Sunday, December 27, 2020

How do we love?


How Do We Love?

1 John 4:13-21

            Translating from one language to another is never easy.  There are shades of meaning in one language that might not occur in another.  Some languages have more than the one word available in others for an idea or concept.  Local customs, cultural norms—even weather—affect how language develops to meet the needs of the people using it. 

            This is true of the English word love.  We have only one word for that emotion.  What kind of love, who or what the word applies to, the breadth and/or depth of love must all be expressed through context and modifying words.  But there’s quite a difference, for example, between “I love apples,” and “I love my wife.”  It may be difficult—in English—to express that difference well.

            Not true in Greek.  Greek has four words for love.  The kind of love, and, in most cases, the object of love becomes evident through the word which is used.

            Storge is familial love such as a parent for a child.

            Philia is love for a sibling, a cousin, or an extremely close friend.

            Eros is romantic love—love for a spouse or partner.

            Agape is the love originating from God for humankind.  It refers to the covenant of love God has instituted with humans, and the reciprocal love of humans for God.

            It is agape that I wish to focus on today. 

            The apostle John must have had a deep, loving relationship with Jesus.  No other New Testament writer speaks of love as much as he does.  We sense this in his gospel, which seems to come from a different place and present a different Jesus than the other three.  But it is in his first letter that love takes center stage. 

            Almost from the opening verse of this letter we are aware of the love he feels for those to whom he is writing: “My little children” he calls them.  The word love appears so often it is almost a refrain.  Love is the focus of this letter.

            But what kind of love?  “My little children” indicates storge.  When John says (3:1) “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are,” storge fits perfectly—but not for the whole letter.  His love for his fellow apostles might indicate philia, but that doesn’t fit for the entire letter either.  Surely he cannot mean eros. 

            That leaves agape.  In today’s reading (4:16b) John says, “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”  Agape makes sense here, as it does in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

            Agape.  Self-giving love.  God gives of himself for the good of humankind.  We give of ourselves to God to return his agape.  We extend agape to those we encounter in our daily lives.  We can use the phrase love for neighbor, but only if we accept Jesus’ definition of neighbor as he illustrates it in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

            When we share agape with God we become part of the kingdom of God here and now.  God’s realm is alive and well right now, right here.  It’s not in some far-off place, in some futuristic time, but here on earth, in the present tense.

            See what agape God has given us.  Now we give agape to God, and to God’s children.  This is how we must love.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

In the Beginning...the Word


In the Beginning…the Word


            Much has been written about the beginning of John’s gospel—the prologue.  It’s a stirring passage.  I have the good fortune to read it every Christmas Eve in our service of lessons and carols.  Traditionally, it is the final reading in this service, and as pastor I have the privilege of sharing it with our congregation.

            This is John’s version of the birth story.  He doesn’t go into detail as do Matthew and Luke.  He doesn’t ignore it completely as does Mark.  Instead, as John does with other passages in his gospel, he reveals the concept behind the details.  Matthew tells the birth story from Joseph’s perspective; Luke from Mary’s point of view.  John tells it from the perspective of the results, the effects on those who experienced the man Jesus Christ.

            In John’s words we hear the echo of Proverbs 8, the beautiful description of wisdom and wisdom’s part in creation.

            “Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills I was brought forth, before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world.”  (Proverbs 8:25)

            “He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:2-3)

            Christians look at John’s prologue and at Proverbs 8 and say, “Well, of course the writer of Proverbs was talking about Jesus Christ!”  That our Jewish brothers and sisters read it differently demonstrates how open the Bible is for interpretation.  It doesn’t necessarily mean one of us is right and the other wrong.  It just means we see this passage from different points of view.

            John wants us to see Jesus as Paul describes him in his letter to the Philippians: “…who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:6-7)

            John wants us to see the eternal Jesus, who existed before creation—before the beginning of time, the Jesus Christ who is coequal with God the Father.  It is this Jesus, the Word of God, who John describes so beautifully and poetically in these verses.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God and the word was God.” (italics mine)

            John sees the Creator in Jesus Christ.  “All things were made through him…”  When God spoke, the Word was there.  “Let there be light,” God said.  John says, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

            Matthew speaks briefly about the birth: “Now after Jesus was born…”  Luke says, “And [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger…”  John gives us the reason for the birth: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”

            Matthew and Luke give us a baby, the infant Jesus, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a feeding trough.  We know this little babe will grow to be the Savior of the world, but right now, at the beginning, Jesus is a tiny, helpless child.

