Sunday, December 24, 2017

Here to Help

The scriptures referred to are Titus 2:11-14.

Kids aren't stupid. They see a whole bunch of old guys in beards and red suits and they wonder how can they all be Santa. And the explanation I got when I was a kid was that they were Santa's helpers. They looked like him but they were simply his representatives. Yet if we told one of them what we wanted for Christmas it would get to him.

The evolution of the historical St. Nicholas of Myra into today's Santa Claus is an interesting one. I wonder what that 4th century bishop would have thought of his image today. There's one thing he would definitely not be happy about, though, and that is the way the holiday of Christmas is now about him and not Jesus, to whom he had devoted his life.

The real St. Nicholas doesn't sound like the kind of person who would be popular among kids around the world. He was born in 270 AD in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, to Greek parents. They died and he was raised by his uncle, a bishop. Nicholas went on a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine. He became Bishop of Myra and was imprisoned in the last official persecution of the church, under the Emperor Diocletian. He was released when Constantine took the throne and came to the Council of Nicea, from which we get the Nicene Creed. The major controversy at the Council concerned the teachings of Arius, who said that Jesus was not equally God with the Father but was a secondary created god. Nicholas got so angry at this attempt to demote Christ that he slapped the heretic's face. Not so jolly, then.

Why did he become everyone's favorite saint then? There are stories of Nicholas miraculously saving sailors and miraculously reviving dead students. But the primary story about Nicholas regards his generosity. One of Nicholas' parishioners was a poor man who had 3 daughters. He had no dowry for them so no one would want to marry them. It was feared, therefore, that in order to support their family they might have to go into prostitution. To help the family without embarrassing them Nicholas is said to have gone by their house at night and thrown 3 purses of gold coins through the windows, one for each daughter. Some versions have him doing so over 3 nights or over a number of years as each daughter reached marriageable age. Some versions have the bags of money falling into the women's stockings which were hung by the fireplace to dry. Some have him dropping them down the chimney. In one version they are gold balls and that explains the 3 gold balls on pawnbroker's signs. You can see how the legend evolved.

Nicholas became the patron saint of not only pawnbrokers but sailors, fishermen, children, students, archers, pharmacists and repentant thieves! He is also the patron saint of Russia, Greece, Galway, Aberdeen, Liverpool, Moscow, Amsterdam, and the Hellenic Navy. He died on December 6, 343 AD. December 6 became his Saint's Day, and it was popular to secretly give gifts then. My wife's father, whose folks came from Poland, would fill their stockings with fruits and nuts on St. Nicholas' Day. You can see how this tradition migrated to Christmas just 3 weeks later.

Nicholas is one of the few saints of whose appearance we have an accurate idea. In 2005, using measurements of his bones, a forensic lab in England calculated that the real St. Nicholas was 5' 6” and had a broken nose. Did Arius hit him back?

Like a lot of the early saints, Nicholas was a real person around whom stories grew up over the centuries. What we do know about him is that he was a popular and courageous bishop devoted to Jesus, whose generosity had people talking about him long after he was gone.

I don't want to get into the long story of how Nicholas became Santa Claus. What I want to look at is the issue that got him worked up enough to do a very unChristlike thing to a heretic. Why was it so important to him and to the church that Jesus was part of the Triune God?

It was pretty remarkable that the early disciples, orthodox Jews who believed in one God and abhorred idolatry, would come to believe that Jesus was God. But we know they did and in a fairly short time, too. Paul's letters are the earliest documents in the New Testament, earlier than the gospels. Most scholars think his letter to the Philippians was written between 50 and 60 AD. And in the second chapter of the letter Paul says that Jesus was equal to God but did not think it was something to be clung to but emptied himself to take on our form. (Philippians 2:6-7) In his first letter to the Corinthians, written around 55 AD, Paul calls Christ “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:24) In AD 57, Paul uses the phrase, “Christ, who is over all, God blessed for ever.” (Romans 9:5) In our passage from Titus he calls him, “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Those were all written in just 20 to 30 years after Jesus' death and resurrection. That would be like claiming Jimmy Stewart, who died 20 years ago, or Jackie Gleason, who died 30 years ago, rose again from the dead and was co-equal with God. Too many people are still alive who knew them and who could refute the assertions. But Paul could say this without any qualms. It took literally hundreds of years for whoever it was that the legendary Arthur was based on to evolve from a mere battle leader to the magic-sword-wielding king of all Britain. The idea that the apostles changed the story of a man to one of his being God in 2 decades strains credulity.

But what does it matter if Jesus was not THE God? Well, that means that God delegated the redemption of the whole world to a another being. That means the life of someone less than God was somehow enough to balance out the sins of the world. And apparently that person was sinless so that he did not have to atone for his own bad thoughts, words and deeds.

It also means that God did not so love the world that he would fix the problem himself. He asked someone else to undergo unbearable torture and death, rather than bear it himself. If your parent or spouse told you how hard they worked to get you just the right present and then you found out he simply dumped the chore on his secretary, it would not be the labor of love you believed it to be. 1 John 4:8 says God is love, but if Jesus was some other being to which God gave the excruciating task of dying to save us, evidently God is not enough love to have some skin in the game.

But if Jesus is God, if he is an integral person in the eternal love relationship that is God, that makes a big difference. It means God loved us enough to become one of us, to suffer and die for us. The creator of life undergoes death to save his creatures.

If Jesus is God and God is love, it means he loves us despite our faults and failings, despite our destructive and self-destructive thoughts, words and actions. As Paul said, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) It's possible that someone might die for a really good person, but for a whole planet of screw ups? That's love.

