Friday, December 31, 2010

The Spirit Embodied 2

In my last post I mentioned how many Christmas specials I had seen this year. And I noticed that most of them were about how someone must rediscover the true meaning or spirit of Christmas. And yet these specials never really got specific about what that spirit was. It was just assumed the audience would know. But sometimes there would be a line about Christmas being about family, or love, or giving, or peace, or hope, or joy. But those words encompass a great many notions. So we asked, “what form of those things was meant?” We've looked at the forms family, love and giving took that first Christmas. This post we will look at the other three.

We tend to think that peace is always a good thing. But what kind of peace are we talking about? Is it the peace the Romans brought to the world of the Mediterranean by conquering everyone and forcibly making them into an empire? Is it merely peace of mind, without any external change in circumstances? Is either of these the peace that Christmas is an example of?

What kind of joy? The passing joy of opening presents, or of being off work or school? The joy of seeing family members for the first time in a long time, followed by the realization that you won’t see them again anytime soon? Are these transitory joys the same as the joy that Christmas extends to us?

What kind of hope? Hope for more and more presents? Hope for reconciliation with loved ones who are distant, either geographically or emotionally? Is this the hope Christmas excites in us?

When we talk about the spirit of something, we usually have to resort to the specific expressions of it we see or experience. Because the physical and spiritual are meant to go together. The physical gives form to the spiritual. The spiritual gives meaning to the physical. So to discover what is meant by the spirit of Christmas in regards to peace, hope or joy, we must look at the forms in which the spirit was expressed on the original Christmas.

So what form did the spirit of peace take that Christmas?

When the angels announced the birth of Jesus, they said, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people with whom he is pleased.” Most of us are more familiar with the King James version that reads “good will towards men” or the other translation which relies on the Latin: “peace towards men of good will.” But the discovery of older manuscripts and a better understanding of the subtleties of Greek has led the vast majority of modern translations to now read “peace towards people with whom he is pleased” or “whom he favors.” The world usually bestows its favor on those who don’t need it: the powerful, the famous, the beautiful, the shameless, the clever, the ruthless. It gives breaks to those whose don’t need them and denies them to those who do. But God’s peace is distributed based, not on our criteria or priorities, but on his. It is bestowed through his grace, his undeserved, unreserved goodness. It looks capricious to us but that’s because our sense of judgment is warped by this world. However, the judge of all the earth shall do what is just.

But what do the angels mean by peace? To us, it means simply the cessation of strife. There can be such a thing as an uneasy peace. But the Hebrew word “shalom” means more. It means “wholeness, completeness, well-being.” Nevertheless, it does come from the cessation of conflict--our rebellion against God. Jesus was sent to reconcile us with God. But how does that bring us wholeness? When we admit God is God and put him back in charge of our life, we come into harmony with the one who created us and the universe. And we experience that harmony as peace. And as more people do so they come into harmony with each other. So peace with God leads to peace with others.

Of course, not everyone will agree on everything, even when it comes to Christians. But that’s where God’s commandment to love your neighbor as yourself comes in. You can love people with which you don’t agree. There are couples where one is a diehard Democrat and the other a rock-solid Republican…and yet they function well together. There are inter-faith couples who work out ways to navigate their differences. People can get along despite the fact that one is into conspiracies and one thinks the Illuminati are as real as a threat as the Klingons. And yet there are Christians--like Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics, or Missouri Synod Lutherans and Seventh Day Adventists or different branches of the Anglican church--who overlook all the essentials they have in common to fight over issues that are of secondary or even tertiary importance.

We need to take a cue from Jesus. He didn’t take a definitive stand on a lot of the hot button religious issues of his day. He saw them as peripheral in contrast to the central truths of God‘s love, justice, forgiveness, and kingdom. And unlike the kingdoms of this world, God‘s does not come in force. Word of it is spread. People accept it. And as they grow in Christ, it grows. Because Jesus is the seed. So the form that the spirit of peace takes the first Christmas is Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

What form did the spirit of joy take the first Christmas? The first angel tells the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy for all the people.” You probably know that good news is the literal translation the word “gospel.” I never understood how people ever got the idea that Christianity is supposed to be a mournful religion, least of all Christians. Joy is an essential part of the Christian life. It is part of the fruit of the spirit. We are created to delight in God and his works. Because he is marvelous and so is what he does. The words the Bible uses for joy also mean mirth, gladness, cheerfulness, to shine and to spring about. What reason have we for joy? There is the world, its beauty, its vastness, its variety, its seemingly infinite detail. There are people, created in God’s image. There is the fact that when we ruined it all, God did not give up on us but laid the groundwork for his most marvelous work yet: entering his own creation and recreating it from the inside out. And he does it even though it costs him dearly. Which shows us how much he loves us. Isn’t that a reason to jump for joy? And so the form the spirit of joy takes at Christmas is that of the good news of the coming of Jesus Christ.

Finally, what form does the spirit of hope take that first Christmas? The hope of the oppressed Jews was God’s promised Messiah, his anointed prophet, priest and king. They always remembered their history as slaves in Egypt. They remembered how God sent Moses to free them. They remembered when the Philistines attacked and dominated them in their own land. They remembered how God sent David, their king, to push back the Philistines. They remembered their exile to Babylon hundreds of years later. They remember how God anointed Cyrus the Persian to defeat the Babylonians and let them return home. Now they were once again subjects of an oppressive empire. They looked back at how God had freed them from Egypt and then from Babylon, and they hoped God would free them again as he had in the past.

Hope, it has been said, is the future tense of faith. It is, like faith, not blind but rooted in the past. We trust those who have been faithful to us in the past. So the Jews trusted that God would, as in the past, come through for them. And he did, but not by sending just another leader or king. He sent his son. He is the Anointed, in Hebrew “Messiah,” in Greek “Christ.” But he wasn’t going to save just the Jews from just another empire. He would save all people from what really keeps us from being free--our bad habits, our self-destructive ways, our darkest desires and greatest fears--our sins. We, not others, are our own worst enemies. So God anointed and sent his son to do what we could not--to bury our sins and give us new life.

The job is not yet finished. Jesus won the major victory but there’s still mopping up to be done. Jesus emancipated the slaves but we must proclaim it. Jesus inaugurated the kingdom but we must people it. The kingdom won’t be complete until the king returns to claim his throne. And so we too hope for his coming, this time with all the glory he shunned the first time.

So the form the spirit of hope took that first Christmas was the promised one, the savior, Jesus Christ.

Throughout this, I have been using the word “spirit” in the colloquial sense, meaning the essence of something. But in this context, it means more. God’s Holy Spirit transcends metaphor. He is the power of God that holds the universe together and keeps it going and inspires us. He is literally the Spirit of Christmas, that ineffable presence of God, that filled Jesus and empowered him and whom Jesus promised to those who follow him. As from one flame one can light every lamp and candle in a house or church, so he can purify the souls, illumine the minds, and set on fire the hearts of all who open them to him. As he was in Jesus, he is in us who obey his word and walk in his ways. And he wishes us to embody Christ not once a year, but every day in every encounter with every person. And if we do not quench his activity, we will find in us the source of love and giving and peace and joy and hope, and in our fellow human beings, a family, our brothers and sisters in Christ, all of us children of our Heavenly Father.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Spirit Embodied 1

My patient’s mother has the pre-school channel Nick Jr. on most of the day. She says I can change the channel if I like, but most daytime TV is appalling so I and my charge have become acquainted with the channel’s entire schedule which is repeated several times a day! Some shows I like; some I don’t, like “Yo Gabba Gabba,” which, with its one-eyed red cactus creature and cat-lizard, dancing and singing songs made up of one line over and over ad nauseum, strikes me as a kid’s version of a bad acid trip. My patient loves it. There is no accounting for the taste of an 8-month old. So it was with some relief that I found my patient’s mother had set her DVR to record every Christmas special being shown this year. Some were familiar to me, like the stop motion version of Rudolph. Some were weird, like “Jack Frost” where a dead Michael Keaton comes back to see his family in the form of a creepy-looking snowman. And some were romances, like the many where Santa needed a wife, something I suspect did not trouble the actual st. Nicholas, a 3rd century bishop. In most of these specials, there’s a threat to the continued existence of Christmas, as if the holiday depended on Santa and not Jesus. Oh, and along the way, someone, in one case an amnesiac Santa, must learn the true meaning of Christmas or recapture its spirit.

