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.

Nope”

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. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Fire

Dorothy L. Sayers, the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, was also a brilliant lay theologian. She wrote The Mind of the Maker, a book that not only offers a unique perspective on the Trinity but an insightful look at the creative process as well. She also wrote a translation of The Divine Comedy, whose notes alone put her among the premiere scholars of Dante. In addition, she wrote popular essays on various aspects of Christianity, such as the seven deadly sins and the importance of dogma. After C.S. Lewis, she is perhaps the Christian writer who has influenced me the most. While Lewis' approach to explaining the faith was a subtle mix of clear logic and an avuncular manner, Sayers was much more bracing. One gets the impression that she didn't suffer fools gladly. One passage that I want to quote at length is her reaction on the popular picture of “Jesus, meek and mild.” Sayers wrote, “The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore—on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him “meek and mild,” and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew Him, however, He in no way suggested a milk-and-water person; they objected to Him as a dangerous firebrand. True, He was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven, but He insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites; He referred to King Herod as 'that fox'; He went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a 'glutonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners'; He drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; He cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people's pigs and property; He showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, He displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and He retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb. He was emphatically not a dull man in His human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But He had 'a daily beauty in His life that made us ugly,' and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without Him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness.”

Today's gospel (Luke 29:49-56) was undoubtedly one of the passages that shaped Sayers' analysis. Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” And in case you didn't get the point, Jesus says a few verses later, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” And then he goes into detail about how even families will be split in their opinion of him. It is a very distressing thing to hear from the mouth of our Lord.

It has been said that a preacher ought to do two things: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. In this passage Jesus is trying to wake up those who think things are fine as they are or who wish to go back to the way things were. In the previous chapter of Luke Jesus had it out with the Pharisees. They accused him of casting out demons by accessing the power of the prince of demons; that is, healing people using the power of Satan. Jesus points out that this makes no sense for it posits that Satan's kingdom is in revolt against itself. It makes more sense that a stronger power is routing the powers that oppress people and make them suffer. He accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy, of being more interested in preserving the minutia of the law while neglecting “justice and the love for God!” They bury people under the burden of religious rules and do nothing to help them.

It's still true today. Rules are supposed to make things better for people. They are supposed to protect us from bad or reckless behavior and they are supposed to guide considerate behavior. Regulations are supposed to help people. But people have always figured out how to game the system. Some folks work out ways to violate the spirit of the law while still observing the letter of the law. They know every loophole there is. Or if they are powerful enough, they get the rules rewritten so that they don't impede them in doing what they want. Our tax code is not complex merely because it is trying to cover all economic situations. A lot of it is exceptions and special rules for certain industries and people with certain levels of wealth or sources of income. That's the only way that it is possible for companies to make millions or even billions of dollars and yet pay little or no tax.

You know why Nixon said, “I am not a crook?” Because a reporter from a small town newspaper had found out that Nixon had made more than $400,000 one year but only paid $800 in taxes. It turns out that he had gotten a big tax break for donating his presidential papers to an institution. The problem was that exemption had gone away before he did that and he backdated the transaction so he could claim it. People were clamoring for him to release his tax returns and he resisted. Finally, he did release them to show the people that he was "not a crook." And presidential candidates have done so since, to show the American people that they are honest. It also usually shows that they have good tax lawyers who can minimize how much they pay in taxes.

It's not that regulations are bad in and of themselves. It's that some regulations are good and some are bad. Before the Food and Drug Acts of the early 20th century, you had no guarantee that the food you ate wasn't adulterated or tainted or mislabeled or poisonous. Today medicines have to be shown to be both safe and effective. When they aren't, someone has usually not followed the regulations. On the other hand, in 15 states, a rapist has parental rights over the child he has fathered! He can demand visitation, although he may cleverly bargain that away in return for being freed from having to pay child support. The mother may not be able to give the child up for adoption without getting permission from her rapist. Only 35 states allow those rights to be terminated but first the man has to be convicted. Unfortunately, less than one fifth of rapes are reported and only 5% of those reported end up in convictions. These laws essentially let the rapist continue to stay in the life of his victim and continue to torment her.

Rule making is not easy, because you have to balance the rights of everyone involved. But often the rules don't even take that into consideration. Jesus objected to rules, even those in the Bible, when they were used to harm people or to allow us to neglect them. And he knew that pointing out such injustices was not going to be greeted with applause by those in power.

