Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Visit from the Christ Child

T'was the night we call Christmas.
And an innkeeper's mirth
Was spoiled by a woman
About to give birth.

His inn wasn't much:
A few rooms, a courtyard.
The town was quite small.
Making money was hard.

But the Roman tax census
Had filled every room.
His coffers were swollen
(Like the poor woman's womb.)

He should have been happy,
His mood quite ecstatic.
Instead her condition
Had turned things dramatic.

Her husband looked tired,
The woman looked beat;
The last thing he wanted
Was to show them the street.

But his inn overflowed;
Every nook and each cranny
Was stuffed with some guy,
Or his kids or his granny.

"I've got no more room!"
But as soon as he'd spoken,
The girl said, "Well, that's tough!
My water has broken."

"I'm about to deliver.
The pain's coming faster.
If I don't lie down,
It will be a disaster!"

He couldn't say "No,"
But he couldn't say "Yes."
So the innkeeper thought
"Here's another fine mess."

It had been a long day.
The guests needed tending.
Their demands were insane.
Their requests were unending.

His family and staff
Tried to meet every need,
Be it water, or firewood,
Or some animal's feed.

The thought of the beasts
Made him think: was he able
To put up the couple
For one night in the stable?

He could lay some fresh straw.
He could make things look neat.
It was dryer and warmer
Than to sleep in the street.

It wasn't ideal,
But it wasn't that bad.
And let's face it--it was
All of the space that he had.

Giving birth in a stable
Was hard to propose.
Might not the miffed husband
Punch him right in the nose?

He hemmed and he hawed;
The suggestion was made.
They weren't wild about it;
But they weren't too dismayed.

A hole in the hillside
Was all he could proffer.
It's not like they'd get
A more elegant offer.

They knew all the facts
And they couldn't complain.
What decided them, though,
Was the next labor pain.

So a servant was sent
To clean out the stall
And move in the family,
Donkey and all.

Meanwhile, another
Was sent into town
To find a midwife
And to bring her around.

When he showed them the cave,
They weren't too appalled;
And so in a thrice,
He had them installed.

The midwife arrived
With all of her tools.
She was not one who suffered
Those folks she called fools.

As for journeying far
With a wife great with child…
Well, to call this man stupid
Was, to her, way too mild.

The scorn for her clients
That she tried to maintain
Went away when she saw
The poor girl in such pain.

That the husband was helpful,
She couldn't begrudge him.
By the end of the thing,
It was clear she'd misjudged him.

The innkeeper, too,
(she'd delivered his daughter)
Was fast with fresh straw
And lots of hot water.

When they heard the babe's cry,
And saw the man's grin,
A wave of applause
Swept around the whole inn.

The women all came
To say "ooo" and to coo
And to tell the new mother
What from now she must do.

The men sought the husband
And offered him wine.
"Sit down by our fire!
Join us as we dine!"

They made bawdy jokes
And called him a hero,
Though he said that his part
In the matter was zero.

The midwife, seeing both
Babe and mom out of danger,
For lack of a good place,
Put the kid in a manger.

The excitement now over,
The guests settled down…
Till a whole flock of shepherds
Invaded the town!

They babbled about angels
Singing songs of God's favor,
And a baby named Jesus
Who was born to be savior.

"Where is the Messiah?
Point us straight to his throne.
We've come here to offer him
All that we own!"

Chagrined, the innkeeper
Softly said with a cough,
"There's the child, lying there
In that old feeding trough."

Unfazed the poor shepherds
Approached the small stable
And each brought a gift
Of whatever he was able.

The innkeep, though clearly
Worn out from his labors,
Was touched by the shepherds,
Most of whom were his neighbors.

If they said they saw angels,
If this child's the Anointed,
Could this place of his birth
By God's will be appointed?

He looked at the stall
And the new family.
Was there much more to this
Than his tired eyes could see?

Then a line from the Torah
Came into his mind
That the image of God
Could be seen in mankind

He looked at the figure
Of the babe in the straw
For a hint of whatever
Put the shepherds in awe.

But the infant just then
Seemed to seek out his face
And the innkeeper felt
Indescribable grace.

In the depths of those eyes
He thought he could see,
A soul that was older,
And wiser than he.

He saw there great love;
Joy and humor to spare;
Justice reigned in his heart;
Mercy also ruled there.

While lost in those eyes,
All his cares he felt cease.
What later he remembered
Was a sense of deep peace.

The two souls communed.
Not a word, though, was spoken.
One pair of eyes blinked,
And the spell then was broken.

It hit him--the beasts' smell,
The gifts shepherds gave.
He deserves more, he thought,
As he walked from the cave.

David's son lay in hay.
And what bothered him most
Was the world now would say
He was a bad host.

He strode to his room
Where his brood fled to rest.
A plan came to mind
Though he knew they'd protest.

On awakening, they grumbled.
Honor though was at stake.
Lest they fail as good hosts,
There was one choice to make.

So with bows and sweet words,
And intent to save faces,
The couple was approached
By the hosts to trade places.

Thrice they offered their room,
Twice the couple declined,
Thus with etiquette observed,
Swapping places, they reclined.

Gazing out on what was
His oddest night thus far,
The innkeep's last sight
Was a very bright star.


Did the inn survive long
After that night of glory?
Did the innkeeper hear
The rest of the story?

Did he know 5 miles north
From his dear Bethlehem
Of events that transpired
All around Jerusalem?

Did he know that the lad
Who was laid in a manger
Was three decades later
In bodily danger?

In the Shepherd King's city
He the shepherds acclaimed
Was accused and abused,
By false shepherds defamed?

Did he know that poor Mary
Grieved the fruit of her womb,
Who was nailed to a cross
And then laid in a tomb?

Did he hear that the one
Who was born in a cave
Was reborn in another:
His very own grave?

That the one whose first cry
Rose from straw like some calf
Was the same who first had
On grim Death the last laugh?

Did the aged innkeeper
Who maintained that poor mews
Ever hear the tale's coda,
That which made it good news?

Did he echo the song
Of the heavenly host
When he learned he was God's
First one-star earthly host?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Houseful of Virtues

The major feasts of the church are hard to preach about. After you preached on Christmas or Easter a dozen times or so, you feel you've exhausted everything you can say about them. I did not know what to preach on until yesterday. I'm doing the marriage preparation classes for the daughter of one of our winter people and since the couple are way up in the frozen North, we decided to do it by Skype. Skype had other ideas so we did it by cell and speaker phone, using materials I emailed to them. And while I was discussing the Biblical basis for marriage, it hit me. They were preparing for marriage, one of the biggest undertakings in the lives of most people. At the same time, it is Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Christ. And back in the waning days of King Herod's reign, a young couple was waiting for the birth of Jesus. And it wasn't just a big thing because they were going to be parents, it was also going to be rough because the bride got pregnant out of wedlock.

We tend to think of the Nativity as a Hallmark movie--heartwarming with a guaranteed happy ending. But actually, at the time, it looked like it was going to be a train wreck. Mary and Joseph were betrothed. In their society, betrothal was almost as binding as marriage. Still the couple was not to have sex. And if the groom found out that his fiancée was not a virgin, by the law of Moses, she could be hauled out of town and stoned. So when the angel announces to Mary that she is going to conceive and have a son, she had little reason to be joyful and every reason to be fearful. This might not just end her wedding; it could end her life!

Small wonder Gabriel has to tell Mary not to be afraid. This is scary news! As if taking the risky step of getting pregnant before the official wedding were not enough, the angel says that Mary is going to bear God's Son. Raise the divine Savior of the world? No pressure there! Taken altogether, it's enough to make the sensible response to this offer a big fat "No, thanks!" Why does Mary say "Yes?"

We really don't know. We can surmise that Mary is a devout Jew. But a lot of people who are happy to pray to God would get freaked out if he asked them to do something as big and risky as this. So on top of being pious, she is courageous. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, courage is the key virtue. You have to have courage to carry out any of the other virtues. An otherwise moral person lacking courage cannot be counted on to take a stand when it counts. You may be against discrimination but without courage will you confront those practice it? You may be for peace but without courage will make your stand against those who make war? You may be for mercy but without courage will you make your voice heard against a merciless system that society supports? Without courage your morality is just good intentions.

Mary, like all Jews, was hoping for the Messiah, God's Anointed One, to come and liberate her people. To be told by the angel Gabriel that God chose you to bear the Messiah had to be thrilling. But why couldn't God wait until their wedding? Why threaten her marriage and her life like this? Mary had to be wondering. Gabriel doesn't tell her why it had to be now. Her choice is to take it or leave it. Mary screws up her courage and trusts in God. "Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word." And when Gabriel left, Mary must have let out a long, trembling breath. What now?

Has the angel also visited Joseph, her fiancé, she wonders? Does he know about God's plan? Joseph has a reputation as a righteous man. That means he's very scrupulous in the observance of his Judaism. Having a pregnant betrothed will mess that up. They will either think Joseph jumped the gun or that Mary is damaged goods. He will not be respected in the village and local synagogue. In an honor/shame culture that's a lot to bear. Joseph could denounce Mary and let her be stoned to death. But he doesn't want to. That means that, even if the marriage was arranged, as virtually all of them were then, Joseph cares about Mary. He may even love her. Instead he is thinking about divorcing her quietly. In a small village like Nazareth, that will probably mean she must be sent away so that her secret doesn't come out. Better than death for her, but still it means she will leave her family and live as a fallen woman, unless she pretends to be a widow. Widows with children were the poorest and most powerless members of Jewish society. So Mary is embracing a choice that will probably end in death by stoning or disgrace and poverty. She is truly a courageous woman. No wonder God chose her.

