Sunday, September 14, 2014

Do the Right Thing

In Spike Lee's incisive film Do the Right Thing, we see how a hot day, people's individual problems, and racial tensions blossom into the death of a black man, destruction of a local business and a full blown riot. At one point, a kindly drunk called Da Mayor tells Mookie, a black pizza delivery man who's in the middle of all this, to “do the right thing.” But he does not further elucidate precisely what that means. And audiences are left to judge if Mookie, or indeed anyone in the film, does the right thing.

When Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment, he said, “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and and with all your strength.” And then he adds, “The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30, 31) In the parallel passage in Matthew, Jesus adds, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:40) And indeed that seems to cover it all. But what precisely does that mean in different situations and contexts? Does that mean ignoring the sins of others because you love them? Or does it mean telling them where they are wrong? And if they continually wrong you but each time come back and say they are sorry, isn't there a point at which you are enabling their bad behavior?

If those two commandments cover it all, it still would be helpful to see what the loving things to do is in tricky and emotionally-charged situations. And that's exactly what we see in the 3 Track 2 readings for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost.

In Genesis 50:15-21, Jacob has died and his sons are afraid that without his presence, their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery, will finally get his revenge. They tell him that their father's last words were for Joseph to forgive them. At this Joseph begins to weep. So do his fearful brothers, throwing themselves at his feet and saying they are his slaves. “But Joseph said to them, 'Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.'” Joseph had every right to get back at them. Because they didn't like the implications of his dreams, and his being their father's favorite, they had intended to kill him. Their brother Reuben talked them out of murder and so they merely sold him into slavery. That's still pretty harsh. And now  as second-in-command in Egypt, Joseph has all the power. Power tends to corrupt because if you can do something, it's really hard to convince yourself you shouldn't. Statistics show that handsome or beautiful people are more likely to stray sexually. Why? Because they can. Wealthy corporations get federal subsidies even though they don't need them to get rich, only to get richer. Why? Because they can. Why do the powerful take advantage of the powerless? Because they can.

Just because they are his brothers, it doesn't mean that Joseph can't be angry with them. Often the people we get most angry with are our family members. Their habits and flaws loom large because we are in so much contact with them day by day. Plus we know how to push their buttons and they know how to push ours. A quarter of all murder victims are killed by someone in their family. And Joseph can do this legally!

But through his faith in God, Joseph can see the big picture. If he hadn't been sold into slavery, he never would have come into Potiphar's house. If Potiphar's wife hadn't accused him of rape, he wouldn't have been thrown into prison, and a higher class prison at that. If he hadn't been put in that prison, he wouldn't have met the Pharaoh's cupbearer. If he hadn't met the cupbearer and interpreted his dream, he wouldn't have been remembered by the cupbearer when Pharaoh had a bad dream. If he hadn't been brought in to interpret Pharaoh's dream, he wouldn't have been put in charge of managing food supplies for the famine the dream predicted. And if he hadn't been put in charge, thousands would have starved and he never would have see his father and brothers again.

I often cite the story of Joseph to the inmates I counsel. The story teaches us hope. It teaches us that even what looks like misfortune can be used by God to ultimately help and save people. But it also teaches forgiveness. Joseph had a legitimate reason to be angry with his brothers. He had the power to exact his revenge on them. But he forgave them instead.

Joseph forgave a lot. But what about when it's not so much the size of the wrongs but the number of them. How often to forgive is the point of Matthew 18:21-35. Peter asks how many times he's expected to forgive someone who sins against him. He generously volunteers 7 times. Jesus ups the ante to 77 times. Obviously he is not giving a figure after which we are free to be unforgiving. Some translations render it 70 times 7. Jesus is basically saying not to hold grudges, to simply keep forgiving people. That's sounds nuts to us. Isn't he enabling the sinner?

This is where the parable about the king and his slaves comes in. The first slave owes his master the ludicrous amount of 10,000 talents, probably more than the king's income for a year and more than all the coinage in Egypt. It would be the equivalent of a worker's wages for 100 million days, an impossible amount according to the IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, to which I am indebted to these figures. Jesus is, once again, speaking in hyberbole for effect. After the slave begs for time to repay, the king forgives the debt. This would be extraordinary in Jesus' time, when rulers never forgave debts, except possibly in the event of widespread crop failure. So this is an exceptionally merciful ruler.

Immediately after this, the man runs into a fellow slave who owes him the equivalent of 100 workdays' wages. The first slave grabs the second by the throat and demands immediate payment. The second slave as for time to pay off his debt, using almost the same words that the first man used before the king. But the first slave is unmoved and has his debtor thrown into prison until he can pay him back. Upset, the other slaves tell the king. He scolds the merciless man for not forgiving his fellow slave as he was forgiven. Then he hands him over to guys with hairy knuckles who will see that he pays the entire ridiculous amount.

The unmerciful slave is totally ignoring the Golden Rule, since he does not treat his coworker as he himself asked to be treated. But God expects us, if we wish to be forgiven, to be just as forgiving to others. And God forgives us a lot and does so whenever we repent and ask for his mercy. Because of the sincerity of the penitent it's not a matter of enabling but of being as merciful to him as God is to us.

You know whom, though, we find hardest to forgive? Someone who believes differently than we do about how Christians should behave regarding various non-essential rites, rituals and principles. Paul came out of a background of zealous observance of the law to the freedom we have in Christ. So he says in Romans 14:1-12 that those who were vegetarians (because most meat was sold by pagan temples after it had been presented to an idol) are weak in the faith. Apparently he feels the same about those who strictly observe the Sabbath or other Jewish holidays. We are not saved by observing the law but by God's grace through faith in Christ. And so these people's faith is not as robust as that of Christians who know the idols aren't real or who see every day as the Lord's day. 

Nevertheless, he says that neither kind of Christian should judge the other. Provided we are convinced in our own mind, it is a matter between us and God. I imagine Paul would feel the same about Christian denominations who argue over how baptism should be performed, or the exact form of the Eucharist, or whether we should worship on the 7th day or 1st day of the week, or whether you call your clergy Father or Pastor or Brother or Rev. It's not a matter of whether everybody does the same but whether we respect each person's conscience in the matter. 

We have couples in this church who I am sure don't agree on every little thing. Right now on Buzzfeed Video there is a very funny video about the little things couples argue about: how to fold towels, which way the toilet paper roll should hang, how to squeeze the toothpaste tube. Couples also can have major differences on political parties or denomination. In love, they decide to respect each other's choices in matters that do not touch on the core values of the marriage, like love and family and character and good ethical behavior. Out of love for each other, Christ's followers should follow suit.

