Monday, December 11, 2017

Comfort My People

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 40:1-11.

Prophets essentially did 2 things: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. For the last 2 Sundays we have been reading things that Jesus and Isaiah said that afflicted those who were comfortable with the world as it is: unjust, merciless and indifferent to the suffering of others. This week we see the other side of the coin.

Isaiah is told to comfort God's people. What they need comforting about is the exile: 70 years spent as aliens in Babylon. They are wondering how long will this go on. Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, would conquer Babylon and let the Jews return to their homeland. Their captivity was a disaster, albeit a man-made one. They, like us, had to go home and then rebuild. They, like us, would be stressed out. What they needed was comfort. As do we.

Friday I went to a 4 hour seminar from AHEC and the Red Cross called Psychological First Aid in Disaster and Recovery. About 95% of the attendees were nurses. And all of us were dealing with the aftermath of Irma in our personal lives.

The seminar covered things like the way stress affects us and how it manifests itself emotionally, cognitively, physically, behaviorally and spiritually. We discussed the difference between the ways adults react and the ways children and teens react. We discussed the 12 steps of psychological first aid, like the importance of being kind, calm and compassionate, even when dealing with difficult people. Because this was psychological first aid, we were instructed to know our limits and know when to refer the person to a professional based on the 3 Rs: their reaction, risk factors and resilience.

A couple of months ago I talked about resilience. What I want to talk about on this, the 3 month anniversary of Hurricane Irma's landfall, is the ways we find ourselves reacting to this catastrophe, as well as both negative and positive coping strategies.

Emotionally, the stress of having gone through a disaster or any trauma can manifest itself in things like rage and irritability, anxiety, despair, numbness, guilt, sadness, helplessness and/or feeling overwhelmed.

Cognitively, people dealing with a lot of stress will often have difficulty concentrating and thinking and making decisions, and will experience forgetfulness, confusion, distortion of space and time, intrusive thoughts, memories and flashbacks, a sense of being cut off from reality, self-blame and even thoughts of self-harm.

Physically, stress manifests itself in fatigue, sleep problems, physical complaints, increased cravings for caffeine, nicotine, food, alcohol,or illicit drugs, increased or decreased sex drive, increased or decreased appetite, and susceptibility to being startled.

Behaviors that stress triggers include crying spells, angry outbursts, withdrawal and avoiding people, places and situations, risky behaviors, school or work problems and inattention to appearance, personal hygiene or taking care of oneself.

Spiritually, the stress of a disaster or other major trauma can show itself in a change in our relationship with or belief about God, abandonment of prayer, ritual, or devotions, struggles with questions about the meaning of life, justice, fairness or the afterlife, and the rejection of those who provide spiritual care.

But unlike all the other categories, some of the spiritual effects of a disaster can be positive. A disaster can lead to increased trust in God, gratitude such as when losses are primarily material but our loved ones survive, an increased sense of a mission or purpose in life, and an increase in spiritual rituals and service to others. In fact, our presenter, a psychotherapist, said that people who regularly attend religious services tend to do better in recovering from a disaster. Part of that might be that they have the support of their faith community. Part of it might be the help their faith gives them in finding meaning. Remember what psychiatrist Viktor Frankel discovered in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany: if you have a reason why you need to live, you can endure almost any way how you need to do it.

I think another part of the reason that the spiritual effects can be good is that faith provides you with coping strategies. As I said we talked about both negative and positive coping strategies. The negative ones are fairly obvious: drinking, smoking, taking illicit drugs, and risky behaviors, such as reckless driving, gambling, getting into fights, having multiple sex partners or unsafe sex. In fact even otherwise positive coping strategies can be bad for you if they're overdone. Since stress can interfere with sleep, getting enough sleep is healthy. Staying in bed for days on end is not. Exercise is good; exercising till you drop or hurt yourself is not. Helping others is a good strategy; doing so at the neglect of your own self-care is not.

Positive coping strategies are “anything that relieves tension without negative consequences.” We mentioned a few: rest, exercise, volunteering. That last one you can do through the church or by visiting the nursing home, acting as a Big Brother or Big Sister, working with St. Paul's and St. Mary's Star of the Sea with their feeding program for the poor in Key West, driving people to their doctor's appointments, and leading Bible studies or helping provide worship services for the inmates at the county jail.

Setting short term goals and tackling easily accomplishable tasks are positive coping strategies. Rather than looking at the enormity of restoring your entire property to the way it was, say, "I will clean this room” or “I will plant some tomatoes.” Those are doable and will give you a feeling of some measure of control at a time when so many things are out of your control.

Socializing is another good coping strategy. We are social animals and just being with others is a great way to take your mind off of your own concerns. That said, taking some quiet time to meditate, pray or just relax is also good. However withdrawal from and avoidance of all other people is not a healthy way to deal with stress.

Taking care of a pet can be a very positive way to cope. Pets can be very affectionate; they don't judge you and if you need to walk them, you are also getting exercise.

Maintaining a routine helps. In fact, if you have kids, one of the things that affects them the most is the loss of routine. Getting them back to school and daycare, observing meal and bedtime rituals help them feel that their world is predictable again. For kids, routines make them feel safe.

Kids can manifest their reaction to a disaster or major trauma differently than adults. Physically, they are more likely to have stomachaches or return to bedwetting. Their behavior may regress to thumb sucking or not wanting to sleep alone. They may cling to parents or caregivers and suffer separation anxiety to the point that they don't want to go to school or don't want parents to leave for work. Children are susceptible to magical thinking and may even blame themselves, thinking the disaster is somehow their fault. Or God's. As one nurse at our seminar told us, her son asked “Is God mad at us?” That's a good time to let children know what kind of God we have: one of love and healing.

It doesn't help that we often classify natural disasters as “acts of God.” You might read to your children the passage from 1 Kings. Elijah is hiding in a cave in the desert, feeling sad and persecuted and all alone. “The Lord said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.' Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” (1 Kings 19:11-12) God was not in the hurricane or any disaster but in the gentle voice that encourages people to help. As Mr. Rogers' mother said, “Look for the helpers. There are always helpers.” God is in the helpers. And if we are helpers, God is in us, too.

Listening to music can lift your mood and is a great coping strategy. And you are welcome to join us as we practice this coping strategy every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning. (Hint, hint, hint!)

