Sunday, August 30, 2009

The kingdom of the world ... Your God reigns

Even before David became King of Israel, lots of people put their hopes in him. His coronation as king marked one of the high points in the history of Israel. Lots of people put their hopes in having a good king. Having the right king on the throne will make all the difference -- won't it? Peace, prosperity, justice -- it all comes with a good king. Except -- even the best of human kings is a sinner. David proved that; Israel joined in paying the price.

We still put our hopes in kings, or presidents, or good government. Not so much has changed since the days of King David.

I think that's why Isaiah's message from this morning's reading caught me off guard. God had warned the Israelites that he was the only true king; that in placing their hopes in an earthly leader, they looked to an earthly savior and turned their hopes away from Him. Things looked good for Israel when King David captured the fortress of Zion and made Jerusalem his capital city. That was where the king was to reign for centuries. Or I should say, where one king after another was to reign, some kings being better than others but none being perfect.
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news ... who says to Zion, "Your God reigns!" (from Isaiah 52:7)
The good news in the capital city was not that there was another fallible human in whom to place hopes, not even that there was a better-than-average fallible human in whom to place hopes. The good news was that our hopes do not rest on our government, on who reigns in the capital city here or anywhere else on earth. The good news proclaimed to the capital city was, "Your God reigns."

It was a bold proclamation to a capital city that even a good king isn't really running the show. And it was seen as good news.

Personal Notes #2 - Yeah!

Hi there

Thank you for the encouragement and patience. This summer (since mid-May) my average work week has been around 52 or 53 hours. This Friday I completed 33 consecutive days without a day off (including weekends) and was more tired than I can tell you. Yesterday was my first day off for weeks on end; I played catch-up on a few things I have put off far too long. And today, I was OFF. Like, OFF -- the closest I came to working was teaching a Sunday school class this morning. I can literally feel the strain draining back out of my shoulders ...

I have post ideas bouncing around my head again -- it happens when I have time to think. :)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Personal note

Hi there

I've been working 55+ hours per week lately. It's only scheduled to last a week or so more. When I get much past 50 hours per week, there's no time to post. Sorry about that, & see you back soon.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Jesus and the humanizing of morality

The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer. Or maybe it's like a man who had two sons. Or a woman baking bread. Or a fisherman with his nets.

Jesus' teachings are very down-to-earth - literally. Where we have some sort of expectation that a Great Teacher should transcend this world, take us elsewhere in our thoughts, Jesus resolutely refused that path. Whenever the conversation turned to great abstract principles, we could expect one thing: a parable was following. His parables did more than illustrate the lessons. He spoke as if the holy belongs in this world.

According to centuries upon centuries of Christian teaching, this is the ultimate meaning of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection: that the holy belongs in this world. Holiness is not meant to be an abstract. It is not meant to be an otherworldly thing. It is not located uniquely in monasteries or other outposts of rejecting this world. It is located firmly within this world. There is nothing important about holiness that cannot be described in terms of growing seed, vineyards, and wedding feasts.

Some see the parables as a kind of mystery. But the parables also seem to be instances of incarnation: in a parable, a general principle takes on reality, takes on flesh and blood, and walks in this world in a recognizable form. So the direction of Christ's teaching is not to take this world as raw material that needs to be turned into the finished product of an abstraction. The direction of Christ's teaching is the opposite: to take the raw material of abstraction and turn it into the finished product of a God-filled reality. The ultimate understanding of God's truth does not take the form of a properly-classified entry in our theological system; it touches our world.

When an expert in the Law of Moses tested Jesus, asking after the most important commandment, he got his answer: Love the Lord your God, and the second like it: love your neighbor as yourself. But when the lawyer asked who was his neighbor, he found out the truth about that great commandment. That great commandment was not great because it could take a leading place in the catalog in the law-books. It was great because it was the one that could live in us and move us to help the traveler we meet along the way. It is a great commandment because it takes the vital core of the image of God -- that is, love -- and places it back inside us. Love is the nature of God. For this reason, love is the greatest of the virtues, and love is the greatest of the commandments. When we love our neighbor, the word of God is incarnated in us and our actions. When Jesus repeats his refrain, "The kingdom of God is like ...", every down-to-earth story he tells invites us to fill in the rest of the story with our own lives, our own children, and our own neighbors, to see it all as part of the kingdom of heaven.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Jesus and the meaning of morality

The question at the core of morality is this: What makes something right or wrong? Some people talk about rules, some people talk about principles, some people talk about consequences, some talk about virtue. Some people have no restrictions other than "harm none" -- a good desire, to be sure, but a fairly low bar. Setting the highest goal as being "harmless" reads like the part in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where the encyclopedia entry on our planet reads, in its entirety: Harmless. Talk about being damned by faint praise. Granted that "harmless" would be an improvement for some, it's never going to even aspire to positive good.

Some people are suspicious of rules, seeing them as stifling and oppressive. And here is a conflict that comes up time and again: if the rules have no regard for the people, then sooner or later the "no regard for the people" part will make the rules themselves into an immoral force. Rules have the advantage of making people aware of various all-too-predictable ways they can cause harm unintentionally. Even at their best, rules often amount to little more than a serious exercise in considering how to be harmless. Again, granted that we want to give serious thought to how to be harmless, it still leaves us short of doing anything positive.

Here as we look at moraltiy we see some implications of Jesus' teaching on truth. He challenged the generally-accepted idea that truth is impersonal. If truth is impersonal, if the highest reality is impersonal, then principles are more important than people, and morality will put principles above people. But if truth is personal, if ultimate reality is personal, then morality is like the lilies of the field: it beautifies the world rather than enslaving it, beautifies a soul rather than depersonalizing it. In Jesus' teaching, morality returns the value to the world, rather than moving it to another impersonal realm.

Jesus challenged our thinking about morality when he named the highest of all good rules as first, loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; and second, loving our neighbor as ourselves. If love of God and neighbor is the height of morality, then morality is personal. Love also shows us the way forward to something a little better than being harmless. Paul expounded on Jesus' insight, connecting the dots for his readers: If love does no harm to its neighbor, then love is the fulfillment of the law. We had the answer all along: God's law is written on our hearts.

For those fond of rules, what is the place of the code of moral law? At one point, Jesus makes it explicit that a specific law was made simply for the benefit of humanity: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." This particular law was made for us and for our benefit. Of the other moral laws, all of them can be placed under the headings of "love of God" and "love of neighbor." If we view the laws this way, then all laws are made -- and kept -- in full recognition of the person or persons intended to benefit by them. The thought that rules were made for our benefit does not cancel them or make them useless and outdated, but instead shows that they are rightly understood as ways to benefit each other. It shows that using laws as a measuring-stick for moral superiority was always an abuse, that spiritual one-upmanship and cosmic tattletale were always an immoral use of morality.

Jesus' teaching made a connection between love of God and love of neighbor. On the view that humanity is, in a real sense, made in God's image, then it is impossible to separate the two. Morality, then, recognizes all of humanity on the simple basis of that image of God that we share. It follows that all humanity is included, even enemies, so that we are challenged to bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us, and repay evil done towards us with good done towards others.