Modern Parables 5: The Escape

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

A Wall Street banker encountered an angry mob, so he invited them into his home. “Take whatever you want,” he told them. While they ransacked his house, he and his family fled to France. “But we don’t even speak the language!” said his wife. “At least we’ll have decent health care and will eat well,” he replied.

 


Modern Parables 4: Genes

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

The reign of God is like a tiny mutation on a single gene, and that mutation is spread to the whole human race. Overnight, we woke up with the ability to fly.

 

Modern Parables 3: The Revival

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few. (This one is inspired by David Buttrick):

A hedge-fund manager and a pastor both attended a revival. The pastor knew all the lyrics to all of the songs, raised his hands in worship, and gave his personal testimony. The hedge-fund manager stood at the door, too ashamed to sit among the congregation. “God, I shouldn’t even be here. I’m no damned good,” he prayed. At the altar call, he turned around and left. Truly I tell you, of the two, the hedge-fund manager went home justified.

 

Modern Parables 2: The Brothel

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

The reign of God is like a prostitute in a brothel who owed a huge debt to her madam. One night her favorite client, a wealthy politician, had a heart-attack. So she forged a wedding certificate, inherited the senator’s money, and took over the brothel. The madam commended the prostitute and told her, “You will go far in this business.”

God’s Wrath (And Other Inconveniences)

I’m excited about starting a new sermon series this Sunday.

Does God Have a Temper Problem? from Dave Barnhart on Vimeo.

I don’t think Christians wrestle with this issue enough, honestly. Plenty of atheists are happy to point out that although we say “God is love,” it seems that kind of love is often smiting people rather indiscriminately, slaughtering entire towns, including children. Christians—people I consider my friends, even educated clergy colleagues—will often float the argument that the genocide detailed in the book of Joshua was necessary. You know, because of the corrupting influence of the surrounding cultures.

……o-kay. That’s more or less always the reason for genocide, right? Corrupting influences and the purity of the race?

One good reason for leaving literalism-which-isn’t-really-literalism behind is that it leads us to this kind of thinking: that God is the kind of God who kills kids, giving our Lord and Savior the same moral character as school shooters.

Yet historians and archeologists cast doubt on whether this kind of large-scale invasion ever happened, which points us, I believe, toward a better way of thinking about these stories. What were the original authors of these stories trying to tell their audiences? What was their lived experience of siege warfare, cultural assimilation, and persecution?

In the Noah story, I believe the author is raising critical questions about the violence we attribute to God. I think the same is true in the story of Jonah, and Tamar, and Job, and in prophets like Isaiah.

I think Jesus expresses a Jewish tradition that is highly critical (and self critical) of violence and its users. We understand the wrath of God not in plagues, floods, or invading armies that hurt our enemies, but in the cross, where we see our complicity in the injustice and ugliness of the world.

Abusing scriptures: “Go and sin no more.”

Nicolas Poussin, from Wikimedia Commons

Jesus’ parting words to the woman caught in adultery are “Go your way, and do not sin again.” This is a favorite line for Christians who wish to maintain that Christian ethics demands forgiveness, but not the excusing of continued sexual immorality. It crops up with tiresome regularity in discussions about the acceptability of gay and lesbian love in church communities. (The argument only makes sense if you already agree that homosexuality is a sin). Jesus forgives the woman, goes the reasoning, but he doesn’t excuse her sin.

This is certainly one way to read the passage, and I’m happy to consider this understanding of it (even if I reject the implication that gay or lesbian love is the moral equivalent of adultery). But I find it troubling how we use this passage to construct a theological system about sin and how we approach it within Christian community. Doing so places us right back in the position of the murderous men.

A couple of preliminary points:

First, I think it’s important to point out that this story is an addition to John. I don’t think that necessarily decreases its legitimacy as a Jesus story, or as an authoritative, inspired text, but I think it’s important to point out before exegeting it.

Second, there’s a great detailed summary of the social situation of the woman in this blog post, which suggests that the title should not be “The Woman Caught in Adultery” but “Jesus and the Murderous Men.” Capital punishment by subjugated people under Roman occupation was actually illegal. Occupiers tend to frown upon native populations carrying out their own executions, which is why Jesus was handed over to the Romans to be killed. These men bring the woman to Jesus to be stoned in violation of Roman law and accepted Jewish practice, which called any council that condemned more than one person to death in seven years a “murderous” council.

If we want to figure out how “sin” is used in this story, it doesn’t make sense to talk about Jesus’ words to the woman without also connecting it to his statement to the men. They bring a woman (and not a man) to Jesus to be stoned. He tells them, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” So nobody does. They all walk away. But Jesus doesn’t tell them to go and sin no more. They leave of their own accord.