Jesus didn't relish the fact that his insistence of justice and mercy would divide people; he just knew it would. He knew it would happen despite the fact that he was going to die to bring peace between God and humanity and between different peoples. Which is why he is under such stress in this passage. He wants it over; he wants it completed. He wants to see the good news reach everyone and people to love God and each other and his kingdom to come on earth. I think Jesus is expressing the frustration of anyone who knows he is going to encounter opposition simply for doing the right thing.

It is odd how preaching peace can make people angry. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. tried to change their societies through non-violent protests. The result was that the authorities responded with violence. Just as they did to Jesus. (Okay, Jesus did do one violent thing. He chased the moneychangers out of the temple for ripping people off, essentially profiting off poor people in the name of religion. But nobody arrested him then because they knew he was right. They just wanted to know why he was upsetting business as usual.)

People don't want to hear the truth, especially if it isn't simple and easy. Jesus knew the truth is often a paradox. For instance, we all want justice and we all want peace. But if you administer absolute justice it will disturb the peace. Because nobody is sinless and often society is built on a lot of inequities. In this country we have moved the original inhabitants off their lands and onto reservations; we imported people from Africa and enslaved them; as recently as World War 2, we rounded up and interred Americans who happened to be of the same ethnic makeup as one of our adversaries, the Japanese, but did not do the same to German Americans or Italian Americans. A recent study said it would take another 200 years for the average black family to acquire the same wealth as the average white family. For that matter, when my Mom bought her house and car, she had my dad pretend that they were still divorced so that she could own them in her own name and not her husband's. Women still don't make on average what men do for the same jobs. That's a lot of injustice and though you may not have personally done these things, the results of those actions persist. If strict justice were done, then it would upset a lot more than people's peace of mind.

But if you opt for total peace, that means not making everybody pay for the injustices that they have done or from which they have benefited. In other words, it means forgiving a lot of people for a lot of bad behavior. We like forgiveness in theory; we don't like it when it means we have to forgive specific people for specific wrongs they have done to us. I once talked to an inmate who was troubled by this because his sister was murdered by a serial killer. The killer was in prison. This man couldn't forgive him. I understood. I don't imagine I would be nobler in his position. I told him to try to do what Jesus did. At Golgotha he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He said this while they were crucifying him! I said to the brother, “Notice that Jesus didn't say 'I forgive you.' He said, 'Father, forgive them...' Why not try asking God to forgive your sister's murderer and help you to eventually get to the point where you can, too? Because otherwise, this man is still hurting you. He is still dominating your memory of your sister. You don't want to be his last victim.” Still I don't know if I could take my own advice. But peace is antithetical to absolute justice.

The truth can be tough. It doesn't always lend itself to the simplicity of a bumper sticker or a Tweet. That's why Jesus often asked tough questions and said things that are tough to accept. He wasn't a politician, telling people what they want to hear. He was more like a physician, making diagnoses difficult to listen to and prescribing treatment and therapy that would be hard on those who followed it.

My dad was the maitre 'd of a fancy restaurant at the top of an office building. One Saturday night, as he was closing things down, he tripped over a coffee table in the lobby and broke his leg. He was the last person in the building and so he lay there, in pain, all night. He was discovered Sunday morning by the cleaning crew. They carried him to the phone to call my mother. It was the only time I ever heard my dad cry. But that wasn't the worst of it. When they got him to the hospital the X-rays showed that his bones were already knitting together, though they were displaced. So the doctor had to rebreak his leg so that it could be set properly. Sometimes the right thing to do is painful.

People don't want to hear that. That's why we have the saying, “Don't shoot the messenger.” Because that is our first instinct. A lawyer who represents whistleblowers says he tells his clients to count the cost. They will probably lose their job, become a pariah in their industry, have to wait a long time to see a result, may not win and if they do, those behind the injustices they exposed may never be punished. That's how much we hate hearing and facing the truth.

Jesus was blowing the whistle not just on one aspect of life but on all of it. He was not exposing the sins of one group of people but of everyone. That's why they felt they had to nail him to a cross. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Mankind cannot bear too much reality.”

One last observation: Jesus chose the word “fire” deliberately. Last week we talked about how fire can be good or bad depending on how it's used. It cooks our food; it gives light and warmth. It can destroy. It can also refine and purify by burning up dross. Here on Big Pine they use controlled burns to get rid of underbrush which could fuel out of control wild fires. They literally fight fire with fire. Jesus wants to do the same. He wants to separate the wheat from the weeds. As do we all. We all want to eliminate the things that make life bad. We want to root out evil. But we have our prejudices and we want to protect our own interests. We are not the best judges of who or what is obstructing goodness. Jesus has no such bias. And when he was being attacking for healing and helping people, of course he wished he could just get the whole mess cleaned up already.

