Freedom

There has been a debate since at least the time of the Judges in Israel, more than three thousand years ago, as to where we should draw the line between Communal Faith and Personal Faith: Should our personal faith and practices take precedence? Or, should they be subservient to those of the community of which we are a part?

article-2544061-140565F4000005DC-472_634x667This morning’s reading from Luke is part of a sequence of parables that all have to do with how to live a life that reflects one’s devotion to the Torah; or, in other words, how to live faithfully.

At beginning of Luke 13 we read of Pilate murdering Jews at sacrifice and the deaths of others at the collapse of the Tower of Siloam; and the people ask “What sin did those who died need to repent of?” Jesus responds by teaching that we are not called to worry about others’ sins, just our own: and that repentance is an ongoing process, not a one-time event.

The remainder of this chapter contains the Parable of Mustard Seed, among other parables, in which we learn that the seeds of the Kingdom of God are all around us: hidden, but ready to spring forth in a wonderful way without warning, and that we cannot stop it.

All of these stories and parables are used here to show us how to live a faithful life – one that is conforms to the faith traditions, laws and customs of the community, or the Torah, which is far more than merely the Law. But, this morning’s story about the crippled woman, in the middle of this chapter, is unique in the Gospels, and presents a different lesson. …So, why is it here, in between these other two sequences of stories?

But first, let’s talk about Sabbath.

The Sabbath is a day of “Rest” although it’s hard to get agreement on what a “Sabbath Rest” actually is. All would agree that it is more than merely a day to not work. It is a break in the rhythm of our week, intended to get our minds and spirits off of the drudgery and challenges of life that we face each and every day. Sabbath is meant to give us room to reorient ourselves, to focus on what is really important rather than on what keeps us busy.

Many through the centuries have tried to enforce “Sabbath” practices through the law and stern teaching. The Puritans did so: forbidding all “nonreligious” activity on the Lord’s Day. Meals had to be prepared the day before; only the Bible and other religious texts could be read; and games and sports were banned.

The problem with this approach is that it enforces the appearance of Sabbath without necessarily making room for what is at its heart; and so for many, the Sabbath is a day of dread. Those who impose such rules, often even on those who are not of the same faith, are resented and sometimes even feared. Legalism supplants Grace; oppression overwhelms joy.

And, this is not just some long-ago quirk of our ancestors. Some of us may have ovens with a “Sabbath” setting, included so that observant Jews can have a hot meal without having to do the work of cooking on the Sabbath – it cooks itself. And, how many of us have been given a guilt trip at one time or another for not attending church on Sunday? Or worse yet, for going to a sports game, or even one of those godless rock concerts, instead?

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Believe!

Belief is not dependent upon conformance to the Law. Belief is the process needed to make God’s command to Love a reality in our lives.

Believe!

PopeFrancisAndManWithBoilsBelieve what? That there are angels? That Jesus died on the Cross for our sins? That all the miracles in the Bible actually happened? That the tribulation is coming? That abortion is a mortal sin? That marriage must be a lifetime commitment between one man and one woman? That only men shall be ordained into the ministry? That God somehow anoints the beliefs or agendas of one person or group over those of another? That our particular understanding of our faith excludes all other understandings, especially those we don’t understand?

Really?

We all are constantly confronted with the choice of what to believe, and how. Do we believe literally all that the Bible says? And, what does “Literal” mean? Literalism presents us with many challenges and contradictions that are impossible to resolve; so, do we instead believe the scriptures through viewing them as metaphor and allegory? Do we ignore the passages that we see as outmoded, focusing on those that seem more relevant? Or, should we go even farther, perhaps picking and choosing what seems nice from the smorgasbord of other beliefs, traditions, and wisdom that we encounter everywhere in today’s world?

I love what the Author of Hebrews has to say about all of this in this morning’s reading. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.”  So, it seems plain that there has never been a single voice deciding what is or is not to be believed as part of our faith. The Author of Hebrews is acknowledging that the prophets don’t all agree with each other, often speaking in ways that seem contradictory, or at least are hard to reconcile with other sacred writings, especially when taken literally.  And this is in fact deliberate; since the goal of the prophets was to disrupt conventional wisdom and accepted practice, the very purpose of their words was to challenge our understanding.

Every author of the 66 books in the Protestant Bible see and portray God’s word in different ways, and then there are the 73 books in the Catholic Bible, and the 81 books in the Ethiopian Bible. So, not only is there disagreement between various scriptures within our Protestant Bible, but disagreement between various branches of Christianity as to what scriptures are part of the Bible at all – not to mention the tens of thousands of variations found within the most ancient scriptural texts we have at our disposal. There is no single “right” Bible, and never has been. So, how can there be a single “right” reading of scripture? Therefore, there is no single universal scriptural standard by which we can judge what is “right” to believe, or not.

