Tag Archives: Jesus

Steadying the Ark (2 Samuel, Matt. 8:24-27)

There is a brutal little story tucked away in the book of 2 Samuel. I encountered it for the first time as a child, when my grandmother was reading the Bible aloud to me, as she often did. I stopped her when I heard it and wanted to know “why?” It seemed to me so ruthless and unjust. It still does rather.

King David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The progress was surrounded with great joy, with the king and all the house of Israel dancing and singing before the oxcart that carried the sacred ark, accompanied by diverse instruments. And then in the midst of the fun disaster struck:

“When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:6-8).

It says that David was “angry because the LORD had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah,” and we too are bound to find the story disturbing, to say the least.  And it doesn’t help a great deal for us to be reminded that for ancient Israel the ark was the preeminently sacred object, the seat upon which God was thought to sit, the symbol of his presence with his people. It was surrounded by the strongest taboos. When it had to be carried, it was lifted with long poles, and under no circumstances was it to be touched.

But the oxen stumbled. The ark swayed. What if it had fallen? Uzzah thought he was responsible for it, and he reached out to steady the ark to save God from indignity of seeing his throne crash to the ground in a pile of rubble. If you have been around churches as long as I have, beloved, you can imagine what sort of person Uzzah must have been—in charge of the property, a bit possessive and officious, kind of a fuss budget, actually.

In any case he reached out and touched the ark and the fury of the LORD burst out upon him. A moment later he lay dead. As a child, his story both fascinated and appalled me. I asked my grandmother if he had been electrocuted. She said “sort of.” I wanted to know “why?” It all seemed to me so grossly unfair of God. That someone could be struck dead for trying to be helpful. This is certainly not a story for children to whom you’re trying to teach responsible behavior. Nor is it likely to show up in any Sunday school curriculum with an accompanying picture to color.

But it is an adult story and speaks to an adult problem. Those of us who love the church are often feel dismayed and helpless by the disarray into which it has fallen. It is a mess; who can deny it. Looking at it, we feel humiliated for God, and we would like to save him the embarrassment of the Church as it is. Not that we ever could—in our hearts we know that–but we try anyway, criticizing, worrying and fretting, getting fussy over small things, treating the church itself as an idol. That’s what Uzzah in the story did—he treated the ark as an idol, not a seat for the invisible omnipotent God, but a thing made with human hands to be worshipped in itself, and he reached out his hand to steady his god.

But the living God does not want or need to the saved by us.  He can take care of himself. Uzzah didn’t need to steady the ark. God was always in charge; there never was any real danger of its falling. In this regard you will recall another story, this one about a storm that came up suddenly on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:24-27). The disciples were terrified by the wind and the waves, but we are told that Jesus was fast asleep. So they woke him to say, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!” But they really didn’t need saving. They were safe—as long as they were in the boat with the Lord. And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you little faith people.” Then he rebuked the winds and the sea, and we are told that there was a dead calm.

These days Church is being tossed about in rough seas—I’m sure you’ve noticed that. The ark is shaken by controversy and scandal. There is a fussy part of us that feels that we should be doing something about it. But we are at a loss as to exactly what. We lament that things are no being done as they used to be. We lament the indifference of the young and the shortcomings of the clergy. We think that if we were in charge things would be better. We feel as if we should steady the ark or wake the sleeping God to keep the boat from sinking.

But what we need to remember that at the threshing floor of Nacon the oxen stumbled, but the cart didn’t overturn nor did the ark fall. And on the Sea of Galilee the boat was tossed by the storm but it did not capsize. “We have this hope,” as the writer of Hebrews says, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. . .” (6:19).  And reliant on that hope we need to calm ourselves to let God take care of himself and his coming Kingdom in his own way. He is our Savior—not the other way around. He gives each of us something to do, and we should by all means do it, but with the recognition that we can’t do everything or even what is most necessary. Only what we can as well as we can.

In 1906 Winchester cathedral was in danger of collapsing. The south and east walls of the great building were sinking slowly into the ground beneath, which consisted principally of peat. Great cracks had appeared in the fabric of the building. But there was a dilemma. In order for bricklayers reinforce the foundation, the groundwater first had to be lowered. And without support, the removal of the groundwater would cause the complete collapse of the building.

The problem was solved with the help of a quiet bravery of professional driver by the name of William Walker. 235 pits each about twenty feet deep were dug around the walls of the cathedral, and they immediately filled with turgid water. Walker descended into each one of those holes and using 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks he shored up the walls of the church so that the water could be pumped out and the job completed by masons. He worked in complete darkness owing to the sediment suspended in the water. The job took years.

But before he died of Spanish flu in 1918, Walker was credited with having laid the foundation of the whole cathedral, which stands today as a monument to his courage and determination. I have a photograph of William Walker in his diving helmet, rubber suit, and weighted boots hanging over my desk. It reminds me that the Church has to be shored up from below by men and women who do what they can do, diligently and in obscurity. But they don’t delude themselves into thinking that it depends upon them. They don’t fuss. They do what they can. They feed the hungry and care for the down and out, and preach the good news, generally keep the world from ending, which it would if it were not for them.

But it is the Lord the Spirit that gives permanence to the Church, not human beings. As St. Paul writes: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; and that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).  And we need to pray that the Spirit will save us from our all too human tendency toward fussiness, that presumption that makes us want to steady the ark when we see it shaken. It will not fall, and we couldn’t stop it if it did. In that regard we are as helpless as we feel. The Kingdom does not rest upon us. What does depend upon us are the things, great or small, that we called to do in the Kingdom—that’s all and that’s enough.

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Dodging the Bullet Luke 13:1-9

It was a shocker all right. But with no CNN or New York Times to carry the story, the news of those Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” had to travel by word of mouth. That’s how it came to Jesus. Now Judean Jews of Jesus’ time had a pretty sorry option of Galileans generally, and knowing that he hailed from Galilee, and they were no doubt interested in hearing his take on this gruesome attack upon his countrymen. Probably those nameless Galileans—we aren’t even told how many–were killed by the Roman soldiery in the course of putting down a riot within the temple precincts. Otherwise, we know nothing about incident, or what they got up to that triggered such a violent response. But did they deserve such a terrible death? “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus asks, and then answers his own question—No….

