Monday, September 28, 2015

For Andrew Grzych

Well, this sucks.

It's what we are all thinking. It's what Mary and Martha were thinking in our gospel passage. You can hear the disappointment in the voices of the sisters as they talk to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here...” What's the point of knowing Jesus if it doesn't protect you from tragedies like this?

When someone is taken from us suddenly, we all do the “woulda, coulda, shouldas.” We wish we could go back in time and have done things differently. We even wish we could have controlled the actions of others, that we could have made them make different choices. But the past remains stubbornly the past.

And in one sense death is the fairest thing there is. Everybody undergoes it: rich or poor, male or female, good or bad. Death comes for us all. What seems unfair is the timing and the circumstances.

You know who felt that way? The disciples. Just a short time after the events of today's reading they are going to experience the untimely and violent death of someone they love. One Thursday they will be celebrating a big holiday feast with him and by sundown Friday he will be gone. And they will spend the rest of that day, and all of the next, and a good part of Sunday trying to make sense of it all.

You know who else thought death sucks? Jesus. I just read the shortest verse in the Bible which happens to be one of the most profound. It's John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” He is at the grave of his beloved friend Lazarus and his sisters and friends are mourning. And Jesus too begins to cry. And it's kind of odd because Jesus had to know what he was about to do. He had raised other people from the dead: the synagogue leader's daughter and the son of the widow at Nain. They weren't close friends but still, Jesus of all people knew death was not the end. And he knew that within minutes Lazarus would be back with his family and friends. So why did Jesus lose it?

I think it was seeing the impact Lazarus' death had on everyone else. And I think it triggered memories of the death of Joseph, the man who raised him. We never hear of Joseph when Jesus is an adult. We hear of Jesus' brothers and sisters and mother but not of Joseph. I presume he died. And it had to have had an effect on Jesus. The man who took him to synagogue and taught him his prayers. The man who taught him a trade. The man who stood by his mother when everyone thought she was pregnant out of wedlock. The man who loved him like a father. When he died, when Jesus first experienced loss, it must hit him hard. And seeing Mary and Martha and all their friends suffering the same thing brought old feelings back to Jesus and he wept.

So he knows how we feel today about Andrew, husband, son, son-in-law, brother, uncle, friend. Jesus knows our pain. And he knows that it can knock you for a loop, no matter how firmly you believe in Jesus and the resurrection. And so just as Jesus was affected by the mourning of his friends, he feels our grief for Andrew.

And so we enter into the paradox of grieving as Christians. We don't deny the fact of death. We don't deny its power over our emotions. We don't deny the wound it makes in our hearts. We deny its permanence. We deny that it is part of God's original plan for us. And we deny its power over our way of thinking about life.

And yet we cannot deny that we miss Andrew. And yet we know that as Christians we should be happy for him. Any suffering he had is over. And while he is not with us, he is in the best hands we could hope for, the loving hands of his heavenly Father. For we who believe, having someone die is rather like having a loved one go on a long voyage. You are happy for them because they are off on an amazing journey and a much needed rest from the trials of this life. And yet, because you will not see them again for a long time, you are sad. As King David said, our loved ones will not return to us but we will some day go to them.

We do have memories: Brittney and Andrew meeting in the first class of the first day freshmen year; the card games they played in English class Junior year when they realized they were becoming more than acquaintances; when he had this plan to ask Brittney to marry him at the Key Western restaurant and then couldn't wait and blurted out the question before they could even leave; their dream of coming to the Keys and their determination to achieve that despite the bad housing market and all the obstacles they had to overcome. Which brings to mind Andrew's inability to believe that anything was impossible. If you told him it couldn't be done, he would not stop until he proved it could. And this was particularly true when he put his hand to anything mechanical. He didn't just fix things; he made them better. We remember his other qualities: how he made friends with everyone; how he was always giving others a chance; how he was always helping people out, like the time he and Brittney were headed to Marathon and stopped to pick up a homeless man, whom Andrew insisted sit with them rather than in the bed of their truck and how he took the guy to McDonald's to get him something to eat and then gave him some cash for his needs; how he threw himself into helping out at our Vacation Bible School and how much he enjoyed working with the kids; how he loved getting out on the water and fishing.

Those memories of Andrew as the outdoorsy, friendly, loving, giving and forgiving, never-give-up kind of guy are a comfort to us and an immortality of sorts. But they are tinged with the bittersweet knowledge that no new memories will be forthcoming. This chapter on our life with him is over. And so once again happiness and sadness are entwined. We mourn.

And that's OK. It's OK to weep and mourn because Jesus did. It's just that, as Paul said, we do not mourn like those who are without hope.

And that hope sustains us. Our God is a God of hope, of second chances, of never giving up on people and never letting death have the last word. The fact is that just because this chapter is over it doesn't mean that there won't be another. Every week in the creed we say we believe in the resurrection of the dead. Because that is God's basic modus operandi. He is the God of the living. He resurrected his Son. He will resurrect those who are members of the body of his Son. He will resurrect his wounded creation and restore it to the paradise he created it to be. And he will populate it with his people, in new and improved bodies, our same software, debugged and downloaded into new hardware, as scientist and priest John Polkinghorne put it.

Our hope in Christ is living with him forever in a new creation. Not only new but better. There will be no pain, no mourning, no disease or death. We will not lose our loved ones there. That's where we will find them, safe forever. And so the only tears will be tears of joy, when we join Andrew in God's new paradise. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Obstacles to Following Jesus

The scriptures referred to are Mark 9:38-50.

Christopher Booker wrote a book in 2004 called The Seven Basic Plots in which he says all stories fall into one of these archetypes: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch also thought there were 7 basic plots but since conflict makes for drama, he saw them as fundamental conflicts: Human vs. Human, Human Vs. Nature, Human vs. God, Human vs. Society, Human vs. Himself, Human Caught in the Middle, and Man and Woman. There are other such lists of plots but they usually boil down to someone wanting something and having to deal with the obstacles to achieving it. The obstacles can be external or internal, people or physical objects or circumstances. If the protagonist overcomes the obstacles, the story usually has a happy ending. If the protagonist fails to overcome all the obstacles, the story usually has an unhappy ending.

And we tend to identify with the protagonist because a lot of our lives is spent dealing with obstacles to what we wish to achieve. When you are a small child, the obstacles are learning to walk, learning to manipulate the environment around you and learning to understand the rules for navigating that environment. As you grow up the obstacles are learning the rules of society, learning how to master school subjects, learning how to get a job, how to keep a job, how to advance in your career, how to find a mate, how to keep a mate, how to care for a child, how to care for aging parents, how to deal with your aging self. When we see a protagonist facing with obstacles we can relate to, we get emotionally invested in the story. We vicariously enjoy seeing the hero succeed.

