Thursday, July 28, 2016

Life after death? Part 2

This essay's first part began by enumerating some of the reasons why people find the prospect of life after death appealing. I then considered why both a physical and a spiritual understanding of life after death are problematic in light of advances in astronomy, particle physics, and biology. Part 1 ended with this question: If human spirituality does not connote an ethereal, eternal aspect of human existence, then what is the human spirit?

My efforts to answer this last question shape my thinking about life after death. If the human spirit is entirely the result of evolutionary processes, then aspects of that spirit should be apparent in some other lifeforms but most fully developed in humans. The human spirit, in other words, is the quintessence of what makes a human fully human and has at least six overlapping yet distinctive elements: self-awareness, linguistic capacity, the aesthetic sense, creativity, limited autonomy, and the ability to love and be loved. All six aspects presume that a human is an indivisible physical whole. All six in some measure also entail the emergence of new, non-physical capacities or complex properties in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, e.g., consciousness. (For a fuller discussion, cf. my article, "Making the Ethereal Earthly: A New Definition of the Human Spirit," Journal for the Study of Spirituality, Vol. 5, No. 2, (October 2015), 113-127.)

Process theologian Marjorie Suchocki proposed the concept of life after death that I find most provocative and attractive. She suggested that life after death consists of a person living forever as an idea in God's mind. Although her proposal has some potential shortcomings (e.g., can a person have an independent existence as an idea in God's mind and is existing as an idea in God's mind dynamic or static?), her proposal coheres well with my concept of the human spirit and avoids difficulties inherent in physical and spiritualized concepts of life after death. Perhaps the next generation of Christians will identify still other alternative concepts of life after death compatible with scientific progress, human anthropology, and current biblical and religious studies.

Post-modern twenty-first century people seem more comfortable with doubt and uncertainty than did people even fifty years ago. Although considerable numbers of individuals continue to find the prospect of life after death appealing for one or more reasons, doubt and disbelief have eroded Christian confidence in life after death. As my own death inescapably approaches, I am in no rush to embark on an irreversible journey of personal discovery but want to savor this life as long as I can. I suspect that a majority of Christians, if they were to be completely open about their thoughts and feelings, share both my uncertainty regarding the future and my reticence to relinquish this life in the hope of receiving eternal life.

Diminished belief in life after death has led to at least three observable changes in Christianity and pastoral ministry. First, funerals and memorial services have largely shifted from ritualized affirmations of Christian hope in life after death to celebrations of the deceased's life. This is true even for active Church members. Second, fewer persons seem motivated to belong to a Church to avoid hell or to gain admittance to heaven. Third, Christians increasingly subscribe to a realized eschatology centered around actualizing the fullness of God's kingdom on earth. More people now participate in Christian community to nurture their individual spirituality and to affect their local community and the world positively.

In short, the Church today is less likely to understand its liturgical affirmations of life after death in traditional ways. Instead, contemporary Christians increasingly interpret those affirmations in new ways, while concurrently preserving continuity with the way prior generations expressed their hope and trust in God's goodness and love.

Episcopalian and noted biblical scholar Marcus Borg exemplified these shifts when he wrote that he had no clue what happens after death but was confident of being held in God's unending love (The Heart of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), pp. 181-184). My thoughts similarly remain open about what, if anything, happens when a person dies. Perhaps death is the end. Perhaps there is life after death. For forty plus years, I have contentedly left my questions with God, both fully aware that death constrains my ability to look into the future and confident of God's limitless love. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Disciples' Prayer

