Monday, September 30, 2019

The Blessing of the Enterococcus Faecalis

This Sunday, thousands of beloved critters ranging from elephants to hamsters will be brought to churches for the annual blessing of the animals.

Unseen but just as important will be billions of microbes too small for the naked eye to see. Few pastors will be aware of their buggy presence when they are pronouncing the blessings, but none of the creatures brought to church to be blessed could live without them. 

Ed Yong, science writer for The Atlantic, probably didn’t know he was writing a theological tome when he penned I Contain Multitudes, The Microbes Within Us And a Grander View Of Life. But Yong has raised questions that are deeply spiritual as well as complexly biological. 

According to Yong, more than half the cells in your body aren’t even human. 

It’s no surprise God didn’t reveal this in the beginning. 
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them, and he created them a microbiota, a microbiome that resideth in the skin, mammary glands, placenta, semen, uterus, ovarian follicles, lung, saliva, oral mucosa, conjunctiva, and gastrointestinal tracts. And God saw that it was good.
Obviously there would have been little point in revealing these facts to a brass age culture. But is our modern intellect sturdy enough to take it all in? 

For the science-minded among us – including the odd atheist – Yong’s book is merely a beautifully written description of the symbiotic complexity of biological evolution. How the human-microbiome relationship progressed is a marvelous accident.

For us persons of faith, this reality requires some intellectual and spiritual acrobatics.

We view our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, fearfully and wonderfully made. We think of ourselves as miraculous and immaculate creations of an all-powerful Creator. We see ourselves as fashioned in the image of God’s creative temperament. 

Most of us no longer think of ourselves as formed in God’s physical image because – despite Michelangelo’s breathtaking depiction of a white bearded Creator – it has become unseemly to ponder a God requiring all those follicles and appendages, including gonads. As future theologian James T. Kirk put it, why would God need a starship? Kirk might as well have asked why would God need a microbiome? God is spirit, and microbes are corporeal. 

And, to many of us, microbes are disgusting. It does little for our self-respect to look in a mirror and know if we could see individual cells, most of them would not be human.

For those of us who espouse traditional theology, our microbiome gets in the way of questions we’d rather not think about. What about the Immaculate Conception? What about the incarnation? What about the resurrection? Do all of these events assume the presence of billions of ubiquitous and ugly little bugs? 

Perhaps it is some comfort that Yong, described by his peers as in the highest tier of international scientists, defends the bugs.  The microbes within us, he says, are neither good nor bad. 

In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross on NPR, Yong scoffs at our “long-standing idea that microbes are germs, are enemies that we need to destroy lest they destroy us.”

Actually, Yong says, “many of these microbes are profoundly important for our lives … there isn’t really any such thing as a good microbe or a bad microbe. They just live with us. They are our partners in life and they can often do us tremendous amounts of good. They can help to digest our food and tune our immune system and protect us from disease. But if they get in the wrong place or if our relationship with them breaks down, then they might also do us harm.”

Devotees of yogurt and probiotics, of course, have made our peace with the notion that microbes can aid our digestion, improve our heath, and be very good for us. 

Still, it challenges our old time religion. If more than half the cells within us are not our cells, what are we: a child of God or a pod whose body has already been subtly snatched?

Of course many will see Yong’s book and as another confirmation of their view that humans were not creatures of a higher power but an accidental development in evolutionary antiquity.

But surely there is nothing accidental about it. Yong enhances our spiritual explorations by providing a useful context.

“If you condense the history of the Earth into a single calendar year,” he told Gross, “the Earth was created in the first of January and we are now in the 31st of December just before the stroke of midnight, then humans arose about 30 minutes ago. And even all the multicellular creatures, the things we can see, all the animals and plants we’re familiar with, only arose a couple of months back, whereas bacteria probably first evolved, say, at the start of March. So for the vast majority of life on Earth, everything was microbial … bacteria have been the rulers of the planet for most of the Earth’s history, and they are still the rulers of the planet.”

For biblical literalists, it can be said that the creation of microbes seems to have taken place sometime between the second and third days of creation, after God separated the waters from the firmament and before God gathered the water into seas and put forth vegetation.

Yong, whether he intends it or not, points us toward the possibility that the infinitely complex interactions of bacteria and human cells are so marvelous as to be divine. 

That’s the information God left out of his declaration to Jeremiah (and the rest of us) when God said, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” (Jeremiah 1:4). 

