Sunday, December 30, 2012

Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:21-38)

Bill Engvall had a routine in the early 2000s in which he complained about the misuse of the word "awesome." People used it for so many things it didn't mean anything; Engvall said it should be reserved for the things that are really awesome. "On April 15 the IRS sends you a letter saying they made a mistake and they owe you money," he suggests as an example. "Now that's awesome."

I think Simeon might have said the same thing when he understood who Jesus was and the real nature of God's plan for salvation. We meet him in Luke 2 as an old man who has had the Holy Spirit reveal to him he would not die before seeing the Lord's Messiah.

Unless we remember that the people before Jesus came had a very different understanding of Messiah than we do, we might not understand just what Simeon might have been expecting. He's an old man, which means when he was younger he would have heard the old people of that day talk about the Maccabees. They were a family that led a revolt against Judea's conquerors about 160 years before Jesus was born. They established the Hasmonean Dynasty, which ruled Judea for the next hundred years, probably either until just before Simeon was born or during his youth. That hundred years was the only time between the Babylonian conquest to the establishment of the modern state of Israel that the Jewish people ruled themselves. It came to an end when the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem.

Simeon, like most people of his day, interpreted the Messiah prophecies to speak of a political and military leader who would overthrow Israel's occupiers and restore the kingdom. It had happened once, so there was no reason to expect it not to happen again. And the years in which Simeon lived boasted of several revolts, rebellions and uprisings against the Romans. The unrest was basically constant, flaring up now and again into a skirmish or battle. It wouldn't end until the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 AD.

So there was no shortage of potential leaders against the Romans, even if they all wound up failing one way or another. They had no success against Rome or against Rome's agent, King Herod.

I have no concrete knowledge of what Simeon felt or thought, but if I was in his shoes I would begin to wonder. After all, any successful revolt would take some time; Rome couldn't be thrown out in a day. Would he see the completion of the rebellion, or only its start? Would he see the Anointed Leader begin his campaign, or would he just have met him on the street sometime without knowing who he would be? Maybe he hadn't understood the Spirit's word to him...maybe it had been his own imagination or even some kind of deceiving spirit, not from God at all but from somewhere else and it would delight as his hope faded with age.

I put these possibilities in Simeon's mind because I know that even if I'm not in his situation, I've dealt with times when I wonder if I have heard God correctly. Have I discerned the spirits aright, or have I misunderstood? Did I follow what God wanted me to do, or did I deceive myself into thinking that when I was really just following my own lead?

What usually happens with me in those times is what happened with Simeon -- I learn that God has been working to do what he told me, but in a way far beyond my imagination. Simeon is at the temple, and he sees the people making their sacrifices and gifts, and he sees the parents of new firstborn coming to make their sacrifices as well. For some reason, he notices one couple who bring with them the pair of small birds designated as proper for those who can't afford a lamb.

And he sees.

The Spirit shows him that this baby is the promised Messiah, and that his salvation will be not in the temporary realms of human politics and kingdoms, but eternal and for all. He sees that God's plan was not only different from what he imagined, it was different and greater in scope than he could ever have imagined.

He sings of the great works of God that will come through the child before him, and then God confirms his words through the voice of the prophetess Anna. People who prophesied didn't just predict what would come but spoke God's words to the people. The Hebrew word translated "prophet" even means "mouthpiece" or "speaker." When Anna joins Simeon's song, she doesn't just echo his words but affirms them as truth.

This baby is the Messiah. He will grow and teach the people the truth of God and will offer himself as a sacrifice so that the broken relationship between humanity and God can be healed. His death will not end God's work in him but continue and magnify it, and it will put to death death itself and human sin and suffering.

Now that's awesome.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The King is Born (Luke 2:8-14)

I will freely confess that one of the blessings of Christmas is the end of the coverage of "the Christmas Wars." On the one hand are the people who act as if someone saying "Merry Christmas" to them is the same thing as Tomás de Torquemada saying, "Missed you in church this Sunday." On the other are the people who think that if they can convince a judge that a Nativity scene has more cultural than religious value, so they can set it up in a public park, somehow that's a win. December 26th allows me to bid the both of them goodbye, and I do so with great joy.

But I do think there is a real war on Christmas, and it has less to do with Nativities and holiday greetings than it does with what the Christ born in a stable represents and what the world around us represents.

Humanity's very first sin was to set itself in the place of God, and that impulse has been at the root of our fallen human condition ever since. Now, it may be that we place something other than ourselves there, like a person or wealth or power or something similar, but the same error reigns -- we have made gods out of that which is not God. We have done it before, we do it today and we shall do it again.

Sometimes we deal with the reality of a person or a system that demands worship from us. The summer blockbuster The Avengers featured a scene in which the evil Loki threatens a crowd of people in a street in Stuttgart, Germany. Brandishing a powerful weapon, he demands that they kneel, and they do. But as he talks about how much simpler life is for people who let themselves be ruled by another and how human beings will always kneel to such people, an old man slowly stands. "In the end, you will always kneel," Loki says, and the man says, "Not to men like you." "There are no men like me," Loki tells him, and the old man looks at him with eyes that show memories steeped in unholy history and says, "There are always men like you."

And there are. There is always a Pharaoh, always a Herod, always a Cæsar, always a fuehrer, always a Dear Leader, always a Big Brother, always someone or something that demands from us the allegiance that properly belongs only to God.

But sometimes we choose to give that allegiance rather than have it demanded of us. We set aside ethics and right treatment of our brothers and sisters in order to acquire wealth and power for ourselves. We treat others as though they have no more value than what they can do for us, and we discard them when we have used them up.

Rudolf Bultmann said that when Jesus entered the world, he posed what Bultmann called the "existential question." That means that the reality of Jesus asks us a question and the way we answer it affects our existence. Will we root and ground our lives in what we see and hear around us? Or will we root and ground our lives in the idea that there is more to life than the material world and that more is God? We can't not choose, it's one or the other and the world is full of people and things that will demand we say "Yes" to them.

That seems ridiculous, because on the other side of the question is the Almighty God, creator of the universe. Who could bring more power to bear than God? In a fight, who would win? If we're talking about demands for allegiance, who could possibly push God aside to say, "You'd better pick me?"

But God does not do that. I think it's because he knows that if he adopts the tactics of fear and force and power, our answer to his question -- "Will you follow me?" -- is meaningless. So instead he will show us that all of the power that can be brought to bear on us can't separate us from him. Neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor powers, nor principalities, nor nakedness nor famine or peril or sword.

Christmas shows us that. On Christmas, God showed all of his cards. He would face down evil and death...and let them win. He would let them win so we could see that their victory was no victory, that the Lord of the heavens and the earth ruled over death also. The human vulnerability of Jesus of Nazareth would be the means by which God would triumph.

The baby in the manger was the King before whom all could kneel -- not out of fear, but out of love, thankfulness and praise. He was the Lord who could be loved by the shepherds and by the wise, by tax collectors and the priests, by fishermen and whores, by kings and commoners, and by you and by me. Joy to the world. The Lord is come!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

From Nazareth to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-7)

Someone traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem today could take advantage of modern roads and transportation and make the trip in an afternoon. By air it would take less than an hour; the two are only 80 miles apart as the crow flies.

But those options weren't on the table when Joseph and Mary made their trip, sometime during the last weeks of Mary's pregnancy. There was no direct route, only two winding roads. The longer one crossed the Jordan River, headed south and crossed back over it to head back west. The shorter one went through the Judean hill country and actually crossed the border with Samaria.

Most Galileans and Judeans, being good Jews who didn't mix with Samaritans, took the longer road. As might be imagined of the two people God picked to raise his son, such prejudices played no role in their thinking. Even if they had, the two extra days the other route involved probably would have played a bigger role, especially for the traveler who wasn't too far from giving birth and who would not have traveled well. So while we can't know which road Joseph and Mary followed, I feel pretty confident they took the shorter route that traversed Samaria.

Either way, this was not a journey they had planned on or would have chosen had the decision been theirs. Mary obviously would much rather have stayed near her own mother and friends, women whom she'd known and who she would depend on in the coming difficult time of delivery. The discomfort of late-term pregnancy would only be multiplied by traveling.

Joseph would not have wanted to be away from his wife at this important time. Of course he and Mary knew the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but in the eyes of everyone else this was his own firstborn. That's not a good time for a fellow to be absent from his wife, not if he doesn't want to get talked about by the villagers. And not in a good way.

Yet because of the demands of the Romans, Joseph at least had to make the trip. For her own reasons, Mary made it also. There they both are, probably wondering why answering God's call means so much trouble. I think I would be, at least.

