Monday, August 26, 2019

Exception to the Rule

The scriptures referred to are Luke 13:10-17.

A few weeks ago I was reading an article about the decline of the religion called Christian Science. I don't generally designate groups that call themselves Christian as different religions entirely but this group starts out by denying the first part of any historic creed, which is that God created the earth. Founder Mary Baker Eddy taught that the material world is an illusion. Only the spiritual world exists and so evil, sickness and death do not. God is not personal but simply Mind or Principle. There is no Trinity. Jesus is a Christian Scientist who first manifested the Truth and the Holy Spirit is Christian Science itself. Though Christian Science focuses on healing, this simply consists of the believer convincing himself or herself that since matter is not real, neither is their illness. And their prayer for healing is supposed to work best when the patient does not seek medical help. In 1875 when Eddy published her book Science and Health, the state of medicine was such that your odds of getting better weren't notably improved if you did go to a doctor. He might be able to diagnose you but treatment was often just a traditional remedy which might actually kill you. However with the discovery of germ theory and antibiotics and insulin and anesthesia and the steady improvement of medical techniques and equipment through the 20th century, neglecting to get medical attention for serious illnesses could be a death sentence. And sure enough, many members of Christian Science have died over the last century and a half from readily treatable conditions. Christian Science parents have been prosecuted for letting their children die from illnesses and injuries that could have been cured had they simply gone to a hospital.

One of the charges leveled at religion in general is that it sometimes gets in the way of helping people. And, yes, that has happened a lot more often than it should. But putting beliefs ahead of actual help is not restricted to religion. Anti-vaxxers choose to believe a discredited study linking vaccines and autism over the many studies that show no relationship between the two. And not having your children vaccinated endangers not only them but children around them. In the UK and much of Europe, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is thought to be a psychiatric illness, to be treated with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and graduated exercise, despite the fact that these have been shown not to help. And in the case of exercise, it can actually make the condition worse. A study of medical students has shown that people of color are still believed to experience less pain than white people. And since most medical studies are done on white men, many of their findings may not even apply to women.

It's not just true of medicine. In 1980 geologist Walter Alvarez and his father Luis discovered a layer of iridium in the same strata of sediment all over the world. The concentration of iridium in this layer is hundreds of times greater than usually found in earth. Iridium is more abundant in meteorites and asteroids. So the Alvarezes proposed this layer was evidence of a large asteroid having collided with earth, just about the time the dinosaurs went extinct. And though the evidence supporting their hypothesis has been accumulating for the last nearly 40 years, such as discovery of the crater site in the Yucatan, and despite a panel of international scientists endorsing their hypothesis, there is still opposition to it. And one of the original objections was that the elder Alvarez was not a geologist but a physicist! In a similar way it took most of the 20th century for geologists to accept continental drift, in part because the heads of geology departments at major universities would have become footnotes in the paradigm shift because their lifework was built on the older idea of the surface of the earth not moving. It took a new generation of geologists to seriously consider the mounting evidence and accept the new model. Every group has its orthodoxy, even if it is a group of scientists in a specific field.

Last week we talked about how God's people were not producing good fruit but the bitter fruit of injustice and violence and oppression among other things. And so God let them be taken into exile. And the Jews realized that they were there because they didn't obey God's law or Torah. And so, because they had no temple in which to worship nor the ability to make sacrifices, they decided that they needed to focus their religion on obeying the other parts of God's law. They brought together the materials that became the Hebrew Bible: the origins of the world, the history of their people, their wisdom literature and surprisingly, the prophets they hadn't heeded. And they codified how to be God's people apart from the land he had given them and the temple in Jerusalem. To adapt to changing circumstances, they interpreted and expanded the written law into an oral law, often making rules so stringent that if you observed them you couldn't possibly get close to violating the written law. The oral Torah eventually became as orthodox as the written Torah.

After 70 years, the Jews were allowed to return home and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. But rabbinic Judaism, the religion of the Torah, centered in the synagogue, continued to exist alongside ritual Judaism, the religion of sacrifice, centered in the temple. And that is the era in which Jesus ministered.

In today's gospel Jesus runs head-on into a key restriction of the oral law. In their zeal to obey the Torah the rabbis found that they had to dive deep into interpreting the Torah's rather general written rules, as one does with any law code. And one of the things they did, in regards to the prohibition of working on the Sabbath, was try to figure out just exactly what work is. They came up with 39 categories of activities that qualify as work but in general their definition is almost the same as the scientific definition: work is accomplishing something by the expending of energy. Thus in modern Orthodox Judaism they will not turn on anything electric on the Sabbath. In Israel they have had to re-engineer things like patient call lights in hospitals and elevators so that Orthodox Jews are not completing a circuit when using them.

