Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Messiah Is Born

A Messiah Is Born
Luke 2:1-20
            Throughout its history Canaan has seldom been free from strife.  Things seem to have been fairly calm before the Israelites emigrated from Egypt.  From the time they crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land they were at war with the inhabitants as they tried to secure the land they believed God had given them for an inheritance. 
Even after the interior was relatively safe, their borders were not.  Israel was never a large nation, though during the reigns of David and Solomon she became a great one.  Her problem was location.  The route between Egypt and the kingdoms of the north lay through Israel.  Any conqueror wanting to travel from south to north or the other way round had to cross Israel first.  Sometimes this was difficult; sometimes it was easy.
The ultimate devastation was the Babylonian captivity.  Anyone of importance was taken from Israel and forced to live in Babylon.  Even after Cyrus, king of Persia allowed the captives to return home things didn’t improve.  One army after another overran the tiny nation.  By this time the northern kingdom—Israel—had disappeared entirely.  What was left was even tinier Judaea, always ripe for the taking.
In this rather dismal state of affairs messianic theology began to take hold.  Someday, somehow, the God of Israel would send a savior to return the nation to its former glory.  Many came along claiming to be that person.  Each had his moment in the sun, attracted a following, then flamed out, dying and leaving the messianic void unfilled.  By the end of the first century B.C.E. Judea should have lost hope, but didn’t.  Each new claimant rose, then disappeared to be replaced first by disappointment, then the next candidate.
            Then, something different—something unexpected—happened.  In little Bethlehem—a town of historical importance because it was the birthplace of David, but of little other significance—a baby was born.  Nothing special there:  babies were born often to the peasant women who lived in the area.  But this one was announced by angels and a star.  Shepherds ran to see the special child.  Magi—foreign dignitaries—arrived bringing gifts.  And then—nothing!  For the next thirty years the child grew to adulthood in the relative obscurity of another tiny village, until he burst on the scene as a rabbi—a teacher with a message of hope for the hopeless, of healing for the afflicted, and of reconciliation with a God who loved deeply enough to want to be involved in people’s daily lives.
Christians believe this was the Messiah whom God had promised.  Unconventional?  Certainly.  Controversial?  Definitely.  Effective?  In his life and death Jesus showed the way for humankind to live on this earth as God would have them live.  In his resurrection Christ opened the way to eternal life with God.
The story has no ending—at least not yet.  While we wait for Christ’s return we must try to answer the question that Pilate asked so long ago:  “What shall I do with Jesus?”  For each of us the answer will be different.  This is not a “one size fits all” Messiah.  As each of us is unique, so will be our perception of and response to the Christ.  Our search will last a lifetime, for how we perceive the Messiah will change as we grow—and this is how it should be.  If as Paul says we put on Christ, we will become more and more like him, and our vision of who he is—of who we should be—will become more clear.

            As we celebrate this Christmas season let us welcome our Messiah into our homes, our hearts. And our lives.  A blessed Christmas to all.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Jeshua bar Joseph

Jeshua bar Joseph
Luke 2:1-21
            It is interesting to compare the two gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth.  Matthew says very little about Mary—no visitation from Gabriel, no visit to Elizabeth—and a bit about Joseph.  There is nothing in his account about a trip to Bethlehem, a manger, angels and shepherds—none of the events we associate with Jesus’ birth.  We find out more about Herod and the magi than anyone else—and that supposedly didn’t happen until sometime after the birth.
            Luke tells us about the trip to Bethlehem, about the manger, about the angels and the shepherds.  Was all this important because he was writing for a Greek audience?  Did those reading his account need to hear the miraculous side of Jesus’ birth?  We know (because he tells us) that Luke did first-hand research for his account.  He spoke with “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses.”  We don’t know who he would have had access to (who was still alive, who he was able to track down), but he indicates that he used multiple sources.
            While my seminary instructors cautioned us not to “harmonize” the gospels—that is, combine them together for a composite picture—this may be one of the few places where it’s appropriate.  Each gospel was aimed at a different audience.  Matthew’s was primarily Jewish.  Luke’s was primarily Greek.  Mark’s seems to have been a mixture of the two.  John’s seems to have been one that needed to hear a completely different take on Jesus’ life—or perhaps it was that John had unique memories of the life of his Lord. 
            We must rely on the incomplete accounts provided by Matthew and Luke for the story of Jesus’ birth.  We learn from Matthew that Mary gave birth to a son named Jesus.  He skips immediately to the story of Herod and the magi.  Luke goes into enough detail about the birth that we have a picture of the setting—a manger in Bethlehem. 
            Let’s set aside the miraculous components of Jesus’ birth for a moment.  This is not to discount the angels who visited Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds.  We can’t say these did not occur since we were not there.  We have the word of eyewitnesses, and we can choose to credit or discredit their accounts.  For now, let’s focus on the human Jesus rather than the Jesus who was God’s Son.
            It was of utmost importance that the Messiah—the Christ—be human as well as divine.  There had to be a connection to us—God’s human children—in order for Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to mean something in God’s grand scheme.  We don’t need to go into all the theology of redemption and reconciliation here.  We only need to make the statement that Jesus’ humanity was as important as his divinity.
            Jesus was born a Jew.  He was not a Christian.  That word didn’t come into existence until many years later.  He was born into a Jewish family, who lived in a Jewish society, and abided by the customs (both religious and secular) of Jewish culture.  He was raised in a Jewish home by Jewish parents, and lived his life as a Jewish teacher—a rabbi.  His message was meant for Jews first, and consisted in part of a scathing criticism of the Jewish leaders and their misinterpretation of Jewish law.  He was put to death at the insistence of these leaders for what they considered crimes against the Jewish state.
            Even his name was Jewish.  We’ve called him Jesus for so long that we forget that this was the Greek form of his name.  His family called him Jeshua (like Joshua) bar (son of) Joseph (his father’s name).  When Gabriel spoke to Mary, the name he used would have been Jeshua—a name Mary would have known well because of its historical significance and its popularity. 

