Saturday, December 28, 2013

A New Years Resolution

A New Year’s Resolution
Psalm 51
            Between now and January 1 many of us will be making resolutions—resolutions we have every intention of keeping, even against the odds that say we won’t.  We know from past experience, and all we read and all we hear, that our chances of keeping any of those resolutions for even a month are slim.  Yet, hope springs eternal, and we start the New Year fresh, with great intentions for changing old habits.
·         We’ll be more careful about what we eat, trying for a more balanced diet, including more fruits and vegetables and less fried foods and sweets.
·         We’ll start—and continue—that exercise program we need to stay healthy and make sure the weight comes off—and stays off.
·         We’ll give up smoking, or cut down on our drinking, or get more sleep, or…
What we wouldn’t give for more will power—or, as someone who really understands the human condition once said, more won’t power.
            David wasn’t making a New Year’s resolution when he wrote Psalm 51, but he knew he needed to change.  He was responding to the words of the prophet Nathan, who had let him know that God condemned his behavior. 
David’s sin began not with his sexual liaison with Bathsheba, but when he failed to fulfill his duty as king.  “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel….But David remained in Jerusalem”  (2 Samuel, 11:1).  Davis’s sin began as so many of ours do, not with commission, but with omission.  The king belonged at the head of his troops—but David stayed home. 
In the same way, many of our resolutions go by the boards not because of something we do, but because of something we fail to do.  We know we should rid the house of unhealthy snacks, but we keep them around, making the “just one cookie” a possibility.  We know we should get up earlier and exercise before we get too busy with the day, but we stay in bed that extra half hour.  Sins of omission are just as dangerous as sins of commission—perhaps more so.
So David finds himself alone with God and with the full horror of his sin.  He has failed to be the leader his people needed and expected him to be.  He has seduced another man’s wife and impregnated her.  He has arranged for that man to die in battle—murder just as surely as if he had wielded the sword himself.
After confessing his sins to God in some of the bitterest words in Scripture, David begins his resolution.  “Fashion a pure heart for me, O God; create in me a steadfast spirit” he prays.  “Do not cast me out of Your presence, or take Your holy spirit away from me.  Let me again rejoice in Your help; let a vigorous spirit sustain me” (Jewish Study Bible).
David realizes that the changes he needs to make cannot be achieved in his own strength.  He needs God’s help to turn himself around and again become God’s faithful servant.  Admitting his helplessness, he asks God to change him.  Only then can he say, “I will teach transgressors your ways, that sinners may return to you….O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare your praise.”

As we contemplate the changes we wish to make in ourselves and our habits for the coming year, let us look first to those things God is pointing out to us.  What changes do we need to make to become more completely the people God wants us to be?  How can we achieve a pure heart and a steadfast spirit, and be more faithful to God?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

God in Human Form

God in Human Form
Philippians 2:5-11
            Have you ever received one of those Christmas cards that talks as much about the cross as it does about Christ’s birth?  I understand the reason for those cards.  We must never forget that the ultimate purpose for Christ’s life on earth was to die on the cross.  Jesus’ death and resurrection was what God intended to accomplish.  Still, combining Christmas and Easter does seem to be rushing things a bit, don’t you think? 
            My wife has a difficult time with those cards.  “Why can’t we focus on Christmas for a while,” she’ll say when we open one.  And she has a point.  We have a season of the Christian year when we prepare for Easter; it’s called Lent.  I know—we don’t send Easter cards nearly as often as we send Christmas cards, so Christmas is a good time to remember both events; but shouldn’t we spend at least some time focusing on the beginning of Christ’s life? 
            My answer is a resounding “Yes!”  As I have said before in this space, there was more to Jesus’ life than his death and resurrection—as important as they are.  His life is important too, because it is through Jesus’ life that we learn how to live.  It is through his time on earth that we discover what it means to be human—human in the most perfect way we can be human; the way Jesus Christ was human.
            All this is relevant to our Scripture passage for today, which is usually associated with Easter, especially verses 9-11:  “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed upon him a name above all other names…”—and we should celebrate these words.  God raised Jesus to everlasting glory.  Because Jesus lives we too shall live.  Yes, Jesus is Lord of all creation, but his human life began in a stable in a small Judean town.
            God is a God of paradox, and we can see it in the beginning verses of this passage.  Jesus Christ, although being in the form of God, made himself nothing, a nobody—a baby born to a peasant couple of no importance outside their little community.  Once born, he humbled himself by becoming a servant.  He showed his disciples how to be a leader.  “You want to be important in God’s order of things?  Become everybody’s servant—not just the servant of a few people, or the very rich, or those you love.  Learn to serve everyone.”  The one whom God exalts is the one who learns the humility of servanthood.
            Emmanuel, God with us in human form, began his time on earth as a helpless infant, not able to walk, not able to feed himself, not able to do one thing to affect the world around him.  He grew as any human child grows, through infancy, through childhood, through his teen years, to adulthood.  Once again, as God had done many times before, God turned weakness into strength.  God’s power was proved through Jesus. 
Therefore, we have no excuse.  No excuse about being too weak and powerless to accomplish anything for God.  No excuse about being too good to do servant work for God.  No excuse about not having time to do God’s work, or not being rich enough, or not having enough status.  Jesus Christ, the baby in the manger, takes away all our excuses and shows them for what they really are—insufficient reasons given by those who will do anything to avoid the work God calls us to do.

