Sunday, September 25, 2011


How do we know what we know? Sometimes that's an easy question to answer. If we have direct experience of something, that's usually an unimpeachable source of knowledge. However, people sometimes draw the wrong conclusion from their own experience. I had a violin teacher who had been in a bad car accident. He was thrown from the car before it burst into flames. Because of his experience, he refused to wear a seat belt. You couldn't convince him that his experience was not typical. Contrary to what you see on TV, most cars doesn't explode in an crash and most people thrown from cars are severely injured or killed. But because of the specific details of his experience, he had made an erroneous generalization.

We can't experience everything. That means we have to take the word of others. If I have had a certain medical procedure, and you're scheduled to have the same thing, you might want to talk to me about my experience so you know what you're in for. Even so my experience may not be helpful to you. What if it was bad because the doctor operated on the wrong limb or the nurse botched starting an IV or I had a reaction to a drug used in the procedure? Or what if they had made changes or improvements to the procedure since I had it? My experience could be a poor guide for you. You might fare better if you talked to a number of people who had undergone the procedure and looked for commonalities.

And other people can be wrong. People have been sent to jail because of erroneous identification by actual eyewitnesses. Sometimes other people lie. How do we know who to believe? Usually we look for someone who is an authority, someone who has had a lot of experience in a certain area and/or studied a certain branch of knowledge extensively and intensively over a long time. You want your pacemaker implanted by a cardiac surgeon with years of experience. You want to base your position on global warming on the work of a group of scientists who have read and evaluated all the research. You want to wear a seat belt because experts have done a lot of studies saying it saves lives.

Unfortunately, not all controversies can be resolved by an appeal to authority. For one thing, studies have shown that people tend to be skeptical of the expertise of authorities with whom they disagree. That's why some people continue to doubt the widespread scientific consensus on climate change or evolution. They may even point to disagreements in the scientific community, which betrays a lack of knowledge of how any group, even one composed of scientists, arrives at the truth. Sometimes the differences are technical rather than substantial. Sometimes those who disagree are in the minority. A few doctors believe that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS. Most are convinced it does and, more importantly, the treatments that have changed the disease from a lethal one to a chronic condition have come from the majority.

Of course, you can always find an example of a minority position that turned out to be right. Continental drift and the discovery that most ulcers are caused by a virus were once rejected by most scientists. Now they are considered established facts. The deciding factor in each case was the accumulation of supporting evidence.

Our gospel today, Matthew 21:23-32, takes place after Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple in Jerusalem. As he enters the courts of the temple, a group of chief priests and elders approach him and ask where he gets his authority for doing what he does. Jesus counters by asking where John the Baptist got his authority. The leaders are flummoxed because their reasoning is entirely political. They are not evaluating the facts but how people would react to either answer. If they say John's authority came from God, they know Jesus will ask why they didn't do what John said. On the other hand, answering that John's authority was merely human will enrage the crowd because they could see that John was speaking the truth about the corruption of society and those in power and the need to repent. So they are unable to give Jesus an answer.

This is the same thing that has our government deadlocked. Our elected leaders know that there are obvious solutions to some our problems. But the hardcore members of the political parties who nominate them don't want to hear that reality rarely lines up with one ideology. Our leaders also know that there are problems over which they have no control. But that doesn't stop them from promising to solve them. They never ask if something is true or false, right or wrong. They ask "Is this what my people want to hear?"

It looks like Jesus has merely found a clever way to avoid answering the question of his authority. But actually he is seeing if they will listen to the truth. Unfortunately, they are trying to find an answer that doesn't make them look bad or upset the people. So Jesus knows they are not open to the true answer of his authority's origin. It would be like explaining your iPod to your dog. The only question she has is whether it is good to eat.

Now if they were really interested in ascertaining Jesus' authority, these leaders could tally up the evidence. Did what Jesus preached echo the words of the Torah and the prophets? Yes. The two great commandments he cites out come from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. His disdain for empty religiosity and his emphasis on God's concern for the poor and despised as a true measure of godliness come from the prophets. Did Jesus do more that talk the talk? Yes. He healed the sick and fed the hungry. Did Jesus do anything showing that he had God on his side? Yes. His ability to heal even those born handicapped and to raise the dead speak to his higher authority. But the leaders discount these because he heals on the Sabbath, which they interpret as work, and when he raises Lazarus, they can only see that his new stature will rival their power. They really aren't looking for the truth. They only wish to preserve the status quo.

They say they act on behalf of God but their actions belie their words. Which Jesus neatly skewers in his next parable. A father asks one son to do his work in the family vineyard. The young man says "No" but later thinks better of it and goes into the vineyard as his father wished. The second son tells his father "Yes" but never actually goes and does the work. Which son, says Jesus, did his father's will? The answer is obvious and so are the identities of those the sons represent.

We all know people who say the right words but who do the wrong works when it comes to following Jesus. And I'm not just talking pedophile priests and disgraced TV preachers. There are people in the pews who claim to believe in God but act as if he didn't exist. They say God is love and act hatefully towards people for whom Christ died. They ask God for forgiveness but are merciless towards people who slight them. I have been appalled not so much by the current crop of presidential candidates but the audiences at the recent debates, shouting that the uninsured should die and booing an American soldier. I bet a lot of those people would claim to be Christians. But I wonder if there's enough evidence there to convince Jesus?

We put a lot of emphasis on saying the right thing in church. And, to be sure, imprecise language can lead to imprecise thinking. Remember how NASA inadvertently burned up a multi-million dollar orbiter in the Martian atmosphere because one team was calculating the descent in meters and the other in feet? You have to be using the same terms, clearly defined, to communicate. The good news is not that God loves you so you can do whatever you please, nor that God loves you but not others, nor that God loves you but not enough to get his hands dirty by becoming one of us and dying as one of us, nor that God called Jesus his beloved son but didn't love him enough to raise him from the dead. The good news is that God so loved the world that he sent his unique son so that whoever trusts in him will not perish in degradation, decay and death but share in the same everlasting life that God enjoys. But what good are having the correct beliefs if they don't result in correct actions? Jesus said you know how good a tree is by its fruit and that the world would know his followers by their love. It is not enough to know who Jesus is or what he has done for us if you do not respond to that wonderful knowledge in an appropriate manner.

