Sunday, June 24, 2012

God is an Infracaninophile

Bullying is in the news a lot these days. And it hit me the other day that I was bullied, though it was not something I've thought about much over the years. I was called "four eyes" and "Poindexter" and ridiculed for always having a pencil and carrying my books in a book bag rather than in my arms and throwing off the grading curve. I was chased around the schoolyard, pushed into a bush, given a black eye. Once I was bullied by mistake. Some kids who were mad at my brother mistook me for him and put snow down my collar. But I never felt like a victim. The kid who chased me around the schoolyard regretted it. Boxed in at the corner of the school fence, I raised my foot to crotch-height just as he ran at me, causing him to, as we said at the time, "rupture" himself. Being pushed into the bush was a lot less worse than I expected and probably had something to do with my pointing out that this particular bully would prove nothing by beating me up since he was obviously much bigger than me. Who would this impress? Having taken away any glory he could possibly garner by pulverizing me, I was shoved into the bushes and he walked away grumbling in dissatisfaction. Again simply accepting the challenge to meet the 3rd bully in the schoolyard after classes, though I was obviously outmatched, may have cost me a black eye and a wicked headache, but the next day it made me the hero of 7th grade. All in all, the lesson I learned in these incidents was that standing up to a bigger and stronger foe, while not guaranteeing you a victory, could spoil your opponent's triumph.

And, yes, I was called "queer" back then, though neither I nor, I suspect, my accusers had any real understanding of what that word meant. Today it has a well-known meaning, though why it gives anyone a reason to inflict either physical or emotional pain on anyone else is beyond me. I agree we need to stop bullies but we also need to teach our kids what my Mom taught me: that words cannot hurt me unless I let them. And in a war of words, even the powerful are vulnerable. Still the magnifying effect of being attacked and slandered and mocked in the cyberworld as well as the schoolyard leaves children with no respite from the cruelty of other kids and, if they seek their validation from others, it can be overwhelming. Name-calling, slander and gossip need to considered bad behaviors again. And if the bullying is physical, it should be taken seriously and not tolerated. The Bible condemns both sins of the tongue and interpersonal violence.

There are a lot of titles and descriptors given to God: God Almighty, God Most High, the Lord of hosts, Creator, Redeemer, Comforter, Advocate. But you've probably never heard God called an infracaninophile. And that's because though Christopher Morley coined the word in the 1930s, it's rarely used. It means "lover of the underdog" and it certainly fits our God.

If you read the narrative parts of the Bible, you notice something. Though the society of the Ancient Near East favored firstborns and societies everywhere favor the powerful, God doesn't. The first firstborn, Cain, murders his younger brother Abel and God exiles him for it. Many of the heroes of the Bible are not firstborns: Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and David, just to mention a few. God makes a race of slaves, Israel, into his people. And when he sends his son, Jesus is not born to a wealthy or powerful family but to a poor village craftsman and his wife. Jesus confounds his more powerful enemies through vigorous thoughts and strong words honed and wielded skillfully.

The classic underdog is David in his conflict with Goliath. Though some have cast doubt on the idea of a 9 foot 9 inch warrior, we have an ancient Egyptian letter that describes fierce 7 to 9 foot warriors in Canaan and we have found the skeletons of two 7 foot women in the area. Goliath was of that race and with his scaled armor, plumed helmet, enormous spear and full-body shield, he was a formidable foe. Who better to put forth in a contest of champions, through whom the gods will decide the conflict? Though King Saul was taller than his fellow Israelites, he didn't want to face this Philistine behemoth. And so it falls to David, who was dropping off provisions for his brothers in Saul's army. He overheard Goliath's insults to God's people and volunteered to face the giant.

David had never worn armor and so he rejected Saul's after trying it on. Instead he used his weapon of choice: the sling. As a shepherd, he had plenty of solitary time to practice his marksmanship. And it has paid off on the occasion when a lion or bear snatched a lamb from his flock and he had to retrieve it. Nor was David packing a peashooter. Slings were used in battle and typically they hurled rocks the size of your fist or a baseball. The weapon's range was up to 100 yards and a skilled shot could fling a rock at speeds from 80 to 100 miles per hour. Goliath probably didn't know what hit him.

But David was not trusting in his efforts alone. He knew that once that projectile leaves your hand, the wind, the angle of approach, a movement by your opponent, any one of a number of factors can deflect or lessen the impact of it. A sniper fired a head shot at my dad in World War 2 and it was stopped by his helmet. I understand helmets are not really designed to be bulletproof. The Mythbusters showed that depending on caliber of bullet, gun, distance, etc. it is possible for a Bible to stop a bullet. Even if the projectile hits the person, death is not a sure thing. I have personally taken care of 2 patients who were shot in the head and survived with minimal brain damage. So if that rock hadn't hit its target and with sufficient force, Goliath would have made shepherd's pie out of David.

Because we live in a universe with consistent physical rules, bigger and stronger usually rules the day. And the sheep-like behavior of people helps. People like to back a winner and so bullies are usually bolstered by hangers-on and sycophants. But just as it says in Ecclesiastes 9:11, battles do not always go to the strong. And as the game "King of the Hill" teaches us, those who make it to the top can still be toppled. Several tyrants in the Middle East have learned that recently. They trusted in their own strength to keep power.

