The Gospel According to Pokémon

Ephesians 1:3-14
© Stacey Steck

For a while, back when we first got Netflix, our household was overcome with a fascination for Pokémon, the Japanese anime series about animal-like creatures possessing special powers that are trained to engage in duels. Pokémon actually stands for “pocket monsters,” in case you were uninformed, which I was until Netflix came along. The main character is a boy named Ash who travels from town to town engaging in battles with other Pokémon trainers and champions. His favorite, and most powerful battling Pokémon is Pikachu, but he has several others as well. And this is how the battles work: Each Pokémon trainer pulls out the Pokeball and throws it in the air and calls out the Pokémon contained within. So, in Ash’s case, he throws the ball up in the air and says, “Pikachu, I choose you!” and out pops Ash’s best buddy. And when the battle is over, Ash always commends his Pokémon before saying, “Pikachu, return,” when the critter is drawn back into the Pokeball to rest and be regenerated. And that’s the part of the show I like best, because the trainer is always grateful for the effort the Pokémon has made, even in defeat. There’s no condemnation for failure, no criticism that the critter hasn’t done enough. Just gratitude. Now, what makes Ash such a great competitor is the bond of trust and teamwork he has developed with his Pokémon, something which virtually every other trainer notices when they battle Ash. His Pokémon will give their absolute best for him, because of the relationship he has cultivated with each one. Now, our kids may not recognize it yet, but I hope some day they will be able to see that is this same kind of relationship the Apostle Paul is describing in the book of Ephesians, a relationship of trust and teamwork with God, forged through the work of Jesus Christ. In the midst of all the mysterious language of this passage we can find the same “I choose you,” and “Return” that makes the followers of Christ willing to give their best in the battles for the Kingdom of God.

When you boil down most human behavior to its most basic motivation, you find that motivation to be simply the desire to be loved, to know you have value and worth in the eyes of someone, anyone, God. I would suggest that you can take the most complicated human behaviors and at the bottom of them, is that primordial need for acceptance. This is not some Freudian analysis of the fragile human psyche, or a New Age take on self-esteem, or the product of some animator’s imagination, but rather, a logical explanation for why we do what we do, yours truly included. In behaviors as varied as the pursuit of money or fame, the crying of an infant, or the giving of an altruistic spirit, we can find the same motivation buried under layers and layers of personality, experience, family, and a host of other lesser and greater factors. We just want to be loved by someone. We want to be special, we want to be chosen. If you think you are above such petty and basic human motivations, come see me sometime and I’ll take you through an exercise which will prove it to even the most ardent skeptic.

With this a basis for our behavior, it raises the question of what our lives might be like if we could really accept and know that we were chosen, loved, and accepted. Would we behave differently with our loved ones? Would we choose a different career? Would we live differently as a result of knowing this rare gift? I suspect few of us will be able to answer that question for having fully acquired, or been granted, such a knowledge, but it seems to me that Christians should be above the median in this department based on what we know about our God who has loved us so much, as we are reminded in the Gospel of John that God gave his only Son that whosever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life. People of faith should have a higher degree of the certainty of their lovable-ness than the general populace, and, it should follow, should behave in ways reflective of that knowledge. We are a chosen people, after all.

Listen again to Paul’s awesome description of our relationship with God. “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.” That we might live for the praise of his glory, telling and showing the world how great God is and how much God loves it.

Paul’s bold statement on divine election sends a signal loud and clear that we are not random beings, accidentally collected as the church of Jesus Christ. God did not spin a heavenly lottery wheel to determine who would be chosen through Christ. And the people to whom Paul is writing are not people who know what it means to be the chosen people; these are Gentiles who know little or nothing about God’s covenant with the nation of Israel. But Paul knows. Paul knows that God promised Abraham that Abraham’s descendants would be blessed by God, and these are, in Paul’s eyes, the descendants of Abraham, brought into relationship with God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to God’s will. For these Gentiles then, the notion of being chosen would have been a radical concept. Paul is saying to them, “Here’s your good news: You too have been chosen and you too have been adopted as the children of God through what Jesus Christ has done.”