When his critics correctly answer his question about which son did his father's will, Jesus pointedly says that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests and elders of Judea. Why? Because they listened to John. They recognized his authority. And they changed their minds. That's the basic definition of the Greek word for "repent." And not only did they change their minds, they had to change their lives. Matthew was a tax collector. He was a pariah for collaborating with the Romans and exploiting his fellow Jews, though it did make him rich. But when Jesus told Matthew to follow him, the man got up and left that life behind. Mary of Magdala was not a prostitute, contrary to the erroneous exegesis of a 6th century pope. But in view of what Jesus says, some prostitutes must have left that life as well. The people most receptive to the good news are those whose lives has been nothing but bad news. They know things have to change to get better. And if they are really honest, they know what has to change is the way they are living their life. When things seem to be going well for you materially, even if you sense that spiritually you're doing badly, it's harder to decide you need to change your life radically. And the priests and elders were doing pretty well for themselves. They defined what and who served God's will. The reality they created so pleased them there was no way they would let Jesus redefine it. They'd kill him first.

If we are Christians, then the authority we listen to and follow when it comes to how to live our life is Jesus Christ, not any denomination or TV evangelist or political party or economic theory or even parish priest. Not that we shouldn't listen to them but as Paul says, we should test the spirits. In so far as what is said or practiced agrees with and illumines what Jesus said and did, take it in. If it doesn't, let it go. But let nothing take the place of Jesus. That's idolatry.

And never say "Yes" to God and fail to carry through with it. God's no fool. He's much more concerned with what we do than what we say. Because, sadly, words are cheap for us human beings. When all is said and done, there's a lot more said than done. But the hungry cannot eat resolutions, the threadbare are not warmed by political pronouncements, the homeless are not sheltered by feasibility studies, the sick are not treated by cost-benefit ratios, prisoners are not visited by research papers, and immigrants are not welcomed by committee reports. We have to do all that. We may not want to but the true test of whether you recognize an authority is whether it can make you do something you ordinarily wouldn't, whether it can change how you act. If you refrain from passing on a double yellow line even when there's nobody in the oncoming lane for miles, then you recognize the authority of the traffic laws. If you are on a business trip away from your spouse and are hit on by an attractive person in a distant place and decline their invitation, you are recognizing the authority of your wedding vows. If you forgive someone you have every right to shun because of the grievous wrong they've done you, and you forgive them because Jesus says you must, you recognize his authority as the Lord of your life. If Jesus doesn't make you behave in a more loving, just, moral, merciful, generous, and faithful way than you normally would, then you have to ask who is really calling the shots in your life? Who really has the final say? If that voice in your head always tells you what you want to hear, then who do you really worship and obey?

Jesus changes people--if they truly listen to him and act on what he says. He pushes them beyond petty emotions to act extraordinary. He leads them to places they wouldn't have gone. He makes them want to be better: better fathers, better mothers, better children, better spouses, better citizens, better workers, better friends, better givers, better forgivers, better examples. Jesus is never satisfied with the status quo is that means people are suffering or are enslaved by their sins. And we who follow him should being doing all we can to spread the good news that Jesus saves us from all that not only with our words but with our works. We have it on the highest authority.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek for the same reason Rod Serling created the Twilight Zone: to comment on contemporary issues using allegory in order to avoid censorship. For that reason, I find Deep Space 9 to be the most mature of the Star Trek spinoffs, despite the fact that Roddenberry, being dead, had nothing to do with it. Neither is it my personal favorite of the various Trek series but its exploration of issues like war, terrorism, religion, biological warfare and morality was a lot more nuanced that the others. While the original series tackled racism and the cold war, it was obvious which side was right and which was wrong. But by putting the very ethical Federation in charge of a outpost in a disputed section of space that they must hold and throwing some very hard choices at the crew, Deep Space 9 delved into how intertwined good intentions and questionable tactics sometimes are.

That said, one of the best DS9 episodes did picture a situation that was all wrong. In the episode, Miles O' Brien, the head of engineering, is arrested by the tyrannical Cardassians. In a Cardassian court, as the accused, you are assumed to be guilty, not innocent; you have no right to be silent or not to testify and incriminate yourself and your lawyer's job is not to defend you but to talk you into confessing. By depicting a legal system that was the exact opposite of our own, it made the viewer see why we have the rights we do. It made its point by turning reality on its head.

Jesus often illustrated the Kingdom of God by finding earthly parallels but sometimes he turned reality on its head to show how God's way of doing things is radically different from worldly ways. I think he was doing that in the parable of the Dishonest Steward, which makes more sense if Jesus is speaking with tongue in cheek in order to satirize how the Pharisees operate. In Matthew 20:1-16 the actions of the landlord go against good business practice to show God's grace.

The first part of the parable contains no surprises. When grapes were ripe, there could be no delay in picking them. Vineyard owners frequently hired extra workers to get the harvest in on time. The place to find such workers was the market, which acted as a labor exchange. Workers brought their tools and waited to be hired. And in Jesus' day what the vineyard owner in the parable offers to pay, a denarius, is the going rate for a day's work. The owner goes to the marketplace every 3 hours or so and hires more workers so the harvest can be finished in one day. Again that's not surprising.

Finally at 5 pm, with just an hour left in which to work, the owner makes one last sweep of the market. He finds a few workers who haven't been hired yet. It looks like nobody else wants them. But this vineyard owner does.

