Sunday, February 26, 2012

Rethink: God the Father

Spoilers! If you haven't read the last book or seen the last movie in the Harry Potter series, skip this paragraph. And a couple others. One of the biggest plot twists in the whole saga of the boy wizard was the revelation that his seemingly villainous potions teacher, Professor Snape, is actually a good guy working undercover at the command of his school's headmaster Dumbledore. And, master storyteller that she is, author J. K. Rowling foreshadowed this in the very first book. Even Hermione, the cleverest of the three main protagonists, thought Snape was trying to harm Harry at his first Quiddich game. Later it is revealed that the spell Snape was casting as Harry's flying broom was trying to shake him off was actually one of protection. And, though Snape doesn't like Harry for personal reasons, Harry learns in the last book that most of Snape's actions were in fact noble and helped him, the only boy who could kill the near immortal dark wizard Voldemort. In the last scene of the "The Deadly Hallows" we discover that Harry has named one of his sons after the brave professor he so misunderstood.

Jesus began his earthly mission by calling on people to repent. The Greek word used literally means "change your mind, or rethink." One of the major effects of Jesus' words and actions was to get people to rethink a lot of what they thought they knew. That's what we are examining in this sermon series. Today we reconsidering God, who's often seen as unpopular as Snape was.

In the Old Testament, God can come across as tougher and less forgiving of evildoers than Dirty Harry. He is called the Almighty and the Lord of hosts. There's a reason why the Hebrews saw God primarily that way. They were a small nation in the ancient Near East. To their southwest lay Egypt, a superpower for millennia. To their east a series of powerful empires rose only to fall to their successors. Israel was located at the crossroads between Africa, Arabia, and Asia Minor. As their more powerful neighbors extended their power and even clashed, Israel always seem to be caught in the crossfire. There was no United Nations to intervene on their behalf. So the primary quality they found attractive about Yahweh was his power to protect and defend them. He is called the Lord of hosts nearly 300 times in the Bible. Hosts in this context means "armies." They valued God for his ability to fight for them against opponents much more powerful than they.

If you understand the history of the Israelites, you can understand why they emphasized certain attributes of God. When the Hebrews were just a tribe, the head of the tribe was judge, jury and executioner. His decisions were, one hoped, motivated by making sure that his family survived. As the Israelites grew into 12 tribes, they remained united mostly because they were slaves in Egypt. They were liberated and unified by God acting through Moses. At Sinai, God made a covenant with the people of Israel. They became his people, and he their sovereign. The Torah or law which was given to them contains the stipulations of the agreement God made with them. This gave them some standards of behavior to follow when they first occupied the land as a loose confederation of clans. Still the tribes clashed, uniting only to fight off common enemies. They paid lip service to God and his law, but they were not far from their chaotic origin as nomads.

Eventually they realized their need to be more unified, preferably under a king. David was their first truly great king and he was succeeded by his son Solomon. Solomon built a splendid temple on Zion, the hill on which sat his capitol, Jerusalem. The temple became a focal point of national worship. The major holidays were celebrated there and sacrifices were made by the priests for the sins of the people. The temple was the place where God met humanity, where heaven touched earth. Unfortunately this fact gave some of them a sense of being special and not in the way that God had mean. They were chosen not because they deserved it but for a purpose: to bless the world. But many of them simply focused on how fortunate they were that God had chosen to live among them.

After Solomon, the nation split into 2, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, where they stayed loyal to the Davidic dynasty. Both kingdoms had a succession of rulers, some great, some weak, some good and some bad. But they forgot God's law. The Lord called prophets to remind the kings and his people of their allegiance to God and his justice and mercy. Finally, after the nation of Judah fell to the Babylonians and went into exile, they realized that all they had left was the law. Their rabbis codified it and did commentaries on it and commentaries on the commentaries (which became the Talmud). That devotion to the law kept the Jews from being assimilated and lost to history as happened to their brothers, the 10 tribes that made up the northern kingdom of Israel. When Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon and let the Jews return to their homeland, what had endured and unified and preserved them as a people was the Torah, the law. Again, it was protection from strife and chaos.

By the time of Jesus, the Jews were an occupied people. The temple had been rebuilt and priestly Judaism existed along side rabbinic Judaism. In reaction to their situation, a school of rabbinic thought, the Pharisees, became very zealous at observing and getting other Jews to observe the law, as well as all of the additional rules derived from it. This is a typical religious reaction to chaos; make rules for every area of life, label everything either black or white, eliminate all the grey. The priestly party, the Sadducees, adapted to the political realities in order to keep the temple going and preserve what power their caste was granted by the Romans. Essentially, you had a privileged liberal party and a less well off conservative party. Each emphasized their own view of God. Meanwhile the average Jew longed for God to send a holy warrior king like David to free them from Gentile domination.

How did Jesus spur them to rethink their pictures of God? For one thing, by emphasizing the essential elements of the law, justice and mercy, that had gotten buried in the emphasis on observing the letter of the law. The Pharisees had such a strict interpretation of the law that they couldn't allow exceptions, such as healing folks on the Sabbath. Jesus healed whenever he found the need. The prohibition against working on the Sabbath does not excuse us from doing good works on that day. As he said, the Sabbath was made for humans, not vice versa. It was a perversion of the law to use it to justify doing nothing for those who need help.

When asked to summarize the Torah to an impatient Gentile, Jesus' contemporary, the rabbi Hillel said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the whole law. The rest is mere commentary." That's the way most religious leaders preceding Christ state the Golden Rule: negatively. Jesus turned it around. "Do to others as you would have them do to you." In other words, it's not enough to merely avoid doing bad things to others; that could justify a kind of benign neglect. One should go beyond that and do good things to others, things you would want done to you in the same situation. And in Matthew Jesus adds the phrase: "for this is the law and the prophets." That's also what Jesus says about the 2 Great Commandments, to love God with all one is and to love one's neighbor as oneself. Jesus cuts through all the additions and expansions of the law and emphasizes its essence: love for all.