A Sunday School teacher began her lesson with a question, "Boys and girls, what do we know about God?"
A hand shot up in the air. "He is an artist!" said the kindergarten boy.
"Really? How do you know?" the teacher asked.
"You know - Our Father, who does art in Heaven... "
Polls report that 55% of Americans pray daily and another 21% pray at least weekly.[1] The Lord's Prayer, part of today's reading from Luke, also occurs in Matthew's gospel.[2] The brevity of Luke's version compared to Matthew's suggests that the Lukan version is older because texts tend to expand through retelling and revision. The Lord's Prayer both summarizes Jesus' teachings and teaches us how to pray.[3]
First, the prayer addresses God as Father, asking that God's name be hallowed or made holy. The word Father emphasizes that we are God's children. Persons who find thinking of God as a father or in masculine terms troubling can usefully substitute Mother in their private devotions. Mother and Father are both biblical metaphors for God; both, at their best, point to God's loving embrace and care. Matthew's addition of the word heavenly is a helpful reminder that many people, including me, often feel as if God is remote or distant. We hallow God's name by honoring God's presence by not misusing or demeaning God's name, keeping a weekly Sabbath, and intentionally thinking of God during our waking hours.
Second, praying for God's kingdom to come, which Matthew underscores by adding a repetitive petition that God's will be done on earth as in heaven, defines our hope and the goal towards which Christians strive. If God's kingdom existing on earth depended only on God, presumably God's kingdom would now fully exist throughout the cosmos. However, God works primarily, but not exclusively, through people. Homelessness in Hawaii, murdered police officers across the US, slain innocents in Nice, war in Syria, de facto apartheid in Palestinian territories, and many other evils highlight the urgency of God's people engaging more assertively building God's kingdom on earth. Thus, this petition is more about us than God. We pray that God will help us to overcome indifference and inertia so that we will love all of our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.[4]
Third, praying for our daily bread has a different emphasis in the twenty-first century than it had in the first century. Most of Jesus' hearers were peasants working in a subsistence economy who struggled daily to obtain sufficient food. While some of us probably live paycheck to paycheck, none of us faces the real prospect of being hungry tomorrow if something goes wrong today. We are more affluent, and some much more affluent, than were most of Jesus' original hearers. Consequently, praying for our daily bread is now praying for freedom from the idolatry of believing that our money or possessions can offer us security. Churches receive an offering as part of worship partially to thank God for God's good gifts but more importantly because generously contributing our money and possessions to building God's kingdom can liberate us from the false belief that possessions or money can guarantee security against life's vicissitudes.
A woman lay in a hospital bed, her body ravaged by a rapidly spreading cancer. Day after day, her family prayed that God would heal her. A silent, pervasive disappointment had taken root among the family because the cancer continued to spread in spite of their prayers. God did not seem to care about her. Driven by desperation and frustration the woman began to reflect about how they were praying. After much thought she told her family, “Today let’s not pray that I will be healed; God knows that I hate this illness and want to be healed. Instead, let’s pray that whether or not I am healed, what I really want is to feel close to God.” She was a woman whose begging for bread grew into a request for living bread.
Fourth, we pray for God's forgiveness. Three English words translate Greek word hamartia: sin, debt, and trespass. Sin denotes rule breaking, debt an unrepaid loan, and trespass an inappropriate border transgression. Spiritually, all three illuminate different types and areas of sin. None is inherently superior or more theologically accurate than the other two. Sin, debt, and trespass each appear in contemporary versions of the Lord's Prayer. Alternatively, an unknown pre-K child may have unwittingly framed the most memorable translation: "And forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets."
Jesus ties experiencing God's forgiveness to forgiving those who have sinned against us. Specifically, if you wish to experience God's forgiveness, you must forgive those who have lied to you or otherwise hurt you, failed to repay kindness or a loan you extended to them, or abused your trust or respect. When I harden my heart – and the heart in the Bible represents the whole self – against others, I unintentionally but invariably harden my heart to God's presence in my life. My difficulty in receiving God's forgiveness lies not with God but with me.
Fifth, we pray that God will not bring us to the time of trial. This final petition is one of two reasons that I strongly prefer the new version of the Lord's Prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer.[5] Asking God not to lead us into temptation is nonsense. The devil, not God, leads people into temptation. Incidentally, the other reason that I prefer the new version of the Lord's Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer is its use of you and your instead of thy and thine. English is a living language and usage continuously changes. When translated into English in the sixteenth century, the Lord's Prayer used thy and thine because those were the familiar terms, emphasizing our intimacy with our divine parent. You and your were formal terms used to address one's social betters. In the intervening centuries, the usage has reversed and pronouns that originally signified intimacy now ironically connote distance and formal respect.
Saying the Lord’s Prayer is a wonderful habit that can inculcate the pattern of prayer into our spirit. Praying the Lord’s Prayer is even better, that is, when the words carry our spirit to God and God’s spirit to us, when through our meditations on the petitions we hear the voice of God speaking to us. Living the Lord's Prayer is better yet, because then we actually follow Jesus, living as his disciples.

[1] Michael Lipka, "5 facts about prayer," Pew Research Center, May 4, 2016.
[2] Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4.
[3] N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 2.
[4] N. T Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p.31.
[5] Cf. Book of Common Prayer, p. 364.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Life after death? Part 1

In listening to parishioners, I've learned that life after death can appeal in several ways. Some persons enjoy this life but also hope for even greater enjoyment in an unlimited future of life after death. Conversely, some persons experience so much exploitation, pain, suffering, or deprivation in this life that the possibility of a new life without pain, suffering, tears, or death appeals greatly. Of course, the abuse of this appeal prompted Marx, among others, to characterize religion as the opiate of the masses. More broadly, many persons believe that this life rarely, if ever, provides justice for both the righteous and the wicked, a justice that seems achievable only after death. Finally, if God's love for people is as great as many persons believe, then God's infinite love can never find fulfillment in finitude but only in eternity.

