Monday, March 20, 2017

Following Jesus: Worship

In Aldous Huxley's satire of the future, Brave New World, he envisions a utopia where time is measured not from the birth of our Lord but from Henry Ford. Science and hedonism rule everything and there is no religion but there are community sings where people get together. They seem to be a substitute for worship and indeed there is a character called the Arch-Community Songster of Canterbury. And just as Huxley's novel has foreshadowed scientific and social trends on the current world, so he has with a movement to have atheists and agnostics meet on Sundays to “hear great talks, sing songs, and generally celebrate the wonder of life.” (link here) Such services are being held in Houston and London where they plan to build an atheist temple. The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar of All Souls Unitarian Church says he provides such services for secularists and humanists “who have the same human needs for community, compassion, meaning and marking the significant passages of birth, coming of age, marriage and death.”

As I've shown before, there is a lot of scientific evidence that faith in God is beneficial to the physical and mental health of individuals, as well as society. A recent scientific study showed that religion was necessary for the smooth transition of a community from hunter-gatherers to an agricultural settlement. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar of Oxford has found that religion allows us to bond with many more people than our brain size would normally allow. Religion also involves emotional storytelling, singing, repetitive movement and often dancing, all of which, Dunbar's research shows, trigger the release of endorphins and facilitates social bonding. People who worship science often have a problem with religion but now some are acknowledging the data, believing however that it is the community activity rather than the content that is essential. But there is no denying that humanity has a need to worship. The oldest song we have found is a hymn to the wife of the moon god. After graves, the oldest buildings in the world are temples. And, by the way, the graves of Neanderthals show evidence of ritual as much as 50,000 years ago.

It seems we cannot help but worship. And this makes sense since children naturally believe in God, in an unseen agent who acts upon the world and gives things purpose and meaning. Studies have shown that you cannot disabuse them of the notion until around the age of twelve. And so as far back in history as you can go you find people worshipping God.

We said in our sermon on prayer that praising God is more for our benefit that his. And sure enough, scientists have found that regular church attendance (the only way they can measure religious faith) is associated with lower levels of stress, lower blood pressure, lower levels of inflammation, increased levels of dopamine and a boost in the immune system.

But what are the spiritual benefits of worshiping God?

Worship is a contraction of “worthship.” You are ascribing worth to someone or something. People grow to become like what they worship. We see what happens to people who worship money or might or celebrity or themselves. Worshipping such idols, things that are not worth ultimate allegiance, deforms a person spiritually and morally. A new study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that one of the surprising facts uncovered by the recent election is a growing number of conservatives who call themselves evangelicals but don't actually go to church. These unchurched “evangelicals” are less hostile towards gays but more hostile toward blacks, Latinos and Muslims. Some researchers opine that the admittedly limited integration in churches might counteract that tendency in people who do attend regularly. But, according to the Atlantic article by Peter Beinart, “In their book, Religion and Politics in the United States, Kenneth D. Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown reference a different theory: that the most-committed members of a church are more likely than those who are casually involved to let its message of universal love erode their prejudices. Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion, and emphasizing race and nation.” When you remove God as your ultimate value then something else will fill that power vacuum, and things like politics and race are very strong candidates.

Bob Dylan sang, “You gotta serve somebody.” Serving the God who is love is arguably a better thing than the other idols people follow. And coming together to celebrate in word, song and ritual what we find worthy about what God in Christ has done for us is important. We are social beings and we love to get together and rejoice over the things we love. Folks flock to attend concerts by their favorite bands, rallies for politicians they support, pop culture events they enjoy like Star Trek or Doctor Who conventions. Why should we not gather to proclaim our love for the gracious God who is revealed in the words and actions of Jesus?

Worship involves 3 main elements: prayer, proclamation and praise. Prayer we discussed in the first of this sermon series. In communal worship we pray together. That of necessity widens what we pray about and how. Instead of us merely thinking about ourselves and those we love, corporate prayer takes into account our world, our nation, the universal church, and the concerns of races, genders and groups other than our own. It's real easy to say God loves all people but when I am praying with and for other people it brings the point home in a way my personal prayers rarely do. In community prayer I must seek and find the image of God in folks of another race or gender or ethnic group or religion. I must remember that what I do to others I do to Jesus. Praying in a group takes me out of myself and puts me in touch with the God whose concerns are much bigger than I usually think about.

Proclamation of God's word is vital in that it puts before me ideas and ideals that I subscribe to but often take for granted. I need to be reminded of them so they don't go dormant in my thoughts, words and actions. In addition, I hope to learn something new about them or see them from another perspective. And even if I think the preacher is wrong, I must grapple with why I feel that way, how did he come to those conclusions and is my reasoning solid and complete or have I missed something. Anything that deepens my grasp of my core beliefs and values, anything that throws them in a new light, every useful insight is important.

In a world that contradicts and often mocks what I see as the essential spiritual truths about life, it is good to meet with others who see these things as invaluable as well. And it is good to praise what we see is good and helpful and wise and restorative. And it is good to do so using all the gifts God has given us: music, art, poetry, movement and more.

Now you may think that worship is best when it is done as well as it possibly can be. And while I think we all need to do our best when praising God, I don't think that means that we need to beat up on ourselves when we don't come off as smooth and as professional as bigger churches with paid worship leaders and bands. I am heartened to see people doing their best even if it wouldn't pass muster with the folks that produce shows for TV or Broadway. If someone doesn't quite have the range of a trained singer, doesn't read the lectionary as smoothly as Morgan Freeman would, doesn't move as gracefully as a dancer, that's OK. I don't do everything perfectly either. I'm sure God enjoys our attempts to praise him the way we enjoy seeing our children sing and perform for us. The love and effort is what is important. We are not professionals but people doing what we can to praise the God who gave us gifts, both great and small, and we are grateful for them. And we want to show that gratitude.

Worship is ultimately about gratitude. Our word for communion, Eucharist, is just Greek for “thanksgiving.” In our service we thank God for creating the world and us and for acting in the world to redeem us, climaxing in what God has done in Jesus Christ, our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord. We read from the Hebrew Bible, from the psalms, from the New Testament and from one of the gospels every Sunday. We listen to an explication of the written Word of God and/or meditation on the living Word of God. We sing about God's mighty acts. We confess our sins and hear God's promise of forgiveness. We come together as the body of Christ to share the Body and Blood of Christ. We are sent out into the world to proclaim the gospel with our lips and our lives. And it is all done in a spirit of gratitude for God's love and mercy.

Worship is not all that we as a church do but it is a vital part of what we do. Humans have a need to worship something and we direct that need towards the only thing worth worshipping: the God who is not an aloof creator but one who, when his creatures were in distress, entered into his creation, lived and died as one of us, rose from the dead and who also lives in each of his as his Spirit transforming us into the image of the God who is love, who is light, who is life, and who deserves our praise and gratitude and service.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Following Jesus: Community

We honor people like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Francis of Assisi, and Martin Luther himself, for changing the world. And if it hadn't been for them, these changes would not have happened or at least not in the way it did. But if a community hadn't formed around them, those changes also wouldn't have happened. There are other people, whom you probably haven't heard much about, like Floridian civil rights crusader Harry T. Moore, or Gopal Krishna Gokhale who worked for self-rule in India, or Arnold of Brecia, a 12th century monk who preached apostolic poverty before St. Francis and is considered a precursor to the Protestant Reformation. They also had potentially world-changing ideas but they didn't achieve as much success. These people become footnotes to history. Maybe the time wasn't right or they weren't able to convince enough people. A person changes the world by changing other people. Attracting a certain critical mass of supporters has a multiplier effect.

