Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Healing our demons

Last week, when I was walking through downtown at about 5 pm, a woman and I attempted to cross a street simultaneously, but from opposite directions. Heading directly toward one another, she angled slightly to her left and I concurrently angled to my right; then we did the reverse, she moving right and I left. We repeated our dance several times as we each politely sought to avoid colliding. When we were only a couple of feet from each other, she looked up; I chuckled bemusedly, realizing that our politeness had unintentionally created an impasse; she, after a moment, changed her expression from wary concern to a smile, and we passed pleasantly.

The incident was memorable because she obviously expected some type of negative confrontation. The incident, in a small way, symbolizes the widespread polarizations of contemporary life. When somebody is different than we are, we too frequently stigmatize the person and treat them as an outcast. This happens, from both perspectives, between Democrats and Republicans, Trump supporters and opponents, self-identified pro-choice and pro-life people in the debate over abortion, those for or against the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, and so forth.

This morning’s gospel reading describes a demoniac ostracized by his local community because he has harmed property but also, implicitly, the psychic well-being of others.[1] The Gerasenes – Gentiles – had banished the man from their midst, chained him, and forced him to live as an animal. Jesus found the man living naked in a cemetery, having broken free of his shackles.

Biblical scholars offer two different diagnoses of the demoniac’s condition. First, the man may have suffered from mental illness such as schizophrenia or manic-depression. Before the late nineteenth century, people lacked the scientific knowledge and vocabulary to diagnose mental illness or even neuroses. Today, we remain far from completely understanding mental illness; regrettably, we and our society continue too often stigmatize and even ostracize the mentally ill.

Second, biblical scholars suggest that the demon possession in today’s reading may point to an obsession that has become a metaphorical demon. Evil is real. We may personify evil as a horned devil or fallen angel with a legion of followers dubbed demons, but, in fact, evil is a spiritual force in individuals and groups. Remember a time when a wicked thought took root in your mind, luring you with a fascination to think and do what you knew was wrong, enticing you one-step at a time, until you discovered you had acted or spoken in ways that you regretted even as you did it. Remember a time when a group of children, teens, or adults emboldened by the misdeeds of one, lost control, and committed acts that none would have dreamt possible. The actions of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust are the most horrendous, frightening, and extreme example of this dynamic. More commonly, I've seen nice children and teens suddenly form a little mob, turning against one of their number who is overweight, unpopular, or wearing an out of style piece of clothing. We adults are no better. I've seen work groups and small religious groups turn vicious, smiling as they verbally cut and stab one another. Evil is real and the metaphor of demon possession points to that reality.

Jesus, a practicing Jew, crossed boundaries and reached out to the Gentile Gerasene demoniac. He saw a human, not an animal. Jesus, most appropriately from a Jewish perspective, sends the demons, who beg him not to condemn them to the abyss (connoting the place of death), into a herd of ritually unclean swine; the swine then rush into the watery deeps, an English phrase translating another Greek word for abyss. Demons clearly belong in the abyss. Then Jesus welcomes the man to his team, instructing him to tell everyone about being healed. Jesus lived a welcoming, inclusive, genuine hospitality.

This morning’s epistle reading reminds us that in Holy Baptism we are “clothed with Christ.”[2] Being clothed with Christ is another way of saying that our character, that is our values and habitual patterns of behavior, should imitate those of Jesus. Set within the context of today’s gospel reading, being clothed with Christ has two meanings.

First, we are to have compassion and strive to heal the mentally ill. Illustratively, Holy Nativity reenacted Jesus’ healing the demoniac through both its generous Easter gift to the Samaritan Counseling Center of Hawai’i – truly a gift to help raise the metaphorically dead to new life – and through its ongoing concern for housing the homeless, many of whom suffer from some form of mental illness, including addiction.

Second, we are to bridge divides that polarize and separate. The preeminent sixteenth century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker commented that our affirmation the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation does not mean that all things the Bible contains are necessary for salvation.[3] These latter topics he labelled adiaphora, the non-essentials.

Sadly, this congregation, like our larger society, has a history of bitter disputes. Like each of you, I see through a glass darkly and have no claim to infallibility. God's people here, and everywhere, inevitably disagree over issues that seem important yet are not essential for salvation. When those disagreements occur, remember the story of the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus recognized him as a human, saw in him the light of God's image, no matter how tarnished, restored him to the community, embracing him as a disciple.

Disagree. But then metaphorically, cross the aisle. Smile at one another. Embrace one another as brothers and sisters, clothed in Christ.