In fact, I know I would be. For whatever reason, we've lost sight of the reality that answering God's call sometimes means traveling a difficult journey. We focus on what God does to make our lives better, and we should never forget that reality. There are things I would never have done right if I had not been following God. There are wonderful things in my life I'd never have had if I wasn't following God. I'm a better person, a better son and a better friend because I follow God.

But there have been hard things. Sometimes I have had to say things or do things that were not easy, and I did them because I'm following the path God called me to. My first six months in Altus, I did six funerals -- one an infant, and then two months later his grandmother. Day before yesterday was the first Friday in four weeks I wasn't at the cemetery. I've watched couples I married split and dealt with other things I would never have had on my plate if I'd had my own way.

Sometimes we need to remember that the journey God calls us to isn't always just a nice downhill glide. Sometimes it's a hard slog along a hilly road when you're nine months pregnant, or whatever equivalent might come in your life. God doesn't cause those things, any more than God caused Joseph and Mary's last-minute trip. But God does call us to perservere in those circumstances, and to still seek him.

The marevlous thing is that at the ultimate end of all of these journeys is the same thing that awaited Joseph and Mary at the end of theirs: The coming of Christ, the presence of God with them.

He awaits us too.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Trip to Ein Karem (Luke 1:39-56)

We don't know for certain the village where Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary's relatives, lived, but the hill town of Ein Karem is a pretty good guess according to a lot of scholars. Having met our two main characters in the story of what leads up to Jesus' birth, we now get the story moving.

Remember, we have Mary, a young girl who today would probably not have her driver's license yet and who agreed to do what God asked her through the heavenly messenger. Even though she risks shame and even death by being seen as an adulterous woman, she will answer God's call. And we have Joseph, probably a few years older, who found this whole thing started without him but who allowed mercy to triumph over the anger and betrayal he probably felt when Mary told him her news.

But that's a few weeks in the future. Right now we have Mary, probably in the next few days after the angel's visit. You might imagine that when she starts to look at her decision after a couple of days she might feel a little uncertain. What seemed like a solid lock when the angel was right in front of her is not nearly so solid a couple of days later. Pregnancy and everything accompanying it probably worry her as much as they would worry any new mom-to-be, and when you add in this "conceived by the Holy Spirit" angle, well, there's just a whole lot of uncertainty.

Her faith may have convinced her that following God and believing God when he said that she would have the child meant that death was unlikely. If she were going to be killed for adultery, then she wouldn't be around to give birth. But the angel hadn't said anything about the shame of an unwed pregnancy, or about what Joseph might do or...perhaps the scariest of all...her parents.

So I think Mary went out to visit Elizabeth and Zechariah because the angel had specifically referred to Elizabeth's pregnancy late in her life. Such a baby would be a miracle all his own, and if Mary could see that for herself she might draw courage to tell Joseph what had happened. Again, these are people who know where babies come from, so she knows that Joseph has absolutely no reason to believe what will sound to him like a verrrrry shaky story trying to cover up a more logical explanation.

I don't mean she wanted "proof" of the angel's message. I think she believed it when it was delivered and still believed it later. I think she wanted to see a solid reminder that amazing things were happening around her and with her. If she could see God's hand at work somewhere else, then that would be a reassurance.

I've found myself in need of those kinds of reassurances from time to time. I know what I believe with my head and I know what I hold to be the truth, but sometimes I wonder. Maybe you do too. Maybe circumstances bring you uncertainty. The things that are going on around you don't seem to provide much evidence of God's work. Or maybe your own experiences cause you to question whether or not God is at work in you. You don't see the change in your life you think should be there.

Perhaps it's a tragedy, either personal or otherwise. This last week we saw that our world has evil in it and such senseless slaughter makes us want reassurance from God that he is real and his work continues even in such an awful world. I can't tell you how to find that reassurance because I don't know what speaks to you, but I know that you can find it, and you may find it unexpectedly. Methodist founder John Wesley was in the midst of a spiritual dry spell that made him question his faith and even whether or not God had called him to minister. He went to a Bible study at the urging of some friends -- he didn't really want to go -- and when hearing someone read the preface of Martin Luther's commentary on Romans, he said he felt his heart "strangely warmed" and he knew that Christ had died so that his sins were indeed forgiven. He had a feeling of assurance that enrgized him and helped the Methodist movement begin to spread.

In times like this, we want reassurance. We Christians proclaim that reassurance is found when we seek the Lord. Mary found it in Elizabeth's words of blessing and greeting, in her visible pregnancy; John Wesley found it in the preface to a commentary. I don't know where God will lead you to find it; sometimes I don't even know where God will lead me to find my own. But I know it will be there.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

There's Something About Joseph (Matthew 1:18-24)

The title is a little bit of a cheat. The movie from a few years ago was called There's Something About Mary, and it didn't have anything to do with the Nativity or the birth of Jesus.

Which sometimes happens in reverse during Advent when we focus on the story -- because we spend a lot of time considering Mary and her agreement to bear God's son. And then we focus a lot on Mary and the baby Jesus. None of these are bad things to consider. Mary's obedience in the face of serious risk to herself and her reputation is a good model for us and offers us reasons to admire her character. And when a baby is born, we focus on the connection between the child and the mother, because physically that connection is a natural one to see.

But leaving Joseph out of things, even by accident, is not a productive path in studying how to follow God, because he offers us a good model as well. His actions also speak of a character worth our admiration and worth emulating.

Like Mary, Joseph learns of the coming child's divine origins from a heavenly messenger. But his messenger appears to him in a dream and happens after the conception has already taken place. Which means he has to deal with the reality of a fianceé apparently pregnant by another man. In our day and time that kind of infidelity is still looked down on (although there's probably a Showtime series in development that will help us accept it as a part of the "new normal" in behavior). But in Joseph and Mary's culture, the matter was much more serious.

People who committed adultery shamed two families -- their own and the family of the spouse to whom they were unfaithful. They insulted their in-laws with their disrespect of their spouses and they shamed their own family with their oath-breaking and lack of self-control. Today we read now and again of societies so backward they feel only death can cleanse these stains. These "honor killings" happen when someone -- usually a woman; remember these cultures are backward and consider women the problem -- has acted in some way that's considered to be the same thing as adultery, even if actual adultery never happens.

The law of Moses did include the penalty of death for adultery, although it didn't single out the woman. The man was also liable to be executed. Joseph, on learning that Mary was pregnant, could have publicly accused her of adultery with her pregnancy as his evidence, combined with his testimony that they had never consummated their marriage. She would have been stoned to death; which means people would have thrown rocks at her until she died. That was rarely quickly done, and Mary faced an awful death. Joseph's honor was considered to have a right to such a death for her.

But Joseph doesn't think that way. Although I'm sure that he feels shock, hurt and anger at this news, he apparently comes to understand that Mary's death won't heal anything that's gone wrong for him. We might say Joseph's honor is strong enough it needs no bloodshed to remain intact, at least in his view of it. So he planned to quietly end the betrothal, perhaps thinking that Mary can then marry the father of her child and things can come to an end.

And that's when the angel comes to him in a dream. Once Joseph has decided that mercy is more important than justice and judgment, God tells him what has actually happened: Mary's pregnancy is not from adultery but from the Holy Spirit. Marrying her will not make him unrighteous in God's sight and he will not risk God's displeasure if he does.

The messenger could have come when Joseph's dominant feelings were hurt and anger (as we know must have happened at some point in the story, whether Matthew describes them or not). The news of the Holy Spirit's role would have stayed that anger and healed that hurt, I imagine. But they might have also prompted Joseph to resent what had happened to him -- he was the only one onstage who didn't realize he was playing a part: "Would have been nice to have known about this before I agreed to the wedding, ya think?"

Either way, we see God's messenger come to Joseph after he has decided to take the path not of vengeance or justice, but of mercy. Only after he has decided he can be at some kind of peace with what has happened does the angel tell him everything's OK.

We know God does come to people in times of despair and offer hope, and we read about his words to angry people calming them with his counsel. But sometimes the right time for God's presence -- his grace -- isn't in the middle of something but afterwards. We may not know when or how it happens. To us, it may seem completely unexpected when it does.

But according to what God knows, it happens at exactly the right time. Joseph's dream might have happened at a time when it might have seemed more useful to him, at least as we read the story. Instead, it happened when he demonstrated the kind of character God wanted in the man who would help raise his son; the man whose image would appear in the human mind of that son when he said the word "Father."

