Sunday, August 24, 2014

Asking the Right Questions

The politician was talking about making tough political choices. So the reporter asked for an example. Immediately the politician began talking about how people were having a hard time in the present economy. Finally, the reporter interrupted to say, “I didn't ask you to give me an example of a tough political challenge. I asked you for an example of a tough political choice.” At that point, the politician began to equivocate.

The first step to getting the right answer is asking the right question. You'd think that was obvious but many things conspire to deflect our attention from asking the proper questions. Advertisers rarely want people to ask essential questions about their products. They want you to ask if the product is attractive or cool or popular or sexy. I remember computer and phone commercials making a big deal out of all different colors their products come in. Nothing was said about how well the computer or phone actually works, which matters a lot more than how it looks. But everything from cars to candidates is marketed on superficial qualities. Indeed, studies have shown that most people vote on the basis of whether they like a candidate rather than whether they agree with his or her positions on issues. They elect the one they'd want to have as a dinner guest rather than the one who'd make a good leader.

Unfortunately, people also tend to put superficial considerations before essential issues when it comes to ethical and theological questions. C.S. Lewis points out that people often ask whether a behavior or practice or concept is modern or scientific or patriotic or conservative or progressive, rather than whether it is right or wrong, true or false.

Today's lectionary passages all revolve around the importance of asking the right questions. In the Track 1 passage from Exodus 1:8-2:10, the new Pharaoh is concerned about the growth of the Hebrews in Egypt. He is especially worried about the number of males born, because they could grow up to be fighters. So he tells the midwives to kill every male newborn. But the midwives feared God more than the tyrant who ruled their country. At the heart of their acts of civil disobedience is the question as to who is the ultimate authority: God or government?

This may be a no-brainer but throughout history people have gotten the answer wrong. Loyalty to one's country is often unquestioned. Many people think God and country just go together naturally, so one can't conceivably contradict the other. During the Second World War, the population of Germany was for the most part convinced that the aims of their leadership was in concert with God's plans. Of course, any churches that refused to sanctify the Nazi program were outlawed.

Today in China there are 5 carefully controlled denominations sanctioned by the government. There are also numerous underground home churches where people are free to preach and interpret Scripture apart from government supervision. The penalty for being caught worshiping in a house church is being sentenced to a labor camp. Dozens of pastors are imprisoned each year.

Even in the U.S., Christians have been split on various government policies and laws. Long before abortion and gay marriage, some Christians have opposed the government on matters like slavery, war, race, labor and immigration. During World War 1, due to the Sedition Act, you could be imprisoned for being a pacifist. The Rev. Martin Luther King and many of his followers were beaten, sprayed by high pressure water hoses, attacked by police dogs, and incarcerated for peacefully demonstrating against racial discrimination. In each case, people had to ask if they would obey what they considered unjust laws or obey God's laws. And they had to face some very serious consequences for doing so.

We like to think of our country as a Christian one. Jesus lived in a Jewish state. But even in so-called religious countries, when national interests are at variance with Biblical morality, governments opt to follow their political agendas. Caesar will go along with Christ only so long as Christ is on Caesar's side. But eventually there will be a parting of the ways. And when that happens we have to ask the right question: to whom do we owe our ultimate allegiance—the State or the Lord?

In our passage from Romans 12:1-8, Paul has come to the part of his letter where he lays out the ethical implications of the theology he has been expounding. How do citizens of the Kingdom of God live in the kingdoms of this world? Reinhold Niebuhr delineated 5 models of for the relationship between Christ and culture. Since any human culture contains things both good and bad, both the results of common grace and the effects of the Fall, should we embrace culture, reject it, cooperate with it, transform it or live in a paradoxical relationship with it? Whatever we do with it, Paul tells us not to be conformed to it. The Greek word for “conform” means “to take on a similar pattern.” One of the temptations the church faces is that of imitating earthly models. At times it has imitated worldly empires, the military, and successful businesses. The problem is not that of using good ideas of other sources but of assimilating the culture of other organizations. The goal of an empire is to expand and to take over smaller countries. The culture of the military is that of unquestioning obedience to a rigid chain of command. The bottom line of a business is an ever expanding marketshare and an ever increasing income. And, as we've seen all too often, morality is never the primary consideration in any of those organizations. In fact, whatever the original purpose of an organization was, in the end the prime directive becomes ensuring the continued existence of that organization. And that end justifies any means that promises to help achieve it. We see enough of that in the world. We don't need it in the church.

It's already there, of course. Just as you wish to get a boat into the water without getting too much water into the boat, the problem has always been to get the church out into the world without getting too much of the world into the church. So what should we do instead of conforming to the world? Paul says, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” The word for “renewal” could be translated “renovation.” We don't let the world change us but we let the mind of Christ transform us into his way of thinking. And the mind of Christ, as Paul reminds us in Philippians, is one of humility, service and self-sacrifice. Jesus is the incarnation of the God who is love. Rather than worry about merely perpetuating the church as an organization, rather than just imitating human institutions and appropriating their attitudes along with their insights, we must make sure the purpose of the church remains being the Body of Christ, the embodiment of his transforming Spirit, in this world. But that begs a question, one which underlies all the others and which is the focus of today's gospel (Matthew 16:13-20).

