Sunday, February 26, 2017

A World Without God

Today's New Testament passage (2 Peter 1:16-21) begins, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” So it wasn't just in the modern era that people were picking apart the gospel. In the first century folks who didn't like the Good News were yelling “Fake News!”

There are whole books written about the reliability of our New Testament documents. Without going into great detail, we can say that the text underlying any modern translation is reliable because we literally have thousands of copies of the Greek originals, plus hundreds of copies of translations into other ancient languages, plus quotations of verses and passages in letters of the early church fathers, the successors to the apostles. By scientifically dating and classifying these materials, we can determine the original text.

A modern argument bypasses the documents entirely, claiming that Jesus never lived. If there was no Jesus, then the New Testament is no more relevant than the Sherlock Holmes stories. The subject of these writings would be totally fictional. This was refuted recently by Bible scholar Bart Ehrman in his book Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. The irony of this is that Ehrman isn't even a believer. But his opinion that Jesus wasn't divine doesn't blind him to the fact that the man did exist.

But ultimately the problem with belief isn't so much an intellectual one as an emotional one. As cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss said, “ I can't prove that God doesn't exist, but I'd much rather live in a universe without one.” Again that's his opinion and he's entitled to it. But it does make me wonder “why?”

I hate quotes without context and I can't find this quote in an interview or a book or a debate. But the sentiment is not unfamiliar. As strange as it may sound to us, there are reasons why people might not want God to exist.

A lot of people think of God primarily as judge, jury and executioner. Without God there are no pesky moral rules. There is no penalty if I want to covet my neighbor's wife or steal someone else's stuff or lie. Well, no eternal penalties. My earthly neighbors might impose penalties on me. But if I get enough power or wealth, I might even be able to escape or diminish what they can do to me. Hitler committed all kinds of crimes but couldn't be tried or imprisoned because he was the nation's leader. Such people really wish there is no God. And if they are right then Hitler committed one of the greatest genocides in history without ever being held accountable.

Other people wouldn't want God to exist because they think that the existence of an all-knowing God means everything is predestined. If God knows what you are going to do before you do it, it's locked in, isn't it? And if it's locked in, if you can't do anything differently, then you have no free will. You are a puppet. That's the argument people often bring up against God's foreknowledge.

The odd thing is that there is a growing number of scientists who believe we don't have free will even if you take God out of the picture. They see us as nothing more than biological machines who are utterly controlled by the laws of physics and biology. Just as a billiard ball has no free will when struck by a cue or another ball, so the atoms and molecules in us must behave in certain ways when acted on by certain forces. Our consciousness is a side effect of our complex brain but in no way determines what we actually do. So you are still a puppet, though not of a personal god but of impersonal forces.

C.S. Lewis had a good response to this about 60 years ago. He said such people are arguing against the very faculty that allows them to argue. If you say you have no free will---well, you had to say that, didn't you? And you can't fault me for arguing the other side, because I similarly am unable to think differently. Which would mean that both atheism and deism are predetermined and there is no use in trying to convince anyone of anything.

It's fairly obvious that if you hold to biological determinism, you should just shut up and let the inevitable work itself out. It also means you can't even take credit for being smart enough to know that things are biologically determined. You couldn't think otherwise.

But are Christians committed to the idea that God predestines absolutely everything? This is something people have written piles of books about, so we really can't get very deeply into the subject here. What we can say is that you can use the Bible to argue for and against free will, not that the term “free will” appears anywhere in its pages. But there are passages that make it seem that God is in control of everything and passages which make it seem that our decisions and actions depend on us. How do we reconcile that?

For the last 3 years I have spent a day or two a week caring for my granddaughter. At first she was basically a cute lump of flesh who ate, slept, peed and pooped. She was, in the words of John Oliver, little more than a labor-intensive houseplant. Controlling her was easy. Once she started moving, control was still possible but increasingly difficult to maintain. When she began crawling and standing, she started objecting to being kept in a play pen. I had two choices. Ignore her crying and keep her in the baby corral, where she was safe, or relinquish a bit of my control and let her have a bit of freedom. That increased the risk that she could disrupt the order of my work-space and destroy things by pulling them down and even hurt herself, primarily by falling on the hard floor rather than the padded bottom of the play pen. I was still a lot smarter and much more powerful than she. I could prevent the worst from happening. I could even reverse my decision and, say, swaddle her so she could not move. But I voluntarily restrained myself from controlling every aspect of her life and gave her some but not absolute freedom.

When we get into this freewill versus predestination debate, we tend to speak in absolutes. We forget, as we often do in theoretical arguments, that there can be gradations and nuances. God can and evidently does voluntarily relinquish some control and give us some freedom. And no human being, in any system of thought, ever has total freedom. Our choices are always limited by what we have learned through the people around us, through our schooling and through our experience, as well as by what is physically and psychologically possible. Some people have wider choices than others by virtue of wealth, education, race and social standing but no one can do anything it comes into their head to do.

So how is it that the Bible can say with such confidence that God will prevail over evil in the end? Think of God as a chess master. Whatever move we make, however non-obvious or even irrational, God already has the counter-moves and a strategy in place that takes into accounts all contingencies. If I were up against Gary Kasparov, it wouldn't matter how much freedom I had; he would still win.

