Monthly Archives: October 2013

Luke 8:26-39.

Luke 8:26-39–October 27, 2013

‘Jesus asked the man who had demons, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to command them to go to back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

Well, how appropriate is this, beloved? Right on the front porch of Halloween we are presented with one of the creepiest stories in the New Testament. St. Luke’s account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac is a masterpiece of the macabre!

So why pay attention to it? Haven’t we, living in a skeptical and ridiculously materialistic world, gotten beyond all this mumbo-jumbo about demons and crazed pigs?

Well, we have, actually. But getting beyond the demonic hasn’t made our world an understandable and coherent place—quite the opposite. In the western world most educated people have ceased to regard evil as Real. That’s one of the many ways our mind-set has been altered during the last three hundred years. People don’t deny that bad things happen—it would be hard to deny that! But they tend to regard evil as a soft subjective reality rather than a hard objective one, as something that comes from inside our heads rather than something separate from us. And in the process evil—especially great evil—has become harder and harder for us to explain.  

For thousands of years people didn’t have a problem explaining evil. Jesus and the gospel writers certainly didn’t. For them evil was something “out there,” something with a will of its own, something actively hostile to all that is good.

On that score we have changed our collective minds, and demons have been banished to the world of imagination.  A “paradigm shift” has taken place—that’s the sexy term for it. Modern people—liberally-educated people like you and me who speak English and think and communicate using computers—tend to regard evil as the work of sick or badly socialized human beings rather than “demons”—individual or “legion.” And because evil lives only in our messed-up heads, modern people tend to regard it as something “fixable.”        

Are you still with me?

            So let’s take an example as fresh as newly spilled blood. Yesterday the New York Times reported that there has been yet another attack on Christians in Egypt. This time twelve people were seriously injured and four were killed when gunmen on a motorcycle sprayed a crowd leaving a church after a wedding. This is nothing new. Coptic Christians in Egypt have increasingly become scapegoats for the anger of the Muslim Brotherhood over the ouster of President Morsi. Two of the dead were sisters, eight years old and twelve.  These two girls were certainly not responsible in any shape or form for the coup that overthrew the former president—but what difference did that make? They were Christians and they were there—that is what mattered. The gunmen were masked—not surprisingly—and no one has thus far claimed responsibility.

So who is responsible? Well, the gunmen are, of course, or rather their history and environment is to blame. That’s what we immediately assume. Their minds have been warped by poverty and lack of proper education, and overheated by fanatical religion. That would certainly be the answer of the New York Times, if it were to offer one. If they were nice, clean, well-educated, religiously skeptical people like those who read the Times, they would not have done such a terrible thing. Education, economic development, more science and less religion would fix the problem.

But the truth is that clean, well-educated, religiously skeptical people are often not at all nice, and they get up to some to get up to some pretty horrific things when the opportunity represents itself. They too can be seized and possessed by evil and by the illusion of their own absolute goodness. And all you need to offer as proof of that is the well-worn example of what clean, well-educated, religiously skeptical people in Nazi Germany did—or let be done–to the Jews. That’s a good example, but numerous others abound.

Political radicalism and religious fundamentalism can certainly be the tools of evil, but they are not evil itself. Evil itself is bigger than that, and much tougher. Education is always better than ignorance. That’s why evil people oppose it. But learning does not make any of us better. By educating people you can improve their grammar, make them more interesting to talk to and better with computers. You can improve their material lives, but you cannot make them good. Our long march of process has not made us any better—or any worse, for that matter.

Human beings are what we are.

Looking back on my life, I have to admit that perhaps being a Lutheran pastor for thirty years didn’t teach me everything it might have, but it did drive home the truth that people who are nice, clean, well-educated people can also be very wicked. That, of course,  won’t come as a great shock to any of you. But thirty years ago I did buy into the idea that all people needed was a chance to be good and they would be. I have changed my mind on that score.

I still believe that most people are responsible for their actions most of the time, but the mystery of evil goes well beyond what goes on in our little heads, beloved. There is something actually out there, beyond ourselves, something that is Objectively Evil, greater than the sum of our individual badness. It impinges on our everyday lives, and it is not “fixable” by human efforts alone. That does not remove responsibility to fight against it; it just forces us to understand that evil is bigger than we are and much, much more powerful.