And the same is true of Jesus. Had people not flocked to him he would be as obscure as Simon of Peraea, a slave of Herod the Great, or Athronges, a shepherd, both of them messiah-wannabes. And in fact, like those others, Jesus was killed by the authorities. His place in the world's memory would have faded as well had it not been for his followers. Instead of either going back to their old lives or switching allegience to the next would-be messiah, they stayed together and attracted more and more followers. This is directly tied to the fact that they had seen and proclaimed a risen Christ, a fact that destroyed their fear of death. Historians are at a loss to explain the survival of the Jesus movement beyond his death without the resurrection.

And just as Jesus foresaw his own death and resurrection, he foresaw the church, the continuation of his mission to establish and extend God's royal reign. Everything that is true of the Kingdom of God should be true of the church because it is to be the community of those who are redeemed by Jesus. It is the body of Christ. In it we should see people following Jesus and becoming more Christlike.

This might seem like a digression but stick with me. When Walt Disney conceived of EPCOT, it was not supposed to be what it has become. EPCOT stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It was to be an actual city of about 20,000 residents with businesses in the center and concentric rings of community buildings, recreational complexes, schools and residential areas radiating out. As Walt put it, “It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.” But instead of a model community of the future, we got an amusement park.

And something similar seems to be happening to the church. It's not exactly what Jesus wants it to be. Instead of a community, it is often just a place to meet. Peter Berger accused the church of often meeting just to make noise! That's harsh. There is content to our meetings: we pray, we study the Bible, we praise God in spoken word, song and music, and we share the Eucharist. We also meet to engage in activities for the good of the church and sometimes for the good of the outside world. But the real question is do we actually come together as a community?

According to Wikipedia, a community is a social unit of people who have something in common or who share common values. It also defines a community as “a group of people whose identity as a group lies in their interaction and sharing.” By those definitions we are a certain kind of community. What we have in common is a belief in Jesus as God's son, our Lord and Savior, and we share the values he embodied and espoused. In that sense we function as a community that shares a common interest or passion. But just as Walt Disney wanted EPCOT to be more than a new and improved Tomorrowland, Jesus wants us to be more than just his fan club. He wants us to be a community of action, one that works to spread not only knowledge of him but to put his teachings into action. In the Great Commission he told us to make disciples in all nations, to baptize them and to teach them to observe all that he has commanded us. (Matt 28:19, 20; emphasis mine) In other words, don't just tell but show.

What are the rules by which this community should live? Jesus supports the moral commands of the Old Testament, especially the 10 Commandments, but he expands and deepens their scope, as we see in the Sermon on the Mount. Thus it is not enough to refrain from murder; you must also refrain from rage and insults. It is not enough to refrain from adultery; you must also refrain from indulging in lustful contemplation of someone who is not your spouse. It is not enough to keep your oaths; you should not make oaths at all but simply do what you say you will.

Jesus tells us to do the reverse of our natural responses. Rather than taking revenge, we should absorb injustices against us. Rather than hate our enemies, we should love them. And when we do good, like giving to the needy, praying, or fasting, we should not make them public spectacles but keep them between ourselves and God. We are not to worry nor to pass judgment on others; we are to trust God to take care of our needs and leave all final judgment to him. We are to concentrate on working on our own flaws.

Jesus also holds to an ethical hierarchy which puts the commands to love God with all we are and have and to love our neighbor as we do ourselves above all other moral demands. Not only do these 2 commandments supercede all others, all ethical rules should derive from them.

As for new commands, Jesus really only gives us one: to love one another as he loves us. In other words, act in self-sacrificial love towards others.

Jesus even gave us two ethical rules of thumb to help us in situations where there may not be a specific command. The first is the Golden Rule: treat others as we would like to be treated. Nearly every religion has some form of this. And the second is to see Jesus in others and treat them as if they were Jesus: feeding the hungry, clothing the threadbare, quenching the thirsty, welcoming the foreigner, visiting the sick and the imprisoned. What we do or neglect to do to them we do or neglect to do to Jesus.

As his followers, we should emulate our Lord. Jesus helped all who came to him, even if it meant breaking lesser religious rules. And when they didn't come to him but he saw their need, like the man born blind, or the widow at Nain, he proactively helped them. He was thoughtful about others, such as telling the parents of the little girl whom he had just revived to give her something to eat. She had been very sick and could use the nutrition. He did not shun the disreputable, like tax collectors and prostitutes, seeing them as spiritually ill and in need of his healing. Even though Jesus preached against adultery, he saved the life of an adulterous woman whom the law said should be stoned to death. To Jesus the total wellbeing of each person he encountered was paramount.

As his body on earth, we need to exemplify the divine love to which we are called. As new creations in Christ we need to display the new thing that God is doing. The church should be Jesus' experimental prototype community of today. We need to be a community where we not only obey the greatest commandment but the second greatest as well. We need to be a community where there are no insults or anger or sexual harrassment. We need to be people who say what they mean and do what they say. When dealing with those with whom we disagree there should be no retaliation and no hate. We should not indulge in passing judgment on anyone.

And what should we do if there is more than disagreement but actual harm done? In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus gives us an approach to use. First, go to the person whom you feel wronged you privately and try to patch things up. If he won't listen, then try again with 1 or 2 other people as witnesses. Only if the person is still recalcitrant should the matter go before the whole church. Often when we are wronged, we do the opposite. We let everybody know, which makes it harder to approach the person and resolve matters. That's especially true in the age of social media. Often the accused gets piled on before they can get their side of the story out. It's always better to talk with the person one on one first and see if you can't work things out without involving everyone else.

Just as love and forgiveness and peace should reign within the community of Christ, that should be the way we approach the world. Paul tells us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people.” (Romans 12:18) Scripture does not condone presenting a belligerent posture towards non-Christians. There is no place for the hostile in-your-face acts of the Westboro Baptist Church or preachers who call people names or demonize them. It is also counterproductive to spreading the gospel, the good news about the healing, forgiveness and grace offered by God in Christ. As one speaker at a Campus Crusade event I attended pointed out, we should never have an exchange that goes like this: “Hey, have you heard the good news?” “No. What is it?” “You're going to hell.”

That is not good news. We need to remember that God sent his son because he loved the world so much. As followers of Jesus, we must also love the people of this world—all the people. Surveys show that a lot of folks don't go to church because they find it too judgmental or hypocritical. Yet Jesus routinely tops lists of the most admired people in history. Obviously people do not see enough of Jesus in us, his followers.

On the night before he died Jesus said, “Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) There is a lot of hate and anger and fear in the world. Those things are not solving the world's problems but making them worse. And when they fail to make things better we resort to force. It's a cycle we keep going through. And you know what they say about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We need to try something different.

To paraphrase the old Burt Bacharach-Hal David song, “What the world needs now is love—God's love.” Jesus showed us that. As his students and followers, we need to do that too, not only with our lips but in our lives. In Ephesians 5:8-9 Paul says, “ were at one time darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light—for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth....” Light is vital to us. It helps us see where we are going. It reveals what is good and exposes what is bad. It elevates our mood and sunlight is essential in helping our bodies produce vitamin D, which in turn increases our absorption of calcium and phosphorus from food, and plays a key role in our bone growth, immune system and blood cells.

So let us indeed walk as children of the light. Let us reflect the glory of God in all that we think, say and do. Let our church be a model of the love and grace and healing found in Jesus Christ and let us shine our light to guide others to him, the source and goal of all that is good.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Following Jesus: Studying the Bible

During the Sundays in Lent we are looking at 7 essential elements of following Jesus. On Ash Wednesday we spoke of how prayer is just talking with God and is not terribly different from how you should communicate with your spouse. But you should also listen to your spouse, Now, aside from mystics and prophets, not many of us hear God's voice, at least not in an auditory way. My experience is that as I talk to God, his responses form in my head. If I say “Lord, I can't do _____,” the rejoinder “You can with my help” immediately occurs to me. The answers often formulate themselves in my mind as I formulate my questions and objections before God.