God is, after all, the God of all things. Including timing.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Repost: The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption (Romans 8:15-16)

Continuing with some interpretations on John Wesley's sermons. First preached in the mid-1700's (by Wesley) and on Oct. 12, 2006 (by me). If you're interested in reading the original, click here. Using a different title in church this Sunday for it, as it includes some ideas from "The Scripture Way of Salvation."

Methodist founder John Wesley was fascinated by what he saw as a process of salvation. On the one hand, God saved people once and for all through the work of Christ on the cross. On the other hand, Christians didn’t all seem live that out the same way. Some followed Christ’s path closely while others could make an onlooker wonder if Jesus made any difference in their lives. That “split personality” might also change over time, Wesley noticed.

The situation interested him because he saw the pastoral need of helping people move forward in their faith, and because it also matched his own experience. His long years of doing every good work he could think of hadn’t eased his spirit the way God had when Wesley was at the study meeting at Aldersgate.

When he looked at his own life and listened to others talk about their own spiritual journeys, Wesley saw that people seemed to live in three different places on those journeys.

The first he called the “natural” state, or being asleep. People who lived a life in the natural state weren’t really aware of God or of their need for him. Even if they had heard about God and about Christ, they weren’t really interested or moved to find out more. They had other goals – like the satisfaction of their own desires and wants. Today, these people might have bumper stickers that say, “Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse,” or “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

Or they might be good and compassionate people. The key is their indifference to God and an unawareness of any need for God.

Well, sooner or later, the alarm sounds and wakes up the sleepers. Wesley might have called the alarm “life.” Eventually, even the most unconcerned people wonder a little about the purpose of their lives. Wondering why we’re here is something that human beings do and other animals don’t. When I watch “Meerkat Manor,” for example, I don’t recall any meerkats asking each other what it means to be a good meerkat. Which is good, because that would be a really boring show.

Such people might become aware of their sin and start fighting to overcome it. In the terms I like to use, they wake up to the reality that their relationship with God is somehow broken, not what it was supposed to be. So they try to repair it. They try to bridge the gap and try to live like God would want them to.

Problem No. 1 rears its head here: It can’t be done. Like quicksand, sin seems to drag us more heavily the more we try to free ourselves from it. Paul says it this way: The good I want to do, I don’t do. And the bad that I don’t want to do, that’s what I do. Wesley calls this the “legal” state, and said it’s characterized by a spirit of bondage to sin.

Someone in the natural state isn’t really aware of sin, so while they’re stuck in it just as deep, they don’t know it. But someone in the legal state knows about sin, knows its consequences and problems, but can’t get free from it. Wesley said this was his own story, talking about all of the different things he did to try to work his way to salvation.

But God’s goal is that we know the spirit of adoption, to live as believers. He called this the “evangelical” state. God doesn’t want us living as slaves to sin, but as his adopted daughters and sons, heirs with Christ. We may still sin, as another Wesley sermon mentions. Now, though, we know that we are not slaves to it and we are given strength by God to conquer and overcome it.

My tendency when I hear about stages or states or levels is to think they line up and I progress from one to another in a nice neat line. Of course, life is not a nice neat line – it’s messy. And Wesley told his people that people might have different parts of their lives in any of these three states.

I might not be aware of how something I do separates me from God, for example. Or I might be aware of it and trying to master it on my own. Or I might have, through God’s grace, conquered it and be free of it – in order to sin that way again, I have to deliberately act against what my spirit now wants to do. I have to ignore the witness of the Holy Spirit within me, testifying to me that I am a child of God and I don’t have to follow that spirit of slavery any more.

The spirit testifies to my spirit that I am a child of God. What good news.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Eye of the Needle (Mark 10:17-31)

There are two important strands to pull from the last part of this pasage for folks who live here in the United States.

The first is that when Jesus talks about it being hard for the rich to get into heaven, he means most of us. Not many people will admit they're rich or even think of themselves as rich. Partly that's because of some of the people who do admit they're rich. Who wants to be identified with Paris Hilton or Donald Trump? They bring to mind the old Jewish saying that if you want to know what God thinks of money, look who He gives it to.

And partly because we don't really understand how good we've got it in the USA. More than 60 percent of the homes in the US where the annual income was under $20,000 owned more than one television. Almost a third of the poor families in America own two or more vehicles. Compare that with most of the rest of the world, where owning a car or even a single television set is beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest in the country.

Or put it in historical terms. I see people who come into the local food bank where our church serves each month who have smart-phones and bluetooth headsets. That doesn't mean they're not really poor; who knows what their circumstances are? But they own things that Howard Hughes, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford could never buy, because they hadn't been invented yet. The reality is that living in America in the 21st century almost automatically makes us rich, which means Jesus is talking about us when he says it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to get to heaven.

The reason's not hard to see. Wealth is a tool for getting things done or getting things we want. People who have more wealth can do more things. They can move. They can upgrade their cars. They can hire lawyers or doctors who help them if they make mistakes. A wealthy young woman who has a baby out of wedlock can hire nannies to help her care for her child while she finishes school or goes to work. A nanny who has a baby out of wedlock probably has to quit her job and may have to go on public assistance or drop out of school.

But the more we rely on our own abilities and qualities such as wealth, or maybe fame or power or intelligence, the less we will tend to rely on God's grace. It's not so much conscious as it is a way of thinking that infiltrates much of our lives. Very few wealthy people would say they could buy God's grace. But their unconscious assumption is that their sin is something they can handle, because they've been able to handle anything else that's come their way. It takes a lot of prayer and discipline and effort -- and maybe even more grace than usual -- to depend on God for salvation.

The other strand to pull from this part of the story is this. We, having read this story many times, understand that rich folks have a problem with entering heaven, according to Jesus' words. During his time, though, wealth was seen as a sign of God's favor. If you had money and good health, that meant that you were a good person and God liked you. If you were poor and sick or handicapped, that meant God was punishing you for your sin. In other words, the rich were considered more or less a lock for heaven. God already liked them!

Not so, Jesus, says. They're not a lock at all! In fact, camels can go through needles more easily than rich people can get to heaven! Some folks suggest that Jesus was referring to a particular small gate in Jerusalem's wall called the Needle that you could only get your camel through if you were willing to leave some of the animal scraped off along the sides. Maybe, but it seems more likely to me that Jesus was using a figure of speech designed to show something impossible.

Look at the reaction of the people: Who then can be saved? If the folks who are supposed to have the inside track don't make it, who does?

Reframe his words. Think of the people you believe are locks for heaven. It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Billy Graham to get into heaven. It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Mother Teresa to get into heaven. The idea is that we can't get to heaven based on any of our own abilities, qualities or good works. Graham and Mother Teresa would probably agree they couldn't get in on their own. Their good works weren't their path to heaven. They're a part of a lifetime of thanks that God's grace is available to do what they can't.

But remember how Jesus closes the saying: What is impossible for people is possible for God. So if God wants to thread his needle, he can tell the camel to hold the thread in its mouth. And if he wants us to be with him in the life to come, he will use the immensity of his loving grace to make it possible. In spite of our efforts to the contrary.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Faith Like a Child (Mark 10:13-16)

Jesus says important words here, and not just about how much he loves and values children. But if we are not careful, we will miss the full impact of his message in a rush to make a sentimental and sappy greeting card moment out of it.

You've probably heard, like I have, that Jesus' words mean we should come with the kind of unquestioning and simple faith that children have. Now, my only prolonged exposure to childhood was my own, so those of you who know more than me can snicker quietly if you like. But my experience with kids is that they are anything but unquestioning. Preschoolers say "why?" almost as much as they say "mine!" As they age, their sentence length may expand, but they still question many more things than we do as adults. So I don't think that works.

But here's something that occurred to me when I was trying to figure out what kind of faith children had that Jesus might be talking about. Think if some times when children show their trust.

One of the earliest is when they learn to walk. We've all forgotten how utterly mind-blowing that little skill can be. Walking is actually a controlled fall repeated over and over again. We tip our center of gravity forward so that it moves forward and we move with it. But the ultimate end of tipping our center of gravity forward is falling on our faces. Unless, of course, we catch ourselves. Which we do, by putting our leg out in front. But we then use that leg as a lever to keep moving forward in yet another fall, until we catch ourselves with the other leg, and so on and so on. It works for the Winter Warlock, it works for us.

Even though we're short when we learn this, we still don't like falling, so we're apprehensive about it. So mom or dad or grandma or grandpa has to hold out their hands, saying, "Come on, come to mama" to encourage us, and we see their outstretched arms and smiling faces as a reassurance they will catch us if we do overbalance and start to fall. We trust them and their presence in front of us.

