Monday, September 18, 2017

Dealing with Disaster

The scripture referred to is Exodus 14:19-31, and 15:1b-11,20-21.

The Bible, as Old Testament scholar John Walton tells us, was written for us but it wasn't written to us. It's rather like Paul's epistles. They were written to the churches in Corinth, Ephesus, and other cities and regions of the Roman Empire in the first century but what Paul says about the issues they are dealing with has been preserved for our edification. Just so, scripture in general was written to an ancient Near Eastern audience, who lived in various cultures different from ours. It uses images and concepts that were familiar to those people. That means sometimes we need background information to understand certain passages and features of scripture better.

For instance, in Biblical imagery the sea was often a symbol of chaos. Water is after all shapeless, taking on the form of whatever it comes into contact with. Unlike dry land, it changes, often and drastically, sometimes calm and sometimes churned up and dangerous, even to those on the land. Thus the second verse of Genesis 1 reads, “Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the face of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water.” (NET translation) And the rest of the creation account can be seen as God containing and imposing order on the chaos that the waters represent, literally locking excess waters behind doors in the heavens and under the earth. The psalms sing of God setting boundaries to the waters. (Psalm 104:5-9) This idea of water as an symbol of chaos explains why, in the last part of Revelation, it says that the sea is no more. (Revelation 21:1) There is no chaos in the new heavens and new earth.

This gives an added dimension to our reading from Exodus. In it God parts the sea, the symbol of chaos, which enables the Israelites to escape the pursuing Egyptian army. And so important is this act of salvation for the Israelites that the oldest passage in the Bible, as determined by the very ancient form of the Hebrew used, is the last verse of our reading from Exodus 15, the song of Miriam: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and the rider he has thrown into the sea.” (By the way, that means the oldest verse in the Bible was written by a woman.)

The sea is chaos but ultimately, God is Lord even over the chaos.

That's something we have to remember a week after Irma, the fifth most powerful Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, the most intense since Katrina and the first major hurricane to hit Florida since Wilma. And you might well say, “But God didn't split the waters for us, did he? They went right over the land and our homes and businesses and left chaos in their wake.” Why did God allow this to happen?

This has led some TV evangelists and fundamentalists to see this as the judgment of God on our nation for issues mentioned either rarely or not at all in the Bible. Which is another problem of not understanding the time and culture of the people to whom the Bible was originally written. Again OT scholar John Walton points out that for them there was no concept of impersonal forces in the world. Everything that happened was attributed to conscious agents, either humans, angels, evil spirits or ultimately, God. There was no understanding of natural laws that operate without intelligence or intention. And we still do that. We curse at our car or computer or the weather when they do things that inconvenience us as if they meant to act that way. For that matter scientists speak of evolution as if it made choices or had intentions, rather than as the blind accumulation of accidents and happenstance, which if you pressed them, they would admit to supposedly believing.

We Christians can believe that God is behind the natural laws that govern the universe, without directly attributing to him every side effect of those laws. When God created light he made shadows possible, though that is not the primary purpose of the light. None of us has created a universe, much less a world and so thinking we can do so without byproducts like earthquakes and hurricanes is mere fantasy. And although we don't create earthquakes and hurricanes, science says we can exacerbate them through activities that throw nature out of balance like fracking and the generation of greenhouse gases which are altering our climate and increasing the intensity of storms.

Yet the fact is we live in a universe that is fine-tuned for the existence of life. If any of several dimensionless universal constants—gravity, the strong nuclear force which holds matter together, the ratio of dark energy to the critical energy density of the universe, the number of spatial dimensions in spacetime—were altered by just a little, life could not arise or be sustained. It's really hard not to conclude that we were meant to exist.

The Bible tells us we were meant to do more than exist; we are meant to reflect the image of the God who is love. And as we see in the life of Jesus, we are meant to do it even under the worst of circumstances. And we are not to get sidetracked by theological speculation. When Jesus was told about a disaster, he dismissed the idea that it was because the people who died were worse sinners than anyone else. (Luke 13:1-4) When his disciples pointed out a man born blind, Jesus refused to pin the blame on the man or his parents but saw it as an opportunity to display God's power and mercy by healing him. (John 9:1-7) Finger pointing in such cases ultimately yields nothing useful. A helping hand is what's needed.

When Mr. Rogers was a child, he was frightened by a newsreel showing a disaster. His mother told him to look for the helpers. There are always helpers, she said. As followers of Jesus we are called to be helpers, not judges. We are to focus not on fixing the blame but on fixing the problem.

But, and this is something I have been reminded of again and again by the bishop and by disaster experts, we must not refuse to let ourselves be helped as well, nor should we neglect to care for ourselves. On every plane ride they tell you that should the oxygen masks drop down and you are traveling with someone who will need help, put your mask on first. You won't be able to help them if you pass out because you neglected to take the time to get the air you need.

Paul said, “Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) If we all help each other with the gifts God has granted each of us—the listeners listening, the strong cutting and hauling, the healers healing, the cooks cooking, the organizers making things efficient, the fixers fixing, the safety-minded protecting, the builders building, the comforters comforting—we can face this and we can make things better. This is God's work and with his grace and our hands, guided by his Spirit, we can reflect the love of Christ for all. To paraphrase Paul, in all of these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present or the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in creation—not even Irma—can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39, amended)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Live Worship on Facebook

While Julie and I are returning to the Keys, we will not be there today and neither LOS or SF would be ready to host a service. So today we will do worship on Facebook Live at 9:30 am. All you have to do is be on Facebook (on your computer, smartphone or other internet device) and friend or follow me (Christopher Todd) (if you aren't already). As there are other Christopher Todds in this world (many are much more famous than I) look for my distinctive profile picture, which is currently the words "Keep Calm and Trust God" in white on a red background.

At 9:30 I will show up on your newfeed. I will include everyone on my friend list as the audience. 

Because I have the Book of Common Prayer with me we will be using that. If you don't have one you can follow along at www.bcponline.org. We will do Morning Prayer II beginning on page 78.

