Monday, December 22, 2008

Real Estate (2 Samuel 7:1-11; 16)

Well, it’s a good thing that God told David not to build the temple before he got started, isn’t it? What would David have done if God made that decision known once construction began?

Both of the men in the story act like they see fit to act until God speaks. David decides to build a temple that’s a proper house for the Ark of the Covenant and God’s manifest presence that accompanies it. Nathan sees no problem with the idea and when consulted, says, “Sounds good. Knock yourself out.”

But God intervenes, telling Nathan to tell David he is not to build a temple, and also tells him why he’s saying that.

We don’t know David’s motives, beyond what he says to Nathan. It doesn’t seem right to him that he lives in a palace when the Ark is in a tent – either the exact same tent the Israelites built during their wandering in the wilderness, according to God’s instructions, or its replacement. What’s that say, David wonders, about what we think of our God when we let mortal me live in a great palace but limit the eternal God to a tent?

These motives seem good, and we don’t see anything to suggest otherwise. While God tells David not to build a temple, he doesn’t seem angry and in fact makes a promise to David that is at the root of our Christian understanding of who Jesus is.

I suspect that God appreciates David’s thought but knows that his desire to build a temple would have consequences David can’t foresee. There’s an obvious one, of course – whenever people would look at the temple that David had constructed, they would think as much or more of David as they did of God. “Wow, what a great king he must have been to be able to command the building of this great temple!”

Also, many people in the ancient world judged the power and importance of a god based on what kind of temple the worshippers used. A shabby little shack meant a god of little power and no influence. A magnificent building meant a god of great might and a people of great might as well. God lets David know he won’t play that game. He is the one true God and Lord, and he is such whether he lives in a splendid temple, a tent or a van down by the river (I may have added that last part). God will be God no matter where he chooses to be manifest or what kind of vessel he decides to use for that purpose.

And now we get to something that has to do with Advent, it seems. An early knock against the idea of Jesus being God’s Son was that the Almighty God would not enter creation and become part of it. God made the created world, and to suggest that any part of that created world, even a human being, was somehow divine as well was to blaspheme against God. Some people who dispute the Christian message today have the same idea.

During Jesus’ own life, people wouldn’t accept him as the Messiah because he was born in some pretty humble beginnings. His own hometown folk rejected him because they knew he was just plain ol’ Joe and Mary’s boy and he didn’t have any call to be putting on airs about fulfilling prophecies.

God, it seems to me, answers those objections with words not too far off from what he told David. “I’ll pick my own dwelling place, thank you, and I’ll pick it for my reasons which you may or more likely may not understand.”

In fact, God tells David, I will build a house for you, one that lasts through eternity. Jesus, of David’s house or family, will be the king who restores God’s chosen people and in addition restores all of creation to the relationship God designed it for. In part, this is a promise made to David because of his desire to serve God. But it’s also God reminding David who did the creating and who was created, and which of those will define the relationship and the way things are. You won’t define me, he says, but I will define you and I have a purpose in mind beyond what you can imagine.

That purpose eventually came into its own in a life that started in a manger, ended on a cross and was renewed in a tomb. A dwelling place far more humble than David imagined, but with a purpose greater than he could have ever dreamed.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

My Soul Magnifies the Lord! (Luke 1:47-55)

“Magnificat” seems like such a big name to give a song that a Jewish teenager sang in praise to God, but this particular Jewish teenager has had a big impact on our world in other ways, too.

Mary sings this song when she visits her kinswoman Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s unborn son John leaps inside her when the mother of the Lord arrives. The translation of the Greek word megaluno into Latin gave us a word like our “magnify,” which is where the song’s name came from.

The obvious meaning is that Mary is saying her soul praises God for all his great deeds, and she goes on to list some of them. But the translated word we use, “magnify,” started me thinking about something else Mary’s soul might do for us when we read this passage. We all know that “magnify” means to make something larger or make it appear to be larger. When we use a magnifying glass, we want to see something that’s too small to make out clearly or has details we can’t see with our eyes alone. I think Mary’s experience here does some of the same thing for us.

One thing we need to understand is that Mary, like most of the people who lived in her place and time, didn’t separate body from soul the way we sometimes tend to when we talk about them.

We sometimes look at things as though we have a true self, our soul, which is separate from the bodies we live in. As the great philosopher Yoda put it, “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.”

But in the ancient world, people were more likely to see their true selves as a combination of their bodies and their spirits, in addition to their experiences and the things they had learned. They saw the true self as a unity of all of these things, and counted the physical part of existence as just as much a part of a person’s true nature as the spirit or the soul.

So Mary suggests everything about her, from her spirit to her body to her experience and more, serves to magnify the Lord and maybe show us something about God we might not see without her story. What might that be? What did Mary do that might gives us a picture of God? Well, obviously, she agreed to God’s plan that she be the mother of the Savior. She had the choice to refuse, the same choice God gives every person to reject him. But she didn’t.

Even though, when we consider the whole thing, she might have had good reason to. For one, there’s her husband Joseph. They haven’t had their final wedding ceremony yet, but legally they are husband and wife. Whether or not they had any romantic feelings for one another was not nearly as big a deal for marriages in their day and time, but I don’t think it’s wrong to assume she respected, liked or maybe even loved him. And if she did, she would know that her pregnancy, which would not be by him, would be an insult to him and maybe even a deep wound to his spirit. Not to mention how she will explain this to her parents.

And for another, there’s the problem that in Mary’s culture, adultery is a capital crime. Have that today and Las Vegas would be the world’s biggest cemetery and the Billy Graham Association would be the only studio making movies.

Sure, there were probably couples that came to the final wedding ceremony having gotten a couple of the steps of the process out of order, but Joseph would know that wasn’t the case and he could denounce her as an adulteress.

At the very least, she was subject to a lifetime of shame. But she might have suffered worse and been stoned to death. That’s when the village dragged you outsde of town and threw rocks at you until you died. It sometimes took a couple of days, so the rock throwers would rotate and take a break. You didn’t get one.

There are plenty of common sense reasons for Mary to say no to God’s plan, but she doesn’t hesitate. She asks one technical question, gets her answer, and says, “Let it be with me as you have said. I am God’s servant.” No hesitation, second thoughts, weighing the options, figuring out the pros and cons, whatever. It’s almost impulsive, isn’t it? Almost reckless, even.

Hmmm…you know, Mary, because of the way marriage functioned in her culture, was probably at most 16, maybe 17. Youth and strength were a woman’s best chance of surviving childbirth, so women often married much younger than men did.

So Mary’s a teenager…and she’s done something impulsive, something where she just steps out in complete faith that God will do what he has said. Remember, the angel told her she will bear his Son. Not, “Now, if everything falls just right,” or “If we get lucky,” or something like that. So she just takes God’s messenger at his word and agrees, without an apparent thought for the consequences.

Anyone who’s ever been a teenager ever remember Mom and Dad looking at you and saying, “What were you thinking?” Think those words may have been part of the conversation Mary’s parents had with her before the truth became apparent?

There’s really a simple reason we all had so much trouble thinking about the consequences of our actions when we were younger. Our forebrains, the part that says, “Are you sure this is a good idea?” doesn’t finish developing until we’re in our mid-20s. Of course, plenty of people choose not to use it anyway, but all the equipment’s in working order by then. Before then, it’s like a baby learning to walk. We might use our forebrains, but they’re still developing and sometimes don’t work as they ought, just like a toddler’s legs don’t.

For the mother of his Son, God picked someone who was prone to snap decisions, impulsive judgments and actions she might not have thought through completely, because he knew those qualities would make her more likely to trust him. He used her willingness to trust Him without second thoughts to accomplish his greatest work. He didn’t pick a wealthy woman of wisdom or a great lady of philosophy. Nor did he transform Mary so that she was wealthy or wise beyond her years.

He used her as she was, and his strength was made perfect in her limitations. So the next time you may feel God leading you to do something for him, don’t demur because you’re not a speaker or a worker or have a great track record of holy living. As Mary’s soul has magnified the details for us, we can see that God will use us as we are, weaknesses and all, to do his work. In fact, it may even be the weaknesses that he covets most.

And that’s plenty good news to me.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

We Were Born Ready (Isaiah 40:1-11)

Advent is a season of preparing for Christmas in the same way that Lent is a season of preparing for Easter, but don’t try to tell someone to give up chocolate for Advent. Some things are more sacred than others.

But during Advent we do try to make ourselves ready for the coming of the King. So it may be confusing when I say that the point of the Isaiah passage is that we are in fact ready for a savior. Obviously, I’m doing something funny with the words.

And yes, I am. We use “ready for” in a lot of different ways. In one, we talk about getting ready for something, meaning we’re preparing for it. That’s the normal sense of Advent, and Advent itself is a symbol for how we should always be making ourselves ready for the coming of the King.

Another meaning of being ready for something refers to really wanting or needing it to happen. We talk like this about vacations or meals or a cold drink after a working outside in the heat. “I’m really ready for a vacation” means “I really want and need a vacation right now.”

The Christmas stories of Matthew and Luke can help teach us how we get ready for Christmas in the first sense of the word “ready.” Isaiah’s prophecies can teach us how we’re ready for a savior in the second sense.

Many people know that the primary objection many people in Jesus’ day made to his being the Messiah was that he didn’t do what they expected the Messiah to do. They expected him to be a political and perhaps military leader who would overthrow their current oppressors, the Romans, and reestablish Israel as an independent nation, under its own king. The Messiah would be that king, a descendant of David, and through him and the nation of Israel, God would renew his direct relationship with humanity.