Then he poses a further question, also based on the breaking news of the day: “And those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” It was probably an earthquake that caused the collapse of that tower. Or it may have been an act of terrorism. It was a time of terrorism, and the tower had some strategic importance. But again, apart from this brief notice, history tells us nothing more about its fall, though it was probably big news at the time. But did those nameless victims deserve to be buried alive in the rubble any more than those who dodged the bullet and lived to hear about it? Again Jesus answers—No…

Last week’s New York Times carried this brief notice: “At least 29 people died when an island in Fiji took a direct hit from a powerful cyclone, officials said on Tuesday. A government spokesman told Radio New Zealand that Koro Island had been ‘pretty much flattened’ by Cyclone Winston over the weekend and that very few buildings were left standing.” Nothing more. So much suffering and grief distilled into two brief sentences! But did they in some way deserve it? No…

But it happened anyway. Like most of the victims of political violence and natural disaster, those nameless Fijians were no worse than ourselves, beloved. Perhaps even better. Or at least they were good enough for all practical purposes, which is to say that they were human–a mixture of good and bad. So why did they have to die? What does their suffering mean in the great scheme of things? Well, that’s the million dollar question. If I had an easy answer to it, I’d sell it by the bottle. There isn’t a simple answer, however–just a difficult, partial one. But here it is….

As I am writing to you, beloved, our cat, Tiberius, keeps wanting to sit on my computer keyboard. Tiberius is a lovely cat, a good friend—if a sometimes annoying one–and I would do whatever I could for him. I provide him with food, attention, and a safe place to live. And I often tell him he is a very wonderful cat, which seems to please him. Tiberius trusts me, but I can’t save him from the fate we both share. We each have our own little tragedy to play out in a world that seems hell bent upon its own destruction. We see it all around. All things—suns, flowers, animals, our own selves–appear, mature, grow old, and then die, or are devoured by other things that are themselves devoured. The cosmos is always in the process of creating and destroying itself. And as infinitesimal parts of our vast universe we are pitifully vulnerable to its forces, both men and cats.

And its Creator does not seem to care a fig about what becomes of us. Towers fall. Cyclones howl. The innocent are swept away with the iniquitous. The ugly and the lovely perish alike. And our world hurdles on endlessly, heedlessly, toward its own ultimate destruction. Our great human tragedy is that we are aware of being carried along with it. And we recognize our shared anguish and sense of abandonment in those anguished words of Jesus upon the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But ironically, those of us who have been captured by the strange good news of the cross find in that despairing cry our deepest comfort. Because for us the cross of Jesus, the symbol of meaningless suffering, is what makes some sense of all those little tragedies we hear about–the bullets we dodge–as well as that last bullet, which none of us can dodge. The death of the one who was so like God he was God reveals what could never otherwise have known, that the creator is himself vulnerable to the destructive forces of his creation. In his own way he is at least as helpless and limited as we are. He—the male third-person pronoun sounds rather ridiculous to use in this context, but we have to use something—suffers with the world he is has made, and for those who think on it, there is comfort to be found in that. Something in the universe is tragically haywire–in the world we call it evil; in ourselves we call it sin–which the Maker is at any cost struggling to mend. So will he manage to get control of it all? Is the creation repairable? For three days, the scriptures tell us, that ball was up in the air.

And it would have remained forever up in the air were it not for the even stranger good news of the resurrection. Because those of us who have really heard and heeded it, the news that Christ is risen is an answer to the problem of suffering that is neither easy nor complete, but even for that still joyful and life-giving.

Horace Walpole, the eighteen century English politician and man of letters, wrote: “The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.” For us believers in the good news the world will always partake of both. Oh, yes, there will always be the endless news stream about all those tragedies, great and small, that are being played our right now across the world and across the street, and planted in the midst of it all the cross still stands with Jesus still writhing on it.

But at the same time on the very same stage something else is going on. A comedy this time, buried in the tragedy. The crucified Lord appears from the wings to tell us that everything it going to work out wonderfully well in the end, that the universe, which so often appears chaotic and indifferent, is in truth both orderly and loving, and his appearance proves this to be true. There are gasps of wonder and even laughter, because the restoration of all things has begun.

And in God’s restoration comedy you and I each have a part to play, just as by our sinfulness we played a part in the tragedy of this world. In our lesson Jesus calls upon us to repent, to readjust our lives. We should work for order in our world and harmony in our relationships, seeking with love and good sense to overcome the chaos and malice around us. There is still so much that stands in the way of God’s happy ending. But it is coming, beloved. More surely than anything else, the restoration of all things is coming. I know it in the waters of my being.

What I can’t tell you is what that ultimate resolution will look like, beloved, how it will feel, and what part you and will have in it when it arrives. But it is coming, when it does, by golly, I know I will recognize it.

 

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Looking for a Better Crown Luke 13:31-35

 

The evangelist Luke tells us that some Pharisees once came to Jesus to warn him, “Get away from her, for Herod want to kill you.” But he replied, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work . . . .’”

There are at least two types of courage I know of. The one kind belongs to those reckless young motorcyclists who zoom helmetless up and down US 19, darting in and out of traffic at the speed of sound. Their utter contempt for dismemberment and sudden death is the type of courage called “daring.” Daring is most appropriate to the young, and most sensible people grow up and out of it, like acne. Some, however—and they are mostly men, though not exclusively–never really do, and they often end up with shattered bodies and a string of memorable if broken relationships. Over their third beer they are likely to say they were born with “a lively sense of adventure” or “a thirst for excitement.” They are “the players,” “the boys who will be boys,” “the girls who “just wanna have fun.” But what they call themselves hardly matters—they possess the kind of unreasonable, pointless adolescent boldness that measures life by its intensity and not in hours and days. Either you were born a player, beloved, or you weren’t, and if you weren’t you’ll probably live longer–or at least it will seem longer. And there isn’t really much more to say about daring, except that it doesn’t wear well.

There is, however, another, better variety of courage that grows more attractive the longer we practice it and flourishes with age. Fortitude is reasonable courage, courage with a purpose, and fortitude is something we should nourish in ourselves and cherish in others, because it is both rare and precious. And daily more necessary in a world that appears to be coming apart at the seams. Considering the dangers of the present and the uncertainly of the future, all sensible people are at times afraid. But to give way to our fears is cowardice, and cowardice is what fortitude overcomes—consciously, purposefully, intentionally.

Fortitude is a grown-up courage. It was a habit my father had in spades. As a man he was widely and greatly liked–but not universally, mostly because he also had the habit of telling the truth. He called stupidity and evil by their right names. And that is a habit always gets you into hot water with ignorant people who prefer lies. “You’re nobody ‘til somebody hates you,” daddy used to say and laugh. But experience has taught me the sober truth of it. Fortitude and the habit of telling the truth go together. They cannot be separated, beloved.

And Jesus also had the habit of telling the truth–he showed how. He not only told the truth, he was the Truth. And for that reason our Lord was likewise widely loved and deeply despised. He was crucified for it. He experienced the consequences of truth telling, and from beyond the resurrection he says to those of us who try to follow him, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). Take courage.

