Sunday, August 28, 2016

To Serve Man

It's one of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes ever. If you haven't seen it in the nearly quarter of century since it was first broadcast, I'm about to spoil it for you. This race of large, bulbous headed aliens land on earth. They are highly advanced and they offer to solve all our problems, cure all our diseases and make our deserts bloom with life. They don't speak any earth language but can transmit their thoughts telepathically so that we can understand them. Earth scientists get a hold of one of their books and try to translate it. They work out that the title of the book is “To Serve Man.” Wonderful! The aliens offer rides in their spacecraft to their planet. Humans flock to join their benefactors on a trip back to their home world. One of the scientists is going up the ramp into one of the spaceships when a colleague working on the translation tries to push through the crowd. “We've translated the book!” she cries. “To Serve Man. It's a cookbook!”

Apparently nobody thought, “Why would this advanced race travel lightyears to this planet and focus on our species in particular, making sure more of us lived and ate well?” Nobody thought we were being fattened up for the table. We humans just accept that we deserve special consideration.

Everyone likes to think they're special. It might go back to infancy, when all we have to do is cry and our parents come running, to feed us or change us or comfort us. Eventually, though, we learn that we are not the center of the universe. Other people have their needs as well and life is a matter of give and take. Well, most of us learn that. Some people never stop thinking that the world owes them something, that they are entitled to special treatment.

And perhaps they really are extraordinary. They are gifted athletes, or great singers, or talented artists, or remarkable actors, or natural leaders. And as more and more people recognize that, they get treated differently. They are given honorary degrees; they get their seats on a flight or their room in a hotel upgraded; they are given the best table in a restaurant. Did you know that not only Academy Award hosts but also those who are simply nominated are given swag bags? In 2015 they contained free Audi rentals for a year, an $800 custom candy and dessert buffet, a $12,500 vacation tour, 9 nights in Italy, $4000 worth of liposuction, a $1200 bicycle, $25,000 in custom furniture, and a $20,000 astrology reading. The total was worth $168,000. Each. To those who already have a lot, more is given. If it makes you feel any better they do have to pay taxes on them.

Now that the Olympics are over, we are back to watching sports teams made up of millionaires. We pay extraordinarily good looking people lots of money to model clothes or pretend to be the heroes and heroines of our films and TV shows. Some celebrities are paid a ton of money simply to put their name on a perfume or a line of clothing or a set of furniture or a building. And when these people go anywhere, you can bet that folks make a fuss over them.

The question is: does the monetary value we put on such people reflect their value to society? If God selectively raptured certain classes of people, who would we miss first: supermodels or teachers? Basketball players or nurses? Movie stars or garbage collectors? Why is it we pay the people who teach our kids, take care of our sick, or keep our streets clean so much less than people who merely entertain us? Could it be that our culture's values are topsy turvy?

Jesus would say so. In today's gospel (Luke 14: 1, 7-14) he notes how people at a dinner tend to choose places at or near the head of the table. And he makes a shrewd observation. It would be better if they sat farther from the places of honor. They might be asked to move up. But if they miscalculate how distinguished they are and sit at a place of honor, their host might have invited someone more important than they and they will be asked to move. What Jesus is saying might simply seem like a smart way to avoid embarrassment and even draw attention to yourself by being publicly honored. He seems to merely be echoing Proverbs 25:6-7. But what he's really doing is contrasting the way the world works with the way God intends it to work.

The world encourages self-promotion. It's not enough to list your work history and abilities on your resume. You are expected to inflate it a bit, without actually lying. In a job interview you get no points for modesty. And we've all seen jerks who are full of themselves get ahead of people who are just as good or better at a job but not as boastful. Despite all our experience to the contrary, we still believe that confidence just naturally goes along with competence.

When ranked with children from 30 other developed countries, American kids ranked 25th in math and 21st in science. But when asked if they outperformed the others, our kids came in at number 1 in the belief that they did. There is even a term for this phenomenon: the Dunning-Kruger effect. It's the cognitive bias that allows people with lower than average abilities in an area to feel they can perform better than they really do. Being unaware of what they don't know, they think, “How hard can this be?” The two psychologists after whom the effect is named have a corollary: people with higher than average abilities often sell themselves short, assuming that things that are easy for them are easy for others as well.

A lot problems in the world are caused by people with more self-assurance than actual ability. And their erroneous self-perception is aided and abetted by yes-men. Few organizations have a place for nay-sayers. Such folks are not considered team players. The economic meltdown of 2008 was due in large part to people who felt that real estate values could only go up. Those who said that this was historically untrue were shunned.

Humility was one of those Christian values that the Greeks and Romans of the first century just couldn't understand. They probably made the mistake of thinking it was false humility, of saying that you are not as good as you really are. But real humility is a clear-eyed recognition not only of one's strengths but also of one's weaknesses. Arrogant people don't admit to having weaknesses. I saw some novelty signs that sum that frame of mind up perfectly. One said, “I may not always be right but I am never wrong.” Another said, “I thought I made a mistake once but I was wrong.”

