Yes, You Can Party with the Heathen

kids together on beach
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/rnugraha/247871593/">Riza Nugraha</a>

Romans 15:7-13

Welcome each other, just as Jesus did right by God when he welcomed you. As I say, Jesus came helping to those who cut their foreskins off in order to prove their faithfulness to ancestral laws, so that the heathen wouldn’t have to do that to be considered faithful, so even the heathen can do right by God. The sacred writings say:

So I will thank you among the heathen,
And sing your name out loud.

And,

Join the celebration with God’s people.

And,

Extol God, all you heathen,
And everyone everywhere extol God.

And Isaiah says,

The root of Jesse’s family tree will come up
And will lead the heathen,
And shall renew their hope.

May the God of hope make your hope abound with joy and peace, and may God’s spirit empower you.

Even the heathen can do right by God!

That’s saying quite a bit, given that the heathen, by definition, don’t believe in God. Still they can do right. By God! And this coming from Paul, no less!

If Paul could recognize that those outside the faith can do right by God, why is it that so many who claim that these words are their words to live by, can’t?

If Paul can recognize that what Jesus did was aimed at welcoming those whose faith was different than his own, why can’t the church?

Going to extremes like cutting your foreskin off to show how faithful you are is no longer necessary. So you’d think that Christians could do as the sacred writings say. Party with the heathen. Invite the heathen to celebrate with the believers. Everyone is welcome. Hope is not limited to a narrow sect.

And regardless of your religious persuasion, may your hope abound with joy and peace.
And may you be empowered.

How You Get Through when Things Fall Apart

life magazine, German ruins1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

You don’t need anyone telling you when all this will happen, friends. You already know that it will be like a thief in the night. When people say “peace and security,” that’s when it’ll hit. It’s just as inevitable as a pregnant woman going into labor. But because you’re not living the night life, the thief won’t surprise you. You’re children of light. For you it’s always daytime, never night. So don’t fall asleep, but stay awake and sober. Those who sleep, sleep at night. Those who drink, drink at night. But you’re daytime people, sober people. Arm yourselves with faith and love, and protect your head with hope.

God’s anger isn’t meant for you. God’s intention is to spare you that. That’s what Jesus’ death was about: keeping us alive, whether we’re awake or asleep. So, keep on cheering each other up.

Of course, except for the quotation about the thief in the night, none of this is true.

  • People take naps.
  • The Thessalonians were just as flawed as the rest of us.
  • People drink around the clock.
  • And Jesus never claimed any of this about his dying to spare his followers persecution, let alone God’s wrath.

In fact, Jesus said just the opposite: “If they did it to me, they’ll do it to you.”

So what use is this passage? Two salvageable bits:

  1. Bad times are sure to come, and often when you least expect them. And especially when overconfidence is the flavor of the day. It happens in markets: dot-com bubble, housing bubble. It happens in government: “mission accomplished.” It happens in religious life: crystal cathedral. It’s no use arguing about whether these ups and downs are divine punishment. Sometimes they are consequences of one’s actions, but just as often, they’re just part of living on the planet. Expect them.
  2. Three of the best ways of dealing with bad times are by responding with faith, hope and love. Even if you did deserve what you got, but especially if you didn’t. Keeping your commitments, keeping your chin up, and reaching out to help someone else get through it. These things go a long way toward improving a bad situation sooner than it otherwise would on its own, alleviating the some of the suffering, and sometimes, keep things from being a lot worse.

How Empires Are Undone

Exodus 14:19-31

The Red Sea Parting
Frame from The Ten Commandments, 1956

God’s avatar, a great dark pillar of cloud, moved from the front of Israel’s camp to interpose itself behind them, between the Israelites and the pursuing Egyptian armies. The cloud remained there separating the two camps through the night, so dark that even the night seemed bright.

Moses stretched his hand over the sea, and God drove the sea back by the power of the east wind, splitting the water until dry land appeared. The Israelites walked through the sea, a great sea-wall on either side. The Egyptians, in hot pursuit, went in after them with everything they had – crack troops, tanks, artillery. As morning approached, God looked down on the Egyptians from the top of the storm cloud and threw them into panic. God caused their equipment to fail, so they were stuck. The Egyptians said, “We’ve got to get out of here. God is on their side against us.

Then God said to Moses, “Stretch your hand over the sea to close the water over the Egyptians, their weapons and their troops. So Moses stretched his hand over the sea. As the morning broke, the sea-walls closed over the Egyptians. As they fled, the Egyptians were drowned. Not one of them who had followed the Israelites into the sea passage, neither man nor machine, survived. But the Israelites all made it through between the sea-walls, without even getting their feet wet.

That was the day God freed the Israelites from the Egyptians. Seeing the Egyptians’ dead bodies washing up on the shore, they were amazed that God’s power had outmatched the world’s most powerful fighting forces. They stood in awe. In that moment, they believed what Moses had told them about God.

For all its hokey technicolor naivete, the Charlton Heston movie really does get the image right with the wall of water thing. It’s exactly the picture the story gives. Scholars debate whether there is a plausible natural explanation: it was actually a shallow “sea of reeds” near the Nile delta, not the red sea; there were tidal forces at work. Back and forth over whether it could have really happened. On it goes.

But the whole point is that there is not and cannot be any plausible natural explanation for it. The point of the story (and it’s a story) is that God orchestrated a miraculous escape, that the laws of nature were suspended to allow an oppressed people to be free and to deal an invincible empire catastrophic and unmitigated defeat.

Drawing from ancient mythic traditions, this passage came into its current form during the Hebrews’ captivity in Babylon. It was the story that enabled them to hang on until, for reasons quite beyond themselves, the empire fell and they were set free. The story is the wish-dream of every oppressed people for a miraculous escape and for the defeat of their oppressors. As such, it speaks to the imagination, not to the history books. And it’s purpose is to inspire hope, not debate. Particularly, it gives hope to those for whom the capacity to free themselves is impossibly out of reach.

One might think that a story like this, bringing hope to the hopeless, is a cruel kind of trick, a sham. But in fact, it is vindicated by the fact that sooner or later, for reasons that are entirely unforeseen, empires fall. It was so with Egypt, Babylon, China, Greece, Rome, Spain, England, Japan, Germany. And it’s no less true of today’s empires. Hang on long enough, and eventually it will fall. Call it the hand of God if you like.

But to hang on long enough people need hope against the humanly impossible. That’s what this story is about. Every empire is doomed to destruction by its own hubris when it thinks that its tanks, artillery and crack troops can solve all its problems.