A lot of harm has been done to the cause of spreading the gospel because of Christians fighting over non-essentials of the faith. When the world sees such things it just thinks that the Body of Christ is like any human organization: rent by disagreements over things that are not fundamental to our mission. And certainly we haven't exactly been providing them with lots of evidence to the contrary. We have denominations splitting over the proper loving response (the only kind Jesus allows) to gays. We have churches splitting over how to vote politically, somehow having gotten the idea that one party is totally in line with God's values and the other is completely opposed to what the Bible commands us to do. We have pastors and priests who cannot distinguish between what the Bible says and what their tradition says and that the second must be subordinate to the first. We squabble over the stupidest of things at times and we ignore the fact that on the night he was handed over to suffering and death, Jesus first prayed that his disciples be one even as he and the Father are one. For some reason, many Christians do not value unity to the extent our Lord does. Nor do we realize how important it is that we act toward each other in love. Because he said, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jon 13:35)

That is the mark of the Christian: love. Love that forgives great sins; love that forgives many sins; love that overcomes differences and respects other Christians' sincerely held convictions even if we think they are wrong. Let's face it: there are lots of people with lots of opinions in this world. And they constantly fight over their differing opinions, convinced they are right. What the world has in short supply are people who feel they are right and yet who can sincerely love other people who in turn think they are right and that the first group is wrong. What we lack are enough Christians, conservative and liberal, who understand that unity does not demand uniformity and that among the gifts God's Spirit gives us are different perspectives so that we can see God's world in depth. We need Christians who can say, “I think you are wrong but I know you are my sibling in Christ. And I will go to the Lord's table with you and I will work with you to spread the gospel and to help the least of Jesus' brothers and sisters. We may not agree on everything but we agree that God's son died to save us and rose to give us hope. We agree that the two great commandments are to love God with all we have and all we are and to love our neighbors as we do ourselves. We agree that we must disown ourselves, including our agendas, and pick up our crosses if we are to truly follow Jesus. And we agree that there is one body and one Spirit, just as we were called to the one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in us all. (Ephesian 4:5-6) If we can do that, we will be doing the right thing.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Body, Soul and Spirit

In a recent episode of Doctor Who, the title character finds himself confronted with a mortal enemy who has had, for all intents and purposes, a conversion. The Daleks are mutants bred to wipe out all forms of life than themselves. The particular Dalek the Doctor encounters this time has discovered beauty and a respect for life. It is also damaged and the power source of its mechanized shell is leaking radiation. When the Doctor stops the radiation, the Dalek reverts to its usual murderous self and starts killing humans. The Doctor then tries to change the Dalek back by expanding its awareness of the universe, declaring that, having saved the Dalek's life, he will now save its soul. While it's obvious he wants to make the Dalek good again, what exactly he means by “soul” is left undefined.

Something similar happens in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In that universe, when one becomes a vampire, one loses one's soul and is possessed by a demon. Buffy falls in love with Angel, a vampire whose soul was restored by gypsies in order that he may be tormented by the evil he has done over the centuries. Angel joins Buffy in the fight against other vampires, monsters and demons to atone for his misdeeds. Though the soul in this context seems to function as a conscience, we nevertheless encounter a lot of humans in the Buffyverse that have souls but are very evil. We also meet demons who are good guys. So again, the precise nature of a soul is vague.

This may merely be a reflection of the fact that our usage of the word “soul” is similarly loosely defined. According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, it can mean the immaterial aspect of all living things, the spiritual principle in humans, a person's moral and emotional nature, or a person's passion. It can be used metaphorically to mean that someone or something exemplifies a quality (ie, “he is the soul of discretion”). It can also refer to African American culture such as food or music. To understand which meaning is intended when someone uses the word “soul” you have to look at the context.

The same is true of the use of the words translated “soul” in the Bible. So in order to answer this month's sermon suggestion question, “What is the difference between the soul and the ego?” we're going to have to look at definitions and contexts of both words.

The Hebrew word for “soul,” nephesh, occurs 755 times in the Old Testament. Its basic meaning, according to the New Bible Dictionary, is “possessing life” and thus refers even to animals. It also means, in certain contexts, the “seat of physical appetite” (Deuteronomy 12:15), “the seat of emotion” (Psalm 86:4), and even the “will and moral action.” (Psalm 119:129). The soul can at times mean the individual, the self. When God breathes life into the first man, the Hebrew says “he became a living soul.” Perhaps this is what prompted George Macdonald to say, "You are a soul. You have a body." 

The Greek equivalent, psuche, is just as flexible as its Hebrew and English counterparts. It can mean life, the mind, the heart or the self. Again we figure out which meaning is intended by context.

The term “ego” also come from the Greek, where it basically means “I” or “me”. Later, Sigmund Freud used it to mean the part of the self that mediates between the urgings of our superego or conscience and our id or pure animal desires. But more often we use ego to mean “self-esteem,” or “conceit.” Someone who is egotistical is self-centered.

So what is the difference between the soul and the ego? Since they both can mean the “self”, it would seem as if there is no difference. But often in colloquial speech we use “soul” to mean the”higher or spiritual nature” and then there would be a difference. But biblically there is another word which tends to be used for that. It is the word “spirit.”

Spirit, ruah in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek, means literally “wind or breath.” It is the word for a powerful, invisible force. It can be the life force, such as when it is part of the phrase “the breath of life.” Yet while it does in those instances overlap with the usage of the word “soul,” in the Bible 78% of the time the word refers to the spirit of a human being or the Spirit of God. So usually the word “soul” means the life or identity of a physical being; “spirit” usually means the part of the human being that comes from and is connected to God, if not God's Spirit himself.

Perhaps the clearest contrast between the two is when Paul is explaining the difference between our present body and the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15. He compares our natural body, which he literally calls the “soulish body,” with our future body, which he calls the “spiritual body.” It is not a contrast of a physical body to an immaterial one but of a body ruled by its physical nature, of which the soul is the seat, as opposed to one ruled by the Spirit of God. The bodies we receive at our resurrection will have, as did Jesus', solidity and the ability to touch and be touched. They are spiritual in the sense that we will no longer be slaves to our appetites and weaknesses; we will be free to live in the Spirit without those hindrances.

There's a lot more I could go into about the body, soul and spirit but the problem is that such discussions not only seek sharp distinctions that aren't there in the Hebrew and Greek (they aren't technical languages but everyday tongues), but they also act as if these things were removable components or modules. But the Bible sees the human being as a unit. The soul or spirit is no more independent of the body than a heart and brain. Only after death can they be separated. But they belong together. And we all know that. Hence the universal horror of ghosts (spirits without bodies) and the undead (moving bodies without souls or spirits.)

We are not, as the ancient Greeks thought, spirits imprisoned in bodies or chained to corpses. We were created to be both physical and spiritual beings: amphibians, as C.S. Lewis put it. We were meant to bridge the two realms and be comfortable in either. But because we are fallen, God has sent his Son to do what we can't: reconcile the two.

Human efforts to deal with the two dimensions in which we live tend towards oversimplifying the situation. In the early church, the Gnostics painted all matter as evil and only the spirit as good. Their legacy still troubles the church. 

The modern approach is to go to the opposite extreme. It is to overemphasize the physical world and to make the spiritual, at best, merely a psychological phenomenon and at worst, an illusion. Consequently most secular people neglect their spiritual nature and don't even investigate the claims of Christianity or any religion. And considering all the scientific findings about the physical and mental health benefits of religion, this is not wise. For instance, according to the Gallup organization, the more religious the country, the lower its suicide rate. Whereas 6 of the 10 least religious countries are among the 36 countries with double digit suicide rates, none of the 10 countries with the highest percentage of Christians are among them. And if you eliminate small anomalous countries like the Vatican City, and include countries with at least 10 million Christians, then only 2 of the 10 nations with the highest percentage of Christians (Poland and Romania) have double digit suicide rates. Hope is hard to maintain without the Spirit of Christ.

