Monday, August 21, 2017

One Body, One Baptism (For Kailee)

The scripture referred to are Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Matthew 15:10-28.

I am reading neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky's new book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. In it he looks at everything that influences what we do: our brain structures, our hormones, our environment, our culture, our DNA, etc. And so far one of the most surprising things I have learned is about oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.” I knew that secretion of this natural substance causes us to bond with our romantic partners and with our children and to trust other people. But I didn't realize that it promotes in-group bonding at the expense of our relationship with outsiders. It makes us more empathetic to those who are like us but less so towards those who are not like us. Oxytocin also has a part in our telling lies when those lies benefit our group. So oxytocin, the “love hormone,” is implicated in both the lies political parties tell as well as in mankind's persistent racism, most recently on display last week in Charlottesville. Comedian Dave Chappelle said racism is a drug. And it turns out he is literally correct.

The idea that if you love your own group you must hate all other groups goes all the way back to humanity's beginnings. And it may have made some sense when we all lived in clans and tribes made up of about 150 family members. Everyone in your life was related to you and physically resembled you. They said and did things the same way you did. In general you could trust people like you, whereas you might not be able to trust those who belonged to other clans or tribes that did not look or act or speak as you. They might kill or rape or kidnap you. But as humans started to settle together in cities, people had to get used to living with folks not like them. Loyalties had to shift from families and clans to cities and later nations. In other words, we had to become civilized. Yet social classes evolved, so there was still within such larger groups an “us” and a “them.”

Scientists says religion was a vital and even a necessary way to unite various peoples in a larger group. In fact, the word “religion” may have been derived from the Latin for “bind” or “connect.” A tribe, an ethnic group or a nation would all worship the same god or gods. This becomes a problem, though, when you move from nations to empires. When you are conquering other nations, what do you do about their local gods? Alexander the Great's successors usually tried to introduce Greek gods and Greek culture. This was a non-starter with the Jews and triggered the Maccabean revolt. The Romans on the other hand let everyone keep their gods and just had them add to their pantheon the divine emperor. Again this wouldn't do for the Jews. So they let them keep their monotheism, though that made things tense in that corner of the empire. But for the first couple of decades Christianity got a pass because it was initially regarded as just another Jewish sect.

But Christianity was different. It may have begun as a movement within Judaism but it very quickly started to attract outsiders, Gentiles. And the church had to come to grips with the fact that the good news Jesus preached was not just for Jews and that Christ had died to redeem all of mankind.

Paul is often given credit for turning a small ethnic sect into a universal religion but as we see in our passage from Isaiah, this was God's intention all along. God reaches out to foreigners and non-Jews who believe in him. He says, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Further back, in Genesis 12:3, after promising Abram that his descendants would become a great nation, God says, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” God didn't choose the Hebrew nation merely to be the object of his affection but to be the instrument through which he would show his love to all of humanity. This becomes much more obvious in the ministry of Jesus, who offers salvation to the Samaritan woman at the well, who heals the slave of the Roman centurion and in today's gospel, heals the daughter of the Canaanite woman.

And shortly after Jesus' ascension and Pentecost, the question of whether Gentiles are to be included in the church arose, first when Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch and then when Peter baptizes Cornelius and his household. And, yes, it all comes to a head in Paul's ministry. Paul initially was going to synagogues in the Diaspora, the Jewish communities scattered throughout the Roman Empire. But he noticed he was having particular success among the so-called Godfearers, Gentiles who came to synagogue, were interested in the ethics of Judaism but hadn't gone so far as to be circumcised. When they accepted Jesus as Messiah, Lord and Savior, he saw no reason to exclude them from the church nor to demand that they convert to Judaism before becoming Christians. This became a big controversy in the early church. But Paul's vision of the gospel being for all, and his teaching that our salvation comes by grace through faith and not by following Jewish ceremonial law, won out in the end.

In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes, “For there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female—for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” And in Ephesians 4:4-6, he says, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Following Jesus is about love and inclusion and unity that does not require uniformity. God created all humans, all races, nationalities, sexes, and personalities. Jesus died for all. We are to love all, both our neighbors and even our enemies. There is literally no one left that we can hate.

We need that message because a lot of people have a very constricted idea of what is good. They think that goodness is “what is good for me and mine.” The implication is that it is irrelevant if that is also bad for those who are not me or mine. And as Dr. Paul Farmer said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” But God so loved the world that he sent his son Jesus to redeem it. And all we need to do to receive redemption is to trust him to save us, as you would a surgeon who proposes to knock you out, cut you open, cut out your heart and put in another. You can't do heart surgery on yourself. You can only trust a good physician to do so for you.

And our hearts are messed up. Left to themselves, people will act on what is good for themselves and those they love and to hell with everyone else. As Jesus says in today's gospel, “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” That's why we have rules, like the Ten Commandments, against those things. And if there is a rule against something, you can be sure that someone at least once did that very thing. If the lawyers of the company that made your hair dryer put on there a warning not to use it in the bathtub or shower, you know that means someone actually tried to do that. So we make rules.

Of course, rules only stop some people some of the time. If having rules stopped everyone from doing what's wrong then traffic laws would ensure that nobody speeds, nobody passes where they shouldn't and everybody has their seat belts buckled. You just have to drive on US-1 to know that's not true. Rules can't really solve the problem. The problem is internal; the solution has to be as well. We need a change of heart.

And it begins with faith. When Jesus visited his hometown, Mark tells us that he was not able to heal many because they didn't believe in him. (Mark 6:5-6) A doctor can't cure someone who won't trust him, who won't let him do what needs to be done and won't follow his orders. God can't save those who won't trust him, won't let him do what needs to be done and who won't follow his orders. But if we do trust him, everything changes.

If we trust Jesus, he will enter our hearts. He will send his Spirit to remake us from the inside out, to be the person God intended us to be. He will change our way of thinking, speaking and acting. He will transform us from a creature of God into a child of God. We will become more trusting, more hopeful, more loving, more Christlike everyday.

The first step is baptism. It is not a magical rite but a physical act that signifies a spiritual reality. In his Word God promises that, in baptism, a person's sin is forgiven, the person is redirected from a trajectory leading to death to the way of everlasting life and they become part of God's people and a joint heir with Christ to all of God's treasures. And that's what is happening today with Kailee.

Kailee, usually we baptize babies. For them it's like a spiritual vaccination. Parents decide they want this good thing for their baby. The baby doesn't really understand. But you can. So I want to give you an idea of what this is all about.

In this world people do bad things, things that harm others. They can do it with their words; they can do it with their actions; they can even do it by not helping someone when that person needs help. We all do bad things at times. We make things worse rather than better. We mess up things in the world God made and we mess up things for the people God made. Sometimes we don't even understand why we do it and we are sorry.

The good news is God wants to change that. He wants to make things better. He wants to make us better. You know why? God loves us. The Bible tells us God is love. And in Jesus we see that love in human form. In Jesus we see what God is like: loving, forgiving, helping, healing. We also see what we can be. We can be like Jesus. We can be people who make the world better. We can help people become better.

By being baptized, you are saying you want to be one of the good guys, one of the people following Jesus. And God will help you follow Jesus. At your baptism, he will give you his Spirit to help you be more like Jesus.

There are a lot of good things about being a Christian. For instance, Jesus said he will never leave us or abandon us. He will be with us forever. Wherever you are, whatever happens, Jesus will be with you. Even if you mess up, Jesus will not leave you.

As a Christian you can talk to Jesus. You can tell him anything. If you have problems, you can tell him about them. And he will understand. He lived on this earth as one of us and he knows all about the problems we have. He had problems too: problems with his parents, problems with his brothers and sisters, problems with his friends, problems with people who didn't like him. Jesus is a friend you can talk to and trust.

