Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Fable-ous Aesop

The Fable-ous Aesop
Matthew 25:31-46
            Somewhere in our youth most of us were exposed to Aesop’s fables, those wonderful tales that always had a moral.  Aesop was an ancient Greek storyteller who lived somewhere around 620-564 BCE.  His actual existence is uncertain—that is, his life itself may be a fable.  While none of his writings survive, his tales live on.
Years ago I discovered a charming musical by Joseph Robinette and Thomas Tierney called The Fabulous Fable Factory.  It’s written for adults to perform for children.  In it, a curious young boy sneaks in to an abandoned factory and discovers an out-of-commission machine (made of human actors), and the factory owner, Mr. Aloysius A. Aesop. 
The machine tells stories—but it’s broken.  A part is missing.  The missing part?  The “moral maker.”  Lo and behold, the boy turns out to be a perfect moral maker.  Mr. Aesop invites him to become part of the machine so the factory can go back to work.  The boy declines because—well, he’s a boy, and realizes he has some growing up to do before he settles into his life’s work.
I haven’t had a chance to produce the play, but I continue to hold out hope.  I think it would be fun, and a good morality tale in itself.  After all, everyone needs to learn how to make intelligent, informed decisions about life.
Stories with morals are important teaching devices.  Jesus knew it; that’s why he used parables, a form of story theology just as Aesop’s tales are a form of story morality.  We remember certain fables that helped us learn and remember moral truths just as we remember certain parables that help us learn and remember spiritual truths.
 “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.”  This is the moral of Aesop’s story about the lion and the mouse.  The lion spares the mouse’s life.  Later, the mouse gnaws through the ropes with which men have secured the captured lion and sets him free. 
“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted” might also be the summation of today’s Scripture reading.  This is a passage to which I return often in my own spiritual journey.  I believe it encapsulates what Jesus was trying to teach about how his followers should live.
Matthew 25:31-46 is often referred to as “The Last Judgment.”  We find Jesus Christ, the Righteous Judge, seated on his throne with the whole of humanity gathered before him.  With waves of his hand he separates the sheep (to his right hand) from the goats (to his left).  He welcomes the sheep because they have performed acts of kindness to him—no matter how small—and dismisses the goats because they have failed to be kind.  When each groups professes ignorance of having served him, he utters the famous line, “Inasmuch as you have been kind (or unkind) to the least of my brothers and sisters in my name, you have been kind (or unkind) to me” (my paraphrase).
When we stand before the Great Judge at the end of time, to which group will we be assigned?  The decision will not be made on the basis of our standing in the community, nor the number of degrees we have after our names, nor the size of our bank accounts.  It won’t matter what we know, or who we know, or where we live.  All Jesus will want to know is have we been kind—and have we done so in his name.  In other words, have we loved God and loved our neighbor in God’s name—the two commandments Jesus declared to be the greatest.

At that time we will understand fully the meaning of Aesop’s moral:  no act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.  

Sunday, February 21, 2016

How Shall We Live?

How Shall We Live?
Revelation 22:6-21
            I teach a college course in comparative religion.  The students look at many of the world’s faiths from a more or less objective point of view.  Each chapter of the textbook covers one religion and is divided into three major sections:  the teachings of that religion; its history; and how one follows that religion as a way of life.  At the end of each chapter three questions are asked and answered.  From the perspective of that religion:
1.      What is ultimate reality?
2.      How should we live in this world?
3.      What is our ultimate purpose?
I find it interesting that the way one lives the religion is covered in the main body of the chapter and again at the end.  While I enjoy teaching each section of each chapter, I think I’m the most interested in looking at the religion as a way of life.  Except for a few major events I don’t find the history of a religion very exciting.  The teachings are always interesting to dissect.  My students are often amazed at the similarities in teachings among religions.  Even in those that seem the most unique there always seems to be something that connects them to other faiths.
I believe all of us in the class understand the importance of the section on the way of life.  As I point out frequently, there is a wide range of practice in any religion, all the way from those for whom their faith is their complete way of life to those who observe the tenets only when convenient or necessary.  Within this wide range we find what the religion says ought to be the way a practitioner of that faith should live on a daily basis.
One of my goals in this course is to have each student understand his/her religion more completely.  Since most (if not all) of my students profess some form of Christianity, I tend to make that faith the major point of comparison.  We first ask:  How do the other religions of the world indicate that one should live?  Then:  Is there anything we can take from another religion that would increase/enhance/deepen our own faith?  Frequently students are interested in the connections.  They often begin to question what they have grown up believing, and as a result of that questioning finish the semester with a deeper and more vibrant faith than they had at the beginning.
Martin Luther has given us some of the best advice as to how we should live as Christians in this world.  He said we should live as though Jesus was born yesterday, risen today, and is coming back tomorrow.  We should celebrate each day as both Christmas and Easter—the joy of God come to earth to be with humanity and show us how to live, and the joy of a risen Savior who breaks down all boundaries between people, and between people and God. 
But there’s more—much more!  Joy is wonderful but not enough.  We must also live as though Jesus is returning now, not at some possible time in some far-off future.  Jesus made this evident in the parables he told.  Nowhere are his words on this matter more clear than in the final chapter of Revelation.
I remember reading somewhere that a good dramatist tells you anything important three times—to be sure you get it.  In the final sixteen verses of the New Testament Jesus tells us three times that he is coming soon.  In vv. 7 and 12 he says “behold I am coming soon.”  In v. 20 he says, “Surely I am coming soon.”  If we don’t get it by then, we’re not listening.
How would it impact your life if you lived as if Jesus would return tomorrow? 
Start living that way now. 

