Sunday, September 25, 2016

What Makes the World Go Round

Those stick figure families on the rear window of your car or van are no longer novel. So people are getting creative with them. There are versions where a fleeing family is being attacked by a T-Rex or a guy with a hockey mask and chain saw or the starships of the evil empire from Star Wars. There are versions where the Mom or Dad figure is missing and an arrow points this out with the words “Position open.” There is one that purports to be from Utah that shows 1 daddy and multiple wives each with several stick figure kids. There is one with a daddy, a mommy and about a dozen kids. Over this, hand written on the dirty window is “OMG, get off her!” Because I primarily see these funny ones on the Internet, there is a possibility that they are photoshopped. But my daughter posted one this week that she saw in real life. It shows a stick figure man and next to him isn't a woman or a man or kids or even a dog but a large bag of money. It's meant to be funny, but I think it's sad.

Today's New Testament lesson contains perhaps the most misquoted verse in the Bible. Rather than saying that “money is the root of all evil” the verse is properly translated as “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils...” Part of the problem is the King James version added the definite article “the” which the Greek lacks and neglected the fact that the word “evil” is a plural. But almost all modern translations have corrected this. Unfortunately people also forget that it is the love of money that is being condemned, not money itself. Money and wealth are powerful and as we've said before, they need to be treated as one would fire. Put to their proper use they can do a lot of good. Put to evil purposes, they can do a lot of damage. ISIS funds itself by seizing the money and assets of the territories it invades. It also imposes taxes on those it conquers and turns oppressed minorities into slaves whom it sells. Most terrorist organizations operate like criminal enterprises. Few people know that Frank and Jesse James began as members of the pro-Confederate terrorist group, Quantrill's Raiders, during the Civil War and after the war, they just kept robbing trains and banks as a way of making money.

Part of the danger of money is that it is fungible. Unlike, say, a movie ticket, which is only good for a specific film at a specific time, money can be used for any purpose. So we get angry when money raised for a charitable purpose like disaster relief instead mostly goes to enrich those who run the charity. But aside from careful accounting and transparency, it is difficult to make sure money set aside or given for a particular reason will actually be used for that purpose.

Another problem with money is that it made in ways both ethical and unethical. Usually a business makes money by offering a product or service people want at a price they are willing to pay. But as we've seen there are many other ways that businesses can make money. They can promise a good quality product or service but deliver something inferior, saving themselves money on parts or labor. They can inflate the price as they have done with certain drugs; they can sell additional services that are overvalued or unnecessary, like undercoating; they can set up a payment plan with an interest rate that insures you pay many times the actual cost of the product. 

They can also produce things that are toxic or dangerous to either consumers or to those who work in manufacturing them, rather than pay for materials or methods that are safer. Remember old-time watches with glow in the dark hands and numbers? The women who painted them with radium died slowly and horribly of radiation poisoning, which the companies then covered up. Right now one of the world's chief manufacturers of airbags may go into bankruptcy because their product was apt to explode with such force it also propelled metallic pieces of the mechanism, killing several people. Sometimes a product is dangerous by accident but too often companies are loathe to admit it and opt to cover it up to protect their investment and profits, rather than protect their customers.

Again the money itself is morally neutral; it is people's love of it and some of the ways they try to get it or use it that are evil. God is not against people being rich, provided the person achieves it through ethical means and is generous to the less fortunate. Several of the Old Testament patriarchs were wealthy. And our passage from 1 Timothy has an awful lot to say about how the rich ought to think and act.

Paul starts by linking godliness with contentment. Greed and an envy of others are not compatible with being Christlike. If we have the basics, like food, clothing and shelter, we need to be grateful instead. If we have more than we need, we should share with those who lack even the necessities of life.

But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” If all you are aiming for is to be wealthy, you can do so by stealing or by conning or cheating people or by intimidating them. On NPR one former drug dealer said he actually came from a family of successful people. He wanted to be one too and drugs seemed to be a fast and easy way to do as well or better than his relatives and siblings. Of course, the price paid is the destruction of the lives in his community as well as the danger to himself in turf wars.

Paul says that in pursuit of riches people have “pierced themselves with many pains.” And indeed one way to get rich is to do things that are ultimately self-destructive. In the Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted the filmmakers follow a group of young women who come to Miami to get into porn. One of the reasons that South Florida has become a Mecca for this kind of thing is that California law demands that condoms be used for the safety of the “actors.” Our state has no such requirement. And the riskier or kinkier the sex, the more money you make. At first the girls love the money and the attention of fans. They are mostly small town girls right out of high school who become celebrities in the porn world. And they are making hundreds of dollars a day simply by having sex. 

But it starts to take a toll on them. There is the constant testing for STDs like HIV. There is the wear and tear on the body. It is harmful not only physically but psychologically. One girl finds a boyfriend who says he understands her choice but has an increasingly hard time dealing with the nature of her work. There is also the problem of breaking it to the family. In the age of the internet family usually finds out. The girls also start to experience the inherent misogyny in the business. They begin to realize that they are just fresh meat in a highly competitive business. Most of these young women are out of porn in 3 months, only to be replaced by naive newcomers. As Jesus said, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world at the price of one's soul? How can you buy back what you've lost?

But as we've said, while the Bible sees acquiring wealth as a spiritually risky venture, those who have riches can protect themselves from its deleterious effects. “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty...” Arrogance is a huge temptation when you have a lot of money. You tend to forget how fortunate you are. For every person who is financially successful, there are thousands who don't make it. Even if you inherit your wealth, just one bad deal, just one terrible investment, just one product failure, just one market downturn and you can suffer a major reversal of fortune. I am always surprised that more successful people don't acknowledge the role of chance in their rise to riches. Oddly enough, most movie stars do, knowing that they were lucky to get cast in a certain great role, sometimes simply because some other star dropped out. Humphrey Bogart, for instance, owed many of his iconic roles to George Raft, who turned down the leads in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. But few other millionaires will admit that they were just lucky. They cling to the myth that they were entirely self-made and just smarter or harder working that ordinary mortals.

Arrogance, the self-assurance that one doesn't need the help or advice of others, is the chief of the so-called seven deadly sins because such people are reluctant to acknowledge their dependence on God as well. It is, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, the complete anti-God state of mind. And because wealth gives you more power over your life and the life of others, it can lull the rich into thinking they are totally in control of what happens to them. Paul warns such people not “to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” Humility and gratitude for his gifts are more appropriate than thinking we are the masters of our fate.

They are to do good, to be rich in good works...” Wealth is power and used rightly it can do a lot of good. Bill and Melinda Gates are using their $44 billion foundation to increase healthcare and reduce extreme poverty in the world, among other things. The largest faith-based charity is Lutheran Services in America with an annual operating revenue of $21 billion. It serves 6 million people, about 1 in 50 Americans, especially low income children, youth, seniors, those with disabilities, the homeless, veterans and refugees. 

So one thing a person with excess wealth can do is use it to help others. In fact, the rich man in today's gospel (Luke 16:19-31) is suffering because he couldn't even be bothered to help the poor man who lay at his gate. Seriously, if you had a poor starving guy, who had sores that the dogs licked, right at your door—I mean, you practically have to step over the guy when you go in or out of your house—and you didn't even give him your leftovers, much less have someone tend to his wounds, could you blame God for being angry with you? The man is in Hades, not because he is rich but because he is an uncaring jerk. The least he could have done would have meant a world to poor, hungry, sick Lazarus.

So Paul says the well-off should be “generous, ready to share...” We are having problems right now getting our granddaughter to share with other kids. But she's 2 and an only child. Less forgivable is an adult who makes more money in an hour than most people do in a year and yet who can't share his wealth with others through a charity. I mean there are tons of them out there and many are quite specific in what they do. So you can make sure you are supporting education, or housing, or food for the hungry, or support for veterans, or disaster relief, or help for the mentally ill, or fulfilling the wishes of dying children, or cancer research, or healthcare in general. You can provide help across the globe or here in the US or in your local community. And there are websites that will tell you how much a prospective charity actually spends on helping people. So there is no excuse not to give.

Paul says, when people do this, they are “...storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future...” Successful people are often driven by a vision of the future, although it's usually a future they create. But this is a future God is creating. And it is about things that will last, unlike wealth which is ephemeral. We brought nothing into this world, Paul says, and we can't take anything out of it. When the things of this world go away, what's left is eternal. One of the bittersweet lessons of this life is that we can't really hold onto anything. And I'm not just talking about money or possessions. I understand how young mothers, like my daughter-in-law, want their newborns to stay little forever. But babies grow into toddlers, toddlers into children, children into teenagers and teenagers into adults. We change and grow older. We gain mastery in certain areas of life and then gradually lose them. The mantra of our culture is don't live in the past; live in the present. But the present becomes the past with each second. And if you are just thinking about this life, you have to acknowledge that it will end.

