Saturday, January 27, 2018

“Dealing with Squatters” - January 28, 2018

Mark 1:21-28

            The gospel of Mark shows Jesus confronting the underlying evils that get into human life.  Let’s call them “unclean spirits” [Mark 1:2].  And before we start pretending that we modern people are so much more enlightened than our ancestors, consider how of late we understand the world at large.  We may not often speak of demons and devils at work, but when we see the chaos we face we have no trouble blaming malignant forces working behind the scenes, whether that means the conservatives or the liberals or the Russians or the Chinese or the hate groups or the Koch brothers or Monsanto or CNN or Fox News or the 1% or whoever. 

Also notice that those dug-in manipulators of human life are just fine with business as usual.  They are quite comfortable doing what they do.  It’s only when Jesus shows up that the trouble begins, and the demons know it and throw a tantrum.

“They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” [Mark 1:21-25]
When evil is confronted and told to go away, there will be convulsions and shouting, and maybe what we are living through is the exit of a whole lot of long-term resident demons from the body politic.  That would be a good thing.

            But Jesus also tells a parable about such confrontations, and it’s a good idea to keep it in mind.

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.”  [Matthew 12:43-45]
Remember that evil does not belong in the human soul, or anywhere in God’s world.  It works like a squatter who finds an empty place and settles in, slowly destroying all that is around it.  Yet squatters can be turned out, even when they have taken over.

            We are facing an opioid-addiction crisis right now.  It’s serious.  More people are dying per year in Pennsylvania by overdose than died of AIDS-related illness any year during that epidemic.  Thirty years ago, we faced a surge of addiction when crack became available and there are a lot of similarities.  Let me share a story about that, and about how Jesus works to bring wholeness, not just in the past, but in our own day.

            At the time that crack cocaine appeared on the streets, I was with the Frankford Group Ministry, which was four United Methodist churches who worked together closely in that section of Philadelphia.  Two blocks down from Central United Methodist Church there was a row of houses that was owned by an absentee landlord who lived in Florida and did not particularly care what happened up here as long as the rent was collected regularly.  The neighbors did care.  The church cared.  We had kids who came to our after-school program who lived in two of those houses.  Let me add that the school also cared, and so did the business-owners who backed up to these places.  They had become crack houses.  People were going in, smoking a pipe or two, then spreading out into the neighborhood, desperate to find money for their next hit.  Prostitution was up, and disease with it.  Robbery and burglary were up.  And, just like today, babies were being born, addicted to illegal drugs from the womb.  Have you ever held a child like that?  The withdrawal symptoms linger on for years, and the side-effects for a lifetime.

            The neighbors came to the church to ask for help.  The church contacted the city’s Bureau of Licensing and Inspection, and they went through those buildings with a fine-tooth comb.  Six months later, when there had been no proof of remediation on the many violations they cited, we loaded up this old junker of a 21-seat church bus and drove down to Center City with signs and matching T-shirts to attend what would otherwise have been a routine license approval hearing.  The judge who was presented with the list of code violations looked up at the group and said, “This isn’t about the missing smoke alarms, is it?” then proceeded to issue the maximum fine for every item on the list.  Three months later, the fines were still unpaid, but a deal had been worked out whereby the properties were donated to Habitat for Humanity, squatters were evicted, and owners-to-be worked sided-by-side with volunteers to rehabilitate the houses and make them into homes.

            Even so, let me say this: that was a partial victory only.  There is also the question of the people who had squatted there.  Are they not also like empty houses where something terrible was happening?  They moved somewhere else, but their problems went with them.

It is not enough simply to address their drug use or anyone else’s and say, “Stop!” although you have to begin there.  You have to ask what it was that led them to make the foolish decision to start down that path and then address that; hence Jesus’ warning that if you don’t keep watch, the demons’ return is worse than the original situation.  Until someone is given hope of a way out of poverty, both economic poverty and poverty of the spirit, they will stay stuck.  Until someone grasps the depth of their dignity as a child of God, they will lack the self-respect to say, “No,” to someone who would draw them into self-destructive ways.  Until people hear that message clearly and unambiguously, we’ll just go from one addiction crisis to another.  “Just say no,” doesn’t prevent anything.  “You are better than that, and here’s why,” is what makes a difference.

