“A Mighty Fortress”

Thursday

Psalm 46

Photo credit: dkbonde

The Wartburg.  Photo credit: dkbonde

1God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear,
though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

This psalm is the source of Luther’s famous hymn: “A Mighty Fortress.” It is profound expression of trust in God in the midst of life’s chaos.

Luther was an outlaw when he wrote the hymn. He had been condemned at the Imperial Diet in Worms in 1521. The imperial edict forbade anyone to provide any food, clothing, protection or assistance to Luther. It required that he be immediately imprisoned or sent in chains to the Emperor and authorized the authorities to confiscate the property of any “sympathizers, supporters, patrons, protectors and followers” of Luther.

Luther had been given free passage to the Diet, so was allowed to leave the city before the edict was published. Once outside the city, he was kidnapped (by friends) and taken into hiding at the Wartburg. There he grew a beard and masqueraded as Junker Jorg. Bored, he sent for his Greek New Testament and translated it into German. When Wittenberg was torn by zealous proponents of a swifter, more radical reform, Luther returned despite the sentence over his head. In a series of sermons he rebuked the reformers for failing to act in love.

Though Luther was out of hiding, the Emperor was not in a position to march on Saxony to enforce the edict – Suleiman the Magnificent was advancing on Vienna; Hapsburg lands were under attack from Charles’ brother Ferdinand; and Turkish pirates threatened the Mediterranean – but the threat remained and Wittenberg did fall to imperial troops in 1547 (though Luther had died the year before).

In the tumult of those years, Luther transformed the psalm into a hymn that expressed the same profound trust in God despite the chaos of the world around him.

We live in a time when fear is a tool of politics and media. The lead-in to the evening news seems always to warn of some imminent threat, from Ebola to terrorism to the hidden dangers of ordinary household products. We see images of floods and fires and civil unrest and it is easy to imagine that the world is devolving into chaos. To suggest that “God is our refuge and strength,” may seem like denial. But neither Luther nor the psalmist is pretending. Luther’s hymn declares, “Though life be wrenched away, he [Satan] cannot win the day. One little word shall fell him.”

The psalm does not promise that nothing bad shall happen to believers. It simply celebrates God’s triumph over all the forces of chaos, whether in nature or in politics. It remembers that whatever may happen, God has spoken. He has passed judgment. He has declared us forgiven. He has opened the grave. And neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“A second is like it”

Wednesday

Matthew 22

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Hebrew Sefer Torah Scroll, photocredit: Bejinhan

36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

The text says that they were trying to “test him.” It is not a sincere question. His interrogators already know the answer – or, at least, think they do. Their purpose is to show that Jesus is ignorant of the law and the complex arguments that go into weighing all the different commands and prohibitions God has given in the Torah, the covenant law found in Exodus through Deuteronomy. There is a rule that you must corral your neighbor’s ox or donkey if it wanders off – but there is a rule not to work on Sabbath. What if the animal upon which your neighbor’s life depends wanders off on Sabbath? Which command is more important? The task of ranking the 613 commandments is a complicated one. And which lies at the top? Which is most important of all? This is the question the Pharisees set before Jesus. It is a question designed to disgrace him in the eyes of others, to show his ignorance, to show he is not worthy to be followed.

But Jesus gives a prompt and knowledgeable answer. He cites Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the daily recitation of all faithful: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” And then he adds a second that is ‘like it’ from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

A lot hinges on that phrase ‘like it.’ First of all the sentence begins with the disjunctive conjunction ‘but’ or ‘now’ rather than the normal ‘and’. The word of Jesus sounds much different if he says “but a second is like it.” It suggests that there is some surprise in that added element.

What exactly does Jesus mean that it is ‘like it’? Is loving one’s neighbor ‘like’ loving God? Or is loving one’s neighbor ‘like’ the other in that they are of equal weight, both are the chief command?

