The Peace of God

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Pentecost 15C

meek.mildOn Wednesday, my church joined with other congregations at a local town park to pray and sing for peace and an end to violence and hate. It was a very, very good thing to do, even if we didn’t all agree on what “peace” meant. One participant wanted to sing the old Pepsi commercial: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…” Some thought we were talking about “inner peace.” Others thought, I think, that peace was a gift God could just give us if we prayed for it. What we did agree on was that it was important for us to come together and pray about it. So, we did.

In today’s first lesson, Jeremiah talks about peace in describing God’s dream for the world – to be made reality in the creation of Israel – to be a place of beauty and promise. A holy land where children could play without danger, where old people were safe from want, where the sick and the poor and the troubled were cared for. Where businesses were fair and honest and those who worked were paid a fair wage and treated fairly. Israel was to be the exemplar – a light to the nations. The people longed to be that and they confirmed their covenant with God. But, with one thing and another – when the plan became cumbersome –God’s people went back to covering their own individual bottoms. Shall I plant a garden or shall I keep those people over there from having any land at all? Oh, well. Sin stayed.

Israel was an incredible dream – originally and in its modern incarnation – brought about in 1948 when the United Nations carved land out of the greater Palestine area and gave it to be the nation of Israel. The necessity for having a Jewish homeland – especially on the ground named in Scripture as God’s gift to them – seemed warranted for people who had been oppressed for generations and subject to a powerful genocide movement in the last century. The complications to that decision are not our subject here. The worthy intent is. The New York Times published an article this Saturday on David Ben Gurion, a key founder of Israel, from a recently found 1968 interview. In it, Ben Gurion cited the prophet Jeremiah for his keen, though unpopular, understanding of politics, and said he, too, believed the state’s mission “was to fulfill the biblical concept of ‘an segulah,’ an exemplary nation of higher virtues, treasured by God.” “We wanted,” he said, “to create a new life, not the life that exists. I believed we had a right to this country. Not taking away from others, but recreating it.’”

The forebears of our own country had similar dreams, hoping to create the “city on a hill” described by St. Paul. And, for all the good and worthy plans that were set in motion, we fell as far afield as both biblical and modern Israel. We read about old Israel’s wars and infidelities in the Bible. We read from “new” Israel’s history the government’s immediate blocking of the dream when it refused to allow Palestinian refugees to return at the end of the 1948 war of Israel’s creation and when it placed all Arab citizens under military rule. We see in our own history, the almost immediate blow to the dream when our own founders agreed to permit slavery in the land as a quid pro quo for the support of the southern states.

We could go on, but our point here is not to discuss history, but to see where Jesus is coming from in today’s Gospel – working urgently to get his disciples and learners to understand the cost of committing to peace, of what it means to follow him in restoring God’s dream for the word. Listen again to what he says to us:

“I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! … Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three.”

This is not exactly what anyone is hoping to hear – then or now. Peace is exactly what many of us want from our faith. Peace – in the dictionary definition: tranquility, quietude, freedom from disturbance and disquieting thoughts and emotions. Who doesn’t want that? Some of us have even been led to think that is the very purpose of religion. But here’s Jesus, being confusingly provocative in his talk, not of peace, but of fire and death and baptism and stress. Suggesting that the peace he offers is something other than tranquility and family harmony.

Here’s the deal. We don’t usually think of Jesus as controversial. We even have official hymns that refer to him as meek and mild. But Jesus, quite clearly, thinks of himself as controversial and so did the people who knew him the first time. They would say, along with the picture on today’s bulletin: “Jesus. Meek and mild. As if.” Jesus goes further – saying that if we are being faithful, we may find ourselves embroiled in controversy, too. Not because conflict is a good thing – but because if we are genuinely concerned with Jesus’ Gospel, we may find ourselves considered as subversive as he was. Dom Helder Camara, the former Roman Archbishop of Brazil, gave a perfect example of this: “When I give bread to the poor,” he said, “they call me a saint. But when I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a Communist.” Or the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, who found himself on trial or in prison more than once for disturbing society’s peace. He noted:

“If you want to be a Christian, you’d better look good on wood.”

