Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Sheltering God

A Sheltering God
Psalm 91
            “What is the purpose of the giant sequoia tree?  The purpose of the giant sequoia tree is to provide shade for the tiny titmouse.” (Edward Abbey, naturalist and author, 1927-1989)
            At first reading, this statement seems silly.  Come on!  The only reason for a huge tree to exist is to provide comfort for an insignificant little creature?  Surely there must be more to it than that—more reason for the giant sequoia to take up space on this earth.
            Of course there is.  At the same time the sequoia is providing shade for the titmouse it is also providing shade for many other creatures.  It aids the ecology of the planet by removing carbon dioxide from the air and supplying needed oxygen.  Its root system helps keep the soil in place.  Added to its practical purposes is its aesthetic value.  It is beautiful to look at and provides nurture for our souls as well as our bodies.
            Could Abbey have been short-sighted?  Why would he reduce the value of such a glory of nature to so small a purpose?  Could he not see the big picture?  Did he value the titmouse so much that all other usages of the sequoia paled in comparison?  Or was Abbey a visionary who saw more than the little things—or, perhaps, saw big things in the little things?
            Metaphors are always imperfect.  Every metaphor breaks down at some point.  It must, or it is not a metaphor but a perfect replica of the thing it is supposed to represent.  This is our problem with understanding God.  We come up with all sorts of metaphors for God, but every one falls far, far short of explaining the divine Being.  How could they not?
            The psalmists frequently use metaphoric language to try to explain God.  They say God is powerful enough to make mountains skip and trees dance.  We know these things don’t really happen, but we understand why the writers of psalms speak metaphorically.  They are trying to explain the unexplainable, to describe the indescribable.  When we ask the question, “What is God like?” we need someone to give us an answer.  That is what the psalmists attempt to do.
            Psalm 91 is a good example of metaphoric language.  We know that much of what we read here is hyperbole, but we also understand that this is an attempt to help us see God and God’s care for us.  In this way it’s like Abbey’s statement about the sequoia and the titmouse.
            Perhaps the most accurate statement about God comes from John’s first letter:  “God is love.”  This is a simple statement, to be sure, but as accurate a one as we can make about God.  God is love, and because God is love, God cares for us. 
            Is God’s care for us like the care of the sequoia for the titmouse?  Not really.  The tree is, after all, a tree.  It is difficult to imagine the sequoia loving the titmouse.  Still, the tree’s protection of the bird is important, for without it, the bird perishes.  And the bird, though not consciously aware, trusts the tree to give it shade and a home in its branches.
            Yes, God is love, and because God is love, God cares for us.  God offers us protection from the one danger that can cause us irreparable harm, that of losing our souls.  When we trust in God with the same unwavering faith that the titmouse has in the sequoia, God will care for us, and keep us safe until the day of redemption.
            What is the purpose of the giant sequoia tree?  The purpose of the giant sequoia tree is to provide shade for the tiny titmouse.
            What is the purpose of God?  God is love, and the purpose of God is to provide the care we need; protection from the dangers that threaten our souls.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Silent Women

Silent Women
1 Corinthians 14:33b-35
            Paul doesn’t leave much room for misinterpretation here.  Women are to keep silent in church.  They are not to speak at all. Paul also says if women want to know anything they should “ask their husbands at home,” for it is “shameful for a woman to speak in church.”  This passage has been used by the patriarchal church for centuries to deny women the right to be ordained and to preach.  If a woman believes she has been called by God to a preaching ministry, all the “church fathers” have to do is point to Paul’s words in Corinthians to deny her the right.  How could she possibly be called by God when Paul says she is to keep silent? 
            To say that these words have caused trouble in the church is an understatement.  Paul said some wonderful things to the early churches, but many people believe this isn’t one of them.  How can the church deny women the right to preach if they feel God’s call to do so?  The only possible argument is to claim that God wouldn’t do such a thing, and that gets into dangerous territory.  Where does anyone get the right to say what God can or cannot do?