Joseph, we may deduce, is a decent guy. He could have vented his rage and disappointment on his pregnant fiancée by having her honor and her life torn from her. He chooses not to. He's merciful. Still, if Mary told him she was bearing God's child by the agency of the Holy Spirit, he obviously isn't buying it. He's probably feeling a mixture of anger, jealousy and sadness. He falls into a troubled sleep and has a dream. An angel tells him the truth. He awakens and chooses to be thought of by the community as a horny guy who couldn't wait. And that takes courage, too. He's going to raise a son whose origins the whole village will gossip about. He will never be considered quite the upright man he used to be. But he is willing to live with that.

Both Mary and Joseph are just ordinary people who, when asked to do extraordinary things by God, find the courage and faith to do so. And I think we may deduce some other virtues they possess.

They must have had hope. They are poor people living in an occupied country. Their foreseeable future is a hard and possibly short life together. Living to 50 is considered achieving a ripe old age. Joseph is a builder, then as now a dangerous profession. Mary could die of disease anytime she delivers a baby. The taxes they pay, levied by the Romans, collected by corrupt collaborators, are exorbitant. Yet they dare to hope that God will act through them, that they will rear the Messiah. Granted, the appearance of an angel is dramatic, yet afterward, they must have asked themselves if it were real or a fever dream, an hallucination. Because faced with the hard facts it must have been tough to cling to the words of an otherworldly being. But they had hope, the future tense of faith. They believed God's promise of salvation and a better world. When obstacles came up, they must have encouraged each other with "Remember what the angel said?" and grasped each other's hand and stepped towards a future the world told them was just a fantasy.

They must have had love. Had either of them embarked on this task out of nothing but duty, they would have grown to resent each other. Yet Luke tells us they were still together 12 years later, going to Jerusalem with Jesus in tow. The gospels tell us they had other kids, Jesus' brothers and sisters. True, it could have been one of those loveless marriage but if it were, where did Jesus learn of human love?

Jesus doesn't come across as someone scarred or disillusioned by growing up in a passionless or dysfunctional home. He isn't rigidly righteous or recklessly rebellious or anxious to please, the usual traits of kids raised in a fractious household or by emotionally distant parents. He's tough when it's appropriate, forgiving when it's needed, tender with the fragile, courageous when faced with injustice and cruelty. Jesus is the best adjusted person in the Bible.

And some of that has to be due to the environment he grew up in, to the parents God chose for him: Mary, the fiercely courageous girl, ready to face disgrace or worse to fulfill God's plan; Joseph, decent, merciful, self-disciplined, thick-skinned in the face of public opinion. Even when Mary was expected to deliver and Joseph has to go to Bethlehem to register some old family plot of land the Romans wanted to tax, they don't split up. He doesn't leave her with her folks while he takes care of business; she doesn't insist on staying home where she knows she'll be attended to by family and friends. If he's going to traipse 80 miles south, she was going with him. Whenever and wherever the baby came, they would be together.

I'm not saying the trip was a pleasant one. I'll bet poor Mary felt every bump of that road transferred to her sore bottom by way of the donkey's spine. I'll bet Joseph felt even more helpless and useless than most expectant fathers when Mary went into labor in a cattle stall. But they got through it. And after that it was just a matter of raising Jesus to be a good Jew and a good man. And they did it. They lived and loved together till death parted them. And the world, through Jesus, was the richer for this humble hardworking couple who said "Yes" to God and meant it.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Awesome or Awful?

One of the most anticipated films of the new year is the Hollywood remake of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." I've seen the original Swedish version and it is a terrific mystery/thriller. But as good as the plot is, what really sticks in your mind is the central female character. Lisbeth Salander is a researcher and computer hacker who is as emotionally shut down as she is brilliant. We find out that Lisbeth has been abused by the authority figures in her life. Far from making her passive, Lisbeth is a formidable foe to her enemies. Still, she is no superhero and she takes quite a beating in the trilogy of stories. But in each movie there is at least one scene that features what the website TV Tropes calls a Crowning Moment of Awesome. You know what I mean. It's the point where all hope seems lost, all avenues of escape are closed, and someone you care for is about to die when suddenly a character does something so mind-blowingly and brilliantly heroic that you want to jump up from your seat and scream, "Yeah!" It can even stir you if the action is violent (which it is) and you are a pacifist.

There is a reason for this. The books' late author, Stieg Larsson, was haunted by the gang-rape of a girl he witnessed when he was 15. He was ashamed of the fact that he did not try to stop it and became a crusading journalist and an ardent feminist. One can see in Lisbeth a heroine who stands up to men who hate women.

You'll notice that during Advent that not only are we looking back to Jesus' birth but also forward to his second coming. And while he originally came into this world incognito, as it were, and offered humanity forgiveness, reconciliation to God and entrance into his Kingdom, the second time will be different. At that point, the offer will have expired and everyone who didn't take advantage during the enrollment period is out of luck. This time Jesus is coming as the rightful Lord of all the earth. All evil will cease and all those who are unrepentant will be judged and punished. No more Mister Nice God.

And that bothers some modern Christians. If Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the embodiment of God's love, how do we reconcile that with the picture of him in the apocalyptic passages of the gospels and in Book of Revelation: the conquering King who passes final judgment on his enemies?

It didn't bother the people of the Bible. They longed for real justice. There were no appeals in their legal system. If a dispute was within a family, the patriarchal head of that family had absolute authority to decide such matters. Obviously familial favoritism could creep in. If more than one family was involved, the matter was decided by the village elders. If there was a disparity in the relative power of the families in conflict, the decisions were made on the basis of political considerations, of what was best for the peace of the village, not what was just for the individual. For complex cases or matters involving disputes between tribes, judges could be engaged--at the expense of the parties involved. And as money entered into the process, so did real corruption. Jesus used an unjust judge as a character in one of his parables and nobody objected. And one can see why. In line with the other cultures of the Middle East, there wasn't always a separation between the roles of judge and prosecutor. So if your judge was not impartial, if he were bribed by your opponent or accuser, you could be in big trouble. Again and again through his prophets, God decried a system where the winner in a legal action was not always the one who was righteous, but the one who was richest.

In rare instances, very thorny cases might be put before the king. In the First Book of Kings, Solomon decides a case in which 2 prostitutes are fighting over whose baby died and who had rights to the surviving baby. Solomon's psychologically insightful judgment cemented his reputation for wisdom. But the king was only human and he, too, had prejudices and political and personal reasons that could interfere with the impartial administration of justice. What happens if you can't get justice from the highest human authority? The only person who can make things right is God.

So God's promise that he would one day settle all human affairs with a final judgment was received with hope by the powerless. The prophets called it the Day of the Lord. It was the day when all injustices would be redressed, all the righteous would be vindicated and all the evildoers would be punished. It was awesome and if you were hadn't broken God's law, you had nothing to worry about.

But as any attentive child knows, observing the technicalities of the law is not the same as true justice. Smart evildoers have always figured out ways to game the system. They work out ways to keep to the letter of the law while violating its spirit. And then as now, you could find lawyers only too willing to help with whatever semantic slight of hand, far-fetched interpretation, or exploitable vagueness is required.

Jesus singled out one as an example. If a person had money or property that was supposed to go to the support of his parents, he could declare it "Korban" or a gift dedicated to God, and he was relieved of his obligation to his aging folks. Even if he regretted it later, the Pharisees said such a vow was binding. It outraged Jesus that they would use one's duty to God as an excuse to neglect one's duty to people. This was something the Pharisees did in their use of the Sabbath commandment to try and stop Jesus from healing the sick. And individuals and groups still pervert the laws of God and the laws of man to harm others. But God is not fooled by sophistry nor bound by technicalities. As he told Samuel, he doesn't judge by externals; God looks into people's hearts. And it is in the heart, Jesus reminds us, that evil is conceived.

Of course that ups the stakes for all of us. If God judges us on our true intentions, if to him all hearts are open, all desires known, if none of our secrets are hid from him, as we say every Sunday, who can truly plead innocence? Who hasn't been so angry at someone that you wished them ill? Who hasn't gloated over the misfortune of someone you don't like? Who hasn't envied someone else's life or coveted their stuff? Who hasn't desired someone you're not married to? Who hasn't found rationalizations for not helping someone or for not doing what you know you ought to? Who hasn't, in lieu of a lie, at least refrained from correcting a misunderstanding that serves the same purpose? And this is on top of the harmful words and acts of selfishness or aggression we actually commit.

We can't very well plead that an exception be made in our case. That's the same favoritism that screws up human attempts at justice. If all wrongs must be made right, we ourselves must submit to God's justice. And that realization is what turns the Day of the Lord from a promise into a threat, from a dream into a nightmare.

So is that the choice: no real justice ever or absolute justice that leaves us all condemned? It would be, except for one thing--God's forgiveness. If we confess our sins and repent, he will forgive us. But isn't that a violation of strict justice? Isn't that a trick for getting out of paying for our sins?

It would be if what was most important to God was adherence to specific rules. The problem is that if rules are all that count, it doesn't matter if those rules were arbitrary, like the rules of a game. In a game all that matters is that you follow the rules. Your motive for playing, be it sportsmanship or anger or arrogance or greed, is irrelevant. The kind of person you are is irrelevant. Ty Cobb was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He was also surly, combative, racist and a difficult father. O.J. Simpson is both a Hall of Famer and a felon. What matters in games is how you play them.

