Sunday, October 14, 2018

Pain


The scriptures referred to are Job 23:1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22:1-15, Hebrews 4:12-16, and Mark 10:17-31.

There are people who do not feel pain. Congenital Insensitivity to Pain, or CIP, is not, however, a superpower but an extremely dangerous condition. It is common for such people to die in childhood because they sustain injuries and contract illnesses that they don't notice and which go untreated. The ability to feel pain is essential for survival.

Pain can be an important symptom. As a nurse I was taught to ask patients to describe their pain. Was it sharp or dull, acute or an ache, burning or stabbing? Where did you feel the pain? Did it radiate or was it localized? Did something trigger it? Was there something that made it better or worse? How long did it last? And, of course, how would you rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being almost nothing and 10 excruciating? Pain can tell a person in the healing arts a lot about what's wrong with you.

That said, nobody really likes pain. We want it to go away. And if there is an underlying cause we want that fixed or cured. But sometimes you can't make it go away. Especially if the pain is emotional or psychological. Like, say, if you lost something or someone important to you. Such as Job. He loses his children, his livestock, his servants, his wealth and his health. Last Sunday we read about how he broke out in some painful running sores. Today's reading is midway through this drama in verse and while not cursing God, Job is mad at him. He wants to talk with him. In the last 4 chapters God does speak to Job though he doesn't give him reasons for his suffering. Instead God asks Job questions he can't answer, questions about creation. The implied answer is “If you can't understand how these things work, there is no way I can explain why bad things happen to good people.” But Job is satisfied that God speaks to him. And God is more pleased with Job and his questions than with the 3 men who are certain that God is permitting these things to happen because Job must have sinned to deserve it. God doesn't want people lying or misrepresenting the facts in an effort to vindicate him or justify his actions. In fact, God tells the 3 “comforters” to make up with Job if they want God to forgive them.

It's odd that one of the ways that militant atheists attack theism is by pointing out that there is suffering in the world, as if the Bible did not mention that aspect of reality. In fact, scripture meets the objection head on. Yes, bad stuff can happen to people who don't deserve it. This happens despite the fact that, generally speaking, those who obey God tend to do better in life than those who don't, the way a person who obeys human laws does better than the one who breaks them. But not all suffering is self-inflicted. Sometimes there are area-wide disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis, and sometimes people get buffeted by personal disasters, like accidents, diseases and deaths. The Bible not only acknowledges this but wrestles with it. Numerous psalms, like today's, are pleas from an innocent person undergoing great suffering. Small wonder that from the cross Jesus utters the same words as the opening verse of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And the psalm eerily describes sufferings so much like Jesus' that we read it on Passion Sunday and Good Friday. The psalmist feels that God is distant and unresponsive. Those around him mock and despise him. Meanwhile his body is racked with pain and thirst. Yet he looks to God's faithfulness in the past and, though our lectionary reading cuts off at verse 15, the psalm eventually ends on a note of hope. Things may be bad at present but they will not stay that way. The psalmist looks forward to God's rescue which he will declare to the nation. “For he did not despise or detest the suffering of the oppressed; he did not ignore him; when he cried out to him, he responded.” (Psalm 22:24) Every gospel ends not with the death of Jesus but with the announcement that he is risen. And as we said, even Job eventually gets a response from God and everything he lost is replaced.

But nowhere does the Bible give a simple formula as to why people suffer things they did not bring on themselves. As we said, at the end of the book of Job God doesn't give an answer. He just multiplies the imponderables with questions of how the world works. It's as if God is saying there is no answer that humans can understand. Even with all our scientific knowledge we still don't understand why some people who don't smoke or drink or abuse drugs or eat too much get cancer or heart disease or dementia. Maybe we will someday, though cognitive scientists point out that our brains may never be able to comprehend everything we uncover. Our brains were designed to help us survive; the fact that we know as much as we do about quarks and quasars and quantum foam is remarkable for creatures who only finally embraced the germ theory of disease in the 1890s. But it is no guarantee that we will not come up against parts of reality that will ultimately prove to be indecipherable to the 3 pound organ that resides between our ears. So why do we assume that we will be able to unravel all spiritual truths?

Perhaps the answer is not one that can be put into words. Blue is apparently the last color most cultures come up with a word for. And scientists have shown very primitive tribes without a name for blue an array of color swatches on that end of the spectrum and those tribes cannot even see the difference between green and blue. Deaf people in Nicaragua who grew up in little rural villages and who had to create their own gestures to communicate with their families were only recently sent to schools for the deaf to learn sign language. And when asked, they could not explain the way they thought before they had language with which to express their thought processes. If you don't have the proper language for something, you can't think clearly about it. I wonder if people like Ezekiel or the John who wrote Revelation were trying to convey in words things that were indescribable. Language has its limits.

And when it comes to suffering, would it really comfort you to have a cold, precise, logically provable reason why your loved one had to die or that your cancer was inevitable? Plate tectonics goes a long way towards explaining earthquakes and tsunamis but does that take away the pain of the lives lost? Explanations can only go so far in giving comfort. They don't do much to give suffering meaning.