Nor is it just about drug addiction.  There are all sorts of situations where you might look at someone and say, “What has gotten into you?”  Maybe you’re looking into the mirror when you say that.  I could suggest a list of unwelcome visitors that we nevertheless invite: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust.  The seven deadly sins open the door to a world of chaos, and they’re always lurking there just beneath the surface like a virus in the system that stay dormant until some moment of weakness lets it latch onto a vital organ and endanger someone’s life.

But there are also questions we ask at baptism which, if you ask yourself at those moments, will be of great help:

“Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they may present themselves?”
and, with that,

“Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior [meaning, among other things, that you are not able or expected to save yourself] and put your whole trust in his grace [again, meaning that he is both capable and willing to do the job]?”
As somebody pointed out long ago and far away,
“He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey.” [Mark 1:28]

Saturday, January 20, 2018

“Why Them?” - January 21, 2018

Mark 1:16-20

            Almost anything I could say about this passage contains a good bit of speculation.

            Mark lays out the bare bones of the events in less words than would show up in a newspaper article, and it’s all facts. 

“As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’  And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.  Immediately, he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”
There’s no back-and-forth.  There’s no questioning about what this ‘fish for people’ stuff means.  There’s no discussion between the brothers or among the second set of brothers and their father.  Jesus shows up, says, “Come on!” and they go. 

We get no information about why Jesus chose these four.  We have no idea what he saw in them.  We don’t know if he had been working his way along the shoreline and had called others to follow him who told him, politely or roughly, to get lost; they had better things to do.  (Maybe that’s why he added that tag line about fishing for people.  Get these guys interested and when they’ve taken the bait, reel them in.)  Maybe he already knew them or they already knew him. 

We get no information on what motivated them.  Were they fed up with their lives and wanted a change?  Maybe Simon had grown sick of smelling like fish all the time.  Maybe James and John were tired of working for their father and only needed some small excuse to set out on their own any way they could.  Maybe Andrew saw this as his chance to travel.  If you let your imagination take over, you can come up with dozens of possible reasons that they would be more than ready to drop their nets and follow.  The gospels don’t seem all that interested in those questions.

What really is of concern and of interest are the facts.  Jesus saw them.  Jesus called them.  They followed.  As far as that goes, that may be the most that anybody ever understands about how these things work. 

Some people have elaborate and clear biographies of their faith.  In her book Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber tells the story of a man named Stephen, who was one of the readers at an Easter Vigil one year.  As she tells the story,

“Stephen, our aging-movie-star-looking Fortune 500 company guy, wanted to do the Valley of the Dry Bones reading from the book of Ezekiel.
We Stephen walked up with a single sheet of paper, the light bouncing off his perfect head of salt-and-pepper hair, he said to us that he felt emotionally dead and that for this condition, nothing makes a difference:
No website;
No relationship;
No Mac computer or iPhone;
No exercise, no diet, no supplement;
No job, office, or title on my business card;
No amount of Diet Coke, good scotch, or bad beer;
No self-help book, therapist, or self-improvement class;
No car, house, or any other status symbol I can think to buy;
No movie or video game, and no matter how truly awesome Doctor Who is.
They have all done nothing more than temporarily anaesthetize the longing in my soul to be complete, to be whole, to be connected, to be okay, to love and be loved as I am now with too much weight, too much debt, too much depression, too much gray, too much geek, and not enough of everything else.
And I despair that my trip on this rock flying around the sun at sixty-seven thousand miles an hour is just some sort of sick cosmic joke.
But then I remember.  I remember the Valley.  The Valley of the Dry Bones.
God is talking to the prophet Ezekiel and guides him into something resembling a massive open grave.
It’s a valley covered, from one end to the next, with nothing but humanity at its core – dry bones.  In this valley there is absolutely no hope of life.
God tells Ezekiel to cry out, cry out to those dry bones, cry out to God’s children.  Tell them to rise, tell them to rise, tell them to listen to God and rise.  They listen.
And God lifts them up, puts them back together, and breathes into them.  And they breathe anew.  And God fills them with the Spirit.  And where there once was death, hopelessness, and despair, there is new life.
In hearing that, there is light.  There is hope.  And that is sufficient.[1]
Praise God for the work the Holy Spirit does in this man’s life, and in the lives of so many people.  Praise God for everyone who can say, “This was my problem, and this is how Jesus helped me.”  Praise God for everybody who knows (or can at least make some sort of reasonable guess about) what was going on inside them when they heard the voice of Jesus say, “Follow me.”  Praise God for the openings into human life that Jesus steps through to redeem them from deep trouble and to make the good cross over into the holy.

