Sunday, February 25, 2018

Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept...

Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept…
Matthew 25:31-40
            This isn’t the first time I’ve written on this passage, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  I find myself drawn to Jesus’ description of the final judgment over and over.  I can’t get away from it.
            As a young man, Isaac Watts complained to his minister father about the deadly dullness of the hymns sung in their church.  The elder Watts said what should always be said to the younger generation: “If you don’t like it, fix it.”—specifically, “Write your own hymns.”  And so Isaac did.  He became one of Christianity’s influential hymn writers.  One of his most well-known hymns begins:
Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb,
And shall I fear to own his cause,
Or blush to speak his name?

            It’s easy to fall into the trap of confessing Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and figuring we’re set.  We don’t have to worry any more.  As a pastor once said to me, “Your ticket is punched.”  This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.
            We are called to be missionaries—not in the faraway, foreign country sense, but in the way Jesus was a missionary.  He had a mission to perform.  As he said, he came not to be served but to serve.  In Matthew 25 he passes that sense of mission to his followers, and he makes it not a request but an order.  Jesus doesn’t say, “If you have nothing else to occupy your day…,” or, “In your spare time…,” or, “I’d appreciate it if you would consider…”  He says this is what we must be doing in order to inherit the kingdom he has prepared. 
            This is not an easy assignment.  Sometimes we’ll make mistakes, and give or do the wrong thing, failing or offending those we are supposed to be serving.  Sometimes we’ll meet opposition.  As Steve Hedgren says, “If a project is good and it is going to make a difference, there will always be opposition.” 
Sometimes we’ll be so weary in well-doing that we’ll want to pack it in.  We’ll say, “Surely I’ve done enough.  Jesus must be pleased with my effort.  Time to rest on my accomplishments.”  Isaac Watts expresses those sentiments this way:
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fight to win the prize,
And sail on stormy seas?

            He answers his own question (my paraphrase):
No! I must fight if I would win,
Increase my courage, Lord!
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by thy word.

            Francis Bacon put it this way: “Here is a test to see if your mission on earth is finished.  If you’re alive—it isn’t.”  Jesus puts no time limit on our mission, no specific number of cups of cold water served, or visits to the sick, or meals delivered.  His implication is that we are to keep serving to the end.  In fact, he makes it clear in the first half of Chapter 25 that we are to be vigilant because we do not know when our end will be.
            So we must keep going—going to the place where those in need are to be found.  As Tony Campolo says, “Jesus never says to the poor, ‘Come find the church,’ but He says to those of us in the church, ‘Go into the world and find the poor, hungry, homeless, imprisoned.’”

            And serve them in Jesus’ name.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


Genesis 1:26-27
            For the first time in a very long career I’m teaching philosophy.  I’ve never liked philosophy, because the only way philosophers seem to relate is to shoot each other down.  One makes a statement.  The next one says, “You can’t possibly be right.”  Both of them are challenged by a third, then a fourth.  Then the first one weighs in and the process begins over again.  This produces a never-ending cycle of statement-criticism-criticism that seems to go round in circles without getting any nearer a solution.
            That’s the way I saw philosophy until I began to teach it.  Now I see how kernels of truth come out in each philosopher’s writing, not necessarily getting to the truth, but stating parts of a truth.
            My classes have been struggling with the question, “Does God exist?”  This has been difficult for some who have been taught the truth all their lives.  Now they must question their version of the truth to discover how true it is.  In the response papers they turn in at the end of class I’m beginning to see comments like, “I’m confused.”  This lets me know I’m making progress—not that I want them confused, but I do want them thinking.  Out of that confusion will come a truth that will lead them closer to the truth, which is that we can only speculate on what God is like, and only see a little part of God’s infinite greatness—and that will have to be enough.
            Some of these students have been told they should not question God or anything about God.  The first thing I teach them is that it’s alright to question God about anything, including God’s existence.  Bertrand Russell said it best: “And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.”  God wouldn’t be much of a God if offense was taken so easily. 
            Humans struggle with what it means to be created in God’s image.  We know we don’t share a physical image.  How, then, are we like God?  I’ve heard a few answers that I like. 
One is our ability to reason.  The ability to think things through and come to a logical conclusion seems to set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. 
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God is the only one who is creative, yet humans also possess that ability.  We create works of art, invent marvelous machines, design buildings, develop new medicines—all signs that we possess this God-like ability.
We can feel compassion.  Unfortunately, most of are not as compassionate as we should be, either in depth or in breadth, but we do possess the ability to care.
Let me share one more way I believe humans are like God:  curiosity.  I believe God must have been curious to see how the universe and all the varieties of creation would turn out.  I also believe that God, existing outside time and therefore able to see the entire scope of history—past, present and future—in a panorama, is still curious to see how we rational, creative, sometimes compassionate humans will use our God-given abilities—to work things out.
Samuel Johnson said, “Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.”  It’s also, I believe, a quality given to us by our Creator.
I design my courses to reward, as far as possible, the student who is curious and believes in hard work.  Surely God will reward the curious as well with answers to their questions.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Forty-Day Preparation

