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.  

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