Food for the Soul

(Sermon 4 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.”)

Following John Shelby Spong’s premise in his book Biblical Literalism, that Matthew is a liturgical document corresponding to the liturgical year, we have traced the connections chronologically from Shavuot (Pentecost), to Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur over the last three weeks. The next major festival in the Jewish liturgical calendar is Sukkoth (also known as Booths or Tabernacles). It was an eight-day harvest festival beginning five days after Yom Kippur, and was the most anticipated and joyous festival of the Jewish year.

(For the full video version, click here.)


In addition to the harvest-oriented material in Matthew 13, we hear the echoes of the rituals and traditions of Sukkoth in our own Palm Sunday celebration. In Jesus’ time, Sukkoth began with a procession around Jerusalem and into the Temple. In their right hands Jews would carry a lulab – a bundle of leafy willow, palm and myrtle branches tied together. And in their left hand they would carry a box with sweet-smelling leaves and flowers and citron fruit zest. As they paraded around the town, they chanted Psalm 118 which included (what we think of as Palm Sunday phrases) “Hosanna! Save us, we beseech you! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The Hebrew scriptures also dictate that Jewish families build a temporary shelter next to, or close to, their house for the eight days of the festival. This booth is to remind them of their ancestors who were essentially homeless nomads following Moses for 40 years in the desert. At least one night of the festival a meal is to be served in the booth.

The harvest stories (the sower, the weeds and wheat, and the mustard seed) and Kingdom of Heaven vignettes (the Kingdom of heaven is like leavened bread, a treasure in a field and a pearl of great price) in Matthew 13 correlate to the days that Sukkoth was celebrated in the synagogue.

It seems that Matthew essentially transformed the harvest festival – a celebration of food for the body – into a celebration of food for the soul- that which celebrates our deepest hunger. The message of Jesus was so important it needed to be shared! The parable of the sower was about planting the message of Jesus in “good soil” so that it would bear fruit. And the parable of the mustard seed recognized the reality of how small they were as a movement, but foreseeing it growing into something huge.

Almost two thousand years later, that tiny mustard seed of a movement has clearly grown and thrived. So, let’s turn our attention to the treasure and the pearl of great price… the value of Jesus’ message. How often do any of us actually consider the value that Jesus’ teachings and life have for each of us?

I spent a few days in Phoenix this week with my brother, Gary, trying to help my dad work through some issues and begin thinking about the future. The night before we came home Gary and I sat in the hotel bar to debrief. At one point he looked at me and said, “I don’t like your God.” Really? What about my God is it that you don’t like? Because I probably don’t like it either. He thought for a moment and then said, “I don’t expect life to be easy, but your God doesn’t seem to be helping us any…”

It seems to me that people are confused about what the treasure of knowing God is. You see, the value of knowing God – not merely believing, but knowing – is to understand that God is not a magic genie, but a deep abiding presence that changes everything.

What Jesus taught and lived is that knowing God has nothing to do with following rules, or believing the right things. Knowing God doesn’t mean reading the Bible, going to church, and giving to charity. You can do all those things without truly knowing the Divine. Knowing God means discovering that the secret to life, fulfillment and wholeness is, and has always been, within us. Knowing God means experiencing the Oneness Jesus talked about – “I am in God and God is in me” – and that Oneness is experienced as unbounded love. Not believing in unbounded, unconditional love, but knowing it, being it, living it.

When we reach that place, we move beyond our fears and insecurities to a place of compassion, courage and justice. We move beyond our judgments and grudges to inclusiveness and forgiveness. Our egos move aside and stop ruling our actions. This is a treasure beyond measure and a pearl beyond price. Why? Can you imagine what this world would look like if everyone could live in this place of pure unbounded love? There would be no war, no greed, no prejudice, no hunger, no poverty, no hatred, jealousy or pride. There would be no condemning or judging, envy or shame. To learn to live this way is priceless, because when we all meet in that place there is peace, there is care for all, and we find value in ourselves and in each other. That is “way”Jesus wanted us to find in our spiritual lives… KNOW God… then we don’t need rules or parables or belief structures.

Bishop John Shelby Spong has said, “Perhaps we need to confront the possibility that Christianity has not failed, as our critics constantly assert: the reality, I believe, is that Christianity has never been understood and thus has never really been tried.”



Unbounded Love

(Sermon 3 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.)

