Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Least

There is a word in the King James translation of the Bible that no other version uses. And that's because we just don't call people “froward” anymore. Not that there aren't people who fit the definition, which is “stubbornly perverse.” but the word has just fallen out of usage. But it would be a good way of to describe the process Stephen Colbert uses to craft his soon-to-end show The Colbert Report, in which he plays a TV pundit whose opinions are so comically the opposite of common sense that they expose their own logical flaws. On Terry Gross' NPR show, Fresh Air, his head writer said that first the real Stephen had to work out his actual point of view on whatever news story he was covering. Then he had to figure out how his character would see the same news and then how to have him express it in a way that makes plain the folly of the people involved. You might say The Colbert Report is a satirical exercise in frowardness.

Many of his viewers may not know that the real Colbert is a Roman Catholic who teaches Sunday School. Which explains this line which concluded a Christmas message on his show. He said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”

A prime example of this is the current political crisis in Fort Lauderdale. The city has made feeding the homeless, if not actually illegal, at least extremely difficult, by imposing all kinds of special conditions. As a result the police have cited 3 people who violated the ordinance. They include 2 clergy, one of whom is Fr. Mark Sims, a colleague of mine, and 90 year old Arnold Abbott, who has been feeding the homeless for decades through his organization Love Thy Neighbor. The World War 2 vet started his charity with his late wife and has successfully fought the city before on similar charges. The mayor of Ft. Lauderdale has been caught in face-saving lies that the city has dozens of feeding sites when in fact there are only 4. He has said the ordinance was for public health and safety and then admitted it was for the sake of tourism. The real problem is that because a percentage of the homeless are mentally ill and because a percentage abuse drugs and alcohol, they might act inappropriately in public. Wondering if the city is just as hard on the Spring Breakers, tourists who also tend to behave badly in pubic, I went to only to find the page has been removed.

Are Colbert and the critics of Ft. Lauderdale's draconian rules on feeding the homeless right? Is our treatment of the poor and needy a top priority in Jesus' eyes?

Judging by our gospel passage (Matthew 25:31-46) the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Jesus paints a memorable picture of the last judgment. He, the Son of Man, is the judge. And the criteria used does not include the behaviors that a lot of people think are God's most hated sins. There is no mention of homosexuality; in fact, there is no mention of sexual sins at all. There is no mention of doctrinal heresies. There is no mention of denominational distinctives and practices that some prominent preachers make sound like matters of eternal life and death. Jesus focuses on 6 categories of needy people and how we treat them: the hungry, the thirsty, the alien, the naked, the sick and the incarcerated. Why these specific 6 and not other sins?

The first five of these are typically found in Jewish lists of virtuous behavior. And that is no surprise because caring for the poor and needy is also commanded numerous times in the Hebrew Bible. Deuteronomy 15 says, “ must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.” If you do, it goes on to say, God will consider you guilty. On the other hand, “You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do.” (Deuteronomy 15:10) In Isaiah 58:6 & 7, God says, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?” In Jeremiah 7:5-7, God says, “For, if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a person and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor follow after other gods, bringing harm upon yourselves, then I will allow you to live in this land, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.” So Jesus is in line with the same concerns his Father makes clear in the Torah and through the prophets.

What Jesus adds is interesting: “I was in prison and you visited me.” I can tell you from experience that the thing prisoners miss the most is contact with family and friends. Letters and pictures are good; phone calls are better, though they are more expensive than you can imagine because they handled by a for profit company; but visits are the best. I have seen inmates go from despondent to resilient after a visit from a spouse, a sibling, a child or a friend. It assures them that they are not forgotten or unloved. It keeps them involved in the lives of those outside whose lives are going on while the inmate's life is on hold. It gives them something to look forward to in an environment that generally crushes hope.

This does lead some commentators, however, to combine this commandment about prisoners with Jesus' saying that “If you do it to these, the least of my siblings, you do it to me,” and say that Jesus is not talking about all unfortunate people but only his disciples. They point out that the first missionaries, carrying the good news, were dependent on hospitality for food and drink and a place to stay. They also might be foreigners to those they were evangelizing. And, like Peter, John, Paul and Barnabas, they often got arrested for disturbing the peace. So is the last judgment based merely on how one treats Christians in distress?

I don't think so. 2 conditions are hard to tie only to missionaries. How often would an evangelist find himself naked? And sickness is a condition way too broadly experienced among all people and not specifically tied to preachers. True, the passages from the Hebrew Bible we quoted above seem to apply primarily to Jews. But in the books of Jonah and Isaiah we see that God is also interested in the welfare and salvation of Gentiles. And Jesus commissions his disciples to preach the good news to all nations. Nor did Jesus limit his own ministry to Jews. He healed the centurion's slave and the Syro-Phoenician woman's daughter and the demoniac in the Decapolis, an area so pagan that they were raising pigs. He revealed his identity to the Samaritan woman.

Christianity cannot be exclusive. Unlike Judaism there is no ethnic component to being a Christian. Anybody is a potential Christian. And most people did not come to Jesus already convinced he was the Messiah but only followed him after he met their needs. So how do we convincingly bring the good news of God's love to others if we do so only with words and not also with works of compassion?

But if the last judgment depends on social action, what about role of grace? Is Paul in conflict with Jesus on the basis of our salvation? Does this mean that if Ted Bundy had just cut a hefty check to the United Way or Habitat for Humanity, he would be in heaven?

No. And it is instructive that in the case of Bundy the only such contradiction I've found in his life is that he volunteered at a suicide hotline. But given his M.O. who's to say that he didn't get a kind of vicarious thrill out of having some power over those contemplating their death? Certainly nothing else in his biography indicates any concern with helping the helpless. Quite the contrary. He preyed on helpless women.

Nor does the apostle who wrote nearly half the books in the New Testament contradict Jesus. In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehard so that we may do them.” In other words, we are not saved by good works but we are saved so that we may do good works.

In the same way, exercise will not fix a person in heart failure, but after receiving a heart transplant, the doctor will want the person to eventually increase his exercise to keep the new heart healthy. In fact, doctors use exercise to diagnose your state of health. Just as being able to pass the treadmill test shows your physical health, helping the unfortunate shows your spiritual health.

And remember we were created in the image of the God who is love. If we let the Holy Spirit restore that marred image in us, we should naturally be drawn to show that love concretely to our fellow human beings whom God loved so much that he sent his Son to save them. And we can't just love those whom it is natural and easy to love. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your siblings, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, since God loves all so should we. (Matthew 5:46-48)

And since we are talking about the image of God, remember that image is seen most clearly in Jesus. As it says in Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God...” So if we are made in the image of God, we are also made in the image of Christ. It may be hard to see at times and in certain people; it may be marred by sin but it is there. God told Noah that murder is wrong because humans are created in God's image. (Genesis 9:6) Murder is symbolic deicide. And neglecting or mistreating others is neglecting or mistreating Christ.

Look at it this way. The last judgment is like a diagnostic test. Those who supply the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the alien, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned are spiritually healthy. The transplantation of Christ's Spirit has obviously been successful. They are trusting the Great Physician and are following Doctor's orders. They can be released into the general population of the kingdom of God where the love of God and love of others need not be commanded; it is now second nature to its citizens. Those who don't show the signs of spiritual health—a demonstrable love for all others who were created in God's image and for whom Christ died—are spiritually dead. They go into quarantine. They cannot be allowed to infect others with their apathy toward or hatred of other human beings.

Will they ever be released? Can they ever be released? One thing is for sure. If they do not change, they cannot enter the kingdom of God, no more than a TB patient who refuses to take his or her meds can be allowed out of quarantine and into the public. It's not a matter of whether they are nice or not. Hitler loved dogs and children. Ann Rule, a former cop and true crime writer, worked alongside Ted Bundy at the suicide hot line. She even thought of introducing the handsome, charming Bundy to her daughter! It's not a matter of whether they can be pleasant but whether they are cured.