The fire, the passion Jesus wants to kindle us with is the kind that stirs us from our comfort with things as they are and makes us willing to care in big and little ways about what’s going on in the world around us – the wars that do unbearable damage to infants and children, the hunger and sickness of those who live under greedy governments that siphon off aid to their own bank accounts and leave their people to starve, the huge numbers of black men who occupy our prisons for non-major crimes, the crimes against the environment, for heaven’s sake, all the people and creatures who are utterly dependent upon our willingness to care about them. And he asks us to not care that other people or the authorities will be angry or not promote us or invite us or our children to their parties.

The peace of Jesus doesn’t always look like peace – any more than God’s justice and compassion and hope always look like our visions of them. It has occurred to me that the only way we’ll know for sure that we’re doing it right is if conflict reaches out for us. But by the same token, it’s been noted how many folks run around thinking they’re being prophetic when they’re just being annoying. Our job is not to go out and be controversial. Our charge is to go out and be faithful. Where has God already started a fire? On days when we feel tepid and unadventurous, our job is to go stand next to the flame and let it warm us. On other, stronger days, our job is to fan the flame and spread it. And on days when worst has come to worst and maybe this week, our job is to let the Gospel of Jesus Christ light a fire under us. And follow in the dream of building the holy land of beauty and promise, an segulah, a light to the nations chosen by God, without boundaries, where kindness and mercy reign, and meanness and injustice have no standing. Taking the tiny steps of peace.

I ask you to join me in turning to Hymn 661 in the 1982 Hymnal. And pray with me verse 4:

“The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed on the sod.

Yet let us pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.”

My Rights vs. The Common Good (Pentecost 9C and The 4th of July)

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sparkler-with-american-flag-30f09ec483c906ae(A Sermon for the 4th of July Weekend, July 3, 2016)

Good Morning! And Happy Fourth of July Weekend! I confess I love this holiday. I love the music and the fireworks and the feeling of American solidarity that rises up among us when we gather. This year, I don’t know what it will be like because I’ve never known a time when Americans were so divided. Not simply by different opinions, not by the usual political parties, but by political blocs spewing hatred at each other. Deep and personal and irrational anger.   Outside my last sojourn in academia, I haven’t known a time when people were so identified with their grievances. When the tension between individual rights and the well-being of all seemed so volatile.

I don’t remember a time when the group considering itself most aggrieved consisted of a category of white men. And, to quote Leon Wieseltier in a Washington Post article this week, these competing groups, “in the myopia of their pain… kindle racism and nativism and xenophobia and misogyny and homophobia and anti-Semitism.”1   For starters. People look at the UK and the quick unraveling of its economy and social cohesion after BREXIT. They look at the unleashing of a racism that “Britain-firsters” deemed legitimate. Americans of all stripes now worry – could that happen here?

Well, of course, it could, but we are people of God and not limited to political and demographic data in our reflections. As Christians, we look through the lens of Scripture and of our founding documents as Americans. On this Sunday, most churches read Chapter 6 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Galations, which syncs well with the Declaration of Independence. Together, I think, they show us what Paul called a “more excellent way” through the mistrust and opprobrium that currently cloud the American political scene.

They both speak to human freedom in terms of a community of relationships and there is no indication in either of them that personal freedom might ever trump consideration of the common good. I was stunned a few years ago when several conservative American politicians were citing Ayn Rand, the prophet of selfishness, as authority for their views on individual rights. How did Ayn Rand define freedom? “Freedom (n.),” she wrote: “To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To delifelibertypend on nothing.”2 Well, bushwa. That is un-American, un-Christian, and, I would argue, patently untrue.

The Declaration of Independence was revolutionary in its proclamation that governments cannot just own people or claim sovereignty over them based on military might or power. Instead, the Founders asserted that human beings have human rights that precede government. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Founders dreamed this nation into being grounded on what they perceived were God-given rights all people could claim and no one could take away.   They meant the Declaration to be a beacon of light to the rest of the world, and the ideas they espoused are as radical now as they were then.