Regardless of life after death's appeal, some of its traditional attributes now seem dissatisfying to people to whom I have ministered. Illustratively, change appears essential for anything to remain continually interesting, enjoyable, or beautiful. The prospect of heavenly eternal stasis – an unending, unchanging perfection – feels more like eternal punishment (hell) than a blessing (heaven). Jokes about individuals preferring to party in hell instead of eternally strumming heavenly harps are funny largely because of our aversion to stasis.

Moreover, historic Christian understandings of what happens when a person dies, views that usually presume an empty tomb and Jesus' bodily resurrection, are increasingly anachronistic in view of advances in astronomy, particle physics, and biology.

Astronomers, after losing their initial clashes with Christianity, have triumphed over Christian efforts to cling to literal interpretations of the Bible's three-tiered cosmology (heaven, earth, and hell). Heaven and hell, if they exist, are almost assuredly not actual physical places.

Particle physicists and biologists have shown that the human body, which is comprised of trillions of atoms, constantly exchanges substantial numbers of atoms with the environment by ingesting air, water, and nutrients and then egesting various wastes. This occurs not only in obvious ways (e.g., respiration and digestion) but also in less obvious ways (e.g., atoms entering and exiting the body through the skin).

Consequently, life after death does not, and physically cannot, denote a literal continuation or resumption of a person's bodily existence. Numerous atoms in each person's body have previously been part of other individuals' bodies. Intriguingly, scientists estimate that every person now alive probably has one or more atoms that had been, at least temporarily, part of Jesus' body. Literal continuation or resumption of a person's bodily existence would thus entail multiple people simultaneously sharing an atom. Replication of atoms might allow an apparent continuation or resumption of bodily existence but would in fact be at best a copy of the original and not the original itself.

Additionally, if life after death denotes a continuation of physical existence, then many people would fare poorly, stuck with bodies that most of us would strongly prefer not to have. Many elderly, mentally retarded, physically handicapped, and severely diseased persons of my acquaintance would consider themselves accursed if life after death denotes continuation of one's physical existence.

Simplistic suggestions that transitioning to life after death eliminates all disease, handicaps, and other physical limitations/deterioration are overly facile, ignoring the indissoluble physical oneness of human existence. I am who I am partially because of disease, handicaps, and bodily deterioration. Changing any of those, even for the better, would profoundly alter, with no guarantees of improving, the person who I am. That is, my body might be physically perfect but my mental processes, emotions, and personality (all aspects of physical existence) might suffer significant impairment caused by narcissism, a sense of invulnerability, etc.

In sum, the image of an empty tomb may be a powerful metaphor but offers little substantive insight, given the advances in science, into the possibility or nature of life after death. Platitudinous affirmations of physical resurrection and life after death endlessly repeated in Eastertide, at funerals, and on other occasions, partially explain why growing numbers of educated reject traditional Christianity.

Theories about life after death that spiritualize resurrection superficially appear to rest on firmer foundations. Gospel accounts of the resurrected Jesus are clearly paradoxical and point to a mysterious, qualitatively new form of existence. For example, the risen Jesus suddenly appears in a locked room yet is sufficiently corporeal to eat a meal and for the disciples to touch him. The New Testament epistles enticingly refer to the human body as a seed that must die so that God can give it a new body and of the need for mortality to put on immortality.

Spiritualizing life after death, however, poses its own set of difficulties. Among the least of these is describing a credible twenty-first century cosmology that includes a spiritual (as opposed to physical) heaven and, depending upon one's theology, hell. Imagining a spiritualized heaven is arguably little more difficult or problematic than imagining the multiple parallel universes that some scientists hypothesize exist.

However, spiritualizing life after death raises two questions unanswered in spite of centuries of discourse. First, what is the nexus between the spiritual and the physical? That is, how does the immaterial spiritual interface with the material, physical world? No explanation of that interface has gained widespread traction among scientists and theologians. In the absence of such an interface, how can humans, whose senses and cognitive processes are all physical, think, speak, or otherwise describe, much less interact with, the spiritual? This dilemma is relevant to all forms of revelation, from mysticism to the inspiration of scripture.