While we remember the Son of God—Jesus Christ—this Christmastide, let’s not forget Jeshua bar Joseph, the human child that Mary and her husband welcomed into the world.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Luke 1:24-25, 39-45, 57-58
            We read much more about Zechariah than Elizabeth in the first chapter of Luke.  Perhaps what makes him a more interesting subject is that he doubted God’s promise while Elizabeth, like Mary, accepted it. 
            You may remember his part of the story.  As a priest, it was his duty to serve before God at certain times of the year.  While he was serving in the temple, with the people standing outside, an angel appeared and told him that his wife, who was barren, would give birth to a son. 
            It’s interesting that Mary and Joseph believed the angels who told them Mary’s pregnancy was God-ordained, but when Zechariah, a member of the priestly class, was told his wife would give birth, he refused to believe.  Mary and Joseph, two commoners, accepted the greater miracle of the Messiah’s birth.  Zechariah, a man whose life was committed to the service of God—a man who Luke tells us was righteous before God—couldn’t accept the message the angel brought him. 
He had proof that God could ordain miraculous births.  Isaac, Samson, and Samuel all bore witness to God’s ability to bring about such births, but he didn’t have the faith to believe.
So the angel struck him dumb.  Zechariah would not be able to speak until the promised son was born.  He couldn’t even explain to the people outside what had happened.  This should serve as a cautionary tale for us:  Never question God’s ability to do whatever God wants to do.
The story has a happy ending.  When the boy is born, the family wants to name him after his father.  Elizabeth says his name is to be John.  When the people question her decision, they turn to Zechariah, who writes, “His name is John.”  Immediately Zechariah’s mouth is opened and he begins praising God.  Another cautionary tale:  When God gives you a blessing, give praise loud and long. 
All we really know about Elizabeth is that she was righteous—as was her husband, that she did indeed become pregnant and give birth to a son, and that she welcomed Mary into her home.  This last is most important.  We can’t know for certain why Mary traveled so far to be with her cousin.  It’s possible her family wanted to get her out of town to avoid embarrassment.  It’s also possible she chose to leave Nazareth to get away from her family.  Whatever the reason, Elizabeth offered her hospitality, support, and the assurance that their sons had been given to them by God.  What more could Mary have asked for?
We might assume that since her husband couldn’t communicate his experience with God’s messenger, Elizabeth might have received an announcement of her own.  When she was confronted with those who wanted to name the child Zechariah, she said, “He shall be called John.”  Somehow she knew what his name should be.
Miracle upon miracle!  Six months before Gabriel’s announcement to Mary we have an angel delivering good news to a barren couple.  Like Abraham and Sarah so many years before, in spite of their advanced age Elizabeth and Zechariah were to be parents.  And what a child!  Before he was conceived he was already set apart for God’s work.  He would be filled with God’s Spirit from the beginning.

Elizabeth, like her cousin Mary, accepted God’s blessing.  She might have had an inkling that things wouldn’t end well.  Radicals seldom escape severe punishment.  John’s preaching did cost him his life.  But she knew that God had called her to this work, and she had the faith to see it through.

Sunday, December 6, 2015


Matthew 1:18-25
            Just a bunch of ordinary guys.  Guys who get up in the morning, go to work, collect a paycheck, and come home to their families.  A bunch of guys whose names you don’t know, yet the work they do is part of the fabric of your lives in ways you never think about.
            We could be talking about any workers, doing any job, following any profession—right?  We never think much about the people who work in hospitals (until we or a loved one is sick).   We don’t know the names of the people who pick up our garbage, or make our cars, or create the many products we buy and use every day.  They’re invisible to us; yet what they do influences our lives.  If they don’t do their job right, things can go wrong, perhaps irreparably so.
            The people I’m referring to are studio musicians.  Their names never make headlines.  You don’t see them on celebrity TV shows.  People Magazine never does features on them, nor do they appear on the covers (or the insides) of the tabloids at grocery store counters—thank heavens!
            These musicians work at studios in Hollywood, New York, Nashville and other cities where music is produced.  They play the background music for the TV shows and movies we watch.  Their names are never mentioned in the credits.  They get no recognition; but our entertainment would be far less interesting without them.
            Occasionally they get a chance to shine.  You might remember the TV detective show Peter Gunn from the late 1950’s.  What set it apart from other detective shows was the background music—jazz.  The composer was Henry Mancini.  He brought together some of the best studio musicians of the day—men whose names you wouldn’t recognize, but who were experts in their field, with excellent reputations in the music industry.  Mancini blended them into an ensemble so outstanding the recording was named Grammy Album of the Year for 1959—the first album of any kind to win that distinction.
            They showed up, did their job, and went home, but left behind a body of work that still resonates in music circles.  I recommend the album (actually two albums) if you have an interest in jazz.  I mention these men because they did what they were supposed to do and did it well, without caring if they ever received recognition or had their names in lights. 
At this time of year we remember another working man who showed up, did what he was supposed to do—did it well—then disappeared, with only a few brief mentions of his name.
Joseph, husband of Mary, earthly father of Jesus, was given the task of raising a son who was not of his blood.  He knew from the beginning what was expected of him.  He was not without his doubts and concerns—and rightly so, for what was being asked of him was above and beyond what should be expected of anyone. 
He knew he was marrying a woman who was already pregnant.  He knew he could not expect his son to carry on his profession.  He must have known in his heart that he would never attain any position of importance himself; yet he did what God asked him to do.  He raised Jesus to manhood; gave him a name and a family; provided him with an education; saw to it that he had clothes to wear, enough to eat, and a roof over his head.  Joseph did everything a father could physically do for a son and more.  Joseph gave God’s Son kindness, love, gentleness, a sense of belonging—all the things that were important to Jesus the man.

