Sunday, October 27, 2019

Who Is Correct?

Who Is Correct?
Matthew 28:1-10
Mark 16:1-8
Luke 24:1-12
John 20:1-10

            The differences among the gospel accounts of the resurrection are striking.  This has been on my mind recently as I work my way through the four gospels in my devotions.  I’ve just finished Luke’s account, so the topic is fresh in my mind.
Matthew says there were two women at the tomb (Mary Magdalene and the other Mary).  An angel came and rolled the stone away.  Jesus met and spoke with the women as they returned to the city.  None of the disciples went to the tomb to corroborate the women’s account.  Matthew is the only one to mention the presence of soldiers guarding the tomb.
Mark names three women (Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome). There is one “young man” (presumably an angel) who greets the women.  Jesus does not appear.  No disciples go to the tomb because the women say nothing to anyone.
Luke identifies three women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James) by name, and says there were other women present.  In Luke’s account there are two men in dazzling apparel (again, presumably angels) who greet the women.  Jesus does not appear.  The women return to the city and tell the apostles.  Most of the men think this is “an idle tale,” but Peter goes to the tomb to see for himself.  At the end of the Emmaus Road story we learn that Peter has seen the risen Jesus.
John mentions only Mary Magdalene at to the tomb.  She finds it empty, and returns to tell the disciples.  Peter and (presumably) John run back to see for themselves.  Mary returns to the tomb, and, after the men have left, has an extended conversation with Jesus.
Who do we believe?  Which version is correct?  How do we decide which gospel writer tells the true story of what happened that morning?  How many women?  How many angels?  How many disciples?  Did Jesus appear or not?
We don’t have to choose.  We could say either all four are correct, or none of them are correct.  If we say all four are correct, biblical literalism must be rejected.  If we try to make all four correct we’ll tie ourselves in knots explaining the differences.  If we reject all four accounts we have no idea what happened at the tomb.
What if we say all four are correct, and none are completely correct?  Does this give us a place to begin understanding the events surrounding the resurrection?
We are aware that four people, looking at the same event from four different locations, may see four different events.  Each will interpret the event from his/her point of reference, but none of them will have the whole truth.  This is why those who review plays at sporting events look at all possible camera angles before making a decision.  Accuracy is cumulative.
Do we synthesize the four gospel accounts into one?  Do we try to come up with a composite picture?  To do so denies the richness of the story as it has come down to us.  The different observers remembered the event differently.  Also, memories fade and change over time.  What we think we remember might not be what actually happened. 
Each account must stand alone as a witness to the resurrection.  Each account tells us something miraculous happened that morning.  That miraculous event should be the focus of our interest, not trying to parse out which details are the correct ones. 
When Jesus’ followers discovered he was alive they rejoiced.  So should we.

Sunday, October 20, 2019


Hebrews 12:1-2
            “The force of the waves is in their perseverance.” (Gila Guri)
            Years ago Harry Belafonte recorded a song about a wave and a rock.  I can’t remember the title or the lyrics, but the message of the song is that change comes slowly.  The wave crashes over the rock and breaks up, but in its action it wears away a bit of the rock.  Day after day, year after year, wave after wave the rock is changed, worn away, smoothed.
            I’ve experienced a speeded-up version of this action.  One year for Christmas my daughter received a machine that smoothed rocks to make jewelry.  The stone was placed in a container with water and some substance that wore down the rough edges.  Little by little the stone was changed until its inner beauty became evident, and it could be set in a necklace, or bracelet or ring.  It didn’t take as long as the action of the waves, but it was the same idea.  The perseverance of the machine changed the rock.
            We experience perseverance in our spiritual lives.  An old hymn begins, “God is working His purpose out as year turns into year.”  The melody reinforces the words, as a single note is repeated to enhance the impression of slow, deliberate movement.  The text speaks of God’s action over extended time, working to bring about the age when “the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.”
            God has all the time in the world.  We think in shorter terms because that is all we have on this earth.  Whatever we accomplish must be done in the comparatively few years of life we are given.  God, however, has as long as it takes to change the world and fulfill God’s plan.  Like the water washing away the rock bit by bit, God is constantly moving the world to the pristine condition for which it was intended.
            Over a much more abbreviated time, in a much more speeded-up manner, God is working His purpose out in us.  Little by little the waves of God’s Spirit work in us and on us to bring about God’s purpose for us.  The Spirit washes over us with the same inevitability of the waves on the rock, smoothing us out, wearing away the rough edges, making our inner beauty more evident.  It doesn’t happen all at once.  The change is often imperceptible.  We may know we’re changing, but the world may not recognize the difference for weeks, months, even years.  What was alright for us yesterday becomes something to change today.  Old habits must be discarded.  Outmoded ways of thinking must be eliminated.  Speech patterns must be changed, until God’s purpose for us is revealed in all its beauty.
            These are not separate actions.  They are interrelated and interwoven.  God cannot change the world unless individuals are changed.  The waves of God’s Spirit wash over us first; then we become the waves that wash over the world.  God is working His purpose out, and the change comes through us.
            Could God change everything in an instant to bring about the perfection of creation?  We believe that is possible; but for whatever reason, God has chosen to work by means of spiritual evolution, slowly but surely, one person at a time, one wave at a time, one rock at a time.
            How long will it take?  We have no idea, nor should we worry about it.  All we can concern ourselves with is the changes that must occur in us.  We fit into God’s overall plan the way God sees fit.
            So let us run the race we’re called to run, laying aside all that weighs us down, all the rough edges, all the protruding corners, until we are smoothed out, until God’s beauty shines through us, and our purpose becomes clear. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Simple Joy of Childhood

