Sunday, September 21, 2014

Plot Twist

We are such huge consumers of stories and so familiar with every basic plot and trope that it is rare for a movie or TV episode to turn out exactly as one would think from watching its beginning. If it did we would be bored. So now everything has a plot twist. That person you thought was a good guy? Wrong! He's a bad guy. That secret gizmo everyone is trying to get their hands on? It's a red herring; there's another secret scheme being played out instead. That event we were told could never happen? Well, it's happening right now!

You expect it from Doctor Who, where the time traveler can meet someone for the first time, although from their point of view they've met him before. And that person can be his assassin, his wife, his current companion's baby or all 3. But now all shows are doing it—even if it makes no sense. As long as it's unexpected, they will do it. They want to surprise us. They want to keep us guessing. But my wife and son are usually one step ahead of them.

The Bible has been around so long and we have heard its stories so often that we forget that it too has plot twists. In today's reading from Jonah, we see a few of them. Jonah, though a prophet, did not want to preach to Nineveh. Because he didn't want to warn them of their doom? No, but because he was afraid they would repent. He knew that, despite the fact that they were foreigners and enemies and worshipers of other gods, there was the possibility that they might take him seriously when he pronounces the terrible judgment coming from Israel's God. Which they do. Then Jonah grimly sets up camp outside the city, hoping to see it consumed in fire and brimstone. Instead a bush grows up which gives him shade from the brutal Middle-Eastern sun. Then it dies and Jonah is on the verge of heat stroke. Plus Nineveh still stands. Jonah asks God to let him die. “Why?” asks God. Because Jonah knew God was gracious and merciful and way too prone to forgive people when they repented. Jonah wanted Nineveh obliterated! God then contrasts Jonah's grief over the death of the bush with his concern over the potential deaths of 120,000 pagans, who didn't know right from wrong. And also their animals.

Imagine how this struck the original audience. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which had defeated the northern kingdom of Israel and taken them into exile. And unlike what happened with the Judeans 200 years later, this was an exile from which those Israelites would never return. They are the 10 lost tribes of Israel you hear about. So Nineveh was like Nazi Berlin. And God wants Jonah to preach there. No wonder the prophet went AWOL. No wonder he wanted those people to get their just desserts. And so would the Jews listening to this story. They too might be shocked that God would forgive their enemies. Whose side is he on anyway?

God is too merciful in a lot of people's minds. The Westboro Baptist Church can't wait for God to sweep everyone—except them—into hell. On their website, among the statistics they list, like how many pickets they have held and how many cities they have picketed in, is a countdown of how many people have been cast into hell since you downloaded their page! They tellingly give the number of people saved from the flood in Noah's ark (8—tiny number, just like the church which consists almost entirely of Fred Phelps' family) as well as their estimate of how many people drowned back in prehistory (16 billion or more than twice the world's current population. No source for this enormous figure is given.) They also list 0 as the number of nanoseconds sleep they will lose over “your opinions and feeeeellllliiiiings!” (Their spelling.) I wonder how they interpret God's speech to Jonah? Would they, like Jonah, feel God is just not wrathful enough for their tastes? Do they realize that their theology says more about them than it does about God?

Human beings tend to believe that the only good enemy is a dead enemy. But God says that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but instead in their turning to him and living. (Ezekiel 18:23) God's preferred method is turning enemies into friends. That's a plot twist I wish the growing number of shows and movies that include God as a character, even if not shown, would employ. Usually such films are about apocalyptic battles between good and evil and no quarter is given by either side. God is depicted as much more interested in punishing evil people than in redeeming them. Rarely is the idea of forgiveness by God broached, much less demonstrated.

One of the semi-exceptions is the recent Seth Rogan comedy This Is The End. This Not Safe For Church movie has Rogan and his actor friends portraying shallow Hollywood versions of themselves who are facing the end of the world as envisioned by some evangelicals. Good people are raptured first and the half dozen stars holed up in James Franco's mansion mostly die in gross and sometimes hilarious ways. But those who sacrifice themselves for others are belatedly raptured. However it has to be sincere and not calculated. Franco lets his friends escape by offering himself to the cannibalistic hordes chasing them. They attack him and he begins to be raptured. Then Franco gloatingly flips off the cannibals and just like that, the heavenly tractor beam fades and he falls into the eager hands and teeth of the mob. Even though the characters at one point consult the Bible and read that they must accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, no one does this and this isn't a biblically accurate film. But the fact that forgiveness and salvation are even depicted, however imperfectly, surprised me.