True, we must never lose sight of Jesus Christ, God on the cross, come to reconcile us to God.  But we must also never lose sight of Jesus Christ, God in a manger—incarnate in the helplessness of a baby, come to show us how to live, and how to serve.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Image of God

The Image of God
Colossians 1:13-23
            One of my seminary professors said that if the only task Jesus had to perform was to die for our sins, God could have dropped him from heaven onto the cross.  Jesus didn’t have to live thirty-some years on earth just to die.  There must have been a reason for him to have been born as a baby, live his life on earth, and go through the torture of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  There must have been some other work that Jesus had to accomplish in addition to his death and resurrection.
            Paul makes it clear in his letter to the Colossians that redemption and reconciliation were necessary.  Not just our individual sin, but the corporate sin of the world had separated us from God.  However we look at Christ’s death, whether as sacrifice, or substitution, or whatever other theology of the cross we espouse, Jesus Christ was sent to redeem us and reconcile us to God.  But, as my professor said, that didn’t take thirty-plus years.  Why did Jesus go through the complete human life cycle from birth to death?
            Paul gives us at least part of the answer in v. 15:  “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”  God is invisible to us.  No one has seen God at any time.  Probably that’s a good thing, since we know what happened to Moses, who came the closest of anyone to seeing God.  You may remember that when he came down from Mt. Sinai his face glowed.  This frightened the Israelites so much that he was forced to wear a veil.  That was the  only way they would come near him. 
I remember another of my instructors saying that visions were something else you didn’t want to have happen to you. She said visions were the only way God could get some people’s attention—including hers.  For her, at least, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.  Encountering God firsthand seems to be something we’d be better off avoiding.
            So God chose another solution.  God sent Jesus, the “firstborn of all creation.”  Jesus came so that we might see what redemption and reconciliation looked like.  He came so that we could see God—as much of God as we would be able to comprehend.  If God is love, then Jesus was God’s love in action—love in practical terms:  God’s love in a way we could understand.
            The problem is that we often don’t want to see God’s love in action.  When we look at the way Jesus lived we see the folly of our own lives.  We see how little we love, and how poor our service is.  We see how frequently we are preoccupied with our own salvation and how seldom we are concerned with sharing God’s love with those around us.  Remember, Jesus never talked to anyone about being saved; he talked to people about being salt, about being light, about being God’s love in the world.
            Jesus came to show us how to live.  His life was as much a sacrifice as his death.  We will probably not be called on to die for someone as Jesus did for all humankind; but we are called every day to live as Jesus lived—for all humankind. 

            Jesus was not only the firstborn of all creation (v. 15), but also the beginning of something new:  the firstborn from the dead.  In Jesus’ resurrection we have the hope of our own resurrection.  But first we have to learn to live as Jesus lived.  “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”  If we say we belong to Jesus, and Jesus lives within us, we ought to live in the same self-sacrificing way Jesus lived.  Being redeemed by God through Jesus’ death on the cross means our lives are lived in the stability and steadfastness of active faith.  Being reconciled with God means we live our lives in love—as Jesus did.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Preparing for Guests

Preparing for Guests
Matthew 3:1-12
            The story of John the Baptist is often the Lectionary gospel reading for one of the first Sundays in Advent.  John is an important figure in the life of Christ.  He was Jesus’ cousin through the blood relationship between Mary and Elizabeth.  Luke records that part of the story at length, and I invite you to read it leisurely and thoroughly.  For now, we’ll concern ourselves with the shorter version as recorded in Matthew’s gospel.
            John was an unusual character to say the least.  Today we might refer to him as a hippie or a bohemian—someone who turns his back on convention to “do his own thing.”  Of course, he didn’t do his own thing at all, but rather fulfilled the role God had given him. 
            John was Jesus’ “announcer”—sort of like Ed McMahon to Johnny Carson.  As McMahon set the stage for Carson, John the Baptist prepared Judea for Jesus.  Those of us who are old enough will remember McMahon’s famous introductory line: “Heeere’s Johnny!”
            I mean no disrespect when I compare John the Baptist to a TV announcer.  I only want to demonstrate his role (at least in part) in the story of Jesus’ ministry.  Of course, Jesus could have gotten along quite well without someone to introduce him, but John’s presence and ministry let Judea know things were about to change.  Someone important was about to take the stage.  This Someone would shake things up in ways that no one—perhaps not even John—could imagine.
            John’s message came from the prophet Isaiah.  Having been born into a priestly family, we can imagine that John knew Scripture (that is, the Hebrew Scriptures) well.  He would have been trained in both the law and the prophets, and known them well enough to quote them when they helped him present his message. 
Perhaps John chose the location of his ministry so that he could fulfill one of Isaiah’s prophecies:  “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.”  John set up his revival far away from town.  Instead of finding him at a corner in downtown Jerusalem, people had to go all the way to a deserted area near the Jordan River to hear him.  You couldn’t stumble across John by accident; you had to go looking for him.  He needed to be near the waters of the Jordan so he could baptize those who responded to his call to repentance.
What was John’s message?  “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”  John used Isaiah’s words to introduce Jesus as God’s Messiah.
Isaiah was referring to King Cyrus, the Persian ruler who allowed the Jewish people to end their exile in Babylon and return to their homeland, Judea.  What a blessing his decision was to those who had been away from home so long!  How the exiles must have praised Cyrus for allowing them to go home and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple that was its centerpiece!  Isaiah used these words to promise that Israel would have a joyous and easy return to Judea.
How much more John hoped the people would praise God for the gift of the One who would provide a means of reconciliation between them and God!  How much more important it was for him to prepare the way for the Lord of all creation.

My father used to say that, if we were expecting an important guest, we would outdo ourselves in preparation.  We would clean the house thoroughly, get out the best table settings, and put our finest linen out for the guest’s use.  Just as John prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry, and we would prepare for the visit of an honored guest, so we must prepare ourselves for Jesus’ coming to us.  How much more important it is that we prepare the way of the Lord by preparing our hearts and minds for his arrival.

