Sunday, September 30, 2012

Building a Kingdom

Building a Kingdom
Matthew 31-33, 17:20
            I love the newspaper comics.  I have several taped to the door of my office.  Occasionally I catch students looking at them.  I hope they get as much pleasure—and instruction—from them as I do.
            One of my favorites shows a little boy digging a hole, planting a very small sapling, and watering it.  When his father asks him what he is doing, he replies, “Building a tire swing.”
            We laugh at his childhood innocence and naiveté, but he does have a point—and that’s where the instruction comes in.  Every tire swing has to start somewhere, and it begins with a tree limb.  Every tree has to start somewhere, and it begins with someone planting a sapling.  The father may not be around when the tree is big enough to swing from, and the boy may have passed his swinging years, but eventually, given enough time, water and sunlight, the tree will be big enough to give some child of the future the pleasure of a tire swing.
            Jesus wanted to explain the kingdom of heaven to his followers.  So many people came to hear his words that he had to sit in a boat while the crowd stood on the shore.  There they were, surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation—mostly simple working folk, and he taught them in words they could understand.  He talked about planting seeds, not just in one parable, but in several.  Over and over he hammered home the point that the kingdom was not something that comes quickly, but something that grows over time.  He knew that those who heard him—even those closest to him—wanted immediate change.  They were looking for someone who could make things happen now, someone who could bring about instant revolution.  He also knew it wasn’t going to happen that way.
            “The kingdom of God is like a sower who went out to sow and encountered different types of soil,” he said.  Also, “The kingdom is like a farmer who sowed good seed, but his enemy came at night and sowed weeds.”  And then, “The kingdom is like a mustard seed.  Give it time and care and it will grow into a tree.”
            Waiting for seed to sprout is as frustrating as waiting for a tree to grow.  Many of us have had the experience of watching impatient children wait for seeds planted in a Styrofoam cup to bloom.  Not just once a day but every hour—and even more frequently—they check for progress.  How disappointed they are when nothing seems to be happening.  How joyful when the first green appears, and finally, after much waiting, a plant, and then a flower.
            Waiting for the kingdom takes faith, but it also takes action.  We know we have to cultivate it, as surely as the boy in the cartoon had to water that sapling.  Nothing of value grows  by leaving it to chance.  It takes a lot of care for seeds and saplings to become plants and trees.  We may not be around to see the results, but we know we must remain faithful.  What we do will help bring in the kingdom.  We can’t just sit and wait, we have to get up and do.
            Jesus addressed this, too, further along in Matthew’s gospel.  He did it by returning to the mustard seed.  “If you have faith like a grain of mustard seed,” he tells us, “You can move mountains.”  Surely not!  Surely we can’t stare a mountain down and make it change its location by even a fraction of an inch.
            But maybe that’s not what Jesus had in mind.  James, in his letter, tells us that “faith without works is dead” (2:17).  It isn’t enough just to sit around waiting and hoping for the kingdom.  We have to build the kingdom step by faithful step.  We have to plant the tree and care for it if we want that tire swing some day.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Paradox