God calls us all to be Josephs.  Male or female, married or single, young or old, God gives us a task to perform, a work to do, a place to fill.  Whether or not we receive recognition isn’t important.  It’s enough for us to know that we’ve done what God has asked of us.

Sunday, November 29, 2015


Luke 1:26-38
            We usually think of fifteen-year-old girls as sophomores in high school, attending classes, eating in the cafeteria, playing in the band or singing in the choir, playing sports, laughing with friends, being grown up one minute and childish the next—all the things we see in adolescents today.  We find it difficult to imagine a girl that age as a wife and mother; but it wasn’t always so.  In fact, in the history of humanity, our current picture is very recent.
            For thousands of years young teenage girls were expected to marry—frequently much older men—and to keep house and have and care for a family.  They were raised that way.  They were trained that way.  They understood from a very early age that this was their future. 
Most girls accepted—even embraced—such a life.  What else did they know?  What else did they see around them?  What other role models did they have?  The only alternative was to be an old maid of twenty, their lives half over, with no future, no one to care for them, no prospects except loneliness and—too frequently—poverty.  Who would choose that life?
            This is why Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah.  Once Rachel, the younger, more attractive sister was married, Leah didn’t have a chance.  No man would be willing to accept her as a bride.  Laban had no choice.  He either found a way to marry Leah off, or he would be responsible for her for the rest of his life.  Who could blame him?  Certainly not the men and women of his culture.  They saw him not as a cheat, but as a wise and loving father, concerned for his daughter’s welfare.
            Like Hodel and Chava, Tevye’s second and third daughters (Fiddler on the Roof), most young girls dreamed of a husband who would love them, cherish them, and care for them, a handsome young man of good character who would enrich their lives. 
Some girls, like Tzeitel, Tevye’s oldest daughter, had seen enough of life to know that this dream was not often realized.  More frequently the husband chosen for them (marriages were arranged by parents) would be a man looking for a second wife after the first had died from excessive childbearing and housework.  He would be set in his ways, needing a housekeeper and someone to care for the children already a part of the family, as well as to produce more.  He would be busy at work, with little time for romance.  This, unfortunately, was the way of husbands and wives.
How fortunate, then, was Mary, whose family had chosen for her a kind carpenter named Joseph.  Yes, he was older than her by a good few years.  Yes, he already had children by his first wife.  But this man seemed to be a good prospect.  He looked at the young girl he was about to marry with love in his eyes.  He treated her with respect.  If she had to marry an older man, this one was exceptional.
Luke tells us that once Gabriel explained the origin of the child she was to bear she became a willing participant in the plan.  “Behold I am the servant of the Lord,” she said.  “Let it be to me according to your word.”  When the angel first appeared to her, however, she was “greatly troubled.”  I believe that was an understatement. 
Mary must have had moments of doubt, both before and after the annunciation.  She must have thought out carefully how she was to tell Joseph.  How do you explain to your husband-to-be—as well as your family and the entire town—that you are pregnant, but it’s not illegitimate? 
She had to have worries, concerns, misgivings, even if we’re not told of them.  How could she not have been disturbed by the prospect?

How would a fifteen-year-old girl react today?  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Body and Soul

