Sunday, December 31, 2017

God Send Us a Happy New Year

God Send Us a Happy New Year
Matthew 24:3-14
            Today’s title is the refrain of the only New Year’s carol I know.  The tune Greensleeves has, as far as I know, three sets of words.  The original words are a song of lost love for the lady Greensleeves.  Most of us know the Christmas words, “What Child Is This.”  The third set of lyrics is the carol God Send Us a Happy New Year
            Each year, right after Christmas Day, we begin wishing everyone, “Happy New Year!”  It’s a nice sentiment, and a good wish, for all of us hope that the new year will be better than the last one.  That hope is what’s behind the baby new year replacing the tired old man who represents the year that’s ending.  Even if the past year has been one of our best we hope the new one will be an improvement.  We’ll make more money or get a better job.  Our family situation will improve.  Our kids will behave better, or win that college scholarship, or get the job that will make them financially independent of us.  We’ll get along with our spouse better, or, if we’re single, we’ll finally meet the right one!
            One of our greatest hopes, I suspect, is that our political situation will improve.  There will be fewer places in the world with open hostilities.  There will be fewer refugees cut off from their homes.  The political parties in this country will finally remember they exist to help the people and not just to win elections.  Whatever we hope for, it comes down to “God send us a happy new year.”
            Every generation since Jesus Christ’s resurrection has believed the end times were near.  The early disciples were sure Christ would return immediately, get rid of the Romans, set everything right, and take them to the place he promised in John’s gospel.  The early Christians were so convinced of this they worried that their loved ones who had died would miss out.  Paul had to reassure the Thessalonians that when Christ returned those who had died would be taken up first.  They wouldn’t lose their heavenly reward.
            Down through the centuries people have bemoaned the state of world affairs and become convinced that Jesus would return and put an end to the suffering of God’s people.  Didn’t he tell his disciples that there would be wars, earthquakes and famines—not to mention tornadoes and hurricanes, oppression and slavery, terrorism and torture?  Surely things have gotten so bad, each succeeding generation believed, that the end was imminent.
            Yet the world continues.  There has never been peace.  There have always been earthquakes and famines.  Every year we have devastating weather conditions.  Crime continues to be a problem because many people do not respect the rule of law.  We pray for peace but peace doesn’t come.  We pray for healing for loved ones but it doesn’t happen.  Is it any wonder we lose hope?  Is it any wonder we pray for an end to trouble, to war, terrorism, torture, crime, disease, but feel deep in our hearts that nothing will change, that conditions are so hopeless that the end must be near?
            So we pray, “God, send us a happy new year,” all the while believing that the only way it can be happy is if it’s the last one the world will ever see.  The world’s situation—the nation’s situation has become so terrible that only complete destruction will change things for the better.
            We must remember that God is working his purpose out.  God is taking all the strands of our lives, all the strands of world events and weaving them into the tapestry of the kingdom. 

Let’s make this new year happy by living into that promise, no matter how long it takes to be fulfilled.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

One Tiny Light

One Tiny Light
John 1:1-9
            In the beginning, God spoke. “Let there be light!”  And there was light.
            “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
            Christians believe that the Word (capital W) was—and is—Jesus Christ.  Paul says (Colossians 1:15-17) that Jesus Christ existed before anything else came into being, and that all things were created by him, through him, and for him.  John says the same thing in abbreviated form in vv. 2-3: “Through him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through him” (Jerusalem Bible:  this is slightly different from the way this verse is usually translated but I think it’s easier to understand). God spoke the Word—and all things came into being.
            God’s first command was: “Let there be light.”  Many centuries later John called Jesus Christ, “the light of humankind.”  John tells us that Jesus Christ referred to himself as, “the Light of the world” (8:12).  This is one of seven “I am” statements John records.  Jesus also called himself “the Bread of Life,” “the door of the sheep,” “the Good Shepherd,” “the resurrection and the life,” “the way, the truth, and the life,” and “the true vine.”  Taken together they paint an accurate picture of who Jesus Christ was, his relationship to the world, and why he came to earth.  Since John focuses on Jesus as the light of the world at the beginning of his gospel, let’s do the same.
            From the beginning light plays an important part in Scripture.  It is God’s first creation.  If we accept the big bang theory (and there is nothing contradictory between this theory and God’s creation of the cosmos), the bang released the energy of light, cooling over time to form suns, moons, planets, and other celestial objects.  God said, “Let there be light,” and light exploded into the emptiness of space.  What a sight that must have been!      
In the ancient world the darkness of night was complete.  Yes, there was the light provided by the moon and stars, but no other source of illumination.  There were no streetlights, no neon signs, no automobile headlights—not even a bulb on a front porch.  In darkness that complete any source of light would stand out with a brilliance difficult for us to imagine.
            When Jesus calls himself the Light of the world he is not comparing himself to other sources of light.  He is comparing himself to the total darkness that surrounded him.  Jesus Christ came into a world that was as spiritually dark as it was physically dark.  In John 8 Jesus is trying to help the Jewish leaders understand the darkness of their souls.  He tells them they can’t see him for who he is—worse yet, they cannot know his Father, because their darkness prevents them.  Their spiritual condition was like walking about on a moonless night without even a candle to light the way.
            As brilliantly as Christ’s light shone during his time on earth, it shines even more brilliantly now.  We see his light reflected in millions upon millions of people scattered throughout the world, all shining with the glow from the Light of the world.
            But that light didn’t begin brightly.  On that first Christmas night, two thousand years ago, it was merely a pinpoint, shining out of a stable, reflected in the faces of his parents—but it was enough.  That tiny light was enough to dispel the darkness, and the darkness couldn’t extinguish it. 
            “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”  This is what God accomplished in the birth of that one tiny light