That however leads to another reason people might hope that there is no God. A common argument against God is: look at what a mess the world is. There is murder, famine, rape, war, pedophilia, terrorism, domestic violence, and more. There is injustice and poverty. There is disease and disaster. Some folks say that if there is a God in charge he is either indifferent to us or actively hates us. For them it is simpler to assume there is no god and that chaos reigns.

Of course, this is a selective way of looking at the world. In fact, it is heavily influenced by the news motto “If it bleeds, it leads.” Humans have a bias towards noticing the negative. Despite these truly awful things, if we look we can see lots of good in this world as well. Many more people are born than die. Death from infectious diseases and cardiovascular disease has fallen worldwide. Child mortality is declining by 3.7% a year. In general people's lives are getting longer, with global life expectancy going from an average of 46.7 years in 1990 to 59.3 years in 2013. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty, that is, on $1.25 a day or less, has been cut in half in the last 25 years, going from 36% to 15%. And those living on $1.90 a day has fallen from 1.9 billion people to 702 million. The growing awareness of rape and domestic violence will hopefully have the kind of impact awareness of the causes of heart disease and certain cancers have had on those scourges.

Ah, you may object, but that is due entirely to human effort. It didn't require God. The problem with that line of thought is that those human efforts were originated by and insinuated into our modern culture by religion. In the beginning of civilization, medicine and religion were intertwined. People went to temples in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece for healing. The Romans built places to take care of sick soldiers, gladiators and slaves, in other words, those they valued, but it was the acceptance of Christianity that caused an expansion of caring for all the ill. Saint Sampson, a doctor of Constantiople, and Bishop Basil of Caesarea built some of the earliest hospitals, with doctors, nurses, medical libraries, and training programs.

In the same way, the church has been on the forefront of efforts to help the poor and feed the hungry. Governments and non-profits and international organizations have only recently taken on the work that the church has always done and is still doing. But without God there is little incentive for people to do what the good Samaritan did—take care of those who are not family and friends. Why help those we don't know and who cannot benefit us? They are not productive citizens. Only the conviction that we are in fact our brother's keeper stands in the way of those in power pulling aid from the poor and sick.

Let's go back to my granddaughter. I give her some freedom within the confines of the church. I will forbid her to touch certain things and get into certain places, like the utility closet or the secretary's office. I keep the door to the outside world locked. And she is fine with that so far. But she's just shy of 3. What would you call it if I kept her locked in here when she's 23? Prison. I wouldn't have to worry about her getting into drugs, or dating bad boys, or getting in a car accident. She would be safe. That's good, right? I doubt she would see it that way. Instead of a cozy paradise, she would see it as a form of hell. So my choice is that as she grows up, I give her more freedom, trusting that she will learn to use it wisely.

For God to prevent us from doing any of the awful things we do, he would have to imprison us in some way. He would have to put some kind of mental or emotional shock collar on us. He would have to infantilize us or incapacitate us so we could not possibly do wrong. He would have to take away our free will. And so we are back to a situation in which we are puppets, or perhaps robots. And such a system would make love impossible because we wouldn't be able to freely choose to love God and our neighbor.

God is love. Love is only possible if you can choose to love or not. In God's wisdom he has decided that we needed this much freedom if we were to be able to truly choose to love him and others and ourselves. Some people make the wrong choice. We might see the cost as too high but that's because we only see this life. When people die, that is the end of their activity in this world. If this is the only life we have, then yes, God must be either indifferent or a monster.

On the internet I read an imagined dialogue between two twins in a womb. Because this was the only environment they knew, the idea of birth was scary. One twin saw it as a catastrophe because in the womb there was warmth and food and it was not too bright. Birth would mean the end of the life it had always known. The idea that in 9 short months it would be expelled from the womb was a disaster in its mind.

The other twin felt that there might be another world outside the womb. And it longed to meet and embrace the mother. The first twin doubted the existence of the mother because it couldn't see any other person in the womb beside themselves. And it couldn't imagine what it couldn't see.

Then the contradictions start. Their world narrows. They are powerless to resist being pushed down the birth canal. It is painful and scary and who knows what is on the other side. One twin undergoes the painful, bloody process of birth in terror and despair, the other in hope.

If this is the only world, then when we leave it our life is indeed a tragedy. If there is another world, however, one bigger and better than this one, if there is a life that lasts infinitely longer than the handful of decades we get in this one, then as Paul says, “...our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18) One of the wonderful features of this life is that we can remember that we suffered physical pain, but we cannot literally re-experience that pain. I remember my first car accident, when I was 5, back when kids could sit in the front seat and there was no such thing as a seat belt. I can remember hitting the dashboard and what it was like to have so much blood flowing from my eyebrow that I thought I had lost an eye. I can remember how scary it was to be strapped down in the ambulance and on the exam table in the emergency room and how the hypodermic needle the doctor stuck into my face looked like it was 3 feet long. But I don't re-feel the pain. 57 years later, recalling it doesn't disturb me.

Whatever pain and suffering we undergo in our brief life here will recede into a faint memory in our eternal life. God will give us new and better bodies in a new and better world, with new and endless adventures with our family and friends and with the God who is love. And that's hard for us to imagine. But so was my post-second-accident life, walking on partly metal legs, with no cane and no pain. I can't wait until the Great Physician gets his hands on me and takes away the allergies and the food intolerances and the character defects. Some more hair would be nice too.