A key positive coping strategy is staying in the “here and now” and not letting your mind conjure up either wildly wonderful and unlikely futures (“All will be as it was!”) or equally improbable dark and dismal ones (“We will never get over this! This will irreparably break us!”) We humans are terrible prognosticators, especially when we look far beyond the present. It is better to focus on the job and joys at hand.

Nevertheless, we cannot totally ignore the future. Instead we must maintain hope. Without hope, we give up. The seminar also addressed the stress of being a helper. It gave us principles for staying psychologically, physically and spiritually healthy. When it came to maintaining hope it said to “believe in something that has strong meaning to you.” As Christians, we believe in a loving God who is not aloof but who came, lived and died as one of us to rescue us from death and despair. We believe in a God who sends his Spirit to live and work in us, to equip and empower us to help make this world better. We believe in Jesus, which means we believe that death and destruction do not have the last word; rather, our hope lies in the Living Word, the risen Christ, who is the God of Life Incarnate as well as the Life of God made manifest.

And how can we help offer psychological first aid? Well, I recommend you take the seminar if and when they offer it again. But I can share a few key points. And remember: this is only first aid. If you see someone bleeding on the street, you call 911 and put pressure on the bleeding wound till help arrives. You don't do surgery. In the same way psychological first aid is responding quickly, helping people with their immediate basic needs and connecting them with those who can best meet their deeper needs.

So here is the essential part: Listen. Listen, listen, listen. Just be there for them and really listen: don't be waiting till they take a breath so you can jump in. And what if you don't know what to say to someone dealing with a huge loss? Don't say anything. Just hear them out. It means being tolerant because their world has just been upended and you cannot expect them to be calm and rational. People need to wrap their heads around what just happened to them. They need to vent; they need to mourn; they need to curse and cry and know that someone has heard them. And whether they are nice or difficult, we need to be kind, be calm and be compassionate. Half the time the things they are talking about on the surface is not really their root concern. We saw a video at the seminar showing people really upset because building codes would not let them stay in their damaged apartment. Our instructor pointed out that if you paid attention, you realized what they were really concerned with was where were they and their children to stay that night. You only pick that kind of thing up if you really listen.

Our instructor was also keeping in mind that he was not merely talking to people who wanted to help but also to people who themselves had survived a disaster. That meant that this was not academic to us. It meant that, more than most disaster responders, we also needed help dealing with the emotional, cognitive, physical, behavioral and spiritual effects of this event. We were, in the words of Henri Nouwen, wounded healers.

And therein lies the paradox: how can we who suffer offer comfort to others who suffer? But to paraphrase Nouwen, how can you lead someone out of the desert if you've never been there? Because we have suffered, we know suffering. And because God in Christ has suffered, he knows suffering. But because he overcame pain and abandonment and the grave, he can lead us out of the desert of disaster. And if we, in Christ, know triumph and healing, we can pass it on to others or at least put them in touch with him.

There is another meaning to the word “comfort.” It comes from the Latin for “strengthen, support.” And I picture Moses, holding up the staff of God, as the Israelites fight the attacking Amalekites. “As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses' hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.” (Exodus 17:11-13) His brother Aaron and the man named Hur supported Moses when he needed more strength and with their help the people were saved. It is a model for us.

To paraphrase the Rev. John Watson, be kind for everyone is fighting a hard battle. They can use our support. And we in turn can use the support of others. As Paul wrote, “Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) If we all help each other, we can make it through the days to come. Nor are we left to rely on our own strength alone. Paul knew affliction, and from prison, facing death, he wrote, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) In Jesus he found a well of strength and comfort. As he says in 1 Corinthians, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we are comforted by God.” (1 Corinthians 1:3-4)

Our hope and our comfort are in the Lord. He knows our weaknesses. He knows our pain. He knows how stress and trauma feel and how they assault the mind, body and spirit. And on the night he was betrayed and handed over to suffering and death, he comforted his disciples with words that speak to us: “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again, and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy....I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:22, 33)

Monday, December 4, 2017

In the Meantime

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37.

I don't know what I did before the Internet Movie Database. Well, actually, I do. I used books, like Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, and my trivia-packed memory to recall all kinds of details about movies, characters, genres, etc. Now I look these things up on IMDB. For instance, reading today's lectionary texts got me wondering just how many Christian apocalypse movies there are out there. And sure enough, somebody on IMDB put together a list of 2 dozen films, made by Christians, dramatizing the end of the world, at least as they see it in Revelation. But somehow it left out what is arguably the first such film: If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? Created by schlock filmmaker Ron Ormond and preacher Estus Pirkle, this graphically violent low budget film showed what would happen to Christians when the Communists take over—on horseback! Since then there have been a flood of films that seem to dwell on the scary stuff found mainly in 4 chapters in the middle of the last book of the Bible. And they are considered evangelism tools! I guess the religious people behind these movies chose this because modern people don't seem to fear hell much but in this era of nuclear and biological weapons and natural disasters the end of the world is something we can all imagine.

There are some churches and preachers who are really into this stuff. Part of it is the natural human tendency to be interested in things that can harm you. The more you know, the easier it is to avoid such things and the better prepared you will be should such stuff befall you. But some of it comes from the dark part of humanity that enjoys horror movies and stories about serial killers. Awful things can be very entertaining if they are happening to someone else. For instance, the vast majority of Hollywood movies are not based on the Bible and yet have a good deal of death, violence and unsettling things in them.

So I guess I understand some people's lurid fascination with the relatively few apocalyptic passages in the Bible. And the geek in me understands how people can enjoy the game of trying to reconcile all the various details given in scattered places in scripture, despite it being rather futile given that many of those details are poetic expressions and others are plainly symbolic. But I do not understand the other tendency certain Christians show about eschatology: how anyone can think Jesus actually wants us to calculate the time of his return since he explicitly tells us that no one knows the day or hour—not even himself, at least in his earthly life! And I especially don't understand how supposedly Bible-believing Christians can ignore this. In verse 33 Jesus says “you do not know when the time will come.” Can he be any clearer?

Apparently not. When you put “Christian books on the apocalypse” in the Amazon search you get 775 results. Even if you dismiss the typically oddball stuff that Amazon searches net, like Wuthering Heights (!), and the redundancies, like all 16 volumes in the Left Behind series plus the teen novels and spinoffs, that's still a heckuva lot of books. And mind you, they were written on a subject to which the Bible devotes at most 45 out of its 1189 chapters. Less than 4% of scripture concerns the end times.