By using the present to serve God by serving our fellow human beings, we are laying a good foundation for the future. And what is that future? To “take hold of the life that really is life.” Too often wealth gives one ways to avoid really living life. If you have enough stuff, you can distract yourself from everyday life. You can bypass some of the hard work and unpleasantness of life but you can also miss out on wonderful moments. You can't stop and smell the roses when you are running from meeting to meeting or working late into the night because markets on the other side of the globe are open.

It can also make you jaded toward simple pleasures. Why go for a walk through the woods when you can experience the exhilaration of speeding around in a really powerful car? Why read to your child when you can simply install an entertainment center in their bedroom that will give you more time to pursue your own interests? Riches can remove you from real life. When you are on your deathbed you are not going to regret not working harder, nor are you going to wish you had played more hours of golf or video games. You may regret not being there for someone when they needed you, however unpleasant that may have been at the time. You may regret missing certain special moments with loved ones, because of busyness or self-indulgence. What you will regret are missed opportunities to love. The best parts of life are steeped in it—the love of others and the love of doing something meaningful, that is, something that will have a positive impact on others.

Fortunes come and fortunes go. The true treasure is everlasting. It is being included, enfolded in the eternal life shared by our heavenly Father, Jesus, his Son our savior, and the Holy Spirit of love that unites them as one. It is becoming part of the divine life of our beneficent God, “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” God doesn't want to take all your toys away from you; he wants you to share them with others. When you truly love someone, you say, “What is mine is yours.” God says that to us everyday when we open our eyes and once again enjoy life, love, nature, our bodies, our families, our friends, our talents and all the other gifts he so graciously showers upon us.

In a few minutes we will enter into the mystery of God's greatest gift—his loving presence made real in his son our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose body and blood we will partake. When our hoarding and fighting over and misusing God's gifts poisoned our lives, Jesus said, “What is mine is yours” and gave us his life. Every week we, the Body of Christ, share the Body of Christ. We come forward with empty hands to receive what he so freely gives. But I like to think that we are actually offering him our poor, empty lives and receiving his rich, full life in exchange. It's a poor bargain on his part, as the world reckons things, but that is because you cannot measure or monetize love. You can however receive it and return it and you can still pass it on. Because there is no limit to God's love. You cannot corner the market on it because its source is endless. Nor can it be contained. It overflows all vessels as it overflowed even the life of Jesus, the fountain of living, refreshing, life-restoring water. So let's stop trying to hoard it. Let's be extravagant with it. Let's pour it out on everyone we meet, baptizing them, soaking them with God's love. Because it springs from a well that will never run dry. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

How to Choose a Leader

In any group of people, certain folks arise as leaders. If you need to get a task done together, it helps to have someone organizing it and if not telling people what to do, then at least asking or suggesting what needs to be done. In the early days of humankind, it often fell to the alpha male of the group to protect the family or clan from other groups. When we were in Ireland, my family toured a reconstructed ring fort that went back a good 1000 years. There was a little hole in the ground that the kids found they could crawl into and they asked about it. It turns out that was a hiding place for women and children in case the neighboring tribe attacked and tried to take them for slaves. Hence the popularity of the strongman ruler. The first leaders were basically military leaders, selected for their fighting prowess and strategic ability.

But life is not just dealing with conflicts outside the group. A leader has to deal with internal conflicts as well. He could just favor close family members and friends, or, in the interest of peace, try to set up rules and decide disputes on their basis. In fact, when times were good, a wise and diplomatic ruler made more sense than one who was simply a fighter. Some Native American tribes actually split the position into a war chief and a peace chief. In most governments, we want a ruler who is both good with domestic issues and with foreign affairs. 

Until just a couple of centuries ago, most rulers were kings. But after World War 1, a lot of countries got rid of their royalty or severely limited their power. We now think of elected leaders as the norm. So we live in a quite different world than that of the people in the Bible. We can feel that our leader is ours in a way that they couldn't: we vote for them. Even if we personally didn't, the majority of our countrymen did. But nobody voted for the Roman Emperor. It was a dynastic position. He served until he died. Or, in the later part of Roman history, until he was deposed or assassinated.

One of the other things ancient leaders like kings and emperors did was serve as a spiritual focus for the people. In Biblical times, the tribal leader would make sacrifices to God for his people. However, the emperors of Rome and the pharaohs of Egypt were treated as living gods. Obviously, the Jewish people, unlike pagan subjects of the empire, could not make a sacrifice to Caesar as a god. But they could make sacrifices in the Temple to God dedicated to the emperor and pray for him. And it seems from passages like 1 Timothy 2:1-2, that early Christians continued the practice of praying for the emperor and the appointed leaders. And each week our church also prays for our leaders.

That may bother people. They may think it is a violation of church and state to do so. Or they may not want to pray for a leader they voted against. But as we said, in the Bible no one got to vote for the king or emperor. But still they prayed for political leaders.

What we can do that earlier peoples couldn't is select who our leaders are. But because the requirements of government are a lot more complex than before, we need to use wisdom. And part of wisdom is knowing what the job requires.

When the Hebrews settled in the land of Canaan, they functioned as a rather loose federation of 12 tribes. When they were attacked they rallied together under leaders they called judges. But that meant they didn't have much unity except when under assault. So the elders of Israel approached Samuel, the judge, and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons don't follow your ways. So now appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have.” (1 Samuel 8:5) Samuel was none too pleased with that but God told him to go ahead but to warn the people just exactly what they were asking for.

Samuel says, “Here are the policies of the king who will rule over you. He will conscript your sons and put them in his chariot forces and in his cavalry; they will run in front of his chariot. He will appoint for himself leaders of thousands and leaders of fifties, as well as those who plow his ground, reap his harvest, and make weapons of war and his chariot equipment. He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks and bakers. He will take your best fields and vineyards and give them to his own servants. He will demand a tenth of your seed and of the produce of your vineyards and give it to his administrators and his servants. He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best cattle and your donkeys, and assign them for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will be his servants.” (1 Sam 8:11-17) In the Hebrew the word for “take” appears 6 times, about once a verse. The people of Israel will get a lot more than they bargained for.

Administration, conscription, and a professional standing army are just some of the costs of a nation state. You also need a justice system to administer the laws and judge those who break them. You need people to advise the leaders; you need ambassadors; you need trade policies; you need support personnel. There is a certain irreducible cost to it all. And so, as Scripture points out, you need taxation to support it all.

Because of the complexity of modern government, what you want in choosing a leader is a process rather like that of selecting someone for the job of CEO. What we have is more akin to a popularity contest. Seriously, a good way to predict who people will vote for is to ask them which candidate they would like to sit down and have a beer with. That's actually the basis of a poll by Survey Monkey. That's not a good way to choose who will run a country.

As we said, choosing a leader requires wisdom. So let's look at a few things the Book of Proverbs, the pinacle of biblical wisdom literature, says about rulers. And right off the bat, I want to thank the website for leading me to the verses I will discuss. Of all the lists that popped up when I googled the subject, they had the best. The commentary on the verses is mine.

In Proverbs 8, wisdom itself is personified. And it says in verse 15, “Kings reign by means of me...” So the first principle is: a good leader is wise. That means a good leader not only knows the price of everything, as the cynic does, but also the value of everything. A leader needs to know the value of intangibles, things that can't be measured by money or other metrics. An insurance company puts a price tag on how much a life is worth in terms of dollars. You want a leader who knows that lives are priceless and thus will not spend them carelessly.

A wise leader needs to understand other people and how they think and act. Because a leader needs to work with other people—members of Congress and the leaders of other nations. A leader really can't do things by decree. He or she needs to persuade and motivate others. Which means listening to other people, not just talking at them.

A good leader has personal integrity. Proverbs 16:12 says, “Kings detest wrongdoing, for a throne is established through righteousness.” Proverbs 29:4 adds, “By justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down.” Even in ancient Israel, money's influence on politics was felt. In fact, the Bible tells us that it was one of the reasons why the elders of Israel wanted a king. Samuel's sons went “after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.” (1 Sam 8:3) As Jesus says in today's gospel, you cannot serve both God and wealth.

