No More, No Less (Exodus 33:12-23)

How much of anything can we see?  We only see what our eyes perceive.  Our ability to see and understand is limited by our ability to see and our brain’s ability to comprehend what we see.

For example, let’s take the ocean.  Let’s all go down to the beach, on a clear day like today, and look out across the waves toward the horizon.  What do we see?  There’s the ocean as far as the eye can take you.  The clouds go into the sky.  The sand stops at the water’s edge.  As we gaze forward, there might be a boat, a bird, or a plane.  More often than not, there’s nothing.  The vast expanse of the sky blends into the ocean.  From where we stand, this looks like, “this is all there is”.  We know this isn’t true.  Despite the fact it’s a beautiful day with unlimited visibility, our eyes work pretty good (some of us have glasses), we know that beyond the horizon there’s more water, more land, and even more people.  Because we can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there.  They are there.  We only see a portion of the world around us.

Advance the clock by twelve hours.  Sometimes what I’m talking about is a little easier to grasp in the dark.  The clear morning at the beach has become a clear sky evening.  Blessed as we are with little light pollution, on such evenings we can look up and see Milky Way.  The galaxy looks immense.  On a clear night, as I’m describing, you can see thousands, maybe even millions of stars.  The few million stars we see are billions of miles away.  In just a quick glance, we are seeing the tiniest of tiny slivers of the galaxy and the larger universe.  From our vantage point on Earth, this is all we are able to see.  We will never see any more.  Sure, you can move to the southern hemisphere or the South Pole and you’ll see a different set of stars.  But that set of starts you’re seeing at the South Pole or in Auckland, New Zealand is as small as the ones we see on Life Guard Beach.   No matter where we look, we can only see the smallest fraction of the known universe.  From where we are, minus the telescopes, billion dollar budgets, a friendship of Elon Musk, rocket engines, spacecraft, and high tech equipment (I’m talking just us):  this is as much of the universe and space as we will ever encounter.  And that’s ok.  We still know space is there.  We have a relationship with the world beyond Earth even though we’ve never been past the atmosphere.  We understand a great deal about the universe solely from observing the tiny sliver of eternity hanging over our heads.

You go to the beach and you realize:  you are not alone.  You’re seeing a small portion of a much bigger ocean.  At night, the stars above your head are but a fraction of an ancient reality older than the idea of keeping time.  This is what happens to Moses in today’s scripture when he encounters God.  It happens to us and sometimes we don’t even know it.

Moses is friends with God.  God loves Moses.  Moses is under tremendous pressure.  He coming up with plans, ideas, and activities to keep his people interested as they journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Sometimes they become distracted and don’t listen.  Over the past couples of weeks, we’ve heard stories about Moses bringing the 10 Commandments down and while he was away meeting with God the people became impatient and started worshiping a Golden Cow.  He frustrated.  Moses wants God to help him.  Long ago, well before they left Egypt, God promised to be by Moses side, to be his friend and partner on this journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Right now, Moses feels like he’s doing most of the heavy lifting on his own.

God wants to remind Moses:  you are not alone.  I am with you and by your side.  Often times, we don’t see the friends walking right beside us or realize that others are there to help.  Look to your left and right, behind you and in front, what do you see?  You see other people, don’t you?  The other people looking at you see you!  God has placed these people beside you, alongside your path, for your journey.  Who knows where you’re headed?  God does and God has sent people to walk with us.  God is with and within the people all around us.  But sometimes our perspective limits our ability to see God at work, God being present, of God helping us out right beside us.  Sometimes the beach just looks like the beach.  We forget we’re looking at the Atlantic Ocean and on the other side of that ocean are other continents and people.  Our vision of what God can do is limited by where we stand and sit and by the habits we fall into.  In this passage today, God is trying to change the way Moses’ sees reality.

Moses wants reassurance and God wants to give it Moses.  Here’s how Moses puts it, “Because how will anyone know that we have your special approval, both I and you people unless you go with us? Only that distinguishes us, me and your people, from every other people on earth?” Moses is saying, “We want to know that you are with us.  We need to know that this thing we’re doing is real.”

We’ve all had that conversation with God at one point or another.  It might have been on the beach, under a nighttime sky, or even before a test at school.  You’ve turned to God and said, “I’m with you and I need some sort of idea that you’re with me.  Is this journey we’re on, this pilgrimage we’re walking, or this life we’re leading the real thing?” That’s a God 101 kind of question.  This isn’t the type of question you ask over a cup of Earl Grey on your back porch.  Moses isn’t treating God like a book he pulls out of the back of the pew once a week to read for comfort and good words.  Moses is saying, I want to take this book with me everywhere I go.

