Monday, December 10, 2018

Clean Up, Throw Out


The scriptures referred to are Malachi 3:1-4.

In Advent we await the coming of our King, Jesus. If an earthly king were coming to your home or workplace, there are things you would do in preparation. Last week we talked about being alert, being aware of how things are. And it isn't a pretty picture. We are living in a time when, as Jesus says, “the love of most will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:12) People are becoming more callous. Even Christians seem to have forgotten what Jesus said about helping the sick, the alien, the imprisoned, the hungry, etc: “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:45) We have instead comforted ourselves with the thought that such people don't deserve our help because people who are poor are lazy. We hear this lie often, despite the evidence all around us that, if your job doesn't pay a living wage and benefits, you can work long hard hours and have almost nothing to show for it. How many lost their jobs, homes and/or savings in the Great Recession, through no fault of their own? Not everyone who gets cancer smoked; not everyone who is poor did it to themselves.

But I don't want to get into a whole lot of statistics. As I said last time, these things are symptoms. The cause is a lack of empathy, a lack of compassion. And were self-professed Christians as few as they were in the first century that would be understandable. Our impact in a largely pagan empire was not enough to change it right away. But the time was ripe. Pagans thought the gods did not care for human beings. They prayed and made sacrifices to them to gain their approval or avert their jealousy and wrath but they were never under the delusion that their gods loved them. Imagine how you would feel if the cockroaches in your home left you nice gifts. You would be less inclined to squish them. But it wouldn't mean you had warm, fuzzy feelings about cockroaches.

What attracted pagans to Christianity was the good news that God actually loves people, even those who are disadvantaged, like the poor, the disabled, women, and slaves. But the pagans wouldn't have bought into the gospel if it weren't for the fact that Christians displayed such love by helping the poor, rescuing unwanted babies left on the roadside, taking care of orphans and the elderly, and nursing the sick even during times of plague. Which made the pagan population start to feel sorry for these religious oddballs during times of persecution. Folks whose principal entertainment was seeing people fight to the death in arenas and get torn apart by wild animals stopped enjoying seeing Christians dying bravely for their faith. Courage and compassion on the part of Christians changed people's minds.

Today there are about 2.3 billion people in the world who self-identify as Christians, almost 1/3 (31%) of the earth's population. Why are so-called Christian countries not that different from non-Christian ones? Why are people in these countries leaving the church? The church does a tremendous amount of good: creating and running hospitals, schools, food pantries and homeless shelters and helping out in every disaster. But that has been overshadowed by the scandals in which the church has not acted out of love or courageously. Rather than compassion, some have heaped hate on certain groups of people or even on other Christians. Rather than courage, some have showed cowardice by hiding sexual abuse rather than doing whatever they can to stop it and to report it to law enforcement. Rather than speaking prophetically to those in power, some have cozied up to those with secular power and turned a blind eye to injustice, cruelty and corruption. And some have sold Jesus as a path to financial prosperity. They have tried to make Christ the servant of Mammon. Jesus said that, while those in authority lord it over others, it is not to be that way with us. (Mark 10:42-43) Yet we have let power corrupt us. 

What should we do? One of the things we should do anyway but especially as we contemplate the coming of our King is to clean things up and throw out whatever garbage we find. Our passage from Malachi speaks of the messenger of the covenant as one who “is like a refiner's fire and like a fuller's soap.” The metallurgic image of the refiner's fire also shows up in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Usually it is a symbol of judgment. Jeremiah says, “The fiery bellows of judgment burn fiercely. But there is too much dross to be removed. The process of refining them has proved useless. The wicked have not been purged. They are regarded as 'rejected silver' because the Lord rejects them.” (Jeremiah 6:29-30; cf. 9:7) Ezekiel elaborates: “The word of the Lord came to me: 'Son of man, the house of Israel has become slag to me. All of them are like bronze, tin, iron and lead in the furnace; they are the worthless slag of silver. As silver, bronze, iron, lead, and tin are gathered in a furnace so that the fire can melt them, so I will gather you in my anger and my rage. I will deposit you there and melt you.'” (Ezekiel 22:17-20, NET) It goes on a bit but you get the picture. If the ore has too many impurities, the process of smelting will destroy rather than refine.

We get really uncomfortable when God is depicted like this. And yet would we rather he be like those in power in the church who did not react to child sexual abuse by rooting it out ruthlessly but just shuffled offenders around and covered up the wrongdoing? Don't we expect God to do the right thing and not tolerate evil? So what are the sins for which Ezekiel and Jeremiah are calling the people out? In the same chapter of Ezekiel we were quoting he goes onto say, “The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have wronged the poor and needy; they have oppressed the foreigner who lives among them and denied them justice.” (Ezekiel 22:29, NET) Jeremiah says, “'That is how they have grown fat and sleek. There is no limit to the evil things they do. They do not plead the cause of the fatherless in such a way as to win it. They do not defend the rights of the poor. I will certainly punish them for doing such things!' says the Lord. 'I will certainly bring retribution on such a nation as this!'” (Jeremiah 5:28-29, NET)

Justice arises from love. If you don't care about people, you don't care about injustice to them. God is love, even if it is not seen as starkly in the Old Testament as in the New. But it is there. Jeremiah says of King Josiah, “'He upheld the cause of the poor and needy. So things went well for Judah.' The Lord says, 'That is a good example of what it means to know me.'” (Jeremiah 22:16, NET) To take care of those who are disadvantaged is to know God. Why? Because God is love.