Is Jesus giving a conventional answer and then adding a challenge: “But a second is equal to it”?

It is a conflict situation, and I think that requires us to hear this second part of his answer as if Jesus were striking back at his opponents. He has not only shown that he knows the scripture – but he is attacking their central weakness. These are a people he will accuse of tithing their garden herbs in a scrupulous attention to the commandments, while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy.

You cannot separate love from God from love from neighbor. The religious people think they love God faithfully, honoring him in their scrupulous observance of the purity laws and temple rituals, but they ignore the hungry and burdened at their doorstep. They are indifferent to the suffering of those losing their land under the burden of imperial rule. And they haven’t even begun to consider the radical idea that all people are their neighbor, that all people must be regarded with the same concern and attachment as members of a common household or clan.

There is a rebuke in Jesus’ answer, a rebuke we should hear carefully.

Not a tame lion

Watching for the morning of October 26

Year A

Reformation Sunday
The Ninteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 25 / Lectionary 30

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Portrait of the young Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Reformation Day is October 31st, the eve of All Saints when, in 1517, Martin Luther is supposed to have nailed the 95 theses to the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg. There is some doubt about the historicity of that event – though no doubt about the 95 theses themselves. What seems in legend as a defiant act of protest was in fact something less. The theses, written in Latin and proposing a debate on the sacrament of penance, would have belonged on the doors of the castle church since that was the sanctuary used by the University of Wittenberg and constituted the university bulletin board where such notices were posted – and Latin was the language of scholarly debate. But there is apparently no evidence the debate occurred beyond the uproar that arose from the radical challenge to the marketing of papal indulgences and the daring proclamation (among others) that

  1. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.
  2. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.
  3. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting indulgences, needs and thus desires their devout prayer more than their money.
  4. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
  5. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.

For a religious system that was constructed around the fear of judgment and hell and a sacramental system to remove the penalties of sin, Luther had brought an axe to the root of the tree. What began as an effort to reform the excesses of the marketing of indulgences became one of those moments when the liberating power of the message of God’s grace escaped our natural human efforts to contain it.

Reformation Day is not a celebration of the Protestant Reformation; it is a humble remembrance of God’s repeated triumphs over every effort to domesticate him. In the wonderful words of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: Aslan is not a tame lion.

Sunday we will read the great and wonderful lessons that are associated with Reformation Day, since few families would come to worship on Halloween. But we will also read the appointed Gospel for the Sunday that falls from October 23 to 29, since everything else we say about the 16th century reformation is meaningless if we do not hear Jesus say that the chief command is to love God with all our heart and soul and mind – and then hear him add that the obscure commandment from Leviticus 19 is equal to it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Prayer for Reformation Sunday

Gracious and eternal God,
who by your Word called all things into being,
and by your Spirit sustains and renews the earth,
send forth your Word and your Spirit upon your church,
that ever renewed they may bear faithful witness to your grace and life.

The Assigned Texts for Reformation Sunday

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
– Though the covenant formed between God and Israel when God’s law was given at Sinai lies broken, God will create a new covenant relationship, where God’s teaching/commands are written on the heart.

Psalmody: Psalm 46
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – A hymn proclaiming the power of God to protect and preserve the people and expressing their confident trust in God’s saving work. It provided the inspiration for Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
“Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” – Paul’s classic expression of his understanding of the function of law and gospel and the idea that we are brought into a right relationship with God (justified) not by the law, but by the free gift of God (by grace) apprehended by our trust in that gift (through faith). This phrase “Justification by grace through faith” becomes a summary statement of the reforming movement.

Gospel: John 8:31-36
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” – This promise of freedom in Christ – freedom from authorities or powers that would prevent their living in service of God – is spoken to followers who do not abide in Jesus’ teaching, and his challenge will reveal their true heart.

