Sunday, December 3, 2023

Rethinking "Messiah"

 The kickoff of Advent today means that we will soon be hearing the word "messiah" a lot in the coming month.  From Handel's "Messiah" to multiple passages throughout Judeo-Christian scripture there are few religious terms more tossed about this time of year. The literal English translation for messiah from its Hebrew and Aramaic sources is "chosen one" or "anointed one."  The details on how it gets applied are an interesting study.

Messiah gets a lot of attention this time of year primarily from the Christian community's observances surrounding the birth of Jesus.  Christmas and Easter are the two most significant "holidays" in the Christian year.  The way messiah is viewed in Christianity is significantly different from its Jewish origins.

In Judaism the "anointed one" or "chosen one" was commonly a denoted individual with special leadership powers.  They might be kings, High Priests, or possibly prophets.  They were, most often believed to be consecrated by God to fulfill their roles. One of the most beloved such leader was King David.  David was a powerful warrior king with gifted military strategy sense.  He led the Jewish people into a prolonged period of peace about 1,000 years before Jesus.  Their warring neighbors were all conquered and Jewish life was, for the most part, prosperous and good.  This period became one to which Jewish hearts harken back.  "Would that a messiah could again reign as David did," We hear this theme echoed throughout a reading of the major and minor prophets of the First Testament. So, Jewish identity with a messiah can be summed up as the looking for a new (as yet unknown) "messiah" who will recreate the days of past peace and glory.

Christianity, on the other hand, co-opted the term "messiah" and built an entirely different concept around the term.  Theologically, Christians have claimed Jesus to be the Messiah (as in one and only.)  In the Gospel of Mark there is an entire literary game going on of keeping the "messianic secret" until who it is is finally revealed by Jesus himself.  While some very early Christian sects hoped in the militaristic overthrow of Rome by Jesus, when that clearly wasn't going to happen, the meaning of messiah shifted in the Church to be the watch for Jesus' return when the faithful ones would be gathered up and taken to heaven.  So, the Christian messiah was already determined and he would carry his chosen ones to a heavenly place of golden streets and eternal bliss with harps and angelic choirs.

It is understandable how Christianity fell into this mindset.  Life in the Roman Empire was wickedly difficult.  Many a Christian died gruesomely in the Roman arena. The Jewish community didn't like them and life only grew more ugly for all as the Empire's control slipped, emperors lost their minds, and marauding bands of Celts moved in from the north. Hoping for a deliverer, for Jesus to return and carry them away from it all was a tempting Calgon moment. For two thousand years now, this deliverance connection to the Messiahship of Jesus has held the attention of a majority of Christians.

World times and life events shift as do theological interpretations.  The Church has held tight theological constructs - enforcing a systematic view too often defended with heresy trials, stake burnings, torture, excommunication, threats of fiery hell, etc. to manipulate not just peasant populations, but monarchs and rulers as well. Creative peace loving conceptualizations of interactive partnerships with God have been frowned upon or worse until recently.  While there are radically different positive ways to shape spirituality, the Church has frequently remained frozen partly for fear of rocking adherents' loyalties and partly for the sinful attachment to hierarchical power and wealth. 

Considering messiahs, people of faith might be better served by returning to a more Jewish concept.  Who among us has a solid reality-based conceptual sense of the problems humanity is facing and what are the psycho-socio-spiritual principles by which humanity can pull themselves out of the hot soup we're in?  This person(s) could very much be the messiah(s) the earth is looking for.   

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Returning to Eden

  As the wheels appear to be coming off the bus of human existence and countries of the world experience extreme opposing attitudes among their citizenry, the question arises when did things go so wrong between us? Scanning through the annals of time, we can find many examples of similar episodes between the two-leggeds repeating over and over, extending back in time to the story of Adam and Eve.

According to the myth, Adam & Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden at the dawn of human time.  It was a garden of perfection and general harmony abounded.  That is until the day the talking serpent showed up to convince Eve that there was more to be gained if she but took a bite of the forbidden fruit. Once she and her mate, Adam, had partaken of it their eyes were opened.  Their arrogance grew and they soon waltzed from the Garden to seek their fortunes on their own terms. The rejection of their place in the ecosystem they had enjoyed was just the beginning of humanity's problems.

