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.