In Isaiah the image of the refiner's fire is more about purifying people than executing justice. It says, “I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities.” (Isaiah 1:25) God would rather be the agent of reform than of retribution. And it is this use of the image that Malachi seems to intend because he parallels it with a fuller's or launderer's soap. Soap doesn't destroy; it loosens dirt allowing it to be washed away. As Isaiah says, “'Come, let's consider your options,' says the Lord. 'Though your sins have stained you like the color red, you can become white like snow; though they are as easy to see as the color scarlet, you can become white like wool.'” (Isaiah 1:18, NET) The red is blood, as is made clear just a few verses earlier. God says, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood.” (Isaiah 1:15) White is an extremely hard color to keep clean and, as a nurse who first worked before we were allowed to wear colorful scrubs, blood is one of the worst things to try to get out of a white garment. Our sins, our destructive and self-destructive thoughts, words and acts, stain us but it is not permanent. To continue the passage from Isaiah, “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah1:16-17)

Social justice has become a term of derision today, mostly by people who think God is only concerned with personal behavior. And that's a weird dichotomy. Of course God wants us to clean up our individual acts but to stop there would be like being obsessive about doing car maintenance but not obeying traffic laws. A car in tip-top condition, driven by someone who does not take the other motorists into consideration, can still do a lot of damage. For instance, Hitler didn't eat meat. That could be a sign of a principled man who is concerned about cruelty to animals or one who merely is concerned with his own health. Hitler liked dogs. That could show compassion for all beings or merely that he liked beings who were subservient and always wanted to please him. It is Hitler's behavior towards other human beings that exposes the evil within.

People are full of contradictions. How one treats other people is a better indication of a person's character than how they treat themselves. That's why Jesus told us to treat others as we treat ourselves. We tend to forgive ourselves more readily than others. When we do something wrong, we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions rather than by the results of we've done. We tend to make allowances for our own weaknesses. When in a bad situation, we want others to go at least a bit out of their way to help us. We want people to see things from our side. So Jesus wants us to give others the slack we give ourselves. He wants us to not be harder on others than we are on ourselves. He wants us to see things from their perspective and not just our own.

Of course the incongruous outward appearance of good which someone displays may not be part of an unconscious personal contradiction but camouflage. After Russia annexed Crimea, Catherine the Great wanted to see her new territory. It is said that in order to disguise the devastation the war caused, her former lover and minister Gregori Potemkin ordered the construction of mobile villages. The Empress would float down river on a barge, stop to tour the village, swarming with peasants, and then return to her barge. The village would then be disassembled by those people Potemkin had hired to dress and act like peasants and moved further downriver, so that Catherine could see how nice her new part of Russia was. This story, which may be apocryphal, gave rise to the term Potemkin Village, meaning anything constructed to deceive others into thinking the situation is better than it is.

God is not gullible. He is not fooled by such discrepancies. In Isaiah he says, “For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. 'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?' Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” (Isaiah 58:2-4) As he says to Samuel, “The Lord does not look at things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1Samuel 16:7) And as Jesus pointed out, “For from within, out of people's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” (Mark 7:21-22)

So how do we clean up our hearts? Only God's Spirit can do a thorough job but we can help by being open and honest with him. As you should tell your doctor all of your symptoms and unhealthy habits, even the embarrassing ones, so you need to talk to God honestly about your sins. Remember they are symptoms of what is wrong with you spiritually. God doesn't want to punish you but purify you.

Part of cleaning up is throwing stuff out. In penitential seasons like Advent and especially Lent, we give up certain things or habits. One thing to throw out is our narrow definition of “good.” When we are small children our definition of “good” is primarily “what is pleasurable or beneficial to me.” As we get older that definition expands to include what is good for those we like and love, like family and friends. But if our idea of what is good doesn't continue to grow to include what is good for everyone, it can become the pretext for all kinds of evil. Hitler did what he thought was good for his race and his nation, and to hell with everyone else. If we put what is good for others outside the parameters of our definition of what is good, that is not in accord with what God calls good. As Jesus said, “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45) God is gracious and expects us to be as well.

Another thing we can throw out is the idea that we should only help the deserving. Jesus said, “Do not pass judgment, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged...” (Matthew 7:1-2) For one thing, we can't can't see into people's hearts. We can't always know their intentions or thought processes. So we can't just dismiss people on the basis of what they seem to have done. Mind you, we can judge if certain actions are spiritually or morally healthy or not. But we can't always know if a bad action was done out of malice or ignorance or a lapse in judgment. Give people the benefit of the doubt, Jesus says. Let God be the judge.

We are not to decide who is worthy of our help or not. We are to help whoever needs it. After all, that's what God does for us. Paul reminds us that “...God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) We are not worthy of his love or grace or forgiveness. That's not why he redeems us. How can we demand that others make themselves worthy of our help?

To get ready for our King we need to clean up our acts and throw out a lot of ideas we have about the limits of whose good we seek and whom we should help. It will take working on ourselves as temples of God's Holy Spirit and working with others on how to best exemplify the Body of Christ on earth. And in a cold and ethically compromised world a good part of that will be demonstrating compassion for all and moral courage, just like Jesus. As it says in Isaiah, “Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the poor and homeless into your home, to clothe the naked when you see him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here I am.” (Isaiah 58:9)

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Be Alert


The scriptures referred to are 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 and Luke 21:25-36.

