Sunday, December 22, 2013

Peace (Acts 26:28)

In the old King James version, Agrippa exclaims to Paul, "Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian!" That's the phrase that fired John Wesley's imagination in preaching one of his best-known sermons, "The Almost Christian." His main theme was to measure what it meant to be "almost a Christian" against what it meant to be "altogether a Christian."

The first important point to make was that the judgment of being almost or altogether a Christian was one that people made for themselves -- no one was ready to make that kind of distinction for another person. So, Wesley asked, how would people know the difference in their spiritual lives? Well, it wasn't necessarily by what they did or said. Both almost and altogether Christians could be found regularly attending worship, regularly reading Scripture, regularly praying and regularly helping other people.

And they would do these things because they believed them essential to living Christian lives, not just because they looked good to other people or because they brought about good things. They would both help people in need because it was a part of following Jesus and because those people were also God's children.

The difference comes, Wesley said, in why they do these things. The almost Christian is trying to be good enough to earn God's love and his forgiveness. He or she believes that just a little bit more work or just a little bit more effort will get them across the finish line. Wesley knew this belief quiet well -- he would have said that from his early adult years through the Aldersgate experience, he would have been much more an almost Christian than an altogether one. He would rise before dawn to pray and he put himself through a long and miserable sea-voyage in order to try to minister to American Indians in South Carolina. He kept a journal that assessed his spiritual state every 15 minutes during the day.

But, as he pointed out more than once, such efforts brought him no peace. He was constantly trying to earn God's favor but he never received any signs God approved of what he did, so he tried harder, which didn't work either. The peace his Moravian fellow-travelers had shown in the face of a dangerous storm eluded him. The Aldersgate experience, in which Wesley said he felt his heart "strangely warmed" and a direct experience God loved him and forgiven his sins, showed him the difference.

Altogether Christians do what they do not to get God to love them, but because God loves them. They live their lives dedicated to God out of thanksgiving.

You can see what kind of difference this would make. If I believe that I'm almost a Christian and if I just do a little bit more I'll cross the finish line, then I'm always wondering if I've done enough or if I've slipped back below it. If God requires me, like Jesus says, to make sure everything I do and say shows the most love for God and the most love for my neighbor possible, I can never be sure I've done that right. Who couldn't look back on something he or she did a week ago without wondering if there was a way to better display love of God and neighbor in that situation? There may be some great works done in such a way of living, but there is no peace.

But if we live our lives knowing that God loves us, that the sacrifice of his Son was made on our behalf to do what we couldn't do, then we can know our failures don't disqualify us. They are forgiven even as all our sins are forgiven. We regret the shortfall and we try to do better next time and ask forgiveness for the error, but we know it doesn't break the grace God has offered us. In that way of living we find the peace we never will when we try on our own.

The irony is that it's harder to be an almost Christian than an altogether one -- all our efforts can't earn what God freely offers.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Joy (Acts 26:24)

So you may wonder what a verse in which Paul is accused of being a few leaves short of a laurel wreath has to do with the idea of joy.

Well, we'll look first at the sermon that John Wesley preached from this verse and I'll see if I can't connect the dots. Wesley was often accused by his detractors of fomenting "enthusiasm" among those who listened to his preaching, which did not mean the same thing it does for us today. After all, we can probably point to a number of church folks who would never be accused of enthusiasm and a number of preachers who wouldn't dream of fomenting it.

But in church use in the 18th century, "enthusiasm" referred to overt responses and displays during a worship service. Sometimes it might be one of the spiritual gifts described in the New Testament, like speaking in tongues. Sometimes it might be breaking down in tears or displays of great happiness, or some other demonstrative act. The common thread was that proper people didn't act like that in church. It was poor behavior. Well-bred, well-brought-up people knew better.

Wesley rejected the idea that "enthusiasm" had no place in worship. Obviously, there were and are standards of behavior in worship that avoid rudeness to fellow worshipers and display courtesy to them and the speaker. But if the Holy Spirit was at work, then those standards took second place. After all, he often preached to people that the proper preachers didn't bother with, since he was speaking in fields, village squares and hillsides. Many of them may not have ever heard the gospel before, and learning that God loved them in spite of the fact that they were not well-to-do or the "right kind of people" could bring a powerful response. What his critics called "enthusiasm" Wesley called proof of the Holy Spirit at work in the people listening to him preach.

When Paul testified before Festus, he not only explained how he was innocent of the charges against him, he also talked about Jesus and what he had done. In other words, he testified in both the legal and church senses of the word. He did so as a response to what God had done for him, and Wesley said that his listeners did what they did in the same way.

And "joy" is the same kind of thing. We often confuse it with happiness, but they are not the same. Happiness often depends on external circumstances. We know that we might feel happy now, but something could happen that makes us unhappy soon enough. Maybe we get tired. Maybe someone cuts us off on the road, or brings 40 items to the 20 items or less line. Or maybe something serious happens. We know that happiness doesn't always have staying power.

But joy as God gives it is different. It's like Paul's testimony or like Wesley's enthusiastic listeners -- a response to something God has done, rather than a feeling that depends on what goes on around us. Joy may come in the middle of great things, certainly. But sometimes it comes in the middle of hard times. When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, which is pretty much dunked in joy, he was in jail and awaiting word about whether or not he would win a legal appeal that would save his life. He wrote about joy not knowing whether he was living his last day.

And joy can come in perfectly ordinary circumstances as well. If you saw the video of US Air Force Orchestra musicians doing a "flash mob" concert at the Air and Space Museum you can get a picture of that: People are just going about their business at the museum when all of a sudden musical instruments appear and begin Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."

In that sense, I guess Festus was right. We Christians may have lost our minds, because situations that might provoke despair or boredom or even nothing at all often seem to bring us none of these things. Instead, we respond with joy. The trade seems like a good one to me.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Love (First Corinthians 12:31)

Because 1 Corinthians 13 has such an amazing impact and a long history by itself, it's sometimes overlooked in its context, part of Paul teaching the Corinthian church about spiritual gifts.

The Corinthians seem to have developed some kind of heirarchy of gifts -- the spiritual gifts that draw more attention are seen as "higher" gifts that are signs of a holier person or someone that's a better Jesus follower than someone else. In fact, Paul writes to the church members as if they now have an entire congregation trying to reach "up" to speaking in tongues, which for some reason has become the signal of true faith or of deeper devotion than others. No, Paul says. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are given as needed for the ministry of the body of Christ. A congregation truly seeking God's direction would recognize that each person's spiritual gifts are essential in following it, and that if the Spirit needed everyone to have all the gifts then everyone would.

He pivots just where ancient Christians divided chapter 12 from chapter 13 -- having told the Corinthians about the need for all of the spiritual gifts, he then offers his understanding on one quality that could make each gift even greater than it is -- the "more excellent way" of 12:31 is to use whatever gifts we have under the guidance and direction of Christian love. Love not only clarifies the spiritual gifts so sought after by the Corinthians, it actually amplifies them.

The most tongue-tied and ineloquent speakers can make a world of difference if they speak their words in love, and compared to them the language of angels is meaningless by itself. But should someone have such a gift and not only use it, but use it in love, then imagine what kind of impact he or she could have?

A child's simple words, spoken in love, can show many something important about the truth of faith that the most educated and wisest among us could never fully explain on their own. So imagine what kind of impact that great wisdom might have when it is given guided by love? Surely that expression of wisdom would be a "more excellent way."

Methodist founder John Wesley, in a sermon on this passage, suggested that the idea of the "more excellent way" could apply to every aspect of a Christian's life. Supposed someone who followed Jesus decided to abstain from unseemly entertainments, for example. For Wesley, those kind of entertainments included live theater, so we can tell he lived in a different time -- but the idea stays the same. He said a Christian who, persuaded by their conscience that such entertainment was not spiritually healthy, decided to stop patronizing them in his or her leisure time was doing a good thing.

But a Christian who then chose to spend that leisure time in some kind of help for people in need or personal study of Scripture or by meeting with others to study and discuss matters of faith was pursuing the "more excellent way." Helping others or offering aid to the needy was an expression of love for our neighbor, and prayer or study and learning was an expression of love for God.

Or doing those kinds of good works because the Scriptures direct it was obedience to God, which was a good thing. But moving forward and doing good works for others because we love God and our neighbor? A more excellent way!

During Advent, we may think we have done our Christian duty because we didn't speculate on the parentage of the person who took the last parking space or the specific item we braved the store to buy. And not acting bad -- now or at any other time -- is most definitely a good thing and a good habit for us Christians to develop. But love can inspire us to do more -- to not just omit wrong, but to seek after and include right. And if a time of making ready for the coming of the King is not a good time to seek a more excellent way, I don't know what would be.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Hope (Philippians 3:12)

It being Advent, I am now seeing a slowdown in the number of Advent and Christmas-related advertising we receive at the church. It’s all very nice, and of course a lot of it repeats itself. Much of the repeating stuff focuses on the different themes that are given to the Sundays of Advent – hope, love, joy and peace.

