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.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Kingdom of God is like...

The Kingdom of God Is Like…
Mark 1:14-15
            The kingdom of God is a central theme—probably the central theme—of Jesus’ ministry.  He said other things—did other things, but, understanding its importance, he always returned to the kingdom. 
He tried to get his disciples to understand what the kingdom would be like.  He said, “This is the way the kingdom works:  If you want to be great, you have to become a servant.”  Then he showed them what he meant.
He tried to get the crowds who followed him to understand what the kingdom would be like.  He began many of his parables with the words, “The kingdom of God is like…” then used images and metaphors that were so familiar to his blue-collar followers that they couldn’t miss his meaning.
He tried to get Pilate to understand what the kingdom would be like.  He said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” but Pilate couldn’t comprehend.
His final message to his inner circle was an attempt to help them understand what the kingdom would be like.  At the Last Supper he said, “There’s more than enough room for all of you in my Father’s house.  I’ve got to go away, but I’ll return.  You know where I’m going, and you know the way.”  When directionally-challenged Thomas didn’t understand, Jesus said, “I am the way.  I am the truth.  I am the life.  If you do what I’ve been telling you, the way to the kingdom will be clear.”
Mark wastes no time introducing the kingdom theme.  Less than a third of the way through the first chapter he quotes Jesus: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe the good news.”  Immediately—right at the beginning of his ministry—Jesus calls people to come into the kingdom.
How do we find the kingdom of God?  Listen to Jesus. 
“The time is fulfilled.”  The time is now!  The kingdom isn’t something to anticipate happening sometime in the future.  It is here.  “The kingdom of God is at hand.”
Samuel Shoemaker puts it this way: “Eternal life doesn’t begin with death; it begins with faith.”  We don’t have to wait for the kingdom—we shouldn’t wait for the kingdom.  It’s all around us, waiting for us.  Jesus didn’t come to prepare us for the kingdom.  He brought the kingdom with him. 
“Repent and believe in the good news,” Jesus says.  “Realize you’ve been heading in the wrong direction.  Turn around.  Be sorry enough to quit doing the things that separate you from God.”  As Shoemaker says, it’s a matter of faith.  Believe the kingdom is accessible now. That’s the good news.  Is there any better news?
Tony Berrington says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is the reign of God and the rule of God in our lives, which actually means the personal presence of Jesus.”  Jesus says, “I am here, and so is the kingdom.  Follow me and I’ll lead you into it.”
In the early years of Christianity, new believers made their confession of faith with the words, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”  It’s a simple statement, but one packed with meaning.  If Jesus was Lord, then nothing or no one else was—not Caesar, not worldly goods, not family or friends.  Nothing could stand in God’s place. 

The same is  true today.  The kingdom of God is…Jesus is Lord.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Acts of Kindness

Acts of Kindness
Matthew 25:34-40
            “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”  This is attributed to Aesop, teller of the famous fables.  It’s the moral of the story about the lion and the mouse.  The lion spares the mouse’s life.  Later, when the lion is caught in a net, the mouse gnaws a hole big enough for the lion to escape.  The story also proves that kind acts don’t depend on size or strength, but can be performed by anyone.
            In my ethics class we discuss the difference between manners and morals.  One student said that people with manners can be immoral, and people who are moral may not necessarily have the best manners.  Great answer!
            The Bible is clear that acts of kindness involve morals and manners.  Paul (Galatians 5:22-23) includes kindness in his list of fruit of the Spirit.  It’s right there with love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness.  When we perform acts of kindness we’re following the leading of the Holy Spirit.
            The most telling Bible words about kindness come from Jesus (no surprise there).  In his description of the final judgment, Jesus gathers on his right hand those who have served him well.  He welcomes them into God’s kingdom for the acts of kindness they have performed for him.  The vast majority of those in the right-hand group will never have seen Jesus face-to-face.  How can they have served him, they ask?  Jesus answers, “Because you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”
            Remember these words.  Tape them to refrigerators, bathroom mirrors—any place you look each day.  We are called to serve Jesus by serving those around us—that’s the key to the kingdom.
            Remember also the words of James M. Barrie.  The creator of Peter Pan said, “Always be a little kinder than necessary.”  God doesn’t call us to kindness as an insurance policy to get into the kingdom.  God calls us to be kinder than necessary because that’s what God does.  God pours blessings out on us—so many we don’t see some of them until we look back.  When we slow down and turn around we can see God’s activity in our lives.
            God also expects us to be kinder than necessary because that’s the example Jesus set.  Jesus looked at the people waiting to hear him and had compassion on them.  They were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36.)  It may be difficult for us to see ourselves standing in Jesus’ place, but isn’t that what we are called to do?  We must show the same compassion Jesus showed because there are still sheep looking for a shepherd.  As a shepherd is kind to the sheep, so must we be kind to those around us.
            “How beautiful a day can be when kindness touches it,” George Elliston says.  Our kindness can’t just be a once-in-a-while action.  It’s a way of life.  We practice kindness day by day until it becomes a habit.  We perform kind acts because we are kind—kind as Jesus was kind; kind as the Holy Spirit leads us to be kind.
            Is it easy?  Not at all.  We see from Jesus’ disciples how difficult it is to be kind.  Not until Jesus ascended and the Holy Spirit arrived did they begin to pour lovingkindness into the world.  It was the Spirit of God working through them that made kindness possible.

            Is it necessary?  Of course!  Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 make it clear.  The kingdom belongs to those who give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, to those who welcome strangers and clothe the naked, to those who visit the sick and prisoners.  No amount of personal piety will unlock the kingdom.  Only our service will get us in.