There is a kernel of comfort in shared suffering. It is good to know you are not alone, that there are others facing the same pain and bewilderment and grief and rage and questions you are. As our passage in Hebrews points out, “...we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Every spring we try to imagine the suffering Jesus underwent. But few of us have been flogged until our backs were ribbons of flesh. Few have been marched through crowds of jeering onlookers or stripped naked in a public place or had 9-inch nails driven through our wrists and ankles or were hoisted up on rough wood to hang in the sun until we die of shock and suffocation. But that does mean that Jesus understands not only physical pain but the other kinds of suffering we undergo. Like humiliation, embarrassment, and harassment. Like betrayal, abandonment by friends and social isolation. Like anxiety, depression and the horror of facing your own death. In the old translation of the Apostles Creed, it said of Jesus “he descended into hell.” If hell is the worst torment, both physical and emotional, which you can experience, then, yeah, Jesus was in hell. And he knows intimately whatever hell you are going through.

Say what you will about his allowing us to suffer, but in Jesus we see that God is willing to take his own medicine. He asks of us nothing that he has not subjected himself to. The rich man in our gospel cannot give up his wealth to save himself but Jesus gave up infinitely more to save us. We are like children who will not give up our germ-ridden toys to get better, not realizing that the Great Physician has given up everything to come up with a cure for us.

In the Princess Bride, the Dread Pirate Roberts says, “Life is pain....Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” I will not go that far but pain is an inescapable part of life. And sometimes it is an inescapable part of getting better. Dressing changes can be painful. As a candystriper I remember how everyday I had to help remove the dressings and clean off the ointments that covered the body of a young man with burns over most of his torso and arms. We then stuck him in a whirlpool bath that would remove what we couldn't including dead skin, leaving him pink and tender. It was excruciating for him but it had to be done to protect him from infection. There were days when the work I did in rehab after my accident had me in tears. But I did what I had to. As a nurse, I had seen too many patients refuse to do the painful physical therapy that would put them back on their feet. I was not going to be one of them. If pain was the gateway to health I was willing to go through it.

It helps if our pain has meaning. Parents who lose their children will often get involved in or even start groups or organizations to help other parents in the same situation or to spare them from the same loss. Most of the programs that help newly released inmates adjust to life outside and avoid going back to jail and prison were created by people who have been incarcerated in the past. Alcoholics Anonymous was begun by two alcoholics and is maintained by alcoholics. If you ask me the reason we have such horrible healthcare in this country is that the vast majority of the people we elect to government are relatively healthy and have good healthcare and are unable to empathize with those who don't. Any time a government official takes a special interest in a disease or disorder it is because they or someone they love has that problem. The same is true of celebrities and philanthropists. They rarely help those who suffer if they don't know suffering themselves.

God knows our suffering. He knows our pain. He used the horrific suffering of Jesus to save us from locking ourselves into neverending suffering. We are often our own worst enemies. We may not be able to avoid disasters from without but we can avoid trapping ourselves in disasters from within. Jesus can save us from hells of our own making.

But that requires change and change can hurt. Change can mean loss. We may have to give up the ways we used to live and the ways we thought of ourselves. To become a new person means leaving the old one behind. Just this week the 55 year old science fiction show Doctor Who underwent a tremendous change. The Doctor is an alien time traveler who, when mortally wounded, has the ability to regenerate a new body and new personality. Thus the role can be played by any actor and the Doctor can be grumpy or goofy or a straightforward hero. But until now the actors could only be white males. Now, for the first time, the Doctor has become a woman. Many fans were upset or even outraged although the fact that this was a possibility was broached back in the 1980s. And last Sunday we saw a new Doctor, just as smart and wise and just and compassionate as her predecessors, explain to her bewildered human companions what this radical change is like. When asked if it hurts, she says, “You have no idea!...There's this moment, when you're sure you're about to die, and then...you're born. It's terrifying. Right now, I'm a stranger to myself. There's echoes of who I was and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts and shape myself towards them.” And with this in mind, when she faces the villain of the episode, an alien who hunts and kills humans, unlike most heroes, she doesn't want to destroy him. Instead she graciously offers him a new start if only he will take it. Because, she says, “we're all capable of the most incredible change. We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honor who we've been and choose who we want to be next.”

Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old has passed away and the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) As Jesus died, so our old self must die so that we can have new life, his life. (Colossians 3:3-4) As Paul put it, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

We all have to die. We can die alone or as part of something bigger. We can die without hope of ever existing again or we can die “with hope of Easter joy.” We can suffer for no reason or we can give meaning to our suffering by helping others. In a world where the rich and powerful whine about how unfair their life is, we can show how a truly unfair situation can be transcended through the help and power of a person who gave up the advantages of divinity to live and die as one of us and who in so doing changed his status from victim to victor over evil and death.

