Sunday, October 30, 2011

Follow the Leader (Joshua 2:7-17)

This is a story that on first read seems a lot less important for us than for the people who experienced this event. God tells Joshua right at the beginning what's going to happen and why -- the miracle will confirm for the people that God is with him, as God was with Moses. Especially because the miracle will be very similar to the one that God worked at the Red Sea, where the Israelites also crossed a body of water on dry land.

That's pretty important for Joshua and for the Israelites. We're used to government that functions more or less the same during and after a transition in leadership. A new governor or a new president may (or may not) take things in new directions, but we know that the machinery of everyday government will keep things running. The Israelites' culture offered no such assurances -- how could they know if Joshua was up to snuff? How could they know if he could lead the people? How could they know if their new leader would walk the path laid out by the Lord or if he would take his followers away from God onto some unfortunate path? When the Jordan River stopped flowing and the people walked across it on dry land, that confirmed for them that God was with Joshua as he had been with Moses.

You and I, though, should we need to cross the Jordan River, would probably use a bridge or a boat. We wouldn't need the water to stop flowing, because we have other ways to navigate than just our own muscle power. We also may not be too concerned over who's in charge of the ancient Israelites, since it's not us. So can we learn something from this part of Israel's history?

I think we can, but we have to read it carefully. The quick version might say that Moses parted the Red Sea, Joshua parted the Jordan River; so Joshua is just as good a leader as Moses. But that's wrong.

At the Red Sea, Moses did indeed stretch out his staff against the waters. But it was the wind that blew and created the path for the escaping Hebrews, and a powerful wind was very often seen as a sign of God's presence -- just as it had been in the story of creation in Genesis. And the Jordan didn't stop flowing when Joshua crossed it, but when the feet of the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant touched the water. Again, the Ark symbolized the presence of God in a special way, and so both times the people saw God at work on their behalf, demonstrating to them that the person leading them was following a path God laid out.

In fact, the people of Israel had the most trouble when they took their eyes off the idea that God led them and relied too much on their human leaders. When Moses was up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments, they worried because he had been gone so long, and they asked Aaron to make them the golden calf as their god. You know what was going on around them when they asked for this? The top of Mt. Sinai was covered in a storm, a symbol of God's direct presence while he spoke with Moses. Reminders of God's care for them were all around them, but because their focus on their human leader and his absence prevented them from seeing those signs and realizing their true leader was still with them.

We can idolize people just as easily as they did. Large churches with charismatic leaders may struggle when those leaders move on, even if the changeover happens without some kind of scandal. People who found their church a place to encounter God, to meet to worship him and to enable them to do his work for people in need will miss their old pastor, but they will continue. People who came to the church because of the pastor's top sermons or because of the prestige of attending that pastor's particular church will have a harder time and may not stay.

We can idolize many other aspects of church -- worship styles, emotional experiences, other people with whom we attend -- and forget that our main focus in our church life needs to be God. Just as we might attend a church because we feel good about one or another of those things, we might not attend because we feel bad about them. We've always gone to a certain church, but now we're mad at the pastor so we'll go somewhere else. The church hasn't been doing enough of the kind of music we like, so we'll go to another one. Or we'll sit through worship and grump about it and how much better it used to be, which may make our pastor wish we would move on to another church.

The key mistake we all make is attaching our loyalty or our reverence to something that isn't God, when the purpose of church is worship of God. The key mistake the Israelites made with Moses was attaching their allegiance to him instead of to God, and Joshua points out clearly that the miraculous work at the river is not his doing but God's. It may confirm him as God's chosen man, but God remains the true leader of the people. The people may follow Joshua now because they know he follows God, but if he should ever stray from that they should drop him like a bad habit.

Which, come to think of it, isn't only a metaphor in this case.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Greatest (Matthew 22:34-46)

Because we usually see the Pharisees opposing Jesus, we might overlook that the question of the "greatest commandment" was a real one for first-century Jews. There was no agreed-on answer.

Some religious teachers and authorities argued that the first commandment in the ten -- "You shall have no other gods before me" -- was the greatest. It was, after all, the first one. Israel's failure to limit themselves to the worship of God and God alone opened them to near destruction at the hands of other nations. The proponents had a pretty good case.

Others might suggest the words from the prophet Micah -- "Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God." It definitely covered most of the range of human activity and it was a command even if it was not in the Torah or books of teaching itself.

The answer Jesus gave when he quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 was shared by a lot of people as well. It sort of covered the territory of the first one mentioned and it also included direction about actions, such as loving God with all our minds and all our strength. Some of the Pharisees may have really wanted to know what Jesus thought. Remember, not all of them oppose him and some are interested in what he says. They may have been part of the group, even if their leadership is looking for ammo to use in their arguments with the rabbi from Nazareth.

Those people would probably have been disappointed with Jesus' pretty straightforward answer. He gave an answer shared by many religious teachers that had some solid reasoning behind it. Probably every Jewish person knew that verse, called "The Shema" after its first words in Hebrew: "Shema Yisrael!"

But then he gets weird.

The questioners asked for the greatest commandment, and they had to have been surprised when Jesus gave them not just the top commandment but the runner-up as well. "The second commandment? Who asked him for the second one? I don't get this." And their confusion wasn't helped by the content of the second commandment Jesus chose. It's a quote from Leviticus and there's no natural connection between them in the Torah. They're not next to each other and they're not in the same contexts. Both are commands to love, but to first-century Jews the pairing makes as much sense as putting the Shema with the pre-Porta Potty sanitation instructions given in Deuteronomy 23:12-13 or the command to not strip all the grapes from the vineyard in Leviticus 19:10. We see the connection because Jesus drew it, but why did he draw it at all?