If Jesus is God, it means his resurrection is not some magic trick, nor a reward for doing the tough task of atonement, but it is the God of life asserting his supremacy over death. Instead of being swallowed up in death, he will, in the words of Isaiah, “destroy the shroud that enfolds all people, the veil that is spread over all nations—he will swallow up death forever.” (Isaiah 25:7-8)

If Jesus is God and he conquered death, it means that if we are united with Christ, we too will experience resurrection and new life. And remember Jesus promised eternal life. Eternal means without ending or beginning. But we creatures have a beginning. To receive eternal life, therefore, means to receive his life, God's life. It means to enter into the life shared from all eternity by Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the life of the love that has always been and from which we've sprung. But Jesus can only offer eternal life if it is his to share, only if he is eternally God.

If Jesus is God, it means God knows what our lives are like from firsthand experience. Jesus had brothers who mocked and disbelieved him and thought he was crazy. Jesus had to deal with people who just didn't understand him. He had a friend who betrayed him. He had friends who deserted him when he needed them the most. He experienced pain, both physical and psychological. He knew what it was like to feel so alone it felt like God himself had abandoned him.

If Jesus is God, it means that when we pray, he hears us with the utmost empathy. He is not aloof and above it all. He has gotten his hands dirty; he has taken a dose of his own medicine, so to speak, though it is not he who turned the paradise he created into hell on earth. If Jesus is God, he is not indifferent to us and to our plight, nor does he want to condemn us to weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. In fact, he endured all those things so that we don't have to.

So you see why Nicholas of Myra felt this was not a trivial matter. The divinity of Christ tells us that when we deal with Jesus we are dealing with God Almighty. As Jesus said, “I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30) And as he told Phillip on the night he was betrayed, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) In Jesus we see what God is really like: just yet merciful, loving yet demanding, asking much but forgiving more. In Jesus we see the self-sacrificial love which powers creation.

And if Jesus is God, and we are created in the image of God, in Jesus we see what we can be. God made us to reflect his love. In Jesus we see the image of God unclouded by selfishness and sin, by greed and rage, by laziness and lust, by envy and arrogance. And when we let Jesus enter our hearts, when we let him heal us and make us whole, we gradually become who we were intended to be. We become more faithful, more hopeful, more loving, more Christlike day by day.

I started by talking about Santa's helpers, how they look like him and represent him. We are to be Jesus' helpers. We are to resemble him, not physically but spiritually, and represent him to a world that needs him, even if it doesn't realize it. For many people, who would not set foot in a church, nor crack open a Bible, we may be the only Christ they ever see. They may not remember the stories of Jesus but they will remember what we do for them in his Spirit.

Of course, some people get all puffed up about representing Jesus. Once again he sets the example and it is all about humility. When God became a human, he could have been born to a rich and powerful family. Instead he was born to a poor one. He wasn't born in a palace but a small room with animals on one side, the raised family area on the other and a feeding trough running down the middle. And he didn't sleep in a cradle but in that feeding trough. And I don't imagine the animals were any too happy about that. He wasn't greeted by princes and dignitaries but by shepherds. Could you imagine an exhausted Mary and Joseph getting up to answer the pounding of the door only to have a bunch of smelly, dirty people who worked outside all day with animals usher themselves in? I bet they told that story all their lives.

If Jesus is God, and God came to us as a poor working man, then it doesn't matter who we are or what we do. After all Jesus said we are to see him and serve him in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the alien, the sick, the imprisoned, in the least important and least impressive of his brothers and sisters. What we do to them will get to him. If they, the helpless, can represent him, so can we, the helpful, just as we are and where we are, using whatever gifts and skills and experiences God has given us to do it.

And though Jesus expects us to spread his message of love and forgiveness and healing, if our gifts don't lie in words, don't worry. We needn't use fancy, churchy speeches to communicate the good news of Jesus to those we meet. We certainly don't need to get into fights about saying “Merry Christmas” or bring up politics or the latest religious controversy. We can just introduce ourselves and say, “Hi! How can I help?”


The scriptures referred to are 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Romans 16:25-27 and Luke 1:26-38.

I saw a comic strip on the internet that shows two people. One asks the other, “If there's intelligent life on other planets, why haven't they contacted us?” The next panel shows a planet 65 million light years away from earth. On it we see two aliens looking back at earth through a telescope. “The inhabitants of that planet don't look very friendly,” says one alien. The other looks into the eyepiece and sees what one would see from that distance in space, given the speed of light: a Tyrannosaurus Rex. So maybe the answer to the mystery is that they see what was but not what is.

In today's New Testament passage Paul speaks of the revelation of a mystery. Paul uses the word mystery 21 times in his letters. In 1 Corinthians, the mystery has to do with Jesus the Messiah being crucified. How is that a mystery? Because the world sees what was true before Jesus but not what is true now in him.

In our Old Testament passage we are told that King David wanted to build God a house, a temple. God essentially says, “No. Don't build me a house. Instead I will make you a house.” That is, a dynasty. God promises David that a descendant shall be on the throne of his kingdom forever.

But the passage doesn't really tell us why God refuses to let David build him a house especially when God has no objection to letting Solomon, David's son, do so later. In the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles, the reason becomes clear. David says, “But God said to me, 'You are not to build a house for my Name, because you are a warrior and have shed blood.'” (1 Chronicles 28:3) God did not want a man of war, a man with blood on his hands, to build his temple. Yes, David beat back the enemies that threatened the tiny kingdom of Israel but that doesn't make him any different from any warrior-king of his or any other age. General George Patton said a soldier doesn't win a war by dying for his country; he does it by making sure the other guy, the enemy, dies for his country. That's especially true of kings. The kingdoms of this world are founded and maintained by shedding the blood of others. But just as God wanted a man of peace to build his temple, so ultimately he wanted a man of peace to build his kingdom.