In contrast, a Christian knows that he or she has good gifts given by God but also knows that he or she cannot do everything. A church is strengthened when people recognize others' gifts and encourage them to develop and use them. It is wrong to think the clergy can do it all. I can, if necessary, put out a bulletin but that is not where my strengths lie. I can sing but I can't play an instrument or lead a choir. I can preach a well-researched and tight sermon that stays on the subject and keeps to a time limit but you really wouldn't want me to be in charge of coffee hour. It takes a lot of people and a lot of gifts to run a church. We are all important but none of us is irreplaceable. As one preacher reminded an incoming bishop, all of us are interims. Nobody holds a position forever.

When I taken out of circulation by my accident, a lot of people had to step up to the plate and exercise the gifts God gave them to keep these churches going. They did a great job. I hope they discovered abilities that they didn't know they had or which they hadn't had the opportunity to fully utilize. On the other hand, I was humbled by the fact that I wasn't indispensable. Other priests were able to step in and do what I could not. I started realizing I was getting better when I began itching to once again share my gifts with you. I felt like a athlete who was benched but couldn't wait to take the field again.

But Jesus isn't satisfied with just pointing out the obvious: that the hyped should be humbled and the humble should be honored. As usual, he takes it farther. It is not enough to treat properly the people whose contributions to society are taken for granted. Jesus says we should be inviting to our banquets people who are not thought to benefit society but who are viewed as a drag on it. We need to throw feasts for those cannot pay us back: the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.

We pay people lots of money and give them a lot of honor and make a fuss over them because they do something for us. Professional athletes and actors entertain us. Politicians will, we hope, make things better for us. But the true test of whether you really care for your fellow human beings is how you treat those who can do you no good.

We do this in our families. We take care of Mom or Pop when they are sick or unable to care for themselves. But again this may be seen as repaying them for taking care of us when we were infants and children. But let's say you have a child or a sibling born who is severely handicapped, who can never reciprocate the amount and kind of care that you will have to provide them, perhaps for their whole life? Most of us step up to the task and do what needs to be done.

But that's for family. It is rarer for human beings to go all out to help those whom they don't know. Yes, there are people like Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa and Florence Nightingale and Dr. Paul Farmer who devote their lives to helping the unfortunate. And, yes, there are those who join them. But we don't devote daily segments of the news or entire shows to such people the way we do celebrities. We don't have shows where people pitch humanitarian projects to a bunch of millionaires and see who gets their soup kitchen or free clinic funded. We don't have a daily total of people helped that we slip into each 5 minute newscast as we do the stock market totals. We wait to see if a politician will visit a disaster site but the fact that Episcopal Relief and Development and Lutheran Disaster Response and the various relief arms of the Methodist or Baptist or Catholic churches are already there and helping victims is seldom highlighted.

In Jesus' day one simply didn't invite to banquets the poor or the disabled, who usually made their living by begging. Not only would that make things uncomfortable, those who were blind or lame or deaf or physically imperfect were ritually unclean. They might as well be so today. Unless it is a fundraiser for a charity we don't often invite a lot of people with disabilities to fancy functions. We never invite the hungry and homeless to any large meal except at a soup kitchen.

The way the world sees it, this is okay. Though society pays lip service to helping the poor, it really sees them as mostly freeloaders. People who make it have a hard time putting themselves in the place of those who don't. We tend to think the world is basically a meritocracy, where hard work is rewarded—despite the fact that a lot of people work hard but will never get rich doing so precisely because we don't pay trash collectors or teachers or cops what they are actually worth. And, yes, we all know of people who are in a bad situation because of poor life choices. But we seldom realize that most Americans will spend at least one year below the poverty line at some point between the ages of 25 and 75. In 2012 14% of seniors were living in poverty as were 18% of children. 1 in 5 Millennials are poor. About half of the poor are non-Hispanic whites. As we have seen in both the Great Depression and the Great Recession, job loss is a major cause of poverty. In fact most Americans have little or no savings and are just one missed paycheck or one unexpected bill for $500 away from being broke. The number one cause of personal bankruptcy in this country is the cost of a major medical emergency. And even if you have excellent insurance, it just takes the destruction of your home and business by a hurricane, fire, flood, or earthquake to set you back a considerable way from your accustomed lifestyle. If you don't have insurance or if the adjuster is picky, you can be wiped out.

But Jesus never says we should only help the worthy poor or the brave blind person or the determined disabled person or anything of the kind. We are to imitate our heavenly Father whose sun shines on both the good and the bad and whose rain waters the crops of the just and the unjust alike. (Matthew 5:45) We are to be like God who does not let a person's worthiness factor into his decision to be gracious. Indeed, no one is worthy of God's favor. Grace is God's undeserved, unreserved favor shown to humanity most clearly in his son Jesus. Just as a doctor or a nurse doesn't take into consideration a patient's moral or spiritual state when treating their illness or injury, God does not take those things into account when he offers us his saving health. In fact, the only real factor is whether we accept it or not. I have seen patients reject treatment because it meant changing something in their life and people also reject God's grace because they also don't want to change.

But the point is: we offer God's love to all. We don't exclude anyone because they are rich or poor, or because they are worthy or not. We are not to judge, Jesus said. We are to act as conduits of God's love and grace. We are his ambassadors offering reconciliation and peace. We are his healthcare team, offering spiritual healing to all who need it. Jesus is clear on this: we are to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the immigrant, visit the sick and the imprisoned.