But this meaning or spirit, so central to the plot of these specials, is rarely ever described. Which is odd. It would be like a James Bond or Indiana Jones film in which everyone was seeking a gadget or a formula or a relic without anyone ever saying what its importance or power was. So what difference would it make if a person doesn’t find this nebulous spirit?

Of course, the problem is that Christmas means different things to different people. To a lot of people its meaning is similar to that espoused by the dog Grimm in Mike Peter’s comic strip, “Mother Goose and Grimm.” In Thursday’s strip, another dog asks a present-laden Grimm where he’s been. “Out amassing a huge amount of gifts this season,” Grimm says.

“What do you mean by amass?” his friend asks.

“You know, buy, horde, accumulate,” Grimm answers.

“Is that what this season is about?” The other dog asks.

“Sure,” replies Grimm. “ I’m just keeping the ’amass’ in Christmas.”

But the Christmas specials don’t want to say it’s all about getting every material thing you desire, even if their protagonist is Santa Claus. So, if pressed, they say it is about family. Or love. Or giving. Or peace. Or joy. Or hope. All of which are acceptable to all, regardless of beliefs or lack thereof.

In a way, they are right. It is about family, love, giving, joy, hope, and peace. But to leave those as generic terms tells us nothing. What kind of family, for instance? The Borgias? The Manson family? Or those impossibly perfect families of old TV shows, like the Bradys, families we could never live up to? Not every family is a good exemplar of the Christmas spirit.

What kind of love? Romantic love? The “Santa seeks a spouse” movies think so. Or the obsessive love of stalkers? There are different kinds of love and not all are worthy of emulation.

What kind of giving? Leaving pennies at the register for the next person without enough change? Putting quarters in the Salvation Army kettle? These are all forms of giving but they cost us little, though we may feel virtuous because of them. Is this the kind of giving that Christmas embodies?

When you think about it, it’s hard to describe the spirit of something. Oddly enough, to be recognized, that spirit needs to be expressed in some tangible form, in characteristic words, actions or personalities. And so to know what its true spirit is, we need to look at the form it took on that first Christmas.

The first family to come together at Christmas wasn’t celebrating anything. Joseph is taking his very pregnant fiancé on a 3 day trip from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea. Some have disputed the idea that the Romans would require people to travel simply to be taxed. But if Joseph had property in Bethlehem, and if he couldn’t pay his taxes, Rome would require him to go back to the family farm and work it in order to make money to pay the taxes on it. So this wasn’t a family vacation. Joseph was pulled out of the town where he made a new start to return to an abandoned, probably unprofitable piece of property in his birthplace. And he had to work it to pay taxes to the foreign powers occupying his country. On top of that, Mary could deliver any day. Joseph was probably in a very black mood and Mary an extremely anxious one the whole trip. So maybe it was like some family vacations.

Why did they go? They knew the penalty for disobeying Rome. During the later census in 6 AD, many in Galilee rebelled. Of course, it was put down violently and the road to the capital of Galilee, Sepphoris, was lined with the crosses of rebels. Since Nazareth was just 4 miles away, Jesus might have seen and certainly would have remembered that. He knew the penalty of opposing the status quo. But at this point, that was in the future. Joseph knew he must go. But why drag Mary along? Possibly because of how long it might take him to revive the farm and his not wanting to be separated from her. Also he may have wanted to be there when she gave birth to her first child. And maybe because, with gossip about her pregnancy, Mary had few friends in Nazareth who would be seen with her, much less help with the birth. Questions had been buzzing around the betrothed couple in Nazareth: did they jump the gun while engaged or was she unfaithful? Joseph could have cut and run, leaving his scandalous fiancé behind. But he didn’t. So rather than a family sitting back and relaxing over a feast, the form the spirit of family takes the first Christmas, is one that, despite taxes, poverty, and vicious rumors, despite stresses without and within, decides to stick together and share each other’s burdens, trusting God for a better future.

What about the form that love takes at Christmas? We could reiterate what we said about family but there is more to it than that. Human love is common and rarely untainted by selfish motives. There are enough stories of human love. We don’t need any more. But concrete examples of divine love? That we could use.

There are religions that are primarily about justice. Others are primarily about peace. Some are primarily about personal righteousness. Christianity encompasses all of those but its uniqueness is that it is primarily about love, God’s love for us. And the form God’s love takes is Jesus Christ. God is our creator. He is the author of our existence. But if that is the only way we know him, he is an abstraction. We are like the little boy who got frightened by thunderstorms. His mother, trying to comfort him, reminded him one stormy night that God loved him and was always with him. After a series of loud booms, he ran to his mother’s bed. “You’re a big boy. You don’t have to come in here,” his mother said. “I told you God loves you and is always with you.”

“I know, “ said the boy, snuggling. “but I like love with skin on.”

Jesus is God’s love with skin on. He is, as J.B. Philips put it, the infinite, abstract God focused in terms we understand--in terms of time and space and human personality. If you wish to see what God is like, look at Jesus. He wants the best for us and so demands the best from us. But he knows we are frail and so he fortifies us. He knows we often fail and so he forgives us. He knows we fated to die and so he offers us eternal life. And all we have to do is trust him. And we can do that because we know he loves us. And so the form the spirit of love takes the first Christmas is Jesus.

What about the form that giving takes at Christmas? The world thinks that it means buying lots of gifts for everyone you know. But originally it was Jesus’ giving of his life. It wasn’t sufficient that he was given life; it was essential that he gave up that life. We have beautiful babies aplenty. We have libraries full of the words of wise men. But Jesus gave his life to save ours and it is that death that makes his birth significant. What happened in a stable in Bethlehem matters little apart from what happened on a hill outside Jerusalem. The babe in the straw is unimportant unless he is also the man on the tree. The crèche is meaningless without the cross. Christmas draws its importance from Good Friday. And Good Friday would be nothing more than a miscarriage of justice without Easter. Jesus gives his life for us and in return God gives it back again. And were it not for the bodiless tomb, we would never have heard of the baby-filled manger. So the form that giving takes the first Christmas is that of a life of self-sacrifice, the life of Jesus, who was born to die and then to live forever.

As for the forms peace or joy or hope take, we will take those up in my next post. But let me emphasize that the spiritual and the physical are meant to go together. The physical gives form to the spirit. The spirit give meaning to the physical.

Just physically bringing together a bunch of people related by blood or marriage doesn’t necessarily constitute a family. The spirit of caring, supporting and forgiving one another must be present. I’m sure on that trip there were times when put-upon Joseph wondered if God was the father of Mary’s child, what was he needed for? And I’m sure there were times when Mary thought Joseph was leading that donkey into every pothole between Galilee and Judea. They were under tremendous strain but they stuck it out and they stuck together.

People coming together physically doesn’t necessarily constitute love. People saying they love others doesn’t necessarily constitute love, either. The spirit of love, of nurture and helping, must be present and must be manifested in tangible ways. Jesus didn’t just talk of loving others, he demonstrated it. He fed the hungry. He healed the sick and the handicapped. He touched the untouchables in his society. He ate and drank with and taught the outcasts. He forgave sinners. He encouraged the generous and the faithful. So when, on the night he was betrayed, he told his disciples to love one another as he loved them, they knew exactly what that looked like and felt like.

Just passing some physical object on to another person doesn’t necessarily constitute giving, especially if you are doing it out of obligation or in expectation of getting something back. The spirit of giving, of generosity and even self-sacrifice, must be present. Jesus gave to those who could not repay him. He gave of his time. He gave of his talent. He gave his life, both in service to others and in sacrifice for others. We owe him a debt our feeble efforts to give can never pay off. So we pay it forward, knowing that whatever we do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do to him.