It looks easy. That always makes me suspicious so pray that it works right.

See you in church on Facebook.

Chris +

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Haters Gonna...?

The scripture referred to is Jeremiah 15:15-21, Romans 19:9-21, and Matthew 16:21-28.

What could I do?” said the inmate. We were speaking through the open meal flap in his cell door. He was in Alpha, our unit where they put people for being a danger to themselves or other inmates. His rhetorical question came at the end of a recitation of all the times he had hit other people, usually, according to him, in retaliation for their hitting or attacking him. His question implied he couldn't have done otherwise. When someone strikes or assaults us, we react and try to pay them back in kind. It's natural. It feels good. It doesn't mean it is good, however.

If you ask me, a lot of our problems in behaving ourselves has to do with the fact that things that feel good emotionally or physically are not always good for us morally or psychologically or even physically. So far I've lost 13 pounds on my “if it tastes good, spit it out” diet. Actually I've just cut out soda and snacks, restricting myself to only eating meals and healthier ones at that. But the hardest part is denying myself those delicious empty calories that food scientists have worked so hard to make addictive. Anything that feels good is addictive, at least for certain people. Science shows us in brain scans that people really can get addicted to not only alcohol and drugs but food, gambling, sex, extreme sports, and yes, even anger. Anger can trigger dopamine reward receptors in the brain and the discharge of adrenalin which gives us energy in “fight or flight” situations. And that can feel good, even when experienced vicariously, such as watching a bad guy get his just desserts at the hand of the hero in an action movie.

Why do people join hate groups like the alt-right, neo-nazis, or ISIS? Why do some people complain constantly? Part of the reason is anger is addictive. Which fits my favorite non-technical definition of addiction: the indulgence in any substance or activity that one persists in despite mounting negative consequences. There is actually a 12 step program called Rageaholics Anonymous.

Anger can be constructive, especially when used to redress injustices in society or to improve conditions in an industry. In 1911, the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory killed 146 workers, 123 of whom were women. When it was discovered that the owners had locked all the exits and stairwells to prevent them from taking breaks, leading 62 of the workers to leap to their deaths from the 8th, 9th and 10th floors, societal outrage led to changes in safety standards and better working conditions.

The trick, as Aristotle pointed out, is being angry with the right person or persons to the right extent at the right time in the right way. Too often anger tips over into rage and the result is not making things better but doing a lot of unnecessary damage to things, people and relationships. But even truly righteous anger, anger over real evil, can present the same problems, especially when those who cause the evil are in power.

In our passage from Jeremiah, the prophet asks God to bring down retribution for him on his persecutors. The Hebrew verb literally means “avenge or punish.” Jeremiah warned the nation that Judah was going to fall to the Babylonian Empire and this was not a popular message. He was rejected by family, neighbors and friends as well as by false prophets and kings. One of the most dramatic acts of rejection is when an officer of the royal court read Jeremiah's latest prophesy to King Jehoiakim. As the officer finished each section, the king cut it off the scroll and threw it into the fire. During his 40 year ministry, which covers the last 5 kings of Judah, Jeremiah would be imprisoned, thrown into a cistern and taken to Egypt against his will. So his anger at all this opposition is justified.

Rejection literally hurts; neuroscientists say the brain releases his own natural painkiller, mu opioid, whenever we suffer pain, whether it's physical or emotional. So Jeremiah is not being hyperbolic when he asks, “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” All this rejection is getting to him.

Still Jeremiah's anger pushes him a bit too far. As his position as truth-teller becomes more and more painful, he reacts by lashing out at God. As someone once said, hurt people hurt people. Generally speaking, those who hurt or harm others perceive themselves to have been hurt or harmed. But, as we see in hate movements, when they lash out, they don't confine their words and acts to those who actually caused them pain or damage. Indeed, because their hate is generalized to an entire race or religion or class of people, they are of necessity less particular as to whom they negatively affect. For instance, some on the alt-right verbally attacked the appearance and character of Heather Heyer, the woman run over by a white nationalist in Charlottesville. Why? As near as I can tell they couldn't turn on one of their own, however outrageous his actions, so they had to denigrate the person he killed and make it look like she deserved it. They resorted to the tried and true method of blaming the victim. Ironically, by doing so, they turned her into a martyr and more fully exposed the depth of their own evil.

Jeremiah can't hurt God's feelings by characterizing him as a deceitful brook, a mirage in the desert that promises refreshment but doesn't give it. But if he thinks of God that way, as untrustworthy, his relationship with the Lord will deteriorate. Paradoxically, Jeremiah is blaming the messenger, an injustice he himself knows only too well. God is giving him the message which others find unpalatable. But ultimately God is doing so to save his people. He is like a doctor who is not sugarcoating how bad the patient's condition is, so that they take it seriously. He wants the people to change the disastrous course they have taken. Like all the prophets, Jeremiah's message is for people to repent, to turn away from their self-destructive ways and turn back to God. But first Jeremiah must be the one who turns back to God. He needs to start trusting God again. And God says he will defend Jeremiah from his enemies. “If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them. And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the Lord.”

And that assurance of God's presence and protection is enough for Jeremiah. He continues to get God's message out.

The imprecatory psalms are like Jeremiah's pleas that God punish those who harm us. Some are chilling. All I can say is that it is better to take such feelings to God rather than act on them. Paul picks up on that in our passage from Romans. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them....Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all....Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written. 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, say the Lord.'”

Outrage is all the rage today. People get so excited by things posted on the internet that I rarely read the comment section of any website. And 99 times out of 100 the folks who are angry don't know the people they are mad at and usually don't know all the facts. But their reaction can be so extreme that folks have been fired for what they have tweeted or posted. Sometimes they deserve it; sometimes they just said something stupid, a joke that wasn't well thought out, or a gut reaction that they should have filtered through their prefrontal cortex before it got to their mouth or their thumbs. The trolls on the internet make no distinction between evil and idiocy, nor do they understand mercy or forgiveness.