Second, what does it mean to describe humans as spiritual? If human spirituality connotes that humans have an ethereal, eternal aspect, then what is the origin of that spiritual aspect? Postulating that God created through evolution, is the spirit a latent, barely developed aspect of non-human lifeforms that only becomes fully developed in humans? If so, what was the catalyst for that development? Since evolution appears to proceed through random events and natural selection, is it reasonable to believe that God somehow knew that spirit's more fully developed emergence would coincide with the evolution of humans? Even if one can explain the evolutionary development of an ethereal, immaterial spirit, the conundrum of describing the nexus between the physical and the spiritual remains unsolved.

Conversely, if human spirituality does not connote an ethereal, eternal aspect of human existence, then what does stating that humans are spiritual beings mean? The second part of this essay, which will appear next Thursday, begins with my answer to that question, explores a contemporary concept of life after death that I find attractive, and then examines how diminished confidence in life after death has affected individuals and altered the Church and its ministry.

Monday, July 18, 2016

For whom are you Jesus?

A distraught woman tried many times to contact her priest only to discover that it was his day off. She contacted him the next day and scolded him severely. "Father, I needed you yesterday," she said, "and you were not there for me. You have let me down. I cannot believe you would take a day off when so many people like me need you." Then she added, "The devil never takes a day off."
The priest, a little irritated and with tongue in cheek, responded, "And if I didn't take a day off I would be just like the devil, wouldn't I?"
Two weeks ago, with no idea of what today's gospel reading might be I began re-reading Richard Gula's book, The Call to Holiness.[1] Perhaps my choice of a book illustrates a serendipitous synchronicity in which we can discern God at work. Gula, a Sulpician Roman Catholic priest, believes that God calls people to live at the intersection of spirituality and morality. That is, we follow Jesus by emulating both Mary and Martha as depicted in today's gospel reading.[2]
We, like the priest in the anecdote with which I began this sermon, presumably desire to be like God rather than the devil. Keeping a weekly Sabbath – setting aside one day per week to relax, enjoy loved ones, worship, and engage in other spiritual activities – is fundamental for spiritual health. Optimal Sabbath activities are activities that help you to experience God's love, deepen your knowledge of God's wisdom, and grow stronger spiritually. For Mary, at least on the particular day of the incident recorded in today's gospel reading, sitting at Jesus' feet and listening to him teach was one such activity. For many of us, gathering here at Holy Nativity with friends and family, hearing scripture read and then expounded, sharing prayers and concerns, and joining together in a common meal at God's altar are important activities for maintaining spiritual health. What spiritual practices most help you to experience God's love and live abundantly?
On the other hand, Martha did not host Jesus and his disciples to gain social standing. Instead, she was hard at work feeding the hungry and the homeless. Remember, Jesus during his ministry had no home, that is, he was a homeless person. Furthermore, Jesus never rebukes Martha for being concerned about the physical needs of her guests. Perhaps Martha felt overwhelmed by the amount of work to care for their guests. Perhaps Martha simply felt petulant, envious of her sister Mary spending more time with Jesus. We don't know and it does not matter. Elsewhere in the Bible, we read that Jesus loved both Martha and Mary.[3] And when Jesus visits the two sisters following the death of their brother Lazarus, Martha is the one who rushes to meet Jesus, confident that had he been present he could have healed Lazarus before he died. In short, suggesting we face a dichotomous choice of emulating Martha or Mary is wrong: both were spiritual women whose spirituality empowered and animated their love for others.
Jesus frequently spent time in the wilderness alone, finding renewal in seasons of prayer. He also worshiped in synagogue and the Jerusalem Temple. Concurrently, he taught his hearers to discern God's kingdom when they saw the sick healed, the dead raised, the captive liberated, the hungry fed, and the thirsty given water.
It is insufficient for us to emulate Mary by figuratively sitting at Jesus' feet. We also must emulate Martha by housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, working to end gun violence, and so forth. I read recently of a wise priest who recommends that people exploring Christianity commit to both attending the Eucharist and working in a soup kitchen every week for six months.
Three differences between the Church and other helping groups are important. First, God sets our agenda. God calls us to love our neighbor and to be stewards of creation. Second, because we put God at the center of our service, God both guides each of us into one or more appropriate ways of serving and is present with us. Third, when our love proves inadequate, God empowers us. For example, when my neighbor seems unlovable, when I want to exploit the earth rather than to protect a fragile environment and endangered species, when the task before me seems impossible, then the gift of the Holy Spirit that we received in Baptism carries us forward.
[A] group of computer [salespeople] from Silicon Valley went to Chicago for a sales convention. They assured their [spouses] that they would be back to the hotel in plenty of time for dinner. But one thing led to another and the meeting ran overtime. As they raced to the El, one salesperson inadvertently kicked over a table supporting a basket of apples. Without stopping, they all reached the train with a sigh of relief. All but one.
This man paused, and felt a twinge of compunction for the boy whose apple stand had been overturned. He waved goo-bye to his companions and returned to the apple stand. He was glad he did. The ten-year old boy was blind. The man gathered up the apples and noticed that several of them were bruised. He handed the boy twenty dollars and said, 'Take this money for the damage I did. I hope it won't spoil your day.' As he started to walk away, the bewildered boy called after him, 'Are you Jesus?' he stopped in his tracks. He wondered.[4]
For whom are you Jesus?