Jews held the desire for this kind of Messiah for a long time. When Isaiah wrote, the Messiah would overthrow the Babylonians. Later on, it would be the Persians, then the Greeks, Seleucids and finally the Romans, with a brief period of independence under the Maccabee family mixed in there.

These people believed that if they could just get rid of their oppressor du jour, then they could run things themselves again and they would follow God the way that they were always supposed to, and had long ago promised that they would. Today, we might not use the word “oppressor” and we’d give them different names – the Seleucids haven’t caused problems for a long time for anyone but students trying to identify them on quizzes, for example – but we don’t have a vastly different mindset.

If I didn’t have this mortgage, or this car payment or these bills, if I didn’t have to put in so much time at work, if I didn’t have to do this or that, then my time could be my own, we might say. If church didn’t have so many people who just aren’t very spiritual, if the pastor had a clue, if we just sang the kind of music I like all the time…you see where I’m going. If only I could somehow get saved from all of this other stuff going on, then I could handle things on my own.

We understand, though, that the point of Christ’s coming was that we can’t handle things on our own. If every external thing I figure is holding me back somehow disappeared, I’d pick up new ones pretty quick, because I need saving from something inside me more than I need saving from something outside me.

Even after Jesus’ resurrection, the people still had a hard time figuring out that his plan and his work was a lot bigger than they had ever thought. Gradually, they came to understand what Jesus had taught them about the Messiah working out the salvation of the people through his sacrifice, rather than through his great power. They looked to Isaiah’s prophecies to help flesh this out, among others.

We may think that whatever jeopardizes our spiritual health or growth puts us in need of salvation and makes us ready for a savior, meaning that we need one. Nope. We weren’t made ready. We were born ready.

And unto us who were born ready for a savior, a Savior is born.

Good news to all, not to mention tidings of great joy.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

All This for the King (Matthew 25:31-46)

This is the story that has had goats down through the ages saying, “What’d we ever do to you? It was the dadgum snake that caused all the trouble, right?”

Of course, Jesus doesn’t mean people to see goats as cursed animals, although my aunt had one that made our dog, an animal that growled exactly twice in 16 years of life, angry enough to growl, snap and try to take a chunk out of it. What he wants his listeners to know is that when the time comes for judgment, God will know what he is doing. He will know one kind of person from the other kind of person, and the fact that they might seem kind of similar – sheep and goats both eat grass, run in herds, and produce a lot of fertilizer behind them, for example – won’t keep him from knowing what’s what.

We might now have some faint interest in what will characterize these different kinds of people, I’d imagine. Some of it might be obvious, after all. There will be some really, really bad people who are going to be in a lot of trouble. We all know them and we can point them out, even if our list may not be exactly the same as God’s list. Surprisingly, “chewed me out for being mouthy” is not something that will send our high-school vice-principal to hell.

Some of it will not be so obvious. We can see why Jesus approves of the people who offer help to those in need. It’s what he wants us to do and what he modeled for us. But when we come to those others, those ones sitting stage left when the final curtain comes down, things fuzz up some. They’re not murderers or thieves, it seems, and we don’t see them accused of crossing the line on any of the rest of the Top Ten “Do Not Break” List.

It seems like they even help some people. When Jesus accuses them of not helping him, they ask when they ever saw him needy and passed him by. I take this to mean that they did help some people sometimes.

Perhaps Jesus wants them to have helped everybody they ever met who was in need? But I don’t know that anyone can meet that standard. If that’s where the line is drawn, then I think we’re all goats. Which lets no one off the hook about helping people in need, by the way, in case that’s not clear. Jesus shows definite approval of what the people on his right did. I think the line between the two groups gets drawn partly by what they did or didn’t do, but also by what they saw that made them act that way.

Both groups are surprised by what Jesus tells them. The approved group is surprised that they were serving Jesus when they helped other people. The disapproved group is surprised that Jesus thinks they’d ever refuse to serve him.

After all, he’s the Lord, and people owe their lords and masters proper service. No one in their right mind refuses their king.

And that, I suspect, is where Jesus would tell them the problem is. They didn’t see their king. They had an eye out for him, sure, but their own version of what he would be like clouded their perceptions. They didn’t expect to meet their king in the middle of the least, the last and the lost, and so they didn’t see him when he was right there in front of them.

This king, you see, looks at things a little differently. In his view, he is here to serve his people. His ultimate service will be through his death and resurrection, but along the way he will serve them as he can with his teaching and what he does. Every last one of them, from the mighty to the mighty lowly.

Sure, the folks who did right didn’t know Jesus was there in the midst of them as they reached out to people in need. But by reaching out, they showed the same kind of care and compassion for those people as Jesus did, even if it was in a more limited fashion. When they saw the least of these as people whom they could help, they brought Jesus with them into those situations. Jesus was going to value every human being on the planet, no matter what their circumstances, as worth his life. Those who help others show how they value those people as well.

The others, they didn’t see Jesus in the faces of those in need. So they didn’t bring him into those interactions. They looked right past folks whom Jesus had already determined were worth dying for, unwilling to offer them anything.

May God save us all from that same kind of overlooking in our lives, and forgive us when we have done the same.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Considering Christianity (John 3:16-17)

Welcome to Official Bible Verse of the National Football League, John 3:16. And its much more reclusive brother, John 3:17.

After studying a little about other religions of the world, we come to our own and see if what we learned affected what we understand about it. We learned the world’s major religions hold a couple of ideas in common, and I imagine several of the less-major ones do as well.

Two factors seem to feed into what people of faith believe. One is that there’s something more than this life on earth and what we see in front of us everyday. Different people take that further than others, of course. One person might believe that everything around us has some kind of supernatural dimension or impact. They believe that the divine being is intricately involved in every process that goes on in the world and has a direct impact on it, from an electron’s spin to a jetliner’s landing. Another person might see that divine being as caring about people and how they act and such, but not really in the business of tinkering with the working parts.

People all along this spectrum, though, accept the idea that there’s something more than just us.

Christians see that as well. We believe in a God who made the universe and everything it contains. We don’t all agree on what recipe book he got his plan out of, whether it was the How to Make a World From Scratch in Six Days or Less or the How to Start This Party With a Really, Really Big Bang version. But we agree that God made us and, either through active intervention or just through the natural physical processes he put in motion, he sustains us and the universe around us.

Another thing people of faith seem to agree on is that the life and the world around us that we do see may have some beauty and some amazing things in it, but it also has a dirty downside. Some people are poor, but others have more than they need, not to mention deserve. Gazelles are beautiful, graceful and have big soulful eyes, but according to the lions who eat them, they taste just like chicken, and Simba looooves him some chicken. Gravity keeps us from flying away into space along with our air, but it also means that if that jetliner malfunctions before it lands it will fall out of the sky.

Philosophers have several syllables they may use to describe these situations, many of which are unfair and all of which seem to go on without consulting us. Many of us just use two syllables, which I will depict as “Life stinks.” And most of us would go ahead and add “sometimes,” because we know that sometimes life doesn’t stink.

The problem is that this divine being that made everything or at least is somehow beyond this life ought to have the power to deal with the stinky parts of life and make them fragrant. Being divine and all, this being should be able to smooth the hills, straighten the paths and turn Simba vegan.

But none of those things happen. Life goes on, stinky parts included. Some of the faiths we have examined tell us that in order to handle the stinky parts we have to learn how to detach ourselves from our anxieties and concerns about them. Others suggest that we will just have to get used to the idea that the stinky parts are here in this life and we won’t get rid of them until we transfer somehow to the life beyond this one, where we can be with the divine being and life will smell great and we will learn how to help Simba and the gazelle make baskets together.

Maybe we get to be with the divine being by obeying all the rules he laid down for us. Maybe it’s some other way. But we don’t get to be in the divine beings direct presence this side of eternity.

Now, like I mentioned, Christianity shares some of these understandings. We do believe that God made the world. And we believe that the way the world seems to work when we look at it is not what God wanted to see when he started things out. We believe that God is not behind evil done by people to each other and that God does not will evil should be.

And we go one step more. We believe that the same God who made everything that is or ever will be decided to show us how serious he was about his claims that one day, in day beyond time and space, we would be able to be with him where he is.

He came to be with us. In his own mind, he can understand the problems of evil and oppression and tragedy and sadness that go beyond our reason and comprehension. So he knows that even when we see it as pointless, everything happens in its season, even if we’ll never fully grasp that idea. Because he knew we couldn’t take on his point of view, he decided to show us he could take on ours.

Because of the way the world works, God has limited himself. He will not end all suffering and evil yet, and it seems like he isn't going to tell us why. Then again, we wouldn’t understand the reason even if he explained it to us himself. And so he does what no other divine being in religious teaching does – he stands beside us in the midst of the stinky places of life and undergoes them just as we do. Because he is here, we aren’t condemned, like we might worry about when encountering God and knowing how far short of his will we have fallen. No, because he is here, we can be saved.

Which is plenty good enough news for me.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Considering Judaism (Genesis 15:7-20)

Of all the major religions of the world, we Christians probably connect most closely to Judaism.

Although some folks would try to downplay the connection, even going as far as a quote I remember hearing when I was a kid that said, “God does not hear the prayer of a Jew,” they’re just denying reality. Even when I first heard that quote, I remember thinking that there was one Jew in particular I definitely hoped God was listening too – Jesus of Nazareth.