Jesus had a lot of obstacles to overcome in his mission on earth. I have talked about the fact that he was trying to reeducate his disciples on what the Messiah was really like, rather than the holy warrior they anticipated. In today's gospel Jesus is not talking about himself but the quality of discipleship. One problem has to do with the broadness of his following and the other with the obstacles to the integrity required to follow him.

We start with a report that someone outside the group of disciples is casting out demons, that is, healing people, in Jesus' name. This has gotten back to the Twelve and John says they tried to stop the guy. And the only reason they give for trying to shut down what this person was doing is that “he was not following us.” Not that he was unsuccessful and making them look bad. Not that he was mixing in pagan elements or compromising Jesus' teachings. Apparently he was healing people and he was orthodox in his use of Jesus' name. Their objection was just that he wasn't part of their group. He wasn't one of them. The disciples saw themselves as a clique. Jesus was their exclusive property.

Jesus doesn't see it that way at all. First off, he offers a pragmatic reason not to stop this impromptu exorcist. The fellow can't very well use Jesus' name to heal people and then turn around and denigrate Jesus. He has to be one of Jesus' biggest boosters. He is an ally. Since this comes after the feeding of the 5000 and, according to John's Gospel, the mass defection of followers due to the “Eat my body and drink my blood” speech, it's not like Jesus has a ton of allies anymore. This guy still believed in Jesus and he was apparently eliciting faith in Jesus from those he healed. He is providing independent testimonials to Jesus' power over illness and evil. There is no good reason to stop him.

But more importantly Jesus wants to nip in the bud any factionalism in his movement. You can't read the gospels without noticing that there were splits in the Judaism of Jesus' day. The Sadducees were the priestly party, who believed only what was in the Torah, the first 5 books of the Hebrew scriptures. The Pharisees are zealous about observing the Law, which to them means not just the 613 commandments found in the Torah, but also various refinements and extensions and applications of those commandments to current conditions, as enumerated by rabbis since the time of the Babylonian exile. The Zealots believed that only God was the king of the Jewish people and wanted to rise up against Rome in a holy war. The Essenes were a monastic group that lived off the grid so to speak, out by the Dead Sea, waiting for the last days when God would wipe out not just Gentiles but unrighteous Jews not following their separatist ways. These were all religious Jews but they each thought the others were, if not totally wrong, at least not close enough to believing and acting as proper Jews should. Jesus didn't want those following him to break up into factions, each dismissing the other as not “Christian” enough.

Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” People who are not undermining us, who are not working against us, who are doing great things in Jesus' name, are not our enemies. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Too often we look not at what people put their trust in nor the fruits of that belief but at the differences, sometimes large but sometimes small, in the way they express our common faith in Jesus Christ, our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord and Savior. The Amish, for instance, eschew most modern conveniences and modern clothes. Pentecostals speak in tongues and roll on the floor, “slain in the Spirit,” experiencing an ecstasy most of us would not even seek. The Roman Catholics seem very foreign to fundamentalist Christians, as does this denomination I'm sure. The Eastern Orthodox make even us liturgical churches look like dabblers in our ancient worship traditions. But never doubt that devout followers of Jesus exist in every denomination. They are our siblings in Christ, however weirdly we think they dress or speak or act. Their method of walking the way of the Cross may not be your way. But the same is true for them. Your way of following Jesus is not theirs. But we can and do learn from each other, from our different emphases and varied approaches.

In fact, maybe the purpose of God allowing different denominations to emerge is that diverse approaches are needed to reach distinct people. Some people like plain worship. Some like lots of smells and bells. Some like quiet and solemn rites. Some like joyful and noisy celebrations. Some respond better to intellectual messages, some to practical ones, some to emotional appeals, and some to mystical observations. God made us different from one another; why would we assume that there is only one way to deliver his good news?

In fact, I've often wondered, as I'm sure some of you have, if worshiping God in heaven would ever get boring. But not if every group has a turn. It would be a never-ending spectacle as worshipers, choirs, musicians, dancers, and composers at the height of their creativity from every tongue, tradition, territory and time period succeed one another, offering praise in their own way, blending and counterpointing and coming together in infinite combinations. It would make Pandora sound like a bargain bin collection from K-tel and the half-time show from the Superbowl look like a grade school band recital.

Jesus said he had sheep in other folds. He also said he will bring them together when they hear the sound of his voice. (John 10:16) Notice that Jesus does not say, “Go get that guy and force him to join us.” Jesus coerces no one. But his sheep know when they hear his loving call and know that the crucial thing is to keep your eyes on the shepherd, not the strangeness of the other sheep, and to follow him wherever he goes. He knows the path better than us.

Then Jesus moves past minor differences and onto other obstacles to being his disciple. The word translated “cause to stumble” is the word from which we get the English word “scandalize.” But rather than meaning merely to “offend,” as the King James version renders it, it means to “trip up,” “trap” or “entice” to sin. I like the Holman Christian Standard Bible's translation of “cause the downfall.” Because Jesus isn't talking about a mere misstep. He is talking about causing someone to miss out on the kingdom of God. That's why he uses such hyperbolic language.

Even biblical literalists rarely take these verses to mean that Jesus was recommending amputation or eye gouging. After all, Jesus says it is what is in our hearts that defile us, not anything external. Your hands and feet and eyes don't operate independently. You direct them by what you think, from the inside outward. So what could Jesus possibly mean by using the metaphor of lopping them off or plucking them out?

People often talk about things they love by saying that they are a part of them. And if it is something which arises from the gifts they are given, like art or music, or of a charity or social concern they support, this is a good thing. But sometimes we consider things that are destructive to us or to others as an integral part of ourselves. Writers and other artists sometimes worry that if they give up alcohol or drugs, their creativity will dry up.

People can even be fond of their faults, like they are unruly pets. They can joke affectionately about their arrogance, laziness, lust, greed, rage, envy, and gluttony. Tolerating things like a penchant for deceit, a life supported by taking what is another's, or a callous unconcern for other people can move one farther and farther from God and his kingdom.

There are also things that people hold so dear that they regard them as an extension of themselves, and while they may not be morally objectionable in themselves, if they let these things take the top priority in their lives, they become a form of idolatry. These can be sports, work, political parties or positions, hobbies, sex, food, achievement, even one's country. These can get between a person and the kingdom of God if they are indulged in to excess or they are allowed to assume the central place in one's life.