In Jesus' day, they didn't have to worry about electricity but they were strict about things like practicing a profession. A doctor could save a life on the Sabbath but not do other medical treatments. There was even a debate among the schools of thought within the Pharisees as to whether you could pray for the sick on the Sabbath or lay hands on the person to heal them as Jesus does here. The more liberal school of Rabbi Hillel permitted such things; the more conservative school of Rabbi Shammai opposed them. Obviously the synagogue leader in our passage took the stricter view.

Jesus ran into this problem again and again. Religious leaders would get angry because he healed someone on the Sabbath. And Jesus had a variety of responses. In today's passage Jesus points out a contradiction in his critics' behavior. This was an agricultural society and just about everyone had at least one work animal. And while the Bible tells us that even animals were to rest on the Sabbath, that didn't mean their owners could neglect them. Even though the oral law forbade tying or untying knots on the Sabbath, animal owners were allowed to untie their donkeys or oxen and take them to the watering trough. So Jesus made the analogy that this woman had been similarly constrained by her infirmity for 18 years, and could be released from it on the Sabbath. And when put that way, his opponents were humiliated for having greater concern for the health and welfare of their animals than for a fellow human being.

In the very next chapter of Luke, Jesus is eating at the house of a prominent Pharisee on the Sabbath when he sees a man with an abnormal swelling. He then asks the people at the feast, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” The Pharisees and scribes say nothing so Jesus heals the man and then says, “If any of you has a child or ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” (Luke 14:1-6) Here the analogy Jesus chooses is not that of the normal expected care of an animal, but of healing as a form of emergency rescue. The religious restrictions go out the window when a life is at stake. We don't know if the man's edema signaled a life-threatening disorder but Jesus is saying that a person in distress takes precedence over religious scruples.

In Mark Jesus sees a man with a withered hand in the synagogue. His critics are watching to see what he will do and Jesus says to the man, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then he asks, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” And when no one speaks, Mark tells us Jesus was angry at their silence in the face of suffering and he heals the man. (Mark 3:1-6) Healing is not work in the usual sense; it is doing good which is surely permitted and even encouraged on a sacred day. In Matthew's account of this same incident Jesus again uses the parallel of rescuing an animal, this time a sheep, who fell into a pit on the Sabbath. He says, “How much more valuable is a person than a sheep!” (Matthew 12:12) There is a hierarchy of values, and saving a life or restoring a person to good health is more important than a rule, however good it otherwise might be.

We recognize this in civil law. A cop may chase you if you are speeding but if he finds you have a woman in labor or a person who is bleeding in your car and you are trying to get them to the hospital, he will likely drive ahead of you with lights flashing and siren blaring to get others off the road so that you can get that person medical help. And indeed in modern Judaism the principle is that an Orthodox Jew can break any law in the Torah, except idolatry or murder, in order to save a life.

Jesus goes even further in an incident in which the disciples pick some heads of grain while walking through a field. (Mark 2:23-28) This is permitted in the Torah (Deuteronomy 23:25) but the problem is that they are doing it on the Sabbath and it is considered reaping, a form of work. Jesus' defense in this case is multi-pronged. 

First, he cites the example of David when he is on the run from King Saul. He and his companions happen upon a priest who has no bread to share with them except some consecrated loaves. This showbread was put out at the tabernacle on the Sabbath and then eaten by the priests alone. (Leviticus 24:5-9) David talks the priest into giving him some of the bread, saying he is on a mission from Saul. He is lying and the consequences to the priests when Saul catches up to them is heavy. So this is a problematic episode from David's life. But Jesus is focused on the principle that preserving lives outweighs religious rituals.

In fact Jesus' second argument explicitly states that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” This is an important ethical principle. Why did God create the Sabbath? Why did he decree a day of rest every week? According to the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, “The hallowing of the seventh day—even the use of a seven day week—was unique in Israel within the broader Near Eastern world.” In Exodus the reason given for the commandment is that God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh. (Exodus 20:8-11) The implication is that human beings, made in God's image, should emulate him in this way as well. In the restating of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, the reason for the Sabbath is to remind the Hebrews that they were slaves in Egypt and, of course, slaves get no days off. But now, thanks to God, they are free and should reflect on that for one whole day a week. Even their animals and slaves must rest. As the study Bible says, “While the law in Exodus also carries religious overtones, it includes a humanitarian component, allowing rest for everyone on all levels of society.” Jesus agrees. The Sabbath is for our benefit, our physical and spiritual refreshment. Life, then as now, can eat you up if you don't take a break.

