Sunday, December 30, 2018

A God of Surprises

A God of Surprises
Luke 2:1-7
            The waiting is over.  The presents have been unwrapped.  The living room looks like a tornado zone.  There are no more surprises—or are there?
            For Christians, Christmas Day is just the beginning of surprises.  True, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph were surprised months before with birth announcements from angels, but it’s really Christmas that begins the surprises—surprises that continue down to this moment.
            For Mary and Joseph there were surprises throughout Jesus’ childhood.  They began with the visits of the shepherds and the wise men, continued with the pronouncements of Simeon and Anna in the temple after Jesus’ birth, and, according to Luke’s account, culminated with Jesus and the teachers of the law during the temple visit when he was twelve. 
Each of these events—and, I’m sure, many others that were not recorded—must have continually surprised the couple.  What kind of child was this, who so many people took notice of?  Yes, they had been told—warned is perhaps a better word—that this baby was different, special, blessed by God.  Still, I’m sure they didn’t have any idea that his birth and early life would result in so much attention from so many quarters.
From Luke’s narrative we might assume that, following the Passover temple visit, Jesus settled down into a relatively normal teenage and young adult life—and it might well be.  Certainly nothing he did between twelve and thirty caught the attention of anyone enough to remember and write it down.  We have many legends from these years, but no corroboration of their truthfulness.  Indeed, they sound outrageous enough to be easily discredited.   Also, we can be sure someone somewhere would have taken notice of Jesus if he had done anything worthy of notice.  The Pharisees were always looking for bright young recruits.  Remember Paul?
If we look at Jesus’ adult life we’ll see that, again, this was just the beginning of the surprises.  From approximately age thirty to age thirty-three, Jesus seems to have created one surprise after another in Galilee and Judea.  Healing miracles, turning water into wine, calming storms, feeding multitudes using tiny amounts of food—all these are recounted in the gospels.  At the end of John’s gospel he says that what we read is just a fraction of what Jesus did.
Overshadowing the miracles was Jesus’ teaching.  As someone has said, those Jesus fed would have gotten hungry again.  Those Jesus healed and raised from the dead would have eventually sickened and died from some other cause.  There would have been other storms.  All these miracles were temporary.  The teaching was eternal.
I don’t believe Jesus was executed for performing miracles.  It was his teaching that ran afoul of the religious authorities.  It was his teaching that upset them, because it ran counter to what they had been saying—and claiming to be the correct interpretation of God’s law.  It was the surprises in his words that led to his death.
But all these surprises were, again, only the beginning.  The resurrection began another round of surprises—surprises which continue to confound us.  Just when we think we have Jesus all figured out, and believe we know how to interpret his life and his words, he confronts us with another surprise.  Whenever we try to put him in one of our theological boxes he says, “No, that’s not right.  This is what I meant.  Here’s what I want you to do.”  And it’s always what we least expect.  I’ve said (jokingly) how else would a guy who grew up in Brooklyn, wind up preaching in a denomination he’d never heard of through the first two-thirds of his life, in Southaven, Mississippi?  God continues to be full of surprises.

