Sunday, October 26, 2014

Green M&Ms

When people talk about how self-indulgent rock stars are, someone usually mentions the fact that the group Van Halen had a clause in its contract that there had to be a bowl of M&Ms in the dressing room but with all the green ones removed. That's a really petty abuse of power. And what's wrong with green M&Ms? Who is that picky?

People who care about the crew and the fans, that's who. Van Halen's concerts weren't just a handful of people on stage with guitars and drums. At the height of their popularity, the light show and the sound created at their live concerts were spectacular. So the band had to set up the tons of equipment needed to pull that off. The venues they played included theatres and stadia of various vintages. So the contract they had promoters sign made sure that each venue had a stage that could handle the weight and size of their set and equipment and an electrical system that could handle the demand of lights, instruments, mic and speakers. The contract was so minutely technical that it was the size of a book. But even so, they would occasionally come to a venue where it turned out that not everything was properly prepared. So lead singer David Lee Roth came up with the idea of burying in the depths of the contract the clause about eliminating a certain color candy. If the band walked into the dressing room and saw green M&Ms, they and their roadies knew they had to double-check absolutely everything because clearly the promoters had not read all of the contract or had not read it closely enough.

This is Reformation Sunday and today we are remembering a man who saw something in the Bible a lot of people had missed. His name was Martin Luther.

Had Luther continued his studies and become a lawyer as his father wanted, we might never have heard of him. But one day a near miss lightning strike made him vow to become a monk. There he became scrupulous about observing the rules and obsessed with his own sinfulness. He spent hours in the confessional and his confessor, in frustration at Luther's endless litany of every little thing he'd done wrong, told him to go commit some sins worth confessing. Luther became a priest and eventually a Doctor in Theology. His superior sent him to teach at the new University of Wittenberg. In teaching the Bible, Luther noticed something in there most people had missed: that, contrary to what they'd been taught, Christianity is not about trying to be good enough for God to save. That's because salvation is a free gift of God's grace. We can't possibly earn it so all we can do is trust in God's unreserved, undeserved goodness towards us. Though this was only explicitly stated in a few places, like Romans and Ephesians, once you notice it, you see it everywhere in the Bible. Paul's cites Genesis 15:6 as an early example. It can also be found in Jesus' parables about forgiveness, like the Prodigal Son, and in his forgiving and healing folks without asking for anything but their trust.

In Luther's day, this was a major insight. By the time he started teaching, preaching and publishing this, the church had been around for nearly 15 centuries. It had built up quite a lot of traditions, rules and bureaucracy. It had become very similar to the religion Jesus was up against in the first century, right down to the religious leaders becoming barriers to the good news of God's love rather than carriers of it. And just as the authorities of Jesus' day plotted to kill him so did those opposing Luther. Or in Luther's case, people were forbidden to give him food or shelter. And they were told that if they killed him, they wouldn't be prosecuted.

Why such a violent reaction to such good news? For one thing, it was a new way of looking at things. And while most people are all for new things that make life better, others are skeptical. The new ways are not well understood. The old ways are familiar. Folks know how they work. The new ways threaten to displace the old ways. Worse, the new ways have side effects, some of which are foreseeable, some of which are not. And the unknown is scary. What people fear they react strongly against.

This is especially true of those in power. They are not only familiar with the old ways, they are their custodians, if not their originators. They know intimately how they work and they usually profit from that knowledge. Their position and power is based in their control of the old ways. They not only fear the unknown side effects but the easily foreseeable ones, especially if they will diminish the power and centrality of those in charge.

In Jesus' day, his primary opponents were the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees, the Herodians and of course, the Romans. The Pharisees, along with the scribes, were the custodians of the oral law, the additional rules that were supposedly deduced from the Torah. They had a stake in all the ceremonial and ritual rules they had come up with and Jesus' rather cavalier treatment of the rules of the Sabbath and ritual uncleanness threatened that. The Sadducees were the priestly party. They were normally opposed to the Pharisees precisely because they added all these rules to God's law. But Jesus' propensity to forgive people's sins, something folks should have to go to the temple and the priests for, threatened their whole reason for being. The Herodians, who supported the puppet king and his dynasty, and the Romans would be keen to stop the threat Jesus posed should he openly declare himself the Messiah, the rightful king of God's people.

In Luther's days, his opponents were, ironically, the hierarchy of the church, as well as the Holy Roman Emperor. The Roman Catholic Church, like the Pharisees, had added a lot of rules to those in the Bible. So much so that the system they had built up over the centuries constituted a major barrier to people coming to God. His love and forgiveness were swallowed up by cumbersome rules administered by a bureaucratic church. As Jesus said about the Pharisees, “They pile heavy burdens on people's shoulders and won't lift a finger to help...You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 23:4, 14, CEV)

The thing that triggered Luther's public outcry against the status quo was a deal worked out between a bishop and the pope. The bishop was buying a 3rd bishopric and the pope needed money to refurbish St. Peter's in Rome. So they came up with a scheme to make the money for both projects: selling indulgences. An indulgence was a pardon for the punishment of sins issued by the church in exchange for good deeds. Giving money to the church was the specific good deed sought. You could also get souls of relatives out of purgatory, the intermediary place the church posited for dead Christians to work off unforgiven sins. And the man they got to spearhead the project was a master salesman. Johann Tetzel was a Dominican friar whose catchphrase was “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, another soul from purgatory springs.” He said that the indulgences he was selling were so effective that you could buy your way into heaven even if you had raped the Virgin Mary!

