Sunday, October 30, 2011

Finding our integrity, by Greg.

Here we are at the end of October, well into fall with winter not far off. Already Denver and New England have seen substantial snowfall and Occupy Wall Street is getting its first taste of winter weather.

Summer seems a distant memory, but I’m indulging for a moment in recollections of several occasions last summer when we watched summer waves crashing on the shore ... on the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and the Pacific. Even though I’m more a mountain person than an ocean person, I find there to be something utterly spellbinding about the constancy and the power of the ocean and its waves as they come to shore.

I’m thinking for a moment of how waves are formed ... that the rolling energy of the sea, which is nothing more than a bump and a swell in the open water, as it moves toward the upward slope of the shore, mounts up on the rising ocean bottom until it heaves itself onto the shoreline.

We are working at the end of Matthew’s gospel ... the 23rd of 28 chapters. It is, as we noted last week, the last week of Jesus’ life. His life is moving inexorably toward the limits of his time of earth. And even if no one else wants to acknowledge that fact, Jesus is keenly aware that his “life waters” are forming a cresting wave that is about to crash onto the shoreline of history.

It seems to me that this is a fair explanation for the sharp “uptick” in the intensity of Jesus’ words and actions. Throughout Matthew’s gospel there was always great passion and intensity of purpose in Jesus, but in this last week, like a placid swell that is turning into a wave as it mounts the shore, Jesus words and actions are reaching a crescendo. Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem amidst shouting crowds ... he strides into the temple angrily and confronts religion that has turned itself into a seedy marketplace ... he curses a leafy fig tree that bears no fruit, and in so doing he is cursing the faith of his own upbringing and the leaders of that faith ... he tells story after confrontive story in public that judges and condemns the teachers and leaders and “calls them out” in a way that can only bring more trouble and shorten what is already a brief and tumultuous week. The strong, but placid swell of Jesus’ life and love and ministry is becoming a thunderous crashing wave.

What is helpful to remember is that Jesus does not see himself as having come to take away the “bad, old religion” and replace it with a “new, good religion.” He says, in essence, that the “old religion” simply needs fulfilling and living out with integrity. It’s like the classic quote by G. K. Chesterton that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” In Matthew 5, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.”

In our Tuesday morning Bible study we have spoken of the “letter of the law” and the “spirit of the law” ... that there is a “spirit” and an “intention” that is implicit in the religious laws and codes ... the spirit of all of Israel’s religion was to draw Israel closer and closer to the God who called them and loved and cared for them ... and in being drawn closer to God, they were to draw closer to one another in mutual care and concern. The greatest law or command of the religion of Israel, summarized in the Shema of Deuteronomy 6 was to love God with all of one’s heart and mind and soul and strength. And, Jesus said: Here is another one that is just like the greatest commandment and cannot be separated from it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love God ... love neighbor ... all the rest, as they say, is commentary.

This is one of the reasons that I like being involved in Logos ... every Wednesday in the heart of my work week I get a simple, but powerful reminder of the heart of my faith: “Love God ... love neighbor.” And in simple ways we try to live out those two utterly basic commands ... as we play together ... as we interact with one another ... as we sing songs and learn stories of the Bible ... as we share a meal around the “family table” ... all the while trying to live out love of God and love of neighbor. Even as a pastor, I need it broken down that simply ... that plainly ... and that regularly.

It is a simple truth, I think, that we people of faith need continual “care and feeding” ... we’re not like a kitchen gadget that we can “set and forget” ... we need reminders of who we are and who we are called to be ... we need continual reminders of the natural tendency to “drift” from our highest ideals and highest calling. There is a tendency to slowly allow words to become a substitute for action ... to speak well of our high ideals, but to not live out our high ideals ... to “talk the walk” without actually walking the walk.

Anyone who has ever gotten behind the wheel of a car knows that you can’t lock your steering wheel into one position as you drive down the road. The road turns, the wheels and the steering linkage shift slightly ... rigidly holding the wheel in one position means you’ll eventually drift off the road and crash. To avoid going off the road, the driver must continuously adjust the steering wheel ... sometimes in tiny increments and sometimes in dramatic hand over hand turns.