Two weeks ago we began our Lenten series which is examining the gospel of Matthew and it’s correlation and integration with the Jewish liturgical year in Jesus’ time. We have covered:

  • The Sermon on the Mount told in conjunction with Shavuot or Pentecost.
  • The miracle stories, and John the Baptist confirming that Jesus was the Messiah, told in conjunction with Rosh Hashanah

Now we move on to the next High Holiday in the Jewish liturgical calendar, Yom Kippur, which takes place merely 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. Those 10 days are considered the Days of Awe, or the Days of Repentance. TYom Kippurhis is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the sins of the previous year and make a commitment for the coming year to be better.

(For the full video version, click here.)

In the time of Jesus, the ceremony for Yom Kippur was much different than it is today. What many people don’t realize is that the rituals, symbols  and language of Yom Kippur have shaped much Christian language and much of our atonement theology.

In the time of Jesus, when the Temple still existed in Jerusalem, the Jews gathered for one long 24 hour day to meditate on their sinfulness in the knowledge that God was a forgiving God. This was not motivated by any concept of “original sin” but by the self-knowledge that we know we can be better human beings than we are. As Jews believed they were created in God’s perfect image, it was therefore their goal to try and attain that perfection with which they were created. A lamb and goat became the symbols of the human yearning to participate in the perfection of God.

On Yom Kippur a perfect lamb, without blemishes, scratches or bruises, was slaughtered. The Jewish high priest, after undergoing extensive cleansing rituals himself, took some of the blood into a place in the Temple called the Holy of Holies. This was the most sacred part of the Temple, the home of the throne of God. Only the high priest was allowed in there, and only on Yom Kippur. The high priest would then smear blood on the “mercy seat” (aka God’s throne) so that through the blood of the perfect lamb the people now had, symbolically, a way to enter into the perfection of God.

Then a goat, a perfect one, was brought before the high priest. Spong explains, “He would grasp the goat by its horns and pray aloud confessing all the sins of the people. It was believed that as he prayed those sins were transferred onto the goat.” The goat was then driven out into the wilderness carrying away the sins of the people. Hence, the term “scapegoat.”

You can perhaps see how these rituals have manifested in Christian language and thought. However, that is not the intent of this message today.

To return to Matthew and its correlation with Yom Kippur, we turn to chapter 12, which Spong says, “presents us with a conflict between religious rules and human fulfillment, and it opens to us a new way to look at and to interpret human sinfulness.” The chapter begins with three stories of Jesus breaking the Sabbath rules. First, he breaks them by allowing the hungry disciples to “work” by gleaning grain in the fields on the Sabbath. Then he does more “work” and heals the withered hand of a man on the Sabbath. And, finally, Jesus heals a man who was blind and mute.

Spong suggests that the question Matthew is really addressing with these stories is: “Where does holiness lie?” Does it lie in always following the rules? Or does it lie in addressing human need with compassion? Do the rules of the Sabbath take precedence over our fellow human beings, their well-being and their wholeness? And, let’s talk about that last healing. At the time of Jesus, being blind and mute were considered punishment from Satan (Beelzebul) for sinfulness (either of that person’s life or their parent’s lives). Healing that man presumed a certain authority, and yet Jesus wasn’t a religious leader! He was lacking the credentials to do what he did… so who the heck was he anyway? Maybe Jesus was working for Satan?

Basically, Jesus responds to the challenges of the religious leader’s by essentially saying, “You idiots. How can you confuse something good with something bad? Why do you look on the work of the Spirit and call it the work of the Devil? Nothing can fix that in you. Your distorted way of seeing is too deep. You are living in total darkness and don’t even know it.” Specifically, Jesus says, ” [A]nyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven…”

In the context of Yom Kippur – a time of self-reflection on one’s sinfulness and mistakes, a time of repenting and asking for God’s forgiveness, and receiving it because God is merciful – the religious scholars were completely blind to the presence of God among them. Spong suggests that the unforgiveable sin is only such because one can’t be cleansed of a sin they don’t even acknowledge they have!

Just after this passage, the religious scholars and Pharisees demand to see a miraculous sign from Jesus. Have they been sleeping? Did we not just have all those signs a few chapters ago where the blind saw, the lame walked, the dumb spoke and the leper was cleansed? Jesus says, “You are an evil and unfaithful generation and the only sign you’re going to get is the sign of Jonah.” Where on earth did Jonah come from?

What we don’t know, as non-Jews, is that the book of Jonah has traditionally been read on Yom Kippur.  And the interesting parallel here is that Jonah didn’t believe in God’s compassionate, unbounded love for the Ninevites any more than the Jews believed that the miracles Jesus performed were done with the authority of the Spirit in an act of love and compassion. According to Spong, Jonah confused “his vision of what was holy with God’s vision of what is holy” as did the Jews who didn’t like Jesus breaking the Sabbath rules. Both Jonah and the religious scholars wanted to put boundaries on God’s love in accordance with their own boundaries.