To this day humans view themselves as "higher" than all other lifeforms and believe in their own god-like powers and capabilities. Some have taken their superiority so far as to denigrate other humans, attempting on numerous occasions to wipe "those vermin" off the face of the Earth. Leaping over all the genocide, wars, slavery, hoarding of resources, and poisoning of sea, land, and sky, we discover this arrogance of self-aggrandizement is squeezing the Earth into a potentially desperate corner. Only just now have we begun to collectively begun to wonder, "What have we done to ourselves?"  And how do we get out of this mess?

The good road back to Eden depends on the human coming-of-age realization that Eden existed because of the Love that created it and the homeostasis maintained by the peaceful coexistence of all lifeforms found therein. In Eden, there was no dominance of one species over another. Each one had its place and part in maintaining the balance.  The danger crept in when the temptation to control a single resource (the forbidden fruit) overpowered their appreciation for the love on which the Garden was based. 

To return to Eden is to return to Love.  Love for the built-in diversity of lifeforms - plants, bacteria, reptiles, mammals.... and humans.  It requires appreciation for each of the contributions those fellow occupants have in the balance needed to power the gift of life that the whole enjoys. Life depends on being willing to share, to be sensitive to the needs of "the other," and to be conscious of how and why others might be struggling to hold up their end of the balance. 

The animosity generated from this abandoned principle is the seed for ultimate destruction.  It is far past time to return to Eden values.

Monday, July 3, 2023

A Sermon - Given at Renton United Church of Christ

 Genesis 22:1-14 – Abraham Sacrificing Isaac


Gifts Back To God

 This is a story that kind of makes your modern parent voice rebel. So first, let’s take the context into account. The religions of the day were heavily influenced by superstition.  Most people in the region had household gods and a god for every purpose under heaven.  In the indigenous Canaanite religious culture where Abraham moved to, the most faithful ones sacrificed their children. This fulfilled several supposed purposes – to win their gods’ favor, to protect them from natural disasters, and to receive blessings on their crops.

So it is hard to know what was spinning through Abraham’s mind.  He is the biblical character I would most want to take to lunch and pick his brain.   Was he keeping up with the Joneses?  Did some Canaanite guru guilt or embarrass him into it? We don’t know. Often we will just shrug and move on and try to forget about that craziness…. AND YET, the shadow of it invariably arises again each Holy Week when some framers of Christianity claim that God “sacrifices” his son. If God interrupts Abraham’s sacrifice, why would God go through with it with Jesus?  Perhaps we should wrestle with Abraham a bit more.

So let’s take it from a different direction. When I was a boy growing up, my immediate family would hook up with my aunt’s family, and we would go camping at Kootenai Lake in British Columbia.  The cousins, my sister, and I would play a game of cards we called Put and Take.  We would go out and each get 25 rocks – these were our pots of gold.  Then we would take turns being the dealer who would deal out 5 cards to each player. Then the dealer would pull out 1 card at a time and say, “If you’re holding a 5 put in 1 rock.” Then another card, if you have any 3s put in 2… until 6 cards and been drawn. Then the dealer would repeat the process only having people take out rocks.  The dealer could then keep what was left in the pot, or if it ran out, the dealer had to make up the difference. Fun game.  Played for HOURS.  Parents would have to call a halt for us to eat or send us to bed.  Because we played the radical socialized version of Put and Take.  If anyone ran out of rocks, well, you could try to convince someone else to share their bounty, or there were always more rocks to be found in the campground.

Put and take has always been, for me, a simple child’s definition of how Christianity should work. All the players, even God, put in what they have. And we take out what we’re needing – yes, even God. What does God need, you might ask?  It’s clear in scripture – especially the Psalms -- that what God craves from us is gratitude, praise, and devotion.  Remember, God is love.  But what happens to love in a family when one member feels like they’re doing all the work while everyone else just sits?  The entire enterprise that humans label religion or spirituality is entirely about relationships.  Religion takes spirituality off the rails when it gets sucked into power and control games, just as some marriages and families get sucked into that.  But we know that healthy two-way relationships is how the universe is built – and that applies in human circles, human-nature circles, and we see it in biology, chemistry, and physics – put & take. That’s how God set up the entire universe.

