Sunday, July 29, 2018

How Many Chances

How Many Chances?
Hebrews 9:24-28
            “If life had a second edition, how I would correct the proofs.”
            These are the words of John Clare, a poet who lived and wrote in the first half of the 19th century.  It’s an interesting question, and one that bears consideration, especially because of the many ways different religions look at life and death.
            Between 2600 BCE and 1530 CE Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism developed in the Indian subcontinent.  There are many beliefs that are individual to each religion, but they have at least one in common:  they all believe in reincarnation.  Although each one has a different take on the process, the basic idea is the same:  how you live this life determines your next life.  If you have lived a good life, you will return at a higher level of existence.  If you’ve been a bad person, you will not fare well when you begin your next life.  How many chances do you get to reach perfection?  As many as you need.  Each religion posits a different “final destination,” but the common belief is that everyone will reach that destination, no matter how long it takes.  If you remember the movie, “Groundhog Day,” with Bill Murray, you’ll have a pretty good secular idea of how this works.
            Those of us who have been brought up in the Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition have been taught a very different theology.  Every person gets one chance to live a good life.  Those who do will have a reward in the age to come.  Those who choose the path of evil will have quite a different afterlife.  This is what the writer of Hebrews puts forward in today’s reading: “And just as it is appointed for [a person] to die once, and after that the judgment…”
 The author is making a statement about the death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ.  Just as humans die once, so Jesus offered himself as the perfect sacrifice once, ending the need for animal sacrifices, which must be repeated year after year.  The line about humans dying once and then facing judgment sets up the comparison with Jesus’ sacrifice.  Still, it makes the point that we have one chance to get things right, one attempt at leading a life good enough to earn an eternal reward.
Which view is correct?  We are tempted to say, “The one with which we have been raised.”  But if we’re completely honest, we don’t know for sure.  No one has come back from the other side to reveal what will happen to us.  Christians live in the sure and certain hope that if we are reconciled to God through the saving act of Jesus Christ we will live eternally with God.  I would have a difficult time arguing against that hope.  I’m comfortable believing that I will earn my reward at the end of this life if I have led the life God has called me to. Still, it’s tempting to leave the door open to different ways of looking at life. 
And what if they’re both true?  I know, that’s an even more difficult position than believing solely in reincarnation.  But what if God has created many paths to glory?  I’m not completely comfortable with that concept, but I’m also not comfortable with setting limits on God.  Whatever God wants to do, God has the power to do, and we know that God’s ways and thoughts are so far above ours that we can never fully understand them.
Having said all that, I’m staying where I am, comfortable and confident in my belief, but not willing to limit God by saying that any other belief is impossible. 
But John Clare raises an interesting question.  What if we had a second chance—even just one instead of the unlimited number offered by the Indian religions?  What changes would we make?  How would we “correct the proofs,” or edit the copy?  Perhaps we’d better make those changes now—just in case.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Doing What Is Right in the Eyes of the Lord

