Sunday, October 28, 2012


On All Saints' Day, November 1st, the castle church would open its doors and allow the public to come in and view its vast collection of relics. To do so would grant you a reduction in the days you would spend in purgatory after your death. It was as good as purchasing an indulgence, a remission of punishment granted by the church for sins already forgiven. So everyone in Wittenberg would come to church. And what better place for a monk and scholar to post a list of his objections to the sale of indulgences than the church door everyone would pass by?

So on October 31 Dr. Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses, or propositions he would like to debate, to the church door for all to see. Unfortunately, they were in Latin, the proper language for debate. Someone soon translated them into German and copies began to circulate, not only throughout Germany but all over the continent. Luther also sent a copy to his archbishop, who forwarded it to the Pope. Neither of them liked it because both had a hand in the selling of indulgences in Luther's area. Some of the proceeds were going to the Pope to pay for St. Peter's church in Rome as well as paying off a papal dispensation allowing the archbishop to have more than one bishopric. But what really bothered Luther was Johann Tetzel. This Dominican friar was commissioned with the task of getting people to buy the indulgences and he was a natural-born salesman. Imagine one of those guys who sells Oxy-clean or Sham-wows on TV. Tetzel even had ear-catching jingles that described how good his product was. It didn't matter to him if he distorted or overstated what an indulgence could do. "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory into heaven springs." To hear Tetzel tell it, no sin was too heinous for the indulgences he was selling; it didn't matter if you had raped the Virgin Mary herself. These indulgences were "get out of Purgatory free" cards.

Luther was appalled at this. He knew Tetzel was distorting the whole doctrine of divine forgiveness and leaving out the roles of grace and faith entirely. He was misleading people about the most wonderful news about God and our relationship with him. And this wasn't merely academic to Luther. His whole Christian life had been transformed by understanding what the Bible really said about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Luther at one point had been driving his confessor at the monastery crazy with his obsessive cataloging of every sin he could think of. Finally the older priest told Martin to go out and commit some sins worth confessing! But Martin took the idea of sin, of falling short of God's standards seriously. He saw Jesus as a hanging judge. So when his mentor had him teach the New Testament, and he studied Paul's letters, their core argument came as a revelation. Paul, once a zealous Pharisee, explained that no one can possibly be good enough to save him or herself. Thank God he sent his son Jesus to take away our sins so that whoever puts their trust in him is saved. In Ephesians Paul wrote, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one may boast." This was good news to Luther and indeed to all Christians who had been trying desperately to buy their way into heaven with good works, such as donations to the church which secured them magical indulgences.

Nobody in the Roman Catholic church wanted to debate Luther; they wanted him to take it all back and shut up. Luther could not do that. The Protestant Reformation was underway.

All over Europe people read and debated Luther's writings. They inspired others to read the scriptures for themselves and many became reformers as well. Not all, though. Not at first. King Henry VIII was a real Renaissance man and he wrote a book refuting Luther and was awarded the title Defender of the Faith by the Pope. Of course, later he broke away from the Roman Catholic church and let people like Thomas Cranmer reform the Church of England along the lines of what was then called not Protestantism but Lutheranism. But Henry kept the title Defender of the Faith, as has every British monarch down to this day.

Today most people in the West know Christianity as a religion of divine love and forgiveness. Unfortunately, they have grossly oversimplified this to mean something like "God loves me just the way I am and forgives me my sins so I can choose to live however I want." They agree with those who misstated Paul's teachings that we can sin so God's grace abounds even more. But Paul said that's like being freed from the slavery of sins only to go back to one's old master. I'd compare it to having a doctor cure you of lung cancer only to take up smoking again. Sin is more than breaking rules; it's breaking yourself and those you drag down on the foundational laws of creation.

Luther, like Paul, did not teach that because we cannot save ourselves by good works, we needn't bother about behaving virtuously. Luther and those who followed him saw 3 uses for the law. The first is obvious: to curb bad behavior. Laws tell us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. Traffic laws tell you what speed to drive, who has the right of way, when you may and may not pass, etc. If we all obey the laws, we all shall be safer.

A second use of the law is to mirror our condition. This is very much in line with what Paul teaches about God's law. We compare ourselves to it and realize how far short of it we've fallen. When a blood test comes back, there are the normal values for human beings in one column and then the patient's values in another. At a glance you can tell if someone's potassium is too far up or down, if they have the right concentration of red or white blood cells, or if it's taking their blood too long to clot. Often a doctor can diagnose a condition just from the blood work. When we compare our values to God's we can see where we are out of alignment with spiritual health. Like being told your cholesterol is too high, this should motivate you to change, to let the Great Physician take over your care.

There is a third use for the law: to guide one in living the Christian life. But I thought Paul said no one could follow the law completely? And he was right. But that's not the fault of the law. It is still how God wishes us to live. But no one can do so--by themselves. Only one aided by the Holy Spirit can. And you receive the Holy Spirit when you put your trust in Jesus Christ.

Ever notice how they tell you to check with your physician before taking up an exercise regimen. Isn't exercise good? Yes, but not if you're so unhealthy that it can bring on a heart attack or leave you gasping for air. So first you should go to your doctor and see if you have health issues that have to taken care of first. And he's still not going to tell you to run marathons right off the bat. Just so, living the Christian life requires coming to Jesus for healing and salvation first. Only then can you start to try to live according to the guidelines for a godly life which are the law.

But you don't follow the law in order to be saved. That was accomplished by Christ and must be accepted on faith as a gift, as God's grace. Rather we live according to the law of love because it is God's will for us and because we love him and are thankful to him. We follow his precepts out of gratitude.

I think the reformers would be horrified if they saw how people today have so twisted the doctrine they recovered, that we are saved by grace through faith, to mean Christians don't have to obey God's commandments. It's like saying because exercise won't take the place of a heart transplant, one needn't, after the transplant, exercise. Indeed, if one doesn't change one's lifestyle after a transplant, if one doesn't eat better and exercise properly, one can end up in poor health again.

In his letters Paul, speaking to a culture where trials were held in public, used legal language to help people understand the change that Jesus makes in our lives--from guilty to innocent. Luther and the other reformers used the same language. But in a world where people have become cynical about the law and are much more conscious of health, I think medical metaphors might work better to get God's truth through to modern people.

Think of sin is as spiritual dysfunction, disorder, disease. As with heart failure, we cannot cure ourselves of our sin. We need Jesus to heal us. The diagnosis: our heart is bad and we need a new heart to replace it. That requires a donor and the death of the donor. Jesus is the donor whose death means life to the recipient of the new heart. And only when we have the heart of Jesus within us, can we begin the task of getting better and shedding the self-destructive habits that caused our spiritual illness.

This metaphor covers the main features of salvation and underlines the difference between what only Jesus can do and what we can. It emphasizes the necessity of salvation by making it sound less arbitrary than choosing to be on one side or the other, as if following God and not following him are equally valid choices. It's not about following made up rules. It's about being in harmony with the creator of the universe and the laws which regulate it. It's a matter of spiritual health or disease. It's a matter of life or death.