Luther was incensed by this perversion of God's forgiveness. What makes his grace so wonderful is that it can't be earned. It is freely given by a loving Father. The only requirements are repentance and faith in God's goodness as demonstrated in Jesus' sacrifice for us. Neither the pope or anyone else had the power to bestow this on people; this comes from God and requires no intermediary other than Christ, who makes it possible. And Luther said so in his 95 Theses, or propositions to be debated, which he mailed to his bishop and nailed to the local church's door.

This of course threatened the powers that be. If people didn't need to go through priests to receive forgiveness, that diminished their centrality in the spiritual life of the average Christian. If the pope couldn't dole out the merits of the saints to help people get to heaven, that diminished his centrality in the church. But that's the point: Christ should be the center of the church and of the life of the believer. The clergy are not God's handlers, screening those who want to contact him, demanding bribes to pass on requests, but his servants, helping his people by bringing them this good news.

I have personally seen the power of the good news or gospel. I have seen it when dealing with people who were racked with guilt. I have helped people in two different nursing homes who either thought God was punishing them or who were punishing themselves over various failings, real or imagined. In each case, I asked if they had asked God to forgive them. When they said they had, I quoted 1 John 1:9--“If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I told them that Jesus had taken our punishment so they could stop punishing themselves. And in both cases it changed the person. One patient resumed eating. The other stopped crying and thanked me every time she saw me.

We all sin. We all do things we know we shouldn't. We all fall short of God's glorious intentions for us. And we need to acknowledge that. Not to admit to one's wrongdoing is like not admitting to yourself that you overeat or drink too much or have a violent temper. If you don't, you won't get help. You will live in a delusional state and might even become one of those arrogant people who denies having any flaws and consequently will never grow or improve as a person.

But those who do acknowledge their sins needn't wallow in them. When we truly turn our backs on them and confess them to God, he forgives us. He does so not because we deserve it but for Christ's sake and because he is gracious. And because it depends on God and not ourselves, we can be secure that nothing, not even our own sins, can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

I started this sermon talking about Van Halen's infamous green M&Ms, buried in their contract and often overlooked. They were not important in themselves but signified much more vital things. But while God's grace was also overlooked, it was not mentioned in only one place in the Bible. It is first mentioned in Genesis 6:8 and last mentioned in the very last verse of the last book of the Bible, Revelation. All in all, grace and its variants appear 200 times in the Bible. And it is vital in itself.

So how did grace get overlooked in the church? It became like background noise or wallpaper, so common it gets taken for granted and ignored. But it was rediscovered by Luther and suddenly everyone could see it, even the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation led to the Counter-Reformation, in which the church Luther didn't want to leave but reform finally got around to cleaning house. And in 1999 the World Lutheran Federation and the Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that said both churches now hold “a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ.” And in 2006 the World Methodist Council voted unanimously to adopt the declaration.

In Ephesians 2:8 & 9 Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it it the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” And thank God for that. Our redemption does not depend on us, on our feeble efforts to make ourselves good enough for God. It is all God's doing. All we have to do is trust him and he will change us into people who can respond to his grace and love. All this was revealed to us by and in his son Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross made it all possible, and whose resurrection gives us hope that when we see him next we will be like him, mirroring the love that created us and restores us and reconciles us to God and to each other. That is the reformation that God truly desires, not of institutions but of human beings, and not just to make us different from what we were but better, as a doctor makes one better--whole and healthy and brimming with life.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Whose Image?

Whenever people propose that eliminating religion would solve most of the world's problems, I know that they don't really understand the world or people very well. Religion generates such intense emotions because it is about ultimate values, as Paul Tillich pointed out. Even if you could somehow quash humanity's natural inclination to believe in a god or gods, you would still have that other repository of ultimate values: politics. In the last century a number of countries tried eliminating God and creating earthly paradises. These countries, all communist, proceeded to demonstrate just how bad purely secular nations were at not persecuting or killing people for ideological reasons. It turns out that, when they removed whatever restraint religion provides, these countries managed to kill tens of millions more people in 1 century than could be attributed to so-called Christians in 20 centuries.

In fact a large percentage of the deaths and misery caused by Christianity can more accurately be attributed to the manipulation of religion for political or economic or personal reasons. The First Crusade was proposed by Pope Urban II in order to restore access to holy sites in the Middle East for Western pilgrims. He was also hoping to channel the militaristic impulses of “Christian” princes into more beneficial actions. But the nobles involved used it to gain lands for themselves in Palestine. Subsequent crusades were used by Venice to sack Constantinople, a trading rival and also a Christian city. Anti-Semites used the People's Crusade as an excuse to massacre Jews. In the Fifth Crusade Christians allied with one faction of Muslims against another faction of Muslims. If anything, the crusades are more illustrative of people doing bad things for practically any reason other than ideological purity. Had the participants actually consulted any of the relevant statements by Jesus on violence, the use of swords and loving one's enemies, there never would have been any crusades.

Now it is true that for most of history, there was no separation of church and state. But far from the church controlling the state, it was much more common for the state to use the church to sanctify the status quo and the ruler. It was true in ancient Israel, where the king often had a school of tame prophets who told him what he wanted to hear. Most of the prophets whose books are part of the Old Testament were dissidents, critics of the standard operating B.S. and the monarchy. In Jesus' day things were worse. The Romans were in charge and appointed the High Priest. This explains why the religious hierarchy was worried about Jesus' popularity. They never for a minute considered that Jesus might be the Messiah or even a prophet. They were concerned about keeping their position of power and that meant protecting the status quo, even if it meant aligning with the interests of the pagan Romans against a fellow Jew whose arguments for changing the usual way of practicing their religion they couldn't refute.