Sunday, December 16, 2018


Isaiah 40:29-31
            Every December my wife and I watch some of the Christmas movies on a channel sponsored by a company known for its greeting cards.  I’m sure you can figure out which channel and which company I mean.
            Every year several new movies are introduced.  They follow the same general plot line as previous films.  A young single person (usually, but not always female) who works for a big-city company is sent to a small town on some business mission.  While there she (or he) meets the love of her/his life, leaves the big-city company to find happiness and the true meaning of Christmas in the small town.
            This year we’ve noticed a few themes which run through most of the movies.  First, in the past, the big city company boss has always been on the grouchy side.  This year, when the young person announces her (his) decision to move, the boss is more understanding.
            Another theme this year is baking Christmas cookies, one of the activities that hooks the big-city newcomer to the small-town way of life.  This involves a small-town family, usually related in some way to the opposite gender love interest.  The third theme is snowball fights; not serious ones of course, but more like throwing handfuls of snow in fun.
            I say this not to arouse interest in these movies, which can be really hokey, but because, for some reason, my blogs this Advent season also seem to be following a theme.  Without meaning to, I’ve gotten stuck on patience and waiting. 
It’s a good theme, and one that needs to be focused on.  Our lives are much too busy.  When I tell people the activities my wife and I are involved in, they say, “You’re not retired!”  I tell them the difference between now and when I was working full-time is that I can say “No!” much more easily.  I’m busy, but doing mostly the things I want to do.
For most of us this is a time of year when it’s easy to get frazzled and run out of patience.  We’re afraid if we get too involved in one activity we’ll run out of time, and Christmas will arrive without us completing all the preparations we need to make.  We know we put most of the pressure on ourselves, but that doesn’t change things.  We spend the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas (if not several weeks before) in overdrive, trying to make the celebration as perfect as we can. 
Would our families be upset if that last string of lights didn’t get put up on the front porch, or there were only ten dozen Christmas cookies instead of twelve dozen?  Maybe so, but they’d get over it, and Christmas would still be Christmas.
During what usually turns out to be the busiest time of the year, we need to hear the words God spoke through Isaiah.  True, the circumstances were different.  Judah had been in captivity so long that many of the people had never seen their homeland.  They were despondent, discouraged, believing they would never see Jerusalem again.  Isaiah wants them to remember that God is the Everlasting God, the Creator, the One who does not grow weary and faint.  The strongest of mortals will, at some time, become frazzled, but God never will.
When Isaiah speaks of people renewing their strength, and flying like eagles, he is referring to the captives returning to Judah.  But it’s a good reminder for all of us at this time of year.  Put off wrapping the presents, or baking the cookies, or stringing the lights for a few minutes.  Instead, use that time to wait on the Lord, and renew your strength.  Your Christmas celebration will be more complete—and more enjoyable for it.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Active Waiting

Active Waiting
Acts 1:4, 12-14
            This time of year patience is in short supply.  This is supposed to be the season of patience—as well as of love and joy, but it often doesn’t turn out that way.  We hear about fights breaking out in stores between shoppers trying to purchase the same item—an item they want to give to someone they love.  If this sounds confusing, that’s humanity for you.
            Waiting is especially difficult for children.  Their sense of time is more immediate than that of adults (except, of course, when we want them to get ready to go someplace they don’t want to go), so they find it difficult to accept long wait times.
            Waiting must have been difficult for Christ’s disciples.  From the moment he began revealing the kingdom of God to them they had great expectations.  When they contemplated their future in the kingdom—not as peasants under the double oppression of Roman and Jewish authorities, but as Jesus’ hand-picked cabinet—they must have been as impatient as any child between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
            We read the beginning of Acts against the background of the crucifixion and resurrection.  They are past events.  Jesus has been with his followers a period of time since the resurrection, and is about to leave them—although they don’t know that yet. 
            Jesus takes them to the Mount of Olives, significant because most Jewish apocalyptic prophecies name this place as the beginning of the action.  The disciples must have been even more filled with anticipation than they were on Palm Sunday, just a few short weeks ago.  Surely this was the time and place the angel armies would descend and the kingdom—bringing all their perks and privileges—would begin. 
            But it wasn’t.  Jesus gave them a few final words, including an admonishment that they were not to know the time when the kingdom would be fully realized, then told them to return to Jerusalem to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Not knowing what the Holy Spirit was, they must have been like kids eyeing that big package under the tree—the one way in the back—wondering what might be in it, and who it was for.  But like kids in December they had to wait for the right time to find out what the gift was.  
During the wait they could have sat around, looking at each other, wondering aloud and to themselves what they were waiting for, but they didn’t.  Jesus’ message had gotten through to them enough so they knew they had to do something, and that something was pray.  Luke tells us that they “with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” as they waited—for who knew what!  It was a gift, and if it came from Jesus then it was an important gift—a big gift.  So they waited, and prayed, and waited, and prayed.
August Rodin, the sculptor, said, “Patience is also a form of action.”  He knew that creating a work of art couldn’t be rushed.  It needed time to evolve, time for the creative process to work.  During the wait, things were happening, ideas were developing.  Under the surface the creative juices were flowing.  The ground was being prepared for the next creative step, but the action was taking place out of sight.
Patience is a form of action.  When the time was right, the Holy Spirit came—and the disciples were prepared, because they had been praying.  In due time Christmas morning will come, and what’s in that big box will be sweeter for the waiting.
It’s a lesson we all must learn.  Wait patiently, but wait actively.  In due time God will come, and our joy will be complete.

