Hung Up on the
The scriptures offer many lists of behaviors for God’s people. The list we’re most familiar with, of course, is from Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21, known as the Ten Commandments.
But, there are many other behavior lists in the scriptures of things to do or to refrain from doing. If you go online to http://www.freethoughtpedia.com/ wiki/Bible_rules#Bible_Rules, you’ll see what I mean.
As the apostle Paul was writing to the Christians in Galatia (an area north of Greece) one of his concerns was an argument going on among them over whether it was possible for non-Jewish persons to be followers of Jesus without following the Laws of Moses. In fact, among some of the things many of these Law-Christians were demanding was that a man who wanted to be a Christian had to be circumcised.
Of course, in the course of his conversion, the apostle Paul had realized that he wasn’t saved because he followed the Law of Moses, but was saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul made it very clear that no one is saved because they follow laws, but that the whole purpose of God’s law was to help God’s people survive by showing them right from wrong until Christ, the singular offspring of Abraham, made his appearance. People are not justified by doing the works of the law, but by entrusting themselves to what God has done in Christ (Gal. 2:16).
Instead, Abraham’s offspring in Christ live according to the Spirit and fulfill the Law through the “love commandments” of Galatians 5:13-6:10:
Over the years, many Christian communities, even local churches, have tended to forget these teachings and have made up even more rules for themselves, some of them based on various Old and New Testament scriptures, often taken out of context. Hence, for instance, there are churches that teach that women must keep their heads covered, or that Christians can’t eat pork, or Christians should worship on Saturday instead of Sunday, or Christians should not go to movies, or watch tv, or dance, or believe in evolution, or read newspapers, or tell a joke, or be creative, or just be your happy self.
Quite frankly, I don’t want to be a Christian who is hung up on rules. Instead, I think I’d rather stick to Paul’s simple advice to the Galatians.
Another Christmas List?
As if we didn’t think we already had enough to do to get ready for Christmas, here is a list of more things suggested by today’s Old Testament lesson. According to Isaiah 61 we are supposed to:
Then, 1 Thessalonians 5, the apostle Paul adds to the list:
In the early days of the people of Israel, one of the things that was suggested as a way of achieving a redistribution of wealth was to have a special year wherein everyone was supposed to forgive all debts owed by debtors. Also, all land was supposed to be returned to the families that had originally owned the land to be divided up equally among heads of households. This was called "a year of jubilee" and was supposed to take place at the beginning of every seventh Sabbath year (every 50 years).
Actually, since most of the rich folks of Israel didn’t really like the idea, the practice of having such a redistribution of wealth only happened once in Israel’s history. And, even then, although it was a nice try, not everyone benefitted from it like they were supposed to.
But, when you think about it, an occasional redistribution of wealth really isn’t as absurd as it may sound. Most economists are aware that such a "spreading of the wealth," as someone recently called it, is an inevitable process that takes place in most countries on a regular basis, whether it is planned for, or not.
The last time it happened big time in this country was during the Great Depression and, to some extent, following the Second World War. So, if we were to keep to the biblical rule of doing this every fifty years, we are probably a bit overdue.
Of course, there are other options to doing this kind of thing: massive unemployment leading to a lot of homelessness and starvation, 90% of the wealth being controlled by only 5% of the people, and a continued growth in the gap between the rich and the poor that often results in violent civil strife and rebellion.
Making these adjustments is never easy, especially for those who find that they have much to lose and little to gain in the process. Every nation has its aristocracy, it seems – even ours.
But the process is inevitable. The bible says it is – at least every fifty years or so. The question is, "Can we go through this process while keeping the above list of fifteen things in mind?"
I hope we can.
Coming of the Messiah
From the very beginning of Israel’s nationhood finding suitable leadership was a difficult problem.
At first, circuit judges were appointed to go from village to village to settle disputes and solve problems. This went on until the tribal elders decided they wanted to have a king. So, although the prophet Samuel warned them they probably wouldn’t like having a king, he anointed a king: King Saul.
After a short time, though, Samuel realized he’d made a mistake and anointed David to be king. Of course, this was a problem, since Saul hadn’t abdicated. It took a while before Saul was gone and David was king of the whole country.
King David was popular. But, while he was able to unite Israel, David’s personal problems eventually made it difficult for him to rule.
In spite of this, it’s notable that David’s reign was always looked back upon by the Jewish people as being the best days of their history. After David’s son Solomon reigned, things pretty much went downhill for Israel. Within just a few generations foreign nations were dominating the region and Israel’s prophets and religious leaders were praying for the return of a king like David.
This hope became even more urgent when the Babylonians took over Jerusalem in 587 BC and exiled her inhabitants and leadership. Those who went into exile started to talk about how God would eventually anoint a great leader who would lead them home to Israel, once again. That happened when the Persians defeated the Babylonians, some fifty years later. The Persian emperor, Cyrus, was described as God’s appointed messiah who finally sent the exiles home (Isaiah 45:1-6).
But, that wasn’t the last time God’s people would long for a messiah. Religious fervor for a messiah grew during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 167 BC, then again after the Romans conquered Judah in 62 BC. Several strong Jewish apocalyptic movements developed throughout these periods. One of these movements was the Essenes. In fact, many biblical scholars believe that John the Baptist and Jesus, himself, may have been Essenes.
So, these were the popular religious expectations of a messiah: a king who would rule like King David, a Savior who would lead God’s people back to freedom from the oppression of foreign rule and usher in the Day of the Lord.
Many biblical scholars note, however, that there are several instances throughout Jesus’ teachings where he rejected the popular religious expectations of a messiah. After all, Jesus’ teachings were about love, accepting foreigners, forgiving sinners, even going an extra mile for Roman soldiers who could legally command you to carry something for them as far as one mile. Sometimes Jesus even tried to cool the apocalyptic rhetoric he was hearing from Zealots. Ironically, when he died on the cross, many apocalyptically minded leaders saw it as proof that Jesus wasn’t what they had been looking for, at all! They were so absorbed in their enthusiasm they failed to understand the true nature of God’s coming to us in the flesh.
Interestingly, early Christians, many of them Jewish, continued to think of Jesus in the terms of popular apocalyptic literature. And it is so easy for us 21st century Christians to forget this historic background when we consider the coming of Christ and miss the real point of Christ’s appearance.
After all, it was all about love: forgiving sinners, feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, healing the sick, clothing the needy, giving water to the thirsty.
It was about making peace.
What Are the Signs
What are the signs in the sun and moon?
Are there not people who faint with fear,
God has an answer for all the fears
So, we are free to abound in love!
Justice and righteousness in the land!
Judging Between Sheep and
Don’t you just love those pictures of Jesus
showing him carrying a lamb over his shoulders, or going after a lost
sheep with his long shepherd’s crook?
Once upon a time, around seventy pounds of gold or silver was considered to be a talent. Today, a talent of gold weighs in at 60 pounds and is worth about $800,000. A talent of silver is worth about $11,500. Hence, Jesus’ Parable of the Talents in today’s gospel lesson was talking about a lot of money.
The word "talent" comes from the Greek word that means "scale" or "balance." As time went by, the word started to be used as a way of describing the things that give people a special value. So, today, when we say someone is talented, we’re saying that the person has a knack or ability that makes them especially valuable to have around.
It seems that some people are born with talent and develop it quickly. Other persons simply find an interest and then work to increase their skill in that area. Either way, it is important for us to encourage the talents of those in our midst.
It wasn’t too long ago, however, that local talent was given a much greater value than it is, today.
For instance, if you have been to the Cass City Theater, you will know that the movie screen actually sits upon a stage that was once used for live performances. In fact, back in the early part of the 20th century Michigan’s towns had many theaters that were served by traveling musicians, dancers, jugglers, comedians, and magicians. Of course, these talented persons have been replaced by a relative few who have found their way to the television screens in our living rooms.
So, even though we’ve got many local persons with talent, we simply don’t have the local venues for them to display it and develop it, like we used to. And, how can anyone who is just starting out developing their talent compete with national TV?
That’s why I encourage folks to sing in the choir or to play their musical instru-ments in church. In fact, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had an eight or ten person band that could join in playing the hymns we sing on Sunday mornings? If you’d like to play in a band like that, please let me know!
