Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Differences that so Easily Beset Us

The Differences that so Easily Beset Us
Romans 10:11-13
The Hebrew Scriptures tell the story of a Middle Eastern people as they evolved from Hebrews, to Israelites, to Jews, and as they grew from a single family into a nation.  They were never a large nation, but their location made them an important one.  Surrounded by larger nations, who saw Israel as ripe for conquest, they maintained an uneasy existence until being overrun by the Assyrian Empire (the Northern Kingdom of Israel) and Babylon (the Southern Kingdom of Judea).  Eventually they and their neighbors were conquered by Rome.
The Hebrew Scriptures tell not so much the history of this people as the story of their relationship with their God, YHWH.  From the Bible’s perspective, when the nation followed YHWH’s commands the people prospered.  When they turned their back on YHWH they encountered disaster. 
Alone among the nations of the Middle East they worshiped a single deity.  Their neighbors and conquerors served multiple gods, each responsible for one or more specific functions.  Israel served one God who provided for every need anyone could imagine.  There was no need for other gods; theirs was all-sufficient.
One of the negative results of the nation’s relationship with YHWH was a sort of spiritual ego trip.  By the first century, despite their political subservience to Rome, they believed themselves spiritually superior to all other nations.  They were, they claimed, God’s chosen people, even though their chosenness didn’t seem to be doing them much good on the political front.
Enter Jesus, who turned the Jewish world upside down with his claim to be not just God’s Messiah, the anointed one, but God’s Son, and therefore himself God.  The Jewish religious leaders took exception to his claim.  How could God be split in two?  How could God be anything but one?  This was blasphemy!  The leadership also objected to Jesus because his teaching was in direct opposition not only to what they taught, but how they lived.
And then came Paul—Saul until his conversion, and until his conversion a Christian-hating, pagan-hating separatist.  His beliefs permitted no recognition of or association with anyone but true-believing Jews.
Jesus brought him a life-changing, attitude-changing experience.  Paul went from an exclusionist to an inclusionist.  He found himself saying, under the guiding hand of Jesus, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.”
He says this not just once (to the Romans), but again to the Galatians (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”), and once again to the Colossians (“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all and in all.”)
This privileged son of Abraham now saw that all who believed in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, were the spiritual descendants of Abraham.  There were no distinctions between believers.  Their belief in Jesus Christ obliterated all other distinctions—those of race, religious background, socioeconomic status, and gender. 
Unfortunately, too many Christians today try to reinstitute those differences.  Some want to elevate one gender over another.  Some want to make distinctions by social class, or race, or political beliefs.  They need to hear the words of Kate Sheppard, who said, “All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome.”
Jesus Christ, who came to show us what it means to be truly human, couldn’t have said it better.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Keeping Safe in Times of Trouble

Keeping Safe in Times of Trouble
Psalm 91
            “[The one] who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.”
            This is a powerful psalm.  It promises God’s protection in all kinds of trouble:  pestilence, the terrors of the night, slings and arrows, noonday destruction, plague.  In all these trials God will shelter the one who trusts completely.
            Is this true?  If it is, no believer would be worried about the current health threat, Covid-19, the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping nearly every country on this planet.  Yet we know that cannot be true.  Many among those who are ill, and many among those who have died must be sincerely faithful in their trust in God.  Many must have sought refuge under God’s protective wings.  How then can we reconcile the psalmist’s words of protection with the reality of what we see happening around us?
            Should we say, “Well, this was true when it was written, but it may not be true now?” 
            Should we say, “God’s protection is only valid if we follow the suggestions of the health personnel?”
            “Should we say (most pernicious of all), “Well, their faith just wasn’t strong enough?’
            Should we say (equally as cruel), “It was God’s will that they should become ill, or die.  God’s ways are beyond our understanding.  God must have had a reason for letting this happen?”
            I don’t know about you, but I am offended by these answers.  They posit a God who plays favorites, who makes decisions on a whim, who plays some sort of game of “eenie, meenie, minie, mo” with our lives.  This is not a God I can believe in or worship. 
            But we are still stuck with the promise.  The psalm says God will protect those who seek shelter in the presence of the Most High, who rely faithfully on the protection of the Almighty.  Is there a way to claim this promise even though it seems not to be true?
            Perhaps our problem lies in our taking the words at face value.  It’s easy to do that, to read the words on the page and come to the conclusion they mean exactly what they say, with no subtlety of interpretation, no search for deeper insights.
            First, we have to overcome two problems with any text written originally in another time and another language.  Any version we read of this psalm in our everyday Bibles is a translation from the original Hebrew.  One of the “toys” I use in sermon preparation is a Jewish Study Bible.  Often the notation in the margin will say, “meaning of Hebrew unclear,” or some such words.  I’m not saying this applies here, but there are always problems in translating from one language to another—even for experts.
            There are also problems in translating from one era to another.  Those problems become more involved the greater the distance in time between the two eras (ours and the one in which the text was originally composed).  Something is always lost in trying to understand the past.
            Second, we must be aware that what the psalmist means by protection may not be what we mean.  How does God protect us in times of danger?  We know God does not always save us.  God never promised us a trouble-free life.  We are as susceptible to hard times as any non-believer.  There is no bed of roses for us any more than anyone else.
            God promises to be with us in times of trouble.  God may not free us from hard times, but God will see us through.  Through Isaiah God says, “When you pass through the waters I will be with you.”  That’s a promise we can believe.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Joyful Christians

