Category Archives: Discipleship

Herod’s Choice. Mark 6:14-29

“The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for his guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.”

He didn’t want to do it–that much is clear. The Gospel writer is at pains to tell us that he “was deeply grieved” over the prospect of having that good man John executed. Herod’s problem was that he knew full well the difference between good and evil. And when you know what is good you are equipped to make a righteous choice and responsible to do it. But upon one little word–“yet”–this whole lurid story of human weakness and evil hinges.

Herod was saddened, and yet there were other considerations that came into play–political considerations, personal ones too. There was the rash and impetuous oath the king had sworn in front of his guests, a promise to give a spoiled child virtually anything she wanted. And like every petty politician of his sort, Herod felt the need to appear strong. And like every parent, even the worst, he felt the pressure to keep his promises, no matter rash and ill-considered. He had gotten himself into a corner, and now there was the devil to pay. The right response to the girl’s viperous request for the head of John the Baptist on a platter was obvious, as most right responses are. No. But he said yes instead, to his eternal regret.

This story would be just a salacious footnote in Mark’s Gospel story if Herod’s problem were not ours too, beloved. Too often we also let our value as human beings be determined by the worth we have in the eyes of others. It is an immature way of thinking; it is the way teenagers think. In many ways this is as much a story about immaturity as about weakness and evil. Way too often our choices like Herod’s are determined at what others think and not by what we know to be right.

So we have two men contrasted here, the king and the Man of God. One powerful but weak, the other powerless but strong. The king was governed by his fear of consequences. The Man of God who wasn’t afraid of them—when Herod took his brother’s wife, Herodias, John openly said it was adultery according to the Law of Moses. He told the truth regardless of the cost. So St. Mark tells us that “Herod himself sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison.” Herod took John’s freedom away, but the king didn’t do anything more because, although his wife, Herodias, had a deadly grudge against the prophet, yet—and there’s that word again—“Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.”

And why was that? Herod was not a righteous or holy man himself—by no means!–but he did recognize the real thing when he saw it. That he protected the Man of God only goes to prove what my father used to say—“There is some good in the devil’s cat.” There was a spark of goodness in King Herod. Every good thing, no matter where we find it, comes from the power of the Holy Spirit. So the Holy Spirit was at work even in Herod, the corrupt, scumbag politician, whose old man of the same name had ordered the massacre of the infant children of Bethlehem, according to St. Matthew’s gospel. King Herod was a man born, raised, and graduated in the school of evil.

Yet—and there is that word again—“when he heard [John the Baptist talk] he was greatly perplexed.” People like Herod don’t understand the language of God, but they are drawn to those who speak it. He was a murderer and a petty tyrant and yet. . . and yet he liked to listen to him. The Holy Spirit is at work in the worst of human beings, just as in the best of human beings the devil is alive and well and doing his worst. It goes on like that—push and pull–but eventually a choice has to be made.

Herod’s choice came on the night of his birthday, appropriately enough. He gave himself a sumptuous birthday party. It was a stag affair. It probably wasn’t an orgy, but at a Roman dinner party there would be a lot of booze. Then at the climax of the evening, there was a special birthday surprise. It wasn’t a birthday cake with Roman candles on it, but it was certainly something hot. The daughter of Queen Herodias, Josephus tells us that her name was Salome, danced for the guests.

Which she must have done well, because when she had finished Herod said to the girl—“Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you, even half my kingdom.” The girl ran to her mother to say—“What shall I ask for.” And her mama told her—“Ask for the head of John the Baptist.” And that is what the girl requested—the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Sometimes men and women, like you and me, do bad things because we don’t know any better. These mistakes are still bad, and occasionally they have disastrous consequences, but the danger to our souls is not great. They are in the end just mistakes.

Sometimes men and women, like you and me, do bad things by accident, intending to do the right thing. These accidents are still bad, and we suffer the consequences of them, but the danger to our souls is negligible. Things like that happen. We make mistakes as long as we try.

But Herod’s choice was not like that at all. He knew the choice he was making was evil, yet he let other people’s opinions determine his decision. He was not quite a monster, but he did a monstrous thing, for which the Gospel writer does not forgive him. Because when we know right from wrong, when the Holy Spirit tells us clearly the difference, then we are in the greatest danger, beloved. Those are the choices for which we are fully accountable.

We are all faced with choices we know are between right and wrong. We think that some of those choices are personal—no one else’s business. But there is no such thing as a purely personal choice—every choice is made in reference to other people, judging our worth. It is easy enough to make a decision because of the opinion of others, but it takes the courage that comes only from the Holy Spirit to make a decision in spite of their opinion. Yet those are the only decisions that can be called good or right.

Faced with the biggest moral decision of his life, Herod made it not on the basis of right, but out of regard for a vicious teenager and her still more vicious mama and the opinion of a brunch of drunken cronies. Like Pontius Pilate on another occasion, Herod was more concerned about the judgment of insignificant players than on whether he was putting an innocent man to death. Both men had their excuses. Tyrants always make excuses. They never want to take responsibility for anything. But no excuse ever really works. And we need to keep that in mind as we face Herod’s choice, whether to do the right thing and face the consequences–because the right thing always has consequences–or to do the wrong thing for the sake of other people’s opinions.