I don't know who called it the Reformation but it is apt. It's not just about reforming the church; it's about personal reformation. God is the potter and we are the clay. If we submit to him he will change the shape of our lives, making them fit vessels for his Spirit and for the accomplishing of his will. We cannot do this without God. God will not do this without our consent. That he offers to save us after all we have done to ourselves, our neighbors, his creation is grace. That he trusts us to have a part, however small, in redeeming his creation is love. Our response is to trust and love him back.

In "A Treatise on Christian Liberty," Martin Luther wrote, "From faith flows forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love, a joyful, willing and free mind that serves one's neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss." We do not obey God in order to be saved but because we are saved, because we are recipients of his undeserved, unreserved goodness. Like our Father who makes the sun rise on good and evil people alike and who showers his gifts on all people, we imitate his graciousness towards friends and enemies alike. It's not a matter of mechanically following rules, but, as C.S. Lewis said, it is more like painting a portrait. And the portrait is that of Jesus, and the canvas is ourselves, and by close observation of the subject and by use of the gifts God gave us, and the guidance of his Spirit, we can trust that we are creating a good likeness of the one who is Love Incarnate.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Gaining Experience

In the last 30 years--in other words, throughout my entire career as a nurse--I have noticed a disturbing trend in my first profession. I am an LPN, a Licensed Practical Nurse, and, as the title implies, my training was heavily weighted towards the practical aspects of hands-on nursing. In fact, the chief difference between the RN and LPN when I graduated was the length of time the course of studies took. To become an RN in my mother's day, you went to a nursing school which was attached to a hospital for 3 years. You spent half of each day in the classroom and half on the floor, taking care of patients. To become an LPN I went to a vocational school and spent half the day in class and half on the floor of a hospital. The result was that the newly graduated RN or LPN had a lot of hands-on experience when she started her first job.

LPNs must work under the supervision of an RN but otherwise were treated as full members of the nursing staff. I've worked Neurosurgery, Med-Surg, Psych and even in ICU. In fact, I could legally do everything an RN could do except start an IV, start a blood transfusion, and put in a central line. Today only inserting a central line is forbidden. But shortly into my career, things started to change. Initially I was welcomed everywhere because of the nursing shortage, but slowly the educational requirements increased. And the pressure increased on nurses to get a Bachelor's degree. From one perspective, this made sense. Medical science was getting very sophisticated and complicated and nursing was getting ever more specialized. But in order to get a BSN, one had to take all the other college courses as well. Which meant Nursing was not your sole course of study but your major and most of your training took place in a classroom. As you studied each specialty, some time was scheduled for you to visit a hospital or nursing home for a week or 2. Slowly nursing was becoming an academic rather than practical subject. I noticed this when I, an LPN, was often called upon to show new BSNs how to do very basic procedures. They had read all about them and watched videos and maybe had seen or even done them once. They had a lot more theory than I, especially when it came to management, but they had considerably less practice than I had coming right out of school. What was more worrisome is they were the wave of the future: well educated and woefully inexperienced.

Today, most hospitals and many home health agencies don't hire LPNs. They get better reimbursement by Medicare and insurance companies if all their nurses are RNs. Most LPNs can only find work in nursing homes and prisons. Ironically, if I had gone to a junior college for 2 years instead of a LPN program for 18 months, I could be an associate's degree RN, functionally no different from an old-fashioned 3 year nursing school RN. But at the time, I simply wanted a job to support me and my family while I went to school. Not that it matters today. The move is afoot to make a Bachelors degree the minimum requirement to be a nurse. And seeing that most nursing is becoming largely a matter of pill and paper pushing with little time left to have anything more than superficial patient contact, and seeing that nurse's aides with a few weeks training do most of the hands-on patient care, and that high tech companies are working on robots to replace nurses, the issue is academic in every sense of the word.

The book of Hebrews is a marvelous book that ties together the Old and New Testaments and shows Jesus to be the culmination and fulfillment of everything the Old Covenant prefigured. As such the New Covenant in Jesus is superior to the old one. In today's passage, the writer of Hebrews is showing how Jesus is superior as our High Priest to one who is merely human. True, a high priest who is only human could sympathize with us in our moral weaknesses because he has them as well. Unfortunately, that means he had to make a sacrifice for his own sin as well as for the sins of the people. Jesus, however, was tempted in all ways as we are and yet did not sin. At first it seems like the fallible high priest can better empathize with the fallen. But as the Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary points out "only the one who has resisted to the end knows the full weight of temptation."

Think about that. If I give in to temptation right away, I know what succumbing is like but I would be of little help to those who are trying to hold out against temptation. I could share in the misery of those who failed but not give strength to those who are trying not to fail. Not giving in would be beyond my experience. Even if I held out for days against temptation before falling prey to it, what could I say to the person who has been fighting for weeks or months or years to help them continue to resist? In 12 step programs, mentors are usually people who are more experienced in the program, who seem to be using the program successfully in everyday life. AA has a saying that goes, "Stick with the winners." Of course, the ultimate winner would be someone who never succumbed. And practically no one qualifies for that.

If you met someone who said he was a drug addict who never ever used, you'd say he was a liar. Or you'd think his temptation was not very strong. I would not be a good sponsor in, say, Gamblers Anonymous because I am not at all tempted to take unnecessary risks. But what if I said I was sorely tempted every single day but, because I had a relative who ruined their life through gambling, I never ever indulged myself? You might be intrigued as to how I fought this strong urge all these years.

If, as Hebrews says, Jesus was tempted in all ways as we are, we must imagine that every day he was tempted to drink, to gamble, to have sex with any woman he met, to slack off his duties, to boast of his superiority, to envy those who had more than he, to take what wasn't his, to rage at those who opposed him, to over-indulge his appetites, and to not preach the gospel, which alienated others while painting a target on his back. In the book and movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, the titular temptation offered to him was to be a regular guy with a quiet contented life rather than God's son and the sacrifice for the sins of the world. And, yeah, I think Jesus probably was tempted to live a normal life, rather than carry the burdens of every person on the planet, past, present and future.

I once read of a former Catholic priest, a confessed pedophile, who, realizing that he would do it again, resigned and went to live on his parents' farm for the rest of his life, isolating himself from all contact with children. That is true repentance. But imagine how much better it would have been for his victims, if he had, upon realizing his temptation, had taken this course before he ever succumbed. Would he not have been more admirable if he had simply decided right off the bat never to allow himself to be in the presence of that which tempted him?

Jesus, however, couldn't withdraw from the world. For his mission to succeed, he had to be among people of all walks of life. He had to be in constant contact with women he was tempted to grab and kiss and men he was tempted to punch in the face. Or worse. When Peter sliced off a man's ear at Christ's arrest, Jesus said to him, "…do you think I cannot call on my Father and that he would send me more than twelve legions of angels right now?" Remember when the folks of his own home town tried to throw him off a cliff? He probably was tempted to fight back. But Jesus simply walked through the crowd. How? Invisibly? I think they saw on his face the look of one who could wipe them off the face of the earth if he let himself and they parted like the Red Sea.