What helps is that I have steeped my mind in the written word of God. While I can't always quote chapter and verse I read the Bible enough to have a pretty good idea what it says on various issues and I can Google to find the passage and get the exact wording. But just as my familiarity with Sherlock Holmes would make me suspicious of any story in which he believed in spiritualists and mediums, my familiarity with scripture gives me a pretty good idea of what it does and does not say. Then I check it out to make sure. And occasionally I am wrong, which is why I keep studying it.

In 2013 we did the Bible Challenge, which consisted of reading the whole of scripture in a year. I salute the people who took up the challenge with me and those who read my daily blog posts as I reread the Bible. But you know who puts most Christians to shame? The inmates at the jail. They typically read through the entire volume in 2 to 3 weeks. Of course, they have little else to do. But it is possible for those of us with more demanding schedules to read the Bible in as little as 90 days. And if you take a year, it is easy.

That said, I recommend not only reading but studying the Bible. For one thing, it is not one book but 66, written by roughly 40 authors. It is not just a tome of moral instruction but also of story, history, poetry, parables, legal texts, letters, visions, and a family saga that encompasses love and romance, treachery and tragedy, politics and intrigue, nobility and triumph. And it is also an ancient Near East document written in a couple of Semitic languages as well as Greek, with customs that go back millennia. There are several good Study Bibles out there that will help you understand the whole array of biblical literature.

And if you don't have a study Bible there are websites like and where you can read the Bible in any number of translations and languages and get lots of commentaries to study as well. You can get these sites as free apps as well as the Logos app which gives you access to a whole library of scholarly but readable reference works by Intervarsity Press, and the app which will read the Bible to you in various translations, with music and dramatization if you like. I also like the Touch Bible app which has the easiest navigation for finding a passage or a verse. And on YouTube you can find every Psalm sung in every musical form you can think of.

So there's no excuse not to read and understand the Bible. But I will give you a Cliff Notes tour of the scriptures.

The Bible begins with 5 books that make up the foundation of Judaism. The Torah is Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, a mixture of story, history, moral and legal principles.

Genesis tells us the beginning of humanity's dealings with God, in a form that was readily understandable to those in the Ancient Near East but simple enough to be understood universally today. It tells us that human beings, both male and female, are created in God's image. As such, we are moral agents in the world. It also tells us how we have totally botched up taking care of God's creation and each other, turning a paradise into something like hell on earth. It tells us how God decides to use the descendants of Abraham and Sarah to bless all the peoples of the earth. (Genesis 12:1-3) We follow that family as its members both reflect and fail to exemplify the image of God in mankind. Genesis concludes with the sons of Jacob or Israel moving into Egypt to avoid famine.

In Exodus we find that after hundreds of years in Egypt, the children of Israel have become a slave class. God hears their cry for help and sends Moses to lead them out of Egypt and back to the land he promised to Abraham and his descendants. This climaxes in chapter 20 where God enters into a covenant or agreement with the people of Israel. If they will be his people, he will be their God. The rest of the Torah is the extended version of that contract, plus priest craft and a census, interspersed with the Israelites' wanderings in the wilderness for 40 years. That's where most people get bogged down so I recommend reading a chapter of the New Testament each day as well.

Joshua tells the sometimes harrowing, sometimes rousing story of the Israelites conquering the promised land and its apportionment among the 12 tribes of Israel.

Judges tells how the land fares as a lawless, loose federation of tribes, led occasionally by charismatic individuals called judges.

Ruth is a story of faith and romance about King David's grandparents.

First and Second Samuel cover the transition of Israel to a monarchy and stories of the warrior-king David. First and Second Kings tells the story of his dynasty, the split of the nation into a northern and a southern kingdom and the tale of the rival royal houses until both nations are conquered and taken into exile. The books of First and Second Chronicles recaps Biblical history with special emphasis on the nation of Judah.

Ezra and Nehemiah recount the people's return from exile and their efforts to restore the kingdom of Judah once more.

Esther tells a story of how a Jewish princess in a pagan land saves her people.

After those books of history come the wisdom literature of the Bible. Job recounts the drama of a good man undergoing a terrible ordeal and wrestles with the problem of why bad things happen to good people.

The Psalms are the hymnbook of the Hebrews, covering the whole range of human emotions in relation to God, from sorrow, anger and indignation to compassion, praise and hope.

Proverbs collects the aphorisms of Jewish sages, elevating the concept of wisdom.

Ecclesiastes is a down to earth meditation on life and death and how to live.

Song of Songs is a poetic wedding drama with some surprisingly racy passages on erotic love.

The rest of the Old Testament is the writings of the prophets, often unpopular spokesmen for God, who comment on the current and future states of the northern or southern kingdoms. They offer warnings of judgment as well as promises of restoration, depending on how the people respond to God's call to return to him and to healthy relationships with their neighbors, especially the downtrodden. Some, like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, contain difficult-to-interpret visions of the future. Hosea is an enacted parable of God's love for his adulterous wife of a nation, while Jonah is a parable of God's love and forgiveness for all, even those outside his people. In the prophets we also get glimpses of the Messiah, a promised prophet, priest and king whom God will send to save his people.

The New Testament begins with the gospels, 4 overlapping accounts of Jesus, the Christ or Messiah, whom God sends to liberate all people from their enslavement to sin. From 4 different perspectives, they all tell of his ministry of healing and preaching and of his death on the cross, a shameful form of execution, and of his surprising resurrection. The book of Acts then follows the early years of the church, with special emphasis on the ministries of Peter and Paul.

The next 13 books are letters from Paul to his churches, to his colleagues in ministry and to an important Christian leader over the tricky question of freeing one of his slaves. Paul is an orthodox Jew with an unexpected mission to the Gentiles and his multi-ethnic ministry forces him to deal with issues of diversity and essentials. These letters are the earliest books in the New Testament, predating the gospels by decades.

Hebrews is an early Christian sermon revealing how the Old Testament relates to and foreshadows the New and especially Jesus Christ.

James feels like the New Testament's sole wisdom book, focusing less on theology than on the practical side of demonstrating one's faith in how one lives.

First and Second Peter focus on major problems that the churches were struggling with, including persecution from outside and false teachings from within.

The 3 letters of John continue the themes and heady mystical tone of the gospel of John, emphasizing the importance of love, truth and Jesus, the incarnate God.

Jude is a short book that recaps the prophetic themes of true worship and moral behavior.

Revelation is a prophetic book in the vein of Isaiah and Ezekiel. This book was a message of hope to a persecuted church, assuring Christians that when the worst is over, God will bring peace, healing and wholeness to the world. It is couched in deliberately difficult language to keep the Roman Empire from destroying the book. It starts with 7 letters to churches in various stages of faithfulness and laxity. The central chapters use images from the Old Testament prophets to depict a world in the throes of the final struggle between God and evil. The last two chapters give us a breathtaking portrait of a resurrected and restored paradise on earth where the God of love will live among his people and death and sorrow and pain are no more.

Overall, the Bible tells the epic love story of how God makes a beautiful world which his creatures fill with violence and ugliness and how God starts his long-term plan to win his creatures back. He even enters into his creation as a human being named Jesus (“Yahweh saves”) to take upon himself the consequences and brunt of our evil. He then pours out his Spirit upon those who open themselves to his love and transforms them into the body of Christ, the ongoing embodiment of his grace. The Bible ends with a glorious vision of this kingdom of God on earth and a prayer for Jesus to hasten and consummate God's plan for a new heaven and a new earth in perfect communion with each other.

