Sunday, February 24, 2019

To Love One's Neighbor

To Love One’s Neighbor
Mark 12:28-34
            Different gospel traditions tell this story differently.  In Luke’s version the scribe is trying to test Jesus.  The trap is to see which commandment Jesus chooses, then ask, “But what about…?”  Whichever commandment Jesus chooses will, for the scribe, be the wrong answer.  As always, Jesus figures out the trap and avoids it.
            While I like to see Jesus win at this game, I prefer Mark’s version.  Jesus is teaching in the temple, and the scribe is attracted by the crowd.  Instead of trying to trap Jesus, the scribe asks the kind of question one religious expert asked another.  The resulting discussion would be interesting to both, as well as those looking on.
            The expectation of the scribe—and of the audience—is that Jesus will choose one of the Ten Commandments and the debate will begin.  Jesus circumvents debate by ignoring the Decalogue and choosing the commandment that is the heart of Judaism. 
Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
Jesus could have stopped there and been correct.  Our primary obligation is to love God with everything we have:  our emotional selves, our spiritual selves, our mental selves, and our physical selves.
But Jesus knew that loving God is only a part of the obligation:  an important part—in fact the most important part—but not all.  Since we can’t see God, the only way we can prove our love is to love those around us—love them in God’s name and as God would love them.  To complete his answer Jesus added: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
When I was in high school we used to say of someone we didn’t like very much, “I’ll love her for Jesus’ sake”—which meant we wouldn’t love her at all.  At best we’d tolerate her, trying to pretend that we were demonstrating Jesus’ love.  Down deep we knew we weren’t fulfilling the commandment; but we all know how easy it is to fool ourselves into believing we’re doing something noble when the opposite is true.
Much has been said about loving all your neighbors, and loving them as you love yourself.  I want to focus on another dimension of this love.
Simone de Beauvoir said, “One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation, and compassion.”  I believe friendship, indignation and compassion are part of love.  You can’t love a person without being a friend.  You can’t love a person without showing compassion when compassion is needed. 
Perhaps the true depth of love is revealed by the level of indignation we exhibit when our neighbor has been wronged.  It’s easy to say, “Gee, that’s too bad,” and let it go at that.  But words are cheap, and that kind of sympathy comes easily and costs little.  When our neighbor has been wronged, and we know he has been wronged, love—God’s love—demands we take up his cause.  We must be indignant over injustice no matter who the victim is.
This love is difficult.  To love in good times doesn’t cost much.  To be a friend when friendship is easy doesn’t put us in any hardship.  To show compassion with words and a pat on the shoulder doesn’t take much effort.  True love, true friendship, true compassion is to stand with our neighbor, be indignant for him, and say, “That’s wrong!  Make it right!”
This is loving for Jesus’ sake—loving as Jesus loved.  When we love this way we, like the scribe, will hear Jesus say, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Sunday, February 17, 2019

What Motivates Us?

What Motivates Us?
Amos 4:1-5, 5:21-24
            What motivates us?  Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), was an American
psychologist best known for his theory of needs.  Maslow said we must satisfy our most basic needs before we can be concerned about our more advanced needs (see diagram). We see how the needs proceed to higher levels as we move up the pyramid. 
On the bottom are physiological needs:  food, water, shelter—those physical elements we need to sustain life.  If we are hungry or thirsty we can’t think about much else.  On the little lake in back of our house Mary and I often see ducks diving for food.  This is the major part of their existence.  They must find food in order to live, so food becomes their priority. 
            William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army understood how needs work.  He said, “You can’t save a person’s soul until you clean him up and feed him.”  Maslow said much the same thing from a secular point of view.
            Amos, the Hebrew prophet, wrote and spoke during the 8th century B.C.E.  He was a contemporary of Isaiah.  Coming from the southern kingdom of Judah, he prophesied in the northern kingdom of Israel.  As with so many immigrants today, his presence and his message were not looked upon favorably by the locals.
            Israel was experiencing a time of peace and prosperity.  Everything was going well—for the upper classes.  The “cows of Bashan” Amos speaks of are the wives of the political and religious leaders.  These leaders are robbing the poor of the little they have, and the wives are demanding more.  Amos condemns the upper classes:  the wives for their greed, and the husbands for their willingness to satisfy that greed.
            A chapter later Amos gives them God’s opinion of their worship practices.  God begins, “I hate…,” not, I believe, the words any of us want to hear from God.  This God, who the apostle John tells us is love itself, despises the hypocrisy of the leaders of Israel.  They worship with their mouths, but not with their hearts.  They have defined their ethics by their appetites.  They have not risen above the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid even though those needs have been over-satisfied.
            When one has enough, but keeps crying, “More!  More!  More!” she is bound to her lower needs as surely as the one who has nothing.  Both are starving.
            Adlai Stevenson said, “A hungry man is not a free man.”  It doesn’t matter whether the hunger comes from need or greed, the one who is constantly hungry will never be satisfied, never be free to pursue love, belonging, esteem, or self-actualization.  He will continue to be enslaved.  What a tragedy!
            We know what God wants.  Amos reminds us of what we have been told many times.  God demands justice and righteousness—justice for all out of the righteousness we receive from God.    Unless we commit ourselves to universal justice we remain in bondage to our basest natures.  Until we achieve justice for all there will be justice for none, and the cows will continue to demand more.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Gospel According to Clif Sipley

