Hold the hot sauce

I heard about a recent episode of “Brain Games” on the National Geographic Channel, where a social experiment was conducted to measure compassion. The experiment was to be conducted three times with the same group of people. And participants were to be paid separately upon the successful completion of each stage of the experiment.

For the first round, the subjects were asked to sign in at a reception desk, then enter through a closed door into a small room and sit at a counter. In front of the counter was a window that they were told was a two-way mirror; anyone looking through from the other side couldn’t see them, but they could see who was on the other side.

On the counter in front of the subjects was a tray containing a small bowl of chilli, and three bottles of hot sauce, labelled from left to right: “Mild,” “Medium”, and “DEATH!!”

The three were instructed to season their bowl of chilli with their choice of hot sauce. The seasoned chilli would then be given to another subject sitting opposite them on the other side of the glass, who would then have to eat all three bowls of chilli. Because here’s the catch:

The person receiving the bowl of seasoned chilli would have to finish the bowls if he or she were to be paid for that stage of the experiment. If they couldn’t eat all the bowls, everyone would leave empty-handed for that stage.

As you can imagine, for the first time, the group came in and dropped a few drops of the mild sauce into the bowl, and proceeded to watch the other guy eat the chilli. Easy! These people were nice! Or probably just motivated by getting paid, right?

But for the second round, the experiment changed a bit: Between the time the test subjects registered and got to the counter with the choice of hot sauce, they were hassled. A big, strong man walked through the room, head buried in his phone, and practically walked through each one of them. Not only that, he then blamed them! “Watch it, buddy!” “Two lanes!!!” he said rudely.

The disturbed, disrupted, subjects entered the room and followed the instructions to heat the chilli. But not before looking through the glass and seeing ‘mr.big and rude’ sitting there! He was going to have to eat their seasoned chilli, or suffer the consequences – no paycheque!

No one chose “mild.” At least one grinned wickedly as he poured “DEATH” on the chilli. They were getting their revenge. None of them were showing any compassion whatsoever. They didn’t care about getting paid. No one did.

In the third and final round of the experiment, ‘mr.big and rude’ did his thing again. This time he upped the ante with personally offensive comments aimed individually at the subjects waiting in the reception room.

But between the offensive words and the hot sauce, the instructor welcomed kindly each subject with a smile and a compliment. Each was offered a glass of water. And the instructor asked if they were comfortable and ready to begin.

When ready, the man they might have wanted to burn entered the room before them. What sauce do you think they chose? Most chose the ‘medium’ hot sauce. It seems the main difference this time was accounted for by the instructor’s insertion of compassion into the experiment. This compassion tempered, if just a little, their desire for revenge.

A smile, a glass of water, and a compliment. Small and seemingly insignificant acts make a difference, either way. Like a contagion, our behaviour affects the lives of others with whom we come into contact. Even a random act of kindness can breed more compassion in the world.

I suspect when we read a text from the bible like Saint Paul’s in his letter to the Philippians, our first thoughts are heaven-bound. He writes, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (chapter 1, v.21). ‘Dying is gain’, in other words, means ‘heaven’.

We would be like the hungry Israelites wandering through the desert but motivated solely by the goal of the “Promised Land”. The Christian life, therefore, would have very little to do with the challenges of the world in which we live. Leave that for the politicians and social workers, right? “Ours is a heavenly kingdom!”

You’ve heard the argument, I am sure: When it comes to caring for suffering people, working for justice for all, tending to our fragile environment — these things are not a priority because we’re in the business of ‘saving souls’ for ‘heaven’ nothing more nothing less. The assurance of our salvation in Christ can lead us very easily into a mistaken disengagement with the world. This echoes the gnostic heresy from the early centuries, whereby ‘spiritual’ folk held a contempt and disregard for anything ‘in the flesh’.

“I am just going to hide in my corner, here, ignoring the plight of others. As long as I can eek out a comfortable existence for myself and people I want to love, then who cares about everyone else. I don’t want to bother because I am scared. And I am going to heaven, anyway. What’s the point of it all?”