When the time comes to pay the workers, the owner begins by paying the last ones he hired first. And he pays them a denarius, as if they'd worked the whole day. The folks who did in fact work all day get their hopes up. They figure they should get a lot more. But, no, the owner pays them what was agreed, the normal wages for a day. So they grumble, as would any of us if we saw someone who only worked an hour get the same pay as we did for doing a whole shift. When the vineyard owner hears this, he confronts the complainers. He points out that he is not cheating anyone. Not only did he pay them the going rate, they agreed to it ahead of time. Their real problem wasn't with what he paid them but his generosity to those who worked less.

So what is Jesus trying to say here? On the one hand, the landlord could just be an example of a good employer. Day laborers were then, as now, on the bottom rung of the employment ladder. And while a denarius was the usual daily wage, it was just enough to get by. Less than that was not a living wage. So if the vineyard owner paid those who worked less than a day less than a denarius, the men would not have enough to take care of his family. By paying the men who were unfortunate enough to still be unemployed at 5 pm a whole day's wages, he was ensuring that they, their wives and children would eat that day.

Jewish law protected workers. In Deuteronomy, employers are required to pay their workers at the end of each day; they aren't allowed to withhold their wages. But there was no requirement to pay them more than they earned. By going beyond justice, the vineyard owner showed himself to be a truly good man.

But since Jesus starts by saying this is what the Kingdom of God is like, he is making a bigger point. In his parables, landlords, owners and kings often represent God. Slaves, workers and subjects usually stand in for God's people. And it's intriguing that there is a rabbinical story that is similar to this one. The moral, though, is quite different. In that version, the people who worked longer are the Jews and they are paid more than those who didn't work as hard, which were the Gentiles. That version underscored the strict justice of God. Jesus' version emphasizes God's grace. And it is a rebuke to those who begrudge others their experience of God's goodness.

Do we do that? What makes you happier--the fact that while in prison serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer accepted Christ as his Savior or that he received rough justice by being killed by another prisoner? Or maybe both: "Yay, he got saved and, yay, we don't have to deal with him." Be honest. Or how do you feel about the fact that David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer, also claims to be a Christian? He will not seek parole because, in his words, "He has given me a whole new life, which I do not deserve. And while society will never forgive me, God has. I am forever grateful for such forgiveness, too." Does it bother you to hear those words from him?

It is natural that such people make us cautious. Even though they are no threat to society in prison, making jailhouse conversions to get privileges or parole are not unheard of. What is confounding is Berkowitz not trying for parole. Is he just putting a good spin on the fact that he is unlikely to ever be given parole? But if so, what does he gain? Or is it possible that he really has become a Christian?

That makes us uncomfortable. Because while as Christians, we accept that we are all sinners, most of us have never committed murder, grand theft, rape, arson or any of the sins so thoroughly condemned by society that they are also illegal. Yet we believe that God forgives all sinners who repent and turn to him. And that all who follow Jesus as Lord and Savior are our brothers and sisters in Christ. But faced with embracing those who done some really terrible or scary things, do we hesitate? Do we secretly feel that there are sins and then there are SINS? Do we sometimes believe we are a better class of sinner because we saw the light before doing anything really bad? Deep down, do we feel that jailhouse and last minute converts should count for less in God's Kingdom? That, as one wag put it, Dahmer may be in the ranks of the heavenly choir but maybe he's up in the nosebleed seats?

Jesus is saying here that God is a lot more gracious than we are. He gives people what they need regardless of when they started working for him or what they did before that. He takes on people that nobody else wants. If they want to do his work, that's good enough for him, no matter how late they get into the game. The important thing is getting in the harvest.

The harvest is another recurrent image in Jesus' parables. Harvests are important in an agrarian culture. The 3 major Jewish feasts took place at harvest times: Passover at the barley harvest, Pentecost at the wheat harvest and the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles at the fruit harvest. The harvest was the time when you found out how the seeds you planted did. It was when you found out if you were going to survive or starve. So, as the 3 feasts showed, it was hoped it would be a time of joy and celebration. They prayed for God's blessing, as it says in Psalm 144:13, "May our barns be filled with produce of every kind."

The harvest is used metaphorically in the Bible as the time when a person reaps what he sowed. It is used of the end times when God gathers what is his and the angels separate the good from the bad. We might find the image ominous but the emphasis is usually on gathering together the good. Nor is it confined to the end times. When Jesus saw people flocking to him he asked the disciples to pray that God sends more workers for the harvest. He was talking of people as the fruit, the result of the seeds of the Gospel that he was scattering throughout the land. He saw it was already beginning to bear fruit.

But the focus here is not on what is being harvested but how God treats those who serve him. And he treats us all equally, the last as well as the first. And that's something to remember. In many churches, the people who have been around longer sometimes think they are special. They understand the way things work. They have invested a lot in the parish. And sometimes newcomers feel unwelcome. Their contributions may not be appreciated or even wanted. They hear over and over what have been called the Last 7 Words of the Church: "But that's not how we do it." Maybe one of the reasons that new churches grow is that you don't have that. There are no keepers of the history, as Tom Ehrich puts it. Everybody starts at about the same time and has input and an opportunity to shape things. The church's mission, not any parishioner's position, is what drives things.

The church is aging, everywhere. Younger generations are largely unchurched. Polls show they are hungry for God, but not for the church as it exists and functions today. They are not into Sunday mornings or the old hymns or the old arguments. Since they don't want to conform to the church as it has been organized by those who've been working here a long time, a lot of them don't feel that the Body of Christ wants them. Yet the world, roiling with inequalities in income, in healthcare, in the way we treat people who are different, is ripe for the good news that God loves everyone the same. And we need more people to spread the word. We don't have the luxury of saying, "Our way or the highway!"

