Sunday, January 29, 2012

Our Weaker Brother's Keeper

The Scripture referred to is 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

You can tell if the computer program you have to use on the job was done by people who have worked at your profession and understand it or if it was done by computer nerds who were merely told what the program was supposed to do and let go about it anyway they chose. For instance, it might allow you to make errors that someone in your profession would have safeguarded against. Or an important or routine task might have to be accomplished in the most roundabout, if not actually perverse way possible. In radio, I worked with programs designed by folks who were clueless as to how radio stations work as well as programs designed by people who must have been DJs at some point in their lives. And in nursing…apparently, not a lot of nurses go into programming careers. At one nursing home they had a computer program that we had to create work-arounds for in order to do our jobs. For instance, it was set up for 8 hour shifts but we, like most nurses today, were working 12 hour shifts. So the nurse doing my orientation clued me in on how to avoid a major flaw in the program. I was working 7 pm to 7 am. But the computer had one shift ending at midnight. So even though I was working overnight, there were some tasks that had to be completed by midnight or the computer would irrevocably record them as not done and prevent you from charting that they were. So I was told, if I was still passing meds at 11:30 pm (which I would be, since I had more than 2 dozen patients and would be administering hundreds of pills, shots, creams, crushed meds, liquid meds, meds put in applesauce and spoonfed to people with swallowing problems and meds poured down feeding tubes) I must stop, click over to the list of treatments (dressing changes, etc), jot them down and then check them off as if they were done before midnight. The computer could not understand that these things didn't turn into pumpkins at the stroke of 12 and that it little mattered if I did them in the half hour before or after the witching hour. So Day One on the job I was being taught to game the system, not to avoid work but to make sure that neither I nor the nursing home would be penalized for not doing things that were in fact done. The only way to do it was to lie to the computer.

Computers can be forgiven for being rigid; not so much the humans who program them. One time when working for a different healthcare company, I was training a new office manager on how to enter hours a nurse worked and the computer would not allow us to do it the way the time sheet told us to. Frustrated I called Payroll and asked them what we were doing wrong. It turned out that we were entering the right code and we should be entering the wrong one. I kid you not. Either someone changed their mind at some point and swapped the meaning of the 2 codes, or, more likely, the person who made the time sheet template flipped the two. Either way, someone in I.T. should have changed it or sent a memo to tell us that the codes now meant the opposite of what the timesheet said. And what was really infuriating was that the person in Payroll telling me this was irritated with me, as if it should have obvious to anyone with half a brain that the stated definitions of the codes were completely wrong!

Computers are better today than they were 30 years ago when the hospital where I worked had just installed computers with a black background on the screen, green letters and a light pen to order a limited number of tests and supplies. Now if I misspell a simple word like "misspell" (I used one "s" instead of 2 when typing this) my word-processing program automatically corrects it. Browsers are so intuitive that I find it easier to locate a Bible verse by typing it into my browser in whatever form I remember it and let the search engine find it in whatever version my attempt to quote it is closest to. The Bible programs I have installed on my computer are several years old and require me to get the quotation right, word for word. But these days I rarely have to trick my computer into doing things the way I want it to.

I don't subscribe to the idea that rules were meant to be broken. There are reasons for rules. But they seldom take into account every situation that one will encounter and sometimes they need to be adapted. The religious authorities of Jesus' day understood that. The scribes and Pharisees tried to make every one of the 613 laws in the Torah relevant to everyday life and all the circumstances one might encounter when observing them. So some of the stricter laws had work-arounds. Avoiding work on the Sabbath could be a problem. Walking is work, right? So must you simply stay in bed all Sabbath? Of course not. Rabbis came to an agreement of how many steps you could take on the Sabbath, which should be enough to get to your synagogue and back. And steps taken within your home didn't count.

Ah, but what counted as a home, asked one rabbi. Could a tent do or a lean-to? Anything that can be enclosed by a string was the eventual answer they arrived at. I remember reading that after Hurricane Andrew hit an enclave of Orthodox Jews in Miami, one of their top priorities was to get the poles put up at the boundaries of their neighborhood. You see, they had to put up the string that encircled their whole neighborhood or on the Sabbath every time they walked out of their houses, they would have to count their steps and be constrained by the number the rabbis had arrived at centuries ago.

It may sound silly but the rabbis did recognize that some things were more important than these rules. You can violate almost every ritual law, except idolatry or denying God, to save a life. During the Holocaust, a lot of Jews owed their lives to Gentiles whose consciences were stronger than the urge to go along with society. Many of these people were Christians and they risked their lives breaking Nazi laws to hide and save their Jewish neighbors. The entire religious community of Assisi hid Jews in their cloistered monasteries and nunneries. Obviously, under those circumstances, it wasn't always possible to get kosher food. That's OK. If the kosher laws are standing between life and starvation, Jews are permitted to eat what would otherwise be unclean animals. Likewise on the Sabbath if a person needs to get to the hospital or if people have to work to free someone who fell down a well or who was trapped under rubble, that's OK. Only a fool lets rules take precedence over saving a life.

When Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, some Pharisees were outraged because they saw what he did as work. He saw it as the equivalent of saving someone who had fallen down a well or was trapped. I think most modern rabbis would agree. In fact, whenever Jesus appeared to break or change one of these rules, it was to make it less arbitrary and more reflective of moral issues. If the strictness of the law was cruel, as in stoning a woman caught in adultery (but suspiciously, not the man with which she had to be witnessed committing it) he made the rule more merciful. If the law had become so lax it was harming people, such as the laws that allowed a man to divorce his wife if she had burnt his toast or if he found someone prettier, Jesus made it stricter. Rules often take on lives of their own and people forget their original purpose. What Jesus said about the Sabbath could very well apply to most of these laws. They were made for humanity, not vice versa. They were made by God to help and heal us. If they are used to harm people, then they are being abused.