There is another thing fire is good at: spreading. And sure enough, the good news of God's burning love revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ spread through the Roman Empire like wildfire. Jesus was crucified in 30 AD. By the end of that century there were house churches in every major city ringing the Mediterranean Sea. Despite it being an illegal religion, more and more people responded to the message of God's grace and forgiveness and became Christians. At times, this meant persecution and even death. And it split families and communities as Jesus predicted it would.


We still live in a world where folks are offended by the idea that God wants us to love even our enemies, to forgive what we consider unforgivable, to minister to those who have made bad life decisions, and to repay evil with good. They hate it so much they can lose it and get violent and divisive about it. They will shoot the messenger. God knows that. Jesus foresaw that. But with the power of the Spirit we need to do the right thing and spread the good word, no matter who it infuriates. The world needs to wake up and face the uncomfortable truth that the way we've been doing things all this time just increases injustice, strife and misery. It's as obvious as the signs of an oncoming storm. We need to follow the orders of the great physician, Jesus. Yes, it may difficult and painful at times; Jesus knows that better than anyone. But until we put ourselves in his hands we won't heal properly. But if we let him change our hearts and minds, no matter how traumatic it seems, we will be healthy and grow to be who we were meant to be.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Heart and Home

The scriptures referred to are Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and Luke 12:32-40.

You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what is close to some people's hearts. It used to be that you would see cars or trucks plastered with bumper stickers that spelled out the person's political or religious viewpoint. Today it's their Facebook page and the stuff they post and repost. We now know which people in our life are supporting which issue, which party, which sports team, which fandom, and which religion. Pet owners post numerous pictures of their dogs or cats or goats. New parents and grandparents flood your newsfeed with videos and stills of babies and toddlers. (Guilty!) You can even tell Facebook what kind of posts you want to or don't want to see. More and more our social media pages are like a hall of mirrors, infinitely reflecting where our hearts really are.

Most people have a number of interests. Others have just one thing they go on and on about. We've all met them. Eventually you learn to avoid them unless you want to spend all your available time talking about the Miami Heat or their awful ex or the latest superhero movie or the candidate they like or the candidate they hate. They can come to fit Winston Churchill's definition of a fanatic: someone who can't change their mind and won't change the subject. And, yes, there are religious people like that, who can turn any conversation, be it astrophysics or car maintenance into a discussion of their religion. Certain militant atheists are just as bad, bending every subject into a reason why God doesn't exist or why religion is the root of all evil.

In some cases, such single-mindedness is a strength. It leads some scientists to make breakthroughs, or some reformers to change society. The problem comes when the object of this intense focus supplants everything else in one's life. FBI agent John Douglas confesses that his job interviewing and classifying and hunting down serial killers destroyed his marriage. Catching these monsters seemed much more important than time spent with his family. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis' obsession with getting doctors to wash their hands in the 1850s saved patients' lives but ruined his career and may have even led to his death in an asylum. (This was before germs were discovered to cause disease.) And I saw an episode of a show about toys where a woman's obsession with collecting every Barbie ever manufactured had her family living in a very small portion of the house. Her teenage boys could not use the closet in their room because it was crammed with Malibu Barbie's house and car and other accessories. The same situation was mirrored in a different household where a man's collection of Hot Wheels cars literally covered every flat surface in their home.

Most of us are not that bad. But it behooves all of us to examine ourselves and see that no one area of our lives is crowding out other vital areas. In today's gospel Jesus observes that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And he is specifically warning us about getting too attached to our possessions. We like to think that this is not a problem. A good test of that is to take Luke 12:33, drop the word “possessions” and replace it with something specific that you treasure. Like “Sell your season tickets to the Marlins and give to the poor.” Or “Sell your books and give to the poor.” Or “Sell your smartphone and give to the poor.” If you find something that would be just too painful to part with, even though it would benefit someone who is hungry or homeless, then perhaps you are too emotionally invested in it.

Hetty Green was the richest woman in America during the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. She was a shrewd investor who was worth between 2 to 4 billion dollars in today's money. She was also the most miserly person you will probably ever hear of. She mostly ate 15 cent pies and rarely washed her one dress to save money on soap. She did her business in the offices of the Seaboard National Bank, surrounded by suitcases and trunks of her papers, so she would not have to rent an office of her own. When her son Ned broke his leg, she tried to get him admitted to a free clinic for the poor. His leg never did heal properly and later was amputated. Where was her heart—with her son or with her fortune?