The Lord is a God of justice and so he doesn't give special consideration to those who already have power. People who have earthly power are more likely to rely on and put their trust in that than in God. In David's case, his roving eye and royal power later on will lead him to commit adultery with Bathsheba and have her husband killed at the battle front. Through the prophet Nathan, God calls David on that and punishes him.

In fact, the prophets frequently speak God's unpalatable truths to those in power, even if they are Israelite or Judean kings. In a world in which religion's chief function is to bless the power structure and the status quo, the inclusion of the prophets in the Hebrew Holy Book is remarkable. Those in power don't like critics. In the 36th chapter of Jeremiah we are told that as the king's secretary read the prophet's scroll, King Jehoiakim would cut off what was just read and throw it in the fire. Neither he nor his attendants worried about destroying God's words because they really did not want to hear themselves or their ways condemned.

And what did Jeremiah and the other prophets condemn in their society? Two things primarily: people's messed up relationship with God and their messed up relationships with each other. In other words, violating the 2 Great Commandments. Either the Israelites and Judeans were worshipping other gods beside Yahweh or their worship of the Lord was empty and insincere. And that bled over into the way they treated the least fortunate in the land. As God reminded them in Isaiah 58, "Is this not the fast that I choose, to loosen the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into your house; if you see someone naked, to clothe him and not hide yourself from your own people?"  

The powerful used their wealth or connections to deny the poor their rights. To King Shallum, the disappointing son of the righteous King Josiah, Jeremiah says, "Woe to him who builds his house without righteousness and his upper rooms without justice, who makes his neighbor work for nothing and doesn't give him his wages….Do you rule because you lust to excel in cedar? Didn't your father manage to eat and drink and still do what is just and upright? Then it was well for him. He pled the cause of the poor and the needy and then all went well. Isn't that what it means to know me, says the Lord?" (Jer 22:13, 15-16) In Proverbs 31, kings are commanded to "speak out for those who cannot speak, for the cause of all the destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously and defend the cause of the poor and needy."

The reason misdirected worship and mistreatment of the vulnerable go together is because of God's nature. He is a father. He won't let the stronger pick on the weak. In Psalm 10, the psalmist says to God, "You do see it. You take note of trouble and grief to repay it by your hand. The poor commits himself to you. You are the helper of the orphan….You have heard the desire of the humble. You will strengthen their hearts. Your ear will hear them."  People come to resemble what they worship. People who worship God in the right spirit share his values. As Proverbs 29:7 says, "The righteous knows the rights of the poor; the wicked do not understand such concern." And in chapter 19 it says, "Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord and he will repay him for his good deed." If you helped out my daughter or son, I would consider it a good deed done to me and repay you for your kindness. That's how God views the poor. And in chapter 14 we read, "Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker but those who are kind to the needy honor him." 

Nor is this just an Old Testament thing. Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, praises the God who scatters the arrogant in mind and heart, pulls down the powerful from their thrones and exalts the humble, feeds the hungry with good things and sends away the wealthy with empty hands. John the Baptist said, "Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise." Jesus said, "Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys." Jesus also said, "Give to him who asks of you and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you." In 1st John we are asked, "If someone has worldly means and sees a brother in need, but closes his heart to him, in what way does the love of God continue to live in him?" Paul reminds us that Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive and that the Lord loves a cheerful giver.

This has nothing to do with politics. This has to do with justice. As it says in Leviticus 19, "You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly." And in an ideal world, justice would be blind. What you did would determine how you are treated.  Your race, religion, economic class, country of origin, anything you are would be irrelevant. But we live in a society in which, if you kill someone, statistically you're much less likely to be executed or draw a life sentence if you are rich and/or white than if you're poor and/or non-white; where you will go to jail if you rob a bank but not if you financially destroy one; where the quality of your legal representation is directly tied to your ability to pay for a lawyer. We live in a world where a country that just overthrew a dictator and held a democratic election is being denied that by that country's military, where in another country the dictator is killing his people with impunity, where children are abducted from African villages and forced to kill their families and turned into child soldiers, where the trafficking of women sex slaves has become more profitable than drugs. We live in a world where people who should be role models, coaches and priests and teachers and bishops, use the power of their positions to sexually exploit children. And why? Because they can. Because from the earliest time in history, people with power have used that power for themselves. Big guys bully little guys. Rich guys take advantage of poor guys. Big corporations give millions to politicians because, according to a recent study, they get an average return rate of 22,000% in terms of tax breaks. The way of the world is: if you have power, you use it for yourself.

God's way is: if your have power, you use it for those who need it. As it says in Philippians, "Have the same attitude among you that was in Christ Jesus who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard his equality with God as something to cling to but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, becoming the likeness of a human being, and being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name." That is our God. That is why we worship him and that is how we should emulate him in regards to others. He had absolute power and gave it up, limiting himself, to live and die as one of us to save us, to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. That is what power is for. That is how it's to be used in the Kingdom of God.

We are citizens of that Kingdom. We are to work for justice and fairness, helping those who cannot help themselves as Jesus does for us. But the Lord is also a God of mercy. If not, we would never survive his justice. And he is a God of grace. The best explanation of the differences that I have heard is this: Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting everything you deserve to get. And grace is getting what you could never deserve. God not only saves us from the spiritual consequences of our sins but gives us grace to be his children and heirs. We do not deserve his grace but being recipients of it we pass it on to others. We take our role as Christ's body on earth and work for justice, offer mercy and dispense grace.