Like the clues to Snape being a good guy are there in the early Potter books, the fact that God loves people is there in the Old Testament, over and over. The 2 Great Commandments come from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. His love for all people is the moral of the Book of Jonah; his forgiving and redeeming love is the point of the Book of Hosea. God is a God of love. So how come people think that God, especially as depicted in the Old Testament, is primarily an angry God?

Humanity was in its infancy, you might say. Humans didn't understand what is healthy for them and what is unhealthy. They don't think about others, especially about those outside their own family or people or nation, nor about the consequences of their actions. We are told in Genesis 6, barely into the Bible, that God is so appalled by humanity's violence that he regrets making humans. He decides to start over. He decides to start small, with one man, Abram, who trusts God. Through Abram and his descendents God will work intensively to teach them what he is like and how they should therefore act. His idea is to bless the whole world through the children of the one he now calls Abraham.

But Israel was also in its infancy. The stories of its early years, chronicled in the Book of Judges, sound like a cross between the Wild West and "Tales of the Crypt." God is dealing with barely civilized people and he comes off a bit harsh to our ears. He is trying to navigate his people through a tricky phase of their life while they are surrounded by enemies. Meanwhile, they are constantly asking why they can't do whatever they like. So God comes off as grumpy and strict and a big killjoy. It rarely occurs to them that God is doing what he's always done: protecting them from extinction and trying to bring order out of chaos.

Little has changed. We still act towards God like children who hear our parents say "No" so often that we think they must hate us and not want us to have fun. Why can't I play with all the bottles of colorful and aromatic fluids under the sink? Why can't I play in the street or run to pet strange dogs? Why can't I post pictures of myself in a bikini on Facebook? All my friends are doing it! Why can't I hit my brother back? He started it! Why won't you ever let me do what I want to do? I hate you! And then we metaphorically slam the door shut on God.

God comes off as a hardnose precisely because he is doing the hard job of being a parent of unruly kids, looking out for us while trying to instill a love of peace in us. The most just person in the world is a parent trying to keep her kids from killing each other. But at least one kid will always feel that he is being unfairly restrained from giving his brother his just desserts for what he did to him. Our inability to see beyond our own desires and hurts and fears makes us distrust God's fairness and especially his mercy to those we wish to retaliate against. When, on the other hand, we identify with someone's motivations, we see God's actions to correct them as harsh. We see only the specific act of God or the word of God in one particular context and do not interpret it as the expression of love that it is.

Jesus, while not minimizing God's justice, re-emphasized his forgiveness and love. He did it in parables in which he emphasized the contrast between God's large nature and the narrowness of human nature. God is like the generous owner of a vineyard, a diligent shepherd in search of a single sheep, the forgiving father of a wildly wasteful son, the host of a wedding banquet open to the poor and needy. This is a God who is like us in some ways but far above us in justice and mercy. This is a God who looks at the heart and not at one's position or wealth or outward appearance. He values the pittance of a poor widow over the loud and showy contribution of a philanthropist, because of the personal sacrifice involved.

At the end of the tale, we learn that Snape knew Harry's mother from childhood and that everything he did was done out of unrequited love for her. He was strict and exacting with Harry Potter for his own good. And it turned out that love would call for sacrifice, a theme we find throughout J. K. Rowlings' saga, a theme that reflects her Christianity. In the end, we are surprised to discover Snape is a hero.

Jesus makes us rethink how we view his Father. He shows how love is interwoven throughout the story of God and his often unruly people. He shows that God loves not just the people he has chosen to work through but all people. Jesus shows the extent to which God is willing to go to save his creation. And it will involve sacrifice.

This Wednesday we will explore how Jesus makes us rethink the very way in which God exists and how he relates to us. In the meantime ask yourself how you think of God. As tribal deity? As judge, jury and executioner? As an unyielding bulwark against chaos? As a grandpa who can never say 'no' and can't impose discipline? Or something more biblically balanced: your just, loving, and forgiving Father?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Rethink: Intro

It is the end of another church committee meeting and the old man tells everyone that he'll lock up, just like he always does. He gathers one last stray coffee mug, rinses it out and leaves it in the sink for tomorrow. He turns off the lights, resets the thermostat, gathers up his papers and materials and steps out of the church door. He locks it and then feels for the keys to his car. They aren't there. He searches all his pockets, looks at the ground, and then reopens the church. He searches everywhere. He looks at where he sat, checks the counters and the cabinets, looks in the fridge, the bathroom, anywhere he'd been. Then a thought strikes him. Has he left his keys in the car again? His wife never lets him forget those 2 times--only 2--when he forgot to take the keys in with him. "I'll bet that's what I did," he thinks. So he goes back outside, locks the church and walks over to the parking lot. It's empty! "Oh my God," he thinks, "I not only left them in the ignition; somebody's stolen my car! My wife's going to kill me!"

He pulls out his phone and dials 911. He gives them the description of his car, the half of the tag number that he's sure of and the church bumper sticker that's on the car. The 911 operator says she'll put out the word on his car and send an officer to take his statement. He hangs up and then looks at his phone. After a few minutes, he gets up the courage to call his wife. "Boy, I hope she's in a good mood," he's thinking. She picks up and immediately he starts apologizing. "I know you told me not to leave the keys in the car. I guess I was thinking about the meeting too much. My hands were full of materials. I must have left the keys in the ignition again and someone…" She cuts him off.

"No, you didn't leave the keys in the car. I dropped you off at church, remember? I told you I'd be shopping, remember? I said I'd be back to pick you up afterward. And I will…as soon as I convince this police officer that I didn't steal your car!"

