Sheep, Goats, and Ethics From Powerlessness

I hate how Christian ethics is done.

And I admit when I say this, I may not fully appreciate or understand Christian ethics as it has historically been done. But I hate what I understand.

And this is what I understand.

Christian ethics privileges and empowers action. It does so by making the identity and intention of the actor, rather than the relational nature of the action taken (its effects and consequences, intended and unintended), as the focus of contemplation. What matters most is “good people” (always self-identified) acting with the best intentions (again, always self-identified) to better the lives or well-being of others.

This bothers me because it fails to appreciate how relational an act is. If a person chooses to express their love for others or concern for the world through the exercise of some kind of power (state power or social power), then there will be coercion or violence involved. And coercion or violence can easily be, well, “misunderstood” as something other than love or compassion.

And then the self-centered nature of the Christian ethical conversation — it’s all about how the actor felt and meant, rather than what the actor actually did — becomes clear.

This is ethics from power. From a position of power, that insists acting is possible, and thus always the more moral course than not acting. I suppose it makes sense, given that Christian ethics arose is Christendom, contrived by powerful people to justify the exercise of power, to provide justification and salve consciences that acts clearly harmful, destructive, or even downright murderous were somehow “moral.”

I don’t like ethics from power. And I don’t think the Bible, to the extent that it is even a guide to ethical behavior, gives us an ethic from power.

Rather, scripture gives us an ethic from powerlessness.

That is the story of God’s people in scripture — not actors, but acted upon. Not subjects, but objects. Not as a powerful nation, but one besieged, conquered, exiled. By God, who tells them several times, from the Red Sea (explicitly) to Golgotha, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.”

What might an ethic from powerlessness look like?

How about Matthew 25 and the story Jesus tells of the final judgement?

(31) “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  (32) Before him will be gathered lall the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates nthe sheep from the goats.  (33) And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.  (34) Then othe King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you ufrom the foundation of the world.  (35) For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  (36) I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  (37) Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  (38) And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  (39) And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ (40) And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these dmy brothers, you did it to me.’   (41) “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  (42) For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,  (43) I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  (44) Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’  (45) Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  (46) And these will go away kinto eternal punishment, but the righteous kinto leternal life.”

Now, a lot hinges in our reading of this in who we see ourselves as and where. For good Lutherans, who believe deeply in unearned salvation by God’s Grace, this is a disturbing passage, for it suggests that those on the left and those on the right somehow earn their eternal fates through their deeds.

And let’s set that aside for a minute.

Mostly, I’ve heard this interpreted as a prompting to act, that most Christians see themselves as either potential sheep or possible goat. That this judgement is for them, and that Jesus was telling his disciples how to act in the world. We should feed the hungry, visit the sick, and so forth. This is fine as it goes, all of these are acts we can do in love and mercy for the world. There’s no real conflict with  anything else Jesus ever taught in Matthew (or elsewhere).

But the passage comes after a long series of things Jesus tells his disciples about the end of the age, the coming of the tribulation and the Son of Man, the cursing of the fig tree (which may or may not represent the Temple in Jerusalem), and the parable of the foolish and the wise virgins. And all of these are things Jesus is describing will happen either around or to the church. Things which we as God’s people will simply watch, powerless to do anything about or even know when they are coming.

Yes, Jesus admonishes those who wait to fill their lamps. Possibly by doing deeds of love.

But I think there’s another way to read what’s going on at the judgement of the world.

It all hinges on who we think “the least of these” are. If they are others, not us, then we are in the running to be sheep or goats, depending on how we act.

But what if “the least of these” is us? The church? The followers of Jesus?

And in this, Jesus is assuring the church that in the midst of the horrible things happening in the world, there will be some kindness, some mercy, some compassion shown to his people. And that, on some level, the world will be judged by how it treats the church.

Not by how much power or privilege it gives us, not by allowing us “religious freedom.” But by simple acts of kindness that defy the violence of the world.

So, how does this relate to ethics? Simply this: by being the church, we provide the world a chance to meet Jesus. Not through our words or our testimony, our desire (or call) to make disciples, but in the misfortune of our lives, by being a people in need, subjects of power (rather than objects), poor, sick, imprisoned. This is one way way show the world who God is, and how to respond to God. In this, Jesus tells us there will be sheep and goats — those who respond with kindness and mercy and those who do not. We will receive much, and some of it will be exactly what we need.

Again, a hard reading for many Western Christians, who wish to give rather than receive, who wish to be hosts rather than guests, because power and privilege are inseparable from hospitality and charity. And, after all, aren’t most of us we relatively well-off white people, ridden by guilt, who somehow need to assuage our consciences and deal with our power? Aren’t we self-sufficient? Don’t we have what the world wants, needs, desires?

It’s not an either/or proposition. It’s a both/and. Once, I preached on a story I edited for The Saudi Gazette about Muslim charities in Jeddah striving to help homeless and impoverished Saudi widows by giving them a place to live and some skills to earn a meager living.

“Even though there are no followers of Jesus anywhere in this, can we say with any confidence that the widows aren’t meeting Jesus when they meet those who help them, and those who help aren’t meeting Jesus when they meet people in their need?” my sermon went. “Because I see Jesus throughout, and I trust that God, and grace, are present.”

It’s hard to lay down power and privilege. We’d rather disperse it more democratically, so all have equal amounts. Maybe that’s possible, but I don’t think so. Which is why I see Jesus calling us to powerlessness, to be “the least of these” in a world that has never much cared for the least of anything. To take that risk, knowing we have the assurance of God that we will be cared for. Whatever happens.

We may be objects. But we are the objects of God’s love.

On Pope Francis, and Being Church in the World

There’s an interesting piece at The American Prospect this morning dealing with Pope Francis and how he might — and won’t — change the church:

Francis’s personal conduct has reframed the church’s resistance to secular Western pluralism. Under Benedict, this clash was a “culture war” over sexuality and exclusive claims to truth, and an ugly contradiction between public moralizing and private protection of sexual predators. In Francis’s care, the narrative of the church has become the story of a persistent Christian community of dissent: one led by a man who tries to abide by Jesus’s commands in his own life and one that challenges income inequality on the same grounds it challenges abortion and gay marriage (all of these, Francis says, reflect “moral relativism” and the “throwaway culture” of modern capitalism).