Jesus rightly sees that greed is a form of idolatry. People will make the accumulation of wealth or being richer than other people the center of their lives. For others their idol may be fame, seeing their face or their name on everything. For still others it may be power, being able to tell folks what to do or how to run things, that is their true heart's desire. Often those three go together for money gives one power and having money and power makes one famous.

But all of those things are temporary. Money can be stolen or squandered. Or just evaporate. Companies and investments estimated as worth billions became worthless overnight when the value of their stocks and the mortgage-backed securities they were invested in plummeted in 2008.

Fame is fleeting. Remember when Ross Perot was huge? He founded EDS, a multinational company that made IT equipment, and he even ran for president. He's still alive but when was the last time you thought about him?

Power may be the most slippery of the three. Eliot Spitzer was the crusading Attorney General of New York and then its governor. A little over a year into his governorship he resigned because he was implicated in a prostitution scandal. He was host of a number of short-lived TV shows and tried to run for Comptroller of New York City in 2013 and lost in the primary. Today he's under investigation for assaulting a woman in a hotel.

A person who worships money or fame or power is really worshiping himself, because all of those things magnify him. A person with any or all of those things can do stuff most of us can't and after a while they feel entitled to do anything. They can bend rules or get them bent for them and eventually come to think the rules don't apply to them. There are scientific studies that show that people who are much better off in status or wealth tend to cheat more often and be less empathetic to others. Mind you, in experiments in which they had people grade their own math tests and supposedly shred them and then get paid a dollar for each right answer they said they had, 70% of people cheated a little. About 20% cheated a lot. And it wasn't confined to people who really needed the money. When everyone tells you you are special, you start to think you deserve special treatment and you should get breaks others don't get.

In some cases, people worship sex. They want as much as they can get with anyone they can get it from. And like money, power, or fame, sex is not in and of itself evil. In fact sex is a gift from God. But it is powerful which means it can do a lot of good or a lot of damage, depending how you use it. In my marriage classes I like to compare sex to fire. Fire can be very good. It cooks your food; it gives you warmth; it gives light. But that's if the fire is where it's supposed to be: in a stove, in a furnace, in a fireplace or on a candle. Fire outside the proper place, like on your curtains or on your roof or on your clothes is very bad. Fire needs to be controlled if we are to benefit from it. People who like fire for fire's sake, who worship fire, are called pyromaniacs or arsonists.

Sex can be a great good when it is used to express real committed selfless love for one's spouse. It literally chemically binds people together. It can bring new people into the world born of that love. Money can be a great good when it is used to feed or educate or care for others who through misfortune would have to do without those things. Fame can be a great good when a celebrity uses it to throw a spotlight on a problem or a disease and rallies people to become part of the solution. Power can be a great good if it is used to make society and the world a better place for all.

God gave us many good gifts. We created evil when we used them to harm rather than to help. And one of the most harmful things we can do is put them in place of God, to worship the gift and not the giver. God is not a celestial ATM or a genie. He is our creator and the one who loves us more than anyone else can. But if we put any of the gifts in his place it would be like trying to replace the hub of a bicycle wheel with a spoke or a tire. The hub must be in the center. The spokes radiate out from it. You can do without a spoke or two. Spokes sometimes have to be replaced. A tire must be replaced from time to time. But you cannot do without the hub.

If we invest our whole existence in the things of this world, our lives will be as out of balance as a wheel whose hub has been displaced. You will find it harder to navigate this world. You will not be able to avoid the potholes. You'll get thrown off a lot.

You need to invest in what is essential. You need to recognize that only what is eternal will outlast this life and this world. You need to be grounded in what Paul Tillich called the Ground of all being: God.

In our passage from Hebrews 11, the author speaks of how our ancestors in the faith put their trust in God, who cannot be seen. Some people think they have trouble trusting what can't be seen. Except for the air they can't see but trust to keep them breathing. And the electromagnetic waves they can't see but which they trust to let them listen to the radio or watch TV or use their smartphones. Or the gut bacteria they can't see with the naked eye but which they trust to keep them healthy.