The Gospel According to Clif Sipley
Psalm 23
            I’ve said before that both my parents were ordained ministers.  While I was growing up, Dad handled the church business and Mom was a stay-at-home mother for me.  It wouldn’t happen in their denomination today, but that was what worked for them, both because of who they were and the way the culture was.
            While I was in college the denomination moved Dad from pastoring churches to evangelistic work.  He would go to a town, do a two-week “campaign” in the denomination’s local church, move on to another town, another church, for another two weeks, then come home for two weeks.  This pattern was based on information Dad received from traveling salesmen he knew, who said their companies had learned from hard experience that after four weeks on the road the salesman’s productivity dropped off significantly.  The denomination’s leaders accepted Dad’s input, and made it the norm for their traveling evangelists. 
            Once I was out of the house there was little reason for Mom to stay home, so she began traveling with Dad, becoming more involved in ministry.  This was a rewarding time for both of them.  They got to work together, travel together, and spend more time together.
            Part of Dad’s responsibilities was to minister to the local pastor, often a newly ordained young person, just starting out in his or her career.  Dad was quite successful in this ministry, and provided much needed support for these young pastors.  As part of his support he kept an ever-expanding prayer list.  Every Sunday morning he would pray for every church he had visited in his evangelistic campaigns.
            Out of this work grew another ministry.  The denomination began using him as a speaker at retreats and workshops for young pastors and pastors-in-training.  At first these beginners would ask each other, “What’s this old geezer got that we need to hear?”  Not long into the first session they found out.  Dad’s wealth of experience, and his close relationship with God through the Holy Spirit soon showed them how much they could learn from an oldtimer.
            Dad had been raised on the King James Version of the Bible, and while he recognized the value of newer and more scholarly translations, he never left the KJV behind.  I have his Thompson Chain Reference Bible on the corner of my desk.  The English is archaic, but it helps me remember him and his passion for the people he served in Christ’s name.  It’s a good anchor for my ministry.
            Young pastors who were participants in Dad’s workshops, referred to the KJV as “The gospel according to Clif Sipley.”   While they did it jokingly, they also did it out of respect for Dad and for the Word.
            While there are several good, solid, scholarly translations available today, and they are useful for understanding God’s Word more fully, those of us of a certain age return to the KJV from time to time for familiar passages.  To this day I cannot read the 23rd Psalm comfortably in any other translation.  There are other passages of which this is true, but this most familiar of Psalms is always the first that comes to mind.  That’s why I chose it today.
            One quirk (shortcoming?  weakness?) of mine involves those Scripture passages which are indelibly printed on my mind from singing Handel’s Messiah.  If someone reads them in a more modern translation, my mind automatically turns to the words from the KJV.  Can’t help it.  Can’t teach Old Dobbin new tricks.  The poetic majesty of these passages in older, more formal English is set indelibly in my brain. 
What a blessing!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Peace, Perfect Peace