A Paradox
John 17:20-26
“May Jesus Christ be today the companion of my thoughts, so that His [divinity] may more and more take root within my soul.  May He be in me and I in Him, even as Thou wert in Him and through Him mayest be in me and I at rest in Thee.”
These words are from John Baillie’s prayer for Sunday morning.  At first reading, this demands a second reading—and perhaps a third and fourth.  It’s confusing:  who is to be in whom?  Is Jesus Christ in me, or am I in Jesus Christ?  Am I in God, or is God in me?  Is it possible that all of the above can be true?  If so, how?
We get some clarification from Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper, as recorded by John.  For more than two chapters Jesus has been teaching the disciples his final lesson.  He has finished speaking to them.  Now he turns his attention heavenward and spends the next chapter praying for them.  Near the end of the prayer he asks not just that God will hold the disciples close, but that God will hold them within the relationship that unites Jesus and the Father.  He makes clear once again that he and the Father are one, united although separate—another paradox, but one we understand somewhat through the doctrine of the Trinity. 
But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He also asks that all who believe in him through the words of the disciples will be united with the Father in this same relationship—that all may be one.  While we do not believe solely because of the disciples’ words, we are direct descendants of those first Christians.  There is, we believe, an unbroken line from Jesus through the apostles, down to us.  Through the answer to Jesus’ prayer, we know we live within the bonds of this relationship.  We are within God the Father.
What about the other part—Jesus being within us?  How does that work?  We teach our children in Sunday school that we can have Jesus in our hearts.  It’s not the easiest concept for children to understand, but it is a way of explaining their relationship with God.  Jerome Bruner, the American psychologist and educator, taught that any concept can be understood by children if it can be explained simply enough.  We tell children that Jesus once walked this earth and now dwells with God in heaven, and so can be in our hearts.  They can grasp the idea of a flesh and blood person, and, we hope, stretch that concept to understand that Jesus is in heaven with God, and also within us.
Trying to explain the Holy Spirit is much more difficult.  Many times I’m not sure I understand completely myself.  We know from Jesus’ last words to his disciples that it is the Holy Spirit who dwells within us and who guides and protects us.  Jesus—and God the Father—through the Holy Spirit, dwells within us. 
This is how the paradox works:  through our belief in Jesus and our confession of that belief, we become united with the Trinity.  We don’t have to understand how it works, we just have to accept it.  We are not, of course, part of the Godhead, but have been granted a relationship as the children of God (as Paul says frequently).  We now live within God and God lives within us.  We are part of God’s family.
Slowly reading through Baillie’s prayer untangles the confusion and helps us see past the paradox to the beauty.  We are within God.  God is within us.  God within us helps us to know how we should live.  We within God can claim what the psalms so frequently talk about:  God is our rock, our fortress, our help in times of trouble.  Because of this mutual relationship, we can realize the last words of Baillie’s prayer.  We can be at rest in God.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

What “Does It” for You in Worship?
John 4:19-24
            What “does it” for you in worship?  When you gather with fellow Christians to offer prayer and praise, what is it that turns you on?
            For some it’s ritual.  We attend churches where liturgy is the central focus. The same patterns are repeated from week to week.  We like the comfort of familiar words and movements.  We like the order— the calmness of phrases and prayers we know well.
            For some it’s the excitement of not knowing what might come next.  We’re open to the movement of the Holy Spirit among us in ways we can’t predict.  We sing songs, we pray, we hear a sermon; but at any moment all that might be interrupted by something unexpected— something beyond our control.
            For some it’s an emotional approach.  We like plenty of noise:  loud music, perhaps with guitars and drums; rousing preaching that tears at our innards and forces us to sit up and take notice; prayers that come from the heart, poured out to God in a torrent of words and feelings.
For some it’s the pleasure of hearing the Word expounded, explained—presented in ways that give us new insights, new ways to look at our faith.  We expect the sermon to open our hearts and minds so that our faith deepens.
            For some it’s the traditional music of the church—organs, perhaps a piano, choirs, trained solo voices—all working together to present the time-honored anthems and hymns written by master poets and composers.  We have to have our musical “fix” or we feel we haven’t properly worshiped.
            The psalmists had a lot to say about worship.  They didn’t write much about preaching or praying.  For them worship was paying vows (usually through offering sacrifices), singing, making music on loud instruments, and rituals that involved chanting certain words in certain locations in and near the temple.  Read Psalm 150 and try to imagine what that worship service must have sounded like.  All the turned-up amplifiers in the world might have paled by comparison.
            The psalmists also had another take on worship.  They advocated not just the blowing of horns and the crashing of cymbals, but the quiet peace of time alone with God.  We catch a glimpse of this kind of worship in Psalm 29, v. 2:  “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (some translations use the word “splendor” instead of “beauty”).  This sounds like a worship experience beyond words, beyond music—perhaps beyond sound of any kind.  This is an experience in which worshipers are “lost in wonder, love and praise” as the hymn text says.
            Jesus had something to say about worship—actually many things if you include his teachings on prayer, and giving, and other topics.  One of his most profound statements is found in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  The woman realizes that Jesus is no ordinary teacher—not even merely a prophet.  Still, her tradition, so different from his but grounded in the same beginnings, keeps her from seeing eye-to-eye with him when it comes to worship, especially in the matter of location.  Jesus tells her, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 
            There it is in one sentence.  All our differences in worship practices disappear in importance when we accept these words as the basis of the way we praise God.
Guard Duty
Psalm 121
            “I lift up my eyes to the hills.  From where comes my help? My help comes from the Lord.”
So begins Psalm 121.  It is a song of ascents—one the pilgrims sang as they made their way up Mount Zion and into the temple.  Many of us can quote it by heart—if not the whole psalm then at least the first verse.  “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills.  From where comes my help?  My help comes from the Lord.”  It’s a beautiful, meaningful statement. 
Imagine being pilgrims in Jerusalem in Old Testament times.  We’re here to worship in the temple—God’s dwelling place on earth.  This is the first time we have seen this magnificent structure, and as we stand looking up from the foot of Mount Zion we’re awestruck.  We’re overwhelmed by the beauty and the grandeur of God’s house.  We have no choice but to lift our eyes to the top of the hill.  Our attention is drawn there.  In this moment we understand the question and the answer.  Where will our help come from?  The magnificence of God’s house helps us see the magnificence of our God.  This is a God powerful enough to provide us with all the help we need.
The psalm continues:  “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will neither slumber nor sleep.”  The psalmist uses “keep,” or “keeper” a total of five times.  He emphasizes that God is our keeper, our protector.  We can even sleep in peace because God never slumbers nor sleeps.  John Baillie, in one of his evening prayers, says, “Thou slumberest never; now, as I lie down to sleep, I cast myself upon Thy care.”  We can rest secure knowing that even when we’re asleep, God is caring for us.