Ultimately it is up to Jesus Christ. As the one in whose image we were made and the one who lived and died as one of us, you could not ask for a fairer or more merciful judge. But his kingdom is the kingdom of those who love. And love must be voluntary. We tend to think that people being excluded from the kingdom is terrible but to put into God's kingdom someone who will not love or reciprocate love is as bad as forcing someone into a marriage with someone they do not love. It would be tantamount to rape. As it says in 1 John 4:7 & 8, “Beloved, let us love one another for love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love.” Anyone who cannot love the poor and needy and homeless, who cannot see past the dirt and the uncouth behavior and the mental and physical illnesses, who can't be bothered to look for the image of Jesus buried in the least of his siblings, would never be happy in the kingdom. It will be too full of those kind of people—you know, the ones who care about others.

Those people are annoying, aren't they? The ones who feed the hungry and run clothing drives for the threadbare poor and who volunteer at hospitals and at prisons and who work with immigrants. They show the rest of us up. They make us feel like sham Christians. They leave us other Christians with 2 options: we can envy them or we can emulate them. Nor need we do exactly what they do. You may be squeamish about sick people; choose some other ministry. You may be frightened to go into a jail or prison; it's really not at all like it's depicted in TV and movies but you can help the hungry. And there are always positions in any ministry for organizers, for improvisers, for gofers, for drivers, for handymen and women, for people who can do legal things, or medical things or who can raise money or who speak different languages or who can just listen to people.

Never done anything like that before? You know what—everything you've ever done in your life you didn't know how to do at some point. You just learned what you could and then you did it. That includes the biggest ever responsibility a person could have which we still leave to amateurs: parenting. And if you can learn to take total responsibility for someone who is completely unable to take care of themselves, you can take on the limited and shared responsibility of a ministry.

The first person to smart off to God was Cain. God asks where Abel is and Cain says, “Am I my brother's keeper?” A better translation of the Hebrew is “guardian or protector.” Since he had just killed Abel, the question is moot. But the implied answer found in all the rest of the Bible is “Yes!” We are responsible for each other. You do what you can to help people. There are some you can't help because they won't let you but that doesn't mean you can conveniently write off everyone in that circumstance. Everyone in this world was created in the image of our Lord. We serve him by serving them. And if we look for that image in them long enough, maybe they will find it in themselves as well, and turn to the One whose image it is. And one day Jesus will welcome you both into the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Teach Us to Number Our Days

A burial litany in the Book of Common Prayer begins, “In the midst of life we are in death.” It seems a bit morbid to us. But for most of history, it would have rung true. People died of things that today could be taken care of by simple first aid. A small cut would get infected and you would die. 50 was considered old age. Half of all children did not make it to age 5. And of course a plague could wipe out large swathes of the population. It it estimated that the Black Death killed as much as 2/3 of the people in Europe. So the words “In the midst of life we are in death” were not morbid but a plain statement of fact.

Today things have changed. If you get a small cut, you simply use Neosporin and a Bandaid. People are living a lot longer. Infant mortality is down. More people die from lightning strikes than have died of Ebola—here in the US. There are still parts of the world where not much has changed in regards to the death toll.

Our psalm today, Psalm 90, is a meditation on the brevity of life. Surprisingly for such an old piece of writing, it does speak of a life span of 70 or 80 years. But that's the maximum limit, not the expectancy. According to the actuarial tables, the average person born this year can expect, barring accidents and illness, to live into their mid- to late-80s. But that's an average. If you are poor, if you have a family history of heart disease or cancer or mental illness, if your job involves manual labor, or danger, you may not get to the age the numbers crunchers say you could.

Our lives are relatively brief. Certain tortoises live a couple of hundred years. Civilizations might last for several hundred years. Certain trees live for millennia. And according to the age of the universe, our whole existence as a species has lasted for but a tick of the cosmic clock.

Some people take from that fact that our lives, like anything that is in limited supply, are precious and that our reaction should be to savor each moment. And there is much to be said for that approach. For most of us it means to seek good experiences and build up good memories of family and friends. But for some it means grabbing for all the good things you can get, with little or no regard for others. Some people use the expiration date on life as an excuse to be greedy, to be aggressive, to be self-indulgent, to break the rules because—Hey! What will it matter when we're all dead? YOLO: You only live once. So why hold back on anything? Why deny yourself anything? Why do anything you don't have to?

And if there is no afterlife, no judgment, no squaring of accounts, those people have a point. It is from Isaiah 22:13, after all, that we get the saying, “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we shall die.” There is a whole genre of Hollywood comedies which depict a cautious, conformist person learning to cut loose. And rarely do they suffer any dire consequences. Funny ones, yes. But not death, disease or the devastation of their lives. Indeed, the person is seen as happier and healthier in the last scene of the film.

But just as that saying from Isaiah designates an attitude the prophet sees as perverse and foolish, most of us realize that such a lifestyle would sacrifice stable, long-term relationships for selfish pleasures. We all know people who are well-known for having a "good time" on a regular basis, though those good times are punctuated with fights with their friends and lovers, inability to hold or advance in a job, drug or alcohol abuse and periods of incarceration. I meet a lot of them at the jail. The consequences of such a chaotic life never seems to dissuade such folks from repeating the same patterns of behavior. Living in the moment apparently entails forgetting about past moments that might be instructive for the present and not taking into consideration future moments that are readily foreseeable if one acts in certain ways at the current point in time.

Most of us know that savoring each moment is not a license to do whatever pops into your mind. We accept limits on what to enjoy when and how. So why don't we?

One thing that interferes is the busyness of life. We have been swallowed the myth of multitasking. And I call it a myth because science tells us we really can't do two or more things at a time; we just rapidly switch between the various tasks and as a consequence do none of them well. Yet some jobs expect multitasking. Nursing for instance. Since in Florida you can legally be assigned up to 40 patients per shift at a nursing home, you are expected to not only pass all meds but also answer the phone, handle numerous small crises, order tests, answer questions, do any new admissions that come in and not make any mistakes or forget any details. Is it any wonder that vital things get overlooked and critical errors are made? Is it any wonder that so many nurses leave the profession? If you went into nursing to help people and find yourself barely able to hold a meaningful conversation with a patient who is crying, depressed or has a complex problem, because you have literally hundreds of pills to push and dozens of things to document, you find yourself tempted to go into another line of work. Other jobs are similarly asking people to do an open-ended number of tasks in a limited amount of time. We are losing a lot of people who used to be passionate about their professions because they are being asked to do the impossible: produce huge quantities of top quality work quickly.

Even when we are trying to have fun, we never seem to be concentrating on one thing at a time anymore. Instead we try to do 2 or more fun things at once and lose a lot of the pleasure each normally affords. We try to read Facebook and watch our favorites shows simultaneously. We try to play video games and talk to a friend at the same time. We have dinner with family and spend it looking at our phones. It is now acceptable to ignore a person who is physically present to talk to anyone who happens to call.

There are so many inhuman things which attract our attention away from people: computers, phones, games, and TV shows. Even when we are present for something important we tend to miss it by trying to video it. We don't see life's big moments through our own eyes but through the lens and screen of a device.

An older reason we don't enjoy our limited earthly lives is that we let low tech stuff get in the way. Like anger and resentment and thwarted expectations. We hold grudges. We get lazy. We let our thinking get warped by greed and lust and envy and arrogance. We create fantasies and then get upset when people and reality don't follow the scripts in our heads. We bring terrible baggage to our encounters rather than start afresh.

