Sunday, March 31, 2019

We Are Family

We Are Family
Matthew 6:9-15
            The denomination in which I grew up is one that sends its ministers to the positions the leaders want them to fill.  This includes assistant pastors as well as senior pastors.  My father, known for his ability to work with young ministers, was often sent an assistant right out of seminary.  This young man or woman would be fresh from the classroom, eager to begin a ministerial career, and usually without much of an idea as to what that career would entail.
            One year the young man assigned to us was Robert Watson.  I think I was a sophomore in high school when he was appointed to assist my father.  One of our family stories was that he met us for the first time at a New York Giants (yes, that’s right) baseball game.  That was where we happened to be going when he was to arrive in town.
            Bob went on to a distinguished career as a leader in the denomination.  Although I was several years his junior, he was always Bob Watson to me, and remained a dear friend.  Bob once wrote, “We can’t say ‘Our Father’ without acknowledging that we are brothers and sisters.”
            The Lord’s Prayer is a significant part of most Christian worship services.  Not every congregation recites it every Sunday, but a huge majority makes this prayer a regular part of worship.  One of the problems with this kind of familiarity is that it is easy to fall into rote repetition, and forget to think about what we’re saying.  For a few years I sat next to a good friend in church choir who recited the prayer with fervent intensity.  It was an inspiration to hear his devotion to God and his commitment to the words of the prayer each Sunday.  It gave me a new appreciation of the Lord’s Prayer.  I had fallen into the rote repetition habit.  My friend rescued me from that failing, for which I am grateful.
            I remember attending an interfaith, interracial worship service in the 1960’s.  Many of you will remember it was a period of turmoil and disagreement.  Racial tensions were high, and several Christian organizations in the city where I lived tried to bring Christians of different faiths and different races together to find ways of moving forward to understanding and love.  One of the leaders of that service, just before we prayed the Lord’s Prayer, reminded us that when we said the words, “Our Father,” in such a setting there was much deeper meaning than when we said it in our all-white/all-black congregations on Sunday mornings.
            I think this is something of what Bob Watson was getting at.  Whenever we say “Our Father” we are affirming that all those around us are members of one family—our brothers and sisters.  Even if we don’t get along well with the person sitting next to us, or across the aisle, or two rows in front or in back of us, that person is family, united with us through our parental relationship with God. 
            What would it be like if we prayed “Our Father” with our Jewish brothers and sisters?  There’s nothing in the Lord’s Prayer (that I can think of) that would prohibit them from reciting it.  What if we figured out a version of the Lord’s Prayer that would allow Muslims, and Hindus and Buddhists to join us?  Wouldn’t that be admitting that we are all brothers and sisters because we are all God’s children?
            I realize that my vision is nearly impossible to achieve, but there must be something we can say that will bring us together, that will help us realize that we are related, that we have more in common than what separates us, and that we have an obligation to get along, to work together, to live together in peace—shalom—because our Father expects it. 
Wouldn’t that be something!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Will We Always Have the Poor?

Will We Always Have the Poor?
Matthew 26:6-13
            There is no book like the Bible for incorrect interpretation.  We can make Scripture say almost anything we want.  I remember a young assistant to my pastor father.  In one of his sermons he told a story about a woman who read the verse, “All things are yours,” and used it to justify her shoplifting.
            An extreme example?  Extremely silly, perhaps, but unfortunately, not extreme.  Scripture has been used to support racism, white supremacy, misogyny, anti-gay rhetoric—any and every antisocial, anti-people movement you can think of.  One of my favorite examples is white supremacists claiming they want to make America a Christian nation by getting rid of African-Americans, along with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and anyone else that doesn’t fit their idea of who belongs here.
            In Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus’ anointing there is potential for misinterpretation.  Jesus is at Bethany, staying with Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  It is sometime during the week between his triumphal entry (Palm Sunday) and his crucifixion.  Days find him in the temple, teaching, proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom, and irritating the Pharisees and other religious leaders.  Nights he spends with his friends in Bethany.
            In Bethany, Jesus is invited to the house of Simon, the leper.  We can assume he is a healed leper, since he is living in the village and associating with people.  In Matthew’s version an unnamed woman pours ointment on Jesus’ head as he reclines at table with the other guests.  The disciples (which ones we don’t know) consider this a waste of money.  This ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.
            Jesus defends the woman and her action.  He tells his followers that she has done a beautiful thing; she has prepared his body for the burial which will come much too soon. He’s acknowledging this woman’s gift to him—a parting gift, since he will soon leave them. 
            His most interesting statement comes in the middle of his speech.  He says, “You will always have the poor with you.”
            This statement is often interpreted as meaning we can never eliminate poverty, that it will be a problem until the kingdom of God is fully realized in the age to come.  It’s a good excuse for allowing poverty to continue.  We have become numb to the horrific effects poverty has on those who suffer its consequences.
            I don’t believe Jesus meant the statement that way.  He does not accept poverty as a permanent condition.  Jesus’ words are actually a condemnation of the disciples—of everyone at the table.  “If you are so concerned about the poor,” he seems to be asking, “why aren’t you doing something about eliminating poverty?  Is it possible your concern is hypocritical?  Is it possible you care less about the poor than about condemning this woman’s behavior?
            God makes it clear in Deuteronomy (15:1-5) that there should not be poverty—no generational poverty—in the nation of Israel.  Yet many, many years later, poverty is still very much a problem for God’s people. 
            Why?  Why has poverty not been eliminated?  God issued commandments that, if followed, would have prevented generational poverty.  There would have been reversals of fortune that might affect one generation, but under God’s system, poverty would never be carried forward.  Why were they not followed? 
Why are they not followed today?

