Monday, July 24, 2017

Worth the Risk

The scriptures referred to are Romans 8:12-25 and Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

I try to get to every unit in our jail each week, including sickbay and our lockdown unit, where the inmates are in their cells for 23 out of every 24 hours. I have to crouch or squat to talk through the meal tray flap with those guys, although lately the officers have been bringing me a chair. And this one inmate always seems to be wrestling with matters of faith and asking me questions about things like why Jesus went to the cross and whether there is a God, given that bad things happen like babies dying. In other words the problem of evil. If God is good and all powerful, why is there evil?

Before we get to the why, I just want to point out that the existence of evil is not an argument against the existence of God. In fact, if you take away God, you do not eliminate the things you think are evil. Babies still die. People still do awful things. You have simply taken away any coherent way to use the word “evil.” Take away an ultimate authority on what is moral and terms like good and evil get defined by humans. And usually evil devolves to “what I don't like” or “what our group or culture doesn't like.” And while most people would define things like murder, theft and deception as evil, groups tend to add the qualifier “except when we do it.” We won't tolerate it when an outsider kills one of our own, but when we kill members of an outside group, we argue that “That's different.” When Native Americans killed colonists it was evil. It pretty much says so in the Declaration of Independence. But when the U.S. government killed Native Americans, that was policy. If people are the arbiters of what is good and evil, they will always skew it to favor themselves. A moral standard needs to be something to which all people are subject.

When you take away God, you also take away any kind of objective meaning to evil acts or events or their victims. Yes, the loss of a loved one has meaning to you but not to an indifferent universe. It won't even have meaning to most other people. Those who know you or that person, sure. But ask yourself this: when you hear in the news of a hundred people dying in a natural disaster in some foreign country halfway around the world, does that affect you as much as when you hear of a hundred people dying in this country? Or in your state? Or in your city? The dearest person in your life dying means little to someone who doesn't know you. And if there is no God, who created that person and loves him or her, their death is truly meaningless. Without God, cosmically the death of thousands of human beings would be no more significant than the death of a bunch of ants.

More importantly, without God, people's deaths are irreversible. When they die, they cease to exist except as physical materials that will break down. They have no future in this world or the next. And if they died at the hand of another and that person got away with it, there is no justice, either. But if they died in any fashion, there is no way to undo that. Without God, death is “Game Over.” Except that even in video games, you can resurrect a character. But without God, there is no chance to live again. The dead stay dead.

I'm afraid that erasing God from the equation doesn't erase the problem of evil. Take away God and you still have to deal with evil. You've just taken away any chance for meaning, for an objective definition of evil. Mostly for any real justice in the universe. Only with the existence of God can you even wonder about why bad things happen to good people.

Metaphysically, even scientists can't answer why babies die. They do know to a limited extent how. They know a bit about certain causes, like birth defects. But they don't know that as well as they'd like. They used to think they might find a gene or two that caused each defect. But they are beginning to realize that each genetic disease may be the result of hundreds or thousands of genes, all going wrong in specific ways. Genetic diseases are looking more and more like freak accidents, the unfortunate combination of a multiplicity of factors. A human is an incredibly complex being, having about 20,000 protein-encoding genes and around 3 billion DNA base pairs. Looking at it that way, it is a miracle when everything comes together just right and a functional human being is born. And it comes together just right hundreds of millions of times more often than it goes drastically wrong. According to the March of Dimes, just 6% of children are born with a serious birth defect of genetic or partially genetic origin. Less than half of those die from the defect. The mindbogglingly complicated yet automatic process of creating a new human being works right 94% of the time.

The more common causes of children's deaths are largely preventable, like prematurity and pneumonia. And we are working to prevent them. As we are working to prevent genetic diseases, no matter how daunting the task. And to me that is a bigger question than why children die. Why do we do try to prevent these deaths? The world has no shortage of people. It's actually getting overpopulated. The more people that die, the more resources like food, water, and land are left for the rest of us. If we are the product of mindless evolution, why should we labor to save those unfit for survival? Yet we do. We feel that to let people die is immoral, even if they are sick or disabled. Why?

Because, the Christian would say, we are created in the image of God and God is love. God wants us to love and take care of each other. Indeed, of the 6 foundations that psychologists say make up morality, most people rate caring higher than fairness, loyalty, authority, purity and liberty. So this raises the question of why do some people harm others? Why do we torture? Why do we murder? Why do we wage war?

Paul has been dealing with such questions in our readings from Romans for the last few weeks. Two Sundays ago, we read a passage in which Paul confesses to struggling with sinful impulses himself. Last Sunday and this one, Paul is talking about the difference between those ruled by the flesh, that is, by our earthly human nature, and those ruled by the Spirit. In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul enumerates the products of fallen human nature, divorced from the spiritual: “sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, divisions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing” and more. These are all things that harm a person or fracture relationships.

By the way, the Greek word for sorcery is pharmakeia, from which we get the word “pharmacy.” It literally means “drugs or potions.” Oracles and seers often took drugs to help them see visions. The famous Oracle of Delphi or Pythia is said to have inhaled vapors from a fissure in the earth, which caused her to hallucinate, have seizures and babble incoherently. Such utterances would be interpreted by priests as prophesies. So Paul's list could also be seen as condemning taking drugs, not for medicinal reasons, but to induce altered states of mind. We've seen the death toll of such drug use.

When you look at things from a strictly earthly perspective, you can justify any of those things. Say, you want to have sex with someone married to someone else, or under age, or who is a close blood relative. Why should you refrain simply because of an immaterial rule says that sex with certain categories of people is wrong? And if someone is stopping you from taking or achieving what you want, why can't you get it by fighting or cheating? And if you want to ingest a substance that imparts pleasure as it impairs your mind and body, why shouldn't you? It's your body, isn't it?

That's what Paul is talking about when he's talking about the flesh. He's not talking about our physical needs but rather a shortsighted materialistic view of life, driven by the desires and fears of our animal nature. Those living outside the Spirit are slaves to their baser instincts. But, as Paul says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” (Rom. 8:14-15a) Scripture teaches that we are not automatically children of God. We are his creatures. But if we respond to his Spirit and follow Jesus we become God's children. He adopts us and we therefore have the same rights as any natural born child: “...we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ...” (Rom. 8:16b-17a) We will be like Christ in God's eyes. And indeed that is what the Spirit is doing in our lives, making us more Christlike day by day—if we let him.

Humans have been trying to deal with the evil that arises in human nature for as long as we've been alive. We have tried to eliminate it through laws, punishment, education, and even war. It is too deeply embedded in us. What we need is transformation. We need to become new creations in Christ. That is what God is in the process of doing.

Paul speaks of how we and all of creation are groaning inwardly, for the day when God's new creation will be born, when it will at last become what he intended it to be all along. And note that Paul is not talking about some disembodied afterlife. We are waiting for “the redemption of our bodies.” God always intended us to be both physical and spiritual beings. Indeed his supreme revelation of himself was through the Incarnate Christ. In Jesus, God becomes one of us. In Jesus we see both what God is like and what we can be. And Jesus does pass the torch to us. We are to be the body of Christ on earth. We are incorporated into his body through the waters of baptism and nourished through the bread and wine he declares to be his body and blood. The physical gives the spiritual form. The spiritual gives the physical meaning.

Just so, our bodies and what we do with them can make concrete the love of God for humanity. By researching diseases, caring for the sick, working to eradicate poverty and its effects, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, helping prisoners change their lives, giving refuge to those fleeing persecution and war, exposing and redressing injustice, confronting prejudice, and treating everyone as we would like to be treated, we are manifesting the kingdom of heaven on earth. And in doing these things, we are giving form to the spiritual and meaning to the physical.