Verse 12 of our psalm says, “Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” A key part of wisdom is getting your priorities straight--realizing what is essential, what is important and what is neither. Since we have a limited time on this earth, knowing what has the most value will keep us from wasting time on what has the least value.

The Bible says that a healthy respect for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. What are God's priorities? Jesus spelled them out: loving God and loving one another. And that means being fair and being courageous and being faithful and being truthful. That's the way you act with those you love. Recently a husband and wife team of psychologists who have been researching couples for years said that they've discovered that the 2 things that matter most in the survival of a relationship are kindness and generosity. Those are two aspects of the fruit of the Spirit.

So our top priority is maintaining healthy relationships with God and with our fellow human beings and doing so by behaving in loving ways. Believe me, no one on their deathbed will ever say they regret not playing more video games or not watching more TV or not posting more things on the internet. They will regret letting those things, or the emotional and spiritual problems we create for ourselves, get in the way of spending more time actually being present with the people we love.

And don't think because God offers us eternal life, it means will have plenty of time later to do what should be done in this life. Your time in the womb is a mere 9 months, a tiny fraction of your 70 or 80 years of life. But it is absolutely crucial in laying the groundwork for the body and brain you will be using for those subsequent decades. Similarly, the first 4 or 5 years of life are vital in the development of your social self. Your ability to trust and form attachments are largely determined then. Just so, this life sets the trajectory of your afterlife. Now is the time for course corrections. Now is the time to learn to love and to forgive and to reconcile and to restore trust. The strictures of this life are like the stakes one ties a sunflower to so it will grow tall and straight and so its head will face the sun.

And if you think this is just a much more elaborate way of saying, “Call your mother” or “Play with your kids” or “Bury the hatchet with your sister,” so be it. Our God is a God of love. Healthy stable relationships are important to him for our Triune God is the ultimate healthy stable relationship: the Father loving the Son loving the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit throughout eternity. He created us in the image of that love, And he wants us not only to enter into that divine relationship but to model all other relationships on it.

What is getting in the way of loving your neighbor or your child or your parent or your coworker or your sister or your brother or your friend? Is it more important than that human connection which will delight and warm and stay with you long after the game ceases to interest you or the novelty fades or the feud ceases to make sense? With what would you rather spend eternity—your regrets and bitterness and anger and resentments or your family and your friends and your God? Jesus said he came to give us life in abundance. Life only comes from life, not from things that aren't alive or which negate life. And life is only truly enriched by our connections to other persons. Make connections. Repair or restore broken connections. Maintain those connections. We were made to love by the One who is love. In the end, love is all that matters. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Eulogy for Howard Todd

On October 21st, 2014, my dad died. He was 91; he died in his own bed, in his sleep and without pain. One really can't ask for better than that. Before he died he wanted to hear what my brother and I were going to say at his funeral. Here's what I wrote. 

My brother's fondest memories of my dad are mine as well. Pop was always able to know what we kids would like. So he would do things like pick us up from school and drive to the zoo, so we could eat hot dogs while watching the seals being fed.

Mom was always interested in teaching my brother and I how to live and think. So she took us to church, to the art museum, to cultural events. But we learned things from Pop, too, mostly by observing and imitating him.

From him we learned to work hard. Pop had a lot of jobs, often two at a time. I can't remember when he was unemployed. If he lost a job, he found another quite quickly. And so we learned that working hard at what you do was a virtue and having a job was important, even if it wasn't always the perfect job.

And because he usually worked nights, he, unlike many men of his generation, was much more involved in raising his children. He may not always have taken us out to lunch but he always made sure we had a hot meal, even if he just heated up something he had picked up from a restaurant or deli. When my Aunt Marge, who would watch us when Mom was at work, was hospitalized, Pop would come over and watch us, even though he and my mother were divorced. Later my parents remarried, primarily for the sake of my brother and I. And we knew that was the reason because after we were raised and out of the house, they announced that they were getting divorced again. Which taught us that your duty to your family comes before your personal comfort.

Pop was always looked after his appearance with an almost cat-like neatness. This extended to us. Dan and I could not leave the house without being properly dressed and our hair combed within an inch of our life. When I started to go bald, I worried that I would have grooves in my head from Pop's comb. But this taught us that, as unfair as it sometimes seems, in this world, appearance counts, and you can do a lot to look neat and respectable.

Pop's most famous exploit in the Second World War was when, during the campaign on Bougainville Island, a Japanese sniper fired on him. One bullet was stopped by a can of beans in his pack and one got lodged in his helmet. Pop ran up under the tree from which the shots came and took out the sniper's nest with a tommy gun. His fellow soldiers kept saying Pop should take off his helmet and look at the bullet. My father wasn't going to until it was dark and he was sure he wouldn't need the protection of his charmed headgear. Had that bullet gone all the way through, we would not be here. This taught us how precarious life is and how you nevertheless had to be courageous.

While Pop got ready for work, he would listen to what was then KMOX radio. And I got hooked on listening to the news. Today I listen to NPR. And when we talked over the phone or when I spent time with him, we would discuss all manner of current and historical issues, and Pop was always well-informed and even knew all sides of the issue in question. He taught me to take an interest in the world and know what you are talking about.

My father was from the South and taught us to say “Please” and “Thank you.” We learned to treat other people with courtesy. And because he was in the service industry most of his career, he taught us that this extended to the people who waited tables and served us. They were not inferiors and they too deserved respect.

None of us are perfect and that includes my father. But he also taught me that even a flawed person could be a good person and a decent person. He taught us to put our children first and do your job and take care of your appearance and remember the fragility of life and be courageous anyway and keep informed and treat others courteously, even the so-called little people. We learned that everyone has strengths and everyone has weaknesses and the presence of one does not negate the existence of the other. I know that no hero is flawless and no one is without some good qualities.

When you lose a parent, your world changes. They were there before you existed and for most of us, they are there for a good portion of our life. And suddenly they are not. And things are different. My father is part of the reason I am who I am. I'm glad he was my dad. He was always there for me. And I will miss him always.  

Monday, November 3, 2014

All Saints, All Souls

Because a lot of scientists don't believe in God, they have trouble explaining religion. One of the popular ideas, touted especially by Sam Harris, is that religions are failed attempts at science. Harris seems to think most religions resemble the Just So Stories of Rudyard Kipling, with its fanciful tall tales of how the elephant go this trunk and how the camel got his hump. Of course, if Harris had bothered to do much research he would find that only a very small amount of most religions' sacred writings or stories are devoted to explaining natural phenomena. Yes, they tend to have creation stories but the main point is not so much how things came to be but why they came to be and what is their purpose. Religion is more about the meaning of life than its inner workings.

Another popular idea is that religion is merely a reaction to our fear of death. It reassures us of an afterlife. But this is not a universal feature of religion. Of the more than 40 religions I checked on, roughly 1 quarter of religions either espouse no afterlife or are vague on the details. Another 16 opt for reincarnation, which actually leaves less than half calling for a supernatural afterlife. So, like all reductionist theories of religion, this one is inadequate.

Religions tend to be more about how one should go about living one's life rather than being primarily about death. The motives may or may not be rooted in the afterlife but the important actions take place in this life. And some people are exemplary in the extent to which they were able to, as Jesus said, take up their cross and follow him. We have come to call such people saints. The problem is that the Bible doesn't restrict this term to super-Christians.

In the Bible the words translated “saints” means “holy ones.” And “holy” means “set apart” as in “ set apart for God's purpose.” And who sets us apart other than God? So when the Bible talks of the saints it is simply speaking of God's people. In the New Testament, the word “saints” is a synonym for “Christians.” Because our salvation is not based on how good we are but upon God's grace.