Nor do we have the luxury of waiting for folks to walk through our doors when the people we need are out there, in the marketplace. Jesus' ministry was a mobile one. He went looking for disciples where they lived and worked and suffered: along the seaside, in towns, at synagogues, on hillsides, on the side of roads, at dinner parties and up in trees. The disciples went throughout the known world. They met people on riverbanks, and in houses, and in jails, and in streets, in palaces and on ships. Not one of them ever saw the inside of a church building. Now we sit in places like this, waiting for people to come to us. And while some do, I'm afraid the time for that to be the main way we attract people and minister to people has passed.

So your assignment this week--and I'm not kidding--is to brainstorm, do Google searches, ask friends or even strangers what we can do to get out there and show people what God is like. That's basically what Jesus did. The Jews thought God was all about a million rules and Jesus says, no, just the important ones: loving God and loving each other. Everything else was just a specific expression or application of that love. And you never let following the other rules get in the way of healing someone or filling their basic needs or inviting them into the people of God. How can we do that? How can we show what God is really like? I don't care if your answer sounds silly or weird or impossible. Drop it in the box by the church door next week. Or email me. Or post it on our Facebook page. Or leave a comment on my blog. I will read every one. We will consider them. And we will see how we can put at least some of them into practice. Because God knows the harvest is ripe. And God knows we need the people. And God knows the people need to know that, even if nobody else wants them, he does.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 and Beyond

Few of us had only one reaction to the news of September 11, 2001. When I heard the report of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center that morning, I was shocked and saddened. I thought, as many did, that it was a freak accident. I also said a prayer for the pilot and passengers under the impression that it was a small plane and went back to my work in the church office. But when NPR broke into their rebroadcast of the first two-hours of Morning Edition with the news that another large passenger plane hit the second of the Twin Towers, I knew this was not an accident but an attack of some sort. I listened in fascinated horror as they reported the collapse of first one and then the other tower. I didn't see any footage till I got to the radio station where I worked, to find, ironically, everyone was glued to the TV coverage. By that time there was news of a third plane hitting the Pentagon and a fourth that mysteriously crashed in a rural area of Pennsylvania. Now a new emotion arose: fear for a high school friend who worked in Manhattan. I had no idea where in the city she worked but calls and emails went unanswered for a day. A coworker later found out that a former colleague, an ex-cop, was a flight attendant on one of the flights. She experienced grief along with the family and friends of the 2977 casualties, not including the 19 hijackers. When it was reported that the attacks were probably the work of Al-Qaeda, a terrorist network responsible for bombing the USS Cole, many Americans were inflamed with anger, so much so that Osama Bin Laden didn't admit responsibility until 2004.

Positive emotions were also evoked by the attacks on 9/11. There was a new sense of unity with other Americans, despite political differences. There was gratitude for first responders, like firemen, EMTs and police officers, 411 of whom died that day rescuing victims. There was altruism as many other police and rescue workers all over the country took leaves of absence to recover bodies at the crash sites. Blood donations for the 6000 wounded surged nationwide. There was an increase in patriotism as seen in the number of people who enlisted in the armed forces to fight the War on Terror. Sadly a few Americans attacked other Americans whom they mistook to be Arabs.

The predominant emotions in the US as we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack in our history are sorrow, fear and anger. These are emotions that are addressed extensively in our faith. Let us look at each in turn and see what help we can find.

Loss and sorrow are experienced eventually by all human beings. Abraham grieved the loss of Sarah, Jacob mourned Joseph, David experienced great sorrow during the fatal illness of his first child with Bathsheba, and Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Accompanying the death of a loved one is the death of the dreams one has with and for that person. Sometimes it is the pang of the loss of those future plans that lingers the longest. In one sense death is the fairest experience there is. Everyone without exception undergoes death. It is the timing and circumstances of some deaths that seem unfair. In my experience as a nurse, most elderly people face death well. And their friends and families accept the death of an older loved one because they have lived a good and long life. It is when an younger person dies, especially abruptly or violently, that death seems most cruel. It is estimated that 3000 children lost a parent in the events of 9/11. Is there any comfort for those who mourn?

If death is final, then no. If all that made up the person is irretrievably lost, then there is no real comfort to be had. But in Isaiah and in Revelation we are told that one day God will wipe every tear from our eyes. The image is comforting. It recalls something a mother would do to a sobbing child. And yet, if you ever have wiped away a child's tears, you will find that they continue to cry if what was lost or broken is not restored. They continue to grieve if all is not made right. The only way God can wipe away our tears with any finality is if he can restore what was taken or broken. And he will. Every Sunday we declare that we believe in the resurrection of the dead. That is not a metaphor. God will restore us, body and soul. More than that, we will be better than ever. As physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne puts it, God will save our software--who we are--and upload it to new hardware.

That means death, while a very real separation from those we love, need not be a final separation. It means any harm done to us or our loved ones need not be permanent. This does not mean we should not mourn those who die but as Paul says, we do not mourn as those without hope. Because we are not confined to looking back at our life with those we love but we can look forward to a new life together as well. Where there is a future, there is hope.

But what about fear? We all remember how vulnerable we felt in this country after 9/11. If people on planes bound for San Francisco and Los Angeles, and people at work seventy or more stories above the ground were capable of being killed by terrorists, who was safe? The tourist economy of Florida suffered because people were afraid to fly and afraid to gather in public places. Ironically, so many people avoided flying that deaths on the nation's highways spiked by more than 1500. Airport security today emphasizes how much we still fear that others might take over or destroy the planes we fly.

The opposite of fear is faith in God. If we trust in his loving promise of eternal life, then we have nothing to fear in this life. If death is not final, if life everlasting is our destiny, then nothing in this life can be more than a temporary obstacle. Even pain, however intense, is but a passing sensation and disease a short-lived condition compared with eternity. Trusting in God, we can endure whatever this life throws at us. Which means we need not live a life dictated by fear but one empowered by faith in a loving, just and powerful God.