As I get older, I see that what we students and followers of Jesus offer the world above all else is hope. Hope that things don't have to stay the way they are, that our past doesn't have to determine our future, that we do have a choice and can make a difference, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and a loving parent to hold us and comfort us and wipe away all our tears and fears and pain. If we manifest that hope in our lives, maybe more people will stop wishing there wasn't a God and want to meet and love and follow him instead. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Health Code

Last week we made much of the fact that there is not one but three areas of ethics: those that deal with our relationship with God, those that deal with our relationships with others, and those that deal with our relationship with ourselves. And that's important to note. But when you get to the Bible you don't see them set apart in that way very often. That's because they all touch on and influence each other, rather like the parts of the body. We can speak of the heart abstractly and consider it separately but in reality a heart apart from the body dies, as does the person from whom it was removed. Ethics work the same way. The person you are before God should impact the person you are with others. The person you are with others should impact the person you are by yourself. The person who has integrity is the one who has integrated all three spheres of ethical behavior in their life. Sadly, we often don't let that happen, which is spiritually unhealthy.

In today's Old Testament lesson (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18) and today's Gospel (Matthew 5:38-48) We get what appear to be a whole jumble of ethical rules, applying to all areas of life. Yet there is a thread that runs through these passages. And we get it right at the beginning of our passage from Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Before “What would Jesus do?” was a thing, the Bible basically says, “You should act as God would.”

Bible scholars call it the Holiness Code. Holy,” however, throws people today. They think it applies exclusively to our relationship with God, to worship and religious behavior alone. The Hebrew word for “holy” does have roots in the word for “cleanse” or “purify.” Why do we want anything clean or purified? Because it's healthy. We all want to be healthy. So you could call this a spiritual health code. 

But let's leave that aside for a few minutes. The primary meaning of the word “holy” is “set apart.” God's holiness sets him apart from us with our mixed motives and sin. So for us to be “holy” means not only to be “cleansed” but to be set apart for God's purposes. When we sanctify something, like a church building or a chalice, we are setting it apart for God's use. So as God's people we are set apart for God's intended uses. It doesn't mean we are inherently better than others so much as designated as God's servants.

Again we think of ordained clergy as God's servants but in reality all Christians are. 1 Peter 2:5 and 9 says, “ yourselves, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood and to offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ....But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” It's from this that Luther derived the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Just because some of us have gifts that put us in more visible roles doesn't mean that we are more holy than lay people. We all serve God in different ways.

And this all goes back to what we are told about humanity in the very first chapter of the Bible: that we are created in God's image. So we should act as God would in our place. Those things that we think, say and do that are contrary to his Spirit are what we call sins, violations of his principles.

And notice that right off the bat in our Old Testament lesson we are told to help the poor. That's not unusual because the Bible talks about our duty to the poor more than 300 times. Proverbs 14:31 says, “The one who oppresses the poor insults his Creator, but whoever shows favor to the needy honors him.” In Leviticus 19:9-10 God commands farmers not to reap absolutely every part of their crops but leave some for the needy and the immigrant to gather and eat. This may not sound like good business practice but God is saying that you needn't squeeze every drop of profit from your ventures. Leave something for the unfortunate. Build charity into your business model. If you are doing well, pay it forward. And notice that, as the New Bible Commentary points out, “The relief of poverty in Israel, therefore, was built into economic and legal structures, not left as a matter of private charity.”

Then we are peppered with a series of short commandments on honesty: don't steal; don't make dishonest deals; don't lie; don't defraud others; don't use God's name to perjure yourself. As Jesus said in our Gospel last week let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” “no.” Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don't make any promises you can't keep and keep every promise you make. It's sad that such things have to be spelled out. After all what keeps relationships going is trust. If I can't trust your word, how can I continue to interact with you? Government, businesses and marriage need honesty to survive.

Next we get a commandment that sounds a bit odd: “ shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” In Biblical times, you didn't get a weekly paycheck, especially if you were a day laborer. Often folks lived day to day. After a day's work the laborer needed to be paid so he could buy food for his family. Hanging onto their wages, presumably to get them to return to work the next day, could mean that their family would go hungry. One nursing home where I worked became unreliable in issuing our paychecks. Everyone had bills to pay and it didn't exactly enforce loyalty to the company. If you're an employer you need to think of the welfare of your workers. It makes excellent business sense but employers sometimes get stuck in short-term thinking. God says that not only is stiffing your workers bad for business, it is immoral.

Next God tells us not to mock or mistreat the handicapped. To show disrespect for the disabled is to disrespect God. Proverbs 9:10 tells us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And if you are truly wise, you realize that you could at some point become disabled. You could lose your sight or your hearing through disease or infection or accident. You could receive a head injury that could lead render you unable to speak or walk or think properly—or at all. And as Jesus said, you should treat others as you would like to be treated. I rather doubt that if you end up in a wheelchair or nursing home, you would like people to pick on you or take advantage of you because you are handicapped. One clear principle we find over and over in the Bible is the empathy and compassion for the vulnerable and disadvantaged that God has and that we should have.

Next come some principles for the human administration of justice. Judgments must be just and impartial. A person's social standing should not affect the outcome. In addition, people spreading slander and scandalous rumors are condemned. Though at that time they did not have the press, it was known that gossip could ruin a person's life. Today with the internet that can happen in a few minutes or hours. Just last year a man entered a pizza parlor with a loaded AR-15 because he believed a vicious internet hoax that it was the site of a ring of pedophiles. Contrary to the old rhyme, words can hurt you.