Wise people in ancient times took that for granted. People outside our western corner of the world believe that.  Whatever else they believe in, you can be sure that those Egyptian gunmen on their motorcycle undoubtedly believe that there is such a thing as Objective Evil.  But that belief does not make them any worse—or better. They just are what we might all be, victims of the same evil powers that tormented that Gerasene demonic so long ago, were it not for what?

Education? A good job? A nice, “liberal” home environment? Those things would, of course, have done those gunmen no harm—but the source of what is good and evil in the world lies somewhere else, outside this visible world, more deeply embedded in reality itself.  

So that takes us back around to the gospel story. The man that Jesus met that day in the country of the Gerasenes was a victim of forces outside himself. If the term “demons” seems too weird and mythological, we might call them “the powers of disorder and self-destruction.” But they were independent of the man himself and somehow they had “infected” him and taken him over. They gave him great physical strength so that he could break “chains and shackles,” but they also made him tragically vulnerable, figuratively as well as literally naked. They became his life and his family, and at the same time they killed him. They forced him to leave his home and his community and live with them “among the tombs.”

When Jesus appeared on the scene, those evil powers immediately recognized his authority and they knew he had come to destroy them. But they beseeched him not to send them “back into the abyss”—in Bible language, the chaos and confusion that preceded God’s creation. Presumably that is where they had come from and that is where they will eventually end up. Instead they begged the Lord not to send them back there just yet, and for some mysterious reason he doesn’t. Presumably it is for the same reason that God still allows evil to exercise its power in the world. Instead Jesus sends the demons into a nearby herd of swine, which promptly hurl themselves into the sea.

No one said this isn’t a mysterious story, especially to our modern way of thinking. The inquiring part of ourselves asks—How did those evil powers get such a hold of the man in the first place? Who can say? The evangelist doesn’t try. But when people leave windows open in their souls some very bad things can sneak in. Anger, substance abuse, permissive sex, distorted forms of religion are all openings through which the powers of evil can enter human lives.  Even the nicest of us—and we know who we are, don’t we?—sometimes leave a window open a crack and in they creep. And when that happens, we do and say things that we later deeply regret.  Afterwards we ask in dismay—What in the world possessed me?  

What indeed?     

There are much that is mysterious in this gospel story, but one thing remains clear. The man’s tormentors come from outside and so does his deliverance. Evil isn’t Real, in the usual sense of the word. God is the creator of everything, and all that he creates is good. But evil remains very potent in its chaotic unreality, stronger than we are in and of ourselves. The only thing that can overcome it is the power of the Holy Spirit.

That power that was eminently at work in Jesus of Nazareth, and it still is active in the world today, where his Spirit is still fighting gallantly against selfishness and cruelty, political radicalism and religious fundamentalism with the weapons of moderation, kindliness, forgiveness, and—dare I say it?—love. His power will ultimately triumph—but it hasn’t yet.

The existence of evil in the world is mysterious, but it is not inexplicable. It is out there. And in is in here, in ourselves. Both light and darkness are part of our selves. We are all creatures of both the day and the night—all of us. There is no point in denying it—indeed when we try to pretend to be perfect or even perfectible we get into deep trouble. If we deny the dark side of ourselves, beloved, we make ourselves hypocrites—and worse, we join forces of those who shoot at schoolgirls from motorcycles.

That is the reason I unapologetically defend Halloween against its many devout critics who want to banish it or—worse yet–turn it into a bland and boring “Harvest Festival.”  As a child I loved Halloween and have by no means gotten over it. I am going to be a dead cowboy this year at the Friends of Honeymoon Island Halloween in the Park, and I have to leave you to put on my disguise, which is a masterpiece of the macabre, if I say so myself.

As we put on our disguises and put out our jack-o-lanterns, Halloween reminds us who and what we really are—fallen humanity. It calls out to something in ourselves. That is the reason it still has such endurance and growing appeal in a society that has tried to banish objective evil to the psychiatrist’s couch.

In our heart of hearts we know that evil is “out there” and “in here.” When we deny it, we embrace it. That is the paradox we live with. When we recognize evil at work in ourselves, in our churches, and in the world, we can claim the power of the Holy Spirit to fight it, and the Spirit will. But it is battle you and I are not going to win, not in this life. As long as we live we will always be a mixture of light and darkness. We are people of the dawn.

