Saturday, May 29, 2010

Boasting! (Romans 5:1-5)

One of my dad's favorite baseball players, Dizzy Dean, was not known for his humility regarding his talent. He usually responded to comments about this with something like "It ain't braggin' if you can back it up." That  concept of aggressive, if not extreme, self-promotion is what usually comes to mind when we think of "boasting."

So Paul's words to the Romans call up all kinds of interesting ideas. "We boast in our sufferings," he says. Kind of like that person who, no matter how badly things are going for you, is always generous enough to let you know they are in much worse shape. Or that. no matter what kind of obstacles you encountered in doing something, they were able to accomplish their task with even more problems than you had. I am pretty sure we all know that kind of person, and I'm almost as sure we've all been that kind of person sometimes. I keep working on not doing that, but I have a ways to go yet.

Surely Paul doesn't mean that we brag about how bad we've got it compared to the rest of the world, does he? That would seem...weird, at the very least. I can definitely understand how suffering, great or small, can produce character. And if we endure our suffering believing that we are following the true God, we might find our hope in him strengthened along with that very suffering itself. But even though I get that, I really stumble with this concept of boasting here.

And I'm not the only one. "Boast," of course, is an English translation of the original Greek word Paul used, which was kauchaomai. The version I use a lot, the New Revised Standard, translates that word as "boast." But the original Revised Standard Version used "rejoice," as does the New International Version. Good ol' King James's crew translated kauchaomai "glory in," making verse 3 run like this: "And not only so, we glory in tribulations also; knowing that tribulation worketh patience..."

In other words, a variety of biblical scholars over the past six hundred years or so have had a hard time nailing down just what Paul meant to say he was doing here. Was he simply rejoicing in the sufferings that came to him because he followed Christ, and the sufferings offered proof to him he really was denying himself and taking up the cross as Jesus had directed? Or did he rejoice that he could share in even this small way some of what Jesus had done as he had suffered? People have rejoiced for those reasons in many situations.

Was he rejoicing because he knew this suffering would build his faith as he describes? Kind of how high school football coaches have been known to say things like "Pain is weakness leaving the body!" to those who might think it actually was a good reason to quit playing football.

All of these, I suppose, are possible. But in other places that word kauchaomai gets used, it usually means "boast," so we're kind of stuck with trying to resolve how we boast in hope and also in suffering. Maybe if we looked at some of those other places we read it we might get an idea. Aha! And so we do.

Before this, whenever Paul has told the Romans about boasting, it hasn't been a good thing. Religious snobs boasted about God accepting them because they were so special. People suggested they had done so many good things that God had to take them in because of it, and they said that's exactly why God blessed Abraham and so it was why God should bless them too. In essence, these kind of people boast about who they are or what they've done.

But, Paul says, those who follow God should know that neither the privilege of birth or a mountain of good deeds can make God love them any more than he already does. God's love is unconditional, which means it can't be bought with a special status or a spiffy resume. It can't be bought at all, in fact. God loves us for no other reason than that we showed up. And that's a good thing, because I don't know about you, but I've given God plenty of reasons not to love me in my life. So I can't help but feel relieved that God's love doesn't depend on things that I do or don't do.

Yes, I also know that there are things God asks of me and that following him pleases him more than not following him does, and I want to follow him because of that. He won't love me any more if I succeed or any less if I fail, though. So when it comes to me and what I can do and what those things mean in terms of my relationship with God, I'm left with nothing to brag about.

I am, though, left with what God can do. Boast in my sufferings and limitations? Sure! Some might say I'm some kind of loser for believing in this religious mumbo-jumbo, but look at what amazing things God can do with such limited tools at his disposal! God wanted his message of love to go throughout the world but he chose people to convey it. You know, messed-up, selfish, childish, irritable and what-have-you people. People who get it wrong and lots of times forget what God may have really wanted to say and don't exactly do so great at making sure their own message stays behind the scenes.