And in that vein, the passage warns us not to profit by the blood of our neighbor. It literally tells us not to “stand against” our neighbor's blood. The NIV translates this “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor's life.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible says, “You must not jeopardize your neighbor's life.” The NET Bible renders it “You must not stand idly by when your neighbor's life is at stake.” Any way you look at it this commandment means we must always look out for our neighbor's safety and well-being. Negligence is not an option. Perhaps this is what motivated the good Samaritan in Jesus' parable.

And at this point our passage gets to the heart of the matter, literally. “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” Remember that all of Israel had descended ultimately from one man and his 12 sons so were all related. For that matter so is all of humanity. Our DNA reveals that we are all descended from the so-called mitochondrial Eve, who lived about 200,000 years ago in Africa and a Y-chromosome Adam who may or may not have lived at the same time. We are truly, as the Key West motto says, one human family. So we are forbidden to hate each other.

We can and should reprove our neighbor, however, when they are doing something destructive or self-destructive. But, in view of the previous verse, we must do so without hatred. Thus we are talking about sincerely trying to help someone make a better choice. If a student is having trouble, the wise teacher doesn't yell at him or call him names or imply he's stupid. Or think how a fellow student would help a friend who is having trouble getting the hang of something. You would ask what the problem is, listen and then work with that kid till they got it right. If they shut you down, at least you tried.

Finally, we are told not to take revenge or bear a grudge. God is trying to break the vicious cycle of anger and retaliation. The only alternative is forgiveness. And all this is prelude to the famous commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.

When we get to Jesus he goes farther. Not only are we to refuse to take revenge, we are not to resist the person who wrongs us. We are not to fight but to turn the other cheek. And not only are we to love our neighbor, we are to love our enemy as well. This sounds crazy.

And it is. Unless there is a just and loving God whom we really trust. The thing about trust is that we need it the most when it is the hardest thing to do. Our natural instinct is to fight back, to lash out, to get our own back. The enduring popularity of the good guy versus bad guy plot is due to how good it feels to see the bad guy get his comeuppance. Would we cheer if the good guy decided to leave the bad guy's fate in God's hands and love him instead? No, because it is unnatural.

The world is the way it is because we follow our nature, our flesh, as Paul would put it. To change things requires us to go beyond our biological urges, to change the script, as it were. And the only thing stronger than our nature is God's Spirit.

For the most part in most instances we know what is right and what is wrong. Why don't we do what we know is right? Because we cannot do it, not every day, not every time, not if we rely on our own strength. We need God's Spirit, the Spirit who descended on Jesus at his baptism, who empowered his ministry, whom he poured out on the church at Pentecost, with whom we are sealed at our baptism. We need his Spirit in us if we are to be holy like God, if we are to live the life Jesus lived, the life Jesus died to give us.

Just as only a healthy person can run two miles without getting winded, only a spiritually healthy person, a person filled with the Spirit, can live according to God's law. None of us is healthy enough to do it perfectly. We are in rehab, building our strength, trying to graduate from the parallel bars to the walker. But with the help and guidance and encouragement of the Spirit, we can get there.

And that's something to remember: our enemy is spiritually ill as well. If we lash out at him, it doesn't move either of us closer to God's saving health. But we can encourage him to become a patient of the Great Physician. We can show him what we can do already because of God's healing in our lives. And we can pray for his healing as well.

As students and followers of Jesus, we need his Spirit within us so we can manifest his grace and love to a very sick world. To make it worse or to sabotage our fellow sufferers is not only wrong but unhealthy. We must let him cleanse us from the sickness of sin so we can be healthy and holy, as he is. And so we can make our one human family, our brothers and sisters, created in the image of our Heavenly Father, healthy and holy too. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

It's Complicated

For some reason Blogger doesn't like the white on black color scheme I have used for 7 years. It won't do black on white either. Hope this is readable.

In the Billy Crystal comedy City Slickers 3 middle aged men go to a dude ranch to live out their childhood dreams of being cowboys. They encounter a very scary cowboy named Curly played by Jack Palance. At one point Crystal's character Mitch gets into a philosophical discussion with the grizzled wrangler. Curly says, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” He holds up one finger. “This.”

Your finger?” asks Mitch.

Curly replies, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [crap].”

But what is the 'one thing?'” asks Mitch.

Curly smiles. “That's what you have to find out.”

It's a very Zen, very appealing moment. And it is, to use the euphemism I substituted for Curly's word, crap. We are back to the problem we were talking about last week: the intense desire to oversimplify everything and boil it down to one cause, one purpose, one task.

And I understand this desire. Life is complex. It would be so much easier if we could just focus on one thing and ignore everything else as small stuff. But the devil, as they say, is in the details. A rocket just has to go up into space, right? Well, it also has to come back to earth safely. And it has to support the life of the astronauts inside. And it's not a thrill ride so it has to has some scientific purpose and therefore instruments on board. If you just concentrate on the so-called main purpose—to travel into space—but ignore everything else you get dead or stranded astronauts. There is an irreducible complexity to everything.