            This is the story of a remarkable woman who changed her husband’s mind about women speaking in church, and by doing so changed the history of the church.
            William Booth was a Methodist minister in England in the mid-nineteenth century.  Ordained in 1858, he was assigned to be an evangelist.  This was the work to which he felt called, and for three years he was allowed to do it.  At the church conference in 1861 (Methodists hold yearly conferences to reach decisions) his future was discussed at length. Was he to be allowed to continue his work, or would he be sent to a church as its pastor?  Apparently there was some dissatisfaction with his method of evangelism.  This may have had to do with the fact that he was reaching out to people the church didn’t approve of and trying to bring them into Methodist congregations.  It could also have been, at least in part, jealousy over his success.
            Whatever the reason, the vote went against him.  He looked to his wife Catherine, seated in the gallery for her reaction.  She did something unprecedented.  She stood and exclaimed, “No, Never!”  It was unheard of for anyone in the gallery to speak, let alone a woman; yet she did.  Booth bowed courteously to the chair, walked to the gallery stairs down which Catherine had come, embraced her, and with her by his side, left the conference and the Methodist Church.
            Catherine Booth’s history of speaking in church had begun approximately a year earlier.  On Pentecost Sunday, 1860, she sat in her husband’s church listening to him deliver the morning sermon.  She heard God’s voice calling her to speak.  She also heard the devil telling her that she’d make a fool of herself.  As she said later, the devil “overdid himself.”  She realized she had never been willing to be a fool for Christ.  Now was her chance.
            She approached the front of the church as Booth finished, and said, “I want to say a word.”  Astonished, he turned to the congregation and said, “My dear wife wishes to speak.”  And speak she did, telling the congregation that she had been disobeying God’s call for several months.  When she finished, Booth stood and announced, “My wife will preach this evening.”
            William Booth, with his wife’s help, went on to found The Salvation Army.  Catherine Booth is referred to as the Army’s Mother.  From the beginning of the denomination, women who felt God’s call to preach were ordained to do so.  Throughout the history of the Salvation Army women have answered God’s call to preaching ministry, my mother and two of my aunts included.
            I think Paul got this one wrong.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Your Best Years

Your Best Years
Isaiah 43:16-21
            When were your best years?  I have a friend whose best years are long gone.  When I’m with him he speaks most often about the past—past good times, past events, past friends.  Even when he brings these relationships up to date the past still overshadows everything else.  He seems to have no present and no future.
            Every year the TV sports networks make a big deal about high school stars in football and basketball (especially these two sports) and where they’re going to college.  I suspect that if, four years later, you looked at the lists of starters at major colleges, you’d find a lot of those names missing, and a lot of new ones added.  Same thing for college stars turning pro.  Many people follow the pro drafts like they were the most important events of the year.  But how many of those drafted actually play pro ball?  Frequently we read of a former Heisman Trophy winner who disappears from the NFL, not good enough to make it even as an average player at that level.
            How do we account for this?  Are the experts so wrong in their evaluations?  Certainly that’s part of it.  Like experts in so many other fields (finance, government, the media) they are often proved wrong by actual results.  Much too frequently we read of stock market results that were higher—or lower—than the “experts” predicted.  But there’s something more basic at work here.
            I believe that we each have a time when we reach our best years.  Some athletes, some students, some members of the social scene reach their peak in high school.  When we meet them at reunions years later we find they couldn’t adapt to the higher level of performance required of college students.  The same is true of people who have outstanding careers in college.  Many never quite become successful in the world of work, whichever field they choose.
            Israel had been going through an extended bad time.  Several evil kings in a row had dragged the nation down.  Bigger, stronger neighbors had wiped out the northern kingdom entirely.  All that was left was tiny Judah.  Too many times these wicked kings had corrupted their people instead of being shepherds.  Too many times they had become involved in bad alliances with other countries.  The final humiliation was exile.  Anyone of worth had been taken captive to Babylon and forced to live under the watchful eye of their captors.  You can experience the peoples’ despair in Psalm 137.