Sunday, December 2, 2018


Romans 8:18-25
            Advent is the season of hope.  Students hope school will be out for Christmas vacation soon.  Children hope they will get all the presents they’ve asked Santa for.  Workers hope Christmas Eve will come before their boss loses his temper one more time.  Parents hope this Christmas will be less hectic than the last.  Families hope they will get through Christmas dinner before the fighting breaks out—again!
            Christians play a game of hope.  We believe the Messiah came in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem.  Yet as we work our way through our Advent calendars, sing the hymns and listen to the sermons based on Advent themes, and read our Advent devotionals we experience once again the hope Israel felt the hundreds of years they waited for the messiah to appear. 
            Advent is also a time to take stock of our relationship with God, for during this season the hope we feel for Jesus Christ’s return is intensified.  We want to be ready, because Jesus warned his followers that he will come “like a thief in the night,” without warning.  We cannot be caught napping.  As we prepare our homes for the Christmas celebration, and prepare our hearts to experience again the wonder of that Christmas Eve birth so long ago, we prepare our lives to welcome the conquering Jesus when he returns to bring the kingdom of God to earth.
            Paul expands this idea.  He says not only Christians, but the whole of creation hopes for Christ’s return.  To illustrate the extent of the agony that creation experiences, Paul uses the metaphor of childbirth, which involves another expression of hope.  As the expectant mother deals with wave after wave of pain, she hopes not so much for the pain to be over (although there is certainly that aspect) but for the safe appearance and the health of the longed-for child.  Although never experiencing the pains of childbirth firsthand, Paul understands the aptness of the metaphor.  Creation, like an expectant mother, waits groaningly to be “set free from its bondage to decay.”  The return of Christ will begin the perfection of God’s creation and the complete sanctification of those who have served him well.
            In the frenzy of Christmas preparations it is easy to lose sight of the cosmic aspects of Advent.  The old saying, “When you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s easy to forget your first objective was to drain the swamp” applies here.  Preparing the food, buying and wrapping the presents, cleaning and decorating the house, writing and mailing the Christmas greetings—all of this can overwhelm us so that we lose sight of “the reason for the season.”  Our hope is reduced to wanting to finish the mountain of work before we run out of time, energy and patience.
            I think Paul understood all that, even though he didn’t have to deal with a twenty-first century Christmas season.  Some paint a picture of Paul as an impatient man, and there is proof in Scripture to back up that image.  Perhaps he was reminding himself as well as reminding the Roman Christians to keep hope at the center of life.  Believing he would still be alive at Christ’s return he was impatient to see the Messiah appear.  We can almost hear him saying, “Patience! Patience!  It will happen. Wait!  Wait! He will come.”
            As children wait for the presents they cannot see, so Paul encourages us to wait for the events we cannot see.  As we prepare our hearts this Advent for the celebration of the Messiah’s birth, we long for what we cannot see.  Paul reminds us that we do not hope for what we can already see—what lies in front of us.  We can only hope for what we cannot see:  the fulfillment of the promise given so long ago—the completion of our salvation.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