We can either dismiss the human microbiome as godless science, or we can stand in awe at this revelation of the intricate details of the building blocks of God’s living creation.

Can we accept that the stuff of human creation – the bacteria and microbes that give us substance and health – were never excluded from God’s plan but were there in the beginning, when there was the Word?

The Word is this: God's eye is not only on the sparrow, but also on the microscopic Enterococcus Faecalis, a common bacterium of the human gut.

And if God watches the Enterococcus Faecalis, it can hardly be denied that God watches over you.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Moses Without DeMille

(Narrative lectionary: Exodus 1-3)
Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” – Exodus 3:5
This morning we are treated to the scriptural version of the Ten Commandments, without Cecil B. DeMille’s imagination and special effects.

The story contrast is worth noting because DeMille’s 1956 epic film of the same name has dramatically altered the way many of us understand the story. My spouse, the Rev Doc M,  had a parishioner at North Baptist Church who was distressed by the fact that the story Martha read from the pulpit was not the same drama she had viewed in VistaVision. In 1956 wags would go the movie so they could tell their neighbors, “I liked the book better.” But in fact, millions who saw the film had never read the book.

I was ten when the film was released, and my mother took me to see it. But you don’t have to be my age to know the film. It resides on the cloud and on millions of DVDs, and networks and cable companies release it several times a year, usually on inappropriate holidays such as Easter.

Many of the film’s characters are absent from Scripture but the actors are well known. Yul Brynner displays a frozen scowl and emotions ranging from a little angry to a little angrier. Edward G. Robinson plays a thuggish Israelite, but we miss the cigar he made famous in Little Caesar. Vincent Price as Baka displays the cinematic creepiness that made him famous. John Derek’s sinewy body glistens with so much grease Debra Paget would have slid right off him. Yvonne DeCarlo previews the same character she brought to life in The Munsters. And Charlton Heston expresses the same righteous rage as when he defied NRA critics to pry a gun from his “cold dead hands.”

In fairness, I should say that Variety called Heston an “adaptable performer” who, as Moses, reveals “inner glow as he is called by God to remove the chains of slavery that hold his people,” and it considered Yul Brynner “expert” as Rameses. Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively collected 32 reviews and reported 97 percent of critics gave the film a positive review: “Bombastic and occasionally silly but extravagantly entertaining.”

The climatic scene in today’s reading of Exodus also happens to be one of my favorite scenes from the movie. Here’s a bush that is burning but not burned, an adequate special effect by 1956 standards, although I wonder if the Disney studio couldn’t have done better. Heston approaches the bush cautiously as a voice tells him to “remove the sandals from his feet for he stands on holy ground.”

What kind of voice? When I was an undergraduate at Eastern Baptist College, some of us displayed a certain flippancy to distinguish ourselves from the overweening piety of many of our fellow students. We would ask ourselves what God’s voice sounded like. One of my friends said maybe God spoke in the nasally, lisping tones of Truman Capote. That seemed unlikely to most of us, and the impious student who spoke so heretically has recently retired as an Episcopal priest.

In the movie, if you listen carefully, the voice of God is Heston’s own baritone, inadvertently creating the illusion that Moses is talking to himself. That raises some Jungian issues that are far too complex to go into here. But it is a dramatic scene.

The most profound revelation in the scene – in scripture and on screen – is when God reveals his name to Moses:
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall day to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you … This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations.” (Exodus 3:14-15)
We know the name in Hebrew – Yahweh – is so sacred that Jews will not pronounce it aloud, some times substituting HaShem, “the name,” in conversation. One of our Diakonia teachers – now our Bishop, Paul Egensteiner – declined to pronounce the name aloud out of respect to Jewish brothers and sisters. 

But when God revealed God’s name to Moses, the importance of this revelation is enormous. God is revealing to Moses that God is not merely present today, but present outside of time. 

Referring to the past, we say, “I was.” God says, “I am.” 

Referring to right now, we say, “I am.” God says, “I am.”

Referring to the future, we say, “I will be.” God says, “I am.”

This is no rhetorical exercise. It is a mind-boggling disclosure about the nature of God. It is a stunning revelation that our concept of God may be too small.

Because God exists in all of time. If, to us, the bondage of the Jews in Egypt took place five millennia ago, we must try to grasp the fact that to God it is happening and is always happening.

That is one reason events reported in the bible are so important to our lives. To our feeble frontal cortexes, the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage is a dim, distant historical event. But in God’s time it is happening.