You have been so attentive up to now that I will tell you a Halloween story—a true one. Years ago, when we were living in Bradenton, Florida, we always had lots of trick-or-treaters. Hundreds, in fact. One particular Halloween I did what I always do; I armed myself with scads of Milky Way Bars, which are my personal favorite, and waited for motley crowd to come. I just love seeing the kids in their costumes—bandits and princesses and vampires and ghosts. In Bradenton there were lots of migrant kids from the fields in the eastern part of the county too, dressed up in scraps of cast-off costumes, some barefoot in the chilly night. But all of them were filled with excitement and joy of Halloween. Who would deny any child that?

By eleven o’clock, however, they had stopped coming. Penny had finally gotten our own sugar-drunken kids to bed, and I was alone with my feet up in front of the fire eating Milky Way bars and enjoying the sweet afterglow of the Halloween.

Then suddenly there was a loud knocking at the door. I checked my watch. It was nearly midnight. Too late for trick-or-treaters. But taking my bowl of chocolate with me I answered the summons nevertheless. But there, on our front porch were not children, but two grown men, dressed convincingly as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and they were armed. I grew up around guns. Back on the ranch my father kept a Peacemaker in his desk drawn for shooting what he called “varmits.” Guns have their own  smell, especially if they have been recently fired. And these guns were really real and they were pointed right at my belly. I raised my one free hand slowly into the air. 

“All right, now, mister,” snarled one of the strangers, “your candy or your life.”

“Easy choice,” I replied and dumped the rest of my Milky Way bars into the sack they held out. Then the bandits laughed, uproariously, as if this had been the best joke ever made, and disappeared into the night.

I know some of you may doubt that this really happened. Some of you will say that it was a purely subjective event, a product of my overheated imagination, fueled by too much chocolate. And I’m not surprised by your disbelief. We live in a skeptical and ridiculously materialistic world.

But it did happen. It did—really, really. I can’t prove it, but I know it. And it only goes to prove that the life we share, beloved, is very strange indeed, dangerous and the same time wonderful.  As Shakespeare says through the mouth of Hamlet—“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” There is room in such a universe for both angels and demons and much else, and the mysterious still breaks into our nice, well-educated, skeptical lives whether we like it or not. To some people it might be a scary thought, but to me it is thrilling. God would not have made a boring universe, and in this one, anything can happen.

Happy Halloween!

 

 

 

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Luke 17

Luke 17:11-19—October  19, 2013

            One of the ten lepers whom Jesus had healed “turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.”

            I have a good friend whom life has dealt a bad hand. He’s not alone in that, of course. Many people have been betrayed and slandered unjustly. Many people have been pushed from the top of life’s ladder and landed hard. What is remarkable about my friend is that he seems to be so completely without bitterness.

            Now I have to admit that I am always suspicious of people who seem to be too good to be true. It didn’t seem quite possible that he could be so detached from his own life. So I asked him if he wasn’t angry, considering everything that has happened. Didn’t he feel some rancor toward those who treated him so badly?

And at first he seemed genuinely surprised, as if he had never really considered the question before. He had to stop think before he answered.  “Not really. I suppose it’s because I try to be thankful for what I have. Every night I fall asleep before I finish making a list of all the good things I have to be thankful for. And when I wake up in the morning I have a hard time remembering all the bad things.”

More productive than counting sheep I had to admit, but I had to press the point a little further. It still seemed a little too good to be true

 “But you must get mad sometimes when you think about what has happened to you. Heaven knows you have enough people to be mad at. You have a right to be angry.”

“Sometimes I am,” he granted. “Sometimes I do. But I don’t waste time throwing stones at the moon.”

So I, as one who has wasted considerable time and energy hurling stones at the moon, now had to stop and consider. Anger is a sickness in the mind and in the blood. I know a number of people who are suffering acutely with it.  And if in this life wellness means getting over it–whatever our “it” may be–thankfulness is probably the key to our healing. It doesn’t change anything—not even God can change the past—but thankfulness does shift our focus from the darkness to the light.

Thankfulness, as a desirable quality, is by no means the sole possession of Christians. The Roman orator Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” A pagan could recognize its crucial importance, but disciples of Jesus often fail to do so. So the story in Luke’s gospel about the healing of the ten lepers comes to remind us.

Remind us of what? Of the simplest of truths, that although blessings are common, thankfulness is rare.