A Different Kind of King

A Different Kind of King
John 18:28-38
            Today is Christ the King Sunday.  It usually falls on the first Sunday of Advent, so it gets lost in that celebration.  This year is different.  Since Thanksgiving is early, there is an extra Sunday before the beginning of Advent—and that’s Christ the King Sunday.
            Today we remember and celebrate the kingship of Jesus Christ.  One Scripture passage that is often used is Philippians 2:1-11.  I used it myself this morning.  For this column I am drawn to another passage.
            There are different categories of kings.  Some are absolute monarchs, like Louis XIV in 17th-18th century France.  He said, “The state is me,” and he was correct.  As king, he could do practically anything he wanted—as could his heirs until 1789, when the French people decided they’d had enough of absolute rulers and removed Louis XVI from office by removing his head.
            There are constitutional monarchs.  England is a good example of a constitutional monarchy.  The king has little power to make laws.  He can suggest laws, but not enact them.  That’s done by Parliament, specifically the House of Commons.  The ruler (at present, the queen) is the titular head of the government, but “remains above politics.” 
            There are variations on these—actually, a sort of continuum from absolute power to little or no power.  Each king in history has fit somewhere on this continuum. 
            There have been good kings, bad kings, and downright ugly kings.  Perhaps the best example of a good king is David, who, we are told, was a man “after God’s own heart.”  But even he made serious errors when he let power go to his head.  Examples of bad kings abound in every generation.  The same is true for those whose lust for power led them to absolutely horrific acts.  Some have wielded their power in an “off with their heads” manner, not caring what happened to anyone else as long as they kept their thrones, their perks, and their lives. 
            And then there’s Jesus, a truly different kind of king.  Christian theology teaches that he has been King since before time began.  Paul calls him the Lord of creation: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth,” (Colossians 1;16) Jesus did what few kings have ever done.  He voluntarily gave up his kingship.  He abdicated to bring about reconciliation between God and humans.  The only other king who abdicated (that I remember) was King Edward of Great Britain, who gave up his throne for purely human reasons.
            Matthew, Mark and Luke say very little about Jesus’ appearance before Pilate.  Jesus is taken to the governor early Friday morning.  There is a short exchange of words.  Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews.  Jesus says, “I am.”  The Jewish authorities accuse him of heresy, to which Jesus offers no answer.
            John tells us much more.  In his gospel, Jesus gives an extended answer to Pilate’s question.  He informs Pilate that he is a king, but that his kingdom does not belong to this world.  Though he doesn’t say so, his kingdom encompasses not only this world, but all worlds.  Jesus also tells Pilate he could easily have provided forces to have prevented his arrest.  Later he says Pilate has no power except that which is given him “from above,” that is, from God.
            Perhaps Jesus’ most telling statement is that he has been sent “to bear witness to the truth,” prompting Pilate’s famous response, “What is truth?”  Throughout his ministry Jesus has been speaking truth—truth to power and to the powerless.  He continues to do so here, even in the face of his own certain execution.  A different kind of king indeed.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Trying to "Read" God

Trying to “Read” God
1 Samuel 16:1-13
            Saul started well.  He was God’s choice to be king.  Samuel didn’t choose him.  The people didn’t choose him.  God chose him, and told Samuel that Saul, son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, would be king of Israel.
            And a fine specimen he was.  The sacred writer of 1 Samuel tells us when Saul stood among the people he was at least a head taller than any of them.  We tend to look at tall men as leaders.  It’s not always the wisest decision (Isaiah says, “a little child shall lead them”), but that’s humanity for you.  We equate physical qualities with leadership skills.
            At first Saul was a good king.  He cared for his people.  He led them in battle.  He won great victories over their enemies, the Philistines.  But eventually one of the great curses of leadership affected Saul.  He began to believe his own press releases. 
England’s Lord Acton said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that often is the way of kings.  They begin to believe that they know more than anyone else,  that they are able to make all decisions wisely, without reference to advisors who may know more about some subjects than they do. 
Worse, Saul began to act without seeking God’s guidance.  For the king of God’s people to behave that way was a fatal flaw.  Saul’s leadership began to crumble.  His greatest mistake occurred when he took it upon himself to offer sacrifices to God, a task which belonged to the spiritual leader of Israel, Samuel. 
From that moment, Saul’s kingship was doomed.  1 Samuel 15:35 says, “And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death….  And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.”  It’s a terrible thing for a leader to be rejected by his people, but so much more terrible for the leader of God’s people to be rejected by God.
God sent Samuel to the house of Jesse to anoint the next king.  Samuel asked for Jesse’s sons to appear before him.  Eliab came first, and he was such a fine looking man that Samuel was sure he must be the one.  God told Samuel that their viewpoints were miles apart.  Samuel was looking at Eliab’s physical characteristics, while God was looking at the inward person.
God rejected all seven of Jesse’s older sons.  We know the outcome.  God chose David, a boy among men, to be the next king.  David grew to be “a man after God’s own heart,” and the greatest of Israel’s kings.
We can forgive Samuel for making the wrong choice.  After all, Saul was tall, presumably well-proportioned and probably at least somewhat good-looking.  If God chose size and strength the first time around, wouldn’t God do the same thing again?
This is the problem we cause for ourselves when we try to read God, when we try to figure out which direction God will move in.  Not only are God’s ways far above our ways (Isaiah again), but God sees much more than we can. 
There have been times when I was sure I knew God’s will for my life.  I moved off in what I thought was the correct direction only to find myself on my own—not a comfortable place to be.  Turned out I was trying to make my will be God’s will, and it didn’t work out well. 
God sees much deeper and further and clearer than we can, and God knows what’s best for us.  Better to use God’s long-range sight to set our course than to live in our own short-sighted way.