As a Christian you will be part of God's family. Not just the people in this church but people in churches all over the world. They will help you too. And you will help them. All who follow Jesus help one another.

Jesus loves us just as we are. But he loves us too much to leave us that way. He wants us to grow up as Christians in the same way your parents want you to grow up from a little girl into a woman who can do things for herself. As you grow up you will find that certain things will become more important to you and you will want to work hard to make them come true. It's the same when you grow as a Christian.

As a Christian you want things to be fair. You want people to be treated equally. If things are not fair, Christians work to make them fair.

As a Christian you want the best for everyone, not just for yourself. You want people to be their best. Christians work to make sure everyone has the chance to be their best.

As a Christian you realize that you won't always do your best. You will mess up. We all do. But you know that God will forgive you. And that means you have to forgive others when they don't do their best. And then afterwards you will try to do your best again.

As a Christian you want people to have enough food, enough water, enough clothes, to be welcome when they are strangers, to be helped when they are sick or when they are not free. Jesus said that people who need these things are his brothers and sisters and how we treat them is how we treat Jesus. Christians treat everyone as they would treat Jesus.

As a Christian you want everyone to know about Jesus and God's love for them. God created everyone you meet in this world. Everyone you meet is either already your brother or sister in Jesus or could become your brother or sister in Jesus. Christians let everyone know about God's love and what Jesus has done for them.

In just a few minutes we are going to say some prayers. We are going to ask you and your parents and sponsors and everyone here some questions. We are going to ask if you renounce some things. “Renounce” just means “reject.” We are going to ask if you reject the things that harm people and make the world worse. We are going to ask if you believe in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. “Believe” means “put your trust in” someone. We are going to thank God for water of baptism. And then we are going to baptize you and seal you and everyone here will welcome you into God's family.

Are you ready? Let's go. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

In a World of Trouble

The scripture referred to are Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 and Matthew 14:22-33.

To paraphrase humorist Robert Benchley, there are two kinds of people in this world—those who divide everything in two kinds of things and those who don't. When it comes to misfortune, it seems logical that there are two ways to find yourself in trouble: either through your own fault or through circumstances beyond your control. I think there is a third way we experience trouble: a mixture of those two. Your problems can be partially of your own making and partially not. You can either make bad decisions which put you into the path of negative outside forces, such as someone who decided to sell all he has and put all of his money into the stock market...in early 2008. Or you can find yourself in a bad situation, which you proceed to make worse by poor decisions, such a person caught in a hurricane who tries to evacuate to the mainland while the eye of the storm is over them. I think a lot of our troubles are a result of both mistakes we've made and unforeseen circumstances.

In today's lectionary we are looking at how people get into trouble as well as some helpful principles for navigating troubled times from the stories of Joseph and Peter.

Joseph's problem with his family arises from a combination of factors. He was the first son of Rachel, Jacob's favorite wife. So Jacob dotes on the boy, especially after the death of Rachel. This makes his brothers jealous. It doesn't help that Joseph brings bad reports about his brother's activities to their father. Then Jacob gives Joseph a special coat. Older translations say it was of many colors. Most modern translations think the Hebrew, which is tricky here, indicates a long-sleeved robe that went to his knees. It may also have been beautifully embroidered and colorful, as seen in Egyptian paintings of Canaanite dress at the time. The point is, this was not a robe you could or would do manual labor in. Jacob seems to be marking out Joseph as the supervisor of his brothers. You can imagine how well that went over with them.

The situation is not helped by what happens next. Our lectionary inexplicably skips over it but Joseph has two prophetic dreams. In one the family is in the field tying up sheaves of wheat. Joseph's sheaf stands up and the rest of the family's sheaves circle around it and bow to it. In the second dream, the sun, the moon and 11 stars bow down to Joseph. You don't need a dream dictionary to catch the meaning. Even Jacob scolds Joseph for the obvious symbolism of his family bowing down to him. His brothers just seethe.

So when they see Joseph approaching to check on them and the flocks, the brothers start plotting to kill him. Just 3 chapters earlier in Genesis Jacob's sons sack a Canaanite town to avenge the rape of their sister. Joseph is just a teenager. His half-brothers are men and dangerous ones at that.

Fortunately Reuben, the oldest, is able to deflect his brothers from their murderous intent. He proposes just throwing Joseph into a pit, probably a dry cistern. Reuben is thinking he can pull Joseph out later and return him home. The others agree to the plan. They strip off Joseph's fancy robe, the hated sign of his authority over them, and toss him in a hole in the ground.

Reuben must have gone off somewhere because in his absence the other brothers see a caravan of traders on their way to Egypt and get the bright idea to sell their brother into slavery. They do so and when Reuben returns, looking for Joseph, they cook up a cover up. They kill a goat and smear its blood on the coat. Then they take it to their father, who thinks some wild predator has eaten his son. Jacob is devastated and refused to be comforted. I hope his brothers were eaten up with guilt.

You really should read the story of Joseph in the Bible. It's as good as a novel. But to summarize: Joseph is sold to an Egyptian official named Potiphar, captain of the palace guard. Joseph does well and eventually is given charge of the household. Potiphar's wife makes a pass at Joseph but when he refuses her, she accuses him of attempted rape. Joseph ends up in prison, where he is such a model prisoner he becomes the chief trustee. While there, he meets 2 servants of Pharaoh who are on the outs with their boss. Joseph interprets their dreams and tells the one he knows will return to Pharaoh's good graces to put in a word for Joseph. And though it all works out as Joseph said, that guy, a wine steward, totally forgets to mention it to Pharaoh.

Two years later, Pharaoh has some disturbing dreams that none of his advisers can interpret. Only then does the wine steward remember Joseph, the Hebrew who understood dreams. To make a long story short, Joseph tells Pharaoh that the dreams foretell an upcoming famine and says that they ought to start setting aside the surplus of the years leading up to it so no one will starve. Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of that task and Joseph indeed becomes someone powerful to whom his brothers must do obeisance in order to get food.

We're not sure how long it took Joseph to go from slave to governor of Egypt but it has to have been a decade or more. And though Joseph's superior attitude towards his brothers may have contributed a bit to the situation, his problems are largely the fault of others. Even being a tattletale doesn't merit what happened to him.

And the remarkable thing is that Joseph maintains his faith in God throughout it all. I'm not saying he never had doubts. That time in the cistern as he overheard his brothers debating his possible death, his years of slavery, and his years in prison, especially the 2 years he waited to see if the wine steward would do anything to help him, must have made him wonder: “Lord, I'm doing all the right things. Why is nothing going my way?” His hopes must have flagged a bit over the years.

And yet Joseph doesn't let the ordeal change the person he is. When propositioned by Potiphar's wife, he points out all that his master has entrusted to him and says, “So how could I do such a great evil and sin against God?” And when Pharaoh says that he has heard that Joseph can interpret dreams, Joseph, though this is his chance to get free, doesn't say, “You're right!” You'd think that Joseph, seemingly abandoned by God, would try to make his own luck. Instead he responds, “It is not within my power, but God will speak concerning the welfare of Pharaoh.” Joseph doesn't let his desperation blind him to who is really in control. It's not Pharaoh; it's not Joseph, but God. His massive run of bad luck wasn't random; God had a reason. And Joseph knew his ultimate fate was in God's hands.