How does God answer Moses’ question?  What does he say that will confirm, “Yes, this is the real thing”?  Interesting enough, it’s the same thing that happens to us when we go to the beach on a beautiful day or look up at the sky on a clear night.

First of all, God says that God’s outward actions through Moses will be based in kindness and compassion.  As Moses is kind and compassionate, God will kind and compassionate.  People will see a kind and compassionate God through our kindness and compassion.  Doesn’t that sound like something Jesus might say? God’s goodness will be reflected through the way we treat other people.  If you (or the world for that matter) want to see God, embody these qualities.  Do these things and treat people with kindness and compassion.  God is saying, “I can best be seen in my people by those people acting kindly and compassionately toward others.”  No statues, cows, or idols.   Try being nice, God says.  It so simple, it’s hard to believe.  That’s the first thing.  That’s why I wanted you to look around.  God is the kindness and compassion of those who surround you.

Secondly, God tells Moses that God will reveal God’s presence to Moses.  Here’s the catch, God is so amazing it would be too much for one person to encounter.  The rule is, according to God, you can’t look at God head on.  Moses will only see God’s back.  God will place Moses in a safe place, “a crevice”, protect him with his hand, and pass by.  Moses will only see the tiniest, of tiny slivers of God’s presence.  I ask you again, “Isn’t that all we see?”  Whether it’s the ocean or the stars, all we ever see of creation is but a fraction of what we know actually exists.  Aren’t we OK with that?

People talk about going out into the woods, on the water, or other places to encounter God.  They say they don’t need the church.  I’ll tell you the God’s honest truth.  No one is encountering God in the woods, on a boat, or even in church.  The most we’re ever getting is what Moses got:  a glimpse of God’s back, a minuscule fraction of a whole that none of us can comprehend.  Where we get into trouble is thinking that glimpse is all there is and all we need and our perspective ends at the horizon or the limits of the Milky Way.  If for no other reason, we need this place, this church to remind us our perspectives are usually wrong and God’s is much wider than we ever imagined.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Lay Waste to the Lie of the Liberal Evangelical

I think I’ve an inkling of how many Muslims feel after a terrorist attack.  I’ve heard Islamic scholars and faith leaders say, “We’re not all like those who pervert our religious teachings.”  They are right.  Those who commit heinous acts of terror against innocent civilians are not representative of a whole religion possessing various forms of expression and practice.  It is wrong to paint an entire faith with a broad brush of hate and discrimination.  Yet, time and again, this pattern has repeated itself since the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  We see the evidence in violence against mosques and hate crimes.  Our Muslim sisters and brothers must be tired of disavowing and condemning those who’ve hijacked their faith.

Now, the tables have turned.  It is mainstream and mainline Christianity on the defensive.  Mainline Protestantism is under assault from Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians, sometimes from within our own denominations.  After a season of faith based conferences where Jesus is hardly mentioned and the nomination of candidates with religious views the Puritans would have rejected; I find myself regularly disavowing those who have hijacked Christianity.  Even with all of the semantic yoga and fancy hair splitting I can muster, I will never again refer to myself as an “evangelical”.  Some days, after I’ve heard senate candidate Roy Moore and listened to calls for a return to “Judeo-Christian” values, it takes everything I have to identify myself as a “Christian”.  Although I have served congregations for nearly twenty years and in three countries, I do not want to be described with the same words used to categorize a faith which, when presented as the dominant strain of Protestant Christianity, is unrecognizable from anything I’ve ever encountered.  In short, I’m embarrassed and ashamed.

I’m not the first person to feel that something central to the idea of being Christian has changed.  Our common moral currency was devalued.  Spiritual inflation set in and what we thought possessed of worth will no longer meet what we’ve been told are our new needs.  The Gospel, the Kingdom of God, and Jesus’ ministry are being displaced by other emotive and manipulative ideologies.  More than requiring believers assent to a historic creed, America’s dominant strain of Protestant Christianity is now a “litmus test” faith.  Are you pro-life (with no exceptions), pro-death penalty, favor no limits on any form of gun ownership, and pro-government to the extent you believe the Judeo-Christian deity foreordained America’s dominance in the world?  Do you believe that anything in American society which threatens your view of scripture is a threat to the fabric of society as well as the practice of Christianity?  Are selected laws laid down over two thousand years ago to determine the communal life of post-exilic Israelites crucial to understanding Christianity in 21st America?