Still cleaning up after evil and trying to reverse its effects are a lot of work. Why doesn't God just eradicate evil? Jesus gives part of the answer in the parable of the weeds and the wheat: the lives of those who do good and those who do evil are entwined. We find both in our families. For instance, should God have killed Hitler? That would have caused a lot of suffering to his mother, a sweet, hardworking, devout Roman Catholic who had already lost 3 children in their infancy. Maybe God should have killed Adolph's father, Alois, a womanizer who married his pregnant 16 year old first cousin, Adolph's mother, and who reportedly beat his family, once putting Adolph into a coma. But when should God have done that? Before that beating? Before Adolph was born? But that would mean his youngest sister was never born.

Should God kill all bad fathers? A recent scientific study shows that the loss of a father, through death, separation, divorce or incarceration, actually has a negative effect on the the telomeres, the protective “caps” on the end of the chromosomes of their children and thus their health. “No man is an island,” as poet John Donne wrote. We are all connected. Pulling up the weeds, or bad people, will inevitably uproot some of the wheat, or good people. It is God's mercy to the good, who cannot choose their parents or brothers or sisters, that he doesn't just pick off people who are bad.

But to return to Paul, another reason God refrains from killing off bad people is that folk's fates are not fixed. They can change. They can turn their lives around by opening themselves to God's love and forgiveness, accepting his grace, and, through the power of the Spirit, following Jesus. 

Joshua Milton Blahyi was a budding Adolph Hitler. A tribal priest, Blahyi believed so strongly in magic that he would go into battle clad only in shoes and carrying a gun, so that he became known as General Butt Naked. He also believed in human sacrifice and would routinely sacrifice a small child before going into battle. Under Liberian warload Roosevelt Johnson, he commanded a mercenary unit, that included many child soldiers, who killed thousands in the First Liberian Civil War. But then he says, on a battlefield, Jesus appeared to him in a blinding light. He repented, confessed his sins in church, and went before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia. Today he is a preacher of the gospel and runs an NGO that helps former child soldiers and drug addicts change their lives and learn farming and construction.

Jesus' chosen metaphor doesn't allow for the weeds to turn into wheat but his parable of the prodigal son is about a kid who spends half his father's fortune on wild living before repenting and returning to his loving dad. Jesus said that as a doctor doesn't go to the healthy but the sick, his mission was to bring God's transforming power to sinners. When Jesus encountered Zacchaeus, who became rich taxing his fellow Jews for the Roman empire, the man volunteered to give half of his wealth to the poor and reimburse any he cheated 4 times the amount. Jesus preached repentance, which simply means changing your mind and turning your life around.

The world thinks the way to deal with bad people is to get rid of them by killing or imprisoning them. Jesus' way of getting rid of bad people is to make them into good people. It's more risky, as is God's idea to create people with minds of their own so they could chose how to respond to God and to others and therefore be able to truly trust and really love. Of course, they could also choose not to trust and love God or others. But God thought that rather than create a bunch of puppets or robots, it was worth the risk to give us free will. It was worth the risk to give us the possibility of loving.

None of us has ever created a universe, and so it is easy for us to criticize God for not creating a world where all actions have only good consequences and no bad ones. I don't think it's physically possible to make a world where you can give someone a good hug but not use that same strength to strangle someone. For the same reason I don't think it's possible to create fire that only gives off light and cooks food and heats homes but can't burn a person or a house. God pronounced his creation good. Evil is not inherent in this world but is created whenever we misuse God's good gifts. Things that are good in some contexts are evil in others. A cane can be used to beat and cripple a person or to help someone walk. It's all in how we choose to use it.

I don't know why children die. But I don't believe that is the end of the matter. I don't believe God gives up on either the living or the dead. I believe that God is love, that we see that love in Jesus and that his love can change people. I believe that as God raised Jesus from the dead, so he will raise us, to be new creations in his new creation. I put my hope in this because I believe that God is love, love is worth the risk and love wins in the end.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Dirty Job

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 55:10-13 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

I have been a nurse for 36 years. My next longest career was as a production director and copywriter in radio for 20 years. I highly recommend both as preparation for ordination. Clinical pastoral education is a lot easier if you have worked with the mentally ill as a psych nurse, the cognitively impaired as a neurosurgical nurse and dealt with all the tragedies and transitions of life, including birth and death, as an staffing, private duty, home health and nursing home nurse. And being a copywriter is excellent training for writing sermons. After 2 decades of boiling content down to 30 or 60 seconds, having 15 minutes is a luxury. You can actually do some nuance and deal with a certain amount of complexity. Plus, speaking strictly for myself, you don't have to sell something you don't believe in. I had a ad salesmen—excuse me, account executive—who was having trouble saying anything good about his client's business. He told me that whatever I said about the client, don't say he has the lowest prices in town; if anything, he had the highest. I've had to write ads for nightclubs, stock car races, spring break events for college students sponsored by beer distributors and a clothing-optional restaurant for people who apparently found that appetizing, or were under the delusion that all the other patrons were going to be supermodels.

Another thing I learned is that words are not magic. Yes, you can persuade people but there are certain folks your ad simply cannot motivate. If you are advertising a Lexus, you can forget about people who love Chevys. Or pickups. You can also forget about anyone who has just bought a car. You are basically trying to reach people who have the money, the need and are open to any brand. Those are the people you can sway.

Jesus understands that. It's at the center of his parable of the sower. Or should we say the parable of the soils. Because in this story the crucial factor is the type of soil where the seed ends up. The seed is the same. The seed, Jesus says, is the message about the kingdom of God.

William Barclay points out that there were two ways to sow seeds in that era. One was to walk along and throw the seed in a broadcast manner. The problem is the wind could pick it up and blow it into areas you didn't want to seed. The other method was to put the seed in a bag, hang the bag on a donkey, cut a hole in the bag's corner and walk the donkey up and down the rows in the fields. The problem is the seed starts pouring before you get the donkey in position and it pours out even on the pathway as the donkey walks between fields or rows. Either way, you sow seed in places you don't want it.

The seed that falls on the path is a lost cause. It's been beaten and packed into a hard surface by all the feet that have trod upon it. The seed can't penetrate the pavement-like path and all you've done is laid a feast for the birds. In the parable, the seed that hits the path is likened to God's message falling on the ears of those hardened against spiritual truth. They are either too lazy to think about it or too cynical and prejudiced against religious talk to even consider it. The message is wasted on them. Far from preaching to the choir, you might as well be preaching to the devil for all the good it will do.

Then there's the rocky soil. When I was in Israel during a college study trip I heard of a Palestinian folk tale about a large pelican that, once upon a time, was flying over the newly-created earth with 3 gigantic bags of rocks. He dropped the contents of two of those bags over Palestine. The story was probably made up by some Palestinian farmer hundreds of years ago to explain the rocky soil he was trying to wrest a living from. Like the Keys, what you have in much of the Holy Land is a few inches of dirt lying on a limestone shelf. So any seed sewn there doesn't have to grow very long to break the surface but neither can it lay down deep roots. It can't find enough moisture and it withers in the merciless Middle Eastern sun. Jesus explains that this is like the person who hears the gospel and readily accepts it but the minute he encounters adversity, his faith dies. In the affluent West we have a lot of shallow, fair weather Christians who have confused Jesus with Santa Claus and think the good news is that God wants to give them a comfortable, carefree life. They think the cross Jesus commands us to bear is a tasteful one around your neck. When the going gets tough, they get going as far away as they can from a faith they feel let them down.