In the story Jesus is traveling in the border country between Galilee and Samaria, where the population was mixed. Ten lepers approach him. As lepers they were required by Jewish law to maintain a distance between themselves and “normal” people. If they got too close they ran the risk of being stoned. They were also require to cry out, “Unclean!” in order to warn the unwary of their condition.

This the ten in Luke’s story do not do. Instead—on the basis of some knowledge of who he is—they call out to Jesus for mercy calling him “Master,” a title often used by his disciples. It means more than “Teacher,” but less than “Lord.” And in certain ways the ten lepers are very like the disciples. They are a “mixed” group. They are a “sick” group. They are like us. They are in desperate need of healing—like us—although we are not always so fully aware of it. Their “ten-ness” reminds the reader of the ten tribes of ancient Israel. The people of God had received grace upon grace—like us–but they were not always thankful.     

“Go and show yourselves to the priests,” Jesus tells them. In the gospels Jesus operates within the Jewish law, and according to the Law of Moses only the cultic officials in Jerusalem, could certify that a leper had been healed and restore him or her to the community. The command is in fact a test of their faith, and they pass. Disciples are sent and they go. Their obedience is what makes them disciples.

And then a miracle of healing takes place, quietly and elegantly, on the way.    

Now the story changes direction—literally. One of the lepers, when he realizes that he had been healed, turns back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks him. Which returns us to our first point—thankfulness is rare. There is a mind-blowing difference between the greatness of our blessings and our thankfulness for them. Even Jesus expresses surprise—whether he felt it or not. “Were not ten made clean?” he asks. “But the other nine, where are they?”  

We the readers of the story have already been told how this man was different from the others. In that mixed group outcasts, he was a Samaritan.  He was an untouchable among untouchables. Jews of Jesus time heartily detested Samarians as impure heretics, worse than gentiles, and were perfectly horrid to them whenever and wherever the opportunity arose. 

For their part ancient Samaritans did not worship in the sanctuary in Jerusalem and refused to accept the authority of its officials. This man saw no reason to go to there and show himself to the priests, who would almost certainly have turned him away with scorn. Instead he returned directly to the immediate agent of his salvation, to Jesus, and fell at his feet to thank him. And that is what made him singular—that alone.

All the lepers had the faith necessary to call Jesus “Master,” beg for his mercy, and obey his command to go. They were all healed. (In the Bible to be saved and to be healed is expressed with the same word.)

So they were all saved by their faith—like us–and were all in that sense disciples. But for their healing—and ours–to be complete, the story suggests that more is required of disciples than a willingness to accept the gifts of God. And that something is thankfulness, the parent of all other virtues, as Cicero calls it. Jesus says to the man, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

So what does this ancient story say to us right now, beloved?

Well, it certainly calls us to consider our own lives, “the condition our condition is in,” as the song says.

The Samaritan leper had without doubt been dealt a bad hand. Being a Samaritan and a leper meant that he felt doubly the condition of being a castaway, a pariah dog. He had a right to be angry for the way he had been treated—and undoubtedly he was. But when he realized that he had been healed he was grateful, and his thankfulness shifted the focus of his life to Jesus and away from his past.

We all struggle with bitterness and anger. That is part of being human and considerably less than perfect. But as disciples of the crucified Lord, in his light we can see that forgiveness is an absolute necessity for healing in any sense to take place in our lives. We may pray for it, but the bitterness does not go away. What is the problem?

            Well, the problem is that thankfulness is rare. Too rare. It is so simple that is hardly bears repeating–the only thing that can cast out the bitterness in our lives is gratefulness.

It is sometimes necessary to express out anger, but forgiveness never comes with rehashing the past. Nothing can change it. But forgiveness and complete healing come when the focus of our lives is shifted away from our past history to the immediate agent of our salvation, to Jesus.

It is not difficult to find reasons to praise God. They abound. We will always fall asleep before we finish listing them. It is a discipline to give thanks always. It is a chore. It is never works perfectly, but it is a lot more effective than throwing stones at the moon.

 

 

 

 

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Habukkuk 2:4

Sermon on Habakkuk 2:4—October 10, 2013

The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk writes: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”

I am in the process of packing for another trip—this time to Baltimore and then out to western Maryland to see the fall leaves. I am frankly delighted.