But we can't take a break from helping others when they need it. I suppose Jesus could have said to the blind, the lame, the deaf and dying, “Come back after sunset Saturday and in the meantime, just grit your teeth.” But he doesn't. Healing is holy. In Matthew's account of the incident of the grain, Jesus points out that the priests work on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:5) In John Jesus gives the example of circumcision on the eighth day. If it falls on a Sabbath, the circumcision still takes place. Jesus says, “Now if a boy can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry at me for healing a man's whole body on the Sabbath? Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” (John 7:23-24)

That last statement is crucial. It was obvious that Jesus, who was a builder and not a doctor, was not practicing his profession when he healed others. Nor was he paid for healing people. Only to the unreflective person would it appear that he was working on the Sabbath. But some religious people and an awful lot of bureaucrats seem more worried about giving the appearance of not obeying the law than the fact that sometimes they may be violating the spirit of the law. And yet even the secular law recognizes that this can happen. The “slayer rule” prohibits a person from inheriting money from someone he murdered, even if the victim, like, say, their mother or grandfather, had put the killer in their will. This "slayer rule" can invalidate certain provisions in someone's personal will. The idea is you cannot profit from your crime. 

Yet we often see people trapped in Catch-22 situations where the rules, originally created for some good purpose, are instead being used to do them harm. In Orthodox Judaism only a man can grant his wife a get or certificate of divorce. And so many men refused to do this, even if a beth din, or Jewish court, ordered them to, that a group of Brooklyn rabbis ran a torture-for-hire ring that would kidnap such husbands and work them over till they gave their wife a divorce! Apparently that was preferable to trying to change the rule that gave men all the power in this matter.

Some people are worried that by doing anything other than strictly enforcing the letter of the law they will unleash chaos upon the world. But in reality we make exceptions to rules all the time. Jeffrey Epstein would have gone to jail more than a decade ago here in Florida were he treated like a pedophile without wealth and powerful friends. Because of an egregious and atypical reduction of his sentence for child trafficking, he raped more young girls. That is how exceptions to rules usually get made: favoritism towards the powerful. And that is bad.

Jesus is saying, instead of that, we should be making exceptions for the powerless: the sick, women, children, aliens, the poor, the hungry. You may remember this story from the 1980s. A news story about a single mother with cancer being unable to buy toys for her daughter for Christmas led to a wave of donations of toys. Because the value of the toys were more than the assets the woman should have to qualify for Medicaid and welfare, her benefits were cut! The president stepped in to right the situation but I think we can agree that the bureaucrats responsible should never have decided to take away the benefits of a dying woman and her daughter because of toys given by compassionate people.

Too often this world punishes those who are already at a disadvantage but gives more advantages to those with plenty to spare. If you are a celebrity actor presenting an Oscar you get a swag bag full of an estimated $100,000 in luxury items. If you are a poor cancer patient with a daughter who receives too many donated toys, you can lose your benefits.

This is not how things work in the kingdom of God. Jesus teaches us that even religious rules should make exceptions for compassionate reasons. At the grain picking incident, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7) What is mercy if not making an exception out of compassion? Jesus said, “Be merciful, as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) And “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) He also said, “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged...” (Matthew 7:2) James, Jesus' brother, wrote, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13) So a good rule of thumb is: when an otherwise just rule is being used to perpetrate injustice, show mercy. For everyone's sake. It's what Jesus would do.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Bitter Fruit

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18, Hebrews 11:29-12:2 and Luke 12:49-56.

I was watching Book TV many years ago and the author speaking at a bookstore was Larry Kramer, one of the most prominent and outspoken activists of the gay community. He is a co-founder of ACT UP and the Gay Men's Health Crisis and the author of the play The Normal Heart, which chronicles the early days of the AIDs epidemic. He was in his 70s at the time of the taping and a venerable figure in his world. He started to speak and in short order began to condemn his own community for killing themselves and each other by using drugs like crystal meth and having unprotected sex. He felt being gay was about so much more than just having lots of sex but felt that was what gays were primarily focused on. You could have heard an ant cough in the silence that seized the audience, which was largely gay. Daddy was angry and giving them a verbal spanking and they were stunned. I looked him up and found out that Larry Kramer has been compared to an Old Testament prophet because he pulls no punches in his critique of society, either in regard to the pointed indifference of city, state and local governments to the health of gays or in regard to the hedonistic self-destructiveness of today's gays.