It might happen.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Choosing Which Gods to Worship

Choosing Which Gods to Worship
Deuteronomy 6:4-9
            The other morning my wife was trying to turn left onto a busy street.  Suddenly, the traffic parted and she had an easy time making the turn.  Because I have a tendency to be a smart aleck (my friends would be shocked to hear this!), I said, “The traffic gods are with you.”
            There was a time—not so very long ago in the overall scheme of things—when that was what humans believed.  Whatever happened—good, bad, evil, blessed—was attributed to the gods, either the gods responsible for that particular function, or the gods of that particular place.
            Gods had specific functions.  In Greek mythology Apollo was the god of the sun, and drove his chariot across the sky each day.  In Norse legends Thor was the god of lightning, and hurled his thunderbolts whenever he was a little upset.  Other cultures had other names for the gods who ruled a particular sphere of life, but every culture had its panoply of divine beings who made things happen—or didn’t make things happen if the whim took them.
            Certain places were sacred to specific gods or goddesses.  Paul ran into this problem when he visited Ephesus, the location of the temple of Diana.  When he began preaching about a God by the name of Jesus Christ, those who sold items associated with the worship of Diana rioted and tried to do away with him.
            If my people went to war against your people, and my people won, it was assumed that my gods were stronger than your gods.  You would put your gods aside and worship mine.  After all, why would you continue to worship weak gods who were unable to protect you against your enemies?  It wouldn’t matter that my army of 10,000 was better trained and equipped than your army of 7,000.  That, too was a gift from my gods.  Worshiping my gods would bring your people the same benefits—to say nothing of a strong ally.
            Primitive people believed gods resided in elements of nature.  Rivers, streams, trees, and especially mountains were homes of gods and therefore to be respected and worshiped.  Native American and African indigenous religions hold certain rivers and mountains to be sacred.  Perhaps those of us who have a more sophisticated outlook on life could learn from these primitive peoples how sacred our environment is, and how much we should respect our rivers, trees, mountains and streams.
Into this multiplicity of religions, each with its plethora of gods, came a new idea:  one God, responsible for all things; a God who created the cosmos and everything in it; a God who not only created but who loved the creation; a God who cared for and provided for all creatures. 
What a radical idea!  No longer did humanity have to worry about offending this god or that god while trying to appease some other god.  No longer did people have to keep track of which god to turn to for which cause.  No longer did nations have to try to figure out which set of gods would do them the most good. 
When Abraham journeyed from Haran to Canaan at God’s command he started something new.  Later, his descendants traveled to Egypt to escape a famine, only to eventually become slaves in their adopted homeland.  Still later, God called upon another of Abraham’s descendants to lead the people to freedom and back to Canaan.  As they approached the Promised Land, Moses gave the Israelites his final words of instruction.  He reminded them of the commandments God had given them in the wilderness.  Then he told them that one commandment stood above all the rest.
“Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

That’s easy to keep track of.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


Revelation 4-5
            What will heaven be like?  We have only the faintest idea.  Many of us turn to Revelation to find an answer, but this book is only minimally helpful.  In Chapters 4 and 5 we find a picture of a worship-centered paradise—and that is as it should be.  Those who are gathered round the throne are there to worship God, and do so continually.  If we turn to Chapter 21 we find the New Jerusalem descending to a new earth, and God dwelling with humans here rather than we being somewhere “out there.”  So—which is the right one?
            There are probably more jokes about heaven than any other topic—except maybe golf (There are even a few that unite the two.)  The problem with these jokes is that they’re based on human experience, and therefore invalid as pictures of what heaven will be like.  Funny as they may be, they offer us no help.
            Over the centuries, writers have tried to describe heaven.  In her book The Lovely Bones Ann Sebold imagines a heaven that is individual rather than universal.  Each person gets his/her own heaven to live in.  Someone can be in your heaven only if you also wind up in theirs.
            Mitch Albom, the author of The Five People You Meet in Heaven, imagines a similar destination.  Each of us can choose what our heaven will be like and who will be there.  This choice occurs, however, only after we meet five people (we each have our own five) whose task it is to explain our lives to us.  We meet them sequentially, in the order in which they intersected our lives on earth.
            I know there are many other images of heaven, but these examples will help us see the immense difficulty involved in explaining what it will be like.  One thing we can say for certain:  our final destination will not be like those cartoons that show people sitting around on clouds playing harps.  There is no indication we will have any more musical talent there than we’ve had here, and the harp is a difficult instrument to master.
            I turn one last time to the piece of paper entitled “Scraps” which has been sitting on my desk for so long.  One final scrap remains.  Perhaps it is fitting I saved this one for last.
            “Yes,” my friend said.  “I don’t see why there shouldn’t be books in Heaven.  But you will find that your library in Heaven contains only some of the books you had on earth.”
            “Which,” I asked.
            “The ones you gave away or lent.”
            “I hope the lent ones won’t still have all the borrowers’ dirty thumb marks,” said I.
            “Oh yes they will,” he said.  “But just as the wounds of the martyrs have turned into beauties, so you will find that the thumb-marks have turned into beautiful illuminated capitals or exquisite marginal woodcuts.”
            Can we generalize from this image?  Is it possible that what we will have in heaven is that which we have given away on earth?  Could it be that our possessions—the jewels in our crowns so to speak—will be what we’ve done for others.  What if our adornments are the good deeds we’ve done (remember Matthew 25:31-46)?  What if our wardrobe consists of the clothing we’ve given to help keep the poor from being cold?  What if our gold consists of the money we’ve spent to help those in need?  What if the amount of time we get to spend with God is determined by the time we spent doing God’s work on earth?

            What if?