What you think influences what you do. If someone tells you the new guy at work was only hired 'cause he's your boss' nephew, you treat him differently. If the other kids tell you the old man in the brown house at the end of the block hates kids, you avoid him. If you hear a report that the traffic on the way to the airport is gonna be murder tomorrow, you get up earlier so you won't miss your flight. If people keep telling you that religion is a bunch of nonsense that only stupid people believe and it has idiotic rules that make people hate and kill one another and that it's the cause of most of the evil in the world, you're probably not going to visit churches to meet religious people, or read scholarly books on religion and history to see if that's true. Instead, every time you see an article that reinforces your way of thinking, you go "Tsk! Those religious people are terrible!" And then you go on to read about drug cartels killing each other, and big firms betting against the financial instruments they created so as to make huge profits while their customers lose their homes, and about a bitter custody battle which ends in murder, and about kids cyberbullying a girl until she commits suicide, and about how your internet search engine is selling your personal data to your employer and your medical insurance provider, and about how a super-PAC is spending millions of dollars on commercials that lie about some politician, and about human sex trafficking, and about forced abortions in China, and about adulterated baby formula, and you don't ask, "Well, how did religion cause that?"

The fact is that people don't think clearly about religion, not even its opponents. Karl Marx said religion is the opium of the people, that it anesthetizes them to their exploitation by the rich. If he'd paid attention to the Lutheran education his father provided him he might have realized that sin exists quite apart from religion and that if you depose God then it is the nature of people to abhor that power vacuum and put something else in his place. They make something else the center of their life, their vessel of ultimate value, like the State or a political ideology. The countries that implemented Marx's atheistic "workers' paradise" went on to kill hundreds of millions more people in 1 century than were killed in 20 centuries of Christianity. And that's defining Christianity broadly, so as to include all the people who called themselves Christian while simultaneously disobeying Christ's command to love your enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to treat everyone, no matter how lowly, as if he were Christ.

We can't ignore the people who harm others in the name of God, though. They exist and they not only do harm to human beings but to the cause of the Kingdom of God. Why do they act as they do? Sin, of course. But also because they have a distorted view of God.

Some believe bizarre or unbiblical ideas about God. For others, their problem is that they have the emphasis wrong. They think that God is mainly concerned about rules, judgment and punishment, like an abusive parent or bad boss. They think he is quick to take offense, he holds grudges and he is hard to please. To them he is a God who upholds order over all else including people. Often these people are really just projecting their image onto God, rather than looking at how God really is and trying to conform to it. Which makes you wonder how they reconcile certain passages of Scripture to their warped view of God.

Case in point: the Westboro Baptist church, the small group of Fred Phelps' family members who hold protest at the funerals of soldiers as well as other places that will get them publicity. They have latched onto the 7 verses in the Bible that specifically mention homosexuality and make that God's chief beef with humanity. They think all Americans (except themselves) are going to hell for either not prosecuting this one sin, or for simply being tolerant of a society that does not denounce it. Ronald Reagan, Mr. Rogers, you name him or her, are all condemned for not being anti-gay enough. So you'd think that their protests were staged in order to get people to repent. No. By their theology, it's too late. They think gays in particular have no ability to repent. So the only reason I can see for them to disrupt the lives of others is to get themselves sued and win on first amendment grounds. That and to gloat.

So they have elevated 7 verses over the 50 or so that condemn lying, gossiping, slandering and other sins of the tongue, over the greater than 150 verses on murder, over the more than 300 about idolatry, and over the 300 that talk about our duty to the poor. That's grossly unbalanced. And what's worse, it's biblically unbalanced. They ignore Jesus' own words that the only unforgivable sin is to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, which most commentators interpret as resisting the Spirit's work in saving and sanctifying the person. In other words, the only unforgivable sin is not letting God forgive you and transform you into his image. They ignore God's explicit statement in Ezekiel that he doesn't desire the death of anyone but desires that all may be saved. Basically, they lie about God, saying he is merciless and unforgiving.

The first command that Jesus utters when he begins his ministry is to repent and believe the Gospel. The word used in the New Testament for "repent" means literally "rethink." Reconsider what you think you know. Change your mind about the essential things in life. And if you truly come to trust in the good news of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not only how you think but also how you live will change.

In the past, the season of Lent, of repentance has overemphasized the emotions of regret and shame and sorrow. These may indeed accompany at drastic rethinking of your life and your relationship with God. But sometimes the sorrow is not for what we have done to God or those made in his image, but for ourselves for being caught or exposed or just for feeling miserable. If that sorrow does not extend to those we've harmed it is not true repentance. Some high-profile people have realized that if they make sad faces and say they are sorry if someone was offended by their words or actions (notice the passive voice), they may be able to win back the public's affections. That's like the abuser who, after beating his victim, says he's sorry but look what you made him do! True repentance is seen in the end of the movie "Schindler's List" where he is about to escape the Allies (because officially he's a Nazi) and realizes that, despite saving hundreds of Jews, had he sold his ring, his suit, his car, he could have used the money for more bribes to the Nazis and saved more. For the first time, Schindler is aware of how selfish his lifestyle was and how he could have changed it to rescue more human beings. True repentance is seen when Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector, who had extracted a high fee from his fellow Jews as well as their taxes, is so moved by Jesus coming to visit him that he gives half of his possession to the poor and repays those he's cheated 4 times what he took.

It takes a radical change of mind to initiate a radical change of one's lifestyle. Jesus came to make us rethink what we thought we knew about God, humanity, creation, ethics, victory, death and more. That's what we'll be discussing each Wednesday and Sunday during Lent.

But for now, start rethinking the attitudes, thoughts, words and actions that have faded into the background of your life, that have become the standard operating procedures of your existence and seriously reconsider the state of your relationship with God and with other people. Rethink so that you may redirect your feet onto the path along which our Lord bids us to take up our crosses and follow him.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

For Baby J___

I was not baptized as an infant. My parents were going to a Disciples of Christ church. They practice believer's baptism, the doctrine that only those who can choose to be baptized should receive that sacrament. Instead I was dedicated. I chose to be baptized later when I was a tween going to a Presbyterian church. But it does raise the question: why do some churches baptize infants when they don't understand what's being done to them?