It is these things—our dearest sins, the otherwise innocent things of this life that we elevate above all else—that Jesus is saying we have to cut loose. And it can feel as if we are amputating a limb or tearing out a piece of our heart. But whatever we place above God is an idol. The test is this: think of something you love and then ask if God told you to give it up, could you? If the answer is “no,” that is the chief obstacle to living a Christlike life and getting closer to God.

Perhaps the most wrenching thing to do this to is people we love. Sometimes family and friends can come between us and God. This is not true if our love of them is healthy but if it is unhealthy, if we enable bad behavior on their part or let them draw us into destructive habits or lifestyles, then they can divert us from following Jesus. It may be that they have a substance abuse problem, it may be that they have toxic habits or are involved in toxic relationships, which can suck you in. I have seen people who cannot get their own lives straightened out because it would mean a breach in a relationship with a lover or relative who is on a downward spiral. When my brother took lifesaving in Scouts, they taught him that approaching a drowning person can be tricky. If you let them grab you, rather than you getting a safe hold on them, they can drag you under. It does no one any good if two drown rather than one. You have to stay safe and look for an opportunity to help. If the person is flailing too much and grasping at everyone nearby, you may not be able to save them. And sometimes a person in your life will use your love for them, which should be a lifeline to them, as a snare to pull you into their drama, into their dysfunction, into a poisonous relationship which can mean the undoing of you both. As they say in the safety instructions every time you fly, if you are traveling with a child or a sick person or an elderly person and the plane gets in trouble, and the oxygen masks drop down, put on your mask first, before you put one on the weaker person. If not, you may pass out and ultimately be unable to help them.

Our priority must always be following Jesus. Which entails denying ourselves those things which we love more than him. And by things I mean just that: stuff other than human beings. You've probably heard the saying that we should use things and love people; our problem is that we often love things and use people. And in the case of people who draw us from God, the solution is not to love them less but to love God more. I love my granddaughter but if she is crying and I am driving, my priority is to keep my eyes on the road, not to look back or reach back to her car seat to comfort her. Or else I'll drive off the road into the mangroves or into the other lane and an oncoming car and kill us both. When I can, I'll pull over and see what is troubling her. But when I'm driving, that comes first.

Following Jesus comes first. That's why it can be excruciating. You think that Jesus wouldn't have wanted to avoid having his mother see him, bloody, naked and dying on the cross? You think a soldier would not want to spare his young wife from losing a husband and his children a father? The greater good can demand sacrifices. Many of the problems we see in the world are due, at least in part, to people not wanting to make sacrifices. They don't want to give up even the smallest part of their power or wealth or position or freedom or pleasures or reputation or their image of themselves. And because no one will give up anything, we have bigger and more intractable conflicts.

And by the common good, I mean what is good for all, not just us. One of the things that may be an obstacle to following Jesus could even be our identity as a member of our group within the worldwide church if it is keeping us from seeing and acknowledging and supporting other Christians who are not working against us but are following Jesus as well. And our identity may be so precious to us that we feel that it is a part of us. But that doesn't help if it means displacing Jesus from the center of our lives. A study found out that people whose primary focus of their faith is their religious group will be very loving towards co-religionists but not towards outsiders. Those whose faith was primarily focused on God were more benevolent towards all people, regardless of whether they shared their religion or not. The subtlest temptation is to substitute our love of those we see as God's people for the love of God himself.

Which is Jesus' point in today's gospel. We are not to be partisan in following him. Other Christians are not our rivals or competitors. They are our siblings. What we do to them or don't do to them—helping them, welcoming them, meeting their needs—we do or don't do to Jesus, according to his parable in Matthew 25. How are we going to expand our loving actions towards the world, the one God loved so much that he sent his son, if we cannot extend that love to other Christians? Indeed, how can we hope to convincingly show the people of the world God's love for them if we do not show love for others following Jesus? He who is not against us is for us. Other Christians are not obstacles but allies. And we need all the allies we can get if we are to effectively proclaim the healing and uniting love of God in Christ to those who need his grace.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Wisdom of Humility

The scriptures referred to are James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a and Mark 9:30-37.

It's coffee hour after the service and a surgeon, an engineer and a politician are talking scripture. Specifically, they are arguing which is the oldest profession.

The surgeon says, “God took a rib from Adam in order to make Eve and closed up his side. So surgery is the oldest profession.”

The engineer says, “Wait a minute. Before there were people, God took the chaos and made a beautiful, interconnected and harmonious creation. So engineering is the oldest profession.”

The politician just chuckled and said, “Who do you think made the chaos?”

We do live in a time when it seems that our leaders are more interested in tearing down institutions than in building them up, and in dividing people rather than uniting them. And we see in our politics bitter envy, selfish ambition, boastfulness and falseness rather than truth, which, as James points out, lead to disorder and wickedness of every kind. We don't see many leaders who display gentleness born of wisdom. Everybody is too busy trying to display their strength, which in their mind means trying to be more belligerent than the next guy. Because we all know how being ready to fight at the least provocation makes the world more peaceful. Nobody seems to think that strength is more accurately seen in self-control and restraint, in the kind of confidence that doesn't need to parade its machismo, that isn't afraid to display gentleness because it knows that only those who have doubts about their strength make a show of intimidating others.

Nevertheless going back to our days when we lived in nomadic tribes, we have looked for leaders who are above all strong. The tribe over the hill might attack and kill your men, take your women and enslave your children. You wanted a good fighter as a leader. You wanted a Hercules or a Samson. You wanted someone who wielded brute force. Today, however, the world is a lot more complex and interconnected. No army fights hand to hand anymore. We use weapons that kill at a distance. We have weapons that can turn entire cities into rubble, that can poison the countryside and turn the landscape into a plain of radioactive glass. You'd think that the last person we'd want to have his finger on the button is someone whose persona is that of a bully or who ramps up people's fears. You'd think we'd want leaders who are smart and wise.

The urge to be top dog is not limited to political types. Even Jesus' disciples got into arguments about who was the greatest. James and John wanted to be his right hand and left hand men. We know from Luke that on the night Jesus was betrayed the disciples had two swords. Peter wielded one. Whose was the other? James? John? Who else wanted to be seen as a badass, as a leader among the Messiah's men?

And yet when Jesus calls them out, nobody wants to speak up on the matter. They all sense that Jesus is not the kind of leader who approves of ambition and egotism. And indeed Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 

What does Jesus mean by saying that the first must be last and the servant of all? The people we elect like to call themselves public servants. However, in practice many of them serve their own interests or those of their biggest contributors. But from what Jesus says in today's gospel those of us in positions of authority should be servant-leaders. Those whom the church has granted more authority should be using it not for privilege nor for the enjoyment of the exercise of power but to marshal what resources we command to help others. We are to act as quartermasters, who supply troops with quarters, food, clothing and whatever they need to function as soldiers. In the same way Jesus wants us to equip the saints with what they need in order to carry out what God has called them to do.