This week a man said “You know you live in South Florida when you hear the ice cream truck in the winter.” He's right. When I was a child in St. Louis the ice cream truck was strictly a summer phenomenon. You would hear the jingly tune and run to your mom and beg her for money. You would hover around her as she retrieved her purse, all the while hopping up and down with combined excitement about getting the treat and anxiety that you might miss it while Mom was digging at the bottom of her purse for stray coins. Then you would race out to the street, join up with the other kids on the block and look for the truck. Though you could hear the music, you couldn't tell if it was 1 or 2 blocks over, or on a cross street. Was it coming your way or moving away from you? And if it was moving away, was it going to loop back? Which end of the block would it appear at? Where along the block would it stop and on which side of the street? Moms would come out to make sure we wouldn't simply run across the street in pursuit of it, heedless of other traffic. One last question was whether it was Mr. Softee, with actual ice cream cones, or the bomb pops truck, with already prepared frozen goodies. Whichever it was, the anticipation was as sweet as the treats themselves.

Anticipation can be almost as pleasurable as the thing you are waiting for. When you are first in love with someone, the closer it gets to the time you can see that person the more exhilarated you feel. The smell of bread being baked or certain favorite foods being cooked can be heavenly. Children can barely contain themselves as Christmas approaches. And we have a whole season of the church year where we anticipate the coming of Jesus.

We are not awaiting the ice cream truck, though. We are awaiting the coming of our King. And there are some things we have to do before he gets here: basically get things ready and keep watch. We can break down getting things ready into 3 general categories: fix up, throw out, and make new. We will deal with those in subsequent Sundays when those themes predominate our lectionary readings. But this week we will look at keeping watch.

From reading the prophesies in the Hebrew Bible you would be forgiven for thinking that the coming of the Messiah was a one-time event. That's how most of Jesus' contemporaries saw it. The Messiah would come, end the present evil age and inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth. As it turns out Jesus came first to reveal the true nature of the Messiah and God's kingdom, secure that by dying for us and rise again to validate what he preached. But then Jesus leaves things in the hands of his disciples. They and subsequently we are to spread the kingdom by proclaiming the good news to all the world. We are to let people know about God's love, grace, forgiveness and transforming power. When everyone has had a chance to accept his offer, he will return. Had Jesus just launched into judgment day back in 30 AD, it would hardly be fair. He wasn't known outside Palestine. He will come when the gospel has reached all the world. (Matthew 24:14)

So while Christmas is exclusively about Jesus becoming one of us, Advent looks at both his first and second coming. Our New Testament and Gospel readings today are all about the next time Jesus appears. And whereas a few weeks ago, we read about Jesus giving his disciples very general signs to watch for, this is less about that than it is about being vigilant. “Be alert,” Jesus says. Stopping looking for specific signs and pay attention to the tenor of things. In the parallel to this passage in Matthew, Jesus says, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold...” (Matthew 24:12) And while I have said in a previous sermon that many of the indications Jesus mentions could easily apply to the rise of the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge or the current actions of the Syrian regime, this trend is a sign that a society is unhealthy.

God is love, according to 1 John 4:8. If we are made in the image of God, it means we are most like God when we are acting in love. Jesus is, as it says in Hebrews, “the exact imprint of God's very being.” (Hebrews 1:3)  So it is fair to say that Christ is God's love Incarnate. The more Christlike we are becoming, as either individuals or as a group, like a church or a society, the more godly we growing.

If we are not acting in love, we are going against our true nature and not being the people God intends us to be. Any group that is becoming less loving, especially intentionally, is becoming less godly and, obviously, less Christlike. This is important because a lot of people throw around the term "Anti-Christ" as if it refers only to a single person. But in the first 2 letters of John, the only books in the Bible where the term is used, the writer uses it to describe any who deny or oppose Jesus as Christ. He writes of the “spirit of antichrist.” (1 John 4:3) And this is just a few verses before he says that God is love and that whoever does not love does not know God. So the essence of the spirit of antichrist is not loving others as Christ loves them.

Since we are created in the image of God, and since the nature of God is revealed most clearly in Christ, the farther we are moving away from being loving, the sicker we are becoming spiritually. Just as an increasingly weak or irregular heart beat is a sign of impending physical death, a society that is increasingly cold and indifferent to what happens to people is a society that is dying. So being alert is, at least in part, keeping our finger on the pulse of the world and being sensitive to its spiritual health. As I have said before, as a nurse I have learned that people do not seek help or change their lifestyle until it becomes too painful not to. We are seeing that with climate change. It was first discovered by an Exxon scientist in the 1970s. It was first made public in the 80s. If we had jumped on it then and started making real changes, we would not be where we are today: at a point where if we do now everything we should have done 30 years ago, we will not be able to make things better, just less bad. [Here] We are like the patient who only calls the doctor when it feels like an elephant is sitting on his chest and he is on the verge of cardiac arrest.

Spiritually our society is like that patient. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that when asked “What makes your life meaningful?” more people mentioned their careers, money and finances than spirituality or religious faith. To be sure, people mentioned family more often than money or careers but the values of their family are what count. The Borgias, the Medicis, the Five Families of New York organized crime, Ma Barker and her boys—all were close families. And one of the things that held those families together was putting money and family finances ahead of other values, like faith or the welfare of other people. You can make money by providing a product or service that helps others, but you can more easily make money by simply ripping people off. Without a value higher than simply what is good for you and your family, you are not going to live an ethical or spiritual life.