Body and Soul
1 Corinthians 6:19-20
            I love to cut out or copy things I find in books, magazines or newspapers for “future use.”  Trouble is, I don’t always identify the source.  I do the same thing with phone numbers, writing down the number, but without a name or reason for saving it.  I have four items I copied from some book.  They’re called simply, scraps.  I have no other identification for them.
            “You are always dragging me down,” said Soul to Body. 
            “Dragging you down!” replied Body.  “Well I like that!  Who taught me to like tobacco and alcohol?  You, of course, with your idiotic adolescent idea of being ‘grown up.’  My palate loathed both at first:  but you would have your way.  Who put an end to all those angry and revengeful thoughts last night?  Me, of course, by insisting on going to sleep.  Who does his best to keep you from talking too much and eating too much by giving you dry throats and headaches and indigestion?  Eh?”
            “And what about relationships?” said I.
“Yes, what about them?” retorted the Body.  “If you and your wretched imagination would leave me alone I’d give you no trouble with them.  That’s Soul all over; you give me orders and then blame me for carrying them out.”
            My father and I were having a conversation once, and I mentioned how much trouble I was having disciplining my mind.  He said, “Yes, the mind is the most difficult part to control.”  We don’t have to read too far into the Bible to find out the truth of that statement.  Eve wasn’t tempted by her body, even though the fruit appealed to her senses.  It was her mind that Satan messed with, telling her that she would not die as God had warned, but that she would instead be able to think like a god.
            Cain, the people of Babel, Jacob, David, Ahab—all sinned first with their minds, then their bodies.  It was their minds that gave their bodies the orders to sin—just as the “scrap” says.
            For all Paul says about the sins of the flesh, telling the churches to avoid them, I believe he comes nearest the truth when he talks about the mind.
            “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
            “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
            “…and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self…” (Ephesians 4:23).
            Paul knew what my father knew:  sin begins in the mind.  The body is the instrument through which the sinful thought is put into action.  When Paul says, “…do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” he understands perhaps better than we do about the warring natures within us.  “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).
Paul identifies clearly the source of our inner conflict.  Our mind, ruled by our ego, wants its own way.  “I have a right to do what I want,” our ego asserts, even though the Holy Spirit, residing in us, constantly reminds us of our calling as God’s temple. 

Don’t blame your body for following orders.  Instead, renew your mind in the Spirit.  

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Winners and Losers

Winners and Losers
2 Corinthians 4:7-12
            Perhaps you’ve seen the sign in offices or other places where you do business.  It reads:  “I never make misteaks!”
            Oh, if only it were true!  Over the years I’ve made so many misteaks—sorry, mistakes—that sometimes I think I’ve got a corner on them.
            But I’m not alone.  Look at the records of some of the greatest baseball players of all time.
·        Babe Ruth—714 homeruns in his career; for 39 years a record.  He also struck out 1,330 times.
·        Ty Cobb—held the record for most stolen bases until 1982.  He also held the record for being thrown out the most times:  38 in 1915.
·        Cy Young—the man for whom the outstanding pitcher award is named.  He holds the record for most lifetime wins:  511.  He also holds the record for losses:  313.
·        Hank Aaron—the man who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record with 755.  Aaron also holds the record for hitting into the most double plays.
·        Walter Johnson—until recently held the record for most batters struck out by a pitcher.  He also holds the record for hitting the most batters:  204.
·        Roberto Clemente—struck out four times in one All-Star game, still a record.
·        Sandy Koufax—pitched four no-hitters in his career but couldn’t hit the ball.  He holds the record for striking out the most times in succession:  12.
·        Reggie Jackson—Mr. October.  Clutch hitter extraordinaire.  Struck out 2,000 times in his career—the equivalent of striking out every time at bat for four full seasons.
            Still feeling badly about the number of mistakes you make?  An excellent hitter in baseball bats somewhere around .300-.330 for a season.  That means he makes an out more than two-thirds of the time he’s at the plate.
            When I was beginning my ministry someone said to me, “God doesn’t expect us to be successful.  God expects us to be faithful.”  In their own way, each of the above players was faithful.  Each one kept on going to the plate—or to the mound—inning after inning, day after day, season after season.  In the end, each was considered a star because he kept playing, kept hitting well or pitching well, and did so faithfully throughout his career—even when things weren’t going well!  Imagine what might have happened if one (or more) of them had quit after the first time he struck out, or lost a game!  We would probably not even remember his name.  Certainly he would have never appeared in the record book.
            There is a wonderful story about Robert the Bruce, the great Scottish leader.  He had just been badly defeated in battle for the sixth time, and had fled to a cave where he sat, alone and depressed.  He watched as a spider tried to string a line to begin a web.  Time after time the spider failed, and time after time he tried again.  On the seventh time he was successful.  Robert took the lesson into his next battle and won.
We are indeed jars of clay—with feet of clay.  We cannot be successful all the time in this Christian life; but God doesn’t expect us to be.  We fail and try again, fail and try again, until with God’s help we succeed.  This is how we win at being a Christian, not by being perfect—we can’t ever achieve that level—but by trying, and trying, and trying again, until we overcome the clay which holds us back and win the reward that God holds in store for us.

Don’t worry about being successful.  Just be faithful.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Fifty-Seven Pennies