Telling It Like it Is

Telling It Like It Is
Matthew 3:1-12
            “Telling it like it is”—one of those expressions that we like to throw around to describe a person who isn’t afraid to speak the truth, even when it might get him/her in trouble, or offend other people.  In a way, we admire these people for their forthrightness.  In another way they frighten us, since we don’t know when they might call us to task for something we do that displeases them.  In still another way we resent them when they burst one of our bubbles or execute one of our sacred cows.
            John the Baptist was such a man.  He was not beholden to anyone for anything.  Renouncing the comforts of a good home, fancy clothes, and a pleasant diet of tasty food, John took himself out to the wilderness, wore what he could find to cover himself with, and ate whatever came to hand.  If you didn’t approve of his lifestyle, or like what he said, or agree with his point of view, it didn’t matter to him.  He said what he had to say—the message God had given him to deliver to the world—and let the consequences happen.
            Many in Judea welcomed his frank approach.  They were ready for a change—ready to throw off the oppression of Roman rule and Pharisaical dominance alike.  If following John could help, they were all for it.  When the Jewish religious leaders came out to see what was happening, and John let them have it, the people probably cheered—at least inwardly.  They might support John for telling it like it is, but they weren’t bold enough to put their own heads on the line.
            Many people accepted John’s message of repentance.  They felt the urgency of his words.  They knew they had to make a change, turn away from their past lives and be baptized.  Enough of them did so that the Pharisees and Sadducees felt they had to find out what was happening.  We can be sure they didn’t go to see John because they were interested in becoming his disciples.  Rather they wanted to see what the commotion was all about and determine whether this was someone who might threaten their privileged status.
            And threaten them he did.  Calling them “a brood of vipers” (not a way to get on their good side), he told them to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”  It wasn’t enough for them to look like religious leaders, or spend time in the temple, or preach fine sermons and pray eloquent prayers.  They had to realize that their privileged position could end.  If they continued to behave as they always had, God would cut them down and replace them with another chosen people.
            Which is exactly what happened.  In the year 70 C.E., the Romans became so incensed at a group of Jewish insurrectionists who dared to rebel against the empire that they destroyed Jerusalem, razed the temple (Just as Jesus said would happen), and scattered the Jewish people to the four winds, effectively ending the privileged status the religious leaders had enjoyed.

            John’s message is just as relevant today.  God continues to work God’s purpose out, no matter how slowly the mill seems to grind.  The time is coming and now is when today’s religious leaders—in fact, all who call themselves Christian—must be ready to bear the kind of fruit that is pleasing to God:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians, 5:22-23).  Only through repentance and turning our lives around—a continual process for us broken and sinful people—can we bear fruit worthy of our claim to be Christians.  Only by realizing God’s claim on our lives, and fulfilling our responsibility as God’s children by loving and serving our neighbors, can we hope to avoid having God’s axe laid to our roots, and being replaced by God’s new chosen people.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and Everything Else

The Trinity, the Virgin Birth, and Everything Else
Luke, 1:26-38
            What do you have to believe to be a Christian?  Different denominations have different answers to that question, of course, with each one touting its dogmatically doctrinal take on the issue.  Some are very simple; some more complex.  Each of us subscribes to that set of principles which best fits our spiritual outlook.  But, at the root, what is absolutely necessary to believe in order to call oneself a Christian?
            Do I have to believe in the Trinity?  Good question!  You won’t find the doctrine of the Trinity stated as such in the Bible.  In John 14:15-17, Jesus promises to send a Helper (Comforter in some translations) who will be the “Spirit of truth,” but doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit by name.  Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit frequently. I believe it is on these references, more than any other Scripture, that the doctrine of the Trinity is based. 
            I know some very sincere Christians who have trouble with the doctrine of the Trinity.  They don’t deny the divinity of Christ, but aren’t sure the Holy Spirit is a third, separate person in the Godhead.  I believe their doubts center on the fact that Jesus doesn’t use Trinitarian language.  He says, “I and my Father are one,” but doesn’t include the Holy Spirit.
            So—do I have to believe in the Trinity to be a Christian?  As far as I’m concerned, no; but you may see it differently.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in the Trinity, only that I don’t believe it’s essential.
            Do I have to believe in the virgin birth?  Matthew and Luke focus on Mary’s virginity in their birth accounts.  They speak of the Holy Spirit as the One who causes her to be with child.  In order for Jesus to be both truly and properly human and truly and properly God, he would have had to have been born of a human woman; but was it necessary for her to be a virgin?  What’s difference does it make? 
From our vantage point, when DNA tests can accurately determine paternity, perhaps not much.  In the first century, the only way a man could be sure he was the father of a child was if he knew absolutely that the mother was a virgin.  This was essential in the matter of inheritance.  If it could be proved that a woman could have had a child by another man, the paternity of any of her children would be in doubt, and who inherited what became an issue
            So—how important is Mary’s virginity to the Christian belief system?  It could be very important in proving that Jesus was really the Son of God.  But is it essential?  As far as I’m concerned, probably not; but you may see it differently.
            What do I have to believe?  The church of which I am a member has a very simple confession of faith.  Every Sunday we say:  “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and I confess him as my Lord and Savior.”  We also ask each prospective member to make this confession.  Say you believe, and you’re in.  No further questions asked.
            While that may not be enough for some people, it’s enough for me.  Jesus Christ is exactly who he said he was—the Son of God.  I accept that unquestioningly.  I also acknowledge that Jesus Christ is my Savior—that by his life, death and resurrection I have been reconciled with God.  Jesus Christ is the Lord of my life.  I give him my complete allegiance.  I serve God through Jesus’ two commands:  Love God, and love neighbor. 