Our ancestors had less metaphors of unseen things with which to compare God but, like the wind, they could see the effects of his power in their lives. And they trusted in his promises, including that of a better world. After we used God's good gifts to do evil to ourselves and others, God promised his people a better world, a new creation. And as Abraham traveled to a promised land, and as Moses led the Hebrews back to the promised land, and as the exiled Jews left Babylon to return to their homeland, so we find ourselves traveling through this world to the next, our true home. This world is transient. We, like those before us, desire a better country: one that is just and compassionate and peaceful and filled with an abundance of good things for all. This is not that world. Not yet. Just as Jesus died and was resurrected in a body that no longer had human limitations, so we will die and be resurrected to be like him and this world will die and be resurrected as a new creation.

That doesn't mean we don't need to worry about what we do to and in this world anymore than looking forward to our resurrection body means we can abuse our present one. Nobody will get you a pony if you can't feed and take proper care of your goldfish. Nobody is going to buy you a Lexis if you can't be bothered to get regular oil changes for the Chevy Grandpa gave you. And God definitely is interested in what we do with this life before he upgrades us to the next.


We take care of this world and the people in it in joyful anticipation for the better world God will give us. We trust him and we want to show ourselves to be trustworthy stewards of what we have now. And part of being a good steward is knowing whom we serve. It's not money or fame or power or sex or food or any other fleeting thing. We serve the God who is love. If that's whom we treasure, that's where our heart will be. And that's where we will live forever. 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Life and Death

I don't remember the accident. It's odd because it only took a few seconds and it made a huge change in my life. In less time than this sentence will take, I broke both wrists, my left femur or thigh bone, the tibia and fibula in my right lower leg, my right heel, my sternum or breastbone, and 6 ribs, and I tore my diaphragm, my sigmoid colon, and my greater omentum and punctured my pancreas. That's for starters.

I do remember the aftermath. I woke to a first responder asking my name, what year it was and who was president. As I looked around dazed and noted that my airbags were deflated, I realized I must have had an accident and the nursing part of my brain recognized the questions and realized there were trying to assess my orientation to person, place and time. My legs felt as if they were dangling from strings rather like a marionette's. Apparently the engine of my car pushed the firewall back into my legs. When a deputy put his hands around my neck and cradled my head, my nurse's training told me they were about to put a cervical collar on me. Someone in a passing car snapped a picture and sent it to my wife's boss, who sent it to Julie, so that very moment has been captured. I remember it from my point of view and can see what it looked like from the outside. Weird.

I remember being cut out of the car and being pulled out and laid on a backboard. It was during my extraction from the vehicle that the pain finally kicked in. As they carried me to the emergency vehicle I remember saying “Ow” or “Oh, God” with every jolt. I remember being loaded on the helicopter but nothing further. That's when my right lung collapsed. They had to do an emergency thoracotomy me and insert a chest tube to reinflate my lung before they could take off and fly me to the trauma center in Miami.

I have one other memory of that day. It is an audio memory. I couldn't open my eyes and I had been intubated so I couldn't speak. But Julie confirms that it happened. She was sitting by me in the emergency room. Because she works for 911, she knew all the deputies, EMTs and first responders who had worked on me. And she was saying that she would have to make a lot of cookies to thank them. And then I heard the soft British voice of my brand new bishop say, “You don't happen to have any in the car, do you?” It was Bishop Peter Eaton's way of keeping things light. I remember nothing else. I was taken into the OR for the first of my 5 surgeries and was kept in a chemically induced coma for the better part of a week.

“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.”

That's the climax of the parable Jesus tells in today's passage from Luke 12. After a guy in the crowd asks Christ to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him, Jesus asks who appointed him as the arbitrator over his estate. Then he tells the story of a rich man who ends up with a bumper crop. He plans to tear down his existing barns and build bigger ones so he can store all the excess. Then the man decides to kick back and enjoy himself because he's got it made. That's when God pulls him up short and tells him that he won't get the benefit of his labor. Jesus is re-enforcing the point made in Ecclesiastes 2. He who dies with the most toys does notwin. Someone else will get to play with those toys. Our lives do not consist of having lots of possessions. When death comes, they prove to be useless. Jesus concludes, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

That's an odd phrase: “rich toward God.” But the sentence structure implies it is the opposite of storing up treasures for oneself. It could mean the rich guy should have given some of his wealth to God by contributing to the temple. But I think Jesus may be referring to Proverbs 19:17, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done.” Just 2 chapters later in Luke, Jesus says, “...when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:13,14) After all, the excess the man had was grain—food. Rather than build new silos, he could have helped out a lot of hungry people. But he was just going to sit on it and sell it off a bit at a time while he would just, in his own words, “relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Wrong! His last act could have been one of generosity and charity. Instead he was thinking only of himself when death came.

