Monday, September 29, 2014

On pools of gushing water and our thrashing . . .

Some names have been changed . . .

     We have spent the last couple weeks looking at the nature of mercy and the nature of grace and their relationship in God’s economy.  To remind those of you who have been here and to catch those of you absent up, mercy is the withholding of punishment deserved and grace is the giving of something unearned.  The two often are spoken of as if they are synonyms.  In reality, though, they are significantly different.  The parable of mercy in Matthew this month was the king’s willingness to forgive the 10,000 talent debt of the one slave, and the parable of grace this month was the vineyard owner’s willingness to pay all who worked in his field a full day’s labor, even though some worked only an hour.  I suppose that it is good that we have looked at mercy and grace as we arrived to this week.  Our common life together, and our reading from Exodus this week, certainly remind us of both.
     The story today is well-known.  After whining about bread and meat and Egyptian armies and seas and a hot sun and dark nights, the people of Israel decide to complain about the apparent lack of water.  Did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?  Is there a whinier group of people who have ever walked the earth?  They have witnessed all these miracles after the ten plagues have been visited on Egypt and still they do not trust God.  Moses, of course, takes the 21 century approach to leadership.  Why are you all mad at me?  It’s not my fault!  All kidding aside, Moses does remind the people that he is simply following God’s instruction.  Eventually, their frustration rises to the point that he fears he will be stoned.  So he prays to the Lord.
     God tells Moses to take some elders with him and go to the rock at Horeb.  There, God will be standing in front of him as he strikes the rock.  Water will come out of the rock, so that the people may drink.  Not unsurprisingly at this point in the Exodus story, Moses obeys and God acts, although the tradition in the Church will say that Moses struck the rock twice and thus earned exclusion from the Promised Land.  Perhaps more surprisingly to us is the name that Moses and the people give to the location.  You and I would likely call it “the rock from which the cool waters flowed” or something along those lines.  Moses calls the place Massah and Meribah because Israel quarreled and tested the Lord.  Think of that, the site of this miracle was named Quarreling and Testing.  Those are not particularly good names.  Neither was Israel’s behavior appropriate, particularly given what it had seen.
     If you were God, how would you have responded to this whining and complaining?  I’m telling you, God is way more patient than I.  I think, had I His job, they would have gotten the lightning bolt instead of the thirst-quencher.  They had their freedom, they had mana, they had quail, they had a defeated super-power, what more did they need?  Of course, if we are honest with ourselves, we realize we are no different.  In fact, we are worse.  We have the Resurrection upon which to draw hope, yet how often do we whine and complain about our circumstances?  We know that God has raised Christ as the first-fruits of His promise; far too often, though, we act as if Jesus might still be in that tomb outside Jerusalem.  Recognizing that trait in ourselves, we begin to get a glimpse as to what we are really seeking when we whine and the true nature of God’s mercy and grace in our lives.
     Israel simply wanted to know that God was still with them.  Their fear is certainly understandable.  If God were really God, why would He ever let His people become the slaves of others?  In many ways, their behavior is not unlike that of a toddler who ventures out but returns to the warm embrace of mom before venturing further afield before returning . . . you get the idea.  Many of you are parents and have witnessed that process of exploration.  We are not so different.  Each of us tries to find God when beset upon by the vicissitudes of the world.  How many of us have wondered where God was as we battled cancer or heart disease or some other significant illness?  How many of us have wondered whether we have been cut off from God’s blessings when we faced unemployment or some other privation?  How many of us have wondered if He still loves us when the rest of the world seems to be hell-bent upon using us rather than loving us for who we are?  How many times have we railed against God for untimely deaths or sufferings?  How many of us have tried to barter with God so that we might make it through another bare or thorny patch?  Each of us, in our own ways, have experienced a wilderness or three in our own journeys.  How have we responded in those wildernesses?  Chances are we have whined, we have tested, we have quarreled, we have grumbled.  We have faced the desert patches of our lives focused not on the promises and glory of God but on our perceived needs and desires.  We forget that we are being led by our Father who will not fail to get us to the Promised Land of His eternal kingdom, no matter the thorns and deserts of our lives, if we will simply follow where He leads.
     I stand as the chief quarreler and tester among you.  Those of you who have served on the Vestry these last eight years can testify to the fact that I am loudest when it comes to wondering why God won’t add a couple more pledging units.  You are chuckling, but you know it is true.  How many times have we grumbled about our work and been caught up in the notion that it was in any dependent upon us?  How many times have we said “If we only had (fill in the blank), then we could really do some good things for God,” as if He needed anything from us but a faithful response.  Yes, Jacob is my personal saint, as he is for a number of you.  Yes, we are no different than our spiritual ancestors depicted in this story.  We have inherited their quarreling and their testing.  Thankfully and mercifully, He responds as is His nature rather than we deserve or we would respond to ourselves.  In fact, He responds abundantly, just as He did with fresh water at the rock at Horeb.
     I was reminded of that truth yet again this week.  I received an e-mail from one of the clergy that works for the Archbishop of Canterbury asking me if I could, on short notice, find my way to the Vatican share some of our stories and to help begin crafting the Church’s response to the evil of human trafficking.  I can see not everyone has heard the news yet.  Believe me, I felt the exact same way as you do now.  I can remember some seven years ago telling the Vestry that I wanted to continue in this ministry.  We talked about the audacity of the endeavor.  Little old St. Alban’s, chock full of a $100k budget, was going to begin fighting a $33 Billion industry run by organized crime.  Those of you on that Vestry probably remember me saying that if we made a difference in this fight, the world would know it was God.  This was like David and Goliath but on HgH or some other performance enhancing drug.  Yet, look what happened.
     We were named a Jubilee site, in part, because of our willingness to engage in this battle and to teach others about its existence.  Your priest was named a Church Fellow because, as Donald once put it too me, it was either the greatest scam or the single greatest evil facing our society today.  And I am very conscious that it is the efforts of you that led to that point.  I did little more than help encourage some of you and cheer you on as you took your station in this battle.  We baptized Connie’s CDO (her OCD is alphabetized) and are using it to collect certain information and, better still, cross-reference the heck out of it.  We took Sue and Robin’s gift of gab, and turned them loose in locations to speak with any who would talk to them.  Jane, Vern, and Charlie, in particular, stood watch and prayed over those who slogged in this ministry.  Intercessors covered all of them in prayers.  Cathy determined to teach her colleagues in the ER and Critical Care setting about the signs.  We have helped push through a new law for the state of Iowa.  We continue to work with members of our legislature to improve the current law.  We have called to task those politicians that served their own interests rather than those of the common good.  We have attracted members of other denominations to our efforts.  We have hosted a large conference and a more focused conference at St. Ambrose and Genesis Health Systems.  And everyone who has prayed or has given of their treasures has had a hand in this ministry.  Everyone who has bought or sold a shirt has had a hand in this ministry.  Everyone who has passed out a card has had a hand in this ministry.
     Now, I get to go and share with the wider Church what you are doing in this fight!  I can’t speak to the minds of the Vestry seven years ago, but I am willing to bet a ton of money that none of them were expecting anything like this to happen.  I know I wasn’t.  Yet, it mirrors the story from Exodus today.  Like them, we are concerned about paying our bills, about maintaining our buildings, about wearing out our volunteers.  And God has gone before us and glorified Himself in us and in our efforts to serve Him in the lives of others!  As a group, we have witnessed something as miraculous in our eyes as the water from the rock was to the eyes of Israel.  My guess is, in the days and weeks to come, we will still find ways to grumble and to test Him, myself included.  Thankfully, the Lord is gracious and shows extreme patience with His toddlers.
     I say that having already witnessed the lesson for myself.  It would be easy for me as a priest to pat myself on the back and think my job is over.  I mean, how many clergy get invited to do what I have been asked to do?  Yet God is so faithful that He gave me the spiritual wedgie I needed before I ever got too full of pride.  I stopped by Thistle Farms to share with Becca and the girls the news.  Becca was back on the road, so I talked with Jordan and a couple of other ladies.  Jordan, as you might imagine, thought my news for Shawna was just too cool.  For those of you who do not remember Shawna from our January conference, Shawna was the lady who had been convicted 162 times before a judge asked her if she had chosen her life.  Shawna shared how judge 1 had really crushed her spirit with his pontification from the bench.  She learned from him that judges “don’t give a crap” about the people in front of them, just like her pimp had said.  Maybe Robin or Connie or Cathy remembers the exact number, but Shawna faced male and female judges in more than thirty states.  Anyway, a judge had heard her story here in Iowa and wanted to take steps to see it never repeated in our state.  My guess is that she might even consider this her personal pool at Horeb from which she can draw water.    Given his influence and eyes, and his wife, I have no doubt that God is already beginning to redeem that cross in her life!  Nor do any of those who heard the story.