Every human being is afraid at times. Jesus was no exception. To fear is part of what it means to be fully human. But fortitude is the gift that overcomes our fear, and it comes preeminently from the Spirit of the risen Lord which has been poured out upon us. It comes first of all from the lively realization that our lives are finite, limited in time. Jesus told those Pharisees, “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” He was aware of the shortness of his life. And whenever you and I reflect upon the undoubted fact that sooner or later we are going to die anyway, the question always arises–So what else can happen? That our lives are limited in time is not a sad thought at all—for followers of Jesus it is an encouraging one, even a joyful one. We can “take courage,” or as the old translation renders it, “be of good cheer.”

So we can go on and live with cheerfulness in this dangerous and uncertain world because the death and resurrection of Jesus has placed our finite lives in the context of God’s infinite life. “I have conquered the world,” the risen one says. Apart from that cheering news of his resurrection it would do precious little good to say “take courage” or “buck up.” Fortitude is not a decision we make on our own. But the good news of the third day–that nothing whatsoever that will happen to us, in life or in death, can disrupt of eternal destiny in Christ–makes fortitude possible. As my daddy used to say—“Check your shirt, Billy. If there’s no blood on it, you’re all right.” We have been all right so far, and we always will be—far better than just all right. In this world the smart money is always on evil. But you and I have a tip from the stable. We have inside information. We know that because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus death is dying. Jesus has overcome the powers of darkness for us. And we will also rise.

So be of good cheer, beloved, and let me hear you call things by their right names. This is not the moment in time to keep our mouths shut. For us right now nothing is more important than to purposefully display the courage of Jesus. In the face of bloody-minded authorities and wicked institutions, both religious and political, he did not step back. Tyrants like Herod are not nice. Handing them sweeties just tends to make them worse. So when some Pharisees came to warn him of what was essentially a death threat, Jesus didn’t miss a beat—“Go tell that fox. . . .”

And you and I, in our own small ways, need to stand up against the evil powers we see at work around us. It is not recorded that Jesus was never cruel, but neither did he ever roll over and play dead either. And neither should we. Because what we fail to do and say in time, beloved, we will regret in eternity. We cannot waste our short years worrying about what other people might think of us. You know I have had reason before to scold you—and myself—for being too nice. Because niceness may render you harmless and liked by all, but it will not make you like Jesus. We are looking for a better crown than Miss Congeniality.

True bravery, which goes beyond mere daring, is a great mystery. We should by all rights be cowering under the covers, but it is inside us—the strength to go on and do what you know needs doing—the bravery to speak out against evil and cope with loss. So where in the world does fortitude come from? Well, from nowhere in this world, strictly speaking. It comes from somewhere else. True bravery is always a first degree miracle. And when we see it displayed in others or discover it in ourselves, we really should indeed marvel. Because it shouldn’t be there, but there it is.

 

 

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Confronting the Demons Mark 1:21-28

The evangelist Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples “went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’”

It came right out of the blue, of course–in the Gospel of Mark everything important happens fast. Sometimes things happen so suddenly that we miss their deeper meaning entirely, and we don’t really begin to realize what is going on until it is all over and Jesus has moved on. The Lord is always ahead of us in Mark’s gospel. And we are always trailing along behind, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on–just like his first followers.

In this case the action takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum. After he left Nazareth and began his public ministry, Capernaum, the home of the disciple Peter, became his base of operations. If you take one of those Bible tours of Israel, you will be shown the ruins of a synagogue just a few steps from the traditional site of Peter’s house. This may be the very place where Jesus worshipped—or not. In any case Jesus was in the synagogue in Capernaum on a bread and butter Sabbath and suddenly all hell broke loose. There was nothing so extraordinary about that day—apart from the presence of Jesus there, teaching originally and brilliantly–“as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” as the evangelist puts it. (What would I give to have been there to hear him, however? How about you? What a wonderful convergence of holy circumstances, to be in that holy place on that holy day in the presence of the Lord.)

Then all at once the face of evil appeared. “There was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,” Mark tells us. And we are amazed, because that is the most surprising part of the whole story. But should we be?  Really? Because where else would an unclean spirit be more likely to show up on a bright and sunny Sabbath morning than at church?

I can’t claim to have had the widest possible experience of evil—in any case nothing to what some people have had. I have never experienced a Nazi death camp or encountered the agents of ISIS, who behead journalists, butcher their prisoners and burn people alive to make a rhetorical point. I haven’t seem more than newspaper reports of the horrific mischief that Boko Haram is up to in North Nigeria. There are some real experts on the demonic out there, people with first-hand experience of evil in its direst forms, people who have suffered its ruthless effects, and I cannot claim to be one of them. My experience of the demonic is limited. But I wasn’t born yesterday either. In my long life I have occasionally encountered genuinely evil people, and it has always been in the church that I have met them. They often appear to be quite respectable and “nice.” They look as if they belong there. They often make quite a show of their piety. Like the Pharisee in the temple they love to kneel and make a spectacle of praying. And then suddenly the mask comes off and the face of the demon leers out at you. Yeow! It is a shock that goes far beyond mere surprise.

And I know for a certainty that some of you are suffering from the trauma of encountering evil in a holy place. I know how profoundly shaken you are, and in part I am writing this for your comfort. But I am also writing for my own comfort, because I am also trying to recover from that same experience. And it is taking me a lifetime to get over being astonished, stunned, and utterly gobsmacked, (as the British put it when they are being lower class,) by meeting up with demons in church. The memories of those close encounters with the noonday devil still occasionally upset my sleep.

I suppose that only goes to show how really simple and naïve I was—and probably still am. We should know better, beloved. Having read the gospels, particularly Mark’s, you and I should be better prepared. Demons in the church? Why of course there will be demons in the church! Where else would demons be?

Mark’s gospel is like the exterior of a Gothic cathedral–there are gargoyles and devils crawling all over it. Jesus encounters demons everywhere—sometimes singly and sometimes in legions (see Mark 5:1-13). Reading Mark you might well get the impression that the rural Palestine of the first century was the very portal of hell. But in fact evil was no more present then than it is now. It was no more present there than it is in our own nation and our community and, I daresay, in our own church. It was the presence of Jesus that drew it out of the darkness where it hides. Holiness draws evil to itself. And the presence is not a necessarily sign of nastiness and moral decay—in fact, the holier place the more likely evil will be to crop up there. And quite suddenly.

In all probability those decent, observant Jewish people of Capernaum were also shocked by the sudden manifestation of evil in their synagogue that Sabbath morning. Utterly gobsmacked. And they would have shivered—literally. (Evil is frequently accompanied by intense cold. I have experienced that supernatural chill myself. It is like a window being opened into a dark, frigid universe of despair, which is what hell is.)  And they would also have felt utterly helpless against it. That’s the worst part of an encounter with true evil, that sense of helplessness and isolation. That is the source of its power, the ability to create that feeling of defenselessness in decent, ordinary folks.