The same thing happens when we learn to jump off the side of the pool into their arms. The pool is of course the size of every ocean combined and waiting to slurp up little kids as soon as they get in and get water in their noses. But again, someone is there assuring us we will be caught and safe when we jump in.

I know many folks had rotten experiences with their parents and what I'm describing didn't happen for them, but I think we can recognize the ideal that I'm describing. Little children take their steps or make their leaps because there is a presence they can see and hear that they trust.

But then comes another kind of trust. I learned to ride my bike without training wheels in the back yard. It was softer than the driveway. And this was about 1971 or thereabouts, so helmet schmelmet. My dad ran along behind me, holding the bike upright and telling me I could do it, and then at one point  turned around and he wasn't there and I was indeed riding my bike without wheels or any other help. I unbalanced because I turned around and immediately I crashed, but I had done it just as he said. He didn't explain anything about the laws of momentum and physics that made it possible, but he gave me his promise that I could do it. Even though he wasn't present like he was when I walked or when I was on the side of the pool, I still had his promise.

Now later on we don't trust our parents so much, but that's just because they get so dumb about when we turn 15 and they don't smarten back up until we're about 25 or so. As little children, we trust their presence and their promise.

Of course we can trust God when we feel his presence. At a recent continuing education event, I was in worship with 2,000 people and a 150-voice choir and a full orchestra, and when we sang the hymn, you can be darn sure I felt the presence of God.

But in tragedy or in sorrow, we might not feel that presence. We may feel depression, or despair, or anger or any on of a thousand other things, but we don't feel God. It's then we have to trust his promise that he has not abandoned us and is always with us. He doesn't explain what happened or elaborate on all the whys, but he promises he is still with us.

That's not easy. But the more I live a life of faith, the more I come to realize I not only believe that promise, I've come to depend on it. No one, Christians least of all, can look at this world and say it's what it should be, and because there are so many places where it seems God is absent, I lean back more and more on that promise that he made to us in the bread and the cup -- that he is always with us, even to death and what comes after.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Team Spirit (Mark 9:38-42)

Every time I read how Jesus dealt with his disciples, I realize how much nicer of a person he was than I am.

If John comes to me and does his little tattling bit -- seriously, he even starts out by saying "Teacher," like every schoolyard rat-fink who ever lived -- about this "someone" who were casting out demons in Jesus' name, then I look him square in the eye and say something like, "No, leave them alone. They're my Plan B and judging by you guys, I'm gonna need 'em."

But Jesus, not being me and so being a much nicer person, says. "Leave them alone. If they're really calling on my name and it's really working, then they're not against us. They're with us."

He goes on: "In fact, if anyone does so much as give you a cup of water in my name he or she is on my side. If you get in their way and break down the faith they have, then you're the one in trouble, not them!"

I think this idea is important in several ways, but we'll just unpack a couple of them right now. First, we need to understand what this "someone" is really doing. He or she is not just preaching about Jesus or teaching about him. This other person is not claiming Jesus said or taught something he never really said or taught. That's important for us to remember now too. Plenty of people put words in Jesus' mouth, and not all of them are people who wrote The DaVinci Code. There are Christians who somehow get from Jesus exactly the message they want and they can massage his words until it matches their idea. But that's not what Someone is doing.

Someone is performing actual deeds of divine power in Jesus' name. And not just healings and such, but commanding demonic forces to obey in such a way that they do. Demons don't obey just anybody. The disciples themselves show a hit-and-miss record on that before the resurrection, and in the book of Acts we read about a man who claims Jesus' name when he confronts a possessed person, but since he does not know Jesus he gets his head handed to him.

And Jesus recognizes the difference with his words to John. If Someone is really performing such powerful needs in Jesus' name, then Someone is connected to Jesus whether he or she is a part of the called group or not. Someone is just like the disciples in this, though: Their connections to Jesus will continue to shape them as long as those connections are maintained. Neither they nor we can connect to Jesus and remain unchanged.

Once touched by Jesus, we can't ever claim ignorance again about our separation from God. We will always know what we are supposed to be and how far short of that we have fallen. And we will always know that God awaits us to confess that and return to him -- when we stray from our walk with him he will stay on the path until we return to him.

Another thing to unpack from this is how the distinctions we think are so important pale next to the things that are really important. John thought that it mattered whether Someone followed Jesus as one of the called group of disciples. We might think he's foolish, but we have thought the same sort of thing about our own dividing lines more than once.

I've said before that I think denominations are actually good things. They allow us to believe differently but still not violate our consciences about where we think God has led us. Some Christians insist people must be immersed to be baptized. Some insist only men can preach. Some insist on only one translation of the Bible or one way of doing worship. And those who insist on those things can gather for worship and teaching with other believers and not have to accept something they feel is unacceptable. I always go back to the example of comparing how well my sister and I got along before I moved away to college with how well we got along when we didn't share the same roof. You get the idea.

But this incident shows us that even though we can justify some times of separation from those who think differently about some things, we can't justify complete separation and still call ourselves the body of Christ. We can do some things -- many things, in fact -- together. We can work at the same food pantry. We can pray for our city, state and national leaders. We can pray together for the children of our community. We can support clothes closets and so many other things that really, Sunday morning is the only time we have a valid excuse for being apart.

It's OK if I say of another church, "Well, since you won't permit women to be ordained, I don't feel called to the ministry within your denomination or group." It's not OK for me to set up a stumbling block for them by saying, "And that means you're not a real church until you agree with us."

Friends, the body of Christ has far too much work in the world to turn down real brothers and sisters who want to join their hands with ours in doing it. And the lost of the world don't need to reach out for the bread of life to have somebody say, "Don't touch that! It's not the right kind of bread and you don't know where it's been!"

I firmly believe the more we reflect a united Body in this world, the more we will find united within that Body in the next.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Pick 'Em! (Joshua 24:1-2; 14-18)

Even though Joshua's "retirement speech" to the Israelites is most certainly not the same thing we do when we "share Jesus" with people, there are a lot of things we can learn from it about how we should share Jesus when we do.

I say it's not the same thing, of course, because Joshua was a Jew who lived many hundreds of years before Jesus. He was not a Christian, because at that time there were no such people. But he was a devout follower of God, which is not too different from what Christians are supposed to try to be. And that's where some of the similarities can show up.

First off, he clearly says that the Israelites will need to choose whom they serve. They must make a free choice about their allegiance. God will not coerce them into serving him. He won't trick them into following him. He won't throw a bolt of lightning at their feet and then say, "Next one's coming faster." They will either follow him or not, but they are free to choose for themselves which one of those paths seems best to them.

That means they have to make an informed choice. Joshua won't have them choose from ignorance, which is one reason why he gives a brief overview of their history as a people since the time of Abraham. They will need to know what God has done for them and how difficult a choice they may be making, so that their choice is truly a free one.

When we talk about what it means to follow Jesus, we need to do the same thing. We need to tell people the truth about what that means. Some parts of it are good, but some parts of it are hard. If we make up stuff that sounds good but isn't true, we run the risk of people deciding to follow Jesus based on lies and then turning away from him when they find out the lies. All kinds of people would follow Jesus if we told them that they would get a promotion, a raise, kids that never lip off and hair that never falls out or chocolate that has no calories -- depending on their gender.

None of those things would be true, though, so the first time the bathroom light glare from his head makes a fellow squint or the first time a lady realizes that chocolate cake really does have calories they're outta here.

The temptation might be to say nothing about Jesus at all becaise we don't know what we should say or don't know enough about church history or the Bible. But that doesn't work. God wants us to make an informed choice, which means we need information. God doesn't operate on a "Hey, I just met you/This is crazy" basis. And that means we need to learn a little bit. Not everything. If someone asks us about the hypostatic union of the divine and human in Christ, we're still free to say, "Gesundheit." But we need to know something about Jesus's message of how our relationship with God is broken, but God's grace in Jesus heals it.

And Joshua is clear that whether the Israelites serve the Lord or the gods of some other nation, they will serve somebody (and I have now quoted Raylan Givens, Carly Rae Jepson and Bob Dylan, making this one of the weirdest sermons ever). In his day and time, people who believed in no divine presence whatsoever were few and far between. Some cultures added everyone else's gods into their mix in order to make sure all the heavenly bases were covered. Some maintained only their own gods. But there were not many who would match our modern definition of an atheist.

The same question faces us. Will we serve the Lord, or will we serve other gods? Our "other gods" may have different names than Moloch or Asherah -- like power, or wealth, or fame. But they tempt us away from the Lord just as well as those ancient idols did.

Even one of those people who completely rejects the idea of anything other than this material world chooses to "worship" something -- themselves, if nothing else. When they say they and they alone decide what they will do, then they make themselves gods. And if you think all of your decisions will come from your own free will, see how long you can hold your breath.