Peace, Perfect Peace
John 14:25-27
            Peace!  Sometimes it feels unattainable.  In the midst of political wrangling, armed conflict in the world’s hotspots, mass shootings in schools, workplaces—even churches, infighting between denominations within the church, how can we have even a hope of peace?
            We may feel external peace is impossible, and we are likely right.  We cannot control the people who feel it necessary to fight for what they believe—even considering it acceptable to kill noncombatants to make their point.  Useless political wrangling will continue until our legislators and government leaders realize that only through working together (it’s called compromise) can anything meaningful be accomplished for the people they purport to serve.  Senseless shootings will continue until we as a nation decide to do something sensible about the number and types of guns which are far too available to those who should not be armed.
            Meanwhile, what can we do?  We must live in this world.  There are few places we can go to escape the “bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor” (Ephesians 4:31) that surrounds us.  Most of us cannot retire to monasteries or convents or other places where a person can live in peace.  We must remain in the society where we are, for this is where our families are, where our careers are, where our hearts are.  Even if we could escape most of us would find the price too high.
            Several quotes I have come across recently may help define the problem.  In most cases they deal with inner peace—perhaps the only kind we have any hope of attaining.
            “For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe.”  So says Larry Eisenberg—and he’s right.  Too many of us feel we must control everything around us.  We are the only ones who can make the universe operate.  We are the only ones who can make our families run right.  We are the only ones who know how to make things happen the way they’re supposed to happen.
            Well—we’re wrong.  None of us have the qualifications to run the universe.  The only One who can accomplish that is God.  We can only play God, and it’s a role we will never be successful at.
            “If there is to be any peace, it will come through being, not having.”  Henry Miller is in complete agreement with James, who says in his letter to the churches (4:2), “You desire and do not have, so you murder.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel….” 
            I think God was right in placing “Do not covet” as the last of the Ten Commandments, because it sums up all the other ethical ones.  I also believe Buddhists are right in saying we must control our desires.  When our wants run rampant we set ourselves up for all kinds of antisocial behaviors.  We must learn to be at peace.  We can’t buy it.
            The quote I can’t completely agree with comes from an unknown source: “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.”
            In our present world this is true.  We can’t eliminate external conflict so we must find a way to attain inner peace.  This will help us cope with outward strife.  But that’s not the way God intended the world to be, and not the way God intends to leave it.  Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you.”  This is the inner peace that Jesus demonstrated throughout his ministry.  In the world to come our peace will be perfect, because God will give us shalom, peace without conflict, inner or outer; a peace which will be perfect.  Until then, we can wish each other shalom as a sign that we know where our peace comes from—and where it’s going.

A Mutual Admiration Society

A Mutual Admiration Society
John 15:12-15
We belong to a mutual admiration society (my baby and me).
            These are the opening words of a song written in 1956 by Harold Karr and Matt Dubey.  You may remember the song, although you probably won’t remember the musical it was written for: Happy Hunting.  I’ve been involved with musical theatre most of my adult life, and I’ve never heard of it. 
            “A Mutual Admiration Society” is a love song in which the singer talks about how much she—or he—loves her/his lover.  Each member of the pair tries to outdo the other with words of praise and admiration.  It’s a cute song, but certainly not one of the best of all time.
            Those of us who have been in love understand the song’s message.  When we’re in love we are effusive in our words and feelings for our lover.  Lovers truly belong to a mutual admiration society.
            The same may be said for close friends.  People who deeply care for each other express their admiration in glowing terms.  David and Jonathan are a good example.  Less frequently we find these emotions in business associates.  George M. Cohan and Sam Harris come to mind.  Perhaps Johnson and Johnson, or Hart, Schaffner and Marx qualify as well.  I’m sure you can add to this list.
            These human mutual admiration societies may not be permanent.  Love affairs wither and die.  Friends quarrel and part company.  Partnerships founder on the rocks of disagreements or financial ruin.  Human relationships are subject to pressures that can cause them to implode or break apart.
            Jesus’ final words to his disciples, recorded in Chapters 14-17 of John’s gospel, are words of love from a man to his closest friends.  These men have spent three years together, traveling the roads and visiting the villages, towns and cities of Galilee.  They have walked together, talked together, eaten together, slept together—shared all of life’s moments.  Now their relationship has reached its earthly end.  Jesus will soon leave them.  There are things he must tell them, share with them in the few hours of freedom he has left.  He says, “There is so much I have to tell you, but you can’t understand it all right now.  I will share with you what I can.”
            These men love each other.  They could not have spent so much time in each other’s company without a bond of love to keep their relationship from imploding or breaking apart.  Jesus knows this—knows the bond of love that unites them.  He urges them to keep his commandments—keep doing the things they did while he was with them:  the healings, the war against evil spirits, the care of the poor and disenfranchised, and especially the love.
            Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  He might have added, “as you have loved me.” Perhaps he doesn’t use these words because he knows their love for him is not as perfect as his love for them.  Certainly he is aware that one of them loves him far less than he should.
            Jesus is creating a new mutual admiration society that will become the church.  The members of this society are to love each other as purely as is humanly possible—no, even beyond what is humanly possible.  For we (yes, we) are to love each other as Jesus loved us.  We too are Jesus’ friends.  He has called us friends as surely as he called those early disciples friends.  We are part of this grand mutual admiration society.
            How is your mutual admiration society doing?