This brings us to the situation Paul encountered in the churches he planted. In most cities in the Roman Empire, the meat markets were run by the local pagan temples. A sacrificial animal was offered to Zeus or whoever, bits of it would be burned before a pagan idol and the rest was sold to the public. This put new Christians in a bind. Was it permissible to eat meat that had first been offered to idols? Some Christians felt this was a betrayal of their allegiance to Christ and gave up meat. Other Christians reasoned that there were no other gods, therefore any ceremonies performed over the meat were meaningless and they had no trouble buying and eating it. Apparently these "enlightened" Christians were pretty arrogant about it. They were brushing aside the scruples of their weaker brothers and sisters in Christ and encouraging them to do things that were against their consciences. And they were getting so conflicted about the matter, that it was destroying their faith.

Now Paul's approach to the controversy is interesting. He agrees with the Christians who see no problem in eating the meat offered to idols. Having been a zealous Pharisee and then coming to Christ after Jesus appeared to him, he realized that salvation was a matter of grace, of God's unreserved, undeserved goodness towards us. We are not and cannot be saved by trying to obey all these rules, but by simply trusting in God's love as embodied in Jesus, who died to do what the law could not. So, as I said, Paul sees that the more knowledgeable Christians are right in not worrying about what pagans did with the meat. Most of his converts were Gentile, and as such did not have to become Jews before becoming Christians. They needn't get circumcised and they needn't observe the Jewish food laws. So you would think Paul would go after the overly scrupulous, almost superstitious Christians.

But no, Paul gives the more enlightened Christians something else to think about. In this case, it's not a matter of knowledge but of love. If someone you love freaks out over something you consider trivial, what do you do? You accommodate the person you love. Kids have lots of rituals. You must always read a certain bedtime story the same way. Crusts must be cut off bread. Different foods can't touch on the plate. Most parents make concessions to their kids in these matters, especially when they are small because it means a lot to them. Were they adults you might tell them to grow up. On the other hand, you'd be a fool to tell that to your girlfriend when she insists you hunt down and kill a spider, which is trying to escape and not bite you. On "Car Talk" Click and Clack, the Tap-it brothers, often deal with spouses who question the validity of some driving ritual their better half insists on. They often tell them whether they should break it to their mate that their little rule doesn't actually work.

You often do things you'd rather not for the comfort of someone you love. And that's what Paul is saying here. Notice that Paul calls the more scrupulous in this matter "weaker" not right. But precisely because the matter here is so important to these weaker believers, the stronger Christians should accommodate them. Love is the more important principle.

Now can you think of anything today more likely to get people's backs up than that? "You're right but you should accommodate those who are wrong but whose faith might shatter if you press them too hard to change." Modern society would laugh at such a rule, if it didn't incite them to flame anyone who said such a thing. "If you don't like it, lump it," they'd say. Because we value a person speaking his mind even if it offends others. Heck, we love Dr. House who insults everyone, friends and foes alike, because he's usually right. He doesn't care who's strong and who's weak. He doesn't care whose life he wrecks. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Of course, House would more likely run over an entire henhouse with a bulldozer. (He is of course a fantasy character. You would not want your doctor to behave like House, any more than you would want real-life cops to shoot people as Dirty Harry does, based on his personal conviction that they deserved it.)

So we have an increasingly rude and deliberately offensive culture, one in which people don't care if what they say or do has negative effects on anyone else. We have, like the smarter-than-average Christians in today's epistle, taken our liberty to mean that we can speak the truth without love and do what we feel is right, ignoring how it affects other Christians. We act like the world does, arrogantly doing things because we can, not asking if we should or not. We do not cut the weak any slack. They need to get with the program. We needn't consider their feelings or listen to their concerns. We're right. And it's knowing we're right that distinguishes us from everyone else--right?

Jesus said the world would know we are his disciples by our love for one another. And Paul says if you let your behavior in a controversial but non-essential issue destroys the faith of other Christians, you are sinning against Christ. Paul would appear to agree with the old saying that goes "In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things love." Imagine what the world would think if Christians said to one another, "I disagree with you on this important but non-essential issue but out of love, I won't let it come between us." Why, they might think we actually are trying to follow Jesus!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Big Changes

I refer to all of the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary in this sermon. They are Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; and Mark 1:14-20.

I woke up one morning about 4 weeks ago. As soon as I tried to swing my right leg out of bed, I was hit by a sudden sharp pain in my right thigh. I hobbled around most of the morning but as the day went on the pain receded. Until the next morning when the pain returned with a vengeance. By afternoon the pain was but a memory. The next day, when I again awoke in pain, this time simply from shifting my leg in bed, I thought, "I gotta get this checked out." I limped to the doctor's office in hopes of someone else canceling their appointment. It took a lot of pain to get me to make a change in my daily routine.

Pain is an effective motivator. You don't realize how important it is to feel pain until you've taken care of a patient who doesn't feel it. For a while I was taking care of a young man whose neck was snapped in a hockey game. He could move his arms but not his hands and he had no feeling in his lower body. That meant his butt didn't send his brain signals when he had been sitting in one position for too long, which in turn meant he didn't shift his position. So capillaries got squeezed off for too long, blood flow was shut down and tissue died. Besides daily care, I had to dress the pressure sores that formed on his bottom. He had an inflatable seat cushion on his chair but if he wasn't sitting just right, he could still end up with tissue necrosis. I bet he wished he could feel pain or at least discomfort to warn him that he needed to change his position and prevent damage and tissue death.

The theme that runs through our Scripture readings today is that of change. In 2 Kings 14 we are told that Jonah was a prophet at the time of King Jeroboam II of Israel. Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian empire, which would come to defeat Israel and take the cream of its society into exile. So the original audience of the Book of Jonah would have seen Nineveh as the wicked center of an evil empire. They'd understand why the prophet Jonah did not want to preach to its people. Jonah was afraid that they would listen and repent. And they did. They must have known that something was wrong in their society. They must have been uncomfortable enough to realize they must change. And then what Jonah really feared happened: seeing their repentance, God changed his mind about destroying Nineveh.

This bothers more folks than just Jonah. There are people who are uncomfortable with the idea that God ever changes his mind. They point out that it was the people of Nineveh who changed their attitude and actions. It was as if a boat being blown towards some rocks changed the orientation of its sails to take advantage of the direction of the wind and turn. The wind didn't change; the sails and the boat did.