We cannot fathom the complexity of the simplest organism. Which is Mycoplasma genitalium, if we exclude viruses and nano-bacteria which cannot live on their own. And this organism has 580,000 base pairs and 482 protein-coding genes. Compare that the human genome that has 3 billion base pairs and between 19,000 and 20,000 protein-coding genes. So since we've counted all of the human genes, we should have the Mycoplasma genitalium all worked out. Not if you mean we know what all those genes do. And if we don't have the simplest free-living organism sorted out don't expect us to figure out the inner workings of humans anytime soon.

The closest thing we have to a simple purpose of life is to reproduce. But then you also have to raise and nurture what you reproduce. And in social animals you have to work out how to live together in a way that balances benefits to individuals with benefits to the whole society.

Jesus tackled this when asked which of the 613 laws in the Torah was the greatest or foremost commandment. Jesus, knowing that this idea was an oversimplication, gave two: love God with all you are and all you have and love your neighbor as yourself. He said no other commandment was greater and that all the other laws and all the writings of the prophets depended on these two.

Jesus thereby indicated that there were at least two categories of ethics: our behavior towards God and our behavior towards others. Most ethicists would include a third: our behavior towards ourselves, which could be deduced from the fact that the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbors, as we do ourselves.

C.S. Lewis compared these to the 3 disciplines necessary for an orchestra. Each musician needs to take care of his or her instrument, keeping it in tune and in good condition. They all must learn to blend their sounds with the other musicians and instruments, keeping the same rhythm and observing the dynamics. And finally they must be play the same music the conductor has chosen. If he's conducting Beethoven's 9th they mustn't be playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” instead.

Now the interesting thing is that just as different Christians emphasize different doctrines, they also emphasize different parts of Christian ethics. Some focus almost entirely on our duty to God. But if they neglect our duty to others you get people who are pious but tolerate injustice. Other Christians emphasize loving our neighbor but neglect their own physical, mental and spiritual health. Eventually the chaos in their personal lives spills over and they are no good to anyone. Some Christians are really good at personal discipline but don't let that overflow to loving others and so they are moral in their personal life but lack compassion. Christian ethics involves all of our relationships—with God, with others and with ourselves.

You see these in various combinations throughout the church. There are people who think the number 1 thing in the Christian life is worship, the people who think the church should be primarily a social action agency, and those who think Christianity is mainly about personal morality. They are like the Buddhist parable about a group of blind monks encountering an elephant for the first time. One feels a tusk and says an elephant is like a spear. One is touching the elephant's side and says an elephant is like a wall. One feels its trunk and says an elephant is like a snake. They are all correct as far as the part of the elephant they are in contact with. The problem arises when they deny the other monks' findings. The elephant is like all those things and more.

Yet we see Christians who insist that the chief part of morality is personal responsibility. They feel the church should stick to that and not make pronouncements or policies about social issues. But Jesus himself talked about helping the poor and vulnerable. In Matthew 25:31-46 he made our treatment of the unfortunate the center of his parable about the last judgment. What we do or neglect to do to others amounts to how we treat Jesus. He excoriated the Pharisees for focusing on lesser issues and ignoring things like faithfulness, mercy and justice. (Matt 23:23) In this he was in line with the prophets who constantly reminded the people that God was “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.” (Psalm 68:5) Much of the Old Testament is about loving your neighbor and not mistreating the poor and the resident alien.

But if you accept that mankind is sinful then it follows that our imperfections come out in the laws we formulate and the systems we create. So if we are to love our neighbor we need to look for and try to eliminate the flaws in our laws and systems that cause them harm or neglect. As it says in Proverbs 29:7, “The righteous know the rights of the poor; but the wicked have no such concern.” So we cannot fall into thinking that if we live a moral life and don't commit evil that is sufficient for a good Christian life. Jesus calls us out of our lives and into the lives of others. Love does that.

On the other hand there are Christians who are so focused on the social demands of the gospel that they ignore the fact that there is such a thing as personal morality. Indeed we have had a number of scandals in the church in which people who have done a great deal of good for others are revealed to have had horribly self-destructive personal lives. And it usually spills over and destroys the good work they have done. Remember Lewis' orchestra analogy. If you misuse or abuse your violin, you will not be able to make beautiful music with it for very long and it will affect your contribution to the orchestra. Arrogance, greed, lust, rage, envy and self-indulgence are harmful to your own spirit and will infect what you are doing for others.

And the same applies to those we help. When Jesus saved the woman caught in adultery from the mob, he didn't say, “Neither do I condemn you. Go back to living your life as you always have.” He said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” In fact if a person doesn't cooperate, you can't do much to help them. I have tried to help homeless men and found what I could do was limited by how well they could exercise self-control. I tried to get them jobs which they did not stick at. People gave them places to stay whose hospitality they abused. I have helped them get a ticket home only to have them return to the Keys where they cannot possibly afford a place to live. It reminds me of times when, as a nurse, I took care of people who could barely breathe but who didn't even try to stop smoking, or people who couldn't walk but wouldn't do their physical therapy. We do people no favors if we make it sound as if we can help them without them doing their part. As I might say to a patient, "Help me help you."

But that is no excuse not to help them. As a nurse I can't refuse to treat anyone who needs medical aid, regardless of how I feel about their personal decisions. As a nurse I must treat everyone who seeks help and as a Christian I must act lovingly towards all others, up to and including anyone who could be called a enemy. Jesus allows us no exceptions.