It is ironic that the best portrayal of the Incredible Hulk was not in the 2 movies that were solely about him but in the recent Avengers movie. For those of you unfamiliar with the Hulk from comic books or the old TV show, Dr. Bruce Banner, exposed to gamma rays, turns into an incredibly strong and nigh invulnerable huge green monster when he loses his temper. So we see him trying to avoid situations that trigger him. In the Avengers movie, as the alien armies attack earth, Captain America tells Dr. Banner that now would be a good time to get angry. "That's my secret, Cap," replies Banner. "I'm always angry." And he begins to transform. Suddenly we realize that what we took to be Banner's natural mild manner throughout the film was really him exercising extreme control over his ever-present rage.

I'm not saying that Jesus was always seething with rage or lust but we know these temptations presented themselves to him and he was always fending them off. We know that he got exasperated with the disciples when after all they'd seen and heard they were still slow to understand what kind of Messiah Jesus was and the power to be found in having faith in him. "How long must I be with you?" he would say in frustration. One example of Jesus controlling himself is the incident of the man with the withered hand. The Pharisees have planted the man right in the front row of the synagogue, evidently, as a trap. They wanted to get Jesus for breaking the Sabbath by healing him. Jesus has the man stand up and asks, "Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or evil, to save a life or destroy it?" When nobody speaks up with the obvious answer, we are told that Jesus looked around at the folks in anger, grieved at their hard hearts. But rather than lash out, he has the man stretch out his withered hand to reveal it as restored. Jesus was angry but rather than hurt or harm, he helped and healed. He funneled his anger into making things better rather than worse.

The good news is that this lets us know that merely being angry or otherwise assaulted by temptation is not sin. The bad thought that flits through the mind is not sin. Prolonging it, nurturing it, brooding on it is sin. As Billy Graham once said, you can't keep a bird from flying over your head but you can keep him from building a nest in your hair. Jesus was a master of not letting temptations turn into sin. And since the purpose of Christianity is to become ever more Christlike, we should work on attaining that level. Of course, we can't do it without his help and we won't achieve 100% mastery in this life, but that should be what we are aiming for.

Another important thing about Jesus our High Priest being both fully human and fully divine is that he understands our suffering. He may not have suffered for any self-destructive ways or sins of his own but he, like us, knew what it was like to suffer the consequences of the sins of others. He had brothers who mocked him and thought he was crazy. He was betrayed by a close friend. His right hand man denied him 3 times when Jesus was in the hands of his enemies. All of his followers fled and only a few were there when he died. He was falsely accused and badly abused at his trial. He was humiliated before the crowds and hung to die naked on a public road. The writer of Hebrews seems to be referring to Gethsemane when he talks of Jesus offering up "prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death." Again it is comforting to know that being anguished and distressed at undergoing a painful trial is not a sin. Asking God to spare you from a awful ordeal is not a sin. But we should, as Jesus did, pray that ultimately God's will, not ours, be done.

Jesus learned obedience--not theoretically but through actual experience and under conditions that would cause most of us to do anything we could to make the pain stop. He did not live a cushy life that made obeying God easy. He endured poverty, public disapproval, mockery, rejection, isolation, torture and death and remained obedient to God through it all.

In parts of the world, Christians are still in danger of being martyred for their faith in Christ. We are not. So why are we so shy about proclaiming our faith? Torture and death are a lot worse than mocking or embarrassment. Why are we so hesitant to share the gospel with others and invite them to follow Jesus with us? We imagine that they will ridicule or hate us. That's not that likely. Studies shows that most people will visit a church if invited. In jail, as you can imagine, inmates get hassled for being too religious but that doesn't stop them from holding my hands and praying, right in the middle of the dorm, when I ask if they'd like to. I've never had one say "no."

Of course, maybe like those graduate nurses, you feel you don't have enough experience. The only way to get it is to do it. (Often 2 graduate nurses would get together to do a procedure, pooling their knowledge and encouraging each other. Jesus sent the disciples out two by two for much the same reason.) Loving God with all you are and all you have, loving your neighbor and even enemies as Jesus loves us does not come naturally. But the more you do it, the more you will learn and the more you learn, the better you will do it. Christianity is more than theory, more than doctrines. It's best learned through experience. That's how Jesus learned obedience. That's how we will. We become Christ's body, his hands, by being hands-on.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


The gospel is Mark 10:17-31.

My pockets are so overstuffed that you probably don't notice it but I usually carry the bulletin insert with the next Sunday's lectionary readings in my breast pocket. That way I can pull them out, read and re-read them and contemplate what I am going to preach that weekend. Sometimes it's hard to decide which reading to use. Rarely are they all about the same thing. So I wait for something--a word, a phrase, a theme--to jump out at me, hopefully before Thursday which is when I must at least get my sermon started. This week, all the readings were good and none seemed related. I had enough material for 3 or even 4 sermons. That's almost as bad as finding nothing that sparks a fruitful train of thought. And then, reading our gospel, one word leaped from the page as I perused it: the word "grieving."

Just the day before, I awoke and realized I needed a new topic for one of the Bible studies I do at the jail. My study on anger had gone well, partly due to the counseling book I was using and partly do to the fact that the inmates could really relate to the subject. As I reviewed the chapters for what to adapt next, my eyes fell on "Grief and Loss." A lot of inmates come to me for grief counseling when a loved one on the outside dies and they naturally can't attend the funeral. But many are also dealing with the loss of a relationship. Most marriages do not survive one person's incarceration. Often family members simply stop talking to the brother or sister or even offspring who keeps ending up in jail. Imprisoned parents grieve the interruption or legal end of their relationship with their growing children. And the major change of life circumstances that being in the correctional system entails leaves first-timers grieving for the loss of a normal life.

What's weird is that the guy in the gospel who's grieving doesn't seem to have lost anything. In fact, he has it all. We are told he had many possessions. He also says he has kept all the commandments. Jesus senses that this guy is sincere. He looks at him with love, Mark writes, and gives the man a unique command, one not found in the Torah or God's Top Ten: to sell everything he has and give the proceeds to the poor and then follow Jesus. And the guy is shocked. He can't do this and he goes away grieving.

But what is he grieving? What has he lost? He still has his stuff. But he has lost his sense that he has eternal life all sewn up. He has lost the assurance that he is a shoe-in for a seat in the heavenly choir. He has lost his sense of being righteous by what he has done and achieved. He doesn't dispute what Jesus commands him to do. Which I take to mean that he agrees with Jesus' diagnosis of his problem. He can't give up his earthly treasures for treasures in heaven. He can't give up the good stuff of this life even if it means missing out on eternal life. He doesn't have possessions--they have him. This is the one kind of possession that Jesus can't undo with a word. This guy isn't tormented by evil spirits; he's kept comfortably insulated from other people's suffering by material things. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters: "Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…"

As this guy who thought he was virtuous because he obeyed all the commandments (that didn't cost him anything) slinks off, Jesus says, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" We are told the disciples are perplexed at this. Then Jesus broadens his diagnosis of the human condition. "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!" Not just for the rich but for everyone. Then Jesus utters his famous observation: "…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." By the way, the Greek word refers to a sewing needle. The famous needle gate of Jerusalem was built in the Middle Ages and didn't exist in Jesus' day. Jesus is saying it's impossible, as he makes explicit soon. The disciples are greatly astounded by this and ask one another, "Then who can be saved?" The reason for their reaction is that in their day wealth was considered a sign of God's approval. If God gave you riches, you must be one of his favorites. So the idea that a rich man had no hope of being saved left the rest of the people, whom God didn't shower with material wealth, completely shut out. The disciples just lost their preconception that anyone can be good enough to meet God's standards and win salvation.