One of my “toys” (I got it from the Great Commission Bookstore) is a Jewish Study Bible.  It contains only the Hebrew Scriptures, of course—what we refer to as the Old Testament.  Using it is a challenge, because the books are in a much different order from what we’re used to.  I’m still learning my way around. 
There are two interesting features of this Bible.  First, there are extensive annotations next to each chapter.  The editors quote rabbis’ interpretations of many passages.  We get a feel for the thought processes of Jewish scholars down through the centuries.  The second point of interest is some of the translations.  While many of the passages use words with which we are familiar, many do not. 
Psalm 121 is a case in point.  Where the translations with which we are most familiar use the words “keeper,” or “keeps,” the Jewish Study Bible uses “guardian,” or “guards.”  For me, this is significant.  God as guardian is a powerful image for me.  I feel protected when I think of God guarding me.  Whether I’m awake or asleep I know God is on guard duty.  God will never fall asleep at the post, will never wander off or forget to pay attention.  God never has to be relieved.  Who would take God’s place?  Who could be as effective?
Like any good watchman, God will alert me to trouble.  All I have to do is pay attention.  If a temptation comes, God will tell me to get my own guard up (Remember Ephesians 6:10-18?).  If danger threatens, God will be right there beside me, helping me deal with whatever problem I’m facing.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.  From where comes my help?  My help comes from the Lord.”  We need have no fear while God is on guard duty.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Chosen by God
1 Peter 2:9-10
It was somewhere around fifth grade when I attended our denomination’s summer camp for the first time.  The potential blow of separation from family was eased considerably because my father was one of the counselors.  Not mine, of course.  That would not have been cool.  Still, he was there, so I wasn’t completely cut off.  One of his oldest friends was also a counselor, a man I’d known my whole life, and one whom I respected greatly.
One afternoon, before supper, the counselors organized a softball game for campers in my age group.  As you can imagine, there wasn’t a lot of talent in the player pool.  Never a great athlete, I was certainly not going to be one of the stars of even this low-level game. 
The coaches were my father and his friend.  They began to choose up sides.  Naturally, my father didn’t choose me first.  That wouldn’t have looked right on any level.  A few boys had been chosen for each team when my father’s friend called my name.  Remember, this was a man I knew well and liked very much.  It was logical that he should pick me instead of my father.  Still, I was heartbroken.  I wanted to be on my father’s team.  I started to cry and ran to my cabin, where I spent the entire game.
To his credit, Dad let me wait it out, only coming to talk to me after the game was completed.  I cannot recall what he said, but I know they were words of wisdom, and words that helped me grow.  Dad was always a great teacher.
The twelve disciples were chosen by Jesus.  Although the accounts differ from gospel to gospel, we know Jesus issued a personal invitation to each of them.  “Follow me,” he said, and they did.  What an honor it was for them to be chosen by the Master!  How proud they must have been to be on his team!  No crying for them at having been left out.  They were where they wanted to be.
Years passed.  Jesus had ascended, and his disciples—now called apostles—were carrying on his work.  They were preaching in the temple and the synagogues—even in the streets.  They were baptizing converts.  They were growing a little band into a world-changing force.  The influence of this new religion spread beyond Jerusalem, beyond Galilee—beyond Israel.  People were becoming Christians who had never met the Savior, but were joining the team because of the enthusiasm and commitment of his followers.
As the church spread, communication became important.  Some of the apostles discovered a talent for writing letters—letters that were passed from church to church, read aloud, and eagerly heard.  These letters were full of hope, instruction and encouragement.
Peter wanted to give his readers something of the thrill he had felt when Jesus called him.  He knew those who would hear his words had nothing to hold them together except their newfound faith in Christ.  Would that be enough?
“You are a chosen race,” Peter wrote.  “You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession.”
Imagine the assurance those words must have brought.  These ragtag groups of believers, not usually from the privileged classes, had been chosen—not just chosen but royal, and a nation.  They belonged to God.
Like Peter’s audience, we have been chosen by God, not for some earthly team, but to be God’s people.  Royal!  Holy!  God’s possession!  That’s us!

