Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Most Wonderful Things


Our Epistle lesson raises two basic issues:
         First, is greed a good or a bad basis for our individual lives
                  and for our society?
         Second, what is the true nature and destiny of humankind?

James takes the Christian view. He is against greed.
“Where there is envy and selfish ambition,” James says,
“there is disorder and wickedness of every kind . . . .
Those conflicts and disputes among you,
where do they come from?
Do they not come from your cravings
that are at war within you?”

This was not breaking news.
Jesus said,
“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”
         Luke 12: 15
In the 6th Century B.C., Lau Tzu said,
“There is no greater calamity . . . ,
         no greater curse than greed.”
Buddha said,
“There is no fire like greed . . . ,
         no sickness like hunger of the heart.”
A thousand years before Jesus, the Vedic Scriptures said,
         “Greed is the root cause of all sin.”

It’s core Christianity.
Greed has been listed as one of 7 soul-killing sins
since St. Evagrius Ponticus in the 4th Century.
But since Darwin, Western culture
         has taken the opposite view.
Charles Darwin did not invent the idea of evolution.
Lots of people, including Christians, believed in evolution
         before Darwin.
Darwin’s new idea was survival of the fittest
     that human nature has been defined
by a cut throat struggle for survival
and we continue to progress
through that same dog eat dog contest.

As a matter of pure biology,
it turns out Darwin overstated his case.
Today, biologists like Mary Beth Saffo know
that evolution is shaped by many different factors
including our own choices and
what appears to be random chance.

But nobody reads them except other scientists.
The popular books are by another group called sociobiologists.
They are still unscientifically stuck in Darwin’s idea
that we evolve, we become better,
through cutthroat competition.
Even if we don’t read their books, we are indoctrinated
         in their pseudoscientific faith
         through pop culture like the t v show Survivor.

I once knew a head of the medical records department
         of a hospital who ordered her staff to watch Survivor
                  because that was how she was going
to run her department.
Kill or be kill, betray before you are betrayed,
         was her deliberate, explicit personnel policy
        for a medical records department.

George Mason University economist Walter Williams,
writes in his atheist blog,
         “It’s human greed that gets
the most wonderful things done. . . .
Unfortunately,” says Williams, “
many people are na├»ve enough to believe                    compassion and concern are superior human motivations.
         So they fall prey to charlatans.”
Those would be charlatans
like Lao Tzu, and Buddha, and Jesus.

Sociobiologists E. O. Wilson and Robert Wright
         claim that human nature is innately selfish and greedy.
That turns out to be just wrong as a matter of science,
         since biologists have identified
human genes and hormones
         that make decent, caring behavior natural.
But let not the facts interfere with a faith that sanctions
         whatever is worst in us.
Greed, Wilson and Wright contend, is better than natural.
It is a good thing because
selfishness and greed promote progress.

Wright explains that ideals like brotherly love are ok as ideals,
         but – Wright actually says this –
         “Wherever brotherly love is practiced society falls apart.”//
He offers no evidence, examples, or proof
of that sweeping claim.
But when I read it, so many things suddenly became clear.
At last I understood the chaos and terrorism in Somalia.
It was an outbreak of brotherly love.
Northern Sudan did not commit genocide and atrocities
in Southern Sudan because they wanted the oil.
It was brotherly love.

Greed did not cause the wheeling and dealing
that wrecked American banks in 2007.
After deregulation,
         the bankers just ran amok with brotherly love.

But here in Nevada, I wonder.
When children are bought and sold on our streets,
         our addiction rates top the charts,
         we lead the nation in divorce
         but rank 49th in high school graduations,
                  is it the contagion of Christian spirituality
                  making society fall apart
-- or is the Bible right after all?

“Where there is envy and selfish ambition,” James says,
“there is disorder and wickedness of every kind . . . .”

Maybe atheist economist Walter Williams is right.
Maybe the most wonderful things in his life
         are the results of his own greed.
But when I consider the most wonderful things in my life
--the love of my wife and children,
the support of my friends,
the consolations of prayer –
none of my most wonderful things came from greed.
They came from grace – the merciful grace of God
         mediated to me by caring, compassionate people.

How about you?
What are your most wonderful things
         and where did they come from?

Last Friday night, a single mom in our diocese
tucked her daughter in bed
then had go back to kiss her goodnight one more time.
She banged her head on the bunk bed
         and her daughter ran to the kitchen to get her an ice bag.
Where does that fit in Darwinist social theory?

If grace and kindness are the source
of the most wonderful things for us
          individually and as families,
         how is that when we think of ourselves
                  as a neighborhood, a state, or a nation,
                  avarice becomes the fount of every blessing?

Everything turns on who we believe we are
         and who we want to become.
Darwinist theory claims we are the selfish product
         of a ruthless power struggle,
         and that our highest aspiration is to stand,
         hands dripping with blood,
         atop a mound of corpses of the conquered.

The Bible says we are created in God’s image
     that the love which created the cosmos
is imprinted in our hearts.
And our destiny is to be like Jesus.

Williams, Wright, and Wilson can fight their way to the top
         if they like.
But I want to be like Jesus.
I raised my children to be like Jesus.
And by God’s grace, they are.