Our other holidays have all degenerated into excuses for self-indulgence. We take time off, stuff ourselves, and treat ourselves to gifts or entertainment. We no longer honor the presidents on Presidents Day, or thank those who labor on Labor Day, or think about Martin Luther King on his day. We have made their days all about ourselves. Let’s not make Christmas another example of that. The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of Jesus, God’s giving, self-sacrificial love made real. He is more than an idea, more solid than just a notion of being nice for one day or one season, more specific than the slogans and buzzwords that make us feel good about ourselves. Christmas is about Christ Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. His is the spirit we must manifest in our lives. Or else it really is all humbug.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Virgin Version

One of the joys of a good story is enjoying it again. Sometimes you notice new details. And when it is a well-told story, you might notice how certain themes are developed and how important events are foreshadowed. I was rereading the Harry Potter saga and you can see how all along J.K. Rowling was setting up the themes of not passing judgment on others, of doing what’s right rather than what’s easy, of hope and faith, of fear and hate, of death and resurrection. Especially prominent is the saving power of self-sacrificial love. It is ironic that so many fundamentalists missed the profoundly Christian ethos of this series of books.

These themes come from the Bible, of course, and here too there is foreshadowing. In the Bible it is called prophecy. We find a famous example in the passages from Isaiah 7:10-16 and from Matthew 1:18-25. But you may have noticed something. The verse in Isaiah is different from the version we find in the gospel. Why is that?

Isaiah says, “look, the young woman will conceive and give birth to a son, and she will call him Immanuel.” Matthew says, “look, a virgin…” Is Matthew fudging the quote to bolster his interpretation of the prophecy? No, he was just doing what we are doing: using a translation. Isaiah was written in Hebrew. Hundreds of years later, Jews in the Roman Empire spoke the common language of the day, Greek. So they and the writers of the New Testament were most familiar with a popular Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint. And the Septuagint uses the Greek word for “virgin.” To be fair, in that time and place any unmarried young woman was supposed to be a virgin.

Does that mean that the quote from Isaiah wasn’t really a prophecy? Only if we define prophecy in a narrow way. And unfortunately that’s exactly what a lot of Christians do. They act as if the Bible is made up of a bunch of lists: top 10 things God wants you to do, 9 things you’d better not do if you don’t want to wind up in hell, 7 signs of the apocalypse, 6 ways to tell if you’re a leper, and 100 precise prophecies predicting the Messiah. But the Bible has only a few deliberate lists and only because it contains various types of literature.

We think of a prophet as something similar to a psychic. But in the Bible a prophet is someone who speaks for God, someone who announces the Word of God. Sometimes a prophet describes the current situation from God’s perspective. Sometimes a prophet prescribes some types of behavior and proscribes other forms of behavior. Sometimes he or she delineates the consequences of bad behavior or announces what God promises to do to reclaim his lost people. So foretelling events is only one type of prophecy. And sometimes the prophecy has an immediate, rather straightforward fulfillment that presages a more distant and greater manifestation.

The immediate situation that Isaiah was addressing was a threat to Judah. The king of its sister nation of Israel and the king of Aram, modern day Syria, were pressuring Judah to join them in an alliance against the Assyrian empire that would have been disastrous. To encourage King Ahaz to resist this ill-fated move, God offered a sign to assure him. A young maiden, possibly Isaiah’s prospective wife, would get pregnant, have a baby and by the time he’s old enough to discern good from evil, the threat would be no more. So when that happened, the prophecy would be fulfilled. Why is Matthew bringing it back up?

Remember when we were talking about in a great story events are often foreshadowed. In the beginning of first film in which Cate Blanchett plays Elizabeth the First, the dying Queen Mary, a staunch Catholic, begs her Protestant half-sister not to take the blessed Virgin from the English people. At the end of the film, Elizabeth becomes the beloved virgin queen, honoring her sister‘s request in a startling way. In every Harry Potter book, he and his friends confront the choice of facing death and their greatest fears to save the ones they love. But each time it becomes harder and the stakes higher. Heroic friends and allies die. In the final book, Harry realizes that he must let Voldemort kill him to destroy the magic link that keeps them both alive. This time Harry must set aside any hope of defeating his enemy. In fact, to kill Voldemort will simply fracture Harry’s soul as it did the dark wizard and curse him to the same sort of evil half-life. Harry puts away his wand and goes to face his fate, like a lamb to the slaughter. This act is both somewhat like and yet much greater than the sacrifices Harry has made before. And in retrospect, it becomes clear that each book was pointing to this conclusion.

This is how the writers of the New Testament and indeed the rabbis of that day read the Bible. Its riches were inexhaustible. Anything in God’s Word could have both a literal and a spiritual meaning. Any prophecy could have an immediate fulfillment that was also a hint of greater things to come. Since God’s character does not change, one would expect a consistency in his actions. Therefore his earlier acts bore similarities to the later ones. But since he was God he could hardly be expected to simply repeat himself. So one would expect him to create surprising variations on earlier themes.

And that’s what we have here. In Isaiah’s time the natural birth of a son named Immanuel signals God’s promise of political peace. But several hundred years later, the birth of a son who is Immanuel--”God with us”--signals God’s promise of a more profound and far-reaching peace.

The disciples didn’t see this until after Jesus’ resurrection cast the otherwise tragic events leading up to his death in a totally different light. Some of this must have come from Jesus’ teachings after he arose from the dead. Luke tells us that on the road to Emmaus, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted the things about himself that were written in all the scriptures.” And it all made sense. And it resonated. “They said to each other, ‘were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the road and as he opened up to us the scriptures?’”

So they scanned the scriptures and found all these hints and foreshadowing of Jesus’ life and ministry. Especially startling were Psalm 22 and the later chapters of Isaiah. Here they found descriptions of God’s suffering servant so explicit that those who witnessed his crucifixion must have shivered as they read them. It was the resurrection of Jesus that vindicated him in the eyes of those who thought he was just another failed Messiah-wannabe but it was these prophetic passages in the Hebrew Bible that helped them understand what he was doing. And what he was doing was marvelous.

The only way to break the cycle of violence is to not respond violently. The only way to bring peace between those at odds is for the aggrieved party to initiate it. We have been at war with God a long time. We started it. Now he is ending it. And he does so by absorbing all the violence, all the betrayal, all the injustice, all the hatred, all the cruelty, all the hypocrisy, all the prejudice, all the political cowardice, all the religious complicity, all the personal justifications, all the inhumanity that humanity can muster. He takes all the evil that men do and buries it, with him, in his grave. And then he leaves it there. Jesus doesn’t bring it back when he returns to life. 30 years after he took his first breath in a stable and opened his eyes under the light of a dazzling star, he takes a new first breath in a garden-like graveyard and squints in the light of the rising sun.

On Easter Jesus is reborn. The birth pangs began on Good Friday. The baby who lay where no baby should, in a feeding trough, is laid out where no person should be, on a cross. The infant hailed as King by the heavenly court is ironically labeled “King of the Jews” by an emperor’s lackey. The child revered by lowly shepherds is mocked by passersby. The toddler presented with gifts by scholars is stripped of all he owns by soldiers. But then the babe who entered into a womb through a miracle exits his tomb through another miracle. And once again God starts doing on a grander scale what he has done before.