Which is probably what led up to the events in today's Gospel passage (Matthew 22:15-22). While the priests were interested in not rocking the boat with the Romans, the average Jew was not happy about their occupiers' influence over Galilee and Judea. And they really hated the onerous taxes that they had to pay the Emperor for the privilege of being oppressed by him. So asking Jesus about taxes seemed like a good way to trap him. If Jesus supported the taxes, he'd lose the people's support. If he rejected the taxes, that would be enough for the Romans to arrest him. After all, 25 years earlier a Zealot from Galilee named Judas led a revolt because of the tax. He was killed. (Acts 5:37) So Jesus must choose one of 2 equally terrible options.

But Jesus knows what they are up to and asks to see a coin. And, surprisingly, they produce one. Why would that be unexpected? Because Jesus was in the temple, teaching. Roman coins, with their graven images of the emperor, who called himself the “son of God,” were considered idolatrous. That's why there were moneychangers in the temple. Jews coming to worship or to make donations were to exchange their money for temple-approved coins. And of course, the priests got a cut. The point is no one in the temple should have pagan money on them. So by producing the Roman coin, Jesus' interrogators were showing themselves to be hypocrites.

Jesus asks whose image is on the money he's handed. And someone says, “The emperor.” To which Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's.” And I like to think he flipped the coin into the hand of the Pharisee who first asked the question.

But what exactly can we learn from Jesus' statement?

One thing is obvious. Jesus is not an anarchist. He is not anti-government. There is a place for the organizing and law-keeping and even the taxing functions of government. And this is a pagan government! By saying give to Caesar what is his, Jesus is saying, at the very least, that if you are part of the economy, you should pay the taxes. Taxes are the price of civilization. The Romans weren't perfect but they did bring centuries of peace. They linked all the major cities of the Empire with good, safe roads. They had a reliable postal system. They eliminated piracy from the Mediterranean. They did have a rule of law, at least for Roman citizens. All of these things made possible the spread of Christianity. And those benefits were paid for by taxation.

What Jesus does not deal with here are things like excessive taxation or unjust governments. But he does uphold the principle of taxes and government. And they are preferable to the anarchy we see today in failed states around the world. We also see how difficult it is to establish good government. So anyone wishing to overthrow the government or eliminate taxes will find no support in Jesus.

Or in Paul. In Romans 13, he writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God's appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment....For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants devoted to governing. Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to who respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (Romans 13:1-2, 6-7) A Christian anarchist is an oxymoron.

We in the US and in the industrialized West are privileged to live in democracies where we can change our leaders and our laws. Jesus and Paul did not. We have the constitutional freedom to worship as we wish. Jesus and Paul did not. So it says something that they supported the idea of government even as they lived in an Empire ruled by men who claimed to be gods. Of course later, when Christianity was no longer flying under the radar, this would become an issue. And when explicitly told to make sacrifices to the divine emperor, then and only then, Christians would have to defy the government.

This is where the second part of Jesus' statement comes into play. We have obligations to government but we also have obligations to God and they are more important. That's what Jesus was really emphasizing. The Pharisees were trying to get him mired in political issues but Jesus stayed on message and brought the discussion back to God.

What's really interesting is the fact that Jesus was able to use the coin to make a profound point. He asks about the image on it. If what bears the image of Caesar belongs to Caesar, then that which bears the image of God belongs to him. And that means people. We were minted, so to speak, by God for his use. Jesus is saying here that human beings' highest obligation is not to government but to God. The government is a steward, using its resources to serve its citizens but it does not own them. We owe our government our support and input but not a higher allegiance than we owe God. And when they conflict, as Peter told the Sanhedrin, we must obey God rather than men.

But that doesn't mean getting rid of everything that can conceivably be considered non- Christian by someone. Quakers, the Mennonites and the Amish do not believe in using force. If their idea of Christianity became law, it would mean disbanding the armed forces and perhaps the police. Instead, when we had the draft, we let them opt out of armed service or opt to be a medic instead.

Nor does it mean special treatment for Christians. At the jail, as the chaplain, I approve requests for religious diets. If an inmate is Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu and asks for a kosher, vegetarian or vegan diet, I contact their clergy, confirm that they are in fact a member of one of those faiths and that the diet is a requirement of their religion. But if a Christian wants a kosher or a high-protein diet, I have to turn it down, because it is personal choice and not a requirement of our faith.

Christians obeying God and not men doesn't mean using government to stop non-Christians from practicing their religions or no religion, nor does it mean forcing them to adopt Christian practices. That is one of the reasons that our constitution prohibits establishing one religion over all others. Some American colonies outlawed Baptists or Quakers from preaching; others required that people elected must belong to a particular faith or denomination. The anti-establishment clause was formulated by James Madison at the urging of Baptists to end such abuses and ensure true religious liberty for all. It is ironic that some in that tradition now wish to reverse that.

It would be too much to say Jesus was in favor of legal separation of church and state. As we said, that simply wasn't a concept back then. But it is obvious that for Jesus the kingdom of God is not dependent on any specific form of government. He lived under a regime that required no consent from the governed and offered no rights for non-Roman citizens who nevertheless were part of the empire. They killed Jesus not for threatening the government but just for disturbing the peace of mind of those in power. And they eventually did the same with his followers. “Burn a pinch of incense to the divine emperor, call him king of kings and lord of lords, renounce Jesus Christ and you're a good citizen. Refuse and we will execute you in one of a number of novel ways.”

But Jesus knew that the kingdom of God could survive that. And it has. It has outlived emperors, kings, autocrats, oligarchs, collectives, committees, courts, protectors, despots, fascists, juntas, military dictators, parliaments, theocrats, congresses and every other earthly form of government. It has endured hostile regimes and friendly ones. And the rulers that were friendly to Christianity often did more damage to the faith, usually by co-opting and corrupting it. But the kingdom of God is independent of the kingdoms of this world. Because all earthly powers are affected by sin. Read enough history and you realize that the form of government is not nearly as important as the character and capability of those who govern. An incompetent and self-serving leader is bad news for his country, whether he was elected or crowned or proclaimed. A wise and selfless leader is a blessing to his nation however he came to power. Some of the Roman emperors were not bad. Some absolute monarchs did a lot of good. Some duly elected leaders are grievous mistakes.

