Sunday, August 31, 2014

Isn't That Just Like God?

Isn’t That Just Like God!
2 Kings 5:1-14
            Do you remember the story of Naaman?  He was the commanding general of the army of Syria.  The king held him in high esteem because he had led the army so successfully.  He seemed indestructible.  Nobody could best him at his chosen profession.  He was on top of the world.  Then he discovered he had leprosy.
            Today we don’t hear much about leprosy, or think much about it either.  It is a disease that has been contained.  There are medications that are so effective that the effects have been minimized.  No longer are lepers forced to live in isolation from the rest of civilization.  Gone are the days when they were condemned to live alone or with others so afflicted until they died.
            But in biblical times leprosy was feared—so feared that any skin condition was suspected of being leprous.  Any rash, any skin inflammation was cause to ban the afflicted person from all contact with others. 
And Naaman was a leper.
            There was in his household a young girl who had been taken captive from Israel.  She had occasion to say to her mistress, Naaman’s wife, that the prophet Elisha could cure her master.  Upon hearing the welcome news, Naaman did the only thing that made sense to him.  He went with a letter of introduction from his king to the Israelite king—who panicked.  He knew he couldn’t cure Naaman.  He was sure this was a plot hatched to give the Syrian king an excuse for going to war and conquering Israel.
            Elisha heard of the king’s dilemma and said, “Send him to me.  I’ll cure him in God’s name.”
            Here’s the best part of the story.  When Naaman came to Elisha’s house, the prophet didn’t even go out to see him.  He sent a servant to tell him to dip himself in the river Jordan seven times.  Naaman was furious, first at being ignored, and second at being given so simple a task.  But one of his servants persuaded him to try the cure—and it worked!
            Isn’t that just like God to use someone as insignificant as a servant girl to spread the good news?  We complain because we haven’t got the right skills, or the right opportunity, or the right clothes to do God’s work.  All she did was open her mouth in witness to God’s healing power.
            Isn’t that just like God to humble us when we are feeling too sure of ourselves?  When we think we’re something pretty special, God finds a way of letting us know we still have a few things to learn.  Naaman arrived at Elisha’s door with all the pomp of the greatest general in the region, only to find himself face to face with a servant who delivered an unpalatable message.
            Isn’t that just like God to give us a task that has absolutely no glamor at all?  Naaman was ready to do some mighty deed to impress God with his abilities.  Instead, through Elisha, God told him to take a bath.
            Isn’t that just like God to work in the humblest of circumstances, and through the humblest of people to bring about the results God wants?  The kings in this story were helpless to cure Naaman of an illness that would have separated him from his family, his profession, his friends—from all he held dear.  Servants delivered the messages that brought Naaman to the place where he could be healed.

            Isn’t that just like God to choose us, people with no special talents, no great abilities, to carry the gospel to the world?  Isn’t that just like God to equip us to do the work we are called to do? 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Mary or Martha

Mary or Martha
Luke 10:38-41
            This is one of the great stories from the gospels.  Preachers love it because they can force a choice, making people listen harder to the sermon than perhaps they might usually do, because they will be asked to place themselves into one of two camps.  But is that the only possible reading of the story?
            You remember:  Jesus is visiting with his friends Mary and Martha, two apparently unwed sisters, who live (also apparently) with their brother Lazarus—the one Jesus raises from the dead just before he heads for Jerusalem and his execution.  Martha is busy cooking dinner, neatening up the house, serving appetizers—all the things we would expect a good hostess to be doing to make her guest welcome and comfortable.  We can imagine her with a calm but set expression on her face as she moves from one task to another, busily making her way from kitchen to living room to the well outside—calm on the surface, but steaming on the inside. 
            You see, while she’s running around the house, her sister isn’t lifting a finger to help.  Instead, she’s sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening with rapt attention to every word he’s saying, learning from the rabbi—this great teacher who speaks with more knowledge and authority than anyone she’s ever met.  In addition, Jesus is actually paying attention to her, a woman!  No man has ever given her the least notice before, let alone spent valuable time with her. 
            Martha is not happy about this state of affairs.  She is making a real show of being busy, hurrying from one task to another, and completing each one with a finality that says, “There!  Look at what I’ve done.  Aren’t I a good worker, a good hostess, a worthy person?”
            Finally she can stand it no longer.  “Jesus!” she says, “Haven’t you noticed how I’m working my fingers to the bone to make everything perfect?  And look at Mary!  She’s doing nothing at all to help.  Tell her to get up and do her share!”  We know Jesus’ answer—probably have it memorized. 
            “Martha, Martha.  I always feel at home when I’m with you two.  You don’t have to go to all this trouble for me.  I appreciate all you do, but not if it comes at the expense of your good nature.  A good hostess is the one who makes her guests feel relaxed, and your hustle and bustle won’t let me feel that way.  Mary has chosen a better path to making me welcome.”
            Well!  That’s certainly not what Martha expected to hear!  I wonder what she did next.  Did she apologize for her unloving feelings?  Did she join her sister at the Master’s feet?  Did the evening end happily?  We’ll never know this side of heaven, will we?
            It’s at this point that the preacher calls for a decision.  “Who are you?  Are you overly busy, overworked Martha, or are you quiet and attentive Mary?  Do you choose to be the hostess with the mostest, or to learn from the greatest teacher in all history?”
            But is a choice really necessary?  Aren’t we all a little of both?  We spend time with Jesus in prayer and Bible reading.  We try to live our lives the way Jesus lived his.  But sometimes we get so busy with everyday life that we forget our spiritual life.  Sometimes we need an attitude adjustment because we have chosen the good instead of the best.
            In a gift shop recently I read this prayer on a wall hanging.  It’s worth remembering.
            “Help me, Lord, as I work today with my Martha hands, to maintain my Mary heart.”


