Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Realm of Truth

The gospel examined is John 18:33-37.

One of the really annoying features of our recent presidential election was how everyone seemed to confuse a constitutionally limited position with some kind of divine right kingship. Both candidates and their supporters were acting as if the president can rule by decree. But as we've seen over and over, unlike a monarch or a CEO, a president has to persuade people, including those in his own party, to go along with his policies or he's stymied. So whenever either candidate spoke as if he could magically create jobs (other than government jobs), or control the economy (which would require controlling the world) or make sure that a foreign country did or didn't do something (ditto), I wondered if they and my fellow countrymen had forgotten the civics lessons we got in school. And I still see Facebook posts that act as if the president can take away Americans' guns (not since the Supreme Court decision in 2010) or as if states can secede (I seem to recall us settling that question in the 1860s). In fact, George Washington, once he had accepted the surrender of the British, was urged to become the first king of the United States. But he did not think that they had defeated a King George III in order to turn around and install a King George 1st.

Early on in human history it made sense to give one man all the power to make decisions for a group. Ordinary life was not much different than warfare. Small family groups faced extinction at the hands of famine, wild animals, and hostile tribes. You needed a tough warrior in charge. As families grew into clans and tribes, as tribes settled together into cities, those strong men gained more power. They then conquered neighboring lands to become nations, and adjoining nations to become empires. There was comfort in having a strong man at the top to protect everyone's home and livelihood and to impose order on an otherwise chaotic society. The safety and stability a king provided were considered way more important than individual rights.

Though they may not call themselves kings, the leaders of many countries today still seek or hold absolute power over their citizens. And for most of history that was fine with the people, provided the strong leader kept things orderly if not perfectly just.

Israel had lived for hundreds of years under the judges, divinely called leaders who arose when needed to protect the people, usually from outside attack. But they wanted the continuity and stability of a king, like other nations had, and urged Samuel, the last of the judges, to anoint one for them. Samuel wasn't happy about this because he foresaw how such power might corrupt any man made king. But he went ahead and anointed Saul as the first king of Israel. When Saul lost God's favor, Samuel was sent to anoint David, who was both devout and a great warrior. He became for Israel the template of the ideal king.

In Jesus' day, under the oppression of the Roman Empire, the hope was for God to raise up and anoint another holy warrior king. That was the popular idea of what the Messiah would be. And it explains why, early in his career, Jesus discouraged those he healed from telling anyone. He didn't want the Messiah talk to begin before he had redefined the term. After feeding the 5000, John's gospel tells us the crowd wanted to make Jesus king by force. His talk of the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood discouraged them. That wasn't the kind of Messiah they wanted.

The same goes for the disciples. They couldn't accept Jesus' teaching about his being betrayed and killed because that didn't sound like something a strong leader would let happen. That wasn't the kind of Messiah they wanted.

In today's Gospel we see Jesus once again faced with an erroneous idea of what kind of king he was. Jesus was turned over to the Roman governor by his enemies, the religious leaders. They were Pilate's enemies, too, and it looks like he wasn't going to give them what they wanted if he could help it. But when they said Jesus claimed to be king, which was tantamount to treason against the Emperor, Pilate had to interrogate him.

"Are you the King of the Jews?' he demanded. To which Jesus countered, "Are you asking this on your own or did others tell you about me?" Pilate retorted, "I am not a Jew, am I?" Pilate sounds a bit contemptuous but he might have actually been ignorant of what the Messiah actually was. Pilate was not very understanding when it came to the Jews he governed. It's one of the reasons his governorship was so tumultuous and why he ultimately was removed by Rome.

Pilate continues: "Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?"  

Jesus hadn't raised an army or issued marching orders or called for revolution. But he didn't defend himself. He accepted the title of king implicitly and said, "My kingdom is not from this world." Note that he didn't say, "My kingdom is not of this world," but "My kingdom is not from this world." The Greek preposition indicates origin. So it's not that Jesus' kingdom doesn't belong here; it's that it doesn't originate from this world.

And the evidence for that fact? Jesus said that if his kingdom came from this world, his followers would be fighting to rescue him. The difference is that, unlike the kingdoms of this world, physical might and violence isn't the way to establish or keep power in God's kingdom. So what is its basis?

When Jesus says, "my kingdom is not from here," Pilate responds, "So you are a king?" And Jesus answers, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Notice that he doesn't say, "everyone who belongs to my kingdom," but "everyone who belongs to the truth." And it parallels what Jesus says in chapter 10 about his sheep knowing his voice and following him.

Though our lectionary text cuts off on the verse just before it, Pilate's reply to Jesus is to ask, rhetorically, and possibly cynically, "What is truth?" And, frankly, it's a question anyone reading John's gospel would eventually ask as well. The word pops up more than 2 dozen times in John and in almost every chapter. But by the time Pilate asks about the truth, the astute reader would already know the answer. In chapter 14, Jesus says, "I'm the way, the truth and the life." The answer to Pilate's question is standing in front of him.