God is surprising, though. He makes the world a paradise but he allows us to make our own moral choices despite the risk that we will ruin things. And when we do, he doesn't wash his hands of us but promises to redeem us. And he doesn't pick a powerful or numerous people for his plan but the offspring of a nomadic shepherd. And when his people are enslaved, he doesn't send a warrior but a spokesmen to lead them into freedom.

When his people demand a king, he gives them one but still holds him responsible for his own behavior. This is surprising because usually religion's function in society is to bless the status quo. But God starts a whole network of critics of society called the prophets. And when his people don't heed them, he lets other nations defeat them and take them into exile. But he brings them back after 70 years and tells them to rebuild. And he promises them a Messiah, a prophet, priest and king anointed by God's Spirit who will deliver his people from their worst enemy.

When his people essentially invite the Romans into their country, and then find them taking over and becoming their oppressors, God sends his Messiah. However he doesn't send a warrior as his people expected but a healer and teacher. And when the inevitable confrontation comes between the Messiah and his enemies, the blood shed is his. This is how he delivers us from our worst enemy: our own sin.

I remember when I realized that the cross was a major plot twist. I was 10 and my family went to see the major motion picture epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told. We hadn't gone to church in ages and I was surprised and horrified when Jesus was crucified. This wasn't a typical Hollywood ending. The good guy doesn't die. How could this happen?

In that, I was in line with the original disciples. They also were surprised by Jesus' execution. This wasn't how God's Anointed King was supposed to end up. And it shattered them. They huddled in a room, behind a door locked lest the authorities come for them. They were in despair.

But God had yet another plot twist for them. Jesus the Messiah wouldn't stay dead. God raised him up and he bypassed the locked door to reveal that God had a totally different mission for Jesus than his disciples thought. And it's not like Jesus didn't tell them about it. It was just so radical they couldn't accept it. Now that it was an undeniable fact they cautiously took it in. But it took Jesus 40 days to teach them what it all means and what the next step was.

And it was not to spread the word of the kingdom of God by the sword, as other kingdoms had done. It was not to pretend that Jesus had been a success as the world gauged success. It was not to promise people a good and prosperous life if they followed Jesus' principles. It was to simply tell the story of what God had done in Jesus' life, death and resurrection. And it was to tell others that living a life of trusting God and following Jesus, even to a death like his, was worth it. And they called it, unironically, the Good News or Gospel.

And the surprising thing is: people were attracted to it. They saw in Christ's teaching a deep wisdom the world couldn't grasp. They saw in his life and actions the grace they longed for. They saw in his death the love of God. They saw in his resurrection a triumph that does not consist in dealing out death to others. And they saw in the Spirit a power that was unlike that the world wielded. Instead of a power that enslaved, they experienced a power that freed them from the limitations the world imposed. There was no Greek or Jew,  no slave or free, no male or female in Christ but a unity born of God's love and justice.

So what happened? Today's church is not a place people look to for surprises. They see the same squabbles, the same power plays, the same greed, the same lust, the same rage, the same arrogance in it that they see in the world. They see the same sins that Jesus was supposed to free us from. We are supposed to be carrying on his mission but we have become just like every other organization. We have become the worst kind of sequel: Highlander 2, where all that was good and unique about the original is undone.

We need a reboot. We need to recapture the Spirit of Jesus. Or rather we need to be recaptured by him. We need to really renounce ourselves, our fears and desires and agendas, and take up our crosses and walk in his ways. We need to stop sowing hatred and start showing Christ-like love. We need to stop sowing discord and start showing unity. We need to stop injuring and start offering forgiveness and healing. Only then will we be able to turn doubt to faith, despair to hope, sadness to joy and darkness to light.

The world doesn't really like light. It reveals its flaws, its sins, its lies, its hypocrisies. Explosions it likes. They look cool and they destroy what we really don't want to deal with. Most Hollywood movies end with explosions and the hero walking away from the flaming destruction he has wrought. Then the screen goes black. No surprise there.

In 1 John 1:5 it says, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” The story of the Bible begins with God saying, “Let there be light” and it ends in a gleaming city of gold, of which it says, “The city has no need for the sun, neither of the moon, to shine for the very glory of God illuminated it, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:23) Paul said, “You are all children of the light and children of the day.” (1 Thessalonians 5:5) The story of the Bible is the triumph of the light over darkness.

Which leads me to the blessing at the end of the Eucharist we celebrated at the Lutheran Clergy Retreat this week. A shell of consecrated oil was given to the bishop. He turned to the person on his left and anointed him and gave him the shell and that person turned to the person next to him and anointed her and so on. And as we were were anointed we were told something that we in turn passed on the person we anointed. And I want to pass it on to you. It's surprisingly simple and surprisingly profound. And it's this: 

“Christ is light; 
you are light; 
be light to the world.” 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Do the Right Thing

In Spike Lee's incisive film Do the Right Thing, we see how a hot day, people's individual problems, and racial tensions blossom into the death of a black man, destruction of a local business and a full blown riot. At one point, a kindly drunk called Da Mayor tells Mookie, a black pizza delivery man who's in the middle of all this, to “do the right thing.” But he does not further elucidate precisely what that means. And audiences are left to judge if Mookie, or indeed anyone in the film, does the right thing.