Because, of course, Jesus was Jewish. As were the disciples, as was Paul, as was a large percentage of the church in its first decades. All of those early converts were won over by men and women speaking about God using what we call the Old Testament – the Bible of the Jewish people. We Christians say that the God Jesus called “Father” is the God of Abraham, of Moses, of the kings, of the prophets and so on.

Judaism rests on a covenant that God made with a group of people. What we see in this passage is the first expression of that covenant, made with an old, childless couple named Abram and Sarai. They would in fact have a child, and from that child would come a great nation who would be a people for God. God then renews that covenant with Moses, and extends it through all eternity when he renews it with King David.

Well, fine, folks may say. God made that covenant, but the people he made it with broke it because they wouldn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God.

That’s two strikes in the same sentence, which might caution us before we take a third swing in this issue.

For one, Jewish thought does in fact deny that Jesus is in any way divine. But that’s because to accept him as divine goes against the bedrock statement of Jewish faith, that there is only one God and he made everything in the heavens and the earth. Because everything, including people, has been created by God, none of it may be worshipped or thought of as being divine like God. Jews who want to obey the commandments must have “no other gods.”

In other words, in the minds of Jewish believers, they actually break their covenant with God if they accept Jesus’ divinity. As to Jesus as Moshiach or Messiah, they note that this coming savior was supposed to restore the kingdom of Israel and the reign of God on the earth – all things that are to happen in the end of days. Since they haven’t happened, and since Jesus seems to talk about himself as somehow divine like God, he can’t be the Messiah.

But let’s just say for argument’s sake that God does indeed see things that way and that the Jewish people did break their covenant. Why would that mean that he would reject them? The ceremony Abram does in this passage, where he cuts the animals in half and sets them up with a path down the center, was a part of an ancient legal contract.

The two people agreeing in a covenant would both say what they were going to do, in front of witnesses, and then walk together down the gory aisle the sacrifice had created. They were saying that if they broke the covenant they’d just agreed to, the same thing could be done to them as was done to the animals. This is for serious covenants only, of course – not something you’d do for a library fine.

When Abram, in his vision, saw flame and smoke pass between the animal halves, he understood he was seeing God give his promise in covenant format. The flame and smoke represented God’s presence, just as they would when God led the Israelites through the wilderness and gave them his laws at Mt. Sinai.

Notice God did not make his promise conditional. He didn’t move between the animal halves with Abram, like the covenant ritual said. Whether Abram lived up to his promises or not, God would keep the covenant. And through the history we read in the Old Testament, God does exactly that: Keep the covenant even when his people don’t.

Through idolatry, oppression, moral decay and a host of other ways the people ignored God or took him for granted, God was faithful. He was always their God, and they were always his people, whether they believed it, acted like it or not.

I may be wrong, but I can’t look at this scenario and this history and say that God would change his mind about keeping his promise to his people. After all, if he can break this promise, can we have such full and complete trust in his others? I would find it hard.

So what is the purpose of Jesus, then, in relationship to this covenant? Why did he come, if it wasn’t to supersede an old, outdated deal in favor of a shiny new one?

When we read Paul in Romans, we see his understanding of this matter. In Jesus, God did not erase his chosen people from the world – he extended his covenant to all people, whether they were of the blood of Abraham or not. In Jesus, God did not turn his back on his chosen people – he opened his arms to the rest of us and showed us how we too are his chosen people.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Considering Islam (Genesis 21:9-20)

We're continuing to examine other religions and their relationship to Christianity in our Bible study based on Adam Hamilton's Christianity and World Religions. As always, we're just scratching the surface of the other faiths in these sermons -- there's a lot left out and there's probably plenty of folks from these other faiths who would see things differently than I've explained them here. So you should probably read a little bit more about them before you engage in much discussion ;-)

I imagine few other religions in the world today interest Christians (and a lot of other faiths) as does Islam. Different versions of the Islamic or Muslim faith, combined with several different cultural groups, have brought a good deal of unrest and unease to many parts of the world. People in these movements see themselves as opposed to all other religions and cultures, and believe they have a holy mandate to bring the entire world to their way of thinking, speaking and acting.

At the root of Islam is the prophet Mohammed, a man born in the Arabian peninsula town of Mecca in the last decades of the sixth century. Mohammed, a merchant, was more or less disgusted with some of the multiple gods worshipped by many of his fellow Meccans. He noticed that two groups – Jews and Christians – seemed to have different ideas about following God, and those ideas led to what he saw as a much more moral lifestyle.

Mohammed began to pray to this God, whom the Jews and Christians who spoke Arabic called Al Illah, or “The God,” and when he was about 40, he began having visions of the archangel Gabriel coming to him with sayings, commandments and stories. Mohammed had come to believe his people were the literal descendants of Abraham’s elder son, Ishmael, and so he believed he was hearing a revelation from Al Illah, or as it was known in an abbreviation, Allah, the God of the Jews and Christians.

After a series of troubles, which included being chased out of Mecca by people who didn’t like his new religious ideas, Mohammed came to be the political as well as the religious leader of the group of Arabs centered at Mecca. During the later years of his life, people began to collect the things he had been told by Gabriel into a book, which was finalized after Mohammed’s death in 632 and called the Quran. The Quran teaches Muslims how they are to behave and worship Allah, or God.

Mainstream Muslim belief holds the Quran to be without error and the words of God himself, with Mohammed the instrument of their communication. Some Christians believe the Bible is inerrant, too. But their belief is that God worked through human beings and inspired them to write its books. Muslim teaching says that Mohammed copied down what God had already told him.

According to the Quran, there are five pillars of the Islamic faith. Being a good Muslim requires submission to God and his commands, including these pillars. The word at the root of Islam and Muslim is, in Arabic, slm, which is like the Hebrew root word that brings us the word shalom, or peace. In Arabic, it means submission, and in Islam, that submission is specifically to God.

The Quran requires Muslims to publicly confess their faith in God as the only God and in Mohammed as his prophet. It also requires them to stop whatever they are doing, five times a day, and pray. It requires them, during the month on the Muslim calendar called Ramadan, to fast from dawn to dusk. It requires them to annually donate a percentage of their income to the poor or agencies that help the poor, and to make, at least once in their lives, a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Christians can and should find some familiar things in Islam, in addition to some admirable things. Among the admirable ones are the praying five times a day. Paul may have told us to pray without ceasing, but most of the time I find myself ceasing without praying. The idea that I would stop whatever I was doing, whenever I was doing it, to pray out loud with everyone else is something I’d like to try to get to someday.

We will also see many of the figures of the Old and New Testaments in the Quran, up to and including Jesus. But we may not recognize them, because Mohammed’s visions told different stories about them and he said those stories were meant to set right what Jews and Christians had wrong.

Jesus, for example, is a prophet – the greatest prophet, in fact, after Mohammed. He was born of Mary, but he did not die on the cross and was taken up by God to return someday. He did not need to die for the sins of the world, because, according to the Quran, God forgives our sins when we erase them by doing enough good things.
Submission and obedience to Allah are the cornerstones of the Muslim faith. They are the path to salvation.

I’d welcome more Christians accepting the idea that how we act matters just as much as what we believe, and that our behavior reveals the truth about our beliefs just as much if not more than our doctrinal statements.

But as Christians we reject the idea that we can be obedient enough, or righteous enough, or whatever enough, on our own, to earn our way into Heaven at our deaths. The separation from God that would bar us from his presence in the afterlife comes from our separation from him, not our displeasing of him. After all, Christ came into the world “while we were yet sinners,” we’re told. God acted to save us before we were worthy of that action. God chose to love us when we were unlovable and continues to do so even when our progress towards lovability seems microscopic.

As Christians, we claim, at the roots of our faith, that we do not submit to God in order that he will love us. We claim that God loves us, and therefore we can submit to him.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Considering Hinduism (Ephesians 2:1-10)

Some surprising things crop up when we consider Hinduism, a religion whose Eastern roots may make it the hardest for us in the West to understand.

For one, there’s the polytheism issue. Most of us have understood Hinduism to be a polytheistic religion, worshipping as many as millions of different gods and goddesses. But actually, all of these different deities are considered by most Hindus to be manifestations of the one true god, usually referred to as Brahman. Brahman is utter and complete perfection, pretty much beyond human knowledge and comprehension. Brahman is life itself, and all living things are alive because they have a spark or a piece of Brahman in them.

The many different manifestations of Brahman happen in order for people to have a Brahman that they can know and encounter in a personal way. The differently-named gods and their idols or icons are ways that a Hindu person can focus on some aspect or attribute of Brahman and guide their prayers and spiritual growth.

Brahman gives every person a duty to fulfill, or a dharma, of bringing good and peace into the world. Whatever you do and say that does that and fulfills your dharma builds up good karma in the universe. It also brings good karma to you. But if you do things that are against your dharma and hurt people or things, then you bring bad karma into the universe, as well as onto yourself.

When you die, if you have brought more good karma into the universe than bad, then you will advance spiritually and move closer to Brahman, or God. In your next life, you will continue to learn about the divine piece of God within you and be able to make more harmony in the universe, and thus continue to advance until you are ultimately completely at one with God.

But if your balance sheet tips the other way, then you may stay where you are on the spiritual continuum or even move backwards, until you learn what you need to know about your dharma to Brahman.

The idea of karma – that what you do in this life has a direct relationship with what happens to you, either in this life or in your next – kind of rings true for us in a lot of ways. It’s how our society works. We have laws in place in order to make things as fair as we can manage without destroying personal freedom. Obey the laws and things are supposed to go well for you. Disobey them and things will probably go less well.

And it’s sort of a cornerstone of the way we expect things to work in the world. If I’m the older, larger child who knows more and might either cheat or bully my younger sibling in a game, what do my parents tell me? “Play fair.”