When we focus on these ideas, sometimes we focus on them as abstract qualities that are designed to inspire people. And they can, a little bit, but as abstract qualities they don’t really offer anything all that deep. “Hope” by itself is, well, a good thing, but most of the time if we’re going to face anything really tough we find ourselves needing a hope in something. Rather than just a kind of cloudy noun, we need a verb that connects to something. Unless we’re hoping in something particular, it’s like we’ve been thrown a rope that doesn’t connect to anything.

So what is something we as Christians hope in or hope for? There are many things, I’m sure, but one that I have heard talked about a lot is the hope of growing closer to God and of being more like the person God wants us to be. The founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, used the phrase “Christian perfection” or “being made perfect in love” when he talked about this hope.

We can balk at these terms, especially the word “perfect.” We automatically think it means something flawless or without fault, and we know that we don’t measure up to that standard. Plus, people who claim some kind of perfection for themselves are usually bragging or boasting about it and we know that kind of attitude has nothing to do with following God.

Wesley realized those problems, and he was clear what he didn’t mean when he claimed Christians could be expected to be made perfect or holy not only in the life with God to come, but in this one as well. Christians could not have perfect knowledge – there’s stuff we don’t know and there’s stuff we’ll probably never know. For decades, math teachers have been trying to find x, for example, and each year they have to ask a bunch of new students to hunt it up.

Seriously, though, we don’t know what goes on in people’s lives or their thoughts, as well as so many other things, so we will always have only imperfect knowledge. But even when we know something, we as limited human beings have only imperfect judgment about what to do based on what we know. We might think we should act a certain way when we learn something, but our action may not be what’s needed.

There are a host of other imperfections we have that Wesley said are parts of the human condition that we won’t overcome. But we can be “made perfect in love.” We can devote so much of our time and energy towards seeking God’s will that we sort of change our default mode, if you like.

Instead of automatically responding to something by seeking out our own best interests, we find ourselves asking how best to serve God. What action or what word will show the most love of God and love of neighbor? Most of us, most of the time, have to stop and think a little on that before we do something. But those who are “perfect in love” will find they have allowed God’s spirit to direct them so fully they reach for those loving actions without the stopping and thinking.

Think of walking. When we learn to walk, we are obviously processing every step when we take it. Even though we don’t have the words yet, we are thinking, “Left foot out, lean over, left foot down, right foot out, lean over, right foot down.” But after enough practice, we do that without thinking about it. Of course, sometimes we miss something in our path and we stumble, or our movement is off somehow and we might fall. In the same way, our “Christian perfection” might falter a little bit because – remember from earlier – we don’t have perfect knowledge or perfect judgment or perfect ability.

In Wesley’s day, “perfect” could mean flawless like it does for us today, but it could also mean “completed” or “matured.” James Bond villains, you know, always perfected their schemes or death rays – right before they crossed paths with 007, anyway, and that sense of the word is closer to Wesley’s understanding.

So what do we hope for in this idea of Christian perfection? We hope to become so close to God that we and God together “will one will,” using another Wesley phrase. And we know that this will depend far more on God than on us, so we find that even just hoping for God to work in us can be a way of drawing closer to him. Because we are not just hoping in some vague idea or concept. We are hoping in our Lord and Savior, and he does not disappoint.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Science and Faith (Genesis 1:1-19)

When Christians talk about the problems we see with science and religion or faith, they seem to fall into two main categories.

One is the story of creation. The scientific picture of the world, with what we call "the Big Bang" and evolutionary theory, is definitely at odds in many ways with the creation stories from Genesis. Cosmology, archaeology and geology all describe for us an Earth that's something like 4 billion years old and a universe that's as many as 15 billion years old. But Genesis leads us to a picture of an Earth that is several thousand years old, and those two numbers are not close enough together for the difference to be a rounding error. There are many people, in fact, who reject Christian teaching because of this difference.

When we look more closely at the stories, though, we can learn some things that might make it easier to accept parts of both understandings (you can tell I'm a Methodist -- if there's a fence within 500 miles, I will find it and sit on it). The Genesis creation account shares a lot of features with stories from people who lived in that part of the world at that time. Many of them feature a world in which primeval waters of chaos were divided by a divine being, with land appearing to separate the seas from one another. The Babylonian story is one of the major ones, and we find them sharing many details with Genesis.

But they are also different. In the Babylonian story, the earth and seas appear when the king-god, Marduk, defeats his mother Tiamat in battle. The earth is her dismembered corpse, and the seas are her blood. Quite a bit different from Genesis, in which we see God choose to create the world and bring order from chaos instead of more destruction. The point of the story the Israelites told was less to describe the physical creation of the world than the meaning behind the creation of the world. They used the science they knew to show the how, and then used what God revealed to them as the why, which was far more important to them.

Even the creation of people shows this. For the Babylonians, Marduk created human beings from the dust of the ground and breathed life into them, just as Genesis tells happened with God and the first human. But Marduk created people so the gods would have slaves and something to make fun of. God created human beings so his great love would have an object other than itself. God created Adam and Eve, but Marduk created Moe, Larry and Curly.

When we talk about the beginning of the world today, we hear a lot about the random chance of it. How the Big Bang itself was a random event, and the formation of the world happened in the right spot by chance, and how the laws of the universe are what they are by random chance, and so on. But as a Christian, I see God's hand in these things. Because of that hand, we have a world in which beings exist that can respond to God and love him back.

The other wrinkle with science and religion is this idea that we must pick one or the other; that there can be no overlap and no agreement. Christians must reject science because science, of course, rejects religion and Christianity. But they don't. Many scientists find what they learn about God's world deepening their faith. Physicist John Polkinghorne retired from work at a university and went back to school to become a minister in the Church of England. I have a friend who teaches pediatric pharmacology (you can tell who's smarter by the number of syllables in her job and the number in mine -- pediatric pharmacologist vs. preacher). She sees the cutting edge of scientific work in the arena of the human body itself, and both her research and her practice bring her closer to God.

I myself accept a lot of what science tells me about how the universe came into being and how the people who live here developed. But that doesn't mean I reject faith, because it's my faith that helps me understand why the universe is here and why people who can respond to God are here. And that, for me, is the key. Have all the fights you want about how everything came to be. Argue it, hash it out, fuss about it from now until the second coming, but don't pretend you've done what needs to be done as people who think seriously about the world and the human condition unless you've got some kind of an answer as to why.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Forgiveness and Retribution (Matthew 18:21-22)

It may be kind of weird, but I sometimes think that the Christian teaching of forgiveness is one of the places where we who follow Jesus have the hardest time setting aside what the world tells us about how to act in order to do what Jesus calls us to do.

I think that because it doesn't seem like Christians do any better at forgiving their enemies than do people outside the church. Yes, we're called on to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, but it seems even though we're carrying our own crosses we always have room for one more grudge. And I wonder why that is? Jesus proclaimed forgiveness as central to his message and he made it plain -- as plain in this conversation with Peter as it is anywhere else. The two men used the numbers seven and seventy times seven, which in their culture are shorthand like "24-7" is for us. Peter asks Jesus, "Shall I forgive every time?" Jesus answers, "Not just every time, but every time."

Why do we struggle with it so much then? There may be many reasons, but a key one to me seems that we misunderstand forgiveness and how to do it. The prevailing notion looks like we are to simply pretend a wrong or an injury never happened and that the hurt it caused never happened either. As best as I can tell, the world thinks that "forgiving" someone is like trying to play Obi-Wan's Jedi mind trick on ourselves and saying that whatever was done to us is not the 'droid we're looking for.

You can see the problem immediately: Those were the 'droids the Empire soldiers were looking for and the hurts we have been given are real. Our minds know they were real, and pretending they aren't creates a conflict between what we know to be true and how we're supposed to act. We can't reconcile living like nothing ever went wrong when we know that something did. Maybe with minor wrongdoings and understandings that's actually a good idea; if we all kept score of the little things that went wrong between us and others we would be pretty miserable most of the time. But with real wounds it just doesn't work.

So Christians try to work around Jesus' clear direction about forgiveness. I'll forgive, but I can't forget, we say. God will forgive that other person, but I can't. And other formulas that make it clear we're not doing much more than pay lip service to forgiveness while we really live by the code of retribution and getting even.

What if forgiveness meant something else, though? What if it didn't mean setting up a rickety house of cards of denial that will never bear the weight of real life?

See, another use of the word is in economic transactions, specifically debt. If I owe someone money (and I do), and they choose to tell me I don't have to pay them back (which they haven't done yet. Thanks a lot, Sallie Mae), then we say the debt is forgiven. But isn't that the same thing, you ask? Not exactly.

While the debt is forgiven, the cost remains. While I owe you the money, it costs me the amount of regular payments I make. If you forgive the debt, then the cost becomes yours because you won't every get back the money that you lent me.