And that's the mystery that Paul saw in the crucified Christ. No one expected that kind of Messiah. No one conceived of a king who lets his own blood be shed. That's just crazy talk. But not the way God sees it.

The world sees life as a competition. If I want it, you can't have it. And the easiest way for me to get it is to simply take it. If I have to take it from you, well, c'est la guerre. As it says in the book of James, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” (James 4:1-2a)

It's the basis of most of our stories. In many writing classes they tell you to have your main character want something strongly and then throw obstacles in the way of his or her obtaining it. That will get the audience to identify with the character and have an emotional investment in the story. Another thing writers and storytellers are taught is that conflict provides drama: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. machine, man vs. society, man vs. self, man vs. God. Our most popular movies are about violent conflict: fighting supervillians, zombies, evil space empires. They usually end with explosions and the death of the bad guy in a mano a mano fight with the hero. I remember walking out of the first Matrix movie, stunned that they somehow made an action film out of the life of Christ, complete with his death, resurrection and ascension, not to mention John the Baptist!

I enjoy these films but they reflect the worldview of, well, the world. And the fighter heroes of our pop culture are not like Jesus. They deal with evil by harming and killing bad people. Jesus dealt with evil by making people whole, physically and spiritually. If they were sick, he healed them. If they were hungry, he fed them. He dealt with the evil of greed and materialism by dining with tax collectors and showing them the riches of the kingdom of God. He dealt with the evil of ignorance by teaching them the wisdom of the kingdom of God. He dealt with the evil of intolerance by helping whoever came to him, be they Jews, Samaritans or Gentiles. He dealt with the evil of arrogance by modeling humility. He dealt with the evil of sexism by ignoring cultural norms and teaching women. He dealt with the evil of excluding from society those who are deemed disgusting by touching lepers and menstruating women. He dealt with the evil of condemning people to death for certain sins by forgiving adulterers and criminals. He dealt with the evil of violence by refusing to resist those who beat and crucified him.

The world thinks the way to deal with its problems is by making ever more detailed rules and then enforcing them ruthlessly. Jesus dealt with the world's problems by boiling down the rules to their essentials—loving God and loving each other—and offering forgiveness to those who are willing to change. To paraphrase him, the rules are made for our benefit; we were not made for the benefit of the rules. People, especially those who make the rules, tend to forget that. They are unwilling to make exceptions and all too willing to sacrifice those who don't fit into the nice neat categories they've created as stand-ins for reality.

One of those people we've sacrificed is Jesus, of course. Because we hate mysteries that don't yield easy answers. Jesus is God, yet he got hungry; he got tired; he wept at a friend's grave; he got frustrated with his students when they failed to grasp the most basic things he was teaching them. Jesus had great power at his command, yet he refused to use it to make himself rich or to meet his own needs or even to stop others from harming him. Jesus is God's anointed king yet he didn't raise an army or claim a piece of land for himself or play politics. And so he also doesn't fit neatly into any of the categories we substitute for what actually is.

One of the more desperate ways to deal with Jesus is to pretend he never existed. Last week I was reading about a 700 page book which argued that Jesus was never an historical person but a myth from the start. No serious historian believes this but I can see why some people wish that were true. If Jesus didn't exist we don't need to deal with him: the paradoxes, the theological implications, the ethical ramifications. We can simply dismiss him as being no more real than Luke Skywalker. You can like him in the way you like Superman but you are under no obligation to follow him.

But if Jesus existed, then he is harder to disregard. To deny he said what he said and did what he did, you can say he was a real person but that nothing written about him by his contemporaries and followers was accurate. Or you can say he was real but got turned into a myth in a couple of decades despite all evidence that it takes centuries to do that with people like whoever King Arthur was based on. Or you can say he was really a real person whose true story was distorted and manipulated by his inner circle, despite the fact that they gained nothing from it except grisly deaths at the hands of those in power. If Jesus is real, he is a real problem for those who don't want to believe in him.

Paul also used the word mystery to refer to another aspect of Christianity: God's plan to unite all things in and through Christ. This answers the other mysteries we contemplate in life: Why are we here? Where are we going? We are here to reflect the love of the God in whose image we are created and work together in that love to make the world what he intended it to be. And the model community, the seed of that harmonious kingdom Jesus spoke of, is the body of Christ.

When we open our hearts to Jesus, when we become united with him in his death and resurrection through baptism, we enter the body of Christ and the Spirit of God enters us. And that means, unlike the kingdoms of this world where citizenship is a matter of geography or conquest, being part of the kingdom of God is voluntary and open to all. Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female—for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Belonging to a religion is usually tied to ethnicity or race. If you are born to a Jewish mother, you are automatically Jewish, even if you don't observe the faith. Most Hindus are Indian; most followers of Shinto are Japanese. But very early in the history of the church it became obvious that Christianity could not be kept Jewish. Gentiles began to come to Jesus and that caused a crisis in the church. But the apostles realized that the Spirit of God was moving them out of their comfort zone and into the wider world.

In Revelation John sees in a vision, “an enormous crowd that no one could count, made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7:9) And indeed you will find millions of Christians in Afghanistan, Brazil, China, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Greece, Honduras, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Lithuania, Madagascar, Namibia, Pakistan, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Uruguay, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and so on: more than 200 countries in all. The entire Bible has been translated into 670 languages and the New Testament alone into 1521 languages.

The good news is for everyone. The Spirit of God can work in and through anyone. The people of God have a unity that does not depend on a uniformity of language or race or nationality or gender. To those outside, it's a mystery.

