Sunday, November 29, 2020

Keep Your Feet Moving

 

Keep Your Feet Moving

Matthew 10:16-23

            Network television is pretty much lost on us.  We rarely watch anything on the major networks except the news from 5:00-6:00 each night.  We keep up with some of the British and Australian mystery series on PBS.  We don’t stream anything.  We have a bunch of movie and PBS DVD’s we keep saying we’ll watch, but we never seem to get around to it.

            What we watch mostly is sports.  I count myself fortunate to have married a woman who not only enjoys sports as much as I do, but also enjoys watching them the same way I do.  We even root for—and against—the same teams—mostly.

            After supper—sometimes during supper—we turn on a football, basketball, or baseball game and let it run as background entertainment.  My wife enjoys doing puzzles and I usually keep two or more books going at the same time.  We keep the sound turned down low on the TV so we can keep track of the game without it demanding our constant attention.  If the announcer gets excited we know to look up because something important is happening.  Thank goodness for instant replay.  This combination of activities keeps us entertained for hours.  When one game ends, we turn to another one.  When the last game is over (or the last one we want to watch) we turn off the TV and continue with our reading and puzzles.

            I know we’re unusual, but that’s how we enjoy an evening at home.  It’s not that we ignore the games; it’s that they rarely are so interesting as to claim our complete attention.  We can do this for an entire evening, rarely even speaking to each other.  We’re not ignoring each other, we’re just comfortable enough in each other’s presence that we don’t have to talk much.

            One thing I have learned from football:  the guy with the ball is most successful when he keeps his feet moving.  Sometimes a runner will seem to be stopped by one or more tacklers, but he keeps his feet moving, keeps his legs pumping, and gains a few more yards.  Recently we saw a runner score a touchdown while hopping on one leg.  The other leg was being held parallel to the ground by an opponent.  Pretty determined running.

            Jesus was teaching his disciples the same lesson in today’s Scripture passage.  He warned them they would face difficult times.  “Behold,” he tells them.  “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.”  They will be hauled into court, beaten, jailed, perhaps even killed for the sake of the gospel.  They may be given over to the authorities by their own family members.

            Jesus paints a bleak picture.  Think what it would be like if someone tried to recruit us to work for a company and said, “We’d love to have you work for us, but you should know up front it won’t be easy.  There is a very good possibility that you will wind up in court.  You could be beaten and jailed.  You can’t rule out the possibility of torture and death.  Your own family may turn against you.”  Not much of a sales pitch, is it?

            But Jesus’ sales pitch doesn’t end there.  He promises that the retirement benefits will be the best part of the package.  He says, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

            Jesus has one more warning.  The work will not be completed in your lifetime.  When your time here on earth is over, there will be work left for the next generation, and the next one, and the one after that—on and on until Jesus says, “That’s all!”

            Above all, keep your feet moving.  Keep your legs pumping.  Keep pushing that pile of obstructions forward, keep moving the ball farther down the field.  You may not reach the goal line, but get as close as you can.  Someone else will pick up the ball and continue the game.  Endure to the end.  The next set of players will take it from there.  Your job is to keep moving those feet.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

"Cruelty Is Surely More Evil than Lust"

 

“Cruelty Is Surely More Evil than Lust”

Matthew 5:2-11

            As a teenager C.S. Lewis became an atheist, a position he held until he could no longer ignore what he saw as evidence for the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus Christ.  He became an apologist for Christianity.  Among his best-known writings are the Narnia  series, The Screwtape Letters, and Plain Christianity.

            Lewis’ writings are easy to read, but sometimes not easy to accept.  He wasn’t afraid to call traditional Christian beliefs on his carpet if he felt they were not the truth as he understood it.  For him, following Christ meant total commitment, no half-way measures.  His intellect did not permit him to accept easy answers or half-truths.

            Lewis said, “Cruelty is surely more evil than lust.”  He was aware that most Christians keep their own lists of unacceptable sins and acceptable sins.  Our private lists divide themselves into the sins of others (unacceptable) and the sins we hold dear (acceptable).  We have the disturbing habit of making excuses for our sins while holding others accountable for theirs. 

            It’s a great game we play:  picking and choosing what we consider sin based on the things we enjoy and the things we see others doing.  To make matters worse, we often judge others for sins they commit while we engage in other versions of the same ones, recognizing sin in others which we are more than willing to overlook in ourselves.