If we put this back into the moral arena, see what happens when I forgive someone who has done me wrong? I accept the "cost" of the wrong and forgo my right to have that other person pay it. That may not seem fair, and in fact it isn't. It's the worst option there is, except for all the others. Because the others involve lives of retribution and revenge that are ultimately empty and meaningless.

Recently Mandy Patinkin, the actor who played swordsman extraordinaire Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, talked in an interview about two lines in the movie. One is the famous, "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Inigo has spent his life searching for the man who killed his father so he can kill him. But Patinkin said another line struck him recently when he was watching the movie, near the end.

It's when he says, "I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it's over, I don't know what to do with my life." Inigo has achieved his goal, but he has many years left and with his father's killer dead he has nothing left to do. Patinkin said it points out just how worthless a real life lived for revenge is, because it's either never fulfilled or it is fulfilled and the person learns they've wasted all those years. Now, in the movie, he decides to become a pirate, which just goes to show you that you can't take movie illustrations too far.

In the end, taking the cost of forgiveness on ourselves is not fair and it isn't just. We can't recommend it as either of those things to people who ask us why we Christians forgive our enemies. But realizing that Jesus forgave us and took the cost of our wrongs on himself -- I mean really realizing it and not just saying it -- should get us thinking. It may not be fair, but it's really the only way someone who claims the name of Christ can live, both to show his or her thanksgiving for God's grace and to show others how that grace can be made real in their lives as well.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Salt of the Earth (Matthew 5:13-16)

Salt, for us in the 21st century, represents anything from a flavorful additive to our food to the veriest poison that will kill us all to something that's not all that harmful, depending on which cooking show or medical study revision you happen to be reading at the time. But no matter what role it plays, we never associate it with any kind of hardship in getting it -- it's there on the table or in a paper packet or in a blue cardboard canister on the store shelves, always ready to hand.

In Jesus' day, salt had almost only a positive role to play in food preparation. It was one of the few seasonings that poorer people could afford, and it was one of the very few ways to preserve meat for later eating. Even so, it was tough to acquire. "Working in the salt mines" is an old cliché meaning hard labor, referring to the fact that the mineral processed into salt for cooking had to be dug from the ground. People who lived around the extremely salty Dead Sea could gather mineral chunks from the shore and carefully process them to separate the salt from the other substances in the chunks, but if they did it wrong then they had a bunch of useless sludge they had to throw away. This was the kind of salt that poorer people most often used, since the Dead Sea could always produce more mineral chunks and all you had to do was pick one up.

That's probably what Jesus meant by salt losing its taste or its saltiness: Making a mistake with one of those chunks of minerals and ending up with sludge. His listeners would have quickly understood the metaphor.

The metaphor comes to my mind when I reflect on what kind of a relationship I should have between my identity as a Christian and a citizen of my country. As a United States citizen, I live in a nation whose founders chose to reject the idea of a state religion. No governmental agency can act in a way that prefers one religion -- or any religion at all -- to any other. That's the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment. Neither can government make laws that tell me how to practice my religion, unless that practice conflicts with the basic rights of others. This is why I can't move into your house and claim you can't evict me because my religious practice mandates I live in strangers' homes -- it conflicts with your rights to enjoy and safeguard your own property. This is the "free exercise" clause.

Today, one of the most common ways of expressing the First Amendment protections is to use Thomas Jefferson's phrase "separation of church and state." And what it seems like most people mean when they say that is that I, as a religious person, should keep my religion to myself. I can pray, practice, preach and believe whatever I want while I'm in my own home or with like-minded people, but I need to leave all of that at the door whenever I exercise my duties as a citizen.

So in order to honor this understanding of the First Amendment, I need to vote without respect to my religious beliefs and allow them little or no influence on such decisions. If I participate in some program to help other people, I need to do it without any reference to my Christian faith and practice.

You can see how this breaks down. There are plenty of non-Christian folks who do pretty well at helping others and plenty of Christian folks who do pretty badly, but I know that I wouldn't help people nearly as often as I do if I wasn't a Christian. Jesus' call to me underlies my understanding of how I relate to everyone, people in need or otherwise.

If I believe that a free-market economy with as little government regulation as practical is the best way to help poor people rise from poverty, then I should vote for a candidate who follows those policies too. If I believe a social-democratic welfare state is the best way to do that, then I should vote accordingly also. If I do anything else, I've lost my saltiness -- and what good am I?

Paul offered us several pieces of advice on what kind of citizens Christians should be, and most of them center on doing exactly that -- being good citizens until or unless that conflicted with their faith. In a representative democracy that's based on the rule of law and respect for private property rights, we have opportunity after opportunity to properly exercise our responsibilities within the context of our faith. The only boundary is the one that would cross the line to some privilege our faith over other people's and work to impose it on people who don't share it, which is something God doesn't want us doing anyway.

Sometimes folks who don't want religious people, including Christians, to base political decisions on faith understandings and beliefs, say things like "You should leave your God outside the voting booth." But the problem with that idea is that I believe God's already in the voting booth.

The only question is whether or not I'll listen.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Wellness (Luke 17:11-19)

I have preached on this passage earlier, with a different title but many of the same thoughts, so I'm re-posting the same manuscript. The original can be found here.

We spend a lot of time talking about how Christians should and shouldn’t act. We should tithe. We shouldn’t lie. We should help others. We shouldn’t hurt people. We should read our Bibles. We shouldn’t…etc., etc.

When I look at how much of that we sometimes focus on, I can understand why some non-Christians folks don’t have much interest in our faith. Of course, our faith in Christ should have consequences in how we live our lives. We claim to be different people, changed into something new by the grace of God. But if the new people act just like the old people, what’s the difference?

On the other hand, we’ve compiled an impressive list of thou-shalt-nots for people whose religion was founded on the concept of removing barriers between people and God. We have met the Pharisees, and sometimes they are us.

Jesus pointed out in one conversation what the law boiled down to, and we call the greatest commandment. We’re to love God with all we have, and then as a corollary, we’re to love our neighbors as ourselves.

In the story of the ten lepers, we see Jesus boiling down the right relationship between God and human beings to its essentials. Later, the Apostle Paul will flesh this idea out in the first chapters of Romans, but Luke tells us a story of Jesus that gives us the essence.

Jesus meets ten lepers before he enters a village. They stay far away, like the law required them to do. People with leprosy couldn’t live with others, and often grouped together in bands of outcasts like this. Their former lives are meaningless, as we’ll see.

They call out to Jesus for mercy, and he directs them to go to show the priest they are clean. Even while they head back to town, their disease disappears. One man, a Samaritan who would ordinarily never have been with a group of Jews, runs back to Jesus when he sees his disease vanish. He praises God and falls to his knees.

Jesus notes that only one of the ten he healed offer thanksgiving for the mercy they sought, and tells him, “Go on your way. Your faith has made you well.”

Now this is interesting. “Your faith has made you well.” Do the other nine lose their cure? Probably not. The word translated “clean” in v. 14 is not the same as the word translated “well” in v. 19. So Jesus doesn’t say the man is cured because of his faith. He’s already been cured, and that’s because Jesus did what the men asked: He had mercy on them and healed them.

What did the man’s faith do, then? It made him return to his healer and thank God for his healing. And that, Jesus said, made him well. The other men may have been cured, but at this time, at least, they haven’t been made well. Think of it like someone with a cold who takes a cough drop – the cough is gone for awhile, but the cold remains.

What is it that makes the man well and truly whole? Praise to God for what amounts to a brand new-life, a return from the dead. People wrote lepers off, families often acted like they were dead and gone. But these men have been reborn, and the one foreigner knows who to thank for it (God) and what to do about it (thank him).

Paul will spend a lot of time telling us that everyone everywhere can know God is our creator by watching his creation. And God only wants us to respond to that knowledge properly with our praise, thanksgiving, respect and obedience. Because we haven’t, God has brought Christ into the world to re-shape us so we can.

The Samaritan leper does just that. He has asked for new life, in the form of a cure. He now has new life, and so he shows his praise and respect to the one who have it to him by thanking him. He is now well.

And this is what God calls us to do as well. God offers us a new life in Christ, a life with the possibility of real change. People in despair over what seems to be a broken life can find healing. People cut off from those around them by pride and arrogance can find humility and a community.

The Samaritan’s cure came about through the grace and mercy of Christ, just as ours does. Neither he nor we earned it. We ask. Because God loves us, he answers.

But then comes the part where the changed life really shows up. Do we offer our praise and gratitude to God for the change? Do we decide to live our lives knowing we are changed people, even though we might not see much evidence right away? If we don’t, we’re just cleaned up for a little while.

But if we do, then we too are made well by the good news of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Less? More? (Matthew 6:19-21, 25, 33)

Sometimes we unbalance our lives because we're feeling driven by something -- by schedules, by anxiety and worry, by the stress our routine puts on us. But sometimes, we unbalance them because we're chasing something. Usually it's money, but just about anything that we can want or try to acquire will sit comfortably in that seat.