Later, Joseph is able to look back and see God's hand at work even in his misfortune. After being reunited with his lost son and family in Egypt, Jacob later dies. And his sons think, with dad dead, their powerful brother Joseph might decide to get his revenge on them at last. Joseph tells them, “Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day.” Joseph was able to look back on the seemingly random path his life had taken and see how God was positioning him to be where he could do the most good. Had he stayed in Canaan, Joseph couldn't have helped stop the famine from killing lots of people, including his family. Had he not been sold to the captain of the palace guard he would never have been put in a royal prison where he would have met the disgraced wine steward. Had he not interpreted that man's dream properly, Joseph, a Hebrew slave, would never have gotten a crack at interpreting Pharaoh's dream. And so finally he and his organizational abilities, noticed by the prison warden, by his master and perhaps by his father when he put him in charge of his brothers, were now in a place where he could save a nation from starvation.

Joseph's story illustrates the fact that you can find yourself in trouble even when you are doing everything right. And yet his continuing to do the right things is what allowed him to rise in whatever circumstances he found himself. He shouldn't have been sold into slavery but finding himself there he did the best job he could. And that's probably what kept him from being executed for rape, which was a common punishment for that crime. Perhaps his master had a hard time reconciling the idea of his faithful servant with that of a rapist and decided to have him put instead in a royal prison which was probably more comfortable than an ordinary one.

Again Joseph shouldn't have been sent to prison but finding himself there he decided to be a model prisoner and he again rose to the top. Which is probably what allowed him to have contact with members of Pharaoh's staff. By making the best of a bad situation, by being helpful and reliable, rather than resentful and obstructive, Joseph was both working within God's will and simultaneously making things better for himself.

Joseph's story also illustrates the fact that the time you need to trust God the most is exactly when it is hardest to put your trust in him. When everything seems to be going from bad to worse, that's when you need to keep your hopes pinned on him. The temptation to despair and give up on God can be strong. You have to make a decision to stick with God, no matter what, and hold onto his promises.

In fact, Peter's trouble in today's gospel has to do with a crisis in faith. Often this incident is looked at as another failure on his part but he wouldn't be in this situation had he not literally stepped out in faith. He does what none of the other disciples do and frankly what most of us wouldn't do. He asked Jesus if it is OK and Jesus gives him the go-ahead. And everything starts out well. But then Peter starts paying attention to the strong wind. He gets frightened and he starts to sink. He has to call for help and Jesus comes to his rescue.

This story is a perfect paradigm of what to do and what not to do when following Jesus. It starts when some people notice Jesus doing something extraordinary. It may be something Jesus is doing through someone else, such as a ministry that is having a real impact. But it can also be something that bothers or frightens people in the church. Perhaps it seems unsupportable, financially or in terms of the personnel required. Or maybe it goes against all the rules of how things should work. So most people say, “No one can do that.” And they just remain bystanders, amazed but also worrying.

But one or two people might see what Jesus is doing and say, “Maybe we can do that too.” And rather than just jumping in, they ask Jesus if this is his will. And that's good. We don't want to be impulsive like Peter usually is. But this time he asks first. And Jesus says, “Come.” And he takes a step out of the boat, out of his comfort zone. And he's doing it! In the same way, when we step out on faith, following Jesus, we find that we are empowered to do what he does. Often what really limits us is our expectations. We decide what can and can't be done. But if listen to what our Lord says and follow his lead, we find that we can do more than we imagined was possible.

The key is to stay focused on Jesus. It's when Peter turns his attention to the strong wind that he gets into trouble. In the same way, if we start to think more about the opposition, if we start to think about how precarious our position is rather than the power that upholds us, then we get in trouble. We shift our attention from Jesus and look to the world instead. We pay more attention to which way the wind is blowing than to the direction Jesus is leading us. We pay more attention to controversies of the day than to the clear commands of Jesus to love God and other people. When we pay attention to the instability of the world and ignore the stability of Jesus, fear replaces faith and we get engulfed by the chaos around us and we start to go under.

All is not lost. If we call upon Jesus he will come to our aid. He is faithful that way.

But you know what I wish? I wish Peter had said, “Let me try it again, Lord.” I wish he had held on to Jesus' hand and taken another stroll. Just because we fail one time, it doesn't mean that the adventure is over. We can try again. I am reminded of the time Jesus healed the blind man at Bethsaida. Jesus spits on the man's eyes, lays his hands on him and asks if he sees anything. The man says, “Yes, but people look like walking trees.” So Jesus lays hands on him again and then the man sees clearly. (Mark 8:22-26) If Jesus sometimes needs to try again, so should we. As someone once said, failure is not final; it is the courage to continue that counts.

We also need the courage to ask Jesus for help. There are times when we are sinking, we are getting in over our heads and it is stupid to think we can get out of it alone. We need to stop being afraid to admit our failure, call upon Jesus, reach out to him and let him haul us out of whatever trouble we are in.

Jesus told us we would have trouble in this world. Sometimes it is completely out of our hands, sometimes it is of our own making and most of the time it is a combination of the two. Whatever the source of the trouble, whatever the nature of it, certain principles always apply. We need to keep trusting God. We need to keep hoping. We need to keep doing our best. We need to have the courage to step out of our comfort zone and walk in faith.

And we must keep our eyes on Jesus. Night may fall, storms may rage, winds may blow, waves may crash. In the midst of all the chaos, Jesus is there for us, striding the waves, his arm outstretched, his ear attuned to our cry, to pull us out of the deep and bring us to safety once more.

Monday, August 7, 2017

It's Good to be King

The scriptures referred to are Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21.

It's odd that, despite having just released a film with both Superman and Batman in it, Warner Brothers has had its biggest superhero hit in the last 5 years with Wonder Woman. There was resistance to making a film about a female superhero because it was thought that men wouldn't go see it and women aren't as interested in the genre. Instead people went and were just fine with a woman in the lead. I loved the film but it bothers me that when we talk about strong roles for women we mean a woman who can beat up others, just like male heroes do. Why do we idolize fighters? Why do we consistently elect the physically bigger, ie, taller of two presidential candidates? Why do politicians fear being seen as soft on issues, if not because soft means weak? Why is belligerence seen as a plus for leaders? I think it goes way back to how humans have historically selected chieftain and kings.

When we all lived in scattered tribes trying to eke out a living, while fighting the elements, predators and other tribes, it made sense to let the biggest, meanest guy in our tribe lead. He could prevent the other tribes from raiding our settlements, taking our food and kidnapping our women. When things were desperate for us, he would lead us in raiding other tribes for their food and women. If he was real bloodthirsty, he would probably be feared by the other tribes. And most likely by us as well. So we put up with our big, mean, scary leader getting the best of everything. We wanted him to be happy and have a stake in fighting for us. And if that meant putting up with his greed, his bullying, his favoring his family and friends, and his arrogance, so be it. We probably even made excuses and rationalizations for his bad behavior. He may have been an S.O.B. but he was our S.O.B.

Our attitude didn't change when we transitioned from chieftains to kings, nor when we transitioned from kings to elected officials. Yet the world is a lot more complicated today. Most of us are not barely hanging onto survival, at least not in the developed nations. We have elaborate infrastructures, both physical and social, that supply our needs. Brute force doesn't ensure an adequate food supply anymore; agriculture and ways of preserving and shipping and distributing food do. We no longer have to move the community periodically, possibly through hostile territory, to find fresh game or water or shelter. Defense no longer relies on having big, mean, scary guys who can bash heads in. A 97 pound weakling can fire missiles or launch drones or hack into the enemies' computer systems. 