The earliest kind of baptism we see in the New Testament is for adult believers. John is baptizing people with professions and jobs. In the Book of Acts most converts hear the Gospel preached first, repent and then come forward to be immersed in a river or some other body of water. But, of course, this is the first generation of Christians. The movement is too young to have children born into the faith. That's why there are no explicit instances of infants being baptized in the New Testament. So how did the church come to baptize newborns?

There is the curious incident of the jailor in the night. In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are in prison in Philippi, praying and singing hymns. Around midnight, an earthquake shakes the doors open. The jailor thinks his prisoners have escaped and is about to fall n his sword when Paul cries out that everyone is still in their cell. The jailor walks them out of the jail, falls on his knees and asks "What must I do to be saved?" To which they reply, "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household." Paul and Silas explain the Gospel to him and we are told, "then he and his entire family were baptized without delay." It doesn't say if any children or infants were among them but it doesn't say that there weren't. And since there is a pattern in Acts of entire households being baptized, it stands to reason some children must have been baptized. In addition, on Pentecost when Peter calls for the crowd of believers to repent, be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit, he tells them, "for the promise is to you and your children…" There is also Jesus' saying, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these." Outside of the Bible there are Christian writings about baptizing infants and children by the early second century. By the third century infant baptism is common.

Most Christian denominations baptize infants. And while there are a lot of arguments for doing so, one has always struck me as particularly apt. When a Hebrew boy was born he was circumcised on the 8th day. That was done in observance of the covenant made by God with the people of Israel and this entrance rite made the child one of God's people. Why should not the people of the New Covenant include their babies in the people of God via the entrance rite laid down by Christ? If God's grace is shed abroad on those who cannot do anything to earn it, why not upon infants who cannot do anything at all?

But since the child cannot understand to what is going on, the questions we ask of older baptismal candidates we ask of the babe's parents and godparents. And so in a few minutes I will ask baby J___'s parents and sponsors some essential questions about themselves and their dedication to raising him in the Christian faith. Then I will ask you all some questions.

We will first ask if they commit themselves to bring up the child in the faith. Then we will ask a series of questions about their faith, namely do they turn from sin and evil and turn to Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord? Basically, that's the Old Testament definition of repentance: turning around, changing direction, returning to God.

Then, after the entire congregation recites the Apostle's Creed, the liturgy turns from what we believe to what we are going to do about it. I will ask everyone here a series of questions about practices of the faith.

I will ask, "Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers?" Basically, I'm asking if you will continue to go to church. You can and should read the apostle's teachings in the Bible at home. But in church you have a person trained in understanding the Bible explaining it week after week. You can ask him questions about it and argue with him, which is more likely to give you different perspectives than only studying it by yourself. In the same way, you can pray alone but there is something to being part of a community all praying together in one Spirit and with one heart. Your local church is also where you can celebrate communion among a large sample of the Body of Christ and enjoy fellowship with them. Ours is a religion of love; unless you practice it among real people with real flaws, you're just playing pretend. Here we learn to love others brought together not by our choice but by God's call.

Then I will ask, "Will you persist in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?" In other words, will you try not to do things that harm yourself or others or your relationship with God? And when you do such things (and you will), will you turn your life around and get back to following God?

Some Christians in the ancient world put off baptism until later in life. They thought, "If baptism will wipe out my sins, perhaps I'd better wait till the majority of them are behind me." The Emperor Constantine, the first "Christian" emperor, waited until his deathbed to be baptized. That way the bad things he'd done, like the execution of his eldest son and his wife, could be magically wiped out and he would not have to live a life of contrition. God, however, is not fooled by such stratagems. And as Christians, whenever we realize that we have strayed from God, we can ask God for forgiveness and start over. When J___ begins to walk, around a year from now, give or take a few months, his parents can expect him to fall a lot. That's OK. As long as he gets up and tries again, they will be pleased. If he gave up trying to walk altogether, they would not. Just so, God is pleased at our continuing progress however much we stumble. Giving up is the worst reaction we can have to our sin.

Next I will ask, "Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?" The good news or gospel is that Jesus frees us from the slavery of sin and makes all things new. And we are to spread the word not only with our lips but with our lives. The world isn't stupid. It knows you can say one thing and do another. And there have been a lot of high profile Christians who have been exposed for hypocrites. If we don't live out our faith, we can hardly blame others for not believing. This question is about our integrity and our intention to bring our behavior into alignment with our beliefs.

Next I will ask, "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?" Jesus boiled down the law of God into 2 commandments: to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And he said that what we did to the least of his brothers and sisters we do to him. Because he is the original image of God, which is present in all of us, even though it has been marred in us. So we are to look for Jesus in every person, no matter how broken, and we are to treat them as we would Jesus. The mark of a disciple of Jesus is our love for one another.

Finally, I will ask, "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?" God is a God of justice and a God of peace. If everyone were always treated fairly, we would have peace. But the history of this world could be seen as a list of unjust things we have done to one another and the neverending retaliation for each and every injustice. Jesus called us to be peacemakers and that involves restoring justice, offering forgiveness and working towards reconciliation. It's not easy but it is the mission we take on when we choose to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Christ.

Because it is not easy, our answer to each of these questions is "I will, with God's help." We cannot live the Christian life under our own power. We need God's power. Baptism is not only a channel of God's grace but also of his Holy Spirit. Baptism incorporates us into the Body of Christ and as he was filled with the Spirit, so we need to be. Baptism equips us by giving us the gift of the Spirit, which we need in order to embody Christ for others.

And the reason we will make these promises is because having such a powerful gift is not enough. You have to learn how to use it. And just as baby J___ will need help to learn to use the marvelous gifts of the body and brain God has given him, so we as a community, as his family in Christ, will help him learn to use the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit has bestowed upon him.