If I'm right, a major reason for that connection is to pave the path for sharing the gospel.

We live inside the gospel, so to speak. We know what it means for us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength because we know who we mean when we say God and we know (more or less) what God wants: To be the center and foundation of our lives. But someone living outside the gospel may not know what we mean when we say we will love God that way. They may not know who God is and they may have a wrong idea about what God wants. Someone who meets people who claim to be Christian but only talk about who God hates probably aren't impressed with our determination to love God even though we aren't like those other people. We have to show them what we mean when we talk about loving God -- who God is and how we show love.

We do that by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. We do that when we try to make sure that, in every case where we can, we find the most loving thing to do and do it. Sometimes we will show compassion, sometimes we will offer help and sometimes we will confront evil, but every time we'll do whatever it is in ways that show love. People who see that may then say, "Well, those Christians show love to other people, so I might be interested in hearing about the God they say tells them to do that."

If anything, time has made the connection more important today! Our culture tends to over-emphasize the "feeling" part of love so much we've made it even easier to say "I love God" but mean next to nothing by it. Popular entertainment leaves out the part where love requires work and action to be real, but if we want to show the world our love for God is real, we have to demonstrate that with actions towards our neighbors. We need to have more than a warm mushy feeling towards a homeless person to help them not to freeze to death. We have to have more than butterflies in our stomach towards foster kids if we want them to have the chance to succeed that their circumstances may deny them. You get the idea.

And if that's how we live, to show real love for our neighbors whom we have seen, to borrow a phrase from one of John's letters, we will demonstrate to them and to ourselves our love for God whom we have not seen.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Dividing Line (Matthew 22:1-14)

This parable gives us fits. It's so violent, for one, and the violence seems so extreme given the circumstances. We have a king who destroys a whole city because some of the people who live there rejected his invitation to a wedding feast and themselves murdered the messengers sent to collect the RSVPs. We've got a fellow who shows up at the feast who gets thrown out into the outer darkness because he doesn't answer a question about his wardrobe quickly enough -- talk about What Not to Wear!

That'd be not such a huge problem if it wasn't that Jesus starts telling the story with the well-known line, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to..." In other words, this whole "Conan the Barbarian's Guide to Wedding Feast Etiquette" is supposed to tell us about the Kingdom of God! Wait, what? How does that work?

Well, in a lot of people's minds, it doesn't. Many Christians simply overlook this story when they talk about the Kingdom of God, because they can't reconcile the violence of the story with the coming of the Prince of Peace. If they talk about it at all, they suggest that we have the story wrong, that at some point, someone copied Matthew wrong or they added in their own thing and so what we have is garbled. I sympathize with their confusion but I believe God intended for all of Scripture to be used by his people and I'm very leery of leaving pieces out just because I don't like some of the things they say. Wouldn't be long before I had about two or three pages left, and if you were doing the same thing you'd find yourself in the same boat -- probably with a different set of pages, too.

Of course, one of the reasons we get ourselves tied up in knots about this story is that we forget at its roots it's exactly that -- a story. I believe Matthew reported faithfully what Jesus said, but that doesn't mean I believe Jesus meant us to take the story literally -- he wanted us to see its meaning and take that, instead.

As Christians, we understand the first part of the story just that way. The "messengers" represent the prophets, sent to the people of Israel to remind them of God's invitation to them. Far too many of the Israelites ignored and rejected the message, and some of them did assault and murder the messengers. This part of the story represents the story of God's outreach to Israel, but it doesn't tell it literally.

This rejection and murder outrage the king, who sends his soldiers to take justice from the murderers and burn their city. In one afternoon? Well, if we take the story literally, yes, but I think that's the point where Jesus starts to hint to us that we need to stretch our brains a little when thinking about what he says. No city could fall in just an afternoon, not even to a Caesar. While this move satisfies the king's desire for justice, it leaves him a little shy in the feast guest department. So out go his messengers into the streets to gather up the poor and the leftovers, "whoever you can find." Again, see how the story is representational and not literal? We understand God's invitation is given to everyone equally -- in fact, some Christians suggest that the poor and needy hear it before the rich do. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that God's invitation goes out to the whole world regardless of wealth, privilege or status, because the whole world regardless of wealth, privilege or status needs to hear God's message.

I think that's one thing that Jesus wants those who hear or read this story to understand. I also think he wants us to understand that there is no difference between passively ignoring God's invitation and actively rejecting it. We can't abstain from the vote. Jesus himself tells John in Revelation that he would almost rather one of the seven churches he addresses would be cold instead of lukewarm, because the lukewarm makes him sick. Those in the city who just turned their back on the messengers but who didn't attack or kill them lost their homes just as surely as did those who responded violently. A theologian named Rudolf Bultmann said this was the "existential question," meaning a question that dealt with our very existence. We accept that God is real and calls us back to him or we don't, and our choice influences everything about our lives.

The incident with the unfortunately clothed guest shows the same idea. Without a wedding garment, he obviously didn't belong at the wedding feast. We either follow God or we don't. We can't half-follow him, just like the wedding-garmentless man couldn't pretend to be a wedding guest. The story is less of a description of the fate of people who get caught sneaking into the Kingdom of God -- because that isn't going to happen -- than another reminder that there is no middle ground.

Now, there might be plenty of people who follow God even though they're not aware that's what they do. In Romans 1, Paul suggests that God has given people what they need to know how to do that, and it may be they don't recognize they're doing so. But they're still following God or not following him, no matter what they know.

And in any event, that's them. We know what God requires, so we have our choice clearly outlined for us. God has invited you, and me, and everyone, to the wedding feast of his son and his bride the church. Let us make our way there together.