Saturday, February 24, 2018

“Loss and Gain” - February 25, 2018

Mark 8:31-38

            We often forget, perhaps willingly, that slavery was once legal throughout the American colonies, Pennsylvania included.  I’m going to read in a few moments from the Journal of John Woolman, who was a Quaker born in New Jersey in 1720.  He became one of the earliest and most effective abolitionists.  Still, it wasn’t until 1780 that the commonwealth passed a “gradual emancipation” law that declared that children born to enslaved women in were to be considered free.  Those held as slaves continued as such until freed by the slaveholder or by death.  And slavery was as brutal in the North as in the South.  In the mid-eighteenth century a black man was convicted of a crime and executed in Perth Amboy by being burnt alive, with persons of color from all neighboring townships forced to witness the execution.

            Looking back on those times, we want to ask how people could have allowed it.  We want to think that we would have been the ones who would have stood up and said, “No!”  Woolman’s Journal gives an insight into how even somebody who knew, deep down, that the customs and law of the time were wicked could calm and soothe his conscience.  As background to this passage, it helps to know that Woolman was a notary who was paid to sign off on transfers of property of all sorts.

“My employer, having a negro woman, sold her, and desired me to write a bill of sale, the man being waiting who bought her. The thing was sudden; and though I felt uneasy at the thoughts of writing an instrument of slavery for one of my fellow-creatures, yet I remembered that I was hired by the year, that it was my master who directed me to do it, and that it was an elderly man, a member of our Society, who bought her; so through weakness I gave way, and wrote it; but at the executing of it I was so afflicted in my mind, that I said before my master and the Friend that I believed slave-keeping to be a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion. This in some degree abated my uneasiness; yet, as often as I reflected seriously upon it, I thought I should have been clearer if I had desired to be excused from it, as a thing against my conscience; for such it was. Some time after this a young man of our Society spoke to me to write a conveyance of a slave to him, he having lately taken a negro into his house. I told him I was not easy to write it; for though many of our meeting and in other places kept slaves, I still believed the practice was not right, and desired to be excused from the writing. I spoke to him in goodwill; and he told me that keeping slaves was not altogether agreeable to his mind; but that the slave being a gift made to his wife, he had accepted her.”[1]

“I’m only doing my job.”  “It could have been worse.”  “It wouldn’t last long.”  “It was my wife’s decision.”  “I needed to keep peace in the house.”  “I didn’t want to offend anyone.”

            Let’s talk about Jesus.  He confronted some of the most entrenched abuses of his own day, practices that had their justifications.  Roman coins had the image of Caesar stamped on them: Augustus Caesar, who claimed the title divi filius, “son of a god”.  Images and idols could not be carried into the Temple, so moneychangers were needed to prevent that.  Likewise, if the Law required animals to be sacrificed, a pilgrim coming from North Africa or Persia couldn’t carry a cage of pigeons that whole way.  It made sense to set up a few stalls where they could buy them right there.  So far, so good. 

But we all know what happens when people bid for the contract and sweeten the deal, right?  Kickbacks, exploitation of those who could least afford to be there, artificially high prices, the poor being elbowed out of their place as part of the congregation, the sellers forgetting why they were there in the first place, and who-knows-what-else Jesus saw going on. 

“And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.  He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all
the nations’?
     But you have made it a den of robbers.’”
[Mark 11:15-17]

Yes, there were times that Jesus expressed lenience, as when hungry people plucked grain to eat on the Sabbath, or when a sick man whom he healed took up his bed and walked away with it, again on the Sabbath.  But when what was going on destroyed people’s relationship with God or degraded them as human beings, he had no patience.

            Jesus emphasized that it is one thing to be stuck without good choices, but it is another to deny that you have choice, or to sell out.  When you do that, what you sell is more than you will ever realize.

“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  [Mark 8:34-37]
(Now, I warn you, I’m going to stop preaching and start meddling.)

            I’ll start with myself, though.  I have to admit that I am where I am because of how unfairly others have been treated.  William Penn may have made his treaties with the Indians, but for the most part, this land was not borrowed.  A big chunk of the wealth that built our economy came from slave labor.  As for myself, specifically, I can point to scholarships that helped me out in seminary that came from the Duke Foundation (as in Duke University), whose money ultimately derived from James Duke’s ability to encourage smoking and sell a lot of cigarettes in China.  My education is tied to an increased rate of cancer and emphysema.  Do I not, then, owe it to someone to say that I cannot undo the past, but I refuse to repeat injustice in the future?  So hear this: “Don’t smoke, don’t vape, don’t chew, don’t juul.  Just don’t.”

