Thursday, October 24, 2013

Righteous Contempt

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”—Luke 18:9-14

In this parable, Jesus has concocted two fictional characters to make a point.

Jesus does this all the time. Most of the people he talked about – the stern judge, the persistent widow, the foolish virgins, the virtuous Samaritan, the wastrel son – never really lived. They are made up out of whole cloth. They never drew breath.

But Jesus is not playing fast and loose with the ninth commandment. He’s not lying. All of the dramatis personae in his parables seem so real they draw our attention to real persons we have known.

This particular Pharisee is pure caprice, but every one in the crowd thought they knew him: an arrogant, holier-than-thou, condescending, supercilious egoist of the worst kind.

The self-deprecating tax collector is also a familiar type: no less an egoist, perhaps, but a man who calls constant attention to himself through self-denunciation and exaggerated humility.

That’s not exactly the point Jesus is making in this story, but, (if I, too, may be permitted to make up characters) it’s tempting to imagine both of these men with their therapists.

“Your high self-esteem is good,” one therapist tells the Pharisee. “You have an important job and people look to you for guidance. You couldn’t carry the burden of responsibility without a fair amount of self-confidence. It’s good that you conscientiously avoid weaker persons lest their bad behavior drag you down, and it is also well that you set high personal goals such as fasting and tithing and keep an inventory of your success in reaching them.”

The tax collector’s therapist, however, is not pleased with his client’s self-scorn. “Get a hold of your self, man! You’ve got to see the good in yourself. Your constant self-denigration only intensifies your depression. Breast beating is not the path to contentment, unless your goal is purple pecs.”

This aside, it’s more likely Jesus is using these two vivid characters to make this point: God doesn’t care how high you are in the political, social, or ecclesiastical hierarchy, how pious you are, how smart you are, how humble you are, or even how bad you are. God loves us all the same, Pharisees and tax collectors alike.

There is a famous Baptist story, told with many variations but essentially accurate, that took place in Calvary Baptist Church in Washington in 1910. Dr. Samuel Harrison Greene, pastor of the church from 1880 to 1920, had issued his weekly altar call for church membership.  As he looked up, Dr. Greene saw two men coming forward: a Chinese immigrant who worked in a local laundry, and Charles Evans Hughes, former New York governor and newly appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court.

According to one version of the story, Greene walked up to Hughes first and extended his hand. Hughes pointed to the other man and said, “Begin at that end of the line. At the base of the cross, the ground is level.”

Other versions of the story have Greene welcoming both men with the words, “At the foot of the cross the ground is even,” and still other versions say Hughes had just been named Secretary of State in 1921 when the incident took place. But that would have been six months after Greene died in 1920. 

These are all good stories; take your pick. They, and the story of the praying Pharisee and tax collector, are making the same point. All God’s creatures are equal, and God loves us all the same.

Jesus made it clear in other stories that God also has a special love for poor people.

But it’s a bit sad to note that – despite the number of times Jesus stressed God’s special love for the poor, the humble, and the despised – Jesus’ words have been largely ignored over the past two-thousand years.

More often than not, it is the boasting Pharisee, not the penitent tax collector, who has been the icon of our admiration.

Church history has been populated with saints and sinners, and it is the sinners who star in salacious cable mini-series. My spouse and I, in our academic scrutiny of the deleterious effects of sex, power, and class on society, have studied cable interpretations of Henry VIII and other scandalous Tudors, watched two separately produced series on the Borgias, and most recently examined the brutal and erotic struggles of Lancasters and Yorks in the series, The White Queen

If these series fall short of accurate history, it’s primarily because they leave out so much of the rape, torture, and bludgeoning that really happened. They are generally accurate to the extent they portray the arrogant self-righteousness of kings, queens, and medieval popes who justified themselves to God as God’s holy instruments.

Nor does it come as a surprise that Tudors and Borgias get the starring roles on cable, not Amma Syncletica of Alexandria or Saint Isidora the Simple.

We may actually chuckle that Henry VIII’s notion of divine right led to six marriages and overlook the execution orders he signed (according to Hollinshed) for 72,000 people. Very few of us remember him as the monster he was but think of him as an amatory, overweight chap with unusually high self-esteem.