I anticipate a similar uneasy reaction to today's Old Testament, Psalm and Gospel readings. It is somewhat disguised by Isaiah's metaphor of a vineyard, though verse 7 makes it clear that he means God's people. The passage starts as a love song and then becomes a “somebody done somebody wrong song.” It describes how arduous setting up a vineyard is: digging terraces, clearing stones, selecting from cuttings and planting vines, building a watchtower and hewing the wine vat out of rock. It doesn't talk about how long it takes for a vineyard to start producing, which is 2 years to produce grapes and 4 years before you can make your first bottle of wine. Most people back then probably knew that. And despite all the loving hard work he has put into it, God is disappointed that it has produced wild or sour grapes. The Hebrew literally means “stinking or worthless things.”

God put a lot of work into forging and protecting the nations of Israel and Judah. Is he being unreasonable to expect them to bear good fruit? And what is the bitter fruit that he is complaining about? Our passage says, “...he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” In Hebrew the words for “justice” and “bloodshed” sound similar; likewise the words for “righteousness” and “cry.” But the there are layers of meaning that the English translation doesn't convey. The Hebrew word for “bloodshed” is related to the word for “oppression” and some translations use the later because it makes a more obvious contrast with justice. And the Hebrew word translated “cry” here is specifically a cry for help or a cry of distress. So someone has suggested this translation: “He sought equity but found iniquity, a righteous nation, but instead, lamentation.” What angers God is his people are perpetrating violent injustice and oppression upon each other.

This is expanded upon in the verses immediately following our passage where God lists 6 woes. First, he condemns those who “add house to house and field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.” (Isaiah 5:8) He is talking of those wealthy property owners who are extending their real estate holdings at the expense of the smaller, poorer farmers. According to Leviticus, everyone got land apportioned to them by God and it was to remain in the family. If they needed money, they could lease the land to someone else but every 50 years during the Jubilee year the debt was canceled and the land reverted to the original family. God says, “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.” (Leviticus 25:23-24) God created the earth; it is his and we are just stewards of it. Taking advantage of the unfortunate to seize what God given to someone else is not part of the deal. As we said, nothing is really ours and definitely not permanently. And the prophet foresees a time when fine houses stand empty and vineyards and fields become worthless wastelands.

Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. They have harps and lyres at their banquets, pipes and timbrels and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the works of his hands.” (Isaiah 5:11-12) This bad fruit results in people who indulge themselves in mind- and mood-altering substances as well as in luxuries while simultaneously not paying any attention to God's ways. “Therefore my people will go into exile for lack of understanding...” (Isaiah 5:13) Because they don't get that everything comes from God and is to be used for the good of all, they will lose the land they steal from one another.

So the people will be brought low and everyone humbled, the eyes of the arrogant humbled.” (Isaiah 5:15) Arrogance, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, is the complete anti-God state of mind. You don't feel you need anyone because you know it all and can do it all. You may give lip service to God but you don't really believe he is the superior being because nobody is superior to you. Without humility, you won't seek God or his forgiveness because that would be to admit you need someone else or that you have done something wrong. No one can truly be a follower of Jesus and retain his or her arrogance.

Next God pronounces woe on those who parade their sins and wickedness the way a conqueror parades his spoils or pagans would parade their idols during a festival. They challenge God to hurry up and carry out his plan so they can evaluate it according to their standards. (Isaiah 5:18-19) So this is a condemnation of shamelessness and cynicism.

Then it's “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” (Isaiah 5:20) The human capacity for justifying anything they wish to do or whatever and whoever they approve of is astonishing. People can dismiss any cruelty and injustice if they can say it was for a good cause. The Nazis were just trying to make the world a better exterminating Jews, Gypsys, gays, Slavs, the mentally and physically disabled, etc. They got their ideas from the eugenics movement in the US and our policy of removing Native Americans to reservations. We still have folks who think the answer to all our problems is to exclude or get rid of “those people.” And “those people” can be whomever you designate. And if it is not evil to harm people for no reason other than the accident of their skin color, or where they were born, or in what religion they were raised, then I don't know what is.

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.” (Isaiah 5:21) In our individualistic culture, the message we constantly drum into the heads of our children and young people is “Believe in yourself, even if no one else does.” And that would be fine if confidence was always accompanied by competence. But that is clearly not the case. And a lot of damage in this world is done by those who think they are always right and don't listen to others. The fact is that in most cases if you are wise and clever that will become evident to others and they will tell you, if not in so many words. They will come to you for advice and look to you for leadership. I think Rudyard Kipling had a better take on this in his poem If where he wrote, “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too...” Knowing that you might be wrong, and on the occasions when you are, learning from that experience, is vital. A large part of wisdom is being able to handle and process feedback from other people and from life. Those who don't are dangerous.