When we share the gospel message with people, we share with them two hard-cased truths of life: In this life, you will serve somebody. And there is no better One to serve than the One who made us, redeemed us, and showed in the person of his son that he would rather die than live without us.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

The Loss of Absalom (Second Samuel 18:5-33)

David's problems have now become full-grown. We can draw a direct line from his callousness to Bathsheba and Uriah to the revolt of his son Absalom and the prince's death.

We first meet Absalom when his sister, Tamar, is assaulted by their half-brother, David's eldest son Amnon. Although the crime warrants punishment under the law, David loves Amnon and takes no action against him. Nor does he do anything to redeem Tamar's honor. So Absalom waits two years and invites all the king's sons, including Amnon, to a feast, then sends servants to murder Amnon and avenge his sister. He himself is exiled three years for this crime, and returns with an understandable load of bitterness towards David.

For four years, Absalom builds support among the people and then makes a lightning bid for the throne. David, caught unaware, has to flee with his court in order to save his life, but he leaves spies. Absalom sleeps with his father's concubines in order to promote to the people that he is the king now, rather than David.

But David's spies have allowed David the time to gather an army of his own and attack. They rout Absalom's army, which is not prepared because the spies have fed him false information. Absalom himself is somehow caught in a tree, helpless, where he is later killed by the general Joab, David's nephew. On hearing this, David falls to the ground, weeping and saying he would rather have died himself instead of Absalom dying.

You may remember that when Saul was trying to kill David, David would only flee from Saul and wouldn't attack him. Even though he had two chances to kill Saul, he refused to strike someone the Lord had anointed to be king. David recognized that God chose the kings of Israel, and he had no right to take from Saul what God had given to him.

But Absalom has no such scruples. Had David not fled, we can little doubt that Absalom would have had him killed in order to solidify his claim to the throne. He has no respect for the Lord's anointed. In fact, we don't really see him pay much attention to the Lord at all. Especially during his time of exile, David prays to God all the time. He doesn't always keep God in mind later on during his reign, but his contact with God and his seeking God's direction are still frequent.

Absalom, on the other hand, takes every action on his own. His justifiable rage against Amnon and his disgust with the fact that David does nothing turns into his plot to take justice by his own hand. He will not wait for time to bring him his chance at the throne if that's the will of God, but tries to grab it for himself. He doesn't seek advice from the priests or from prophets, but from court advisers who see things only in political terms. God may have chosen the first two kings of Israel, but the third king will choose himself, thank you very much. He'll play by his own rules.

That last habit, I imagine, he learned by watching his father. David played by his own rules when he wanted Bathsheba. He played by his own rules and ignored God's law when he "solved" his problem with Uriah's murder. He created a culture of the idea that being powerful meant you didn't have to follow the same rules everyone else did. So Amnon didn't, and he died. And then Absalom didn't, and he died.

Had either young man come back to his father and said, as did the younger son in the story of the prodigal, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you and am no longer worthy to be called your son," what would have happened? We can't know, but my guess is that something of the peace of the house might have been restored. But such actions would require real repentance, a real turning around to a new way of living, and neither of them could do that.

If we live life by our own rules and guide our actions according to whatever we want, we bring discord and maybe even destruction wherever we go. Only by living life according to God's law of love and respect for others and for God himself can we live lives that match what our spirits were created for, and thus find the peace we can't get otherwise.

The good news is that we have a chance to do that every time we fail. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

You the Man! (Second Samuel 11:26 - 12:13)

Up until this part of the story -- which modern news media would probably call "Bathsheba-gate" and create spiffy graphics to play while a news reader looked Serious and Disapproving -- David has been what we saw him in the beginning. He's a man after God's own heart. Whatever sins he commits he confesses and repents openly to God, acknowledging that he has not done what God would want him to do.

Not any more.

From here on, we will see David commit errors and sins and do his best to try to fix things on his own, or to leave them alone and hope nothing bad will happen. The results will be as deadly as they are for Uriah.

David has now had Bathsheba's husband Uriah killed so he can safely marry her and claim their child as the result of a legitimate union. Neither of them will face charges of adultery. He figures he's got it all sorted out, and the whole mess is safely behind him. No one knows but Bathsheba and David -- although some may suspect, there is nothing like the proof you'd need to accuse a king. Whew. Dodged that one. Nobody knows.

To borrow a phrase I learned at church camp, that's cray-cray.

David seems to have forgotten that he's not just Israel's king, he's God's chosen king over Israel. He was anointed by Samuel as a sign that God had selected him and he's been guided and watched over by God for his entire life. He told Saul that the Lord was with him when he drove off wild animals that tried to steal his sheep. He told Goliath that the Lord was with him, so Goliath should get ready to lose. Over and over again during the time leading up to his kingship and as his rule began, David realizes his strength comes from God's presence by his side. God's presence that never leaves him. God's presence that never leaves him, even if he's sleeping with another man's wife and plotting to have the other man killed to save his own behind.

So God decides to remind David of this presence, using the prophet Nathan. Nathan tells David a story about a mean rich man who steals the only ewe owned by a poor man and his family. David is infuriated at the rich man's cruelty and demands his name.

Nathan gives it to him: "You are the man!"

David realizes his sins have not been hidden at all. They have always been visible to God. God saw David's sin from the very first moment that David shirked his duty as the nation's leader in battle to hang out at his palace, from the moment he saw Bathsheba bathing and kept looking instead of looking away, from the moment he called her into his presence and slept with her, from the moment he tried to finagle it all by getting Uriah to shirk his duty, from the moment he decided to have Uriah killed. God has seen it all.

I am amazed at my own ability to believe I've somehow hidden my sin. I know God is everywhere and that God sees all things, and yet I somehow think I've gotten away with something when I make sure I know that nobody knows what I've done. Yep! Snuck that one by everybody, baby! Score one for Mr. Stealth!

And then my own version of the prophet Nathan confronts me with the reality that I didn't.

If you ever watched the TV show Friends, you may remember that Ross once cheated on Rachel when he was first dating her. He manages to hide that from Rachel and then goes all over his circle of acquaintances to tell them not to say anything, since he and Rachel were "on a break" and he didn't think it counted. He spends the morning and most of the afternoon doing so and finally gets to the last person, Gunther who waits tables at their coffee shop. He tells Gunther not to say anything, but Gunther already has, and Ross sees Rachel at the seat by the window, realizing she knows what has happened. They spend several seasons estranged before reuniting in the finale.

Had Ross spent all that energy and time confessing to Rachel and showing he would repent, might things have been different? Sure, if you convince the scriptwriter, but my point is that if we look at all of the ways David tried to get out of the consequence of his sin, we see their futility. God knew. God always knew.

And so David confesses his sin, which we can read in Psalm 51, and asks God to forgive him and heal their relationship. God does. He even redeems the marriage of David and Bathsheba, stained by his dishonesty and murder. Bathsheba will later give birth to Solomon, the heir to David and the one who will build the temple.

Our own confessions can come after a Gibbs-slap confrontation with reality, or they can come before, when we first realize we've strayed. Yes, either way we'll be forgiven. But I've found I've grown more in my faith when I've owned up to my sin from the start. And after all, when I confess that I'm a sinner, I'm just telling people something they already know.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Earn This

Sunday I gave a devotion at the memorial service at my 30-year high school reunion. I prepared remarks that weren't really very religiously focused since I wasn't sure what religious backgrounds would be represented either by the people attending or by the those who'd passed away. Persons of a faith background may cast different parts of this devotional into that background as they may feel appropriate. I've also omitted the opening part, where I told my classmates that standing before them in this kind of role was one of those deeply weird experiences that I'm pretty sure I never thought would happen.

When Steven Spielberg was interviewing World War II veterans for Saving Private Ryan, he noted how many of the men said they felt they were trying to live lives worthy of the sacrifices their buddies and fellow soldiers, the ones who hadn't made it back, had made for them. He distilled that into the line from Tom Hanks to Matt Damon near the end of the movie: "Earn this." Later the older version of Damon's character would ask his wife if he had been a good man and a good husband and a good father, wanting to believe he had lived a life worthy of the sacrifices that had been made for him. 

I remember some reactions to that line were kind of unhappy with Hanks' words to Damon -- they thought that asking someone who lived to earn the sacrifices made on their behalf, up to and including the greatest sacrifice of all, was too much. How could a person live up to that kind of expectation? It was too much, too much to expect of anyone. 