Nevertheless, some Christians let God work in them more fully than others. Eventually, the church started using the word “saints” almost exclusively to refer to these exemplary Christians. And many of them, even today, are good examples to emulate. Indeed, most of the original saints were martyrs, witnesses to the gospel who were killed for sticking to their faith. The church came to posit that these people were certainly in heaven. Which opened up the idea that asking them, the people really connected to God, to pray for you was much more effective than asking the people in your church to pray for you.

This, unfortunately, led to the cult of the saints. Heaven came to be viewed almost like a political bureaucracy, where to get things done you had to contact the right person. Saints became facilitators or patrons of certain things, like childbirth or certain professions. These connections were often drawn from their life or even their method of execution. St. Catherine of Sienna was one of 22 children born to her mother. Her twin brother died but she survived and so she is the person to whom Roman Catholics pray to prevent miscarriages. St. Apollonia was tortured by having all her teeth pulled out so she is, ironically, the patron saint of dentistry!

Some saints were probably the product of popular folklore. My favorite is St. Wigglesfoot the Unencumbered. At first her story begins like those of so many virgin saints, betrothed against her will to marry a pagan king. So she prays that God will prevent this unholy union and preserve her virginity. The result is that overnight she grows a beard! She became the medieval patron saint of women who wished to be free of their husbands.

Some saints were, quite frankly, just pagan gods repurposed. Some scholars think the Irish St. Brigit could very well have started out as the pre-Christian goddess Brighid or that the two were conflated. Both are associated with sacred wells and perpetual flames.
How this syncretism came about can be understood this way: when pagans came to Christianity, often it was because their king or chieftain converted and told his subjects to follow suit. They were baptized but were imperfectly educated in the faith. The conversions did not come from the heart and they missed their old gods. They used to know whom to pray to for the harvest or rain or healing. Now they only had one God, a new one. So somehow the saints took over the functions of the multiple gods as objects of prayer and the reasons for shrines.

Back then the Roman Catholic Church's current mechanism for checking out and confirming saints was nonexistent. Some saints began as parochial figures, either favorite sons and daughters from a region or just local legends. Modern Catholic scholarship cast doubt on some of the saints. So in the 1960s the Roman Catholic Church re-evaluated their calendar of saints and some of the ones with shaky attestation were demoted, like my namesake. St. Christopher was supposed to be a giant who carried people across a dangerous river. When a small boy presented himself to him, the big man thought him a small task to carry across the water. But as the giant sank deeper and deeper into the river, he asked the child why he was so heavy. The boy answered that he was the Christ and thus carried the weight of the world's sins on his shoulders. The man converted and got the name Christopher: “Christ-bearer.” Like a lot of the saints' stories, it's a nice tale but patently fiction. St. Christopher, patron of travelers, motorists, mountaineers and surfers, is no longer a first class Roman Catholic Saint whose feast must be observed universally. He is, however, commemorated locally in various towns across Europe and on the island of St. Kitts, of course.

From the beginning Protestants have tried to diminish or eliminate the role of saints. Yet every denomination encourages its members to honor and imitate its founders and even exemplary Christians of the past, regardless of their church affiliation. And stories of Christians demonstrating wisdom, compassion and moral courage are always edifying, even if we don't agree with them on every doctrinal point. 

But what about ordinary Christians, those who didn't reach the heights of Christlike thought, speech and behavior but who nevertheless chose to follow Jesus till their death? That's the purpose of All Soul's Day, which is November 2nd. This is when we remember those who were our companions on our pilgrimage through this life, especially those who have left this world in the last year.

This highlights one of those things that people who claim to be spiritual but not religious, those who claim they can be Christian without being part of a church, miss out on: community. Community offers us what we cannot get by ourselves—acceptance, fellowship, satisfying roles and knowledge of life outside our personal experience.

A good church offers acceptance. We are all sinners redeemed by Christ. Churches should be like A.A., open to all who show up figuring that if a person comes it indicates a willingness to change and be part of the program. Excluding sinners on the basis that some sins are acceptable and some aren't is ludicrous. Jesus did not turn away any who came to him.

Besides acceptance, we also find fellowship. It is a form of kinship, though one that is not about being part of a biological family. It is not about sharing genes but about sharing interests and concerns and passions. Fellowship binds people together, which is at the root of the word "religion." It can also lead to friendships. Ours is, after all, a faith in which showing love for others is central.

In a church there are many jobs to be done and many roles that need to be filled. Using the gifts one has been given and the skills one has developed, one can serve God and his people in any number of ways—through music, speaking, organizing, building, teaching, helping, fundraising, word processing, sewing, cleaning, bookkeeping, praying, greeting, painting, mowing, and lots more. We all contribute to the mission and maintenance of the church. And sharing one's gifts makes them much more meaningful.

In church we learn about God. Even outside it most of what we learn comes from others. When we are infants and toddlers we learn from our parents and caretakers. When we children we learn from our schoolteachers and from our classmates. Throughout life we learn from bosses and coworkers and friends and church members. Some sources are founts of wisdom and some wells of folly. Some are great examples of what to do and others are great examples of what not to do. And if you find yourself in a church that is filled with the latter, finding a new church is easier than transferring schools or finding a new job. (I've never understood people abandoning their faith because they were unhappy with one church. That's like abandoning healthcare because you didn't like one doctor. Most people simply look for a physician they like better.) 

And when a person in the church dies, we lose that particular source of acceptance, love, and knowledge. As an African proverb says, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” All that experience, all those insights, all that personality is gone. And so we remember these unique persons and our losses. But they are not permanent losses. They may have been removed from the board, so to speak, but they are not destroyed. God does not waste such goodness.

God creates and re-creates. He gives life and he gives it back again. Just as matter and energy cannot be destroyed but can be changed, so too the life God gives us cannot ultimately cease to exist but it can be changed. As Paul says, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52)

We commemorate the dead; we miss them and feel our loss of them; we mourn them but as Paul said, we do not mourn as do those who are without hope. Death is not the end. It is not “goodbye” but “au revoir,” “so long till we see each other again.” And so for the Christian, our seeing the person off is more like a retirement celebration or a bon voyage party. There are tears and we are sorry to see them leave, but for them it is the beginning of a new life, an new chapter, a new adventure. And we will see them again. Not in this world but in the next.

And so celebrating All Souls is a balance between our sadness for ourselves and our gladness for them. As Paul said when contemplating his coming execution, “For me living is Christ and dying is gain.” All that God created he pronounced good, both this world and the next. We have not totally ruined this world and the pleasures God created are still here for us; but the next will be better still. The departed are with Jesus and while we can no longer share the simple joys of this life with them, we will in the next life share joys indescribable.

Are the dead conscious of it now? I don't know. The Bible speaks of being asleep in the Lord and resting in Abraham's bosom and leaning on the everlasting arms. And yet some passages indicate an awareness of being in God's presence. Perhaps right now they enjoy restorative sleep. And maybe it like when my granddaughter falls asleep on my chest. She can be out like a light but if I lay her down she often wakes immediately and cries, knowing I am not holding her. I pick her up again and she goes right back to sleep and naps a long time and then wakes up happy and smiling and eager to explore the world. And that's how I like to think of the interval between our death and our resurrection. We sleep in God's arms, nestled against his chest, sensing his warmth and love, feeling totally safe. One day we'll awake and feel refreshed and renewed and look upon a new creation, with delights untold, just waiting to be discovered. And if it it not like that, it will be even better. Because no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him. (1 Corinthians 2:9)  

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Green M&Ms

When people talk about how self-indulgent rock stars are, someone usually mentions the fact that the group Van Halen had a clause in its contract that there had to be a bowl of M&Ms in the dressing room but with all the green ones removed. That's a really petty abuse of power. And what's wrong with green M&Ms? Who is that picky?

