Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Simple "Thank You"

A Simple Thank You
Psalm 100
            I often have lunch in one of those sub shops where you walk down the line and tell the servers what you want on your sandwich.  I like it because I can have the sub the way I want it, and not the way they decide I should have it. 
When I’m in a line like that I tend to listen to what’s going on around me.  I’m not eavesdropping exactly, just aware of the other voices in my vicinity.  I’m trying not to be judgmental here (one of my grievous faults, I’m afraid), but I’m disappointed in the number of people who don’t say “please,” or “thanks.”  I know—the people behind the counter are there to serve us, and we’re paying them to make our sandwiches, but as someone once said, “A simple word of thanks to a person who is just doing their job can make a difference.” 
Why not?  What does it cost us?  Is it so much easier to say, “Let me have…” than, “Could I please have…?”
            A lot of people would say that we’ve lost much of our politeness, that we don’t treat each other as kindly as we used to; but I’m not sure we’ve really gone downhill.  I believe human nature hasn’t changed all that much since our first parents.  After all, they didn’t show their gratitude to God, did they?  As soon as God’s back was turned they disobeyed.  God had given them a garden full of delights, but they demonstrated their ingratitude by eating from the one tree forbidden to them.  Can we truly say our specie’s past is any better than its present?
            I believe our ingratitude toward each other is a reflection of our ingratitude toward God.  Sunday mornings I join the leadership of another church for a period of prayer at their altar.  It has become so meaningful that I rarely miss.  I am always impressed by the way their pastors thank God for everything—and I mean everything!  God is thanked for getting them up in the morning, for the clothes on their backs, for guiding them to the church safely—even for the air (God’s air) that they breath.  I am humbled by my own lack of gratitude, and each week try to emulate my colleagues more closely.  They are living proof of what Ed Ringle said: “There’s always a lot to be thankful for if you take time to look for it.”
            Sandra Defibaugh said, “There is one thing God can’t give us—that’s a grateful heart.  That’s got to come from us.  Our gratefulness is a gift to God for all He has done for us.”  We talk about the gifts God gives us.  Perhaps it’s time to think of the gift we can give to God.
            How can we thank God?  Let me suggest two ways. 
            Listen to William Arthur Ward: “God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today.  Have you used one to say ‘thank you’?”  We know we should tithe.  What if we tithed our time in gratitude?  Let’s see:  one tenth of 86,400 seconds would be 8,640 seconds, which would be 144 minutes.  Could you be grateful for two hours and 24 minutes every day?  Most of us waste that much time.  Seems like at least part of it could be used to express gratitude to the God who is with us every second, and who gives us everything we have.
            For the other way to express our gratitude let’s turn to John Fitzgerald Kennedy: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
If we are grateful for what we have been given, we will indeed use gracious words in our conversation as well as in our prayers.  We can’t forego verbal expressions of gratitude; but if we are truly grateful, then every day will be filled with gracious acts. 

Kindness is a form of gratitude that never goes out of style.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Christ Is Risen

Christ Is Risen
John 20:24-29
            Easter is over.  All the eggs have been found (we hope!), the baskets have been put away, most (if not all) the candy has been eaten, the new toys have lost their attractiveness, and the new clothes have lost their sheen.  The Easter bunny (or his costume) has returned to wherever he spends the year.  It’s back to the daily routine again.
            But wait!  There’s more!  The season of Easter has just begun!  On the liturgical calendar, it will last for another five weeks—right up to Pentecost.  Don’t put those banners away just yet!  There’s a lot more Easter ahead of us.
            Just like Christmas, we tend to drop Easter like a hot potato once the day is past.  We’re not alone in this.  Store displays have already changed.  Cards, gifts, specialty foods—everything is already in place for the next big occasion.  Mother’s Day, anyone?
            We’re always in too much of a hurry to end a celebration.  Why we want to return to our routine so quickly is beyond me.  You would think we’d want to “stay in the moment” as long as possible.  Instead we’re too much like Alice’s white rabbit, always late for some seemingly more important date somewhere in the future.
            Usually when we look at this Scripture passage we focus on the conversation between Jesus and Thomas—and it’s right for us to do so.  It’s an important scene.  On Easter evening Jesus has suddenly appeared in the locked room where the disciples are huddled in fear.  He reassures them (“Peace be with you”) and offers them words of comfort.  The disciples are overjoyed to see him—glad also, I think, because he does not take them to task for deserting him in the garden.
            Someone is missing from this scene.  For some reason—we can only guess—Thomas is not in the room.  When he returns, he insists that he will not believe Jesus is alive until he experiences the Lord’s presence firsthand.  Most of us think the worst of Thomas for his doubting—even give him that word as a kind of adjunct first name; but we’re much too hard on this disciple.  Think how unbelievable it is that a dead man is alive again.  If we stop to think about it, we realize that the only reason the other disciples accepted Jesus’ resurrection is that they had seen him for themselves.
            John tells us that eight days later the disciples are gathered again (still might be a better word) in the same room, but this time Thomas is with them.  Jesus appears and shows himself, wounds and all to Thomas—and he believes.  Amazed as he most certainly must have been, all he can say is, “My Lord and my God!”
            What I want to emphasize is the time of this second appearance—eight days after the first one.  The resurrection is still being celebrated more than a week after that first Easter morning.  John tells of even a later appearance by the Sea of Tiberias—another part of the resurrection celebration.
            Someone has said that we should live our lives as if Jesus Christ were crucified yesterday, risen today, and coming tomorrow.  I agree.  If Jesus were risen every “today,” each day would be a celebration.  We would begin every morning with the words, “Christ is risen!” expecting someone to answer, “He is risen indeed!”  We would be in a constant state of joy because our risen Lord was always with us—and if Jesus Christ were coming tomorrow we would make sure he would find us good and faithful servants. 