Saturday, November 3, 2018


Ken Sipley will be away from his computer for the next week.  He will return with a new post on November 18.

Taking God's Test

Taking God’s Test
Matthew 25:31-40
I ended my sermon with this story last Sunday, but find it so meaningful that I want to explore it in a more extensive format.
A skeptic raises his eyes to the heavens and says, “God, if you’re up there, tell me what I should do.”
A voice from above answers, “Feed the hungry, house the homeless, establish justice…”
The shocked skeptic replies, “I was just testing!”
The voice answers, “So was I!”
It’s easy to be skeptical about God’s existence.  When we look around we see little evidence of God’s presence.  We say this is God’s world, yet the forces of evil, hate, prejudice, and oppression are so rampant that it is easy to believe they are winning the battle, and God is in retreat.  How can we believe in a God who allows such things to exist?  Wouldn’t it be easier to give up, to live out our lives in frustration, die and pass on to whatever (if anything) comes next?
Probably—at least in the short run.  It’s always easier to give up than to fight if all we’re thinking about is the present.  Easier to sit back in our recliner, make “tsk, tsk” sounds at the news (or avoid watching entirely), go about our business and let the world go to ruin.
But God doesn’t operate in the short run.  God’s in it for the long haul.  Peter (2 Peter 3:8-10) reminds us that God’s sense of time is different—longer, much longer—than ours.  If all we think about is the present situation, or even the situation for the length of our lives, we’ll fall far short of the way God thinks.
My friend Joyce reminded our yoga class recently that, despite evidence to the contrary, there is much good in the world.  Unfortunately for our emotional equilibrium evil, prejudice, hate, oppression, all make better news stories than good.  If we have a life view slanted towards bad news it isn’t completely our fault.  What we see and hear in the media incline us to think and feel that way.  We have every reason to be skeptical.
When we are, when events incline us to the skeptic’s point of view, we must remember that God is in charge, that God has a long-term—very long-term—plan for this world, and that God is—always has been, always will be—in charge of history.  We can’t ignore evil, but neither can we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by it.  When we see evidence of hatred, of prejudice, of oppression it is our task to fight back with every weapon we have.  This is what God expects us to do; this is what God commands us to do.
This is why I always come back to Matthew 25.  I can’t escape it.  Jesus makes crystal clear how we are expected to live.  Note that when the day of judgment comes we will not be evaluated by our denominational ties, how much we’ve read the Bible, or how frequently we’ve attended church.  Our final destination will be determined by our service to others—specifically to the least of our brothers and sisters, those who are the victims of evil, of hatred, of oppression.
I find it interesting that some of those invited into God’s kingdom are surprised by their inclusion.  They didn’t know they were serving in God’s name; they just did what they thought was right.  If we read the next part of this passage we see that many who expect to be included won’t make the cut.
It’s clear that God means business—which means that we’d better mean business also.  Will you pass God’s test?

