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.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Most Important Meal of the Week (Romans 6:1-11)

When I worked at a college, one of my students told me about meeting someone on campus who wasn’t a Christian – for most people, college is one of the first times in their lives when they meet people from different backgrounds with different beliefs.

The young man said after he’d talked with the new person for awhile about whatever was going on around them, he happened to refer to church, and the other person said something like, “You’re a Christian? Wow, I wouldn’t have known that.”

You may or may not have heard the same phrase in your life. Either way, you can understand how it can have a good meaning or a not-so-good meaning. The good meaning, which is the one my student encountered, comes when the people who say “I never would have guessed that” is complimenting you. They’ve either had bad experience with church people or they’ve heard about bad experiences with church people, so they’re surprised you’re not a jerk like those others they’ve met or heard about.

The bad meaning, of course, is that we’re exactly that jerk and we’re not doing much at living up to the name we’ve taken: “Christian.”

As Christians, we need to understand something about how we live our lives. We follow Christ. And according to Paul, that means sin no longer rules in us. Common sense, right? Following Christ is different than following our own path, because if it’s not, why bother? If we follow Christ, we do different things than we would do if we just followed ourselves and our own desires.

People who follow Christ should find themselves moving away from sin. It isn’t easy and it involves a whole lot of steps backward mixed in with the steps forward and it depends upon God’s help, but it’ll happen.

Be careful here – we do not, under any circumstances, have any call to judge ourselves as better than those other people. Remember Paul’s words from another part of Romans, how everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Still applies.

But if the way of the world around is focuses on looking out for our own interests and to heck with everyone else’s, for example, then that conflicts with our way, which puts love of God and love of neighbor at its center.

And here comes the unpleasant and uncomfortable part, in which we remember how often we haven’t measured up to that description. I’ll let you call to mind the details of your own shortcomings, because remembering mine is depressing enough.

A friend of mine talked on his blog about the nice Father’s Day lunch he, his wife and two-month-old daughter had this year. Because he thinks like this, he figured out that Sunday lunch is probably the most conspicuous meal of the week for Christians. In some places, we stand out because we’re dressed up, and when we walk into restaurants Sunday at about 12:20 (or earlier if our pastor didn’t have as much to say), folks can guess we’ve been to church. Other church people stand out because they all come in as a group at about the same time.

My friend said he remembered hearing one waiter grouse about us because the church folks he’d had to deal with were lousy tippers. Maybe true, maybe not. But we can’t escape the fact that we’re probably never as visible as Christians to the world around us as when we eat out Sunday after services.

What do people see when they see us then? Do they see us give thanks for our food? Do they see us be pleasant to our servers or demanding and rude? Do they see us whine about a long wait or use the chance to talk with folks, either ourselves or the others waiting with us?

Of course we ought to be living changed lives whether someone’s watching or not, but it has a bigger impact when people see us and know who we are. And of course there are big changes to worry about in our lives too when we follow God.

But remember – the servant was trusted with small things before he was charged with the care of larger matters. You could make a good case that someone who couldn’t be trusted to be generous to a restaurant server probably couldn’t be trusted with much else.

I think Jesus and Paul both might have said just that if they were spreading their message today.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Cosmic Comedy Bit (Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7)

Let’s say you’re God, and you’ve got a job you want to hire someone for.

Now, the main role is filled – your goal is to reconcile humanity to you, and you know who you’ll use for that particular task. But there’s some tech support that’s got to be in place before that gets done, and one of the things you want is for that salvation to come in a particular way, through a certain kind of society and culture.

For that, you need a nation and some people to make it up. There’ll be some other jobs down the line, but first you’ve got to get started.

So you’re looking for some people to be the founders of this nation. What kind of qualifications does your ideal candidate have? Probably needs to be a leader, and demonstrate he knows how to run things. Be good to be able to see things long-term and have a vision, too.

Some qualities of the current culture would be good carryovers, don’t you think? Like hospitality, the welcoming of the stranger. That will play an important role in the message your reconciler will bring.

How about kids? Remember, in this day and time, a person’s history carries on through their children and grandchildren. People without kids don’t have anyone to take care of them in their old age and if they die without kids, well it’s like they vanished from history.

So look who shows up to the interview – a couple senior citizens, a guy pushing a hundred and his “younger” wife who’s a spring chicken in her early 90s. Um, I’m sorry, people, but did you read the part on the application about “descendants?” And no, what’s-his-name from your wife’s chambermaid doesn’t count.

And yet, since you and I weren’t there to give him advice, God picked exactly these two people. Go figure.

We don’t have to read very far into the Bible to find out God does this sort of thing all the time. Go for the least obvious, the least likely, the most far-out plan imaginable to get a job done. Use methods and personnel that would make any HR directors worth their salt cringe – a murderer to lead people to freedom, a shepherd boy as a king, a poor teen-age girl from Backwater, Nowhere-istan to bear a savior, a carpenter to save the world.

It’s like he sees what makes sense or seems wise to us and flips it on its head.

So he does it here, with Abram and Sarai. From a couple without children, a couple who would be viewed by nearly their entire culture as a dead end, God brings forth a nation. And not by the man in the couple winning battles and forging his people together through the heat of a crisis. He gives them something they thought they could never have and shows everyone that with God, there are no dead ends.

A philosopher named Søren Kierkegaard said he was a Christian because God worked in ways that weren’t just mysterious, they were often absurd and sometimes downright ridiculous. He said the more absurd the idea or concept, the better he found it because accepting it strengthened his faith. Stuff he could explain didn’t help his faith, because he could point to an explanation. The unexplainable – well, that required belief, and that was what he figured God was all about.

Kierkegaard may or may not be right. But if we accept Isaac as the true son of Abram and Sarai, we’ve crossed into the place where we have to believe it rather than prove it. And if we believe it, then we’ve come where God wants us to be: Following his guidance along a road that may not make sense except in the rearview mirror, and even then only after he’s pointed it out to us.

When Sarah laughed, she didn’t mock God. She mocked herself and the idea that someone like her could have a role in what God planned to do. But God worked in and through her anyway, and her laughter turned from self-mockery to the joy of her baby son, Isaac. In Hebrew, his name is pronounced "Yitschak." It translates into English as “laughter.”

We could say the story of Isaac’s birth tells us that God won’t be mocked, but to me it makes more sense to say that the strength of God’s laughter and joy won’t be stopped.

P.S. Blogger apparently doesn't support the slashed-O character in Kierkegaard's first name. My apologies to my legions of Danish-, Finnish- and Norwegian-speaking readers.