[1] Richard Gula, The Call to Holiness (New York: Paulist Press, 2003).
[2] Luke 10:38-42.
[3] John 11:5.
[4] Gula, The Call to Holiness, p. 70.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The rogue truck driver in Nice

A truck driver in France used his vehicle this past week to kill scores of people. Here are some thoughts.
  1. The incident was probably not a terror related crime. ISIS claimed that it inspired the truck driver, an immigrant from Tunisia who has lived in France most of his life. The French police, however, described the driver as a delinquent. Furthermore, the driver did not attend mosque nor give any indication that he practiced any version of Islam. Importantly, the truck driver appears not to have had a political agenda so his crime, by definition, cannot have been a terror crime.
  2. The incident has evoked bigoted, inflammatory, and ignorant responses. Probably the worst was that of Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives. He proposed a loyalty test for US citizens who are Muslims and deporting those who believe in Sharia law. That proposal has multiple major flaws:
    1. A loyalty test for Muslims is patently unconstitutional, egregiously violating their first amendment rights. I'm a Christian priest but find many versions of Sharia law very ethical and congruent with ethics in other religious traditions, including Christianity. If the US deports Muslims for their beliefs, nothing will prevent the US subsequently deporting members of other religions for their beliefs.
    2. Many versions of Sharia exist. Some US citizens who are Muslims not only believe in Sharia law but also already adhere to it, using it to guide their practice of Islam in ways analogous to how the Torah guides the practice of Judaism for Orthodox Jews and others. Only the most radical versions of Sharia call for overthrow of the law of the land. Gingrich's proposal would presumably depot Muslim citizens regardless of the version of Sharia they advocate. This represents a grievous error since some Muslims who live by Sharia are outstanding, highly decorated, and patriotic members of the US armed forces who have voluntarily gone into harm's way to defend the rest of us.
    3. A nation state deporting its citizens is highly problematic under international law. No other state has any obligation to accept US citizens that the US deports. Where would we send them?
  3. Branding every mass killing a terrorist incident may be convenient but is counterproductive. Characterizing the incident as terrorism unhelpfully exacerbates terrorism related fears and misdirects future efforts to prevent similar types of crimes. I expect that probably one or more of the people killed in Nice were Muslim. A Muslim killing Muslims violates Sharia.
  4. Muslims have lived and practiced their religion in what became the US since before the American Revolution. Islam is not the problem. Analogously, nobody has proposed giving all Christians a loyalty test, deporting those who adhere to interpretations of Christianity that advocate terrorism, e.g., white supremacy, pro-slavery, or anti-abortion – all views that have given rise to Christian terror groups operating in the US.

Rather than waste time on patently foolish propositions, we will do better to promote efforts to respect the dignity and worthy of every person. Genuine respect for diversity and pursuing a chimera of ideological purity is the only viable foundation on which to build enduring communities of peace and prosperity.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Where was God in Dallas and at other shootings?