And J___ will help us relearn things we have forgotten, things we will see anew through the eyes of a baby. Some truths are best perceived by children who see connections and parallels we have lost the ability to spot. Small children are antidotes to cynicism, conduits of wonder. We need what they can teach us as much as they need what we can teach them.

J___'s physical life began just over a week ago. His spiritual life begins now. He entered a very big world when he was born. He about to enter an even larger one. He was born a citizen of the United States. He is soon to be reborn as a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Something unimaginably huge is about to happen in this small church. That's because we are doing this in the presence of our unimaginably huge God, who just happens to be our loving heavenly Father.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Buffy Summers is having a hard time adjusting to college. Her courses are hard, her teachers are tough, somebody stole her stuff and her roommate is a demon. After all, the town of Sunnydale is built over a Hellmouth. And Buffy is the Slayer, the one girl in her generation chosen to fight evil supernatural beings. With all this going on, Buffy runs into her high school friend Xander, who just got back from a disappointing cross-country trip to find himself. Unlike her other friends, Xander has no superpowers but he's good at sizing up situations and keeping his eye on what's important. Seeing that Buffy's really feeling down on her life, Xander shares a thought with her. "Let me tell you something: when it's dark and I'm all alone and I'm scared or freaked out or whatever, I always think, 'What would Buffy do? You're my hero.'"

Of course, that's a reference to the popular question, "What would Jesus do?" The question isn't that new. It originated as the subtitle of the 1896 book "In His Steps" by Charles Sheldon. In the novel, a homeless man asks the question at the end of the service at a well-to-do church. Various characters in the story wrestle with how to act like Jesus in their different lives and careers. The book has been translated into 21 languages and sold 30 million copies making it the 9th best selling book of all time. It inspired theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, who was instrumental in the Social Gospel movement.

The sentiment, if not the question, goes way back. It was the central concept of the 15th century devotional book, "The Imitation of Christ" by Thomas a Kempis. Certainly imitating Christ was central to the life of St. Francis. But ultimately it can be traced to the New Testament. In 1st Corinthians 11:1 Paul says, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." It's echoed in 1st Thessalonians 1:6 and 1st Peter 2:21. In Romans 13:14 Paul states it this way: "clothe yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ." And indeed most critics of the church love to point out that they'd be more inclined to believe if we Christians acted more like Jesus.

One of the things that has led to the sudden drop-off of people identifying themselves as Christians has been the decades-long yoking of evangelical churches with one political party. This has committed them to endorsement of policies about which the Bible is silent as well as some that are antithetical to biblical ethics. God is neither a Democrat, nor a Republican, nor a Tea Partier, nor a Communist, nor a Capitalist, nor a Tory, nor a Mugwump! He does not sign onto our platforms; we are to sign onto his. He is not indifferent either to personal sexual ethics nor to social justice. He does not say that all the rich are evil nor that all the poor are lazy. He does not promise all of his followers riches nor require poverty from all of his followers. He does not exempt bad behavior based on your class or circumstances. He requires us to love one another as Christ loved us and to treat everyone in need as if that person were Christ. That means no name-calling, no violence, no malice, no promiscuity, no greed, no envy, no arrogance, no refusing to help, no refusing to forgive.

Those are high standards to be sure. And Jesus knows we will not always meet them. In the prayer he taught us we ask God to forgive us. But we ask forgiveness in the same proportion that we forgive others. And we are to forgive them however often they ask. After all, how often do we ask God to forgive us?

If you are trying to follow the ethics of Jesus, figuring out what that entails is pretty easy. Jesus discussed a lot of topics, such as marriage, taxes, honesty, forgiveness, violence, children, stewardship, the poor, immigrants, prisoners, priorities and more. And to fill in the gaps, he articulated 2 commandments on which everything else depends. One would have to adapt some of these to specific modern problems but that is true of any ethical system. None spell out everything. But if you study Jesus' words and actions, what you should do in the vast majority of ethical situations should be clear.

The problem as always is not so much what Jesus would do but would you do the same? Jesus is explicit on the matter of not retaliating. We are to turn the other cheek. But that is hard. Many of us, if hit, would hit back without even thinking first. In addition, we are to give freely to those that ask, visit those in prison, offer hospitality to immigrants, deny ourselves and take up our cross. The way of Jesus is the way of sacrificial giving. The most generous of us rarely give that much. The more we have the less we tend to give.

A few years ago there was a scandal when it was disclosed that big-time celebrities are often paid a lot to appear at charity fundraisers, so much so that the fundraisers don't make much for the charities. I heard a news report of how odd it was for Beyonce and Jay-Z to post pictures of their baby online rather than get 5 to 10 million dollars from the tabloids as other celebrities do. When one makes enough from one movie ($20 million for the top male stars) or one recording contract (as much as $80 million in a year) to live comfortably for the rest of one's life, it seems greedy to exploit charities and one's own children for more. And it seems hypocritical to thank Jesus when winning an award unless one is planning on being as generous to the less fortunate as he would be.

For most of us, the sacrificial following of Jesus is more a matter of how much of our time and talent as well as treasure we spend on doing his work. And I don't just mean for the church but in other ways: tutoring the illiterate, building houses with Habitat for Humanity, working at a food pantry or a women's shelter, volunteering at a hospital, adopting a handicapped child, or helping others in any number of ways. What would Jesus do about the homeless or the sick or the hungry or the oppressed? There are many organizations, many of them Christian, which will allow you to do the kind of things Jesus would do.

But what if you were faced with the problem Jesus and the prophet Elisha dealt in this week's Old Testament and Gospel readings? What if what Jesus would do takes a lot more than you have? What if what Jesus would do is miraculously cure someone?

