Sunday, January 25, 2015

Love Your Enemies

Love Your Enemies
Mark 12:28-34
            Remember, this wasn’t a friendly question asked by one of Jesus’ followers because he wanted to learn from the Master.  When a religious leader asked Jesus a question it was usually a trap, a trick designed to stump Jesus, make him look foolish, and use his answer to discredit him—sort of like politicians do to each other today.  They figured that whatever answer Jesus gave they could come up with a reason it was the wrong one.  “Back him into a corner,” they thought, “and make him squirm.”
            Their problem was that Jesus was too smart for them.  Every trap they set for him, he avoided, coming up with the perfect answer to squelch his opponents and make them look foolish.  By the time he finished with them, they were squirming, and the people, who they were trying to impress with their cleverness, were more solidly in Jesus’ camp than before.
            Why is Jesus’ answer so perfect?  He avoided choosing one of the Ten Commandments (which was the direction the scribe was sure he would go) and chose instead the statement that more than any other defines Judaism from the beginning and for the ages.  “God is one, and you are to love this one God with every fiber of your being.”  That sums up the first three commandments.  Then Jesus added, “Love your neighbor as yourself”—and that sums up the other seven.  If we love God we will place God first in our lives, will not try to replace or demean God in any way, and will honor God with at least the one day of the week set aside to do so.  If we love God we will love God’s children—our neighbors—and we will demonstrate that love by treating them as we would want to be treated ourselves. 
At the end of the encounter Jesus’ questioner had to admit that Jesus got it right.  He was probably shocked when Jesus complimented him by saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” 
            Luke’s version (10:25-37) is different.  The scribe (lawyer) doesn’t give up after the first answer.  He asks, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus gives him an answer which was sure to upset most of those who were listening.  It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan—a story so familiar that we don’t have to review it here.  Suffice to say that with this story Jesus identified enemies as neighbors.
            Isn’t that the way life often works?  We’d love to choose our neighbors, to only live close to people we care about, get along with, and/or agree with; but unless we live in an isolated community, walled off from everyone but those like-minded individuals we couldn’t possibly disagree with, that’s impossible.
            Even if we could create such a community it wouldn’t isolate us enough from potential enemies.  We’ve all known families where members fall out with each other. We know that family feuds can be the worst kind.  They often go on for generations—well after everyone alive has forgotten the cause of the original quarrel.
            In addition to family members we’d rather not have to interact with, there are people who live next door, or down the block, or around the corner who we’d just as soon not run into.  There are co-workers who we avoid as much as possible.  On a daily basis we encounter those who, if not outright enemies, are certainly people we wouldn’t consider friends.
            Jesus says, “Love your neighbor.”  He doesn’t say, “Love the neighbors you can get along with.”  He says, “Love your neighbor—friend or foe, pal or enemy, love them all.”  And it’s not enough to love them “for Jesus’ sake.”  We have to love them wholeheartedly—and we have to love them for our own salvation.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Crossing the River

