Arguing with God
This is a month of big news. One of the major political parties of the United States,
the Republican Party, has chosen its Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates, and
the 1996 Presidential Election Campaign will be in full swing, just as soon as the other
major political party, the Democrat Political Party, finish their national convention.
That is big news, but there is bigger news, disputed news, just as the political news
is disputed. A rock found in Antarctica has been examined by scientists who believe that
this rock originated from the planet Mars and has certain characteristics that are best
explained as fossil traces of minute microscopic life forms similar or analogous to life
as we on Earth define life. While conclusive and undebatable proof is not yet available,
the possibility and probability of evidence of extraterrestrial life forms, even if now
extinct, even if millions or billions of years ago, would expand the way we human beings
would consider the universe.
Proof of life beyond Earth would be a major step in what has long been thought about
the human relationship to the vastness of the universe. The implications are enormous, if
true. As Isaac Asimov, science and science fiction writer, said, "Either the universe
has other life or it does not. Either possibility is terrifying." The universe is too
big with too many possibilities for the probability that we are the only sentient life
forms. Already one conservative theologian has wondered if Jesus were referring to
extraterrestrial life when he spoke about having other sheep.
The possibility of proof of life beyond our planet may be the big news of our century,
but I do not think that the mechanics of being human will change. We humans are a
remarkably self centered lot. We have enough difficulty accepting each other as peers and
equals in worth and value. If we still contend with racism, sexism, ageism, and other
forms of discrimination, I am sure that we will find conflict in accepting the worth of
life from beyond. Of course, this is pure speculation. There is still no generally
accepted proof of visitations by life forms originating from beyond Earth. There is the
provocative remark by J.B. Phillips, a theologian that the assertion of Christianity is
that this is a visited planet, a planet visited by the Son of God. Are there other planets
visited by Christ or are we the chosen species to spread the news of the Christ to all the
The prospect of missionary activities to the stars is an interesting thought, and so is
the prospect of missionary activity from the stars. As a Christian, I must accept the fact
that we are here because of missionaries from another race and culture, from another era,
who went forth into the lands of my ancestors with the news of a revelation that happened
in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, to people chosen by God long before Rome arose
to conquer and rule.
The basic fact that Christianity did not begin with my ancestors or with the ancestors
of any European or American or African or Asian or any other ethnic group or nation,
unless one is Jewish, is a fact that many Christians have tried to ignore in the centuries
since Christ. There must be a tendency for each group to think it is the special group of
creation, the one favorite of God. There is some truth in this in that each group, each
nation, each person is a favorite of God, but, sinners that we are, we want to be the only
favorite. In the history of humankind, has there ever been a people who said, "There
is a superior race or nation, a people who have the truth, who are born to rule, and we
are not they?" Is it more natural to claim superiority and truth for ourselves? Is it
more natural to imagine that we are better than others?
Joseph, son of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, had been an innocent. He was the child who could
not imagine that everyone did not share his dreams of superiority, his dreams of homage.
He had not noticed that others might have their own hopes of glory, and might be offended
by his strange dreams of his brothers and father bowing down before him. Joseph was
innocent and easily taken. His brothers sold Joseph into slavery and reported him dead.
Joseph went into slavery in Egypt. He strived to survive and to remain honest. In fine
Catch 22 fashion, because Joseph resisted the sin of adultery, he was imprisoned for
attempted rape. Eventually Joseph became counselor to the pharaoh, planning against
drought and want. When the lean years of hunger came, tribes from the outlands came to beg
for grain to survive. Among the tribes were the brothers of Joseph who did not recognize
their brother in this powerful Egyptian official, but who knew who they were and saw the
fulfillment of those old dreams when his brothers unknowingly bowed down before their
Joseph was no longer innocent. He had survived and thrived. He was powerful. He was
skilled in the arts of politics and rule. He knew about false evidence and setup. He gave
his brothers a difficult and confusing time until he heard them say to each other that
what they suffered was punishment for killing their brother. Then Joseph revealed who he
was. Then Joseph forgave his brothers and expanded his circle of love to include those who
abused him, who had cast him out into slavery and certain death. Joseph told them that
what they intended for evil was turned to good by God, that the plan of God was not
overturned by their sin.