Well, the point is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is very much about living in the world, faithfully. While the Israelites lived in the hope of arriving at the Promised Land, God did not ignore their plight, and sent them food and water (Exodus 16:2-15).

The second half of the first chapter to the Philippian church is all about how to live with one another in this world, not the next. There’s no mention at all of heaven in the first chapter after Paul decides to “remain in the flesh … for you” (v.24). Rather, Paul emphasizes: “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (v.27) and calls the church to live in harmony with one another, in order to bear faithful witness to the world.

Especially when I meet with people in the second half of their life, the subject of our conversation often revolves around the purpose of their lives. They may have come through a difficult time, survived a risky operation, experienced a miracle of healing, or simply lived a very long life — and they wonder why God still keeps them around despite their ill health or age or whatever limitations they face.

And then I think of Paul’s message that, even though he suffers, he doesn’t give up because this world and the people in it matter. I think of Moses and the Israelites in the desert, wandering, hungry, complaining — and they don’t give up, because this world and the people in it matter. I think of Jesus who while suffering death on the cross still prayed that God would forgive the world (Luke 23:34). He doesn’t give up, right to his tortured end, because this life on earth matters.

When, like in the ‘Brain Game’ experiment, a focus and unity of active love towards others — however small the action — can make a difference in world, then our life has a great purpose.

What’s the point of it all? The purpose of our lives is to show love to others, and our behaviour affects the world in ways we can’t always measure or see right away. But affect it, it does! Even in the midst of our suffering. Even though it isn’t easy.

When the 30-year-old rock group U2 partnered with Apple they did something never before done: A couple of weeks ago U2 released their new album free of charge, if you have an iTunes account. Whether or not you wanted this new album, it was automatically downloaded into your playlist.

At first, as you can imagine, the reaction was mildly positive. Fans say the album is ok to good. And, hey, it was free! But the backlash has escalated after the first week of its release. Why? The last time U2 released a new album a few years ago, five million people bought it. Now, there are some 500 million (half a billion) users of Apple’s iTunes. That means, assuming that approximately 5 million worldwide would have purchased this new album, that leaves some 450 million people who would very likely not really want it.

This action for most may very well be an imposition. It is an intrusion into someone’s personal collection of music, like an unwanted guest. And who likes that?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ can be disruptive to our lives. The Gospel of Jesus Christ may call us out of our comfort zones. Our baptism in Christ calls us out of our selfish kingdoms justified by a ‘heaven-centred’ theology that may minimize the importance of life on earth, in the flesh. The Gospel of Jesus Christ may intrude into our hearts, yes. God’s call may at first feel like an unwanted guest, and create an inconvenience for us.

But God places immeasurable value in this created world, including you. On that first Christmas when God entered this fleshly existence as a human being, God demonstrated just how much God loves what He creates. A perfect world? No. A sinful world, yes. But to a world where we are freed to love all, with small acts of kindness and generosity and grace, every day? —

This lovely intrusion makes life on earth a worthwhile adventure.

Thanks to Rev Margo Whittaker for the ‘Brain Games’ illustration

Invitation to a Holy Place

If we had interpreted Jesus’ words, “you always have the poor with you but you do not always me” (John 12:8), to mean we should not concern ourselves with social justice and serving the needs of the poor, we fall for the gnostic trap:

Gnosticism in the early centuries was a belief system that, basically, separated the material realm from the spiritual realm. And, in the gnostic worldview deemed heretical by the early church, this material realm is essentially bad and worthless.

But if we look at the broader context of this text, we can gain a richer and deeper understanding of what is going on here. Especially as this text invites us to experience the senses of sight and smell: “The house was filled with fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). This story is very much rooted in the material reality of nard, perfume, feet, friends, the poor, homes, impending suffering and meals.

We cannot spiritualize this text away to mean something other-worldly, heavenly, eternal — basically disconnected from ordinary life. We cannot walk away from encountering this text only saying, “It’s all about sweet Jesus in heavenly glory and I can’t wait to get there!” Because the stuff of earth also matters dearly to our Lord.

To understand a difficult text it is often best to take a step back and see the big picture, what we call literary context. What are some of the contextual points?