Pain tells you that something is wrong. It tells you that you need healing. Jesus is our doctor. He makes people better. He doesn't promise us that the process will be painless, however; only that it will be worth it. And that we will not have to go through it alone.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Soft Power and Hard Choices


This sermon was preached at our annual Blessing of the Animals service at St. Francis in the Keys church. The scriptures referred to are Hebrews 1:1-4 and Mark 9:38-50.

There is a cartoon by Dan Piraro that shows a man in heaven astounded to see on God's throne not a human figure but a dog in a white robe. And the dog says, “The joyful, loving, eternally forgiving nature of dogs never tipped you off?”

The Bible says that human beings were created in the image of God, not dogs. Yet it would be strange if animals did not reflect the nature of their creator to some extent. In fact, in the second chapter of Genesis God says, “It is not good for man to be alone,” and then he creates and presents to Adam animals and birds as possible companions. Eventually God decides to make man a mate instead. But this story underlines the fact that animals are good companions to us and are capable of love. Without some kind of love, life is hard. We often have pets in order to soften the harshness of our lives.

You could say that everything in this world is either soft or hard. A kitten is soft. A bird's beak is hard. A ripe fruit is soft. The tree it grew on is hard. Your bed is soft. The walls of your house are hard. Both hardness and softness are necessary. And few things are completely one or the other. A rock is all hardness. A jellyfish is all softness. But a kitten has bones. A bird has feathers. The fruit has seeds. The tree has sap. Hopefully your bed has some firmness. When I first slept on a really soft bed after 140 days of sleeping on hospital beds, the next morning my back felt as if someone had hit it with an ax.

Generally you want some measure of hardness to give things structure and protection and some measure of softness to make them livable. Even the knight wore soft padded garments under his armor to buffer the impact on his body. What softness affords us is some cushioning, some "give," some degree of adaptation to us and to our bodies. And we need both hardness and softness in every area of life.

Socially we need structure as well as some hard and fast rules: no killing, no stealing, no cheating. But we need some give, some adaptation to the fact that occasionally everybody messes up. We don't summarily execute people who drive 55 in a 45 mph zone. For that matter, we even recognize degrees of homicide. The law of Moses made provision for manslaughter, the unintentional, unpremeditated killing of a person. (Deuteronomy 4:41-42) While the Old Testament is usually seen as full of hard rules laid down by a hard deity, it also reveals that God has a soft spot for the disadvantaged. There are literally hundreds of verses about how God expects us not to mistreat but to help the poor, the alien, the sick, the disabled, the elderly, the fatherless, the widow. The word “mercy” appears in the Hebrew Bible more than 200 times. More than half of the uses of the word “love” occur in the first part of the Bible. The 2 Great Commandments to love God and our neighbor are found in the Torah, the core of the Jewish Bible. 

Remember, tiny Israel was surrounded by empires. So they primarily focused on God as their protector and on his law as a way to impose order on what would otherwise be a chaotic life. But God is also revealed to show parental love towards his people, to be concerned about justice for all and even to be willing to forgive foreigners who repent, like the morally clueless inhabitants of Nineveh, the capital of the ruthless Assyrian Empire. God says to his reluctant prophet Jonah, “...Nineveh has more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11) Notice that God cares about the cattle as well.

When we get to the New Testament, this side of God's nature is clearer, especially in the life and ministry of Jesus. In fact, Jesus' main opposition comes from those who have made the law of Moses even harder, by adding rules that make it more difficult for the disadvantaged. And Jesus goes out of his way to show that he is not the kind of hard, militaristic king most folks expect the Messiah to be. Jesus uses his power to heal, to forgive, to feed the hungry, not to conquer or force people to follow him. Jesus uses words and stories and uncommon wisdom to bring people to his point of view. It is what we call “soft power.”

This does not mean Jesus is a pushover or will ignore evil. In today's gospel his opponents try to force him into the middle of a controversy. At that time, and still today within Orthodox Judaism, divorce was something only a man could initiate. He could simply present his wife with a get, a certificate of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1),  which basically says “She is not my wife and I am not her husband.” And with that the marriage is over. In Jesus' day, a man could, according to Rabbi Hillel, get a divorce for almost anything: for not pleasing him, or burning his meal, or if he found a younger woman. Whereas, in Matthew's version of this controversy, sexual immorality is the only reason Jesus allows for divorce. However, a Jewish woman could not divorce her husband for such reasons. Plus women were often treated as property. And a woman abandoned by her husband was on the bottom of the social and financial strata. Now remember that most marriages were arranged marriages so a woman had no say in whether or whom she would marry nor whether she would be divorced. That's why Jesus says this situation exists because of “your hardness of heart.” The woman was powerless and her well-being depended entirely on her husband's disposition back then. It may seem strange to us in the 21st century but by opposing divorce Jesus was once again standing up for the disadvantaged.