Our culture has sort of trained us away from the idea of greed, by connecting it to obvious evildoers like Montgomery Burns or Gordon Gekko. Cartoonish villains who ruin lives or threaten to destroy the world's supply of albacore tuna are greedy, you see, which is why they will do those horrible things in order to ill-get their gains. You and I would never threaten harmless fish or sell off a manufacturing facility to raise stock prices, so we're OK.

I wonder if we are, though. At its core, this conception of greed says that we will do things we shouldn't to get what we want. And when we phrase it like that, we can see greed in a whole lot of things that would never make a good Oliver Stone or James Bond movie, but which can do just as much damage to us and unbalance our lives just as easily.

Why would we do those things, though? Why would we spend more than we have in order to get a bigger house or a newer car or more expensive clothes, computers, TVs, furniture, phones, whatever. No one would rationally make a decision to go into more debt than they could repay for something that they might not be able to sell for enough to pay off that debt if worst came to worst. So why do it?

We can see the answer in almost any commercial. Because having this thing -- whatever it is -- will make us happy or make our lives fulfilled. Because having a fat retirement account will keep us safe when we no longer work. Because it's our "dream house." We know intellectually that those things aren't completely true. Every young man who sees an Axe Body Wash commercial knows he will not have the best-looking women of the town pursuing him uncontrollably -- and the agency who made the ad knows that too, because they intend to get you to buy the product while laughing at the absurdity of the ad. But the over-the-top suggestion conceals the message that maybe a couple of them will respond better than they do right now. And your life, you loser non-Axe Body Wash-user, will not be complete until you have those ladies responding to your choice of soap.

Except the message is not only ridiculous, it's a lie. Being respectful and attentive will do a lot more than a special soap -- although some kind of soap is probably a good idea -- to win fair hand. And a "dream house" that soaks up every bit of income just to keep even with the payments and forces a family to buy on credit necessities like food and clothing is no dream at all. It's a nightmare.

The Bible has a label for these kinds of things we use to make us happy or feel secure and fulfilled. It calls them idols. An idol isn't necessarily a golden statue of a calf -- it's anything on which you or I depend for something that we should really only depend on God for. And when we worship these idols -- which is what depending on them for happiness and fulfillment and security really means -- we will do irrational things for them, like spending more money that we make or have to acquire them.

Worshiping God can lead to similar behavior that looks irrational too. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, considered the ten percent tithe the starting point for his giving. He worked throughout his life to spend less on himself so he could give more to others, and by his last few years he was living on ten percent of his income and giving ninety percent of it away. He was asked how he could do that and he would rely on these passages from Matthew as his guide. He sought first the kingdom of God, and relied on God who knew what he needed for those things that he needed.

We might say, well, it's easy to give away 90 percent of your income when you get housed by the people who have you come preach and your home base has a kind of dorm for its preachers that they let you stay at and where someone who works for the movement cooks for you and makes sure your place is taken care of. But Wesley would point out that he didn't give away more money until he found himself no longer needing the money for those other things.

Because God, he might say, provided them through the ministry of all those other people who desired to serve Him by serving their church.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Whom Should I Fear? (Psalm 56:2-4, 10-13)

When we find ourselves in a constantly hurried-up world, we will probably also find ourselves undergoing a lot of stress, and probably some anxiety as well. The irony is that proper amounts of anxiety and stress are necessary for our lives, but when we worry and stress more than we should, we create problems for ourselves, and find that we're living lives outside of God's design and rhythm.

Anxiety roots in fear, and fear is a biological response to an unknown potential danger or to a known danger. When we fear something, like a bump in the night, then our bodies get ready to combat the danger or run away, and the quicker heart rate, heightened alertness and tension we feel is a part of that. If we didn't fear anything, then we would be in trouble. We first learned to look both ways when we crossed the street because we were taught to be a little fearful of oncoming cars. As we grew up, we realized we just needed to be cautious instead of afraid, because our experience trained us to remember to look both ways.

We need a little stress in our lives as well. Stress makes systems work and it motivates us to do things. If I'm in school, knowing that I have a test coming up is a stress-producer. But that's good, because without that deadline, I might not study the subject I'm supposed to be learning. Project deadlines at work also create stress, but that helps us get our part of the task done and not let other people down.

If we over-stress, though, then we actually reduce our ability to work and get things done. An end-of-the-week deadline gets me moving on my task, but someone breathing down my neck every day about what I've done so far not only distracts me, it makes my work poorer.

A life in balance has fear, and it has stress. But it doesn't have too much of them, or have them in the wrong contexts. God designed us with a fear-response to protect ourselves and a stress response to motivate us, but when either of those things runs out of control, we start living lives outside of that design. Of course, there are diagnosed illnesses and mental health conditions that feature constant anxiety or constant stress. If that's you, then professional help of some kind, whether from a counselor or medication, is the best way to try to restore your balance. But many people struggle with stress and anxiety without a medical or mental health problem. What does God say to us?

At first glance, it seems like God's response is not all that reassuring. God, speaking through the prophets or sometimes directly, frequently addresses fear: He says, "Do not be afraid."

Well, that's helpful -- maybe. Any ideas, Lord, on just why I shouldn't be afraid? I mean, there's some stuff going on in the world that makes me a little nervous. Sure, some if it's fed by news channels that make everything sound like doomsday in order to get me to pay attention, and sure some of it's probably never going to happen, but have you got some tips on that not fearing thing?

God's response: I will be with you. It may not sound like much still, but it's the same response Moses got when he wondered about going to see Pharaoh, it's the same response the prophets got when they wondered why they got picked to be God's mouthpieces, and it's the same trust Jesus had and imparted to his followers, and it's the same reality in which Paul rejoiced while he was in prison.

It's what our parents told us when we faced our imagined fears of monsters under the bed or in the closet -- fears that may have been real to us but which they, in their greater experience and wisdom, knew to be unfounded.

And that may be a way of seeing these fears and stressors we face -- as things that seem big to us but which are known by God to be much less bothersome than we believe. Yes, our fears are real, not imaginary like the monsters in the closet, but God reminds us that they can't do the worst thing imaginable, which is to separate us from him. In Jesus, he reminds us that even death itself can't divide us from him. 

Do we believe God is God, and overcomes everything that would keep us away from him, even our own selfishness, pride and sin? If that's what we believe, then that's what we can lean on when we face fears, anxieties and stress. We may have to remind ourselves of that reality, and we may have to do it often. I do. But if it's the reality by which we operate, then we can say, along with the psalmist, "The Lord is my light and salvation -- whom shall I fear?"

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Do it All? (Exodus 18:13-26)

Most of us find a lot of comfort in taking on an entire task by ourselves. It will be done the way we think it needs to be done. We can make sure it's all being handled. Nothing left out.

BUT, as we find out, if we do that for every responsibility we have, then we wind up stressed out and with schedules crammed full of events and activities that totally depend on us. We are responsible to many people about completing the things we've said we will do, and we have the additional stress of knowing we don't want to let people down who are depending on us.

It's then we need to listen to the wisdom of Jethro (a phrase that, ever since Paul Henning created The Beverley Hillbillies, has been uttered but rarely, I would imagine). He sees his son-in-law Moses doing something very similar to what I have just described when he judges matters among the people. Every dispute comes to Moses, with the people lined up outside his tent.

True, as God's leader he is called the nabi, which means mouthpiece or speaker for God. But I don't believe that God had this particular arrangement in mind, and Jethro doesn't either. He lays it out for Moses: "What you are doing is not good." You may imagine whatever father-in-law-type embellishments you wish on that statement. Jethro suggests that Moses divide the task up among trustworthy deputies who can judge the smaller matters themselves, and then save his energy for the bigger matters as well as other aspects of leading the people.

In this exchange, we see not only that God does not call us to do everything ourselves, we get a sense as to why he doesn't do that. For one, we wear ourselves out, just as Jethro said. For another, it leaves us unable to say yes to important tasks that God may call on us to do that we hadn't planned on. If we have crammed our waking hours with activity from end to end, then any new task means abandoning an existing one. And if they're all important, that means that we will leave something important undone in order to answer this new important call.

Imagine with me that the first two men who see the injured victim in Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan were not just unwilling to help him because they didn't care enough. Imagine that they were busy men, with meetings to attend in Jericho and they couldn't delay their journeys long enough to help the stranger, exposing themselves to his blood and the ritual uncleanness that accompanied it. Imagine that they had said yes to many good things, and because they had, they could not say yes to the vital need that was right in front of them.

Isn't that the way it's likely to happen for us? We might bypass someone in need of help not because we're put off by them, but because we just don't have the time. We don't have the time to listen to a friend who needs to share a hurt because we have to get somewhere. We don't have time to pray with someone because we have a project we have to get done right now.

