Sunday, November 30, 2014

Upsetting the Fruit Basket

Upsetting the Fruit Basket
Luke 1:39-55
            When I was in early elementary school, my minister parents were responsible for the youth group (along with almost every other program) in the church they were serving.  I was an only child, so they took me along to youth group meetings rather than leave me at home.  After all, anyone who might babysit me would be at church.  I got to play the games and do many of the other activities the teenagers participated in even though I was much too young.
            One game we played was called “Upset the Fruit Basket.”  We were divided into two teams, one standing on each side of the fellowship hall.  We were all assigned the names of fruits, one person from each team with the same name:  two apples, one on each team; two oranges, one on each team—you get it. 
            In the middle of the room was an object, something easily grabbed and picked up.  My father would call out a fruit:  “Pear!” and the two people who were pears would run out, try to grab the object, and get it back to their side before being tagged by their opposite number on the other team.  Sometimes Dad would call out two fruits just to make it interesting.  Once or twice a night he’d say “Upset the fruit basket!” and everyone from each team would rush to the center.  It was a complete free-for-all.  That’s what made it fun.
            Everything about Jesus’ birth upset the fruit basket.  The whole sequence of events turned society upside down.  There is no doubt that God intended it that way, and made sure that’s what happened.
            The angel Gabriel bypassed the king’s palace and the homes of all the rich citizens of Judah, and instead visited a young girl from the working class who wasn’t yet married.  Gabriel told Mary that she was pregnant even though she was a virgin—and completely sure of her virginity.  Mary’s betrothed, the carpenter Joseph, had every right to break the agreement he had made with her family, but God made sure that didn’t happen. 
            It sounds as if Mary’s family might have had some doubts about her innocence.  Luke tells us she went into the hill country to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, and she went “with haste.”  It’s just possible Mary’s family decided she ought to leave town for a while to save both her reputation and theirs.
            Whether or not that is true, Elizabeth, pregnant herself (and quite old to be having her first child), greeted the young mother-to-be with joy, and so did the infant she was carrying.  Luke says the baby “leaped in her womb” at the sound of Mary’s voice.
            Mary was so excited at this that she broke into song.  Her song, called “The Magnificat” because of the opening words in Latin (Magnificat anima mea—“My soul magnifies the Lord”) is another example of upsetting the fruit basket.  Listen to some of her words.  God has:
“looked on the humble estate of his servant.”
“scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;”
“brought down the mighty from their thrones;”
“filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”

            When we read these words we should have no doubt that God takes a special interest in the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden—as should we.  God’s intent in sending Jesus was to upset the fruit basket.  That’s our mission, too.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Ephesians 2:14-16
            I have long been a fan of Robert Frost.  Many of his poems speak powerfully to me.  “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Fire and Ice,” and “The Road Not Taken” are some of my favorites, although it’s difficult to overlook “Choose Something Like a Star,” and…but you get the idea.
            One of my very favorites is “Mending Wall.”  Perhaps this poem means so much to me because, as a teacher, one of my goals is to break down walls—walls within people that prevent them from learning, as well as walls between people that prevent them from using their knowledge to create a better world.
            As you might gather from that last paragraph, “Mending Wall” is not about building walls at all, although that’s the activity the two men are engaged in.  It’s really about tearing walls down.  Frost wrote the poem in first person singular, making himself one of the characters in the story. 
The setting is New England, Frost’s home ground.  The countryside is dotted with walls made of the stones which are so plentiful in the area.  Many of these stones can be found lying about, while others are unearthed by farmers as they seek to make the land usable for growing crops.
            The Frost character and his neighbor meet on a spring day to repair the wall that separates their properties.  The stones have been dislodged by winter weather, which heaves the ground up in some places and depresses it in others.  Frost sees no need for the wall, since his property is covered in apple orchard and his neighbor’s in pine trees.  He tells the neighbor that his apples won’t come over and eat the pine cones.  The neighbor can only reply, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
            Frost’s most important point, I think, is found in lines 32-36
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

            We can point to all kinds of walls where this has been true:  the Berlin Wall; electronic walls erected by dictatorial governments to keep out radio broadcasts or the internet; walls of lies erected by those who don’t want the truth to be known.  In each case, something penetrates the wall, tears it down and allows everyone to see and hear clearly.
            Paul understood this.  In Ephesians he was speaking specifically of the wall in the Temple that separated the inner court from the court of the Gentiles.  This wall was low enough to see over, with gaps big enough to see through.  Its purpose was not only to declare, “No admittance!” to the Gentiles, but also to rub their noses in the fact that they weren’t allowed inside.  “Hah!” it proclaimed, “You are not one of the chosen.  You must stay on the outside looking in, while we enjoy all the benefits of being insiders.”
            Paul says that Jesus Christ has broken down “the dividing wall of hostility,” making all people one in him.  We have been reconciled to God, made members of one body through the cross, thereby destroying hostility and breaking down the walls hostility creates.