On the other hand, most modern spirituality is focused inward: on our personal peace, our personal happiness, our personal well-being. Its social ethics are not particularly robust. And its relationship with God is more concerned with what he can do for us than what we should do for him. Sadly some Christian churches do this, even proclaiming that God will make all the faithful wealthy. Which must be news to Jesus who counted the hungry, the naked, the thirsty, the imprisoned and the immigrant among his brothers and sisters in the faith.

Because we are both spiritual and physical, our faith should be balanced between the two. It should not consist of trying to withdraw from the world, except for periods of prayer and reflection. It should not consist of denying normal healthy appetites, except for the occasional fast. It should not consist of harming or disfiguring the body. Our faith sees the body as a gift from God.

On the other hand, our faith should not value social approval over God's. It should not approve of any kind of overindulgence—in food, in sensation, even in exercise. Moderation in all these things—knowing what is enough and what is too much and observing that limit—is not only Christian virtue but also a lifesaver. Our faith however should not be afraid to push the body a bit beyond its comfort zone. Studies actually show that too much sitting can shorten your life. Don't let having a Lazyboy be an excuse for you to become one. Our gratitude for the gift of a body should motivate us to take care of it and to dedicate it to God's service.

Neither should we neglect the spiritual part of our makeup. Just as we should set aside time for physical exercise, we should set aside time for spiritual exercise—prayer, Bible study and meditation. Time spent speaking to, studying and thinking about God nourishes our spirits. And doing all of that with other people increases that sustenance. Numerous studies show a strong connection between regular church attendance and a host of physical and mental health benefits. This is a tremendous paradox to secular scientists, who have a hard time acknowledging that things of the spirit, which they think do not exist, should have measurable positive effects on our physical well-being. And yet the evidence says this is true. Even economists concede this, as demonstrated in a recent podcast of Freakonomics Radio entitled “Does Religion Make You Happy?”(here) (The answer, by the way, is "Yes.")

This only makes sense if we are in fact spiritual as well as physical beings. And since they are both part of us, what affects one can affect the other. An unhealthy or malnourished spirit can harm our physical health. And doing things that are unhealthy for our body can adversely impact our spiritual health.

This is not to say that the primary purpose of doing these things is for our own benefit. Recently Joel Olsteen's wife and co-pastor, Victoria, said, “When we obey God, we're not doing it for God...we're doing it for ourself. Because God takes pleasure when we're happy.” That's like saying, “when you love your spouse, you're not doing it for them; you're doing it for yourself. Because your spouse takes pleasure when you're happy.” The truth of the second part of the quote does not carry over to the first. Being happy for doing what we ought for God or someone else is a side effect, as is most happiness. Happiness is not something you can achieve by aiming for it. It's something that arises from doing other things—good work, helping others, entering an immersive experience, or appreciating others. They only make you happy if you lose yourself in them. If you constantly stop to take your emotional temperature, you will dissipate any real happiness.

We were created to love and to be loved by God. We can express that love physically—by doing good, by speaking, by singing, by writing, by making, by dancing, by storytelling, by doing a million things—even though that love itself is spiritual. Because the physical gives the spiritual form and the spiritual gives the physical meaning. That's what we can do that neither the other animals nor the angels can. Because we were created as unions of body and spirit. Lest we lose either dimension and thus our connection to God, he sent his Son to become one of us. And through him, we can regain our balance. By keeping body and soul together, we can be whole again, as he always intended us to be. We were created in the image of God, and in Jesus we see that image clearly, expressed in terms of flesh and blood, spirit and soul, time and space and humanity. And not only do we see what God is like but in Jesus we also see what we can, and one day will, be. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Sword Versus the Word

Walter Wink coined the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence.” It is the idea that in a chaotic world, you can create goodness by inflicting violence on evil. Wink traces this basic concept all the way back to the Babylonian creation myth. In it the god Marduk kills the goddess Tiamat, mother of the gods, creating the world from her corpse and humanity from the blood of her husband. Marduk does this in return for the promise that the other gods will grant him supremacy over them.

The idea that if might doesn't make right, it is nevertheless necessary to re-establish or preserve right runs through much of our fiction. From King Arthur to Batman to James Bond to Star Wars to Guardians of the Galaxy, we keep retelling the story of how the good guy won by killing the bad guy. Even Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” admits with chagrin that most of his stories do seem to reinforce the idea that violence (in the hands of “good” warriors) is the answer. Even in the episode which ends with Buffy willingly sacrificing her life to save the universe, her mentor smothers her defeated and battered enemy, Glory, on the pragmatic grounds that she remains a threat and that Buffy is too noble to do what is necessary; ie, kill her. In fact, the only season finale that doesn't end with the violent death of that year's major villain is the only one not written by Whedon. At the end of season 6, Xander, the only non-superpowered member of Buffy's friends, prevents the destruction of the world. He does this simply by interposing himself between the instrument of doom and his magic-intoxicated friend Willow, who is intent on avenging her dead lover. Xander just tells his childhood friend over and over again that he loves her unconditionally, until she comes to herself and falls sobbing into his arms. Significantly, the song which follows Willow's repentance and restoration is a haunting version of the St. Francis prayer.

In a world rife with examples that violence only begets more violence, why aren't there more stories in which love and reconciliation win out? Because it is natural to want to see the people who cause suffering suffer in return. We want no quarter offered to them. So we cheer when the good guy destroys the bad guy. And we do prefer that he be destroyed. After all, by not killing the Joker, isn't Batman responsible, in a sense, for all of that laughing villain's future victims? We never envision the bad guy changing. We never consider that maybe the hero is there to save the villain, too.

Evil can be described in several ways. For the present let's say that evil is that which harms or corrupts or misuses or neglects or destroys what is good. Notice that evil can really only be properly defined by its relationship to good, because it is a diminishing or an undoing of it. And too often we only think of good as the antagonist of evil.

Unlike evil, which is basically parasitic in nature, good can exist independently of its opposite. Good is that which creates and nurtures life, love, well-being and harmony. When it comes into contact with evil, then good manifests itself by restoring, redirecting, redeeming, rescuing, and even resurrecting. Which raises the question: when evil uses violence, should good use violence to oppose it?

Unfortunately, answering that question only leads to many more and we haven't the time to answer them all. So we will restrict ourselves to this one: is there an alternative to fighting violence with violence? The answer of the selections in today's lectionary is a resounding “Yes!”

Last week, we read the beginning of the story of the Exodus. The people of Israel are living in slavery. The pharaoh is afraid of their growing numbers and fear brings out just one response from a tyrant: suppression. In an attempt to control the Hebrew slaves, Pharaoh uses oppression and systematic murder. One who escapes his plot to kill all the male children is Moses. Born of a slave, raised by Pharaoh's daughter, Moses one day kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew. He hides the body and when found out, he flees into the desert. In today's reading (Exodus 3:1-15) we catch up with him in his new profession: shepherd. While looking for water, grazing land and predators, Moses sees something out of the ordinary—a burning bush. What is amazing is that the bush isn't consumed by the fire. It is a theophany, an appearance by God. Fire enlightens, purifies and refines and here, it doesn't destroy a living thing.