            Jesus would have none of it.  He was very clear about sin.  If you read carefully through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) you begin to understand the nature of sin. 

            The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes—the blessings.  Jesus doesn’t begin by condemning people for what they do wrong.  He begins by praising—blessing—people for attitudes and patterns of behavior which he approves.  Perhaps we should do the same.  Rather than focusing on sin, perhaps we should establish the blessed behaviors in ourselves and look for them in others.

            When we read the Beatitudes we find the opposite of cruelty.  They are about kindness, humility, peacemaking, mercy—habits of mind and action which are the opposite of cruelty.   We can’t be cruel to people and treat them with kindness.  We can’t be cruel to people and show them mercy.  Humility does not permit cruel behavior, nor does peacemaking.

            Look as closely as you will, there nothing in the Beatitudes about lust.  Does this mean that lust is acceptable?  Definitely not.  If we read a little further (5:27-28) we find that Jesus sees no difference between adultery and lustful thoughts.  To think lustfully about someone is the same as committing adultery in Jesus’ eyes.

            Jesus is not alone in his condemnation of lust.  It is prohibited in the Ten Commandments.  Exodus 20:17 says, “Do not covet.”  Surely covetousness and lust are synonymous.  To lust after something or someone is to covet. 

            Paul creates lists of sins.  We find one in Ephesians (4:30-32) and another in Galatians (5:19-23).  Actually, each list has two parts:  characteristics we should avoid and those we should cultivate.  Yes, we will find lust there, if not the word then actions which derive from lust.  But we will also find anger, bitterness, wrath, evil speaking.  All these lead to cruel behavior. 

            We can’t pick and choose.  We can’t say “My cruelty is acceptable but your lust is not.”  Paul says “No!”  Jesus says, “No!”  God says, “No!”

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Living with a Thorn in the Flesh

 

Living with a Thorn in the Flesh

Or

Sufficient Grace

2 Corinthians 12:7-9

 

            It’s interesting how many sayings from Scripture have become part of our vocabulary.  A dear friend uses one frequently.  When someone asks her to do something she doesn’t feel she’d be good at she says, “That’s not my spiritual gift.”  I haven’t learned that lesson yet.

            One such expression is “a thorn in the flesh.”  My mother used this occasionally, along with several other biblical expressions.  It’s interesting:  my father was much more of a biblical scholar, but my mother used far more of these expressions.

            In verses leading up to this phrase Paul has been boasting about his suffering as an apostle.  I use the word “boasting” in italics because no one is his right mind would boast about suffering.  Paul doesn’t boast either; he just wants the Corinthians to know he could boast since he has suffered so much on his missionary journeys.  A reading of these travels in the Book of Acts makes clear that Paul endured much hardship for the sake of the gospel.  He did so willingly because he knew the results would be worth it.

            We don’t know what Paul’s thorn was.  He doesn’t identify it past saying that it was troublesome.  Over the centuries there has been much speculation, but we have no way of knowing what it was.  Considering all he suffered in his missionary career we can conclude it must have been very difficult to deal with.  Paul identifies this thorn as “a messenger of Satan.”  It must have been serious indeed.

            Paul took the path most of us would take.  He asked God to remove it.  Quite likely he believed his service to God would be far more effective if whatever was troubling him so severely was taken away.  He wouldn’t have to worry about it any longer, so he would be better able to concentrate on proclaiming the gospel.

            God’s answer was a resounding, “No!”  God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Paul had to learn to live with whatever he felt was handicapping him because that’s the way God wanted it.

            Many of us are troubled by something we feel inhibits our full and free service to God.  It may be something simple or something complex.  It may be something physical, or emotional, or something that lies outside of ourselves but still, we believe, prevents us from giving complete, perfect service to God.  We may have even prayed as Paul did, asking God to remove what we perceive as a thorn.  If so, we may have received an answer similar to the one God gave to Paul.  “Don’t worry about what you see as a thorn in the flesh.  I’ll work around it—perhaps even work through it.  My power will work in you to make your service more than acceptable.  You don’t need to be perfectly strong.  I’ll be strong for you—and in you, and through you.”

            Earlier in this letter (4:7), Paul says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”  We cannot effectively serve God in our own strength.  We must rely on God’s power to achieve even the limited results of which we are capable.

