Sunday, September 28, 2014

Completing the Work

Completing the Work
Matthew 28:16-20
            I love to wander through gift shops looking at wall plaques.  I never buy any.  If I bought all those that catch my attention, the walls of our house would be covered with them, and my wife would be furious.  Instead, when I see one I really like, I copy down the message, then find a way to use it in a sermon or blog.
            On a trip this summer I came across a message that really spoke to me.  Rabbi Tarfon said, “You are not obligated to complete the work, nor are you free to abandon it.”  I quickly reached for pen and paper.
Might God have said to Jesus, “You are not obligated to complete the work, nor are you free to abandon it?”  We know that’s likely what happened.  Jesus certainly didn’t finish God’s work while on this earth, but he never abandoned it either.  In Gethsemane, when he prayed that, if possible, the torture and death he faced could be avoided, his Father might have said in reply.  “No, it’s impossible.  You are not free to abandon the work for which you were sent.”
            Jesus himself may have said words to this effect before his ascension.  The gospel writers give us differing versions of those last days.  They only show us snapshots of that time, and not a full picture.  Was Jesus enjoying what he knew was his limited time with his closest followers?  Did he try to give them as much advice as he could cram in before his departure?  Certainly both might be true.  We can imagine those times, but we can’t have full knowledge of what happened.
            Matthew tells us Jesus met his disciples for the last time on a mountain in Galilee, where he gave them his final instructions.  He let them know in no uncertain terms that they were to carry on the work he had begun.  We learn from Luke that they were told to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  There they would receive a more complete idea of what they were to do.  Matthew tells us that Jesus gave them marching orders before he left them.  The disciples were to go into all the world, preaching and teaching the things he had imparted to them, baptizing and making disciples.
            They could not possibly anticipate what that would entail.  They certainly couldn’t anticipate what the gift of the Holy Spirit might be.  I imagine it didn’t matter to them.  All that mattered was the sadness they felt at losing their Master, and a vague idea of the work he had given them.  We find out from Luke (in Acts) how that work progressed during the early part of the first century.
            The disciples did not complete the work Jesus had given them to do, nor did they abandon it.  In many cases their endeavors cost them their lives—given willingly in God’s service—but they never stopped doing the work to which they were called.
            Down through the ages this message has been transmitted.  “You are not obligated to complete the work, nor are you free to abandon it.”  Apostles, martyrs, church leaders, ordinary Christians, rank upon rank, have taken up the challenge and the work, knowing they would not complete it, but could not abandon it.
            Now it is our turn.  We are the latest of those who have taken up Jesus’ challenge.  We have been given a work to do.  We know it will not be completed in our lifetime unless Christ returns before we die.  We also know we can’t plan on that.  Assuming that there will still be plenty to do after we’re gone, we soldier on, serving in our part of the vineyard, willingly spending our lives in God’s work, without a thought of abandoning it.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Heart and Mouth Agreement