And as it turns out 75% of the homeless are only that way for 2 or 3 months. They eventually find a home. People do get their messed up lives turned around. But they can't do it alone. And we can't help them if we are messing up our lives. As Jesus said, first get the 2 by 4 out of your own eye, and then you'll be able to get the speck of saw dust out of your neighbor's eye.

Remember that Jesus wants us to be peacemakers. And in the Bible peace means total well-being. And if we are students of Jesus we need to learn and be working on all 3 areas of our relationships. We need to strive for total well-being in relationship with God, total well-being in our relationship with others and total well-being in our relationship with ourselves.

We won't get them down perfectly but if we are making any significant headway people will notice and that will help our witness to the power and love of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We started this series speaking of what Epiphany meant. It means to “manifest.” It was originally about how Jesus manifested his glory to the world. Jesus said “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) And just last week we read the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. (Matt 5:14). How can they both be true?

Because we are the body of Christ. While he was in the world, Jesus was the light of the world. Now he has passed the torch to us. The fire does not come from us; it comes from him. But we are to put it “on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:15,16) We are to continue his work while he is away. In John 14:12 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do....” It's not that the works save us; it's that the works naturally flow from being saved, the way a healthy person can, say, go up a flight of stairs without being out of breath. A spiritually healthy person can do the same kind of works Jesus did without worrying that they will run out of what they trust God to supply.

Those works will include ethical actions, both personal and social. If we are not loving or trustworthy people, folks will be suspect of any good works we do. If we do not demonstrate God's love for others through helping the poor and unfortunate, people will suspect that our faith in Jesus is all talk. Arguing about which is more important, faith or works, personal morality or social justice, is, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, like arguing which blade of a scissors is more important or which wing of a plane is essential. They go together, and you're never going to soar without both.

The way we manifest Christ in our lives is not merely by praying and going to church but also by going out into the world and proclaiming the gospel by what we do as well as by what we say.

And if you think about it, what is really lacking in the world is an overwhelming litany of examples of people acting like Christ. The news is full of people exhibiting behavior that is definitely not Christlike. And some of those people call themselves Christians. We get stories of people harming others in the name of religion but how often do we see stories of people helping others in the name of Jesus? We get stories of people denigrating others in the name of Christ but how often do we see stories of people lifting up others in his name? We get stories of people making it harder to feed and shelter the homeless or get healthcare to the poor or rehabilitate those in prison but how often to we see stories of people giving the homeless food and a place to stay, or helping the poor get their healthcare needs met or educating ex-prisoners and helping them start over and doing so in Jesus' name? I know these things are happening but it is not getting proclaimed. Nor, sadly, can we say that it is happening so frequently that people are simply taking it for granted. Nobody automatically says, “Oh, the churches are making the world better.” Indeed a lot of people think we are either making it worse or doing nothing to change the status quo.

Speaking of which, the Rev. Scott Gunn has posted a great sermon on his blog In it he points out, “There are no saints of the status quo.” We don't honor people for keeping things just as they are. Rather we look up to Christians who rocked the boat. They challenged and disrupted the status quo. They reformed the church or went out of their way to spread the gospel or pushed the boundaries to minister to the sick or the poor or the uneducated or the outcasts. St. Francis didn't kiss some random dude he met on the road; he kissed a leper out of love for Christ. Mother Teresa didn't start a discussion group on the concerns of the sick and dying; she set up hospices to care for them in the name of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoffer didn't try to work out a way to bridge the gap between Christianity and the ruling Nazi party; he worked with a group of renegade churches that opposed everything that evil government said and did because it was antithetical to Christ. Jesus didn't tell folks that everything was fine the way it was because God is in control; he said everything was out of whack in relation to God and that he was sent by God to set it right. And they killed him for it.

When someone is sick, their status quo is not good. To make them better you are going to have to change how things are for them. You may even have to cut them open and removed diseased parts of them and put in replacement parts. But if that's what you need to do to repair a broken person, you do it. The world is messed up. The status quo is disease and brokenness. We need to make sure we are being repaired by God's Spirit and then get up out of these seats and go out into the world and do what's right. 

And we need to do it noisily. If we remain quiet no one will find us, and, more importantly, no one will find Jesus. To paraphrase St. Francis, we need to proclaim the gospel every day in every way; and if necessary, use words.

Sunday, February 5, 2017


For some reason people like things to have one cause. It's simpler intellectually if the problems we encounter can be pinned down to one origin: character, or environment, or genes, or a specific culture. It makes fixing those problems easier and cleaner. If we just get rid of this (piece of technology/gene/behavior/group of people) the problem will cease to be. The difficulty is that's rarely true, especially if the problem is complex. The reason we haven't wiped out cancer the way we have wiped out, say, smallpox, is that cancer is not so much one disease as it is a family of diseases. Some cancers are caused by mutations that seem to arise spontaneously, some are caused by external triggers like smoking or chemical exposure, and some seem to be caused by viruses. And it looks as if you both have to be genetically predisposed to a certain cancer and then encounter something that activates that cancer.

Many diseases seem to work that way. There are internal and external factors that come together to cause the emergence of the disease. There is as yet no reliable way to change our genes but we can do something about the things that trigger the diseases. Want to reduce the odds of getting heart disease? According to the Mayo Clinic, (1) don't smoke or use tobacco, (2) exercise for about 30 minutes on most days of the week, (3) eat a heart-healthy diet, which includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, and avoid red meats, full-fat dairy, fast foods, snack foods, crackers, chips, cookies, sugars, salt and fats. (4) maintain a healthy weight, (5) get enough quality sleep, (6) manage stress, (7) get regular health screenings, with special attention to blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. Are you doing all those things? Why not? Do you want to die?