May our symbols of God's grace – water, light, bread, wine, word, and touch – exorcise your demons and fill you with new life. And when the service is ended, go, and tell others what wondrous things God is doing in this place. Amen.

Sermon preached the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 23, 2019

Church of the Holy Nativity, Honolulu, HI

[1] Luke 8:26-39.
[2] Galatians 3:23-29.
[3] John Barton, “Richard Hooker and Puritans: Of sundry things, in the light of reason,” Church Times, 14 June 2019.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Giving, tithing and other stewardship questions in an era of grace

An Ethical Musings’ reader sent me this question:

I would be grateful if you can direct me to any of your sermons on [the issue of tithing and first fruit giving]. If no sermons, please what are your thoughts on these 2 tropical issues? Do they still have relevance in today’s era of Grace rather than Law?

Some searching through my files and subsequent reflections led to two conclusions. First, since I no longer preach on a regular basis, I lack the incentive to preach stewardship sermons as part of a congregation’s annual stewardship campaign. Second, my thinking about the efficacy of stewardship sermons has shifted toward preferring a paragraph or two on giving in occasional sermons scattered across the year instead of an entire sermon devoted to stewardship.

Jesus did not teach tithing. Tithing is an Old Testament concept. Incidentally, the twentieth century founder of a small Christian denomination, after a painstaking if severely flawed analysis of the Old Testament, concluded that the Old Testament does not teach tithing (giving 10% to God) but triple tithing, i.e., giving God 30% of one’s income.

Jesus taught sacrificial giving. His parable in which he contrasts the tithing of the wealthy in the Temple with the widow who gives all that she has vividly portrays sacrificial giving. What constitutes sacrificial giving obviously depends upon income, number of people financially dependent upon the earner, local cost of living and other factors.

Sacrificial giving – in its essence – is not about putting money in the offering plate but about using all of one’s resources to do God's work. All of one’s resources includes personal skills and abilities, income, accumulated wealth, influence, etc. This is the meaning of Jesus’ parable about the servants entrusted with money by their master (the first with ten talents, a second with five talents, and the third with one talents) while he is traveling. Upon his return, he expects each to have reaped some return. More than money, the parable emphasizes God's expectation that individuals use everything they have in a Godly manner, that is, to increase love of God and neighbor.

“First fruits” is also an Old Testament concept, used exclusively in the New Testament in reference to Christ and Christians.

The Old Testament concept merits a brief reflection. In an era before canning, freezing, and a global marketplace, fresh produce was necessarily seasonal. People understandably placed extra value on the first produce harvested. Giving that first harvest to God expressed gratitude for God's role in making the harvest possible and of renewing one’s commitment to God through a sacrificial offering.

God does not need our gifts. God's intent and plans are never thwarted because of human stinginess. God's options are bigger than we can imagine.

Instead, people have a need to give. Giving loosens money’s grip on the giver. And, if each of us is really honest, money has a grip in one measure or another upon us. Furthermore, giving to a Godly cause turns our attention from self toward loving God and others. This turning can occur whether we give money to a Christian congregation that we believe is doing God’s work, to a non-profit that we believe is doing God's work, to a neighbor or person whom we know is in need, or even when we pay taxes used (at least partially) to support programs to help the neediest and most vulnerable in our midst.

How much should you individually give?


But everything includes spending wisely to care for yourself and those dependent upon you (self-care enables subsequent gifts as well as the gift of time).

Everything also means giving to others (i.e., to a church, charity, person, or paying taxes) to reap the benefits of loosening money’s powerful grip on you and turning your attention and life more fully toward God and others.

Only an individual (or couple) can decide how best to allocate their resources. Study Jesus’ teachings on money and stewardship. Meditate on those teachings. Then live as a child of God, loving God and all creation. The bottom line about sacrificial giving is that the term connotes sacrificial living, a life devoted to God.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Post-theism: A rationale and explanation

Many people find the intersection of science and religion highly problematic. The difficulty harkens back to when everyone read Scripture in a pre-scientific, literal way (except for those who read Scripture allegorically and even they presumed a pre-scientific worldview). However, by the sixteenth century, that started to change. For example, Galileo’s championing of Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric universe evoked strong ecclesial opposition. The Church, based on its reading of Joshua 10, which says that God caused the sun to stand still for a day so that the Israelites could take vengeance on the Amorites, taught that the earth and not the sun is at the center of the universe. The sun standing still in the sky makes sense only in a geocentric, not in a heliocentric, universe. Not until the twentieth century did the Roman Catholic Church reverse its rejection of a heliocentric universe.

