Saturday, November 19, 2011

Thankful Giving (Matthew 25:31-46)

This picture of humanity's final judgment gets around pretty good -- even people who don't really believe in a final judgment sometimes like to refer to it because the behavior Jesus calls for matches the behavior they want people to adopt.

Simply put, Jesus directs people to help other folks, and suggests that one of the things that will be weighed in that last day are whether or not we helped other folks. Although I do believe in a final judgment, I don't know if Jesus intended to exactly describe it here or if he intended to make a point independent of how literally we might wish to take his vision. To me, that point is that in order to be a true follower of Christ, we must be willing to help others. And we must be willing to help others based on one and only one standard: Their need.

See, nothing suggests that the people Jesus condemns were completely selfish folks who stole candy from babies and dropped Monopoly money into the collection plate. Like today, the number of people who'll help out isn't small, but way too often we will help people out on our own terms. We'll help family, or friends or people we care about. We'll help people we know. In those days, people might limit their assistance to people from their own village or from their own homelands. Or maybe people who needed help because they'd had bad luck...but not people who'd made their own mess.

Jesus said that idea of helping wouldn't fly. The only standard we can use is whether or not people need help. If they need it, the followers of Christ will provide it, or else they might as well be rejecting Christ himself.

Of course we have to be wise when we help. Sometimes people in need ask for things that really won't help them at all, but only make their problems worse. The ministerial alliance in one town I served offered help for people who couldn't pay their utility bills. The first time was just a matter of verifying the need, but the second time they had you attend a seminar on financial planning, so you could try to make the money you did have go as far as possible. Many of the people needing that help had never planned their spending before or had never made a budget.

Habitat for Humanity operates a little like that too. They don't just give you a house. For one, you work on it too. For another, you buy the house, which means you have to get your finances in order before you can qualify. Debts have to be paid down, savings have to be set aside, income has to be stable, and so on, because Habitat wants to truly help people and they know that slapping another thing they don't know how to pay for on top of all the other problems doesn't help those people.

So maybe it's not a good idea to give panhandler money. Maybe it is. We'll each need to check our own consciences on that, because there are no guarantees we judge rightly. Even so, all this caution means is that we try to be wise when, not if, we help -- it doesn't let us off the hook just because we don't like the person in need. We get off that hook only if the person is not in need or if we don't have any way to help them. And those occasions are rarer than we think. We may think we're squeezed and we've got little to give, but consider the following:

We're giving away Thanksgiving baskets this holiday, of food so some families can enjoy a holiday meal. One of the women selected for us called our office this week -- she also gets food from our food pantry now and again -- and told our secretary that she had another friend who needed that basket more than she did and so could we please give the basket to the other family instead. Even if you've got next to nothing, there's someone out there who's actually got nothing, and you might be able to help them.

The key idea in Jesus laying down such a radical standard of helping is to take the focus of the helping away from us and whatever standards we might use to judge who is worthy of our help and put the focus on God. Jesus wants us to remember those in need stand where we stand -- sinners in need of grace, loved by God though none of us deserve it. He wants us to remember that when we were the ones in need, he gave what he had though we had seriously made our own mess and he didn't have to give us anything.

We've talked about how worship is our response to God, and a part of that response is thanksgiving. It spreads beyond worship, too. We can't offer God a single thing God doesn't already have, so if we want to show God our gratitude, we have to find somewhere else to give our gifts. Here in Matthew, Jesus spells out just exactly where we might find some of that somewhere else, and some of the folks who live there.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Why We Are Here (Psalm 100)

When large groups of people began to stop attending church, one of the things they said was that they still considered themselves Christians, but they didn't believe they had to show up to a certain building and sit in a pew and listen to an organ and hear a dry sermon and wear uncomfortable clothes and so on in order to love God and worship him. The idea was "I can worship God just fine anywhere at any time," and that's true. But I imagine most people who actually do worship God anywhere and at any time also worship him in once a week in a setting pretty similar to what we call "church."

I've never seen a survey done on it, but I'm pretty sure the habit of worship in all those other times and places flows out of worshiping with the gathered body of Christ more often than not.