A word here before I continue. I used to think Jesus said the rich would have a tough time getting to heaven because their wealth offered them so many temptations. It's not that poor people don't sin but some sins they don't have the resources to pull off. The poor didn't wreck the economy through greed. But since Jesus says this in reference to a rich man who kept the commandments, it's not more opportunity to sin that hinders the well-off.

In fact, it looks like it may be that, if you have everything you need, your condition insulates you from realizing your own spiritual poverty. If you don't need to worry about having enough to eat, or making the payment on your home, or fixing the car when it breaks down, or getting medical care for your kids, you don't have to ever contemplate stealing or writing a bad check. If you never hear gunfire in your neighborhood, or get challenged by a gang as you leave one block for the next, or hear through the grapevine that someone is gunning for you or your brother, you don't have to ponder whether setting out to kill someone would make you and your family safer. If you don't have to worry about running away from home so your step-father or your mother's latest boyfriend doesn't beat you or sexually abuse you, you probably will never have to choose between living on the streets or selling drugs or your body to survive. If you are wealthy, you rarely if ever face such dilemmas. You might think being good is easy. You might think that people who aren't good just aren't trying hard enough. You might think you are morally superior when what you really are is untested.

In answer to his disciple's question about who can possibly be saved, Jesus says, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." Paul essentially does the same thing in the early chapters of his letter to the Romans. He establishes that absolutely no one is innocent, nobody is sinless, none are righteous. Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, we all fall short of the glorious state God intended for us. It is impossible for anyone to be good enough to enter God's kingdom.

Think of what they call a clean room in a lab or in a factory where they make delicate electronics. It doesn't matter how good a bath you took at home, it doesn't matter what shampoo or body wash you use, it doesn't matter how often you launder your clothes, it doesn't matter what detergent you buy, you cannot walk into such a place without contaminating it. You must doff your clothes, submit yourself to the lab's cleansing protocol, and put on the clothes they provide if you are going to take one step into that pure environment. Nor can we bring the contamination of our sinful, destructive, disruptive lives into the kingdom of God. We must let Jesus cleanse us. We must let the Holy Spirit eradicate every speck of self-serving evil in us. Whatever makes us unfit, be it an obsession with possessions or a filthy mind or a bad temper or a envious heart or self-destructive behavior or self-righteousness, we must leave them behind, discard them like filthy rags, and put on the Lord Jesus if we wish to enter the gate of the new Jerusalem, the city of God.

It is possible to mourn future losses and that's what keeps a lot of people from following Jesus. They need to bury their dead first, but the old man, their sin, isn't dead yet. They have things to do and people to see and experiences to enjoy before they take up their cross. They are like St. Augustine who was a real womanizer before coming to Jesus. Once he prayed, "Lord, give me chastity…but not yet!" We want to be to be saved from our sins but first we want to savor them a little longer. We don't want to give them up until we absolutely have to, until we are too damaged or too old or too much in danger of losing everything else to continue to sin. Faced with an uncompromising demand by Jesus to give up what we love more than him, most of us act like this rich guy: we walk away. Or, since today we don't have to confront Jesus to enter most churches, we try to smuggle our secret, most cherished sins into the kingdom God. As if God could not see what we do when we think no one is watching. As if he couldn't see what is in our hearts as Jesus did with this covetous guy.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified 5 stages in the grieving process. Not everybody goes through all; not everyone goes through them in the usual order in which she listed them; people often revisit certain stages and spend more time in some stage than others. But her list is still pretty accurate.

The first stage is usually denial or shock. Even if your brain recognizes the loss or imminent loss, your emotions haven't taken it in yet. You may walk around like a zombie, not really taking anything in. Or you may shut down, unable to function at all. Or you may be so in denial that you act as if nothing has changed. You make plans that won't happen or try to keep dreams alive that will in fact die with the person or the situation. Mourning the loss of dreams is often the hardest part of grieving. To follow Jesus you may have to give up dreams of wealth or fame or however you imagined your life. The first stage of following him is to deny yourself. You need to love Jesus more than anything. If you can't demote something, even to second place, you need to leave it or leave him. 

Another stage of grief is anger. Children get the concept of "mine" quite early. A two year old I know thinks all phones are his and says so. Kids are like Yertle the Turtle, laying claim to all they see. Tell them something isn't theirs and you get a big tantrum. You get it when you do the same thing to adults, though adults may be more subtle and passive-aggressive about it. Again the first step to following Jesus is denying yourself. But we can have an exaggerated idea of what is ours. 

We have a case before the Supreme Court in which a woman is claiming discrimination because she didn't get into the state university she'd been dreaming of since childhood. She wasn't in the top ten percent in her school, which would have guaranteed her a spot. She didn't get the required 1200 on her SATs. She refused to go to all the other schools in her state that accepted her. She did graduate from an out-of-state school. She says it's about race. But seeing as she is now part of the mere 27.2% of Americans who have a college degree, I don't see that any harm has been done to her. I doubt any employer will hire a person with worse grades than she got simply because they went to the college she wanted to. It sounds to me like she just didn't get into her first choice school. To which a lot of graduates can say, "Join the club." And the effect of her winning will not be to get her into that school but to possibly keep others from doing so. This smells like payback for the school rejecting her, an expression of anger for not getting precisely what she wanted.

Our response to loss, even the loss of something we never really had in the first place, is often anger. And you can see that in people who want to be considered Christians but don't want to, say, learn about Christianity before being baptized, or give up things Jesus clearly said were incompatible with following him. People get angry when told, no, you can't commit adultery or, outside marriage, sleep around or cheat people or slander others or worship material success or harbor evil thoughts or refuse to forgive others or be a miser and still consider yourself a good Christian. They think it's like being excluded from a club over made-up rules, whereas it actually like being told you can't be in the health study if you won't follow the diet or do their exercises. Or, to change the metaphor, if you're going to be an apprentice to someone you have to do what he says and work on mastering the craft. We are called to be disciples of Jesus, or in other words, his students. You can't blow off the course requirements and stay in the class.

Another stage of grief is bargaining. That usually comes when you realize that this loss is going to happen whether you like it or not. You may be bargaining with a lover who's going to leave you. "I'll change! I swear, I'll change!" When death is involved, or a radical change in our life, we bargain with God. "I'll go to church for the rest of my life." "I'll never touch another [fill in the blank] as long as I live!" You can keep your dignity when you get angry but not when you're bargaining. Especially when you're bargaining with God. He has more leverage in any negotiation. He sets the terms.    