First, the Gospel writer places this story at the beginning of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem where he will meet with treachery, suffering, torture and brutal death on the cross. Jesus accepts Mary’s extravagant gift of expensive perfume on the basis of his anointing for burial (v.7). Set in the broader context of Jesus’ passion, we begin to understand what Jesus means when he says, “you do not always have me” in verse 8. Because, literally, the time is coming when his friends will no longer see him in human form on earth.

But there is more.

Jesus begins this journey to the cross by coming home. Bethany, in some respect, was the home of his dear friends, Lazarus, Martha and Mary, whom Jesus “loved” (11:5). These are Jesus’ dearest friends. We say home is where the heart is, where we encounter family and friends. Home is a place where we feel safe to be who we are and know that we will be accepted by our loved ones no matter what. Understandably Jesus begins a difficult journey by first touching base in this holy place for him. This text begins with friends gathering around table for a meal.

A holy place, as I have heard from many of you over the past few weeks, is an event, experience or physical place where we have met God and God has met with us. It is, to some degree, a place of comfort, stability and grounding — where we feel revitalized and energized. We want to go there. From this holy place we are able then to re-engage the world refreshed with renewed vigor and commitment.

Holy places are defined by transformative relationships. Even when we are alone, so to speak, in that secret place of our hearts or sanctuary, God is with us. And we are called from that place forward.

The holy place for Jesus is not simply escapism to a Caribbean beach or any other dreamy landscape where we are protected from any discomfort. Our true holy places are not about withdrawal or drugged immunity from challenge and conflict. Otherwise those holy places just keep us addictively stuck; they do not serve to grow us as people of faith.

It gets muddy in those holy places. Judas complains. And the reader knows what he is doing with the common purse: he is a thief, up to no good. We also know that he will betray Jesus in a few days. This is part and parcel of the holy place experience. Holy places in the presence God do not buffer or sanitize us from harsh reality. They keep us on our toes. And they ultimately pull us out of ourselves and challenge us.

Lest we shy away from going to our holy place, be encouraged by the implied promise of this text: From this holy place of Jesus’ emerges a great, extravagant, gracious and valuable gift. And this gift, this treasure, is not discarded and dismissed as wasteful. The gift of Mary out of gratitude to Jesus for raising her brother Lazarus from the dead, the gift about which Judas bitterly complains as ‘wasteful’, this gift is received and accepted by Jesus.

Everything in our lives is valuable to Jesus. Jesus values and deems important those very material concerns of our lives, and the lives of those in need — the poor. When I pray to Jesus for help often the answer may not be what I want. But the affirmations that often come are in the form of material reality. In other words, voices don’t boom from heaven. Lightening doesn’t strike in the moment of prayer. Supernatural responses don’t come so much as does a phone call from the accountant, a letter in the mail, the words of a friend, the seemingly unconnected event — all shed a clear light on the matter of prayer.

Perhaps, if anything, I am called during Lent and by this text to pay attention to the daily, ordinary, earthly matters of my life. Therein Jesus is present, active, and values each ordinary decision I make. Because it’s important to him.

But it’s not just about my material needs. Mary makes a supreme material sacrifice, likely foreshadowing Jesus’ even greater sacrifice of love.

You have the poor with you always. Serve the poor. By focusing on serving others we let go of those distractions and obsessions of life that keep us trapped. You heard the advice given by the new pontiff, Francis, who advised his Argentinian church members not to spend money on attending his installation in Rome but rather to give that money to the poor.

But know this: In that good work, pay attention to the presence of Jesus who is always with us and guiding us and supporting us. We do live in the shadow of the cross. But we also live in the presence of the risen Christ. We may be surprised, in all our work for good.

So here is an invitation to daily companionship with Jesus — at the Table, in extravagant acts of compassion and generosity, in moments of worship in those holy places. (p.145, H. Stephen Shoemaker, Feasting on the Word). Because Jesus will not abandon us.

So, come! Come, eat with us. Come, share this time with us. Commune together with God and with one another. Come, join together with the people of God in holy places defined by relationships of love, to serve those in need and celebrate the great treasure we have and that we offer to the world.