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.