Now some people actually say and do awful things that merit a response. Isn't it too bad that there isn't someone who knows all the facts and even knows the hearts of those involved, someone who can make a truly just judgment of the incident and handle it appropriately? There is, says Paul; it's God. More importantly, it's not you!

When someone does or says bad things to us, we are not to lash out in anger or pain; we need to trust God to take care of it. This is hard. This is one of the hardest things Jesus asks of us: to love our enemy, to act and speak lovingly to them. To turn the other cheek. But it is an expression of our faith, of our trusting God to do the right thing.

Then Paul paraphrases Proverbs 25:21-22: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” The last part is a bit hard to understand. What does “heap burning coals on their heads” mean? It could mean God will in good time rain down his punishment on them (Psalm 140:10), especially if you are acting nobly. Or it could mean that when you respond to their hostility with kindness, they will burn with shame. You acted honorably; they did not. It is interesting that in the book of Daniel the resurrection and final judgment are described thus: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, and some to shame and eternal contempt.” (Daniel 12:2) In the honor/shame culture of the Bible, as well as of Asia, Latin America, the American South, etc., what could be worse than experiencing burning shame and dishonor forever? That would be hell to them.

We are to leave the passing of judgment on others and the determination of repayment for evil to God. It's not our job. We are not the comic book character the Punisher, taking upon ourselves the role of judge, jury and executioner. We are to act the way doctors or nurses do, giving care to any and everyone, regardless of their moral state. And who knows? By responding to their hate with love, we might just change people's minds and lives.

Peter couldn't see that in today's gospel. He couldn't see how Jesus getting himself killed was going to make anything better. Like most people, Peter saw the world in terms of winners and losers. Winners didn't get captured by the enemy and they certainly didn't die. And yet we recognize self-sacrifice as the greatest form of heroism. 24 year old Welles Crowther was an equities trader working on the 104th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center. On September 11. 2001, after a United Airlines plane stuck the south tower, Crowther called his mother to tell her he was OK and then started leading people down the stairs, carrying one wounded woman on his shoulders. Then he went back up again and again and again, putting out fires, giving first aid and leading people down to safety. To protect himself from the smoke, he wore over his nose and mouth a red bandana, which he had received as a child from his father, a volunteer fireman. Crowther himself became a junior firefighter at age 16. So it was appropriate that when they found his body on March 19, 2002, he was with other several other firefighters and emergency workers in the command post of the south tower lobby.

Marvel Comics, perhaps inadvisedly, put out a special comic book, depicting their New York based superheroes cleaning up after 9/11. But in reality a true hero was in the south tower that day, saving lives, dressed not in armor, or a winged helmet, or in spandex, but in a red bandana.

And what Welles Crowther did for the people trapped in that tower, Jesus did for the whole world. Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this—that one lays down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Paul adds, “But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

That's why the symbol of Christianity is a cross. It says that God loves us enough to die for us. He wants to save us from the flaming wreck we have made of our world and our lives. He is willing to walk through hell and high water to rescue us, no matter what it costs him. And so Jesus tells us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” How essential is this to being a Christian? Jesus also said, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)

At the jail one of the most popular requests I get is for rosaries, which inmates like to wear as a cross necklace. Roman Catholics tell me that's not how you are supposed to use them. I tell inmates they are not magic talismans. Sometimes I wish I could tell folks on the outside that crosses are not merely jewelry or adornments, either. The cross is a sign of the worst thing we could do to God and the most wonderful thing he has done for us. Jesus bore the cross out of love for us; our cross is not our personal problems but the problems of others that we are willing to bear out of love for them.

So it is misleading if we wear crosses but are not willing to act in self-sacrificial love for others. It is misleading if we put a cross on a building but don't reach out to help the needy. It is a flat-out contradiction to burn a cross, unless your intent is to show the world just how wrong you are by destroying the symbol of God's love for all.

It is natural to want to hurt those who hurt us. It feels good. But we are more than mere animals. We don't always follow our instincts. We overcome them to reach out to others, to work with them, to build a world that would not exist if we stayed in our tribes, loving only our own and hating all others. But as we see from all the racism and xenophobia, fear and hatred are still our default settings.


Jesus came to change that, to change us. He showed us how to love, completely and fully, even those who hate and hurt us. And his love and grace and forgiveness changes haters. Like Saul of Tarsus, one of the church's fiercest opponents who became one of its greatest proponentsLike former KKK leader Johnny Lee Clary. Like serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam.” Like neo-Nazi and convicted murderer turned pastor Johannes Kneifel. Like former jihadi terrorist Bashir Mohammad. Like former Holocaust denier and member of the American Atheists Larry Darby. All of them turned from hate to followers of God's love Incarnate, Jesus Christ. Because the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. If you hate something you are still passionately concerned with it and that ardent loathing can be turned to love. Haters gonna hate. But if given the chance, if they let Jesus into their lives, haters gonna heal.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Who Am I?

The scripture referred to is Matthew 16:13-20.

Did you know that the original design of Batman's costume was for him to wear red, a little domino mask like Zorro and rigid bat wings. That was how Bob Kane, the artist, proposed he should look. His creative partner, writer Bob Finger, talked him into the look we have of Batman: all in black and grey disguised by a cowl with pointy ears and a cape. Interesting, right? But does it make any real difference in understanding Batman? No.

Did you know that Batman originally had a gun and used to kill bad guys? It's true. For the first 20 or so issues of Detective Comics where he first appeared, Batman carried and used a gun just like the character who inspired his creation, the Shadow. About 4 issues into his own comic book Batman stopped carrying a firearm. Eventually it became part of his code. Batman did not use or kill with guns. On the rare occasion that he has taken up a gun in the comics, it's been a big controversy. Because Batman hates guns. Now that fact is not a piece of trivia but important to how his character behaves and points to who he is.