            Jesus’ words also mean that what we think is to our benefit may not be worth anything in the long run, so be prepared to forgo what you consider to be owed to you, because you might lose your soul over it.  You may have a legal right to say anything, but if it is hate speech, or even simple gossip, you don’t have any moral right to open your mouth.  Maybe people have a legal right to own an assault rifle, but children deserve safe schools more than you deserve whatever warm and fuzzy feeling you get from having an AR-15 in the house.  Maybe you don’t own any weapon like that, but do you have stock in a company that sells them?  There are places in the world where prostitution is legal, but what does it do to everyone involved in the business?  There are spots where you could farm poppies for opium and heroin production.  Could you look into the eyes of someone whose child has overdosed?  These things give fuller meaning to “making a killing”.

            Just be aware that you kill yourself at the same time.  And for what?  There’s a scene in A Man for All Seasons where Thomas More is on trial for treason that he has not committed, but Henry VIII wants him found guilty.  One of More’s former proteges steps forward and gives false testimony against him that everyone in the court recognizes will guarantee conviction and a death sentence.  More notices that the witness is wearing a chain and badge identifying him as the new attorney-general for Wales and says to him, “Richard, it availeth a man nothing to sell his soul for the world.  But for Wales?”

            An English teacher I had in high school told us on the first day of class, “I want you all to know that I can be bribed – but that none of you can afford my price.”  I hope nobody else ever could, either, for their sake as well as for hers.

[1] The Journal of John Woolman and A Plea for the Poor (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1961), 14-15.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

“Between the Beasts and Angels” - February 18, 2018

Mark 1:9-15

            Temptation is one of the simplest and one of the most complicated aspects of life.  We all know what it is and can see it plain as day and at the same time we don’t always recognize it when it’s right in front of us.  Temptation is serious, because one wrong choice that looks small (and maybe is small) often has consequences larger than itself and before you know it, you’re stuck in a situation that is beyond you and even your efforts to get out of it just seem to make things worse.  Try out this poem by C.S. Lewis, and see if you don’t know what he’s talking about:

“Nearly they stood who fall.
Themselves, when they look back
see always in the track
One torturing spot where all
By a possible quick swerve
Of will yet unenslaved–
By the infinitesimal twitching of a nerve–
Might have been saved.

Nearly they fell who stand.
These with cold after-fear
Look back and note how near
They grazed the Siren’s land
Wondering to think that fate
By threads so spidery-fine
The choice of ways so small, the event so great
Should thus entwine.

Therefore I sometimes fear
Lest oldest fears prove true
Lest, when no bugle blew
My mort, when skies looked clear
I may have stepped one hair’s
Breadth past the hair-breadth bourn
Which, being once crossed forever unawares
Forbids return.”

            When the gospels of Matthew and Luke talk about Jesus being tempted, they do it in a way that illuminates the ways in which evil disguises itself as good and the importance of staying close to God’s teaching for our own welfare and safety.  But the gospel of Mark describes Jesus’ temptation in a way that, while less precise and less extensive, seems to me to go to the heart of what it can be like to be in the midst of it for the rest of us and what it was also like for him.

“He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” [Mark 1:13]

When temptation comes to someone, it’s like being in a wilderness, alone.  It’s like being surrounded by all the dangers that are out there, some of which give themselves away and some of which lurk quietly for the chance to pounce.

            There was a guy named Colin who I knew in Middle School.  He was two years older, so we weren’t buddy-buddy, but we lived in the same neighborhood.  Around that time he got into some trouble and was in a serious fight with a kid from another school.  He was in the hospital for awhile, and after that just sort of faded out and I never really paid attention; I had my own friends, like you do at that age.  Somewhere around ten years ago, somebody passed along a brief obituary with Colin’s name at the top.  At the end it said memorial contributions could be made to the Caron Foundation, so I figured that he had died of substance abuse of some sort.

