Sunday, March 30, 2014

Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them

Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them
Matthew 4:18-22
            This is the title of a book by John Ortberg.  I was walking through a bookstore one day, saw it, and decided it might be fun to read.  It was fun—and interesting.  The author’s thesis is that, while God intended for us to live together in community, our brokenness and sinfulness make that difficult if not impossible.  Ortberg’s book is aimed at helping Christians learn to live together in spite of our shortcomings
            We’ve all known people who, at first glance, appear to be perfectly normal, but turn out, when we get to know them better, to have quirks and foibles that make them—shall we say…interesting?  Some of them may be family members, or close friends.  Whatever the relationship, we love them in spite of—or perhaps because of—those quirks and foibles.  Still, their “imperfections” can make them difficult to live with.
            Of course, there’s a dark side to this as well.  Some people take advantage of their seeming normalcy to get close enough to cause serious trouble.  Many of those who harm others appear at first to be okay, but turn out later to be troubled—and troublesome—people, sometimes monstrously so.  It’s one of the reasons we’re told as children not to talk to strangers.  It’s good advice for adults as well, whether in person or online.
            Today’s reading talks about the calling of the first disciples.  Scattered throughout the gospels are stories of Jesus inviting many of the twelve to join him.  Even more scattered are the pictures of these disciples as they interact with Jesus.  Nowhere do we find the calling of all of the twelve in one place.  Peter, Andrew, James and John are the ones whose call stories are found most frequently.  Matthew and Luke tell us about the calling of Matthew (or Levi).  John tells us about Jesus’ encounter with Philip and Nathaniel.
            The gospel writers tell us very little about most of the twelve.  We hear about how they came to Jesus perhaps, see their names in the lists of his closest followers, and that’s about all.  We hear about them as part of the twelve, but seldom if ever by name.  “The disciples” bring people to Jesus to be healed.  “The disciples” try to keep children from “bothering” the Master.  “The disciples” are sent out on a healing and preaching mission, but we don’t know who went with who.  We are seldom given individual names, or hear individual comments from most of them.  Those we do know seem one way or another to fall into the category described by the title of this column.
·         James and John, who want to be Jesus’ right- and left-hand men in heaven.
·         Thomas, who sounds like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, complaining about following Jesus to Jerusalem to die with him, then refusing to believe he had risen until presented with physical proof.
·         Andrew, who seems perfectly happy to return to fishing with his brother Peter when it looks like the adventure is over.
·         And Peter, the one who could be the star of the aforementioned book.  Good old “sometimes up and sometimes down” Peter, who confesses Jesus as the Christ then denies he even knows his Lord.
Every one of them seemed to be normal at the beginning, but turned out to have character flaws that made them abnormal—or were they?  If everyone is normal until you get to know them, doesn’t that include us?  Don’t we have the same quirks, the same foibles, the same character flaws as everyone else? 

Of course we do.  And God loves us in spite—or more likely because—of them.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sheltering In Place

Sheltering In Place
Psalm 91
            This has been a severe winter.  Hardly a day goes by without a news report about bad weather hitting some part of the country.  The biggest problem has been the number of storms that have affected areas usually free from snow, ice, and below-freezing temperatures—at least spared for most of the winter.  A few days below freezing, or one or perhaps two episodes of snow and/or ice is one thing.  Repeated cold snaps and debilitating storms is quite another.  People all over the country have been asking, “When will it end?  I can’t take much more of this.”  Some states have exceeded their snow and ice removal budgets by so much that they don’t know where the money will come from.  This extra financial burden at a time when the economy seems to be recovering much too slowly only makes the situation more unbearable.
            Newspapers, television and the internet are full of pictures of traffic tie-ups going on for miles and lasting for hours or even days.  We see cars stranded in deep snow, or on icy roads that have become impassable.  Even though officials warn people to stay where they are, many drivers seem to think that message doesn’t apply to them.  They believe they are capable enough to avoid trouble.  Or their reason for getting behind the wheel is so overwhelming they feel they have no choice.  They won’t get stuck.  They’ll make it to their destination.  They must make it.  They must accomplish their purpose.  Those of us who are smart enough to stay home look at the stopped-up roads and wonder what was so important that people had to risk their lives to get someplace other than where they were when the storm hit.
            The call from government officials and disaster preparedness leaders is simple:  shelter in place.  Stay where you are.  Nothing is worth being caught out in bad weather and risking your safety.
            Many psalms speak of sheltering in the protected places God creates for us.  Psalm 121 begins, “I lift up my eyes to the hills.  From where does my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  The psalmist acknowledges that God’s help is invaluable in times of trouble.  Better to look to the Lord for help than rely on our own strength—or abilities, or intelligence, or wisdom.
            Perhaps Psalm 91 says it best:  “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.”  The psalmist goes on to describe exactly what the protection of the Almighty entails for the one who shelters in place.  Dwelling in the shadow of the Most High God affords protection from snares, from pestilence, from night terrors (and who among us hasn’t suffered from them), and even from the deadly attacks of those who would do us harm.
            Most of us have lived long enough to know that not even God’s shadow will protect us from all evil.  We’ve seen friends and family members become disabled by disease or injury, or fall victim to hard times.  We know that the fortress of the Most High does not give us a charmed life.  If that were true, we would have no trouble evangelizing the world for the God in whom we place our trust. 
What we do know is that the God of Israel, the Almighty One who has redeemed us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, will not allow any trouble to destroy the God-human relationship.  God is in charge of the world and all that is in it, and God will be the ultimate victor, both in our lives and in human history.  As long as we realize that our help is in God, and rely on God’s strength, as long as we shelter in place under the shadow of the Most High, no storm will overcome us, and no trouble will defeat us.