When Jesus was asked to identify the greatest commandment, he said, “Love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and and with all your strength.” And then he adds, “The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30, 31) In the parallel passage in Matthew, Jesus adds, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:40) And indeed that seems to cover it all. But what precisely does that mean in different situations and contexts? Does that mean ignoring the sins of others because you love them? Or does it mean telling them where they are wrong? And if they continually wrong you but each time come back and say they are sorry, isn't there a point at which you are enabling their bad behavior?

If those two commandments cover it all, it still would be helpful to see what the loving things to do is in tricky and emotionally-charged situations. And that's exactly what we see in the 3 Track 2 readings for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost.

In Genesis 50:15-21, Jacob has died and his sons are afraid that without his presence, their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery, will finally get his revenge. They tell him that their father's last words were for Joseph to forgive them. At this Joseph begins to weep. So do his fearful brothers, throwing themselves at his feet and saying they are his slaves. “But Joseph said to them, 'Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.'” Joseph had every right to get back at them. Because they didn't like the implications of his dreams, and his being their father's favorite, they had intended to kill him. Their brother Reuben talked them out of murder and so they merely sold him into slavery. That's still pretty harsh. And now  as second-in-command in Egypt, Joseph has all the power. Power tends to corrupt because if you can do something, it's really hard to convince yourself you shouldn't. Statistics show that handsome or beautiful people are more likely to stray sexually. Why? Because they can. Wealthy corporations get federal subsidies even though they don't need them to get rich, only to get richer. Why? Because they can. Why do the powerful take advantage of the powerless? Because they can.

Just because they are his brothers, it doesn't mean that Joseph can't be angry with them. Often the people we get most angry with are our family members. Their habits and flaws loom large because we are in so much contact with them day by day. Plus we know how to push their buttons and they know how to push ours. A quarter of all murder victims are killed by someone in their family. And Joseph can do this legally!

But through his faith in God, Joseph can see the big picture. If he hadn't been sold into slavery, he never would have come into Potiphar's house. If Potiphar's wife hadn't accused him of rape, he wouldn't have been thrown into prison, and a higher class prison at that. If he hadn't been put in that prison, he wouldn't have met the Pharaoh's cupbearer. If he hadn't met the cupbearer and interpreted his dream, he wouldn't have been remembered by the cupbearer when Pharaoh had a bad dream. If he hadn't been brought in to interpret Pharaoh's dream, he wouldn't have been put in charge of managing food supplies for the famine the dream predicted. And if he hadn't been put in charge, thousands would have starved and he never would have see his father and brothers again.

I often cite the story of Joseph to the inmates I counsel. The story teaches us hope. It teaches us that even what looks like misfortune can be used by God to ultimately help and save people. But it also teaches forgiveness. Joseph had a legitimate reason to be angry with his brothers. He had the power to exact his revenge on them. But he forgave them instead.

Joseph forgave a lot. But what about when it's not so much the size of the wrongs but the number of them. How often to forgive is the point of Matthew 18:21-35. Peter asks how many times he's expected to forgive someone who sins against him. He generously volunteers 7 times. Jesus ups the ante to 77 times. Obviously he is not giving a figure after which we are free to be unforgiving. Some translations render it 70 times 7. Jesus is basically saying not to hold grudges, to simply keep forgiving people. That's sounds nuts to us. Isn't he enabling the sinner?

This is where the parable about the king and his slaves comes in. The first slave owes his master the ludicrous amount of 10,000 talents, probably more than the king's income for a year and more than all the coinage in Egypt. It would be the equivalent of a worker's wages for 100 million days, an impossible amount according to the IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, to which I am indebted to these figures. Jesus is, once again, speaking in hyberbole for effect. After the slave begs for time to repay, the king forgives the debt. This would be extraordinary in Jesus' time, when rulers never forgave debts, except possibly in the event of widespread crop failure. So this is an exceptionally merciful ruler.

Immediately after this, the man runs into a fellow slave who owes him the equivalent of 100 workdays' wages. The first slave grabs the second by the throat and demands immediate payment. The second slave as for time to pay off his debt, using almost the same words that the first man used before the king. But the first slave is unmoved and has his debtor thrown into prison until he can pay him back. Upset, the other slaves tell the king. He scolds the merciless man for not forgiving his fellow slave as he was forgiven. Then he hands him over to guys with hairy knuckles who will see that he pays the entire ridiculous amount.