Another glimpse of God's nature is seen in Jesus' concern with children. We noted a few weeks ago that he said that anyone who harms them would be better off flung into the ocean with a millstone around his neck. (Mark 9:42; cf. Matthew 18:5-6) In our gospel for today, the disciples are turning away parents bringing their children to Jesus to be blessed. They probably thought Jesus was too busy. We know it was hard for him to find time to eat and sleep. (Mark 4:37-39; 6:31) But Jesus was indignant. He says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly, I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

In the Bible, belief is not so much about thinking a list of ideas are true as it is trusting God. Sadly, adults are not as trusting as children are. Adults get cynical. Adults think that they have outgrown their need for God. Adults think they must rely on themselves alone and don't need any help. Children know this isn't true. So do pets, who will paw your arm and look at you when they want something. They know they need help. They are smarter than we are.

And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” Again we are seeing the softer side of God, who loves his creation and blesses his creatures, the way he does when he creates them in the very first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that Jesus was only soft. We see his strength when he defends people against their enemies. Perhaps the clearest example is the story of the woman taken in adultery. We just saw how strongly Jesus feels about adultery. Yet when an adulterous woman is dragged before him and her accusers are trying to get Jesus to agree that she be stoned, as is laid down in the law of Moses, he first stoops and writes in the dust. When they persist in asking him he stands and says, “Whoever among you is without sin may be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he stoops to write again. What he writes, we don't know. Perhaps it was a list of the sins of her accusers. Perhaps it is the question, “Where is the man?” Adultery generally takes two, you know. Was this a trap they set for the woman? Anyway her accusers drift away, one at a time. When they are all gone, Jesus asks the woman where her accusers are, she says that no one is left to condemn her. Jesus says, “I do not condemn you either. Go and sin no more.” Jesus didn't approve of what she did but he would not be party to the persecution and death of a vulnerable woman. Jesus was not a bully. He is God's love incarnate and love forgives and love protects.

And love makes sacrifices. In his death on the cross in our stead, we see most clearly God's love for us embodied in Jesus. As Paul says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Would you die for a bunch of people who would just as soon kill you to shut you up about the truth? That was a hard choice but Jesus made it. In the Garden of Gethsemane, before Judas found him, he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) He could have run away. Bethany, where his friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary live, was just 2 miles away, on the other side of the Mount of Olives. Jesus could have slipped away under cover of darkness. He didn't. 

A dog will risk its life to save you without thinking. A human will find it harder to make such a sacrifice because he knows the nature of the danger. Unlike animals, we humans are acutely aware that we can and will die someday. Jesus knew exactly what kind of torturous death he faced. He knew how Rome punished those whom the crowds hailed as king. Yet he went through with it. To save us. Out of love.

If you want to know about the nature of God, look at Jesus. In him we see what God is really like. And because we are created in the image of God, though it may be buried under all our crap and disfigured by the self-destructive things we do, in Jesus we see what we can be, what God intends us to be. Basically, Christianity is about becoming more like Jesus by following him and letting his Spirit guide us and shape us.

There is a song that goes, “Lord, help me be the kind of person my dog thinks I am.” They think we are godlike. We say “Let there be light” and flip the switch and the lights go on. We travel in chariots to exciting places. We provide them with food. We tell them when they are bad and praise and pet them when they are good. We keep them healthy, even if it means some pain to them when they are getting shots or undergoing treatment. We can be hard for their good and for their protection and we can be soft when they need love and comfort. They trust us. We should be that way towards God. Because, as the old saying goes, D-O-G spelled backwards is still man's best friend.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Hindrances


The scriptures referred to are Mark 9:38-50.

I was watching one of my all-time favorite Sherlock Holmes movies this week, The Seven Percent Solution. Oddly enough, though, it is not based on a short story or novel written by Holmes' creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but it is so good that most Sherlockians would not object were it considered canon. The basic plot is that Dr. Watson lures his friend Holmes to Vienna to get him treated by a specialist in cocaine addiction, Dr. Sigmund Freud. And of course, they become embroiled in a mystery which requires the skills of both the detector of evil and the explorer of the dark corners of the human mind. Everything from the dialog to the actors to the cinematography to the gloriously lush movie score is perfect. I want to focus on the scene where they follow a suspect only to be led into a deadly trap. As they escape, Holmes realizes that they must get back to the woman whose mystery they are investigating. Freud asks if the suspect they had followed was told to lead them astray. Seeing that they were almost killed, Holmes says, “I gather his instructions were somewhat more specific. Nevertheless,'astray' will do.” Sure enough, when they get to their destination, the woman in question has been abducted by the bad guys and Holmes, Watson and Freud must work together to rescue her.

Holmes makes a crucial distinction. He thinks that the henchman was supposed to have them die, but if he could only divert them, that would give his boss the time he needed to pull off the kidnapping. Harming people is, of course, evil but hindering them from doing good can have the same effect. When considering whether to do or not do something we should ask if it is harmful or not. And that is important. God is not against sin and evil because he disapproves of them on personal or aesthetic grounds, the way your maiden aunt dislikes people with pierced ears or flashy clothes. God dislikes evil and sin because they are destructive—to ourselves, to others, to our relationship with him, and to his creation. YHWH is a God of creation and life. He does not want destruction and death.