Where was God in Dallas and at other recent shootings by police officers and of police officers in the US?
That question usually presumes God both being present and able to intervene to prevent evil from happening. Only the first of those presumptions feels right.
If God were able to intervene directly to prevent evil from occurring in the world, then why is does so much evil occur? Why would a good and loving God allow evil on a grand scale (e.g., the Holocaust or the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina) and on a personal scale (e.g., the shooting of unarmed young black men by police officers and the recent capricious slaughter of police officers in Dallas)?
The traditional Christian answer to those questions is that God, in creating the world, chose to allow individual freedom and voluntarily refrains from acting. I find that answer disturbing and unsatisfying. The idea of God choosing to refrain from direct action to prevent millions of deaths and untold sufferings paints God as a sadist and not a loving creator. Trying to imagine good outcomes possible only if God allows evil of that magnitude boggles my mind.
A basic biblical metaphor for God is that of the loving parent. My musing about evil reminds me of Jesus' parable about the child who relentlessly importunes a parent until the parent consents to the child's request. If God is a loving parent, then why is God so often silent when God's children implore God to save a loved one, end gun violence, or otherwise diminish evil's power in our broken world?
Alternatively, perhaps process theologians and others are correct when they assert that in the act of creation God surrendered some of God's power to act. God does not intervene directly to stop or to diminish evil because God in the process of creating the cosmos lost the ability to directly intervene.

God remains present. God knows our pain, which is one important meaning of Jesus dying on the cross. And God calls us to act, guiding us forward to care compassionately for the wounded and grieving, strengthening us to dare to put our trust in God and in one another instead of firearms, and holding us in an unfailing embrace of love. We, with the help of God who is always present, can end violence.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Who is your neighbor?

A Sunday school teacher was telling her class the story of the Good Samaritan, which we just heard in today's gospel reading.[1] She described the situation in vivid detail so her students would catch the drama. Then, she asked the class, "If you saw a person lying on the roadside, all wounded, and bleeding, what would you do?" A thoughtful little girl broke the hushed silence, "I think I'd throw up."
Jericho was a thriving commercial center located about 8 miles north of the Dead Sea and 12 miles east-northeast of Jerusalem. In spite of Jericho's proximity to Jerusalem, robbers infested the road between the two cities, as was common on many first century Palestinian roads. We know nothing about the victim left for dead by his attackers nor are the details of his injuries important. Three passersby are the parable's main actors. Their deeds reveal Jesus' message.
The first was a Jewish priest. After the consolidation of all Jewish sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple, only male Levites descended from David's priest Zadok were permitted to touch the altars. The priests' work in the Temple provided them a biblically mandated portion of the offerings. However, by the beginning of the first century AD, priests were so numerous that some engaged in secular employment and many lived outside of Jerusalem in order to survive.[2] Jesus does not tell us if the priest was on his way to Jerusalem to serve in the Temple, in which case touching a dead person would have disqualified him from serving by having made him ritually unclean. Nor does Jesus offer any other explanation of why the priest passes as far from beaten, naked man as possible.
The second actor was a Levite, a member of one of Israel's twelve tribes who originally offered sacrifices at altars across Israel. In time, the Jerusalem Temple became the only place for Jews to offer sacrifices, probably when they returned from Babylonian exile. The Levites then became a subordinate order of Temple priests. Like the priest, the Levite ignores the robbers' victim, passing as far from him as possible. Jesus again offers no extenuating explanation.