When they encounter the demonic in the church or anywhere ordinary people do the ordinary thing—they hide from it. Confronted by hell they get the hell out. They recoil because evil is ugly and vulgar and repulsive. It is the ultimate bully, and although in reality it is weak, it looks and acts horribly strong. Its entire strength resides in its fearsome appearance. So they step back, they flee, they seek a safe hiding place—they scatter in the face of evil like Jesus’ disciples did when he was arrested.

But step back from evil is exactly what Jesus did not do. That is the whole message of the Gospel of Mark—Jesus confronted evil and overcame it decisively and forever. He did that for us, so that we would no longer be helpless in the face of the demonic where ever we encounter it—in the church, in our families, in the life of our nation.  “Have you come to destroy us?” the demon in our story asks. And Jesus’ unspoken answer is—yes, of course. That is exactly why I am here.

And the demons know that. They recognize The Holy One of God when no one else does. They fear him and at the same time they are drawn to him, like iron to a magnet. In Mark’s gospel only the demons know who Jesus really is. His true identity remains a secret from the disciples, from the crowds, from his own family. But the demons recognize him. That’s why “he would not permit the demons to speak,” we are told, “because they knew him” (Mark 1:34). The powers of evil know him as the instrument of their ultimate destruction.

And on the Cross Jesus stood alone against them and broke their dominion definitively and forever. But battle is not over. By no means. The face of evil still leers  out at us from the morning paper. We meet up with it in the most unexpected places. Evil has no strength of its own, only the appearance of strength, but for us appearances are still very powerful. It is easy for us to be overwhelmed by them, shocked, baffled–gobsmacked.

We no longer need to fear evil, but when we meet it, especially in holy places, it still fills us with fear and disgust. The risen Lord gives to us, his followers, the same authority to cast out demons that he had (Mark 3:15). The problem is that confronted by evil we are afraid to use the power we have in us. Instead we recoil. We leave the flock and try to hide. We are scattered by it, like Jesus’ first disciples were. Scattered like frightened sheep. Evil always seeks, first and foremost, to isolate us from one another and attack us alone. And we have all experienced that one time or another, haven’t we?

Now I realize that this has been a rather depressing read up until now—all this somber talk about evil and demons. So by way of making a point and lightening things up a little let me tell you a pretty good Uncle Ole story:

My Uncle Ole and his pal Arne went hunting deer in the badlands of North Dakota with a bunch of the boys from the Sons of Norway Lodge. They camped out there by the Little Missouri River and drank a lot of Miller High Life and whooped it up a little, and then the next morning they split up in pairs and went out to hunt. Ole and Arne were together, as usual. The day passed. Then just before sundown Arne came back to camp, puffing and panting, and dragging behind him an eight point buck. It was a magnificent deer!

“Golly Moses, Arne,” said the Sons of Norway, “that’s sure a real nice deer you got there.” And they all had a Miller to celebrate Arne’s triumph and whooped it up a little. It wasn’t until the deer was skinned and field dressed that they noticed that someone was missing. “What happened to Ole?” the Sons wanted to know.

“Well, that there’s a long story,” said Arne, looking more than usually sheepish. “What happened was this. I shot this here nice buck, and we was dragging it back together when Ole started to feel light-headed. ‘I’m feeling kinda sick, Arne,’ he said, and then he sorta passed out on me.”

“But Golly Moses, Arne,” said the Sons of Norway. “You mean you just left Ole lying there all by himself and brought back the deer instead.”

“Yah,” said Arne, looking even more like a sheep than before, if that were possible. “I gotta admit it wasn’t a very nice thing to do, but I figured no one was likely to come along and steal Ole.”

Arne wasn’t really a bad person, just human, and being human he did a bad, bad thing. He got possessed by evil–anyone can be. Cases of possession are hardly less common in the world than the flu—and certainly no less contagious. Evil can infect decent people and make them very sick indeed. It can twist sisters and brothers into the most awful shapes. It can sweep through churches and denominations and religions like brush fire. Even whole nations and political parties can become possessed. That’s what happened to Germany in the 1930’s.  That is what is happening in parts of the Islamic world even as we speak.

Speaking theologically, evil is not really “real,” since it was not created by God and everything God creates is good. But even in its unreality it is still dangerous because it separates us from each other. Evil confronts us all together as a church and a nation. It is never our sole problem. But we treat it that way. We may know in our minds that it is bad to leave our friends behind. But when we meet evil where we least expect it, we allow our feelings to master us and we run off and hide. We leave each other to face the music alone.

Now Jesus could confront evil alone and he did. But without putting too fine a point on it, you and I aren’t Jesus. We need his presence with us. In the twisted face of evil our best defense is always each other, since in communion with one another is where we experience the presence of Jesus most powerfully. So when we are startled by the face of evil, where ever it may appear, we need to quiet ourselves, rise above our emotions, and seek out our brothers and sisters. Remember, beloved–against the frigid wind that blows through the universe, our best defense is to huddle together.

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Luke 2:1-20. “I Don’t Understand the Poor”

According to Luke’s gospel it “came to pass” that while Mary and Joseph visited Bethlehem, “the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

And it also came to pass that my wife and I visited New York a few days last week. It is about as far from “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as you can get. Christmastime in Gotham is quite unlike anyplace else. The tree in Rockefeller Center with those million warm spots in chilly night is bigger. The playthings at F.A.O. Swartz and the toys of a different kind in the windows at Tiffany’s are more breathtaking. The plunder, the much-ness, the over-the top-ness of a modern American Christmas pours out through the revolving doors and onto the sidewalks in New York this time of year. It is a Revelation. An Epiphany. As we were being pushed along by the crowds on Fifth Avenue we heard a piercing female voice squeal over the tumult—“My god Versace!” And I thought–Yes, Virginia, there is more than just one god who reveals himself at Christmas.

But no, beloved, this not going to be another rant about the materialism that pervades this season in America. Everyone knows that our celebration of Christmas has become crass and vulgar. And some people even care.  Nice people like you do care, of course. We would like to get behind all the illusion to what is real, and in doing that the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel is a good place to begin. It is so familiar it hardly bears retelling. Yet do we really know the story at all? It is like one of those fake department store presents that never gets opened. It sits under the artificial tree in the front window, a box wrapped up in gorgeous paper and tied with a splendid bow. But the wrapping is all that seems to matter. No one bothers to look inside.