So why is this subject even included in scripture? Apocalyptic literature came out of times of persecution and oppression. And the message of all apocalyptic writings can be boiled down to this: hang on during the bad times because God will win in the end. There are additional details, like “things will get worse before they get better” and “expect false messiahs but do not follow them.” But basically apocalyptic material was written to encourage suffering believers to hold onto their faith and their morality.

Judah was always a tiny nation surrounded by empires. And when the Jews were taken into exile in Babylon, and later when the successors of Alexander the Great were trying to wipe out Jewish religion and culture, the temptation was to despair of divine justice and assimilate. Similarly, once the Roman emperor realized the Christians were not just a subset of Jews and therefore a separate and hence illegal religion, he subjected them to periodic persecution and even death. It was tempting to either compromise or abandon faith in Christ. So these prophetic writings explained why things were so bad and assured those who persevered that they would see the triumph of God over evil and the reformation of the world as paradise once more. Whereas we often react to parts of apocalyptic passages with horror, the original readers received them as messages of comfort.

Still God sounds very angry in these passages. Yes, and rightly so. He made the world with enough for everyone: enough food, enough water, enough room. We are only just getting to the point where there may indeed not be enough of these things for the billions of people living on this planet in the near future. But for most of history, including today, when you have a society where some people don't have enough to live on and others have many times more than they need to live, the problem isn't scarcity. And as for some things people lack, like freedom, justice and equality of treatment, that is entirely the result of those in power restricting such things to certain people. Add on top of that the violence we inflict on each other, and especially on children, women, and those who are in the minority, and no wonder Isaiah wants God to tear open the heavens, come down, start kicking butts and taking names. And if he were calling on John Wick or Batman or any of the fictional agents of vengeance whose retributive violence we enjoy in movies and on TV and in video games, we would have no problem. When the hero kicks open the door and starts mowing down bad guys we cheer. But for some reason we balk at allowing God the right to get mad at his own creatures for mistreating each other and then doing something about it. If you don't like the apocalyptic parts of the Bible but do like action movies, violent sports, or news stories of bad guys getting their just desserts, you need to do some self-examination about double standards. God is the only one who can justly judge we humans for what we do to and do not do for each other.

That said, as I pointed out last week, most of the things such passages mention as judgments are often just the consequences of our acting badly towards nature and our fellow man. But the people to whom the Bible was written did not think such things happened without the intentional action of a conscious agent: demons, angels, and since he created everything, ultimately God. Today we remove as much agency as possible from these things. Disasters are the result of undirected natural processes. Illness is not caused by beings invisible to the eye called demons but by beings equally invisible to the naked eye called germs. Heck, there are scientists and thinkers trying to take agency away from people and blame everything we do on our DNA, gut bacteria, and brain structure. And they don't mean those things simply have a part in shaping the choices we have and make; they argue that free will and consciousness themselves are illusions created by the chemical and physical processes that actually make us think, say and do things. Of course, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, they are arguing against the very thing that would make their arguments valid and not just the byproducts of what they are made of.

Whatever the means of our destruction, the fact is that the collective consequences of our selfish, foolhardy and sinful actions will catch up with us one day. So what are we to do in the interim? Jesus tells us to do the work each of us is given and keep awake.

We have talked often of the fact that God gives us all gifts and abilities, which he calls us to put to use in serving him through serving human beings. Last week's gospel gave us many options for service: helping the hungry, the sick, the alien, the prisoner. Wherever we see a lack, there is an opportunity to demonstrate God's love for all. Often it is just a basic act of kindness. Sometimes a complex situation calls for a more creative response. But a good rule of thumb is: when in doubt, do the most loving thing.

As for keeping awake, Jesus is pointing out how often people just don't pay attention to what is right before their eyes. We get lulled into sleepwalking through our lives. We stop noticing everyday phenomena, forgetting what miracles they are. Remember how as a child, you one day really looked at a leaf or your hand, getting lost in its marvelous structure and texture. The whole world was new to you and you drank it in. Until it mostly became background noise in your life. And you learn the habit of not only ignoring most of the things around you but particularly the things that make you uncomfortable. Right now we are receiving news every day about powerful men sexually abusing colleagues and acquaintances with less power. And often these predatory acts have gone on for years. Which means those around these men were either spectacularly unobservant or else passively or actively complicit. The Bible condemns complicity in the suffering of others. In his parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), Jesus tells us that the poor sick man was lying at the rich man's gate. So he would have to pass by or even step over the beggar everyday. It's not his wealth but his indifference to suffering literally at his doorstep that explains why he ends up in hell.

But wait! Isn't Jesus talking about being awake for when he returns? Yes, but notice that the reason is that you don't want to be asleep on the job when he returns. Mark talks about the master putting his slaves in charge of his property, each with his work. Matthew's version expands on this: “Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom the master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom the master finds at work when he comes.” (Matthew 24:45-46) In other words, our work is to supply what other people need: physically and spiritually. As we saw in Matthew 25 last week, that means giving food to those who hunger, water to those who thirst, hospitality to those who come to this country, care to those who are sick and the gift of our presence to those who are locked away. But there are other things folks lack. And in the 1800s and 1900s the primary movers of social reform in this country were Christians. They worked on issues such as “economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools and the danger of war,” according to Wikipedia. It is to this movement, the "social gospel," that we owe ideas like daycare, public education, and the abolition of child labor. These Christians found their mandate in the Lord's Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Another thing Jesus explicitly commanded us to do is to spread the gospel. We are to tell people about him and make disciples. And nowhere does Jesus restrict this requirement to paid, professional clergy. It falls to each of us to know enough about Jesus and his good news to tell others. As says in 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect....” We're not supposed to be jerks about it but we are to articulate why we put our trust in and pin our hopes on Christ. All of us. You should know a lot already...if you pay attention in church and read your Bible and put its principles into practice. And your presentation of the gospel doesn't have to be a masterpiece of systematic theology but it should make sense and be true. And it should be sincere, which means it should be the product of personal reflection. Why are you a Christian? What led you to Jesus? Why do you continue to follow him?

Presumably it's in part because Jesus helped you with a problem with yourself, in your life, in your way of looking at the world or at other people. Jesus didn't come to make perfectly good things better. He came to rescue people and a world sliding toward self-destruction. Your personal story may be more or less dire but something in your life needed fixing—you needed to make a change, you needed to be forgiven, you needed peace—and you realized that Jesus is the solution. Just tell that story. When Jesus healed people he often told them to tell others how much the Lord has done for them. That is also evangelism. As Luther said, it is one beggar telling another where to find bread.