If you do this, will you get taken advantage of? Yes. I've given patients breathing treatments only to have them turn around and smoke a cigarette. Fr. Peak told me how he once followed someone to whom he'd given a Winn Dixie gift card only to see them trade it for money, then sex and then drugs. Should we therefore deny every other person who asked for such a card on the basis that some of them will not use it as we intended?

We hear of one or two welfare cheats and decide that all welfare recipients are suspect. That's not the way God thinks or acts. God told Abraham he would spare the entire city of Sodom if only 10 good people could be found there. Jesus died for all of humanity knowing that not all of them would accept his salvation. Jesus even washed the feet of Judas whom he knew would betray him. God wants us to err on the side of mercy and forgiveness and love and grace. Because none of us is worthy. None of us deserves his gifts. None of us is without sin.

It's not a cookbook but a good subtitle for the gospel of Jesus Christ is “to serve man. And woman. And child. And Gentile. And Jew. And Muslim. And slave. And free. And black. And white. And Asian. And native-born. And straight. And gay. And any other category and label you can think of.” Because God created us all. And Jesus died for all. No exceptions.  

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Cross Purposes

It was such a small town it only had one church. And it was so long ago everyone went to church. One day this guy who was always on time came to church late. After the service when he was shaking hands, the priest asked the guy why he was late.

Somebody stole my bicycle!” the guy said.

Do you know who stole it?” asked the priest.


Well,” the priest says. “We're in Lent now and every Sunday we begin by reciting the Ten Commandments. Next week, get here early, sit in the front pew, and when we start the commandments, turn and look at the congregation. When we get to 'Thou shalt not steal,' see who can't look you in the eye.”

OK,” the guy says and next week, he gets to the church early and does as the priest says. After the service when he's shaking hands, the priest says, “How did it go?”

And the guy says, “It worked like a charm. I sat up front and I turned like you said as we started reciting the commandments. And when we got to 'Thou shalt not commit adultery,' I remembered where I left my bicycle.”

Most people don't understand what a moral dilemma is. A lot of them think that's when you want to do something, like cheat or lie, and you know you shouldn't. Or you don't want to do something, like give to the homeless, but you know you ought to. But those aren't moral dilemmas; they are simply a choice between what we desire and what we don't desire. A dilemma is when you have to choose between two alternatives that are equally desirable or equally unattractive. A moral dilemma is the clash of two ethical demands or values that are mutually exclusive. Let's say, Uncle Joe is terminally ill and in great pain but the medication that will give him relief will probably hasten his death. The dilemma is between two good actions: relieving suffering and preserving life. If one morally right action requires you to do a morally wrong action, that's a dilemma. During World War Two, a lot of Christians hid Jews from the Nazis. Corrie Ten Boom and her family did so. But in this case preserving lives meant lying to authorities, disobeying the government, even forging ration books in order to feed the Jews they were hiding. It also meant putting the lives of her family in danger. And indeed Corrie, her sister and her father were thrown into a concentration camps when what they did was discovered. The Jews were saved but of her family, only Corrie survived the camps.

Most ethical systems recognize a hierarchy of moral values. In other words, while telling the truth is an important ethical value, it can be superseded when in conflict with a more important value, such as saving a life. Thus all the nuns and monks in the Italian town of Assisi felt morally justified in hiding Jews in all the monasteries and nunneries of the hometown of St. Francis though it meant systematically deceiving the Nazi authorities. You'd have to be morally tone deaf to think otherwise.

For that matter, the Jews who were in hiding had to face moral dilemmas. They had to bend or even break the rules of their religion. The Gentiles hiding them could not always offer them Kosher food. Or they might have to move from one hiding place to another at any time including on the Sabbath, which could be considered work. Judaism recognizes that saving lives takes precedence over almost all other moral rules. An observant Jew would only choose death if the price of saving his or her life was denying God or performing idolatry.

What about Jesus? Did he recognize a hierarchy of values? Did he countenance choosing the lesser of two evils?

In today's Gospel (Luke 13:10-17) Jesus is faced with two mutually exclusive moral goods: healing and observing the Sabbath. To us this doesn't seem to be much of a dilemma but in his day it was. The Sabbath was one of the main distinctives of Judaism. They devoted a whole day to God and no one was supposed to work. If you did work on the Sabbath, the penalty was death! And there was a reason they were so adamant about it.

If you read the Old Testament, you see that it didn't take long for the Israelites to start taking God for granted and even succumbing to worshiping other gods. And this affected the society morally. The most important gods of the region were fertility gods. Worshiping them often involved things like sacred prostitution and even child sacrifice. Over and over again the prophets condemned not only idolatry but the practices that went with it. The Hebrews also forgot all of the laws about providing for widows, orphans and the poor. They ignored the passages about treating immigrants fairly and even loving the immigrant as yourself, which is found in Leviticus 19:34, just a few verses after the command to love your neighbor as yourself. Quite frankly the Israelites were starting to act as if they could do anything they like because they could make it all right by simply offering a sacrifice at the temple.