The unmerciful slave is totally ignoring the Golden Rule, since he does not treat his coworker as he himself asked to be treated. But God expects us, if we wish to be forgiven, to be just as forgiving to others. And God forgives us a lot and does so whenever we repent and ask for his mercy. Because of the sincerity of the penitent it's not a matter of enabling but of being as merciful to him as God is to us.

You know whom, though, we find hardest to forgive? Someone who believes differently than we do about how Christians should behave regarding various non-essential rites, rituals and principles. Paul came out of a background of zealous observance of the law to the freedom we have in Christ. So he says in Romans 14:1-12 that those who were vegetarians (because most meat was sold by pagan temples after it had been presented to an idol) are weak in the faith. Apparently he feels the same about those who strictly observe the Sabbath or other Jewish holidays. We are not saved by observing the law but by God's grace through faith in Christ. And so these people's faith is not as robust as that of Christians who know the idols aren't real or who see every day as the Lord's day. 

Nevertheless, he says that neither kind of Christian should judge the other. Provided we are convinced in our own mind, it is a matter between us and God. I imagine Paul would feel the same about Christian denominations who argue over how baptism should be performed, or the exact form of the Eucharist, or whether we should worship on the 7th day or 1st day of the week, or whether you call your clergy Father or Pastor or Brother or Rev. It's not a matter of whether everybody does the same but whether we respect each person's conscience in the matter. 

We have couples in this church who I am sure don't agree on every little thing. Right now on Buzzfeed Video there is a very funny video about the little things couples argue about: how to fold towels, which way the toilet paper roll should hang, how to squeeze the toothpaste tube. Couples also can have major differences on political parties or denomination. In love, they decide to respect each other's choices in matters that do not touch on the core values of the marriage, like love and family and character and good ethical behavior. Out of love for each other, Christ's followers should follow suit.

A lot of harm has been done to the cause of spreading the gospel because of Christians fighting over non-essentials of the faith. When the world sees such things it just thinks that the Body of Christ is like any human organization: rent by disagreements over things that are not fundamental to our mission. And certainly we haven't exactly been providing them with lots of evidence to the contrary. We have denominations splitting over the proper loving response (the only kind Jesus allows) to gays. We have churches splitting over how to vote politically, somehow having gotten the idea that one party is totally in line with God's values and the other is completely opposed to what the Bible commands us to do. We have pastors and priests who cannot distinguish between what the Bible says and what their tradition says and that the second must be subordinate to the first. We squabble over the stupidest of things at times and we ignore the fact that on the night he was handed over to suffering and death, Jesus first prayed that his disciples be one even as he and the Father are one. For some reason, many Christians do not value unity to the extent our Lord does. Nor do we realize how important it is that we act toward each other in love. Because he said, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jon 13:35)

That is the mark of the Christian: love. Love that forgives great sins; love that forgives many sins; love that overcomes differences and respects other Christians' sincerely held convictions even if we think they are wrong. Let's face it: there are lots of people with lots of opinions in this world. And they constantly fight over their differing opinions, convinced they are right. What the world has in short supply are people who feel they are right and yet who can sincerely love other people who in turn think they are right and that the first group is wrong. What we lack are enough Christians, conservative and liberal, who understand that unity does not demand uniformity and that among the gifts God's Spirit gives us are different perspectives so that we can see God's world in depth. We need Christians who can say, “I think you are wrong but I know you are my sibling in Christ. And I will go to the Lord's table with you and I will work with you to spread the gospel and to help the least of Jesus' brothers and sisters. We may not agree on everything but we agree that God's son died to save us and rose to give us hope. We agree that the two great commandments are to love God with all we have and all we are and to love our neighbors as we do ourselves. We agree that we must disown ourselves, including our agendas, and pick up our crosses if we are to truly follow Jesus. And we agree that there is one body and one Spirit, just as we were called to the one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in us all. (Ephesian 4:5-6) If we can do that, we will be doing the right thing.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Body, Soul and Spirit

In a recent episode of Doctor Who, the title character finds himself confronted with a mortal enemy who has had, for all intents and purposes, a conversion. The Daleks are mutants bred to wipe out all forms of life than themselves. The particular Dalek the Doctor encounters this time has discovered beauty and a respect for life. It is also damaged and the power source of its mechanized shell is leaking radiation. When the Doctor stops the radiation, the Dalek reverts to its usual murderous self and starts killing humans. The Doctor then tries to change the Dalek back by expanding its awareness of the universe, declaring that, having saved the Dalek's life, he will now save its soul. While it's obvious he wants to make the Dalek good again, what exactly he means by “soul” is left undefined.