             But we must not worry about the results of our service.  God doesn’t call us to be successful, only to be faithful.  Paul’s faithfulness, coupled with God’s power produced results that helped change Christianity from a small Jewish sect to a worldwide religious movement.  Our jars of clay are vessels enough in God’s hands, and God’s grace is sufficient to overcome any thorn.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

"All of Me, Why Not Take All of Me"

 

“All of Me, Why Not Take All of Me”

Luke 9:57-62

            Harsh words from Jesus. 

            To the first person Jesus says, “If you follow me don’t expect an easy life.  You’ll always be on the go.  Little time to rest, no settled home, never sure where your next meal is coming from, where you’ll spend the night, and definitely no medical insurance.

            To the second person Jesus says, “Your commitment to me comes before any other commitment you can imagine—commitments to family, to whatever career you were pursuing, to friends.  Nothing matters except your service to me.  And that service begins now.”

            To the third person Jesus says, “If you intend to follow me you can’t look at what you’ve left behind.  You can’t look back at your former life.  You can’t think about your family, or the friends you might have been close to, or any circumstances of your past.  Don’t look back; start serving me now.  If you turn around you won’t plow a straight furrow of service.”

            The disciples we read about did just that.  They gave up their homes, their settled lifestyles—everything they had ever known for a life on the move.  First they traveled around Galilee.  Then they spent time in Jerusalem.  Finally they were dispersed to the ends of their world, many to live and die in strange places, unaccompanied by family.

            We know Peter was married because Jesus healed his mother-in-law of a fever.  We know James and John had a father who would have become dependent on them in his old age, and a mother who traveled, at least sometimes, with Jesus.  We don’t know much about the family situations of the rest of the twelve.  What we do know is that when Jesus called, they went with him immediately, leaving behind all they had known, all other commitments.

            We know that, for the most part, once these disciples committed their lives to Jesus they never looked back.  Following the crucifixion they put their service on pause while they figured out what they should do next.  Without a leader they did not know where they were supposed to go.  Once they were given the Holy Spirit, they had direction.  From that moment they couldn’t be stopped.  We use the phrase human dynamo rather loosely, but the world has never seen people more dynamic than they became.  Yes, John tells us that during this pause, Peter and a couple of others went fishing.  That didn’t last long.  One foray out on the Galilee and Jesus called them back to work.

            All of this is good to remember when God asks us to give up some little thing so we can better serve.  Too often we give our service grudgingly, half-heartedly.  And we’re awfully good at complaining.  “I wish I could go with you this weekend, but I have this church meeting I just have to attend Saturday afternoon.” 

            “No one, putting his hand to the plow, and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

            Where does that leave us?  How many times do we stay comfortably at home when Jesus says, “Go?”  How many times do we place other, lesser commitments before our commitment to the one who says, “Follow me?”  How many times do we say, “Here I am, Lord,” but look wistfully at the ordered, leisurely life we’ve left behind?

            Some of you may be old enough to remember the song whose first line provides the title of this piece.  The next line is “Can’t you see I’m no good without you?”  Without Jesus our lives are greatly diminished. We may be comfortable, but we won’t be fulfilled.   

            Jesus wants to hear us say, “Take all of me.”

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Telling the World What's What

 

Telling the World What’s What

John 15:18-19/Romans 12:1-2

            I’ve said it often before, but just to remind you, I love the newspaper comics.  We will go to any lengths to make sure we have a paper each day just so we can read the comics—and so my wife can do the puzzles.

            One I really enjoy is Pearls Before Swine.  The central characters are Goat, Rat, and Pig, with enough “bit players” to keep things interesting.  Recently, Pig was writing a letter to the world: “Dear world,” he said.  “You’ve done lots to try and bring me down this year.  But I’m still standing.  IN YOUR FACE, WORLD.”  Pig turns to Rat and says, “Sometimes you gotta let the world know who’s boss.”

            Sometimes you gotta let the world know who’s boss.  Amen to that!

            I believe that’s the concept behind both of today’s Scripture passages:  letting the world know who’s boss—letting the world know what’s what.  Jesus and Paul speak frequently about the world, and seldom in a positive sense.  For them the world is the antithesis of the kingdom of God.  God and God’s kingdom stand on one side of the balance, and the world stands on the other.  We can’t hold a position in the middle of the seesaw; we’ve got to choose one side or the other to come down on. 