If you read the prophets you see them again and again condemning two things: not treating God properly and not treating other people properly. The two go together. If you don't have respect for the creator, you will not likely have any respect for those created in his image. If you don't take God seriously, what else could possibly merit being taken seriously? Oh, sure, you can not love God but still love your spouse or your children. But for what possible reason should you love someone with whom you don't share blood or nationality or culture or geographical proximity? Why should I care about people dying in Syria? Or Africa? Why should I care about what happens to people who are not of my race or religion? Why should I help drug addicts? Or people whose poor life choices have left them in poverty? Why in the world should I love my enemies? That makes no sense whatsoever if there is no God or if God isn't really going to hold me responsible for such things.

The prophets said that God did care about these things and that the people's attitudes and behavior would have consequences. And when foreign empires conquered the Israelites and then the Jews and took them into exile, things got real. And in exile, the Jews started to think about the ways they had neglected God's laws and began to codify them and observe them. After 70 years, Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and let the Jews return to their homeland. And thereafter they had a very strong motive to try to observe the laws that were handed down to God's people. The Pharisees and the scribes not only promoted observance of the law but also tried to apply it to new situations. And they expanded the prohibitions so that one couldn't even get close to violating the commandments. These were considered a hedge or fence around the Torah or law.

For instance, you weren't supposed to work on the Sabbath but what is work? The rabbis came close to the modern scientific definition of work—energy expended—although technically it was any activity that is creative or which exercises control over one's environment. So you not only couldn't do your job; you weren't supposed to bake or cook or pick bones out of fish or sort out undesired food from a mixture that contains desired food or do laundry or write or set a fire or extinguish a fire or complete anything. The Talmud, that commentary on a commentary on the Torah, comes up with 39 broad categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath. Saving a life was permitted but when it came to medicine, the less serious or life-threatening the condition, the more restrictions there were on what you could do for the patient on the Sabbath.

The leader of the synagogue in today's passage probably is thinking this way. Since this woman has been like this for 18 years, it won't kill her to wait another day to be healed. But Jesus is having none of it. He's saying, “Come on! You know that you would untie your animal on the Sabbath (tying and untying things are generally among the forbidden activities) and lead them to water. I am merely freeing this woman from what's been tying up her life in knots for nearly two decades.”

In Mark 2:23-28 Jesus defends his disciples for picking and eating grain on the Sabbath. Technically what they were doing was harvesting and that was forbidden on the Sabbath, not just in the Talmud, but in the Bible (Exodus 34:21). Jesus cites David letting his men eat the consecrated bread which was reserved for the priests. Jesus admits it was unlawful but states this principle: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

A few verses later, in regards to another healing, he asks, “What is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to kill?” What Jesus is saying is that things that are good for physical health are exempted from the Sabbath. When it comes to feeding a hungry person or healing one who is suffering, those life-restoring acts take priority over the strict observance of the law. God made these rules to benefit us not to punish us.

You still find people who think laws come before people, who will not even make common sense exceptions to rules when the rule is harming rather than helping people. For instance, I bet most people do not know that a jury has the power of nullification; that is, a jury has the right to give a verdict that contradicts the evidence that the person did indeed break the law. In 1735 a jury acquitted a journalist who had violated the law that made it a crime to criticize public officials. Northern juries at times refused to convict people for violating the Fugitive Slave Act, which demanded that runaway slaves be captured and returned to their masters. When jurors feel the law violated is an unjust one, they can refuse to convict the person being tried. Naturally jurors are rarely, if ever told they can do this. But the power exists because sometimes applying a law to a certain situation is unjust. Think of Jean Valjean pursued his whole life for stealing a loaf of bread. A reasonable jury would have set him free despite his theft.

In summarizing the law, Jesus boiled it down to two commandments taken from the Torah: To love God with all one is and has (Deuteronomy 6:4,5) and to love one's neighbor as one loves oneself (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus says that no other commandment is greater than these. (Mark 12:28-30). And he means it.

We all know how Jesus felt about adultery. He felt even divorce and remarriage constituted adultery. So what happens when the Pharisees and scribes bring him a woman caught in the act of presumably unambiguous adultery. According to the law, she should be stoned. Jesus could have and, based on his teachings, should have denounced the woman. But instead he stoops and begins writing on the ground. And when he is pressed on the matter, he stands and says, “The person among you who is sinless can cast the first stone.” And he squats down and continues writing. No one is arrogant enough to claim that he is without sin and so they leave, one by one. When Jesus sees that no one has stayed to condemn her, he says, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” Jesus nullifies one of the Ten Commandments because in this case, a person could be saved. And possibly because her accusers singled her out for punishment. It takes two to commit adultery. Where was the man she was caught committing adultery with?

It's not that Jesus thinks that sins shouldn't be punished. But he knows that God is love and that love of God and love of other people are the two principles from which all the rest of the law derives from. They are at the top of the hierarchy of moral values and any application of the other laws that is at odds with the two greatest commandments is a violation of the spirit in which they were given.

