Sunday, January 26, 2014

Self-Assured Humility

Self-Assured Humility
2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10
            “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”  So said C. S. Lewis, the great English Christian writer and teacher.
            I have always had a difficult time with the apostle Paul for several reasons.  A major one is what I perceive as his tendency to brag.  There are times in his letters where he says things like, “Imitate me.  This is how you should behave as a Christian.”  That bothers me.  I was taught that Christians should be humble.  To me this means not talking about yourself, not thinking too much of yourself, not elevating yourself in any way.  But here is Paul, seeming to boast about himself as the ideal Christian, one everybody should try to be like.  How does this fit in with what I’ve been taught about humility?
            At first glance, it doesn’t.  This kind of talk does not fit with the way most of us were raised.  Paul sounds like a boastful braggart who elevates himself above those to whom he is writing, and—in my opinion—that makes him look bad.
            If we look at the early chapters of Acts, where we are first introduced to Paul (Saul), we see he was always a little out there.  We first find him guarding the coats of those who stone Stephen.  He doesn’t participate, he just looks on—but he’s there.  Perhaps he appears to be humble because he’s not important enough to take part in the activity.  He’s just the coat check guy—but he’s still part of the process.
            Almost immediately we see a different side of him.  He is at the head of a group going to Damascus to round up Christians and bring them back to be punished.  He’s “breathing fire.”  He’s angry.  He’s tough.  He’s ready (as we might say today) to rock and roll.  It sounds as if he asked for this job rather than being assigned to it.  He wasn’t told, “Go to Damascus.” He wanted—actively sought out—the assignment.
            We know what happened next.  He was stopped in his tracks when God caused him to be blinded, and he had to wait (patiently?) for healing until one of the very Christians he had come to arrest visited him. 
            So—which is the real Paul:  the boaster we see starting off for Damascus or the penitent Paul who arrives there?  Is the real Paul the one we meet in today’s reading or the humble Paul who gives God all the credit for what he has become?
            Of course, the correct answer is, “Both.”  Like the rest of us, Paul is humble about some things and not so humble about others.  He is a person who knows his worth and his strengths, but also sees, when he looks at God, his worthlessness and his weaknesses.  He begins this passage by stating his credentials.  He says he is boasting, but he is really only telling the truth.  He is all the things he claims to be, and has suffered all the hardships and deprivations he claims to have endured.  He’s enthusiastic.  He’s passionate.  He knows God has called him to a special work, and he knows that, with God’s help, he can do whatever God requires.

            Self-assured humility—that’s the mark of a Christian.  We know that by ourselves we are weak.  By ourselves we have nothing much to offer the world.  By ourselves we will fail in the ministries to which we’re called.  But with God’s strength we can accomplish miracles.  We may never be shipwrecked for Christ, or beaten, or put in jail, or travel the world as missionaries, but we may have to “endure hardship as a good soldier” for God.  Those hardships may take more subtle forms than they did for Paul, but they will be there.  When they happen, we, like Paul, can say with true humility that we have served God regardless of the consequences.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Moral Issue

A Moral Issue
Romans 10:12
Civil rights is not a political issue, it’s a moral issue.  I’m not the first to say this.  Every group that has ever fought for its rights has said the same thing.  Suffragettes said that it was morally wrong to deny the vote to half the population.  Men both here and in England argued hotly that it would be the end of civilization.  It wasn’t. 
Martin Luther King and many others marched and fought (non-violently) for rights—not just for African-Americans, but for all minorities.  They said that everyone has a right to decent housing, good jobs, fair treatment, and an equal place in society with everyone else.  Those who stood against them said it would be the end of civilization.  It wasn’t.
The struggle continues.  Other groups insist on their rights—not just because it is politically correct, but because it is morally correct.  If we shape the debate as a political issue, it will always divide those for from those against.  If we shape it as a moral issue, it is difficult to take a position against civil rights for anyone.
Even more than a moral issue, universal civil rights is a religious issue, especially for Christians.  Several times in his letters Paul says that there is no distinction between people.  Sometimes he mentions two categories (Jews and Greeks, slaves and free persons).  Sometimes he includes a third (males and females) or more.  The message is always the same.  In God’s eyes there is no distinction between people.  We are all equal before God.
“But,” you say, “Paul is talking about those who believe in the Lord.  Everyone who believes on the Lord is equal.”  Even here Christians have a bad track record.  Large numbers of Christians refused to support women’s rights, whether for the vote, or for equal pay, or for other issues.  Large numbers of Christians used the Bible to defend slavery in this country, and later refused to support the call for equality for African-Americans.  Too often the church has been willing to sit on the sidelines, even at the expense of its own members, supporting the status quo, not wanting to endanger its safe, secure place in society by standing for what was morally right.
Here is what it comes down to:  Christians, whether Bible literalists or Bible “interpretationalists,” believe that the universe and everything in it was created by God.  We may disagree on the amount of time it took, and the method by which it was accomplished, but we all agree that this is God’s universe.  God created it, God is in charge, and God will someday cause it to end—all in God’s good time.  No person has a right to mess with God’s creation or God’s right to rule creation.
Every person on this planet (and any other planet that contains life) is God’s creation, and therefore owes his/her existence to God.  Every one of us is a child of God.  Therefore, all are equal in God’s sight.  God may choose to deal with us differently—any parent understands that principle.  The most unfair parenting is to treat all of our children exactly the same.  God works with each one of us as God sees fit, trying to help all of us understand God’s love. 
God doesn’t play favorites.  God loves each of God’s children equally, whether Jew, or Greek, or American, or Brazilian; whether banker, or butcher, or migrant worker; whether black, or white, or brown, or any other color of the rainbow—God loves each of us.  If God loves each of us equally, how can any of us deny basic human rights to any other of us?  Where do we get the authority to elevate any of God’s children above any other of God’s children? 