The kingdom of God is not based on brute force but on the truth of who Jesus is. He is the God whose power is love. Those who belong to him, who know the voice of the truth, listen to him and follow him. Unlike every earthly kingdom, which expands by conquering the unwilling, the kingdom of God expands exclusively by incorporating those who listen and respond to Jesus' call. It grows by love. The church gets in trouble whenever it tries to expand in the way worldly realms do, by imposing itself upon others or forcibly converting people.

Another thing that has gotten the church into trouble is converting people to something other than Christ. By that I mean converting them to a theological system or a style of worship or an ethical system or a philosophical point of view or an institution. People have shown themselves to be quite capable of putting parts of Christianity ahead of Jesus. They have loved the church or an issue or even a certain interpretation more than Christ. They will nullify Jesus' plain words in order to defend something they actually value more. We see people trying to be more Christian than Jesus by either denying his emphasis on social justice or his emphasis on personal holiness.

The truth has an inconvenient habit of not hewing to our personal opinions of what it should be. Nor is the truth concerned with being simple or one-dimensional. Jesus wasn't. That's why it takes 4 gospels to tell the story of Jesus from various perspectives. That's why it takes 39 books of the Old Testament to establish the background and precursors of the gospel. That's why it takes 23 books to examine the implications and aftermath of the gospels. But to interpret them you have to keep Christ in the center. If you don't, you get a skewed version of the truth.

Of course, this puts Jesus at a disadvantage as a king. If he only rules the consenting, those who respond to his truth, he isn't going to have as many followers as leaders who use their power to make people their subjects.

And yet Christianity grew. Gentiles, slaves and women were especially drawn to this religion of love, where everyone is equal in the sight of God. A woman could be an apostle, a slave could be a bishop, Jews and Gentiles were both saved by God's grace through faith, not by their achievements. When Rome decided to wipe out Christianity through brute force and death, it had no better luck than when it killed Jesus. As he rose from the dead, so too faith in him lived by the blood of the martyrs. Pagans start to feel sorry for Christians, whom, they noted, went to their deaths with nobility. And when Christians stayed in Rome to care for victims of plague rather than flee, people began to admire the faithful. For more than 300 years Christianity was illegal. And during those same three centuries, Christianity spread throughout the Empire, so much so that tolerance of the faith was the best political option for Constantine when he becomes emperor.

After this, however, Christianity enters into an uneasy marriage with the state. It gains power and extends its influence but it loses much of its prophetic stance, it compromises its ethics and takes up the traditional role of religion in a society: the blesser of the status quo. And when it does find itself in conflict with the rulers of earthly kingdoms, it finds that few so-called Christian princes will submit themselves to its authority.

It is ever thus. When the church is too closely allied to the state, political power corrupts it. It gets used and when it is inconvenient, just like Pilate, politicians will sell out Jesus and try to kill the truth. In Romans 13, we are commanded to obey our national leader, to obey the laws and to pay our taxes. But as we see in Acts 5, when specifically forbidden to preach the gospel, we must obey God rather than men.

As Christians we are to live in this world but not to be of it. Our kingdom does not originate in the passions of this world but comes from the realm of God's Spirit. Finding a dynamic balance of expressing the spiritual in the physical realm is a difficult one. But we must always remember who has the last word and the final say: our true king, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. And we must follow his example. What he did was not what the rulers of this world would do. They would never show themselves to be vulnerable, nor sacrifice themselves or their power. He, by contrast, was never motivated by gaining power but by the truth he must express, the truth of God's self-sacrificial love for all those created to bear his image. Jesus was that truth incarnate and he has passed that mission on to us. Now we are to live out that truth. And in some ways it is harder today than it was when the faith was young. The first Christians had little or nothing to lose in a culture where they were a small illegal group. We are a large and prosperous portion of the population. If we live according to the commands of our king, we risk sacrificing our comfortable and respectable lives. And so we must ask ourselves: whom do we serve? This world or God's kingdom? The worshippers of power or the one who is the truth? And how do we prepare for the coming of our king?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Recipe for Thanksgiving

Holidays are the hardest time to preach. They come every year; their purpose and reason are usually pretty clear and there's very little that you can add. Few preachers want to merely repeat what they've said before and what everyone already knows.

So I was toying with using this time to question whether we should have a Thanksgiving Day. After all, shouldn't we as Christians be thankful every day?

Then I saw an article on the internet about how one doesn't need to believe in a god to be thankful for one's life, one's good health, or one's successful career. I'm a bit of a stickler for the proper definition and use of words and I pointed out that while one could appreciate those good things in one's life, without believing in God, one couldn't be thankful. You thank a person for a gift or gracious act. You cannot thank blind, non-sentient chance. From a strictly non-theistic stance, one must acknowledge that you did not choose your parents; they did not choose which sperm and egg would unite to cause you; your DNA determines to a large extent your health and, according to some scientists, your personality. So there's no one to thank. Or if you are arrogant, and, ignoring both science and theology, think you really are responsible for all of your success, you could congratulate yourself. Either way, without God, Thanksgiving is just "I'm One Lucky S.O.B." Day, a celebration of smugness.

For thanksgiving to occur, there has to be a gift, there has to be a giver and there has to be a recipient who is humble and grateful. So you can and should be thankful to your parents for being good parents, to your doctor for keeping you healthy, and your boss for not firing you. But for being alive at all, for being in a world and universe that favors life, for able to articulate the concept of thankfulness, there is no one to thank, unless, as many non-theists do, you anthropomorphize a process, like evolution.   