In 1972, two Princeton University psychologists conducted an experiment using Princeton Theological Seminary seminarians as their subjects. Meeting with each seminarian separately, the psychologists asked the seminarian to prepare a brief extemporaneous talk on a biblical theme and then walk to a nearby building to present it. The talk's theme varied, but included both the clergy's professional responsibilities and Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. Some seminarians were rushed out of the preparation room, told they were already a few minutes late. Others were told to leave so that they would have several minutes to spare. Each seminarian's path to the building where the talk was scheduled passed "a man slumped in an alley, head down, eyes closed, coughing and groaning." Of the group told they were late, only 10% stopped. Of those with a few minutes to spare, 63% stopped to help the man.[3] Thankfully, I did not enroll in Princeton Seminary until a couple of years after this experiment.
Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan and the research of the Princeton psychologists emphasize that clergy are just as human as is anyone else. Ordination requires gifts and education for certain ministries, such as preaching, conducting worship, teaching Scripture, and pastoral care. Ordination also sets a person apart for specific tasks, especially officiating at the sacraments. Sadly, after decades supervising clergy from many denominations, I can assure you that ordination does not transform human clay into holiness. At their best, clergy – bishops, priests, and deacons – function as icons or windows. As an icon, a clergyperson is a living symbol that God's love and healing manifest in human brokenness and weakness. As a window, a clergyperson allows God's love to shine into the world. Christ and not the clergy is at the center of the Church.
The third actor in Jesus' parable is the Samaritan. Samaritans are a conservative Jewish sect of whom several hundred survive today. Some scholars argue that the Samaritans are the remnant of the ten tribes that inhabited the northern kingdom of Israel following Israel's split into the separate kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Alternatively, the Samaritans may be descendants of Jews who continued to worship at altars elsewhere than in the Temple. Regardless, devout Jews viewed Samaritans as unclean heretics to be avoided.[4]
Yet the Samaritan, and not the priest or the Levite, stopped to care for the injured man. He administered first century first aid, using oil, wine and bandages, loaded the man aboard his animal, and then walked alongside to steady him. He took the victim to the nearest inn, probably some miles distant, and stayed with him a while. When the Samaritan did leave, he paid the innkeeper a generous advance and promised to reimburse any uncovered expenses. Jesus does not make explicit what is obvious to his hearers and to us: the Samaritan saw a need, responded in spite of his vulnerability to attack had the bandits lingered in the area hoping for another victim, and then paid for the man's care.
So, who is our neighbor? Who do our actions say we think is our neighbor? If Jesus were to include you or me as a character in a twenty-first century version of the parable of the Good Samaritan, would Jesus use us instead of the priest, the Levite, or the Samaritan?
Before answering, consider:
  • Do you know your neighbors' names? Do you know their needs, their physical and emotional wounds?
  • Do you turn away from, or avoid seeing, the homeless, some 7200 of whom live in Hawaii? Alternatively, do you help to feed them, campaign for increased affordable housing, and encourage elected officials to prioritize helping the homeless? Incidentally, you are invited to join the group that will meet in the foyer after the 9:30 service to explore additional ways Holy Nativity can aid our houseless neighbors.
  • Do you only lament the shooting of black people and others, perhaps offering a prayer, or are you actively working to end the gun violence that claims 90 lives per day in the US? What difference would it make if one of your loved ones died as the victim of a mass murder, random shooting, or other incident?
  • Immigrants and refugees around the world are also our neighbors. On the one hand, no nation, not even one as large and wealthy as is the US, can host every immigrant and refugee who wishes to live here. On the other hand, closing borders in the name of national security symbolically turns our backs on needy neighbors, thereby emulating the priest and Levite in Jesus' parable. Although there are no easy answers, loving our neighbors entails aiding victims who seek a safer place in which to live, educate their children, improve their economic security, and enjoy greater freedom. We, and other developed nations, can host more immigrants and refugees. More broadly, we need to work assertively to end war, support democratic governance, and promote economic development. Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan is about not only what you or I or as individuals can do, but also about what we as God's people can do collectively.
Who is your neighbor? Do your actions, like those of the Samaritan, demonstrate that you love your neighbor as yourself?