Finally God says, “Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.” (Isaiah 5:22-23) Again drunkenness is condemned but also corruption. If you let the guilty go, they can do more harm. By focusing on five teens who happened to be in a different part of Central Park the night a female jogger was beaten and raped, the real culprit, a serial rapist whose DNA the authorities already had on file, was able to go on to rape 5 other women. And only the rich guilty person can bribe someone. Which results in the poor being disproportionately incarcerated. And, as we have seen with the Central Park Five, the innocent can suffer under a justice system that is weighted towards those who can afford expensive lawyers.

So what makes the products of God's vineyard so bitter are greed and debauchery and unfaithfulness and cynicism and arrogance and injustice. And that is why he will break down the walls that protect the vineyard and let it be trampled and devoured and burned. That is why he will let the Assyrians take Israel and later the Babylonians take Judah into exile. Tolerating such corruption weakens a nation.

Obviously this was not a popular message and indeed we can look at the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible as minority reports. We know kings had their own schools of prophets who told them what they wanted to hear. (1 Kings 22:6) But the prophets whose works the Bible preserved told those in power and their followers the truth. And nobody wants to hear the truth when it makes them look bad. Which is what the author of Hebrews is talking about when he mentions martyrs for the faith: “Others were tortured...Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword.” Jeremiah was mocked and imprisoned. (Jeremiah 20:2; 37:15) Zechariah was stoned. (2 Chronicles 24:20-21) Jewish tradition says Isaiah was sawn in two. And Urijah was killed with a sword. (Jeremiah 26:20-23) Neither the popularity or unpopularity of an idea is a reliable indicator of whether it is true or not, but if it unpopular with people in power they will discount it, suppress it and try to shut up those who say it. One way to silence those who speak the truth to power is to kill them. In 2018, more than 50 journalists were killed around the world, including dozens of Russian journalists and infamously, Jamal Khashoggi who was killed and dismembered in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Which brings us to Jesus' startling speech which we read in Luke today. He is acting as anything other than “meek and mild.” Rather the Lion of Judah says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Why is he talking like this?

The paragraph preceding this one is about judgment on those who do not do what their master told them to do while he was away. Remember Jesus was commending the servants who did their duty and fed and treated properly their fellow servants while the master is gone. Jesus then says, “But suppose the servant says to himself, 'My master is taking a long time in coming,' and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk.” Sound familiar? Jesus, like Isaiah, is seeing the same problems cropping up in his day. People are doubting that God really will act and are mistreating others. Though only Jesus says it explicitly, all of the prophets' complaints can be boiled down to violations of the 2 Great Commandments: to love God completely and love your neighbor as yourself. It begins when people abandon the God who is love or simply go through the motions in worship. And it ends up affecting how they view and treat those created in God's image. Jesus' whole message is about the nature of God and how we should therefore act towards one another. He emphasizes God's love and forgiveness and yet he meets up with fierce opposition. He also knows the penalty for those who speak inconvenient truths to power: they get crucified. That's the baptism he is talking about. It is a baptism of fire. And he knows people will take sides about him and his message and it will divide nations and peoples and even families.

I think Jesus chose the metaphor of fire for a couple of reasons. Fire cleanses. If you want to clear a field, you do a controlled burn. They do them on Big Pine to cut down on dry underbrush which might otherwise fuel very destructive fires. Fire is used to refine metals and separate the dross as well. Fire is frequently used in scripture to symbolize both judgment and cleansing.

Fire is powerful but it can also be used for good. Fire gives light in the darkness. Jesus spoke of putting a lamp on a stand to give light to the whole house. The only fire Jesus kindled was the light he was shedding on this world. It casts a harsh light on how people act but it also illuminates the way to God. However, as Jesus said, a lot of folks like the darkness because it hides their deeds and the ugly truth about society. (John 3:19) On the cross they tried to extinguish the light of the world. But the darkness could not overcome it. (John 1:5)

And now the torch has been passed. Like using one candle to light others, Jesus, the light of the world, has ignited us with his divine spark so that we can be the light of the world. (John 9:5; Matthew 5:14) Perhaps this is the fire he couldn't wait to kindle. And indeed it wouldn't really get going until after his death and resurrection. As the disciples who met the risen Christ while going to Emmaus said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32) Once the Spirit was poured out on the believers at Pentecost, signified by the tongues of flames over their heads, they couldn't keep the light of the gospel hidden from the crowds. And the gospel spread through the world like wildfire.

