Sunday, April 29, 2018

A MAN IN GAZA NOT LIKE ME



It hasn’t been a happy week in the Gaza Strip,
            a harsh wasteland in Palestine occupied by Israel since 1967.
Palestinians have been trying to tear down a fence along the border.
Against the direction of the UN, Israel has responded with force,
killing 38 protesters and wounding 1,600 so far.
It is a standoff between fair-skinned Jews on one side,
            and dark-skinned Muslims and Christians on the other.

Another encounter between opposites happened there
2,000 years ago.
The Apostle Phillip, a Jewish Christian, had a Greek name, spoke Greek.
Shortly after Pentecost, a persecution forced him out of Jerusalem,
That’s when an angel sent him to the barren Gaza strip.

There he ran across an Ethiopian Eunuch, the treasurer
            for Queen Candace of Egypt.
You could hardly imagine two more different people.
One black. One white. One Jew. One Ethiopian.
One in a chariot. One on foot.
They had nothing at all in common.

But God’s Spirit told Philip to strike up a conversation.
That conversation led to the Eunuch being baptized
            and he knew God in a whole new way.
But he wasn’t the only one changed.
After the baptism, the Spirit swept Philip away to the coast.
Acts tells us, Philip took the gospel all the way up the coast
to Caesarea in the very north of Galilee.
Tradition says he kept on going
            teaching about Jesus in ever stranger lands,
in Syria, Turkey, and finally Greece.

Two people of different races, religions, languages, and nationalities
            met in the Gaza Strip and, in the relational space between them,
            they discovered God who changed their lives.
It was a different sort of meeting from what we see in Gaza this week.

My point isn’t directly political
            but it has political implications.
We cannot censor our faith to a private piety
            and be remotely true to the Bible.
But my point starts out very personally
            In how we approach or avoid each other.

Two things are happening in society today and they are not a coincidence.
First, people are dividing up into smaller and smaller groups
            of folks who are more and more alike on every measure
 – race, education, socio-economic status, favorite t v shows.
We want to feel safe by surrounding ourselves with people like us.
Different people make us nervous.

At the same time, we are withdrawing into our little enclaves of sameness,
            our government is raising the drawbridge to keep out refugees
            and sending away thousands of refugees from Haiti, Nicaragua,
            El Salvador, and Nepal.
Birds of a feather flock together, the saying goes,
            and we are flocking in full tilt panic.

Second, church attendance and membership are going down.
It isn’t that people believe one whit less in God.
It’s that they want to deal with God on their own terms,
imagine God their own way.
They don’t want to hear about how you or I have experienced God.
The God people make up in their own imaginations
            is not likely to cause them much inconvenience.
But your idea of God or the Bible’s or the Church’s might not suit.
That’s an even more radical withdrawal into private individualism.

Both these social trends
          – the retreat into our silos of sameness
          and our abandoning covenant communities for private spirituality
            – are all about avoiding what theologians call the Other
– that which is not me, especially if it’s not even like me.

That is ultimately a political problem.
We see how our own dividing up is making our country ungovernable.
But before that, it’s a social problem.
We live in isolation that breeds fear that breeds more isolation.
But before any of that, it’s a spiritual problem.

The basic Christians posture is reverence before the mystery of God.
Key word mystery: 99% of God is utterly beyond us,
            singing at a pitch we cannot hear
flashing at a wave length we cannot see.

But there is still a place for us to encounter God.
We get our hints and guesses of God’s poignant beauty
            when God makes contact.
We call that contact divine revelation.
That contact is where we get our hope to carry on.

The Bible says, we meet the mysterious God
            in the oddest of ways
 --- a way a lot of people would rather avoid.
We meet God when we dare to relate to people
            who are different from us.

The Gospels show Jesus befriending
the wildest assortment of people
– the Syro-Phoenician mother, the Pharisee Nicodemus,
the woman taken in adultery, the Roman Centurion,
Simon Zealotes the revolutionary, Matthew the Roman tax collector,
the rich young man, the blind beggars and lepers,
            the Gerasene demoniac mad man – the list goes on.
He even introduced a lot of them to each other.
Then he washed their feet and told them to wash each other’s feet.
He said, Love one another as I have loved you.

Why do you suppose he said that?
St. John tells us in today’s Epistle.
Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
Whoever does not love does not know God . . .
Those who say, “I love God” but hate their brother or sister are liars
for those who do not love their brother or sister
            whom they have seen
            cannot love God whom they cannot see.

There are a lot of sweet notions of seeing God in the sunset.
William James, a great shaper of modern thought,
            defined faith as what each of us feels about God when we are alone.
That may be modern religion.
But, I am sorry brothers and sisters, that isn’t Christianity.

The God of Our Lord Jesus Christ shows up
when we stand face to face with each other.
God is in between us, in the relational space of our caring for each other.
That’s what Communion means and that’s what makes it Holy.

Jesus did not say The Kingdom of God is in each of you individually.
He said, The Kingdom of God is among you (plural).
He said, When two or three are gathered I am with you.
He said when we reject or ignore the alien, the hungry,
the naked, the infirm, or the prisoner, it’s him we are rejecting.
That Nepalese guy we are deporting is Jesus.
That visitor to the church we ignore because she is not like is,
            that’s Jesus.