Leprosy in the Bible was probably not the disease we call leprosy today. In biblical times, it probably covered all kinds of skin diseases like favus, psoriasis, ringworm and lupus as well. And as bad has having one of those diseases were, they also made you unclean and excluded you from living among others. The ostracism added to the person's suffering. So when Jesus healed a leper, he was also restoring the person to the community. They could worship with others, touch and be touched.

As a follower of Christ, while you may not encounter leprosy, you will run into people with other serious diseases. You can pray for them but odds are you won't be able to heal them instantly with a touch. What would Jesus want you do to if you can't do what Jesus would do?

Buffy's friend Xander faces a similar dilemma when he confronts the Big Bad, or ultimate threat of Season 6 of the show. Normally, super-strong Buffy would do it aided by her best friend Willow, a powerful witch. But in a major plot twist, Willow is the Big Bad. When a bullet meant for Buffy kills her lover, Willow channels all her power into hunting down and flaying alive the guy who fired the gun. Buffy tries to stop her friend from becoming a killer and finds out that super-strength doesn't trump magical powers. Now in her pain and rage Willow is trying to destroy the whole suffering world. With Buffy sidelined, it's up to Xander to face his oldest friend from childhood, now turned into a scary all-powerful bundle of rage-fueled black magic. And all Xander can do is tell Willow that he loves her. He tells her he remembers when she was crying over breaking a crayon in kindergarten, and he loved her then as he loves her now. And if she wants to end the world, she can start with him. Willow buffets him with magic and tears at his face with invisible talons but ultimately, in the face of his unconditional love, she collapses against him and cries out her pain, regaining her humanity.

When we can not do something miraculous that Jesus would do, we can do what he wants us ordinary disciples to do. We can love others. We can empathize and offer a shoulder to cry on. We can listen to them. We can be a loving presence, a reminder that they are not alone, an assurance that we will stick with them no matter what. But can't anyone do that? Yes. But, let me tell you as a nurse, not everyone does do that. The sick are still isolated. I cannot tell you how many times at the nursing home a relative from out of state arrived to see a patient only to let slip that there is a relative in town who never comes to visit. I have seen men so afraid of hospitals that they could not bring themselves to visit their injured wives. And often when people are bereaved or terminally ill, they find that friends cannot bear to discuss death with them, even when that's what they want to talk about. Even Jesus listened to and wept with Mary and Martha when Lazarus died.

Under the scene where Willow clings to and cries on Xander, they played Sarah McLachlan's haunting rendition of the St. Francis Prayer. And if you think about it, the prayer covers most of the situations we encounter along with the prescription for dealing with them.

"Where there is hatred, let us sow love." This may seem obvious, but it's difficult to do. When someone hates you, it's tough to show them love. Unless it's your child, in which case, you let them say they hate you and you continue to love them. And you realize that even if they hate you, what you're doing is for their own good. As Christians, that is how we are to respond to those who hate us. We are to repay evil actions with good.

Notice that the prayer does not say to obliterate hatred with love. It says that we are simply to sow love. We are to plant the seed. It may take time to bear fruit. We may not see the result. But we are to seed the situation, implant the idea, get the ball rolling and then leave the outcome to God.

"Where there is injury, pardon." When someone is harmed, the hardest thing to fix is the psychological damage. What is often needed is forgiveness. It's comparable to pulling out a thorn, or to stopping one's picking at a scab so it can heal. It doesn't mean forgetting but deciding to let go of anger, bitterness, and resentment. It means not letting what happened to you in the past distort or narrow your future. It's the first step to a new beginning.

"Where there is discord, union." Not all versions of the prayer have this clause but it seems appropriate because a lot of the grief in the world comes from discord. And while we are trying to sew the seeds of union that doesn't mean uniformity. After all in marriage we strive for the union of the 2 different halves of humanity, the male and the female. Marriage also brings together different races, languages, cultures and personalities. Jesus aims to bring different people together into one body of Christ. As Christians we are entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation which is not only reconciling people to God but to each other.

"Where there is doubt, faith." Faith of course is central to Christianity. But too often it's defined narrowly, as believing in God as one would a fact about the planet Saturn. That kind of belief really doesn't affect your everyday life. The kind of faith Jesus looked for is complete trust in him. That kind of faith changes lives. When people doubt God's goodness and love, we as the Body of Christ try to give them a reason to trust him again. And we can only do it if we trust him in that same manner. And we can only find that faith when we act on it and experience his trustworthiness.

"Where there is despair, hope." Hope goes hand in hand with faith. Trusting in God's goodness helps us see past the trials and sorrows of the present to the time when God will make things right and fulfill his promises. Lose hope and you lose a lot of motivation for going on. Despair drains one's energy and joy in life. We must remember that with God, your past or present need not determine or limit your future. It will be better.

"Where there is darkness, light." Darkness hides both bad things that can hurt us as well as good things that will encourage us. The light of the gospel can give us knowledge and insights into the nature of the fallen world we inhabit as well as the Kingdom of God that is growing within and among us. And we must always act as if all we do will come to light. Because it will one day.

"Where there is sadness, joy." At times our life may be understandably sad but if we let that determine our attitude and approach towards life in general we miss out on God's gift of joy. Life is not meant to be a grim march from birth to the grave. Though our sins have had a negative effect of our world, that is not its ultimate destiny. This world does not get the last word. God does and it is one of joyful redemption.

We are to focus then on providing the world what it often denies us. We seek to console rather than demand consolation. We try to understand others in as loving a light as we can, rather than always demand that others understand us. And we seek to be the one who initiates love, rather than wait for others to give us love first.

The final petitions in the prayer remind us of the paradoxes of the Christian life. Giving, not getting, brings you the most blessings. Being pardoned will, as we learn in the Lord's Prayer, require we have done the same towards others. And trying to hold onto your life will insure that you lose it, whereas not clinging to it too tightly will open you up to true and unending life.