The world is not perfect and we can see how the consequences of our selfishness, partisanship, recklessness, shortsightedness, and self-destructive behavior are coming home to roost. It's like a worldwide disaster in slow motion. And that reminds me of what another member of the clergy once said. Mr. Rogers was in fact a Presbyterian minister and he said that, as a child, he got scared watching newsreels of disasters. His mother told him, “Look for the helpers. There are always helpers.”

We are helpers, sent by Christ, to bring the world what it lacks: physical and spiritual health and wholeness. We are called to be healers. We are called to be peacemakers. We are called to the ministry of reconciliation. We are called to love our neighbors and even our enemies as Jesus loves us. We are called to use the gifts the Spirit has given each of us to help in whatever area we are equipped to work. Jesus is coming, we know not when, and he wants to see us laying the foundations of his kingdom, the kingdom of God. Getting there will be painful but we have his word that if we hang on to the end, “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

To Know Him

The scriptures referred to are Matthew 25:31-46.

It's a topic that frequently comes up in the jail: just how many final judgments are there? Is there one for Christians or are we exempt? Are we judged on what we do in this life or just on our faith in Jesus? Quite frankly, you can cite scripture and argue for either side. Some say there are 5 to 7 judgments, depending on which people are being judged—believers, non-believers, Old Testament people, today's Israel, Satan and his angels, etc! Part of this is due to the fact that in the Bible these truths come out along the way as we read of the unfolding, epic saga of God's love for us and his efforts to save us, not in the neat, categorical way you would find in a scholar's book of systematic theology.

So in today's gospel as well as in other places Jesus does say we will be judged on what we do or do not do. He even says that we will be judged for every careless thing we say! (Matthew 12:36-37) He says, “Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven...” Which makes it sound as if it is what we do that saves us. But Jesus goes on, “On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many great works in your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matthew 7:21-23) Which seems to say that salvation is not dependent on specific works or even if they are done in his name but that it is a matter of knowing him.

Well, it's not hard to think of people who have built big churches and launched big ministries in the name of Christ who have turned out to do things that indicate they were far from the mind and heart of Jesus. Con artists and hypocrites and molesters and crooked politicians are always lifting high the cross, as well as wrapping themselves in the flag. Jesus called them wolves in sheep's clothing. (Matthew 7:15) Anyone can say they are doing something in Jesus' name but only some of those things are actually done in his Spirit. For instance, persecuting or mistreating or killing someone in Jesus' name is a contradiction in terms. It would be akin to starting a Jewish orphanage in Hitler's name. It would show that you knew nothing at all about the real person.

And then we have this saying by Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24) This sounds more in line with what Paul says explicitly about our being saved by God's grace through faith and not by works. (Ephesians 2:8-9) But even Paul says, “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, 'As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.' So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10b-12) And “He will reward each according to his works: eternal life to those who by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality, but wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness.” (Romans 2:6-8) So are we saved by faith or by works?

One thing that is clear is that what we do in life and our faith in Jesus are both essential. And the way I reconcile them is through the book of James. He writes, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, keep warm and eat well.' but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? But someone will say, 'You have faith but I have works.' Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works.” (James 2:14-18) He adds, “For just as a body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:26)

The point is that true faith manifests itself in what you do. If you ask me will a footbridge hold you up and I say “Yes” and you still won't walk on it, you really don't have faith in what I said. If I say I trust my doctor and then don't follow his orders to stop smoking and start exercising, I really don't trust him, no matter what I say. These are like the people saying, “Lord, Lord,” to Jesus but who really don't know him. You can't trust someone you don't know. If they did know him, they would also know that following Jesus isn't just about prophesying or casting out demons or doing great works in his name. After all, those are also great ways of advertising yourself and feeding your ego. No wonder big ministries like to draw attention to themselves by doing such things. Maybe in their case Jesus wants them to do less flashy things, things that are harder and that call for humility, like taking care of the unfortunate.

That is the crux of Jesus' parable this week. This is really the only description Jesus gives us of the last judgment and it is interesting for several reasons. First of all people are judged not only on what they do but on what they don't do. In fact, it is the people who actively help the poor and disadvantaged that inherit the kingdom. Those who neglect the same people get punishment instead. So, at least in this parable, sins of omission are particularly evil. It's what you don't do to help others that gets you into trouble.

Also notice that it is social action that is rewarded. It is not the person who improved himself by quiting swearing who is commended but the person who helped someone else, someone who desperately needed aid, someone who can't offer anything in return. Jesus says elsewhere, “...when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:13-14) Paul quotes Jesus as saying, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

But we are not to help the poor and needy just because it is noble. It is a crucial part of being a follower of Christ. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) Conversely when we ignore the poor and unpopular, the help we withhold from them we in fact withhold from Jesus. (Matthew 25:45) How is that possible?

We make much of how Jesus Christ is divine. We often forget that he is fully human as well. As such, he reveals the image of God in which we are all created but which is marred in us by our sin. But that image is still there in all of us and so how we treat others is tantamount to how we treat Jesus, the exact image of God. Jesus is in essence challenging us to see him in everyone, especially those who are often regarded as less than fully productive members of society. We do not treat those who are dirty, sick, hungry, half-naked, asking for a drink, talking with an accent, or imprisoned in the same way we treat clean healthy well-dressed people. But if we trust Christ, we will endeavor to treat everyone as if he or she were Jesus, even if it takes some effort to do so.

To underline this truth, Mother Teresa would sometimes give shift report in one of her shelters for the sick and dying thus: “Jesus in room 501 had trouble keeping his breakfast down this morning. Jesus in 308 is running a fever of 102. The bedsore on Jesus in 415 is healing.” By serving their patients, the sisters were serving their Lord.

And let's face it: it takes faith to look at some people, say, “Somewhere deep in that person is Jesus” and then to act on that realization. People who merely give intellectual assent to beliefs about Jesus but don't actually live like those things are real are not spiritually alive in Christ. They are dead to the Spirit of God who should be living out the divine life in them.

We are saved by faith, not our works, but as James points out, it is impossible for you to have genuine faith in God and not have it change how you think, speak and act. As he put it, “You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that—and tremble with fear.” (James 2:19) There is no virtue in merely believing God exists. I believe that subatomic particles exists. It makes no difference whatsoever in my life.