 

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Sticks and Stones…Mark 3:20-35

In our gospel lesson from Mark it says that when Jesus’ family heard what he was up to, “they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’”

Who knows, it could have been some sort of bad Pharisaical joke—in the worst possible taste under the circumstances.  At this distance in time it is impossible to say what the scribes meant exactly when they said Jesus had Beelzebul. It seemed clear to everyone that he had some sort of spirit, but from whence did it come?  His family had already become convinced that he was “beside himself”—possessed perhaps by a demon. So they came to collect him. Big disgrace!

But taking it one step further, those scribes alleged Jesus didn’t have just any old demon, but the prince of demons himself. (In the demonology of the time “Beelzebul” is a term of derision for the idol of the god “Baal” meaning “lord of the flies”—see 2 Kings 1:2ff. The gospel writers use the name interchangeably for Satan.) This accounted for his power to expel demons. He was their ruler. But did they really believe that Jesus was possessed by the prince of demons or was it just something to say to malign him in the eyes of that eager crowd who mobbed him and his disciples “so that they could not even eat?”  Was it a joke at Jesus’ expense? If it was a joke it was in unforgivably bad taste. Not only did the scribes fail to recognize the Holy Spirit as the source of Jesus’ power, but they went so far as to call the Holy Spirit Beelzebul. It was over the line, because, as Jesus says, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” For those scribes, spiritually speaking, it was a career ender.

And speaking of career enders, his week saw a racist tweet by the show’s star get ABC’s highest-rated show “Roseanne” canceled. Roseanne Barr has long been infamous for her outrageous smears and wackadoodle conspiracy theories. But this time she went over the line, tweeting of Valerie Jarrett, an Iranian-born African-American who served as Barack Obama’s senior adviser, that if the “muslim brotherhood & the planet of the apes had a baby = VJ.” Was it just a “bad joke,” as she claimed? Maybe. But not just that. The network called the outburst “abhorrent, repugnant, and inconsistent with our values” and almost immediately canceled its biggest hit comedy amid a firestorm of condemnation.

Roseanne tried to apologize, saying that “it was 2 in the morning and I was ambien tweeting”—but the makers of Ambien would have none of it. Their CEO said in a statement—“Racism is not a known side effect.” (That was a joke. You can tell because it’s funny.) In this world anything can happen, of course, but the outburst was probably a career-ender for Barr, who is 65. What is certain it that she accidently turned a deadly weapon upon herself with terrible effect and learned with sorrow and regret what we should all know—the truth that is enshrined in a little children’s song—Be careful little lips what you say. . . . .

There is a certain kind of language that it designed to kill, beloved. And whether it tries to disguise itself as humor hardly matters. The intent is there. In the present partisan environment such homicidal language has flowered poisonously. It has become a sort of call and response thing, so that a wacko voice from the right is answered by an equally loud equally wacko voice from the left. So the same week that saw Barr’s downfall, comedienne Samantha Bee, openly called Ivanka Trump a “feckless c—t,” using a vulgar word for the female anatomy. Many rushed to her defense. It was a matter of free speech they said.

But the truth is, there is no defense for that kind of language. It isn’t funny. It’s deadly. Deadly to the souls of those who use it, who tweet it, who retweet it, who laugh at it, who excuse it, who do nothing and overlook it. Jesus did not overlook the “Beelzebul business”; he recognized it for what it was, an attempt upon his life and he defended himself accordingly. The scribes who came down from Jerusalem had already conspired against Jesus, “how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6), and now they set about trying to do it with the first weapon that comes to our hand, words. There is a great deal of discussion, much of it hot—and long overdue–about gun control, but there is less said about word control—that is, until something happens that pushes matters over the line. Then lives are destroyed and reputations are tarnished forever, and we all suffer from the decay of manners.

What kind of spirit is within us? In America today it is as if we are at war with ourselves, beloved, and words are the weapons. It is a war in which everyone with a computer can take part. There is no barrier on account of mental illness and moral indigence. It is war of manners, and the winner has the worst. And those who become combatants in this struggle are indeed possessed by the prince of demons.

But you and I cannot be among them, beloved. We cannot be the ones who tolerate and excuse such poisonous language. A portion of the American public has gotten so hardened that it can overlook anything in those with whom it agrees politically, but you and I cannot be part of that portion. The philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in 1796—“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend.” Laws we encounter rarely and in extreme circumstances, Manners are what make up the fabric of our daily lives and bulk of discourse with one another. If they are corrupted, society is corrupted. And a corrupted society is a society not of laws but of violence. That is the danger of this moment, that the bad taste of a few is pushing us all over the line.

So is it worse to think it or to say it? Good manners answers unambiguously–it is worse to say it. It gives other people with the same nasty thoughts the permission to express them openly. But you and I need to learn discretion and demand discretion in those we who govern us and try to entertain us. There is a difference between obscene language, which is protected by the law, and homicidal language, which represents the end of manners and the beginning of criminality, and all of us can—or should be able to–tell the difference. One is in bad taste, the other tastes bad, like poison to the tongue. Our business is to recognize the difference, avoid the first and condemn the second. Or to put it more positively, to do as St. Paul writes to the Romans, “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (12:10). Whether or not we do that reveals what kind of spirit is within us.

