Saturday, October 12, 2019

“Doing Things Out of Order” - October 13, 2019

Luke 17:11-19

            Illness often involves physical separation by its very nature.  Someone who is sick may simply be unable to get around.  It could be from physical weakness.  It could be from pain.  Even a temporary illness means not being able to get around. You’re lying in bed with the flu or some kind of fever and you hear other people downstairs or outside, and you feel not quite lonely but separate in a way that can be worse.  Or maybe you are around people and some sort of ache or pain kicks in and that’s all you can think about.  Conversation is going on around you and you try to follow what is being said, but you just can’t focus on anything but the throbbing in your left knee or the feeling that your back is about to spasm again.

            A sense of isolation often accompanies depression.  There’s a quotation from the songwriter Fiona Apple that’s all over the internet, but always as a quotation and never with a source or context, but it puts her experience of depression this way:

“When you're surrounded by all these people, it can be lonelier than when you're by yourself. You can be in a huge crowd, but if you don't feel like you can trust anyone or talk to anybody, you feel like you're really alone.”
The pain of isolation may be sharpened when it is not a symptom, but something imposed on someone who is already suffering.

            At the time of Jesus, people who were afflicted with leprosy found themselves cut off from most human contact.  It was a step that was taken for the survival of the entire community, but it was not done lightly or in a knee-jerk way. 

            The book of Leviticus assigns the care of public health to the priests.  Chapters 13 and 14 give detailed instructions on how to evaluate whether a rash is just a temporary skin irritation or an indication of a more dangerous underlying disease, like leprosy, that could endanger not just the individual but everyone around them.  The Law specified a temporary period of separation to allow observation before any kind of permanent exile was imposed.  And before we condemn that step as uncaring or harsh, we have to admit that we still take same similar steps to prevent one person’s infection from turning into a general contagion.  If you have ever gone to see someone in an isolation room at the hospital, you know what it is to use a gown and mask and gloves so that there is always some sort of barrier against infection.  In extreme cases, ebola or Marburg virus, the isolation involves caregivers dressed in something like spacesuits.

            The Law also made provisions for how to certify when a disease, specifically leprosy, might have somehow cleared up.  When that happened, the person had to stay outside the settlement, for safety, and the priest would go to them to do an examination.  There would be more waiting periods to ensure that the disease wasn’t simply in remission, but eventually the healthy person could return to regular life.  When Jesus told these ten lepers,

“Go and show yourselves to the priests,” [Luke 17:14]

that is the process that he was sending them into.  Jesus being Jesus, though, he rushes things.  He sent them to the priest before they were healed.  Luke says it was

“as they went, they were made clean.” [Luke 17:14]

They went from him in faith, not having seen the miracle, but acting on his assurance.  There’s a whole sermon in that for another time.

            One of their number, though, was a Samaritan. [Luke 17:16]  Under normal circumstances, he and the other nine would have had nothing to do with one another.  But if illness often separates people, there are times when it forces them together. There are stories throughout the Bible that include groups of lepers, people who, cut off from regular society, were pushed together by need.  It was a matter of survival, and other considerations disappeared.  If you cannot use your hands any longer, you are not going to quibble over the ethnicity of the person who is willing to lift your food to your mouth.  If you cannot walk without pain, you do not care about social status when someone offers you a shoulder to lean on.  And if you have been excluded from all that you have ever known – your home, your family, your work, your friends – there will be at least some shred of comfort that comes from the understanding of those who have shared the same loss.

            Now this Samaritan man, one of the ten men healed by Jesus that day, was made physically whole, but could not show himself to the Jewish priests as he had been directed, since the stigma that they attached to his birth would keep them from having anything to do with him.  He would be healed and could return to his family and his community, but would go through the process of reincorporation among them under the guidance of Samaritan priests (who shared the same scriptures on this point), and be expected by them to remain apart from the other nine who had been with him in his trouble.  Friends were taken from him by his illness and friends were taken from him by his healing.