It takes a lot of misguided imagination to interpret the words of Jesus as guidelines for ruthless monarchs to rule by divine right, or to bless class and caste systems in which most of the world’s resources are owned and controlled by a handful of aristocrats.

Few of us may actually believe Jesus endorses this horrible geopolitical imbalance, but if we disapprove, we don’t show it by the television shows we watch. We wept when relief with the Granthams, who we might otherwise regard as social parasites, got to stay in Downton Abby. And we have created in our media consumption a growing caste of superior humans who have accumulated more worshippers than Jesus did when he walked the earth (and sometimes millions of tweeps). 

What is it that draws minions to the feet of the Kardashians, Miley Cyrus, or Justin Bieber? Not that these are bad people, mind you, and of course God loves the as much as you and me. But God has not lifted them above you and me.

If you have a red-letter bible, you’ll note that this passage in Luke is a droplet in a long river of red ink. Jesus has been preaching for several chapters, and his words are suitably highlighted in holy crimson. Earlier, Luke reported that large crowds were following Jesus as he “went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way through Jerusalem.” (Luke 13:22). Sometimes Luke makes it clear Jesus is speaking to crowds; at other times he is speaking to his disciples.

Whoever the audience is, one can be sure it is full of people who lived their lives in a harsh, hierarchical system where most people were powerless and subject to stern authorities. Whether they were vassals of Rome, Herod, the high priests, or richer merchants, they would have spent their lives submitting to people who believed they were God’s gift to privilege.

And chances are, most of the people within the sound of Jesus’ voice would have heard their betters bloviating about their betterness, which they would have taken for granted.

Jesus’ audience would have instantly recognized the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, and they would have been astonished that Jesus was dismissing the braggart as a hypocrite. He was chipping away at a fundamental keystone of society: the notion that the rich and powerful are entitled to their blessings and to the power they wield over the rest of society.

Jesus’ message was as radical then as it is today:
God loves all God’s creatures.

Whether they are rich or poor, powerful or powerless, admired or despised, God loves them equally.

Not only that: God is bored to tears by self-righteous braggarts of any stripe who thank God for making them virtuous.

It’s not that God does not love the Pharisee who praises himself before God.

But the words of the sinning tax collector, begging God’s mercy, are so much sweeter in God’s ears.

And locked within these words is a hidden message about God’s reign that Jesus is proclaiming:

God loves you no matter who you are, and all God asks in return is that you love God with all your mind and all your heart and all your strength.

And that you love your neighbor – whether your neighbor is a bragging Pharisee or a humble tax collector – as you love yourself.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Budget Impasse Redux: Wrestling in Washington

Karl Barth never heard of cable news, but he’d be reeling this week if he read the bible with CNN blaring in his ear.

As the government remained closed and the national debt ceiling impasse left civilization hanging in the balance, Republicans and Democrats in Congress grappled for 16 days. 

Like Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:22-31), politicians of both parties, including the supposedly flexible Barack Obama, stubbornly refused to yield. 

Lost in thick mists of sweat were millions of Americans living on the edge of poverty whose badly needed government benefits had already been curtailed by the so-called sequester. Even before the sequester, billions of dollars that had been cut from programs that support poor people.

As politicians of both parties vied for the support of the beleaguered middle class, few appeared worried that their budget wrangling was hurting the poor. It’s as if, when Jesus told his disciples to feed a hungry crowd of 5,000, the disciples told the kid with the fish and chips to get lost (Matthew 14:13-21).

The partisan stalemate in Washington is infuriating. A half century ago, when I was about 15, the faculty of Morrisville-Eaton Central School presented a whimsical drama for the entertainment of our tiny central New York community. I don’t remember the name of the play but I remember Mrs. Drake, the school librarian, portrayed a character who recited the memorable line:

“Thirty needles and thirty pins and thirty dirty Republicans.”

As one of the town’s rare Kennedy supporters, I liked the line. But Mrs. Drake, a pillar in our mostly Republican village, suggested the line be changed to:

“Thirty dogs and thirty cats and thirty dirty Democrats.” 

