August 10, 2014
The peace of Christ be with you all.
I come in peace.
As some of you have figured out, I am an historian obsessed with getting it right. And by “it” I mean, what Jesus intended to happen, worked for, died for and the original meaning of it all. Time and politics always obscures original intent. And I have to know what really happened 2000 years ago? What did Jesus say? We have four gospels in the Bible. Did he say anything else? Why do we have these books in our Bible? Who made that decision? What was the counter argument? Who called that meeting in the first place and why? What were the politics involved at the time? “Because I said so” has never worked for me.
This is the stuff that keeps me up at night.
As every historian knows, one side-effect of looking very closely at the history of humans is that it leads to the development of a rash of dark opinions about them. The more I learn about any period of time, the more the behavior of people seems to fall predictably short of the simple expectation that they, we, will do the right thing. We, the people, are universally capable of glorious acts of selfless service and compassion, yet we usually prove ourselves more inclined toward mindlessly going along with, if not perpetuating, darkness, including some of the great horrors of humankind.
I am deeply troubled by the word Christian, for instance, because of its 1700 year tradition of bringing death and injustice according to the political notions of those in power at any given point in time, including the present. For instance: I often argue that Adolf Hitler was in no way an anomaly. The German people, especially those from his region, had made the senseless slaughter of Jews part of their Easter celebrations since Constantine’s mother, Helen, suggested the whole affair was all the Jew’s fault. Thus ensued 1600 years of Germanic people burning down Jewish villages and killing innocents for Jesus’ sake. Hitler was inevitable in Germany.
The word Christian has blood all over it. The Bible and other great history books tell me this is the normal state of things. But, like some of my literary heroes, my hunger to know more, know the good purposes of the religion I had adopted led me to the stacks of great libraries, almost forty years of obsessive research and grave disappointment. You, all of you keep me positive. How did we get to a thousand years, with minimal interruption, of Christians and Muslims killing each other, thousands of years of the faithful slaughtering the other faithful? How did we screw this up? And why do we keep messing up?
It should be no surprise that it was a bumper sticker that put me on this path; the one that said, “Jesus is coming, and boy is he pissed.” Even at 15, I needed to know why that might be so.
That path led here, obviously; at least so far. Thank you for having me. I often feel like I stumbled upon the Agape here, the original collection of those inclined to build a better way in the name of Jesus and all things good and positive. I’m surrounded by those who walk the walk, talk the talk and pray the prayers that need to be gathered and taken to God. This place has felt like home since I walked in because I know I can say the following and not have a car in my driveway, a representative of the church, on Tuesday morning.
I consider myself a follower of the teachings of Jesus, all of them, even the ones that didn’t make the cut in 325 AD at the Council of Nicaea. In many places with the name of Jesus on the door, you can’t make a statement like that. And since Jesus, to my mind, was the ultimate transcendentalist humanist—going as far as dying for the cause of forgiving what is intrinsically wrong with human behavior—I am therefore a transcendentalist humanist. And like Jesus, Thoreau, Gandhi, MLK, John Lennon, Pope Frances and all such humanists before and after, I am profoundly frustrated with humanity, including myself. We have been told for literally ages upon ages that to give love, share love, make love and foster love is our mission; yet killing, hating, and oppressing by our daily choices and behaviors has always been and will always be the normal behavior of people, always, regardless of whether or not they call themselves Christians.
This, therefore, is our real starting point. We are surrounded by darkness, sometimes our own darkness, yet our task is to bring light into that darkness. This is, of course, the meaning of one necessarily being “in the world,” yet resisting the temptation to be “of the world.” As people who seek to carry the divine within us, through communion in all its forms, it has been our task since Seth, the third child of Adam and Eve, to walk among the swords and armies, surrounded by materialism and narcissism and truckloads of distraction and say simply, “May the peace of Christ be with you, brother.” “Sister, may I help you bear your heavy load.”