It’s all the more startling, then, that he returned first to thank Jesus, because he was a Jew.  Or maybe he did that first so that no one could tell him not to do it.  And it’s also startling on Jesus’ side, not only because he had dealings with a Samaritan – that happened more than once – but because he told this man,

“Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” [Luke 17:19]
The official line would not have recognized this man as having faith or would have said that he had the wrong kind.  Jesus saw someone who had already taken a chance on him, and Jesus was ready to return the favor.

            Jesus saves.  He did then, and he does now.  Jesus saves on the basis of faith, which is not a matter of getting every religious ceremony correct or performing exactly the proper number of good deeds.  Faith is trust.  Faith is hearing the voice of someone who could rightfully and without a shred of hypocrisy send you away in tears but instead offers kindness and compassion that even common sense says is dangerous and inadvisable.  Faith is being equally open and willing to take him as he is, so that when he says that he is the way, the truth, and the life, you’re ready to say, “Okay, then show me what kind of life you’re talking about.”  All that business about forgiving our enemies flows from being forgiven.  All that bit about turning the other cheek comes from knowing that he did that himself.  And his promises about eternal life, even when age or accident or some sort of sickness finally does catch up with us?  Faith means taking him at his word about that, too, with the added help that his other friends have given us of having seen him return to life himself.

            That faith makes us well.  I say that not because I have a lot of confidence in people who wave their hands around and then push someone backward shouting, “In the name of Jesus!”  I say that because I have seen enough people with deeper problems than even the best doctors can address find a healing of the soul that comes just from the awareness that God is loving and merciful and on their side.  John Wesley wrote:

“It is hard to find words in the language of men to explain all the deep things of God.  Indeed, there are none that will adequately express what the children of God experience.  But perhaps one might say that the testimony of the Spirit is an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit, that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved me and given himself for me; and that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.”[1]

[1] Cited in Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants (Nashville: Upper Room Press, 1983), 403.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

"Who and What" - October 6, 2019

II Timothy 1:1-14

            There has been no end of dispute and argument among Christians over the past two thousand years.  Despite Jesus’ pleas, the disciples who lived and traveled with him, who learned directly from him about the kingdom of God, who saw him perform miracles, and who became the witnesses to his resurrection from death never managed to get along with one another perfectly. 

The gospels record an incident where they get into an argument among themselves about which of them is the greatest, like some sort of first-century Twitter fight.  The people who came to prominence in the Christian community just after them often had the same discussion, at times framed around the importance of different forms of ministry.  Paul had to ask the Christians in Corinth to look good and hard at the situation among them and to see that the Holy Spirit had spread a variety of gifts among them so that they could see their need of one another.

“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” [I Corinthians 12:29-30]

Of course, the same apostle Paul who wrote these words was just as human as them, and he is recorded as having had his arguments with one of the original disciples, Peter, and even with James, Jesus’ own brother.

            Paul’s arguments with them were over doctrine more than personality, although when you read his letters you can get a clear sense that there is at least some of that there, too.  (Read through the book of Galatians, where he recounts who said and did what to whom.  You cannot miss it.)  At base, though, he is trying to establish the faith on the basis of faith in Jesus and Jesus’ love held out for everybody.  That also forced him to recognize the difference between adversaries and enemies. 

            So, time and time across the centuries, Christians have argued and disagreed.  At times (and may God forgive us all for letting acrimony go this far) we have let anger turn into violence.  Even so, when the smoke has cleared, we have continually come back to the point where we say that there is some bond that holds us together.

            It is not that we read the same Bible.  There are books that some people judge to be authoritative and others do not.  We (“we” being the Protestants) call these “The Apocrypha”.  The Roman Catholics just consider them part of the Holy Scriptures.  But on the basis of some points in these books, the Catholics have developed the notion of purgatory, a place for souls to work out repentance after death; the Protestants emphasize, instead, the full and entire forgiveness of sin here and now through Jesus having taken our sin onto his own shoulders on the cross.  Those are major differences, and they matter.  But they are not enough that (with the exception of a few unusual people on both sides) we would say that the people on the other side of this division are not also Christians.