May the light of Jesus Christ dispel the darkness of our souls and the darkness of the world he came to save.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Working Things Out

Working Things Out
Romans 8:28
            Life gets complicated.  It begins simple enough.  When we’re babies our needs are basic.  We need to eat.  We need to sleep.  We need to be changed.  We need to be touched and held.  Perhaps the most complicated need is to be loved, but even that seems easily achieved by most little ones.
            As we grow, our needs become more complex.  We still need food, sleep, clothing—and most of all love and affection—but we also need things to occupy our attention:  toys, books, bikes, computers, phones, cars, jobs, houses—you get the point.  Eventually we reach the place where our needs become simple once more.  We need someone to care for us much as we did at the beginning of life. 
            The time when our needs become more and more complex is the longest part of our life.  Complicating matters is the problem most people have of trying to separate needs from wants.  Even as children we say, “I need…” when we mean, “I want…” 
Sorting through the complicating issues of life is what we must do in order to become adults.  Deciding the difference between basic needs, less important needs, and wants is almost never easy.  Choosing the right path from the several which are open to us can leave us frustrated and nervous.  Have we made the right choice?  Should we have chosen B rather than A, or C rather than D?  How will our choices play out?  What will be the consequences?  Where will our chosen path lead us?
Rather than letting the need to choose freeze us in place, we forge ahead, hoping we have done the right thing, made the right decision—trying to look into the future.  When we express our worry or frustration, someone is likely to say, “Welcome to the real world.”
If we think our decisions are problematic, if we believe our choices are difficult, imagine the first century world of Mary and Joseph.  Mary was a young girl—early teens—about to be married to Joseph.  We have no idea how old Joseph was.  One train of belief says he was much older than Mary, but we have no way of knowing.  The Bible is silent about Joseph’s age.  The gospel writers didn’t think it was important.  Young or old, he was caught in a web of circumstances that were difficult to understand and even more difficult to work his way through.
Imagine your fiancĂ© saying to you, “I’m pregnant.  No, I haven’t been with another man.  An angel told me I was going to have a son—God’s Son.  I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.”
What would you do?  Joseph decided to do the practical—and for that time the kind thing, and end the betrothal quietly.  Then an angel appeared to him and told him he had been chosen to be the earthly father of this heavenly child.
Imagine yourself in Mary’s shoes.  An angel tells you that you are going to give birth to the Savior of the world.  You—an ordinary young girl, on the verge of womanhood, have been chosen for the highest honor ever bestowed on a woman. 
What would you do?  Mary did the almost unimaginable thing.  She said “Yes!”
Here are these two people, faced with the most unusual pregnancy in the history of the world, trying to adjust to what in that culture could be a damning situation, accepting the assignment, and having faith that all would be well.

And all was well, because all things work together for good to those who love God, who are called to fulfill God’s purpose.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Love Came Down at Christmas

Love Came Down at Christmas
1 John 4:7-12
            “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.”
            John gives us these words in the third chapter of his first letter.  The entire letter is a love fest.  The word love pops up every few verses.  God loves us.  We ought to love God.  We demonstrate our love for God by loving others.  I once had a minister friend tell me that John’s version of the gospel was difficult to preach on a frequent basis because all he talked about was love.
            And yet, what else motivated God’s decision to send Jesus to earth?  What other emotion could we claim as the basis for the incarnation?  Compassion?  Perhaps: but isn’t compassion motivated by love?  Certainly not sympathy.  Sympathy doesn’t carry enough emotional weight for such an auspicious event.  Not anger, for obvious reasons.  Pity?  I don’t believe God would send the Messiah to such a horrific end out of pity.  It had to be love—love for all of humankind, certainly, but more specifically, love for each of us individually.  “In this the love of God was made manifest among us,” says John (4:9), “that God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.”
            John learned the height and depth of God’s love from Jesus.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  You remember—John 3:16. Jesus didn’t stop there, but went on to say, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  How could anyone love more than that?  How could anyone demonstrate love more fully?
            We don’t know how old Jesus was when he became self-aware—that is, when he knew who he was and why he was here?  He showed evidence of self-knowledge at the age of 12, Luke tells us, when his parents found him in the temple with the teachers.  We can be pretty sure he didn’t have this self-awareness as a tiny baby lying in a manger.  There are legends of Jesus’ early years that don’t ring true because of the level of self-awareness they require to be true.
            What we do know is that by the time he began his public ministry he knew who he was, what his purpose was on earth, and what his end would be.  All of this was secondary to the single most important characteristic of Jesus’ life and ministry—self-giving love.
            John tells us that God is love (4:8).  He tells us in the prologue to his gospel (1:18) that no one has ever seen God, then repeats these words in this letter (4:12).  He makes it clear that those who saw Jesus saw God, for Jesus was God in human form—God, walking, talking, healing, reconciling, shaping, molding—loving.
            But John says something more, something important for those who call themselves Christians.  In 4:12, John says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”
            There you have it!  Here is the end product of God’s love for humankind.  God is love.  God sent Jesus out of love to show us what love looked like and to teach us how to love.  If we love one another we become demonstrators of God’s love.  We can’t be love without showing love, and we can’t claim to love God unless we love those around us with the same love God does.
            “Little children,” John says (3:18), “let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth.” 
This is how God loves. 
This is how Jesus loves.

 Can we love any differently?”