Something similar happens in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In that universe, when one becomes a vampire, one loses one's soul and is possessed by a demon. Buffy falls in love with Angel, a vampire whose soul was restored by gypsies in order that he may be tormented by the evil he has done over the centuries. Angel joins Buffy in the fight against other vampires, monsters and demons to atone for his misdeeds. Though the soul in this context seems to function as a conscience, we nevertheless encounter a lot of humans in the Buffyverse that have souls but are very evil. We also meet demons who are good guys. So again, the precise nature of a soul is vague.

This may merely be a reflection of the fact that our usage of the word “soul” is similarly loosely defined. According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, it can mean the immaterial aspect of all living things, the spiritual principle in humans, a person's moral and emotional nature, or a person's passion. It can be used metaphorically to mean that someone or something exemplifies a quality (ie, “he is the soul of discretion”). It can also refer to African American culture such as food or music. To understand which meaning is intended when someone uses the word “soul” you have to look at the context.

The same is true of the use of the words translated “soul” in the Bible. So in order to answer this month's sermon suggestion question, “What is the difference between the soul and the ego?” we're going to have to look at definitions and contexts of both words.

The Hebrew word for “soul,” nephesh, occurs 755 times in the Old Testament. Its basic meaning, according to the New Bible Dictionary, is “possessing life” and thus refers even to animals. It also means, in certain contexts, the “seat of physical appetite” (Deuteronomy 12:15), “the seat of emotion” (Psalm 86:4), and even the “will and moral action.” (Psalm 119:129). The soul can at times mean the individual, the self. When God breathes life into the first man, the Hebrew says “he became a living soul.” Perhaps this is what prompted George Macdonald to say, "You are a soul. You have a body." 

The Greek equivalent, psuche, is just as flexible as its Hebrew and English counterparts. It can mean life, the mind, the heart or the self. Again we figure out which meaning is intended by context.

The term “ego” also come from the Greek, where it basically means “I” or “me”. Later, Sigmund Freud used it to mean the part of the self that mediates between the urgings of our superego or conscience and our id or pure animal desires. But more often we use ego to mean “self-esteem,” or “conceit.” Someone who is egotistical is self-centered.

So what is the difference between the soul and the ego? Since they both can mean the “self”, it would seem as if there is no difference. But often in colloquial speech we use “soul” to mean the”higher or spiritual nature” and then there would be a difference. But biblically there is another word which tends to be used for that. It is the word “spirit.”

Spirit, ruah in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek, means literally “wind or breath.” It is the word for a powerful, invisible force. It can be the life force, such as when it is part of the phrase “the breath of life.” Yet while it does in those instances overlap with the usage of the word “soul,” in the Bible 78% of the time the word refers to the spirit of a human being or the Spirit of God. So usually the word “soul” means the life or identity of a physical being; “spirit” usually means the part of the human being that comes from and is connected to God, if not God's Spirit himself.

Perhaps the clearest contrast between the two is when Paul is explaining the difference between our present body and the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15. He compares our natural body, which he literally calls the “soulish body,” with our future body, which he calls the “spiritual body.” It is not a contrast of a physical body to an immaterial one but of a body ruled by its physical nature, of which the soul is the seat, as opposed to one ruled by the Spirit of God. The bodies we receive at our resurrection will have, as did Jesus', solidity and the ability to touch and be touched. They are spiritual in the sense that we will no longer be slaves to our appetites and weaknesses; we will be free to live in the Spirit without those hindrances.

There's a lot more I could go into about the body, soul and spirit but the problem is that such discussions not only seek sharp distinctions that aren't there in the Hebrew and Greek (they aren't technical languages but everyday tongues), but they also act as if these things were removable components or modules. But the Bible sees the human being as a unit. The soul or spirit is no more independent of the body than a heart and brain. Only after death can they be separated. But they belong together. And we all know that. Hence the universal horror of ghosts (spirits without bodies) and the undead (moving bodies without souls or spirits.)

We are not, as the ancient Greeks thought, spirits imprisoned in bodies or chained to corpses. We were created to be both physical and spiritual beings: amphibians, as C.S. Lewis put it. We were meant to bridge the two realms and be comfortable in either. But because we are fallen, God has sent his Son to do what we can't: reconcile the two.

Human efforts to deal with the two dimensions in which we live tend towards oversimplifying the situation. In the early church, the Gnostics painted all matter as evil and only the spirit as good. Their legacy still troubles the church. 