God's laws are not the rules of a game and the purpose is not scoring points. God is not interested in us simply becoming good at following rules but in our becoming good people. God is interested in us being the type of people who don't have to think about the rules because the behavior they prescribe has become natural to us. God's rules are like the rules of good health. We ought to just naturally eat the right foods in reasonable quantities, get enough sun and exercise and do most things in moderation. But we don't. We eat bad foods and we eat too much of them. We sit around too much and overdo some things while neglecting others. To get better we must be honest with our doctor, let him work on us, change our lifestyle and follow doctor's orders until we get better. God's rules are the rules for living a healthy moral and spiritual life. To get better we must be honest with him, let God work on us, change our lifestyle and follow his orders till we get better. Maintaining health in both cases entails making the rules just part of who we are.

God's justice isn't about restoring rules but restoring people. It's about healing our injuries, not evening things up by giving those who harmed us corresponding injuries. If someone kills a loved one, all human justice can do is punish the perpetrator. It can kill a murderer but it can't undo our loss by bringing back the dead. But all things are possible with God. He can and will restore what and whom we have lost. He can even heal the perpetrator, provided that person repents and wants to be healed. God's plan is to bring the earth and its inhabitants back to what he intended it and us to be.

Does that mean all people will be saved? The Bible never promises that. For one thing, it would require God to override the will of the unrepentant. He is the God of love and love must be voluntary. If a man offered his love to a woman and the woman refused, we would not consider it loving for him to perform psychological reconditioning or brain surgery on her until she did reciprocate his "love." That would be worse than rape.

God will allow those who refuse his love to do so. Jesus used 2 images of the consequences of rejecting God. The one everyone thinks of is a fiery hell. This is obviously a metaphor. The word he used for hell is Gehenna, literally the valley of Hinnom, Jerusalem's garbage dump. The city's refuse burned there night and day, which made it a vivid picture of the burning shame of those who refused God's healing and forgiveness and find themselves irreparably broken and outside the city of God.

Which brings us to the other image Jesus used: exile. Jesus' favorite picture of the Kingdom of God was a wedding banquet, the biggest, most joyful event in the life of a village. Everybody came and the celebration lasted for a week. No one wanted to be left out. But in Jesus' parable that is what happens to those who weren't ready, like the foolish virgins or the man improperly dressed. Weddings weren't secrets. Everyone knew they were being held and had plenty of time to be ready. In the honor/shame societies of the Middle East, it would be an insult not to come or not to enter into the spirit of the festivities. It would be like a guest at a reception loudly insulting the bride and groom. Even today he would be asked to leave. And in that culture, it would be a deep shame as well as emotionally devastating to be excluded, to be an outcast, to be separated from your family and community.

The result of rejecting God is to find yourself outside his people and his Kingdom. God will not force anyone in. Again, without an inward change, no person would be able to enjoy or even stand being part of his Kingdom. But since God is the source of all goodness and joy, these voluntary exiles from his Kingdom won't find any of that outside his presence either.

Because of humanity's selfishness and sinfulness, we will never know full justice in this life. That will only come about when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ returns to put everything right. Which would be terrifying for all of us except for his mercy and forgiveness. If we let his Spirit work on us now and follow his orders for our moral and spiritual health, we will have nothing to fear. All the consequences of our sins have been taken on by Jesus.

In films, the hero's Crowning Moment of Awesome is almost always him delivering a deathblow to the bad guys and their schemes. It may also be him coming to the rescue of someone else. It is rarely the hero saving the bad guys. But that is precisely what Jesus' triumph is to be. It is not their deaths but their rebirth he is seeking. It is not their final corruption but their ultimate redemption he desires. It is not their condemnation but their commendation as good and faithful servants he wants to pronounce.

There are 2 ways to get rid of the bad guys. One is to kill them all. That's how they do it in our films. The other is to make them into good guys. That's the method Jesus prefers. When he comes back, he wants his enemies to be his allies. And he wants us to pass the word and model the change in our lives. People will respond to this awesome news…if we only do it justice.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

That Crazy Dude in the Desert

Today was the 25th anniversary--to the day--of the dedication of our church sanctuary. This year is also the 30th anniversary of our parish and the 10th of my leading it. Our Bishop came to our service and he preached instead of me. So here's a sermon from a few years ago that's still quite appropriate.

2007 was not a good fall for Hollywood. Sure they made a lot of their money in the summer with big blockbusters about superheroes or soldiers or androids or cops fighting aliens or supervillains or robots or serial killers or anything else that can be killed without conscience. But in the fall, Hollywood releases its serious films, the ones for adults to discuss, the ones to be considered for Oscars. And that fall, no one was going to see the many critically acclaimed films that had come out about the war in Iraq; instead audiences preferred a Disney film about another animated princess who was exiled by an evil sorceress to a place where there are no happy endings: New York City. As Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman, creator of “The Princess Bride” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,“ observed, in Hollywood "nobody knows anything." But you and I know why “Enchanted” trounced the other movies, and it’s not just that it’s well-made, funny and heartwarming. The majority of Americans were tired of hearing about the war. Unlike, say, the Vietnam War, there was no longer much debate about whether the Iraq War was started for the right reasons or carried out in the right way or would result in a win-win situation. So these films were not seen so much as exposes as rehashes of issues explored ad nauseam on the news. When reality is bad, people want good news. So in Advent, as we await the coming of Jesus, the ultimate in good news, who invited John the Baptist, that ranting nut in camel hair, that bug eater, that crazy dude in the desert, to the party?

“You brood of vipers" is hardly a friendly greeting. Nor is talk of throwing the chaff of mankind into unquenchable fire generally considered polite conversation. John the Baptist is not a diplomat. And he would pay for that, when he tells the king that he has violated God’s law and is guilty of incest. And yet people flock to John and listen to his scorching invective. Are they all masochists?

You see, things were bad. Israel was a small country, occupied, oppressed and taxed by the pagan Romans. Not only were the political and economic conditions bad for the Jews but their nation had lost its way religiously and ethically as well. The Sadducees, the priestly class, had come to an accommodation with their gentile rulers so that they might have a free hand in wielding religious authority over the people. The Pharisees were trying to make the rules of the Torah relevant to contemporary life but instead they seemed to be making the simplest tasks harder. And their hypocrisy was evident. They did what most powerful people do: not so much break the rules as change the rules to favor them and their practices. Everyone knew this. But unlike today, there wasn't a lot of public talk about these issues. There was nothing like the first amendment, the news media, or the internet then. Neither the Roman nor the Judean authorities were tolerant of criticism. So it was a relief for the people to to hear someone tell it like it is. John was giving voice to what everyone thought. John was speaking like a prophet of old. As is more obvious in Luke’s account, John draws the same connection between idolatry and social injustice that the prophets did. The way the people see God can be inferred from the way they treat those created in his image.

The extent to which the Jews agreed with John can be seen in their response to his call to be baptized. This was something usually reserved for gentile converts to Judaism. It symbolized an end to one's past life and rebirth to a new life in God. John is saying, “You must start over as God’s people” and the Jews of his day were saying, “You’re absolutely right.”

Far from John’s message being perceived as a downer, Luke tells us John preached the Good News. How can what he said be called that? John certainly couldn't be mistaken for one of today's popular preachers who tells you God wants you to be rich. Nor did he say, “God loves you just the way you are. Don’t change a thing.” The Jews weren't foolish enough to fall for that. They knew society was sick. John’s news was good precisely because he wasn't saying: “This is just the way things are. Get used to it. There’s nothing you can do about it.” Only when you look at reality that way is it bad news. When you resign yourself to the way things are, when you say you can't change things, when you say you can't change yourself, when you say you can't win, when you say you might as well curse God and die, then it's the worst of news. But John was saying, “Here's what's wrong. Here's what needs to be done. And with God’s help, you can fix it.”

The specific way John says this is “repent.” Contrary to popular belief, the word doesn't mean “cry big tears, feel sad, beat yourself up.” It means, “rethink, reconsider.” The first step in making any change is to recognize that what you're currently doing isn't working. You need to rethink your approach. When it comes to your own contribution to what's wrong with the world or with your life, you need to change your heart and your mind. That can be painful, but you have to look at the negatives before you can effectively change them. As the CEO of, Greg Helmstetter, says, “If you don't identify the issues preventing you from reaching your goal, you won't be able to overcome them.”

Of course, after identifying the problem, you need to do something about it, or, as John puts it, produce fruit befitting repentance. In an article for AARP magazine, Helmstetter gave some advice for an exercise program that can be used for any situation that requires change: List all the reasons you can't do what you ought to do. Then each day tackle a different obstacle. Keep it at it until you have overcome every one. That's pretty good description of repentance in action.

The rest of John’s message is the reason to repent: “For the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” The Kingdom of Heaven is the same as the Kingdom of God. Matthew, evidently writing for a community of Jewish converts, uses a euphemism for God, just like modern Orthodox Jews write “G_d” rather than “God.” However they referred to it, John’s audience was looking forward to the Kingdom of God. That would be the answer to everything: justice, well-being, harmony between people, harmony with God. This Kingdom would be ushered in by the Messiah, God’s anointed prophet, priest and king.

Of course, people immediately thought that John was the Messiah. But that wasn't his role. He was the King’s herald, preparing the way. He had to start by putting people onto the right track. So while the popular picture of the Messiah was a warrior sent to defeat the Romans and reestablish an independent Israel, John emphasizes the universal moral aspect of the Messiah. Before the Son of God, being a descendant of Abraham counts for nothing. Being a king counts for nothing before the King of Kings. The Messiah will not be swayed by the externals or incidentals that impress humans. As God’s agent, he will look upon the heart and judge with equity. And that’s scary.

