God by Lamplight

God by Lamplight  |  Matthew 25:1-13

Ten maids there were. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.

As stories go, it is a wonderful beginning. We hear these lines and know that the story might go anywhere. It is as though this is a Jesus version of Once Upon a Time. As with all great fairy tales, we do not think this is a true story, but we do believe that the story is made of truth. Anything might happen, anything at all, but we know that nothing good will come to the five foolish girls.

Most Christians hear this story, or the others like it, and think that it is about something called the Second Coming, the return of Jesus, the moment that evangelical Christians point to as the future and hope of humankind. They are probably right.

What if that isn’t the point, though? What if this story is about something different?

Let’s put it another way. How about the Trinity? Given much thought to the Triune expression of God as Father and Son and Spirit? Ever tried to explain it to a third grader? Ever tried to explain iThreeDuckst to a grownup?

What am I talking about?

Suppose we work with the basic notion of God the Father, the pre-existent Other-That-Is-God, before and after and beyond us—the aspect or expression of God that is untouchable, unknowable, unapproachable. And suppose that we consider God the Spirit, the expression of God who is or can be everywhere, at any time, within and behind and around and through everything everywhere, all the time. And, of course, there is God the Son, who as the incarnate Christ was fully God and fully human.

All three aspects are God. All the time. Everywhere. So what makes us think—in the Kingdom of the Triune God—that we are only waiting and watching for Jesus? How about the Father? How about the Spirit?

Might not God the Father break into our lives? Certainly Moses would argue that it might happen. Might not God the Spirit blow across our lives? Certainly Elijah would say so.

Jesus promised his followers that he would return, that is plain. The manner and timing and form of his return was left less clear.

When the five wise maids take their lamps and flasks of oil to go and wait for the bridegroom to arrive, they don’t know how long they might have to wait. (Even these wise ones fall asleep—a word of hope for us.) Why were they wise? They were prepared to see.

We seem to insist that God appear to us in the form we expect. In that, we act as though we have never read the scriptures. In all of those stories, when did God ever do anything the way anyone expected? Why do we think that this surprising God will appear in our lives in the form and in the way that we are expecting?

WatchingIf we open our eyes to see, we might be amazed at how often God appears, and in what forms. Today, God may have shown up as a child wanting a smile. Yesterday, we might have lost our temper with God when we thought we were only speaking to a waitress, as if anyone were ever only anything. Tomorrow, the Spirit might burst into our lives by way of a job, an illness, a flood, a gift, a stranger or a friend, and we will not see because God has not met our paltry and limited expectations of how, when and where God is supposed to appear, or how often, or to whom.

Once upon a time there were God the Father, God the Spirit, and God the Son. And with that beginning, anything might happen. Anything at all. Anywhere. Anytime. To any of us. Whether we are prepared to see or not.

Beasts of Burdens

Beasts of Burdens  |  Matthew 23:1-12

When Jesus finished the tirade that fills this chapter of Matthew, you can almost imagine him walking out of the temple to the sound of the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden”.

Ok, almost.Lioness

It takes little imagination to understand that this is a tirade, though. The entire chapter is one long unrelenting indictment. Jesus declares no less than seven ‘woes’ upon the religious leaders for the burdens that their expectations lay upon the faithful.

If you have been around churches (or, I expect, synagogues, or temples of almost any established faith) for any length of time, then you know what Jesus was talking about. You will also have come to expect the usual twist in the exploration of such a passage—that we are invited to apply Jesus’ words to our own hearts, to our own expectations of those around us, and to the unwanted, unfair and unbearable burdens that our expectations place upon them.

Only slightly less anticipated is the interpretation that we should examine our own expectations of ourselves. We not only try to carry the unnecessary burdens of meeting the expectations of other people, but we also stumble under the weight of our own self-criticism, collapse under the burden of our self-expectations, and go wobbly-legged from the unmerited idea that we have no intrinsic worth, value, or strength.

