Sunday, January 23, 2011

Long Division (First Corinthians 1:10-18)

Many pastors have given thanks for the Corinthian church. Had the Corinthians -- and all their face-palm-inducing faults -- not existed, we would have to preach about the troubles in our own churches and refer to them directly, which has a tendency to make people mad. Because of the Corinthians, though, we can single out the issue at hand and point our accusatory fingers at them instead of our own people, who are often sitting between us and the exit.

Paul really doesn't waste any time addressing the problems the Corinthians have raised, probably in a letter to him which we don't have. He greets them, offers thanks for their testimony and witness, and then begins the performance review. The first issue is division among the people -- specifically, a kind of division that has no upside to it at all. Some kinds of division, of course, are necessary. Right teaching must be discerned from false teaching. The church should be on the side of caring and compassion instead of selfishness and greed, and so it will bring division among people who care more about themselves and their own possessions than they do others' needs.

But the division Paul addresses is needless and destructive. Apparently the church at Corinth has split itself up almost like fan clubs. The Corinthians were lining up behind Paul or Apollos or Cephas (Peter) the same way a Twilight fan might claim to be a part of Team Edward or Team Jacob.

We don't know for sure, but it looks like being baptized by one or the other of these leaders was at the core of their "fandom." They wore the name of their baptizer like status symbols. This disgusts Paul so much that he actually thanks God he didn't baptize very many of them -- and in doing so he reveals something important, if the Corinthians want to look. Notice that he doesn't actually remember who he baptized. The one thing that's such a big deal for all these squabbling people slips his mind.

It slips his mind, of course, because as important as baptizing people was, it's not why he went to Corinth in the first place. Christ sent him to proclaim the gospel, he says in verse 17. He didn't start out with a goal of winning people over, or scoring a certain number of converts or some other strategic goal. He went to preach the message of the cross, period. The rest would depend on the Holy Spirit and the people involved.

Paul didn't want the credit for the baptisms he'd done, maybe partly because he'd rather not be embarrassed by the way some of those people were now acting. But probably also because he knew that he deserved no credit for that work. If you'd pressed him, he might not even have wanted credit for proclaiming the gospel, since he was only doing what Christ called him to do and Christ was the one who had saved him and opened him to that very same gospel message anyway. He would take no credit because he had earned none.

We all probably agree on the wisdom of that stance. But it can be a tough thing to remember sometimes. Someone might help teach the church's children, and someone else might help lead mission teams, and they do these things and others because of their own natural gifts and abilities. Shouldn't they get credit and thanks?

Of course they should, but if it's not offered? So what. Nor would that be the reason that they should do those things. Speaking as a pastor, I can tell you I'll take a worship leader whose skills are little bit less but who's there to serve his or her Lord over someone who's more gifted but who insists on getting first billing in the credits.

A lot of people, from Harry Truman to John Wooden to Ronald Reagan, have been cited as saying "It's amazing what you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit," or something similar. As Christians, of course, we do care who gets the credit. For us, it is all about who gets the credit, and until the person most deserving of the credit is properly acknowledged, we've failed in our responsibilities. We've shortchanged the message. In fact, chances are good we've not acknowledged the deserving party anywhere near enough, no matter what task or deed or job you're talking about, and things ought to come to a stop until we do so.

To God be the glory, great things He hath done.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Incline and Hear (Psalm 40:1-11)

It can be easy for us to forget that the Psalms were first intended for worship settings. Since we don't have kings, for example, we might overlook that some psalms are intended for crowning ceremonies. And since we have our own liturgies for celebrating the New Year, we may miss that some psalms were used in the worship services for a new year in the Hebrew calendar.

And sometimes, because we focus so much on worship being uplifting or upbeat, we miss that some of the psalms that express sadness, misery or even feelings of abandonment were not just devotional poems but songs that the people sang in worship. They would remind themselves of their down times as a people and how God rescued them, and they also might reassure people who were in some down times of their own that God would not desert them.