Joyful Christians
Matthew 6:16-18
            I love Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing.  I missed reading his adventure stories as a boy, but I’ve enjoyed getting acquainted with them as an adult.  I have also had the privilege of singing songs written by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams on texts from Stevenson’s poetry.  What we may forget is that Stevenson was also very quotable.  He said, “If your morals make you dreary, depend upon it they are wrong.”
            Gloomy Christians.  We’ve all seen them, gone to church with them, been trapped in conversations and meetings with them.  What an experience!  Everything is wrong.  They remind me of A.A. Milne’s character Eeyore, the donkey who complains about everything.  He can’t see the bright side of any situation.
            Or maybe they’re like Johnny Carson’s character, Priscilla Goodbody, the NBC censor, who tried to make sure nothing even the slightest bit naughty appeared on the network’s programs.
            Or perhaps like the disciple Thomas.  We call him Doubting Thomas because of his part in the resurrection story, but we might also call him Gloomy Thomas for his comment in John 11:16.  Jesus announces they will be returning to Judea to heal (raise) Lazarus.  On their previous visit, Jesus was almost stoned by the religious leaders.  Thomas, with all the gloom he can muster, says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
            Nowhere in the gospels do we read that Jesus was gloomy or despondent.  We know he was frustrated with his disciples at times because they didn’t undeerstand what he was trying to teach them.  We know he became angry with the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders.  We know he was upset over his coming trials when he prayed in Gethsemane.   We know he suffered pain and agony during his torture and execution.  But there is no record of him ever being gloomy.  He seems to have been a cheerful, happy person as he carried out his ministry.
            The Sermon on the Mount is a collection of Jesus’ teachings on a wide variety of subjects.  It’s a good summary of his message.  If we learn to live by this sermon we will be the kind of people God created us to be.
            Most of the paragraphs in this sermon are short, but each one makes a point about how we should live.  Today’s reading is specifically about fasting, but it is really about our whole approach to the Christian life.
            When some people fasted as part of their religious discipline, they made themselves look sad and gloomy as they walked through town.  They hoped people would see them and say, “Oh, my!  What a good person.  He’s fasting.  Isn’t he wonderful!” 
            Jesus said, “Don’t be like that.  Dress up.  Wash your face until it shines.  Smile.  Look happy.  Be glad you can give up something you enjoy to honor God.  Let (as Robert Louis Stevenson might have said) your morals make you glad.  If you love God and are content in God’s love, let it show in the way you present yourself to the world.”
            No gloomy Christians here.  No dreary moralists.  No Eeyores or Priscilla Goodbodies or Gloomy Thomases in this religion.  God loves us, and we love God.  What is there to be gloomy about?  How can we be sad when we reside in the shelter of God’s love? 
            So…start the day off right.  Wash your face till it shines.  Dress up!  Put a smile on your face.  Let everyone know being a Christian makes you happy.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Being Kind

Doing Kindness
Galatians 6:9-10
            Albert Einstein said, “The ideals which have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth.”
            Most of us (if not all) would agree with Einstein that these three ideals lead to a better path through life.  Keeping them before us like beacons will make us more agreeable, and therefore make our relationships with others more agreeable.  That will lead to a more cheerful outlook.
            Two of these ideals are under our control.  We may not always be able to make life beautiful, but we can always be kind and always be truthful.  It’s difficult if not impossible to always tell the truth, and to always be kind, but the more truthful and more kind we are the more enjoyable life will be, for us and for those we associate with. 
Einstein hit on a way to ensure a cheerful life.  We don’t often think of him as a person.  We’ve made his scientific genius so much the central part of who he is for us that we forget he was also a musician (violinist) and someone who enjoyed interacting with people.  When we consider him in this light, we can appreciate even more his commitment to kindness, beauty and truth.
Paul realized how difficult it could be to always be kind.  Perhaps part of his understanding came from the time he spent reviling Jesus Christ and persecuting his followers.  It took Paul a while to learn kindness (not truthfulness; Paul was always truthful, even though he wasn’t always diplomatic about expressing what he believed was true).  What made him become more kind, I believe, was God’s love at work within him.  When he realized how much God loved him he became able to love others.
            This love of God and others, as I return to so often, was the bedrock of Jewish belief.  When asked about the greatest commandment Jesus said that we are to love God and love our neighbor.  In fact, the only way we can demonstrate our love of God is to love those around us.  This theme runs through the New Testament.  If you read John’s first letter to the churches you will understand.
            But I digress. 
            As he neared the end of his letter to the Galatians, Paul addressed the difficulty in always being kind.  He exhorted his readers with these words: “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
            The problem with this statement, as I see it, is the second half.  It sounds as if Paul is encouraging the Galatians to be good for what they can get out of it.  “Do good and you will be rewarded.”  Paul was referring to the eternal reward we have been promised for not giving up.  I’m always suspicious of this motivation.  I believe goodness is its own reward.  That’s the feeling I get from Einstein’s statement:  be kind because it’s the right thing to do. 
            Perhaps that’s what Paul meant.  I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  One thing is certain:  we have an obligation to do good if only as a way of proving that we love God by loving those around us.  Voltaire may have had this in mind when he said, “Every [one] is guilty of all the good he[she] didn’t do.”  This is Einstein’s statement in reverse.  As being kind will give us a more cheerful life, both in our outlook and by the way others will treat us, so not doing good will pile up a load of guilt that we will have to carry with us.
            Paul understood this as well, writing in v. 7 of this chapter, “whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”  In the end, we will earn the reward for which we’ve worked.