27 April 2011

Indulge Me

Dear Reader,

I rarely publish my Sunday sermons here. Few sermons have a shelf life of more than twenty minutes. They are spiritual souffles, best served right from the oven. But this one seemed to be more sturdy and so I am bold to offer it to you. The Youtube version is different, please note. The spoken word is not the written word, but the message is the same.

The Church of Latter Day Samaritans April 24, 2011 Easter

Polls say we are more pessimistic now than ever – and maybe for good reason. But we do not stake our lives on bad bets. Nor can we live on fantasies of perfection. Every week I try to find a small piece of honest hope, honest faith, honest love. Help me. “May these words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart be found true in thy sight, thou who art my rock and my redeemer.”

Why do we do this? Easter I mean. If you ask the fellow who visited two weeks ago, we shouldn’t because we are not Christians. For him, Christian means loyalty to Jesus as the Messiah who was himself divine and appeared on earth to reconcile humanity to God by offering himself as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of all people. There’s more to it than that of course, but all those who call themselves Christian affirm this notion. And if that’s what Christian means, then we are not. And we should not honor Easter, or Christmas for that matter.

But we do celebrate Easter and Christmas, which means either than we are bald hypocrites or that we are Christians and don’t admit it. Tough choice.

I say we are Christians, but before you rise up with torches and pitchforks, I also say those who are aren’t. They are the unbelievers not us. Yes, I do mean that all those Christians - over a billion people - are wrong, and I am right. In all probability I will not persuade them, but there is a chance I can persuade you, and that will be enough.

Jesus himself supplies the proof in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Let’s take a hard look at it, then.

A lawyer (meaning a skeptic of Jesus) asks how to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies with a question, and the answer are well-known Jewish commandments to love God and neighbor. Jesus then says, ‘You’re good.’ But the lawyer presses the issue with another question, ‘who is my neighbor?’ which Jesus answers by telling the parable.

We see that a neighbor is whoever needs us, not just those who are known to us. Humanity trumps tribe. The lawyer admits that neighbor is as neighbor does. Nice.

But the parable holds more than this. Notice that Jesus chooses three distinct characters, much as a joke that starts with a priest a minister and a rabbi. Something about them being a Priest and Levite and a Samaritan is significant. The Priest and Levite are at among the privileged, officials in the temple. They should set a good example, right? That’s the message we today take away. But what we do not realize two millennia later is that they are strictly enjoined from touching blood or corpses. The robbed man, ‘half dead’ as the story says’ would defile them. It is not their haughtiness that prevents them from acting, it is society itself.

By challenging the status quo, as he broke rules about eating on the Sabbath and such, Jesus shows how the most powerful people are really powerless. Perhaps the Priest and the Levite wanted to act, but were constrained. To make this current, imagine seeing a broken down car by the road but we have to get somewhere on time. The poor kid wants to mow our lawn but we already have a lawn service. A fellow asks for money but we suspect he will drink it instead of buy diapers. Let’s be honest, we all have our Priest and Levite moments, more than we like to admit, when ‘common sense’ overrides the human sense that we ought to do something.

And we’re not done. Logically, the person who helped should be a mere Jew, a lowly peasant who comes along and does for the robbed man what the mighty and powerful could not. That is the message we have heard in other parables. It would fit with the social critique of the high and mighty. But Jesus says it was a Samaritan that saved the man. And that is what makes this the most radical, even dangerous parable of them all.

Samaritans were the lowest of the low, heretics to the Jews. There is a long story about why, but they were despised by Judean Jews who avoided them and feared them. To get a sense of how this affects the original story let me tell it another way, one that approximates the situation.

“Pastor Terry Jones is visiting Manhattan when some hoodlums see him walking. beat him up, snatch his wallet and take off. They leave Jones unconscious and bloody on the street.

"Rudy Giuliani comes along, sees Jones but thinks he might be a drunk or a druggie and thinks that the cops will be along soon enough. Besides, if some reporters see him it will be all over the paper.

"Not long after that Donald Trump comes along, and he too sees someone in the street, and though he does not mind publicity, helping people thing will soften his image as a tough guy.

"After that Feisal Rauf, the imam of the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ comes along and sees the man in the road. He stops to help him and recognizes him of course. But even so he takes King to a doctor, presses some money into his hand and says, ‘take care of him and if you need more money, I’ll be back to settle the bill."

Not just a person, but the least likely person, the least wanted, and for Terry Jones the least trusted person, will be your savior. When people first heard the story they were utterly confused. “We know the high and mighty don’t care, but you can’t mean that Samaritans (Muslims/gays/blacks/drug addicts/illegal immigrants/liberals/atheists) are our saviors?”

Yes. That is precisely what Jesus is saying. The outcast is the savior. Over and over again, Jesus subverts the world around him – religious laws, class boundaries, social mores, and eventually political authority. He speaks and lives a subversive life, and at Easter time we see this all enacted as Jesus goes from folk hero on Palm Sunday to vandal in the temple, to accused traitor, and ultimately criminal execution. At every turn he is rejected by more and more, ultimately by his own closest followers. The suppressed and subversive message of Jesus is that the outcast is the messiah.