I believe that as long as I fulfill these requirements, I can consider myself Jesus’ faithful servant, and be in a right relationship with God.  Everything else is secondary.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Sure Thing

A Sure Thing
2 Corinthians 5:1-5
            Paul uses metaphors to convey his message in the same way that Jesus used parables.  Jesus’ parables took complex concepts and framed them in a way that the common people could easily understand.  Speaking in terms of agriculture, the weather or other commonalities familiar to his listeners, Jesus made his message clear, and helped those who heard him (“Let the one who has ears, hear and understand!”) absorb the gospel and translate it into a message that would serve them well in their daily lives.
            Paul, writing and speaking mostly to Gentiles, uses figures of speech they would understand.  He speaks of races and other athletic contests.  He refers to our bodies as “jars of clay.”  He uses terms from legal language that would have been familiar to those who read and heard his letters.  He compares the church to the human body.
            We find one of these figures of speech in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth.  He has been speaking of the ultimate destruction of our jars of clay, the passing away of our human bodies.  He talks about the body as a tent, and says that we shouldn’t be concerned about this dwelling being destroyed.  We have a better piece of real estate waiting for us in the presence of God—a house that will be ours for all eternity. 
He assures his readers—which includes us, since we are also his readers—that this destruction of our physical bodies is necessary in order to inherit the imperishable dwelling that awaits us.  When “what is mortal” is “swallowed up by life,” we will be given clothing that will be better and more complete than the earthly tent we now inhabit.  He sort of mixes metaphors here, between tents and clothing, but the central idea is the same—we will inherit an eternal dwelling place.
How do we know this will come to pass?  Do we only have Paul’s word to rely on?  Isn’t that a little scary, even given that Paul is among Jesus’ faithful apostles, and one whose word can be trusted?
It turns out we don’t have to take Paul’s word that what awaits us after life ends is better than anything we have here—and he uses a real estate term to make his point.  The last phrase of today’s reading tells us that God “has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”
If you’ve ever bought a house you know that, in order to seal the deal, money has to change hands—not the full amount, but enough to constitute “earnest money.”  It’s the buyer’s way of telling the seller, “I’m serious about this.  Here’s a deposit to guarantee that I’ll go through with the purchase.  The deposit doesn’t have to be much (we’ve put down as little as $100 for some of the houses we’ve bought), just enough to say, “We intend to go through with the deal, and here’s money to show we’re serious.”
This is the “guarantee” of which Paul speaks.  God seals the deal with us by giving the Holy Spirit to work in and through us.    This is God’s way of saying, “I’m serious about this.  Accept the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in your life and I’ll guarantee that, when life is over, your real estate will be waiting for you.”
All we have to do to keep our side of the bargain is let the Holy Spirit live in us and transform us day by day into the people God would have us be.  Of course, our side of the bargain isn’t easy.  God requires that we be attentive to the Spirit’s voice and leading.  We can no longer be completely in charge of our lives because the Spirit leads us to follow God’s will rather than our own.

Still, you’re not going to find a better deal anywhere else.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Jars of Clay

Jars of Clay
2 Corinthians 4:7
            Jars of clay.  The most common container in biblical times.  Jars of clay were like plastic containers today:  they could be found everywhere.  These vessels could be used to hold all kinds of stuff—common, valuable, and, in some cases, invaluable. 
            It turns out that these jars of clay were also good for preservation.  In Egypt and other places some have been found that are thousands of years old.  The documents inside them have been perfectly preserved.  As long as the jar and the seal are unbroken, what was placed inside them all those centuries ago remains intact and in good condition.  Unfortunately, archaeologists have found more pieces of these vessels than intact ones, proving that they are not indestructible.
            Jeremiah speaks of a jar of clay—an earthenware vessel—in chapter 32.  God has told him to redeem a field from his near relative.  God uses that redemption of property to make the point that Judah will be redeemed from captivity.  In verse 14 God instructs Jeremiah to place the deed in an earthenware vessel for preservation.  This was common practice since there were no municipal buildings where legal transactions could be registered.  As long as the seal on the jar was not broken the deed remained valid.  It was proof that the field had indeed changed hands for the purchase price that had been set. 
            So a jar of clay, a common vessel made from dirt, became a symbol for the redemption of a nation from exile.  The container also became honorable because of the contents.  The most common vessel of the day was elevated to new importance because of what was inside.
            Paul knew this passage from Jeremiah, quite possibly by heart.  The writings of the prophets were part of his education.  He would have been intimately familiar with the Scripture, and also with the concept, for in the first century documents were still being preserved in jars of clay.  Perhaps he had this in mind when he wrote his second letter to the church at Corinth.
            “But we have this treasure in jars of clay,” Paul says, “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”  Paul has been talking about the gospel, specifically that God’s light has brought God’s glory to believers through the knowledge of Jesus Christ.  This is the treasure of which he speaks. 
The “jars of clay” refers to the weakness of the human body.  Like jars of clay, our bodies are not indestructible.  Paul understood this weakness—the limitations that are part of every human being—through the weakness of his own flesh.  Paul had a “thorn in the flesh” which he asked God to remove.  God’s response was, “No.  My strength is made perfect in weakness.” 
            Elsewhere, Paul also demonstrated that he understood the emotional and spiritual weaknesses of his “jar of clay.”  He realized that he did not do the good things he wanted to do, but instead did things he did not want to do because of his human limitations.  Only through God’s power could he hope to accomplish anything of value.
            Like Paul, we are jars of clay.  We have physical weaknesses, the limitations of bodies that are imperfect and subject to decay.  We can’t escape these weaknesses.  We can only learn to live with them.  Still, this is not the worst of our limitations.  Our jars of clay are also subject to spiritual weakness.  We cannot live as we know we should because our spiritual weakness prevents it.

