Sunday, July 28, 2013

Don't Look Down

Don’t Look Down!
Matthew 14:22-33
            Nik Wallenda, a member of the famous Wallenda family (“The Flying Wallendas”) recently walked 1,400 feet across the Little Colorado River Gorge on a wire stretched 1,500 feet above the canyon floor.  He made the walk without a net or safety harness.  This is the kind of thing his family has been doing for generations in spite of several serious injuries and even deaths.  Nik Wallenda was heard to pray for most of the walk across the canyon.  Good idea!
            I have been told that feats like this are only possible if you don’t look down.  My tolerance for heights is not great (I get nervous watching someone on top of a building in a movie), but it sounds reasonable to me.  Looking down apparently changes the perspective enough to disorient the person trying to walk on a high wire, or stand on a window ledge on a skyscraper, or any other height-involved activity.  I promise you, I’ll never know.
            Apparently, not looking down also helps one carry a container full of liquid, such as a teacup.  If you look at the cup you’re more likely to spill.  I try to avoid carrying full teacups.
            Just before today’s reading, Jesus has fed 5,000 men (plus women and children) with only five loaves and two fish.  After dismissing the crowd, Jesus told his disciples to sail to the other shore of the Sea of Galilee.  “I’ll catch up with you later,” he said, and went off by himself to pray.
            Meanwhile, out on the lake, the disciples were battling the wind.  They were having a difficult time trying to reach shore.  The wind was tossing the boat around like a dog worrying a snake.  If you’ve ever seen a dog grab a snake by the neck and shake it until it was dead you’ll understand what the disciples were going through.
Suddenly, they saw someone walking toward them across the water.  They thought it was a ghost.  Because we know the story, we know it was Jesus.  The question in my mind is:  When Jesus said he would join them later, how did they think he was going to get there?  How else was he going to get to them if not by walking across the lake from point A to point B?
Jesus, sensing their fear, called out to them, “Don’t be afraid, it is I.”  That was enough to reassure them.  Then Peter—the always impulsive Peter—said to Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you.”
Why “command?”  Did Peter not have enough faith to try it on his own?  Did he need an invitation?  Or Jesus’ approval?  Or an ego boost?  Whatever Peter’s reason, Jesus told him to come.
Matthew says, “But when he saw the wind, he was afraid,” and began to sink.  We know you can’t “see” the wind, you can only feel it.  Is that what Matthew meant?  Did Peter feel the wind full in his face and begin to panic?  Did it toss him around as it tossed the boat?  Or did Peter look down and change his perspective?  That would be my guess.  Peter was doing all right as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus, but once he took his mind off his Master, he lost his footing and began to go under.  Of course Jesus saved him.  He reached out, grabbed Peter, and got both of them in the boat.  Immediately the wind calmed down.

How often we are like Peter.  We start off with visions of doing some great work for God, then lose our focus.  Instead of keeping our minds—our eyes—on God, and working in the strength of the Holy Spirit, we change our perspective and lose sight of our goal.  We need to remember that there’s not much we can do under our own power.  We must learn from Peter not to look down, but to keep our eyes on the Master.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

