Monday, October 23, 2017

Coin of the Realm

The scriptures referred to are Matthew 22:15-22.

The first rule of Fight Club is you may not talk about Fight Club. The first rule of Calvinball, the favorite game of the titular characters in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, is there are no rules. Other than wearing a black mask. At least as far as I can see. Not that some people haven't tried to codify the chaos observed whenever the boy and his tiger play it. According to Kim's Calvin and Hobbes page (here) the unofficially official rules include: “any player may declare a new rule at any point in the game. The player may do this audibly or silently.” “The Calvinball field should consist of areas, or zones, which are governed by a set of rules declared spontaneously and inconsistently by players.” “Score may be kept or disregarded. In the event that score is kept, it shall have no bearing on the game nor shall it have any logical consistency to it.” Equipment may include croquets, tennis rackets, hobby horses, flags, buckets of water and balls from any other sport. According to Calvin, the only permanent rule in Calvinball is that you can't play it the same way twice.

It's a hilarious conceit in a fictional universe. In real life, not so much. Consistency is important if you want to do, well, anything. Imagine a world where things like gravity or the solidity of substances like rock or metal or wood or the speed at which light reached your eyes varied from time to time or place to place. Imagine not being able to trust your past experience with things or places because they are subject to sudden and unexpected change. It would be a nightmare. If there were no consistency, no predictable natural laws governing the universe, science would not be possible. That's why as fun as it is to read and watch the Harry Potter tales, a universe in which some individuals could alter time or create, destroy or manipulate matter with words and a wand would be a hellish place.

Because it's people that are not all that consistent or completely predictable. That's why we have laws. That's why we have governments. To try to impose some kind of order on human behavior. And only a fool believes government is, in principle, a bad thing. As with everything, there are things that governments do well and things they don't do well. As someone on the internet observed, just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no libertarians when it comes to disaster relief. Properly managed, the organizational skills and resources that governments command can do wonders. Government is not the answer to everything but neither is it the root of all evil. In fact, it is only evil when evil people are in control and when they are as capricious in governing as the players of Calvinball. Such as when they exempt themselves from the rules that govern everyone else.

There are some groups that sees government as a problem, period. They are reluctant to say anything good about it. Some of those people call themselves Christian. And I would love to see what such people make of Jesus' statement in today's gospel.

We've read this passage hundreds of times and so I don't need to recap it. I will merely repeat what Jesus says: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.” Jesus is saying there are spheres of life that are legitimately under the authority of human government. And the most startling implication of what he says is that the government he was living under was that of the Roman Empire. Again there were things the Empire did well: building roads and making travel safe and organizing things. It did provide a large of amount of consistency to those who lived under it. The Pax Romana is probably part of the reason Christianity spread and grew as it did. What the Empire didn't do well was observe what we would call civil rights, especially for those who weren't Roman citizens. But the idea of universal human rights wasn't really a thing yet. It's still not a reality for a lot of people. The difference is that, at least in democratic countries, individuals can petition their government and stand a chance of making changes in laws and policies. In Jesus' day, not so much. And it was that government, that dictatorship backed by a formidable military which was occupying Jesus' native county, that Christ said nevertheless had a legitimate authority over some aspects of our lives, including that of taxes.

The devil is in the details, of course. And countless books and speeches and position papers have been written about what government should and should not do. I can't possibly cover those details. I just want to point out a few relevant and important principles.

First, those who follow Jesus cannot dismiss the very idea of human government. To do so goes against not only what Jesus taught but also the general thrust of the rest of the New Testament and mind you, much of it was written during times of persecution of the church. We usually focus on what Paul writes in Romans 13, about the governing authorities being God's agent for keeping law and order. But we find a very similar argument laid down in 1 Peter: “For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.” (1 Peter 2:13-14) He writes this despite the fact that the recipients of that letter were actively suffering. Later in chapter 4, it says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's suffering, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker.” (1 Peter 4:12-15) 1 Peter doesn't go as far as Paul in calling the emperor God's servant but does say that Christians should “honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17) Note the distinction. We are not to fear or love the head of human authority but we are to honor him. By the way the emperor at the time was Nero!

But what if human authorities are going against the explicit will of God (as opposed to what we personally feel should be God's will)? When the high priest ordered Peter and the apostles not to teach in the name of Jesus, their response was, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29) Note that the prohibition was against one of the things Jesus explicitly told us to do: making disciples and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded. (Matthew 28:19-20) This was not about Christmas greetings or wedding cakes or putting the Ten Commandments on government property. This was at the heart of Jesus' teachings. In fact it was trying to suppress his teachings. And there was no first amendment then guaranteeing anyone freedom of speech. The apostles only disobeyed the authorities because they forbade them to teach about Jesus.

And the apostles took whatever punishment the authorities meted out to them. It says in Acts that when the authorities “called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home, they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.” (Acts 5:40-42) In the same way the civil rights marchers in the 1960s willingly took the punishment authorities doled out to them for their civil disobedience but did not stop working for the cause, the apostles took the penalties for their disobedience to human law but continued to spread the gospel.

Even under the persecution that prompted the writing of the Book of Revelation, the response of Christians was to stand firm even if it meant martyrdom. Unlike the protagonists of the Left Behind novels, followers of Jesus are not to resort to violence but to be witnesses to the truth (which is the actual definition of the Greek word martus.) The only army on God's side are the heavenly host, the angels. And, despite what you've heard, there is no battle of Armageddon. Yes, the kings of the earth gather there against God but they are swallowed up by a great earthquake. That's hardly a battle. Plus the earthquake takes out Babylon. Neither the actual Babylon nor Rome, the city we suppose the writer of Revelation is calling Babylon, are located anywhere near Mount Megiddo, which is what Armageddon means. So it is as much a symbol as the idea that the world will be ruled by a beast with seven heads and ten horns.