Fifty-Seven Pennies
Luke 18:16
            Just a little girl.  Just an ordinary little girl.  Nothing to make her stand out from all the other little girls in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  In fact, she was one of the insignificant ones—one of the poorer residents of the city, part of a poor family living in a poor neighborhood.  Yet as happens so often, God used her to bless millions.
            She wanted to join a Sunday school, but was told there wasn’t enough room for all the children who wanted to attend.  How many times have the poor been told there was no room for them?  It seems I remember a baby born in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago whose family couldn’t find room.
            Two years later the little girl became sick, and—quite possibly without proper medical care—in a couple of weeks she died.  Under her pillow was found a small, tattered book containing 57 pennies and a piece of paper on which she had written, “To help build the Little Temple bigger, so more children can go to Sunday school.”
            Someone had the foresight to bring the 57 pennies and the note to the pastor of the Little Temple, who told the story to his congregation.  A story like this doesn’t stay quiet for long.  Soon it reached the newspapers, who spread it far from Philadelphia—in fact, all across the country.  As you can imagine, the story of the little girl, her pennies, and her desire to see the Sunday school grow touched many hearts.  The pennies grew—and grew, and grew.  How much did they grow?
            The Little Temple church has been replaced by a much larger church, one that seats 3,300 worshipers and has lots of room for Sunday school classes.  But her pennies didn’t stop with the church.  There is also Temple University, with an enrollment today of over 37,000 students on seven campuses and sites in Pennsylvania and on international campuses in Rome, Tokyo, Singapore and London.  In addition there is Temple Hospital, one of the region’s most respected academic medical centers.
            All from the humble beginning of 57 pennies.
            Her name was Hattie May Wiatt.  She died in 1886.  The pastor’s name was Russell H. Conwell.  With her vision and her “seed money” he was able to build a large church, a respected center of learning, and a hospital, all dedicated to serving humanity.  What mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow!
            God can use anyone, anywhere, any time.  It isn’t necessary to be rich, or have a position of power, or influence within a community.  All that is necessary is to have a vision and act to make it become a reality.  God doesn’t promise that all of us will be as successful as Hattie May Wiatt, but God does promise to use even our humblest efforts to bring about God’s kingdom.
            Listen to the words of Reverend Conwell:  “[The one] who can give to this city better streets, and better sidewalks, better schools and more colleges, more happiness, and more civilization, more of God, [that one] will be great anywhere!”  By this definition, Hattie May Wiatt achieved greatness.
            God waits to use you.  Whatever your gifts, whatever your economic or social status, whatever your age, whatever your education level, God wants to take you and use you to grow the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

            What are you waiting for?  Start collecting your pennies!”

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Messiah Is Among Us!

The Messiah Is Among Us
Matthew 28:16-20
            I’ve come across a treasure trove of stories recently, many of which have got me thinking in new directions.  Over the next few weeks I’ll share some of them with you.  I do not know who wrote this story, so I can’t give credit, but I am grateful to the author.
            There was an ancient and famous monastery which had fallen on hard times.  Formerly its buildings had been filled with monks, and its large church had resounded with the sound of many voices. Now the monastery was nearly deserted.  A handful of faithful brothers shuffled through the cloisters, singing and praying with heavy hearts. 
            At the edge of the monastery woods an old rabbi had built a little hut.  He went there from time to time to pray and fast.  No one from the monastery ever spoke with him, but when he appeared the word would be passed:  “The rabbi walks in the woods.”  Whenever he was in residence the monks felt sustained by his prayerful presence.
            One day the abbot of the monastery decided to visit the rabbi and open his heart to him.  As he approached the hut, he saw the rabbi standing in the doorway with outstretched arms in welcome.  It was as though he had been waiting for this occasion.  They embraced as brothers.
            The rabbi gestured for the abbot to enter.  In the midst of the room was a plain wooden table with an open Bible.  As they sat in the presence of the Holy Scriptures, the rabbi began to cry.  The abbot could not contain himself and also began to cry.  They filled the hut with the sounds of their sobs.
            After the tears had ceased and all was quiet, the rabbi said, “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts.  You have come to ask a teaching of me.  I will give you this teaching, but you can only repeat it once.  After that, no one must say it aloud again.”  The rabbi looked solemnly at the abbot and said, “The Messiah is among you.”  They embraced again, then the abbot left without a word and without looking back.
            The next morning the abbot called the other monks together and told them he had received a teaching from “the rabbi who walks in the woods.”  Once they heard it, the teaching was never to be spoken aloud again.  He looked in turn at each of his brothers and said, “The rabbi says the Messiah is among us.”  The monks were startled, but remained silent. They left the room and went about their daily business.  No one ever mentioned the teaching again.
            Almost immediately the monks began to treat each other with increased reverence.  Visitors to the monastery were deeply touched by their love for each other.  People came from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the brothers.  Young men began asking about becoming part of their community.  The rabbi no longer walked in the woods, but the monks who had taken his teaching to heart were still sustained by a prayerful presence.
            How would our lives be different if we knew the Messiah was among us?  How would we behave at work?  At school?  How would our family life change?  Would we begin to treat our family members with the same reverence that the monks shared with each other?
            How would our churches change?  Would we worship differently?  How would committee meetings and board meetings be different?  Would our love for each other be so overwhelming that visitors would notice?  Would there be an end to the bickering that frequently divides us?  Would people want to join our fellowship?
            What would change if we knew the Messiah was among us? 