You know the answers as well as I do.  Evangelicals, as the most visible and politically active brand of American Christianity, answer yes to these questions.  There are exceptions who would love to be painted as the rule but we’re too far gone to believe the lie of the liberal evangelical.  I’m identifying a core set of beliefs which I’ve encountered in evangelicals across nearly twenty years of ministry.  These are our neighbors, friends, and relatives.  Their gospel isn’t the same as the Good News I was ordained to spread.  In their eyes, most United Methodists aren’t Christian.  For me, calling out commonalities isn’t painting with a broad brush.  I’m speaking from my own life experiences.

These basic evangelical ideas are the building blocks of other varieties of fundamentalism.  This is where the divergence occurs.  Not every evangelical believes, like Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, that Minnesota representative Keith Ellison should be excluded from sitting in the US House of Representatives because he is a Muslim.  What’s disconcerting is this: the distance of the theological fine line separating the basic “litmus” test evangelical and a “Roy Moore” evangelical is growing shorter by the hour.  The waters are so muddied it’s harder for anyone to hear United Methodists and other mainline groups asking, “Why have you lost sight of Jesus, grace, and love?”

Because the current evangelical distortion is more prevalent throughout the culture, it impacts the ability of the local church to evangelize and witness.  “Aren’t you all like the gun toting man on television who says the Muslims are going to hell?” someone recently asked.  No, I said, we’re not.  It’s hard for the unchurched, those who are looking for a place of safety and sanctuary in a violence soaked world to ferret out the difference between churches like ours and the evangelicals they see praying before a presidential rally.  After all, we use the same language, well-worn clichés, pray to the same God, and generally appear to be indistinguishable from one another.  The world perceives us very differently than how we see ourselves.  Surely, they know we’re not all like “that”.  That’s what 1.8 billion Muslims have been saying to no avail for sixteen years.  Unless the world meets people of faith who practice radical hospitality and Christ centered compassion; we are entrusting the essence of Christianity to people who appear to have missed the point about Jesus’ ministry.

When public Christianity, in the most general sense of the term, advances the idea of unchecked moral decay, imagined systematic persecution by the government, and weaponizes scripture; it ceases to be Christian.  When God’s grace is an afterthought, love is a dividend, and forgiveness unheard of; those following “God” are not followers of Christ.  Like a white dwarf tearing itself apart, Christianity collapses inward.  The survivors of this supernova’s destruction are then left to decide:  when the name of Christ is sufficiently damaged beyond repair, does the label mean what it once meant?  No, it does not.  If Christianity is a zero sum game; only what the culture, media, government, and the evangelical church itself deems to be Christian, what am I?

I am not an evangelical.  I no longer want to argue etymologies and debate what someone who spreads the Good News should be called.  We know how the word is used and by whom.  This isn’t a fight worth having.  There are bigger fish to fry.  The longer we spend trying to convince others we’re the “good” evangelicals; we’ve given away the farm.  We’ve allowed form priority over substance.  In other words, the hand basket is well on it’s way to Hell.  While others argue about language, I’m for turning the thing around.

So by these evangelical standards, I am not a Christian.  I do, however, remain a follower of Jesus Christ.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Kind Atheists vs. Mean Christians

Christians intentionally use the word “sanctuary”. In our congregation, we regularly sing a hymn which asks the Lord to prepare us, the body of Christ, to be a “sanctuary”.  It’s a place, people, and an idea.   One reason the room where worship occurs is called a “sanctuary” is because that’s what it offers.  Church, as a whole, is a place of sanctuary, refuge, and safety.  Whether you’re in a worship service or a Sunday School classroom on a Sunday morning or a Thursday afternoon; the church is supposed to a place love is unconditional, grace is offered, and safety is guaranteed.

When this sense of safety is shattered, it sometimes makes the news.  If clergy or church members take advantage of the vulnerable or weak and the idea of the church as a place of sanctuary is destroyed; we’ve seen the toll it can take on victims, families, and churches as they regain their moral bearings.  Sensational headlines and scandals are all too familiar in Christianity and other religious traditions.  The unspeakable pain caused by such abuse has done more damage to the idea of institutional religion than statistics can adequately measure or believers readily admit.

While these stories attract deserved attention and shape how denominations train clergy, there are other unreported assaults on the idea of sanctuary that can be as destructive to the health of congregation or individual believers.  These attacks happen across churches, often undetected and unreported.  Some go on every Sunday morning and simply part of the culture of being a church.  As a result, the idea of “sanctuary” is eroded, church is seen less safe, faith is eroded, and the body of Christ is diminished.