Why does he act that way? Because as a boy he saw his parents shot and killed by a mugger with a gun. That's what set him on his path to become the scourge of crime. It's why he became an excellent athlete, why he studied criminology, why he uses his wealth to equip himself with the latest in crime-fighting equipment, and why he dresses up as a fearsome denizen of the night. That is essential to understanding who he really is.

I love trivia about the things I am interested in. But I know the difference between trivia and what's important. And I know the difference between what is important and what is essential. Today's gospel contains a question and an answer that are essential.

Jesus starts with what is important. “Who do people think the Son of Man is?” And the disciples answer with the names of some major prophets, including John the Baptist. The crowds get that Jesus is an important figure in sacred history, possibly a prophet back from the dead. So far, so good.

But that isn't what Jesus really needs to know. He needs to know if his disciples, his students, who have accompanied him for 3 or more years, who have seen his miracles and heard his teachings, who have lived with him and seen his character up close—if they understand who he really is. So Jesus cuts to the chase: “But who do you say I am?”

Was there a pause? Did they look at each other for a few uncomfortable moments, figuring out what to say? If Peter hadn't jumped right in, what might they have said?

We know what modern people say.

Jesus was a great religious teacher.” Some people like Jesus' ethics. They like what he says about treating others as you wish to be treated and taking care of the poor and sick and the outcasts of society. They like what he says about justice and brotherly love. And Jesus was a great moral thinker. While a lot of his ethics overlap with those of other religions, he goes farther than others in saying we must love our enemy and that we should turn the other cheek. He has inspired people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as well as groups like the Amish and the Quakers. Nobody has influenced moral thought more than Jesus has.

But in order to see Jesus only as a moral teacher folks have to disregard his teachings about himself. You have to ignore what he says about being God's son, about his authority to definitively interpret scripture and speak on God's behalf. You have to excise all his miracles, including his resurrection. Thomas Jefferson did just that, literally cutting those things out of two Bibles and pasting just the teachings Jefferson liked in a scrapbook.

Most people do that when dealing with the question of who Jesus is: pick out the bits they like and leave out what they don't. That means they have to ignore or dismiss some of the inconvenient truths we are told about Jesus in our earliest sources about him. You can only make him a capitalist if you ignore what he said about giving self-sacrificially to the poor and how he excoriated those who serve money rather than God. You can only make him a socialist if you overlook how often he made the protagonists of his parables landowners and entrepreneurs. You can only make him an anti-tax conservative by forgetting that when asked about taxes he said to give Caesar what is Caesar's, namely the money the government mints. You can only make him pro-democracy by blanking out on all he says about the kingdom of God. You can only make him a vegetarian if you are oblivious to the fact that a lamb was central to the meal of Passover which he celebrated. You can only make him a racist if you are blind to his reaching out to Samaritans, Gentiles and other non-Jews. For that matter, most racists who claim to be Christian, like the KKK, have amnesia when it comes to the fact that Jesus was a Jew. I actually had a supposedly Christian man respond to my pointing that out by saying, “You don't really believe that, do you?”

Another way to answer the question of Jesus' identity while avoiding what Peter says is by attributing to him views he did not express, or by twisting his teachings into shapes unrecognizable by people of Jesus' time. People keep trying to make Jesus a member of modern movements. Jesus was not a gun advocate; firearms weren't invented until 1200 years after his time on earth. Jesus cannot be against modern science for similar reasons. Jesus isn't a Democrat, a Republican, a Communist, a Sovereign Citizen, a member of PETA or of the Daughters of the Confederacy.

The problem is that rather than trying to think and speak and act like Jesus, people try to make believe that Jesus thinks and speaks and acts like they do. We each try to create a Jesus in our own image. We are afraid to let Jesus be Jesus.

That was even true 2000 years ago. Right after Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” he rebukes Jesus for saying he will be killed by his enemies. One would think that the minimal requirement of being God's anointed would be knowing what his mission entailed. But Peter tells God's son that he is wrong. Peter, too, wanted a Jesus who conformed to his idea of what the Messiah should be.

It's pretty obvious what kind of Messiah the disciples expected Jesus to be. Someone like Batman, kicking bad guys' butts. Or more specifically, a holy warrior, like David, who ran the Philistines out of Israel. They expected him to drive out the Romans and set up a physical kingdom of God. They forgot that David was so steeped in war and bloodshed that God wouldn't let him build his Temple. (1 Chronicles 28:3)

So what kind of Messiah is Jesus? First of all, he is, as Peter says, the son of God. As John's Gospel says, “Though him all things were made...” (John 1:3) That gives him authority over everything. He made this world. He made us. What he says about how we should behave, we must agree to and act on.

What did he say? He preached love and forgiveness. He preached repentance and reconciliation. He preached peace and wholeness. He said that we should love God with all we are and all we have, and love our neighbor as ourselves. And then he backed it up. He prayed frequently and worshiped every Sabbath. He studied the scriptures and could quote them when appropriate. He explained them and expanded on them and applied them to everyday life.

He gave to the poor and urged others to be generous in giving to them. He fed the hungry. He taught women, which was unheard of then. He ministered to foreigners and outcasts. He healed countless folk who were blind, deaf, mute, epileptic, unable to walk or had leprosy, as well as those who were mentally ill. On 3 occasions he raised the dead.

The kind of Messiah most people wanted was someone who triumphed over evil by shedding the blood of others. Jesus triumphed over evil by letting others shed his blood. He flipped the traditional script of how you lead and how you win.

So what? Why is this important?

When we follow a leader we become like him. His values become our values. His words become our words. His acts inspire us to act more like him. If, like the original disciples, we acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, the son of the living God, who was sent to show God's love for the world, to teach us God's truth and to save the world and the people God created, the only logical response is to follow him and become like him.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be Batman. My mom sewed me a Batman costume for Halloween, complete with cape and cowl. I jumped around and struck heroic poses. But I couldn't actually do what Batman does. And if I did, leaping off roofs, chasing criminals and punching people, I would have gotten into a lot of trouble. And the world would not have been a better place for my doing so.