When I choose a doctor, I choose him or her on the basis of whether they can do the job and do it well, not on their religion. When I vote for someone, I use the same criteria. In both cases, they will not affect my position as citizen of God's kingdom. They will not stop me from functioning as a member of the Body of Christ, even if they try. Jesus told us that following him meant taking up our crosses. Opposition has not killed off Christianity. Whereas having a state or official church has led to a long-term decline in belief. Look at Europe. In fact, making the state do things like require prayer in schools or at governmental functions or put the 10 commandments in courthouses just dilutes their meaning. They become background noise. If people aren't learning about such things at church and practicing them at home, merely adding them to public events and buildings isn't going to be make up for that void. That's magical thinking. (Which makes it odd that atheists also believe in the power of these things so much that they want them eliminated.)

Ultimately it boils down to whether we acknowledge that we bear the image of God and are willing to spend our lives doing what he wants us to do. If not, we are like counterfeit coins whose apparent worth is a lie. What's ironic is that people only counterfeit what's precious. No one ever counterfeited a penny or a dollar. They go after the stuff that amounts to much more. So what phony Christians really do is show just how valuable real Christians are, whose worth comes not from themselves but from God.

Of course, if phony stuff floods the market, it hurts the image of the genuine thing. Fake Christians do discount the faith in the eyes of the general public. So we need to be authentic. We need to let the Spirit burnish the image of God in each of us and prove our mettle so people will know that when we say we follow Jesus we're the real thing. Part of that is knowing what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God and not confusing the two. We belong to God. We owe him our lives. We need to act like it. We need to act like citizens of God's eternal kingdom, regardless of who happens to be ruling our patch of earth for this moment in time. For one day, the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever. (Revelation 11:15)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Cake or Death?

To stay awake while driving home from the jail, I listen to podcasts on my Stitcher app. Usually I listen to NPR shows like Freakonomics, or Wait, Wait, Don't Tell me, or This American Life. The latter has created a spin-off series called Serial. Whereas This American Life usually presents 3 or 4 stories an episode, united by a common theme, Serial presents a long complicated story over several episodes. The pilot episode presented a doozy. In 1999, a teenage girl was killed. Her ex-boyfriend was convicted based entirely on the testimony of a friend who says he helped bury the body. The accused has always maintained his innocence and just about everybody who knew him couldn't believe he had done the crime. Inexplicably, another friend who said she was chatting with the presumed killer at the library during the time of the murder was never contacted by the defense attorney. Nor was she called to the stand to give the accused an alibi. 15 years later the reporter is trying to figure out the truth. Is the man in prison or his self-confessed accomplice lying? Why didn't the defense lawyer use the alibi provided? Why didn't the girl come forward herself? Why did she talk to the reporter and confirm her earlier story but not appear at an appeal hearing a few weeks earlier that could have reopened the case? It's an involving mystery and one so complex it will take several episodes to explore. And who knows if we will ever find out the truth.

One of the most popular forms of entertainment is the murder mystery. Every since Edgar Allen Poe created the form, authors have been churning out tales of death and detection. TV networks are brimming with shows about eccentric detectives, procedurals, updates on Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes wannabees, like Psych, The Mentalist, Bones, C.S.I. and Monk, as well as true crime shows. Why do we like these? Because at the end, they generally reveal the truth and the bad guys get punished. 

Real life is more like the case being examined in Serial. In real life 30 to 40% of homicides go unsolved. The FBI estimates that every year about 6000 people get away with murder. That's roughly 120 per state. (BTW if you want your murderer to get caught get killed in Idaho. At 3.9% they have the lowest rate of unsolved homicides.)

People get away with other violent crimes as well. Domestic violence leads to 4 million assaults on women and 3 million on men. 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are sexually abused. But only an estimated 5% of pedophiles are caught. There are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking, 5 ½ million of whom are children and 55% of whom are women and girls. Very few of the perpetrators get caught. Right now 64 countries all over the globe are involved in armed conflicts. How often are those who commit war crimes tried?

You can destroy a person's life without resorting to violence. In 2012, nearly 9 million property crimes—burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson—were reported in the U.S. Identity fraud, using someone's personal information to access money, strikes a new victim every 2 seconds. That amounts to 13 million victims in 2013. But you don't have to steal someone's goods or identity to hurt them financially. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis says of all the wealth lost in the Great Recession the average household has only regained 45%. That's why so many still feel the effects though officially the recession ended in 2010. And remember that long line of bankers tried and imprisoned for the financial chicanery that caused the economy to nearly crash? Neither do I. It is said that Bernie Madoff is the only stockbroker and financier in jail because he ripped off the rich.

You can make a person's life miserable just for who he or she is. A recent AP poll showed that 51% of Americans express explicit anti-black attitudes and 52% of non-Hispanic whites expressed anti-Latino attitudes. Religious groups are persecuted in 184 countries. Christians are persecuted in the most, in 139 countries, followed by Muslims who are persecuted in 121 countries.

Many if not most of these injustices will not be redressed during the lifetimes of their victims. Which probably explains the popularity of crimefighters and superheroes in today's popular culture. We wish we could have justice in this life and we realize it would take someone extraordinary to accomplish it.