And so we come to anger. The attacks on September 11 were not heralded by a declaration of war. Unlike Pearl Harbor, we weren't even sure who our enemy was at first. The lack of warning and largely civilian death toll stoked the rage of many. It was exacerbated by the fact that the terrorists turned out to be Muslim Arabs. It set off retaliatory hate crimes that included the burning of a Hindu temple and the murder of a Sikh, neither having anything to do with Islam. And I'm afraid today's remembrances, while comforting many, will stir the embers of anger for some.

Rage is like a fire. Letting it simply burn itself out is rarely an option. It will go on as long as there is fuel. And if we are really angry, we will continue to find fuel for it. Unlike fire, though, we can decide to stop raging. It is not easy. Partly because it involves forgiveness.

Everyone wants to be forgiven. No one really wants to forgive. Yet forgiveness is central to Christianity. We seek God's forgiveness. And we are commanded to forgive others. In fact the two are linked in one of the best known prayers in the world. In the Lord's Prayer we ask God to forgive us our sins in the same way we forgive those who sin against us. And once again, in today's gospel, Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus is saying that we can't have one without the other. If we don't forgive, we won't be forgiven. This principle applies to everyone.

But wait a minute! Are we to forgive cold-blooded murderers when they don't even ask for or recognize their need to be forgiven? Yes. Jesus did it, even as his cold-blooded murderers were in the process of executing him. Of course, you may say, he could because he was God. And he knew he would rise again. Well, the people who died on 9/11 were all God's creations, made in his image, and so precious to him that he thought they were worth dying for. And he will raise them up as well. What we said about tears is true about anger: restoration is sufficient reason to stop. God is the God of healing and resurrection. We can forgive because in the end our enemies can't really destroy us or anyone permanently. Their greater offense is against God and it lies in their desire to destroy his creatures. But God can undo any damage. Except the damage we do to our relationship with him by refusing to be reconciled not only to him but to all those he made. We cannot live with him if we cannot live with his forgiveness. As John made clear in his first letter, we cannot claim to love God and hate others, for God is love. God can love and forgive those killed his Son, as well as Peter who lied to save his skin while Jesus was being railroaded, the rest of the 11 disciples who ran away, Paul who was complicit in the stoning of Stephen and who captured and sent many Christians to their deaths, not to mention Moses who stealthfully killed an Egyptian and David who cleverly got Bathsheba's husband killed. And speaking of Pearl Harbor, Captain Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the Japanese air group that started the bombing and gave the command "Tora! Tora! Tora!," learned of God's love and forgiveness after the war. He spoke at my church when I was a teen, having become a Christian missionary.

If God can forgive them, we can too. We must because salvation is not just being changed legally from guilty to acquitted. It's being changed from a selfish person to a Christ-like one. It's being changed from a person who is constitutionally unable to live in harmony with God to one who is. Forgiveness is not natural to us in our fallen state. That's why it's hard. But doing what is hard is necessary if we are to become what God intends us to be. It's like after major surgery, when just getting up out of bed and walking and doing all the normal activities of daily living are hard. But not to do them is to choose to become an invalid. The physical and occupational therapists can't do much with a person who will not undergo the pain and effort of rehab. Don't bend your new knee and it will lock up and your total knee replacement will be useless. Don't put weight on your new hip and you will be as wheelchair-bound as if you'd never had it replaced. Don't eat right or change your lifestyle and your new heart will get as clogged as the old one. And salvation is all about getting a new heart and a new spirit, of God replacing our stony hearts with tender hearts, as Ezekiel tells us. We must change and that means we must become people who can forgive, and I mean forgive real, crucifying wrongs. To do less is to be less, less than we can be, less than we should be, less than God wants us to be.

The terrorists did not do this because they were happy people. They felt that they were wronged, that they had suffered humiliation and oppression and loss. But they did not for a minute consider forgiveness. They wanted to lash out, to strike back, to get revenge for the perceived wrongs of the West. If we mirror them, we are no better than them. We have seen the cost of continuing the cycle of violence. The War of Terror has cost us the lives of nearly 6000 American soldiers, and injured 42,000 more. More than a million people of other lands, both military and civilian, have been killed. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not going to end anytime soon. And the death of Bin Laden will not bring anyone's loved one back to life. Only Christ's will.

September 11, 2001 stirred up a lot of emotions. Not all are healthy. As Christians we must not prolong our sorrow lest it become bitterness. We must not let fear dominate us. We must get rid of all that fuels rage. Let us remember that ultimately nobody can take anything from us that is entrusted to God. He is the God of resurrection and transformation. In his hands, sorrow becomes joy, fear becomes faith, rage becomes forgiveness and death becomes new life. We will see this completed on the last day. But the process begins now. With us, the Body of Christ.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Mad Men

There wasn't a lot of entertainment for a boy in Depression era Tennessee. So my dad and his family would go to revivals. Choirs would sing. The preacher would stalk the stage like a tiger, his voice dropping to a growl and rising to a roar. And members of the audience would shout "Amen," bewail their sins, shiver, shake, cry, and maybe swoon in the Spirit and fall to the ground. As night fell the people would go to their cars, parked around the revival tent, and turn on the headlights for illumination. There wasn't a better show around. Of course, if the revivalist painted a scary enough picture of the wrath of God, it wasn't funny anymore. One night the preacher described a train going to hell. You didn't know which stop was the last one before the end of the line, the heart of Hades itself. The tension got to be too much. My dad went forward to be saved before that train took him straight to Grand Central Satan.

Two groups of people are the earliest adopters of any new communication technology: preachers and pornographers. Oral Roberts was one of the first revivalists to use television. It wasn't long before Billy Graham and an army of evangelists followed his lead. Today there are several cable networks run by ministries. The entertainment and production values are better than in the days of tent revivals and the message is more varied than just a call to convert. The preacher might speak on depression, or personal finance, or parenting. Or it may concern hot button issues like the end times, or abortion or gay marriage. When it gets to one of those, the preacher may feel free to roar like the tent revivalist, denouncing sins and calling for sinners to repent.

