Archive for the ‘Eighth Bundle’ Category

MATTHEW 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Jesus pronounced an exceptional blessing on those who are inwardly spacious, accepting on themselves the full burden of existence, living without a sense of entitlement, pursuing honesty and integrity, reaching out and helping others in need, cultivating pure and wholesome motives, and who are working diligently and patiently for peace.

Once again, we can detect a progression here. From inside to outside, the blessed and truly happy person is one who is deeply rooted in God and compassionately involved in the world. If this is Jesus’ definition of “true religion,” then it is curiously absent of orthodoxy and ceremony – the twin forces that hold together the system of conventional religion.

But there is a price.

Since conventional religion rolls along smoothly so long as its members remain sufficiently entranced, the presence of even one awakened person who sees through all the mystification and pageantry is an intolerable threat. Soon questions will be asked and curiosity will be aroused.

And if these are not checked and thrown under judgment early enough, doubts will arise and the methods for enforcing conformity – catechism for the young and unison creeds for the standing congregation – will be exposed for the propaganda devices they are. The authoritarian system is debunked when just one dissident speaks up for truth. Actually, instead of always leading to disillusionment and collapse, this can be a moment of revelation and revival.

                                                                                  

In retrospect we can see that, while Jesus gave his full attention to the promise of individual awakening, his longer vision was of a community of such enlightened and liberated persons who together can change the world. The full picture of this salvation process reveals the shape of a circle, beginning with the individual’s complete immersion in the collective habits and beliefs of the tribe. This is the place of conventional religion.

Upon the moment of awakening, which may break suddenly or else gather more slowly over time with the accumulation of questions, doubts, and discoveries, the individual is granted a new perspective. The center of meaning shifts from the shared environment of traditions, symbols, rituals and myths, into the inner space of a deepening spirituality.

This is where the all-important “individuative-reflective” stage in faith development takes place, focusing with great intensity on the emergent need for a personal, relevant, and more mystically grounded worldview.

Finally – and this brings us full-circle, though many who make it this far choose at this point to opt out of “organized religion” altogether – the awakened one returns to the group to help in the formation of spiritual community, the corporate life of radical grace, universal compassion, and unconditional forgiveness.

But as we’ve said, conventional religion itself (and conventional society as a whole) resists and will even try to violently suppress the one who seeks the transcendent flame of truth. Better to keep that flame at a distance, framing it in our theologies and worshipping it in our sanctuaries.

If you should dare throw yourself into identity with it, as Jesus did, you’d better expect trouble with the authorities!

1 CORINTHIANS 1:18-31

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards,not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

The complex systems of philosophy that religion constructs in its pursuit of a comprehensive worldview have often wandered into the fabulous and bazaar. Mythical beings, metaphysical dimensions, and elaborate theories of immortality of the transmigration of the soul can strain the limits of logic and common sense.

But then again, that shouldn’t surprise us. The primary language of religion is more imaginative than intellectual. There is nothing inherently wrong with such musings, and the exquisite world pictures described in the religions are successful for many in getting them connected to a universe of higher meaning.

What Paul observed, however, is the way that all this “wisdom” can so fascinate and occupy us that we float off the earth and away from the real situations of life. So what if there are seven realms of angels surrounding the throne of God, or infinite Buddha-fields in the dimensionless expanse of nirvana – how does that help me “work out my salvation” (a phrase of Paul’s) in the face of today’s challenges.

Yes, it is helpful to know that I’m not alone in this sometimes crazy world, and that a greater wisdom is available to me if only I can transfer the focus of my awareness to a point beyond the urgencies of this moment. But how do I find my way back? And how can all of this help me become more authentic, more present to my life?

The “way back” for Paul was represented in the cross of Christ, the image of Jesus dying for the sake of his gospel.

                                                                                  

Now, lest we think that Paul had a morbid obsession with torture and death, we must proceed into his theory of the cross with patience and care. To start with, it is imperative to know that, for Paul, the cross of Christ did not stand in utter isolation as the vertical axis around which world salvation turned.

He understood it, as it must be understood, in the light of Jesus’ message and life. Without that context the cross can easily take on an almost magical power, or else get appropriated into a theory that completely contradicts the spirit and teaching of Jesus’ gospel.