     As we were laughing about the greatness of God and His attention to the details of all our lives, another lady had walked by and stopped to listen to us.  As you might imagine, we were laughing and rejoicing and praising God.  “Mary” interrupted and asked if this happens all the time?  “Do people come in off the street and share stories like this all the time?”  Jordan answered her that it did not happen all the time, but enough to help keep them focused on the task at hand.  Jordan chatted a few more minutes and headed off to eat.  Mary hung around and asked me if I was sure God redeemed everything.  I told her I was.  She asked if I had any advice.  I asked her if she was new to the program.  She nodded.  I told her my advice was like my advice to parishioners and others who drift into my office—stick to Him.  I told her that I had no idea about her past, but I was sure there were going to be some shadows and wildernesses and deserts and temptations ahead.  We talked about a few specific ones.  I told her that it was worth sticking to the program because God was faithful far beyond our expectations!  My stories were certainly proof of that, and I had zero doubt that our Lord wished to write her and her wilderness experiences into His redemptive story.  She asked me how I could be so sure, and I reminded her that the Cross was proof of His love for her, for me, and for all whom we encounter in life, even the people who rejected Him and enslaved her or used her.  Tears flowed for a bit.  She thanked me and headed off, and one of the other leaders there remarked that if she could have chosen one person to hear the stories and the voice of the outsider that day, it would have been “Mary.”  As I so often have to tell people she told told me, “you have no idea how much she needed to hear that now, Father.”  So did I.  God reminded me that it was our faithful, persevering service in His name to those forgotten and neglected by the world that had earned that first blessing of the day.
     Did Israel really believe that God was leading them into the desert to die?  Some would answer that the question is rhetorical or hyperbole, but I wonder.  How many times have I complained about the wildernesses through which He has led me?  How many times have I griped about the deserts through which He guided me?  How many times have you complained about yours as well?  How often have we complained together about our shared experiences?  Maybe we are far more like the people of Israel during the Exodus than we would like to think?  Maybe that superiority we feel is a construct of our own minds rather than a reflection of reality and what He sees?  The great news, the Gospel news, is that He paid the ultimate price for each of us knowing just how quarrelsome we would be, how many times we would be tempted to test Him!  Better still, He knows what we need to serve Him and to glorify Him.
     Brothers and sisters, it is important to remember that our Father in heaven sees the path we must take.  He knows the destination and He knows the obstacles.  When we find ourselves in those places of testing, in those places of desert dryness, in those canyons of wilderness, we need to remember that He sees even when we do not.  He has staked His life and His reputation on His ability to get us to that Holy City where wildernesses and deserts cannot be found.  Perhaps, rather than whining about the next circumstance that suggests He has gotten us lost, we should look a little closer and listen a little more intently.  He is already standing there ahead of us, ready to remind us yet again of His unfailing love for each one of us and of His incredible power to redeem all the circumstances in our lives to His glory!


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Grace and gratitude affect our attitude . . .

     As I mentioned last week, we have an interesting couple of lessons that should inform us as to how we approach our lives as disciples of the Lord Jesus.  Specifically, I mentioned that we would be getting a teaching on the difference and relationship between mercy and grace.  If last week’s conversations are any indication, it was a distinction which many of us did not get.  To be sure, mercy and grace go together in the Gospel, but they are by no means synonyms.  To illustrate the difference between mercy and grace and their relationship to one another and their role in our relationship to God, Jesus uses parables.  Last week, we looked at the story of the man who owed 10,000 talents.  By rights, the king should have sold the man and his family into slavery because the idea of him paying off the equivalent of a couple billion dollar debt was simply preposterous.  The king demonstrated mercy by withholding that punishment from the man and his family.  Mercy, if you will remember, is the withholding of earned punishment.
     This week, we look at the parable of the workers in the vineyard.  We are told that a vineyard owner of incredible wealth hires workers several times during the course of the day.  Each is contracted to earn the daily wage of a denarius.  Think of the size of this vineyard.  The owner hires workers at 6am, 9am, noon, 3pm, and 5pm.  Presumably, as he is hiring them, there is work to be done to earn the wage.  The man is also a righteous man.  One of the teachings of the torah was that the worker’s wages were not to be held.  God had instructed Israel that they were to pay their laborers for their work each day.  Not surprisingly, some business owners held wages hostage for all kinds of reasons.  Even more predictably, those with hardened hearts would refuse to pay their laborers.  This owner instructs his payroll clerk to settle up with everyone, beginning with those most recently hired.
     Those recently hired, of course, have already experienced grace—receiving that which one does not deserve—by simply getting a job.  If one was not hired at the start of the day, one usually had great difficulty getting a job for the day.  Imagine, if you were not at the hiring spot right on time, you lost your chance to earn money for your family.  Child was sick?  Sorry you were late.  Overslept?  That is unfortunate indeed.  And we also understand that desire of the business owners to get a full day’s labor for our full day’s wage.  How many of us, were we small business owners, would be willing to pay employees $40 each day, even if they worked only an hour or four?  I notice that none of us think we would be enthusiastic about the prospect of paying full days' wages for anything less than a full day's work. But that is precisely the generosity practiced by the man who owns the vineyard. More amazingly, especially from the perspectives of human resources, schools of management, and common sense, the owner of the vineyard tells his steward to pay the workers in reverse order. Those who worked the least get paid before those who worked the whole day. Anybody with common sense or management experience knows that he should have paid the early workers first. One of the rules about business is to keep the employees talking about their salaries and wages so as to prevent what happened in our story.  Had the owner done that, they would have been none the wiser, and they sure would not have had reason to be upset.
     Some will point to this parable as a teaching about our eternal reward; others will focus on the work being done that results in injustice. Jesus, though, is teaching this story to teach us about the hardness of the human heart. Though the initial question a somewhat far from this passage and not included in readings these last two weeks, Jesus is addressing the hardness of heart found in the Apostles. At the beginning of this section, Peter has reminded Jesus that he and the other Apostles and disciples have given up everything to follow Him, as if Jesus would ever forget. The purpose of these parables is not just to teach us about mercy and judgment and other important virtues; the parables go a long way to teach us lessons about ourselves that we may not like.
     Any reward that we receive from God is undeserved. Any. That's the very definition of grace. God first showed us mercy by withholding punishment that we all deserved, but this idea of being adopted as firstborn sons or daughters into His family, this idea of a fabulous wedding feast, this idea of being given citizenship in an eternal kingdom—it's all grace. Notice how everyone gets the same reward for working.  
     As the owner points out to the spokesman for the early laborers, he has given them that with which they agreed. It is only when they begin comparing their length of work and the conditions of their work to others does the situation seem unjust. The spokesman for the early day workers complains. In an amazing demonstration of patience and calm, the vineyard owner shows even more grace. Rather than dismissing the man's complaint, he elevates the laborer and calls him “friend.” Then the vineyard owner addresses the seeming injustice. Did we not agree to this when I hired you? Is your eye evil? Why are you complaining about my treatment of you? We had a contract, and I honored it just as you and I agreed.  For all our supposed advancement, little has changed in the hearts of disciples. How often do we argue with God about our perceived value in His plans? Lord, I deserve a better reward than her because I come to church every week. Lord, I deserve a better reward than him because I give way more money. Lord, I deserve more blessings because I do way more work than them? There's some squirming because I am right.
     Peter's complaint, and ours, arises from the fact that we do not understand grace nor the fruit of grace, gratefulness. We do not understand in the depths of our hearts and our souls and our minds that any reward He chooses to give is far, far better than we deserve. We bargain, we plead, we complain about perceived injustice. We are modern early laborers or modern Peters.
     The response to mercy and grace, as not demonstrated by the debtor or the spokesman, but expected by the king and the owner of the vineyard, is one of gratitude.  In telling these stories, Jesus is reminding His audience and us that our attitude needs to be one of gratitude.  Unlike the Pharisees and Temple priests, who practiced piety to appear holy, Jesus demands that you and I respond with thankfulness, with joy, with gratitude.  The very second that we slip into Peter’s demand is the first sign that we lack the motivation our Lord expects and demands.  Your company may expect you to trumpet your long hours worked, your dedication to a project, your ability to be more productive than your co-worker, but Jesus asks only that we respond in joyful thanksgiving.  What does He tell them?  He who would be greatest will be servant of all!
     What motivates you?  Are you working for Jesus because you want to walk on streets of gold?  Are you working for Him because you feel it gives you some kind of status?  If those are the motivations of your faith, you have surely missed the example of our Lord.  Though He deserved any and all accolades we could give Him, He thought only of our need for a Savior.  Looking around this morning as I asked about paying wages for only an hour worked, I would say we all agree He understood us better than we understood ourselves.  That’s why He and His behavior must be our focus and our guide.  Like those who were called into the vineyard late in the day, you and I need to remember that what He chooses to give we have not earned.  Nothing in us merits reward.  Nothing in us is praiseworthy.  Nothing in us is worthy of the adoption and life, the grace, that He gives.  The better we understand that, the more we let the truth of that sink into our hearts empowered by the Holy Spirit, the better servants we will all become.  As we are transformed by this sincere attitude of gratefulness and thanksgiving, the greater harvest will be for His glory.  In the end, He served us that we might be able to serve Him.  Pray that our hearts are always mindful of that important truth and this important teaching about mercy and grace.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child -- Not in the Bible!