"How come TV preachers seem mad and church preachers are not?" asks our sermon suggestion slip. Of course, not all TV preachers come across as mad, if by that the writer means merely angry. Some are rather scholarly. The ex-stripper who can be seen in the wee hours of the morning on one of the local stations covers blackboards with very close exegesis of the original Greek of the New Testament. Robert Schuller and Joel Olsteen go out of their way to present a positive message every week. But many preachers on TV do seem to be exercised about some sinful aspect of modern life every time you tune in. Why is that?

If asked, these preachers would probably put themselves in the proud tradition of the Biblical prophets who critiqued their society for its spiritual deficiencies. And that includes John the Baptist and Jesus. What got them both killed was their lack of deference to the powers that be. John pointed out the faux pas of Herod Antipas and his adulterous and incestuous marriage. Jesus let the Pharisees and Sadducees know in no uncertain terms that they were dead wrong on certain essentials in obeying God. The church needs to keep its prophetic stance and not just rubberstamp what state and society find acceptable. That voice was sorely missed when, say, the Nazis came to power in Germany. Those brave Christians who did point out the contradiction between Aryan ideology and the Gospel, like Dietrich Bonhoffer, were thrown into the camps along with the Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, gays, Jehovah's Witnesses and other undesirables. Separation of church and state in this country was championed by Christians not so much to keep churches from influencing government as to the government from compromising the independence of churches or their message.

When looked at this way, the freedom of TV preachers to tell it like it is can be seen as admirable. We need people who point out when society's values are seriously awry and when the rich and powerful are too cozy with the government. Sadly, we seldom see that. The vast majority of TV preachers come from the same wing of the church and are so focused on sexual sins and a limited number of political issues that they neglect the other things the Biblical prophets are known for preaching against: social injustice and spiritual hypocrisy. Over and over again, the prophets pointed out that God judges society by how it treated its poor, women without husbands and children without fathers and immigrants living in the country. They lambasted corrupt judges and officials who cut deals with the rich while letting the poor get cheated. And they connected this with a lazy, self-satisfied lip service to God, high on ritual observance and low on soul-searching and concern for the suffering. I'm afraid that for all the sound and fury drummed up by TV evangelists they still fall short of the standards set by the real prophets of God.

That said, many of these ministries do run charities for the poor, often in very poor countries. And now that Congress is talking about deep cuts in the federal budget, many prominent clergy, including the National Association of Evangelicals, are urging them not to cut programs that help the poor. Younger Evangelicals are open to the whole range of Biblical concerns.

There is another reason why TV preachers get mad about things. Unfortunately, it has to do with fundraising. Jerry Falwell was always sounding alarms about hidden spiritual and moral dangers in modern culture. It was his contention that the purple Teletubby was a stealth icon of the gay rights movement. Opinion columnist Cal Thomas used to work for Falwell's Moral Majority. Thomas wondered why the organization always emphasized threats and stoked people's fears rather than focus on the positive things the group did. He was told that when they appealed to people's fears they got bigger donations. Politicians know that fear is a big motivator, literally bypassing the reasoning center of the brain. And since TV ministries are expensive and must buy their time from the stations on which they appear, it must be tempting to emphasize things that get people frightened and fired up and willing to send in lots of money.

There is a final reason why a TV preacher can afford to be angry most of the time. Even if a TV evangelist has a church, it will be enormous enough that his duties are hardly pastoral. He can preach harshly against many of the features of modern life without it being taken personally by his multitude of followers. A preacher with a family-sized or pastoral-sized church will know the people in his parish and what's going on in their lives. To him these problems are not abstract. Neither are they simple, nor can they be dealt with as if the issues involved were as stark as black and white. Unlike the highly charismatic TV preacher and his almost cult leader-like status, the average pastor isn't on a high enough pedestal that he can afford to look down on his flock and their problems. He will be able to be more understanding and more compassionate towards a person caught in a tough situation than someone addressing a congregation of thousands and a television audience of millions.

We see an example of this in the life of Christ. Jesus was hardly soft on the topic of adultery, yet when some Pharisees brought him a woman caught in the act of adultery (but not, for some reason, the man involved) he was not for stoning her to death as prescribed by the law. He opted for forgiveness and giving her the chance to change her life. He even faced down an angry mob and reminded them that none of them were sinless and therefore they were unfit to condemn and execute the woman. When the crowd melted away, Jesus told the woman to go and sin no more. Jesus did not let his moral stance blind him to the pastoral needs of the woman before him. Getting her out of her bad situation was more important than preaching to her.

It's easy to condemn anyone you don't know. It's easy to scapegoat whole classes of people you rarely, if ever, encounter. It's easy to ascribe immoral motives to them or to say they are lazy or stupid. So we hear people's beliefs that all illegal immigrants are here to go on welfare (which doesn't explain why so many are willing to work so hard and risk death in the desert just to get here), or that those who are unemployed are lazy (as opposed to having a hellish time getting a job at a time when companies are still laying lots of people off), or that that people who take drugs continue to do voluntarily (which contradicts brain science showing that real addicts do not enjoy drugs but have a fiendishly hard time getting off them because their body punishes them for trying to quit). But then it happens to a friend or someone in your family and you realize that the problem is not that simple. Maybe that person made one bad decision and now they may have to pay for it for the rest of their life. Maybe it happened to them entirely without their knowledge or consent. And you realize the truth behind that saying of Plato: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

Generals are sometimes so removed from the reality of the guys on the front lines that they can forget that. A superstar TV evangelist might as well. Or maybe he doesn't want to be considered soft on sin. Successful respectable preachers forget that Jesus was hardest on the respectable sins, like arrogance, and those who didn't see the need to repent, which included most of the religious leaders of his day. While he didn't condone the less respectable sins, he did find that those who practiced them, who were ostracized and living on the margins of society, were more willing to repent and seek to change their lives.