God tells Moses that he has heard the cry of his people. This is a theme that runs through the Bible, ever since God tells Cain that he can hear his slain brother's blood crying from the ground. God is ever sensitive to the outcry of the oppressed, the victims of violence. He has resolved to deliver his people from slavery and give them a land of their own. And he has chosen Moses to be his agent.

Now if this were a typical story we would be treated next to a sequence in which the hero masters various fighting skills. But God isn't choosing Moses to become a warrior or to turn the Israelites into the army Pharaoh feared. He chooses Moses to be his spokesman. He is giving Pharaoh fair warning so he will know who he is up against. God himself will deliver his people.

So God does not ask or command his people to fight for their freedom. He accomplishes that by himself. In fact, had Pharaoh let his people go, had he not decided to pit himself, god-king of Egypt, against the God who is king of the universe, the departure of the Israelites would not have been so expensive. But each time Moses asks for the release of his people, Pharaoh refuses and finds not human beings but nature in revolt against him. Each of the 10 plagues both represents and subverts a different Egyptian god, such as the Nile itself. But God does not arm or incite his people to riot.

The same can be said of the so-called battle of Armageddon in the book of Revelation. The forces of evil array themselves not against an army of Christians but against God himself. So, of course, it turns out to not really be a battle at all. And Christians are nowhere in that book or in the rest of Bible called to be combatants.

This starts in the Gospels. In Matthew 16:21-28, it helps to know that the disciples thought themselves to be lieutenants of the Messiah, a holy warrior-king who would bring about the kingdom of God by force. They believed in the myth of redemptive violence. So when Jesus talked about being killed by his earthly enemies they just couldn't believe it. Peter, who had just said Jesus was the son of God, was now telling Jesus that he's just plain wrong. He can't see how the kingdom will be established by a king who's dead. The hero wins by killing the bad guys, not by being killed. Peter can't understand what God is doing. And he won't until after Jesus' resurrection. So Peter will wield a sword at Gethsemane and he will draw blood. Aiming for a man's head, he will sever an ear. Which Jesus will heal before he goes to his trial and death.

As someone once put it, justice is getting what you deserve; mercy is not getting all you deserve; grace is getting what you don't deserve. Justice is a universally recognized virtue. Mercy is usually valued as well. But grace...not so much. We understand justice, being fair. We understand mercy, giving people a break. But why be magnanimous to be ignoble? Why show favor to the unworthy? Why bless the undeserving?

God's goodness is beyond that of human beings. And how fortunate we are that he is. He could have written us off. He could have wiped us out and started over. But God sent his Son to save us, even at the price of his life. He pours out his Spirit on us. And he expects us to emulate the same goodness he shows us.

In Romans 12:9-21 Paul is talking about how Christians should live, both among themselves and in public. It is all good advice and reasonable for the most part. But many of us would balk at the parts that tell us to “bless those who persecute you” and to give food and drink to your enemy. Surely that's going too far. But that is what Jesus did. He gave bread and wine to Judas, knowing the man would betray him. He prayed for those who were crucifying him. The point is you can't go too far when it comes to being good. It's normal to be good to those who are good to us. As Jesus said, there's no merit in that. We need to go the second mile. We need to go beyond just being nice. We need to be good even when most people would say, “Hit him back!” But we are called to turn the other cheek. We are called to leave payback in God's hands.

The world is full of righteously indignant people, who are justifiably outraged, who have a legitimate grievance, who have good reason to want to get back at the people who have wronged them. And those people, no less than their persecutors, are obstacles to peace and reconciliation. For instance, do you think the Shiites are just extra-touchy? They are an oppressed minority in all Muslim countries except Iran. And in Iraq, they were an oppressed majority. Now in that country, they are oppressors of Sunni Muslims. 

Many Jews fled to their ancient homeland in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide. The Palestinians, who had lived in that land for millennia, fled their homes during the war to establish modern Israel. Now those two oppressed people are fighting each other. Each has a legitimate beef. Neither has a realistic chance of eliminating their enemy. Neither seems inclined to forgive and forget.

People don't fight wars, don't turn their homelands into battlefields, don't strap bombs to themselves because they are a little bit miffed. They have genuine issues, which they are loathe to set aside, and thus are as intractable as their persecutors. Someone has to make the first move to reconcile the two sides. Jesus says it's us.

After all, God has a legitimate beef with us. We took the beautiful world he gave us and screwed it up, using his good gifts for evil purposes. We started fighting with, and harming, and torturing, and raping, and killing our brothers and sisters, all of whom were created in the image of God. But God took the first step. And the second and third. He has met us more than halfway. He spelled out in his Word what he expected of us. And then he provided the means for implementation. In his Son, he came to end all the violence by offering himself as a sacrifice for the whole world. “You want blood?” says God. “Here's mine. Let that be an end to it all. Now let's begin working together to clean up this mess. I'll get you started. I'll help through my Spirit in you. Let there be no more talk of vengeance and the past. Let us talk of love and our future together.”

That is the good news. That is the heart of the Word of God. And that's what he wants us to use to fight evil. At times it is tempting to fight fire with fire, to follow a scorched earth policy, to use the tools of evil to battle evil. But even if it seems justified, it just increases the evil in the world. “Do not repay anyone evil with evil,” says Paul. “Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” He who lives by the sword will die by the sword but he who lives by the Word will live forever. The word of Pharaoh, the word of all tyrants and warriors and would-be conquerors, is “No” to God's way of forgiveness and reconciliation and peace. But the Word of God is the divine “Yes!” God said, “Let there be light; let there be life.” and the divine Word of God, Christ, the agent of creation, said, “Yes” and it was so. The Word says “Love God; love one another; love even your enemies.” And we, as the Body of Christ, the embodiment of his continued presence in humanity, must answer, “Yes,” and make it so. And by faith we know that the Word will defeat the sword. Swords rust and break. But the Word is eternal. And to reflect the Word, we need to start using this triple trinity of words: “I am sorry.” “I forgive you.” “I love you.” 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Asking the Right Questions

The politician was talking about making tough political choices. So the reporter asked for an example. Immediately the politician began talking about how people were having a hard time in the present economy. Finally, the reporter interrupted to say, “I didn't ask you to give me an example of a tough political challenge. I asked you for an example of a tough political choice.” At that point, the politician began to equivocate.

The first step to getting the right answer is asking the right question. You'd think that was obvious but many things conspire to deflect our attention from asking the proper questions. Advertisers rarely want people to ask essential questions about their products. They want you to ask if the product is attractive or cool or popular or sexy. I remember computer and phone commercials making a big deal out of all different colors their products come in. Nothing was said about how well the computer or phone actually works, which matters a lot more than how it looks. But everything from cars to candidates is marketed on superficial qualities. Indeed, studies have shown that most people vote on the basis of whether they like a candidate rather than whether they agree with his or her positions on issues. They elect the one they'd want to have as a dinner guest rather than the one who'd make a good leader.

Unfortunately, people also tend to put superficial considerations before essential issues when it comes to ethical and theological questions. C.S. Lewis points out that people often ask whether a behavior or practice or concept is modern or scientific or patriotic or conservative or progressive, rather than whether it is right or wrong, true or false.