 But the box is not empty. No, not by a long shot. There is something inside, hidden in darkness. In fact, the box is moving. It is filled with Life. Real Life—not visions of sugar-plums and legends of jolly elves and flying reindeer. The Christmas story St. Luke tells is about as harsh as can be imagined. We have enrobed it in chocolate and dusted it with sugar so often that it is hard to know how it was intended to taste. But when he first told it, it certainly had a sharp and bitter tang.       

Jesus, St. Luke informs us, was born in the most squalid conditions, in a stable of some sort, like a cave, among animals–and hardly better than one of them. Everything in the story points ahead to the impending tragedy. This is a child born to die. The newborn is wrapped in “bands of cloth,” like a corpse, and laid “in a manger,” a stone feeding trough resembling a stone sarcophagus, foreshadowing his burial in a borrowed tomb.

The evangelist Luke is always especially concerned with people in real need—the destitute, the sick, widows and orphans–and his nativity story is about the extremes to which want can drive ordinary people.  It is about a homeless couple struggling to take care of a newborn  in a cruel and indifferent world. It is about a band of vagrants, despised migrants, caring for flocks that did not belong to them, forced by necessity to sleep in the open fields at night. They were visited by messengers from God with “good news of great joy.” But if there is comfort and joy to be found in this story it comes as a surprise, like finding a rare jewel lying amongst the soiled straw and manure of a barn floor.

It is a story about poverty, which, for all the wrong reasons, we have made into something else—an orgy of Victorian sentimentality and an excuse for miserable excess. The story has been transformed into a charming fairy tale about sissy angels and talking animals and little princes in disguise–which is precisely what it is not. Stripped of the “shmalts” in which we clothe it, the circumstances of Jesus’ coming could hardly be more humble and debased. 

My wife and I took in a Broadway show while we were in New York—“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.” A theatre critic called it “a rollicking story,” with “humor of the most delectable amorality, and the cleverest lyrics assembled in a quite a long time.”  And the lyrics are indeed clever. For example, one of the characters, a daffy English aristocrat–Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith– sings a song called, “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” that goes something like this–“The lives they lead/ Of want and need!/ I should think it would be a bore./ Oh, I don’t understand the poor.”  

None of it is intended to be taken seriously, of course. The joke is on the callous rich. They’re rich, after all—they can take it. And at the price of Broadway tickets, the poor aren’t going to be there to take offense. So there is this ridiculously posh snob in his scarlet hunting attire swinging a poor dead fox about, and complaining about how being “so debased/ Is in terrible taste.” We all laughed and no one bestowed much attention on the words.   

It was just a fluffy little number in a bantam-weight musical comedy about serial murder. But it is weighty without meaning to be, and the problem it reflects is the heaviest one of all, beloved. We don’t understand the poor, and therefore we don’t understand ourselves. Even the destitute are often pretty clueless when it comes the meaning of their poverty, though admittedly they have more firsthand experience of it. So they do understand that there is nothing sweet or charming about it. Real want is squalid, ugly, brutal and, most of all, it is frightening.  To be in real poverty is the most frightening thing we can experience this side of the grave, and as close as anyone can get to death and still be alive. 

 That is surely part of the reason we sentimentalize the Christmas story so ruthlessly, beloved. We make it into what it is not to protect ourselves from what it is. It is common and indelicate. As Lord Aldabert sings, “to be so debased,” is “in terrible taste.”  Nevertheless, it endures—often wrapped in corny sentiment but undiminished in power. We are drawn to it by the Holy Spirit as part of the ultimate human tragedy, the self-sacrifice of the Greatest and the Best. His birth is a spectacle as crude and as enthralling as his Cross. And behind the plaster store-bought figures of the manger scene–Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, the shepherds and the angels–lies a idea that merits a lifetime of reflection—the poverty of God. 

That God reveals himself to us as needy would probably come as a surprising and rather shocking idea to many. If they give it any thought of all, most people think of God in terms of limitless riches. There is a whole cult of self-improvement out there called “the prosperity gospel,” which professes to teach people how to use piety to leverage some of God’s wealth for themselves. But you, beloved, can see through all that. You already know that the Jesus of the Gospels was a poor man who did not live and die to catapault us into the upper tax brackets. Jesus was always poor, from birth, and his poverty speaks to our own.

The truth is, although it ranks very high among most people’s priorities, in reality wealth means nothing very much in the long run. Money is one of our own creations, not one of God’s. It gives us a temporary security, but, as has often been observed, it cannot buy real happiness. Money can indeed buy many interesting forms of unreal happiness. But happiness in the ultimate sense is a way of being, not of having. It is a relationship that satisfies an interior need we have.  

And, of course, wealth it is also unfaithful.  In the end, after all the trouble and bother we take with it, it lets us down. “We brought nothing into this world,” St. Paul says, “and it is certain we can carry nothing out of it” (1 Timothy 6:7). We work so hard and so long to fill our existence with things in order to the emptiness in ourselves. Some of us do very well at Monopoly, beloved. We may amass a big heap of money and property. As my brother expresses it—The one who dies with the most toys wins. But it will never be wealth that defines the essential reality of our lives, beloved, no matter how much we have. It is poverty that embraces us. It is what comes before, and it is what will follow after. And what is true of our lives is true of the whole Creation—there was nothing before it and there will be nothing afterwards. Poverty embraces it.

In the beginning, according to the Book of Genesis, “the earth was a formless void.” And God created everything that is out of nothing in order to fill that void in one big bang. But why in heaven’s name? Why anything? Now it is a pretty laughable business for any of us to try to penetrate the mind of the Ultimate Reality. Who are we, anyway?

Who indeed! But we do have our own experience to work from, and the scriptures do say we were made in “the image of God.” So there must be some point of contact between us. And there is nothing more fundamental to our humanity than the experience of want, and our longing for something to fill that emptiness. Want activates all we do. With his last breath Martin Luther is supposed to have said: “We are beggars. This is true.”

We are poor, beloved, and before all else and after all else God is too. And his poverty is what makes creation understandable. God was driven to it by want. All the wonders of the created universe are the expression of his desire to satisfy his need to fill the loneliness of infinity. We ourselves are the product of his need. He made us to fill his own emptiness.  If there is any rhyme or reason for our human lives, it is to answer God’s need for company in eternity.

 And it is what made his Incarnation, his desperate attempt in Jesus Christ to befriend us, necessary. In Jesus Christ God shows us that he shares our poverty.  All of us who share a certain religious background can rattle off that verse from John’s Gospel—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him may not perish but have everlasting life.” But why such love for our insignificant planet? Why should God willing to undertake such a painful rescue with such a measly result. Why? Because God needs us, and he created us to need him.