            But God wasn’t finished with Israel yet.  There were more good times to come.  Through Isaiah, God says, “Forget the past.  Stop dwelling on the old stuff.  Look!  I’m going to do something new.  It’s already beginning.  Do you see it?  I’m going to provide water where there is no water:  streams in the desert, and rivers in the wilderness.  My people will have enough to drink, enough to satisfy their thirst, both physically and spiritually.”
            Israel still had many good years left.  So do we.  Christians must believe that our best years lie before us. I’m not talking about our future in heaven.  Of course those years will be the best.  I’m talking about our lives here on earth.  As we grow in grace and in our knowledge of Jesus Christ, and feel ever more strongly the Holy Spirit’s presence, our lives should grow better and better.  We should be so overwhelmed by God’s presence that day by day we grow to be more like Jesus Christ.
            So…when were your best years?  If you say, “The ones still ahead of me,” congratulations.  You haven’t peaked yet.  God still has new things in store for you.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Respectable Trouble

Respectable Trouble
Mark 11:15-19
            One of my seminary professors told our class recently of a greeting she received from a colleague in ministry.  He asked her, “Are you getting into any respectable trouble?  If not, why not?”
            Respectable trouble.  How can trouble be respectable?  We’ve all gotten into trouble in our lives.  As kids we almost couldn’t help it.  I remember a boy who played hockey with my son saying one day, “I’m always in trouble!”—and he was.  He wasn’t a bad kid—in fact he was a pretty good kid.  Trouble just seemed to lie in wait for him.  We’ve all known kids like that.  Maybe we’ve even been that kid ourselves.
            But that’s not “respectable trouble.”  That’s just ordinary trouble.  What is respectable trouble and why should we want to get into it?
            For the whole of Jesus’ ministry he was in respectable trouble.  Early on he crossed the scribes and Pharisees.  He insisted on following God’s commandments—the Mosaic Law as it was given in the Torah—as God intended them to be followed, and not as the religious leaders wanted to interpret them.  This got him into trouble of the respectable kind.  As we should be, Jesus would  rather be in trouble with a group of human beings than with God.
            In this reading from Mark we see Jesus getting into serious respectable trouble.  He enters the Temple—God’s dwelling place on earth—and sees the religious leaders—God’s religious leaders—cheating the people by selling sacrificial animals at too high a cost, and exchanging foreign currency for Temple money at a high rate of usury.  He let them know exactly what he thinks of them.  “Robbers,” he calls them; “Thieves.”
            We know what happened to Jesus as a result of respectable trouble.  We read about it in the eighteenth verse.  The chief priests and the scribes begin to look for a way to destroy him—and they did.  They killed him, but they didn’t stop him.  And look what happened next!  Peter got into respectable trouble.  Paul got into respectable trouble.  Many of the other disciples got into respectable trouble.  So did the early martyrs.  So did Martin Luther.  So did John Calvin.  And Martin Luther King, Jr.  And…—but where would the list end?
What about us?  How might we get into respectable trouble? 
We get into respectable trouble whenever we set high moral standards for ourselves at work or at home, and refuse to compromise them—even if it costs us family, or friends, or jobs. 
We get into respectable trouble whenever we take an unpopular stand—even if we have to stand alone.
We get into respectable trouble when we welcome into our churches someone who we know the congregation doesn’t approve of—even if it costs us our church family.
We get into respectable trouble when we insist on equal rights for everyone, regardless of race, gender, economic status, sexual orientation, or any other barrier—even when we know doing so will turn people against us.
You know I’ve only scratched the surface here.  The important thing is this:  if respectable trouble was good enough for Jesus, for Peter, for Paul, and for so many other Christians down through the ages, then it ought to be good enough for us.
So…have you gotten into any respectable trouble lately?  If not, why not?