            God calls us not to erect any walls that separate people from each other.  Rather we are to be about the business of breaking down the barriers that divide us from each other, uniting all in Christ Jesus, and making us all one with God.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Matthew 28:19-20
            Evangelism can be difficult.  Most of us don’t want to make fools of ourselves by saying the wrong thing to people and being told to go away; or getting into an argument; or appearing to be stupid because we don’t know what we’re talking about; or perhaps worst of all, being ignored.  So we may, if we know someone really well, suggest that they might want to visit our church, but we almost never tell them about our own experience with Christ, or ask about theirs.
            Part of the problem is that evangelism has gotten a bad name from some who have been, shall we say, overly dogmatic.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, white missionaries from Europe and America fell into this category.  They went to places like Africa, India, and the Far East and tried to remake the inhabitants into copies of themselves.  Instead of learning as much as possible about those they were trying to win for Christ, speaking to them in terms they would understand, and adapting the gospel message to their culture, they came in like bulldozers, intent on tearing down societies that had been in place for thousands of years and constructing little European or American copies in their place.
            Paul, the first Christian missionary, knew better.  Instinctively, it seems, he understood that you can’t change a person’s culture—nor is it necessary—in order for that person to become a Christian.  This is particularly interesting in light of Paul’s background.  Remember, he was a Jew, a member of perhaps the most separated group of people in the then-known world.  Jews were to have absolutely nothing to do with anyone not a Jew.  Everything Jewish was right and good.  Everything not Jewish was to be avoided.  Also, Paul had been educated as a Pharisee, a member of the strictest subgroup within Judaism.  Pharisees were the most isolationist of the isolationists.  This is why he felt such a determination to persecute Christians.  They were, in his sight, enemies of Judaism, even if they were Jews.
            So when we read about his visit to the city of Athens (Acts 17:16-34), we should be surprised—shocked, really—to find him speaking of Jesus Christ in language that seems conciliatory—perhaps even downright pandering—to the pagans he was addressing.  How could he do that?  Why didn’t he just say, “Look!  You’ve got it all wrong.  There aren’t many gods.  There is only one God, and Jesus Christ is God’s son.  Stop what you’re doing and change the way you worship or you’re going to hell!”
            Sound familiar?  That’s what too many of our missionaries have done in the past.  Some of our American preachers still do it.  When this way of approaching indigenous peoples was coupled with an attitude of white superiority it gave Christianity a bad name.  No wonder large parts of the world have been slow to accept Jesus Christ as Savior. 
            You can’t browbeat someone into salvation.  In most cases you can’t scare them into it either.  You have to speak in words and images that listeners will understand, respecting their traditions and culture, and allowing them to see how the Christian message fits with what they already believe.  That’s what Father Jean de Brebouf did with the Hurons in North America.  In his Christmas carol, ‘Twas In the Moon of Wintertime he used images that Native Americans could understand and relate to, speaking to them in their language of the love and power of Jesus Christ.

            After all, Jesus told his disciples to teach people to observe all that he had commanded them, not harangue them into submission.  And Jesus’ message begins with love.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Supreme Human Arrogance