If I’m the younger child and my older sib gets to stay up an hour later, just because they’re older – an accident they had nothing to do with and a status they were just given instead of earning it – what’s my response? “That’s not fair.”

We expect this idea of fairness and balance in most of our movies, too. A real villain has to have an appropriately creative death in an action movie or else we’ll be stuck with all the misery he or she caused.

As Christians, we believe in something completely different. We believe in a system that’s completely and totally unfair.

Oh, we understand that acting apart from God has consequences, sure. We just don’t accept that anyone can act any other way. A movie example of this would be the scene in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven where the young gunman confronts the reality that he has just killed a man. He’s sick about it and tries to justify himself, because the man played a role in an attack on a prostitute. “Well, he had it comin’” he says.

“We all got it comin’, kid,” Eastwood growls back. And that’s straight out of the Apostle Paul, telling us in Romans that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We’ve all got it coming, and the only reason we don’t get what we’ve got coming is that God reached out to us in Christ and allowed us to let him take it instead. Through grace, the one guy who didn’t have it coming can stand in for all of us who do, and our broken relationship with God can be healed.

Completely, totally, 100 percent unfair.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Considering Buddhism

Sorry about the long delay; I've had a couple of weeks of reruns. The next few weeks will be sermons dealing with Christianity's engagement with religions of the world, working with some of the thoughts in Adam Hamilton's Christianity and World Religions. Hope you enjoy!

The smiling image of Siddartha Gautama, who was later called the Buddha, is one of the best-known faces around the world today. So it may surprise us when we learn that Buddhism is less a religion than a philosophy, and that very few Buddhists actually worship Buddha the way we Christians worship God.

About four hundred years before Jesus was born, Siddartha lived as a prince in a small province of what is now India. His father loved him and wanted him to live free from suffering, so he had just about every luxury you could imagine for that day and time. But when he was 29, Siddartha wondered about the meaning of life and what his purpose was, like a lot of people do when Mister Three-Oh shows up at the end of the block headed their way.

Now, this part of the story may be a legend or it may have roots in history, but it’s designed to explain part of Siddartha’s understanding of the world. He took a chariot ride out into the city and saw a very old man, almost unable to move or fend for himself. Since his father had shielded him from even seeing suffering, he had never seen this kind of infirmity before. He asked the charioteer if this was the fate of all humanity, and the charioteer said, “Yes, all people grow old.”

On two subsequent trips into the city, Siddartha saw people who were very sick and he saw a funeral. Both troubled him greatly, and when he asked his charioteer about them, he got a similar answer each time. “All people suffer from illness.” “All people will one day die.”

Siddartha had never had much thought about the fact that his life would end one day – how many people under 30 do? But the understanding fed what philosophers call angst, anxiety about how widespread suffering is in human lives.

His dad tried to buy his son some cheering up with a big party, but that didn’t work. Siddartha decided that since immense wealth and indulgence couldn’t cure him of his angst, he would try the path of poverty and self-denial. He fasted and denied himself until he was down to eating a single grain of rice per day, but he found that didn’t help him either.

One day about six years later, while meditating, Siddartha had a vision that helped him understand how he could handle the reality of suffering in the world, and he began to teach this way. It was a path to enlightenment, or understanding, and in his language, enlightenment is called budh. So Siddartha became the Buddha, or the Enlightened One, and spent the years until his death at 80 teaching his philosophy.

Buddhism is very complex and has a lot of different interpretations, so what I’ll focus on is only a piece of it. Not every Buddhist would agree with what I would say about this piece, and there is room for a whole lot of discussion. The key that Siddartha found to ending his angst was to detach himself from things.

See, suffering is a reality of life and neither wealth nor poverty insulate us from it. But the reason we suffer is that we are attached to things or ideas or people and we worry about them or what will happen to us if we don’t have them. If we have money, we like using it and what it can buy and we might worry about what will happen if we don’t have it any more. That worry, if it’s strong enough, may cause us quite a bit of anxiety and make even the pleasures of our wealth meaningless.

But if we detach ourselves from these things – if we say that whether we are wealthy or not will make no difference to us, and then live that out – then we don’t worry about them and we don’t suffer. To follow the Way of the Buddha is to detach ourselves from concerns about this life so that they can’t cause us anxiety, worry or misery. Our eventual goal, through cycles of death and rebirth, is complete detachment so that our energy simply dissipates into the energy of the universe. This is the Buddhist idea of nirvana, the ultimate goal of human existence.

Now, as a Christian, I find a lot of value in this aspect of the Buddha’s teaching. I think Christian people are just like most other people and they attach themselves to things, people and ideas way too often, and those attachments don’t always serve us well. We see Paul talk in Philippians about his great joy in knowing Christ, a joy so great it overcomes the fact that he’s in prison when he’s writing. And here in Romans he talks about the worries of the present world being nothing compared with the great glory of knowing Christ.

Christians could do well to detach ourselves from some of the things we cling to. But the difference between the idea of detachment in Buddhism and what Paul writes about is that we detach ourselves from these things so we can attach ourselves more completely to God.

And we proclaim that God didn’t solve the problem of human sin by backing away from it. He didn’t take up residence in the space Bette Midler set up for him in her “From a Distance,” so far away from us that all our problems are invisible. Instead, he plunged right into the middle of the mess, becoming human and becoming a part of the damaged creation he wanted to save.

That’s where our teacher gives us a different lesson than Siddartha gained from his experiences. We can share some of what our Buddhist friends may believe about the need to set aside our often too-extensive connections with this world. But as Christians we need to understand that we take one step past the place where we empty ourselves, to the place where we then allow God to fill us as he has promised.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Empty Promise (Philippians 2:1-13)

OK, try a mental exercise for me. I’ll give a number and you picture that number – not the numeral, which is the written character we use to show the number, but the number itself. I’ll make it easy – I’m going to say the number and you picture that many apples, let’s say.

So when I say “5,” you picture five apples. When I say “2,” you picture two apples. When I say “9,” you picture nine apples. And you may notice that when we get to numbers past six or seven, we usually break the number down into groups. When I said “9,” you may have pictured three groups of three apples, or a group of four and a group of five. Most people start breaking them up into groups about there.

I read about a study where they showed people a picture of a certain number of items and then hid it before asking how many there were. The record was sixteen or seventeen, if I remember right. So the human brain hits a limit at recognizing about sixteen or seventeen things at once.

Now, the best estimate on the size of the universe is about 17 billion light years across. If you remember your science, you know light moves at 186,000 miles per second, and a “light year” is how far light travels in a year. The closest star to us is four light years away, which means we see it the way it looked in 2004. If it blew up in 2006, we won’t know it for two more years.

God created the entire universe and can contain it in a single thought. Everything in those 17 billion light years, from the largest to the smallest and all their combina-tions from the beginning of time, can be conceived by the mind of God in just one thought. And we do good to hit 17 of anything. So you can see why this verse talks about Christ “emptying” himself in order to take human form and live as one of us.

Why do you think he did that? I know it brought about our salvation, but why this way of all ways? Christ could have healed his relationship with humanity in any way he wished but he chose to empty himself and live as one of us.

There are a bunch of answers, but here’s one that resonates with me, especially when I consider just how far beyond human knowledge God really is. I know God loves me and I base my life on it. But there’s a part of me that just wonders how God could know what it was like to go through life as a limited, fallible, screwed-up human being? Obviously, if God knows everything, he knows those things too, but my own human limitations still give me that question.

It’s like being comforted by someone who hasn’t gone through the same issue they’re trying to offer comfort for. You may appreciate the thought and even be grateful, but there’s a gap in their connection with your problem. It’s always there, and it’s why people often turn to support groups with similar experiences when they’re trying to heal after a tragedy.

But in Christ, we have proof, if you want to use that word, that God has in fact experienced what it means to be human. Everything from being hungry to having your feet hurt to taking a whiff of yourself after a long sweaty day and knowing you need a bath. Being betrayed or abandoned by friends, wrongfully accused, you name it. Jesus went through it, and somehow that helps me make my connection with God easier.

Here’s another example – for nearly 70 years, Superman has been one of the most popular characters on the planet. He’s known almost everywhere and is still popular today. I read a magazine article where some college researchers interviewed people to determine why Superman was so popular and well-known. It wasn’t the powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, although those would be cool.

No, people connect with Superman because of Clark Kent. Nobody can really connect with what it would be like to fly or be more powerful than a locomotive. But Clark Kent gets yelled at by his boss. Clark Kent can’t get the time of day from Lois Lane. Things like that, people connect with, because they’ve been through those things.

So when I hear the story of Jesus, I know I’m hearing the story of a real human being who went through real human stuff, rather than some sort of spirit that just pretended about it. And since that human being is also the divine Son of God, then I can be assured that God does indeed have an understanding of what limited human life is like. He didn’t do it so he would know, because he already knew. He did it so we would know he knew. He promises redemption for human beings, and he knows what we need redeemed from, knows it from the inside. So his promise, the promise that comes from his emptying himself, is true and we can know it.

Good news, indeed, for us all.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Spoiled Rotten? (Jonah 3:10-4:11)

The trendy word schadenfreude refers to the pleasure someone takes in someone else’s misery. It’s German. In English, we call it epicaricacy, or The National Enquirer.