There have been complications. The British Empire didn’t agree with their ideas, nobody really knew how to implement them or even to enforce the rights claimed. Nor, as you know, did the nation’s founders agree on precisely to whom they applied. It was a long time before anybody thought to extend the term “all men” to men who didn’t own property or men who were black or to women of any color or social status.

domviolThe tension between individual rights and the well-being of the whole reared its head early and continues to trend. Consider the argument over gun regulation: I have the right to own and carry firearms however and whenever I want vs. we have the right to safety in public places and to the reasonable protection of our children. What gives? And when we read the 6th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we see the same tension. In v. 2, Paul says: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But in v.5, he says: “All must carry their own loads.” Which is it? If I have to carry your burdens, that impinges on my own freedom. How about I’ll carry my own burdens and you carry yours. That sounds more fair.

And we respect it. I like the example someone recently gave of the mother eagle who decides that an eaglet is ready to fly. The eaglet stands at the edge of the nest and its mother gives it a shove. She flies above her baby in case something goes wrong, but the baby learns pretty quickly how to unfurl its wings, flap them and fly.

We respect also the independent spirit of those who have suffered greatly and refuse to be defined by it. We admire those who have somehow found the resources in themselves to demand that others not treat them as victims – of cruelty, neglect, or bad luck. Not because they’re too proud or don’t deserve sympathy and understanding, but because self-pity feels bad and doesn’t help. If you ever decide to “help” a blind person walk down the street, you will find this out right away.

But how about the “bearing one another’s burdens” part? It obviously refers to helping each other out in times of hardship – something the church community excels at. But it’s more than that. This is the one Paul calls the “law of Christ.” Caring for someone who’s sick or has a baby or has difficulty getting out of the house. Caring for someone whose life has fallen apart. Caring – from afar – for people who lack resources or need care. We are, as Christians, committed to this “bearing of one another’s burdens.” And if bearing our own burdens, when possible, produces respect, bearing another’s burdens, when needed, produces love.WHRD

It’s the flip side that gets us. Most of us believe so strongly in the virtue of independence that we have a profound fear of being seen to be dependent. It’s as though we’d rather die than owe somebody something. We fear the loss of dignity we believe is a byproduct of dependence. But it’s independence that, in the end, leaves us alone and robs us of the love that can transform our lives. Dependence and care create holy relationships that are vital and life-giving – with our children, our parents, our friends and whomever else falls into our web of compassion.

So where does all this leave us? Our faith and our freedom and our politics and our participation in the great dream that is America? What do we do now? I think we start by moving beyond what Wieseltier, in the same Washington Post article, called the “parochialism of pain.” Let us listen and care about the tribulations of others and the injustices done to them — as much as we’d like theWhat-does-the-Lord-require-of-you-wordpressm to listen and care about ours. Let us not compete for whose is worse. And then let us build on the deeper understanding we glean from each other. Because this holiday and these Scriptures call us – not to hatred and opposition to people who disagree – but to interdependence, to collaboration, to cooperation and to sacrifice in our time and in our place. To practice God’s politics, which are guided always by justice and compassion and a willingness to work for all people to enjoy the blessings of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Amen.

 

1 Leon Wieseltier, “How voters’ personal suffering overtook reason — and brought us Donald Trump,”  The Washington Post, June 22, 2016

2 Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (1943), Chapter XII, p. 149 ; Dominique Françon to Alvah Scarret.

Hope and Growing Edges (as witnessed in today’s NY Times)…

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In my church, we agreed to a Summer Proposal by which we would consciously pay attention to the tiny cracks in our world where signs of hope and good had shown themselves: little snapshots of, maybe, God’s Kingdom sneaking in with due stealth.

We decided to take pictures, draw pictures, paint pictures, and clip pictures and articles that witnessed such possibilities. We asked other, differently oriented, people to write poems or essay or thought balloons that pointed to observed points of hope and goodness arising. We invited still others to use whatever expressive media appealed to them.

The idea is that — at the end of the summer — we will have a tapestry of some sort to show the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and activity in our midst. A kind of banner depicting hope and joy and changed lives – things we saw or heard or felt or smelled or tasted our very own selves.

Do not just tell your priest about major rights anniversaries: Juneteenth (which we missed) or the Stonewall Riots that led to Gay Pride Month (which we are in) – tell your fellow congregants about them and what has grown from them. Then bring your plan for the church to mark or celebrate them to your priest.