The sower doesn't knowingly throw the seed on thorny ground. It's just that even though the soil is plowed up, the roots of the weeds lie deep beneath the surface. If you don't pull out the roots, the weeds grow back. And as we know, weeds grow faster than the good seed and chokes the desired plants. Jesus compares this soil to the worldly believer, whose cares and pursuit of wealth overwhelm the gospel and ultimately nothing comes of it in that person's life. That reminds me of all the celebrity Christians out there, the movie stars and rappers and businessmen and lawmakers who claim to follow Jesus but whose lives show scant evidence of it. They have affairs, lie, behave unethically in business, and pass legislation that either harms the powerless or makes it harder for them to get help. They say they are Christians but there's no proof and in fact they discredit their faith. In some cases you can't tell if they are truly clueless or simply hypocrites but nobody cites them as a reason for wanting to come to Christ. Whatever their secular achievements, their spiritual legacy is nil.

Before we get to the good soil, I want to add a category that Jesus never saw 2000 years ago: polluted soil. This is soil that has been marinating in some kind of chemical runoff or poisoned by radiation or cross-pollinated by genetically modified seed. The grain grows but it's mutated. This parallels the kind of people who take the gospel and twist it and bring forth some abnormal form of Christianity. The DNA at the heart of it is no longer the love of God made manifest in Christ but hatred for everyone who is not on its side. Whereas Jesus sets us free from the tyranny of the Law and gives us the two great commandments to love God and each other, this deviant kind of Christianity substitutes a thousand rules, ruthlessly enforced by men—it's almost always men—who say only THEY speak for God. Whereas Jesus forgives everybody who asks him, the purveyors of this perverted faith forgive no faults or failings but use guilt as a whip to motivate people. We see this corrupt form of God's good news in cults and tiny belligerent split-off groups and even lurking in the rhetoric of some popular preachers, which is why some folks mistake it for the real thing. But the fruit this soil produces is toxic to consume.

Jesus doesn't really give us a description of good soil, except to say that it is extraordinarily fruitful. We can assume it is not hardened like the pathway, or shallow like the rocky soil, or overrun with weeds like the thorny soil. Or polluted with anything poisonous. And remember we are not talking about the seed, the message, but the soil, people. Jesus knew what I learned in two decades of writing ads. There are some people you can't persuade, no matter how good your message is. You can only reach the receptive.

But that doesn't mean we need to be parsimonious in passing along the word. Because you can't always tell what soil your seed is falling on. And here's another thing Jesus didn't have to deal with: concrete. Yes, the Romans had it but they built buildings and aqueducts and palaces and baths with it. Roman roads were paved with stones, not concrete. And one thing you wouldn't see therefore is something growing wildly from a crack in an otherwise barren area, like the tree growing on the old Seven Mile Bridge. For years, clever people have been decorating it with lights for Christmas. My point is that given a crack, some soil can get in and so can a seed and over time, it can break through the toughest exterior. You may encounter someone who seems so hardened and cynical that you would be willing to bet that they would never become Christians. But you might be wrong. There are many prominent atheists who have come to Jesus, like Alister McGrath, the Irish scientist turned theologian, Francis Collins, geneticist and Director of the National Institutes of Health, Lee Strobel, lawyer and journalist, C.S. Lewis, philosopher and literature professor, and Rosalind Picard, professor at MIT and founder of the Affective Computing Research Group as well as many others.

So let's opt for the broadcast method. Let's fling that seed far and wide. It will find a place to grow, and some of those places will surprise us. But that doesn't mean we can't target the message. Remember what I said about whom an ad will and will not reach. People who are happy with their faith will probably not respond. It's people who have a need to be filled and no prejudice about where that help comes from who will most likely be open to the message.

And take some other tips from Jesus. People like stories. He told parables because they got people emotionally and intellectually involved. A son goes off and spends all his money partying and then hits rock bottom. What will he do now? A man is beaten and robbed and left for dead. Here comes someone along the same road. What happens next? A king throws a wedding banquet for his son and none of the guests come because they are too busy. What will he do about that?

And Jesus always has a plot twist. The boy goes home to face the father whose money he wasted. How do you think the father will react? What about the brother? Two members of the clergy come upon the man left for dead on the road to Jericho. What do you think they will do? Who will help the man? The king has spent a lot of money on food and drink for the banquet and there's no one to enjoy his son's big day. How will he save the situation?

Jesus used familiar everyday things to illustrate his message. A poor woman frantically searching for a lost coin. A farmer trying to decide what to do about weeds growing up amidst his crops. A shepherd finding one of his sheep is missing. Laborers finally being hired late in the day. A poor widow up against a corrupt judge. People could identify with that. They could put themselves in the protagonist's place. And then Jesus asks, what can this teach us about God?

When he healed people, Jesus sent them off to tell others what God had done for them. I listen to a lot of podcasts, like The Moth, This American Life, and The Tobolowsky Files, where people tell true stories—funny, weird, sad or surprising—about something that happened to them. And these are popular because we love to hear people tell stories from their life. And the most popular stories are about people who triumph over problems, big or small. We all have such a story.

It doesn't matter if you're a cradle Episcopalian or life-long Lutheran. It doesn't matter if you had a near death experience or not. We all have a story about how God helped us. It can be how he helped us deal with a loss. It can be how he helped us get through a major life change. It can be how he helped us forgive someone who wronged us. Or how he helped us forgive ourselves. It can be how he helped us find our purpose in life. Or how he helped us find ourselves. Share it. Let people know what the Lord has done for you.

Some people won't care. Some people are too hardened, too busy, too shallow, too perverse to do anything with it. But as Isaiah says, God's word will not return empty. Some people will be good soil, waiting to receive the good news and bring it to fruition. And some will have a few cracks in their lives that will admit the gospel of God's love and that seed you planted will grow and make more cracks in their exterior and expose the fertile soil beneath and burst forth one day as glorious, God-given, fruit-laden life.   

Monday, July 10, 2017

Love and Marriage

The scriptures referred to are Genesis 24:34-67, Psalm 45:11-18; Matthew 11:16-30.

Love is in the air! Or at least it was in June. It is the most popular month in which to marry, with 10.8% of all weddings taking place then. It is followed by August, September and October. The least popular month for a wedding is March. 2.3 million couples marry every year in the US; that's about 6,200 a day. 80% of weddings take place in a church or synagogue. What city is the most popular place to get married? If you guessed Las Vegas, you would be right only if you are thinking of US weddings. Worldwide, it comes in second after Istanbul, Turkey!

Weddings pop up a lot in today's lectionary. Our reading from Genesis is about how Abraham's servant finds a bride for Isaac. Our Psalm and the alternate reading from the Song of Solomon are about royal weddings, the psalm directed at the princess and the selection from the Song of Songs is from her viewpoint. Even Jesus makes reference to children playing at weddings and funerals and finding that others won't play along.

Weddings and marriage are frequently used as metaphors in the Bible. In the Old Testament God's relationship with Israel is compared to a marriage, making idolatry a form of adultery. (In fact, it is widely believed that the Song of Solomon, the sexiest book in the Bible, would not have been accepted as scripture had it not been seen as a metaphor for our relationship with God.) In the New Testament, Jesus is often called the bridegroom and the church his bride. The kingdom of God is often compared to a wedding banquet. And this makes sense if God is Love, as it says in 1 John 4:8.

And the centrality of love in life is certainly backed up by what we have discovered about human beings. A Harvard study that followed sophomores from 1938 for almost 80 years found that the secret of health and happiness is love. Close relationships make people happier than money or fame and are a better predictors of a long and happy life than genes, IQ or social class. Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study, found that people in happier marriages lived longer, were healthier, had better memory functions, and had better moods even on days when they had more physical pain. People in unhappy marriages felt more physical as well as emotional pain.

Not that the happy couples didn't have problems. Said Waldinger, “Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn't take a toll on their memories.”