Of course, there are many other talents than those that are musical or otherwise entertaining. Talented teachers, leaders, administrators, healers, and helpers are always needed in the local church and community. They’re worth their weight in gold.
As the apostle Paul said to the Christians in Thessalonica, "Therefore, encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing" (1 Thess. 5:11).
As a young person growing up in the Methodist Church, one of the things I learned is that a good faith and good science are not mutually exclusive. So, as I study the bible and theology, I have also tried to stay abreast of the latest findings in biology, medicine, physics, and astronomy.
Reading some of the scientific journals, recently, I read how climatologists have been able to measure various gases present in our atmosphere. Not only are they concerned about the increase of carbon dioxide (CO2) over the last few decades, but there are two other gases that now concern them, as well – methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).
Within the past few years, these two gases have been on the rise, especially in the polar regions.
It’s kind of a chain reaction: The increase of CO2 in the atmosphere has caused the earth to warm. This has caused the sea ice and the permafrost on land to melt. With the warming of the arctic, the gases previously trapped at the bottom of the ocean and in the permafrost are now being released into the atmosphere. The worst of these are greenhouse gases are CH4 and N2O. Those who are out there taking these measurements are telling us that if this continues the process of global warming can only get worse; that the only way we can begin to stop the process is to drastically reduce the CO2 that is being put into the atmosphere by things that we’re burning – like fossil fuels, for instance. We also have to stop polluting the oceans so that plankton and other sea life that consumes CO2 may be protected and encouraged to grow.
Of course, we may not agree with this science for a variety of reasons. We may even find a few scientists who disagree with all the others. Nevertheless, we’ve been warned. Even if we had enough fossil fuel to last us for 10,000 years, it would be wise for us to cut back on its use, right here, right now.
"So, is this a theological issue?" we may ask. Of course, it is!
Our gospel lesson for today about the ten bridesmaids is about oil, as well. Evidently, it was the job of these young ladies to go out at night and meet the bridegroom as he was coming to the wedding and subsequent wedding feast. The standing rule was as follows: Only the bridesmaids who got to the feast accompanied by the bridegroom would be able to get in.
So, as the story says, five of the ten bridesmaids run out of oil for their lamps. Not wanting to stand around in the dark, they go to town to buy more. While they are out shopping the bridegroom comes and takes the remaining bridesmaids with him to the wedding, leaving the absent and unprepared bridesmaids out in the dark.
My heavy old flashlight broke, the other day. It was one of those big ones that had four D-sized batteries. Until it broke the light it produced had been pretty bright.
My new flashlight now has five LED bulbs in it, powered by a couple of double A’s. The light it makes is so bright even my dog can’t look at it without squinting. The package it came in says the light will stay lit for 50 hours.
With today’s technology a very little oil can go a long way. There’s no reason why we can not be prepared.
The same goes for our spiritual preparedness, as well.– PGD
Taking on the Golden Calf
Today’s Old Testament lesson has
the people of Israel out in the wilderness, at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
Moses has been away from the people, now, for several weeks, communing
with God on the top of the mountain. For Moses, the time he is spending
away from the people, being with God, is important. Among other things,
he will leave that experience, bringing the Ten Commandments with him,
as well as other instructions that will be important for the people of
God in the years to come.
First an Architectural Layout and Then a Corner Stone
October 5, 2008
God knows that with any project undertaken you have to start out with something that isn’t necessarily perfect in order to take it on to a satisfactory completion.
In fact, an architect’s plan may be very good on paper. The picture that is often presented to a building committee of how the designer hopes the completed building will look are often too beautiful to be real. Once the building is built, however, those who have to use the building usually find out very quickly that nothing is perfect.
God’s creation is the same way. Adam and Eve quickly learned that as good and perfect as God’s design may be in the beginning, once the actual building has begun there are always those things that don’t turn out so perfect.
During building projects the architect often has to draw revised plans to solve little problems that pop up.
Popular books on religion, such as The Purpose Driven Life, tell us that from the very beginning God’s plan has never changed. I tend to disagree. After all, the scriptures tell the story of how God has constantly worked with creation, gracefully molding it like a potter, often making changes in the design for the sake of the ongoing creation.
For example, according to the God-given rules, Adam and Eve should have perished after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. But, instead of dying, God gracefully made a way for them to go on living. The design changed.
As we read the bible, this sort of thing happened over and over again in the story of God’s people. Even the giving of the Law was a specific God-given change that took place for the survival and evolutionary development of the people of God.
It doesn’t take much reading of the bible to see how, again and again, God gracefully works with God’s people, even saves them from certain destruction caused by their own foolish mistakes and selfishness, otherwise known as sin.
Sooner or later, as a building is going up, when the architect sees that the time is right, the cornerstone of the building is laid. Matthew 21:42-44 tells us how in the building of our lives, Jesus Christ is that corner stone; that The Builder put that stone into the cosmos at just the right time. Indeed, verse 44 strongly suggests that the timing of the placement of that stone was meant for the salvation of all; that God’s relationship with humanity should be regarded as not exclusively with one nation but with all nations.
With the coming of Christ, the ground rules for the building changed. No longer would we be working from what looked like a rigid set of plans. From then on, the people of God would have an On Sight Engineer, the Holy Spirit, who would work with them on a day to day basis.
Indeed, the Holy Spirit officially came on the job fifty days after the resurrection of our Lord; and the Spirit has been working that way with God’s people, ever since!
That certainly can be confusing for those of us who like to have a written set of plans. Perhaps that’s why the earlier set of plans – The Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses are still there – to give those who find God’s grace and the flexibility of the Holy Spirit to be somewhat overwhelming.
Yet, The Builder encourages us to grow in the Spirit, to trust in the work that is now in progress, and to have a daily personal relationship with the On Sight Engineer. In the process, we’re given the gifts of grace, flexibility, creativity, and even the ability to forgive, so that the building can go on.
Do Nothing from Selfish Ambition
September 28, 2008
Over the past few days we’ve heard a lot about entitlement. There are those, for instance who justly believe that since they have paid into Social Security for many years they are entitled to their share when they retire, even if they’re millionaires.
At the same time there are those of us who have faithfully tucked away portions of our incomes into 401Ks, pension programs, and other retirement accounts and annuities, justly feeling we are entitled to those when we need them, as well.
Then, there are those persons who we often hear referred to as “the entitled poor,” many of whom got mortgages for homes they could not afford. And then there are those among us who are sick, disabled, old, and otherwise unable to work. Who among us would argue that such persons aren’t entitled to have what they need in order to survive?
Entitlement comes in a lot of forms. All of us feel that children are entitled to a good public education, at least until they graduate from high school. We all believe we should be entitled to live in a society that is free from crime and where our civil rights are protected. Many also feel that everyone should be entitled to employment, medical care, and a living wage.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with entitlement. Nevertheless, even entitlement can get out of hand.
Should CEO’s be entitled to million dollar salaries and severance packages while their employees are losing their paychecks? In the midst of a world where people are going hungry because of the high cost of energy should people with money be entitled to waste energy on luxury? While the gap between the rich and the poor has been widening, should those who have been entitled to much be expected to share more with those who have been entitled to a little?
All of today’s scripture lessons actually talk about this.
In Exodus 17 we have the account of the Israelites wandering in the Wilderness. When they run out of water they get mad at their leader and blame him for their shortage. So, God tells Moses strike a rock with his staff and make water come out of it. And the name of the place where that happened was named Massa and Meribah, after what the people were asking: “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Our reading of Psalm 78 recounts what the Lord did there to provide for God’s people.
Then, in Philippians 2:1-13 the apostle Paul makes the serious point that there is no problem that this world can dish out that can’t be solved by God’s people working together in love, by sharing together in the Spirit, and by having compassion and sympathy for one another. In fact, there is no problem that can’t be overcome when we agree together, love one another, and avoid selfish ambition and conceit.
The words of the apostle are clear: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
If we all did those things, none of us would have to worry about what we’re entitled to!
Today’s gospel lesson from Matthew 21:23-32 tells us that those who had the most to lose were the ones who couldn’t understand Jesus’ teachings along these lines.
I hope we’re listening to what God has to say to us, today!
A Word about the Word
September 21, 2008
Sometimes, as people refer to the bible, they call it the word of God, or the word of the Lord.