Civil rights is not a political issue, it’s a moral issue, and for Christians, it’s God’s law.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Telling It Like It Is

Telling It Like It Is
Matthew 3:1-12
            “Telling it like it is”—one of those expressions 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—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.  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 took John’s message of repentance to heart.  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 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 recognizing 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, January 5, 2014


Galatians 3:23-29

            What constitutes freedom for you?  How would you define freedom as it applies to you personally? When someone says the word “freedom,” what picture comes to your mind?
·        Financial freedom?  Having enough money to do anything you want without having to worry about how to pay for it?
·        The old joke?  Life begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies?
·        Retirement?  No need to get up at some specific time in the morning?  The freedom to set your own schedule?  No boss to please?
·        Good health and the time and wherewithal to enjoy it?
·        Other criteria I haven’t thought of?
            We all want to be free.  Whatever our definition of freedom—and there are probably as many definitions as there are people—we all want to be independent, with the right to make our own decisions and set our own agenda.  We want to be indebted only to the people we want to be beholden to, and not have to appease those we don’t want anything to do with.
            Paul, writing to the Galatians, discussed this matter of freedom.  “Now before faith came,” he says, “we were held captive under the law, imprisoned….”  Being held captive is the opposite of freedom.  We can’t make our own decisions.  We can’t do what we want.  We are confined by something (in this case, “the law”) which ties us down.
For most of us, being in school was not freedom.  We had to be where we were supposed to be.  We had to do what we were told.  We had to do work that might not have appealed to us, and take classes that we saw no practical use for. 
            Paul wasn’t thinking of some organized institution where young people spend their days. He uses the word “guardian.”  What he had in mind was a pedagogue, or tutor. The guardian or pedagogue was a slave in the Greek household.  His job was not simply to teach the young child (usually a male), but to guide him, to protect him from negative influences, to keep him on the straight and narrow until he matured, so that he knew right from wrong and consistently chose the right.  The guardian represented the opposite of freedom.  The child was not free to do what he wanted, but rather was controlled by the pedagogue.
            Paul says that’s the way the law worked.  It established boundaries within which people had to live.  They were required to abide by the strictures of the law.  For all the talk in Psalm 119 and other places in the Hebrew Scriptures about the glory of Torah, by the first century B.C.E. the law had become restrictive.  Freedom was curtailed by the law’s boundaries.
            Paul says Jesus came to change that.  With the coming of Jesus Christ “we are no longer under a guardian,” he says.  “For in Christ Jesus you are [children] of God through faith.”  Faith has replaced the law, and freedom has replaced restriction.  We understand what’s right and try to do it, guided by the Holy Spirit.  The boundaries of the law have been removed.  “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

            This putting on Christ is not just a matter of changing clothes, but of changing our nature.  We become new creations—God’s creatures.  The boundaries between people are gone.  Paul says there are no artificial divisions between groups of people:  no Jew and Greek, no slave and free, no male and female; and we should add no black and white, no southerner and northerner, no Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopalian—you can add your own categories.  We have been changed.  We are different—something new.  We are all members of the household of God, free from any boundaries or restrictions.  We are free to be God’s children, with no boundaries between us.