Sunday, July 14, 2019

ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE



One afternoon 43 years ago,
when I was younger and dumber,
            I was hitch hiking from Denver to Greeley.
Two young men 
in a seriously dented car picked me up.
They were fresh out of prison
            on parole for serious felonies.
One of them intended to rob me.
The other did not.
Unfortunately, their communication with each other
            was unworthy of partners in crime.
Criminals, like spouses, need to talk to each other.
 The one without larcenous intent
            told me way too much about them.

They drove out into the beet fields
            Northeast of Ft. Lupton and Southeast of LaSalle, flashed a gun,
            relieved me of my $15, and put me out of the car.
Then they realized they’d told me their names,
            their parole officer’s name, etc.
            so letting me live wasn’t a smart option.
They came back and ordered me 
            into the car.

I had by now smartened up enough 
not to get back in that car.
So one of them got out and started to drag me in.

Then, the miracle. 
A car came driving down that dirt road.
With a surge of adrenalin,
            I dragged my assailant into the path
                        of the oncoming vehicle.
He let go and I started flagging down the car.
When I saw the driver, I knew I was ok.

He was a well-dressed, clean-cut young white guy
            -- my kind of people.
I knew I was saved.
He nearly killed me – sped up 
            and rushed right past
            as I had to leap out of his way. 

The robber resumed dragging me 
toward their car.
Then, miracle of miracles,
            another car came up the dirt road.

Again, the robber let me go.
Again, I tried to flag it down.
But this time when I saw the driver,
            my heart sank.
 I heard myself think,
            “I am definitely dead.”

The driver was a Latina mother,
            a poor person, with a car load of kids.
No way was she going to stop for me,
-- not in a dangerous situation.

She didn’t stop.
She slowed down, threw the passenger door 
open for me to jump in on the run, 
then hit the gas and sped me to safety.

She turned out to be the wife
            -- someone with a strong reason
to avoid situations.
That family were precisely
            the kind of people we are deporting today.
But I’m kinda glad they were here in 1976.
If they’d been legally in Mexico
Instead of illegally in Colorado,
            I’d be sugar beet fertilizer in Weld County.

Our Gospel lesson starts with a lawyer
            saying our eternal life depends
              on loving our neighbor as ourselves.
But he asks: who is my neighbor?
Jesus answers with the Samaritan story.
A Jew was beaten, robbed, and left in the road.
The Jewish priest and Levite, 
            who were bound by race,
            religion, nationality, community, and vocation
            to help their fellow Jew, just passed him by.  

Then along came the Samaritan
            -- wrong race, wrong religion, wrong nationality,
            --  wrong everything.

But he stopped and helped
beyond what might be expected of anyone. 
That Samaritan is Jesus’ proto-type
            of the neighbor we are to love.

So, why did I assume the young white guy
            would save me?
Why did I think the Latina mother would not?

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says
            our basic attitudes are evolutionarily wired 
            into our heads by things our prehistoric ancestors 
found helpful to survive in their context.

One of those primitive attitudes is about 
who we owe help to and who we don’t, 
            who we can count on and who we can’t.
It’s the attitude of  tribalism -- us vs them  -- 
our group vs their group:
White vs Black, Christian vs Muslim, 
Liberal vs Conservative, Straight vs. Gay, 
Native vs Immigrant.

We fought the Cattle vs Sheep wars 
largely because cattlemen were white and spoke English
            while shepherds were brown and spoke Spanish.

Dividing into antagonistic groups is human nature,
wired into all of us.
It’s the way of the world.

But enter Jesus.
He said, In this world you will have trouble.
He might have elaborated,
            You will have racism, classism, 
            divisions of religion, politics, and language.
Jesus said, In this world you will have trouble.
            But take heart. I have overcome the world.
Jesus wants to set us free
            from those constraints that separate us 
-- divisions that shackle our minds,
            holding us back from  full humanity. 
They make our hearts tighter, 
our minds narrower, and our lives smaller.

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in her book, 
The New Religious Intolerance,
            discusses our capacity for participatory imagination,
            the ability to see things 
              through another person’s eyes,
                        walk in their shoes, feel what they feel.
Basic empathy expands our experience 
           and therefore our wisdom immeasurably.
Nusbaum calls this capacity a fundamental part 
         of being human.

We call people who can’t connect that way sociopaths.    
But Nussbaum says today, 
       with fear intensifying our divisions,
we are regressing into tribalism 
and losing our capacity for participatory imagination. 
Without that capacity, our own lives are diminished.

Jesus said, I have come that you might have life
            and that you might have it abundantly.
To make our life more abundant,
            Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor,
then tells us our neighbor is 
            the wrong race, the wrong nationality and religion,            
            the wrong language, the wrong sexuality,
            the wrong political party, the wrong everything. 
Love that person as yourself
            and – bam! -- the size of your life doubles.

But how can we possibly go against human nature
to love across the divide?
The answer is grace 
– enabling, empowering, amazing grace.
Whatever Jesus commands us to do,
            he gives us the power to do it. 

To love across the divides
            is a supernatural act.
But we can do it – with God’s help.
We just direct our hearts toward anyone Jesus call us to love.
His grace will do the rest. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

BASEBALL, GALEN'S PLAGUE, & THE APOSTOLIC MISSION


I am a new Rockies fan,
but I still remember my teams of old.
One Saturday afternoon, back before the Braves
had ever been to a World Series,
and the pennant race was tight,
I was sitting on the couch in my Georgia den
         watching the game.

