The Peace of God

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Pentecost 15C

meek.mildOn Wednesday, my church joined with other congregations at a local town park to pray and sing for peace and an end to violence and hate. It was a very, very good thing to do, even if we didn’t all agree on what “peace” meant. One participant wanted to sing the old Pepsi commercial: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…” Some thought we were talking about “inner peace.” Others thought, I think, that peace was a gift God could just give us if we prayed for it. What we did agree on was that it was important for us to come together and pray about it. So, we did.

In today’s first lesson, Jeremiah talks about peace in describing God’s dream for the world – to be made reality in the creation of Israel – to be a place of beauty and promise. A holy land where children could play without danger, where old people were safe from want, where the sick and the poor and the troubled were cared for. Where businesses were fair and honest and those who worked were paid a fair wage and treated fairly. Israel was to be the exemplar – a light to the nations. The people longed to be that and they confirmed their covenant with God. But, with one thing and another – when the plan became cumbersome –God’s people went back to covering their own individual bottoms. Shall I plant a garden or shall I keep those people over there from having any land at all? Oh, well. Sin stayed.

Israel was an incredible dream – originally and in its modern incarnation – brought about in 1948 when the United Nations carved land out of the greater Palestine area and gave it to be the nation of Israel. The necessity for having a Jewish homeland – especially on the ground named in Scripture as God’s gift to them – seemed warranted for people who had been oppressed for generations and subject to a powerful genocide movement in the last century. The complications to that decision are not our subject here. The worthy intent is. The New York Times published an article this Saturday on David Ben Gurion, a key founder of Israel, from a recently found 1968 interview. In it, Ben Gurion cited the prophet Jeremiah for his keen, though unpopular, understanding of politics, and said he, too, believed the state’s mission “was to fulfill the biblical concept of ‘an segulah,’ an exemplary nation of higher virtues, treasured by God.” “We wanted,” he said, “to create a new life, not the life that exists. I believed we had a right to this country. Not taking away from others, but recreating it.’”

The forebears of our own country had similar dreams, hoping to create the “city on a hill” described by St. Paul. And, for all the good and worthy plans that were set in motion, we fell as far afield as both biblical and modern Israel. We read about old Israel’s wars and infidelities in the Bible. We read from “new” Israel’s history the government’s immediate blocking of the dream when it refused to allow Palestinian refugees to return at the end of the 1948 war of Israel’s creation and when it placed all Arab citizens under military rule. We see in our own history, the almost immediate blow to the dream when our own founders agreed to permit slavery in the land as a quid pro quo for the support of the southern states.

We could go on, but our point here is not to discuss history, but to see where Jesus is coming from in today’s Gospel – working urgently to get his disciples and learners to understand the cost of committing to peace, of what it means to follow him in restoring God’s dream for the word. Listen again to what he says to us:

“I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! … Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three.”

This is not exactly what anyone is hoping to hear – then or now. Peace is exactly what many of us want from our faith. Peace – in the dictionary definition: tranquility, quietude, freedom from disturbance and disquieting thoughts and emotions. Who doesn’t want that? Some of us have even been led to think that is the very purpose of religion. But here’s Jesus, being confusingly provocative in his talk, not of peace, but of fire and death and baptism and stress. Suggesting that the peace he offers is something other than tranquility and family harmony.

Here’s the deal. We don’t usually think of Jesus as controversial. We even have official hymns that refer to him as meek and mild. But Jesus, quite clearly, thinks of himself as controversial and so did the people who knew him the first time. They would say, along with the picture on today’s bulletin: “Jesus. Meek and mild. As if.” Jesus goes further – saying that if we are being faithful, we may find ourselves embroiled in controversy, too. Not because conflict is a good thing – but because if we are genuinely concerned with Jesus’ Gospel, we may find ourselves considered as subversive as he was. Dom Helder Camara, the former Roman Archbishop of Brazil, gave a perfect example of this: “When I give bread to the poor,” he said, “they call me a saint. But when I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a Communist.” Or the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, who found himself on trial or in prison more than once for disturbing society’s peace. He noted:

“If you want to be a Christian, you’d better look good on wood.”