So even if the things we say yes to are all good -- and I imagine for many of us, they are -- we still find ourselves needing to let some of them go. God has called many people -- and there are probably some folks around somewhere who will pick up on some of the things we lay down.

My cousin's daughter said yes this past summer to a mission trip to Honduras -- which meant saying no to quite a few other things. She said yes to spending time on trip fund-raisers and no to some free weekends. She said yes to long plane rides and no air conditioning and a lot of other hardships for a brief few days, because she said no to hanging out with her friends and sunning by her grandparents' pool. None of the things she said no to were bad. They're ordinary and even fun, and they're a big part of a young person's life. But had she not said no to them, she would not have been able to say yes to God's call to minister with some very poor people and to be a part of helping them.

If we don't allow some times of saying "No" to wedge some space into our lives, then when God calls us we will find ourselves answering, "Here I am, Lord. But I'm too busy. Send someone else."

Sunday, September 01, 2013

"Dear Rabbi" (Luke 14:1, 4-17)

The following is a reprint of the manuscript from a previous time I preached this sermon. I am drawing some similar ideas this Sunday. The original can be found here.

 Well, what an interesting little pair of parables. Jesus all of a sudden takes time out from teaching about the kingdom of God and about the good news to become an advice columnist.

“Dear Rabbi: When I go to a dinner party, I never know where to sit. Can you help me? Signed, Dopey Dinnerguest.”

“Dear Dopey: Well, don’t take the best seat. Take the worst one until the host comes and tells you to come sit closer to him.”

Now, our culture has different ideas about public shaming and honor than Jesus’ culture did. They considered public humiliation at a dinner – especially the kind where you had to give up your seat to someone else — a much bigger deal than we would. We would think this a minor embarrassment and maybe a good story to tell on ourselves. They would not.

The host would sit the person he most wanted to honor to his immediate right, and then the next to his immediate left, and so on. We might have a head table at an important banquet, but we tend to not care much about it after that.

In fact, we often prefer the seats away from the head table and near the door. They’re closer to the bathroom, closer to the exit if the speaker is boring and closer to the bar – which is a big deal for some folks. Especially if the speaker is boring.

But if I went to such a dinner in Jesus’ time, I would have to judge how important the host thought I was and seat myself by that. So I would have to know everything about all the other guests and a bunch of other stuff that would pretty much keep me from enjoying myself because of all the worrying I’d be doing.

Jesus offers this bit of wisdom for several reasons. One, it’s what rabbis did. Teachers said wise things that people who followed them were supposed to listen to and follow to improve their own lives and act more wisely. The book of Proverbs is a collection of these kinds of sayings.

This may be one of the few saying of Jesus most Christians obey, as it happens. Look at the pews on any Sunday morning and see which ones are empty and which ones are full of people waiting for Jesus to say, “Friend, go up higher.”

We’ll get to his other reasons in a minute. First, let’s look at our second letter.

“Dear Rabbi: I want to give a dinner and invite a bunch of people, and my planner wants to know where to send the invitations. Who should be on my guest list? Signed, Confused at the Caterers.”

“Dear Confused: You should invite a lot of people who can’t invite you back. That way you won’t get paid back for your hospitality.”

Here Jesus wants to get his listeners to understand real giving requires offering something for nothing.

We don’t have to scratch our heads too much to see the connection between this idea and the grace through which God offers our salvation, do we? Jesus certainly offered himself for us though he knew how imperfect a job we would do of offering anything back.

And that’s one way I see these two parables operating for us today. Jesus wants us to see in them a certain way to live. We live that way when we make grace the operating guide and principle of our lives.

Our world teaches us one way to live: We give what we get. We give to those who can give back and ignore the rest. We reward those who treat us well and punish those who don’t. If we’re strong enough, we take what we want, and if we’re not, we try some other way.

But Jesus commands us to live differently. We don’t operate our lives according to a balance sheet, where we make sure what comes in is at least as much as goes out or more. We are to operate according to the idea of grace.

And in that way of living, we don’t seek honor for ourselves, as would a dinnerguest who took the prime seat. We acknowledge that any honor we receive is the free gift of God and accept it gratefully.

We don’t think of how our gift to someone will end up benefiting us, but rather of giving to someone who truly needs it.

I sometimes see it as Jesus asking us to live like this so we can get used to grace – it’s unfamiliar to us, after all. But it is his way, it is the way. The Kingdom of God he proclaims operates this way.

And one day, God willing, so will we.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

New Tricks (Acts 8:4-25)

The story of Simon the Magician gave us a couple of things. One is the word "simony," which means the paying for positions and influence in the church. Today we sometimes call that "designated giving."

Another is a good way of dividing unexplainable events between miracles and tricks. Modern science and investigation give us more tools of understanding the world than we have ever had before. This means we rarely if ever run into things that we have to ascribe to supernatural agency -- but sometimes we still do encounter events for which we can't offer a rational explanation. Even people who believe that every event has a rational explanation may not be able to come up with one in some cases. They still believe there is one, but they concede we don't have the means to find out what it is.

Are those events miracles? Well, supernaturalism isn't the only qualification for something being a miracle. It may not even be the most important one. Let's look at Simon Magus -- Simon the Magician -- and see if I can explain what I mean.

Before hearing Philip preach, Simon had gained a lot of fame on his own for his magic. Now, we don't know if Luke wrote about actual magic, as in something of a supernatural origin, or what we call magic today, which is mostly illusion. Magicians today perform sleight-of-hand or illusions. They do things that, if we could catch them at it, we would know exactly how their apparent magical art happened. So our job is to catch them at it, and their job is to keep us from catching them. Just from Luke's account, we don't know which Simon was. We just know that he used his skills, whether supernatural or otherwise, to draw attention and fame to himself.

But then he hears Philip and understands there is a real power greater than he is. He believes the gospel message. And when Peter comes to bring the gift of the Holy Spirit on the new community of believers, he offers the apostles money if they will give him the gift of being able to do what they do. Peter immediately rebukes him, strongly. If Simon still believes that the work of God goes to those with the ability to pay for it or acquire it, instead of to everyone who needs it, then he has a lot to learn. Simon seems to realize this and asks Peter to pray for him, so he can understand his mistake.

We don't know why Simon wanted to be able to grant the gift of the Holy Spirit. Since he had been famous, he may have thought the gift would be a good way to stay in the public eye. Or he might have seen what a blessing it was and wanted to give that blessing to as many people as he could. We may lean towards the first one, since his offer of money makes us think of him as a kind of villain of the story, but we have no firm evidence either way.

We certainly can see that he doesn't understand the way this new life operates. His life as a magician focused on his tricks. And whenever a magician does a trick, those watching focus on who? The magician, of course. What a clever fellow! What a great trick she did! How did that coin get there?

But the miracle or signs that Jesus does in the gospels and the apostles do in Acts do not point at the person who does them -- remember how often Jesus tries to deflect fame and notoriety and offer credit to God alone. The apostles are clear that they do any of their great deeds of power only through the presence of Christ and for no purpose other than to glorify and point people to him. You can make it a brief little saying, if you like: "A trick points to the trickster. Miracles point to God."

Simon, for whatever reason, is not yet focused on pointing to God and relying totally and completely on God. He might not even intend any insult to Peter when he offers money, but just think that since that's the way things usually happened in life, that's how he would receive the power he sought.

Now, we might not look at things the way Simon did, but we can see ourselves a step or two back from him, can't we? Instead of offering money to a church or individual directly and expecting something in return -- the kind of transactional relationship that dominates most every other aspect of life -- we may give with the understanding that our gifts will be used by the church to meet its needs. And we think nothing of it...until the time comes when we think our giving of gifts or time or service entitles us to something. "My family have been members of this church for 50 years and I think we deserve a little consideration." "We gave pretty generously to that building campaign, so I think we're entitled to have the wing named after Aunt Hortense." (My apologies to anyone who actually has an Aunt Hortense who would never think of acting this way.)

Like Simon's tricks, it turns out our giving was not about God or about offering the fruits of our harvest to him. It was not about serving Jesus by serving his people. It was about us and what consideration it bought us when the time came for God to do a favor for us. It was not thanksgiving to God for the gift of his Son and his grace.

See, we are entitled to something in return for our giving and our time and our presence. Every Christian is, every Christian who gives to the body of Christ with the idea what he or she gives is a sign of thanks to God for his gifts. We are entitled to two words, in fact. But they may not be what you think. The two words which we are entitled to hear?

"You're welcome."

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Big Plant (Matthew 13:24-30)

I've preached a standard sermon on this passage before, but once in awhile I like to experiment. Here's the experiment. It says the same thing the standard sermon does; I've printed it before here.
I was sitting in my office on a dead-end street in Jerusalem trying not to think about the metaphor. I’d bought myself a drink to get my mind off it, but it seems I’m not much of a conversationalist.