            John gives us a fait accompli.  The Word of God was made human flesh and dwelt among us.  The One who helped create this world and all that is in it walked with humans, talked with humans, taught humans, healed humans, and died for humans.

            And we beheld his glory.       

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Jesus, Alpha Male


Jesus, Alpha Male

Luke 2:39-40

            In a selection* from the book Mama’s Last Hug by Franz de Waal, the author discusses the essence of a true alpha male.

            “In animal research, the alpha male is simply the top-ranking male of a group…In political parlance, however, it has come to denote a certain type of personality…emphasizing self-confidence, swagger, and purpose.  Alphas are not just winners…they beat…everyone around them and remind them every day who won.  A true alpha goes it alone and crushes the competition, like a lion among sheep.” 

            Many authors have tried to categorize Jesus Christ by pinning one label or another on him:  CEO, coach, revolutionary.  These and other labels seek to define Christ by putting him in a box—not a box we find in the gospels, but a box designed from some human viewpoint.  It’s as if they say, “Here!  We’ve figured out who Jesus is.  Accept our definition of him and you’ll understand him perfectly.”

All these labels are wrong.  Jesus defies all categories because he is unique.  What else would you expect from the Son of God? 

            We might be tempted to label Jesus Christ the ultimate alpha male, and in some ways he fits the description.  He certainly had self-confidence.  He was never at a loss for words.  No matter what company he was in he was at ease, always in control of himself and the situation.  He was equally at home with Roman leaders, the religious elite of his own faith, the rich, the powerful; and sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars, common working folk.  Jesus spent time with them all, had a message for each, offered life-changing opportunities to everyone he encountered.

            Jesus had purpose.  Once he began his ministry his focus was on purpose and nothing else.  His purpose was to give his life for the world; he achieved it.  His purpose was to offer salvation to those he met; he achieved that also.  His purpose was to do God’s will, and make God visible to the people with whom he came in contact; he fulfilled that as well. 

            Swagger?  No.  There was no swagger to him, no ego, no need to be on top.  Instead Jesus was humble, self-effacing, always pointing beyond himself to his Father, trying to get people to follow God as completely as he did.

            A winner?  Not by the world’s standards.  He didn’t “crush the competition;” he didn’t “go it alone.”  He didn’t remind everyone every day of how good, how important, how tough he was.  Instead he reached out to people, surrounded himself with them.  Touched them, healed them—loved them.

            I believe de Wall would argue that Jesus was closer to the definition of an alpha male in the animal kingdom than to the distortion we apply to overly aggressive, highly successful males. 

            Among primates the alpha male almost always achieves his position with the cooperation of others.  He may not even be the biggest, strongest, meanest male in the group.  Once he has achieved leadership he “protects the underdog, keeps the peace, and reassures those who are distressed.”  While females generally console others more than males, the alpha “acts as a healer-in-chief, comforting others in agony more than anyone else in the community.”

            Sound like Jesus?  It does to me.  This is the Jesus we meet in the gospels, the one whose strength is so great he doesn’t have to brag about it, whose victory is achieved through love and compassion rather than through overpowering those around him.

*This excerpt appeared in the website

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Christmas Backstory

The Christmas Backstory

Philippians 2:5-8

            This year my church received in the mail a short booklet of Advent devotions titled The Peace and Promise of Christmas.  It consists of ten Christmas reflections from the publication Our Daily Bread.  I want to share the introduction with you. The author is Bill Crowder.

            It seems to me that we enter the Christmas story too late.  We celebrate Jesus’ arrival on earth, but we forget He had to leave where he was so that He could come to where we are.  We’re so thrilled by the Baby in the manger, the angels, the shepherds, and the wise men that we don’t pause to remember that Baby’s humble beginnings.

            Stop for a moment to think about it.  The eternal Son of God left His Father’s presence, which He had known and enjoyed since before time began, in order to become that Baby in that manger.

            This should take our breath away!  Contrast the glory Jesus left with the darkness He stepped into.  Ponder the perfect relationship He enjoyed in the Father’s presence that He exchanged in order to embrace the brokenness we’ve inflicted upon His creation.  Consider the privilege and position He set aside so He could come to serve His creatures, when in reality He deserved to be served by us.