To our feeble frontal cortexes, Jesus was crucified two thousand years ago, so long ago that it’s difficult for us to even imagine it. We rely on ancient scrolls and archaeological digs to remind us what happened, and sometimes it’s difficult to comprehend why the dusty past would have anything to do with us.

But in God’s time, the death and resurrection of Jesus is not an isolated historical event from long, long ago. In God’s time, it is happening now. It is happening yesterday, it is happening today, it is happening tomorrow, it is happening for all time, forever and ever.

What God and Jesus did on the Cross is not something done and done two thousand years ago, something lost in the mists of the past that has dubious residual impact on our lives.

In God’s time, it is happening now. It is happening yesterday, it is happening today, it is happening tomorrow, it is happening for all time, forever and ever.

And that is why we cannot ignore the impact of God’s sacrifice on the cross to overcome death, because the sacrifice is happening for all time, forever and ever. It is happening for us who are brought to faith by the grace of God, and whose lives are transformed from a mundane daily existence in temporal time to a glorious life abundant for God’s time.

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus provides an important commentary:
And as for the dead being raised, have you not read I the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, “I am the God of Abraham … He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” (Mark:12:26-27)
Emphasis on is.

As a history buff, I like to keep in mind that God’s time and my time are different. If I read about Abraham Lincoln’s conversation with Frederick Douglass, or Harriett Tubman’s courageous acts to free slaves, I like to ponder that in God’s time, these events are not in the dusty past but happening, and are always happening. It somehow makes these events more real for me.  My fantasy of heaven is that we saints may be permitted a God’s-eye view of time, and I can be an invisible witness at one of JFK’s press conferences, or when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

But more importantly, I think it’s good to remember what God’s time means for our lives abundant, our lives eternal.

Occasionally we meet an agnostic or atheist who cringes at the thought of living forever.

“I’ve lived quite long enough,” they will say. “I would hate to live another thousand or even another hundred years.”

But that is what “eternal life” is all about. Eternal life is not to be counted in years, despite what the hymn says:

When we’ve been there ten-thousand years
Bright Shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.

In God’s time, no one is counting the years.

God’s time is outside of time.

When God revealed God’s name to Moses, it was notice that the time will come when all of us will be freed from the tiresome and often painful bonds of human life.

Because of the ever-happening sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, our faith will lead us to a life made glorious by God’s presence. 

We will be reminded that I AM has brought, is bringing, and will bring us to life.

And no one will be watching the clock or counting the years.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Commendable Shrewdness

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” Luke 16:8.
Commended him?
Doesn’t that strike you as odd?
Here is a manager (Luke 16:1-13) who has been stealing his master’s property for years and, when caught, goes on to steal even more by telling his master’s creditors they can pay less than they owe.
What, from the master’s point of view, is commendable about that?
And what is the point of this story that Jesus is telling this crowd of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and scribes?
Moments earlier, Jesus told the tale of the prodigal son. 
The contrast in the lead personalities could not be greater: One is a foolish young man who loses all his fortune in profligate living but repents and returns to his father, who immediately forgives him. The other is a cheat and a scoundrel who tries to make allies by cheating his master out of more goods that are owed to him.
Moreover, we love to hear about the prodigal because we know Jesus is talking about God’s unconditional love for each of us, no matter how far we stray. It’s a story most of us could repeat by heart.
But the story of the dishonest manager is much less familiar to us. I can’t remember the last time I heard a sermon about this character, probably because it’s so hard to figure out the point Jesus is using him to make. There is no comment about the dishonest manager in the Lutheran Study Bible, and many commentaries are prefaced with the observation, “This is a difficult passage to understand.”
Still, the dishonest manager himself is oddly familiar to us. We’ve all known this man.
He’s the smarmy guy in the office who embellishes his expense account and seeks a promotion by undermining the boss and creating cliques among the staff who grumble that the boss should be replaced.
He is, as my wife and five daughters would point out, the mansplainer in staff meetings who listens to women’s ideas and presents the same ideas to the boss as his own.
He’s the politician who promises to represent the voters but accepts thousands of dollars from powerful lobbies to support the interests of the very rich.
He’s the pharmaceutical executive who claims to be developing much needed medicines to treat the sick but makes millions through the over-prescribing of opioids, or by raising the cost of EpiPens and insulin beyond the ability of sick people to afford them.
He’s the business owner who presents a warm and generous face to his customers but obscures the fact that he is underpaying his employees, or that he has been paying women workers less than male workers who are doing the same job.
He’s the realtor who advertises comfortable houses, condos, and apartments to the general public but claims to have no vacancies when persons of color, Muslims, or Sikhs come looking for a place to live.
To be honest, we’ve all known far more dishonest managers than we have known repentant prodigals.
And the one thing these dishonest managers have in common is, to use Jesus’ own words, they are acting “shrewdly.” They have all figured out how to improve their own lot in life by diminishing the lot of others.
But why would this kind of self-serving shrewdness be something the dishonest manager’s master would commend?
I think the first thing to note is that in this particular parable, the master is not a stand-in for God. Certainly the prodigal’s father is a god-figure and he reminds us that God’s love is ever present and unconditional.
The dishonest manager’s master is no such thing. He is simply a crass human character made up by Jesus and we needn’t worry that God or Jesus find the manager’s reprehensible behavior to be commendable in any way.
I sat with a group of Lutheran pastors in a bible study last week. One of the pastors suggested the master may have been impressed by the nerve, the gall, the naked temerity, the chutzpah of this guy. “Got to hand it to you, Dude! Unbelievable. No – commendable!” 
But that’s as far as it went. There’s no suggestion the manager got his old job back – just a rueful slap on the shoulder by his former boss.
Keeping in mind that Jesus is addressing a group of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and scribes, what is his point?
For one thing, Jesus seems to be wondering aloud why his own followers are less creative and less shrewd in their own stewardship given that they are managers of a far greater household.
And perhaps this tale of rich people and shrewd managers is to illustrate the futility of focusing your life on money or your economic survival rather than on God. 

