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.