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Darn Pharisees–Mark 2:23-3:6

In the Gospel lesson for this week it says that Jesus “looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

Are you angry, beloved? Angry enough to admit you are? I am. Angry enough for two of us. Not all the time and with everyone, of course. I wouldn’t say that I’m an angry person, but sometimes with some people my anger breaks through the skin and at times I feel that there is more than enough reason for it. Reading the newspaper and watching television makes it worse, but I can’t stop that either. We live in angry times. But our Gospel lesson, which speaks to us directly about the anger of Jesus, gives you and me some guidance as to how our anger can be controlled and directed by the love of God.

It is a vivid scene that Mark sets for us. Jesus is in a synagogue on the Sabbath day–maybe it’s hot, maybe it’s crowded–and a search light is on him. The Pharisees are watching, because there is a man there with a withered hand and they waiting to see if they can catch Jesus breaking the Sabbath law by healing him. They want to use his compassion as a hook and the crippled man as bait. So there is an atmosphere of tension in the synagogue that day, and Jesus, always sensitive to an atmosphere, feels it. He hears the question buzzing around his head–“Will he do it?” Like a persistent fly. “Will he do it?”

So when he looked around him in the synagogue on that Sabbath day what did Jesus see? He saw the man with a withered hand, whose life was wasted by his physical deformity, and the sight of human suffering always ticked Jesus off. He felt the futility of it. The isolation of being different. The tragedy of wasted existence. But what stirred his ire particularly were the Pharisees, watchful as spiders, whose bodies were whole and strong enough, but whose souls were shrunken and distorted by their cold indifference and their immovable prejudices.

Jesus had much in common with those Pharisees on purely religious grounds. He also was an observant Jew. He taught many of the things they believed—the resurrection of the dead, the existence of angels and evil spirits, the judgment of souls, heaven and hell.  But he was not one of them. Our Lord was a carpenter, yes, but not a joiner. Nothing in the gospels indicates that he identified himself with any particular sect or group. He stood apart from the religious set-up of his time. He was critical of all its parties. But in particular he did not get along with the Pharisees.

And why? Although they were scrupulous in keeping the Law of Moses to the letter, they were terribly careless about the suffering of others. They were rigid, petty, vengeful, and enmeshed in politics. But what made Jesus particularly angry that morning in the synagogue was their silence. When he asked them–“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” It says that “they were silent.” And that is what made Jesus angry enough to heal the crippled man on the Sabbath just to spite them. He was angry because although they were the most religious of God’s chosen people, and the most rigorous followers of his Law, they would not commit themselves to life.

And what Jesus saw when he looked around at the synagogue that Sabbath day is what the Lord sees when he looks at the Church today. Many of the most religious, the most scrupulous, who wear the name of Jesus in the boldest characters, are the most indifferent to ordinary human needs. They too, like the ancient Pharisees, are rigid, petty, vengeful, and enmeshed in politics. When Jesus looks around at the Church he beholds a place where principles, laws, and political agendas too often trump compassion, and no doubt the Lord is angry.

His anger is a comfort to those of us who share that anger. It says to us that Jesus feels our frustration and our exclusion. His anger is a comfort, but not an excuse. Anger secreted inside withers the soul. Jesus’ anger did not lie smoldering in his heart. It moved him to concrete action on behalf of those in need. “Stretch out your hand,” he said to the man in our story; and “he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” By way of comparison, what did the anger of the Pharisees do? It says they “went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

Our anger is more often than not a result of hurt feelings. We feel it when we think, rightly or wrongly, that we are being attacked. (“Progressive?” Franklin Graham recently told a group of conservative pastors and evangelists in the locker room of the Rose Bowl. “That’s just another word for godless.”) But the answer is not to add our anger to the already poisonous atmosphere that surrounds us. The answer is to commit ourselves whole-heartedly to life. We need to vote, to give, to work, and to speak the truth in the Spirit of Jesus.

It is pretty hard for any of us, whatever our persuasions, not to get angry these days. There is anger all around us, on the right and on the left, above and below—it is an atmosphere that is always threatening to choke out our better feelings. It is reassuring that Jesus too could be angry like we are, but he could not be indifferent as we can so easily become. Even in the most hostile of circumstances he was always able to take a stand for life. In the synagogue one morning we are told he saw a man with a withered hand. He might have inquired regarding his religious preferences, his immigration status, his sexual orientation or his political party, but all Jesus said was—“Stretch out your hand.” He was obedient because he knew he needed healing. And so we should stretch out our lives to Jesus, beloved, and the Lord will restore our withered hearts to be like his.

 

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Lying Like the Dickens

John 15:26-27—May 20, 2018

In the Gospel lesson for the Day of Pentecost the risen Lord promises his disciples: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.”

