Monday, December 29, 2014

All About the Bs

For the baptism of a 1 year old.

My computer was working extremely slow recently, so much so that pages loading would time out. So I ran my cleanup software, which removed a lot of temporary files and cookies and other stuff. Then I went back to work. But things hadn't really improved. So I did the old standby of shutting down the computer and starting it up again. And it worked as it should. Sometimes the way to fix something is to just start over. And that's what baptism is about.

That's especially true for adult baptism. I just baptized an inmate in the jail and it was obviously a turning point for her. She is trying to get her life reoriented for her sake and for the sake of her child and her husband, who is a Christian. For her, baptism is truly a new beginning, a new start in life.

So why do we baptize babies? They already are a new start. Part of the reason is that baptism parallels the sign of the old covenant: circumcision. When he is circumcised on the 8th day, a Jewish baby has no idea that he is thereby becoming a member of God's covenant people. But he is included nevertheless. At about the time the boy hits puberty he is trained in the beliefs of Judaism and learns to read the Torah and he is declared a man. At his bar mitzvah (or bat mitzvah if it is a girl) the child takes ownership of the faith that he or she belonged to since shortly after birth.

We Christians tend to do the same. We baptize babies as a sign of the new covenant in Christ. It is extended to them as a sign of God's grace, his undeserved, unreserved goodness toward us, which none of us can earn. Later when kids are capable of a deeper understanding of the faith, they learn the catechism and are confirmed. That's when they take ownership of their faith.

But why not just wait till they reach that age before baptizing them? Certain Christian denominations do, often dedicating infants to God rather than baptizing them. But if a fresh start is desirable, how much more is starting off on the right foot? Baptism isn't, as some think, a magic ritual to protect babies from hell. It is a rite of entrance, a welcoming into the body of Christ, into fellowship with his followers, into full citizenship in the kingdom of God. In this world we are all born into families and as citizens of nations as infants. These bestow upon us rights, responsibilities and benefits which we do not comprehend till later. What are our rights, responsibilities and benefits as citizens of God's kingdom?

In John 1:12, it says that to all who have received Jesus Christ, he gives the right to become God's children. Understand that we are not God's children simply by virtue of being born. We are his creations. But through Christ we are adopted by God as his children. That makes us heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, as Paul says (Romans 8:17). And as heirs that means we are the recipients of the promises God made to Abraham and his descendants, both physical and spiritual (Hebrews 6:17). The Bible tells us what we inherit: salvation (Heb 1:14), eternal life (Titus 3:7), grace (1 Peter 3:7), the right relationship with God (Heb 11:7), and the kingdom of God (James 2:5). Again, inheritance is not something you earn. It comes to you simply by being the child of someone. If we are children of God, we inherit all these good things.

But just as being a citizen of the kingdom means having rights, it also means responsibilities. All citizens must obey the law. Jesus summarized the law in just 2 commandments: to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. No other commandment is greater and all the others are just footnotes to these. The night before he died Jesus raised the bar on the second commandment. He told us to love one another as he has loved us. That's a tall order. How can we possibly do that?

Only through the power of God's Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised his Father would send. As suggested by the word Jesus uses for the Spirit, he has several functions in relation to us. The Greek word parakletos covers a whole range of roles. It means “counselor, helper, encourager, and advocate.” The Spirit is our counselor in the sense that he leads us into the truth, helps us remember what Jesus told us, and gives us the words we need to defend our faith. The Spirit is our helper in that he equips us with gifts and abilities to serve God. The Spirit is our encourager in that he gives us the ability to trust God, to obey him, to repent when we fall and to praise God for his grace and mercy. The Spirit is our advocate in that he helps us pray, communicates our needs to the Father when words fail us and speaks up for us as penitent sinners.

Scholars speak of the 3 Bs of religion: Belief, Behavior and Belonging. Our beliefs come from Scripture, are summarized in the creeds and are explored by theologians and expounded by preachers. Our behavior also comes from the Bible, supplemented by tradition and extended by reason. But today a lot of people are asserting that they can be good Christians without belonging to a church. The trouble is that ours is a faith that asserts that God is love and that our primary duty is to love him and to love each other. How are we to practice and grow in love if we do not belong to a group of people dedicated to precisely that? Are churches perfect? No. But neither are we. And neither are the people we are called to love. The church is a place where you can practice getting to know and loving people different than you under conditions that are less than ideal, which is to say, real world conditions. And if you let it, the church should equip you for the battlefield conditions you often find outside its walls.

I want to add another B to the previous 3: Benefits. I am surprised that often secular people think we simply belong to a faith from which we derive no real benefits. But the benefits of being part of a church have actually been studied. In fact the only way for scientists to objectively measure people's religious devotion is by counting how often they attend services. And after eliminating all other possible contributing factors, they have found that people who attend regularly tend to be happier, healthier and live longer. When they do get sick, they tend to get better faster and have less complications. They are less likely to get depression and more likely to recover if they do get it. Children who go regularly are less likely to get involved with alcohol and drug abuse or promiscuous sex. They tend to do better in school. Those are a lot of benefits.

Also we live in a time when what is legal for you to do is not necessarily connected to what it is moral for you to do, or what is physically or spiritually healthy for you. How are your children to learn that, as Paul said, all things may be lawful but not all things are beneficial? (1 Corinthians 6:12) Unless you are going to devote at least an hour every week discussing with your children what is good behavior and what is not and explaining the criteria for deciding why, there is little alternative to letting them fend for themselves other than taking them to Sunday school. Which do you want to frame the way your child looks at the world--the commercialized, sensationalized, and pandering media plus your kids' peers, or people who are sincerely trying to follow Jesus? Do you want them to think that life is all about chasing personal happiness by accumulating more and more stuff and saturating every appetite with more and more exotic tastes or that life is about loving God and other people in the Spirit of Jesus and that finding happiness is a side effect of losing yourself in that which you love? Do you want them to think that the highest value in life is a socially acceptable level of selfishness or that the highest values are trust, hope and love? If you chose the second option each time, you should take your kids to a church that teaches and practices those things.

We are facing a new year. A new year is about beginnings. Baptism is about beginnings. It's about making a new path, starting a new journey. It's about seeing things, even old and familiar things, with new eyes. Contrary to what people often think, God is not just a thing of the past, nor is he opposed to everything new. In the Book of Revelation, after the unveiling of the new heavens and the new earth and the new Jerusalem, God says, “Behold, I am making all things new!” That renewal of creation starts with us and our baptism. For Eva, that starts today.   

Friday, December 26, 2014

Picture Perfect

One year my brother who is a magician (his website is here) gave me a magic trick that uses my ventriloquism. I have been trying to figure out how to incorporate it into, say, a children's sermon ever since. This year the approach I wanted to take with Christmas seemed to meld with this technique. Sorry, no video but here I am with my friend, Paddy.

ME: The story goes that the art teacher told the class of second graders that they could draw anything they wanted that day. Then she circulated among the kids, talking to them about their pictures. She came up to one little girl and asked her what she was drawing.

And the little girl said, “God.”

Interesting,” said the teacher. “But nobody really knows what God looks like.”

They will when I'm done,” said the little girl.

Of course, it is absurd that a little girl could draw a portrait of God. But what if a trained member of the clergy tried to do it? Let's see, shall we? I have a pad and pen here. So let's draw some eyes. And a mouth. (Show audience) A nose would be nice. (Show audience) God is older than any of us, older than the earth, so let's give him a white beard. And mustache. And what do you think? Is this what God looks like?

PADDY: I hope not.

ME: You talked!

PADDY: Well, I just felt I had to speak up for myself.

ME: For God?

PADDY: Heavens, no! I'm not God. I may be quite good looking but I'm not God.

ME: How do you know?

PADDY: No one has ever seen God. It says so in John 1:18.

ME: How do you know what's in the Bible? You were just drawn.

PADDY: I have friends in the printing industry.

ME: OK. But if no one has seen God, what about all those paintings in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance?

PADDY: They're art. They're the products of imagination. No one takes them literally.

ME: Some might. Children.