The modern approach is to go to the opposite extreme. It is to overemphasize the physical world and to make the spiritual, at best, merely a psychological phenomenon and at worst, an illusion. Consequently most secular people neglect their spiritual nature and don't even investigate the claims of Christianity or any religion. And considering all the scientific findings about the physical and mental health benefits of religion, this is not wise. For instance, according to the Gallup organization, the more religious the country, the lower its suicide rate. Whereas 6 of the 10 least religious countries are among the 36 countries with double digit suicide rates, none of the 10 countries with the highest percentage of Christians are among them. And if you eliminate small anomalous countries like the Vatican City, and include countries with at least 10 million Christians, then only 2 of the 10 nations with the highest percentage of Christians (Poland and Romania) have double digit suicide rates. Hope is hard to maintain without the Spirit of Christ.

On the other hand, most modern spirituality is focused inward: on our personal peace, our personal happiness, our personal well-being. Its social ethics are not particularly robust. And its relationship with God is more concerned with what he can do for us than what we should do for him. Sadly some Christian churches do this, even proclaiming that God will make all the faithful wealthy. Which must be news to Jesus who counted the hungry, the naked, the thirsty, the imprisoned and the immigrant among his brothers and sisters in the faith.

Because we are both spiritual and physical, our faith should be balanced between the two. It should not consist of trying to withdraw from the world, except for periods of prayer and reflection. It should not consist of denying normal healthy appetites, except for the occasional fast. It should not consist of harming or disfiguring the body. Our faith sees the body as a gift from God.

On the other hand, our faith should not value social approval over God's. It should not approve of any kind of overindulgence—in food, in sensation, even in exercise. Moderation in all these things—knowing what is enough and what is too much and observing that limit—is not only Christian virtue but also a lifesaver. Our faith however should not be afraid to push the body a bit beyond its comfort zone. Studies actually show that too much sitting can shorten your life. Don't let having a Lazyboy be an excuse for you to become one. Our gratitude for the gift of a body should motivate us to take care of it and to dedicate it to God's service.

Neither should we neglect the spiritual part of our makeup. Just as we should set aside time for physical exercise, we should set aside time for spiritual exercise—prayer, Bible study and meditation. Time spent speaking to, studying and thinking about God nourishes our spirits. And doing all of that with other people increases that sustenance. Numerous studies show a strong connection between regular church attendance and a host of physical and mental health benefits. This is a tremendous paradox to secular scientists, who have a hard time acknowledging that things of the spirit, which they think do not exist, should have measurable positive effects on our physical well-being. And yet the evidence says this is true. Even economists concede this, as demonstrated in a recent podcast of Freakonomics Radio entitled “Does Religion Make You Happy?”(here) (The answer, by the way, is "Yes.")

This only makes sense if we are in fact spiritual as well as physical beings. And since they are both part of us, what affects one can affect the other. An unhealthy or malnourished spirit can harm our physical health. And doing things that are unhealthy for our body can adversely impact our spiritual health.

This is not to say that the primary purpose of doing these things is for our own benefit. Recently Joel Olsteen's wife and co-pastor, Victoria, said, “When we obey God, we're not doing it for God...we're doing it for ourself. Because God takes pleasure when we're happy.” That's like saying, “when you love your spouse, you're not doing it for them; you're doing it for yourself. Because your spouse takes pleasure when you're happy.” The truth of the second part of the quote does not carry over to the first. Being happy for doing what we ought for God or someone else is a side effect, as is most happiness. Happiness is not something you can achieve by aiming for it. It's something that arises from doing other things—good work, helping others, entering an immersive experience, or appreciating others. They only make you happy if you lose yourself in them. If you constantly stop to take your emotional temperature, you will dissipate any real happiness.

We were created to love and to be loved by God. We can express that love physically—by doing good, by speaking, by singing, by writing, by making, by dancing, by storytelling, by doing a million things—even though that love itself is spiritual. Because the physical gives the spiritual form and the spiritual gives the physical meaning. That's what we can do that neither the other animals nor the angels can. Because we were created as unions of body and spirit. Lest we lose either dimension and thus our connection to God, he sent his Son to become one of us. And through him, we can regain our balance. By keeping body and soul together, we can be whole again, as he always intended us to be. We were created in the image of God, and in Jesus we see that image clearly, expressed in terms of flesh and blood, spirit and soul, time and space and humanity. And not only do we see what God is like but in Jesus we also see what we can, and one day will, be. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Sword Versus the Word

Walter Wink coined the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence.” It is the idea that in a chaotic world, you can create goodness by inflicting violence on evil. Wink traces this basic concept all the way back to the Babylonian creation myth. In it the god Marduk kills the goddess Tiamat, mother of the gods, creating the world from her corpse and humanity from the blood of her husband. Marduk does this in return for the promise that the other gods will grant him supremacy over them.

