A Time of Change
Was it Halloween? Or just all the leaves I’ve been mulching. Maybe it is the return to Pacific Standard Time. Maybe it is that it is election time. Every year at this time we’ve got something local on the ballot. Every two years we vote for Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and that generally involves some degree of change. Every third year we have another Senatorial election and every fourth year we cast our vote for a President, which even in years of re-election, bring new changes to a national Administration. An election presumes the likelihood of change. I guess we will all be interested in the outcome of Tuesday’s balloting.
Then maybe it was Carl Biel’s passing away that brought to mind how nature seems to use Autumn and harvest time as a season of change.
The ancient Celts, who celebrated the end of summer festival of Samhain (Sah Van) on November 1, believed that the veil between worlds became especially permeable at this time. It’s this kind of impulse that gave rise to the Christian feasts of All Saints which the liturgical churches are celebrating now. In case your interested, all the hullabuloo about Halloween orginating in a feast of the Irish god of the dead is hogwash. The earliest such reference to such misunderstanding is in an 18th century book which tried to argue that the Druids came from India. Hallowed evening is the vigil of All Saint’s Day. Originally the early church sought to each one who was marytred for Christ. Diocletian created so many martyrs that became impossible. So a day was established to recognize the height of discipleship. All Souls Day commemorates all the faithful departed.
For this time of year the church created new ways to remember the dead with practices in which we can still hear the echoes of the ancient celebrations. Each culture that observes these feast days continues to add their own layers of meaning and mystery to this time of year, as with the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a celebration that originated thousands of years ago in Aztec Mexican culture and has since been amalgamated into the Christian All Saints and All Souls festival. But it is broader even than that. You find it replicated in Japan, Korea, China, the Latin countries of Europe and through out Latin America. We are just ten days away from our commemoration of Veteran’s Day. What ever might work for you, this time of year is not only a time of change but a time that recognizes this ancient human need of looking to the past.
Our Gospel reading from Matthew links interestingly enough to this theme.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. Matthew 23:1-12
To sit on Moses’ seat is, to begin with a bit audacious. There is an important, if subtle, point in this comment by Jesus about the scribes and Pharisees. Moses’ seat is venerated because the teaching of Moses is the Torah and the Torah is the word of God. That they “sit on Moses seat” means we should embrace what they teach as important to practice. The words are right. In II Thessalonians Paul exclaims his joy over the fact that the people he ministered to received his word, his message to them as “God’s word”. It is this word which is “at work” in the believers. Which leave’s a wonderful question: “What is this word that is ‘at work’ in our midst?”
In one of his letters in 1669 George Fox encouraged Friends with regard to the word that is at work in us. He wrote: to: “…know the true Word in your hearts and mouths, which is the Word of Faith the Apostle preached, which distinguishes your good thoughts from bad, your good words from bad, which Word is in your hearts to obey and do. It is a hammer to hammer down sin and evil, as a sword to cut it down and as a fire to burn it up. So that by the Word you may be sanctified… you may have Salvation… you may be reconciled to God….” It might also be important to remind ourselves that the word of which the Apostle Paul spoke could not have been the Gospels or the Epistles of which the New Testament is composed. He would have had what call the Old Testament in mind, but not how we usually think of it.
Saul of Tarsus was first a Jewish scholar, a zealot for the Law. To say “The Law” is a way of speaking of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses or the Torah but it is incorrect to think of it in strictly legal terms because it is more than just a recitation of doctrine. We are also tempted to think that the Torah as five separate books – but that is simply the problem of presentation – the Torah is one book. But even our understanding of book is contaminated with our understanding of ink on a page.
From the perspective of Judaism, the Torah is older than the world itself. They argue that it existed two thousand years before Creation. That it is celestial. It was written in black letters of flame upon a white ground of fire. God held counsel with the Torah at the creation of the world since the Torah is wisdom itself. It was God’s first self revelation. Every letter of the Torah is a living creature. The story is told that when Solomon took many wives, Deuteronomy threw himself before God and complained that Solomon wished to remove from the Pentateuch one of the marks that formed the word in Deuteronomy 17:17 with which the prohibition of polygamy was spoken; and God replied: “Solomon and a thousand like him shall perish, but not one letter of the Torah shall be destroyed.”
When Paul speaks of the word at work among us – this isn’t any literalist interpretation. The Word is alive. I rather like what he wrote to the Thessalonians: “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” I Thessalonians 2: 9-13 John in the opening of his Gospel is wholly consistent with that. He declares that when the world began, the Word already was. When Jesus tells his followers to abide by the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees he points to what doesn’t change. And then acknowledges what does when he warns his hearers to not follow the behavior of their religious leaders. Their behavior does not match their teaching. The Word is true even when the teachers are not.
I knew a woman quite a few years ago who survived the fire bombing of Dresden by the United States military. To her mind it was a reprehensible act of a Christian nation. She had no use for Christianity. I heard from a waitress once about being stiffed for a tip by a table of Christians who very publicly said grace before their meal. To be cut off in traffic by someone who has a fish symbol on the back of their vehicle calls Christianity into question for the person who had to slam on their brakes. Yes, I know, the word is true even when people are not. We are to value the word even when the behavior of those who bring the word declares an incongruity.