Turning to our times, we live in a nation that is overwhelmingly Christian in numbers and in culture. It is the establishment, with the wealth and power of society. Those who would be true to Jesus’s subversive message can only be those who are outcast by Christianity – the rejected, the unwelcome, the heretic and infidel - people like us. Not because we are smart or good or better in any sense, but because we are outcasts. In a Christian society the most "Christian" people are those who are not Christian by official measures.

Why is this? The message of Jesus is essentially this, ‘wake up.’ Outcasts cannot sleep to reality. While the rich relax, the poor are awake to hunger, while the favored are celebrated the rejected are awake to loneliness, while the powerful are admired the despised are awake to hatred. Not that these hard facts are more real than love or hope or peace, but the powerful and privileged forget that these hard things are real. They are asleep to the world beyond their view.

You might say they are the real atheists, for their faith is in a God or Christ that reflects only their own image. Nicolai Beryaev once said, “We find the most terrible form of atheism, not in the militant and passionate struggle against the idea of God himself, but in the practical atheism of everyday living, in indifference and torpor. We often encounter these forms of atheism among those who are formally Christians.”

More simply, and applying the parable standard, Christian is as Christian does. In this country, paradoxically, many "Christians" are like the Priest and Levite who are not very Christian at all. They turn from the poor and the suffering because it would diminish their power, defile their position, cost them money, or just ruin their clothes.

But outcasts truly know what the world is like. They have eyes to see and ears to hear. They are the real Christians.
- Like the poor black man and wife who cooked barbeque for some friends and me because we were replacing his roof. They could not afford it but they did it anyway.
- They are the gay couple I know who foster care children ‘straight’ couples will not take. But if they want to adopt them, they are not suitable.
- They are the day laborers who earn their illegal pittance and send half of it back to Mexico or Guatemala.
- And the Sudanese boys who walked across the desert to escape being child soldiers,
- The people of South Africa who could have taken racial revenge and didn’t,
- The nameless man who stopped the tank in Tienanmen,
- The thousands who ended Egyptian autocracy,
- The mothers of the plaza in Buenos Aires,
- The Muslims who keep coming here even while Terry Jones reviles them,
- The Jews who have endured two millennia of hate,
- The atheists endure every thoughtless proclamation that we are a Christian nation.

These are the ones who save the world by loving and pleading and forgiving and failing and getting up and trying again. If neighbor is as neighbor does, then Christian is as Christian does. And yes, we are the real Christians.

In the psalm my great predecessor Duncan Littlefair quoted every week, “This is a day which the lord has made,” are two other great verses that belong to us as well. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord,” are the words shouted by the peasants as Jesus rode into Jerusalem in mock glory. Last week I said that all of us ‘come in the name of the lord,’ are messengers and messiahs who deserve to be honored like a king.

The other verse is this one, ‘The stone rejected by the builder will become the foundation." That is my Easter message for you.

We - the despised and rejected by the powerful, those pushed to the margins for being female or poor, ignored for being black or young or disabled, reviled for being infidels or atheists or gay or socialists – are the latter day Samaritans. We are the ones who bind up the wounds of the world because the powerful cannot even see them. We are the disciples of Jesus, whether we know it or not, whether we care or not, whether we want to be or not.

Because we, the outcasts, are the church of latter day Samaritans – the rejected stones that are the foundation of the kingdom of heaven. Let us be bold enough to say so and go forth to build it.

23 April 2011

Perspective or Parallax?

Dear Reader,

You know I live in Grand Rapids Michigan, right? Well, a dear friend from back east came to visit this weekend and one reason he came is to see the Gerald Ford Museum. He 'collects' presidential sites and this one was among the few he had not seen.

Anyway, we spent the afternoon there. And noticed something I did not the first time. President Ford ran on a lower taxes platform. Now, I did vote in this election, it was my second presidential election in fact, but as a southern born 'yellow dog' Democrat then (and still now in case you want to know) my vote was already cast. Besides, I got married less than a month before the election and taxes were far from my mind.

Seeing it today, though, reminded me that lower taxes and smaller government have been on the Republican Agenda for a long time. They may not have succeeded (I believe that 'government' was larger at the end of both Reagan and Bush 2, and taxes may have been higher at the end of Reagan and Bush 1) but the ideas of lower taxes and smaller government have been Republican goals for at least 35 years.

The cynical part of me ("you have a cynical side?" I hear you saying facetiously)grudgingly admires this for its political savvy because who actually wants more taxes and more government? But I shall be both fair and balanced and assume the Republican Party is sincere in this as well as shrewd.

The issue, though, is not big or small but right or wrong. That is, how much of government and therefore tax revenue do we need to do the things we believe we must as a nation? It is the lack of a common vision of government itself that is hobbling us.

Fifty or so years ago the differences between the major parties were more about means not ends, about how best to govern. Today they argue about the end of government itself, but, and this is vital THEY DO NOT SAY SO. By addressing only the size of government and taxes they avoid or evade the underlying question of what government should do. They parties end up only throwing the same old round house punches in the hope that one can knock out the other and win.