Today's lectionary passages all revolve around the importance of asking the right questions. In the Track 1 passage from Exodus 1:8-2:10, the new Pharaoh is concerned about the growth of the Hebrews in Egypt. He is especially worried about the number of males born, because they could grow up to be fighters. So he tells the midwives to kill every male newborn. But the midwives feared God more than the tyrant who ruled their country. At the heart of their acts of civil disobedience is the question as to who is the ultimate authority: God or government?

This may be a no-brainer but throughout history people have gotten the answer wrong. Loyalty to one's country is often unquestioned. Many people think God and country just go together naturally, so one can't conceivably contradict the other. During the Second World War, the population of Germany was for the most part convinced that the aims of their leadership was in concert with God's plans. Of course, any churches that refused to sanctify the Nazi program were outlawed.

Today in China there are 5 carefully controlled denominations sanctioned by the government. There are also numerous underground home churches where people are free to preach and interpret Scripture apart from government supervision. The penalty for being caught worshiping in a house church is being sentenced to a labor camp. Dozens of pastors are imprisoned each year.

Even in the U.S., Christians have been split on various government policies and laws. Long before abortion and gay marriage, some Christians have opposed the government on matters like slavery, war, race, labor and immigration. During World War 1, due to the Sedition Act, you could be imprisoned for being a pacifist. The Rev. Martin Luther King and many of his followers were beaten, sprayed by high pressure water hoses, attacked by police dogs, and incarcerated for peacefully demonstrating against racial discrimination. In each case, people had to ask if they would obey what they considered unjust laws or obey God's laws. And they had to face some very serious consequences for doing so.

We like to think of our country as a Christian one. Jesus lived in a Jewish state. But even in so-called religious countries, when national interests are at variance with Biblical morality, governments opt to follow their political agendas. Caesar will go along with Christ only so long as Christ is on Caesar's side. But eventually there will be a parting of the ways. And when that happens we have to ask the right question: to whom do we owe our ultimate allegiance—the State or the Lord?

In our passage from Romans 12:1-8, Paul has come to the part of his letter where he lays out the ethical implications of the theology he has been expounding. How do citizens of the Kingdom of God live in the kingdoms of this world? Reinhold Niebuhr delineated 5 models of for the relationship between Christ and culture. Since any human culture contains things both good and bad, both the results of common grace and the effects of the Fall, should we embrace culture, reject it, cooperate with it, transform it or live in a paradoxical relationship with it? Whatever we do with it, Paul tells us not to be conformed to it. The Greek word for “conform” means “to take on a similar pattern.” One of the temptations the church faces is that of imitating earthly models. At times it has imitated worldly empires, the military, and successful businesses. The problem is not that of using good ideas of other sources but of assimilating the culture of other organizations. The goal of an empire is to expand and to take over smaller countries. The culture of the military is that of unquestioning obedience to a rigid chain of command. The bottom line of a business is an ever expanding marketshare and an ever increasing income. And, as we've seen all too often, morality is never the primary consideration in any of those organizations. In fact, whatever the original purpose of an organization was, in the end the prime directive becomes ensuring the continued existence of that organization. And that end justifies any means that promises to help achieve it. We see enough of that in the world. We don't need it in the church.

It's already there, of course. Just as you wish to get a boat into the water without getting too much water into the boat, the problem has always been to get the church out into the world without getting too much of the world into the church. So what should we do instead of conforming to the world? Paul says, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” The word for “renewal” could be translated “renovation.” We don't let the world change us but we let the mind of Christ transform us into his way of thinking. And the mind of Christ, as Paul reminds us in Philippians, is one of humility, service and self-sacrifice. Jesus is the incarnation of the God who is love. Rather than worry about merely perpetuating the church as an organization, rather than just imitating human institutions and appropriating their attitudes along with their insights, we must make sure the purpose of the church remains being the Body of Christ, the embodiment of his transforming Spirit, in this world. But that begs a question, one which underlies all the others and which is the focus of today's gospel (Matthew 16:13-20).

Jesus asks his disciples who the general public says he is. They give various answers. Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” We know what Peter said. But what would those in the church today say if Jesus were to put the question to them? Some would say he was a great teacher. Some would say he was a pagan concept adapted by the church. Some would say he was a failed revolutionary who nevertheless had some good ideas. And some would agree with Peter: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The problem is that if you give something radically different than the Petrine answer, you cannot affirm that Jesus is Lord. You may admire and agree with a lot of what a great teacher says, but you are not obligated to do everything he says. The same applies to all answers that fall short of acknowledging Christ as the Lord of all.

And if you ask me, the demotion of Jesus that has occurred in Western society and in the church has less to do with legitimate doubts and more to do with our wanting a way out of total obedience to Christ. We want to pick and choose what parts of his teachings we will concentrate on, whether social justice or personal morality, activism or piety. And we can't do that if Jesus is God incarnate. We can't cherry pick among issues such as poverty, sexual morality, social inequality, personal responsibility, political action, private charity, supporting the environment and supporting the family. We need to stop narrowing down God's concerns to match ours. Instead we must demand justice from those in power, challenge the oppressed to forgive, preach repentance to all, and work for peace and reconciliation.

Asking the right questions goes a long way towards solving any problem. Today we have considered 3 big questions to ask ourselves. When human authority and Biblical morality clash we need to ask “Whom ultimately must we obey?” When we encounter the power and allure of the world, we must ask ourselves, “Are we merely imitating the ways of the world, or are we letting the mind of Christ transform ourselves and our thoughts, words and actions?”

And underlying these questions we must ask ourselves “Who do I think Jesus is?” If we think he is just a great teacher or a supreme example of humanity, then we can depart from his ways when we feel differently than he about some issues. And there is a long history of so-called Christians ignoring Jesus' commands to treat others as we wish to be treated, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to put up the sword, to turn the other cheek, to give generously to the poor, to feed the hungry, to visit those in prison, to welcome the alien, to forgive those who sin against us, to love one's enemy, to repent, to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses. The failures of Christianity are largely failures to obey Christ's commands and to live according to his Spirit.

But if we acknowledge him as the very embodiment of our loving Creator, the perfect sacrifice for our sins, our risen Lord who will come again to judge between the eternally alive and the spiritually dead, then we must commit ourselves to bringing all of the gospel—repentance, self-sacrificial service, and liberation from all sins, personal and social—to all of our lives. If we can't, then we must question whether we are Christians at all.   

Monday, August 18, 2014

Love the Alien

If you're like me, you're having a hard time keeping informed on the state of the world. Not that finding out what's going on all over the globe is hard; rather the news we are getting is so hard to listen to. The ratcheting up of violence and chaos just about everywhere is depressing. So I was heartened to hear that the President is sending aid to the refugees trapped on a mountain after fleeing the largest Christian city in Iraq. ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has be repudiated by Al Qaeda of all things, gave the Christians the choice of converting, fleeing, paying a special tax or being executed for their faith. It won't be long before there will be hardly any Christians in the Middle East. But in view of the fact that we have done very little for the Muslims being harmed by other Muslims in the region, I did worry that this humanitarian action had everything to do with the fact that these were Christians in danger. I'm grateful that we are helping them but why not also the refugees from other countries? Are we playing favorites?