Without God, what is just is. Nothing is a gift; it is just a fact. It is not a sign of favor or disfavor, or of any kind of intention. You may be happy to have it or unhappy but you can't be thankful or resentful. You cannot thank God for your talents nor can you blame him for perceived deficits. You've simply won or lost a cosmic lottery. And if you seem to lose that lottery, if you are saddled with a bad family, illness or accident, or a disappointing career, there is no way you can be grateful for that.

With God, however, anything and everything can be seen as a gift. If you have a talent or a wonderful spouse or great children, you can thank God. You can also, and I have seen this, thank God even for the things in life that most would see as negatives, like a dysfunctional family or a failed business or being in jail. I've seen people who had a life-threatening illness tell me that it made them more grateful for their life, for their families, for the little pleasures and joys. It has helped them prioritize their lives, spending less time on work and more on loved ones. It has brought them into contact with people they otherwise may not have met: doctors, nurses, therapists, other patients and their families. Sometime they realize that they can use their experience to help others in the same circumstances.

This is a situation C. S. Lewis called complex good. It is a good that can only exist because of evil. Love, sharing, and beauty can exist in an unfallen world. Compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation can only exist in a fallen one, because they are good reacting to and overcoming evil. And some people come to be grateful for the hardship or darkness that made it possible for them to grow intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually stronger and more mature.

Without God, there is no giver. There is no intention that you receive something. Some non-theists like this. They don't wish to be indebted to anyone. But it also means that there is no one to question, ask guidance of or complain to when you receive something you'd rather not. You can decide to make it a learning experience but there are no expectations that you do so. You can let it make you bitter and angry if you wish. In an indifferent universe, you are free to imbue it with any meaning or none at all. You cannot expect consolation, though. Or compensation or wholeness or healing in either this life or any other. There is literally no promise of a happy ending or justice and thus there is no reason for hope.

Hope is the consequence of having a loving and faithful God. Trusting God allows us to see this world, this life and everything that goes with it, pleasant or not, as a gift. His promise of a good outcome for a life spent serving him helps us through the rougher times. And we can expect his help with understanding and using his gifts properly, the way a parent or grandparent will help a child ride the bike she received or learn a game he has unwrapped. God's presence is also a gift. We are not on our own and that both gives us hope and makes us grateful.

Without God, there is no recipient. Pleasant and unpleasant stuff just presents itself to you. There is not rhyme or reason to it. You can try to reject it or just accept it or, irrationally, feel entitled to any good fortune that comes your way. But that deprives you of the benefits of cosmic gratitude.

Science has been studying gratitude of late. The findings are remarkable. Gratitude has been linked to good health, decreased anxiety and depression, increased quality of sleep, kinder behavior towards others, and higher long-term satisfaction. It improves marriage, decreases pain and lowers one's blood pressure. It makes one less aggressive, more optimistic, less materialistic, more spiritual and less self-centered. Gratitude increases your energy levels, helps you relax, makes you more likely to exercise, and lengthens your life. Psychologists call gratitude the forgotten factor in happiness. They've found that keeping a daily gratitude journal makes you happier longer than winning the lottery.

And, yes, you can and should be grateful to the people in your life for all they are and do. And for the fact that they exist and that you exist and that the sun exists and all things good, both simple and complex, exist, you can and should be grateful to God. And for the fact that your sins are forgiven and that you are reconciled to God and that you are now a child of God and that you have eternal life, you can and should be grateful to Jesus Christ. And for the fact that Christ lives in you and for the fact that you are being transformed into his image and for the fact that you have access to God and for the fact that you are being guided into all truth and for the fact that you have a guarantee of resurrection and for the fact that you can bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, you can and should be grateful to the Holy Spirit.

For Christians all is gift and grace; everything flows from God's undeserved, unreserved goodness. He gives us gifts that we might share them with each other. And if anyone lacks anything, it is because we have tried to hoard his gifts rather than share them, or because we have not devoted the same resources, energy and ingenuity that we show in getting what we want. But those abilities are themselves gifts from God. God's generosity should move us to reciprocate. As Jesus said, "Freely you have received; freely give."   

And so maybe there was some truth in my first sermon idea. Thanksgiving should not be restricted to one day. We should be thankful to God everyday for family, friends, our creation and redemption, for the good news of God's love and for the privilege of serving him. Science shows that gratitude is vital to our mental, physical and spiritual health. In other words, we were created to be thankful.  So from this day forward, let us rejoice in the fact that we have countless reasons to be thankful, beginning with our overwhelmingly generous God.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

It's Not the End of the World

The gospel in question is Mark 13: 1-8.

I majored in Biblical Studies at Wheaton College and graduated with Honors so I guess I may legitimately be called a Bible scholar. But in many ways I consider myself a Bible geek. That is, like an enthusiastic fan of a Sci Fi TV series, or a comic book superhero, or a fantasy movie series, I delight in collecting all kinds of out of the way knowledge about my chosen subject. A fan of all things Batman will be able to tell you from which of all of the different comics the plotlines and characters featured in the movies were drawn. As a James Bond fan I was tickled to see the nods to both the previous movies and the original books in the 50th anniversary film Skyfall. A true geek will also soak up all manner of trivia associated with the creation of the characters and their adaptation to other media. There is nothing about his area of enthusiasm that he is not interested in knowing, even if he feels strongly negative about this book in the series or that director or some plot twist. I'm that way about the Bible and church history.