And a bigger one is this: A poor man from a small oppressed country says the god of a nationalistic and ethnic religion has sent him with a message for the world. They kill him and that still does not stop him. From a handful of followers faith in him grows to encompass the globe. The whole thing is a mystery that people are still delving into 2000 years after it began.

Part of the reason Jesus and his movement remain a mystery to some people is the same reason the aliens in the comic strip haven't contacted us. They are looking at how the world was and what they assume it is and always will be. They are not looking at what is happening right before their eyes. Things are changing. God is doing something new and it is greater than anything we can ask or imagine.

No mystery is total, though. You don't have to understand exactly how your computer works to use it. You don't have to understand biochemistry to eat healthily. You don't have to understand how quantum physics works to live in the world that it underlies. We don't need to know everything about God to benefit from his good news about Jesus. But we do have to respond properly to receive the new life in Christ promised us. A check does you no good unless you cash it. A doctor can't cure you if you don't go to him.

When the angel came to her, Mary didn't know all that having God's son would entail. But she knew enough. She trusted in God's goodness and said, “Yes.”

We know more than Mary did. We know what happened after Jesus' birth. We know what he said and what he did and how he died and how he rose again. We have a vision of what the Spirit is doing: recreating the world so that everyone in it reflects the nature of the God who is love. We have an opportunity to be a part of it. And so the chief mystery is: will we, like Mary, be brave enough and trusting enough to say, “Yes?” 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Jesus' Mission Statement

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11.

As we said last week prophets both comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. The later came in the form of God's judgment on the sins of the people. The sins in question were against God and their fellow human beings. With regards to God, either they were not worshiping him in the proper spirit or not worshiping him at all or worshiping other gods. With regards to humans, they were guilty of mistreatment and/or neglect of the least powerful in society: the poor, widows, the fatherless and aliens. The judgment usually came in the form of an enemy who would oppress or conquer and take into exile the people. In today's passage Isaiah is speaking about the Babylonian exile.

The comfort comes in their liberation by Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who let the Jews return to their homeland and practice their religion. That is what Isaiah is celebrating here. And he is using the language of the Jubilee year, laid out in Leviticus 25, that says that every 50 years all who were enslaved to pay off debts were freed. In addition, lands that had be leased to pay off debts revert to the original family. This is because God, not the people, owns the land and its original apportionment to tribes, clans and families is meant to stand. In essence the land of Judah had been taken from them by the Babylonians and was being returned to the Jews. They are getting their homeland back. No wonder they are rejoicing.

The passage from Leviticus also gives us the idea of the redeemer. This was a kinsman who would buy back property that an impoverished family member sold. The redeemer would restore an inheritance that would otherwise be lost. Now you know the origin of that word and concept.

Jesus kicked off his ministry by reading the first verse and part of the second from our Old Testament passage. You might say it was his mission statement. His ministry was to be a jubilee, a buying back of what was lost. Let's look at it in detail.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me...”

All true prophets were anointed with God's Spirit to carry out their mission. This is especially true of Jesus, which we see at his baptism. In fact, Messiah and its Greek equivalent, Christ, simply mean “Anointed.” Jesus also fulfills the roles of two other classes of people who were anointed: priests and kings. But for purposes of this passage we are just looking at the Messiah's role as a prophet. He has a message to give.

He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed...”

I like the way the Tanakh translation renders this verse: “He has sent me as a herald of joy to the humble.” The Hebrew word translated “oppressed” in the NRSV can also mean “humble, meek, poor.” It is related to the word for “afflicted.” It designated people so vulnerable that they are often oppressed. And the Anointed One is bringing them "glad or cheerful" news. One wonders if this is where Jesus got the idea for calling his message the euangellion, the evangel. It's the Greek equivalent of our word “gospel,” which is simply old English for “good news.” What is central to the Messiah's mission is this message of hope. bind up the brokenhearted...”

I find this a touching confirmation that God cares about our emotional well-being. It recalls 1 Peter 5:7, which speaks of “casting all your cares on him, for he cares for you.” And of course there is the promise in Revelation that in the new creation, that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 21:4) God made us with emotions and cares about them as much as he does about our bodies and spirits. Indeed all three are intertwined and what affects one affects the others. It's hard to heal a patient physically if they are depressed and it's hard not to be depressed if you are in pain. Jesus healed mind, body and spirit. proclaim liberty to the captives...”

Isaiah is speaking of the release of the Jews from Babylon but the language recalls the Jubilee year when debt-slaves were free. For Jesus this meant something different. I have always wondered about his word choice in the Lord's Prayer, specifically where he says, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12) The Aramaic word he probably used could mean both “debts” and “sins.” From this perspective sins are violations of our obligations to God and to each other. We are to love, trust and obey God. We are to love our neighbor and treat others as we would like to be treated. We owe that to the God who created us and gave us this planet as our home. Obviously, we have not met these basic obligations which put us in debt to God and to each other. Jesus illustrates this vividly in his parable of the unforgiving slave, who begs his master to forgive him a huge debt and then turns around and comes down hard on a fellow slave who owes him much less. (Matthew 18:21-35) Jesus is proclaiming the release of the people from the huge debt they owe God for their past sins.

...and release to the prisoners...”

Again, when Middle Eastern monarchs took their thrones, they usually released inmates from debtors' prison as a show of magnanimity. Jesus is in a sense announcing the inauguration of the kingdom or royal reign of God. He is starting off with a show of goodwill by forgiving his people for their moral debts to him. proclaim the year of the Lord's favor...”