Sunday, December 3, 2017

And the Word Became Flesh

And the Word Became Flesh
            These words have become so familiar that I’m afraid they’ve lost their impact.  This is a too-common occurrence.  Words that should mean something no longer do.  We’ve heard them, read them, said them so often that we use them without thinking about the depth of their meaning.  The prime example is the Lord’s Prayer.  We say it by rote, not paying attention to what we’re asking for.  These words should send shudders through us, for what we’re asking from God is not only life-changing but also culture-changing.  Here’s a challenge:  read the Lord’s Prayer.  Pay close attention to every syllable. Think about what you’re saying.  My guess is you’ll never be able to say it by rote again.
            John is testifying to what he has experienced.  This is not something he’s heard about or read about.  He was there—there from the beginning.  Jesus called him—personally—while he and his brother were engaged in their work as fishermen.  He followed Jesus from the Sea of Galilee to the cross.  If we believe his gospel, he was the only disciple at the cross.  So he was there from the beginning to the end.
            What does John tell us?
            Jesus is the Word.  In the beginning, God spoke, and it was so.  The universe came into being.  Word became action. Jesus was the Word through which creation happened.  As Paul says so profoundly in Colossians, all things were made through him and for him.
            Jesus is the Light.  Jesus says so in John’s gospel.  Other gospel writers tell us Jesus said we are the light, but doesn’t that happen only after Jesus gives us the power to be the light?  No matter how bright we are, we only reflect light—Jesus, the true light of the world, who enlightens everyone.  Even John the Baptist was reflected light.  John the Baptist (John the apostle tells us) “was not that light [italics mine], but came to bear witness to that light.”  Like John the Baptist, we are sent into the world to bear witness to the light that is Jesus Christ.
            Jesus is the Word become flesh.  At creation the Word became action.  At the incarnation the word became flesh.  In the words of Thomas a` Kempis, “That God, the Son of God should take our mortal form for mortal’s sake.” For our sakes the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that “whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).”
            John saw all this—and he was not alone.  “And we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  John speaks for all the gospel writers, for all the apostles, for all Jesus’ followers—everyone who walked with him from Galilee through to the resurrection when he says, “we beheld his glory.”
            And so we have Jesus:
                        The Word,
                        The Light,
                        The Truth,
                        The Life,
                        Flesh, and bone and sinew, and muscle—the Word inexplicably become human.

            Thomas a` Kempis says, “O love, how deep, how broad, how high.  How passing thought and fantasy.”  We should be so overwhelmed by these words that we stand in awe at this gift, that God should take our mortal form so we might live with God.  How can we not be amazed, awestruck—speechless at these words?   “And the Word became flesh.”  Amen, and amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Endless Forgiveness

Endless Forgiveness
Matthew 18:21-35
            Peter Ustinov is remembered more for the movie characters he created than for his wise sayings.  Nevertheless, he spoke truth when he said, “Love is an act of endless forgiveness.” 
            This is the lesson Jesus wanted the disciple Peter to learn.  Peter comes to Jesus with what he believes is a very generous statement about forgiveness.  He says if he forgives his brother seven times that should be more than enough.  After all, how many times should you forgive someone who sins against you?  “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” 
Makes sense, doesn’t it?  Jesus says, “Not even close.”
            Jesus has a very different view of forgiveness.  He tells Peter to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.  There have been many interpretations of what this number means, but the one I like best (perhaps because of my diminishing memory) is that before you’ve reached that number (70X7=490) you will have lost count and have to start over.
            Just to make sure we understand, Jesus tells us a parable about forgiveness.  A master forgives a servant a huge debt, one that would have crushed even most wealthy men.  A talent was about twenty years’ wages for a common laborer.  You do the math. I think Jesus was trying to make the amount owed so outrageous that Peter and others who hear the story would gasp at the size of the debt.   
            The forgiven servant refuses to forgive another servant who owed him pocket change compared to the debt that had been cancelled for him.  The master, hearing how ungrateful the forgiven servant had been, sends him to debtor’s prison until he can pay all that he owes.
            While Peter’s question concerned the number of times he should forgive, and Jesus answered with a parable about amounts to be forgiven, the lesson is the same:  forgive as God has forgiven you.  We know that God always forgives us, whether that forgiveness involves frequency or amount.  If God’s forgiveness is endless, how can ours be anything less? 
            Forgiveness is one of the central themes of Scripture.  God forgives Adam and Eve.  They have to suffer the consequences of their sin (most people do), but they are forgiven.  God forgives Jacob, David—even the entire nation of Israel.  Jesus forgives Peter, Paul—even those responsible for his execution.  No human being could possibly live up to the standard of forgiveness God has set.
Moreover, God forgets.  Our sins are dropped “in the sea of God’s forgetfulness,” says a chorus we sang when I was growing up.  I can speak only for myself, but I know that even with my diminishing memory I can’t forget as God does. 
One of the most beautiful acts of forgiveness occurs in Luke 15, in the parable of the prodigal sons.  In his analysis of that story, Kenneth Bailey points out how the two sons humiliate their father by their selfish behavior.  The younger son treats his father as if he were already dead, then returns home after squandering a third of the family fortune.  The older son refuses to attend the banquet celebrating the triumph of his father’s love.  In the face of behavior so rude that it violates the fifth Commandment (the punishment for which could be death by stoning), the father continues to forgive.

Forgive seven times?  Not even close.  If we forgive as God has forgiven us, we won’t even keep track.  We’ll forgive, and forgive, and forgive—endlessly.  Don’t we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us?”