It’s also what powers Jonah’s speech here as we get to the end of his story. We know a little bit about him, but let’s recap:

Jonah the prophet hears God’s call to warn wicked Nineveh of its impending destruction. He responds by boarding a boat for Tarshish. It would be like a modern-day prophet who lived in New York City being told to warn Las Vegas and taking a boat to Australia that leaves from Miami. In other words, Jonah plans to get as much out there between him and Nineveh as he can.

During the voyage, a severe storm comes up which the ship won’t survive. Nobody seems to know what to do – well, nobody but Jonah, who might have an explanation as to the storm’s cause but doesn’t share it with anyone. The sailors cast lots to find out what the problem is and eventually the lot lands with Jonah.

“Oh, yeah, funny story!” the prophet says and explains he’s running away from God’s call. If you thought a prophet might say, “OK, God, I give,” or maybe, “Lord, if you will spare these innocent folks I will head for Nineveh the moment we reach the shore,” then you’ve never met Jonah. He lets the sailors make another try for land, but they can’t overpower this divinely-powered storm. Now Jonah does have an idea. “Toss me over,” he says. The sailors do and the sea calms.

A giant fish swallows Jonah. He sits in the fish’s stomach for three days – and if you think about it, the only kind of air anyplace inside the alimentary canal is what we take Pepto-Bismol for, which means Jonah spends three days inside a giant fish burp. After three days of this, it occurs to him to pray. Like many of us, he prays quoting some of the prayers and songs he knows. My Old Testament professor in seminary pointed out the different psalms and songs Jonah quoted, weaving them together in a lament about how bad he had it.

When Jonah finished, my professor said, the fish threw up. His sympathies were with the fish.

Jonah now finds himself near Nineveh, and when God calls again he decides he’ll answer. Nineveh the city stretches so far a person takes three days to walk across it, which makes the hotel chains like it very much. Jonah ambles in about a third of the way and says five words in Hebrew. He did raise his voice, and that may have been because nobody would get near him since, as far as the story we have says, he hasn’t taken a bath since leaving the fish.

The Ninevites speak a language close to Hebrew but not exactly, but in any event, this five-word warning – “In forty days Nineveh will be wiped out” – sparks an amazing revival among people who the day before this wouldn’t have given two figs for what the God of some no-account wide spot in the road nation down south said. Everybody repents of their sins. Everybody, from the king on down to the livestock, vows to change their ways in the hope God will not destroy them.

God decides exactly that and it ticks Jonah off mightily. Here we learn he didn’t run away because he was scared. He knew that if he warned the people and they listened God wouldn’t destroy them. Remember Ezekiel being unsure if the people would listen to his harsh message? Jonah fumes because he knew the people would listen to what God said through him and it would work.

After all of this mess, his one hope was that he would at least get to see the wicked get what’s coming to them. He could at least enjoy a good ol’ Sodom-and-Gomorrah, fire-from-the-sky style hiney-whuppin’.

But noooooo, God has to go and be all Mr. Lovingkindness Mercy Forgiveness and now Jonah can’t even enjoy that. To top it off, his shade tree got eaten by a worm.

“You’re mad?” God asks.

“You bet I am! Mad enough to die right now!” Tops the list of dumb things to say to God, I believe.

“You’re mad because this bush died, and you don’t think I should pay attention to this huge city and all its people and let them off the hook when they turn to me?” The conversation kind of grinds to a halt, which is probably good for Jonah.

Who’s Jonah today? Well, we probably all know some people in our churches who just don’t seem happy unless they or someone is talking about someone else going to hell.

Let ’em have it, Lord! Give ’em what they got comin’! Bring up the idea that God may forgive those people and be met with some shock or some dismay. I can’t say I’ve never done it; I’ve made the joke that if I get to the heavenly city and meet this or that famous criminal or ne’er-do-well of history, the first words out of my mouth will be, “Well, there goes the neighborhood.”

But what Jonah needed to understand and what we all probably need to understand is that God’s in the business of spoiling us, where “spoiling” means giving us way, way more than we ought to get. In fact, giving us the exact opposite of what we’ve earned, what we’ve all “earned,” to use the word, by our sin. We’re all separated from God, and the degree of separation is unimportant. That separation means death, but a loving God decided on life, and decided to give that to us instead.

We’re spoiled, all right. Spoiled un-rotten.

Good news.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Life for Free (Matthew 18:21-35)

Believe it or not, a lot of the fuss about this passage comes over the numbers Jesus used.

Matthew quotes him as saying 77 is the number of times people should forgive. Another gospel writer uses “seventy times seven,” or 490. Proof! some say, that the Bible is all made up because the gospel writers don’t agree.

The fuss over Jesus’ figure of speech carries some irony. For one, neither number would be taken literally by Jesus or the people he talked to, anymore than the phrase “24/7” would be taken literally by someone today. And there’s another dimension of this teaching that ought to be a lot harder to handle than the number dispute.

What Jesus meant with his figure of speech was not that either the 78th or the 491st person who did a Christian wrong just won the reverse lottery and the jackpot was about to hit him. He meant that a Christian should forgive every wrong, every time.

Step on the brake, Bubba. Every wrong, every time? Yup.

OK, well I know that I, like a lot of people, keep hold of too many grudges and I get upset over stuff I should let go. And I know that God wants me to let that stuff go and me saying, “Well, you don’t know what he did,” doesn’t really convince a guy who forgave the people who nailed him to a tree.

But let’s get serious and remember that not every pain in the world is something that people can overlook. Even if it’s never happened to us, we probably know someone who has real hurt. People someone lied about, or people made victims of crime or any number of other actions that caused real wounds that go deep into their spirits and minds. Does Jesus’ teaching ask them to forgive the people who hurt them?

Yes, it seems it does. Every wrong, every time. But what if the people who did the wrong thing aren’t sorry about it? What if they don’t ask for forgiveness or don’t care about who they’ve hurt? Do those of us who’ve been hurt say, “Oh, just pretend it never happened?”

Look, I’m not someone who wants to rewrite the Bible to suit my own ideas, but I just can’t match all this up. God cares about what happens to his children – look a few pages over in Matthew and Jesus seems pretty clear that how we treat one another has an impact on how God views us. Would God consider his children’s pain just something to be wished away with happy words? Would God say, “Pretend it never happened.”

I can’t get my head around that, which must mean I’ve gone wrong somewhere. And I think it’s with the concept of forgiveness. I think we too often mix it up with reconciliation, which actually does need someone to repent and seek my forgiveness if they’ve done me wrong.

When someone harms me, in whatever way they do it, they’ve decided how they’re going to view me. Someone who swindles or robs me sees me as a source of income, or as someone who owns something they want to own. They’ve defined me, and they pretty much don’t care about me in any other way.

But I am obviously not just a source of income. Maybe “forgiveness” is my decision that I – not someone else -- define who I am. Maybe when I forgive someone I’ve decided to reject their view of me in favor of my view of me.

Isn’t that one way to see what God does when he forgives? We’re sinners. Whether we were born that way or whether we were just really good students, we’ve ended up separated from God and unable to close the break between us. But God decided that he would not allow our sin to define us or our relationship with him. We couldn’t fix it, but he could and did, and told us that we could be defined by his grace and love.

The first servant in the story, the one who owed so much, was offered that chance. His life didn’t have to be defined by who owed whom and how much. But he rejected that choice when he went after the second servant, who owed him some money. His master declared that since he wanted to be defined by debt, he would be, and suffer the consequences thereof.

I think we’ve had it wrong – forgiveness doesn’t let the other guy off the hook. It frees us. Thanks be to God for his liberating forgivness.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

You Let Me Worry About That (Ezekiel 33:1-7)

One Sunday morning in 1974, 3M engineer Arthur Fry was sitting in the choir watching the little slips of paper he used to mark hymns fall out of the book and lose his place.

The sermon began, and Arthur started daydreaming about how he could mark his place with paper that stayed put. What he needed was a bookmark that stuck to the paper but didn’t tear it when it was pulled off. Thus was born the Post-It Note.

And thus was also born one of the better examples of how what we might want to happen when we talk about God isn’t necessarily what’s going to happen when we talk about God. And if you’ll be polite enough to not remind the preacher that sometimes more good things come out of boring sermons than out of good ones, I’ll do my best to make sure you don’t have so much time to do your daydreaming.

God is having a similar discussion with Ezekiel when we drop in on them here in chapter 33. Ezekiel, as we know, was called to be a prophet, and despite what we think of prophets in retrospect, they weren’t always popular or well-liked people in their day. We’re told artists sometimes have to die to be appreciated, and plenty of kings and leaders in their day would have appreciated prophets a lot more if they’d been dead. Or at least quiet.

Because he faces problems in delivering the message, Ezekiel isn’t sure he wants to do what God has asked him. Prior to this he’s described some of his visions. But they are so completely out there that I imagine people aren’t so much upset by him as they are making the universal “too much booze” sign behind his back.

Now, though, God may want him to confront some of the wickedness of his society. And he may not want to do that. One reason might be that he doesn’t want to get into trouble and risk his safety or his life. And he might also figure nobody’s going to listen to him if he brings nothing but the gloom and doom. How effective can I be, he wonders, if no one listens to me?

Well, God says, whether or not they listen is their problem. I’m talking to you about whether or not they have something to listen to. If I ask you to call them out on their wickedness and they don’t listen to what I say through you, then they’ll have to deal with the consequences. But if you don’t call them out, then you have to carry not just the burden of ignoring me, but also the burden they would have carried if they’d heard what I wanted them to hear.

Ezekiel was supposed to speak a message of prophecy, which discerned the evil that the people wanted to overlook. We don’t have that same call nearly as often, and certainly we don’t have it anywhere near as often as some people like to think they do. The quick rule of thumb is that if saying something will make you a jerk, you should pray about whether or not you’re listening to God or your own desire to put people in their place.