On the other hand, Waldinger said, “Loneliness kills. It's as powerful as smoking and alcoholism.” We are not machines. We are social animals. Relationships and community are important to our psychological as well as our physical health.

Waldinger, the 4th director of this longitudinal study, has expanded the study to the wives and children of the subjects. He'd like to expand it to the 3rd and 4th generations. He wants to see why it is that having a bad childhood affects our health in middle age.

As I have said before, God's rules are for our own good. And he commanded us to love one another. That not only benefits others but also ourselves. So is loving God also borne out as a good thing by science? Since scientists can't objectively measure how religious someone is, they use the metric of church attendance. And indeed those who regularly participate in religious activities live longer, have less stress and more life satisfaction. In addition, those who have a sense of purpose in their life live longer, sleep better, and have a lower risk of stroke and depression. Oh, and they have better sex.

Loving God and loving one another are not only good for society, they are good for us personally. But we must widen the circle of those we love for it to be morally good.

I'm sure Bonnie and Clyde loved each other; their fellow man, not so much, or they would not have killed 9 police officers and a number of civilians. I'm sure Ma Barker loved her boys, and while historians doubt she was the criminal mastermind pop culture made her out to be, yet she certainly knew of her boys' murders and robberies and was their willing accomplice before and after their crimes. So she put her love of her family above the love of her neighbor. One way to look at evil is as a narrow definition of what is good; ie, thinking only of what is good for you and yours.

And yet most situations are better for you and those you love if you act on what is good for everyone, or at least the largest possible number of people you can benefit. This is what Paul meant when he said, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet;' and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10)

Bonnie and Clyde's love would have lasted more than 4 years and they probably wouldn't have died in their early 20s had they cared about what was good for others. The same goes for Ma Barker and her 4 sons, none of whom died a natural death. Those are extreme cases but they throw the issue into high contrast. We never would have had life-saving seat belts in our cars had we merely stopped at the fact that most accidents (3 million out of 5 million a year) are fender benders and then we ignored the the less common but more serious car accidents that kill 37,000 people a year and leave 2.3 million injured or disabled. You deceive yourself if you judge which behaviors are bad by paying attention only to those folks lucky enough not to suffer the full consequences.

I can love my neighbor but I'm not married to him. I don't have to live with him or eat with him or sleep with him every day. Marriage is harder because it is a more intensive form of love relationship and it is 24/7. And just as we can learn from the extreme examples of car accidents, we can learn from the extreme form of marriage failure that is divorce.

While doing research for this sermon I found out that determining the divorce rate is difficult. It depends how you measure it. If you simply want to know how many people in the general population divorce each year, it's 3.6 divorces per 1000 people, or more than 800,000. The problem is that the general population includes children and unmarried people, who won't be getting divorced. If you count all the people who have ever been divorced the rate is 22% of women and 21% of men. But some of those have remarried and some will remarry. And there are other more complicated ways to calculate the divorce rate. (For them and a lot of the following, I want to thank Glenn Stanton for his article on thepublicdiscourse.com.)

But none of these general statistics can tell you if you personally will get divorced. And nothing can. But we do know a lot of the factors that increase or decrease the risk. For instance, living together before getting married greatly increases your risk of divorce. Getting married after the age of 18 decreases the risk of divorce by 24%. A large difference in the ages of the two people doubles the risk of divorce. Only 27% of college graduates divorce. Being previously divorced increases the risk greatly whereas having parents that never divorced decreases it. If both husband and wife have a strong personal conviction that marriage is for life, that decreases the risk as does having a strong common faith. Smoking markedly increases the likelihood of divorce, whether only one person smokes or both do!

Again, none of these can tell you if your marriage will survive or not. It just tells you the probabilities of success: the obstacles you will likely face and the advantages you may have in living out your marriage. You may beat the odds. Especially if you do what you can with the factors you can control: don't marry young, get a college education, find someone with a deep conviction about marriage and with whom you share a strong common faith. And note that all of those things—delaying marriage, graduating, having faith and convictions—require commitment. Perhaps that's why folks who opt for the free trial offer of cohabitation are less likely to stay together.

There are also techniques you can use to make marriage better. Learning to communicate constructively. Attacking any problems you encounter as a team rather than attacking each other. Really listening and seriously considering what the other person says, even if you disagree. Recognizing your and your partner's strengths and weaknesses, and letting each other do what you are good at and helping each other with the things you're not good at. If the wife is better with the finances, let her manage them. If the husband is better with the children, let him be the primary kid wrangler.

And, by the way, a lot of the principles that help make a marriage work, help with any group you are in: good and constructive communication, listening, solving problems as a team, knowing everyone's strengths and weaknesses and offering encouragement and support. And as I said a couple of months ago when talking about prayer, a lot of the elements of a good marriage can help our relationship with God.

So finally I want to look at 3 other major things we can do to improve our relationships with others and with God: faith, hope and love.

First, we can strengthen our faith in each other. Trust underlies every relationship. Without trust relationships wither and die. Some relationships never happen because trust is not established. We can help our relationships by being trustworthy. Never make a promise you can't keep and fulfill every promise you make. Or as Jesus put it “let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No.'” (Matthew 5:37) Our track record lets others know they can trust us and vice versa. That works in marriage and it works in any group.

It is God's track record, his faithfulness, that lets us know we can trust him. Again we should respond by trying to be worthy of his trust, by being steadfast in our commitment to serve him and follow him.

Secondly, we can bolster our hope. Hope is simply the future tense of trust. In good times, it is the belief that things will stay good. But that's naive. Bad times will come; in which case, hope is the faith that things will get better. Lack of hope can lead to despair, the fear that things will never get better. Despair, like loneliness, can kill. It can also spell the death of a relationship. To keep relationships alive we need to show that we are working to make things better.

Our hope in God is in his past faithfulness to us and his promises for our future. In Christ, we know things will get better. People will come to Jesus. People's lives will be better. There will be a new creation. Heaven will come to earth. Death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. We will be in paradise as God intended.

Thirdly, we can commit to loving one another. And it is a commitment. In a lifetime you can fall in and out of love. Just as in raising your kids, there are days when you want to hug them and days when you want to strangle them. You can't say to your child, “I'm just not feeling the love today, kid; I can't parent you today.” You take care of them in good times and bad, when they're angels and when they are little devils. Commitment is key in marriage as well. So in the Bible love is not merely a feeling; it is a commitment to do what is best for a person consistently. It's not all flowers and chocolates and dinner dates and great sex. It is having that person's back and he or she having yours.

Right now there is a film out called “The Big Sick.” It's based on the true story of the comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon. It's about how they met, started dating, and ran into problems because his parents wanted him to enter an arranged marriage like a good Pakistani Muslim. And then Emily got seriously ill and was in a coma. Kumail stayed at her bedside, bonding with her parents and realizing this was the person he was meant to marry. Most of us don't encounter the “in sickness and in health” part of a relationship until we take the wedding vow. And, even then, we don't really think about it until our partner actually gets cancer or heart disease or is in a car accident. Sadly, some people don't keep that part of the vow. They are fair weather marriage partners, which means they aren't good partners at all. Which is why we clergy tell people that marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly. It is a commitment.

God loves us despite our bad days and failings. He forgives us and helps us back on our feet when we stumble. The Hebrew word chesed is often translated “steadfast love” and is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament to describe God's love for us. As it says in Psalm 107:1, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; His steadfast love endures forever.” God is committed to our ultimate well-being. He will not give up on us. We similarly must be committed to him.

