Sunday, July 26, 2020

Passing the Test

Passing the Test
Philippians 1:18-26
            “Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished:  if you are alive, it isn’t.”
            Some of you may remember Richard Bach as the author of popular books from the 1970’s including Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah.  He is also the author of the above quote.
            Soldiers in the Roman army understood when they went into battle that they were to come home carrying their shield or on it.  There was no third choice.  They had taken an oath to Caesar.  They were committed to fight for him and for Rome.  If they were Roman soldiers they had to be all in.  It was an all or nothing career.
            Few of us have a career that is that demanding.  We may work in a profession such as law, medicine, education, or engineering.  We may work for a large corporation or a small business.  We may work in retail or wholesale.  We may be government employees, or self-employed.  Under normal circumstances none of these careers demand that we give our all.  Even if our work demands that we are all in, that phrase means less than it did to a Roman soldier.
            In the first century no person was more committed to his work than the apostle Paul.  As a Pharisee he was an untiring persecutor of those who had chosen to follow Jesus Christ.  We read in Acts 9:1 that he left Jerusalem for Damascus “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”  He was all in, doing everything possible to eradicate what he saw as a scourge on Judaism.
            On that Damascus Road he encountered the risen Christ in a vision so powerful that it changed the direction of his life; but it didn’t change his fervor.  The man who had been all in to punish Christians now became one.  And what an advocate for Christianity!  He spent the rest of his life traveling the roads to many cities in far-flung countries, spreading the gospel.
            When he wasn’t traveling, and preaching, and suffering the slings and arrows of those aligned against him, he was writing.  His letters became the first writings to be part of the canon of Scripture we call the New Testament.  We may not agree with everything Paul wrote, but much of the theology that makes the Christian church what it is comes from his hand.
            Near the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Philippians he talks about his career—his “mission on earth” to use Richard Bach’s words.  Paul says he would like nothing better than to be united with God in the eternity God has planned for him.  He says, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  He anticipates the wonder, the fulfillment of being united with Christ.  Yet he knows he still has work to do here. 
            Of course, we know it isn’t Paul’s decision.  He will live until his time comes to die.  He sees the necessity of remaining here to minister to the churches he started and to others who look to him for guidance: “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”
            Here is where he echoes Bach: “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.”  He knows that as long as he remains on earth he has work to do.  His mission isn’t over.  Indeed, right up to the end, while he was imprisoned in Rome, he continued his ministry:  witnessing, writing, encouraging, challenging.
            “Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished:  if you are alive, it isn’t.”
            Paul passed his test.  Will you pass yours?

Sunday, July 19, 2020

When Did "I Love You" Become "What's for Dinner?"

When Did “I Love You” Become “What’s for Dinner?”
Ephesians 5:22-33
            For many years I disagreed with the apostle Paul over some of the things he said in his letters.  Through my time in seminary and in reading on my own I’ve learned that Paul most likely didn’t write all the epistles that bear his name.  Scholars far more knowledgeable than I have researched his writings thoroughly.  Many of them have decided that some of the letters were written pseudoepigraphically—a fancy word meaning written by someone else who “borrowed” Paul’s name to add importance to the writing.
            One such letter is the epistle to the Ephesians—and this makes me glad, because today’s passage is one of those over which I have most strongly disagreed with Paul.  There is no doubt that the first two verses of this passage—the ones about wives submitting themselves to their husbands—has caused many problems and much grief between spouses down through the centuries.  Many men have used this verse to give themselves permission to abuse their wives, physically, psychologically, and emotionally.  Men have believed that spousal abuse was permitted, even authorized by these words.
            Nothing could be further from the truth.  Men have no excuse for abusing their wives in any way.  Those who have done so have a lot to answer for, especially those who do it in the name of Christ.  I won’t go deeper into this issue here.  Suffice it to say no human being has a right under any system of religion, law, or custom, to abuse or demean any other human being—and this goes double for Christians.
            The problem, I believe, is that men stop reading too soon—perhaps a sign of a short attention span.  Verse 25 begins “Husbands, love your wives…”  True love prohibits abuse.  The verse continues “…as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…”  If we love our spouses as Christ loves all humankind we cannot p abuse.  We believe Christ died for all humankind so that we might have abundant life.  Abundant life does not include abuse.
            We have a friend who sends my wife cartoons from time to time.  Some that she sends are ones that we read in our daily newspaper.  We don’t mind because it’s nice to know we’re in someone’s thoughts.
            One that we do not see in our paper is The Lockhorns.  It features a couple who can’t get along.  They can’t agree on the color of the sky, or the time of day, or what month it is.  One we received recently pictures the couple with a marriage counselor.  The wife says, “Of course I believe in compromise.  Every husband should do it.”  You get the idea.
            Another recent one is set in the couple’s kitchen.  He has just come home from work, and she is busy at the stove.   She turns to him and says, “When did ‘I love you’ become ‘What’s for dinner?’”
            Wow!  Isn’t that a condemnation of a marriage!  Not that asking “What’s for dinner?” is bad, but spouses should never forget—never fail—to express love. 
            I know pastors are never supposed to use themselves as positive examples, but this fits so well I can’t resist. 
            One day I was waiting in a fast food restaurant for my wife to arrive.  When she walked through the door my face lit up.  I can’t help it.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was about to get lunch—but I doubt it.  One of the other patrons saw it and bought our lunch.  He said, “I’m about to get married, and I hope I’ll always feel that way about my wife.”
            “Husbands, love your wives.”  While a free lunch is a good reason, we know there are better ones.  Besides, if you love your spouse enough, what’s for dinner isn’t that important.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