            Speaking to his disciples on the last occasion he will be with them, Jesus tells them that the world hates them—and that’s OK.  The world hated him first.  If they are going to follow Jesus, they should expect enmity from the world—not only expect it, but welcome it.

            “If you were of the world,” Jesus says, “the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, therefore the world hates you.”

            There’s the choice.  Love the world and the world will love you back.  Love Jesus and the world will hate you.  No middle ground.  As Pete Seeger asked, “Which side are you on?”

            If choosing sides were the end of it, life would be great.  Unfortunately, even though the world hates us for standing with Christ, it won’t leave us alone.  That’s part of Jesus’ message to his disciples.  The world doesn’t hate us as much as it hates what we stand for.  It wants to break our relationship with Jesus and get us back on its side. 

            We see this in the words of an old hymn by William R. Featherstone. 

                                My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine,

                        For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.

 

            In the church where I grew up we sang, “For Thee all the pleasures of sin I resign.”  We admitted that sin can be enjoyable—at least at first.  Most of us have realized that over time sin becomes less and less enjoyable as we become more and more trapped by it.

            Making a decision for Christ is the first step in a long journey.  Our salvation isn’t complete—we’re not safe from the call of the world—until we’re over the Jordan and into the Promised Land.  Until then, we continue to choose between the world and Christ every day.

            Paul wanted his readers (and that includes us) to realize the necessity for coming down on Jesus’ side of the balance and staying there. He tells us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”  We often speak about having Jesus in our hearts, but it is the mind where temptation begins.  We must be transformed—changed—away from the world and to Jesus.  And we must keep following wherever he leads.

            “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back.  The world behind me, the cross before me.  No turning back”

Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Consequence We Can Be Sure of

 

A Consequence We Can Be Sure of

Numbers 32:20-23

            I confess.  I have become more and more convinced that many of the stories in the Bible—especially those in the Hebrew Scriptures—are quite likely not true, at least not in a factual, historical sense.  I know this will be viewed by some as heresy.  How could these stories not be true?  Isn’t this God’s word?  Is God a liar?

            There are those who believe every word in the Bible is absolutely true.  If you begin to pull on one thread or another the whole Bible will fall apart.  For these people it’s all or nothing.  I don’t agree.

            For me, the truth of the Bible—and I believe in the Bible’s absolute truth—lies in the fact that it is the best record we have of God’s interaction with humankind.  God created the universe and populated it with all kinds of creatures, many—most—of which exist far from us, in other solar systems and galaxies.  Some day we will be able to reach out to these other worlds and communicate; but we’re not ready yet.  First we must set our own house in order, beginning with our country then proceeding to our entire world.

            There are many experts who doubt that Israel’s sojourn in Egypt ever happened, and therefore, the exodus and wilderness experience never happened.  However. it remains part of the defining story of the Jewish people, a large part of what makes them who they are.  The story is full of theological truth.  The lesson we can take away from this story?  God cares for God’s people.  Sometimes it’s not easy to see that in a world full of pain and evil, but God is always present.

            The story of Israel’s conquest of Palestine also rings untrue to me.  I have a difficult time believing that God told the Israelites to destroy every person in the land they were to inherit.  It sounds like history written by the winners—you know: “Of course we killed everyone!  Ethnic cleansing?  No way!  It’s what God told us to do.”

            There is another group of stories I find it difficult to accept as historical truth.  Many times in the Hebrew Scriptures we read that God punished Israel.  It’s not that I don’t believe God can do it; it’s that I believe they were victims of their own stupidity and wickedness rather than of God’s displeasure. 

            A good example is the Babylonian captivity.  Israel was a tiny nation lying in the way of anyone going from north to south—or south to north—intent on expanding their territory.  There is no way this minor people on this small piece of land could stand for long against the might of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece or Rome.  They were bound to fall.  What made it easier for them to be defeated was their belief that they were invincible, that nothing or no one could conquer them.

            Like nations before and after them, they believed they could live fat and lazy lives and still survive.  Imagine their surprise when they found out it didn’t work.  It didn’t work for Assyria, or Babylon, or even Rome either.  When prophets warned the Israelite leaders that they were headed for trouble, they were laughed at—until the enemy was at the gates.  They would have done well to remember Moses’ words to the tribes who chose to settle on the other side of the Jordan: “Be sure your sins will find you out.”  That’s a consequence we can be sure of.