PADDY: Children are smarter than you think. Children's books show the sun with a smiling face. Most children figure out that the real sun doesn't look like that.

ME: True.

PADDY: That does say something about people.

ME: What does that say about people?

PADDY: Draw a line connecting my eyes.

ME: You want me to draw a line connecting your eyes?

PADDY: Yeah.

ME: O.K. (Does so) There. (Turns pad back toward audience)

PADDY: Look familiar? (I look at Paddy with my eyes to the right. So does he. I look left. So does he. I look right. So does he. Repeat.)

ME: You look like me!

PADDY: Bingo!

ME: Oh my God! (Puts head down)

PADDY: Not even close.

ME: My picture of God looks like me.

PADDY: Most folks picture God that way. They picture his politics as their politics. They picture his attitude towards others as their attitude to others. They picture his standards of behavior as their standards of behavior.

ME: Wow, you're right. But we are made in God's image.

PADDY: But too often you make God in your image.

ME: True. Most illustrations of Jesus make him look like a white European than an Middle Eastern Jew.

PADDY: Does the Bible actually tell us what Jesus looked like? Does it tell us the color of his eyes or his hair or his skin? Does it tell us if he's short or tall?

ME: No, it doesn't. And I guess that's good.

PADDY: Uh-huh. And why is that?

ME: Because if we do tend to create God is our image, and we knew the color of Jesus' eyes or hair or skin or his height, some of us would be tempted to say “We look like God. We're superior to those of you who look different.”

PADDY: God knows we have enough of that!

ME: Yeah. Maybe that's why God's Word doesn't tell us. Still it would be nice to know what he's like.

PADDY: But we do know that. We know what he said. We know what he did.

ME: True.

PADDY: That that tells us more about him than a description of his face.

ME: That's right. He told people to love God and to love one another.

PADDY: And he showed it in his actions.

ME: He fed the poor.

PADDY: He healed them.

ME: He forgave them.

PADDY: He gave them the good news.

ME: That God is loving and forgiving.

PADDY: That God will set things right.

ME: That God will never leave us or forsake us.

PADDY: If we trust him.

ME: And follow him.

PADDY: Jesus is a very clear picture of what God is like.

ME: He is. And it's all there in the Bible.

PADDY: Which you can get in print.

ME: Or on the internet. Or on an app. For free.

PADDY: So we don't need a drawing.

ME: Well, not everybody will read the Bible. A picture is worth a thousand words. That's why when few people could actually read, churches put in stained glass windows. There you see Jesus in a manger and it shows you something about God's humility.

PADDY: You see Jesus forgiving the woman taken in adultery and it shows you that God is more interested in saving folks than in condemning them.

ME: You see Jesus healing someone or feeding the 5000 and it shows you that God cares about our physical well-being as well as our spiritual health.

PADDY: You see Jesus on the cross and it shows you that God loves us enough to die for us.

ME: That's true. Which is why I still wish I could present people with a picture of what God is like.

PADDY: But you can.

ME: How? Not with pen and paper, obviously.

PADDY: But with your life.

ME: (dawning on me) I can show the love of God I see in Jesus by what I do and say in my life.

PADDY: We all can.

ME: And isn't that what Christmas is all about: a demonstration of God's unimaginable love in terms we can see: in the life of a human being dedicated to him? Although in this case, he's the son of God.

PADDY: Who gives us the power to become children of God!

ME: You are so right. Thanks. You've helped me see God more clearly after all.

PADDY: Which is what Jesus did. In Jesus we see what God is like and what we, through him, can be.

ME: Thank you.

PADDY: De nada. (I close the pad) Ouch!

ME: (Opening the tablet) What?

PADDY: You hit my nose!

ME: Your nose is as flat as the page it's drawn on.

PADDY: Gotcha!

ME: (close tablet with exasperated noise) 

Monday, December 22, 2014

What is God For?

The inspiration for this post is the Magnificat found in Luke 1:46-55. 

I have always been astonished that people can react to their team losing to another team by rioting, attacking people and destroying property. Whatever you feel about the demonstrations and rioting after the recent grand jury decision in Ferguson, or about the wisdom of torching your own hometown and businesses (which ironically does not pay back any perpetrator but rather harms more innocents and a community that is already suffering), at least it was a reaction to what was perceived as injustice. At least it was about the death of a human being. Bodily attacking other people and destroying parts of your city over a sports score makes even less sense. And that's all it is: a score, a statistic. One among many. There will always be another game and another season.

Sadly, some think God's beef with evil is just that: an ultimately meaningless contest. God wants followers and so does the other side. And what difference is it who wins?

Part of that attitude is because people think--with, sadly, a lot of assistance from certain Christians--that God is primarily interested in punishing sinners. They like to quote bits of the Old Testament where God is angry about sin and rarely put that into context or spell out just what injustices God is worked up about. Like violence. Starting with Cain God shows that he hates violence. The reason given for the flood is that, as it says in Genesis 6:11, “The earth was ruined in the sight of God; the earth was full of violence.” I think most of us looking around the world today would agree. The world is full of violence: domestic violence, criminal violence, child abuse, people cutting off other people's heads, shooting up workplaces and schools, torturing people, raping people. Everyday some new outrage is committed. If God is love then seeing the creatures he created in his image doing violence to one another should make him angry, just as it would a parent seeing one of their children beat on another. That anger is justified.

But violence is only one way the powerful pick on the powerless. The prophets say quite a lot about governments being corrupted by money in order to pervert justice. In Isaiah 1:23, God says, “Your officials are rebels, they associate with thieves. All of them love bribery, and look for payoffs. They do not take up the cause of the orphan or defend the rights of the widow.” The word translated “orphan” literally means “fatherless” and the Hebrew word translated “widow” here also referred to women whose husbands divorced them. These two classes of people, along with immigrants, are often singled out in scripture as the most oppressed. God actually gauges the health of the nation by how it treats these 3 groups. When ratifying God's covenant, Moses says, “'Cursed is the one who perverts justice for the resident foreigner, the orphan and the widow.' Then all the people will say, 'Amen!'” (Deuteronomy 27:19) God stands up for the oppressed.

God is opposed to lying and to those who sew discord (Proverbs 16:16-19), to merchants who cheat their customers (Deut 25:13-16), to being stingy when helping the poor (Deut 15:7-10), to mistreating the handicapped (Leviticus 19:14) and to neglecting or abusing animals (Deut 22:4). That's what the God is against: not people having fun but people misusing their gifts to harm others.

But what about so-called victimless crimes—crimes in which, according to the legal definition, “there is no apparent victim and no apparent injury?” Usually such things as prostitution, gambling and recreational drugs are given as examples. Prostitution, though, is hardly victimless. The overwhelming majority of women and children involved in prostitution did not freely choose that profession but were forced into it by pimps, who keep them on a tight reign using threats, pain, drugs and what amounts to brainwashing. And it destroys the marriages and relationships of those who patronize prostitutes. So, no, God does not see this as harmless. (Lev 19:29).

Gambling is only victimless if you have money you will not miss when you lose it (remember, the odds are always in favor of the House). And if you are not addicted to the activity. It can also lead to loss of possessions, homes, jobs and relationships. Addiction and adverse social and health effects makes victims out of those who use drugs for recreation. And the most harm has been done by the legal ones: alcohol, tobacco and prescription painkillers. (1 Corinthians 6:12) God is not a fan of anything that destroys people who were made in his image.

But here we are again talking about what God is against. What is God for?

God is for life. He created all life. Jesus said that his Father is the God of the living, not the dead. Jesus said he came to bring us life, life in abundance, life eternal. Jesus backed this up by raising the dead: the son of the widow of Nain, the daughter of Jairus, and his friend Lazarus. And the climax of his mission was his own resurrection. In Isaiah and in Revelation we are told that God will end the reign of death. Because he is the God of life.

God is for wholeness. The Hebrew word “shalom” is generally translated using the English word “peace.” But the word means more than just an absence of conflict. It means “happiness;” it means “health;” it means “complete well-being.” That why Jesus, the Prince of Peace, went around healing people and making them whole. He restored those suffering from mental and physical illnesses to complete well-being. He also restored those who were social outcasts to being productive members of the community. We all sense that our world and the people in it are broken. God wants to make everything whole once again.