Now, as ancient as those thoughts are, I am not so sure that we have quite as firm a grasp on the idea of our chosen-ness as we might or ought. It’s true that many of the Reformation’s founders of the faith were big on the idea of divine election, or choice, and it’s true that as North Americans, we raised the idea to a fine but violent art in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, thinking that everything west of Long Island or Nova Scotia was the promised land and that the Indians were the Canaanites to be exterminated. But by and large, in these days, our understanding of being chosen by God as loveable, or chosen by God for a special purpose, is flagging. We are a lot more inclined to act as if we have, in fact, chosen God, instead of the other way around. And this loss of a clear understanding of the divine choice leads us to think that we are able to pick and choose our destiny as a people of faith, and that will lead us nowhere but into a mess.

Certainly it is a lot easier and more comforting to think that we can be the masters or captains of our own fate, to use the language made famous by the poem Invictus. There is no lack of encouragement for us to do this in our culture and our media. And at least we are doing something if we charge ahead, even if the charge isn’t exactly in the direction God had in mind. It is much more difficult to leave in the God’s hands something as slippery as God’s will. It is much harder to wait on God’s guidance than our own, and much harder to stay the course in the face of criticism or peer pressure or suffering when God sends us in an unpopular direction. Do not misunderstand me. I am not advocating a passive or fatalistic approach to our faith. But I am saying that what we have lost by failing to fully appreciate our being chosen by God is the ability to be tools and instruments in the service of God’s purposes. We are far more comfortable using God as a tool for our own purposes, seeking that favor in ways which may or may not be healthy for us or the rest of the world.

A few years ago, Rick Warren’s book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” was pretty popular, and the popularity of that book reveals something interesting about us, namely that we really are keenly interested in our purpose in this life, in this world, in the eyes of God. We intuitively know that we have a purpose, and getting beneath all the muck and mire of our daily lives to find that purpose is an increasingly popular pursuit, the stuff of bestsellers I wish I had written! I confess to not knowing exactly what Rick Warren has to say about our purpose but I do know what Paul has to say. According to Paul, the purpose for which we are chosen is this: that we “might live for the praise of his glory.” Paul is clear when he uses that phrase twice, “the praise of his glory.” Now it seems to me that left to our own devices, not fully sure that we are chosen by God, acting like we have chosen God, we are not going to pursue such a noble endeavor or purpose as living for the praise of God’s glory. We are more likely to live for the praise of our own glory, or simply the validation of others, because we just want to be loved.

So let’s go back to the Gospel according to Pokémon, and see what good news is there. You see, that conflict between the purpose of living for the praise of God’s glory and the ease of living for our own glory is the everyday battle our great Pokémon trainer in the sky sends us out to fight. Everyday, we are called to conquer the doubt that we are unloved in the world, or that we are purposeless in the world, and bring this message from Ephesians to the homeless, to friendless, and the lifeless, to a world that needs to know it is indeed chosen. And so, God throws us out there every morning with the reminder, “Carol, I choose you!” or “Charles, I choose you!” or “Stacey, I choose you!” and turns us loose with the divine gifts each one of us have received. And we go out to do battle in the bond of trust and teamwork that God has established with us in Jesus Christ. And at the end of the day, victorious or defeated, exhilarated or exhausted, God says, “Carol, Charles, Stacey, Return!” And we are once again enveloped in the divine grace and mercy that has been there since the beginning of the world.

It’s a challenge, right? How often can you look back at the end of your day and say to yourself, “Self, you did a good job out there today helping other people see God’s glory”? But that is what living for the “praise of God’s glory” is all about, helping, allowing, enabling ourselves and other people to experience the God who chooses against all odds, who has, from the very beginning, decided to lavish us with the riches of grace, to gather us up in the divine, to make us holy and blameless. And so when we live like we really know we are chosen, we live in a way that invites recognition that God is really pretty amazing after all. It’s a challenge, but we don’t go into that battle alone. Christ goes along with us. This church, and the church of Jesus Christ as a whole, is in dire need of people who live like they know God has chosen them, people who will invest themselves in helping others to know they are chosen. That, my friends, should be our fascination. May we all be open to the ways God is showing us we are chosen, that we might live for the praise of God’s glory. Amen.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Synagogue