Bishop Coadjutor Peter Eaton has said that the bishop's job is to help the local parishes flourish. After all, we are doing frontline ministry. And in the same vein, that is what I am called to do. I am not just up here because I like to hear myself talk (though far too many preachers do that). I am here not merely to proclaim the gospel but to equip you who go out into the world--to jobs, to stores, to homes, to non-profits, to support groups, to hospital rooms, to restaurants, to family events, to craft groups and everywhere else. And so you may apply the good news of God's loving actions in Christ to any and all situations, I endeavor to work out the who, what, where, when, why and how of what the Spirit is saying through the written Word each time we meet. I try to put it in the original context and then show how it relates to the life situations, emotions, tensions, dilemmas, perspectives, pleasures, pains, temptations, and joys we all encounter. And while in any given week, it may not seem to help in your immediate circumstances, I am trying to add to your toolbox so that when the situation comes up you will say, “Hang on! I remember something about how to handle this or how to view this or how not to get distracted by this from the real moral issues at stake.” If I can entertain or inspire along with that, great! But I am basically here to give you, not what you want, but what you need. It's kinda like school. You may not want to hear about multiplication but when the time comes that you need it, you'll be glad you were told how to do it.

Which is kind of what Jesus is getting at when he takes a small child into his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” At first we think, how easy! You just tell kids that they are welcome in Jesus' name. But imagine welcoming a child you have not met before into a place where he or she has never been before. It's not enough to introduce yourself, you need to introduce the child to the new place. Like this church. The kid will want to know what things are, why they are, where is the bathroom and where can he or she get something to eat and drink. Children are curious and if you are introducing them to Jesus for the first time, you need to be ready for questions.

Who is Jesus?” How would you answer that? “Who is he to God? What did he say? What did he do? Why is he pictured on a cross?” How much or how little is enough to tell them? “What is evil? Who made God?” How much of your catechism do you remember? Can you translate it into words a child can grasp?

What about an adult with a childlike understanding of God? I encounter that at the jail. Some inmates know quite a lot about God and the Bible. Some don't. I frequently get asked for The Book of Good and Evil, a comic book version of the Bible. A few copies were donated years before my time and are passed from inmate to inmate. I rarely see a copy. I wish I had more. Because it helps some inmates understand the Bible better than mere words would.

When you welcome a child, or anyone really, it is not enough to say, “How do you do?” and then leave them to their own devices. You have to be a host. You have to see that your guests have what they need.

And that is why Jesus is driving home his point about being a servant-leader by putting this child in front of these big tough fishermen who all want to be alpha males. I've seen grown men intimidated by the prospect of having to watch children for a few hours. Children are demanding. They take a lot of time and effort. And they can't do much for you. You don't mind entertaining friends. You probably wouldn't mind playing host to someone famous or rich or powerful. They might do you a favor down the line. But a child can't lend you a few thou or introduce you to other powerful people or even get a parking ticket fixed. And as they say, character is revealed by how you treat those who can do nothing for you.

What you need in order to deal with a child or the childlike is precisely the wisdom from above that James describes. It is first pure. Little children are guileless. They say what they think and they ask questions because they really want to know the answers. They don't have a hidden agenda. You need to respond in kind.

The wisdom from above is peaceable, which means not that it is merely quiet but that it is concerned with the total well-being of the person. That's what peace, shalom, means.

The wisdom from above is gentle. That doesn't mean ineffectual; it means not rough, not using any more power or force than necessary. As a nurse I have had to remove extensive dressings that were stuck to wounds. There are tricks like soaking it in saline but you can't always get it loose. There's a saying in nursing that there are two types of adhesive: that which won't stick and that which won't let go. And you always seem to be working with the wrong kind for the job. So when you are removing soiled dressings that are adhering to tender new tissue, you do it as gently as possible, trying not to make it more painful or traumatic than it has to be. Imagine if people tried that when dealing with emotional wounds!

The wisdom from above is willing to yield. We don't like to do that, do we? Let the others yield; we have the right of way. But obviously James is not talking about yielding to sin. He is talking about being willing to yield some of our personal, often arbitrary prerogatives. If you are negotiating with someone, if you are trying to win their cooperation, you give in a little. You aren't going to get anywhere if one or both of you won't give an inch. James is saying “Be less rigid.” You will avoid a lot of unnecessary conflict.

The wisdom from above is full of mercy. The reason God sent his son is because he is full of mercy. And mindful of the mercy we have received from God, we should be merciful. Every time we say the Lord's Prayer we ask him to forgive our sins to the same extent we forgive those who sin against us. Those who are merciful are blessed, says Jesus, for they shall receive mercy in return. A lot of so-called Christians seem to have skipped that part of the Beatitudes. Pray that they learn it before they find themselves needing God's mercy for what they've done.

The wisdom from above is full of good fruits. James may be referring to the fruit of the Spirit that Paul enumerates but I think he is just talking about good outcomes. If you are wise and peaceable and gentle and willing to give a little and merciful, odds are you will get farther in your relationships with others than those who are foolish and destructive and rough and rigid and merciless. Treating people properly yields good fruit.

The wisdom from above is without partiality. No one likes it when the situation is skewed towards others, when the game is rigged. The wise one knows that favoring some person over others will come back to bite him or her. Fairness demands that no partiality be shown to those who are rich or those who are poor, those who are white or those who are black, those whom we like or those whom we don't like. We are all biased but if we acknowledge that and try to look beyond our biases we are more likely to be fair to all.

The wisdom from above is without hypocrisy. No one listens to someone who says, “Do what I say, not what I do.” Honesty and integrity are indispensable to real peace.

Speaking of honesty, the root of most conflicts are self-interest, as James says. Your desires may even be at war with your better instincts. You know that when you forcefully confront someone you are unlikely to get your way. But you don't want to lose out on what you desperately want. And that pushes you to do things you normally wouldn't. And that can lead to some unwanted consequences.

James points out that too often what we don't do is take our requests to God. Why not? If we need them, why don't we ask? Is it because we don't think he'll grant them? Is it because we know we don't really need them? Or that we shouldn't have them? Are we ashamed to ask God for certain things? Do we realize that what we are asking for is selfish?