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Rationing Our Blessings

Rationing Our Blessings
Ephesians 1:3-10
            My wife almost always sneezes in groups of three.  Occasionally she’ll stop after one or two, but rarely.  I can usually count on one sneeze being followed by another…and another.  When I hear the first sneeze I don’t say “Bless you!” right away.  I wait until I know she’s through, then I say one “Bless you!” to cover all her sneezes.  I’ve joked that I do this so I won’t waste my blessings.  After all, I may only have so many blessings to give.  If I use them up, I won’t have any for later.
            I believe we too often ration our blessings.  Whether spoken blessings or “action” blessings we behave as if our supply is finite.  We hold on to them tightly and dole them out sparingly.
            Paul saw things differently.  He had experienced God’s free flow of blessings from his Damascus road experience onward.  He knew his life was blessed.  From a tightly-wound apprentice Pharisee, who was taught to share blessings only with his “own kind,” Paul had morphed into a Christian missionary who lavished blessings as widely and as freely as he had been blessed by God.
            Near the end of his life, imprisoned in Rome, he wanted to make sure none of his blessings were left unbestowed.  He wanted everyone to know how much God could bless them.  He tells the church at Ephesus—a church he founded—that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (italics mine). 
And what are these blessings we have received from God?
            We have been chosen for adoption into God’s family through Jesus Christ.
            We have been blessed with grace through Jesus Christ.
            Our sins have been forgiven through the riches of God’s grace.
            God has made known to us the mystery of God’s redemption.
            As sons and daughters of God, and brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, we have received an inheritance—the gift of eternal life.
            We know this is only a partial list.  The whole list includes Christian fellowship, friends and family with whom we share loving relationships, worship experiences that move and uplift us, and so many, many more.
            In the movie Holiday Inn, Bing Crosby sings that he has a solution for sleepless nights.  When worries and concerns keep him awake, he counts his blessings instead of counting sheep, “and I fall asleep counting my blessings.”  Some of you, like me, may have had the experience of taking a long time settling down at bedtime.  We have discovered we can keep counting our blessings far into the night and never run out.
            In spite of the beatings, the imprisonment, the shipwreck, the enmity of those religious leaders who had once been his friends and teachers, Paul knew he had led a blessed life.  The good things that God had done for him far outweighed the difficulties he had experienced.  his outlook remained positive to the end.  He had received so much from God that his trials were only blips on the radar of his life.
            We’ve been in worship services where the minister or officiant calls for the offering with the words, “Freely you have received; freely give.”  Sounds like a great philosophy by which to distribute our blessings.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Beatitudes for the 21st Century

Beatitudes for the 21st Century
Matthew 5:2-12
            You have heard that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
            But the world says, “Blessed are the rich in the goods of the world, for to them belong all the kingdoms of earth.”
            You have heard that Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
            But the world says, “Blessed are those who have enough of the world’s goods that tragedy never strikes them, or if it does, they can pay for it to go away so they don’t mourn.”
            You have heard that Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
            But the world says, “Blessed are the powerful, the strong, the aggressive, for they shall own the earth now, and in the years to come.”
            You have heard that Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
            But the world says, “Blessed are those who have enough power, position and wealth that they hunger and thirst for nothing.  Their might makes right, and their wealth makes righteousness unnecessary.”
            You have heard that Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
            But the world says, “Blessed are the strong, the powerful, the mighty, for they have no reason to give mercy, and no need to receive mercy.”
            You have heard that Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
            But the world says, “Blessed are the rich and powerful, for they can do whatever they want to whomever they want, and believe they can buy God’s favor with their wealth.”
            You have heard that Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
            But the world says, “Blessed are those who fight for what they want, and who take what they want, for they shall claim victory in the name of their god.”
            You have heard that Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
            But the world says, “Blessed are those powerful enough to avoid persecution, those who can persecute their enemies at will, for they will not have to wait to inherit their kingdom.  The kingdoms of earth belong to them now.”
            You have heard that Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
            But the world says, “Blessed are you when you have enough of the world’s goods, and a powerful enough position, that if someone says something negative about you, true or false, you can sue them using more competent lawyers than they have, and beat them in court.  Rejoice and be glad, for you can make sure no one can get away with anything at your expense.”
            Which set of beatitudes will you follow?  Your choice.  The world will reward you now.  Jesus will reward you later.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