There is one over-arching trajectory to be found in Jewish and Christian scripture, and that is the movement of God toward humanity. From the Old Testament images of God as smoke and fire, untouchable, unfaceable, and unknowable, to the Christian revelation of the physical incarnation of God in the person of Jesus the Christ, Messiah, the only unwavering message is one of God loving, valuing, treasuring, restoring, and redeeming all of humanity, each one of the teeming crowd of humanity, and all that we have touched and that has touched us.

Horses on the hill

So let’s consider Jesus’ tirade from the point of view that it could apply to our cruel criticisms of other people, our unrealistic expectations of the people around us. There’s a lot to learn from that exercise. And let’s consider Jesus’ tirade from the point of view that it could apply to our own inner dialogue, the cruel criticisms and unrealistic expectations that we lay on our ourselves. There is a lot to unpack right there, and all of it is useful.

While we’re at it, let’s also consider the possibility—the slight, often overlooked possibility—that Jesus was yelling at precisely the people he meant to yell at. Maybe, just maybe, we ought to allow the Messiah, God incarnate, that much credit. God yelled at whom God wished to yell: the leaders, the teachers, the people with credentials. People like me who presumed to say something about faith. The people who claimed to know something about God. The people in charge.

Jesus is saying we should question authority. What? Did you think they thought that stuff up in the 1960s? There is nothing new under the sun. (Wait, did someone already say that?)

We get to question the people who claim to teach us and those people who presume to preach to us. In particular, we need to question the teachings of anyone who doesn’t like our questions. The ones who are worth listening to are the ones who will welcome your questions, even your differing views.

Matthew portrays Jesus, just prior to embarking on this scathing criticism of the religious leaders gathered around him, sharing the greatest commandment. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That is not blind faith. It is open minded exploration. It is bare souled honesty. It is walking toward God with eyes wide open. It is tossing out all of the things we thought we knew about God in order to know God. It is realizing that our preconceived notions of God are rubbish. It is realizing that if God is real, if anything we understand about God is at all true, then this is a God who already knows more bad things about each and all of us than we ourselves realize or can admit, and yet who keeps loving us.

Relentless. That is what God’s love is. Relentless. Interminable. Unceasing. Tireless. Endless. Ruthless. And therefore it is also unfathomable. Incomprehensible.

Question anybody who leaves you wondering what you might do to get God to love you. There isn’t anything you can do. It is not about what we do. It’s about Who God Is.

Mountains with Clouds 2 010

Silly God Tricks

Silly God Tricks  |  Matthew 22:34 – 46  |  Lectionary Project

The team wearing Sadducee T-shirts (“Gone is Gone” with a silk screen likeness of James Dean — the irony eluded them) had already embarrassed themselves. They had put their heads together and come up with what they thought was a real resurrection conundrum. If all of this life after death stuff was real, there must be practical ramifications, right? A woman marries seven men in her lifetime, so who gets her in the hereafter?

Pretty slick, they thought. Riddle us that one, Jesus. Let’s hear some brilliant carpenter theology now.

And they did, of course. Jesus told them just how wrong they were, and Peter made the sound of an airplane crashing, complete with hand motions and explosions at the end. The disciples were all wearing “We’re with Him” T-shirts, robes pulled open at the chest so that everyone could see.Masked_wide

Now it was time for Team Pharisee to have their turn. They all had on new Leviticus robes, not the cheap knockoffs with the shellfish rules printed under the arm where no one could read them, but real brand name robes from Fine Print Finery in the Temple Mall. One of them was carrying a Moses plush toy—pull the string and hear a different law each time. It was only for marketing purposes though. None of them were still playing with Moses dolls, not really.

“What is the greatest commandment?” the Pharisees asked. That was their big gun, the trick question to end all trick questions: neat and simple and oh so dangerous. The fellow carrying the Moses doll pulled the string just for fun. It cranked up and a tiny Charlton Heston voice read off the rule about not eating rock badgers. Peter was a little side-tracked, wondering how big rock badgers grew to be, but Philip shushed him.