Mark 5:21-43
© Stacey Steck

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Well, at least that’s what I thought when my hairline began to recede at a faster and faster rate and I was too poor to afford Rogaine, that blood pressure medicine that is supposed to grow hair on some men, wink, wink. I found some consolation in the fact that just after I would have my hair cut, I looked the least bald. But it was clearly a losing battle. So I enlisted a hairdresser friend and told her to make me look like Captain Jean Luc Picard and I came out with this economical look. I can make a bottle of shampoo last for more than a year. Desperation is surely a product of vanity.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Well, at least that’s what I thought when I traded in my perfectly good Subaru hatchback on a new pickup truck many years ago now. I was young and foolish and thought I needed that truck. Too bad I neglected to find out how much the insurance would be before I bought it, and a phone call later the desperation I felt before the purchase was nothing compared to the desperation I experienced once it was parked in my own driveway. It was easily the biggest financial mistake of my young life and the next morning I was at the dealership even before they opened, begging the salesman to please take back this truck. As it turns out, that truck gave me 160,000 heavy duty miles and I was heartbroken to see it die an ignominious death, hanging from the hook of a junkyard wrecker. A happy ending aside, surely impulsiveness begets a sense of desperation.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Well, at least that’s what a certain woman thought when she saw an itinerant carpenter’s son approach. It didn’t matter that he was hurrying off to see about healing a girl no better off than dead. People don’t recover when they’re that close to death! Why should he waste his time on that girl when she herself, who was still very much alive, had been bleeding uncontrollably for twelve long years, twelve years during which she was unable to worship with her family, twelve years during which she was the ultimate outcast, twelve years when she was no better than a leper. If she could only touch a thread of even the fringe of his cloak, perhaps she could ease something about her situation. Truly, desperation is the companion of intense suffering.

My own episodes with desperation sound a little shallow compared to the situation of the woman in this morning’s passage from Mark. Funny to say, but it’s true: I am lucky that my desperation has been brought about by vanity and impulsiveness. I’ve been fortunate that I have never been truly, truly desperate, desperate to the point of committing a crime. For this, I am grateful. But what of those who really are desperate? Desperate enough even to commit a crime? Let’s take a look at the evidence of the crime in our passage from Mark. Jesus is on his way to the house of a fairly important Jewish leader named Jairus, a desperate man whose daughter is near death. Jesus goes with him to heal this man’s daughter and as Mark tells us, to lay his hand on her. We shall see that physical contact with Jesus is indeed the key part of the story, especially in light of what happens next: Jesus is touched by an unclean woman.

The woman who touches Jesus has everything going against her. She is ritually impure; if she was married, we can be sure that she didn’t have relations with her husband for that would make him impure; we may even suspect that her family has abandoned her because of her long-standing impurity since everything she touched had to be purified; she is most certainly poor, as we read that she spent all of her money on doctors. In order to understand her impurity and what it really meant for Jesus that she touched him, we must look to the 15th chapter of Leviticus in which we find that a menstruating woman was the most unclean of the unclean as far as the religious establishment saw it. This section is worth reading aloud and comes after a discussion of the impurity caused by a woman’s regular monthly menstruation:

“If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. Every bed on which she lies during all the days of her discharge shall be treated as the bed of her impurity; and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her impurity. Whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. If she is cleansed of her discharge, she shall count seven days, and after that she shall be clean. You shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, so that they do not die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.” Pretty serious stuff.

And then we have Jairus, a man who knows the law and knows what we just read, that anyone who touches a woman in her condition is impure until evening, even after he has washed. And so imagine the dismay of this desperate father. This woman has utterly defiled Jesus by her desperate act. For Jairus, Jesus’ standing before God must be marred, tainted, his power discharged like her blood. How can Jesus now go and lay his hand on his daughter? How could Jesus have the power to raise someone from the dead if he wasn’t even fit to worship God, to be in the presence of God? Even if he were still able to save her, his impurity would then be spread to the girl. The hemorrhaging woman has ruined this father’s last chance to save his daughter. How selfish she is, this woman who suddenly came from nowhere, to defile Jesus and rob a father of his little child! She is little better than a common criminal.

So, we have two desperate people wondering, “why me, God?,” both desperate beyond measure to get a life back, both willing to do anything, and one of them even willing to cause someone else to be impure and cause another family incalculable grief. And Jesus credits it to her as faith. A crime has been committed and Jesus calls it faith. Is faith, then, the child of desperation?
Jairus must have understood well that the purity laws in Leviticus have less to do with defining a rigid lifestyle for the people of Israel than they do with maintaining the holiness of the people of Israel. The holiness of the people, to be modeled on the holiness of God, was of paramount importance. So when the holiness of a member of the community is violated intentionally, it is tantamount to purposefully violating the holiness of God. Offenses against God were serious business in Israel. What this woman did, in effect, was defile God, not so much because it was Jesus she touched, but because she caused another person to become impure for her own selfish ends. In most cases, we would call this me-first attitude a crime. We would call it a crime if a desperate woman broke into a church and stole the Sunday offering, even if it was because she had no insurance to pay for her hysterectomy. We would call it a crime if a desperate woman sold her body to a man to earn money, even if it was so she could buy food and clothing for her three hungry children. We would call it a crime if a desperate woman shot her husband, even if she did it while he was throwing her around the house because dinner was late. By the letter of the law, these are crimes, despite the mitigating circumstances. It is true that in our own time, these examples are civil, rather than religious crimes, and do not defile God, per se, at least not in the way the Israelites understood it. But is not the theft of property proscribed by God? Is not the degradation involved in prostitution grievous to God? Is not the loss of any life keenly felt by God?