            This is the backstory of the Christmas story.  While the Bible doesn’t give us volumes of insight behind the scenes of Christmas, neither is it silent.  We can read enough to marvel at the sacrifices Christ made to come to earth.  And He did it all so that He could become our sacrificial lamb—the One who rescued us from death and brought us His peace.

            This is why what led up to the Christmas story is so important.  By unveiling Jesus’ true identity, we learn the eternal value of the coming of Christ to earth.

            Galatians 4:4 says, “When the set time had fully come, God, sent his Son, born of a woman…”

            What does Paul mean, “when the set time had fully come?”  What time?  Who’s time?  Who decided that the time was right for Jesus to be born? 

            God decided, of course.  In the fulness of God’s time Jesus was born. 

            Why did God decide that time was the right time?  Was that time somehow worse than all other times?  Were world conditions so evil, so corrupt that God decided it was the must time?  Was it the Roman Empire? The corruption of the Jewish religious/political leadership?  The paganism of the world outside Judea that made God decide the fulness of time had come?

            I read a sermon recently by Barbara Brown Taylor titled The End Is Near.  It was based on Mark 13:14-23.  In it she makes the point that the times have always been difficult.  Talking about the end of time she says: “If you think about it, the world has been ending for someone, somewhere for as long as anyone can remember…”  We can paraphrase her and say that the world has always been in the worst of times for someone, somewhere.  Adam and Eve being thrown out of Eden.  Egypt enslaving the Israelites.  The Babylonian Empire. The Roman Empire. The Middle Ages. The church before the Reformation.  Absolute monarchies.  The Civil War. World Wars I and II. Covid-19.  When hasn’t it been the worst of times?

            Yet for whatever reasons, God chose that time and that place to send God’s Son to rescue the world.  And so the Son left his Father’s presence to come to earth and become our Savior.  We can’t imagine the glories he left behind to come here, the full wonder of God’s realm, the company of angels.

            In his letter to the Philippians Paul briefly sketches that transition.  Jesus was “in the form of God.”  He “made himself nothing,” took “the form of a servant.”  He “humbled himself” to “the point of death”—the worst death Rome could think of.

            How do we repay a debt like that?  How do we thank God that in the fulness of time Jesus came to give us the fulness of eternity?

            We give him our hearts.

            We give him our love.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Keep Your Feet Moving


Keep Your Feet Moving

Matthew 10:16-23

            Network television is pretty much lost on us.  We rarely watch anything on the major networks except the news from 5:00-6:00 each night.  We keep up with some of the British and Australian mystery series on PBS.  We don’t stream anything.  We have a bunch of movie and PBS DVD’s we keep saying we’ll watch, but we never seem to get around to it.

            What we watch mostly is sports.  I count myself fortunate to have married a woman who not only enjoys sports as much as I do, but also enjoys watching them the same way I do.  We even root for—and against—the same teams—mostly.

            After supper—sometimes during supper—we turn on a football, basketball, or baseball game and let it run as background entertainment.  My wife enjoys doing puzzles and I usually keep two or more books going at the same time.  We keep the sound turned down low on the TV so we can keep track of the game without it demanding our constant attention.  If the announcer gets excited we know to look up because something important is happening.  Thank goodness for instant replay.  This combination of activities keeps us entertained for hours.  When one game ends, we turn to another one.  When the last game is over (or the last one we want to watch) we turn off the TV and continue with our reading and puzzles.

            I know we’re unusual, but that’s how we enjoy an evening at home.  It’s not that we ignore the games; it’s that they rarely are so interesting as to claim our complete attention.  We can do this for an entire evening, rarely even speaking to each other.  We’re not ignoring each other, we’re just comfortable enough in each other’s presence that we don’t have to talk much.

            One thing I have learned from football:  the guy with the ball is most successful when he keeps his feet moving.  Sometimes a runner will seem to be stopped by one or more tacklers, but he keeps his feet moving, keeps his legs pumping, and gains a few more yards.  Recently we saw a runner score a touchdown while hopping on one leg.  The other leg was being held parallel to the ground by an opponent.  Pretty determined running.