One of the things I'm interested in, despite myself, is the elaborate eschatology of evangelicals. I'm fascinated by the way some manage to slot every visionary image in the Old and New Testaments into various more or less coherent scenarios and I love it when these are turned into baroque charts and timelines. I like to see how they select which things to take literally and which they choose to recognize as symbolic. (No one, as far as I know, thinks the anti-Christ will actually have the body of a leopard, the feet of a bear, the mouth of a lion, 7 heads and 10 horns, though they often take the lake of fire as a literal reality.)

That said, I don't think the excessive interest that some people invest in teaching and promoting their eschatological interpretations are healthy, either for themselves or for the church generally. In a sense, they are like the first Matrix movie. It essentially turns the life of Christ into a violent action movie and encourages us to cheer the carnage and destruction. And the tone of a lot of the tomes on the end times is a voyeuristic one, lingering over the details of the evil of the beast and his associates and the wrath that will be meted out on evildoers.

But doesn't that come from the Bible? Doesn't the Book of Revelation take an almost pornographic delight in the damnation of the devil and his followers?

Actually the Book of Revelation was written to comfort a persecuted church. The narrative portion begins and ends with several chapters set either in heaven or the new creation, in other words, paradise. Only the middle portion deals with persecution, plagues and punishment. What Revelation was saying to Christians was "Yes, things are bad and they will get worse for a while. But keep trusting God; he will win in the end and make everything right." The symbols were used to disguise the message from the Roman Empire which would have suppressed the book if it understood what it was saying. It wasn't written to revel in evil but to rejoice in redemption and restoration.

Nor was it written to encourage speculation on who was the anti-Christ. In fact, the word anti-Christ never appears in the book. That word only appears in the first 2 letters of John and refers to anyone who denies that Jesus came from God or that he was a flesh and blood person. It has been conflated with the "man of lawlessness" Paul says will precede the Day of the Lord and with the beast in Revelation and made to refer to a specific person.  But the Johannine letters refer to antichrists, who have left the church, and the spirit of the anti-Christ. He is speaking of the open opposition to the gospel that God in Christ lived and died as one of us and rose again, not a specific arch villain and certainly not the son of Satan.

Nor were the various prophesies about the end of the current evil age meant as clues to a secret timetable for figuring out the date of Judgment Day. We have seen those kinds of calculations blow up repeatedly in the face of those who think they've figured out what even Jesus said he didn't know. In our gospel for today, we see Jesus responding to the same questions from his disciples. And his first words are what we need to remember in all of what follows: "Beware that no one leads you astray." Because the chief problem in discussing the last days is getting diverted by non-essentials.

First Jesus warns us against false messiahs and prophets. And we have seen that happen again and again: Jim Jones, Father Divine, Sun Myung Moon, David Koresh, Roch Theriault, Wayne Bent, and Warren Jeffs, to name a few. They put their authority over that of the Bible; they encourage worship of themselves; they foster an "Us vs. Them" mentality towards outsiders; and they eventually exclude themselves from following basic moral rules, especially regarding sex and violence. If only their followers would heed Jesus' advice, these fake messiahs would never rise to become their leaders and manage to do all the damage they have.

Besides avoiding Jesus-wannabes, our Lord assures us that wars and disasters are not signs of the end of the world but just the beginning of birth pangs. Anyone reading the Bible will realize that there were many times when things looked bleak for God's people, where they plausibly could have thought that this was the end, at least for them: when plagues struck, when famine and drought threatened them, when first the Assyrians and later the Babylonians defeated them and took them into exile, destroying Jerusalem and the Temple. The people weren't destroyed, however. And Jesus is saying here, don't jump to conclusions about the world ending just because it is getting to be a scarier place. As a matter of fact, most wars and natural disasters are not signs and divine judgments. There are a lot of wars that took place at the same time as Biblical events that are not mentioned nor characterized as divine punishment.

Furthermore, the reasons given for those events that are specifically called judgments by the prophets were idolatry, not worshipping God in the right spirit and perpetrating or permitting injustice against the poor and defenseless. It is getting our relationships with God and with our fellow human beings wrong that invites God's judgment. In fact, the sins of most famous recipient of judgment are not what you think. According to the prophet Ezekiel, God says, "See here--this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had majesty, abundance of food, and enjoyed carefree ease, but they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and practiced abominable deeds before me." (Ez 16:49) So not sharing their abundance with the needy and being arrogant are the primary reasons for Sodom's condemnation. And lest you think that abominable deeds means just one thing, in Ezekiel 18 it includes the person who "eats pagan sacrifices in the mountains, defiles his neighbor's wife, oppresses the poor and the needy, commits robbery, does not give back what was given in pledge, prays to idols, performs abominable acts, engages in usury and charges interest." Later Ezekiel includes violence. That takes in a lot of stuff that falls outside of what we usually see as a religious offense. But it makes sense because God commanded his people to be just and merciful towards others. 6 of the 10 commandments are about how we treat others, not to mention 1 of the 2 great commandments.

