Archives for 2011
If we listen to the news on the radio or t.v. during the course of any given day, we will hear regular reports on the current value of the stock market. These reports are often delivered with the assumption that the Dow Jones average is the definitive gauge of the quality of our life and our hope for the future. I had an epiphany one day while driving and listening to one such report. There had been a sizable drop that day in the stock market. The report was delivered with a sense of gloom and the implication that we ought all to don sackcloth and ashes and mourn our loss of wealth until things turned around. The epiphany was the realization that these were false implications. In fact, all the things that were really important in my life were unrelated to the report.
Of course, the value of the stock market is related to the security our jobs, or the prospect of getting a job, and our ability to meet the needs of our families and plan for the future. These are all necessary things and we can’t avoid thinking about them. However, the idea that money is the measure and goal of life is the very point Jesus warns about when he says, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (from the gospel, Matthew 6:24).
Jesus was not talking to rich people. The Bible gives plenty of exhortations about wealth. We should not put our trust in our money. We should be generous. We should realize that we brought nothing into this world and that we can carry nothing out of it. But here Jesus is talking to the working class of his day, to people who were being overcome with worry about “what shall we eat and what shall we drink and how shall we be clothed?” One does not have to make a lot of money to live life in service to mammon.
The alternative Jesus offers is summed up with these words: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” What does this mean? At our Fullerton group last Wednesday, we discussed an article by Dorothy Sayers entitled, “Why Work?” You can find it online, and I commend it to you. Sayers highlights a problem with the way we look at work. We tend to think of work in terms of how much money we can make doing it. Sayers contends that we should, instead, pay attention to the work itself. When thinking about someone’s job we tend to ask, “How much does he make?” Sayers argues that we should focus on the more important question, “What does he do?” As the current economic crisis has revealed, it is possible to make a lot of money doing things that neither glorify God nor benefit our neighbor.
This concern is related to our gospel. When Jesus says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” he means that we should be preoccupied with doing what we do for the glory of God and the good of others. Money should be seen as a by-product. Our proper focus is on the work itself, what we do and how we do it, and not on the money that comes from it. The early church actually had list of prohibited occupations. One cannot be a Christian thief or a Christian prostitute, and there are others things that a Christian ought not to do. There mere fact that some work brings a monetary reward does not mean that the work ought to be done. There is also the danger of doing something good, but doing it poorly.
This principle also applies to work for which there is no monetary reward. The assault on the vocation of motherhood is fueled by false economic valuation. If our primary concern is, What does it pay? No one will be a mother. But if our primary concern is, What is the work intrinsically worth? We will see an increase in fertility. To be sure, there are economic realities involved in child bearing. However, if the vocation is intrinsically good, we ought to view the economic sacrifice as heroic, in contrast to the world that views it as foolish.
This emphasis also has implications for the life of prayer. One thing that keeps us from a faithful life of prayer is its lack of monetary value. To the world, it is a non-productive activity. If the world sees any value in prayer, it is only in relationship to its ability to create a more productive person. Thus, we are always being pulled away from prayer by urgencies that have a clearer connection to what we shall eat, what we shall drink and what we shall wear. However, if we understand the intrinsic value of prayer as the central activity of the creature in relationship to the creator, as the fountain of grace that enables us to grow up into the image of Christ, prayer will seldom be neglected.
Prayer is related to vocation. Prayer bring us into that right relationship with God that enables us to discern our proper vocation and direct our energies toward the more important things. The closer we are to God, the more attentive we are to the nature and quality of the work we do. God made the world and said, “It is good.” Those who are made in his image and live in communion with him can never be content doing work that is not good.
Those who live in communion with God and focus on the work and not the reward are also less anxious. When we are preoccupied with what we shall eat, drink and wear, we must contend with a thousand doubts and obstacles to our security. What will I do if this or that thing happens? How can I insure against all the variables of life in a fallen and crazy world? We are tempted to compromise and take shortcuts because we are afraid of not having enough. We worry about things because we take upon ourselves the task of being God. But if attend to the kingdom, first in prayer and worship, then in our work and service to others, we learn to trust God to take care of the rest. We learn to trust God to make all things work together for good. For that is his proper work.
There is a grand paradox in all of this. When we begin to value what is done for its own sake; when good work done to the glory of God is the goal and money is the afterthought and by-product, things begin to work better. We are more fulfilled and contented as people and we do better work. We also discover that God is faithful to provide the things we need–just as he promised. Life actually works better when we live it in the manner God intended.