And you can't run a nation if you are putting the wealth of a few ahead of the welfare of the many. Just this week, an episode of Adam Ruins Everything revealed that vitamins and supplements are shielded by law from the same kind of scrutiny that drug companies come under. So when you take, say, echinacea, you have no assurance that the plant is even in the pills you ingest. One study says you have a 60% chance it's not. Our laws keeps Medicare from negotiating with drug companies for lower drug prices. On the other hand there are no laws prohibiting Luxottica, a virtual monopoly which owns most brands of eye wear and most places that make and sell glasses—Lenscrafters, Peale Vision, Sears Optical, Target Optical et al—as well as the vision insurance company Eye Med, from using its power to keep your glasses costing as much as your smartphone.

This state of affairs didn't happen by accident. Today 42% of former House members and 50% of former senators become lobbyists. An academic study showed that the rate of return on lobbying was 22,000%. In other words for every dollar spent by an industry on lobbying it got back $220 in subsidies and tax breaks. Perhaps if Zika victims had a wealthy lobby, we could actually get our Congress to do something about it.

In biblical times, as today, money distorts justice. You want a leader who will do something about getting money out of the process of writing and enforcing laws.

A good leader has good advisers. Proverbs 11:14 says, “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure.” Running a nation has a lot of facets. Nobody knows everything. You want a leader who surrounds herself or himself with good advisers. The other advantage to this is that different people have different perspectives. To get a detailed and three-dimensional view of a complex problem you want more than one viewpoint. Lincoln has been praised for his so-called team of rivals, a cabinet that included at least 3 men who had run against the president for the nomination in 1860. You want a leader who will listen to those with perspectives different from his or her own. You want a leader who can still learn.

A good leader has self-control. Proverbs 28:15 says, “Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked man ruling over helpless people.” You wouldn't buy a car with wobbly steering and bad brakes. You wouldn't let someone with road rage issues drive your kids to school. The person at the helm of the ship of state needs to be able to control him or herself. You have alliances to maintain and enemies to keep an eye on. You have a worldwide economy that catches cold every time the U.S. sneezes. If you are a good leader, you have to choose your battles. You have to choose your words wisely. A good leader is never out of control.

A good leader is compassionate. Proverbs 29:14 says, “If a king judges the poor with fairness, the throne will always be secure.” It's saying the security of the nation depends on how it treats the poor. In Jeremiah 5:27-29, it says it more forcefully. It says of the wicked “'...they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it, they do not defend the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?' declares the Lord. 'Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?'”

Our country is the wealthiest in the world and yet has the highest poverty rate in the developed world. You've already heard how the top 1% of wealthy families own more than a third of the total wealth in our country and how the top 20% own 85% of the wealth. That means the rest of the population, including the upper middle class, are left dividing up the remaining 15% of wealth. Upward mobility is pretty much dead these days. Studies show that if you were born poor you will likely remain poor throughout your life. Wealth inequality hasn't been this high since the Great Depression!

The Bible mentions the poor around 300 times, or about once every 104 verses. It stresses how much God cares for the poor and it emphasizes our duty to them. It forbids oppressing or cheating the poor. It even says that the sin of Sodom was that “she did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) Technically as points out, sodomy should more accurately be defined as not helping the poor! So Proverbs 31:8-9 says to kings: “Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” A good leader speaks up for the powerless and defends their rights.

A good leader is kind and truthful. Proverbs 20:28 says, “Mercy and truth preserve the king; and his throne is upheld by mercy.” In a recent episode of the podcast Hidden Brain the host interviewed Dacher Kelner, a psychologist who wrote a book called The Power Paradox. In his studies, he's found that people who are kind and empathetic and who work for the greater good are more likely to rise to power, rather than those who are Machiavellian and self-seeking. The danger, he found, is that the more power you get, the more it erodes that kindness and empathy. When people are fawning all over you and treating you as someone special, it's easy to become accustomed to such treatment and start thinking you deserve it. It is easy to forget what it's like to be an ordinary person or even a powerless one. It's easy to start to look down on those who haven't managed to do as well as you have and blame them for their misfortune. Power corrupts, as Lord Acton famously observed. 

One way to fight that loss of mercy is with truth. A good leader is truthful not only with others but with him or herself. They should admit to having faults, which will make them more merciful to other imperfect people. And a good leader seeks out those who will tell the truth to his or her face. They can't be thin-skinned. They must be able to accept the truth of a situation. Stable leadership is based on mercy and truth.

There are other characteristics of being a good leader and again I recommend reading the whole page on But the key qualities are that a good leader is wise, has personal integrity, has good advisers, has self control, is compassionate to the poor, is merciful and is truthful.

And if you are confused because no candidate fits all of those criteria, then good! That means you are paying attention. No candidate is perfect. We are electing a president, not a savior. As Paul says immediately after his admonition to pray for secular leaders, “there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus...” It's an important election but we must never lose sight of whom our ultimate leader is.

As Martin Luther pointed out, we are citizens not just of the Kingdom of God but also of one of the kingdoms of this world. Balancing the two is tricky. We are called to be in the world but not of it. We must use our God-given wisdom to make the best choices we can for the common good. We must not be swayed by popularity or likability but who will be the best steward of this country's resources and the wisest governor of the people who live here and the best person to represent us to a complex world that includes allies and enemies. We are also electing a lot of other people to national, state and local positions. Without good leaders in those offices, the president can't do much.

Study and pray before you vote. And then, whoever is elected, even if you didn't vote for them, pray for the person who is our new leader. Whoever it is, they will need it.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Religion and Violence

I remember what I was doing when President Kennedy was shot. I was waiting in the gym at Lindenwood Elementary School to return to 3rd grade. It was a rainy day and so we couldn't play in the school yard after returning from lunch at home. And that's when my friend Kenny Cross, sitting next to me on the bench, told me the president was shot. I didn't believe him. Until later that afternoon when the teacher interrupted our rehearsal of the Thanksgiving play to confirm what my friend said. All the girls cried. I was Turkey #3 and I was a kid, so I was irritated that our rehearsal came to a screeching halt.

I remember where I was 6 years later when the first man walked on the moon. I had to switch from channel 11 where they were showing Arsenic and Old Lace to one of the three major networks in order to watch what I knew was tremendously historic. But I was still a kid so I was still irritated.

I remember where I was when President Reagan was shot. I was in orientation at St. Louis University Hospital. We had just watched an instructional video and when the tape was stopped, the TV went back to the broadcast channel it was on and we were smack dab in the middle of the coverage. It had just happened. I was shocked.

I remember where I was the Challenger space shuttle exploded upon liftoff. I was writing and rewriting a news report for my radio class.

I remember where I was when the Columbia space shuttle exploded upon re-entry. I was helping with the Bahia Honda beach clean up St. Francis used to do.

You probably remember where you were and what you were doing on most, if not all of those days. And I bet you all remember what you were doing exactly 15 years ago today...when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hit by commercial airliners and a fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed into a field when the passengers revolted against the hijackers.

It's sad that most of those dates we remember for terrible reasons. One was a scientific and technical triumph for humanity. Two of them were technical failures. Two of them were caused by lone gunmen. Only one was caused by religious fanatics. But that last has become a day of infamy for the 21st century.

And now it seems like every few months there is a new outrage caused by religious extremists. It's caused a huge split in the attitude of people not only toward a particular religion but towards religion in general. Is there something about religion that makes people do violent things?

Yes and no.

Yes, in that religion is about ultimate values and when people feel that their ultimate values are under attack they fight back. But those ultimate values don't have to be religious. They can be ethnic. They can be political. The Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China were both officially atheistic systems. And under Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, they killed 60 million people. On, they occupy the number 2 and number 7 slots of the list of (Possibly) the Twenty (or so) Worst Things People Have Done to Each Other. 60 million is just 6 million shy of the death toll of World War Two, which is number one on the list. In fact of the events listed only one can be said to have been started over purely religious reasons: the Thirty Years War, with an estimated death toll of 7.5 million. Actually, it was a series of wars kicked off when the new Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, tried to impose his Roman Catholicism on all his subjects and triggered a Protestant revolt. But by the end, most of the major powers in Europe joined in and the main conflict became the Hapsburg succession, which is why Roman Catholic France joined the Protestant side and why the Muslim Ottoman Empire and Orthodox Russia gave support as well. It concluded with the Peace of Westphalia, whose principles led to the recognition of national self-determination and co-existing sovereign states, the idea that such states should not interfere in the internal affairs of one another and that aggression between states should be held in check by a balance of power, all of which influenced international law. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

On the religion front, people were given the right to worship as they pleased no matter where they lived. Period. As far as I know, no changes were made in the lines of any creeds, just political boundary lines. So what started as a war over religion ended up being about politics, as do almost all religious wars.