     Do you think the NFL feels put upon this week?  Do you think they long for the good old days when people were attacking them for team nicknames and for the effects of concussions on former players?  First the Ray Rice domestic abuse case, and the others that were drawn into the light, and now the Adrian Peterson child abuse indictment—you don’t think the powers at the NFL want to get the focus back on the game, do you?  As I said earlier this week in reference to the Ray Rice situation, none of us should be looking to the NFL for our moral guidance.  The NFL is a business.  All it cares about is making as much money as possible.  Players want too much?  Bring in scab players.  Referees are demanding too much?  Steal the best officials from the NCAA.  The home city is not willing to pay for a state of the art stadium or practice facilities?  Somebody else will.  The NFL only pays attention to morality when it impacts their bottom line.  If ratings (advertising dollars) begin to slip, then it is an issue to them.  Otherwise most do not care.  The Peterson case will be interesting to follow as the Vikings want the city to build a new stadium with tax dollars.  If the hue and cry reaches the level of the Ray Rice situation, they will have to make a business decision about whether to keep, to cut, or to trade their running back.
     For those not following the case closely, or those who were confused by the goings-on (like me—I thought someone else had been indicted for killing his child, but this is a different child), Peterson was indicted by a Grand Jury in Houston, Texas for child abuse.  Photos released by TMZ show a child said to be one of Peterson’s sons, with welts and cuts on his thighs.  Some reports claim other photos show the same welts on the child’s bottom, back, inner thigh and groin.  Though the indictment was over the use of a small tree in disciplining his son, most of us would be familiar with the “small tree” as a switch.  As we stood around Sunday chatting about the case, a number of parishioners had felt the dread growing up of having to go cut a switch from the backyard for a spanking.  A number of us shared other methods of discipline: paddles, brushes, belts, ping pong paddles, hands, spatulas, and the like.  All of us in the discussion asserted that we had turned out just fine.  While that last statement might be debatable among us, I think that all those gathered were not scarred by the discipline of their respective parents.
     As people continued to share their memories, I was finally asked whether I thought corporal punishment was appropriate.  That discussion has certainly pushed the Ray Rice situation to the background here in the upper Midwest.  In the discussions I have heard early about this case, almost all those who champion corporal punishment cite the Bible, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”  The line, as some with backgrounds of English know, comes from a poem written by Samuel Butler called Hudibras.  It cannot be found in the Bible!  Those who attribute that saying to Scripture are, in reality, quoting a poet who did not live until the 1600’s.  Just as Ephesians 5:22 is quoted to justify spouse abuse, people think they are citing Proverbs 13:24 when they look to the Bible in support of corporal punishment.  As with the Ephesians 5:22 verse regarding spouse abuse, there is much more to the intended Proverbs 13:24.  In its entirety, the verse that is being cited repeatedly by those who defend corporal punishment as God-given is something along the lines of “He who spares the rod hates his child, and he who loves him is careful to discipline him.”  The fight, it seems to me, that we Christians are going to have in this discussion is the meaning of the word careful.  A number of commentators have remarked how the state is getting too involved in the raising of children.  Some believe the state has no right to intervene in the parent-child relationship, especially in issues of discipline.  People rightly point to roads, Social Security, the IRS, and a host of other state-run entities to demonstrate just how ineffective the state can be.  Those who hate corporal punishment argue that the children have rights as citizens of this country and that the state has to intervene in order to protect them.  Many of those on this side of the debate have shared stories of discipline which they claim have scarred them for life.  Unlike those in our circle in the parish hall, these individuals do feel as if they are worse for the spankings.  Even a couple observers to our discussion later shared that they still suffered from their beatings, that they had had a traumatic, violent experience or set of experiences at the hand (or belt or switch) of the two people who were supposed to love them the most.  Who is right?
     As Christians, we need to recognize that a couple of competing values are at play in this discussion.  On the one hand, parents are responsible for raising their children.  Parents should have a very large say in what their children eat, what they read, what activities they do, who they date, who they hang out with, and, yes, how they are disciplined.  Those same children, however, are afforded certain protections under the state.  One of those protections is, and I think should be, against abuse.  While the debate will be waged in the press and on talk radio for the next few months, the real decision making will be done in the courtroom.  Whether Peterson is guilty of abusing his son will be determined either by a judge or by a jury.  Our job in the church is not necessarily to serve either of those roles, though the blood of the wounds makes it hard for many of us to remain silent.  If the early indications of the debate hold true, I think a large portion of our role will be to recapture what Scripture really says about discipline so that others will find it hard to use Scripture as justification for the abuse of others.  We could easily dismiss the discussion by reminding ourselves of the absurdity of idea of Jesus abusing anyone, but especially children.  But in failing to engage with others, we miss a wonderful teaching opportunity, an opportunity that might give us a significant role in teaching someone estranged from God of His love for them!
     Specifically, Proverbs 13:24 is being discussed a great deal in secular media as it seems to be the justification many use for corporal punishment.  Given the low numbers in society that go to church, we should not be too surprised that no one is challenging the idea that “Scripture says I can beat my kids however I want.”  No it does not.  Scripture is clear that the most important responsibility a parent has is in raising a child is to teach that child to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and strength.  As with everything else we are given, parents are stewards of their children.  Hear that again: Children belong to God, just as does every other speck of creation.  They are not our property; they are not ours to do as we see fit.  They are given to us that we might share the love of God with them.  We call them gifts from God because they are!  What the author of Proverbs was trying to teach the people of Israel was that the withholding of discipline is to condemn one’s child.  Put bit differently, if parents do not discipline their children, those children will walk apart from God.
     We are beginning to see the wisdom of this part of the verse playing out in society around us.  Individuals who were shown no discipline as children have entered the workforce, entered into relationships, and have entered into adulthood with no sense of boundaries for good or expected behavior.  The backlash against abuse was so strong that some schools did away with grades or red ink for fear of demeaning Johnny or Susie’s sense of worth.  Parents bragged about becoming “permissive parents,” explaining that they did not want to inhibit anything in their child.  Discipline, other than suspension or expulsion, was removed from schools.  Now listen to the results.  Ask a boss in the secular world about the work habits of the generation that has entered the workforce.  Those children who went largely undisciplined now do not like the idea of work schedules, of accountability to bosses or owners, have a hard time fitting in to group projects, or even recovering from failure or firing.  Good discipline teaches us where we come up short, where we need to work on our behavior, and, ultimately, if parents use it wisely and carefully, why we need a Savior.  Good discipline even teaches us about perseverance, especially through failure.  Great discipline teaches us about grace by showing that which our Father in heaven first showed us!
     The other side of that verse, however, reminds us that the loving parent, the one that takes his or her job seriously as a steward of the child for God, is careful to discipline the child.  I have read a number of pastors trying to explain that a “rod” in the time of Proverbs was not really a stick or switch.  I find those arguments, thus far, unconvincing.  When the Psalmist speaks of a rod in Psalm 23, I am certain the Psalmist was not referencing “right behavior” or “a canon of accepted practice” or some other such interpretation that attempts to remove a physical piece of wood from the hand of the Shepherd.  Harsh words would do little to scare a lion or other predator from a flock or herd.  That rod, though, is used to protect the Psalmist just as this rod is used carefully to discipline.  But, if a rod is used to draw blood on a child, is it reasonable to expect that child to be comforted by its sight?  As I stood in the hall listening to and sharing stories of corporal punishment efforts gone awry, I wondered whether any of us are comforted by the sight of a broken hairbrush, a snapped spatula, a parent’s hand in a cast to protect a broken bone, or a splintered paddle?  Are we really comforted by the idea of a teach having snapped a paddle on our behinds in school so long ago?  I think not.  Clearly, others listening to us were taken back to a memory they would much rather forget.  Was that group scarred?  No, but a couple observers were.  Could we ruefully laugh at the experiences?  Obviously, but some in our midst wanted to scream at us and cry.  Did everyone agree that the actions that caused the bad disciplined were serious?  Yes.  Could our parents have done a better job of disciplining us?  Absolutely.  And what of those among us who were abused?  Would those stories comfort them?
     The challenge for Christian parents is to discipline a child, but to do so in a way that will remind the child they are loved not only by the parent, but by their Father in heaven.  Our rules that we use to govern our and our children’s lives ought to reflect the instruction that our Lord gave Israel.  We should have clear boundaries and clear consequences.  We should be consistent.  But all of that needs to be fashioned with the clear goal and objective of reminding our children that they are loved by God.  I do not think, however, that the rod should ever draw blood on our child.  The rod should not leave welts.  The rod should never invoke fear in the sight of our children.  Jesus took that scourging and that beating for them, just as He did for us.
     When I was asked whether I believe in corporal punishment, I joked a bit that I am so old and  so slow that I am lucky in the prevent defense that Karen and I are forced to employ with seven children ever to be in the camera picture with them, let alone close enough to lay a hand on them.  It caused some laughter, as most know Karen and I were forced to give up man-to-man and zone defenses many ages ago!  Then I told them I had become more of a swatter and grounder as I learned more and more about discipline.  With the first four kids, I was a champion of corporal punishment.  One of the uncomfortable truths about myself my wife and a couple seminary professors made me face during the childhood of my first four was that the spankings were more for me than for the children.  I was spanking more out of frustration and anger than out of an idea of causing them to love God.  Put simply, I had forgotten that I was a steward of my children.  
