Posted by: dacalu | 3 October 2018

Kavanaugh and the Triple Standard

The recent confirmation hearings have generated a great deal of emotion. We share a common concern for justice, particularly when it comes to our government and the highest court in the land. This commitment leads many of us to speak incautiously, both in defending our own position and critiquing others. (Search for “attribution bias” if you want to know more.) With that in mind, I wanted to say a few words about three related issues of justice and how they fit together.

 

The Legal Standard

I take pride in a US commitment to the rule of law. This includes such principles as “due process” and “innocent until proven guilty.” Both exist as checks on government power. Both provide us with protections against the government taking things away from citizens.

Many supporters of Brett Kavanaugh worry about government overreach. They want to be sure that due process does not go away. They are right to point out that Judge Kavanaugh has not been convicted of any crime and that it would be unfair to label him a sexual predator.

I do not want to see a time when people are deprived of liberty or property solely on the testimony of another person.

I doubt that there will ever be sufficient evidence to prosecute or even open a legal investigation into charges by Dr. Christine Ford and Deborah Ramirez. (I do note that there is no statute of limitations in Maryland. There is in Connecticut.)

To the best of my knowledge, no such legal proceedings are under way. The US Senate is not considering whether to deprive Judge Kavanaugh of liberty or property. They are considering whether to elevate him to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court. Concern over the legal standard is valid, but not applicable.

 

The Political Standard

What standard should the Senate use? This presents a more difficult question. The simplest answer involves trust. To whom should we entrust defense of the Constitution?

As the core document and final authority in our republic, the Constitution forms the heart of our identity. The Supreme Court interprets it for us. That is a noble, dangerous, and difficult job.

The President and Senate, rightly, take great care in deciding who will exercise this power. Living in a republic, they look for people trusted not only in political circles, but by the nation.

While the legal standard leans toward the accused, the political standard errs toward the country. 

For most of our history, Justices have been chosen to stand above party politics. At best they aspire to be impartial; at least they aspire to rule impartially. Their job – as argued vehemently by Republicans – is not to decide what is just, but to impartially apply justice as set forth in the constitution, law, and precedent. This is their key responsibility and must be part of the job requirements. It is critical, then, that we find Justices who are extraordinarily calm and thoughtful.

 

The Judicial Standard

The most common statement of the judicial standard is that judges should be above “the appearance of impropriety.” To preserve the public trust, they must avoid not only actual trespass but apparent trespass. They must appear unmoved by anything but the law and reason. From this, we get the idea of judicial temperament.

A judge must be a thoughtful advocate of the law, when everyone else is caught up in partisanship and moral wrangling.

Anyone can advocate for justice; a judge must do justice.

A citizen may get excited about anything and their excitement should not be held against them by the government. Their feelings and opinions cannot be used as grounds for depriving them of liberty or property.

For exactly the same reason, government officials face the opposite standard. Their feelings and opinions must be weighed before they are handed power over others. They must be trusted to wield their power impartially.

Judges face the highest standard of all because they the arbiters of partiality in others. They are the protectors of liberty and property. They are agents of the rule of law. If they will not defend it, no one else can.

Brett Kavanaugh has made it clear that he feels entitled to a seat on the Supreme Court. He believes that the Democrats (and mysteriously the Clintons) are conspiring to deprive him of that seat. This gives me profound doubts about his ability to represent everyone impartially.

It may not be good for Brett Kavanaugh. It may not be fair.

It is far more important for the process to be good for the country. If he cannot place country above self, reason above emotion, law above desire – even when attacked – especially when attacked – he is not the man for the job.

 

A Note on Investigations

Our country has a terrible track record when it comes to taking accusations of sexual assault seriously. Because so many victims have not been heard, we must err on the side of listening. We must learn to hear, question, and investigate allegations.

This does not entail legal, political, or judicial consequences. It does require taking the time to learn before making legal, political, and judicial decisions.

It is also important that the most public deliberations be the most thorough. The Supreme Court nomination sets the standard for all lesser appointments.

I believe that the Republican majority has been wise in scheduling a hearing and calling for an investigation. I also think it took strong public pressure.

 

A Note on Partisan Politics

Republicans currently control the White House and both houses of Congress. They deserve all credit or blame for the nomination and approval (or not) of Brett Kavanaugh. Democrats simply do not have the leverage to stop approval. Public opinion has caused Republican senators to slow the process.

Personally, I would like to return to non-partisan nominees. That means that the party in power will have to show restraint. Just like a good judge, a good party, when given power, yields for the good of the whole.

I think we would be better off with a Democrat nominated and Republican confirmed nominee (e.g., Merrick Garland) or a Republican nominated and Democrat confirmed nominee. I hope we can return to the US norm of building a court from the best, brightest, most rational and least partisan among us.

 

A Note on the History of Nominations

The vast majority of Supreme Court nominees have passed Senate confirmation without comment. Of 113 Justices to date, 68 passed by acclamation, 6 by unanimous approval, and 11 more with an overwhelming majority (> 9/10 approval).  That means three out of four Justices were chosen by the whole for the whole.

Very few Justices stand out for contentious votes (< 2/3). Andrew Jackson pushed through three Justices. The first, Roger Taney (1836, 29-15), wrote the decision in the Dred Scott case, arguably the worst decision in court history. It ruled that persons of African descent were inferior, cannot be, and were never intended to be US citizens. Buchanan appointed Nathan Clifford (1858, 26-23); Garfield appointed Stanley Matthews (1881, 24-23); Grover Cleveland appointed Lucius Lamar II (1888, 32-28); Taft appointed Mahlon Pitney (1912, 50-26).

In this context, the modern era of partisan nominations appears to be an aberration. It started when the elder George Bush appointed Clarence Thomas (1991, 52-48). Ginsburg, Breyer, and Roberts passed with large majorities, but subsequent Justice were less popular. George W. Bush appointed Samuel Alito (2006, 58-42). Barack Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor (2009, 68-31). [Elena Kegan (2010, 63-37) came recommended by Justice Scalia and received more than 2/3 approval.] Donald Trump appointed Neil Gorsuch (2017, 54-45).

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Posted by: dacalu | 17 September 2018

What are Humans?

I had the honor of preaching at Church of the Apostles today. We remembered Saint Hildegard of Bingen and reflected on the place of humanity in creation. The image below comes from a 13th century copy of her Book of Divine Works. (I have listed other resources on the same topic at the end of the post.)

Hildegard-World

Prayer for Hildegard’s Day

O God, by whose grace your servant Hildegard, kindled with the Fire of your love, became a burning and shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Readings on Humanity

Genesis 1:26-28     AND     Genesis 2:15-17

Psalm 8:4-8     AND     Job 7:17-21

Philippians 2:1-8

Mark 10:41-45

Sermon

I pray at least twice a day.
I ask all sorts of questions and, I’ll be honest: I never get a straight answer.
	I get clear suggestions, pointed remarks, even the occasional suggestive silence.
	The brief, but excellent television show, Joan of Arcadia summed it up well.
		Our protagonist, a suburban teenager, has just met God, 
who is trying to explain the whole prophet thing.