For God did not resurrect the Son in whom he was pleased as a stunt. It was a prelude. Again he is hinting at a greater fulfillment. He means to resurrect this rotten world that he once pronounced good. It is not only people who are to be born again, but the world as well. And as the Body of Christ on earth, we are to be at the forefront. As Jesus went about healing and comforting and confronting and suffering for his trouble, we will as well. It will not be easy. It will take sacrifice. There will be birth pangs. But God has already said it will happen. And in Jesus he has already begun it. It is for us to continue in the spirit of what has gone before. And if the past is anything to go on, when it is time for the new heavens and the new earth to be born, it will be as surprising as a virgin giving birth and as unexpected as finding God in a feeding trough.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Getting Beyond Step One

Ask a bunch of guys who has the best job in the world and most of us would say, “the Mythbusters!” Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman get to blow up a lot of things: dump trucks, fake sharks, houses, trombones and more. That’s not all they do, however. They also crush cars between tractor trailers, drop elevators, break out of prisons, set fire to the Hindenberg, and smash beer bottles over the heads of dead pigs. While they do investigate positive urban legends sometimes, they mostly destroy stuff and enjoy themselves while doing it. And we enjoy it vicariously.

There are a lot of other reality shows that features various high-tech ways of destroying stuff. Or, as in Storm Chasers, they video natural disasters. In the case of shows that put a disparate group of people together competing for love or some other prize, we watch relationships and lives implode. The highest rated episodes tend to be the ones on which a person or couple either blow up or melt down.

Most of our fictional entertainment seems to consist of vicarious violence. The James Bond films, Indiana Jones movies and just about every other franchise seem to revolve around a hero who kills a lot of people and blows stuff up. Beginning with “24,” our action TV shows are less adverse to heroes who kill. So it was refreshing when, in the first season of the relaunched Doctor Who, the Doctor comes up with a solution that doesn’t involve death or explosions. The Doctor almost never directly engages in violence but has been known to maneuver his enemies into traps in which they destroy themselves or each other. But in this case, facing the deformed and demented human victims of the crash of an empty alien spacecraft, he comes up with a solution that restores their humanity and health. “Give me this, “ he says, almost as a prayer. “Just this once--everyone lives!” This change has set the tone for this revival of the world’s oldest science fiction TV series. These days, more often than not, the Doctor at least gives his opponents a chance to save themselves from the self-destruction they are lurching towards.

But that is atypical. Most sci-fi and action films and shows are filled with things exploding and people, robots and aliens having their lives ended. Why does destruction entertain us so much more than constructive endeavors?

There is an equivalent phenomena in religion. In Christianity there are those who display a morbid fascination with the end times and the details of how bad things will get before Jesus returns. For the most part we Episcopalians don’t really do that. It’s not so much that we are virtuous but that our theology really doesn’t know what to do with the more unpleasant apocalyptic passages in Scripture.

The first thing to remember is that these passages are meant to comfort. When God’s people were persecuted, or oppressed, or taken into exile, they wondered why God allowed this. Perhaps they had sinned but how long would they be punished like this? When would it end? And what about those who treated God’s people so badly? They longed to see God give them justice.

In these passages, God assures them that good will triumph, evil will be defeated and that those who remained faithful during the bad times will be rewarded. The present evil age will end and God’s kingdom will be established. And we see in Luke 21:5-19 and Isaiah 65:17-25 both parts of the apocalyptic timeline.

At the request of his disciples, Jesus is telling them what to look for when the Day of the Lord is coming. Notice that, contrary to so-called prophesy experts, Jesus warns them not to follow anyone who claims that “the time is near!” After all, as Jesus says elsewhere, even he doesn’t know the hour it will happen. Those who claim to know better than Jesus can hardly be called his followers, now can they?

Jesus mentions the typical signs of the Day of the Lord, like wars and insurrections and disasters, and says that the end of the present age is not going to take place immediately afterward. Don’t get anxious! In fact, Jesus’ advice is exactly the opposite of the modern evangelists and book writers who seem to want to stir up fear in their audience. They delight in pointing to current events, firmly linking them to biblical prophesies, and then making it seem crucial that one buy into their interpretation of the end times. Jesus says, in essence, don’t let these things freak you out.

Some extremists warn Christians to prepare for economic turmoil, riots and societal upheaval. Some advocate shelters, stockpiling and survivalist strategies. A few say Christians should arm themselves against rampaging hordes or even Armageddon, which ignores both the fact that Christians are told to be witnesses, not combatants, and that the Battle of Armageddon in Revelation never actually takes place.

Instead, Jesus tells us to do the work he has given us to do: proclaiming the good news, following his commandments to love God and one another, and taking care of the least, the most vulnerable, of his brothers and sisters. This is what he wants to find us doing when he returns, not playing soldier.

And the great thing is that Jesus’ counsel works whether it’s the end of the world for everyone or the end of our world, our life. Jews and Christians have been persecuted and executed at many anxious times in the world. It’s happening right now in the Middle East and Asia. We need to heed Jesus’ words, not just at some distant time in the future, but whenever times are bad. Don’t be anxious. Trust in God. Do your work.

That’s what Paul is saying in 2nd Thessalonians 3:6-13. He’s not talking about just any layabouts. He’s writing about people who thought Jesus was returning so soon that they quit work. When Jesus tarried a bit, they started living off gifts from others. This was giving the church a bad name. Elsewhere, Paul pointed out that though he was an apostle and could reasonably expect the church to support him, he worked in his profession as a tentmaker. He was the original bi-vocational minister. He didn’t use Jesus’ return as an excuse to goof off.

That’s the context of the sentence that is wrongly quoted against those on welfare: “if anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat.” Paul was not equating the poor with the lazy but dealing with a specific misunderstanding of what we are to do while waiting for Jesus’ return.

Nor is what happened at Thessalonica unique. In 1831, a Baptist layman named William Miller began to preach that Jesus was due to return within 12 years. The Millerite movement swept the nation. While Miller refused to set an exact date, some followers of his were not so restrained. In particular, Samuel S. Snow’s prediction that the second coming would happen on October 22, 1845 caught on. Some people sold their farms or businesses and just waited for Christ. When that day passed uneventfully, many Millerites fell away in what was called “the Great Disappointment.” Some reworked Miller’s ideas and became the Seventh Day Adventists. Still others felt that mankind had entered the seventh millennium known as the Great Sabbath and so they stopped working. Sound familiar?

People who focus on the events leading up to the end times are like folks so caught up in analyzing the trailers and spoilers leaked about an upcoming superhero movie that the film itself becomes secondary to all the buzz and debate. They miss the point. The point of what God’s doing is stated in Isaiah 65. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” That’s the main event. God is creating once again. He’s not into destroying but making, just as Jesus was a carpenter, a builder. Any destruction is only the first step, like tearing down an old and condemned building to build a new and better one. The destruction might be more exciting than the slower and more patient process of construction but it’s the new building that is the ultimate goal. That’s where people are going to live.

And while God doesn’t want us fighting his battles for him, he does want us building up his kingdom. The kingdom, Jesus reminds us, is within and among us. We are the living stones, the building blocks, as it were, of Jesus’ kingdom. We build it by sharing the good news with others and by showing his love in all we do. We do it by building a community. It can start small. The core of the church was once just 12 individuals. But they spread the word. They invited people in. They didn’t just sit around worshiping God all the time. They went out and visited the sick and fed the hungry and clothed the naked and quenched the thirsty and freed the imprisoned and welcomed strangers and made disciples. That’s how you grow the kingdom. That’s how you grow a parish. That’s what Jesus expects us to be doing when he returns--not savoring the destruction but building the kingdom, one word, one act, one person at a time. And then another. And then another. And then another. Let’s get started.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Supporting Character

One of my favorite uncles when I was a child wasn’t really a relative at all. He was “Uncle” Don Seawooster, a friend of my father’s. And besides his gruff but lovable manner with my brother and me, what I loved about him was his hobby. He was a member of the Southtown Players, a community theater group. He performed in their plays, though rarely in a lead role, but what really fascinated me was his behind the scenes work. He built the sets and what I remember was a backstage tour of the sets for Dracula. I forget which stage version they presented but they really went all out with the special effects. A bat flew out over the audience. After drinking from one of his victims, Dracula stepped forward and suddenly blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. But the highlight was the scene in which the men hunting Dracula grab and hold him till the sun rises. As one counts down the seconds from his pocket watch, Dracula suddenly disappears, his cape dropping empty to the floor and in the form of a bat he flies out the window. Uncle Don showed us how it was done. Dracula’s cape had false shoulders and a collar higher than the actor‘s head. When grabbed, the actor playing Dracula was standing behind a sofa, facing the back wall of the set. The actors playing his hunters would grab his false shoulders. “Dracula” would untie his cape, drop to the floor and crawl out a small hinged door, rather like a cat flap, that was set into the back of the set and hidden behind the sofa. At the right time, the hunters dropped the cape and the prop bat, also behind the sofa, flew via a wire out the open window. If it weren’t for all the preparation uncle Don had done, the scene wouldn’t have worked.