If we're honest with ourselves, we realize that nobody undergoing the judgment of a just God would come out of it well. Who would really like to be judged completely objectively? Who would like to have their life held up to the standards of the 10 commandments? Or to the 2 great commandments: to love God with all you are and to love your neighbor as yourself? Or to be judged by what you should have done but didn't? Are you one of the trees that bears fruit or one of the barren trees fit only to be cut down and burned? Are you the wheat to be saved or the chaff to be burned in unquenchable fire? Sound a bit Old Testament? John is often considered the last of the Old Testament prophets. Which should remind us of the fact that the New Testament, the new covenant, begins with Jesus.

Not even John was completely ready for the kind of Messiah Jesus would be. From his prison, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is really the one everybody was waiting for. As evidence, Jesus sends back word of his healings and his preaching of the Good News. Sitting in prison, awaiting death for simply preaching God’s Word, John had forgotten something about God. And though he called Jesus the Lamb of God, he didn't really plumb the depths of what that meant. What was missing from John's understanding of God’s plan is the same part that Jesus’ disciples didn't get at first: that the God of justice is also a God of mercy and that, out of his great love for humanity, he would take upon himself the consequences of our sins. This is the fundamental difference between Jesus Christ and all other conceptions of God--his self-sacrificial love for us. Most speak of God’s peace. Many pick up on God's justice. Some may talk of God being merciful. No other religion proclaims that God loves us enough to become a real human being and die in our place. No other religion would dare take an instrument of death and make it a symbol of hope. No one else can conceive of God being that big, that selfless, that forgiving, that loving.

John's role was to remind us of the problem that the Messiah was coming to fix--our sinful hearts. They turn life into hell and merit a similar punishment for the perpetrators. The solution is to repent, to rethink and redirect our lives. This is essential if you want to live in God’s Kingdom. But who will show us the way to live under God's royal rule? And who will pay the price of transforming rebels into God's citizens? That is beyond mere man. So exit John and enter Jesus. But if anyone thought the babe of Bethlehem would be less trouble than that crazy dude in the desert, they are in for a big surprise.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What's Keeping Him?

I always had trouble with the Second Coming of Christ. I could understand the first. I could understand God becoming human and living as one of us. I could understand the atonement and death of Christ. I could understand the resurrection. But why, after rising from the dead, did Jesus leave, only to say he's coming back again later? Why not just stay and let the world know in no uncertain terms that things were different now, that he had taken on the consequences of our evil, dealt with them decisively and was instituting a whole different kind of Kingdom? I mean, who defeats death and then takes off? And, more pertinently, why?

Let's do a thought experiment. What would most likely have happened if Jesus had revealed himself in all his glory after his resurrection and declared himself the rightful King of Earth? Would anybody accept this?

Absolutely. We learn in John's Gospel that people wanted to force Jesus to be their king. The Book of Acts says that thousands accepted Jesus as the Messiah at Pentecost. In his absence! Imagine what they would have done had he been there, displaying his pierced hands and feet! They would have formed an army behind their badly misused king. But would that have been a good thing?

The real problem is that not everyone would have rallied behind Jesus. Would the chief priests and the Sanhedrin, who condemned Jesus, have turned around and subjected themselves to him? Some might have. Many--I suspect most--would not. But how could they have ignored the miracle, the divine vindication of his resurrection?

Let's ask ourselves this question: do those in power ever deny inconvenient truths because it would mean reversing all their policies? I can think of a number of instances, many quite recent. Another question: Do those in power, when proven wrong, ever willingly step down and give their power over to their enemies? I can't think of any, offhand. So, had Jesus marched into the Temple and confronted the leaders of the people, what would have happened? At the very least, a riot; more probably, a civil war. Therefore, the first step in Jesus establishing his Kingdom on earth would have been the outbreak of war among his people. I don't think he would have wanted that.

And there were others who would have had to decide how to react to Jesus: the Romans. Would they have surrendered to Jesus' authority? Doubtful, even if Pilate himself were to have undergone some sort of conversion. What would Pilate have told the Emperor? "I had this man executed but now he's back from the dead. Therefore, I feel you should abdicate your throne as King of Kings and give it to this Jew." I don't think so. And everything we know about Pilate is that he was anxious to stay in Rome's good graces. Some historians think that Pilate's uncharacteristic caving in to the Jewish leaders as reported in the gospels was due to the fact that his patron, Sejanus, was suddenly condemned as a traitor. Pilate, not known as a diplomatic man, couldn't afford to have the Jews report his disloyalty to the Emperor Tiberius. In fact, eventually his brutality did move the Samaritans to complain to Rome and he was removed as procurator. Regardless of his amazement at Jesus' resurrection, Pilate would probably not taken Jesus' side in opposition against the entire Empire. So not only would Jesus' presence have touched off a conflict among his people but he would have embroiled them in a war with Rome.

Remember what Jesus told Pilate when asked if he was the King of the Jews? For a long time his reply was badly translated as "My kingdom is not of this world." That makes it sound as if it is not a part of real life. But Jesus actually said, "My kingdom is not from this world." Its origins are not worldly. But obviously his kingdom is for this world. It is meant for its salvation, its restoration to what God wants the world to be. But does God want his Kingdom established by war and blood, like every other kingdom this world has seen?

Evidently not. Because Jesus follows up his statement about the origins of his kingdom by saying, "If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to deliver me..." Jesus rebuked the one disciple who did try to fight, Peter: "All who draw the sword will die by the sword." Jesus then heals the man whose ear was severed by Peter. There's the difference. Jesus is about healing, not fighting. His kingdom will not come about in the usual way, with bloodshed and force. But if Jesus were to simply physically confront the world's leaders after Easter, he would have been a lightning rod, a person to rally behind or align against. There would have been a slaughter.

Perhaps what was needed was an intermission, an incubation period. The world needed time to assimilate Jesus' ideas. It needed time to come to terms with a new kind of Kingdom.

If Jesus wasn't going to force his Kingdom upon others, how was he going to bring it about? By persuasion. He was going to spread the idea by sending out a small band of ordinary men and women to talk about what they had heard him say and seen him do. He was the originator of the viral campaign.

And it took hundreds of years for Christians to go from being a small sect of Judaism to a separately recognized religion to being a major force in the world. But it's been nearly 2000 years since Jesus left us. Isn't it time for him to return?

On the night he was betrayed our Lord said, "By this will all know that you are my followers, if you have love for one another." No other religion makes love its central command. Islam emphasizes surrender to Allah and allegiance to Mohammed as his prophet. Judaism concentrates on studying and keeping the Torah. Buddhism has the eight-fold path of right behavior, speech, and thought. Hinduism is about maintaining good karma so as to move closer to Nirvana with each rebirth. Only Christianity demands that we not only treat people justly but that we love them. And we start by loving other Christians.

And we haven't really done a very good job of that, have we? None of the divisions within the church happened in an amicable way. And none of them have revolved around one side's refusal to obey the command to love. They have concerned doctrine or practice or church organization. I'm not saying that some of these weren't important issues but how many were so essential as to split the church? And have they helped spread the idea of a kingdom based on loving God and loving your neighbor and even your enemy?

The gospel has been narrowly interpreted to refer only to the good news of what Jesus did in the past. What about what he has done since then? And by that, I mean the Body of Christ. The good news is that God is still working in the world. He is doing it by the power of the Spirit through his people. People who take following Jesus seriously are feeding the the hungry, healing the sick, clothing the naked, comforting those who mourn, visiting those in prison, counseling the addicted, giving sight to the blind, teaching the illiterate, taking care of widows and orphans, giving shelter to the homeless, making breakthroughs in medicine and more. God is not just out there or back then; he is active here and now in his present disciples.

Unfortunately, they don't make the news as often as those who who misbehave, who preach hate in the name of the God of love, who so focus on side issues that they are elevated to the level of the essentials, who lust for power and fame in exactly the same manner as those who don't represent the Body of Christ. The world sees such things and concludes that whatever Jesus did in the past has made no difference in the the world. Such things reduce the gospel to mere words, limit its power to attract others and and hinder its spread. As long as "Love one another" is seen as a slogan and not a reality, most people aren't going to be interested in becoming part of Jesus' Kingdom. Living the gospel is as much a part of evangelism as preaching it.

Slowly parts of the church are realizing this. They are trying to establish bonds despite differences. I am talking not so much of the usual ecumenical structural talks but ways in which denominations and local churches do ministry and outreach together. I thinks it helps tremendously every time Christians of all stripes cooperate to help others. As a Methodist told me, "Theology may divide but service unites."

The world is convinced that differences mean division; that unity is only possible if there is uniformity. Countries are coming apart because they cannot envision a nationality that encompasses different races, religions, languages and customs. Even the U.S., a nation of immigrants, is having that problem. But Paul saw that this is what God was doing in his Kingdom. Not only Jews but also gentiles, not only free men but also slaves, not only men but also women were being called to become one in Christ. Our differences aren't liabilities but strengths, if only we realize and use them.

I love the sayings they put on the sign at Summerland Hardware. One read, "An idea is a funny thing that doesn't work unless you do." The world still doesn't get the idea that love can conquer differences. It doesn't help that a lot of Christians don't seem to get the idea either. And as long as that remains true, there is no way to establish the Kingdom of God apart from imposing it. There are plenty of politicians willing to do just that. So maybe what's keeping Jesus away is that we aren't keeping his command to love one another, our neighbor and our enemies. As St. Augustine said, "Without God, we cannot. And without us, God will not." While we wait for Jesus to return, he waits for us to finish our part--laying the foundation, preparing the soil, not only talking about God's love but demonstrating it. When Jesus returns, do we really want him to find us squabbling, or do we want to be found doing the work he told us to do before he left?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Usurping Shameless Shepherds

The relevant scriptures are Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46.

