thessaloniki because a crisis has arisen. Indeed, many of Paul’s letters are in response to crisis within the believing community. New people sometimes arrive with new teachings, something teachers get off on tangents. In other words, Thessaloniki is in crisis.

The crisis is quite obvious and is stated in the letter itself: Someone is telling the people in the community that the day of the Lord’s arrival has actually come!

“. . . Please do not be too easily thrown into confusion or alarmed by any manifestation of the Spirit or any statement or any letter claiming to come from us, suggesting that the Day of the Lord has already arrived.”(2Thess 2:2)

This is what has caused the problem. People are in panic. There is conflict. As is the case in all the cities, the household churches are supported financially by the more wealthy members. It seems that some in the community are no longer working, and are looking for the Lord to appear, and simply living off the largess of the wealthier among them. Paul says this must stop. According to him, there are various things that must transpire before the Lord returns, and these have not occurred. Everyone is to return to normal activities. Return to calm. Go back to your jobs and your normal pursuits.

What is pathetic in this use of a single sentence out of context, is that even to the most limited of readers, the context should seem most clear. Paul is not out of the blue announcing that it is a teaching of Christ that that no one who fails to work shall not eat.

This flies in the face of Matthew 25 which says something quite different:

Mathew25aThis is the great teaching of Christ.

This is what needs be followed by all who would claim the name of Christian.

While we keep these writings about scripture and faith, we urge readers to contact their congress person and demand that the cuts in SNAP be restored.

Surely we are better than this.

Amen.

Matthewc

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Modeling Dos and Don’ts

Be-a-healthy-role-model-for-your-kids-615x250Children are the best at being excited. Nothing can touch them in their ability to engage in simple raw thrill. They dance, they wiggle, they screech with joy, racing from place to place, in a bout of pent-up energy and enthusiasm for whatever they are anticipating.

Nothing is more anticipatory than Christmas.

Indeed, it used to be that after Thanksgiving we had a week or so to kind of get ready, to organize our lists and plans before we began the preparations for the big day. No more, in fact Christmas intrudes upon Thanksgiving, taking away whatever peaceful thanks we originally enjoyed in that day. We must now, if we are into bargains, supposed to spend part of our Thanksgiving standing in lines and racing through stores to get those “to the first 50 customers” bargains.

It is not the fault of our kids that they are reminded from before Halloween that Santa is not far behind.

They are understandably in a tizzy, but as adults, so are we, for we are hammered upon to keep up with all the doings of the season. We must decorate, not just on the inside but on the outside as well to make sure that we are showing the appropriate amount holiday joy. We must bake and cook up creative desserts and cookies. We must plan the holiday feast. We must mail out cards and that is not sufficient, we must include “yearly updates” to far-flung friends and relatives to “catch them up” on our lives, or our accomplishments at least.

Last and most important, we must shop ’til we drop and then wrap everything in delightful wrapping and bows to elicit loud oohs and aahs on Christmas morn.

And we must do all this, while perhaps still working a job, getting a meal on the table every night, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, attending to all our other little tasks as well as all the new ones that come alone this time of year, such as school pageants and office parties.

Is it any wonder that adults are frazzled and short-tempered?

Is it any wonder that the most famous of all holiday songs in our families are “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” with the harsh admonitions to “better not pout, better not cry”! Our kids are unable to contain themselves, and parents demand they do!

Our readings today bring us back to reality. Indeed, they show us how to handle this massive commercial extravaganza. It places it all into perspective.

While we are all fond of saying, “Jesus is the reason for the season” we don’t act that way often.

Finally, brothers and sisters,
we earnestly ask and exhort you

in the Lord Jesus that,
as you received from us
how you should conduct yourselves to please God
and as you are conducting yourselves
you do so even more.
For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus

So Paul tells the Thessalonians. Conduct yourself in the way that we showed you. Remember how we acted toward you. Act thusly toward others. This is what will please the Lord.

In Luke, Jesus explains how we should not act:

“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength

to escape the tribulations that are imminent

and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Of course, Jesus was not speaking about Christmas, he was speaking about the time of his return, a time unknown to even him.