[1] Luke 10:25-37.
[2] Aelred Cody, "Priests and High Priests," The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 610.
[3] Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2002), pp. 163-166 citing John Darley and Daniel Batson, "From Jerusalem to Jericho: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1973), Vol. 27, pp. 100-119.
[4] Leon Roth, Judaism: A Portrait (New York: Viking, 1961), pp. 144-145. Richard Coggins, "Samaritans," The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 671-673.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

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Monday, July 4, 2016

Sent to change the world

The story of Elisha healing the Aramaean general Naaman is over twenty-eight hundred years old.[1] Yet the story, one of the best-known Old Testament stories, peopled with characters that even now seem true to life, retains a fascination through its dynamism and a focus that shifts between the local and the global.[2]
Naaman was a common Ugaritic name derived from an adjective meaning pleasantness or loveliness, an ironic name for a general.[3] Obviously, parents then as now were poor prognosticators of a child’s vocation.
The text refers to Naaman’s disease as “leprosy.” The disease we call leprosy, formally known as Hansen’s disease, did not arrive in the Middle East until it arrived via Alexander the Great’s troops returning from India four hundred years after Naaman died. Nobody knows the exact nature of the disease that afflicted Naaman; one scholar hypothesizes that the disease may have been psoriasis.[4]
A young Israelite, a female slave, a prize of war, served Naaman’s wife. The slave saw her master’s condition, pitied him, and suggested to her mistress that the general consult the mighty Israeli miracle worker, Elisha. The wife passes along this recommendation to her husband.
Naaman may have suffered physically from his chronic disease; he certainly suffered from being a social pariah. The text does not hint at how many remedies Naaman tried unsuccessfully. However, having learned of a possible new cure, Naaman, like any good military officer or engineer, acts. He obtains a letter of introduction from his superior, the King of Aram, to Elisha’s ruler, the King of Israel. Taking a fortune with him – apparently healthcare was no cheaper then than today – he personally carries his introduction to the King of Israel. The King panics. He’s no miracle worker and probably sees Elisha as a quack faith healer.
Even before the Internet, rumors spread quickly. Elisha learns of Naaman’s arrival and the King’s panic. He sends word to the King: Don’t worry. Send this foreigner to me and everything will be well.
Imagine Naaman’s excitement and the King’s trepidation as Naaman leaves the King’s court to meet with Elisha. The King of Israel rightly worries that if Elisha fails to heal the great man, Israel will find itself at war with the local superpower. Naaman hopes, yet doubts. Will this be just another alleged miracle cure whose hype far exceeds reality?
Upon arrival, Elisha triply insults Naaman.[5] Not only is there no welcome befitting a dignitary of Naaman’s rank but Elisha doesn’t even deign to meet with him. The prescription, given by messenger, is the third insult: wash yourself in the Jordan seven times. At that time, Damascus was considered the “garden of the world,” a prosperous and historic city like today’s Paris, London, or New York. People viewed its rivers, the Abana and Pharpar, as the source of its beauty and wealth. By comparison, the Jordan was a second-rate creek in a third-rate country.[6]
Naaman’s fury erupted as he hastily departed. But his servants approached him – a sign that he was neither arrogant nor impetuous – and encouraged him to at least try Elisha’s prescription, for had the prophet prescribed something difficult Naaman would surely have obeyed.
What happened to Naaman as he washed in the River Jordan? Scholars and theologians no more understand the cure than they can explain the nature of Naaman's disease. We have a great story, but no factual details of what actually happened.
What intrigues me is that the lectionary compilers juxtaposed this particular Old Testament reading with this morning’s gospel reading in which Jesus sends out seventy disciples, in pairs, to heal the sick and to announce the arrival of God's kingdom.[7] Jesus instructs those he sends forth to carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, stay in the first house they enter and rely exclusively on the occupants to emphasize that God's gracious power is responsible for the results the disciples achieve. Through the disciples’ actions, they implicitly reenact the story of Elisha and Naaman, announcing the presence of God's kingdom and healing the sick, reconciling the estranged, and liberating the enslaved.
Episcopalian and prominent biblical scholar Marcus Borg has observed: "Rather strikingly, the most certain thing we know about Jesus according to the current scholarly consensus is that he was a teller of stories and a speaker of great one-liners whose purpose was the transformation of perception. At the; center of his message was an invitation to see differently."[8] Our transformation enables us to perceive God at work in our midst and enlists us in building God's kingdom.
In June 1979, more than a million people gathered in a field outside Krakow to hear Pope John Paul preach and celebrate Mass. One person present
was an unemployed electrician who had hitched a ride from the coastal city of Gdansk. Barely more than a year later, at his home shipyard, that electrician used a souvenir pen he had bought at the pope’s Mass to sign the founding charter of the illegal trade union Solidarity. He was Lech Walesa, and, having heard Wojtyla, he found it possible to act as if he were afraid no more. In Wojtyla’s presence, the solidarity of subjugation – the universal shame that was the first bond of victims of the Soviet imperial system – was transformed into a solidarity of resistance. The Solidarity Walesa and his fellow workers established, and the solidarity it embodied, would lead to the nonviolent overthrow of the Communist regime in Warsaw and, ultimately, to the demise of the Soviet Union itself.[9]
In Naaman's healing in the Jordan, God used ordinary elements and human hands to transform a leper into esteemed member of his community. The seventy whom Jesus sent out similarly were ordinary humans who communicated God's transformative presence to broken, hurting people. This happened again in a field outside Gdansk when Pope John Paul spoke to millions, changing at least one man's perspective so radically that it rippled across Europe and the globe.
And we expect that it will happen again today when we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion. We confidently take, break, bless, and receive bread and wine in God's name that we whose sight God has transformed will experience spiritual renewal and discern God's acceptance, forgiveness, healing, and love. Then we before leaving we recommit ourselves to go into the world, sent by God just as were Elisha, the seventy, and John Paul before us, to transform broken lives.

[1] 2 Kings 5:1-14. Norman H. Smith, Interpreter’s Bible, ed. G.A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1954), Vol. 3, p. 210.
[2] T.R. Hobbs, “Naaman,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), Vol. 4, pp. 967-968.
[3] J.M. Ward, “Naaman,” Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. G.A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), Vol. 3, p. 490.
[4] A. Graeme Auld, I & II Kings (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), p. 167; J.M. Ward, “Naaman,” Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, ed. G.A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), Vol. 3, p. 490.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Smith, op. cit., p. 210.
[7] Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.
[8] Sallie McFague, Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), p. 172.
[9] James Carroll, Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age (New York: Viking, 2014), p. 180.