People who care about the crew and the fans, that's who. Van Halen's concerts weren't just a handful of people on stage with guitars and drums. At the height of their popularity, the light show and the sound created at their live concerts were spectacular. So the band had to set up the tons of equipment needed to pull that off. The venues they played included theatres and stadia of various vintages. So the contract they had promoters sign made sure that each venue had a stage that could handle the weight and size of their set and equipment and an electrical system that could handle the demand of lights, instruments, mic and speakers. The contract was so minutely technical that it was the size of a book. But even so, they would occasionally come to a venue where it turned out that not everything was properly prepared. So lead singer David Lee Roth came up with the idea of burying in the depths of the contract the clause about eliminating a certain color candy. If the band walked into the dressing room and saw green M&Ms, they and their roadies knew they had to double-check absolutely everything because clearly the promoters had not read all of the contract or had not read it closely enough.

This is Reformation Sunday and today we are remembering a man who saw something in the Bible a lot of people had missed. His name was Martin Luther.

Had Luther continued his studies and become a lawyer as his father wanted, we might never have heard of him. But one day a near miss lightning strike made him vow to become a monk. There he became scrupulous about observing the rules and obsessed with his own sinfulness. He spent hours in the confessional and his confessor, in frustration at Luther's endless litany of every little thing he'd done wrong, told him to go commit some sins worth confessing. Luther became a priest and eventually a Doctor in Theology. His superior sent him to teach at the new University of Wittenberg. In teaching the Bible, Luther noticed something in there most people had missed: that, contrary to what they'd been taught, Christianity is not about trying to be good enough for God to save. That's because salvation is a free gift of God's grace. We can't possibly earn it so all we can do is trust in God's unreserved, undeserved goodness towards us. Though this was only explicitly stated in a few places, like Romans and Ephesians, once you notice it, you see it everywhere in the Bible. Paul's cites Genesis 15:6 as an early example. It can also be found in Jesus' parables about forgiveness, like the Prodigal Son, and in his forgiving and healing folks without asking for anything but their trust.

In Luther's day, this was a major insight. By the time he started teaching, preaching and publishing this, the church had been around for nearly 15 centuries. It had built up quite a lot of traditions, rules and bureaucracy. It had become very similar to the religion Jesus was up against in the first century, right down to the religious leaders becoming barriers to the good news of God's love rather than carriers of it. And just as the authorities of Jesus' day plotted to kill him so did those opposing Luther. Or in Luther's case, people were forbidden to give him food or shelter. And they were told that if they killed him, they wouldn't be prosecuted.

Why such a violent reaction to such good news? For one thing, it was a new way of looking at things. And while most people are all for new things that make life better, others are skeptical. The new ways are not well understood. The old ways are familiar. Folks know how they work. The new ways threaten to displace the old ways. Worse, the new ways have side effects, some of which are foreseeable, some of which are not. And the unknown is scary. What people fear they react strongly against.

This is especially true of those in power. They are not only familiar with the old ways, they are their custodians, if not their originators. They know intimately how they work and they usually profit from that knowledge. Their position and power is based in their control of the old ways. They not only fear the unknown side effects but the easily foreseeable ones, especially if they will diminish the power and centrality of those in charge.

In Jesus' day, his primary opponents were the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees, the Herodians and of course, the Romans. The Pharisees, along with the scribes, were the custodians of the oral law, the additional rules that were supposedly deduced from the Torah. They had a stake in all the ceremonial and ritual rules they had come up with and Jesus' rather cavalier treatment of the rules of the Sabbath and ritual uncleanness threatened that. The Sadducees were the priestly party. They were normally opposed to the Pharisees precisely because they added all these rules to God's law. But Jesus' propensity to forgive people's sins, something folks should have to go to the temple and the priests for, threatened their whole reason for being. The Herodians, who supported the puppet king and his dynasty, and the Romans would be keen to stop the threat Jesus posed should he openly declare himself the Messiah, the rightful king of God's people.

In Luther's days, his opponents were, ironically, the hierarchy of the church, as well as the Holy Roman Emperor. The Roman Catholic Church, like the Pharisees, had added a lot of rules to those in the Bible. So much so that the system they had built up over the centuries constituted a major barrier to people coming to God. His love and forgiveness were swallowed up by cumbersome rules administered by a bureaucratic church. As Jesus said about the Pharisees, “They pile heavy burdens on people's shoulders and won't lift a finger to help...You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 23:4, 14, CEV)

The thing that triggered Luther's public outcry against the status quo was a deal worked out between a bishop and the pope. The bishop was buying a 3rd bishopric and the pope needed money to refurbish St. Peter's in Rome. So they came up with a scheme to make the money for both projects: selling indulgences. An indulgence was a pardon for the punishment of sins issued by the church in exchange for good deeds. Giving money to the church was the specific good deed sought. You could also get souls of relatives out of purgatory, the intermediary place the church posited for dead Christians to work off unforgiven sins. And the man they got to spearhead the project was a master salesman. Johann Tetzel was a Dominican friar whose catchphrase was “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, another soul from purgatory springs.” He said that the indulgences he was selling were so effective that you could buy your way into heaven even if you had raped the Virgin Mary!

Luther was incensed by this perversion of God's forgiveness. What makes his grace so wonderful is that it can't be earned. It is freely given by a loving Father. The only requirements are repentance and faith in God's goodness as demonstrated in Jesus' sacrifice for us. Neither the pope or anyone else had the power to bestow this on people; this comes from God and requires no intermediary other than Christ, who makes it possible. And Luther said so in his 95 Theses, or propositions to be debated, which he mailed to his bishop and nailed to the local church's door.

This of course threatened the powers that be. If people didn't need to go through priests to receive forgiveness, that diminished their centrality in the spiritual life of the average Christian. If the pope couldn't dole out the merits of the saints to help people get to heaven, that diminished his centrality in the church. But that's the point: Christ should be the center of the church and of the life of the believer. The clergy are not God's handlers, screening those who want to contact him, demanding bribes to pass on requests, but his servants, helping his people by bringing them this good news.

I have personally seen the power of the good news or gospel. I have seen it when dealing with people who were racked with guilt. I have helped people in two different nursing homes who either thought God was punishing them or who were punishing themselves over various failings, real or imagined. In each case, I asked if they had asked God to forgive them. When they said they had, I quoted 1 John 1:9--“If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I told them that Jesus had taken our punishment so they could stop punishing themselves. And in both cases it changed the person. One patient resumed eating. The other stopped crying and thanked me every time she saw me.

We all sin. We all do things we know we shouldn't. We all fall short of God's glorious intentions for us. And we need to acknowledge that. Not to admit to one's wrongdoing is like not admitting to yourself that you overeat or drink too much or have a violent temper. If you don't, you won't get help. You will live in a delusional state and might even become one of those arrogant people who denies having any flaws and consequently will never grow or improve as a person.

But those who do acknowledge their sins needn't wallow in them. When we truly turn our backs on them and confess them to God, he forgives us. He does so not because we deserve it but for Christ's sake and because he is gracious. And because it depends on God and not ourselves, we can be secure that nothing, not even our own sins, can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

I started this sermon talking about Van Halen's infamous green M&Ms, buried in their contract and often overlooked. They were not important in themselves but signified much more vital things. But while God's grace was also overlooked, it was not mentioned in only one place in the Bible. It is first mentioned in Genesis 6:8 and last mentioned in the very last verse of the last book of the Bible, Revelation. All in all, grace and its variants appear 200 times in the Bible. And it is vital in itself.