Which brings me to the uncomfortable aspects of the parables of Jesus that we've been reading of late. Jesus is talking about how people will not simply get away with murder. In today's reading from Matthew 22:1-14, people invited to a wedding banquet a king throws for his son abuse and even kill slaves sent to invite them. “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” Last week, in the story of a vineyard owner whose tenants mistreat those sent to get his share and kill his son are dealt with similarly. Jesus' audience tells him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” And last month, Jesus spoke of a slave forgiven a colossal debt who has a fellow slave thrown into jail for a much smaller debt. Jesus says, “And in his anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would repay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from the heart.”

Whoa! What happened to Jesus, meek and mild? I personally have never understood how anyone who actually read the gospels could describe him that way. A more accurate depiction would be “Jesus, assertive and wild.” Jesus was gentle with those who needed it but could be harsh with those who needed to be confronted. He famously chased the crooked moneychangers out of the temple with an improvised whip. How do we reconcile that with Jesus, advocate of love?

Divine love naturally leads to justice. If you limit your love to yourself, or just your family or friends, or just your race or just your religion, or just your country, you can be unjust to outsiders. But if you love everyone, then you treat everyone equally well and demand that everyone treat each other in the same fashion. Since God is love, that love is manifested as justice wherever injustice arises. Since God is love, he cannot let those he loves harm one another or neglect the needs of one another.

God's basic way of dealing with injustice is the same as any good parent. You point it out to your child and expect them to change. If you read the prophets in the Bible, that's what it boils down to: here are your sins; now repent. And the reward is the same as it is with any good parent: forgiveness and a welcome back into the life of the family.

And God is very forgiving. As Jesus said to Peter, if he asks, forgive your brother 70 times 7. A whopping amount. And if we are to be that forgiving, then God is even more forgiving. We see that in the Bible. None of the patriarchs or kings or prophets or disciples are perfect. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Peter and Paul all screw up. But when they repent, when the turn from their sin and turn to God, he forgives them.

We see it in history. Bartolome de las Casas was one of the first Spanish colonists of the New World and a slave owner. He became convinced that this was a great injustice, gave up his slaves and began a long campaign to end slavery. He became the first Bishop of Chiapas and was declared Protector of the Indians.

Commander and later Captain Mitsuo Fuchida led the first wave of planes in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After World War II, he met a former flight engineer of his who had been a POW under the Americans. Not only was Fuchida surprised that the Americans did not torture their prisoners, he was astonished that they were ministered to by the daughter of missionaries who had been killed by the Japanese. That this woman, Peggy Covell, did not take revenge on the Japanese for her parents' deaths, a duty under the Bushido code, was inexplicable. He became obsessed in trying to understand such love and forgiveness. Later he read the story of an American bombadier who was captured by the Japanese and who came to God despite imprisonment and torture. Fuchida finally read the Bible and became a Christian. He spent the rest of his life telling people of how God's grace brought him to Jesus Christ.

It happens today. Joshua Milton Blahyi was an African warlord, who has confessed to killing 20,000 during the 14 year civil war in Liberia. He had performed human sacrifices since age 11 when he was made a tribal priest. He later became an adviser to then-President Samuel K. Doe. Blahyi would sacrifice children before each battle, sometimes eating their hearts. He was dubbed “General Butt Naked” because he would go into battle with only shoes and a gun because he believed he was invulnerable to bullets. Then, during one of the most brutal battles in the war, his life changed.

Blahyi says, in the middle of the fight, he saw Jesus appear to him in a bright light, rather as Paul did, telling him to repent. He laid down his weapons and left the battle. He was one of the few warlords to confess his crimes before Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Now he seeks out those he hurt, admits he is 100% guilty of what he did and asks forgiveness. Despite death threats, he preaches the love of Jesus. In a PBS documentary he said, “It's only Christianity that can help this nation, because Christianity, it is the only belief, the only faith that tell you to love your enemies, that tell you to accept and forgive the one who hurts you.”

Serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” killer, became Christians in prison. Dahmer was baptized before he was killed by another prisoner. Berkowitz has refused parole, seeing his mission field as the prison. He wrote an introduction to the Bibles I distribute in the jail. People can and do change and return God's love.

But what of those who don't, who are not moved by the love of God displayed in the incarnate, crucified and risen Lord Jesus? As C.S. Lewis said, there are those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom, ultimately, God must say, “Very well, your will be done. If you don't want any part of me, so be it.” Love can not be forced. God gave us the ability to choose so that our love would be real and not pre-programmed. But that means we can choose not to love him. And people do.

But if we want no part of God, who is the source of all good things, that means rejecting those as well. Things such as those Paul commends to us in our passage from Philippians 4:1-9—whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, whatever is is excellent and worthy of praise. God cannot, Lewis reminds us, give us good apart from himself. It's like asking for sunlight but without the involvement of the sun. It's like asking for nutrition without the components of food. It's like asking to breathe without oxygen. Not wanting anything to do with God or his gifts means going into exile.

And it is a self-imposed exile. The gates of Hell are locked from the inside, said Lewis. And we see this all the time--people who reject the love of family and friends, and withdraw from their lives and lock themselves into a lifestyle where they only have room for their ego and their misery. They build barricades out of bottles, or drugs, or meaningless sex, or money or whatever else distracts their minds and dulls their feelings. Now, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, if one ceases to exist after 70 or 80 years then the kind of person you are doesn't matter much in the long run. Your misery will end. But if you are to live forever, then the kind of person you are becoming is of paramount importance. As Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “a person wrapped up in himself makes a small package.” And over eternity, such a self-centered person becomes ever smaller, a ever-denser ball of bitterness and resentment and grievances against God and other people. He becomes like a black hole, sucking all the joy and light out of anyone and anything near them. And that's hell.

