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.

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