And God's message got through anyway, and it still does. Maybe God's waiting around for what he thinks will be the right time to toot his own horn, but in the meantime? When I consider an achievement like the gospel, managing to make it into the world through as flawed a medium as, well, me? That's a God worth bragging about.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Repost: You Lookin' at Me? (Acts 1:1-11)

Thanks to the cyclical nature of the lectionary, we have again reached a passage which I have preached on before. This week's sermon is similar to one from May 2007, and so that manuscript is reposted here. The link to the scripture passage above is here.

Probably one of the questions that has dogged the church since - well, since the passage we read here, I imagine – is why Jesus ascended. Why did he return to be with God after the Resurrection, instead of staying with us and continuing to teach?

After all, Luke says, Jesus gave his apostles “many convincing proofs” he was alive, not as a ghost, but as a human being. Why not remain and offer the rest of the world those same kind of convincing proofs? Why not demonstrate how God had proved the truth of his words with this resurrection?

The crowds that had heard him teach and watched him heal had been huge – but imagine what they would be like now. The multitudes that hailed him as the Son of David when he entered Jerusalem would be small in comparison, and this time, they wouldn’t turn on him five days later.

Everyone who heard the gospel message about the coming Kingdom of God could have living proof right in front of them. Either Jesus would set himself up at the Temple (no need for whips to drive out the moneychangers this time – they’d bail on sight), or he might simply appear to whomever accepted the message, as proof they chose wisely. It all would have been so much easier, so why leave at all?

The church has done God’s work, but people have done things in Jesus’ name that probably wouldn’t have been approved if he’d been managing things in person. Could there have been any division within the body of Christ if Christ himself had been present to arbitrate the disputes? Sure, the disciples bickered about which one of them was the greatest, but that was pre-Resurrection. We’d have the resurrected Christ, and everyone would know which one was the greatest of all.

Jesus himself tells us why he ascended, and the way the disciples act here demonstrates why his reason’s a good one.

Many times during his ministry, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit, and often he describes how it will work among us after he has gone. Luke shows us the Spirit’s hand at work in what happens before Jesus is born as well as what happens during his earthly ministry. People see, do and say things because they are “moved by the Spirit” or “led by the Spirit.”

Obviously, my idea about how things would be if Jesus didn’t ascend is speculation. We don’t really know what that life would be like. But we do know that Jesus suggests the Holy Spirit will not fully work within people when Jesus is actually present. It comes on the day of Pentecost, after Jesus leaves.

Is there a turf war? God draws some kind of line down the center of the human heart so Jesus and the Spirit don’t get in each other’s way? Well, that doesn’t make much sense if we really believe that God is a Trinity, one God in three persons. We claim it’s a perfect union, not subject to disagreement.

When I look at the stories of God dealing with people, it seems God limits himself not because he has to, but because people need him to. Moses can only see his reflected glory. He stoops down low to see the “mighty tower” that the people at Babel have made. He limits his direct presence to one inner room of the Temple. He comes as a human baby.

And it’s all because we’re limited.

We need to grow, but we’re limited in how fast we can do that. When we’re kids, we want to be grown up right now, to have the privileges we see in adulthood. But unless we take the whole long weary slog up that hill, we’ll never really understand how responsibilities accompany those privileges, or learn how to handle them.

If Jesus was always present, the way he was present to the disciples following his resurrection, then could they have grown? How about if all we ever needed to do to prove his message was real was say, “Well, buy a plane ticket to Jerusalem and meet him if you don’t believe me. Or better yet, I’ll give him a call and he’ll be right over.” Would we ever grow?

Maybe some of us would, but I don’t know about the majority, to be honest with you. I don’t know if I would.

I expect I’d be quite a bit like those disciples, staring into the sky after he’d passed beyond the clouds, still looking up until someone spoke up. Jesus told them what would happen: How they’d receive the Spirit, and how they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. But they’re standing on a hill looking at clouds.