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Be Prepared

Be Prepared
Matthew 24:36
            If you want the whole story, read Matthew 24 and 25.  Chapter 24 begins with the disciples looking in awe at the buildings of Herod’s temple.  Jesus comments on the transitory nature of those buildings.  The disciples ask him when the end will be.  Jesus goes into a long prophetic discourse on the end times: what the disciples can expect, and how to prepare.  This two-chapter teaching, coming near the end of Matthew’s gospel, acts as a counterbalance to the Sermon on the Mount, which Matthew places at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
            While Confucianism is more of an ethical system than a religion, Master Kong Fu Zi had much to say about spiritual things.  One of his disciples once asked about serving ghosts and spirits.  The Master said, “When we are not yet able to serve fellow humans, why worry about serving the ghosts and spirits.”  The disciple asked about death.  The Master replied, “When we do not yet know enough about life, why worry about death?”  Alexander Pope gives the same advice in his Essay on Man when he says, “the proper study of mankind is man.”
            In other words, don’t worry about the things you can’t do anything about.  God knows the future, and will share it with us on a “need to know” basis.
            Isn’t this what Jesus is saying to his disciples?  “Look!  This is going to be a terrible time.  There will be war, famines, earthquakes [Jesus might well have added floods, tornadoes and hurricanes].  You can’t do anything about these things.  You can’t prevent them, and you can’t stop them once they start.  They are going to happen whether you worry or not, so don’t bother worrying.  God’s got this all planned out.  Everything will happen when it will happen.  What you must do is be prepared.”
Jesus tells his disciples (including us) what he means by “Be prepared!”  To illustrate, he tells them threeparables. 
The first is The Lesson of the Fig Tree.  “When the leaves of the tree begin to show, you know summer is coming.  When all these events happen you will know the end is near.”  The problem is that wars, famine and earthquakes have been a part of human history forever.  How are we to know which ones foretell the end?  Best advice:  Be prepared and don’t worry about which events count.  God knows and that’s enough.
Later, Jesus tells The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and The Parable of the Talents.  The story of the bridesmaids tells us to be prepared because the Bridegroom can return at any time.  Everything we need should be at the ready.  We must keep our lamps trimmed and burning.  The Parable of the Talents goes a step farther.  We are not only to be prepared for the end, we are also to use the talents God has given us. 
In several other parables scattered throughout the gospels Jesus tells his followers to be found working.  We get a hint of this in Matthew 24, where Jesus says that when the end comes women will be grinding flour and men will be out in the fields.  Even those women who are not housewives, and those men who are not farmers should be found at work—and not just any work.  We are to do the work of the kingdom.  That’s the message of the Parable of the Talents. 
It is also the message of the concluding part of this passage, the description of the Final Judgment.  When the Great Judge comes, we’ll be directed to whichever group our work—or lack of it—indicates.  Until that time Jesus’ message is clear.  Don’t worry about things you can’t control.  Be prepared.  Work for Jethe kingdom as if your life depends on it.

Because it does.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Extending Life

Extending life
John 3:16-17
            We do all sorts of things to prolong life.  We value life—at least our own—enough to want to make it last as long as possible.  Yes, I know, many of us cling to life-shortening habits like smoking, drinking too much alcohol, overeating, couch potato-ing, drugging ourselves.  Still, we want to live as long as our lifestyle permits.  This causes a medical dilemma, as our ability to keep someone breathing almost indefinitely blurs the line between life and death.
            Those who concern themselves with the quality as well as the quantity of life watch their diet, get enough sleep, exercise, limit alcohol intake, and try to keep unhealthy substances out of their bodies.  They want to live life fully as well as live life long.
            A recent study conducted at Vanderbilt University offers another method for prolonging life—church attendance.  Marino Bruce, one of the primary authors, is a social and behavioral scientist, a professor at Vanderbilt, and a Baptist minister—all of which contribute to his interest in church attendance and prolonging life.
            Bruce and his co-primary author, Keith Norris, a professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, led nine other co-authors in conducting and reporting the study.  Their data was gathered from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, publicly available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.  I mention this to demonstrate the validity of the data.  This was not some survey conducted through a questionnaire devised by amateurs and administered to some random list of people.  It was data collected from a broad spectrum of the American public by professional researchers.
Bruce, Norris and their fellow authors were interested in three parameters:  worship attendance, mortality and stress levels.  They found that middle-aged adults, 40-65, who attend a house of worship regularly, reduce their mortality by 55 percent.  We know that doesn’t mean they reduce their chances of dying by that percentage, but rather that they have a greater chance of living longer.
Those of us who believe life continues after death know that attendance at church is only part of the story.  Christians believe there is more to life than what we experience here on earth, just as there is more to religion than sitting in a worship setting for an hour or so once a week. 
One of the most intriguing stories in the New Testament involves a Pharisee named Nicodemus.  John’s gospel tells us he came to see Jesus at night.  Whether Nicodemus chose that time because he wanted to keep his visit a secret, or because he thought he might claim more of Jesus’ attention at night we don’t know.  What we know is that he wanted to more fully understand Jesus and his message.  He was already impressed with Jesus’ miracles and his teaching, but he wanted to know more.
Jesus shared with him one of the most famous messages in the Bible, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  This verse, and the next, which helps explain and clarify the concept, demonstrate the availability of God’s grace to anyone who sincerely believes in the lordship of Jesus Christ.
So—as much as church attendance might help prolong life here on earth, that is only the beginning of its value.  When that attendance leads to a meaningful relationship with God through Jesus Christ, life is prolonged even longer.