The cross as a talisman for warding off evil is a popular superstition still today, and atonement theories that interpret the crucifixion as serving to placate God’s anger and pay sin’s penalty are also prevalent among the mainline traditions of Christian orthodoxy. In each case, the way to understanding the cross of Christ as “the power and wisdom of God” is abandoned for something far less demanding.

The great revelation that came through Jesus had to do with the superiority of love in its aspect of compassion. Compassion is not love from a distance, or love in the abstract, or love on principle. It is love that “suffers with” another under the conditions of pain, brokenness, or bereavement. Jesus revealed the heart of God to be compassion, which to him meant that God is fully present with us in our struggle.

The “power and wisdom” of God’s compassion hang on the cross in the midst of our world.

PSALM 15

O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

This can sound a lot like “works righteousness,” a term used by Protestants against what has been perceived as the merit system of Catholic Christianity. Even though the list of virtues is unarguably beyond the abilities of any of us – who can “live blamelessly,” do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart all the time? – are we being led to believe that moral performance is the key to eternal life?

Actually, this is yet another place where religion has reversed the proper order of cause and effect in the spiritual life. We must not assume that the psalmist is a booster for works righteousness (just as it is wrong to assume every Catholic is).

More likely, and if the writer of this particular psalm is David, then almost certainly the “good behaviors” that are listed and praised are to be understood as manifestations of a healthy communion with God, rather than as prescriptions for getting in God’s good company. Causal order in the spiritual life is always inner to outer, soul into body, purity of heart bearing fruit in a life of moral commitments.

We might say that the shift by which a person becomes aware that life must be lived from the inside-out is the critical step from religious duty to spiritual calling. It’s no longer about fitting in, defending the tradition, bowing to orthodoxy, or “pleasing God,” but is instead about living authentically, loving expansively, and allowing the gracious presence of Spirit to live through you.

MICAH 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

One of the dangers that religion has had an impossible time avoiding is the temptation to think that its sacred symbols, ritual performances, and doctrinal formulations somehow qualify its members for God’s special favor.

The elaborate superstructure of religious tradition, architecture, and orthodoxy can become so impressive as to eclipse the metaphysics of spirit altogether. Consequently the holy Mystery and gracious Presence at the heart of all things can get lost in a view obstructed by the self-glorification of a belief system.

As often as religion has fallen to this temptation of an inflated self-importance, there have thankfully arisen the clear lights of men and women who knew better. In the biblical narrative we can find Abraham stepping away from the polytheistic practices of his countrymen, Moses grinding up the golden calf idol of the impatient Israelites, Amos exposing the systemic violence and inhumanity in the government programs of his day, and later Jesus defending human dignity and demonstrating God’s love in the face of a religion too fixated on being right to be concerned with doing good.

The prophet Micah was another one of these clear lights. In his day (a rough contemporary of Amos in the southern nation of Judah) so much of religion had collapsed into becoming little more than blind ceremony. People had been made to believe that giving the right sacrifice, on the right day, and in the right way, earned them merit in God’s eyes.

                                                                                  

What are sacrifices – and, we might add, what are buildings, writings, rituals, sacred objects, appointed officials, liturgies, and even tradition itself – but the “mechanics” of spirituality?

None of these things are that mystical current of creative power and love we call Spirit. Their role is to serve as vehicles for Spirit, icons of Spirit, witnesses to Spirit, and even bearers of Spirit, but never its substitutes or permanent containers. The problem, of course, is that Spirit is essentially ineffable (beyond words) and our brain (at least our left brain) is incessantly verbal.

Add to that the ingredient of our egos – that nervous bundle of insecure, guilt-ridden, and control-fixated self-consciousness – and you have the recipe for fundamentalism. Soon enough, we have made God in our own image: self-righteous, judgmental, vengeful and violent.

As one who “speaks for” God (Gk. prophetes), Micah confronted the dying system of his religion with the fresh winds of spirituality. What does God want of you, but to work for equality, practice charity, and cultivate your relationship with Spirit? Notice how these virtues and disciplines fit together in an organic whole: our journey deeper into God produces loving-kindness in us, which seeks to build a safe, fair, and just society for all.