Sunday, May 25, 2014

Three Times for Understanding

Three Times for Understanding
2 Timothy 2:1-7
I remember (or think I remember) reading somewhere, sometime that if a playwright wants the audience to remember something, he/she says it three times.  This, of course, is in contrast to what our parents did to us (and we in turn do to our children), because parents never say anything less than a thousand times—as in, “If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times….”
Paul wants to make sure Timothy understands his advice, so he gives it three times.  Well, not exactly, but he reinforces his advice with three examples to drive home his point.  The writer wants his young protégé to be strengthened in his pastoral service.  Paul knows how difficult it can be for a young person in ministry.  It is easy to become discouraged because you feel so alone.  You are, usually, the only pastor in your church.  Unless you have a support network, you have no one to share with, no one to bolster you up when problems overwhelm you—which, as with other servant leadership positions, can easily happen every day.
Paul begins the passage, “You, then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”  These two men shared an almost parent/child relationship, so the phrase “my child” was certainly one of affection.  “Be strong,” Paul is saying, “but not in your own strength.  And don’t give up.  Take what you have learned from me and transmit it to others.  Teach them what I have taught you, and then encourage them to teach others.”  Paul knew what we all should remember:  no one can do the job of ministry alone.  The more helpers one has, the easier the work becomes—and the more rewarding, for there is nothing like seeing your students succeed.
The main goal of Paul’s advice was, “Never give up!”  It is easy, once you become discouraged, to throw in the towel.  It’s not a long journey from, “Nothing’s working right,” to, “What’s the use,” to, “I might as well give up and try another line of work.”  We know from the frustration that occasionally comes through in Paul’s letters, that he must have been discouraged at times.  We can see him tearing his hair out over the foibles of the Corinthian church.  We can hear the tone of his voice as he dictates the words, “You foolish Galatians!”  We can hear him saying, “After all I’ve taught you, you still don’t get it!”
So Paul gives Timothy three examples of people who persevere with a singlemindedness that assures they will complete their task.
·        “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.”  If you’re going to be a good soldier, everything else must take second place.  Otherwise it will be difficult if not impossible to fulfill your obligation.
·        “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”  If you take shortcuts, or outright cheat, you will be disqualified, and someone else will get the prize.  Play hard but play fair.
·        “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.”  True, the farmer should be ready to share his success with those who need help, but he has a right to enjoy, with his family, the fruits of his labor.
Paul finishes with, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in

everything.”  Paul has given his young follower three good examples of how to be a success, but it is the Lord who will give Timothy the understanding he needs to fulfill his ministry.  It’s as true for each of us in our ministry today.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Attractive Christianity

Attractive Christianity
Matthew 5:14-16
            Madeleine L’Engle is best known for books such as A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet.  She is less well-known for her religious work, including her role as librarian of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City—a post she held for more than thirty years. 
            L’Engle wrote, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
            That puts much of our evangelism in a rather dismal light, doesn’t it?  We Christians are awfully good at telling people what they should do, what they should believe, and how they should act.  A friend of mine recently left the church where she had been worshiping after a fellow churchgoer criticized her for the way she behaved.  Because my friend did not act exactly as the other woman did, she was accused of not being a Christian.  We who like to say we are Bible-believing Christians don’t believe the part where Jesus says, “Judge not lest you also be judged.”  We want to set ourselves up as judge and jury as to what Christianity should be.  Anyone who doesn’t meet our standards is in trouble.  We stand in the place of the Almighty and damn them to hell as thoroughly as the English language (or some other one) will allow.
            Along with telling us not to be judgmental, Jesus also had a thing or two to say about light.  John’s gospel is known for Jesus’ marvelous “I am” statements.  One of them, you will remember, is “I am the light of the world.”  John makes it quite clear in the prologue to his gospel (1:1-18) that Jesus was “The true light, which enlightens everyone.”
            In today’s reading, Jesus passes the torch to his disciples.  He tells them, “You are the light of the world” (italics mine).  Instead of keeping the light to himself, Jesus shares—giving it to his disciples so that they in turn can share it with others.  He even tells them to share:  “let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
            That’s a tall task.  Notice Jesus is not talking about reflected light.  He didn’t say, “I’m going to shine my light on you so it can bounce off and let everyone around you see it.”  No—he says, “You are the light of the world.  Let your light shine.”  We are to be filled with the light of Christ and glow so that others will see it and recognize the source as God the Father.
            This approach, as L’Engle indicates, is the exact opposite of the “criticize ‘em, beat ‘em down, and tell ‘em how they ought to act” method.  Jesus stands with L’Engle—or maybe it’s the other way round, since he had the idea first.  Instead of an evangelism that attempts to browbeat people into the kingdom of God, we are to be the light that leads them to it.
            I know—that’s a lot harder to do.  It means we have to keep our light shining—and that’s not always easy.  We can’t ever let it get dim, let alone go out.  We can’t allow any part of us—our habits, our attitudes, our words, our actions—to interfere with that light and block it out.  We have to be so full of God’s love that we unceasingly glow with its light.  Like a permanent light bulb, we have to always be on.
            We know we can’t do it on our own.  Jesus knew it too.  Even he had to have his batteries recharged.  That’s why he spent so much time in prayer.  His prayer life made it possible for God’s light and God’s power to shine through him. 

That’s why so many people came to him saying, “I want that light for myself.”