But it is telling isn’t it. This is the season for that “carousing and drunkenness”; this is the time when the “anxieties of daily life” distract us from our purpose. We are constantly making lists and checking them twice. We are designing our driving routes to be efficient. We are planning meals to keep room in the fridge, and eat up left-overs. We are looking for the quick meals–no doubt the fast food markets do a booming business at this time of year. We are busy.

So busy that we barely find the time to squeeze in a Sunday service, and no doubt we are off to the mall as soon as the last amen is uttered.

Yet, what are we modeling here?

Are we creating  more slightly schizophrenic children, who will grow up to engage in their own forms of insane busy-ness all the while screaming at their kids to “knock it off” or you won’t be seeing Santa this year? Are we modeling frenetic behavior as the “way it is” around the end of the year? Are we racing from store to store, with last second shouting orders of “don’t forget to pick up the wine from the vendor!” as your spouse heads out the door on yet another round of must do tasks?

There is such a peace offered at this time of year, if only we will be open to it, and sit down! If we can relax with a cup of tea and enjoy the view of hearth or window. If we can reflect on what Mary and Joseph were thinking as these days went by. If we can reflect on our last year, and our wins and losses and our plans and our dreams, and our hopes. If we can examine them in light of the Lord and see if we are in alignment with what we should be hoping and dreaming about.

There is the peace of a babe born in the quiet of a cold night.

There is the peace of the hopes and dreams of a people being fulfilled in that manger.

There is the love of God expressed in the lowing of the cattle and the brightness of the stars above.

This is the season of hope.

This is the season of deeply felt thanksgiving for the year about to pass into the next.

This is the season to slow down and think deeply about who and what we are, who was Jesus, and how we fit in this quilt of God’s love.

Take time each day for quiet reflection.

The cookies will be made, the tree will get trimmed, the gifts will get bought. All will happen in the time allotted.

Give your children, friends and family the gift of attention to them, the joy of laughter and talk, the ultimate gift of your time.

God is in his heaven, all is right with the world.

Amen.

Hark! Good News!

There aren’t many people who can’t tell you exactly how many days there are left before Christmas. That’s because time is running, and there is still so much to do. Menus to be finalized, food to be bought, baking to get done, presents to be bought and wrapped, cards to address, decorating to finish.

And so we limp into our places of worship this Sunday, and what an uplifting message we get. Just exactly when we need it.

And it comes, with a fanfare of trumpets blaring.

Listen. You can hear them.

Just like in movies of the times of merry old England, and certainly in those times in Rome when the Emperor was about to arrive, the trumpets were heard upon the ramparts.

The Good News is on its way! Rejoice, we hear again and again. Rejoice. We have been blessed with a God who listens and who responds to our call.

From Isaiah we are told that glad tidings come to the poor, the brokenhearted will be healed, the prisoners will be released. In the Magnificat, Mary rejoices that God will fill the hungry with good things and will have mercy on every generation. Paul says we all will be made perfect because our God is faithful and it will be accomplished.

John reminds us that we may believe all this because John the Baptist told us so. He told us that he was the one coming to announce the coming of the Light.

Such an important word “the Light.”

Such a word was known to Jews. Light was knowledge of the Lord, yet here it is used in a new way. Light is God and that God is coming among us to perfect us, and to heal and to have mercy. God as Light will teach us.

John the Baptist may indeed be a prophet of the Good News. But Paul warns, “test everything, retain what is good”. Paul is of course speaking after the fact, and is reminding us that we know what Jesus taught. Examine all that is given by so-called prophets in that light. Retain what is good. In other words, lay everything that is preached to you alongside the teaching of the Light, and keep only that which aligns with the Master’s teaching.

Would that that occurred today.

Today, we unfortunately have a plethora of spokespersons for the Light. And too many of them, sad so say, have messages that in the end serve to further other agendas. They seek to serve political parties or perceived ingrained beliefs that may have little or in some cases, nothing to do with what our Master taught.

When someone tries to tell you that Jesus would be for a certain economic ideology, by twisting a parable or taking a sentence all too literally, beware. Test everything. When someone attempts to  tell you that Jesus would be of this or that position in regards some sexual moray, beware. Test everything.

Prophets abound even today. And some are indeed listening to God, but some are not. Retain what is good.