So generally Christians should obey and get along with the government. As Paul says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18) But what if that is not possible? What if the government you are living under is that of Nazi Germany or Pol Pot's Cambodia or Stalin's Soviet Union? What if the government is actively hostile to the church and its work?

When the the emperor Nero began to persecute the church, sometimes using Christians as torches for his garden, many accepted martyrdom for the faith. Persecution was sporadic and regional for the most part, having to do with Christians not making sacrifices to the divine emperor. The emperor Decius actually sent roving commissions to the cities to make sure people made public sacrifices to him. If they didn't they were imprisoned, tortured and even executed. Some Christians fled to the countryside. Some bought certificates that said they had made the sacrifices. After that persecution, councils debated whether or not to accept these lapsed Christians back into the church.

Some Christians went underground—literally. Since most were lower class or slaves and couldn't buy land for burial, they dug tunnels in the soft volcanic rock around Rome and not only buried the martyrs there but set up chapels and altars where they could worship. A lot of early Christian art exists in the catacombs including the earliest depictions of Christ. The Jesus fish symbol or ICTHUS was used as a secret sign to identify Christian meeting places and tombs. The word served as an acrostic in Greek. It stands for Iesous Christos, Theou Yios, Soter or in English, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

In Nazi Germany, Christians both confronted the government and worked underground. The Confessing Church emerged as a movement opposing the Nazi attempt to unify all Protestant churches into a single Protestant Reich Church. A small number of Christians, such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoffer, resisted this policy and declared that Nazi ideology could not be reconciled to Christian theology and ethics. One of the inciting incidents was the adoption of the Aryan Paragraph, which defrocked clergy with any Jewish blood as well as clergy married to non-Aryans. Essentially it nullified the baptism of people of Jewish descent. Some of those who supported the new pro-Nazi German Evangelical Church argued for the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible. The Confessing Church declared that the church was not an “organ of the State.” Many of its leaders, like Bonhoffer, were sent to concentration camps.

A few in the Confessing Church also hid Jews, often passing a hat after services for people to donate identity cards that would be altered to let Jews pass as citizens. And in fact many Christians throughout Nazi-occupied Europe hid Jews and forged ration cards in order to feed them. The clergy of St. Francis' hometown of Assisi hid Jews in the cloistered nunneries and monasteries to keep them safe from the Nazis. Their justification was the implied answer to Cain's question of “Am I my brother's keeper?”

Another justification can be found in the actions of the midwives in Exodus who were ordered by Pharaoh to kill newborn Hebrew males. They lied and said the Hebrew women delivered too quickly for the midwives to get there in time. And God approved of this deception, we are told. (Exodus 1:15-22) Lying is generally condemned in the Bible (Leviticus 19:11) but there is a hierarchy of values and in an extraordinary situation such as having to save innocent lives from an immoral government, deception may at times be morally necessary. (Notice the heavy qualification in that sentence.)

There is one other possible relationship of the church to government and that is the alliance of the two. And as we have seen throughout history, that can lead to precisely the problem that the Confessing Church faced: making the church an arm of the secular government. In the early church they had to wrestle with whether a Christian could work for or in the government. Hopefully, Christians in government could influence it to act in a more Christian and moral way. But too often the influence works the other way. Christians in government find themselves justifying unChristian behavior by their employer. And indeed in Europe, where there are formal ties between church and state, the influence of the church has diminished. I think that the decline in the church in America is at least in part because very vocal, very visible Christians and their followers allied themselves with a political party and thereby brought disgrace to the church and corruption of the message it proclaims. Human leaders come and go, parties dissolve, nations can fall. Jesus is Lord, regardless of who the secular rulers are. God is not a Republican, a Democrat, a Socialist, a Fascist or a Communist. There has never been a human government totally in line with the kingdom of God. We must never forget that.

There are, as Luther observed, two kingdoms in which we live: whatever nation we are physically born into or where we live, and the kingdom of God. The relationship of the two is paradoxical. Insofar as we can, we should obey and honor our government. But we must stand up to it when it is corrupt or actively opposing the essential principles of following Jesus. When it tells us to hate anyone, we must not, because all are created in the image of God and Christ died for all. Jesus told us to love our neighbors and even our enemies. We are therefore forbidden to hate or harm or allow harm to come to anyone. Whenever government actively goes after or passively lets suffer those who are Jesus' siblings (the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, the immigrant, to name a few Jesus explicitly cites) we must oppose it.

Life is not a game. It cannot be put in a box, with a sheet of a few simple rules. We cannot live without rules, either, like Calvinball. Nor can we tolerate rules that give some a big head start in life while hobbling others or not letting them compete fairly. We must use the hearts God gave us, filled with his Spirit, to determine how to love all the inconsistent, unpredictable people we encounter and we must use the brains he gave us, enlightened by his Word, to figure out how to do so wisely in all the different and often fluid situations we encounter. We won't do it perfectly but we can learn and talk with each other and improve.

And let us never forget to give God what is God's, that is, ourselves. His image is stamped on us, as Caesar's was on a coin, and it is God's decision how best to use us. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Party On!

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 25:1-9 and Matthew 22:1-14.