To say the least, folks referring to the bible in this way, while attempting to be respectful of the Holy scriptures, can also leave us wondering what “word of God” really means.
For instance, if the bible is the word of the Lord, does that mean that the bible was dictated, word for word, by God to those who then wrote it down? Some actually believe this about scripture.
In fact, that is how those of the Islamic religion believe they got the Koran; that it was spoken by Allah to Mohammad while the prophet sat there, pen and parchment in hand.
The Mormons believe the same thing about their books; that, using special eye glasses, Joseph Smith translated God’s words into English, words God had written on gold plates and buried in the ground, long before.
But, traditional Christianity doesn’t understand the Word of God as being something that is simply written down. Rather, the Word of God is the actual process whereby God reveals.
So, where does that leave the writings of the bible? Put very succinctly, the bible is the officially recognized record of the revelation of God to humanity, prayerfully written, edited, maintained, translated, and passed down through the centuries by faithful members of the Body of Christ.
But the question is, how does the “Word of God” fit into this?
Remember – The Word of God is the process whereby God reveals. John 1:1 and following verses talk about this in more detail. In fact, that process is so much a part of the nature of God that it has been understood by God’s people as being God; that the person and work of God cannot be separated.
The bible calls Jesus the Word of God made flesh because he was the ultimate expression of God’s revelation to the world. It also calls Jesus, the Son of God, and declares Jesus to be one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
We believe that when we prayerfully read the bible we may, by the power of the Holy Spirit, encounter the same God who reveals the same living Word that was encountered by those who first wrote it.
Thus, unless we read the bible prayerfully and with the expectation of encountering the Word of God, the bible is just paper and ink and is no different from any other text.
The writings in the bible become the word of God when through them we experience the presence, message, and teaching of the Lord.
If we are in the Lord, we can experience the Word of God in many other ways, as well: in prayer, in the sacraments, in hearing a sermon, in worship, in hymns, in fellowship with fellow Christians, in serving the needy, and so on.
I invite you to count all the ways you may be experiencing God.
If you’ve been looking for God to speak to you in just one way, you may have been missing a lot!
September 14, 2008
There is a brief story in the 4th chapter of the book of Genesis whose meaning often goes unappreciated. It is the story of Lamech. In fact, it is such a short mention of him that most persons simply dismiss it, altogether.
We’re told that Lamech was the son of Methushael (not to be confused with Methuselah), the great great great grandson of Cain.
If you’ll remember, even though Cain had killed his brother, Abel, God didn’t punish him, but gave him a mark of protection on his forehead. The mark was God’s promise that if anyone avenged Abel’s death, that person would suffer vengeance seven times over.
Then, in Genesis 4:23-24, there is a poem about Lamech, the first man mentioned in the bible who had more than one wife:
Lamech said to his wives,
"Adah and Zillah, listen to me;
wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for injuring me.
If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times."
The question that never gets asked at this point is, “We know what Cain did, but what did Lamech do that anyone would want to kill him?”
The answer to that question is not to be found in the bible. Rather, the answer is hinted at in legends handed down through the centuries by the Hebrew people.
According to this mythology, after the 7th generation of Cain’s ancestors was born, Lamech, Cain’s great-great-great grandson, was out hunting with his young son when they came upon what looked like a strange beast with a big horn growing out of its forehead. Lamech was blind in his old age, so he asked his boy to help him aim his bow and arrow. Unfortunately, when he delivered his arrow into the beast, Lamech didn’t realize that he had actually shot and killed his great great great grandfather, Cain.
When examining his kill, Lamech realized what he had done. Then, in his grief, Lamech clapped his hands together and accidently smote his son’s head between his hands, killing him as well.
It is at this painful moment that Lamech’s wives come along and find Lamech in this horrible predicament. Lamech then recites the aforementioned poem of Genesis 4:23-24 about being avenged seventy-seven times.
Several thousand years later, Jesus comes along and Peter asks him, “How many times should I forgive a church member who hurts me? As many as seven times?”
Asking this question, Peter was referring to a rule of thumb that had arisen from Cain’s killing of Abel; that you should forgive as many as seven times.
Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question, however, was startling. Remembering the story about Lamech, Jesus says, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times!”
But, the point Jesus was trying to make is this: After twenty or thirty times, who should keep counting, especially if they’re brothers and sisters in Christ?
Love Does No Wrong to a Neighbor
September 7, 2008
There are over 600 laws that are laid down in the Hebrew Scriptures. Trying to keep them all, or knowing which ones you have already broken, could be pretty difficult! Indeed, how can you ask forgiveness for a sin that you don’t know you’ve committed?
For instance, Numbers 19:16 says “Anyone out in the open who touches ... a grave, will be unclean for seven days.” The scripture goes on to say how an unclean person must be cleansed. According to the book of Numbers, anyone who does not do this has committed a grievous mortal sin.
Someone once pointed out to me: So, how are we to know whether or not we have touched someone’s grave, even if we haven’t gone near a cemetery? Does anyone know for certain that their house, or their church, or their school isn’t on the site of some ancient burial ground? And, just because you don’t know you have been contaminated doesn’t give you any excuse! Unclean is unclean and sin is sin, whether you know it or not! Right?
Well, that’s what the people of Jesus’ day and culture believed, especially the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus, himself, knew the impossibility of keeping all the rules and regulations, perfectly. That’s why he told everyone, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:33).
The apostle Paul, commenting on Jesus’ teachings in Romans 13:8-14, made it clear that when we love each other we fulfill the law. “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet;' and any other commandments, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9).
In Romans 13:10 Paul makes this stunning conclusion: "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Of course, the bible is chocked full of examples on how to love one another. Also, over the centuries, the Church has created guidelines on just how we should love one another.
The irony is that in the process of learning these suggestions and guidelines, we add them to our list of laws, rather than learning the real lesson: the great importance of simply loving one another!
The 18th chapter of Matthew is a clear example of this. Here, Jesus tells his followers how to deal with people who hurt you. Instead of going around and gossiping to everyone about that person, which would be an unloving thing to do, Jesus says that you should go and work it out with that person, alone.
Then, Jesus said, if that isn’t successful, the next step is to take one or, at most, two others with you to work on the problem, together.
Jesus wasn’t issuing another law for us to follow when he offered this teaching. What he was doing was giving us a good example of how we can keep the whole law by simply loving our neighbor.
In other words, loving Jesus and loving each other is the fulfillment of the law!
Being at peace with our neighbors is the goal of the law that was given to God’s people. What better setting is there to practice these teachings than within the fellowship of Christians?
Remember: practice makes perfect!
Get Out of Town!
August 31, 2008
When I was a little kid, I remember how I would ride with my grandfather in his 1958 Plymouth on the roads around Hudson, Michigan.
In those days, farmers used the honey wagon a bit more often than they do, these days. As we passed by freshly fertilized fields, I remember how I would hold my nose and say, “Pugh!”
My grandfather, on the other hand, would loudly exclaim, “For land’s sake!” which, when you think about it, was about as appropriate a response to that earthly smell as anyone might give!
Grampa also had other exclamations that he would utter at various times, depending on the situation. After a good meal, for instance, he would look at everyone still sitting at the table and ask, “Well, do you feel better or worse?!”
Or, if something fairly unbelievable had just taken place, he would shout, “Good night!” He could make those words sound like he was cussing.
Or, if someone told him some amazing news, he would say, “Get out of town!” Sometimes he would even say it when we were out in the country, which really made no sense to an eight year old kid like me.
That “get out of town!” exclamation is something we should consider, occasionally. A hundred years ago anyone who found himself “out of town” without any resources could be in quite a predicament.
Think about it: Where would you be if suddenly everything you had was taken away? What if your town was destroyed, your bank account disappeared, your family disowned you, and you inexplicably forgot everything you’d ever learned?
You’d really be up a creek!
Unfortunately, there are many people in the world, today, even in our own country who are born already “out of town.”
Poverty doesn’t necessarily mean simply being bereft of immediate financial resources. In fact, poverty usually goes a whole lot deeper than that. Poverty often means not having a job, caused by not having the training to get a job, caused by not having the ability to get the training, caused by not having the motivation to get the training, often caused by not having the cultural background to get the motivation.