Pentecost, this third great feast of the Christian year, is a hard one to know how to observe. Christmas and Easter have their joyful greetings, their bitter-sweet stories, their winsome traditions. But what in the world should we do to keep the Feast of Pentecost?

Well, it seems to me that if you are going to celebrate the coming of the Spirit of truth, there could be nothing so appropriate as to try honestly to speak the ungilded, honest truth in a time when so many are lying like the dickens. Even if you make yourself unpopular in some quarters by it, tell it like it is, sister and brother. Because all truth comes by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the struggle to tell the truth is always a sign of the Spirit’s presence, no matter in what context that struggle takes place or whether the truth teller is a Christian believer or not.  It doesn’t matter.

And truth can be and is expressed in every tongue under heaven. There is no barrier to it—it can be spoken and understood by all. That is what the story of that first Pentecost in the Book of Acts is all about. “Each one,” it says, “heard [the disciples] speaking in the native language of each” (2:6).

But just as all truth comes by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so every lie, no matter how small or how large that lie may be, emanates from the evil one. If truth is the language of the Spirit, then lies are the language of demons. That’s why we should find the present situation in America so alarming. Because it seems as if truth itself is dying a slow death of neglect, and lies and misinformation have become the new lingua franca of politics and government. We as a nation are so befuddled by such a storm of shams and frauds that we are in danger of losing our way completely. We have been so gaslighted by the falsehoods that rain down on us faster and faster from on high that we are losing our ability to recognize the truth when we see it. And–worst of all—many of us, blinded by cynicism and tribalism, seem to have stopped caring about the truth altogether, so long as the alternative realities presented feed our self-interest and curry our prejudices. And people who do not care if they are being lied to are likely to lie themselves.

Commencement addresses normally tend to be long on pious platitudes and short on real substance. But once in while they become the occasion of telling the honest truth.  So former Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson delivered an address at the Virginia Military Institute the other day that contains this acute analysis of America’s crisis of truth: “If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as a people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on the pathway to relinquishing our freedom.” Freedom and truth are inextricably bound together. You cannot have a free society in which there is no belief in objective truth. If there is no truth there is no way to criticize power, and if there is no way to criticize it, there is no way to control it, because there is no basis for doing so.  Lies put us under the heels of the tyrants that tell them. “When we as people, a free people,” Tillerson warned the graduates, “go wobbly on the truth, even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America.”

So is it possible that truth could die out among us? It would seem that we are in great danger, beloved. But all is not lost. Truth is the presence of the Spirit of Jesus and of his resurrection, and that Spirit can suffer and be rejected, but Truth itself cannot die. Even in a world that is lying to the races it cannot be overcome. That is the reason for our rejoicing on this day–because we are still free to tell the truth, and because we are still free as long as we do. That is something quite different from candles and colored eggs, but certainly something just as worthy of celebration.  Pentecost calls us to speak the truth and assures us that the Truth will always be there to speak.

It isn’t easy–it seems as if nothing ever is. We are both bi-lingual in this sense–we learn to speak the shadow language of lies at the same time we are learning to tell the truth. Most people are fluent in both. Lying comes to all of us naturally—more naturally than truth-telling–and to some people it is the virtually the only language they know. Some few cannot speak the truth at all, except by accident.  But the absence of the truth, the language of lies, is a sign that the Holy Spirit is truly absent, no matter how much religious gobbledy-gook is spouted, how many empty prayers are offered, how many pious-sounding thoughts are invoked. Only truth is the sign of the Spirit—honest truth clearly spoken.

And that’s what we need to do, with the Spirit’s help, speak the truth honestly in whatever little world we live in. My world is small, beloved, yours may be just as small. But in the end it is not the size of the world to which you speak the truth that matters, it is the clarity with which we speak it. The size of the audience doesn’t matter—it may be just you yourself. Either the truth has made you free or it hasn’t, beloved. There is nothing in the middle. And if you tell the truth, you can be freer in a cardboard box than in the most enormous room.

 

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Restoring Respect in Religion: A Christian Perspective

Pastor Bill Roen presented the Christian Perspective at the Restoring Respect in Religion program, a part of the Restoring Respect series at The Cathedral of St. Peter, St. Petersburg  FL on January 16, 2018.  This essay was his opening statement.  A video of the program will be available (along with the other programs in the series) on the Cathedral website  http://www.spcathedral.com .

 

 

 

You have to live with the living–my mother used to say. But just how do you go about doing that?—that’s the question.

Well, there’s an old song that Bing Crosby sang. And it runs in part like this: “Would you like to swing on a star,/ Carry moonbeams home in a jar,/ And be better off than you are,/ or would you rather be a pig?”

Now I’d lay ready money that I could get y’all to sing that song with me.

“A pig is an animal with dirt on his face;/ His shoes are a terrible disgrace;/ He ain’t got no manners when he eats his food/ He’s fat and lazy—and extremely rude.”

When it comes to churches, you are what you sing, beloved. So it’s really too bad we don’t sing that song in church sometimes, because it speaks so directly to our topic for this evening—respect generally and in particular respect for our neighbors who belong to other religious traditions. And we live in a world where there are woeful examples of swinish behavior abounding everywhere—in government, on the street, in our libraries and schools, and most certainly in churches, where nastiness has made a nest in the hearts of some who most loudly want to be called Christians.