Heart and Mouth Agreement
Romans 10:9-10
My father was a great fan of the King Arthur legends.  He got me interested at a fairly early age, and I’ve never lost the fascination.  I remember reading once that there are still people in England who believe that King Arthur will return some day.  This belief is reflected and fueled by two literary sources:  T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, and H.G. Wells’ Perelandra, the middle book of his trilogy which begins with Out of the Silent Planet.
Arthur is not a king who is validated by history—that is, we have no written historical record of his reign.  His capitol, Camelot, is a vision of an ideal place to live.  In the musical of that name, Lerner & Loewe have Arthur describe a country where even the weather wouldn’t dare to be anything but perfect.  In the end, Camelot goes the way of all utopias, doomed by the foolish, selfish acts of humans; but while it lasts, it is beautiful. 
Several years ago I stumbled upon a copy of one of the great Arthurian books, Le Morte D’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Mallory.  It tells much more of the Arthur story than most people would ever want to know, but I am enjoying it thoroughly.   I keep it on my nightstand, and whenever I’m ready for bed before my wife, I read a few pages.  It isn’t the kind of book you can read quickly from cover to cover.  It must be sipped like a fine wine, not chugged like a can of soda.  In part this is because the story is a complex one.  In part it’s because the English is old-fashioned.  Many of the words different from those we use, and the text lacking in punctuation such as quotation marks.
Now that I’m nearing the end, I find myself slowing down, not rushing to finish as I do with most novels.  I already know the ending, so there’s no surprise waiting for me there.  Instead there’s the sadness of the destruction of a beautiful society, and I’m not ready to see that happen.
In the part I’m reading now, most of the Knights of the Round Table are off on a quest to find the Holy Grail (which they refer to as the Sangreal), the cup which Jesus shared with his disciples at the Last Supper.   Those of us who know the story know that only one knight, Sir Galahad, is pure enough to find the Sangreal, but as we follow different ones through their adventures, we enjoy their stories for their own sakes.  The knights frequently encounter holy men (hermits, monks, and others who are devoted to God’s service).  These men interpret their dreams and adventures, and give them advice on how to live better lives.
One such holy man gives one of the knights a piece of advice that we all should heed.  He says, “Look that your heart and your mouth accord.”  He wants the knight to be sure that what he says reflects what he feels.
Paul does somewhat the same thing in these two verses from his letter to the Romans.  He makes the point that belief and confession are both necessary and sufficient conditions for salvation.  We must confess and believe in order to be saved; and confession and belief are the only things we need to do to be saved.
But our hearts and minds have to be in complete accord.  We have to believe with our hearts and confess with our mouths.  One or the other is not enough.  It doesn’t matter which comes first (the order in verse 10 is the opposite of verse 9), but we have to do both.

Look that your heart and your mouth accord.  This advice is good for any course of action we pursue, but it is absolutely essential for our relationship with God.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Luke 12:13-21
I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.  Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, the author of Ozymandias, perfectly captures the image of one who thinks more highly of himself than he ought.  We see a king who was sure his reign would last forever.  Perhaps he believed his loyal subjects when they addressed him with those words:  you know,  “O king, live forever….”  Perhaps he had deluded himself into believing that he alone among humankind could cheat death.  Whatever his mindset when he ordered this statue built, it didn’t prevent him from going the way of all flesh. 
It is interesting that Shelley shows us only the statue lying in ruins, only partly visible.  There is nothing left of the king’s works.  All that can be seen is the pedestal with the inscription and the legs, and a head which conveys the frown and sneer of one who believes he has conquered the world.  “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,” Shelley has him say; but there are no works to look upon.  Except for the ruins of the statue, all that the observer can see is sand stretching endlessly.
Many Scripture passages caution about an egotistic approach to life.  The author of Ecclesiastes speaks about the vanity of earthly pursuits.  Several of the psalms warn against putting too much faith in things that have no permanence.  Jesus told his followers that earthly treasure wasn’t worth accumulating.  The parable Luke relates is also an excellent warning.
Anyone who works the land knows the joy that comes with a bumper crop and the agony of a poor yield.  When the land produces plentifully, celebration is in order.  The man in Jesus’ story felt the need to do more than celebrate.  He had a storage problem:  his crop was so plentiful that his barns wouldn’t hold it all.  What should he do?
Those of us who are community oriented might suggest that he give what he doesn’t need for himself and his family to people who could use more food on the table.  Certainly this man would have more than one neighbor less well off than he.  Why not share the wealth so everyone can benefit from his fertile land?
The man obviously had no concern for his poorer neighbors.  Instead of sharing with them he decided on a building project.  He had his servants tear down his perfectly good barns and build larger ones; then he sat back to enjoy the prosperous life he felt he deserved.
We know what happened next.  Not just his soul but his life was required of him.  “Fool,” God said.  “Who gets to enjoy the plentiful harvest now?  Not you.”

I’m afraid there’s a little Ozymandias and a little of the man in Jesus’ story in each of us.  We want to accumulate as much as possible, set up our own little kingdom, and enjoy watching people envy us.  They may—but that’s not what counts in the eternal scheme of things.  What counts is what we do to serve our neighbors in Jesus’ name.