Another reference to the Jubilee year. But “favor” is one meaning of the word “grace,” God's undeserved goodness towards us. I cannot help but think Jesus also got the connection between the year of God's favor and the grace of God revealed in him and his mission. Christ is coming to announce God's reign which is seen in how he is freeing people from their slavery to sin and death.

...and the day of vengeance of our God...”

When reading this passage from the scroll in the synagogue, Jesus stops just before this phrase. His first coming is about grace and forgiveness. Vengeance is left for later, his second coming. As it says in verse 8, “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.” Oddly enough, the Hebrew word for wrongdoing or injustice is pronounced evel, though we don't get the word English word “evil” from it. (The Hebrew word for evil is ra.) But the point is that Yahweh is simultaneously a God of justice and a God of grace; he is righteous and yet merciful. Which is interesting. Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting all that you deserve. Grace is getting what you could not possibly deserve. That's a tricky balance and, thankfully, one we can leave to God. He know when to be just, when to be merciful and when to extend the gift of his grace.

Notice however that what is proclaimed is a whole year of the Lord's favor and only a day of vengeance. God is not going to draw things out; he will make short work of dispensing justice. The idea that God is all about judging and sending people to hell is an unbalanced view of God and his priorities. He says in Ezekiel, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God, so turn and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32) A doctor doesn't spend his time dealing with disease because he loves it but because he wants to make people better. God is the same way.

As we in Advent await the coming of Jesus, we find ourselves busy with buying presents, going to office parties, making cookies, traveling to see family or preparing to receive visiting family. What we should not neglect is letting people know about the most gracious gift of all, Jesus Christ, our redeemer and king. He comes with good news to the poor and vulnerable, to heal those with wounded and broken hearts, to free those enslaved to destructive and self-destructive thoughts, words and behaviors. We recommend movies we like. We recommend doctors who have helped us. We should recommend Jesus, who helps us and heals us and guides us and loves us.

We are all going to give and get gifts this year. Will we remember most of them next year? Do you remember what you got last year? 5 years ago?

Now do you remember when you accepted Jesus, when you decided to become a Christian? Why? Because, unlike most of gifts we receive, he has made a lasting change in your life. Wouldn't you like to do that for someone you know and love? What's holding you back?

Monday, December 11, 2017

Comfort My People

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 40:1-11.

Prophets essentially did 2 things: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. For the last 2 Sundays we have been reading things that Jesus and Isaiah said that afflicted those who were comfortable with the world as it is: unjust, merciless and indifferent to the suffering of others. This week we see the other side of the coin.

Isaiah is told to comfort God's people. What they need comforting about is the exile: 70 years spent as aliens in Babylon. They are wondering how long will this go on. Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, would conquer Babylon and let the Jews return to their homeland. Their captivity was a disaster, albeit a man-made one. They, like us, had to go home and then rebuild. They, like us, would be stressed out. What they needed was comfort. As do we.

Friday I went to a 4 hour seminar from AHEC and the Red Cross called Psychological First Aid in Disaster and Recovery. About 95% of the attendees were nurses. And all of us were dealing with the aftermath of Irma in our personal lives.

The seminar covered things like the way stress affects us and how it manifests itself emotionally, cognitively, physically, behaviorally and spiritually. We discussed the difference between the ways adults react and the ways children and teens react. We discussed the 12 steps of psychological first aid, like the importance of being kind, calm and compassionate, even when dealing with difficult people. Because this was psychological first aid, we were instructed to know our limits and know when to refer the person to a professional based on the 3 Rs: their reaction, risk factors and resilience.

A couple of months ago I talked about resilience. What I want to talk about on this, the 3 month anniversary of Hurricane Irma's landfall, is the ways we find ourselves reacting to this catastrophe, as well as both negative and positive coping strategies.

Emotionally, the stress of having gone through a disaster or any trauma can manifest itself in things like rage and irritability, anxiety, despair, numbness, guilt, sadness, helplessness and/or feeling overwhelmed.

Cognitively, people dealing with a lot of stress will often have difficulty concentrating and thinking and making decisions, and will experience forgetfulness, confusion, distortion of space and time, intrusive thoughts, memories and flashbacks, a sense of being cut off from reality, self-blame and even thoughts of self-harm.

Physically, stress manifests itself in fatigue, sleep problems, physical complaints, increased cravings for caffeine, nicotine, food, alcohol,or illicit drugs, increased or decreased sex drive, increased or decreased appetite, and susceptibility to being startled.

Behaviors that stress triggers include crying spells, angry outbursts, withdrawal and avoiding people, places and situations, risky behaviors, school or work problems and inattention to appearance, personal hygiene or taking care of oneself.

Spiritually, the stress of a disaster or other major trauma can show itself in a change in our relationship with or belief about God, abandonment of prayer, ritual, or devotions, struggles with questions about the meaning of life, justice, fairness or the afterlife, and the rejection of those who provide spiritual care.

But unlike all the other categories, some of the spiritual effects of a disaster can be positive. A disaster can lead to increased trust in God, gratitude such as when losses are primarily material but our loved ones survive, an increased sense of a mission or purpose in life, and an increase in spiritual rituals and service to others. In fact, our presenter, a psychotherapist, said that people who regularly attend religious services tend to do better in recovering from a disaster. Part of that might be that they have the support of their faith community. Part of it might be the help their faith gives them in finding meaning. Remember what psychiatrist Viktor Frankel discovered in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany: if you have a reason why you need to live, you can endure almost any way how you need to do it.