Jesus is being very confusing here. On one hand he tells us to repent, to turn away from sin and evil and come close to God, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Then on the other he says that a crime, committed as an act of desperation, is faith that moves God to heal and save. What is he saying about faith? Are the inmates to run the prison? Is anything excusable in the name of desperation? Or is this an invitation to take a good hard look at our own views of grace and salvation in light of Jesus’ declaration of this woman’s faith?

I started out by saying that I have never really been desperate. I had my moments but in the long run, they were sort of petty. But I worked for a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for many years and I’ve known quite a few people who have been desperate and have done things that we would call crimes, things that most of us would never dream of doing. If desperate times call for desperate measures, why then is this hemorrhaging woman called faithful for committing a crime while the rest of us just get locked up? Was she particularly attractive? Did she have a good lawyer? Or, perhaps, was it because she was desperate for God? We mustn’t forget that the primary problem with impurity is that it prevented the unclean one from worshipping God in the temple. This woman, this faithful one who dared to touch Jesus’ garment and inflict him with her impurity, did so in order that she could, after twelve long years, once again worship God.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. At least that’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought when he returned to Germany in 1933 after only a year in the United States. His story is pretty well known but I’ll remind you that he was one of but a handful of Christian leaders in Nazi Germany to stand up and object to Hitler. His opposition to the Third Reich was so intense that he became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler and, being caught, spent many years in prison, finally being hanged just days before American troops liberated his concentration camp. That God might be worshipped, truly worshipped without nationalism and hatred, hypocrisy and violence, Bonhoeffer committed a crime, as an act of desperation, that healing and salvation might take place. Should his crime not also be called faith?

Martin Luther King, Jr. explained in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail his rationale for breaking the law. He put it this way: “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority...So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful.” King believed that segregation laws were contrary to the will of God, that segregation broke the human spirit to the point that worshipping God became difficult for all the hardships imposed by injustice. For wanting all people to have the freedom God intends, Martin Luther King, Jr. spent many a night in jail. Should his crimes not also be called faith?

In the story of her struggle to become a priest in the Episcopal Church, which did not ordain women until 1974, Carter Heyward expresses a desperation that sounds a lot like our story today. After certain bishops had ordained 11 women to the priesthood, the House of Bishops met and voted to oppose and render invalid the ordinations. Concerning the opposition they faced and the many calls to be patient, she writes this: “We could have waited -- until tomorrow; until 1976; we could have waited forever. We did not have to do it. We chose to do it. The Lord God of justice always calls people to just action now. Usually we do not respond decisively. We do not hear the call, or we do not understand it, or we do not take it seriously, or we are too busy with other priorities. Occasionally, by grace, a human being will choose to respond now.” There were many in the Episcopal Church who felt that the Reverend Carter Heyward broke the canonical laws of the church by responding now. Should her crime not also be called faith?

Desperate times call for desperate measures. The woman in our story could have waited another twelve years to stop her bleeding but that would have been another twelve years of misery. She could tolerate no longer the separation from God and community and she makes her desperate move just after Jesus has agreed to help someone else. Can we not forgive her for thinking, “Why not me? Why not now?” As with Bonhoeffer and King and Carter Heyward, it was, then, by grace, that this human being chose to respond now to the call of God to justice and wholeness and health. The miracle in this story is not that Jesus healed a hemorrhaging woman. No, the miracle in this story is that the grace of God compelled her to respond now, even if it meant breaking a sacred law. A funny thing happened on the way to the synagogue. A desperate woman took matters, quite literally, into her own hands and got away with it. An astounding thing took place on the way to the synagogue: her faith, expressed in a crime of desperation, moved God to make her well. May we all be so desperate to worship God! Amen.