Sunday, August 26, 2018

What Does Treasure Look Like?

What Does Treasure Look Like?
Matthew 13:45-46
2 Corinthians 4:6-7
            Harrison Ford created a swashbuckling hero in the character of Indiana Jones.  Jones took on many tasks that seemed impossible, but in true heroic fashion overcame all obstacles and completed each one.  I found the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade particularly exciting and meaningful.  There are several reasons I like this film (Sean Connery, for one), but the main reason is that at the center of this film is a search for the Holy Grail, the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper.  If it exists, it would be of inestimable value—if it exists, of which there is no conclusive proof.
            When Ford/Jones finally comes face to face with the cup it is one of many.  He has a limited amount of time to choose the right one.  If he makes a mistake, disaster will strike. 
Which should he choose?  There are many beautiful cups, some made of gold, some encrusted with precious stones—all of them attractive to the eye.  In the middle of all this finery he sees one plain cup, distinguished from the rest because it is so undistinguished. 
Which does he choose?  He chooses the plain cup—and it is the correct choice.  If I remember the end of the movie correctly, the cup is buried in the mountain as it collapses around him.  He escapes (of course!) and saves his father (Sean Connery), but the cup is lost—a fitting end to the story, since the mystery of the Holy Grail is allowed to continue.  It wouldn’t do to have it found in a movie when it hasn’t been found in reality.
Matthew relates a parable Jesus told about the kingdom of heaven.  A merchant is looking for pearls to buy.  He finds one absolutely perfect pearl, and knows he won’t be satisfied with anything less.  He sells everything he possesses in order to purchase the pearl of great value.  Jesus tells this parable to indicate the worth of God’s kingdom.  To those who value the kingdom it is worth more than the total of everything else they have or might acquire.  We must be ready to give up everything to gain the kingdom.
But I think this parable has other applications as well.  What if that pearl had been covered in dirt and grease when the merchant saw it?  Would he have been able to look past the grime to see its perfection?
One time, when my wife and I were house hunting, we looked at a house where every flat surface held knickknacks, and every closet was stuffed with clothing.  At first glance the house was totally unattractive.  When we went home, we were able to mentally remove all the clutter and see the house for its potential.  We purchased the house, decorated it our way, and were quite happy in it.
In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul reminds them that things are not always what they seem on the surface.  “For God,” Paul says, “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  What a beautiful thought! God’s light fills us and shines through us.  But Paul doesn’t stop there.  In the next verse he says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
What jars of clay will you meet today?  What grimy pearls?  Remember, the treasure isn’t always in the beautiful chalice.  Sometimes we’ll meet angels with dirty faces.  Sometimes the treasure is in undistinguished containers. 
Don’t miss them.

Sunday, August 19, 2018


Mark 12:13-17
“I don’t go to church because it’s full of hypocrites.  They sing and pray and act all holy on Sundays, but the rest of the week?  Just terrible!  You should hear them in the back yard—or at work, or at school, or wherever I see them.  Their behavior is anything but Christian.  I certainly don’t want to be associated with those people!  I’ll stay home, read the paper, work in the yard or watch TV, thank you very much.  Probably get more out of that than listening to some preacher tell me I’m a sinner and have to change my ways when he can’t control his own temper.”
How often have we heard these words—or words like them—from people we’ve invited to attend church with us?  And the worst part is we have to agree with them.  They’re right.  The church is full of hypocrites, and many of our fellow churchgoers—either at our church or others—behave so badly between Sundays that they give Christianity a black eye.  What can we say in return?
This is not a new problem.  Jesus faced it throughout his ministry.  In almost every encounter with the Pharisees, the Sadducees, or the scribes—the religious leaders of his day—he had to deal with hypocritical behavior.  These men preached one way and lived another.  There’s a great passage in Matthew 23 where Jesus really lets them have it.  It’s labeled “Seven Woes to the Scribes and Pharisees” in my Bible. 
Jesus is in the temple on the day after his triumphal entry into the city.  The religious leaders try to trap him, and he responds by condemning their behavior in language so strong the only thing that saves him from being swept from the city and stoned is the crowd surrounding him.  His words condemn many of today’s religious leaders as well.
But it is another incident I want to focus on today.  This time it’s Pharisees and Herod’s followers (strange bedfellows indeed!) who try to use Jesus’ words to trap him.  They begin (v. 14) with compliments so phony it doesn’t take someone with mindreading powers to see through them.  We can imagine the crowd groaning inwardly and saying (to themselves, of course), “Come on!  Who do you think you’re fooling?”
Mark tells us that Jesus knows their hypocrisy.  He’s seen this act before, and he can hear insincerity not only in their words but in the tone of their voices as well.  As usual, he gives them an answer that escapes the trap and turns the tables on them. 
The extent of their hypocrisy is evident when Jesus asks for someone to show him a denarius.  This is the temple.  Only Jewish coinage is allowed.  For one of them to have a denarius is to break their own religious laws.  Their action condemns them even before Jesus answers their question.
It's not difficult for us to spot hypocrisy—that is, everyone else’s hypocrisy.  We are all hypocrites in one way or another.  None of us perfectly lives up to the Christianity we profess.  In that regard, our critics who use the hypocrite excuse to defend staying away from church are correct. 
What’s the difference between us and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day?  On the surface, nothing.  But we know we’re trying our best to live up to the standard Jesus set.  Our sincere attempt to follow his teaching doesn’t let us off the hook, but does indicate that we know we have to improve, and with God’s help we’re trying to be less hypocritical and more Christlike.
So…how do we answer our critics who tell us they don’t want to associate with a bunch of hypocrites?  All we can do is live out the gospel as best we can and leave the rest to God.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Time for R&R

