Sunday, October 27, 2019

Hyperbolic Pericope

Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way!

That’s the way singer, songwriter Mac Davis rewrote a portion of the Bible some years ago when he put new words on the lips of Jesus’ parabolic Pharisee who prayed:  “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” Mr. Davis put it this way:

Oh Lord it's hard to be humble
When you're perfect in every way
I can't wait to look in the mirror
Cuz I get better lookin each day

To know me is to love me
I must be a heck of a man
Oh Lord it's hard to be humble
But I'm doin' the best that I can

Yes, it is hard to be humble! As much as we might hate to admit it – Americans have gained a reputation for being a little arrogant – used to be the French captured that title, but I think in the past couple of years or so, we’ve given them a run for the roses. Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble when you’ve single-handedly made America great again!

Our Pharisee is the biblical epitome of not only arrogance, but pride and ignorance as well. In his mind, what he has in incomparable measure is piety. As he recites his narcissistic soliloquy we learn that he not only fasts one day each week, but two; and he tithes a full tenth of his income. His rigorous religiosity is exceptional!

Opposite the Pharisee is the humble tax collector who prays simply, “Be merciful to me, a sinner” -- the model of repentance. Clearly, the message is, God receives those who in contrition implore mercy rather than those who parade their supposed virtues. The message is indelibly plain!

Those are the choices: a Pharisee and a Tax Collector with nothing in between. That dichotomy is what gave this reading the moniker of “hyperbolic pericope!”

Few things delight my distinctly Protestant sensibility like hearing a Bible study participant use the word “pericope” even in a painfully exasperated state. Almost no one who has not been subjected to a seminary education knows the word, much less uses it in conversation, hence it’s a Reformation joy to hear a lay person employ it. Six-feet under the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Martin Luther must be grinning ear to ear given that one of his main complaints against the Roman Catholic Church was that Scripture wasn’t widely available to church members and was the sole providence of the priesthood.

Presbyterians picked up that mantel and made education a hallmark of the church – from the beginning through today – and regular opportunities to study the Bible are a staple of most congregations – so regular in our case that “pericope” is in the vernacular!

That sounds so studious, pious, and devout yet it is not without pitfalls, frustrations, and exasperation.

Questioning, doubting, challenging, and hearing meaning and learning interpretation far from our own is harsh – unsettling at best. Being told, repeatedly, that “the Bible is true and some of it even happened” gets annoying – after all – what to believe if all of it isn’t rock solid true? The Dean of my seminary used to chide us to “feel the tension” in all things theological. There’s rarely a comfortable middle-ground – everything is meant to engage and wrangle – which brings us to the frustration with the Tax Collector and the Pharisee and the assumption that we’re meant to identify with at least one of them!

But before completely castigating this particular Pharisee it is important to realize the tradition and purpose lying behind the Pharisaic piety. The term “Pharisee” itself means, “separated.” Through their extreme observance of the law, their strict adherence to all Torah minutiae, their moral rigidity, and their establishment of a counter-cultural identity, the Pharisees sought to separate themselves from their increasingly Gentile/pagan surroundings.

Pharisaic piety, while it may sound like arrogant self-confidence, is actually an attempt to embody the separateness that they saw as crucial to the preservation of the community. The reason Jesus and the Pharisees seemed to butt heads on so many issues may rest in their different notions about how best to preserve the community. While the Pharisees strictly adhered to separatism, Jesus was convinced that new, innovative tactics were now called for. Jesus approached the sinners, the outcast, those outside the walls instead of separating himself from them. Jesus sought to revitalize and restore the covenant community by welcoming people home.

People continue to butt heads today on the issue of preserving the church – the only difference is that everyone claims to be on Jesus’ side – no one wants to be a Pharisee! First & Central chose many years ago to not only preserve, but to build and grow the church by welcoming all people home. And so we can sit with no small amount of smugness, relishing our “church without walls that welcomes without limits,” and the progress we enjoy while other communities struggle with basic inclusion. “Thank God we’re not like those other churches!” I suppose we’d enjoy our moment in the arrogant sun more if the less traveled road we chose hadn’t been so bumpy.