God is for this world. Why did he send his son? John 3:16 says “Because God so loved the world...” God is not against this world that he created and pronounced very good. He is against what we have made of it. He is against how we have taken the gifts he's given us and used them for evil. That includes our bodies. God is not against matter. He made it. In Jesus he took upon himself a genuinely human body. But he made everything for a purpose. And it's when we use his gifts for our own purposes, selfishly or foolishly, to harm ourselves or others, or when we neglect to use them properly that God gets upset.

For instance, God created sex and it was one of the things he said was good. But when we divorce sex from love and commitment and faithfulness, when we exploit others sexually, when we betray one another, when we violently force sex upon one another, when we ignore its biological and psychological consequences, we have turned what was intended to be good into something quite different, something toxic, something joyless. It's that to which God objects. (And even so only 9% of the commandments in the Bible concern sex. We're the ones who overemphasize it.) God is for the world as he intended it to be.

God is for community. In the West we are so focused on the individual that we seem to forget that we are social animals. In fact scientists have decided that Richard Dawkins' idea of the selfish gene is not really the key to human survival at all but rather it's our ability to cooperate that explains why we weren't wiped out by predators that were stronger, faster and better equipped with claws, fangs, and venom. And unlike other animals we will even work together with other humans who are not related to us. But that seems to get harder when the group is larger than 150 people. And though we will work with people from other families we definitely give preference to those who look and act like us. Our attention to differences in race and culture are a detriment to unity. We also defer to those who are attractive and those who have wealth and power and discriminate against those who fall far outside those parameters. And there are always folks who feel that the differences are absolute, that separating people on that basis is a moral imperative and who work to keep people from accepting those who are different.

There is in the New Testament a constant theme of how God is bringing together disparate groups into one body in Christ. Male and female, Jews, Samaritans and Gentiles, slaves and free, people from every race and nation, every language group and culture are being reconciled in Christ. Paul even says that our ministry is one of reconciliation: reconciling people to God and to each other. He uses the metaphor of the human body which is made up of parts that look and function differently from one another and yet are all part of the same entity. And the health of the whole is dependent on the health of the individual parts. Stub your baby toe and see if all of you doesn't suddenly become focused on your tiniest digit. Nor would you react with indifference if a doctor told you to have it amputated. It is too bad that we as human beings we don't react that way when we heard of some mammoth loss of life in some distant part of the world among people who don't look or dress or live or talk like us.

And yet long before scientists found the mitochondrial Eve and the Y-chromosome Adam from which they say we are descended, the Bible has said we are all one family. In Revelation John has a vision of God's throne room where “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” The kingdoms of men try their hardest to be unified, usually through imposing uniformity of language, culture and race. But the kingdom of God is made up of all kinds of people whose differences are obvious to the eye and ear. Their unity is not a superficial one but a unity of heart that comes from the love of God. The God who made us all different doesn't wish to erase those differences but to bring us together in community.

You can read Mary's song as a paean to the God of her people only. You could assume, I guess, that her use of “all generations” referred only to Israel. I doubt she was analyzing what came pouring out of her mouth in that moment of divine ecstasy. But that's not what Simeon thought when, taking the infant Jesus in his arms, he said, “ eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” That's not what Peter said on his first contact with Gentiles seeking God, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” And the risen Jesus himself said to his apostles, “ Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...”

God is for life, for wholeness, for the world and for community. He wants to restore life, make what is broken whole again, rescue the world from its self-destructive ways and reconcile us to him and to each other so that we truly community. When we follow him we are not like mindless partisans, holding to our side simply because it is our side. We are not spoilsports simply telling people to stop having fun but rather telling them that there is a better way, one that will result in a lot less pain and anger and bitterness and envy and hatred and fighting and sadness but in a lot more joy and peace and kindness and love. In fact most of the pain in following Jesus is admitting we were wrong and asking God and others for forgiveness. The rest is just honest hard work whose results will be both satisfying and delightful.

There are a lot of people who think that all religion is evil and that those believe in God just make the world worse. And indeed there are some religious people who act like those sports fans who destroy their communities over a game. But remember that “fan” is just a shortened form of the word “fanatic.” A fanatic only cares that his side win.

But God wants everyone to win. God is love and when people love each other, when each puts the other's well-being first, all sides win. He wants everyone to love everyone, to get along with everyone, to recognize that we are part of everyone. Because God, who created everyone, is for everyone. And when everyone is for everyone, everyone wins.  

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The God You Get

Last time we talked about how children have an “innate concept of God” that includes “characteristics, like immortality, creative power and omniscience...” And then we talked about how the Jews fleshed out this picture of God through their experiences in the Exodus and the Exile. Their revelation is that God is not a mere tribal deity but the God who created all people, who is a God of justice and love who makes and fulfills promises. One of his promises is to restore the creation we have ruined through his Messiah, the anointed One who will set things right and set up God's kingdom on earth. And this led many of the Jews to expect a holy warrior very much like King David. And that was especially true when they found out that they had invited in the pagan Romans and they had installed a puppet king named Herod. He was so ruthless that he even killed his sons and his wife if he detected disloyalty. The people wanted him gone in the worst way and longed for God to send someone to depose Herod and kick out the Romans.

God knew the nature of the worst enemy of his people and it wasn't what they expected. It wasn't a person, like Herod, or a group of people, like the Roman Legions, or even a system, like the Roman Empire, ruled by an Emperor who called himself a god and where only a small minority of the population were citizens with full rights while millions were slaves with very few rights. All of these were evil but they weren't the ultimate cause of evil. That lay closer to home. As Jesus said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of a person's heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, slander, arrogance, and foolishness.” (Mark 7:20-22) Evil is not an abstract entity that resides outside us. It is the inner attitude that tells us we know better than God when it comes to what is good for us and what is bad for us. It affects the way we think, speak and act. It affects what we do and what we neglect doing. It turns us into our own worst enemy as well as the enemy of each other's best interests.

One of the big problems humans have is classifying people as either good or evil. That is, we tend to see people we don't know as falling into either of those categories. When it comes to ourselves or those we love, however, we tend to equivocate. We usually see ourselves as basically good people, who sometimes aren't our best selves. We also see our loved ones that way. Sometimes we will concede that someone who is close to us has a dark side. But we have a hard time admitting that, say, Hitler liked dogs and children or that someone as beloved as Bill Cosby could be as terrible as 20 women now allege. Now remember that Cosby has a wife and kids and friends who presumably have the same trouble reconciling those allegations with the man they know and love. My wife once worked with a woman who was later murdered by her then-estranged husband. We knew them both and were shocked. We never suspected that he could do such a thing.

The Bible is clear that no one is truly innocent. We all have moral flaws. Some are relatively minor, some are assuredly not. For instance, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 20 boys are sexually abused. 28% of youths between the ages 14 to 17 are sexually victimized. 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men have experienced severe physical violence at the hands of their spouse or intimate partner. The U.S. homicide rate of 4.8 murders per 100,000 people is among the highest in the industrialized world. On the other end of the scale, in 41% of marriages one or both spouses admit to infidelity, either emotional or sexual. An estimated 1.6 million people cheat on their taxes resulting in a loss of $270 billion by the U.S. Treasury's estimate. Of 1000 people surveyed, a full 60% said they told no lies in the last 24 hours, making one wonder if that was a lie. A more disturbing study has shown that between 1/3 and 1/2 of the most acclaimed medical research is untrustworthy, either by being wrong or significantly exaggerated. Finally between 13 and 15% of the traffic in this country exceeds the speed limits by 10 miles an hour. Speeding contributes to 30% of all traffic deaths.

Didn't find yourself in any of those statistics? That's because I stopped listing them. We all know that we fall short of God's standards and we know that even small sins can contribute to big miseries. So Jesus came to deal with the real problem, not certain people but the evil that infects all people. He died to wipe out those sins and rose to give us a new and transformed life.

