February 12, 2023

Epiphany VI

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Weekly Prayer Recording:

Good Intension means – paying Attention!

The Reverend Mark Sutherland

Recording of the sermon:

It’s a startling notion – hypothetically speaking of course – that God is also capable of learning from experience.  Put another way, maybe that’s why humanity is imbued with this capacity of learning from experience because we are made in the image of God – a god who also learns from experience.

In the wide sweep of history between Moses and Jesus – we see a clear character development in the picture of God – a development always moving in the direction of greater complexity. In his book God: A Biography, Jack Miles recounts the evolution of God’s character through the eyes of Israel’s religious story.  By thoroughly analyzing scriptural text, Miles contends that the broad sweep of Israel’s relationship with God reveals a god who is a learning god. His book won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography.

Miles presents God evolving – learning as he goes along from the events of a long and tumultuous relationship with humanity as represented by Israel. The capacity to seemingly learn from experience, esp. mistakes – is the key quality that jumps out from Miles’ somewhat startling portrayal of God.

The capacity to learn from our experience, esp. our mistakes, is the primary way that we humans continue to evolve in the direction of greater psycho-socio-spiritual complexity. In short, learning is fundamental to our survival.

It’s a startling notion – hypothetically speaking of course – that God is also capable of learning from experience.  Put another way, maybe that’s why humanity is imbued with this capacity of learning from experience because we are made in the image of God – a god who also learns from experience.

The Biblical story of God’s relationship with humanity is full of instances where God changes god’s mind. God seems open to argument – able to be convinced by human beings like Moses into a change of mind. God acts, often precipitously, only to on reflection, regret impulsive action. God can be convinced to moderate genocidal impulses, which alarmingly in the earlier sections of the story, seem to be God’s default response in the face of human disobedience.

How does this notion square with the theological assertion that God is unchanging – omnipotent, as in can do whatever God likes – as well as omniscient – knowing all outcomes in advance?  One way of getting around this theological conundrum is simply to say it’s not God who changes but human understanding of God that is deepening over historical time. The god of Moses and the god of Jesus – although recognizably the same god – nevertheless are dramatically different. My point is not so much to challenge the traditional theological assertion of divine unchangeability, but to recognise in the broad sweep of history separating Moses and Jesus, Jewish evolving understanding of God’s character in the direction of complexity and sophistication.

In Deuteronomy 30:15-20 we hear Moses’ dramatic ultimatum: I call upon heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God.

This is a call to make choices, which can be either life enhancing or death dealing. The Deuteronomists conceived of the choice for life as one of fidelity and obedience to God’s commandments given through Moses. Obedience not only demonstrated being faithful to God, but also ensured justice in community life. For contemporary Judaism, Torah observance remains the way of contributing to the building up of society through performing the actions that support the evolution of the world in line the dream God has for it -as revealed in the teaching of the Law and the Prophets.

The Hebrew God of Moses is experienced as a god inhabiting the natural world of mountain tops and sacred places. This god controlled the elements – reigning down both blessing and punishment. This is a god of external spaces.

By the 1st-century the Jewish experience was of God increasingly encountered within human consciousness – a god of internal space.  No-longer a god of mountain tops but a god of the mind and heart. It is within this religious evolution that Jesus of Nazareth emerges onto the world stage.

In Matthew chapter 5 – in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus refers his listeners back to the ancient Hebrew understanding of God’s commandments. He begins and then repeats the phrase: You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times – as his springboard into a developing Jewish inner consciousness of God.

But of course, Jesus takes things to a new level by thrusting Jewish ethical teaching into the deepest recesses of his hearers’ minds and hearts.

Many of us would probably prefer to remain ancient Hebrews in our orientation to the requirements of the religious life. This accounts for the appeal of Christian Fundamentalism. Give us a good external commandment we can choose to follow or not as the case may be, and we at least will know where we are.

In contrast, Jesus’ teaching is frightening in its seeming impossible confrontation with human nature. For whom among us exercises the degree of self-control over our thoughts and intentions, our impulses, and motivations, let alone our fantasies that Jesus seems to require of us? It is no longer a matter of refraining from unethical actions, we now must harbor only virtuous intentions. This is impossible.

Despite leading outwardly upright and ethical lives – if we are to take Jesus literally – we all remain serial murderers and adulterers in our hearts. And the penalty for non-virtuous thoughts and impulses, even if firmly under our self-control, is astonishingly severe indeed! Eyes are to be plucked out, hands to be lopped off and hearts and minds exposed to the most searing condemnation. Moses’ cry: today choose life or choose death makes death the only obvious proposition.

We are not fundamentalists and so to interpret this passage as Jesus setting impossible standards – so as to continually reaffirm through failure our broken and sinful nature – contradicts his primary message of God’s love and forgiveness. Another way that is consistent with our understanding of Jesus primary message – is for us to understand Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and esp. this section, as the next step within the evolution from ancient Hebrew to 1st-century Jewish understandings of God.

Through his frequent use of hyperbole Jesus invites us to pay attention to the hardness of the unruly passions lurking in the darker recesses of the human heart. I imagine his disciples found this invitation as unnerving as we do. But one thing is clear, Jesus has our attention!

In this difficult teaching Jesus is reminding us that ethical and spiritual health are not simply a matter of the actions we refrain from taking but also concerns intentions we entertain. To get a better sense of what Jesus means we note in Matthew 15 his further development of his theme here in chapter 5 – when he tells his disciples that we are not defiled by what goes into the body but by that which flows from the human heart.

Jesus ushers in the dawning of a new religious age with the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. No longer camouflaged by an externalized morality of rules and obligations – religious observance now requires a subjective examination of conscience – esp. with regard to the disordered projections of fear, rage, and desire that if ignored harden our hearts.

Moral and ethical action is good, but right intention is better. Right belief is one thing, but right relationship is even better.

This is the focus of Jesus’ teaching, and it represents the big leap for humanity into a new kind of relationship with God and with one another.

Psychologically speaking, none of us is without a rich inner fantasy life in which we can detect thoughts and feelings that we have absolutely no intention of acting upon. But our best protection against acting out is to know such thoughts and feelings are there and to see them clearly. For most of us to act on our darker fantasies of rage, hurt, and desire would create an intense conflict with our higher self-aspirations.

Our refusal to act upon our darker urges motivated by rage, pain, and desire is not enough, however. We also need to be able to recognize them and look them in the eye. The ability to recognize and to know our darker impulses and to reign them in – is what makes us fully human as reflections of the divine nature – imperfect though this reflection may be.

Returning to the theme of learning from experience leads me to conclude with three questions of the moment that remind us of the importance of calling out our darker urges and looking them in the eye.

    • What can learn from the gradual erosion of restraint of darker motives now afflicting our current political culture – unrestrained urges that were on full display in Tuesday evening’s State of the Union address?

    • What stirs us as we witness the brutality of Putin’s war in Ukraine – a situation that challenges us to learn from the mistakes of the past?

    • Will we learn something vital about ourselves as we confront potentially irreversible environmental changes – so as to ensure a brighter future for generations to come?

The process of learning must first begin with looking into the darkness of our human hearts.

Good intention means paying attention!