            Jesus was teaching his disciples the same lesson in today’s Scripture passage.  He warned them they would face difficult times.  “Behold,” he tells them.  “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.”  They will be hauled into court, beaten, jailed, perhaps even killed for the sake of the gospel.  They may be given over to the authorities by their own family members.

            Jesus paints a bleak picture.  Think what it would be like if someone tried to recruit us to work for a company and said, “We’d love to have you work for us, but you should know up front it won’t be easy.  There is a very good possibility that you will wind up in court.  You could be beaten and jailed.  You can’t rule out the possibility of torture and death.  Your own family may turn against you.”  Not much of a sales pitch, is it?

            But Jesus’ sales pitch doesn’t end there.  He promises that the retirement benefits will be the best part of the package.  He says, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

            Jesus has one more warning.  The work will not be completed in your lifetime.  When your time here on earth is over, there will be work left for the next generation, and the next one, and the one after that—on and on until Jesus says, “That’s all!”

            Above all, keep your feet moving.  Keep your legs pumping.  Keep pushing that pile of obstructions forward, keep moving the ball farther down the field.  You may not reach the goal line, but get as close as you can.  Someone else will pick up the ball and continue the game.  Endure to the end.  The next set of players will take it from there.  Your job is to keep moving those feet.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

"Cruelty Is Surely More Evil than Lust"


“Cruelty Is Surely More Evil than Lust”

Matthew 5:2-11

            As a teenager C.S. Lewis became an atheist, a position he held until he could no longer ignore what he saw as evidence for the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus Christ.  He became an apologist for Christianity.  Among his best-known writings are the Narnia  series, The Screwtape Letters, and Plain Christianity.

            Lewis’ writings are easy to read, but sometimes not easy to accept.  He wasn’t afraid to call traditional Christian beliefs on his carpet if he felt they were not the truth as he understood it.  For him, following Christ meant total commitment, no half-way measures.  His intellect did not permit him to accept easy answers or half-truths.

            Lewis said, “Cruelty is surely more evil than lust.”  He was aware that most Christians keep their own lists of unacceptable sins and acceptable sins.  Our private lists divide themselves into the sins of others (unacceptable) and the sins we hold dear (acceptable).  We have the disturbing habit of making excuses for our sins while holding others accountable for theirs. 

            It’s a great game we play:  picking and choosing what we consider sin based on the things we enjoy and the things we see others doing.  To make matters worse, we often judge others for sins they commit while we engage in other versions of the same ones, recognizing sin in others which we are more than willing to overlook in ourselves.

            Jesus would have none of it.  He was very clear about sin.  If you read carefully through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) you begin to understand the nature of sin. 

            The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes—the blessings.  Jesus doesn’t begin by condemning people for what they do wrong.  He begins by praising—blessing—people for attitudes and patterns of behavior which he approves.  Perhaps we should do the same.  Rather than focusing on sin, perhaps we should establish the blessed behaviors in ourselves and look for them in others.

            When we read the Beatitudes we find the opposite of cruelty.  They are about kindness, humility, peacemaking, mercy—habits of mind and action which are the opposite of cruelty.   We can’t be cruel to people and treat them with kindness.  We can’t be cruel to people and show them mercy.  Humility does not permit cruel behavior, nor does peacemaking.

            Look as closely as you will, there nothing in the Beatitudes about lust.  Does this mean that lust is acceptable?  Definitely not.  If we read a little further (5:27-28) we find that Jesus sees no difference between adultery and lustful thoughts.  To think lustfully about someone is the same as committing adultery in Jesus’ eyes.

            Jesus is not alone in his condemnation of lust.  It is prohibited in the Ten Commandments.  Exodus 20:17 says, “Do not covet.”  Surely covetousness and lust are synonymous.  To lust after something or someone is to covet. 

            Paul creates lists of sins.  We find one in Ephesians (4:30-32) and another in Galatians (5:19-23).  Actually, each list has two parts:  characteristics we should avoid and those we should cultivate.  Yes, we will find lust there, if not the word then actions which derive from lust.  But we will also find anger, bitterness, wrath, evil speaking.  All these lead to cruel behavior. 

            We can’t pick and choose.  We can’t say “My cruelty is acceptable but your lust is not.”  Paul says “No!”  Jesus says, “No!”  God says, “No!”