If I show you a picture of a deerstalker hat and a long curved calabash pipe, you would instantly think of Sherlock Holmes, even those two things are not strictly speaking mentioned in the original stories. Holmes has a number of pipes, notably a clay one and a long cherrywood one, but not a calabash. That was introduced by American actor William Gillette, who became rich portraying Holmes on the stage in the early 1900s. He chose the calabash because he could hold it in his teeth and speak and the audience could still see his mouth. As to the deerstalker, in the stories Holmes did have a cap he wore when in the country (but never in London, where he wore either a top hat or a bowler) in the stories but it was the original illustrator Sidney Paget who drew it as the now familiar fore and aft brimmed hunting cap. By the way, Paget used his brother as the model for Holmes so he is wholly responsible for how we picture the great detective. My point is a lot of the iconography of Sherlock Holmes does not derive directly from the author but are not too far off from the source.

On the other hand, whenever you see a one panel cartoon set in heaven, it shows people on clouds with wings and halos and sometimes harps. And I don't know where those comic conventions come from. Biblically, that is. If the people are supposed to be angels they are pictured wrongly. Angels in the Bible are described as being all eyes and flames or with 4 faces, three of them not human. There is a reason they have to tell people not to be afraid. Sometimes when they are appearing to humans they look like young men in blindingly white garments, but there is no mention of wings. If the folks in the cartoons are supposed to be dead people, then they shouldn't have wings either. Humans do not become angels, not even when they are dead, anymore than deer become moose. There are different kinds of beings. And halos are an ancient art convention used when depicting holy people in any religion, Western or Eastern. It only came into Christian art in the 4thcentury and then only in depictions of Christ, at least at first. In addition there is nothing in the Bible indicating a heavenly preference of harps over all the other instruments mentioned.

If you want a Biblical image of the afterlife, you get it in our readings from Isaiah and Matthew. And it is a not a harp concert but a feast! In Isaiah the setting is Mount Zion, the site of the temple in Jerusalem, the symbol of the meeting of heaven and earth. The first part of the passage tells us what is not there: foreign invaders and the ruthless. The demoralized Judeans had seen the northern kingdom of Israel fall to the Assyrians and the cream of Israelite society taken into exile. Their own nation of Judah was now a vassal state to the Assyrian Empire. But there will be none of that in the coming Kingdom of God. Instead of being an outpost for ruthless occupying army, it will be a refuge for the poor and needy. There is a key Biblical contrast that comes up again and again: the merciless and those who need mercy shown them. It is obvious whom God favors.

Then God spreads a sumptuous feast for all nations, Jews and Gentiles alike. So the problem with the foreigners in the first part of the passage is not that they are aliens but that they are ruthless conquerors. God's intention is to bring all the peoples of the earth together to break bread.

And it's a good feast. Isaiah goes into a bit of detail on the quality of the food and drink: “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” This is not a microwaved burgers from the convenience store. This is a proper banquet.

What lets us know this is the afterlife is that it says, “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.” The imagery is interesting. There is a shroud over all humanity, a veil for mourning. It is death, which swallows up all life. But the God of Life will swallow up death. Death shall die.

But as we know, death and destruction has an after-effect: grief. And God will take care of that as well. Isaiah writes, “Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces...” What a touching image! God taking every face in his hands, cupping the chin and with his other hand tenderly wiping away the tears.

He will also wipe away “the disgrace of his people.....” Isaiah is probably thinking of the disgrace of the Hebrews at being a conquered nation and a disobedient one as well. But that is past. God will take it away as he will any disgrace of us, his people through Christ. Our disgrace at not living up to his command to love others. Our disgrace for being afraid to tell others the good news about Jesus. Our disgrace for prioritizing minor things over crucial issues like mercy and peace and justice. Because of his grace, our disgrace will also die.

Jesus also speaks of a feast in today's gospel. Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a royal wedding banquet. Wedding celebrations were the most joyous occasions in the lives of people back then. They would go on for a week and offer not only ample good food and wine but also entertainment such as music and songs and dancing and riddles. And a royal wedding would be even grander.

In accordance with the customs of the time, the king sends two invitations: one inviting people to the wedding and a second one when everything is ready. But the king's invited guests don't respond as they should. Instead of coming to the wedding celebration, they go about their business. In fact, looking at their violent reaction in regards to the king's heralds, they seem to be rebels. Perhaps they don't wish to acknowledge the king's son and heir by coming to his wedding. That and their ruthless behavior explains the king's subsequent actions.

Because those invited rebelled, they are not worthy. So the king decides to invite anyone his slaves can find, both good and bad, Jesus says. He is giving us a picture of God's grace. We all need it to enter God's kingdom, even if in the eyes of the world we seem good or bad. God's gift is available to all. You just have to accept it.

Which leads to the odd coda of this parable. The king has just brought ordinary people of every type into his banquet. Yet he asks one guy why he is not wearing a wedding robe. This confuses us but it wouldn't have done so for Jesus' original audience. Rich people often provided robes for the guests. So this guy has no excuse for not wearing one. Is he another rebel? If so, why is he there? Well, he isn't for long. He is thrown out and the celebration goes on without him.

Some commentators think the robe represents God's righteousness, which he gives to us because we can't provide our own. I think it could also be God's Spirit, because by refusing the free robe this guy really isn't getting into the spirit of the thing. It's like refusing to wear the party hat at a birthday or not wearing a costume to a Halloween party.

And there are people who want to go to heaven but aren't really in sync with the spirit of the place. Antisemites won't like it because there are going to be a lot of Jews there. White supremacists won't like the fact that people from every race and nation will be there. Self-righteous people will be appalled at all the sinners there. People who think only their denomination will make it will be upset by all the Calvinists, non-Calvinists, Pentecostals, Premillennial Tribulationists, Postmillennialists, Amillennialists, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, snake handlers, Plymouth Brethren, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, holy rollers, and even Lutherans and Episcopalians there. Heaven will be full of least in the eyes of others. Only those who understand the radical nature of God's grace will not be offended.