Of course you don’t have to accept my explanation. Everyone gets a shot at answering the greatest of all questions—Why is there anything? And does anything have any meaning at all?  

Religious people are always telling us that we need God, but to the pious it seems in peculiarly bad taste to say that God needs anything at all. But to me that is exactly what seems to be the case. I don’t understand the poor. I admit it. None of us do. Not even the poor. But poverty is the key to it all. That is the message of Christmas–God not only emptied himself in Jesus Christ, but in Jesus Christ he also revealed his own emptiness. In his birth he showed himself to be as poor as we.

To me that is what the story means. And to me the best way to celebrate that story is not sentimentalize it, but to accept want as our common experience. It is what binds us to each other—and to God.  We are all beggars. And each of us is called upon to recognize not only in our own way, but together. Not alone. Never alone.  Because there is a cold wind blowing through the universe, beloved, and the best we thing we can do is cling to each other for dear life. Love is all we have.

There is literally nothing else.

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Sermon on Luke 20:27-40. Life Beyond the Labels

            St. Luke tells us that one day some Sadducees, “who say there is no resurrection,” came to Jesus with a story about a woman who married seven brothers. Her husband died, leaving her childless, so she married his brother, as the Law of Moses required. Then he died.  So she went on, doggedly marrying one brother after another, until they all had died. (Was it her cooking, we wonder?) Then the woman herself died. “In the resurrection . . . whose wife will the woman be?” the Sadducees wanted to know. “For all seven had married her?” The Sadducees were the political liberals of Jesus time. There were upper class, skeptical, infected with Greek philosophy, and in hand and glove with the Roman rulers of Palestine. Religiously they accepted only the first five books of the Hebrew scripture, the books ascribed to Moses, as having authority–and those with reservations. They rejected the prophetic books. They recoiled from anything supernatural, like a horse shying away from a snake. They were in charge of the temple liturgy, and, like certain high church Christians of our time, more concerned with the form of worship than with its content.

            You get the picture. The story of the unfortunate woman who married seven brothers was not intended seriously. It was a theological game to those who told it, a joke really, intended ridicule a literal-minded belief in the resurrection of the dead, as it was professed by conservative Jews of Jesus’ time, the scribes and Pharisees of our New Testament.

            But Jesus, who could at times demonstrate a hearty sense of humor, didn’t think this one was funny. It was a heartless, tasteless little tale, and Jesus’ response to it was straight to the point and no nonsense: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

In the shadow of his cross, Jesus was apparently in no mood for silly theological games. His reply to the Sadducees stung them sufficiently that “they no longer dared to ask him another question.” But it drew from the scribes, who belonged to the other, more conservative wing of Judaism, a grudging admiration. “Teacher,” they said, “you have spoken well.”  But almost immediately “in the hearing of all the people” Jesus denounces those same scribes for their hypocrisy, indifference to the poor, and corrupt materialism, the same sins modern conservative Christians are liable to. “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers” (Luke 20:47). 

Apparently in those last hours of his life the Lord had even less patience than usual for the games and posturings of either liberals or conservatives. He was sick to death of the flacks.  And who could blame him. Jesus lived in a highly polarized time, religiously and politically.  He was surrounded by noisy factions which heartily despised each other—Pharisees, Zealots, Sadducees, and Essenes. They were left-leaning, right-leaning, revolutionaries, collaborators and drop-outs—all Jews, but each group with its own hotly-defended agenda.

In his life and teachings, however, Jesus always defined himself without reference to any of them.  None of the contemporary labels stuck to him. He was always “none of the above.” He defied categorization, and everyone remarked that he spoke and acted “with authority” without reference to accepted precedents. His first followers came to him with all kinds of labels attached, but Jesus called them to leave all that junk behind and share his remarkable freedom, living in the open space beyond sectarian squabbles and partisan politics.

His independence put him in conflict with every faction. Jesus lived his life “out of control”—a charge frequently leveled by his sectarian enemies–and his Holy Spirit is still summoning us to leave the pigeon holes in which we find ourselves. “You have set my feet in an enormous room,” the psalmist says. He always calls us to a larger life, never to a narrower one.

There is a favorite poem of mine by the British poet Stephen Spender (1909-1995) that speaks vividly about this larger kind of life. It begins with these wonderful lines: “I think continually of those who were truly great./ Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history/ Through corridors of light where the hours are suns/ Endless and singing.”*  

It is immediately apparent that the poet is drawing a distinction between those who are broadly considered great and the ones who truly are. Most people, if they give any thought to the matter at all, would define greatness in terms of wealth, power, or fame. People who possess these things may sometimes be admirable, or at least enviable—though I hope at this point in my life I have gotten beyond all that. Some of the great may also be “truly great.” But the poet suggests that their true greatness amounts to more than money or celebrity. It is a quality that the soul brings into this world and carries out of it to the next. The “truly great” were those who “in their lives fought for life.” Living beyond all categories, their freedom set other people free to do the same.

Some religious people might call such people “saints.” Spender doesn’t—probably because he would include among the “truly great” persons of whom some religious people—the scribes and Pharisees–would not approve. People who live with remarkable freedom are not always hemmed in by rules and customs. The religious people of Jesus’ time certainly did not approve of him, but he is still setting people free. We can call them saints or not, but sanctity is what “I Think Continually” is about—the determination of “the truly great” to never allow “gradually the traffic to smother/ With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.”

In the church calendar the month of November is assigned to the remembrance of the faithful departed, those whom Jesus calls “children of the resurrection.”  After thirty some years in the ministry I have a rather fat file in my head labeled “All Saints,” about whom I too “think continually.”

With so many “truly great” to choose from, which to choose? There was, for instance, a woman named Agnes Schafer. She was well over ninety years old the first time I met her. If they survive to that age, people usually turn inward upon themselves, becoming vague and fearful, but Agnes never did that. She fixed you with eyes as sharp as broken Coke bottles and said what she really thought. “This church doesn’t do enough for the poor,” she told me the first time she met me. “When we help the needy we bless ourselves.  When we don’t, it is we who are poor, no matter how much money we have.” It came right out of the blue. Agnes had, according to those who knew her well, spent her whole life speaking her mind. She had always been a surprising woman. By her own admission her frankness had often gotten her into trouble. As a nurse, she stood up to everyone—doctors, administrators, even family members–in defense of her patients. Her heart was, as the scripture puts it, “steadfast”—the word can also be translated “stubborn.”  

When Agnes died she left detailed instructions for her funeral at the church, including her favorite lessons and hymns. But the attorney who handled her affairs disregarded all that, assuming that only a handful of people would come out for the funeral of a woman nearly a hundred years old with no family. So he arranged for a stark little service with recorded music in a local funeral home. I was to officiate.