Marriage is an extreme example of faithful, hopeful committed love. Which is why the Bible so often uses it as a metaphor for our relationship with God. Like all metaphors it breaks down if you over-extend it. But at its heart it reveals deep truths about how God acts towards us and how we should act towards him. When I was researching what protects us from divorce, I read that while a strong common faith lowers the risk, a nominal faith does not. You can't achieve anything great if you are not committed. Distractions and temptations, mood changes and periods of boredom and fatigue will try to get you to stop, to give up. You need to commit. You need to persevere. You need to put your whole heart into it. That's only only way a marriage or a relationship with God will work.

So how is it that Jesus says, "For my yoke is easy and my burden is light?" Isn't this the same guy who tells us to take up our cross? Yes but who are we yoked with? Jesus. He will help us with the task at hand. He will help us shoulder our burdens. He will make sure we will get rest. He will make sure we get nourished. And he will ultimately do the heavy lifting. He did the worst part of it on the cross. That's how committed he is to this relationship. So the real question is: how committed are we?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Welcome

The scriptures referred to are Matthew 10:40-42.

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet the title characters belong to families who were political rivals in Verona. There are frequent outbreaks of violence between the two factions. When in the famous balcony scene, Juliet, a Capulet, ponders the problem of being attracted to Romeo, a Montague, she says, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Besides being naive—her problem lies not in names but in the enmity of the families, which would remain even if names were changed—Juliet's sentiment is very Western and very modern. Today names mean little. Companies change names if the old one becomes too besmirched with scandal. Thus the private military firm Blackwater changed its name to Academi after 4 employees were convicted in US courts of killing 14 Iraqi civilians. Folks no longer name their children after beloved deceased relatives but after popstars or even fictional characters. After Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, a lot of people named their babies Kylo after the villian of the film! So, as Juliet mused, names don't seem to mean much.

Except when they do. There are actually companies that are hired by other companies to name their new products. One such naming firm is Catchword. They have come up with product names for companies like Adobe and Starbucks. And they actually do research before they suggest a name. They were looking at a name for a toy and one of the ones they liked turned out to mean, in Japanese, “a small device that doesn't work.” So they had to find another name. My first car was a Chevy Nova, which famously meant “doesn't go” in Spanish. In retrospect, it was an appropriate name for a car with a troublesome aluminum engine.

One way to avoid that problem is to come up with a name that doesn't mean anything. Hulu, Exxon and Vudu tell you nothing about what the company does. If Amazon wasn't so famous now, you might think it had something to do with South America or Wonder Woman. Companies like names that are memorable but tell you nothing about their products or services, because they don't get limited by a descriptive name. Amazon started as an online bookstore. Now they are a combination of department store and grocery store. In the future they may sell personal robots to clean your home, cook your food, babysit your children and take care of your aged parents. They will never have to change their name.

In the East, especially in the days of the Bible, a name had an important meaning. Children were often named to reflect their character and/or mission. Jacob means literally “heel-grabber” or usurper. And sure enough he displaces his older twin by stealing his birthright and blessing. Later God changes his name to Israel, “he who wrestles with God” because “you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” The fact that the nation that descends from him bears the name of Israel is prophetic of its history of struggle with and triumph through God.

And when the angel announces to Mary and later to Joseph that her son is God's son, he directs them to name him Jesus. In Hebrew it is Yeshua, which means “Yahweh saves.” Jesus' name is his mission. Christ is not his last name; it is his title, the Greek translation of Messiah, the Anointed One. Jesus is anointed by God to save his struggling people.

Names are powerful in the Near East. To know someone's actual name is to have the power to summon him or her. That's why God is a bit cagey when Moses asks his name. God is often called Elohim or El for short, which is just the generic Hebrew word for “god.” But there are a lot of gods in Egypt. Moses wants to know what name he should tell the enslaved Israelites when they ask him what is the name of the god he represents. God says, “I Am Who I Am.” This is what you are to say to the Israelites, 'I Am has sent me to you.'” Basically God's name is the Hebrew verb “to be.” It can even be interpreted “I will be what I will be.” God is eternally existent. He was and is and will be forever.

In your Bibles you will often see the word “LORD” all in caps. That means the actual word in Hebrew is “Yahweh,” God's covenant name, derived from the Hebrew verb “to be.” Pious Jews did not want to accidentally say God's name in vain and so when they saw Yahweh in the text of the Torah during synagogue readings instead they would say “adonai,” which means Lord. They even subtituted the vowels for adonai under God's name to remind them. This led to uninformed Christians combining the vowels for adonai with the consonants for Yahweh and coming up with “Jehovah.” Scholars are only fairly sure that the name of God is pronounced “Yahweh;” what they know for sure is that it is not pronounced “Jehovah.”

This caution comes from the third commandment: “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God.” It's not just about cursing. It also means, according to one commentary, not using God's name in a magical incantation, to call him up as you would a spirit or demon to do you bidding. God doesn't work that way. And the rest of that verse gives a warning: “...for the LORD God will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.”

But I found something interesting when I looked at the language underlying the third commandment. The Hebrew literally says, “Never bear destructively the name of Yahweh your God.” The word rendered “destructively” can also mean “evilly” or “falsely.” This is significant because another feature of names is that they carry the authority of the person. To do or say something in the name of a king meant to do or say something using his authority. Likewise, to do or say something in the name of God means invoking his authority. God is saying in this commandment never to say or do something evil or destructive using the stamp of his authority. You are misusing and defiling his name. It is a form of blasphemy.

That means we who claim we obey God should be careful when saying or doing something in his name. Sadly there are those who have not gotten the memo, so to speak. People who kill others in the name of Christ are in fact going against Jesus' express command. In Matthew 5:39, Jesus says, “But I tell you, do not resist the evil person. If someone strikes you on the the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In Matthew 26:52, Peter is defending Jesus against arrest, and we read, “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” That means the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition were blasphemies.

People who insult others in the name of Christ are likewise disobeying him. In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus says, “You have heard it said that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Raca was an Aramaic word that means “empty” so the insult might mean “empty-headed” or “empty of value,” a waste of space. That means insulting people in the name of Christ is blasphemy.

As is lying or practicing any deceit in the name of Christ. As is stealing or exploiting others in the name of Christ. As is neglecting the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, or the foreigner in the name of Christ. They are all blasphemies, misuses of Jesus' name and title to do evil and cause the destruction of lives and relationships.

Yet they are not unforgivable. Jesus says that blasphemies against him will be forgiven. (Matthew 12:32) We just need to ask him. But in order to ask we must realize we were wrong and repent. I worry about those who think being a Christian is like partisan politics: anything goes as long as your side wins. That is not Jesus' way. How you do things matters as much why you do them. Your goal, the end, does not justify the means. Nothing we do should violate the commandments to love God and to love others. If you do something in Jesus' name, you should do it in his Spirit as well.

Which brings us to today's gospel. Jesus says to the twelve, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me...” Why is that? Because Jesus empowered and authorized the disciples to speak and act in his name. None of the twelve were well known then. None were superstar preachers. There were no divisions or labels. They were simply disciples of Jesus. They were going out into the world in his name. They were the only ones to do so.

We live in a different time. In the last 2 millennia the church has undergone a lot of changes, usually in response to changes in the world. Today more than 2 billion people claim to be Christians, 32% of the world's population. Half of that number are Roman Catholics, 800 million are Protestants, and 260 million are Orthodox. To get more granular there are somewhere between 33,000 and 41,000 denominations, depending on your definition. (Does each individual church without a denominational affiliation count as its own denomination?) But if you narrow it to 349 major denominations, you can account for almost 80% of the world's Christians. All claim to follow Jesus. The vast majority derive their doctrine from the Bible and affirm the beliefs found in the Apostles Creed. All claim to be speaking and acting in the name of Christ. And to be sure, the majority of differences are about emphasis, interpretation, organization and authority. But you can see why people get confused as to which church to join or whether they should join one at all.