In the last of the Narnia Chronicles we see the end of that world. Everyone goes through a humble stable into the new creation, the real Narnia of which the other was a pale imitation. But one group of dwarves will not let their expectations be shattered. They are convinced that they are still in the dark, smelly stable. Even when offered the finest food by Aslan himself they think they are being fed wretched, rotten food. As Aslan says, “All will get what they want; they will not all like it though.” Perhaps hell is getting what you want when what you want is something other than or less than Jesus himself. Hell is seeking good things divorced from the source of all goodness.

For those who put all their trust and hope in Christ, what you get is union with him, an intimate relationship, roughly analogous to a marriage to the most loving, forgiving, faithful person you can imagine. Actually, even more than you can imagine. God is infinite and creative. We will never get to his limits.

And it will feel like the best party ever with all kinds of different and interesting people there. Who will turn out to be members of your family in Christ. As I've said, they will be a motley crew, with very disparate lives and quite different stories of how they came to be there but all of them will have one thing in common: all of them were found by God and all of them began the journey to become people who love God and love others as Jesus loves.

You know how when you are having a good time or reading a good story you never want it to end? The wedding feast which is heaven never will. All of the folks at the party with all of their gifts and talents will be offering songs and dances and riddles and feats of skill and marvelous tales and works of art and poetry and clever jokes and fascinating reports and amazing demonstrations of all the wondrous things that scientists and explorers have discovered in God's creation. All of the beautiful and incredible things people can dream up will be offered up to God and shared with all his beloved.

I don't know where cartoonists got their idea of heaven: clouds and wings and halos and harps and tedium. Because the Bible says it will be one long party. It will be a neverending festival of love and joy and life. Death will be no more, neither weeping nor sorrow nor pain. And if that isn't a reason to celebrate, I don't know what is.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Commandment Everyone Knows

The scriptures referred to are Exodus 20:1-20.

If you want to win a bar bet ask someone what's the very first commandment God gives humanity in the Bible. It's right there in the first chapter of Genesis. Give up?

In Genesis 1:28, God says to the first humans, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” Not only is it the first commandment God gives us, it is the only one we have wholeheartedly obeyed.

Now some people might have thought it was the commandment about the forbidden fruit but that comes later, in Genesis chapter 2. Another popular guess would be “Thou shalt not kill.” That doesn't come in that exact form until today's reading from Exodus 20. But it is anticipated in another part of the previous book.

In Genesis 6:11, we get the reason for the great flood. It says, “Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and was full of violence.” The Hebrew word usually rendered “corrupt” is more accurately translated as “destroyed” or “decayed.” Everett Fox captures it perfectly by translating it as “ruined.” The paradise God has created has been ruined by men's violence. So he decides to start over with Noah.

In Genesis 9 after the flood, God makes a covenant with Noah. The first part echoes the first commandment: “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” God is giving life a second chance. But there is a corollary to this command. In verse 6 God says, “Whoever now sheds human blood, for that human shall his blood be shed, for in God's image he made humankind.” (The Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox) Why is murder wrong? Because we are created in the image of God. Therefore humans have an inherent worth. Killing a human being is symbolically killing God.

And lest you think that is a quaint Old Testament idea, Jesus recapitulates it in Matthew 25:31-46. In his parable of the last judgment, the principle used to judge people is how they treat others, specifically those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned or immigrants. The reason is that the poor, needy and disenfranchised are to be considered Jesus' siblings and whatever we do or do not do to them, we are doing or not doing to Jesus himself. How we treat human beings, created in the image of God, is how we treat God.

That brings us to the sixth of the Ten Commandments. All modern translations properly render it “You shall not murder.” Literally the Hebrew word describes dashing something to pieces. So the commandment is prohibiting the deliberate destroying of a life. I don't have time to get into issues of war or capital punishment now. We can agree that God forbids any private person taking the law into his own hands and murdering another human being. That is the plain sense of this command.

And indeed the Torah, the law of Moses, recognizes the difference between manslaughter and homicide. In Exodus 21, just one chapter after the Ten Commandments, the law sets up sanctuaries for people to flee to should they unintentionally kill someone and the deceased's relatives are out to avenge him or her. But that protection does not exist for the person who schemes and kills another person deliberately. (Exodus 21:12-14) Premeditation makes it murder.

The Bible also recognizes complicity. Knowing that someone is doing, has done or is about to do something wrong and either not trying to stop the person or not telling someone in authority about it is complicity in whatever evil they do. In modern law you can be charged as an accomplice. Even if you only find out about the person's unlawful act afterwards and help cover it up, or simply keep quiet about it, you can be charged as an accomplice after the fact. It's not an excuse to say, “I didn't actually do it myself.”

In Ezekiel 33, the principle of complicity is laid out for the prophet in terms of a watchman assigned to stand on the wall of the fortified city and blow the trumpet if he sees an army approaching to attack. “Son of man, I have made you watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to the wicked, 'O wicked man, you will surely die,' and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sins, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does no do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.” (Ezekiel 33:7-9)

Just as you should not be an active accomplice to a person who does wrong, (Proverbs 29:24) neither should you be a passive one, knowing full well what they are doing and not either trying to dissuade them or tell those in authority so they can stop them. (Psalm 50:18) This is especially true of complicity in murder. (Acts 7:57-8:1)

This is all very well, but what is my point? Surely, no one here is in favor of murder. But are we complicit in it?

Leviticus 19:16 says, “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor's life.” This is not talking about murder so much as what modern law would call criminal negligence: failing to do something about a situation you know about which is a danger to others. This could mean not fixing a stair that was obviously about to give way or taking care of a dead tree that could fall on your neighbor's house or not fencing in or otherwise restraining a dangerous animal (in Exodus 21 the example used is an ox that is known to gore people). To know about such a situation but to do nothing to warn or protect others would be negligent. And if the danger was in the form of someone who could do intentional harm to himself or others, you would be in God's eyes complicit in that harm.