But even in death Agnes was still able to surprise us all.  Some years earlier, she had read about a county literacy program and became interested in teaching non-reading adults—aliens, recent immigrants, migrant workers—to read, write, and speak English. So she had started a tutoring program in her own home. Most of her students were Chinese Cambodian refugees, who had fled the Khmer Rouge. And on the day of her funeral those students and their families showed up. They quickly filled up the room where the service was to be held and overflowed the hall outside, carrying armfuls of flowers. The funeral directors scrambled, but there weren’t enough chairs for all of them to sit down. They swamped the whole funeral home, spilling out the front doors into the street. The men and boys stood in respectful silence, the women and girls wept as if a member of their own family had died–which was, in the profoundest sense, true. Agnes was their American mother.   

            “I think continually of those who were truly great.”

Wealth and celebrity are disposable, beloved. They don’t last. But to say they are unimportant flies in the face of experience and common sense. We have no choice but to acknowledge that that kind of greatness is very important to those who spend a lifetime chasing it. And some part of all of us longs for all that kind of disposable greatness. It is our nature. But Holy Wisdom flies in the face of common sense and experience.  People may hate it, despise it, and ridicule it as absurd. But that doesn’t matter. Holy Wisdom goes on saying that there is another kind of greatness, often possessed by those who are not generally envied and admired, those who tell the truth and live the truth, those whose hearts are “steadfast.”  And that true greatness is more attainable than we might think—and more surprisingly ordinary.

I had a teacher in graduate school, Fr. William Rooney, who I now realize was also among those who “were truly great.”  One afternoon in the midst of a seminar on literary criticism he digressed briefly into the subject of greatness. He said something to this effect: “There is a perfection of making, and those who attain it are great artists—poets, painters, musicians, and composers. That kind of perfection is very rare. And then there is a perfection of knowing, and those who reach it are great thinkers, philosophers, and sages. That too is very rare.” He paused then to peer at us appraisingly over his glasses. “I do not think that anyone this room will attain either of those kinds of greatness. But luckily for us all there is a third kind of perfection, more ordinary, the perfection of being—goodness, if you like. Those who attain that perfection are saints. And to that kind of greatness all us can—and should—aspire.”

And Father Rooney was right—may be blessed forever! Greatness of a very modest kind is indeed attainable. In my life—together with some real stinkers—I have encountered a surprising number of those who “were truly great.” And what typifies them is that they are impossible to typify. Who could adequately typify a Gandhi, or a Schweitzer, or a Mother Theresa, or clouds of others more obscure but just as great.  Labels do not stick to any of them. Each one was different and radically individual, but all of them–like Agnes Schafer–were “out of control,” sharing the remarkable freedom and stubborn unruliness of Jesus.

So where does that leave us, beloved, who are still working out way to true greatness?  Well, as always, the best place to begin is with the example of Jesus and—so far as humanly possible–neither a Pharisee nor a Sadducee be. As we said before, Jesus lived in a highly polarized time—and so do we. The parties in our world tend to be more political than religious, but the tug of war is just as fierce. The struggle between liberal and conservative is so vicious and that it threatens to literally tear our country apart. Labels make us devils to each other. And furthermore, they are not what we really are. They are caricatures of ourselves. I remember once during a particularly bitter political year someone tried to coerce a poll worker who belonged to my church to find out how I was registered—Democrat or Republican. As if that should matter! But it does.

  For myself I have found that among liberals I am too conservative, and among conservatives I am too liberal to fit in. There is an old song from my childhood—“Call Me Mr. In Between.” I think Burl Ives sang it. In any case it pretty much sums up my situation right now—Mr. In Between. I am sick to death of the flack. But I am determined that there must be freedom beyond the labels, and I am certain that Jesus shows the way to that freedom.

In his own time Jesus defied all attempts at categorization–and he has continued to do so ever since. And in our own fractious society the best way to confess Jesus as our Lord and Master is to struggle to free ourselves from all religious and political categories—all!–that confine us to our own prejudices and at the same time separate us from other people. There is not only life beyond the labels that divide us, beloved–that is where life really begins.  

I am convinced that there are three ways to get closer to the Lord, beloved—through prayer and worship, by helping the needy, and by living with integrity. The last one is at least as important as the other two. The further we stay away from labels the closer we get to that integrity for which we were created, and the closer we get to that integrity the closer we come to true greatness, of which Jesus is the greatest example.

 

 

 

 

 

*Here is the whole text of Stephen Spender’s “I Think Continually”:

I think continually of those who were truly great.

Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history

Through corridors of light where the hours are suns

Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition

Was that their lips, still touched with fire,

Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.

And who hoarded from the Spring branches

The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

 

What is precious is never to forget

The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs

Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.

Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light

Nor its grave evening demand for love.

Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother

With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

 

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields

See how these names are feted by the waving grass

And by the streamers of white cloud

And the whispers of wind in the listening sky.

The names of those who in their lives fought for life

Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre

Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun

And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

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Luke 10:25-37. The Good Samaritan

Luke 10:25-37 – November 16, 2013

The evangelist Luke tells us that one day a certain lawyer—an expert in the Law of Moses–asked Jesus a searching question, “Who is my neighbor?” He wanted to “justify himself,” we are told. (Who doesn’t?)  In response the Lord tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. And when he had finished, Jesus has a searching question of his own—“Which of these three, do you think—the priest, the Levite, or the despised Samaritan—proved neighbor to the man the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer replied, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Go and do likewise. Easier said than done! Mercy isn’t even easy to define, when it comes down to it. No word in English means precisely the same thing. But it is worth the effort, because for those of us who seriously wonder—What should I be doing to follow Jesus?—mercy brings us as near an answer as we are going to get.

So what exactly is mercy?

There are a number of English words that mean nearly the same thing—there is pity for instance, a feeling of sorrow for another’s pain. And there is compassion, which comes closer to mercy than pity because it requires some “ethical imagination,” the ability to think yourself into a painful situation of another and conjure up for yourself the anguish you have not felt. In the parable that Jesus tells, the Samaritan saw the man who had fallen among thieves lying next to the road and he “had compassion.” He felt for or, more exactly, with the victim.

But the story doesn’t end there—with a feeling. It certainly could have ended with the Samaritan feeling sorry for that poor blighter lying in the ditch. It is entirely possible to feel pity and still pass by on the other side of the road. Mercy, however, is more than a feeling. You can feel compassion, but you have to show mercy. It may be accompanied by an emotion, with pity or compassion—it often is–but it is never just that.  Mercy is an action.