The assigned Gospel for the Sunday from October 23 to October 29

Gospel: Matthew 22:34-46
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” – The Pharisees bring one final challenge to discredit Jesus by asking him which is the chief commandment taking precedence over all others. Jesus rightly begins with the familiar text to love the LORD, but then adds, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

(The text of the 95 Theses is from Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Career of the Reformer I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.), Philadelphia: Fortress Press, pp. 25-33.)

Like a bride

Sunday Evening

Sunday was my daughter’s wedding – that’s why there were a few missing reflections on the texts for last week.

The wedding was in the wine country, a “destination wedding”, since no matter where we held it, family and friends would have to fly in from all over the country. But there was something sweet and profound in the blend of accents from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Colorado, New Hampshire, and I’m not sure where else. Isaiah 25 declares that God will prepare a feast for all peoples; a world whose primal unity was broken will be gathered back together for God’s great banquet. In Matthew 14 that feast is anticipated in the feeding of the 5,000. In John 2 that banquet is anticipated in the new wine at Cana. In Revelation 21 that banquet is portrayed as a new Jerusalem, adorned like a bride for her husband.

Every wedding exults in the joy of creation and declares the promise of the banquet to come. In every wedding the bride is beautiful and the groom handsome, every flaw forgotten. In every wedding there is joy and dancing. In every wedding the woes of the world are forgotten for a moment.

It’s not that the woes are not there. An empty chair with daisies stood on the aisle for Megan’s missing sister. This date was the birthday of my missing brother. There are losses and wounds among us all, but they cannot overshadow the joy of the wedding. Hope, joy, the presence of possibility and future, the mystery and delight of two who find in one another a deep and enduring bond and dare to promise it no matter what comes – here joy trumps sorrow, hope trumps despair, life trumps death. There is a reason Jesus uses the wedding feast as a metaphor for God’s reign.

We live as believers – those who know the resurrection and trust the promise that God will fulfill his purpose of bringing life to us and to the world.

So we sing and dance and break the bread of the eternal feast.

(If you would like to read the sermon from the wedding, it is posted at jacoblimping@wordpress.com)

Whose image?

Thursday

Matthew 22

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Denarius with the Image of Tiberius

20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

I don’t know why our translators chose this expression, ‘head’, for the Greek word that comes into English as icon – though certainly ancient coins bore the visage of the emperor. At the time of Jesus, during the reign of Tiberius, they bore an inscription that declared: “Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” This was the reason you couldn’t use these coins to pay your temple offerings, the reason there were moneychangers in the temple to convert these idolatrous coins into a proper currency to bring into the temple.

Curiously Jesus accusers have no problem coming up with this idolatrous coin.

But Jesus is not sucked into the argument about the coins. Nor is he sidetracked by the trap they have set for him: a trap that would force him to risk open rebellion or risk alienating his base. He has a much deeper concern.

This narrative hinges on the fact that Jesus uses the word ‘image’. This is the same word used in the Greek of Genesis where God says “let us make humankind in our image.” Jesus doesn’t use one of the words for a graven image, a statue, an idol; he uses the word that connects to Israel’s fundamental conviction that humanity bears the image of God – for this is the question at issue. The Herodians and the Pharisees are made in the image of God, and have they rendered to God what belongs to God? Or are they rendering to Caesar what belongs to God?

Jesus is not dividing life between our civic and religious responsibilities. It is important to say this, because we routinely divide church and state, politics and religion. Jesus is challenging his accusers about where they have placed their allegiance. They have sided with Rome, not God. They have sided with wealth and power and safety rather than with the God who bids them care for the poor and protect the weak. They have sided with the accumulation of great estates rather than the commands of God that guards every family’s lands. They serve the empires of this world, not the reign of God.