What are these unacknowledged assaults?  There is a kindness deficit in our churches and society.  Where does it originate? It would be easy to blame the “comment in the name of dialogue” culture fostered by Facebook and other social media platforms.  I think that’s a factor.  I also believe some people have a mean streak, are tone deaf, and oblivious to the realities of Christian living no matter how long they’ve been in church.

The world is a harsh place.  The church should not be.  When it is, we fail.  I’m not a fool.  I know people do things inconsistent with Christian teaching.  However, is it possible to make the church consistent with a Christ centered ethic of love, for the time we share pews and space at the Communion table?  Gossip should be left at the front door; it certainly shouldn’t be repeated within earshot of person you’re talking about.  This seems like common sense.  The truth is it’s not.   Harsh words, pessimism, and passive aggressive fueled negativity do more damage than we see and are willing to admit.  As such, the church is less safe than it should be.

One of the most depressing and disturbing aspects of ministry is dealing with grief.  It is part of my job to work with families and individuals at their lowest moments.  If a loved one dies or someone receives the diagnosis of a serious illness, I am there to listen.  I am prepared and “trained” (for lack of a better word) for this part of my job.  What I’m not prepared for or adequately trained to deal with is the grief that originates from hurt feelings, tears, and sadness originating from within the church.  What do I say to the person who’s heard hurtful words while standing three feet away?  What do I say to this person, who heard such words, while standing in the “sanctuary”, the place of safety?  What do I say to a believer in Christ who’s ready to cry because of something another believer in Christ said to them, in the sanctuary?  I say I’m hurt.  I say I’m sorry.  I say to myself, “we don’t have to worry about schism or anything else, we’ll kill ourselves off.”

The biggest threat to United Methodism isn’t from liberals, progressives, conservatives, uniting, or covenant groups.  We, as currently constituted, are our own worst enemies.  Our inability to recognize and offer grace about the most mundane aspects of life, on the micro level, will prevent us from ever coming to an agreement on the macro issue human sexuality.

This reminds me of that old saying, “God prefers a kind atheist to a mean Christian”.  I agree.  The longer I’m in ministry the truer it rings.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Moses Changes God’s Mind

Moses Listens to God’s Plans to Destroy The Israelites Following the Creation of the Golden Calf

As strange as it seems, the story of the Golden Calf is one of those Sunday School stories we all know.  Whether in the movies or in the lesson, it comes right on the heels of the 10 Commandments.  It sticks out for any number of reasons.  In my mind, I’ve never seen the attraction of worshiping a cow; golden or otherwise.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a confirmed carnivore.  I love steak, hamburger, meatballs, and most anything you can do with a cow.  I’ve even eaten tongue.  When you’re on a mission trip, to seem polite and gracious, you’ll eat most anything.  However, and with no disrespect to my Hindu sisters and brothers who consider cows sacred, I’ve never once pictured a cow as God.

When I was a child in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, I had no idea that the other dominant religious tradition of the day, Baal worship, often worshiped cows.  Baal, the great multipurpose storm god of the ancient near east, was often portrayed as a cow. That information would have helped.  Not that it would have seemed any less weird but at least it would have made a little more sense as to why they went for the cow statue.  Baal the Cow just happened to be next on the “what can we worship” list.  And my word, weren’t they an impatient group of worshippers?

Where was Moses?  Moses goes up the mountain to meet with the God who led them out of Egypt, saved them from death (repeatedly), fed them, protected them, and has now disappeared for longer than they’ve expected him to be gone.  What do you do in such a situation?  You freak out!  You lose your mind, totally forget everything that’s happened the recent past, ignore common sense, disregard conventional wisdom, decide there’s only one possible explanation for an none other, and decide to act out ignorance against your best interests.  That’s what we do and it’s what the Israelites did.  If God doesn’t meet our timetable, expectations, plans, desires, and options we proclaim ourselves as free agents and make ourselves Gods.