Jesus said if we ask for something in his name we will receive it. But James points out, we will not receive every single whim of ours. If we need it and especially if we need it to do what he wants us to do, we will receive it. God is a wise and loving father. He will not give us what we ask for if it is bad for us or if we are not ready for it yet, just as you would not give a 5 year old the keys to your car to take it out for a spin. Part of trusting God is trusting his judgment in what he gives us.

God did make this wonderful universe out of chaos. Jesus was able to bring us salvation out of the chaos of politics and envy and selfish ambition and fear that led to his crucifixion. And He can make wonderful things out of the chaos of our lives. What he doesn't want is for us to increase that chaos. Which we often do when all we intended was to impose our sense of order on what we perceive is chaos. A lot of what is going on in the Middle East is the result of us trying to impose our brand of order on others. We arm the Taliban against the Russians and eventually they use those weapons on us. We take out an evil dictator thinking we can impose our brand of order on another country and culture and we create a power vacuum which gives rise to ISIS. Our arrogance trips us up again and again.

Humility was not a virtue the Romans or Greeks prized. And yet their tragedies were about people brought low by hubris. We need to look for the Christian virtue of humility in our leaders, secular or sacred, people who don't pretend to be Superman and promise to solve all our problems magically. We need to look for those who only lead in order to serve others and the common good. And we need to be humble enough to welcome those who can do us no good, who demand much from us, simply because God wants us to welcome them. We need to seek that wisdom from above that is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruit, without partiality or hypocrisy. It's not the world's way. But then we've tried to impose our order on this world through arrogance and all we have reaped is conflict. It's time to try God's way.

We do trust him, don't we? 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Words Will Never Hurt Me?

The scriptures referred to are James 3:1-12 and Mark 8:27-38.

When I took my Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training in July it seems like the hardest part of the exercises was getting us to ask a person if they were thinking of committing suicide. You could ask if they were thinking of killing themselves. But not if they were going to hurt or harm themselves. That didn't tell you enough. This was after all a first aid course and the purpose was to gauge the severity of the situation. Just as doctors or ER nurses look to see if someone is bleeding, blue, breathless, has broken limbs, brain injuries, or chest pain in order to triage him or her properly, we need to determine how serious the person's despair is so we know how to proceed. That depends on the answer to that difficult question and whether the person has a plan and the means to carry out that plan. Basically all we had to work with to save these folks were words.

I'm glad I took the training. As clergy, I have talked to people who were contemplating suicide, both inside and outside the jail. And the scary truth is that Monroe County has the highest suicide rate in the state of Florida. It's not merely because we have a small population so that our small numbers are disproportionate compared to larger counties. We are significantly higher than other small rural counties. So it's incumbent on us all to learn more about suicide and what to say and do to help others.

Today's New Testament and Gospel readings are all about what we say and the consequences. James starts off by reminding those who teach in the church of the responsibility they hold. Apparently even then teachers were apt to pass off their personal opinions as God's teachings. James is warning them about that. He is also aware that sometimes people make honest errors. We should always make sure that what we state the Bible says is actually what it does say. I recently corrected a Mental Floss article that rightly pointed out that the Bible doesn't say that money is the root of all evil. But it only corrected it to say “the love of money is the root of all evil.” In fact the best translation is “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” The editor should have checked that. Still I believe it was an honest mistake. Just as a small thing like a bridle guides a horse or a rudder steers a ship, a small but crucial error can lead people astray. Think before you speak.

A spark can set a forest ablaze. In the same way, an intemperate word, a bit of gossip or insinuation, can cause and spread a lot of harm. And no one should fool himself into thinking he has tamed his tongue. We see again and again in public life where an offhand comment or ill-conceived tweet can destroy a career. The speaker can blame the media for magnifying it but they were the ones who engaged their tongues rather than their brains.

James singles out the hypocrisy of those who praise God and then denigrate those created in his image. You wouldn't do that to a friend. You wouldn't say, “I love you but I'd like to shove your kid into traffic.” You understand that doing such a thing would not be a loving thing to do. Yet so-called Christians can and do say horrific things to those who don't believe and even to Christians who believe differently. I have never understood why people who offend Christians receive death threats or worse. That is not loving our enemy. That is not blessing those who curse you. That is not Christian.

Christians should not call people names. They should not wish terrible fates upon others. Even if provoked we are to follow Proverbs 15:1, “A gentle response turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath.” We are to be peacemakers. Unfortunately, that is not the impression the world gets from the news or social media about people loudly proclaiming themselves as Christians. Even in the shouting match that passes for public discourse today, we come across as shrill and unreasonable, rather than as being kind and able to listen and willing to work on solutions.

Part of this is a tendency of some Christians to be closed to new information or new ways of seeing things. We think that because we deal with timeless truths that their expression cannot change, that the Spirit cannot reveal the same truth in a different way. Or we think that what we have learned of the faith is not only true but exhaustive. But it is obvious that the Bible does not tell us everything there is to know about God. How could it? God is infinite and no book can contain all possible knowledge about God. Nor is that necessary. You don't need to know absolutely everything about every part of a car in order to drive one. You need to know the basics and the most common situations you are likely to encounter. For everything else you go to a mechanic. In the same way, the Bible tells us enough about God to start and maintain our relationship with him. It covers the vast majority of situations we will find ourselves in while following him: opposition, times of test and temptation, betrayal, our failures, our need for forgiveness and to forgive others, the need to trust, to hope, to persevere, to give thanks, to rest, to give, etc. For situations truly unique, we need to go to God and then listen to him.

In our Gospel we have reached the turning point of Jesus' ministry. The disciples have seen him heal all manner of people from lepers to the lame, from the mentally ill to chronically ill, from the deaf to the blind. They have seen him raise the dead. They have seen him feed thousands with almost nothing. They have seen him calm storms and walk on water. They have seen him answer all kinds of religious questions with keen insight and shut up his critics. Now Jesus asks who the people think he is and, more crucially, who the disciples think he is. Peter speaks for them all: “You are the Messiah.”

So far, so good. Jesus has been trying to get them to see that, despite the usual expectations of what that title means. He is not the holy warrior most people want; he is the healer and teacher they need. But that's not all they need nor all that he is.

I imagine Jesus taking a deep breath before launching into the next phase of their training. He tells them that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” That went over like a lead balloon. Nobody wants to hear that the man they've backed is going to be rejected by the other leaders of the people and get killed to boot. I don't even think they heard the part about him rising again. I think they were so stunned by the first part. It just made no sense.

Peter was never reticent to say what was on his mind. He takes Jesus aside and starts to correct him. And in the heat of the moment, he doesn't realize the absurdity of what he is doing. He just told the man that he was anointed by God. But apparently Peter doesn't think this means that Jesus knows what God anointed him to do. Peter thinks he, not the Messiah, knows what God's will is.