Why? Why wouldn’t they stick around to see if someone would pick up a rock? Why didn’t they engage in a discussion with Jesus about which sins are punishable by death and which ones are not? This is the usual pattern in discussions with Jesus and religious leaders. I honestly can’t imagine Christians who quote the “go and sin no more” line giving up so easily and melting back into the crowd. They would at least want to stick around and hear what Jesus said to the woman.

Is “sin no more” implied in Jesus’ words to the men? If he were to tell them to sin no more, what sin would he be referring to? To their private (and perhaps sexual) sins? To the sin of dragging a woman in front of him to be stoned? Or is their sin just sort of a generic, “We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) variety?

I really like Tony’s observations about the “muddy” situation that the woman is in, and that the whole violence-against-women narrative is not incidental to the story. Discussions about what constitutes sin (sexual or otherwise) and who is guilty of it are frequently tied to ways we legitimize violence. We don’t actually know her story. We accept the men’s accusations at face value. It is entirely possible that she has been sexually mistreated, married off at an early age and against her will. It is possible that she has been set up, or even raped. If so, “Go and sin no more” sounds like blaming the victim. Is Jesus complicit in a culture of rape and violence?

Or maybe Jesus means the words differently. Do we hear Jesus’ words to her in the same way we hear his words to the murderous men? Are we sure that his “Go and sin no more” is a reference to her adultery, or might it refer to something else? After all, if we’re going to let the men off with generic sinfulness, why do we assume the word “sin” refers to her alleged adultery?

Or maybe Jesus is just treating her as their equal (and equally capable of judgment and violence). Perhaps, having been cleared of her sin (“neither do I condemn you”), she is truly free from slut-shaming culture. If so then the men, it would seem, are still stuck in their sin. After all, Jesus doesn’t tell them to sin no more. Their shame keeps them from asking forgiveness from either Jesus or the woman they have dragged before him. They wander away before hearing any words that release them from their condemnation.

Shouldn’t they have apologized? Does our shame keep us from reconciling with people we have judged? It’s possible that this is not a happy ending. Her accusers go back to their judgmental ways. Are we to imagine that the crowd that had shamed her will treat her as an equal from now on, and not refer to her as “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” the way we do?

I also don’t think the story is complete without looking at the ways Jesus discusses sin in other places in John. In one story, he tells a formerly paralyzed man not to sin so that nothing worse happens to him. In another, when his disciples ask him whose sin caused a man to be born blind, Jesus says, “No one.” Is it possible to put together a coherent theology of sin, forgiveness, and the divine will from these passages without doing intellectual acrobatics?

I love this story. It’s one reason I’m not content to say it doesn’t belong in John’s gospel. But I think it’s sad that we appropriate a scripture that explicitly rejects violence and inequality to legitimize more violence and inequality. It’s abusing scripture: abusing it and using it to abuse.

Jesus in Disguise (John 7)

Preachers often talk about “Jesus in disguise” as a figure of speech, because he identifies with people in desperate situations: poverty, sickness, prison, and so on. But in John 7, he’s actually in disguise. His brothers tell him to go back to Jerusalem for the Tent Festival and do some magic tricks to boost his Klout score reputation, “…for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” Because it’s one thing to feed 5000 people in rural Galilee, but it’s quite another to do miracles in Jerusalem itself.

Of course, Jesus had already done a miracle: healing on the sabbath, back in chapter 5. This brought him exactly the wrong kind of attention.

So in chapter 7, he tells his brothers, “No, you go on. I’ll stay here.” After they’ve gone, he puts on a fake mustache and glasses, and goes to Jerusalem in disguise. While he’s mingling among the crowds, he overhears people talking.

“So, do you think this Jesus character will turn up for the festival?”
“I sure hope so. He’s a good guy and I’d love to meet him.”
“Are you kidding? He’s a charlatan.”

Jesus sidles up to the conversation and listens in. Maybe that’s why he decides half way through the festival to put the disguise away and start preaching. When he does so, the religious leaders start murmuring.

“Wow, he preaches pretty good for someone without a degree.”
“I got my degree from God. So why are you trying to kill me?” he asks.
“Are you nuts? Who is trying to kill you?” they reply.
“I heal one guy on the sabbath and you all get your underwear in a twist,” he says. “Why can’t you understand that I’m doing exactly what God wants?”

Then the bystanders start whispering to each other
“Did you hear? The priests want to kill this guy.”
“Then why are they standing around talking with him? Do they think he’s the messiah?”
“Can’t be. He’s just some guy from Capernaum. I think he was born in Nazareth.”