“If you don’t care a feather or a fig, / You may grow up to be a pig…..”

As the song suggests, beloved, respect for other people, is a decision taken of the basis in a certain kind of education—moral, spiritual and aesthetic. It a religious education, though not a specifically Christian. It should be taking place in churches and in Christian families–should be, but may not be. It is necessary because from the Christian point of view, respect for others is not something that comes naturally to us. It has to be modeled, learned, and internalized. And disrespect for other people is a result of ignorance, neglect, and surrender to our sinful, porcine selves.

Respect is a decision that has to be made over and over and over again, consciously, in order to lead a truly human life. And leading a truly human life is what all the great religious traditions are all about. Each in its own way seeks to answer the question—How do we live with the living?

To answer that question, Christians must always have recourse to the teachings of Jesus.  In the Gospel of Luke we are told that once he was invited out to dinner, and “when he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place,” and then in disgrace you will start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he will say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.’

The parable might be about common politeness and good sense, but the Gospel writer goes a step further and concludes with these words—“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’” Central to the Christian idea of respect, is the ideal of courtesy, intentionally putting yourself in the lowest place.

Now the word “courtesy” itself comes from a 12th century word “courteis,” which refers to gentle politeness and good manners. It was originally the behavior expected of the nobility at court, the code of conduct that separated civilized, courtly life from barbarism. Courtesy, sometimes called chivalry, as a way of life was extremely chic during the Middle Ages. Best-selling books were written about its practice. Art and music celebrated it. It reached its apex in the 13th century, when the ideal of courtesy influenced all of European culture, not the least St. Francis of Assisi and his brother monks, who gave it a specifically Christian interpretation. Courtesy was no longer just chivalry, the prerogative of knights and their ladies. It was an ideal that everyone might follow. In a charming book called the Little Flowers of St. Francis we find a saying that sums it up—“Let him who wants to have peace and quiet look upon every man as his superior.”

In answer to the question—How do we live with the living?—St. Francis and his followers would reply, The way to deal with others in your community and the world outside, the way to deal with your neighbor  who belongs to another religion, whose claims to ultimate authority are different from yours, should always be polite deference.

This Christian courtesy involves a decision, not to be put last–that’s something else entirely–to be relegated to last place on the basis of race or religion is discrimination and prejudice. Courtesy means to put yourself last. It is not enough to look upon some people as your betters and other not—that is the basis of elitism, sexism, racism and a lot of other isms still more piggish. Courtesy is the decision to treat everyone with deference, without exception and without reference to rank, wealth, sexuality, religion, goodness or badness or anything else.

From the Christian point of view, courtesy is an ideal never fully realized except in Jesus. It is certainly not popular in some Christian quarters these days where Christianity has become another name for xenophobia and gun ownership. Nevertheless, you and I, who call ourselves by the Name, should still devoutly pursue courtesy as a discipline. Courtesy is liturgy as it is performed outside the church, beloved. It is the holy dialogue of everyday living. And Jesus’ command to his disciples to “love one another,” means simply–show courtesy to all our neighbors irrespective. (In answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan.) Under the name of love, courtesy is a thing to be admired, to be taught, and to be emulated as both the root and fruit of Gospel morality, which, has its basis in a radical humility.

Unfortunately, the word “humility” has become identified with low self-esteem. But courtesy is not having a rotten self-image. It is instead recognizing the image of God in every other human being—yourself included.  Not just those who have earned your respect, but everyone, as the natural result of her or his being created in the image of God. Courtesy is the honor due that image. It includes the non-human world as God’s handiwork. Thus courtesy is extended to the earth itself and all its creatures. It is an environmental value was well as a moral one.

Back home in North Dakota, my father saw in my brother and me an opportunity to educate two barbarians. And he went about the civilizing process seriously. So when we attended a covered-dish dinner at church it was of course the natural inclination of a fourteen-year-old boy to elbow up to the groaning board as fast as possible before all the fried chicken was all gone. But my father always put himself last. He regarded it as his rightful place, and he insisted that my brother and I be right in front of him in line.

Now this happened not once but every single time, and finally I worked up nerve enough to ask—Why do we always have to wait to the end of the line? And my father looked at me as if I had just hatched from an egg, and he replied–That’s what it means to be a gentleman.

Now you don’t have to be a Christian to be a gentleman, but if you want to be a Christian gentleman like my father you have to be prepared to put yourself last in line and not get any chicken.

As a fourteen year old boy I nearly starved to death, but somehow I survived to tell you that courtesy is the foundation of order and grace and everything good about our society, and discourtesy is tearing us to pieces literally, beloved, from the top down and from the bottom up.

So to address the incivility and vulgarity of our community and our nation each of us needs to renew his or her commitment to live the courteous life in whatever tradition we belong. Remember, beloved, the transformation of society begins with the regeneration of the individual. Every great change begins with the conversion of a few, indeed sometimes only one. And you, beloved, are the one. You are the one.