So can religion be a cause of violence? Yes. Take the Crusades with an estimated death toll of 3 million. Or the witch hunts, with an estimate of 60,000 deaths. Or the Spanish Inquisition, which clocks in at a surprisingly small 32,000, only 8,800 under Torquemada. Horrible. And indefensible. And yet nowhere near the numbers that the USSR and Communist China killed in just 1 century.

Is religion the only cause of violence? Obviously not. Ah, but is it the main cause? No again. In fact according to the Encyclopedia of War, only 7% of all wars are religious in nature. So the other 93% must be about matters--land, resources, politics, glory.

Oh, and by the way, the original suicide bombers were the Tamil Tigers, Marxists who wanted India out of Sri Lanka. So today's religious extremists can thank another atheist group for that technique.

The second part of my answer to whether religion can make people violent was “and no.” The key word in the question is “make.” In other words, can you take an otherwise non-violent person and make him violent simply by exposing him to religion? The answer is “No.” NPR featured an interview with a former ISIS member, a middle class German kid, now imprisoned, who went to Syria. He said that all throughout his training they kept approaching him about becoming a suicide bomber. He kept saying “No” and they would go away and ask him again in another week or two. When a video he was in turned into a beheading, he left. We think “How could he not know what he was getting into?” But that wasn't why he went. He thought he was helping his fellow Muslims. He didn't sign up to kill them, which is mostly what ISIS does. There is a reason why Al-Queda and ISIS like to recruit in prison. They want people who already have little regard for others and for laws. And, if they are in Europe, they want criminals because they can get access to guns. In America, that's not important, because they think our gun laws are—their words, not mine—“dumb.” They want Americans for their passports. Contrary to popular opinion, our current immigration laws and asylum laws make it difficult for them to come in. So they recruit those born in America to operate in America.

They also don't look for the poor so much as for idealistic youth looking for a group to belong to and a cause to support. It helps if you are a minority in your country and are treated badly, but if you are not, they will fan the flames of hatred by showing you examples of Muslims in other parts of the world being treated badly by the West. The blog of one lone wolf recruit shows that it was his empathy for fellow Muslims suffering that led to his self-radicalization. Authorities picked him up before he could do any harm. One wonders if he would have ended up like the German recruit and become revolted by ISIS killing other Muslims. Because ISIS is to Islam what the Westboro Baptist Church is to Christianity, if the Westboro Baptist Church wasn't satisfied with just waiting for God to throw 99% of all other Christians into hell but felt they had to help him out...a lot.

So religion cannot make a person violent. Violent people make people violent. They do so by either being violent to you (this is the reason that the children of domestic abuse tend to become domestic abusers) or they make you violent by convincing you that violence is the only way to get what you want, whether it's money or fame or power or revenge or a sex slave or a caliphate.

If you have more than 1 child, you know that people can fight over literally anything! How many wars are little more that jacked up versions of “He's on my side of the car?” In the comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy, a random Coke bottle causes fights among previously peaceful bush folk because it is both unique and useful and therefore an object of desire. The causes of human violence arise from the human heart: from desires like lust and greed, from envy of others' privilege, from rage over injustice or others' laziness and from fears--fears of those different from us or fears of going without our basic needs being met. The Syrian Civil War was due in part to a shortage of bread, as was the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The more important question is “Why doesn't religion make violence go away?” Let me ask another question: “Why don't condoms make HIV and AIDS go away?” Or this: “Why are measles coming back when we have a vaccine?” There's one answer to all three questions: No thing works if you don't use it. Vaccines don't work if you think they only apply to other people and other children. A condom won't work if you leave it in your wallet or purse like it's a magic charm. Religion doesn't work if you compartmentalize it from other parts of your life.

AA and the other 12 Step programs have helped a lot of people get and stay free from alcohol and other addictions. But their mere existence alone won't do that. People have to join the program, attend the meetings, and do the steps. A doctor can't cure those who don't come to him. He can do very little for those who come but then won't comply with the regimen of diet, exercise and medicine he prescribes. And it's hardly fair to blame him if people throw out the diet and exercise and simply take the prescription he wrote them and then abuse it. But people seem to have no problem blaming religion for the people who discard key parts of it and misuse other parts. And they think that if religion doesn't magically transform a world that isn't interested in reorganizing itself along the lines of its moral principles, it doesn't really work.

People also forget that it only takes  a few people to cause mayhem for the majority. 72% of Muslims worldwide and 81% of Muslims in America said attacks against civilians were never justified, in a 2013 Pew Research Poll. That's what the average Muslim feels about terrorism. ISIS is an outlier.

As for Christians, Jesus explicitly told us to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to put up the sword—this last command given to Peter who was trying to stop Jesus' arrest! Those are words from the son of God himself on the use of violence for his cause. Need I say more?

But what is amazing is that on this day in our gospel reading assigned by our lectionary is Jesus' solution to terrorism!

One of the many parts of the recent episode of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman (“What Makes a Terrorist?”) that intrigued me was that the way terrorists recruit is through networks. They have them in prisons but they also work through friends, family and social networking sites. And like I said they look for the impressionable. It really helps if the person feels alienated from his country or culture. Because people who are happy with themselves or the way things are don't want to change the status quo. So they look for outcasts.

In Luke 15:1-10, Jesus is criticised for welcoming sinners and even eating with them. He responds, not by telling them that a doctor's place is with the sick not the healthy, as he does in Matthew 9:12, but instead tells 3 parables. The third one, the so-called Prodigal Son, is the one we usually concentrate on. Our lectionary ends just before Jesus gets to that one. And I'm glad because the point of that one is slightly different than these two. Instead we get a picture of how a shepherd, realizing he has lost one sheep out of a hundred will go looking for it, and how a woman who loses one coin out of 10, which represents a day's wages, will sweep the house till she finds it. And Jesus tells us how everyone in God's presence rejoices over just one person returning to the fold. In other words, Jesus is saying “leave no one behind.”

You want to win someone over? Then be welcoming. You want to bring someone to church? Then calling him a sinner is probably not the best strategy. You want someone to agree with you? Then calling him an idiot won't help. You want someone not to blow up people in your country? Then making them feel unwelcome in your country is counterproductive. In that same Through the Wormhole episode, one social scientist shows how including people in a group, through something as simple as using language like “we” and “our” and “us," will get most of them to eventually say they will sacrifice themselves to save the group! So when we look at a Muslim and say, “You are not one of us” but ISIS says to him, “You are one of us,” to whom will that person gravitate?

But come on! Jesus' parable about searching for the lost sheep and bringing him back is a way to fight terrorism? Being welcoming to radicals will change them? What are you thinking? 

I'm thinking of something I learned from the NPR podcast Invisibilia. In the episode “Flip the Script” Hanna Rosen tells how in 2012 the Danish town of Aarhus started noticing a lot of Muslim youths had gone missing. Actually, the Muslim community noticed it and went to the police. Two officers, Allan Aarslev and Thorlief Link, caught the calls from hysterical parents. They eventually realized that these Muslim kids were going to Syria to be radicalized. At a time when most of Europe was dealing with this by lowering the boom on Muslims, these cops flipped the script. Or took a page from the gospel, perhaps unwittingly.

Aarslev and Link let their Muslim community know that if any of their kids returned to Denmark from Syria, they would be welcomed. They should call the officers and they would receive help going back to school, getting an apartment, meeting a mentor or a psychiatrist and whatever else they need to become integrated again as a Danish citizen.

And it worked! 34 kids left. Some were killed or captured. But of the 18 kids who left Aarhus and returned, they all got calls from Aarslev or Link and ended up in their office and took advantage of the program. As have 330 other potential radicals. So far there have been no terrorist attacks in Aarhus, Denmark. And the number of young people leaving for Syria just 1 in 2015.

Social scientists call this noncomplementary behavior. Complementary behavior is treating others the way they treat you. You are nice to them if they are nice to you. You treat them badly if they treat you badly. Jesus is the champion of noncomplementary behavior. If they berate you, bless them. If they persecute you, pray for them. If they wrong you, forgive them...even if they are nailing you to the cross at the time!