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Filthy Rich

Filthy Rich
1 Timothy 6:17-19
“Filthy rich” is one of those expressions used by people who aren’t wealthy.  It expresses a negative reaction to those who have money from those who don’t.  We don’t think of “filthy” as a positive adjective.  When we were children our mothers never praised us for having filthy hands or filthy clothes from playing in the mud and dirt.  Saying someone is filthy rich indicates that we don’t like him/her very much—even if that person is a complete stranger to us.
Is it a fair statement?  For some of the rich, undoubtedly.  They seem to be concerned only with gaining more wealth—not caring how they do it, who they hurt, or what anyone else loses as a result of their gain.  We hear about people running Ponzi schemes—scams which promise phenomenal returns on money invested with them, but which only enrich the scammer.  News media run stories about people who cut corners or even break laws in order to gain more wealth at the expense of others.  “Filthy rich” is a term that seems to fit them perfectly.
Paul’s letters to Timothy are referred to as “pastoral epistles.”  Timothy was a young protégé of Paul.  These letters were intended to help him grow as a pastor to his people as well as in his own spiritual life.  Paul gives him advice about what to teach his flock:  lessons on how to help his parishioners grow spiritually.  While some of his advice is dated, and more suited to the ancient world than to our age, much of it is still useful.  This is one of the useful passages.  Paul has seen the damage that wealth can cause.  He understands how it should be handled by professing Christians.  He also knows that the Jewish prophetic tradition calls God’s people to help the poor and disenfranchised.
“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches,” Paul says.  He understands just how uncertain wealth can be.  It sounds as if he has lived through a recession or depression, and has himself experienced a loss of wealth. 
There is no guarantee that wealth will last.  Times change.  Fortunes come and go.  The makers of buggy whips never thought the automobile would put them out of business.  The manufacturers of typewriters didn’t recognize the threat computers posed.  Personal computer makers are beginning to realize that their product could be made obsolete by increasingly powerful and multi-faceted cell phones.  We never know what new invention is going to make the current front-runner an also-ran.
Paul urges Timothy to charge the wealthy members of his church to set their hopes “on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.”  I know—this sounds like pie-in-the-sky religion.  Don’t worry about where your next meal is coming from, or where you’ll sleep tonight.  God will give you everything you need.  Those who were on the wrong side of the last recession, either directly or indirectly, know that people still need food and shelter, and these are not always as available as we would like.
What Paul is getting at is that the rich are to use their wealth to help others.  “They are to do good,” he continues, “to be rich in good works [italics mine], to be generous and ready to share.”  God gives wealth in order that those who have it may share with those who can’t seem to get a start in life, or having started well, fall beside the way because of circumstances beyond their control. 

Whatever we have, be it little or much, God has allowed us to have it so that we may use it to satisfy our needs, and then help others meet theirs.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Beauty of Hindsight

The Beauty of Hindsight
John 20:19-29
            Hindsight is wonderful.  It’s so easy to look back and say, “If I had been there things would have been different.  I would never have behaved that way.  I would have had a completely different reaction to that set of circumstances.”  Because we weren’t there, and we didn’t take part in whatever situation we’re talking about, it’s difficult for anyone to disagree with us—or is it?
            John’s gospel, like Luke’s, doesn’t end with an account of the first Easter morning’s activities, but tells us what happened that evening as well.  Luke takes us to Emmaus, while John keeps us in Jerusalem.  You remember John’s version of the Easter story.
            Our first chance to question the disciples’ reaction comes here.  They are gathered in a room with doors locked from the inside.  They’re afraid, as they have been since Jesus’ arrest and trial.  They’ve been in hiding since the crucifixion, and will remain so for another 50 days.
            I can almost hear us saying (myself included, I assure you), “I would have done things differently.  You wouldn’t have found me locked away in some hideout.  I would have been right there with Jesus through the crucifixion.  I would have gone to the tomb with the women.  I’d be out in the street right away proclaiming that Jesus had risen.”
            Right!  I can see it now:  one, two—perhaps eleven of us arrayed against the might of the Roman army.  Judea might be a backwater of the Empire, but that only meant the soldiers would be less than elite troops; in other words, meaner, more sadistic, and more inclined to inflict pain.  It’s no wonder the disciples were in hiding.  They knew how Rome handled insurrections and troublemakers:  crush them and take no prisoners.  If we had any sense we’d be in hiding too.
            Even after Jesus appears to the disciples they still don’t get it.  They’re overjoyed to see the Lord, and they realize he’s no ghost.  He’s really alive.  But they don’t unlock the doors except to let Thomas in.  And here’s our next chance to take exception to the disciples’ actions.
            The disciples crowd around Thomas, saying excitedly, “We have seen the Lord!”  Thomas says, “Right!  Of course you have!  I don’t believe it for a second.  If I don’t see him myself, and feel the wounds, I won’t accept that he’s alive.  You can say what you want, but don’t expect me to believe without proof.”
            So we call him “Doubting Thomas,” and berate him for his disbelief.  But he did nothing different from what the other disciples had done when Mary Magdalene returned from meeting Jesus in the garden.  “I have seen the Lord,” she said, using the same words the disciples later used with Thomas—and they didn’t believe her any more than Thomas believed them.
            Would we have behaved any differently?  Would we have demanded any less proof?  Would we have willingly, eagerly said, “Of course I believe your witness!  Hallelujah!”
            Probably not—and therein lies the problem of hindsight.  From 2,000 years on, twenty centuries of Christianity, it’s easy for us to say what we would or would not have done. But the disciples didn’t have that luxury.  Jesus was, as Paul later said, the firstborn from the dead.  Even taking into account the story of Lazarus, there was no precedence for Jesus’ resurrection.  Remember, Jesus had raised Lazarus.  Who was left to raise Jesus?

            We know the answer, of course, but we know it because of the accounts written by the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection.  In their hindsight they realized what they had missed.  We don’t have the right to second guess them.  We can only be thankful for the faithful witness they bore once they realized what they had seen.