As Christians, our call is to proclaim the gospel. Some of that proclaiming involves speaking the truth about evil. But even more of it involves speaking the truth about God’s grace, love and mercy. We may or may not want to say that message, or maybe we only want to say part of it. We’re happy with the fire and brimstone part but we’re a little less happy with the grace and mercy part, or maybe vice-versa.

God’s caution to us is the same as his caution to Ezekiel. We’re called to proclaim the gospel as it was proclaimed to us. What happens to the people who hear it is between them and God. And I imagine that you, much like me, just had an uncomfortable memory of a parent telling you, “It doesn’t matter what your brother (or sister) does. I’m talking to you.”

We may offer someone the gospel message and watch it transform them. Or they may ignore it. Heck, maybe we say it over and over again and it seems every time we do the people hearing us ignore it. If we hear God’s message to Ezekiel, though, we understand that God has a purpose for us that is worked out in our obedience to him, and it may be served by people listening to us, or it may not.

Our job is to answer his call, and remember with gratitude that we know him because someone else answered his call to give that gospel message to us.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hey! It's That Guy! (Matthew 16:13-20)

The late character actor J.T. Walsh inspired a website and a book dedicated to the phrase most often used to describe him: “Hey! It’s that guy!”

Walsh played in more than 50 movies and was nominated for an Emmy. The year he died of a heart attack, 1998, he was in three movies. He rarely had a lead role and was often kind of a meanie, but he popped up in so many places people couldn’t help but remember his face, even if they had no idea what his name was. Thus, he became “that guy.”

A little of that goes on when Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah when the group is gathered at Ceasarea Philippi. Jesus ask them, “Who do folks say I am,” and they answer that he’s supposed to be Elijah or Jeremiah or another of the old prophets.” So Jesus asks who they think he is. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter answers. The answer makes Jesus happy and he predicts great things for Peter as the church begins its ministry after he is gone.

Is Jesus happy just because of Peter’s answer? Maybe, but look at what he says about it: “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in Heaven.” I believe Jesus is even more excited because Peter’s answer suggests he’s opened himself up to God’s guidance in a whole new way. Even though he doesn’t stay open to it for very long, he’s made a start and Jesus knows this will be the way the church spreads through the world.

For any right-thinking properly educated Jew of Jesus’ day, Jesus himself was a round peg to fit into a square Messiah hole. We’ve probably heard at least once about how many religious leaders rejected Jesus as Messiah because they looked for a political leader to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel.

It’s more than that, though. The promised Messiah was more than just a king. Many of the psalms describe the ideal king for the nation, and the Messiah was expected to fulfill all these ideals. He would be a great general able to defeat armies on the battlefield as well as a great warrior able to do some of his own smiting if the need arose.

He would be a well-dressed but not flashy guy who presented himself well. The ladies would all love him. The old Israelite kings often had many wives, so the ideal king would be surrounded by well-dressed knockouts and devoted to each of them equally. By Jesus’ day, the custom of polygamy had faded among the Jews, but the idea was the same, only without the physical relationship. He would also be a man’s man, able to hunt, fish, camp out and hang out with the guys, who would all enjoy hanging around him. His wisdom would outshine Solomon himself.

He would support the folks who had it hard, and be on the side of those who didn’t have anybody on their side. They would know he was their protector. And he would uphold the teaching of God so that the whole nation, and through them the whole world, could be blessed and know God’s direct presence – his law “written on their hearts” as Jeremiah would say.

Today, we could say this ideal king would be a man who led the army to victory in battle, thwarted an assassination attempt single-handed, came home to accept congratula-tory yet perfectly appropriate hugs from all the gals, chest-bumped, ooh-rahed and high-fived all the guys, told their mothers that that was the best potato salad anybody had ever sent to a war zone (and of course they’d said grace over every spoonful) and told their dads that even though he and the rest had won, he was pretty sure they didn’t have a patch on those guys back in their day.

Then he’d finish it off by rescuing a kitten stuck in a tree.

This, you see, was what the Jewish people of Jesus’ day expected. Yes, Jesus was wise and compassionate, and he certainly did have a charisma that drew people to him. But he matched few of the rest of their expectations, so no ordinary person who sized him up and puzzled him out would have said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Only a person who allowed himself or herself to be led by the Holy Spirit could say such a thing with true understanding, and somehow Jesus knew that Peter had that understanding when he spoke.

Without the leading of the Spirit, the most anyone could say would be something like what people said when they saw J.T. Walsh’s familiar but un-named face on the screen: Hey! It’s that guy!

I believe that we could see Jesus in so many places today if we would let the Spirit guide us and open our eyes to him. We could see him in the people in need. Didn’t Jesus tell us that as we had done unto the least of these, we’d done unto him?

That’s just the start. He is at work all around us and the evidence is right there, if we will let ourselves be guided to see it, so that instead of saying, “Hey, it’s that guy!” we can say, “Hey! It’s Jesus!”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

You Don't Know Where That's Been! (Matthew 15:10-20)

I freely confess having gotten this passage wrong more times than I’d like.

By that I mean I’ve identified the “what goes into you” part with physical things like food, drink or entertainment. And I’ve identified the “what comes out of you” part with what I say or do. Jesus, I’ve said, was a lot less concerned with what a person said or did than he was with what kind of food they ate. He was more concerned with their spirit than he was with simple physical stuff.

Which is true, but I never connected the two and that’s what I got wrong.

Think about it for a second. Jesus says that the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and if wrong things come from the heart then the heart is defiled and so is the person. So how, we might wonder, do we get the “what comes out” part? Does it spring up whole inside of us? Does it come out of nowhere?

Probably not, I’d imagine. When we say or do things and express our opinions and attitudes, they’ve usually come from something. Maybe we’ve studied and reflected on an issue, or maybe we’re just reacting to something we’ve heard. Either way, what comes out of is affected by what goes into us.

I can’t imagine that Jesus would want us to believe that what comes out of our hearts has nothing to do with what has gone into our hearts. Even the digestion example he uses shows that he’s talking about what comes in, what happens to it while it’s there and what happens to it when it’s gone.

What, then, does go into our hearts? What do our spirits “digest” in our lives?

For one, I imagine, they digest our everyday experiences. The stuff that goes on in our lives, we know, plays a big part in what kind of lives we live. If we have a lot of rotten stuff go on, then we might feel pretty rotten. If we have good stuff go on around us, we might feel OK.

And so, we might indeed see a need to be careful about what we consume, because some things are more likely to produce good than others are. I firmly believe that God can and does work through every circumstance and every possible influence in our lives.

A key for us as Christians is to allow God to be the main part of processing those circumstances and influences. We’re all going to go through hard or rotten times, and they might have a rotten impact on us if we try to handle them ourselves. But with God’s help we can come through them with something of value. We won’t enjoy them, nor should we. But God’s power can redeem them. If he redeemed the senseless death of his Son, he can redeem anything.

In essence, we allow God to digest what we consume or experience to produce something nutritious from it. But we still need to discern what we take in.

I think everything around us carries a mixture of its original created goodness and its fallen sinfulness. But the mixtures aren’t always the same. Some things have less goodness and more sinfulness and vice-versa. Keeping the food analogy, we can be sure that almost all real foods have some nutritional value, but some don’t have much. Twinkies have nutritional value, but it’s really small, meaning we would have to eat a lot of them to gain something worthwhile from them, and that has its own problems.

I love movies, and I watch a lot of them. Some of them offer me things to think about and meditate on, and those thoughts might lead me closer to an understanding of God. Some of them offer very little to think about. Over the years I’ve tried to reduce those, and not because I feel very holy and moral about it. I’ve just started figuring out how much of my life I want to spend on stuff that gets me nowhere.

Sure, I can watch a Saw movie and have a discussion about appreciating life and such, since the killer’s motif is that he only targets people who don’t appreciate the gift of life. But what an amazing amount of garbage I have to consume to get that one little insight, and why would I want to spend two hours with that when I can watch a legion of better movies that would offer a lot more “nutritional value,” so to speak?

What comes out of us, Jesus says, shows people our hearts. But it’s what goes into us that shapes those hearts, and the question we face is what we will give God to use in that shaping – things of worth, or things of worthlessness?

Friday, August 15, 2008

You talkin' to me? (Matthew 15:21-28)

(Actually two different sermons came out of this week's gospel reading, and I'm preaching the other one. It'll go up in a few days)

This, of course, is not always our favorite Jesus story.

Many segments of the church like to emphasize how compassionate Jesus was, how he reached out to the poor, the sick and the rest of the people so-called “decent folks” wanted to overlook. It seems like for a lot of people, the main thing they can call up about Jesus is that he was a nice guy.

But the way Matthew tells this story, Jesus doesn’t sound like a nice guy. Not only does he act like he doesn’t want to heal this poor woman’s daughter, he pretty much ignores her when she first asks for help. When he does finally pay attention to her, he compares her to a household dog.

I’ve heard one interpretation that says this story shows us Jesus was a human being, and like every human being, he sometimes has a bad day. He’s been around the block with the Pharisees again a little bit before this and he probably wants some peace and quiet, when this woman starts shouting at him. So he’s snappish at her, but in the end he remembers who he is and what he’s supposed to be doing and who he represents, so he heals her daughter.

In other words, Jesus is usually a nice guy, and even when he’s not, he has a good excuse, and he does what God calls him to do anyway. We should too.