Just as we are seeing the results of climate change, we are seeing the results of the unhindered pursuit of wealth and careers. Oil companies, sugar companies, tobacco companies, car companies, financial companies, even pharmaceutical companies apparently have no problems lying to consumers about the negative effects of their products. Rather than God or the greater good, our economy has enshrined Mammon as the ultimate value and goal of life. And we are seeing that in the increasingly psychopathic way these entities behave. Psychopaths are perfectly pragmatic, doing whatever they see as most expedient to get what they want. They will be your friend one moment and knife you in the back the next, depending on which action benefits them the most at the moment.

For instance, amid the news of the closing of GM plants in the US and Canada, there was a story about the history of the Detroit-Hamtramck plant. In 1981 GM wanted to place it on the 465 acres of the Poletown neighborhood. The local Polish American priest and a coalition of residents and business people opposed it. They lost. SWAT teams were dispatched to end a sit-in of elderly Polish ladies at Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church. In addition, 1500 homes and hundreds of businesses were razed. 4000 people were uprooted. Those who didn't want to sell were forced to do so by eminent domain. The 59 year old priest who led the fight died of a heart attack 5 months after his church was bulldozed. GM promised a lot more jobs—6000—than it actually delivered. Now that plant is closing, leaving the 1540 people who worked there unemployed, and the neighborhood that once occupied that land obliterated. I know the reasons for car plant closings are many. But this looks a lot like the work of a corporate vampire, draining its victim of all life and leaving behind a corpse.

And this is not an isolated instance of such practices, nor is it limited to this industry. Walmarts are notorious for going into towns, destroying multiple local businesses who can't compete on prices and then later closing the megastore and moving elsewhere, leaving behind a huge empty building, an enormous parking lot and a ruined local economy. As of 2016, 154 Walmarts closed. This year they closed 63 Sam's Clubs, or 10% of their stores. Yet Walmart isn't in bankruptcy like Sears. Recently we saw several major cities fall all over themselves offering Amazon all kinds of tax breaks and freebies if they put their second headquarters in their municipality. Will the cities who won get more out of the deal than the corporation? The history of such deals is not promising.

I am not picking on these businesses. They are symptoms, not causes. The cause is that we are putting money ahead of loving God and other people. Already profitable companies often make moves not because they need to survive but in order to be even more profitable. Such as robots replacing people in jobs primarily because with a one-time investment the company no longer has to pay a person for years or offer benefits. I just saw a documentary in which a heavily-mechanized pizza parlor still needed a person to throw the dough and another to transfer the machine-made pies from the oven to the mobile oven in which they are delivered. The owner explained that those positions would be eliminated as soon as they could get robots to do those jobs. In Japan there is a hotel staffed almost entirely by robots. Creepy! Even the Japanese are worried about losing these jobs. Our society is slowly becoming as soulless as the robots replacing us.

Another symptom of our sick society is the falling life expectancy in this country. [Here] This is caused mainly by what have been called “diseases of despair”: the opioid crisis and suicides. We had 72,000 overdose deaths in 2017, up from 17,000 in 1999. That's 197 a day. Most of those people took drugs initially for pain, and only later got addicted. And this is largely because a drug manufacturer lied about its new class of painkillers being addictive.

Not far behind overdoses as a cause of our dropping life expectancy is the increase in suicides, at 44,895 a year or 123 a day. That's 1 every 12 minutes. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US and the 2nd leading cause of death for those aged 10 to 34. It is also the leading cause of the death of inmates. Contrary to popular belief, 2/3s of the gun deaths in this country are not homicides but suicides.

Since chronic pain leads to opioid and heroin overdoses and depression, psychosis and/or substance abuse often lead to suicides, professional help is absolutely vital to treating people. But in addition, a 2006 study of 353 inner-city minority recovering addicts showed that “spirituality, religion and life meaning directly increased and enhanced a person's recovery.” Multiple studies have also found that those who say that religion is very important in their life are less likely to use drugs. Another recent study showed that teens whose parents are religious are less likely to die from suicide, however the teens feel about religion themselves. This is especially true of teenage girls. The chairwoman of the clinical division of the American Association of Suicidology, Melinda Moore, says, “We know what places people at risk for suicide—it's a sense of not feeling connected to a community and feeling you are a burden and your life doesn't matter....[Faith communities] provide connection, making them feel they belong, that they are not a burden, and that their life is important—that's very protective.” It's not that Christians never commit suicide or get caught up in substance abuse but having a strong faith and a loving faith community reduces the risk and increases the odds that the person will recover. Like vaccinations and a healthy lifestyle protect a person against physical disease, following Jesus has a protective effect against “diseases of despair.”

And that's another thing we are to be alert to. Jesus said, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life...” We are called to be in the world but there is a danger of world weariness getting into us. The trick is, as someone said, to get the boat into the water without getting too much water in the boat. We need to be alert lest we sink into the despair of an increasingly cold and soulless world. So we need to take our own pulse as well.