So we no longer need to let big, mean, scary people be in charge of everything. In fact, we shouldn't. More than anything, we need leaders who are smart, who understand the world and know how it works. We need leaders who are wise, who can work with others and make alliances. We need leaders who are just, who don't regard their position as an excuse to hog the majority of the resources but who make sure everything is done fairly and equitably. We need leaders who are compassionate, who champion the powerless and who recognize that are those who never could impose their wills upon others, who protect them against the bullies in society and make sure the poor and the sick and the marginalized and the unpopular get what they need.

When the twelve tribes of Israel wanted a king like other people, they were essentially rejecting God as their king. (1 Samuel 8:4-7) But God tells Samuel to do as the people say. However, God warns them about the hazards of putting so much power in the hands of one person. They don't care. And so their history is a roller-coaster, the highs coinciding with the rule of just and godly kings and the lows coming along with the rule of unjust and ungodly kings. And the prophets are always there, delivering a minority report on society, pointing out the nation's twin sins of not loving God and not loving their neighbors. People follow the example of their leaders. And leaders reflect what they worship. If they worship themselves or power or money that is what their leadership reflects. If they worship God, then they reflect his character.

Saying we need a godly ruler is not popular today. And that's because people who say such things usually mean a person who is outwardly very pious and hews to a predictable wing of the political spectrum. But dictionary.com defines the word “godly” as “conforming to the laws and wishes of God.” To know someone's wishes, you need to look at what kind of person they are. And when I look at God I see what the psalmist describes in our passages from Psalm 145, a psalm which begins by calling God King.

The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The word for gracious in Hebrew comes from a root word that means “to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior.” God comes down to our level; he closes the gap between us. Our creator could be indifferent to us or look down on us. But he favors us by coming down to us, especially in Jesus. That is the nature of God.

God is full of compassion. The word can also mean “merciful.” It is goes back to a root word for fondle, a gesture of gentle affection. It's not a word we associate with God Almighty. It sounds kind of soft.

Rather than belligerent, God is described as slow to anger. That's good. It's hard to reason with someone who is quick-tempered. But can you reason with God? Yes. Abraham does it. (Genesis 18:16-32) Moses does it. (Exodus 32:7-14) Hezekiah does it. (2 Kings 20:1-11) Amos does it. (Amos 7:1-6) In fact, contrary to what people think, God does change his mind about immediate actions he proposes taking. Scripture says so several times and it is almost always that God changes his mind about punishing his people and relents.

God is abounding in steadfast love. We talked recently about the Hebrew word khesed, which is often translated “lovingkindness” in the King James version. Indeed the root is a word for kindness but this word is also frequently translated as “mercy.” In addition, it is associated with God's covenant commitment to his people and so some translations render it “faithful love” (Holman Christian Standard Bible) or “loyal love” (NET Bible). That's a lot of shades of meaning for one word but the gist is that God is kind, merciful, and faithful in his love.

Lord, you are good to all and your compassion is over all your works.” If you only read certain passages of the Old Testament, it can make Yahweh sound like a tribal deity, the God of our people and not of anyone else. Yet passages like this, Isaiah 2, 25 and 55, and the whole book of Jonah reveal that God loves all, just as we see more clearly in the New Testament. Yes, God hates arrogance, deception, scheming and violence. (Proverbs 6:16-19) But as Jesus says, God makes the sun shine and the rain fall on both the just and the unjust. (Matthew 5:45) Crops don't grow better for the virtuous than for the evil; when folks trip, physics doesn't only apply to the bad and not the good; medical science doesn't only work for the innocent and not for the guilty. We live in a cosmos governed by consistent universal laws. And that's what theologians call “common grace,” God's goodness to all.

The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up those who are bowed down.” Or as the Jewish Publication Society's Tanakh translates it: “The Lord supports all who stumble, and makes all who are bent stand straight.” Once again God, the heavenly king, is pictured as perfectly content to stoop to pick us up when we stumble or fall. 

And I am intrigued by what bows down the people in the second half of the verse. Are they bent because they are carrying a burden? Are they being crushed by oppression? Are they bowed down by the weight of their sins? Whatever it is God raises them up and helps them get upright once more.

The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them food in due season.” That lifeforms must eat to stay alive is basic biology. We need water, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. But various species derive them from different sources, based on their specific needs and environments. Some animals are herbivores, some are carnivores, and some are omnivores. But at the base of the food pyramid are plants. If the herbivores run out of plants to eat, they die and then where are the carnivores and omnivores going to get their food? So all of us are dependent on growing seasons, which are dependent on rainfall and temperatures. That's the natural equilibrium of creation.

That's why our ever longer and hotter summers and ever shorter winters are dangerous. The Syrian civil war began with food riots due to a drought and bread shortages. The Department of Defense says the number one threat to world stability is global warming. It will lead to more food insecurity which will lead to more political instability, more wars and more refugee crises. God set up a world in balance. We have upset that balance in nature as we have upset it in human relations. Our ancestors were more in touch with the rhythms of creation. We need to get back in harmony with our providential God.

You open wide your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” I have to admit I was surprised by the idea of God satisfying our desires. Needs, yes, but desires? But that is what the Hebrew says and the word has overtones of delight and pleasure. God is not a cosmic killjoy, contrary to what some non-believers and, alas, some believers seem to think. It doesn't say God will satisfy every desire because some are unhealthy and self-destructive. But he will fulfill our basic desires, such as for love and justice and peace.

But like the cycle of nature he set up to give us food, we can and frequently do disrupt his methods of fulfilling our desires by our rejection of them or our rejection of elements of them. For instance, we desire sex. God has provided for that with stable pair-bonding or marriage. But sometimes we want the sex without the concomitant commitment. And that leads to unfaithfulness, disease, domestic turmoil, broken families and damaged and sometimes unwanted children. As C.S. Lewis says, God doesn't hate sex. He likes it. He created it. But we need to use it as he intended or we create chaos, pain, division and eventually death.

And so it is with all our desires. Just as we can't let our desire for junk food supersede our need for healthy nutrition, so we mustn't let our desires disrupt our spiritual health. God wants to satisfy our desires but not at the expense of our wellbeing.

You are righteous in all your ways and loving in all your works.” While I was writing this my granddaughter had a meltdown over candy she found in the church fridge. I said she could have a piece if she finished her lunch, which had one of her favorites, broccoli. She picked at her meal and barely made a dent in it. So I said she hadn't had enough of her healthy food to merit candy as a dessert. She acted as if I had taken her pet puppy away and sold it to Cruella Deville. She was desolate. I had to explain why her parents and grandparents had such rules. Too much candy and too little good food would be bad for her and over time could make her sick. We love her and want her to be healthy.

God is loving in all his works. It is all for our good, though from our spiritually immature viewpoint it may look as if he is just being mean. The trick then is to learn to look at everything from God's perspective and see how even the stuff we don't like is loving. Like gravity. We hate dropping and breaking stuff. And worldwide falls are the second leading cause of unintentional injury death and the number one cause of injuries and death among elderly Americans. So did God create gravity to hurt and kill us? No. Gravity also keeps us from flying off of our rapidly spinning globe and into the airless cold of space. Even if we evolved the velcro-like microscopic fibers on our hands and feet that allow lizards to cling to anything, it wouldn't do us much good if all our water was flung into the void. Gravity is good, if you respect it. It's one of the cosmic constants that allows life to exist.

You are near to all who call upon you, to all who call upon you faithfully. You fulfill the desire of those who fear you; you hear their cry and save them.” Again God is not like a watchmaker who puts together something that is intricate and then puts it on display and walks away. He is near to us, his creatures, and responsive to those who who are faithfully responsive to him. For those who have a healthy respect for him, as one does for gravity, he hears their cry for help and rescues them.