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Science and Theology

Science and Theology
Genesis 1:1-2:3
            You might call me a fence-sitter—but I’m not, really.  I just find it impossible to choose between science and God.  Let me explain.
            However carefully I read the first chapter of Genesis, I still can’t see why people argue over creation.  One camp says that the world and everything in it evolved slowly over millions of years.  The other camp says that can’t be right.  God created the world in seven (sorry, six) days, and that’s that.  In 144 hours the universe went from nothing to what we have today.  Science has to be wrong.
            Both camps see me and those who believe like me as enemies.  Nobody likes us because we find the truth somewhere in the middle.  Yes, the universe began with a big bang, and expanded outward from there—is still expanding if I’m correct.  Yes, it took millions of years for life to develop on this planet, and it evolved from simple forms into more complex forms.  Yes, life on earth is still evolving and will continue to do so.  Science is correct.  Evolution happened and is happening.  Every bit of scientific proof we have points inarguably in that direction.
            But how did it start?  What caused the Big Bang?  Was it an accident?  Did this huge release of energy—all the energy in creation—just happen to happen?  As far as I’m concerned, people who believe in an accidental beginning have more faith than I’ll ever have, even though (I believe) that faith is misplaced.
This is where, for me, God comes in.  Science tells us that the amount of energy and mass in the universe is a constant.  Energy is constantly being transformed into mass, and mass into energy, but the total of the two is always the same.  I once proposed that perhaps that total of mass and energy might be a partial definition of God.  While this is probably naïve from both a theological and scientific point of view, it may be a starting point for a discussion between the two camps—if that is possible.
Another piece of naiveté (perhaps) is accepting 2 Peter 3:8 at face value:  “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”  But why not accept it at face value?  We believe God stands outside time, that God sees all time in a panorama; that what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen are, in one sense, all the same to God. 
Doesn’t that mean that God measures time differently from us?  We talk about events happening “in God’s time,” speaking of it in terms of human patience.  God takes the long view, we say, while our lives are limited to only a few short years.  Why couldn’t each “day” in Genesis 1 have taken several hundred, or several thousand, or several millions of years?  How can we measure time as God sees it?
            If that could be true, then why couldn’t God have chosen evolution as the means of creation?  The sequence of the creation story in Genesis 1 is roughly the same as what scientists tell us happened in the evolutionary process.  Why couldn’t God have chosen this method to bring creation into being?  What would have prevented God from doing that?
            You can understand why both camps see my way of thinking as the enemy.  I (and others like me) am not willing to choose sides in this debate.  Christians say that God is omniscient—all knowing.  Isn’t science (descended from the same root word) knowledge?  If God is omniscient, then science is a part of God—perhaps God revealing God’s self to humankind. 

            Who are we to say what God can and cannot do?