Once you see the overall plot of the Bible, it is easier to figure out where each book fits in. Even so, it helps to check out reference works whenever you have questions. And you need to pay attention what genre each book is in. The stories in Judges and First and Second Kings read like Game of Thrones, depicting behavior that is sometime worthy of emulation and sometimes emphatically not. In fact, even the so-called heroes of the faith are fallible human beings who sometimes fall way below God's standards. No mere human is perfect. Yet God works through them. We can all relate to that.

In the poetic books, including parts of the prophets' writings, you need to make allowance for hyperbole and metaphor. Jesus uses both. You need to look out for Hebrew idioms and euphemisms. For instance, to “uncover one's feet” is to undress; stranger means foreigner or alien. It helps to compare translations, especially using more literal ones alongside paraphrases. No one translation can capture it all, though the Amplified Bible tries, basically by unleashing a thesaurus on some passages.

A good Bible dictionary can help you keep track of persons, places and things, as well as help you trace certain themes across the various books of the Bible. Commentaries can help you understand individual passages, and pick up on emphases and themes within books. Again you can get both through the Logos Bible app.

As students and followers of Jesus we live at a time when we have unprecedented access to the Bible and a wealth of scholarship. We need to know what scripture does and does not say. We need a deeper understanding of God so that we can cut through all the garbage out there about God, both from his detractors and from misguided and ill-informed supporters. We need to be able to, as 1 John 4:1 says, “test the spirits to see whether they are from God...” As Shakespeare said in The Merchant of Venice, and as Jesus saw in his temptation, “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” So we need to know not only what it says but what it means. We need to know context and nuance and how one verse that seems to make a sweeping generalization is modified by another verse on the same subject.

We also need to acknowledge that the Bible is not primarily a legal treatise, nor is it a science text, seeing as science was invented long after the last book of scripture was written. It is not really interested in how the world is constructed but why. It is about the meaning of creation and our place in it. If it is at all about “how,” it is about how to live a life of love and justice and peace. It is about how much God loves us and how far he will go to save us from self-destruction. It is about how to respond to that love.

The Bible is a portable library full of timeless wisdom and eternal truths. Jesus studied it to the point where he quoted it from the cross. As his students and followers, we need to get into the Bible deeply so we can know the mind of Christ. And we need to put what we learn there into practice.

But where can we do that? We'll talk about that next Sunday.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Following Jesus: Prayer

In my marriage preparation classes, we, of course, deal with the expected issues. Like the importance of love, trust and hope: Nurture those qualities. Like children: How many? Or do you want any? Have you discussed the matter between yourselves? Like adultery: Don't do it. Your marriage may be able to survive adultery—the way you may be able to survive a head-on collision. But I don't recommend it.

What we actually spend a lot of time on is constructive communication. Unless you are both telepathic, you need to learn how to communicate your thoughts and feelings to your spouse and how to listen to your spouse communicate his or her thoughts and feelings. You need to learn how to express yourself in a way that is honest but not inflammatory. You also need to know how to disagree in a healthy way so that you can, as a team, attack problems and not each other. This might seem like common sense but you need to be reminded of certain basic truths from time to time.

This Lent we are going to be talking about 7 elements of following Jesus. They shouldn't surprise you or sound exotic. But they are basic ways of maintaining your relationship with the person we call our God and king.

And the first thing we are going to look at is prayer, which is communicating with God.

Most of us think that prayer is just asking God for stuff. But that would be like thinking you only talk to your spouse or a friend when you need something. Think of how you would feel if the only time someone who supposedly loved you spoke to you was to ask for something. You can't build a good relationship on that alone.

My granddaughter, who is at an age when she needs to ask for things frequently, also discusses things that matter to her with me and sings for me and asks questions and says, “I love you.” That's how we should talk to our heavenly Father.

Nevertheless it's perfectly acceptable to ask God for things. In the Lord's Prayer we say, “Give us today our daily bread...” (Matthew 6:11) So we are encouraged to ask for our needs to be met. Jesus also said, “...I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:13) Which sounds pretty sweeping. The only conditions are to ask (1) in the name of Christ and (2) that it may glorify the Father. Both of those can be taken to mean we should not ask anything contrary to his Spirit or which will do the opposite of glorifying God. Given how self-indulgences by televangelists like million dollar mansions and private planes and gold-plated bathroom fixtures have been occasions for deriding and mocking the gospel, such things fall outside Jesus' promise, as would asking for God to harm others. Again Jesus said, “Is there anyone among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Of if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11) God is not a genie granting us every crazy desire but a loving Father who will not give us what is bad for us no matter how hard we ask.

What else do you talk about with someone you love? The things that concern you. And sometimes you don't want the other person to start brainstorming solutions for you to implement but just listen and empathize. We can do that with God as well. If it is important to your child, it is important to you. And so it is with God. And one of the things that is great about Jesus is that he understands what our lives are like because he is one of us. He worked for a living; he lost a parent; he had problems with his brothers; he was misunderstood; he got tired; he got thirsty; he got sad; he was betrayed by a friend. We can say, “Jesus, I know you know what this situation is like. Help me deal with it.”

Another thing you do with someone you love is tell them that. You compliment them. And you do it to express your love. In fact, it is good to say out loud what we appreciate about the other person, because otherwise, after a while, we take them for granted. And it is good to remind ourselves why we got into this relationship in the first place. It also feels good to praise your spouse or child or parent. So we don't praise God because he needs it. We do it because we need it. We need to remind ourselves of God's good qualities and why we love him.

Another thing you talk about with someone you love is things that anger or upset you about them. Believe it or not, this is OK with God too. The psalms and the prophets have passages where they are honest with God about the problems they are having with him. They say things like “How long will this continue?” regarding God's anger (Psalm 6:3) and “Yes, my spirit was bitter, and my insides felt pain” and other troubling thoughts when seeing the wicked prosper (Psalm 73:21). Our God is big enough to deal with our negative emotions, even when they are directed toward him. The essential thing is to keep the connection open. One of my favorite passages is Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord. (Genesis 32:24-30) The key part is when Jacob says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He comes out of it with a limp—and a blessing. The worst thing to do is to walk away and not try to work out the problem in the relationship.

Another thing I tell couples to do is admit when they are wrong and to be ready to forgive when the other asks for it. It's really hard to keep a relationship going if there are unresolved wrongs, or when one person is sorry but the other won't forgive them. Probably one of the least popular ideas in Christianity is that of repentance. As I've pointed out before, it doesn't necessitate tears, sackcloth and ashes; it means to turn your life around and to rethink what you're doing. Even though this is essential to having a relationship with God, just as forgiving or asking forgiveness of your spouse is, these are the most difficult parts of those relationships. It's right up there with “We have to talk.” Nobody likes to be in the wrong. Nor, in the rare case where you are entirely in the right, do we like forgiving rather than gloating over the person in the wrong. But it is as necessary to the life and health of the relationship as first aid is to the life and health of a person. When something's wrong we need to get it repaired, even though that is no fun.

Prayer is simply talking with God. We need to do it every day; we need to compliment God as we would our spouse; we need to ask for what we need; we need to fess up when we are in the wrong; we need to ask for help in doing things we can't do alone or well, like forgiving others.

Jesus prayed a lot. It was his habit to get up early and go off by himself, away from distractions, so he could pray. If you're a morning person, you should emulate him. If, like me, you are most assuredly not a morning person, find a time that works best for you. But prayer is not an optional part of following Jesus. When you love someone, you should love talking to them.