Life would be so much easier if all of us just looked, thought, acted, believed, and behaved the same. This purity idea has a lot going for it. Instead of a measly 78% of you satisfied with the church we’d enjoy unanimity and nothing but peace, purity, and unity. A steady diet of predictable preaching, mesmerizing music, and a passive passing of the peace! Thank God we’re not like other churches!

Truth be told, I’d be disappointed if we were all of like mind. A 78% satisfaction rating is just fine.

Not everyone will leave with the same experience – thanks be to God! In this church, we take people as they are and where they are. We err on the side of vast imaginations to the detriment of narrow minds. We don’t preach a static doctrine, we don’t demand allegiance to any creed, and we don’t conform to any one confession. What we do confess, week to week, is the faith founded in the belief that God is good – and that God will provide.

Faith is not about rote answers to obscure theological questions. Faith is not about adherence to ritual. Faith is not about saying or doing the right thing. Faith is about a relationship with God that draws you out of yourself and toward others – the stranger the better!

Here’s one of my heroes, Jim Wallis on faith:

''Faith can cut in so many ways. If you're penitent and not triumphal, it can move us to repentance and accountability and help us reach for something higher than ourselves. That can be a powerful thing, a thing that moves us beyond politics as usual, like Martin Luther King did. But when it's designed to certify our righteousness -- that can be a dangerous thing. Then it pushes self-criticism aside. There's no reflection.

 ''Where people often get lost is on this very point. Real faith, you see, leads us to deeper reflection and not -- not ever -- to the thing we as humans so very much want.''

And what is that?

 ''Easy certainty.''

That brings us right back to the Pharisee and Tax Collector. The former seeks to certify their own righteous – offering bona fides of their religiosity while the latter, as despicable as he is, adopts a posture of profound penitence. The former is the embodiment of “easy certainty” – the latter – “deeper reflection.”

So yes – this is a hyperbolic pericope – forcing the reader to choose between those two extremes – for there is no middle ground.

If Jesus walked the earth today, he might tell the same parable with different characters. One might be a president in the Oval Office surrounded by a gaggle of shiny-suited televangelists such as the miserable Franklin Graham. The prayer they might offer? “Thank God we are not like other people! Like those those liberal, sensitive do-gooders on the Hill; or those tassel-loafered, bow-tied trial lawyers; or those profiteers of fake news; or that mob out to impeach. Thank God we’re not like them!”

The other person in the parable might be a drug dealer selling crack to school kids crying out, “Be merciful to me, O God, a sinner.”

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Yes, it’s hard to find ourselves in a hyperbolic pericope and yes Lord, it’s hard to humble when you’re perfect in every way!


Sunday, October 20, 2019

What's in your Heart?

Two weddings, both overlooking the Pacific Ocean but in different states, one groom, three brides, suggested dress ranged from “hiking chic” to black tie, receptions ranged from pizza and s’mores around a bonfire on the beach to tuxedo clad waiters pouring copious amounts of champagne at the other. The two weddings and corresponding receptions could hardly have been more divergent. The scant commonalities? For one, family relationships: One of the brides was my daughter and the groom was my nephew – you’ll be relieved to know they were not one of the couples although that would be legal in California! Second, all four were within a few years of each in age. Third, as a result of their marriage,  they all have the same last name.

Lastly, all four wrote their own vows and therein expressed the essence of their love and commitment to the other. They made promises, they put words and images to the covenant into which they were entering. For example:

I vow to support you, through thick and thin. To be there through all the amazing adventures but also the adversity. I vow to always love you, to share silly moments with you, and always make sure you’re never too far from sushi or dumplings.


I vow to love you for you, including and especially for the things that make you different from me. I vow to continually search for light with you, even when everything else gets dark.

That last line made an impression and I thought displayed a degree of maturity and realism. Who here wouldn’t love someone, when recognizing that life can be hard – sad, tragic, and brutal – doesn’t at least have the intention to not only wander that dark valley with you but to search for light, a promise that together there will always be hope.