Not all TV preachers are hypocrites or angry. You just don't hear of that kind as much. The newsworthy ones tend to be the outliers, the ones who say and do the most outrageous things. And sadly, a lot of people think we non-televised pastors are like them. A lot of them think we make tons of money, apparently not knowing that the vast majority of churches in this country have 100 members or less. They think we bully our flocks and preach hate and that church members believe our every word and follow our teachings blindly. That's like thinking every person in New Jersey or every housewife in Atlanta or every trailer park inhabitant is exactly the same as those you see in realty shows on TV. It's like thinking every member of the Republican or Democratic party is like the ones who get the most time on the news. It's like thinking every Muslim is a suicide bomber.

I watch a lot of TV but I know that it's not reality. It's not where I get my information about God nor where I experience God's grace. I get that here, among real people, who are following Jesus. I know that for some people, shut-ins and the like, TV might seem like the best option. But even at the nursing home they have clergy and volunteers who come and offer worship and Bible studies. Just like it's easy for TV preachers to see sins and sinners abstractly, it is easy to see the Body of Christ abstractly if your fellow worshippers are televised. The true test of loving one's neighbor is not if you can love a theoretical one, but the one you actually have, the person you actually encounter in your life, the one with the bad combover, or the obnoxious opinions, or the big gut, or the poor social skills. He or she doesn't look or act like anyone on TV. But then God didn't become one of us theoretically but in reality. And as we've seen, even Jesus got exasperated with people occasionally. Which must have made it harder for him to go to the cross and undergo real suffering for people who could be worse than ungrateful and unbelieving. That he did so is a testament to his love.

We will probably not have to die for others. But as Christians we do have to serve Christ self-sacrificially and do it in the real world. May God give us the courage to speak the truth prophetically, but to speak it in love, to people who are fighting a hard battle. If we do it right, they will realize that we are not condemning them or fighting them but helping them to live, to survive, to triumph eventually in this world, the real world, where things are messy and where they may have to forfeit a battle or 2, especially against our creator, to win what is priceless: peace with God and humanity, through him who is both.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Redefining God

There's a troubling trend that's been spotted by researchers of religion in America. It's not just that less people are religious; it's who those people are. The biggest drop in belief and observance is among whites without college degrees and even more so among those who never graduated from high school. And yet the number of people who say they believe in God has not dropped by the same amount. What has happened is that less people are subscribing to established religions. And I can't help but think that at least part of the problem is that they have rejected what the established religions have come to represent. In the last 40 years, conservative Christians have allied themselves with conservative politics and with certain positions on contemporary issues. They have become so closely identified that to reject the politics and positions seems to necessitate in some minds rejecting Christianity, even though the connection between them is not essential. (The same is true of the Christian Left but it doesn't make the press like it does for the Right.)

The impulse to add something else to the essentials of the faith, or subtract something unpopular, is an old one, going all the way back to the beginning of Christianity. In Matthew 16, Jesus asks the disciples who do others think he is. They offer a wide variety of answers. Then Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. Peter says Jesus is the Messiah or in Greek, Christ, the Son of God. Jesus congratulates him on getting it right. So then Jesus begins to teach them that the Messiah is going to be rejected by the Jewish authorities and killed. Peter promptly corrects Jesus on this matter. And Jesus rebukes him robustly.

The reason for Jesus' reaction is that Peter is presuming to define what kind of Messiah Jesus can be. The popular conception at the time was that of a holy warrior king, who would defeat Israel's political oppressors, the Romans, and set up an earthly kingdom of God. There was no separation of religion and state, nor, for the most part, of religion and race. So the notion that a religion could exist apart from the political power structure, or that the kingdom the Messiah would set up would include non-Jews were not considered serious ideas by most people. Jesus' assertion that as Christ he would be rejected by Jewish leaders and then killed had no place in the popular paradigm. Peter couldn't believe that Jesus had gotten it so wrong. What good was a dead Messiah?

Jesus does say that the Christ will rise again but again the popular idea was that all the dead will rise on the last day. The concept of anyone having their own separate resurrection was as unheard of as a dead Messiah.

Right after Jesus is declared Messiah, he tells the disciples not to let anyone else know. Why? Since Jesus has a very different concept of Messiahship, he wants the general populace to arrive at the same conclusion as his disciples without having to wrestle with the popular picture of the Christ. And based on Peter's reaction, Jesus is right.

Throughout the history of Christianity, the problem of redefining Jesus has remained. When it became the official faith of the Roman Empire, Jesus was reconceived as a holy warrior king. This version of Christ also made him acceptable to the militaristic Germanic tribes that dismantled the Empire in the West. The most common portrayal of him in this period is not Christ crucified but as Christ in majesty, ruler of all.

You can argue that this is just a matter of what part of Christology you emphasize. Christ is the second member of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God, the one through whom everything was created and to whom every knee will bend. To depict him as ruler of the universe is not heresy. But the de-emphasis of his suffering leads to an unbalanced perspective on Jesus and God.

In the context of our Gospel, it is jumping the gun. The Twelve cannot imagine how but the Kingdom of God cannot come about without the suffering and death of the Messiah. All earthly kingdoms come about through the sin of violence on the part of their leaders. A kingdom so founded always falls the same way. The Kingdom of God will not be founded on the infliction of violence on its future subjects but on the absorption of violence by its future sovereign. It is not built on retribution but on reconciliation. It is not about strict justice but boundless grace.

You can't get to the Kingdom except through the cross. It is a little more understandable for the disciples to be confused because what Jesus was going to do was unprecedented. But, 2000 years later, what is our excuse? Why do we overemphasize certain aspects of the faith and diminish others? Why do we confuse what is merely cultural or traditional with what is essential? Worst of all, why do we add things contrary to the gospel and insist they aren't?