Now we have all worked for people who have made bad decisions. Sometimes we could see that they were wrong from the very beginning. We may even have been brave enough to tell the boss about our misgivings. But the people that lead us are not generally appointed by God. They were hired or elected or promoted by other human beings. And we know that whatever their gifts of intelligence or skill or charisma or problem-solving, they were fallible as well. Nobody bats .1000. Nobody gets everything right. Heck, even Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes make a mistake ever so often. Because he was after all a human being, albeit a fictional one.

But that doesn't really apply here. God has sent Jesus with a mission. Given Jesus' consistent demonstrations that God is working in and through him, you would think that Peter would simply assume that Jesus knows what God sent him to do. And given the surprising things Jesus does and says you would think that Peter would have learned to go along with whatever Jesus said. If he said, “I'm going to feed thousands with a couple of fish and five loaves,” he was. If he said, “Water and wind, calm down,” they would. If he said, “This girl is not actually dead,” she wasn't—or soon wouldn't be. Why did Peter think that Jesus was wrong about something as vital as his death?

It's been my experience that whenever you hear about someone doing something real dumb and you ask yourself, “What were they thinking?” the answer is usually “They weren't.” And I don't think any of the reasons I just enumerated about why the twelve should trust Jesus on this matter went through Peter's mind. He just reacted emotionally and blurted out the first thing that occurred to him. As we all have.

The problem is that the other disciples are overhearing this. Jesus can't have them questioning this. This part of his ministry is crucial. So he says something that stopped Peter and all such talk cold. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Why did Jesus call Peter Satan? The word literally means “adversary” and at this point Peter is opposing Jesus' mission. His death on the cross is not optional and it's not up for a vote. The next month or so is going to be extremely hard and Jesus can't have the twelve second-guessing him the whole time. They need to trust and follow him from this point on more than they ever have before.

Peter is looking at the situation from the human standpoint. Fear for Jesus may have had something to do with it but more importantly, Peter is falling into the very human tendency to see everything as a win or a loss and all people as either winners or losers. Getting killed will not make Jesus a winner—or for that matter, his followers. Nobody wants to be on the losing side. Nobody wants their leader to lose. That's very human.

But there is a deeper way to look at things. Is it winning if you give up what is essential merely to survive? Dr. Semmelweis could have saved himself a lot of grief had he relinquished on the whole handwashing thing in the face of the overwhelming opposition he got from the medical establishment more than a century ago. Yes, more new mothers would have died but he would have saved his career and perhaps even his own life. Lincoln could have similarly saved himself much sorrow and probably his life as well had he just let people keep other people as slaves, as humans had done for millennia. Ditto for Martin Luther King Jr. if he had just let the establishment continue to treat his people as second class citizens. But in each case they thought their cause was more important than living a long and quiet life.

Jesus calls the crowd over to join his disciples as he lays out the requirements for taking his path. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

First off, Jesus is not doing recruitment properly by this world's standards. Seriously, would you answer a want ad that said you must divest yourself of all you desire and act in a manner that will get you executed by the authorities? No, you want to hear about all the benefits of seeking a position with someone. You want big money, admiration by the world, a life of comfort and privilege. Jesus makes following him sound less attractive than joining the marines. At least they get to kill people. Jesus says following him will probably get you killed. What kind of incentive is that?

None if you consider this life the only one. If the blandishments of this life are what matters to you, you need another religion. This is why those those who preach prosperity are so popular. They act like God is your personal genie, granting you wealth and power and a good earthly life if you just invest some of your money in him—by which they mean, in them. Apparently their Bibles are missing that verse about camels and needles.
Nowhere in scripture are we told we are getting to heaven via the gravy train. Quite the contrary, when you stand up for truth, you are going to run into opposition. You are going to have to make sacrifices. You are going to have to decide if your integrity is more important than your cushy life.

Notice though that Jesus says it is for the sake of the gospel, the good news of God's love and forgiveness and restoration through Christ, that we are to give up our comfortable life. He is not talking about every possible religious issue but the essential one. Jesus did not let the hot button issues of his day—taxes, the authority of the government over certain aspects of our lives, questions of rituals and other religious side issues—distract him from his proclamation of the gospel. Jesus controlled his tongue, staying on message, despite persistent demands that he state his position on every controversy that was then in vogue. As CS. Lewis said, whatever is up to date is eternally out of date.

There is a temptation to state THE Christian position on whatever the topic of the day is. In some matters it is clear: we are not to steal; we are not to lie; we are not to murder; we are not to betray our spouses; we are not to rob or defraud people; we are not to pervert justice by showing partiality; we are not to spread slander; we are not to hate or take revenge or bear a grudge but we are to love our neighbor as ourselves and we are to worship God alone. (Exodus 20:1-17; Leviticus 19:11-18) And we each have to work out how to apply these moral principles to contemporary issues. But moral dilemmas arise when two or more of these principles clash--such as in defending others, where Jesus' command not to resist evil comes up against the principle of not allowing harm to come to another. (Lev 19:16) But each Christian may give the conflicting values different weight and so come to different conclusions. Some feel that we need only turn the other cheek when malice is directed toward us but we can use force to protect others. Quakers, the Amish and Mennonites reject all use of violence. They may interpose themselves but they will not fight. And so we should remember the words of 17th century Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius that Christians should observe “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

While today's Christians do not usually come to blows over their disagreements, we too often use hateful words towards those with whom we disagree. And as James says, that is, in and of itself, sinful. The ends do not justify the means, even if those means are simply words. Rather we need to always remember that we represent Jesus in all that we say as well as what we do. In a way, we are like those who work the suicide hotlines, saving people from themselves, often using only words of empathy and hope.

James points out the contradiction of using our tongues both to bless God and to curse those whom he made in his image. We need to prayerfully grow into the fullness of Christ so that we everything we say is a blessing to others. The world doesn't need more people pointing out what is wrong with other people. We need more people pointing to the good news that God can change us into more faithful, more hopeful, more loving people in Christ.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Judge Not

The scriptures referred to are Mark 7:24-37 and James 2:1-17.

There is a sad display going on right now in the social media. Because of the number of shootings of unarmed African Americans and deaths while in police custody (11, nearly one a month, in the last year) a movement called Black Lives Matter has arisen. You see the hashtag next to stories about such incidents, and even events like the shooting of 4 pastors and 5 parishioners in a black church by a white supremacist in Charleston. Basically they are spotlighting the fact that this happens to blacks an inordinate amount of the time, often over minor incidents like a broken taillight or an incomplete stop.