But this wasn't what the people expected. They wanted someone to change the world by shedding the blood of bad people; they didn't expect a good person to change the world by letting his own blood be shed. Not even Jesus' disciples expected that. Only after his resurrection, after he explained how it was there in the Hebrew Bible all along did they see it.

And they realized that God did not send just anyone to accomplish this. God sent his son. Not only did his resurrection vindicate what Jesus taught about sin and atonement, it also vindicated what he said about himself. Jesus was not the Messiah everyone expected not simply because he was crucified; he was not the Messiah people expected because he was God. Jesus revealed how much God loved human beings—enough to die to save them. And he revealed that not only was God loving, but that God is love. There is more than 1 person in the Godhead but they are so indivisibly united in love as to constitute one God.

People naturally expect a God who created the world. The Jews experienced a God who was just but merciful, a God who made promises and liberated the enslaved. Jesus revealed an expected side of God: one who is self-sacrificial, transforming love; a God willing to let go of his prerogatives as deity and become one of us; a God who triumphs over pain and sickness and death with eternal life; a God who shares his life and love with all who open their hearts to him and who, shouldering their cross, follow him.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Why The Wait?

I recently watched this science program that reconstructed what happened in the very first second after the Big Bang. The short answer is: an awful lot! It began with a singularity—all the energy of our universe compressed into an infinitesimally small space (although space didn't exist then). And suddenly it was all expanding at mind-blowing speeds. There was a brief period in which none of the laws that now govern the universe existed. The 4 principle forces came into being, with gravity doing a lot of the work, creating pocket universes as it rippled out through the new creation. But what really surprised me was that the first atom wasn't created for like 380,000 years! So we had a universe that was without the basic building block of all matter. Why did it take so long?

In one sense you could say, “Who's asking?” It's not like any of us were there, impatiently tapping our feet and looking at our watches. Time, some argue, is a human construct, a matter of perception. It is our way of keeping track of events, sorting them out so we know what has happened, what is happening and what will happen.  Various things can skew that perception. People with Alzheimer's disease forget recent events but retain older memories longer. So, as the disease progresses, they time-travel backwards and find themselves living mentally at ever earlier points in their lives.

In fact time runs differently depending on how fast you are going and even how high you are in relation to the earth. Einstein famously did a thought experiment in which you had twins and one traveled into space on a ship going near the speed of light. When he returned to earth, he would be younger, perhaps by years, than his earthbound twin. Very sensitive timepieces used for scientific experiments can be thrown off if they on a higher floor of a building. The realtime GPS that your phone uses has to be artificially adjusted because of the time differential between here and the satellite that is providing the data.

So the author of 2 Peter is not blowing smoke when he says that time runs differently for God than for us. It would be surprising if it did not. For one thing, time is one of his creations. God is eternal and lives outside of time. One of the best analogies I ever read about this is to compare our lives and history to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. If you are marching in the parade you cannot see the beginning or the end of the parade, just a little of what is before or behind you as well as the scenery passing by. That like being a mortal, stuck in your timestream. Your march has a beginning and an end and your view of history is limited to the time it takes you to complete the march and the route you take. But God is like the cameraman in the helicopter. He can not only, from a sufficient height, see the whole parade, he can focus in on any part for as long as he likes. He can visit and revisit whatever portions of the parade he decides to. He is not stuck in the parade and therefore he can see what is coming and what has past with equal ease. By analogy, that is God's relationship to time.

In Advent we are looking both at the past and at the future. We look back at the first coming of Christ as well as forward to his second coming. The prophets of old seemed to conflate the two. It's like looking at two mountains in the distance. One looks like it is right next to the other. But in fact the one on the right might be miles beyond the one on the left. They might be separated by a valley you cannot see from your present position. So the prophets spoke of God sending his Messiah to decisively deal with evil and to inaugurate God's kingdom and it often sounds as if those two events take place if not simultaneously, at least in close proximity.

Only in Isaiah do we get a hint of a two-stage mission for the Messiah. He speaks not only of God's judgment and restoration of the world but also of the great and fatal sufferings of God's servant. As it says in Isaiah 53:5, “He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well; because of his wounds we have been healed.” (NET Bible) But these passages were so difficult to understand, and so hard to stomach, that people tended to focus on what they really wanted: someone to give the bad guys their just desserts and to reward the good.

But God didn't want to do that yet. He sent Jesus to reveal his love and forgiveness, to preach the good news, to die for our sins and rise to give us hope. And then Jesus leaves. Which makes a lot of people ask “Why?” Why did Jesus not wrap up the two part mission, judge the people of the world and inaugurate the full-blown kingdom of God on earth?

Let's use another analogy. Part of the reason that we are having trouble wiping out Ebola in Africa is fear and denial. Recently on NPR's All Things Considered they reported on how a village was decimated because of one case of Ebola. A man's 16 year old son came from the capital city where he was staying with relatives, 3 of whom had died. When he returned to the village and got sick, his father recognized that what he had was Ebola. But he couldn't admit it to himself or to others. So they tried country medicine, rubbing herbs on his body. The boy's siblings died; his mother died; the people treating them died; the people who handled the bodies for burial died. From this one boy, 30 people contracted the deadly disease. Only 12, including his father, survived. They blamed witchcraft, they blamed grief, they blamed each other; they did everything but admit it was Ebola. Until it was too late.

There is one way that we could stop the Ebola outbreak immediately. We could kill everyone who has it. We could forget about trying to cure them and just end them—men, women, children. No hosts, no contagion. Kill them and burn their villages. End of story. Yet, even though this is one of the most lethal diseases ever, killing 2/3 to 3/4 of those who contract it, we don't give up on the infected and adopt a scorched earth policy. We don't do it because we want to save anyone and everyone we can.

And that's why Jesus did not, immediately after securing our salvation, pronounce judgment on all the sinners in the world and ring down the curtain on the present age. To God that would be like shooting the wounded and condemning the sick to die. Another analogy: Christ's first coming is to present the world with its diagnosis and set up its cure, his blood, his life for ours. He then dispatches his healthcare team to bring the cure to the world. And he leaves it to us to set up our churches/clinics for the spiritually ill, to dispense his cure, and to enlist more healthcare workers and spread the good news that there is hope for this world in him. God wants to give everyone the chance to accept or reject the cure.

What does that cure consist of? Jesus, his self-sacrificial love and forgiveness. We receive him through the infusion of his Holy Spirit into our lives, to transform us, to change our spiritual DNA from its current self-destructive pattern to a pattern of spiritual growth and renewal.

Like all healing and like all efforts to wipe out epidemics, this takes time. And that's what God has given us. Our passage from 2 Peter says, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Repentance is simply a turn around, a change of mind, a change in behavior. The people of that village could have stopped the devastation of Ebola if they had admitted what the problem was, if they had stopped thinking in the old ways, and if they had changed their mind about what to do. But when health officials came to them, they lied about the cause rather than asking for help.

People do that with God as well. We don't like to admit what's wrong with us or that we need help. We just drink a little too much at times; we just have a bit of a temper; we just deserve to take a bit of the money we make for our company; we just like to flirt with people a little; we just want to give that person a small taste of his own medicine; we just don't have the time to deal with that person's problem; we just want Sundays to ourselves. We don't recognize these little things as symptoms of a bigger deeper problem. You know what the first symptoms of Ebola are? It's not bleeding from the eyes and orifices. It's fever, sore throat, muscle pain and headaches. And the best time to get help is when the first, rather minor symptoms appear. In the same way our spiritual illness first appears as little sins, small defections from loving God and loving others as ourselves. After all, serial killers don't start off by killing people. They begin by starting fires and torturing small animals. However big the sins, their seeds, like germs, are small.

But so are the seeds of our cure. As a nurse I have always been impressed by how the power of a drug is often inversely proportional to the size of the pill. Heart medications are usually tiny compared to vitamin tablets. Pain meds are dwarfed by antacids. Jesus said we only need a trust in him that is the size of mustard seed in order to move a mountain of obstacles.