Test against what the Light proclaims. What is warm and life-giving? What opens up for all to see? What offers hope, healing, mercy? What on the other hand is dark, divisive, and fearful? Reject it as not light.

Indeed, this is GOOD NEWS!

It is this good news that will carry us through the days and hours to come. It is this which sustains us through real and perceived obstacles and the dark. A new day is dawning. Come to the Light!

Amen.

Is 61:1-2a, 10-11
Lk 1: 46-48, 49-50, 53-54
1Thes 5: 16-24
Jn 1: 6-8, 19-28

 

Pastoring 101

Often it is hard to figure out why certain readings are put together. Not so today. Today we have a veritable teachers manual of what a good pastor is.

I am reminded that a week or so ago, I watched part of a “Family Values” summit here in Iowa. Of course all the major GOP candidates came to speak.

Each speaker, candidate or local politico, invoked God, acknowledging that first and foremost each and every person there looked to God as their true leader.

They then went about talking against marriage equality, and against universal health care, and against a worker’s right to unionize, and against EPA standards that protect our water and air. God

And I saw the audience nod and look to each other and smile, always reassuring each other that this indeed was God’s will–the things they were for and those they were against.

It probably wouldn’t do any good, but they, each of them, would do well to read and pray upon the words chosen for the lessons of this day.

Our good friends who see themselves as righteous and God-abiding are wont to tell us what God wants. Having talked with a good many of these  born-agains, I know the litany. Paul, they tell me,  (who oddly is quoted by the fundamentalist far more often than Jesus) makes it abundantly clear that the duty of a “good Christian” is to admonish and correct those in error. They would be failing in their duty to remain silent. Silence is acquiescence, quite simply.

When questioned as to the possibility that their truth may not be the truth, they scoff. No way! They assert with all sincerity that God has spoken quite plainly in their translation of the bible (usually the KJV). God does not hide his desires, he states them plainly. There is no need of any learned person to tell them what God says; a person of pure desire will hear the Word correctly. Learned biblical scholars, after all, have a goal: to be paid, and to be held in esteem as better than other interpreters.

Yet, a good deal of biblical space is given over to warnings about false teaching. It is this conundrum that the average fundamentalist faces: how to tell the false from the true. And the answer they have chosen is to trust their own instincts.

Of course that works fine, except that we are human beings who, so psychologists and sociologists tell us, are motivated to believe all manner of things that empirically are provably false. We chose to believe things often because it “works for us” satisfying some need that we may only be dimly aware of.

In Malachi we are warned:

 You have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction; (Mal 2:8)

In Psalm 131 we learn how to approach God:

O LORD, my heart is not proud,
nor are my eyes haughty;
I busy not myself with great things,
nor with things too sublime for me.
Nay rather, I have stilled and quieted
my soul like a weaned child.
Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap,
so is my soul within me.

In Thessalonians Paul models the perfect Pastor:

We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.
With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you
not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well,
so dearly beloved had you become to us.
You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery.
Working night and day in order not to burden any of you,
we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thess 2: 7-9)

And finally, we have Jesus, the Great Teacher who tells us exactly how to be:

“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt. 23: 1-12)

If we would model the Master, we are humble, we assume that we are but children in terms of our knowledge of God’s ways, and we never presume to “teach” others. We lead by the example of our lives, giving our vision of God as we understand, but not as teacher. Rather we are fellow travelers. We don’t have all the answers, and we perceive the spark of God in all our brothers and sisters and eagerly look to them to teach us as well.

We take the warnings seriously, both those of Malachi and all the others found throughout both the Hebrew and New Testament. Things like, “God’s ways are not your ways,” “God sees to the heart” , “Care for the log in your own eye before worrying about the splinter in your neighbors”. These all reference a warning that we mere mortal humans cannot speak for God.

All we can do is to try to live honestly and forthrightly according to the pitifully small understanding we do have.If we can understand on that one thing, then we will shun any idea that we have any basis for telling anyone else what they should do or not.  Surely we have the right and duty to separate ourselves from those who hinder us by speaking things that seek to harden hearts and justify mistreatment of others “in the name of God.” But, we are on shifting sands when we take that as a license to teach others the way of righteousness.

Amen.

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