Jesus asks his disciples who the general public says he is. They give various answers. Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” We know what Peter said. But what would those in the church today say if Jesus were to put the question to them? Some would say he was a great teacher. Some would say he was a pagan concept adapted by the church. Some would say he was a failed revolutionary who nevertheless had some good ideas. And some would agree with Peter: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The problem is that if you give something radically different than the Petrine answer, you cannot affirm that Jesus is Lord. You may admire and agree with a lot of what a great teacher says, but you are not obligated to do everything he says. The same applies to all answers that fall short of acknowledging Christ as the Lord of all.

And if you ask me, the demotion of Jesus that has occurred in Western society and in the church has less to do with legitimate doubts and more to do with our wanting a way out of total obedience to Christ. We want to pick and choose what parts of his teachings we will concentrate on, whether social justice or personal morality, activism or piety. And we can't do that if Jesus is God incarnate. We can't cherry pick among issues such as poverty, sexual morality, social inequality, personal responsibility, political action, private charity, supporting the environment and supporting the family. We need to stop narrowing down God's concerns to match ours. Instead we must demand justice from those in power, challenge the oppressed to forgive, preach repentance to all, and work for peace and reconciliation.

Asking the right questions goes a long way towards solving any problem. Today we have considered 3 big questions to ask ourselves. When human authority and Biblical morality clash we need to ask “Whom ultimately must we obey?” When we encounter the power and allure of the world, we must ask ourselves, “Are we merely imitating the ways of the world, or are we letting the mind of Christ transform ourselves and our thoughts, words and actions?”

And underlying these questions we must ask ourselves “Who do I think Jesus is?” If we think he is just a great teacher or a supreme example of humanity, then we can depart from his ways when we feel differently than he about some issues. And there is a long history of so-called Christians ignoring Jesus' commands to treat others as we wish to be treated, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to put up the sword, to turn the other cheek, to give generously to the poor, to feed the hungry, to visit those in prison, to welcome the alien, to forgive those who sin against us, to love one's enemy, to repent, to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses. The failures of Christianity are largely failures to obey Christ's commands and to live according to his Spirit.

But if we acknowledge him as the very embodiment of our loving Creator, the perfect sacrifice for our sins, our risen Lord who will come again to judge between the eternally alive and the spiritually dead, then we must commit ourselves to bringing all of the gospel—repentance, self-sacrificial service, and liberation from all sins, personal and social—to all of our lives. If we can't, then we must question whether we are Christians at all.   

Monday, August 18, 2014

Love the Alien

If you're like me, you're having a hard time keeping informed on the state of the world. Not that finding out what's going on all over the globe is hard; rather the news we are getting is so hard to listen to. The ratcheting up of violence and chaos just about everywhere is depressing. So I was heartened to hear that the President is sending aid to the refugees trapped on a mountain after fleeing the largest Christian city in Iraq. ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has be repudiated by Al Qaeda of all things, gave the Christians the choice of converting, fleeing, paying a special tax or being executed for their faith. It won't be long before there will be hardly any Christians in the Middle East. But in view of the fact that we have done very little for the Muslims being harmed by other Muslims in the region, I did worry that this humanitarian action had everything to do with the fact that these were Christians in danger. I'm grateful that we are helping them but why not also the refugees from other countries? Are we playing favorites?

If you took the Bible Challenge last year (or are doing so now) you probably noticed a lot of stuff in the Good Book rarely gets preached about on Sunday mornings or mentioned in most Bible studies. One phrase that jumped out at me this time through the Scriptures was “widows, orphans and strangers.” Starting in the books of Moses, and especially in the prophets, we see over and over again God's concern for these 3 groups of people, the least powerful ones in society. And it remains true today. Change “widows” to “women without husbands,” “orphans” to “the fatherless,” which is actually a more accurate translation, and “strangers” to “immigrants,” which is also a better translation, and you have the 3 groups who still have the least money and least power in our world. The average person on welfare in this country is the child of a single mother. And that woman can be a widow (especially since we have been fighting two wars), divorced or never married but she has less earning potential than most and virtually no champions among those in power. When politicians start cutting funds they go after the programs that help the poor, who are overwhelmingly single mothers and their children. Because they lack lobbyists.

Immigrants are also at the bottom rung of the ladder. Contrary to popular belief, undocumented immigrants cannot get welfare or food stamps, though they can get schooling and emergency medical care. And, yes, they pay taxes. They pay sales taxes, property taxes and up to 3/4s even pay income taxes, because they are withheld from their paychecks. The Social Security Administration estimates that illegal immigrants pay $6 to $7 billion into Social Security which they will, of course, never receive back. As for “anchor babies” we've heard of, while our constitution says that every child born in the US is an American citizen, the federal government has no problem deporting their parents. In fact between 1998 and 2007, 108,000 such foreign-born parents were deported. The children can petition the government to allow their parents to join them in the US—when those children turn 21!

The reason I bring this up is because our passage in Isaiah 56 is another one that highlights God's concern for the stranger, the alien, the foreigner within your land, the immigrant. And it's all the more remarkable because there are passages in the Bible which would make you think God only cares for his people, Israel.