But what’s happening in our human realm?  What I see happening is humans pushing love away in exchange for money & power.  How would the world be transformed if we operated out of shared mutual trust, where we just practiced put and take? We could demand it. Sure, duty and obligation form social guardrails, but we’ve witnessed in scripture & elsewhere how guardrails can end up constraining God’s love – twisting it & molding it into some grotesque shapes such as we see here with Abraham – striving to pursue some crazy social-religious practice of devotion to prove to God that he is worthy/he is enough.  Nobody has to prove to God that they’re enough!  God declared creation good at the end of the 6th day. You are enough. That stamp of approval was your birth. But the human ego craves a pat on the head, having control, having certainty that we are better than whatever the idol of the day is.

So let’s bring this back to love – can Love win over the human ego?  God’s love is infinite. On that, we can probably easily agree. (I would also say God’s love is unconditional, but a bit more controversial so I’ll leave that with you to wrestle with and maybe we’ll take it up another time.)  God’s love is infinite. But, as the old Sunday School song goes: “love isn’t love unless you give it away.” How does God give love away? God’s love is going to be the most tangibly obvious if we are demonstrating it.  With a few exceptions, I think that is how God intended it.  That’s how Jesus operated.  But golly dang, if human egos and our out-of-control need to control don’t slip in here. And the next thing we’re doing is hoarding love for “MY PEOPLE”, trying to steer it to whom it will go. Making rules about how it can or can’t be expressed. Then we all get grumpy and fight and throw things and hurt each other. I’m sure that “Dad” probably feels like pulling the car over to the side of the road to say, “If you kids don’t stop it right now, you’re all going to walk home.”

So imagine if you’re able.  A world governed by love and a rule that said, “When doubts arise, just give.”  “Give til it hurts.”  That was Jesus’ example. (Right?)  He never asked, “What’s in this for me?”  He was always about what can I give.  What can I give/how can I give it?  Like him, can I give til it hurts?  Immediately, my ego jumps in and asks, “What if I run out?” “What if I don’t have enough?”  The human ego is sly.  It tries to be rational, but it’s really craving control.  It worries about what-ifs.  Our shadow side is always trying to figure out what must be paid to buy not just God’s love but others’ love as well.  The human ego is always worried about “what’s enough? Don’t get cheated. Don’t get taken.”  We have billionaires (That’s a B – as in Boy is that Bonkers!) STILL insecure, still craving more.  For perspective on a billion: 1 million seconds is 11 days.  1 billion seconds is just over 31 years.  As of last week, Elon Musk’s net worth was estimated at $234 Billion.  This means if he spent $86,000 a day, he would not run out of money for 7,250 years. That’s how insecure and craven the human ego is.  And God says, “No little one.  I AM enough.”   OMG.  I can almost hear the whisper in Isaac’s ear through ALL the centuries– listen!  Can’t you hear God?  “I am enough.  You are enough.  We are enough.”  Just us – ourselves – alone or together -enough!

Returning to Abraham, why was the miracle of Isaac not enough for the old man?  Was he still striving to get God’s blessing or attention, like the cultists he was living beside?  Maybe.  Maybe to get their respect?  Or maybe he wasn’t doing that at all.  Maybe he was, in his own misunderstanding way, just trying to express to God how much devotion and love he had for God and his words didn’t feel like enough. Which makes it still twisted, yes!  But also kind of sweet. How great is our love for God?  Or for this institution, we call the Church?  What would we give to express it?

The thing we forget in our strivings is nobody outgives God.  And God doesn’t even expect you to try.  The Biblical tithe seems to put a limit on what one must give – that 10% of your income guideline that gets bandied about in many a church pledge drive.  But let’s toss that.  It’s a fine enough guideline and all, but what if our guideline was “give in proportion to my gratitude to God for all God has loved me with?”  Then where do you find yourself? And please don’t limit it to thinking only in monetary terms. Maybe just as hard as giving in proportion monetarily is giving up our own attitudes, opinions, and beliefs to find reconciliation or restoration of a relationship or remediation for long-standing wrongs that have fractured and held back equality and justice.  How much love does it require to just accept people for who they are and who aren’t exactly like me? Because no matter what we feel about “the other” – God, in God’s omni-loving way, put them or that thing in our world/life. That includes everything and everyone from the ridiculous: What is a mosquito for? But also to the opposite extreme: a precious, even sacred, Promised child. The stamp of approval Abraham may have been looking for seems to have been provided by the abundance of an Infinitely Loving God. Who is still in that business today – handing out stamps -- even for you.