This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Free Stuff.

Jesus is all about free stuff.

His ministry is characterized by his giving away free health care.  There is no record in any of the gospels of Jesus presenting anyone with a bill for healing them.  Neither does he have any kind of means test or other set of requirements before he will heal someone.  Nobody even attempts to pay him.  The most he will say, and this only to some, is that they should come and follow him.  The only requirement for him to heal someone is that they are sick.  Usually, they come to him, but not always.  He heals several people at long distance.  He heals at least one person because his friends dragged him to him.  Sometimes they have to believe in him, but not always.  He heals some people who just happen to be there in the same place at the same time.

He converts six jars of water into free wine for a wedding reception.  Free wine!

Several places he suggests, or even demands, that rich people give their wealth away to the poor.  He doesn’t qualify “poor” with “deserving” or “working.”  No.  The only criteria that the recipients have to meet is that they are poor, that is, they have less wealth, fewer assets or possessions, than most people.  In other words, Jesus feels these less-well-off people are entitled to free stuff, just because they are less-well-off.  In other words, the rich should give free stuff to the poor.

In this, by the way, he is only echoing the requirements of Leviticus 25, in which all wealth is redistributed downward every 50 years.  It’s called the Jubilee and Jesus comes to proclaim it.  Free stuff.

In one of the few stories included in all four gospels, Jesus gives away free food.  They have the option of going to the store and buying food for themselves.  That’s the disciples’ idea, that they should all go find a Quick Chek.  A market-based solution.  Jesus has none of that.  He produces and gives away food, so much food that there is a lot left over.

In one of his parables a landowner pays people who worked for one hour the same amount as those who worked a full day: free stuff.  

In another a wealthy person places money or property in the possession of tenants or servants.  It doesn’t work out very well, but still: it’s about free stuff, with the qualification that it should be used in the way God intended.  Which is to give it away.  

In one of his most famous and characteristic parables, a father throws a great banquet for a son who squandered his inheritance: free stuff.  When the older brother complains that the father never gave him free stuff, the father is flabbergasted, and tells him that he has always been surrounded by free stuff he could take whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. 

Jesus has no concern about “personal responsibility.”  God made the whole place and offers it to everyone, as much as they need and more.  If you think you worked for what you have, that’s a self-serving lie.  The truth is that sinful humans have engineered a system by which some are allowed to hoard some of God’s stuff, and make you work for them to get some of it.

That’s not God’s plan.  That’s not what we see in Jesus.

God’s plan is… free stuff.

Jesus implements a system in which everyone contributes what they have and receives what they need.  We see the church actually doing this in Acts.  Freely have we received; freely must we give.    

God creates the universe and declares it very good.  God makes sure there is always more than enough for everybody.  All we have to do is make sure it is distributed so that nobody has too little, and nobody has too much.  All we have to do is make sure the Earth continues to be able to sustain the many, many forms of life that the Creator placed here.   All we have to do is give thanks and share.

How are we doing on that?

Jesus gives his life for the whole world on the cross.  And his life is free.  It’s a matter of grace.

And the main thing do when we gather, aside from hear God’s Word, is give thanks and share his Body and Blood.  At no charge.  It’s free.

And therefore so are we.

Free stuff is the mission of the church, God’s people.

Let’s do it.


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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Sin and Mercy.

Possibly the oldest Christian prayer is simply, “Lord, have mercy.”  It is based on the appeal of a blind man in Jericho named Bartimaeus in Mark 10:47.  It has been an integral and essential part of Christian liturgy ever since.

Unfortunately, this prayer, appears to be a problem for some folks.  I am told the words are too negative.  The criticism is that begging for mercy and calling oneself a sinner only reinforce the kind of oppressive, self-flagellating religious expressions that Christianity is infamous for.  It is especially disempowering for those victimized by religious imperialism, like women.  Not only do practices like this keep people under the thumb of the authorities, but such self-hatred tends to get expressed in acts of misanthropic violence.  Finally, there seems to be an assumption that God is always ready to punish and afflict, but can be dissuaded by our pathetic pleas for mercy.  Surely we can do better than morose and depressing, chest-beating, guilt obsessed begging for God to forgive us.  So the argument goes.

First of all, modern people don’t like to talk about “sin” at all.  We see it as a guilt-trip.  Surely it is better to awaken to our original blessing, than to wallow in misery about our sins. 

The fact that sin has become a rejected category for sophisticated, modern people indicates not so much a healthy self-esteem as a deliberate reticence to face the wall-to-wall mess we have made of the planet and its people, including ourselves, over the last 500 years.  We have reduced the word “sin” to refer to somebody else’s sexuality, when actually it denotes a comprehensive breakdown of relationships.  

Talk about “sin” simply recognizes that we humans, in our egocentric condition, are functioning as if separated from God, creation, others, and even our true selves.  Calling ourselves sinners does not mean we are essentially bad people who do not deserve to live.  It means, as in the first of the 12 steps of recovery, realizing that our life is unmanageable, and that we are indeed complicit in all kinds of evil.  

