Sunday, February 26, 2017

God Accepts Volunteers

God Accepts Volunteers
Isaiah 6:1-8
Volunteerism is a big deal.  Many organizations try to attract volunteer workers: political parties, nonprofit organization—even for-profit businesses.  Volunteers, we are told, are the gold of the work force.  If you can find someone to work for your organization for free, with only passion for the work as a reward, you have found a blessing.
Almost everyone who works for a church is a volunteer, even if they don’t call themselves by that name.  We pay our pastors and assistant pastors, our office staff, and usually our music staff, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Members of the church board (whatever it’s called in your denomination) are unpaid, as are Sunday school teachers, choir members, those who take up the offering—the list is almost endless.  Without these volunteers the church couldn’t exist.  It would be as if someone gave a party and no one came.
When you read the call stories for the Old Testament prophets you will find few volunteers—and that’s understandable.  Who in their right mind would volunteer for that kind of work?  Prophets weren’t promised top-quality living quarters, or free transportation, or a great salary.  Working conditions weren’t the best, and there were no health or retirement benefits.  Above all, prophets proclaimed messages that few people wanted to hear.  They were definitely unpopular.  It wasn’t unusual for them to be mistreated, or thrown in prison, or kicked out of town—or even killed.  Who would want a job like that?
Most resisted God’s call.  Moses claimed a speech impediment, and said he wasn’t sure what name to call God.  Jeremiah said he didn’t meet the age requirement—much too young for that kind of work.  Others tried to cite lack of experience.  One—Jonah—was so upset by God’s call that he skipped town—tried to leave the country.  None of these attempts worked.  God met every objection, answered every complaint, provided help for every deficiency, even chased poor old Jonah down and made him pay heavily for his escape attempt, all to make sure God got his man.
At first, Isaiah tried to back away from his call.  Overwhelmed with God’s holiness in the temple, he spoke the truth: “I’m unclean, unfit for the work, even in the way I speak.  How can this mouth which has uttered so much vileness be fit to speak your words, O God?” 
We can’t deny either the truth of Isaiah’s reply or the humility with which he spoke it.  I don’t believe he was trying to escape God’s call as others had done.  I think he knew his inadequacy—an inadequacy not of ability but of lifestyle.  He knew that both he and the people around him had let God down in ways that were inexcusable.  And now God wanted to use him?
We know what happened.  God touched him and took away his uncleanness, purified his mouth and his speech.  When God issued the call again:  “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Isaiah practically jumped at the chance to volunteer.  You can see him, like a schoolboy waving his hand in the teacher’s face, and saying, “Here I am!  Here I am!  Send me!”
God still takes volunteers.  We’re not promised a great salary, or a wonderful benefits package (although some say the retirement plan is out of this world).  Instead we’re offered a chance to get our hands dirty for God.  The work may not always be wonderful, and we’ll probably take a lot of heat for the way we do it—sometimes even from those we expect should support us the most—but we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing we have pleased the God who gave us life, and the joy of hearing, at the end of our time on earth, “Well done, you good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your Lord.”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Art of Forgiveness

The Art of Forgiving
Matthew 6:5-15
            Oh, how we hate to be the one who blinks first!  You’ve probably played that game where two people try to stare each other down.  The one who blinks first, or turns away first is the loser.  I was never much good at the game because I got bored too easily; but when it comes to holding a grudge, I seldom blink first.  I’m really good at staying angry for as long as it takes to win the battle.
            Years ago, on the TV program “Touched By An Angel,” one of the characters (can’t remember which) said, “Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.”  If only we could see it that way!  If we forgive someone we’ve blinked first.  We’ve lost the battle by giving up before the other person.  That may be the way we see it, and the world sees it, but not the way God sees it. 
            We’d like to forget what Jesus said in his follow-up to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel.  After saying (in the prayer), “and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors,” Jesus adds, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
            There it is!  The formula can’t be expressed any plainer than that.  In order to be forgiven our sins (let’s call them what they are!) we must forgive anyone—and everyone—who sins against us.  There’s no wiggle room here, no space to equivocate, no chance for misunderstanding.  We can’t negotiate this with God.  We either forgive those who have wronged us, or God will not forgive us.  What could be plainer than that?
            Sometimes we hold on to wrongs done to us, not claiming them as sin, but as “hurt feelings”—as if that made a difference.  If someone hurts my feelings, that person has wronged me.  Call it sin, or a transgression, or whatever you will, the commandment is still the same—forgive!
            Later in Matthew’s gospel (18:21-22) Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother; should he forgive him seven times?  Jesus practically scoffs at the number.  This may be the ultimate lowball offer.  Jesus says, “Begin by multiplying your seven by seventy, and if that isn’t enough, start over.”
            “This is the essence of forgiveness,” George McDonald says, “seeing people through the eyes and heart of a loving God.”  God doesn’t keep track of forgiveness!  God forgives what needs to be forgiven, when it needs to be forgiven, and as many times as it needs to be forgiven.  If God doesn’t keep a tally of our forgiveness, how do we dare to keep a tally of the times we forgive others?  We know we can’t go through a day without doing something that needs to be forgiven, so our loving, forgiving God waits for us to ask.  Even before we ask we’ve been forgiven—but we have to ask.
            Thomas Fuller said, “[The one] who cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself, for every [person] needs to be forgiven.”    