            It is not that we worship the same way.  Compare, if you will, the elaborate ceremonies of the Eastern Orthodox with a group of Quakers sitting down in a room and waiting silently for the Holy Spirit to speak.  You can also flip that around and have two churches that worship in ways that seem basically interchangeable, say your average United Methodist and Presbyterian congregations.  It would not be on a Sunday morning, but on some weeknight in an administrative meeting of some sort, that you would discover very different understandings of the nature of the church.  Even so, no one in these spots would go so far as to say that they, and they only, are Christian.

            What holds us together, and brings us together again when we push one another away, is not a “what” but a “who”.

“I know the one in whom I have put my trust,” [II Timothy 1:12]

Paul told Timothy.  And, yes, he also told him,

“Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me,”

but Paul told Timothy to do that

“in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”  [II Timothy 1:13]

Once upon a time, we argued over whether Christians could eat pork.  That’s all over the book of Acts.  (The Seventh Day Adventists, by the way, are often vegetarians for religious reasons.)  But no one denies that Jesus sat down to eat with sinners, and in doing so called them back to the righteousness and wholeness of God.  The Eastern and Western churches split over what language to use in worship (and that came up again at the Reformation) and also over the question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father.  But we never deny that the Spirit is at work to bring people everywhere to faith.  Right now, at least in our branch of Christianity, we’re arguing over the place of LGBT people.  No one on either side of that issue, however, disputes that God

“saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.” [II Timothy 1:9]

And I could go on and on.  In fact, I am sure that down the road there will arise all kinds of unforeseen differences about what it means to live according to that “holy calling”. 

            The one thing I am sure of, though, is the love of the Savior who calls.  It is the message of that love that goes out into all the world, through all his people.  So,

“Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” [II Timothy 1:14]

Saturday, September 28, 2019

"The Thirsty" - September 29, 2019

Luke 16:19-31

            Last week at the second service, when Rich Gibson passed out, he came to and asked for a drink of water, and a couple of people brought some.  I kind of blocked that, so let me explain.  When somebody faints, it may very well be because of dehydration, and a drink of water will help that.  But when they collapse as a result of the fainting, it’s possible that they might have broken something or done some other kind of damage that somebody without medical training cannot assess.  If there were a broken bone, though, and it had to be set, or if any other injury were found that might require anaesthesia, one of the first questions that’s going to be asked is if the person has had anything to eat or drink recently.  They need to know that to avoid the possibility of it coming back up and creating a dangerous situation.  That’s why nobody’s allowed to eat or drink before surgery.

            But it isn’t easy to see someone who is thirsty and say, “No.”  Water is kind of basic.  There are times when all somebody needs is just a little sip or an ice chip on their tongue to feel better.  That fact lies at the heart of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

“In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’” [Luke 16:23-24]

Interesting, isn’t it, that the rich man still seemed to think of Lazarus as subservient, someone to be ordered about for his convenience and comfort, even in the afterlife? 

            Abraham tried to explain to the rich man that the roles they held on earth no longer applied.  In fact, in their cases, they were reversed.

“Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” [Luke 16:25]

Moreover, Abraham tells him, there’s not a thing he can do about that now.  This man does not seem to have been totally heartless, though.  At least he cared about his own brothers.  But again, he wants Lazarus to be his servant, his messenger boy, to give them one of those spooky warnings like Dickens pictured for Ebenezer Scrooge: “In life I was Jacob Marley…”  Of course, Dickens pictures Marley’s ghost itself appearing, not sending a message second-hand.  This man, the one burning with torment and thirst, still does not get it.  He cares about himself first, then he cares about his brothers, but he still does not really care about Lazarus.

            Abraham’s answer to him recognizes that.  He knows full well that this man and his brothers are cut from the same cloth.  If he had ignored Lazarus in his comings and goings, his brothers had also done the same thing.  They had all seen the man’s need and had ignored it.  They had all gone on feeding themselves and spending money on fancy clothes while he starved. 

            (By the way, this is not going to be a feel-good sermon.  It’s not a feel-good parable.  Not unless you’re on the Lazarus end of things, and to be honest, very few people in the U.S. or Canada or Western Europe fall into that category.)