But God is not an impersonal force. And there's a way in which he could both change his mind and yet not change his nature. One of my son's sugar gliders got wounded. They aren't sure whether she was wounded by one of her sisters or did it herself. The vet sewed up the wound but Ed bit through her stitches. So the vet restitched her, put a "cone on shame" on her neck and bound the front leg nearest the injury to her body to keep Ed from reopening her wound. Then an abscess formed. Ed had to go to the vet every other day for treatment. On one visit the vet noted that the bound limb had lost almost all its strength. He told my son and daughter-in-law that he might have to amputate the leg. They struggled with the decision and asked him to hold off. Eventually Ed was well enough that her stitches, cone and binding were removed. Ed got a lot of strength back in her front leg and the vet decided she could keep it. In response to his patient's changing condition, the vet changed his mind about his course of action. But he never changed his purpose: to save the creature's life. God is the same. He may change how he goes about carrying out his purpose but his purpose remains the same. He never stops working to save us.

Jesus' basic message is given in Mark: "The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." In other words, "Now is the best time to change your mind and your lifestyle. Now is the time to put your trust in the good news I'm about to deliver." We know from the reaction to John the Baptist that the people of Judea were in enough pain to see the necessity for change. Now John is in prison for telling King Herod he must change and stop sleeping with his brother's wife. Jesus takes up the call to repent, to change your thinking and life. And when he runs across some fishermen who used to follow John, he tells them to follow him. And they literally drop everything and do so.

N. T. Wright points out that not only were James and John following in their father's trade but that fishing was likely the family business for generations. So for them to just leave it all behind was astonishing. They must have felt that things were so bad that kind of radical change was warranted. And they must have felt that Jesus was the one who could fix things.

It took Paul more than a mere invitation to change the way he thought and lived. It took a dazzling vision of Jesus that knocked him to the ground. He lost his dignity and his sight for a while but he gained a whole new perspective on what was wrong with life and who could fix it. In our passage from 1 Corinthians 7, Paul echoes the choice that the original twelve disciples were confronted with. Time is short and if you want to follow Jesus, you are going to have to change your priorities towards the things in your life. Don't let anything hinder you from getting the message out. Eternal matters must take precedence over those of this passing world.

Skeptics point out that the world didn't end in the first century AD and Jesus didn't return during Paul's earthly lifetime. Why the rush? Because in a sense the world was ending--is ending for people all the time. When we die, it might as well be the end of the world for us. In Paul's and Jesus' day the average life expectancy was half of what it is today. If you had the secret to a new life, life eternal, and all around you people were living lives that were nasty, brutish and short, wouldn't you let them know? If you could help people who were slaves to self-destructive attitudes and actions find freedom from their sins, wouldn't you make that your number one priority?

In a recent study by the Barna Group, 46% of American churchgoers say that attending has made no difference in their lives. I have some ideas why that may be true. One is that more churches are focusing on entertaining worshipers, with music and spectacle and flashy preachers, making the folks in the pew just a passive audience. People like entertainment but it rarely changes their lives.

But the main reason why churches fail to change people is that they don't ask them to change. We have become so afraid scaring people off that we don't tell them to make radical changes. We tell them they don't have to; they are perfect just the way they are. We pare down the Bible to comforting and affirming passages only. We bless the status quo like the state churches of long ago, the same churches that are dying all over Europe. People don't need to go to church to be told what they can get at home from a popular culture that's devoted to boosting people's self-esteem. So they don't go.

Another reason people don't go is that they have an awful lot of stuff to distract them from any discomfort in their lives--movies, TV, video games, the internet, all manner of electronic toys. They keep us entertained and occupied and keep us from from noticing how dissatisfied we are. Who hasn't finally turned off their computer amazed at how much time they spent on it and how little they have to show for it?

Yet with all these amusements we are, as a society, suffering from stress. Continuous stress kills. But we are richer than our ancestors, and in the West vastly richer than most of the people in the world, who live on an average of $2 a day. If we have it so good, why are we so stressed out?

The pace of life is part of the reason. We work long and hard for our living. We don't get enough sleep and while we have days off, we don't observe the Sabbath--not as we should, as a day of holy rest.

Then there is the uncertainty of life. Many have discovered, as our psalm says, "though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it." Fortunes have evaporated. In 2008, there was a 27% decline in the number of millionaire households. For those of us who were never millionaires, the inflation adjusted median household income has declined by 7%. The Great Recession has wiped out all income gains made by the middle class in the last 15 years. So everyone has learned how ephemeral wealth is.

But stress was a problem for decades before the boom and bust. The source could be the the cognitive dissonance we feel caught between a culture that tells us we are OK and the deep knowledge that we really aren't. The world is not what it could be and neither are we. And it's not just that we haven't fulfilled our potential. We sabotage ourselves. We know what's right and we don't do it. We know what's wrong and we do it anyway. We need to change. Something deep within us needs to change. And we are powerless to do it ourselves. We need Jesus.

And we need to leave behind whatever it is that impedes us. If you were a recovering drug addict, you would have to leave behind the people and places that were part of that life, that would suck you back in. If you were recovering from a heart attack, you'd have to leave behind the potato chip aisle, the fries, the fat, and the sedentary life. If you are a recovering sinner, you have to leave behind the stuff that goes with all that and tempts you. Nobody wants to hear that…unless they have gotten to the point where it's so painful that the need to make a radical change is undeniable.

Jesus calls us to open ourselves to radical change. That makes us uncomfortable He calls us to put him first. That makes us uncomfortable. He calls us to disown ourselves, pick up our crosses and to follow him. That makes us really uncomfortable. We want a Jesus who lets us keep our lives just as they are but who enhances them, enriches them. To tweak something Dorothy L. Sayers wrote, we don't want the Lion of Judah but a comfortable pussycat of a Jesus, with his claws trimmed, who will curl up with us and make our world cozy.