In the silence afterward, Jesus gave them their answer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” he said. Then he added the second greatest commandment for bonus points. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Pharisees knew that they were in trouble. They didn’t look as bad as the Sadducees, but Jesus had given the best answer anyone had ever heard to the Great Commandment Riddle. Most folk just wandered off and tried to sort out the ten commandments, but they always had a hard time picking out the best one. Some of the Pharisees began muttering that they should have worn Deuteronomy robes instead of their Leviticus ones.

Then Jesus announced that it was his turn to ask a question. It was a doozy. He read Psalm 110, then he asked, “If the Messiah is David’s son, why does David call him Lord?” It was the chicken-and-egg problem with a becoming-your-own-grandpa thrown in. The Pharisees were plainly stumped, and Peter didn’t even understand the question. John had to lean over and whisper that it was sort of a science fiction time travel thing, like on Doctor Who. Peter loved that show, but he didn’t really get how the characters could be in the future in one episode and travel to the past in the next one.

Cumulus_wideNone of them really understood the riddle. Even the disciples didn’t grasp it. The point was not to figure out the answer but to realize who was asking the question. This was God in human form, if Christianity has gotten anything right at all. Nobody grasped that this person sitting among them, like one of them, was also God, who was not like any of them. This was God who was both inside of time and outside of it, within our reality and beyond it, the one who stands at the beginning and at the the end (and everywhere in between) at the same moment, because for God there are no moments. All of the moments already happened for God, and none of them.

We think that time is like sand falling through the glass, and so for us it is. To God, how do we know what time is like? Perhaps it is a flash of light, or an endless sea, or eternities resting between the beats of our hearts.

They had no answer for Jesus because the Messiah they expected was the one they had created in their own image. That God was small and predictable. The real God is sometimes small and predictable, but also large and wild, unbound, unknowable, except in whatever forms and times and ways that God presents God to us. Like the Pharisees and David and Job before us, we have no answer for God’s riddles.

Like the disciples, we are invited to hear the questions anyway. It is not our answers that matter; it is knowing who places the questions in our hearts.

The Whims of God

The Whims of God  |  Matthew 22:1-14

Castle Disney 4x6No one wanted to come to the party, at least no one who had been invited. We don’t know why. The story doesn’t tell us. Maybe it had something to do with the guests themselves—perhaps they were not party minded people. Maybe it had something to do with the king—perhaps they didn’t like this king, and this was their rebellion.

We do hear that some of them went so far as to kill the messengers who came to invite them. We also hear that the king did not react well to the news. With a feast planned and a wedding party ready to start, the king killed the folk he had invited and burned down their city. That was bad enough, but the story gets worse. We hear that after the death and the destruction, this king sent his guards to force new people to come to his party. There must have been a killer dress code: one of the guests, having first been dragged to the feast, was then blamed for not wearing the right clothes. It was a fatal fashion faux pas.

The story makes us uneasy. This king seems unstable, capricious, and vengeful. If the king in this story is God, that just makes the tale more alarming. A city is burned down and people are killed because they don’t come to a party? A man is punished because he wasn’t dressed appropriately when he was kidnapped?

And Christians wonder why church attendance is down.

A story with a meaning is one thing. Making a story into an allegory, that is something else again. Making a parable into an allegory can have unintended consequence—making God as whimsical and vengeful as the king in this story, for example.

The idea of a vengeful God, judging and condemning people in reactionary, arbitrary ways, can worry even the faithful. There are thoughtful people who turn their backs on religion because they hear too much about rules of behavior and the judgment of God and too little about the reason for the feast. Presumably, the people shouting about rules and judgment believe that they have reserved seats at the table, and they are confident about their wardrobe. Meanwhile, they become the reason that other folks beg out of attending the party.

Another version of Matthew’s story is told in Luke 14:16-24. As Luke tells it, the people who don’t come offer pretty valid excuses, and nobody is killed. Presumably the story is based on the same source, the sayings of Jesus. The fact that the same story could be recounted so differently is interesting on many levels. For one thing, to tell the same story in such different ways, Luke and Matthew must have intended to make different points.