So far, I’ve not taken any pictures or written any poems or choreographed a dance or produced a film for the Summer Proposal – though, hey, you never know… But here’s what I do daily anyway: slowly read the New York Times – and sometimes, the Wall Street Journal -in a spirit of openness and prayer, reading between the lines and from different perspectives.

Here’s what I’ve got today in the Good News category:

NIKKI HALEY CALLS FOR SOUTH CAROLINA TO TAKE DOWN THE CONFEDERATE FLAG FROM IN FRONT OF THE STATE HOUSE BUILDING 

TakeItDown

This looks like a done deal and it’s about time. The Confederate Flag was the emblem of the southern states that allied themselves to preserve the system of slavery in the United States. It belongs in a museum, as suggested by President Obama, and not flying as a continuing symbol of values this country long ago repudiated as hateful.
See at A1

 

THANKS TO OBAMACARE, FEWER PEOPLE ARE HAVING TROUBLE PAYING MEDICAL BILLS.  And the rate of uninsured poor continues to decline. 🙂 See at A3

FULL PAGE AD CALLING FOR DRUGSTORES AND PHARMACIES TO QUIT SELLING TOBACCO  Tobaccofreenys.org’s full-page newspaper ads are becoming more prominent and likely to have an effect in limiting the number of places that can sell tobacco products. See at A5

HILLARY CLINTON: PASSION AND CANDOR ON RACE RELATIONS
are helping define her campaign and being met with popularity by black leaders and the liberal voting population. Why is this hopeful? Anyone who can ally people of good faith to talk and act together to address racial inequalities and discrimination in this country is very, very good news for all of us.      See at A13

crossed-fingers-28409538ROBERTS COURT MOVING LEFT
Not a lot, but enough to make a difference. “Liberals are having a pretty good run so far this term.” Hugely important decisions await: same-sex marriage, subsidies for health care coverage under Obamacare, and just what drugs, if any, may be constitutionally used for lethal injection. Pray.

CITY REACHES DEAL FOR REFORMS AT RIKERS
Last year’s report from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan described “a place with almost medieval levels of violence, meted out with startling ferocity by guards and their superiors.” An extraordinary amount of the abuse described was directed at teenage inmates, especially the imposition of punitive solitary confinement.

Under the settlement concluded with the US Attorney’s Office, the City is required to appoint a federal monitor, create a stronger policy on the of use of force by guards, install thousands of surveillance cameras, and end the use of solitary confinement for inmates under the age of 18 and teenagers with mental illnesses.
It doesn’t solve all the problems nor does it do anything about the use of solitary confinement for any inmate for long periods of time, but it moves us toward a more humane institution. See at A19

Suicide of Former Teen Incarcerated at Rikers

WHAT ELSE? DAVID BROOKS’ OP-ED “FRACKING AND THE FRANCISCANS”
All of us who count ourselves “environmentalists” have been thrilled with the release of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si. David Brooks has now written an essay that lauds the Pope, but criticizes the encyclical, saying that it contains a share of “1970’s style doom-mongering about technological civilization” and implying that any “human relationships based on self-interest and competition are inherently destructive.” Along the way, Brooks concludes that “Francis doesn’t have practical strategies for a fallen world.”

So why is Brook’s Op-Ed in the “hope” column? Because David Brooks’ sharp, critical thinking can lead to intelligent conversation about how to deal morally with an enormously complex problem. He takes no cheap shots and he uses no jargon in pointing out that programs “based on the purity of the heart backfire.” Brooks thinks it clear, if ironic, that ‘the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivation of people as they actually are.”

What I find ironic is that Brooks, who writes frequently on virtue, character, and what makes for meaning in human life may be missing the fact that Laudato Si is not a faulty scientific/economic/political primer on the environmental crisis. As advertised, the Pope has written a theological primer on how Christians and others should approach the environmental crisis as sacred creation care and a form of stewardship — not resources to be exploited.

I would submit that Francis is not naive. Rather than produce a book of proposed answers to the world’s problems, I think he has set out the principles by which decision-makers — all of us — should approach component issues, from fracking to technology, from energy production to how to do the least collateral damage while “cleaning” the environment” and building economies.