But things get ethically murkier if you don't actually do harm to someone. What if you just make things harder for them? What if what you do or don't do just hinders them from getting help? How bad is that?

I once read a mystery in which the murderer did not stab or shoot or even poison his victim. He just knew the man was a brittle and non-compliant diabetic. He invited his victim to a private dinner at his home and served him all his favorite foods. The victim overindulged himself as expected and his blood sugar shot up to dangerous levels. Feeling the symptoms of hyperglycemia and knowing he was about to slip into a diabetic coma, the victim asked the man he considered a friend to get his insulin. The murderer does so but very slowly, knowing that simply being too late will do the trick. The man dies. It's chilling.

That's an extreme example of how hindering can prove to be harmful. But we all know that if you can't make certain forms of conduct impossible, making them difficult will reduce such behavior. We use this fact to make laws. We cannot make reckless driving impossible but we create laws that make it difficult and that also make it costly to those who violate such laws. In the same way, raising prices on cigarettes leads to a drop in smoking. Most car thieves will pass up a locked car for an unlocked one. And, sadly, you can hinder good actions by making them more difficult as well. For instance, if you make it illegal for Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, that hinders people getting their medicine at affordable rates. If you reduce the number of polling stations, and the hours during which you can vote, and require a photo ID from people who don't drive, you can reduce voting. Unfortunately we have laws that hinder doing the right thing as well as laws that hinder wrongdoing.

Jesus frequently found himself coming up against laws hindering otherwise commendable conduct. Time and again he was confronted about healing on the Sabbath. Mind you, only work was prohibited on the Sabbath and Jesus' healings were not compensated but the Pharisees had elevated the Oral Law, extrapolations based on the written law, to the same level as the Torah. In some cases they went beyond what was needed to apply those centuries old laws to contemporary situations and let stand interpretations that went against the spirit of the law. Such as when they said that one's wealth could be dedicated to God and therefore retained instead of being used to support one's aged parents contrary to what God's word said. Jesus called them on that. (Mark 7:10-13)

In today's gospel, the disciples take it upon themselves to discourage a person who is healing people in Jesus' name because he was not officially one of Jesus' followers. They don't say he was trying to cast out demons; they say he was doing so. Which is interesting because the Twelve were not always able to perform such healings. Just a few verses earlier in the same chapter, in fact, the disciples were not able to heal a boy with a seizure disorder. Jesus had to step in and heal him. Were they, at least in part, jealous of a man who was successful where they were not?

And the man's success shows that he really did believe in Jesus, even though he did not join the group following him. Jesus realizes this and says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Which has significance in a time where there are a great many Christian denominations. The history of churches treating other churches as full members of the body of Christ is poor, to say the least. Besides branding other Christians as heretics and even punishing them as such, wars were started over such differences. (Although politics always entered in. All the peace settlements after such wars were political and not theological. ) And I still meet people who identify themselves as "Christians, not Catholics!" Even if they mean Protestants, the truth is that Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox doctrine all agree that the Bible is God's word; they all affirm the articles of the Apostles Creed and as well as a commitment to the the 10 and 2 Great Commandments. We have a lot more in common than people think.

Fortunately a lot of Christians realize this and have been working on lessening our divisions. Our two denominations are in full communion, which means we are partners who recognize and can share each other's ministries, clergy and sacraments. The Episcopal Church is also in full communion with the Moravian Church, and various non-Anglican churches in Europe, the Philippines and India. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is in full communion with the Moravian Church, too, plus the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church. And just last year the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church proposed full communion and are seeking approval at their next nationwide conventions.

But our divisions have hindered people from coming to Jesus, largely because some folks see the contradiction in people who say that God is loving and forgiving but who cannot seem to put those principles into practice, especially with other Christians. And most of the people rejecting Christianity because of this don't even know that on the night before he died Jesus explicitly said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) This is not optional. Jesus commanded us to do this.

Next in our gospel reading, Jesus moves from the partisanship that hinders people from following him to the personal issues that hinder us from following him. Jesus says that if a hand or foot or eye caused you to sin you should cut it off or pluck it out. This is one passage that even fundamentalists do not take literally or else we would have a denomination of people who have amputated parts of themselves because they caused them to sin. Besides, just 2 chapters earlier in Mark Jesus says that sin is not external but arises from within. So why is he now saying that feet and hands and eyes can cause us to sin?

Jesus is using hyperbole here. It's a common rhetorical device that emphasizes the seriousness of the point being made. So what is Jesus really getting at?