            Live without concern for all your citizens and soon your culture begins to rot from within.  When that happens, God doesn’t have to do much if anything to topple you.  You’ll take care of that yourselves.

            America would do well to remember.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Bloom Where You Are Planted

 

Bloom Where You Are Planted

Matthew 25:31-40

            I find myself returning to this passage frequently.  Partly it’s because I’m afraid of the second half, vv. 41-46.  In these verses Jesus describes what will happen to those who don’t help their brothers and sisters—the “least of these.”  It’s this that worries me—and I’m not alone. 

            When he was near death, Fred Rogers, the man behind Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, asked his wife, “Do you think I’m a sheep?”  If, after all he had done for generations of kids, he was worried about making the cut, shouldn’t I be at least a little fearful? 

            It seems to me with all the time Christians spend talking about “getting saved,” and being “born again,” at least a little time should be spent making sure we’re doing what we can to help Jesus’ brothers and sisters—our brothers and sisters.  There is so much suffering, so much injustice, so much poverty, so much hatred.  Shouldn’t we make sure Christ’s love is extended to those who are the victims of poverty, injustice, and hatred?

            All too often we try to ease our consciences by throwing a dollar in the Salvation Army kettle, or giving a few canned goods to the local food pantry, or, in the case of our church, donating to and helping run our clothes closet, which makes clothing available to those who need it without cost.

            As worthwhile as these pursuits may be, they are band aids on deep wounds.  They may help relieve the suffering for a moment, but they are not permanent solutions to the long-standing problems so many face day after day.

            As I read these two passages I come to believe that Jesus’ lists are not prescriptive but suggestive.  The lists were valid for the time in which they were spoken, and have some validity today, but they are not extensive enough for our more complex society.  Yes, we should clothe the naked.  Yes, we should give food and drink to those who are hungry and thirsty.  Yes, we should provide hospital chaplaincy and prison ministry for those who need them.  These ministries are needed today—sorely needed.  But we should we also be fighting for

            Internet access for those where there is little or none.

            Grocery stores in food deserts.

            Meaningful education for inner city and rural populations

            Adequate healthcare, housing, and jobs for the working and non-working poor.

If we do not address these problems a drink of water, a food card to MacDonald’s, some clothing, or an occasional visit to a hospital or prison won’t mean much.  The deep wounds will continue to bleed because no amount of band aids are enough.

            We may not be able to fight injustice like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Senator John Lewis.  We may not be able to stir the hearts of our fellow Christians like our outstanding preachers.  We may not be able to fund huge projects for change like Bill Gates.  But we can bloom where we are planted.  We can work for and vote for candidates for public office who promise to do something about those who are caught in generational poverty.  We can volunteer our time in schools to help give our children and young people a sense of self-worth that will keep them from making bad decisions.  We can support legislation that makes health care available to every citizen, no matter how poor or ill they may be. 

            This is what God calls us to do.  From the books of the Torah through Jesus’ words and actions in the gospels we see that our calling is to be sheep, and to be the best sheep we can be.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Earth Is the Lord's

 

The Earth Is the Lord’s

Psalm 24:1-2

            I have been reading Ministry:  International Journal for Pastors again.  In the September issue there is an article by Skip Bell titled “Stewards of this Gift.”  He begins with the story of his proposal of marriage to the woman who became his wife.  When he opened the box which contained the diamond-studded watch he was giving her as an engagement present, he asked, “Do you like it?”  She responded, “Like it?  I love it!”  Bell asked in return, “You love it?”  “Yes! Wow!  I love it!”  A good way to begin a relationship.

             He then imagines the Creator showing the first man and woman the newly-created world.  “Do you like it?” God asks.  “Like it!  We love it!” they answer.  God responds, “You love it?”  “Yes!  Wow! We love it!” is their reply.  A good way to begin a relationship.

            This was God’s intent:  that humans should enjoy the beautiful world that had been created for their pleasure.  What a home they had been given!  Trees, flowers, animals, fish, birds, mountains, valleys, forests, rivers, lakes, oceans—all for their enjoyment.  And under the surface, resources untold to help them in their stewardship of the earth.