But what does Jesus say? When asked about some people who were killed when a tower fell on them, he refuses to pronounce it a form of judgment. "Do you think they were worse sinners than all the others in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!"

So if we are not to look for new messiahs or interpret every disaster or conflict as an apocalyptic one, what are we to do?

Though our gospel passage ends, Jesus goes on to tell his disciples more. Like to expect persecution and suffering. But you know what: it's not the end of the world. That's something to remember. Just because things are hard, just because life gets painful, that's not the last word. As the young owner in the film "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" says, "Everything will be all right in the end. If it's not all right, then it's not yet the end." (That's a good summary of all apocalyptic literature.) Good Friday wasn't the end of the story. Easter was. Or rather it's just the beginning.

Jesus says when he does return, everyone will see it. And he says no one--not even he at that time in his earthly life--knows when he will return. So we are to stay alert. Jesus compares our situation to that of slaves whose master has gone on a journey. "He left his house and put his slaves in charge, assigning to each his work, and commanded the doorkeeper to be alert." So what is our work?

To follow Jesus' commands--to love God with everything we have, to love others as Christ loves us, to act with the realization that what we do to others (or fail to do), we do (or fail to do) to Jesus. To spread the gospel to all the world, baptizing and making disciples of Christ. He said nothing about calculating the time, nothing about stocking up on ammo for Armageddon, nothing about a rapture. Jesus just wants us to do what he told us to, to show the world we are his disciples through our love for one another. Because that's what makes us unique. Love. It's what God is. What Jesus embodies. And what this world has too little of. Love. That's what Jesus wants to catch us doing when he gets back. Not fighting each other, not arguing with each other, not persecuting others. He wants to walk in on us showing love for one another, through our thoughts, words and deeds. He wants us demonstrating that what he did for others was not a fluke, not a one-time event, but the beginning of what people led by his Spirit, the people of God, the body of Christ, would continue to do--trusting, forgiving, helping, teaching, nurturing, comforting, listening, repenting, serving, befriending, protecting, liberating, sharing, healing, praying, celebrating, guiding, reconciling, learning, laughing, helping, risking, supporting, thanking, growing, confessing, understanding, empathizing, believing, hoping, giving, enjoying, singing, creating, praising---all the ways we can reflect the faithful, honest, patient, gentle, glorious, redeeming, multifaceted love of our boundless God.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Giving It Your All

 Today's gospel is Mark 12:38-44.
By now you have heard that the recent presidential election was the most expensive in history. Adding up what both candidates spent plus their parties plus the SuperPACs, the initial total spending is $1.5 billion. And I suppose you are going to expect me to say something about how that might have been spent on all kinds of things, like helping the victims of hurricane Sandy. But that's not the purpose of this illustration. Rather I want to point out that money is a measure of value and of what we put our trust in so this shows how much people valued getting or keeping their candidate in power. It was worth $700 to $800 million dollars for the supporters to each candidate. Though the attraction of SuperPACs was that you could give as much money as you wished with no possibility of anyone knowing, a few people were not shy about being known for giving millions to get certain people elected or defeated. We must give credit where credit is due: they put their money where they mouths were. They showed what they valued the most.

In today's gospel Jesus is talking about people showing what they value. At the beginning of the passage, he is denouncing the scribes, the men who made the copies of the Torah by hand and were thus experts in the law. Apparently this sacred trust went to their heads and they loved the respect they got from the average person. They walked around in long flowing gowns, which looked impressive but were impractical for either working or hurrying in. (A friend once remarked that when we give a man power, we often put him in a dress--a judge, a surgeon, a clergyman!) They loved being greeted with reverence in public. They liked being seated in the front of the synagogue where they could see everything and be seen by everyone. They liked being put in the seat of honor, next to the host, at banquets. They loved making extra-long prayers that made them seem super-pious. They loved all the trappings of being a rabbi, which literally means "great one."

They also, according to Jesus, devoured widows' property. It was not Jewish custom then to pay someone for serving God. Rabbis and scribes were supposed to have a trade. But some convinced people, especially rich widows, that supporting a rabbi in comfort was the highest of privileges, almost a duty. And Jesus saw, as we do today, that some of these religious leaders were taking devout women for more than they could afford to give.        

"They will receive the greater condemnation." As Jesus says in Luke 12:48, "To whom much is given, much will be required." Those who are given the gifts to interpret and apply God's word will be held to a higher moral standard. You think you hate it when it turns out some priest has molested children, or some preacher has embezzled from the church, or some TV evangelist has been exposed as a charlatan and a hypocrite. Imagine how God feels about that! These people are supposed to be preaching the good news, comforting the afflicted and, when necessary, afflicting the comfortable. When they instead use their position of trust to exploit people, or to enrich themselves, or to court worldly power and acclaim, they discredit God in the eyes of those who need him and thus drive people from God. And as they do this, they reveal what they really value: money, power, fame, material goods, physical pleasure.