They are lost, marching in the desert in route to the Promised Land, totally dependent on God for everything.  Somehow, they’ve managed to make stops by Jared’s and other jewelry stores on their trip across Sinai.  What do I mean by this?  Notice what the text says about the gold.  Look again at verse 3, “So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron.”  How fashion conscious should you be when you’re a refugee in the desert on the run from the Egyptians and in search of a new country?  How much gold jewelry do you need and who are you trying to impress with your Bronze Age sense of fashion?  The fact they’ve got that much gold on hand and it’s decorative, jewelry even, has always troubled me.  It says something about misplaced priorities and taking advantage of the blessings God’s giving to you.  Would we know anything at all about putting emphasis on things that don’t matter and squandering God’s resources on matters that matter a hill of beans?  I think we do.  The Israelites went from “God’s chosen people” being led by Moses to a group of cow worshiping drunks in the blink of an eye.  Witnesses to greatest miracles God had ever done; splitting of the Red Sea, the plagues on Pharaoh and Egypt, the gifts of food in the wilderness were forgotten in an instant because Moses’ meeting ran over.  They were offended that Moses would leave them.  How dare God do this to them (whatever “this” is); despite doing all of “that” for them (in the past)?

As I reread the Golden Calf, I’ve come to see it less as story about idolatry.  It’s more a commentary on what happens when we let our priorities and expectations become so unrealistic and narrowly focused, not only do we leave God out of our lives but we ruin relationships with other people.  In other words, things have to be the way we’ve decided, there can be no alternatives, this person is acting this way and because of motivations we’ve already decided have to be the case.  There are no other factors that might impact this situation, decision, or this person.  It has to be as I have determined it.  It’s not gone according to my plan.  Moses has not arrived.  I don’t care that he’s been with God, if that’s really true.  Has anyone seen is Facebook status lately?  Did he really check-in on the top of Mount Sinai?  As a result I’ll do what I have to do. I’m going to make my metaphorical Golden Calf.  What’s so frightening about this story is how quick and how often that change in God’s people can occur.

The second half of this passage turns darker and makes me uncomfortable.  What do you do about this?  I’m asking an open-ended rhetorical question.  I don’t know.  What does God do about his people, those in whom he has heavily invested, that are now ungrateful, drunk, impatient, cow worshipers?  This is not an easy question to answer.  Think of everything God’s done to get them to this point.  Consider the cost in human lives alone.  Does God go all Toby Keith on the chosen people and put a boot up their ass?  Should God order up a Predator Drone armed with Hellfire Missiles and wipe every last one of them off the face the Earth?

The short answer is yes.  The text is clear; murder is God’s first instinct.  When we act like short sighted, self interested, impatient, narcissists God’s initial impulse (as recorded here in Exodus) is to kill us all.  I told you it turned darker.  To paraphrase John Donne, “death, be not proud” but it will be quick and easy.  God says to Moses, “I’ll start from scratch with you”.

Here’s where I imagine Moses feels like General John Kelly trying to keep the President’s Twitter machine under control.  Moses says, “God you can’t send that Tweet”.

This is what troubles me:  God makes argument for murdering the people he has professed to love and already saved from certain death.  “They’ve already abandoned the path that I have commanded.  They’ve made a metal bull calf for themselves.  They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it.  I’ve seen how stubborn they are.  Now leave me alone!  Let my fury burn and devour them.”

Nothing God said is inaccurate or wrong.  The Israelites have done all these things.  Two points I’ll raise:  they’ve not killed anybody and you could have seen this coming a mile away.  This should have surprised no one, least of all God.  The Israelites had been moaning, murmuring, and complaining since they left Cairo.  However, these aren’t reasons to kill everyone you love.  He’s simply restating the facts.  Yes, God is angry.  We’re all angry and disappointed.  Since September 6th when we watched the tiny island of Barbuda leveled by Irma or on September 20th when Maria hit Puerto Rico and on October 1st when 58 people died on a Sunday night in Las Vegas; we’ve been angry and disappointed.  Tragic and brutal deaths are all too common both here and around the world.

Moses knows that more death isn’t the answer.  Scripture says, “Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, ‘Lord, why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt?’  Calm down your fierce anger.  Change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people.”

Calm down your fierce anger and change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people.  Moses doesn’t hold his tongue.  It’s nice to think about someone who will speak truth to power.  Moses is speaking truth the ultimate power.  We like to talk about the fear of the Lord.  We forget that what that really means is “respect”.  Fear doesn’t mean to be afraid of God.  If Moses had been “afraid” of God, he would have been an accessory to the murder of innocent people who didn’t deserve to die.  Had Moses been unwilling to tell the Emperor that he had no clothes, where would we be today?  Let the utter profundity of the passage sink in for a moment: Moses (a man) told God (the God) that God was wrong.  God admitted God was wrong.  God changed God’s mind.  That last verse is the most crucial verse in this entire story, it’s the one you need to remember:  “Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he would do to his people.”