There is a reason why heart disease is the number one cause of death in the US and why 3 of its causes—tobacco use, high blood pressure and obesity—are the top 3 causes of preventable death: we don't want to change our habits. We don't want to give up our vices; we don't want to stop eating our favorite foods; and we really don't want to exercise and sweat for 30 minutes every day. We want to live but we don't want to work at it. And so more than a half million of us die before our time.

Last week we explored the ways Jesus wanted to make us and the world better. We said that it meant a world where people were responsive to God and to other people in positive ways: where they recognize their need for God's help, go to him for forgiveness, really desire that all things be in a right relationship with God and with others, pursue justice and peace, and manifest humility, gentleness, compassion and mercy. And we asked if that was so desirable, why is it more people aren't following Jesus?

Well, it's complicated. There are a lot of reasons. One is that people really don't want to see a world like that. They may not like the God part or they may not like the humility part, or they may even object to the justice and peace part.

Some people object to God either on intellectual grounds or for emotional reasons. Often the latter leads to the former. People have bad experiences in their religion as kids and then start looking for reasons to dismiss God from their lives when they get older. Some actually find theological questions that are difficult to resolve. Often they do not go on to realize that these questions are not new and believers have been wrestling with them for a while and there are whole books on them. Some difficult questions about faith are even discussed in the Bible. Nor do these critics honestly deal with the fact that all philosophical systems, including agnosticism and atheism, have similar unresolved questions. But it gives them what they really want: reasons to reject God. And sadly, a lot of these people do not even grapple with these theological quandaries. They just note that these questions exist and simply parrot them rather than research the issues and try to find out the truth. A surprising number of anti-theists just regurgitate common misunderstandings and errors, like the idea that the church caused the Dark Ages, or that religion causes most wars. They could easily clear up these misconceptions if they just googled them.

A lot of the same people do not like the humility part. They see the advances that humanity has made through science and see no reason for humans to be humble. Part of this is a misunderstanding of humility. A lot of folks think being humble means putting yourself down. In fact, humility is having an accurate idea of your strengths and weaknesses. Like most virtues humility lies between two opposite moral errors: self-denigration and arrogance. Putting yourself down in every department of life is not humility; it is a denial of the image of God in you and of the gifts he has given you. Arrogance is a kind of self-deification, where you attribute all good things to yourself and deny or diminish your very real weaknesses. A humble person maintains a healthy evaluation of his or her good and bad qualities. It is having a balanced view of yourself.

So as Christians we must admit to all of the advances science has wrought: healthier, longer lives and tools and machines that make those lives easier. But science has also led to the degradation of the environment and the rise of injuries and illnesses, like motor vehicle collisions and radiation poisoning, not previously seen in history. When the founding fathers sanctioned the right to bear arms in the Constitution, they were thinking of guns that fired one shot and then took several minutes to reload. Science has given us guns that fire 300 rounds a minute. None of the mass shootings we have seen involved muzzle-loading rifles. Indeed, science has given us weapons of mass destruction. Our biological and nuclear weapons can do something no past army could do: kill millions or even wipe out all life on earth. Science is powerful, which means it can do great good or great harm. And if we are arrogant, we will not guard against its misuse. Personally I would rather have such things in the hands of the humble: people who realize that they are flawed, both in their thinking and in their morality and who realize that just because we can do something doesn't mean we should.

Last week we pointed out that there are people and industries that actually oppose justice and peace. No dictator wants true justice, with everyone, including them, subject to the same laws and consequences. In fact, everyone wants strict justice for those who harm us and wants loopholes in the rules for themselves and those they care about. There are judges who got kickbacks from the local privatized jail in return for providing long sentences for adolescents who made minor mistakes. Those judges weren't interested in true justice. They were only interested in money. 

And not everyone wants world peace. According to Business Insider, the U.S. and Russia are the leading suppliers of weapons around the world. The U.S. has sent more than $26.9 billion in weapons to other nations and Russia has sent more than $29.7 billion in weapons to nations around the world. And those are just the value of the weapons, not the actual prices paid for them. If global peace broke out, do you think the companies that make their money selling them would just shrug and go away? When the Civil War ended, gun manufacturers saw their sales drop. So they started marketing to civilians, fanning fears of immigrants and the horrible conditions in cities to create new markets for their products. Sorry, peace is just not profitable.

There is another reason why people do not want to follow Jesus. And that is the whole matter of forgiveness, both getting and receiving it. Nobody likes acknowledging that they have done wrong. Arrogant people don't see the need to seek forgiveness because they don't admit that they have done anything wrong. However, for those of us who are honest with ourselves, we know we need forgiveness. And it is good to have our sins forgiven and our consciences clear again.

Nevertheless we have problems with forgiving those who wrong us. Even in families, grudges can be held onto for decades. I have a friend whose grandfather fell out with his siblings. My friend knew he had more family in St. Louis than the direct descendants of his grandparents but it wasn't until he was an adult that he started researching his family tree. He found out that his grandfather had so many siblings that my friend had dozens of cousins he had never met. Two worked at the same company as his wife, unaware of the connection. How different my friend's childhood would have been had his grandfather and his siblings been able to make up with one another.