Reminded me of the opening verses of John’s gospel:
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Centuries before John, Jeremiah put words and images to the covenant God made with the Hebrews, a people displaced and destitute in a desperate darkness that had fully engulfed them. Hope was something they left behind in Jerusalem along with any semblance of a verdant life and livelihood. Yet into that deep darkness appeared the flicker of a future.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord.
“The days are surely coming:” that phrase introduces and serves to announce a future. One commentator declared that “the claim that the future is coming is, at first glance, a banal tautology. Of course it is! That is what the future does!” Yet, that phrase also connotes that something above the ordinary and familiar is on the horizon, that their current malaise is fleeting, and that God promotes a future of hope and meaning, brimming with promise,

Does it happen immediately? No. Hope is dependent upon delay. That’s what makes it the most bittersweet of predicaments. We are forced to wait for something that may be interminable, and often feels like it; yet the culmination nullifies the angst of waiting. In short, the wait is always worth it!

Waiting. Ugh. Waiting sucks. All of it. Waiting for … ? You name it and I’ll wager that it’s not your first choice of how to spend your life.

But to be clear – waiting is not, at least according to Jeremiah – a passive enterprise. It’s not sitting around wishing for things to be different. The text is chockablock full of active verbs – pluck up, break down, overthrow, destroy, build, plant – God means for us to be active participants in God’s future.

Just earlier, in Jeremiah’s letter to the Hebrews in exile, he instructed:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Yes, the days are surely coming; and yes, they are the days of God’s future; and yes, we have to wait – but we don’t wait passively for hope is active and we have a defined role. God demands commitment. God expects our attention. God deserves response.

And, God also understands our limitations.

Jeremiah concludes this reading with one of most pivotal proclamations anywhere in the Bible: a new covenant. Not “new” in the sense of never before seen, but “new” in the sense of renovation. We have a “new” Memorial Hall and kitchen – but we had them before – they’ve been broken down and then built up, they’ve been destroyed and refashioned as the needs of the congregation have changed and the transformation better serves the needs of ministry.

That’s how the original covenant between God and Abraham has changed. The circumstances are drastically different and the conveyance of the promise no longer serves God’s purpose or the ministry of the people, hence, God hasn’t altered the basic foundation of the relationship but has revised the way it’s embodied.

No longer will the people learn about as though it was external knowledge and dictum, but rather, God will become central to their being and behavior. God’s will shall be emblazoned on the hearts of God’s people. “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Symbiotic, mutual commitment and inextricable relationship. God is writing God’s vows to us – making promises and commitments, putting language and images around the covenant we make. The best promise? Forgiveness. The most generous commitment? Amnesia! “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin not more!”

Divine amnesia is a wonderful thing!

We could all use a little amnesia. Most of us have done or said things that we’d hope to have forgotten. We’ve all hurt feelings, said something mean or snide, did something we shouldn’t have or didn’t do something we should have. A little parental or spousal or employer or who knows who’s amnesia would go a long way in our lives.

I don’t think there’s a pastor alive who doesn’t wish for a little congregational amnesia. Maybe a hymn we picked that didn’t go over so well or a prayer that missed the mark or a sermon that offended or a hospital visit that wasn’t made or a phone call that would have helped. The Methodists may have this figured out: move a minister every five years or so to wipe the slate clean, shake the “Etch-a-sketch” and both congregation and pastor can start fresh. Given the time I’ve been here I’ve given most, if not all, of you something I wish you’d conveniently forget! Yes. I think most pastors wish for a little congregational amnesia!

God offers up both forgiveness and forgetting.

God sees that forgiving allows for mistakes and offense, but forgetting places their remembrance behind, so that they can no longer be a barrier to relationship.

God sees that forgiving informs another about the removal of grudges but that forgetting halts the continued negative references.

God sees that forgiving accepts sincere regret but forgetting releases harbored anger and hurt.

God sees that forgiving receives apology and accepts blame but forgetting closes wounds and fades scars.

God sees that forgiveness soothes disgust and disappointment but forgetting builds determination to deter such distress in the future.

God sees that forgiveness is an act of compassion prompting worth and value in another but forgetting is an act of love that reinforces the desire that the relationship not be broken.

Of all the impassioned and heartfelt vows and commitments we might make to one another – either in marriage or any other relationship, perhaps the most generous offer we could make or receive is simply this: the promise to forgive and the commitment to “remember no more” the offense or iniquity, choosing instead to continually search for light even when everything else gets dark.