Joseph said that it was God, not his brothers, who had sent him to Egypt. Joseph saw
the plan of God in his life, in his universe. What plan do we see in a universe that may
or may not have other beings or life forms beyond the boundaries of our planet? How do we
imagine the plan and will of God in our universe, our society, our lives?
In the time of Jesus, as in all generations, there were those who had the will of God
down pat. The proper worship of God consisted in following the rules, in keeping within
certain boundaries of propriety, in certain ways of thought and behavior. The world was
divided into ritual and obedience, clean and unclean, the pure and the sinner. Then came
Jesus with a radical commitment to the greater meaning behind these rules, these guides.
In an ominous teaching, Jesus said that nothing outside could defile a person but only
what comes out. Eating without ritual cleaning does not defile, does not degrade a person,
but the sins of evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness,
slander which comes out of the heart defiles a person, just as slavery could not defile
Joseph, but only the evil that came out of Joseph could defile him. The converse, the
implication, of this teaching is that ritual and outward obedience is not enough to keep
one from true contamination.
It is no wonder why Jesus upset some of the good pious folk of his day and every day
since. Jesus undercut the basis for the religion of most people in this world. Note that
Jesus spoke of what He considered superficial and surface divisions while condemning what
is truly evil and distorting of humanity. Jesus called for lives grounded in true
obedience to a loving and just God. This call would place Jesus in jeopardy.
Jesus is the Christ. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is, according to the creeds of
Christianity, truly human and truly divine. It makes sense that Jesus had also to learn of
the full scope of God's will, justice, mercy, and love. After proclaiming that surface
ritual is not what makes us acceptable to God, it is shocking to hear that Jesus refused
to answer a Canaanite woman's request for help, even when she called Jesus by the most
exalted titles. One of my seminary professors said that he would put this story under the
category of things he wished Jesus never said or did. Not only did Jesus refuse to talk to
the woman asking for help for her disturbed daughter, Jesus insulted the woman by saying
that it is not right to give the children's food to dogs. The insult was as brutal then as
it now. The people of Jesus regarded their selves as the chosen, the only chosen people of
God. The children of the people of Jesus often went hungry while taxes paid to support the
Canaanites and others. Although the woman called Jesus "Lord, Son of David," she
was a pagan, outside of the holy people, and Jesus considered Himself sent only to the
lost sheep of the house of Israel. So Jesus said, "It is not fair to take the
children's food and throw it to the dogs." The woman replied, "Yes, Lord, yet
even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus told
the woman that her faith was great, and her daughter was healed.
In all the accounts of the Gospels, this is considered the only time where someone else
got the better of Jesus in an exchange, and it was by someone Jesus' people considered
beyond the reach of the will, love, mercy, and justice of God. Matthew considered this
incident an indication that the mission of the church would reach far beyond conventional
boundaries of what is and is not acceptable, that God's love reaches deeper that we know
and does not stop at the surface.
It seems that Jesus learned something about how faith can touch and reach beyond the
visible boundaries we think we see. I like to think that Jesus became more secure in God's
love, because those who are secure in the love of God do not find the widest reach of
God's love to be incredible or preposterous. One theologian wrote that every church should
have a picture or statue of the Canaanite woman to remind the disciples of Jesus that God
reaches out beyond their limitations of love and acceptance, that those we would reject
are not always those God rejects.
It is all right to argue with God, but it is also all right for God to argue with us.
The Canaanite woman argued with Jesus, and she was able to claim the mercy of God. If
there is anyone who feels that they are excluded from God's love, it is proper to argue
with God and Jesus about this. Just do not be surprised to find that it is not God who
excludes us from love and mercy and justice. It may be others and it may be our own self,
but the shocking truth is that God might love us more than we can imagine.
If there is life in other places in the universe, I wonder what revelations of God, of
Jesus Christ, of the Holy Spirit have touched these other places, these other souls. I
wonder if they also are always challenged to expand their circle of God's love. I wonder
how well they would understand, if we understand, these words that Archbishop Thomas
Crammer wrote for the service of Holy Communion some three centuries or more ago, Most
merciful Lord, your love compels us to come in. Our hands were unclean, Our hearts were
unprepared; we were not fit even to eat the crumbs from under your table. But you, Lord,
are the God of our salvation, and share your bread with sinners. So cleanse and feed us
with the precious body and blood of your Son, that he may live in us and we in him; may
sit and eat in your kingdom. Amen.
Amen and Amen.