Saturday, August 9, 2014

When Our Disadvantages Become Advantages

When Our Disadvantages Become Advantages
Luke 19:1-9
            Poor Zacchaeus!  He was short—so short that he was at a real disadvantage in a crowd.  Of course, Zacchaeus wasn’t really poor—not poor at all.  He was a tax collector for the Romans—and a Jew.  The Romans loved to get hold of citizens in conquered territories and have them do the dirty work.  This way they didn’t have to enforce the tax code and other noxious parts of their law.  The turncoats did it for them.  The Roman officials didn’t particularly like those they corrupted.  They used them.
            The Jews didn’t like these people either.  They hated Zacchaeus and his kind.  They saw them for what they were:  countrymen who made a profit at their fellow citizens’ expense.  This would have been particularly troubling for Zacchaeus.  In a crowd, someone could give him an elbow, or step on his toe, or find other ways to get back at him for all he had taken from them.  Remember, tax collectors could take more from people than they had to give to the Roman officials in taxes.  That’s how they made their living, and how they earned the hatred of those who had to pay whatever was demanded of them.
            Then one day, Jesus came to Jericho, Zacchaeus’ home town.  Huge crowds turned out to get a look at the prophet they had heard so much about.  Their excitement was heightened by the possibility that Jesus might work some miracles while he was in town.  They had heard of his healing powers.  Perhaps they had heard the story of his changing water to wine.  This was going to be a banner day for the city, and no one wanted to miss it.
            But Zacchaeus was missing it.  He couldn’t see over the heads of those in front of him.  Quite likely he was taking his usual bumps and bruises from those who tried to get even with him—perhaps even more so, since the crowds would have been larger than usual.  What could he do?  No one would give him a break.  When he tried to work his way to the front he faced an impenetrable wall of people who wanted to cause him as much distress as possible.
            Then he had an idea.  Running ahead along the route Jesus would be taking, he found a sycamore tree that was climbable.  Quickly he scampered up the tree until he had a bird’s eye view of the action.  There was Jesus, and Zacchaeus could see him clearly—and Jesus stopped, and looked up, and looking straight at Zacchaeus perched as high in that tree as he could get, he said, “Zacchaeus, get down here.  I’m going to be your guest today.”
            We know the rest of the story, how Jesus’ presence in that house transformed Zacchaeus from a miserable little collaborator to a follower of the Lord. What a thrill it must have been for him when Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house!”
            I remember attending a conference on educating the handicapped where a very wise speaker told us that everyone is handicapped in some way.  Zacchaeus’ handicap was his height—or lack of it—but he found a way to turn that disadvantage into an advantage.  He went from being invisible in the crowd to being visible in that tree because he was determined to see Jesus, and it resulted in his salvation.
            We all have disadvantages.  Each of us has strengths, but also weaknesses, areas in which we do not have the ability to succeed.  We can dwell on our disadvantages, and tell ourselves that they make it impossible to do God’s work.  We can get lost in the crowd, suffering the bumps and bruises that others give us, or we can rise above our disadvantages, perhaps turning them into advantages, as Zacchaeus did.  By rising above the crowd, Zacchaeus found what he needed:  salvation from God and respectability among his fellow citizens. 

            God is waiting to turn our disadvantages into advantages if we’ll only allow it.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Other Side of the Lake

The Other Side of the Lake
Luke 8:22-25
            My New Testament professor in seminary warned us against “harmonizing the gospels”—that is, trying to blend them together into one continuous story.  Instead, she told us, the gospels were four different versions of the same event, Jesus’ time on earth.  We must view them as separate accounts, with each chronicler telling the story of Jesus’ life from a different viewpoint, in the same way that witnesses at a trial tell the same story from their differing points of view.  This would account for the discrepancies between the gospels.  In fact, I, like many of you, would be more suspicious of the gospel accounts if they were uniform—exactly the same.  We would suspect collusion—that the disciples got together and decided on the “official” account.  This would be especially true of the events of the resurrection and Jesus’ appearances afterwards.
            We read in the gospels the stories of Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee.  Some of these accounts mention Jesus walking on the water.  All of them describe Jesus calming a storm.  It isn’t these events that catch my attention today—at least, not exactly.
            One side of the Galilee was Jewish territory.  The other side was Gentile land.  When Jesus and his followers “crossed the lake” they were going from their home turf to foreign soil.  This would have been a daunting experience for Jews.  Remember, they were to have no contact with the impure Gentiles.  They couldn’t eat with them; they couldn’t talk to them; they certainly weren’t supposed to be in their territory.  Yet when Jesus said, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake,” they went—if not willingly, at least with no hesitation.
            We know what they found there:  a man so possessed by demons that he could no longer live in civilized society.  His countrymen had tried to contain him.  Perhaps they felt that if they could subdue him they might effect a cure, but that didn’t happen.  He burst any bonds they tried to place on him, including chains.  He’d been given up as hopeless, left to his own devices.  Perhaps the people thought he’d eventually destroy himself or die of starvation, and they wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore.
            We know the rest of the story, how Jesus drove out the man’s demons and scared the wits out of the local inhabitants so that they practically threw him out of town.  Jesus and his followers had to cross to the other side of the lake one more time.
            How many times in our lives are we called to cross to the other side of the lake?  We find ourselves in comfortable country.  Everything is going well for us.  We’re living peacefully among family and friends—likeminded people who support us and make us feel at home.  But Jesus comes to us and says, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.”  We know the journey won’t be easy—and oftentimes we’re right.  Just getting to the other side of the lake involves danger—at the very least insecurity, because we’re leaving behind all that’s familiar, all that’s comfortable.  Yet when Jesus calls we know how we must respond.  We go.  In spite of the possible dangers, and the upset to our well-loved lives, when Jesus calls us, we go, because that’s where God wants us to be.

Where is the other side of the lake?  Perhaps we’ll find it at work.  Perhaps it will be in a new church congregation.  Perhaps it will be a new city, or with a new set of friends, or in a new living arrangement.   Wherever it is, we must go.  Never mind the storms we may pass through to get there.   Never mind the challenges we face when we arrive.  The other side of the lake is where we are called to live our lives.  How can we do any less for the God who has done so much for us?