The Forty-Day Preparation
Mark 1:12-13
            Lent begins Wednesday—Ash Wednesday.  Wednesday is also Valentine’s Day.  Interesting!  I’m sure that must have happened before in my life, but I can’t remember when it was—and my memory isn’t that far gone. 
I looked it up.  The last time Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day coincided was 1945, when I was a mere three years old.  No wonder I don’t remember!
            Now that we’ve established my age and my memory, what is Lent?  The word is derived from the Old English lencten which means spring season.  Lent is also called (in Latin) Quadragesima, which means fortieth.  Lent is the forty days (minus Sundays) before Easter.  It ends on Maundy Thursday, which is three days before Easter.  This year Easter falls on April Fool’s Day (April 1), which presents another interesting set of possibilities. 
            Lent is a time of introspection, a time when we are invited to look closely at our lives, see where we’re going wrong, and affirm our desire to make corrections.  It is a time of penance, of self-denial, and of repentance. 
Repentance is one of those words we use more casually than we should.  One young child asked to define repentance, said, “It means being sorry enough to quit.”  I couldn’t say it any better.  It means to turn around from the direction in which we have been going and to start moving in the opposite direction.  You can see why “being sorry enough to quit” is such a good definition.  You can also see what I mean when I say we use the word much too casually.
How should we observe Lent?  I’m tempted to say “celebrate” Lent, but I’m not sure that’s the correct word.  If it is, it opens up a whole new definition of celebrate
Some people fast as a replication and remembrance of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness.  Mark tells us that Jesus was alone during that time, accompanied by wild beasts and angels—quite a combination.  Mark doesn’t say Jesus fasted in the wilderness, but other gospel writers make that a part of his experience there.  Mark also doesn’t tell us whether the wild beasts bothered Jesus.  Perhaps the presence of the angels made that impossible.  We are told that the angels ministered to Jesus.  Perhaps that ministry included food and water, perhaps it didn’t.  We can’t be sure. 
What we can be sure of is that Jesus would have been alone with his thoughts.  He had just been baptized—ordained for ministry—when the Spirit drove him into the wilderness, there to be without human contact for what must have seemed a very long time.
Many people who choose not to fast choose instead to give something up for Lent.  Whatever that something is, it should be real self-denial.  If I gave up Brussels sprouts that wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice since I don’t eat them anyway.  In our church we are invited to contribute the money we would have spent on whatever we give up to a scholarship fund that helps children attend our denominational camp.  That’s a positive way to enhance self-denial.
There are some who, instead of giving something up (or perhaps in addition to giving something up), take on a spiritual discipline—a period of personal devotions, or a commitment to spend more time in prayer or in Bible reading.  Fasting is also a spiritual discipline.

My suggestion for this year is that we make an effort to connect whatever we do to the specialness of this Ash Wednesday.  The point of Valentine’s Day is love.  The point of Jesus’ life and death is love.  Perhaps we could focus on loving more—loving more people and loving the people we love more fully.  That seems like a fitting way to observe—celebrate—Lent.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Lessons from the Beginning

Lessons from the Beginning
Genesis 1:1-2:4
            Recently I had occasion to preach on Chapter 1 of Genesis, a word that means beginning—so I was preaching on the beginning of the beginning.  I think it’s a good idea to occasionally return to the beginning to make sure we haven’t missed something, some clue as to where we should be and where we should be going.  In the song, “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music Julie Andrews (Maria Von Trapp) sings, “Let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.”  Let’s do it! 
            Every time I return to Genesis 1, I find something I missed before.  My good friend Mike Brower says the same thing.  He presented our Scripture lesson that Sunday, and he found things he hadn’t noticed before.  Let’s examine some of my discoveries.
            Genesis 1:3—“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”  What was that light?  It separated day from night—but God doesn’t create the sun, moon and stars for another eleven verses, so it couldn’t be their light that appeared on the first day.  Mike Brower suggested it could have been the Light of the World—and that’s a tempting thought.  But classic Christian doctrine says that Jesus Christ is uncreated.  Like God the Father, he has existed from the beginning—in fact, from before the beginning. 
            Perhaps that light was what scientists refer to as the Big Bang.  It certainly fits the description, since that explosion released so much energy that the universe is still expanding.  It’s a tempting thought, one that both conservative Christians and liberal scientists will have trouble with.  Perhaps that’s why I find it so tempting.
            Genesis 1:29-30—God has already created the animals (v.24) and humankind (v. 26-28), and now God tells them what they are to eat.  All animals and all people are to be vegetarians.  No killing of animals, even by other animals, and certainly not by humans.  We are to eat “every plant yielding seed…and every tree with seed in it.”  The animals have been given “every green plant for food.”  If this sounds strange (and it certainly does to me!), remember God’s promise in Isaiah 65:25, the prophecy regarding the new earth that God will create in the age to come:  “The wolf and the lamb will graze together [my emphasis]; the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”  Apparently, this is how God intended things to be.  It’s an interesting thought.
            Genesis 2:2-3—“And on the seventh day God finished his work…and he rested on the seventh day…So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy…”  The seventh day wasn’t something added on, separate from creation, it was the culmination of creation, it’s crowning touch.  It was the day God sat back and examine all that had been created, all that God had made and blessed with the words, “And God saw that it was good.”
            And so we are to finish our work week with a Sabbath—a day of rest, so we can enjoy and appreciate God’s good works.  “It is finished,” God said.  “Let us enjoy the fruits of our labor.”  We are to keep the Sabbath Day holy because God sanctified it.  Unfortunately, most of us fail miserably at this.
            Genesis 1:1-2—Perhaps what intrigued me the most was that God began before the beginning.  The Jewish Study Bible translates the passage this way:  “In the beginning, when God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth being unformed and void…”  Before the beginning, the earth was here, but it was wasteland, and whatever existed was chaos.  

God’s singular accomplishment over the period of creation, however long it lasted, was to bring order out of chaos—for which God deserves the highest praise.  We can be grateful for this, and for God continuing to bring order to order the chaos of our world—and of our lives.