Leaving the Cult of Suffering - thrive UMC Official Blog

Leaving the Cult of Suffering

So far in our series, called Tending Your Garden: The Untold Gospel of Self-Compassion, we’ve been inviting you to look at your lives as if they were gardens –because gardens, like our lives, are at their best when they are lush, and productive, and full of wonder. After all, that is sort of the premise our community, thrive, is built upon. So, to help you start seeing your own life in this way, we’ve been taking another look at one of the most important commandments in our religious and spiritual tradition, which tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” And we’ve been looking at that commandment as it’s found in the book of Leviticus.

However, as some of you have perhaps already noticed, according to Jesus, that doesn’t fully comprise the most important thing we’re supposed to do as human beings –which we’ll get to today.  But before we move in that direction, I want to first ask you a question. And I am hoping that you’ll all collectively pause for about 5 seconds and really think about this question I’m about to ask.  And then, after you’ve thought about it, I am hoping you’ll really and actually respond to the question I ask, out loud.  Okay?

So here’s what will happen in the next 15 seconds: I’m going to ask the question, and then I’m going to count, out-loud, to five.  When I get to ‘five’, I hope you’ll all give me an audible, verbal response, together.  Are we clear on what I’m asking of you?  Are we all okay with answering a straightforward question out-loud, in the presence of other people today?

Okay, the question is this: how do you feel about your own life, thus far?  [1, 2, 3, 4, 5!]

(Wow, what resolution! Those are some very confident, definitive feelings you all have!)

Now, for me, not only is this an urgent and interesting question by itself, but then when you ask it out loud in a public space –especially a public religious space it just becomes off-the-charts fascinating, doesn’t it? Maybe not the question itself, but the tone of the response.  I mean, is there anything more critical and relevant to you than your own life?  And yet, when we’re asked how we feel about it…. ‘eh.  It’s okay.  It’s fine.  Not bad.’ I bet I could have gotten more enthusiastic responses out of all of you if I had asked how you felt about the last Ghostbuster’s movie, staring Melissa McCarthy. And that’s regardless of whether or not you’d seen it.  Can you imagine if you’d had that same response if I had asked you how you feel about your significant other?  I would have to spend the rest of my afternoon cleaning blood out of this carpet.  And yet, your significant other is a significant part of your life –so, well, I guess you kind of did just say that about them…  ‘Eh, they’re not awful!

Another thing that makes this question interesting is that you might have answered a bit differently if I had asked you in private, am I correct?  Or you might have answered that same question differently if someone else, besides me, had asked you.  For instance, if your best friend of the last ten years had asked you that same question, and if you had more than five seconds, you probably could have had a good, long conversation about the different feelings you have about the different parts of your life. (And by the way, maybe it be a fantastic idea to sit down and have that conversation with someone close to you, if you haven’t done that in a while.)

And one of the particularly bizarre aspects of that question is that most of us have the general impression that it’s not okay to say anything other than ‘my life is just okay.’ Do we?  As if, for some reason, it would be a breach of social etiquette to admit that you don’t feel so hot about your life and where it’s headed right now. [Gasp!]  Or, what may even be just a little bit worse, according to many etiquette marshals out there, would be to say “my life is just awesome.” Que synchronized eye-rolls.

I’ve noticed recently that this had become my default-setting, somewhere along the line.  I’ve had these moments where I’m having  a great day, and someone asks me how I’m doing, but then this little voice pops in my head to suggest: ‘no Jeremy, don’t say you’re having a great day.  What if that person’s having a crisis right now? What if all the things you’re happy about right now are sources of secret misery for them?  You don’t want to rub their face in it, do you?’  Does anyone else have that voice sometimes?

It’s like getting ready to blow the candles out for your seventh birthday, and some grumpy relative sitting in the corner goes: ‘look at the smug look on that kid’s face –not even caring about everyone who doesn’t have a birthday today!’

And then, and here’s the worst part: once that voice comes on, I am no longer having a great day. Once I’m reminded of all the drama and all the terrible crap going on in the world, my joy is gone.  My joy has gone the way of Wiley Coyote running over the open air of a canyon, after looking down. Because it’s hard to feel good when you know other people are suffering, right?  So, for some reason, it seems like the responsible thing to do is to keep your feelings to yourself. However you feel, unless you just feel empty or eternally mediocre inside, put a fence around your feelings, and hide them! Guard the gate to your heart with Jedi mind-trick, telling everyone you’re always fine. Because you’ve got to protect everyone else, from your joy or sorrow!  You can’t inflict your emotions on other people! They don’t want that!  Don’t be selfish and make it all about your life and your feelings!  After all, Jesus would remind you that this isn’t all about you!