But some have apparently interpreted the hashtag to imply that other lives don't matter. So we see the hashtag Blue Lives Matter highlighting the gun deaths of cops which was up to 48 in 2014, though lower than 7 of the last 9 years. (Actually over the last 10 years slightly more officers are killed in incidents with vehicles, either in accidents or being struck by cars.) And we would be churlish to deny that law enforcement officers put their lives on the line daily. But the overwhelming majority of intentional killings of officers are shootings. The deaths protested in Black Lives Matter are those of unarmed African American civilians. They were not killed in shootouts with police. So the two movements are not focusing on the same phenomenon. They are parallel tragedies. Only the unreflective see these as some kind of zero sum game.

Imagine you were reading a book on violent deaths in America. The passages on the deaths of unarmed blacks by cops are highlighted in brown by Black Lives Matter. The passages on the deaths of cops by armed criminals of all races are highlighted in blue by Blue Lives Matter. The two don't overlap. You could call the book All Lives Matter, if you like. But the highlighting is important because each is a serious problem and needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.

Nevertheless some people apparently think that to acknowledge one of these is to somehow deny the other. And I see posts on Facebook that make it seem like it's some kind of competition between which group has the most victims or lack of media attention. If so then women would win this grim contest because between 1000 and 1600 die every year due to domestic violence. If we highlighted those passages in pink, there were be twenty times more pink passages in our book than blue or brown.

It's not a competition. There's no reason we can't admit that all 3 are major problems that need to be addressed and that each calls for a different set of preventive measures.

James, the brother of Jesus and the head of the church in Jerusalem, was dismayed at seeing discrimination in the body of Christ. Deferential treatment was being given to the wealthier members of the church. The poor were being treated as an afterthought. And that was not right.

And people were distorting Paul's teaching of salvation by grace through faith to mean that one did not have to do any good works after being saved either. That's like thinking after you got a liver transplant you don't have to change your habits and can go back to drinking all night. The purpose of salvation is to save you from what you become without God. We cannot save ourselves by good works but only by the action of God in Christ. But once saved we do good works for the same reason a person who had life-giving surgery adopts healthy habits. To do otherwise is to go against the very reason you needed to be restored in the first place.

James is saying that if you really have faith in God, you will act in love, just as if you are following doctor's post-op orders, your blood pressure should be normal, your heart beat should be steady and you should be able to exercise again. If not, something's wrong for those are symptoms of good health. If you accepted the riches of God's grace and love to save your life, you should be sharing those blessings in concrete ways with others. If not, there's something wrong for those are symptoms of spiritual health. Love impels us to help those we love. As Christians we are to love our enemies, our neighbors and each other in the body of Christ. A person saved by Jesus should be unable to let anyone starve or go cold.

We have a lot of problems in this country that are failures of compassion. Treating people differently based on things like race, economic status, what country they come from, what gender they identify with, what gender they love, or anything else is not Christian. Jesus didn't decide he would die for some people but not others. He died for all. (2 Corinthians 5:15) Which means he hasn't written anyone off and neither can we.

In fact when Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged,” the Greek word krino can also mean “condemn” and “sentence.” So Jesus is telling us not to condemn or pass a verdict on someone. We do not know the whole story on anyone; only God does. This doesn't mean we can't judge actions, words or thoughts as being good or bad, spiritually healthy or unhealthy. And I think it is legitimate to point out actual contradictions between what people say and what they do, as Jesus did. But we cannot see into people's hearts or futures or know all the experiences that shaped them for good or ill. Their ultimate fate is God's alone to determine.

This is why prejudice is bad. It is bad reasoning and it is immoral. To look at someone and judge them by their color, their gender, their clothing, their culture, their language, their religion, their apparent wealth or lack of it, where they live or where they came from is wrong. As God says to Samuel, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

In fact the whole Bible consists of story after story in which God uses unlikely people to do his will. He picks an old man and his post-menopausal wife to be the ancestors of his people. He chooses the second son who is essentially a conman to father the 12 tribes of Israel. He chooses a slave in prison to save a nation from famine. He chooses a stutterer to be his spokesman before Pharaoh. He chooses a prostitute to help his people bring down the walls of Jericho. He chooses a man who breaks his vows to defeat the Philistines. He chooses a womanizing shepherd to be king of Israel. He chooses the fiance of a poor carpenter to bear his son. He chooses a hotheaded fisherman to lead his apostles. He uses a zealous pure-blooded Pharisee to bring his message to the Gentiles. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Samson, David, Mary, Peter and Paul were not the people we would choose to do God's will. God saw in them things we would not have seen. So much for prejudice.

In today's gospel, Jesus deals with 2 people that most folks would write off. I want to deal with the deaf and mute man first before we get to the trickier story of the Gentile woman.

Jesus was in the Decapolis,which simply means the Ten Towns. It is a largely pagan area to the east of the Jordan River. And even here people have heard of his healings. So they bring him a man who can neither hear or speak. Or perhaps he cannot speak very clearly, for that's what the Greek implies. And if he could speak but not well, that means he may have been able to hear at some point but lost his hearing, perhaps as a child. The only reason Helen Keller could learn to speak was that she lost her hearing (and sight) at age of 19 months. In fact the breakthrough for her came when she connected the sensation of feeling water and the spoken word for it she learned before her illness with the finger signs her teacher Anne Sullivan made into her hand. That's why when Jesus healed him, the man was able to speak. He had heard words before he lost his hearing.

The problem is that Jesus was not a magician. He did not mumble magic words or use magic items to heal. He healed those who trusted him. Faith in him was the key element which is why he was not able to heal many in his hometown. They could not stop looking at him as the kid who grew up among them and see him instead as God's anointed. But how is Jesus to communicate with a deaf man and let him know what he intended to do so the man could put his faith in him?

Jesus adapts to the situation. He meets the man at his level and mimes what he is going to do. He puts his fingers in the man's ears, first stopping and then unstopping them to let him know he is going to heal them. Then he spat, that is, made something come out of his mouth, and touched his finger to the man's tongue, letting him know that soon things will be coming out of the afflicted man's mouth and off his tongue. Jesus then looks up to heaven and sighs dramatically, letting the man know that his healing is coming from God. He says, “Be opened,” not in a secret, magic language, but in Aramaic, his everyday language.

The man gets Jesus' meaning and reacts, talking clearly for the first time in ages. He hears the ambient noise of the world, Jesus' feet shifting on the floor, his own voice speaking. He hears Jesus tell him not to publicize this but, hey, now that this marvelous thing has happened to him and he can talk once more, how can he keep silent? And everyone is amazed.