There are things in our life—a job, an activity, a relationship, even an addiction—that we feel so strongly about that we feel they are a part of us, of who we are. In Amy Winehouse's prophetic song “Rehab,” she says she will not give up the bottle even if it means losing her lover who tells her to get help. Many artists have felt that they would lose their creativity if they gave up their addictions or got treatment for their mental illnesses. Other people continue to do things that are definitely dangerous because they are apparently adrenaline junkies. Some folks identify themselves primarily by their career or position even if they hate their job. And in one of the most painful instances, some people will not give up relationships that are toxic. It may be that the relationship is violent or it may be that the relationship brings out the worst in one or both people. Sadly sometimes the relationship is a familial one, with a parent or a sibling. Giving up the harmful addiction or job or activity or relationship may feel like losing a hand or some other part of you. But those rare individuals who do manage to make the sacrifice come to the realization that it was well worth it. Robert Downey Jr. struggled with drug abuse for decades. His problems escalated from 1996 to 2001. He underwent multiple arrests, incarcerations and stints in rehab. He lost TV and movie roles and his marriage. Since attaining sobriety, he has remarried, rebuilt his career and become not only a popular star but a respected actor. He has not lost the talent that had made him an award winner even before his rehabilitation. His addiction did not help but hindered him.

Jesus is not one to sugarcoat the truth. If there is anything in our lives that is hindering us in following him, in becoming a more loving, more faithful, more forgiving, more Christlike follower, we must sacrifice it. Whatever hinders us from becoming the person God wants us to be and created us to become is ultimately harmful.

Jesus contrasts the consequences of making these sacrifices with not doing so. Not being able to give up the self-destructive things in our life means entering hell. The word for “hell” which Jesus uses is Gehenna, the valley of Hinnom, southwest of Jerusalem. It is the site where in the past people sacrificed their children as burnt offerings to the pagan god Molech and which in Jesus' day had become the town dump. The refuse of the city continually burned and maggots consumed the carcasses of dead animals discarded there. We still use this imagery. We describe a chaotic, unmanageable, disastrous situation as being a “dumpster fire.” People who find themselves in a horrible place in life speak of their life being hell. We talk of a person who is tormented by certain issues in their life as “fighting their own demons.”

The first step in dealing with this is to take out the garbage in our life and remove the stumbling blocks from our walk with Christ. Jesus says if you cut out the thing that hinders you, then you will enter life. Being alive means being able to move and respond to the world and to the people around us and being able to grow. In verse 47 Jesus parallels "life" with "the kingdom of God" so he means eternal life as well. And the kingdom of God is not a future thing only. The kingdom starts now. Jesus said “the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21) It begins in this life and carries on into the next. It doesn't manifest itself in its fullness right away, though. It grows. Jesus said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.” (Mark 4:26-29) In the future we will see the full extent of the kingdom but that doesn't mean it isn't growing right now, within and among us. We don't want to harm or hinder it; we want to help it.

Then Jesus switches metaphors and says something all commentators find confusing: “For everyone will be salted with fire.” To me the significant words are “everyone,” “salted,” and “fire.” By saying this happens to everyone, Jesus cannot mean the fires of hell. Some, he just said, enter life. And “salted” recalls how salt was used in Jesus' day: not merely to season but to preserve. There was no refrigeration. Salt was used to keep meat from going bad. As such it was commonly used as a symbol of the covenant. (Leviticus 2:13) Not only that but newborn babies were rubbed with salt. (Ezekiel 6:14) Salt, Jesus says, is good.

So how is fire similarly good for those subjected to it? Fire is used in purifying metals. The Bible speaks of the refiner's fire, used to melt gold and silver so their impurities may be skimmed off. (Isaiah 1:25; Malachi 3:2-3) And indeed sometimes experiences we perceive as negative at the time can have a positive effect. Exposure to germs helps your body build up your immunity. Simply having a dog helps children's immune systems. And of course vaccines, dead or weakened pathogens, protect us against stronger diseases. 

In addition, we tend to empathize more with people who have suffered the same afflictions we have. We can help such people in ways that otherwise might not have occurred to us. That is the basis for 12-step programs and support groups. By contrast people who have encountered relatively few obstacles in life rarely can understand, much less empathize with those whose life has been hard. Instead they tend to give clueless, useless advice.

Purifying fire is a frequent image used in the Bible. John the Baptist said that Jesus would baptize us with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16) Paul speaks of our works being tested by fire (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). 1 Peter 4:12 tells us not to be surprised by fiery trials as that we encounter in following Jesus. But as Danish poet Piet Hein wrote, “Here is a fact that should help you fight a bit longer: Things that don't actually kill you outright make you stronger.” Just as surviving germs helps your immunity, surviving trials can help make you resilient.

As Christians we are not to harm people or to hinder them in finding spiritual and physical health and wellbeing, but to help them. And to do that we must remove anything that harms or hinders us in our life in Christ. How can we help others find peace if we are not at peace with ourselves, with each other and with God? How are we to show love to those who do not follow Jesus if we cannot love other Christians? The kingdom of God is growing within and among us. We want to encourage that. We want to plant seeds and water and nurture them until one day they sprout and bloom and cover the earth with the knowledge of God and the goodness and love and grace to be found in his son, our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Last Things First


The scriptures referred to are James 3:13-4, 7-8a and Mark 9:30-37.