How can we fail to accept God’s offer of a place of shelter?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

IN Two Places at Once

In Two Places at Once
John 13:15-18
            There have been many famous farewell speeches in history.  George Washington’s farewell address is a letter written to the American people as he finished his second term as president and prepared to retire to Mount Vernon.  Another famous president, Abraham Lincoln, gave a farewell speech as he left Springfield, Illinois for his inauguration in Washington, D. C. Interesting that we remember the farewell of one man at the end of his presidency, and the leave-taking of the other at the beginning of his.
            In his address, Lincoln used the phrase, “Him who can go with me and remain with you.”  We don’t often think of our leaders bringing God into political situations in any meaningful way, but Lincoln certainly did here.
            “Him who can go with me and remain with you:”  Lincoln was asking for God’s blessing for himself as he began the duties of what was to be a difficult task—that of leading America through trying times.  He also wanted to assure his listeners that, even as God went with him, God would also remain with—and bless—them.
            In perhaps the most famous farewell address in history, Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, summed up his earthly life for his disciples and prepared them for what lay ahead.  John records Jesus’ words at length, beginning at 13:31 and carrying all the way through the 17th chapter.    
Jesus promises that he will not leave them alone.  They don’t have to worry about his absence from them because he will send them a Comforter—a Presence who will be with them wherever they go.  I’m sure this promise didn’t mean much to them until the Day of Pentecost, when like a sudden storm the Holy Spirit burst upon the disciples, and through them upon the world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in one of the letters he wrote from prison as he faced execution by the Nazis, said that God allowed himself to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross.  The Hebrew Scriptures are a record of God’s interaction with humankind.  We read of God’s interventions in human history, both through mighty acts of power, and through sending angels to deliver God’s words.  It’s clear, as we read through the history of God’s chosen people, that God is constantly involved with humanity.
Then, as we near the end of the Hebrew Scriptures, God seems to be personally absent.  We hear God’s words delivered by the prophets, but God doesn’t seem to be as directly involved with the people as in the past.
When we turn to the New Testament we find God present with humanity once again, this time in the person of Jesus Christ.  We see God not as a transcendent being, but as an immanent figure—God incarnate in human form.  This God, however, is limited.  Jesus can only be in one place at one time.  It seems he can move easily across space, but can’t divide himself.
This is where the Holy Spirit comes in.  After God allowed himself to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross, God was freed, through the person of the Holy Spirit, to be everywhere at once.  This is what Lincoln meant when he said “He who can go with me and remain with you.”  This is what Jesus meant when he said, “And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper to be with you forever.”

How wonderful to know God can always be present with us wherever we are.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Do You Have Time for the Pain?

