5 Epiphany, A 2020: Cause & Effect, Not Crime & Punishment

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I don’t really know
where to go with Isaiah and Matthew today.
They are so anti-Christian,
or at least “anti”
Puritan-Capitalist-Civil Religion brand of Christianity
that passes for a Gospel faith these days.
(Not to put too fine a point on it).

Let me just to cut to the chase.
Isaiah, speaking for God, is basically saying,
“Look, if you want me to listen to you;
if you want me to DO anything for you…
THEN share your bread with the hungry;
THEN bring the homeless into your house;
THEN clothe those who need it;
THEN satisfy the needs of the afflicted.
You do that
THEN when you call me, I will be there.
You do that
THEN when you screw up, I will be there.
You do that
THEN your life,
and the very memory of your life,
will shine on and on and on and on.”

Notice the “If…then.”
God is conditional,
at least according to Isaiah and Matthew.

Mathew is even more direct about it than Isaiah:
“For I tell you,
unless your righteousness exceeds
that of the scribes and Pharisees –
(think lawyers and preachers) –
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Now how Neanderthal is that!
We don’t like that kind of talk.
We like the soft, cushy, therapeutic
American culture of empowerment language
that discourages conditional relationships.
“Come on,
Isaiah and Matthew,
you’re going to give us a complex.”

Don’t get me wrong,
I am as modernist as anyone here,
and I get the problem we have with conditionality;
but when it comes to our religion,
conditionality gets ignorantly labeled
as the “Old Testament God.”

There is no “Old Testament” God
in contrast to a kinder, gentler “New Testament God.”
That is a Sunday School falsehood.

In order to make such a contrast
we have to utterly ignore the deep compassion
and mercy-loving God of the Hebrew text,
and then close our ears
to the vengeful and threatening God
of the New Testament.

The fact is, we have a multi-dimensional God
that cannot be segregated into
Old Testament and New Testament
without amputation.
What we do have,
in both the so-called “Testaments,”
is the image of a deeply wise God
that understands human nature
with exquisite if painful, depth and clarity.

Well, I’ve gone this far –
I might as well go the distance
and be an apostate
by uttering this modern blasphemy:

There is no such thing as unconditional love
or unconditional relationships.
The notion of unconditional love
or an unconditional relationship
is pure fantasy –
or delusion, whichever you prefer.

Who in their right mind,and that is an important distinction,
would unconditionally accept any kind of abuse,
betrayal or deceit?
No one…not in their right mind.

I don’t think there is anything
that could ever cause me to stop caring for
and wanting the best for my children,
but there are roads they could journey down
on my relationship with them.
That is what “tough love” is all about,
and having been an addict myself
I know how self-centered
and abusive a person can be.

Relationships are based upon conditions,
and should be.
Love, among the saintliest of us,
may not meet a final condition
but behavior certainly can and should be conditional.
The prophets, among whom I include Jesus,
were quite perceptive
in their understanding of God.

They understood that God loves us,
probably unconditionally
as indeed we are the fruit of her womb.
But they also understood that God
set out conditions for our relationship:
“If you do this, I will do this…”.
They understood those conditions,
not as “crime and punishment”
but as “cause and effect.”

I want us to stop and think about the differences
in those two kinds of conditionality –
crime and punishment
verses cause and effect.

We hear godly conditions set down
and reject themas crime and punishment,
and label such talk as “primitive” and “Old Testament.”

But setting limits on God’s relationship with us
is not small-minded or punitive;
it is the law of natural consequences,
a law governing all of Nature…the entire Cosmos.
If we engage in this kind behavior,
God promises,
then these kinds of things will happen
and life will be good for us.

If we engage in those other behaviors
then those other things will happen
and it will not go so well for us.

There are consequences to our actions
and our inaction, and just because God loves us
does not mean we will be protected from the consequences of our choices.
What “the law and the prophets” do,
beginning in Exodus and continuing
right through to Matthew,
is NAME the conditions on our relationship with God
and the consequences of our actions and inaction.

It isn’t crime and punishment,
it isn’t tit-for-tat and small-minded,
it isn’t churlish and vindictive…
it is a matter-of-fact description
of the nature of things.

For example, we have known for centuries
that if we poison or over-use a particular ecosystem
then it will be destroyed.

We have known that when we destroy an ecosystem,
it can take centuries and centuries, if ever,
for the restoration of its balance to take place.

Yet here we are in 2020,
still resisting limitations
on our life-styles and consumption
even though we know – we KNOW –
that climate change is a fact.

That is a clear and simple example
of suffering the consequences of our actions
and inaction.
God will not miraculously save us
from our selfish gluttony.
God WILL continue to provide
and scripture
and communities
that offer us alternatives.

That is what God does – God keeps reaching out,
keeps hoping
keeps encouraging us to change
and return to live within the conditions
of our relationship with the planet
and one another

Even that old Adam and Eve myth of creation
has this element to it.
When God allows Adam and Eve to suffer
the consequences of their behavior, even then,
God continues to reach out to them
and offer help and support
in their new situation.

But our sad little Puritan, Capitalist, 21st century
incarnation of Christianity,
prefers to talk about God’s unconditional love
and the warm-fuzzies
of God’s healing and care.

Or, the most outrageous spiritual lie of them all,
the prosperity gospel that says God will bless us
with material success and good juju
if we do what the preacher says.

Okay, I said it.
It’s done now.

Truly, I do not know for sure
if enough people will come to a church like this one –
where Isaiah and Matthew
are allowed to speak for themselves.
It is an experiment to be sure.

But I do know
that being honest
and allowing the Bible,
both Old and New
to speak for itself…is liberating.

I do know,
that when Isaiah and Matthew are allowed
to speak for themselves,
something powerful can happen.

I don’t know
if there are enough people
who seek that kind of power?

But I do know,
that those that do
encounter something unexpected,
and that the encounter
can change lives.

I don’t know
if little communities like Trinity Place
coming to terms with the actual
conditionality of our lives
can make a difference
and turn the world around.

But I do know
that hoping we can
and having the courage and tenacity to try
makes the conditions we live within
seem more tolerable.

So, all of that brings us to baptismal ministry –
which, if you have forgotten or fallen asleep,
is our theme for Epiphany.

A “Covenant” is a relationship of promises –
it is unselfconsciously
a conditional relationship.
It is based upon promises:
“If we try, persevere, and act…
then God will…”

Please, then, let us hear the promises
of our Baptismal Covenant
and compare them
to the poem we heard from Isaiah,
and compare them
to the exclamations we heard in Matthew.
I think,
I am pretty doggone sure,
that you will hear them echoing one another
all the way through.

So, you see,
even though it is not what we want,
we don’t have an unconditional relationship with God.
If we are honest and wise,
we do not have an unconditional relationship
with anyone.
And that is a good thing.

Relationships contain promises
and they contain conditions,
and when those promises and conditions
are not met,
then there are consequences
whether we name them
or acknowledge them or not.

One of the promises embedded
in the community of Trinity Place
is that we are open, inclusive and challenging.
What that means
is that we do not offer sugar-frosted gospel here.
We at least try to name
and acknowledge
the conditions and promises
we have heard
in such voices as Exodus, Isaiah, and Matthew.

We will not always fulfill the promise of
openness, inclusion, and challenge
but I am hopeful that when we fail
we will recognize it,
acknowledge it,
and try harder.

Like I said, I do not know if there are really enough people
living in and around Geneva
who want to be part of a spiritual community like this,
but I do know
that I am grateful for the people that do.
And I do know
that whenever people seek this place out
and then become part of it,
they honor all of us.

That’s my take on spiritual community
and I’m sticking to it.