Where would you be, today, if it wasn’t for the heritage – your cultural and family background – that goes back for generations? Where would you be if it wasn’t for parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, great grandparents, and their brothers and sisters? Some of us wouldn’t have farms or homes. You might not even have a town, or schools, or employment, or the gumption to believe you could or should have such things!
The danger is when those who us who have all these things forget how difficult life is for those who don’t. Taking those things for granted can lead us to having contempt and disgust for the impoverished, to think that the poor and their children deserve the problems they have.
The Apostle Paul warned his fellow Christians to avoid such contempt at all costs when he said, “You ought not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think” (Romans 12:3).
“Good advice!” I would say.
Dogs Eat Crumbs
August 17, 2008
Today’s reading from Matthew 15 describes a Canaanite lady who came to Jesus while he and his disciples were visiting the country north of Israel that is known, today, as Lebanon. In those days, it was called “The Province of Syria.” So, if Jesus had been an American, it would have been like Jesus had been traveling around in Canada, except, since the whole area was part of the Roman Empire, he and his disciples probably didn’t need passports!
The people who lived along the borders, in those days, could be pretty nasty to each other. Imagine, for instance, an American calling a person from Ontario or Saskatchewan a dog! I know that some folks from the state of Washington might not mind being called a Husky. But you if you referred to someone from British Columbia in such a way, you might have to duck!
Yet, that’s exactly how many people in the country south of Syria referred to the people to their north. They called them dogs! Sometimes they even called them pigs. In fact, when the people of Galilee heard him preach his Sermon on the Mount they knew very well who Jesus was talking about when he said, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces” (Matthew 7:6).
It’s interesting that Jesus would have talked like that! But, those were the days before being politically correct was really important. Imagine what would happen if one of our presidential candidates said something like that! We’d immediately know who the next president would be!
But, in today’s reading about the Canaanite lady who comes to see Jesus, the same sort of politically incorrect language continues.
The lady shouts to Jesus: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon!”
While Jesus doesn’t answer her, his disciples tell Jesus he should tell her to get lost. Then Jesus says something to her that sounds like he agrees with them: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
When the lady pleads with him on her knees, Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
Was Jesus calling the lady a dog?!
But, then the lady seems to agree with him. She says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Then, Jesus answers her: “Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed.
I suppose we could get sensitive about Jesus’ use of language, until we ask ourselves, “Who do we think we are, anyway?!”
Are any of us worthy to gather up the crumbs under the Lord’s table? It might be a blow to our egos, but take the United Methodist Hymnal and look at the middle of page 30 for the answer! You might be surprised!
Starting in Deut. 27:11, they go like this:
The question is, “So, who can be saved?” With all of the things that we could do wrong, maybe it is impossible?! But, in Romans 10:13 it says, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
So, what does it mean to call upon the name of the Lord? How does a person live their life as they call upon God? How do they treat others? Where do they put their faith?
Keep reading the bible! You’ll find that what you thought were the simple basics lead on to much deeper truths.
Or, at least, they should!
Wrestling and Anguish
Wouldn’t it be nice to have all the questions you ever had about life answered in a neatly wrapped package with a nice little bow on top? On the other hand, many of us would be suspicious of anyone coming along and claiming to be able to tackle all the problems we have in life. Yet, many folks are looking for just that!
Take some of those TV commercials for things you can buy that seem to handle just about every challenge. For instance, I love that Riddex commercial for the electronic device you can plug into an outlet in your house that will rid your place of ants, roaches, bees, mice and rats and other pests.
Thinking it might even work on Jehovah’s Witnesses and vacuum cleaner salesmen, I went online and checked out what people have had to say about the device, after using it.
What I found out was fairly disturbing. In fact, the FTC, as well as numerous experts in rodents and insects say that the best you can expect from these plug-in things is for your little pests to take a vacation for only a few hours. In fact, if your neighbors have the Riddex devices their little pests might actually take a vacation from their homes and visit your home for a while. Other than that, many say the device is pretty much ineffective.
But, that's what people want. Something simple. Something easy that will take all their problems away. It’s amazing what folks are willing to “swallow” hook, line, and sinker!
The same goes with churches and religion. So many people, these days, are looking for what’s easy, comfortable, and cozy.
The other day I heard about a church where they have a No-Stress Sunday. On that day, the church will receive into church membership anyone who wants to join. Instead of standing up in front of the congregation and publically taking membership vows, all a person has to do is meet the pastor in the pastor’s office.
Andrew C. Thompson, a UM pastor in Arkansas and columnist for The United Methodist Reporter, suggests that stuff like this comes from "the privatization of religion in our culture (or, the privatization of about everything!)." In other words, what many people want is a do-it-yourself religion, including churches that offer religion in a neatly wrapped, dumbed-down, comfortable, easy to accept package.
The bible, on the other hand, doesn’t offer us such a package. The story in Genesis 32 about Jacob struggling with God shows us that one’s growth in the faith is more like a wrestling match than like an easily swallowed pill.
Also, in Romans 9:1-5 the apostle Paul declares that because he has seen a glimpse of the truth of Christ he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in” his heart. I mean, it isn’t an easy thing to realize that the people you love do not even want to begin to comprehend the depth that God offers us. He says that it would have been easier for him, emotionally, to have remained a non-Christian (Rom. 9:3).
The work of the those who minister within the Body of Christ is not to solve everyone’s problem and answer all the questions. Rather, it is to help people with the struggling and wrestling process.
So, if you’re wrestling with issues, congratulations! That means that you’re still alive!
Stuff that Makes Sense vs. Stuff that Makes Sense
July 20, 2008
The decisions that we are challenged to make are sometimes pretty awesome. In fact, many of the things we have to choose between aren’t a matter of deciding between the bad and the good, or even the better and the best. Very often, it is a choice between two or even three perfectly good things.
There are many things that factor into these kinds of choices. Sometimes, it is a matter of scheduling. Or, it can be as simple as deciding which of the two things we need the most, or offer us the rest we need, or give us the inspiration we need.
And, sometimes, the decisions we make may be between what may seem like a good idea as we deal with the affairs of our finite world, verses what may seem like a good idea as we deal with the affairs of the much broader kingdom of God.
Take this morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 as an example. Here, Jesus tells a parable that was meaningful to the people of his day, but reaches through time, right up to the present. It’s the story of weeds growing in the wheat.
In our world and in our own country, there is much diversity. People disagree with each other and hurt each other for all sorts of reasons.
When these things happen, it makes sense for us to immediately respond; to do whatever we can to turn diversity into homogeneity, to convince those who disagree with us that we are the ones with the right idea, and to bring into line anyone who we may believe may be hurting our cause.
All sorts of methods to accomplish these goals have been used for thousands of years. Sometimes, those who begged to differ were arrested and persecuted. Sometimes they were isolated, banished, shunned, or excommunicated. In Jesus’ time, self-righteous religious leaders, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, used these methods to deal with sinners, tax collectors, sick people, geniuses, and even Jesus, himself.
Of course, it makes sense to keep everybody on the same page, to speak the same language, and to have the same goals and beliefs. Logic suggests that when everybody is united – morally, ethically, religiously, politically, linguistically, economically, etc. – it makes for a stronger community and nation. The words coming out of the mouth of the eagle on our one dollar bill say it pretty concisely: “E plurabus unum” – “One out of many.”
On the other hand, there’s Jesus’ parable of “The Weeds in the Wheat” in Matthew 13. Simply stated, Jesus was telling his followers that you can royally mess up the harvest if you go into the wheat field to pull out the weeds. Not only will you destroy the weeds, but you’ll do a pretty good job of trampling the wheat, as well. As any farmer knows, it’s always better to let the combine separate the weeds from the wheat.
That makes sense, too, especially as we consider how such advice may apply to our world, today, where forbearance and diplomacy may seem like a much better way to go than stomping out differences, wherever they may be.
And wouldn’t it be awful if in our attempt to make everybody the same we trampled down the creativity of the one gifted person who might have the answer to our most pressing human and spiritual needs?
Innovation and invention come best in the midst of diversity, when brilliant minds are encouraged to ask, “Why?” or “Why not?” even if it looks like the answers to those questions may shake things up, a bit.