Ezra the prophet, for instance, who returned from exile in Babylon to reintroduce God's law to the remnant in the homeland, was upset that Jewish men had married foreign-born women. Now, mind you, the Babylonians had taken the cream of Jewish society, its aristocracy and its artisans, anyone they deemed valuable, into exile. And they moved other conquered peoples into the land of Israel, for the same reason: it cuts down on the likelihood of rebellion. Defeated people forcibly moved to a foreign land will probably not be able to gather support for an uprising among strange locals. Nor do they want to because they are not in their ancestral home. In fact, the resulting intermarriage is likely to water down their identity. This is what horrified Ezra. And yet...Moses was married to Zipporah, a Cushite. Ruth, the grandmother of King David, was a Moabite. David's ancestors included Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho who hid the Hebrew spies. Ezra may have been worried about the foreign wives turning their husbands to idolatry. And certainly marrying outside one's faith brings this risk. But in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul says that Christians should not divorce non-Christian spouses unless that spouse desires it. Rather, “the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” (1 Cor 7:14) In other words, it works both ways. A believer married to a unbeliever may drift from their faith but an unbeliever married to a believer may come to the faith. Ezra is worried about the risks; Paul sees the opportunities. And, by the way, this is why it is best to search all of Scripture in regards to an issue rather than fixate upon one prooftext. Otherwise you get a very narrow reading of our very large God.

For instance, there are other passages where God seems to be a tribal deity, interested only in his people. Yet throughout the Bible we see hints of God actually doing something else: expanding his people's vision to encompass the rest of the world. In fact, the whole point of the book of Jonah is that God cares even for the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. It is Jonah the prophet who doesn't want to see God forgive Israel's enemies.

Each week we say that God created the whole world and all its people. We are all related to each other, all of us having descended from one man and one woman, something that is not merely a theological conceit but a genetic fact. The foreigner is but a distant cousin, something the Bible affirms in all those long genealogies.

Dr. Paul Farmer said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” And that's largely true. We consciously or unconsciously rate people on their worthiness of getting attention or help or sympathy. We decide who is worthy of living a decent life or not. At our worst, we decide who is worthy of living or not.

Why do we fear the foreigner so? When we lived in tribes and clans, groups of roughly 150 people, we lived our entire lives among those who were related to us. Because of genetics, language and custom, everyone you knew carried a resemblance. That resemblance meant you were among your extended family. You were safe. But if you encounter a stranger, a person from another tribe, their dissimilarities in appearance, speech and customs triggered anxiety, a warning. Did this outsider mean you good or ill? Assuming the latter was the safer course.

And that has carried over to today. We see it in racism, in parochialism, in xenophobia. We see it in the reaction to children fleeing rape and death at the hands of gangs and drug lords in Central America. These kids are not sneaking into the country but going up to border stations and guards and asking for asylum. And some people are responding as if these children were the gangs and drug lords.

I lived on the border. Before moving to the Keys my family lived in Brownsville, Texas. We liked it there. The city goes right up to the Rio Grande. We used to go over to Matamoros, the even larger city on the other side of the border. We ate over there, bought certain staples that were cheaper in Mexico, and took visiting family over there.

Brownsville is 91% Hispanic. Many of the citizens are 1st and 2nd generation Mexican-Americans. Everyone we met was nice and friendly and family-oriented. Everyone worked hard. And though as Anglos we were the minority, we weren't scared and we didn't feel discriminated against. I realize this is a personal anecdote and doesn't hold much evidential weight. But while everyone was aware of the undocumented aliens constantly entering the country, I don't remember any widespread fear or any sense of rampant crime. Even today, at the height of the immigration hysteria, Brownsville's violent crime rate of 2.6 per 1000 residents is lower than the national median of 3.9 and lower than the rest of Texas at 4.09. By the way, do you feel that we are living in the Wild West here? Because Key West's violent crime rate is 8.24, more than 3 times as high as Brownsville's! I don't think immigrants are the cause. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 20% of our jail population are immigrants, both legal and illegal. Which means 80% are Americans.

The important thing is: what should our attitude as Christians be towards immigrants? How does God see it? What does the Bible say? In Exodus 22:21, just 2 chapters after the 10 Commandments, God says, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” And in Leviticus 19:33 &34 it says: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” As you can hear even in translation, the wording and structure of this command is exactly the same as the command to love your neighbor as yourself, which appears just 16 verses earlier.

And notice that God underlines this command by saying, “I am the Lord your God.” In other words, “I'm putting my full authority behind this. Take this seriously.” How seriously? In Malachi 3:5 God says, “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” God is putting those who thrust aside, or as the Holman Bible translates it, who “deny justice,” to the immigrant, in the same category as those who cheat on their spouses, who lie under oath, who cheat workers of their wages, who oppress widows and the fatherless. Think that's harsh? When Moses makes the people enumerate the blessings and curses that go along with being God's covenant people, he says, “'Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due the alien, the fatherless, and the widow.' All the people shall say, 'Amen.'” There are only 12 behaviors cursed here and this was important enough to be included.

Why does this mean so much to God? In Deuteronomy 10:18 it says of God, “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, providing him food and clothing. Love the alien, therefore, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” God loves the immigrant. After all, because of him, Abraham became an immigrant leaving Ur and settling in Canaan. As was pointed out, the Israelites were immigrants in Egypt. And Jesus and his parents fled Judea and were immigrants in Egypt. In fact, because they were trying to escape King Herod's murderous rage, they could be called refugees, fleeing from persecution. And maybe that's why Jesus, in his parable of the last judgment, said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matt 25:35) The Greek word translated “stranger” is xenos, which means “foreigner or alien.” Jesus knew firsthand what it was to be a stranger in a strange land. So what we do or do not do to them, the least of his siblings, we do or do not do to Jesus. And we are to love them.