So how did grace get overlooked in the church? It became like background noise or wallpaper, so common it gets taken for granted and ignored. But it was rediscovered by Luther and suddenly everyone could see it, even the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation led to the Counter-Reformation, in which the church Luther didn't want to leave but reform finally got around to cleaning house. And in 1999 the World Lutheran Federation and the Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that said both churches now hold “a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ.” And in 2006 the World Methodist Council voted unanimously to adopt the declaration.

In Ephesians 2:8 & 9 Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it it the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” And thank God for that. Our redemption does not depend on us, on our feeble efforts to make ourselves good enough for God. It is all God's doing. All we have to do is trust him and he will change us into people who can respond to his grace and love. All this was revealed to us by and in his son Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross made it all possible, and whose resurrection gives us hope that when we see him next we will be like him, mirroring the love that created us and restores us and reconciles us to God and to each other. That is the reformation that God truly desires, not of institutions but of human beings, and not just to make us different from what we were but better, as a doctor makes one better--whole and healthy and brimming with life.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Whose Image?

Whenever people propose that eliminating religion would solve most of the world's problems, I know that they don't really understand the world or people very well. Religion generates such intense emotions because it is about ultimate values, as Paul Tillich pointed out. Even if you could somehow quash humanity's natural inclination to believe in a god or gods, you would still have that other repository of ultimate values: politics. In the last century a number of countries tried eliminating God and creating earthly paradises. These countries, all communist, proceeded to demonstrate just how bad purely secular nations were at not persecuting or killing people for ideological reasons. It turns out that, when they removed whatever restraint religion provides, these countries managed to kill tens of millions more people in 1 century than could be attributed to so-called Christians in 20 centuries.

In fact a large percentage of the deaths and misery caused by Christianity can more accurately be attributed to the manipulation of religion for political or economic or personal reasons. The First Crusade was proposed by Pope Urban II in order to restore access to holy sites in the Middle East for Western pilgrims. He was also hoping to channel the militaristic impulses of “Christian” princes into more beneficial actions. But the nobles involved used it to gain lands for themselves in Palestine. Subsequent crusades were used by Venice to sack Constantinople, a trading rival and also a Christian city. Anti-Semites used the People's Crusade as an excuse to massacre Jews. In the Fifth Crusade Christians allied with one faction of Muslims against another faction of Muslims. If anything, the crusades are more illustrative of people doing bad things for practically any reason other than ideological purity. Had the participants actually consulted any of the relevant statements by Jesus on violence, the use of swords and loving one's enemies, there never would have been any crusades.

Now it is true that for most of history, there was no separation of church and state. But far from the church controlling the state, it was much more common for the state to use the church to sanctify the status quo and the ruler. It was true in ancient Israel, where the king often had a school of tame prophets who told him what he wanted to hear. Most of the prophets whose books are part of the Old Testament were dissidents, critics of the standard operating B.S. and the monarchy. In Jesus' day things were worse. The Romans were in charge and appointed the High Priest. This explains why the religious hierarchy was worried about Jesus' popularity. They never for a minute considered that Jesus might be the Messiah or even a prophet. They were concerned about keeping their position of power and that meant protecting the status quo, even if it meant aligning with the interests of the pagan Romans against a fellow Jew whose arguments for changing the usual way of practicing their religion they couldn't refute.

Which is probably what led up to the events in today's Gospel passage (Matthew 22:15-22). While the priests were interested in not rocking the boat with the Romans, the average Jew was not happy about their occupiers' influence over Galilee and Judea. And they really hated the onerous taxes that they had to pay the Emperor for the privilege of being oppressed by him. So asking Jesus about taxes seemed like a good way to trap him. If Jesus supported the taxes, he'd lose the people's support. If he rejected the taxes, that would be enough for the Romans to arrest him. After all, 25 years earlier a Zealot from Galilee named Judas led a revolt because of the tax. He was killed. (Acts 5:37) So Jesus must choose one of 2 equally terrible options.

But Jesus knows what they are up to and asks to see a coin. And, surprisingly, they produce one. Why would that be unexpected? Because Jesus was in the temple, teaching. Roman coins, with their graven images of the emperor, who called himself the “son of God,” were considered idolatrous. That's why there were moneychangers in the temple. Jews coming to worship or to make donations were to exchange their money for temple-approved coins. And of course, the priests got a cut. The point is no one in the temple should have pagan money on them. So by producing the Roman coin, Jesus' interrogators were showing themselves to be hypocrites.

Jesus asks whose image is on the money he's handed. And someone says, “The emperor.” To which Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's.” And I like to think he flipped the coin into the hand of the Pharisee who first asked the question.

But what exactly can we learn from Jesus' statement?

One thing is obvious. Jesus is not an anarchist. He is not anti-government. There is a place for the organizing and law-keeping and even the taxing functions of government. And this is a pagan government! By saying give to Caesar what is his, Jesus is saying, at the very least, that if you are part of the economy, you should pay the taxes. Taxes are the price of civilization. The Romans weren't perfect but they did bring centuries of peace. They linked all the major cities of the Empire with good, safe roads. They had a reliable postal system. They eliminated piracy from the Mediterranean. They did have a rule of law, at least for Roman citizens. All of these things made possible the spread of Christianity. And those benefits were paid for by taxation.

What Jesus does not deal with here are things like excessive taxation or unjust governments. But he does uphold the principle of taxes and government. And they are preferable to the anarchy we see today in failed states around the world. We also see how difficult it is to establish good government. So anyone wishing to overthrow the government or eliminate taxes will find no support in Jesus.

Or in Paul. In Romans 13, he writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God's appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment....For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants devoted to governing. Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to who respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (Romans 13:1-2, 6-7) A Christian anarchist is an oxymoron.

We in the US and in the industrialized West are privileged to live in democracies where we can change our leaders and our laws. Jesus and Paul did not. We have the constitutional freedom to worship as we wish. Jesus and Paul did not. So it says something that they supported the idea of government even as they lived in an Empire ruled by men who claimed to be gods. Of course later, when Christianity was no longer flying under the radar, this would become an issue. And when explicitly told to make sacrifices to the divine emperor, then and only then, Christians would have to defy the government.

This is where the second part of Jesus' statement comes into play. We have obligations to government but we also have obligations to God and they are more important. That's what Jesus was really emphasizing. The Pharisees were trying to get him mired in political issues but Jesus stayed on message and brought the discussion back to God.

What's really interesting is the fact that Jesus was able to use the coin to make a profound point. He asks about the image on it. If what bears the image of Caesar belongs to Caesar, then that which bears the image of God belongs to him. And that means people. We were minted, so to speak, by God for his use. Jesus is saying here that human beings' highest obligation is not to government but to God. The government is a steward, using its resources to serve its citizens but it does not own them. We owe our government our support and input but not a higher allegiance than we owe God. And when they conflict, as Peter told the Sanhedrin, we must obey God rather than men.

But that doesn't mean getting rid of everything that can conceivably be considered non- Christian by someone. Quakers, the Mennonites and the Amish do not believe in using force. If their idea of Christianity became law, it would mean disbanding the armed forces and perhaps the police. Instead, when we had the draft, we let them opt out of armed service or opt to be a medic instead.

Nor does it mean special treatment for Christians. At the jail, as the chaplain, I approve requests for religious diets. If an inmate is Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu and asks for a kosher, vegetarian or vegan diet, I contact their clergy, confirm that they are in fact a member of one of those faiths and that the diet is a requirement of their religion. But if a Christian wants a kosher or a high-protein diet, I have to turn it down, because it is personal choice and not a requirement of our faith.