Most churches know that their witness has been dissipated by all these divisions. They know that in the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed that his disciples be one as he and the Father were one. They know they should welcome each other in the name of their incarnate, crucified and risen Lord. And so there has been a movement in many churches towards ecumenism or cooperation among Christian bodies. The Roman Catholic Church has worked to repair schisms with the Eastern Syriac churches, the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Archbishop Nathan Soderblum, once head of the Lutheran church in Sweden, is considered the architect of the modern ecumenical movement. His work resulted in a conference in Stockholm in 1925 that included Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox Christians. The World Council of Churches arose in response to the aftermath of World War Two.

The Anglican Communion and the Eastern Orthodox Church have been fairly cordial, with the Patriarch of Constantinople recognizing Anglican orders as valid in 1922. The Eastern Orthodox bishop of Brooklyn briefly let Episcopal priests administer marriage, baptism and communion in places where there was no resident Orthodox priest. Besides engaging in ecumenical dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Presbyterian Church USA, United Methodist Church and others, the Episcopal Church has achieved full communion with the Old Catholic Churches of Europe, Phillipine Independent Church, Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, the Moravian Church in America, and, of course, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA has full communion with not only the Episcopal church but also the Presbyterian Church USA, Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, the Moravian Church, and United Methodist Church.

I think a big part of the ecumenical movement is a recognition of what Archbishop Marco Antonio de Dominis wrote in 1617: “In necessary things unity, in uncertain things freedom, in all things love.” Jesus didn't say that the world would recognize us as his disciples by our total agreement on everything but by our love for each other. (John 13:35) That means love is part of our Christian witness. Few people become Christians because they love our doctrines; more join us because of the love they see Christians display in their lives.

And it's not like our differences are insurmountable. At St. Francis we had a couple, the Oelers, who were married for over 50 years despite Joanne being a lifelong Democrat and John being a staunch Republican. What kept them together until death parted them was love. If they can bridge that gap, we can manage the much less dire differences we have with our brothers and sisters in Christ through the love God pours into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

After 30 years of talks, the ELCA and the Episcopal Church recognized each other's sacraments and clergy at the beginning of this century. In 2001 Pastor Carl Kaltreider approached me about Lord of the Seas and St. Francis doing Lenten services and an Easter sunrise service together. We've been doing this for 16 years. In 2012 Pat Perry approached me about serving as Interim Pastor at Lord of the Seas. A few years ago 2 Lord of the Seas parishioners suggested that during the summer the two churches hold joint services. This year the worship committees of the two churches worked out the details and now we are doing that. Each week one church will be welcoming the other to share their space, their worship, and their hospitality in the name of Christ. And each week Jesus will welcome us to come together around his table and share his body and blood as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It reminds me of a song I learned in Hebrew class: Hine ma tov uma nayim shevet achim gam yachad.

It's from Psalm 133:1. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”  

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sick to Death

The scriptures referred to are Romans 6:1b-11 and Matthew 10:24-39.

I think most people were saddened when they learned that Carrie Fisher died. And since she was only 60 years old, and life expectancy for a woman that age is 83, many of us suspected that the damage done by her self-confessed drug abuse probably shortened her life. This week the coroner determined that among the factors behind her heart attack were sleep apnea, cocaine ingested within the last 72 hours and traces of heroin and ecstasy. And immediately people were making an issue of this. On Facebook I saw one rather rude defense of her privacy that was tagged by the person who posted it: “I'm glad she died high on Ecstasy. Good for her.”

First of all, she wasn't high on ecstasy. The traces in her system were so small that they couldn't determine when she had taken it, but it was long before she had taken the cocaine.

Secondly, I am not happy she died at all. I wanted to see her live to be a sassy old lady and Grande Dame of Hollywood. And I am especially saddened that she was still having trouble fighting her drug problems. I don't condemn her because she was also battling what we used to call manic depression, and quite frankly I had been wondering if she was taking Lithium, the prescription drug of choice. It can also exacerbate heart disease and might have hastened her death as it had Jeremy Brett, who also had bipolar disease. But, no, it was illegal drugs.

Let's put it this way. What if Carrie had Type 1 diabetes, had died in a diabetic coma and the coroner had found that her last meal was an entire chocolate cake with sprinkles and gumdrops? Would you applaud that? Now you are not responsible for having Type 1 diabetes, the cause of which is unknown but is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. But once you are diagnosed you are responsible when it comes to taking your insulin, watching what you eat and how much you exercise. Or you will die. It may seem unfair but you have to accept it and move ahead with taking care of your health. Mary Tyler Moore was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 33. She took care of it and lived to be 80.

We now know some people are born susceptible to addiction. It's a brain illness. It is in their DNA and the science of epigenetics tells us that the genes responsible for addiction could be inherited already turned on because your parents or grandparents drank or took drugs. It doesn't mean you are doomed to addiction, just that you are at a greater risk than the average person, in the same way someone with a family history of heart disease has a higher risk of developing that. The proper response to having that greater risk is greater care. Carrie Fisher said she took dangerous drugs as a form of self-medication for her mental illness. And as her daughter Billie Lourd said, “she died from it.”

My point is that Carrie was sick. You don't rejoice when someone dies from an illness. You sure as heck don't rejoice when one of the factors in their death was a lapse in self-care.

Why am I going on about this? Because I find illness is a good metaphor for sin, the thing that afflicts us spiritually. The Bible does imply that we inherit our propensity for sin, what theologians call “original sin.” Some people say that if we inherit it, we can't be held responsible for it by God. That entirely misses the point. It's like inheriting a disease. You may not be responsible for having it but once you get the diagnosis, you are responsible for getting help. Otherwise you are like the men I saw on my skid row ministry in college. Far from denying their problem, they would say, “I'm an alcoholic.” But by that admission, they meant that they couldn't help themselves. In their eyes, their diagnosis sealed their fate. They didn't want help; they wanted money to buy booze.

If you are born with a disease, that sucks. But unless you want to get worse and/or die, you get help. You go to the doctor, you get a treatment regimen and you follow it. That usually means giving up things you'd rather keep and doing things you'd rather not. It's no fun but dealing with a disease isn't about enjoying it. It's about getting better.

That's what Paul is getting at in our passage from Romans. He has just said that where sin increased, God's grace increased more. And Paul is anticipating, perhaps based on previous experiences, some dunderhead saying, “well, isn't more grace a good thing? Maybe we should sin more to further increase it.” Which is like saying the budget for emergency services has increased in response to more heroin overdoses. Since more emergency services are good, to get an even bigger budget we need more heroin overdoses! It's nonsensical. We are talking about a matter of life and death.

The problem I think stems from muddled thinking about good and evil. The problem is we associate being bad with fun and being good with not having fun. I think this goes back to when we were kids and being good meant not jumping on the couch, and not tormenting the cat, and taking a nap whether you want to or not, and eating fruits and vegetables instead of candy and junk food. When you're a kid all these rules seem arbitrary. It's not until you are an adult and are responsible for a small human being that you remember the times you fell and hit your head because you were jumping on the couch, and the time the harassed cat whipped around and scratched you and you bled, and all the times you got cranky and miserable because you didn't take a nap, and the time you went to a friend's birthday party and had chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream and candy and got sick as a dog afterward. When you are an adult, you realize a lot of the rules parents make are for your own good. Why do we think it's different with God's rules?

God doesn't hate sin because he hates fun. We wouldn't be able to have pleasure at all if he hadn't created us with that capacity. But not all sources of fun are good for us. Some are helpful and some are harmful. God hates sin because it makes us do things that are both self-destructive and destructive to our relationships with others and with him. God hates sin because he loves us.