Numerous, apparent contradictions between scientific theory and a literal reading of Scripture exist. Scientific data points towards the earth being millions of years old. Yet the notable Anglican Irish divine, Archbishop Usher, in the early seventeenth century calculated from Scriptural data that the earth is less than five thousand years old. Moses struck the Nile River with a stick and turned the Nile to blood, a chemical impossibility. Later, Moses struck a rock with his stick and a stream flowed from the rock, a geological impossibility. When John the Baptist baptized Jesus, Luke reports that the sky opened and a dove descended upon Jesus, combining an astronomical impossibility (the sky cannot open) with a biological impossibility (the upper atmosphere has insufficient oxygen for a bird to breathe).

Explanations of the intersection of science and religion fall within four broad categories. Agnostics, those who neither believe nor disbelieve, do not constitute one of those categories as they demur from describing the nexus. First, atheists, like Richard Dawkins, argue that religion is myth and no deity exists. Religious interpretations of life are not only unhelpful but at times actually destructive. This position embodies much faith for it presumes, contrary to the rules of logic, that one can prove a negative. Religion has caused much harm. That tragic fact, per se, makes religious ideas neither true nor false.

Second, fideists (or theists), including high profile contemporary creationists, argue that religion is true and that the supernatural deity omnipotent. Fideists go to unbelievable lengths to preserve their faith in a supernatural deity consonant with a traditional reading of Scripture. True believes have told me, for example, that God created dinosaur bones and the half-life of carbon to test the faith of people. I suspect that fideists similarly dismiss DNA research that links human origins to other primates. Perhaps more importantly, fideists cannot explain why a supernatural, omnipotent God allows so much human suffering. Why does God answer the prayers of the few and not of the many? Why does God heal one of cancer and ignore the entreaties of dozens? Why does God allow the Holocaust, mass starvation from famine, and epidemics that decimate populations? Belief in miracles – supernatural interventions – makes God seem capricious or weak. A God who allows so much suffering and evil seems anything but good and loving.

Third, compartmentalizers keep faith and science apart. Stephen Jay Gould described this as the non-overlapping magisterial of science and religion. Most people probably adopt this approach by default, finding that thinking too deeply about either religion or science produces more headache than insight, more heartache than comfort. Compartmentalization at its best constitutes a na├»ve view of religion and at its worst represents problem avoidance. Religion in order to give life meaning must address the totality of life. Certainly religion and science answer different types of questions, science emphasizing what and how while religion focuses on why. Yet a radically distorted understanding of science invariably leads one to wrong whys, as evident in the creationism movement that seeks to defend God's role in creation as inconsistent with evolution. Deists, those who believe that God was the cosmos’ first cause or prime mover and then has not intervened in the cosmos, constitute a distinct subset of compartmentalizers.

Fourth and finally, post-theists rely upon science and Scripture to push past the idolatrous images of a theistic God to the God about whom humans can say nothing. Nineteenth century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach argued that the God of theism resulted from wishfully projecting an image of human perfection onto a non-existent being. Ana-Marie Rizzuto and others, building on the work of Sigmund Freud, have demonstrated that one’s image of God bears a striking resemblance to one’s dominant parent. These are idols, not God. Post-theism, rooted in the ancient via negative, finds modern spokespersons in Episcopal Bishop John Spong, Church of England Bishop John A. T. Robinson, process theologians like John Hick, and others. Nobody has yet articulated a metaphor or symbol for God that has generated widespread acceptance. All insist that God is integral to the warp and woof of the cosmos rather than a supernatural deity existing outside the cosmos. All passionately believe in God, address the reality of suffering unabated by supernatural intervention, and articulate an approach to life and faith that seeks to build on insights from every field of knowledge.

Change is endemic to the cosmos. Historically, religion has planted a standard, declared, “Here I stand,” and refused to change. This produced a static body of religious knowledge (theology). Defenders of static religious knowledge generally fail to recognize the extent to which their theology incorporates anachronistic elements of other disciplines. For example, Galileo’s ecclesial foes relied as much upon Aristotelian astronomy as upon Scripture, a reliance that all took for granted until someone called the science into question. Similarly, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – for which more scientific data exists than almost any other scientific theory – challenged a biology that presumed species exist independently of one another and that species do not change over time.