Early in Christian history people who followed Jesus picked up the habit of gathering on the Lord's Day to hear and sing songs, listen to the Scripture be read and explained, to pray with and for each other and to share in communion. We have generally tended to combine all of those things under the heading of "worship," but we may not have considered what all of those things might mean or why we give them that name.

The word "worship" comes from an older English word "worthship," which was a label usually used to designate someone worthy of respect. In those days and times, it was generally one of the lords or nobles of the land, and the common folks might address them as "your worthship." You might see the phrase "your worship" said to a noble, wealthy or respected person in books or movies set in England in earlier times.

Over time, the word took on a verb or action meaning as well, as it became connected to God. God was the ultimate "your worthship," deserving the greatest respect, honor and praise, and so the verb that described how people related to God came from that label, and it took on some of our modern understanding of the word "worship." People worshiped God because of God's great worthship.

The Hebrew and Greek words in the Old and New Testaments that were often translated as "worship" were words that kind of resembled the older "worthship" concept, and many of them related to words that talked about bowing down to another. In the ancient Near East bowing to someone when meeting them was a part of the etiquette of greeting them, much like a handshake is for us. It's still a part of some cultures in that region and is a big part of cultures in the Far East. In some of those cultures, proper etiquette even determines how deeply you might bow to someone depending on how much honor or respect you want to show them. Age, wisdom, success, status -- these factors help you determine what kind of bow you make in greeting another.

In those cultures, the deepest bows were reserved for people who deserved the greatest respect and honor, like a king. Not showing that respect earned the king's unwelcome attention. The ancient Hebrew people, who understood God as greater than any earthly king, made their deepest bows in his presence. Some, like Daniel, would not offer those signs to any human being no matter what the risk was to them.

Today, you may see Muslim worshipers kneel and place their foreheads to the floor as a sign of their respect when they pray. When Roman Catholic priests are ordained, they will lay flat on their stomachs on the ground with their faces to the floor. Sometimes Christians may pray in the same posture, called "prostration." They may pray in many other postures, too, but this one may be appropriate when one of the things we most feel or want to show is our complete and total reverence for and dependence on God.

The thing that struck me about all of these roots of our modern word "worship" is that they all involve actions. Greeting etiquette, showing respect, giving honor -- they are all things we do. They are things people did regardless of their actual feelings. The king may be a fink, but if you like your head where it is you bow it down in his presence, acknowledge the worthship he demands and save your opinions about whether or not he deserves it for your friends.

In our modern worship, of course, we understand the role our actual feelings and desires play and we don't shove them aside. But sometimes, we may have gone overboard the other way and put them at the center of our worship. We focus on a "feeling of worship." We emphasize the experience of worship -- some churches even call what they do a worship experience instead of a worship service. And we do that so much we may crowd out the idea of giving thanks and praise to God in favor of how we feel about what we're experiencing.

I've heard people say "I didn't feel the presence of God in that worship service" and I don't even know what to say to that. Real worship is thanking God for all he's done and praising him as our Lord -- if that's what I'm doing, how can I not believe God is there? Can I blame the musician or the preacher or the baby who wouldn't stop whining or her parents who wouldn't take her outside for me not praising God?

Of course I've done the same kind of thing even if I haven't used those words. And when I do, I miss who is really responsible for my worship: Me.

Adam Hamilton described some of our modern worship services as being like a game in some sport that looked familiar but for which we don't really know what's going on -- he used rugby as an example because it looks like football but it's definitely not the same thing. The difference is that we're not spectators like we would be at one of those games. We're the participants. We can and should learn why we do what we do in worship, either by our own study or by asking the people who lead our worship to explain it every now and again.

We should do that because we're the worshipers and we need to know what we're doing and why. And, once having learned those things, we need to remember we're the worshipers, and our worship of God doesn't depend on the talent of a musician, the skill of a speaker, the comfort of a pew or the hour of the day. All those things may play their roles, but the body of Christ worships Christ because we believe he deserves it, and for no reason more or less than that.