But when I reflected on it and read about Spielberg's research I realized three things: One, it wasn't likely many soldiers had actually asked that of each other. Spielberg was as I said illustrating an attitude about the war and those who fought it by using the phrase. For another, the feeling more likely grew out of the hearts and minds of the survivors, as they struggled to honor their fallen comrades in the only way left to them by being the best men they could be, the kind of men they imagined the fallen would have been had they lived. The fact that the feeling of debt and obligation originated in their own feelings certainly didn't make it any less powerful. 

Our friends who've gone on may not have given us any such challenge either, nor did they sacrifice themselves on our behalf. But we are still sad about losing them and we are still sad when we think that our great and good friend who meant so much to us is now a part of the past and the rest of the world will move on without them. We don't want this to be -- we may accept it more now than we did when we were younger, but we don't rest any easier with it. 

We wonder why we are still here even though they are not. We probably wonder it especially when we consider the people we believe offered more to the world than we do, or who we think were nicer or better. We may just wonder why they're gone and what we're supposed to do about it to make sure that their memory remains as long and as bright as possible.

So maybe we should live our lives to to show the world how lucky it was that our friends were here. We should live our lives to make the impact they had on us felt far beyond their reach, stilled now in death. They were good friends and so we'll be good friends. They showed love and compassion and so we will show love and compassion. They were gone too soon so we won't let the days go by without telling those we care about that we do appreciate them and their influence on us.

They didn't sacrifice themselves for us, but they gave us the gift of their friendship. Whether they saw it that way or not, whether they said it or not, we can live to be worthy of that, to earn it.

And the third thing that I learned about what Spielberg had Tom Hanks say to Matt Damon was that we know we can't earn what was given to us as a gift. But we make the world and ourselves so much better when we try.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Mighty Fall (2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27)

David's life has made more than one movie, and the story of his rise from shepherd boy to warrior to king certainly catches people's attention.

But if we were to make such a movie, we might have a hard time putting this scene in for modern audiences. Saul has been the villain of the first part of the story. Although the king brought David into court so that the younger man's musical skills could ease his depression, things have soured. David's skill in battle gained him greater fame than Saul, and people sing greater praises of him. Though Saul married David to one of his daughters, he has also tried to kill him and drove him first out of the palace and then out of the country. This is considered extreme behavior even for fathers-in-law.

David has been on the run for years and a few times has been cornered by Saul, to escape only at the last moment. Saul, as the king, stands in the way of David's assuming the kingship that was promised to him when Samuel anointed him. So Saul's death solves a number of problems if this were just a dramatic story -- it allows David to return home and it allows him to make his move on the throne itself.

Instead David responds not with triumph or gratitude that Saul is dead but grief. We get how he would grieve the death of his friend Jonathan, but why would he be so sad about the death of a man who'd spent the last several years trying to kill him?

We get clues when we read the lament song that David wrote. Firstly, Israel's enemies will rejoice at Saul's death. For all his problems, Saul was a great warrior and an effective military leader. Nations that wanted to defeat Israel in battle just got a good head start. David may know he was supposed to be king, but Saul's remaining sons might have the idea they're supposed to follow their father on the throne, which means internal unrest and turmoil -- maybe even civil war.

Saul's success on the battlefield brought wealth and plunder to Israel. In many ways, he was a good king, and his inability to obey God didn't seem to harm the rest of the people of the nation very much. So David grieves the loss of a great warrior and effective leader for his nation.

I wonder if David also doesn't lament the loss of what Saul could have been. Had he obeyed God he could have been established as the founder of a great dynasty. Even after his disobedience, he could have turned his life around, maybe resigned as king and stayed on as David's adviser. His experience and knowledge could have been useful to a man who'd never been a king before. Saul's advice could have made David a better king, which would have been better for the nation of Israel.

But his death means he won't have the chance to redeem himself or to ask God to forgive his disobedience.

You might come up with other reasons if you think about it, but I think you might find that most of them are similar to the ones I mention in at least one important respect: They're about something bigger than David himself. Yes, I believe that David understood Saul's death made much of his life easier. But he sees a bigger picture, and he realizes that whatever benefits Saul's death provides him, it provides more problems for the people as a whole.

Jesus asks us to see beyond ourselves when we follow him. He may call us to spend more time, energy and money on others that we would rather spend on ourselves. He may call us to consider what other people need when we only want to consider what we want. He himself saw beyond what his own desires might have been -- because whatever they were, it's a safe bet they didn't include "getting beaten up and nailed to a tree" -- in order to do something for others, and he asks us to do the same.

Sure, few of are likely to be called to that extreme level of sacrifice, but almost all of us are called to some. We are called to see, like David, that sometimes what looks good for us may not look good in the bigger picture and trust that God, who sees a bigger picture still, has in mind what is ultimately right and best for all.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Aim High (First Samuel 17:32-49)

God's ultimate call on David's life was for him to be the king of Israel. But in the meantime there were still one or two little things he could do.

We meet up with him living life pretty much as he did before Samuel anointed him king. He's still the youngest and he's at home watching the sheep when his brothers are called to help fight the Philistines. And he's still the one who dad tells to run out to the battlefront and see what's going on. The bible doesn't say this, but I'm pretty sure that after Jesse said, "Check up on your brothers," he said it was because "We haven't heard from them and your mother is worried."

When visiting, David sees the daily ritual of Goliath of Gath coming out to challenge the Israelite armies to a steel cage death match -- no, wait, I mean to one-on-one combat. David is stunned that no Israelite soldier takes up the offer. After all, they serve the Lord, the God of hosts! All Goliath's huge size means is that the near-sighted soldiers have got a shot at him too. He comments on this, and his brothers learn of it. Predictably, their younger brother's foolishness irritates them, because he's just a boy who doesn't know what he's talking about.

David says he'll fight Goliath if no one else will, and he won't be satisfied until King Saul lets him go out to fight. Saul gives him his own armor and weapons, but David says he can't use them because he's not used to them and they weigh him down. I imagine Saul and the others were hoping the heavy armor they think is needed to fight Goliath would convince David he shouldn't make the try. But David will still fight. He heads out and stops to arm himself with five stones for his sling.

Note, if you will, that he takes five stones. I believe he doesn't know exactly how the battle will end. He believes God will triumph, but he doesn't necessarily know exactly how that will happen. As it turns out he overloaded by four stones, but he doesn't know that at the time.

You know the rest. Goliath marches out, laughs at David, gets taunted by David and decides to dispatch him quickly and messily. But David pops him in the melon with a stone from his sling, knocks him down and then decapitates him with his his own sword. Cue the Israelites finding their courage and charging the Philistines, cue the Philistines losing theirs and getting while the getting's good.

Now, in fighting Goliath, David was answering a different kind of call from God. His call to be king one day is specific to him. But like all who followed God, he was called on to trust God and depend on him when facing trouble. So he figured God would be on his side against Goliath, just as God would have been on any Israelite's side if one of them could stop channeling Bert Lahr long enough to remember he was one of God's people.

Did David's decision to answer Goliath's challenge serve God? Yes. Was it foolish? Yes again. But the two in this case go together, and David's rash foolishness served God just as much as his courage and skill with a sling did.

Remember that David is at this point no older than 15 or 16 -- much older than that and he would have been with the soldiers himself. He is, therefore a teenager. What group of people are somewhat prone to acting without thought of the consequences, and when asked later why they made some less-than-optimal decision respond with a shrug and an "I don't know." I believe one such group is made up of teenagers.

We tend to think of teens' impetuous natures as a kind of moral or ethical immaturity, but in reality it has more to do with physical immaturity. The forebrain is the part of the brain that pops up with the "Bad idea, dude" signal when we consider what will turn out to be bad ideas. It does not finish developing until our mid-20s. Of course, there's no guarantee we'll use it once it develops, but before it develops, we really don't use it well at all.

So David's rash decision is exactly the kind of thing we should expect from a young man his age, and the amazing thing is that God uses what we would see as young David's weakness to win the victory. Yes, God uses David's skill with a sling and his speed and his quick thinking to take Goliath when he was down, but before any of that he used David's impulsiveness.

We all like to think God uses our strengths to do his work. If we have caring hearts or keen minds, if we have generous pockets or welcoming spirits -- we believe God uses them for the kingdom and for his glory. But does God use our irritability or our whininess or our laziness or our...well, that's a list that could get long depressingly quickly, couldn't it. The point is that God uses exactly those things for his work as well. God doesn't irritate us or get on our last nerve to make us snappish and then use that irritability, but he will work with whatever he's got to do his will.

After all, he won his greatest victory through the human frailty of his son. Why would we think our own frailties and limitations could hold him back?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Picked (First Samuel 15:34 - 16:13)

David's succession to Saul features a number of unusual characteristics.