Sadly, what we mostly hear from religion—loudly, as Sandra pointed out last week—is vitriol and distraction. From the loudest Christians comes a certain desperation to view the Bible as a whole; to love it and believe in it, unquestioningly, without necessarily understanding its content; to simply praise, not only the Bible, but praise the obedient love of the Bible as though it were the action worthy of God’s endorsement, all by itself. In other words, knowing the Bible’s contents and studying their meaning isn’t nearly as important, culturally speaking, as being in a club of “believers.” That is an American thing and an American export, but the way; but it is also a phase in the cycle of empires.
As an historian I love the Bible. I depend on the many perspectives of its content—spiritually, yes; but I also depend on the Bible’s long view to tell me at what point on the repeating pattern of human folly we are presently parked. There’s a reason for that old axiom about repeating history. We do it, as a culture, nearly every day. Is it comforting then to know that it has always been the precious few who care enough about “joining with God” who desire to know where their feet truly rest on the ancient paths. Most, like the Israelites under King Ahab, don’t realize until it’s too late that all along they have been worshipping at the altar of Ba’al and filling the emptiness within their soul with delusion and distraction.
As I have mentioned to Bible study groups everywhere I’ve lived… What the people who bang on closed Bibles and profess their love so sadly miss, is that the Bible, like humanity, is filled with moments of light and darkness and sometimes it’s hard to figure out which one is which. It takes work, guidance, reflection and meditation, sometime for years. Literalism and over-simplification lead one to make heroes out of ogres and idiots, like Sampson and sometimes David. (David is far more complex than we lead children to believe and often highly instructive). Keeping the Bible closed, or closing one’s mind to all but one sentence out of Leviticus and one line plucked from the Gospel of John leads, first and foremost, to the temptation of substituting one’s own thoughts, prejudices and inclinations for what God, through the prophets, sages, seers and teachers has been telling us for around 6000 years.
As an historian, I know which part of the wave we are on by the words those who belong to the dominant religion put into the mouth of God. They are always the same. We move from beseeching to presuming, generally. The only thing that changes is the name of the nation to which such words apply. Lately, those words proclaim God to be a lover of war and empire, flags and soldiers, money and politicians who promote legislation that promotes ignorance and nationalism, i.e. Empire towards its end.
It is fitting then that we are in Kings.
Ahab was a jerk. All who’ve gutted through Moby Dick already knew this, of course. Ahab was the King of Israel during a period when Israel and Judah were divided. In global terms Ahab should be considered, at best, a petty king, or more likely, a warlord. Israel was in a down phase; making Ahab’s Israel one of dozens of small tribal fiefdoms from Egypt to India. The Babylonians hadn’t yet poured the new mold of empire. Egypt’s model still prevailed: the basic pyramid that channeled all resource toward perpetuating priest-rule; while, behind the scenes, those priests kept the royal 1% rich and superstitious. In Ahab’s world of 800BCE, the Babylonians are about take Egyptian monetary policy, known in this building as “Pharaoh’s economy” and add to it the acquisition of vast regions and their resources for the gain of a very few. They will be flexible on the god thing and future empires will take note of that. This new model will be honed by Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Kahn, the Holy Roman Empire, the British Empire and Us. The new thing hasn’t quite dawned yet in Elijah’s time; but it’s in the air. The warnings of Samuel about kings still hasn’t sunk in, and won’t, for the Jews, for another 400 years. But God’s opinion about empires and their cities is clear from cover to cover in the Bible.
In the beginning, God said his way was the way of the soil, the verdant paradise of Eden, of earth—the simple way. With Able dead, Seth had to be the sole light to carry God’s way within and offer it to the entirety of the human species for all time. Consider the moment, the people of Genesis. The entire world was either hunting and gathering or just learning to till the earth and domesticate animals. But there was another force mentioned in Genesis and equally present. It was the kind of growing movement that scares peaceful, faithful and honest people. It was the counter force to God’s way. It was the dark path these ancient people saw as the Way of Cain. Both ways are within us. In our DNA is the desire to dominate, to gain advantage and by gaining advantage to rule, and by ruling justify all our actions and deeds with flags and shiny monument and with robust displays of the armies and weapons that made it happen: the Roman triumph, the Soviet military parade, the Discovery Channel documentary on the American Aircraft Carrier.