Are there boundaries to God’s love and compassion?   No.

Are there boundaries called synagogue (church) rules that can actually dictate who is in God’s favor and who isn’t? No.

Are there boundaries called sin – present and past – that enable us to judge who God loves and doesn’t?  No.

God’s love is unbounded. Any limits placed on it are human limitations devised by egos too small to understand the expansiveness of the Divine.

Lenten blessings,


The Kingdom is Here

(Sermon 2 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.)

Last week we began our Lenten series looking at the gospel of Matthew and it’s correlation and integration with the Jewish liturgical year in Jesus’ time. We began by looking at the Jewish festival of Shavuot, or Pentecost, and Matthew’s Sermon of the Mount.

Now we turn to the next major festival in the Jewish liturgical year, Rosh Hashanah, christ-ruler-of-all09usually referred to as the Jewish New Year. It was also the holy day to which Jews attached their hopes for the coming of a messiah. This increasingly became the focus of the festival, and since Matthew was writing after the fall of the temple in Jerusalem and during the Jewish-Roman war, certainly the Jews were in desperate need of someone to come and get them out of that mess.

(For the full video version, click here.)

The scripture from the writings of the prophets that was typically associated with this day was Isaiah 34-35 which talks about the signs that would accompany the arrival of the messianic kingdom, and then expounds on what that kingdom would look like once it arrived:

Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
the ears of the deaf will be unsealed.
Then those who cannot walk will leap like the deer
and the tongues of those who cannot speak
will sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:5-6)

Spong believes that Matthew 11: 3-15 clearly correlates with this Rosh Hashanah reading.  In beginning of the 11th chapter of Matthew we learn that John the Baptist is in prison. He sends a messenger to Jesus asking, “Are you ‘The One who is to come’ or do we look for another?” And, Jesus (never one to give a straight answer) sends a message in return: tell John what you see and hear, “Those who are blind recover their sight; those who cannot walk are able to walk; those with leprosy are cured; those who are deaf hear; the dead are raised to life; and the anawim – the “have-nots” – have the Good News preached to them.” Fascinating! Matthew obviously is making the case that the scripture is fulfilled and the Messiah has arrived.

But, just in case the Jews weren’t quite convinced, Matthew has Jesus make it absolutely clear that John wasn’t just a whack job who was thrown in prison. Jesus says, “…If you will believe me, [John] is Elijah who was to return. Let those who have ears to hear, hear this!” The prophet Malachi (4:5) prophesied that the great prophet Elijah would return at the end of times to prepare the way for the coming Messiah.

Here’s something even more interesting… if we back up a little bit to the last festival, Shavuot (the readings for which paralleled the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7), Matthew still had two to three months of Sabbaths in the Jewish liturgical year to cover before he arrived at Rosh Hashanah. These would be covered by Mt. 8, 9, 10 and part of 11. So, what do you suppose was in these texts? The stories of miracles that Jesus performed including (but not limited to) cleansing a leper (Mt. 8:1-4), healing a paralyzed person, (Mt. 9:1-8), giving sight to two blind men (Mt. 9:27-31), and helping someone who’d been unable to speak due to a “demon” (Mt. 9:32-34). The entire Sermon on the Mount was preaching the Good News to the poor.

So, basically, Matthew set the stage over the course of a couple of months, and 3 chapters in Matthew, for the coming messiah.

I’ve always struggled with preaching when these healing passages came around. Taken literally the message seems to be that if we just have enough faith, God will heal us. My bet is that we’ve all prayed for physical healing for ourselves, or for someone else, at some point and it didn’t happen. Did you have that moment of “I must not have enough faith”? I have… even though I know better. Or even worse are people who leave the church and give up on God because they prayed so hard for someone to live, to be physically healed or cured, and it didn’t happen. If God is supposed to be all loving and merciful, then why did God let so-and-so (who was such a good person) die? Or maybe sometimes it seemed that your prayer was answered and sometimes not, which can only lead us to believe we have a capricious God who does whatever they darn well choose and we’re told to chalk it up to “it’s a mystery.” I like a somewhat mysterious God, but that’s just a slap in the face.

Spong holds that the audience of Jews hearing these stories would not have even thought to take them literally because they heard them in the context of the festival and their Hebrew scripture readings. Plus, remember, Paul wrote NOTHING about Jesus performing miracles… certainly he would have used that to his advantage if he’d heard of that.