Copyright issues and the fact that Mrs. Drake was playing a left-leaning dowager convinced her she had to say the line as it was written. But fifty years on, I’m beginning to agree with her on both counts. The wresting match between dirty Republicans and dirty Democrats is not pretty.

The United States Congress has always raised the federal borrowing limit, so no one knows what would have happened if House Republicans had continued to balk.  Most analysts think the repercussions would have been bad – very bad. Fictional White House staffer Toby Ziegler said on an episode of the NBC television drama The West Wing, failure to act could cause “the immediate collapse of the U.S. economy, followed by Japan sinking into the sea, followed by a worldwide depression the likes of which no mortal can imagine. Followed by week two.”

Yet Republicans and Democrats continued to tumble on the brink. Clearly some 307 million of us innocent bystanders have the right to ask: What the hell is wrong with you?

What is wrong is that party leaders danced to the edge of disaster because they think their posturing will help them consolidate power. They are seeking to maneuver their way into majorities in both houses of Congress and take over the White House in 2016. Never mind that increasing numbers of American voters are disgusted by their inability to compromise on a plan to avert economic disaster. 

If all this wrangling is about winning control of Congress and the White House, one wonders how valuable these acquisitions would be in a post-default America. I envision passing the tattered figures of House and Senate leaders as they stumble in the steaming rubble of post-apocalypse Washington. “How’s that take-over plan working out for you, Guys?”

Republicans and Democrats have made their positions clear. The GOP calls for lowering the national debt by cutting taxes on the rich and reducing services to the poor. 

Democrats say the debt must be reduced by spending cuts and by implementing new revenue streams, mostly in the form increased taxes on the very rich. 

Both parties say their approach will require huge sacrifices in order reduce the debt, and both say they are acting in the interest of the American middle class. But who is making the sacrifices? Obviously not the rich. And really not the middle class. I haven’t been asked to sacrifice anything to save my country. Have you?

This has been a scary week, and poor people had the most to lose. We found ourselves inside a Roman tragedy in which human greed and folly have created a situation so twisted and bound with knots so complex that human hands will never untie them. When classical plays got to this stage, there was only one solution: the deus ex machina – the god in the machine, which is to say, Mighty Mouse – here I come to save the day – or some godlike figure who will be lowered onto the stage to offer godlike solutions to human dilemmas.

Actually, if you’re the type who reads the back pages of the paper, you may have noticed that the god in the machine has actually landed on stage. The question now is whether the god will win enough audience applause to attract the attention of the wrestling wretches on stage.

The situation in Washington has become so divisive that it has actually brought together divergent Christian groups that usually don’t play well together: Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelicals.

The groups formed the Circle of Protection composed of more than 65 heads of denominations, relief and development agencies, and other Christian organizations.The group is committed to protecting vital programs for people in or near poverty in the United States and around the world. 

“We are committed to resisting budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity, and rights of poor and vulnerable people,” the group declares. "We call on our nation's leaders to help us reduce hunger and poverty by expanding opportunity and justice, promoting economic growth and good paying jobs, stabilizing family life, and protecting the well-being of children.”

This week, while Congress and the White House wrestled, clergy and religious leaders from Circle of Protection gathered on the Capitol steps to pray and remind Congress of the moral imperative to end the gridlock on the national budget. They quoted holy writ and invoked ancient reminders of God’s love for the poor. 

The Rev. Ann Tiemeyer, National Council of Churches associate general secretary for joint action and advocacy, participated in the daily continuous readings by reminding listeners of the over 2,000 bible verses that speak of “God’s concern for justice and protecting the poor and vulnerable people.”

Directing her admonition to members of Congress who are refusing to vote on actions to re-open the government and raise the national debt ceiling, Tiemeyer said, “These verses point the way toward a brighter future for our nation and for all people.”

The actions, dubbed the “Faithful Filibuster,” were organized by the Circle of Protection to remind Congress that its dysfunction hurts the most vulnerable Americans – and that all of us are changed to care for the least among us.

Even so, the partisan wrestling continued, not on behalf of the American people but in pursuit of political advantage and power.

Karl Barth, watching the spectacle on CNN, might have been inspired to re-read the account of the most famous wrestling bout in the Bible. 