This is why in the Gospel of Luke the leaders tell Pilate that Jesus forbids the people to pay taxes to Caesar. They hear Jesus’ challenge and know that he is repudiating their allegiance to the world of Rome. It is not that Israel could not live under Roman rule; it’s that its leaders have committed themselves to the way of human empires rather than God’s reign of justice and mercy. They have chosen to be “of the world” not just in it. “You cannot serve God and mammon,” says Jesus. He does not mean that it is tricky to pull off, or that you should temper your desire for things. It’s that your fundamental allegiance cannot be to God and to wealth at the same time. We must choose: the way of wealth and power or the way of justice and love.

Which takes us back to the central question: in whose image was I made? Whose image will I bear?

Let the sea roar

Wednesday

Psalm 96

Let the sea roar1 O sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.

“Sing to the Lord a new song.” Our praise should be ever new. Not, in this psalm, because God has done some new thing, but here just for the majesty of God who has shown himself to be worthy of our praise. Other gods are mere idols; they have no power to create or redeem. They have no power to speak. They have no power to shape the world. But the Lord is a god who saves, who heals, who makes whole.

It is not the song itself that must be new, not the words or the music, but the singing. We sing as those who live in the continual discovery of God’s goodness, not as those for whom the charm has worn off and everything is taken for granted.

Like a long married couple still in love, like an athlete who loves to be on the field every game, like a painter for whom every flower, every field, every sunset is brilliantly new, we sing every song as if it is springing forth from the heart for the first time. For all creation is singing. The fields are jubilant and every bird and creature stirring within. The trees of the forest sing for joy. The sea roars in praise. The mountains echo in reply. The wind whispers the mysteries of God. And all the families of the earth are invited to join the song.

To the author of life, all life belongs

Watching for the morning of October 19

Year A

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 24 / Lectionary 29

Creation stained glass“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus gives a brilliant answer to those who would trap him into open rebellion from Rome. But his answer is more than a clever dodge – it transforms their attack into the central question of human life: to whom do we belong? Whose image is upon us? What do we owe to the one who fashioned us and breathed into us the breath of life.

The texts vibrate with the notion that the LORD alone is God. The prophet declares that it is the LORD who has raised up the Persian king Cyrus and acclaimed him to be God’s anointed! (God’s ‘Messiah’ in Hebrew, God’s ‘Christ’ in Greek) God is the creator of all, and through Cyrus and his deliverance of Israel all the earth shall know “I am the LORD, and there is no other.”

The psalmist calls for us to “declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all peoples” for God alone made the heavens and all belong to him.

Paul’s thanksgiving for the believers in Thessalonica describes how they turned “from idols, to serve a living and true God.”

To the author of life, all life belongs.

But vibrating through our texts is much more than God’s claim over all life. It is God’s loving claim over all life. “He will judge the peoples with equity,” says the psalmist. He “rescues us from the wrath that is coming,” says Paul. God will go before Cyrus to “break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron,” declares the prophet. To God all life belongs – to the God who saves and delivers and draws all creation to “sing a new song” and “tell of his salvation from day to day.”

The Prayer for October 19, 2014

O God of all creation,
you formed us in your image
from the dust of the earth and the breath of your Spirit,
knitting each of us together in our mother’s womb,
and setting us to the task of caring for your world.
Help us to live as your faithful people,
serving you by serving our neighbor;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 19, 2014

First Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7
“Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped.” – The prophet declares that the Persian king Cyrus is God’s anointed whom God raises to power for the sake of Israel and so that all the world may know that God alone is God.

Psalmody: Psalm 96:1-10
“For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.” – The psalmist calls upon all nations to acknowledge the LORD alone as God.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
“The people of those regions [Macedonia and Achaia] report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.”
– Paul begins his letter to the believers in Thessalonica giving thanks for their open reception of Paul and his message.

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” – The leaders of Jerusalem seek to trap Jesus into declaring rebellion from Rome or alienating his followers, but Jesus turns their attack upon them, declaring that we who are made in the image of God must render our lives to God.