I think another part of the reason that the spiritual effects can be good is that faith provides you with coping strategies. As I said we talked about both negative and positive coping strategies. The negative ones are fairly obvious: drinking, smoking, taking illicit drugs, and risky behaviors, such as reckless driving, gambling, getting into fights, having multiple sex partners or unsafe sex. In fact even otherwise positive coping strategies can be bad for you if they're overdone. Since stress can interfere with sleep, getting enough sleep is healthy. Staying in bed for days on end is not. Exercise is good; exercising till you drop or hurt yourself is not. Helping others is a good strategy; doing so at the neglect of your own self-care is not.

Positive coping strategies are “anything that relieves tension without negative consequences.” We mentioned a few: rest, exercise, volunteering. That last one you can do through the church or by visiting the nursing home, acting as a Big Brother or Big Sister, working with St. Paul's and St. Mary's Star of the Sea with their feeding program for the poor in Key West, driving people to their doctor's appointments, and leading Bible studies or helping provide worship services for the inmates at the county jail.

Setting short term goals and tackling easily accomplishable tasks are positive coping strategies. Rather than looking at the enormity of restoring your entire property to the way it was, say, "I will clean this room” or “I will plant some tomatoes.” Those are doable and will give you a feeling of some measure of control at a time when so many things are out of your control.

Socializing is another good coping strategy. We are social animals and just being with others is a great way to take your mind off of your own concerns. That said, taking some quiet time to meditate, pray or just relax is also good. However withdrawal from and avoidance of all other people is not a healthy way to deal with stress.

Taking care of a pet can be a very positive way to cope. Pets can be very affectionate; they don't judge you and if you need to walk them, you are also getting exercise.

Maintaining a routine helps. In fact, if you have kids, one of the things that affects them the most is the loss of routine. Getting them back to school and daycare, observing meal and bedtime rituals help them feel that their world is predictable again. For kids, routines make them feel safe.

Kids can manifest their reaction to a disaster or major trauma differently than adults. Physically, they are more likely to have stomachaches or return to bedwetting. Their behavior may regress to thumb sucking or not wanting to sleep alone. They may cling to parents or caregivers and suffer separation anxiety to the point that they don't want to go to school or don't want parents to leave for work. Children are susceptible to magical thinking and may even blame themselves, thinking the disaster is somehow their fault. Or God's. As one nurse at our seminar told us, her son asked “Is God mad at us?” That's a good time to let children know what kind of God we have: one of love and healing.

It doesn't help that we often classify natural disasters as “acts of God.” You might read to your children the passage from 1 Kings. Elijah is hiding in a cave in the desert, feeling sad and persecuted and all alone. “The Lord said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.' Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” (1 Kings 19:11-12) God was not in the hurricane or any disaster but in the gentle voice that encourages people to help. As Mr. Rogers' mother said, “Look for the helpers. There are always helpers.” God is in the helpers. And if we are helpers, God is in us, too.

Listening to music can lift your mood and is a great coping strategy. And you are welcome to join us as we practice this coping strategy every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning. (Hint, hint, hint!)

A key positive coping strategy is staying in the “here and now” and not letting your mind conjure up either wildly wonderful and unlikely futures (“All will be as it was!”) or equally improbable dark and dismal ones (“We will never get over this! This will irreparably break us!”) We humans are terrible prognosticators, especially when we look far beyond the present. It is better to focus on the job and joys at hand.

Nevertheless, we cannot totally ignore the future. Instead we must maintain hope. Without hope, we give up. The seminar also addressed the stress of being a helper. It gave us principles for staying psychologically, physically and spiritually healthy. When it came to maintaining hope it said to “believe in something that has strong meaning to you.” As Christians, we believe in a loving God who is not aloof but who came, lived and died as one of us to rescue us from death and despair. We believe in a God who sends his Spirit to live and work in us, to equip and empower us to help make this world better. We believe in Jesus, which means we believe that death and destruction do not have the last word; rather, our hope lies in the Living Word, the risen Christ, who is the God of Life Incarnate as well as the Life of God made manifest.

And how can we help offer psychological first aid? Well, I recommend you take the seminar if and when they offer it again. But I can share a few key points. And remember: this is only first aid. If you see someone bleeding on the street, you call 911 and put pressure on the bleeding wound till help arrives. You don't do surgery. In the same way psychological first aid is responding quickly, helping people with their immediate basic needs and connecting them with those who can best meet their deeper needs.

So here is the essential part: Listen. Listen, listen, listen. Just be there for them and really listen: don't be waiting till they take a breath so you can jump in. And what if you don't know what to say to someone dealing with a huge loss? Don't say anything. Just hear them out. It means being tolerant because their world has just been upended and you cannot expect them to be calm and rational. People need to wrap their heads around what just happened to them. They need to vent; they need to mourn; they need to curse and cry and know that someone has heard them. And whether they are nice or difficult, we need to be kind, be calm and be compassionate. Half the time the things they are talking about on the surface is not really their root concern. We saw a video at the seminar showing people really upset because building codes would not let them stay in their damaged apartment. Our instructor pointed out that if you paid attention, you realized what they were really concerned with was where were they and their children to stay that night. You only pick that kind of thing up if you really listen.

Our instructor was also keeping in mind that he was not merely talking to people who wanted to help but also to people who themselves had survived a disaster. That meant that this was not academic to us. It meant that, more than most disaster responders, we also needed help dealing with the emotional, cognitive, physical, behavioral and spiritual effects of this event. We were, in the words of Henri Nouwen, wounded healers.

And therein lies the paradox: how can we who suffer offer comfort to others who suffer? But to paraphrase Nouwen, how can you lead someone out of the desert if you've never been there? Because we have suffered, we know suffering. And because God in Christ has suffered, he knows suffering. But because he overcame pain and abandonment and the grave, he can lead us out of the desert of disaster. And if we, in Christ, know triumph and healing, we can pass it on to others or at least put them in touch with him.