If you took the Bible Challenge last year (or are doing so now) you probably noticed a lot of stuff in the Good Book rarely gets preached about on Sunday mornings or mentioned in most Bible studies. One phrase that jumped out at me this time through the Scriptures was “widows, orphans and strangers.” Starting in the books of Moses, and especially in the prophets, we see over and over again God's concern for these 3 groups of people, the least powerful ones in society. And it remains true today. Change “widows” to “women without husbands,” “orphans” to “the fatherless,” which is actually a more accurate translation, and “strangers” to “immigrants,” which is also a better translation, and you have the 3 groups who still have the least money and least power in our world. The average person on welfare in this country is the child of a single mother. And that woman can be a widow (especially since we have been fighting two wars), divorced or never married but she has less earning potential than most and virtually no champions among those in power. When politicians start cutting funds they go after the programs that help the poor, who are overwhelmingly single mothers and their children. Because they lack lobbyists.

Immigrants are also at the bottom rung of the ladder. Contrary to popular belief, undocumented immigrants cannot get welfare or food stamps, though they can get schooling and emergency medical care. And, yes, they pay taxes. They pay sales taxes, property taxes and up to 3/4s even pay income taxes, because they are withheld from their paychecks. The Social Security Administration estimates that illegal immigrants pay $6 to $7 billion into Social Security which they will, of course, never receive back. As for “anchor babies” we've heard of, while our constitution says that every child born in the US is an American citizen, the federal government has no problem deporting their parents. In fact between 1998 and 2007, 108,000 such foreign-born parents were deported. The children can petition the government to allow their parents to join them in the US—when those children turn 21!

The reason I bring this up is because our passage in Isaiah 56 is another one that highlights God's concern for the stranger, the alien, the foreigner within your land, the immigrant. And it's all the more remarkable because there are passages in the Bible which would make you think God only cares for his people, Israel.

Ezra the prophet, for instance, who returned from exile in Babylon to reintroduce God's law to the remnant in the homeland, was upset that Jewish men had married foreign-born women. Now, mind you, the Babylonians had taken the cream of Jewish society, its aristocracy and its artisans, anyone they deemed valuable, into exile. And they moved other conquered peoples into the land of Israel, for the same reason: it cuts down on the likelihood of rebellion. Defeated people forcibly moved to a foreign land will probably not be able to gather support for an uprising among strange locals. Nor do they want to because they are not in their ancestral home. In fact, the resulting intermarriage is likely to water down their identity. This is what horrified Ezra. And yet...Moses was married to Zipporah, a Cushite. Ruth, the grandmother of King David, was a Moabite. David's ancestors included Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho who hid the Hebrew spies. Ezra may have been worried about the foreign wives turning their husbands to idolatry. And certainly marrying outside one's faith brings this risk. But in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul says that Christians should not divorce non-Christian spouses unless that spouse desires it. Rather, “the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” (1 Cor 7:14) In other words, it works both ways. A believer married to a unbeliever may drift from their faith but an unbeliever married to a believer may come to the faith. Ezra is worried about the risks; Paul sees the opportunities. And, by the way, this is why it is best to search all of Scripture in regards to an issue rather than fixate upon one prooftext. Otherwise you get a very narrow reading of our very large God.

For instance, there are other passages where God seems to be a tribal deity, interested only in his people. Yet throughout the Bible we see hints of God actually doing something else: expanding his people's vision to encompass the rest of the world. In fact, the whole point of the book of Jonah is that God cares even for the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. It is Jonah the prophet who doesn't want to see God forgive Israel's enemies.

Each week we say that God created the whole world and all its people. We are all related to each other, all of us having descended from one man and one woman, something that is not merely a theological conceit but a genetic fact. The foreigner is but a distant cousin, something the Bible affirms in all those long genealogies.

Dr. Paul Farmer said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” And that's largely true. We consciously or unconsciously rate people on their worthiness of getting attention or help or sympathy. We decide who is worthy of living a decent life or not. At our worst, we decide who is worthy of living or not.

Why do we fear the foreigner so? When we lived in tribes and clans, groups of roughly 150 people, we lived our entire lives among those who were related to us. Because of genetics, language and custom, everyone you knew carried a resemblance. That resemblance meant you were among your extended family. You were safe. But if you encounter a stranger, a person from another tribe, their dissimilarities in appearance, speech and customs triggered anxiety, a warning. Did this outsider mean you good or ill? Assuming the latter was the safer course.

And that has carried over to today. We see it in racism, in parochialism, in xenophobia. We see it in the reaction to children fleeing rape and death at the hands of gangs and drug lords in Central America. These kids are not sneaking into the country but going up to border stations and guards and asking for asylum. And some people are responding as if these children were the gangs and drug lords.

I lived on the border. Before moving to the Keys my family lived in Brownsville, Texas. We liked it there. The city goes right up to the Rio Grande. We used to go over to Matamoros, the even larger city on the other side of the border. We ate over there, bought certain staples that were cheaper in Mexico, and took visiting family over there.

Brownsville is 91% Hispanic. Many of the citizens are 1st and 2nd generation Mexican-Americans. Everyone we met was nice and friendly and family-oriented. Everyone worked hard. And though as Anglos we were the minority, we weren't scared and we didn't feel discriminated against. I realize this is a personal anecdote and doesn't hold much evidential weight. But while everyone was aware of the undocumented aliens constantly entering the country, I don't remember any widespread fear or any sense of rampant crime. Even today, at the height of the immigration hysteria, Brownsville's violent crime rate of 2.6 per 1000 residents is lower than the national median of 3.9 and lower than the rest of Texas at 4.09. By the way, do you feel that we are living in the Wild West here? Because Key West's violent crime rate is 8.24, more than 3 times as high as Brownsville's! I don't think immigrants are the cause. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 20% of our jail population are immigrants, both legal and illegal. Which means 80% are Americans.

The important thing is: what should our attitude as Christians be towards immigrants? How does God see it? What does the Bible say? In Exodus 22:21, just 2 chapters after the 10 Commandments, God says, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” And in Leviticus 19:33 &34 it says: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” As you can hear even in translation, the wording and structure of this command is exactly the same as the command to love your neighbor as yourself, which appears just 16 verses earlier.

And notice that God underlines this command by saying, “I am the Lord your God.” In other words, “I'm putting my full authority behind this. Take this seriously.” How seriously? In Malachi 3:5 God says, “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” God is putting those who thrust aside, or as the Holman Bible translates it, who “deny justice,” to the immigrant, in the same category as those who cheat on their spouses, who lie under oath, who cheat workers of their wages, who oppress widows and the fatherless. Think that's harsh? When Moses makes the people enumerate the blessings and curses that go along with being God's covenant people, he says, “'Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due the alien, the fatherless, and the widow.' All the people shall say, 'Amen.'” There are only 12 behaviors cursed here and this was important enough to be included.