            But thanks be to God, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the power of God’s Holy Spirit at work within us that transforms our jars of clay into vessels of honor.  God does not transform our outer bodies, but instead changes our inner selves to become containers of God’s glory.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Why God Isn't Like Santa Claus

Why God Isn’t Like Santa Claus
Psalm 139:1-12
You better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping…
You know the rest.
            That’s Santa Claus.  We’ve made him such an important part of growing up that we can’t escape him.  I know, you probably think it’s too soon to be writing about Christmas.  It’s bad enough that the stores are already full of ornaments, and lights, and angel statues, and all the other trimmings, but merchants can’t be blamed completely for rushing the season.  After all, we’ve made the Friday after Thanksgiving the most important shopping day of the year.  It’s inevitable that every store should want to entice us in to that establishment where (it is hoped) we’ll spend all our money.
In the first twelve verses of Psalm 139 it’s difficult to know whether the writer is talking about God or the Santa Claus we use to keep our children (fairly) well-behaved at this time of year.  The psalmist knows that he can never escape God’s presence.  No matter what he does, no matter where he goes, God is always there.  God sees everything, knows everything about him—about us.  There’s no escaping God’s presence
He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake,
He knows when you’ve been good or bad, so be good for goodness’ sake.

These words could apply to either God or Santa.  We teach our children that Santa sees everything we do and writes it down in his little book, so he knows whether or not he should be good to us on Christmas Eve.  Is it any wonder that children get God and Santa confused—just as many adults do?  Both God and Santa seem to be closely watching each little thing we do.  If we’re good, we’ve got it made.  If we make a slip—watch out!
            David McCasland has said, “God has both an all-seeing eye and an all-forgiving heart.”  That’s the difference between the two “watchers.” 
We portray Santa Claus as the great judge.  If you get on his bad side, it’s all over!  Coal in your stocking come Christmas morn.  Of course, we know that God is the righteous judge, and that the day will come when each of us will have to stand at God’s judgment seat and answer for the way we’ve lived our lives.  It’s also true that we have a tendency to emphasize God’s all-seeing eye over God’s all-forgiving heart.  This is a weakness in our theology, and we need to correct it.  We can’t speak about God’s all-seeing eye unless we equally stress God’s all-forgiving heart.
            John Baillie begins one of the prayers in his book, A Diary of Private Prayer, with these words:  “O merciful Father, who dost look down upon the weaknesses of Thy human children more in pity than in anger, and more in love than in pity…”  God’s pity for our foolishness far outweighs God’s anger at our sinfulness, and God’s love for us far outweighs God’s pity.  After all, this is the God who sent Jesus Christ to show us how we should live and how we should die, and to give us a path to life everlasting. 

            Santa Claus can’t do that.  He can’t forgive us the wrong things we do, or the right things we fail to do.  He can only keep score, and decide which list we should be on as he packs his sleigh.  It’s God who, seeing all that we do, no matter how bad, no matter how often, stands ready with open arms and forgiving heart to welcome us back home.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Presence of the Poor

The Presence of the Poor
Deuteronomy 15:1-6
Matthew 26:6-13
            There are times, I think, when we get God’s commands and God’s statements of facts mixed up.  We take statements of fact as commands and commands as statements of facts.  Today’s readings are a good example of that confusion.
            “Deuteronomy” means “the second giving of the law.”  God gave the law (the Ten Commandments) in Exodus.  They are restated in Deuteronomy along with detailed instructions as to how those laws were to be implemented.  In a way, this is like the United States government.  Congress passes a law (yes, it happens sometimes), the president signs it, and then it’s turned over to the appropriate government agencies for interpretation and the writing of regulations.  It is through these regulations that most laws are actually implemented.
            The fifteenth chapter of Deuteronomy begins by explaining the Year of Release.  Every seven years all debts were to be forgiven—completely cleared.  This is not a suggestion, this is God’s commandment.  Every seven years the Israelites were to start over—debt free, with no residual financial obligations.  All outstanding debts were to be cancelled.  That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?  There’s no room for “interpretation” here.  Every person gets a fresh start.
            In v. 4 God says, “…there will be no poor among you;…”  This is not a statement of fact.  It’s the law—God’s law.  There will be no poor because every person gets a fresh startAll debts are forgiven.
            Can you imagine this working in our society?  Can you see banks forgiving mortgages? Car loans?  Credit card debts?  We have gotten so dependent upon credit, so immersed in living for the future that such a system would seem to be totally unworkable.  Yet this is God’s law—for the Israelites, yes; but doesn’t God’s law apply to us as well?  What about those who insist that every word of the Bible is absolutely true and given directly by God?  Would they go so far as to live this way?  Would they argue that all society should work this way?  Perhaps it’s is unrealistic, but perhaps it is something we should be working towards.
            In the Matthew reading, a woman has just poured the contents of a flask of very expensive ointment on Jesus’ head.  The deed has upset some of Jesus’ disciples.  They are appalled that this woman has wasted a precious commodity this way.  “Why didn’t she give the money to the poor?” they said.  “It would have gone a long way toward helping those who need it most.”
            Jesus replied (in part), “you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”  It’s the first part of this answer that causes trouble.  Too many people interpret this as having the effect of a command—or at least the fatalistic statement of a situation that cannot be changed.  I do not believe this is what Jesus meant.  He realized that people were unwilling to help the poor in any meaningful way—any way that would offer a real solution to the problem.  To the best of our knowledge, Israel never instituted the Year of Release.  No one was willing to forgive debts on such a grand scale even though  God had said, “for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God.”

            There it is!  It’s not our land.  It’s not our money.  All good gifts have been given to us by God.  If we strictly obey the voice of God, there will be no poor among us, and all will prosper.  This is God’s command to us, and the way God expects us to live.  