To summarize, God is gracious, compassionate, patient, loyal, merciful, righteous, loving, good to all and one who saves others. Note, by the way, that most of those qualities are what traditionally are thought of as feminine virtues. That was drawn to my attention by one of my Bible profs in college when we were discussing the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. They are characteristics we tend to think of in connection with a nurturing parent rather than a strict father. And yet scripture itself attributes them to God.

We are created in God's image. And he intends us to rule with Christ in his new creation. If we are to act as his vice-regents we need to start now to emulate God, our King, to be the leaders he wants us to be. Of course we cannot do it ourselves. God's image is marred in all of us to some extent by our sins, our self-destructive ways of thinking and speaking and acting. The only way we can hope to be able to become like our King is to let him rescue us from ourselves. Fortunately, we know we can trust him to do just that. He is gracious and full of compassion. He supports all those who fall and raises up those who are bowed down. With his Spirit, we can go and do likewise. 

Monday, July 31, 2017

What We Need in the Long Run

The scriptures referred to are Romans 8:26-39 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.

My wife and I got our first microwave when our first child was born. And while they were young, our kids thought that all meals could be prepared in a jiff. If it took more than 3 minutes, it felt like an eternity to them. Which was unfortunate because my wife is such a good cook. One time we stayed in a motel and my son was worried how we would eat since there was no microwave there! Today they both know how to cook, mostly because they don't want to be like me. But now I see a similar thing happening to our grandkids. When I was a child, you could only watch TV shows when they were first shown on network TV. If you missed an episode you would have to wait until the summer reruns. (Certain classic series might be repeated in syndication, but not till long after they were over.) And if you missed a movie in the theatres, you'd have to wait till it came out on TV—years later! If you wanted to find out about a specific subject, you had to go to the library, find the right book and look it up. But today all of those things are available instantaneously and on a device you carry in your pocket. I am afraid that our future generations will have a hard time learning patience.

I'm not a particularly patient person and that was one of the problems I had to deal with while in rehab, waiting for my legs to recover enough that I could start to learn to walk again. They had told me it would take 12 weeks after my last surgery before I could put weight on them. That was 84 days of being bed- and wheel-chair bound. Altogether I was in the hospital for 40 days and in the nursing home for 100. And even when I was discharged I still could only walk 150 steps using a walker. I had to arrange for outpatient physical therapy and it took an additional 4 months for me to progress to the point where I could walk without even a cane. And here I am back to using a cane but this time for different reasons. Frustration doesn't begin to describe what I feel.

I wish healing broken bones was as easy as it is in the Harry Potter books and movies, where all it takes is a chocolate bar and a swish from Madame Pomfrey's wand. I wish it took no more time than it does to download that series onto my Kindle. But it took decades of work to develop these technologies that save us time today. And those movies we blithely stream on our devices are usually followed up by a good 10 minutes of credits, representing thousands of man-hours spent rendering the 100 minutes or so of entertainment you watched. Good things take time.

That's one of the main things Jesus is illustrating in our gospel today. When we hear the parable of the mustard seed, we usually think about how little things can yield big results. But the fact is that it takes a long time for that seed to become the 20 foot tree or shrub that birds can nest in. Similarly it takes a while for yeast to cause bread to rise. That's why the Hebrews were told to eat unleavened bread at the Passover. They weren't going to have the time to wait for it to rise before they would be leaving Egypt. And of course the process of selling all you have and having it converted to the cash you need to buy a field or a pearl would take a lot of time. Fishing is an activity that requires a lot of patience. To achieve anything significant it takes time and lots of it.

The pictures Jesus uses of the kingdom of God all tell us it won't happen overnight. And since the kingdom of God is within us and among us (Luke 17:21) that means our becoming the people God wants us to be is a process that will take time. We will not be instantly perfect. If it takes 10 months to fix broken legs so they can walk unaided, it will take a lot longer to fix broken people so they can walk in the Spirit. As I said, good things take time.

They also take patience, persistence, passion, and purpose.

We have already talked a bit about patience. In the King James version of the Bible it is sometimes translated “longsuffering.” That word really spoke to me during my long recovery. Sometimes all you can do in a bad situation is wait for it to be over, as you would a storm. But even when you are not suffering passively, when you are undergoing the pain of trying to make a change, you need patience. Progress is not primarily measured in leaps and bounds but in increments. And of course there can also be obstacles and plateaus and even setbacks. These are part of the process and we just need to recognize that and be patient.

Jesus made things with his hands so he also knows how long building something well takes and all the things that can go wrong and slow things down. Sometimes his patience was tried by how long it took his disciples to understand what he was teaching and showing them. So we can turn to Jesus for help when we are running out of patience. Prayer is a good way to bolster your patience and, as Paul reminds us in today's reading from Romans, the Spirit helps us pray when we are at a loss for words. Even if our prayer is a strangled cry of frustration and bewilderment, like Charlie Brown's “AUUUGGHH!”, the Spirit knows what's in our heart and how to express it to our heavenly Father.

Besides patience we need persistence. We need to keep at it, keep plugging away, keep trying different techniques and considering different solutions. We need to keep in mind the difference between what is actually impossible and what is merely very difficult. TV programs, being 30 or 60 minutes long, rarely show the virtue of perseverance. Detectives and science fiction heroes rely on sudden flashes of inspiration or hunches to solve the most complicated problems and make scientific breakthroughs in short order. The crew of the Enterprise could save whole planets in just an hour, including commercial breaks. The people who make these shows are afraid if they approach such things in anything like a realistic manner, people will get bored and turn it off. But it is that plodding dedication, that tenacity that gets things done. You don't build a pyramid or a software package or a church without perseverance. Doing anything well takes commitment and a willingness to put in the time to get the work done. Experts say it takes about 10,000 hours to master something. That's the equivalent of 40 hours a week for 5 years. If you want to be a professional athlete, a good musician, a skilled writer or a disciple of Jesus, you need to be persistent.

To put in that work you have to have passion. You have to really want to succeed or see something happen and be excited to work on it and bring it to fruition. Steven Spielberg used to make home movies as a kid using his siblings and playmates and the family camera. That passion is a key part of why he's such a good filmmaker. J. K. Rowling was so inspired by an idea she had during a 4 hour delay on a train trip that she started writing the first book of the Harry Potter saga as soon as she got home. She was so passionate about the story that, though unemployed, divorced and the mother of an infant, she wrote in cafes whenever her child fell asleep in her stroller. Decorated World War 2 veteran, journalist and devout Roman Catholic John Howard Taylor was so passionate about learning what racial prejudice was like that in 1959 he had a dermatologist work with him to darken his skin so he could pass as an African American and then go undercover for 6 weeks in the segregated South. His book Black Like Me opened a lot of eyes to the reality of what it was like to be black in America.

Most people sleepwalk through their lives. Passion can awaken you to aspects of the world that intrigue and fascinate you and it can motivate you to put in the hard work of getting really good at whatever it is you do. I think a major reason for the decline in the church is that we have too few people who are passionate about following Jesus. Where are the successors to Paul of Tarsus, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley, or Mother Theresa? Pope Francis is getting favorable attention in the world but has yet to make substantial changes in the Roman Catholic Church. And we need Christians in local churches who will passionately follow Jesus in feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, welcoming outcasts and outsiders, making peace, making disciples, and spreading the good news of God's love and forgiveness.

Passion usually derives from having a purpose. Having a reason for living helps you get up in the morning, fuels you to accomplish your goals and has some surprising health benefits. It can increase your tolerance of pain, reduce your risk of cognitive decline, protect you against stress and give you a longer life. Having a goal in your life gives you a direction in which to channel your energies and a motivation to discover your strengths and to develop self-discipline. Instead of living an aimless existence, it gives you a mission and makes your life an adventure and turns any adversity you encounter to a challenge to overcome.