If God can be wrong, we can be wrong.  If God can learn a lesson and relent so can we. If God can err on the side of life, grace, and inclusion; how about us?  What are some of the things we think we’re so invested in, things that we become fighting mad over, that are black and white for us, and matters of which we’re so certain we’ll never change our minds?   God changed God’s mind.  What would happen if you changed yours?  How would the church look different?

God Being God

If you have any doubt as to the uniqueness of our species among all those which populate the planet; you need only stand by an open grave and watch a family place the remains of a loved one into the earth.  This is what makes humanity different.  We grieve, feel loss, and mourn the deaths of those we love.  It’s been this way since we made the jump from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens.   Thousands of years ago, before our ancestors decided we needed to explain why we were here and developed primitive cosmologies to understand what happens after we die; all we knew how to do was mourn.  Grief came to us instinctively; as did our desires for shelter, food, and relationships.

I was reminded of these observations during the Committal portion of the first of the two funerals I’ll lead this week.  Twenty family members and friends gathered in Thomas’ yard by a small flowerbed.  Here, his ashes would be interred for eternity.  Once Thomas’ son in law secured the box that contained his remains, each member of the family was invited to place a single flower in the grave.

I said the words I usually say at moments like this.  The greatest testimony of the Resurrection was the testimony of the witnesses.  Though this moment seems final, you now become witnesses to Thomas’ post –resurrection life.  We make resurrection a reality.  Go and tell his story.  I stepped back.

Chad placed the box in the location they’d prepared.  Pam, Thomas’ wife, came with the first rose.  Slowly, as they felt ready, the others walked forward.  It was late afternoon, the sun was setting, and the exhaustion among the family was palpable.    For what seemed like an eternity, they wept and looked into the dark sandy hole, where a simple wooden box contained the remains of a son, brother, husband, grandfather, and friend.

It was then I realized we’ve been here before.  We might as well be on the Siberian tundra thirty thousand years ago, mourning the death of a nomadic chief.  Nothing has changed.  Death, grief, and mourning looks no different today than it did when we first discovered our humanity.  Loss feels same today as it did to our earliest ancestors.  This felt real.  Life had ended, death was being confronted, and the void of eternity was in a flowerbed by our feet.  Somehow a connection was made between the living and the dead.

Unlike the service I’d led a couple hours earlier, where there seemed to be no connection to the larger issues of life, death, or eternity.  We read scripture, poems, and sang hymns.  I’m not sure how that helped anyone.  I’m saying this as the person who wrote and put the service together.

I saw the glazed looks on the faces of the grieving family and among the packed congregation.  I stuck to the script.  I wondered, as I often do at funerals, what do these words actually say about life, death, and hope?  I think I’ve read them so many times they’ve become lost in translation.  I looked out at the congregation and I was certain no one was listening.  They pretend to listen because they know, “this is what he says at every funeral”.  I do lots of funerals.  Many of them can probably repeat my lines as well as I can.  It’s true.

The flowerbed was different.  I had a front row seat as sixty thousand years of human history, evolution, and theology found its best common denominator.  God was present in the liturgy of time, actions, tears, and silence.  God was working in this dark moment despite my best efforts to explain Jesus preparing places in a mansion, picnics by still waters, and resurrection appearances.  It is nice to be reminded that God was part and parcel of the human story even before we felt the need to call God a Christian, Jew, Hindu, or Muslim.  If God is anything, God is before.  God is in the rituals we can’t define as a “liturgy”; whether it’s because our ancestors were still learning to speak or we are overwhelmed with grief.

It was a blessing to see God, unfiltered and unplugged, at work, without the labels we feel hell bent to apply.  I was humbled by the opportunity to watch God be God.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Manufactured Belief

There are some arguments that aren’t worth having.  I’m not going to argue with the devil about racism or the appropriate way to protest racism.  Especially now, since the devil has outsourced his own brand of evil to bots and trolls working in Saint Petersburg.  I’m not going to shout down a white supremacist because well funded Russians with an excellent command of English and knowledge of American politics bought enough Facebook ads to anger both liberals and conservatives.  To tell you the truth, I’d prefer not to talk about God with anyone who claims to know God personally.  Anyone who claims to know the intent of the founders when writing the second amendment isn’t someone I want to debate.  In this moment, when America is swimming in fear, bathing in righteous indignation, and distracted by every new Tweet; I’d like to stop talking to everyone.  I don’t know who pushed your buttons.  You don’t know who pushed your buttons.  Even more, you don’t know who flipped their switches before they pushed your buttons.