Nevermind the fact that protecting others from your feelings also happens to protect your feelings from other people!  So of course it’s for their best interest that you’re keeping your joy to yourself!  You don’t want to make them feel bad with your joy!  (Because that’s what joy does, when you share it –it makes people feel terrible about themselves!)

Which is exactly why we need to talk a little bit about child-sacrifice.  The first passage we’re going to read from the Bible comes from Leviticus chapter 20 –the chapter immediately following the text we’d looked at for the last two weeks.  Turn with me, if you will, to the first verse of Leviticus 20; it says this:

20 The Lord said to Moses, You will also say to the Israelites: Any Israelite or any immigrant living in Israel who gives their children to Molech must be executed. The common people will stone such a person.Moreover, I will set my own face against such a person, cutting them off from their people, because they gave their children to Molech, making my sanctuary unclean and degrading my holy name by doing so.But if the common people choose to look the other way when someone gives their children to Molech and do not execute such a person, I will set my own face against such a person and their extended family, cutting off from their people—both the guilty party and anyone with them who faithlessly followed Molech. I will also oppose anyone who resorts to dead spirits or spirits of divination and faithlessly follows those things. I will cut such an individual off from their people.

I want to remind you again that this curious bit of text almost immediately follows the chapter that commands the Israelites both to love their neighbors and the stranger, or the immigrant, in their land, as themselves.  And yet, here, in the very next passage, we’re told about an instance where we absolutely need to kill them. The language here is very strong; and in the Hebrew, instead of convicting people for “faithlessness,” as it says in this English translation, it condemns them for being ‘harlots’ or ‘prostitutes.’

And we have to admit that it’s a little hard to reconcile loving someone and also executing them.  Except for those of us who have had a roommate, or spouse, or parents, or children, or family of any kind, or any other human being you’ve shared very intimate quarters with over a long period of time.  In those cases, the pendulum swing between love and the murder-impulse can almost feel routine.

But here, I think, we especially need to understand the nature of the crime we’re confronted with, since there are elements of it both familiar and totally foreign to our modern experiences.  For instance, most of us can recognize that this is a crime involving the harm of children, which I hope is a most of us have no problem agreeing is a bad thing.  Children are both precious and delicate, so we need to take great care to protect them.  On the other hand, most of us have also never been worried about, or felt threatened by, Molech.

A couple of very quick notes about Molech: it isn’t entirely clear what the scripture means here, since cultic practices fluctuated a great deal over time.  At one point in Israel’s history, the cult of Molech may have only required nothing more than an oath, where a child walked in between two flames.  However, there is also evidence that Molech referred to a great brass statue of a man with an ox-head, seated on a throne –his arms outstretched.  This brass statue was hollow so a fire could be kindled within.  Then once the coals had heated the statue to a patent glowing red, a parent would be ushered by a priest to stand before it and place their child in its scorching embrace, while an orchestra of drums thundered to muffle their shrieks.

For stuff like that, God has a zero-tolerance policy.

And probably, if we’re taking about searing live children upon a huge, brass ox-man-skillet until they’re extra-crispy, stoning all of the people involved doesn’t sound completely out of the question.  However, if people are just lighting some candles and taking oaths, then throwing rocks at them until they die sounds, if we’re honest, a little extreme.  But on this point, the bible doesn’t make a distinction.  Giving your kid to Molech is giving your kid to Molech.  Whether sending them between torch-fires, or immolating them, the means of transaction is of less concern than the transaction itself. The word “Molech” by the way, is a Hebrew derivative of the word for ‘king’ –used probably so the specific name of the cultic deity would be forgotten.  And in this, they’ve had success.  Whether it’s the king of the star we’d now call Jupiter, or the Canaanite king of the harvest, or the god-king of the nation of Ammon –don’t give your kids to that.  There’s too much at stake, and the gift is way too precious for such a frivolous offering!

For most of us today, it’d be almost inconceivable to sacrifice our children for any purpose; but in the ancient understanding of how the world worked, there were all of these competing forces at play in the cosmos.  And the power of any one of these forces completely overwhelmed the feeble abilities any mortal human being might have.  So the only hope these ancient, primitive people had to survive and accomplish their will, was to try and buy the favor of these erratic powers with a gift. Produce, meat, money, crafts –any of these could be gifts to ‘earn’ a little divine favor. To buy a little help from nature.  But to get the best reward, you had to offer your best gift, right?  So you offer a some grain and a pigeon.  But then you look over, and the priest is accepting a sheep from your neighbor, and suddenly your pigeon doesn’t look so generous, does it? So if you expect to get this god’s attention, you’d better offer at least a sheep, if not two!