            It’s one of the big annoyances of the scriptures that you have to ignore them in order to ignore poverty, even if you live (as we do) inside an insulated capsule where we can avoid its most troublesome forms.  Sure, people go through rough times.  But there are often resources to help, if only they can find them – and there are people who care and who do try to help.  But there is also a profound kind of poverty that we manage to hold at arm’s length because, once seen it cannot be unseen.  The scriptures make us look, even to the degree where we have to make a conscious choice not to see, and to become the person holding his ears and saying, “La-la-la!” not to hear.  Abraham (and, by telling this story, Jesus himself) says of those who are feasting while others starve,

“They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” [Luke 16:29]

The rich man says that the scriptures are not enough.  He’s told – and this is harsh, but it’s exactly on point –

“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead?”  [Luke 16:31]

Some people don’t get it, and some people work at not getting it, because they really do.

            This parable hurts.  It hurts because it needs no real interpretation or explanation.  It hurts because trying to soften it shows which side of the gate we – okay, I – live on.  Just go back to the availability of water.  There has been a multi-year drought in Central America.  That is part of what has driven some people to leave their lands and look for a way to survive.  Some have joined criminal gangs and driven yet other people to run from violence.  So people leave their homes out of desperation and multiple fears, and then find themselves, exactly like Lazarus, sitting for months or longer outside closed gates, being told they cannot come in.  There are those in lands where the Sahara and other deserts are expanding, and they get pushed out in the same way.  Some of them fall into the hands of modern slave-traders.  Some of them get stuck in refugee camps.  Some of them try to cross the Mediterranean in leaky boats and, if they reach safety, also get stuck in horrible conditions waiting for their paperwork to clear or to be sent back to the starting line.

            This parable hurts because it gives a name to the man at the gates.  We can talk about the nameless poor, but they are not nameless.  The rich man and his brothers go nameless.  The poor man lying at the gate, with the dogs taking pity on him the way that the people inside the gate do not – that man is the only person in all of Jesus’ parables who has a name.  “Lazarus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Eliezer”, which means “God is my help.” 

            I would say this: that Jesus calls us to really and truly see that man.  He is not just someone to order around, a bit character in our stories.  He is not someone who can be used, either as a messenger or as a cautionary tale.  He is a person, someone that we know is out there and who calls upon God for help.  It may be someone whose situation is so heartbreaking that we cannot bear to see him or to hear his voice, but the only thing that will keep us from losing our own souls is to look and to listen, and not for our own sake, but for his.

            That is the word, I fear, not just of Moses and the prophets, but of someone who called out, when he was dying,

“I thirst!” [John 19:28]

someone who himself rose from the dead.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

“Street Smarts” - September 22, 2019

Luke 16:1-9

            This is one of Jesus’ parables that has bothered me for a long time.  Here’s a swindler who knows that he’s about to get caught and is well aware that there is enough evidence out there to convict him.  So what he does is turn up the heat on his crimes.  He goes to people who owe money to his boss and invites them to falsify the account books in their favor before the dishonest steward is chucked out and their chance passes.  That part is bad enough, but when he was finally audited, Jesus says,

“His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”  [Luke 16:8]

The end of the parable doesn’t end with his punishment, let alone a wholesale purge of dishonest dealers or reform of corrupt business practices.  It ends with Jesus’ recommendation that people he calls “the children of light” [16:8]  learn a lesson from this guy. 

“Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  [Luke 16:9]

That doesn’t fit well with my picture of the man who tossed the moneychangers out of the Temple.

            Then, last Thursday morning, I stopped at Giant before a meeting to pick up a box of day-old donuts.  (If you get there early in the morning, they are just as good as the night before.)  I went to the self-serve checkout and scanned the box, and nothing happened.  Over and over, nothing happened.  The cashier who stands there keeping an eye on folks like me came over and she tried, and nothing happened.  So she punched some buttons and then the price came up: $2.49.  The sticker said $3.49 – an instant test of honesty, which I am proud to say I passed.  The check-out lady told me that they’ve asked “them” (whoever that is) to fix their stickers and they don’t bother, so now she’s just letting it go through.  Nobody’s going to correct anything until it hurts them.  Okay, now I’m taking advantage of the broken system.  Or am I helping apply pressure to fix it?  Or both? 

