We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, July 31, 2017

Matthew 3:1-3 (Again)

These three verses are worth lingering over because they are the transition from the introductory material in chapters one and two into the ministry of Jesus.  Pre-game is over.  The team is now out on the field.

And the field happens to be a desert, a wilderness.  Now, if this were a biography of Jesus of Nazareth, we would say, "OK, that's cool.  Now we know the context.  Hope Jesus took plenty of water and stayed hydrated.  What's next?"  But Matthew is not a biography; it is a gospel.  The rules are different.  Things mean things.  And they don't mean just one thing at a time.  And what they mean can change as our situation as readers changes.

Right now, it might be important for us to see "desert" as a place of simplicity, often a place of spirituality.  Faithful folks go into the desert to meditate, to find God, and/or to escape the temptations of the world.  There is no Chiang Mai Central Festival mega-shopping center, symbol of a crass capitalist economy, in the desert.  And, tomorrow or next week, it might be equally important for us to recall that in the Exodus God led Israel out of Egypt into the Wilderness, just as Jesus fled to Egypt, returned to Nazareth, and began his public ministry in the wilderness—symbolic of his being the New Israel, the vessel of God's leading and salvation.  Or again, in ancient times, the desert was also seen as a place of challenge and of transition.

In the midst of these various options, the important thing for us to understand is that Jesus' going into the wilderness  to be baptized by John was no small or incidental thing.  He didn't go there because John was there.  That's biographical thinking.  The gospel places him there to alert us to the profound significance of what was going to happen there.  Jesus is about spirituality, transitions, salvation, challenge, and the losses and gains of going into the desert.  Matthew wants us to pay attention.  We are entering special territory, hearing a different kind of story.  This is not about biography.  It is about good news.

Matthew 3:1-3

We live in three dimensions.  We are spatial, geographical creatures to our very core.  This is obviously true physically.  We "come".  We "go".  Every time we take a step, we are travelling—if only to go to the kitchen or the bathroom.  We also think spatially as well.  We "look up" to someone even if they are shorter than we are.  We describe our lives as being "a journey" that we are on.  Like the air we breathe, three-dimensional-ness is so much a part of our reality that we don't even notice it as such.  It is just "there".

These opening verses of Matthew 3 are a reminder that we also think of God geographically as well.  John proclaimed, "Turn away!"  Basically, we are called on to turn our lives around and head in a new direction.  He proclaimed, "God's Kingdom is near!"  Does that mean that God has a place where God lives?  It seems a silly question if God is the creator of the totality of the universe, because so far as we know the universe encompasses all of our reality, all of our spaces.  God is somehow Beyond time and space.  We can't even say that God is nowhere because "nowhere" is still a geographical/spatial term.

But in Matthew 3 we're told that God's Kingdom is close, apparently very close.  So, God's Kingdom is not nowhere?  It is "somewhere"?  It exists in time & space?  Most Christians would say that God is obviously in God's Kingdom, which we usually think of simply as Heaven.  God is in Heaven.  In ancient times, they literally thought of Heaven as being above the sky.  On top of all of this, John quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying that God has a road, which God travels, a road that the faithful prepare for God.

We have two seemingly contradictory things going on here.  On the one hand, there is nothing we can say about where God "is" because God isn't even a "being".  God doesn't occupy space or take up time.  On the other hand, we believe that God the Spirit is present with us; and the Bible uses three-dimensional, geographical images to describe that presence.  Is the Bible, then, just a silly attempt at doing what can't be done, i.e. talking about the presence of Something that by definition cannot be present?  No, it isn't.  Biblical images and its geographical language are valid for us so long as we remember that they are not literal.  All of our language about God, indeed, is made up of "tropes," that is words and images that are non-literal.  Even the claim that God was in Jesus of Nazareth, even the sense we express that the Spirit is moving in our lives or in our hearts—even these are tropes, non-literal ways of speaking about That, which cannot be spoken of literally.

It has to be this way.  Any time we think our words and images about God are literally true, we are trying to force God to fit into our little time and space reality.  We are trying to turn God an idol, make God over in our own three-dimensional image.  God is Beyond.  That's all we can say, and even that simple little sentence is a trope.  What we are left with is faith.  Amen.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Matthew 2:13-23

The back end of Matthew 2 is not the world most of us live in, not even on a Sunday morning.  It is full of dreams, symbols that don't mean much anymore (esp. the whole fleeing to Egypt scene, which harkens back to the Exodus), and especially the use of Old Testament prophecies to explain why things happen.