Hell is not a place; it is a state of being. It is not where anyone is going; it is what they are becoming. It is what we become when we turn our back on God's love and grace, when we neglect his good gifts or twist them into uses he never intended, when our attitude is “to hell” with anyone other than ourselves or those we think of as ours, when we make ourselves or anything other than God the center of our universe, when we want to get as far from him as we can. In which case God doesn't need to torture or punish us; we are quite good at doing it ourselves. If we keep engaging in such toxic thinking, speech and behavior, if we refuse to change, the result is one hellish existence.

But because it is a process, there is time to reverse it. It is interesting that in today's parable Jesus uses the metaphor of a wedding banquet. This was not like a modern wedding reception which runs for hours. In Jesus' day, they would run for a week at least; for a king, 2 weeks or more. (That's why the wedding Jesus was at in Cana was in danger of running out of wine.) The whole community could then find some time to come and celebrate the wedding. Which makes the people in the parable especially rude. They couldn't find one day in 2 or more weeks to come to the king's banquet.

The point is--there is always time to come to God. Every second of your life is a second chance. Despite popular eschatology, God is not going to simply cut everybody off at an arbitrary time hidden in the scriptures. This week in the Huffington Post, there was an excellent article by Zack Hunt about how he discovered that there is no “Rapture,” as popularly imagined, in the Bible. He points out that God always journeys with his people through the hard times. He doesn't magically extract them from tough times. And he talked about the selfish attitude engendered by the false idea that Christians get pulled out of the world when it needs them most and distinguishes that from the very biblical belief that Jesus will return and expects us not to be standing around waiting for lift off but to be doing what he commanded us to do. He writes, “One allows us to neglect the present world and let it crumble away while we focus on our own eternal glory. The other beckons us to participate in God's restoration of creation by loving His people and showing them how to live the life God intended until He does return to bring that work of redemption to final completion.”

The time will come when God in his wisdom wraps things up. The point is that right now he is giving us the time to get on board with his mission to heal a very sick world. What looks like God delaying in giving sinful people the justice they deserve is really his mercy in giving them time to accept the grace that none of us deserve. And our task is heralding that good news. In the parable we are those the king sends out to invite everyone we encounter “both good and bad”--Jesus' words!--to the feast.

In the movie Auntie Mame, the title character's motto is “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” And oddly enough, that's what Jesus is saying in this parable. It puts a very different spin on Eddie Izzard's question, "Cake or death?" Why choose the latter when Jesus is inviting you to enjoy the former? The kingdom of God is a big banquet with love, forgiveness, healing, joy, and peace and, according to Jesus, the kingdom is in and among us now! A lot of people don't realize the true nature of what God is offering. Perhaps they've heard a false description of what it's like. So let us spread the word with love. Let's ring the dinner bell and yell, “Come and get it!” 

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Spirit of the Law

Grammar on the internet is terrible. And punctuation is apparently an exotic concept to many. There are a few memes that have fun with that fact. One has a sentence written 2 ways to illustrate the real problem of not punctuating properly. The first sentence says, “Time to eat Grandma.” And the second goes, “Time to eat, Grandma.” Leaving out that comma makes a big difference in what you are saying.

Of course, most human beings will be able to quickly figure out what you really meant. Machines might not. If I tell our secretary to make a 250 copies of the bulletin, she would say, “Really? Don't you mean 25?” But if I accidentally type that into my computer or a copy machine, they will never question it for a minute. That's what bothers me about artificial intelligence. If you goof up an instruction it has no common sense to make it say, “Wait a minute! Do you really mean that?” It might just prepare Grandma as the main course because you forgot to add the comma.

That idea bugged legendary science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. He hated Frankenstein stories where the creation of scientists would turn on them. He reasoned that ethics would be programmed into any artificial intelligence. With his editor John Campbell, he hammered out what are now known as Asimov's 3 Laws of Robotics. The first is that a robot cannot harm or by inaction allow harm to come to a human being. The second is that a robot must obey all instructions given to it by a human being, unless it contradicted the first law. So no robot could be commanded to kill a human. The third law is that a robot must try to protect itself (it is after all an expensive piece of technology) unless that conflicted with laws 1 and 2. All in all, it is a simple and elegant ethical system.

But Asimov was too smart to think that moral conflicts would not arise for intelligent robots and most of his stories examined the gray areas and contradictory situations that they and the humans who controlled them might find themselves in. What if one human was trying to kill others? Can the robot stop a human from taking the lives of the victims without killing the murderer? The fact is that there is no ethical system that offers an obvious solution to every possible situation.

During a worship service in the women's unit at the jail, I was preaching about Jesus' famous command to respond to someone hitting you by turning the other cheek. And one inmate asked if she had to do that when being beaten by an abusive husband. It stopped me cold. I had never thought about it in that context. I don't think Jesus meant it applied in that context either. Jesus is speaking of someone who means it as an insult and who would be shamed by his victim's calm and controlled offer of the right cheek. It doesn't work if your assailant is in a fit of rage and could very well kill you but would not be likely to observe or care that your action was a moral response. Nor does it take into account that if you have children, protecting yourself is protecting them. 

In the case of the Nazis, they counted on the Jews docilely going to their deaths. Had they all resisted as they did in the Warsaw ghetto, I doubt the Third Reich would have managed to kill 6 million Jews. On the other hand nonviolent resistance did work for Gandhi and for Martin Luther King Jr. precisely because their opponents saw themselves as good Christians and were eventually shamed before the world for their immoral and violent responses to people who weren't fighting back. Turning the other cheek is a kind of spiritual judo using the opponents' morality against them. If they have no sense of morality or a very warped one or are acting in a fit of pure rage, it may not work.