We can do what Jesus did. Christian social workers and councilors and philanthropists can help the poor. Christian store owners and restaurant owners can donate surplus food to soup kitchens and food banks that feed the hungry. Christian teachers and missionaries can make sure girls and women all over the world get the same educational opportunities as boys and men. Christian lawyers and educators and churches can help the foreigners who flee here for help and a better life. Christian doctors and nurses and physical therapists and medical researchers and psychologists and other health personnel can heal and improve the lot of people suffering from diseases. 

There are 2 other groups who can help in all of these areas. One is legislators. Too often politicians identify themselves as Christians by espousing positions on issues that Jesus never mentioned, instead of doing what he clearly said: things like feeding the hungry and making sure the thirsty get clean water and welcoming the foreigner and clothing the threadbare and making sure the sick get cared for and that prisoners are properly treated. Jesus said that these unfortunates are his brothers and sisters and that how we treat them is how we treat him. Lawmakers need to ask themselves about the effects of their legislation on those too poor to pay them back with campaign contributions, the way Jesus said we should invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind to our feasts because they can't pay us back. (Luke 14:13-14) Remember that Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) What is God's will? Micah 6:8 says, “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Which is right in line with how Psalm 72 describes the ideal ruler: “For he will rescue the needy when they cry out for help, and the oppressed who have no defender. He will take pity on the poor and needy; the lives of the needy he will save. From harm and violence he will defend them; he will value their lives.” (Psalm 72:12-14, NET)

The other group that can help a lot in all of these areas is volunteers. Want to help a certain group of people but don't know how? Google a non-profit organization that ministers to them. Wanna help the hungry? Join one of those food banks or soup kitchens. Join the food pantry at the Methodist church here on Big Pine. Wanna help the homeless? Volunteer at a shelter. There's one run by KAIR in Marathon and one in Key West run by KOTS. Wanna help women? Join the Domestic Abuse Shelter in Marathon or Key West or Samuel's House or the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition. Wanna help children? Join Wesley House or Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Wanna help the developmentally disabled? There's MARC House. How about the mentally ill? There's Heron-Peacock Supportive Living. Or you can work with those overcoming addictions. Or call Bingo or play piano or bring a docile pet that likes being handled to the nursing home. You can be what we used to call a candy-striper at one of the hospitals. Or volunteer to lead Bible studies or lead worship or lead AA meetings at the jail. We especially need people who speak Spanish. One lady donates books to the jail in the name of her son who died of an overdose. There are a lot of ways to serve Jesus by serving others.

Not all of those are Christian ministries. Who cares? As somebody once said, sometimes the most effective form of evangelism is to let folks know you are a Christian and then don't act like a jerk.

Who we think Jesus is determines who we become. If we see him as just someone who believes as we do, approves what we say and do, and supports our pet causes, then that's the Jesus we project to the world: a magnified version of ourselves. But if we, like the first disciples, truly look at what he said and did and try to emulate that, we will reflect a more accurate picture of the one who loved us, lived as one of us, gave his life for us and rose again to begin making all things new.

Who do you say I am?”


And what are you going to do about it?

Monday, August 21, 2017

One Body, One Baptism (For Kailee)

The scripture referred to are Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Matthew 15:10-28.

I am reading neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky's new book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. In it he looks at everything that influences what we do: our brain structures, our hormones, our environment, our culture, our DNA, etc. And so far one of the most surprising things I have learned is about oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.” I knew that secretion of this natural substance causes us to bond with our romantic partners and with our children and to trust other people. But I didn't realize that it promotes in-group bonding at the expense of our relationship with outsiders. It makes us more empathetic to those who are like us but less so towards those who are not like us. Oxytocin also has a part in our telling lies when those lies benefit our group. So oxytocin, the “love hormone,” is implicated in both the lies political parties tell as well as in mankind's persistent racism, most recently on display last week in Charlottesville. Comedian Dave Chappelle said racism is a drug. And it turns out he is literally correct.

The idea that if you love your own group you must hate all other groups goes all the way back to humanity's beginnings. And it may have made some sense when we all lived in clans and tribes made up of about 150 family members. Everyone in your life was related to you and physically resembled you. They said and did things the same way you did. In general you could trust people like you, whereas you might not be able to trust those who belonged to other clans or tribes that did not look or act or speak as you. They might kill or rape or kidnap you. But as humans started to settle together in cities, people had to get used to living with folks not like them. Loyalties had to shift from families and clans to cities and later nations. In other words, we had to become civilized. Yet social classes evolved, so there was still within such larger groups an “us” and a “them.”

Scientists says religion was a vital and even a necessary way to unite various peoples in a larger group. In fact, the word “religion” may have been derived from the Latin for “bind” or “connect.” A tribe, an ethnic group or a nation would all worship the same god or gods. This becomes a problem, though, when you move from nations to empires. When you are conquering other nations, what do you do about their local gods? Alexander the Great's successors usually tried to introduce Greek gods and Greek culture. This was a non-starter with the Jews and triggered the Maccabean revolt. The Romans on the other hand let everyone keep their gods and just had them add to their pantheon the divine emperor. Again this wouldn't do for the Jews. So they let them keep their monotheism, though that made things tense in that corner of the empire. But for the first couple of decades Christianity got a pass because it was initially regarded as just another Jewish sect.

But Christianity was different. It may have begun as a movement within Judaism but it very quickly started to attract outsiders, Gentiles. And the church had to come to grips with the fact that the good news Jesus preached was not just for Jews and that Christ had died to redeem all of mankind.

Paul is often given credit for turning a small ethnic sect into a universal religion but as we see in our passage from Isaiah, this was God's intention all along. God reaches out to foreigners and non-Jews who believe in him. He says, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Further back, in Genesis 12:3, after promising Abram that his descendants would become a great nation, God says, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” God didn't choose the Hebrew nation merely to be the object of his affection but to be the instrument through which he would show his love to all of humanity. This becomes much more obvious in the ministry of Jesus, who offers salvation to the Samaritan woman at the well, who heals the slave of the Roman centurion and in today's gospel, heals the daughter of the Canaanite woman.