Next our gospel tells us Jesus sat opposite the treasury. Tradition has it there were 13 collection boxes there called the Trumpets, because of their wide metal funnels that made a loud noise as people threw their coins in. Each was for a different need of the temple. Jesus notices one particular woman, a widow in shabby garb, who drops in 2 coins of the smallest denomination available. And he draws his disciples' attention to her. She has put in more than the rest, he points out. And so she has. Others may have given larger amounts but she has given a much larger percentage of her money--all of it!

How did Jesus know the poor widow gave all she had? Perhaps he saw her shake out her purse only to have 2 small coins fall out. Maybe she hesitated throwing both in. Maybe she dropped one in and then started to walk away in dismay because she couldn't afford to give God much. And then maybe he saw her stop, walk back and drop in her last coin, say a short prayer and walk out of the temple, trusting in God to provide. It would have been an extraordinary drama, overlooked by those around her because unlike the richer donors, she didn't want to draw attention to herself. But Jesus saw her. He watched her expression change from shame to determination to faith. Perhaps he had seen a similar struggle go on in the heart of his mother after Joseph died and she had a house full of children to feed and clothe. He  knew firsthand the look of a poor person giving all she can for God.    

I can't help but recall the gospel passage we examined a few weeks back, where a rich man asks Jesus what he should do to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell all he has, give it to the poor and follow him. That man couldn't do that. This widow can. The rich young man showed that he valued and trusted in his possessions more than God. Perhaps he was unable to trust that, without his wealth, his needs would be taken care of. This woman obviously did. We know that Jesus and the disciples had a common purse and for that reason alone, he should have known that he would not starve. Jesus also had a way of stretching bread and fish. As for the widow, it was common practice for synagogues to take up a weekly collection and give it to the person who needed it the most. So her getting help was not a sure thing, depending on whether she or someone else (like someone with kids and no money) was judged to be the most needy by her congregation. She was acting on faith. She not only put her welfare in God's hand; she was all in!

You rarely see that kind of faith these days. We all like to hedge our bets. We seldom trust God for our entire wellbeing. We probably feel that anyone doing what Jesus asked the rich guy to do, or what the poor widow actually did, is just foolish, though we might not say that out loud. Not in church. Because isn't that what we are supposed to do?

Yes, we are. We are supposed to trust God in everything and for everything, concerned instead on doing what he commands us. And of course we don't do that. I don't think it's the idea that the person who does what the widow did will fail that scares us as much as their possibly succeeding does. If someone can actually trust God that radically and manage to live, then the question is "Why don't we do the same?" Are we afraid we won't make it?

If we have literally nothing, perhaps. But between a quarter and a third of the people in the world live on the equivalent of less than $2 a day. That's 2.4 billion people, more than 7 times the US population. Granted the vast majority live outside the affluent West where things are cheaper. Still it's not like they live well on $2 a day. And half of those live on $1.25 or less. My point is that we can live on less without even getting close to reducing our expenses to $2 a day. Poverty in the US is figured at around $11,000 a person or $23,000 for a family of 4. Most of us make a good bit more than that. And we can afford to give more and still not drop anywhere within reach of the poverty level.

Jesus never asked anyone but that one rich man to give up all his wealth. But I'm sure he approved of the tithe every Jew was to give for widows, orphans and the poor. The tithe is the Biblical standard of giving to God and to the folks who rely on him to survive. And we even fall short by that measure. Stephen Anderson works as a consultant to churches and has found out that, no matter the size of the church, giving works out to about $1038 per member per year, or less than $20 a week. Which would be fine if we made about $200 a week or just over $10,000 a year. As it is many of us are living much better than the rest of the world but giving as if we were poor.

The average American spends $5 a day on junk food--candy, snacks, soda, fast food. That's around $35 a week, just under twice what we drop in the offering basket. Does that mean we value empty calories over the Bread from heaven? The average family spends $2698 a year on entertainment, more than twice what we give to the church. Does that mean we put a greater value on entertainment than on enlightenment and empowerment?

I know people have other expenses. That's why I've never been part of the "Priest/Pastor needs to your income" school of church management. Just knowing what you make doesn't tell a person what you spend on taking care of a special needs child, or alimony, or child support, or getting someone to stay with your ailing mother, or paying for your spouse's medical expenses. For that system to be fair, a priest/pastor would have to pore over everyone's tax returns, and nobody wants that. Besides, if being a good steward of your time, treasures and talents is a spiritual discipline, then it falls to each of us to prayerfully consider how much out of all God has granted us should we give back to him.

We Christians are accused of hypocrisy, one thing Jesus really hated. And if we act differently than we say we believe, we are hypocrites. So if we say we believe Jesus when he said to love our enemies, we must act on that. If we say we believe Jesus when he said we must care for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, and the immigrant, we must act on that. If we say we believe Jesus when he said we must love God with all we are and all we have, we should act on that. If we say God is number 1 in our lives, we need to display our commitment to him with how we spend our money, how we spend our time, how we use our talents. As we have seen in this election cycle, we've got more than enough noble-sounding promises. What we don't have enough of in this world is selfless action.