     I learned that for most of the children (those who know us will know the exceptions! lol), a grounding of some sort or an added responsibility worked wonders in correcting behavior.  That is not to say I am not above a good swat.  When God blessed us with the younger three, I would still swat a hand away from a boiling pot, a hot dish on the stove, a hot grill, an electrical outlet for a time, and other dangerous situations, but I did so certain in the knowledge that my swat would hurt far less and for far less time than the experiential knowledge they were about gain were I to let them touch something that would burn.  The loss of freedoms or added responsibilities, however, worked very well for discipline.  The tasks assigned were often things that might get overlooked for the week or that we determined needed being done again simply because the child hated a particular task.  Did it work, or is it working?  Like most things with children, it was a process.  But, those of you active in the parish can see the results for yourself.  And, if you want to know what they think of it as a style of discipline, particularly as it relates to their peers, ask them, especially the older girls, they are of age!
     I am not a fan about using me or my family as a sermon illustration, but the question of disciplining children is one in which Karen and I have lots of experience and lots of discussion, and it is one which you all have had the responsibility of observing and evaluating during our time with you.  Do we as Christians have the right to discipline our children?  We not only have the right, it is one of our charged responsibilities as stewards of His little ones.  Might we occasionally need to use a rod to enforce discipline?  Yes, if having children has taught me anything, it has taught me that original sin is real.  No parent instructs a child how to lie, how to backtalk, or how to disobey.  They seem to understand all that instinctively.  Do we have the right to use the rod as we see fit?  Absolutely not!  Whenever Christian parents are disciplining their children, they need to keep God’s discipline of themselves in mind.  The rod is meant to comfort children, to remind them of the unfailing love of their Father.  The rod was never meant to cause terror, to cause pain, or to induce nightmares and the need for counseling later in life.  And when we Christians hear or see another parent who has seemed to have forgotten the Father’s love of all His children, we need to speak into that situation.  Perhaps a rebuke will be enough; maybe our voice will require the summoning of authorities to determine what constitutes discipline and what constitutes abuse.  In many cases, it falls to neighbors, to teachers, to doctors and nurses, and even to pastors to voice the terror being experienced by those children abused in our midst.  But if we remain silent during those promptings of the Holy Spirit, we are no different from the parent who withholds discipline or the Pharisee who would not love his neighbor as Himself.  Our silence, our complicity, tells them we hate them, not that we and He loves them.  Thankfully, when we disobey, He withholds that rod in His hand from punishing us.  Thankfully, when that rod needed to be applied to us, His Son interposed Himself between us and that discipline.  May we ever live that kind of love in sight of all His children!


Monday, September 15, 2014

Heralds of Mercy, Trumpeters of Grace!

      Pastor, how many times must I forgive my son and his friend? — So began a conversation the day I returned from dropping Amanda off at Hollins.  It was almost a direct quote of Peter’s that we read today, so much so that I knew, before I had a chance to see last week’s readings that this reading was going to be assigned last week!  This person in orbit of our parish wanted to know how many times she had to let her son and his best friend continue to make her mad.  The answer that came quickly to my tongue was this passage.  I asked her how many times Jesus instructed Peter and us that we must forgive those who sin against us.  Bah, I KNEW you were going to say that.  Why does He have to make it so hard?  In truth, Jesus’ command about forgiveness and repentance is both incredibly hard and incredibly easy.
     We sometimes like to look down on those societies which preceded us as rubes or ignorant or unsophisticated.  While we can all admit we are technologically ahead of those societies which came before us, Peter’s question illustrates the truth of Ecclesiastes—nothing new under the sun!
     After Jesus’ instructions on how to deal with unrepentant sin in the Church, Peter asks a serious question.  Some commentators like to argue that Peter was attempting to elevate himself in the eyes of Jesus and the other disciples.  Considering how quick Jesus was to rebuke Peter (and the other disciples) whenever they got a matter of the heart wrong, and the absence of such a rebuke here, I take Peter’s question as seriously as I did the lady in the office two Tuesday’s ago.  It is a struggle to forgive.  There is a natural tendency, I think, to seek to hurt those who hurt us.  Certainly the Rabbis of Peter’s time and before had dealt with that tendency and Peter’s question.  One of the accepted life rules, if you will, was that Jews had to forgive each other seven times.  If somebody sinned again against you an 8th or 80th or 800th time, clearly they were not really repentant.  Why was seven chosen?  My guess is that it had something to do with completion.  As those studying the Book of Revelation can now tell you, numbers sometimes serve a symbolic purpose.  The number 3 figures prominently in the Scripture, as does the number 7 and the number 40.  In the case of 7, it often is used to represent completeness.  What happened in the first week in Genesis?  God created the heavens and the earth, saw that it was good, and rested—the first week.  Perhaps rabbis and others though that one might need as many as seven chances to repent for repentance to truly germinate in the heart.  Maybe rabbis thought that seven false repentances completed the hardening of the heart.  Maybe it was a combination of the two.  That Peter offers the number and does not earn Jesus’ rebuke tells us that Peter’s question was sincere.  Forgiving somebody seven times would be hard, indeed!
     Jesus gives a huge answer in response to Peter’s suggestion.  In truth, some of the ANE cultures were not as concerned with numbers as were other cultures.  Cultures like the Phoenicians and the Arabs would do well in our eyes as they were pretty particular in how they accounted for numbers.  Other cultures, such as the Jews, had their focus on things other than algebra or other mathematical sciences.  What Jesus answers could really be 77 times, but it could also be 490 times.  I rather liked Robin’s illustration today of 7 to the 70th power.  I think it captures Jesus’ meaning, but not His words.
     Can you imagine the shock?  The lady who entered my office and asked this question knew the answer.  She knew I would give it to her.  Still, she felt compelled to ask.  How many times must I forgive?  Part of the reason for the question, I think, is that we get tired of the hurt.  The more accurate question I think that Peter and this lady were asking is how many chances do I have to give somebody to hurt me?  Jesus’ answer seems, rightly so, without end.
     We talk a lot in the Church conflating words and the meaning.  A great example would be in the parable that accompanied Jesus’ instruction.  We speak often of grace and mercy, as if the two are the same word.  In reality, both words are very different.  The parable that Jesus uses to illustrate His point involves debt.  A man appears before his king with a debt of some 10,000 talents.  The amount involved would have been unfathomable to Jesus’ audience.  It would be nearly no so to us.  A talent was worth approximately 6000 denarii.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  A talent was equal to a laborer’s compensation over nearly 20 years!  To put that figure in modern minimum wage salaries, a talent would be worth about $2 million.  Imagine owing 10,000 of those!  Even credit card companies won’t let us get into a couple billion dollars worth of debt!  And this man has the audacity to tell his king that all he needs is a little bit of time to pay his debt in full.
     The king, Jesus tells us, is moved by the man’s plight.  The king understands the reality.  The king shows mercy by not giving to the man what he deserves—being sold with his wife and children into slavery to satisfy a small portion of the debt.  The king goes one extra though.  The king shows grace by giving the man something he does not not deserve—he writes off the debt!  Think of the gift given the man in question.  The equivalent debt of a couple hundred years of labor is wiped clean!  And how does he respond?
     On his way out, Jesus tells us, the man encounters another slave who owes him 100 denarii, merely a 100 days labor.  Compared to the debt that has been forgiven for the first man, this seems a paltry sum indeed.  How does the slave who has been shown mercy and grace by the king respond?  He withholds mercy.  He gives the second slave what he deserves.  He tosses the fellow slave into prison until the debt is paid.  Talk about ungrateful.
     The fellow slaves, not surprisingly, are upset at the behavior.  They complain to the king about what has happened.  And the king has the first slave brought before him again.  The king rebukes the first slave for showing neither mercy note grace to the second slave.  Better still, he determines that the man will be tortured until the debt is paid.  Given the size of the debt, all in the audience knew that the first slave would experience torture until the day he died.
     Jesus’ use of the parable is illustrative of the superficial attitude many of us Christians have toward forgiveness.  We will tell people that we have been forgiven our sins and talk about how free we are, but then we turn around and show an utter lack of compassion to others.  The world around us notes this superficial attitude and calls it hypocrisy or two-faced.  Those who have not internalized the mercy and grace offered by our Lord are quick to reap the benefits.  We will tell others the church to which we belong if it helps our social or economic prospects.  We will act like the Pharisees and Sadducees and make a big deal out of our attendance or offering or some other aspect of worship we deem important or esteemed.  In reality, though, the person who has not internalized the mercy and grace of God will reflect that hardened heart in their treatment of others.  Jesus’ parable ought to remind us that each one of us stands in danger of being the first slave in this story.  What cost can you pay for your life?  What cost could you pay for your eternal soul?  In reality, none of us could begin to pay God what they are worth.
