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.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)

"Down here it's just winners and losers and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line."
-- Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City"

This story is so familiar to us that we might figure other things are worth more study. But repetition is the key to learning, after all. If my teachers had just shown me algebra once, I never would have learned it. Of course, my report card shows that even with repetition, I didn't learn it all that well. But I would for sure have never learned it the other way.

So what can we learn from our familiar story? I'd like to call out two things among many.

One is a question we should probably ask ourselves in regards to how Jews and Samaritans of the time saw each other. We've probably heard they didn't get along well. In fact, the traditional route that Jewish people in Galilee, where Jesus comes from, took to get to Jerusalem in Judea was two days longer than the direct route, because the direct route went through Samaria. A journey of about eight to ten days was made two days longer in order to avoid a group of people and a country the travelers disliked. I can think of several people I don't much care for, but few of them would make me lengthen my journey by 20 percent just to avoid crossing into their country.

So when Jesus' audience heard that the third person walking down the road was a Samaritan, they probably figured the robbery victim was done for. At the very least, the Samaritan was probably going to ignore the man just like the priest and the Levite had done. And at worst, he might just go over to him and get a few licks in of his own, because everybody knew you could never trust those dirty rotten Samaritans not to kick a decent man when he's down. Probably the only way the Samaritan would fight anyway; they never looked you in the eye when they could stab you in the back.

How about us? What's our Samaritan line? What people or group of people are we willing to think the worst of before we even meet them?

For some folks, their Samaritan line is racial. Even in 2013, we have people who are willing to let their judgment of others be based on skin color or heritage. People of every race will draw the line and think the worst of any group that's not like them. For others, the Samaritan line may be class-based or economic. Wealthy people reject poor people as lazy or unwilling to just make the effort to better themselves. Poor people believe the well-off are uncaring or selfish and won't treat anyone with respect unless they have money also. The Samaritan line may have to do with education, or politics, or whether or not someone was accused of a crime, or disability status or a disease like AIDS.

Since you and I don't really need a lesson in how to be nice to actual Samaritans, living as we do in the 21st century, I believe Jesus would intend for us to look to the people we treat the way Jews and Samaritans treated each other in the first century. Now tell the story using them. What do we think when we hear our Samaritan approach the beaten man?

But surprise! The dirty rotten Samaritan proves to be the one who actually helps after the priest and the Levite have walked on by! Here enters a little irony connected with what we call this parable. You might have heard people today say that the only good terrorist is a dead terrorist. Soldiers during World War II said the only good Nazi was a dead Nazi. The ancient Judeans and Galileans probably knew this joke, only they would have said the only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan. Imagine what they would think if they heard us talk about a parable of the good Samaritan. Because of Jesus' story, the entire image of Samaritans has changed from what they knew. Sure, maybe our Samaritan line is drawn with what we think is good reason and at least some of the people on the other side of it deserve their bad reputation. But when we face up to those ideas honestly, we have to admit that some of the people on the dirty rotten Samaritan side of the lines we've drawn are good people and we have refused to see them that way.

A second point I want to draw from the story is how Jesus responds to the questioner who starts the whole conversation that evokes the parable. Remember, he first asks Jesus how he could have eternal life. When Jesus tells him that the two great commandments form the basis of such a life, the guy then goes one step more and asks, "Who is my neighbor?" referring to the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

You could say the parable doesn't answer the question, and you'd be right. When Jesus completes it, he asks his questioner, "Who was a neighbor to the man who was robbed?" "The one who helped him." "Go and do likewise." Since the man wanted to know who he was supposed to love as he loved himself, Jesus doesn't help him much here when he asks him which of the men walking on the road was a neighbor.

Jesus' parabolic answer (Hey! Algebra!) shows the man what Jesus thinks is important. We do ourselves little good when we ask who our neighbors are. We do much more good when we ask and try to learn how to be a neighbor instead of how we define a neighbor.