Doing the Word

Doing the Word
James 1:22-25, 2:14-18
            Many of us are familiar with Martin Luther’s revelation concerning salvation.  He tried all manner of penance, and found no relief from his feeling of overwhelming sinfulness.  Then  he read in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, “The just shall live by faith,” and was completely changed.  He had found the assurance for which he had been searching. 
Fewer of us may be aware that Luther’s reliance on penance for salvation was due not solely to his vocation (Roman Catholic priest).  Life with an over-strict father who was never satisfied with anything young Martin did also played a part.  Without the example of parental love he found it difficult to accept the concept of a loving heavenly Father.  I mention this because it illustrates that how we approach the Bible (with the goal of understanding what God has to say to us) is controlled largely by our background.  What we find in Scripture is influenced, to a great extent by what we bring to the table.  Luther, for example, wanted to tear the Epistle of James right out of the Bible.  Luther referred to it as “the epistle of straw” because it disagreed with his views on faith and works.
            James had a more balanced take on the relationship between faith and works.  He understood that faith comes first, and that we are indeed saved by faith in God.  He also realized that doing nothing to demonstrate that faith limits our effectiveness as Christians.  He urged his readers to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only.”  In fact, James gets a little irritated about faith without works.
            “So!” he says.  “What happens if a brother or sister shows up on your doorstep without enough to eat, or without proper clothing for protection from the weather?  Do you say, ‘Peace be with you, I hope you can find a way to get warm and be fed?’  What kind of nonsense is that?  Faith without works is no faith at all.  It’s dead faith.”  Can you hear James’s disapproval as he puts these ineffectual Christians in their place?
            James knew, as Christ knew before him, that hearing the word was not enough.  Jesus’ teaching is full of admonishments to act in accordance with the law God had given the Israelites so many centuries before.  If you need proof, read the Ten Commandments.  None of them say, “You shall believe,” or “You shall not think.”  Every one says “You shall,” or “You shall not.”  The commandments speak about ways of behaving, not about ways of believing.  The Israelites were called to act in accordance with God’s providence toward them.  God said, in effect, “Look at all I have done for you!  Go and do the same to the people you meet.”
William Booth, the English Methodist minister who founded the Salvation Army, said that some people were “so heavenly minded that they were of no earthly use.”  Like the apostle James almost two centuries before him, Booth deplored anyone who went by the name Christian yet refused to help those who needed assistance.  Like James he could not tolerate dead faith.
            Thomas More, a sixteenth-century lawyer and scholar at the court of Henry VIII, said, “The things good Lord, that we pray for, give us the grace to labor for.”  More understood that it isn’t enough to sit in the station and wait for the train to take us to heaven.  It is necessary for us to get on that train and help it move up the tracks by shoveling our share of the coal.
            We are all familiar with the saying “God helps those who help themselves.”  In our lives as Christians we can only help ourselves by helping others.  We show our love for God by loving our neighbor, and we demonstrate our love for our neighbor by what we do to help that neighbor.  As an old Russian proverb says, “Pray, but row for shore.”