As Christians our purpose is to love God and each other just as Jesus showed us. We are to manifest that love in our lives for the good of others using the gifts the Spirit has given us.

And while we have a common goal, we each have different talents and skills and approaches. So the purpose of one person is to use their musical talents to praise God and reach people emotionally. The purpose of another person is to use their medical skills to promote health, prevent disease, relieve suffering, and restore people to health. The purpose of another person is use their ability to understand a subject and communicate it effectively to educate others. The purpose of another person is to use their ability to research and think clearly and creatively to delve into the causes of and generate solutions to the problems in a given field of human endeavor. The purpose of another person is to use their powers of organization and human relations to create and run projects for the common good. And the purpose of another person is to use their ability to study, understand and communicate the Bible and theology to preach the gospel. Nobody can do it all but together we can. We all have abilities which point to our purpose in life. And having a purpose in our life gives it meaning.

Of course we all have several different roles in life and we use different skills to manage them. We have a family, an occupation, an avocation, and a role or roles in the church. Each of these has separate objectives but we have one overriding purpose. In all of them we need to figure out how to manifest God's love and our love.

Jesus told us that planting and nurturing the kingdom of God and becoming a productive citizen of it was a long process. To work within that process takes patience, persistence, passion and purpose. But how do we know that the whole thing is worth it? Jesus told us that it was would be hard. He told us we would have to take up our crosses and follow him. He told us we can expect trials and troubles and temptations along the way. Sure, the cause is good and noble but why should we put ourselves through all that? I'll let Paul answer:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is he who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Worth the Risk

The scriptures referred to are Romans 8:12-25 and Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

I try to get to every unit in our jail each week, including sickbay and our lockdown unit, where the inmates are in their cells for 23 out of every 24 hours. I have to crouch or squat to talk through the meal tray flap with those guys, although lately the officers have been bringing me a chair. And this one inmate always seems to be wrestling with matters of faith and asking me questions about things like why Jesus went to the cross and whether there is a God, given that bad things happen like babies dying. In other words the problem of evil. If God is good and all powerful, why is there evil?

Before we get to the why, I just want to point out that the existence of evil is not an argument against the existence of God. In fact, if you take away God, you do not eliminate the things you think are evil. Babies still die. People still do awful things. You have simply taken away any coherent way to use the word “evil.” Take away an ultimate authority on what is moral and terms like good and evil get defined by humans. And usually evil devolves to “what I don't like” or “what our group or culture doesn't like.” And while most people would define things like murder, theft and deception as evil, groups tend to add the qualifier “except when we do it.” We won't tolerate it when an outsider kills one of our own, but when we kill members of an outside group, we argue that “That's different.” When Native Americans killed colonists it was evil. It pretty much says so in the Declaration of Independence. But when the U.S. government killed Native Americans, that was policy. If people are the arbiters of what is good and evil, they will always skew it to favor themselves. A moral standard needs to be something to which all people are subject.

When you take away God, you also take away any kind of objective meaning to evil acts or events or their victims. Yes, the loss of a loved one has meaning to you but not to an indifferent universe. It won't even have meaning to most other people. Those who know you or that person, sure. But ask yourself this: when you hear in the news of a hundred people dying in a natural disaster in some foreign country halfway around the world, does that affect you as much as when you hear of a hundred people dying in this country? Or in your state? Or in your city? The dearest person in your life dying means little to someone who doesn't know you. And if there is no God, who created that person and loves him or her, their death is truly meaningless. Without God, cosmically the death of thousands of human beings would be no more significant than the death of a bunch of ants.

More importantly, without God, people's deaths are irreversible. When they die, they cease to exist except as physical materials that will break down. They have no future in this world or the next. And if they died at the hand of another and that person got away with it, there is no justice, either. But if they died in any fashion, there is no way to undo that. Without God, death is “Game Over.” Except that even in video games, you can resurrect a character. But without God, there is no chance to live again. The dead stay dead.

I'm afraid that erasing God from the equation doesn't erase the problem of evil. Take away God and you still have to deal with evil. You've just taken away any chance for meaning, for an objective definition of evil. Mostly for any real justice in the universe. Only with the existence of God can you even wonder about why bad things happen to good people.

Metaphysically, even scientists can't answer why babies die. They do know to a limited extent how. They know a bit about certain causes, like birth defects. But they don't know that as well as they'd like. They used to think they might find a gene or two that caused each defect. But they are beginning to realize that each genetic disease may be the result of hundreds or thousands of genes, all going wrong in specific ways. Genetic diseases are looking more and more like freak accidents, the unfortunate combination of a multiplicity of factors. A human is an incredibly complex being, having about 20,000 protein-encoding genes and around 3 billion DNA base pairs. Looking at it that way, it is a miracle when everything comes together just right and a functional human being is born. And it comes together just right hundreds of millions of times more often than it goes drastically wrong. According to the March of Dimes, just 6% of children are born with a serious birth defect of genetic or partially genetic origin. Less than half of those die from the defect. The mindbogglingly complicated yet automatic process of creating a new human being works right 94% of the time.

The more common causes of children's deaths are largely preventable, like prematurity and pneumonia. And we are working to prevent them. As we are working to prevent genetic diseases, no matter how daunting the task. And to me that is a bigger question than why children die. Why do we do try to prevent these deaths? The world has no shortage of people. It's actually getting overpopulated. The more people that die, the more resources like food, water, and land are left for the rest of us. If we are the product of mindless evolution, why should we labor to save those unfit for survival? Yet we do. We feel that to let people die is immoral, even if they are sick or disabled. Why?

Because, the Christian would say, we are created in the image of God and God is love. God wants us to love and take care of each other. Indeed, of the 6 foundations that psychologists say make up morality, most people rate caring higher than fairness, loyalty, authority, purity and liberty. So this raises the question of why do some people harm others? Why do we torture? Why do we murder? Why do we wage war?

Paul has been dealing with such questions in our readings from Romans for the last few weeks. Two Sundays ago, we read a passage in which Paul confesses to struggling with sinful impulses himself. Last Sunday and this one, Paul is talking about the difference between those ruled by the flesh, that is, by our earthly human nature, and those ruled by the Spirit. In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul enumerates the products of fallen human nature, divorced from the spiritual: “sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, divisions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing” and more. These are all things that harm a person or fracture relationships.

By the way, the Greek word for sorcery is pharmakeia, from which we get the word “pharmacy.” It literally means “drugs or potions.” Oracles and seers often took drugs to help them see visions. The famous Oracle of Delphi or Pythia is said to have inhaled vapors from a fissure in the earth, which caused her to hallucinate, have seizures and babble incoherently. Such utterances would be interpreted by priests as prophesies. So Paul's list could also be seen as condemning taking drugs, not for medicinal reasons, but to induce altered states of mind. We've seen the death toll of such drug use.

When you look at things from a strictly earthly perspective, you can justify any of those things. Say, you want to have sex with someone married to someone else, or under age, or who is a close blood relative. Why should you refrain simply because of an immaterial rule says that sex with certain categories of people is wrong? And if someone is stopping you from taking or achieving what you want, why can't you get it by fighting or cheating? And if you want to ingest a substance that imparts pleasure as it impairs your mind and body, why shouldn't you? It's your body, isn't it?