I’m not sure of this – I feel like I have to be a little bit of a gymnast to follow it, nor am I sure that all Matthew wants me to see is that Jesus is still a nice guy.

Let’s check our setting again. Jesus and the disciples are traveling in the district of Tyre and Sidon, which is in upper Galilee. Most of the people in the area aren’t Jewish. Matthew says the woman is a Canaanite, which probably means she is one of the non-Jewish groups of people who live near those cities.

But when she calls out to Jesus, she calls him “Lord, Son of David.”

She probably meant something when she said “Lord,” but “son of David” wouldn’t mean much to someone who wasn’t Jewish, or later, a Christian. Does she say it because she recognizes Jesus and his importance? Or does she say it because she recognizes Jesus and the disciples as Jews and she somehow knows “son of David” means something to them even if it means nothing to her?

It’s likely, after all, that this woman sought the help of many different healers and teachers. She would want her daughter healed and I doubt she’d much care how it happened as long as it did. So she could have called out to any number of travelers along that road or any one of the teachers that had happened by. Maybe “son of David” was a common way of addressing Jewish men when you didn’t know their names, and maybe she figured none of her people had helped so why not ask those crazy monotheistic Judeans?

So when Jesus first ignores her and then points out he was sent to his own people first, he might very well be challenging her. Are you calling out to me, or to whoever happened to be walking by, he might have asked. You called me Lord, Song of David – is that what you say to all of us? Are you asking me to heal your daughter because you believe I can or just because you’re so desperate you’ll ask anyone?

Her answer shows a little of both, doesn’t it? She is desperate, but she knows if Jesus is the man who can heal her daughter, he can do it whether she is Jewish or not. Either he can heal her or he can’t. If he can heal her, then he either will or he won’t. If I didn’t think you could do it, then I wouldn’t be asking you, might be her answer.

If I’m close on this, then that’s why I think Jesus remarks on her faith when he heals her daughter. Yes, you really do believe I can, don’t you, Jesus might have said. I can and I will.

We don’t always live our lives based on faith, even though we talk about it a lot. And maybe that’s the compromise we make in order to get through the day in a fallen world.

But sometimes we remember we’re the people who may live in this world, but we also proclaim the world the way it ought to be – whole and peaceful and reunited with God. And in those times we answer God’s call to live both in the world the way we say it ought to be as well as the world the way it is.

That’s when Jesus might remark on our faith, too.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Happy Feet! (Romans 10:5-15)

OK, waitaminute. Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” But Paul says, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” So what’s going on?

Well, maybe the difference is in these two ideas – Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven, and Paul talks about being saved. Perhaps there’s some important theological difference between the concept of the Kingdom of Heaven as described by Jesus and salvation as described by Paul. We know that the “Kingdom of Heaven” is an important theme in Jesus’ message and also in John the Baptist’s. We also know that Paul spends a lot of time in Romans talking about the meaning, impact and effect of salvation.

So, is there a sense in which saying “Lord, Lord,” is insufficient for attaining the Kingdom of Heaven, but calling on the name of the Lord is sufficient for salvation?

Beats me. I think there’s a more important point in there for me as a Christian, which is what Paul writes in the last verses of this passage. In order for people to call on the name of the Lord, they will need to believe in him, and they won’t believe in him if they’ve never heard about him, and they’ll never hear about him if no one ever talks about him.

I imagine we’ve all heard at one time or another a church member from somewhere say something like, “Well, I don’t go around preaching at people – that’s the preacher’s job!”

And it is in fact the preacher’s job. But the preacher didn’t get that job when he or she was ordained. They got that job when they were baptized. In fact, if your preacher stopped being a preacher today, their duty to share the gospel would be just as strong tomorrow as it is now.

Now, of course not all of us are called to the same kinds of ministry and not all of us have the gifts to communicate the gospel in the same way. Some people have the gift to reach large numbers of folks with the message and provoke a wide-ranging response. Some people have the kind of mind that can explain some very complex things about God, human beings and the relationship between them in a very understandable way.

And then some of us – a lot of us – muddle through, wondering most of the time if we even understand the gospel ourselves, let alone know it well enough to share it with someone else. We spend enough time asking, “What’s that mean?” that we’re pretty sure we wouldn’t have many answers if people asked us that same question.

But even us slowpokes have people we know and we know them better than the people who have all the answers and all the clever phrases and all the right words to say. We know them from work, we know them in our own homes, we know them from school or from someplace else. The key is, we know them. The chair of the church council doesn’t know them. The chair of the evangelism committee doesn’t know them. The youth director doesn’t know them. The preacher doesn’t know them. But we do.

And those are the people who, if we care about them, are some of the ones we most want to know the Lord and have the gift of God alive in their lives. I certainly pray for the unchurched folks around the world who need to know Christ. I hope they hear the word and come to know him. I even support the efforts of some people to bring them that word.

But how much more can I pray and how much more can I do for the ones who I see maybe every day of my week? How much more impact can I have on someone who can trust my words about God because they trust me?

Paul quotes Isaiah in verse 15. How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news, proclaim peace and proclaim salvation, Isaiah says, who say to Zion, your God reigns!

To be one who shares the good news with another is to be as wonderful in their lives as would be the person who says, “The Lord has returned!”

And each of us has our calling to be that person in the lives of someone else. Maybe not everyone else, but at least someone else.

My friends, it’s our duty to have feet of beauty…

Sunday, August 03, 2008

You Give Them Something (Matthew 14:13-21)

I've noticed sometimes I will glide past some of the things Jesus may tell his disciples because I know how the story ends. Although they often operate in full dunce mode, they will, following Jesus' death and resurrection, sell themselves out to proclaim the gospel. According to church tradition, only John dies a natural death, and that's after he spent years in exile on a rocky island.

So I tend to figure I don't need to hear what he tells those guys, since they were the cream of the crop and I'm nowhere near that level. I forget, of course, that "those guys" started out nowhere near that level, either, and that Jesus' guidance for them was usually given when they were in that full dunce mode.

Here, for example, I need to pay attention to what Jesus says to his disciples and some of the things that are behind what he says, because I'm pretty sure he'd say the same things to me if he were here face-to-face. We know the story -- the crowd has followed Jesus out to the lakeshore, in what's apparently a pretty rural area. And "rural" in a country with the population density Judea had at the time is saying something. The day is ending, and the disciples know it will probably be something of a walk for the people to get to nearby villages and buy food. So they suggest Jesus wind things up and send the people away. Notice how they're not worried about food for themselves, which may mean they've already got some of their own, or it may not. We don't know for sure.

Jesus demurs and tells them, "You give them something to eat." They say. "Well, we've got a little bread and some fish but that's it." "Sit them down and bring that to me," Jesus says, and when they follow his instructions, he blesses the small meal and begins to pass it around. Not only does everyone get enough to eat, they have leftovers.

First, Jesus doesn't seem to let his disciples off the hook for their responsibility to the crowd. We're the people that brought them out here, he says. They wouldn't be miles away from dinner if they hadn't followed us. We can't go back on our responsibility just because it gets tough, can we?

Second, he understands the disciples don't have the necessary resources to do what's needed. They don't have enough food for a crowd this size. But he also knows that if he uses what they have, then he can make it do much more than they ever imagined.

What does that say to us? Well, I think it's something like this. I know I sometimes have the impulse to say that I've done everything I needed to do when I've brought someone to a place where they can meet Jesus. I've guided them to church, or I've explained things to them in a conversation, or I've prayed with them at camp or somewhere else. Now it's up to God! After all, I had a T-shirt that said, "Fishers of men: You catch them, he'll clean them," and they can't put it on a T-shirt if it's not in the Bible, can they?

But Jesus suggest we still have a responsibility to those whom we've brought out to meet him. We can't just walk away from them now. They're here because of us, and so some of their growth and discipleship is on us too.

Even though it's our responsibility, it's not our burden, because we don't have what it takes to do the work the new folks need done. We can't "clean" them or offer them salvation, because that's God's work. What we can do, and what Jesus asks us to do, is offer God whatever we do have, and let him use it to do the necessary work.

Perhaps you listen well when people tell their problems. That by itself may bring them out to meet Jesus and learn about him, but it doesn't save them or begin their relationship with him. Since you listened to them, though, and you offer yourself as a follower of Christ, God may use you to show them how well he listens to them also, and they can understand that God will take them, too. They may not have believed that before, but because you offered your abilities to God for his use, they can come to understand it now.

After all, when we share the good news with people, we don't stop with the headline. There's a story behind it, and that story includes not only us, but also the people we share it with, and the God who has saved us all.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Big Plant (Matthew 13:24-30; 36-42)

I'm still pretty new at this church so I don't think I'll preach it this way. Oh well.

I was sitting in my office on a dead-end street in Jerusalem trying not to think about the metaphor. I’d bought myself a drink to get my mind off it, but it seems I’m not much of a conversationalist.

She walked in, like they always do. If I’d been a rabbi I might have dropped my Talmud, but I wasn’t so I didn't. “You’re not interrupting,” I told her. She gave me a blank look. I was used to those.

It was even money whether she was in trouble or wanted to start some. Turns out it was the former, at least for now. No telling what might turn up later. The guy she worked for owned this wheat field, and a few weeks ago he’d sown some wheat seed in it. I guess that’s what you do when you have a field and some seed – me, I was more interested in what vintners did than farmers.

Now the wheat was beginning to show up, but it wasn’t alone. Right in the middle, mixed in with all the good stuff, were weeds. Tares, we sometimes call them. She and the outfit she worked for wanted to know where they’d come from and who might be behind it all. So she’d come to me with her question, which sooner or later a lot of people do here in Big J. For a denarius a day plus expenses, I'm the guy who finds the answers.