Charisma, a Christian publication recently predicted that if “Senator Barack Obama is elected, life as we know it in many ways will end… We must pray and work – before it’s too late – to see that Obama is not elected.” Gary Bauer, a well known person on the religious right recently predicted that terrorist attacks and economic ruin would be God’s punishment on the nation because an Obama presidency means that “God could take his hand of protection off of America.” James Dobson, a name known to us all, earlier this year stated that under no circumstance would he vote for John McCain. Now, on the eve of the election, he has published a sixteen page description of the horrors that will happen to America by 2012 if Obama is elected.
Perhaps the most curious item came from Jim Bramlett of ‘inJesus.com’. He has long and personal ties with Pat Robertson and Campus Crusade. He recently reported that in Kenya ‘…witches, warlocks and those involved in Satanism and the occult get up daily at three a.m. to release curses against McCain and Palin so B. Hussein Obama is elected.’ That is the reason, he claims, that the Republican are down in the polls, Obama’s African relatives have put a curse on McCain and Palin.
There is a movement you might classify as the religious left. They are every bit as large but not so well funded as the religious right. I went looking for where they may have leveled attacks in this political season. Couldn’t find any. But what I did find astounded me.
It was only a few months ago that Michael Farris, a former candidate for Lieutenant Governor in Virginia, tried to derail the McCain nomination. Currently Chancellor of Patrick Henry College, he recently promoted the biblical justification for a plague-like Obama presidency in his rejection of John McCain and the GOP. McCain, according to Farris, isn’t right on the issues of his social agenda. It seems these religious folks are even handed in delivering God’s judgment on those who challenge their simplistic views of today’s pressing issues.
Am I hearing the words of Jesus or those of the Prophet Micah? “Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths. Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God.
But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin. Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong! Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, “Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us.” Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height. Micah 3: 5-12
Jesus words sound rather similar: “they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.
Christianity is to be rooted in the love of God. When that is not the case it is not only devoid of God, it is dangerous. When it no longer serves people it oppresses them. Genuine Christian spirituality encourages and nourishes people’s lives. Maybe these examples of contemporary Christian voices don’t reach to the depths of Jim Jones of Jonestown or David Koresh of Waco, but countless lives are damaged by abusive religion and wounded by toxic religion.
As Jesus makes clear, Spiritual abuse is no new thing. Some things seen never to change. Our world is undeniably different from that of Micah or Jesus, nevertheless, it is amazing how consistent is the behavior of those who abuse the spiritual privilege. Jesus identified four characteristics of abusive religious leaders. Not only are these helpful diagnostic measures by which to look at others – they are queries for ourselves and our own actions.
First, Jesus says the religious leaders of his day were hypocritical. They got the content right but their actions betrayed their message. They are experts in the bible but their behavior does not match their teaching. Rather than being servants of what they teach, they see themselves as masters who are above their own teachings. Second, Jesus said that those leaders were oppressive. According to them, religion is about rules and regulations rather than about one’s relationship with God and with others. Jesus brought joy. The scribes and Pharisees brought only judgment. Jesus revealed a God of love. They brought domination. Jesus said that his yoke was easy and his burden light. Jesus said that they, on the other hand, tied up heavy burdens and laid them on the shoulders of others. Jesus said that they were pretentious. They are all about show business. They were on stage always needing an audience to show off their righteousness. They forgot the message of 1st Samuel 16:7 that the Lord looks on the heart. Lastly, Jesus accused them of arrogance. They were filled with self-importance, leaving no room for humility much less the grace of God. They love the best seats, the places of honor.
Arrogant, pretentious, oppressive, hypocritical. Dare I look carefully at my own life for these characteristics or potentially even more devastating, dare I listen to the constructive criticism of others? Not long ago a story circulated about a Mennonite who was asked whether or not he was a Christian. He answered by suggesting that members of his family were the ones to be asked that question.
Part of the good news is that Jesus suggested some qualities that can, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit safeguard our spiritual life and alert us to toxic and abusive behavior.
The first is equality. All of us are equally siblings under God’s parentage. We are all students under one teacher. We are all servants under one master. One is not greater than another – one sure sign of toxic spirituality is when this sense of mutuality in the community of faith is absent. The second is dedication. Our ultimate dedication is to God alone. This simply reiterates the first commandment to “have no other Gods before me.” When God is our first love, all else falls into place. Genuine spiritual leaders who enjoy the love, allegiance and loyalty of others will be anxious to have that love, allegiance and loyalty passed along to God. The third quality is humility. “The greatest among you will be servant of all”. Jesus set the example by himself taking the form of a servant (Phil.2:7). Genuine Christian spirituality sacrifices self to lift up others.
This is exactly where the scribes and Pharisees parted company with Jesus. This is exactly why they wanted Jesus eliminated. Abusive spiritual leaders finally want to secure for themselves the very place of God. The scary part of it is that we may be blind to this idolatry in ourselves. It is only as we embrace and seek to grow the qualities of mutuality in the community of faith, dedication to God and humility that we can overcome our very human tendency to turn the Christian faith into an oppressive, toxic and destructive religion.