     God has offered each one of us mercy; He has withheld the condemnation we have each earned through our countless sins.  But, rather than free us simply from the chains of death, our Lord has shown us amazing grace through the offer of adoption.  The grace that we have been shown is that now, not only can we be forgiven our sins, we can be empowered by His Holy Spirit and charged as His sons and daughters on earth to represent Him.  WE can pray on Healing Sunday and expect God to act.  WE can pray for provision certain that He will provide what we need.  WE can face even death, confident that He has the power even to overcome the grave.  Best of all, God has attached Himself to us in such a way that if we are mocked, ridiculed, besmirched, treated with contempt, or any other such behavior, He will know and He will act as if such actions were done to Him!  Think about that grace for a second.  Though we do not deserve it, God treats a sin against us as a sin against Him.
     As we as disciples walk in faith the mercy and grace given us by our Lord begins to transform our hearts.  The slights and pangs and dishonors of this world come to be less and less important to us.  We can act merciful and gracefully countless times to others because we know our debt to God was infinitely greater than any debt owed by others to us and because we know that He has bound Himself to us for all eternity.  We can begin to show in our lives, and not only say with our lips, the peace that passes all understanding.  We simply become heralds of grace and trumpeters of His mercy trusting that, in the end, justice and vengeance are His.  If the neighbor sins against us 7000 times and seeks forgiveness each time, we have no reason to withhold.  Still our debt to Him was greater.  Still He showed us how we were to treat and love others in His name.
     Perhaps sitting here this week, you find yourself a bit unnerved.  Maybe, as you read the story again and reflect on your life and attitude, you find yourself described in the actions of the first slave.  Maybe the Holy Spirited has prompted you to see that you are too focused on what has been done to you by others.  Is there hope?  Of course.  So long as one draws breath, there is always hope that he or she will return to God.  We have danced around the mercy and grace offered us by God a bit this morning.  Though God could have rightly and justly let us wallow in our lives or in our prisons trying vainly to work our way out of His debt, He chose to give us a narrow path out.  He sent His Son, who lived a sinful life.  Our Lord Christ laid down that life, shedding His blood for our sakes, that all our debts to God might be repaid.  The cost of our salvation was horrendous.  Someone, indeed, had to die the death we each earned.  But for His obedience and faithfulness, He was raised again from the dead as the firstborn of the Kingdom.  And in His infinite grace, He promised that all who believed in that Son shall live forever in His presence.  Brothers and sisters, if you find you are well described by the first slave, there is still time to repent.  There is still time to ask God to forgive you, still time to ask Him to circumsize your heart, still time to ask Him for the privilege of ushering others into His kingdom and presence by demonstrating mercy and grace to others, still time to ask Him to wash away the hypocrisy we have exhibited in our lives, to experience the true joy of forgiveness, still time to ask Him to help you focus less on what has been done to you and more upon what He has done for you!  There is still time to call upon His name and grasp the glory that He offers.  It will not be easy, but then He described it as cross-bearing.  But in the end, we know, we absolutely know, just as our debts owed to Him dwarf any owed to us, so will His blessings overcome by orders of magnitude our debts for all eternity!


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Motes and logs and churches and the NFL . . .

     It is hard to be a pastor this week and not comment on the spouse abuse case of Ray Rice. Pastors are told to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. We have a special relationship with abused women through our work with Kit and the wonder staff at Winnie's Place. When I arrived back in 2006, people in the community were not yet really aware of the problem of abused women in the QCA. Kit was finalizing her ministry, and a few important men in the community (in the sense that they had some financial resources to help) checked in to see if I thought it was a problem. Those convinced that there was no real problem in the QCA thought that resources did not need to be wasted on a dedicated shelter for them. I remember one guy in particular telling me there was no way that it filled up in under five years, and it would then only if Kit was soft on freeloaders. Those of you who work for the shelter or the store which supports it or one of the boards which financially support it know just how important a role it serves. As for me, my role is limited to women picking up televisions, receiving certain donations, convinced that Ephesians 5:22 justifies their husbands/boyfriends beating them, and some of you.
     I bring up that last group because I am convinced one of the ways in which the Ray Rice case can be applicable to us and be redeemed by God would be for us to realize that the Church is often complicit in abuse. A couple years after I arrived, and after a few lengthy discussions about the clause after the semicolon that exists in Paul's letter to the Ephesians, I found a book that I thought met my needs to be a more effective pastor among you. It was a book that was entitled “What Women Wish Their Pastors Knew,” or something to that effect.  It has since disappeared from my bookshelves, maybe into one of your hands.  I thought it perfect because a number of the women at St. Alban's had a fabulous relationship with Kathleen. As a woman, she obviously understood things about women and their lives that I have had to, and continue to, learn. As the father of three daughters and husband of a wife, I would like to think I pay attention to women's issues. But, some of the ladies around here were not as comfortable discussing certain issues as they were with Kathleen. I was certain the book would help me understand things that some women were reticent to tell me. I was right.
     I was stunned during the course of reading that book to discover that ¼ of women active in the Church had suffered abuse at the hands of a husband or boyfriend. I was disgusted that 26% of pastors surveyed around 2006 if memory serves, not the dark ages by any stretch of the imagination, would still counsel a women to submit better to avoid a beating rather than seek counseling or law enforcement or divorce. Unfortunately, life seems to have anecdotally verified what the book claimed from a study. Physical abuse is simply too common among people who claim Jesus as Lord.
     By Wednesday of last week, I was sick and tired of the piling on of Ray Rice. What he did was horrible. The press conference announcing their “reconciliation” disturbs me even more now than it did at the time. I am used to hearing women explain to me that had they obeyed their husband or boyfriend better, he would never have felt the need to beat them. Those who suffer abuse often blame themselves for the abuse they suffer.  Seeing that punch and hearing the words coming out of her mouth simply leaves me groping for words. I do hope he is getting help.  I do hope it was the alcohol and her pushing the right buttons.  My experience, though, reminds me that my hope in those things might be in vain.  
     What made me sick and tired of the rhetoric surround the Rice case, though, was the casting of stones and judgment. The NFL is not the Church. Though the NFL has replaced the church in the lives of many on Sundays and though Roger Goodell has replaced the Pope or pastor in the eyes of many, the NFL is simply a business. Its job is to make money for the owners and, to the extent that they have to pay their employees, those who work for them. If the Church has 26% of its leaders, male and female by the way, counseling abused women to do a better job of submitting to avoid beatings, we need to get rid of our log before we worry about the mote in the eyes of the NFL. If ¼ of our membership has suffered abuse, it is likely that some of us are the ones abusing. Rather than making us feel better by preaching at the NFL, we need to begin to look internally and digest what God has to say about abuse.
     What provoked me to this post about my Facebook post was that the first seven private messages about the Church's complicity was from women who have suffered physical abuse. Women were writing me to make sure that I was not going to share their experiences and to remind me that those details had been shared in confidence. Not all the women were active members of this church.  In truth, depending on how we define active members, active members might be in the minority of those reaching out to make sure I kept their confidence and their secret.  Truthfully, when I made the post on FB, I was thinking only of ladies at Winnie's over the years who thought it was their Christian duty to submit to beatings by their husbands. I wanted to call attention to the fact that we have much work today for women and men in our own ranks before we ever expect the right to be heard in situations outside the church, but I was not thinking of specific cases that some of our sisters had survived. We can be appalled at the punch of Ray Rice and we can worry whether his then-girlfriend made the right choice to marry him, but we cannot judge the actions of the NFL or the prosecutor unless we first address our own complicity in this abomination that occurs within our ranks.
     The first step on this arduous journey, of course, is education. Look around the next time you are in church. If St. Alban's is representative of the public at large, ¼ of the women have suffered physical abuse at the hands of a husband or boyfriend, either now or in their past. You want to know what the face of an abused wife looks life? She is in your midst. Unfortunately, it is also very possible that an abuser is in our midst, too. We as Christ's Body on earth need to do a better job of empowering those who suffer in our midst. We need to be a place for healing and a place that allows women to remember in Whose image they were created. We need to be a sanctuary, a place of safety, that reminds our abused sisters that they have been bought for a price and deserve a man who would love them like Christ loves the Church. Can you imagine Jesus ever beating His Bride out of “love”? Finally, we need to be a place that empowers those who have survived to begin share their experiences. If we are ever to break the cycle of abuse, survivors, and those of us whom they call brothers and sisters, must begin to speak out against such violence. By sharing what they experienced, those who follow may hope to avoid the same mistakes. By sharing what they experienced and warning those generations that follow, we can hope that they will experience not only healing but full redemption. If a lady of the next generation avoids a relationship because of what she has learned from such education, then it is a redemption of sort. If a young man chooses another path, to perhaps step outside of the cycle of violence known within his family, that is truly grasping life from death!