Genesis 32:24-32: Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed. ’Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

Jacob, who stole his birthright from his twin, Esau, has been a dirty, rotten scoundrel until this night at Peniel. All his life he has sought power and advantage at the expense of everyone else. And then an angel came, and wrestled with him, and Jacob realized for the first time in his life that God was calling him to a higher service. 

This is one of the great conversion stories of Genesis, as Jacob the liar and fraud realizes this may be his last chance to get right with God. He holds desperately to the angel and will not let him go until the angel blesses him. And when the blessing comes, Jacob realizes: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

This week the members of the Congress claimed they wrestled with each other over issues of public import. But that’s hard to believe. It looked more like a struggle for power.

Before we have to go through this again in early 2014, let’s pray they will realize who they are really wrestling with:the God who loves the poor and blesses those who create circles of protection around them.

Political deals to protect the rich from higher taxes, or win the support of the middle class, may win votes, although that remains to be seen. 

But one thing is clear: supporting the rich while ignoring the poor is no way to win the blessing of God’s wrestling angels.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Where are the others?

[Sermon prepared for World Mission Sunday, October 13, 2013, St. Paul's Lutheran/United Church of Christ, Bronx, N.Y. Luke 17:11-19.]

When I joined the staff of American Baptist Churches in Valley Forge in 1971, church historian Robert Torbet was a colleague.

My spouse, who went to seminary in the eighties, was familiar with “Torbet.” He was a large, blue-covered book entitled A History of the Baptists. Robert was the author of the book, a standard in church history, and seminarians are still invited to go through their book bags and open your Torbet to page 205.”

I knew Torbet as a tall, lean esthete, a scholar and dean who knew more about the Baptists than anyone alive. He had agreed to serve as American Baptist ecumenical officer while preparing to retire, and he was a shy presence in the round hallways of the American Baptist mission center in the seventies. 

When I knew Robert, I was the young editor of The American Baptist magazine and the staff and I were preparing a cover story on George Lisle, an 18th century Baptist missionary to Jamaica. An artist drew a nice sketch of Lisle, who was of African descent, and we put it on the cover under the heading, “The First Baptist Missionary from America.”

As soon as the issue appeared, a political storm blew through the usually placid offices of the circular mission center. Not just a storm: a category five typhoon complete with lightning, hail, and cyclones.

Outraged staff from American Baptist International Ministries swarmed outside my office with figurative pitchforks and torches. Hugh Smith, former ABC missionary to China and now director of public relations for International Ministries, was spokesman for the group. Hugh was known as a gentle conciliator, and I welcomed him to my office. 

But even gentle Hugh had trouble controlling his temper. He smiled at me through his teeth. “George Lisle was not the first missionary from America,” he said tensely. “Adoniram Judson was the first missionary from America.”

Judson, as almost everyone knows, was sent to Burma by the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society and served there for 40 years.

I listened quietly to Hugh, remembering the advice of George Cornell, religion editor of the Associated Press, that sometimes the best response to an angry reader was, “You may be right.” I invited Hugh to write a letter to the editor to make his point, and we shook hands.

But weeks later, during a staff meeting at the American Baptist Assembly in Green Lake, Wis., I happened to sit next to Torbet – the man, not the book – at an ice cream social in the canteen. Seizing an opportunity for vindication from an indisputable source, I asked him: “Who was the first Baptist missionary from America: George Lisle or Adoniram Judson?”

Robert was silent for a moment, tranquilly licking the vanilla ice cream cone in his hand. Finally, he cleared his throat.

“When did Judson start?” he asked, still licking. Robert, foremost among church historians, certainly knew the answer, so the question may have been rhetorical.

“1812,” I said, confidently.

Robert continued licking his ice cream.

“When did Lisle start?” he asked.

“1782,” I replied, also with confidence.

Robert pushed the nub of his cone into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully for several moments. Finally he dabbed at his mouth with a napkin and stood up.

“Then Lisle would have been first,” he said, and strolled away.

I felt vindicated for a second, until I realized Robert had accomplished something I had not yet learned to do: use unadorned facts to avoid a pointless political conflict. 

In point of unadorned fact, Lisle served as a missionary thirty years before Judson. The difference between the two missionaries is that Lisle left for Jamaica on his own, prompted only by God to declare the gospel abroad. Judson was the first to be sent by a missionary society to declare the gospel.  