You should also love to listen to them. And we will look at that Sunday.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A World Without God

Today's New Testament passage (2 Peter 1:16-21) begins, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” So it wasn't just in the modern era that people were picking apart the gospel. In the first century folks who didn't like the Good News were yelling “Fake News!”

There are whole books written about the reliability of our New Testament documents. Without going into great detail, we can say that the text underlying any modern translation is reliable because we literally have thousands of copies of the Greek originals, plus hundreds of copies of translations into other ancient languages, plus quotations of verses and passages in letters of the early church fathers, the successors to the apostles. By scientifically dating and classifying these materials, we can determine the original text.

A modern argument bypasses the documents entirely, claiming that Jesus never lived. If there was no Jesus, then the New Testament is no more relevant than the Sherlock Holmes stories. The subject of these writings would be totally fictional. This was refuted recently by Bible scholar Bart Ehrman in his book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. The irony of this is that Ehrman isn't even a believer. But his opinion that Jesus wasn't divine doesn't blind him to the fact that the man did exist.

But ultimately the problem with belief isn't so much an intellectual one as an emotional one. As cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss said, “ I can't prove that God doesn't exist, but I'd much rather live in a universe without one.” Again that's his opinion and he's entitled to it. But it does make me wonder “why?”

I hate quotes without context and I can't find this quote in an interview or a book or a debate. But the sentiment is not unfamiliar. As strange as it may sound to us, there are reasons why people might not want God to exist.

A lot of people think of God primarily as judge, jury and executioner. Without God there are no pesky moral rules. There is no penalty if I want to covet my neighbor's wife or steal someone else's stuff or lie. Well, no eternal penalties. My earthly neighbors might impose penalties on me. But if I get enough power or wealth, I might even be able to escape or diminish what they can do to me. Hitler committed all kinds of crimes but couldn't be tried or imprisoned because he was the nation's leader. Such people really wish there is no God. And if they are right then Hitler committed one of the greatest genocides in history without ever being held accountable.

Other people wouldn't want God to exist because they think that the existence of an all-knowing God means everything is predestined. If God knows what you are going to do before you do it, it's locked in, isn't it? And if it's locked in, if you can't do anything differently, then you have no free will. You are a puppet. That's the argument people often bring up against God's foreknowledge.

The odd thing is that there is a growing number of scientists who believe we don't have free will even if you take God out of the picture. They see us as nothing more than biological machines who are utterly controlled by the laws of physics and biology. Just as a billiard ball has no free will when struck by a cue or another ball, so the atoms and molecules in us must behave in certain ways when acted on by certain forces. Our consciousness is a side effect of our complex brain but in no way determines what we actually do. So you are still a puppet, though not of a personal god but of impersonal forces.

C.S. Lewis had a good response to this about 60 years ago. He said such people are arguing against the very faculty that allows them to argue. If you say you have no free will---well, you had to say that, didn't you? And you can't fault me for arguing the other side, because I similarly am unable to think differently. Which would mean that both atheism and deism are predetermined and there is no use in trying to convince anyone of anything.

It's fairly obvious that if you hold to biological determinism, you should just shut up and let the inevitable work itself out. It also means you can't even take credit for being smart enough to know that things are biologically determined. You couldn't think otherwise.

But are Christians committed to the idea that God predestines absolutely everything? This is something people have written piles of books about, so we really can't get very deeply into the subject here. What we can say is that you can use the Bible to argue for and against free will, not that the term “free will” appears anywhere in its pages. But there are passages that make it seem that God is in control of everything and passages which make it seem that our decisions and actions depend on us. How do we reconcile that?

For the last 3 years I have spent a day or two a week caring for my granddaughter. At first she was basically a cute lump of flesh who ate, slept, peed and pooped. She was, in the words of John Oliver, little more than a labor-intensive houseplant. Controlling her was easy. Once she started moving, control was still possible but increasingly difficult to maintain. When she began crawling and standing, she started objecting to being kept in a play pen. I had two choices. Ignore her crying and keep her in the baby corral, where she was safe, or relinquish a bit of my control and let her have a bit of freedom. That increased the risk that she could disrupt the order of my work-space and destroy things by pulling them down and even hurt herself, primarily by falling on the hard floor rather than the padded bottom of the play pen. I was still a lot smarter and much more powerful than she. I could prevent the worst from happening. I could even reverse my decision and, say, swaddle her so she could not move. But I voluntarily restrained myself from controlling every aspect of her life and gave her some but not absolute freedom.

When we get into this freewill versus predestination debate, we tend to speak in absolutes. We forget, as we often do in theoretical arguments, that there can be gradations and nuances. God can and evidently does voluntarily relinquish some control and give us some freedom. And no human being, in any system of thought, ever has total freedom. Our choices are always limited by what we have learned through the people around us, through our schooling and through our experience, as well as by what is physically and psychologically possible. Some people have wider choices than others by virtue of wealth, education, race and social standing but no one can do anything it comes into their head to do.

So how is it that the Bible can say with such confidence that God will prevail over evil in the end? Think of God as a chess master. Whatever move we make, however non-obvious or even irrational, God already has the counter-moves and a strategy in place that takes into accounts all contingencies. If I were up against Gary Kasparov, it wouldn't matter how much freedom I had; he would still win.

That however leads to another reason people might hope that there is no God. A common argument against God is: look at what a mess the world is. There is murder, famine, rape, war, pedophilia, terrorism, domestic violence, and more. There is injustice and poverty. There is disease and disaster. Some folks say that if there is a God in charge he is either indifferent to us or actively hates us. For them it is simpler to assume there is no god and that chaos reigns.

Of course, this is a selective way of looking at the world. In fact, it is heavily influenced by the news motto “If it bleeds, it leads.” Humans have a bias towards noticing the negative. Despite these truly awful things, if we look we can see lots of good in this world as well. Many more people are born than die. Death from infectious diseases and cardiovascular disease has fallen worldwide. Child mortality is declining by 3.7% a year. In general people's lives are getting longer, with global life expectancy going from an average of 46.7 years in 1990 to 59.3 years in 2013. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty, that is, on $1.25 a day or less, has been cut in half in the last 25 years, going from 36% to 15%. And those living on $1.90 a day has fallen from 1.9 billion people to 702 million. The growing awareness of rape and domestic violence will hopefully have the kind of impact awareness of the causes of heart disease and certain cancers have had on those scourges.

Ah, you may object, but that is due entirely to human effort. It didn't require God. The problem with that line of thought is that those human efforts were originated by and insinuated into our modern culture by religion. In the beginning of civilization, medicine and religion were intertwined. People went to temples in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece for healing. The Romans built places to take care of sick soldiers, gladiators and slaves, in other words, those they valued, but it was the acceptance of Christianity that caused an expansion of caring for all the ill. Saint Sampson, a doctor of Constantiople, and Bishop Basil of Caesarea built some of the earliest hospitals, with doctors, nurses, medical libraries, and training programs.

In the same way, the church has been on the forefront of efforts to help the poor and feed the hungry. Governments and non-profits and international organizations have only recently taken on the work that the church has always done and is still doing. But without God there is little incentive for people to do what the good Samaritan did—take care of those who are not family and friends. Why help those we don't know and who cannot benefit us? They are not productive citizens. Only the conviction that we are in fact our brother's keeper stands in the way of those in power pulling aid from the poor and sick.

Let's go back to my granddaughter. I give her some freedom within the confines of the church. I will forbid her to touch certain things and get into certain places, like the utility closet or the secretary's office. I keep the door to the outside world locked. And she is fine with that so far. But she's just shy of 3. What would you call it if I kept her locked in here when she's 23? Prison. I wouldn't have to worry about her getting into drugs, or dating bad boys, or getting in a car accident. She would be safe. That's good, right? I doubt she would see it that way. Instead of a cozy paradise, she would see it as a form of hell. So my choice is that as she grows up, I give her more freedom, trusting that she will learn to use it wisely.