But a tame Jesus, a Jesus who inspires not awe but an "awww!" is not what we need. Small wonder that people are leaving the churches. You can get that kind of no-cost, no-risk, feel-good inspiration by reading any one of the many self-esteem-boosting books out there or watching the specials they play during pledges on PBS. Heck, you can get it by renting a Disney film. You can worship Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Doctor Who or the Force, all safe alternatives to the definitely not-safe Jesus. You can be lulled into an uneasy passivity towards what's wrong or respond to Jesus' call to change and follow him. You can be a bearer of the good news, a fisher of people, a citizen and ambassador of the Kingdom of God.

Change is scary. And not all change is good, especially the changes that come when you do nothing. Do nothing and you get out of shape. Do nothing and your life stalls. Do nothing and things go from bad to worse. Make a change, the right kind of change, and a new life begins. Make the right kind of change and possibilities open up. Make the right kind of change and you can change your relationship with God. Make the right kind of change and you can be part of the bigger change that God is making, transforming the world into a new world, and transforming people into new people.

The changes Jesus is calling us to make aren't arbitrary; they are for our and the world's healing. They aren't about taking up arms against evil people; they're about opening our arms to evil people, inviting them to change just as we are in the process of doing. The satirical comic strip Pogo famously mangled Commodore Perry's "We have met the enemy and he is ours" into "We have met the enemy and he is us." We are our own worst enemy. That's part of the reason that Jesus commands us to love our enemy. Another is to remember that we, like they, were God's enemies who through his love became his friends. Now we are to go and do likewise. It's a big change from what we'd normally do. But such change is all part of God's big plan.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Whose Body?

Preacher Mark Driscoll's blog got a lot of traffic this week. Much of it was due to its title: "There's No Such Thing as Free Porn." Which means it would come up as a result when people Googled the phrase "Free Porn." Did he do it on purpose? Well, he did ask readers how they found his blog.

Another preacher Ed Young just spent 24 hours in bed with his wife…on the roof of his church! They did not have precarious sex but the event was streamed live on the internet. It is a publicity stunt to promote a book they wrote to encourage Christians to have a healthy sex life.

These two preachers are illustrating 2 approaches to sex that Christians take. One is to discourage certain practices while the other, less often seen, is the encouragement of what is, after all, a gift from God. Which is correct?

Both, actually. C. S. Lewis, following Aristotle, pointed out that what is good is often found between 2 opposite errors. In this case, the proper use of sex lies between the poles of the rejection of sex and an indiscriminate indulgence in every variant of it. Sadly, both excesses have been seen in the church.

Paul was celibate, at least by the time he became an apostle. Given that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, which required its members be married, I'm of the school that believes Paul was a widower. It explains his excellent advice on sex for married couples found in 1 Corinthians 7, namely, that not only the wife's body but also the husband's belong to their spouse, implying that the other's pleasure is a top priority. But Paul was one of those rare individuals who found himself able to remain celibate. He realized this and while he wished other Christians were as well, so they could concentrate on spreading the gospel without being tied to mundane concerns, he never required it of those who did not have the gift. Indeed, when laying out the qualifications of deacons and bishops, he stipulated only that they have no more than 1 wife. Nevertheless, very early in the church, there arose this odd idea that truly holy people were celibate. Part of this was the remaining influence of Gnosticism, which saw all matter as evil. While condemned as heresy, this attitude of seeing the flesh as evil insinuated itself into the church.

You see this especially in the large number of female saints honored primarily for choosing martyrdom over the loss of their virginity (usually to lustful pagan kings.) And of course the hierarchy of the church soon consisted largely of celibate men, though this did not become an absolute rule until the Middle Ages. Passing over those who were widowers, the last Pope who was married at the time of his election was Adrian II in 867. In the Eastern Orthodox church candidates for priesthood are allowed to marry up until the time of their ordination, though only celibates are eligible to become bishops. In eastern European countries when the Roman and Orthodox churches are in competition, there are 17 different Eastern Rite orders in which Roman candidates for priesthood are similarly allowed to marry before ordination. And as you know, many Roman Catholic priests and bishops were and are sexually active despite vows of celibacy. All of this is not only an unrealistic position to take upon sex, it is more importantly a major distortion of the Biblical teachings about the subject. And it has done a lot to discredit Christianity in the eyes of the world.

The other extreme, which we might call "holy promiscuity," has never been a feature of mainstream Christian churches but is seen quite frequently in cultic offshoots, especially if the cult leader is seen as a special prophet or as semi-divine. Sometimes the cult leader is quite open about this and his right to sleep with his followers is seen as his prerogative, as with David Koresh; sometimes it is hidden, as it was in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints under Joseph Smith. Plural marriage was a secret doctrine that Smith disclosed to certain key followers while he publicly denied and denounced the doctrine. Unfortunately, he did not always share this doctrine with the husbands of the women he took as his wives which led to schisms in the church. Only after Smith was killed and Brigham Young emerged as the leader of the majority of the Mormons, was polygamy publicly proclaimed. Most splinter groups, like the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints which followed Smith's son and widow, denied Smith ever taught the doctrine. After congressional anti-bigamy laws imperiled the church, the church's president Wilford Woodruff received a revelation that ended the practice in 1890. Split-off fundamentalist Mormon groups still practice polygamy. This has led to an underground railroad-like movement helping unhappy plural wives flee and the phenomenon of Lost Boys, young men expelled from these communities ostensibly for bad behavior but in reality because they compete with older and more powerful church members for eligible young girls.

What does this have to do with today's epistle--1 Corinthians 6:12-20? Paul is writing to a church in a port city so notorious for its immorality that Corinth's name became a verb for fornication. There was a temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love better known to us as Venus, which was said to have 1000 temple prostitutes, both male and female. They would process down the temple hill and through the city, trolling for "worshipers." It is said that the soles of their sandals were embossed so that their footprints left an impression that read "follow me." So Paul had his work cut out for him when it came to teaching his converts Christian sexual ethics.