For instance, let's say you knew that your neighbor had a gun that he just left lying around. You probably would not let your child or grandchild go over to his house, because you would not want your child to shoot himself or anyone else. You may or may not know that on average 5790 children in the U.S. are treated for gun-related injuries, nor that 1300 children die from gun shot wounds each year, nor that shootings are the third leading cause of death for U.S. children. And it really doesn't matter that 21% of these are unintentional. The fact is that guns are dangerous and should not be left where kids can find and touch them.

Now let's make it trickier. You won't let your child or grandchild go over to your careless neighbor's house. But what if he has children? Shouldn't you talk to him about locking his gun up for the sake of his own children? Kids playing with guns not only kill themselves but often kill their siblings and even parents. Toddlers—kids under 5, with 3 year olds the most common shooters and victims—killed more than 50 people last year alone.

And what about letting those children come over to your house and play with your children or grandchildren? How do you know they won't bring the gun they found and do what they see on TV every night—aim it and shoot? In a study published in the medical journal Pediatrics, boys accountted for 82% of all child firearm deaths and 84% of all nonfatal firearm injuries treated. So talking with your neighbor is in your interest as well.

Forget about kids for a second. Let's say this same neighbor is depressed. He tells you he feels that he is a burden to others, he has no reason to live, he feels trapped in his situation and sees no way out. You know he is not sleeping much or sleeping way too much. He has withdrawn from activities he used to enjoy and is isolating himself from friends and family. His drinking or drug use has increased. You know he has just had a major loss in his life: his job, the death of a loved one, or a divorce. You may or may not know that having a gun in the house increases the likelihood of suicide by a factor of 3 to 5 and increases the risk of suicide with a firearm by a factor of 17. You may or may not know that 2/3s of all gun deaths are not homicides but suicides. All you know is your neighbor is feeling hopeless and helpless and he has a gun. Shouldn't you talk him into letting you or someone he trusts take the gun while he gets some help for his depression? I know of veterans who had a friend with PTSD and removed the guns from their fellow veteran's home to prevent him from becoming one of the 20 veterans who kill themselves every day! That is doing something to reduce the danger to your neighbor.

Guns were invented, not for sport or for hunting but for war. They were designed to kill at a distance. Modern rifles have a range of more than 1000 feet. Modern guns can fire many more rounds than the guns that were used at the time of the Revolutionary War. A semi-automatic can fire at about 45 to 60 rounds a minute. An automatic rifle can fire 600 to 900 rounds a minute. Using a bump fire stock, as the Las Vegas shooter had, can get a semi-automatic's rate of fire up to almost that of an automatic weapon. Keeping that rate up can, however, overheat the barrel which may explain why the shooter had 23 weapons in his room. He had to switch them out to keep shooting for almost 11 minutes. (By the way rapid fire automatic and semi-automatic guns were created because the average soldier is not a good shot. All they have to do is spray an area with little regard to accuracy. Which explains why the shooter, while hitting almost 600 people, only killed a tenth of that number. Automatic and semi-automatic weapons are not for marksmen. Or hunters. They are for war. Period.)

Another way to make sure you don't endanger a neighbor is to improve the conditions in the neighborhood. If you had a street corner where a lot of people were getting hit or run over, you would get the authorities to put a stop sign there. Or a stop light. If people were driving down your street too fast you would get speed bumps put in. Yes, it would inconvenience you when you drive but it would make things safer for everyone. And it wouldn't mean you couldn't drive.

Traffic laws and stop signs don't stop all bad driving. You only have to drive US-1 to realize that. But they are observed by most people. And they give the police an objective standard to use and a law with which to pull over and charge speeders and reckless drivers.

There are similar things we can do to to make our neighbors safer. We can contact the authorities and get things like universal background checks for all gun purchasers, a move favored by 92% of gun owners. We can continue to require training for those who want a conceal carry permit, the way we require a driver to know how to use a vehicle and to know the relevant laws. We can require that guns be secured and not easily accessable to children. We can make it illegal to own something that makes a semi-automatic fire 10 times faster. We can make common sense rules that prevent people who shouldn't have access to a weapon of war (children, the mentally ill, criminals and terrorists on the no-fly list) from easily getting one—or 23.

Will this disarm law-abiding gun owners? No. Will it inconvenience them? Yes, the same way it inconveniences me not to be able to drive 70 miles per hour on US-1 even if there is no one on the road at 1 A.M. when I am leaving the jail. But I realize I live in a community and the only way a community can work is if everyone makes some sacrifices. Only small children think they should they should be able to do whatever they want however they want to do it. Grown ups understand about compromise and making concessions for the greater good.

Will these things stop all gun deaths? Of course not. Traffic laws and street signs don't stop all bad driving. But it can reduce the problem. Most people will obey the laws. Many of those who don't respect laws nevertheless will not exert themselves if it is very hard to circumvent the law. And it can make it that much harder for a person to harm and kill hundreds of people in a matter of minutes and by extension traumatize thousands of their mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, coworkers and fellow church members.

Back to Genesis. One of the most important questions in history is asked by Cain, a murderer. And he asks it insincerely. But it is still important to think about. When God asks him, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain responds, “Am I my brother's keeper?” That's a bad translation. The Hebrew is literally “Am I my brother's watchman or guardian?” And the answer is obviously, yes. We are supposed to guard our brothers and sisters. We are supposed to watch out for them. We are not supposed to do anything that will endanger them nor are we to ignore situations that could endanger them. We cannot be negligent or complicit. Because if we do nothing, we are not obeying God. We are not loving our neighbors as ourselves.