I’ve been trying to read through John with new eyes the last few weeks. John supposedly has a very high view of Jesus, a lofty Christology that emphasizes Jesus as the eternal Word of God. While I believe that’s true, I find it interesting that Jesus often seems like he’s doing all of this without much of a plan. In spite of the fact that he keeps saying “my hour has not yet come,” it feels like he’s improvising. His humanity shows up in unexpected places: his fear that his friends will leave him; his abortive attempt to secretly infiltrate the festival. Over the next few chapters, he plays cat-and-mouse with the Temple authorities. In many ways, he seems to be reacting more than acting. In spite of his lofty rhetoric, I can hear Jesus’ frustration and anxiety coming out in unexpected places. I’ve been taught a scholarly skepticism about how the gospel writers present Jesus’ teaching, but John does not paint a picture of a Jesus who is in control of things, who has divine foreknowledge of every event and placidly fulfills his destiny. There’s some of that, sure, but there’s also a lot of what I feel on a day-to-day basis while I’m planting a church: “Okay, I know what my mission and message is, but what the heck am I doing in this situation? God, do you have my back?” I think it’s a good example of how, even with a clear sense of mission, ministry is hard.

John used to be my least favorite gospel, because the dialogue seemed so stilted, warped by John’s high Christology. The more I read through this time, the more I’m having to reevaluate my perspective.

When Jesus Worried About Numbers (John 6)

It has been an amazing week. Jesus has just had a record attendance at one of his speaking gigs—multiple thousands. He has pulled off a miracle in feeding them all. Everyone is pumped. The momentum of The Way is building fast, and it even begins to get a bit out of control. People want to make Jesus king—by force (John 6:15).

But just as it begins to look like they will go from success to success, Jesus sticks his foot in it. First, he makes himself scarce at the height of his popularity (6:15). Next, he questions the motives of his fans (6:26). Finally, he starts talking about people eating his flesh, which is always a bit off-putting (6:57).

People stop following him. The crowds dwindle. The morning after a particularly disappointing attendance, Jesus sees his original twelve talking among themselves. They stop talking when he approaches. He looks at them and asks,

“Are you going to leave, too?”

I’m not used to hearing Jesus sound this despondent. In fact, it scares me a bit to hear him this dejected.

I’ve read this passage many times, but before I’ve always heard this as a rhetorical question. I’ve imagined Jesus saying it calmly, almost flippantly, even though he already knows the answer, because he’s omniscient, right?

But as a pastor starting a new church, I know how important those attendance numbers become. You begin thinking that the numbers indicate God’s approval rating. You start taking them personally. When I catch myself thinking this way, I usually try to give myself a pep talk. You may know the phrases: “Where two or more are gathered,” “It’s not quantity, it’s quality,” and so on. But I’ve always had my eyes on the numbers, whether I’ve been speaking to a handful or a thousand people. There’s energy in crowds. I like approval. When crowds shrink, I start to panic and wonder what I’ve done wrong.

But even at my lowest I’ve not felt the pain in Jesus’ words when he turns to his friends and asks, “Are you going to leave, too?”  I hear this not as a rhetorical question, but as real human pain and fear. Jesus is worried.

It is comforting, in a way, to know that Jesus was not immune to the effect of numbers, that he felt disappointment when his crowds dwindled and his popularity decreased. I’m glad that he woke up with a pessimistic attitude and expected the worst, because I feel like that more days than I want to admit. I used to resist the idea that Jesus would ever get his feelings hurt, but now I understand better. I can relate. He can relate.

I’m also glad that his students become his teachers, because that’s the way real life works: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68). It isn’t about the numbers. It’s about the message. The news is so compelling that some of us are drawn to speak it and hear it, whether it’s a group of 5000 or of 5. If you ask those of us who become his followers why we do so, we just shrug. What else can we do? He has the words of eternal life.

Advice for Small Group Leaders: Using the Magic Question

I’ve absorbed my share of sermons and essays that lament how we greet each other. “When you ask someone ‘How are you?’, do you really want to know?”, they ask.

No. No, I don’t.

I figure it’s pretty obvious to anyone who can read social context that “How are you?” isn’t actually a question. It’s a greeting. Sometimes we shorten it to “Howdy!” Imagine saying “Howdy” to someone only to have them stop, scratch their head, ruminate for a few minutes and reply, “Well, I feel a bit melancholy today, but I think it is because I didn’t get enough protein in my breakfast.” I wouldn’t want to lengthen the conversation.

For the ancient Romans, “Salve!” (sal-way) was the preferred greeting. It means “Health to you!” It’s also where we get the word “salvation.” We’ve simply turned a wish for health and well-being into a call-and-response rhetorical question.