We are looking at the life of Jesus in our weekly Bible study and so I have been doing research. Since the backdrop of Jesus' life includes the Roman Empire, I have also been listening to podcasts and watching documentaries about the era and the people of the time. I saw this documentary on Julius Caesar, the man who destroyed the Roman Republic when he became its first dictator. He came from a wealthy family which fell on hard times. He joined the army and worked his way up, always with an eye on getting political power. For instance he wanted to merit a parade through Rome, which could only happen if he had a military triumph which killed at least 5000 of the enemy. So Caesar made sure he killed that many people. However his obvious ambition and ruthlessness created opposition to him. As he reentered Roman territory from Gaul without disbanding his troops, he triggered a civil war. He went up against Pompey, Rome's previous greatest general and Caesar's former supporter. Pompey, defeated, eventually fled to Egypt. Caesar pursued him there, only to be presented with Pompey's head compliments of the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra.

Cleopatra was also very ambitious, wanting to rule the empire that Alexander the Great had ruled. She couldn't do that without conquering the Romans but she did the next best thing. She killed her brother, who was also her husband, seduced Caesar and had a child by him. However, her plans to have her son inherit his father's empire died when Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Roman Forum. So she began an affair with Caesar's second-in-command, Marc Antony, getting pregnant by him. But when Antony had a falling out with Caesar's great nephew and adopted son, Octavius, those plans fell apart. Cleopatra tried to bribe Octavius but he didn't bite. As his troops besieged Alexandria and Antony and Cleopatra's armies failed to stop Octavius, the doomed lovers made a suicide pact. Cleopatra researched the best poison to use by testing them on prisoners and noting the results. As Antony reviewed his defeated troops, he received a message that Cleopatra was dead. He fell on his sword. But the Queen of Egypt was very much alive. Despite the fact that historians think Antony really was the love of her life, Cleopatra was still trying to become an empress. When Octavian captured her she tried to seduce him but he turned and walked out of her presence. Then 11 days after Antony had died, Cleopatra, fearing she would be paraded through the streets of Rome as Octavian's captive, took poison. Octavian murdered her children by Caesar and Antony and became the first official emperor of Rome, Augustus. It was during his reign that Jesus was born.

In today's lectionary both James and Jesus warn us of selfish ambition. And yet we admire the ambitious people of our time and revere ambitious men and women of the past. And I think it is because we don't distinguish between selfish ambition and other reasons to pursue excellence. In his management book Good to Great, Jim C. Collins presented his research on the factors that helps a good company go to a great one. A key factor is having a leader who is a “paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will,” driven not by the desire for personal aggrandizement but the desire to do what's best for the company. These folks are rarely the superstar CEOs who get all the attention in the press but men and women passionately focused on what the company is best in the world at doing and which also happens to make money. After his book came out, Collins was surprised to see it adopted by churches and non-profit organizations. One thing that interested them was what he called the “Level 5 Leader.” It is very similar to the concept of the “Servant Leader,” whom Robert K. Greenleaf wrote about. And in today's passage from Mark, Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Let's face it, most leaders put themselves first. They are concerned about their power and their prestige and having not just their needs but their desires met. The Twelve were not above this. In the very next chapter of Mark, we find the disciples once again getting into a conflict on the matter of who was greatest and Jesus says, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45) And to make the point as vividly as possible, just before the last supper, John's gospel tells us how Jesus stripped off his outer garment, tied a towel around his waist and washed his disciples' feet, a task usually given to the lowest of slaves. Afterward he says, “Do you understand what I have done for you?...You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17)

As Jesus pointed out, most hierarchies put the leader before everyone and often everything else. Jesus says that, instead, the leader should put his people before himself. And Jesus didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk. Besides washing the disciple's feet, he stepped forward at his arrest and said, “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” (John 18:8) And of course, he goes to the cross to save humanity. Compare him to people like Hitler and Cleopatra, who were willing to throw anyone else under the bus to get what they wanted. Each sacrificed a viable future for their nation on the altar of a grandiose dream of an empire under themselves.

It feels odd to come out against ambition, though, at least here in America. Don't we want kids to dream big and reach their potential and accomplish great things? Yes but there is another motivator that has nothing to do with simply wanting to be top dog: love. Remember what Collins found out about the leaders who took good companies to being great ones; their passion was focused, not on themselves, but on doing what they do best. Most renowned scientists, movie makers, medical researchers, artists, reformers, teachers, and innovators achieve their greatest accomplishments because they are love what they do. I am reasonably sure that Jane Goodall did not think that studying chimpanzees was the road to fame. She was intensely interested in learning all she could about our closest relatives. That passion drove her to do what she did as well as she could. Van Gogh only sold one painting during his life; he was motivated by his passion to capture the beauty of what he saw. Dr. Jonas Salk did not patent his vaccine for polio which would have made him rich; instead he let everyone have it because he was passionate about wiping out this scourge that was crippling and killing people. They weren't chasing fame and money. They were pursuing their passions. By focusing on those things rather than themselves and by honing their skills and constantly improving how they did what they did they have made lasting contributions to the world.