Time for R&R
Mark 6:30-32
                It’s essential to step away from our work, stretch our legs, and remember that God is in our very breath.  We need to rejuvenate our bodies, minds and spirits by resting and relaxing, sharing a simple meal with families and friends, and appreciating our blessings.  A slower pace instills a reverence for life, for God, our world, and human relationships.  In silence and solitude, we can recognize the difference between our needs and wants.  This discipline creates the space to identify what separates us from God, and helps us move toward a more intimate relationship with him.
            I’m not sure who wrote this.  It may have been Ed Forster, the National Literary Secretary for the Salvation Army, USA, in 2009.  It matters less who wrote it than the truth of what was written.  Time for rest and relaxation is absolutely essential for the human spirit as well as for the human body. 
            I remember reading somewhere that Americans are absolutely horrible at taking vacation time.  We consider our presence at the work site so vital that we believe our employer can’t do without us.  Someone has said that our greatest fear might be the opposite:  our employer may find that he/she can get along without us, and we’ll be out of a job.
            It is interesting that those we consider to be the lower animals recognize the need for rest more than we do.  If we watch our pets we’ll see that they consider it essential to spend part of the day at rest.  Of course, there’s the problem of cats, who seem to think that an entire day of rest is acceptable and not too much to indulge in.  Even our children find times in their busy day to let go of their play (their work actually) and rest.  They may not nap as often as we’d like, but they do run out of energy, although not as often or at the times we want.
            Jesus knew this.  The gospels tell us of times he sent his disciples ahead or got up early in order to be alone.  This was time he spent in prayer.  The human Jesus found it essential to be in contact with his heavenly Father—evidence that we should do the same.  Time spent in prayer is even more essential for us than it was for Jesus.
            But time for prayer isn’t the only down time we need.  We need time away from the ordinary cares of the day—each day—as well as extended times away from the ordinary cares of our lives.  We need time for rest and relaxation.
            Jesus knew this as well.  Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus sent his twelve closest disciples out in pairs to preach, teach, and cast out unclean spirits.  We don’t know how long they were on the road, or exactly where in Galilee they went, but when they came back Jesus knew they needed down time.  Undoubtedly, he needed some time away from the crowds as well.  His cousin, John the Baptist, had recently been executed by Herod (Mark 6:14-29).  This must have been upsetting for him.  Everything called for Jesus and his closest followers to escape from the crowds and retreat to a desolate place.
            When we read further we learn it didn’t work out.  The crowds not only followed them, but anticipated where they were going and got there first.  The rest, relaxation and debriefing didn’t happen.
            Even though the disciples didn’t get their quiet time, that doesn’t let us off the hook.  We need R&R on a regular basis.  Time spent daily with God—definitely; we can’t do without that.  But we also need time away from the pressures of our daily lives.  Perhaps other Americans don’t realize how much they need time away from work, but as Christians, our reading of the gospels should make it clear to us. 
After all, if a workaholic like Paul took time off (Acts 21:23-26), why shouldn’t we?