I imagine that an individual's political power and his physical power were originally one and the same thing. The strongest guy in the tribe and best fighter was made chief. In return for successfully defending against the raids of rival tribes and leading raids against others he got the biggest share of the loot, the most slaves, the best food and his pick of the women. It was a trade-off the others in the tribe were willing to make in exchange for security. It wasn't a bad system if the man in power was a just and reasonable guy. But it had to be very tempting for the leader to just take whatever he wanted, even if it belonged to another member of the tribe. And if the biggest guy was a jerk or a bully, it could be quite intolerable. The only solution was for some other big guy to take him on and depose him. This was never a sure thing and the aftermath would be very bad for those who backed the losing side.

From chieftain to king to emperor, variations of the strong man rule has continued right up to this day. People want a strong leader, especially when they need protection against a nation or another group of people. Sometimes they think a strong leader can offer security against impersonal forces, like the economy or the climate. To that end they are willing to give up a lot and tolerate a lot of bad behavior on the part of their leaders.

And that happened to God's people as well. When David's kingdom split under Solomon's son, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah suffered under kings both strong and weak, both bad and good. The result of this highly unstable leadership was that the kingdoms fell to successive empires, the northern to Assyria in 722 BC, the southern to Babylonia in 588 BC. In both cases, the empire in question would take the aristocracy and artisans of the conquered Hebrew nation into exile. The cream of the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom were so assimilated that they never returned home but were lost to history. The exiles of the southern kingdom maintained their religious identity even in Babylon, substituting a devotion to God's law for worship at their destroyed temple back in the ruins of Jerusalem. They formed communities and naturally leaders arose. And inevitably some of those leaders were abusive in the exercise of their power.

Ezekiel was a prophet ministering to a community of Jewish exiles. He proclaimed God's judgment on those leaders who enriched themselves at the expense of their followers while neglecting their needs. These false shepherds would be removed and God himself would be their shepherd. He would seek out his sheep, scattered throughout the Babylonian empire. He would return them to their home. He would give them good pasture. He would make them lie down. He will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.

The metaphors aren't hard to decipher. The promise to bring the sheep home was a promise to end the exile of God's people. And in 70 years, that promise would be fulfilled. Cyrus the Persian would conquer Babylon and give the Jews permission to return to their homeland.

The promise of good pasture was a promise to feed the people. I'm not sure if we are speaking of literal hunger among the exiles but their spiritual hunger was obvious. "How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?" asks Psalm 137. Held as captives, far from everything familiar, the Jews were starving for words of comfort and encouragement. And their leaders were not providing them. God would.

The promise to make them lie down is the promise of rest. This could be rest from their wanderings. It could equally be a reference to the Sabbath, which they probably had trouble observing while living in pagan Babylon.

The promise to bind up the injured and strengthen the weak is the promise of the restoration of justice. Which also explains the line about destroying the fat and the strong. Normally a shepherd would not hurt the fat sheep and would save the most robust members of his flock. But if he had disruptive animals in his flock, here depicted as shoving and butting the other sheep out of the way so they could get the best to eat and drink, he would do something to separate them from the rest. A fat or strong sheep might be an asset but not if it is the reason the rest of the sheep are in bad shape. The needs of the whole outweigh the needs of one or two members.

All analogies break down. What God proposes would be business suicide for a real shepherd. But the people aren't animals. God cares about them. And he will not allow the strong to bully and harm the weak. With men, might makes right but God uses his might for right. Those who gets fat by hogging all the food, who get rich by rigging the game against others, who use their power to commit injustice will experience God's justice.

Note, too, that the metaphor has changed a bit. The corrupt leaders of the Jews are no longer seen as shepherds, as above the animals they take care of but are demoted, if you will, to sheep as well, albeit violently aggressive sheep whose actions divide and harm the other sheep. They must be put down, as if they were rabid.

Now this is a reversal of the way religion functions in most societies. Usually religious leaders bless the status quo. They tell the people that the strong men who lead them are put there by God. In ancient times kings and emperors were often considered divine or semi-divine. Later in European history, kings were said to rule by divine right. But here God himself is saying "No, your leaders are not doing my will. They are bad and I will depose them." Ezekiel, like prophets before and after him, fearlessly pronounced God's disapproval on certain strong leaders and the status quo. Being in charge doesn't make you special nor does it give you license to do what you wish or excuse you for breaking the laws of God. Nor may you simply disregard the "little people," or sacrifice them to your ambition. God's evaluation of who is valuable is different from that of the people in power.

This passage obviously influenced Jesus' parable in Matthew 25. He mentions a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats at the beginning of his story of the last judgment. And the criterion used is how people treated those who were weak and disadvantaged. And Jesus makes it more personal that just "this is my flock." He says how you treat the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned is how you treat him.

Why this identification with the suffering? 3 reasons. First, he is the original image of God. Just as God tells Noah that murder is wrong because human beings are made in his image, so Jesus is telling us that mistreatment and neglect of human beings is wrong because we are made in his image.

Secondly, Jesus is not only fully God but also fully human. He has undergone mistreatment. It is not theoretical to him. He knows what it is first hand and he cannot ignore it.

Thirdly, he loves us and will not let the mistreatment of those he loves get a pass.

Jesus is in fact the opposite of the strong arm leader. Jesus did not coerce people into following him. Becoming his disciple was entirely voluntary and people could and did leave him if they wished. And his kingdom would not come about like earthly kingdoms, with force. Jesus spoke of the kingdom growing organically, like a tree. It would come from within and among people who responded to his call, who recognized him as their shepherd, the good shepherd.

In Ezekiel 34, God said he would be his people's shepherd. But in the same passage, we see that God is setting up his servant David to be the one shepherd over them. Now obviously this is not the original David. Just as Israel comes to mean no longer the original man but his descendants, David comes to mean his descendant, the Messiah. Jesus, from the house of David, the great shepherd-king, is the one whom God has anointed to be prophet, priest and king over his people. He will feed the people.

On the last Sunday of Pentecost we celebrate Christ the King. Some people don't like the idea of Jesus as king because of the long history of kings abusing their power over the lives of others. But just as our sins have distorted the image of God in us, so has it distorted the image of true kingship found in Jesus. In Christ the strong and the privileged are not automatically given positions of power and leadership. In Christ leaders are not excused from obeying the laws of the land nor the law of God. In Christ you are not given power to make others serve you but power is given so you can serve others. In Christ we do not look to the powerful for examples of how to live like Jesus but to the powerless for opportunities to act like him.

The terms "nobility" and "gentleman" originally referred to aristocrats. Gradually, they came to refer instead to ideal qualities people wished their social "betters" would exhibit. Today if you call someone "noble" or a "gentleman" people think, not of their high birth, but of their high moral behavior. Just so when the Bible speaks of Jesus Christ as King, it is not describing how the rulers of this world do act but prescribing the way all people should behave. After all, we are told that in the new creation we are to reign with him. If so, we'd better start practicing, not by playing God or acting entitled, but by seeking the lost, those whom the world despises and disenfranchises. And as he stripped himself to wash the feet of his disciples, we must do likewise. Because disciples are not greater than their master. And our Master did not come to be served but to serve.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Diversions and Essentials

Ya gotta hand it to the Roman Emperors. When the masses got upset at the injustices and inequalities of society, the emperors knew what to do: provide bread and circuses. The bread filled a real need for the multitudinous poor, of course. The circuses, which included chariot races, athletic games, staged exotic animal hunts and later the execution of Christians, were technically sacred and state affairs but functioned as diversions from the problems of the Empire. And even today local governments with other pressing financial problems are so eager to keep professional sports teams that they will enter into ruinous contracts to build stadiums with more luxury boxes where the lion's share of profits go to millionaire team owners and the lion's share of the costs go to taxpayers. Entertainment would not seem to be essential to human life, yet we pay athletes, movie and TV actors a lot more than we pay teachers, nurses, and police officers. If money is value quantified, what does it say that we value those who amuse us more than those who educate us, who protect us and who take care of us when we are most vulnerable?

One sign of how much we value entertainers and sports figures is what we do when one of them does something bad. When O.J. Simpson's ex-wife was brutally stabbed and slashed to death, the police did what they do in any similar homicide: they looked at the ex-spouse. And despite the fact that the DNA of a dead waiter, who just happened to be dropping off Mrs. Simpson's sunglasses at the time of the attack, was found in O.J.'s car, the jury somehow thought that this was not sufficient evidence of the Hall of Famer's guilt. And an incredible number of people were happy to see him acquitted. Because despite ample evidence that he was a controlling and abusive spouse, despite his bizarre slow motion car chase complete with lots of cash and a disguise, despite the fact that Ron Goldman's parents were able to win a wrongful death civil suit against him, he was a great sports figure. One who now resides in jail on a 33 year sentence for trying to resolve another situation with violence.

Roman Polanski was not only a great director but his actress wife and their unborn child were victims of Charles Manson's cult of murderers. But when he was arrested by the Swiss in 2009 for fleeing the US in 1977 after pleading guilty to having sex with a 13 year old, many people went on the record saying he should not be extradited to our country to be sentenced. Being a great director apparently excuses him for committing statutory rape.