Like fire, the gospel stirs up mixed reactions. Though gospel means good news, people don't always see it as such. Because the good news is made up of two parts: diagnosis and treatment. And the diagnosis, as we heard in Isaiah, is not a pleasant one to face. Like any illness there are symptoms: arrogance, injustice and self-destructive self-indulgence, among others. We are spiritually and morally sick. It affects how we think, speak and act. It affects how we treat God, how we treat each other and even how we treat ourselves. And while it is obvious that this world is sick, like most alcoholics, many of us are in denial. Because getting better requires some big changes in our attitudes and in our lifestyles.

The treatment is trusting Jesus as one would a doctor. We need to trust him to fix what's wrong inside. And then we need to follow doctor's orders. That means being humble and taking directions from him. It means giving up some things and doing other things that might be as welcome as strenuous exercise is to a couch potato. Mark summarizes Jesus' message thus: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:15) Repentance, changing your way of thinking and living, is still not a popular part of Jesus' message. There are lots of so-called Christians who don't want to or feel the need to ask for forgiveness. But you can't fix what's wrong if you don't admit what's wrong.

But as I've seen in patients with hard to diagnose diseases, finding out what's wrong with you can paradoxically be good news. Now you know what you are fighting. You know the cause and the symptoms. You have a plan of treatment. You can get better.

The world can get better. As Larry Kramer told his audience that making their lives all about selfish pleasure was killing them physically, we need to realize that living a self-centered life will just as surely kill us spiritually. God made us to produce good fruit: not arrogance but humility, not greed but generosity, not self-justification but justice, not cries of distress but songs of joy.

Monday, August 12, 2019


The scriptures referred to are Genesis 15:1-6, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and Luke 12:32-40.

When I was a kid, drinking a soda or eating candy everyday was not an option. Such things were special treats and were only indulged in on special occasions, or as a reward for very good behavior. For that matter, fast food was also a treat, reserved for when we were traveling and more rarely, when my parents didn't have time to prepare anything. Today, of course, soda, candy and fast food are ubiquitous and are commonly part of people's daily diets. Small wonder 60% of all American women and ¾ of all American men are overweight or obese as are 1/3 of the people in the world. And many of our health problems are due to obesity, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoarthritis and even cancer.

The problem is that for most of human history getting enough food was not a sure thing. So our instinct when we have food before us is to overindulge, as a precaution against future shortages. The ability to store fat was a helpful adaptation for surviving famines. Now that food and especially calorie-dense foods are available in abundance this survival mechanism is killing us.

We see analogous effects in other areas of modern life. When I was a kid if you missed a movie during its original theatrical run, you wouldn't see it for years and then probably when it came to TV, edited for content and punctuated by commercials. For that matter if you missed an episode of your favorite TV show you had to wait till summer and catch the rerun. If you wanted to find information, and you didn't have an encyclopedia at home, you had to go to the library. Nothing was instantaneously obtainable.

Today you rarely have to wait for anything. Hungry? Just pop some food into the microwave and in a minute or two it's ready to eat. Missed your favorite show or movie? You can order it up on your TV, tablet or phone. Need a fact? Google it. Want to buy something? Find it on Amazon and buy it with one click. Almost anything you want is at your fingertips. So with all this immediate gratification, everyone is happier. Right?

Wrong. The prevalence of depression in this country has increased significantly between 2005 and 2015, and it has risen more rapidly in youth than in older groups. Suicide in the US has increased by 31% in just 16 years (2001 to 2017). It has gone up in almost every state, except Nevada where it was already high. It is the second leading cause of death for those aged 10 to 34 and 4th leading cause of death in those 35 to 54. It is 4 times higher in men than women. Suicide and deaths due to overdoses of opioids, which experts label “deaths of despair,” have led to a decrease in life expectancy in this country.

Now I can't show definitively that getting what you want almost instantly is behind all this but I do think that one can argue that it is a significant factor. Studies have shown that having smartphones makes us dumber. Since we can look up practically anything we are not bothering to remember such things. I can remember the phone number of my childhood home but not those of my son or daughter since I can simply scroll through my contacts and dial them with one touch. And I think that having rapid access to most of our physical desires and preferred entertainment has made us unable to handle having other desires frustrated. For instance, you can find porn online but getting to know and court a real person face to face takes time and aspects of emotional intelligence you can't get from internet interactions. Consequently, a recent study has found that, because young people are spending more time on the internet and are confused by the modern rules of dating and relationships, they are having less sex!

