Sunday, August 27, 2017

Rejoice!

Rejoice!
Philippians 4:4-7
            “Your joy is your choice.  Today I choose joy,” says Mike Himes—and he is correct.  Yes, we know there are times when joy is not possible.  Serious tragedies, dire straits, difficult moments may dampen joy for a season.  Joy is an inappropriate emotion in some circumstances.  But I think Himes understands such seasons and circumstances.  Instead, he is referring to those people who walk around with their own personal cloud formation hanging over them—the ones who choose not to be joyful.  It’s to these people Himes is speaking: “I’ve chosen joy.  What’s your choice?”
            There was a time when my life wasn’t joyful.  True, I had reasons not to be joyful, but when I look back I realize both my circumstances and my lack of joy were my choice.  I chose to be a grouch.  At work, when I walked through the halls, people would say, “Why are you so angry?”  I didn’t know I looked angry, but my face evidently reflected the un-joyfulness I felt inside.  I remember myself back then, and wonder how anyone put up with me.  I must have been a terrible drag to be around.
            Praise the Lord, those days are in the past.  Changes happened that led me to choose joy over anger, and a pleasant expression over a grouchy face.
            Paul knew how easy it is to forget to choose joy.  He had just entreated two of his fellow workers for Christ to “agree in the Lord,” even urging other members of the church at Philippi to “help these women.”  Whatever had caused the rift between them, it was getting in the way of their joy.  We will never know—this side of heaven—what caused them to disagree, but we have seen enough of these situations to know how devastating such un-joyfulness can be.  Paul wanted them to change their outlook.
“Rejoice in the Lord always,” he says, “and again I say, rejoice.”  Tabitha Gray says, “Paul was smart enough to say it twice because we might not have gotten it the first time.” 
Theatre textbooks say that playwrights tell us something three times if they want us to remember it.  We may be surprised, then, that Paul only tells us twice.  Still, if we’re even half awake, twice should be enough.
            It might not appear that Julian of Norwich had much to be joyful about.  She was a medieval mystic and theologian.  For a good part of her adult life she lived in a small cell attached to the wall of the Church of St. Julian, from which she might have received the name by which we know her.  Julian said, “The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything.” 
            Primitive religions teach that all life is sacred, that divinity can be found in all things.  In this respect, they may be closer to the truth of God than most modern Christians.  Like Julian, they see the sacred in everything. 
            If this is the secret of joy, it is even more important to make the joyful choice, not just today, but every day.  We owe it to ourselves, to our loved ones, to everyone—to God, to be so full of joy that it wells up in us and overflows.
            Is it possible?  Can we do it?  Can we put aside the un-joyful aspects of our lives and be so aware of God in everything and everyone that we practice the fullness of joy every day? 
            Do we dare to do otherwise?  Bethany Hawks says, “Each of us can be a reflection of what joy is.”  She might have said, “Each of us can be a reflection of what God is.” 

That’s what Paul urges every Christian to do.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Right Place

The Right Place
Acts 9:1-22
            Yes, I know it’s a long passage—twenty-two verses to be exact—but you can never get enough Scripture—right?  Besides, you have to read the whole story of Saul’s conversion in order to understand where I’m going with this.
            We know him better as Paul, but before he was given his new name, he was Saul.  That’s the name his parents gave him, and the name by which he was known by both the Pharisees and the earliest Christians.  He doesn’t become Paul for another three chapters.  Since we’re talking about his conversion, we’ll call him Saul.
            Douglas Adams is best known for his whacky and irreverent book series which begins with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  These books aren’t for everyone, but if you have a certain offbeat sense of humor, they might appeal to you.  One warning:  don’t expect them to make sense in the usual meaning of that word.
            Somewhere Adams said, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”  Most of us have had this experience.  We’ve started out for someplace, and wound up someplace else.  Sometimes this happens by accident.  My sense of direction isn’t the best, so I occasionally make a wrong turn and get lost.  That’s not what Adams means.  I’ve often said that if I ever write my autobiography the title will be, But God Had Other Plans.  I think that’s what happened to Adams.  I know that’s what happened to Saul.
            Saul is headed for Damascus.  He’s so angry at this new religion—Christianity—that he’s “breathing fire.”  We’ve met people like that, people so incensed about something that they can barely control their tempers.  Saul wants to get to Damascus quickly so he can arrest Christians and bring them back to be punished—punished severely—by the Jewish leaders.  We know his high energy level from his writing and his preaching, so we picture him going down the road as fast as his legs can move him.  His companions have a difficult time keeping up.
            Suddenly, there’s a blinding light around him, and a voice from heaven drives him to his knees.  In an instant, his direction is changed.  He’s still headed for Damascus, but not on his own.  He is blind, and has to be led by his companions.  Instead of going to the synagogues to arrest Christians, Jesus directs him to Straight Street—not to act, but to wait.
            We know the rest of the story.  Ananias, shaking with fear, comes to him, lays his hands upon him, and his sight is restored.  Saul does go to the synagogues, but to proclaim Jesus as Messiah and Lord rather than to cause havoc.  The story continues, through missionary journey after missionary journey, finally ending in Rome where he is executed for the faith he once persecuted.  He began his journey on one side of the religious fence, but finished it on the other.  He did not go where he intended to go, but ended up where he needed to be.
            Have you had a similar experience?  Has your destination been changed?  You knew where you were going, had your destination not only in your mind but in your sights.  Your GPS was set, and your vehicle was headed down the road you had chosen. 
But God had other plans.  Now you are nowhere near where you thought you were going—but you are in the right place.  Celebrate the change of direction.  Understand that God has taken control and taken you where you need to be.  It’s okay that you didn’t reach your intended destination.  Instead you’ve arrived where, like Saul—Paul—you can do the most good. 