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Living with a Thorn in the Flesh


Living with a Thorn in the Flesh


Sufficient Grace

2 Corinthians 12:7-9


            It’s interesting how many sayings from Scripture have become part of our vocabulary.  A dear friend uses one frequently.  When someone asks her to do something she doesn’t feel she’d be good at she says, “That’s not my spiritual gift.”  I haven’t learned that lesson yet.

            One such expression is “a thorn in the flesh.”  My mother used this occasionally, along with several other biblical expressions.  It’s interesting:  my father was much more of a biblical scholar, but my mother used far more of these expressions.

            In verses leading up to this phrase Paul has been boasting about his suffering as an apostle.  I use the word “boasting” in italics because no one is his right mind would boast about suffering.  Paul doesn’t boast either; he just wants the Corinthians to know he could boast since he has suffered so much on his missionary journeys.  A reading of these travels in the Book of Acts makes clear that Paul endured much hardship for the sake of the gospel.  He did so willingly because he knew the results would be worth it.

            We don’t know what Paul’s thorn was.  He doesn’t identify it past saying that it was troublesome.  Over the centuries there has been much speculation, but we have no way of knowing what it was.  Considering all he suffered in his missionary career we can conclude it must have been very difficult to deal with.  Paul identifies this thorn as “a messenger of Satan.”  It must have been serious indeed.

            Paul took the path most of us would take.  He asked God to remove it.  Quite likely he believed his service to God would be far more effective if whatever was troubling him so severely was taken away.  He wouldn’t have to worry about it any longer, so he would be better able to concentrate on proclaiming the gospel.

            God’s answer was a resounding, “No!”  God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Paul had to learn to live with whatever he felt was handicapping him because that’s the way God wanted it.

            Many of us are troubled by something we feel inhibits our full and free service to God.  It may be something simple or something complex.  It may be something physical, or emotional, or something that lies outside of ourselves but still, we believe, prevents us from giving complete, perfect service to God.  We may have even prayed as Paul did, asking God to remove what we perceive as a thorn.  If so, we may have received an answer similar to the one God gave to Paul.  “Don’t worry about what you see as a thorn in the flesh.  I’ll work around it—perhaps even work through it.  My power will work in you to make your service more than acceptable.  You don’t need to be perfectly strong.  I’ll be strong for you—and in you, and through you.”

            Earlier in this letter (4:7), Paul says, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”  We cannot effectively serve God in our own strength.  We must rely on God’s power to achieve even the limited results of which we are capable.

             But we must not worry about the results of our service.  God doesn’t call us to be successful, only to be faithful.  Paul’s faithfulness, coupled with God’s power produced results that helped change Christianity from a small Jewish sect to a worldwide religious movement.  Our jars of clay are vessels enough in God’s hands, and God’s grace is sufficient to overcome any thorn.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

"All of Me, Why Not Take All of Me"


“All of Me, Why Not Take All of Me”

Luke 9:57-62

            Harsh words from Jesus. 

            To the first person Jesus says, “If you follow me don’t expect an easy life.  You’ll always be on the go.  Little time to rest, no settled home, never sure where your next meal is coming from, where you’ll spend the night, and definitely no medical insurance.

            To the second person Jesus says, “Your commitment to me comes before any other commitment you can imagine—commitments to family, to whatever career you were pursuing, to friends.  Nothing matters except your service to me.  And that service begins now.”

            To the third person Jesus says, “If you intend to follow me you can’t look at what you’ve left behind.  You can’t look back at your former life.  You can’t think about your family, or the friends you might have been close to, or any circumstances of your past.  Don’t look back; start serving me now.  If you turn around you won’t plow a straight furrow of service.”

            The disciples we read about did just that.  They gave up their homes, their settled lifestyles—everything they had ever known for a life on the move.  First they traveled around Galilee.  Then they spent time in Jerusalem.  Finally they were dispersed to the ends of their world, many to live and die in strange places, unaccompanied by family.

            We know Peter was married because Jesus healed his mother-in-law of a fever.  We know James and John had a father who would have become dependent on them in his old age, and a mother who traveled, at least sometimes, with Jesus.  We don’t know much about the family situations of the rest of the twelve.  What we do know is that when Jesus called, they went with him immediately, leaving behind all they had known, all other commitments.