It seems to me that Francis understands something John Paul II understood, and Benedict XVI did not: the pope is the “pastor to the world,” and has to act pastorally. The pope has to live out the Gospel in a very particular way, showing compassion and concern for people, meeting them where they are, as they are, showing them where they are already participating in God’s work for the world. And inviting them to understand that work of compassion, care, redemption — the work of love — is God’s kingdom.

Culture war, the right’s favorite form of engagement, is not pastoral. It does not meet people where they are, but demands they change first in order to be part of God’s work in the world. Culture war demands the world get right with God, and then tries to bend the world to its will. Because only then will God pay any positive attention to the world.

That is not how it works. God calls and gathers people first. And then they are changed. Jesus didn’t tell the fishermen to get right with him and then follow. He called them to follow, and in following, Peter, James, and Andrew (and all the rest) were changed and formed, and became the people who could do what Jesus called them to do — preach and teach and baptize.

Francis gets this. I think it’s because he understands this is an ethic from powerlessness. The ethic of the Gospel, and of most of scripture, is to a people who have little or no power. They cannot shape events, they have little say in how they live and little ability to change the conditions under which they live. They are not actors, they are acted upon. They have no will that matters. The forces of history have conquered and occupied them, sent them into exile, made them serve masters they cannot and would not choose.

We can respond to this with despair and violence. For a time, I did. Or wanted to.

Or we can respond as Jesus did, with love. A love that doesn’t demand to run the culture or the country, that doesn’t demand on a legal and political monopoly of truth, but a love that is willing to risk everything to show that the the power to which we as God’s people are subject is not the final word. It is not real power. This love proclaims itself the way, the truth, the life, but does so as it gives of itself.

Francis gets this. Because this kind of love, a power wielded from below, expresses itself not in the words so beloved of culture warriors, but in deeds. How we live far better confesses our faith than what we say, and Francis tries to live to show the way of Jesus — a God who walked among us, among the poor, dependent on grace, healing and teaching and preaching and calling and gathering.

Benedict never understood because he was a thinker and a teacher, not a pastor. Getting the ideas right was important to Benedict. There is a role for that in the church, since bad ideas can seep into the air and water and contaminate everything.

But our faith is, in the end, a practice, and not a notion. Yes, we confess that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. But that is the beginning of a calling, to love and live and die and rise as Jesus did. Not sitting cozily and smugly in comfortable little communities (how many of Jesus’ disciples retired to play golf, or died of old age?) pronouncing judgment upon the world, but taking risks, going where descent and respectable people don’t go and living with people who know sin and judgment so intensely that the presence of God’s love in their midst changes their lives!

There are few figures like the pope in the world today. Maybe the only other comparable human being is the Dalai Llama. These two people become the closest things humanity has to global religious figures who can speak to our hopes and fears. That’s going to be a hit and miss task most of the time, given how big the world is and how awful most understanding of religion is. But Francis washing feet, and breaking the “rules” while he does it, is a far better testimony to the faith than any speech or confession.

Worthen, the author of the Francis piece, goes on to quote a prominent Southern Baptist:

“We need to be known more by how we care about the hurting than how we yell at them,” wrote Southern Baptist leader Ed Stetzer in a Christianity Today essay on what evangelicals can learn from the pope. “The world is often confused when they see Jesus caring for the poor and hurting while His followers, well, don’t.”

It matters what we believe. And Christians have gotten good about arguing over fine points of faith in order to condemn other Christians to outer darkness. (I’m Lutheran, I know of what I speak. We have have some of the most frightful and annoying conversations on things almost no one else cares about.) But if God, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has acted to save us, then the words of our faith matters a whole lot less than our deeds of love.

The Difference Between Priests and Prophets

Well, as I wait in the limbo that is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s first call process, I have been considering my situation.

I’ve have interviewed with three different congregations. One said “no” quite emphatically and quickly, for that I am thankful. I could have been pastor there, but honestly, the place was not my first choice and so I’m rather glad they said no.

I have interviewed at another church in a Chicago suburb, about four months ago, and they kept in touch with me and told me to hang on, they were having some difficulties with their process and then … nothing. I have contacted them, and they have not responded.

Nor has the Metro Chicago Synod responded to me for the last two weeks. It’s a little nerve wracking, and you’d think it wouldn’t be hard to send an e-mail with a “hold on” or “they made a decision” or something. I’m not asking for much.

Of course, throughout this process, I am also keenly aware — a previous candidacy committee refused to approve me, did so for reasons they mostly kept to themselves, but they did tell me they did not believe I was fit to be a pastor in the ELCA, and that given how badly our encounters went during the candidacy process, they had a hard time imagining how I’d deal with a church council. Which, to be honest, was a fair concern. At the time. It’s something they could have helped with, if they’d wanted to. But they didn’t.

I deal with this some in my upcoming book, which will be published by Wipf & Stock sometime in late spring, I think. My editor has my second draft, and among all the other things I am waiting for right now, I am waiting for his critique.

Bleh. I hate waiting.

At any rate, the process of dealing with first call stuff has gotten me to think a little bit about what people seek in a pastor and what God seeks in the people God calls.

Because they aren’t always the same thing.

Let me boil it down to a dualism — priests and prophets. The priest’s primary job is to represent God’s people before God. The prophet’s primary call is to represent God before God’s people.

And these are not the same tasks.

What do I mean by representing God’s people? Well, the job of the priest is is to present the people’s petitions before God, to speak their hopes and dreams and seek God’s favor on those hopes and dreams. Among settled people — and most human beings, wherever they are, are settled people, rooted to land and community and kin — those hopes and dreams are typically for ample rains (good fortune), a bountiful harvest (wealth), many children (again, a kind of wealth, but also to fill the world with kin), and victory against enemies (success in endeavors). The priest takes the concerns of the people, and offers them to God, as a sacrifice, in petitions. The priest mediates between the people and God on the people’s behalf. And all the priest does is focused on the people’s needs.