     The second step is simply part of what we do around here.  We are pretty good at reminding people they were created in God’s image and redeemed by Him at cost of His life.  We live that understanding out in our ministry to reach those enslaved, we live that understanding out in our Community Meal where we serve the hungry food right off our tables, we live that understanding out in our attentions to small details like underwear or socks or prosthetic bras, we live that understanding out in most of all we do.  Reminding those who are or were abused and those who do the abusing should take little effort on our part.
     Another step we will likely have to take is to remind people domestic violence is serious.  Again, we do this with respect to other ministries.  We have been, for several years now, working hard to educate the public, law makers, and law enforcement of the psyche of those enslaved and those who enslave.  Our laws in Iowa have been strengthened, even if they need more work.  We have fought city hall over the years, whenever it has sought to take away meal sites like the Community Meal or Kings Harvest because “nobody wants those people” downtown.  Of all that has come out so far in this case, I am most disturbed that a prosecutor has seen this video and seemingly chosen to ignore it.  Yes, the NFL should have seen it.  But the prosecutor in the case is specifically charged with protecting the victim.  The prosecutor ought to be well-enough versed in the psyche of those abused, and the likely outcomes of repeated abuse, to understand the seriousness of what the video shows.  Perhaps this really was a one-time drunk rage on the part of Mr. Rice.  Maybe the now-Mrs. Rice really pushed buttons with her slaps and words.  We can only hope so, and God only knows, absent any further justification by the prosecutor.  
     The most difficult step I think we will have to take as a body is to make abuse a subject that needs not to be whispered.  One of our functions is to proclaim from the rooftops those things whispered in corners and darkness.  When we fail to acknowledge the hurt and pain of abuse, we encourage whispers and silence.  What concerned me about my FB post was that several women, strong active Christians by my estimation, were worried how people would judge them were their stories to come out.  Why?  We have a couple women who are quite willing to share their experiences and discuss their abuse matter-of-factly, but why are not all or most willing to share?  Other than God and maybe their families, they should feel most loved by us, their brothers and sisters in Christ, their parish family.  What does it say about the support and shame they feel around us, if they are unable to give voice to their experience?
     Another tough step will be working with abusers.  While we like to believe that most of us are not abusers, the sad truth is that someone must be doing the beating.  We need to have ears to hear when it comes to “jokes” or comments that make light of abuse.  We need to be intolerant when those around us try to justify the actions of public abusers.  We need to remind (mostly male) abusers that they are called to love their wives just as Christ loved the Church.  Most importantly, we need to be willing to speak with a pastor about our suspicions (and continue to follow up with the pastor to make sure our concerns are not ignored), and with law enforcement when we have confirmation, that those abused in our midst will be protected against violence.  
     Finally, as we have learned in our efforts with survivors of human trafficking, domestic violence is full of sexism.  There is always an assumption by the public that only women can be victimized.  Men can suffer from abuse as well.  And while most sufferers are certainly female, we need to be able to minister to abused men as well as we do to abused women.  We must be able to be every bit the safe have and place of support for abused me that we strive to be for abused women.  
     In our determination to live in silence, in our desire to pretend that abuse occurs out there in the wider world, we are complicit in the plague of abuse. It might be nice to hurl stones at Ray Rice, at Roger Gooddell, at the prosecutors, at the casino/hotels and their staffs, at TMZ, and any other where we would like to throw. But we would be doing the world far better good, I think, if we began to address abuse within our own ranks and within the ranks of the Church at large. Perhaps, when we have cleansed ourself of such behavior, when we have experienced mercy and forgiveness and empowerment, then we will, indeed, be in a position not only to comment on such behaviors, but to lead them to the light that is found only in Christ!


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What is love?

     Haddaway asks that wonderful question, What is love?, in his song made famous by Will Farrell and Chris Kattan.  Haddaway answers his question with “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more,” implying that love is simply the absence of hurt or pain.  Certainly, that answer is more in line with how society sees love nowadays.  We love shoes and bags and teams and actresses and even our spouse, until we no longer do.  Then we just replace our old loves with new loves and go right on humming our tune to ourselves and bobbing our heads to the beat.  Such an understanding is grounded in St. Paul, is it not?  Or is Paul trying to teach us something in Romans that society does not understand and that we have forgotten?
     If I asked you to define love, how would you answer?  I suspect that, as you consider that question, your thoughts return to that famous description of pornography—it’s hard to describe, but I know it when I see it.  If you turned to a dictionary, you might see descriptions such as “a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another” or “a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection toward a person or thing” as proffered definitions.  Do those descriptions capture what Paul is saying?  Should that be the rule that governs our lives?  When Paul claims that love is the fulfilling of the law, what does he mean?
     To understand Paul’s view of the law, one must remember first and foremost what Paul understood to be the law.  The Greek word that Paul uses is the same word used by the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) torah.  I have explained that what writers meant by torah is not just law.  Torah includes as sense of instruction, of teaching, as well as law.  The torah was God’s answer to Israel’s plead that He teach them what it meant to live in a righteous, holy relationship with God.  In a sense, the torah is God’s answer to what life with Him is like.  So, when Paul is discussing the law, he is really discussing the torah.  Paul is discussing what it means to live with God truly in our midst.
     Such, of course, makes perfect sense.  Paul studied under the great rabbi, Gameliel.  Paul, prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus, was a quick riser in the Temple and synagogues.  One did not tend to rise quickly without understanding and keeping the torah, at least outwardly.  Paul even reminds his readers that he was righteous under the law.
     Part of the problem that Jesus had with the religious authorities of His day was that they made the torah something onerous for the people.  When Jesus calls them whitewashed tombs, He is commenting on the outer holiness that hides a spiritually dead heart.  When the authorities ask Jesus which law in the torah is most important, Jesus gives the famous answer of the shema and the passage cited by Paul today.  Jesus asserts, as one who has authority, that the Great Commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our strength.  The Second Great Commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Jesus then goes on to add that interesting qualifier, “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  We know that His qualifier is correct because He was raised from the dead.  In fact, we so know it so well that some in this parish spent just over three years studying the book of Deuteronomy.  Part of the reason for the lengthy study was that we wanted to figure out how each individual law related to the first ten and to the Great Two.  Did we figure them all out?  Nope.  But it was a fascinating, if exhausting, process, one that I like to think we are all better for having tried.  Why are we called to do some things?  Why are we proscribed from doing others?
     And make no mistake, God was unhappy with a great number of His people and not just the leaders.  How many times in Scripture does He describe His people as stiff-necked?  How many times does He remind us that our hearts will need to be circumsized before we can enter into His family?
     Paul’s understanding of love hinges on these two great commandments and on the work and person of Christ Himself.  Love, for Paul, is not a feeling, an intense passion, a strong desire.  Love is a commitment.  Those of us who have been married understand why God describes His love for us as a marriage.  Hopefully all of us who have been married have experienced that “honeymoon” phase.  When we are in that phase of a new relationship there is, rightly, intense passion.  We want to be together with the one we love all the time.  But, somewhere between six and twenty-four months, that relationship begins to change.  Ladies discover that we men pass gas, loudly, and leave toilet seats up, always.  Men discover that ladies obsess about a myriad details only during important sporting events.  That book, Men are from Mars Women are from Venus, nails it.  We are radically different from one another.  Women are taught that men can be controlled by food and by sex; men are told “just say yes and save yourself a ton of grief.”  You are laughing a bit, but there is a bit of rueful laugh in your chuckles.  
     It’s at this point, though, when the honeymoon phase has passed, that love asserts itself.  We are called to commit to our husbands and wives even when they most drive us nuts, even when we discover that they are most definitely not the person we thought they were, even when they are the most unloveable.  Divorce, for Christians, is not supposed to be an option because we represent God on earth.  Our marriages reflect however dimly and faintly the relationship of the Trinity to the world around us.  Why do we not give up on each other?  Because God never gave up on us!  Though we gave Him reason after reason to leave us in our tattered wedding dress, still He loved us!
      All of this brings about to Paul’s instruction: love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.  Love is a commitment, a covenant that we share.  If marriages might best be said to represent that commitment, our relationship to each other as sons and daughters of God must as well.  How so?  Everything that we do is supposed to glorify God.  We talk around here in the language of ambassadors.  God has bound Himself to us through baptism in such a way that our honor and His honor are intertwined.  When we do as we should, when we live and act righteously, He is honored.  When we live and act as hypocrites; He is dishonored.  Just as importantly, however, when we are dishonored unjustly, He is dishonored.  Better still, when we are justly honored, He is, too!  That’s how and why we can leave judgment and vengeance to Him.  As His representatives on earth, we know He takes how the world treats us every bit as seriously as how we interact with the world on His behalf.  It is an incredibly weighty honor and responsibility.
     You and I are called always, always to live as He would have us live.  There are no breaks.  There are no, “You know what, Christian, you did a good job for the last six days, take a day off.  Why don’t you go ahead and sin at will.”  Such an expectation ought to terrify us.  Such an expectation, if we focused too much on us, might leave us despairing of ever doing our job properly.  And, truthfully, without the Holy Spirit, we would fail far more often than we already do.  Yet, for all the demands of the job of representing God on earth, they really can be summed up in two Commandments: The Shema and the command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Everything we do is supposed to love and honor God and love and honor our neighbors.