Most of us are not going to get rich; most of us are not going to become very powerful or famous. If the whole point of existence is to climb the corporate ladder, and to get more money and more stuff, that isn't a very healthy way to approach life, either spiritually or psychologically. If the meaning of your life, if your value as a person is tied up with achieving those things, then when they fail to materialize, or if they are taken away from you, how will you survive? If, however, you have intrinsic worth, because you were created in God's image and loved by him enough that he sent Jesus to die for you and sent his Spirit to dwell in you, those other things cannot change that. Your worth is not based on how wealthy or how popular or how healthy or how useful or how attractive or how smart or how articulate or how highly skilled or how funny or how talented you are. It is not based on what you did or do. It is based on what Jesus did for you. It is not based on who you are. It is based on the gracious nature of God.

But, as Anne Lamott said, “God loves you just as you are but he loves you too much to let you stay that way.” We are not like a toy or a teddy bear; loved but without any agency ourselves. We are not merely an audience for God's mighty acts. We are his beloved children. God loves us enough to include us in what he is doing, to give us roles in carrying out his plan. And he loves us enough to empower us to do our part. Through his Spirit, he changes us from people who cannot possibly do marvelous and godly things into people who can because day by day they are becoming more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle and self-controled. In short, he is making us more Christlike. And since Christ, as God the Son, is infinite, that means the process is eternal. We will be forever growing into the image of God, becoming more than we were, more than we are, more than we can imagine being. That is the hope we are offering this dying and despairing world. And the knowledge that each day we will be continuing that process should make us giddy with anticipation.

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Rightful King


The scriptures referred to are Revelation 1:4b-8 and John 18:33-37.

Monarchy goes all the way back into prehistory. The word monarch comes from the Greek for “one ruler.” What's interesting is that kings historically have had a sacred role as well. Some were seen as gods or descended from gods. They often ruled by Divine Right or the Mandate of Heaven. They had sacrificial duties. The Roman Emperors held the title Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest, and it was not unusual for European kings to have the title Defender of the Faith. Until recently there was no such thing as separation of church and state.

This probably goes back to when we didn't have kings so much as tribal chieftains. The patriarch of the tribe was ruler, judge, general and priest. If you were lucky, your father/chieftain was wise and fair on matters within the clan, as well as a good strategist and fierce battle leader when it came to competing with rival clans for hunting grounds, pasture lands and access to water. As city states arose, and later nations and empires, and the governed included people from different tribes and races, military strength was still important but so was the ability to keep people unified. Leaders found that their inherited role in leading their religion was useful in bringing the people together.

Today it is more common for a leader to have only or mostly secular power. But some leaders don't like that because logically religion is about ultimate values. That relegates the state to second place in terms of people's loyalties. If church and state are one, the state can define those ultimate values. People who call for the abolition of religion don't seem to realize that that would make the state the sole authority on what is moral. That is what happened in Nazi Germany, where most churches fell in line with the government, and in the Soviet Union where religion was outlawed.

Ancient Israel was a special case. At first the Israelites were a loose confederation of tribes, who would come together under a judge to defend themselves. But the people demanded that Samuel give them a king like the other nations. Samuel was upset by this for it represented a rejection of God as their king. God told Samuel to give the people what they wanted but to warn them of the cost of giving that much power to one person. This also set up a rivalry between the religious leaders and the king.

To be sure, King Solomon builds a temple to God on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. And it looks like the kings of Israel and Judah had their own schools of prophets. As we've said in previous sermons the function of most religions is to bless the status quo. Yet many of the prophets whose books we have in the Bible were not royal retainers but were called by God to proclaim his judgment on the evils perpetuated by society and the government. Thus they represent a kind of minority report. The Bible recognizes that just because God allows someone to come to power, it doesn't follow that that leader is always acting on God's behalf.

This Sunday, the last one before Advent, we acknowledge Christ as our King. That means we obey him over and above or at times against any earthly power. There are a number of qualities that Jesus has that makes him superior to any earthly ruler.

Let's start with what Samuel warned would happen. All his causes for alarm boil down to one thing: power corrupts, as Lord Acton put it. We humans are born without power. We are the most helpless infants in practically the entire animal kingdom. Even blind kittens can crawl and find a teat shortly after birth. Many animals can stand within minutes of birth. Our offspring take longer to reach adulthood than any other animal. So we all experience powerlessness for the first part of our lives. That makes gaining power or some control over our lives very important. And having power over the lives of others can be very tempting. It is hard to resist taking full advantage of that to help oneself and one's loved ones. Autocrats always use their power to enrich themselves, their family and friends and to put themselves above the law.

Jesus has no such temptation. As God the Son he has all power and no need for more. In fact he has no needs of any kind. He doesn't even need us. He involves us in his plans because he loves us, the way a parent gives a task to a child who wants to help with dinner or with building something. He could do it himself but to satisfy the child's desire to participate and to help them learn skills needed at maturity, he gives them a role.

Jesus is not swayed by bribes, either, not even in the form of “Do this and I will go to church for the rest of my life.” That doesn't mean that asking him for things in our prayers is futile. Jesus tells us to ask. But his granting a request is not swayed by what we will do for him. Rather it depends on what God decides is good for all.

Those in power rarely think of what is good for all. They think of what is good for those they like or who also have power. For several years Key West has been dithering about where to build the new homeless shelter. And a lot of the problem has been NIMBYs. Nobody wants the shelter in their neighborhood. But I can tell you from experience that a lot of the homeless end up in jail for trespassing, which usually amounts to them being found sleeping in the doorways of businesses, on people's porches and in their backyards. How is that better? For a town whose motto is “One Human Family” we sure treat some of our relatives badly. We want a solution to the problem but we don't want to make sacrifices.