There is another meaning to the word “comfort.” It comes from the Latin for “strengthen, support.” And I picture Moses, holding up the staff of God, as the Israelites fight the attacking Amalekites. “As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses' hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.” (Exodus 17:11-13) His brother Aaron and the man named Hur supported Moses when he needed more strength and with their help the people were saved. It is a model for us.

To paraphrase the Rev. John Watson, be kind for everyone is fighting a hard battle. They can use our support. And we in turn can use the support of others. As Paul wrote, “Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) If we all help each other, we can make it through the days to come. Nor are we left to rely on our own strength alone. Paul knew affliction, and from prison, facing death, he wrote, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) In Jesus he found a well of strength and comfort. As he says in 1 Corinthians, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we are comforted by God.” (1 Corinthians 1:3-4)

Our hope and our comfort are in the Lord. He knows our weaknesses. He knows our pain. He knows how stress and trauma feel and how they assault the mind, body and spirit. And on the night he was betrayed and handed over to suffering and death, he comforted his disciples with words that speak to us: “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again, and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy....I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:22, 33)

Monday, December 4, 2017

In the Meantime

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37.

I don't know what I did before the Internet Movie Database. Well, actually, I do. I used books, like Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, and my trivia-packed memory to recall all kinds of details about movies, characters, genres, etc. Now I look these things up on IMDB. For instance, reading today's lectionary texts got me wondering just how many Christian apocalypse movies there are out there. And sure enough, somebody on IMDB put together a list of 2 dozen films, made by Christians, dramatizing the end of the world, at least as they see it in Revelation. But somehow it left out what is arguably the first such film: If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? Created by schlock filmmaker Ron Ormond and preacher Estus Pirkle, this graphically violent low budget film showed what would happen to Christians when the Communists take over—on horseback! Since then there have been a flood of films that seem to dwell on the scary stuff found mainly in 4 chapters in the middle of the last book of the Bible. And they are considered evangelism tools! I guess the religious people behind these movies chose this because modern people don't seem to fear hell much but in this era of nuclear and biological weapons and natural disasters the end of the world is something we can all imagine.

There are some churches and preachers who are really into this stuff. Part of it is the natural human tendency to be interested in things that can harm you. The more you know, the easier it is to avoid such things and the better prepared you will be should such stuff befall you. But some of it comes from the dark part of humanity that enjoys horror movies and stories about serial killers. Awful things can be very entertaining if they are happening to someone else. For instance, the vast majority of Hollywood movies are not based on the Bible and yet have a good deal of death, violence and unsettling things in them.

So I guess I understand some people's lurid fascination with the relatively few apocalyptic passages in the Bible. And the geek in me understands how people can enjoy the game of trying to reconcile all the various details given in scattered places in scripture, despite it being rather futile given that many of those details are poetic expressions and others are plainly symbolic. But I do not understand the other tendency certain Christians show about eschatology: how anyone can think Jesus actually wants us to calculate the time of his return since he explicitly tells us that no one knows the day or hour—not even himself, at least in his earthly life! And I especially don't understand how supposedly Bible-believing Christians can ignore this. In verse 33 Jesus says “you do not know when the time will come.” Can he be any clearer?

Apparently not. When you put “Christian books on the apocalypse” in the Amazon search you get 775 results. Even if you dismiss the typically oddball stuff that Amazon searches net, like Wuthering Heights (!), and the redundancies, like all 16 volumes in the Left Behind series plus the teen novels and spinoffs, that's still a heckuva lot of books. And mind you, they were written on a subject to which the Bible devotes at most 45 out of its 1189 chapters. Less than 4% of scripture concerns the end times.

So why is this subject even included in scripture? Apocalyptic literature came out of times of persecution and oppression. And the message of all apocalyptic writings can be boiled down to this: hang on during the bad times because God will win in the end. There are additional details, like “things will get worse before they get better” and “expect false messiahs but do not follow them.” But basically apocalyptic material was written to encourage suffering believers to hold onto their faith and their morality.

Judah was always a tiny nation surrounded by empires. And when the Jews were taken into exile in Babylon, and later when the successors of Alexander the Great were trying to wipe out Jewish religion and culture, the temptation was to despair of divine justice and assimilate. Similarly, once the Roman emperor realized the Christians were not just a subset of Jews and therefore a separate and hence illegal religion, he subjected them to periodic persecution and even death. It was tempting to either compromise or abandon faith in Christ. So these prophetic writings explained why things were so bad and assured those who persevered that they would see the triumph of God over evil and the reformation of the world as paradise once more. Whereas we often react to parts of apocalyptic passages with horror, the original readers received them as messages of comfort.

Still God sounds very angry in these passages. Yes, and rightly so. He made the world with enough for everyone: enough food, enough water, enough room. We are only just getting to the point where there may indeed not be enough of these things for the billions of people living on this planet in the near future. But for most of history, including today, when you have a society where some people don't have enough to live on and others have many times more than they need to live, the problem isn't scarcity. And as for some things people lack, like freedom, justice and equality of treatment, that is entirely the result of those in power restricting such things to certain people. Add on top of that the violence we inflict on each other, and especially on children, women, and those who are in the minority, and no wonder Isaiah wants God to tear open the heavens, come down, start kicking butts and taking names. And if he were calling on John Wick or Batman or any of the fictional agents of vengeance whose retributive violence we enjoy in movies and on TV and in video games, we would have no problem. When the hero kicks open the door and starts mowing down bad guys we cheer. But for some reason we balk at allowing God the right to get mad at his own creatures for mistreating each other and then doing something about it. If you don't like the apocalyptic parts of the Bible but do like action movies, violent sports, or news stories of bad guys getting their just desserts, you need to do some self-examination about double standards. God is the only one who can justly judge we humans for what we do to and do not do for each other.