The problem is that we compartmentalize our beliefs and our lives. We assent to a lot of things on Sunday that you could never deduce about us should you observe our life outside these walls. And I am not merely talking about our sins of commission, though it says in 1 John that those who live in Christ and really know him do not keep on committing the same sins. (1 John 3:6) We should see some progress. And that progress should be especially evident in our love for others. As 1 John says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother or sister in need but has shut down his compassion for him or her, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with word or tongue but in actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:16-18)

What Jesus is judging in the parable is not the actions or inactions of people but the truth of their convictions. If they really believe Jesus, if they really trust him, if they really know and love him, they will look for him in everyone they meet and look out for those in need. If they don't recognize him in others it's because they don't really know him.

It is rather like King Solomon's most famous decision. 2 prostitutes were living together and they had babies within days of each other. One baby died in the middle of the night and one woman contended that the other had switched babies, so it would appear that hers was still alive. Both women claimed the living child. So Solomon proposed bisecting the remaining baby and giving half to each. One woman thought that was fair; the other pleaded for the life of the child and that he be given to the other woman. That reaction revealed the real mother, the one who cared enough that she would give him up to save him. (2 Kings 3:16-28) Our actions betray how we really think and feel.

Let's face it: The largest religious group (31.2% of the earth's people or 2.3 billion folks) claim that they are Christians. That should mean that nearly 1/3 of the world's population is following Jesus. Which means they should be treating others as they would like to be treated, loving their neighbors as they love themselves and loving even their enemies. Do we see that? Or do we see so-called Christians mistreating others? Do we see them saying hateful rather than loving things about others, including fellow Christians? Do we see them refusing to feed the hungry because it causes homeless people to gather in their “backyard”? Do we see them resisting giving the thirsty drinkable water because it is more expensive? Do we see them restricting access to healthcare for the sick because the poorest people tend to be the sickest and use more and therefore cost more? Do we see them shun the alien because they fear him and think he is a totally different kind of person than them with different needs and desires? Do we see them write off those in prison and make it increasingly difficult for them to get out and rebuild their lives because they do not forgive others as they ask God to forgive their sins?

If we see those who say they are Christians, not acting in any way like Christ, I think we have to conclude they could very well be the people who will say “Lord, Lord” at the last judgment and hear Jesus say “I don't know who you are.” And the problem won't be that they didn't do sufficient good works to save themselves; it will be that their works will reveal that they really weren't saved by Jesus because they didn't put their trust in him and that they neither know nor love him. There is no evidence of Jesus in their lives. They are at most like people who claim they are "big fans” of this actor or that genre of music and yet you would be hard pressed to prove they were anything more than casually acquainted with the subject. These are people who would like to be followers of Jesus the way a lot of folks would like to be rock musicians or movie stars but not so much that they are willing to put in the practice and long hours and to make the sacrifices necessary to make that a reality. They are definitely not going to disown themselves and take up their crosses and follow Jesus along the narrow way that leads to the kingdom of God. They are Christian wannabees.

Does this make you nervous? Does this make you wonder if you are really putting your whole trust in Jesus Christ? Good. I think that is what Jesus intends this parable to do. Just as the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, the opposite of faith in Jesus is not so much lack of trust as not caring enough about him to make a decision either way. If you don't care about the things Jesus cared about, like helping those who are sick, hungry, thirsty, aliens, or prisoners, you have to ask yourself about your relationship with him. How deep is it? How well do you know him? To know Jesus is to love him. To love Jesus is to become like him.

To be a Christian is to embark on the journey of being Christlike. And that means reacting to sin and injustice and suffering as he would, that is, by forgiving, healing, feeding, comforting, and making things right. In the very first chapter of Mark, it says, “A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, 'If you want to, you can make me clean.' Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. 'I want to,' he said. 'Be clean!'” Jesus helped all who came to him, everyone in need he encountered, because he wanted to. That was the core of his being, to reach out in love and make people better. And I pray God we get to the point where we don't need stories or rules to tell us to reach out and help, but we just do it. Because it is second nature to us. Because it is Christ's nature. Because we are in him and he is in us and because we just want to. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

We're All Gifted

The scriptures referred to are Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and Matthew 25:14-30.

They were discussing nuclear war on the NPR program the 1A this week. Why? Because current world events made it relevant. They also discussed the heroin overdose problem in this country. Why? Because the latest figures show that in the first 9 months of this year we have topped last year's total of 52,000 deaths. You may notice we haven't been talking about things like a slumping economy. Why? Because the economy, or at least the part that benefits corporations and investors, is booming. When things are going well, we take them for granted. We focus on what's wrong. Which makes sense.

But I think the perception that things are basically going well is part of the reason that people are drifting from faith in God. We live in the richest country in the world; there is no war taking place in the streets; we have lots of junk food, and plenty of distractions in movies, TV and the internet. It's bread and circuses, the same stuff the Roman Empire used to pacify the populace. Satisfy people's physical and emotional needs and they will oblige by ignoring the spiritual emptiness inside. Or they look for a spiritual solution that will mirror what the bread and circuses do: just make us feel good. The spiritual void will be mollified for the time being and no demands will be made on you. Just spend some time being quiet and thinking about your breathing. Or go to a church that tells you how much God loves you just the way you are and how he just wants you to be happy.

Sure, after a while of taking in consumer goods and junk spirituality, the emptiness reasserts itself. You realize that something's not right but you may not be able to figure out exactly what. It's like having vague symptoms or a slight bit of pain. It's somewhat disconcerting but it's not enough to get you to the doctor or back to church. In my experience, people don't get help until something hurts really badly. It's true of physical disease as well as spiritual dis-ease.

That brings us to all the doom and gloom in today's lectionary readings. First up: Zephaniah waxing bloodchilling in his description of the the Day of the Lord. When people note that God in the Old Testament appears to be angry a lot, I tell them to imagine a parent with a bunch of unruly toddlers, doing all the things he or she told them not to. They are hurting one another and that is not cool. Passages like this reading from the Hebrew Bible are the equivalent of saying “Wait till your father gets home!” Unfortunately, this is not working on these kids. They are saying to themselves, “The Lord will not do good, nor will he harm.” (Zephaniah 1:12) They aren't worried about Dad coming home. Everything's going well with them. How could the good times end?