Francis is advocating, I believe, the critical thinking David Brooks so prizes in applying the understandings of the Christian faith to practical on-the-ground problems. No one, probably, gets to have wholly clean hands (or a wholly pure heart) because every action we take is taken in the real world, with previous and future consequences, and what Brooks himself calls “low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.” See Brooks’Op Ed at A23. Read or download Laudato Si here.

Why do you preach what you preach?

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Chagall_Hagar & Ishmael in the Desert“I kind of wished you had preached on the Gospel,” a parishioner said to me after last Sunday’s service. “I’d like to understand what Jesus meant when he said ‘For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother….’” It was a reasonable request.

Instead, I had preached on the appointed Genesis story about Abraham’s abandonment of the slave who had given birth to his child, ousting both her and the child into the wilderness with a jug of water and some bread. What is a preacher to do when two of the texts read publicly in the service are troublesome? In this case, both the Genesis narrative and the Gospel needed some explication in order to hear the good news — without glossing over what, at first blush, sounds like pretty bad news.

This coming Sunday poses its own quandary. The first text is, again, from Genesis, and it is even harder than last week’s. This week, Abraham — that paragon of family values — hears God tell him to take his remaining son up the mountain and kill him as a sacrifice. God stops him before he does the deed, but, as William Saffron once pointed out, it’s no wonder Isaac’s name for God after that was “The Fear.” This week’s Gospel carries on from Matthew, it’s only two sentences and it’s about welcome – specifically, welcome as a critical part of our presence in the world around us. Which one do you hope your pastor chooses? Welcome sounds pretty innocuous, though it isn’t, at all. The Genesis lesson? It’s the original Text of Terror.

My own bent is to choose the darker passage. If you don’t confront it, most of your hearers will not hear anything else you say. They’re back at the first gasp: the part where they’re thinking, “wait a minute – God told this guy to truss up his kid, put him on the altar, and slay him?”   An additional reason, as the brilliant Frederick Buechner once noted, is that, truly, before the gospel is good news, it’s just the news. This is how things are. All of us – pastors and congregations – know as much about emptiness as we do fullness, and in the midst of our lives, as Buechner would also say, we are all straining to hear the truth. Why it all matters. If we cannot tell the truth about the darkness and the places where God seems absent, why would anybody believe us when we talk about the light and God’s presence. My rector at a church in New York City once told a visiting preacher, before he headed up to the pulpit: “Do not lie to these people. They ride the subway daily.”

Anyway, as you know, you can’t really hear the Gospel in snippets. You have to read the whole book to get the whole, glorious story. This is a good Sunday to be in church. At least, you know it will be interesting.

Believing in Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast

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One of my favorite lines in Alice in Wonderland comes when the White Queen tells Alice that, as a youth, she sometimes believed in at least six impossible things before breakfast.  There are plenty of people, I suspect, who believe that is exactly what Christians do:  believe in impossible things.

I took a Logic course in college that required students to construct syllogistic proofs for God’s existence.  Aside from making us feel extremely clever, the method was kind of a non-starter for convincing the avowed agnostics of my acquaintance.   The Jewish biblical scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel explains why in his wonderful book, The Prophets, when he states outright that “there are no proofs for the God of Abraham, there are only witnesses.”

Still, even firm believers undergo crises of faith and doubt – when the world seems too dark and cruel to admit of the compassionate and just God at the center of our faith.  Natural disasters and tragedies can produce great crisis, but so can flinging oneself too long and hard at human problems that just keep coming without relief; all those times when on the evidence, death seems to win hands down.

ImageA few years back, the private letters of Mother Teresa were published, disclosing that the Saint of Calcutta had endured a crisis of faith for decades.  For anyone who missed the news stories of the time (2009), while she was pouring out her life for the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa worried about the possible hypocrisy in the disparity between her belief and what she was publicly saying and doing.

Fortunately, it occurred to her at some point that the gap she was experiencing brought her close to the Christ, who in every Gospel save one, cries out on the cross:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus and Teresa shared the feeling of utter dereliction:  distant from the perceived certainty of God and God’s purpose.