One way to think about it is that the 2 greatest commandments are about two kinds of relationships that we have. Picture them as the two axes of the cross. The vertical beam represents our relationship with God. The horizontal beam represents our relationship with other people. You need both. If you only pay attention to your relationship to God and lose the horizontal beam, you get a big “I.” And indeed people who think only about themselves and God to the exclusion of their relationships with and duty to others get very arrogant and egotistical. They tend to confuse their own thoughts with God's and create a god in their own image, usually a God who is not very compassionate toward people.

If you eliminate the vertical beam and focus solely on your relationship with others you can find yourself doing awful things because those relationships matter more than any transcendent moral values. This kind of thinking leads to a father more concerned with his son's swimming career than with the fact that his son raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. This kind of thinking leads to reformers who overthrow their oppressors only to become oppressors in turn. Take away the vertical beam and you have a big minus sign. Social action without regards to God is a big negative.

For a big plus, you need the balance of having both the right relationship with God and the right relationship with others. And when there is a conflict between the two, a moral dilemma, you need to decide on the basis of love. If you pull the plug on terminal Uncle Joe because you hate his guts, that's wrong. But if you love him so much that you want to relieve his suffering even if it means hastening his inevitable death, that's not wrong. And it it tears you up to do so, that means you really do love him. If you defy the government for grins and giggles or to make an illegal buck, that's wrong. If the government is demanding you turn over people to be killed merely because of their race or creed or color or national origin, and you defy that unjust law, that is far from wrong.

Jesus didn't promise us that following him would be easy. Quite the contrary. In this world we will have trouble. But he said that if we obey his commandments to love God and love one another as he loves us, we will know real love. Or as he put it, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him...If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him and we will come to him and make our home in him.” (John 14:21, 23a)

You will have moral dilemmas. When in doubt, do the most loving thing. And the God who is love will be there. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016


Dorothy L. Sayers, the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, was also a brilliant lay theologian. She wrote The Mind of the Maker, a book that not only offers a unique perspective on the Trinity but an insightful look at the creative process as well. She also wrote a translation of The Divine Comedy, whose notes alone put her among the premiere scholars of Dante. In addition, she wrote popular essays on various aspects of Christianity, such as the seven deadly sins and the importance of dogma. After C.S. Lewis, she is perhaps the Christian writer who has influenced me the most. While Lewis' approach to explaining the faith was a subtle mix of clear logic and an avuncular manner, Sayers was much more bracing. One gets the impression that she didn't suffer fools gladly. One passage that I want to quote at length is her reaction on the popular picture of “Jesus, meek and mild.” Sayers wrote, “The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore—on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him “meek and mild,” and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew Him, however, He in no way suggested a milk-and-water person; they objected to Him as a dangerous firebrand. True, He was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven, but He insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites; He referred to King Herod as 'that fox'; He went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a 'glutonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners'; He drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; He cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people's pigs and property; He showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, He displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and He retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb. He was emphatically not a dull man in His human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But He had 'a daily beauty in His life that made us ugly,' and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without Him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness.”

Today's gospel (Luke 29:49-56) was undoubtedly one of the passages that shaped Sayers' analysis. Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” And in case you didn't get the point, Jesus says a few verses later, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” And then he goes into detail about how even families will be split in their opinion of him. It is a very distressing thing to hear from the mouth of our Lord.

It has been said that a preacher ought to do two things: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. In this passage Jesus is trying to wake up those who think things are fine as they are or who wish to go back to the way things were. In the previous chapter of Luke Jesus had it out with the Pharisees. They accused him of casting out demons by accessing the power of the prince of demons; that is, healing people using the power of Satan. Jesus points out that this makes no sense for it posits that Satan's kingdom is in revolt against itself. It makes more sense that a stronger power is routing the powers that oppress people and make them suffer. He accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy, of being more interested in preserving the minutia of the law while neglecting “justice and the love for God!” They bury people under the burden of religious rules and do nothing to help them.

It's still true today. Rules are supposed to make things better for people. They are supposed to protect us from bad or reckless behavior and they are supposed to guide considerate behavior. Regulations are supposed to help people. But people have always figured out how to game the system. Some folks work out ways to violate the spirit of the law while still observing the letter of the law. They know every loophole there is. Or if they are powerful enough, they get the rules rewritten so that they don't impede them in doing what they want. Our tax code is not complex merely because it is trying to cover all economic situations. A lot of it is exceptions and special rules for certain industries and people with certain levels of wealth or sources of income. That's the only way that it is possible for companies to make millions or even billions of dollars and yet pay little or no tax.

You know why Nixon said, “I am not a crook?” Because a reporter from a small town newspaper had found out that Nixon had made more than $400,000 one year but only paid $800 in taxes. It turns out that he had gotten a big tax break for donating his presidential papers to an institution. The problem was that exemption had gone away before he did that and he backdated the transaction so he could claim it. People were clamoring for him to release his tax returns and he resisted. Finally, he did release them to show the people that he was "not a crook." And presidential candidates have done so since, to show the American people that they are honest. It also usually shows that they have good tax lawyers who can minimize how much they pay in taxes.