Set Free from the Law of Sin and Death
Normally, most Christians would consider the law of God to be a good thing. Many of us have memorized the Ten Commandments as well as many of the sayings of Jesus like, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and ... your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:30, 31). Most of us also know the commandment, known as the Golden Rule: "Do to others as you would have them do to you" (Luke 6:31). Jesus also threw a few other laws in, such as, "Love your enemy" (Matthew 5:44), "Go the second mile" (Matthew 5:41), and "If someone wants to sue you, simply give them everything you have" (Matthew 5:40).
Of course, what we sometimes forget is this: These are laws. And, while laws offer us guidelines for what we should and should not do, following those laws does not earn us and eternity with God in heaven. Far from it!
In fact, in Romans 8, the apostle Paul points out that, if anything, laws (whether they’re God’s laws or secular laws) generally point out just the opposite. Laws are more likely to be acted upon when they’re broken, not when they’re kept. If you keep a law, nothing happens. But, if you break a law something, indeed, may happen!
So, the law is really only good for pointing out our failures! And most all of us have more than just a few of those.
Those who focus on Jesus, however, don’t focus on things they aren’t supposed to be doing. Rather, they focus on a life lived for the glory of God and love for Jesus. Such a life is centered around the question – "What can I do to enhance the love and presence of Christ in the lives of others?" The apostle Paul called it "living according to the Spirit."
When we live such a life, we don’t constantly think about salvation for ourselves, as much as we think about God’s Spirit in our midst for others. In fact, as far as Paul was concerned, always thinking of our own salvation is pretty much the same as centering our minds on the things of the flesh (Romans 8:6). A bit selfish, I would say!
I remember first thinking about this when I asked a Southern Baptist friend in high school why he was a Christian.
He answered, "I’m a Christian because I want to go to heaven."
Then he asked me, "Why are you a Christian?"
I impulsively answered, "I’m a Christian because I love Jesus and want to share that love with others. Whether I go to heaven or hell is up to God and I won’t worry about it!"
My friend was startled. He hadn’t thought about it that way, before. On the other hand, neither had I. It’s just what I had been taught in my Methodist church.
The fact is that being a Christian does not satisfy the requirements of any legal system. In fact, it might even break a few rules, here and there.
I know this may seem uncomfortable for persons, even Christians, who are more comfortable living by a structured system of rules, but that’s what Paul meant when he said that Christ set us free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).
Now that is something to struggle with, isn’t it?
The Light Still Shines
We’ve seen pictures of her standing there in New York Harbor. Or, maybe when you went to New York, you took the boat ride and climbed up and got a closer look.
What many of us may not know is what she really is, how she got there, and what she stands for.
Wikipedia states: The classical appearance (Roman stola, sandals, facial expression) derives from Libertas, ancient Rome's goddess of freedom from slavery, oppression, and tyranny. Her raised right foot is on the move. This symbol of Liberty and Freedom is not standing still or at attention in the harbor, she is moving forward, as her left foot tramples broken shackles at her feet, in symbolism of the United States' wish to be free from oppression and tyranny. The seven spikes on the crown represent the Seven Seas and seven continents. Her torch signifies enlightenment. The tablet in her hand represents knowledge and shows the date of the nation's birth, July 4, 1776.
The general appearance of the statue’s head approximates the Greek Sun-god Apollo or Helios as preserved on an ancient marble tablet (today in the Archaeological Museum of Corinth, Corinth, Greece) - Apollo was represented as a solar deity, dressed in a similar robe and having on its head a "radiate crown" with the seven spiked rays of the Helios-Apollo's sun rays, like the Statue's nimbus or halo. The ancient Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was a statue of Helios with a radiate crown, which is referred to in the 1883 poem, "The New Colossus," by Emma Lazarus. Lazarus' poem was later engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the Statue of Liberty in 1903.
The statue, also known affectionately as "Lady Liberty", has become a symbol of freedom and democracy. She welcomed arriving immigrants, who could see the statue as they arrived in the United States.
The complete words of the poem inside the Statue of Liberty are as follows:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
People still come here for the same reasons my poor illiterate great-great-great-great -great grandfather came here in 1736.
Let’s keep it that way!
The Things God Does For Us!
June 29, 2008
Someone once proclaimed that God is unchanging. The book of Genesis, however, gives us the example of how God's mind was changed about destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, as long as Lot could find as few as ten “righteous” persons living there (Genesis 18:32). So maybe God changes, after all?
It is also interesting how God is proclaimed as being everywhere. Yet, in the same story in Genesis we are told that God tells Lot that he had heard about the sins being committed in Sodom and Gomorrah and had decided to go down and investigate the situation for himself (Genesis 18:21).
Of course, the question someone could ask is obvious: “If God is everywhere, why would God have to go anywhere to check out the story?” So, maybe God isn’t everywhere?
My own opinion about God is that any time we think we have God figured out is about the same time God comes along and surprises us with details that make us realize that we know diddlysquat about God compared to the eternal depth that is there.
The fact is that it has been our own knowledge of God that has evolved over the past few thousand years; that whatever we may think we know about God, today, is what was true about God four thousand years ago, or 4 billion years ago, too, for that matter.
Take the story of Abraham going to sacrifice his son, Isaac, for example (Genesis 22). Back then, human sacrifice was a common practice. The Canaanites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Babylonians all had religious cults that saw human sacrifice as being one of the most impressive of things a people could do to get any god’s attention. So, it wouldn’t have been considered abnormal for Abraham to think that he should go and sacrifice his son to make God happy..
Nevertheless, as stupid as the concept of human sacrifice may seem to us, today, God used that occasion to teach us that human sacrifice is not required to make an impression on God. Does that mean that God's mind was suddenly changed about human sacrifice; that what was once required is no longer required? No. Rather, it simply indicates a move on the part of humanity in a direction that was a bit closer to the truth.
Of course, it took a little longer for humans to also realize that we don’t need to sacrifice animals to impress God, either. In fact, the story of Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac leaves us with God supplying a ram for the sacrifice, instead.
So, for a couple of more thousand years, killing animals during worship services was something folks did to impress God, even though several prophets tried to tell God’s people that it didn’t impress God, at all (see Amos 5).
Finally, along came Jesus Christ. His life and death taught us that faith in God is the only thing required for salvation. In fact, in order to make this known to us, Jesus offered himself as the final sacrifice.
Does that mean that God's mind was suddenly changed about animal sacrifice; that something that was once required is no longer required? No! God never did require it! But, what is remarkable is that God participated in a worthless human religious practice in order to get us to finally stop it. And, in the process, God offered us something far better – Grace!
The things God does for us!
Alive to God
June 22, 2008
The guy at the gas station asked me, "Say, pastor, will God listen to a person who is praying while he's drinking a beer?" I told him that Jesus and his disciples probably prayed all the time while consuming something with alcohol in it. So, why wouldn't God listen to a guy praying while he's drinking a beer? I wonder if God even drinks beer!
Have you ever noticed how many of the Ten Commandments are kind of negative? Remember how they go?
1. You shall have no other God’s before me.
2. You shall not make for yourself a graven idol.
3. You shall not make a wrongful use of the name of your God.
4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
5. Honor your father and mother.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house or your neighbor’s spouse.
Notice that only two of these commandments are positive! The rest of them have a “no” or a “shall not” in them.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that many people think that living a successful Christian life simply means not doing a whole bunch of things.
Generally, the list of things that Christians aren’t supposed to do has gotten longer over the years. Sometimes it just depends upon the church you go to. In fact, what are some of those extra things?
Let’s just add them onto the Ten:
11. No cussing! That includes irreverently saying the names of certain saints, the name of the eternal place of punishment, and slang words that describe certain common bodily functions.
12. No alcohol abuse! Even though Jesus turned water into wine and offered wine to his disciples on numerous occasions, we should be exceedingly careful about how we use alcoholic beverages, because of the problems many people have with alcohol abuse. How many lives have been wasted because of that stuff?
13. No sex outside of anyone’s marriage! I know, this is a tough one, for some. But those who manage to abide by this little rule usually find life to be easier going in the long run. In fact, if everyone followed this rule, STDs and AIDS would be history!
14. No gambling! Sure, it’s fun to buy those cute little lottery tickets and spend a day pulling the handle on slot machines and hearing Kenny Rogers sing. But, what if everyone gave all that money to missions, or spent that time volunteering to help a child learn to read, instead?
15. No drug abuse! Marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, and other drugs have done nothing but mess up peoples’ lives. If you don’t believe me, just watch “Cops!"