Infinitely longer.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Serving Jesus in Disguise

Serving Jesus in Disguise
Hebrews 13:1-2
You might misinterpret the title of this column and think I mean we ought to wear a disguise when we’re serving Jesus.  Let me share a couple of stories to demonstrate what I really want to say.
Today’s Scripture passage refers to Abraham’s story.  One day three visitors showed up at the encampment where Abraham’s tents were pitched.  Middle Eastern hospitality demands that guests be welcomed and served a meal.  This is especially true in the wilderness where nomadic shepherds like Abraham still live today.
Abraham was an excellent host.  He did not fail in his duty to be hospitable to the strangers.  He ordered water to be brought to wash their feet.  He told Sarah to bake three flour cakes.  He chose a calf from the herd and had his servants prepare it.  When all was ready he stood by respectfully while the visitors ate. 
Although Abraham did not know it at first, the three men were angels, sent from God with a message.  Sarah, much advanced in years and supposedly barren, would conceive a child.  She and Abraham would have a son.  And have a son she did!  About a year later she gave birth to Isaac, the second of the three patriarchs of the Jewish faith (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob).
Centuries later, the writer of Hebrews reminded his readers of this story when he said, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”  Abraham had no idea when he offered food and water that he was entertaining the Lord.  He was just doing what he felt was expected of him.
The other story occurs many centuries later, and involves not a patriarch of the Jewish faith, but a Christian saint.  His name was Francis, and he lived during the 13th century.  He was born into a well-to-do family, and for many years enjoyed the good life.  Eventually he came to know Christ and dedicated his life to following Jesus’ teaching.
The story which illustrates our Scripture lesson began one day when Francis was riding his horse.  Francis had an intense fear of lepers, as did most people at that time.  Jesus had told him while he was praying that what he found offensive would in the future bring him great pleasure and joy.  He saw a leper approaching, ringing the little bell that all with his condition carried, warning healthy people to keep their distance. 
Francis wanted to turn and ride away, but something prevented him.  He dismounted, pressed a coin into the leper’s hand, and kissed the hand.  In return the leper gave him the kiss of peace.  The next day Francis took a large sum of money to a residence where many lepers lived.  He distributed the money freely, kissing each man as he did so.  What had formerly caused Francis to shudder now brought him sweetness and delight.
One (probably) apocryphal ending to this story says that, as Francis rode away from the first leper, he looked back and saw Jesus.  This part of the story doesn’t have to be true in order for us to see the point.  Whether or not the leper was Jesus in disguise, the man was one of the “least of these” we have been commanded to serve in Jesus’ name.  When we serve our brothers and sisters, and do so in the name of Christ, we are serving him.

This is the point of Matthew’s description of the Final Judgment in the 25th chapter of his gospel.  Where the Judge places us will depend on how well we have served others in Jesus’ name.  St. Francis learned how sweet that service can be.  So must we.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Finding Truth in Freedom

Finding Truth in Freedom
John 8:31-36
            My good friend Rob Long is the community editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune.  Recently he wrote a piece titled “Banning Books Not the Answer.”  He argued that it is wrong to ban books if for no other reason than the protection of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Long also discusses the banning of speakers with unpopular ideas from college campuses—places where the free exchange of ideas is both appropriate and necessary.
            I agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments for more than philosophical reasons.  Banning the expression of ideas is not only bad practice, it is also bad theology.  More on that later.
            Long cites the pilgrims, who came to the New World so they could say what they wanted about God.  He also mentions suffragettes, African-Americans, farm workers, conscientious objectors—all of whom espoused causes that were unpopular.  Many of them suffered persecution, bodily injury and even death in defense of those causes.  Yet they marched, and wrote, and spoke, and picketed—called attention to their cause any way they could because they knew the Constitution guaranteed them the right.
            In recent years men and women have come forward with complaints against church leaders for molesting them when they were children.  Today, athletes express their concern for their fellow citizens by making physical statements before they take the field.  Most recently, women are coming forward with stories of abuse by those who believe their positions of power allow them liberties with women’s bodies.  The Constitution guarantees their right to speak out.
            But what about those who represent views that most of us find reprehensible, views that espouse negative attitudes and behaviors towards people who are different from them—views that, if adopted, would reduce parts of our population to second-class status or remove them from the country.  Should we allow these people to speak their minds?  Should we allow them on our college campuses?  Wouldn’t it be better if we silenced them, told them to go away, to stop bombarding us with their hate-filled speech?  Long says “No!”  They have as much right to speak as anyone else.  Their right to free speech is also guaranteed by the Constitution.
            The danger is that when we ban any form of speech, we set loose the pebble that leads to the rockslide.  You can’t ban some speech without running the risk of banning all speech.  It can set in motion a domino effect with terrible consequences.
            Some of the most controversial ideas in history were set forth by Jesus Christ.  What he said angered the leaders of his country so much they put him to death.  They found his ideas so offensive—so dangerous—that they got rid of him.  He had no constitution to protect his right of free speech. 
Ironically, Jesus never tried to stifle his critics.  He argued with them, criticized them, but never denied them the right to say what they believed.  He went further.  As his life slipped away he forgave them for silencing him, knowing that they did not understand how wrong their actions were.

Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  He was referring to spiritual truth, but his statement is universal.  Only by hearing all points of view; only by being exposed to all ideas; only by weighing all arguments can we understand an issue.  And only when we have heard it all can we—in freedom—come to know the truth.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Great Commission

The Great Commission
Matthew 28:16-20
            Found at the end of Matthew’s gospel, The Great Commission is Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples.  Following the resurrection, Jesus told the women who had come to the tomb that he was going to Galilee and he would meet his “brothers” there.  Matthew tells us the eleven remaining members of Jesus’ inner circle met him on a mountain in Galilee and worshipped him.  Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching.”  This is an abbreviated version of his last words, but it’s the essence of his final instructions to his closest followers.  Go.  Make disciples.  Baptize.  Teach what I have taught you.  This is The Great Commission.
            We are Christ’s current disciples, so these are our instructions also.  We are to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach.  There are some churches which believe these words so strongly that they make this their primary—in some cases only— function.  Their goal is to make sure as many people as possible come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  Some churches focus so intently on the first part of the instructions (go, make disciples, baptize) that they shortchange the last part (teach).  I suggest that this last step is as important as the other three.  Coming to Jesus is the first step.  Once we lead someone to Christ and baptize him/her, the next step—the ongoing step, is to teach. 
            Jesus said, “[Teach] them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  In the gospels we find a pattern of Christian life that is both demanding and fulfilling.  While John 3:16 is often called “the gospel in a nutshell” (For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life), perhaps Jesus’ most important teaching is the Christian life in a nutshell: “Love God; love your neighbor.”  To fulfill this commandment takes a lifetime of commitment, study, prayer, and application, so it is important that we begin teaching Jesus’ lifestyle as soon as someone comes to know Christ.
            When we place Jesus’ words at the center of our teaching, and let everything flow from them, we fulfill the Great Commission.  Unfortunately, we too often get sidetracked in the minutiae of church membership—what we call doctrine, what our competitors (other denominations) call dogma.  Whatever name we use to identify these rules and regulations, they too frequently get in the way of “love God; love neighbor.”
            Here’s a suggestion:  Let’s look at our doctrinal/dogmatic statements and measure them against Jesus “greatest commandment.”  Do our doctrines interpret Jesus’ words in ways that help our people grow spiritually?  Do our doctrines “fulfill the law and the prophets” to quote Jesus’ commentary on the greatest commandment?  Do our doctrines encourage (perhaps urge, or push are better words) our new converts—all our members—to greater service in the name of Christ, remembering that he said the highest calling we can fulfill is that of servant?  If our membership requirements cannot answer these questions with an unqualified Yes, it’s time to look for new requirements.  If we’re not leading our members to love God and our neighbor as Jesus loved, we’re leading them astray.
            Go—wherever God leads you, whether around the corner or around the world.
            Make disciples—not church members, but followers of Jesus Christ, with all that means.
            Baptize—into the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior.
            Teach—as Jesus taught, what Jesus taught. 

That’s the Great Commission.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Art of Loving

The Art of Loving
1 John 4:7-12
            If ever there was a life lived in love it was the life of Mother Teresa.  She gave herself in loving service to those who needed love regardless of their physical condition, their social condition, their financial condition, or their spiritual condition.  While she did write about love, and talk about love, she also lived love, leaving us an example of how to live. 
            John says God loves us.  That’s a given.  God made each of us, and God loves each of us.  When we accept the gift of God’s grace, God’s love is poured into our lives, filling us to overflowing, until that love becomes a never-emptying fountain, spilling out onto everyone we meet. 
            “Beloved,” John says, “let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”  The only way we can demonstrate that we love God, is to love God’s children as God loves them.  How do we do that?  Our love can—must—be hands-on love, love in action.  We are Christ’s hands and feet, and we provide loving service to our brothers and sisters in Christ’s name.
            This was the essence of Mother Teresa’s life.  She loved—not out of any concern for herself, but because God’s love was such a strong force within her that she had no choice but to love.  Mother Teresa said, “It is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing.  It is not how much we give, but how much love we put in the giving.”  She knew the force behind the action, and the force behind the giving must be love in order to count for anything.
            God blesses us with so many good things that we overlook many.  Food, clothing, friends, family—all these and more are poured out on us so freely that we forget to thank God for them.  Our life routine becomes so full of blessings that we don’t stop to remember where they come from.  The common, ordinary things that happen to us each day give us opportunities for thanking God.
            From the time I began preparing to teach I was told that the surest way to understand a concept was to teach it.  If I could pass knowledge on to someone else, I had learned it.  The same goes for loving.  The only way we can repay God’s love for us is to pass it on.  Our love doesn’t have to be demonstrated in some large, overwhelming action.  Mother Teresa again: “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”
            God smiles on us constantly.  Sometimes those smiles come in good times, as God shares with us the joyful moments of our lives.  Sometimes those smiles come when we have made mistakes, and God smiles at us as a parent smiles at a child who has fallen short of the mark.  Sometimes those smiles come when our hearts are so full of grief and sorrow that we believe nobody loves us—but God does.  God wants us to pass that love—those smiles—on to others who need them as much—if not more than we do.
            One more quote from Mother Teresa: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”  True, true, true.  So often we allow our judgmental nature to get in the way of our loving.  How can we love people if we find fault with them?  Judging others is the opposite of loving them.  If God judged us as severely and as frequently as we judge God’s children, we’d be in serious trouble.  Instead, God loves us, and loves us, and loves us—with no end to that love.

            Larry Bosh says, “It is always the right time to realize that God loves you.”  And it is always the right time to pass that love on.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

What Is Life?