Cain and his line, his paradigm gave us metal for shields, swords and armor. Cain, the despised of God, he who shunned the Lord, is the father of cities, armies, kings and empire. Genesis 4:17-23. We are, at our birth, hopefully, the Children of Seth. But we tend to, for all time, act as Children of Cain. In the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, Jesus explains this concept to Judas. Few actually internalize God, Jesus says. Everyone can. Most follow the ways of Cain, despite what religion they belong to or what the bumper sticker on their car says, or how much they bang their Bibles. That is the central theme of Elijah’s problem with Ahab. Most people aren’t on the path at all.
Ahab’s gone all Cain in this reading. He’s worshipping Ba’al, a regional and amorphous deity, a word that really only means “lord.” Ba’al is the generic substitute for giving one’s attention to God, and can therefore stand in for any entity of distraction, like cable television. Putting a Ba’al altar in the Temple was not so different than installing cable. You just know where the attention of the priests is going to be, especially if they need something common to talk about at the well, or water cooler. Ahab is also condoning and facilitating the worship Asherah—Queen of Heaven and consort to Anu. These are the old gods of the Semitic people; which is to say all the people in this region. They’re like Santa and Mrs. Clause being pulled into Christmas. Their symbol, to the people, was like a pretty wrapped present to comfort and distract the them from their misery. The Priests of Ba’al are therefore merely entertainers, actors, masters of the stage in fancy robes, paid by the king to draw the attention of the people. Elijah points out, inconveniently, that they are drawing the attention of the people away from God’s path. God tells Elijah to cut the cable.
This all started with Saul and David. Right? Kings! Saul bad-David good. Right? Actually, no. It all started with a warning about kings. The people wanted a king, like everyone else. They had king-envy. They were tired of being the victim every spring of yet another warlord with an army and demanded of their elders that they get their own king and join the empire club. For you Matrix fans—they requested the blue pill because reality was such a drag. All of this was predicted by Samuel.
We like David because of Jesus. We like kings because we’ve been ruled by them for 6000 years and, generally speaking, they need us to love them. We like them because we’ve been taught, brainwashed to; but the truth is this. The entire structure of the kingdom and empire is the stuff of Cain and has been from the beginning; for the Bible tells us so. We simply have a 1700 year history of not reading certain parts from up here; and after centuries of bright and shining kingdoms, we have created a Bible of the Mind that leaves out the Seth half in favor of the Cain half most of the time—even when God makes it so clear. This explains much, as they say. To get the point of Ahab, one must start with God’s warning to Samuel.
God said to Samuel:
This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, the others will plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others will make weapons for his wars and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. (The entire retail economy is wrapped up in this line). He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourself will become his slaves. When that day comes you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.
Sound familiar? Suddenly the left and the right find themselves nodding in agreement as they realize that both are living the outcome of choosing Cain over Seth; choosing Ba’al, cable TV, distraction, being in a club of like-minded people who share the same darkness, over God.
Elijah witnessed what Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Jesus and perhaps we will witness. That, when the dust of catastrophe clears, it turns out there really are very few people living Plan A. The rest were always watching something else. Oh, and please, I don’t want any of you to get the impression that I’ve got this Plan A thing mastered. If sin is the willful disobedience of God, than I am a big sinner. Stop nodding your heads.
Fast forward 800 years to Jesus.