Joan: "Are you — Are you being snippy with me? God is snippy?" 
God: "Let me explain something to you, Joan. It goes like this: I don't look like this. I don't look like anything you'd recognize. You can't see me. I don't sound like this, I don't sound like anything you'd recognize. You see, I'm beyond your experience. I take this form because you're comfortable with it, it makes sense to you. And if I'm "snippy”, it's because you understand snippy." 

For a slightly darker version, we can turn to Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman,
	who, in a footnote on page four of Good Omens say this.

“God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of the players (i.e., everybody), to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.

God can be obscure, even about the most important topics.

So, we turn to scripture, which – it must be admitted – can be equally challenging.
It’s not that we don’t get clear answers,
	but that we get multiple answers to the same question – 
	multiple answers that don’t always agree.
This can be…frustrating.

After many years of this,
	I have come to the conclusion
	that there is something fundamentally askew in my way of thinking.
I must be asking the wrong questions, or, more to the point,
	I must be thinking along the wrong lines.
God is encouraging me to shift my perspective,
	to go deeper.

I genuinely believe that God redirects us from the questions we ask
	to the questions we really need answered.
And, as with any good teacher, this move is,
	in roughly equal parts, wondrous and infuriating.
 
With that in mind, I’d like to dive into the question of human significance.
How do we fit into the grand scheme of things?
Are we important?
Are we unique?
Are we good?

The bible addresses human significance multiple times in different ways.
To my frustration, many Christians use the bible like a reference book.
	They read from the beginning, find an answer, and then stop.
This often provides a decent, but simplistic answer.
In the case of human significance, it can be misleading.

I have a reasonably high view of God’s action in the inspiration of scripture.
	I don’t think there are a few good bits, 
with the begats and proverbs and lesser prophets
thrown in as padding.
If God answers the same question multiple times,
	there must be a reason.

Bible Quiz.
I know, I’m an Episcopalian, but I figure I can get away with it in this crowd.

How many creation accounts are there in bible?

Interact

In his book, Seven Pillars of Creation, Bill Brown explores seven different creation accounts:
	Genesis 1, Genesis 2, the end of Job, Psalm 104, 
Proverbs 8, Ecclesiastes, and Second Isaiah.
All seven place humans within a broader creation,
	but they do so in different ways.

Genesis 1 describes a hierarchical universe,
	with us at the apex of the physical world.
	We were given dominion over all the other animals,
		and God found it very good.
Genesis 2, on the other hand, claims that we were made for the earth,
	to till it and watch it.
	We are gardeners, who failed in our task,
		and all the evils of the world stem from
		our inability to care properly for a single tree.
 
I don’t think one account is right and the other wrong.
I don’t think that one account is a summary 
or an expansion or a commentary on the other.
And I don’t think it was an accident
	that both versions appear at the start of the bible.

I think the truth is complicated,
	and the world is complicated,
	and we are complicated.
And that God is inviting us into a deeper understanding.
From the very beginning – the first two chapters of scripture –
	God is telling us to pay attention
	because the truth is beyond our experience.
We are fundamentally good, in the image and likeness of God.
	We are unique among the animals and miraculously wise.
AND we are also, from our birth, in a state of trespass.
	We live on someone else’s land, but act like we own it.
		We don’t even treat it well.
	We live in the midst of unbelievable, intricate and wonderous variety,
		but act as though we were in a mall,
		with things carefully placed to catch our attention
		and serve our needs.

Job and Psalms remind us that we are not the sole end of God in creation.
	The wide wild world exists without us:
		lions and tigers and bears;
		goats, horses, and deer;
		ostriches, hyenas, and crocodiles.
	Countless lives begin, continue, and end, oblivious to human concerns.
	The laws of nature go on without the slightest concern
		for human well-being.
	The titanic creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan have become bywords
		for everything God does
		that has nothing to do with humanity.

Proverbs 8 reminds us of God’s Spirit,
bringing order to the cosmos from eternity to eternity.
Ecclesiastes and Isaiah tell us of our final dependence on God.
	We are nothing without God’s spirit moving in us.
	Our lives are fleeting like the grass,
		that lives for a day and then disappears.
 
And so, we are both rulers and trespassers,
	mighty and weak,
	special to God, and one among many.
When people ask me if humans are special, I usually make a comparison.
	Many of you have more than one child.
	What would you say if one of your children asked you, “Am I your favorite?”
	I would say, “Of course you are my favorite…
just like your sister, or brother.”
This is how I feel when people ask about human uniqueness.
	It is enough to say that God loves us
		and wants our love.


Second question:
What are humans, that you are mindful of them?

Most of you will be familiar with Psalm 8.
	I know that I have heard it many times. 
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, 
mortals that you care for them?
you have made them a little lower than God,
 and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

But, did you know that this same question comes up four more times in the bible?
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?”

We heard the passage from Job.
“What are human beings, that you make so much of them, 
that you set your mind on them, 
visit them every morning, test them every moment? 
Will you not look away from me for a while, 
let me alone until I swallow my spittle?”	
In other words,
O God, why are you picking on me?
	Why do my actions matter?
	Why can’t you just leave me alone?
 
Psalm 144:
“O Lord, what are human beings that you regard them,
or mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.”
Ecclesiasticus 18 makes the same point,
	praising God for his care,
	much as God cares for the lilies and the sparrows in Matthew’s Gospel.

Hebrews suggests that our lowliness is temporary.
	We have been made mortal and powerless,
		but may regain our place 
by participating in the suffering and death of Christ.

What are humans?
	Rulers of creation, 
God’s special project, 
underfoot and fleeting as grass,
and a work in progress.
We are nothing in ourselves
	and everything in God’s eyes.


So much for the Bible Quiz
	What’s the good news?
	What are we to make of God and scripture being snippy about humanity?

Here, I think we can turn the gospel.
And I must admit, Mark may be the snippiest of the gospels.
	Jesus shows little hesitation 
telling the disciples that they just don’t get it.
And yet, Matthew tells the story as well.
James and John ask to be the favored disciples,
		to sit at Jesus right and left hand in the coming kingdom.
	“We want to be special.”
	“We want to be your favorites.”

And Jesus tells them that the kingdom doesn’t really work that way.
	They must change their perspective.
	Among the nations, 
people strive to be better than their neighbors,
more special, more powerful, more famous.
	“But it is not so among you; 
whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, 
and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Paul puts it much the same way in his letter to the Philippians,
	“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, 
did not regard equality with God 
as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself, 
taking the form of a slave, 
being born in human likeness.”
The language is uncompromising.
	We cannot be special alone.
	We cannot even be special in comparison: better, greater, more.
	We can only be special in community
		and in service to others.

A king is no king without a kingdom.
And a gardener is no gardener without a garden.

Our lives have no meaning in isolation.
And our species has no meaning by itself.
To be fully human is to be serving.
	As individuals we serve our neighbors.
	As a species we serve creation,
		in its unbelievable, intricate and wonderous variety.

Darwin complained about parasitoid wasps.
Modern skeptics worry about viruses, selfish genes, suffering, and selection.
I make no claim that these are good or understandable.
But I do claim that they are our neighbors,
	neither more nor less than the Samaritan, the sinner, or the eunuch.

God calls us into community
	because I alone am never enough.
	I am never solely to blame for my offenses.
	I am never solely responsible for my success.
I am complicated.
Humanity is complicated.
The world is complicated.
 