I'm sure people living in Hawaii the day before December 7, 1941 felt the same way. And the people living in New York before 9/11. And in Las Vegas before October 1. We rarely see disasters coming. Even with the week's worth of warning before hurricane Irma, few of us realized just how devastating it would be. Zephaniah describes a complacent, wealthy populace who cannot imagine that things could ever get that bad.

And one reason might be that at the time Zephaniah was prophesying, Josiah, king of Judah, was making reforms. During the refurbishing of the temple in Jerusalem, the Book of the Law, either Deuteronomy or the entire Torah, was found. When it was read to Josiah, he was shocked at how far the nation had strayed. He resolved to clean up the land. He tore down the pagan shrines and reinstituted the celebration of Passover.

But the rot had set in. People had incorporated paganism into the culture. They were even sacrificing their children by fire to the pagan god Molech. And archaeologists have found evidence of enormous numbers of child sacrifices, something God explicitly rejected in the story of Abraham and Isaac. We may wonder how could people possibly let their children be killed like that. People of the future will probably ask the same thing when they look back on our lack of action in the face of Columbine, Sandy Hook, the recent attacks on a church in Texas and a school in rural California, plus the fact that at 1300 deaths a year, shootings are the 3rd leading cause of death for US children. They will wonder if, like the people of Jeremiah's time, we love something more than we do our kids.

Besides betraying God, the people of Judah sinned against their neighbors. Jeremiah also prophesied during the reign of Josiah. He wrote, “'Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch men. Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it, they do not defend the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?' declares the Lord. 'Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?'” (Jeremiah 5:26-29) Jesus said the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors. The people were violating both.

Yet the sense that things were generally going well kept the people from noticing how spiritually and morally sick they were. But just as a neglected mole that's changing color and growing in size can eventually turn into metastatic brain cancer, the spreading spiritual rot would erupt in the horrific consequences we see in Zephaniah.

Paul saw the same complacency in his time. The Pax Romana made folks blind to the corruption and injustice around them. So he warned Christians to “keep awake and be sober...We belong to the day." Nowadays we would say, “Our lives should be transparent.” People should see no deception in us, let alone self-deception. We need to acknowledge that we are all sinners. The difference is that Christians are forgiven and are letting God's Spirit reform them from the inside out. In response to the spiritual threats in a complacent culture, Paul also uses the metaphor for the armor of God that he more fully develops in Ephesians 6:10-18. Here he mentions simply the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation. Faith, hope and love. How do those protect us?

Faith is trusting in God, in his goodness and love. That keeps us from putting our ultimate trust in the lesser things of this world that pretend they can replace God. Hope is believing in a future where God will triumph and fulfill his promises to save us. That protects us from despair. Love is our response to such a good and faithful and loving God. How can we help but love a God who loves us enough to send his son to die for us? Love of God and of those he made in his image and for whom Jesus died motivates us to fix and not simply accept what's wrong with the world. 

But how can we show that love? One way is found in our gospel reading. Jesus tells a parable about a man who entrusts his property to his slaves. The “talent” in question is actually a measure of weight, around 75 pounds of either copper, silver or gold. So even the guy given just 1 talent had a considerable amount of money to work with. And while the other 2 servants get enterprising with the money they are given, the man entrusted with 1 talent buries it. Perhaps he is intimidated by the responsibility. Perhaps he is comparing himself to his energetic coworkers and thinking he can't compete. For whatever reasons, he is too afraid to take chances on even the most conservative form of investment. He never heard the expression “Use it or lose it.”

The moral is clear. God gives us all gifts and we are to use them in his service. And even the least of them is fairly awesome. We are not to bury them. We are to do as much good as we can with them. It's not a competition. The master praises the person with 2 talents using the same words he says to the person with 5. God is just interested in seeing what we can do with what we have.

Now when we look at this parable we often think of talents in the modern sense: abilities to do things in different fields of endeavor. We say things like, “She is a talented actor,” or “He is a talented singer,” or “She has a talent for dealing with people or computers or money.” And sometimes we compare ourselves with people with a lot of talents like composer, lyricist, playwright and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton and Moana fame or like composer Richard Rodgers, an EGOT (winner of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony) who, like Miranda, has also won a Pulitzer. Such people can intimidate those of us with lesser talents. But why? There are plenty of people who have singular talents that are invaluable. You don't care if your doctor is also a gifted violinist. You don't care if the guy who puts on your new roof is also a chess grandmaster. You don't care if the cook at your favorite restaurant is a novelist n the side. You can do a lot with just one talent. But you need to exercise it, hone it, and practice it until you get better.

But let's look at gifts God distributes other than talents. Some people just have 1 good idea. I recently heard of a 12 year old girl who had a neat idea on how to keep roofs from flying off in hurricanes. She remembered how airplane wings work. The curved top side lessens the wind pressure over the wing so the pressure under the wing lifts it. What if you turn the wing over and put it on a roof. The very wind pressure of the hurricane that peels roofs off pushes the inverted wing down onto the house, keeping the roof in place. It worked on her model in a wind tunnel. Will it work under real world conditions? Who knows but it is certainly worth looking into. There are lots of people whose contribution to society was one main thing, like George de Mestral, inventor of Velcro, but that one thing made the world or some aspect of it better.

Other gifts God gives us are good qualities such as perseverance and bravery, both of which were displayed by Desmond Doss. He was a Seventh Day Adventist who refused to kill or carry a weapon but who nevertheless volunteered for military service in World War 2. He became a medic. He managed to save 75 wounded infantrymen during the Battle of Okinawa despite being his being wounded 4 times. While under fire, Doss dragged the soldiers, usually one at a time, to the edge of an escarpment nicknamed Hacksaw Ridge and lowered them by rope to help below. He is the only conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor. He didn't display talent so much as virtue.

Another gift God gives us is our family. This may be the hardest gift to work with. You can invest most of your life into family members and they still may not turn out as you expected. But we see what happens when people neglect their families. For every one inmate I meet with who has a stable, intact family that loves them, I meet 10 who have experienced such adverse events in their childhood as abuse, neglect, alcoholic or drug-abusing household members, and family members who went to prison. Small wonder people who come from chaotic families have a hard time becoming stable productive citizens themselves. You can't protect your children from all trauma; you can work not to be the one to traumatize them.