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Believing Is Seeing

Believing Is Seeing
John 20:24-29
John 9
            No, I didn’t get it wrong.   I know we usually say it the other way round:  “Seeing is believing.” We say it even though we know we can’t always trust our eyes.  Different people can be looking at exactly the same scene and see completely different things.  Imagine three people with different occupations seeing a man snatch a woman’s purse.  The artist will give you an accurate physical description, including—in full color—what the man wore.  The track coach will miss the physical description entirely, but tell you all about the man’s running style.  The handbag manufacturer will also miss the physical description, but describe the purse down to the last stitch.  Our “seeing” is affected by our bias—what we bring to the scene.
            Thomas was one who had to see to believe.  Remember that first Easter night?  Jesus had appeared to the disciples while Thomas was not there.  When he returned, the others all crowded excitedly around him, announcing, “We have seen the Lord!”  Thomas responded, “It doesn’t matter what you saw.  If I don’t see for myself, I won’t believe.”  We know what happened next.  Jesus appeared again eight days later, and Thomas believed.  Jesus’ comment to him is instructive.  He said, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
            There are several stories in the gospels of healings that were initiated by Jesus—that is, Jesus healed someone without the person first asking.  The healing of the demoniac in the tombs which Mark recounts (5:1-20) is a good example.  Surely the man didn’t believe in Jesus’ power to heal.  His mind was not his own.  He didn’t ask for healing.  In fact, he didn’t even speak to Jesus in his own voice.  Demons had so completely taken possession of this man that they spoke through him.  It was only after Jesus had exorcised the demons that the man was able to sit “clothed and in his right mind.”  Only then could he believe in Jesus’ power to heal.  Only then could he see the possibilities of a life lived in freedom.
            There are several stories about Jesus healing blind persons, people who believed in Jesus’ healing powers and as a result were able to gain their sight.  The story that we have in the greatest detail is in the ninth chapter of John’s gospel. 
Jesus and his disciples passed a blind man.  His disciples automatically associated his condition with sin.  Jesus set them straight, and then went about healing the man. 
Once the healing was completed the story took an interesting turn.  The Pharisees were furious because Jesus had healed.  In their eyes Jesus had worked on the Sabbath.  They were all for throwing the man, and perhaps his parents, out of the synagogue—excommunicating them, using today’s terms.  When they began to question the man, he said, “One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  He believed.  He saw.
One point of the story is that this man believed and saw while the Pharisees did not believe and continued in their spiritual blindness—an affliction much more devastating than the loss of physical sight.  They were so blind that, rather than rejoicing in this man’s restoration to wholeness, they cast him out of their presence—cut him off from the fellowship of the synagogue.

In our own time, Sidney E. Cox wrote the hymn, This One Thing I Know, using the blind man’s words as the basis for the chorus.  As the man recognized Jesus’ power to restore his physical sight, those of us who have committed our lives to Christ recognize Jesus’ power to restore our spiritual sight.  We believe.  We see.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Saints and Sinners

Saints and Sinners
Romans 12:1-2
            “Every saint has a past.  Every sinner has a future.” (Edward Pritchard, 16th century poet)
            We know this is true—intellectually, that is.  We know we don’t begin life as saints.  We begin as sinners—every one of us.  Paul tells us, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  We can’t escape it.  Whether we believe that our sinful nature was caused by Adam and Eve’s disobedience; or believe that we, like them, were born with a predilection for sin because God created us with free will and an ego; or believe some other form of Christian theology, the result is the same.  We are not sinful because we sin.  We sin because we are sinners—plain and simple. 
            If it were not for God’s free gift of salvation we would have no hope of escaping our past.  We would be doomed by sin throughout our entire lives—and beyond!  No salvation, no reconciliation.  No reconciliation, no hope.  It’s only God’s grace that stands between us and the consequences of our sin.
            So we all begin life in the same sinful condition.  None of us is any better than anyone else—nor any worse.  There is a bumper sticker that declares, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”  True enough—but there is an arrogance in that statement, intended or not, that makes Christians look bad.   In our joy at having been redeemed it’s easy to forget that one of the seven deadly sins is pride.  In fact, it was ego—pride—that made Eve listen to the serpent, disobey God, and eat the forbidden fruit.  Any time we let our egos run loose we stand the chance of succumbing to our sinful nature and giving in to temptation.
            Every saint has a past.  That’s us.  We have a past, and that past is sinful.  There’s no other way to look at it.  I believe, however, that this is the easiest part to accept.  We know we were in need of redemption, and rejoice in the knowledge that we have been forgiven.  It’s the second half of this quote that is most likely to cause us trouble.
            Pritchard says, “Every sinner has a future.”  This is the message of the gospel.  God desires that every human being be saved.  God wants every sinner to become a saint.  Despite what we think John Calvin said, the truth of the gospel is the good news that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Paul makes it clear that God makes no distinction between people.  We are all created by God, and God loves us all.  Salvation is not limited to the few, or even to the many, but is available to everyone.
            This is where some people have a problem.  Many want to limit God’s salvation in some way.  Salvation is for those who subscribe to a certain set of doctrines.  Salvation is for those who follow a certain set of steps.  Salvation is for those who believe as we believe.  If you don’t do everything just right, if you aren’t baptized in the correct manner, if you don’t use the right words when you pray, you’re doomed.