Doing What Is Right in the Eyes of the Lord
2 Kings 22-23
            Today’s Scripture is two chapters long—much longer than the average reading for a devotional.  I know it—and I don’t apologize for it.  While I usually limit myself to a paragraph in my own devotional reading, I also spend time journaling on it—which is my objective for reading Scripture in the first place.  But occasionally it doesn’t hurt to break the pattern.  I urge you to read Josiah’s whole story.
            In his book, The Bible Makes Sense, Walter Brueggemann says that faithful Bible study is never neutral.  It isn’t just a matter of learning facts about a religion in order to understand it better.  I’ve taught classes in world religions, where the approach is to be as objective as possible.  In most cases the students are outsiders, looking into the unfamiliar world of an unfamiliar religion.  The objective is to learn as much as possible about the religion, while realizing that we are not likely to become practitioners.
            When we look at the sacred writings of our own religion we modify our objectivity.  Our emotional commitment to the teachings of these writings is too deep to allow us to do otherwise.  As difficult as it is to talk about someone else’s religion subjectively, it is almost impossible to talk about our own religion objectively.  We’re insiders, and that won’t change.
            The list of kings of Israel and Judah in the books of 1 and 2 Kings begins with the death of King David.  The Israel/Judah trajectory was downhill from that point.  There were some good kings, many more bad kings, and some downright horrible kings.  The history of Israel/Judah from David to the Babylonian captivity is written in mostly negative terms.
            Josiah was an exception.  He became king in Jerusalem when he was eight years old, and he reigned thirty-one years.  The sacred writer says, “And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father [ancestor], and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.” 
            When Josiah was twenty-six, he ordered the temple to be restored.  This was Solomon’s temple.  It had fallen into disrepair through neglect.  As the workmen began their restoration, Hilkiah, the high priest, found the book of the law.  Josiah was so upset when he learned how far Judah had fallen away from God’s law that he tore his clothes.  This was his immediate reaction.  His long-term reaction was to reinstitute the law for the people of Judah.
            All this happened in the 7th century BC.  It was a reformation of the Judaic religion based on Hebrew Scripture.  Although those Scriptures as we know them would not be canonized for another few hundred years, the book of the law was enough to bring about serious reform.
            Down through the ages there have been several important reforms in Christianity.  They have invariably been based on Scripture.  A reform is a return to an earlier form of the religion, but it also involves a new way of looking at that religion.  It’s moving forward to something new by re-examining something old.  The foundation remains the same, but the interpretation is different.
            Martin Luther in the 16th century, John Wesley in the 17th century, The Campbells and Barton Stone in the 18th century, and Vatican II in the 20th century are all examples of looking back to move ahead.  In each case the reformers were inspired to look at Scripture in a way that re-established the foundation while building on it. 
Brueggemann says, “It is the function of the Scriptures to renew the church and call it to repentance.”  Perhaps it’s time to look at Scripture to see where we should move next—to find out what we must do to do right in the sight of the Lord.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Matter of Values

A Matter of Values
Philippians 3:7-11, Mark 10:17-22
            Sunday I preached this passage from Philippians.  I emphasized Paul’s self-emptying, as he set aside everything he had, and everything he was in order to become one with “Christ Jesus, my Lord.”
            Monday morning I began my devotions reading the story of the rich young man in Mark’s gospel.  I was struck immediately by the contrast between this man and Paul.
            Paul was highly educated in Hebrew and Torah law, and most likely in Greek and Greek philosophy as well.  Apparently he was not from a wealthy family.  He was a tentmaker, probably descended from a line of tentmakers, a skilled laborer from a blue-collar family.  He most likely owned little of the world’s goods, but he was rich in knowledge, intelligence, and promise.  He studied with Gamaliel, one of the outstanding Jewish teachers of his generation. His prospects were much brighter than his present circumstances.
            We don’t know much about the young man who came to Jesus.  Luke identifies him as a ruler but gives no clue as to what he ruled.  Three gospel writers tell us he was rich.  That’s all we really know, but there are several assumptions we can make based on what we know about first century Middle Eastern culture.
We can assume that, since he was young, he probably had not had time to earn his wealth.  It was most likely inherited.  In the first century the way most people increased their wealth was by decreasing someone else’s.  That may have been the way his family accumulated their wealth.  We should assume that he wasn’t alone in the world, that he had family obligations.  Whether he was married with a family, or responsible for his parents—or both, there were quite likely people who depended on him.
            Does Jesus’ reaction mean he condemned this young man for being rich?  That is an assumption we should not make.  Nowhere does Jesus condemn anyone for having wealth.  He has a lot to say about the way a person’s wealth is used.  He makes clear that what we have should be used for improving the lives of those less fortunate. 
Instead of condemning, Jesus looks on this man and loves him—the only person in the gospels about whom this can be said.  What Jesus saw in this man was not that he was too wealthy, but that he was too attached to his riches.  They were standing in the way of his relationship to Jesus, costing him his place in the kingdom of God.
Contrast him with Paul.  While Paul had little to give up in the way of worldly goods, he gladly gave up everything in order to possess Jesus Christ completely.  Gone was his rich Jewish heritage.  Gone was his place as an up-and-coming member of the Pharisees.  Gone was his standing as one who believed in the law so completely he was willing to persecute the members of this new religion.  Gone was everything he had worked and lived for.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians brims with the joy he feels as a result of his self-emptying.  He couldn’t be happier.  In Philippians 1:21 he says, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  Possess nothing but Christ, and be satisfied. 
The young man was disheartened by Jesus’ words, and “went away sorrowful.”  No joy for him.  He couldn’t see past what he had to realize what he could become.
The same choice faces each of us today.  What must I give up to gain Christ?  What roadblock prevents me from completely following the one I call Lord?  What is it that I grasp so tightly that I cannot clasp the hand of Jesus? 
Perhaps most important, which of these two men should be my role model?