Why does God single out immigrants to be treated fairly? They are his children and any loving parent looks out for the especially vulnerable child, the one most apt to be bullied and mistreated. People cut off from their land and their people are vulnerable. God says treat them right.

Ah, but what about illegal aliens, ones who broke the laws by entering and staying? Aren't we commanded to be subject to the governing authorities, as in says in Romans 13? Indeed, but again we should not see this passage in isolation of the rest of Scripture. We see the apostles disobey the authorities when they conflict with God's laws. More to the point, we see David and his band of men living as outlaws when King Saul was hunting him. His followers are described in the Holman Bible Dictionary as “impoverished and discontented.” They don't surrender to King Saul, the lawful authority. David even takes the sacred showbread to feed his men. David also lies to the priest at the shrine, telling him he and his men are on a secret mission for the king!

Jesus later uses this incident to justify his disciples' picking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath. In this, Jesus is in line with the Jewish principle that most laws may be laid aside to preserve life. When I was in Brownsville, there was an influx of people from the turmoil in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s. They were called OTMs, or Other Than Mexicans, to differentiate them from the usual undocumented alien. And I realized that if I lived in a dysfunctional country, in the throes of a civil war, with a shattered economy, and a poor life expectancy for me and my children, and there was a rich stable country to the North, where I could go and work the crappiest job available and still make a better life for me and my family, I would go there. To stay in a hellhole simply because I was born there would be irrational.

Nobody is saying that we should open our borders to any and all who on impulse decide to come and stay. But the process we now have for becoming a citizen is long, complicated and expensive. If you came from a friendly country, like Australia, applying requires not only one's original birth certificate, proof of citizenship, a list of every address you've ever lived at, every job you've ever worked, a police background check, and photos, but also a pile of financial documents. It also costs up to $1000 and takes 3 to 6 months. Now if you are fleeing from a failed nation-state, it can be difficult if not impossible to get all that for every member of your family. Then you must get a medical exam but it is only valid if you get it from a doctor approved by the Department of Homeland Security. There may only be one in whichever US state you happen to be in and due to their scarcity, they could be pricey, charging you an additional $1000—for every family member. Then you have to return to your home country to be interviewed by people at the American consulate. If you are marrying an American citizen, you have to undergo more interviews and produce additional paperwork to show that you are marrying for love and not a green card. None of this is unreasonable if you are an affluent person coming from a country that is allied with the US and has a functioning government. If you are escaping from a non-friendly government that can't keep narco-terrorists from beheading people on a routine basis, this procedure is Kafkaesque. Especially if you are a child refugee.

If we are truly a Christian nation, our attitude towards those who are fleeing war, rape, torture and death should be common sense and compassion, not Pharisaic legalism that elevates rules above human suffering. In fact, it could be argued that these people would make great citizens, seeing that they were willing to cross deserts and face death to come to our country. Whereas only slightly more than 50% of eligible Americans can bestir themselves enough to vote for president and less than that, just over a third of them vote in off-year elections for Congress. (Yet 83% of Americans, according to Gallup, disapprove of Congress' performance.) 

In 1939 a ship named the St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany for Havana. On board were nearly 1000 Jews seeking to flee the Nazis. Neither Cuba nor the US would take the refugees and they were sent back. Half of the 963 Jews died in the Holocaust. The shameful story of our refusal to save them is preserved in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

We have right now 57,000 children on our border who have come to the US as refugees. If we send them back and if they fare as well as those Jews in Nazi Germany, then roughly 28,000 would die. How many of the survivors will be raped or dragooned into being child soldiers or into working for the narco-terrorists smuggling drugs into the US, I couldn't begin to guess. That alone should motivate us to find other solutions than simply shipping them back.

But we are Christians. Jesus was a child refugee fleeing certain death by Herod. He said that if we do not welcome the alien, we do not welcome him. His Father commands us not to mistreat the alien but to love him. I think the only Christian thing to do is to agree with Peter and the apostles and say, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

For Zoe's Baptism

The first time I was approached to baptize someone was when I was in the Society for Creative Anachronism. These are the people that often put on and attend Renaissance fairs. My medieval persona was Brother Gillecriosd, a Cluniac monk from the time of William the Conqueror. It was well known that I was a Christian. (I did a series of mini-medieval lectures on Dante's Divine Comedy.) But I never expected to be asked to baptize someone's nephew. Apparently it was to mollify the grandparents. I had to say “no.” While I know that any Christian can baptize someone in extremis, that is, if someone is dying and consents, I don't think there is any justification to do it just so family will get off your back. Nor is baptism a magical rite to protect children from hell.

The first time I actually baptized someone was when a patient of mine was close to death. I had been taking care of Charlie for 4 years. The only reason he was alive after his massive stroke was because of the loving care he received from his wife, Sue. Now she was dying from breast cancer and I doubted he would live long after she was gone.