But as the Baptists among you know, Judson remains the patron missionary saint of Baptists all over the world. In 1987, to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the U.S. missionary movement, American Baptist International Ministries issued commemorative silver balls to adorn Baptist Christmas. Hugh Smith smiled broadly when he gave me a box of the ornaments. “Be sure to notice,” he said, “these are Judson’s balls, not Lisle’s balls.”

And I do want to point out that Hugh was always one of my best friends when I worked at Valley Forge.

I’m sure it doesn’t come as a surprise that some of the more intense missionary conflicts take place not in the field but among the missionaries and within the churches. The Book of Acts records many of those early conflicts.

But before we look at what missionary quarrels have to do with today’s gospel about the 10 lepers, I have another Judson story to impart.

In the 19th century, as today, missionaries were required to take occasional furloughs to visit churches at home to ask for contributions to sustain their work.

The story is reliably told that in the 1830s, Adoniram Judson visited churches in the U.S., including the church in which I grew up a century later. Judson arrived in Morrisville, N.Y., late in the day and the leaders of the congregation welcomed him to the village. “We look forward to a wonderful missionary story,” they told him. “Please speak for about 10 minutes.”

Judson nodded, and when time came he went to the pulpit and opened his bible. “For God so loved the world,” he read, “that he gave his only begotten son, so that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but shall have eternal life.” Judson quickly and brilliantly summarized the salvation story of Jesus and his love, and sat down before 10 minutes had passed.

The congregation was stunned. On the way out, the pastor whispered to Judson, “They were expecting missionary anecdotes about the work in Burma.” Judson replied, “You gave me 10 minutes. I gave you the best story I had.”

Naturally, the incident impressed me because it was a historical event in my home church, but it could have happened anywhere. In the long history of church missions, similar misunderstandings are recorded daily. The churches send messengers into the world to preach the salvation story of Jesus and his love, and often the message gets lost, distorted, or misconstrued.

To be perfectly frank, the story of the church in mission is not always easy to tell. The difficulties began very early, almost as soon as Christians stopped being persecuted by Roman emperors and became the official religion of the Emperor Constantine, whose interpreted a vision of the cross as God’s permission to massacre his enemies at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Later Christian monarchs led Christian armies into the Holy Land to slaughter untold numbers of Muslims in the name of Jesus. In Jesus’ name, Christians first oppressed and then slaughtered Jews, and during the Reformation and Inquisition Christians burned and quartered and beheaded one another.

There are hundreds of stories of missionaries slaughtering those who rejected their message of love. Hatuey, a Cuban tribal leader of the early 16th century, responded this way when he was asked to accept Jesus as his personal savior:

Here is the God the Spaniards worship. For these they fight and kill; for these they persecute us and that is why we have to throw them into the sea... They tell us, these tyrants, that they adore a God of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land and make us their slaves. They speak to us of an immortal soul and of their eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob our belongings, seduce our women, violate our daughters. Incapable of matching us in valor, these cowards cover themselves with iron that our weapons cannot break.

Offered the choice between accepting Jesus and being burned as a heretic, Hatuey declared he had no desire to live in heaven with such Christians. He was burned in the name of Jesus.

More recent missionaries have not resorted to such draconian measures to convert souls, but some of their approaches have been just as heartbreaking. Well-meaning European missionaries have devastated indigenous cultures by requiring people to act like proper Victorian ladies and gentlemen. Equatorial and tropical cultures were forced to abandon practical and sometimes minimal dress in favor of heavy shirts and skirts (the missionary gift of shame, as Homer Simpson creator Matt Groening put it). Other indigenous cultures in the U.S. were encouraged to set aside implements the missionaries considered satanic, including the drums, indigenous dance, and percussive music. 

Too, missionaries were often enthusiastic exploiters of the land, resources, and riches where their flocks lived, resulting in the oft-quoted observation, “Before the missionaries came, they had the bible and we had our land. When the missionaries left, we had the bible and they had our land.” The harshest description of these results is cultural genocide.