Worse it looks as if his critics are using his own teachings on grace against him. Paul had been a zealous Pharisee, who tried to obey all 600 plus regulations derived from the Torah or Law of Moses. The problem was while the law was excellent at diagnosing sins, it had no power to help a person overcome his sins. In Jesus Paul found this power, and forgiveness and reconciliation with God based not on his own doomed efforts to be perfect but on God's grace. This rectified relationship with God is bestowed on us through faith, trust in Jesus as the Son of God who died for our sins and who rose from the dead to give us new life. When we open our hearts to Christ, his Holy Spirit enters us and therefore we do not have to worry about obsessively following all those laws. We live righteously through the Spirit. Some of those laws, like the ones concerning ritual purity and those badges of religious identity like the kosher laws and circumcision, no longer applied, especially to Gentile converts who did not have to become Jewish in order to be Christian. In Christ we are free from the law, proclaimed Paul.

Some Christians took this to mean that they could do whatever they wanted. And as he did elsewhere, Paul quotes his opponents arguments and then refutes them. But since in this instance they are repeating positions supposedly based on his theology, what he does here is restore some of the nuances and qualifications that were being ignored or oversimplified.

"All things are lawful for me," these Christian libertines would say, figuring since good works cannot save them, what they do is of no consequence. "But" Paul adds, "not all things are beneficial." God's moral laws are not arbitrary. They are for our own good. Not just the obvious ones like "Don't murder" or "Don't steal," but the ones like "Don't hate your neighbor" and "Don't commit adultery." What you do has an effect on you, on how you think and behave, on who and what you become.

What we are meant to become is Christ-like. We were created in God's image. But our sins mar, distort, obscure, and chip away at that image. In Jesus Christ, God's Son, we see, as Paul says in Colossians, "the image of the invisible God." And we are to grow into that image. But that means we can't let sin hinder the process.

Paul then repeats the assertion that "all things are lawful for me" this time adding, "but I will not be dominated by anything." Anything that gives you pleasure has the potential to become addictive. Alcohol and recreational drugs hijack the brains reward system. But neuroscientists have found that people addicted to immaterial things such as gambling and the internet have similar changes in their brains. Even without benefit of brain imaging, Paul realized that people become slaves to sin, doing what they know is wrong and even what they hate, a trait often seen in addicts. And he points out that even activities that are legal can come to dominate your life. We've all met sports fans or Trekkies or hobbyists or collectors that we thought could use an intervention. The otherwise innocent interest they share with others has completely taken over their lives. How much worse it is when a sinful, self-destructive habit takes control of you!

The next saying Paul quotes seems off topic. "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food." However, people often see a parallel between the appetite for food and the appetite for sex. It's a false one, though. Failing to eat food will kill you. Failing to have sex will not; it just feels that way. Sex is only a necessity for the species as whole, not for any particular individual.

Paul makes a different point. Food and our earthly bodies are temporary. People are immortal. It would be tragic if things that are temporary deflected immortal beings from their trajectory towards God. And make no mistake, we were meant for God. Not only did he create us in his image but part of that image is the ability to love. As the source of all goodness, God is the natural object of our love. And yet we let the fleeting things of this world come between us and God's eternal love. It's like falling in love with an online gaming avatar rather than a real person. The digital figure is a pale imitation of the real thing. And the things we love in this world are but dim reflections of their creator, made even less like him by the distortions of sin.

Sex outside of committed love is a distortion of what sex is supposed to be. Paul comes at this from a Scriptural perspective and uses the phrase "become one flesh," found in Genesis, to describe the natural outcome of having sex. Again, Paul could not know this, but sex normally causes the brain to release oxytocin, a chemical that causes people to bond. It is also released when a woman gives birth so she may bond with her baby. God created us to love those with whom we reproduce as well as those that result from it. Having sex with someone with whom you have a casual or merely business relationship such as a prostitute is a perversion, biologically, psychologically and theologically.

But quite beyond that, our bodies are not our own. They are God's. He created them, Christ redeemed them and the Holy Spirit dwells in them. God does not despise bodies; in Christ he took on one himself. But they can be used to glorify their creator or dishonor him. When we misuse them or abuse them or neglect them we turn them into a mockery of what God intended them to be.

Because human beings, all human beings, are created in God's image, any insult or deliberate injury done to them is, symbolically, done to God. All sins may be seen, therefore, as blasphemy. When we disparage people, when we torture or batter or rape or exploit or kill them, we are doing it to God. Jesus says that in the last judgment we will be judged by the good we do or do not do to each other, because we are, in effect, doing it to him. That's a sobering thought.

While Paul was specifically addressing illicit sex in this passage, and while that aspect is ignored by today's Christians as much as it was by the Corinthians, the idea that our bodies are sacred has wider implications.

Personally, what does this mean in regards to how we take care of our bodies? 63% of us are overweight or obese and it's largely because we eat too much and exercise too little. A third of us get too little sleep, which can also contribute to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. If our bodies are not ours but God's we should take better care of them. And we haven't even touched on smoking, drinking and other forms of substance abuse. Or risky forms of sex. It's one thing to risk your life or health to save someone else. It's another to engage in dangerous behavior simply for personal pleasure. Courage is a virtue; foolhardiness is not.

Socially, we have already established the fact that Christ equates how we treat others with the way we treat him. We need to ask ourselves what this means in how we behave towards those less fortunate. Do we assume that their problems are always of their own making? Do we automatically associate wealth, popularity or attractiveness with virtue and poverty, unpopularity, or the unattractive with vice? St. Francis famously hugged a leper, seeing Christ in him. Mother Teresa would sometimes give rounds to her nurses, saying, "Jesus broke out in hives today in room 102. Jesus could not keep his food down in room 108. Jesus was incontinent in room 109." Could we bring ourselves to embrace those who least remind us of Jesus, knowing that they are nevertheless created in his image?

Finally, you may have wondered what our duty to God is. Is it enough merely to worship him? As God says in Hosea, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice..." And in Mark it says, "To love him with all your heart and all your understanding, and all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." God is not interested in people who go through the motions and say the words but do not obey him in how they treat others. God is a God of love. As it says in 1 John, "If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen." Yet we often hear people who call themselves Christian say terrible things about individuals and whole classes of people and yet are not called on it by other Christians. I'm not talking about those who say "I disagree with this person" or "I think this approach is wrong;" I'm talking about people who resort to insults and name calling and wishing people misfortune. Jesus said that anyone who insults his brother or calls him a fool is in danger of going to hell.