16. Do not hate people! We step all over Jesus when we vilify persons with whom we disagree to the point of hating them!
17. Do not gossip! After all, you never know what others might be saying about you!
18. No running in the church! You might crash into someone and hurt them or yourself!
19. Do not use your cell phone while watching a movie in the Cass City Theater!
20. Do not leave your cart in the store parking lot!
Finally, and this is the most important rule of all:
21. Don’t sit around being proud of all the things you do not do! That is not what being a Christian is about! Instead, if you really love Jesus, then live humbly and do lots and lots of loving things for everyone who needs God’s love! That’s what being faithful means!
Smug or Hug?
June 15, 2008
“Smug” is an interesting word, isn’t it? It’s derived from a low German word – “smuck” – a word that means “neat” (not to be confused with the Yiddish word that’s spelled the same way). In it’s original use, “smuck” was used to describe someone who was clean, tidy, and well dressed. So, a smucker was a person who sold nice clothes, not strawberry jam! As time went by, however, the word was anglicized to “smug” and came to identify persons who were “highly self-satisfied.”
I looked around for other definitions:
1. Smug is to be very happy with one’s self when others are not.
2. Smug is exhibiting or feeling great or having offensive satisfaction with oneself or with one's situation; self-righteously complacent, as in: “The toad looked smug as he breakfasted on fat marsh flies.”
3. Smug is what people who drive hybrid cars are, as in: “The pastor was smug as he described his little car’s incredibly high gas mileage.”
Ok, sometimes it’s hard not to be smug about certain things!
On the other hand, consider that if a person is smug about being a Christian that person may find it difficult to make Christianity appealing to those who are not Christians. This is especially true when we Christians confuse being pious with being faithful. There is a huge difference!
In fact, that was the issue that Jesus had with the religious people of his own day – the Pharisees. It was these outstanding examples of piety who were so smug about their righteous standing with God that they wouldn’t have anything to do with persons they thought were sinners – tax collectors, the sick, the homeless, foreigners, and anyone else who might be suffering for any reason. The Pharisees simply assumed that if a person was going through tough times it was obviously because they were being punished for something they or somebody else had done wrong! Have we ever heard that, before?
Talk about smug! How can we have compassion for poor folks if we assume that they deserve what they have coming to them?
Followers of Jesus must avoid that kind of smugness. After all, Matthew 9:36 tells us that as Jesus saw the suffering crowds of people, he didn’t judge them, but had compassion on them. Then, in the next verses Jesus tells his followers to go out among that crowd of people and identify with them – not separate themselves from them! They were to go out “to the lost sheep of Israel,” proclaiming the good news that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Jesus gave his disciples permission to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons. Jesus still gives his followers that authority, today!
Yes, that authority is given to us!
Today, there are crowds of people right in our own town who are hurting. It’s not up to us to judge them or to point to ourselves as blazingly good examples of Christian virtue. Rather, it is our job get out to find them, know them, love them, and invite them into the caring fellowship of Jesus!
Antinomianism and Keeping the Faith
June 8, 2008
21st century biblical scholars are telling us that one of the best ways to understand the Christian faith is to look at it from the viewpoint of those who were first century Jewish people. After all, these were the people with whom Jesus grew up and with whom he worshiped.
So, as we look at the teachings of Jesus, it is good for us to keep this in mind. For instance, Matthew 9 tells us that Jesus sat down and ate with many tax collectors and sinners. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard what the Pharisees were asking, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Then Jesus told them to learn what this scripture from the ninth chapter of Hosea means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Finally, Jesus told them, “I have come to call not the righteous but the sinners.”
At the time of Jesus, as far as the people of Israel were concerned, the Pharisees were about as righteous as people could get. If you wanted to find people who followed all the religious laws and kept themselves clean from the tawdry affairs of the world, the Pharisees were it!
One would think that Jesus would have really appreciated the Pharisees and held them up as examples for other people to follow. But, he didn’t. Instead, Jesus focused on those who were the lowest and most despised of Israel – the tax collectors and the sinners. He also spent a good bit of time with foreigners and people who were sick, lame, and blind.
It really made the Pharisees angry when Jesus would point out that the Pharisees seemed to care more about keeping all the rules and regulations than they did for reaching out to the lost. Jesus even hinted that loving one’s neighbor (even if he wasn’t a neighbor) was the number one priority, even if it meant breaking one or two of the rules.
This was hard even for the first Christians to understand. When the apostle Paul tried to explain these teachings to his fellow Jewish Christians, they accused him of being “antinomian” (or, teaching that the laws of Moses aren’t important). So, writing in his letter to the Romans, Paul had to explain the difference between keeping the faith and keeping the law; that having faith in God is paramount; and that the law came about as a means of expressing that faith. Thus, a person who didn’t follow the law should have had a pretty faithful reason for not doing so.
As the first century led to the second century, the early Christians developed their own set of rules and traditions, based upon their life of faith in Jesus Christ. Yet, even today, the church can change some rules if it means being more faithful to God.
God wants us to be faithful, not simply by keeping rules, but by loving our neighbors, caring for the poor, the sick, the lame, and widows and orphans, by standing up for peace and justice in the world, and feeding the hungry.
For God’s sake, rules and laws that keep us from doing these things should be changed or ignored. Otherwise, we might as well be Pharisees.
The Power of the Story
June 1, 2008
Persons still ask me if the story of the flood, found in Genesis 6-9, is true. Usually, I simply answer, “Yes,” and leave it at that. But, I think what they really want to know is whether or not I believe the story is historically or scientifically true, as opposed to having allegorical or theological truth that goes beyond the need for historical or scientific accuracy.
Certainly, this is a problem that is still being debated, especially between those (most of them American literal fundamentalists) who believe in something called “Scientific Creationism” and those Christians and others who have little difficulty believing the overwhelming scientific conclusions that life as we see it, today, is the product of 4 billion years of evolutionary change. The question concerning the flood’s historical and scientific reality is often a part of this debate.
For many, especially those in the scientific community, the arguments currently being used to defend Creationism are reminiscent of arguments used by parents to convince their young children that the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus are flesh and blood realities. When asked questions like, “How does Santa get to all of the houses in one night?” parents often tell an even more incredible story about how St. Nick can somehow move so amazingly fast that he is able to perform in just a few hours what would otherwise take 1000 years!
Likewise, when asked a question like, “How did Noah get all the marsupials back to Australia?”, Creationists have had to come up with some pretty incredible explanations that deny the overwhelming physical evidence that kangaroos, koala bears (and the like) have enjoyed an uninterrupted existence in Australia for hundreds of millions of years.
And then there’s my son, Nathan, a biologist doing research in memory at Brandeis University using fruit flies. He tells me without any reservation that the research he’s doing and the incredible advances now being made in medical research all over the world not only depend upon a reliance on evolutionary biology, but prove it, as well.
So, if the story of the flood isn’t scientifically or historically accurate, why should we still believe it is true?
What we need to understand is that a worldwide flood is a common theme in the mythology of ancient cultures, including the culture of those who wrote the bible. So, what we need to do is appreciate how the biblical story of the flood actually differs from the same stories told by the people of the pagan cultures surrounding Israel at that time. When we do that we learn an awful lot about Israel’s understanding of Almighty God in contrast to what other cultures believed about their various deities. And, studying the story of Genesis 6-9 more closely, we even learn that the flood story is actually an incredibly ingenious, even inspired, work of an editor who combined two separately told versions of the flood into one.
From studying the biblical flood story we are able to conclude, among other things, that the people of Israel believed in a loving, compassionate God who was concerned about sin while determined to preserve life. We learn about a God who cares for the world, and sets limits and boundaries that must be respected by human beings. We learn about a God who is faithful to those who are righteous and/or who care about righteousness. We learn about a God who wants to be in a covenant relationship with creation, itself.
All of these principles are theological tenets that form a foundation for most of the rest of the scriptures of the Judeo-Christian faith system. So, knowing what these people believed about God is most important to us. And this is the truth that we need to believe.
(The picture, above, is of the infamous Flying Spaghetti Monster. Check it out!)
Don’t Be Paralyzed by Fear
May 25, 2008
It doesn’t take much to mess up a system.