Matthew reminds his audience, and in the story Jesus is reminding the leaders of the temple, of a long history of rejected prophets. (If they went around telling stories like this one, it should have been no surprise that people didn’t listen.) Rather than trying to paint a picture of an angry God, one who condemns and kills, it may be that Matthew was making a heavy handed attempt to say something about grace.

Yes, grace, somewhere there in the midst of the burning and the killing. I said it was heavy handed, didn’t I?

The king sends out invitations to everybody and anybody, starting with the expected and ending with the inexplicable. The point may be that though the invitation is freely given, or even when it is forced upon us, the response still matters. Showing up means something. And freshening up our outfit may have more to do with our heart than with our shoes.Smile by Force

When I was growing up, I was taught that there were times and places where one was expected to ‘appear interested,’ as in, “You need to sit up and appear interested.” That meant that slouching and looking like I was bored was not going to be acceptable. Even if I was not interested, manners dictated that I try to engage.

Matthew is telling us that God is bringing everyone to the party, one way or another. Ignoring the invitation does not appear to be a good idea, not in Matthew’s Gospel. And what is on the outside in the story represents what is on the inside in our lives. God has already brought us to the party. This is it, all around us, from the moment we are born, shoved into it kicking and screaming. What matters is the response of our hearts. It’s time we sit up and appear interested.

No Fair

No Fair  |  Matthew 20:1-16

Pouting2God isn’t fair. Even a blind man can see that. (If we believe the Gospels, a few of them did.)

Take this parable of a man hiring workers and paying them all the same, the ones who worked all day and the ones who only worked a little while. They all received what they were promised, but the ones who worked the longest complained that it was not fair.

We would agree with them. In fact, most countries have laws in place to protect against such treatment. It was not fair.

Was it wrong? That’s a different question.

The landowner, in whom we may easily see God, honors the promise of a daily wage. The promise is kept, but the wages are not fair, not in the eyes of the people who worked all day only to receive the same wage as those who only worked a little while. Never mind that everyone received everything they were promised. A coin may look like more in some hands than in others.

Those people who were given work and a living wage at the beginning of their day know nothing of the anxiety and despair of those who sit and wait, worrying about how to feed their families, how to buy clothes for them, or medicine. It may be that those who are hired late in the day have already worked harder than those who did not have to worry. When we have what we need, it is easy to think it is because we are somehow better, more deserving, than those who have nothing. We forget the poor. You know, the ones we always have with us.

God is God, and we are not. Many would say so and be right. So God gives more than what was promised—what is wrong with that? Is it not an expression of grace? God has promised us nothing that we have not received or at least might still receive, for good or bad.

There is another side to the coin. Think of the old stories of the descendants of Abraham, the exodus from Egypt, and the entrance into their new homeland. How about the Egyptian soldiers swept away by the sea—were they all evil? What about the people who were displaced and killed when the Israelites entered their new land—did they all deserve such treatment? And there are other stories. How about the boys who teased Elisha—was that enough to set the bears on them, if that is what God did?

God is not fair, it seems. Sometimes God paints with a brush that is far wider than we would like, or with one far too narrow. That person is helped, but we are not. We are blessed, and our neighbors appear to be forgotten, overlooked by God. Some of us are born free and live well in rich lands. Others are born into poverty and eke out a living in the poorest places on earth. None of us has any say in where we are born, for good or bad.

And neither we nor they, the blessed nor the overlooked, can say anything. If God were fair, if we each received what we deserved, the earth would have been rid of all of us long ago. At the same time, we might say to Isaiah that we are not clay pots that have no voice in how we are shaped. The potter may make or break the pot, but we may do something that the clay cannot—we may choose how to respond.

And what choice makes sense in the face of the unfairness of God? There is only the response of Job, who lost everything except the things he wished were gone—trust, and faith that God is worthy of it.

Meanwhile, we might remember the people who are still waiting for a day’s wage or a place at the table.