We are your people, O’ God, the priest says. Continue to bless us.

American Lutherans are a settled people. They look primarily to priestly figures to represent them before God.

But God calls prophets too. And prophets do something different — they represent God before God’s people. The words that prophets speak, the things prophets do, and the way prophets live, are all difficult for settled people, and sometimes jarring and even very offensive. But the whole point of the prophetic is to remind the settled people that God’s will for them is frequently much bigger, and sometimes entirely different, from what the people want — good fortune, wealth, lot of kin, success in life. The prophet speaks the word of God, the judgmental word and the comforting word, in times of failure, misfortune, defeat, death. The prophet tells us that strangers and enemies are beloved of God too. The prophet speaks a word of redemption, a reminder that the dead (to whom settled people are very attached) have no say, no vote, no voice.

The promise of God is for the living. For the future. For us, but also for people we will never know.

Prophets are unsettling because they are unsettled. They have been ripped from place, from kin, even from their past (because past, and place, and kin can get in the way), so they can more clearly see some of what God has promised.

God is blessing you, the prophet says. God is faithful. You just have to understand, it doesn’t look the way you think it should.

Two things come from this for me. First, I am much more prophetic than priestly. And I say that only because people keep telling me. And I suspect that will make finding a call, in a church where we like our priests and don’t really know what to do with prophets (we think simply saying “rich people suck” is prophetic, but it isn’t), difficult. I don’t like it, but I’m okay with it. It’s not like prophets in the Bible have stable careers, health insurance or pension plans. If this is who I am, then who am I to argue with God?

But there’s another point, one I suspect I will spend more time in the future contemplating.

The Bible is frequently called “counter-cultural,” but that term gets so misused that frankly, I do not like it. (Again, there are those who claim that saying “rich people suck” is counter-cultural, and it isn’t.) Rather, the Bible is prophetic. It is a prophetic witness to a settled people that what they want, that what they think God has promised them (God to Abraham — land, blessing, lots of children), isn’t going to work out in the way they think it should. There are a few priestly figures in scripture (Ezra comes to mind as the most prominent), but most of the serious characters in scripture are prophets.

Those prophets say absurd things. In the midst of the great siege, surrender. Go over to the enemy. You aren’t coming home any time soon. Loving God’s people is like loving a prostitute.

And they do strange things. They cure the enemy general of his leprosy, and do this without making any demands he stop the war or change sides. (And he doesn’t.) They marry prostitutes and give their children strange names. They bury their underwear, dig it up later, and wear it for all to see.

The Bible is a prophetic reminder to a settled people that God’s love is bigger than their hopes and dreams. It is a reminder to a settled people where oldest sons inherit and strong men protect that crafty, second-sons get the blessing and whiny nancy boys can end up saving the world. That the king can be a murderer, rapist, and indecisive boob and yet God still loves the stuffins out of him. And makes promises not just to us but to the entire world through that really awful king.

The Bible is a prophetic reminder to a settled people that the future does not necessarily depend on the past. That God’s promises are for the living, for the survivors, for the remnant. The future is God’s to make. And not ours.

The Bible is a prophetic reminder to a settled people who want freedom, power, and glory that our salvation, our redemption, and our liberation are the gifts of a God who surrendered to our violence, who gave in, who died ignominiously, on a cross, as a criminal and a traitor. And that those gifts don’t necessarily mean what we think they ought to mean. Or look the way we think they ought to.

Honestly, I do not know when — or even if — I will find a call in this church. I trust God, and while I’ve been at this more than some (and it’s hard not to be a little angry about that), I’ve been waiting a lot less than some others I know. I trust God. I do sometimes wonder if I’ve been led into the wilderness to die. But I trust God.

A Sweet Little Song to Contemplate John 3:16

At some point, I’m going to abolish my songblog — it never was able to accomplish what I wanted — and migrate all of that content over here. Or just republish a thing or two.

So, this is a song I wrote Saturday. It was also my children’s sermon for the second Sunday of Lent this year. I wrote songs as children’s sermons whenever I can. But they’re not always children’s song.

Anyway, I explained that while we often try to figure out what the Bible means, sometimes we should hear the words, and contemplate them. I’m not sure they got the meaning of contemplate or not, but I said a song where we repeat things — say them over and over — helps with that sometimes.

No, there weren’t two of me singing this morning.

A Wandering Aramean Was My Father

My sermon for the second Sunday of Lent, preached at Grace Lutheran in Westchester, Illinois. This is more or less what I preached, though I did some improvising as well.

* * *

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses gives the Israelites a prayer they are to pray when they make their first offering to God after a settling — after planting and harvesting — in the land of promise.

A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O LORD, have given me.

“A wandering Aramean.” That’s Abraham, the father of us all. Yes, that includes us too, as Paul writes in his letter to the Church at Galatia,

for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. 

A wandering Aramean was my father. I am his son, the son of a wanderer.

Bear with me, but let’s hear that first reading again:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And so Abram — he has not yet been given his new name Abraham — leaves. He leaves everything. And for what? A handful of promises. And vapor, all of them. A land that I will show you, God says. You won’t know it’s the place until I tell you. As for the rest of it, those are promises made to Abraham, but they aren’t for him. He will never realize any of them. They are made to his descendants. People he will never meet. People he will never know.

There’s a couple of ways to think about this. And I don’t want you to think in terms of either/or, but rather, both/and. Like we, in God’s eyes, are both sinners and saints.

We are the people God makes the promises for. We have received the promise. We are the blessing to the world, we reside in the land that God has given to his people. That this land — maybe it’s the physical earth upon which we live, it’s Westchester, it’s this very ground, the United States of america — and maybe this land that flows with milk and honey is the church. Not just Grace, but the ELCA, the whole of Christ’s church, this body that we have become in the world.

We are, after all, a settled people. We have roots here. Oh, we may move from time to time, as the situation requires. But this is our land. Yes, our ancestors took flight and crossed an ocean and some part of a continent. But that was like Israel wandering in the wilderness. It’s over now, and this is the place.

We are the multitude, countless as grains of sand, as stars in the sky. (And not the bright Chicago sky, either.) We are the promise. Paul says so. We are Abraham’s children, through Jesus.