I think it would be wrong to ignore these unpleasant realities because it’s important to know why so many people distrust Christians. This is a reality the church has to face as it seeks to reach out in love to declare the gospel.

But I think it is also important to keep in mind that most of the modern missionaries I have known – American Baptist, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and more – are the very antitheses of this unfortunate stereotype. Virtually all of them have acted out of a commitment to share the unconditional love of Jesus, and to share it consistently with the great commandments to love God and love our neighbor.

Let’s go back to the gospel. Ten lepers approach Jesus and ask his mercy.

When Jesus saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.
Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.
Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:14-19)

Don’t you love it when Jesus confounds us by not judging the very people we would hate?

The one leper who returned to thank Jesus: “And he was a Samaritan!”

For us, he might as well be saying: 

“And he was a fracker, a defiler of clean water, a polluter of air!”

“And he was a jihadist!”

“And he was a Wall Street exploiter!”

“And he was a Congressman!”

But this brief passage in Luke makes it clear Jesus doesn’t care about any of that.

Jesus sees ten suffering persons. He doesn’t evaluate their ethnicity, their religion, their nationality, their profession, their age, their intelligence, or their financial status. All he sees is ten suffering people, and with barely a flick of his hand he sends them away to show the priest they have been healed.

No doubt all ten emerge from the temple blotto with joy, barely able to comprehend their unexpected good fortune, too intoxicated to notice God has given them an incomparable gift.

But one – the fracker, the jihadist, the exploiter, the Congressman, the Samaritan – remembers where his good fortune comes from and returns to Jesus to thank him.

Is Jesus angry with the nine other ex-lepers?

I doubt it. He can hardly be unaware of the joy and gratitude they must feel.

But I think Jesus may be amused by the fact that the one ex-leper who did remember to say thanks was the same one all the others may have despised. “Where are they?” Jesus asks. And I think he may have asked it with a smile. The Samaritan standing gratefully before him is a reminder of how God’s unconditional love gets lost amid the conflicts and prejudices of human affairs.

The story is also a potent reminder of Jesus’ expectations when he commissioned all us believers to go into the world “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a).

Almost without exception, the missionaries we Baptists and Lutherans and United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ and others have sent into the world have understood Jesus’ commandments.

May it always be that the missionaries we call will look to the persons with whom they have been called to minister and, like Jesus, take special note of 

those who are poor, 

those who are victims of injustice, 

those who hunger, 

those who suffer pain and illness, 

those who have special needs, 

those who are friendless, 

those who are despised because they have too much or have too little, 

and those merely hope to bask in the boundless love of God.

Jesus does not send any of us into the world to judge the world or the people in it. Our task is to proclaim the same message to the powerful and to the powerless: that the greatest commandments are to love God with all our hearts, with all our minds, with all our might, and to love our neighbors with the same intensity.

It is that great missionary message that guides us out of the maze of hatred, prejudice, entitlement, and injustice, and guides us into bright new day of justice, peace, and God’s unconditional love. 

And if we have enough sense to return to Jesus to express our thanks for his healing grace, he will smile and tell us, 

“Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Friday, October 4, 2013

Life and Love through Modern Media

I cried when President Kennedy died.

My kids can understand this in theory and most years they call me or email a sympathy message on November 22, the date of his assassination in 1963.

They think it's eccentric, of course, to get emotional over a historical figure gone half a century. It would be like choking up during a visit to General and Mrs. Grant in their marble tomb on Riverside Drive.

Maybe it is strange. But I'm confident I'm not the only boomer who goes through this every time television rebroadcasts the color newsreel of Jack and Jackie arriving at Love Field on that sunny Dallas morning. We didn't learn until years later that John Kennedy was a flawed human being. When he was alive he was the icon of our idealism. Millions of pages have been written to suggest he dragged his feet on civil rights or expediently delayed a decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Vietnam until after the 1964 election. Still, when he was alive, he inspired a whole generation. “More than one stranger,” wrote Kennedy aide Theodore C. Sorensen in Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History in 2008, “has approached me on the streets of New York over the years, saying, ‘You bring back memories of wonderful times.’”

As far as I'm concerned, they were wonderful times. And when John Kennedy died, I grieved as when my parents died years later. I am not the only boomer who will tell you JFK's death was a deep personal loss that may have dimmed over the years but has never completely disappeared.