And shortly after Jesus' ascension and Pentecost, the question of whether Gentiles are to be included in the church arose, first when Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch and then when Peter baptizes Cornelius and his household. And, yes, it all comes to a head in Paul's ministry. Paul initially was going to synagogues in the Diaspora, the Jewish communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire. But he noticed he was having particular success among the so-called Godfearers, Gentiles who came to synagogue, were interested in the ethics of Judaism but hadn't gone so far as to be circumcised. When they accepted Jesus as Messiah, Lord and Savior, he saw no reason to exclude them from the church nor to demand that they convert to Judaism before becoming Christians. This became a big controversy in the early church. But Paul's vision of the gospel being for all, and his teaching that our salvation comes by grace through faith and not by following Jewish ceremonial law, won out in the end.

In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes, “For there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female—for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And in Ephesians 4:4-6, he says, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Following Jesus is about love and inclusion and unity that does not require uniformity. God created all humans, all races, nationalities, sexes, and personalities. Jesus died for all. We are to love all, both our neighbors and even our enemies. There is literally no one left that we can hate.

We need that message because a lot of people have a very constricted idea of what is good. They think that goodness is “what is good for me and mine.” The implication is that it is irrelevant if that is also bad for those who are not me or mine. And as Dr. Paul Farmer said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” But God so loved the world that he sent his son Jesus to redeem it. And all we need to do to receive redemption is to trust him to save us, as you would a surgeon who proposes to knock you out, cut you open, cut out your heart and put in another. You can't do heart surgery on yourself. You can only trust a good physician to do so for you.

And our hearts are messed up. Left to themselves, people will act on what is good for themselves and those they love and to hell with everyone else. As Jesus says in today's gospel, “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” That's why we have rules, like the Ten Commandments, against those things. And if there is a rule against something, you can be sure that someone at least once did that very thing. If the lawyers of the company that made your hair dryer put on there a warning not to use it in the bathtub or shower, you know that means someone actually tried to do that. So we make rules.

Of course, rules only stop some people some of the time. If having rules stopped everyone from doing what's wrong then traffic laws would ensure that nobody speeds, nobody passes where they shouldn't and everybody has their seat belts buckled. You just have to drive on US-1 to know that's not true. Rules can't really solve the problem. The problem is internal; the solution has to be as well. We need a change of heart.

And it begins with faith. When Jesus visited his hometown, Mark tells us that he was not able to heal many because they didn't believe in him. (Mark 6:5-6) A doctor can't cure someone who won't trust him, who won't let him do what needs to be done and won't follow his orders. God can't save those who won't trust him, won't let him do what needs to be done and who won't follow his orders. But if we do trust him, everything changes.

If we trust Jesus, he will enter our hearts. He will send his Spirit to remake us from the inside out, to be the person God intended us to be. He will change our way of thinking, speaking and acting. He will transform us from a creature of God into a child of God. We will become more trusting, more hopeful, more loving, more Christlike everyday.

The first step is baptism. It is not a magical rite but a physical act that signifies a spiritual reality. In his Word God promises that, in baptism, a person's sin is forgiven, the person is redirected from a trajectory leading to death to the way of everlasting life and they become part of God's people and a joint heir with Christ to all of God's treasures. And that's what is happening today with Kailee.

Kailee, usually we baptize babies. For them it's like a spiritual vaccination. Parents decide they want this good thing for their baby. The baby doesn't really understand. But you can. So I want to give you an idea of what this is all about.

In this world people do bad things, things that harm others. They can do it with their words; they can do it with their actions; they can even do it by not helping someone when that person needs help. We all do bad things at times. We make things worse rather than better. We mess up things in the world God made and we mess up things for the people God made. Sometimes we don't even understand why we do it and we are sorry.

The good news is God wants to change that. He wants to make things better. He wants to make us better. You know why? God loves us. The Bible tells us God is love. And in Jesus we see that love in human form. In Jesus we see what God is like: loving, forgiving, helping, healing. We also see what we can be. We can be like Jesus. We can be people who make the world better. We can help people become better.

By being baptized, you are saying you want to be one of the good guys, one of the people following Jesus. And God will help you follow Jesus. At your baptism, he will give you his Spirit to help you be more like Jesus.

There are a lot of good things about being a Christian. For instance, Jesus said he will never leave us or abandon us. He will be with us forever. Wherever you are, whatever happens, Jesus will be with you. Even if you mess up, Jesus will not leave you.

As a Christian you can talk to Jesus. You can tell him anything. If you have problems, you can tell him about them. And he will understand. He lived on this earth as one of us and he knows all about the problems we have. He had problems too: problems with his parents, problems with his brothers and sisters, problems with his friends, problems with people who didn't like him. Jesus is a friend you can talk to and trust.

As a Christian you will be part of God's family. Not just the people in this church but people in churches all over the world. They will help you too. And you will help them. All who follow Jesus help one another.

Jesus loves us just as we are. But he loves us too much to leave us that way. He wants us to grow up as Christians in the same way your parents want you to grow up from a little girl into a woman who can do things for herself. As you grow up you will find that certain things will become more important to you and you will want to work hard to make them come true. It's the same when you grow as a Christian.

As a Christian you want things to be fair. You want people to be treated equally. If things are not fair, Christians work to make them fair.

As a Christian you want the best for everyone, not just for yourself. You want people to be their best. Christians work to make sure everyone has the chance to be their best.

As a Christian you realize that you won't always do your best. You will mess up. We all do. But you know that God will forgive you. And that means you have to forgive others when they don't do their best. And then afterwards you will try to do your best again.

