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”