The world may owe us nothing but we owe God everything. For that reason we cannot let ourselves be counted with the bullies and the oppressors and the thieves and the exploiters and the self-indulgent and all the folks who make this a terrible place for the poor and the sick and the damaged and the neglected and the despised and the vulnerable. We cannot be a part of those people who look at the unfortunate and say "Tough luck" and move on. We don't believe in luck, tough or otherwise. We believe in a gracious God and so we stop and help. We believe in a merciful God and so we offer forgiveness. We believe in a just God and so we work to rectify injustice.

We are called to be the anti-bullies of this world. Bullies pick on people and knock them down. We reach out and pick up fallen humanity. Bullies instill fear. We instill faith. Bullies use their power to intimidate weaker people into doing their will. We imitate Christ using his power to help the weak find God's gracious will for them. And we know that even in this dog eat dog world, we needn't worry. Because God loves the underdog.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

More Than Meets the Eye

The Scripture referred to is 2 Corinthians 6-17.
It sounds like the premise of a movie but what if a loved one was convinced that you were not who you said you were but an impostor? If questioned, this person would admit that you looked and sounded and moved just like their father, mother, spouse, etc. but they just knew you weren't really that person. It's called Capgras Syndrome and it can be the result of schizophrenia, dementia or brain injury. Unlike prosopagnosia or face blindness, patients who suffered from Capgras Syndrome recognize the faces of family and friends but the usual emotional response to them is absent. This leads some neuroscientists to postulate a disconnect between the temporal cortex of the brain, where facial recognition is performed, and the limbic system, where emotions are generated. Because the person's spouse, for instance, looks like the spouse to them but just doesn't "feel" like their spouse, they reason that he or she must be an imposter. Thank God this is a rare syndrome.

The reason I bring this up is that when we see things or people, we perceive them not just as random objects but in some cases as more than that. A child learns to differentiate between toys in general and his toys, dogs in general and his pet, people in general and his family. We tend to remember events that evoke an emotional response in us better than, say, a routine visit to the store. Yet in an objective sense, our eyes see no more than a stranger would.

One of the wonderful features of the updated Sherlock Holmes TV series from the BBC is what we might call "Sherlock vision." At times, we see crime scenes through the great detective's eyes. In the first episode, as Sherlock examines a body, he pulls off the victim's wedding ring. Above the exterior of the ring floats the word "dirty." He looks at the interior and the word "clean" appears. Other signs indicate that she is from out of town. He later announces that she was a serial adulterer, based on the fact that she did not value her marriage enough to keep her ring looking nice but removed it so often that the inner side was smooth and shiny. The effect is humorously highlighted when he is confronted by a naked Irene Adler. When Sherlock looks at John Watson, words pop up indicating from the unevenness of his shaving which side his shaving mirror must be on and from the state of his clothes whether the doctor changed after coming home from a date. But when he looks at the unclothed woman, Holmes sees only question marks!

In our passage from 2 Corinthians Paul writes that "we walk by faith, not by sight." Skeptics take this as a statement of opposites. "If walking by faith is the opposite of walking by sight, then it must mean faith is blind." They think that faith means shutting your eyes to reality or at least certain parts of it and find it strange that we should brag of navigating in an impaired manner. But that is not what Paul means. He is saying that walking by faith is not the opposite of walking by sight but perceiving more than is seen by the naked eye. There is a logic to our spiritual approach that reveals dimensions mere materialism cannot fathom.

For reasons known only to the people who prepared our lectionary, our reading begins in the middle of Paul's discussion of life and death. In the verse before the one we start with, Paul says that God has given us his Spirit as a down payment or guarantee of what he has promised us. It is because we have God's Spirit in us that we are confident that whatever lies beyond this life is better, offering a greater intimacy with God than is possible in this life. It is in this context that he talks of walking or navigating through life by faith rather than by mere sight. In the light of our having eternal life, things look different.

Obviously, knowing that we have eternal life means we need not fear death but it also means we want to live in a manner that will please Jesus from whom we receive such life and whom we will meet face to face when we die. It is the relationship of trust and love we have with Jesus that makes us see the world as we do. While we may not exhibit the deductive ability of Sherlock, through faith, our trust in a creative, loving, redeeming God, we see that there is more to the world and to people than just a collection of atoms, chemicals and biological drives. Just as recognizing a person to be our father or mother causes us to greet that person more warmly than we would someone we are meeting for the first time, so recognizing Jesus in the people we meet every day will affect how we treat them.

Ideally, we should treat everyone as Jesus in disguise or in distress. That can be hard. The person we meet may be morally repugnant. How can we see Christ in someone who gives free reign to his rage, or is prejudiced, or is dishonest, or is always coming on to people, or who is always under the influence of drugs or who is arrogant?

If you're hunting for treasure, unlike movies, you're not likely to find it in a cave, all shiny and alluring. Those who dive wrecks and seek valuables that have been underwater for centuries look instead for unnaturally shaped lumps under layers of muck. They know that precious coins and the like are probably covered with growths and corals and corrosion. They don't look like much to the untrained eye. But the salvors gather them up and send them up to the boat and later, in a lab, people will patiently work to gently remove all of the dirt and accretions until a golden goblet or a bejeweled cross is revealed. Hidden treasures have to be salvaged.