Crossing the River
Joshua 3:1-17
            As the family sat around the dinner table one Sunday after church, father asked young Bobby, “What did you learn in Sunday school today?” 
The boy answered, “Well, Moses and the Israelites were camped on the bank of the Red Sea, and the Egyptian army came after them with tanks and artillery.  The Israelite army quickly built a pontoon bridge over the water.  Moses loaded all the people into trucks, and they made it across.  When the Egyptians got to the middle of the bridge, Moses sent the Israelite air force to bomb the bridge, and the Egyptian army drowned.”
“Bobby,” his father said.  “That’s not the way your teacher told the story, is it?”
“No, dad,” Bobby replied, “but if I told it the way she did, you’d never believe it!”
He’s right, of course.  The story we read in Exodus 14 is pretty unbelievable.  How could the sea be held back and the people walk across on dry ground?  The simple answer is that the God who set in motion the physical laws of the universe ought to be able to suspend those laws when circumstances require.  We don’t have to get any more technical than that.
It’s important to remember that there were two water crossings in the Exodus story.  The Israelites crossed the Red Sea in their escape from Egypt (the actual Exodus).  Forty years or so later they crossed the Jordan River into Canaan—the Promised Land.  In some ways these two stories are similar.  In others they are very different.
The most obvious similarity is that in each case the waters were held back so the people could cross over on dry ground.  However God accomplished that feat (and who are we to question God’s power to do whatever God pleases), the crossing was accomplished.  Psalm 29:3-4 speaks eloquently about God’s control over water.  The instances in Exodus and Joshua are examples of that power.
What about the differences?  The most obvious one is that, when crossing the Red Sea, Israel was escaping from bondage in a foreign land.  They became a free people  Also, they were being pursued by a Pharaoh who realized he had made a mistake in letting them go.  Without the slave labor they provided, how was he to get his building projects completed?
The Jordan crossing was quite a different matter.  After years of wandering aimlessly through the wilderness—punishment for disobeying God’s commands—the Israelites, minus their leader Moses, were finally ready to claim their inheritance.  Once again a body of water stood in their way.  This time it was the Jordan, swollen to unmanageable width and depth by seasonal rains.  Once again God’s power sufficed to bring them safely across, this time led by Joshua.  We can imagine their relief and excitement as they stood for the first time on the land God had promised them so long ago.  They were not only free, but home.
In our spiritual lives we must also cross both the Red Sea and the Jordan.  When we acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and recognize God’s claim on our lives, we escape from the bondage of sin just as Israel escaped from slavery.  That isn’t the end of things, however; it’s only the beginning.
For the rest of our lives we wander, sometimes drawing close to God, sometimes getting lost in a wilderness of our own making.  Sooner or later we find ourselves on the banks of the Jordan, ready to cross over into the Promised Land.  Many of our hymns celebrate this moment:  “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside,” is from one of my favorites, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah. It continues, “Death of death and Hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side.”

God has given us this promise:  if we remain faithful, at the end of our wandering we will see the home God has prepared for us.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Condemned Out of Our Own Mouths

Condemned Out of Our Own Mouths
Genesis 3:1-13
            A minister colleague of mine once said that it makes no difference whether the story of Adam and Eve is actually true or an allegory.  The lessons to be learned are the same.  I agree.  We spend too much time trying to prove biblical facts and not enough time trying to understand God’s message to us in the Bible.
When we consider this story we usually focus on the encounters between Eve and the serpent, and between Eve and Adam.  There are certainly lessons to be learned from them. 
Satan knows just what temptation will get through our defenses.  In Eve’s case it was an appeal to her ego—as, in a way, is all temptation:
            “God said you will die?  Surely not!  You won’t die.  God doesn’t want you to eat of that fruit because it will make you too wise.  You’ll know everything—understand everything.  Why, you’ll know so much you’ll be like God.  Wouldn’t that be something!”
            Here’s a problem:  if God had created humankind without an ego we would have been puppets, hanging around waiting for God to pull our strings and move us from one place to another.  On the other hand, it is our ego that makes us want our own way instead of following God’s commands.  God allows us to choose which path we will take.
            When Jesus said (Matthew 11:29), “Take my yoke upon you; for my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” he was, in a way, echoing what God had said to Adam and Eve.  “The rules are simple.  Enjoy the world that I’ve created for you.  Only one thing I command:  Don’t eat of this tree.  Stay away from it and all will be well.”  What could be simpler?  What could be easier?
            The promise of wisdom was too much of a temptation for Eve.  She couldn’t resist.  Adam joined her in disobedience.  In Paradise Lost, John Milton argues that Adam found out that Eve had broken God’s commands he was sure God would carry out the sentence of death.  Because he loved Eve so much he couldn’t bear to face life without her.  Rather than be left alone he ate of the fruit in order to share her punishment.  Sounds reasonable, but we’ll never know this side of heaven what really happened.
            Let’s look at what happened after Adam and Eve disobeyed.  They realized they were naked.  That was the extent, it seems, of their newfound wisdom:  they knew they had no clothes.  Rather than continue in that condition, they made themselves coverings of fig leaves, then hid when they heard God’s voice.  When God asked them where they were, Adam replied, “I heard your voice and was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”
            That’s all he needed to say to demonstrate his guilt.  He was condemned out of his own mouth.  He didn’t have to say, “I disobeyed your command.”  When he said he was naked he admitted that he knew more than he had before.  God knew immediately what he and Eve had done.
            When we were children we frequently condemned ourselves out of our own mouths.  Those of us who are parents have watched our children replicate this behavior.  No one has to accuse us.  In trying to avoid the consequences of our actions we say the words that let everyone know we did wrong.