 

Joy

Sunday Evening

Philippians 4

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A woman from Papua New Guinea, By eGuide Travel

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

When we listen to the parable of the wedding feast – the king marching upon rebel vassals and burning their city to the ground, the king binding the inappropriately dressed guest hand and foot and casting him into the outer darkness – it’s hard to remember that at the heart of this story is the joy of a wedding feast and the boundless grace of the king who gathers all people into his joy. But it is important that we remember. The parable is not about the wrath of God, but the wrath of kings in the empires of this world and the dangers of choosing allegiance to human empire rather than the gracious and joyful reign of God.

God’s way is a way of justice and mercy. Nations do not fall in fire when they embody justice and mercy; they burn when injustice grows too great. There would be no riots in Ferguson if there were not a legacy of injustice. Watts would not have burned in 1965, nor Detroit in 1967 nor D.C. in 1968, had there been no legacy of injustice. Berlin would not have fallen into rubble without an ideology of hate. Go anywhere in the world and see if you can find a violent overthrow of a just society.

The penalty for idolatrous cities in Deuteronomy is burning. It is not the sentence of a jealous and wrathful god; it is the consequence of injustice that is the fruit of our idolatrous worship of wealth, privilege and power.

But the way of justice and mercy is the path of joy. It is a city that gathers joyfully in festivity, that gathers happily around its daily bread, that lives happily in community.

The way of justice and mercy is the path of joy. But it is not so much the path to joy as the path from joy – or from joy into joy. Joy in God’s kindness abounds in kindness to others. Joy in God’s bounty abounds in generosity to others. Joy in God’s deliverance abounds in freedom to others. Joy in God’s mercy abounds in mercy to others. Joy in God’s forgiveness abounds in forgiveness to others.

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, this joy leads to gentleness, thankfulness and peace. It leads to all that is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, and excellent. It leads from and into the wedding feast that has no end.

It doesn’t mean we should deny the sorrows of life nor weep for the wounds of the world. It’s just a reminder that even there, we dwell in God’s joy.

Royal rage

Saturday

Matthew 22

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Study for Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans by François Joseph Heim

7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.

Jesus is in Jerusalem, along with the crowds for Passover and the additional Roman soldiers brought in to keep anyone from thoughts of freedom at this national festival of liberation. For Jesus this is his final week. He will be accused of resisting Roman rule and will suffer the ancient equivalent of a beheading broadcast across the internet, designed to show everyone the futility of resisting those in power.

What does Jesus say about those who will not have God as their king, who refuse the realm of grace and life?

The banquet story is a story about grace – a God who invites all into the joy of the marriage of heaven and earth. Even those who live on the streets are clothed in wedding garments and brought into the king’s palace.

But as Jesus stands in the temple in Jerusalem facing those rulers of Jerusalem and Judea who are plotting to kill him, the story takes a more ominous turn. Where once the story had focused on the gracious gathering of outcasts to a great banquet, now the story concerns a king and the vassals who chose to rebel – and the inevitable outcome of that rebellion.

It is not an allegory; Jesus is not equating God with the king. God is not an enraged lord coming to slay his enemies. Jesus is simply reminding the Jerusalem elite of the world in which they live and the need to choose their lord wisely.

Wedding feasts were weeklong affairs. Like all banquets they were public rituals where questions of honor were foremost. Who is invited? Who will be asked to sit where? These are issues of which we are familiar in the Gospels. This is the reason for the two stage invitation: first, invitations are sent – followed by time for people to find out who else is invited and whether they should associate with such people. Then the servants are dispatched to escort people to the banquet. In this telling, Jesus skips over that first invitation and goes right to the second – the sending of servants to gather the guests and the invitees stunning rejection of their king. Even more surprisingly, the king gives his subjects the opportunity to repent by sending a second wave of servants – but the royal subjects escalate their rebellion by the disgraceful humiliation and murder of the king’s men.

All those wealthy landowners owe their privilege to the beneficence of the king. To spurn his invitation means that they have shifted their allegiance to some other lord. To abuse his servants is a declaration of war. Jesus doesn’t need to ask the question what will happen to such rebels; he just tells the story. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.”

