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.

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