But praise God also for the unknown and unexplained and barely understood ways that happens.  Praise God also for the routine and unspectacular, sometimes painfully slow ways that faith comes to be born.

In the same chapter as she shares Stephen’s story, she tells about someone else who was present when he read his statement of faith.  (And I am going to clean up some of the language she uses, so be warned if you decide to read this book for yourself, which I highly recommend.)

“Religiously speaking, Andie had mostly been either nothing or Unitarian when she joined seven other people in starting House for All [Sinners and Saints Lutheran Church] with me in the fall of 2007. ... About six months after joining, she texted me, ‘Hey Rev, I may need some pastoral care.’
We met the next day for coffee, and when I asked her what was up she said, ‘I think I’m having a crisis of faith.’
To which I thought, What … does that look like for a Unitarian?
‘Yeah,’ she continued, ‘I think I believe in Jesus.’  Oh.  That’s what it looks like.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I replied.  ‘But sometimes Jesus just hunts you[…] down and there’s nothing you can do about it.’” [2]
            Why her?  I don’t know.  Why Simon and Andrew?  Why James and John?  Why you?  I don’t know.  Did Jesus call them because of the disciples he knew they could become?  Did they become the people we hear about because he called them?  I might say it was a little bit of both, but – then again – what do I know?

            I know that Jesus sees people and loves them.  I know that he speaks to their hearts.  I know that they hear, that they respond, that they follow, and that on the deepest of levels they are never the same again.  They stay themselves, but become more like the selves that God wants them to be.  We call that “redemption” and “salvation”, and it comes about through answering the loud or quiet call.

            And for Jesus’ constant invitation to all people, I praise God.

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints (New York: Convergent Books, 2015) 147-149.
[2] Ibid., 145-146.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

“Something Good from Where?” - January 14, 2018

John 1:43-51

If you want to know something about someone, often you start with where they come from. When I was in seminary in North Carolina, there were only a handful of us from the northeast. So when I heard that the incoming class included a Marine chaplain-in-training who was from Pennsylvania, I went over to say hello. I asked her where she was from, and she said she was from a small town that nobody had ever heard of. I said, “What would that be, someplace like Womelsdorf?” and her eyes got really wide. I have no idea why I chose that place, except that I’ve always thought the name sounds funny. I had never even been there, but I can hear myself saying something like, “Can anything good come from Womelsdorf?”

It was actually kind of an embarrassing moment. I had sort of insulted her hometown. I didn’t mean it that way, but that’s how it could have come across. The experience does, however, leave me with some sympathy for Nathanael, at that point still a disciple-to-be, who hears about Jesus of Nazareth, and makes the offhand, snarky comment,

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  [John 1:46]

For a long time, Nazareth was held to be a backwater up in the Judean hills. It was far from the Mediterranean coast, which was the most cosmopolitan area, and far from Jerusalem, which would have been the center of both faith and politics. That gave rise to a tradition of hearing Nathanael’s comment as an expression of the attitude “that Galileans were impious hillbillies detached from Israel‘s religious center.”[1]    

Enter the archaeologists.  As a recent National Geographical article puts it,

“Gallilee — long thought to have been a rural back water and an isolated Jewish enclave —was in fact becoming more urbanized and romanized during Jesus’ day than scholars once imagined, and partly by the fact that Jesus’ boyhood home was just three miles from Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital. Although the city isn’t mentioned in the Gospels, an ambitious building campaign fueled by Galilee’s ruler, Herod Antipas, would have attracted skilled workers from all the surrounding villages. Many scholars think it’s reasonable to imagine Jesus, a young craftsman living nearby, working at Sepphoris — and, like a college freshman, testing the boundaries of his religious upbringing.”[2]

Then the excavations in town continued and they have discovered the largest-known concentration of Jewish ritual baths — and a complete absence (at least so far) of pig bones,[3] suggesting that despite the Roman presence the area was actually a sort of Bible Belt.