Why does this mean so much to God? In Deuteronomy 10:18 it says of God, “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, providing him food and clothing. Love the alien, therefore, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” God loves the immigrant. After all, because of him, Abraham became an immigrant leaving Ur and settling in Canaan. As was pointed out, the Israelites were immigrants in Egypt. And Jesus and his parents fled Judea and were immigrants in Egypt. In fact, because they were trying to escape King Herod's murderous rage, they could be called refugees, fleeing from persecution. And maybe that's why Jesus, in his parable of the last judgment, said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matt 25:35) The Greek word translated “stranger” is xenos, which means “foreigner or alien.” Jesus knew firsthand what it was to be a stranger in a strange land. So what we do or do not do to them, the least of his siblings, we do or do not do to Jesus. And we are to love them.

Why does God single out immigrants to be treated fairly? They are his children and any loving parent looks out for the especially vulnerable child, the one most apt to be bullied and mistreated. People cut off from their land and their people are vulnerable. God says treat them right.

Ah, but what about illegal aliens, ones who broke the laws by entering and staying? Aren't we commanded to be subject to the governing authorities, as in says in Romans 13? Indeed, but again we should not see this passage in isolation of the rest of Scripture. We see the apostles disobey the authorities when they conflict with God's laws. More to the point, we see David and his band of men living as outlaws when King Saul was hunting him. His followers are described in the Holman Bible Dictionary as “impoverished and discontented.” They don't surrender to King Saul, the lawful authority. David even takes the sacred showbread to feed his men. David also lies to the priest at the shrine, telling him he and his men are on a secret mission for the king!

Jesus later uses this incident to justify his disciples' picking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath. In this, Jesus is in line with the Jewish principle that most laws may be laid aside to preserve life. When I was in Brownsville, there was an influx of people from the turmoil in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s. They were called OTMs, or Other Than Mexicans, to differentiate them from the usual undocumented alien. And I realized that if I lived in a dysfunctional country, in the throes of a civil war, with a shattered economy, and a poor life expectancy for me and my children, and there was a rich stable country to the North, where I could go and work the crappiest job available and still make a better life for me and my family, I would go there. To stay in a hellhole simply because I was born there would be irrational.

Nobody is saying that we should open our borders to any and all who on impulse decide to come and stay. But the process we now have for becoming a citizen is long, complicated and expensive. If you came from a friendly country, like Australia, applying requires not only one's original birth certificate, proof of citizenship, a list of every address you've ever lived at, every job you've ever worked, a police background check, and photos, but also a pile of financial documents. It also costs up to $1000 and takes 3 to 6 months. Now if you are fleeing from a failed nation-state, it can be difficult if not impossible to get all that for every member of your family. Then you must get a medical exam but it is only valid if you get it from a doctor approved by the Department of Homeland Security. There may only be one in whichever US state you happen to be in and due to their scarcity, they could be pricey, charging you an additional $1000—for every family member. Then you have to return to your home country to be interviewed by people at the American consulate. If you are marrying an American citizen, you have to undergo more interviews and produce additional paperwork to show that you are marrying for love and not a green card. None of this is unreasonable if you are an affluent person coming from a country that is allied with the US and has a functioning government. If you are escaping from a non-friendly government that can't keep narco-terrorists from beheading people on a routine basis, this procedure is Kafkaesque. Especially if you are a child refugee.

If we are truly a Christian nation, our attitude towards those who are fleeing war, rape, torture and death should be common sense and compassion, not Pharisaic legalism that elevates rules above human suffering. In fact, it could be argued that these people would make great citizens, seeing that they were willing to cross deserts and face death to come to our country. Whereas only slightly more than 50% of eligible Americans can bestir themselves enough to vote for president and less than that, just over a third of them vote in off-year elections for Congress. (Yet 83% of Americans, according to Gallup, disapprove of Congress' performance.) 

In 1939 a ship named the St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany for Havana. On board were nearly 1000 Jews seeking to flee the Nazis. Neither Cuba nor the US would take the refugees and they were sent back. Half of the 963 Jews died in the Holocaust. The shameful story of our refusal to save them is preserved in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

We have right now 57,000 children on our border who have come to the US as refugees. If we send them back and if they fare as well as those Jews in Nazi Germany, then roughly 28,000 would die. How many of the survivors will be raped or dragooned into being child soldiers or into working for the narco-terrorists smuggling drugs into the US, I couldn't begin to guess. That alone should motivate us to find other solutions than simply shipping them back.

But we are Christians. Jesus was a child refugee fleeing certain death by Herod. He said that if we do not welcome the alien, we do not welcome him. His Father commands us not to mistreat the alien but to love him. I think the only Christian thing to do is to agree with Peter and the apostles and say, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

For Zoe's Baptism

The first time I was approached to baptize someone was when I was in the Society for Creative Anachronism. These are the people that often put on and attend Renaissance fairs. My medieval persona was Brother Gillecriosd, a Cluniac monk from the time of William the Conqueror. It was well known that I was a Christian. (I did a series of mini-medieval lectures on Dante's Divine Comedy.) But I never expected to be asked to baptize someone's nephew. Apparently it was to mollify the grandparents. I had to say “no.” While I know that any Christian can baptize someone in extremis, that is, if someone is dying and consents, I don't think there is any justification to do it just so family will get off your back. Nor is baptism a magical rite to protect children from hell.

The first time I actually baptized someone was when a patient of mine was close to death. I had been taking care of Charlie for 4 years. The only reason he was alive after his massive stroke was because of the loving care he received from his wife, Sue. Now she was dying from breast cancer and I doubted he would live long after she was gone.

And I couldn't take care of Charlie anymore. He was unwittingly the reason I threw my back out 2 years in a row. I took this as a sign from God that I was right to give up nursing for the priesthood. I found another nurse to do his daily care, continued to visit the couple and walk their energetic Labrador daily. I also read them the sermons I wrote as Lay Pastoral Leader. I asked if they wanted me to bring them communion in my role as Lay Eucharistic Minister. That was when Sue told me Charlie had never been baptized. I knew he was well read in Christianity from his library and from his attention to my sermons though his speech was severely affected by his stroke. I asked if he wanted to be baptized and he nodded. So I wrote my bishop, emphasizing the couple's imminent deaths and my role as the nearest thing they had to clergy. I pointed out that while he wouldn't die in minutes, the usual justification for baptism by a layman, he would go fast after his wife died.

The bishop gave me permission on pastoral grounds and I baptized my patient who was by this time a friend. Then I gave communion to him and his wife, who had not received the sacrament since she, a Roman Catholic, had married Charlie, a divorced man. Once the rites were over, Sue said to her husband, “Now I will see you in heaven.” She died within weeks; Charlie died in 6 months.

In today's passage from Romans 10, we are told, “...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That's rather straightforward. And there's no mention of baptism. Does that mean Christians needn't get baptized?

The Rt. Rev'd N.T. Wright complained that when you do theology, people expect you to say everything every time. The absence of a mention of baptism here doesn't mean that Paul thinks it unnecessary. In Romans 6:3 & 4, just a few chapters before today's passage, Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” So in today's passage there is no significance to Paul not saying anything about baptism; he just doesn't mention it at this point, having dealt with it earlier. He is at the moment dealing with proclaiming the good news.

Baptism was originally a Jewish rite. It was undergone primarily by Gentiles converting to Judaism and represented their rebirth into a new life. Their previous life was considered that of a different person. The remarkable thing is that when John started baptizing people who were already Jews, people came forward to let him. They recognized that they were so far from God that they needed to start over as Jews.