But that’s OK, because belief is not about believing the right thing!  We will not be condemned to hell for believing the wrong thing.  Belief is not a certainty that there is a perfect, eternal and unchanging truth upon which all knowledge and all reality depend. (In fact, that belief is a teaching of ancient Greek philosophy, not Judaism.)

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The Tale of Injustice

Back in the mid 1990’s I worked for a well known conservative Christian organization.  All employees of that organization were periodically required to spend a day ministering to those in need, in various ways.  My role in one of those efforts was to be part of a crew that distributed food to those in need.

One of the people that I encountered that day, a very slightly built black woman, lived several blocks away from the place where we were handing out our boxes of food.  The box I gave her was very heavy, so I offered to help her carry it back to her home.  She gratefully accepted.  She said it was only a block or two, so I didn’t worry about telling anyone what I was doing, since I figured I’d be back in just a few minutes.

We chatted as we walked along, she was quite an interesting person – but as we went on, I steadily became more and more nervous,  Here I was, getting further and further away from my team, several blocks, in fact, in the middle of a one of the worst neighborhoods in the Tidewater region of Virginia.  I was the only white anywhere in sight, and a red head at that!  I knew that no one would be looking out for me when it was time to pack up and head back.  So, I was likely to be stranded if I didn’t get back soon.  I felt conspicuous, I felt alone, and I was afraid.

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All Too Silent a Witness

The irony of the watching the famous slow motion chase of OJ Simpson as I stood next to Ben Kinchlow alone in that room struck me as I stood there, and is one I still think of from time to time even now, 20 years later: There I was, a theologically progressive Christian working for a conservative Christian organization, standing next to a man who had once been a black nationalist, heavily influenced by Malcom X; then ordained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church and who was founder of an organization dedicated to helping underprivileged African American kids and a man who for many years had been a prominent member of CBN’s leadership.

OJ and the Slow Chase

NB: A recent CNN opinion piece by Dorothy A. Brown entitled “Why Holder Remark Made White People Mad” has a lot to say that is right in line with what I say here.

You know, 20 years is a long time, and yet not so long…

Late in the evening of Friday June 17, 1994, I was in the lobby of The Founder’s Inn in Virginia Beach, VA watching the news on a television there while waiting for my (first) wife to finish up her work for the evening at the hotel’s bookstore and gift shop.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the conservative Christian universe, The Founder’s Inn is on the campus of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), the headquarters for Pat Robertson’s television ministry. I had only recently been hired there, to manage a software development department in their IT Division.

As I stood there, up on the screen came a “news alert” followed by a live telecast via helicopter of the famous “slow motion chase” by police down Interstate 405 in Los Angeles of a white Ford Bronco carrying O. J. Simpson, who was sitting in the back seat of the vehicle, pointing a gun at his own head.   At the time, he was the prime suspect in the murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman.

Standing next to me watching that broadcast was a gentleman I barely knew, but whom I heard a great deal about and admired: Ben Kinchlow, a prominent Black evangelist and activist, and (at the time) co-host of Pat Robertson’s daily “700 Club” broadcast.

We stood side by side, wordlessly watching the spectacle unfolding before us for around 20 minutes before we both went our separate ways.

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The Myth of Legislated Morality

Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In my ten or so years as a Project Manager and Software Developer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, I was frequently involved in discussions with physicians about what limits to incorporate into system designs.

Software development, and any sort of engineering or design for that matter, focuses to a large extent on limits.  We often needed to address questions like:

  • How large a number does this data field need to be able to store?
  • How wide should this column be on this report?
  • How flexible does this screen’s functionality need to be?

At Mayo, the underlying attitude was always “Limit our options and flexibility as little as possible.”  This was because physicians are dealing with people’s lives.  They absolutely do not want anything getting in the way of their ability to provide the best possible care for their patients. Is our “Great Physician,” Jesus, any different?

People constantly come to Doctors with all sorts of symptoms and issues that were well outside of what is expected, and so the tools they use in caring for those patients cannot limit their ability to provide the care that is needed.  Since we cannot accurately predict what situations the future will hold, we must provide tools that “flex” well in unexpected situations, and that do not needlessly place restraints on what can be done.

This same logic applies when talking about moral issues in everyday life, things like abortion, or gay marriage, or adoption across cultural or ethnic boundaries.  In all of these situations, people are involved.  Therefore, each such situation has its own unique circumstances.  Each one involves difficult, sometimes painful choices and adjustments.  Like a physician’s care of a patient, all of these situations involve decisions that these people will have to live with for the rest of their lives.  They are not choices that are made lightly.  Further, they are not choices made in isolation: the choice that is made impacts not only the person making it, but others as well, whether that is an unborn infant, or a same-sex partner, or a child who needs a family.  Their choices also impact and involve the “community” of which they are a part – family, friends, co-workers, and so on.

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