No Blog This Week

Ken has been on vacation this week.  His blog, Musings, will return next week.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

No Poor Among You

“No Poor Among You”
Deuteronomy 15:1-11
            “We all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free market capitalism for the poor.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
            Contrary to popular belief, capitalism is not enshrined in the Bible.  We cannot claim God has blessed this land because of our capitalist economy—such as it is. 
            King is right. It isn’t the poor who petition governmental bodies for tax breaks, but the rich.  The poor lack access to government officials.  They don’t have the money to pay lobbyists.  They can’t make significant contributions to election campaigns.  They have no advocate in the halls of Congress, or state legislatures, or city or county legislative bodies, or access to presidents, governors, county executives or mayors. 
            Who will speak for the poor?  No one with enough visibility.  No one with a strong enough voice.  No one with enough power to call attention to their needs.
            In the musical, Fiorello, Fiorello La Guardia runs to represent New York City in congress.  In order to fight the dominant political machine which has run New York far too long he takes his campaign directly to the people.  In one of the songs he sings we hear the line “poor hard-working poor.”  These were the people who needed to be heard and represented.  He won their votes—and the election.
            As a fellow New Yorker I’m proud to say that in congress and later as mayor, LaGuardia never forgot who elected him.  His reputation for honesty and fairness make him a legend in the city to this day.
            But he is an exception.  We know that most politicians are more concerned with their party’s agenda, and even more concerned with raising money to keep themselves in office, than they are with helping those who most need their help.
            God understands the problem of the poor.  That’s why a solution was built into Torah given to Israel at the beginning of their wilderness years.  As Israel was preparing to enter the promised Land, Moses called the people together and reviewed the commandments God had given them in the wilderness.  The beginning of Deuteronomy 15 contains God’s instructions concerning the poor.  The main point?  “There shall be no poor among you.”
            God understood the problem of generational poverty.  Once a person—often through no fault of his/her own—sinks into poverty, it can become impossible to rise out.  All too often the poor lack the wherewithal to get back on their feet, so generation by generation they fall deeper into poverty until it becomes a way of life.  They know nothing else.  They have no way of changing their circumstances.  They accept their fate and struggle just to get by.
            God’s idea was that poverty shouldn’t last more than seven years.  Every seventh year all debts were to be cancelled, and everyone got a fresh start.  Sounds ideal, doesn’t it?
            There is no proof Israel ever followed this commandment.  By the first century, when Jesus walked on the earth, there were the rich, who kept getting richer, and the poor who became more and more oppressed.  (Sound familiar?)  Part of Jesus’ message was condemnation of the rich who kept the poor in generational poverty.
            In Deuteronomy 15:4-5 Moses says God will bless Israel “if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God.”  Israel didn’t, and suffered long periods of domination by other nations.  Whether this was God’s doing or the result of their own corruption, the result was the same.
            This should be a warning to us.  God favors the poor, and will eventually come to their aid.  Let’s not be found on the wrong side of history.