This is what it means to be “woke.”  When we do awaken to our original blessing and goodness, one of the first things that happens is we understand how far our words, thoughts, and actions had drifted away from that.  Awakening means realizing that we had been, in effect, asleep, and taking responsibility for what we did when we were not as fully conscious.  
Awakening causes us at the same time to see the wreckage we have left behind us in the world, in our relationships, in our own bodies and souls, with clarity and honesty.  It is not that we are bad, but we have done bad things, usually inadvertently, unknowingly, or rationalizing that they are actually good.

Secondly, the prayer is about mercy.  Mercy is the recognition of our original blessing and goodness.  Awareness of mercy — that is, of forgiveness, compassion, peace, acceptance, wholeness, and welcome — is awakening.  

Mercy is not just something we receive and then keep for ourselves, like a commodity.  Mercy, like so many of the qualities Jesus talks about and embodies, is something in which we participate by sharing it.  To receive mercy is to give it.  If we do not become merciful, we will not receive mercy.  Mercy is a flow.  It goes through us.  We only have it only to the extent that we give it away.

Therefore, “have mercy on me, a sinner” emphatically does not mean, “don’t punish me for being such a terrible person.”  It means rather, “Let the flow of your mercy, goodness, and blessing overwhelm and transform me and my world through me.”  It means “Let me be your mercy, your compassion, and your forgiveness in the world.” 

And yes, it includes the implication that we have a way to go in realizing this, but at least we are hopefully making progress.  The sign of this progress is that we have the sense to pray for mercy.


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Friday, July 19, 2019

Bugs.

Bugs.

When I was a kid I remember going on long drives with my family.  We always had a lot of bugs get smashed on the windshield.  Sometimes we even had to stop at a gas station to squeegee them off.

That doesn’t happen anymore.

I didn’t even notice it until I was told about a study from Britain that actually uses windshield counts to measure the insect population.  In fact, apparently the number of insects on the planet is crashing.  40% of species are in serious decline.  [https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/02/why-insect-populations-are-plummeting-and-why-it-matters/]

While this may not bother many of us — indeed, some may feel it is a benefit — the fact is that insects do have a role in the global ecosystem, from pollination to feeding birds.

This caused me to pay attention to my own practice regarding bugs.  Like just about everyone in this culture, I think nothing of killing insects.  Indeed, the more I could slaughter, the better.  Especially in the house.  I might leave them alone outside, but the house is my domain and will not be infected with bugs.

But as I become, however slowly and incrementally, more woke, I am coming to appreciate and respect life.  All of life.  Over the past few months I have grown more tolerant of insects to the point that I will only rarely kill one intentionally.  If I find one in the house I seek a way to either ignore it or release it outdoors.  (Mostly the latter: ignoring insects in the house can lead to them becoming much less ignorable.)    

God creates insects In Genesis 1:20-23, on the Fifth Day.  They are called “swarming creatures.”  They are an integral and essential part of creation.  Biologists know this.  Without some pollinators humanity basically perishes.

The other day I saw an atheist cartoon.  It depicted God talking to someone, who asks whether God made mosquitoes.  When God says yes, the other person lists the devastating effect of mosquitoes on humans, including the fact that mosquitoes have, by transmitting Malaria, caused the death of more people than anything else in history, by far.  He concludes by remarking to God, “You must really hate those people.”

From the point of view of an atheist, that is a radically anthropocentric perspective in which everything is valued by its relationship to humans, or more precisely, me today, God does look like an evil monster for creating mosquitoes.  

At a recent church picnic someone asked me why a good God would create such a pernicious life form as mosquitoes.  My response at the time was to ask, “Perhaps you’d rather live on a planet with an atmosphere made of ammonia or sulfuric acid?  With crushing gravity or baking heat or sub-zero temperatures?  You live in the most beautiful and abundant place in the universe!  Deal with the bugs already!”

The acquisition of the Holy Spirit gives us an increasingly heavenly — which is to say broad, inclusive, and universal — perspective.  We realize that it’s not all about me or even us.  The humans are not the be-all-and-end-all of creation.  The presence of mosquitoes should help us get a grip on this and develop some humility and respect.  This is not our house, it’s the Creator’s.  And if the Creator has determined that mosquitoes have a place in it, who are we to whine about it?

Now I do not underestimate the deadly nuisance that some bugs can be.  I have had Lyme disease.  I have been in places where I had to wear netting to prevent being eaten by Black Flies.  I have had to have my home “bombed” to get rid of cockroaches.  I understand the problems caused by fleas and ticks, and so on.  

But we are seeing that humans have been far, far more destructive to the garden than mosquitoes ever were or will be.  They may have killed a lot of us.  But no species has ever gone extinct because of mosquitoes.  Our ravaging, predatory exploitation of this planet is on a scale beyond the entomological imagination.  

The existence of mosquitoes tells us that God cares much more about the well-being of this whole place and everything in it than God cares about one particularly noxious and destructive species, no matter how smart they think they are.

Anyway, trying not to kill insects has opened my eyes to the value of all life.  


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