Though less glamorous than acting, the folks who create the sets for a play, or a movie, or a TV show are invaluable. They help create the realty necessary to make the story believable. They set the mood, they create the world and time in which the story takes place. What would “Dracula” be if it weren’t for the castle and the doomed ship and the asylum and the crypt? Where would “The Hound of the Baskervilles” if it weren’t for the moors and the Grimpen mire and the stone age dwellings? Where would Holmes himself be if it were not for London, that “cesspool of crime?”

And even among the actors, those who play supporting roles, are still vital. In the original Sherlock Holmes story, as in the new updated series, it is an otherwise forgettable character named Stamford who introduces Watson to Holmes. Scrooge is the central character of “a Christmas Carol” but a pivotal scene would be missed were it not for the boy in the street he hails at random to ask if it is Christmas Day and then sends to get the big turkey at the butcher shop and deliver it to the Cratchits. Would you continue to watch “The Matrix” or care who Neo if it weren’t for Morpheus, the man who initiates Tom Anderson and keeps telling us who he is to become?

John the Baptist has that thankless task in the gospel. He is the herald who goes before the anointed king to announce his arrival. John doesn’t mind the role assigned to him but once imprisoned by Herod Antipas, he starts to wonder, is Jesus really the one?

Why would John doubt? Was it because he was in prison and in danger of being executed? Sometimes even believers start to doubt God when things go bad for them. Maybe a prayer is not answered, or rather, not answered as we would like. Maybe it’s a disease or a disaster or a death. Maybe it’s a wayward child. Or a reversal of your fortune or career. It wasn’t what you expected. Or what you deserved as a believer in God. What’s the good of following Jesus if you aren’t exempt from the same trials and troubles other people suffer?

People are always looking for a way in which to magically eliminate suffering in this life. And a lot of people think God promises his followers that they won’t have to undergo anything really unpleasant. But Jesus said just the opposite: “in this world you have trouble and suffering…” There is no promise that Christians are immune to having bad things happen to them. Jesus wasn’t. There is no magic in this life that allows for actions without consequences. We are most certainly not exempt from having to dealing with the fallout of following Jesus. We still have to take a stand and do the right thing, even if it costs us. For that reason Jesus added “…but take courage--I have conquered the world.”

But I doubt that John the Baptist thought that doing God’s work meant a painless existence. He was a prophet and he knew what happened to a lot of the prophets in the Old Testament. Besides he doesn’t ask Jesus to magically get him out of prison.

There is another possibility. John preached of how the axe was laid to the root, of how God’s judgment was imminent, of how the Kingdom of God was near. And yet, where was that day of judgment? Even in prison, John should have heard of the inauguration of the righteous reign of God’s Messiah. So he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask if he is indeed the one. The implication is, perhaps, why isn’t the kingdom here already?

John might be confusing the 2 separate pictures one gets of the Messiah in the Old Testament. One was of David Redux, God’s warrior-king who would end the present evil age and usher in the Kingdom of God. The other was Isaiah’s picture of the Suffering Servant, who takes on the sins of his people. You can guess which one was more popular with the oppressed Jews. They wanted a fighter, not a martyr.

Some thought the portraits were of 2 separate persons. Perhaps the Suffering Servant was the prophet Jeremiah. Or the Jewish people as a whole. Though there were rabbis who thought that the Suffering Servant was indeed the Messiah, the majority thought the two were separate entities. What no one seems to have realized is that this was one person on two different occasions.

Jesus comes first as the servant whose spilled blood would supersede that of the animals sacrificed in the Temple and atone for the sins not just of his people but of the whole world. Mere physical conquest will not make people willing citizens of God’s kingdom. Modern generals realize that you must win hearts and minds first. This Jesus does by taking on himself all the punishment every individual deserves for his or her sins and acts of injustice. With God’s mercy offered to all, with all slates wiped clean, it is possible for anyone to be accepted as a child of God and a citizen of his kingdom. So first Jesus had to come as the suffering servant.

Did John not perceive this? Didn’t he call Jesus the Lamb of God, which is as good as saying he’s meant as a sacrifice? Yes but perhaps he was surprised by Jesus’ low key approach to ministry, as opposed to John’s fiery stance. Jesus did not emphasize God’s judgment to the extent John did. Or perhaps John was simply impatient. Maybe that’s why he asked if Jesus, like John, was just another forerunner. That might explain the delay.

Jesus answers by telling John’s disciples to relay what they see--“the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.” In doing so, Jesus is referring to Isaiah chapters 26, 35 and 61. In other words, he is doing the work of the Messiah. And Jesus adds a little rebuke: “blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me.”

There are a lot of Christians who are scandalized by Jesus or at least some of the things he did or said. There are those who think he wasn’t tough enough on sin and those who think he talked way too much about hell. There are those who wished he said less about the end times and those who felt he didn’t say enough. There are those who think he wasn’t inclusive enough when it comes to other faiths and those who think he wasn’t exclusive enough when it comes to certain Christians. There are those who ignore what he said about the rich and those who ignore what he said about the poor. There are those who would like to purge the virgin birth from the gospels and those who would like to erase the resurrection. And then there are those who feel he should have talked more like Paul. It’s interesting that at a time when we are supposed to tolerate everyone and respect their opinions, there are people who won’t let Jesus be Jesus. We want him to be more like us.

Or maybe John was like the guy who told Jesus, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Maybe as he sat in that dark cell, knowing he’d never see or be outside again, never feel the sun on his back and the cool Jordan river lapping at his thighs, never taste wild honey or see a former sinner rise newly born from the water, he just needed some encouragement, some word from Jesus. He never saw Christ preach or heal; Jesus began his ministry after John was arrested. And maybe John just wanted to hear firsthand that his cousin was carrying out his mission. Hopefully, the word his disciples brought back helped John face the day when Herod would have his head.

One day, when the gospel has spread to all the world, and God knows that all who will accept his reconciliation have done so, Jesus will return, close the book on evil and injustice and take his throne, ushering in his peaceable kingdom. There are times, when pain and sorrow and man’s inhumanity to man assail us, that we wish it were today. Of course, as long as we still add to that pain and sorrow, we might want to rethink that. And we’ve no excuse not to be opening the eyes of the spiritually blind, helping those who stumble get back on their feet, bringing in the social lepers, getting through to the morally tone-deaf, reanimating the spiritually dead, and bringing good news to the poor. God may forgive us but he won’t allow himself to be gamed. As John said, we need to repent, change our minds and turn our lives around. Unlike him, we are free to act. Maybe that’s why though no natural born person is greater than John, we who are born of the Spirit can be greater still. John’s a tough act to follow but Jesus says we can. And who are we to contradict Jesus?

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Even safely ensconced in a motel in Wildwood, Florida, we had some idea of the devastation Hurricane Georges had done to our yard. A friend who had sat out the windstorm in the Keys drove by our property and phoned us with a basic report. We knew some of our trees were down but we were happy that the house was relatively unscathed. However, actually seeing the damage done to our trees was hard. One had fallen right across our driveway and would have to be cut up before we could even park on our property. A few more had snapped or split. They had to be sawn into pieces and hauled out to the street for pick up. That became my early morning task before work every day for a week. We wrote off all of those trees. But come spring we were surprised to see a stump in our backyard was sending out a riot of small green shoots. They replaced the missing part of the trunk with a bouquet of branches and foliage. The stump we thought dead was not only resurrected but was more robust than ever.