The idea that if might doesn't make right, it is nevertheless necessary to re-establish or preserve right runs through much of our fiction. From King Arthur to Batman to James Bond to Star Wars to Guardians of the Galaxy, we keep retelling the story of how the good guy won by killing the bad guy. Even Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” admits with chagrin that most of his stories do seem to reinforce the idea that violence (in the hands of “good” warriors) is the answer. Even in the episode which ends with Buffy willingly sacrificing her life to save the universe, her mentor smothers her defeated and battered enemy, Glory, on the pragmatic grounds that she remains a threat and that Buffy is too noble to do what is necessary; ie, kill her. In fact, the only season finale that doesn't end with the violent death of that year's major villain is the only one not written by Whedon. At the end of season 6, Xander, the only non-superpowered member of Buffy's friends, prevents the destruction of the world. He does this simply by interposing himself between the instrument of doom and his magic-intoxicated friend Willow, who is intent on avenging her dead lover. Xander just tells his childhood friend over and over again that he loves her unconditionally, until she comes to herself and falls sobbing into his arms. Significantly, the song which follows Willow's repentance and restoration is a haunting version of the St. Francis prayer.

In a world rife with examples that violence only begets more violence, why aren't there more stories in which love and reconciliation win out? Because it is natural to want to see the people who cause suffering suffer in return. We want no quarter offered to them. So we cheer when the good guy destroys the bad guy. And we do prefer that he be destroyed. After all, by not killing the Joker, isn't Batman responsible, in a sense, for all of that laughing villain's future victims? We never envision the bad guy changing. We never consider that maybe the hero is there to save the villain, too.

Evil can be described in several ways. For the present let's say that evil is that which harms or corrupts or misuses or neglects or destroys what is good. Notice that evil can really only be properly defined by its relationship to good, because it is a diminishing or an undoing of it. And too often we only think of good as the antagonist of evil.

Unlike evil, which is basically parasitic in nature, good can exist independently of its opposite. Good is that which creates and nurtures life, love, well-being and harmony. When it comes into contact with evil, then good manifests itself by restoring, redirecting, redeeming, rescuing, and even resurrecting. Which raises the question: when evil uses violence, should good use violence to oppose it?

Unfortunately, answering that question only leads to many more and we haven't the time to answer them all. So we will restrict ourselves to this one: is there an alternative to fighting violence with violence? The answer of the selections in today's lectionary is a resounding “Yes!”

Last week, we read the beginning of the story of the Exodus. The people of Israel are living in slavery. The pharaoh is afraid of their growing numbers and fear brings out just one response from a tyrant: suppression. In an attempt to control the Hebrew slaves, Pharaoh uses oppression and systematic murder. One who escapes his plot to kill all the male children is Moses. Born of a slave, raised by Pharaoh's daughter, Moses one day kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew. He hides the body and when found out, he flees into the desert. In today's reading (Exodus 3:1-15) we catch up with him in his new profession: shepherd. While looking for water, grazing land and predators, Moses sees something out of the ordinary—a burning bush. What is amazing is that the bush isn't consumed by the fire. It is a theophany, an appearance by God. Fire enlightens, purifies and refines and here, it doesn't destroy a living thing.

God tells Moses that he has heard the cry of his people. This is a theme that runs through the Bible, ever since God tells Cain that he can hear his slain brother's blood crying from the ground. God is ever sensitive to the outcry of the oppressed, the victims of violence. He has resolved to deliver his people from slavery and give them a land of their own. And he has chosen Moses to be his agent.

Now if this were a typical story we would be treated next to a sequence in which the hero masters various fighting skills. But God isn't choosing Moses to become a warrior or to turn the Israelites into the army Pharaoh feared. He chooses Moses to be his spokesman. He is giving Pharaoh fair warning so he will know who he is up against. God himself will deliver his people.

So God does not ask or command his people to fight for their freedom. He accomplishes that by himself. In fact, had Pharaoh let his people go, had he not decided to pit himself, god-king of Egypt, against the God who is king of the universe, the departure of the Israelites would not have been so expensive. But each time Moses asks for the release of his people, Pharaoh refuses and finds not human beings but nature in revolt against him. Each of the 10 plagues both represents and subverts a different Egyptian god, such as the Nile itself. But God does not arm or incite his people to riot.

The same can be said of the so-called battle of Armageddon in the book of Revelation. The forces of evil array themselves not against an army of Christians but against God himself. So, of course, it turns out to not really be a battle at all. And Christians are nowhere in that book or in the rest of Bible called to be combatants.