Hildgard of Bingen saw this in her visions.
She imagined the cosmos as a human
	with Christ as its soul.
She saw each human as a microcosm,
	with God moving in us and moving us,
	and making us part of something greater.
Each of us is broken, as the world is broken.
We are each being mended,
	because we are all being mended,
	as God mends the world.
For God, in God’s fullness, was pleased to dwell
	in creation, in human flesh, in us.

God in God’s fullness is beyond our experience.
	But we can, quite literally, wrap our mind around Jesus.
We can understand Jesus as our king.
	And so, we have just a glimpse 
of what it might mean to be the rulers.
	We can be kings and queens to the extent
		that we can imagine a king,
			suffering for our salvation.
We can see Jesus as shepherd, hen, and vine.
	And so, we have just a glimpse
		of what it means to care for the world.
	We can be shepherds and gardeners to the extent
		that we can imagine Jesus as the life of the world.
We can even understand Jesus as Logos, as the order behind creation,
		by studying the universe.
	We can look into the reality of God,
		by gazing in wonder, curiosity, and true humility
at the unbelievable, intricate and wonderous variety
that God has made.

We can know as we are known,
	give as we have received,
	forgive as we are forgiven,
love as we are loved.
 
Humanity has meaning, significance, uniqueness 
	but always in the context of God and neighbor.
	We are part of something greater than ourselves.
Otherwise we miss the point.
Our humanity is grounded in God and manifest in creation.

For this reason,
I think that resurrection life
	will have more than humans.
We will not be alone in God’s kingdom.

There is no I alone.
There is no humanity alone.
There is only God, 
moving in us 
and moving us to love one another.

It is an ineffable game,
	but it need not always be.
God is telling us about the rules,
	every time we ask the question,
	every time we turn to nature with curiosity,
	every time we look to scripture with humility,
	allowing the answer to be greater than the question.
We are complicated,
	gloriously so.

Other Resources

The relationship of humans to other living things forms one of my core areas of research. This is a sermon geared specifically toward Christians considering humans in the universe. If you are interested, you can find a more philosophical approach here. The topic was also covered in a graduate seminar with a scientific focus here and here. The topic of non-human souls is covered at length in my recent book. A theological reflection on how science shapes our perception of the place of humanity in nature appears in the journal Zygon.

Mix, LJ (2016) Life-value narratives and the impact of astrobiology on Christian ethics. Zygon 51(2): 520-535.

Posted by: dacalu | 4 September 2018

Labor and Scapegoating

The Scapegoat

Leviticus 16:21-22 provides the original scapegoat.

“Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.”

In Hebrew, the goat was ‘azazel. Sometimes taken as a proper name, the word may simply mean “goat that departs” or just an intense “to depart.” For the Latin Bible (Vulgate) Jerome used caper emissarius, goat that is sent. William Tyndale called it a “scapegoat,” and so it appears in the King James Version.

For the Israelites, azazel was a way to separate themselves from their sins, so that they might be at peace with one another, and with God. They could literally cast off the evil that bound them. Azazel was only a small part of their atonement, however. Leviticus 16 describes a public ceremony of accepting responsibility, seeking change, and sacrificing a second goat (as well as a bull) for the sins of the community. The good use of a scapegoat, if there is one, requires the fullness of atonement: recognition and repentance as well as release.

In the nineteenth century, “scapegoat” came to mean “one who is blamed or punished for the mistakes or sins of others.”1 We project our faults and debts onto someone else so that we can continue in our error. The proper anger we feel at bad behavior can be vented at an improper target. Scapegoats allow us to feel good without doing good. In this sense, scapegoating is the opposite of atonement. It ducks responsibility. It prevents recognition, precludes repentance, and resists genuine release. Because the fault persists, new scapegoats are always needed.

The New Testament letter to the Hebrews makes precisely this argument. Jesus’ death for our redemption provides a “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”2 One and done. Christians need no scapegoat.

Jews have their own interpretation of Leviticus 16 and the day of atonement. I do not cite Hebrews to critique Jewish practice, ancient or modern. It requires the full context of recognition, repentance, and release. Other religions have their own rites of turning, as well. I cite Hebrews to emphasize that Christians have no sins to cast on the “other.” We have cast them all on Christ. Everyone sees willful ignorance, unjust punishment, and cruel indifference as bad. Christians scapegoating is wrong in another way: it shows a lack of faith in Jesus and his atonement.A

Scapegoating is also incompatible with loving neighbor as self. How can we punish others for our mistakes unless we love them less than we love ourselves? For Christians, scapegoating is more than wrong. It is actively sinful.

Scapegoating appears most clearly when we blame the weak for an unjust system that could only be perpetuated by the strong. We all shape the societies in which we participate, but some have more influence than others. If we are looking for systematic injustice – real societal dysfunction – we must look to trend-setters, decision makers, power brokers.

We must ask which groups are blamed and expelled?

We must ask who blames and expels them?

Most critically, we must ask whether blame and expulsion fix the problem. If we look at failures of professional trust, it makes sense. We should cast the embezzlers out of banking, sadists out of medicine, child molesters out of teaching, and liars out of reporting. In the US, it makes sense to cast out those who willfully lied to the US government to gain entry. It makes sense to cast out those who will not renounce violent rebellion or aid to invaders. In all of these cases expulsion directly addresses the problem.

Other cases should give us pause.

 

Labor

We have a problem with economic injustice. The upper and middle classes shrink, while the lower class grows.3 Many work and are not rewarded. Others are rewarded without work. Most of us, perhaps especially the lower class, benefit from the work of those who make so little they barely get by. In the US, these people harvest our crops and prepare our food. They drive the trucks and work the aisles of Walmart and the distribution centers of Amazon. Abroad, they mine the minerals and assemble the components for our personal electronics. They make our clothes and freight our cargo.

It takes no personal animosity for this injustice to occur. It requires no mistaken or malicious economic theory. In many cases, it arose because it works so well. And yet, people suffer. Labor is not fairly rewarded. Workers suffer and die unjustly.

You may believe that the world is this way naturally. You may think life is nasty, brutish, and short. You may think that God punishes us or teaches us or lets us live in our own filth. You may think that the universe is vast, cold, and indifferent to our suffering or that evolution breeds selfishness. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter why the world is this way, or even why the US is this way.

We feel the economic injustice.

It pains us as a society.

We need to do something to alleviate the pain. And so, we find people to cast our sin onto. We blame and expel them, even though it does not fix the problem.

I think the US has an amazing history of promoting individual rights. We have spoken up, legislated, and enforced the rights of all people. And yet, we have also continued to want convenient workers, cheap labor that we do not have to treat well. Long hours, low pay, and scant benefits result in inexpensive goods and services.

In short, we have faced this dilemma by saying that some workers are not people. For centuries we did this explicitly through chattel slavery. We turned workers into sellable objects. When slavery became illegal, we found other ways to lessen the personhood of workers. We turned to women, children, and foreigners.4

Make no mistake. The market drives inhumane treatment of workers. The majority of consumers are poor. The poor choose the cheapest options because they barely get by. I am not blaming them. Nor am I blaming the rich. I am noting the injustice inherent in our system. Removing players will not fix a game when the rules are broken.