            We know that, for the most part, once these disciples committed their lives to Jesus they never looked back.  Following the crucifixion they put their service on pause while they figured out what they should do next.  Without a leader they did not know where they were supposed to go.  Once they were given the Holy Spirit, they had direction.  From that moment they couldn’t be stopped.  We use the phrase human dynamo rather loosely, but the world has never seen people more dynamic than they became.  Yes, John tells us that during this pause, Peter and a couple of others went fishing.  That didn’t last long.  One foray out on the Galilee and Jesus called them back to work.

            All of this is good to remember when God asks us to give up some little thing so we can better serve.  Too often we give our service grudgingly, half-heartedly.  And we’re awfully good at complaining.  “I wish I could go with you this weekend, but I have this church meeting I just have to attend Saturday afternoon.” 

            “No one, putting his hand to the plow, and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

            Where does that leave us?  How many times do we stay comfortably at home when Jesus says, “Go?”  How many times do we place other, lesser commitments before our commitment to the one who says, “Follow me?”  How many times do we say, “Here I am, Lord,” but look wistfully at the ordered, leisurely life we’ve left behind?

            Some of you may be old enough to remember the song whose first line provides the title of this piece.  The next line is “Can’t you see I’m no good without you?”  Without Jesus our lives are greatly diminished. We may be comfortable, but we won’t be fulfilled.   

            Jesus wants to hear us say, “Take all of me.”

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Telling the World What's What


Telling the World What’s What

John 15:18-19/Romans 12:1-2

            I’ve said it often before, but just to remind you, I love the newspaper comics.  We will go to any lengths to make sure we have a paper each day just so we can read the comics—and so my wife can do the puzzles.

            One I really enjoy is Pearls Before Swine.  The central characters are Goat, Rat, and Pig, with enough “bit players” to keep things interesting.  Recently, Pig was writing a letter to the world: “Dear world,” he said.  “You’ve done lots to try and bring me down this year.  But I’m still standing.  IN YOUR FACE, WORLD.”  Pig turns to Rat and says, “Sometimes you gotta let the world know who’s boss.”

            Sometimes you gotta let the world know who’s boss.  Amen to that!

            I believe that’s the concept behind both of today’s Scripture passages:  letting the world know who’s boss—letting the world know what’s what.  Jesus and Paul speak frequently about the world, and seldom in a positive sense.  For them the world is the antithesis of the kingdom of God.  God and God’s kingdom stand on one side of the balance, and the world stands on the other.  We can’t hold a position in the middle of the seesaw; we’ve got to choose one side or the other to come down on. 

            Speaking to his disciples on the last occasion he will be with them, Jesus tells them that the world hates them—and that’s OK.  The world hated him first.  If they are going to follow Jesus, they should expect enmity from the world—not only expect it, but welcome it.

            “If you were of the world,” Jesus says, “the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, therefore the world hates you.”

            There’s the choice.  Love the world and the world will love you back.  Love Jesus and the world will hate you.  No middle ground.  As Pete Seeger asked, “Which side are you on?”

            If choosing sides were the end of it, life would be great.  Unfortunately, even though the world hates us for standing with Christ, it won’t leave us alone.  That’s part of Jesus’ message to his disciples.  The world doesn’t hate us as much as it hates what we stand for.  It wants to break our relationship with Jesus and get us back on its side. 

            We see this in the words of an old hymn by William R. Featherstone. 

                                My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine,

                        For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.


            In the church where I grew up we sang, “For Thee all the pleasures of sin I resign.”  We admitted that sin can be enjoyable—at least at first.  Most of us have realized that over time sin becomes less and less enjoyable as we become more and more trapped by it.

            Making a decision for Christ is the first step in a long journey.  Our salvation isn’t complete—we’re not safe from the call of the world—until we’re over the Jordan and into the Promised Land.  Until then, we continue to choose between the world and Christ every day.

            Paul wanted his readers (and that includes us) to realize the necessity for coming down on Jesus’ side of the balance and staying there. He tells us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”  We often speak about having Jesus in our hearts, but it is the mind where temptation begins.  We must be transformed—changed—away from the world and to Jesus.  And we must keep following wherever he leads.