God does not make rules about how we should treat our bodies and those of others because he is a spoilsport or killjoy. He lays down rules for the same reason any loving parent does: to keep their children from hurting themselves or others. But he wants us to do more than refrain from doing evil to ourselves and others. He wants us to be good to everyone, if not because we feel that way then because everyone is his creation, a bearer of his image, however dim or distorted, whom he loves and whom he wants to redeem. And when we invite his Spirit to live in us, then we become temples, places where God dwells and we must act accordingly. We do not belong to ourselves. We belong to God. And we couldn't be in better hands.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Elements of Beginning

2 miles below the frigid waters of Antarctica, marine life is having a hot time. Thermal vents on the ocean floor spew out a constant stream of water heated by the earth's hot inner depths. It would scald us but it provides an suitable environment for forms of life never seen before. In fact, most scientists would have said life could not exist at such crushing depths and high temperatures. But using underwater robots with cameras and lights powerful enough to penetrate the stygian depths, scientists have found life where they never expected it. This week NPR interviewed a scientist who described the cornucopia of newly discovered life, including yeti crabs, so called because their arms and claws appear to be covered with white hair, and the hairy-chested Hoff crabs, nicknamed by a PhD student after Baywatch actor David Hasselhoff. Who knows what other life will come to light?

It looks like our lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Epiphany are over the place. God creates light, Jesus gets baptized by his cousin John and Paul baptizes some followers of John into Christ. Where is the common thread? And what does it have to do with God's self-revelation, the central theme of Epiphany?

One obvious common theme is that of beginnings. Our chapter from Genesis is the beginning of everything. Like a brooding mother bird, the Spirit of God hovers over the fluid depths of unrealized potentiality. Out of emptiness and darkness, God calls forth light. His creative energy explodes in the void and the story of the universe can start.

We go from the beginning of God's saga to the beginning of the story of the Son of God, from the first book of the Bible to the first Gospel written. John is the first prophet to appear in Judea in a long time. He baptizes with water for repentance but promises that one is coming after him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Jesus shows up, is immersed in the river Jordan, and, as he emerges from the water, the clouds part, the Spirit descends on him like a dove and he hears God's voice: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." The story of the turning point in the redemption of the universe can start.

Paul comes to Ephesus and meets a group of disciples who have never heard of the Holy Spirit. They seem to be followers of John the Baptist. Paul explains the difference, that beyond repentance lies new life in the Spirit, following Jesus. When they realize this, they have Paul baptize them in the name of Jesus. He lays his hands on them and they speak in strange tongues and prophesy. The story of their lives as Christians can begin.

Besides beginnings, we notice other common elements in these stories: water, word, and the Spirit. Is there any significance to these?

Water is necessary for life. It covers more than 70% of the earth's surface and makes up from 55 to 78% of the human body, depending on the person's size. Newborns who can neither walk nor crawl instinctually hold their breath and make swimming motions if put in water. Water is all around us and in us. 2 Peter 3:5 says that the earth was formed out of water and by water. Not only Christianity but Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and most other major religions feature ritual cleansing. Water is not only important to physical life but to spiritual life as well.

In the Judaism of Jesus' day, Jews frequently took mikvehs or ritual baths for uncleanness. Women after their periods or childbirth, men after bodily discharges, anyone after contact with a corpse or grave or skin disease had to be ritually cleansed by full immersion, preferably in living or moving water. Another kind of religious cleansing was baptism, but this was reserved for those who converted to Judaism. So it was as if those who came to John were entering anew into the community of God's people.

But if John's baptism is for repentance, why does Jesus need to be baptized? Jesus is without sin; what does he have to repent? I think the point is that if Jesus is to truly represent humanity, he must do everything a person fulfilling God's will should do. Jesus never says "Because I'm God's Son, exceptions must be made for me." When tempted to make stones into bread or to convert people through showing off, he refuses to do what an ordinary human couldn't. When Jesus speaks the unpalatable truth to power, he refuses to evade the arrest or death that await all human rebels against earthly powers. Jesus is not like the actor who shadows the kind of person he is going to play in a film. Jesus wasn't pretending to be a human being; he gave up his prerogatives as God and became fully human for our sake. So like us he was baptized, emerging into a new community seeking new life.

At first what Paul seems to be doing in Ephesus is some kind of fussy theological tidying up, making sure some converts get re-baptized the proper way. But in fact, they aren't converts at all. They follow John the Baptist, the precursor to Jesus. It's like thinking that Star Wars is all about Obi Wan Kenobi. He is important in getting things started but he is not the one to bring balance to the force--that's Luke. Even John speaks of the one who would follow him and baptize people in the Holy Spirit. These Ephesians don't know about Jesus' role in reconciling God and humanity and they don't know that they are now to embody the Spirit of God in transforming the world. Paul says when we are baptized in Jesus' name we undergo a spiritual death and rebirth analogous to Christ's death and resurrection. It's more profound than just changing the direction of your life; it's about new life.

Besides water, each of these stories involve the word of God. In the creation story, God's word becomes reality. People can say one thing and do another but not God. What he says becomes fact. He says "Let there be light" and it is so. In essence, the world is an expression of God--dynamic, diverse, intricate, fertile, fluid, surprising and awe-inspiring. And as he originally expressed it, it is good. His pronouncement of its goodness echoes even today, though it can get lost in the cacophony which we have created.

When Jesus rises from the rushing waters of the Jordan, he hears God's voice. And he is pronouncing a favorable judgment on Jesus: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Jesus is the fullest expression of God. Mankind was created in his image but it's been marred, distorted, made grotesque as we have tried to play God and made his garden into a garbage dump. God starts again, with a second Adam who will express God's love perfectly, reflect his glory flawlessly. Jesus is God's Word made flesh, the idea made concrete, the Spirit given solidity.

