The Evolution of God: A Systems Approach

Sermon for July 14, 2013,  Proper 10C / Ordinary 15C / Pentecost +8, Luke 10:25-37 and Psalm 82

Psalm 82

Rembrant
Rembrandt

In the divine council
God has taken God’s place;
God holds judgment
in the midst of the gods:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
“Give justice to the weak
and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly
and the destitute.
“Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in shadows;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any noble.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

long ago
long ago

The Evolution of God: A Systems Approach

Last week my eldest son Ben had a birthday.  It has been amazing to watch both of my sons grow up.  As they grow up, we parents watch how some things about our children stay the same, but they go through many changes.  Both boys used to have bright blond hair, but no more.

They don’t think about the world the same way they used to.  Actually, I’m really happy about that.  When we drove him to kindergarten one of my sons was convinced that the sun that he was looking up at, out the window, was following us.  He also held me personally responsible for every bump in the road we encountered (particularly unfair, since most of them had been caused by the pot holes in the road that shell fire from the the recent war had made).  He doesn’t hold either of those beliefs anymore.

Calvin on Progressive Revelation

This past week, on July 10, we marked the anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, just over 500 years ago.  He is considered the brains behind the Reformed (Presbyterian) branch of the Protestant Reformation (or, from the Roman Catholic perspective, the “great schism”).

spark to sunrise
spark to sunrise

When Calvin reflected about the way in which our human understandings of God and God’s will have changed, or progressed (that is, evolved), he used the image of a growing light. For him, the biblical Adam (whom he took to be a literal person) saw just “a few slender sparks” of God’s plan.  But as centuries passed, through the ministry of Moses and later, the prophets, the light grew brighter, Calvin says:

“at length all the clouds being dispersed, Christ the Sun of righteousness arose, and …illumined all the earth, (Mal 4).” (Institutes 2.10.20)

So Calvin believed in what we call “progressive revelation” – God has revealed his plans bit by bit, over a long time.  Or, looking at it from the flip side, we could say that human’s understanding of God has evolved over time.

Knowing God via Christ

The ultimate revelation, or as Calvin wrote, the fully risen sunshine, is Christ.  We would say it this way: we know what God is like and what God wants from us best by looking at Jesus.

In some circles this concept has become almost cute or banal: people wear “WWJD” bracelets, hopefully reminding them to ask themselves, “What Would Jesus Do?”  As in, “Which film would Jesus watch?  Which internet sites would he visit?  Would Jesus wait for marriage?” etc.

But this simplistic approach to ethical decision making (as if a moment’s reflection automatically gives an adolescent direct access to the mind of God) really masks something crucially important.  It is this: Yes; we believe that Jesus truly gives us insight into the nature and will of God.

Jesus was a person who pushed our understanding of God way down the road.  Following a direction, or a trajectory that was marked out before, in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament), Jesus’s vision of God was an amazing leap beyond the view that was current in his day.

Jesus was part of a long tradition of reflection about God’s character and God’s will that he inherited from his Jewish background.  He was an innovator, but by no means the first one.  This is so important for us to grasp that I want to take a moment to show you something you may have never noticed (unless you come to Bible Study, where we have discussed this several times).

the council of the gods
the council of the gods

The Divine Council Gets Fired

This morning we read Psalm 82.  What did you picture when you heard this:

“In the divine council
God has taken God’s place;
God holds judgment
in the midst of the gods:

This is a poetic description of an ancient view of God.  It pictures the one central chief God surrounded by a “divine council” of lesser “gods.”  They are not angels, they are called literally “gods.”  They are there to serve the main God; to carry out his will.  They are his lieutenants.

But Israel evolved past this ancient picture of God.  Israel ended up believing in strict Monotheism: there is only one God; period.  And we can see the transition to full monotheism right here in this psalm.

Here is how we see it: the lesser gods have a job to do.  They are supposed to ensure that God’s wishes are carried out on earth.  God cares how things go, on the earth.  God is  watching, but he sees things going wrong.  He sees injustice, he sees the weak and vulnerable being mistreated, in other words, wickedness, and these lesser gods are letting it go.  God addresses them directly:

“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
“Give justice to the weak
and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly
and the destitute.
“Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

He has told them what he wants them to do, but he has already made up his mind about them.  They are not up to the job.  So, like Donal Trump, he fires them.  Listen:

“I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any noble.”

They were gods, but they just lost their immortality; they will die like mortals.  They are fired!

I’m being a little facetious, but I hope you can see the point.  The author of the psalm uses this poetic image of how people used to think about God, to emphasize his evolved belief that there is only one God to cry out to when the society has become so corrupt and unjust.  He says:

“Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!”

The old fashioned, primitive belief about God as the head of a council of gods (henotheism) has been replaced by Monotheism.

This is just one example among many that show clear evolution in the way humans understand God and God’s will.  Notice what has not changed here too: God cares about what humans do to each other, and that he is especially sensitive to the needs of the poor, the vulnerable, the weak, the widows, the orphans and the destitute.