Such sayings by Jesus and in the rest of the Bible make us uneasy. We like having stuff. I think it goes back to childhood when we had a favorite doll or toy or blanket that we took everywhere. It was tangible and it made us feel we had a grip on this world, something to hang onto if the rug was pulled from under us. But it wouldn't help.

Any of those memories could have been my last. Or none of them. One moment I was driving home from a beautiful service at the cathedral, listening to a podcast, crossing over the last bridge to Big Pine, 2 miles from home. The next moment my car was careening across the highway and I was unconscious, my internal organs being shredded like paper, the bones of my body being snapped like so many twigs. And that could have been it. I may never have awakened in this world.

A lot of people don't. Just this last Monday 2 people were killed less than 10 miles from where I crashed. Julie witnessed the accident. She took her first aid kit to one vehicle. But it was too late for them. And the other car was a white Altima, like mine. The next day she discovered she knew one of the people who died. She took a day off.

Death is the fairest thing there is: one per customer. But we never know exactly when it will come. It may be an the end of a long illness; it may be a sudden accident or stroke or heart attack. It may be as the result of violence. We really don't like to think about our death. But it is coming. The question is not “will we die” nor “how?” It is “how will we live?”

Every day we get is a gift and grace from God. Every second is a second chance to start living our lives differently. If we look at things that way, if we are grateful for what we have been given—the people in our lives, our talents, the opportunities, the challenges, and all the things in life that cost nothing—we will have a better life than if we invest in mere physical stuff. Scientists have even found that people are happier when they spend their money on experiences rather than possessions. And they have verified that Jesus was on the nose when he said it is more blessed to give than to receive. Science concurs: doing things for others makes us happier than doing things just for ourselves.

And that makes sense. If God is love and we are created in the image of God, we are more true to ourselves, to our real natures, when we love and do things out of love for others. When I awoke from my coma, it was to find Julie holding my right hand and my daughter Beth holding my left. When I could do nothing for myself, I was supported by many many others. Besides the nurses and doctors and therapists, there was my family, my parishioners, the officers and inmates at the jail, people from other churches to whom I was just a name on a prayer list. People prayed for me and had faith that I would be healed and cheered me along every step of the way. You carried me like the 4 friends who carried the paralytic on a mat, and tore up somebody's roof and lowered the man through the hole to Jesus. My call from God and my love for these people lit a fire under me and motivated me to do what had to be done no matter how difficult and painful. I did so to the astonishment of doctors and nurses and therapists, who called me the miracle man, in part because people this broken usually give up. This call and this love is motivating me right now to make my way tomorrow to Miami and get from the doctor a note that will allow me to do here from a chair what I did in the nursing home from a wheelchair every week since Holy Week: lead worship of the God who healed me.

Our life is required of us every day. Jesus gave his life for us. Which means our lives are not our own. They come from God and were redeemed—bought back—by Jesus. And when the day of resurrection comes, we will be like him, embodiments of God's love. As Paul put it, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Friday, July 8, 2016

Lose or Learn

I have been spending a lot of time on Facebook lately. (Yes, more than usual. I have had a lot of time on my hands.) And I know enough to realize that just because a good quote is attributed to a famous person (usually Einstein, Mother Teresa or Mark Twain) it doesn't mean they actually said or wrote it. Even back in biblical times, people credited writings to someone more prestigious than themselves, probably to get a bigger audience. Bible scholars even have a word for such writings: pseudepigrapha. That's the category for all of the gospels and epistles excluded from the Bible that were that were obviously written long after the apostles died. Some are plainly bogus, like the Gospel of the Birth of Mary, the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Peter which features a giant talking cross!

But sometimes a quote is so good, it doesn't matter who said it. I read one recently that was attributed to Nelson Mandela but upon further investigation, I could find no reliable source. But the quote is a vital truth nevertheless. It goes, “I never lose. I either win or learn.”

In a few seconds on US-1, I broke a number of bones and ripped or punctured a number of internal organs. I spent 40 days in the hospital and 100 days in a rehab center, recovering and then relearning how to walk. I am still in therapy.

I could look at this time as a big loss: loss of peace of mind for my family and friends, loss of health, loss of mobility, loss of a car, loss of time ministering to people, loss of income and loss of money due to medical bills. They are depressing to think about.