The ability to live with delayed gratification is eroding. In the old days you had no choice. Now you do. But not with everything. The movie you can download and watch in seconds took years of planning and executing by thousands of people, whose names zip past you at the end of the film. If you are a filmmaker, gratifying your desire to realize your vision is a long and often grueling ordeal. Most things that matter are. Marriage doesn't end with the vows as you see in a romcom but is the arduous process of trying to keep them despite all that life throws at you. Raising a child is not like a movie montage of scenes where you and your kid laugh and hug but a non-stop daily grind of teaching them, arguing with them, encouraging them and discouraging them. Unlike sea turtles, we can't just push them out and crawl away, leaving them to dig their way out of the sand and find the sea before the birds eat them.

Another factor in today's atmosphere of despair is the decline in church membership and the fact that most children never go to church. Because of this I think many people may not even realize that they have spiritual needs, the way Stephen Spielberg may never have discovered filmmaking had he been raised Old Order Amish and never seen a movie. Lack of exposure leads to lack of knowledge.

All of today's scriptures are about delayed gratification. Abram wants a child and must trust God to fulfill his promise in his good time. Our passage in Hebrews builds on that story in Genesis. And in our passage from Luke Jesus encourages us to be ready for the coming of the kingdom, which is not going to happen right away. We like Abram are going to have to rely on the divine promise.

Of course, it's not like Abram is placid in the meantime. He complains in our passage that he has had to adopt one of his slaves as his heir provisionally. God assures him that he will have a flesh and blood heir. In fact, his descendants will eventually be as numerous as the stars. And here is where we find the famous verse: “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

What does this mean? It means that Abram's trust in God is credited as his being in a right relationship with God. All relationships are built on trust. You really can't work with someone you don't trust or who doesn't trust you. Abram trusts that God is as good as his word and that faith is puts him in good stead with God.

Not that Abram's son is born immediately after this conversation with God. Isaac isn't born for another 6 chapters in Genesis, during which Sarai gives her slave Hagar to Abram to father Ishmael, God renames Abram and Sarai, Abraham and his household are circumcised, Sodom and Gomorah are destroyed and we have that weird episode with Abimelech. Throughout all this, Abraham continues to trust that God will keep his promises. And eventually he does.

This is what our passage in Hebrews means when it says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It is not saying that faith is believing something without evidence or in spite of evidence to the contrary. It is trusting in God's promises despite delay. It is recognizing that God is faithful based on his past actions and that he makes good on his word when the time is right.

Often we are like kids who complain that we are starving to death because dinner is taking so long. Faith is like trusting that, despite the fact that Mom is not using the microwave, she is making dinner. You will get fed when it is done and not one minute before. And it will be worth it.

One thing I remember about the days when you couldn't have dinner in a minute or less is the anticipation. Cooking the old fashioned way gave you the enjoyment of smelling the food cooking, hearing it sizzle, and watching things rise and brown. You would see how much work went into transforming the raw ingredients into delicious meals. Your mouth would water and your tummy would growl. If you were lucky, you might get to sample a spoonful as it was being seasoned or get to lick the beaters. Sometimes the anticipation was almost as pleasurable as actually eating it.

I think this is what C.S. Lewis was getting at when he defined “joy” as “longing.” Think of the manic glee and urge to jump up and down you see in children when you tell them you are taking them to Disney World next month or that Christmas is just a week away. The expectancy is as exciting as the thing they are looking forward to. Or remember the sweet agony of waiting to see your boyfriend or girlfriend when you were first in love. As the moment of their arrival grew closer, the thrill of seeing them rose to a fever pitch. The anticipation was as much a part of the pleasure as its consummation.

In a world where the interval between wanting and getting is measured in seconds, you lose that. And you lose the practice of patience. So when God doesn't deliver as fast as Amazon does, we get discouraged. We feel that he will never come through for us. The truth is that like a really good dinner, it takes time to get things right. If you don't cook yourself you don't realize that. And since none of us has ever created or run a universe, we really don't know all the steps that God must take to bring things together at just the right time.

An example of this process is found in the story of Joseph. He is faithful but his brothers want to kill him at first and then they sell him into slavery. He is bought by a high official in Egypt and does well running his household but then is falsely accused of sexual assault and thrown into prison. Then he meets two guys on the outs with Pharaoh and correctly interprets their dreams. He tells the one whom he knows will get out of prison and work for Pharaoh again to remember him to his boss. But the guy forgets. For 2 whole years! Suddenly Pharaoh starts having weird dreams. Only then does the guy go, “Oh, yeah! I met this guy in prison who can interpret dreams.” Joseph is brought before Pharaoh, correctly tells him that the dream foretells 7 years of bumper crops and then 7 years of famine and says, “If I were you, I'd save the extra grain from the 7 good years to get everyone through the 7 bad years.” Pharaoh says, “Great idea. You do that for me, OK?” And now Joseph is second in command in Egypt.