What keeps people of faith from succumbing to such an experience?  Most of us need, from time to time at least, to feel the comfort of God’s presence, the sense that what we are doing in our lives has meaning, especially when those lives are coming apart.  When we lose the intellectual certainty we thought was part of our faith, we think we’re in trouble.  We forget that our knowledge of God resides in our sense memory and experience as much as it resides in our heads.  We forget Heschel, who happens to be right on this score.  We have never had proofs.  We have always, only, had witnesses to the God of history.

Mother Teresa was a witness.  Whether or not she felt God’s presence, she trusted – or acted as if, which may be the same thing  – that God would provide what she needed to continue caring for people the rest of the world had thrown away.  “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean,” she reportedly said, “But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”  Martin Luther King, Jr. was a witness.  In the midst of death threats and constant opposition, he kept right on acting out the ways of a God of love.  Abraham Joshua Heschel was a witness – who said that his feet were praying when he marched to Selma, Alabama for equal rights.  Once we are looking, we see God’s witnesses everywhere.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams pointed out once that people rarely come to faith because arguments and proof have persuaded them.  Far more convincing is the sight of  “a world we’d like to live in,” he said, glimpsed through the trustworthy lives of God’s witnesses   That’s been true from the beginning and the living of faithful lives is still the most important thing we have to present to the world.

Alice is a delightful work of fiction, though we know that human beings sometimes do believe in impossible things.  The difference for people of faith is that we often have the proof of God’s people doing them anyway.  And that makes all the difference.

For the Week of Pentecost 16: Beating People Up with Religion

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bent woman_2In today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 13:10-17), Jesus is teaching in a town synagogue on a random Saturday — the Sabbath.  When a bent and emotionally crippled woman approaches him, he interrupts his teaching and heals her with the words:  “you are set free from your ailment.”  An indignant elder immediately hurries over to chastize Jesus for breaking the Fourth Commandment (the law banning work on the Sabbath)  — and in a place of worship, no less.

All Jesus has to say to the religious official is: “You’re a hypocrite” and the battle is joined.  He points out that the Fourth Commandment (“Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy”) also provides that God’s people enable their animals and servants and any aliens under their roof to rest on the Sabbath, with the obvious effect that they should not be tied up or yoked or in any way unable to rest.  How, therefore, could it be against God’s law to unbind this woman on the Sabbath?

Most of us would probably agree with Jesus’ perspective here.  However, we ought not make the mistake of thinking the argument was really about what does and does not constitute “work” under the Fourth Commandment.  It might be worthwhile for us to reflect on examples in which we or our own church leaders use religious teachings to bind others or keep them bound — much as the good law against work on the Sabbath was used as a weapon against Jesus’ freeing a middle-aged woman from her sickness.

We know that some fundamentalist Muslims have used their Holy Scriptures as a justification for terrorism and murder.  But we should also remember that Christians have interpreted our Bible to justify all kinds of violence, as well as slavery and discriminatory treatment under the law of people outside the white, male, property-owning norm.

Jesus’ issues with the “organized religion” of his time had to a great deal to do with the application of religious laws — not for their original purposes of legislating humanity and compassion and justice — but to enforce the power of those who had it and collaborated with it.  Jesus, who routinely hobnobbed with women and other have-nots of his society, was a living rebuke to the political and religious authorities of his time.

What is amazing is how quickly his words and behavior can move from the safely religious to the unsafely political.  Relevantly, in last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus cautioned that he came to bring division, not peace.  In the Bible, such division is reconciled by the Cross.  How do we reconcile the tender words of Jesus with the discordant effects they had then and still have when we apply them in real life?

Steve Jobs, Greatness, Hurricane Irene, and the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

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I had every intention of writing about tomorrow’s Gospel, i.e., the cross and Peter’s objection to it.

Instead, I am here with Chuck the Siamese Cat, awaiting the predicted hurricane to the New York area.  Currently, it is not raining – though it has several times today – and the trees seem only mildly ruffled.  Chuck and I fully expect to see birds flying upside down outside our window and that will be our cue to shut down and repair to a more secure location.