That's what Paul is talking about when he's talking about the flesh. He's not talking about our physical needs but rather a shortsighted materialistic view of life, driven by the desires and fears of our animal nature. Those living outside the Spirit are slaves to their baser instincts. But, as Paul says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” (Rom. 8:14-15a) Scripture teaches that we are not automatically children of God. We are his creatures. But if we respond to his Spirit and follow Jesus we become God's children. He adopts us and we therefore have the same rights as any natural born child: “...we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ...” (Rom. 8:16b-17a) We will be like Christ in God's eyes. And indeed that is what the Spirit is doing in our lives, making us more Christlike day by day—if we let him.

Humans have been trying to deal with the evil that arises in human nature for as long as we've been alive. We have tried to eliminate it through laws, punishment, education, and even war. It is too deeply embedded in us. What we need is transformation. We need to become new creations in Christ. That is what God is in the process of doing.

Paul speaks of how we and all of creation are groaning inwardly, for the day when God's new creation will be born, when it will at last become what he intended it to be all along. And note that Paul is not talking about some disembodied afterlife. We are waiting for “the redemption of our bodies.” God always intended us to be both physical and spiritual beings. Indeed his supreme revelation of himself was through the Incarnate Christ. In Jesus, God becomes one of us. In Jesus we see both what God is like and what we can be. And Jesus does pass the torch to us. We are to be the body of Christ on earth. We are incorporated into his body through the waters of baptism and nourished through the bread and wine he declares to be his body and blood. The physical gives the spiritual form. The spiritual gives the physical meaning.

Just so, our bodies and what we do with them can make concrete the love of God for humanity. By researching diseases, caring for the sick, working to eradicate poverty and its effects, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, helping prisoners change their lives, giving refuge to those fleeing persecution and war, exposing and redressing injustice, confronting prejudice, and treating everyone as we would like to be treated, we are manifesting the kingdom of heaven on earth. And in doing these things, we are giving form to the spiritual and meaning to the physical.

Still cleaning up after evil and trying to reverse its effects are a lot of work. Why doesn't God just eradicate evil? Jesus gives part of the answer in the parable of the weeds and the wheat: the lives of those who do good and those who do evil are entwined. We find both in our families. For instance, should God have killed Hitler? That would have caused a lot of suffering to his mother, a sweet, hardworking, devout Roman Catholic who had already lost 3 children in their infancy. Maybe God should have killed Adolph's father, Alois, a womanizer who married his pregnant 16 year old first cousin, Adolph's mother, and who reportedly beat his family, once putting Adolph into a coma. But when should God have done that? Before that beating? Before Adolph was born? But that would mean his youngest sister was never born.

Should God kill all bad fathers? A recent scientific study shows that the loss of a father, through death, separation, divorce or incarceration, actually has a negative effect on the the telomeres, the protective “caps” on the end of the chromosomes of their children and thus their health. “No man is an island,” as poet John Donne wrote. We are all connected. Pulling up the weeds, or bad people, will inevitably uproot some of the wheat, or good people. It is God's mercy to the good, who cannot choose their parents or brothers or sisters, that he doesn't just pick off people who are bad.

But to return to Paul, another reason God refrains from killing off bad people is that folk's fates are not fixed. They can change. They can turn their lives around by opening themselves to God's love and forgiveness, accepting his grace, and, through the power of the Spirit, following Jesus. 

Joshua Milton Blahyi was a budding Adolph Hitler. A tribal priest, Blahyi believed so strongly in magic that he would go into battle clad only in shoes and carrying a gun, so that he became known as General Butt Naked. He also believed in human sacrifice and would routinely sacrifice a small child before going into battle. Under Liberian warload Roosevelt Johnson, he commanded a mercenary unit, that included many child soldiers, who killed thousands in the First Liberian Civil War. But then he says, on a battlefield, Jesus appeared to him in a blinding light. He repented, confessed his sins in church, and went before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia. Today he is a preacher of the gospel and runs an NGO that helps former child soldiers and drug addicts change their lives and learn farming and construction.

Jesus' chosen metaphor doesn't allow for the weeds to turn into wheat but his parable of the prodigal son is about a kid who spends half his father's fortune on wild living before repenting and returning to his loving dad. Jesus said that as a doctor doesn't go to the healthy but the sick, his mission was to bring God's transforming power to sinners. When Jesus encountered Zacchaeus, who became rich taxing his fellow Jews for the Roman empire, the man volunteered to give half of his wealth to the poor and reimburse any he cheated 4 times the amount. Jesus preached repentance, which simply means changing your mind and turning your life around.

The world thinks the way to deal with bad people is to get rid of them by killing or imprisoning them. Jesus' way of getting rid of bad people is to make them into good people. It's more risky, as is God's idea to create people with minds of their own so they could chose how to respond to God and to others and therefore be able to truly trust and really love. Of course, they could also choose not to trust and love God or others. But God thought that rather than create a bunch of puppets or robots, it was worth the risk to give us free will. It was worth the risk to give us the possibility of loving.

None of us has ever created a universe, and so it is easy for us to criticize God for not creating a world where all actions have only good consequences and no bad ones. I don't think it's physically possible to make a world where you can give someone a good hug but not use that same strength to strangle someone. For the same reason I don't think it's possible to create fire that only gives off light and cooks food and heats homes but can't burn a person or a house. God pronounced his creation good. Evil is not inherent in this world but is created whenever we misuse God's good gifts. Things that are good in some contexts are evil in others. A cane can be used to beat and cripple a person or to help someone walk. It's all in how we choose to use it.

I don't know why children die. But I don't believe that is the end of the matter. I don't believe God gives up on either the living or the dead. I believe that God is love, that we see that love in Jesus and that his love can change people. I believe that as God raised Jesus from the dead, so he will raise us, to be new creations in his new creation. I put my hope in this because I believe that God is love, love is worth the risk and love wins in the end.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Dirty Job

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 55:10-13 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

I have been a nurse for 36 years. My next longest career was as a production director and copywriter in radio for 20 years. I highly recommend both as preparation for ordination. Clinical pastoral education is a lot easier if you have worked with the mentally ill as a psych nurse, the cognitively impaired as a neurosurgical nurse and dealt with all the tragedies and transitions of life, including birth and death, as an staffing, private duty, home health and nursing home nurse. And being a copywriter is excellent training for writing sermons. After 2 decades of boiling content down to 30 or 60 seconds, having 15 minutes is a luxury. You can actually do some nuance and deal with a certain amount of complexity. Plus, speaking strictly for myself, you don't have to sell something you don't believe in. I had a ad salesmen—excuse me, account executive—who was having trouble saying anything good about his client's business. He told me that whatever I said about the client, don't say he has the lowest prices in town; if anything, he had the highest. I've had to write ads for nightclubs, stock car races, spring break events for college students sponsored by beer distributors and a clothing-optional restaurant for people who apparently found that appetizing, or were under the delusion that all the other patrons were going to be supermodels.

Another thing I learned is that words are not magic. Yes, you can persuade people but there are certain folks your ad simply cannot motivate. If you are advertising a Lexus, you can forget about people who love Chevys. Or pickups. You can also forget about anyone who has just bought a car. You are basically trying to reach people who have the money, the need and are open to any brand. Those are the people you can sway.

Jesus understands that. It's at the center of his parable of the sower. Or should we say the parable of the soils. Because in this story the crucial factor is the type of soil where the seed ends up. The seed is the same. The seed, Jesus says, is the message about the kingdom of God.

William Barclay points out that there were two ways to sow seeds in that era. One was to walk along and throw the seed in a broadcast manner. The problem is the wind could pick it up and blow it into areas you didn't want to seed. The other method was to put the seed in a bag, hang the bag on a donkey, cut a hole in the bag's corner and walk the donkey up and down the rows in the fields. The problem is the seed starts pouring before you get the donkey in position and it pours out even on the pathway as the donkey walks between fields or rows. Either way, you sow seed in places you don't want it.