Since my appointments with the king and C├Žsar had fallen through, my day was open. I went with her to the field, where her boss and some of his crew were gathered. I looked at the field. Someone showed me which ones were the wheat and which ones were the tares. It was a good thing they did, because I’m a city boy and green on one end, dirty on the other is the extent of my horticultural knowledge.

I got the story about what happened when they’d done their planting. The boss was no slouch – once he’d planted his seed, he had some guys stand guard and watch the field. Wasn’t his fault they weren’t smart enough to watch a movie.

I quizzed him. “Any enemies?”

“Probably,” he said.

“They do something like this”?

“Probably did,” he said. He was less of a talker than I was, but that pretty much solved the case. Didn’t seem like it was worth a denarius, but he didn’t ask for it back and I didn’t offer. Made the dame who’d hired me happy too. I liked making dames happy, especially since I usually only managed to do that by leaving.

My job was over, but I thought I’d stick around to see how things turned now. Maybe I’d make the dame happy again. The chief flunky spoke up in a sincere effort to keep the job he’d just been shown to have fallen down on.

“Master, since an enemy has done this, do you want us to dig out all the weeds?”

Like I said, I was no farmboy, but even I knew this was a bad idea. The wheat and the weeds were too close together. Tear out one and risk ripping up the other. The boss would take a significant hit in the wallet, and I’ve never met a boss who likes that. I caught his look and raised an eyebrow. He rolled his eyes back at me.

“No,” he said, and explained what I’d just thought of. “We’ll wait until harvest and sort them all out then. We can store the wheat and burn up whatever weeds are left.” He looked at me again and I understood the meaning behind his words.

He wasn’t an ordinary guy, this boss. Sure, he’d run his field like any other farmer would and take care of his wheat. The workers would till around it and make sure it got watered and fertilized. And when the harvest time came, he’d do just like he said and have them separate the wheat from the weeds.

But I’d heard everything he’d said, including that last phrase: “whatever weeds are left.” He didn’t just intend to take care of his wheat. He counted on being able to work on the weeds themselves. By the time he was done with them, he counted on them being transformed – they wouldn’t be weeds anymore. They’d be wheat.

I nodded once at the dame and walked away, headed back towards my office. I knew the real reason the boss wanted to wait wasn’t just because he was worried about his wheat. He was worried about the weeds too, and he wanted the time to work his transformation mojo on them. Weeds into wheat? Why not?

Even gave me some hope for me.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sow What? (Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23)

Ever wonder if there was a smart-aleck disciple? He would be the one who raised his hand after Jesus started this parable: “A sower went out to sow…yes, you have a question?”

“Sow what?”

“Whattaya mean, ‘so what?’ It’s a parable, we don’t get to the ‘so what’ ‘till the ending.”

“I mean, what kind of seed did he sow?”

“My next parable will be about the horrible consequences of being a wise guy.”

Anyway, this is a straightforward parable and its ideas pop up nice and obvious, unless you’re a disciple, in which case Jesus explains it for you. The seed is the word of the Lord, or God’s message. The different places it falls represent different ways people respond to hearing that word. Some people who hear the word have hearts and minds like the hard-packed soil of the path. The word can’t get any grip or take any root in their hearts and soon it’s gone. Some people have so much other stuff going on in their lives that the word can’t get started in the middle of it, like the seed can’t get started in the middle of the thorn plants.

I want to focus on the other two types of responses because of their apparent similarity. Both the rocky soil and the good soil seem to produce the same result at first. We see growth and plants begin. In fact, the plants start out faster in the rocky soil, don’t they? In Jesus’ parable, they spring up.

Anyone who remembers the elementary school science experiment where you put a seed inside a transparent container of dirt so you could watch it grow can figure this out. The seed sends out both a root and a plant – one grows up and one grows down. Both have to work their way through the soil to get to where they need to go. The root gets to a certain depth before it branches out and seeks nutrition from the dirt. The plant grows up (and even if you try to turn the seed upside down they seem to know the right direction) until it breaks the surface and begins to photosynthesize sunlight and consume carbon dioxide.

Obviously, a seed that lands in shallow soil will break through the surface sooner, because it starts out closer to that surface. But it will also die sooner and from less stressful causes, because the shallow soil doesn’t have room for the roots or the nutrients they gather.

But when the soil is prepared, the seed will sink deeper into it and find what it needs to mature and yield its fruit. That soil has been tilled and raked to loosen it, and circulated to allow fertilizer to penetrate. Such soil is ready for sowing, but that preparation was carried out long before the sower picked up his sack that morning and began his work.

If the seed represents the word of God sown in human hearts and minds, then we can see that it grows best in soil that was prepared for it. What prepares us for the word of God coming to us? Well, pretty much everything that happens in our lives, I guess. I can’t say exactly what prepares you for the word of God to take root in your spirit, and now that I think of it, I’m not precisely sure about what prepares my heart for it either. We can guess about generalities, such as humility, an awareness of our sin and an awareness that God loves us all no matter what, but the specifics differ for every one of us. Only God knows what makes us really ready to receive him.

And the thing is, since I have no idea who might be ready for the word of God as it comes through me, I’m not entitled to pick and choose who hears it from me. The sower needed to make sure seed hit every corner of his prepared soil, even though he knew some of the seed would scatter into areas not ready for it.

I don’t get to pick and choose who hears God’s message as God communicates it through me. Maybe I think I’m not somewhere I need to talk about God or act in a godly manner, or Maybe I’m talking with someone who I figure isn’t ready for the word and I don’t bring it up. Either way I send a message about God, and it might not be one I intend or want to send.

All around me God has prepared soil for seed, and all he’s asked me to do is sow it. He has already planned who will tend that soil and those plants to bring them to fruit and called his workers forward to do that – you or I may be those workers in the lives of others as well as the sowers of seed. Sometimes we tend what others planted.

But just as we would have nothing to tend if no one planted a seed of God’s word in someone else’s heart, others in our future will have nothing to tend if we don’t sow now as God calls us to do.

Monday, June 30, 2008

A Cold One (Matthew 10:40-42)

We follow Jesus, but sometimes you’ve gotta scratch your head at that fella.

“A cup of cold water in my name?” That sets the bar kind of low, don’t you think? I mean, seriously, Jesus, cold water’s not really all that much to ask of us, is it?

And it does seem that way. One can imagine somebody talking about his latest conversation with a whiny guest who keeps hinting he’s thirsty but won’t come right out and say it or get off his lazy behind and get a glass. He hints and whines until eventually the host stalks into the kitchen, turns on the tap and shoves the glass into his hand and says, “Jesus! Here’s some water!” Some folks might get the impression they’ve covered their bases by saying that and let Jesus know they’ll see him later on when he’s needed.

Of course, when we remember that Jesus was talking in the first century instead of the twenty-first, then we might start understanding how this was a tougher task then than it is for us. No refrigerators, no coolers, no cold faucets. It does sometimes get cold in Judea, and in the mountain ranges it even snows. But cold water with the twist of a wrist is not really an option for a lot of people.

Water that came from wells was usually cooler than water people had sitting around – but nothing like what we might think of as cold. In any event, wells were rarely the kind we often call to mind with the brick cylinder and the bucket on a rope. Many of the wells were like the one where Jesus met the woman from Samaria – a large pit that you walked down into with your bucket and climbed out of after you’d drawn water from the spring at the bottom.

That water was cool compared to the air around you, but it didn’t stay cool for long. People might dig a cellar in which they could store some water and cool it down a little, but they didn’t keep a lot down there, unless it was a big cellar. And few people could afford that kind of work.

So offering someone a cup of cold water took some work. It wasn’t the hardest job a first-century Middle Easterner could have, but it was nowhere near the incredibly easy snap it is for us today. And even so, Jesus talks about it in a way that indicates it’s not the most someone could have done back then, too. “Even a cup of cold water," he says.

Here we trip over another culture gap, I believe. The culture of the ancient Middle East had a role for hospitality that we don’t come close to matching. Even today in the rural areas or in small towns in that region, hospitality customs exist that are very much the same as in Jesus’ day.

If I lived in a village and I happened to have a conversation with you or meet you on the street, and I learned that you had no place to stay or you were traveling, I would invite you to my house for a meal. No questions asked. In fact, I would invite you to stay at my house while you were in my village before you took up your journey again. No questions asked.

If I didn’t do these things, I ran the risk of being thought of as a no-account rube who decent people wouldn’t mix with. That’s how strong the custom was. It probably roots in the traditions of these people when they were still nomads and wanderers. In the desert, refusing your hospitality to a traveler might very well mean that traveler’s death. There might not be anyone else to put him up or any oases nearby.

In that culture, an invitation to my house made you a part of my extended family, like we might think of a second or third cousin today. We don’t put them in the will, mind you, but we make sure they’re invited to the barbecues.

That cup of cold water is part of an invitation to join the family – and we know who our family is if we say we’re part of the body of Christ, don’t we? When we invite the stranger to put their knees under our table and we do so as disciples of Jesus, then aren’t we inviting them to gather with us at God’s table? And if we’re doing that, then aren’t we inviting them to share in the meal God offers us, the communion that Jesus shared with his disciples and directs us to share with each other?

So maybe our cup of cold water is not such a low bar after all. Maybe it’s a hint that our true reward as a member of the household of faith comes when we in turn invite others, as we were invited ourselves.

Our reward may come to us when we ourselves share the good news.