Sunday, May 5, 1995

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Deuteronomy 29:10-29
John 29:13-25

And the Lord rooted them out of their land in anger and in wrath and in great indignation,

and cast them into another land, as it is this day.

Deuteronomy 29:28

Last week's mail brought an ad for a book that looks intriguing. It is called God: A

Biography, and apparently goes through the Old Testament treating the figure of God

strictly as a character in a drama--"variously powerful yet powerless, savage yet gentle,

endlessly subtle, yet mysteriously naive." The author, Jack Miles, says,

I write here about the life of the Lord God as--and only as--the protagonist of a classic

of world literature; namely, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. I do not write about

(though I certainly do not write against) the Lord God as the object of religious belief.

I do not attempt, as theology does, to make an original statement about God as an

extraliterary reality. . . . God does have a first and a last appearance in the Hebrew

Bible. We see him first as the creator, outside history, prior to it, masterfully setting

in motion the heavenly bodies by which historical time will be measured. We see him last

as the "Ancient of Days," white-haired and silent, looking forward to the end of history

from a remote and cloudy throne. This book becomes a biography of a special sort by dint

of its determination to describe the middle that lies between so vigorous a beginning and

so quiescent an end.

It should make interesting reading. By treating God simply as a character in a book, not

asking whether the book is fact or fiction, Miles should be able to take a fresh look at

what the Old Testament--Swedenborg's "literal sense"--actually says. This is hard for us

to do when we read with our theological glasses on, so to speak. In a sense, Swedenborg is

telling us that there is a difference between what God actually says and what we hear, and

that the Bible records what people have heard. Since our primary interest is in

understanding what God intends to say, we tend to "read past" the literal statements.

Our reading from Deuteronomy was chosen as a sample, and the issue comes to focus in our

text. "And the Lord rooted them out of their land in anger and in wrath and in great

indignation, and cast them into another land, as it is this day." We know that there is no

wrath in God, so we do not take this literally. This is "an appearance of truth." This is

the way things looked to people who were all too familiar with their own anger. This is

how they understood their own past.

Perhaps, though, we are a little too quick to "explain things away." The Russian

theologian Nicholas Berdyaev wrote, "The greatest sin of the age is to make the concrete

abstract." The Biblical story is telling about an army coming in and driving people out of

their homes. It is talking about killing and burning on a scale that dwarfs the fire that

has been such a huge event in the life of this church. There was nothing "abstract" or

"theological" about it at the time. The "appearance" of divine wrath was very real, very


Some liberation theologians take these stories concretely enough to be distressed by them

and respond by virtually writing them out of their historical reconstructions. They wind

up telling a story not of conquest but of indigenous peasants rebelling against Canaanite

oppression. There are suggestions that some Canaanites joined the Israelites--the story of

the Gibeonites in the ninth chapter of Joshua is the most obvious example--but this is a

minor theme. The story as told is one of warfare, military conquest, "naked aggression,"

if you will. There is not much that is noble about it. It does not present us with a model

of behavior that we can adopt.

What can we say that does not gloss over the ugliness of aggression or attribute it to

God? We might start by saying that the Bible is in many ways painfully realistic. There is

a great deal of destructiveness in our world, and we have an extraordinary talent for

finding excuses for it. Bob Kirven is fond of remarking that some of the most terrifying

people he has met have been people who knew God's will. They could drive straight toward

their goals no matter who might be in the way. The miracle is that in spite of all this,

the Lord's providence still manages to keep open so many avenues to change. In what used

to be Yugoslavia we have a vivid image of what we might call the cycle of injustice--how

resentment of past injustice can be kept alive and can lead to ever new injustice on the

pretext of somehow redressing the balance. The miracle is that this does not always

happen. In a way, the miracle is the miracle of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not the same as forgetfulness. It does not involve rationalization or

denial. It is moving beyond initial emotional reactions without losing sight of the

circumstances that prompted them. One of the wisest pictures of this process I have

discovered is in an immensely valuable book by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman entitled, How Can

I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service. It could serve as a commentary on Swedenborg's

marvelous definition of charity as "acting with prudence to the end that good may result"

(The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine, ¶ 100), and I should like to quote it at

some length.

. . . concerned as we are with results, we call on tactics of persuasion, appealing to

states of mind that get people going. We begin to manipulate consciousness. Play to anger.

Go for fear. There's always guilt. These basic states of mind are always lurking about,

looking to be fed. They find plenty of nourishment in the world of social action: anger at

oppression, guilt at being "better off," fear of violence and the greater power of others.

. . .