            “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back.  The world behind me, the cross before me.  No turning back”

Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Consequence We Can Be Sure of


A Consequence We Can Be Sure of

Numbers 32:20-23

            I confess.  I have become more and more convinced that many of the stories in the Bible—especially those in the Hebrew Scriptures—are quite likely not true, at least not in a factual, historical sense.  I know this will be viewed by some as heresy.  How could these stories not be true?  Isn’t this God’s word?  Is God a liar?

            There are those who believe every word in the Bible is absolutely true.  If you begin to pull on one thread or another the whole Bible will fall apart.  For these people it’s all or nothing.  I don’t agree.

            For me, the truth of the Bible—and I believe in the Bible’s absolute truth—lies in the fact that it is the best record we have of God’s interaction with humankind.  God created the universe and populated it with all kinds of creatures, many—most—of which exist far from us, in other solar systems and galaxies.  Some day we will be able to reach out to these other worlds and communicate; but we’re not ready yet.  First we must set our own house in order, beginning with our country then proceeding to our entire world.

            There are many experts who doubt that Israel’s sojourn in Egypt ever happened, and therefore, the exodus and wilderness experience never happened.  However. it remains part of the defining story of the Jewish people, a large part of what makes them who they are.  The story is full of theological truth.  The lesson we can take away from this story?  God cares for God’s people.  Sometimes it’s not easy to see that in a world full of pain and evil, but God is always present.

            The story of Israel’s conquest of Palestine also rings untrue to me.  I have a difficult time believing that God told the Israelites to destroy every person in the land they were to inherit.  It sounds like history written by the winners—you know: “Of course we killed everyone!  Ethnic cleansing?  No way!  It’s what God told us to do.”

            There is another group of stories I find it difficult to accept as historical truth.  Many times in the Hebrew Scriptures we read that God punished Israel.  It’s not that I don’t believe God can do it; it’s that I believe they were victims of their own stupidity and wickedness rather than of God’s displeasure. 

            A good example is the Babylonian captivity.  Israel was a tiny nation lying in the way of anyone going from north to south—or south to north—intent on expanding their territory.  There is no way this minor people on this small piece of land could stand for long against the might of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece or Rome.  They were bound to fall.  What made it easier for them to be defeated was their belief that they were invincible, that nothing or no one could conquer them.

            Like nations before and after them, they believed they could live fat and lazy lives and still survive.  Imagine their surprise when they found out it didn’t work.  It didn’t work for Assyria, or Babylon, or even Rome either.  When prophets warned the Israelite leaders that they were headed for trouble, they were laughed at—until the enemy was at the gates.  They would have done well to remember Moses’ words to the tribes who chose to settle on the other side of the Jordan: “Be sure your sins will find you out.”  That’s a consequence we can be sure of.

            Live without concern for all your citizens and soon your culture begins to rot from within.  When that happens, God doesn’t have to do much if anything to topple you.  You’ll take care of that yourselves.

            America would do well to remember.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Bloom Where You Are Planted


Bloom Where You Are Planted

Matthew 25:31-40

            I find myself returning to this passage frequently.  Partly it’s because I’m afraid of the second half, vv. 41-46.  In these verses Jesus describes what will happen to those who don’t help their brothers and sisters—the “least of these.”  It’s this that worries me—and I’m not alone. 

            When he was near death, Fred Rogers, the man behind Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, asked his wife, “Do you think I’m a sheep?”  If, after all he had done for generations of kids, he was worried about making the cut, shouldn’t I be at least a little fearful? 

            It seems to me with all the time Christians spend talking about “getting saved,” and being “born again,” at least a little time should be spent making sure we’re doing what we can to help Jesus’ brothers and sisters—our brothers and sisters.  There is so much suffering, so much injustice, so much poverty, so much hatred.  Shouldn’t we make sure Christ’s love is extended to those who are the victims of poverty, injustice, and hatred?

            All too often we try to ease our consciences by throwing a dollar in the Salvation Army kettle, or giving a few canned goods to the local food pantry, or, in the case of our church, donating to and helping run our clothes closet, which makes clothing available to those who need it without cost.

            As worthwhile as these pursuits may be, they are band aids on deep wounds.  They may help relieve the suffering for a moment, but they are not permanent solutions to the long-standing problems so many face day after day.