Following Jesus is not easy but neither are most of the things worth having in life. You most appreciate those things that are hard won and the stuff you acquire without effort is the least prized. Though God's grace is free, the salvation it offers requires constant tending and nurturing. It requires us to see things God's way and to do things his way as well. It starts by asking "What would Jesus want me to do?" but it only yields results when we follow through.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Mythtaken Ideas

I love the show "Mythbusters" even though it is misnamed. After all, they are not disproving stories of Zeus or Venus. They are testing urban legends. In fact, during the first season they had a folklorist, who recounted the origin of the stories. In literary circles, a myth is a sacred story of divine beings. To scholars of myths, like Joseph Campbell, a myth is not a big lie but a big truth in the form of a story that resonates in a culture. That's how Plato used them, as did Freud. If the story is about fairies or giants or humans, it is not myth but folklore. And if the protagonist is a human hero or a saint and the story can't be historically verified but has been handed down by tradition, it is a legend. The stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood are legends. Many historians now think there may have been actual persons who were so popular that stories about them were embroidered upon. In the case of Arthur we can actually see the development of his tales over time because we have several versions written at different periods. We can see how other tales were added to his, even if they were originally about other heroes, like Bran the Blessed. The stories of the Holy Grail and Lancelot were additions to his saga that eventually became integral to the Arthuriad.

The reason I'm defining these terms is because of our Sermon Suggestion for this month: "Lore, superstition, mythology and religion: where do we draw the line? And why or how?" One could write a book on this so I'll have to stick to a few highlights.

First let's take care of the term "superstition." It's basically magical thinking. It is observing a ritual or heeding omens in the belief that doing so will magically protect one from bad luck or insure good luck. Some people equate magic and religion and so they see religion as a form of superstition. But magic is the belief that one can impose one's will on the universe by means of special words, rituals or objects. Theistic religion is the surrender to God's will. We ask for things in prayer but we do not believe that we can make God do anything. Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane did not presume to tell his Father how things must be. He said, "Not my will but yours be done." All Christian prayer must include this qualifier, at least as a subtext.

Of course, there are some traditional religious practices that do smack of superstition. Some Christians treat objects, like crucifixes, scapulars, and prayer cloths, or certain rituals, like prayers to saints or certain forms of prayers, as if they were magical. But even the sacraments, which are outward visible signs of inner spiritual grace, are not magical. Paul writes that those who partake unworthily do not receive the benefit of communion. That's because one's faith must be in God, not in the object which is the channel of his grace. And one's relationship with God must be in a good state, not clouded by unfaithfulness and sins.

Put it this way. One may desire to have a picture of a loved one or a lock of their hair or a ring they gave you. The purpose is to remind you of them or to symbolize their love. But it would be weird for you to tell the picture to make you dinner thinking it would make the person do the same or to tell the ring to make the person dial their phone and call you. That would be magical thinking or superstition. We aren't dealing with that.

But how does one separate mythology from religion? If myths are stories of gods, does that make all the stories in the Bible myth? How do we know the stories of the Bible are true if the Greek or Roman myths are not?

Here's where it would take a book to explain all the differences. For our purposes, I'm going to concentrate on just one story--that of Jesus. If Jesus, as God Incarnate, fits the criteria of a myth in that it is a story about a god, doesn't that make him just one of many dying and rising gods? What makes the story of Jesus unique?

There are plenty of books out there that claim that Jesus of Nazareth never actually existed and his story was composed of bits from all the other dying and rising gods. There are several problems with this line of argument but the really fatal flaw is that the evidence for such gods just isn't there. This idea got started in the 19th century when Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer tried to put together an evolutionary framework for religions (since discredited) and created the category of the dying and rising god, which he thought was common in agricultural societies and would be based on the dying of crops in winter and their coming back in spring. The problem is that to make Frazer's schema work you have to force most gods into the category. Almost all of the gods who die are never resurrected, though, like Osiris, they may continue in the afterlife. Some die as men and are made gods after death. And a number of them actually come after Jesus and thus are more likely copies of him than vice versa. Scholars of Attis, the only resurrected pagan god, concede that his mythology was changed to better compete with Christianity.

There is a film on the Internet and on Netflix called "The God Who Wasn't There." In it, ex-Christian Brian Flemming lists 17 attributes that he says other gods share with Jesus. A careful examination shows that 8 of these so-called common attributes, such as riding into a city on a donkey, being betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, sharing a communal meal with his followers in which bread and wine represent the savior's flesh and blood, dying on a tree or cross, are in fact unique to Jesus. Attis is the only one to rise on the third day and as we've seen, this appears to be a later addition to his story influenced by Jesus. Most of the other attributes, such as healing people, casting out demons, performing miracles and rising into heaven, are the sort of things one expects in any story of a god. For more on this subject, go here and here. These sites examine the "Jesus as copycat god" thesis, go to the original sources and find nothing of substance to support this idea.

C. S. Lewis, himself once an atheist who found to his horror that the evidence for God was compelling, made a number of remarks about Jesus and mythology. When he read the gospels in the original Greek, the literature professor in him discovered that they did not read as myths but as reporting. They weren't "good enough" to be myths. However, Lewis did come to the conclusion that in Christ, myth became fact. Jesus' healings and miracles, his death and resurrection took place, not in some special mythic time, but in history. Nor was Lewis troubled by any parallels, seeing them as the pagan equivalent of the messianic prophesies in the Old Testament.