And recently Penn State students rioted when college football legend Joe Paterno was fired for not doing enough after getting an eyewitness report of the rape of a 10 year boy by one of his assistant coaches. He did pass the report on to his Athletic Director but did not follow up, though the retired assistant coach ran sleepover camps on the Penn State property for years afterward. But people are more upset over the loss of the most winning college football coach. I wonder if their reaction to his perfunctory response would change had the boy been murdered rather than merely raped.

There is nothing wrong with a harmless diversion now and then. It's one way of getting some relief from the stresses of life. It can literally help with pain. When I was young our pediatrician told me to count backwards as he threw out random numbers. While I was concentrating on the countdown, he would give me my shots and I barely felt them. One intriguing study shows that counting money has a similar pain-fighting effect, probably because we are focusing on something of value. I've found I can stop my patient from crying by offering him something with a lid. He is instantly engaged in putting it on and taking it off.

The problem comes when what we are diverted from are things that we ought to be attending to. You would not want a police officer playing Angry Birds on his phone when he ought to be stopping or solving crimes. Or the tech support person watching an episode of Real Housewives while he's helping you figure out why your laptop has frozen up. Or a health care worker posting You Tube videos on her Facebook page when she is supposed to be getting your loved one up to use the toilet. The nursing home I last worked for forbade staff from bringing in cell phones and personal electronics. And I've caught enough staff members hiding in empty rooms making calls to understand why.

We have gotten so addicted to being constantly diverted that it is one of the leading causes of traffic accidents in this country, responsible for anywhere from 25 to 50% of all crashes according to AAA. More than 85% of the 100 million cell phone users in this country use them in their cars. If there's anything you should be concentrating on, it's navigating a 2000 pound car going 35 to 55 miles per hour through streets being used by other vehicles piloted by distractible human beings.

But diversions needn't be trivial to keep us from focusing on what is essential. In our country, poverty has risen to its highest level in 27 years. More than 46 million Americans, or 1 in 6, makes less than $12,000. 22% of our children live in poverty. Only during the Great Depression has this country's unemployment rate been higher. Just under 50 million Americans have no health insurance. Medical bills are the number 1 reason for bankruptcy. Yet our elected officials are more focused on winning elections or stopping the other party from winning elections that are a year away. Matters which may seem important to them are diverting our leaders from matters that are essential to the people they supposedly represent.

Even church politics can distract people from things that are essential. At our Diocesan Convention, the matters that generated the most debate, money and rights, may have been important issues. But as we watched a video of what our church is doing in the Dominican Republic, where malnutrition, contaminated water, malaria, rabies and diseases that can be prevented by vaccinations are still major health problems, I thought "Thank God we have all of these missions and ministries attacking these issues. Why don't we talk about these things more? Why do we devote so much time and energy to issues which are not matters of life and death?"

How we spend our time, talents and treasure is a vital issue to Jesus as his parable in Matthew 25 reveals. The talent mentioned in the Bible is a unit of weight equal to 30 kilograms, so if it was in gold or silver, even the slave given 1 talent had considerable capital to work with. The fault of that slave is obviously not the amount he was given but what he did with it, which was nothing. His master would have been pleased if the man had taken the most conservative course he could with what he was given. He is punished for not even trying. The gifts we receive from God are to be used, not hoarded or hidden. We are not to be distracted from putting them to their proper use or diverted by considerations like fear of failure. He wants us to be bold.

Everybody has talents. And I'm not just talking of the artistic kinds. Some people have a talent for detail. Some have a talent for seeing the big picture. Some have a talent for making friends. Others have a talent for making things. Some have a talent for connecting ideas that at first appear to have nothing to do with each other. There are people with a talent for numbers and others who have a talent for words. Some folks have a talent for making money and others have a talent for coming up with off-the-wall solutions. Everyone has a talent or 2 or 3. Some can do big things and some can do small but crucial things. And wonderful things happen when people bring their talents together for a common cause.

And what would such a common cause be for the body of Christ? Exactly what Christ did. When people were hungry, he fed them. When they were sick, he made them better. When they were repentant, he forgave them. When their faith was faltering, he encouraged them. When they lacked wisdom, he taught them. When they were hypocritical, he called them on it. When they showed extraordinary faith in him, or were unusually perceptive about God or ethics, or were particularly generous, he praised them. And he told his disciples that ministering to the needs of anyone lacking food, water, clothing, health, freedom or acceptance in a strange culture was the same as ministering to him.

The church first got noticed positively for doing such things--taking care of plague victims when others fled, for instance. As the faith spread, the church was known for setting up hospitals and schools, for feeding and clothing the poor, for freeing their slaves and working to abolish the slave trade entirely, and in the modern era for fighting prejudice. We still do these; why aren't they the first things that come to mind when Christians come up in popular discourse?

Because we have let ourselves get diverted onto other issues. We have made priorities of being theologically pure, or politically consistent, or culturally in-step, or structurally intact, or just plain popular. These may be important issues but they are, in the final analysis, not absolutely essential.

And what did Jesus consider essential? A lot less than we do. He said that if something was coming between you and God, you should ruthlessly remove it from your life, even if it were a hand or an eye. And he's right. Today, if having an eye or a limb surgically removed meant it would save you from a deadly form of cancer, most of us would, after hard consideration, agree. I don't, however, think Jesus wanted us to literally lop off our hands or tear out our eyes. But he must have meant something just as important if less physical, something we might consider to be a big part of us and who we are, something which would definitely be seen as a big sacrifice on our part, though we could live without it.

The most difficult part is deciding what is essential and what is merely important. Often we think that what makes us different is what is essential but that's not true. Practically every branch of Christianity has distinctive doctrines, or structures, or practices that they consider essential, but regarding which other branches of Christianity think or act differently. Is the Papacy or the number of sacraments or the age of baptismal candidates or the way a church is organized or the structure of the worship service or the language used essential to Christianity? If so, then we must reject either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy or Evangelicalism, or Pentecostalism, or the Amish as Christian. But that would mean what is essential to Christianity is what divides us rather than what unites us. It would be like saying only a poodle is a true dog and all other breeds are entirely different species.

As I read it, the essentials consist of who Jesus Christ is, what he has done for us, and how we respond morally to that. The details must be fleshed out, certain decisions of which way to go on controversial issues must be arrived at, but they are not essential to what Christianity is. They are merely ways it was expressed at certain times, in certain cultures, in response to certain challenges. It is in what these various expressions share that we find the essence of belief.

There is one distinctive that is essential: Jesus' commands to love--God, our neighbors as ourselves, each other as Jesus loves us, our enemies. Anything that claims to be Christianity but does not recognize that at the center is love is not true Christianity. To paraphrase the documentary on the Dominican Republic, Christianity requires both faith and practice, both proclamation of the Gospel and loving service, the way a dove needs 2 wings in order to fly.

Whenever you see a grotesquely deformed version of Christianity, the defect is found in either how it sees Jesus or how it sees love. Most often it cannot resist collapsing and simplifying the central paradoxes of the faith--Jesus Christ as fully human and fully divine, both victim and victor, both servant and Lord, the earth as both fallen and redeemed, believers as both sinners and saints, the imperatives to pursue both justice and peace, love and righteousness, to take up one's cross and live an abundant life. It is usually in trying to resolve these tensions by tossing out or diminishing or ignoring one side, or overemphasizing the other, that things go off the rails. And often to deal with the stress of maintaining these paradoxes, we get diverted by other, more easily comprehended issues, matters that we would much rather contemplate or handle. It is much easier to focus almost entirely on a pet cause, or to nitpick another's theological fine points or to only see one side of a problem than to grapple with the complexity of reality. Just as it's much easier to get lost in a video game or a cozy sitcom or a contest between two teams, where there are clear winners and losers, unclouded loyalties and an unvarying format.

One of the problems of diversions is they take our attention off of vital matters. Another, however, is that we try to impose their simplified schemata on messy reality. It would be lovely if good and evil were as easy to spot and to deal with as they are in Star Wars or a first person shooter game. They aren't. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, for every complex problem there is a simple solution…and it's wrong. Jesus told us to give Caesar what is his and God what is his but didn't provide us with a checklist to tick off which duties were which. Jesus told us to turn the other cheek but not what to do if that doesn't stop our attacker. Paul told us not to respond to evil with evil but with good but didn't go into the specifics. God gave us both brains and hearts and lets us find the balance between the two we must strike in every circumstance.

Life is not a no-brainer and neither is the Christian life. Rather it is a full brainer. We need both hemispheres and every specialized lobe and section to handle it. Sometimes we need a diversion, comfort food for our brains, like a nice murder mystery where all the loose ends are tied up and neither hero nor victims carry the trauma over into the next adventure. But we mustn't set up housekeeping in these castles in the air. We live on earth and if we are going to bring about God's Kingdom, we need to see and think clearly to discern what is essential, what is important and what is trivial.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

That Old Magic

My brother is the President of the Society of American Magicians Assembly 8 in our hometown of St. Louis. And I like to think I'm partially responsible for that. I was the one who was interested in magic originally. When our Dad took us downtown to buy supplies for his tavern, I was the one who wanted to go to Gene DeVoe's magic shop. "Genial Gene" would do magic to entice us to buy the tricks. And as the one who saved his allowance, I would usually buy at least one trick, like the finger chopper. Eventually, I realized that knowing how illusions were done spoiled the effect for the observer. But my brother got hooked for life. He not only bought the simple little tricks, he also bought books Gene sold explaining how other tricks were done. He bought rabbits to produce from his magical props. And as a teen he built not one but 2 guillotines so he could cut heads of lettuce in two while letting the blade pass harmlessly through the necks of volunteers from the audience. His wife, then his high school sweetheart, was his assistant. And not only did he do shows for our church, he didn't see this as hypocrisy.