A fourth stage of grieving is depression. When the loss or the big change in our life seems inevitable, we become depressed. The depression can be situational or clinical. Either way the future looks blighted, bleak, hopeless. It's obvious how depression figures into death but how would it come into accepting Jesus? Some people realize full well what following Jesus means. And though their integrity impels them to come to Christ, part of them mourns what they will have to give up. C. S. Lewis' conversion went this way. The grandson of an Irish clergyman, Lewis had lost his childhood faith, spent his adolescence and young adult life as an atheist, and then did a lot of reading and research in philosophy, which he taught at Magdalen College, Oxford, until he realized that what was behind this world was looking less and less abstract and more and more like the God of the Bible. He wrote, "People who are naturally religious find difficulty in understanding the horror of such a revelation. Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about 'man's search for God.' To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse's search for the cat." In his memoir, Surprised by Joy, Lewis writes, "You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted for even a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."

The last stage of grief is acceptance. It is surrender to the inevitable but not in a depressed way. It is making peace with one's new life, after the loss. It is coming to terms with the new normal. The big change is now firmly part of one's life story and always will be. Acceptance allows one to move on and explore the other side of a changed life.

In facing Christ, not all of us are asked to leave behind our total wealth and possessions. But we are asked to give up something that impedes us, chiefly, our arrogance and assurance that we are good enough on our own to enter God's kingdom. Our moral insufficiency is hard to acknowledge, our pride is difficult to swallow. We lose our right to do with our life whatever we wish. We lose our place as Number 1 in our life. We must enthrone God instead.

And yet when we give all we are and have to God, he sanctifies it and we get it all back in spades. Just like the little boy who shared his meager meal of fish and bread with Christ. Jesus took it, blessed it, broke it and gave his sacrifice back to him and to 5000 people, a loss transformed into unfathomable abundance.         

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Mind the Gap

The Scripture referenced is Luke 11:27-28.

It's called the Pivot. You've seen it a lot lately. You see it every time a politician is asked a specific question and while appearing to answer he actually turns his remarks into what he wants to say on a related matter, or even something else entirely. Both presidential candidates did it right at the beginning of their first debate. I forget the question but each candidate instead gave a summary of the main points of their policies on all domestic issues. Perfect for a news clip.

I hesitate to say our Lord did this but Jesus was skilled at dealing with "Gotcha!" questions. But rather than give the party line, he would reply to a trick question about a hot button issue with a question or an answer that was more to the point and often downright disturbing. When his opponents asked about his authority, he countered with a question about John the Baptist's authority. When asked if we are obligated to pay taxes to the government, Jesus basically said "yes" and then reminded everyone about their greater obligation to God. When asked by a rich man about what he needed to gain eternal life, Jesus said he had to lose everything else. When asked if a clearly adulterous woman should be stoned, Jesus said only the sinless had the right to do so. Unlike when a politician dodges a question, when Jesus gave a different answer than expected, it turned out to be more substantive and thought-provoking than a straightforward answer.

Today's reading from Luke is not exactly Jesus deflecting a question; rather he is deflecting a compliment…aimed at his mom! The 11th chapter in Luke is a collection of things Jesus said about various subjects so there's no real context. My best guess as to why Jesus said this is that he was staying on message. The sentiment was nice but Jesus didn't want the focus of his time diverted from teaching to a human interest story. He didn't want people going away thinking, "What a nice Jewish boy! His mother must be so proud!" He wanted them going away saying, "Wow! I really should act on what I heard today!"

And Jesus was really going to the heart of what blessing is supposed to be about. It's not a synonym for "congratulations." William Barclay defines the Greek word underlying it as "serene and untouchable joy."

We see elsewhere in the gospels that Jesus' mother Mary was not beside herself with joy. She joined his brothers on a mission to lay hold of Jesus who they think is out of his mind. I don't suppose Mary thought Jesus was actually crazy but she might have thought that his dangerous speeches might get him crucified. She saw what happened to her nephew John. Perhaps she remembered what Simeon said all those years ago about how Jesus' revealing the secret thoughts of others would raise opposition and about how a sword would pierce her soul as well. It wouldn't be until Easter day that Mary would know serene joy regarding her son.

But Jesus wants to focus on what is more important: hearing God's word and obeying it. Then as now people are quite capable of hearing information that demands a response…and not responding. 2/3s of Americans are overweight. We hear this all the time. We know that we should do something about it. We even know all the different things we can do about it. But we don't do it. It's too hard. It's too time-consuming. It's not as much fun as what we do to put on pounds.

I'm a nurse and I've seen patients who were told in no uncertain terms that if they wanted to walk again or just continue to live, they must follow the doctor's orders. And they won't. I would give breathing treatments to patients who would fret over the time it took to inhale the aerosolized medicine that would open their lungs because they wanted to go outside and have a smoke.

Apparently, people were the same in Jesus' time. They knew God's word. They heard it every Sabbath in the synagogue. Jesus was forever quoting it as justification for what he was doing. But there's a big gap between knowing what's right and doing it.

The popular term "leap of faith" is based on the writings of Soren Kierkegaard. The decision to believe in God cannot be totally justified by logic and evidence alone. There comes a time when an individual must make the leap across any remaining doubts and commit himself.

It seems to me that that gap is not so great for most people today. They believe in so many fantastic things that science tells us--the wonders of space, the paradoxes of quantum physics--and all are beyond our senses. We can believe them because we are told they are true and because it costs us little to do so. The stars and subatomic particles have no discernable impact on our lives.

And such is the state of religious belief in the U.S. It's easy to believe in God. What does it cost me? And he loves me just as I am? Fantastic. And who I am is someone who loves to sleep in on Sunday mornings. Thanks. You made my day. Close the door on the way out.

And that, in part, is why less and less people go to church. It costs me nothing to believe in such a God. And because he loves me he won't make any demands on me and I can do as I please. And it does not please me to go to a place with a bunch of other people I didn't "friend" and sing old songs and read confusing passages from an ancient book and listen to someone talk about, not celebrities, or music or sports but things I gotta do or think. Because it's in real space and not cyberspace I can't switch from interest to interest every couple of minutes.

Our culture is training people to accept virtual friends in place of real ones and to flit from site to site like a hummingbird on crack. And we the church  have reduced God to a figure no more commanding and compelling than a Care Bear. He's there when we need a hug and otherwise he can lie buried in the bedclothes until we need him again. And Cheer Bear would never tell you to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him.

But if we believe Jesus people won't really know the untouchable and serene joy that can be theirs unless they both hear and obey God's word.

You know who is discovering that joy? The inmates at our jail. I've never seen such spiritual hunger. It's only a few inmates but they are eager. They read their Bibles morning and night. (To be fair, they have lots of time to fill.) They ask me questions; they clamor for Bible studies; they long for practical advice for tough situations--dealing with anger, coping with loss and grief, wrestling with addiction, facing loneliness, and struggling with stress. Much the same stuff that other people are working with. But in jail, stripped of most of the distractions we live with, saddled with long periods of time, face-to-face with the consequences of wrong and foolish choices, they realize that the word of God is what they need. To them the idea that God loves and forgives them the moment they repent for the destruction they've done to themselves and others is amazing. To them the knowledge that because Jesus took the punishment for their sins, they can stop punishing themselves is good news indeed. To them the fact that they must follow up this cure for spiritual illness with a maintenance regimen prescribed by the Great Physician himself is accepted as common sense. To them it's a blessing.