Pitcher John Scmoltz, as usual, had a rough start
         then settled down to pitch several innings
                  of good ball.
At the bottom of the 7th, the Mets led 5 to 3.
There was one out.

Our best hitter, Chipper Jones,
         doubled to right center.
The rookie slugger, Andruw Jones came to bat.
Ball one. Ball two.
Then a long foul – I mean into the seats just outside 
foul line – a long foul made the count 2 and 1.
The pitcher was sweating.
My doorbell rang.
It was two earnest young men come to share their faith.
At that moment, I knew more than I wanted
         about their faith. 
I gently said no thank you. 
But their persistence matched their sincerity.
That experience darkened my view of evangelism

Today’s Gospel lesson might call to mind
 that kind of intrusive opinion-pushing.
But the 70 apostles had quite a different project.
Jesus didn’t give them pamphlets to distribute.
They didn’t ask people to join their Church.

No, Jesus sent them bless people with peace,
to alleviate their suffering, and then say,
         That was the Kingdom of God.
         That mercy you just felt,
                  that’s what God is about.

This wasn’t a pesky little proselytizing project.
It was the decisive turning point in the gospel story.
 Sending out the 70 marks the birth of Christian mission,
         our mission – St. Aidan’s mission, yours and mine.
We need a mission to truly live, 
as surely as we need air to breathe.

A mission has both substance and process.
The substance of the Christian mission is mercy.
It’s people mediating Christ’s love to other people. 
The 5 Marks of Mission adopted
         by the Anglian Communion and The Episcopal Church
                  is our job description.
Mark 3 is: respond to human need by loving service.
Mark 4 is: transform unjust structures of sociey,
         challenge violence . . . , and work for peace
         and reconciliation. 

 The Episcopal Church, in keeping with that mission,
acts through Episcopal Relief and Development, to 
 eradicate extreme poverty,
         provide universal primary education,
         and end maternal and child malnutrition
We have made miraculous progress already.
Whenever we succeed -- or even try -- 
the Kingdom of God is near. 

The Kingdom comes globally when we help Malawi farmers
diversify their crops to feed their village.
The Kingdom comes locally 
when a Eucharistic Visitor shares communion
in a home.
Whenever justice and mercy happen,
         the Kingdom of God is near.
That’s the substance.

Jesus taught us the process when he passed the torch.
By sending the 70, he changed his community gathered around a minister
         into a ministering community.
Anything they did, he could have done better.
But it was more important for them to do it.
Up to then, Jesus was the hero meeting their needs.
They liked that, but it didn’t make them grow.
They were just bumbling sidekicks.
Jesus wanted something better for them.
He wants something better for us.

So Jesus passed the torch to the 70 then and to us today.
He gives us the job to heal the broken world
         and announce the Kingdom of God.
That process is the key to the mission.
We need the mission like people in Yemen need food.

When the apostles came back amazed 
at what they had seen,
Jesus laughed, slapped them on the back,
and said, I saw Satan fall from the sky.
That’s spiritual talk for You guys rocked.

Indigent, illiterate fishermen shot Satan down
         with acts of mercy.
Those nobodies became somebodies
         when Jesus entrusted them 
with the work of the Kingdom.
He entrusts us with that work today.
But maybe we wonder: 
is that the Church’s business?
Shouldn’t we stick to religion
         leaving justice and mercy to the government? 
         They do it so well.
Aren’t we supposed to be preaching Christ?

Maybe. But consider this:
Christianity spread over a lot of ground
         the first 150 years but our numbers stayed low.
During the reign of Marcus Aurelius
         a new persecution began.

But three years later, soldiers returning from a distant war
         brought home a disease that became a pandemic.
It was killing 2,000 people a day in Rome. 
Ultimately, it killed half the city’s population. 

It’s called Galen’s Plague after the Emperor’s
         court physician who studied it 
         and developed some treatments.
But mostly he figured out how to avoid it.
Get out of the city.

If you’ve got a villa in Tuscany
         or around Lake Como, get there pronto.
In no time flat, Rome was empty except for the dying
         and the unburied dead.
There was no one left to care for them.
Rome was empty except for the dead, the dying,
         and the Christians
         who had an odd notion God would protect them,    
and if they died, they’d be in heaven.

So, while everyone else fled, the Christians stayed 
to nurse the sick and bury the dead.
And the world took notice.

Christianity remained illegal, but before long,
          a third of the Roman Empire claimed
Jesus Christ as Lord.

Whether St. Francis said it or not,
         there is wisdom to the adage,
         Preach the gospel at all times.
         Use words if necessary. 
Or as Blessed Teddy Roosevelt said,
         People won’t care how much you know
         until they know how much you care.

There’s a suffering world beyond our walls.
There’s malnutrition, contaminated water, human trafficking,
         racism, and every manner of soul-crushing hardship.

Jesus sends into that broken bleeding world, 
         as he sent the apostles, 
         with a blessing of peace and the grace to heal.
He invites us, for our own sake as well as the sake of others,
 to spread his grace and mercy,  
         then just name where it came from.
That was the Kingdom of God.