And then we have the opposite: people who are famous just for being famous. Can you tell me one thing of excellence that the Kardashians have accomplished outside of merely living their life in the limelight? I don't even seek out news about them and yet I know more intimate stuff about them than some people I am interested in, because you simply cannot avoid hearing about them. Social media has made stars out of otherwise obscure people, again, not because they have made the world a better place but simply because they have made themselves heard. You don't even have to be literally loud. There is a woman on You Tube who narrates really boring mundane tasks and yet has 20 million subscribers because she speaks very softly and there are folks who get pleasure out listening to her voice. As an obsession, it is a relatively benign one but 20 million subscribers? Charlton Heston reading the Bible on You Tube only gets 8000 views. The Jesus movie, a Hollywood quality dramatization of the gospel of Luke, which you can watch in its entirety for free on You Tube, gets 4 ½ million views. A woman whispering for 4 hours got 15.8 million.

Small wonder people promote themselves, even if they haven't really done anything truly wonderful or life-changing. The world pays attention to the the flashy and the novel and the outrageous. We reward such behavior, even if it is not conduct we would tolerate in our friends or in our family. I saw this firsthand at a radio station I worked at in Brownsville, Texas. The station hired two shock jocks for the morning drive time. The outrageous, highly sexualized talk of these guys did raise the station profile. It brought the rock station from number 12 to number 6 in the ratings. But the problem is that to keep from getting stale shock jocks have to keep crossing the line of what is acceptable. And eventually they go too far even for the people who hired them. And then they get fired. There was one shock jock in my hometown of St. Louis who made the rounds of most of the rock stations that way. He'd create controversy and raise ratings, say something totally beyond the pale, get dumped by that radio station and get picked up by another, coveting the attention he would draw. Until he pushed the envelope too hard and the cycle would repeat. I once heard a DJ joke about the nudity of concentration camp prisoners in a Holocaust film. Too bad not all such vulgarians can simply be fired.

Jesus says that in the kingdom of God, those who come in first in this life will be relegated to the end of the line. Those who did not promote themselves will be elevated. It's quite possible that the most honored mere human in the new creation will be someone most of us never heard of or thought much about. Like one of those janitors or librarians who live frugally and then upon their death are discovered to have left a million dollars to some charity. They could have lived large but instead they showed themselves to have large hearts.

The key is putting others and their welfare ahead of yourself. This is what Jesus means by disowning oneself and taking up your cross. Jesus' didn't carry his cross for himself; he did it for us. Our cross is not our daily problems but the ones we take on in order to help others. As Paul said, “Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) Or as the 3 musketeers put it, “All for one and one for all.”

Following Jesus is about loving God and loving other people. In Paul's famous passage about love, he writes, “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5) Love is not about oneself but about others. Self-centered people don't really love others. They see them as a trophy or as an extension of themselves. The older rich man has a much younger, impossibly beautiful woman on his arm to advertise how successful he is. If he could he would emblazon his name on her as he does his films or products or companies. “This is mine,” he is saying.

We are to say to Jesus, “I am yours.” We are to look for Jesus in everyone we meet, even those whom we do not know. And we are to treat them as we would Jesus, especially those who need help. And just as you would not brag in front of or try to steal the spotlight from Jesus, you should not do so when you encounter other people. Instead focus on them and treat them as you would relatives of Jesus (Matthew 25:40), even if you think they are the black sheep of his family, so to speak. Jesus loves them and those loved by your beloved, you try to love as well.

One of the side effects of this is that, as the 12 step programs say, helping helps the helper. It takes you out of yourself. It shifts your focus from your problems to those of others. It can also help you realize that you are not alone in your problems. There are others that have the same struggles that you do. And if their problems are worse than yours, it can make you realize that perhaps you are being too whiny about the difficulties you let upend your life and maybe you should be more grateful for the troubles you don't have to wrestle with.

And using your knowledge, experience, and skills to help others can help you feel needed and useful. You learn that you can make a difference in the lives of others. It can lead you to discover your gifts and possibly even your purpose in life. Your purpose is usually found at the intersection of what you are passionate about, what you are good at and what the world needs.

When we call Jesus the Christ or Messiah, we are essentially calling him our King. And yet our King came not to be served but to serve. He did not use his power to make his life more comfortable or easier or more opulent. He spent his time healing and feeding and teaching and forgiving others. His ministry was fueled not by ambition or selfishness but by love.

We may read about or dramatize the lives of Julius Caesar, Marc Antony or Cleopatra but nobody in their right mind wants to be like them. They titillate us but they don't inspire us. With the exception of the Julian calendar, the achievements they were most proud of have been buried in the dust of history. Yet Jesus, who never built a monument, or conquered a nation, or even wrote a book himself, is still energizing people and motivating them to make their lives and the lives of others and this world better, more just, more peaceful, more forgiving, more loving. They do it not by seeking to make a name for themselves. As a Jesuit named Fr. Strickland wrote more than 150 years ago, “A man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.” Let us do all the good we can and let the credit go to the one who personifies God's grace.

As Paul wrote, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”