At the shooting in Las Vegas, no one at that venue with a gun could have saved lives. You know who saved lives? People like Jonathan Smith who is credited with saving 30 people. He took 2 bullets, one in the arm, one in the neck which is still there because doctors say it would be too dangerous to remove. You know who saved his life? Police officer Tom McGrath, who didn't futilely fire at a window a 1000 feet away but dragged Smith off the field and then put his fingers in the wound to stanch the bleeding. Smith considers him a brother. And because the bullet remains in Smith, he is in constant pain. It was the price of saving others.

You know who else suffered to save others? Jesus. His right hand man, Peter, cut off the ear of one of the people who came to arrest Jesus. Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) And then Jesus healed the man whose ear was cut off. (Luke 22:50-51) Even facing a painful death, Jesus was about life and healing. And because of his awful, painful death, and his glorious resurrection, we need not fear death.

Because ultimately it is a question of faith. Do you trust God? Do you trust his son Jesus who died for you? Do you trust him to be there for you at your hour of death? Do you trust his promise of eternal life? Do you trust him enough to step out into this dangerous world, not putting your trust in weapons of war but the armor of God, bringing to all you encounter not pain but comfort, not fear but faith, not death but life?

Sunday, October 1, 2017


You can also hear me preach this sermon on Facebook Live on my page.

The scriptures referred to are Philippians 2:1-13.

Victor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis. While there, he noticed something about his fellow sufferers: those who had a reason to live—their loved ones, their work, their faith—tended to survive; those who didn't were more likely to die. Having a purpose in life is essential to life. If the meaning of life is lost, a person will not last long. But if you have a reason why to live, you can endure any how.

A while back some psychologists realized that their focus was almost entirely negative. They were primarily cataloging mental illnesses and studying all the ways that people's mind went wrong; they were not really thinking about the elements that made up good mental health nor the skills it takes to achieve and maintain a good balance mentally. But now they have a great deal of data about the factors that make up happiness. And they have studied resilience, the ability to bounce back from a tragedy or disaster. And I think that we could use a little wisdom about that as we rebuild our homes and community.

There are 6 key elements of resilience according to Jurie Rossouw, CEO of RForce: vision, composure, reasoning, tenacity, collaboration and health.

Your vision is your goal, your sense of purpose. A lot of people just drift through life. Those who have a purpose in life show a 23% reduction in mortality, have a 19% reduction in cardiovascular events, like heart attacks, are 44% less likely to have a stroke, are 2 ½ times more likely to be free of dementia, and tend to live longer. As Christians our goal is to know and become more like Christ. (Philippians 3:10-11) As Paul says in today's New Testament reading, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...” Paul then goes on to remind us that while he was equal with God, Christ didn't hesitate to let that go and humble himself, becoming a obedient servant of God, even to the point of dying on the cross for us. Our goal is to embody that self-sacrificial love that we see in Jesus. That is our purpose in life and we must make everything in our life congruent with that. Which means we need to prioritize it above everything and jettison that which gets in the way or detracts from or diverts us from achieving that goal.

Another element of resilience is composure, the ability to regulate your emotions, stay calm and in control. Part of this is not letting yourself be overwhelmed by a negative interpretation of events. Your phone says your insurance company is calling. Do you panic, automatically assuming you will get bad news? Or do you remain neutral, answer and find out what they are actually calling about? The first reaction causes your blood pressure to rise, your cortisol levels to go up and makes you suffer over something that may not come to pass. 1 Peter 5:7 tells us to cast our cares on God because he cares for us. Once again in Philippians 4:6-7 Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

The third element of resilience is reasoning. When people ask me how I can continue to live in a place that has hurricanes, I tell them that they are the only natural disaster that gives you plenty of warning. Earthquakes don't give you much of a warning. Tornadoes give you maybe minutes. With a hurricane, you have a week to prepare. You can see if you are in or on the edge of the cone and on the basis of that, plan your strategy, whether you stay or leave. You have more than enough time to get the water and food and other supplies you will need during and especially afterwards. You can get reservations to a distant hotel or call on far-flung family or friends to stay with. You can find hotels and even shelters that will take pets. A hurricane is something you can anticipate and plan for.

But reasoning doesn't just mean doing what is obvious. Being creative is essential when things are in a state of flux or you don't have what you counted on. You need to be able to think outside the box, to come up with new uses for things that weren't created for that purpose, or go back to an older technique or technology when the current technology fails. On The Takeaway, they were interviewing ham radio operators who can communicate with folks in Puerto Rico when cell phones or official radio systems were knocked out. One guy said part of their slogan was “Semper Gumby—Always be flexible.”

Being resilient means being resourceful: having a wide variety of tools in your mental toolbox so that you can handle almost anything you encounter. If there is more than one way to do something, learn each one. If one technique is not working, switch to another. One thing I have found helpful is recognizing that, when dealing with people, the logically correct way to present information to a person or a group or to obtain it from them is not always the psychologically correct way to do it. Most people are not Mr. Spock or Sherlock Holmes. They can't turn off their emotions. In fact, science has shown that people with damage to the areas of the brain that make us emotional make worse decisions than those with emotions. You have to take the whole person into account. To motivate someone, you need to know not only their actual needs but their desires and fears as well.

In the Bible, this is called wisdom. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” says Proverbs 9:10. Some people don't like the idea of fearing the Lord. Then think of it as having a healthy respect for God, the same way a wise sailor has a healthy respect for the wind and the sea. He doesn't avoid them but he takes them into account in all he does because they are greater and more powerful than he. We need to take God into account in what we do, especially when it comes to how we treat everyone who was made in his image and for whom his son died.