He is!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Where Is the Treasure

Where Is the Treasure?
Matthew 13:44
            Jesus tells an interesting parable about the kingdom of heaven.  A man, for some reason, is poking around in a field he doesn’t own.  He finds a buried treasure.  Without telling anyone of his discovery, he sells everything he has, buys the field, and takes possession of both the land and the treasure.
            Putting aside the man’s sneakiness—perhaps unethical behavior—we get the point Jesus was making.  God’s kingdom is worth everything we have—and then some.  If we give up all we have and all we are to obtain the kingdom, we’re way ahead. 
            Recently I came across a story told by Rev. Russell Conwell that presents another view of treasure hunting, one that also has implications for us in our search for heavenly treasure.
            There was a wealthy farmer in Africa whose name was Hafid.  He owned a huge, fertile tract of land, large herds of camels and goats, and orchards full of date and fig trees.  He had more than enough of worldly goods.
            One day a wandering holy man came to Hafid’s farm, and told him that huge fields of diamonds were being discovered.  The distinguishing geographical features of these fields were rivers with white sands that flowed out of valleys lying between V-shaped mountains.
            Hafid was so eager for greater wealth that he sold everything he had—land, herds, orchards—and went in search of this fortune.  He never found it.  Search as he might he was not able to find such a valley.  Finally, he died, a poor, broken, disillusioned man.
            Meanwhile, the man who had bought Hafid’s farm found a pretty rock in the river as he watered his camels.  He admired it for its sparkle, picked it up and took it home, where he put it on a shelf.  The sun reflecting through it made pretty rainbow patterns across the room. 
            Sometime later, the same wandering holy man came back to the farm.  Seeing the rock and its rainbow colors he asked the new owner where he had found it.  When they got to the river the holy man looked up and saw that it flowed into the valley from between V-shaped mountains.  As they walked along they found more and more of the pretty rocks, which the holy man identified as diamonds.  Eventually they found that the land contained acres and acres of diamonds. 
The farm became the Kimberly Diamond Mine, the richest in all South Africa.  Hafid, in his haste to gain more wealth, didn’t bother to look around him.  If he had, he would never have sold his property.  He would have discovered the diamonds, and become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams instead of dying far from home in poverty.
Psalm 121 begins with the words, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills.”  If Hafid had looked up he would have seen the V-shape of the mountains which identified the valley as a source of diamonds.  Had he looked down when he was watering his flocks he would have seen the diamonds.  Instead he looked far away, and as a result lost not only his chance at greater wealth, but the wealth he already had.
We too should look for treasure where we live.  The man in Jesus’ parable was near his home.  He was not on some exotic journey, but close to his own village. 
Our treasure will be found in our service to God.  Most of us will not be called to go adventuring far away, but will serve where we live.  That’s where we’ll find our field of diamonds.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Gender Equality

 Gender Equality
Ephesians 5:22-33
            One of the most profound documents ever written is the United States Constitution.  The framers of the Constitution were in many ways wise beyond their time.  Nothing like this had ever been tried before.  There was no model for creating this kind of government, nor for a document that would guide the fledgling country into the future.
            The wisdom of these men can be seen in the endurance of both the democracy and its guiding star.  Not only has the Constitution stood the test of time (more than 200 years in existence), but the number of amendments remains amazingly low.  Our founding fathers couldn’t think of everything (it says nothing, for instance, about the internet), but they gave us a framework which we have used to successfully solve the problems of an ever-changing nation. 
When we think of how much the culture has changed in the past 200 years, we can understand that our founders could not have anticipated everything that has occurred.  Thanks to their wisdom we haven’t had to throw the document out and start over; but we must constantly reinterpret it to meet the needs of our country as we continue to move into the future.  Documents such as our Constitution are written within the confines of a particular time, place, and cultural orientation.  Its genius is that its construction makes reinterpretation possible and avoids the need to replace or drastically modify it.
So it is with the Bible.  The major difference is that it was composed over a much longer time, in many more places, and in a very different culture.  It is impossible to completely understand the Bible without understanding the culture (actually cultures) from which it comes.  How can we accomplish this?  How can we understand enough about biblical cultures to catch even a glimpse of what it meant to those people—and what it might mean to us today?
Gender relations provide a good example.  In the early days of humanity, the important quality for survival was strength—strength to ward off enemies, both human and animal; strength to do the major work of the farm or shop; strength to build the structures for living and working.  To a great extent, that quality is not as necessary as it once was.  With machines to do much of the heavy lifting, women can perform as well as men in such fields as factory work, auto mechanics, flying planes, driving trucks—even soldiering.  As long as a woman can use her brain as well as a man (some would say that’s not difficult), she can do the same work.
Sexual ethics have also changed drastically.  In the days before DNA testing it was necessary for a woman to remain her father’s daughter until she became her husband’s wife.  It was necessary for her to stay at home unless accompanied by a male relative.  This was primarily for economic reasons.  If a woman could not prove that she was a virgin when she married, and then remain faithful to her husband, the inheritance of his property was subject to challenge.  She had to be able to assure everyone that she could not possibly have given birth to another man’s child.  To insure this she had to be virtually imprisoned in her own home.  She was always under male domination, with no possibility of equality.

When we read injunctions such as Paul’s to the Corinthians (or Peter’s in 1 Peter 2:1-7) we must remember the cultural setting in which they were written.  Compare their words with Genesis 2:24.  “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”  There doesn’t seem to be any domination here.  This sounds like pure equality.  It seems to me that God ordained both members of a couple to be equal partners in the union, both with the same rights and responsibilities—and benefits.  Perhaps we should look carefully at these passages to see what they might mean for us in light of new scientific knowledge.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Helpers or Stumbling Blocks?