It's not that regulations are bad in and of themselves. It's that some regulations are good and some are bad. Before the Food and Drug Acts of the early 20th century, you had no guarantee that the food you ate wasn't adulterated or tainted or mislabeled or poisonous. Today medicines have to be shown to be both safe and effective. When they aren't, someone has usually not followed the regulations. On the other hand, in 15 states, a rapist has parental rights over the child he has fathered! He can demand visitation, although he may cleverly bargain that away in return for being freed from having to pay child support. The mother may not be able to give the child up for adoption without getting permission from her rapist. Only 35 states allow those rights to be terminated but first the man has to be convicted. Unfortunately, less than one fifth of rapes are reported and only 5% of those reported end up in convictions. These laws essentially let the rapist continue to stay in the life of his victim and continue to torment her.

Rule making is not easy, because you have to balance the rights of everyone involved. But often the rules don't even take that into consideration. Jesus objected to rules, even those in the Bible, when they were used to harm people or to allow us to neglect them. And he knew that pointing out such injustices was not going to be greeted with applause by those in power.

Jesus didn't relish the fact that his insistence of justice and mercy would divide people; he just knew it would. He knew it would happen despite the fact that he was going to die to bring peace between God and humanity and between different peoples. Which is why he is under such stress in this passage. He wants it over; he wants it completed. He wants to see the good news reach everyone and people to love God and each other and his kingdom to come on earth. I think Jesus is expressing the frustration of anyone who knows he is going to encounter opposition simply for doing the right thing.

It is odd how preaching peace can make people angry. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. tried to change their societies through non-violent protests. The result was that the authorities responded with violence. Just as they did to Jesus. (Okay, Jesus did do one violent thing. He chased the moneychangers out of the temple for ripping people off, essentially profiting off poor people in the name of religion. But nobody arrested him then because they knew he was right. They just wanted to know why he was upsetting business as usual.)

People don't want to hear the truth, especially if it isn't simple and easy. Jesus knew the truth is often a paradox. For instance, we all want justice and we all want peace. But if you administer absolute justice it will disturb the peace. Because nobody is sinless and often society is built on a lot of inequities. In this country we have moved the original inhabitants off their lands and onto reservations; we imported people from Africa and enslaved them; as recently as World War 2, we rounded up and interred Americans who happened to be of the same ethnic makeup as one of our adversaries, the Japanese, but did not do the same to German Americans or Italian Americans. A recent study said it would take another 200 years for the average black family to acquire the same wealth as the average white family. For that matter, when my Mom bought her house and car, she had my dad pretend that they were still divorced so that she could own them in her own name and not her husband's. Women still don't make on average what men do for the same jobs. That's a lot of injustice and though you may not have personally done these things, the results of those actions persist. If strict justice were done, then it would upset a lot more than people's peace of mind.

But if you opt for total peace, that means not making everybody pay for the injustices that they have done or from which they have benefited. In other words, it means forgiving a lot of people for a lot of bad behavior. We like forgiveness in theory; we don't like it when it means we have to forgive specific people for specific wrongs they have done to us. I once talked to an inmate who was troubled by this because his sister was murdered by a serial killer. The killer was in prison. This man couldn't forgive him. I understood. I don't imagine I would be nobler in his position. I told him to try to do what Jesus did. At Golgotha he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He said this while they were crucifying him! I said to the brother, “Notice that Jesus didn't say 'I forgive you.' He said, 'Father, forgive them...' Why not try asking God to forgive your sister's murderer and help you to eventually get to the point where you can, too? Because otherwise, this man is still hurting you. He is still dominating your memory of your sister. You don't want to be his last victim.” Still I don't know if I could take my own advice. But peace is antithetical to absolute justice.

The truth can be tough. It doesn't always lend itself to the simplicity of a bumper sticker or a Tweet. That's why Jesus often asked tough questions and said things that are tough to accept. He wasn't a politician, telling people what they want to hear. He was more like a physician, making diagnoses difficult to listen to and prescribing treatment and therapy that would be hard on those who followed it.

My dad was the maitre 'd of a fancy restaurant at the top of an office building. One Saturday night, as he was closing things down, he tripped over a coffee table in the lobby and broke his leg. He was the last person in the building and so he lay there, in pain, all night. He was discovered Sunday morning by the cleaning crew. They carried him to the phone to call my mother. It was the only time I ever heard my dad cry. But that wasn't the worst of it. When they got him to the hospital the X-rays showed that his bones were already knitting together, though they were displaced. So the doctor had to rebreak his leg so that it could be set properly. Sometimes the right thing to do is painful.

People don't want to hear that. That's why we have the saying, “Don't shoot the messenger.” Because that is our first instinct. A lawyer who represents whistleblowers says he tells his clients to count the cost. They will probably lose their job, become a pariah in their industry, have to wait a long time to see a result, may not win and if they do, those behind the injustices they exposed may never be punished. That's how much we hate hearing and facing the truth.

Jesus was blowing the whistle not just on one aspect of life but on all of it. He was not exposing the sins of one group of people but of everyone. That's why they felt they had to nail him to a cross. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Mankind cannot bear too much reality.”