For one, in the ancient world kings were usually succeeded by one of their sons, or by a brother if there were no sons. Sometimes non-family members took the throne on the death of a king, but that was usually because they had led a successful revolt and had caused the death of the king. On the rare occasions when a non-family member succeeded peacefully, the king himself usually chose who he wanted.

He would, of course, try to choose the best person for the job. The ablest military commander, the best legal mind, the wisest diplomat -- in fact, a king would probably try to look for the same qualities if he intended to choose from among his own sons. The primary goal was to select someone who was ready to be king and so minimize the amount of palace intrigue and maybe even bloodshed that could result from a poor choice.

So absolutely none of those usual procedures were followed in the selection of David. He's not related to Saul, Saul didn't pick him, and although he's shown some courage by facing down animals that threatened his sheep, he's too young and inexperienced to have made a good king.

And even more interesting, once he's anointed absolutely nothing changes for him. He's still the one who watches the flocks and he's the one too young to fight who'll be sent off to get word from his brothers when they're part of the war with the Philistines. Although in the eyes of Samuel and probably his own immediate family he's now the next king over Israel, his life proceeds as it did before. In fact, read the story of his visit to his brothers and you'll find that, king-to-be or not, they still see him as their troublemaking little brother.

But David's...interesting selection can tell us some important things about how God works, which might help us understand something about our own calls to serve him.

First, as we see in the story David was not the obvious choice to be king, even for Samuel who had spent a lifetime as God's servant. Samuel sees the tall and strong older sons of Jesse and believes they look like kings, so God must have chosen one of them. But God tells Samuel that his criteria for kingliness don't necessarily match human criteria. After all, Saul looked the part of a king as well, but proved to be spiritually too weak to lead God's people.

Next, we see that God is willing to wait until the person he selects is present. Had Jesse's sons all been present, he could have led them before Samuel youngest first just as easily as he did this way. He could have had them in a group and let Samuel see them. The arrangements of the meeting ensure that the choice God really wants to make won't be shown to him until the very end, but he will wait and not settle for less than what or who he wants.

And we see that God's choice may not bear full fruit right away. David is just a boy now and won't be king for many years, but God makes his choice now in spite of all the time that will be involved.

You and I are called by God for roles just as surely as was David. We are probably not called to be the kings of Israel -- because the throne room would get very crowded -- but we are each called. Just like David, we are each called for a purpose God intends for us to fulfill. Oftn we tend to hang back from the idea God calls us to something, saying we're not up to it or that God must surely have someone around who could do better than we could.

Really? Do we really expect God to say, "You're right! I don't know how I could have messed up like that! Good thing you knew yourself better than I did so you could set me straight!" We don't, but backing away from God's call out of a false modesty amounts to the same thing. Not a one of us is worthy of that call, but God has made it and promises us we can fulfill it with his help.

We may have been called long ago for a role that has yet to come to pass, just like Davdi waited long before he was king. But just as surely as he was anointed for his role long before he stepped into it, those who still wait to learn what God wants of them have been anointed for whatever that is.

Plus, there may be a thing or two we can do for God in the meantime. You may remember David got one or two little matters out of the way before he became king, too.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

King Me! (First Samuel 8:1-20)

The people of Israel here do a curious thing -- they see a problem and in order to solve it, they ask for it to get worse. Don't ask me why.

The problem is that Samuel's sons, whom Samuel has named judges to follow him, are not very good at their job. This really shouldn't surprise anyone. The "judges" we read about in their book were not exactly like our own judges -- they were religious leaders who were thought to be gifted by God's spirit to lead the people in a time of crisis. The people would fall away from following God and trouble would come. God would raise up a leader or "judge" to help them and then things would get better. Then they would fall away and the cycle would start over.

This kind of leadership couldn't be inherited. Being the son or daughter of a judge was no guarantee that a person would receive the same spirit, and so we have men like Samuel's sons, who are only magistrate-type judges and not very good ones at that, since they are corrupt.

But when the people ask Samuel for a king, they are asking for exactly the same kind of situation, only worse. There's no guarantee that the eldest son of a good king will himself be a good king -- there's only the guarantee that he's going to be king. If illness or intrigue or war intervene, he may not be king at all, but that's also no guarantee that there will be a good king on the throne. If you have a good king, Samuel says, that might be better than a bad king, but the king will still draft your sons, use your daughters in arranged marriages to his own political ends, and tax you, and you won't be able to stop him. Kings in that culture didn't have Parliaments or other restrictions on their power. Even though the Israelite kings would have the Law of Moses, they could (and often did) ignore it if they wanted to.

The people stick to their guns. They want a king like other nations have. And that's where we see something interesting crop up. The people weren't necessarily asking to have a monarchy begun. They had a king: God. God was the ruler of the people of Israel. God had given them their law and, though his spirit, guided them in following it. The Israelites asked for a change of kings, from having God as their sovereign to having a human being.

Does that make a difference? Well, several, but I wanted to point to one of them. When God was their sovereign, the Israelites had the Law of Moses to follow. But they had to interpret it for themselves sometimes, because some things weren't as clear-cut as others. They could always seek God's guidance, but we know that while God responds to our prayers that response is rarely the words in the sky declarative sentence we want. They had to develop, with God's help, their ability to discern and judge. They had to mature, if you like.

A human king, however, can always have a definitive answer. "Lord, I know I am supposed to honor my father and my mother, but my dad took off when I was one and is back asking me for a loan. What should I do?" God's response is not likely to be as clear as a king's: "You're right, he's a bum. Kick him to the curb." That may sound great, but the problem is that when someone answers every question for us, we never learn how to develop our own answers. What do you call a being whose every action is dictated by your will? A pet, that's what! And we are not God's pets!

God desires our growth, our maturing in our lives of faith. He meets us where we are but he wants us to get better, and he leads us in doing so. So he doesn't cover all the bases and nail down every detail -- if he did we would never grow into what he has in mind for us to become. No earthly king, teacher or ruler can do this; only our Lord and savior. And it is what he desires for us more than anything.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Handoff (Acts 1:15-17, 21-26)

Good ol' Matthias.

He's apparently been part of a group of people who followed Jesus, although not one of the 12, and he's now brought forward as a candidate for that circle to replace Judas. The lots are cast, Matthias is named, and we never hear from him or about him again. Not anything for certain anyway.

Church tradition says that Matthias preached the gospel in an ancient area called Aethiopia, which is not the Ethiopia we know as a country today but a region in what is now Georgia. Not Rhett Butler Georgia, although the misnaming of the area might lead one to wonder whether some of the folks in the ancient world were any better at geography than those people we read about who keep failing geography tests.

Matthias was supposed to have been crucified there, although we have this only from some church traditions and we can't verify it by any of the New Testament or the better-known writings of the early church.

He was chosen through the process called "drawing lots," or sometimes "casting lots." We don't know exactly what this was. We know that it was a way of making a random choice, and that it was probably made up of pieces of wood or stone that had different colors or symbols on each side. When they were thrown, some would come up one way and some another, and the outcome of the decision would be made according to how many came up a certain way.

In other words, Matthias was chosen by the apostles shooting dice, which would have come as a surprise to my dice-avoiding, card-shunning grandparents.

Before deciding between the two men, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, the disciples prayed and sought the guidance of the Lord. Then they cast the lots. The idea was that since the lots fell in a completely random way, there was no possibility of human influence on the choice, and they could be confident God alone was involved.

Now, you might think they would have been more careful. After all, they're replacing the one member of their circle who betrayed Jesus, which is the kind of PR wrinkle you'd like to avoid bringing attention to. So perhaps we would have advised them to look for an "anti-Judas," and have a rigorous screening process.

But what screening process would have been better than Jesus' own perceptions? If Jesus couldn't guarantee a fault-free choice, what makes them think that they ever could? And Judas wasn't the only disciple who "failed" Jesus, either. Remember that Peter denied him and the rest abandoned him. So our instinct to rely on our judgment might not work so well, and they used the method that was most likely in their minds to follow God's will for them.

Perhaps the main reason was the understanding that if God was at work, then either man would be the right choice. If God was at work, then he would use Matthias, if Matthias let himself be open to that. If God was at work, then he would have used Joseph Barsabbas just as well. We know that even though we never really hear about Matthias again, he must have done something (along with the other apostles), because the gospel was proclaimed throughout the old Roman Empire and beyond.

It takes trust in God to bring someone in to help with his work, because we don't know if those people will do it the right way (or, if we're being honest, "our way") and we don't know if there will be problems or not. Or if those problems can be handled. Or if things will be the same. Since we don't know, we must trust.

