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.

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