One last observation: Jesus chose the word “fire” deliberately. Last week we talked about how fire can be good or bad depending on how it's used. It cooks our food; it gives light and warmth. It can destroy. It can also refine and purify by burning up dross. Here on Big Pine they use controlled burns to get rid of underbrush which could fuel out of control wild fires. They literally fight fire with fire. Jesus wants to do the same. He wants to separate the wheat from the weeds. As do we all. We all want to eliminate the things that make life bad. We want to root out evil. But we have our prejudices and we want to protect our own interests. We are not the best judges of who or what is obstructing goodness. Jesus has no such bias. And when he was being attacking for healing and helping people, of course he wished he could just get the whole mess cleaned up already.

There is another thing fire is good at: spreading. And sure enough, the good news of God's burning love revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ spread through the Roman Empire like wildfire. Jesus was crucified in 30 AD. By the end of that century there were house churches in every major city ringing the Mediterranean Sea. Despite it being an illegal religion, more and more people responded to the message of God's grace and forgiveness and became Christians. At times, this meant persecution and even death. And it split families and communities as Jesus predicted it would.

We still live in a world where folks are offended by the idea that God wants us to love even our enemies, to forgive what we consider unforgivable, to minister to those who have made bad life decisions, and to repay evil with good. They hate it so much they can lose it and get violent and divisive about it. They will shoot the messenger. God knows that. Jesus foresaw that. But with the power of the Spirit we need to do the right thing and spread the good word, no matter who it infuriates. The world needs to wake up and face the uncomfortable truth that the way we've been doing things all this time just increases injustice, strife and misery. It's as obvious as the signs of an oncoming storm. We need to follow the orders of the great physician, Jesus. Yes, it may difficult and painful at times; Jesus knows that better than anyone. But until we put ourselves in his hands we won't heal properly. But if we let him change our hearts and minds, no matter how traumatic it seems, we will be healthy and grow to be who we were meant to be.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Heart and Home

The scriptures referred to are Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and Luke 12:32-40.

You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what is close to some people's hearts. It used to be that you would see cars or trucks plastered with bumper stickers that spelled out the person's political or religious viewpoint. Today it's their Facebook page and the stuff they post and repost. We now know which people in our life are supporting which issue, which party, which sports team, which fandom, and which religion. Pet owners post numerous pictures of their dogs or cats or goats. New parents and grandparents flood your newsfeed with videos and stills of babies and toddlers. (Guilty!) You can even tell Facebook what kind of posts you want to or don't want to see. More and more our social media pages are like a hall of mirrors, infinitely reflecting where our hearts really are.

Most people have a number of interests. Others have just one thing they go on and on about. We've all met them. Eventually you learn to avoid them unless you want to spend all your available time talking about the Miami Heat or their awful ex or the latest superhero movie or the candidate they like or the candidate they hate. They can come to fit Winston Churchill's definition of a fanatic: someone who can't change their mind and won't change the subject. And, yes, there are religious people like that, who can turn any conversation, be it astrophysics or car maintenance into a discussion of their religion. Certain militant atheists are just as bad, bending every subject into a reason why God doesn't exist or why religion is the root of all evil.

In some cases, such single-mindedness is a strength. It leads some scientists to make breakthroughs, or some reformers to change society. The problem comes when the object of this intense focus supplants everything else in one's life. FBI agent John Douglas confesses that his job interviewing and classifying and hunting down serial killers destroyed his marriage. Catching these monsters seemed much more important than time spent with his family. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis' obsession with getting doctors to wash their hands in the 1850s saved patients' lives but ruined his career and may have even led to his death in an asylum. (This was before germs were discovered to cause disease.) And I saw an episode of a show about toys where a woman's obsession with collecting every Barbie ever manufactured had her family living in a very small portion of the house. Her teenage boys could not use the closet in their room because it was crammed with Malibu Barbie's house and car and other accessories. The same situation was mirrored in a different household where a man's collection of Hot Wheels cars literally covered every flat surface in their home.

Most of us are not that bad. But it behooves all of us to examine ourselves and see that no one area of our lives is crowding out other vital areas. In today's gospel Jesus observes that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And he is specifically warning us about getting too attached to our possessions. We like to think that this is not a problem. A good test of that is to take Luke 12:33, drop the word “possessions” and replace it with something specific that you treasure. Like “Sell your season tickets to the Marlins and give to the poor.” Or “Sell your books and give to the poor.” Or “Sell your smartphone and give to the poor.” If you find something that would be just too painful to part with, even though it would benefit someone who is hungry or homeless, then perhaps you are too emotionally invested in it.

Hetty Green was the richest woman in America during the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. She was a shrewd investor who was worth between 2 to 4 billion dollars in today's money. She was also the most miserly person you will probably ever hear of. She mostly ate 15 cent pies and rarely washed her one dress to save money on soap. She did her business in the offices of the Seaboard National Bank, surrounded by suitcases and trunks of her papers, so she would not have to rent an office of her own. When her son Ned broke his leg, she tried to get him admitted to a free clinic for the poor. His leg never did heal properly and later was amputated. Where was her heart—with her son or with her fortune?

Jesus rightly sees that greed is a form of idolatry. People will make the accumulation of wealth or being richer than other people the center of their lives. For others their idol may be fame, seeing their face or their name on everything. For still others it may be power, being able to tell folks what to do or how to run things, that is their true heart's desire. Often those three go together for money gives one power and having money and power makes one famous.