And let's face it: it feels good to contemplate revenge on those who have wronged us. In my freshmen year in high school I had a sadist in one of my classes. The kid I sat next to in the first tenor section of Boys Glee tormented me everyday. Once he even took to jabbing me with a pin. I didn't complain to the teacher because I didn't want look like a baby. But I still vividly remember a dream I had in which I kicked him down the stairs outside the music room. And we were on the fourth floor. It felt great! He is one of two people in my life I can remember wholeheartedly hating. If you had told me then that I must forgive him, I would have balked. As a matter of fact when I recalled this for the purposes of this sermon, I said a prayer asking God to forgive him and help me to do so because I don't think I ever had.

Hate feels good. Forgiveness is an acquired taste. Some folks never bother to try. My grandmother on my father's side used to cut people, including relatives, out of pictures when she got mad at them. I don't know if she ever forgave them but the damage to the family album and our history was done. Forgiveness deferred can leave holes in our relationships and life stories. But our thinking is so short term that we don't realize the loss until much later.

And often forgiveness needs to be asked and given on both sides. Both sides have transgressed. Right now one political party is asking the other to give our new president a chance. The other party is pointing out the horrible words and actions directed towards our last president. Neither side wishes to ask for forgiveness for what they've done wrong nor grant forgiveness to the other. Lack of forgiveness is part of the problem we have in society. Whites rarely admit to the history of grievous wrongs they've done to blacks, Asians and native Americans and those groups in turn aren't willing to forgive centuries of wrongs. Neither liberals nor conservatives will admit to making policy mistakes nor will they acknowledge times when the other side was right. Worse, in nearly every controversy each side views the other as not merely wrong but as enemies. Each side speaks as if the other doesn't just have different ideas as to how to make this nation better but as if it intentionally is trying to destroy our country. Only comic book villains, psychopaths and 2 year olds destroy things just to destroy things.

And this brings us to one of the most insidious obstacles to following Jesus: what C.S. Lewis called “Christianity and...”. This is where people's support of Christianity is yoked with another pet issue—Christianity and patriotism, Christianity and civil rights, Christianity and gun rights, Christianity and vegetarianism, etc. The danger, Lewis pointed out, is that people who link such things often only espouse Christianity because they see it as supporting their pet cause. Jesus become a means to achieving the other issue rather than the goal himself. If you are for Jesus because that's part of being a good American, then you have missed the point of being a Christian. We are to be Christians first. Any other identifier is secondary. I am a Christian, who just happens to be American. Because there are Christians who just happen to be Haitian, or Chinese, or Cuban, or Syrian or Palestinian. I am a Christian who just happens to be white. Because there are Christians who just happen to be black or Asian or Arabian or Native American. There are Christians who happen to be Republican or Democratic or third party. The problem is that too many people put the other identifier first and filter everything through that identity rather than seeing things through the eyes of Christ. Paul, who dealt with divisions in the early church, said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ.” (Galatians 3:28) Elsewhere Paul compares our differences to the different parts of the body. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12:12) For one part of the body of Christ to reject another is self-destructive, not to mention stupid. (1 Cor 12:21)

The last reason that people don't follow Christ is apathy. Some people simply don't care about spiritual matters. It may be a lack of exposure to Christianity or that the exposure didn't take. It's almost impossible to get such people to care, just as it's almost impossible to convince someone who doesn't like musicals to be a fan of Rent. You can't reach everyone.

What are we as students of Jesus to do about those who don't follow Jesus? One thing that really doesn't work is coercion. Making laws that force people to say prayers or go to church or financially support religious institutions is the medieval model. It ties Christ to Caesar and it alienates people. If you want to see churches wither as they have in Europe, combine church and state. Then when people get disillusioned or cynical about government, they will with Christianity as well.

We cannot force people; we can only seek to persuade them. When Paul uses the analogy of the armor of God, the only weapon listed is the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:17) We can use words to woo. Some would add prayer, which Paul mentions in the next sentence. But Jesus in today's gospel gives us another way to reach people. “...let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Actions speak louder than words. If you want to convince someone that your way is better, put it into action. Works do not save us but the work Christ does in the people he saves will manifest itself in what they do as well as what they say. Unfortunately Christians are known more for what they say than what they do. As someone once wrote, “When all is said and done, there's a lot more said than done.” And sometimes Christians say and do things that run contrary to what Jesus actually said and did. And when we do, people do not give God the glory. If God has gotten a bad name today it is because Christians have done things to besmirch his name.

The most potent witnesses to Christ remain people like Mother Teresa and St. Francis and Dietrich Bonhoffer, people who displayed the self-sacrificial love of Christ in their actions. They were not perfect but they proclaimed the gospel in the totality of their lives.

People can dispute and manipulate and argue about words. It is more difficult to discredit loving actions. In our passage from Isaiah (58:1-12) we are given a number of loving actions: to loose the bonds of injustice, to share your bread with the poor, to bring the homeless poor into your house, to clothe the naked and not hide from your own kin, to stop pointing the finger in accusation, and to satisfy the needs of the afflicted. Jesus enumerates even more in Matthew 25: giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the alien, looking after the sick and visiting those in prison. These are all concrete ways we can show God's love for those who cannot pay us back.

As students and followers of Jesus we need to demonstrate the fact that Jesus makes people better. How?

We'll look at that next week.