2 Peter 3:11 goes on to ask “what sort of person ought you to be...?” The answer, it says, is one who is holy--that is, set apart for God's purposes--and godly--manifesting God's creative, transforming love. What does it say we are to do? Wait patiently for the time when God will once and for all redress the injustices of this world. That means not passing a verdict on anyone. We can of course judge if some actions are Christlike or not, spiritually beneficial or not. But we are not to pass final judgment on anyone or decide their final state. Only Jesus can do that, taking into account things we may not know about the person.

But 2 Peter also talks of “hastening the coming of the day of the Lord...” What does that mean? If God is holding back till everyone has the chance to respond to the gospel, then we can hasten that day by making sure everyone knows about the good news of what God has done and is doing for us through Jesus. We can plant and water and nurture the seeds of God's healing love. We can do that through encouraging and supporting and listening to and reconciling with and protecting and teaching and strengthening and understanding and comforting and laughing with and learning from and hugging and helping and enjoying and accepting and showing patience with and guiding and cooperating with and trusting and celebrating the people God puts in our lives.

But first we have to get to know them. And then we have to help them get to know Jesus. And the best way to do that is to model Jesus for them. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, as Paul would say. That is, ask God's Spirit to so fill your thoughts, words and actions that Jesus shows through in all you say and do. If we do that we will reverse the main way that the church is slowing down the coming of Jesus—by not showing his love for the world. Right now in Arizona the head of a Baptist church is touting my tongue-in-cheek solution to Ebola in dead earnest... except he wants to execute all gays in order to eliminate AIDS. Which shows how little he knows about medical matters (in Africa, for instance, AIDS is largely a heterosexual disease) and how little he knows about Jesus, who told us to love both our neighbors and our enemies; in other words, everyone. People who call themselves Christians and who say and do hateful things do not advance the gospel but hinder it. No one is going to listen to, much less accept, what you say is good news if you include a corollary in which they are executed or oppressed! If you could not say it to your mother or your spouse or your child in a genuinely loving way, it is not an expression of God's love. If you could easily imagine it coming from the lips of a shrieking Hitler at a Nazi rally, it is not an expression of God's love. If you could not direct it at Jesus Christ himself to his face, it is not an expression of God's love.

Love, wrote Paul, is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious. Love is not boastful. Love is not arrogant. Love is not rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love is not irritable. Love is not resentful. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing. Love rejoices in the truth. Love holds up under anything you can throw at it. Love retains its faith in all circumstances. Love maintains hope whatever it encounters. Love endures everything. Love never gives up. If God is love, all that is true of him. And if we're his children, so should it be of us.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The God You Expect

A number of studies in recent years have led to the conclusion that children are “intuitive theists.” That is, quite apart from religious instruction, children have an “innate concept of God” that doesn't involve merely imagining a super-parent in the sky. Kids understand that God has “characteristics, like immortality, creative power and omniscience...” They see the world as created by a “God-like designer” and that all things have a purpose. They also think about God differently than they think about human beings. They tend to hold these views up until the age of 11; then they tend to mirror what their community believes. Naturally, some scientists are calling for the suppression of these naturally occurring “promiscuous teleological ideas.” Children must be taught quite early that the marvelous interlocking nature of the universe, which makes the scientific study of it possible, is nevertheless anything other than intentional or planned. So the evolution of our atypically large and intelligent brains has caused this perception and in this instance the scientists must fight against evolution.

I'm not going to argue for intelligent design here. I just want to point out that it is natural to (a) posit that a creator God exists and (b) that he is not like us. As it says in Isaiah 55:8, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my way, declares the Lord.” So how did the Jews get from the widespread idea of a God who is the ultimate Other to the idea that God cared about them.

A quick look at the mythologies of other peoples shows that, generally speaking, the gods don't care much about humanity. In the Babylonian version of the flood, the gods cause it because humanity is noisy and is keeping the gods from sleeping off their hangovers! Zeus and similar top-of-the-pantheon gods have no qualms about seducing or even raping attractive human females. The vast majority of gods seem to be either uninterested in humans or even antagonistic towards us.

Yet the Hebrews say God cares about us. He is angered by our violence toward one another. He very dramatically demonstrates to Abraham that he does not require human sacrifice. And he is opposed to people worshiping Moloch and other gods that do demand it. Far from being indifferent about us, God gives us laws that seek to establish justice and peace. Nor is he only going to address injustice in the afterlife but will one day send his anointed prophet, priest and king, his Messiah, to establish his true kingdom on earth. Where did they get such a crazy idea?

They would say they got it from the fact that God has done it before and it gave birth to their nation. They point to the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt under Moses and the covenant God made with them.

The God of the Bible is a God who makes covenants or agreements with his creatures. In return for their serving him and obeying his law, he will protect and prosper them. The problem is that human beings are very fickle and tend to stray from his laws at the drop of a hat. Consequently God sends his Holy Spirit to select individuals who relay his word to his people. His objections to their lifestyles revolve about the two main thrusts of his law: their relationship with God and their relationships with each other. The people fall short of God's law on both counts and so idolatry and injustice reign in their society.

Because his people have broken their vows to him, God invokes the penalty clause, so to speak. He withdraws his protection and allows his people, who seem to prefer living without reference to him, to see what that actually entails. They are conquered and oppressed. They are taken into exile. And yet God does not totally abandon them. Because of his steadfast love, he liberates his people once again. They come back from exile a chastened nation. They returned to a destroyed temple, to breached city walls, to a land stripped of the glory they once knew under King David. But God tells them that he will send his Anointed One to fulfill the promises he made.

How did we get from an innate concept of a creator to a God of justice and love who makes promises and fulfills them? Via experience. The Jews not only believed in this God, they experienced him doing these things. The prophets gave them warnings of punishment and promises of restoration and reconciliation. And they even widened the people's view of God. He is not only concerned with his people but with all people. He promises new and unprecedented things. And that's where we leave the people in the Old Testament: waiting for the Promised One.

Advent is about waiting. It is about being in the present and yet anticipating the changes God will bring. And realizing that we must change as well. How are we to greet the Promised One if we are not prepared for him? We have a bishop coming and I am sure we will go all out to greet him. We want to get cleaned up and put our best foot forward. How much more should we want to get ourselves ready for God's Anointed One?

That's why Advent is a minor penitential season. We realize that we fall short of the love and goodness of God and so we do a moral inventory and prepare a place for our Lord. As I was writing this at St. Francis, our piano was being tuned. It is painstaking and sometimes annoying to listen to but the end result is beautiful. So too is our preparation to meet the Messiah.

God's people thought they knew what to expect. Their God was not only creator and lawgiver but also the Lord of hosts, the leader of the army of angles and surely his Anointed would come ready for battle. They didn't anticipate what or who they got. We will look at the surprise God had in store for them at our next midweek service.    

Monday, December 1, 2014

Last Things Last

The inmate was a sponge of religious information. He asked not only for a Bible, a concordance and a Bible dictionary but also for a Quran, a Torah and just about every other scripture I had access to. Then he quizzed me closely—about the Bible, thank God. While I know more than the average Christian about other religions, I am really only an expert in my own. And the topic of most of his questions was: the end of the world. Of course. 

For some people that seems to be the most important part of the Bible. Sometime before I became chaplain, someone donated to the jail 10 sets of the entire Left Behind series of novels—that's 120 books! I could really use the shelf space for other books. However, this group of poorly written, theologically narrow books with their rather specific interpretation of the Last Days were bestsellers. They spawned some rather bad movies, which joined all the other low budget evangelical apocalyptic films. At certain Christian bookstores you can find marvelously detailed and colorful charts that manage to organize all the eschatological texts of the Bible into a scheme that rivals the map of the London Underground for intricacy. There are whole denominations that so emphasize the End Times that one wonders how they get through today's tasks. Working your job, getting an education, doing your taxes must seem really trivial compared to the the idea that at any second you could be raptured out of your clothes to join Jesus in the heavens and get a front row seat at the Tribulation of the world, climaxing in a Michael Bay style Armageddon.