We live in a world in which service to mammon is deeply entrenched. Consequently, it is hard to seek first the kingdom. It takes a conscious effort. We begin with the confession that we have, in fact, served mammon and with prayer for grace to begin to live in a different way. We continue with the decision, day by day, to value people, work and time in terms of the kingdom and not in terms of the dollar value placed on them by the world. We are able to live in a new way because of faith, because we believe that God, who feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, will also feed and clothe us if we concentrate on doing the things he calls us to do.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan presents certain challenges for us as we determine how to respond to various needs we see by the roadside. But let us first consider the primary meaning of the parable. A lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” He asked the question with faulty motive. Having established the agreed upon morality–Thou shalt love God with all thy heart, soul and mind, and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself–only one task remained for the lawyer: How to define neighbor in such a way as to excuse his failures.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tell us,
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45)
Therein lies the problem. When the definition of neighbor is expanded to include my enemy, I will have issues when my behavior is judged. However, if I can whittle down the definition of neighbor so that includes only those I already love, then at least I can offer some defense when I am called to account on the Day of Judgement.
The parable is directed at religious people, priests and deacons–or priests and levites as they used to call them. What is not self-evident in the story is that the priest and levite both had a religious justification for not helping the wounded man. If either touched a dead body, the Torah said he would be unclean and unable to fulfill his duties in the temple. Since half dead looks a lot like dead, and may soon become dead, they could use their religion as an excuse not to love. However, as God said through Hosea, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). That is to say, God would have preferred that they help the person in need and get someone to cover for them in the temple.
The point is this. If we ask, as the lawyer asked, “What can I do to be saved?” The answer is, “Nothing.” Our attempts to achieve salvation will fail. The best we will come up with through human effort and sophistry will fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). As our epistle says, “The scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe” (Galatians 3:22). We are saved when we put our faith in Jesus, who fulfilled the Torah for us and offered himself on the cross for our sins.
However, once we put our faith in the Son of God and are renewed by the gift of the Spirit, what was impossible becomes possible. We were enemies of God, but God made us his friends through the cross. Now, we also can embrace those who were our enemies. We can rise above human limitations and love as God loves. We can pray for those who oppose us. We can pray even for the terrorist that he might be converted and saved–just as St. Paul, who terrorized the early church, was converted. In short, we can, as Jesus said, “Be perfect, as you Father in heaven in perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Perfection is not easy because loving our enemies and helping those in need not easy. In the parable, the need and the remedy were obvious. However, the needy we encounter by the roadside include the mentally ill, skilled manipulators and others who refuse to be held accountable for the actions. We see someone by the roadside with a sign that says, “Will work for food,” and we give. Then we discover that sitting by the roadside with such a sign can be a reasonably profitable endeavor. Get a young child to sit next to you and you can receive $100 or more a day tax free. Someone comes to the church office for assistance–and we give. Then someone follows that person for a block or so and watches them drive away in a late model SUV with leather seats.
And yet, there are real needs and real wounds. The fact that the needy are not always the pure of heart does not excuse us from responding–for neither are we always the pure of heart. God rewards our motives in giving even when the recipient misuses what we give. Nonetheless, it seems irresponsible to continually give in circumstances where the gift may actually provide incentives for a person not to get well. The impulse to charity in our culture often lack the biblical balance between generosity and accountability, between the command of Jesus to free give and the command of St. Paul, “If he will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
The parable hints at an answer to the dilemma. The Good Samaritan took the wounded man to the inn, where he was nursed and fed until he regained his strength. The inn in the parable was understood by the church fathers to be an image of the church. This suggests that when we find people wounded by the road, half dead in sin, we should bring them to the church, the people of God. Healing is to be found, not merely in money, but in a relationship with God experienced through the life of prayer in the community of the faithful.
The unspoken truth about neediness in our culture is that it is results, not from a lack of money, but the breakdown of families and relationships. It results, in large measure, from fatherlessness. The answer is to restore people to a relationship with their heavenly father in the family of God through the church. Alienation is the problem. A new community consisting of truthful and close relationships is the answer.
When the Samaritan brought the wounded man to the inn, he enlisted the help of others. In the church, the larger body of Christ can help in the task of ministering to the wounded–“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Of course, this makes the answer harder, not easier. It is easier to write a check than it is to invest time and energy in with a wounded and difficult person. But God invests himself in us, though we are wounded and difficult, and we are called to give just as we have received.
As Jesus said, “Go and do thou likewise.”
On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it is hard to imagine talking about anything else, but it is also not obvious what to say about it in church. How do we understand a violent and deadly act of terrorism in terms of the kingdom of God?