The radical humility of St. Francis and his followers changed society, becoming a powerful civilizing force in a barbarous world. It disarmed those who encountered it, and still charms us with its sweetness.

The nonviolent revolution of Martin Luther King Jr., whose feast day we celebrated yesterday, changed this country. And the principles of non-violent protest are simply another form of courtesy used as a weapon to confront an evil system.

And courtesy still has tremendous power to alter the world around us when we practice it intentionally. The question is not—Does it work? It works. The question is–How far do you dare to carry it?  That’s what the Spirit is saying to us—How far can you dare to carry good manners and politeness, beloved? To their logical end?

The ideal of good manners is something Christians share with all the great religious traditions. Etiquette is the ritualized form of courtesy. The rituals are indeed good. They bind us together. You Episcopalians understand the importance of ritual words and actions. They are a signal to others of our good will and our intention not to offend, but manners can be artificial, an empty form without meaning.

True politeness is more than good manners. Pope Francis in this New Year’s Eve homily this year praised the politeness of ordinary people, whom he called “the artisans of the common good.” They are ones, people of good will, believers and unbelievers alike, who are kind in public places and attentive to the elderly.  But those whom the Pope singled out for special praise were polite drivers, those “who move in traffic with good sense and prudence.” People who are polite drivers make a thousand little decisions not to be a pig—decisions that go against their natural selfishness and help to create a culture of civility in the city, the nation, and the world.

But courtesy in itself is something more than either politeness or good manners. It is both a serious and a lightsome, both charming and barb-wire tough. It is almost sensual in its down-to-earth-ness. Courtesy is not a superficial niceness, but an esteem that arises from a deep admiration for the other. It arises from the kind of experience I had wandering through the through the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre. Surrounded by all those beautiful things–“the radiant face of a civilization that encompassed an infinitely varied wealth of humanity,” as the guidebook put it– I could not help but feel respect bordering on love for the faith that inspired such beauty and harmony. Courtesy implies that kind of deep respect for the civilizing influence of the other great religions, but without abandoning one’s own vision of the truth.

Finally, in treating another person as better than yourself, courtesy demands that the other person be, in fact, better than he or she is. All of us have met people who have made us be better than we were before we met them. That’s what courtesy does. It answers the question—How do we live with the living?–with those words of St. Paul writing to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8).

The Spirit transforms that simple decision to put ourselves last into tremendous spiritual power, but it’s dangerous too, beloved, because at the same time the Spirit always asks—You did it, but how much farther can you carry courtesy? One step? Two?

 

 

 

 

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Unwanted Gifts

“And all in the crowd were trying to touch [Jesus], for power came out from him and healed them all” (Luke 6:19).

Isn’t it remarkable how great worship can set your feet on higher ground? I came out of church a week ago in a really golden mood. It was All Saints’ Sunday, and the service had been what our kids used to call “good church”—inspired preaching, gorgeous music, the sacrament rightly administered, a sense of communion with the saints, both the quick and the dead. I wasn’t bored even for a minute.

Then things changed. On the steps outside I met a man, probably homeless, who told me he needed fourteen dollars to get to Tampa. Now I make it a point, when possible, to give to those who ask for my help. So I took out my wallet and gave him two dollars. Whereupon he preceded to give me a real tongue lashing– What kind of a Christian do you pretend to be? I need to get to Tampa enough to ask you for money, and you aren’t willing to give what I need that much.  Selfish, that’s what you are. Two lousy dollars!

He made my gift seem trivial and unworthy, and then he pocketed it with grudging thanks and accosted the next person, who was a better Christian than I am, I can only hope. I didn’t wait around to find out how that encounter went. By that time I just wanted to be on my way.

And on my way I went, but the incident has stayed with me all week, tarnishing my golden mood. The man at the church door had a point, although it  was harshly made. Maybe I am selfish. I could have given him fourteen dollars to get him to Tampa-or where ever he was really going. But I didn’t. Jesus would have—or would he? It seems to me that Jesus was in a slightly different position–certainly in a different time and place. In his earthly ministry our Lord encountered the diseased and the possessed, whom he healed by the power that was in him.  We encounter the crazed and the enraged, the wanting and the demanding.

It is so much a part the atmosphere of our time–all the rudeness, the fanaticism, the zealotry—we don’t always notice it. There is so much poison in the air these days that at times it becomes a toxic fog, and the Sun of Civility and Reason becomes only a warm spot in the venomous haze. You can hardly go out without meeting up with a crackpot or a crazy ready to attack—if you are lucky, that is, and it’s only with words. Sometimes it seems that they seem to lie in wait for you. And the problem for all of us, especially those who follow Jesus, is what to do when people unleash their religious prejudices or unload their half-baked partisan biases on you.

What do you do about that young man in the coffee shop who told us that he lives in someone’s garage and then when on to explain in ever louder tones why Donald Trump is the best thing that has ever happened to America? And what do you so about the young Scientologists with their artificial grins who accost you on the street trying to get you to watch a free movie or take a personality test to lure you into their noxious cult? Or what do you do about the crazed octogenarian with flags in his hat who screams at you that you don’t care anything about disabled vets if you don’t put money in his coffee can. Would Jesus put a dollar in the can and be on his way? I suspect not. Or would he do something else entirely?