And I couldn't take care of Charlie anymore. He was unwittingly the reason I threw my back out 2 years in a row. I took this as a sign from God that I was right to give up nursing for the priesthood. I found another nurse to do his daily care, continued to visit the couple and walk their energetic Labrador daily. I also read them the sermons I wrote as Lay Pastoral Leader. I asked if they wanted me to bring them communion in my role as Lay Eucharistic Minister. That was when Sue told me Charlie had never been baptized. I knew he was well read in Christianity from his library and from his attention to my sermons though his speech was severely affected by his stroke. I asked if he wanted to be baptized and he nodded. So I wrote my bishop, emphasizing the couple's imminent deaths and my role as the nearest thing they had to clergy. I pointed out that while he wouldn't die in minutes, the usual justification for baptism by a layman, he would go fast after his wife died.

The bishop gave me permission on pastoral grounds and I baptized my patient who was by this time a friend. Then I gave communion to him and his wife, who had not received the sacrament since she, a Roman Catholic, had married Charlie, a divorced man. Once the rites were over, Sue said to her husband, “Now I will see you in heaven.” She died within weeks; Charlie died in 6 months.

In today's passage from Romans 10, we are told, “...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That's rather straightforward. And there's no mention of baptism. Does that mean Christians needn't get baptized?

The Rt. Rev'd N.T. Wright complained that when you do theology, people expect you to say everything every time. The absence of a mention of baptism here doesn't mean that Paul thinks it unnecessary. In Romans 6:3 & 4, just a few chapters before today's passage, Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” So in today's passage there is no significance to Paul not saying anything about baptism; he just doesn't mention it at this point, having dealt with it earlier. He is at the moment dealing with proclaiming the good news.

Baptism was originally a Jewish rite. It was undergone primarily by Gentiles converting to Judaism and represented their rebirth into a new life. Their previous life was considered that of a different person. The remarkable thing is that when John started baptizing people who were already Jews, people came forward to let him. They recognized that they were so far from God that they needed to start over as Jews.

Paul is obviously picking up on that but with a twist. Baptism, which literally means “immersion” in Greek, and which at that time meant you were bodily immersed into a river, of necessity involved not breathing while underwater. And Paul connects it with Jesus' period of not breathing, his death. Jesus' subsequent rising from the dead parallels the believer rising out of the water. In baptism one dies to one's old life and is born to a new life lived in Christ.

Though the mode of baptism has changed, due to Christianity being legalized, so that Christians could build and meet in special dedicated buildings, and due to those churches being built in places where there wasn't always a handy river, such as urban locations, and due to the need to accommodate children and infants, the meaning is the same: it is about spiritual rebirth. It's about switching from a life lived according to the dictates of mere human nature to a life lived by following the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

And it should be accompanied by a basic understanding of what is going on, hence what Paul is saying in Romans 10. Because baptism is not about spiritual rebirth in the modern sense of a vague realization about life or love; it is about rebirth through Jesus Christ. So Paul says that “Jesus is Lord.” The Jews, seeking to avoid using the name of God and accidentally profaning it, substituted the word "Lord" instead. So Paul is saying that Jesus is our God, the rhyme and reason for existence, in whose image we were created, who loved us enough to become one of us, who loved us enough to die for us, whose resurrection assures us that he will do the same for us, whose commands are to love God, our neighbor, even our enemies.

There's a lot more theology I could cover here but today I'm not baptizing a patient, parishioner or prisoner. I'm baptizing my granddaughter Zoe. And I have personal as well as theological reasons for wishing to see her baptized.

When you are baptized you become a member of the body of Christ, a citizen of the Kingdom of God. It is a rite of entrance. It makes you a part of a family that covers the globe. I read about a man who was a Star Trek fan, who found himself stranded on a train platform in Japan. He suspected he had gotten off at the wrong stop but didn't know the language. Then he saw a Japanese boy wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a saying in Klingon. The man knew Klingon and found that the boy did too and he helped him find the right stop. When you are a follower of Jesus you are kin to Christians all over the world, the majority of whom are good people who practice kindness everyday, who never makes the news the way that those saying and doing hurtful things do. But they should. They feed the poor, house the homeless, work for justice and peace. I want Zoe to be a part of that.

Besides the spiritual benefits that trusting and following Jesus gives you, science tells us that there are considerable benefits that you receive in this life. People who go to church weekly (the only way scientists can measure religious devotion) tend to have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, and live longer than those who don't attend church at all or who attend only sporadically. They tend to drink less, smoke less, use fewer recreational drugs and are less sexually promiscuous. They have better mental health and have less stress. Kids who attend church regularly are less likely to divorce later in life, tend to do better in college, and are less likely to get involved in juvenile crime, violent crime and domestic violence. They show higher levels of self-control, self-esteem and coping skills, have lower rates of depression, suicide and suicidal ideation, and have higher recovery rates from addiction to alcohol and drugs. If all it takes is an hour or 2 a week to have these effects, I want that for my granddaughter.

Scientists, loathe to attribute this to anything specifically religious, tend to put these benefits down to being part of a social group. But I doubt the social benefits of weekly attendance at a poker game or swingers' party would have all the same results. I think it is odd to ignore the effects of the content of the faith. I would think the weekly reminders of God's love and faithfulness, of his never leaving or forsaking the believer, of his help in adversity, of his self-sacrifice for us, of our duty to treat others as we would like to be treated, to see and serve Jesus in others, especially the unfortunate, would have an effect on the thinking and behavior of those who attend. Why is it that people only think bad stuff taught at some churches affects members' behaviors and but not the good stuff taught at most churches? We know from studies that cheating drops in test taking when people are briefly reminded of God or an ethical code first. It stands to reason that weekly or more frequent reminders of such things would also alter behavior positively. I want my granddaughter to believe in a loving God and in loving others.