There was one big reason so many who encountered Jesus presumed he was the Elijah returned. Spoiler Alert for those who want to finish this section of Kings at home. Although the ancients did not know Einstein’s theory of travel at the speed of light, they did know full well Elijah was abducted by aliens, or God, probably the latter, but who knows? They also knew that they were living under the absolute epitome of Cain’s world; brutally occupied as they were by a legion of the greatest empire the world had ever known, with half a dozen other legions strategically placed around their geographic neighborhood, just in case something besides Pax Romana broke out. Elijah made Ba’al, Lord du jour of another time, go away. Elijah, prophet of God brought fire and death to the enemy when the Children of God were either sucked into the world of Cain, or daily victims of it. As Roman soldiers, the very symbol of Cain, occupied Isreal, Elijah was who the people prayed for. Jesus is who they got, we got. Or to put it as we now should understand: To defeat Empire in the minds of all humanity, God himself, for all time, came to earth in the form of Jesus—Jeshua, the aspect of God that brought life to the world in the beginning. Jeshua, the Word. How we see this matters.
We start this story in Matthew from the middle. This is an ancient ploy to turn Jesus into a magician, a showman who does amazing tricks. He feeds 5000 with a couple loaves and fishes. He walks on water and we are amazed. Peter fails and we are comforted for every way we fall short. He tried. We tried. Pass the meatloaf. We have avoided empire in this story, Rome’s role, for as long as the mass of followers have been citizens of a kingdom, which is forever.
Herod, the tetrarch—one of the many sons of Herod the Great who took his father’s name for marketing purposes and to confuse the future faithful—was precisely the man Samuel warned us about; a petty chieftain who served the emperor by being a commander of thousands. Herod was the living example of an official recipient of the best grain and best vintage at no labor of his own; a sucker-up of resources for the sole purpose of making Empire look cool, admirable and ferocious, yet exactly the stuff for men and women with dreams of power and glory; the ambitious Children of Cain.
Jesus, his words, his presence and his lineage represented the alternative paradigm for all of humanity. No shiny metal shields, no endless red banners and triumphal marches full of the spoils of bringing death to entire regions—but a couple simple thoughts. Love God with all your heart; and love your neighbor, even your enemy, as yourself. The Romans burned their fields and orchards. Jesus harvested wheat the oldest of ways: between his human fingers. The story of Jesus walking on water is the story of Rome’s power to oppress, brutalize and dazzle with games in Coliseums throughout the Empire—bread and circuses, cable TV, March Madness, Shock and Awe—being outshined by the feet of a man with God inside him, standing upon the water of His own creation. And it was never meant to be a miracle. It was and is the original nature of things as God made them. When Jesus calls Peter out of that boat, we are supposed to know without doubt that having God inside us makes us one with all creation; so much so that we can walk on waves. We can walk on water. It is fear and distraction that cause Peter, and us, to falter, to drown in our souls by carrying the weight of Cain’s metal, rather than the weightlessness of God’s spirit inside of us.
That Peter eventually internalized that Spirit at the Feast of First Fruits, (which a former Empire called Pentecost and thus removed its nature) should give us hope. We fail, we fall short, we fall through. That is the human condition, but not the end of possibility. God is the God of all creation. He made us this way. He made Cain. He made Seth. He made us prone to darkness yet healed by light.
Then he told us to shun the darkness and be the light. The Bible tells us that has always been and will always be the way of things. Empires will come and go. All of them will be as shiny and alluring as they are deadly and evil; because they separate us from God. Scratch that. They attempt to induce us to leave the path of righteousness and wisdom in favor of the path of materialism and whatever glory means to the period within which we find ourselves.
Peter, like Elijah’s flock, assumed he was living in God’s world, on God’s path, following the very Son of God himself, until he took two steps out of the boat. His wet knees told him he wasn’t there yet, despite being Peter. As committed I am to the historical accuracy and meaning of this ancient text, to seeing the Mind of God in all things, to seeing the Gospel in every book touched by God, I will know I have arrived when I can walk on water, literally or metaphorically, without fear and distraction, because Jesus told me I could then took me by the hand. No tricks.
May the Peace of Christ be with you, inside and all around you.