For God to prevent us from doing any of the awful things we do, he would have to imprison us in some way. He would have to put some kind of mental or emotional shock collar on us. He would have to infantilize us or incapacitate us so we could not possibly do wrong. He would have to take away our free will. And so we are back to a situation in which we are puppets, or perhaps robots. And such a system would make love impossible because we wouldn't be able to freely choose to love God and our neighbor.

God is love. Love is only possible if you can choose to love or not. In God's wisdom he has decided that we needed this much freedom if we were to be able to truly choose to love him and others and ourselves. Some people make the wrong choice. We might see the cost as too high but that's because we only see this life. When people die, that is the end of their activity in this world. If this is the only life we have, then yes, God must be either indifferent or a monster.

On the internet I read an imagined dialogue between two twins in a womb. Because this was the only environment they knew, the idea of birth was scary. One twin saw it as a catastrophe because in the womb there was warmth and food and it was not too bright. Birth would mean the end of the life it had always known. The idea that in 9 short months it would be expelled from the womb was a disaster in its mind.

The other twin felt that there might be another world outside the womb. And it longed to meet and embrace the mother. The first twin doubted the existence of the mother because it couldn't see any other person in the womb beside themselves. And it couldn't imagine what it couldn't see.

Then the contradictions start. Their world narrows. They are powerless to resist being pushed down the birth canal. It is painful and scary and who knows what is on the other side. One twin undergoes the painful, bloody process of birth in terror and despair, the other in hope.

If this is the only world, then when we leave it our life is indeed a tragedy. If there is another world, however, one bigger and better than this one, if there is a life that lasts infinitely longer than the handful of decades we get in this one, then as Paul says, “...our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18) One of the wonderful features of this life is that we can remember that we suffered physical pain, but we cannot literally re-experience that pain. I remember my first car accident, when I was 5, back when kids could sit in the front seat and there was no such thing as a seat belt. I can remember hitting the dashboard and what it was like to have so much blood flowing from my eyebrow that I thought I had lost an eye. I can remember how scary it was to be strapped down in the ambulance and on the exam table in the emergency room and how the hypodermic needle the doctor stuck into my face looked like it was 3 feet long. But I don't re-feel the pain. 57 years later, recalling it doesn't disturb me.

Whatever pain and suffering we undergo in our brief life here will recede into a faint memory in our eternal life. God will give us new and better bodies in a new and better world, with new and endless adventures with our family and friends and with the God who is love. And that's hard for us to imagine. But so was my post-second-accident life, walking on partly metal legs, with no cane and no pain. I can't wait until the Great Physician gets his hands on me and takes away the allergies and the food intolerances and the character defects. Some more hair would be nice too.

As I get older, I see that what we students and followers of Jesus offer the world above all else is hope. Hope that things don't have to stay the way they are, that our past doesn't have to determine our future, that we do have a choice and can make a difference, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and a loving parent to hold us and comfort us and wipe away all our tears and fears and pain. If we manifest that hope in our lives, maybe more people will stop wishing there wasn't a God and want to meet and love and follow him instead. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Health Code

Last week we made much of the fact that there is not one but three areas of ethics: those that deal with our relationship with God, those that deal with our relationships with others, and those that deal with our relationship with ourselves. And that's important to note. But when you get to the Bible you don't see them set apart in that way very often. That's because they all touch on and influence each other, rather like the parts of the body. We can speak of the heart abstractly and consider it separately but in reality a heart apart from the body dies, as does the person from whom it was removed. Ethics work the same way. The person you are before God should impact the person you are with others. The person you are with others should impact the person you are by yourself. The person who has integrity is the one who has integrated all three spheres of ethical behavior in their life. Sadly, we often don't let that happen, which is spiritually unhealthy.

In today's Old Testament lesson (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18) and today's Gospel (Matthew 5:38-48) We get what appear to be a whole jumble of ethical rules, applying to all areas of life. Yet there is a thread that runs through these passages. And we get it right at the beginning of our passage from Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Before “What would Jesus do?” was a thing, the Bible basically says, “You should act as God would.”

Bible scholars call it the Holiness Code. Holy,” however, throws people today. They think it applies exclusively to our relationship with God, to worship and religious behavior alone. The Hebrew word for “holy” does have roots in the word for “cleanse” or “purify.” Why do we want anything clean or purified? Because it's healthy. We all want to be healthy. So you could call this a spiritual health code. 

But let's leave that aside for a few minutes. The primary meaning of the word “holy” is “set apart.” God's holiness sets him apart from us with our mixed motives and sin. So for us to be “holy” means not only to be “cleansed” but to be set apart for God's purposes. When we sanctify something, like a church building or a chalice, we are setting it apart for God's use. So as God's people we are set apart for God's intended uses. It doesn't mean we are inherently better than others so much as designated as God's servants.

Again we think of ordained clergy as God's servants but in reality all Christians are. 1 Peter 2:5 and 9 says, “ yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ....But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” It's from this that Luther derived the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Just because some of us have gifts that put us in more visible roles doesn't mean that we are more holy than lay people. We all serve God in different ways.

And this all goes back to what we are told about humanity in the very first chapter of the Bible: that we are created in God's image. So we should act as God would in our place. Those things that we think, say and do that are contrary to his Spirit are what we call sins, violations of his principles.

And notice that right off the bat in our Old Testament lesson we are told to help the poor. That's not unusual because the Bible talks about our duty to the poor more than 300 times. Proverbs 14:31 says, “The one who oppresses the poor insults his Creator, but whoever shows favor to the needy honors him.” In Leviticus 19:9-10 God commands farmers not to reap absolutely every part of their crops but leave some for the needy and the immigrant to gather and eat. This may not sound like good business practice but God is saying that you needn't squeeze every drop of profit from your ventures. Leave something for the unfortunate. Build charity into your business model. If you are doing well, pay it forward. And notice that, as the New Bible Commentary points out, “The relief of poverty in Israel, therefore, was built into economic and legal structures, not left as a matter of private charity.”

Then we are peppered with a series of short commandments on honesty: don't steal; don't make dishonest deals; don't lie; don't defraud others; don't use God's name to perjure yourself. As Jesus said in our Gospel last week let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” “no.” Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don't make any promises you can't keep and keep every promise you make. It's sad that such things have to be spelled out. After all what keeps relationships going is trust. If I can't trust your word, how can I continue to interact with you? Government, businesses and marriage need honesty to survive.

Next we get a commandment that sounds a bit odd: “ shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” In Biblical times, you didn't get a weekly paycheck, especially if you were a day laborer. Often folks lived day to day. After a day's work the laborer needed to be paid so he could buy food for his family. Hanging onto their wages, presumably to get them to return to work the next day, could mean that their family would go hungry. One nursing home where I worked became unreliable in issuing our paychecks. Everyone had bills to pay and it didn't exactly enforce loyalty to the company. If you're an employer you need to think of the welfare of your workers. It makes excellent business sense but employers sometimes get stuck in short-term thinking. God says that not only is stiffing your workers bad for business, it is immoral.

Next God tells us not to mock or mistreat the handicapped. To show disrespect for the disabled is to disrespect God. Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And if you are truly wise, you realize that you could at some point become disabled. You could lose your sight or your hearing through disease or infection or accident. You could receive a head injury that could lead render you unable to speak or walk or think properly—or at all. And as Jesus said, you should treat others as you would like to be treated. I rather doubt that if you end up in a wheelchair or nursing home, you would like people to pick on you or take advantage of you because you are handicapped. One clear principle we find over and over in the Bible is the empathy and compassion for the vulnerable and disadvantaged that God has and that we should have.