This passage from Psalm 40 hints at some of those kinds of feelings -- verses 12 through 17 give them in more detail -- as well as the response of the singer. A lot of the words and phrases would bring images to the minds of the people of Israel, just as a modern songwriter would include phrases from Scripture to call different Biblical stories to our minds.

When the Psalmist says that the Lord "inclined to me and heard my cry," it would be a dense ancient Israelite indeed who wasn't reminded of God's actions at the beginning of the book of Exodus. The people cried out in their slavery, and God heard their cry. In fact, that was the beginning of the message he wanted Moses to bring to the people: "I have heard their cries."

The "miry bog," or "clay" in some translations, would also remind them of their labor in the brick pits, as they stepped up and down endlessly to churn the straw into the clay mud that would be dried to make bricks that built Pharaoh's cities. The first steps would be hard, but not impossible. The thousandth step would be tiring. The ten thousandth step would be exhausting, if for no other reason than you knew that even when you finished for the day, you would be on the same stairmaster to nowhere from sunup to sundown tomorrow.

I think the kind of weariness that comes from endless small burdens is probably more common in life than the huge burdens that may come from tragedies. Many of us haven't suffered a lot of single smashing blows in our lives, or we may have found that if we have, after time the burden is not as great as it was right after the hit happened. But we all know what it's like to have the steady drip drip drip of one more thing getin' laid on the pile. Something not so bad by itself, but when combined with the forty others that we're already handling it's another push towards exhaustion -- maybe not physically, but certainly spiritually or emotionally.

Maybe it's another task at work that you're supposed to figure out how to fix while trying to fix the others that somebody else handed off to you. Maybe it's inconsiderate treatment by family members or friends that don't mean any harm but who don't think much past themselves this time, for whatever reason. Maybe it's something else entirely or a combination, or maybe it's something going on in the world around you that weighs on your spirit even though it's happening somewhere else.

Do I wait patiently on the Lord then? Well, if by that I mean that I wait quietly or peacefully, probably not, at least not all the time. But the Hebrew word there is qavah, and it translates more closely as waiting expectantly or hopefully, as though I am waiting for something I know will happen even if I don't know when.

What exactly will happen at the end of my waiting? Well, the Lord will incline and hear my cry, lift me up from this clay and set me on rock so my steps could be firm and my journey could have a destination and a purpose.

The same way an adult kneels or stoops to hear a child's voice at their level, the Lord inclines to hear the cries of his children, and then answer their needs -- not because the Lord is somehow hard of hearing, but because when he inclines down to us we can know he is listening and what weighs upon us concerns him. And what do I do when this happens? I sing. I sing a new song.

I think about this idea in light of the holiday we Americans observe tomorrow, Martin Luther King Day. The majority of African-Americans in our country during the first half of the 20th century may not have faced racism in its ugliest and most deadly forms on a daily basis, but they did face it in the smaller forms that added up over time. Can't drink at the same water fountain. Have to sit in the balcony at the theater. Have to stand up at the back of the bus while other people sit. Have to go however many extra blocks it was to find a diner that would seat and serve you. Have to watch how you greet someone or speak to them in case they find you're being "uppity."

And yet, in the midst of that mire, Rev. King spoke of a dream of equality and respect for everyone, based on who they were instead of what they looked like. He said he believed the day of that dream was coming, whether he would see it himself or not. He waited upon the Lord, expectantly if not exactly quietly, and did so believing the Lord would come and his dream would come true, and then all of God's people would join together in singing. An old song, perhaps, but new in the fulfillment of its promise. Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Power Surge (Psalm 29)

During my time interning at a campus ministry, I asked one of our engineering students just how loud a sound would have to be to break a cedar tree, as described in verse 5. He said that wasn't his field. But we found out the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in 1883 was heard as far as 3,000 miles away, which gives an estimate of about 180 deciBels, or more than 10 times as loud as a jet engine from 100 feet away. We figured it would have to be louder than that.