That said, as I pointed out last week, most of the things such passages mention as judgments are often just the consequences of our acting badly towards nature and our fellow man. But the people to whom the Bible was written did not think such things happened without the intentional action of a conscious agent: demons, angels, and since he created everything, ultimately God. Today we remove as much agency as possible from these things. Disasters are the result of undirected natural processes. Illness is not caused by beings invisible to the eye called demons but by beings equally invisible to the naked eye called germs. Heck, there are scientists and thinkers trying to take agency away from people and blame everything we do on our DNA, gut bacteria, and brain structure. And they don't mean those things simply have a part in shaping the choices we have and make; they argue that free will and consciousness themselves are illusions created by the chemical and physical processes that actually make us think, say and do things. Of course, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, they are arguing against the very thing that would make their arguments valid and not just the byproducts of what they are made of.

Whatever the means of our destruction, the fact is that the collective consequences of our selfish, foolhardy and sinful actions will catch up with us one day. So what are we to do in the interim? Jesus tells us to do the work each of us is given and keep awake.

We have talked often of the fact that God gives us all gifts and abilities, which he calls us to put to use in serving him through serving human beings. Last week's gospel gave us many options for service: helping the hungry, the sick, the alien, the prisoner. Wherever we see a lack, there is an opportunity to demonstrate God's love for all. Often it is just a basic act of kindness. Sometimes a complex situation calls for a more creative response. But a good rule of thumb is: when in doubt, do the most loving thing.

As for keeping awake, Jesus is pointing out how often people just don't pay attention to what is right before their eyes. We get lulled into sleepwalking through our lives. We stop noticing everyday phenomena, forgetting what miracles they are. Remember how as a child, you one day really looked at a leaf or your hand, getting lost in its marvelous structure and texture. The whole world was new to you and you drank it in. Until it mostly became background noise in your life. And you learn the habit of not only ignoring most of the things around you but particularly the things that make you uncomfortable. Right now we are receiving news every day about powerful men sexually abusing colleagues and acquaintances with less power. And often these predatory acts have gone on for years. Which means those around these men were either spectacularly unobservant or else passively or actively complicit. The Bible condemns complicity in the suffering of others. In his parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), Jesus tells us that the poor sick man was lying at the rich man's gate. So he would have to pass by or even step over the beggar everyday. It's not his wealth but his indifference to suffering literally at his doorstep that explains why he ends up in hell.

But wait! Isn't Jesus talking about being awake for when he returns? Yes, but notice that the reason is that you don't want to be asleep on the job when he returns. Mark talks about the master putting his slaves in charge of his property, each with his work. Matthew's version expands on this: “Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom the master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom the master finds at work when he comes.” (Matthew 24:45-46) In other words, our work is to supply what other people need: physically and spiritually. As we saw in Matthew 25 last week, that means giving food to those who hunger, water to those who thirst, hospitality to those who come to this country, care to those who are sick and the gift of our presence to those who are locked away. But there are other things folks lack. And in the 1800s and 1900s the primary movers of social reform in this country were Christians. They worked on issues such as “economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools and the danger of war,” according to Wikipedia. It is to this movement, the "social gospel," that we owe ideas like daycare, public education, and the abolition of child labor. These Christians found their mandate in the Lord's Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Another thing Jesus explicitly commanded us to do is to spread the gospel. We are to tell people about him and make disciples. And nowhere does Jesus restrict this requirement to paid, professional clergy. It falls to each of us to know enough about Jesus and his good news to tell others. As says in 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect....” We're not supposed to be jerks about it but we are to articulate why we put our trust in and pin our hopes on Christ. All of us. You should know a lot already...if you pay attention in church and read your Bible and put its principles into practice. And your presentation of the gospel doesn't have to be a masterpiece of systematic theology but it should make sense and be true. And it should be sincere, which means it should be the product of personal reflection. Why are you a Christian? What led you to Jesus? Why do you continue to follow him?

Presumably it's in part because Jesus helped you with a problem with yourself, in your life, in your way of looking at the world or at other people. Jesus didn't come to make perfectly good things better. He came to rescue people and a world sliding toward self-destruction. Your personal story may be more or less dire but something in your life needed fixing—you needed to make a change, you needed to be forgiven, you needed peace—and you realized that Jesus is the solution. Just tell that story. When Jesus healed people he often told them to tell others how much the Lord has done for them. That is also evangelism. As Luther said, it is one beggar telling another where to find bread.

The world is not perfect and we can see how the consequences of our selfishness, partisanship, recklessness, shortsightedness, and self-destructive behavior are coming home to roost. It's like a worldwide disaster in slow motion. And that reminds me of what another member of the clergy once said. Mr. Rogers was in fact a Presbyterian minister and he said that, as a child, he got scared watching newsreels of disasters. His mother told him, “Look for the helpers. There are always helpers.”

We are helpers, sent by Christ, to bring the world what it lacks: physical and spiritual health and wholeness. We are called to be healers. We are called to be peacemakers. We are called to the ministry of reconciliation. We are called to love our neighbors and even our enemies as Jesus loves us. We are called to use the gifts the Spirit has given each of us to help in whatever area we are equipped to work. Jesus is coming, we know not when, and he wants to see us laying the foundations of his kingdom, the kingdom of God. Getting there will be painful but we have his word that if we hang on to the end, “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.