The widow in today's gospel puts us all to shame. She who had the least gave God the most. Perhaps the reason why Jesus noticed her is that he knew he would give his all on the cross so she and we could have eternal life. He got whipped, punched, betrayed, abandoned and executed…for us. And our response? We show up for one hour a week, drop a bill in the basket and we think we've done our part. We need to ask ourselves, "Well, have you? Have you done all you can?" And would you being willing to tell God you're giving him your all?

Sunday, November 4, 2012


When working as a nurse, I don't bring up religious topics unless the patient does so first. Most don't but a few do. I try to avoid controversies because I am functioning as a healthcare professional and not as clergy. In a couple of cases I have been able to provide spiritual comfort to patients who were in distress over a personal religious problem. And in a small community like the lower Keys it's common knowledge that I am ordained. So patients will occasionally ask me questions about the Bible or theology. It was during just such a discussion that I noted that Jesus was Jewish. To which my patient, a self-identified Methodist, replied, "You don't really believe that, do you?" Even Archie Bunker was smarter than that. When his son-in-law Mike pointed out that Jesus was Jewish, Bunker said, "Only on his mother's side!"

Antisemitism is the shame of the church. And its presence throughout most of church history is undeniable. Which is what prompted our sermon suggestion this week. But it's a big subject and I can't treat it all here.

It's a little known fact that antisemitism actually began long before the church existed. The earliest anti-Jewish writings go back to the Egyptian historian Manetho in 270 BC. His sentiments were picked up by other pagan and Greek writers. Some scholars see this as merely the way Greeks looked down on all other people, whom they called barbarians. But when the successors of Alexander the Great tried to spread Greek culture throughout the lands he conquered, the Jews were a thorny problem. They were not polytheists so they had no pantheon with which to accommodate the Greek gods. This came to a head when Antiochus Epiphanes tried to replace Judaism with Hellenism. He desecrated the Temple at Jerusalem, banned circumcision and the study of the Torah and more. He thereby ignited the Maccabbean revolt that led to Judea's independence. Most scholars see this form of anti-Semitism as being primarily aimed at the religion and culture of the Jews and not at the people themselves.

Things didn't get a lot better when the Romans conquered the remnants of Alexander's Empire. They wanted to add the cult of the divine emperor to everyone's pantheon. Once more, the Jews could not do this. There were several uprisings and incidents, leading to the destruction of the country and the Second Temple in 70 AD. Many Jews were killed; thousands of others were enslaved and paraded as captives through Rome. The emperor Titus imposed a tax on the Jews that was used to build a temple to Jupiter in Rome. The Romans were just as brutal in putting down the Bar Kokhba revolt in 136 AD. Jews were periodically banned from the city of Rome, even during New Testament times. Things eventually got somewhat better for the Jews of the Diaspora. They even won a concession from the emperor Hadrian when he banned the practice of circumcision for everyone else. Again scholars disagree on whether these Roman actions were any different than their harsh actions towards other conquered peoples who rebelled.

In the early days of the church, Christians were considered just another Jewish sect. Eventually the two groups differentiated themselves. When Nero blamed the Christians for burning Rome, executing Peter and Paul, and using other Christians as living torches in his gardens, it was obvious that the Jews did not wish to be mistaken for Christians. And when the Roman Empire, Judea and Galilee fought beginning in 66 AD, Christians did not want to be lumped in with the Jews. So towards the end of the first century, the church, which had started out as a Jewish movement dedicated to Jesus the Jewish Messiah, was by then largely Gentile. This is reflected in the last gospel, that of John, which uses the term "Jews," which should include Jesus and his disciples, in a way that instead clearly means the Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus. Still both were despised minority groups in the Roman Empire. And once it was recognized as distinct from Judaism, Christianity was illegal. You could be killed for refusing to curse Christ and make a sacrifice to the emperor. Yet Christianity continued to grow.

By the early 4th century, Constantine made Christianity legal. While he didn't make it the official religion, he did pass laws that forbade Jews from owning Christian slaves or circumcising their slaves. It was illegal for Christians to convert to Judaism. And church councils prohibited Christians from celebrating Passover or the Jewish Sabbath.

Eventually Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire. And there was no separation of church and state in those days. So what the church leaders decided became policy. Jews were barred from entering government service, the army and the law. Synagogues were confiscated and converted into churches or allowed to fall into ruins.

But one of the worst developments in antisemitism was the idea that the Jews, collectively, were guilty for all time of killing God in the form of Jesus Christ. The roles of Pilate and the Romans were minimized or ignored. This never became official church doctrine. But lots of Christians, including some clergy, thought this way. Add to that a persistent urban legend that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood in their religious ceremonies and small wonder that in the Middle Ages antisemitic violence increased. Most Christians had little contact with Jews who were often confined to the ghetto and so were ready to believe all kinds of horrible things about them, including that they had magic powers and had made a pact with the devil. So they were blamed whenever things went wrong, resulting in rampages and massacres. Ironically the safety of a local population of Jews might depend on the local bishop. Being literate and having studied the Old Testament, the bishops knew that the blood libels were false and that Jews would never eat blood. We have many letters from bishops and even papal bulls refuting these nonsensical accusations, often to little effect. Mobs don't reason. The height of anti-Jewish violence took place during the Crusades. Though the crusaders were supposed to fight to free Jerusalem from Muslims, they  often killed Jews along the way--in defiance of repeated bans on such attacks by the Pope! When the Black Plague swept Europe, Jews were accused of poisoning wells and massacred. In Strasbourg 900 Jews were burned. In addition, countries like England, France, Austria and Spain expelled their Jews, many of whom fled to Poland. Even converting to Christianity didn't always save Jews from persecution. Ferdinand and Isabelle of Spain distrusted these Marranos or conversos. They had the Spanish Inquisition torture those they considered to be secret Jews to extract confessions. In the end 30,000 were burned.