(But consider for a minute — a land flowing with milk and honey is a phrase used in scripture only to describe the promise. Once Israel actually gets there, the land is never described that way.)

And maybe, just maybe, we too are Abram, there in his home in what is now southern Iraq. And these are promises made to us. But they aren’t for us. We are wandering Arameans too.

What does it mean to be given a promise you will never realize? To grab hold and trust in something you know you will likely never see?

Let’s look again at those promises God gives. I will make you a great nation through which the whole earth will be blessed? What does that mean when you’re just a handful, and you have so little? What does blessing even mean? And how will I, will we, be a blessing to all the families of the earth?

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever dishonors you I will curse. That means there will be dishonor. Perhaps a great deal. God isn’t going to save us from it, just merely get even for us when it happens.

But that also means people who are strangers, who don’t share in this promise, will bless us. Will be kind, will care, will do us good.

Where is this place God will show us? How far away is it? What does it look like? Or must we wander, aimless, until God finally says, “Here, and no farther.”

As part of the first-call process, I’ve been interviewing a lot recently with churches looking for a pastor. Congregations where people are anxious, careful, wondering, places where they’ve been wounded by strife and division and where they mourn loss. I too wonder, and I too am anxious, who will call me to shepherd them? How much longer must I wait before someone decides, before the Spirit of God blows as she will through hearts and souls, and some people are inspired to say, “he shall lead us.”

All of us, wandering, aimless, knowing that God is guiding but not to where. Having a promise. Knowing only that God will show us when we get there. Here, and no further.

Promises given, held tight to.

And that’s the funny thing about a promise from God. The promise itself is as good as whatever is promised. Because God does not lie. I shall be blessed? Then I am blessed! I shall be a great nation? Then no matter how small I am, I am a great nation. Because God has promised. It is as real now as it will be for anyone who might actually inherit generations from now.

Do you know what eternal life is? What the Kingdom of God is? I don’t. I know we have it. I know, brothers and sisters, we have eternal life in Jesus Christ but I have no idea what it is. I don’t. Jesus promises eternal life in him. That’s enough. I don’t need to know what it is to know it’s real, it’s true, and it’s God’s gift. I don’t.

Lent reminds that we are a wandering people. Really, we are. For all our settledness, we are exiles. Grumbling, angry, hungry, thirsty, exhausted, anxious, and filled with sorrow. Exiles, carrying all we have with us. For the journey.

And then we meet Jesus. Minding our own business, we come across him, or he comes across us, and he invites us to come and see, to follow him, to feed his sheep, claims us as his own, because he knows us far better than we will ever know ourselves.

We follow Jesus because he calls. We follow, without really knowing what we’re following, only that it’s good news and we know Good News when it falls on our ears and fills up our hearts. We see signs and wonders and hear incredible things — we must be born again, with water and spirit, or we shall never enter the Kingdom of God! But how is that possible? What does it even mean?

And yet, every day, I get up, gather the manna that God has scattered as my daily bread on the ground, roll up my tent, and start walking, knowing God is there, that Jesus leads and guides and protects, pillar of cloud and fire. When Jesus tells me, be born of spirit and water and come into the Kingdom, I say, “see, here is water! What’s stopping us?”

When he tells me that the Son of Man must lifted up, and that whoever believes in him shall have eternal life, I gaze upon the glory of God crucified on that cross, the ultimate great deed of terror, and I say, “My Lord and My God!”

And I don’t understand. I follow, I believe, I trust, and it’s true, but I do not understand.

Abraham wandered his entire life. He never settled down. He never had a home. Sometimes, he was weak and vulnerable, and had to pretend his wife was his sister in order to save himself and those he cared for. And sometimes, he was a force to be reckoned with, and even went toe to toe with God in order to save a handful of righteous people in the sinful and inhospitable city of Sodom.

But he never had a home. He never had ground to call his own. And when his wife Sarah died, he had to bargain with a Hittite for a place to bury her.

It’s easier for some of us to imagine that life than others, I suspect. I find it easy. But then I’m a wanderer. Home is wherever I can pound a tent-peg in, water and graze my animals, snuggle with Jennifer, and maybe even rest for a few days.

But none of it matters. Because our real homes are not made of wood, or brick. The ground upon which we build, and live, and work, and love, bear our children and bury our dead, is not soil underneath our feet. All of it is Jesus. All of are wanderers because God’s people are wanderers. And all of us are home because we belong to Jesus, who lived with us, died with us, and rises, so that we may have everlasting life.


My Favorite Story from the Qur’an

While we’re on the subject of Satan, and the fall, I’d like to deal a bit with one of my favorite stories from the Qur’an al-Kareem, one of the Qur’an’s several versions of the fall of Man and the disobedience of Satan. This is from Surah al-Araf, The Heights, the seventh surah of the Qur’an.

The translation by Mohsin and Khan — my personal favorite, given how literal its non-parenthetical translation is — reads as follows:

11 And surely, We created you (your father Adam) and then gave you shape (the noble shape of a human being); then We told the angels, “Prostrate yourselves to Adam”, and they prostrated themselves, except Iblis (Satan), he refused to be of those who prostrated themselves.
12 (Allah) said: “What prevented you (O Iblis) that you did not prostrate yourself, when I commanded you?” Iblis said: “I am better than him (Adam), You created me from fire, and him You created from clay.”
13 (Allah) said: “(O Iblis) get down from this (Paradise), it is not for you to be arrogant here. Get out, for you are of those humiliated and disgraced.”
14 (Iblis) said: “Allow me respite till the Day they are raised up (i.e. the Day of Resurrection).”
15 (Allah) said: “You are of those respited.”
16 (Iblis) said: “Because You have sent me astray, surely I will sit in wait against them (human beings) on Your Straight Path.
17 “Then I will come to them from before them and behind them, from their right and from their left, and You will not find most of them as thankful ones (i.e. they will not be dutiful to You).”
18 (Allah) said (to Iblis): “Get out from this (Paradise), disgraced and expelled. Whoever of them (mankind) will follow you, then surely I will fill Hell with you all.”