She walked in, like they always do. If I’d been a rabbi I might have dropped my Talmud, but I wasn’t so I didn't. “You’re not interrupting,” I told her. She gave me a blank look. I was used to those.

It was even money whether she was in trouble or wanted to start some. Turns out it was the former, at least for now. No telling what might turn up later. The guy she worked for owned this wheat field, and a few weeks ago he’d sown some wheat seed in it. I guess that’s what you do when you have a field and some seed – me, I was more interested in vinyards than farms.

Now the wheat was beginning to show up, but it wasn’t alone. Right in the middle, mixed in with all the good stuff, were weeds. Tares, we sometimes call them. She and the outfit she worked for wanted to know where they’d come from and who might be behind it all. So she’d come to me with her question, which sooner or later a lot of people do here in Big J. For a denarius a day plus expenses, I'm the guy who finds the answers.

Since my appointments with the king and Cæsar had fallen through, my day was open. I went with her to the field, where her boss and some of his crew were gathered. I looked at the field. Someone showed me which ones were the wheat and which ones were the tares. It was a good thing they did, because I’m a city boy and green on one end, dirty on the other is the extent of my horticultural knowledge.

I got the story about what happened when they’d done their planting. The boss was no slouch – once he’d planted his seed, he had some guys stand guard and watch the field. Wasn’t his fault they weren’t smart enough to watch a movie.

I quizzed him. “Any enemies?”

“Probably,” he said.

“They do something like this”?

“Probably did,” he said. He was less of a talker than I was, but that pretty much solved the case. Didn’t seem like it was worth a denarius, but he didn’t ask for it back and I didn’t offer. Made the dame who’d hired me happy too. I liked making dames happy, especially since I usually only managed to do that by leaving.

My job was over, but I thought I’d stick around to see how things turned now. Maybe I’d make the dame happy again. The chief flunky spoke up in a sincere effort to keep the job he’d just been shown to have fallen down on.

“Master, since an enemy has done this, do you want us to dig out all the weeds?”

Like I said, I was no farmboy, but even I knew this was a bad idea. The wheat and the weeds were too close together. Tear out one and risk ripping up the other. The boss would take a significant hit in the wallet, and I’ve never met a boss who likes that. I caught his look and raised an eyebrow. He rolled his eyes back at me.

“No,” he said, and explained what I’d just thought of. “We’ll wait until harvest and sort them all out then. We can store the wheat and burn up whatever weeds are left.” He looked at me again and I understood the meaning behind his words.

He wasn’t an ordinary guy, this boss. Sure, he’d run his field like any other farmer would and take care of his wheat. The workers would till around it and make sure it got watered and fertilized. And when the harvest time came, he’d do just like he said and have them separate the wheat from the weeds.

But I’d heard everything he’d said, including that last phrase: “whatever weeds are left.” He didn’t just intend to take care of his wheat. He counted on being able to work on the weeds themselves. By the time he was done with them, he counted on them being transformed – they wouldn’t be weeds anymore. They’d be wheat.

I nodded once at the dame and walked away, headed back towards my office. I knew the real reason the boss wanted to wait wasn’t just because he was worried about his wheat. He was worried about the weeds too, and he wanted the time to work his transformation mojo on them. Weeds into wheat? Why not?

Even gave me some hope for me.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Distracted (Luke 10:38-42)

We only know a little about Mary and Martha (and their brother Lazarus, who we encounter later on). They are apparently people who met Jesus at one point and became friends with him. They know him well enough that when he travels through their village, he stays with them. Considering the hospitality codes of their culture, this speaks of a much more intimate relationship than we would ordinarily think of people we call "friends" -- maybe even something more like family.

I'm only guessing here based on what we do read about them, but I think Martha was the eldest child. The culture might not allow her to inherit as her brother would, but culture means bupkis up against the oldest child syndrome, and Martha has it in spades.

When we meet her and her sister Mary in this story, she is performing the proper duties of her role as a hostess. She's making sure everyone has enough to eat, enough to drink, the dishes are being taken away when they're finished, that everyone's seat is OK and that no one needs anything. Even if she's just supervising others doing the work, it's a busy task. Before we go on, we should understand that Martha's actions themselves are not the problem. Sometimes people suggest Jesus reproves her because she's spending so much time on everyone else and none on him. But the idea wouldn't make sense to anyone in this story: The hospitality codes made it the host's or hostess's duty to tend to the guests. The purpose was to make the guest feel welcomed and at home. Remember that Jesus himself called out Simon the Pharisee for omitting some of those same courtesies when he hosted the Lord and his disciples.

Where Martha goes wrong, I think, is that she mistakes the things she's doing as the point, instead of understanding that they are a way to get to the point. She has become so distracted by her many tasks that she forgets the tasks have an ultimate purpose: Making guests feel welcomed and at home. Because of this distraction, she's overlooking that Mary is doing exactly that by listening to Jesus speak: She's paying attention to the guest of honor.

My own belief is that too often, we use this story to beat up poor busy Martha for not slowing down and taking time for Jesus (Yes, I am also an oldest child. Why do you ask?) We need to do less and be more. OK, sure. That's probably the case for almost everyone and there is plenty of good in finding a better mixture of doing things for Jesus and being with Jesus. I think a more useful lesson is not to allow ourselves to let either our being or our doing distract us from the why we're doing it.

Businesses and corporations -- and these days, most everybody -- seem to be big on mission statements. Almost everywhere you look, someone has developed a new mission statement or is developing one or maybe rethinking an older one. Some of the emphasis is silly, a way of trying to catch on some kind of trend or shake up a complacent environment or work force.

But good mission statements are very useful. They answer the questions, "Why are you here? Why are you doing these things?" If you want to accomplish something, those are good questions to ask and even better questions to have answers for.  It's good to ask them again before a new task or project. Does the task directly contribute to our mission? No? Then why are we doing it? And it's also good to ask them "mid-project" sometimes, too. Are we doing these things for their own sake, or are we still doing them for our overall mission?

I think Martha had fallen into that last problem. The tasks of hospitality distracted her from the purpose of hospitality, so she failed to see that Mary was performing her role as well. The whole family had a role (we don't see Lazarus here, so maybe his role was grilling the burgers), and together they made up the welcome that the guest had a right to expect.

It's easy to do this as a church. To forget that committees, Sunday school classes, projects and just about everything else aren't supposed to be ends in themselves, but are ways to get to an end. It's easy to do this as individual Christians, too. To forget that Bible study, prayer, worship attendance and just about everything else aren't important unless they have as their goal our growing closer to God and conforming our lives to his call.

Because otherwise, there's a lot of other things I could be doing on Sunday morning.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Simple and Directed (Luke 9:51-62)

In this passage, Luke sets the stage for Jesus' final act -- his journey to Jerusalem, where he will be welcomed with great rejoicing and five days later hung on a tree to die.

There's some disagreement about how much Jesus might know about what is to happen to him. Some folks, of course, say that with his divine foreknowledge he knew every detail of what was to happen. Some say that, because he was also human, he had some idea that this final confrontation with the Sanhedrin would lead to his death but not a second-by-second itinerary. In this second understanding, Jesus obeyed God because that was part of his mission and God called him to Jerusalem. He had faith that God would vindicate him, but in his human limitations he may again not have known the exact means God would use.

Whichever way you believe, there are two key lessons we can draw from how Jesus begins his journey. One is the aforementioned obedience. If he foresees his death or only suspects it, either way he obeys God in all things, showing us how we as human beings are to live our lives.

The other is something I'll call focus, and it's represented by the way that Luke says Jesus "set his face" towards Jerusalem. We might say we "set our sights" on something to get the same idea across. We have a goal and when we focus on it, we hold that goal before us and ignore distractions. Now that Jesus approaches the most important part of his work, he will keep it and only it before him. I can't say for certain, but perhaps this is why the Samaritan village rejects him. Verse 53 says "they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem." If Jerusalem was his goal, maybe he wasn't willing to stop and teach them, or heal and perform miracles. Thus rebuffed, the Samaritan village responded in kind.

Whatever the reason, the village won't receive him, so James and John want to lay the smack down upon it. We're just told that Jesus "rebuked" them, and the nature of the rebuke is left to our imagination. I'd imagine that Jesus might say if he wasn't going to turn away from his Jerusalem goal in order to heal and teach at the village, then he sure wouldn't turn away to blast it from existence.

As he travels, a man comes to him and offers to follow him. Jesus warns him that those who follow him have no real home while they do -- and frankly, this is a pretty middling hardship compared with what awaits Jesus and later on, many of the apostles themselves. Apparently, it deters the man -- he will allow the hardships of following Jesus to distract him from the call to follow Jesus.

Then Jesus calls to a man to follow him, but the man wants to wait to bury his father. Some folks suggest the man's father wasn't dead, and he was suggesting that he needed to wait until his family obligations were over. In that case, Jesus' rebuke seems a little milder, because the man may have been deferring Jesus' call for many years and Jesus will have none of that. But even if the man meant that he needed to bury his father right away, Jesus' answer would be the same.