Do You Have Time for the Pain?
Psalm 51:1-15
            Recently I was listening to Carly Simon sing her hit song, “I Haven’t Got Time for the Pain.”  Like several other popular songs, this one has possible spiritual connotations.  Simon speaks of past pain and suffering—the joyless life she led before she met the one to whom she is singing.  Now she hasn’t got room or time for the pain which filled her life before her current love came along.
            We’re in the Christian season of Lent, a time when we are invited to remember our sins and seek a deeper relationship with God.  It’s a time of penitence leading to a time of renewal.  It culminates with Easter Sunday, when we remember the One who died and rose again that we might be reconciled to God.
            The problem is that we want to get to Easter without going through the trials that lead up to it.  We’d just as soon forget Lent and Holy Week if we could.  We want, as with so many areas of our lives, to skip right over the pain of penitence, and the awful agony of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and get right to the rejoicing.  After all, why beat ourselves over the head with remorse when we know how it will end?  Isn’t that why our churches are filled at Christmas and Easter with people who don’t darken the sanctuary doors the rest of the year?  Let’s celebrate Jesus as a cute little baby and as the risen Savior and forget about the torture of his Passion.
            Psalm 51 tells us otherwise.  It reminds us that there’s no victory without battle, no triumph without tough times, no way round the dark valley if we want to get to the brightness of Paradise.
            We know the circumstances under which David wrote this most well-known of the penitential psalms.  He had sinned twice, once by having sexual relations with another man’s wife and then by having that man killed “accidentally” in battle.  Adultery and murder are two huge roadblocks to sharing in the joy of God’s presence.  Confronted with his sin, David confesses, asks forgiveness, and promises to fulfill his obligations as God’s shepherd-king.
            The first six verses of Psalm 51 are David’s confession.  “I know my transgressions,” he says, “and my sin is ever before me.”  He knows he has sinned against God (all sin is ultimately against God), but he has also sinned against Uriah and Bathsheba.  Ultimately he has sinned against all the people of Israel and Judah, for instead of being the righteous king they can look to as an example of how to live, he has set an example of unrighteousness.
            Verses seven through twelve are David’s plea for forgiveness.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” the penitent sinner cries, “and renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.”  In this season of penitence we echo David’s plea.  Purge me.  Wash me.  Deliver me.
            This is the pain we must have time for.  This is the agony we have to make room for.  This is the dark valley through which we have to pass during these forty days if we are to share in the joy of the resurrection.  It is only then that we will be able to join David as he sings of God’s righteousness and declares the Lord’s praise.

            God calls us to repentance, to realize that we have no righteousness in and of ourselves.  The essence of God’s grace is forgiveness of sin and the redemption that allows us to share in the glory of the risen Christ.  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory over the pain of sin through the glory of the cross.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Teaching Without Understanding

Teaching Without Understanding
1Timothy 1:3-7
            There is some controversy about the authorship of the letters to Timothy.  Experts tell us that they probably weren’t written by Paul, but by someone writing later and using Paul’s name in order to make the letters acceptable to the Christian community.  Let’s put that aside for the moment and accept that the apostle Paul wrote two letters to Timothy, his “true child in the faith.”  We don’t know if Paul had any children, or even if he was married, but that doesn’t matter here either.  Timothy was his spiritual son, and that’s enough for us.
            We’ve all sat in classes under teachers who didn’t know what they were talking about.  We’ve also had teachers who couldn’t teach, or who couldn’t control a classroom, but that’s a different problem.  What I’m referring to here is the kind of teacher who is talking through his/her hat. The one who hasn’t studied the material, or doesn’t know the subject area, and who has nothing of value to bring to students.  We quickly figure out that they’re blowing smoke at us, so we tune them out.
            Apparently, this is the situation that existed at Ephesus.  Those who had been appointed to teach (or who had appointed themselves teachers) were not sticking to the facts.  Paul accuses them of teaching “different doctrine,” and charges Timothy to charge them to stop. 
We don’t have a clear idea of what this doctrine might be, but Paul gives us a couple of clues.  He talks about these incompetent teachers devoting themselves to “myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculation.”  Later he accuses them of “desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.”
            Now, if anyone in the early church knew the law, it was Paul.  We know his training and his background.  We know what he was before his conversion.  If anyone could spot false teaching of the law it would be the man who began his life as Saul and who was learning how to become a leader of the Pharisees.
            We do not know what these myths or endless genealogies might have been, but Paul obviously believed they were leading believers away from the truths of the faith.  From the beginning of Christianity people were making up stuff and passing it off as the true Word of God.  Paul would have none of it.  He wanted these incompetent, unlearned teachers stopped.  Timothy was to charge them not to teach things about which they knew nothing.
            Do we have the same problem today?  Of course!  There are preachers, both in our churches and in our communications networks, who stand in front of people and say things that aren’t true—messages that supposedly come from the Bibles they hold in their hands but never open.  Even if they do open them, we know they can make the Bible say practically anything they choose just by picking Scripture apart and using small enough bits to change the meaning.  A good communicator (salesperson?) can talk us into buying false forms of Christianity by telling us what we want to hear.  Only by testing their words against the message of the whole Bible can we find out if they really know what they’re talking about, or are getting lost in “myths and endless genealogies.”

            We have to be on guard.  We don’t have Paul to protect us, or Timothy to get rid of incompetent messengers.  We have to be so well-versed in Scripture—not the Scripture that someone tells us is correct, but what we know is true because we are biblically literate—that we can spot these phonies ourselves and charge them to stop spreading false doctrines.