This tendency to drift and this need for reminders is why we do the Purple Hand Pledge and the First Rule of Logos every Wednesday afternoon and evening when our kids gather ... and if you ever join us for Logos you’ll note that the adults share in reciting the pledges with the children ... each of us adults who is gathered there needs the reminders of these basic rules of conduct as much as any one of the children. “I will not use my hands or my words to harm myself or others.” “Everyone is to treat everyone else as a Child of God. No one has the right to treat anyone else as if they do not matter.” Love God. Love your neighbor.

We all need reminders of what is essential about life and faith, of where our priorities lie as people of God and followers of Jesus. And we all need encouragement to bring our lives and actions into alignment with truths we easily declare, but find more difficult to work out in our day to day lives.

And it is in that “gap” between intention and action where Jesus’ frustrations burst forth ... Jesus rails against those who teach truthfully and well, but do not practice their own teachings ... and he rails against those who create burdens and obstacles that make lives that are already burdened and difficult even more burdensome ... and he rails against those who like the appearance of their faith more than the simple actions of their faith. The strong, but placid swell is becoming a thunderous, crashing wave.

Soon Jesus will ratchet it up even another notch, vehemently chastising the scribes and Pharisees as “blind guides”, “whitewashed tombs”, “snakes” and a “brood of vipers”. As someone has said: “No one wants to be at the other end of this pointed finger!”

Wise commentators caution us from too easily joining Jesus in his railing and fingerpointing ... “What a ROTTEN bunch those Pharisees were ...” ... as though people of our generation had graciously evolved beyond the sin of hypocrisy. As though our words and actions are in complete alignment ... as though our highest ideals have been completely fulfilled.

John Dominic Crossan is one of the best known interpreters of the life of Jesus. He’s written several books that come remarkably close to acquainting us with the real person of Jesus of Nazareth who lived and ministered and died on a Roman cross some 2000 years ago. In the prologue of one of his books, Crossan imagines a conversation with Jesus that puts a fine point on the gap between intention and action:

"I've read your book, Dominic," Crossan’s Jesus begins," and it's quite good. So you're now ready to live by my vision and join me in my program?"

Crossan says: "I don't think I have the courage, Jesus, but I did describe it quite well, didn't I, and the method was especially good, wasn't it?" Ever the brilliant scholar, is John Dominic Crossan.

Jesus says: "Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suite your own incapacity. That at least is something."

"Is it enough, Jesus?"

"No, Dominic, it is not."

Matthew’s Jesus fairly spits out these words: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. (Mt. 23:23)

Matthew’s Jesus spews venom at the Pharisees of his day, but we modern readers need to let some of the venom land on us ... and not just “us Christians” in this room ... but all people who fail to create a sturdy bridge between their noble and well-articulated ideals and the compassionate fulfillment of those ideals. In that failure we all are vulnerable to the “wince-worthy” charge of “hypocrites” ...

I’ve spoken of my dear crusty saint of a friend to whom I was a pastor in my earliest years of ministry. Dear Frances Carter—her real name—used to love to tell of her encounters with people who defended their non-church going ways by complaining of all the hypocrites in the church ... to which Frances always shot back: “Well, there’s always room for one more.” And then she would cackle like a Halloween witch.

Yes ... there are hypocrites both inside and outside of God’s church ... hypocrites in every faith ... every walk of life. And if you want to sniff out some hypocrisy, go to where there are high ideals and yet a puzzling number of problems.

Along with you, I continue to puzzle over the extraordinary problem of homelessness in this nation. In three weeks of travel this summer on the other side of the Atlantic, I didn’t see as many homeless people as I can see in 3 minutes in San Francisco ... or Berkeley. And in three hours in our leafy, genteel ‘burbs, I can see more homeless folk than I’d be likely to see in three months in other similarly well-heeled parts of this world.