What follows is the story of Adam and Huwwa’s temptation and fall. But this little exchange fascinates me, and tells me all I need to know about who and what Satan is. (Because it does not contradict a Bible story, or anything specific in scripture, I accept its moral legitimacy.)

Iblis (an Arabic version of diabolos, διάβολος, the term used in Matthew 4), is present with all the angels in heaven or paradise the moment God makes man from clay (طين). Sometime before, God made the angels and Iblis, and while it’s not said here what God made them from, Iblis claims to be made from fire (نار) — a fact he haughtily and arrogantly cites when he refuses the command of God that all the other created things bow before the Man.

Consider, for a moment, this scene. In Surah al-Baqara, another version of this is related. God has commanded the angels to bow before the man, the Angels question God. “Do you mean to fill the earth with these things that will cause mischief while we worship and adore you?” God dismisses the objection, teaches the man the names of all things, then asks the angels, who do not know. But here, there is no angelic objection, just a demand — all the beings God has created up to this point are commanded to bow, to grovel before the thing made of clay. And they do.

All but Iblis. Angel of jinn, it doesn’t matter (there is evidence in the Qur’an for both.)

“I am better than he!” (انا خير منه) Because Satan was made of fire, and fire is apparently better than clay.

At this point, God condemns Iblis. Leave paradise! You are finished!

And Iblis, for his part, doesn’t argue about this. “Hold off on that until the last day!” he demands. And God, in God’s mercy, agrees.

Further, Iblis then promises to lead astray any of the mud creatures as he possibly can, in order to teach God a lesson. This new creature, so dear to God (and who just seems to be standing there while all this happens), will prove to not love God anywhere near as much. And to not be anymore loyal to God than Iblis.

Fine, says God. I will fill Hell with all of you.

What intrigues me most is that Satan, from the moment of his rebellion against God, knows that he is doomed and defeated. He doesn’t argue with God — he merely asks for a postponement to his sentence, in order to work more mischief. But Iblis/Satan knows he is done. Knows he has been defeated and condemned.

So from this, it is pointless to follow Satan. Because then you are following one who has already lost and knows it. There can be no victory in following Satan, in falling for his temptations, because we are falling for one who has already lost, and in his desire to wreck some kind of vengeance upon God, promises to drag as many of these mud creatures with him as he can. (What follows next is the fall, but the qur’anic version always ends with Adam and Huwwa learning and speaking words of repentance to God, so this is not an Augustinian “original sin” moment so much as it is an attempt to deal with the human condition and create a foundation for humanity’s moral relationship with God for Muslims. To be fair, this is what Augustine does too.)

Satan has already lost, the story says. So only a fool follows Satan.

I take something similar from something Jesus says in John 16:

33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (ESV)

All of these things are important to me because I get a little tired of people saying we must struggle to overcome evil. The overcoming of evil has already been done, and too often the evil in question is usually outside ourselves. It resides in some other. Or it is in a pietistic denial of self, a demand for denial which leaves no room for the kind of “love of self” that a true love of neighbor requires. The Devil has already lost. He was defeated on the day he came into being. We need not fear him. The love of God, in the Son of God, has already overcome the world.

The Fall of Man and the Frustrating of Human Purpose

That’s a terrible title, I know. Sorry.

As I was preparing for my sermon this Sunday, I noticed something interesting in the Genesis 2-3 account of “the fall” of humanity. (I put that in quotation marks because not everyone sees it that way. I don’t believe most Jews do.)

God makes the man out of mud — mud formed, I think, from the soil of the ground and the mist that is in the air (it hasn’t rained yet) — breathes into him of his spirit, which makes the man alive. And then, in Gensis 2:15, God does the following:

The LORD God took the man kand put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (ESV)

So, the whole point of humanity’s existence — the man is humanity at this point — is to tend the garden.

God later says that the man shouldn’t be alone. God then makes a mess of animals, sets them before the man and he invents all sorts of wonderful and silly names for all the creatures God has just made. But it’s not enough. The man is still alone, however. The animals are swell, but not quite fit company to truly help the man. To truly be a companion. So, he put the man to sleep, does a bit of surgery, and makes a woman.

Her purpose, in this passage (this is a passage about purposes) is to keep the man company. To help him. To be a companion.

So, then there’s this snake, and an eating of fruit, and pretty soon, the man and the woman find themselves ashamed and embarrassed because they did something God told them not to do. And then come the curses. We’ll skip past the cursing of the serpent, noting only this is why girls are afraid of snakes (joke), and go to the heart of the matter in Genesis 3:16-19:

16 To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”   17 And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;  18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.  19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (ESV)

At first glance, it seems the curses are unequal. Even possibly unfair. The woman is cursed, but when God turns to the man, God curses the whole earth. The man himself is not actually cursed.

But consider the matter if we speak of created purposes. The Genesis passage seems clear — the man is created to tend the garden, the woman is created to be a companion and partner to the man. Her curse, then, frustrates that created purpose. It turns it into something that can, and often times will, be unpleasant, the source of much pain and suffering. She is no longer a partner, but her desire is changed, and the man shall rule over her. This is not nature, this is curse. That is, the way so many men and women organize their lives together is not what God originally created either for.

And in cursing the earth, God is frustrating the man’s purpose. He was made to tend a garden, a garden which required little work because it was full of so many good things to eat. (UPDATE: Or rather, the nature of work itself was changed, and work itself has become a curse, something human beings do in pain more than with joy.) Now, he will work hard, and often times pointlessly, to eke out a bare living from an uncooperative earth. (Thistles and thorns appear to be a product of the fall, if the text is to be taken literally…) By the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread. Again, this is not nature, it is curse.

So, we live in the curse. In which we have been alienated, by the man and the woman’s disobedience (Adam and Hawwa), from our created purposes. I don’t honestly know what other implications flow from this, and I won’t try too hard to build an entire edifice of theology on this scaffold. We are fools to think we can, through our own efforts, alter the curse at all (the earth remains at times terribly uncooperative and capricious, even with the gifts that science and mass industrial production have given us). And yet we can, as men and women, in moments, transcend the curse. Perhaps this is what the kingdom Jesus proclaims is all about.