            But Pritchard says every sinner has a future—and he’s correct.  There is not one of us who did not begin our lives as a sinner; and there is not one person who does not have the potential of becoming a saint.  Let me remind you that sainthood is not for a few who meet some sort of artificial standard.  Sainthood is the right—the responsibility of all redeemed Christians.  We are all called to sainthood—that is, we are all called to be set apart for God’s use.  We may have begun life as sinners, but it is our privilege—our responsibility—to end it as saints.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Prophetic Insults

Prophetic Insults
Amos 4:1-13
Amos is not a happy prophet.  Of course, few prophets are happy.  That’s not their job.  God didn’t call prophets to deliver messages of sweetness and light—although sometimes they do speak words of hope.  Isaiah is a good example.  Writing and preaching during the Babylonian exile he tells the people that God will redeem them—but not immediately.  God will bring them home—but not right away.  There is hope—but they will have to wait for its fulfillment.
Prophets are by nature angry, and that’s probably the way it should be.  God sends prophets to address problems.  God doesn’t send prophets when times are good, but only when things are going wrong. 
One of my seminary professors told us we didn’t want God speaking directly to us.  That had happened to her.  She said she was a very practical person, and not open to hearing God.  The only way God could get through to her was through a vision.  She said it wasn’t pleasant.
So it is with prophets.  They come when God can’t get through to us any other way:  Nathan to David; John the Baptist to the rulers of Judah in league with the Romans; Martin Luther to the Church that had wandered from its first love; Martin Luther King to a nation hopelessly mired in racism; and Amos to a people who had earned God’s displeasure.
How did Amos express his anger?  He indulged in a little name-calling.  His real target was the leaders of Israel, who were oppressing the poor, taking the little they had to enrich themselves.  Instead of calling them names, he attacked their wives.  “Cows of Bashan,” he called them, referring to a mountain in Samaria which was good pastureland.  Amos says these women demand of their husbands more food, more drink—more of everything.  Not satisfied with what they have, they urge their husbands toward even greater greed.
“You cows of Bashan,” he rails, “who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’”  He then lists all the things that God promises to do to them as retribution.
Now, seminary students and prospective preachers are not taught to openly insult any members of our congregations, male or female.  I’m sure those who fill the pews each Sunday would be upset to hear nasty names used to describe them, even though they might be accurate.  Surely we could find a kinder, gentler—but still effective—way to let our members know they were not meeting God’s expectations.
Perhaps one reason we speak with some decorum is financial.  These people, after all, are part of the group that pays our salaries.  Perhaps we are more sensitive to the needs of our congregations than Amos and the other prophets.  Perhaps.  Still, part of the role of preacher/pastor is to be prophetic.  Like the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures we have a word from the Lord, and we have been commissioned to deliver it.  We don’t do our congregations any favors if we soft-peddle the truth.

How do we strike the right balance?  How do we get our message across without being so insulting that no one will listen—or perhaps entirely lose the opportunity to deliver that message?  For deliver it we must.  Like Paul in the New Testament, we have an obligation to let our people know when they are straying into dangerous waters.  Like Paul we have to deliver that message in ways that will get their attention.  Our first obligation is to do the work God calls us to, even if by doing so we displease those to whom we have been sent.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

For a Bowl of Soup

For a Bowl of Soup
Genesis 25:29-34
            Primogeniture.  The right of the firstborn.  The oldest son inherits everything, the daughters are married off for political alliances, and any other sons are out of luck.  In times when written documents were scarce (for example, the Middle Ages), primogeniture made wills unnecessary.  The matter was settled by birth order with no recourse.
            In other periods of history, if there were two sons, the oldest would get two-thirds of his father’s estate while the younger would get one-third (think of Jesus’ story of the prodigal son).  If the family consisted of more than two sons, modifications to this arrangement were possible.  In all cases the oldest son had a distinct advantage.  He got the lion’s share while his brothers divided the scraps.  This was his “birthright.”
            If you remember the story of the birth of Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons, you know something unusual happened.  Esau was born first, and therefore had the advantage in the line of inheritance.  Jacob followed, but arrived holding tight to Esau’s heel—already, it would seem, trying to beat out his brother.  One Bible translation says that “Jacob” means “He takes by the heel,” or “He cheats,”—an apt name considering what happened between them as adults.  Other translations say that the name Jacob means “Supplanter”—also apt considering what happened later.
            Fast forward several years.  Esau has grown into a successful hunter and his father’s favorite.  We might call Jacob a “mama’s boy,” but that isn’t exactly the accurate term.  He is, however, his mother’s favorite.  He prefers life among his family’s tents to the outdoor activities favored by his brother.  Apparently he is an excellent cook, and this is what brings about the first recorded trouble between the two young men.  I say “first recorded trouble” because it’s pretty obvious this isn’t the first incident between them.  Two children, the same age but very different temperaments—bound to be trouble.
            Anyone who hunts knows it can be a chancy business.  Some days the game seems to walk right up, begging to be taken.  Other days the hunter would swear there was a silent drone overhead revealing his location to everything that moves.  Esau must have been having one of those days, since the writer of Genesis tells us he came in from the fields exhausted and apparently empty-handed.  Jacob was cooking what the Bible calls stew, but what was in all probability more like lentil soup.  Think Campbell’s extra-chunky, extra-hearty concoctions.
            Those of us who have missed a meal know what the situation must have been.  Here’s one brother who has been out running around all day, not only tired and hungry, but probably disappointed as well.  Here’s the other brother patiently, slowly stirring the pot, letting the aroma waft in his brother’s direction—perhaps even using his free hand to fan the breeze a bit.
            Now, we know Esau was very hungry, but he wasn’t, as he said, “about to die.”  Isaac was a man of wealth, and Esau would not have left that morning without breakfast, nor would he have gone off to hunt empty handed.  Still, like someone we read about in the New Testament (remember Peter?), Esau was impulsive and impatient enough to do the unthinkable.  He sold his birthright.  A little longer, a little more patience, and he could have had food of his own.  Instead, he gave away his standing as firstborn for a bowl of soup.  We still remember this incident today when we talk about someone selling out for “a mess of pottage” (the King James translation).