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Sea of God's Forgetfulness

The Sea of God’s Forgetfulness
Micah 7:18-19
To ancient humans the sea represented chaos—evil.  There were two reasons for this belief.  First, they could not see below the surface, so had no idea what was down there.  Fish, of course, but what else?  As late as the Middle Ages, maps had the words “Here be monsters” superimposed on the waters of the seas. 
Then there were the storms.  If one ventured too far from shore, and a storm blew up, the ship would most certainly be lost, along with all those on board.  I suspect that might be part of the reason Lake Gennesaret is called the Sea of Galilee.  This body of water is a lake that behaves like a sea.  Although it is shallow (unlike the sea), storms blow up suddenly and rage fiercely.  Remember the stories the gospel writers told about Jesus calming the storms. 
Just north of Syracuse, New York, lies Oneida Lake.  Like the Sea of Galilee, it is shallow. Storms rise quickly and can catch boaters unawares.  When I lived in that area there were not infrequent reports of people caught out on the lake in a storm, the boat capsizing, and lives lost.
The vast majority of biblical mentions of seas are negative.  Seas roar up, overflow their shores, cause destruction, until God calms the storm and restores peaceful waters—for Israel’s God rules the seas.  From the very beginning we see the Spirit of God moving over the waters, bringing order out of chaos.
God also used water to punish Israel’s enemies.  The most notable example is God rolling back the Red Sea, allowing Israel to pass through on dry land.  When the people were safely on the other side, freed from slavery, God allowed the waters to come together and drown Pharaoh and the Egyptian army.
My wife and I have just returned from a three-week vacation where more than two thirds of the time was spent on the open seas.  We began by crossing the Atlantic from New York City to Southampton, England, which took seven days.  We ended by reversing the process.  In between there were a few more days spent entirely at sea.  Outside of the occasional passing ship, or (in the North Sea) a few oil or gas platforms, we saw nothing but water. 
There were a few days when the movement of the water caused the ship to roll a bit, and one day where everyone walked as if they were drunk because of the motion.  On those days it was easy to understand why ancient mariners kept close to shore.  Large waves would have been frightening and disastrous, especially since the ships were much smaller than ours.
My overwhelming impression was of the vastness of the sea.  When you see nothing but water for days upon days you begin to understand how small an area of our planet is devoted to land.  It is the vastness of the sea, more than any other characteristic, that stays with me.
To the best of my knowledge, the prophet Micah was not a seafarer.  Still, he understood something of the sea’s vastness.  In the final verses of his prophecy he catches a vision of the extent of God’s forgiveness.  God will indeed destroy the wicked, but God’s steadfast love and compassion will always be available to those who do what is right.  “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity?” Micah asks, then adds: “He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.”
But the words that continue to resonate with me after our sea voyage are: “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea,” a sea so vast our sins will disappear and be remembered no more.
What a promise!  What a blessing!