In the end, what have the master or the dishonest manager actually accomplished? The manager’s loyalty to his own economic survival has made him disloyal to his master because, obviously, he can’t be loyal to both. 

Jesus put it this way:
“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Luke 16:13a)
But it was Jesus’ final statement that aroused the Pharisees in the crowd:
“You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:13b)
Reading beyond this morning’s text, to Luke 16:14-15, we get a clearer picture of the point Jesus is making:
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.”
In these passages, Jesus is addressing a diverse crowd composed of people who can’t stand each other: tax collectors and other sinners, who are known to be dishonest; and Pharisees, who regard themselves as paragons of honesty and virtue. The tax collectors and sinners hate the Pharisees, who they regard as insufferable posturers; and the Pharisees despise the tax collectors and sinners because they live sinful and despicable lives.
Only Jesus sees them for what they really are. The tax collectors do not deny they skim off the top of their collected gains for their own use, and Jesus has already assured them in the parable of the prodigal that God loves them anyway.
But so, too, do the Pharisees welcome the gifts and support of the poor and common people who seek to assure their salvation by supporting these religious leaders. This unmerited collection of riches, Jesus says, makes them no different than the tax collectors. And to prize wealth is to prize what is an abomination to God.
Reading on, Jesus drives the point home with his parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).
But as we wrestle with the issues of shrewdness and choosing God’s realm over money, perhaps the best way to conclude our meditation this morning is to read again the passage from Paul’s letter to Timothy (I Timothy 2:1-7) 

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone,  for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.  This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  Forthere is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.

God’s message to us this Sunday is this:
Love God more than money.
Work creatively, resolutely, and shrewdly for the advancement of God’s realm in all the world.
And never forget that Jesus is our faithful mediator with God;
And God loves us unconditionally and for all time.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Invitations to the Banquet

NOTE: This homily was prepared for a Service of the Word at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Rye Brook, N.Y., September 1, 2019.

My parents were the children of hardscrabble farmers in the Catskills. Both my mother and father were the first in their families to attend college, and Dad was a poorly paid schoolteacher in a tiny district in Central New York State.
Maybe these unassuming agrarian roots have unduly influenced me but few passages of scripture pop into my head more often than today’s Gospel reading.
When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by the host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. (Luke 14:8-10).
Throughout my career as a lay bureaucrat in denominational and ecumenical work, this issue came up – at least in my head – every time I attended a reception or fund-raising dinner. Sometimes I was invited as a mere reporter with the expectation I would write about the event later. Other times I was invited to offer a brief greeting on behalf of the board I represented. And on a few occasions I was invited to be the main speaker. At all times I would dawdle uneasily around the head table, waiting for someone to tell me where to sit.
Seating protocols were never clear in ecumenical circles that included cardinals, bishops, pastors, and lay factotums
The first time I attended an Associated Church Press meeting at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America on East 79th Street, I was escorted to a dark room in which there was a polished oaken table surrounded by a dozen wooden chairs. One of the chairs at the table was much taller than the rest, its wooden frame ornately carved with religious symbols and a thick purple pillow in its seat. 