Isaiah’s Evolved God

God's chosen fast
God’s chosen fast

Our reading from the prophets shows the same process of  evolution in  thinking about God. All throughout the Hebrew Bible, when people wanted to express their religious sincerity, they would fast from food.  But the later Isaiah said that the ritual of fasting was meaningless if it was not accompanied by specific behavior.  Of what sort?  Listen,

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

What has evolved, and what has stayed the same?  There has been an evolution in understanding what makes God happy: not the religious ritual of fasting, but rather right behavior.  Orthodoxy, we could say, has been trumped by ortho-praxy.

What has stayed the same?  God’s passionate concern for the same kind of people:  those subject to injustice, the debt-slaves suffering under the yoke, the oppressed, the hungry, and the poor.  You can see a great theme in all of this, can you not?

Jesus and the Evolving understandingmodern good Samaritan framed

We discover the final step in this evolution, the final location on this trajectory, when we come to Jesus and the familiar parable of the “Good Samaritan.”  Jesus takes the tradition he received from the prophet Isaiah and radically transforms it by the removal of three little words.  The last three.

Isaiah said that the proper fast that God chooses, instead of a religious ritual, was the practice enacting justice – for whom?  The last three words are:

“your own kin

This may well have been were the Torah scholar, the expert in the Law of Moses, got his question:

“Who is my neighbor?”

Remember, that question came in response to the the discussion of the greatest commandment in the whole Hebrew scriptures.  The conclusion, shared by Jesus and that Torah scholar was that they whole Torah was summed up in the words,

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Right.

So the question is: “who is my neighbor?”  Isaiah had said, “your own kin.”

So to answer this question, Jesus told a story.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”

The priest and the Levite are both caught up in a world-view that believed God would rather have them keep their religious purity than touch a bloody victim, or worse, a corpse.  Were they right?  Is that what God wanted most?  No, but we already knew that, from Isaiah.

To add even another wrinkle, in the parable, along comes a Samaritan.  Why a Samaritan?  He is a person who is not kin to the victim.

Now, to be fair, the victim’s ethnicity or nationality is left unspecified – but that is precisely the point.  It doesn’t matter.  Remember, there is no way anyone can know what nationality the victim is: he is half dead, so no one hears his accent.  He has been stripped of his ethnically distinctive clothing, so he could be kin or not to anyone.

This changes everything.  The concluding question says it all: instead of

who is my neighbor?

(who is kin that I am obligated to care about)?  The question  becomes,

“who was a neighbor to him?”

This is what Jesus shows us is really important to God.  To care for people who are not part of our tribe; people who are not family; people who are perhaps even the bad guys, the enemies, the ones we feel so justified in ignoring because they are not like us: not “our kin.”

The Jesus revolution has shown us what God cares about.  As Paul said it,

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Expanding the Circle – infinitely

So what has changed and what has remained the same?  Changed is the size of our circle of care, compassion and action.  Now, it is universal in size.  Nobody is outside of it.  What has stayed the same?  God’s clear concern for people who suffer: victims.  Victims of robbers, victims of all kinds.

This is a call to action for us.  We know what is important to God; Jesus has shown us.  But now we are left with a problem.

Is this too much to bear?  What do we do now that we are responsible for the whole world?

Is this call so radical and so extreme that we simply have to write it off as pious fantasy?

Systemic Injustice

1% & 99%
1% & 99%

Not at all.  Now we are in a position, to push the evolution even further.  Now we know why that man was robbed that day on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho.  Banditry is the consequence of a deeply economically divided society in turmoil.  Nobody bothers to rob poor people: they have nothing worth taking.

In those days of a 1% at the economic top, and a 99% near the bottom, bandits who were the victims of the system, turned to crime against the wealthy.  In other words, the whole economic system conspired to create the conditions that landed that man in the ditch.

Nowadays, we understand systems as no other generation has.  We understand how systems can be either just or unjust; repressive or inclusive.   We understand social evils like nationalism, racism, class-ism, sexism, homo-phobia, xenophobia, and how all of these can be and have been enshrined in custom and even in law (even in constitutions!); defended by police and courts, and cause enormous suffering.

We know, for example, that a few simple regulations can bring clarity, transparency and accountability to an industry, like home owners insurance industry, where previously every decision was taken under the cloak of darkness, creating gross inequities for many, and massive profits for a select few.

Marching Orders

We are called to think through the implications, for our day and time, of our foundational belief: Jesus shows us what God cares about.  He cares about suffering people everywhere.   And now we know what to do about it: address causes; change systems.  Be a neighbor to the world.

Moral Documents
Moral Documents

Laws, we now understand, are not just legal documents, they are moral documents.    Budgets are moral documents.  Constitutions and court rulings have moral content.   Tax rates have moral content – as even Warren Buffet has pointed out.  Even student loan rates have moral content.

So it is not enough to have a religion focused on the personal, nor on the micro issues.  This parable of Jesus shows us the kind of God we serve – a God of compassion and mercy – and shows us our mandate, our marching orders: we are to be neighbors to the world, actively advocating for justice and compassion in all the systems of the world, from economics to health care, to education to the criminal justice system – and all the rest.

This is a huge calling.

Everyone’s involvement is significant.

Make no small plans!

The kingdom of God is at hand!

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