How about you?
Who do you believe you are in your heart?
Who do you want to be?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

You Got To Know When To Hold 'Em; Know When To Fold 'Em


When one of our priests, Fr. Vince O’Neil,
         was in the second grade, his teacher was a nun.
She would make little Vince stand at his desk
         and grill him on his catechism.
“Vince,” she would say, “Why did God make you?”
And Vince would answer “To know, love, and serve him.”
She would say, “That is correct. Now notice what comes first.
         Knowledge. Knowledge is the basis.
         So study, Vince, study."

Sometimes in the Eucharist we recite the summary of the law.
It comes from an exchange between Jesus and a lawyer.
The lawyer asks Jesus the greatest commandment.
Jesus answers,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind,
with all your heart, and all your strength,
and . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The same summary of the law is in the teachings
         of Jesus’ contemporary, Rabbi Hillel.
Someone challenged Hillel to sum up
         the entire law while standing on one foot.
The Rabbi said, “Love the Lord your God with all your mind,
         all your soul, and all your strength.
         And love your neighbor as yourself.
         The rest is commentary. Go study.”

Rabbi Hillel said the central point is simple.
But how we live it in a complex world is complicated.
That’s why we have to start with the mind.

Jews don’t just have the summary of the law.
They don’t just have the 10 Commandments
They have 613 commandments
which amount to a lot of commentary.
The applications of those commandments
in the Mishna  and the interpretations in the Talmud
are further commentary.
So to be a good Jew, you have to study.

It is the same for Christians.
There is a lot to know.
And it all adds up to Wisdom.

The lectionary actually gives us a choice
         of three Old Testament lessons for today.
One is from Isaiah, “the Lord has given me the tongue
         of a teacher.”
Jesus was a teacher too. The apostles were teachers.
The first two spiritual gifts Paul listed in 1st Corinthians
         were the gifts of teaching wisdom and knowledge.
The Lord sends us teachers
         because he expects us to be students.

Another possible lessons for today
 is from Proverbs.
It says, “Wisdom cries out in the street;
         In the squares she raises her voice.
         At the busiest corner she cries out . . .
         ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? . . .
         I will pour out my thoughts to you.
         I will make my words known to you.”

In our third choice, the Wisdom of Solomon, we read,
         “for wisdom is a reflection of eternal light,
         a spotless mirror of the working of God . . . .”
The Jewish folk idea of Wisdom, hachma, in the Hebrew,
         evolved into a philosophy of God.
At first hachma meant knowing how to do your craft well.
There was a wisdom of the farmer,
a wisdom of the basket weaver,
         a wisdom of the camel trader.

We might say there is a wisdom of the gambler,
         that is “to know when to hold ‘em,
                  know when to fold ‘em,
                  know when to walk away,
                  know when to run.”
The writers of Scripture eventually realized
         what Wisdom teacher Kenny Rogers makes so clear.
The ways of a craft can be expanded into a way of life.
Just as a basket can be woven well or badly,
         a life can be lived well or badly.
Just as you must know certain things
         to be a good farmer, camel trader, or gambler,
         you must know certain things in order
                  to be a good human being.

By the time today’s lessons were written,
         Wisdom had come to mean a very part of God.
 Wisdom is the order of things, the pattern of the cosmos.
Wisdom is the mind of God expressed in the world.
We learn Wisdom by keeping alert to the world.
But we also learn Wisdom from the past.

Scripture and Tradition
         – the lives of the saints
         – the teachings of theologians
         – the insights of mystics
all these together are a rich storehouse of Wisdom.
We can’t learn all that in Vacation Bible School
         as children.
It’s a lifelong project.

That’s why the Episcopal Church has adopted
         the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation
         calling on each diocese to keep educating our people
                  all their lives long.
That’s why Nevada has created
         the Frensdorff School for Christian Formation
                  to teach the teachers.

A church is a worshiping community,
         a praying community,
                  and a caring community.
But it is also a learning community.

This is a wonderful diocese.
We do lots of good ministry here.
But the adult education programs
         of all but a few of our congregations
                  are woefully behind.

We have to change that,
         and we need a few strong parishes to lead the way.
All Saints has the critical mass of people
         for a first rate adult formation program.
All Saints has people with the gift and the passion to teach.

That brings us to the point.
“Wisdom cries out in the street;
         In the squares she raises her voice.
         At the busiest corner she cries out . . . “
God invites us to learn Wisdom’s ways
         so that we can live better, fuller lives.

In our Baptismal vows we promise
         “to continue in the Apostle’s teaching.”
There are two ways we can do that.
We can teach or we can study.

We need to know the Bible.
We need to know that fundamentalism
         is not the old way of reading the Bible.
It was invented between 1910 and 1915.

The first theologians taught that each text
         must be read on four different levels – not literally.
Fundamentalism is neither orthodox nor mainstream.

Did you know that the idea that whatever happens
         is part of God’s plan is a highly debated point
                  in Christianity?
Do you know why we bring the bread and wine
         from the back of the Church to the altar?
It means something – something profoundly important.
Most of the divisions in the Church today
         come from the failure to study and to think.

So, study, brothers and sisters.
It is fascinating stuff we have to teach.
It will touch your hearts as well as your minds.
It will change your life.
Wisdom’s ways are the Way of Christ.
Thanks be to God.