The problem is that there are other interpretations of the small number of apocalyptic texts in the Bible. Indeed there are 4 major schools of interpretation of the Book of Revelation, one of which posits that most of the admittedly highly symbolic events in the book took place in the first century. In view of this, and of the fact that 2/3 of the books of the Bible are concerned primarily with how we live this life, why are some people so obsessed with the 43 chapters out of 1189 that talk about the distant future?

Part of it is the fun of piecing it all together. The references to the last judgment and the end times are scattered and not easy to reconcile. It's rather like fans trying to account for the different positions given for Dr. Watson's war wounds in the Sherlock Holmes stories or trying to reconcile all of the eyewitness testimonies concerning the Kennedy assassination. It's a great puzzle and trying to make a coherent whole out of so many disparate parts is challenging and if you succeed, at least in your own mind, satisfying.

For some it is not so much fun as a psychological imperative. Those whose minds reject hints and metaphors and paradoxes for unambiguous clarity and concreteness must clean up all uncertainty in Scripture. For them the Bible is rather like an science kit instruction book for building your own computer and it won't do to leave anything the least bit vague. Everything must be spelled out in specific detail. Nothing can be left for interpretation.

I often wonder how these folks cope with all the poetry and parables and metaphors and symbolism that the Bible obviously contains, especially in the apocalyptic passages. I have yet to read of or talk to anyone who believes that the antichrist will literally have 7 heads and ten horns. If they acknowledge that that part is symbolic why can they not admit that much of the other bits are as well? The Book of Revelation wasn't written to satisfy idle curiosity. Its stated purpose (1:3) was to comfort and encourage persecuted Christians in the first century with the message that while things may get worse, God will win in the end. Promises are made to those who overcome the trials of the persecution. And the book was just as obviously cloaked in symbolic language to disguise its scathing criticism of the Roman Empire so that it wouldn't be suppressed and destroyed. That means interpreting it must be done very carefully and with the realization that the author didn't want to make it too easily deciphered. For those of us not living in that time and culture, it is doubly hard. Yet the broad outline of God's triumph over sin and pain and death is crystal clear.

My biggest problem with those who spend way too much time working out the smallest details of the Eschaton is that they ignore what Jesus said about such things. I wish our gospel passage today included the whole of Mark's 13th chapter. Jesus begins in verse 5 by saying, “Let no one lead you astray.” Jesus realizes that false prophets can and will manipulate teachings about the end of the age for their own purposes. So Jesus again and again tells his disciples to not get sidetracked by all this stuff. In verse 7 he says, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place but the end is not yet.” This teaching of Jesus should stop people from constructing elaborate timetables and making predictions of when Christ will return. It never ceases to amaze me how certain folks can parse every verse in this passage to squeeze out every possible clue to the end times but miss Jesus' repeated commands not to do so. Jesus is saying that lots of bad things will happen but don't jump the gun. It's not the end of the world.

For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains.” (Mark 13:8) If you know anything about giving birth you know that it tends to take a long time. In the case of both of my children it took 20 hours from the beginning of the contractions to delivery. Some women give birth quickly but most do not. Jesus chose this image on purpose. When you see these things, don't panic. Don't pretend you know the time table. It will be a while. Be patient.

But wait! Doesn't he say in verse 29 “...when you see these things taking place you will know that he is near...”? Yes, but what things is he talking about? “..the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Jesus is taking imagery from Isaiah and Ezekiel here and so this too might be symbolic. But the contrast here is between recurrent earthly disasters, be they man-made like war or natural like earthquakes, and changes that are cosmic in nature. The clear import is that the unmistakable signs of the end will be big and unambiguous. When everyone sees things too universal to dismiss, then we will know the curtain is about to fall on this act in the drama.

And then Jesus immediately goes back to cautioning the disciples about speculation. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32) Again how do the people who keep setting dates for doomsday ignore Jesus' statement that not even he, at least in his earthly life, knew the day and time? And clearly he says this to shut down any guessing. It is beyond human knowledge. So if we aren't supposed to deduce the date, what are we to do?

Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” says Jesus. This is excellent advice, not only for the end of the world for everybody but for the end of the world for each of us. None of us know the hour we will personally find ourselves face to face with Jesus. Earlier this year my 91 year old dad called me to say that he had seen his doctor, gotten a clean bill of health and was told he could live another 10 years. And knowing that in my dad's family some have lived to be 98, 99 and 100, I thought this quite plausible. And then in June he suddenly deteriorated. I flew up to St. Louis and was there when the specialist gave him his diagnosis. The prognosis was 3 to 5 years. They started treatment and he rallied and was almost back to his old self. Then within just 3 months the treatment itself threatened him. There was nothing more they could do. He went on hospice. I estimated he had a month to 6 weeks left and flew up to see him again. My son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter went to see him. And just a few weeks later, he began a steep decline. My brother kept me posted and I knew from the signs that he did not have long. I figured he had a week. I last talked to him by phone the day after my 60th birthday and he sounded pretty good. He asked about the baby. 3 days later, my brother called to tell me he was gone.

There are several points in this last year where the doctors and I made predictions on how long my dad had: 10 years, a few years, a month, a week. Some of the predictions were way off and none was exactly right. The only way to proceed was to be alert and to be aware that the unexpected was always in play. And that's how we should approach our lives. Based on my mom's current age and my dad's final age I could live another 20 to 30 years. Or I could get taken out by a drunk driver as I drive home from the jail some night. I'm not going to sit around fearing the possibilities but neither am I working out the details of how I will officiate at my infant granddaughter's wedding in a couple of decades. Right now I will enjoy each moment I have with her and show her I love her.

Which is what my family did with my dad. My brother noticed how people always say such wonderful things about the deceased at their funeral and wondered if they ever said them to the person's face while they were still alive. My father must have been thinking along the same lines. He asked my brother and I what we would say at his funeral and so we wrote out our eulogies and read them to him. When my dad was lying unconscious in the last days and moaning and muttering in his sleep, my brother tried to ease his transition by telling him he was a good father and that he loved him. Knowing that hearing is likely the last sense to go when one is dying, I told my brother he was doing exactly the right thing.

But what does Jesus want us to do with this knowledge of the run-up to the Last Days? In our gospel he talks about how when the master is gone he puts his servants in charge and that they all have their own work to do. In the parallel passage in Matthew 24, this is expanded. Jesus says, “Who then is the faithful and wise servant whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns.” (Matthew 24:45, 46) Jesus contrasts this with the servant who thinks he has all the time in the world and who makes sure he gets his food but otherwise gets drunk and beats his fellow servants. Things do not go well for him when the master returns.

What is the work Jesus gave us and expects to find us doing when we see him next? Feeding our fellow human beings, both physically and spiritually. Not abusing them. Not overindulging ourselves. Not sleeping on the job. There is a term that covers all of this: love. On the night he was betrayed Jesus said, “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love...My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:10, 12)

Loving God with all we are and all we have and loving each other is the work Jesus commanded us to do. Don't wait until they are dead. And don't confine your love to speeches. My brother and I had to do for my dad what he could not longer do and not all of it was pleasant. But that's love. We are to love not only with our words but also with our works, not only with our lips but with our lives. We are to tell everyone of God's love for them and show them in concrete ways. Jesus will tell us when Show and Tell time is over. We are not supposed to watch the clock. We are not supposed to take up our time doing a countdown. We are to stay on topic. We are to tell the world the good news of how God loves and transforms human beings and then give a demonstration. And trust God that when all is said and done, everything will be all right and all mistakes will be fixed and the bridegroom will be here and we can start the feast at last. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks

As someone who worked as a radio copywriter and production director for 20 years, I came to the conclusion that there are 3 categories of motivating emotions: needs, desires and fears. And when you are creating an ad you have to figure out to which kind of emotion are you making an appeal. Is it a physical need, like food or shelter or clothing? Is it a psychological need, like love or a feeling of belonging or having a defined role in a group or society? Is it a fear for your physical well-being or that of your family? Is it a social fear, of embarrassment or exclusion? Or is it a desire? And here there is a huge range of options. People desire or can be made to desire nearly anything. And sadly, most of the desires marketers appeal to are not healthy ones. Many are in fact what the Bible has defined as sins. 