Whenever we blame a group of people, we are guilty of scapegoating. That includes blaming the bourgeoisie, the selfish poor, the entitled, the 1%, the politicians, or the bureaucrats. When we remove them, others will take over their role.

Recent years have seen a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-immigrant policy in the US and Europe. We seek to expel “foreigners” whether they be illegal, legal, or even citizens. We seek a scapegoat to lessen our guilt. We blame migrant workers. We say that they are stealing our jobs and taking advantage of our social services. We blame and expel them.

It does not solve the problem. The market drives the problem, not the laborers. The desire for cheap goods and services drives the problem.

Such scapegoating is immoral.

It is ineffective.

Worst of all, it is addictive.

Expelling the foreigner solves neither the economic nor the moral crisis. Economic problems persist because they are systemic problems. Moral problems get worse. New scapegoats must always be found. We recognize our guilt in scapegoating and, thus, always require new scapegoats. In the 1900s, Marxist revolutionaries started at the “top” and worked their way down. Fascist revolutionaries started at the “bottom” and worked their way up. Both met in the middle by scapegoating anyone who disagreed with the system.

Scapegoating is not a new problem. It is old and common. We must be constantly on our guard against our own desire to simplify the world to suit our own desires. We must constantly fight for a just and informed society, for effective and moral policies.

When scapegoating becomes a political platform, when a politician or party asks us to cast our sins upon a group of people and expel them, the time has come to resist that platform. It harms society. Those who use scapegoating should be cast out of politics. It would not solve economic injustice, but it would directly address the problem of civic immorality and our addiction to blaming others.

 

Notes:

  1. Online Etymology Dictionary: “scapegoat
  2. This phrase appears in the Eucharistic prayer for every English Book of Common Prayer and the first three American Books of Common Prayer. The current (1979) American BCP retains it in Rite IA.
  3. By classes I mean this: the upper class does not have to work for a living. They are independently wealthy. The middle class works but gains more than they need to survive. The lower class works to live.
  4. To speak fairly, I should say that our willingness to demean women, children, and foreigners has long been part of human culture. In the Tanakh (Old Testament), the trio of aliens, widows, and orphans is invoked again and again to describe the oppressed. Frequently it is in the context of work and money. Widows and orphans are, importantly, those women and children without an adult male patron to protect them. Exodus 22:21-22; Deuteronomy 10:17-18, 14:29, 24:17-22, 27:19; Psalm 94:6, 146:9; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

A. A friend asked me to amplify this paragraph. Here are my two comments: 1) I don’t intend to say that there is no atonement outside Christianity. 2) Inside Christianity, Jesus atonement is fully sufficient to cover all sins. Any time we try to deal with sins (no matter whose they are) by punishing people (no matter who they are), we have shown a lack of faith in Jesus, whose atonement has dealt with all sin. We might punish for other reasons, but never to deal with sin.

Posted by: dacalu | 7 August 2018

Introductions to Buddhism

A friend of mine asked for good introductory texts on Buddhism, so I opened up a discussion on Facebook. Here are the recommendations I garnered. Strong recommendations from me personally have a star.

Academic

*Rupert Gethin. The Foundations of Buddhism. 1998.

For Children (and Adults)

*Jon Muth: Zen Shorts, 2005; Zen Ties, 2008; Zen Ghosts, 2010; Hi Koo, 2014; Zen Socks, 2018.

Mahayana Buddhism

Paul Williams. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. 2008.

Theravada Buddhism

Rahula Wapola. What the Buddha Taught. 1959.

Books by Jack Kornfield

Tibetan Buddhism

*Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. Gates to Buddhist Practice. 1993.

Books by Pema Chodron

Robert Thurman. Essential Tibetan Buddhism. 1996.

Chogyam Trungpa. Cutting through Spiritual Materialism. 1973

Zen Buddhism

*Alan Watts. The Way of Zen. 1957.

Shunryu Suzuki. Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. 1973.

Kosho Uchiyama. Opening the Hand of Thought. 1993.

Robert Aitken Roshi. Taking the Path of Zen. 1982.

(https://sites.google.com/site/robertaitkenroshi/)

Robert Persig. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 1974.

D.T. Suzuki. An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. 1934.

Charlotte Beck. Everyday Zen. 2007.

Engaged Buddhism

Thich Nhat Hanh. The Blooming of the Lotus. 1993.

Nichiren Buddhism

Woody Hochswender, Greg Martin, and Ted Morino. The Buddha in Your Mirror: Practical Buddhism and the Search for Self. 2001.

Posted by: dacalu | 24 July 2018

Simply Love

Every few years, I take a serious look at my faith with an eye toward sharing it. Christianity has come to mean so many things to so many people. It’s hard to say what counts as correct, orthodox, or traditional. I can tell you what it means to me, why it is good news to me, and why I think it is the most important thing in the world.

My faith hangs on two simple rules.

1) All you need is love.

2) It’s always simpler than you thought.

The real challenge comes from our basic confusion about love and simplicity. Both come very close to the core of how we see the world. Often, we cannot even talk about them meaningfully. This is why I love martial arts and science and other things that let us see the real world more clearly, things we can physically do that help us mentally understand.

We use the word love to mean many things, from selfless care for another to overwhelming desire to mild interest. What is Christian love? Christian love starts with curiosity, true desire to know another. It ends in sacrifice, a willingness to give something up for the good of another. It always happens simply, concretely, and physically. It means showing up, paying attention, and then doing something to help.

If this still sounds abstract, we can start with the examples given in the Bible: feed the hungry, care for the sick, give to the poor, forgive the guilty, befriend the lonely, calm the angry, teach the willing, and provoke the unwilling. It gets tricky once you start looking at the needs of the many. How do you do all those things at once? How can you be all things to all people? You cannot. You must start somewhere – simply, concretely, and physically – and work your way out.

Simplicity can also be hard. By it, I mean the sort of truth that seems obvious and important once you hear it: something that makes you say, “I should have thought of that” even when you didn’t.” The simplest things can be the most profound. Einstein’s equation E=mc2 is simple. A pulley is simple. A book is simple (binding the pages by the edge). Simple does not mean obvious; it does mean elegant. It took centuries for humans to work these things out, but they transformed daily life.

Living simply is the great struggle of life: to do what we want with the least amount of work.

Jesus of Nazareth was an elegant, if un-imagined, solution to the distance between us – the gaps between humans and the gap between humans and God. He loved simply. He showed us simple love. He stepped – simply, concretely, and physically – into the space between. He gave us tools by which we can do the same.

I judge my own faith, my own Christianity by these standards. I judge my own actions. Do they start in curiosity and end in service? Do they match up with Jesus and the friends of Jesus through the ages who seem to have gotten love and simplicity right?

When in doubt, I try to make my faith simpler and more loving.

Posted by: dacalu | 2 July 2018

Geocentrism

“And yet, it moves.”

So said Galileo about the earth. The story may be only legend, but the sentiment is true and important. We move through the heavens, both physically and conceptually. We grow and change.

I believe that science progresses. We continue to learn new things about the world. I also believe that fashions change, not always for the better. Sometimes we simply change our minds, our philosophy. Which common beliefs have changed because of scientific discovery and which have changed for other reasons? The progress of science depends on our ability to tell the difference.