The seed that falls on the path is a lost cause. It's been beaten and packed into a hard surface by all the feet that have trod upon it. The seed can't penetrate the pavement-like path and all you've done is laid a feast for the birds. In the parable, the seed that hits the path is likened to God's message falling on the ears of those hardened against spiritual truth. They are either too lazy to think about it or too cynical and prejudiced against religious talk to even consider it. The message is wasted on them. Far from preaching to the choir, you might as well be preaching to the devil for all the good it will do.

Then there's the rocky soil. When I was in Israel during a college study trip I heard of a Palestinian folk tale about a large pelican that, once upon a time, was flying over the newly-created earth with 3 gigantic bags of rocks. He dropped the contents of two of those bags over Palestine. The story was probably made up by some Palestinian farmer hundreds of years ago to explain the rocky soil he was trying to wrest a living from. Like the Keys, what you have in much of the Holy Land is a few inches of dirt lying on a limestone shelf. So any seed sewn there doesn't have to grow very long to break the surface but neither can it lay down deep roots. It can't find enough moisture and it withers in the merciless Middle Eastern sun. Jesus explains that this is like the person who hears the gospel and readily accepts it but the minute he encounters adversity, his faith dies. In the affluent West we have a lot of shallow, fair weather Christians who have confused Jesus with Santa Claus and think the good news is that God wants to give them a comfortable, carefree life. They think the cross Jesus commands us to bear is a tasteful one around your neck. When the going gets tough, they get going as far away as they can from a faith they feel let them down.

The sower doesn't knowingly throw the seed on thorny ground. It's just that even though the soil is plowed up, the roots of the weeds lie deep beneath the surface. If you don't pull out the roots, the weeds grow back. And as we know, weeds grow faster than the good seed and chokes the desired plants. Jesus compares this soil to the worldly believer, whose cares and pursuit of wealth overwhelm the gospel and ultimately nothing comes of it in that person's life. That reminds me of all the celebrity Christians out there, the movie stars and rappers and businessmen and lawmakers who claim to follow Jesus but whose lives show scant evidence of it. They have affairs, lie, behave unethically in business, and pass legislation that either harms the powerless or makes it harder for them to get help. They say they are Christians but there's no proof and in fact they discredit their faith. In some cases you can't tell if they are truly clueless or simply hypocrites but nobody cites them as a reason for wanting to come to Christ. Whatever their secular achievements, their spiritual legacy is nil.

Before we get to the good soil, I want to add a category that Jesus never saw 2000 years ago: polluted soil. This is soil that has been marinating in some kind of chemical runoff or poisoned by radiation or cross-pollinated by genetically modified seed. The grain grows but it's mutated. This parallels the kind of people who take the gospel and twist it and bring forth some abnormal form of Christianity. The DNA at the heart of it is no longer the love of God made manifest in Christ but hatred for everyone who is not on its side. Whereas Jesus sets us free from the tyranny of the Law and gives us the two great commandments to love God and each other, this deviant kind of Christianity substitutes a thousand rules, ruthlessly enforced by men—it's almost always men—who say only THEY speak for God. Whereas Jesus forgives everybody who asks him, the purveyors of this perverted faith forgive no faults or failings but use guilt as a whip to motivate people. We see this corrupt form of God's good news in cults and tiny belligerent split-off groups and even lurking in the rhetoric of some popular preachers, which is why some folks mistake it for the real thing. But the fruit this soil produces is toxic to consume.

Jesus doesn't really give us a description of good soil, except to say that it is extraordinarily fruitful. We can assume it is not hardened like the pathway, or shallow like the rocky soil, or overrun with weeds like the thorny soil. Or polluted with anything poisonous. And remember we are not talking about the seed, the message, but the soil, people. Jesus knew what I learned in two decades of writing ads. There are some people you can't persuade, no matter how good your message is. You can only reach the receptive.

But that doesn't mean we need to be parsimonious in passing along the word. Because you can't always tell what soil your seed is falling on. And here's another thing Jesus didn't have to deal with: concrete. Yes, the Romans had it but they built buildings and aqueducts and palaces and baths with it. Roman roads were paved with stones, not concrete. And one thing you wouldn't see therefore is something growing wildly from a crack in an otherwise barren area, like the tree growing on the old Seven Mile Bridge. For years, clever people have been decorating it with lights for Christmas. My point is that given a crack, some soil can get in and so can a seed and over time, it can break through the toughest exterior. You may encounter someone who seems so hardened and cynical that you would be willing to bet that they would never become Christians. But you might be wrong. There are many prominent atheists who have come to Jesus, like Alister McGrath, the Irish scientist turned theologian, Francis Collins, geneticist and Director of the National Institutes of Health, Lee Strobel, lawyer and journalist, C.S. Lewis, philosopher and literature professor, and Rosalind Picard, professor at MIT and founder of the Affective Computing Research Group as well as many others.

So let's opt for the broadcast method. Let's fling that seed far and wide. It will find a place to grow, and some of those places will surprise us. But that doesn't mean we can't target the message. Remember what I said about whom an ad will and will not reach. People who are happy with their faith will probably not respond. It's people who have a need to be filled and no prejudice about where that help comes from who will most likely be open to the message.

And take some other tips from Jesus. People like stories. He told parables because they got people emotionally and intellectually involved. A son goes off and spends all his money partying and then hits rock bottom. What will he do now? A man is beaten and robbed and left for dead. Here comes someone along the same road. What happens next? A king throws a wedding banquet for his son and none of the guests come because they are too busy. What will he do about that?

And Jesus always has a plot twist. The boy goes home to face the father whose money he wasted. How do you think the father will react? What about the brother? Two members of the clergy come upon the man left for dead on the road to Jericho. What do you think they will do? Who will help the man? The king has spent a lot of money on food and drink for the banquet and there's no one to enjoy his son's big day. How will he save the situation?

Jesus used familiar everyday things to illustrate his message. A poor woman frantically searching for a lost coin. A farmer trying to decide what to do about weeds growing up amidst his crops. A shepherd finding one of his sheep is missing. Laborers finally being hired late in the day. A poor widow up against a corrupt judge. People could identify with that. They could put themselves in the protagonist's place. And then Jesus asks, what can this teach us about God?

When he healed people, Jesus sent them off to tell others what God had done for them. I listen to a lot of podcasts, like The Moth, This American Life, and The Tobolowsky Files, where people tell true stories—funny, weird, sad or surprising—about something that happened to them. And these are popular because we love to hear people tell stories from their life. And the most popular stories are about people who triumph over problems, big or small. We all have such a story.

It doesn't matter if you're a cradle Episcopalian or life-long Lutheran. It doesn't matter if you had a near death experience or not. We all have a story about how God helped us. It can be how he helped us deal with a loss. It can be how he helped us get through a major life change. It can be how he helped us forgive someone who wronged us. Or how he helped us forgive ourselves. It can be how he helped us find our purpose in life. Or how he helped us find ourselves. Share it. Let people know what the Lord has done for you.

Some people won't care. Some people are too hardened, too busy, too shallow, too perverse to do anything with it. But as Isaiah says, God's word will not return empty. Some people will be good soil, waiting to receive the good news and bring it to fruition. And some will have a few cracks in their lives that will admit the gospel of God's love and that seed you planted will grow and make more cracks in their exterior and expose the fertile soil beneath and burst forth one day as glorious, God-given, fruit-laden life.