A recent study has found that those with a purpose to their life live 15 years longer than those who do not. I want my granddaughter to have a life with purpose, not to drift through life distracted by ephemera, or attracted to things that seem fun but ultimately are empty. I want her to know that God has a purpose for her, that her talents and gifts were given her to make the world a better place and people better off for her being here.

Studies show that people who think that God is loving and close to them were healthier mentally. It had a bigger effect than the quality of one's relationships with other people.
When the Rt. Rev'd. N.T. Wright was chaplain at Cambridge he was used to students telling him that they didn't believe in God. To which Wright would reply, “And just what kind of god don't you believe in?” Those who recovered quickly would say something like, “You know, the mean, angry god who doesn't want anyone to enjoy themselves.” And Wright would say, “Well, I don't believe in that god either. I believe in the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ.”

And that's the God I want my granddaughter to believe in. I want her to know that the God who is love created her in his image and that she is invited into that divine love to live as his child forever. I want her to know Jesus, God Incarnate, who healed the sick, fed the hungry, touched the untouchables, welcomed the outcast, preached God's good news, spoke the truth to those in power, went to the cross rather than renounce that truth, rose to give us hope and who now works through his followers to restore the world to what God created it to be. I want her to know that God's Spirit lives within her, guiding her, giving her access to God, equipping her with gifts and abilities to serve God and to share with and help others, producing in her love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

I want to give her that foundation on which to build a life, a full life physically, mentally, intellectually, and spiritually. A lot of people today don't take their children to church, saying they want them to choose a religion for themselves. That's like saying you want your child to play an instrument but never presenting them with one or getting them music lessons. How are they to make a choice if they are never exposed to the things from which they are to choose? And it's not like everyone who ever took piano was chained to it forever or unable to switch to the horn or violin. But as they say, not to choose is to make a choice. And I want my granddaughter to be given a choice to follow the God of love and forgiveness and restoration.

And it begins here. When we baptize Zoe we are welcoming her into the kingdom of God, into the body of Christ, into the life of the Spirit. And because she doesn't understand what that means anymore than a newborn understands what it means to be a citizen of the United States, we are committing ourselves to teaching and showing her. And it will be good for her and for us. Because you never learn something as well as you do when you need to teach it to others. And as she grows in the faith, we shall too. As she learns who God created her to be, we will too. As she discovers and develops her gifts, we will encourage her and be encouraged to do the same with the gifts the Spirit has given us.

The birth of a child leads parents to rediscover the joys of everyday life and the wonders of the world which they had been taking for granted. Life is the first gift, the one that is necessary in order to enjoy all the rest. Just so, a child's rebirth into the life of the Spirit should lead to a rediscovery on our part of the riches we have in God through Jesus Christ. It's a treasure trove that today we share with Zoe through water and the Word. To the unspiritual, we look as if we are merely pouring a common element on someone's head and saying things that do not make sense in a purely material world. But through the Spirit we see another dimension to what is happening here. The water is giving what we are doing form and the Word giving it significance and power. The physical and the spiritual are coming together to mark this child as more than mere animal, more than a temporary arrangement of atoms and DNA. She is being marked as a resident of a more permanent realm, as God's child, as Christ's own, and as a temple of the Holy Spirit. We are privileged to be witnesses and participants of this act of holy love and to pledge ourselves to continue in this good work with God's help.   

Monday, August 4, 2014

Help My Unbelief

A few weeks ago we were talking about the danger of always breaking complex ideas and perceptions about reality into just 2 categories. Part of the reason for that caution is because there may be a third category or more. For instance, a virtue usually exists between two vices, such as courage which lies between cowardice and heedlessness. Or there may be crucial subcategories that need to be acknowledged. One of the reasons cancer is so hard to cure is that there are several cancers and what works on lung cancer may not be effective against pancreatic cancer. Then there may be a spectrum. Or things may change and transform from one category to another, as H2O does as it goes from solid to liquid to gas. Some things are combinations. Human beings are both physical beings and spiritual beings. And some things exist as a paradox. Light behaves as both a particle and as a wave.

Our sermon suggestion bids us look at an important paradox. The slip of paper simply says, “Mark 9:24.” But to grasp the significance of this verse we must read it in context.

Jesus comes down off the mountain after the Transfiguration to find a crowd of people and within that crowd his disciples arguing with some experts in the Jewish law called scribes. Jesus asks a scribe what they are discussing and a man in the crowd says that it is his son. The boy is mute and has seizures. This has led to some harrowing experiences when the boy has fallen into cooking fires or into the water. Plus the boy is wasting away. The father took his son to Jesus' disciples but hey couldn't cure him.