In reality, aren't neighbors all around us? It is almost impossible to define "neighbor" so narrowly that we could even go a day without encountering someone we need to show God's love to and who is in need of that love. And if we are truly following Christ, we can remove the "almost" from the preceding sentence. Because no matter where we draw our Samaritan lines and no matter who we put on the other side of them, we can be sure that the infinite God is over there just as much as he is here.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23)

Jesus' parable of the sower is one of his best-known. And although the disciples may not have understood it, Matthew's inclusion of the explanation makes sure that most people  even a little familiar with the gospel stories have a basic knowledge of its meaning.

I think we often undershoot that meaning, though. We have it right, but we don't necessarily see how broadly it can apply.

If you're like me, the most common meaning you've heard assigned to the parable centers on the message of salvation. The sower is God, the seed is the word of God and the parable describes the kinds of hearts in which it does and does not take root to produce a crop. I think that's accurate, because as Christians we say that the key to salvation is living a live centered on God -- a choice made possible because of the work of Christ on the cross.

But it's limited. Life, as most of us have found out, continues on well after we've answered the salvation question. And the biblical writers of the New Testament, especially Paul, suggest that there must be growth in faith following our new birth and new life in Christ. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, often called this the process of "sanctification," or being made "perfect in love." And just like salvation, sanctification is prompted by the word of God scattered out to our hearts. Just like I might live even unaware of my need for God until God spoke to me, I might live unaware of a way in which I stayed separate from God until God shows me how it drives a wedge between us.

And again, our hearts are like the soils that Jesus talks about in his parable. Sometimes they've been packed down hard and resist any penetration by the word. Perhaps it's because we've heard something supposedly required by Christian teaching that we just can't accept. Adam Hamilton points out that we might have formed our own ideas so completely we resist anything that questions them -- and that's dangerous because we are unlikely to have been blessed with infallibility.

Or we might still be operating with a level of faith and understanding that we acquired when we were younger and have never bothered to deepen. God can't speak to us about something we need to hear, because we don't have the depth of reflection -- or tools, if you'd like another metaphor -- to process and build it into our faith worldview.

Perhaps we are like the thorny soil. God would like us to make changes in our lives to enable us to serve him better. He would like us to pray more often or to study our Bibles or offer ourselves in his work for others or maybe something else. But we have allowed many other things to soak up our time and we have little or nothing of the clock left to give him.

Probably, if we are being realistic and honest, the soil of our hearts has been any one or all three of these at one time or another. I know mine has. And although they are different, they share some characteristics, even beyond the eventual fate of the seed planted in them. One they share is that they are all something other than just plain soil. They are the soil of the path, or the soil with the thorny plants, or the stony soil. They will not simply allow the seed to take root in them but will transform it based on their different characteristics, and in doing so they will kill it off.

When we refuse to hear a word from God that doesn't match our experiences or expectations, we are the hard-packed path. When we don't do the hard work of deepening our understanding by removal of the stones that keep our elementary-level faith at elementary level, we allow no new understandings to take root deeply enough to make a difference. When we won't take an honest look at the thorns of everything else we place ahead of responding to the word, we choke it off before it can do anything worthwhile.

But the good soil is just plan soil. Sure, it's been tended and tilled and fertilized, but it's still just plain soil, prepared for the specific purpose of receiving the seed, nourishing it and producing a crop.

As I began to understand the broader application of this parable I began to ask God to continue to prepare me, so that I could receive his word when it came to me. Because that's what the sower would do, if he were to decide to plant in the soil with the thorny plants, for example. He would yank them out so he could grow his own crops. He would remove the stones so his seeds would have deep roots and strong yields. He would break up the hard pack of the path so seeds could fall into it and find nourishment and a place to grow.

We're not exactly like the soil, of course. The soil has no role in what happens to it. Gardeners and farmers from the beginning of time will testify that the soil does not get itself ready for planting. We are offered the chance to help God make us ready. Through things like studying and praying and worship and giving of ourselves, we help God prepare the soil of our hearts so his word can take root, and produce a crop. Some thirtyfold, some sixty, some a hundred.