Sunday, September 25, 2016

Politics and Christians

Politics and Christians
Matthew 25:31-46
            Many years ago I was talking with my (then) pastor about salvation.  He said, “Once your ticket is punched, you’re saved.  Your place in heaven is assured.”  I thought it was a bit glib, a bit too easy, and my reading of Scripture convinces me I was right.  While the ticket punching might get me on the train, it won’t guarantee I’ll make it to the end of the line.  There are too many stops along the way, too many opportunities for train wrecks and other potential disasters.
            This time of year we’re bombarded with messages from every candidate for every political position from president to dogcatcher.  It seems to start earlier every year, and get nastier every year, and more expensive every year until we want to scream, “STOP!”
            But it goes on, and on, and on.  What’s a person to do?  What’s a Christian to do?
            Last Sunday I urged my congregation to lay aside personal concerns as they made their voting decisions.  Forget party affiliation.  Forget hot-button issues.  Forget the various political agendas that threaten to overwhelm us.  Instead, ask, “What is God’s agenda?”
            It should not surprise you that the first place to look for God’s agenda is in Scripture, but not just the sound-byte, proof text verses we’ve become accustomed to.  Instead, read huge chunks:  Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Amos, Micah, Zechariah, and perhaps most important, the gospels, paying close attention to what Jesus said.
            Here’s the difficult part of this assignment:  you must put aside everything you’ve been told about Scripture, everything you think you know, and concentrate on what it says.  Our scriptural prejudices lie deep and wide within us, so coming to the Bible with fresh eyes and ears won’t be easy—but it will be revealing and enlightening.  What you find may surprise you.
            One passage in particular I would recommend—Matthew 25:31-46.  It’s called, “The Final Judgment.”  The title alone should give us pause.  This is the last stop on the train—the ultimate station.  It’s where we all exit and find out what our destination will be.
            Jesus says the Stationmaster will separate us into two groups as we disembark.  Some of us will go to the left, some to the right.  The division will be made not on whether our ticket has been punched, but on what we’ve done in our associations with “the least of these,” the Judge’s brothers and sisters.  It won’t be enough to have a punched ticket—even if it’s for first class.  What you’ve done along the way will decide your final destination.
            What does this have to do with elections?  I think we’ll be held responsible for more than what we’ve done personally to help the least of these.  I believe we’ll also be questioned as to whose agenda we’ve supported when we’ve donated to campaigns, who we’ve voted for, and whether or not we’ve held them responsible for their attitude towards the least of these.
            What have we/they done for children?  Have we/they ensured adequate school funding?  Equal educational opportunities?  Safe, well-run, supportive schools?  After-school programs that will help guarantee their future success?
            What about the homeless?  Have we/they assured them of the availability of a cup of cold water?  Of adequate food and shelter?  Of medical care?  Of emotional and psychological counseling and support where necessary?
            What about the poor?  Have we/they supported adequate housing?  The availability of jobs and job training?  Adequate transportation to those jobs?

            Take a look at your ticket.  Where are you sitting?  Are you with the sheep—or the goats?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Life After Life

Life After Life
John 14:1-3
            I begin by admitting I stole the title.  Some years ago Dr. Raymond Moody wrote a book entitled Life after Life about near death experiences.  This column will not be about that topic, but the title is appropriate.
            In my office I have a great Far Side cartoon.  The grim reaper is leaving his house for “work,” with his sickle over his shoulder.  His wife, dressed identically to her husband but with an apron, says to him, “Knock ‘em dead today, honey!” 
            We often find humor in death.  It’s one of the ways we cope with a subject we’d rather avoid.  We don’t like to think about the end of this life—even if we expect a better one afterwards.  Still, we know we must face death.  That’s why we buy life insurance and make wills, so that our loved ones will be taken care of after we are gone.
            George Hood says, “Death has a way of interrupting our lives.”  Amen to that!  The Latin phrase, Media vita in morte sumus translates, “In the midst of life we are in death.”  We know we can’t escape death.  It will come when it will come.  Nothing we can do will prepare us or our loved ones completely for our death.  Also, we know there’s nothing sure but death and taxes.  The worst part of that is that even after our death someone has to pay the taxes.
            There are books written about death.  Movies have been made about the subject.  Plays have been written.  You name it—every genre of literature, fiction or non-fiction, has dealt with the subject.  After all that has been written—all that has been said—we are no nearer being able to face death and cope with it than we have ever been.
            Those of us who claim the name Christian believe that death is not the end, but the beginning.  As Evangeline Booth said, “When our days are gone we’ll find death is not night at all, but breaking sun.”  I believe she was referencing Dylan Thomas’s poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night when she referred to death as not the beginning of night but rather the beginning of a new day.
            Christians believe that we will spend eternity with God in heaven, and that life will be lived in a never-ending, cloudless day.  Although Revelation 21 sounds as if it describes the afterlife occurring on a regenerated, restored earth, that doesn’t change the picture of unending day uninterrupted by any darkness.  We will need no sun or electric lights, because God will be our light.
            We have Jesus’ word on the subject.  In his final discourse to his disciples, on the night before his execution, he said that he was going to prepare a place for them and that he would come again and take them there.  Because we are Christ’s disciples, we claim that promise for ourselves.  Jesus will return at some undetermined time in the future.  If we are still alive he will take us to live with him and with God.  If we have died, he will call us from our graves to go with him (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

            Of course, what we hope for is that we will be united with God and reunited with our loved ones who have gone on before immediately after death, but the Bible does not seem to promise that.  Whatever happens, we believe death is not the end, not to be feared, and not to be worried about.  Our future—an unending day—is assured.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Buried Treasure