            The temptation to sell ourselves out is still there today.  Any time we sell our principles for something of lesser value we are like Esau.  Any time we tempt someone to do the same we are like Jacob.  Neither brother is worth emulating.  We need to find a better way to live.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

What's Important?

What’s Important?
Matthew 13:44-46
            We’re all familiar with the story of Jack and the Beanstalk—not the jazzed up Hollywood version that’s now playing at your local theatres (or soon will be), but the original version.  It’s a simple, straightforward tale when all the special effects are removed. 
Jack and his mother are so poor that they have nothing left but an old cow.  Mother tells Jack to take it to town and sell it so they can have some money to exist a little longer.  On his way, he meets a man who persuades him to trade the cow for some magic beans.  When he gets home, his mother is so angry that she throws the beans out the window and sends Jack to bed without supper.  Overnight, the beans grow into a giant beanstalk, providing Jack with access to a giant’s castle and some very valuable resources.  The story ends happily with the giant dead and Jack and his mother set for life.  Jack sacrificed his family’s last possession for something he thought more valuable.  It looked as if he had done something foolish, but it turned out to be a wise decision. 
Financial advisors tell us it’s not a good idea to risk too much of our money on speculative investments.  We’re supposed to keep a balance between stocks and bonds, and only “play the market” with money we can afford to lose.  Jack would not do well working with one of these advisors, I’m afraid.  He was obviously a risk-taker.
Apparently, so were the people in the stories Jesus told his followers in today’s reading.  They were both willing to part with everything they had in order to acquire something they thought was more valuable.  Because we know how these stories turn out, we may fail to see the risk involved; but don’t you think people might have ridiculed these men when they made their financially risky moves?
In the first story, a man finds a treasure hidden in a field belonging to someone else.  We are not told why he’s on someone else’s property, but there he is.  He covers the treasure back up (another questionable action), sells everything he owns, and buys the field.  Jesus doesn’t tell us that the man is taking a risk, but he certainly is.  What if the owner of the field refuses to sell?  What if the treasure had been planted there by the owner for the purpose of making the field seem valuable, and removed once it had served its purpose?  But the story turns out well for the man who buys the field.  His investment pays off.
The man in the second story seems to be in a less risky position.  He sees the most beautiful, perfect pearl imaginable, and sells everything he has so the gem can be his.  But where will he get the money to live on?  We know he isn’t going to sell his treasure for any reason—not when he has invested so much in it.  Day-to-day expenses may be a problem.
Jesus tailored his parables to demonstrate the point he was trying to make.  The considerations I have just mentioned weren’t part of the stories because they were beside that point.  Jesus was trying to show that some things are so valuable that we must have them at any cost.  These men found what they wanted most, did what they had to do to acquire those objects, and were happy with the results.  For Jesus, the object of value was the kingdom of God, something worth having at any price.
Charles Du Bos (1882-1939), a French literary critic, understood the point Jesus was trying to make.  He said, “The important thing is this:  to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”

            That’s real risk-taking—the kind of risk-taking Jesus demands from those who would follow him.  What are we willing to give up to follow Jesus?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

No Free Lunch?

No Free Lunch?
Isaiah 55
            “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”  We’re all familiar with the saying.  You don’t get something for nothing.  There’s always a payment that comes due for everything we (seemingly) get for free.
            Many years ago taverns put out food at lunchtime to attract customers.  Patrons would come in, eat the food provided, and congratulate themselves on getting lunch free.  What they failed to realize was that the drinks they consumed cost them more than a meal at home or in a restaurant would have.  They paid for that lunch in the cost of their liquid refreshment.  Tavern owners knew that providing food items increased their profits.  Why else would they have done it?  They certainly weren’t being generous.  They were in business to make money, not to feed the neighborhood.
            Is this where the saying came from?  I don’t know; but it’s possible.  Someone, somewhere woke up to the “cost” of the meal, and came to the profound conclusion:  “We’re not getting our food for free!  We’re actually paying more for it than we should.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
            That’s what makes us suspicious when we read the opening verses of Isaiah 55.  We know there’s no free food, let alone free drink.  How can Isaiah’s words be true?  Can God really be providing a free lunch?  But listen to what Isaiah is saying:
            “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and the one who has no money, come buy and eat!  Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
            Can this be true?  Does God really mean it?  Can we really get a free lunch?
            We know the answer to these questions, of course.  It’s true!  God does indeed provide a free lunch.  God offers us food and drink—spiritual food and drink without money and without price.  It’s called grace, and we all have been recipients of this gift.
            We know there is nothing we have done or can do to make us worthy of God’s grace.  We know we don’t deserve any of the blessings God bestows on us.  But we also know that those blessings come pouring down from heaven in a never-ending stream.  Certainly we have had our share of wine, milk, and honey from God’s great storehouse—and it hasn’t cost us a thing.
            Someone much smarter than me came up with a good definition:  “Grace is what God gives us when we don’t deserve it, and mercy is when God doesn’t give us what we do deserve.” 
If we ever wanted an explanation of God’s relationship with humankind in one sentence, this is it.  We certainly don’t deserve mercy.  Not only—as Paul tells us in Romans—have we all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, we continue to sin, and continue to fall short of the mark God has set for us.  By any terms imaginable we don’t deserve either grace or mercy; yet there they are, waiting for us to claim them.
How can God forgive us so readily?  How can God continue to provide us with grace and mercy in spite of our continued shortcomings?  Listen again to God’s voice speaking through Isaiah’s pen.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

It may be the only free lunch we ever get, but it’s the only one that matters.