When it seemed like the whole world was Christian, the "build it and they will come" model of being the church may have made sense. But in Jesus' day, the church was a band of folk bringing the good news to people where they were. Maybe the problem wasn't building the churches but regarding them as the places within whose walls the main work of the gospel is done, which is to say, where the word is heard. Maybe it would have been better if we had seen them as supply depots for those heading out to obey God's word.

Whatever shape the church takes in 21st century America, it can't remain a chain of Christ Club franchises. It's not that we need less emphasis on God's word--the average self-identified Christian is woefully ignorant of exactly what scripture says and doesn't say. But we do need to put more emphasis on obeying the word, putting it into practice. Jesus' problem with the Pharisees wasn't with what they taught so much as the fact that their practice fell far short of their teachings. People flocked to Christ not merely because of his teachings but because he healed the sick and fed the hungry and he helped people get free of their demons and he forgave and welcomed the sinner back into the community of God's people. We preach God's word; he was God's word in action, God's love embodied.

In an increasingly cacophonous world, maybe we should stop worrying about making ourselves more audible and start making ourselves more visible instead. We need to erase the contradiction between what we preach and what we actually do. Non-Christians feel we are too preachy anyway. They never say we are too busy feeding the hungry, or clothing the underdressed or visiting the sick and the imprisoned. (Some feel we are too welcoming to the foreigner within our gates. Tough.) I know our church does this stuff. Yet it is so easy to find news about churches saying awful things and so hard to find news of churches doing awesome things. Or I'd post more on Facebook.

At the Lutheran church where I'm acting as interim, they used to end their liturgy with: "The worship has ended; the service begins." That should be how every Eucharist should end. That's how we should start thinking. Or the epitaph for the church will be: "When all was said and done, there was a lot more said than done."

We need to make that scary leap of faith from hearing the word to actually obeying it. Maybe the blessing is found in the thrill you feel as you sail over the gap and land on the other side, trembling and glad to have done it and joyful to be alive.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

When Working is Not Working

It was called the Great Disappointment. A Baptist preacher named William Miller, using Daniel 8:14, announced that Jesus would return somewhere between 1843 and 1844. Eventually specific dates were announced by Miller and others  and a large number of his followers gave away all their possessions and waited for Jesus to come in the clouds. When a date would pass without the Second Coming taking place, Miller or his followers would recalculate. When the final date, October 22, 1844, passed uneventfully, it was the last straw for many. There were riots. Millerite churches were burned and vandalized. Some followers of Miller were attacked, tarred and feathered. Most were mocked and criticized. And a lot of his followers were simply crushed by the disappointment. Some went back to their old churches. Some became Quakers. Others reinterpreted the event theologically and became the Seventh Day Adventists.

The oldest book in the New Testament is usually thought to be 1 Thessalonians, written about 50 AD or within 20 years of Jesus' execution. In it Paul comforts Christians who were worried about the fate of those who died before the Lord's return. He assures them that they will be resurrected just as Jesus was but not until his return. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul deals with an unexpected complication derived from a reaction to that teaching. Apparently, as the Millerites would do almost 2 millennia later, some people expected Jesus' return to be so imminent that they stopped work and were just waiting. In addition, they were living off the generosity of others and becoming busybodies. In response Paul tells them that signs will precede Jesus' return. He also reminds them that though as an apostle he could ask for support for his work, he followed the tradition of most rabbis and had a trade he worked for a living. He was a tentmaker and bi-vocational priests are called tentmakers to this day. And in this context Paul writes: "For even when we were with you, we used to give you this command, 'If anyone is not willing to work, neither should he eat.' For we hear that some among you are living an undisciplined life, not doing their own work but meddling in the work of others. Now such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and so provide their own food to eat."

It is clear in the context that Paul is not talking about those who cannot find work or cannot work because of disability. He is not talking about those who would be working if it weren't for a bad world economy or for companies which are laying people off rather than hiring. He's talking about members of the church who are using their expectation of Jesus' Second Coming to avoid work and who seem to be relying on the generosity of other Christians for food. Paul in the very next verse encourages Christians to help the poor and unfortunate; he is simply not including those who can find work but choose to take advantage of Christian charity instead. Later the church would call that sin "sloth."

This comes from our sermon suggestion box but it is not the sole focus of the request. It asks me to couple 2 Thessalonians 3:10 with the commandment which tells us to rest on the seventh day. And it asks "which part of [the] commandment's most [often] broken?"

The unique commandment to rest every seventh day and to make sure your animals and immigrants and even slaves do so as well set the Hebrews apart from other cultures. Various reasons for doing so are given. In Exodus 20, we are to rest on the Sabbath because when God created the world, he rested on the 7th day. We are created in the image of God. As he ceased work, so should we. More than that, we are to "remember the Sabbath to keep it holy." Holy means "set apart for God's use." This idea of remembrance is expanded upon in Deuteronomy 5:15 where it says, "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." We are to remember on this day God's mighty acts on our behalf: not only his creation of the universe and us but also his liberating his people and making a covenant with them and revealing his law to them. It's not enough to simply stop working and goof off. We are to remember and be thankful to God.   

In Exodus 31, the Sabbath is to be a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. Circumcision was a sign that an individual was a party to God's covenant but the Sabbath was a sign that all the people were aware of being included in God's covenant. It is to be a day of complete rest and refreshment. The Hebrew word used for refreshment literally means "to take breath." The Sabbath is when you stop the busyness of everyday life and get to catch your breath.
I'm not 100% sure why our sermon suggestion linked this Old Testament passage with the New Testament verse but it is inspired. Because they represent the 2 opposite errors we make towards work and rest.

Most virtues lie between 2 contradictory vices. Bravery lies between foolhardiness and cowardice. Patience lies between lethargy and haste. Love lies between indifference and obsession. Wise living means finding a balance between the two extremes that foolish or undisciplined people tend to fall into.

We have a culture that is pulling us in both directions when it comes to labor and leisure. On the one hand people keep inventing labor-saving devices. Some of these are quite sensible but some are ludicrous. Someone invented a recliner with a toilet in it. I guess you wouldn't have to get up during the game. There are ottomans that are mini-fridges and prism-glasses that allow you to watch TV while lying flat in bed. Even the useful labor-saving devices have bad side-effects. The fact that I can simply press one button or say a name to dial a person means that I don't remember my wife's phone number. I don't need to. Until I forget my phone and have to call her from one that doesn't have her in its memory. We can pay our bills online, and order merchandise online and even get the latest bestseller sent to our e-reading device in seconds. No wonder 2/3 of us are overweight! Wall-E's tubby humans who float everywhere in their comfy chairs with their oversized drink cups is looking less like satire and more like prophesy.