A similar image opens our passage from Isaiah 11. The previous chapter uses the image of trees being cut down as a metaphor for God’s judgment on the nations. One of the countries judged is Israel for its bad treatment of the poor. It says in Isaiah 10: “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!” This is one of God’s primary criteria for acceptable moral behavior. In Matthew 25, Jesus puts it this way: “just as you did it to one of the least of these my siblings, you did it to me.” God’s Son didn’t just defend the poor; he identified with them. So this weighs heavily in God’s judgment, even when it comes to God’s own people.

But after that, the stump, the remnant of Israel, will bring forth life. A shoot will come out of it, specifically out of Jesse, King David’s father. Quite frankly, not all of David’s descendants were good or even wise kings. So Isaiah is saying that one just as good as David, one from the same stock that brought forth the shepherd-king, is coming. And the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him.

Initially, being anointed with the Spirit of the Lord was a qualification to be king in Israel. It was true of Saul and David and Solomon. But that soon ceased to be a consideration. Israel and Judah split. In Judah, the main criterion for a king was descent from David. In Israel, dynasties would be set up, run a while and then be bloodily overthrown. The days when the king was a man after God’s own heart were long gone. Here God is reassuring his people that a king like that, a king greater than that, will rule again.

It is interesting that the nature of the Spirit of God is spelled out. The Spirit is one of wisdom and understanding. The word for wisdom could equally be translated “common sense.” Unlike the so-called spiritual wisdom that many peddle, God’s wisdom isn’t that esoteric. The Book of Proverbs, one of the Bible’s books of wisdom literature, is very direct and practical. The thing that makes God’s wisdom hard for the world to understand are its values. It prizes substance over appearance, justice over the status quo, and truth over propriety. And it factors eternal life into moral equations, making what we do in this life extremely important while paradoxically telling us that we should not do whatever it takes to hold onto our earthly life.

At, the Net Bible, pointing out that wisdom and understanding are synonyms, translates this phrase “a spirit that gives extraordinary wisdom.” This is also linked, in the footnotes, with verse 11:3 about this future king dispensing justice fairly. So the wisdom here is specifically to be used in carrying out justice towards those who have neither the power or wealth to influence the court. Remember that you had no independent judiciary at that time. Tribal leaders also judged disputes and matters of law. The king was the final judge. If they were corrupt, you couldn’t appeal or go to the media. If your dispute was with one of the elders, you were screwed. God assures us that this promised king will be truly just.

Then we are told that this king will be anointed with the spirit of counsel and strength. Again the Net Bible combines these into the phrase “a spirit that provides the ability to execute plans.” Many leaders have the power to get things done but their plans aren’t the wisest. Others have great plans but can’t seem to get them implemented. But this king will not only have excellent plans but will be able to see that they become reality. He will be wise and strong.

This promised king will be anointed with a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. Because of the parallelism we are not talking general knowledge here but knowledge of God. And fear of the Lord doesn’t mean an attitude of abject terror as if he were a movie villain prone to killing his underlings for the slightest error. Rather it is a healthy respect of God and his authority. Recently President Obama was playing basketball with some friends and aides when one of them clipped him and split his lip to the extent that stitches were necessary. I’m sure that (a) it wasn’t done deliberately and (b) that the person who did so didn’t treat it as nothing. I’ll bet he was mortified at spilling the blood of his commander in chief, despite the fact that he was not in danger of being shot for it. It’s a matter of respecting the office. It’s the same with the fear of God.

Once more I like how the Net Bible translates this phrase: “a spirit that produces absolute loyalty to the Lord.” In the case of God, it’s not just his position that one respects but his nature: just but forgiving, loving but firm in his principles. To know God is not simply to respect him but to trust him and love him and be faithful to him. This delights God’s promised king, as the first part of verse 3 reminds us. And respect for God leads to obedience to him, something even modern Christians forget.

The rest of verse 3 emphasizes the justice of this king. As the Net Bible renders it: “ he will not judge by mere appearances, or make decisions on the basis of hearsay.” Sadly, as the brother says in the independent film “Little Miss Sunshine,” much of life is a beauty contest. Studies have shown that good looking people tend to get better treatment from authorities and the legal system. In addition, people would be more likely to attribute a crime to a poor person than a middle or upper class one. But God is not fooled; he looks at the heart, as will this promised king. And unlike the world, he will not listen to hearsay but judge on the facts alone.

The king’s judgment is the subject of next couple of verses. Not only will he judge the poor fairly, he will not let the wicked get away with their deeds.

And then the focus of the passage changes. We are given images of predators and prey, the deadly and the harmless, living together in harmony. The result of justice, of everyone truly getting what they deserve, should be peace. In this world it is not easy to reconcile the two. Go for strict justice, punish all wrongdoing, and you can destroy chances for peace. Make peace paramount and you might have to ignore injustice. But in God’s kingdom, through the forgiveness only the rightful judge of all the earth can grant, justice and peace kiss each other. As the Net Bible puts it, “they will no longer injure or destroy on my entire royal mountain.” Right now, the Muslims worship at the Dome of the Rock on the top of Mount Zion, once the site of Jerusalem's Temple, and the Jews worship at the Wailing Wall below, the only extant ruins of the Temple. The wrong person in the wrong place doing the wrong thing could cause a riot. But when the rightful king, promised by God, comes to claim his inheritance, Zion will be ground zero for the peace of God. And it will spread over the earth as the waters cover the seas.

God’s promised king is, of course, his son, Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed one. And the culmination of his kingdom is what we look for in anticipation. But we are not just to sit and wait. We are to start spreading the word, planting the seeds, laying the foundation, recruiting citizens, making disciples and working for justice and peace. And we live in a unique time. When the Bible was written, the average person could do little to affect society as a whole. All power resided with the rich and the rulers. They couldn’t be voted out. They couldn’t be impeached. They couldn’t be pressured by the media. Whereas the average person could be arrested, tortured, and executed pretty much at the will of those in power. So people looked forward to the promise of the Messiah, who would bring about the kingdom of God.

We can, however, affect those in power. We can do things that can spread at the speed of the internet all around the world. And I’m not just talking about politics. I’m talking about starting and joining ministries and programs. I’m talking about taking action as individuals and as groups. I’m talking about beginning discussions on needs and injustices. We shall not see the complete kingdom of God until Jesus returns, but we can plant the seeds, we can pull the weeds, we can water and nurture and protect what grows, knowing that the largest of trees started out as a tender shoot, just as the greatest king ever to live started out as a baby.

Friday, December 10, 2010



The Creator or heaven and earth
Once became a man of low birth.
Though his words the poor thrilled,
By the rich he was killed.
But he rose, changing myrrh into mirth.

Joyful Noise
A song for kids of all ages

Make the Lord a joyful noise,
All you girls and boys!
It's such a Hallelujah day!
It's such a Hallelujah day!
Count your blessings and rejoice!
Oh, lift up your voice!
It's such a Hallelujah day!
It's such a Hallelujah day!

God made the world with power,
And when we turned things sour,
He saw the fix we're in,
And Jesus paid for all our sin.

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah--Hey!

Make the Lord a joyful noise,
All you girls and boys!
It's such a Hallelujah day!
It's such a Hallelujah day!
Count your blessings and rejoice!
Oh, lift up your voice!
It's such a Hallelujah day!
It's such a Hallelujah day!

Oh, let the heavenly chorus
Praise Jesus who died for us!
Sing to the Risen Son
For all the glorious things he's done!

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah--Hey!

Make the Lord a joyful noise,
All you girls and boys!
It's such a Hallelujah day!
It's such a Hallelujah day!
Count your blessings and rejoice!
Oh, lift up your voice!
It's such a Hallelujah day!
It's such a Hallelujah day!

And let us really hear it
For God the Holy Spirit!
'Cause he remakes us
So we'll be whole when Jesus takes us!