Paul is obviously picking up on that but with a twist. Baptism, which literally means “immersion” in Greek, and which at that time meant you were bodily immersed into a river, of necessity involved not breathing while underwater. And Paul connects it with Jesus' period of not breathing, his death. Jesus' subsequent rising from the dead parallels the believer rising out of the water. In baptism one dies to one's old life and is born to a new life lived in Christ.

Though the mode of baptism has changed, due to Christianity being legalized, so that Christians could build and meet in special dedicated buildings, and due to those churches being built in places where there wasn't always a handy river, such as urban locations, and due to the need to accommodate children and infants, the meaning is the same: it is about spiritual rebirth. It's about switching from a life lived according to the dictates of mere human nature to a life lived by following the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

And it should be accompanied by a basic understanding of what is going on, hence what Paul is saying in Romans 10. Because baptism is not about spiritual rebirth in the modern sense of a vague realization about life or love; it is about rebirth through Jesus Christ. So Paul says that “Jesus is Lord.” The Jews, seeking to avoid using the name of God and accidentally profaning it, substituted the word "Lord" instead. So Paul is saying that Jesus is our God, the rhyme and reason for existence, in whose image we were created, who loved us enough to become one of us, who loved us enough to die for us, whose resurrection assures us that he will do the same for us, whose commands are to love God, our neighbor, even our enemies.

There's a lot more theology I could cover here but today I'm not baptizing a patient, parishioner or prisoner. I'm baptizing my granddaughter Zoe. And I have personal as well as theological reasons for wishing to see her baptized.

When you are baptized you become a member of the body of Christ, a citizen of the Kingdom of God. It is a rite of entrance. It makes you a part of a family that covers the globe. I read about a man who was a Star Trek fan, who found himself stranded on a train platform in Japan. He suspected he had gotten off at the wrong stop but didn't know the language. Then he saw a Japanese boy wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a saying in Klingon. The man knew Klingon and found that the boy did too and he helped him find the right stop. When you are a follower of Jesus you are kin to Christians all over the world, the majority of whom are good people who practice kindness everyday, who never makes the news the way that those saying and doing hurtful things do. But they should. They feed the poor, house the homeless, work for justice and peace. I want Zoe to be a part of that.

Besides the spiritual benefits that trusting and following Jesus gives you, science tells us that there are considerable benefits that you receive in this life. People who go to church weekly (the only way scientists can measure religious devotion) tend to have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, and live longer than those who don't attend church at all or who attend only sporadically. They tend to drink less, smoke less, use fewer recreational drugs and are less sexually promiscuous. They have better mental health and have less stress. Kids who attend church regularly are less likely to divorce later in life, tend to do better in college, and are less likely to get involved in juvenile crime, violent crime and domestic violence. They show higher levels of self-control, self-esteem and coping skills, have lower rates of depression, suicide and suicidal ideation, and have higher recovery rates from addiction to alcohol and drugs. If all it takes is an hour or 2 a week to have these effects, I want that for my granddaughter.

Scientists, loathe to attribute this to anything specifically religious, tend to put these benefits down to being part of a social group. But I doubt the social benefits of weekly attendance at a poker game or swingers' party would have all the same results. I think it is odd to ignore the effects of the content of the faith. I would think the weekly reminders of God's love and faithfulness, of his never leaving or forsaking the believer, of his help in adversity, of his self-sacrifice for us, of our duty to treat others as we would like to be treated, to see and serve Jesus in others, especially the unfortunate, would have an effect on the thinking and behavior of those who attend. Why is it that people only think bad stuff taught at some churches affects members' behaviors and but not the good stuff taught at most churches? We know from studies that cheating drops in test taking when people are briefly reminded of God or an ethical code first. It stands to reason that weekly or more frequent reminders of such things would also alter behavior positively. I want my granddaughter to believe in a loving God and in loving others.

A recent study has found that those with a purpose to their life live 15 years longer than those who do not. I want my granddaughter to have a life with purpose, not to drift through life distracted by ephemera, or attracted to things that seem fun but ultimately are empty. I want her to know that God has a purpose for her, that her talents and gifts were given her to make the world a better place and people better off for her being here.

Studies show that people who think that God is loving and close to them were healthier mentally. It had a bigger effect than the quality of one's relationships with other people.
When the Rt. Rev'd. N.T. Wright was chaplain at Cambridge he was used to students telling him that they didn't believe in God. To which Wright would reply, “And just what kind of god don't you believe in?” Those who recovered quickly would say something like, “You know, the mean, angry god who doesn't want anyone to enjoy themselves.” And Wright would say, “Well, I don't believe in that god either. I believe in the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ.”

And that's the God I want my granddaughter to believe in. I want her to know that the God who is love created her in his image and that she is invited into that divine love to live as his child forever. I want her to know Jesus, God Incarnate, who healed the sick, fed the hungry, touched the untouchables, welcomed the outcast, preached God's good news, spoke the truth to those in power, went to the cross rather than renounce that truth, rose to give us hope and who now works through his followers to restore the world to what God created it to be. I want her to know that God's Spirit lives within her, guiding her, giving her access to God, equipping her with gifts and abilities to serve God and to share with and help others, producing in her love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

I want to give her that foundation on which to build a life, a full life physically, mentally, intellectually, and spiritually. A lot of people today don't take their children to church, saying they want them to choose a religion for themselves. That's like saying you want your child to play an instrument but never presenting them with one or getting them music lessons. How are they to make a choice if they are never exposed to the things from which they are to choose? And it's not like everyone who ever took piano was chained to it forever or unable to switch to the horn or violin. But as they say, not to choose is to make a choice. And I want my granddaughter to be given a choice to follow the God of love and forgiveness and restoration.

And it begins here. When we baptize Zoe we are welcoming her into the kingdom of God, into the body of Christ, into the life of the Spirit. And because she doesn't understand what that means anymore than a newborn understands what it means to be a citizen of the United States, we are committing ourselves to teaching and showing her. And it will be good for her and for us. Because you never learn something as well as you do when you need to teach it to others. And as she grows in the faith, we shall too. As she learns who God created her to be, we will too. As she discovers and develops her gifts, we will encourage her and be encouraged to do the same with the gifts the Spirit has given us.

The birth of a child leads parents to rediscover the joys of everyday life and the wonders of the world which they had been taking for granted. Life is the first gift, the one that is necessary in order to enjoy all the rest. Just so, a child's rebirth into the life of the Spirit should lead to a rediscovery on our part of the riches we have in God through Jesus Christ. It's a treasure trove that today we share with Zoe through water and the Word. To the unspiritual, we look as if we are merely pouring a common element on someone's head and saying things that do not make sense in a purely material world. But through the Spirit we see another dimension to what is happening here. The water is giving what we are doing form and the Word giving it significance and power. The physical and the spiritual are coming together to mark this child as more than mere animal, more than a temporary arrangement of atoms and DNA. She is being marked as a resident of a more permanent realm, as God's child, as Christ's own, and as a temple of the Holy Spirit. We are privileged to be witnesses and participants of this act of holy love and to pledge ourselves to continue in this good work with God's help.