I rather think he would heal them. That is what Jesus did when, during his earthly life, when he encountered those with illness and possession. He healed them all, St. Luke tells us, without exception. Even to touch him was to be well. And what we need to keep in mind is that those who accost us looking for money or attention or whatever are people in great pain. They have an ulcer on their souls, a fiery boil on their consciousness—that’s what makes them sometimes act out with such outrageous rudeness. They are angry with the way life is treating them, their anger is a symptom of a vast interior sadness, a dark cave of suffering within themselves.  They are trying to deal with their own pain when, intentionally or not, they give us pain.

Of course our first inclination when we meet up with them is avoidance—especially if they are aggressive. We want to shut them out or shut them down in one way or another and be on our way. We might just turn and walk off–show our power over them by ignoring them. Or if they push hard we might push back, meet aggression with equal and opposite resistance. Argue for victory. Beat them at their own crazy game. But we need to remember that such people are in pain. If they are angry, it is because they are weak and filled with the overwhelming sadness that always goes with weakness and anger. To defeat them and march away is no victory.

Victory is to give them what Jesus did, a share of his victory over the powers of pain and darkness. What we need to keep in mind is that those who  accost us are offering us a strange gift. It is a gift that we do not ask for, a gift that we did not know that we wanted or needed. It is the gift of themselves, the image of God in them. And in return they are looking for something—usually not just money. They want to be recognized  as human beings not just empty spaces. Like that man I encountered at the church door they are seeking to affirm their dignity by taking some of ours. And it isn’t hard to refuse. We can easily crush their dignity by taking a superior position and overwhelming them with it. But Jesus, The Son of God, did not do that. He healed them.

And you and I, his followers, his would-be saints, are called to receive that gift the crazies and the crackpots offer, their shared humanity, with thanks. We need to thank them in some way for what they have given us, and then do what we do instinctively when we receive a gift—offer one in return. Healing. At a much lower voltage we have in us that same power that came out from Jesus to heal the multitudes. He was a conduit for the love of God, and so are we.

Each time we are accosted we are being called to the ministry of healing. We are able to heal those in pain by doing what Christ did. He met people one to one in their need. He stopped and he listened, and by being a compassionate listener we restore some of the dignity the speaker has lost. If we stop and listen we will often meet with irrational anger, with the aggressive language of the young and the “age rage” or the elderly. But that is just the wrapping of the strange gift they offer. And our response in some form should be—Thank you for yourself, for your honesty about your need.

Every person we meet, beloved, even the most obnoxious, has something to teach us, about God, about the world, and about ourselves. But to hear what they have to teach we need to stop and listen, compassionately and humbly. We are not put on this earth to correct them, but to listen to them. A person doesn’t have to be right in order to teach us something important.

And there is a lot to be learned these days and no shortage of teachers. Is it just me, or does it seem as if there are a lot more crazies out there, or are the ones out there crazier than before? What is certain is that everyone is stressed by the news and the old inhibitions on polite speech and action have been dissolved in the strong acid of mass culture. It makes us all a little crazy. There is no one to blame for the situation because we all are to blame. People feel they can say and do whatever they think best, and we, none of us, were really that good in the first place.

But those people who accost us in the street offer to each of us the opportunity to learn more about how to follow Jesus. They each have a strange gift for us, and we have a gift of healing to offer in return. The scriptures say that power went out of Jesus and healed all who were in any need. And that power was the love of God. And the only way for us, his would-be followers, to confront sad and angry souls is to let that love show through us by compassionate and humble listening.

Now that we know what to do, beloved, the trick, as ever, is to do it.

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Ruthless People

 

Pastor Bill Roen

August 25, 2017

 

What has made Americans so cruel?  There is no point in denying that something has. The torch-wielding white nationalists and neo-Nazis of Charlottesville are only the deckle edge of American ruthlessness. Their cruelty is made glaringly public on the news. But behind them is a third of the nation—I’ll leave it up to you to decide which third–who whose ruthlessness is more discreet. This is the third who would like to take food stamps away from hungry families, dismantle unemployment insurance programs, ax benefits for the disabled, and take coverage away from tens of millions, visiting countless households with the nightmare of losing their health insurance.

Now we have to ask ourselves—in a country that once prided itself on its compassion what justifies such cruelty?  Harshness toward the poor has always liked to dress up in Biblical costume. In his Second Letter to the Thessalonians  St. Paul writes—

“Even when we were with you, we gave you a command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (3:10).

Passages like this are often used to justify  hostility toward the poor and to add credibility to the widely-held myth that safety net programs reward lazy people who don’t want to work. According to this way of thinking, of those who want to do away with these programs, persons who accept the government help are blood-sucking parasites, unworthy to be thought of as human, let alone as fellow citizens or fellow children of a fatherly God.