Perhaps, I thought to in my Protestant naiveté, the chair was symbolic of the presence of Christ, or maybe Elijah.  

“No,” the editor of the Orthodox Observer magazine told me. “The chair is for the archbishop.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. The American Baptist version of that was providing first class airline seats for the church’s head while everyone else flew coach. That simplified matters for the rest of us because we never had to wonder where to sit.
As we read the passage from Luke 14 this morning, we find Jesus attending an apparently crowded Sabbath meal “when he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor.” (14:7a)
There are several interesting things about this passage that, as a non-scholar, I never noticed before.
For one thing, Jesus seems to be no stranger at Pharisee banquets. This is one of three recorded instances that he joined the Pharisees for food and fellowship.
It strikes us odd because most of us assume Jesus and the Pharisees were bitter adversaries.  Yet Jesus seems to be quite comfortable not only hanging around Pharisees but joining in their social gatherings.
This leads some scholars, in fact, wonder if Jesus was himself a Pharisee.
Mitzi J. Smith, professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, writes:
   “Although Pharisees dispute with Jesus and sometimes express hostility toward him, Jesus continues to engage and dine with them. This kind of collegiality and friendship can be difficult to understand, especially in a rigid religio-political partisan atmosphere where, as in Jesus’ day, life is (de)valued differently and ignorance, tempers, and stereotypes often prevail. Readers must be careful not to stereotype and demonize the Pharisees as Luke sometimes does.”
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the Pharisees were “blue collar Jews” who believed in an after-life and adhered to the tenets of the law, including individual prayer and assembly in synagogues. They were – unlike the elitist Sadducees – working class Jews who took their religion seriously. They had a lot in common with Jesus the carpenter from Nazareth. Whether he was a Pharisee or not, he was obviously not averse to hanging around with Pharisees and happily engaging them – as rabbis do – in arguments about Mosaic law.
Perhaps this was because he knew them well enough to know they would be open-minded about his teaching. Their Pharisaical hearts would already be open to the travails of the poor, the disabled, the lame, and the blind. As specialists in Mosaic law, they would immediately see the logic of expanding their gatherings to include everyone whether or not they had the means of repaying their hospitality. They just needed someone they trusted to point it out to them.
Jesus began his discourse by chiding those in the gathering who assumed they outranked the others and deserved higher seats at the table.
But Jesus goes even further than that, relying on his audience’s working-class sensibilities to see the justice in what he was saying.
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke 14:12-14.
This declaration is so consistent with the laws of the Torah that I don’t think Jesus expected anyone to disagree with him.
These words of Jesus are, however, a little harder for us to take in our class-sensitive society. Too many of us have become comfortable with those around us who separate humanity into tiers of relative worth: the one-percenters at the top who control most of the wealth and insist they earned their fortunes through personal merit and honest work; the management class who work for the one-percenters and share in the bonuses; the great middle class who work for the companies owned by the one-percenters and struggle each day to pay their mortgages and put food on the table; the blue collar farm labor class who work 12 to 18 hours a day, often more than one job, often at minimum wage, just to survive; and the desperately poor class living constantly at the edge of poverty and wondering if they will be able to feed their children every day.

So many of the people in these tiers are either invisible to us or far from our daily consciousness. None of us agree with these tiers of relative worth or see that that they are unjust. We are just too distracted by our own daily challenges to give it much thought.
Jesus knew the Pharisees understood that God created all God’s creatures equal, and that God expected all God’s creatures to reach out and help those who were poor, those who were sick, those who were disabled, those who were blind, and those who could not afford to take part in weekly Pharisaical banquets.
Jesus knew the Pharisees could have no argument with any of that, and he knew they could listen with contrite hearts.
Jesus asks no less of us.
When I began preparing my homily this week, it has escaped me that this is Labor Day weekend.
I asked Martha, “Do you think Jesus would be a Union man?”
She said, “Of course.” I should point out that both Martha and I saw our lives improved by the unions our parents were in.
Whether or not Jesus would have been active in the Samuel Gompers labor movement calls for more speculation than is sensible.
But as we see him sitting among the Pharisees ad arguing on behalf of those of lesser rank who need more in order to survive and contribute to their communities, one thing seems sure.
He speaks like a shop steward. 

And he knows how to make management listen to him.