Christians obeying God and not men doesn't mean using government to stop non-Christians from practicing their religions or no religion, nor does it mean forcing them to adopt Christian practices. That is one of the reasons that our constitution prohibits establishing one religion over all others. Some American colonies outlawed Baptists or Quakers from preaching; others required that people elected must belong to a particular faith or denomination. The anti-establishment clause was formulated by James Madison at the urging of Baptists to end such abuses and ensure true religious liberty for all. It is ironic that some in that tradition now wish to reverse that.

It would be too much to say Jesus was in favor of legal separation of church and state. As we said, that simply wasn't a concept back then. But it is obvious that for Jesus the kingdom of God is not dependent on any specific form of government. He lived under a regime that required no consent from the governed and offered no rights for non-Roman citizens who nevertheless were part of the empire. They killed Jesus not for threatening the government but just for disturbing the peace of mind of those in power. And they eventually did the same with his followers. “Burn a pinch of incense to the divine emperor, call him king of kings and lord of lords, renounce Jesus Christ and you're a good citizen. Refuse and we will execute you in one of a number of novel ways.”

But Jesus knew that the kingdom of God could survive that. And it has. It has outlived emperors, kings, autocrats, oligarchs, collectives, committees, courts, protectors, despots, fascists, juntas, military dictators, parliaments, theocrats, congresses and every other earthly form of government. It has endured hostile regimes and friendly ones. And the rulers that were friendly to Christianity often did more damage to the faith, usually by co-opting and corrupting it. But the kingdom of God is independent of the kingdoms of this world. Because all earthly powers are affected by sin. Read enough history and you realize that the form of government is not nearly as important as the character and capability of those who govern. An incompetent and self-serving leader is bad news for his country, whether he was elected or crowned or proclaimed. A wise and selfless leader is a blessing to his nation however he came to power. Some of the Roman emperors were not bad. Some absolute monarchs did a lot of good. Some duly elected leaders are grievous mistakes.

When I choose a doctor, I choose him or her on the basis of whether they can do the job and do it well, not on their religion. When I vote for someone, I use the same criteria. In both cases, they will not affect my position as citizen of God's kingdom. They will not stop me from functioning as a member of the Body of Christ, even if they try. Jesus told us that following him meant taking up our crosses. Opposition has not killed off Christianity. Whereas having a state or official church has led to a long-term decline in belief. Look at Europe. In fact, making the state do things like require prayer in schools or at governmental functions or put the 10 commandments in courthouses just dilutes their meaning. They become background noise. If people aren't learning about such things at church and practicing them at home, merely adding them to public events and buildings isn't going to be make up for that void. That's magical thinking. (Which makes it odd that atheists also believe in the power of these things so much that they want them eliminated.)

Ultimately it boils down to whether we acknowledge that we bear the image of God and are willing to spend our lives doing what he wants us to do. If not, we are like counterfeit coins whose apparent worth is a lie. What's ironic is that people only counterfeit what's precious. No one ever counterfeited a penny or a dollar. They go after the stuff that amounts to much more. So what phony Christians really do is show just how valuable real Christians are, whose worth comes not from themselves but from God.

Of course, if phony stuff floods the market, it hurts the image of the genuine thing. Fake Christians do discount the faith in the eyes of the general public. So we need to be authentic. We need to let the Spirit burnish the image of God in each of us and prove our mettle so people will know that when we say we follow Jesus we're the real thing. Part of that is knowing what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God and not confusing the two. We belong to God. We owe him our lives. We need to act like it. We need to act like citizens of God's eternal kingdom, regardless of who happens to be ruling our patch of earth for this moment in time. For one day, the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever. (Revelation 11:15)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Cake or Death?

To stay awake while driving home from the jail, I listen to podcasts on my Stitcher app. Usually I listen to NPR shows like Freakonomics, or Wait, Wait, Don't Tell me, or This American Life. The latter has created a spin-off series called Serial. Whereas This American Life usually presents 3 or 4 stories an episode, united by a common theme, Serial presents a long complicated story over several episodes. The pilot episode presented a doozy. In 1999, a teenage girl was killed. Her ex-boyfriend was convicted based entirely on the testimony of a friend who says he helped bury the body. The accused has always maintained his innocence and just about everybody who knew him couldn't believe he had done the crime. Inexplicably, another friend who said she was chatting with the presumed killer at the library during the time of the murder was never contacted by the defense attorney. Nor was she called to the stand to give the accused an alibi. 15 years later the reporter is trying to figure out the truth. Is the man in prison or his self-confessed accomplice lying? Why didn't the defense lawyer use the alibi provided? Why didn't the girl come forward herself? Why did she talk to the reporter and confirm her earlier story but not appear at an appeal hearing a few weeks earlier that could have reopened the case? It's an involving mystery and one so complex it will take several episodes to explore. And who knows if we will ever find out the truth.

One of the most popular forms of entertainment is the murder mystery. Every since Edgar Allen Poe created the form, authors have been churning out tales of death and detection. TV networks are brimming with shows about eccentric detectives, procedurals, updates on Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes wannabees, like Psych, The Mentalist, Bones, C.S.I. and Monk, as well as true crime shows. Why do we like these? Because at the end, they generally reveal the truth and the bad guys get punished. 

Real life is more like the case being examined in Serial. In real life 30 to 40% of homicides go unsolved. The FBI estimates that every year about 6000 people get away with murder. That's roughly 120 per state. (BTW if you want your murderer to get caught get killed in Idaho. At 3.9% they have the lowest rate of unsolved homicides.)

People get away with other violent crimes as well. Domestic violence leads to 4 million assaults on women and 3 million on men. 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are sexually abused. But only an estimated 5% of pedophiles are caught. There are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking, 5 ½ million of whom are children and 55% of whom are women and girls. Very few of the perpetrators get caught. Right now 64 countries all over the globe are involved in armed conflicts. How often are those who commit war crimes tried?

You can destroy a person's life without resorting to violence. In 2012, nearly 9 million property crimes—burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson—were reported in the U.S. Identity fraud, using someone's personal information to access money, strikes a new victim every 2 seconds. That amounts to 13 million victims in 2013. But you don't have to steal someone's goods or identity to hurt them financially. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis says of all the wealth lost in the Great Recession the average household has only regained 45%. That's why so many still feel the effects though officially the recession ended in 2010. And remember that long line of bankers tried and imprisoned for the financial chicanery that caused the economy to nearly crash? Neither do I. It is said that Bernie Madoff is the only stockbroker and financier in jail because he ripped off the rich.

You can make a person's life miserable just for who he or she is. A recent AP poll showed that 51% of Americans express explicit anti-black attitudes and 52% of non-Hispanic whites expressed anti-Latino attitudes. Religious groups are persecuted in 184 countries. Christians are persecuted in the most, in 139 countries, followed by Muslims who are persecuted in 121 countries.

Many if not most of these injustices will not be redressed during the lifetimes of their victims. Which probably explains the popularity of crimefighters and superheroes in today's popular culture. We wish we could have justice in this life and we realize it would take someone extraordinary to accomplish it.

Which brings me to the uncomfortable aspects of the parables of Jesus that we've been reading of late. Jesus is talking about how people will not simply get away with murder. In today's reading from Matthew 22:1-14, people invited to a wedding banquet a king throws for his son abuse and even kill slaves sent to invite them. “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” Last week, in the story of a vineyard owner whose tenants mistreat those sent to get his share and kill his son are dealt with similarly. Jesus' audience tells him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” And last month, Jesus spoke of a slave forgiven a colossal debt who has a fellow slave thrown into jail for a much smaller debt. Jesus says, “And in his anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would repay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from the heart.”

Whoa! What happened to Jesus, meek and mild? I personally have never understood how anyone who actually read the gospels could describe him that way. A more accurate depiction would be “Jesus, assertive and wild.” Jesus was gentle with those who needed it but could be harsh with those who needed to be confronted. He famously chased the crooked moneychangers out of the temple with an improvised whip. How do we reconcile that with Jesus, advocate of love?