It's the same to the man who says he wants to say goodbye to his family before following Jesus. See, neither of these things are in any way bad, in Jesus' culture or our own. We have obligations to our families and friends, and we can't just ignore them for whatever we might want. Burying your father is a proper and honorable thing. But it's not going to Jerusalem. Letting your family know where you will be is a good thing. But it's not going to Jerusalem.

I've found that in my own faith life, as I've grown older, I am less and less likely to be distracted by "things of the world," although I've still been known to get a pang or two from them. What distracts me far more often are good things, things that aren't bad in any way. But even those good things can pull us from following Christ.

My denomination adopted a mission statement some years ago that said our mission on earth was to make disciples of Jesus Christ. I don't know how many of our churches -- including churches I've led -- have used that idea as the standard for measuring our activities. It's not that we have to cut everything that doesn't overtly make disciples. Some of it we should, but other things may need re-thought so we can see how they work to make disciples or how they might be retooled to do so.

Jesus closes with a metaphor drawn from farming done in his time. No one, he says, who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Someone who plows without looking at the ground ahead does not plow a straight furrow, and that won't work. That may sound discouraging, but read it again -- what might we do if we have indeed erred and "looked back" when we've taken up the plow?

We can look forward again. We can set our face on Jerusalem as well, and it holds no terrors for us, for our Lord has already been there and prepared our welcome.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Pigs in Spaaaaaace! (Luke 8:26-39)

I am drawing the same ideas from this passage as I did in an earlier sermon, so I reprint it here. The original sermon can be found here.

In the old Muppet Show, a sketch featured a group of pigs as crew of a space-ship, in a kind of a takeoff of Star Trek. The announcer would get a real deep voice and the sound man upped the reverberation so we could hear the extremely dignified name of the “show:” Pigs in Spaaaaaace.

This has nothing to do with the meaning of the passage, especially since Luke puts it on a steep hill instead of a cliff like Mark does. But I always follow this important rule: When you have the chance to name a sermon after a Muppet Show sketch, do so.

Anyway, we have Jesus landing on the opposite side of the see of Galilee from his homeland, in the country of the Gerasenes. As his boat lands, a man confronts him. The man is possessed by demons, we are told, so he probably does this to everyone who shows up.

But this time, he meets someone other than the usual traveler who might run away in fear. The demon in him instantly recognizes Jesus and cowers in fear, and Jesus for his part orders the unclean spirit to leave the man.

Here Luke, ever the doctor, gives us the man’s symptoms so that we can know he really was demon-possessed. He lived in the tombs, among dead people. He had frenzied convulsions and in them, he demonstrated super-human strength. Today, we might hear a doctor diagnose someone with mental illness in the same way, by listing the harmful things they did to themselves as symptoms of their disorder.

After the spirit begs Jesus to leave him alone, Jesus asks it for its name. “Legion,” it says, meaning that not just one spirit but many have taken control of this man. With this command, Jesus asserts his power over the spirit. There will be no hiding behind one’s fellow demons, hoping Jesus picks one of them to be cast out while the others can stay. The eviction notice covers everyone. He has absolute authority over them and he will exert it.

The demons beg not to be sent back to “the abyss,” or whatever it is that they came from. Instead, they ask to be sent into a herd of nearby pigs. Jesus agrees, and the spirits leave the man, enter the herd, and sprint to their deaths in the sea. And Legion forever loses his ability to really harm people, as they will never take him seriously again. “Ooh, it’s Legion! Watch out! He’ll make your Sausage McMuffin jump into your coffee!”

The pig handlers are amazed at what they see. They run to town to tell everyone, and a group marches out to see what’s going on. They see Jesus having a pleasant conversation with the formerly-possessed man. They know he’s formerly-possessed because he has clothes on and he speaks words instead of howls or grunts.

According to Luke, they respond by getting scared. When some folks who witnessed the whole scene describe it for them, they get more scared and ask him to leave.

I could understand why all this might freak them out a little. It’s a pretty freaky story. But afraid? And so afraid they ask the man who worked this miracle to go away? Why? Surely they could see this man was a powerful prophet and brought a message of similar power. But why fear him? His power was great, but it was used to heal. And it could obviously heal anyone, if it healed their friendly neighborhood demoniac. It could even heal them…

Oh, I think I see now. If Jesus could heal the possessed man, then he could heal them. Now they might have to confront their own sin. Now they might need to admit they too had things that needed to be made right with God. They couldn’t pretend they were OK anymore, by pointing out that, “Hey, at least I don’t live in tombs like that guy.” Because Jesus had healed “that guy."

The Gerasenes had a pretty safe and settled situation going. As long as their village whacko was around, they could pretend they were OK. “I’m not as bad as him,” they could say. Or we might say, when we point to someone as obviously despicable as a man howling in the tombs would be. “We’re not as bad as they are,” we offer.

But Jesus has another point of view. “Maybe not,” he responds. “But to me, he’s just as good as you. He knew he needed me. Will you admit that also? Will you admit you need me as much as he needed me?”

Jesus left the villagers. But he didn’t leave them alone. He told the possessed man to go everywhere and tell what God had done for him. As a reminder of what God could do, when we open ourselves to him.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Forgiveness and Transformation (Luke 7:38-50)

Yes, yes, this story is similar to one that John tells, but it's slightly different and happens in a different location and setting. That obviously means the gospels were made up and don't tell us what happened in Jesus' ministry and life. Or it means that by the time Luke heard the story, the person who told it to him had grown a little fuzzy on the details. Or it means that the story of the original incident spread throughout those who followed Jesus or heard about him, and a second woman performed the same gesture with the intent of conveying the same love and devotion.

We don't know which, but my point is that people who want to lean on this as some kind of gospel-falsifying inconsistency find themselves relying on a weak reed indeed.

Anyway, we have Jesus eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee. This sounds weird at first, until we remember that the Pharisees began some hundred years or so before Jesus as a group of people whose main message was that followers of God ought to act like it. Legalists and hair-splitters had taken over much of that message, but the core remained and many members of that party found quite a lot of common ground with a man whose first proclaimed message was a call to people to change their lives because the Kingdom of God was at hand.

While he's there, a woman anoints his feet with perfume, washes them with her tears and dries them with her hair. Simon notes this and figures Jesus doesn't know what kind of woman she was -- otherwise, there's no way a teacher would allow himself to be ritually defiled by her touch. Jesus knows Simon's thoughts and offers to tell him a story. Simon agrees -- formal dinners in this culture often featured some kind of discussion led by the guest.

Two men owed a banker some money, Jesus says. One owed a bunch, the other not so much. The banker forgave both men, so which one does Simon think will love him more? I can imagine Simon shrugging, since the answer is obvious: The one who was forgiven more. Exactly, Jesus says, and so this woman is showing much love since she has been forgiven much. Jesus contrasts her actions with Simon's, which really didn't measure up to cultural standards of hospitality.

That last little bit may fall hard on our ears. Especially for the majority of us who understand we haven't really been forgiven all that much. Most of us have not committed great harm or done great wrong to others. So if those forgiven little love little, then we would seem to be among that number. And we don't want to be! We want to show great love to Jesus! In fact we want to show more love today than we showed yesterday and show even more tomorrow! We don't want to show little love, whether we've been forgiven lots or little.

And there's part of the key to dealing with what Jesus said. We want to show great love, and we can do exactly that. How much you want to bet the next houseguest Simon entertained had not just one basin to wash his feet, but one for each toe? If Jesus ate there again, how much would you like to bet that Simon met every last obligation he had as a host and then some?

Of course the person forgiven much feels more gratitude! But feeling is only a piece of that puzzle. If we want to show great love for Jesus, we can do so even if we are aware of being forgiven for far less than someone else might have been. Jesus' words to Simon are a warning against complacency on the part of those who live more or less upright lives.

And then there's another part that we ought to address, although we'd probably rather not. In reality, the idea of being forgiven much and forgiven little is something that only appears from our side of things. Whether we admit it or not, most of us like to see some difference between us and other people not like us. Folks who haven't hurt people or committed great errors like to see ourselves as more respectable than those other kind. Folks who may own up to serious wrongdoing like to see themselves as more honest about things than folks who don't have as much to own up to.

But the condition of sin is not a matter of totaling up a list of sins to see if it crosses some kind of border between God-land and World-land. Sin is separation from God, and from God's point of view, any separation is too much. Had there been one sin in the entire world, committed by only one person, Jesus would have offered himself just as he did.

In reality, we've all been forgiven exactly the same amount: Everything.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Either/Or (Luke 7:1-10)

This Sunday's sermon is on Luke's description of the healing of the centurion's servant. My thoughts revolve around the same focus as they did when I preached before on this passage, so I will reprint the manuscript from that sermon for this Sunday.