     The real problem, of course, lies in this understanding of what love is.  If love is just a warm fuzzy feeling, if love is just a desire, even if love love is a passionate commitment wrongly focused, then we are not loving our neighbors as we should be loving ourselves.  Why would I say that?  Because the ultimate focus of love has to be God.  Everything that we do, every single thing that we do is supposed to be focused on God or helping others to focus on God.  The torah gave God’s people a description of the behavior He expected in order that He would be glorified among themselves and among the Gentiles.  Did God really expect His people to take a year off every seven years?  Did God really expect His people to take two successive years off every fifty?  Did God really expect His people to build railings on roof?  Did God really care where His people dug latrines or what they ate?  Absolutely!  Imagine the witness had they taken the Sabbath years and the Year of the Jubilee.  Would not their confidence in the Lord to provide for them be the most counter-cultural witness ever?  God will provide!  Imagine the witness where everyone was concerned with everyone’s safety, well-being, and relationship with God.  Imagine the questions that might have come even from faith adherence to the dietary laws.  God cares about all those details we think are beneath His notice.  And why not?  He gave us those jots and tittles; He revealed that He cares about the details just as He cares about each one of us!
     The detail of love is that it needs to be focused on God.  When we love a neighbor as ourselves, we are helping them stay focused on and to glorify the Lord who redeemed them!  I know we hate conflict in the Church, but part of the reason that we have conflict is that we focus less on what God wants for us and from us than we focus on what we want for ourselves.  He expected us to have conflict, and Matthew reminds us today of the path by which two or more Christians who love God in accordance with the Shema are to help resolve conflict, to be reconciled to God and to a brother or sister.  When we allow a brother or sister or a neighbor to do anything that dishonors God or devalues those things He expects of His people, we are not loving them as ourselves.  How can we say that?  If God is the measure and object of our love, and we allow people to walk apart from Him without challenging them, we really are not loving them.  To be sure, there is a danger that if we are not winsome, if we are not humble, we can sound like we are nagging or condemning.  That is to be avoided.  But nearly as bad the other way is when we leave unchallenged those behaviors, those activities, even those words that dishonor God.
     A practical example of this is played out frequently in the road to sobriety.  All of us gathered here today can agree that if one’s focus is so much on alcohol that one loses jobs, loses relationships, loses utilities, loses cars, loses dwellings, and even loses families, one’s focus, one’s love, is in pursuit of the wrong thing.  It is ok to drink.  It is not ok for the consumption of alcohol to be our primary focus.  Families should come first.  That means jobs, and homes, and other things come before our pursuit of alcohol.  Yet, how often do those on the road to sobriety insist that they have no problem prior to getting sober?  How many in their lives choose to be enablers, those who allow or even encourage them to drink?  How much do we fear interventions?  And that is just for drinking.  Imagine the struggles when one’s very soul is at risk!  Yet that is our calling.  God commands to love our neighbors.  That means God calls us to help our neighbors glorify Him in their actions, in their thoughts, and in the words.
     Think of sex and pornography to name a subject a little more controversial.  What’s the big deal?  It’s just sex . . . is the question of society.  If love is only an affection, if love is only a strong desire, then there is no big deal.  But if God meant sex to glorify Him, maybe it is a far bigger deal than we would ever like to think.  Maybe God, and later Paul, knew what He was teaching when He instructed us to keep it within marriage.  How many of you have been in my office discussing how your past sex lives interfere in your current marriage?  How many wives worry whether their husbands “see” another during sex; how many husbands worry that they don’t “measure up” to their wives’ lovers?  And we are all old fogies!  We were not raised in the hook-up culture that poisons our children today.  If I had a dollar for every time a girl on a college campus asked me how to handle how a boyfriend likes to “finish,” our budget would be a bit bigger.  If I had a dollar for every time that a boy told me he could tell when the girl on the computer screen was “doing it” because she enjoyed it and not against her will, our parish hall door would certainly be fixed.  Heck, if I had a dollar for every time a man or a woman who claimed to be “an active Christian” fussed at me for trying to take the spice or fun out of their sex life when I talk about these things, we could probably have kept up with our diocesan assessment.  Yet we are called, called to remind our brothers and sisters that God intended sex for something far better than hooking up, far better than feeling used or dirty, far better than needing the visions of someone else to spice up our sex lives.  Yes, God has something to say about sex.  Yes, God is glorified in our sexual relationships in marriage.  Yes, God is dishonored when we use our bodies or the bodies of another selfishly.  But how many of us choose to look away?  How many of us are willing to see our neighbor at enmity with God?
     We have, to this point, only used two common examples.  How many Christians have I met who did not think to ask their temporary workers if they were getting paid?  How many times do we let go unchallenged the idea that others can worship God just fine in the privacy of their bed or fairway of their favorite golf course week in and week out?  How many of us forget to tell people that working on Sunday is not an excuse not to worship God on Wednesdays or Thursdays or any other day, for that matter?  How many of us do our shopping on Sundays, necessitating that others work?  How many of us dine out on Sundays, necessitating that others serve us rather than worship God themselves?  How many of us, as I just throw out these few examples, can think of other situations where our actions or our words prevent others from fulfilling the Great Commandment?  
     What is love, brothers and sisters?  Love is a commitment, a covenant, to help all those around us to worship the Lord.  We know it best by the commitment our Lord showed Israel and then us.  We know it by the work and person of Jesus Christ.  When we were His enemies, when we intentionally walked apart from Him, still He sought us, still He acted to save us.  Never did He abandon us.  That commitment, that covenant, is precisely the devotion you and I are called to display for our neighbors.  All our efforts, all our words, all our actions, are supposed to be conducted in such a way that it leads others to God.  Anything else, and we fail at the Second great commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Tough slogging?  You bet.  Does it sometimes hurt?  Sure.  But then Jesus never instructed us to do anything other than pick up a cross and follow him . . . 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Cost Benefit Analysis . . .

     My first exposure to cost benefit analysis was as a child one summer with my grandfather, Burl.  I know of my four grandparents, he has gotten the least attention in my tenure here.  Mostly, that is because he died the year I met my wife, so there has been no new news about him, at least up until the recent military ball. Anyway, Burl had worked at a number of jobs over the course of his life.  He had served in the Army during WWII.  He had owned a men’s clothing shop in the metropolis of Clendenin, WV.  He had worked a few other jobs as well.  I knew him as an oilman.  More specifically, I knew him as a Wildcatter, of sorts.  By the time I came along on the family scene, Burl was drilling wells and selling oil.  He was trading these things called mineral rights.  He was connecting pipes to pipelines.  And, best of all from my youthful perspective, he would pump oil.  Those of you who have travelled through Oklahoma or Texas may have some confusion at that last statement.  None of his wells produced enough oil to warrant automation or continual pumping.  As he drilled wells and began pumping them, he had to figure out how quickly the reservoir replenished so as to make sure it was near full when he started pumping.  Each well had a schedule.  This well was pumped on Tuesday and Friday mornings.  That well was pumped on every other Friday afternoon.  That well could be pumped once a month.  You get the idea.  On those days, he would head out to the well, start the engine, and begin pumping.  Once the oil ran out for the day, he would stop the engine and head home.
     The reason I loved going with him as a child was because most of these wells were way out in the woods.  Those of you who were boys and loved exploring the woods would have killed for this kind of adventure.  We would be what seemed like hours from civilization, even though we were often only a few miles or couple ridges aways from paved roads and civilization.  Kitty would pack us a sack lunch and a cooler of drinks, Burl would grab a thermos of coffee and a jug of water, and we would head out to pump oil in his pickup truck.  The roads we sometimes travelled were better than any amusement park ride.  This was four-wheeling the way God intended, and with purpose!  We would get to the well, get everything serviced on the pump, and then fire her up.  The engines all sounded the same to me, and I can still hear them when I stop and think about it.  I would always try to get to the big tank before the salt water started flowing in.  Once the water was drained and the oil was flowing, we could do whatever Burl had planned.  I learned to shoot a number of pistols, rifles, and shotguns at those wells.  He would teach me the different tracks of animals in the mud.  Sometimes, we would walk the pipes and inspect them.  Sometimes, there was maintenance to be done, and I got to hand him the tools.
     It was also a great way for me to learn some life lessons.  Burl would share his thoughts on everything, whether I wanted to listen or not.  One of those lessons was what the business world calls cost-benefit analysis.  At one of the wells, we would occasionally walk over the hill to a spot between his well and a well owned by someone else.  The two wells produced only 25-30 barrels of oil each week combined.  He was convinced, however, that the two were on the fringe of a large reservoir.  He had an itch and really wanted to sink another well in this particular spot.  When I asked him why he didn’t, he explained that there were a couple reasons.  At the time, oil was only worth about $30/barrel.  Drilling a well had a fixed cost.  If the new well was dry, he was out all that money it would cost to sink a well with no way to recoup those losses.  Plus, there was a chance that the new well could decrease the production of his well, in which case it would take longer to get back his money.  I did not understand until I was older that this risk-reward relationship he was describing was called cost benefit analysis in economics.  I did understand the math, however.  If the new well produced at the same rate as the two other wells, and if the price of oil stayed nice and high, it would still take him four years before the well became profitable for him.  If the price of oil dropped, it would take longer.  Plus, there was a chance he would be cannibalizing his well.  He never sank that well before he died.  The risk was too large for the expected benefit, particularly when he considered the possibility that the spot would be dry.