Divine love naturally leads to justice. If you limit your love to yourself, or just your family or friends, or just your race or just your religion, or just your country, you can be unjust to outsiders. But if you love everyone, then you treat everyone equally well and demand that everyone treat each other in the same fashion. Since God is love, that love is manifested as justice wherever injustice arises. Since God is love, he cannot let those he loves harm one another or neglect the needs of one another.

God's basic way of dealing with injustice is the same as any good parent. You point it out to your child and expect them to change. If you read the prophets in the Bible, that's what it boils down to: here are your sins; now repent. And the reward is the same as it is with any good parent: forgiveness and a welcome back into the life of the family.

And God is very forgiving. As Jesus said to Peter, if he asks, forgive your brother 70 times 7. A whopping amount. And if we are to be that forgiving, then God is even more forgiving. We see that in the Bible. None of the patriarchs or kings or prophets or disciples are perfect. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Peter and Paul all screw up. But when they repent, when the turn from their sin and turn to God, he forgives them.

We see it in history. Bartolome de las Casas was one of the first Spanish colonists of the New World and a slave owner. He became convinced that this was a great injustice, gave up his slaves and began a long campaign to end slavery. He became the first Bishop of Chiapas and was declared Protector of the Indians.

Commander and later Captain Mitsuo Fuchida led the first wave of planes in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After World War II, he met a former flight engineer of his who had been a POW under the Americans. Not only was Fuchida surprised that the Americans did not torture their prisoners, he was astonished that they were ministered to by the daughter of missionaries who had been killed by the Japanese. That this woman, Peggy Covell, did not take revenge on the Japanese for her parents' deaths, a duty under the Bushido code, was inexplicable. He became obsessed in trying to understand such love and forgiveness. Later he read the story of an American bombadier who was captured by the Japanese and who came to God despite imprisonment and torture. Fuchida finally read the Bible and became a Christian. He spent the rest of his life telling people of how God's grace brought him to Jesus Christ.

It happens today. Joshua Milton Blahyi was an African warlord, who has confessed to killing 20,000 during the 14 year civil war in Liberia. He had performed human sacrifices since age 11 when he was made a tribal priest. He later became an adviser to then-President Samuel K. Doe. Blahyi would sacrifice children before each battle, sometimes eating their hearts. He was dubbed “General Butt Naked” because he would go into battle with only shoes and a gun because he believed he was invulnerable to bullets. Then, during one of the most brutal battles in the war, his life changed.

Blahyi says, in the middle of the fight, he saw Jesus appear to him in a bright light, rather as Paul did, telling him to repent. He laid down his weapons and left the battle. He was one of the few warlords to confess his crimes before Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Now he seeks out those he hurt, admits he is 100% guilty of what he did and asks forgiveness. Despite death threats, he preaches the love of Jesus. In a PBS documentary he said, “It's only Christianity that can help this nation, because Christianity, it is the only belief, the only faith that tell you to love your enemies, that tell you to accept and forgive the one who hurts you.”

Serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” killer, became Christians in prison. Dahmer was baptized before he was killed by another prisoner. Berkowitz has refused parole, seeing his mission field as the prison. He wrote an introduction to the Bibles I distribute in the jail. People can and do change and return God's love.

But what of those who don't, who are not moved by the love of God displayed in the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord Jesus? As C.S. Lewis said, there are those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom, ultimately, God must say, “Very well, your will be done. If you don't want any part of me, so be it.” Love can not be forced. God gave us the ability to choose so that our love would be real and not pre-programmed. But that means we can choose not to love him. And people do.

But if we want no part of God, who is the source of all good things, that means rejecting those as well. Things such as those Paul commends to us in our passage from Philippians 4:1-9—whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, whatever is is excellent and worthy of praise. God cannot, Lewis reminds us, give us good apart from himself. It's like asking for sunlight but without the involvement of the sun. It's like asking for nutrition without the components of food. It's like asking to breathe without oxygen. Not wanting anything to do with God or his gifts means going into exile.

And it is a self-imposed exile. The gates of Hell are locked from the inside, said Lewis. And we see this all the time--people who reject the love of family and friends, and withdraw from their lives and lock themselves into a lifestyle where they only have room for their ego and their misery. They build barricades out of bottles, or drugs, or meaningless sex, or money or whatever else distracts their minds and dulls their feelings. Now, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, if one ceases to exist after 70 or 80 years then the kind of person you are doesn't matter much in the long run. Your misery will end. But if you are to live forever, then the kind of person you are becoming is of paramount importance. As Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “a person wrapped up in himself makes a small package.” And over eternity, such a self-centered person becomes ever smaller, a ever-denser ball of bitterness and resentment and grievances against God and other people. He becomes like a black hole, sucking all the joy and light out of anyone and anything near them. And that's hell.

Hell is not a place; it is a state of being. It is not where anyone is going; it is what they are becoming. It is what we become when we turn our back on God's love and grace, when we neglect his good gifts or twist them into uses he never intended, when our attitude is “to hell” with anyone other than ourselves or those we think of as ours, when we make ourselves or anything other than God the center of our universe, when we want to get as far from him as we can. In which case God doesn't need to torture or punish us; we are quite good at doing it ourselves. If we keep engaging in such toxic thinking, speech and behavior, if we refuse to change, the result is one hellish existence.

But because it is a process, there is time to reverse it. It is interesting that in today's parable Jesus uses the metaphor of a wedding banquet. This was not like a modern wedding reception which runs for hours. In Jesus' day, they would run for a week at least; for a king, 2 weeks or more. (That's why the wedding Jesus was at in Cana was in danger of running out of wine.) The whole community could then find some time to come and celebrate the wedding. Which makes the people in the parable especially rude. They couldn't find one day in 2 or more weeks to come to the king's banquet.

The point is--there is always time to come to God. Every second of your life is a second chance. Despite popular eschatology, God is not going to simply cut everybody off at an arbitrary time hidden in the scriptures. This week in the Huffington Post, there was an excellent article by Zack Hunt about how he discovered that there is no “Rapture,” as popularly imagined, in the Bible. He points out that God always journeys with his people through the hard times. He doesn't magically extract them from tough times. And he talked about the selfish attitude engendered by the false idea that Christians get pulled out of the world when it needs them most and distinguishes that from the very biblical belief that Jesus will return and expects us not to be standing around waiting for lift off but to be doing what he commanded us to do. He writes, “One allows us to neglect the present world and let it crumble away while we focus on our own eternal glory. The other beckons us to participate in God's restoration of creation by loving His people and showing them how to live the life God intended until He does return to bring that work of redemption to final completion.”

The time will come when God in his wisdom wraps things up. The point is that right now he is giving us the time to get on board with his mission to heal a very sick world. What looks like God delaying in giving sinful people the justice they deserve is really his mercy in giving them time to accept the grace that none of us deserve. And our task is heralding that good news. In the parable we are those the king sends out to invite everyone we encounter “both good and bad”--Jesus' words!--to the feast.

In the movie Auntie Mame, the title character's motto is “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” And oddly enough, that's what Jesus is saying in this parable. It puts a very different spin on Eddie Izzard's question, "Cake or death?" Why choose the latter when Jesus is inviting you to enjoy the former? The kingdom of God is a big banquet with love, forgiveness, healing, joy, and peace and, according to Jesus, the kingdom is in and among us now! A lot of people don't realize the true nature of what God is offering. Perhaps they've heard a false description of what it's like. So let us spread the word with love. Let's ring the dinner bell and yell, “Come and get it!”