            How often we do this with God!  God knows what we’ve done.  God sees it in our faces, hears it in our voices, and observes it in our actions.  Like Adam and Eve we stand before God, accused by our own behavior, knowing we are guilty, but hoping to be forgiven.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Where Do You Fit?

Where do You Fit?
Luke 2:1-7
            A certain radio sports commentator has a character he calls “The Old Curmudgeon.”  Whenever he wants to let off steam about an issue (or a bunch of issues) he becomes The Old Curmudgeon.  This allows him to be a grumpy old man and get away with it.  Today I’m going to be a grumpy old man—at least for a while.
            I’m writing this four days after Christmas.  This afternoon we were in one of the local grocery stores to pick up a few items.  There was not a Christmas decoration to be seen.  I expected to find the leftover Father Christmas and snowman figures at a greatly reduced price.  Not one was in view.  The shelf space devoted to Christmas stuff was either empty or already filling up with boxes of Valentine’s Day candy.  I didn’t check out the greeting card display, but I imagine the same thing was true there.  In stores where they have been playing Christmas music all day every day, those recordings have been put away for another year, or the radio station has been changed.  Carols are so last week. Actually, I suspect the people who work in those stores are relieved.  I know I couldn’t spend every work day for a month listening to the same—mostly inane—songs endlessly repeated.
            “Christmas is over!  Clear out the leftover merchandise.  Let’s get on to the next big holiday.  No time for sentiment or contemplating what Christmas should mean.  Time to get busy promoting the next occasion to overspend—and Valentine’s Day is a good one!  Candy! Flowers! Cards! Jewelry!  Come on, folks!  Sell!  Sell!  Sell!  Spend!  Spend!  Spend!”
            Have you noticed that Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving, for those of you who have been in isolation for the past two months) isn’t special anymore?  Stores open Thanksgiving night for people who want a head start.  Even worse, stores offer “Black Friday Sale Prices” for weeks ahead of the actual day.  They’re afraid they’ll miss out on making money.  They bombard us with advertising and special pricing so early that Thanksgiving might just disappear.  If this goes any further we’ll have Christmas sales beginning right after July Fourth.
            I’m a great fan of the newspaper comic strips.  For the past few days Curtis (about an African-American family living in a big city) has shown the TV set advertising Kwanzaa sales just like Christmas sales.  The father is bemoaning the fact that not even Kwanzaa (a non-sacred holiday by the way) is sacred anymore.  Commercialism knows no bounds.
I have no problem with the secular celebration of Christmas.  While my wife and I stopped buying each other Christmas presents years ago (not in protest, but because we enjoy shopping together), I still remember my excitement as a kid on Christmas morning—and I wouldn’t deny any child (or adult either) that feeling of joy. 
            I wish those of us who call ourselves by Christ’s name would spend as much time contemplating what the birth of Jesus Christ has meant—and continues to mean—to the world.  Perhaps we could spend the week between Christmas Day and New Years’ Day focusing on Jesus’ birth and its meaning.
To be a Christian means to stand apart from the crowd by refusing to be dominated by the prevailing culture.  It means living in the reality that we are different from the majority of people.  We understand that the birth of the Christ Child more than two thousand years ago has not only changed the world, but has also changed us.

            Recently I saw a sign outside a church.  It asked: “Are you part of the inn crowd or one of the stable few?”  It’s time to make up our minds which group we belong to.