Letting Go of Anger

Letting Go of Anger
Ephesians 4:30-32
            If you read this blog regularly you know I frequently return to this Scripture passage.  It is the text of a wonderful church anthem I was privileged to sing many years ago.  The words are anchored in my memory and in my theology.  I believe they are some of Paul’s best.
            This passage came back to my mind recently when I read something the Buddha said.  There’s a lot to learn from studying other religions.  Sometimes the words of their theologians contain the same truths we find in the Bible, but stated in new ways—ways that may give us new insight and understanding.
            The Buddha said: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” 
            Paul understood the damage anger can cause.  You’ll recall that he was dead set against the Christ movement.  His goal was to wipe it out.  He saw it as the enemy of the Judaism in which he had been raised.  It was a stain on God’s people that needed to be erased.  He received permission to travel to Damascus and arrest any followers of “The Way” he encountered there.  He was to bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. 
            Luke tells us that Paul left Jerusalem, “breathing fire.”  Can’t get much angrier than that.  He was carrying a load of hot coals, and he was going to toss them at any Christian heretic he could find.
            We know what happened.  He had a vision of Jesus, who turned his anger inside out.  In the bright light of God’s presence, the heat of Paul’s anger dissipated.  He was able to see how futile and how misplaced his anger was.  Instead of persecuting the new religion he joined it, and became one of its leading exponents.  God changed him from angry opponent to ardent supporter.
            Paul also saw what anger could do to a church.  He wrote to the Philippians, “I entreat Euodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord.”  These two women had labored side by side with Paul and the Philippian church, but some disagreement had occurred between them.  Now there was a rift.  Paul not only urged them to come to agreement, but urged the other members of the church to help them end their quarrel.  They didn’t realize how much the burning coals they were holding could damage them, as well as everyone around them.
            Many of us have seen such disagreements in churches; perhaps we’ve even been part of one.  Some of us have learned how much our burning coals of anger can hurt us.  The Buddha was wise enough to see the pain anger can cause.  He warned his followers about anger’s effects.
            Paul adds another dimension.  “Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God,” he says, “by which you have been sealed until the day of redemption.”  Let go of all your anger, whatever form it takes.
Jesus said it best.  If you want to be forgiven you must forgive.  There’s no other way.  Otherwise those coals stay in your hands, burning you and making it impossible to be at rest.
            Unresolved anger can damage a church faster and more completely than any other problem.  There’s no room for anger in a community of love. 
Don’t get burned.

Mt Brother's Keeper

My Brother’s Keeper
Genesis 4:1-11
            Recently I used this phrase in Sunday morning worship.  On the way out one of my parishioners said, “We’re not our brother’s keeper, we’re our brother’s helper.”  It took me a few seconds to see where she was going, but I figured it out.
            Her meaning was sociopolitical.  Her point was that we are not to keep our brothers and sisters:  that is, we are not to care for them in such a way that they become dependent on us for everything—food, clothing, shelter—so that they remain in a subservient relationship to us, never achieving independence.  Too often we help people so much they remain in that relationship not only for the length of their lives, but for generations.  My wife and I saw the disastrous results of that policy when we lived in eastern Kentucky.
            What my friend meant was that we should help them when and how help is needed, but constantly move them to a place where they can care for themselves.  As the old adage says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” 
            I agree that the goal of any helping program should be the eventual independence of the person being helped.  Many organizations are using this approach successfully with the women of some African countries.  By teaching them useful skills, and giving them seed money to start businesses, they are preparing them for a lifetime of being able to feed themselves and their families.
            I believe the biblical account meant keeper in a different sense.  For whatever reason (we’ll never know why on this earth) God was more pleased with Abel’s sacrifice than with Cain’s.  We are told nothing of what was in the hearts of the two young men, and certainly nothing of what was in God’s heart.  After Cain’s sacrifice was rejected God gave him a choice:  “If you do well, will you not be accepted?  And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door.  Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
            Cain chose the path of least resistance, and got rid of his problem (he thought) by getting rid of his brother.  When God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?”   Cain replied, “How should I know?  Am I my brother’s keeper?”  God’s reply seems to indicate that Cain was indeed responsible for his brother.
            In this sense, to be your brother’s keeper does not mean to care for him to the point of keeping him dependent on you.  It means to be responsible for the safety and well-being of our brothers and sisters, not only doing them no harm, but seeing that they are treated justly and fairly.  Cain violated his brother’s right to life, and by doing so failed to look out for Abel’s welfare.
            Let me suggest an alternate word that might fit better than either helper or keeper.  The word enabler has negative connotations because of the way it is used in psychology.  An enabler in this sense is one who allows another person to keep the worst of her bad characteristics, reinforcing them to the point where that person continues to be less than she could be by taking responsibility for her faults and seeking to overcome them. 
I suggest we use the word in a more positive sense.  The one who teaches another to fish, thereby giving him a way of supporting himself for life, is an enabler.  He enables the fisherman to become independent, to care for himself without needing to be dependent on another person.   
We should all seek to be our brothers’ and sisters’ enablers. 
I think God would approve.