The disciples trusted God to lead them to Matthias, and then trusted Matthias to do God's work in the way that best suited him and best followed God. That.s a pretty good example.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Commencement (Acts 1:1-11)

In some very small towns, there are just two or three churches, and the pastors of those churches will sometimes rotate as the speakers at the high school baccalaureate service. So I've had the privilege several times during my different tenures as pastor in those towns.

My goal was less to preach a straightforward Sunday-morning sermon and more to offer a couple of thoughts about what's next in life for the new graduates. Over time, those ambitions got a little less grandiose, until eventually I had just one piece of advice for them: Now that you're leaving high school, I encourage you to leave high school.

By which I meant that they shouldn't live in this moment forever -- I remember when people would tell me during my own commencement season that these years would be the "best time of my life." While smiling and saying "Thanks," which is what polite young people do when old people they don't know say things to them, I would be thinking, "Lord, I hope not."

If I'm 17 when my life peaks, I'm staring at fifty-plus years of a downhill slide. To suggest that high school graduation is the best time of my life is to suggest I'd never do anything better than that, even if what those folks meant was that I should take advantage of every opportunity available to me at that wide-open time in my life. Hey, maybe when I'm near the end I'll look back and say, "Wow, that was a really great time," or maybe it will be eclipsed by other times even better.

I'm sure the temptation for Jesus' disciples was to look back at the years with him as those "best years" of their lives, and I imagine that years in Jesus' presence would be a high point no matter what kind of life you had. And maybe they felt tempted to just stay in those memories, like they were staying on that mountaintop, but they had work to do.

Jesus' own words to them are that they will be his witnesses to Judea, Samara and the ends of the earth. Only one of those exists on that mountaintop -- Judea -- and only a very small piece of it is actually there. So they have got places to go, people to see, things to do, and thus the angels encourage them to not live inside their past experiences of being with Jesus. Those experiences matter, but they will only matter when they are shared or when they form and shape the people who will be sharing.

School gives us an education, partly for its own sake but also partly for the sake of others. Our employers are happy we can read and write. Our friends are happy we stay up on current events so they don't have to recycle Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan jokes. If we help people, those we help are happy we studied writers and thinkers who moved us to be helping kinds of folks. Commencement, whether it happens at high school or college or graduate school, is literally the start of that time when we now use what we have learned.

For the disciples on the mountain, Jesus' ascension to heaven was their commencement. They awaited the gift of the Holy Spirit to equip and guide them in the work Jesus gave them, and then they moved out to bring that same spirit to others.

Of course, it's not exactly the same. We had to learn algebra even though we may still be wondering what good it did us, but I believe we find that every part of our encounter with Christ -- whether in the flesh as it was for the disciples or by the work of the Holy Spirit as it is for us today -- can bring blessing to our lives and the world around us.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Obedience (John 15:9-17)

John records some of Jesus' last long talk with his disciples, in which he sets out some of the guides they will need to continue his work after he has ascended. This part of that talk offers up the relationship between loving God and obeying God, and although Jesus says it pretty simply, much of the time we manage to get it wrong.

In a lot of cultures, obedience to authority wins approval from that authority. I don't even mean a dictator or a totalitarian regime, either. In school, following the rules earns good conduct or good citizenship awards. Eating your vegetables means you can have dessert. Cleaning your room means you can go play outside (and after all of the whining you did about it, your outdoor activities can't come fast enough, if I remember right).

And the flip side, of course, is that if you don't obey the rules, you earn disapproval. "Does not work and play well with others." "You can have just as much dessert as you had Brussels sprouts." "You don't need to go outside to play, because this room already looks like a tornado hit it."

Now, most of the time our parents and teachers showed us they cared about us in spite of our messy rooms, uneaten tasteless squash and inability to refrain from visiting with our neighbors. Most folks grow up with at least one or two people who model unconditional love in some degree. Not everybody does, though, and the conditional nature of the affection they received can really mess them up later in life.

But even though we were shown we were cared for no matter what, we still have the example of how our obedience earns even greater approval. And we will too often translate that child-level understanding of what it means to be a good person to our relationship with Jesus. We believe that if we act right, Jesus will like us better. Some folks hold that he will not only like us better, he will bless us materially as a reward for our obedience. Pray two hours a day and get a Cadillac. Pray three hours a day and get a BMW. Pray six hours a day and get a Lamborghini Countach. You can't afford to put gas in it because you lost your job from praying all day instead of working, but it looks great in the driveway.

In this talk with his disciples, though, Jesus is clear. Our obedience does not cause God's love. God's love just is. Our proper response to that love is obedience to God -- and in fact, obeying God's commands enables us to love each other all the more!

When he tells the disciples that they are no longer servants but friends, he highlights the difference. Servants obey commands because they have to. If the boss decides to explain why the command is given, great. If not, the command is still there and obedience is not optional. But friends have a choice.

We might question whether or not we "obey" friends, but think of it this way. We all have friends who are smarter than we are, at least in some areas. If one of those friends gives us advice in one of those areas, we are likely to do what they say. They have indeed told us what to do, but our obedience is not a matter of obligation. It's a matter of knowing that this friend knows better than we do and following their direction. We understand enough to know they understand more.

So Jesus says that we are his friends -- we understand enough about what he's doing to know he understands a lot more and we'll do well to follow his advice. We aren't required to obey him, but we know it's the better path and so we do. We know he loves us, and we trust both his love and his wisdom enough to do what he says.

And as it so often turns out, our lives follow the better path because of it.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Money Money Money Money...MONEY! (Psalm 112)

The combination of election-year speechmaking and economic uncertainty pushes money matters to the forefront of most Americans' consciousness, and Christians are no different. But money is really just a tool, a shorthand way of trading something we have for something we want. Why does it cause so many problems for our lives of faith?

Probably for the same reason other things can cause problems for lives of faith -- a tendency to push God out of the center of those lives and replace him with something else. In this case, with money. Its value as a tool makes it very easy to rely on it for things that Christian people are supposed to leave to God to provide, most especially our satisfaction and our security in life.

At least in the U.S., we're very often told that our satisfaction depends on the purchase of new, bigger and better stuff. Some of the housing market slump in recent years came from people who shouldn't have been lent any money at all, but some also comes from people who borrowed more than they could afford in order to get a bigger house than they needed or one in a nicer, pricier neighborhood. In a race to have the latest gadgets, the "right" kind of car and so on, people spend almost everything they make and in some cases more. They do this because many of us have become convinced that the purchase of any or all of those things will somehow satisfy us and make our lives good.

But when money gets tight and economic conditions iffy, we may find ourselves unable to afford those extras that we have come to depend on to fufill us, which leaves us feeling dissatisfied about our lives. Even more, it can leave us wondering if we can afford the basics of life anymore, and that creates more worry.

In that sense, money is like any other idol we create -- it will let us down at some point. It can't take God's place because it isn't God.

The biblical view of satisfaction and security rests it on something entirely different -- obedience to God and generosity of giving, a little like what Psalm 112 describes. When I was reflecting on this idea, I wondered a little bit about why generosity can do so much more to offer us peace, satisfaction and security than the idea of acquiring things can.

I think one reason is that we become much more aware of what we have whenever we give to someone who has less. The Occupy protests last fall often referred to the "one percent," meaning the wealthiest Americans, but anyone who knows anything about the world outside our borders knows just by being born in the U.S. people are already well on their way to being a part of the world's one percent. People below the official poverty line in the U.S. own television sets, cell phones, cars and even homes that only the richest people in many third world countries own.

If we are people of any empathy at all, we have to step back from our complaints when we hear about the lives of others with so much less and reflect on what we do have. And it seems very often that unless it's being said to that strange aunt who bought you socks for Christmas, the phrase "Thank you" brings a lot more joy than does a concern about what to buy.

And another, I think, is that generosity costs so much less. Ask someone how much money they would have to have in order to feel safe or secure about the future. Even 20 years ago they might have said "a million dollars." Today, that amount would be a lot higher. You might be OK with a billion dollars, if only because you could buy a big boat to live on and sail away with your money if things got strange.

My local mega-discount-grocery story has an off-brand of cereal that sells for a dollar a box. Now five dollars wouldn't make anyone feel safe about the next five minutes and would barely pick up a gallon and a half of gasoline. But it would provide a week's worth of breakfasts for a family if it was used to buy cereal that was donated to a food pantry.

The Bible doesn't say there's anything wrong with money, because when it's used properly there isn't anything wrong with money. It only becomes a stumbling block in our faith lives when we try to make it something it's not -- a foundation for our safety and security.