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Expectant Joy

Expectant Joy
Luke 18:31-34
            Advent is a time of joy—expectant joy.  True, much of this expectant joy has to do with the secular celebration that comes at the end of the waiting.  We build Christmas up so much that we can’t help but feel expectant joy.  Decorations, special foods (especially cookies!), shopping for presents, programs at church, all contribute to that feeling of expectant joy that elevates this season far above ordinary times of the year.
            Advent is a time of expectant waiting.  We see it in the faces and actions of our children.  Their expectant joy is evident in everything they do.  Their expectant joy reinforces and heightens our own.  We want to make them happy.  We want to please them with all the trimmings of Christmas—especially that one present that will make the day extra special.  We can’t wait for Thanksgiving to come because Advent will be right behind, and Christmas right behind—all right, four weeks behind—that.  And the expectant joy grows.
            Why don’t we feel the same expectant joy during Lent?  The waiting period is longer, of course, but there is a significant event at the end, the most important event in the Christian calendar.  Is it because we don’t—perhaps can’t is better—make as great a secular celebration of Easter as we do of Christmas?  Oh, we try:  Easter baskets, new clothes, sunrise services breakfasts at church, special meals.  We do all this and more, but it’s not the same.  Expectant joy doesn’t build through Lent as it does through Advent.
            Should there be expectant joy during Lent?  That’s a tough question.  We’ve made Lent a solemn time.  We give things up.  We spend time contemplating our relationship with God, perhaps involving more time in prayer, in Bible reading.  Perhaps we add periods of fasting, or more work serving others.  In some churches the word alleluia is not spoken or sung from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday.  None of these actions raise expectant joy.
            Then there’s the problem of Holy Week.  As we prepare for and observe Maundy Thursday and Good Friday expectant joy is the farthest emotion from our mind.  How can we experience joy as we contemplate the last twenty-four hours of Jesus’ life on earth?  Knowing what he went through, how he suffered, the agony of his death, how can we even imagine expectant Joy?
            Jesus knew.  We don’t know when he knew for sure what his fate would be, but he knew. I assume he knew before he began his ministry how it would end.  And yet, even with this knowledge he enjoyed warm friendships, blessed companionship with his inner circle, with Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus, and perhaps others of whom we are not aware.  There was joy!
            When he set his face toward Jerusalem he told his closest disciples where they were going and what would happen.  Luke tells us they didn’t understand—couldn’t fathom how any of this could happen.  He had already predicted his death three times, but it hadn’t sunk in.  Perhaps, in spite of Jesus’ announcement, the disciples felt expectant joy heading for Jerusalem at Passover.  What greater blessing could there be?
            Somewhere, deep within us, under the layers of solemn contemplation, under the impending sorrow of Holy Week, there must be at least a glimmer of expectant joy.  As a seed endures the winter so it can bloom beautifully in the spring, so our joy, hidden as it might be, waits through this solemn time so it can burst forth in full force on Easter morning.  Perhaps the joy is even sweeter because of the wait, even fuller because of the solemnity that proceeds it.
            It may be Lent, but Easter’s coming.  Wait—in expectant joy.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

God's Standards

God’s Standards
Exodus 20:1-17
            Mohandes Gandhi earned the title mahatma (“great soul”) through his non-violent leadership among the Indian people, first in South Africa, and later in his home country.  His accomplishments are well-known, and his methods have been studied and adapted by leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. in his struggle for equal rights.
            Gandhi was not a Christian; he was a Hindu, but he was aware of the teachings of Jesus Christ, including the Sermon on the Mount.  In a sense, his non-violent approach to bringing about change descended directly from the example of Jesus. 
            Gandhi said: “Seven blunders of the world that lead to violence; wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, politics without principle.”  The devastation caused by these blunders is evident in the political, socioeconomic and religious arenas in our country today.  Look around! 
See the lack of compassion and understanding in those whose wealth comes not from the work of their own hands, but from inheritance, or from illicit activities.  The “Let them eat cake!” attitude evidenced by so many of these people makes it impossible for them to relate to their poorer brothers and sisters in the human family.
See the wasted lives of those who put personal pleasure before everything else.  Their lack of care and concern for those who might get in the way of their search for more sensual gratification is a prime example of self-centeredness.
See those who pursue knowledge as an end in itself.  They may impress with their erudition, but their lack of character soon makes it evident that there is no wisdom in them.
See those whose immoral business practices result in death and destruction.  Lives are ruined, the environment is destroyed, all in the lust for more money than they can ever spend.
See those who believe in the absolute rule of science.  God chooses to reveal scientific knowledge to humankind so that we will understand better both God and ourselves.  Without this perspective our discoveries are more likely to cause devastation and destruction than to improve the human condition.
See those whose worship is self-congratulation rather than gratitude to God for the blessings they receive.  In their hands religion becomes not a way to God, but a cudgel to attack those who don’t agree with their point of view.
See those who put self-interest and party above country and people.  They enact laws and establish policies to benefit themselves and those who support them, regardless of the harm they may do to others.
God will have none of it.  As far back as Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness, God set standards for humanity to follow.  God comes first.  God has created us and sustains us.  If we put God ahead of everything and everyone else, God will bless us—perhaps not with material goods or long, care-free lives, but with the peace that comes with God’s presence.
Once our relationship with God is as it should be, God calls us to relate to our fellow humans in ways that are ethical and compassionate—exactly as God behaves.  If we follow God’s commandments—if we live up to the standards God has set for us, we will have no trouble avoiding the blunders that Gandhi says lead to violence, and that God says are unacceptable.