I remember how I felt on 9/11. You do, too. And I know why more people don't feel like doing what Jesus said. But that's no excuse. If he is truly our Lord and God, if we say we are his followers, we know what we've got to do. And if that scares us, that's why he said we need to have faith in him. If we feel we are signing our death warrant, well, he did say we need to take up our cross. We need to trust him, the living embodiment of the God who is love, and go where he has trod. If we don't do what he says, it's our fault if it doesn't work, not his. It all comes down to living in the Spirit of Christ, trusting in his grace. It works if you use it. 

Monday, September 5, 2016


The word has come down from the Vatican. Sermons should be no longer than 8 minutes, according to Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops. Homilies should be tailored to people with short attention spans. The article in the Guardian where I read this also mentions Irish priest Father Michael Kenny who has an early morning mass that only runs 15 minutes! And attendance has gone from 3 or 4 to 30 or 40. In by 7:30 am and out by 7:45, perfect for people going to work or taking kids to school, Fr. Kenny says. I am assuming, therefore, this is a weekday mass.

I responded to the Facebook post of this article by saying, “Why not replace the scripture readings with TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read), limit the sermon to 140 characters and put the whole service on a Vine?” (That's a social media platform that hosts 6 second videos.) “Jesus' Sermon on the Mount takes up 3 whole chapters of Matthew. What was he thinking?”

Now I agree with Archbishop Eterovic that clergy should keep up on current affairs and address issues of local or national significance and that they should follow the pope's lead in taking a whole week to turn out a sermon that is “engaging and relevant.” (I don't remember the pope's sermons being breaktakingly short, however.) I also agree that short sermons are harder to write because they have to be really disciplined and well-crafted. The reason I write my sermons is because I don't want to subject you to 40 minutes of me rambling. Writing makes me think hard about what precisely I am saying and exactly how I am saying it. It helps me time them accurately and keep them short, though usually they are twice the length of the Archbishop's ideal.

I also know that a short sermon can be very effective. The shortest one I ever heard was when Fr. Paul Rasmus was leaving St. Paul's in Key West. At our final Keys Convocation with him, his sermon was this: “God loves you, and there is nothing that you can do to stop that!” Period. But I don't think you could get away with that weekly.

The problem is that people tend to take the easiest way out and the easiest way to preach a short sermon is to oversimplify an issue. We see this all the time in our Twitter culture. Take a complicated subject and boil it down into a something that is punchy and quotable. But as a paraphrase of H.L. Mencken puts it: for every complex problem there is a simple solution...and it's wrong! A prime example of this oversimplification goes way back to the early days of feminism. You may have seen it on bumper stickers: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” I understand the basic idea. Women need not feel incomplete if they don't have a husband or boyfriend in their life. But the saying, which went viral before “viral” was a thing, makes no sense. A fish can't ride a bicycle even if it wanted to. Did the author of that sentiment literally mean that men and women are so fundamentally different that they are absolutely of no possible use to one another? I doubt it. But that's the kind of snappy saying that has made it almost impossible to have a sensible conversations about complex problems today. If you really get into a issue that has many sides and factors, insisting that we keep everything short and simple leads to short tempers and simplistic thinking.

On Wednesday the NPR show On Point dealt with a vital problem we are having today: the crisis of unreliability in science. And they had several experts who all had their points to make. They brought up the subject of how politicians misuse science to bolster their positions rather than to come up with solutions. They brought up the problems of industry funding studies and the subsequent pressure to get results that either lead to marketable products or which support the use of products already on the market. They brought up the problem of academics having to “publish or perish;” in other words to continually produce new research to get tenure. They brought up the problem of out and out fraud by some scientists who are, after all, flawed human beings and whose livelihood depends on cranking out new and exciting results. They brought up the problem of the pressure to only publish positive results. You rarely see the results of an experiment that didn't work out, even though it is important for scientists to know that certain hypotheses don't pan out. They brought up the problem of how many of the works published are bad science because the results can't be reproduced because the data were cherrypicked, or the sample size was too small or all the variables were not taken into account. They brought up the problem of studies where the data was valid but the conclusions are questionable. They brought up the problem of confirmation bias, where we tend to see what we expect to see or want to see and are often blind to what we don't expect or don't wish to see. They didn't bring up the problem of scientific journals, some of whom will publish anything provided you pay their fees, nor the high subscription fees that keep scientists from third world countries from learning about the latest research. This is an essential issue in the 21st century and even an hour could not cover every salient aspect of it.

A few weeks ago I dealt with Jesus saying that he came to bring fire to the earth. He talked about causing division rather than peace. There is a very short and simple way to deal with that passage and that is to say Jesus can't wait to destroy the earth and cast non-believers into hell! That's brief and punchy. The problem is it doesn't jibe with other things Jesus said and so I used commentaries and theology and a lot of thought to take a deeper look at the passage. As it so often turns out, what Jesus was saying required a lot of reflection. And the fruits of that reflection required a bit more time than the Archbishop thinks necessary.

So what does this have to do with today's gospel (Luke 14:25-33)? Jesus is again saying something difficult to hear and easy to misinterpret if we don't take time to reflect. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Whoa! Did he literally mean that? Some cults think so and thus they separate people from their families and will not allow them to meet or communicate. But given that Jesus criticized the Pharisees for allowing people to dedicate their wealth to God and thereby get out of having to support their aged parents, this sounds out of character for him. Either he didn't say this or he is making a point rhetorically. I think it's the latter.

We live in a time where we emphasize the individual and tell people to follow their dreams no matter who tells you not to, even if they are family. That's the moral of most Disney films! In Jesus' day that would not be a popular message. The family and the community were considered more important than the individual. To his audience, Jesus telling people to put him and his mission first would be interpreted as the equivalent of him telling them to just hate everyone else, including your loved ones. So what was he really getting at? 

Think of a soldier. We tell them to leave behind their parents, their siblings, their wives and children with the full knowledge that they may never see them again. And no matter how patriotic the family, watching your son or daughter or sibling or husband or wife or father or mother choose to go off to possibly die must at times feel like a rejection of you. Why are the people in Iraq or Afghanistan more important than me, your supposed loved one? We understand the hierarchy of values here but just ask a soldier's spouse if that realization gives them comfort when they lie in a half-empty bed or have to explain why daddy or mommy keeps going away for months at a time or why their parent will never come back.

Jesus is demanding the same allegiance to him and the Kingdom of God that we demand of a soldier. The cost of following him is that high. That's why Jesus says, “And anyone who does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” The cross was not a piece of decorative jewelry but a method of executing slaves and traitors to the Roman Empire. Jesus is saying you need skin in the game if you are going to call yourself a disciple. Armchair enthusiasts need not apply.

Having laid out the true risks of following him, Jesus says: Count the cost. He compares it to calculating how much it will take to build something. He even uses the concept of going to war. Jesus wants commitment, not lip service.

It was physically dangerous to follow Jesus in the first century. It is still physically dangerous to follow him in some parts of the world. The Middle East is rapidly depleting itself of the number of Christians who live there. Followers of Jesus are being killed by ISIS in the Near East and and by others in parts of Africa and Asia. Some Americans talk of Christians being persecuted here but that is an insult to our brothers and sisters in Christ who really are being oppressed and even murdered for their faith.

What do we face? Separation of church and state, which was put in the Bill of Rights by James Madison to protect Christians, like Baptists, who were being imprisoned and locked out of political office in states where another Christian denomination had power. Do we want to return to the days when one church or religion could to that to Americans who worship differently?

And, yes, you may get ridiculed and trolled online for being a Christian. You might have someone in your workplace who doesn't appreciate any expressions of your faith and lets you know that. You might work for a place that doesn't allow you to automatically get Sundays or certain holy days off. You child's school might be overly sensitive to issues of church and state separation and interpret it to mean your child cannot personally express his or her faith. But that is hardly persecution. You can still go to any church you want to and worship, unlike, say, in China. You can on your own time be involved in church and faith-centered activities. Just remember: so can others. As my 8th grade teacher, an ex-top sergeant, used to say, your freedom to swing your arms ends at my nose. And vice versa. I seem to remember someone saying we should treat others the same way we would like to be treated.

Besides, as Jesus says, following him has a cost. Not everyone will appreciate what you do or why you do it. It's not a popularity contest. Just make sure you are doing something Jesus actually commanded.

Expressing opinions on political issues is your right as an American citizen but it is not something Jesus told us to do. By all means you may opine on abortion or gay rights or certain candidates in your role as a citizen. Just remember Jesus said nothing on any of those things and so make it clear Christ has not endorsed your views. On the other hand, if a candidate or a party says something that is diametrically opposed to something Jesus explicitly said, you can and should point out the discrepancy. If I or anyone else told you that committing adultery or neglecting the poor or mistreating people or hating your enemies was OK with Jesus, you should definitely call me or anyone who said that on it.