Penn Jillette, the larger, louder member of the magical duo Penn and Teller, has a new book out called "God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales." In it he expresses astonishment that any magician can be spiritual. And coming from such an intelligent man, that astonishes me. Because it shows a very primitive and limited understanding of religion.

One of the problems of the modern anti-theist movement is that they reduce religion, which they evidently don't understand, to something else that they do, and then they denigrate it. The most common version of this is seen in the thought of Sam Harris. He thinks that religion is simply a defective form of science, as if religion's primary role in believers' lives is to explain how material things work. But if religion was ever supposed to do that, it hasn't for a long time, at least not for most believers. Religion is more interested in exploring questions of "why" than "how." Despite what some creationists think, the Bible is not a scientific book, the writing of it having begun a millennium or so before the most rudimentary form of science existed.The Bible takes pains to be specific that God created the world but is non-specific on the details of how this was done. It doesn't go into the genetic differences between humans and other creatures but focuses on the spiritual difference: humans bear the image of God.

Until recently, the Bible was not interpreted literally by most people. They were more interested in what it said about God and ethics. A third of the world's population claims to be Christian. I doubt that most of them would say its primary attraction for them is what it tells us about how the world works physically. More would say its importance is what it says about how to live, as an individual, as a member of a community and as a child of God.

To me, Jillette's reduction of religion to magic is the same kind of confusion of categories of thought. To begin with, magic means many things. Does he think religion is a form of stage magic? That may be true of some religions that make statues drink milk or weep, but it's not true of most churches. Plus, while Penn and Teller usually explicitly say they are doing tricks, almost everyone going to a magic show knows that's true of all magicians. The fun is in seeing something you know is not possible, wondering how it's done, and enjoying being fooled. Nobody goes to church hoping to be fooled but enlightened. While I know clergy who use magic tricks in the pulpit, they perform them as enacted parables. They neither have the intention nor expectation that people believe they are able to perform miracles. Rather than entertaining by deceiving, they are using visual metaphors to teach spiritual truths.

True, there are televangelists who are known as faith healers. They theatrically claim to know that there are people in their audience who have specific diseases and they touch them. These folks, some of whom are shills and some of whom are genuinely caught up in the excitement, claim to be healed and leap, dance or faint at the touch of the faith healer. Some of these evangelists even sell prayer cloths that they will send to those who write and make a donation. And, yes, some of them use magic tricks. There have been a number of exposes of this kind of scam for decades in print and on TV. There was even a 1992 movie starring Steve Martin that revealed some of the high-tech tricks used. Those that do these things do so for money, the same reason crooked cops, corrupt politicians, or quack doctors betray their professions. They are hardly representative of mainstream religion. You aren't likely to walk into a Methodist or Presbyterian or Episcopalian or other mainline church and see that kind of healing service. Nor do such big obvious shows of supernatural power feature very largely in most believer's faith.

I suspect that Penn Jillette knows this. His parents were Christian. So I imagine that Jillette thinks religion is magic in the sense of the first definition of the entry in "the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature." Which betrays either a very shallow understanding of religion or an inability to see the very large differences between magic and religion. The key words in the definition that relate to this difference are: "presumably assure human control." Magic is the attempt to control natural or supernatural forces. To that end a person chants words or performs rituals. An especially egregious form of magic involves invoking the names of demons or spirits and making pacts with them in exchange for the accomplishment of one's desires. This is what lies at the heart of the tale of Dr. Faustus and the non-biblical idea of selling one's soul to the devil.

Magic is a parody of religion. We do not summon up demons but call upon God. We don't try to try to bind the powers-that-be with words of power but humbly make our requests to God. We don't make contracts with devils but we do have a covenant with God initiated, not by us, but by Jesus Christ. And it in no way obligates God to fulfill our every wish like a genie. One shouldn't expect a loving God to say "yes" to every request anymore than one would expect a loving parent to give a child everything it asked for. Most importantly, we do not try to impose our will on the universe but say to God "not my will but yours be done." We are not forcing anyone or anything to behave the way we wish but simply asking our heavenly Father within the context of our loving relationship with him.

That said, there are those who do advocate a distortion of Christianity that certainly smacks of magic. That's the Word of Faith churches with their "name it and claim it" theology. Basically, this Prosperity Gospel, started by E.W. Kenyon in the late 1800s, says our covenant with God guarantees our health and wealth. Thus health can be claimed by quoting a Bible verse about healing and claiming it as our divine right. Kenneth Copeland, a leading proponent of this kind of theology, says that the idea that God ever uses suffering for our benefit is an unbiblical deception of the devil! Wonder what he makes of Romans 5:3-5? But in this theology, if we are sick, it is because we let Satan rob us of our rightful health. It is interesting that Benny Hinn, another leading preacher of the Prosperity Gospel, is also a very controversial faith healer.

In the same way, if a Christian is not wealthy, it is because he or she is letting Satan have authority over his or her life. Word of Faith adherents also dispute the picture of Jesus as a poor itinerant preacher but say Jesus and the apostles were wealthy. Of course to maintain such things, one has to ignore or explain away all the verses that say the opposite.

Some in this movement teach that believers are literally gods, not just a little lower than gods as it says in Psalm 8. As preacher Creflo Dollar puts it, if the offspring of horses are horses and the offspring of dogs are dogs, the children of God are gods themselves. Therefore it follows that "a god should never be sick, and a god should never be poor." Such an emphasis tempts its followers to live with a sense of entitlement, if not outright arrogance. As John Piper says, "the prosperity gospel will not make anybody praise Jesus; it will make people praise prosperity."

And many would gladly agree to that trade-off. But buying into this "feel good" theology does have a down side. What does a person do when chronic illness strikes or wealth continually eludes one? What if you get cancer? Or you lose your job and savings due to the economy? You can only blame yourself. Because in this theology, you are a god and the only reason your life isn't perfect is that you don't have enough faith to name it and claim it. The idea that what you think determines reality is a classic example of magical thinking.

The answer to bad theology is not abandoning theology but turning to good theology, just as the answer to bad medical advice is not giving up on medicine but getting good medical advice. The problem with the world is not that we don't act like gods; rather it is that we are only too willing to play God. We act as if the universe owes us nothing but good things and we are willing to take short cuts, using whatever power, be it magic, money, position, politics, technology, or brute strength, to make our desires happen. We may theoretically accept the idea that mankind has major flaws but we tend to make an exception when it comes to ourselves. And the only thing worse than flawed people are flawed people who think they really aren't. Confidence doesn't guarantee competence. When faced with a tempting situation to which are attached obvious risks of a very bad outcome, we tend to think "that won't happen to me." Yet everyday people blithely get into recreational drug use, promiscuous sex, ill advised financial moves and more despite the fact that they see numerous examples of the inevitable negative consequences in the news and in the lives of the those around them.

Humility, honest self-examination and a timely reminder of Jesus' call to repent are a vital part of true Christian living. As is the realization that becoming Christlike is a ongoing process, not a fait accompli. It requires prayer and God's grace. It has nothing to do with the accumulation of physical goods but the cultivation of spiritual fruits. It's not about accruing quantities but producing qualities.

Was there a time when religion and magic were the same or practically so? Anthropology and history look at cave paintings, the contents of graves, and representations of ailing body parts presented at the temples of Apollo and say yes. The Hebrews and early Christians largely avoided that because they did not worship idols that could be rigged but worshiped a God who could not be compelled by ritual or invocation of his name to do anything they wanted. What he did was what he decided to, consistent with his just nature and tempered by his love and mercy.

If some religions did start out as magic, it is important to point out that so did science. The science of chemistry began as the magical art of alchemy and that astronomy began as astrology. It took a millennium and change for us to gain the knowledge to make those into sciences. And science is always a work in progress. There is a lot that science cannot explain, like the scientifically verified connection between faith and physical health, longevity and faster healing. The idea that science will eventually explain everything or that we humans can understand everything is by no means assured and thus a statement of faith.

Our biggest problems primarily lie in the moral and spiritual realms. We know what we should do but we don't want to. It's not a matter of lacking knowledge but rather not using the wisdom we have possessed for thousands of years in the Bible. And the Bible is not a grimoire of arcane magical lore, nor a particularly obscure and mystical tome. It is, instead, remarkably practical, telling us what we are, whether we wish to hear it or not, but also what we can be, if we follow its advice. Jesus doesn't promise magical answers to all our woes in this life but assurance that, though we will have trouble, we can find triumph in him. Though, to the world, it may seem as if we possess nothing that cannot be verified by the physical sciences, yet to those who see through the tricks and illusions of this world, we are revealed to be rich in everything that counts: a deep, abundant life, an unshakeable trust in our heavenly Father, an undaunted hope, and the undying love of God in Christ from which nothing can separate us.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Once More With Feeling

Do you ever get tired of me preaching about love?

I try to mix things up. I usually preach on something that pops up in the week's lectionary readings. Once a month I preach on whatever question I draw from the sermon suggestion box. I retell stories from the Bible at times, and on rare occasions tell new stories. I cite pop culture a lot, for that contains our current values and modern mythologies. Ever so often I dive into a specific movie, TV show or book in depth, if I hear echoes of the Gospel there. Once in a blue moon I engage in a conversation on a topic using my puppets or dummy. I read lots of translations, commentaries, throw in archeology, history, etymology, psychology, medicine, and science where appropriate. I don't shy from confronting elephants in the room and I point out when good Christians have different positions on certain issues. And yet, when I come to wrap it up, it all boils down to God's love.