So, now if we consider these passages in a new light, in a more than literal way, and in conjunction with Rosh Hashanah and the anticipation of a messiah, it puts a completely different spin on things. Spong says:

Miracles represent the edited and expanded understanding of the Matthean principle, namely that God is present in Jesus and all people will be united in him. It is a wonderful interpretive portrait. It points to the experience of life expanded and made whole in the presence of Jesus. That experience is literal. The story is not. Matthew calls people to enter that experience. It is not a call to believe in miracles, but a call to enter the one who makes all life whole.

Matthew wanted people to enter into the Jesus experience where eyes are opened to the Divine presence, where ears hear anew the message of God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and blessedness, where we walk with renewed purpose leaving that which crippled us behind, and where we are moved to speak the language of God which is the language of love and hope and joy.

This is so much more than the literal message!

We’re called to a deeper relationship with the Divine than being an object to be acted upon. We are called to SEE, to HEAR, to KNOW, to GIVE and to LOVE with our hearts and souls, and so to be made whole.

Lenten blessings,


Jesus: The New Moses

(Sermon 1 of 6 in a Lenten series based on John Shelby Spong’s book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy.)

I am fascinated by John Shelby Spong’s theory that the stories in the gospels follow the liturgical year of the Jews and that,

“To read the gospels properly… requires a knowledge of Jewish culture, Jewish symbols, Jewish icons and the tradition of Jewish storytelling. It requires an understanding of what the Jews called “midrash.” Only those people who were completely unaware of these things could ever have come to think that the gospels were meant to be read literally.”

Christians forget, or were perhaps never told in the first place, that Jesus was a Jew his entire life, as were his disciples and his followers. In fact, most Jesus followers were still practicing Jews – going to the synagogue on the Sabbath, reading the Hebrew scriptures, following Jewish law, and participating in Jewish festivals and holy days – until the 9th decade of the first century. Christians also tend to forget (or, again, were never told) that we have no written records AT ALL until Paul starts writing about 21 years after Jesus’ death. But it isn’t until about 42 years after the crucifixion that the gospel of Mark appears. Stories of Jesus were carried on by oral tradition in the synagogues from 30-72 CE. And even more unique Jesus stories emerged in the three decades after that as Matthew, Luke and John added more parables and stories.

(For the full video version, click here.)

So, Spong’s theory (that you can take or leave, but I believe has merit), is that if the Jews who followed Jesus worshiped as Jews in the synagogue until about 60 years after the crucifixion, if they presumably used the synagogue to tell stories of Jesus (as we know Paul did), then it makes sense that the Jesus stories they shared in worship had some tie to the Hebrew scriptures that were being read on that day. You see, synagogues followed prescribed readings throughout their liturgical year, just as many Christian churches follow the Common Lectionary. In the course of one year at the time of Jesus, a synagogue would work their way through the entire Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, or our Bible), as well as the prophetic writings and the psalms.

Through Spong’s research and study, he found significant correlation between the order of the Jewish liturgical year, and the content of the stories in Matthew (he also found the correlations in Mark and Luke, but this book and this sermon series will focus on Matthew).

Here’s how it worked… each Sabbath scripture readings would be read, a psalm would be sung or recited and then the rabbi would share thoughts on these scripture and/or invite others to speak. Now, a speaker wouldn’t stand up and extrapolate on the readings with stories that didn’t apply, they would tie Jesus in, just like I tie in stories on Sunday mornings. And it didn’t matter if the stories were factual or not (just like I don’t care if the stories I tell are factual), because they were (and are) told to make a point and to relate the essence of who the believed Jesus was and what he taught.

Therefore, to really understand what the author of Matthew was trying to convey, we need to understand the Jewish liturgy, Jewish symbols and Jewish history, or we risk assigning literalism where it wasn’t intended and missing the point.

I think of it this way… when my kids were younger I never saw a movie that wasn’t animated, and, as it works with kids, I saw them over and over and over again so that I could quote them ad nauseam. I still can’t help these phrases coming out of my mouth with my wife, Julie, even though she has no clue where they come from. For example, I’ll say, “that’ll do pig,” and she’ll look at my like I’m nuts because she’s never seen the movie Babe. I’m sure she’s wondering why I was calling her a pig! When I bring her a cup of coffee in the morning I love to say, “My life is but to serve you, my liege.” It comes straight out of Aladdin. But unless you’ve seen Aladdin, you wouldn’t know that.