John 3:16 says that God so loved the whole world that he sent his Son to us. Jesus made a big sacrifice to save us. We need to make sacrifices for God as well. When our king, Jesus, says, “Ask and you shall receive” he is talking about what we need, not for everything we desire. (Matthew 7:7-11) As much as he would like to say “Yes,” he, as any wise parent knows, must sometimes say “No” to some of those desires. Or “Not yet” if either we or the time is not ready. And occasionally he says, “I have something different for you.” Because we don't always know what we really need or even desire. C.S. Lewis wanted to be a great poet. He never anticipated that his success would be as a writer of prose about Christianity and a writer of fiction inspired by his rediscovered faith. A lot of people think they know the direction they should go in life, only to be surprised by something unanticipated which turns out to be their real heart's desire.

The wisest of earthly rulers is not totally in control of his desires. Solomon is touted as the wisest king in the Bible, yet his Achilles' heel was the same as his father's: women. The Bible tells us that “He had 700 royal wives and 300 concubines; his wives had a powerful influence over him. When Solomon became old, his wives shifted his allegiance to other gods; he was not wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord his God, as his father David had been.” (1 Kings 11:3-4) When you have the power to get what you want, it is hard to restrain yourself. And once you give in to one weakness, it is easy to give into others.

That's not the problem with Jesus. Just as he was laser-focused on his mission, despite the dangers to himself, so he is not diverted by special interests or personal or political considerations to modify his plan for us. Now it has to be said that earthly rulers do reform society sometimes. Lincoln freed the slaves. Teddy Roosevelt broke up monopolies. His cousin Franklin made sure that there was a safety net for the elderly. But even our best leaders are blind to certain evils. Lincoln had a Secretary of War so corrupt that a senator said the man would even steal a red hot stove. Teddy wanted to build the Panama Canal so badly that he organized a revolution in that country and then promptly took control of the new government by giving it a constitution written for America's benefit. During World War 2 Franklin had Japanese Americans put in camps, though not German or Italian Americans.

Jesus requires us to love all people, whether destitute, disabled, or different in race, creed, color or other areas that have nothing to do with the heart. He even commands us to love those who do have something wrong with their hearts in that they hate us. Because God created everyone and calls people from every nation, tongue, race, orientation and political party to become citizens of his kingdom. Jesus did not come only to deal with some people or even good people. As a doctor comes to heal the sick, Jesus came to heal all who are sick of sin and evil, especially in our own lives. (Mark 2:17) And we are all sinners. For us to hate those whose sins are different from our sins makes as much sense as a person with cancer hating a person who has liver disease.

A lot of rulers try to weed out those they feel are not good. Jesus told a parable about that. A farmer wakes one day to find weeds growing among his wheat. His workers want to pull up the weeds now. The farmer stops them. In trying to get the weeds, they will also uproot some of the wheat. (Matthew 13:24-30) In trying to get rid of the people they deem bad, tyrants always kill good people as well. Jesus isn't that kind of king. Besides, unlike the weeds in the parable, bad people can change. That's why Jesus came. Not to destroy bad people but to make them into good people.

Autocratic rulers do not like the truth being told, because they cannot bear to look bad. But David employed many scribes who were tasked with, among other things, chronicling what he did. And since we get a warts and all picture of Israel's beloved king, complete with his adultery with Bathsheba, his murder of her husband, the revolt of his son, and his disqualification to build the temple because of the blood he shed, I think we can say that he was not afraid of the truth. Whereas dictators always try to destroy the free press, lest the truth comes out, Jesus said the truth would set us free. (John 8:32) For instance, we have not one official account of Jesus' life, with all ambiguities edited out but 4 accounts. They agree on the important events, but they vary on certain details,some of which seem to be in conflict and some gospels noticing things the others don't and vice versa. Far from being a sign of falsifying the details, this is precisely the sort of thing cops find when they question multiple witnesses or the reader of history finds when he reads numerous books on the same subject. Unlike fiction, truth can be messy.

And remarkably though the gospels all portray Jesus as divine, they admit he got hungry (Mark 11:12), thirsty (John 19:28), tired (Luke 8:23), angry (Mark 3:5), sad (John 11:35), and even that he felt abandoned by God when on the cross (Matthew 27:46). You'd think the church would not record and preserve those things. Unless they were true. Jesus is not afraid of the truth because, as he said, he is the truth. (John 14:6)

Finally, earthly rulers are quick to use force when they can't get their way otherwise. Sadly, even our country does that. Former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara admitted in 2005 that the August 4, 1964 Gulf of Tonkin attack that was used to justify putting conventional forces into Vietnam never happened. The production facilities and stockpile of weapons of mass destruction used as a pretext to invade Iraq in 2003 were discovered to not have existed past 1991 when they were destroyed in the first Gulf War and its aftermath.

In today's gospel Jesus points out that the fact that his followers are not fighting shows that his kingdom is not from this world. The only blood shed to found his kingdom is his own. The only subjects of this king are those who willingly put themselves under his rule. Our only weapon according to Paul, when he lists the armor of God, is the “sword of the Spirit which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:17) We are armed only with the story of the God of love doing everything he can to save his people, including becoming one of them and dying for them and rising to life again that we may live with and in him. We recruit people for his kingdom not with messages of fear but of hope, not of hate but of love, not of fighting evil with evil but of overcoming evil with good. That is the kind of kingdom whose coming we are preparing for and that is the kind of king we owe our allegiance to. And no one can overrule his command to love God above all and love other people. Jesus the Anointed is King of kings and Lord of lords. Accept no substitutes.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Thank You, Jack

This was preached on Thursday, November 22, 2018.