Next come some principles for the human administration of justice. Judgments must be just and impartial. A person's social standing should not affect the outcome. In addition, people spreading slander and scandalous rumors are condemned. Though at that time they did not have the press, it was known that gossip could ruin a person's life. Today with the internet that can happen in a few minutes or hours. Just last year a man entered a pizza parlor with a loaded AR-15 because he believed a vicious internet hoax that it was the site of a ring of pedophiles. Contrary to the old rhyme, words can hurt you.

And in that vein, the passage warns us not to profit by the blood of our neighbor. It literally tells us not to “stand against” our neighbor's blood. The NIV translates this “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor's life.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible says, “You must not jeopardize your neighbor's life.” The NET Bible renders it “You must not stand idly by when your neighbor's life is at stake.” Any way you look at it this commandment means we must always look out for our neighbor's safety and well-being. Negligence is not an option. Perhaps this is what motivated the good Samaritan in Jesus' parable.

And at this point our passage gets to the heart of the matter, literally. “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” Remember that all of Israel had descended ultimately from one man and his 12 sons so were all related. For that matter so is all of humanity. Our DNA reveals that we are all descended from the so-called mitochondrial Eve, who lived about 200,000 years ago in Africa and a Y-chromosome Adam who may or may not have lived at the same time. We are truly, as the Key West motto says, one human family. So we are forbidden to hate each other.

We can and should reprove our neighbor, however, when they are doing something destructive or self-destructive. But, in view of the previous verse, we must do so without hatred. Thus we are talking about sincerely trying to help someone make a better choice. If a student is having trouble, the wise teacher doesn't yell at him or call him names or imply he's stupid. Or think how a fellow student would help a friend who is having trouble getting the hang of something. You would ask what the problem is, listen and then work with that kid till they got it right. If they shut you down, at least you tried.

Finally, we are told not to take revenge or bear a grudge. God is trying to break the vicious cycle of anger and retaliation. The only alternative is forgiveness. And all this is prelude to the famous commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.

When we get to Jesus he goes farther. Not only are we to refuse to take revenge, we are not to resist the person who wrongs us. We are not to fight but to turn the other cheek. And not only are we to love our neighbor, we are to love our enemy as well. This sounds crazy.

And it is. Unless there is a just and loving God whom we really trust. The thing about trust is that we need it the most when it is the hardest thing to do. Our natural instinct is to fight back, to lash out, to get our own back. The enduring popularity of the good guy versus bad guy plot is due to how good it feels to see the bad guy get his comeuppance. Would we cheer if the good guy decided to leave the bad guy's fate in God's hands and love him instead? No, because it is unnatural.

The world is the way it is because we follow our nature, our flesh, as Paul would put it. To change things requires us to go beyond our biological urges, to change the script, as it were. And the only thing stronger than our nature is God's Spirit.

For the most part in most instances we know what is right and what is wrong. Why don't we do what we know is right? Because we cannot do it, not every day, not every time, not if we rely on our own strength. We need God's Spirit, the Spirit who descended on Jesus at his baptism, who empowered his ministry, whom he poured out on the church at Pentecost, with whom we are sealed at our baptism. We need his Spirit in us if we are to be holy like God, if we are to live the life Jesus lived, the life Jesus died to give us.

Just as only a healthy person can run two miles without getting winded, only a spiritually healthy person, a person filled with the Spirit, can live according to God's law. None of us is healthy enough to do it perfectly. We are in rehab, building our strength, trying to graduate from the parallel bars to the walker. But with the help and guidance and encouragement of the Spirit, we can get there.

And that's something to remember: our enemy is spiritually ill as well. If we lash out at him, it doesn't move either of us closer to God's saving health. But we can encourage him to become a patient of the Great Physician. We can show him what we can do already because of God's healing in our lives. And we can pray for his healing as well.

As students and followers of Jesus, we need his Spirit within us so we can manifest his grace and love to a very sick world. To make it worse or to sabotage our fellow sufferers is not only wrong but unhealthy. We must let him cleanse us from the sickness of sin so we can be healthy and holy, as he is. And so we can make our one human family, our brothers and sisters, created in the image of our Heavenly Father, healthy and holy too. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

It's Complicated

For some reason Blogger doesn't like the white on black color scheme I have used for 7 years. It won't do black on white either. Hope this is readable.

In the Billy Crystal comedy City Slickers 3 middle aged men go to a dude ranch to live out their childhood dreams of being cowboys. They encounter a very scary cowboy named Curly played by Jack Palance. At one point Crystal's character Mitch gets into a philosophical discussion with the grizzled wrangler. Curly says, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” He holds up one finger. “This.”

Your finger?” asks Mitch.

Curly replies, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [crap].”

But what is the 'one thing?'” asks Mitch.

Curly smiles. “That's what you have to find out.”

It's a very Zen, very appealing moment. And it is, to use the euphemism I substituted for Curly's word, crap. We are back to the problem we were talking about last week: the intense desire to oversimplify everything and boil it down to one cause, one purpose, one task.

And I understand this desire. Life is complex. It would be so much easier if we could just focus on one thing and ignore everything else as small stuff. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. A rocket just has to go up into space, right? Well, it also has to come back to earth safely. And it has to support the life of the astronauts inside. And it's not a thrill ride so it has to has some scientific purpose and therefore instruments on board. If you just concentrate on the so-called main purpose—to travel into space—but ignore everything else you get dead or stranded astronauts. There is an irreducible complexity to everything.

We cannot fathom the complexity of the simplest organism. Which is Mycoplasma genitalium, if we exclude viruses and nano-bacteria which cannot live on their own. And this organism has 580,000 base pairs and 482 protein-coding genes. Compare that the human genome that has 3 billion base pairs and between 19,000 and 20,000 protein-coding genes. So since we've counted all of the human genes, we should have the Mycoplasma genitalium all worked out. Not if you mean we know what all those genes do. And if we don't have the simplest free-living organism sorted out don't expect us to figure out the inner workings of humans anytime soon.

The closest thing we have to a simple purpose of life is to reproduce. But then you also have to raise and nurture what you reproduce. And in social animals you have to work out how to live together in a way that balances benefits to individuals with benefits to the whole society.

Jesus tackled this when asked which of the 613 laws in the Torah was the greatest or foremost commandment. Jesus, knowing that this idea was an oversimplication, gave two: love God with all you are and all you have and love your neighbor as yourself. He said no other commandment was greater and that all the other laws and all the writings of the prophets depended on these two.

Jesus thereby indicated that there were at least two categories of ethics: our behavior towards God and our behavior towards others. Most ethicists would include a third: our behavior towards ourselves, which could be deduced from the fact that the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbors, as we do ourselves.

C.S. Lewis compared these to the 3 disciplines necessary for an orchestra. Each musician needs to take care of his or her instrument, keeping it in tune and in good condition. They all must learn to blend their sounds with the other musicians and instruments, keeping the same rhythm and observing the dynamics. And finally they must be play the same music the conductor has chosen. If he's conducting Beethoven's 9th they mustn't be playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” instead.

Now the interesting thing is that just as different Christians emphasize different doctrines, they also emphasize different parts of Christian ethics. Some focus almost entirely on our duty to God. But if they neglect our duty to others you get people who are pious but tolerate injustice. Other Christians emphasize loving our neighbor but neglect their own physical, mental and spiritual health. Eventually the chaos in their personal lives spills over and they are no good to anyone. Some Christians are really good at personal discipline but don't let that overflow to loving others and so they are moral in their personal life but lack compassion. Christian ethics involves all of our relationships—with God, with others and with ourselves.