The moving earth provides a great example. Our perspective has changed. Our knowledge has deepened. And yet, our familiarity with the word “earth” can hide its true significance. Science, through Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton, helped us see that the physics of earth can be applied to stars and planets. This idea that our place in the universe is not privileged, that (all things being equal) the same rules apply everywhere, has been called the Copernican Principle. I think it represents scientific progress.

All things are not equal, though. After all, we are here (on Earth) and not there (in space, on Mars, …). So, we must be careful in how we apply the Copernican Principle. It has become fashionable to say that Copernicus decentered earth and humanity. This is true, but in a limited way. A quick look at the dictionary reveals three parallel meanings for the word “earth”: soil, world, and planet. Each has a different story. Science decentered the soil, but not the world or the planet.

Earth as Soil

Soil provides the oldest meaning for earth. It refers quite tangibly to the stuff beneath our feet. Ancient Greeks thought of four elements – earth, air, fire, and water. This earth was responsible for mass and heaviness. As such, it settled downward. In a spherical universe, it formed the central sphere. Gravity made sense because all earth tended toward the middle. Water enveloped earth, then air, and fire. Finally, the heavens, unimaginably large and made of a fifth element, enveloped the fire.

This earth is a common noun. It is a kind of stuff. Many debated whether there were other clumps of earth out there. Lucretius thought that everything was falling through space and that there were many flat platforms of earth, all falling together. Mostly, though, scholars thought gravity wouldn’t work unless it all ended up in the middle.

Our ideas about matter have changed over the centuries. Earth, air, fire, and water gave way to modern elements. We discovered that gravity could hold clumps of matter together locally without a single force pushing downward (or center-ward) everywhere. And so common earth was distributed throughout the cosmos but got to keep its spherical shape locally. Copernicus decentered earth as soil. With Galileo and Newton, he spread the earth around.

Earth as World

A second meaning refers to earth as a place we find ourselves. We use the German derived “world” for the range of humanity, but the Hebrew ‘erets, Greek ge, and Latin tellus (or terra) can have the same meaning. We live on top of the soil. We came to call our place earth.

The human world may have been at the center of the earliest cosmologies. Israelites and Egyptians, for example, envisioned a sandwich of earth and sky, with humans in the middle. By the common era, scholars had a more complex perspective. The dominant view came from Plato and Aristotle (and Philo and Augustine). The human world formed a thin shell partially covering the sphere of soil. Modern authors might say the biosphere (living Earth) wraps around the geosphere (solid Earth). Many Ancient and Medieval authors thought that the world only covered one hemisphere or less.

This earth became a proper noun. Like the (U.S.) Capitol or the Federation in Star Trek, it acquired a capital letter and an attendant particle. We can speak of The Earth. It is both specific and significant. We can speak of other worlds, but we always speak hypothetically. No one would be confused about which world, which Earth, you were talking about unless you had already introduced others.

The Earth was close to the center of Ancient and Medieval cosmologies, but it was not the center. Nor was the center happy or privileged. Plato wrapped the Earth around Tartarus and Hades. Dante wrapped it around the Inferno, with Satan at the very center, the bottom of the universe. These were Hell-centered cosmologies and, for both Plato and Dante, they reflected human dysfunction. By “decentering” the world, Copernicus and colleagues freed us from the mud and muck of earth as soil.

Earth as Planet

A third meaning arose only after Copernicus’ revolution. Prior cosmologies included planets as sky-travelers. The word means “wanderer” in Greek and refers to the irregular course of planets in our sky. Stars describe a constant circle in the sky, but planets seem to move on their own. Ancient cosmologies associated planets with gods, Medieval cosmologies with angels. They were considered intelligences on their own, though they might (as in Dante) rule over heavenly spheres and subjects.

We cannot speak of earth as planet prior to Copernicus. The terms were mutually exclusive. Planets wandered; the earth stayed put. If we embrace the Copernican principle and reject the idea that earth (as soil, world, or planet) provides a privileged perspective, then we should drop the article. We do not live on The Earth, but only Earth. We occupy one place among many. That place has a proper name. No one would speak of The Mars or The Pluto; why should Earth receive an honorific? Copernicus did not demote or decenter the planet Earth. He created it. The old cosmology ended and a new one took its place. Planets, including Earth became places in space.

Being Moved

It can be easy to think of the Copernican revolution as a demotion for humans. Indeed, intellectual fashion says as much. This was not a product of science, however, but of humanism. Ancient and Medieval cosmologies were centered on value and disvalue, placing the rarified good and God in the heights, the gross bad and Hell in the depths. The humanists argued that we should not have such a Deocentric (or infernocentric) view; we should have an anthropocentric one. Or perhaps a noocentric one, defined by the intelligence that perceives, understands, and models the universe. This new perspective fit well with Enlightenment values and so was taken on. In many ways, it elevated the importance of human minds while distributing soil and human bodies. Humans have moved, but perhaps not in the way we imagined.

 

Posted by: dacalu | 12 June 2018

Service to All: Christianity

In my last post, I argued from American law and civil ethics that businesses should provide their services to all comers (within the bounds of the law). Now I would like to present the argument from Christian theology.

The Christian Gospels are surprisingly clear in their expectation that Christians will be kind and helpful to all – good and bad, Jews and gentiles, Christians and non-Christians. I don’t know how to be clearer than this extended passage from Matthew (5:38-48).

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Luke 27-38 says much the same thing: “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

We are told not to judge, lest we ourselves be judged (Matthew 7:1). God will sort out the good from the evil (Matthew 13:24-43). Our job is only to serve all. In fact, we are to treat others as we wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12).

Some Christians argue that this only applies to Christians, but Jesus explicitly extends it to religious outsiders (Luke 10:25-37, the Parable of the Good Samaritan) and those who waste their gifts (Luke 15:11-32, the Parable of the Prodigal Son). Jesus forgives the people who have sent him to torture and death (Luke 23:34).

The rest of the New Testament amplifies this message of returning good for evil. (Romans 12:14-21; I Thessalonians 5:15; I Peter 8-13). God gives to all; so should we.

Other Christians argue that we should not encourage evil doers in their evil-doing. I agree as far as this goes, but it comes nowhere near refusing to aid them until they stop doing evil (John 1:10-13; Romans 5:8). God served first, so that we might repent. Christians are called to serve preemptively. The only way to serve God is to serve others and the best way to serve God is to serve all. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Mark 9:35 (See also Luke 22:26 and Matthew 20:24-28) “We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” I John 4:19-21 (and also 7-18) Jesus’ strongest condemnation – and only promise of eternal suffering – comes in the context of a rich man who does not care for the poor man on his stoop (Luke 16:9-31, the Rich Man and Lazarus).

Truly and without judgment I do not know how anyone could read this and not come to the same conclusion. Christians are called to serve all. I recognize others of goodwill, intelligence, and learning disagree with me. Still, I cannot wrap my head around any position but absolute, unconditional, self-sacrificial service.