What Is Life?
Matthew 10:37-39
            You may remember the movie, Zorba the Greek, a 1964 film with Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates.  Later (1969) it was made into a musical.  Perhaps the most memorable part of the musical is the song, Life Is.  The key line is “Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die.”  A little morbid, perhaps, a little cynical, but there’s truth in it.  Life happens—or as Robert Balzer said, “Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans.”
            There’s a funny email that made the rounds a few years ago.  A senior citizen was explaining his day.  He started on one project when he noticed something else that needed doing.  While he was collecting the items to do that job, something else came to his attention that must be done first.  Something else interrupted that task, and something else interrupted that task, and…until at the end of the day he was exhausted, but hadn’t accomplished anything.  “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.”
            Many times our lives seem to be following that path.  We feel like we’re working hard, but nothing gets done.  At the end of each day we’re exhausted—really wiped out—but the stack of work has not diminished.  Frighteningly, it seems to have grown larger than when we began the day.
            The Peace Corps appealed to older citizens to volunteer with these words: “If you’re not doing something with your life, it doesn’t matter how long it is.”  All too true.  Like the man who can’t seem to finish a task without being distracted by something that needs doing more urgently, like the times in our lives we’re so bogged down that work accumulates like bricks stacked in a doorway, we get sidetracked in the detritus of the day and overlook the opportunities for real service.
            Jesus knew how easily that could happen.  He wasn’t really anti-family although his words make him sound that way.  Instead, he was saying, “Don’t get so wrapped up in the small stuff that you miss the important stuff.  Your first task is to follow me, wherever that may lead.  Don’t worry about the opportunities you might have to give up, or the work, or the relationships.  Take the cross I give you and life will be rewarding.”
            Taking up a cross in the first century Roman empire was no small matter.  Crucifixion was the cruelest form of death the Romans could think of.  The person suffocated, agonizingly, over several hours, each breath coming harder than the last until death brought a welcome end to suffering.  Crucifixion branded the person as a common criminal.  It meant being stripped naked before being tied or nailed to a cross.  Corpses were left on the ground without burial.  When Jesus said, “Take up your cross,” he was saying, “If you’re not doing something with your life, it doesn’t matter how long it is.” 
Jesus still says, “Try to save your life and it will be worth nothing.  Give it to me, and no matter how long or short it may be, every moment will count.”  We don’t have to worry about death by crucifixion if we choose to serve Jesus, but there are other crosses.  There is the cross of lost relationships, the cross of lost employment, the cross of lost income, the cross of lost status.  Any and all these may happen if we choose to follow Jesus.  When we commit our lives to his service we may have to give up other things we hold dear.  Much of this world doesn’t trust those who put their relationship with God first.

Ah, but the rewards!  The rewards far outweigh the losses.  Life can be what happens while you are making other plans—what you do while you’re waiting to die. Or you can let God do the planning, and lead a life of service under the weight of a cross that will seem lighter each day.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Where Are You Looking?

Where Are You Looking?
Hebrews 12:1-2
            Satchel Paige, who pitched in the major leagues until he was 47, is famous for saying, “Don’t look back.  Something might be gaining on you.”  Paige had a lot to look back on.  Probably the greatest pitcher baseball has ever known, he didn’t begin his major league career until he was 42, relegated before that age to pitch in the Negro Leagues.  Like so many of his contemporaries, as well as African-American athletes before him, his race denied him the big-league career he should have enjoyed.  Sports fans were denied even more, because we missed so many outstanding performances by so many talented athletes.
            Paige could have been resentful at what he had been denied.  He had every right to be.  Instead, he chose to look ahead.  He chose to heed Soren Kierkegaard’s words: “Life can only be understood by looking backward, but it must be lived by looking forward.”  Hear Paige saying, “Don’t look back.  Something might be gaining on you.”
            Paige couldn’t help but be aware of his past, so we know he must have looked back.  What he would not allow was to let his life be determined by what had been denied him.  He may have looked back, but he didn’t let those backward looks define what he did with the rest of his life.  Too many people allow their past to control their future.  As Will Rogers said, “Never let yesterday use up too much of today.”
            When we understand our past we can use the lessons we have learned to make our present and our future what we want them to be.  While we cannot control all the elements of our lives, we can shape those lives the way we want them to be.
The author of Hebrews understood this.  Chapter eleven is often referred to as the “faith” chapter.  In it we read abbreviated accounts of many of the heroes of the Hebrew Scriptures and how they relied on their faith to see them through difficult times.  Then the author switches channels abruptly. 
“Therefore,” he says, “get rid of the baggage that ties you down.  Don’t look back with anger, or fear, or worry—or any other negative emotion.  If you do, something is sure to be gaining on you.  Instead, run your race.  Run it well, taking in stride all the obstacles that may present themselves.  But keep looking forward.  There’s where your attention must be riveted, there’s where your concentration must be.”
And what should we be concentrating on?  Jesus—because as Charlie DeLeo has said so beautifully, “All of our hopes and our dreams for a better tomorrow can be found in the blessings that God has provided for us today.” 
The sacred writer doesn’t exactly say so, but if we are to keep our eyes on the prize, our attention must be focused on the One who ran his race without looking back.  In his letter to the Philippians (2:6-8), Paul tells us how Jesus ran.  Instead of looking back to the glory that was his in heaven, he gave up everything to look ahead, to become human so he could show us how our race should be run:  with humility, obedience, and steadfast courage.
But don’t forget to enjoy life while you’re racing through it.  Jesus didn’t fail to have a good time even as he kept his eyes on his prize.  He took time for meals with friends, for sharing joy with children, and for attending weddings.  As Antonio Smith says, “Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.”