Some people—and I include myself in this–love the very act of traveling. They get uneasy if they are stuck in one place too long. They have what is aptly referred to as “wanderlust.” They are possessed by a need to get up and go, not for any particular reason, but like the bear that went over the mountain, to see what they can see. They’re like my wife’s grandmother. When she was alive people used to say, “When the car leaves home, Ethel is in it.”  Robert Louis Stevenson, who suffered from an acute case, explained the condition very well– “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”

I suppose I picked up my own case of wanderlust from my father. Back on the ranch in North Dakota, life was often marked by a tedious routine of responsibilities and chores. But nearly every Sunday after church, we took a drive somewhere. My father loved to see new territory. He liked to look at the crops and the cattle. He liked to stop and read historical markers. He liked different food. Different people. Different horizons. The great affair was to move. He always favored west as a direction in which to go, and we would set off into the wilds of eastern Montana looking for heaven knows what. And we might drive for a hundred miles each way on a hot Sunday afternoon to get a hamburger in a jukebox joint or a soft ice cream cone at a Twisty-something.  And then we would turn around and go back home and start the routines of the week all over again.

Our earthly lives are a series of these circular jaunts, beloved—off to the grocery store, to the Home Depot, to the bank. They start at home and end up back at home. Sometimes they take us further afield–to Disney World, to the beach, to Paris. Sometimes we call them vacations, and we take them for pleasure. Or we call them tours, and take them to enlarge our experience of the world. Or we call them business trips, and take them for profit. The best of these trips are like a hit in baseball. They begin with the crack of contact made between the bat and ball, they produce the satisfaction of touching all the bases along the way, and they end with the relief of safely reaching home plate again. The worst of these circular trips—to court, to the hospital, to the nursing home–are literally a descent into hell. But we always intend—or at least hope—to come home again. But as we travel our minds are always tending back to the beginning, because no earthly trip is ever intended to go on forever.

Every human life is a series of this little trips, but some of us—those who “live by their faith”–are on a greater sort of journey, that journey is what makes you and me different. Peculiar, in a word. In addition to running in all those little circles, we are traveling on a more or less straight line that stretches on into infinity. We are on a journey that leads us toward  something we do not know—that we cannot know–toward a place we have never seen—nor can imagine–to a homeland to which has never been our home.  

All lesser trips are circular—and whether they are good and bad, profitable and useless, they are ultimately doomed to futility. That is not really such bad news, beloved; it is just the way it is. When we accept their futility, we can endure or enjoy those little trips for what they are. We just need to understand that they don’t take us anywhere. They just circle back on themselves endlessly, returning us again and again to where we started out. To ourselves.

That is what I have come to understand about the trip I am currently making, the trip called “retirement.”  It is in a very real sense a privileged trip, because mine is very comfortable retirement. Not everyone gets to take that trip so comfortably. I know that, and I try to remind myself to be grateful. But I have come to realize that retirement, which so many people see as an end, is like any other trip; it doesn’t go anywhere except back home again, home again, jiggety jig. Like every other earthly trip it is futile.

I am not being intentionally gloomy—just realistic. Actually I remain completely sold on travel. I believe that most of the circular trips you and I take in life are—on the whole—a lot of fun. I would still without a moment’s hesitation crawl into the back seat my father’s 1956 Pontiac and spend a hot summer’s afternoon touring the great outback of Montana. Life is, on the whole, what it was pronounced by God to be in the beginning—good.

Mae West is seldom quoted in sermons—much too seldom in my opinion. But Miss West once said—“You only live once. But if you do it right, once is enough.”  The circular trips we take can be great adventures if we take them boldly and don’t expect too much from them—or too little. But every tour—no matter how grand—is a trip to nowhere.

The single exception is the journey we take in search of the Really Real, the journey called faith. That journey is different from all others because it does not return to its beginning. It does not circle back upon itself. Those who “live by their faith” are on a journey toward a reality that completely transcends themselves. And that journey goes on and on forever, past the horizon we call death, and beyond it, deeper and deeper into the heart of Christ.

The scriptures talk about that infinite journey in many different ways. For instance, in the midst of a discussion of the faithfulness of Sarah and Abraham and the other mothers and fathers of the people of Israel, the author of the Book of Hebrews writes: “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they were thinking of the land they had left behind, they would have had an opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed he has prepared a city for them” (11:13b-14).

But the city—the New Jerusalem–is not a place as we imagine it with houses and streets—many mansions and streets of gold. It is the point of intersection between the horizontal line of our infinite journey and the vertical line of God’s eternal grace. Those two lines form a cross. The straight path of our infinite journey leads not to ourselves but to Jesus Christ, the God for us. 