Or to change the image, think of a sea turtle who is disfigured or disabled by fibropapillomas. They will suffer and eventually die unless someone rescues them and takes them to someplace like our Turtle Hospital, so the growths can be removed. That's how we have to look at people who appear to be unChristlike. The precious image of God is there. Our job is simply to identify and acknowledge them and lift them up to God. If that person lets him, the Holy Spirit will work to remove those things which obscure and distort God's image in them and bring out the likeness of Christ. And of course, the same process applies to us as well.

Looking at your life through the eyes of faith, you will see that it is more than just a period between birth and death in which you work in order that you may eat, sleep, and procreate in relative comfort. Instead, life is a mission. But unlike James Bond, our mission is not to keep secrets and kill people, but to spread the good news and help people. It is unfortunate that our heroes today are so ruthless that they can only be identified as good guys by the fact that they kill bad guys. Jesus had a different way of getting rid of bad guys--he transformed them into good guys. If he were to come back now and, as some desire, scour the earth of all who were evil--not just murderers but those who lie and gossip and don't forgive and commit adultery in their hearts and don't use his gifts for his purposes and don't give to the poor or help the sick and aren't hospitable to the alien and don't visit those in prison and don't feed the hungry and don't stand for justice for the oppressed--well, none of us would survive. Our only hope is in being saved from those things that we do and which have become our habits by God's grace in Christ Jesus.         

And our talents and skills are not simply for advancing ourselves in this world but through faith we see they are gifts from the Spirit to use for furthering and fulfilling our mission.

Our mission as Jesus articulated it is to go and make students and followers of him in every nation, baptize them in the name of the Triune God and teach them to keep his commandments. We are not to use laws or force to bring new people to Christ but words of wisdom and acts of love. Which means learning more about the Bible and Christianity ourselves so we can pass it on. It also means we must be living examples of Chrislike behavior. We can't let ourselves off the hook by saying "do as we say, not as we do." That's hypocrisy.

It also means we see everyone we meet as either a brother or sister in Christ or as a potential brother or sister in Christ. Which helps us in carrying out our mission by giving us motive. As Paul says, "For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all." Everyone we know, everyone we meet is someone for whom Christ died. But it does no one any good if they don't take advantage of it. After the Civil War, all slaves were free. But some did not act on that good news. They were afraid of freedom, its choices and responsibilities. They stayed on the plantations where they had lived and worked for wages that, after paying for food and lodging, left them as little better than slaves. That is the lot of all who do not respond to the fact that by his death Christ has freed us from enslavement to sin. All who are dead to the fact must be awakened.

In a sense it is as if we died to sin. "Therefore all have died," as Paul put it. We are as free from the penalty of sin as death would render us for any earthly crime. But it was Jesus who died for us. He took our penalty and we owe him our lives. Again, Paul says, "And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them." So we do not see ourselves as free agents who only have ourselves to answer to. We belong to Jesus and our lives are now in Christ. We are to put on Christ, which means our focus is not on ourselves but outward toward others.

"From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view," says Paul. The human way to look at people is to classify them as family, friend or foe. There is a reason why we prefer people who look and talk and act like us. When we lived in extended family units and clans, those are the people you could usually expect to look out for you and help you. Folks from other tribes might be friendly, might be potential allies, but they could just as easily be rivals for resources.

It is not unusual for animals to be friendly and even forgiving towards members of their own family unit. But meercats will battle other families of meercats, chimps will wage war on other groups of chimps, ants will march into the territory of other ants and fight to the death. That's natural and normal for them as it was for most of human history. But Jesus wants us to love not only those who already love us but those who don't. Because when he died for all, he died for them, too, of course. So we see them differently.

We see Jesus differently, too, Paul reminds us. The popular idea of the Messiah then was a holy warrior who was to free his people by killing those who were not his people. Instead Jesus destroyed the idea of a partisan God and a partisan savior. We don't see him as most of his contemporaries did. We see him as God-with-us, God who knows us all to be flawed and sinful and who died for us all anyway. He see him not just as a special human used by God but as God incarnate. We see him as the supreme exemplar of God's self-sacrificial redeeming love.

And so because of who he is and what he's done and for whom he has done it, we don't regard the people to whom he's sent us with this good news from a merely earthly point of view, especially if they respond to Christ. Those of us who let Jesus clean away those moral accretions and remove those spiritual tumors that obscure who he created us to be know there is more here than meets the eye. We are not who we were, who we once let ourselves become. That version of us is dead; God means to resurrect us and his whole creation to be something startling, something unanticipated, something groundbreaking. As Paul puts it, "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" Walking by faith, we see all people, this whole world in fact, as a work in progress. The mess around us is that of the new creation under construction, the new heavens and the new earth in embryonic form, new men and new women in the process of being born anew. Through the eyes of faith, we see the old paradigms falling apart and the new ones being built up, one principle and one person at a time. Walk by sight and you will stumble over the unseen and the imperceptible. Walk by faith and you will see a new temple being built of living stones, a more comprehensive image of God, comprised of all of us mirroring certain facets of our creator, coming together like a mosaic to show the full glory of our God our Father reflected in the face of his son Jesus Christ, whose body we are called to be.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


This is based on Mark 3:20-35.