In this nation, we think of ourselves as highly civilized, thoughtful, rational, kindly, generous, principled folk. But a stroll down Market Street or Telegraph Avenue tells us that our high-minded thoughts don’t translate neatly into kind-hearted actions. The number of people in this nation who dwell at the brink of poverty is horrific, to say nothing of those who’ve already fallen into that abyss ... and the number of families and children who have to throw themselves at the mercy of public hospitals to receive basic medical care is horrific. And I think that if you want to try to get to the heart of all of the “Occupy” protests, it is that the protests are aimed at this nation’s hypocrisy ... the wide and growing gap between intention and action ... the wide and growing gap between those with and those without ... without means ... without medical care ... without meaningful employment or opportunity.

And I think that a case could be made that the unrest in the middle East that has been called the “Arab spring” is rooted in gaps like these ... and the urban riots that have torn apart European cities is rooted in gaps like these.

When the burdens of life become too much to bear, what can you do but cry out? When conditions become too revolting, can revolution be far behind?

I love modern civilization ... I love life as I experience it ... but I fear—as prophets of old and more modern prophets have feared—I fear a slow eating away at the foundations of civilization because we have not tended to the gap between our intentions and our actions. I fear the result of avoiding the gaps instead of dwelling and ministering in the gaps.

While a growing number of folk are “occupying” public squares and street corners—I suppose you could say they’re “standing in the gap”, others are more quietly trying to experience the challenges that others face. In so doing, they will bring their faith into the gap where so many live and find new strength for building bridges across the gaps.

Religious leaders and members of Congress this week are getting a firsthand taste of what it’s like to eat on $4.50 a day as part of the “Food Stamp Challenge.”

In the challenge, participants try to live for a week on the average amount received by people who use food stamps, now known as the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).

“We do need to put ourselves sometimes in other people’s shoes so we can really feel what they have to go through every day,” said Donna Christensen, a Democrat who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands as a nonvoting delegate.

The Food Stamp Challenge is part of Fighting Poverty with Faith, an annual interfaith initiative endorsed by 50 national religious organizations.

This year is a particularly critical one for the cause, faith leaders said, because Congress is considering significant cuts to the more than $64 billion program.

On this past Thursday, religious and political leaders teamed up with current SNAP recipients to shop at a Safeway grocery store near Capitol Hill.

One of them was one of my Facebook friends, the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches and a former adviser to the White House’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Several decades ago, unable to find a job after leaving a seminary program, Chemberlin signed up for food stamps. But she had forgotten what it was like to shop on such a tight budget.

“No soda, no magazines, no coffee,” said Chemberlin as she pushed her cart by each item. She tried not to look at the donuts, croissants and Doritos.

“Absolutely no specialty items,” she said.

Chemberlin shopped a 72 year old local resident whose only sources of income are Social Security payments and SNAP. As they shopped together, many difficult choices had to be made with such limited means available:

Chemberlin said she wished the woman could have bought more fruits and vegetables, “because it’s clear she’s very oriented toward eating healthily, but we had to choose between fruits and vegetables and protein.”

Our own Bay Area Representative, Barbara Lee, who once received food stamps as a single mother, says: “The health risks are terrible, when you look at sugar, sodium and fats in the foods you must buy on $4.50 a day.”

Since the beginning of the recession the number of those on SNAP nationally rose from 27 million to 44 million, and nearly half are children.

And so, with such a meaningful opportunity to get in touch with those in such need as they prepare to enact laws that will have a profound effect on these folk, how many of the 485 members of congress have chosen to take the “Food Stamp Challenge”? All of ... eight members of Congress, all Democrats, have agreed to take the Food Stamp Challenge.

Dear friends, the God of Israel whose first name is love and whose last name is Shalom seeks to occupy our hearts and our lives and our churches and the public square in which we live and move.

God wants to pitch God’s tent among us so that we hear again the call to love God and love neighbor.

God wants to so fully occupy us and occupy all that God’s love and mercy and justice and hope can do nothing but pour forth from us and from all ... like divine waves rising out of the divine love and crashing on shores of injustice and greed and uncaring.

Let all who will, shrug off the burdensome name of “hypocrite”, and take on, instead, the bearable yoke of Christ’s own loving challenge: to be lovers of God and neighbor, and lovers of peace with justice.


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