Sometimes when I'm wiping my eyes I'm surprised to remember: I never met the guy.

Like billions of people around the world, my only contact with Jack was the electronic flickering of a vacuum tube electron gun firing electrons on a fluorescent screen – and since only one electron gun was in operation, the images were in ghostly black and white. I didn't know for years after his death that JFK had chestnut colored hair.

It would be hard to count the number of hours I spent as a kid in front of our 12-inch Admiral TV. This was the miraculous device that brought Lucy and Desi, Fess Parker's Davy Crockett and Ed Sullivan into our living rooms. The screen was so small that you missed a lot of detail, like the frayed "S" on George Reeves' Superman costume that was clearly apparent when the programs were released on high-def DVD five decades later.

The black and white images on small screens lacked detail, so if you wanted to know what Jack really looked like, you had to check out the color displays in LIFE magazine or study the Fabian Bachrach official portrait in the post office. The JFK I knew and loved was not a flesh-and-blood human being. He was a television image, and a crude one at that. Is this the stuff of human companionship?

I recently watched a PBS documentary on President Kennedy and was struck by the excellent quality of the digitally restored films, many of them in color. There was the president in the full flush of youth: the quick toothy smile, the starchy Boston accent, tanned cheeks, blue eyes glinting with humor, deeply etched laugh lines and clearly discernible pores. It was more like a visitation than a TV program. I was stunned. John F. Kennedy is more knowable to my kids and grandkids who were born years after his death than he was to me. My adult children can turn on a flat screen high-def television and see him more clearly than my contemporaries ever could, and with the benefit of historical hindsight we couldn't have.

Which raises a small philosophical question: what is the difference between meeting someone virtually and meeting them face-to-face? And which encounter has a greater impact?

My mother-in-law met John Kennedy in 1960 when the young senator was in New York's garment district campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president. She was a beautiful young Cubana then and the family legend is that she caught the candidate's eye. JFK certainly caught hers. “He was tall and very handsome,” she reports succinctly, perhaps leaving out some details. But was the JFK she saw in person – busy, self-absorbed, working the crowd, grasping hands and casting his eyes in every direction – the same JFK I knew on an ancient black and white television screen?

I've seen other presidents in the post JFK period and was moderately impressed. I was on a DC-9 airliner with former President Ford once and watched him rise too quickly from his seat and hit his head on the overhead rack. I shook hands with President Carter on several occasions, once in the White House and later in his post-presidential appearances. Carter is a warm and gracious man but not particularly charismatic and you could stand next to him in a buffet line and barely notice you had reached in front of a POTUS to spear a shrimp.

Somehow these guys seemed bigger on television.

It goes without saying, of course, that it is better to relate to someone in the flesh than to a virtual image. Sex is better than pictures. And video images of a departed loved one only exacerbate the sense of loss. A digitally preserved face or voice is not the same as a living smile or spontaneous laugh.

So perhaps we should stop watching television, turn off our computers, unplug our video games and seek out enclaves of our fellow human beings. Some church folks advocate abstinence from Facebook, for example, which they deplore as a fake - a virtual - community, not a real one.

Maybe so. Certainly Facebook and other electronic social networks can serve as conduits to community. Facebook has enabled me to reconnect with family and old friends I haven't seen for years, and a posting by my niece once alerted me to the fact that my sister had been hospitalized. An Episcopal priest friend of mine uses Facebook to advocate for his hockey team and test out his sermon ideas.

Clearly, virtual community is not the place you want to spend your life. But virtual reality can be a useful tool for helping you map-out where you want to spend your life. Even the primitive tools of radio and black-and-white television can convey ideals that will change your life forever. People who never met Franklin Roosevelt were sustained and encouraged by his fireside chats. The message of John Kennedy's youthful idealism, with all its human flaws, transcends the media that transmit it. Martin Luther King's soaring rhetoric and moral integrity has galvanized those who knew him, those who met him on television, and will have the same impact on babies being born today.

The emotions, the comfort, the inspiration and the ideas you encounter in virtual community will change your life forever.

The trick is to know when to turn off your computer and live it.