The Simple Joy of Childhood
Luke 18:15-17
            I love to watch young children in public places, like fast food restaurants.  They live in their own worlds, making up games, inventing characters, creating their own entertainment.  They are totally ingenuous.  They don’t care if anyone is watching—don’t know anyone is watching.  They are being, in the truest sense of the word.
            Then they grow up.  I taught middle school for many, many years.  Most of my students were self-conscious, convinced the whole world was looking at them, worried about how their peers would see them.  There were days when I longed to see the absolute innocence of the little ones.  I think—without being aware of it—one of my goals for my students was to help them recapture that time in their lives.
            Tony Horning captured the innocent wonder of childhood when he wrote the following piece about a show-and-tell experience.
            “Jamie came to school one morning with a rolled-up towel that secured his priceless treasure.  Waiting to share was frustrating for both Jamie and Mr. Taylor.  This little boy, eager to share his discovery, interrupted lesson after lesson.
            “When Jamie’s time finally came, the students formed a circle on the floor.  Jamie lowered his towel to the floor with much care and slowly unrolled it to reveal a handful of old, soggy, brown leaves from his yard—not the beautiful leaves of autumn with their vibrant reds and yellows; just plain, old, brown leaves.
            “As Mr. Taylor looked around that circle, he was surprised to see on the children’s faces amazement, wonder, joy!
            “Listening to the class you would have thought they were staring into the Grand Canyon.  Captivated, these children held those soggy leaves as if they were newborn kittens.
            “There in that circle, the teacher became the student.  For a brief moment, Mr. Taylor could remember a time when the simplest things in life brought wonder and joy to him as well.”
            I think Jesus must have felt the same joy I feel—and Mr. Taylor felt—as he watched the mothers bring their little children to him.  No problems with people trying to trap him.  No arguments over who would be first in the kingdom.  No one seeking something from him.  Just kids, loving life and living in their own worlds. 
            And Jesus loved them.  In a culture where children were mostly ignored, Jesus gave them his complete attention.  They were, as the old hymn says, precious in his sight.  No wonder he reacted negatively—perhaps even angrily—when the disciples tried to keep them away.  Not only was he enjoying the interaction with them, he knew their importance.
            “Don’t send them away,” he said.  “They are what God’s kingdom is all about.  I tell you the solemn truth; if you don’t come to God’s kingdom with the innocence and love these children are demonstrating, you’ll be on the outside looking in.  Let them come.  I welcome them.”
            Some of us have experienced horrible-acting children, and we might be skeptical of Jesus’ words.  But if you’ve ever watched little ones when they’re lost in their own magical worlds of play, or held them in your arms and felt the beauty and completeness of their love, you understand exactly what Jesus meant.
            “Let the children come to me,” Jesus says today, “and do not hinder them, for to such belong the kingdom of God.”  And we’re all children in God’s sight.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

God's Preference

God’s Preference
Luke 1:46-55
            One of the biggest problems we have with Scripture (aside from wanting to believe only those parts we agree with) is trying to understand an ancient document in modern times.  We tend to think of our culture as similar to biblical times.  In contrast, we realize how much the world has changed in our lifetimes.  Many of us speak longingly of the “good old days, when…,”—and we complete the sentence with (often inaccurate) memories from times when we believe things were better.
            Why is it we can see the changes in our own lifetime but not understand how much the world has changed since the Bible was written down and canonized?  If the world has changed so much in our “three score years and ten” (or however long we’ve been on this earth), how much more must it have changed in the thousands of years since Scripture came into being?
            Throughout the Bible we read of God’s care and preference for the poor.  The concept is enshrined in the Torah, God’s law—God’s instructions to the fledgling nation of Israel.  Throughout the ensuing generations God’s prophets were called on to remind Israel of its obligation to care for the poor in God’s name.  Jesus reiterated this prophetic message for his generation, and demonstrated what he meant by his actions toward those who were on society’s bottom rungs.  The only way we can miss God’s preference for the poor is by ignoring the biblical record.
            God cares for the poor.  God insists that God’s people care for the poor.  Jesus makes it clear (Matthew 25:31-46) how those who would inherit the kingdom of God are to behave toward the poor.  We ignore this message at the peril of our souls.
            Who were these instructions addressed to?  Who does God expect to care for the poor?  Who is under the obligation to provide for those unfortunate enough to not have enough?  This is where the cultural problem comes in.
            When we read these words in the context of our own culture we often conclude that it is up to the church, or to individual members of the church to provide for the poor.  This is a good start, but not the whole answer. 
What Jesus said painted an entirely different picture of God than that presented by the religious leaders.  When Jesus spoke the words in Matthew 25 he addressed the poor—the working poor.  Most of those who gathered to hear Jesus were from the working class.  They understood it was their responsibility to help those less fortunate than themselves, but they could only do so much with their limited resources. 
But Jesus was really speaking to the religious leaders.  They were the ones with the resources to make a difference in the lives of the poor.  They were also the ones who were sure they had already qualified for the kingdom.  They didn’t believe they had to go out of their way to help anyone.
Today we try to separate the church from the government—and rightly so.  No one religion should be able to call the shots for everyone, no matter how sure we are that we are right.  In the first century—and in the centuries before—the church and the government were one.  God was the ruler, and the leaders were God’s representatives, chosen to care for all the people.  Jesus made it clear that those in charge were to provide for those who could not provide for themselves.  These were the ones to whom Jesus addressed his message.  These were the ones who had the means to make a difference.  Just as God had spelled out in the Torah, just as God had reinforced the Torah through the words of the prophets, just as Jesus made it clear to his generation, so we must all band together to eliminate poverty—for Jesus’ sake and for our own.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) said, “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.
And of our willingness to obey God.