            The dishonest manager in the parable, when he discounted the debts, drew people into his own web.  He knew the system and worked it.  He gained friends and allies who would not be talking against him because they, too, were benefitting from the system.  What would happen, Jesus asks, if the “children of light” did the same thing, and implicated others in good deeds, rather than shady ones?

            It’s a fictional story, but Victor Hugo tells at the start of Les Miserables of how Jean Valjean, a man convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, is released from punishment as a galley slave and turned loose without any help or resources.  He sets out across country, looking for work as he goes, but nobody will hire him because his papers identify him as a convicted thief.  After a few days he is given supper and a night’s shelter by the bishop of a small town, the first person to show him kindness in years.  In the middle of the night, he gets up and steals the silverware and sneaks out.  The police, who have been watching Valjean, stop him and return him with the stolen goods to the scene of the crime.   The bishop thanks the police for bringing him back, grabs the silver candlesticks from his mantle, and says, “Here.  You forgot these.  I hope it’s enough to get you home.”  When the confused police had left, as the story goes, the bishop tells the man who had robbed him,

“‘Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.’

Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless.  The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them.  He resumed with solemnity: --

‘Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good.  It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.’”[1]

If only it were always that easy!  But God bless (and God does bless) those who give it a try.

            I don’t mean that it’s possible, or even advisable, to throw money at a situation and assume that it will be used honestly or well, or that it will make people’s problems go away.  It’s one tool in the box, sure, but Jesus’ parable teaches his disciples to do more than that. 

            Destructive forces are always ready to drag someone into their circle.  Why shouldn’t those who live by God’s ways be every bit as ready, and every bit as intentional?  The dishonest manager was commended for his shrewdness.  Why should those who work for the Lord be any less creative?

            This parable advises us to learn from the dishonest manager how to implicate people, but to implicate them in doing good, to involve them in active deeds of mercy that draw them away from darkness and into God’s light.  Jesus attitude was that the more people were working for God’s kingdom, the better.

“John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’  But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.  For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.’”  [Mark 9:38-41]

            Many years ago, the religious life groups at Duke started up the world’s first campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which is an explicitly Christian operation.  They weren’t going to refuse construction help or donations from other student groups, but when it came time to hold organizational meetings or to set out to the job site, they started with prayer.  Those prayers were also led sometimes by one of the Jewish students; everybody was fine with that, and no one asked them to work on Saturdays.  But some of the non-religious volunteers said that they didn’t feel comfortable with prayer being on the agenda, which led to a rich conversation about why people who were part of the project were there at all.  For the organizers, this was a part of their spiritual life from start to finish, not just when their heads were bowed.  They asked those who didn’t want to be part of the prayer circle simply to wait patiently for them.  (There was also an offer to set up a second group if they wanted, but nobody ever really went for that.  It would have been called “Habitat for Humanists”.)  The interesting thing was that by the end of the semester, no one was sitting out the prayer time.

            So, maybe

“the children of this age are more shrewd in their dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” [Luke 16:8]

but when the children of light do get it together, good things happen.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

“Goodness that Gets in the Way” - September 15, 2019

Luke 15:1-10

            In Luke 15 Jesus tells three parables about losing and finding.  One is about a lost sheep, one is about a lost coin, and one is about a lost person.  That third one, usually called the Prodigal Son, is not only about a lost son but also about a lost brother.  All three parables, really, are about lost brothers and lost sisters, how they are found again, and what happens next.  What sets Jesus off, and the reason that he tells these stories, is that people who had fallen off the straight and narrow were trying to get back onto it, and people who had not fallen away were not making it any easier on them.

            Back in Nazareth, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had announced what he was going to be about.  Right after his baptism, in Luke’s account,

“When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.  He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor. 
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” [Luke 4:16-21]

At first everybody was happy and proud, but he had not been speaking long when they realized he was saying that God’s concern was not so much with them as with other folk, and that it always had been, and they became so furious they were ready to throw Jesus off a cliff outside town, which he only narrowly escaped.