The problem with a lot of Christians claiming persecution here in America is that in many cases they are not being opposed for their views but for being jerks about it. If you are picketing the funerals of soldiers and children and victims of violence in order to get press coverage of your message of hate, people aren't negatively reacting to the gospel of Jesus; they are reacting to your distinctly unloving actions. If you are giving a checkout clerk grief about saying “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” you are not sharing the good news; you are making some low-level, overworked employee's life harder. If you are working a government job and the conditions change such that you can no longer do it in good conscience, not because it is discriminating against people or oppressing them but just because you don't feel right doing it, and you don't resign your job but try to obstruct the law, you are not converting sinners; you are reinforcing the stereotype that Christians are more interested in making stands about some things, like sex, rather than other issues, like the mistreatment of people.

In today's New Testament reading, we see Paul dealing with a real moral dilemma. He is writing an active Christian named Philemon about a tricky situation. It seems that Philemon had a slave named Onesimus, who robbed him and fled. Onesimus came across Paul and was converted by him. He was a real help to Paul in his ministry. The problem is that Rome had the equivalent of the Fugitive Slave Act we had here in the U.S. Once Paul learned that Onesimus was a runaway slave he was legally obligated to return him to his owner. And legally Philemon could do anything he wanted to his fugitive slave: brand him, cripple him or even kill him. The law is completely on Philemon's side and totally against Paul and Onesimus. What should Paul do?

For one thing, Paul does the exact opposite of being a jerk about it. He says that he could command Philemon to do what Paul wants but says he will make his request out of love instead. Paul points out that Philemon and Onesimus are now brothers in Christ. He points out that Onesimus (whose name means useful) has lived up to that name during his time with Paul. He is sending the slave back but says he expects Philemon to treat the young man as he would treat Paul. Paul offers to pay Philemon back for anything Onesimus has stolen while hinting that, as Philemon's spiritual father, the slave owner owes Paul his very soul. Paul would like the man to send his slave back but says he is confident that Philemon will do even more than he asks. And what could that be but the freeing of Onesimus? By the way, there is a tradition that Onesimus was made the bishop of Berea and died for his faith.

Onesimus risked his life for his faith before that: when he willingly returned to his owner because Paul sent him. We in the U.S. will probably not have to die for our faith. But following Jesus does require sacrifice. Our treasure, our talents, and our time belong to Jesus. He commands us to love not only our neighbor but our enemies. He commands us to forgive one another, up to 70 times 7. He commands us to turn the other cheek rather than retaliate. He commands us to go the second mile and to give to whoever asks us for help and turn no one away. He wants us to view the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the immigrant, the sick and the prisoner as we would Jesus himself and treat them all accordingly. Our whole lives are to be a living sacrifice to God. That's the real cost of following Jesus.

The problem is not that we are preaching for more than 8 minutes. The problem is we keep lowering the price of following Jesus. God asks for one day a week; we've got it down to an hour but now people want us to serve up salvation like we're Jiffy Lube! Perhaps churches should put in a drive-thru lane and offer communion in a to-go cup.

People know that if something doesn't cost much, it isn't worth much. If we treat Jesus like fast food, then people will think that he is just like all the other junk they try to fill their empty lives with. They won't realize that he is the Bread of Life, that satisfies all spiritual hunger, the fountain of Living Water, that quenches all spiritual thirst, the pearl of great price, worth everything you have because he is everything you will ever need.    

Sunday, August 28, 2016

To Serve Man

It's one of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes ever. If you haven't seen it in the nearly quarter of century since it was first broadcast, I'm about to spoil it for you. This race of large, bulbous headed aliens land on earth. They are highly advanced and they offer to solve all our problems, cure all our diseases and make our deserts bloom with life. They don't speak any earth language but can transmit their thoughts telepathically so that we can understand them. Earth scientists get a hold of one of their books and try to translate it. They work out that the title of the book is “To Serve Man.” Wonderful! The aliens offer rides in their spacecraft to their planet. Humans flock to join their benefactors on a trip back to their home world. One of the scientists is going up the ramp into one of the spaceships when a colleague working on the translation tries to push through the crowd. “We've translated the book!” she cries. “To Serve Man. It's a cookbook!”

Apparently nobody thought, “Why would this advanced race travel lightyears to this planet and focus on our species in particular, making sure more of us lived and ate well?” Nobody thought we were being fattened up for the table. We humans just accept that we deserve special consideration.

Everyone likes to think they're special. It might go back to infancy, when all we have to do is cry and our parents come running, to feed us or change us or comfort us. Eventually, though, we learn that we are not the center of the universe. Other people have their needs as well and life is a matter of give and take. Well, most of us learn that. Some people never stop thinking that the world owes them something, that they are entitled to special treatment.

And perhaps they really are extraordinary. They are gifted athletes, or great singers, or talented artists, or remarkable actors, or natural leaders. And as more and more people recognize that, they get treated differently. They are given honorary degrees; they get their seats on a flight or their room in a hotel upgraded; they are given the best table in a restaurant. Did you know that not only Academy Award hosts but also those who are simply nominated are given swag bags? In 2015 they contained free Audi rentals for a year, an $800 custom candy and dessert buffet, a $12,500 vacation tour, 9 nights in Italy, $4000 worth of liposuction, a $1200 bicycle, $25,000 in custom furniture, and a $20,000 astrology reading. The total was worth $168,000. Each. To those who already have a lot, more is given. If it makes you feel any better they do have to pay taxes on them.

Now that the Olympics are over, we are back to watching sports teams made up of millionaires. We pay extraordinarily good looking people lots of money to model clothes or pretend to be the heroes and heroines of our films and TV shows. Some celebrities are paid a ton of money simply to put their name on a perfume or a line of clothing or a set of furniture or a building. And when these people go anywhere, you can bet that folks make a fuss over them.

The question is: does the monetary value we put on such people reflect their value to society? If God selectively raptured certain classes of people, who would we miss first: supermodels or teachers? Basketball players or nurses? Movie stars or garbage collectors? Why is it we pay the people who teach our kids, take care of our sick, or keep our streets clean so much less than people who merely entertain us? Could it be that our culture's values are topsy turvy?

Jesus would say so. In today's gospel (Luke 14: 1, 7-14) he notes how people at a dinner tend to choose places at or near the head of the table. And he makes a shrewd observation. It would be better if they sat farther from the places of honor. They might be asked to move up. But if they miscalculate how distinguished they are and sit at a place of honor, their host might have invited someone more important than they and they will be asked to move. What Jesus is saying might simply seem like a smart way to avoid embarrassment and even draw attention to yourself by being publicly honored. He seems to merely be echoing Proverbs 25:6-7. But what he's really doing is contrasting the way the world works with the way God intends it to work.

The world encourages self-promotion. It's not enough to list your work history and abilities on your resume. You are expected to inflate it a bit, without actually lying. In a job interview you get no points for modesty. And we've all seen jerks who are full of themselves get ahead of people who are just as good or better at a job but not as boastful. Despite all our experience to the contrary, we still believe that confidence just naturally goes along with competence.

When ranked with children from 30 other developed countries, American kids ranked 25th in math and 21st in science. But when asked if they outperformed the others, our kids came in at number 1 in the belief that they did. There is even a term for this phenomenon: the Dunning-Kruger effect. It's the cognitive bias that allows people with lower than average abilities in an area to feel they can perform better than they really do. Being unaware of what they don't know, they think, “How hard can this be?” The two psychologists after whom the effect is named have a corollary: people with higher than average abilities often sell themselves short, assuming that things that are easy for them are easy for others as well.

A lot problems in the world are caused by people with more self-assurance than actual ability. And their erroneous self-perception is aided and abetted by yes-men. Few organizations have a place for nay-sayers. Such folks are not considered team players. The economic meltdown of 2008 was due in large part to people who felt that real estate values could only go up. Those who said that this was historically untrue were shunned.

Humility was one of those Christian values that the Greeks and Romans of the first century just couldn't understand. They probably made the mistake of thinking it was false humility, of saying that you are not as good as you really are. But real humility is a clear-eyed recognition not only of one's strengths but also of one's weaknesses. Arrogant people don't admit to having weaknesses. I saw some novelty signs that sum that frame of mind up perfectly. One said, “I may not always be right but I am never wrong.” Another said, “I thought I made a mistake once but I was wrong.”