The Devil is a Liar. But You Knew That Already…

My sermon for this Sunday, which I preached at First Lutheran in Harvey, Illinois. I ad-libbed a fair amount into this, but this text is the core of what I preached. The readings for the first Sunday in Lent from the Revised Common Lectionary are Genesis 2:15-17 & 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19 and Matthew 4:1-11.

* * *

Good morning, sisters and brothers. Let’s talk about Satan.

Jesus calls him a liar. In fact, Jesus calls him the “Father of Lies” in John 8. So, we know all we need to know about Satan. That he is a liar.

But there are all kinds of different ways to lie. So, I think it’s fair to ask — what kind of liar is he? What kind of lies does Satan tell?

So let’s take a look at the reading in Genesis this morning. God has made this garden, this amazing place, and created this man out of mud, breathing life into him. And put him to work, to tend the garden. That’s what the man was made for, to work and keep the garden.

And the man has free run of the place, and can eat anything he wants in this amazing place. Except for one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now, many clever people have asked: “Why would God do this? Why create the temptation?” And many clever people have tried to answer this, too. I want you to set that aside — the question is pointless and the answer is even more so. This story, and the Gospel, are about the human condition. And about God’s response to the human condition. Not about some imaginary, perfect world.

Okay, so God has told the man this tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is off limits. And there will be a price for eating of the tree — “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” In the Hebrew, it literally says — you shall die the death. It’s emphatic. It’s final. Death will be a consequence of eating.

How do we hear that? I’ll tell you what I see in my mind — I reach for the fruit, I grab it, I hold it my hand, maybe I smell it, and then I take a bite. And BAM! I keel over, dead. That’s how I hear “on that day you will surely die, you will die the death.”

Most likely, the man — who’s just been made, and doesn’t know very much — probably just nodded his head. You know, like a small child hearing stern words but not quite sure what they mean. I will die the death. Whatever die is. Whatever death is.

So we fast forward a bit, and suddenly a serpent — who we identify as the Devil, as Satan, as the adversary — shows up. God made a mess of animals to keep the man company, and finally he made a woman. And the serpents asks her, “So did God really tell you not to eat of that tree?”

“Yes,” she says. “We shall surely die if we do.”

This is where the Devil gets clever. “No, you won’t die. You’ll just be like God, knowing good and evil!” That’s what he says.

Now, brothers and sisters, let me ask you — did the Devil lie?

If by “on the day that you eat you shall surly die” means grab, smell, taste, die, then no, the Devil did not lie. In fact, if anything, God is a liar. Because the Devil goes on to tell the woman a very profound truth — you shall know good and evil, and in that, be like God.”

Is he right about that? The man and the woman suddenly realize they are naked, and do something about it.

But as to the consequences of eating, well, no one dies that day. In fact, the man and his wife are cast out of this garden — the man loses the very purpose for which he is created. The serpent is cursed, the woman is cursed, even the earth is cursed so that the very work man was created to do will become an unpleasant burden. None of those things God threatened or promised.

But no one dies that day.

Adam does die, after a very long life. And death becomes part of our existence. So, God did not lie. From that day on, we live, knowing we will die.

But we didn’t die that day. The Devil didn’t tell the truth, but he didn’t quite lie either. The Devil mixes lies with truth, and he speaks more to our weaknesses and expectations. Even our hopes and dreams.

Mostly, though, the Devil wants to make God out to be liar.

And this takes us to our Gospel reading today. Jesus is out in the wilderness, driven there after his baptism in the River Jordan by the Spirit of God for the very purpose of being tempted by the Devil. He’s hungry, he’s alone, and then the Devil comes to him.

“Hungry? Well, if you are Son of God, turn those stones to bread and eat your fill!”

And it must have been tempting for Jesus to do just that! Because he is the Son of God — this is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel anyone calls Jesus by that name, and it is the Devil who does it — and can do exactly what the Devil says he can do.

Use your power to solve your problems, the Devil says to Jesus.

And however Jesus answers — angrily, confidently, just barely able to restrain himself from succumbing to temptation — he tells the Devil, “no, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

So, not content with this, the Devil takes Jesus up to the top of temple. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off! You are so important to God that angels will come to rescue you.” And the Devil’s not content at this point to let Jesus do all the scripture quoting — the Devil can quote the Psalms too!

And I suspect Jesus looked down and thought to himself, “why not?” Who wouldn’t want to fly like that? Who wouldn’t want to tempt God? I’m going to fall – catch me!!

But Jesus restrains himself. Quoting the Torah, he says, “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

So, the Devil takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain and shows him all of the kingdoms of the world. “All of these are yours, if you just bow down and worship me.” Now, let’s assume for a moment the kingdoms of the world are the Devil’s to give — I think they are. I don’t think the Devil is lying when he makes this offer to Jesus. He hasn’t lied to Jesus yet, not really. Not about stones and bread, not about his value to God, and not about the kingdoms of the world.

And I imagine Jesus is also tempted by this. Just think — how much suffering, how much injustice, how much evil and violence could be done away with if the Son of God ruled the world? Jesus could do it differently. Jesus knows he could do it right. Not like Caesar or any of the world’s other rulers.

But the price — worshiping Satan — is too high. And Jesus knows his Torah. “Scram, Satan! You shall worship the Lord your God and him only you shall serve!”

And with that, the Devil absconds. Whether he’s angry or not, I do not know. Did he really believe he could tempt the Son of God? I suppose that’s possible.

But the reality is he did not. The church has taught that Jesus was obedient to the will of God when Adam and his wife were not. Perfect obedience. Sure, I’ll accept that. In resisting the temptations of Satan, Jesus becomes the obedience that Adam was unable to be. As Paul writes to the church at Rome, the sin that brought death into the world is undone here.

Honestly, though, I don’t think that’s all. Because something else happens here, in each of these temptations.

What does it mean to be fed? To tempt God? To rule the world? What are our expectations? A world full of bread, so no one goes hungry. A world in which everything is a Disneyland ride, and there are no real risks because everyone’s plucked from doom just before they hit the ground. In which the world is ruled by only good and decent people, power wielded justly and fairly.