            As he went around saying these things, he found a much better response among the people Isaiah had named: the welfare mothers, the unemployed, the convicts and ex-convicts, the blind and disabled, the people in hock up to their eyebrows.  That left the people who had always played by the rules and who had always tried to be good in a quandary.  They saw Jesus’ miracles, so they had a sense of confirmation that God was backing him up.  But they also had a sense that, as we would say, “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”  (That’s not in the Bible, by the way.  What is there is Paul’s warning “Do not be deceived; bad company ruins good morals.” [I Corinthians 15:33]) 

I suspect that Jesus was fine with everyone being confused.  He was in the business of helping people change.  He wanted to see people move from the lost column to the found column.  There is no way to do that without reaching a hand out across the lines, or going into uncomfortable territory.  He was the sinless Son of God living among sinful human beings, after all, and would have experienced that sense of being out of place more profoundly than anyone ever has or will.  He had been there at the creation of the world, and the world itself would reject him.  Yet here he was – here he still is – among the fallible, broken human beings whom he has always loved.  He could live with the confusion.

What got to him was our inability or unwillingness to see just how fragile and arbitrary are the lines that we draw to count one another in or out, especially when he does so much to draw us into God’s embrace.

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” [Luke 15:1-2]
That’s when he pointed out that they were treating human beings worse than they treated their sheep.  If 1% of the flock were to be lost, the shepherd goes looking for it.  One sheep out of one hundred.  Don’t you think that just maybe we could look at our brothers and sisters and count them as important as sheep?  Or is it because sheep are property, and people aren’t?  Whatever happened to the words of the psalm [100:3]?

“Know that the Lord is God.
            It is he that has made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”

If we saw ourselves as one flock instead of one hundred separate sheep, we might see things more like Jesus did.  Instead of making snarky comments, we might show some compassion. 

Of course, compassion is confusing and sometimes it brings its own demands, not only on one person who is gifted with compassion by the Holy Spirit, but also on the people who have to live with them.

Bob was a Methodist preacher who, when I knew him, had retired from a long and honorable career, mostly in the Hudson River Valley and the rural areas of New York.  His wife, Miriam, had a way about her of shaking her head and saying, “Hnh! Bob! Sometimes!”  Miriam was very proper, and Bob seemed that way, too.  He was quiet and mostly kept to himself.  He loved working in his brother’s car repair shop, in part to keep his mind sharp.

In the summer of 1969, Bob had been appointed to serve a small church out in the middle of nowhere, not expecting to get a phone call from the organizers of a music festival a couple of miles down the road in the town of Woodstock.  Problems were cropping up that the planners had not made provisions for.  They were calling local clergy for help.  Bob went off in the middle of the week because, as he said, there were people who were on bad acid trips and needed somebody to talk them down again.  Miriam did not hear from him again for a couple of days, and when she did, it was a phone call that said, “I’m on my way home finally, but I want to warn you that I have a young woman in the car.  She jumped into a pond to keep cool, and someone stole her clothing, so she’s wrapped up in a blanket.  We’ll have to see if you have anything that fits her.”  It’s a great story.  Bob always had trouble getting through it without breaking up in laughter.  Miriam never cracked a smile.

In Jesus parable about the shepherd and the lost-and-found sheep,

“When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” [Luke 15:5-6]
If you miss the joy in that, you miss the joy that God himself shares in, and the kind of joy for which Jesus endured even the cross.  After all, it was Jesus who said,

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” [Luke 15:7]

Saturday, September 7, 2019

“Gridiron Grace” - September 8, 2019

Luke 14:25-33

            Toward the end of August, Andrew Luck, the 29-year-old quarterback for the Colts, announced his retirement.  He’s not retiring from everything – just the NFL.  He told a reporter last March, “Honestly, I think I could be very happy teaching high school history.”[1]  In his announcement, Luck said,

"This is not an easy decision. Honestly, it's the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me. For the last four years or so, I've been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it's been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason, and I felt stuck in it. The only way I see out is to no longer play football.

"I've been stuck in this process. I haven't been able to live the life I want to live. Taken the joy out of the game, and after 2016, when I played in pain and was unable to regularly practice, I made a vow to myself that I would not go down that path again. I find myself in a similar situation and the only way forward for me is to remove myself from football and this cycle that I’ve been in.”[2]

He was booed for it by fans.  He was insulted on social media.  He was called weak.  Some of his detractors insisted he just plain lacked the commitment to stick it out through the pain that comes with a football career. 