            Last week I attended a presentation that the bishop arranged at Hempfield UMC, west of Lancaster.  The speaker spoke about opioid addiction, and why it is so hard to get out of it.  He explained that the opioids do some unusual things to the human nervous system.  They can block pain, which is what they are prescribed to do.  They increase a sense of pleasure, which is part of what gets people hooked.  In so doing, however, they destroy the receptors for naturally-occurring dopamines, which are the substances that allow us to feel good in non-harmful ways, like when you feel a sense of accomplishment or when somebody gives you a hug or you feel good after exercising.  These receptors can grow back, but it takes months.  So if somebody gets off the abused drug that they were using to kill pain or make themselves feel good, there will be a long period afterward where they will feel nothing.  They will be emotionally blank or worse.  Meanwhile, the part of their brain that is still craving the drug that destroyed the receptors will keep calling to them and creating physical desire for another hit.

            In the lobby after this, I was talking with someone who is friends with Colin’s mother, and she brought him up.  “You know that’s what killed Colin,” she said.  “He had been clean for a good, long time and was doing okay at work and so his mother and stepfather thought they could go away for a couple of days, and when they got back…” and then she described a scene that I’ll spare you.  The wild beasts: sometimes you hear them out there, howling like a hungry coyote; sometimes they are like a copperhead waiting under a log.  Jesus was out there in that wilderness, and is there now.  He’s the Good Shepherd who leaves a flock of ninety-nine sheep who are all accounted for just to find the one that is missing and may not even know the dangers it faces.

            That brings me to the other part of Mark’s description of what goes on.   Jesus

“was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

The word “angel” simply means “messenger”.  Angels are messengers of God.  They might be supernatural or they might be natural.  Like temptation, the message might be loud or it might be subtle.  If you want loud messengers, take the Ten Commandments.  They are pretty straight-forward.  The quieter messengers are there, too, those little voices and gut reactions that something is just a little out of line, and it’s good to listen to them, too.  I disagree with Mike Pence in a lot of ways, but I will give him credit for one thing that he’s taken some heat for.  He says he will not dine alone with a woman other than his wife nor attend functions without her if alcohol is being served.[1]  If he knows his weaknesses, he pays attention to them, and that makes sense. 

            There’s a danger of legalism, too, of course.  Nobody said it would be easy.  In fact, Jesus himself said that

“the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” [Matthew 7:14]

It’s easy, again, to point fingers or to identify one or two activities that are sinful and to say that as long as you stay away from those, you do no wrong.  I had a textbook for an ethics course one time whose title was Money, Sex, and Power.  What if it had been called Making a Living, Relationships, and Getting Things Done?  That would be a little less catchy, but not off-target.  Life is tricky and complex.  No wonder Jesus taught us to pray,

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

They are out there, both temptation and evil.  Let’s not sugarcoat it, or pretend that we don’t face temptation, when even Jesus did.  We fool ourselves if we think the beasts don’t leave us with plenty of bites and scratches along the way.  But let’s not forget that Jesus is out there, too, and he knows the way when we don’t.

            East of the Jordan, in the wild lands where Jesus may have spent those forty days, is an area that was once called Gilead.  It was known as the source of a medicinal plant, Pistacia lentiscus, that contributed to an antiseptic, anti-irritant ointment called “Balm of Gilead”.  Out in the wilderness, where Jesus has been, the wilderness where we also find ourselves sometimes, there is also healing for the deepest troubles, the things that lead to addiction or despair or to seeking power over others, the things that warp the way we see ourselves or the way we see God, the things that we allow to come between us and his love.

“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

Don’t ever feel discouraged, for Jesus is your friend,
And if you look for knowledge, he’ll ne’er refuse to lend.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

If you can’t preach like Peter, if you can’t pray like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all.”


Saturday, February 10, 2018

“The Glory of God” - February 11, 2018

II Corinthians 4:3-6

“Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.”
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
“Glory to God in the highest!”

What exactly is glory?  In its fullness, it’s an attribute of God unlike other attributes in an important way.  Most of the time, we want or need those things that pertain to the divine.  God is merciful, and we need mercy.  God is patient, and we ask him to bear with us.  God is love, and we all need that.  But God’s glory is different.  It can be dangerous to experience.

Paul talks about knowing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” [II Corinthians 4:6]”, and he speaks of that in a positive way, but as I recall, when Jesus appeared to him directly on his way to Damascus, the sight blinded him. “For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” [Acts 9:9]  It sounds to me like that one, short encountered had left him stunned and shocked, and that came to an end only when God sent someone to heal him.