So, if there are pertinent references back to Judaism, but we know next to nothing about Judaism, how will we know what they are really talking about?

Here’s a summary of the major points of correlation that Spong finds between the Jewish festivals and Matthew’s gospel:

Shavuot or Pentecost (May-June) – Moses receives the Torah at Mt. Sinai
Mt. 5-7 Sermon on the Mount

Rosh Hashanah (Sept – Oct) – Coming of a Messiah, Jewish New Year
Mt. 8-9 Miracles of Jesus
Mt. 11 John the Baptist

Yom Kippur (Sept – Oct) – Day of Atonement
Mt. 12 Breaking Sabbath rules, by whose authority did Jesus do things? 

Sukkoth (Sept – Oct) – Harvest Festival
Mt. 13 Eight harvest parables

Hanukkah (Nov – Dec) – Festival of lights, light of true worship returns to the Temple
Mt. 17-18 Eight stories beginning with transfiguration

Passover (March-April) – Birth of a new nation
Mt. 26-28 Last Supper through the resurrection appearances

We’ll begin in this first sermon to look at the parallels between the festival of Shavuot and the content of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.

Shavuot, or Pentecost, which takes place 50 days after Passover, celebrates Moses sermon on mountgoing up on Mt. Sinai and receiving the law from God. This is not just the 10 commandments, but the entirety of Jewish law contained in the Torah. Shavuot remembers this story and calls people to renew their commitment to following God’s laws.

Interestingly enough, Psalm 119 is always read for Shavuot, and the first two lines of the Psalm use the words “Blessed are those…”  The theme of this psalm is clear: as the people of God, you need to obey God’s laws. Now, imagine you are in the synagogue and have just heard the story of Moses going up Mt. Sinai, and then you sang Psalm 119, and someone stands up to offer commentary. They begin by saying that Jesus went up on the mountainside, and you’re thinking, “Wow, just like Moses went up the mountainside.” And then they told you that Jesus taught, “Blessed are those…” (what we now call the Beatitudes) and you recognize the echo of Psalm 119 in the words. Imagine that.

The similarities don’t stop there. The Sermon on the Mount is actually three chapters long (Matthew 5-7) and just begins with the Beatitudes.  It continues by extrapolating on those eight “Blessed are those…” statements as well touching on the 10 commandments in new ways. It sure sounds like Jesus is being positioned as the new Moses.

So, if we run with this concept of Jesus as the new Moses, how does this flesh out?

  • Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt
  • With Moses it was imperative that the people follow the laws… that was the deal. God will take care of you as long as you follow the laws.
  • Jesus is a new leader who is not only as good as Moses, but even better.
  • Jesus acknowledges the importance of the law, but says there is more to it. The quote is: “I have not come to abolish the laws, but to complete them.” How are they completed? The Sermon on the Mount tells us that basically they are completed with love, compassion, and mercy. And those three things will spiritually unshackle us from the things that bind us (our own form of slavery, if you will) – our egos, our baggage, our prejudice, our judgments, our anger, shame, hatred, guilt.
  • Yes, follow the laws, they will bring order and morality to society, but follow them with love, compassion and mercy.
  • Psalm 119 begins, “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the Law of Yahweh! Blessed are those who keep your decrees…”
  • When Jesus talked about those who are blessed, it wasn’t about following laws so that God would give you a good harvest, 10 wives, and a flock of sheep. God’s blessings fall even on those who are struggling, who are poor in spirit and mourning. God has not forgotten you. And when you work for justice, have mercy, live in peace and integrity with a genuine, loving heart, you are blessed.

I imagine that to those early Jewish followers of Jesus, he was like the missing puzzle piece to them. Perhaps they were following the letter of the law, but felt that something was missing. Or they felt they must be doing something wrong because there was so much suffering around them. Jesus reaffirmed God’s love and care for them even though life was tough. God loved the people not just for following the law (though he didn’t argue that that was a good thing),  but even if they were grieving or meek, or depressed (poor in spirit). Jesus affirmed the blessedness of those who were striving to lift others up, be kind and forgiving, merciful and work for justice. And finally, he affirmed the blessedness of those who kept a pure heart… those who kept hope, love and joy alive, who didn’t get too cynical or too jaded, who didn’t lash out in hatred, anger, jealousy or prejudice. Blessed are you!

And, yes, blessed are each of us, when we don’t just go through the motions of our daily lives following the basic rules of earning a living, paying our taxes, going to church, and not breaking the laws. We are blessed and filled when we do these daily things with love, compassion and mercy. That’s the message.

Lenten blessings,