Jesus gave his followers guidelines for how to show love for others in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:47 says, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” He uses greeting people who are not your brothers and sisters as an example of impartial love for all people. Greeting others demonstrates a loving attitude toward all people. It creates a culture of hospitality He did not say you needed to stop and have a therapy session.

Having said all that, there are times, especially in small group meetings, when I do want to encourage people to share. John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” is a bit abrupt in its intimacy. I’ve found that if I replace “How are you?” with the following question, people begin opening up to talk about their lives:

“How has your week been?”

Rather than saying “Fine,” or “Okay,” people tend to talk about specific events, feelings, and activities. Once we are having that conversation, I find it much easier to ask people where they see God active in their lives. We might even get around to addressing John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?” question. It also creates opportunities to pray for specific things that people might not mention if the leader only asks for “prayer requests.”

I also like the freedom the question “How has your week been” gives to others. You are still free to answer “Fine,” if you don’t really want to go into detail.

I stumbled on this question about ten years ago when I was putting together a worship team that would pray before practice each week. I wanted our prayer time to be something more than the usual perfunctory words about the weather and playing well. I wanted the group to bond as a team, and to honestly pray for each other and to know what was going on with their team mates. I started beginning each practice with this question, and we’d spend the first thirty minutes of band practice praying for each other.

I noticed that after about six weeks, they started asking “How has your week been?” in other contexts. They started asking it of me. They started asking it of people during worship. That simple change of phrase did far more to change the culture of our congregation than a dozen sermons asking “Do you really care about the answer when you greet someone?”

Psychologist John Gottman talks about the importance of a married couple having their “magic ten minutes a day.” This is the time they spend reconnecting at the end of the day in a stress-reducing conversation, which can begin with a simple “How was your day?” I’ve started calling “How has your week been?” the magic question for small groups. Creating intimacy by hearing each other and praying with each other is part of building a successful small group.

It’s amazing how a fairly simple change of wording can shift the way we interact with each other.

Joining God in the Renewal of All Things

This is a draft of the first page of the discipleship book I’m working on. I used to dislike the word “evangelical,” because it has picked up so much political baggage over the last several decades, but I have come to realize “evangelical” is exactly what I aspire to be: someone who delivers good news.

cropped-mossy-railroad-car.jpg

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I’m inviting you to join God in the renewal of all things.

Actually, I’m just delivering the invitation. God does the inviting. I think this is cool for several reasons:

  1. God wants you
  2. to join God
  3. in what God is already doing.

You may not believe in God, or in the Bible, or think of yourself as particularly religious. You may have a low opinion of churches and church people, or of people who call themselves “Christian” and talk about Jesus all the time. Or you may have a low opinion of yourself and your own value, and doubt that God would be interested in inviting you to do anything. That’s fine. The invitation still stands.

In one famous Bible story, a king (representing God) invites people who claim to be his friends (religious people) to a banquet, and they all refuse. Fed up with their hypocrisy, the king orders his servants to go invite people off the street until all the seats are filled. After they do so, there are still empty seats, and so the king orders his servants to just go grab random people and compel them to come in, until the banquet hall is filled with people “both good and bad.” Those random people represent the rest of us sinners, saints, and skeptics who never expected to receive an invitation! Some of us find ourselves sitting in the banquet hall hardly aware of how we ended up in this place. Maybe a friend even “compelled” you to come in! Apparently God is less concerned with the value judgments of people than we are. God wants you.

I suppose God could do this on God’s own, but that’s not the way God works. Some religious people like to describe God as all-powerful, sovereign, and in control, and I suppose those descriptions are true. But they are also often irrelevant, because God is first a lover and a creator. Lovers and creators (like parents and artists) know that both creation and loving involve giving up control. God made people in all their rich and wonderful diversity so they could participate with God in creating something wonderful. God wants us to join with each other and with God in God’s project of renewing and salvaging a broken world.

And God is already doing it. Everywhere he went, Jesus said that “the kingdom of the heavens is at hand.” Although many of his contemporaries believe that the kingdom meant something far off in the future, and although lots of people today believe that “heaven” is somewhere they go when they die, Jesus meant something different. “The kingdom of the heavens,” or the kingdom of God, represented the state of the world when people would finally live at peace with themselves, each other, and all creation; when oppression would end, everyone would have enough to live and thrive, and the world would be healed. Jesus believed in it so strongly he taught it as a prayer that summed up his teaching: “Our Father in heaven, let your name be hallowed. Let your will be done on earth as it is in the heavens.” Moreover, he taught that this kingdom was already breaking through into the world, like a growing plant pushing through the soil. Unlike many modern religious people, he did not see this kingdom as the destruction of the earth, but the renewal of it.

So, there’s the invitation: Join God in the renewal of all things. It’s already underway. Do you want a piece of this action?