Sin is spiritual illness. It is only fun in the way that the manic phase of bipolar disease is. It may be exhilarating for a while but it will be followed by coming down hard into a depression. I had an aunt with the disease. I saw her come down off the high of mania twice. And while she was manic, she spent money she didn't have, went without sleep and put my poor uncle in a nursing home before his time. Drugs and alcohol can similarly make you feel good for a short period and then run you straight into the brick wall of reality and consequences. And so can sin.

Carrie Fisher's problems began at age 3 when her father Eddie Fisher's adultery was discovered. He had an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, who was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. That probably felt great while it lasted. But when Taylor's best friend, Fisher's wife Debbie Reynolds, divorced him, the former teen idol's career nosedived. He lost his TV show and his record label. Taylor eventually divorced Fisher for Richard Burton, which whom she was having an affair. When her dad published a salacious tell-all memoir, Carrie quipped she was going to have her DNA fumigated. And that was the hallmark of Carrie's humor: it was rueful. She knew it was humorous in the telling but she never hid the fact that it was hell in the living. She said, “If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

Eddie Fisher married 5 times. Debbie Reynolds married 3 times. Elizabeth Taylor married 7 times. That left Carrie Fisher with such a convoluted and confusing family that when her daughter started dating another Hollywood scion, they were worried that they might be related. So Carrie had to work out the family tree to assure them that they weren't.

That's just the damage adultery can do. People hardly consider that a sin anymore. Now the harm murder does is obvious as well as robbery. And if you think of people in the news, it's not hard to see how things Jesus condemned like deceit, jealousy, slander, arrogance, greed and foolishness can also wreck lives. (By the way, I know that celebrities are not more sinful than the rest of us; it's just that their follies are made public. They know firsthand what Jesus says in today's gospel: “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” Thus they are ready-made and familiar examples of human frailty.)

As Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a person but its end is the way that leads to death.” We know that sins like murder do so, but that's even true of the less scandalous sins. Yes, overdosing will kill you; so will overeating. Gluttony just takes more time and we humans are terrible in recognizing slow and stealthy threats. People didn't get serious about safe sex until folks started dying of AIDS. Most smokers don't get serious about quitting until they are diagnosed with cancer or a serious respiratory disease. We are not going to get serious about global warming until people start dropping dead from the heat and you have to put on wading boots to walk down the streets of Key West as the sea level rises.

Ironically while sin kills, the solution also involves dying. Paul says, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Paul is using Jesus' death and resurrection as a metaphor for our transformation in Christ. We die to sin and arise to new life as a new creation.

As you may know I like to use the metaphor of a heart transplant for salvation. In the case of heart failure, the only way to avoid death is to get a new heart. Which means someone has to die and donate their heart. It also means you need to have enough faith in the doctor to let him render you unconscious, stop your heart, cut it out and implant and attach a new heart. When you're awake again, you have a new heart and a new start in life. In the same way Jesus dies to give us life, his life. We can only access this by showing faith in him. If we let him change our hearts, we will have new life in him.

If you got a life-saving heart transplant, you would follow doctor's orders and change your lifestyle. To go back to your old lifestyle—eating blooming onions and smoking and not exercising—would be morally wrong for one thing; someone died to give you that heart. It would also be stupid. Why would you want to go back to being out of breath, having chest pain, having your legs swell up, and just generally feeling bad all over again? Having been granted a new life, why would you want to court death?

Which is why Paul is aghast that people would so misinterpret the fact that we are saved by God's grace rather than works as to think that only belief matters and not behavior. Again this goes to back to thinking that all rules are arbitrary, rather like the rules of etiquette. For example, in the West folks shake hands; in the East people bow to each other. But God's rules are really like the rules of good health, designed to improve and maintain our spiritual health and our relationships with ourselves, with each other and with God.

So Paul says it is like our old sinful self died on that cross with Jesus. And with it died our enslavement to sin. Addiction is a good metaphor for enslavement. Because while people rarely get addicted overnight, with time they do find their recreational activity or use of a substance has gone from a pastime to a hobby to a habit to a cruel master. Addiction changes the brain, bypassing the normal paths to its reward centers. Eventually the brain stops naturally producing dopamine and other neurotransmitters that give us pleasure, because the substance we are ingesting is acting as a substitute. Breaking addiction, therefore, means changing your brain. The spiritual analogue is the renewal of the mind Paul urges in Romans 12:2. And the Greek word for repent literally means “think differently.” If you keep thinking and acting the same way as you were, and expect things will change, you will be disappointed. And you might end up dead.

There were warning signs for Carrie. In 1985, after being sober for months she accidentally overdosed on sleeping pills and prescription meds and was hospitalized. In 2005 a friend died in her home of a combination of cocaine and oxycodone that aggravated undiagnosed heart disease. That was a prophetic death and naturally it upset Carrie. Yet she said, “I was a nut for a year and in that year I took drugs again.” That's how enslaving addiction is.

Carrie Fisher used her fame to educate people about mental illness and drug abuse. I hope her death, like that of Robin Williams, will wake more people up to these issues and make them seek help. Because many people do get free from addiction, including people like Eric Clapton, Russell Brand, Jamie Lee Curtis, Robert Downey Jr., and Daniel Ratcliffe of Harry Potter fame. A lot of folks do it by joining a 12 step program, the first 3 steps of which are admitting you cannot manage your life because of your addiction, realizing God can do it and then turning your life over to him. If it sounds familiar, it is because the 12 steps were derived from Christianity.

If we want to get free of the things that make our spiritual lives unmanageable, if we want to break free of the self-destructive habits that sabotage our lives and relationships, we have to admit we have become slaves to those things. We need to trust God and turn our life over to him. We need to let him remove our heart of stone and give us a good heart, the heart of Jesus, so that we can live a new life through him. We need to leave behind the dead and deadly things of our old life and let his Spirit change and renew our mind.


We live in a world with significance. Our choices count, even ones we don't put much thought into. Our choices affect our lives and the lives of others, including our children. We also live in a world where time only moves in one direction: forward. We cannot change the past. But neither must we let the past determine our future. Even second is a second chance. We can change course. We can turn from the things that promise pleasure but deliver destruction, disease and death. We can turn to the God of life and healing and wholeness. We can let the love of Jesus rule our hearts. We can follow in his steps, knowing that if we stumble, our companion, Jesus, will help us back up on our feet, offering forgiveness, restoration and strength to persevere. He will never leave us and he will never give up on us. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Charged

Imagine a version of the parable of the Good Samaritan where, instead of passing by the man beaten and left for dead, the priest and the Levite came over to him and said, “I feel really bad for you. I can't touch you because if you die it would make me ritually unclean to serve in the temple but I want you to know: my heart goes out to you. I really do hope you get better.” And then they walk away. Two question would arise. Would that do the beaten man any good? And would he believe a word of it?

Of course not. Words are easy. In a situation like that, only actions show your true feelings. Look at it this way: had the man been the son of either the priest or the Levite, they would have been administering first aid in a split second. We lie with our lips; the truth is in our lives.

Jesus knew that. In today's gospel (Matthew 9:35-10:23) we are told that “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.'” And if he were in a modern church, they would have said a prayer and left it at that. But Jesus isn't that kind of person. If he sees someone who needs help, he provides it. First off, he realizes that not everyone who needs to hear the gospel is in this crowd. There was no mass media then. How could Jesus increase the range of his message? Send out the disciples.

Disciple” is just another word for “student.” And part of learning is being able to articulate what you've been taught. Admittedly the message is rather simple. “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” (In Matthew "the kingdom of heaven" is a euphemism for the kingdom of God, for those Jews who wanted to avoid using God's name in vain, even accidentally.) It's possible that Jesus is sending them out with a teaser message to make people curious. In the average Jew's mind, this message meant the end of the present evil age was near and the Messianic age is nigh. And that would make people wonder if the Messiah was already here. And who he was.