Helpers or Stumbling Blocks?
Luke 17:1-2
            In his letter to the Romans, Paul takes the matter of helping fellow Christians very seriously.  He spends all of chapter fourteen and the first part of chapter fifteen on the subject.  “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.”
            Too often we are guilty of doing just that.  We love to get ahold of new believers and indoctrinate them into our version of Christianity.  Some even go so far as to claim, “If you don’t believe exactly as I believe, you have no hope of ending up in heaven.”  Jesus addressed this issue (Matthew 23:4) directly when he said, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders.” 
            Paul doesn’t stop there.  He speaks about judgmentalism, one of humanity’s greatest sins.  Oh how we love to tell other people how they should live!  How we love to sit in our chairs by the side of life’s road and criticize those who live differently than we do.  We may not understand the reasons for the differences, but that hardly matters.  If they don’t meet our standards we (verbally/mentally) cut them to ribbons.
            “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” Paul says.  “It is before his own master that he stands or falls.”  In other words, God is the judge, not us—and a lucky thing for the majority of the human race it is, for most people wouldn’t make it out of our court unpunished.
            Paul’s two topics of concern seem to be celebrating or not celebrating certain festival days, and what people choose to eat.  Usually when Paul addresses food, the issue is eating meat that has been first offered to idols.  While these issues are of no importance to most of us today, there are many other ways we judge our fellow humans—all of them wrong.
            “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block in the way of a brother.”  Or sister.  The word Paul uses means brother and sister.  We must be careful not to cause anyone to err.  Paul adds, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
            Lest you think Paul is alone in criticizing our actions, we have the words of Jesus Christ to chide us.  “Temptations to sin are sure to come,” Jesus says, “but woe to the one through whom they come!  It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”
            This is a double condemnation.  People living in the first century had no idea what lay beneath the surface of the sea.  For all they knew, horrible monsters lived in its impenetrable depths.  The very mention of the sea sent shivers down most spines.
            Coupled with the fear of the sea was the size of millstones.  They measured about four feet across.  They were large and heavy because they were used to grind grain.  The hard-shelled grain was placed between two stones.  The bottom one remained stationary while the top one was turned, usually by a donkey, since it would be heavy for a man to move.  For a person to have one of these stones fastened to his neck and thrown into the sea meant there would be no escape for the horrors that awaited him below.  He was twice doomed.

            Which are we:  helpful brothers and sisters, or stumbling blocks?  Paul and Jesus give us only these two choices.  If by our judgmentalism and our insistence on making people follow our standards we cause them to sin, we suffer God’s punishment.  Better—far better—to follow Paul’s guiding words:  “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by people.  So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”

Sunday, October 4, 2015

What Does the Lord Expect?

What Does the Lord Expect?
Luke 17:7-10
            Many of us have become hooked on Downton Abby—so much so that we can’t get enough.  We watch the original broadcasts.  We buy each season’s DVD’s.  We watch the background shows about the program:  the one about the castle that is used for the setting, and anything else they think will sell—even reruns.  I even remember a political cartoon based on the show right after they killed off Matthew.
            This show has given us a good look at British aristocracy in the first third of the 20th century.  We have gained insights into how they relate to each other, to the “lower classes,” and especially to the servant class.  The family with whom we have become so acquainted treats their servants well, but we are left with no doubt as to the presence of class distinction.  We know who the masters are and who the servants are, and (except in one case) there is no socializing between them. 
            This is also the cultural situation which is the setting for Jesus’ parable of the obedient servant.  The usual translation of the parable’s opening phrase is, “Will any one of you who has a servant…?”  Sometimes it will read, “Which of you, having a servant…?”  Kenneth Bailey, a man long acquainted with the Middle East and several Middle Eastern languages (he taught there for almost thirty years) says there is a better, more accurate translation.  He begins his version with the words, “Can you imagine having a servant…?”
            For him, this translation makes more sense because the answer from the audience would be a resounding, “No!”  No one listening to Jesus could imagine any master rewarding a servant in this way.  Everyone in the crowd would have understood the master/servant relationship as surely as does every character in Downton Abby.  There would be no question as to who gets to eat first.  The master is the master and the servant is the servant.  The servant serves the master then eats.
            Bailey says we shouldn’t feel sorry for the servant.  It’s not that he’s been plowing the field or tending sheep since sunup.  The servant has had what to us would seem a rather short work day—certainly not the eight (perhaps eight plus) hours that constitute our normal load.  The servant has not been worked nearly to death.  Instead, he has put in what we would think of as about a half-day’s work.
            The truth is that no servant would expect special consideration for doing a day’s labor.  He did what was expected of him in the fields; now it’s time to do the household chores.  It is also true that, unlike our culture, where servants are rare, Middle Eastern families, except for the very poor, would likely have at least one hired person to do the more menial chores.  It is even possible that the master in this story would have put in as much work as the servant.  This certainly would be the case in, for instance, fishing families like that of Zebedee, who, even though he himself worked and had two sons in the business, still had “hired hands” to help with the load.
            The point Jesus is trying to make is that the master owed his servant no special consideration for completing his work.  The servant had merely done what was expected of him during the day.  Now he is expected to prepare the evening meal and serve it. 

            Just so should we not, when we have done everything God requires of us, expect any special consideration.  God owes us nothing for our labor.  There is no such thing as “work righteousness.”  We have done what was expected of us.  Therefore, we should say with the servant in the parable, “Nothing is owed us.  We have only done what was our duty.”