There Shall Be No Poor Among You

There Shall Be No Poor Among You
Deuteronomy 15:1-15
Eric Hoffer, 20th century American philosopher and author, was an eloquent voice in support of the working classes.  His writings still resonate today, predominantly because the problems he addressed still exist.  Hoffer said:
                        The only index by which to judge a government or a way of life is by the quality
            of the people it acts upon.  No matter how noble the objectives of a government,
            if it blurs decency and kindness, cheapens human life, and breeds ill will and
            suspicion—it is an evil government.

            Sounds like a companion piece to today’s Scripture from Deuteronomy.  Hoffer’s statement could easily be a rabbinical commentary on this passage.  It wouldn’t surprise me if there were similar words in the Torah’s companion work, the Talmud.
            God’s intent for Israel was that there would be no generational poverty.  Through Moses, God told the Israelites that there would be plenty of land—plenty of room for everyone to not merely survive, but to thrive.  Upon entering Canaan and taking possession, each man was to be given a piece of this land—a land flowing with milk and honey.  This would be his land forever—well, actually, God’s land—to be settled, tilled, planted and harvested.  Each man would hold his piece of God’s land as God’s caretaker.  The land was not to be taken from him.
            This was the concept behind the sabbatical year of the land discussed in today’s passage.  If your neighbor’s crop failed for any reason—including his own fault—and he gave it to you in payment for a debt, in the seventh year it was to be returned to him.  If your neighbor suffered a reversal of fortune for any reason—including his own fault—and indentured himself or members of his family to you, in the seventh year he or his family were to be set free—free to return to his land and try again. 
            “There shall be no poor among you.”  That’s God’s command.
            There are two statements in this passage which I find troubling.  The first is found in v. 3, which says that foreigners may be treated differently from Israelites.  Elsewhere God says foreigners should be subject to the same laws and treated as fairly as Israelites.  That sounds more like God as I understand God.
            The second statement is in v. 11, which says, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land.”  It seems to me that if God’s instructions are carried out to the fullest, poverty should, at some time, be eradicated.  On the other hand, there will always be people who find themselves in adverse conditions, either because of circumstances beyond their control, or circumstances brought about by their own behavior.  This is why God finishes v. 11 by saying, “Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”
            This isn’t a limited, one-time commandment.  This is the law—God’s law—forever.  No matter when or where, or how often we encounter poverty, we are to work to end it.  This is especially true of generational poverty.  God clearly wants to make sure that if people fall into poverty they don’t get trapped there.
            To the extent that a government, as Hoffer says, “blurs decency and kindness, [and] cheapens human life” it is an evil government.  This is as true of our government today as it was of the government of ancient Israel.  To the extent Christians allow our government to pursue policies that contribute to generational poverty, we are complicit in that evil.  God’s commandments are as binding on us today as they have been at any time in history. 
We have no choice but to obey.     

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The God of All the Nations

The God of All the Nations
Genesis 1:31
            There are two hymn texts to the tune Finlandia.  The tune was written by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) as part of a larger work for orchestra by the same title.  The orchestral piece was written to evoke national pride in the Finnish people during a time of Russian domination.
            One set of words begins, “Be still my soul, for God is on your side.”  It’s the other text I want to reference today.  This hymn is by Lloyd Stone, and was written in 1934.  The title is This Is My Song.  It begins:
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.

            “And God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (italics mine) 
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.