Instead of the Gospel, however, and appropriate religious thoughts, I am reflecting upon the phenomenon of Steve Jobs and what he has meant to the world as we know it.  Jobs has resigned his leadership of Apple Computer Inc. and we are guessing that his pancreatic cancer has reasserted its domination of his body – as it seems always to do.  His resignation barely caused a hiccup in the stock market and everyone seems to agree Apple will be fine under new leadership if not, let us face it, as creative.

Creativity is, of course, exactly the point.  Jobs’ leadership has been the subject of many management studies – most of which focus on the fact that he is a micromanager who cares very little about “consensus” – which popular management literature sometimes posits as the ultimate standard for the rest of us.  In church circles, at least, “consensus” leadership has become the ideal.  I suspect there is no sin so great as perceived “unilateral” decision-making or presenting a plan of action that has not been officially signed off on by all those who claim a stake in the outcome.  In the law, by contrast, the notion of “procedural due process” arose so that everyone may be seen to have been heard – regardless of whether their views controlled or even influenced the final decision (IMHO).

How many meetings and retreats have many of us sat through in which the facilitator repeats the mantra:  “’We’ is smarter than ‘I.’”  Today’s Wall Street Journal (I know, I know) takes issue with this, pointing out in one place that “[G]roups can be great –for dodgeball and barn-raising.  But innovative ideas come from individuals.”[1]

Which brings us back to Steve Jobs, the subject of Steven Johnson’s splendid article in today’s Wall Street Journal.[2]  Johnson had me, easily, from his first sentence on how the purchase of his first Mac changed his life.  Johnson bought his in 1986, his freshman year of college.  But I got mine in 1985, when I worked for the Department of Economic Development in the City of New York.  The City, in the first flush of how great it would be to empower deputies and managers with desktop computers, hired an IBM consultant who had a contract to outfit all of us with PCs.

Instead of an IBM, I somehow managed to convince the IT department that I should have, not a PC, but a MacIntosh – about which I knew nothing beyond its own exciting advertising copy.  And that was the beginning of my own geekdom.  While everyone else attended classes on how to use their new computers, I was left to open my own boxes and set up my own computer and figure out how to use it.  And I was the only one able to create product almost immediately – not because I was smarter than everyone else, but because Mac was.  During the first week, when I ran into trouble getting an emergency position paper printed the night before a City Hall meeting, I called Cupertino and the technicians walked me through a solution.  I’ve had every Mac since then and now work on two “differently-abled” laptops, plus an iPad 2 and an iPhone 4 (and, yes, I have a Classic iPod just for music).

The Original "Electronic Toaster" in all its' 128k Glory

Steve Johnson talks in his article about the Mac being “a machine [he] wanted to live in” and how he was, before long, “creating page layouts for … student philosophy journals” and designing research tools using the “visionary Hypercard application….”  The truth is the Mac – which is to say, Steve Jobs and his vision — made us all brilliant because Jobs married, as he himself put it, “technology and liberal arts, … [technology] with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

I’ve read elsewhere of Jobs’ insistence upon doing things “his way” and following his own vision for what products should look like and feel like and do, and about his snarkiness with his own staff when they didn’t “get” what he was thinking.  Johnson himself makes the point that, in addition to brilliance, “invention is a collaborative art.”  It is true, I think, that all ideas profit from feedback and the insights of others, but, it seems clear also that genuine, world-changing innovation probably is not a project of consensus.

Which actually does bring me back to Jesus and the vision he insisted upon with his disciples – giving no quarter whatever to their feedback and objections and refined ideas.   As a colleague of mine has asserted, Jesus never once turned to his disciples and asked:  “what do you think we should do now?”

Without meaning to suggest that Apple has anything at all to do with the Kingdom of Heaven (although…), tomorrow’s Gospel is a case in point of Jesus’ vision prevailing over his disciple’s notion of what would be good enough.  He was not a consensus leader.

And having said all that, tomorrow, perhaps, assuming the availability of power, I may want to write about what the Gospel does say – or at least what I think it says.

Blessings in the storm – should it arrive.


[1] Holly Finn, “The Dead-End Cult of ‘Burning Man,’ WSJ (August 27-28, p. C12).

[2] “The Genius of Jobs: Marrying Tech and Art.”