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah--Hey!

Make the Lord a joyful noise,
All you girls and boys!
It's such a Hallelujah day!
It's such a Hallelujah day!
Count your blessings and rejoice!
Oh, lift up your voice!
It's such a Hallelujah day!
It's such a Hallelujah day!

It's such a Hallelujah day!
It's such a Hallelujah day!
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah

Hallelujah, Amen!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Turn Around

This is out of chronological order, so that I could post my Thanksgiving sermon closer to that date.

Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, got into trouble for name-calling a few weeks ago. He was criticizing the folks at National Public Radio for firing commentator Juan Williams for what he said on Fox News. Ailes called them Nazis. The odd thing is that those who objected to his words were not the people at NPR, who might have pointed out that the Nazis silenced political opponents through murder, nor even the American Nazi Party, or as it’s now called, the National Socialist White People’s Party, who might not have appreciated being likened to an organization that has shows hosted by non-whites and Jews. Instead Ailes had to apologize to the Jewish Anti-Defamation League not only for using the name inaccurately but for trivializing the ideology that conceived and carried out the Holocaust. Ailes was just doing what is acceptable in politics these days: trying to redefine your enemy by sticking him with a bad name. He just overdid it.

Names can be powerful. Few people agree with Shakespeare’s Romeo when he says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Perhaps, but not many would venture to take a sniff of something called a skunk cabbage. I doubt whether John Wayne’s name would have become a synonym for masculinity had he not changed it from Marion Morrison. And you have to ask why a bookkeeping firm took its name from the small South Dakota town in which it’s located, especially since that makes it “Crooks Accounting.”

Most companies today spend a lot of time and money trying to pick good names for themselves and their products. And they spend even more protecting those names. There is now a company called “Reputation Defender” that controls what people find on the internet when they Google you or your company. As Shakespeare writes in Othello, “he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.” If you lose your good name, it is almost impossible to restore it.

Which is the problem the church faces today. Only nobody did it to us. Christ’s enemies couldn’t have done a better job at tainting the name of his people than they have done themselves. Pedophilia, corruption, lawsuits, hypocrisy, playing politics, property fights, racism, divisive theological debates, jurisdictional disputes, and self-righteousness are what we are known for putting our energies into, rather than love, joy peace, patience, kindness, generosity. gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. We have put our agendas above God’s. And the church has acted little differently than any secular organization. That is, its primary mission has become perpetuating the organization, over spreading the gospel and loving God and others.

The good news is that surveys show that people generally like Jesus even if they have problems with the church. But popularity is not the issue. Jesus needs followers, not fans. The church is supposed to be made up of his followers but we are hardly a good advertisement for recruitment.

It’s not that the church isn’t doing good things. We bring medicine and education to the poor and the far off. We bring food and agricultural equipment and knowledge. We care for the orphaned, the outcast, and the oppressed. We give voice to the voiceless. Everyday all over the world we do this. But it’s not as exciting as a really nasty quarrel over sexuality or evolution. So the media, even the Christian media, highlight the scandalous and controversial. And that well never runs dry.

How can we repair the damage done to the once good name of the church? Well, there’s no magical solution. It will take hard work and a change in attitude--attitudes, actually, towards a number of things.

First, we must change our attitude towards the meaning of success. It does not lie in numbers, either of pews occupied or of money given. In fact, those sorts of things really took on primacy during the industrial revolution. Before that, what mattered is how well you did things, not how many things you made. The house of Stradivari was known for the quality of their instruments, not the quantity. Part of the reason so many churchgoers are ignorant of their faith and how they should live is that we have been more interested in making them into return customers than into disciples.

We see them as paying customers as well. While we shouldn’t abandon sound business practices, neither should we forget that raising money isn’t our primary purpose. Putting too much emphasis on money distorts our priorities. I know churches that tolerate certain behaviors on the part of some members, or which back away from much needed changes out of fear of offending big contributors. In the secular world, right or wrong, the wealthy call the shots. The church doesn’t need to mirror that practice, especially if it diverts us from what we ought to be doing.

Next, we must change our attitude towards the importance of unity. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed for the unity of the church, not its uniformity. He commanded us to love one another, not agree on everything. In fact, if we agreed on everything, we wouldn’t need a commandment to love each other. We seem to put other things above unity, specifically pet theological or social issues. I’m not saying some of these issues aren’t important, just that they shouldn’t take priority over the things that are essential. What a terrific witness to this fractious world it would be if the church was able to function despite its disagreement over important matters.

We need to change our attitude about worship. We are treating it more and more like putting on a show rather than on calling people to adoration, confession, pardon, communion and praise. It’s easy to shift from focusing on God to worrying about keeping the customers happy. And it turns participants into a passive and picky audience, looking to be entertained.

We need to change our attitude about what our duty to the church is. We shouldn’t be sacrificing individuals for the good of the institution. We need to be open about mistakes and evil actions committed by people in the church. As we’ve seen, cover-ups only delay revelations of wrongdoing and reduce people’s trust in the church. Trying to protect our name can hurt it.

There are also things we need to stop doing. One thing we need to resist is commenting on every hot political topic. Jesus’ opponents kept trying to get him to make pronouncements on the burning political issues of his day--taxes, for instance. His statement that we should give God what belongs to him and Caesar what belongs to him is a bit of an evasion, in that it doesn’t give helpful specifics. I think Jesus intentionally wasn’t getting into the details of a volatile political problem.

We can’t avoid certain social issues where clear moral principles are at stake but we needn’t make religious rulings on every popular contemporary concern. For one thing, we shouldn’t spread the mistaken idea that there is one true Christian position on every problem facing us as a society. Let us concede that there are good Christians on almost every side of some issues. Not to do so is to succumb to the modern tendency to oversimplify complex questions and needlessly polarize people.

We can imitate Jesus’ switching the emphasis from the theological technicalities of certain situations to practical ways to help. When Jesus was asked whose sin it was that caused a man to be born blind, he said that as far as he was concerned, the man was in that condition so that the power of God could be demonstrated in his healing. In the same way, Jesus doesn’t really answer the question of Mosaic law justifying the stoning of the woman taken in adultery. He adds a new consideration that makes it impossible for her accusers to execute her. Just as with taxes, Jesus sidestepped the debatable in favor of the practical. Jesus’ approach to matters in which someone was getting hurt was to relieve the suffering. He didn’t excuse sin anymore than he let an illness continue but he forgave it and healed it and gave the person a fresh start at a spiritually and physically healthy life.

In fact, the main thing we can do as a church is act more like Jesus. And that means risking our existence as a church. In Luke 23:33-43 we see Jesus at his most iconic--nailed to the cross. At Calvary, there’s no cavalry coming to the rescue. Jesus was going to die. But he was still ministering to the needs of others, in this case a robber being executed with him. If the church gets so concerned about surviving at all costs, it will make changes that will cause it to lose its moral authority. There are some matters on which it must stand, though it looks as if it will suffer the ultimate cost.

And ironically enough, research has shown that, throughout history, the parts of the church that grow are those considered outside the mainstream. Right now that means Pentecostalism and Eastern Orthodoxy and even Evangelicalism in countries where that’s something new and cutting edge. People turn to the church for things they don’t find in popular culture. So it is a mistake for us to fall into the role religion typically plays in society, that of giving its blessing to the status quo. Just like Jesus, we need to be counter-cultural. On certain matters, when the zeitgeist zigs we should zag.

In Colossians 1:11-20, Paul presents us with a very exalted view of Jesus. Then he links that to the church. If in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things” and if we are his body on earth, then that should apply to us as well. Why doesn’t it? For one thing, we forget that Jesus assured us that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the church. We react too often in fear instead of faith. But Jesus, facing death, said to his father “not my will but yours be done.” We need to do the same.