I do not know where post-theism will go or how I will articulate my faith in the future. I do know that the time is well past when I could believe in a God who allows great evil and who appears to intervene supernaturally on a seemingly sporadic basis. I know that I cannot compartmentalize my faith from science or other fields of knowledge. My faith must be sufficiently robust to engage life’s most challenging issues informed by the best available insights from every discipline. In other words, I cannot afford to bypass, ignore, or recklessly proceed through the intersection of faith science if my faith is to be dynamic and alive, pointing toward that reality which no words can describe. Any other type of faith leaves me with a dead idol.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Moving toward unity while celebrating diversity

A couple were going out for the evening. They called a taxi and put the cat out for the evening.

The taxi arrived, and as the couple walked out the front door, the cat shot back in. They didn’t want the cat shut in the house, so one person went out to the taxi while the other went upstairs to chase the cat out. The passenger, not wanting it known that the house would be empty explained to the taxi driver, “My spouse is just going upstairs to say goodbye to my mother.”

A few minutes later, the spouse climbed into the cab. “Sorry I took so long. Stupid old thing was hiding under the bed and I had to poke her with a coat hanger to get her to come out!”

The ability to communicate constitutes an essential element of being human. As philosopher Michael de Unamuno says, "Language is the blood of the spirit."

Yet, humans often communicate poorly. The Genesis story about the Tower of Babel is an early attempt to explain why, if people supposedly descended from common ancestors, they speak so many languages and are frequently unable to communicate with one another.[1] Today, evolutionary biologists, archaeologists, ethnologists, semanticists and other experts suggest a far more complex process for the development of language and the thousands of human languages. The Genesis reading is important not as history but because of its confident assurance that anything is possible for humans when we cooperate, when we speak a single language and live and work in harmony with one another.

The reading from Acts, heard with different languages spoken simultaneously, may have sounded cacophonic.[2] However, I suspect that most of us could follow the reading in a language we personally know. The Day of Pentecost, when the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit, God with us, is the Day when we celebrate being united by a single language, the language of love manifest in Jesus. Pentecost aims us toward unity in the midst of diversity.

A senior high Sunday school class was studying the Old Testament book of Lamentations. The teacher began by asking his students what kind of book they thought it would be. No answer. Then he asked what “lament” means. Still no answers. Patiently, he tried again. "What does the word `lamentations' mean?" Upon that, one of the teenagers brightened and responded: "I think it means to cover things with plastic."[3]

Some of the personal histories St Clement parishioners have told me recount the story of love between two people, drawn together even though they did not speak a common language. As a chaplain, I heard similar stories from sailors and Marines who married a sweetheart from abroad. Not all such marriages end well, but some do. In those cases, love becomes the common language that unites. Love is God’s plastic which laminates relationships, binding people together.

Ministry as a Navy chaplain also introduced me to clergy and laity from a wide variety of Christian denominations. Pentecostals, as you may know, believe that God gives the Holy Spirit to individual believers as a sign the person is a genuine believer. Proponents of the prosperity gospel teach that God blesses genuine believers with wealth.

Prominent Pentecostal televangelist Kenneth Copeland preaches the prosperity gospel and has recently been in the news. He preaches that if you send him money as an expression of your faith, sometimes described as planting a seed, then God will bless you financially many times over. He is spectacularly successful: he owns three jets and has a net worth of approximately $760 million. On the other hand, his followers do not enjoy the same success, often scrimping on essentials to plant financial seeds with Copeland.

Hopefully, you recognize and reject Copeland’s exploitative pattern of behavior that brazenly ignores three basic theological truths. First, the gospel is not about individuals, the gospel is about us, all of us, all of God's children and all of God's creation. Second, Pentecost is not about individuals but about the community of God's people. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, not of an individual. Third, God's community is characterized by love; Jesus taught that people would recognize his disciples by their love for one another, an idea echoed in today’s gospel reading.[4] Love leads me to share my wealth with the hungry, thirsty and homeless. When the fullness of God's plan for the cosmos is realized, what the Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin labelled the Omega point of history,[5] we who are members of one body and drink from one Spirit, will be united with one common language, the language of love.

True prophecy, the prophecy of which Joel spoke in today’s reading from Acts, discerns God at work in the world. The ancient Hebrews recognized that all things were possible when people created in God's image cooperated. The first Christians recognized that God sent the Holy Spirit, God's abiding presence amongst us, to form us into one community of people bound together by the common language of love. In this era of globalization, we see those signs of God at work in the world. So, we gather, hopeful and encouraged, cherishing our unity in Christ's love while celebrating our diversity. Amen.

Sermon preached on Pentecost, June 9, 2019

Parish of St Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] Genesis 11:1-9.
[2] Acts 2:1-21.
[3] The United Church Observer, March 1994, p. 55.
[4] John 13:35; 14:8-17.