His resignation speech actually confirmed that he was choosing between mutually exclusive paths.  You cannot be a truly great quarterback if you don’t give it your all.  He said,

“I know that I am unable to pour my heart and soul into this position, which would not only sell myself short but the team in the end as well.”
When he realized he was not ready to do that, he stepped back.  He chose his prior commitments as a human being that would be impossible to fulfill if his health is totally wrecked.  No amount of cheering from the stands and no amount of money could compensate for that.
            That is the kind of commitment that Jesus looks for.  It isn’t that he wants people to despise or reject their families when he says,

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” [Luke 14:26]

He means that for his disciples, he has to come first.  It is just that kind of relationship.  And since his major command to his followers is to love God with your whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself, their love for him is going to show in how they relate to God and to people.  It is going to become complex.  I guarantee that.

            Jesus told his disciples that they should consider what it means to follow him, because discipleship, living as his follower, is one of those all-or-nothing decisions.  It means that you may have to turn aside from other commitments in order to do what he asks.  Discipleship means that following Jesus is your priority.  You look at your commitments, and honor what is honorable, but when there is a conflict, you go with him.  You may even need to say, “No,” to things that have a lot of good attached to them.  You may even need to say, “No,” to sports when they decide to push Jesus aside.

            Some relationships, by their nature, are all-or-nothing.  The most obvious, for us, is marriage, but it wasn’t always that way.  In Ephesians 5, Paul goes directly against the norms of Roman and Greek society when he insists that not only should a wife be faithful to her husband, a husband must also be faithful to his wife.  The prevailing social attitude was that “boys will be boys” but that was not going to be the way within Christianity.  Because he saw human relationships as (at least ideally) reflecting the relationship between God and humanity, and in its fullest between Christ and the Church, it has to be whole-hearted and, again, all-or-nothing. 

            Discipleship is not a “what-if” matter.  It is an entire way of life and plays out in a lifetime of concrete choices.  Jesus’ call does not leave us on the sidelines.  It sends us into the scrimmage where choices get made.  A lot of those depend on being able and willing to look seriously at the world and ask what is authentic and what is not.  Jesus often speaks a truth that is uncomfortable but, if heard, makes us better. 

Let’s go back to Andrew Luck’s resignation statement again.  He may actually improve other players’ lives by pointing out the destructive side of the sport, “this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain, rehab, and it's been unceasing, unrelenting, both in-season and offseason”.  It’s a reality that, for whatever reason, we have until recently ignored.  One of the few female sportswriters that I know of, Natalie Egenolf, wrote about this:

“Since when does anyone in any profession (outside of joining the military) knowingly agree to potentially severely damage not only their physical body but their mind? 
Athletes are conditioned to believe they must not show weakness, that in order to be a ‘true man’ they must sacrifice everything for the ultimate glory of being champion.”[3]

Jesus’ whole life calls human assumptions into question.  Love our enemies?  Really?  Turn the other cheek?  Are you serious?

To follow Jesus means taking on his assessment of life, and to live it his way.  He’s plain about that.

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” [Luke 14:27]

When we become devoted to money, to popularity, to fame, to the rush that comes from opioids or any other chemical substance; when we get caught up in the demands of prestige and the need to keep up appearances, or whatever your particular temptation may be (because everyone has their own), sooner or later Jesus is going to say, Hey!

“none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” [Luke 14:33]

But I am convinced that he does that so that our possessions don’t come to possess us. 

Matthew gives a version of this same passage from Luke that puts matters this way:

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  [Matthew 10:37-39]

There are plenty of football players and even coaches who have a strong and healthy faith, and I know nothing about Andrew Luck’s spiritual life.  But I do feel confident making at least one prediction about his future, which is that if he does teach high school history he will do well.  For my part, I feel like he has taught me a good lesson, and I have been out of school for awhile, now.

            And I also predict that anyone whom Jesus tells to take up the ball and run with it will cross the goal line and maybe even get a chance to do a little victory dance in the end zone.