Another gift God gives us is one another. We are supposed to love others, not leave them to deal with their demons by themselves. We are supposed to pray for them, not prey upon them. We are supposed to support them, not squeeze every last ounce of work and value out of them and then discard them. As we saw in Jeremiah, God expects us to help and not harm one another. We are especially commanded to look out for the poor and unfortunate. That, not our GNP, is the true measure of a nation's health. Again we are the richest nation on earth. If we invest it in the pleasure of a few rather than the good of all, how do you think God will view our stewardship of what we've been given?

One last gift I want to bring up is that of our planet. God has given us a great place to live. One of the reasons we are on earth, according to Genesis 2:5, is to take care of it, rather as a gardener does. We haven't been good to our planet but for most of our history there weren't enough humans and our technology wasn't powerful enough to do lasting damage to our world. But in the early 1800s we reached a world population of 1 billion and just 200 years later, we have 7 ½ billion people. By the end of this century we are projected to have 11 billion humans on earth. Anyone who thinks this won't affect our environment is not using the brains God gave him. We are rapidly converting land from forests, wetlands and other natural landscapes into farmlands, suburbs, mines, sites for wood extraction and infrastructure, destroying the habitat of millions of creatures. Again this is God's creation and we are meant to be stewards of it. How do you think he will feel about what we are doing to the place?

Which brings us to the instrument of the awful things we see in the few apocalyptic parts of scripture. All the movies and novels about the Biblical end of the world usually have it starting through supernatural means. But the immediate calamity that Zephaniah predicted was accomplished by humans. King Josiah was killed in an ill-advised battle with Pharaoh Neco. He was their last good king. 12 years later, Babylon invaded Judah and took its people into exile. And if you look at the disasters in the middle of the book of Revelation, a lot of them—war, famine, disease, economic collapse, drought, water pollution, fires—are or could easily be man-made. Even earthquakes, we've discovered, can be caused by fracking. You can see many of the calamities predicted as merely the results of us ignoring the natural laws built into creation and the moral laws most human beings intuitively understand. To quote the comic strip Pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us!

All of these problems, by the way, are already in process. But we humans are really bad at recognizing threats that are slow-moving. I'm not sure you really could boil a frog to death by incrementally turning up the heat under a pan of water he was in but the analogy, in terms of global warming, is definitely putting that to the test. And we have no place to jump to.

So what is the solution? Using our God-given talents, ideas, perseverance and bravery to invest in our families and our planet. But this is going to take sacrifices. So we need something more: we need to turn to Jesus, open our hearts to his Spirit, disown ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. We need to love one another not merely as much as we love ourselves but as self-sacrificially as Jesus loves us. As it says in Philippians, “Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat each other as more important than yourself. Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had...” (Philippians 2:3-5, NET) Jesus was smart, eloquent and articulate; he could heal and feed people; he could even raise them from the dead. He could have used those gifts to make himself the most powerful man the world has ever seen. But he didn't. He didn't use his powers to make himself rich or even comfortable. Instead he used them to help people. He invested his talents and his time (all his time; his entire life) in making the world a better place. He used all he was given for the good of others.

So we need to ask ourselves: what would Jesus want us to do with our time, our talents, our treasures? Because they aren't really ours. They are on loan from our Lord. When he returns he's going to want to see that his trust in us has paid off. And as we've seen in the parable, it needn't be spectacular. Your results may vary. But he does want to see a result.

What has God given you? What are you going to do with it? 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Coming Soon

The scriptures referred to are 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Matthew 25:1-13.

How do you explain the unfamiliar? That's at the heart of one of my favorite Green Lantern stories. In each sector of space, the guardians of the universe have selected a sentient being who is honest and fearless to act as a sort of intergalactic police officer. They equip him with a power ring, which channels the collected willpower of the universe and turns it into a non-lethal beam of light which can take the shape of whatever the individual Green Lantern chooses. Thus it can be a shield or a big shovel to scoop up the bag guys or a cage in which to keep them. Every 24 hours the ring must be recharged by a power unit that looks like a green lantern. As he recharges it, the ring's bearer recites the following oath: “In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight! Let those who worship evil's might beware my power—Green Lantern's light!”

Though the comic book chiefly concerns the adventures of earth's Green Lantern, we often see his colleagues in the Green Lantern Corps. The artists and writers have had a field day inventing all kinds of alien Green Lanterns. One is a plant, one is living lava, one is a robot, one is an energy being who inhabits her ring and one is a virus. But my favorite Green Lantern origin story concerns Rot Lop Fan, who evolved in a pitch black region of space. He has no eyes. So how can he understand the concept of light or color? The task of recruiting him seems impossible. And then it dawns on another Green Lantern to recast her explanation of the ring and its powers in terms of sound rather than light. She reshapes the ring into a bell and reinterprets the oath. So now when Rot Lop Fan, protector of the Obsidian Deeps, recharges his bell he recites the following oath: “In loudest din or hush profound, my ears hear evil's slightest sound. Let those who toll evil's knell beware my power—the F-sharp bell!”

In today's New Testament readings, Jesus and Paul have a similar problem. How do you explain something people were unfamiliar with—Jesus' second coming—using images and concepts they already grasp? The problem is that both then and now folks too often get so hung up on the specifics of the images and details that they miss the point. That's akin to Rot Lop Fan deciding to use his bell only to make music, rather than to fight for justice.

In Thessalonica, the Christians were anticipating Jesus' return, which they thought would happen very soon. But they were worried about those in their church who had died before Jesus' reappearance. How would they be saved? So Paul tries to comfort them by explaining something outside human experience: the breaking into this world of the other. In doing so he uses familiar images from scripture combined with the symbolism of an imperial visit.

The picture Paul paints of Jesus coming on the clouds comes from the book of Daniel: “As I gazed in visions of the night, I saw one like a son of man, coming with the clouds. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion, glory and kingship, that all the peoples, nations and languages will serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which will not pass away, and his kingdom shall not be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)

To this Paul adds the language and the imagery of a royal visit. A herald would announce that the king is coming, trumpets would sound upon his approach and the citizens would come out to meet him and escort him into the city. The Greek word for that kind of meeting is precisely the one Paul uses when he describes the resurrected dead, along with those still living, coming together with their Lord. When Jesus comes to establish her kingdom, its citizens, both the living and the dead, will be reunited in greeting him.