Something else happens here. Something I cannot really name. I’m not even entirely sure how to describe it. Jesus doesn’t really resist the Devil’s temptations. I mean he does, but he doesn’t.

Jesus is the Word of God. But he becomes bread — our bread — when, in that rented room at the last supper, he breaks the bread and proclaims, “this is my body, given for you, do this in remembrance of me.” He becomes the bread that feeds the world.

And what else is his long journey to Jerusalem but the tempting of God? Yes, he constantly tells his disciples that he will die, and rise three days later, and they don’t believe it until after it happens. But maybe Jesus doesn’t either, not really. What else is his agonizing prayer in Gathsemane but a plaintive and pitiful demand that this end some other way, because Jesus doesn’t want to suffer, doesn’t want to die. Because it just might not end the way God promised.

And when the the chief priests, the scribes and the elders tell the crucified and dying Christ at Golgotha, “he saved others, he cannot save himself, let him come down off that cross and we will believe in him,” perhaps Jesus even wished, and hoped, prayed, for those angels to come down and save him. Right. Now.

“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? For just a moment, maybe even Jesus doubted the promise of God. Because those are words of despair, very real, complete and utter despair, of someone who had hoped and prayed and possibly even demanded this would have ended very differently. Words of someone who is about to hit the ground with no one to save him.

As for the kingdoms of the world, Jesus rules those. Each and every one of them. Not as Caesar, not as king, not a president, not as prime minister. He has no army, no police, no treasury, no constitution, has has no policy and np program. We want to give him a flag and a banner, and march triumphantly under them as they flutter and wave, but he doesn’t have those either. He rules by surrendering, he ruled by calling, he rules through love. His rule is not what we — or maybe even Jesus himself at times — expect rule to be like.

In each of these temptations, he says no to the Devil’s way of doing things — a way that makes sense to me. Feed the world? Wouldn’t we turn stones to bread if we could? Tempt God carelessly if we could? Rule the world — because we’d do it right!

Everyone of these things Jesus shows there’s a different way, his way, God’s way, to do things. And he does them. Because we cannot. I can’t be bread. I can’t tempt God knowing that my death on the cross will save the world, will right the wrong of Adam’s disobedience. And I cannot rule in humility and love. None of us can.

Jesus does these things for us. He invites us to participate in his reign, in his kingdom, his rule. In our baptism into his death and resurrection, we become part of this new way of obeying God, of being God’s people. We, each and every one of us, shares in his hunger, his resisting of temptation, his body that is bread, his death that saves the world, his rule that is humility, poverty, powerlessness and love. And this is what makes it possible for us to follow when he calls, to live as his lived, to love as he loves, to die as he died knowing that death is not the final answer. That we will rise as he rose. Because he rose, we will rise.

That life eternal — the promise of God — is real. And true. It is not a lie. Regardless of what the Devil may tell us.

Elisha and Hazael -or- One Biblical Response to War and Suffering

There’s a little story in 2 Kings, one of the Elisha stories, that absolutely fascinates me.

7 Now Elisha came to Damascus. Ben-hadad the king of Syria was sick. And when it was told him, “The man of God has come here,”  8 the king said to Hazael, “Take a present with you and go to meet the man of God, and inquire of the LORD through him, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’”  9 So Hazael went to meet him, and took a present with him, all kinds of goods of Damascus, forty camel loads. When he came and stood before him, he said, “Your son Ben-hadad king of Syria has sent me to you, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’”  10 And Elisha said to him, a“Go, say to him, ‘You shall certainly recover,’ but the LORD has shown me that he shall certainly die.”  11 And he fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was embarrassed. And the man of God wept.  12 And Hazael said, “Why does my lord weep?” He answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel. You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women.”  13 And Hazael said, “What is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?” Elisha answered, “The LORD has shown me that you are to be king over Syria.”  14 Then he departed from Elisha and came to his master, who said to him, “What did Elisha say to you?” And he answered, “He told me that you would certainly recover.”  15 But the next day he took the bed cloth and dipped it in water and spread it over his face, till he died. And Hazael became king in his place. (2 Kings 8:7-15, ESV)

Where to start?

What I find most fascinating about this story are verses 11 and 12. “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel. You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women,” Elisha says to Hazael. He sees, perhaps in a vision, or perhaps simply because he grasped Hazael’s character, the violence that Hazael will do to Israel — to God’s people — once he becomes king of Syria.

And what does Elisha do?

He cries.

No press conference. No demand for a pre-emptive strike. No war without end. No condemnations. Not even any warnings, so far as we are told. Just a tear. Or two. Because he sees the suffering that’s coming. Suffering that likely comes — Hazael makes much war against Israel in subsequent chapters of 2 Kings — though Elisha’s vision is all we get in the way of details.

Hazael, as king of Syria, will wage horrific war, kill women and babies. He will kill unborn children. Again, the writer(s)/editor(s) of 2 Kings say this comes to pass because “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel” (2 Kings 13:3). Hazael appears to die a natural death, and his son appears to lose much of what Hazael conquered. So it goes.

Oh, and Amos calls down doom upon “the house of Hazael” and “the strongholds of Ben-Hadad” (Amos 1:4).

But that’s it.

It’s an important story. Because much of our modern theological conversation about evil demands that those who are “self-identified” good people must act. To stop horrific evil. Such as the evil Elisha clearly see Hazael ready to perpetuate.

But nothing of the sort happens in scripture. If Elisha does anything, it isn’t said here. Hazael leads an army, an army that inflicts much death and destruction. And this is seen as God’s judgement on Israel for its idolatry (1 Kings 12:25-33). The Assyrians would later conquer Israel, and its people would vanish. (Actually, no, they would become Samaritans.) Now, we tend not to see God’s judgement at work that way, and when we do, it’s generally to make tawdry political points. Because that seems to be all we’re capable of anymore.