Tenacity is the 4th key element of resilience, according to Rossouw. If you are going to bounce back after disaster strikes, you need to be persistent. If you give up, then and only then have you been defeated. Jesus preached tenacity in prayer. (Luke 18:1-8) “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be open to you.” (Luke 11:9) Paul spoke of perseverance in the Christian life. In Philippians 3:13-14 he wrote, “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: Forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, with this goal in mind I strive forward toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

And being persistent doesn't always mean doing the same thing over and over. Perseverance can also mean trying a lot of different things. Tenacity and flexibility are not opposites.

It also means learning from your mistakes. Learning what doesn't work is valuable too.

Which means you may have to change or modify your objective, if not your ultimate goal. Don't cling to unrealistic expectations. If you have to rebuild, your new home is unlikely to look exactly as your old home did. I would like to walk as I did before my accident. I may never achieve that. But I can always endeavor to walk a bit better than I have been. Sometimes the least naive aspiration is to simply do better. You may never sing like Bryn Terfel or Renee Fleming but you can sing better than you did. A little improvement is better than stagnation or regression. Don't let the best become the enemy of what is better. Momentous change is often the result of a lot of little changes and gradual progress.

The fifth element of resilience is collaboration. There is no such thing as the self-made man. No one has raised themselves from infancy. No one gets ahead without help in the form of family, friends, teachers, mentors, supporters, advisers and collaborators. Smart people know this, acknowledge their debt to others and in turn, support others in their efforts to do well and do good. As it says in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, “Two people are better than one, because they can reap more benefit from their labor. For if they fall, one will help his companion up, but pity the person who falls down and has no one to help him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together, they can keep each other warm, but how can one person keep warm by himself? Although an assailant may overpower one person, two can withstand him. Moreover, a three-stranded cord is not easily broken.”

Thank God that the Veterans of South Florida and Episcopalians and Lutherans and many others have called me offering help. I don't think we could have done this if we were all on our own. God is love and we are created in the image of God which means we are most like God when we are acting together in love.

Finally, the last element and most vital part of resilience is health. We need to take care of our needs or we will cease to function like a car will without gas or oil or regular maintenance. We need to eat nutritiously, sleep well and long enough and get regular exercise. No surprises here. But we often neglect the essentials. Well, with the stores open and all the food people have donated, it is easy once again to eat well. And right now, everyday life is giving us all quite a workout. What's hard is being able to take a rest.

And quite frankly, it can be hard to get to sleep or stay asleep right now. Worries and fears and pain and sorrow and discomfort can make it difficult for the mind to calm itself enough and the body to relax enough for sleep. Psalm 127:2 says, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” Psalm 3:5 says, “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.” Psalm 4:8 says, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” Knowing God is there for you and in control can help you sleep.

Ever since my accident I have made it my practice to pray myself to sleep. I pray for everyone and everything I can. And it helps to list all the things you are grateful for, at least 3 to 5 each night, whether large or small. In the midst of so much that is wrong, we need to consciously bring to mind the things that are right with us. You are alive. You are able to hear (or read) and understand my words. You are able to pray. You know people who love and support you. Maybe the weather was good today for what you had to do, or someone was nice to you, or you learned something useful, or something made you laugh, or a good memory rose up and made you smile. Thank God for every little blessing.

Paul was imprisoned often, beaten 3 times with a rod, whipped 5 times, stoned almost to death, endured 3 shipwrecks and was tormented by some affliction, either spiritual or physical, which he called a “thorn in the flesh.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-12:10) And yet he was able to write from prison that “I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing. I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:12-13)

Tragedy and disaster figure into every life. If we don't wish to be permanently broken, if we want to come back and keep going forward, we need a vision of the God of love seen in Jesus and the goal of becoming like him. We must learn to stay calm, use our heads, be persistent, collaborate with others, and maintain our physical and spiritual health.

And don't think that being resilient means you never cry or get stressed out or feel sad. Jesus did all of those things. Being resilient is about bouncing back. A ball can't bounce back if it doesn't hit bottom or run into a brick wall.

Those are the 6 elements of resilience that Rossouw enumerates. I want to add one more: a sense of humor. Isaac Asimov thought that jokes rely on a sudden shift in our perspective. A seemingly serious question is answered by a silly pun. A child's viewpoint punctures the pretensions of adults or upends the traditional way of looking at something. Or you suddenly see something you've taken for granted in such an odd way that you laugh. Contrary to what some puritanical types think, the Bible approves of laughter. Proverbs 17:22 tells us that a merry heart is good medicine. Isaac's name means laughter. The psalms often depict God as laughing. Jesus frequently uses ridiculous pictures in his parables such as people walking around with beams of wood in their eyes, camels trying to squeeze through the eyes of sewing needles and hypocrites removing gnats from their drinks and then swallowing camels. These are so familiar we forget how the first people who heard them must have reacted. And in Luke 6:21, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.”

Because the history of the world is a comedy, in the classic sense that it has a happy ending coming up. Say that and the world's serious thinkers will think you are absurd. In fact it is the world which is absurd. Its values are topsy-turvy, treasuring temporary things like money and possessions above eternal things like people. The serious thinkers can't see the comedy because unlike us, they either don't know the ending or don't believe it will happen. And indeed, most comedies look like tragedies if you walk out before the end. Usually in comedies things get worse and worse for the hero until the end where he manages to suddenly pull it all together, triumph and get what he has wanted and worked for all along. God wants the world that he created as a paradise be set right again. One day God will flip the present status quo, the last will be first, the first will be last, evil will be defeated, good will be rewarded, a prince will marry his lovely bride and it will all end in a glorious wedding feast. (I think the fairy tales cribbed their imagery from Revelation.)