     Why do I share a story about cost benefit analysis?  Partly, my mind was on those experiences this last week.  My mother called to tell me that she my uncle were selling the mineral rights to that well to one of Burl’s old buddies as part of their efforts to settle Kitty’s estate.  I even texted her that I bet he sunk that new well straightaway, as he had journeyed over the hill with us on more than one occasion.  The other part of the reason was Matthew’s Gospel lesson this week.  In the last five verses of our reading this week, Jesus describes the cost of following Him and the benefit of following Him.  What is that cost?  What is the benefit?
     Jesus, in what must have been an utter shock to His disciples, specifically mentions taking up one’s cross and following Him.  As most of you know, crucifixion was a particular brutal form of capital punishment used by Rome to enforce its will on those within the empire.  Jesus’ experience of carrying the crossbeam to the site was not at all uncommon.  Those of you who have asked me about the show Spartacus know that the empire was efficiently brutal.  It had to be.  How else could a city in Italy keep so many nations under its thumb for so long, particularly in a day and age where faxes, e-mail, television and other social medias did not exist.  We see fights playing out daily in Ukraine and Syria and Iraq.  We get notified within minutes if Hamas fires a rocket or if Israel bombs Gaza.  Rome was sometimes lucky to hear of rebellion within a couple months of its beginning in the outlying provinces such as Judea.  Crucifixion generally killed you by exposure.  Part of why Pilate was surprised by Joseph of Arimathea’s request to have the body is that Jesus died so quickly.  We think that Jesus’ death in six or eight hours is brutal.  Pilate expected His suffering to last for a couple days, at least!
     Add to that understanding the cultural understanding of Jesus’ disciples.  We have talked often of the Jewish perspective on crucifixion.  The torah taught that anyone hanging from a tree was accursed by God.  To them, Jesus’ manner of death was proof that He was a blasphemer.  Were He really God’s Son, were He really the Messiah, God would never have allowed Him to die such an accursed death.  When Jesus asserts that to follow Him, one must deny oneself and take up their cross and follow Him, they have to be utterly appalled and confused.  Why would the Christ mention crucifixion?  Where is the glory in the cross?
     What Jesus was teaching them, and us, is that discipleship means that we must die to ourselves in order to follow Him properly.  Such a death is painful, such a death can seem shameful to those around us, such a death seems absolutely stupid by modern ideals and values.  We live in a “Have it your way” culture; we live in a “he/she who dies with the most toys wins” culture.  The focus today in on me, myself, and I.  In many ways, our culture teaches us to worship the ego, the I.  Virtues such as patience, sacrifice, and love are eschewed for immediate pleasure.  Want that new toy?  Don’t have enough money?  Here, pay us 22% interest for 30 years and you can have your hearts desire!  Your marriage is not fulfilling?  You are not happy?  Caring for your spouse and kids is weighing you down?  Here, have a no fault divorce.  You want something?  Take it!  Those are the messages with which we are bombarded each and every day as we pass billboards, listen to our radios as we head to work, see and hear on our television as we veg at night.  Jesus wants us to give up all of that?  Jesus says that discipleship means dying to all of that?
     Yes.  He not only says that, He commands that.  He commands that we must die to ourselves and live according to God’s will.  There is no mushy middle.  There is no suggestion.  This is a command, given by our Lord.  Die to yourself, kill your ego, and follow Me.  That He uses the image of crucifixion to describe the killing of our ego is certainly appropriate.  We know that such is the manner of death that He will face.  But He also knows the temptation of the flesh and the ego.  He understands that such a death is not easy.  He understands that the ego will revolt at any given opportunity.  Like a whining child our ego will demand that we seek ours, that we serve ourselves, that we honor and glorify ourselves.  He understands far better than we that exposure is what it will take to kill our egos, exposure to His love, His grace, and His instructions in our lives.
     Whew!  That’s quite the cost, is it not?  Can you imagine the shock on the faces of the disciples?  Peter has just gotten ripped by their Lord for His focus on earthly things, now Jesus is telling them they must die by crucifixion.  Why?  Jesus explains the reward.  Those of us who follow the ego reject God’s will.  We are commanded, we are instructed, that we should at all times and in all places live as He taught, loving Him above all things and our neighbors as ourselves.  Our egos rebel against that teaching.  But what about mine?  Where is my honor?  Where is my glory?  What good is my suffering?  Jesus teaches that this dying to oneself is the only way in which one can obey God properly.  If we seek the glory and riches of this world, we lose the glories of the world to come.  In essence, we trade a few years of comfort and pleasure for an eternity of suffering.  Those, however, who choose to follow God, are likely to suffer in this world.  Like our Lord we will be teased, we will be mocked, we may be taken advantage of, we may look like fools.  But Jesus reminds us that we are called to act with eternity in mind.  If we seek our egos and reject God, the consequences are dire.  If we seek God and His kingdom, though, we are promised a share in His eternal glory.  What should be of our utmost concern is the fate of our soul, not our creature comforts or the whims of our ego.
     But can’t the two co-exist?  Can’t I serve God and follow my hearts desire?  Jesus has much to say on serving two masters elsewhere.  In this section, though, He reminds His followers and us of the value of eternity.  He uses a word, antellagma, which our translators define as forfeit.  It is a word which signifies a stupid exchange.  The word is used only in the New Testament in this passage and in Mark’s version of this teaching.  The only other place we find it is in Sirach, where that author describes the value of true friend and a devoted wife.  In Sirach, a true friend and a devoted wife are of such inestimable value that they can never be exchanged.  Put in modern MasterCard language, a true friend and a devoted wife are priceless.  Think of that for just a second.  Jesus is teaching us that we should never exchange our souls for anything on earth.  Giving up our souls for anything of this world, money, health, pleasure, or anything else, is like exchanging a devoted wife or a faithful friend.  I mean, other than the Cubs, who would ever do something so stupid?  Who would ever make that kind of trade?  That’s what Jesus says about the kingdom of God.  Our BCP reminds us of that truth, too.  Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.  We leave the world the same way we enter.  None of our goods go with us.  None of our accolades continue on.  Either you claim Christ as Lord, or you reject Him.  And that decision has consequences of unfathomable value to us.
     Hmmm.  You make an interesting point.  Let me think on it before I decide.  It never ceases to amaze me, in this world of instant gratification, in this world where we think credit card debt and enslavement is better than waiting, we think that this decision is the one that we have all the time in the world to make.  Adorable pair of shoes?  They can’t wait.  The most awesome latest gadget ever?  I need it yesterday.  I need a break?  Screw it, I’ll put it on the card and go.  I deserve this.  Salvation?  Let me think about that one.  It sounds ridiculous, does it not?  Jesus even spends two verses reminding us that not deciding is deciding . . . the wrong way.  He will come again with the angels to repay what is done.  If He is not your Lord, how will you repay what you have done?  If He has not washed you in His blood, how will you stand before His judgment?  That judgement will surprise everyone.  Elsewhere, He describes His return like a thief in the night.  Yet many of us will clearly be caught unprepared.  Many of us will, indeed, be surprised.
     Back to my economic phrase.  Back to that cost benefit analysis.  What is the reward promised?  What does Jesus offer in exchange for becoming His disciple?  How does He describe what He offers?  Is there anything on earth for which you should be willing to trade Kingdom life?  No.  Emphatically no.  Trading Kingdom life for anything is worse than giving up a ton of picks and players for Herschel Walker.  Trading Kingdom life for anything is worse than denying entrance to Murphy the billy goat during game 4 of the World Series.  Trading Kingdom life is worse than losing a faithful friend or devoted spouse.  Trading Kingdom life for anything is simply a bad idea.  Why?  To claim a share of all those blessings offered what must we do?  Build tons of churches?  Go door to door trying to get more neighbors to join us than others in our congregation?  Give a certain amount of money?  Do a certain amount of good works?  No.  All we must do is repent, pick up our cross, and follow Jesus.  He has paid the price of our salvation!  He has done the heavy lifting of saving me and you.  He has done all that was necessary for us to be adopted as first born sons and daughters.  And, that we might know He alone has power to keep His promises to us, God raised Him that Easter morning, demonstrating to us and to all that His words are true and that His call on our life is priceless.  Knowing that you cannot save yourself, knowing that your wealth and your works are not enough to ransom your life, knowing that He might come any moment and demand an accounting, knowing the consequences of choosing poorly, how do you choose?  Who do you follow?  Knowing the cross and His love for you demonstrated in His climb to Calvary, why would you ever bet on anything else?  Why not choose life as His disciple and a share in His eternal kingdom?  Nothing, absolutely nothing here on earth compares.