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Sense of Reverence

A Sense of Reverence
Psalm 96
            I read an article recently about a man who had grown up in a conservative religious denomination, one that is quite prevalent here in the south.  The article documented his transition from that beginning to the Greek Orthodox Church, where he will soon become a priest.  His journey involved college and law school, nine years as a practicing attorney, and a slow, somewhat meandering change in his religious outlook.
            How does this happen?  Those of us who find ourselves in full-time ministry understand those first halting steps, then more and more assurance that we are being called as the train leaves the station and picks up speed.  We’re aware of the doubts that continue even after we’ve made the decision, which often continue through the sometimes tortuous seminary experience.  All the time we become more and more sure that this is the right path, that this is what we’re supposed to be doing.
            Some of us fight it.  “No, God, you can’t mean me.  You don’t want me to be a pastor (preacher/minister/priest).  You must mean the other guy.  He’s much more holy than I am.  Or maybe you’ve mistaken me for that woman over there whose name is somewhat like mine.  She’s a much better speaker.”  And we fight it, and fight it, and fight it until we give in, exhausted, finally realizing we can’t win this battle.
            Most times our call involves staying in the denomination we’ve grown up in.  That makes sense.  The indoctrination process begins early, as we are taken to church each Sunday (or most Sundays, or some Sundays).  We hear words that become familiar to us.  We fall into patterns of worship that are comforting and comfortable.  We sing hymns that become part of our musical subconscious.  All of this is good and right and to be expected.
            Sometimes, as with the man in this article, there’s a denominational shift.  The shift can lead us left or right on the conservative/liberal scale, up or down on the liturgical scale, or in some direction on some scale I haven’t thought of.  At some point there is a sea change.  It may be quick and violent like a tidal wave, or slow and steady like a tidal pull, but we find ourselves adrift, then snug and safe in a new harbor, wondering what happened, but knowing we’re home.
            What made this man change denominations?  I should add that his sea change was huge.  In this country only a small fraction of the population identifies itself as Orthodox Christians.  What was it he found in Orthodox worship that made him feel at home?
            About his first visit as a nineteen year-old college student he said, “I was really blown away.  I didn’t understand a lot of things going on,” (the liturgy would have been far removed from what he had known growing up) “but what really struck me was the sense of reverence.”
            A sense of reverence.  The feeling that you are in a sacred place doing holy things.  The experience of wonder in worship. 
            I’m afraid we’ve lost that feeling in many of our churches.  I believe there should be a wide variety of worship styles so each of us can find God through the things that make spiritual sense to us.  Still, I worry that our worship—like our dress code and our manners—has become too casual.  It doesn’t seem to matter if we feel a sense of reverence, or that we are on holy ground.  We’re satisfied that we’re in church, and whatever we do is OK as long as we worship somehow. 

            Perhaps that’s enough:  but I can’t help wondering if God might appreciate it if we worshipped the Lord in the splendor of holiness, and trembled before God in God’s holy temple.  Perhaps we need more often to experience our own sense of reverence.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Costly Grace

Costly Grace
Luke 19:1-9
One problem faced by preachers is how to keep the old material fresh.  How do you take a Scripture passage that you’ve preached many times (and/or one that everyone has preached many times) and say something new about it?  You can’t keep saying the same thing over and over, nor can you completely ignore those passages.  They’re staples.  Besides, if you use the lectionary, they keep surfacing every three years.  What’s the solution?
One method is to buy new books that comment on the old passages.  A friend recently lent me a couple of books by an author with whom I was not familiar.  His writings have given me new insights into many of Jesus’ parables that are recorded in Luke’s gospel.
Another way is to be open to new leadings of the Holy Spirit, and to recognize the relevance of familiar Scriptures to modern life.  Human nature hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years or so.  We still face the same problems biblical people faced.  We just experience them with new technology.
I should add that the above solutions are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, it is necessary to apply all three—and perhaps others that I haven’t thought of—to the problem of finding new meaning in familiar Scriptures.
One of the staple passages from the gospels is the story of Zacchaeus.  I remember hearing it in Sunday school as a kid, where the emphasis was on Zacchaeus’ size—or lack of it.  The teacher tried to make it relevant to boys who shared Zacchaeus’ height differential problem.  We were small; so was he.  We climbed trees to see the world; so did he.  Of course, that’s where the parallels ended.  We weren’t rich tax collectors, nor did we give banquets.  Still, the lesson was absorbed, and we were able to identify with Zacchaeus and hope that Jesus would come to us in the same way.  We even had a song we sang about the story.
As an adult, and one of slightly above average height, I look at the story from a different angle.  I try to find something that speaks to me and draws me in.  I also have to find something that will attract those people to whom I minister on Sunday mornings.
The word that moves me now is grace.  Grace is a universal concern.  We all need it.  We all want it.  We all worry that we aren’t worthy of it (we’re not, of course).  We all want to be sure there’s enough to go around.
Even if he didn’t know it, Zacchaeus needed grace.  He may have climbed that tree just to see what all the excitement was about—as well as to escape the jabs and pushes of his unfriendly neighbors—but he needed grace.  Jesus knew that, and offered it to him.  Jesus should have eaten at the home of one of the leading citizens of Jericho.  Instead, he chose to go home with the most hated man in town.  That’s a huge offering of grace.
At the dinner table Zacchaeus offered grace in return.  You remember:  he promised to give half of his goods to the poor. He also said he would return four times any amount he had taken unjustly.  That’s another a huge offering of grace.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that grace isn’t cheap.  It costs—and the cost of grace is high.  Moreover, grace costs both the giver and receiver.  Grace cost Jesus, because his reputation among the good people of Jericho hit rock bottom.  How could he associate with such a rotten person as Zacchaeus?  Grace cost Zacchaeus.  Once he had given away so much of his worldly goods he would have to seriously change his lifestyle.

Was it worth it?  What do you think?