It speaks to the pointlessness of our ethics. Our ethics demand the exercise of our power because they assume the exercise of power. Our ethics assume power. We don’t know what to do when we don’t have any. Elisha is not powerless — the episode in 2 Kings 6 when he strikes an entire Syrian army blind, but only to mislead them, not to defeat them — shows what power Elisha has. He could have easily dealt with Hazael had he wanted to. But his is the power of the prophet — the one who pronounces the word of God. He leads a Syrian army into a trap, and then commands mercy. And a feast. It’s not a permanent peace, but there is no permanent peace this side of the eschaton.

Elisha not only foretold the coming awfulness, in a way, he also anoints the man — an Assyrian leader, no less, one of the enemy’s, one of the oppressor’s, commanders — as king who will inflict that awfulness. It’s a strange tale, one that leaves our ethical sense reeling a bit.

And that is the point, I think. Sure, Hazael will be one of many imperfect instruments of God’s justice upon God’s people. But this is not an easy book of moral tales, a guide to good behavior, recipes on how to do right and succeed at life. It is the story of God’s people in all its wonder and brutality.

It is our story. We need it because of the wonder. And the brutality.

Because It’s Not About God Anymore

Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative asks the following:

What is the point of going to seminary if you don’t believe in God? What is the point of having a seminary that trains clergy who don’t know if they believe in God, but do know that they believe in destroying the tradition?

Well, being a graduate of a mainline seminary — The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago — and a candidate for ministry in a liberal Christian confession — The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — I think I can answer this question.

The first has to do with doubt. Sometime in the mid-20th century, you could not be an intellectually serious theologian or cleric without doubting. You weren’t thoughtful if you didn’t doubt. This was true of Protestants as well as Catholics (the Orthodox never got with the program in this). Doubt was essential because certainty had given us Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Stalin and Hitler. Certainty had given us the H-Bomb and the willingness to use it (and the film Atomic Cafe has more than its fair share of clips of confident and certain clergymen encouraging the use of the H-Bomb to annihilate communism — and communists).

But part of this was also the limits of humanist theology that had so dominated Christian thinking since at least the 17th century. It was a theology that had embraced modernity on modernity’s terms, looking more to philosophers than to biblical story to answer broad questions about human nature, good, evil, salvation, and the whole point of human existence. Such theology had begun breaking down during the First World War, but it had no idea whatsoever how to answer the methodical and industrialized mass killing and destruction of the Second World War. Where was God in all this? It seemed that God had abandoned the world, that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were right about the silence and the abyss.

The God of the Liberal Christians, a God of comfort and order — and this included many confessions and denominations that call themselves socially and politically conservative — simply had nothing to say. Why believe in such a God? Doubt was a logical, natural, and even reasonable response.

(And yet such a God was still taught. The very God we doubt is the only God we know how to deal with…)

There’s a scene in the BBC comedy Rev. — I forget which episode — in which Nigel is going before the bishops board to seek approval for ordination. He’s told, by Rev. Smallbone I think, to doubt. “But not too much.” It goes badly, largely because the character of Nigel is incapable of really doubting anything. But the point is — a thoughtful cleric is also a cleric who doubts. At least a little.

Now, this isn’t anywhere near as true as it once was. However, we live in the long shadow of mid-20th century doubt. I’ve met few doubters myself, but I understand they are out there. But the presence of doubt was so central to the established churches of the mainline that its acceptance is part of the landscape now.

The second has to do with the professionalization of the clergy beginning in the late 19th century. Professionals are people who are have specialized education or training, apply some amount of scientific rigor to the work they do, and are somewhat (at least outwardly) emotionally detached from their work. Professionalism is the ethos by which mass industrialized civilization is administered. The clergy, in this arrangement, became responsible for managing the souls and morals of society, and were somewhere between social workers and teachers as members of a “helping profession.” The whole point of this management was to make society run better, more smoothly.

Well, this arrangement has broken down — who need clergy anymore to manage souls and morals? But we’re still expected to be members of the “helping professions,” only now we’re all somewhere between social workers and community organizers. And who needs God to organize people? Or to agitate for “social justice”?

At the root of this is the loss of the biblical story as our story, as the story of God’s called and redeemed people. The Bible usually gets lost in systematic theology, and that was as true of the Protestant systematizers in the 17th century as it was of the Aquinas and the Catholic systematizers of the 12th and 13th centuries. Faith gets reduced to a series of abstract propositions. But God is not an abstraction. Israel encountered a very real God, a God who yanked them out of Egypt in terror and mass death, a God who appeared in cloud and fire at Sinai, a God who redeemed God’s people time and again in the midst of their suffering. The disciples met a very real God, a God present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who called fishermen and tax collectors “follow me” and who knew, in that moment, God had reached into their lives and nothing about those lives would be the same again.

I am a biblical theologian. I have little use for systematic theology, for scholastic theology, for the edifice of natural law (I find most of it unbiblical anyway), for the impressive but incredibly lifeless cathedral that is the intellectual heritage of the church. It’s one thing for Christians to talk to each other in terms of philosophy — whether that philosophy is Aristotle or Immanuel Kant — but to think we have anything to say to the world that it doesn’t already know using that language is plain foolishness.

We’re wasting our time and our energy doing anything but telling the story of God’s love for God’s people Israel, especially as made known to us in the person — in the life, death and resurrection — of Jesus Christ.

We stopped telling that story, instead focusing on tiny bits to support that impressive but cathedral of “doctrine,” thinking that somehow right doctrine would save us. (Which is why we built that cathedral in the first place.) We only tell it anymore to either get rules or moral inspiration. (I’m always shocked at just how poorly many conservative Christians know the actual story.) But that story is no longer who we are. It no longer gives us meaning. Instead, our theologians resort to pointless abstraction and philosophizing, too many people wallow in sentimentality, and not enough people know, really know, Jesus rose from the dead. When I say we surrendered to modernity, we did — our story is now taken from the social sciences, from literature, from media, from the civic faith, from high-falutin’ ideas bounced around by philosophers. Everywhere but from the Bible, the only place where the story of God’s love for God’s people, for the redemption of Israel, for the coming into the world of Jesus of Nazareth to live, and die, and rise again among us, who calls us to follow can be found.

So why is it necessary for clergy to believe in God? It’s a nice fringe benefit, really, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Jesus stopped being important long, long ago.