This is political reality among human empires. After Julius Caesar was assassinated and his murderers defeated, war broke out among the triumvirs, Herod the Great was allied with Antony and Cleopatra. His fealty was pledged to Antony; his troops were in his service. Octavian (who we know now as Caesar Augustus) crushed Antony and Cleopatra’s forces at Actium. Had Herod’s troops been present in the battle, he too would have been crushed and his kingdom given to another. But Herod was off defending the eastern borders so, when Antony fell, Herod came quickly to kneel before Octavian and somehow persuaded him to receive his fealty.

Rebel realms are crushed and their cities burned. That is the way of empire. At least, that is the way of human empire. Everything depends on serving the right lord.

Jesus stands before the elite of Jerusalem as the representative of God’s empire. He is ushering in the reign of God. And this parable about welcoming all now also warns his hearers of the dangers of rebellion. They are choosing between two ‘empires’: one is the realm of life; the other the realm in which death holds sway. One is the new Jerusalem; the other burned cities. One the realm of grace; the other the realm of revenge.

They should choose their allegiance wisely.

“As for all the rest…”

Friday

Philippians 4

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Smiles of Innocence, By Pranav Yaddanapudi from Hyderabad, India

8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Finally.” This is not the last in a list of things Paul wanted to write about. It is the way he sums up everything else about which he has not written. You cannot address everything in one letter. You cannot speak to every concern in one sermon. So, as for all the rest: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

There are ten commandments, but they do not exhaust all that God would say to humanity about the way we should treat one another. There are four Gospels in which Jesus speaks about many things, but he has not and cannot address everything. He hasn’t spoken about the kind of music our young people should listen to. He hasn’t spoken about investment portfolios (at least not directly) or the jobs we take or the homes we build. Indeed, there is quite a lot of “the rest.” So, “as for the rest, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

It means we have to use some discretion, some judgment, some wisdom. Does listening to the snarky political commentators bleating loudly on radio and TV ennoble me? What about the distorted sexuality on television sitcoms? Or the semi-nudity of cable dramas? It’s not that there is a simple, black and white answer – as if seeing a breast or hearing a curse word makes it wrong – it’s a more complicated question whether the show elevates or degrades me, whether it elevates or degrades us.

Some Christians got Harry Potter all wrong, reacting to the concept of wizards rather than recognizing the stories portray young heroes struggling between good and evil, power and loyalty. Harry is a Christ figure in the end, giving up his life for the sake of the world, dying to destroy the evil Valdemort.

Maybe our reaction to Halloween is like this too. Costumes and pretend are deeply rooted in us human beings – the scripture itself is story that engages the imagination. This isn’t about the scripture’s historicity or reliability – this is about the nature of story. Stories are told to draw us in, and so to teach, to change, to expand our understanding of God, ourselves and the world. Imagination is fundamental to our humanity (compassion requires imagining what another feels). So we are – and should be – able to discern the difference between those costumes and stories that are fun and playful, and those that distort the image of God in which we were made.

None of this is simple. Some portrayals of evil are voyeuristic; others reveal truth and lead us away from harm. Some portrayals of tragedy are salacious and others deepen compassion. Some portrayals of goodness are simplistic and naive; others inspire and encourage.

And it’s personal. Different things affect each of us differently. Watching sports can be simple fun but, for some, it can be obsessive. At the end of the day, at the end of the activity, am I a better human being? More whole? More complete?

Christians needn’t be prudes, nor need we obsess on the morality of everything, but it is important to question the culture in which we live. We should be at home in our bodies, in the goodness of our createdness, but not necessarily at home in the values of the society around us.

Drinking, eating, dancing, sex, work, politics, exercise – all the many dimensions of life – for some there are pretty clear words of scripture, as for all the rest we have this guiding word: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”