            Bell bemoans the horrible way in which we have used all the good things God has given us.  Eradicating species of animals, birds and fish.  Leveling mountains to get at the resources hidden within them—not the only way to reach these resources, but the quickest.  Polluting rivers, lakes and oceans with chemical waste, plastic waste—any waste we want to get rid of in a hurry.  Denuding forests and not replanting, so that good, productive soil runs away and is lost, making the land arid and unfit for growing things.

            Psalm 24 begins: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those that dwell therein.”  An important reminder:  this is God’s earth, not ours.  One way or another the world is going to be what God wants it to be.  We can lead, we can follow, or we’d better get out of the way.  We don’t dare oppose God or God’s plans for the earth.  To do so will only bring agony and sorrow, whether by some God-sent punishment or the natural outcomes of our own foolishness and wastefulness.

            Bell makes three points.  First, facts don’t cease to be facts just because we want them not to be facts.  The earth’s temperature is rising.  Species are becoming extinct.  Natural resources are being squandered.  These are facts whether we like them or not.

            Second, we can observe the effects of human wastefulness with our own eyes.  If we fail to see what is going wrong with the world it’s because we don’t want to see.  Our blindness to what’s happening will not stop it from happening.

            Third, we confirm the importance (to us) of stewardship in our daily lives.  What we do with—and to—the world around us reflects whether or not we are good stewards.  It doesn’t matter how we talk the talk, it’s how we walk the walk that counts.

            Bell suggests four things we can do.

                1) Confirm that the earth is a precious gift from God.

            2) Connect to the land, water and air.

            3) Confess and repent.  We’ve been bad stewards.  I remind you that repentance means to turn around and go in a different direction.  Confession alone won’t help.  We must also change our ways.

            4) Act!  Do what you can to become good stewards of God’s gift to us.

            We don’t have time to waste.  Now is the accepted time.  Today is the day of salvation—for us, and for God’s world.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

"Thy Will Be Done"

 

“Thy Will Be Done”

Matthew 26:36-44

            Jan Karon invented a town in North Carolina.  She named it Mitford and wrote fourteen novels about it.  The central character is Father Tim, Mitford’s Episcopal priest.  He’s a very human priest, the kind of guy you’d like to have coffee with in the local restaurant.  We watch him as he deals with the townspeople (some of whom attend his church some of whom do not), discovers new things about himself (he can fall in love, he becomes a diabetic), gets married to the woman who lives next door.  We see him inherit a young boy who is lost and almost deserted, and through him becomes involved with the boy’s whole family.  Sometimes the relationship is positive, and sometimes not, but Father Tim perseveres, watching this boy grow to manhood and become a force for good in the community.

            Father Tim and his wife Cynthia speak of “the prayer that never fails.”  Those of us who have prayed for things that do not happen, or that do not turn out the way we want, may have trouble believing there is such a prayer, but there is: “Thy will be done.”

            Not what you expected?  Me either.  When I first read the phrase, “the prayer that never fails,” I couldn’t imagine what might come next.  When I read, “Thy will be done,” it made perfect sense—but it raised more questions than it answered, and more concerns than I could handle all at once.

            Thy will be done.”  Simple, isn’t it?  Four short words.  Straightforward.  No subtlety.  Easy to say, but oh so difficult to mean.  We who go to God with a shopping list of wants and wishes and desires longer than a ten-year-old’s Christmas list are used to asking God to do our will.  We don’t often think of God’s will, or asking what God wants from us.  And yet we know how central this prayer is to our relationship with God.

            Jesus understood its importance.  He included these words in the prayer he taught his disciples: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

            If we stop to consider what we ask when we repeat these words we may get a little—or a lot—frightened.  Do we really want God’s will to be done on earth the same way it is in heaven?          John Milton, in Sonnet 12:  On His Blindness reminds us that in heaven thousands of beings dash to and fro doing the will of God.  Since there are no heavenly beings on earth (at least not that we can see on a regular basis) if anyone is going to be rushing around doing God’s bidding it will be us.  If God’s will is to be done on earth, and it is to be the priority it is in heaven, we’ll have to rearrange our priorities and our schedules.  Are we ready for that?

            We remember Jesus saying these words in Gethsemane.  He finished celebrating Passover with his disciples; then he asked them to accompany him to the garden.  Once there, he left them and went off to pray.