And feelings are not actions, beloved. To think they are is one of the deepest flaws present in our modern way of thinking, beloved. For all of its harshness, we live in a sentimental society, where emotion is greatly valued for its own sake. We have the misguided notion that if we feel something deeply we have done something worthwhile. I have to include myself in this. When I read about the devastation wrought by a typhoon in the Philippines–thousands and thousands homeless and starving–I feel a surge of genuine pity for their suffering. As a father I can imagine myself in the position of those parents who are grieving for their children, swept away by the fury of the storm. I feel compassion—and that’s nice. Compassion costs little or nothing and can be emotionally quite satisfying. And having finished feeling sorry, I can safely turn the page of my newspaper, take another sip of my coffee, and congratulate myself on being a good person.

You have done that too—we all have. We are people entirely convinced of the value of our own feelings.

But having felt pity or compassion we have not shown mercy. Feelings are not actions. The writer of the Book of James asks: “If a brother or sister is lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (2:15-16)

What good indeed? None whatsoever.

Mercy is not sentimental. It requires us first of all to see other human beings realistically and soberly, not as things but as actual persons, like ourselves. In Jesus’ parable the Samaritan saw a man lying beaten and bleeding next to the road. The priest and the Levite, who had passed that way earlier, had also seen the same man. But what they saw was a disagreeable object lying by the side of the road, possibly a corpse, a potential source of ritual impurity and something to be avoided. The Samaritan, however, was prepared to see the victim differently, because he himself was someone whom life had beaten up. As a member of a hated minority, the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable would have experienced prejudice and racial discrimination. He too was a victim of injustice.

Having suffered injustice ourselves, however, is no guarantee that we will respond to injustice when we see it done to others. The Samaritan might have shaken his head oh so sadly and signed—“What a pity! I know how unjust life can be.” We all enjoy dwelling upon how badly we have been treated, and–let’s face it–life can certainly hand us the rough end of the stick.  But going out of our way to bind up someone else’s wounds requires a degree of forgiveness for whatever hard knocks life has handed us. We have to let go our self-pity in order to show mercy.

The Samaritan knew nothing whatsoever about the character of the man who lay unconscious by the side of the road. He may have been good or bad. That doesn’t matter for mercy. Judgment isn’t up to us–showing mercy is. It begins with seeing real people in need, and then it deliberately takes a step toward righting life’s injustices, of which we ourselves are the victims. And when we bind up their wounds we bind up our own.

Mercy is deliberate; it is the decision that makes it mercy.

You can feel pity without meaning to.  You can experience sympathy on an impulse. You can do kind things spontaneously, without thinking, but you have to “show” mercy. It requires of us a conscious decision—or rather a series of decisions—to go further and further out of our way—to get closer and closer to those who are in pain. The Samaritan went to the victim by the side of road and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine, the first aid of that time and place. Then he put him on his own beast. Then he took him to the inn and paid the innkeeper to take care of him. Each  was a deliberate action that carried him further and further out of his way–and got him in deeper and deeper.

He became more and more involved in the life of the man  he didn’t know. He did that not because the man he found by the road particularly deserved his mercy, but because the Samaritan found mercy in his nature–as do we. It is gift of God pure and simple. It is how God shares himself with us. We call it “grace.” But we have to make the decision to allow God’s mercy to flow through us into the world. So Jesus says to the lawyer—and to us, by the way–“Go and do likewise.”

The Old Testament sings praises for the God who shows mercy to the children of Israel, his chosen people. But it took a long time for the children of Israel to reconcile themselves to the idea that that in response they should act mercifully. And even then they strictly limited mercy, as if it were something supremely precious—which it is. Down to the time of Jesus the limits of mercy remained a living question debated among experts on the Law of Moses–How far does mercy go? Should mercy extend beyond the Jewish community? What about “bad” Jews? Did it extend beyond the Chosen to righteous non-Jews? But it surely couldn’t reach to “trash”–like Samaritans, for instance? That is the source of the searching question the lawyer asks Jesus–“Who is my neighbor?”

It is still a searching question.

We also tend to measure out our mercy in teaspoons. We are happy to extend mercy to people like ourselves. But what about people we find reprehensible? So we might well ask ourselves–How far does my mercy go?

I got boxed into a space in a parking lot the other day by a SUV with a bumper sticker that read—“Water-board Liberals.” I think it was an attempt at wit, but the humor was lost on me.  Jokes about torturing people leave me a little flat, I must admit. And then maybe it wasn’t intended to be funny at all. Maybe the driver would really like to torture and kill fellow Americans. That impression was reinforced when she stepped out of her vehicle and appeared to be everything her bumper-sticker implied she might be—coarse, rude, hard-looking.

How far does my mercy go? Because I happened to be thinking about that question just then, I asked myself—Is this woman deserving of my mercy?

It is a peculiarly Gospel idea, beloved, that God shows mercy not just to one family or religious group, not just to the deserving or the elect, but to the entire human race, without exception. And it is the idea that we should show mercy, not just to people like ourselves, but to people we might well detest is what makes the teaching of Jesus so radical and his example so difficult for us to follow. That God loves the people we despise is the single Christian doctrine that is most difficult to believe.

God is merciful, nevertheless, and his mercy flows through us to the whole world. But showing mercy does not come naturally to us. “Go and do likewise” is not an easy command to obey. Kindness and cruelty come easily, directly from our emotions, from pity and anger, without a second thought. But to follow the command of Christ to show mercy requires consideration. You have to think about it, beloved. And it frequently requires overcoming something deeply felt—our sense of injured pride, our prejudices, and our own painful history.

That is why mercy has to be a lifetime’s work. None of us will ever be really good at it. It is a fresh decision every time we are confronted by someone who needs our mercy. Yes or no. And if we choose yes, it is a “cold” decision, made in the light of God’s love for the world shown for us in the death of Jesus on the cross, and not a “hot” one, made on the basis of our feelings

So I have to like the person to whom I show mercy—or pretend to? Come on now, you’ve got to be kidding! God does not require any of us to play at being hypocrites!

But he does require us to be merciful—or try our damnedest. The promise of Jesus—“Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy”—has dark implications for the merciless. For myself it means that I am called to show mercy not just to the people who plaster hateful sentiments on their bumpers but to those who actually do torture and kill in the name of their own twisted political and religious beliefs—or just for the hell of it. Only because they are actual persons like myself, not things, and for no other reason.

People only become human for us gradually, as we get closer to them. They start out like a distant figure moving toward us far down the beach, just a pencil mark on sand. Then slowly, as we approach each other, they begin to take on a human form, with arms, legs, and a distinct body, male or female. And only when they are quite near do they attain a face–plain or beautiful, old or young, distant or smiling. People become human for us gradually. They all start out as things, and only slowly do they become human for us. It is our business, beloved, to get close enough for us to recognize in those who suffer the image of Christ.

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