But at any point previous to his final situation Joseph could have given up on God. And it would be understandable. From his point of view at those low points in his life, it would have seemed that God abandoned him. But everything had to come together for Joseph to get where he ends up. He probably would not have left his father and gone willingly to Egypt had he not been enslaved. He would not be in prison had he not been accused. Had he not been the slave of a high official he would not be in that particular prison where he could meet other high officials. Pharaoh would have no reason to release a slave from prison did he not need his dream interpreted. And it all had to happen at a precise time before the 7 good and then 7 bad years. Afterwards Joseph says to his brothers, “As for you, you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day.” (Genesis 50:20, NET) Joseph saw the hand of God working in his life but only by looking back at his journey and seeing the turning points in the light of his ultimate destination.

We see this in the arrival of Jesus in history. Rome was the first stable empire to encompass not only Judea but all of the Mediterranean. It connected Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East and Africa. The Romans built roads and patrolled them and they patrolled the waters, making travel and the sending of missionaries and letters safe. They allowed Greek from Alexander's old empire to remain the lingua franca of the known world, thus making it possible for people of different countries and cultures to speak and write in a tongue understood by all. They imposed the Pax Romana, a time of relative peace throughout the region. Into this specific time God inserts himself as a Jewish man in a province primed to seek the Messiah. He makes enough of an impact that he is remembered for his words and deeds. He dies a very public death; he rises again, and no one can produce a body to quash the idea. His resurrection so galvanizes his followers that they spread all over the empire, proclaiming his word even though it gets them killed. Jesus appears to a man who is both a zealous Jewish scholar and a Roman citizen, who then uses both of those assets to spread his message to both Jews and Gentiles throughout the Asia Minor and Europe, even taking it to Rome, the capitol itself. Paul leaves a record in his letters, which after his martyrdom get copied and traded between the churches. People who knew him and Peter and other principals in Jesus' life then record Christ's ministry, each writer using materials he gathered and his own unique perspective. The gospel appeals to everyone, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, rich and poor and inspires such Christlike behavior in its followers that periodic persecutions cannot stamp it out. Eventually it encompasses the globe.

God plays the long game. He is like a chess master, thinking many moves ahead of any of us and ready to counter any opposition or obstacle we put in his way. We cannot see at any given point in time exactly how he is bringing the pieces of his plan together but we can be sure that he is. And we can trust that he has our best interests in mind. As Paul wrote, “And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

What should we do in the meantime? In the verses following our excerpt from Luke Jesus says, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his household servants, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is the slave whom his master finds at work when he returns.” (Luke 12:42-43) In other words, the meal is in the oven. Start setting the table. Invite others. As Jesus says in the parable of the great banquet, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” (Luke 14:21) The gospel is not a war cry but an invitation to God's great feast of healing and wholeness in Christ.

So Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give alms.” Speaking for myself, in 6 decades I have accumulated a lot of stuff that I don't need. And my kids don't want it, nor do they want to sift through it when I'm gone. Much of it may be thrown out then. Whereas I can get rid of it now while it's worth something to someone else and help others with the proceeds. It can be gathering dust in my house or garnering gratitude for Jesus' kingdom. We must remember that “...where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Jesus also says, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” We are living through some dark times. I am not saying the end of the ages is upon us, though one might be forgiven for thinking that at times. But we are definitely living in a period of moral blindness, where people are saying that what is good is bad and that what is bad is good. We are living at a time when people have forgotten that what we do or do not do for the poor and disadvantaged we are doing or neglecting to do to our Lord Jesus Christ. We are living at a time when, as in ancient Rome, communications are easy and life is cheap. We are called to be light to the world. We are called to help the helpless and be the voice of the voiceless. We are called to heal, not harm, to call people together in love, not to divide with hate. The symbol of our faith is not a weapon to meet out punishment on those we think are evil but an official instrument of execution on which our Savior took upon himself all the hate and evil of the world and disarmed it.

I wish I could say the kingdom is coming this week or the next, this year or the next, this century or the next. Jesus says no one knows when he will return. He also says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” So as the heroes of the faith greeted from afar the better, heavenly country they desired, we too must find pleasure living in joyful anticipation of the fulfilling of his promise.