I remember how it felt for me a few years ago. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, I wasn’t able to walk on my right foot. My big toe was red and swollen and I couldn’t put on a shoe or take a step without extreme pain shooting up my leg. I limped around for a week, thinking I had simply bumped it. Then I finally went to my GP.
The doctor took one look at it, laughed, then muttered something about gout and too much uric acid. He explained that uric acid can turn into microscopic sharp crystals in toe joints, causing inflammation. He went on to warn me about eating pork and liver and prescribed a week’s worth of prednisone, along with a long-term prescription of allopurinol.
I limped to the drug store, went back home, and started taking the pills. Amazingly, by the next day the pain was gone and I was able to walk normally, again.
No, it doesn’t take much to mess up a system, whether it’s tiny crystals, or a tiny stone in a kidney, or a slightly herniated disk between a couple of vertebrae, or a tiny sliver in a finger, or a speck of pollen in the eye.
It doesn’t take much. Take anxiety, for example. Even a little worry can mess up one’s day. Jesus knew that. That’s why he tells us, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear” (Matthew 6:25).
As a pastor over the years, one of the things I’ve discovered is that just one set of worries, no matter how justified, can have the power to stop everything in it’s tracks, – in families, in communities, in persons, in churches.
In fact, worry can make a system so sick that it can’t do much, at all.
We even worry and become paralyzed from other people’s worries. If enough people participate, worry can even bring down whole economic systems.
But, why should we worry? Isaiah tells us that God has us inscribed on the palms of God’s hands: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:16).
One of the shortest of the Psalms (Ps. 131) says it all:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my
soul, like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.
Go Make Disciples of All Nations
General Conference, a ten-day meeting that takes place in the United Methodist Church every four years, finished its work about two weeks ago. Only a few decisions were made that will change how local United Methodists function. Let me describe one of those decisions:
For many years, when we have baptized, reaffirmed baptismal vows, or brought persons into membership in our church, we have made the promise to support the United Methodist Church with our prayers, presence, gifts, and service. In fact, most stewardship letters that go out from our church remind us of that promise.
Now, with the 2008 General Conference comes an addition to that promise. People who join United Methodist churches henceforth will promise to be “faithful in their witness” as well as in their prayers, presence, gifts and service. The conference also voted to add the witness phrase to the liturgy used by the church for baptism and membership.
Why would the UMC want to make such an addition to the baptismal and membership vows?
I remember a conversation I had with a person, some years ago, while I was serving a church in another part of the state. She’d been attending our worship services for a while, but had stopped coming. So, I asked her why she’d stopped. Her answer surprised me.
“Well,” she said, “You preached a sermon where you said that it was important for Christians to share their faith with others. And I just don’t believe Christians should have to do that. So, I started going to the Lutheran Church.”
What surprised me the most is that I know for a fact that the Lutheran Church she was talking about was pretty serious about their members sharing their faith. She just hadn’t been there long enough to have heard that particular sermon!
But, her comment about Christians not having to share their faith reminded me of other conversations I’d had with other United Methodists over the years where they’d told me they didn’t think it was important to verbally share the faith with others. “As long as you act like a Christian that’s good enough,” they’d pointed out.
Unfortunately, that attitude has been all too pervasive among the members of our churches. While we may have been acting like Christians, for many decades we United Methodists have been much too shy about speaking up about Jesus Christ and being active in the life of the church! In fact, some of us may have even spent a little too much time gossiping about our church!
So, what has this caused? Right now only 5% of our clergy are under the age of 35. That percentage should be closer to 25% if we’re going to have clergy leadership for the future and continue to grow as a church. Also, ironically, this crisis of leadership is taking place in a society where as many as 50% of the population don’t have membership in any church, at all.
That means that all United Methodists must share their faith, not only with their prayers, presence, gifts, and service, but by their witness, too. In other words, we need to be so in love with Christ that we are able to put it into words and share it with others, especially with all those around us who don’t have a church!
The United Methodist Church started out as a lay movement and got most of its growth with the laity, rather than the clergy, doing most of membership care. In those early days, the pastors were mainly preachers and teachers while the members took care of each other. Over the years, we forgot that lesson, having created job descriptions for pastors that are now impossible to fulfill. As a denomination, we’ve begun to pay the price.
The ministry, sharing the word, being excited about our faith, and making disciples is a witness for us all!
Birthday of “Mother”
The New Testament frequently refers to the Church as “the bride of Christ.” We see this, for instance, in John 3:29, where John the Baptizer is telling Jesus, “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend (John is speaking about himself) who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him (John is referring to Jesus), and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.”
We see this reference to the Church being a bride in Revelation 19:7: “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb (Jesus Christ) has come, and his bride (The Church) has made herself ready.”
In fact, in Revelation 21:2 the Church is described as the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. Then, at the end of Revelation, the Holy Spirit and the Church offer an invitation to all: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Rev. 22:17).
The bible also adds to the feminine imagry of the Church being like a bride when it also describes the Church as being like a mother! In 1st Thessalonians 2:6-7 we read how the apostolic fathers of the church were like a loving mother: “As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children."
In fact, the apostle Paul referred to the Jerusalem coming down from heaven (the Church) as being the perfect mother, saying, “But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother” (Galatians 4:26).
We may also recall Jesus’ words to his family when he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:49-50).
Today, May 11, 2008, is one of those special days of the year that is loaded with significance and meaning. It doesn’t happen every year, but not only is it Mother’s Day, but it is also Pentecost Sunday, the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles who were waiting and praying in Jerusalem, fifty days after the resurrection of the Lord. We look back to that day as being the birth of the Church.
When Mother’s Day and Pentecost Sunday fall on the same day it is good for us to not only to give thought to the ones who gave us physical birth, but also to honor the one who is the bride of Christ and mother of our faith – the Church!
Some churches even celebrate Pentecost Sunday with a
birthday cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to the Church! On the other
hand, saying, “Happy Mother’s Day,” today, is probably more than
sufficient, not only for our moms, but also for the one who is married
to the Lamb of God!
What Does the Ascension Mean?
In the ancient Greco-Roman world, a person who was
said to have ascended from earth to heaven, without experiencing death,
was considered to have become a god in the process. In fact, in those
days, saying that someone went to heaven was the same as saying that
they had become divine.
There are stories of human beings ascending to heaven in the Old Testament. In Genesis 5:24, for instance, mention is made of Enoch who “walked with God; and then he was no more, because God took him.” The assumption was made that he was taken bodily to heaven because he pleased God (Hebrews 11:5). We don’t know what happened to him after he went to heaven, nor what he might be doing there in bodily form.
Then, there is the story in 2nd Kings 2:1-18, telling of how Elisha and Elijah were separated from one another by a chariot of fire and horses of fire, with Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Throughout the bible, references are made to how those who ascended to heaven, including Elijah, would return in some future time. Hence, the belief developed that anyone who ascended to heaven would be kept there in bodily form for that future event.
Malachi 3:23-24 (seen in many versions as 4:5-6) talks about how God will send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.
Jesus proclaimed in Matthew 17:13 that Elijah’s return had been fulfilled in the appearance of John the Baptizer, whom King Herod had not recognized, but had jailed and murdered, instead (Matthew 14:3-12).
It is interesting to note, however, that when Elijah returned as John the Baptist, he did not come back in the way that he left. Rather, John the Baptist was miraculously reincarnated (born) to Elizabeth in much the same way that Jesus was incarnated through his mother, Mary (Luke 1:5-25). However, after John the Baptist was murdered Elijah did appear with Moses in bodily form to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3).
Then comes the story of Jesus’ ascension to heaven. In Luke 24 and Acts 1, the story of Jesus’ ascension does two things. First it tells us that we should live in the expectation of Jesus’ future return (Acts 1:11). It also tells us that the period between Christ’s ascension and his return must be one wherein Jesus’ followers aren’t just standing around waiting for his return, but that Christians are sent as Christ’s witnesses with the power of the Holy Spirit to bring “repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47-49).
Although we may consider debates about literal interpretations to be valid in our 21st century minds, the ascension, along with other miraculous stories in scripture, are resources for God’s Spirit working in our lives that go far above and beyond any debate about their historical or scientific accuracy. God invites us to experience the power and meaning of the story in ways that cannot be explained.