If you were to "hear" a sound that was loud enough to break a cedar tree, it would obviously do you serious damage as well. Probably fatal; we figured it would literally pulverize your bones and probably turn all your body's soft tissue to mush.

And this is how the psalmist describes the voice of God. Now, does he mean it literally? Sometimes, it's best to take the Bible at face value. But the psalms are songs and poetry, which means they have some poetic imagery that's unlikely to be meant literally. After all, in verse 6, God's voice makes nations jump around like calves, and I can't imagine anyone thinking that the whole country of Lebanon jumped around like a calf.

I think the psalmist wants to offer a picture of what the voice of God is like in terms of its power, using that kind of poetic imagery. People who had heard the loud voice of a priest or a military commander would know that some sounds could be powerful, and they would have seen that lightning or maybe powerful winds could take down trees. Well, God's power was so great that merely his voice could cause the same level of destruction as a mighty storm could. Everybody who heard the psalm probably knew that God's power was even greater than that, but it gave an image they could use -- it was power beyond their capability to imagine, let alone duplicate.

The Israelites, of course, were not the only people who claimed their gods had immense power. Remember your Greek mythology, with Zeus and his thunderbolts. But the Israelites did do something a little odd in light of their claims about God's power. After all, if you knew there was a being with power so great and potentially destructive that a simple word could break a mighty tree, what would you do?

I myself would follow a three-step plan: 1) Run; 2) Run fast; 3) Run far. Whatever it took to stay beneath the notice of such a powerful being, I would do. If I had to, I'd offer sacrifices or such when I was required to, but I'd do them and get them over with. I wouldn't do anything to call the attention of such a being unless I had to. I might respect such force, but chances are pretty good I'd mostly be afraid.

What do the Israelites do, though? Well, read their psalms and their prayers -- they call upon the name of their all-powerful God. They don't run or hide, they regularly call for their God to be present with them -- for that incredible destructive power to be right there with them! More than that, they "enter his courts with praise!" They are glad when someone says, "let us go to the house of the Lord!" They even claim to be in a covenant with their God, not one of fear, but of promise!

And there's the key: The Israelites respect God's power but they're not afraid of it, because their God has promised them he is on their side. That power will not be used against them, but to protect them and build them up. God has promised them this.

We Christians claim that in Jesus, the fullness of God came to dwell in human form, including the same awesome power that the psalmist describes in Psalm 29. And Jesus lived out the same promise of God; that this mind-blowing power would be used not to terrorize or intimidate but to build up and lift up. Though Jesus could claim for himself the limitless abilities of God, he chose to identify with us and our human limitations.

That's one message of his baptism. The fullness of God is on our side, so much so that Jesus will not stand on it and take a pass on the symbolic cleansing of baptism but will instead participate in it along with us.

Sometimes when we baptize someone in the church, we include some words to those who are there supporting the person being baptized: "Remember your baptism, and be thankful." We can do that because we are remembering our baptism, remembering that Christ himself shared that baptism with us, and remembering that the magnificent power of God is not against us, but for us.

And that sounds like good news to me.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

In The Beginning (John 1:1-18)

How we begin things will influence how they go. Common sense statement, right?

If we start reading the directions on page one, we have a better chance of assembling the whatever-it-is properly. If we take the right road at the start, we will reach our destination sooner. Of course, if we don't do those things, we can still change our mistakes and get back on track, but even that choice is a result of what we did at the start.

So John will begin his gospel by pointing out that Jesus the Savior was not just the savior when he was on the cross or when he was born in the manger. He was the very Word of God, with God in the beginning of all things and participated in creating all things. The Word, or in Greek, the Logos, is now and always has been a part of God in a way that people don't completely understand.

And then, at the point in time we mark as Christmas, the Word entered the world in a unique way, as a part of the very world the Word had helped create. According to John, the coming of the Word brought light into the world, even though people didn't know it. He doesn't flesh out exactly why people didn't know it until a couple of chapters later, when Jesus talks with Nicodemus. In John 3:19, we're told that the judgment was that people loved darkness more than they loved light, even when the light came among them.