When Paul lays hands on the newly baptized Ephesians we see the phenomenon that accompanied the conversion of other new groups to Christ: speaking in tongues. Out of their mouths cascades a rushing, bubbling sound of people trying to express things that go beyond the ability of normal speech. To others they sound drunk or mad. But not to believers, who feel the impact of the words even if they do not know their full import. Whether these were earthly or angelic languages or ecstatic utterings in the Spirit, we don't know. But a real change comes about. They prophesy, as well, that is, speak the word of God. Intelligible words, words of power.

Finally, in each of these stories, the Spirit of God is active. In Genesis, he sweeps across the dark sea like a wind and hovers like a bird about to give birth. In Mark the Spirit descends as a dove upon Jesus. But don't let that harmless manifestation fool you! In the very next verse the Spirit will drive him into the wilderness to face his temptations and defeat them. And in the incident from Acts, people who were trying to be good without help from God discover the Spirit. There is a difference between trying to change your life under your own power and being changed by the power of God, his Holy Spirit. John's disciples do not so much abandon him as move on to the one John heralded, Jesus Christ.

The creatures who live around the thermal vents of the sea remind us that we can't predict what forms life can take. We don't know everything and we mustn't reject things out of hand because they don't confirm our previous experiences with the world.

Stephen Hawking is turning 70. His ALS should have killed him 50 years ago. His defiance of what medical science says is, dare we say it, miraculous.

For the 4th year in a row, a zebra shark has produced babies by parthenogenesis, the scientific name for virgin birth. Zebedee, who lives in a hotel aquarium, has never encountered a male shark. Scientists are shocked and still contend that a human female has never done this, not one in billions over 10,000 years.

We know that water's property of expanding when it freezes is anomalous, that it is one of the many features of the universe that if altered very slightly would make life impossible, yet the implications of a universe fine-tuned to produce and support life makes some of us shiver uncomfortably.

God's creation teems with wonders, his word still resounds and his Spirit is still afoot. God is a dazzling creator, a master storyteller, a prodigious artist working for a mostly unappreciative audience. We are like people who say we love Shakespeare's works while simultaneously saying he could never have been the one to create them. We look at the beauty, intricacy and integrity of the universe and simultaneously say it was all accident. We trust in the laws of nature but can't say why they should exist, nor bring ourselves to trust in a giver of laws. Nor can we deduce what is the purpose of life. It can only be disclosed, revealed by the one who is behind it all.

The Word of God says the purpose of life is to be an ever closer expression of what God is. And it says that God is love. Love is what makes God create the world. Love is what makes God redeem the world. Love is what God wants to see when he looks at the world. He wants to say of it again what he said of it before: that it is very good.

And he wants us to be part of it. We are not props in this story but actors. We know the beginning of the saga. We know how the tale is to end. The rightful king returns to free his people, claim his bride, have a glorious wedding celebration and live happily ever after in a kingdom without end. It remains for us to play our part in bringing the story to its proper conclusion. And we are to do so in the spirit in which the author intended--the spirit of love and forgiveness and reconciliation. But we must be ready to plunge in, even if it means we are in over our heads, with the Word of God in our mouths and the Spirit of God in our hearts, trusting him to lift us up and carry us through waters dark and rushing to where we can stand firm.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Ring in the New, Bring Along the Old

As the 900th anniversary of the Domesday book was approaching, the BBC decided to do an updated version. The original was a record of almost everyone in southern England and parts of Wales, where exactly they lived and what property they owned in the year 1086. William the Conqueror had it compiled in order to more comprehensively tax his new kingdom. The finality of its judgment is what gave it such an ominous name. Historians love it for it gives us a fairly accurate snapshot of much of southern Britain. The BBC's project was more of a multimedia tribute and involved children from 9000 schools and the work of 1 million people. There were links to maps, videos, photos, etc. It would be an achievement to rival the original had they not decided to use the latest technology in the mid-1980s, namely the Laserdisc. For those of you scratching your head, imagine a CD-ROM the size of a medium pizza with 300 MB on each side. The problem with the increasingly obsolete format became increasingly obvious by the time we reached a new millennium. Several attempts to convert and preserve the new Domesday project have been attempted. A version is available online, though copyright issues may tie up some material till 2090! The original Domesday book can be viewed online and even in person, thanks to the fact that it was preserved as an actual physical book!

For a similar reason I still keep a pocket address book on me. I know a lot of people use their phones for this but I accidentally smashed the screen of my phone years ago and even with eager help from the phone company, I was unable to transfer all the numbers to my new phone, using the SIM card. So I use back up technology that can never be entirely erased inadvertently or made irretrievable through electronic innovation, a depleted battery, or one of those capped double pipes in motel corridors at pants-pocket height.

The downside is that books do get frayed and the pages can start to loosen and fall out. So I'm in the process of transferring all of the names in my old book by hand. There are new names I should have added but stuck their cards in there instead. The saddest part is removing names of people I never have contact with anymore. Either they are coworkers from very old jobs, or people who have moved but whose new addresses or phone numbers I don't have, or people who have died. A number of those are former parishioners.

It's a new year and all of the emphasis is on ringing out the old and ringing in the new. Especially the latter. As a culture we are in love with the new. The minute Apple puts out a new iPhone, people start speculating on what features will be included in the next version. Sometimes a movie sequel is announced while the blockbuster original is still in the theaters. As soon as questions about whether celebrities are going to marry or not are answered by a "yes," the focus shifts to asking how long till they divorce. On the other hand, news that rightly belongs to the present is considered, in the words of a popular TV commercial, "so 20 seconds ago." The actual past is seen, of course, as beyond the pale.

But as the two anecdotes at the beginning of this homily show, dealing with the past, present and future is not that clear cut. Some things of the past must be left behind but some are enduring. Some things that are "up to date" will be, as C. S. Lewis said, "eternally out of date." And the future is never easy to predict, nor is it always shiny and good. While all earthly things change, not all change is good. Growth is a form of change but so is decline. Birth is change but so is death. Marriage is change and so is divorce. Some change is irresistible and some is entirely elective. Change is too broad a category to pronounce either good or bad. Even specific changes can have both good and bad effects. For instance, making something more secure means giving up some freedom, whether you're talking about the internet or the airlines.