            Poor disciples!  The Passover meal includes several glasses of wine.  They kept their eyes open only long enough to hear Jesus say to his Father, “Thy will be done.”  Even though Jesus had tried to prepare them for what lay ahead, they couldn’t imagine what God had in store for their Lord and Master—or for them.  God’s will was done, in Jesus’ execution, and in his resurrection, and eventually in the lives of those who shared the meal with him.

            Are we ready to pray that prayer—the prayer that never fails—and mean it?  Can we say with the surety that we know Jesus felt that night, “Thy will be done,” and commit ourselves totally to whatever that entails? 

            Be careful what you pray for:  you might just get it.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Wisdom and Beauty

 

Wisdom and Beauty

Proverbs 31:10-31

            As I write this, it is the day after we celebrated my oldest friend’s eightieth birthday.  We partied on Zoom, both because of the current health situation and because we are scattered from coast to coast and from Canada to Mississippi.  Ken’s daughter organized the party.  I’m sure we all learned things about him we didn’t know as we played trivia games with Ken at the center. 

            Interspersed with the game questions were pictures Ken’s daughter had gotten hold of, pictures of Ken and his family going back to when he was practically a babe in arms.  In some of those pictures I recognized my friend as the child I had known when we were both in late elementary and junior high school. 

            I’m not going to share any of the stupid things we did together at my house on Friday nights when my parents went to a church meeting.  He was—still is—two years older than me, and I’m sure my folks thought his age would somehow imbue the situation with a bit of maturity.              It didn’t.

            Suffice to say we didn’t do any irreparable harm to the house and its contents, and we both obviously survived.  Here we are today, an octogenarian and one so near that age I can almost see it from here.  When I had a chance to extend my good wishes yesterday I told him what I’ve said so many times before.  He is the closest thing I have to a brother.  I’m an only child, so having someone I can say that about means a lot to me.

            Ken has a lot going for him.  He was—is—an excellent musician.  He is the most natural athlete I’ve ever known.  If an activity involved physical coordination it came easily to him.  He is bright enough to have had a wide choice of career fields.  He chose sociology, and the field is richer because he is part of it.

            What struck me most yesterday were pictures of Ken’s mother.  She was beautiful!  I didn’t pay any attention at the time; she was my best friend’s mother, and I hadn’t yet reached the age where I found females attractive.  But looking at those pictures I could see how beautiful Mom Davis was.

            I call her Mom because one summer she became a second mother to me.  I was fourteen, had just finished my freshman year of high school, and was finally old enough to work at our denomination’s summer camp.  Mom Davis was the cook.  I was her kitchen slave.  I washed the pots she dirtied cooking three meals a day for a couple hundred campers and staff members.  She was an exacting taskmaster, and in my first real work experience, the best boss I could have had.  Most of what I know about work ethic I learned that summer.  Many lessons weren’t fun, but I learned.

            For many years Ken and I moved in different circles in different cities.  Our lives touched peripherally; even more so my life with that of Mom Davis.  I was able to keep track of her through my parents, who had continued their friendship long after Ken and I were grown and gone.  Several years ago, Ken and I reconnected.  One outgrowth of that renewed connection was that I was able to spend time with Mom Davis.  She’s gone now, but what she taught me that summer has stayed with me.

            What didn’t come through in those pictures was her inner beauty and inner strength.  Left a widow, she raised three sons to manhood, sons of whom any mother would be proud.  As is often true of Scripture, not every word of these verses from the last chapter of Proverbs is true about this woman who meant so much to my life, but enough is true that they stand as a lasting tribute to a woman of beauty—inside and out.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Whose Slave Are You?

 

Whose Slave Are You?

Romans 6:15-18

            “In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves:  the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.”

            So said Ivan Illich.  Sounds like a name out of a Dostoyevsky novel, especially when you learn he was a philosopher and a priest.  He was Russian, definitely, but not one of Dostoyevsky’s characters. 

            You might wonder what a Russian who lived from 1926-2002 would know about a consumer society, but he obviously had an understanding of consumerism and its effect on people.

            Two kinds of slaves:  prisoners of addiction and prisoners of envy.  We understand prisoners of addiction, and we are aware that they exist in a consumer society.  We are familiar with addiction.  Anyone who reads newspapers, magazines, novels, will soon come face to face with addiction.  The addict may be hooked on drugs, or alcohol, or something else, but we’ve read enough to understand that people become so addicted to one thing or another that it’s not far-fetched to say they are enslaved. 