Your anger, while seemingly well founded to you, was probably manufactured in Moscow.  Why is this so hard to believe?  While it’s not the Manchurian Candidate by any means, there are a group of ill intentioned individuals exploiting vulnerabilities in our broken democracy.  Maybe it’s just a writer whose idea was sent on a whim and the story was picked up in a Facebook news feed.  Once it’s in the feed, the soulless algorithms running the platforms that shape what we see then trigger our basest emotions.  The vicious cycle of wash, rinse, and repeat continues.  Our knowledge, the weak hold we possess on reality is nothing more than someone else’s ideas that we’ve been led to believe are ultimately our own.  If we are angry, it is because we have rightly been offended.   This has been the working assumption in a bipolar America.  This is not the case.

We have been told to be angry, hurt, and disrespected.  If you are not angry, other aspects of your identity as an American are suspect.  These are the orders American’s receive 140 (or 280) characters at a time or in various ads and posts.  When it happens enough, you start to believe the lies you’re being told, even the lies you know are false.  We’re all someone’s puppet if we allow the strings to be pulled or the buttons to be pushed.    As the subjects of constant noise, distraction, interference, and emotional manipulation; it is hard for many of us to determine what we believe apart from what we are told we must believe.

Where does the church fit in?  The clergy and the church have a history (and a present) of telling people what to believe.  Each week, we recite a statement of faith, the Apostles’ Creed.  This is a statement of belief.  In other ways, we tell our congregations what they must believe in to be considered an orthodox, Bible believing, Jesus-loving Christian.  Some would say that’s part of the job.  I want to relinquish this part of my job.  I no longer want to tell people what they must believe.  I don’t want to serve a congregation full of puppets who respond to the emotional strings I pull or buttons I push.  I want to cut the cord.

It’s always scared me to claim to speak on behalf of God or claim that God gave me a message.   I’m not afraid of many things, but that level of presumption frightens me.  So I ask:  Is it possible, in worship or through the Eucharist, to clear out the clutter and let the church listen to a God who’s not telling us what to believe but how to experience the kingdom?  For this to happen, we have to get out of God’s way, stop pretending we have  all of the answers, and start reminding each other of how good it is to be loved.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Saving The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20)

How do we save the 10 Commandments from those who want to worship pieces of broken stone?  Is it possible to save the 10 commandments from some who want to violate the essence of the commandments they claim to love by shaping an idol out of prohibitions against idolatry?  Are the 10 Commandments worth saving in 2017?

America hasn’t turned her back on the 10 Commandments.  Despite last Sunday night’s carnage, those who helped save countless lives were honoring God’s commandments.  If you’d pulled those people aside and asked them to quote, recite, or name any of the 10 Commandments (or other laws in the Old Testament) you might not have gotten a stellar result.  But that doesn’t matter.  They were living out the commandments.  They were honoring their parents, God, and bearing true witness to their neighbors with their life saving actions.  They didn’t need them etched in stone on a court house lawn.  When it mattered, it was on their hearts.

If the 10 Commandments and the place of Judeo-Christian morality are threatened in our society, it’s from those who say they love the 10 Commandments most.  How’s that for irony?  What can we do?  First, we can learn what gave rise to these “ten words” in Israel’s journey from Egypt.  Secondly, we can hear these words as messages of hope instead of warnings of punishment and division.  Lastly, we can see the free will and choice which governs each and every commandment.  God has given us the ability to choose and live as free beings.  We are not robots, automatons controlled by God’s puppet strings.  We can make choices and posses moral autonomy.  The answer to America’s spiritual and moral crisis isn’t forcing people to sign or obey the 10 Commandments.  No one like religion, no matter how moral it may seem, pushed in their face and shoved down their throat.  If they did, some churches would be bursting at their seams.

There’s some debate as to whether the first commandment really counts as a commandment.  It’s more of a statement of purpose and clarity that tells us (the reader) about why the words that follow are important.  Listen to this, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  Is it a commandment?  Is it a calling card?  Is it merely a statement of fact?  Why does God keep bringing up a) Egypt and b) out of the house of slavery?