In fact, any human attempt to literally interpret these stories to fit a specific apocalyptic scenario, for instance, may only serve to muddle up the real message that God’s Spirit may otherwise intend to impart!
Serving an “Unknown God”
April 27, 2008
Acts 17:22-31 tells of how the apostle Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and made a speech about “the unknown God.”
As far as we know, the Areopagus is a hill that juts out from a place in Athens, Greece, just below the Acropolis, where the Parthenon sits. For many years it may have been the site of a temple dedicated to Ares (Mars) the god of war. But, at the time of Paul, during the time of the Roman Empire it was the location where a council of respected persons regularly met and discussed the issues of the day, making rulings that were respected by the leaders of Athens.
It may have been this council that Paul was addressing as he stood in front of the Areopagus and delivered his speech. It would have been as if he was standing in front of the justices of the Supreme Court to make his case for Christianity.
Athens was one of those places where people were relatively open minded, as compared to other places in the Roman Empire. In fact, there was quite a diversity of religion in the city with temples to about every god of the Roman, Greek, Egyptian and other pantheons. In fact, as Paul had been walking around the city, he had discovered a temple of the Unknown God. Evidently, someone had decided that a temple should be built to honor any god that no one knew about, just in case.
So, that’s what Paul talked about as he stood before the Areopagus, declaring that the unknown god was actually the God who had created the world and everything in it, a God who didn’t even need a temple with priests and followers in order to be God. So, given the importance of this God, Paul thought it was ironic that no one seemed to know this God.
How true this is, even today! Everyone seems to have his or her own version of God. Some of these versions claim that God is a Moslem. Others claim that God is Jewish, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or Christian. Others make the theologically interesting claim that God is no god, at all!
But, God is who God is! God tried to tell Moses that when God sent him to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian captivity. God said: “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).
It was this same God who revealed through Jesus Christ, who we call the Prince of Peace. Followers of Jesus believe that being faithful to Jesus’ teachings about love and forgiveness is the best way to serve God. In fact, Jesus told his disciples, “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (John 14:21).
So, the Christian’s understanding of God is one that is based on love and obedience to God because of love!
More than anything else, that’s the God that needs to be known in the world, today! What can we do to make God known?
Going Beyond the Pure, Spiritual Milk
April 20, 2008
The writer of 1 Peter advised those who were new to the Christian faith: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2-3).
Certainly, this scripture offers us an image of how God nurtures us like a mother. It might also give extra meaning to the parable Jesus told about the Rich Man and Lazarus and what sort of meal Lazarus might have been having while “in the bosom of Abraham” (the literal translation of Luke 16:22 – eis ton kolpon Abraham)!
The apostles knew the importance of offering “pure spiritual milk” to persons who were new to the faith. All who wanted to join the early church were led through an educational experience known as “catechism” where a list of things was taught that Christians needed to know in order to move on in the faith.
In the United Methodist Church we have something like this, as well, called confirmation class. Most pastors spend a few sessions going over the basic beliefs and history of the church with their young people before they join the church. Yet, the short time pastors spend with onfirmation classes is hardly enough to even begin teaching the real fundamentals of the Christian faith. That’s why continuing with Sunday School is important with anyone who is a member of the church. After all, the teachings of the Christian faith are much deeper than anyone can fathom! And why would anyone want to be satisfied with knowing only the fundamentals, anyway?
Paul, the author of 1 Corinthians 3:2 made it very clear that while feeding on the pure, spiritual milk was a necessity for young or new Christians, it was certainly not something that a person should spend a whole lifetime doing! Paul says, “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.”
Paul had much greater things to teach the young Christians at the city of Corinth, but he sensed that they were simply not ready to learn it. They were still being bottle fed the basics and were even having a difficult time swallowing that. Paul could tell that they weren’t ready because of their worldly, quarreling and jealous behavior.
But, Paul really wanted them to advance to the more solid food – the stuff in the glass jars with the cap that goes “click!” They had to if the church was going to be what God wanted it to be!
Many Christians, today, are yet stuck on the bottle and really need to move on to the solid food. Maybe it is the fault of churches, themselves. Have pastors failed to delve deeper into the faith with their flocks because they’ve been afraid of losing some of their sheep? Have churches found it difficult to offer anything beyond the spiritual milk?
Holy pureed veggies, chicken and beef, anyone?
Well, it is something to think about.
The Ideal Church
Acts 2:42-47 summarizes the nature of the Christian community only two or three months after the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ:
Each one of the above points could be used to write volumes of books. Take the first point, for instance. Just what would we consider to be “the apostles’ teachings,” today?
The apostles were those who had spent at least three
years with Jesus, intensely learning his teachings. For many hours every
week, Jesus had been their personal “rabbi” and they had been their
students. It was these who became the leaders of the Christian faith
after Jesus ascended to heaven. Thus, the early Christian community took
care to follow their teachings. Thereafter, even to this very day, the
Church took very seriously who might follow in the footsteps of these
first apostles, taking care that they would also be intensely trained
for a period of three years.
Point five and six emphasize something very important. The church of the apostles was also one where everyone shared as there was a need. If someone needed a home to live in, they had it. Or, if a person was hungry, they had a place at someone’s table to eat. Or, if someone needed clothing or a place to get well, someone in the church provided it.
How can we be a church like that, especially in a time when people are losing their homes and jobs and can’t afford medical care?
Another interesting thing about point seven is this: The fact that the early Christians worshiped in the Temple AND held private Christian services in their homes indicates that the Christians of the apostolic Church did not think they were entitled to be treated in any special way by non-Christians. They didn’t separate themselves from the rest of society just because they were followers of Jesus nor did they expect the rest of society to make room for them.
How different from that are some Christians, today? Nevertheless, the apostolic church grew. As point ten says, “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
How can we be a church like that?
Worshiping With Jesus
In fact, this is the Order of Word and Table that you find on page 2 of our hymnal, the basic order of worship used in The United Methodist Church. Every Sunday morning should be a walk to Emmaus!
The Christian faith is an international religion. In spite of some of the rhetoric you may hear from popular American “Christianity,” the religion that the disciples handed down to us it is no more “American” than are any other of the world’s religions. In fact, those who claim Christianity as “America’s religion” may actually do more to harm the integrity of worldwide Christianity than anything else.
How many of us know, for instance, that in 1914 as many as a quarter of all Palestinians were Christians? Today, only about 5% of Palestinians in Israel are Christians. Still, even that 5% is a large number. Contrary to what the media may tell you, most all of the worship services in Christian churches in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank are conducted in Arabic.
Then, according to some of the latest surveys, there are roughly 54 million Christians in China. Of these, about 39 million are Protestants. Some estimates even suggest that at many as 10% of Chinese are Christians. In fact, while Christianity in America is declining, it is actually growing among the Chinese people!
Imagine! Could the day come when Christian ministry in
America will be
The fact is that, except for in the very beginning, Christianity has always been international.
When Jesus appeared to his disciples on the night following the resurrection, he said, “!םלש” which is the Hebrew word “Shalom!” which means “Peace be with you!”
In fact, in our gospel lesson for today Jesus actually said this word three times (see John 20:19, 20, and 26). That was enough times to make that word a part of the liturgy in the worship services of the early church.
The New Testament was originally written in Greek. So, what Jesus said (“!םלש”) was translated to the Greek (Εiρήνη!).
As Christianity spread out into the Roman Empire the scriptures were translated to Latin, “Pax vobis cum!” (“Peace be with you!”). As the Christian faith spread across the world these words were offered during what became known as the “Passing of the Peace,” in preparation for taking the offering and sharing the Lord’s Supper. The typical response to these words was, “Et tu spiritu,” (“and with your spirit”).
Occasionally, you may hear me say any of these foreign-sounding words to you on Sunday morning during the Passing of the Peace. This is my way of reminding you that we are, indeed, a world religion. In fact, English didn’t even exist at the time of Christ! King James wouldn’t be born for another 1500 years!
That’s important for us to think about when we think about giving to missions, for example.
I’ve heard some people say, “Missions begins at home.” I’ll give a hundred dollars to anyone who can show me where those words show up in the bible. After all, Jesus taught us that our neighbors aren’t just those who live next door; but are anyone, anywhere, who has a need.
John Wesley didn’t just send his preachers next door. But, he told them, “The world is my parish.”
And so it is.