Forgiveness is indeed a bridge, a bridge first between me and every person I know.  The only way I can keep that bridge open is to be ready to forgive anyone any time forgiveness is needed.  The moment I fail to forgive, the bridge breaks.  On the other side, forgiveness forms the only possible bridge from me to God.  The transaction is two-sided.  I can’t have the side to God open without keeping open the side to my brothers and sisters.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


Ephesians 4:1-7
            “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.”
            I don’t know who first said this, but I know it is mostly true—and should be always true.  There should be one place in this world where each of us is always welcome, and that should be the place we call home.  Notice I said that’s the place we call home.  It may not be our original home, but it is the place where we feel at home, wherever that place may be, and no matter how near to or far from our original home it may be.
            We know this is not true for everyone.  Many people have lost their homes to the ravages of war.  Their homes no longer exist.  Almost daily we see scenes of bombed out villages and cities, buildings reduced to rubble, people standing in the street with no place to go, or on the road going somewhere—anywhere to escape the ruin around them.
            Others have lost their homes due to their own behavior.  Perhaps addiction has cost them their home and family, or perhaps their unruly, even criminal actions have caused the loss.  Perhaps it is not their fault, but something has gone wrong and they can’t go home again.
            I can think of no greater tragedy than a person who does not have a place to go where she knows she will be taken in.  We know of families that are homeless, and that is tragic, but for a single person, all alone, to have no place to turn to, no one to open the door for him, no family to welcome him home—that is tragedy upon tragedy.
            I think the loss of home is felt particularly deeply when it involves children. Yes, we are all someone’s child, but when young, innocent lives are deprived of home and family we feel the loss much more acutely.
            Paul had a lot to say about families.  Important statements are scattered throughout his letters.  His concern was with the family of God more than the human family, but for him the human family was a metaphor for God’s family.  He speaks of being adopted into God’s family, belonging not by birth (Remember, for Paul, the Jews were God’s chosen people—God’s family; the rest of humanity were outsiders who had to be “grafted” in.) but by God’s love reaching out to everyone.
            In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul moves past adoption when he speaks of the unity of God’s family.  Listen to his bold statement: “There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.”  Someone has said that one is the loneliest number, but when we are united in one family that one becomes an all-inclusive number.  Paul tells us that our one Father, “is over all, and through all, and in all,” connecting us together as the roots of trees connect to each other underground, enriching and strengthening the whole of them and allowing them to stand more securely than they could on their own.
            Can this unity of God’s family be translated into creating and sustaining human families?  I tell my students that this is a teacher question.  We already know the answer before it’s asked:  It’s a resounding, “Yes!”  Carol Bellamy provided an important part of the answer when she said, “By investing in children and the families that sustain them, the nation is ultimately investing in its own development.” 

As Christians, we are called to provide welcoming, loving family experiences for every child we can possibly help.  This means we have to stop prattling about family values, and using the phrase as a political football, and get to work creating and sustaining these families.  It won’t be easy—but no one ever said God’s work was easy.  That’s why so few people do it.

Sunday, February 5, 2017


Mark 9:14-29
            The first dictionary definition of faith is “unwavering belief.”  Later in the definition we find the word “trust.’  If you look up the definition of “trust,” eventually you come to the word “faith.”  No, this isn’t some sort of circular definition, nor are faith and trust exactly the same thing.  The definitions of both words are much richer than that.  Still, there is a relationship.  We might even go so far as to say that faith is unwavering trust, and trust is unwavering faith—but that might be too circular.  For now, let’s just say that faith is unwavering belief and leave it at that.
            If only it were true.  We Christians have faith, surely, but too often it is not unwavering.  We are frequently like the father in Mark’s story.  We want healing to take place.  We want answers to prayer.  We want situations resolved and people’s lives changed.  We know they can happen, but we’re not completely convinced they will happen. 
            I think Jesus understood the father from their first words to each other.  He was desperate to receive help for his son.  The boy had suffered the effects of epilepsy from a very early age.  No one had been able to find a cure.  The disciples, try as hard as they could, weren’t able to stop the attacks.  They had just returned from a mission trip where they had healed the sick, cast out demons, and brought people to repentance, but this time they were stymied.
            Now everyone turned to Jesus.  After expressing his exasperation with his followers he asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?”  This sounds like the kind of question a doctor might ask today:  How long has the disease been present?  How much time has it had to work its destruction?
            The man’s answer lets us know the level of his desperation.  He is at the end of his rope.  There is nothing left to try.  If Jesus can’t help him, no one can.  Yet the years of failure have taken their toll.  He cannot summon unwavering belief.  He says, “if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
            Jesus sounds incredulous:  “If I can help him!  All things are possible for one who believes.”  Jesus knows he can heal the boy—but does the father have the faith to support the cure?  His answer is one we have all given, in one way or another, many times in our lives.
            “Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief.”  It sounds as if he’s saying, “I believe.  I have no choice but to believe.  Please take away that lingering doubt that keeps nagging at the edge of my faith.”
            And Jesus heals.
            Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”  Jesus met the desperate father at just that point.  He’d taken the first step, but was in pause mode.  I believe Jesus’ words gave the man the courage to move up the staircase.
            Don Osman has said, “You never find God until he becomes your deepest desire.”  We see this kind of faith at work in this story.  God has been called the Hope of the hopeless.  The father was without any other recourse.  He was truly hopeless.  At the moment of deepest distress, God came to him and provided healing for his son.

            “Some things have to be believed to be seen.”  Rudolph Hodgson might have had this story in mind when he made this statement.  We are used to the phrase, “Seeing is believing,” but with God it often happens the other way round.  We have to trust before we have sight.