To this Jesus exclaims, “O faithless generation! How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear you?” After this frustrated outburst, Jesus turns to the matter at hand and says, “Bring him to me.” At the sight of Jesus the boy has another convulsion. As he writhes on the ground, foaming at the mouth, Jesus asks how long the boy has suffered from this. The father answers that he has been like this from childhood. He then says to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” To which Jesus retorts, “'If you can!' All things are possible for the one who believes.” And in Mark 9:24 it says, “And immediately the the child's father cried out, 'I do believe; help my unbelief!'”

How can the father both believe and not believe? There are a few different ways that it's possible and we will explore each.

Remember that Jesus asks a scribe what they are discussing and a man answers. It could be that this father was a scribe. If so, he has spent his whole professional life copying and studying the scriptures. Perhaps his belief is largely theoretical. He has read what was written by Moses and the prophets. He has read of all that God has done for his people in the past. He knows all the evidence and arguments for God. But in his sheltered life he has never really had occasion to call on God for anything extraordinary until his son got sick. And that was when he realized that his faith did not extend to real life. He prayed for his son and nothing happened. He no doubt had his friends and co-workers pray for his child and to no avail. He has just met with a similar failure with Jesus' disciples. His faith has all been theory. It existed on paper. It faltered when faced with the harsh truths of life.

We have all experienced this at times. We read in the Bible of the events experienced by Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets and they ring true in that time. But when we turn to everyday life we have trouble seeing how that kind of faith fits in with our experiences. There is a disconnect. Armed with the power of God, Moses went up against hardhearted Pharaoh; we, on the other hand, have some problems with our boss. Elijah faced off against 450 prophets of Baal in a life or death contest; we occasionally have run-ins with the office skeptic. At a time when there was no alternative avenue for a cure Jesus healed the sick; we say prayers for a friend who is undergoing cutting edge medical treatment. It's easy to read the Bible and go “That was then; this is now.” Our Biblical faith can be primarily theoretical and when faced with modern situations we find them hard to reconcile with our ancient faith. We find ourselves doubting God is up to dealing with them, the way one wonders if Grandpa, who did a great job in World War 2, will be able to master a new smartphone. Of course, this is absurd. God, who exists throughout eternity and is the source of all truth, understands the challenges of today as he did those of the past and as he does those of the future. But irrationally, we find ourselves unable to totally trust this insight.

One key constant in time is change. Another is that while external factors change, the core psychology of humans does not. Thus we see in the Bible the Israelites looking at the fearsome innovation of the chariot the same way we dread the drone. The other constant is God's character. He remains loving, just, merciful and faithful. He gives us our daily bread, even if today it has 12 grains and is vitamin fortified. God can deal with whatever life, even modern life, throws at us. And if we look at underlying emotional and spiritual situations of the folks in the Bible we will find a kinship there that shows how we can still trust God in analogous circumstances, however different they appear to be on the surface. In this case our unbelief is merely a failure of imagination. God still abides in our hearts and provides for our needs.

Or perhaps the man's unbelief was not a problem of extending what he learned of God from the past to his present; perhaps his problem was a matter of scale. He had no doubt prayed for things that God granted. Little things. Like the safe birth of his child. And God answered those prayers. But when he faced bigger problems, like his son's severe and chronic problems, he found himself unable to summon up the faith necessary.

We do that. We ask God for little things but hesitate to ask when dealing with bigger, hairier, scarier problems. Why? Do we not want to trouble him with so big a concern? Are we afraid he can't handle them? Or are we afraid he'll say “No”? Whichever it is, we may downsize our requests. We don't want to bite off more than God can chew. We try not to inconvenience him with the stuff which is, ironically, what matters most to us!

Now there is a kind of Biblical precedent for this. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus knows what he is facing: a day of absolute torture ending in his death. And he asks his Father to let this cup pass him by. He asks God if things can't go another way. He prays about this 3 times. And yet he concludes with “But not my will but yours be done.” Jesus knows that what has to be done is not always pleasant. He realizes that if his human desires conflict with God's plan then his desires must take a backseat. And indeed, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, all of our prayers should end with “not my will but yours be done,” at least implicitly. We cannot see the far reaching effects of God's efforts. Indeed if we could literally have whatever we wanted then there couldn't be a divine plan. We see how in Congress and our state legislature that if you try to please everyone nothing can get done. You can't make both money and serving people your top priority. One must be the deciding factor and prevail. And God's plan to redeem his people must take priority over our myriad wants and desires.

But Jesus did not water down his request. Mark tells us he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me!” He acknowledged God's power and then made his desire clearly known. Only then did he say, “But not what I want but what you want.” We needn't censor what we want from God. It's not like he doesn't read our hearts and know what is there. If we want ourselves or someone we love completely healed we should ask for it. If our relationship with him is truly one of trust, we should be open about what we want. If we really trust in his goodness, we should lay before him all that is on our minds.

But a relationship works both ways. God has a say in granting any request as well. He can, based on his love, his wisdom and on his knowledge of how everything must work together, say, “Yes” or “No” or “Not yet” or “I have something else in mind for you.” We must trust him to do what is best. But we needn't tailor our requests for what we think he will do beforehand. We can be honest.

Another possibility for what the man meant by “I do believe; help my unbelief” could be that, like all of us, his faith fluctuated with the day, the request and his mood. Perhaps when he started off that day with the idea of taking his son to Jesus, he fully trusted that the prophet from Nazareth could do it. He either went with or met up with some scribes. Given their traditional opposition to Jesus, they may have started criticizing him and whittling away at the father's faith.