One key to weathering change is discernment, picking out what to preserve and what to leave behind. Nothing new is completely new. It usually involves improving on the old, or rearranging its elements, or delivering the same value or content in a new way. Movies did not spell the end of live theater, nor did television kill movies, nor will the internet bring about the end of scripted and unscripted shows, though the doomsayers of the day in each case said they would. And in no case did the old way of doing things disappear. You can still go to plays and enjoy the electricity of live drama. Some films will never look as good on the small screen as on the large. Some stories work best told in the long form of TV rather than compressed into 2 hours. In the future, you might download shows after a certain time rather than switch to a channel at a fixed hour, but you will probably want to watch them with loved ones and friends on something larger than your phone or laptop. The new way the content is delivered will have new advantages but you will lose some useful older features. If you still get a compelling story with engrossing characters, the rest will not matter much.

So what do you preserve from the past as we live in the present and look to the future? Since we are speaking in the context of faith, we can point to certain beliefs, certain values and certain behaviors that have shown themselves to not only have the strength to endure but to offer us a corresponding strength to not only survive but thrive.

I'm not going to catalog all of these but merely point out a few vital ones.

The center of the faith must always be Jesus Christ, who he is, what he has done and is doing for us and our proper response. When it comes to Jesus, you have to accept the whole package: the incarnate God, the crucified Savior and the risen Lord, whose words we must heed, whose commands we must obey and whose Spirit we must embody. Settle for anything less and you will not experience all of his grace, or know all of his power, or benefit from all of his wisdom. If you accept Jesus' divinity but neglect his humanity, if you treasure his teachings but not his actions to rescue us from our sins, if you are thankful for his death for our sake but not obedient to his commands for our growth into his image, you won't find the fullness that is in him.

The values we must carry with us are righteousness, faithfulness, justice, love, mercy, grace and peace. Righteousness is not very popular because we confuse it with self-righteousness. But righteous in the Bible means being "upright" or "straight" as opposed to crooked. That is a rare quality and people respect it. It goes hand in hand with faithfulness. People appreciate someone they can count on. So does God. And a person who is righteous and faithful works for justice. But justice alone, giving people what they deserve, is inhumanly rigid if not administered with love. And love leads to mercy, not giving people all that they deserve. God's love leads to grace, which is giving people what they do not remotely deserve. And if justice and mercy are perfectly balanced by love and grace, it leads to peace.

The behaviors we practice flow from these values and are really expressions of them. This means the expressions can come out slightly differently in different contexts. Corrie Ten Boom and her family were Christians living under Nazi occupation. In their case, being righteous and just meant hiding Jews, lying to authorities, and forging documents to get the rations to feed the people they were protecting. Usually Christians should obey the law. In their situation, obeying Christ's law of love meant breaking Nazi laws. And they paid the price, going to the camps where Corrie's father and sister died.

Self-sacrificial love is a behavior displayed in Christ going to the cross, in St. Francis going behind enemy lines during a Crusade to preach the gospel to the Sultan, in Martin Luther standing up to the Emperor and the pope and refusing to deny the truth of the Gospel under the threat of being condemned to death as a heretic, in Dietrich Bonhoffer refusing to compromise the proclamation of the Church by mixing it with the Nazi ideology, in Martin Luther King Jr. facing death for non-violently protesting injustice, and in many Christians today who live where one can still die for following Jesus. It is exhibited in Christians who do not live under the sword but otherwise do not insist on their prerogatives, mutually submit to each other, put others ahead of themselves and bear one another's burden, fulfilling the law of Christ.

Keeping these old but enduring beliefs, values and behaviors enables us to face and even embrace the best of what's new. A recent survey found out that Christians are--gasp!--just as much tech users as the rest of the population. I think the authors were surprised because when something new comes out, you can always find those who see in it some new kind of evil. But technology is morally neutral. The internet, yes, makes porn and hate speech more readily available but it also allows the gospel to be heard almost everywhere in the world. My blog has an active if small following in Russia, Germany and Latvia as well as the US, UK and Canada.

Unlike Islam the church has never said the Bible was only valid in the original tongues. Christians have translated the gospel into every language possible. Many tongues were given written form by missionaries. At college I met the son of missionaries who had been trying to get across the idea of the "Lamb of God" to an Amazonian tribe which had never seen sheep. Substituting the sacrificial animal used by that tribe, Jesus became the "Monkey of God." It sounds blasphemous to our culture but the words had the right impact on the intended audience because it expressed the same idea in a new form.

The church has always adapted cultural items to communicate the Good News. Yes, many of the traditions of Christmas began as pagan rituals. Rather than trying to strip everything from a culture they encountered, missionaries turned them into visual parables about Christ. What's odd is people who want to eliminate them now because of a pagan past long since forgotten by most people. If you have to educate people on why something used to be bad, you've just demonstrated how out of date your response is.

The church has found different ways to organize and express itself. Right now one of the fastest growing movements in global Christianity is Pentecostalism. Sometimes it combines with more traditional forms such as Evangelicalism and even Catholicism. Hopefully this trend for Christians coming together rather than always separating will continue. Out of the Church of England alone came the Methodists, the Salvation Army, the Quakers and even the Baptists. It would be nice if, in the face of rising secularism in the West, Christians stopped thinking so much about their secondary and tertiary differences and started working together out of the vast primary beliefs, values and behaviors we share. It would be nice to visibly and in new ways demonstrate what Jesus said about us: that the world would know we are his disciples by how we love one another.

The essential thing is not to greet either the old or the new with knee-jerk reactions but to use discernment, and make your selection not on the basis of age, newness or tradition but on what is good and what is not. Jesus spoke of someone pulling out of his store of treasures valuables both old and new. And if something old no longer serves its purpose, feel free to mourn its passing as I do the names I need not transfer to my new address book. My wife in her childhood loved singing the Latin Mass. The Roman church wisely decided that using a liturgy that people could understand was more important. My wife knew that even though she missed the old language. And it's fine to feel that.

We can't conserve everything so it's important to know what must be kept and what has to be changed. Thinking clearly about that will help us keep what is essential and translate it into new expressions that will communicate it to a changing world. After all, we serve an ancient, eternal God who nevertheless says, "Behold I make all things new!"