The Reformation did not end the mistreatment of Jews. Martin Luther's writings on them changed over time. In 1519, he wrote, "Absurd theologians defend hatred of the Jews….What Jew would consent to enter our ranks when he sees the cruelty and enmity we wreak on them--that in our behavior towards them we less resemble Christians than beasts?" He was progressive in urging Christians to treat Jews with kindness. Luther thought his recovery of the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, so different from the way the Roman church presented the gospel, would help Jews see the Jesus as their Messiah and convert. But they didn't.

By 1536 he had reversed his attitude towards them. In 1543 he wrote "On the Jews and their Lies," which advocated the harshest policies against Jews. Unfortunately, this text has been used by anti-Semites ever since including the Nazis, though their objection to the Jews was racial rather than theological. Nevertheless, because of the huge influence of Luther on later generations, the ELCA, in concert with the Missouri-Synod and other Lutheran denominations worldwide, have both acknowledged and rejected the violent invective found in some of his writings.

But just as antisemitism didn't originate with Christianity, it continued to  exist outside it. Originally Jews living in Islamic lands were generally well-treated, though they had to pay a special tax. But harsher Muslim regimes arose which expelled Jews and sometimes forced them to convert on pain of death. And in the 19th century, well after the Enlightenment saw a gradual granting of rights to Jews in Europe, things got much worse in Muslim countries. Riots broke out periodically. Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were burned. In 1864 alone, 500 Jews were killed in Morocco. And today, some of the most virulent anti-Jewish sentiments are expressed by radical Islamic regimes.

Even when religion is removed from the equation antisemitism exists. Jews never had an easy time in Tsarist Russia. Things got so bad that between 1881 and World War 1 that 2.5 million Jews fled Russia. When the atheistic Communists took over, there was no rational reason for them to persecute the Jews as the Russian Orthodox Church and the imperial family had. In fact, many Bolshevik leaders were Jewish and denounced antisemitism. Yet the anti-religion laws led to the seizure of synagogues, the abolition of religious education, the forced resignation of rabbis, and the dissolution of Jewish communities. Similar measures were taken against other religious groups. Yet, especially under Stalin, Zionism was condemned and Jewish intellectuals, called "rootless cosmopolitans," were targeted. During the infamous Doctors' Plot, hundreds of Jews were arrested. Some were sent to the Gulag, others were executed. Only Stalin's death ended this particular campaign. Many historians now feel Stalin was using the Jews as an excuse to justify a party purge, making the them political scapegoats once more. Ironically, this was a tactic Lenin accused his enemies of using.
Nor are we Americans exempt. When our country was founded, Jews could not hold elected office. Private clubs and even resorts here in the Keys wouldn't admit Jews. More virulent expressions exist here in the form of the KKK, and the American Nazi party.

Antisemitism still exists. People expressing hatred of Jews may give religious or cultural or economic or political or racial reasons. Some still believe the old Tsarist forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a long-discredited conspiracy theory that the Jews plan to take over the world.

Why all the hate? No one knows for sure. The best guess is that by preserving their distinctive religion and culture Jews tended to stick out when living in other cultures and thus make good targets for hatred. But this really doesn't explain hatred of assimilated Jews.

It goes without saying that Christians should never have hated Jews. For one thing, we are expressly forbidden by Jesus to hate anyone, whether neighbor or enemy. He did not say love only those who agree with you. The good Samaritan was of a different religion than the man he rescued. It's even a religion Jesus disagreed with, as we know from his discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well. Yet Jesus made this "heretic" the hero of what is arguably his most famous parable. The Samaritan's actions showed him to be a better example of godly love than the more theologically correct priest and Levite. Love of God and other people are our primary commandments.

Besides that, the Jewish people are, as Paul points out, also descendents of Abraham and heirs of God's promise. And, as he writes in Romans 11:46, all Israel will be saved. Writing them off reveals our impatience with God's timetable. It shows ignorance of his mercy and love for the people he called.

Our attitude should be that of the younger, unembittered Martin Luther, who wrote in a 1523 essay, "When we are inclined to boast of our position we should remember that we are but Gentiles, while the Jews are of the lineage of Christ. We are aliens and in-laws; they are blood relatives, cousins, and brothers of our Lord. Therefore, if one is to boast of flesh and blood the Jews are actually nearer to Christ than we are….If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, that they may have occasion and opportunity to associate with us, hear our Christian teaching and witness our Christian life." Luther then points out that Christians aren't perfect either. And there you have it. Love and a humble recognition that we all need God's grace and mercy is the Christian way to approach to anyone, especially our elder brothers and sisters in God.