In contrast, a Christian knows that he or she has good gifts given by God but also knows that he or she cannot do everything. A church is strengthened when people recognize others' gifts and encourage them to develop and use them. It is wrong to think the clergy can do it all. I can, if necessary, put out a bulletin but that is not where my strengths lie. I can sing but I can't play an instrument or lead a choir. I can preach a well-researched and tight sermon that stays on the subject and keeps to a time limit but you really wouldn't want me to be in charge of coffee hour. It takes a lot of people and a lot of gifts to run a church. We are all important but none of us is irreplaceable. As one preacher reminded an incoming bishop, all of us are interims. Nobody holds a position forever.

When I taken out of circulation by my accident, a lot of people had to step up to the plate and exercise the gifts God gave them to keep these churches going. They did a great job. I hope they discovered abilities that they didn't know they had or which they hadn't had the opportunity to fully utilize. On the other hand, I was humbled by the fact that I wasn't indispensable. Other priests were able to step in and do what I could not. I started realizing I was getting better when I began itching to once again share my gifts with you. I felt like a athlete who was benched but couldn't wait to take the field again.

But Jesus isn't satisfied with just pointing out the obvious: that the hyped should be humbled and the humble should be honored. As usual, he takes it farther. It is not enough to treat properly the people whose contributions to society are taken for granted. Jesus says we should be inviting to our banquets people who are not thought to benefit society but who are viewed as a drag on it. We need to throw feasts for those cannot pay us back: the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.

We pay people lots of money and give them a lot of honor and make a fuss over them because they do something for us. Professional athletes and actors entertain us. Politicians will, we hope, make things better for us. But the true test of whether you really care for your fellow human beings is how you treat those who can do you no good.

We do this in our families. We take care of Mom or Pop when they are sick or unable to care for themselves. But again this may be seen as repaying them for taking care of us when we were infants and children. But let's say you have a child or a sibling born who is severely handicapped, who can never reciprocate the amount and kind of care that you will have to provide them, perhaps for their whole life? Most of us step up to the task and do what needs to be done.

But that's for family. It is rarer for human beings to go all out to help those whom they don't know. Yes, there are people like Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa and Florence Nightingale and Dr. Paul Farmer who devote their lives to helping the unfortunate. And, yes, there are those who join them. But we don't devote daily segments of the news or entire shows to such people the way we do celebrities. We don't have shows where people pitch humanitarian projects to a bunch of millionaires and see who gets their soup kitchen or free clinic funded. We don't have a daily total of people helped that we slip into each 5 minute newscast as we do the stock market totals. We wait to see if a politician will visit a disaster site but the fact that Episcopal Relief and Development and Lutheran Disaster Response and the various relief arms of the Methodist or Baptist or Catholic churches are already there and helping victims is seldom highlighted.

In Jesus' day one simply didn't invite to banquets the poor or the disabled, who usually made their living by begging. Not only would that make things uncomfortable, those who were blind or lame or deaf or physically imperfect were ritually unclean. They might as well be so today. Unless it is a fundraiser for a charity we don't often invite a lot of people with disabilities to fancy functions. We never invite the hungry and homeless to any large meal except at a soup kitchen.

The way the world sees it, this is okay. Though society pays lip service to helping the poor, it really sees them as mostly freeloaders. People who make it have a hard time putting themselves in the place of those who don't. We tend to think the world is basically a meritocracy, where hard work is rewarded—despite the fact that a lot of people work hard but will never get rich doing so precisely because we don't pay trash collectors or teachers or cops what they are actually worth. And, yes, we all know of people who are in a bad situation because of poor life choices. But we seldom realize that most Americans will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between the ages of 25 and 75. In 2012 14% of seniors were living in poverty as were 18% of children. 1 in 5 Millennials are poor. About half of the poor are non-Hispanic whites. As we have seen in both the Great Depression and the Great Recession, job loss is a major cause of poverty. In fact most Americans have little or no savings and are just one missed paycheck or one unexpected bill for $500 away from being broke. The number one cause of personal bankruptcy in this country is the cost of a major medical emergency. And even if you have excellent insurance, it just takes the destruction of your home and business by a hurricane, fire, flood, or earthquake to set you back a considerable way from your accustomed lifestyle. If you don't have insurance or if the adjuster is picky, you can be wiped out.

But Jesus never says we should only help the worthy poor or the brave blind person or the determined disabled person or anything of the kind. We are to imitate our heavenly Father whose sun shines on both the good and the bad and whose rain waters the crops of the just and the unjust alike. (Matthew 5:45) We are to be like God who does not let a person's worthiness factor into his decision to be gracious. Indeed, no one is worthy of God's favor. Grace is God's undeserved, unreserved favor shown to humanity most clearly in his son Jesus. Just as a doctor or a nurse doesn't take into consideration a patient's moral or spiritual state when treating their illness or injury, God does not take those things into account when he offers us his saving health. In fact, the only real factor is whether we accept it or not. I have seen patients reject treatment because it meant changing something in their life and people also reject God's grace because they also don't want to change.

But the point is: we offer God's love to all. We don't exclude anyone because they are rich or poor, or because they are worthy or not. We are not to judge, Jesus said. We are to act as conduits of God's love and grace. We are his ambassadors offering reconciliation and peace. We are his healthcare team, offering spiritual healing to all who need it. Jesus is clear on this: we are to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the immigrant, visit the sick and the imprisoned.

If you do this, will you get taken advantage of? Yes. I've given patients breathing treatments only to have them turn around and smoke a cigarette. Fr. Peak told me how he once followed someone to whom he'd given a Winn Dixie gift card only to see them trade it for money, then sex and then drugs. Should we therefore deny every other person who asked for such a card on the basis that some of them will not use it as we intended?

We hear of one or two welfare cheats and decide that all welfare recipients are suspect. That's not the way God thinks or acts. God told Abraham he would spare the entire city of Sodom if only 10 good people could be found there. Jesus died for all of humanity knowing that not all of them would accept his salvation. Jesus even washed the feet of Judas whom he knew would betray him. God wants us to err on the side of mercy and forgiveness and love and grace. Because none of us is worthy. None of us deserves his gifts. None of us is without sin.

It's not a cookbook but a good subtitle for the gospel of Jesus Christ is “to serve man. And woman. And child. And Gentile. And Jew. And Muslim. And slave. And free. And black. And white. And Asian. And native-born. And straight. And gay. And any other category and label you can think of.” Because God created us all. And Jesus died for all. No exceptions.  

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Cross Purposes

It was such a small town it only had one church. And it was so long ago everyone went to church. One day this guy who was always on time came to church late. After the service when he was shaking hands, the priest asked the guy why he was late.

Somebody stole my bicycle!” the guy said.

Do you know who stole it?” asked the priest.


Well,” the priest says. “We're in Lent now and every Sunday we begin by reciting the Ten Commandments. Next week, get here early, sit in the front pew, and when we start the commandments, turn and look at the congregation. When we get to 'Thou shalt not steal,' see who can't look you in the eye.”

OK,” the guy says and next week, he gets to the church early and does as the priest says. After the service when he's shaking hands, the priest says, “How did it go?”

And the guy says, “It worked like a charm. I sat up front and I turned like you said as we started reciting the commandments. And when we got to 'Thou shalt not commit adultery,' I remembered where I left my bicycle.”

Most people don't understand what a moral dilemma is. A lot of them think that's when you want to do something, like cheat or lie, and you know you shouldn't. Or you don't want to do something, like give to the homeless, but you know you ought to. But those aren't moral dilemmas; they are simply a choice between what we desire and what we don't desire. A dilemma is when you have to choose between two alternatives that are equally desirable or equally unattractive. A moral dilemma is the clash of two ethical demands or values that are mutually exclusive. Let's say, Uncle Joe is terminally ill and in great pain but the medication that will give him relief will probably hasten his death. The dilemma is between two good actions: relieving suffering and preserving life. If one morally right action requires you to do a morally wrong action, that's a dilemma. During World War Two, a lot of Christians hid Jews from the Nazis. Corrie Ten Boom and her family did so. But in this case preserving lives meant lying to authorities, disobeying the government, even forging ration books in order to feed the Jews they were hiding. It also meant putting the lives of her family in danger. And indeed Corrie, her sister and her father were thrown into a concentration camps when what they did was discovered. The Jews were saved but of her family, only Corrie survived the camps.