Supreme Human Arrogance
James 4:13-17
            It is rare that I write on the same passage twice in a row.  However, I’m working my way through the Epistle of James (once again) in my own devotions, and these verses have really captured my attention.  Sometimes, as I journal in the morning, I find myself digressing, wandering from a direct interpretation of the passage with which I’m working, and “riffing” (taking off in a new direction) on the verses.  Such is the case here.  I trust that I will not go so far afield that I change the meaning of James’s words.
            “As it is, you boast in your arrogance.  All such boasting is evil.”
            What kind of boasting is James concerned with here?  What arrogance is he talking about? 
            James has been telling his readers that for them to make plans for the future without giving God credit is foolish at best, and totally misguided at worst.  Instead of saying, “Tomorrow I will…,” we should say, “If God wills, then tomorrow I will….”  Of course, we frequently forget to do this.  Perhaps it’s all right to say, “Tomorrow I will…” as long as we acknowledge in our minds that even as near a future as the next twenty-four hours is completely in God’s hands.  Even though we may not begin statements about the future by saying, “God willing,” we must at least think it.
            We display our arrogance when we assume total control of our own lives without depending on God.  When I believe I can do a better job of running my life than God can, I not only fail to give God the credit for my ongoing life, but I substitute my own will for God’s leading, most often going in the wrong direction. 
            Do I dare to imagine that I can do a better job of running my life than God can?  Am I so audacious that I assume I know better than God what is in my best interest?  Often this attitude begins with a statement such as, “I have a right to do what I want.”  I assume too much importance for myself if I feel my rights outweigh obedience to God.
            As usual, Shakespeare said it better than anyone.  In Act 5 of Macbeth, he has the title character say, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”  Doesn’t that put me in my place! 
God is eternal.  God sees the entire history of the universe, past, present and future as a panorama.  He knows what’s best for me, how my life fits in to the universal scheme.  
I am temporal.  My life exists within time, bounded by my birth and my death.  I can know only what has already happened, and can see no further ahead than this moment.  When, exercising my ego, I presume to know more than God, I indeed become a very poor actor, strutting and fretting upon life’s stage as if I were a main character, when all I am is a bit player who can be written out of the script in a moment, as easily as taking an eraser to a pencil marking.
Poor me, the walking shadow, incapable of learning from past experience that whenever I take charge of my life I make a mess of it.  Poor me, an insignificant character in the drama of life, who wants to upstage not only more important actors, but the playwright as well.  Poor me, who not only can’t learn his lines, but doesn’t even know his place.

Yet, whenever I take control and bungle my life, and then come to the realization that I can’t do as good a job as my Creator at running my affairs, God waits to take charge again.  When I ask forgiveness, and put my life back into God’s hands, the play turns out all right.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Human Arrogance

Human Arrogance
James 4:13-17
            How we love to plan for the future!  Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep because I’m planning what I will do the next day—or the next week, or the next month.  I’m sure many of you have had the same experience.  We can’t help it, I guess.  We don’t like surprises, at least not that kind, and so we organize our lives in advance as best we can.  We know things won’t always go according to our plan, but we want the assurance that at least there is a plan, even if it has to be modified as we go.
            James reminds us how little control we have over our lives.  He’s talking about financial deals—buying and selling and making a profit—but he could be talking about any plan.
            “Tomorrow I’m going to begin painting the house.  I’ll have to get the paint in the morning, make sure my ladder is still safe…”
            “Let’s see; the kids have their swimming lessons after school.  That will leave me time to do the grocery shopping for the weekend.  I’ll have to be at the pool by…”
            “The weather report looks great for Saturday.  I’ll call Jim and Ed and Bob and see if we can make up a foursome for golf.  If we can get an early enough tee time…”
            James says, “Don’t bother.  You don’t have any idea what tomorrow may bring.  Your life is merely a mist, like the morning fog that appears and then is gone—vanished so suddenly that we can barely remember it.”
            Remember the story Luke relates (Luke 12:16-21) about the rich fool?  A man had such a large harvest that his barns wouldn’t hold it all.  Instead of doing something useful with the excess, like giving it away to those who really needed it, he had his servants tear down the barns and build bigger ones.  Then he relaxed, and said to himself, “Now I’m set for life.”  What he hadn’t counted on was that he would die that night, and never get to enjoy all that wealth.
            It is possible that the epistle of James was written by Jesus’ brother.  If so, we can imagine him traveling with Jesus (although not one of the twelve) and hearing the stories Jesus told and the lessons Jesus taught.  Many of James’s lessons sound very much like those of Jesus.  James doesn’t say here, “You fool!” as Jesus did, but he says much the same thing.
            “Don’t say, ‘tomorrow I will do such and such.’  Rather say, “If the Lord wills, then tomorrow I will….” 
            Good advice, don’t you think?  We know from the news reports we see and hear every day how tenuous is our hold on life.  Just recently we heard that Oscar Tavaras, a promising young baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals, was killed in a car crash in his home country.  He had his whole life ahead of him.  He might well have become a star in the game he loved so passionately and played so well, but his life ended in a moment.
            James says that advanced planning, without giving God the credit for our lives, is supreme arrogance.  Since we have no control over the length of our lives, how can we presume to plan in advance without saying, “If God wills, then…?”

            James ends the passage by saying, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”  We show our sinful nature when we fail to acknowledge that all we are, and all we have are gifts from God—gifts that can disappear in a moment.  We owe God the thanks of acknowledging the Father as the source of all good gifts.