But, while acknowledging all those real losses, it is more fruitful to look at what I have learned. I have learned that we take a lot of things for granted: being able to walk, talk, eat, groom yourself, decide when and what to eat. We even take the ability to breathe for granted, as I found out twice, once when my right lung collapsed at the accident and once in the hospital when I threw some pulmonary emboli and lost the ability to breathe with my left lung.

I learned how important the love and support of family and community are. I shall never forget waking up from my coma to find my wife holding my right hand and my daughter my left. I shall never forget the joy of seeing my son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter when I got out of ICU. I was similarly buoyed up by visits from my brother and mother, my Episcopal bishop, colleagues bringing me communion and anointing me with oil, parishioners from both churches and a captain from the jail telling me 500 inmates were concerned about me. The community organized fundraisers for Julie and I to help us with the bills.

I learned how different it is to be a patient rather than a nurse. I always thought I was an empathetic nurse and tried to see things from my patients' points of view. But that is quite different from actually experiencing what it is like to be put on a bed pan, receive a bed bath, be transferred painfully from bed to wheelchair, and be awakened at 3 am to have your blood drawn.

I learned how vital it is to have God in my life and to trust him. I learned how helpful it is to have a God who understands firsthand what it is to suffer. I may not have been able to see the purpose of my suffering at times but I never doubted there was one. Or more than one. I am still learning this.

And I learned that sometimes the right thing to do, the healing thing, is hard and painful. The first time I was seated in a wheelchair, my task was just to sit upright for 2 hours. The last half-hour was excruciating. Walking was complicated (you would not believe how many rules there are!) and exhausting. Using stairs is painful. Going from sitting to standing or from standing to sitting hurts.

We all want a life that is easy and painless. But during those periods, we often take things for granted and forget to be grateful for all of our abilities and gifts. We forget that transitions are usually painful but that sometimes doing the right thing is hard and hurts. We look at what we have lost and fail to see what we still have and more importantly, what we have gained.

To paraphrase the Dread Pirate Roberts, anyone who tells you that life can be painless is selling something. That's why, as odd as it seems to the rest of the world, at the heart of our faith is God on a cross. But also an empty tomb. You can't have one without the other.

Be grateful. Be loving. Be trusting. Be humble. Be prepared for things to be hard and hurtful, especially when you are undergoing a change, even if it is healing. But as Paul said about the advantages he had before his Damascus experience, “...I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ...” He didn't see these things as a loss because what he gained was so much more valuable.

We never lose. We either win or we learn more about God and his grace, his forgiveness, his healing and his love.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Trinity Unexplained

I went to Wheaton College in Illinois, better known as Billy Graham's alma mater. Though part of the Evangelical subculture, Wheaton professors at that time were allowed a certain amount of latitude in their expression of the Christian faith. I had one Bible professor for instance who refused to affirm the Trinity. He said that he believed, as the Bible said, that the Father was God, the Son was God, the Holy Spirit was God and that there is one God. The Trinity, he said, was the church's working hypothesis of how those 4 statements could all be true.

And he is right. The word Trinity does not appear in the Bible, nor is the relationship of the three divine persons spelled out in a systematic way. But then the official definition of the Trinity, usually called the Athanasian Creed, doesn't actually explain it either. Rather it says what it isn't (three gods, or 1 god in 3 guises). What the church did in the definition of the Trinity is preserve the paradox by rejecting the ways people usually try to oversimplify the problem.

Why did people come up with the idea? Because they experienced God in 3 different ways. And even non-Christians have experienced God in at least 2 of these ways.

When most people think of God, they think of him as creator. They look at nature, at the universe, at their own bodies and think, “This isn't the result of an unimaginably long and unlikely series of accidents. Everything fits together too well. Some things have very clear purposes. God created this.” For most people God is the cause and the architect of all that is.

Some people sense God within themselves and/or within creation. Some religions see God as primarily an inner light or spark.

Christianity says, yes, God the Father is our creator and God the Holy Spirit works within us. But we also experience God in another way.

We affirm that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate. He is God become human, one of us. He knows from firsthand experience what our lives and our world is like. God is not remote or removed from us. He knows what it is like to suffer and even to die. As the saying goes, he's been there, done that.

But because he is God, in Jesus we see what God is like in terms we can understand, in terms of time and space and human personality, as J.B. Phillips put it. God is not an abstract force we can't relate to but a person with whom we can have a relationship.

And because we were made in God's image, and because Jesus is the image of God undistorted by sin, in Jesus we can also see what we were meant to be and can be if we let his Spirit work in us.