Most ethical systems recognize a hierarchy of moral values. In other words, while telling the truth is an important ethical value, it can be superseded when in conflict with a more important value, such as saving a life. Thus all the nuns and monks in the Italian town of Assisi felt morally justified in hiding Jews in all the monasteries and nunneries of the hometown of St. Francis though it meant systematically deceiving the Nazi authorities. You'd have to be morally tone deaf to think otherwise.

For that matter, the Jews who were in hiding had to face moral dilemmas. They had to bend or even break the rules of their religion. The Gentiles hiding them could not always offer them Kosher food. Or they might have to move from one hiding place to another at any time including on the Sabbath, which could be considered work. Judaism recognizes that saving lives takes precedence over almost all other moral rules. An observant Jew would only choose death if the price of saving his or her life was denying God or performing idolatry.

What about Jesus? Did he recognize a hierarchy of values? Did he countenance choosing the lesser of two evils?

In today's Gospel (Luke 13:10-17) Jesus is faced with two mutually exclusive moral goods: healing and observing the Sabbath. To us this doesn't seem to be much of a dilemma but in his day it was. The Sabbath was one of the main distinctives of Judaism. They devoted a whole day to God and no one was supposed to work. If you did work on the Sabbath, the penalty was death! And there was a reason they were so adamant about it.

If you read the Old Testament, you see that it didn't take long for the Israelites to start taking God for granted and even succumbing to worshiping other gods. And this affected the society morally. The most important gods of the region were fertility gods. Worshiping them often involved things like sacred prostitution and even child sacrifice. Over and over again the prophets condemned not only idolatry but the practices that went with it. The Hebrews also forgot all of the laws about providing for widows, orphans and the poor. They ignored the passages about treating immigrants fairly and even loving the immigrant as yourself, which is found in Leviticus 19:34, just a few verses after the command to love your neighbor as yourself. Quite frankly the Israelites were starting to act as if they could do anything they like because they could make it all right by simply offering a sacrifice at the temple.

If you read the prophets you see them again and again condemning two things: not treating God properly and not treating other people properly. The two go together. If you don't have respect for the creator, you will not likely have any respect for those created in his image. If you don't take God seriously, what else could possibly merit being taken seriously? Oh, sure, you can not love God but still love your spouse or your children. But for what possible reason should you love someone with whom you don't share blood or nationality or culture or geographical proximity? Why should I care about people dying in Syria? Or Africa? Why should I care about what happens to people who are not of my race or religion? Why should I help drug addicts? Or people whose poor life choices have left them in poverty? Why in the world should I love my enemies? That makes no sense whatsoever if there is no God or if God isn't really going to hold me responsible for such things.

The prophets said that God did care about these things and that the people's attitudes and behavior would have consequences. And when foreign empires conquered the Israelites and then the Jews and took them into exile, things got real. And in exile, the Jews started to think about the ways they had neglected God's laws and began to codify them and observe them. After 70 years, Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and let the Jews return to their homeland. And thereafter they had a very strong motive to try to observe the laws that were handed down to God's people. The Pharisees and the scribes not only promoted observance of the law but also tried to apply it to new situations. And they expanded the prohibitions so that one couldn't even get close to violating the commandments. These were considered a hedge or fence around the Torah or law.

For instance, you weren't supposed to work on the Sabbath but what is work? The rabbis came close to the modern scientific definition of work—energy expended—although technically it was any activity that is creative or which exercises control over one's environment. So you not only couldn't do your job; you weren't supposed to bake or cook or pick bones out of fish or sort out undesired food from a mixture that contains desired food or do laundry or write or set a fire or extinguish a fire or complete anything. The Talmud, that commentary on a commentary on the Torah, comes up with 39 broad categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath. Saving a life was permitted but when it came to medicine, the less serious or life-threatening the condition, the more restrictions there were on what you could do for the patient on the Sabbath.

The leader of the synagogue in today's passage probably is thinking this way. Since this woman has been like this for 18 years, it won't kill her to wait another day to be healed. But Jesus is having none of it. He's saying, “Come on! You know that you would untie your animal on the Sabbath (tying and untying things are generally among the forbidden activities) and lead them to water. I am merely freeing this woman from what's been tying up her life in knots for nearly two decades.”

In Mark 2:23-28 Jesus defends his disciples for picking and eating grain on the Sabbath. Technically what they were doing was harvesting and that was forbidden on the Sabbath, not just in the Talmud, but in the Bible (Exodus 34:21). Jesus cites David letting his men eat the consecrated bread which was reserved for the priests. Jesus admits it was unlawful but states this principle: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

A few verses later, in regards to another healing, he asks, “What is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to kill?” What Jesus is saying is that things that are good for physical health are exempted from the Sabbath. When it comes to feeding a hungry person or healing one who is suffering, those life-restoring acts take priority over the strict observance of the law. God made these rules to benefit us not to punish us.

You still find people who think laws come before people, who will not even make common sense exceptions to rules when the rule is harming rather than helping people. For instance, I bet most people do not know that a jury has the power of nullification; that is, a jury has the right to give a verdict that contradicts the evidence that the person did indeed break the law. In 1735 a jury acquitted a journalist who had violated the law that made it a crime to criticize public officials. Northern juries at times refused to convict people for violating the Fugitive Slave Act, which demanded that runaway slaves be captured and returned to their masters. When jurors feel the law violated is an unjust one, they can refuse to convict the person being tried. Naturally jurors are rarely, if ever told they can do this. But the power exists because sometimes applying a law to a certain situation is unjust. Think of Jean Valjean pursued his whole life for stealing a loaf of bread. A reasonable jury would have set him free despite his theft.

In summarizing the law, Jesus boiled it down to two commandments taken from the Torah: To love God with all one is and has (Deuteronomy 6:4,5) and to love one's neighbor as one loves oneself (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus says that no other commandment is greater than these. (Mark 12:28-30). And he means it.

We all know how Jesus felt about adultery. He felt even divorce and remarriage constituted adultery. So what happens when the Pharisees and scribes bring him a woman caught in the act of presumably unambiguous adultery. According to the law, she should be stoned. Jesus could have and, based on his teachings, should have denounced the woman. But instead he stoops and begins writing on the ground. And when he is pressed on the matter, he stands and says, “The person among you who is sinless can cast the first stone.” And he squats down and continues writing. No one is arrogant enough to claim that he is without sin and so they leave, one by one. When Jesus sees that no one has stayed to condemn her, he says, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” Jesus nullifies one of the Ten Commandments because in this case, a person could be saved. And possibly because her accusers singled her out for punishment. It takes two to commit adultery. Where was the man she was caught committing adultery with?

It's not that Jesus thinks that sins shouldn't be punished. But he knows that God is love and that love of God and love of other people are the two principles from which all the rest of the law derives from. They are at the top of the hierarchy of moral values and any application of the other laws that is at odds with the two greatest commandments is a violation of the spirit in which they were given.

One way to think about it is that the 2 greatest commandments are about two kinds of relationships that we have. Picture them as the two axes of the cross. The vertical beam represents our relationship with God. The horizontal beam represents our relationship with other people. You need both. If you only pay attention to your relationship to God and lose the horizontal beam, you get a big “I.” And indeed people who think only about themselves and God to the exclusion of their relationships with and duty to others get very arrogant and egotistical. They tend to confuse their own thoughts with God's and create a god in their own image, usually a God who is not very compassionate toward people.

If you eliminate the vertical beam and focus solely on your relationship with others you can find yourself doing awful things because those relationships matter more than any transcendent moral values. This kind of thinking leads to a father more concerned with his son's swimming career than with the fact that his son raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. This kind of thinking leads to reformers who overthrow their oppressors only to become oppressors in turn. Take away the vertical beam and you have a big minus sign. Social action without regards to God is a big negative.

For a big plus, you need the balance of having both the right relationship with God and the right relationship with others. And when there is a conflict between the two, a moral dilemma, you need to decide on the basis of love. If you pull the plug on terminal Uncle Joe because you hate his guts, that's wrong. But if you love him so much that you want to relieve his suffering even if it means hastening his inevitable death, that's not wrong. And it it tears you up to do so, that means you really do love him. If you defy the government for grins and giggles or to make an illegal buck, that's wrong. If the government is demanding you turn over people to be killed merely because of their race or creed or color or national origin, and you defy that unjust law, that is far from wrong.

Jesus didn't promise us that following him would be easy. Quite the contrary. In this world we will have trouble. But he said that if we obey his commandments to love God and love one another as he loves us, we will know real love. Or as he put it, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him...If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home in him.” (John 14:21, 23a)

You will have moral dilemmas. When in doubt, do the most loving thing. And the God who is love will be there.