            As I read these two passages I come to believe that Jesus’ lists are not prescriptive but suggestive.  The lists were valid for the time in which they were spoken, and have some validity today, but they are not extensive enough for our more complex society.  Yes, we should clothe the naked.  Yes, we should give food and drink to those who are hungry and thirsty.  Yes, we should provide hospital chaplaincy and prison ministry for those who need them.  These ministries are needed today—sorely needed.  But we should we also be fighting for

            Internet access for those where there is little or none.

            Grocery stores in food deserts.

            Meaningful education for inner city and rural populations

            Adequate healthcare, housing, and jobs for the working and non-working poor.

If we do not address these problems a drink of water, a food card to MacDonald’s, some clothing, or an occasional visit to a hospital or prison won’t mean much.  The deep wounds will continue to bleed because no amount of band aids are enough.

            We may not be able to fight injustice like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Senator John Lewis.  We may not be able to stir the hearts of our fellow Christians like our outstanding preachers.  We may not be able to fund huge projects for change like Bill Gates.  But we can bloom where we are planted.  We can work for and vote for candidates for public office who promise to do something about those who are caught in generational poverty.  We can volunteer our time in schools to help give our children and young people a sense of self-worth that will keep them from making bad decisions.  We can support legislation that makes health care available to every citizen, no matter how poor or ill they may be. 

            This is what God calls us to do.  From the books of the Torah through Jesus’ words and actions in the gospels we see that our calling is to be sheep, and to be the best sheep we can be.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Earth Is the Lord's


The Earth Is the Lord’s

Psalm 24:1-2

            I have been reading Ministry:  International Journal for Pastors again.  In the September issue there is an article by Skip Bell titled “Stewards of this Gift.”  He begins with the story of his proposal of marriage to the woman who became his wife.  When he opened the box which contained the diamond-studded watch he was giving her as an engagement present, he asked, “Do you like it?”  She responded, “Like it?  I love it!”  Bell asked in return, “You love it?”  “Yes! Wow!  I love it!”  A good way to begin a relationship.

             He then imagines the Creator showing the first man and woman the newly-created world.  “Do you like it?” God asks.  “Like it!  We love it!” they answer.  God responds, “You love it?”  “Yes!  Wow! We love it!” is their reply.  A good way to begin a relationship.

            This was God’s intent:  that humans should enjoy the beautiful world that had been created for their pleasure.  What a home they had been given!  Trees, flowers, animals, fish, birds, mountains, valleys, forests, rivers, lakes, oceans—all for their enjoyment.  And under the surface, resources untold to help them in their stewardship of the earth.

            Bell bemoans the horrible way in which we have used all the good things God has given us.  Eradicating species of animals, birds and fish.  Leveling mountains to get at the resources hidden within them—not the only way to reach these resources, but the quickest.  Polluting rivers, lakes and oceans with chemical waste, plastic waste—any waste we want to get rid of in a hurry.  Denuding forests and not replanting, so that good, productive soil runs away and is lost, making the land arid and unfit for growing things.

            Psalm 24 begins: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those that dwell therein.”  An important reminder:  this is God’s earth, not ours.  One way or another the world is going to be what God wants it to be.  We can lead, we can follow, or we’d better get out of the way.  We don’t dare oppose God or God’s plans for the earth.  To do so will only bring agony and sorrow, whether by some God-sent punishment or the natural outcomes of our own foolishness and wastefulness.

            Bell makes three points.  First, facts don’t cease to be facts just because we want them not to be facts.  The earth’s temperature is rising.  Species are becoming extinct.  Natural resources are being squandered.  These are facts whether we like them or not.

            Second, we can observe the effects of human wastefulness with our own eyes.  If we fail to see what is going wrong with the world it’s because we don’t want to see.  Our blindness to what’s happening will not stop it from happening.

            Third, we confirm the importance (to us) of stewardship in our daily lives.  What we do with—and to—the world around us reflects whether or not we are good stewards.  It doesn’t matter how we talk the talk, it’s how we walk the walk that counts.

            Bell suggests four things we can do.

                1) Confirm that the earth is a precious gift from God.

            2) Connect to the land, water and air.

            3) Confess and repent.  We’ve been bad stewards.  I remind you that repentance means to turn around and go in a different direction.  Confession alone won’t help.  We must also change our ways.

            4) Act!  Do what you can to become good stewards of God’s gift to us.

            We don’t have time to waste.  Now is the accepted time.  Today is the day of salvation—for us, and for God’s world.