Jesus is the bridge between the Creator God above us and God within us, the Holy Spirit. Jesus is God beside us, so to speak. As the song says, “What if God was one of us?” The answer to that question is he'd be Jesus.

But how is it that we are not worshiping 3 gods? Or how do we know that God is not just appearing in 3 different modes or masks?

This is where 1 John 4:8 comes in. It says, “God is love.” It doesn't say God is loving, but that God is love itself. God is three divine persons in an eternal love relationship, so united as to be one. When we get married we try to achieve what it says in Genesis, that the two become one flesh or one organism. We humans fail to fully realize that but God is perfect love, perfect unity that does not mean the eradication of individuality.

I cannot explain the Trinity, not the way I can explain how an internal combustion engine works. But you know what? We can't even explain how a collection of neurons give rise to the awareness that I am a person. I think if we can't understand how human consciousness works we can hardly expect God to be easier to grasp. Surely God is an even bigger mystery than we are. If not, he wouldn't be God, but our creation.

What we can know is this: God created us, God lived and died as one of us to save us from our sins and rose to give us hope of new life, and God has come to dwell within us to guide us and make us into the people he always intended us to be. And we can know that God is love, the kind of expansive love that invites others into that divine relationship.


The best way to understand our Triune God is to experience him. Look upon his creation with awe and interact with it. Read and inwardly digest the accounts of his life as one of us. Absorb his teachings and appreciate his sacrifice for us. Open your heart and mind to his Spirit. Let him work within you to renew your mind and remake you into a new creation in Christ. And if you do, you will know the love that made us and that is the beating heart of all that is. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Loud and Clear

I am reading a fascinating book on child development and the author points out that very small children have a hard time understanding that just because they think something is true, it doesn't follow that everyone else feels the same. Most of us grow up to realize that other people have their own perceptions of the truth, though, let's face it, we secretly think that if other people were as smart or as knowledgeable as we are they'd agree with us. Some people however seem to feel strongly that only their point of view is legitimate.

Sadly a lot of people who feel this way are very committed to their political party and/or their religion. And when you think of religious fanaticism you may think of the Dark Ages. So the person we are honoring today is a breath of fresh air.

Alcuin of York was an English deacon who was a scholar, teacher, and poet. On a trip to see the Pope on behalf of the English king with the wonderful name Elfward, Alcuin met the Emperor Charlemagne. He was asked to join a group of scholars who were part of what is called the Carolingian Renaissance. That's right, in the middle of the so-called Dark Ages, there was a flowering of learning and the arts. Alcuin actually educated the Emperor's sons as well as Charlemagne itself.

But what endears Alcuin to me is that he got Charlemagne to abolish the death penalty for paganism. Alcuin said, “Faith is a free act of the will, not a forced act. We must appeal to the conscience, not compel it by violence. You can force people to be baptized but cannot force them to believe.” So in 797 Charlemagne ended the practice of forcing pagans to convert on pain of death.

Religion is about ultimate values and so it is extremely hard to change people's minds. But if you really want them to dig in their heels, get belligerent with them. Unfortunately the only people who will convert when faced with force are usually those who were lukewarm about their original faith and are making the change for purely pragmatic reasons. They are hardly likely to become model members of their new belief system.

I prefer doing what author Madeleine L'Engle said about the matter. “ We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

It is said that St. Francis told his followers to “preach the gospel always. If necessary use words.” That's a challenge all Christians should live by. Can people tell you are a follower of Jesus just by what you do? Do not just your words but your every action reveal your love for God and for every person made in his image? Do they show the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?

You can motivate people by fear. In fact, it is a easy, lazy way of getting people to act, which is why a lot of politicians and certain religious leaders use fear. Fear literally bypasses the rational part of the brain. But as Paul writes in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

You can motivate people by hate. Focus on what disgusts or angers people and then demonize your opponents. Make them out to be less than human. But as Ezekiel writes, “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his ways and live...” (Ezek 33:11) God does not hate anything or anyone that he has created. It is we who have so often rejected his love. Paul writes in Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” So to whom should we show God's love? Everyone we encounter. And how should we do so?

There were no mass media in Jesus' day. There was no standardized sign language. Yet somehow the deaf learned of who Jesus was, what he preached and what he could do. And he was able to heal them so that means they put their trust in him. Jesus communicated God's love so perfectly that even the deaf got the message.


You are the only Christ some people will ever encounter. Live your life so that even if they could not hear, they would see Jesus in all you do. That will speak louder than all the words in the world.