Of course St. Paul is right—in a limited sense. There is no excuse for laziness. Those who can work should. Work is—or should be, at least—a blessing, not a curse. It is God’s way of giving meaning and order to our otherwise random existence. It is the way he continues his work of creation through us. But what about those who cannot work–children, the disabled, the mentally challenged? What about the unemployed—not from sloth but from inability to find work? What about the underemployed, those working two jobs who still linger below the poverty line?

Why punish them? The opinion of the “ruthless third” is that the government should be out of the rescue business altogether. People should be left on their own, to sink or swim.  To soften the harshness of such sentiments, those who feel this way often justify themselves by saying that care of the poor and disabled should be left to individual charity. Not necessarily their own individual charity but somebody’s. This point of view could hardly be less realistic. What I know about individual charity—and it is quite a lot—I would be very loath to depend upon it for my daily bread.

In America a handful of people are far richer than they have ever been, but it is a mistake to think that if the government got out of the welfare business they would step up to the plate. Mostly the very rich are consumed with the enduring problem of how to get richer. In our society they are well-rewarded with tax-credits for whatever charity they offer, but their random giving is driven more my fashion and display than by compassion. At a Rotary meeting I once heard a man remark, “I don’t know how the people who work for me live on what I pay them.” That sums up things pretty well. With notable exceptions, the rich are not so much hostile to the poor as indifferent.

Some of the ruthless third would argue that churches and charitable non-profits should take up the task of caring for the poor. Christians often point to the example of the early church, which provided care for its needy members. This too could not be more unrealistic. The churches and similar non-profits do what they can, and what they do is admirable, but they are consumed with the problem of their own financial existence, and they could never begin to the shoulder the staggeringly complex problem of caring for the needy in our society. Try going around seeking help with your rent or your electric bill and see how far you get. Churches and agencies would be tapped out before they even began to feed to hungry multitude.

The truth is that the “ruthless third” are not looking for ways to help struggling Americans. They are seeking ways to avoid doing so. Their motto is–Not with my dollar you don’t.

So we return to our original question—What has made Americans so cruel? The simple answer is fear. Those who have a deepest hostility toward the poor are not the rich, but those who themselves are not far from being poor—the white lower middle class. For those who consider themselves “the real Americans” this is a time of great anxiety. Their standard of living has for a long time been eroding. The old certainties are melting away. The structures that ensured that the white middle class could define what it means to be an American are crumbling, and the new definitions of American seem strange and threatening.

And fear is what motivates anger, the anger of the elder son in the prodigal son story. And anger generates cruelty. The ruthless third fear that next step downward on the economic ladder. They don’t hate poor people individually,  they just want them to stay poor. There is a security in being able to look down and see someone below you. And there is a cruel logic at work—if someone else suffers, my family and I won’t. Or if we suffer, someone else should suffer more.  It has to do with punishing the poor for being that way, punishing minorities for being different, punishing immigrants for working hard to succeed in a new land, punishing the helpless for being helpless.

And there is no reason under this administration and this climate of anxiety and uncertainty, that the ruthlessness toward the poor should not get worse. So it is necessary for those of us who are trying to be disciples of the risen Lord to decide what should we do?  Well, first of all we should not give way to our own cynicism. There are many problems with any structure that tries to deliver help to the poor. There will always be those who try to exploit the system. There will always be duplication and waste and intrusiveness.

But in this time and place you and I must make up our minds what the government is, or should be. We have to decide kind of America we want.

It is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition in which we live that the government is a representative of a fatherly God, and that under God the citizens of the state are responsible for each other.  Our welfare system has its foundation in the idea that government should act as a surrogate father offering security, discipline and order to all, citizen and alien alike.

Opposed to the fatherly idea of government is the pagan conception of a state which has no responsibility except to itself. It exists to secure the welfare of one particular group of citizens and to its chief beneficiaries, the powerful and the wealthy. Under the varnish of pious banalities of the God helps those who help themselves variety, the ruthless third are the strongest advocates of the pagan state in America today. They worship its symbols—the flag, the anthem, the military–but mostly they are united by a deep-seated hatred of its opposite–government that taxes them to give fatherly protection not just to one class, one ethnicity, one color, or one language but to all its citizens.

We need to recognize that if government is not the representative of a merciful God, who cares for his people materially and spiritually, it will be a cruel despot, buyable by the wealthy and biddable by the powerful. And this pagan understanding of the state is what dominates the thinking of the ruthless third, an attitude that is immoral and profoundly Anti-Christ.

And as followers of the Crucified we should not be dismayed the self-righteous, flag-waving and tiki torch brandishing advocates of an essentially pagan government. Nor should we be seduced by a godless worship of the state parading under the guise of patriotism. Because ruthlessness is not patriotic, and it is certainly not Christian. The only true patriotism is allegiance to a government that is merciful and nurturing.

No government is perfect, just as no act of kindness is perfect. Every system is flawed by selfishness and greed. But recognizing that, we still need to call cruelty by its right name. And in every way to we need to reward with our votes, our voices, and our prayers government that gives fatherly care to the righteous and the unrighteous alike, recognizing that each of us is some of both. That is the state worthy of our loyalty, and no other.

And we should keep in mind those words St. Paul writes to the Galatians in a more gracious mood: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (5:22-23).

Nor should there be.

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