On the other hand, our culture is going 24/7. You can watch TV all night, you can shop or eat out at certain places in the wee hours and of course you can surf the internet anywhere, anytime. There is no flagging of the constant hustle and enticements of our up-all-night culture. And that means more people have to work all night. Not just people who keep our utilities running or our cops or medical care personnel, who must work the Sabbath for the common good. People who work at convenience stores and fast food joints and gambling establishments and who keep track of foreign stock exchanges must work now night shifts, despite what we know about their connection with insomnia and weight gain and high blood pressure and diabetes and cancer and depression.

It's a sad sign that we do so little physical activity these days that we must now set aside time just to exercise. And it's a sadder sign that we are so driven and pre-occupied with work and activities and amusements that 74% of us don't get enough sleep at night, 43% have trouble with daytime sleepiness and 37.9% report falling asleep during the day unintentionally. 62% of Americans report driving while sleepy and 37% admit to dozing off while behind the wheel. Drowsy drivers cause 100,000 crashes a year, 40,000 injuries and 1500 deaths.        

Add to this the fact that 73% of us report great stress on a weekly basis. 48% say the stress in their lives has increased over the last 5 years. The number 1 stressor for most people is money. 50% of people worrying about supporting their family. Work is a big source as well with 45% worry about job insecurity. And worry and sadness are doubled and stress is even greater among the unemployed and they increase the longer people can't find a job.

Stress causes your body to release cortisol and dampens your  immune system, digestive system, reproduction system and growth. It makes sense when the stress is short term, like your need to fight or take flight from a threat and everything non-essential can shut down temporarily. But chronic stress will damage these systems. Increased adrenaline, another response to stress, can cause chronic heartburn. Constant stress can lead to allergy attacks, tremors, teeth grinding, unexplained weight gain or loss, sleep disturbance and high blood pressure.

When you look up ways to relieve stress you first find the big 3: good diet, daily exercise and plenty of sleep. Pets are good stress relievers, too. When I was working at the nursing home in Plantation Key we had a woman who brought her dog in simply so residents could pet and interact with him. Studies have shown the physical benefits of having a pet.

Mirth, music and meditation are another 3 vital ways of relieving stress. Meditation is mentioned often in scripture. In Psalm 143, David writes, "I remember the days of long ago; I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done." The writer of Psalm 104 says of God, "My meditation of him shall be sweet; I will be glad in the Lord." Meditating on God's love and grace is a good way to counteract stress. We need to find time every day to get with God and meditate on him.

Of course, that is what the Sabbath is for. It is a gift from God. It is his day but he commands us to…rest, refresh, catch our breath. It might not be a bad idea to unplug the computer and turn off your phone. Meditate on God's gifts and grace instead.

Does that mean if you meditate by yourself, you don't need to go to church? Well, not only is meditation good for stress but so is connection with other people. Supportive relationships help people deal with stress. To paraphrase the old saying, when you are part of a group of people who care about you, it divides up your sorrows and multiplies your joys. In fact, attending church regularly has such a strong effect on people's mental health that scientists, loathe to attribute such benefits to God, attribute it all to the social aspects of church. And I don't think they are entirely wrong.

But a recent study found that religious people are less anxious when performing stressful tasks. The stronger their faith, the more calm they are,  the less mistakes they make, and the less rattled they are by the mistakes they do make. These were individuals whose brains were being monitored as they did the tasks. So individual faith appears to buffer one from anxiety. And one of the many roles the church fulfills, besides social support, is that of strengthening faith.

Of course, observing the Sabbath is most effective if you have work to stop doing. As one comedian pointed out, the problem with doing nothing is that you can't take a break from it. Those that are idle will get less from the Sabbath than those who are active. Unless you are fired or laid off. Most people who have lost their job work hard at finding another. It's very stressful to lose part of your identity (in our society, what you do for a living is a large part of who you are). It's very stressful to not be able to support your family and yourself. It's very stressful to scramble to make sure you have food and can keep your home. And it's very stressful to be viewed by others as lazy or a loser. Supporting and helping those without work through no fault of their own is expressing Christian love.

There is a virtue between being unwilling to work and unwilling to stop and that is observing the Sabbath, Spending time with God and with our brothers and sisters in Christ in meditation, prayer, praise and communion is a gift from our Father and we would be ungrateful to ignore it. Life is hard and God knows it. As one rabbi put it, the Sabbath is where we regain Eden. Once again, we enjoy a taste of paradise, walking with our God in the cool of the day.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Case of the Renegade Exorcist

When people think that getting rid of religion would eliminate most human conflicts, I have to ask myself what universe are they living in? Besides the objective fact that the Encyclopedia of War has found that only 7% of all wars were caused by religion, there is the obvious fact that people will fight over anything: race, politics, sexual orientation, personal or national honor, and on a less lethal level, sports teams, favorite foods, even which actor to play James Bond is the best. (It was Sean Connery.) My point is that people see things differently and will argue over matters both important and trivial. 

It's not hopeless. We can and do work together with and even marry people of different political affiliations, races and religions. Oddly enough, it is often within political parties, within religious denominations, within fandoms that we see the most vicious fighting. Groups that have the most in common seem to react the most strongly to internal differences.

Sometimes the controversy  is over essentials. This was true of the Gnostics, who saw all matter as evil and so said the creator of the world is evil and that Jesus represents a different, totally spiritual God. They taught that Christ did not really become a man but only appeared to. Our Lord did not actually live as one of us or nor did he die for us. That lead to radically different notions of what is good and what is evil, as well as what our attitude toward creation, our own bodies, and everyday life should be. Some Gnostics taught that, the body being evil, one should live a very ascetic life and be celibate. Other Gnostics taught that, since the body is matter and therefore irredeemable, it didn't matter what one did with the body. For them, promiscuity was permissible as long as one's mind stayed on things above. The church as a whole decided to hold to the Biblical teachings that we find in the Apostolic and Nicene creeds: that, as paradoxical as it seems, Jesus is fully God and fully human, the coming together of the creator and the creation, which God pronounced good and is working to restore.

But often the disagreements are about less crucial matters like emphasis, or specific ways of doing things. It gets serious when we use these differences to decide who is "us" and who is "them." As someone said recently in an NPR piece about a political party at odds with itself, "We've got to decide if we are a church that welcomes converts or one that expels heretics."

So it's not surprising that this problem arose even in the earliest days of Christianity. John the disciple tells Christ that when they saw someone casting out demons in Jesus' name, they tried to stop him "because he was not following us." That's pretty remarkable. It means news of Jesus' healings have become widespread. It means people realize that the there is something special about Jesus' power. There were other Jewish exorcists in those days. The only way to make a spirit leave a person was to command it in the name of someone more powerful. Usually a Jewish exorcist used the name of God. By using Jesus' name, this renegade exorcist was recognizing that Jesus was more powerful than the evil spirits.