Sunday, September 9, 2012

 How to Lighten Your Overload
Psalm 119:81-88
Matthew 11:28-30
            Information overload.  Financial overload.  Family overload.  Work overload.  School overload.  How much overload can one person carry?  Sometimes even vacations can seem like an overload when we feel the need to cram as much “relaxation” into our time off as is humanly possible.  Is there ever an end to overloads?
            I always laugh (inwardly) when college students come to me and tell me how much stress they’re feeling.  I want to tell them that if they think this is stress, wait until they’re out earning a living and trying to figure out how to survive with a less-than-adequate paycheck.  I don’t say it out loud, of course, since I don’t want to discourage them completely.  But those of us who have experienced life for any amount of time know that stress can keep piling up and piling on, until we feel like we’re at the bottom of a huge inverted pyramid.
            This is where the writer of Psalm 119 finds himself.  In v. 83 we read:  “For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke.”  If you’ve ever driven through western Kentucky you’ve seen little sheds with smoke coming out of them.  They’re not burning.  This is the way tobacco is dried.  A fire is lit under the hanging leaves to draw out the moisture.  This “cures” the leaves and makes them ready to be used.  If a wineskin were dried over a fire, it would be good for nothing.  It would be cracked and leaking.
            In v. 87, we find how far the drying-out process has progressed for the writer.  He says:  “They have almost made an end of me on earth, but I have not forsaken your precepts.”  We can substitute “instructions,” or “teachings,“ or even “commandments” for precepts and get a more complete understanding of this verse.  The writer realizes that reliance on God’s guidance is even more necessary in times of drought and stress than in times of plenty.
            This is what Jesus had in mind when he spoke the words recorded in Matthew.  Jesus is teaching those who have gathered around him.  They are probably there as much for the healing miracles as for the words of life Jesus offers, but they are listening.  He has just established for them his relationship with the Father.  God has empowered Jesus by giving him all things.  Because of this, the only way to know God is through knowing Jesus, God on earth. 
            “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest,” Jesus says.  What delightful words!  What a wonderful message!  Here is a way to get rid of all our stress, all our overloads. Jesus will take them from us and relieve us of all that puts us at the point of collapse.
            But wait!  That’s not all he has to say.  “Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus adds—and makes us pause.  How can we lighten our load by taking on a yoke?  Won’t we have even more burden?  A yoke connects us to a cart or a plow, or some other device where we’ll have work to do.  How will this help?
            As usual with Jesus’ teaching, we have to read through to the end.  He continues:  “Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls [italics mine].  “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  And there we have the crux of the teaching.  The overloads are still there, but our souls will be at rest.  We may have the same stressors in our lives, but we won’t feel them weighing on our souls.
            Remember, a yoke has two sides.  Two oxen, two mules, or two horses are yoked together to make the burden lighter.  And who is in the other half of our yoke?  You know.