As a Christian you want people to have enough food, enough water, enough clothes, to be welcome when they are strangers, to be helped when they are sick or when they are not free. Jesus said that people who need these things are his brothers and sisters and how we treat them is how we treat Jesus. Christians treat everyone as they would treat Jesus.

As a Christian you want everyone to know about Jesus and God's love for them. God created everyone you meet in this world. Everyone you meet is either already your brother or sister in Jesus or could become your brother or sister in Jesus. Christians let everyone know about God's love and what Jesus has done for them.

In just a few minutes we are going to say some prayers. We are going to ask you and your parents and sponsors and everyone here some questions. We are going to ask if you renounce some things. “Renounce” just means “reject.” We are going to ask if you reject the things that harm people and make the world worse. We are going to ask if you believe in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. “Believe” means “put your trust in” someone. We are going to thank God for water of baptism. And then we are going to baptize you and seal you and everyone here will welcome you into God's family.

Are you ready? Let's go. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

In a World of Trouble

The scripture referred to are Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 and Matthew 14:22-33.

To paraphrase humorist Robert Benchley, there are two kinds of people in this world—those who divide everything in two kinds of things and those who don't. When it comes to misfortune, it seems logical that there are two ways to find yourself in trouble: either through your own fault or through circumstances beyond your control. I think there is a third way we experience trouble: a mixture of those two. Your problems can be partially of your own making and partially not. You can either make bad decisions which put you into the path of negative outside forces, such as someone who decided to sell all he has and put all of his money into the stock market...in early 2008. Or you can find yourself in a bad situation, which you proceed to make worse by poor decisions, such a person caught in a hurricane who tries to evacuate to the mainland while the eye of the storm is over them. I think a lot of our troubles are a result of both mistakes we've made and unforeseen circumstances.

In today's lectionary we are looking at how people get into trouble as well as some helpful principles for navigating troubled times from the stories of Joseph and Peter.

Joseph's problem with his family arises from a combination of factors. He was the first son of Rachel, Jacob's favorite wife. So Jacob dotes on the boy, especially after the death of Rachel. This makes his brothers jealous. It doesn't help that Joseph brings bad reports about his brother's activities to their father. Then Jacob gives Joseph a special coat. Older translations say it was of many colors. Most modern translations think the Hebrew, which is tricky here, indicates a long-sleeved robe that went to his knees. It may also have been beautifully embroidered and colorful, as seen in Egyptian paintings of Canaanite dress at the time. The point is, this was not a robe you could or would do manual labor in. Jacob seems to be marking out Joseph as the supervisor of his brothers. You can imagine how well that went over with them.

The situation is not helped by what happens next. Our lectionary inexplicably skips over it but Joseph has two prophetic dreams. In one the family is in the field tying up sheaves of wheat. Joseph's sheaf stands up and the rest of the family's sheaves circle around it and bow to it. In the second dream, the sun, the moon and 11 stars bow down to Joseph. You don't need a dream dictionary to catch the meaning. Even Jacob scolds Joseph for the obvious symbolism of his family bowing down to him. His brothers just seethe.

So when they see Joseph approaching to check on them and the flocks, the brothers start plotting to kill him. Just 3 chapters earlier in Genesis Jacob's sons sack a Canaanite town to avenge the rape of their sister. Joseph is just a teenager. His half-brothers are men and dangerous ones at that.

Fortunately Reuben, the oldest, is able to deflect his brothers from their murderous intent. He proposes just throwing Joseph into a pit, probably a dry cistern. Reuben is thinking he can pull Joseph out later and return him home. The others agree to the plan. They strip off Joseph's fancy robe, the hated sign of his authority over them, and toss him in a hole in the ground.

Reuben must have gone off somewhere because in his absence the other brothers see a caravan of traders on their way to Egypt and get the bright idea to sell their brother into slavery. They do so and when Reuben returns, looking for Joseph, they cook up a cover up. They kill a goat and smear its blood on the coat. Then they take it to their father, who thinks some wild predator has eaten his son. Jacob is devastated and refused to be comforted. I hope his brothers were eaten up with guilt.

You really should read the story of Joseph in the Bible. It's as good as a novel. But to summarize: Joseph is sold to an Egyptian official named Potiphar, captain of the palace guard. Joseph does well and eventually is given charge of the household. Potiphar's wife makes a pass at Joseph but when he refuses her, she accuses him of attempted rape. Joseph ends up in prison, where he is such a model prisoner he becomes the chief trustee. While there, he meets 2 servants of Pharaoh who are on the outs with their boss. Joseph interprets their dreams and tells the one he knows will return to Pharaoh's good graces to put in a word for Joseph. And though it all works out as Joseph said, that guy, a wine steward, totally forgets to mention it to Pharaoh.

Two years later, Pharaoh has some disturbing dreams that none of his advisers can interpret. Only then does the wine steward remember Joseph, the Hebrew who understood dreams. To make a long story short, Joseph tells Pharaoh that the dreams foretell an upcoming famine and says that they ought to start setting aside the surplus of the years leading up to it so no one will starve. Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of that task and Joseph indeed becomes someone powerful to whom his brothers must do obeisance in order to get food.

We're not sure how long it took Joseph to go from slave to governor of Egypt but it has to have been a decade or more. And though Joseph's superior attitude towards his brothers may have contributed a bit to the situation, his problems are largely the fault of others. Even being a tattletale doesn't merit what happened to him.

And the remarkable thing is that Joseph maintains his faith in God throughout it all. I'm not saying he never had doubts. That time in the cistern as he overheard his brothers debating his possible death, his years of slavery, and his years in prison, especially the 2 years he waited to see if the wine steward would do anything to help him, must have made him wonder: “Lord, I'm doing all the right things. Why is nothing going my way?” His hopes must have flagged a bit over the years.