This is why Jesus did not simply give us a set of rules and leave it at that. He gives to those who open their hearts to him his Spirit as well. In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul tells us that we do not serve the letter of the law but the Spirit. And that is a vital difference. We all know of people clever enough to not cross the line of the letter of the law but whose actions definitely violate the spirit of the law. Like a certain president who declared that he did not have sexual intercourse with a certain aide. Technically, he was right; it was oral sex. Morally, it was adultery however you slice it. Courts, cops and elected officials have been known to use the letter of the law to harass people. And large companies have lots of lawyers to help them exploit the omissions and ambiguities of the law. They really don't care about the intent of the law; just the actual wording and how they can creatively reinterpret it.

And some Christians do that, too. (And I'm not just talking about the Inquisition or the Crusades, where people did things in Jesus' name that not only went against the Spirit of Christ but against his explicit words.) What we have today are people who can quote scripture and then go and do something that goes against the intent of that scripture. For instance, in my marriage classes I like to take a close look at Ephesians 5. A lot of people zero in on verse 22, where Paul writes, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” Except it doesn't. Actually, the verb “submit” isn't in verse 22 but in verse 21. The whole thing is one of Paul's massive run-on sentences. The relevant phrase in Verse 21 concerns all Christians “submitting to one another.” Verse 22 literally reads, “...wives, to your husbands...” In other words, what the wives do is just an example of what all Christians should do for each other. It is not a unique command targeting only them. But then I point out that Paul goes on to say, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her...” In other words, if you are going to focus on wives submitting to their husbands, you shouldn't ignore the fact that men are supposed to love their wives to the point of self-sacrifice. So there is no pretext here for husbands to treat their wives as slaves or to abuse them. In fact, the husband has a tougher command to follow. To emphasize one command and not the other violates the spirit of the overarching command to love one another as Christ loved us.

I once saw a poster that said, “When in doubt, do the friendliest thing.” It's a good rule of the thumb. For Christians it could be restated thus: “When in doubt, do the most Christ-like thing.” Or in other words: “What would Jesus do?” There's a reason why that question is so popular whereas I've never seen the phrase, “What would the Bible say to do?” But a lot of people act like the second question is a valid alternative to the first.

The problem is that the Bible is not just a straightforward book of rules. It has history, poetry, parables, proverbs, satire and even sarcasm. Because of this and because it gives a "warts and all" portrayal of the people in it, not everything in Scripture is prescriptive; some is merely descriptive. David may have been a man after God's heart but he was a man. When he slept with Uriah's wife and then had Uriah killed in battle to cover it up, God calls David on that. Obviously we are not supposed to imitate that. Just as there are examples in the Bible of virtuous actions we should emulate, there are also examples of sinful actions we should avoid. Because God works with sinful people (are there any other kind?) sometimes the people God chooses do things he abhors.

In addition, some of the commands are clearly not valid today. We live under the new covenant instituted by Jesus, not the old covenant put in place by Moses. Nor do we live in Iron Age theocratic Israel. So we do not stone adulterers or gays or disobedient children or people who work on the Sabbath; we do not keep slaves or own women; we do not exclude the handicapped or deformed from worship. In Christ we are not under the law; we are free from it and live in the Spirit.

Like the husbands addressed in Ephesians 5, we actually live under a stricter standard: that of the Spirit of the love of God in Christ. That means we cannot neglect the needs of whomever we encounter. If we see someone hungry, we must see to it that she gets something to eat. If we see someone threadbare, we must see to it he gets some clothes. If we see someone sick we must see to it that she gets medical care. If we see someone who is a stranger in a strange land, we must see to it that he is made welcome. We must act as Jesus would and treat other people as if they were Jesus.

And sometimes we must improvise. Today we must confront problems that simply didn't exist in Jesus' day but do so while staying in character, so to speak, as members of the Body of Christ. Jesus never had to deal with the internet. But we can still figure out how he would want us to act based on the principles he espoused. Theft is still theft whether you are breaking into a person's home or hacking into their bank account. Adultery is still lust in the heart, whether you are getting suggestive in a chatroom or watching through a webcam. Jesus says calling someone a name puts you at grave spiritual risk and thus so would cyberbullying and emailing or posting death threats to an atheist or a Muslim or anyone else. Whenever you are harming or degrading a person created in the image of God (are there any other kind?), you are not living in the Spirit.

Nor can we get away with merely being polite; we must be proactive. It's great to feed the hungry or help the homeless or visit the sick when the occasion arises. But we know these things exist and we should do what we can to eliminate them or reduce the problem as much as possible. But we can't do this alone. Nor did Jesus intend us to. Jesus didn't need the help of the Twelve; they needed him. And they needed each other, so when he sent them out to preach the Good News and heal the sick, he sent them out two by two. Jesus is not a fan of Lone Ranger Christians. Possibly because without another perspective we tend to forget that we are called to think like God and start believing that God thinks just like we do. Jesus said that wherever 2 or 3 are gathered together in his name, he is in the midst of them. Maybe he based that on the Jewish legal principle of requiring 2 witnesses to an event. If two or three people are each trying to be in tune with the Spirit, each acting as a confirmation and possible corrective for each other, they are more likely to be get it right.

Thus you have churches running homeless shelters or offering soup kitchens. You have denominations sending out disaster teams and staffing clinics. And you have denominations working together on big problems. Jesus didn't explicitly tell us to set up such things but they are obviously products of the Spirit. And as long as they stay strongly connected to the guidance of the Spirit, they will continue to reflect Christ. The principal danger is not staying focused on their original mission. Too often the primary purpose of a group shifts to ensuring the continued existence of the group. And when you're focused on mere survival, you will do anything. We've seen this in secular organizations, in political parties and sadly in some churches. Sometimes they will change disastrously simply to survive in some form.