The Spirit comes to help us slog our way up the hill of our spiritual journey, growing in faith so that we can do more than just stand around and stare at where Jesus has been. We too can take our part in this work, and share with people the same good news we have received.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Repost: Now That Was a Sabbath (John 5:1-9)

(The scripture for today's sermon may be found here. This is the same scripture from this week a couple of years ago, so this is more or less the same sermon).

Nothing could be simpler, we often say, than when the Bible says something plainly and it’s right there in front of us in black and white. Or red and white, perhaps, depending on how some Bibles indicate the words Jesus said.

Like right here at the end of this passage, where John says, “Now, that day was a Sabbath.” This sentence is plain and straightforward, intended to tell us when Jesus healed this man and why it was going to be a problem for the legalists who opposed him. That’s what the Greek means and it just couldn’t be simpler.

Now read it out loud – as we know, once we say words out loud we can emphasize different words and give a simple sentence many meanings. This is the way I happened to see it when I began studying it: “Now that day was a Sabbath.” All of a sudden John’s plain ol’ declarative sentence about when becomes something more. Read that way, this sentence compares this Sabbath to others, and this one comes out looking better.

I don’t know that John meant for me to compare Sabbaths against one another, but now that my brain is working that way I’ll do so, even if it’s only to see what happens.

I do know that my usual way of reading a story where Jesus heals on the Sabbath is to see him as breaking the Sabbath rules. He does so for very good reasons, but most of the time I’ve still seen it as transgressing all of the laws and such the Sabbath has accumulated.

What if we don’t see Jesus as breaking the law, though? What if we see this story in light of his declaration in Matthew that he has come to fulfill the law? What he does on this Sabbath isn’t breaking the law, then. It’s fulfilling the law of the Sabbath. Somehow, what Jesus does here makes this more of a Sabbath than any of the laws anyone could ever dream up might do.

In order to see how that might be, let’s dig into the history of the Sabbath in the lives of the Jewish people. The first Sabbath is the seventh day of creation, when God stops working and contemplates what he has made.

Sabbath observance is a part of the ten commandments given at Mt. Sinai. “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy,” meaning keep that day set apart from other days. Later on in Exodus, that’s spelled out a little more. The people are to do no work, and neither are their servants and slaves. Heck, in Exodus 20:10, even the animals are given the day off.

Remember, this command comes to a culture that doesn’t have a 5-day work week. There is no “weekend.” Work, because much of the time it meant survival, went on all seven days. We work to get money -- the tool we need to buy food and shelter and clothing. They worked to get the food and shelter and clothing.

And nobody would know this better than nomadic wanderers like the Hebrews were when the law came to them. To skip an entire day of work was not normal and for people like them, could become a real problem.

On that day, the people were directed to reflect on God – on what God had done for them, on what God had made, on what God had given them, on how God cared for them. It was to be a Sabbath to the Lord. On that day, people were to set down the many tasks and labors they had in order to focus on God. They did this to show how they understood the reality behind the reality of everyday living. For them, God was in fact the source of their life and even more necessary than food and shelter and clothing.

The Sabbath was a break from all of that. It was a release, which is one reason why God’s command specifically gave servants the day off, too. And it was a sign of faith that one day would come the ultimate release from all of the day-to-day drudgery, at the hand of God.

This guy stuck on his mat knew what he had to do to survive – beg. He knew what he had to do to get healed – get to the water first after it had been stirred. He had been doing those things every day for thirty-eight years. When Jesus told him, “Stand up, take up your mat and walk,” he released the man from that endless cycle of labor. Sure, Monday he’d probably have to go get a job, but this was his first day of true rest in nearly four decades. So yeah. That was a Sabbath.

For you and me? Our Sabbaths may come on Sunday, or they may come some other time. We can sort of schedule them, but they come any time we step back from the busy-ness of what we have to do every day and remind ourselves that our true reality isn’t grounded in these things, but in God. Because that is a Sabbath, and that is the good news.