Whenever someone wins an award, we expect them to thank the people who made it possible. Because no one achieves anything great on their own. And self-aware people know that a key part of the reason they succeeded was a parent who set an example to them, a teacher who inspired them, a hero they wished to emulate, a mentor who guided them, colleagues who helped them, and, often, a spouse who supported them. For writers and thinkers and scientists the person who influenced them is usually another writer or thinker or scientist, whom they may or may not have ever met. Today is the 55th anniversary of the death of a man who has had a tremendous influence on me. And, no, it's not JFK. However, the president's assassination on the same day did eclipse the news of this man's death. And ironically I know precisely what I was doing that day because of Kennedy's death. Yet at the time I had never even heard of C.S. Lewis.

It would be years later, when I was in the youth group at Memorial Presbyterian Church, that my mom would lend me a copy of The Screwtape Letters. And to steal a phrase from Lewis, “my imagination was baptized.” He wasn't responsible for me becoming a Christian but he was responsible for the way I see Christianity and approach all the issues it touches on. I do not agree with him on everything but he taught me to ask the right questions, to notice nuance and that it was important to use my head as well as my heart in following Jesus. For that I am grateful.

I used to think that Lewis was one of the most original thinkers in Christendom if not the world. Later, as I read more theology, I realized that wasn't quite true. Lewis was educated in philosophy and built on the ideas of others. What was unique was how he could take what some thinker of the past had come up with and make it understandable to the average person. He, like Jesus, would take some commonplace situation and use it to illustrate a profound spiritual or moral truth. I try to do the same, especially when I sense that the point I am making is too abstract. And in fact a good way to test whether your theology is correct is to apply it to everyday life and see if it works. For those insights I am grateful.

Lewis was able to approach subjects not only logically but also psychologically. One of the things that attracted me about The Screwtape Letters was the shrewd psychological insight into the whole process of temptation and the ways we avoid dealing with the truth. His grasp of how people think and react grounds his fantasy and science fiction novels as well. Though a very intellectual person himself, he was in touch with his feelings. One of his most affecting books is A Grief Observed, which chronicles his state of mind after the death of his wife. It was so nakedly honest that he published it under a pseudonym. This had the unfortunate side effect that his friends kept buying him copies to help him through his grieving. For his ability to see and express some of the deepest of human feelings, I am grateful.

Lewis has one characteristic that makes him almost unique in literature: his ability to make good attractive. Often in books and movies, the characters that really stand out are the villains. Dracula, the Joker, Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort and others are often more interesting that the heroes in their tales. Professor Moriarty only appears in 2 of the original Sherlock Holmes stories but you would never know that given how often he is inserted into modern additions to the saga. In comparison to the villains they face heroes are often less colorful and engaging. And the evil schemes in stories are often presented in ways that make them seem not that bad. Thanos thinks the universe is overcrowded and wants to preserve resources for a more sustainable population. That just happens to involve killing half the sentient beings that exist. The delightful musical Wicked makes us fall in love with the the wicked Witch of the West, who, if you remember, wanted to kill Dorothy Gale, for simply surviving a tornado, unlike the witch's sister, who just happened to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lewis, on the other hand, was able to make his Christ-figure Aslan hugely charismatic. One mother wrote to Lewis that her little boy was worried because he loved Aslan more than Jesus. Lewis wrote back that this was impossible. Aslan was Jesus as he would appear in the world of Narnia. The woman's son just liked the lion body better than the human one, which God understands because he made little boys that way.

And while dystopias, such as those of The Hunger Games, The Handmaid's Tale and 1984, dominate science fiction and fantasy, Lewis created Narnia and the paradise planet Perelandra, places where we would gladly live, unlike some fictional worlds. Likewise his vision of heaven in The Great Divorce makes it desirable, not dull as people with more impoverished imaginations picture it. Someone once wrote to Lewis that he should follow up The Screwtape Letters with a book of advice from an archangel to someone's guardian angel. Lewis said that though the mental space he had to put himself into to see things from the devil's point of view was difficult, he felt he would be incapable of getting into the mind of someone who was pure goodness. Yet in his fiction he is capable of giving us extended views and tastes of goodness and moral beauty that most writers could not achieve. For his ability to communicate the aching joy and haunting goodness of God, I am grateful.

Lewis also crystallized the problem with folks saying that Jesus was merely a great moral teacher and ignoring his claims to be God. To quote him at length: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” Jesus is either a lunatic, a liar or the Lord. It is a trilemma, if you will, we all must deal with. For laying out that choice so starkly, I am grateful.

I reread Lewis' books every few years. Often I find something in them that I thought I had come up with but which I must have gotten from him. I have so internalized what he said that it has become a part of me. And while his illustrations have helped me understand difficult concepts I'll never forget what he said when he tried to explain how God is outside of our timeline. After using one illustration he wrote, “This idea has helped me a good deal. If it does not help you, leave it alone. It is a 'Christian' idea in the sense that great and wise Christians have held it and there is nothing in it contrary to Christianity. But it is not in the Bible or any of the creeds. You can be a perfectly good Christian without accepting it, or indeed without thinking of the matter at all.” The idea that if one Christian's explanation of something doesn't help, you can drop it was liberating. Some illustrations illuminate, others don't. What's helps you understand something may not help me and vice versa. It doesn't mean the subject isn't true, just that a specific way of explaining it may not be useful, at least to some folks.