If you visit enough religious sites on the web, you're likely to see an ad for "The God Who Wasn't There."  When I saw the film listed on Netflix, I finally decided to watch it. Basically it is one man's argument that Jesus never existed and was a myth used by Paul and the early church. Brian Flemming, the documentary's writer and director, interviews a handful of experts, mostly of a skeptical bent, with the notable exception of one: the principal of the Christian school Flemming attended as a kid. The principal obviously doesn't know that the alumna who is interviewing him is planning on challenging him on the basis of his faith.

Sadly, Flemming does not confront the educator on his principle failing: not teaching Flemming how to do research properly. Many of Flemming's "facts" are wrong; his timeline is off; and he really doesn't understand one key doctrine that he features prominently--blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Flemming seems to think that this means having doubt in God's existence, period. And because Jesus says this is an "unforgivable" sin, Flemming feels this is tantamount to mind control and is meant to stop people from questioning and therefore thinking.

It may very well be that this little religious school left him with that impression. It's too bad that Flemming didn't pick up any commentaries or even examine more closely the context of the Scripture in which this appears. If he had, he'd find a solid consensus that this passage does not say anything remotely like what he thinks it does. But this is a verse that disturbs a lot of people so we ought to look at just what is does and doesn't say.

By this point in Mark, Jesus' ministry is rubbing the Pharisees the wrong way. That was easy to do. The Pharisees were a religious group that not only were nitpickers about the Torah, the law of Moses as set down in the first 5 books of the Bible, but also experts in the traditional interpretations and applications of those laws over the centuries. You could get in trouble with them even if you obeyed what the Torah specifically said but didn't do it as laid out by the generations of rabbis whose interpretations were recorded in the Talmud, a commentary on a commentary of the Torah.

If you wanted to keep people from accidentally falling off a cliff, you would put up a fence. But you wouldn't put it at the very edge of the cliff. Someone might walk right up to the edge, lean on the fence and go over. You'd set the fence back from the cliff by several feet. The rabbis often did something similar with the 613 commandments of the Torah. For instance, in Exodus 23:19 and a couple of other places, the Hebrews are forbidden from boiling a young goat in its mother's milk. The reason is not given but it may have been a pagan practice. But scholars of the Torah, in order to make this absolutely impossible, forbade serving dairy and meat together. In orthodox Jewish homes, they have 2 sets of dishes, one for dairy and one for meat. Supposedly, the inspiration for Paul Simon's song, "Mother and Child Reunion," was his eating a cheeseburger, something an observant Jew would never do.

Some of these hedges around the Torah could get quite burdensome. Hebrews were not to work on the Sabbath. But what constituted work? The rabbis eventually enumerated more than 3 dozen categories. They debated whether one could eat an egg laid on the Sabbath. They prescribed a certain number of steps you could take--outside one's house, of course, or otherwise you might find yourself pausing in mid-stride just walking across a room. But what if your family lived in a camp? Rabbis decided that you could count anything that could be enclosed with a string as your home. After Hurricane Andrew I read about a neighborhood of Orthodox Jews whose first priority was to put up this very long string that had been strung along the telephone poles around their community, so that they could move freely on the Sabbath.

Jesus healed on the Sabbath and that was enough to inflame the Pharisees. Now they weren't merciless about this. You could medically treat someone on the Sabbath if they otherwise might die. But Jesus healed people who weren't in a life and death situation and so the Pharisees felt they could wait until after sunset. Jesus pointed out that the Sabbath--all of the Law, really--was given for our benefit, not the other way around. Why shouldn't he relieve these people of the burdens that made every day of their lives hard work and allow them the rest and refreshment of the Sabbath as well?          

Yet the Pharisees saw Jesus as an evil influence, a bad example, letting people slack off with regards to the minute details of observing the law. But how could they explain Jesus' amazing ability to heal those who were mentally and physically ill? Isn't his ability to do such great good a sign that, like the prophets of old, he was filled with God's Holy Spirit?

At that time, people believed that disease was caused by entities invisible to the naked eye called demons. Some people today feel superior because we know that many diseases are caused by entities invisible to the naked eye called germs (as well as toxins, DNA, nutritional factors, etc.) Regardless of that, they were almost as helpless in dealing with most diseases then as we are becoming in dealing with the ever growing number of antibiotic-resistant germs. So Jesus' healing ability was a godsend. But the real theological problem for the Pharisees was how could this slacker (when it came to the Law) cast out unclean spirits? It must be an evil ruse! Jesus must be casting out demons with the help of the prince of demons!

Beelzebul is literally "the lord of the flies" and possibly "the lord of dung." It is a Hebrew pun for the name of a Canaanite god, the "Exalted Baal." By Jesus' day, it became a synonym for Satan, which means "adversary." When Jesus hears this accusation, he immediately shows them how stupid this is. Why would the adversary be attacking against his own forces? If your enemy is fighting himself, that spells his eventual collapse.

The alternate solution, Jesus points out, is that the adversary is being defeated by someone more powerful than he. If you're going to loot a strong man's mansion, you're going to have to tie up the strong man. Rather than Jesus being in league with Satan, it makes more sense to conclude he is stronger than his adversary. But the Pharisees don't want to go there, so they would rather see the obvious good he is doing as some really subtle kind of evil.