You see these in various combinations throughout the church. There are people who think the number 1 thing in the Christian life is worship, the people who think the church should be primarily a social action agency, and those who think Christianity is mainly about personal morality. They are like the Buddhist parable about a group of blind monks encountering an elephant for the first time. One feels a tusk and says an elephant is like a spear. One is touching the elephant's side and says an elephant is like a wall. One feels its trunk and says an elephant is like a snake. They are all correct as far as the part of the elephant they are in contact with. The problem arises when they deny the other monks' findings. The elephant is like all those things and more.

Yet we see Christians who insist that the chief part of morality is personal responsibility. They feel the church should stick to that and not make pronouncements or policies about social issues. But Jesus himself talked about helping the poor and vulnerable. In Matthew 25:31-46 he made our treatment of the unfortunate the center of his parable about the last judgment. What we do or neglect to do to others amounts to how we treat Jesus. He excoriated the Pharisees for focusing on lesser issues and ignoring things like faithfulness, mercy and justice. (Matt 23:23) In this he was in line with the prophets who constantly reminded the people that God was “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.” (Psalm 68:5) Much of the Old Testament is about loving your neighbor and not mistreating the poor and the resident alien.

But if you accept that mankind is sinful then it follows that our imperfections come out in the laws we formulate and the systems we create. So if we are to love our neighbor we need to look for and try to eliminate the flaws in our laws and systems that cause them harm or neglect. As it says in Proverbs 29:7, “The righteous know the rights of the poor; but the wicked have no such concern.” So we cannot fall into thinking that if we live a moral life and don't commit evil that is sufficient for a good Christian life. Jesus calls us out of our lives and into the lives of others. Love does that.

On the other hand there are Christians who are so focused on the social demands of the gospel that they ignore the fact that there is such a thing as personal morality. Indeed we have had a number of scandals in the church in which people who have done a great deal of good for others are revealed to have had horribly self-destructive personal lives. And it usually spills over and destroys the good work they have done. Remember Lewis' orchestra analogy. If you misuse or abuse your violin, you will not be able to make beautiful music with it for very long and it will affect your contribution to the orchestra. Arrogance, greed, lust, rage, envy and self-indulgence are harmful to your own spirit and will infect what you are doing for others.

And the same applies to those we help. When Jesus saved the woman caught in adultery from the mob, he didn't say, “Neither do I condemn you. Go back to living your life as you always have.” He said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” In fact if a person doesn't cooperate, you can't do much to help them. I have tried to help homeless men and found what I could do was limited by how well they could exercise self-control. I tried to get them jobs which they did not stick at. People gave them places to stay whose hospitality they abused. I have helped them get a ticket home only to have them return to the Keys where they cannot possibly afford a place to live. It reminds me of times when, as a nurse, I took care of people who could barely breathe but who didn't even try to stop smoking, or people who couldn't walk but wouldn't do their physical therapy. We do people no favors if we make it sound as if we can help them without them doing their part. As I might say to a patient, "Help me help you."

But that is no excuse not to help them. As a nurse I can't refuse to treat anyone who needs medical aid, regardless of how I feel about their personal decisions. As a nurse I must treat everyone who seeks help and as a Christian I must act lovingly towards all others, up to and including anyone who could be called a enemy. Jesus allows us no exceptions.

And as it turns out 75% of the homeless are only that way for 2 or 3 months. They eventually find a home. People do get their messed up lives turned around. But they can't do it alone. And we can't help them if we are messing up our lives. As Jesus said, first get the 2 by 4 out of your own eye, and then you'll be able to get the speck of saw dust out of your neighbor's eye.

Remember that Jesus wants us to be peacemakers. And in the Bible peace means total well-being. And if we are students of Jesus we need to learn and be working on all 3 areas of our relationships. We need to strive for total well-being in relationship with God, total well-being in our relationship with others and total well-being in our relationship with ourselves.

We won't get them down perfectly but if we are making any significant headway people will notice and that will help our witness to the power and love of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We started this series speaking of what Epiphany meant. It means to “manifest.” It was originally about how Jesus manifested his glory to the world. Jesus said “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) And just last week we read the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. (Matt 5:14). How can they both be true?

Because we are the body of Christ. While he was in the world, Jesus was the light of the world. Now he has passed the torch to us. The fire does not come from us; it comes from him. But we are to put it “on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:15,16) We are to continue his work while he is away. In John 14:12 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do....” It's not that the works save us; it's that the works naturally flow from being saved, the way a healthy person can, say, go up a flight of stairs without being out of breath. A spiritually healthy person can do the same kind of works Jesus did without worrying that they will run out of what they trust God to supply.

Those works will include ethical actions, both personal and social. If we are not loving or trustworthy people, folks will be suspect of any good works we do. If we do not demonstrate God's love for others through helping the poor and unfortunate, people will suspect that our faith in Jesus is all talk. Arguing about which is more important, faith or works, personal morality or social justice, is, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, like arguing which blade of a scissors is more important or which wing of a plane is essential. They go together, and you're never going to soar without both.

The way we manifest Christ in our lives is not merely by praying and going to church but also by going out into the world and proclaiming the gospel by what we do as well as by what we say.

And if you think about it, what is really lacking in the world is an overwhelming litany of examples of people acting like Christ. The news is full of people exhibiting behavior that is definitely not Christlike. And some of those people call themselves Christians. We get stories of people harming others in the name of religion but how often do we see stories of people helping others in the name of Jesus? We get stories of people denigrating others in the name of Christ but how often do we see stories of people lifting up others in his name? We get stories of people making it harder to feed and shelter the homeless or get healthcare to the poor or rehabilitate those in prison but how often to we see stories of people giving the homeless food and a place to stay, or helping the poor get their healthcare needs met or educating ex-prisoners and helping them start over and doing so in Jesus' name? I know these things are happening but it is not getting proclaimed. Nor, sadly, can we say that it is happening so frequently that people are simply taking it for granted. Nobody automatically says, “Oh, the churches are making the world better.” Indeed a lot of people think we are either making it worse or doing nothing to change the status quo.

Speaking of which, the Rev. Scott Gunn has posted a great sermon on his blog In it he points out, “There are no saints of the status quo.” We don't honor people for keeping things just as they are. Rather we look up to Christians who rocked the boat. They challenged and disrupted the status quo. They reformed the church or went out of their way to spread the gospel or pushed the boundaries to minister to the sick or the poor or the uneducated or the outcasts. St. Francis didn't kiss some random dude he met on the road; he kissed a leper out of love for Christ. Mother Teresa didn't start a discussion group on the concerns of the sick and dying; she set up hospices to care for them in the name of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoffer didn't try to work out a way to bridge the gap between Christianity and the ruling Nazi party; he worked with a group of renegade churches that opposed everything that evil government said and did because it was antithetical to Christ. Jesus didn't tell folks that everything was fine the way it was because God is in control; he said everything was out of whack in relation to God and that he was sent by God to set it right. And they killed him for it.

When someone is sick, their status quo is not good. To make them better you are going to have to change how things are for them. You may even have to cut them open and removed diseased parts of them and put in replacement parts. But if that's what you need to do to repair a broken person, you do it. The world is messed up. The status quo is disease and brokenness. We need to make sure we are being repaired by God's Spirit and then get up out of these seats and go out into the world and do what's right. 

And we need to do it noisily. If we remain quiet no one will find us, and, more importantly, no one will find Jesus. To paraphrase St. Francis, we need to proclaim the gospel every day in every way; and if necessary, use words.