But why would anyone believe the disciples, especially with such a cryptic message? The healings, of course. Anybody can say the Messianic age is coming, but if the heralds of the Messiah can heal people, then that's all the proof most folks will need. And if the Twelve are doing it in Jesus' name, that answers the question of who the Messiah is.

But I don't want you to get the impression that Jesus was simply using healings to get the message out. Our passage says that he had compassion on the crowd. It's possible that Jesus pitied the people simply for not knowing the gospel but that's unlikely. The word used is the strongest possible Greek word for pity, according to William Barclay. Barclay also points out that, except in the parables, this word for compassion is only used about Jesus. He feels compassion for the sick (Matt 14:14), the blind (Matt 20:34), those with leprosy (Mark 1:41), the widow of Nain about to bury her only son (Luke 7:13), and the crowd of 5000 hungry people he will eventually feed (Matt 15:32). In this passage, the people Jesus has compassion for are described as harassed and helpless. The Greek literally says “flayed and scattered.” That's what moves Jesus.

That's another reason Jesus sends the disciples out not only to preach but to heal. There were no hospitals then. There was no medical science to speak of. This is 100 years before the birth of Galen, the Greek physician and surgeon, who would influence medicine for the next 1300 years. A large part of Jesus' ministry was healing those who had no other option for getting better. And to extend the range of his healing, he enlists the disciples.

Again part of the learning process is putting what you learn to work. In my nursing school we spent half the day in a classroom and the other half on a hospital floor, taking care of patients. Hospitals and nursing homes routinely hire newly graduated nurses and put them to work, under supervision, even before they pass their licensure exams. So what Jesus is doing is like having medical interns work in the clinic. He's taught the disciples what to do; now it's time for them to put it into practice.

And yet Jesus chooses some rather ordinary guys. They aren't wealthy; they aren't scholars; they aren't priests or Levites. 4 are fishermen, and 2 are enemies! Simon the Canaanite is called in Luke 6:16 "the Zealot," meaning he was part of a movement that called for the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation. He should have been at the throat of Matthew, a tax collector for the Romans. We can only surmise that, as Matthew left his old life behind to follow Jesus, Simon did likewise with his old political position. So the guys might be ordinary but the fellowship is anything but.

And they are charged with an extraordinary mission: Proclaim the good news. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. And do so without taking payment. Jesus wants the disciples to rely on whoever is hospitable for their food and accommodations. He doesn't want them taking money. Rabbis in that day would not take payment to teach. Jesus doesn't want his disciples to be tempted to favor anyone or to become or even look corrupted. They are to operate on faith, trusting that God will see to their needs.

If all this seems incredibly naive on Jesus' part, he knows that. “See, I am sending you out as sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt 10:16) Sheep and doves are prey; wolves and snakes are predators. And yet, though he is sending them into danger, Jesus' most visible concession is to send them out two by two, according to Mark 6:7. Still, since Jesus explicitly forbids his followers to use violence, that means they need to use their minds when faced with opposition. Just like Jesus. He is smart. He knows how the world works. He knows how people really act. But not only is he smart, he's wise. He knows what matters in the end. He knows what is truly valuable. And it's not having a lot of physical power and it's not winning as the world sees winning. It's serving God. It's serving those created in the image of God. It's becoming the person God created you to be: loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind and generous and faithful and gentle and self-controlled. And wise.

We have examples of this. Paul was shrewd enough to invoke his Roman citizenship when he faced injustice. (Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:11) It allowed him to proclaim the gospel to high officials. He also tailored his presentation of the gospel to his audience (Acts 17:22-23) and even to confound his enemies (Acts 23:6-8).

Jesus himself was able to disarm his opponents when they tried to set theological and moral traps for him. He used the design of a coin to parry a question about taxes while simultaneously asserting that our lives belong to God. When they questioned his authority, he turned the question back on them by asking about John the Baptist's authority. When they planted a man with a withered hand in the front row of a synagogue, Jesus asked if doing good was permitted on the Sabbath and then told the man to stretch out his hand. (Mark 3:1-6) Jesus flipped the script. Instead of doing what they expected, instead of following their script, he reframed the problem and changed the question. He never forgot the real issues at stake: loving God and loving people.

A lot of the problems we have in this world are about priorities. We put everything else ahead of God and  other people. When you look at the ethical decisions people make, it is obvious that we put personal success ahead of God and other people. We put the attainment of power and the maintenance of privilege ahead of God and other people. We put personal pleasure ahead of God and other people. We put our own comfort and convenience ahead of God and other people. We put money ahead of God and people. Budgets are moral documents, revealing our priorities, and yet some who call themselves Christians balk when they feel too much money is spent on things that help people and not enough on things that kill them. That's even true when we are talking about our own warriors. We have the largest military budget in the world. And yet for every dollar we spend on our military, we spend less than 24 cents caring for our veterans. Not only does the country ask them to die for us, it evidently prefers that they do. If they live, they cost more.  We have made the bottom line our top priority. As someone pointed out, we are supposed to love people and use things; instead we love things and use people.

When you look at the world the way Jesus did, putting God and other people first, you are bound to run into opposition. I can't think of anyone persecuted for maintaining the status quo. Nobody is oppressed for saying things are fine the way they are. But if you say that things are bad the way they are, if you point out society's problems, if you say we need change, that gets you persecuted.

Change scares because change hurts. Change scares because change either alters or eliminates the familiar. Because change scares, changing things takes courage. And make no mistake, the gospel is not about preserving the status quo. Jesus charges us to change the world.

Jesus charges us to “cure the sick.” Sicknesses are called disorders. We have a disordered society. As we said, our priorities are out of order. We love the wrong things or we love them in the wrong order, putting things like popularity and power and partisanship above God and other people. We need to cure that. Which means we must first accept the diagnosis. Humanity fights this by generating a lot of denial. We are going to have to admit we are sick and then let the Spirit of the God who is love heal us.

Jesus charges us to “raise the dead.” A large number of people in this world are spiritually dead. They don't respond to things of the Spirit. They can't see beyond the things of this passing world to glimpse the things that are eternal. "What you see is what you get," they say. Blind to what is behind this world, what undergirds it, what binds it together, they blunder into the dead end of distraction and dissolution. We need to raise the dead. We need to lift them up so that they can see what is above and around them and breathe in the Spirit of the God who gives all things meaning.

Jesus charges us to “cleanse the lepers.” There are a lot of people who are treated as pariahs in society, people who are blamed for not being like everyone else, people who hurting but whose cries for love and empathy and inclusion are ignored. We want them to shut up and stay away lest their troubling differences infect us. (Luke 18:39) But at the risk of becoming unclean, Jesus reached out and healed lepers. (Mark 1:40-42) We need to do likewise, reaching out to the hurting and the excluded and heal the breaches in our communities.

Jesus charges us to “cast out demons.” A lot of people are fighting their demons, the adverse experiences and personal issues that bedevil them and cause them to act out and harm themselves and others. Instead of punishing them, we need to help them face the legion of problems that make their life hell, to cast away the things that drag them down and to put them in touch with the Spirit of the God of peace.

How do we do it? Through the power of the Spirit. Jesus sent the disciples out 2 by 2. Wherever 2 are 3 are gathered in his name, the Spirit of Jesus is there. (Matt 18:20) He is with us. He will never leave us or forsake us.  

Now as then Jesus calls ordinary people. He teaches and empowers us and then sends us out into a disordered the world to proclaim the good news of healing and resurrection, of inclusion and triumph over darkness and to proclaim it not only with our words but with acts of love. And every time we do it, the Kingdom of God comes that much nearer.