So Phillip’s comment could mean

1)      Can anything good come out of that hick town? Or
2)      Can anything good come from that bunch of construction workers? or
3)      Can anything good come from a bunch of Bible nerds?

Take your pick: whom do you trust least?  Updated a little, would it be somebody from Utah, a Teamsters steward, or a Southern Baptist?  We aren’t quite sure where Nathanael would have pigeonholed Jesus on this continuum, but somehow I do think Jesus has the same problem now that he did then.  People think that he’s going to fall easily into some kind of category and he refuses to do that.

            Part of the problem is that so many folks are so loud in proclaiming that he is on their side, or that they know exactly what he would say and do in the twenty-first century.  I would put myself in that group, too.  I am sure, very sure, that he would be standing up for the poor and for migrants and for the decent treatment of women.  But are my notions of how to do that the same as his would be?  I hope so.  I hope so, and I am certain enough to make phone calls and write some letters and even pay the occasional visit to a legislative office about it.  But what if I encounter someone with different notions of how to do things, someone who is not just some cynical staffer who has memorized the talking points or an angry partisan who has drunk the Kool-Aid?  Mind you, those people are out there.  So, too, looking the other way, are folks who plaster bumperstickers on their cars or their guitar cases like they are hex signs that will ward off all evil from the land.  (How am I doing on these stereotypes?)

            Jesus refused to let Nathanael do that to him.  That’s what his (to us) weird response meant.

“When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’  Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’” [John 1:47-48]

There’s a whole, beautiful passage of Micah where the prophet promises a day when God will act so that people can turn their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks [4:3].

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid.” [Micah 4:3b-4a]

Jesus tells Nathanael he has seen him in a place like that.  Whatever it was that divided them – and there must have been something – he told him flat out that he could still see him in the kingdom of God, because Jesus saw that his heart was right:

“Here is truly an Israelite, in whom there is no deceit.”  [John 1:47]

It was to that kind of open heart that Nathanael responded, even to the point of confessing,

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God!  You are the king of Israel!” [John 1:49]

            Now, neither you nor I can see people’s hearts like Jesus did, and does.  That’s why it’s all the more important that we give people the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.  So often, what brings out something good in someone is the expectation that it’s in there somewhere.  Nathanael went along with Jesus, and no doubt was there when he saw him do for others what he had done for him.  There was Zacchaeus, the tax collector who spontaneously offered to return all that he had ever extorted.  There was the woman taken in adultery, whose life he saved and then told her, “Go, and sin no more.”  There was a man so far out of his mind that the people of his town had to chain him up so that he wouldn’t hurt himself, and when Jesus left him he was sitting there calmly and making sense.  He could see past Peter’s fears that led Peter to deny him.  He could see through James’ and John’s bragging and boasting about who was the greatest.  Don’t you think he does the same for us (whoever “us” is) and for “those people” (whoever they are)?

            George Fox, a founder of the Quakers, said, “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”

[1] Kristin Romey, “The Search for the Real Jesus”, National Geographic vol. 232, no. 6 (December 2017), 64.
[2] Ibid., 47.
[3] Ibid., 60.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

“All Stars Lead to Bethlehem” - January 7, 2018

Matthew 2:1-12

            Matthew is the only gospel that talks about wise men visiting the baby Jesus, and he doesn’t say much about them, including how many there were.  Over the centuries, of course, the Eastern Orthodox churches decided that there were twelve of them and the Western church decided that there were three.  The three were named Melchior, Balthasar, and Casper.  It seems that after returning to their own land in the East, and even after death, they could not stop traveling because their relics had made their way to Constantinople by the fifth century and then to Cologne, Germany during the Crusades.  Somewhere along the way they became not only wise, but also royal.
            Matthew just calls them “magi”.  Those were part priest/part astrologer leaders of an ancient people who lived in what is now Iran.  They may or may not have been Zoroastrians, a Persian religion that flourished at that time.  They were known for interpreting dreams and for casting horoscopes; in fact, from them we get the word “magic”.  When they spotted a new star and identified its meaning, they were just doing their jobs.  That may be why Matthew describes their arrival in Jerusalem as being, for them, almost matter-of-fact.