            So what does all those boil down to in terms of our lives right here and now, beloved? Well, it suggests that we should resist the temptation to get too caught up the circular trips we take, both good and bad. We should pack light and take it easy and not linger too long on the way. We are, after all, “strangers and foreigners,” and toward these strange lands through which we travel we should cultivate an attitude of detachment.

That attitude is pretty difficult to master—I myself am still working on it–because the trips we take are pretty enthralling. They want to command our full attention. They say—“This is it! This trip you are on right now is what is really important—success or failure, marriage or divorce, child raising or child losing, surviving cancer or succumbing to it. This is your real life.” But that isn’t so. Sometimes–if the trip you are on is particularly awful–it certainly seems as if it going to last forever—but it never does. The only trip that goes on forever is our pilgrimage of faith.

People in earlier times went on long journeys to visit the places where Jesus Christ lived and died and see the relics of Christ and his saints. Sometimes pilgrims visited famous shrines–Canterbury or Santiago de Compostela—but the ultimate place of pilgrimage was always Jerusalem, the place where God’s life intersected our own. These pilgrimages were once in a lifetime affairs and intended to reflect in miniature the infinite journey of faith. They were long and arduous journeys undertaken to reach a place the travelers had never been before. They were undertaken without the expectation of return. Sometimes pilgrims would receive the last rites before setting out for Jerusalem, and their families regarded them as dead until they heard otherwise.

Yet there is every indication that these journeys of faith were exciting and joyous affairs. People laughed and told stories. Pilgrims of every class mixed freely. Barriers were let down. The past was forgiven. At its best it was close to what human life was intended to be.

You and I are on such a pilgrimage. When we find ourselves on the little circular trips we take in life, we need to recall that our pilgrimage does not end where it begins, it begins where it ends. And when our trips turn sour and bitter, we need to remember that there is a place beyond all this noise and confusion where there is peace. We are all together on our way to Jerusalem, and I am so glad of your company on the journey.

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1 Timothy 2: 1-17

In his first letter to his disciple Timothy St. Paul writes: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”

It is hard to believe that when Paul is writing these words to Timothy he is very deeply concerned with the well-being of “kings and all who are in high places,” under whose authority both he and his “loyal child in the faith” would eventually die as martyrs.

Of course he didn’t know what the future held in store for him—none of us do–but he was not a person who lived with many illusions. Not on that score at least. He had already felt the hostility of the Roman authorities. Paul wasn’t naïve. He was certainly well enough aware of what can happen to those who obey their conscience under a totalitarian regime. Look what had happened to Jesus! He understood the raw truth that self-protection is in the nature of all authority. Period. Even a relatively benign government like our own will search out to destroy those it perceives as a threat to itself—that is certainly the lesson we can draw from its treatment of “leakers” like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning.

Now whether you regard those leakers of government secrets as heroes or traitors is a separate question. The fact remains—political power is always ruthless in its desire to protect itself. It is neither loving nor loveable. Power in the church is no different. Petty powers in the church will also try to crush those who oppose them—as some of you have had occasion to discover. Self-protection is in the nature of “kings and all who are in high places.” It is as true today and it was in St. Paul’s time.

So he could well have cursed the Roman Empire and its minions, all who routinely crushed the life out of those—like Jesus and his early followers–whom it perceived as dangerous. Paul could have damned the emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Nero—cruel tyrants and vicious persecutors. But quite the opposite. Instead he urges “first of all . . . that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” be made for them. And why? Precisely because they were not his primary concern. Paul’s over-riding preoccupation is always and everywhere with the Church, with “the command of God our Savior” to proclaim “Christ Jesus our hope.” Everything else must serve that end. So Paul urges the Church to pray for the government—even a tyrannical government–because of the order it represents.

Order is a holy thing. Making and keeping order is what God is up to—his will that we pray may be done on earth as it is in heaven. Creation represents God’s a victory over the forces of chaos. In the beginning God acts to bring order out of a “formless void and darkness”—and everywhere that order is established God is at work. And government—even the government of stupid and evil people—is one of the ways God creates order and makes the world a bearable place for human beings. The opposite of government is confusion and sinful human nature gone crazy. A just government is of course better than a tyrannical and cruel one, but so as far as St. Paul concerned, any government is always better than no government.