Christianity isn’t for the timid because other people, really other people,
            scare us.
People of other colors, languages, religions, and nationalities scare us.
That’s why Jesus’ most often repeated commandment was, Fear not.
The Bible says, Fear not, 365 times – once for each day of the year.
John tells us today,
            There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out fear.

The Bible says again and again to use our faith to conquer fear
            so we can really look at each other,
            really listen to each other, deeply know each other,
            because that’s the way – the only way, the one way –
            to know God, to be born of God,
                        to plunge into the source, the destiny,
and the meaning of this God-given life.



Monday, April 16, 2018

LUKE, NEWMAN, VON HUGEL & THE THREE-FOLD CHRISTIAN PATH



As our Gospel story begins,
         the disciples are confused and frozen in fear.
They are not rejoicing at the rumors that Jesus is alive.
They are just mixed up, helpless, and hiding.
Then, Luke says, “Jesus himself stood among them.”

Their response? Luke tells us their feelings.
They are started and terrified.
He tells us their thoughts – confused and superstitious.
         They think he is a ghost.
As for their action, they stand stock still, as if paralyzed.

Jesus rolls up his sleeves and goes to work
         on their spirituality from three angles,   
feeling, thought, and action.
He calms their fears.
He opens their minds to understand the Scriptures.
Then he moves them to act by asking for food.

Luke gives us a picture of holistic Christianity,
         a faith that balances feeling, thought, and action.
My own faith falls out of balance all the time.
I suspect many of us need to consider
         the balanced, holistic faith we see in Luke.

Two writers have described holistic faith especially well:
         John Henry Newman in the 19th Century,
         and Baron Freiderich von Hugel in the 20th.
In his book, The Via Media in the Anglican Church,
         Newman described “the three offices of Christ,”
                  as priest, prophet, and king
                  corresponding to feeling, thought, and action.

Feeling means piety and devotion.
Thought is study and theological reflection.
Action is service and generosity.
Newman insisted that these three parts of faith
         must be balanced and integrated
         because any one of them alone goes wrong.
Feeling alone leads to superstition and fanaticism.
Thinking alone leads to cold rationalism.
Action alone leads to tyranny and legalism.

Most people today think religion is just personal feelings.
A psychologist, William James, said that real religion
         is what each of us feels about God when we are alone.
Creeds and institutions, he said, were just second-hand conformism.

But was James right?
Baron von Hugel agreed with Newman.
He said that James’ private feeling religion is
         “fraught with every kind of danger.”
Von Hugel noted that 20th Century religion was all subjective emotions
         and passed this judgment on it. He said:
“Nothing . . . .can equal the power of strong feelings
         or heated imagination to give a hiding place to superstition,
         sensuality, . . . . self-complacent indolence, arrogant revolt
         and fanaticism.”

Piety and devotion are the heart of our faith.
And faith must have a heart.
But faith also needs a head.
The head asks hard questions, reads books,
studies Scripture and Tradition, and stacks what we learn
up against science and philosophy.

But that isn’t all it takes.
Faith needs hands and feet.
Giving money and serving others in the name of Jesus
         are the hands and feet of our faith.
These three practices – feeling, thought, and action – inform each other,
         temper each other, and support each other.

Many have observed the remarkable capacity of religion
         to turn evil and do great harm.
One reason that is apt to happen is that we skip
         one of the three key ingredients of authentic faith.

I am sometimes amazed when people
         who are quite intelligent in their work lives
                  subscribe to na├»ve, simplistic religions.
They have checked their minds at the church door.
It’s as if the Church had been posted a no-thinking zone.
That kind of religion goes wrong.

Faith is a three-cylinder engine
         and we need all thee cylinders firing.
But we also have to recognize that some people
         are just better with their hearts than their heads.
St. Francis was like that.
Others are better thinkers – like St. Thomas Aquinas.
Others are best in action – like Mother Theresa.

So, what do we do with that difference in our gifts?
Two things:

If we have an A+ head and a C- heart,
         we should use our heads to teach others,
but we still need to use our hearts
to worship and pray as best we can.
We don’t drop the course just because we can’t ace it.

Second, we remember Paul’s point about diversity
         and community.
We need each other.
Individually, we can only be so balanced.
But together we can hit on all three cylinders.
We can do that only if we actually honor and encourage
         each other’s different approaches to faith.
We actually need each other to be different.

Baron von Hugel, criticizing what often passes for religion today,
         said, “The verdict of history is fatal to . . . religion . . . in which . . .
         individual experience and emotion would form
religion’s core and center.”

That brand of religion balks at the hard questions.
Worse, it balks when we are asked to give money, time, or effort
         for the good of others.

But when we practice all three aspects of faith,
         Baron von Hugel says, Christianity becomes
         a school for the production of persons.
He means we learn to become whole human beings.
We practice a faith that doesn’t escape reality
         but engages us up to our necks in reality

         and makes us fully human.