Let's take these questions separately. Why do we overemphasize some aspects of Christianity and downplay others? In my historical example, it was a matter of one aspect of Christian theology (Christ as triumphant ruler) that appealed to a culture adopting the faith. In the same way, we see churches that emphasize Jesus as divine and others Jesus as human. Some focus on teachings of Jesus and others on the teachings of Paul. And we each have parts of the Bible's ethics that appeal to us and others we wish weren't there. Some people are all for the social justice emphasis in the Bible but wish less was said about, say, sexual ethics. Others like the emphasis on personal ethics and spirituality but are less enthusiastic about, say, what it says about our duty to immigrants or those in prison. Most of us like the idea that God forgives us and not so much the that the Lord's Prayer links it to our forgiving others. Some don't like forgiveness at all but prefer the judgment of sinners. Some would like to divorce forgiveness from repentance and changing one's life. But without all of these aspects, the resulting theology and ethics are lopsided. You need a balance to address all issues adequately.

Why do we sometimes confuse cultural or traditional issues with what is essential to the faith? Sometimes things have gone together so long, people don't realize that they are not equally part of the faith. We see this in Islam where certain cultural features like women wearing heavy veils or not being allowed to drive are elevated to the level of badges of the faith though they are not found in the Qur'an. We see it in Christianity in issues like the prohibition on abortion, which goes all the way back to the early church fathers but is not in the Bible. Or the leadership of women in the church, which existed for the first four-hundred or so years of the church, though the evidence in the New Testament is mixed. Both sides can cite Paul. Should women keep silent in church, as he writes in 1 Corinthians 14, or can they pray and prophesy in church so long as their head is covered, as he writes in 1 Corinthians 11? Perhaps that first prohibition isn't as total as some think. And what about his statement in Galatians 3:28 that there are no such distinctions in Christ? In view of the conflicting evidence, it seems arbitrary to make the denial of women's ordination a key point of the faith. In general it's the length of practice and the familiarity of one school of interpretation that makes people confuse what is with what must be.

Long time association and the dominance of one interpretation explains the persistence, if not the origin, of teachings in Christian tradition that contradict the spirit and even the letter of Scripture. One does wonder, though, how so-called Christians ever justified anti-Semitism. In the last 2 weeks we've read what Paul said on the matter of his fellow Jews not accepting the gospel. He saw it as an opportunity for the Gentiles who were joining the church in increasing numbers. Nevertheless God had made a covenant with the Jews and Paul foresaw their salvation. Paul saw them as no worse off than anyone else. All of us need God's grace.

Anti-Semitism first arose 150 years before the birth of Christ. Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who ruled over Syria and Palestine, tried to Hellenize the Jews. Their Sabbath seemed like an excuse for laziness and their dietary laws were seen as superstition. In his effort to suppress Judaism, Antiochus sacrificed a pig on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem and sprinkled the blood on the scrolls of the Torah, igniting the Maccabbean revolt. The Romans, in turn, never understood monotheism because it excluded worship of the divine emperor. Pilate's first act as governor was to bring the Roman insignia, seen by the Jews as idolatrous, into the Temple. That set the tone for his relationship with the people he was supposed to govern.

Oddly enough, the anti-Semitism of a heretic was the impetus for the church establishing a canon of the New Testament. In the second century, a bishop named Marcion rejected the Old Testament and the creator God and declared that Christ revealed a new God of love. He created a New Testament that consisted of the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul's epistles, with all references to Judaism edited out. In reaction to this, the church began to discuss and hash out what books really belonged in the New Testament and fully embraced the Old Testament.

Anti-Semitism seems to have really come into Christianity when it was made the official faith of the Empire. Again the real reason seems to be an effort to strengthen the empire through a faith shared by all citizens. And any negative view of Judaism that could be found in the Bible was magnified and used as justification. Scriptures that went against this were not edited out but ignored or explained away. Anti-Semitism still exists in parts of the church. Not that many years ago, I remarked that Jesus was a Jew and a supposed Christian replied, "You don't really believe that, do you?"

So we can see why Jesus responded as he did when Peter told him he got his idea of the Messiah's mission wrong. But why did Jesus call him Satan? The word literally means "adversary." Peter, whose declaration of faith was the rock on which Jesus would build the church, had almost immediately becoming a stumbling block to that enterprise. Jesus had to let him and the Twelve know that this was not a mistake. His death and resurrection were essential parts of founding the Kingdom. If they didn't get that, they'd never understand the real meaning of Messiah. They'd never understand the depths of God's love and forgiveness and grace. They needed to spread this radical good news, not oppose it.

And Jesus did not tell Peter to "be gone" as he did Satan during his temptation in the wilderness. He told him to "get behind me." Peter's place was following his Lord, not getting in the way, telling him how he should go about redeeming the world.

We do the same thing as Peter, or as Moses does with the God he encounters in the burning bush. Moses tries to beg off confronting Pharaoh and leading the Israelites to freedom. We always try to correct God. We subtract from or add to his agenda. We try to define him as we'd like him to be, rather than let God be God.

In the Middle East, names are powerful. To possess the name of a deity or spirit was to be able to invoke it to do one's will. But when Moses asks God's name, he is given an odd form of the verb "to be." It can be translated "I am what I am," or "I am who I am," or "I will be who I will be." God defines who he is, not us. His agenda is not ours. He knows what we don't and sees what we cannot. He moves as the wind, invisible and powerful and is to be treated with a healthy respect. But he has shown himself to be a God who loves us, enough to become one of us, to live as one of us, to die on the cross, and to rise again, a promise of our fate if we pick up our crosses and follow him. And his promise at the end of the great commission recalls the final and my favorite translation of the divine name: "I will be there." Wherever we go, whatever befalls us, we know that God will be there and, more than that, he will be there for us. Because that is who he is.