            I’ve just finished reading a Harlan Coben novel.  For those of you not familiar with Coben’s writing, he is a master of the plot twist, even planting one final turn in the last few pages of many of his books.  I say frequently that writers of fiction begin with a “what if…?” turn of mind.  Coben’s what ifs happen to be more intriguing than most.

            In this novel, Play Dead, one character is addicted to gambling and also to scams, which is where he gets the money to gamble with.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t come close to shaking his addiction until it’s too late.  Just as he is on the edge of breaking his bonds of slavery he is murdered.  We might say he was sacrificed to the novel’s plot twists, but we know this also happens in real life.

            Slavery to envy might not be as evident as slavery to addiction, but we know it exists, and far too frequently.  You have something I want.  If I want it too much, I become a slave to that desire.  Isn’t that how advertising works?  Ads create a desire to have what we don’t possess.  If that desire becomes overwhelming, I will do almost anything to obtain what I don’t have but wish I did.

            I believe Paul understood these kinds of slavery.  He must have seen examples of both addiction and envy as he moved through the Mediterranean world.  Paul drew no distinction between the two.  He lumped them together under the category of slavery to sin.  For him, whether you were addicted to alcohol, or sex, or anger, or judgmentalism made no difference.  Slavery to one was no better, no worse than slavery to another.  He also knew the Torah, and  the commandment, “You shall not covet…” (Exodus 20:17).  For Paul, sin was sin, and those who pursued a life of sin were slaves to sin. 

            Paul knew another kind of slavery:  slavery to righteousness.  His training taught him both the evils of sin and the virtues of righteousness.  His conversion changed his understanding of righteousness, but not its importance.  He understood, as Jesus taught, that we are never completely free.  We have a choice:  we can be slaves of sin or slaves of God. 

            It is interesting as well as paradoxical that being God’s slave is really the path to freedom.  If I am God’s slave I am free from both addiction and envy, free to be righteous in God’s sight, and free to pursue a life without slavery.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Which Side Are You On?

 

Which Side Are You On?

Luke 21:1-4

            Richard Hofstadter said, “One of the primary tests of a society at any given time is whether its comfortable people tend to identify, psychologically, with the power and achievements of the very successful or with the needs and sufferings of the underprivileged.”

            This is an apt saying for our time, since, as at least one candidate for president says, we are in a battle for the soul of America.  It’s also a good question for us to ask ourselves:  Which side are you on?

            The question has been asked many times in our past:

            Which side are you on in the battle between the royalists and those fighting for freedom from the British?

            Which side are you on in the battle between the union and the seceding states?

            Which side are you on in the fight over women’s right to vote?

            Which side are you on in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s?

In each case people were forced to decide which group they identified with:  those who held all the marbles or those who wanted to join the game.

            Now we fight that battle again, and once more we must decide between the group on the inside and those who want not just to get into the room, but also to take a seat at the table.

            This passage has been used by many preachers on stewardship Sunday, the day set aside to encourage the congregation to give more to the church in the upcoming year.  I have steadfastly refused to use these verses in this context for two reasons.  First, because the ones most likely to take this story to heart are often those who can afford to give the least.  They are the ones who are apt to feel shame at what they give.  Using this story to extort more money from a congregation is blackmail by guilt.

            The other reason I won’t use this passage in a stewardship sermon is based on something I learned in seminary.  Dr. Mitzi Minor used this story one day in class.  Her interpretation was different from any I’d heard before, and I’ve listened to a lot of preachers in a lot of churches over a lot of years.

            Dr. Minor said this widow should not have been contributing to the temple treasury at all.  Funds given to the temple were to be used for the relief of widows and orphans.  Instead of giving, she should have been receiving.  Jesus was calling attention to the role reversal that made a giver out of someone who should have been a receiver.  Clearly, the comfortable people of Jesus’ time identified with the very successful rather than with the needs and sufferings of the underprivileged.

            This is the question we must each ask ourselves over the next two months:  Will we, who are comfortable with our circumstances the way they are, who find the idea of significant change unsettling—will we identify with the successful ones in our society, or will we stand with the underprivileged, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden?  Jesus made it clear which side he was on. 

            The novelist Louis de Bernieres said it well.  “The real index of civilization is when people are kinder than they need to be.”

            We know which side Jesus was on.  Will we follow his example, or will we shirk our responsibility to those he has called us to help?