Then when he arrived, Jesus was not there, having taken Peter, James and John up a mountain. The father's faith dipped lower. It may have rallied a bit when Jesus' disciples tried to heal the boy but upon their failure, his spirits sank. This wouldn't have been helped by the fact that the scribes seized on this to cast doubt on Jesus' movement and the disciples began defending him. When Jesus showed up, the man's faith picked up some. But when his boy had another seizure, the father hit bottom. His day has been a spiritual roller coaster. He is just not sure that he has the faith that Jesus asks of him.

That is also something we can identify with. We all have good days and bad; days when it is easy to trust God and days when it is hard. The events of our lives, the spiritual support of our friends or the lack thereof, disappointment, a contentious atmosphere, and/or a sudden reversal can take a toll on our ability to believe that God will be there for us. We are emotional creatures and often doubt is not much more than feeling down and discouraged. God has not changed. The main facts have not changed. Our emotional state has. Intellectually we still believe the same things but psychologically we find it hard to feel God's presence and love. Bleak thoughts creep in and the idea of giving up seems oddly seductive. Things are bad and likely to stay that way. Why bother to believe? Why make the effort when it seems futile?

That this can be a purely emotional issue, unrelated to one's actual situation, can be seen in the life of Elijah. After his triumph over the 450 prophets of Baal, where God powerfully showed his favor by igniting Elijah's water-soaked sacrifice with fire from heaven, you would think Elijah would be on Cloud Nine. But even after that demonstration of God's power, just one threat from Queen Jezebel sent the prophet fleeing to the desert. There he tells God that he is the only prophet of the Lord left in the land. God reveals that in fact there are 7000 people who are loyal to him. Elijah's pessimism was unwarranted.

Finally the problem the scribe was having might have been simply the fact that his faith was still growing. Learning to trust God is a process. Except perhaps with children, it is not an "all or nothing" proposition. We trust God with small things and as life throws bigger challenges at us we decide whether or not to trust God in those matters. At times we backtrack a little in our journey to trust God fully. And it may have been the man had not gotten to the place where he could easily trust God to completely heal his son.

Which is why he was floored when Jesus essentially said that the man's faith was crucial to his son's healing. Why? Because faith is trust. Trust is vital to making a relationship work. If he wanted Jesus to heal his son, the man had to trust Jesus. That's how it works with doctors and patients. Studies show that if you trust your doctor, you will heal faster and recover better than if you don't. And if you don't trust your doctor, you are less likely to follow his orders. Trust is often more important than the method the doctor uses to treat your disease.

It works that way with God as well. After all, trust underlies every successful relationship. You can't do much with someone you don't trust or who doesn't trust you. If we don't trust God, he won't be able to do much for us. We will not give him the free reign to do what he has to in order to transform us into new creations in Christ. How many of us would let a doctor change our personality surgically or chemically even if it was for the better? It turns out we have almost as much trouble trusting God to change us spiritually.

For the man it meant changing his whole outlook on Jesus. Along with the Pharisees, the scribes were Jesus' biggest critics. If Jesus didn't heal his son, this man could just continue his life, staying on the good side of the scribes. Nothing would have changed. But if Jesus healed his son, he would have to side with this man who was roundly denounced by the religious authorities. The man born blind whom Jesus healed was excommunicated from his synagogue. This father could side with Jesus but that would mean separating himself from his rabbi, his synagogue, the people in his town. If he was a scribe, he could really get into trouble for following Jesus. I believe he sincerely wanted his child healed but he couldn't have been so naïve as to think having Jesus do it wouldn't have major consequences for him as a member of his religious community and even for his employment. He would have to trust Jesus an awful lot to pay this price.

Jesus does heal the boy, though not without a scary moment where the child gives one last convulsion and lies still as death. What was the state of the man's faith between that moment and the one where Jesus took the boy's hand and helped him stand up again?

God likes honesty. He sides with complaining Job over the “comforters” who lied in their defense of God. Jesus picks bluntly outspoken Peter rather than a more obsequious follower. And Jesus heals the son of the man who frankly admits his insufficient faith. And we should also confess to God any ambivalence in how we think and feel when we talk to him in prayer. It's not like God doesn't know what's in our hearts and minds. When confronted with situations that test our faith, we can be honest to God about the painfully paradoxical state of our faith even as we boldly ask him for something.

And we can take heart at the fact that God granted the prayer of this less than heroically trusting father. We are none of us perfect and we get in the most trouble when we pretend that we are. Often if it is when we acknowledge our weakness and imperfection that God can use us the most. Because there is no hypocrisy for him to contend with, no insistence that we know best and should be in control. We can step aside and let God work in us and through us.

Contrary to what the world says, faith in oneself is not the most important thing you need in life. Self-confidence does not ensure competence and often it's people who really believe in themselves do the most damage—to the world, to those around them and to themselves. Say what you will about Hitler, Stalin, or Saddam Hussein; they did not lack belief in themselves.

Faith in God, trusting his goodness and his love for us, will accomplish more. We just have to be honest with ourselves and with him, bold in our asking and then let him do what he wants with us. Even a tiny bit of faith can move mountains. Sometimes all we need is to give God a toehold, a place to start. All we need to do is trust him enough to open the door to our heart to him. And then stand back.