And we can see where this goes over time, don’t we?  Pretty soon oxen are the standard currency; then a new breed of the super-devout starts sacrificing captured enemies.   And we can imagine the people –especially in desperate times, where a drought  could wipe out an entire tribe- we can imagine them racking their brains and dragging their nails over their skin trying to figure out what gift the indifferent, insatiable gods could want that they don’t yet have.  What great offering could we pithy mortals give to get their heavenly attention –what sign of devotion could we exhibit to draw their favor?

And someone somewhere when: my kid.  We need the weather to turn around so we can feed the village –or there’s this other tribe that is bigger and stronger than ours, and they want to kill us and take what we have, or maybe people are just inexplicably falling dead, so here, have one of my kids.  Let me buy a better future with the life of my offspring.  Let me pay for the things our community needs with my grief. (Or, what’s more likely, someone in power would call for someone else to pay for the needs of the community with their children.)  This was something people from several cultures and nations did in our ancient history.  And people around the world still do it today –they give their kids away for money. We call it ‘human trafficking,’ among other things.

But the Bible has this rich and radical alternative to selling your children as a kind of tax to have a future and joy.  Here with the Bible we have a dramatic shift in the economics of power.  There’s been a revelation that has changed, and that continues to change, human life and history.  Let’s jump over to the book of Deuteronomy, the last of the first five books of the Bible.  In chapter 6 it says this:

Now these are the commandments, the regulations, and the case laws that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you to follow in the land you are entering to possess, so that you will fear the Lord your God by keeping all his regulations and his commandments that I am commanding you—both you and your sons and daughters—all the days of your life and so that you will lengthen your life. Listen to them, Israel! Follow them carefully so that things will go well for you and so that you will continue to multiply exactly as the Lord, your ancestors’ God, promised you, in a land full of milk and honey.

Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord![a]

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds.Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol.[b] Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.

Here’s the radical shift: you don’t need to give or buy anything, because guess what –anything you could possibly give is only something that you have already received from God. In other words, whatever offering or sacrifice you try to make would only be re-gifting.  Just imagine, someone gives you a great gift –say you’re just out of school and an aunt gives you a nice house in a nice neighborhood here in Des Moines.  And it’s great and everything, but if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s probably the least nice house in the neighborhood.  The kitchen’s about 20 years out of date; the siding needs work, and there is old-lady wallpaper everywhere. But there’s no mortgage.  So you turn around and light the house on fire. You soak the foundation with 30 gallons of gasoline and light a match. Why?  Because you’re banking on insurance, since what you really want is a new, maintenance-free house.

There’s just one problem: the only person you’ve fooled is yourself.  Insurance companies can tell the difference between electrical fires and arson, and your aunt heard what you’d done through a chain of cousins, and now not only are you homeless again, but that aunt, for whom you had been the favored child, has now disowned you.  Because you had this great gift.  And instead of cherishing the gift, you destroyed it –and that says something about how you feel about your aunt, doesn’t it?

“Israel, listen!  Our God is the LORD!  The LORD alone. Love the LORD your God with all of your heart, all your being, and all your strength.”  If you want a future and a good life, that’s all you have to do.  Receive and tend the gift.  Love the giver with your passion, your presence, and your power.

When we opened today, I had asked you how you feel about your life.  Let me remind you that you have one.  Unlike those ancient children melted in the arms of an idol, and unlike those senselessly dead in all of those school shootings, and unlike all of those we love who are in the ground, you still have a heart and breath and potential for action.  You still have everything necessary to love and live and experience joy.  And what you do with those gifts matters.  They weren’t given to be squandered or to be reminders of all the things you haven’t received –they weren’t given as payment for some other thing.  But they were given so that your life –and the life of all people and creatures- could be lush and productive and full of wonder.

You are the gift.  Your neighbor is the gift.  The children are gifts.  The immigrant is a gift (did anyone go to CelebrAsian 2018?).  And we are not juxtaposed in competition with one another –our primary social dynamic is not one of transactional exchange; but instead our most fundamental relationship is one of mutuality and sharing.  This is the grand revelation of the Bible: that the cosmos is unified.  Ultimately all we have comes from a single source, and it is good.

So grow good with your life.  Grow something to share –not just to sell. Let it be unique and weird –just so long as it celebrates this wonderful thing we have here together.  Let it be inspired with love, and given in a way that honors our common giver.

Let’s pray.