Indeed, the 7 deadly sins are practically a textbook on how to sell products and services. Sloth or laziness is a good thing to appeal to if you are selling a labor saving device. Recently the Pepsi Company has come up with a drink that combines the taste of Mountain Dew and of Doritos chips called Dewitos. That's for folks who apparently can't be bothered to open both a bottle of soda and a bag of chips. Or perhaps this is an appeal to gluttony, which drives our food companies to come up with flavors not found in nature coupled with addictive snacks that fail to fill us up, lest we stop when satisfied. Lust is used to sell a lot of products, including ones that have little to do with sex, like cars and even food. Rage certainly seems to what political ads are targeting, trying to convince voters that the other guy is not merely the wrong choice but is secretly trying to destroy the nation. Greed is a big motivator, stroking our desire to simply acquire more stuff. And envy is another, convincing us that we should be dissatisfied with who we are and what we have and should instead want to be what others are or have what they have.

What is really incongruous is that one of the biggest days for buying stuff comes right after the day on which we are supposed to be thanking God for what we have. In fact for a few years now a lot of retailers have been opening on Thanksgiving Day, encouraging people to go from gratitude to greed in a matter of hours. Or in the case of employees required to work on the holiday, from enjoying their family to resenting their job.

We live in the richest country in the world. The vast majority of us make well above the less than $2 a day that most folks in the Third World must manage on. How often do we stop and thank God for what we have rather than lament that we don't have everything we see offered on TV? How often do we express our gratitude to him for what we are?

Envy in this regard is especially insidious. A lot of products are marketed to us based on the idea that we are inadequate because we do not look like the genetic lottery winners who dominate our entertainment industry. And so we are encouraged to dress like them, drive the cars they do, use the products they endorse and even have ourselves surgically altered to look more like them.

Of all of God's gifts to us, the most basic is ourselves, our bodies and our minds. Like everything else in this world, he gave us a wide variety. But unlike the array of flowers and trees and birds and animals, we don't seem to appreciate the variety of humans God gave us. We act as if we want them all the have the same color skin or body shape or narrow range of facial features. We also prefer a narrow range of personalities. We want everyone to be pleasant and positive and agreeable and funny and no smarter than ourselves. We want a world of clones and Yes-men. And if we don't resemble the majority of those around us, we try to change ourselves rather than appreciate the unique features God has granted us.

One of the things the act of giving thanks can do is make us aware of how we have been graced with God's gifts. Like your brain. Your brain gives you a different point of view than anyone else. You appreciate certain things, notice particular details, have specific insights that no one else does in the same way. Your sense of humor, your way of thinking, your way of doing things, the way you express yourself adds to humanity's perspectives. Thank God for the uniqueness of your brain.

Today most of us have issues with our bodies. A lot of that has to do with the bodies our society presents to us as ideals. And despite the fact that we know that the actors are carefully made up and lighted, and that the models starve themselves and are artificially enhanced, and that the athletes have fitness trainers and performance- and body-enhancing drugs, and that they all were far above average in the first place, we still secretly wish we had their faces and bodies. And, yes, the world treats you differently if you have “good” looks. But people like Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Hawking and John Adams and Dorothy Hodgkin and Linus Pauling and Pope John XXIII and loads of other people that don't look like movie stars have made truly vital contributions to the world. As Shakespeare said, “there's no art to find the mind's construction in the face.” A person's worth has little to do with his looks. Ted Bundy was good-looking; Steve Buscemi is not. Bundy was a serial killer; film star Buscemi returned the firehouse where he formerly was a firefighter to pull several 12 hour shifts sifting the the rubble of the Twin Towers after 9/11. Heroes aren't always handsome. Thank God for the inner beauty he gave you, whatever the world thinks of your body and face.

There are lots of other things for which to give God thanks: friends, family, this church, this community. We thank God for the beauty of where we live, for the flora and fauna that surround us, for the water and the generally good weather.

And one of the best ways to thank God is to take care of the gifts he's given us. We should take care of our brains and not do things that mess them up, be it drugs or riding a two-wheeled vehicle without a helmet. We should feed our brains the best stuff, things that will make us more knowledgeable, wiser and nobler. (Philippians 4:8) We should similarly not do things that will damage our body and feed it enough good things to keep it properly nourished and avoid giving it too much of the salty/sugary/fatty stuff that increases weight and the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer's and sleep apnea. (Once a year is OK, I guess.)

Let us also take care of those we love, offering encouragement, empathy, and concrete support. Let us take care of the world he made and pronounced good, using its resources wisely and sparingly and allowing them replenish themselves when they can. Let us use our God-given ingenuity to figure out alternatives to limited non-renewing resources.

Finally let us give God thanks for his love for us, shown so clearly in his giving us his son Jesus, our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord and Savior and in his giving us his Holy Spirit, so that he is always with us and in us and so that we are always connected with God. He is the reason we are here together enjoying fellowship with him and with each other. He gives our lives direction and meaning. He gives confirmation to our instinct that love is our highest value and aspiration. He gives us hope that all that is broken in our lives and our world will be healed and whole in the end.

Thankgiving has only been an official national holiday since 1941. But unofficial and regional days of Thanksgiving go back 300 years, though they were usually daylong fasts and worship services. But rather than confine it to one day a year we should, as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” Too often we concentrate on what we resent, what we regret, what we want. Making ourselves look for what we have and what we are thankful for keeps us in the right mind to not only survive but to thrive and stay positive. That is God's will for us.

Our God is a gracious and giving God. And the very best way to thank him is to share his gifts, the bounty with which he has showered us, and the good news of his grace with others. In Matthew 10:8, Jesus says to his disciples, “Freely you have received; freely give.” Let us make that our motto from this day on. Because God has been good to us, let us pass it on. “Freely you have received; freely give.”

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Least

There is a word in the King James translation of the Bible that no other version uses. And that's because we just don't call people “froward” anymore. Not that there aren't people who fit the definition, which is “stubbornly perverse.” but the word has just fallen out of usage. But it would be a good way of to describe the process Stephen Colbert uses to craft his soon-to-end show The Colbert Report, in which he plays a TV pundit whose opinions are so comically the opposite of common sense that they expose their own logical flaws. On Terry Gross' NPR show, Fresh Air, his head writer said that first the real Stephen had to work out his actual point of view on whatever news story he was covering. Then he had to figure out how his character would see the same news and then how to have him express it in a way that makes plain the folly of the people involved. You might say The Colbert Report is a satirical exercise in frowardness.

Many of his viewers may not know that the real Colbert is a Roman Catholic who teaches Sunday School. Which explains this line which concluded a Christmas message on his show. He said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”

A prime example of this is the current political crisis in Fort Lauderdale. The city has made feeding the homeless, if not actually illegal, at least extremely difficult, by imposing all kinds of special conditions. As a result the police have cited 3 people who violated the ordinance. They include 2 clergy, one of whom is Fr. Mark Sims, a colleague of mine, and 90 year old Arnold Abbott, who has been feeding the homeless for decades through his organization Love Thy Neighbor. The World War 2 vet started his charity with his late wife and has successfully fought the city before on similar charges. The mayor of Ft. Lauderdale has been caught in face-saving lies that the city has dozens of feeding sites when in fact there are only 4. He has said the ordinance was for public health and safety and then admitted it was for the sake of tourism. The real problem is that because a percentage of the homeless are mentally ill and because a percentage abuse drugs and alcohol, they might act inappropriately in public. Wondering if the city is just as hard on the Spring Breakers, tourists who also tend to behave badly in pubic, I went to only to find the page has been removed.

Are Colbert and the critics of Ft. Lauderdale's draconian rules on feeding the homeless right? Is our treatment of the poor and needy a top priority in Jesus' eyes?