The country is everyone, and whoever wins has to live with whoever loses. Pretty simple idea and any couple who ever argued knows this truth of this. But apparently Congress does not get it.

Maybe we should build great big dorms for Congress and make them live in in double rooms like freshmen, one liberal and one conservative. OK,it probably won't help but if would make for a really cool reality show at least.

18 April 2011

Gloomy Outside, Sunnier Inside

Yes Reader,

Today it is snowing outside (a fact I find hard not to take personally on April 18) but the virus that snagged me last week is in full retreat. All last week the weather outside was delightful while the 'weather' inside was frightful. This week the reverse will be true. The snow will quit but cold rain beckons. The few foolish daffodils that bloomed last week are looking very shriveled now.

I spoke about my illness in church yesterday, reflecting as I did with you folks, on how illness abruptly recalls us to our complex corporal nature. Not only are there billions of cells in us, merrily going about their business without any awareness of the person they create, there are even more bacteria and viruses and mites and stuff living in us as we do on the earth. And they, more than our cells, live actual lives in equal ignorance of the person they inhabit.

Illness is a great teacher of truth. We seem to be very able, capable, powerful creatures, in charge of our bodies and lives. Then, in a twinkling (as Paul and the KJV put it) we find our bodies revolting or unraveling. The unity we possessed comes undone in hours if not moments. And like snow on an April day we are tempted to see it as deliberate, maybe some conspiracy directed at us as an individual.

How naive and arrogant. Viruses and bacteria are just being themselves, mindless and innocent of their effect. That we sicken and even die because of that is only a tragedy to us humans. To them it is not even an event.

What really bothers us about illness is that it insists we give up the fantasy of our majesty. Eventually, we are all undone by things so small we cannot perceive them - microbes, telomeres, genes, rust.

I for one am renewed in my amazement that it does not fall apart sooner and faster than it does.

13 April 2011

Sunny Outside, Gloomy Inside

Dear Reader

I am home sick today, which is quite rare. Thought it was not enough sleep at first, but as soon as I started walking the malaise of real illness rose up like a swell on a dark ocean. After dringing some fluids and thoughtfully measuring my state of being, I slowly returned up the stairs and now sit in the bed, computer on lap. Even with my glasses the world looks fuzzy. The keyboard is unusually hard and makes a nasty racket.

This has happened before, feeling fine in the evening and lousy in the morning. Most memorably was ten years ago in Geneva Switzerland. I awoke feeling awful like this. Two years before that in Salt Lake City it happened for the first time and I chalked it up to delayed altitude sickness. But Geneva is not that high. And West Michigan is not known for its alpine meadows either.

I am hoping that like those times and a few others in between, it will subside in a few hours. But this leaves me wondering what it is that can affect me so thoroughly without warning, and then vanish for years. Is there some little cabal of germs in my body somewhere, rubbing their sneaky hands, waiting for a time to pounce?

What I know of medicine and such tells me yes. We all have nasty germs in us all the time. That famous immune system is what keeps them from taking over. Still, this recurrent illness – a day or less of misery every 2 to 4 years – strikes me as odd. We are curious creatures, though. It may seem that our minds and emotions are the most curious part, until something unconscious and mysterious comes along to remind us that oddity is not a human thing. It is a living thing.

The brain overheats faster when sick, and I have two reports that must be written whether I am well or not, so this will have to be enough.

Be well, friends, and if not then try and ponder your oddity. I am. When I am not snoozing.

02 April 2011

"Mostly True" is Bad Enough

Dear Reader, I know that one should consider the source, but it turns out that native Michigan muckraker, Michael Moore is mostly right in his assertion that 400 families have more wealth than half of America's households. I heard it as 400 have more than 180 million, but the actually number of Americans in that 50% is soft. Households can vary in how many people are in them, right? So let's leave the number of people aside.

That 400 households can have so much, and 50% can have so little, is the point. Yes, even the rich work hard and no system of wealth redistribution is just, but we can even ignore the moral arguments from both sides and see this as a simply pragmatic problem.

The key to preserving a free state is that every citizen is politically equal to every other one. Notice I did not say socially or economically. That may be good, even just, but practically speaking, a free state cannot give more political power to some than to others. Slavery was the great example for us, memorably summarized by Abraham Lincoln when he said, "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free."

He was right. Great wealth brings great power. Why this is true is both self evident and too complicated to show here. But this fact produces two further facts:

- When 400 families have more wealth than the half of the country, the poor have no reason to believe the nation has their interests at heart.
- When 400 families have more wealth than half of the country, the rich have no need for government at all. One has no stake in the nation, the other has no need.

How is this different from when Lincoln quoted scripture in the same speech, saying "A house divided against itself cannot stand?" I have no answer. But I have an idea.

Release their tax forms. The 400 I mean. We need to know who they are and what they have. The price of power in a democracy is scrutiny. We ask elected officials to reveal their stake, why should the unelected powers?

Democracy means that citizens can choose different political leaders if they don't like them. Those of great wealth are just as powerful in their way. Notice that the 400 are fewer in number than the US Congress and probably know each other even if we don't know them. Since we can't take away their power we at least deserve to know who they are and how they got their power.

But it's not going to happen, of course.