Everything which follows will be about two things: creating contrast and perspective between Egypt (in the past) and your life now (in the present).  Memory is a funny and fickle thing. How did we get here and what was it really like in the place we left?  So much depends on your perspective.  God calls Egypt “a house of bondage”.  If you grew up in Egypt, weren’t one of Pharaoh’s slaves, middle class with a house down by the Nile, you probably disagree with God’s characterization of Egypt as a “house of bondage”.  It might even offend you.  You were never in bondage.  You never owned any Hebrew slaves.  Your family never owned slaves.  That was Pharaoh’s business.  Egypt was a house of prosperity, agriculture plenty, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps do it yourself can do attitude people.  I totally disagree with God’s characterization of Egypt as a “house of bondage”.  How you see a place, depends on your perspective.  Now that the Israelites were removed from that place, he wanted them to remember their perspective.  The further you travel from a crummy situation, the more likely you are to view the hardships of the past through rose tinted lenses.  “It wasn’t all that bad.  At least we had food on a regular basis.”  This is exactly what they were doing.  Imagine people walking up to Dr. Martin Luther King, mid march in Selma saying, “Dr King, you know slavery wasn’t all that bad, Jim Crow wasn’t all that bad, at least with segregation we weren’t getting beat with clubs.”  God and Moses were worried about this.  The same thing was happening to them.

These commandments will be centered on their perspective as former slaves in Egypt.  What God wants to prevent is any situation that leads them to become like those who kept them in bondage.  This is how we get the 10 Commandments.  God says, “You were slaves.  These are the major qualities and characteristics of the people who kept you bondage.  I don’t want you to become like those who held you in slavery.  Everything that comes next whether it’s about murder, adultery, or theft is a response to this initial impulse.  The Egyptian system was corrupt.  Death and deceit defined Egyptian dynasties.  Children would poison their parents to sit on the throne.  If you wanted your neighbor’s property or wife, kill them and take it.  Israel was to be different.

These words are a condemnation of power, corruption, and human bondage.  Egypt is what you become, those are the values your society reflects when you treat human beings like property.  God is now saying, here on Sinai, there is an alternative to the brutality, corruption, murder, and devaluing of human life you’ve witnessed in Egypt.

You’ve seen the National Geographic Channel specials.  Egypt was full of idols.  Everything, including cat were worshiped.  Families were torn apart by dynastic rivalries and as for taking a day off, slaves never got sick leave.  The Egyptians made the Louis XIV’s court at Versailles look chaste when it comes to ideas of fidelity in marriage.  Life, in the mud pits making bricks or on the battlefield fitting the Hittites, was worthless.

What if, instead of reading these commandments as negative statements, telling us what we cannot do or as direct orders, we see them as signs of hope?  Again, imagine the darkness from which the Israelites emerged.  The idols, the dysfunction, the death, and the constant devaluing of anything beyond the superficial moment called “now”.  If there was a way to wipe the slate clean and live a simpler life, which focused on a life based ethic, wouldn’t you call that hope?

There are idols and there are idols.  You know what you worship and love.

Would I talk about you that way?

God values what you do and your work, so much so that God also deems rest to be a sacred gift.  That’s really what that commandment is saying.

Honor your father and your mother.  Remember what connects you to your past, present, and future.

Life is precious.

Boundaries matter.

You can steal so many things other than an ox or an ass.  You can steal joy, happiness, and peace of mind.

You need your neighbors. Don’t alienate your friends.

Each of these commandment points to a relationship.  The 10 Commandments create community.  It pushes us to think about God, our community, and the people around us.  We don’t observe the 10 Commandments as a solitary exercise.  Once we begin to interact with these ideas we are inevitably brought into a larger community.  We are compelled to take the risk of sharing with our neighbors, trusting our friends, looking after each other parents, and working together because we’ve accepted this idea:  God offers us hope and hope comes with risk.

God creates perspective and then offers a choice for the Israelites.  Israel should not be Egypt. And unlike their work in Pharaoh’s mud pits, they have a choice as to how they will engage with these commandments.  They are not machines, robots, or computer programs run by an algorithm.  They have free will.  If God wanted us to be pieces on a divine chess board blindly following God’s will there would be no need for commandments or free will.  These would be forced commandments.  In a world of forced commandments, there is no free will.  You do what you’re told. There are no options.  That’s not God.

God gives the Israelites free will to choose to accept or ignore the 10 Commandments.  This is a far cry from those in our own country who want to reinstall and remount the 10 Commandments in public squares.  God placed these words on a single tablet and then gave humanity a choice.  Nothing was forced on anyone.  These words defined Israel’s relationship with God but more importantly they framed how they saw themselves in relationship to each other.  These “ten words”, as the Rabbi’s refer them, reflected the choices they made and the people they hoped to become when they had a land of their own.  If the 10 Commandments are going to mean anything to Christians in 21st century America, we’re going to need to step back and realize:  they work best when we choose to follow them not when ordered to do so.  They should be written on our hearts not in stone in front of buildings.  And finally, do they draw us closer together and not further apart.  If they’re not doing these things, you might as well not read them in first place.

Richard Lowell Bryant