Jesus told us things would get better if we held out till the end. To do that you need resilience. For that you need Jesus. He turned the worst thing in the world into the best thing for the world. He bounced back from betrayal, torture and death. With his help we can bounce back from anything. Even this.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

More Than Words

I'm not going to preach you a really good sermon today.

A really good sermon requires time for reflection. You need to read and meditate on the scriptures for that Sunday or holy day. You need to research anything you are going to assert, whether from the Bible or from the news or science. And then you want to be precise in not only what you say but how you say it. Just the writing of a really good sermon takes hours. It takes me an average of one hour of writing time for every minute of preaching time, so about 15 hours. That doesn't include the reflection and research or the rewrites which sometime go up to the last minute. Believe me, you do not want me to just wing it. So I take a lot of time crafting what I share with you each week. It is my unique contribution to our worship. Anyone can read out of a book.

But this is not one of those well-crafted sermons. I literally have had no time to think about anything but hurricane recovery this week. Oh, and car repair. I have been on my phone texting council members, vestry members, veterans, firefighters, the bishop, my colleagues, my wife and kids. Every morning since Irma passed, I have been participating in a conference call with the bishop and other Episcopal clergy, finding out how everyone is, how everyone's house fared, how everyone's church did and what help is being offered. Wednesday I had to leave that call early in order to catch the monthly conference call for interim Lutheran clergy. I have been talking with 2 insurance companies, one for my house and one for St. Francis. I have sat down twice with representatives of Citizens about the windstorm damage, once for Lord of the seas and once for my house. Only to find out that my home insurance was handed off to another company without my knowledge, nor apparently that of my mortgage holder! While I was talking with the Citizens rep, I got a call from some firefighters from Margate Coconut Creek with supplies that they wanted to drop off at the church—in 20 minutes! At that time we had nothing so I said “Yes.” Then, while stilll with the Citizens rep, I got a call from Citizens about the church. I thought I had time traveled somehow. It turns out Stacey, who was before me on her computer, had finished with the church and was now working on the claim for the parsonage. As soon as she sent the church claim by internet, the phone rep received it and called me. In addition I was fielding calls from Church Insurance about St. Francis, the people who are supposed to oversee its drying out, the subcontractor actually doing the drying out, and the representative of that company coming out to see the property.

At night I have been too exhausted to look at the lectionary. I have gone to whatever place we were sleeping that night. At first our house had no electricity and we need that for medical reasons. Now it has power but no AC. So thank you to Charlotte Roberts and Peggy Jent for putting us up and putting up with us. And thank you to the linemen who got power to Lord of the Seas because we slept in my air-conditioned office here one night on an inflatable bed.

And I don't expect sympathy. I know you have had it just as bad if not worse. Some stayed during the storm and then endured days of having no power or water or gas or 911 or anyone to help you dig your way out of the tangled trees and debris. Many lost their homes. Some, 14 at last count, lost their lives. I have been relatively fortunate and I humbly acknowledge that.

So I haven't really looked at the scriptures for today and I have nothing to say about them. But quite frankly, they have nothing to say about these last 2 weeks, at least not directly.

But Jesus did more than preach the gospel with his lips. He lived it. His actions spoke as loudly as his words about God's love and mercy and power. And I have seen that as well in the actions of people this week.

There are the Veterans of South Florida, headquartered under our church building at present, who called me and took addresses of elderly and disabled Keys residents needing help clearing their properties. There are the other vets, that is, veterinarians who came in with them to attend to injured pets and wildlife. There are the firefighters who came all the way from Margate with literally a ton of water, as well as diapers for all ages, cleaning supplies, pet food, people food and more, to which we added all the supplies that the vets brought. There is One World One Canvas who brought school supplies. There is the Rotary, represented by Sandy Higgs, who coordinated with the vets. There are the police from Palm Beach, Homestead and other jurisdictions who patrolled our streets after the disaster. There are Monroe County Sheriff's Deputies and other first responders who stayed during the storm. There are the folks who stayed in the Emergency Operations Center during the storm and afterward to coordinate the official efforts to keep people safe, get the streets cleared, get the disaster workers in and more. There are the members of the Disaster Mortuary Teams, going door to door and using dogs to recover the bodies of those who stayed and didn't make it. There are the military troops who came in to bring relief and order to the Keys just days after Irma. There is FEMA—don't scoff—trying to process all the requests for aid as fast as humanly possible. There are the medical personnel who got the Key West ER up and running, and opened up Mariners, and who set up a field hospital in Marathon when Fishermen's couldn't open in time. There are the elected officials doing everything they could to make the Keys as safe and habitable as possible before opening the Keys up to returning evacuees and who took a lot of flack for not doing that incredibly difficult task fast enough to suit those who have no idea what is involved. There are the church groups—the Baptist Men's group from North Carolina, the Salvation Army, the LDS, the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida and our sister churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Florida and the Bahamas—who sent people, supplies and money to help.

I am sure that I have probably missed some groups and people for which I am truly sorry.

As disciples, Jesus said we must take up our cross and follow him. Jesus didn't carry his cross for himself but for us. Our cross is not our personal problems but the burdens of others we take up for them. We could say, “I don't know you. I don't owe you anything.” Yet instead we say, “Let me help you with that. Take my hand. Let me help you up. Let me make things better.” Paul said, “Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

I have been through more hurricanes than I care to remember but I have never seen such a response as this. I am amazed at how fast and how well people came together and the outpouring of love in action I have seen. And I want to end with something an emergency worker said to me this week: “With all the problems in the world, why can't we always be like this?”