Satchel Paige would agree.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

"There Will Be No Poor Among You"

“There Will Be No Poor Among You”
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
            God has promised (15:4) that there will be no poor in the Promised Land if the Israelites will “strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God.”  That’s not unreasonable.  God is giving them a land “flowing with milk and honey.”  All they have to do is work the land and it will bear bountiful harvests—if they obey God’s commands.  This is a one-sided bargain.  The Israelites get a fertile land in exchange for obeying God—commands that will assure abundant life for all.       
            In today’s reading, we see how God intends for this to work out.  The liturgy described here is for the Feast of Weeks, one of two Israelite harvest festivals.  This was an opportunity for the Israelites to thank God for the gift of land and for a bountiful harvest.  The liturgy was simple.  It consisted of three parts:  a confession of faith; a presentation of first fruits; and a community meal.
            The confession of faith is a brief summation of Israel’s history.  It begins with the statement that God chose a nomadic shepherd (Abraham) and his offspring (Isaac and Jacob) to be the founders of the nation.  To escape famine, they left Canaan for Egypt, where their son and brother Joseph was in charge of Pharaoh’s food conservation program.  While in Egypt, Jacob’s descendants multiplied exponentially until they became a threat to their hosts.
            The Egyptians felt they had no choice but to enslave the Israelites, which they did with a vengeance, treating them harshly, punishing them brutally, and instituting the cruelest form of population control—genocide.  Israel cried to God for salvation, and God rescued them, “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders.”  God brought them out of slavery, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land.
            After recognizing God’s mighty acts, the presenter offered the first fruits of his harvest to the priest.  In God’s name, the priest accepted the gift.  Notice that the offering consisted of the first fruits.  This was the sacred portion—God’s portion, and the presenter certified that he had not used God’s portion for any other purpose. 
            The liturgy concluded with a community meal.  Although the sacred writer doesn’t tell us, we can assume that all presentations were made at the same time, which means the meal would have been huge.  Everyone was invited—everyone ate.  No one was left out because he or she had nothing to bring, or didn’t own farmland, or was an outsider. 
            The Levites were there, the priestly class, who had no inheritance of land because their calling was to serve God and the people.  They could not raise crops, so they were provided for.
            The sojourners were there, foreigners who lived among the Israelites.  They could not grow crops because the land was a gift from God to Israel.  But God commanded from the beginning that foreigners should be welcomed, accepted, and fed.  No one was excluded because he—or she—was not an Israelite.  The Israelites had been mistreated foreigners in Egypt, and God wanted them to remember their experience and not repeat it.
            The widows and orphans were there, those who could not care for themselves and who had no one to care for them.  The inability to raise crops was not a reason to be excluded from the bountiful harvest God had provided on God’s land for God’s people.

            “There will be no poor among you,” God said.  Then God showed the nation how that would work.  God still speaks today, and says, “There will be no poor among you.”  God shows us how to provide.  Will our harvest be blessed because we obey God’s commands?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

How to Get the Most Out of Life

How to Get the Most Out of Life
John 10:10b
            I have a “refrigerator” magnet on the desk lamp in my office.  It says, “Life is all about how you handle plan B.”  Good line!  Gilda Radner expressed the same thought when she said, “Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.”
            When you wake up each morning, no one hands you a script and says, “This is what will happen to you today—what you’ll say, what you’ll do, and what people will say and do to you.  Follow the script and everything will work out.”  Instead, we improvise our way through life, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.  When we start out in the morning we don’t know what the day will bring.  We may start with a plan (Plan A), but we can agree with Robert Burns that, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.”  So…Plan B.
            I think Andy Rooney got it right.  He said, “It’s those small daily happenings that make life so spectacular.”  It’s the unexpected moments of joy—and of sadness or sorrow—that fill our lives with meaning.  When I began serving as a division director in a local community college, I read, “I used to be upset by all the interruptions in my job until I realized that the interruptions were my job.”  I know I didn’t quote that exactly, but that’s the idea.  From that moment, the door to my office was always open to everyone—student, faculty member, colleague—anyone who dropped by found me available.  I learned to welcome the interruptions—the distractions, because they were what made the job enjoyable and rewarding.
            Another lesson that changed my workday was a mild heart attack—mild because I missed less than a week of work.  When I returned to the office, I became much more prompt about leaving at the end of the day.  At 3:30 (the time my contract said I could leave), I piled my unfinished work in the middle of the desk, where it sat, waiting patiently for my return the next morning.  I went home with empty hands and a clear conscience, ready to enjoy whatever the evening brought.  The next morning I attacked the pile with fresh energy, fresh insights, and a fresh spirit.  Ashley Montagu said, “The idea is to die young as late as possible.”  I want to do everything I can to make that happen.
            Jesus understood life and how it should be lived.  Life is to be lived to the fullest.  When he said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly,” he wasn’t talking about some future life in some paradise.  He was talking about here—now!  This is the life we are to live abundantly. 
When William James said, “The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast itself,” he took the same position Jesus did.  This is abundant life.  This is what Jesus’ life was.  His life was spent so our lives would be more abundant.  It’s our turn to spend our lives in pursuit of something that will bring abundance to someone else.
Too many people miss out on abundant living because they wait to enjoy life until it’s too late.  They want to make sure the kids are grown and settled, the mortgage is paid off, the retirement account is full, and all the trials of life are past.  It doesn’t work that way.  “Life,” someone said, “isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass.  It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
It may be a strange image for some of us, but Jesus knew how to dance in the rain.  He was constantly under pressure, teaching his disciples, healing the sick, offering comfort to those in need, sparring with those who opposed him.  Yet he found time for little children, for dining with friends, for wedding parties. 

Jesus calls us to do the same.