            Welcome home.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Seeing God

Seeing God
Colossians 1:15-20
            I love Sunday school stories.  Children say such cute things—and it’s interesting how many of them are profound.  We tend to write children off, thinking they can’t possibly say anything important, but if we listen carefully, they often surprise us.
            A small child was drawing a picture in Sunday school.  Her teacher said, “That’s an interesting picture.  Tell me about it.”
            “It’s a picture of God.”
            “But nobody knows what God looks like.”
            “They will when I get done.”
            We chuckle.  How cute.  How innocent.  How na├»ve—or is it?  We know our little artist can’t draw a picture of God, because no one really does know what God looks like.  But is it possible to somehow see God? 
            Moses asked to see God when they met on Mount Sinai.  God granted the request—in part.  Protecting him from being overwhelmed—knowing that the sight of God’s face would mean Moses’ death—God passed by, allowing Moses to see his back.
            Is that the best we can hope for, a partial view, thousands of years ago, a second-hand report of a firsthand experience, not written down until centuries later by someone who wasn’t alive when it happened?  Actually, no.
            In the first chapter of his letter to the church at Colossae, Paul makes a revealing statement about Jesus Christ and his relationship to God.  “[Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God,” Paul says.  If we have seen Jesus Christ, we have seen God—God in the flesh:  walking, talking, living, loving.
            Is this enough?  Will it satisfy us?  Is it our only option?  We can’t see Jesus in the flesh; he is no longer visible to us.  Paul did see him in a vision on the Damascus Road.  Even this short glimpse of the glorified Christ causeed Paul temporary blindness.  Perhaps, if visions have this effect, we should be satisfied with Paul’s account.
            I imagine many of you, like me, will not be satisfied.  We want to see a fuller picture.  If looking at Jesus is the way to see God, is there a way to see enough of him to satisfy us?  Actually, yes.
            We have the gospels records.  They give us a complete picture of what God is like.  In their pages, we see love—God’s love as displayed in Jesus’ life, words and actions. 
            We see a healing God:  a God who has the power to make people physically, emotionally and spiritually whole, restoring balance to their lives.
            We see a resourceful God:  a God who can turn water into wine, who can make food stretch further than someone on a tight budget, a God who can control the forces of nature.
            We see a forgiving God:  a God who says, “Go and sin no more,” a God who can reconcile even the disciple who denied him.
            Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God.  When you read the gospels, you see God looking out at you from every page—God in the flesh:  walking, talking, living, loving.

            What better picture could we ask for?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

An Heir Apparent

An Heir Apparent
Romans 8:14-17
            In Out of the Salt Shaker and Into the World, Rebecca Manley Pippert discusses the story of the Prodigal Son.  She refers to him as “the heir apparent” after he returns home.  His father has placed sandals on his feet, a rich robe over his shoulders, and a ring on his finger.  Pippert says he still looks terrible from his days of living and eating with the pigs, and from his long journey home, but he is dressed like the heir apparent.
            Which, of course, he is—one of two, but still an heir.  He is no longer a prodigal.  He was not received as a slave.  He is a member of the family.  He may have been a prodigal, but his father won’t let him be anything but a royal son.
            I prefer the image of a prodigal child to that of an adopted child to describe those who have acknowledged Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  Paul favors the metaphor of adoption, and I understand why.  Paul was a Jew, one of God’s chosen people.  He’d taken a huge cultural step when he accepted his mission as apostle to the Gentiles, and he devoted his life to bringing them to Christ.  But for him, they were outside the family of God until they were adopted in.
            I believe that we are all God’s children—wayward perhaps, lost perhaps, but still God’s children.  We were made by God.  God is our heavenly parent.  We don’t need to be adopted into the family.  What we need is to find our way back home.
            Jesus didn’t make a distinction between Jew and Gentile.  Yes, he said he had been sent to redeem the lost sheep of Israel.  His primary mission was to fulfill the law and the prophets.  Still, he visited the region of Tyre and Sidon—outside Jewish territory.  There he healed the daughter of a Syrophoenecian (read Gentile) woman and fed four thousand people.  The five thousand Jesus fed (Mark 6) were Jews.  The four thousand (Mark 8) were Gentiles.  We know the demon-possessed man Jesus healed in the country of the Gerasenes (Mark 5) must have been a Gentile.  No Jew would have chosen to be a swineherd.
            Paul does say that God makes no distinction between Jews and Greeks.  We know he accepts the Gentile believers as his brothers and sisters in Christ.    In today’s reading, he makes that clear: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons [and daughters] of God.”  We have been redeemed from slavery and given our freedom.  Like the prodigal son coming home, we have resumed our place in the family of God. My disagreement with Paul is about the origin of that relationship.
            Let’s skip the adoption bit and look at Paul’s next statement.  As God’s children, we can say Father—literally, Daddy!  “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…”  Whatever our mode of coming into the family, adoption or return, we are in.  But wait!  There’s more!
            If we are children, then we are heirs, “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.”  As long as we stay the course—remain in relationship with God—we are not only welcome at the family table now, but assured of being heirs in the age to come.
            When we think of the Prodigal Son story, we usually place ourselves on the outside looking in.  Perhaps we are guests at the party given in the son’s honor, or townsfolk looking in the windows.  Now—put yourself inside the story.  It’s you with good shoes on your feet.  It’s you wearing the royal robe.  It’s you wearing the signet ring.  Look at the story from that perspective.
You are the heir apparent. 

Doesn’t it feel good?