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” [Matthew 2:1-2]

Of course, what they do find once they get to Bethlehem is not the one they expected, but they are certain enough of their own skill and the evidence before them that when they arrive at the right place,

“…they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” [Matthew 2:10-11]

            These are strange people to be seeking and finding the Messiah.  They don’t fit any of the usual categories.  In Luke, the baby is recognized immediately by two people.  One is Simeon, who is an old, pious priest.  The other is Anna, an old, pious woman who spends her time praying in the temple.  Those figures make sense.  But the magi aren’t even Jewish.  They don’t have any idea who they’re looking for.  They’re politically na├»ve enough to go to Herod, of all people, to ask where to find the king of the Jews, which implies it is not him and eventually leads to his massacre of all the male children in that region younger than two.

Yet that all just goes to emphasize what can happen when people follow whatever leading the Lord sends them that brings them near to him.  That is a constant across the ages.

            Francis Collins is a doctor who led the Human Genome Project that the National Institute of Health describes as “the international, collaborative research program whose goal was the complete mapping and understanding of all the genes of human beings.”[1]  Dr. Collins describes himself as “a believer in a God who is unlimited by time and space, and who takes a personal interest in human beings.”[2]  That puts him right in the thick of things between people who believe only in science and deny God’s existence and people who have faith in God but who deny science when it doesn’t fit their view of the Bible.  So, in his book The Language of God he talks about his own experience and his own faith and how his work, first as a doctor and later as a research geneticist, brought him to faith in God and trust in Jesus.

            It was, for him, a long and round-about path and I won’t try to summarize it here.  I would just repeat his own summary:

“The need to find my own harmony of the worldviews ultimately came as the study of genomes – our own and that of many other organisms on the planet – began to take off, providing an incredibly rich and detailed view of how descent by modification from a common ancestor has occurred.  Rather than finding this unsettling, I found this elegant evidence of the relatedness of all living things an occasion of awe, and came to see this as the master plan of the same Almighty who caused the universe to come into being and set its physical parameters just precisely right to allow the creation of stars, planets, heavy elements, and life itself.”[3]

            God finds all sorts of ways to guide people to himself.  Right now I’m reading a book called The Year of Living Biblically in which A.J. Jacobs, a writer for Esquire decides that he’s going to try to obey all the rules in the Bible for a year, and then turn it into a book.  Like Dr. Collins, he is starting from the point of being totally secular, although he does admit that he has a young son and is wondering how to raise him right and that this has something at least tangentially to do with his project.  Still, his main point is to explore and describe the religious landscape to people who will find it amusing when he gets into an argument with an adulterer when he asks his permission to stone him.  Like the magi, like Francis Collins, he is just doing his job.  I haven’t finished the book yet, so I cannot say how the search changes him, but even halfway through he is already describing how the practice of prayer makes him more aware of the needs of others and more thankful for things that he hadn’t generally noticed before.

            Whatever light shines on us, God can use it to point us toward himself.    

            I wonder if there isn’t somewhere in this world a glassblower who starts thinking about how, if she can pull together the broken shards of an old Coke bottle and turn them into a lampshade or a snow globe, there must be someone who can take a shattered life and turn it into beauty.

            I wonder if there isn’t a toll collector who doesn’t absent-mindedly think about what it means for there to be a bridge across a wide river that nobody could cross on their own, but that bridge takes thousands and thousands every day safely from here to there, from this shore to the other.

            I wonder if there isn’t somebody nodding off right now, troubled and worn-out, too tired to hold an eyelid open from being caught up in ways of life that are not those of God, who may not in their dreams, hear him say, as he said to the wise men “The road you’ve taken isn’t safe; take another instead,” and waking, return home safely by another route.


[2] Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 7.
[3] Ibid., 198-199.