Much has been made of this passage by proponents of dispensationalism. This is a method of Bible interpretation popular in fundamentalist and evangelical churches. It divides up scriptural history into 6 or 7 dispensations, or periods of time in which God deals with people in different ways. The attraction of dispensationalism is that it organizes the sprawling saga of scripture into nice neat epochs that operate according to clear rules. (here) It also gives a schematic presentation of progressive revelation. The problem is that it is so determined to make everything fit neatly that it tends to ignore all nuance, subtlety and ambiguity in the Bible. It is so concrete it takes things that are obviously meant to be symbolic as literal. And it has systematized the various visions of the end times into a rigid timetable that has become enshrined in most evangelical eschatology. (here)

This passage from 1st Thessalonians is at the heart of of the idea of the “Rapture” that figures into structure of the Left Behind series of novels. It comes from the Latin word “rapio” used in the Vulgate to translate part of verse 17. It literally means “to be caught up.” It was John Nelson Darby, the guy who systematized dispensationalism, who came up with the unique idea that this rapture would occur before the 7 year period of tribulation mentioned in Revelation 7:14. Darby posited that Jesus would make a 2-stage return. First he would secretly return to rescue believers from the tribulation, all the plagues and disasters mentioned in Revelation. After they sat things out in heaven, Jesus would return a second time with the raptured saints in tow. He would win the battle of Armageddon, hold the last judgment, and inaugurate the kingdom of God. The way this ties together difficult-to-understand passages from Daniel, Revelation, Thessalonians and others appeals to the orderly mind. The problem is that there are passages in the gospels that indicate believers will suffer through the end times. (Matthew 24:9-13; Mark 13:20; John 16:33) Most non-dispensationalist scholars do not see any reason to insert a secret rapture before or even halfway through the final tribulation. It smacks of reading into the scriptures something you want to see.

Part of the problem is the language used here. Though in other passages, Paul speaks of Jesus “appearing,” here he writes of Christ “descending from heaven” and of believers, living and resurrected, being “caught up” to meet him in the air. So lots of folks think he is describing a physical event. But as psychologist Dr. Steven Pinker points out, all languages use a kind of internal geography and geometry. We talk of bringing a subject “up” or letting someone “down” or talking something “out” or “going further into” a matter. We even talk of people “coming down” to the Keys as if mainland Florida was mountainous. Similarly we speak of “God Most High,” or of “lifting up”our hearts in praise, or of the “descent” of the Holy Spirit. Now we are talking of real things and events but that doesn't mean they literally involve physical movement or locations. The return of Jesus is real but to insist he must re-enter the atmosphere from outer space, using not the space shuttle but water vapors, is like thinking that because God says Israel is the apple of his eye, he must have fruit in place of eyeballs. (Zechariah 2:8)

Remember the context: Paul is trying to comfort a church going through persecution. He is not laying out a definitive order of endtime events but reminding this parish that transformation and resurrection applies to all Christians.

In our gospel Jesus is discussing his return with a different end in mind. He, like Paul, is using something familiar to explain something that is not. In this case, Jesus is using the sequence of events preceding a wedding at that time. After a day of dancing, the bridegroom and his party would process through the streets so everyone could wish him well. The bridesmaids would leave the bride, take torches and wait outside for him to appear so they could take him to his betrothed. It might take him a while to wend his way through the whole town so he might arrive quite late. In the parable, 5 of the bridemaids know this and so they prepare for the possibility by bringing extra oil to dip their rag-wrapped torches into. 5 don't make any preparations. They all fall asleep while waiting. When they hear someone shouting that the bridegroom is near, the wise bridesmaids are ready. The foolish bridesmaids are unable to get their torches going. Sharing the oil would mean no one would have enough to accompany the couple for the whole procession. When the foolish bridesmaids return after finding a late-night merchant to sell them some more oil, they find out that the party has passed them by. The bridegroom has claimed his bride from her parents house and taken her under a canopy to his house for the wedding feast. The unprepared are shut out of the celebration.

People argue about what the torches or the oil represent but the point is simply to be ready for the Messiah to return or you will be left out. Whereas Paul is using the Second Coming to comfort Christians in distress, Jesus is using the same event to wake up complacent followers. And those are the two main reasons that the Bible tells us what God is planning to do in the future: to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Prophecy is not included in the Bible so the curious can work out the date of Armageddon or to decode who the beast in Revelation is. It is there to give hope to the suffering and a warning to the slumbering.

What do we do in the meantime? We carry out the mission God has given us: proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God in all we say and do. That means living as citizens of the incipient kingdom, modeling its principles, and spreading Jesus' reign by inviting others to follow him. We are to teach and to heal, to rebuke and to reconcile, to love and to forgive, to help and to guide, to listen and to understand, to create and to welcome. The wrong response to the delay in Jesus' return is to sit back and just wait. In other parables, while waiting for the master to return, the servants are to invest money left in their stewardship, or to nurture and harvest crops, or to simply continue with their tasks. The last thing you want to be doing when the boss comes back is goofing off.

Contrary to popular eschatology, Jesus isn't returning on a cosmic bungee cord, to grab us out of the world when it needs us most, and then pull us back up to heaven. The 2 images used in our readings are of a king visiting a city and of a bridegroom coming for his bride. Those who go to meet him then accompany him back to their city or back to the bride they left at her home. He's not turning around to take the people away from their city or to leave the bride behind. 

Nor is Jesus simply returning to destroy the world. He is coming to establish heaven on earth and to renew both. And the good we accomplish in his name will be incorporated into the new creation. That means we must be invested in renewing, rehabilitating, restoring and recreating the world and the society we live in.

Every Sunday in the creed we mention Christ's coming again. In the Eucharistic prayer we not only look back at the glorious things Jesus did for us in the past but we also look forward to his return. Jesus never intended us to spend a lot of time trying to imagine just how he would return. And he forbids us to speculate on exactly when he would come. Only the Father knows that. (Matthew 24:36) Our job is to proclaim that he will come and that he will set things right. That should warn those who do wrong, comfort those who have experienced wrong, and awaken those who have been asleep to the fact that things have been going wrong.

If the presiding bishop were coming to Big Pine Key, you better believe we'd be getting prepared for the visit. We use every form of communication to tell folks she or he was coming and what everyone needs to do first. If your CEO was coming to your workplace, you'd make sure everything was working properly and that everybody was doing their job. If either were coming to your house, you would make needed repairs and take out the trash and invite everyone you knew.

Well, the King of the universe is coming to earth to see what we've done with the place since that last painful visit. Isn't there something we should be working on?