The fire, the passion Jesus wants to kindle us with is the kind that stirs us from our comfort with things as they are and makes us willing to care in big and little ways about what’s going on in the world around us – the wars that do unbearable damage to infants and children, the hunger and sickness of those who live under greedy governments that siphon off aid to their own bank accounts and leave their people to starve, the huge numbers of black men who occupy our prisons for non-major crimes, the crimes against the environment, for heaven’s sake, all the people and creatures who are utterly dependent upon our willingness to care about them. And he asks us to not care that other people or the authorities will be angry or not promote us or invite us or our children to their parties.

The peace of Jesus doesn’t always look like peace – any more than God’s justice and compassion and hope always look like our visions of them. It has occurred to me that the only way we’ll know for sure that we’re doing it right is if conflict reaches out for us. But by the same token, it’s been noted how many folks run around thinking they’re being prophetic when they’re just being annoying. Our job is not to go out and be controversial. Our charge is to go out and be faithful. Where has God already started a fire? On days when we feel tepid and unadventurous, our job is to go stand next to the flame and let it warm us. On other, stronger days, our job is to fan the flame and spread it. And on days when worst has come to worst and maybe this week, our job is to let the Gospel of Jesus Christ light a fire under us. And follow in the dream of building the holy land of beauty and promise, an segulah, a light to the nations chosen by God, without boundaries, where kindness and mercy reign, and meanness and injustice have no standing. Taking the tiny steps of peace.

I ask you to join me in turning to Hymn 661 in the 1982 Hymnal. And pray with me verse 4:

“The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed on the sod.

Yet let us pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.”

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Cultured Despisers Never Die: They Just Take New Names.

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On Religion: Speeches to Its’ Cultured Despisers was a witty and influential book by Freidrich Schleiermacher, first published in 1799.  Considered a sort of Ur-text for modern Protestant theology, Speeches tried to save religion from the sneers of thinkers who prided themselves on their Enlightenment views.  If you were ever a college student, you were probably a Cultured Despiser too.

There is a way, though, in which they never quite move on.  Today’s Cultured Despisers are the proponents of Scientism: the belief that science conquers all and renders the humanities and religion superfluous.  We’ve been through Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (whom I otherwise liked a lot) and we now have Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist/linguist, who likes to think that what he does is “hard” science as opposed to the mushy thinking of lesser disciplines.

Pinker has been in the news increasingly because of his TED Talks and his theory, really, that the world is getting better and better.  We are the most “civilized” we have ever been. Not surprisingly, such a rosy evolution is due to Science and, in particular, the triumph of Science over Religion.  In Pinker’s words, “the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures…are factually mistaken.” (“Science is Not Your Enemy,” The New Republic, August 6, 2013).

While the notion that human beings are becoming ever less violent is a happy one, it seems belied by the facts of history.  It was last taken seriously as part of the pre-WWI belief in the inevitable triumph of progress.  Remember Emile Coue:  “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better?”  While I suspect that a theory of inexorable human progress is at least arguably un-Christian, the greater concern is Pinker’s mistaken assumption that religious fundamentalism is a justifiable stand-in for religion in general.* What is true, rather, is that science and religion both depend upon metaphor for intelligibility.

My real beef with Pinker is his belief that religion (contra science) is a closed system which cannot take in new discoveries or information.  Just as the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides taught that the truth ought be accepted from whatever source it comes, so have Christian theologians argued that “the religion of the incarnation” cannot be hostile to new knowledge because truth is always an ally.   One of the earliest modern examples of this is the Anglican Lux Mundi (“Light of the World”), a collection of 12 essays by a group of Oxford theologians in the late 1880s.

It simply strikes me as a silly (and banal) argument to be having.  Experiences of faith and awe do not fit neatly into categories or “non-overlapping criteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould once described science and religion.  The truth is that virtually nothing worth describing can be described without interpretation and metaphor.  Not love.  Not grief.  Not freedom.  Not art.  Not poetry.  Not music.  Not physics.  Not really.