            Recently, my wife and I attended the opening concert of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s new season.  Traditionally, concerts begin with the orchestra standing as the conductor walks to the podium.  The inaugural concert each year begins with something special.  It is not on the program because it doesn’t need to be.
The conductor bows to the audience, turns to the percussion section, gives a cue, and the snare drummer begins a roll.  The audience doesn’t need a cue.  They know to stand, and as the conductor gives a downbeat, orchestra and audience begin “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Many events (ball games, other concerts, who knows what-all) begin with the national anthem; but this is special, because the audience sings along—full voice. 
When my wife and I attend ball games we sing our national anthem.  Usually we’re singing by ourselves, but we sing anyway.  At the MSO concert we are joined by every voice in the audience.  I must admit it is one of the moments when I am the proudest to be an American.
I must remember that people in other lands are as proud of their countries as I am of mine.  We are, perhaps, the most successful nation in the history of this planet (to date), and more people still want to move to this country than want to move from it, but too often we wear this as a mantle of superiority instead of as a cloak of humility.  As Psalm 100:3 says, “It is [God] who has made us, and not we ourselves.”  Our ancestors worked to make this nation what it is, but all success in all creation begins with God.
We have entered a time when many in our country have adopted the slogan, “America first!”  Unfortunately, that attitude often leads to isolationism.  “Let the rest of the world fight it out for second place; we’ll raise the drawbridge and congratulate ourselves on our greatness.”  It is worth noting that all nations who have taken this attitude in the past have eventually fallen from greatness.
“And God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (italics mine)
That means not just you, not just me, not just this country, but every person, and every country.  God is the God of all the nations, and whether we agree or not, God favors no nation over the others.  In God’s eyes we’re all very good.
When we’re tempted to feel superior, it would be good to remember the last lines of This Is My Song:
O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations;
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Walking in Someone Else's Shoes

Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes
1 Corinthians 9:19-23
            There was an article in the sports section of our paper recently about Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the National Football League.  If you’ve been paying attention to sports news during the past year or two you are aware of the controversy over players protesting during the national anthem.  These protests take several forms, including kneeling on one knee (“taking a knee” in football lingo), sitting on the bench, or remaining in the locker room. 
            These actions have angered some and pleased others.  The angry ones see it as a slap in the face to those who are serving, or who have served in the armed forces, especially to those who have died defending their country, although there is not an exclusive connection between the national anthem and the military.  Our national anthem belongs to all Americans, not just those in the armed forces.  Those who support the actions of these players see the protests as a means to call attention to the inequities that exist in American society, especially those connected with race.
Unfortunately, both groups have hardened their positions so that dialogue is difficult if not impossible.  The actions of some in power, both in professional football and in government, have hindered rather than helped communication.  No problem is ever solved when talking between opposing sides becomes impossible.
Roger Goodell is white, privileged, and part of the establishment.  One doesn’t become the commissioner of a major sports league by being a radical and an outsider.  That is why his actions a few weeks ago are so interesting.
Commissioner Goodell spent almost nine hours in New Orleans attending a “Listen and Learn” event sponsored by the NFL Players Coalition, an organization formed to help coordinate players’ social justice efforts.  Players, league officials and team officials were invited to take part in sessions aimed at a more complete understanding of the problems facing minorities in dealing with the criminal justice system, police organizations, and educational and economic structures.
Commissioner Goodell was an active participant, taking notes, asking questions, and attending a bail hearing for a young man who had been arrested on a robbery charge.  The author of the article, Nancy Armour, said Goodell came without an entourage; did not hold a news conference; and did not let his phone interrupt his concentration.  Instead he gave his full attention to the proceedings.  For the entire nine hours he remained mostly unrecognized.
Paul talks about becoming “all things to all people that by all means I might save some.”  I understand the situations are not exactly parallel, but there are connections.  Paul was so concerned about the state of people’s souls in the first century that he sought to understand everyone’s situation and point of view.  He wanted to be able to tailor his message to a wide variety of people.  He tried to understand Jews, Greeks, those inside and outside Mosaic law, and those who society considered weak and unimportant—all so he might help them be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.
I am not trying to place Roger Goodell on the same plane with the apostle Paul, but Commissioner Goodell was in New Orleans to listen to and learn the other side of social issues.  He wasn’t only concerned about the players in his league, although I assume he wanted to understand why some of them felt the need to protest.  He was trying to understand the issues facing young men who the system was failing, football players or not, athletes or not.
Isn’t this what Christ calls us to do—he who became poor that we might become rich?  If he felt the need to walk in our shoes so we might be reconciled, shouldn’t we do the same for those who stand outside society’s doors of privilege?