This starts in the Gospels. In Matthew 16:21-28, it helps to know that the disciples thought themselves to be lieutenants of the Messiah, a holy warrior-king who would bring about the kingdom of God by force. They believed in the myth of redemptive violence. So when Jesus talked about being killed by his earthly enemies they just couldn't believe it. Peter, who had just said Jesus was the son of God, was now telling Jesus that he's just plain wrong. He can't see how the kingdom will be established by a king who's dead. The hero wins by killing the bad guys, not by being killed. Peter can't understand what God is doing. And he won't until after Jesus' resurrection. So Peter will wield a sword at Gethsemane and he will draw blood. Aiming for a man's head, he will sever an ear. Which Jesus will heal before he goes to his trial and death.

As someone once put it, justice is getting what you deserve; mercy is not getting all you deserve; grace is getting what you don't deserve. Justice is a universally recognized virtue. Mercy is usually valued as well. But grace...not so much. We understand justice, being fair. We understand mercy, giving people a break. But why be magnanimous to be ignoble? Why show favor to the unworthy? Why bless the undeserving?

God's goodness is beyond that of human beings. And how fortunate we are that he is. He could have written us off. He could have wiped us out and started over. But God sent his Son to save us, even at the price of his life. He pours out his Spirit on us. And he expects us to emulate the same goodness he shows us.

In Romans 12:9-21 Paul is talking about how Christians should live, both among themselves and in public. It is all good advice and reasonable for the most part. But many of us would balk at the parts that tell us to “bless those who persecute you” and to give food and drink to your enemy. Surely that's going too far. But that is what Jesus did. He gave bread and wine to Judas, knowing the man would betray him. He prayed for those who were crucifying him. The point is you can't go too far when it comes to being good. It's normal to be good to those who are good to us. As Jesus said, there's no merit in that. We need to go the second mile. We need to go beyond just being nice. We need to be good even when most people would say, “Hit him back!” But we are called to turn the other cheek. We are called to leave payback in God's hands.

The world is full of righteously indignant people, who are justifiably outraged, who have a legitimate grievance, who have good reason to want to get back at the people who have wronged them. And those people, no less than their persecutors, are obstacles to peace and reconciliation. For instance, do you think the Shiites are just extra-touchy? They are an oppressed minority in all Muslim countries except Iran. And in Iraq, they were an oppressed majority. Now in that country, they are oppressors of Sunni Muslims. 

Many Jews fled to their ancient homeland in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide. The Palestinians, who had lived in that land for millennia, fled their homes during the war to establish modern Israel. Now those two oppressed people are fighting each other. Each has a legitimate beef. Neither has a realistic chance of eliminating their enemy. Neither seems inclined to forgive and forget.

People don't fight wars, don't turn their homelands into battlefields, don't strap bombs to themselves because they are a little bit miffed. They have genuine issues, which they are loathe to set aside, and thus are as intractable as their persecutors. Someone has to make the first move to reconcile the two sides. Jesus says it's us.

After all, God has a legitimate beef with us. We took the beautiful world he gave us and screwed it up, using his good gifts for evil purposes. We started fighting with, and harming, and torturing, and raping, and killing our brothers and sisters, all of whom were created in the image of God. But God took the first step. And the second and third. He has met us more than halfway. He spelled out in his Word what he expected of us. And then he provided the means for implementation. In his Son, he came to end all the violence by offering himself as a sacrifice for the whole world. “You want blood?” says God. “Here's mine. Let that be an end to it all. Now let's begin working together to clean up this mess. I'll get you started. I'll help through my Spirit in you. Let there be no more talk of vengeance and the past. Let us talk of love and our future together.”

That is the good news. That is the heart of the Word of God. And that's what he wants us to use to fight evil. At times it is tempting to fight fire with fire, to follow a scorched earth policy, to use the tools of evil to battle evil. But even if it seems justified, it just increases the evil in the world. “Do not repay anyone evil with evil,” says Paul. “Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” He who lives by the sword will die by the sword but he who lives by the Word will live forever. The word of Pharaoh, the word of all tyrants and warriors and would-be conquerors, is “No” to God's way of forgiveness and reconciliation and peace. But the Word of God is the divine “Yes!” God said, “Let there be light; let there be life.” and the divine Word of God, Christ, the agent of creation, said, “Yes” and it was so. The Word says “Love God; love one another; love even your enemies.” And we, as the Body of Christ, the embodiment of his continued presence in humanity, must answer, “Yes,” and make it so. And by faith we know that the Word will defeat the sword. Swords rust and break. But the Word is eternal. And to reflect the Word, we need to start using this triple trinity of words: “I am sorry.” “I forgive you.” “I love you.”