This is not to say all change is bad. Some change is necessary. When the tire is flat, you need to change the tire. But you don't get rid of the hub. You don't change the essentials. And the way to know which is which is to focus on Jesus—who he is, what he has done for us, and what our response should be—and to stay in deep contact with his Spirit. After all, Jesus changed things that were part of the old covenant—the dietary restrictions, what you could do on the Sabbath, the definition of what was unclean and who was an outcast. He drew up a new covenant where the 613 commandments in the Torah were summarized in 2. He drew up a new covenant where the badges of faith weren't special rituals so much as serving God through serving those created in his image. He drew up a covenant you entered not by cutting the flesh but through cleansing the soul and which was sustained not by eating a lamb but by feeding inwardly on the Lord.

We live in a world obsessed with externals. We need to correct that by being in touch with the one whom the world cannot see. We need to stay in communication with him by staying in contact with the Spirit of God in Christ. We need to become reflections of his love and conduits of his grace. We need to realize that people won't really get the gospel if we recite it mechanically but only if we back it up with actions done in the right Spirit.    

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Mind of Christ

I am visiting my dad who is on hospice. I left on Saturday and wrote this to be read, in a slightly modified form, by the laymen leading worship at both my churches in my absence,

At the recent Diocesan Clergy Conference Bishop Pierre Whalon, Bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, asked the priests and deacons to read and meditate upon 1 Corinthians 2:16--”But we have the mind of Christ.” This led to a wide ranging discussion of what precisely Paul meant. There were lots of views, some holding that this idea could lead to arrogance. I was reminded, though, of our New Testament lesson for today where Paul urges the Philippian church to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...” And his purpose is quite the opposite of making them arrogant.

Paul is making an appeal for unity among the church members. As The New Bible Commentary says, in verse 1, Paul gives us 4 reasons for such unity: the encouragement we find in Christ, the consolation we experience in love, the fellowship in the Spirit in which we participate, and the compassion and sympathy we get from God. But in verse 2 he mentions having the same mind and being of one mind. And the mind he is thinking about is the mind of Christ.

Paul points out that far from being conceited because he was divine, Christ did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself of all such privileges and took on the form of a slave. He humbled himself and was obedient to God's mission, even though it meant dying, and especially dying horribly on the cross. So having the true mind of Christ in us does not lead to arrogance but to humility, service and self-sacrifice.

The goal of Christianity is becoming like Christ. He is, as it says in Colossians 1:5, “the image of the invisible God.” In other words, that image in which we were created can be seen in Jesus. Of course, that image of God in us has been marred by our sin. But by letting his Spirit work in us and direct us, that image can be restored.

But God is a Trinity, 3 divine persons who are absolutely one divine being, bound by love and defined by love. Thus the image of God is seen most clearly when we are one with others, united by love. So unity is not something that is optional. It is an essential part of the image of God in us. It is, according to Jesus, how the world will know that we are his disciples.

“Disciples” is just a fancy word for “students” though it does have the sense of being voluntary students, passionately devoted to their master. Jesus was clear on how essential unity is by praying that we become one as he and his Father are one. And all Paul is doing is giving practical tips on how to keep that unity.

So being of one mind, being on the same page on essentials, is a major part of that. And since the mind Paul had in mind was Christ's, we need to steep ourselves in what he said and did when he was living as one of us. People can disagree on interpretations but if we focus on what he did and said and emulate those things, we shall be on the right track. Jesus fed the hungry; so can we. Jesus treated the sick; so can we. Jesus helped the poor; so can we. Jesus forgave; so can we. Jesus treated the outcasts of society, such as lepers and Gentiles, with fairness, mercy and love; so can we. Jesus stopped his disciples from censuring someone outside their group, who was nevertheless doing good deeds in Jesus' name; so can we. We may disagree over the meanings of some of Scripture but not what he did. And if we do what he did, his words will seem a lot less abstract and less open to wild misinterpretations. His actions, imitated by us, will provide a context for his words. It's hard to hold that Jesus didn't really mean what he said about visiting those in prison or welcoming the alien or feeding the hungry when you are face to face with them and hearing their stories and seeing how desperately they need what you can provide.

A Methodist once told me that theology divides but service unites. We all explain the relationship of the divine and human natures in Christ, the significance of the sacraments, and the mystery of the Trinity in somewhat different ways. But what Jesus commanded us to do—the many ways of demonstrating our love for God and for one another—are very clear and compelling. As an actor finds the core of the character he is playing by simply saying the words written and performing the actions he is directed to do, over and over again, we will find the mind of Christ by immersing ourselves in his words and imitating his deeds.

We also have the advantage of the indwelling Spirit. As Jesus says in John 14, the Spirit brings to mind what Jesus teaches and guides us into the truth. Christians go astray when they do not heed the Spirit. That's how people can do terrible things in the name of Christ that obviously run contrary to the Spirit of Christ. They are resisting and quenching the Spirit. Without the Spirit, we are simply trying to follow Jesus through our strength and by leaning on our own understanding. That's a recipe for failure. We need to stay connected to the Spirit if we are to have any hope of being fruitful Christians.

In Romans 13 and in Galatians 3 Paul tells us to “put on Christ.” The metaphor is that of putting on clothes. And it's a good way of looking at the process of becoming more Christlike. Let us pray everyday that we put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray that our eyes be his eyes, our ears be his ears, our hands be his hands, so that we see people as he does, hear them as he does, and touch them as he would touch them. And the Spirit will, through those experiences, shape us and bring us closer and closer to the wise and loving mind of Christ. Not only that, but as we act as Jesus would act, people will see and hear and feel him through us. And some will be drawn to him and listen to his call and enter his kingdom.