On the mountaintop where Peter and James and John were given a glimpse, just a glimpse, of Jesus’ glory, it was enough that “they were terrified” [Mark 9:6].  In traditional depictions of the transfiguration, Jesus is shown in a blinding light, with these disciples huddled on the ground, with their faces to the earth.

“Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”

Glory overwhelms one who experiences it.  In the science fiction novel, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams describes a torture chamber known as the Total Perspective Vortex.  “The prospective victim … is placed within a small chamber wherein is displayed a model of the entire universe – together with a microscopic dot displaying the legend ‘you are here’.  The sense of perspective thereby conveyed destroys the victim’s mind; it was stated that the TPV was the only known method of crushing a man’s soul.”  That actually isn’t too far off from Psalm 8:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?” [Psalm 8:3-4]

That’s just looking at God’s creation, not God’s own self, beside which the universe itself is nothing.  Even so, God shows us his glory, not to crush our souls, as it easily could, but to save them.  That is where Jesus comes into the picture.

            I know this comparison is flawed, so bear with me on it.  Nothing we say or think can adequately describe the Infinite, which is sort of the point here, anyway.  Think, if you will, of a television or computer that is showing a view of the sun.  It already has had to be filtered to avoid burning out the lens, but it jumps out at you with such brilliance and intensity that the only way to look at it is to turn down the brightness on the screen.  The entire picture is there in all its detail, but it has become toned down just to the point that it doesn’t burn out the screen and that a human eye can look at it.  In a similar way, God’s full glory is right there in Jesus all the time, but in such a way that we are not destroyed by that which is too great for us.  Again, even when we cannot stare at the sun, we and the whole world, human or not, still need its light and warmth simply to survive. 

Shown to us in the person of Jesus, God’s glory builds up our souls the way that sunshine makes the plants grow.  To get to know God in his fullness is what we are made for.  In the words of an early Christian writer, Irenaeus of Lyons,

“The glory of God is a living man, and human life consists in beholding God.”[1]

Or, as a group of English and Scottish Puritans wrote in 1647,

“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”[2]

We come alive in God’s glory, by his grace, even when we might find ourselves so totally overwhelmed that we could burst.  I want to go back to a psalm that I quoted earlier, Psalm 8.  After it describes how small a person can feel in the face of all that God has made and the sweep of the universe around us, asking,

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
            mortals that you care for them?”

it continues,

“Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
            and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands,
            you have put all things under their feet.” [Psalm 8:5-6]

God rescues us from our smallness and powerlessness, simply by counting us in.  By coming to us in Jesus, God entrusts his glory to as mixed-up a species as us.  Can I explain that?  No.  But I can point to the effect of what he has done.

The glory living in Jesus is also shown in us.  At the transfiguration, the disciples heard God’s voice say,

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” [Mark 9:7]

And when people do listen to him and follow his ways, God’s glory shines through, and it remains dangerous to the ways of the world.  There are those who have no interest in God’s ways.

“In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” [II Corinthians 4:4] 

Yet Jesus is the one who, time and time again, brings that kind of blindness to an end.    

“For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.[II Corinthians 4:6]

When people who hate are met with love and really do get it, when they recognize that it is God acting through the person in front of them, the glory of that moment knocks them back like it bowled over the disciples. 

That was the power of the Civil Rights Movement, with its insistence on nonviolence.  Like Jesus, it insisted that the enemy is not the person, but the sin within them.  Get that person to see Jesus, to see God’s glory, and life will be transformed.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said it well.  Every person without exception is

“an upstanding human being whose vision has been impaired by the cataracts of sin and whose soul has been weakened by the virus of pride, but there is sufficient vision for him [or her] to lift his eyes unto the hills, and there remains enough of God’s image for him to turn a weak and sin-battered life toward the Great Physician, the curer of the ravages of sin.”[3]

To offer pardon and not be limited by old hurts and resentment, to forgive as Jesus forgave, that brings life and is part of God’s glory.  Replacing hatred with friendship, as Jesus did, is part of God’s glory.  It is part of God’s glory for people to sing together, as the Bible tells us that Jesus and his disciples did; or, like them, to share a meal.  It is God’s glory when people just go for a walk together, when they pray together, or whenever they go about their daily work with a desire to please God in whatever they do.

[1] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, IV.20.vii.
[2] from the opening of the Westminster Small Catechism.
[3] from “The Answer to a Perplexing Question” in Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 123.