Now what does this have to do with prejudice? Those who were deaf were classified with other groups like women, slaves, minors and the mentally ill as people not educated enough to keep the law. This man was probably treated at best as one does a developmentally disabled child, not as an adult able to think and make decisions for himself. Now he could be fully a part of the community. He could go to the temple and not be excluded as imperfect. Jesus showed how fluid and superficial the categories between acceptable and unacceptable are.

Now let's go to the story that immediately proceeds the healing of the deaf man. But before that let us remember last week's gospel. Jesus essentially says that what goes into you, including non-Kosher foods, doesn't make you unclean. He says it is what is comes out of us, out of our hearts, our sinful intentions turned into immoral words and works, that make us unclean.

Again Jesus is in a largely pagan area, the region of Tyre. A Gentile woman comes to him. She is Syrophoenician, meaning she comes from the same stock as evil Queen Jezebel. Furthermore, she comes from an area with heavy Greek influence. She could well have shrines to Zeus and other gods in her home. She is by definition unclean.

She asks Jesus to heal her daughter. Now Jesus had just said that externals don't make you unclean, only what is in your heart. He is not a pagan magician. He needs her to trust him. But how does he find out what is in her heart? How does he see if she truly has faith in him and in the true God?

He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus is probably quoting a popular proverb here. Jews did not, despite what some say, routinely call Gentiles dogs. True, dogs were seen as scavengers by the Jews, but Greek influenced households kept them as pets. So the woman would have heard this differently. Even pets are not fed before the children and the children's food is not first offered to the pets.

Jesus is saying that the primary focus of his ministry, with its fast approaching end, is the children of Israel. God has spent a lot of time working with his people, laying down the foundation of what kind of God he is—just but merciful, gracious and loving, the one who provided Abraham with the sacrifice in place of Isaac, and who inspired Isaiah to speak of his servant whose suffering brings healing to others. And yet God's people are still slow in picking up who Jesus is and what he is doing, despite all the prophesies in the Hebrew scriptures and all the healings he has done. He has to work with them further. The disciples, his future apostles, will be sent to the Gentiles. And they are, by the way, listening to this exchange. They are probably scandalized by the woman's presence in this house. Jesus needs them to see what is in her heart as well, if they are to get even an inkling of what Jesus meant by what is and is not unclean.

Now the woman could have given up after hearing what Jesus said. She could have just dismissed Jesus as a stubborn Jew and accepted the cosmic unfairness of the Jewish God. But she is a mother. A mother with a sick child. She is not done yet. She still has hope and she is persistent, something Jesus admires in people coming to God for help.

She takes what Jesus said and wryly extents the logic of the proverb. True, we don't feed our pets in lieu of feeding our children. But the pets get the crumbs that drop from the childrens' table. In fact, if her situation is anything like what I've seen with my little ex-patient and with my granddaughter, the kids deliberately drop food to the animals to see them feed. You put a kid in a high chair and if there are dogs in the house, they will crowd around the high chair, worshipfully and attentively waiting for manna to drop from heaven in the form of tater tots, green beans, bread and if they are lucky, meat. Dogs aren't picky, just grateful.

One other point. The woman addresses Jesus as kurios, “Lord” in Greek. Now it could also be translated “sir” as our lectionary does. But the fact is that in Mark's gospel, nobody, not even the disciples, call Jesus “Lord”--except this woman.

Jesus sees that the woman has faith. Instead of leaving and going to some pagan temple to ask some other deity to heal her daughter, she sticks with Jesus and shows she is putting all her faith in him. And he replies, “For saying that, you may go— (I wonder if she was worried for a second that he was offended and dismissing her)—the demon has left your daughter.” (For they believed that illness was caused by invisible-to-the-eye beings called demons whereas we believe they are caused by invisible-to-the-eye beings called germs.)

This woman made an impression because her story is told not only in Mark, the earliest gospel, but is repeated in Matthew, a gospel that appears to have been written to Jewish Christians. She is an example of finding great faith in the heart of someone you wouldn't have originally judged to have had it.

Prejudice is as old as mankind. It may even start in infancy. A recent study showed that babies have a hard time distinguishing individual faces in races they haven't encountered. In other words, people of different races all look alike to them. But babies who have interacted with people of other races can pick out individual faces from others of the same race. So experience with people different from ourselves can help.

And quite apart from the fact that God made us all in his image, we need to get over our racism and jingoism and xenophobia and parochialism for another reason. We are the dominant species on this planet. Regardless of how you feel about global warming, it is impossible for 7 billion beings with loads of scientific know-how and industrial capabilities not to be affecting our planet in major ways. We need everyone to cooperate if we are going to keep the earth habitable. And I mean everyone. Rosalind Franklin, a Jewish woman, did the crucial research that led to the discovery of the structure of DNA. Dr. Samuel Kountz, an African American surgeon, performed the first successful kidney transplant between humans who were not identical twins and developed the prototype for the machine that can preserve kidneys for 50 hours so they can be transplanted. It is now standard equipment in hospitals and labs. Ajay Bhatt, an Indian American computer architect, was co-inventor of the USB. Dr. Kenneth Matsumura, a Japanese American scientist, invented the Bio-Artificial Liver, which buys people with a damaged liver time to get a transplant. The lithium batteries in your cell phone, PC and iPad were invented by Rachid Yamazi, a Moroccan and French scientist. The first total artificial heart was invented by Dr. Domingo Liotta, an Argentinian cardiac surgeon. And we have WiFi and Bluetooth thanks to scientific developments made during World War 2 by Austrian American actress, Hedy Lamarr! Everyone has a gift to share.

The world seems to be Balkanizing, devolving into smaller and smaller groups based on nationality, race, language, culture, and even sexual preferences and identities. We are so intent on raising the awareness of all the different varieties of human beings that we are chipping away at the awareness that we are all one species. Tribalism is increasing. And as Christians we need to be on the forefront on bringing people together. Christianity is after all global and is growing in places like Africa, South America and Asia. According to the Pew Research Center, 1 in 4 Christians lives in sub-Saharan Africa and 1 in 8 lives in Asia and the Pacific. The number of Christians in those two areas is roughly equal to the number of Christians in the Americas. There is no longer a place that can be called the global center of Christianity. Which I'm sure is how God wants it to be.

God is love. God commands us to love one another. So hatred or indifference to others are anti-Christian. We need to work for justice and equality and freedom and respect for all. Yes, certain groups that have been singled out for abuse and injustice need special attention. But we must see past these superficial characteristics and treat each other as fellow creatures made in the image of the God who is love.