In Two Places at Once

In Two Places at Once
John 15:18-19
            One of the most interesting books on my shelf is Strong’s Complete Concordance.  Many editions of the Bible have a limited concordance in the back, but Strong’s is a complete concordance.  Like many titles, it’s a bit of an overstatement, but for the most part it’s true.  If you (like me) have a bad memory for numbers, all you need is a key word and you can look up practically any Scripture reference you want.
            Find a good concordance and look up “world.”  There will be entry after entry containing this word.  Many of them are in the New Testament, and many of those are in the gospels—and many of those are in John’s gospel.  You’ve probably already figured out where I’m going with this, especially if you’ve read the Scripture passage listed at the top of the page.
            Almost from the beginning of Matthew’s gospel Jesus draws a sharp distinction between himself and his teaching, and the world.  You could probably quote five to ten examples without taking a breath, even if you couldn’t cite chapter and verse.  In one way or another Jesus says over and over “Be in the world but not of the world.”  But what does he mean?  It sounds as if he’s telling his followers (remember, that includes us!) to be in two places at once.  Everybody’s got to be somewhere, but nobody can be in two somewheres at the same time.  Not even the world’s great magicians can pull off that stunt.  They are masters of deception, making you think they’re in one place while they’ve moved to another place, but even they can’t do the impossible.
            What is Jesus telling us to do?  We know we must exist in this physical world.  There is no other place for us to be.  We live our lives in this body (some peoples’ out-of-body experiences notwithstanding), and we’re physically constrained (restrained?) to one location within it.  But that’s not what Jesus is speaking of, and we know it.  We understand what he means even if we’d like to pretend we don’t.
            When Jesus tells us to be in the world, he is recognizing our physical limitations—the necessity for us to occupy some space on (or near) earth.  When he tells us not to be of the world, he is referring to our spiritual, economic, social and emotional orientation.  The physical space we occupy is not to determine the location of our thoughts, interests and desires.
            This is difficult.  Where do we draw the line?  There are people whom we love and with whom we interact.  Can we turn our backs on them?  We know the answer.  We have activities we enjoy.  Do we stop doing them?  That’s a tougher one.  Here’s where we have to be in tune with Jesus.  If we have (as Paul tells the Galatians) “put on Christ,” we should begin to understand which activities are pleasing to God and which are not.  I remember a line from my youth:  “Don’t go anywhere you can’t take Jesus with you.”  How this plays out will be different for different people, but we have to apply a standard that meets God’s standards, and that can be pretty exacting.
            The real problem comes with attitudes—with ways of thinking.  These are difficult to deal with.  We could cite many areas here, but let’s take one example.  What’s your attitude towards money?  How do you use it?  Wherever your money goes, you’ll find your heart (sound familiar?).  Many live by the philosophy, “He who dies with the most toys wins;” but Jesus gave up all the “toys” he might have had to serve others.

            Perhaps two of the most telling “world” references are in Matthew 5:14, and Matthew 16:26.  We are called to be the light of the world.  If we’ve sold out to that world to the point where we’ve lost our souls, our lamps will be pretty dim.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

If You Build It He Will Come

If You Build It, He Will Come
Revelation 21:1-4
John 14:1-7
            You may remember the movie Field of Dreams.  Kevin Costner plays a man who seems completely crazy to his family and his neighbors.  He clears an income-producing cornfield to build a baseball diamond.  He does this because he hears a voice whispering, “If you build it, he will come.”  Famous ballplayers of the past appear, but only Costner can see them.  Near the end of the movie, “he” comes.  The father with whom Costner had a strained relationship appears and the two of them play catch.
            But more than these show up.  As the movie ends, we see a long line of cars, stretching to the horizon, coming to watch players they have only heard of.  Costner’s vision has become a reality, and what he alone could see is now visible to everyone.
            Isaiah had a vision of such a future.  In 2:2-4 he describes it.  “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills, and all the nations shall flow to it.”  Once God’s house is established on God’s holy mountain, all the peoples of the world will be drawn to it.  Swords will become the blades of plows.  Spears will become farm implements (dare we add:  guns will be melted down and become objects for construction rather than for destruction).  When the Lord’s house has been built, “they” will come.
            God shows John of Patmos the same vision.  We read about it in Revelation.  God will create a new heaven and a new earth.  Instead of us going to heaven to be with God, God will come to earth to be with humankind.  The New Jerusalem will be on earth, and they will come.
            The similarity between these two passages is remarkable.  In each case God promises to create a place that will be wonderful—more wonderful than a baseball diamond in a cornfield—and people will come.  Not just cars full of people, but nations of people from every corner of the earth.  God will build it, and they will come.
            How do we get to this place?  Is it all in God’s hands?  Not completely, I think.  If Kevin Costner hadn’t listened to his inner voice, that baseball field wouldn’t have been built.  The great players of the past wouldn’t have shown up.  He would not have reconciled with his father, and the field wouldn’t have become a shrine that people came to visit.  The work had to be done by someone—the one who was called to do it—or the cornfield would have remained a cornfield.
            Near the end of John’s gospel, at the Last Supper, Jesus is giving his disciples their final instruction.  He will teach them his most important lesson over the next three days, but this is his last chance to speak with them.  He tells them that he must leave, but that he is going to prepare a place for them.  He will return, and when he does, he will take them to that place.  When Thomas declares his cluelessness about the place and the way to get there, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  It sounds as if Jesus will do the building, and this is true.  As both Isaiah and Revelation demonstrate, God is preparing a place for us, and will show us the way.  But that doesn’t mean we can sit and wait for everything to happen.
            It’s our job to clear the cornfield.  It’s our job to prepare the land on God’s holy mountain for God’s holy city.  Jesus gave us work to do, and expects us to do it.  We have to turn the soil.  We have to lay the foundation.  We have to make sure the world is ready.  We have to build it so he will come—and then, they will come.