But all of those things are temporary. Money can be stolen or squandered. Or just evaporate. Companies and investments estimated as worth billions became worthless overnight when the value of their stocks and the mortgage-backed securities they were invested in plummeted in 2008.

Fame is fleeting. Remember when Ross Perot was huge? He founded EDS, a multinational company that made IT equipment, and he even ran for president. He's still alive but when was the last time you thought about him?

Power may be the most slippery of the three. Eliot Spitzer was the crusading Attorney General of New York and then its governor. A little over a year into his governorship he resigned because he was implicated in a prostitution scandal. He was host of a number of short-lived TV shows and tried to run for Comptroller of New York City in 2013 and lost in the primary. Today he's under investigation for assaulting a woman in a hotel.

A person who worships money or fame or power is really worshiping himself, because all of those things magnify him. A person with any or all of those things can do stuff most of us can't and after a while they feel entitled to do anything. They can bend rules or get them bent for them and eventually come to think the rules don't apply to them. There are scientific studies that show that people who are much better off in status or wealth tend to cheat more often and be less empathetic to others. Mind you, in experiments in which they had people grade their own math tests and supposedly shred them and then get paid a dollar for each right answer they said they had, 70% of people cheated a little. About 20% cheated a lot. And it wasn't confined to people who really needed the money. When everyone tells you you are special, you start to think you deserve special treatment and you should get breaks others don't get.

In some cases, people worship sex. They want as much as they can get with anyone they can get it from. And like money, power, or fame, sex is not in and of itself evil. In fact sex is a gift from God. But it is powerful which means it can do a lot of good or a lot of damage, depending how you use it. In my marriage classes I like to compare sex to fire. Fire can be very good. It cooks your food; it gives you warmth; it gives light. But that's if the fire is where it's supposed to be: in a stove, in a furnace, in a fireplace or on a candle. Fire outside the proper place, like on your curtains or on your roof or on your clothes is very bad. Fire needs to be controlled if we are to benefit from it. People who like fire for fire's sake, who worship fire, are called pyromaniacs or arsonists.

Sex can be a great good when it is used to express real committed selfless love for one's spouse. It literally chemically binds people together. It can bring new people into the world born of that love. Money can be a great good when it is used to feed or educate or care for others who through misfortune would have to do without those things. Fame can be a great good when a celebrity uses it to throw a spotlight on a problem or a disease and rallies people to become part of the solution. Power can be a great good if it is used to make society and the world a better place for all.

God gave us many good gifts. We created evil when we used them to harm rather than to help. And one of the most harmful things we can do is put them in place of God, to worship the gift and not the giver. God is not a celestial ATM or a genie. He is our creator and the one who loves us more than anyone else can. But if we put any of the gifts in his place it would be like trying to replace the hub of a bicycle wheel with a spoke or a tire. The hub must be in the center. The spokes radiate out from it. You can do without a spoke or two. Spokes sometimes have to be replaced. A tire must be replaced from time to time. But you cannot do without the hub.

If we invest our whole existence in the things of this world, our lives will be as out of balance as a wheel whose hub has been displaced. You will find it harder to navigate this world. You will not be able to avoid the potholes. You'll get thrown off a lot.

You need to invest in what is essential. You need to recognize that only what is eternal will outlast this life and this world. You need to be grounded in what Paul Tillich called the Ground of all being: God.

In our passage from Hebrews 11, the author speaks of how our ancestors in the faith put their trust in God, who cannot be seen. Some people think they have trouble trusting what can't be seen. Except for the air they can't see but trust to keep them breathing. And the electromagnetic waves they can't see but which they trust to let them listen to the radio or watch TV or use their smartphones. Or the gut bacteria they can't see with the naked eye but which they trust to keep them healthy.

Our ancestors had less metaphors of unseen things with which to compare God but, like the wind, they could see the effects of his power in their lives. And they trusted in his promises, including that of a better world. After we used God's good gifts to do evil to ourselves and others, God promised his people a better world, a new creation. And as Abraham traveled to a promised land, and as Moses led the Hebrews back to the promised land, and as the exiled Jews left Babylon to return to their homeland, so we find ourselves traveling through this world to the next, our true home. This world is transient. We, like those before us, desire a better country: one that is just and compassionate and peaceful and filled with an abundance of good things for all. This is not that world. Not yet. Just as Jesus died and was resurrected in a body that no longer had human limitations, so we will die and be resurrected to be like him and this world will die and be resurrected as a new creation.

That doesn't mean we don't need to worry about what we do to and in this world anymore than looking forward to our resurrection body means we can abuse our present one. Nobody will get you a pony if you can't feed and take proper care of your goldfish. Nobody is going to buy you a Lexis if you can't be bothered to get regular oil changes for the Chevy Grandpa gave you. And God definitely is interested in what we do with this life before he upgrades us to the next.

We take care of this world and the people in it in joyful anticipation for the better world God will give us. We trust him and we want to show ourselves to be trustworthy stewards of what we have now. And part of being a good steward is knowing whom we serve. It's not money or fame or power or sex or food or any other fleeting thing. We serve the God who is love. If that's whom we treasure, that's where our heart will be. And that's where we will live forever.