Judging by our gospel passage (Matthew 25:31-46) the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Jesus paints a memorable picture of the last judgment. He, the Son of Man, is the judge. And the criteria used does not include the behaviors that a lot of people think are God's most hated sins. There is no mention of homosexuality; in fact, there is no mention of sexual sins at all. There is no mention of doctrinal heresies. There is no mention of denominational distinctives and practices that some prominent preachers make sound like matters of eternal life and death. Jesus focuses on 6 categories of needy people and how we treat them: the hungry, the thirsty, the alien, the naked, the sick and the incarcerated. Why these specific 6 and not other sins?

The first five of these are typically found in Jewish lists of virtuous behavior. And that is no surprise because caring for the poor and needy is also commanded numerous times in the Hebrew Bible. Deuteronomy 15 says, “ must not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother.” If you do, it goes on to say, God will consider you guilty. On the other hand, “You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you do.” (Deuteronomy 15:10) In Isaiah 58:6 & 7, God says, “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?” In Jeremiah 7:5-7, God says, “For, if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a person and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor follow after other gods, bringing harm upon yourselves, then I will allow you to live in this land, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.” So Jesus is in line with the same concerns his Father makes clear in the Torah and through the prophets.

What Jesus adds is interesting: “I was in prison and you visited me.” I can tell you from experience that the thing prisoners miss the most is contact with family and friends. Letters and pictures are good; phone calls are better, though they are more expensive than you can imagine because they handled by a for profit company; but visits are the best. I have seen inmates go from despondent to resilient after a visit from a spouse, a sibling, a child or a friend. It assures them that they are not forgotten or unloved. It keeps them involved in the lives of those outside whose lives are going on while the inmate's life is on hold. It gives them something to look forward to in an environment that generally crushes hope.

This does lead some commentators, however, to combine this commandment about prisoners with Jesus' saying that “If you do it to these, the least of my siblings, you do it to me,” and say that Jesus is not talking about all unfortunate people but only his disciples. They point out that the first missionaries, carrying the good news, were dependent on hospitality for food and drink and a place to stay. They also might be foreigners to those they were evangelizing. And, like Peter, John, Paul and Barnabas, they often got arrested for disturbing the peace. So is the last judgment based merely on how one treats Christians in distress?

I don't think so. 2 conditions are hard to tie only to missionaries. How often would an evangelist find himself naked? And sickness is a condition way too broadly experienced among all people and not specifically tied to preachers. True, the passages from the Hebrew Bible we quoted above seem to apply primarily to Jews. But in the books of Jonah and Isaiah we see that God is also interested in the welfare and salvation of Gentiles. And Jesus commissions his disciples to preach the good news to all nations. Nor did Jesus limit his own ministry to Jews. He healed the centurion's slave and the Syro-Phoenician woman's daughter and the demoniac in the Decapolis, an area so pagan that they were raising pigs. He revealed his identity to the Samaritan woman.

Christianity cannot be exclusive. Unlike Judaism there is no ethnic component to being a Christian. Anybody is a potential Christian. And most people did not come to Jesus already convinced he was the Messiah but only followed him after he met their needs. So how do we convincingly bring the good news of God's love to others if we do so only with words and not also with works of compassion?

But if the last judgment depends on social action, what about role of grace? Is Paul in conflict with Jesus on the basis of our salvation? Does this mean that if Ted Bundy had just cut a hefty check to the United Way or Habitat for Humanity, he would be in heaven?

No. And it is instructive that in the case of Bundy the only such contradiction I've found in his life is that he volunteered at a suicide hotline. But given his M.O. who's to say that he didn't get a kind of vicarious thrill out of having some power over those contemplating their death? Certainly nothing else in his biography indicates any concern with helping the helpless. Quite the contrary. He preyed on helpless women.

Nor does the apostle who wrote nearly half the books in the New Testament contradict Jesus. In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehard so that we may do them.” In other words, we are not saved by good works but we are saved so that we may do good works.

In the same way, exercise will not fix a person in heart failure, but after receiving a heart transplant, the doctor will want the person to eventually increase his exercise to keep the new heart healthy. In fact, doctors use exercise to diagnose your state of health. Just as being able to pass the treadmill test shows your physical health, helping the unfortunate shows your spiritual health.

And remember we were created in the image of the God who is love. If we let the Holy Spirit restore that marred image in us, we should naturally be drawn to show that love concretely to our fellow human beings whom God loved so much that he sent his Son to save them. And we can't just love those whom it is natural and easy to love. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your siblings, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In other words, since God loves all so should we. (Matthew 5:46-48)

And since we are talking about the image of God, remember that image is seen most clearly in Jesus. As it says in Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God...” So if we are made in the image of God, we are also made in the image of Christ. It may be hard to see at times and in certain people; it may be marred by sin but it is there. God told Noah that murder is wrong because humans are created in God's image. (Genesis 9:6) Murder is symbolic deicide. And neglecting or mistreating others is neglecting or mistreating Christ.

Look at it this way. The last judgment is like a diagnostic test. Those who supply the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the alien, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned are spiritually healthy. The transplantation of Christ's Spirit has obviously been successful. They are trusting the Great Physician and are following Doctor's orders. They can be released into the general population of the kingdom of God where the love of God and love of others need not be commanded; it is now second nature to its citizens. Those who don't show the signs of spiritual health—a demonstrable love for all others who were created in God's image and for whom Christ died—are spiritually dead. They go into quarantine. They cannot be allowed to infect others with their apathy toward or hatred of other human beings.

Will they ever be released? Can they ever be released? One thing is for sure. If they do not change, they cannot enter the kingdom of God, no more than a TB patient who refuses to take his or her meds can be allowed out of quarantine and into the public. It's not a matter of whether they are nice or not. Hitler loved dogs and children. Ann Rule, a former cop and true crime writer, worked alongside Ted Bundy at the suicide hot line. She even thought of introducing the handsome, charming Bundy to her daughter! It's not a matter of whether they can be pleasant but whether they are cured.

Ultimately it is up to Jesus Christ. As the one in whose image we were made and the one who lived and died as one of us, you could not ask for a fairer or more merciful judge. But his kingdom is the kingdom of those who love. And love must be voluntary. We tend to think that people being excluded from the kingdom is terrible but to put into God's kingdom someone who will not love or reciprocate love is as bad as forcing someone into a marriage with someone they do not love. It would be tantamount to rape. As it says in 1 John 4:7 & 8, “Beloved, let us love one another for love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love.” Anyone who cannot love the poor and needy and homeless, who cannot see past the dirt and the uncouth behavior and the mental and physical illnesses, who can't be bothered to look for the image of Jesus buried in the least of his siblings, would never be happy in the kingdom. It will be too full of those kind of people—you know, the ones who care about others.

Those people are annoying, aren't they? The ones who feed the hungry and run clothing drives for the threadbare poor and who volunteer at hospitals and at prisons and who work with immigrants. They show the rest of us up. They make us feel like sham Christians. They leave us other Christians with 2 options: we can envy them or we can emulate them. Nor need we do exactly what they do. You may be squeamish about sick people; choose some other ministry. You may be frightened to go into a jail or prison; it's really not at all like it's depicted in TV and movies but you can help the hungry. And there are always positions in any ministry for organizers, for improvisers, for gofers, for drivers, for handymen and women, for people who can do legal things, or medical things or who can raise money or who speak different languages or who can just listen to people.

Never done anything like that before? You know what—everything you've ever done in your life you didn't know how to do at some point. You just learned what you could and then you did it. That includes the biggest ever responsibility a person could have which we still leave to amateurs: parenting. And if you can learn to take total responsibility for someone who is completely unable to take care of themselves, you can take on the limited and shared responsibility of a ministry.

The first person to smart off to God was Cain. God asks where Abel is and Cain says, “Am I my brother's keeper?” A better translation of the Hebrew is “guardian or protector.” Since he had just killed Abel, the question is moot. But the implied answer found in all the rest of the Bible is “Yes!” We are responsible for each other. You do what you can to help people. There are some you can't help because they won't let you but that doesn't mean you can conveniently write off everyone in that circumstance. Everyone in this world was created in the image of our Lord. We serve him by serving them. And if we look for that image in them long enough, maybe they will find it in themselves as well, and turn to the One whose image it is. And one day Jesus will welcome you both into the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.