I am likewise baffled and, honestly cannot avoid judgment, of those who wish economic liberty and success while claiming Christian martyrdom. The New Testament is equally (if not more) clear that economic success is incompatible with Gospel living (Mark 10:17-31, Luke 16:13; 18:18-25, Matthew 6:19-21; 19:16-26). If Christian virtue leads to economic ruin, this is a blessing (Matthew 5:11). If your faith costs you nothing, it is not true faith. Christians are asked to serve without recompense (Luke 14:12-14). You cannot serve God and wealth. This does not mean the US should force the choice, but it does mean that Christians should expect it. And, they should turn the other cheek.

Even if same-sex weddings were against Christian teachings (I don’t think they are), even if they were evil (I don’t think they are), Christians would still be obliged to serve people having them. They would not be obliged to support or celebrate them, but they would be required to serve them in any generic way, to render support as asked.

I do not know what this religion is that chooses abstract propositional and moral norms over people. I do not know the religion that values heterosexuality over love of God. (I cannot draw any other conclusion from someone who will bake a cake for a male-female secular wedding but not a same-sex secular wedding, a male-female Christian wedding but not a same-sex Christian wedding.) I will defend the right of all to religious liberty. Both my American values and my Christian values demand it. But we must be clear about the religion we are protecting. In the case of Masterpiece Cake shop, it is a religion of intolerance and economic success, not one of service to all.

I will continue to preach Christ, and him crucified – the preemptive, self-sacrificing servant.

Posted by: dacalu | 11 June 2018

Service to All: America

A discussion has opened in America about the extent of religious liberty. I think it’s tremendously important. And, I think it’s difficult. That’s why I’ve tried to set forth my own position here. It rests on my beliefs about personal responsibility and social accountability. In that sense, I believe it is a profoundly conservative argument. It is also informed by Christian theology, but that must wait for a second post. For now, the American argument.

In the US, we have a strong commitment to religious freedom, enshrined in the first clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” In the words of Thomas Jefferson:

“The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Notes on the State of Virginia

Jefferson’s statement makes clear that religious liberties may be limited when they run into the liberties of others, even their economic interests. We must come to terms with the relationship between religious and financial liberty – as is made clear in prohibitions of alcohol, drugs, gambling, and prostitution. We regularly stop people from economic activity in areas deemed immoral or, at the very least, not in the public interest.

Many economic activities lead to a limitation of religious freedom. A religious pacifist (e.g., a Quaker) may refuse to enlist in the Army. She might even choose to leave the army. What she cannot do is remain in the army and draw benefits from that relationship (pay, billeting, …) and at the same time disobey orders due to her pacifism. And, it must be noted, her pacifism must be broad and clear. She cannot pick and choose when to be pacifist. I have great respect for the pacifist and great respect for the soldier. I have little respect for those who claim to be both.

A man who believes it wrong to drink alcohol (e.g., Methodist, traditionally) may refuse a job as a bartender. He may choose to quit such a job. What he may not do is remain a bartender and refuse to serve drinks. More to the point, he cannot claim a religious objection to serving some customers and not others. He cannot choose when to be a teetotaler.

The current division in the US arises between those who see business as a personal right and those who see it as a social responsibility. I see it as a social responsibility. It comes with limitations.

Our economic freedom neither is nor should be absolute. It is limited by the economic interests of others. We believe that no-one should be prevented from opening a business because of their religion (e.g., Jews). Nor should they be turned away from the businesses of others, effectively stopping them from their own economic endeavors.

Customers can discriminate; providers cannot. If you provide a service, you must provide it to all comers (under the law). You can choose not to provide a service, or you can choose to provide it to everyone. What you cannot do is provide it to some but not others. Your objection must be broad and clear.

A business must be blind to the customer. They must choose their services before deciding who may and may not receive them. A baker may, for any reason, refuse to provide cakes with two grooms on top, regardless of who asks for it. But, if they provide unadorned (or generically adorned) cakes, they must provide them to whoever is willing to pay.

Notes:
1) I don’t believe businesses should have the right to freedom of religion. Alas, the Supreme Court does, so they do under US law. That said, their freedom of religion ends where the religious and economic freedoms of others begin. Right now, we’re figuring out how to draw that line.
2) When you charge money for religious services, they become economic services. I say, don’t do it. I can marry whom I please and I will not charge money for it. Religions get around this with donations, I’m happy with this arrangement. Significantly, it means that the donation goes to a religious charity and is subject to the relevant laws. I’d be delighted to hear about a bakery run as a religious charity. Religious liberty is not in question; economic liberty is.
3) In the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., et al. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission et al., the US Supreme Court ruled that the CCRC had, in the treatment of the complaint, discriminated with regard to the religion of the baker. They did not rule on whether the couple in the case would have had the right to service had the CCRC acted in accordance with the law. In other words, they punted. The ruling notes, in alignment with my own thoughts, that, “Colorado law can protect gay persons in acquiring products and services on the same terms and conditions as are offered to other members of the public.” It is worth noting that court allows such a law to be constitutional; it does not say that gay persons have such a right beyond the reach of Colorado law. I believe the latter in addition to the former. For the record, the ruling makes clear that the baker’s objection was to the use toward which the cake would be put, not the properties of the cake, itself. He would not sell the couple a wedding cake such as he would provide to a same-sex couple. No indication of gender was requested for the cake.
4) Religious liberties may be limited in the described fashion. From the same case: “The Court’s precedents make clear that the baker, in his capacity as the owner of a business serving the public, might have his right to the free exercise of religion limited by generally applicable laws.” “while those religious and philosophical objections are protected, it is a general rule that such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.”
5) Masterpiece Cakeshop’s actions were consistently discriminatory based on intended use, not the specific goods provided. “The investigator found that ‘on multiple occasions,’ Phillips ‘turned away potential customers on the basis of their sexual orientation, stating that he could not create a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony or reception’ because his religious beliefs prohibited it and because the potential customers ‘were doing something illegal’ at that time.” “Phillips’ shop had refused to sell cupcakes to a lesbian couple for their commitment celebration” The justices did note that same-sex weddings were not yet legal at the time of the events in question.
6) The baker argued that artistic expression in baking constitutes a form of protected free speech. The Supreme Court agreed with lower courts that this was not the case under Colorado law. Interestingly, the opinions written by Kagan and Gorsuch pry into this question. Those interested in the debate might enjoy reading them. I agree with Kagan.

Posted by: dacalu | 10 June 2018

Love over Power

Today, I had the privilege of worshiping with St. Stepehen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle. Here is the sermon I shared.

 

Prayer for the Day

O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Readings

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15 (Israel asks for a King)

Psalm 138 (“When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me.”)

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 (“we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen”)

Mark 3:20-35 (A house divided cannot stand, and the unforgivable sin)

 

Sermon

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a king?
I don’t know about you, 
but sometimes I look at our government
and I think about the foolishness of the President,
the inefficiency and incivility of the Congress,
the sometimes-arbitrary decisions of the Courts,
and I say, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a king?”
It would be nice to have someone raised to govern,
	who felt a moral obligation to serve the whole country,
	someone smart and kind and thoughtful,
	who didn’t have to pander to business or the electorate.
Then, of course, I remember that we’ve tried kings 
and they rarely work out well.
They pander to business and the aristocrats and the masses.
They are not reliably smart and kind and thoughtful.
Our system of President, Congress, and Courts
	was set up for precisely this reason.
If you give too much power to any one person,
	they will be tempted to abuse that power,
and so we make a point of taking greed, stupidity, and inefficiency
	and spreading it around.
Still, the whole circus can get tiring,
	and even today,
	we say to ourselves,
	“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a king?”