The thing about light and darkness is that they don't coexist. If light is present, darkness is absent. Sure, a less powerful light doesn't shine as brightly and we can't see as much, but it still shines and we can see something. When miners talk about the darkness when the lights go out in their mines, they're talking about a situation in which there is no light whatsoever. Our eyes could be in there for hours, days or even weeks and we would never adjust to the darkness, because there's no light for them to find.

I find that one evidence I myself will tend to love darkness more than light is that I will sometimes construct elaborate justifications for my wrong choices, trying to re-create them in some kind of gray area instead of acknowledging them as wrong choices. There are gray areas in life, but there are also a lot of not gray areas. My attempts to make "fake gray" areas are really just ways I try to justify a choice to ignore the light that's come into the world.

When I'm at the gym in the afternoon, sometimes the televisions are on some of those court shows with the stern, no-nonsense judge dispensing philosophy and barbed wit to the delight of the audience. I can't stand them, but at least at the gym I only have to read the closed-caption instead of listen. And when the other TVs are on The View or maybe some home shopping channel, I'm stuck.

Anyway, what strikes me is all of the elaborate explaining that goes on when the judge asks a simple question: "The plaintiff says you did A, B and C? Did you?"

"Well, Your Honor, you see, things were like this, and then this other thing happened, and that made me be like this, and so in the end I kind of did A, B and C even though I ordinarily wouldn't, because in this case it was completely justified because of what everyone else did first."

"So you did A, B and C?"

"Yes, because it was like I said, you see..." and on and on it goes. The judge, of course, knows that the person is making something up or trying to recreate events so that what everyone in the room -- including the person making up the story -- knows is wrong doesn't seem so wrong, or might even seem right. But the person making up the story makes it up anyway in spite of that.

At a previous church, our location near a highway meant that we had a few people each month stop by the office needing money for gasoline. They were almost always on their way somewhere else, needing to pick up medicine, or needing to reach a sick relative in the hospital, or moving across country and just a little short of their destination where there would be someone who would help them out. I would offer to meet them at a gas station across the street and buy them a little gas, because our church had set money aside to do that. That often sent them on their way, because they wanted the cash instead of the gas. If someone had come to me and said, "I don't work, I don't want to work, and I go around mooching off people for food and gas," I might have gone ahead and got them some just because they were up front for once.

In all these cases, these elaborate explanations go wrong from the start, because of where they begin. Their goal is to obscure or hide what is plainly visible as a wrong choice -- to try to bring some darkness into the light. But once the light has come, darkness can't overcome it.

I might not try the same kinds of creative fiction that the people in the courtroom or the gasoline seekers do, but I can make some pretty elaborate constructions of my own to try to obscure the plain wrongness of my own choices. Oh, I just lost my temper and everyone loses their tempers sometimes. Oh, that's just the way they thought way back then, things are different today so that wasn't really wrong. Or the all-time favorite: Well, you don't know what she did first!

At their root, at their beginning, my justifications do the same thing those others do: Bring enough darkness into the situation so that what I and everyone else know is wrong won't look as wrong. I don't mean legitimate gray areas, like if someone has to lie in order to protect a person from harm or steal to provide food. I mean areas where we know what is right, but we choose what is wrong and try to finesse it.

But we don't have to. The light has come into the world, offering us the chance to walk and live in it. Isaiah said the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light, and because the light exists, we have the opportunity not only to own up to our wrongs, but to see and do what is right. If we didn't get it right from the beginning, we can now see what is right and move towards that. Taking the consequences for that wrong might not be all that easy -- we have to start all over again, perhaps, or undo what was done wrong and redo it the right way. But in my experience, the burden of hiding the wrong and worrying about discovery have often outweighed those consequences anyway. They were worse than whatever happened when the wrong got found out, if for no other reason than they could have dragged on forever instead of having a definite end.

The light has come into the world. May that be our beginning in this new year!