I didn't grow up in a particularly religious home, so I didn't get it there. When I was small, we did go to church occasionally. In fact my first memory is being in church, surrounded by people singing. I didn't know the hymn so I joined in with a song I knew: "Old MacDonald." Still, though we lived just a block from church, we stopped going. Mom did for a while read to us from the New English Bible's translation of the gospels. When I was a tween, my mother felt we needed a religious background and we church-shopped until we found a Presbyterian church to our liking. But love was not a major topic of the 40 minute long sermons the preacher routinely gave. I discovered that theme when I read the New Testament as a teen. And when our youth group was asked to run a service at the skid row ministry our church supported, and I was asked to preach, my topic was God's love, something I frequently read in the Bible but rarely heard from the pulpit. Apparently the same was true at the mission. After I sat down, the preacher who ran the mission got up and agreed that God loved us but IF YOU DIDN'T ACCEPT CHRIST AS YOUR LORD AND SAVIOR YOU WERE GOING TO HELL. His hellfire coda to my homily only ran 5 minutes but it effectively shattered the mood. As we toured the soup kitchen afterward, one homeless man told me my talk of God's love almost had him at one point. I admit I didn't feel too loving towards the guy who ran the mission.

So here it is again. In Matthew 22:34 and following, Jesus' critics are testing him. The Pharisees, who really got into parsing the 613 laws found in the Torah, ask Jesus which of them is the most important one. The word in Greek is "megas" from which we get our prefix mega and simply means "big." So this is a big picture question. And it was a common discussion among rabbis. Even they could see that some laws were of greater weight than others. In fact, to save a life, a Jew is permitted to break other parts of the law. Thus when Gentiles hid Jews from the Nazis, and their rescuers could only give them non-kosher foods, often obtained at great risk using falsified ration cards, the Jews could eat the food since it was a matter of life and death. But which laws took precedence over others? And in this hierarchy of commandments, what stood at the summit? Jesus' choice of Deuteronomy 6:5 was a popular one. Loving God with all one is makes an excellent starting point and overriding principle for any ethical system. But Jesus throws in another popular answer as well: Leviticus 19:18, about loving one's neighbor as oneself. And linking the two shows real incisiveness of thought. People will sometimes do very unloving things to their fellow human beings out of their so-called love of God. But as God tells Noah, murder is wrong because humans are created in the image of God. In a sense, killing a person is symbolically killing God. Logically, therefore, any act of intentional harm towards another person is evil for the same reason. Sadly, this still needs to be spelled out today. As the author of 1st John says, "If anyone says "I love God" but hates his brother, he is a liar, because the person who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen." In other words, loving other people shows a functional grasp of what loving God means. Whereas the mere assertion of loving God doesn't qualify as evidence that one really loves him.

I love the way N. T. Wright translates the next verse: "The entire law consists of footnotes to these two commandments--and that goes for the prophets, too." Footnotes explain the main text; they don't replace it. People often forget that. All the numerous things the Bible tells you to do or not do are just working out the implications of the commands to love God and love others as ourselves. In fact if you do any of the other commandments but do them out of something other than the spirit of love, you're probably doing them wrong. Without love, a pat on the back could just as well be assault. Without love, being frank with someone could just as well be trash talking them. Without love, sex could just as well be rape. The intent behind an action, whether it's meant to harm or to help, is as important as the action itself.

Skill is also important. Right now we are still trying to teach my toddler patient how to play with the dogs. Pet them, I tell and show him. Don't pull their hair or poke their eyes or put your finger in their noses. The dogs are amazingly patient and gentle with him. If it's too much, they just walk away. But not every dog will be so forgiving. He needs to learn the difference between petting them and punishing them.

There are times when even loving gestures can seem like punishment. Ever try to remove a deeply embedded sand spur from a dog's foot? It's a rare canine that will sit still for that. It's the same with humans. When in pain, people will lash out at others, even if they are trying to help the sufferer. We forget that being cut open with a knife can be bad if an attacker's doing it, but good if it's a doctor. So when you have to do something unpleasant but necessary to help someone, be firm but gentle. And when it comes to God's Word we need to use it surgically to heal, not wield it sloppily or maliciously to harm. That difference is lost on some who quote Scripture.

You need to learn how to love properly. We are also teaching my patient not to bite the folks he loves. He doesn't do it out of anger but when he's snuggling against your chest. Consequently it is more alarming to his mother than to me. It reminds me of the Doctor Who episode we discussed last week. When his TARDIS, in the form of a madwoman, sees the Doctor for the first time, she kisses him and then bites him. Biting, she says, is like kissing, only there's a winner. But love isn't a fight or a competition. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves precisely so we can remind ourselves how we do and do not like to be treated and act accordingly towards others. Empathy is absolutely key in learning to love.

Paul gave us a wonderful break down of the elements of love in 1st Corinthians 13. Love is patient, he begins. The old word "longsuffering" is closer to the original Greek. And indeed for impatient people, waiting can be torture. It can literally be painful if you are waiting for an infant to get the idea that biting is an inappropriate way to show affection. But if you love someone you are willing to give them and your relationships enough time to mature.

Love is kind. Odd how people forget to be kind to those they love. It's seems like we are the most cruel to those we claim to adore the most. A report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds in this country, amounting to 3.3 million reports a year involving an estimated 6 million children. More than 78% of the abuse is neglect. And more than 5 children die every day due to abuse, the highest rate in the industrialized world. I'll bet most of the parents responsible would tearfully declare their love for their children. If true, their "love" is deficient in both patience and kindness.

Love is not envious, boastful or arrogant. That's because one of the wonderful things about love is that it takes us out of ourselves. Anyone truly in love is not thinking about him or herself, but of the other. In a real love relationship, both people are more concerned about each other and more committed to the relationship than they are to their personal prerogatives. As Paul says, love does not insist on its own way.

Love is not rude. It isn't easily provoked, nor is it quick to take offense. It doesn't brood over past wrongs or store up grievances. In a recent article entitled "4 Pieces of Relationship Advice Movies Need to Stop Giving," Dan O'Brien points out that only in films can a person be a "giant, manipulative, selfish [jerk] and also a sweet, deep, compassionate softie." And only in films is that cool. It's interesting that TV has recently dealt with 2 such characters by having the womanizer in "Two and a Half Men" killed by his jealous wife and having Dr. House thrown in jail for driving a car into his ex-girlfriend's dining room. That's recognition that, in real life, such people may have relationships but they are not pretty and their partners are miserable and in need of therapy. If you love, you have to be able to forgive and let go.

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but celebrates truth. A seriously disordered love lets the loved one get away with murder, sometimes literally. We've seen parents cover up for kids who broke the law and harmed others. We've seen women stick with their boyfriends even if they abuse or kill their children. That's not love. That's indulgence or dependence. That will never help the person you love become a better person. Love can't live on lies, either. Love depends on trust and trust requires truth. More devastating than any bad action one commits is the sense of betrayal when the other person realizes it was covered up and they were lied to.

I like the way J. B. Phillips translates the next verse: "Love know no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything." Real love has staying power. It hangs on. Look at anyone who has come back from a real setback or challenge, be it addiction, jail or illness, and 9 times out of 10, you will find they were supported by the powerful love of one or more family members, friends and/or God. Love is a strength we can impart to others.

I've been using examples from romantic and familial loves but the same principles operate in loving God or our neighbors. You act with patience and kindness. You put away envy and bragging and arrogance. You don't act rudely or selfishly. You avoid being quick tempered and resentful. You don't let wrongdoing slide. You stay truthful. You don't let anything stop you from loving the person.

"What the world needs now is love," wrote lyricist Hal David in 1965. And though today's popular music sounds nothing like that Burt Bacharach song, the statement is still true. Our public discourse is more shrill and aggressive than ever. The most innocuous topic draws vitriolic rhetoric on the internet, talk radio, opinion TV shows and political debates. Our politicians are more focused on winning elections than making the country they supposedly love work. Partisans are more intent on making points than on making sense. People defend one minority by attacking another minority. Customer service is a nightmare on both sides of the phone. Etiquette and self-restraint are unknown. Unfiltered disclosure of whatever happens to flit through one's mind is the order of the day and other person's sensibilities are their problem, not ours. We just don't care who gets hurt by our words and actions. That's apathy. Which is the opposite of love.

The world needs love, God's love. And he has given us, Christ's disciples, the task of showing it to the world. It isn't easy. We can't repay evil with evil. I saw a picture of a man in Key West holding a sign that says "God hates [gays]." Next to him was a man holding a sing that said "F*** this guy." They're both wrong. We can't hate the haters. We are to love and pray for them. Hating those who hate you is just treading a Moebius strip of recrimination and retaliation. Love breaks such cycles. It doesn't insist on its own way and it doesn't insist everyone agrees with its opinions.

Sadly even the church hasn't learned this lesson. We have church officials bad mouthing one another and suing one another and fighting over material goods and the use and absence of words and who can affiliate with whom. I'm not sure what message we're sending the world but it doesn't sound like the good news of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself through self-sacrificial love.

Jesus didn't say "love one another only if it's easy." He didn't say "love another only when you are in complete agreement." He didn't say "love one another except when it comes to an issue I never addressed." There are no conditions on his commandments to love. If folks don't like that, fine. There are plenty of religions where you are free to hate all you want. Join the never-ending war to eliminate everything about anybody who ticks you off. Good luck winning that battle. Just don't say you are following the one who is God's love incarnate. That's hypocrisy. And we all know how Jesus felt about that.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is God Incarnate and God is love. Everything else is footnotes.