That's when Jesus brings up blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It is not disbelieving in God's existence. The Pharisees certainly believe in that. But they don't recognize God at work when they see it. They see God's goodness and say it is evil. They have talked themselves into such a state that they deny the clear evidence of the God they supposedly follow. That is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.

Why is it unforgivable? Because a person who sees good as bad is certainly not going to submit themselves to that badness. When I worked as a Psych Tech on the psychiatric floor, before I was a nurse, my coworkers and I would have to take turns looking after the patients in the locked ward. Here we had patients who were a danger to themselves and others as well as those who might wander off. The most seriously ill patients would end up there--the suicidal person, the patient in the manic phase of bipolar disease, the extremely delusional patient. It was just them and me and a panic button.

One day I noticed that a schizophrenic patient we'll call George was looking at me very intently. A depressed person doesn't usually look mentally ill but a person who sees things that aren't there or who is listening to voices that aren't there has a particular look to their eyes that you pick up on after a few years of working with them. George had that look and despite the distractions of TV and the other patients, his eyes were on me alone. For my part I was mentally measuring the distance between me and the big red panic button on the wall above and to the right of where I sat. Suddenly George jumped up, pointed his finger at me and said "Chris, in the name of Jesus Christ I command you to be gone!" To his visible dismay, I did not vanish. But I realized I could not work with George anymore. He saw me as evil and so he wouldn't confide in me or listen to me, much less receive any care at my hands. If he saw me as a demon incarnate, he could never trust me or see anything I did as good.

That's what Jesus saw when the Pharisees accused him of being in league with the devil. As N.T. Wright says, "Once you label what is in fact the work of the Holy Spirit as the work of the devil, there's no way back. It's like holding a conspiracy theory: all the evidence you see will simply confirm your belief." The Pharisees weren't mentally ill. They had so blinded themselves with their spiritual ideology that they saw good as evil because it suited their purpose and would never trust Jesus. Which meant he couldn't help them.

When the New Testament speaks of believing in God or Jesus, the word really means trust. To be sure, it could be used in the sense of simply thinking something was true, whether you actually relied on that belief or not. But primarily it meant trust. The book of James points out the difference when it says, "You believe that there is one God? Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder." Sadly, due to certain dumbed-down presentations of the gospel, a lot of people think that as long as they simply believe God exists, things between him and them are fine. But they don't change their lives and this is pointed at by non-believers as evidence that God doesn't exist. In his film, Flemming excoriates such so-called Christians precisely because, unlike fundamentalists, they don't display the courage of their convictions. I've seen patients who professed to believe the doctors but not enough to change the lifestyles which have led to the problems they wanted the doctors to cure. The greatest physician in the world can't cure a non-compliant patient. You can do the surgery and put in the stitches but if the patient won't let anyone change the dressing or clean the wound site or if he won't take his medication, he could still die.

You can't work with people you can't trust or who don't trust you. It is the Spirit's specific role to work on the hearts and minds of those who turn to God. But they have to have faith in him; they have to trust him. And the first step in the Christian life is to accept God's forgiveness of your sins. God can't forgive you if you won't let him. Ironically, the sin that is unforgivable is not letting yourself be forgiven.

We all start out resistant to the Spirit. And accepting forgiveness means admitting we have done things that need to be forgiven. That's hard. The most difficult part of recovery from a substance abuse problem is admitting you have a problem. The work of getting better cannot begin until denial is overcome. If you deny you have a problem, if you say that black is white, if you see those who want to help you as meddlers and busybodies, as people wishing to do you evil rather than good, you can't be helped.

But of course, if they change their mind, they can be helped. That’s the thing. If you can change your mind, if you have a change of heart, you can be saved. In order to remain unforgiven, you have to persist in resisting the goodness of the Spirit. Paul thought the Christians were bad Jews and he persecuted them and tried to make them deny Christ. Then Jesus appeared to him and Paul changed his mind and became the foremost missionary for Christ. Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is an eternal sin only if the person continues to hold that God's Spirit is evil and does evil and won't let him in.  

There are some people, who, like Flemming, have read or heard this passage of scripture and began worrying that they have committed it. But as we've seen that's not the unforgivable sin is. It is not denying Christ. Peter did that in the high priest's courtyard the night Christ was betrayed and yet Jesus forgave him. It is not doubt. it is not questioning. It is not thinking. It is not even seeing evil as good. Nazis and Klansmen and even murderers have seen and felt the Spirit at work and have realized that what they thought was good was evil and have come to Jesus for forgiveness and healing and salvation. Jesus asked God to forgive those who were in the process of crucifying him. And one of the people in Flemming's film, a lawyer with a blog called the Raving Atheist, is now a Christian. If you can worry about being forgiven, if you want to be forgiven, God can forgive you. God loves you so much he will forgive you anything if only you ask. But he will not force you to accept his love or forgiveness. You have to let him in. So in the end the only thing that can stop God from forgiving you is you.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Grand Inquisitor

This is Trinity Sunday, so usually I would tackle that most paradoxical and yet rewarding of doctrines. And I might touch upon Dorothy L. Sayers, because my understanding of the Trinity was greatly enhanced by her book, The Mind of the Maker. Sayers, a prodigious writer of detective novels, religious plays, essays on Christianity and translator of Dante's Divine Comedy, drew upon her experience as a creative person in approaching the nature of God. She saw a parallel between the persons of the Triune God and the creative process. Everything a person creates begins with an idea. The artist, engineer, writer, or craftsman then has to realize his idea in some concrete form. Then the form is presented to the world. A truly great work is one in which the idea is great, the execution perfectly captures the idea, and the finished work communicates powerfully with other people. Sayers said the original idea is like God the Father. The realization or incarnation of that idea is like the Son of God. The communication of that perfectly realized work is like the Holy Spirit. 