For some reason,
	when we see abuses of power,
	we look to greater power for a solution.
I’ll bet you all know the story of Robin Hood,
	who defended the common people
		from the terrible Sherriff
		until Good King Richard came back from the crusades.
The real King Richard was not that good,
	but the story is powerful.
We see these stories all the time.
	Daddy Warbucks in Annie.
	The true king in Tolkien - again and again.
	Dumbledore in the early Harry Potter movies.
You didn’t know the king was paying attention,
	but he was, and now he’s stepping in 
		to reward the good and punish the wicked.
 
Americans aren’t too fond of kings,
	and so we’ve largely replaced this trope of Royal intervention
	with the Cavalry
	or peace through superior firepower.
But we still have the same mindset.
	Fight fire with fire.

I confess, this has been a very popular mindset in Christianity.
	God is the king of kings and lord of lords.
And that is a good thing, in some ways.
	Earthly powers are not the only powers.
It is a bad thing when we worship God
	because God is powerful.
It is a bad thing when we think that God is simply a bigger tyrant.
That, after all, means worshiping power.

God is not a Mafia Don who rewards loyalty and punishes disloyalty.
Christianity is not “fire insurance.”

No. No. No. No. No.

Christians know that there are other things to value, better things.
God is not power; God has power.
God is love.

Despite all claims of omnipotence –
	and I do think of God as omnipotent –
	God consistently refuses to overwhelm us with force.
God makes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Jesus consistently refuses to overpower those around him.
	He did not take up the sword,
	even when they came to crucify him.

Our readings today tell us that we don’t have to listen to the priorities of the world.
We don’t have to want what other people want.

We can choose to use our power for the sake of love,
	and not spend it acquiring more power.
We can live for the sake of loving.
	And we can build our societies around
	love of God and neighbor.
 
Too often we succumb to fear,
	and try to scare others to make us less afraid.
Too often we succumb to doubt,
	and make others doubt themselves, so we feel better.
But, fear cannot drive out fear.
	Doubt cannot drive out doubt.
If we want to escape fear and doubt,
	greed, stupidity, and inefficiency,
	we must turn to something else.

Norton Juster, author of the Phantom Tollbooth, put it this way.
“Since you got here by not thinking, 
it seems reasonable to expect that,
in order to get out, 
you must start thinking.”

Christianity works the same way.
It is a new response to an old problem.
It is a change.


The Israelites wanted a king.
	They wanted pomp and circumstance.
	They also wanted a military leader to make them feel safe from their enemies.
The Israelites complained.
	“All the other nations are doing it.”
And God’s responds like a good parent.
	“If the Philistines jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?”
To which the Israelites say “yes.”
It didn’t turn out well.
The Israelites responded to violence with violence,
	fear with fear,
	inequality with inequality.
And, for the most part,
	they got exactly what we would expect,
	more of the same.



 
The people in Corinth were worried about success.
	I suspect they wanted clearer rules about how to behave,
		whom to trust and how to order their community.
	I suspect they also wanted proof of God’s power
		through physical success.
	If God is a great king, why does he not shower us with favors, 
		as Earthly kings do?
And Paul responds by saying that God does shower us with favors,
	but perhaps the ones we expect.
	God grants us repentance and reconciliation.
In word of Galatians, God gives us
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,
	goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Those may not sound like the solution to problems
	of power and insecurity.
They are not the traditional solutions,
	but they are far more effective.

“Even though our outer nature is wasting away, 
our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 
For this slight momentary affliction 
is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 
because we look not at what can be seen 
but at what cannot be seen”
Don’t worry if you are not doing well by earthly standards,
	health, wealth, and popularity.
They are valuable, 
	but less valuable than faith, hope, and love.
You don’t have to want what other people want.


There has been some debate about the unforgivable or eternal sin
	mentioned in the gospel reading.
What is it that cannot be forgiven?
In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus says this.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins 
and whatever blasphemies they utter; 
but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit 
can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”
I do not know, but I think he had this in mind.
 
The Gospel begins with a simple message of repentance.
The world may be unsatisfactory.
	We may be in debt.
	We may be in conflict our neighbors, in conflict with ourselves.
	We may have sinned and fallen short – by our own standards.
And yet, we can change,
	we can choose to do different things,
	we can choose to value different things,
	we can become new people,
if we first accept that God can change us.

Christianity offers us something genuinely new,
	a chance to value ourselves less
	and others more.
It is not just changing our circumstances;
	But changing our very selves.

I’m not the only one to find the world unsatisfactory.
	We know that the priorities of the world are messed up.
	We know that the pursuit of health, wealth, and popularity
		and above all the search for ever more power
		leads to violence and conflict.

The Gospel is much like the first of the 12-steps.
	You must recognize that you have a problem
		beyond your abilities
		and accept that God can solve it.
	You must accept that Jesus and the Holy Spirit
		have the ability to fundamentally change you for the better.
Those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit,
	the spirit of Jesus,
	denied his power and his goodness.

But here’s the catch.
	We must accept that God solves our problem in God’s own way.
	It does not involve overwhelming force.
	God is subtle and sophisticated.
		God works through us.
		God works through our weakness and our frustration.
 
We don’t have to want what other people want.
We don’t have to want the same things we have wanted all our lives.
In many ways, the world is messed up.

I do not imagine my imagination is sufficient to fix it.
	I trust that God’s imagination is.
	And so, I pray for God’s imagination.
I do not trust in my own faith.
	I trust in yours, and ours, and in God’s faithfulness.
	And so, I pray for faith.
I do not love love as I ought.
	But I love the God who works love in me,
		and in you, and in the world.
	And so, I pray for love.

“the Spirit helps us in our weakness; 
for we do not know how to pray as we ought, 
but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 
And God, who searches the heart, 
knows what is the mind of the Spirit, 
because the Spirit intercedes for the saints 
according to the will of God.”

We don’t have to want what other people want.
We don’t need a king to solve our problems,
	even a heavenly one.
What we need is a new heart, and a new soul, and a new faith,
	to see God, who is everywhere,
	working right here.

 

Posted by: dacalu | 5 June 2018

Drunk with Love

On Sunday, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church for the Feast of Pentecost – the celebration of Christ sending the Holy Spirit and founding the Church. Here is the sermon I preached.

Prayer for Pentecost

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings

Acts 2:1-21 (Descent of the Holy Spirit, “other sneered and said ‘They are filled with new wine.’)

Psalm 104:25-36 (You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.”)

Romans 8:22-27 (the “Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”)

John 15:26 – 16:15 (“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth”)

Sermon

It’s dangerous being an academic.
	I suppose it’s dangerous being a perfectionist.
	I am.
Every time I say something,
	particularly from the pulpit,
	I want to add caveats, addenda, provisos.
	I want to frame it very carefully, lest you misunderstand what I mean.
Truth is tricky.