It also means this man really believed in Jesus. In Acts 19, we hear of how the sons of a Jewish high priest tried to drive out a demon by using the name of "Jesus whom Paul preaches." The evil spirit says, "I know about Jesus and I'm acquainted with Paul but who are you?" The mentally ill man leaps upon and beats the exorcists into submission and they escape him naked and wounded. Jesus' name is not a magic word. Calling upon him only works if we trust him, if we have a relationship with him. Otherwise it would be like going up to a stranger, calling him Dad and asking for lots of money. You need a real relationship with the person to ask for things in his name.    

So this fellow knew of Jesus and trusted in him. But he wasn't one of the people who was traveling with Jesus. There is no indication that the disciples recognize him as one of the Seventy to whom Jesus granted power and sent out to heal. But he is healing people in Jesus' name. So the Twelve tell him to stop.

Jesus' reaction must have shocked them. "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak evil of me for a while. Whoever is not against us is for us." To Christ the important thing is that the man did good in his name. Even allowing for the fact that he may turn against Jesus at some point, it's not going to happen anytime soon. Right now, this guy is an ally. And we need all the allies we can get. There's a war on.

What war? The war on the less fortunate and powerless. 16% of Americans are living in poverty. 1 in 5 children has no assurance that he will eat today. Though decreasing slightly, more than 600,000 people are homeless. The number of homeless families increased by 20% or more in 11 states. 49.9 million Americans have no health insurance, including 7.3 million children. That's appalling in world's most prosperous nation.  

When people come to me seeking help from the church, I do what I can from my discretionary fund. I give them Winn Dixie gift cards for food. I might help them with bus money to get to Key West to take care of their Social Security or other governmental matters. But I explain that we are a small church and that I cannot, say, pay their entire rent. Nor can I help them more than once. I do refer them to the Food pantry at the Big Pine United Methodist Church or Catholic Charities at St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church. I don't disparage the other churches over any doctrinal differences our denominations have. As a Methodist down here on an Emergency Relief Mission after Hurricane Georges told me, "Doctrines may divide but service unites."

But wait! Didn't Jesus get into debates with the Pharisees, which were a separate school of Jewish thought? Yes, but it was over what they did ethically. He even told people that as the scribes and Pharisees were custodians of God's law, one should do as they said but not as they did. Why? They were much too focused on ceremony and ritual and things like not healing on the Sabbath, and they were not paying attention to what was important, like justice, mercy and faith. They liked people's adoration rather than God's approval. They piled burdensome lists of rules on people's backs but wouldn't lift a finger to help. They blocked the way into God's kingdom for others and killed the prophets God sent. They were hypocrites who scolded Jesus for eating and drinking with disreputable people, not recognizing that he was bringing these people back to God.

Jesus was concerned with the fruit that people produced, whether what they did was good or bad. A Samaritan, whom most Jews would view as a heretic, was nevertheless for Jesus a good example of following the commandment to love one's neighbor. A Roman soldier telling Jesus that he could simply heal his slave by distant command was a better example of faith than Jesus had found among his own people. Tax collectors and prostitutes were repenting and entering God's kingdom ahead of the religious leaders.

This is not to say people are saved by their works but that if one puts one's trust in Jesus, that faith will find expression in good works. If you are sick, you will display symptoms, like a fever or shortness of breath. If you are healthy, you will display signs of good health, like a normal temperature or a good lung capacity. Sins are symptoms of poor spiritual health; good works are a sign of good spiritual health. Like temperature or the ability to breath deeply, it's not the only sign but it is a major one.   

The man's ability to heal folks in Jesus' name showed Christ that he was spiritually healthy. He trusted in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. The disciples had not realized that. But as the Celebrate bulletin insert says about today's Gospel, "the circle we form around Jesus' word must be able to value good being done in ways we wouldn't do it, by people we can't keep tabs on."

The church has not always be kind to renegade Christians. They expelled Martin Luther, John Wesley, General William Booth, and others. In more shameful actions, reformers such as Jan Huss and William Tyndale were burned at the stake.

We don't do that any more. But churches still split over matters both essential and not. This dilutes our impact in the world. We dilute it partly by our acting towards fellow Christians in ways that are very unloving. Younger people are not hung up on denominational distinctives and they don't understand why Christians speak or act negatively toward other Christians. Small wonder a large percentage of young people leave the church and many young people are reluctant to join churches.

Another way schisms dilute our impact on the world is by creating more churches that then compete with one another in ministry. And it's not like we can afford to do that. The average church in the U.S. has 100 members or less. That's true for all denominations, even the larger ones. The mega churches may have more people but they are less numerous. In small towns, churches are closing every day. At a recent Episcopal clergy conference, we were being told the way we do ministry must change. We were told that a church needs a budget of at least $250,000 to afford one full-time clergy, a minimal staff and the ability to do ministry. If a church has a budget of $150,000 or less it is at risk of ceasing to be able to continue. That's disturbing because our church budget is not even close to that.

At the recent synod ministry conference, Bishop Beneway spoke of how the way we do ministry is changing. With such a large number of small churches, clergy need to expect to have either a secular job in addition to their ministry or to have more than one church. And Pastor Paul Lutze singled out what we are doing on Big Pine as a great example of ecumenical cooperation. I spent practically every meal answering questions from colleagues about how our two churches functioned together.

In view of these trends, it will no longer be feasible for Christians to disdain other Christians. It will no longer be reasonable for us not to work together. It will no longer make sense to treat each other as enemies or rivals. We must become allies. Or, more accurately, we must recognize each other as fellow citizens of God's Kingdom, as in fact, brothers and sisters in Christ. Like all siblings we are different and yet all bear a family resemblance. We are unique and yet we are one in Christ. Unity is what Jesus prayed for on the night he was betrayed. Our love for one another is how the world is supposed to identify us as his disciples, he said. Not, mind you, our complete agreement on all doctrinal matters, not our uniformity in ritual, nor our political leanings. It is our love for one another that marks us out as Christians.

This is not to say families don't have squabbles and disagreements. But the members of healthy families continue to love each other and work with each other and help each other out. The older brother might act as if he's a parent rather than a sibling but he is loved. The youngest might seem a bit wild and immature but she is loved. The middle child might feel overlooked but he is loved. They know how to push each other's buttons and sometimes make each other madder than they've ever gotten at anyone outside the family. But in strong families, they apologize and forgive. They never forget they are joined by blood.

We Christians are joined by Jesus' blood, on the cross and at the Lord's table. There we partake of Christ's body and become his body on earth. In our bodies, we recognize that their different parts still belong to one body. We need to do that with the various parts of Christ's body. We need to recognize that they don't all look the same or function the same. Some are better suited for some tasks and some work better at other ones. But they are all necessary for the good health of the body. And so it shouldn't surprise us that when one part of the body of Christ is in pain, the rest of us feel it. And we should respond as quickly as possible to help the injured and support the ailing part.

Jesus didn't let his body be broken so that God's creation should continue to fragment. He died to draw all people to himself. He died to heal this broken world and commissioned us to continue his ministry of reconciliation. That means no criticizing fellow Christians doing good in Jesus' name. Instead we should ask, "Need some help?" and pitch in. When in doubt do the most loving thing. And the world will know we are Christians by our love.