A work of creation can fail at any point: the idea may not be that great, or the execution is sloppy or flawed, or despite the work having captured the basic idea, it says nothing to the world at large. Hitler did not get into art school because his very precise paintings of buildings were merely that. They were devoid of humanity or creative vision. Whereas the works of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Christopher Wren, Bach and many others continue to speak to us.            

Today's sermon suggestion is that we look at a piece of literature that still speaks powerfully to those who encounter it: the story of the Grand Inquisitor. It is found in chapter 5 of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, which you probably read in high school. Ivan, who is an atheist, tells his younger brother Alyosha, who is a novice at a monastery, the plot of a poem he is writing. It is a parable about freedom of choice.

The poem takes place in Seville at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Christ returns to earth, not to bring about the last days but to visit his people. He heals many and raises a little girl from the dead. Everyone recognizes him, including the Grand Inquisitor, fresh from burning a hundred heretics. The Inquisitor arrests Christ and visits him that night in his prison cell.

The Inquisitor tells Christ that he is not welcome here because he turned down Satan's offers during his temptation in the wilderness. Jesus said "No" because by using his powers this way or by accepting earthly authority he would have made accepting him as Lord irresistible and therefore would have made it impossible for men to come to him of their own free will. But people are so weak-willed they cannot come to Christ on their own. So the church has had to do what Jesus refused to. It has offered bread, buying the loyalty of the poor. It has offered miracles and mystery, compelling people to accept whatever it said. It has been taking on the secular power of the kingdoms of this world, so as to force people to accept its rules. And because his appearance could undo all that, the Inquisitor tells Christ that he will be burned at the stake tomorrow. Jesus says nothing but kisses the Inquisitor. The old man, overcome, throws open the cell door, telling Christ to leave and never return.

There are many reasons why this story has stuck in the minds of its readers. There is the rhapsodically written first part, describing Christ walking through the streets of Seville, healing people and their response to him. There is the juxtaposition of Christ, the church's model and ideal, with the Inquisitor, the most perverse office ever created by the church. There is the surprising action of the Inquisitor in arresting Christ and his novel argument for the way the church operates. Then there is Christ's silent response: a kiss. And the Inquisitor's reaction: releasing Jesus but warning him not to come back.

For our purposes I want to confine my comments to the Inquisitor's argument and how Jesus counters that.

I'm not sure that I totally buy the Inquisitor's interpretation of Jesus' temptations, that they were all about our freedom to choose to follow him. To be sure, one of the things Jesus was doing in the desert was preparing for his ministry. And, yes, had he succumbed to any of the temptations, it would have changed that ministry. But unlike the Inquisitor, I can't see that it would be for the better.

First off, the bread. Jesus had been fasting a long time and was really hungry. As I see it, the temptation to turn stones into bread is to use his power for his own benefit. Hey, what good is being God's Son if you can't use that power to meet your own needs? That's reasonable, right? But power tempts. If you have been given power, you come to think you deserve perks as well. If you're special, don't you deserve special treatment? I'm sure that's what is behind the mega-church and TV preachers who live in large mansions and drive limos and own private jets. "Hey, I'm toiling for the Lord. I'm getting him lots of followers. They're giving lots of money to the Lord's work. I deserve a cut." I'm sure that's what's behind a lot of cult leaders coming to think they can have any woman in the group that they want.

Power also means you don't need to suffer what other people have to--waiting in line, economy class on planes, running your own errands, putting up with ordinary people. If Jesus had let himself use his power to avoid suffering hunger, it would have been harder for him to not to use it to avoid suffering the things that would go along with his ministry--like being touched by mobs of people seeking healing, or being interrupted at meals, or being exhausted from all that he had to do and say to spread the message. And if he used his power to avoid suffering hunger, would he have been willing to go through suffering the pain and death of the cross?
Nevertheless, the Inquisitor was right about one thing: more people would have followed Jesus if he was their meal ticket. Jesus did feed multitudes a couple of times and those people were going to forcibly make him king. But when Jesus told them he wanted to feed their souls with his body and blood, they got turned off. Jesus didn't want moochers and hangers on. He wanted people who would stick with him in good times and bad because it was the right thing to do, not because there was something in it for them. Or rather, he didn't want them to follow him because of physical things they could get from him but also from other sources; Jesus wanted them to follow him because of what only he could give: himself. If that isn't enough, nothing else would be.

I bet we could get a lot more people in this church if we gave them all $10 bills. Of course, some other church might start giving out $20s and we'd have a price war. Still, we could attract a lot more people that way. But I doubt we would get more Christians, more people willing to deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow the path of self-sacrificial love that Jesus blazed.