Every time I read the gospels, I’m glad we have the four instead of just one melded version that picked up the pieces of all of them. I like how Mark is straightforward and direct, and how Matthew always takes pains to connect the story of Jesus with the ancient story of God at work in the people of Israel. John gives us some sense of the “big picture’ significance of Jesus.

And Luke throws in great human details like one in this passage. Let me show you what I mean.

When Jesus arrives in Capernaum, he’s met by a delegation of Jewish elders who bring him a message from a Roman centurion. The soldier has a slave who’s ill and near death, and is asking for Jesus to heal him. Here’s the part I like – the elders give the centurion’s resumé to Jesus. He built us a synagogue, they say. He’s one of the good Romans and he treats us well.

They figure Jesus might not want to help a Roman, and that’s probably a safe assumption, as most Jewish people we’d meet on the street in that day wouldn’t have wept much if Rome disappeared overnight.

Whether convinced by the elders or for reasons of his own, Jesus has decided to heal the sick man and sets out for the centurion’s home. But the centurion anticipated this and warns Jesus away from his house, knowing that a Jewish religious leader who visited a Roman’s home would have problems with his own people.

He says he knows what authority is, as he has people in authority over him and he has authority over others. So if Jesus does in fact have the authority to heal his servant, then it will be done whether the two meet face to face or not.

Jesus comments that this man has great faith, “unlike any in Israel.” And the slave is made well.

We don’t always use the word “faith” in the way it plays out here. We often make it a synonym with “believe,” and we lump it in with other kinds of mental or intellectual actions.

But the centurion recognizes a different dimension of faith. For him, it is a matter of not simply agreeing that Jesus might heal his slave. It is a conviction that the healing will be done if Jesus wants it done, and a willingness to live by that conviction no matter what.

That’s where his comments on authority come in. If the centurion were here to explain his actions, he might tell us something like this: Either Jesus wants to heal my slave or he doesn’t. If he wants to, then he either can heal him or he can’t. And if he wants to heal him and he can heal him, then it’s a done deal.

I sometimes don’t do so well as the centurion, and I imagine many of us would say the same. We’ll profess a belief that God will do something and then we’ll go and try to do it as though he can’t.

I don’t mean things like praying and then not taking people to the doctor – God will work through human hands and skills to heal just as much as through his own ways.

Think of it more like this: When each of us learns to drive, there comes a point where we have to be driving the car ourselves. If the person with us tells us we know how to drive but then insists on taking the wheel anyway, we wonder if they mean what they say. And they might also be my dad, but that has more to do with him getting carsick easily unless he’s at the wheel.

When we’re driving ourselves, then we guide the car, we choose the route, we follow whichever traffic regulations we choose (or remember. Who goes first at a 4-way stop?). Other people might offer advice or warnings. Constantly. Mom. But when another person drives, they do those things.

The centurion lets Jesus know that he doesn’t have to risk his reputation among the people in order to heal. He has sent word to Jesus because he believes Jesus can heal his slave, so Jesus need make no special journey, or say special words or make some kind of show. He just has to say it’s done, and it’s done.

The centurion’s faith didn’t heal the slave – don’t misunderstand the story. Jesus did it. He noted the centurion’s faith as an example for us to follow, but he did the healing. We can’t automatically make Jesus do something just by believing in it hard enough. That’s the way we save Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, not how we trust in and follow our Lord.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Diagram (Romans 12:9-16)

As we all remember, most of us during school cursed the need to learn algebra and certain other subjects because "we're never going to use this in real life." We instead left algebra to the people who use it to develop algorithms for things like Google and the accountants who figured out how many millions of dollars they were worth.

Among those useless subjects were diagramming sentences. Speaking from the wisdom our 12 years had given us, we assured our teachers that simply writing sentences made much more sense than all of this line-drawing and trying to figure out what predicates, direct objects and whatnot were. I can only imagine what a teacher has to try to do in a world of Twitter and texting.

But the diagram was intended to show us how to construct those sentences we said we would write. Using diagrams, we were supposed to figure out how to write more clearly -- a complicated diagram often meant a complicated sentence, and a complicated sentence was frequently a hard-to-understand-sentence. I had this thought when reading this passage from Romans, because it seems as though Paul is offering a diagram of what he's outlined in the earlier part of the chapter about being transformed instead of conforming to this world. How, exactly, are we supposed supposed to do that?

Well, look at this set of guides in verse 9 through 16 and see if following them wouldn't bring about a transformation in you or in anyone else who might try them. Look at one admonition in verse 10, for example: "Outdo one another in showing honor." Think about how many ideas in our culture that idea contradicts.

Sure, there's the "outdo one another" part, which seems to match a lot of what we see around us. A movie opens and its revenue is measured against hits from last year or against similar movies. Political news stories focus on poll results -- who is ahead after a debate, and which position on the issues is favored by more people? We focus on who's ahead or who's got more all the time.

But what about outdoing each other not in claiming honor but in showing it? What community operates that way? What people operate that way? Which kind of person do we admire, the one who claims credit for their own achievements or the one who says thanks and then points to another's achievements as even more worthy? If we competed to show the most respect to each other -- not false deference or weaseling, but genuine respect -- what would our society look like? What would our churches look like?

Or blessing those who persecute us? Many of us saw on the news the misguided folks of a certain religious group decide to bring their protest road show to the funerals of young tornado victims in Oklahoma. Very few people outside this group's own community approve of this kind of persecution of families in some of their most troubled times. Condemnation and mockery of them is easy to find, and I have made more than one put-down of their heartless actions myself. But lately I've been wondering where the prayers are for these lost people (the answer probably should be, from me, but it hasn't been and that's part of the problem).

What would a transformed person do? Would I be conformed to the world's pattern of outdoing each other in creativity of my insult directed at these folks, or would I be praying for God to bless them with an awareness of how they've misunderstood him and the joy of knowing they're forgiven? That's an unfortunately rhetorical question -- I know the answer very well and I know how my actions have not followed my words.

I guess in that way, diagramming the transformed life shares something with diagramming a sentence: Neither of them are particularly easy to do. I guess we're blessed that the One who helps us diagram our lives doesn't grade us and offers not only frequent second chances, but even made the test the ultimate open-Book exam.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

From Babel to Pentecost (Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21)

Scientists studying language have found that if you go back far enough -- say, 15,000 years or so, you will find that there are some words that are common to most of the languages spoken through Europe and Asia. They identified 23 words that are either almost identical or have cognates in several other language groups. "Cognates" are words in different languages that have similar sounds and meanings, like madre in Spanish, mutter in German and "mother" in English.

"Mother," in fact, is on that list of 23. So are "not," "man," "we," "that" and "to give." And so are a couple of odd ones, like "worm," or "to spit."

That comes to mind when we read the stories of Babel and of Pentecost morning, one of which tells us how language came to be a barrier to communication and the other of how the Holy Spirit worked to overcome that barrier.

At Babel, we're a few generations after the Flood, and the people decide they will make sure they are remembered. If they build a tower that reaches Heaven, they say, then no one will ever forget who they are. But once God stoops down and notices their mighty tower, he realizes the people have chosen to make themselves his equal, and that worked out not so well the last time. So he puts a stop to it before it gets very far, by confusing the language. Frustrated and unable to communicate with each other, the people pack up and scatter across the earth.

Now the thing is, we know that if we are patient and really listen to someone who speaks a different language than we do, we can understand them and we can make ourselves understood. I insist on calling the things on my feet "shoes," while my Spanish neighbor insists on los zapatos. But if I'm willing to listen to him, I finally understand that our different words mean the same thing. I learn what he means when he says los zapatos and he learns what I mean when I say "shoes."

If we are not patient, though, and we insist on our own way, we will probably not communicate. Now, what attitude do you think a group of people have who think they can build a tower to heaven? Patient or arrogant? Listening to others or insisting on their own way? Well, with the story, we can see what they did and that indicates a likely answer to me.

But what about the disciples at Pentecost? Their language is not confused -- in fact, even though they seem to be speaking Aramaic, the people in the crowd all hear them in their own native tongues! It's the exact opposite of Babel! What could bring this about?

Part of the answer is the presence of the Holy Spirit. The people on the plain of Shinar wanted to exalt themselves, but the people in Jerusalem on the Shavuot holiday proclaimed only the work of God in Jesus Christ. Motivated by the Spirit and doing the work of the Spirit, they were empowered by the Spirit as well.

And that presence itself happened because the people opened themselves to it. By remaining in Jerusalem as Jesus told them, they demonstrated obedience and that obedience let them be used by God. The great miracle of the undoing of Babel happened because once the people were filled with the Spirit, they didn't stay in the Upper Room and say, "Wow! Look at us!" They ran out into the street and said, "Wow! Look at what God has done!"

The journey from Babel to Pentecost is a trip from a place where we are at the center of our lives to one where God is at the center. In some ways it's a very short journey. But it makes all the difference.