So is there evidence that Jesus was an historical person? Yes. Besides the New Testament, Jesus Christ is mentioned by a handful of other non-Christian writers. The most accepted references include one in Josephus, the Jewish historian on whom we rely for much information about 1st century Galilee and Judea. Another is found in the writings of Tacitus, a Roman senator and one of Rome's greatest historians. He is the first secular historian to mention Christ. He says that Christ was executed by Pontius Pilate and details how Nero blamed Christians for burning Rome and persecuted them. His friend Pliny the Younger was a Roman governor who tortured and executed Christians. He writes that genuine Christians are truthful and will not curse Christ even under torture and the threat of death. Pliny is also the only person to write a contemporary account of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. I mention this in response to the question of why there aren't more references to the historical Jesus. If a fiery cataclysm that buried thousands of people in 2 towns less than 6 miles from Naples didn't rate more than one write-up (and that 30 years after the event), then in comparison, the handful of mentions Jesus gets is downright amazing.

Granted that Jesus existed, how do we know that his followers didn't turn an executed Jewish preacher into a legendary figure who was later promoted to God? Let's look again at King Arthur. If he existed, he would have lived in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The first reference to him that we can date is 3 centuries later. And there he is called a soldier or battle leader who won a key battle over the invading Saxons. It takes another 3 centuries for him to be listed as a king. So it took 600 years for Arthur just to reach royalty. How long does it take for the historical Jesus to be called God? No more than 20 years. That's how long it was from Jesus' crucifixion in 30 AD to Paul's earliest extant letters. It doesn't seem anywhere near long enough. How could a bunch of devout Jews, monotheists, come to worship a man?

The only answer is his resurrection. When Jesus rose from the dead, as he had predicted, it made his followers rethink everything. They saw him forgive people, heal them, raise the dead, walk on water, command the storms, die and come back again. He called himself the Son of God. After Easter, it was hard to argue that he was anything else.

The earliest account of Jesus' resurrection occurs in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. He says 500 followers saw Jesus after the resurrection. That's a pretty gutsy thing to say when most of them were still alive. But it does explain the explosion of Christianity so shortly after Jesus' earthly life ends. After all by 60 AD there are enough Christians in Rome for Nero to see them as a dangerous sect. It explains how Jesus was hailed as God in 1/30th of the time it took Arthur to be called a mere king.

There is a lot more that can be said about the topic of mythology, legend and religion. Such as, are there any myths in the Bible, non-historical stories that embody great truths? Some Christians think there might, especially in the first few chapters of Genesis. And we would still have the affirmations that God created the world, that humanity was made in his image, that we sin through our bad choices, and that God is both just and merciful. Because it has an explicit moral about God's universal love and forgiveness, the story of Jonah works just as well as a parable as it does as a true story. The Book of Job loses nothing of its power as an acknowledgement and exploration of the fact that bad things can happen to good people whether it is historical or not. But wouldn't granting the possibility that not everything in the Bible may be up to 21st century standards of scientifically-verifiable facts compromise the whole Bible? Only if saying that when you met your future spouse, your heart leaped from your chest, something which is medically impossible, also invalidates your love. The truth remains whatever language or literary device is used to express it.

Martin Luther had a very good analogy about the relationship between Christ and the Bible. He compares it to the infant Jesus in the manger. The manger contained Christ. It held him up and cradled him. In it, he was presented to the shepherds who came to find the newborn Messiah. But our focus should be on Jesus, not the feedbox or the hay. We don't want to be like the baby in the Mastercard commercial who ignores the gifts of love sent to her and plays with the box instead. There are skeptics who are so focused on the construction of the manger, so to speak, and the quality of the hay that they ignore God's greatest gift, his Son. And there are Christians who seem to be more interested in proving that the manger meets modern engineering and child safety standards that the Jesus gets lost in the haze of arguments. I have a high view of the trustworthiness of Scripture. But I try not to lose track of what is essential: who Jesus is, what he has done for us and is doing in us, and what we should do in response.

Here's an example of why it's important to focus on the central message of the Bible, the good news of Jesus. Ravi Zacharias tells the story of Hien Pham, an interpreter who worked with Zacharias and other missionaries in Viet Nam in 1971. After South Viet Nam fell to the Vietcong, Pham was imprisoned for working with the American forces. It was 17 years before Zacharias heard from Pham again. And this is what he told him.

Pham's captors began to indoctrinate him with a constant stream of communist propaganda in Vietnamese and French and after a while his faith in God began to waver. He was sent to clean the latrines, the most loathsome job in the prison. While emptying a tin can full of used toilet paper he saw a sheet of paper in English. He washed it and hid it on him. That night, after his roommates went to bed, he pulled it out. It read "Romans Chapter 8." His eyes fell on the words "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him." That page concluded, "for I am convinced that nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Pham wept for he had just decided that day to stop praying to a God he had begun to doubt.

So he volunteered to clean the latrines every day and every day he found a page of the Bible, which he cleaned, hid and read that night. Someone was showing their contempt for Scripture by using it as toilet paper, not knowing that God was using those very pages to save Hien Pham's faith and his sanity.

When Pham was released from prison, he and 53 other men decided to escape Viet Nam by building a boat. Days before they left, 4 Vietcong knocked on Pham's door and confronted him with rumors about the escape. He denied it and they left. But he felt he had let God down by not telling the truth. Then, just hours before he was to leave, the 4 Vietcong returned and asked him if he was planning to escape. Trembling he told them the truth. They dropped their voices and asked if they could go, too!

58 men went to sea on a handmade boat. They hit a storm and it looked as if they would drown. And they would have, were it not for the sailing skills of those 4 Vietcong. They made it to Thailand and today Hien Pham lives in America.

That's the power of God's Word. It preserved a wavering Christian during imprisonment, indoctrination and degradation. It gave him the courage to tell his enemies a dangerous truth. It made those enemies allies and ultimately saved the lives of 58 men.

So when people say the Bible is all lies, that Christ didn't exist, or that the Jesus of history couldn't be the Christ of faith, when they heap all kinds of crap on the Gospel, just clean it off and let Scripture speak to you. Let the power of the living Word of God come through his written Word which has outlasted thousands of critics over thousands of years. And focus on Jesus, because all things work for the good of those who love God his Father and nothing can separate from the love of God that we see, hear and experience in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.