When what we see exceeds our ability to explain (whether it’s redemption or the multiverse), we none of us give up our belief in ultimate intelligibility.  We continue on, probing, in expectation that the belief will be justified.  And that, regardless of which category we are overlapping, is called faith.


* The errors of fundamentalism ought not be mistaken for the errors of religion.  See Leon Wieseltier, “Crimes against Humanities,” The New Republic, September 3, 2013.

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For the Week of Pentecost 16: Beating People Up with Religion

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bent woman_2In today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 13:10-17), Jesus is teaching in a town synagogue on a random Saturday — the Sabbath.  When a bent and emotionally crippled woman approaches him, he interrupts his teaching and heals her with the words:  “you are set free from your ailment.”  An indignant elder immediately hurries over to chastize Jesus for breaking the Fourth Commandment (the law banning work on the Sabbath)  — and in a place of worship, no less.

All Jesus has to say to the religious official is: “You’re a hypocrite” and the battle is joined.  He points out that the Fourth Commandment (“Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy”) also provides that God’s people enable their animals and servants and any aliens under their roof to rest on the Sabbath, with the obvious effect that they should not be tied up or yoked or in any way unable to rest.  How, therefore, could it be against God’s law to unbind this woman on the Sabbath?

Most of us would probably agree with Jesus’ perspective here.  However, we ought not make the mistake of thinking the argument was really about what does and does not constitute “work” under the Fourth Commandment.  It might be worthwhile for us to reflect on examples in which we or our own church leaders use religious teachings to bind others or keep them bound — much as the good law against work on the Sabbath was used as a weapon against Jesus’ freeing a middle-aged woman from her sickness.

We know that some fundamentalist Muslims have used their Holy Scriptures as a justification for terrorism and murder.  But we should also remember that Christians have interpreted our Bible to justify all kinds of violence, as well as slavery and discriminatory treatment under the law of people outside the white, male, property-owning norm.

Jesus’ issues with the “organized religion” of his time had to a great deal to do with the application of religious laws — not for their original purposes of legislating humanity and compassion and justice — but to enforce the power of those who had it and collaborated with it.  Jesus, who routinely hobnobbed with women and other have-nots of his society, was a living rebuke to the political and religious authorities of his time.

What is amazing is how quickly his words and behavior can move from the safely religious to the unsafely political.  Relevantly, in last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus cautioned that he came to bring division, not peace.  In the Bible, such division is reconciled by the Cross.  How do we reconcile the tender words of Jesus with the discordant effects they had then and still have when we apply them in real life?

Prophets in Ordinary Time: Checking In

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hoseaimagesThose of us lucky enough to have been introduced to the writings of the Hebrew prophets through the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel are elated that the lectionary readings at Sunday Eucharists — from now to the end of the year — include major snippets from those writings.  From Amos’ “Hear this, you who trample on the needy‚” to Hosea’s “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?” we hear words of judgment on the deeds of the nations and the people’s apathy as they sit back and let it all happen.  And in the midst of judgment, we hear God’s words of passionate love and comfort, a promise of redemption and the rebuilding of the cities of our lives.

Their visions are poetic and dramatic and often startling.  They throw at us the “parade of horribles” that follow human collusion with corruption or indifference: wars, environmental degradation, damage to lives and loss of hope.  They also show us glimpses of beauty and relationship that are expansive beyond the limits of our own imaginations.  And they tell us that nothing is preordained, that God does new things.  Heschel said once that there are no proofs for God, only witnesses.   The prophets are such witnesses, and for Christians, the first to convey the powerful and living image of the incarnational God we know as the Christ.  Not surprisingly, it is they Jesus cited most often in describing the meaning of God’s kingdom.

If, as the prophets say, God is the One who hears the cries of the suffering and acts, we, clearly, are meant to do the same.  As the prophet Micah put it: do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.  We are meant to be the people who live by God’s values.

Have a blessed week.