And yet Joseph doesn't let the ordeal change the person he is. When propositioned by Potiphar's wife, he points out all that his master has entrusted to him and says, “So how could I do such a great evil and sin against God?” And when Pharaoh says that he has heard that Joseph can interpret dreams, Joseph, though this is his chance to get free, doesn't say, “You're right!” You'd think that Joseph, seemingly abandoned by God, would try to make his own luck. Instead he responds, “It is not within my power, but God will speak concerning the welfare of Pharaoh.” Joseph doesn't let his desperation blind him to who is really in control. It's not Pharaoh; it's not Joseph, but God. His massive run of bad luck wasn't random; God had a reason. And Joseph knew his ultimate fate was in God's hands.

Later, Joseph is able to look back and see God's hand at work even in his misfortune. After being reunited with his lost son and family in Egypt, Jacob later dies. And his sons think, with dad dead, their powerful brother Joseph might decide to get his revenge on them at last. Joseph tells them, “Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day.” Joseph was able to look back on the seemingly random path his life had taken and see how God was positioning him to be where he could do the most good. Had he stayed in Canaan, Joseph couldn't have helped stop the famine from killing lots of people, including his family. Had he not been sold to the captain of the palace guard he would never have been put in a royal prison where he would have met the disgraced wine steward. Had he not interpreted that man's dream properly, Joseph, a Hebrew slave, would never have gotten a crack at interpreting Pharaoh's dream. And so finally he and his organizational abilities, noticed by the prison warden, by his master and perhaps by his father when he put him in charge of his brothers, were now in a place where he could save a nation from starvation.

Joseph's story illustrates the fact that you can find yourself in trouble even when you are doing everything right. And yet his continuing to do the right things is what allowed him to rise in whatever circumstances he found himself. He shouldn't have been sold into slavery but finding himself there he did the best job he could. And that's probably what kept him from being executed for rape, which was a common punishment for that crime. Perhaps his master had a hard time reconciling the idea of his faithful servant with that of a rapist and decided to have him put instead in a royal prison which was probably more comfortable than an ordinary one.

Again Joseph shouldn't have been sent to prison but finding himself there he decided to be a model prisoner and he again rose to the top. Which is probably what allowed him to have contact with members of Pharaoh's staff. By making the best of a bad situation, by being helpful and reliable, rather than resentful and obstructive, Joseph was both working within God's will and simultaneously making things better for himself.

Joseph's story also illustrates the fact that the time you need to trust God the most is exactly when it is hardest to put your trust in him. When everything seems to be going from bad to worse, that's when you need to keep your hopes pinned on him. The temptation to despair and give up on God can be strong. You have to make a decision to stick with God, no matter what, and hold onto his promises.

In fact, Peter's trouble in today's gospel has to do with a crisis in faith. Often this incident is looked at as another failure on his part but he wouldn't be in this situation had he not literally stepped out in faith. He does what none of the other disciples do and frankly what most of us wouldn't do. He asked Jesus if it is OK and Jesus gives him the go-ahead. And everything starts out well. But then Peter starts paying attention to the strong wind. He gets frightened and he starts to sink. He has to call for help and Jesus comes to his rescue.

This story is a perfect paradigm of what to do and what not to do when following Jesus. It starts when some people notice Jesus doing something extraordinary. It may be something Jesus is doing through someone else, such as a ministry that is having a real impact. But it can also be something that bothers or frightens people in the church. Perhaps it seems unsupportable, financially or in terms of the personnel required. Or maybe it goes against all the rules of how things should work. So most people say, “No one can do that.” And they just remain bystanders, amazed but also worrying.

But one or two people might see what Jesus is doing and say, “Maybe we can do that too.” And rather than just jumping in, they ask Jesus if this is his will. And that's good. We don't want to be impulsive like Peter usually is. But this time he asks first. And Jesus says, “Come.” And he takes a step out of the boat, out of his comfort zone. And he's doing it! In the same way, when we step out on faith, following Jesus, we find that we are empowered to do what he does. Often what really limits us is our expectations. We decide what can and can't be done. But if listen to what our Lord says and follow his lead, we find that we can do more than we imagined was possible.

The key is to stay focused on Jesus. It's when Peter turns his attention to the strong wind that he gets into trouble. In the same way, if we start to think more about the opposition, if we start to think about how precarious our position is rather than the power that upholds us, then we get in trouble. We shift our attention from Jesus and look to the world instead. We pay more attention to which way the wind is blowing than to the direction Jesus is leading us. We pay more attention to controversies of the day than to the clear commands of Jesus to love God and other people. When we pay attention to the instability of the world and ignore the stability of Jesus, fear replaces faith and we get engulfed by the chaos around us and we start to go under.

All is not lost. If we call upon Jesus he will come to our aid. He is faithful that way.

But you know what I wish? I wish Peter had said, “Let me try it again, Lord.” I wish he had held on to Jesus' hand and taken another stroll. Just because we fail one time, it doesn't mean that the adventure is over. We can try again. I am reminded of the time Jesus healed the blind man at Bethsaida. Jesus spits on the man's eyes, lays his hands on him and asks if he sees anything. The man says, “Yes, but people look like walking trees.” So Jesus lays hands on him again and then the man sees clearly. (Mark 8:22-26) If Jesus sometimes needs to try again, so should we. As someone once said, failure is not final; it is the courage to continue that counts.

We also need the courage to ask Jesus for help. There are times when we are sinking, we are getting in over our heads and it is stupid to think we can get out of it alone. We need to stop being afraid to admit our failure, call upon Jesus, reach out to him and let him haul us out of whatever trouble we are in.

Jesus told us we would have trouble in this world. Sometimes it is completely out of our hands, sometimes it is of our own making and most of the time it is a combination of the two. Whatever the source of the trouble, whatever the nature of it, certain principles always apply. We need to keep trusting God. We need to keep hoping. We need to keep doing our best. We need to have the courage to step out of our comfort zone and walk in faith.

And we must keep our eyes on Jesus. Night may fall, storms may rage, winds may blow, waves may crash. In the midst of all the chaos, Jesus is there for us, striding the waves, his arm outstretched, his ear attuned to our cry, to pull us out of the deep and bring us to safety once more.