Not a bad way to live.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Jesus Christ Is Risen Today

Jesus Christ Is Risen Today
Matthew 28:1-15
            Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each wrote an account of the resurrection.  Actually, except for Luke, we’re pretty sure someone else wrote down the words attributed to them.  What we think happened is that Matthew, Mark and John each told their memories of Jesus to their followers.  At some point, someone said, “We’d better write these stories down before they become lost or changed.” 
Luke was probably different.  He writes at the beginning of his gospel about researching (speaking to people who actually walked and talked with Jesus) before writing.  He is most likely the actual author of his gospel as well as the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
Each writer relates a different account of Jesus’ resurrection.  About the only points they agree on are (1) people went to the tomb on Sunday morning (Mary Magdalene is the only one mentioned by all four evangelists); (2) the tomb was empty; (3) there was at least one angel present. 
More prominent are the differences.  Matthew names two women; Mark names three; Luke names three (not the same three) but says there were others; John names only one.  In Matthew’s account Jesus appears to the women as they are walking back to the city.  Mark says the angel (identified as a “young man”) told the women to go tell the disciples, but they said nothing to anyone.  Luke says that two angels told the women to report back to the disciples, and Peter came to verify their story.  John has Mary Magdalene run to tell Peter, and he and John run to the tomb.  Later, Mary is alone in the garden, weeping, when Jesus comes and speaks to her.
We want to treat these accounts as we would those in history books.  We expect the details to tally, or at least for someone to make sense of the story, and tell us which account is the true one.  We’re disappointed when everything is left up in the air, so we try to blend them into one—but that doesn’t work.  How do we reconcile the different accounts?  How do we find out which one (if any) is the way it really happened?
We must begin by looking at the problem from a different angle.  These are four people telling what they remember, or in the case of Luke what his sources remember.  We might be tempted to accept Luke’s version as closest to the truth because he most likely collated the stories he collected into the most logical, plausible account he could. 
Instead, remember the circumstances.  The disciples were in a depressed state.  Their leader, their teacher—their Lord had been executed.  As far as they could see the adventure was over.  There was nothing left to say or do.  They hadn’t grasped Jesus’ words that he would rise on the third day.  Then word came that the tomb was empty.  What should they make of that? 
To my mind, the resurrection would be much less believable if all four evangelists told the same story down to the last detail.  Like witnesses in a court case, each had a different point of view.  Each saw and heard the story from his vantage point.  Each remembered what was important to him.  It is up to the jury to listen to all four accounts, sort out the details, and come to a conclusion.
We are that jury.  We must decide which account—which details—ring true.  Perhaps they all do.  Perhaps everything in each account actually happened, but was remembered differently.  Perhaps we should be less concerned with the details than with the single most significant fact:  Jesus Christ, by the grace of God, rose from the dead that Sunday morning, and as a result, we can be reconciled to God. 


Sunday, April 9, 2017

What Price Glory

What Price Glory?
Matthew 21:1-13
            Holy week has begun. Jesus has ridden triumphantly into Jerusalem, and the capitol city has already felt his presence.  Not only did he create a stir at Passover—a time when others claiming to be the messiah had chosen to make their appearance—he also attracted attention by his entrance into the city and his visit to the temple. 
            Instead of going to the seat of the Jewish religion to pay his respects, Jesus entered the temple grounds and broke up the profitable scams of the leadership.  It was forbidden to pay the temple tax in anything other than Jewish coinage.  People came with all kinds of foreign money, mostly Roman.  The money changers made a nice profit from the currency exchange.  They had a captive audience, and they took full advantage of the situation.
            The other part of the venture was the sale of animals for sacrifice.  According to Torah law these had to be spotless—perfect specimens, without a blemish of any kind.  The animal sellers, if they looked hard enough—and they did, you can be sure—could find a problem with every one the people brought to the temple.  Of course, they had perfect specimens available for sale—at premium prices.
            What choice did the people have?  These thieves were supported—led, even—by the religious leaders.  The people were stuck, with no place to turn.  So they paid through the nose for the proper coins and the proper animals, grumbling all the while, but with no one to turn to for redress. Until Jesus arrived. 
            Fresh from his ride down the Mount of Olives, Jesus entered the temple, took one look around, and went to work.  He overturned the tables of the money-changers.  He turned upside down the seats of those who sold sacrificial animals, probably adding to the confusion by opening the cages and letting them loose.  It was a mess, but Jesus let everyone know he was there, and that his Father’s house would be a house of prayer, not a den of thieves.
            Over the next few days Jesus will continue to disrupt the status quo.  He will answer every challenge to his authority and his knowledge of Scripture and law put to him by the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Saducees.  Every time they attempt to trap him he will make them look foolish, much to the delight of the common people who have been oppressed by them for so long.  Jesus will tell parable after parable with the leaders prominently identified as the villains.  They will have to stand there and take everything Jesus hands out, because they know the people will turn on them if they so much as lift a finger against this man who has turned everyone’s world upside down.
            It’s no wonder that, after several days of confrontation with this upstart from Galilee, the leadership has had enough.  They realize they must do something or risk losing everything they have built up so carefully over the years.  They stand to lose not only their self-created exalted positions in the community, but also their ill-gotten fortunes.  They can’t let either happen, so they plot to kill Jesus.
            We know what happens next:  fake trial, execution, death, tomb—all in the space of less than twenty-four hours.  Any dictator in history would be impressed with the speed and efficiency.  We also know this isn’t the end, but just the beginning of the Jesus story.  We know how it will come out, but Jesus’ contemporaries did not.  His followers must have been shocked at the way Jesus goaded the leaders.  The leaders themselves must have been delighted at the way Jesus played right into their hands. 

If only they could have known…