Sometimes these feelings get us going--just the kick in the pants we may need. And we can

keep them in check, in fact work with them. We can turn anger at injustice into cool,

steady resolve. We can flip fear of war into greater reverence for life. We can find in

feelings of guilt a call to greater moral sensitivity and alertness.

Yet left to themselves, fear, anger, and guilt are unwholesome states of mind. How many of

us have them fully in control in our private lives? The pull us into a cycle of reactivity

and feed on themselves. . . . History is full of examples of how these attitudes, which

initially may have stirred people to action, went on to poison and destroy

well-intentioned movements for social change. (pp. 158f.)

To put this in a nutshell, anger may be the only thing with enough energy to get our

engine started, but that does not mean we should hand it the steering wheel. Anger prompts

us to react, but does not tell us how. One of the caricatures of Buddhism is that it says,

"Don't just do something--sit there," and like many caricatures, it is not without an

element of wisdom. How Can I Help? continues,

[Fear, anger, and guilt] also prevent us from calling upon deeper human virtues that often

move us all to act. In anger, we may lose light of love. In fear, we may sacrifice trust

and courage. In guilt, we may deny self-worth and obstruct inspiration. Do we really want

to lose access to all these? If we really care about social change, can we afford to

sacrifice such sources of commitment and strength? Are we serious or not?

The question needs to be asked. Do we really want things to change for the better, or do

we just want to make a dramatic gesture to salve our consciences? If we really want things

to change for the better, then we have to do the hard work of looking at what works and

what does not. We cannot be guided by romantic optimism or romantic pessimism. If we take

a hard look at what is wrong with our world and what is right with it, if we look clearly

at our history, then it seems we need to face up to the long haul. There are no quick

fixes in sight.

This brings us to our New Testament reading. "And when he had made a whip of small cords,

he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen, and poured out the

changers' money, and overturned their tables, and said to the men who were selling doves,

`Take these things away! Do not make my Father's house a marketplace!'"

Did Jesus really lose it for a few minutes? This was a troubled and violent era, and we

may doubt that this was the first time something like this had happened. In all

probability, the temple personnel rounded up the sheep and oxen and straightened out the

tables and picked up the money, and things were back to normal before long.

In other words, if this was really an attempt to reform Temple policies, it could hardly

be effective unless there were some follow up. As the Gospel story unfolds, though, this

"cleansing of the Temple" seems to have been basically a very effective attention-getter.

It said more clearly than words, "What I have to say is urgent. It has to do with the very

core of your spiritual life, of your religious commitment. There is something awfully

wrong at the heart of the matter."

There was follow up. The Gospel of John places this incident at the very beginning of

Jesus's ministry, right after the baptism, the calling of the first disciples, and the

miracle at Cana. The synoptics place it at the very beginning of Holy Week, immediately

after the entry into Jerusalem. In each case, it is followed by teaching. It is a kind of

introduction, an opening statement. It strikes me as very much in the spirit of Ram Dass

and Paul Gorman--the kick in the pants we may need to get ourselves going.

It is certainly not the dominant theme or mood of the Lord's ministry. This has much more

to do with love and courage and trust than with anger. Ultimately, the Lord worked a

transformation especially in his closest disciples, and the means he used included his

parables and his questions, his healings, and especially his constant care for them. it

was no overnight transformation. It took three very intensive years, with lots of ups and

downs along the way. If there was the haste of initial anger, there were also the patience

and the commitment for the long haul.

This brings me, by a rather roundabout path, to some recent thoughts about church growth.

At a recent meeting of our East Coast clergy, Randy Laakko was telling of his mixed

feelings when some one who had not been near the church for years asked for a baptism, or

for a funeral for a relative. Part of his reaction was "Where have you been in the

meanwhile," and part was a sense of the beauty of the fact that the church could be there

for them when it was needed.

Various programs can offer excitement, and that may be what is needed to get attention, to

"start the engine." But I suspect that the growth we really want involves long-term

commitment, even lifetime dedication. It is a lot to ask, but we do not strengthen the

church by lowering our expectations.

It is a lot to ask, but it is also a lot to offer. The church will be there for you as

long as it exists. Surely in our own times of accelerating change, there is a need and a

hunger for this kind of reliability. Hard as it is to pledge our personal futures, and

unsuccessful as we often are, we keep marrying "for life." We are nostalgic for the old

days in part because they seem so much more stable than our own times.

Our church includes moments of enlightenment that can be exciting. It includes moments of

affection that are moving. Perhaps what we need most of all to recognize, though, is its

simple durability. Perhaps we need to say out loud, "If you are willing to be here for the

church, the church will be here for you--not necessarily with drama or excitement, but

with patience and trust and courage, and above all, with love.


contact phil at for any problems or comments