There are significant points of correspondence between 9/11 and Good Friday. Both involved the unjust killing of the innocent by angry people. The terrorist tries to conquer people through fear. This is precisely why the Romans crucified people. They nailed their enemies to a cross and put them on display by the roadside so that all would see–and be afraid. History turned when the Romans nailed to a cross a particular Jewish man, who also happened to be the Son of God. Jesus seemed to be but another hapless victim among thousands–crucified, dead and buried. Yet, we are here in church precisely because “the third day he rose again from the dead.”
Good Friday and Easter are the definitive pattern for the Christian life. We are, as St. Paul says, “Always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:10). Easter teaches us that God can take malice, injustice and murder and turn them into the means of salvation. Easter teaches us that God can take the senseless, the brutal, the horrific and the tragic and use them as the raw material for his will and purpose. The same God who created the world in the beginning, is now bringing the order and beauty of his new creation our of the chaos and evil of this fallen world.
From the beginning, the followers of Jesus were characterized by being unafraid to die. Jesus promised, “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). The early Christians believed him and faced death accordingly. Rome attempted to crush the church by killing, threatening and torturing Christians. However, the threat of death caused the church to grow. The pagans were drawn to Christ because they saw that his followers were willing to die for him. The word martyr means “witness” in the Greek. Faithful death was, and is, a powerful witness to the fact the Christ is risen, and we will rise.
Martyrdom is not a thing of the past. Today, Christians around the world are being persecuted for their faith–particularly in countries where there is a militant Islamic presence. There have probably been more Christian martyrs in the last century than in all of the previous history of the church.
We tend to read stories of heroic response to persecutions as exotic tales of foreign adventure. In America, we’ve never been discouraged from believing by the threat of death. However, on 9/11, Americans were killed in America in part because they were identified with Christianity.
Christianity has been historically comfortable in American. This has changed. The terrorist, the currently accepted pubic morality and the goals and values of the consumer culture are all hostile to genuine Christian faith. This means that being a Christian in America now a challenge. This means that heroic Christian response to danger and opposition is no longer only for saints who lived long ago or far away. It is something to which each of us is increasingly called.
Heroism was one of the good things that came out of 9/11. The men who attacked the terrorists in the cockpit; the firefighters who ran back up the stairway while others were running out; the chaplain who died giving last rites to a victim. It is no surprise that many, if not most, were Christians.
The men were heroes because they were faithful to fulfill their ordinary calling in extraordinary circumstances. Men ought to band together and fight the enemy. Firefighters are called to risk their lives to save people. Priests are called to ministry. These men became heroes on 9/11 because they continued to do these ordinary and faithful things when their lives were at risk.
Christian heroism has always had this component. The Christian saint does not go out of his way to perform some dangerous stunt for its own sake or for mere glory. He does not seek martyrdom. The Christian saint simply lives out the implications of his or her faith in the ordinary circumstances of life. Sometimes sanctity is exhibited when a person faithfully fulfills ordinary but challenging duties for decades without notice or fanfare. Sometimes sanctity is shown by doing ordinary things in an extraordinary circumstance. For example, all Christians ordinarily profess that Jesus is Lord. The martyrs just continued to this ordinary thing after they were arrested and threatened with death.
Two movies recently refreshed this meditation for me. The other night I watched the closing scenes of “Titanic.” These scenes showed how, as the ship began to sink, some people acted like cowards while others acted courageously, exhibiting honor and integrity in extraordinary circumstances. I recently watched another film entitled, “Of Gods and Men,” a true story of an order monks who lived in Algeria. Militant Islamists began to operate in their region, placing them in peril of death. Their first impulse was to leave, to flee to safety. Before deciding what to do, they committed to pray about it for a time. Through prayer, they all came to the conclusion that God called them to stay and be faithful where they were. Most of them were killed as a result. The movie did not portray these men as naturally heroic. Their first impulse was to run. However, through prayer, they were given the grace they needed to continue to fulfill their ordinary duty in a new extraordinary circumstance.
The fact is that we all we live under the threat of death. Terrorism simply highlights and magnifies this aspect of the human condition. We are all going to die. We hope to live to ripe old age, but there is always some chance that death might come unexpectedly; that we might be in the wrong building or on the wrong plane. Life “in Christ” is preparation for death. The modern world wants to avoid death. The terrorist wants to scare us with the threat of death. Jesus conquered death so that we can live heroically and without fear. For we know that every death in Christ is a Good Friday that looks forward to Easter. We know that “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us rom the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).
As we look back on 9/11 in the light of the kingdom of God, we can remember three things. First, God continually brings his new creation out of the chaos and evil of this world. Second death can come unexpectedly so that we must always be ready. Third, we ought to live heroically for Christ in the time we have left. As Jesus said, “Blessed is that servant whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing.” (Matthew 24:46).