And we need to take up our commission not with arrogance but with humility. In C.S. Lewis’ “Prince Caspian” when the title character is offered the kingship of Narnia, he says he doesn’t feel sufficient to be king. Aslan, the Christ of that world, says that if he had felt sufficient, it would have been proof that he wasn’t. Whereas the world wants people who act as if they can do it all, Jesus wants people who know they can’t, whose confidence doesn’t rest in themselves but in him.

Today is the last Sunday of Pentecost, the feast of Christ the King. He promised that we too would reign in the new creation. Jesus set the bar high. He said we would do greater things than he. But his glory was not that of worldly popularity. He was glorified by going to the cross for doing what was unpopular but right. He came not to be served but to serve. He said that only those willing to take up their cross and risk losing their lives would find life. Only that way can we resurrect the good name of God’s people. I don’t know about you but that scares me. I’m not sure I can do that. But I know that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. And so can you.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


A few years ago our parish held an Passover seder with our friends at the Lutheran church down the street. If you were there, you may remember that we sang a very infectious song called “Dayenu.” The title of the song is also its refrain and it’s Hebrew for “that would have been enough.” The verses of the song list the things God did for his people at the Exodus, such as “if God led us out of Egypt, but he did not part the waters--if he led us out of Egypt, dayenu.” Or “if God brought us to Mount Sinai, but not given us commandments--if he brought us to Mount Sinai, dayenu.” The chorus is that word over and over. What I find interesting is that at each point in the story, we sing that if God’s providence had stopped there, that would have been sufficient for us. The cumulative effect is to see each step of the process of liberating these slaves, making a covenant with them, adopting them as god’s people and giving them a homeland as a separate occasion to thank God. At the end, having sung their way through the whole saga, the worshippers are left contemplating a huge heap of blessings.

Last Thursday was Thanksgiving. Like most of our holidays, it has become an excuse to consume more food and drink than normal and, the day after, to buy lots of commercial goods. Originally, it was a harvest meal, thanking God for getting a group of Europeans through a harrowing time. Scholars disagree as to what group did this first and in what year. A couple of teachers from the University of Florida say the first such celebration was held by Spanish explorers on September 8, 1565 in what is now St. Augustine, Florida! Others argue for a day in 1619 in Virginia. Still others hold to the traditional year of 1621 in Massachusetts when the pilgrims of the Plymouth Plantation celebrated with Native Americans of the Patuxet tribe, without whose help the settlers would have starved.

Regardless of which celebration was the first, the holiday originally was about gratitude. And gratitude, both science and scripture teach us, is good for us. Keeping a gratitude journal, in which one lists daily 3 things or persons for which one is thankful, is an effective measure for dissipating stress and negative feelings. When you keep reminding yourself of the things for which you can thank God, it begins to change the way you look at life--emphasizing pleasures, love, and friends.

I was thinking how this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my family--how supportive they are and how fortunate we are to appreciate and enjoy each other’s presence. For some families, coming together for a major holiday is a bit like negotiating a truce. But we like each other and like getting together to share our enthusiasms with each other. We don’t ignore our foibles but if they come up, we joke about them and take the jokes in good spirits. No one thinks they are perfect or that the others should be. We let the picky eater taste and spice the food. We not only laugh at the incorrigible joker’s bad puns, we enjoy the eye-rolling reaction of other family members.(Which is often funnier than the joke.) We use the know-it-all as a walking encyclopedia. We let the bureaucrat plow through the paperwork that confuses and infuriates the rest of us. We listen to the critics of things we should read, see, buy or do and either follow their recommendations or do the opposite, depending on whether their tastes and ours tend to run along the same lines or diverge. If that were all I had, dayenu--it would be enough.

I am grateful for my parish. It has sustained me and my family for decades. I am grateful to have been called to this particular form of serving God through the people at St. Francis-in-the-Keys. I am grateful for the support I got learning this role. I am grateful, too, as my secular jobs have come and gone, and I began to wonder, against all the objective evidence that it was in fact systemic economic problems, if there was something wrong with me, that this church has affirmed that I am a valuable member of the community. I am grateful that ministering to this parish has challenged me to move out of the comfort zone of my introversion and made me discover social gifts I didn’t know I had and develop them. This, I hope you realize, is a work in progress. If that were all I had, dayenu.

I am grateful for the fact that having to preach more than 50 times a year has made me dig deeper into the substance of my faith and the various ways that the gospel can be explored, expressed and celebrated. I am grateful to be able to share and bless and find meaning in the transitional moments in your lives--your baptisms, weddings, even burials. I am grateful for all of the people who have stepped up to the challenge of keeping this parish running by cleaning the church, repairing it, setting up the altar, reading the Lectionary, serving at the Eucharist, doing the bulletins, playing the music, making the deposits, paying the bills, serving on the vestry, leading Bible studies, taking care of the coffee hour and organizing events. If that were all I had, dayenu.

I am grateful for my present nursing job: helping a human being with a rough start but a jubilant spirit grow and discover the beauty of this world for the first time. It is amazing to watch a baby look at his hand and figure out that it is part of him and that it works a certain way and that it can help him bring to his mouth what he wants--a toy, a bottle, my pen. It is marvelous to hear him try out his voice with all manner of high pitched noises, determined grunts and contented coos. It is wonderful to sing to him and have him smile at the tunes and rhythms of nonsense songs, mother goose rhymes and hymns, or play Bach and Beethoven and watch him listen intently to the soaring melodies and roaring orchestrations, or rock him and feel him succumb to the sleep he desperately fights but deeply needs. After more than a half a century it is good to be reminded once again that everyday things like baths and food and hugs and the sun and trees and dogs and your sister and your mother are to be greeted with a big smile and swinging arms and feet kicking the air in joyful anticipation. If that were all I had, dayenu.

But this all presupposes the one who brings us here. I am grateful for God our creator, who made the world and all its inhabitants--animal, vegetable and mineral. I am grateful for the climate and environment of the Florida Keys. I am grateful for the human body, its amazing intricacy and paradoxical strengths and weaknesses. I am grateful for our brains which enable us to figure out how the things of this universe work and conceive of ways to help us conquer our weaknesses. I am grateful for our spirits, which set us apart from our fellow inhabitants and drive us to create music and stories and art and dance and jokes and philosophical questions and noble endeavors. If that were all I had, dayenu.

I am grateful for Jesus Christ, the God too big to imagine focused in terms we understand: time and space and humanity. I am grateful for his teachings about God and love and trust and peace and forgiveness and moral behavior. I am grateful for the things Jesus did to show us how beings both divine and human should act in the face of the evil of this world. I am grateful for his self-sacrificial action in going to the cross for my sins, giving up his life to give me a new life. I am grateful that God raised him from the dead, to vindicate his words and works and to assure us that our Heavenly Father is God of the living and not the dead. If that were all i had, dayenu.

I am grateful for the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, who brings the life and love of God into our very hearts and minds. I am grateful for his patient work in me, teaching me God’s wisdom, encouraging me to trust God, changing me into someone worthy to be called a child of God, and binding me to God and Christ and to the people who are his body on earth. I am grateful for his communicating to my Heavenly Father things too deep for me to express. I am grateful to the ways he speaks to me, not in words but in ideas that burst upon me like fireworks, illuminating things that I was previously was unable to see. I am grateful for how he is always there when I need him, giving me hope and energy and love when I have none of my own left. If this were all I had, dayenu.

There are many more things for which I am grateful. Some of them are the same things you are grateful for. Others are unique to each of us. I hope that sometime during this holiday you have taken time to think about all the things for which you are grateful, both big and small, general and specific, cosmic and comic. And as we enter Advent, the approach of God’s greatest gift to us, I hope you make a practice of gratitude, in your prayers and as you review each day. Start by contemplating the marvel of life itself and your body, from the way your heart keeps pumping and your lungs keep working to all the things you can do voluntarily, merely by thinking of doing them. Then go through each person you know and love. Work your way up to God and Christ and the Spirit and all things heavenly. And at each step, after each gift, say “dayenu.” If this were all, it would be enough. And then go on to the next gift. Because the blessings of God are neverending