But there’s something infectious about genuine zeal.
At the core of Christianity, there is a passion for love,
	real, sacrificial, rush-right-in and do it kind of love.
So, I’m learning to be less cautious,
	less self-conscious about preaching the Gospel.

Did any of you watch the Royal Wedding: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle?
I did not stay up until four am to watch it live,
	but I caught the highlights on Saturday,
	and I listened with great interest to Michael Curry’s sermon.
Michael is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church,
	a fitting choice for an American marrying into British Royalty,
	and a Spirit-filled preacher.
I hope you’ve heard him preach before.
And I hope you’ll listen to this sermon,
	because his love of the Good News
	is undeniable.
It’s infectious and emotional,
	and it makes you want to say, “Alleluia! Praise God.”
Even if you’re an Anglican.

Can I get an amen?

Can I get an Alleluia?

I know, I know, we’re Anglicans and we don’t do that sort of thing.
	We don’t get carried away
	and we don’t shout in the pews
	but every once in a while,
	it’s worth it.
Love is worth getting carried away about.

Can I get an Alleluia?
 
Love is a tough subject.
I want to caution you about how sentimental our society has become,
	how much we glorify and fear both sex and romance.
But none of that makes any sense unless you first,
	truly, madly, deeply fall for someone.
If you’re anything like me, you have your own romantic sound track.
	We have within us this ability to love wildly.
	I suspect that’s why we have so many songs about it.
“As Time Goes By” (1931)
“At Last” (1941)
 “All You Need is Love” (1967)
“Glory of Love” (1986)
“Haven’t Met You Yet” (2009)
“Stand by Me” (1961)
If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
Or the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry
No I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

Take a moment and think about your own sound track,
	or your own wedding,
	or your own love.
What was it like, at first, to fall in love?

Christian love is something like that.
It is a romance, that starts by going just a little bit crazy.
	Well, let’s be honest, often more than a little bit crazy.
	It’s passionate, and immediate, and ridiculous.
True love has no proportion.
In the words of the Song of Solomon:
“love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. 
Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. 
Many waters cannot quench love, 
neither can floods drown it. 
If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, 
it would be utterly scorned.”


Frequently, when people first meet,
	they drink to lower their inhibitions.
Often, we are too guarded to show ourselves to one another,
	and so, we need help – friends, activities, even alcohol –
	to be our true selves without filter,
	so see and be seen, 
without all of the careful caveats and defenses.
 
When the people accused the disciples of being drunk,
	I do not think it was just because they were babbling.
	After all, people really did understand them in many different languages.
	They appeared drunk because they were without caution,
		and without fear.
	They spoke their hearts
		in defense of a man who had just been crucified.
	They made themselves vulnerable.
	God lowered their inhibitions so that they might be their full selves,
		and so that God might be fully God in them.

And here, another caution is necessary, because
	we are a little too attached to alcohol in the United States
	and in the Episcopal Church.
I am not speaking in praise of alcohol.  Heaven forbid.
I am speaking in praise of that honesty and openness,
	which we, in our insecurity, so often turn to alcohol to find.
The disciples needed no alcohol to be carried away.
Neither do we.


As love deepens, it becomes more nuanced.
Romance can ripen into marriage.
	Passionate attraction can become passionate commitment.
We celebrate marriage in the church
	because in it we see God’s love echoed,
	real, sacrificial, rush-right-in and do it kind of love.
It is infectious and emotional,
	but it is also wise and humble.
“Love is patient; love is kind; 
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. 
It does not insist on its own way; 
it is not irritable or resentful; 
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Cor 13)

And yet, that love should be no less passionate.
It is still one of the primary reasons we make the choices we do.
And we must not be ashamed.
Love moves us.
 
Every kind of love is like this.
What could be purer than the love of a mother for a child?
	Except for those whose relationships with their mother is strained…
		Or with their child.
That always makes Mother’s Day a challenge in the church.
The Bible refers to a Father’s love for his children repeatedly.
	Good for some, rough for others.

Love is tough,
	because, at the end of the day, it cannot really be talked about;
	it can only be demonstrated.
What does “passion” mean 
to someone who has never met a truly passionate person.
What does “love” mean
	to someone who has never been loved
	or has never been in love themselves.

It is not enough to talk about Jesus.
It is never enough to talk about Jesus
	or God or the Spirit.
We must live our love.
It must be audible in our voices, in our gestures, in our very being.
It must be visible in our actions,
	in the choices we make.

We must be ready to break out in song,
	like a teenager in love,
	or a drunkard,
	or a true believer.
We will make fools ourselves – like all of the above.
We will be dangerous, while our love deepens and matures.
That is why it is so important to have a Church.
	The church helps us grow into our love.
But just like marriage, it means nothing without the passion at its heart.
	It need not be romantic; not all love is.
	It need not be selfless at first; love seldom is.
	It needn’t be perfect.
	But it must be a real, sacrificial, rush-right-in and do it kind of love.
 
"Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing"(1757)
Come, Thou font of every blessing
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace
Streams of mercy, never ceasing
Call for songs of loudest praise
Teach me some melodious sonnet
Sung by flaming tongues above
Praise the mount, I'm fixed upon it
Mount of Thy redeeming love


Seek the passion first.
Open yourself to love
	and look for the kind of relationship with God
	that spills over into song…
	and action.
Look for the kind of love affair that makes you a better person,
	not just with your beloved,
	but with everyone you meet.
Risk being yourself
	in the context of one another.
Nothing is scarier
	and nothing is better.
That’s the love worth sharing.
That’s the love worth being a fool for.
That’s the love worth dying for.
Passion, with commitment and humility,
	always trying to be better for the sake of someone else.


We cannot do this by ourselves.
That is the great lie of Modern ideas about love,
	and, for that matter, community, genius, prosperity, faith, and hope.
These are not things within us.
They are gifts and grace.
You cannot make love happen, no matter how hard you try,
	though sometimes you can deny it.
You cannot force faith or hope,
	but you can let down your guard
	and let them in.
And you can, with very little effort,
	let them out again.
You can sing in the street.
You can be madly, deeply, foolishly in love with God.
 
Pentecost is a gift, but it is also a responsibility.
There are seven and a half billion people outside those doors.
	Each and every one of them speaks a slightly different language.
	Each and every one of them must encounter God in their own way.
	Every love is unique, every faith, every hope.
There are seven and a half billion ways to approach God,
	each with its own time and place and language.
There are billions of fools,
	just waiting to fall in love
	with Jesus Christ,
	the only person grand enough, open enough, and foolish enough to love them all.
I guarantee that at least one person,
	won't have the courage,
	if you don’t show them the way.
I guarantee that at least one person,
	will not have the language,
	unless you speak first.

Find the love within yourself.
You may find it in a friend; remember that friend.
You may find it in a song; sing that song.
You may find it in labor or nature, study or solitude.
Seek that first.
Find the love within you and then let it spill out.

“the Spirit helps us in our weakness; 
for we do not know how to pray as we ought, 
but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 
And God, who searches the heart, 
knows what is the mind of the Spirit, 
because the Spirit intercedes for the saints 
according to the will of God.”

Let us be drunk with God
	and drunk with love.
We are all fools,
	but let us show the world what we will be fools for,
	and why we would settle for nothing less.

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