This is not to say we shouldn't have food ministries or ministries that provide other basic needs to those who have been doing without. But we should do these things out of love and to serve Christ when we see him hungry or thirsty or in need of clothing or of nursing back to health or of hospitality or of support when in prison. We shouldn't use these things as bait to get converts.

Next Jesus nixes jumping off the tip of the temple, trusting the angels to arrest his fall. This would not be much of a temptation for me. When I was a kid I never thought of testing my dad's love by jumping off of something high and expecting him to catch me. But it would be a spectacular way to kick off Jesus' ministry. If he did a back flip off the pinnacle of the temple and stuck the landing without shattering his shinbones, he'd be the talk of the town. In this case, the Inquisitor was on the money.

However, Jesus didn't do miracles just to convince people. He did them in response to people's needs. Of the 35 miracles the gospels record Jesus performing, only 9 were not healings or raising the dead. But they included feeding the hungry, some extra large catches of fish, and not letting the storm drown his disciples. Even so, he was reluctant to become the wine supplier to a wedding he attended until his mother put him on the spot. And he flat out refused to show off for skeptics when they asked. When people wanted a miracle as a sign of his authority, Jesus was at pains to point out that he'd rather they evaluated the truth of his words. He wasn't performing a magic show; he was showing them the gracious nature of God. When that required him to jumpstart or speed up the healing process or hasten the end of a storm or stretch a meal beyond what was humanly possible, so be it. But when it required explaining a theological or moral principle, he did that instead.  

But wouldn't ending every argument with a miracle have clinched things? No. People's capacity for rationalization can explain away anything. Thomas Jefferson was so skeptical about anything he couldn't explain that, when he received a report of a meteorite landing by a couple of astronomers, he was quoted as saying, "I would rather believe two Yankee professors would lie than that stones have fallen from the heavens." A recent study shows that if people strongly believe in one side of an issue, the more contrary data you give them, the more they cling to their beliefs. When Jesus' enemies couldn't deny the fact that he was healing people and casting out demons, they said he was doing it with the aid of the prince of demons. That's when Jesus warned them about blaspheming or insulting the Holy Spirit.

Still flashy miracles would have convinced most people and Jesus would have had a larger following. I'm not sure it would have meant much after he went to the cross. The disciples who lived with him for 3 years were discouraged by his execution. People who followed him merely because of some impressive miracle he did, but not because he spoke to their hearts and minds about the need to change and a kingdom based on love, would not hang around once Jesus was in the ground. As with giving everyone bread, more and flashier miracles would have brought Jesus the wrong kind of followers.

Finally, the Inquisitor says Jesus should have taken Satan's offer to receive all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping him. The Inquisitor says that the church has essentially made that bargain with the devil. It has gotten temporal power. Taking away people's freedom to choose whether to be Christian or not, according to the Inquisitor, has made them happier. But the fact that he has to burn Christian heretics--the Inquisition didn't officially have power over Jews or Muslims--means that people were not happy with this form of Christianity. The real Grand Inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada, had 300 bodyguards, so he had no illusions that he was making people happy. There wouldn't have been a Reformation if people had been happy with that version of Christianity.   

Ultimately, despite the novelty and boldness of the Inquisitor's argument, he is wrong. People would not be happier with no choice. Too much choice does cause unhappiness, studies show, but so does having no choice of, or control over, what you do. What the Inquisitor is doing is justifying the status quo and his own choices in life. What's ironic is there are still people who think forcing people to be Christians or behave like Christians is a good idea. Luckily the people who drafted the Bill of Rights put separation of church and state in the very first amendment. And they did it to keep the church from being corrupted as the state churches were in Europe.

Jesus didn't come as the holy warrior most Jews expected the messiah to be. He didn't intend to conquer the world by force. Accepting Jesus as one's Lord has to be voluntary just as love has to be voluntary. It only seems like it would be easier if we could make people become Christians. But a team won't work well if some members really don't want to be on it. Bribing people to become Christians doesn't instill genuine loyalty, either. Love is the key ingredient. Love is the best motivator. It works better than bribes or miracles or force. You'd think we'd have learned that by now.

On some level, Ivan, the atheist writer of the poem knows that as well. He has Christ answer the Inquisitor's argument with a kiss. And that makes the old man change his mind about killing him and release him instead. Why does he do so? We are not told. Perhaps he is still human, still compassionate enough, not to kill Love Incarnate. Perhaps he remembered his early love of Jesus before he became disillusioned and pragmatic. Perhaps he recognized that Jesus had demolished his elaborate edifice of clever words with a simple act of love.

Since the Enlightenment we have tried to reduce everything in the universe to hard logic and cold reason. But not everything worthwhile is rational. Hope is not always rational but take away all hope and people die as surely as if you had poisoned them. Faith, trusting someone else, is not strictly rational but destroy someone's faith and you have crippled them. Love…logic has as much luck pinning down love as you would a greased pig but without love, life wouldn't be worth living. And God's love is at the heart of creation, its origin, its motive power, its goal. God is love: the Father loving the Son, loving the Father, in the unity of the Spirit for all eternity. And if we respond to the love of God perfectly realized in Christ and let his Spirit resonate, renew and restore in us the ability to hope and to trust and to love like him, we can enter into the neverending circle of his love.