In our world, we would go see a therapist if we had all of the dreams Joseph had.  In our world, we look to economic, political, and other "real" factors for the explanation of contemporary events.  Now, we might avow that God is involved in things that happen to us, but God's involvement is limited to working through "worldly means."  We don't go back to prophecies or claim to be directed by dreams filled with heavenly messengers.

So, how do we deal with these fundamental differences between Matthew's world and ours?  Many simply avow that, "The Bible is true.  I believe it.  So, things happened just the way it says they did." That's fine, but it also makes the Bible itself an object of faith, which is OK as long as we don't confuse putting our trust in the literal (which language?) words in the Bible (which translation?) with our faith in Christ.  They are different things entirely.  If that difference is not recognized, we are in danger of falling into the trap of bibliolatry, the false worship of the Bible as an idol.

Another approach is to focus on the story line contained in Matthew rather than individual events.  We understand that it was written in a different world so that the manner in which the events are explained differs from our iPhone-world as radically in some ways as do the technologies of the 1st and 21st centuries.  But what about the story line?  Is IT something we can trust?  By that I mean, do we detect in it the presence of God's Spirit reaching out toward us?  Is it inspired?  The question is not whether or not each and every word (which language, which translation?) is inspired.  Rather, do we detect in the story God's presence, a presence that makes sense to us in 2017?

If we trust that there "is" a Divine Spirit that beyond all understanding "is" both Beyond and Present—if we have that faith, then it is not a difficult step to say that, "yes," we do sense that Holy Spirit inspiring us through the stories of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  Amen.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Matthew 2:1-12

For some reason, the East has always held a special fascination for those who live to the west.  Wisdom resides in the East.  "They" are more spiritual than "we" are.  Apparently, this was true when Jesus' was born, and the visit of the wisemen/magi/mystics from the East has a symbolic meaning that we can understand today.  Wisdom and the light of Truth sought out Jesus and worshipped him.  And all of this happened while he was still an infant, which in ancient times meant that he was supposedly an inferior, incomplete person not yet fully human.

This was the claim of the earliest church:  the country preacher from Nazareth who had been strung up by the Romans was something much more than he appeared to be.  The heavens proclaimed his birth.  Truth and Wisdom worshipped at his feet from the time of his birth.  The East sought him out in order to give him gifts of great value, gifts worthy of a king.

But just as we get all teary eyed over this wonderful little baby, politics rears its ugly head.  That word, "king," was a two-edged sword, to be sure.  The Eastern mystics said they were looking for the newborn "King of the Jews."  The reigning actual king of the day, Herod, was not happy.  And here we are again.  In the real world so-called.  The heavenly realm of the East and the mundane, political world of Palestine were actually one world, the one we still live in today.  That too was part of the proclamation of the early church.  They found and experienced the Spirit through an otherwise unassuming, real world son of a carpenter from Galilee—who woulda thought!

So Christians believe, apparently, that All that is Great and Spiritual worshipped at the feet of a lowly little kid from a nobody family.  Weird, huh?  The fancy theological word is "incarnation".  We're still trying to wrap our heads around it 2000 years later—not with a lot of success, it seems, for all of our millennia of verbiage.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Matthew 1

After we get past all of the verses of genealogy,  the first chapter of Matthew turns out to be fascinating and eye-opening.  It comes from a world very different from the 21st century, a world where the divine intersected with the "real" world in palpable ways that included dreams and virgin births.

The chapter is about mystery, miracles, purity (virginity), and the unexpected.  It launches us into an alternative reality.  It revolves around an event otherwise unimaginable, a pregnant women who never had sex.  It hinges on a message from out of time, space, and our daily lives—it hinges on a dream.  When we walk into Matthew's world, we walk out of our own.

Or, do we?  The very last verses, Matthew 1:25, contains the surprise of all surprises.  It has been made clear that Jesus' conception was a miraculous one, engineered as it were by the Holy Spirit.  Unique among all of the billions of human beings that have ever lived.  But in verse 25 there is no indication of some kind of painless birth.  His conception was miraculous.  His birth was not.  Sweat, tears, pain, blood, midwives, relatives, anxious father, umbilical cord—the whole nine yards of a typical birth.  The dangers of such a birth.  And the joys.  The first time he was suckled.  Tenderness.  Pride.  A first born son!

Matthew 1:25 leaves us in a strange, half-unimaginable, half-familiar place.  Jesus was apparently conceived in one not of this world place, born in another of this world place.  Whether or not the story is "literally true" is far, far beside the point.  For us, the far more important question is rather whether it's claim in true.  Was Jesus a child of Beyond as much he was of Here?