People often get the explanations mixed up with the thing itself. I recently found out that my understanding of how wings make planes fly was wrong. I swear the old explanation was what I was taught or read. But planes do fly, even if I am not completely clear how. You can drive a car even if you don't understand the internal combustion engine. You don't need to understand the Trinity to pray to God, have a sense of Jesus' presence and let the Spirit guide and remake you. Theology is like a map, Lewis said. It is compiled based on many people's observations and experiences. If you are going sailing, if you are going way out into a body of water, you really need a map. You can, of course, add your own markings and annotations and observations as you go. On the other hand, you don't need a map to enjoy the beach or to go swimming. Not everyone is or needs to be a sailor. Nor need all Christians be theologians. For reminding me that not everyone needs to understand God exactly as I understand him, I am grateful.

I did not go to church for much of my childhood. So I didn't use the terminology that other Christians did. Things like justification, sanctification, passion, grace, etc. were not a part of my vocabulary when I became a Christian. Lewis eschewed theological terms when he wrote, precisely so as not to confuse or put off people who were seeking to understand Christianity. What he did for me was give me the ability to express my understanding and feelings about God in my own way. I find it helpful when communicating the gospel. Not everyone knows what certain Christian words means. And some who have picked up the jargon haven't really examined or thought about the ideas behind it too closely. People throw around the words “believe” or “faith” without realizing they mean more that just mentally acknowledging that something exists. Lewis showed me that you can deal with ideas intelligently using ordinary speech and common words. Which helped me think much more clearly about such things. Having to explain something without resorting to the technical terms for it reveals how well you actually understand what you are talking about. Wanna have fun? Try explaining God's omnipresence to a 4 year old. For forcing me to think about things clearly without hiding behind big words, I am grateful.

It's all very well for someone to be able to talk about the Christian life, and while none of us live it perfectly, there have been some highly respected Christians who have failed spectacularly. Lewis does not appear to be one. While his life was not spotless, he was in the words of a friend, “the most thoroughly converted man I ever met.” Lewis could have been a rich man from his books but he felt that giving was an important part of being a Christian and as he said, if our charities are not pinching us or hampering us at all, they are too small. Thus he refused to upgrade his standard of living but instead created a charitable fund for his royalties, which he used to support many poor families, underwrite the education of orphans and seminarians and give to numerous charities and church ministries.

Lewis also responded to every person who wrote him. As his fame spread, he dreaded this but seeing that so many people found their faith or strengthened it through his writings, he felt it was his Christian duty. Thus he wrote thousands of letters to people he otherwise did not know, as well as reams of them to friends. One of the people who came to Jesus through his books and wrote to him was an American woman named Joy Davidman, a Jewish ex-communist who first turned to God when her husband left her. Eventually she and Lewis met and fell in love. She died of cancer less than 4 years after their wedding and Lewis found himself step-father to her two boys. One of them remained a Christian but the other wished to become an Orthodox Jew. Lewis paid for the boy to study Hebrew and the Torah and he served him Kosher food. He became a rabbi. Lewis did not impose his faith upon his adopted son. For the many examples of unconditional Christian love displayed in his life, I am grateful.

We all of us have people who came to us at a specific moment and changed our lives. C.S. Lewis was one of the people who did that for me, although he had left this world long before I discovered him. So this day, the anniversary of his death, I wish to honor him. And I would to ask each of you to think about and give thanks to God for the people who made a great impact in your life. They could be a parent or a relative, a teacher or a coach, an author or a national or world figure. And who knows why your hero is Walter Peyton, or Mari Malik, or Albert Einstein, or Nellie Bly and why one of mine is C.S. Lewis. They speak to different things in different people. But all were created by God in the image of God and each reveals certain aspects of God. And God can call people via those glimpses of his love or wisdom or grace in other people.

What about you? Are you a hero or a reflection of God's goodness to someone in your life? I hope so. Because we have a lot of good people here. And I thank God for each of you. But I don't say it enough. Just like we don't often enough tell God how grateful we are for him. With that in mind, I want to conclude with a passage from Lewis' book A Reflection on the Psalms:

When I first began to draw near to a belief in God and even for sometime after it had been given to me, I found a stumbling block in the demand so clamorously made by all religious people that we should 'praise' God; still more in the suggestion that God Himself demanded it...The most obvious fact about praise – whether of God or anything – strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise... The world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game – praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars...I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: 'Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?'

The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about.... I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating...to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in a ditch...This is so even when our expressions are inadequate, as of course they usually are. But how if one could really and fully praise even such things to perfection – utterly 'get out' in poetry or music or paint the upsurge of appreciation which almost bursts you?...It is along these lines that I find it easiest to understand the Christian doctrine that 'Heaven' is a state in which angels now, and men hereafter, are perpetually employed in praising God...To see what the doctrine really means, we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God – drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by that delight which far from remaining pent up within ourselves as incommunicable, hence hardly tolerable, bliss, flows out from us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression, our joy no more separable from the praise in which it liberates and utters itself than the brightness a mirror receives is separable from the brightness it sheds. The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is 'to glorify God and enjoy Him forever'. But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”