Buried Treasure
Matthew 25:14-30
            I love plays on words.  I guess I inherit the interest from my father.  He was a great punster.  I knew I had joined the right church when I learned that several members celebrate “Punny Wednesday”—although they are not above punning on other days of the week.
            I loved it when our seminary professors would reveal some of the word plays in the Bible.  It seems Hebrew is a great language for puns, and the Jewish writers enjoyed creating them.
            Here’s a pun I read recently:  “Anyone who buries his or her talents is making a grave mistake.”  (I added italics for those to whom puns don’t make sense.) 
When I read this statement my mind went right to Jesus’ parable of the talents.  If you remember, the master divided at least a portionof his wealth among his servants while he went on a long journey.  He knew his men well, and so gave them amounts he thought they could handle.  One received five talents.  Another was given two.  The third got one.
A talent was worth about twenty years’ wages for a laborer.  This tells us two things about the master.  First, he was really rich.  Second, he trusted these three servants to not simply care for his money, but to use it as he would.
I’m sure you remember what happened.  The first one invested his five talents and made five more.  The second also doubled his master’s money.  These two servants rewarded their master’s trust and were therefore rewarded in return.  They received huge promotions.
Ah, but the third servant!  He wasn’t much of a risk-taker.  He buried his talent in the ground to keep it safe until the master’s return. 
But that wasn’t what the master wanted him to do.  He had been given the talent to use.  I suspect that if he had made a bad investment and lost the talent, or only made a little money, the master would have been more forgiving.  Instead the servant incurred his master’s wrath.  He was called “wicked and slothful,” two epithets no one wants to hear.  Surely this servant made a grave mistake.
I also read recently that God doesn’t give people talents that God doesn’t want them to use.  Of course, we know that the master in this story is God.  It is God who gives each of us talents—abilities we are to make use of for the good of others, for the good of the community, and for the building up of the kingdom of heaven.  When we refuse to make use of them—when we bury them in the ground—we are making a grave mistake.
It’s easy to say, “I only have one little talent.  Surely God isn’t expecting me to use it!  The people around me are so much more talented.  I look hopeless and helpless next to them.  I’ll just bury myself in the corner.  Perhaps no one will notice me and I can slide through life without attracting attention.”
Not likely.  God knows what each of us has been given, and God has expectations for each of us.  Perhaps our one talent, small and insignificant as it may seem in the grand scheme of things, is the very ability our family, our community, or our church needs to grow and succeed.  If we bury that talent, if we refuse to use it, we may be responsible for those around us not growing, not succeeding as they should.

I find it interesting that in Matthew’s gospel this parable comes right before the passage on the Final Judgment.  Perhaps all we can do is give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name, or give someone a warm coat for the winter, or visit someone in the hospital.  Jesus says if we don’t do what we can we are making a grave mistake.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Connecting to the Fountain

Connecting to the Fountain
John 4:7-15
            Recently a dear friend blessed me with the gift of a book entitled, The Valley of Vision.  It is a collection of prayers from the Puritan tradition.  We usually think of Puritans in one of two lights.  We remember them as the group of Christians who were so persecuted by the Church of England in the 17th century that they immigrated first to Holland, and later to what is now Massachusetts.  We also remember them as the unforgiving, overly strict Protestant sect responsible for the Salem witch trials.
            While we should keep both of these images in our minds, we must also remember that the Puritans, like all of us, were multidimensional.  They were more than an abused group who had to flee to the New World for religious freedom, and more than a denomination who in turn persecuted those who did not agree with their strict interpretation of the Bible.  The Puritans were passionate about their relationship with God and passionate about their salvation.  The prayers in this book demonstrate this vividly.  They were also excellent writers, an important part of the literary tradition of both their homeland and their adopted country.
            The editor of this collection, Arthur Bennett, identifies the authors of the prayers in his preface, but does not attach a specific name to specific prayers in the main body of the work.  Therefore, it is impossible to give credit to anyone for lines quoted.
            One image that moved me occurs at the end of a prayer entitled, “Self-Knowledge.”  The author says, “And let me not lay my pipe too short of the fountain, never touching the eternal spring, never drawing water from above.”
            The Bible has a lot to say about water, and wells, and fountains, and thirst.  This is understandable in any land, but especially one in which wilderness is so plentiful and water so scarce.  Isaiah speaks of the wells of salvation, and of coming to the waters.  Abraham’s servants fought with Lot’s servants about which wells belonged to which master. 
            Perhaps the longest passage having to do with water is found in John’s gospel, where he relates the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.  Jesus breaks protocol by asking her for a drink.  No Jew would speak to a Samaritan, and no man would speak to a woman to whom he was not related—it just wasn’t done!  But Jesus never stood on protocol.  He reached out to everyone in need.
            Without relating the whole story—which you can read for yourself—remember that Jesus offered her the gift of living water—water that would become a fountain springing up within her and quenching her thirst forever.  While she didn’t understand his metaphor at first, he was able to show her that he was speaking not of digging deep in the ground to bring water up, but about looking to God to bring water down.  When she finally understood, she couldn’t wait to tell everyone about her discovery.
Using the imagery of the Puritan poet, we can see that, with Jesus’ help, she connected her pipe directly to the fountain—the source of the living water that had been promised her.  She was able to not only touch the eternal spring, but develop a secure connection to it, so that she could always receive water from above.

Jesus waits to help us make the same connection.  He knows how easy it is to lay our pipe too short.  He wants to make sure we are constantly receiving water from God’s fountain.