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.