Order is crucial to the preaching of the gospel and necessary if we are to lead “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”  So Paul commands the Church—and that means you and me–to pray and give thanks “for kings and all who are in high positions,” not because he would approve of their personal morality or their public policies, but rather because their existence makes the world livable and because respect is what is “due” them. In his Letter to the Romans Paul writes: “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (13:7). It is not up to any of us to decide for ourselves whether we are to respect and honor everyone, especially those in authority over us—for the apostle Paul the command comes from the Lord, the Holy Spirit.  It is a directive he takes for granted we will follow—our most basic Christian duty. Respect is another name for love.

So it is ironic that these days many of those who make the biggest show of being disciplined, serious Christians are the most disrespectful of our leaders, as if carrying the name of Christ were a license to say anything they want in whatever  tone they want to use.

Now that I am retired I frequently have the opportunity to listen to other people preach. It is, to say the least, a mixed blessing. If they simply stuck to the gospel about “Christ Jesus our hope,” everything would be fine. But much of the time they don’t. I attended a Roman Catholic Mass just before the last election where we did not pray and give thanks for those in authority over us. Instead the priest spent the entire homily railing against President Obama, especially in reference to the Affordable Care Act. His harangue was frequently interrupted with applause and shouts of “right on!” from some members the congregation. Now I expect that priest thought he was being a prophet, whereas he was really just being a puppet of the demagogues. Not only did he reveal that he didn’t really know what he was talking about, it was also clear that he was drawing on the rhetoric of certain media scallywags who have turned disrespect and libel into an industry.

The command of the Lord to respect and pray for our leaders goes for all of us, no matter what our political opinions may be. When we disrespect those who have been placed over us—whether we voted for them or not–we are disrespecting the Holy Spirit. Respect does not imply liking or agreement or even consent. It is just respect–R-E-S-P-E-C-T–like the lady sings about. But nothing less will do.

Now let’s be honest. We all have slammed the government—local, state, and national–and there may well be a sound basis for our critiques. Government is a reflection of our own sinful human nature. When we find fault with it we find fault with ourselves. But all of us have also gone beyond criticism to belittle and insult our leaders. As if we ourselves were above criticism! But we will never have better government until you and I are a more respectful people. And we will never really find peace in our hearts and minds as long as we cherish pride and hatred more than humility and respect.

St. Paul was not under any illusions about the “evil empire” under which he and his fellow Christians lived. He knew all about the ruthlessness and cruelty of those who governed it. When he writes to Timothy, he might have let loose a flood of abuse and bitter satire against the emperor and his minions. But instead he commands the church to pray for them, knowing that you cannot hate those you pray for. And only insofar as we are able to let go of our rancor and self-righteousness can we share in the Resurrected Life of Christ.

As we get older it is easy for all of us to fall prey to “age rage,” to let bitterness and disillusionment get control of us. We all know people who have done that. And it is easy to understand where “age rage” comes from. There are so many humiliating things about getting older. It hurts our pride to become more and more dependent and less and less able to do things for ourselves. In countless subtle ways older people are humiliated and belittled by our society. It is natural to want to fight back.  But for followers of Jesus aging is a call to practice respect for everyone and to live with humility and without bitterness.

Disillusionment is a natural part of aging, letting go of the fantasies and daydreams we had been clinging to. We either let them go voluntarily, or they get taken away from us, ruthlessly, one by one. But that process is a great opportunity to grow in our faith. When we let go of those empty dreams and fruitless wishes, we are finally able–maybe for the first times in our lives–to find contentment in the place where we find ourselves. Right here, right now. And when our delusions are dispelled, we are able to see “Christ Jesus our hope” more clearly than ever before.

Order is a holy thing. It is the will of God for us and for the whole universe. Aging gives us a chance to put things in order—not as a way of getting ready to die, but as a way of beginning to live that New Life that Jesus promises. With age we can at last be free to get rid of the things we don’t need and put what remains in its proper place. Aging can give us the insight to distinguish the important from the trivial, and the wisdom to concern ourselves with what really matters. Growing up is never easy at whatever age we do it.  It always takes the grace of the Holy Spirit. But aging is the last great gift of time that allows us to establish the will of God in our hearts once and for all and then take eternity gently by the hand. And in finally tying up the loose ends and tidying up the messes in aging we can at last find that peace, which, as a wise philosopher once said, is always the by-product of good order.

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