Saturday, May 12, 2018

“You’ll Know When” - May 13, 2018

Acts 1:1-11

            If I ever get the chance, by God’s grace, to sit down in heaven and talk with Luke, who wrote not only the gospel but also the book of Acts, I am going to point out that he caused – inadvertently, I’m sure – a whole lot of trouble when he included one little detail in his account of Jesus’ ascension.  It appears in Acts, but not in Luke. 

“While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”  [Acts 1:10-11]

That has fed into a ridiculous branch of pseudo-scholarship that really took off in the nineteenth century, where people get totally hung up on trying to figure out when Jesus will return. 

There was an Irishman named John Nelson Darby who takes the credit for developing an itinerary for the Lord to follow, by grabbing a verse from Daniel here and a passage from I Thessalonians there, pouring on a few cups of Revelation, heating it over fire and brimstone until it turned into a system called Dispensationalism.  It was popularized by Cyrus Scofield, the founder of what we used to call the Philadelphia College of Bible, currently Cairn University.  The Scofield Reference Bible was a regular King James Version, but with marginal notes referring to Darby’s theories.  All of that has been continued, first on radio, then on television, and all over the internet, by people who will tell you (whether you ask them or not) that they have discovered a secret code that unlocks the mysteries of Jesus’ plans.

I guess they never read the passage at the start of Acts where Jesus’ disciples ask him about when and how God’s kingdom will come in its fullness, and Jesus tells them not to bother about that.

“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.’” [Acts 1:6-7]

We can be sure that God does have his plans and does have the ultimate end of things under control.  Trust him with that, as with everything else.  The process is underway already.  It’s not something future to plan for.  It’s something present, to experience. 

The fact that God sent his Son as a Savior who cherishes each of his children, even going to the cross for us, rather than sending him as a tyrant or as a cosmic policeman to arrest us, who have all broken God’s law – that shows us that God’s will is not to destroy, but to redeem.  There is nothing hidden about that.  It’s not a puzzle to figure out.  Ephesians says that

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  [Ephesians 1:8-10]

In the fullness of time that will happen.  Redemption has already begun, and will come to completion in God’s time.  You cannot rush the appearance of cherry blossoms in the spring or the cherries in the summer.  In God’s time, they appear.  You cannot force the tide to come in early, or to stay longer than it ever does.  You cannot rush it.  Neither can you stop it.

            As Jesus went into heaven, he prepared his followers to expect that moment.  On the one hand, it’s possible to look at that moment with fear.  I get that feeling whenever I hear someone say that “we’re living in the last days”.  Maybe it’s just me.  But when I read this part of Acts, I hear him say to wait less for his return than to be ready for the presence of the Spirit in the meantime, and to wait like a racer waits at the starting line, not like a runner looking for the race finally to be over.  He said,

“you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1:8]
And they did just that.

            So, how do we – who are also disciples – know when the moment is right?  It isn’t by calculating years from obscure verses, but by listening to the living Word.  We don’t always get the unmistakable signs that the first disciples got, as when at Pentecost

“there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” [Acts 2:3]
Sometimes what we get are gentler hints, sort of Spirit-nudges.  I’ll just speak for myself here, since that’s how it works for me.  I confess that I ignore them sometimes, thinking I’m just being silly or imagining something, and later on find out that I should have paid attention.  On the whole, though, when I do pay attention to that little voice that says, “So-and-so sounded a little quiet the other day,” or maybe, “Why don’t you go down this block instead?” or “Send a copy of this cartoon to So-and-So”, it may very well open the door to a moment when God’s grace enters unexpectedly into some situation.  Jesus told Nicodemus,

“The wind blows where it chooses” or “The spirit blows where it chooses”
 (the word is the same in New Testament Greek).  Let’s go with

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [John 3:8]
We may not know, and are not meant to know, the great and overarching plans of which our own lives are just one small (but necessary) part.  We can know, and deep down I think we do know, when there are moments that matter more than others, when one word fitly spoken or one deed of kindness or courage is asked of us, that we may be

“witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1:8]
If we faithfully attend to those, the rest will be in God’s hands, who knows better than any of us do with the big stuff.

“Be still, my soul.  The Lord doth undertake
To guide the future, as he has the past.
Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake.
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul.  The wind and waves still know
His voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.”

Saturday, May 5, 2018

“Faith Is the Victory” - May 6, 2018

I John 5:1-6

            World conquest isn’t something I have thought much about since the occasional Saturday afternoons I spent playing “Risk” when I was in high school.  In fact, we tend to make fun of anyone who gets it into their head.  Maybe you never saw the cartoon series “Pinky and the Brain”, where the typical opening showed two mice, Pinky and the Brain, sitting around and Pinky says, “Gee, Brain, what are we going to do tonight?” and the Brain answers, “The same thing we do every night, Pinky.  Try to take over the world.”  Of course, his schemes always go off course in a big way.

            The Romans, on the other hand, at least those who have left a record of themselves, took the idea of world conquest seriously.  The Emperor Augustus, who ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth, left behind a summary of his accomplishments where, like any good megalomaniac, he refers to himself in the third person and as a god.  It begins,

“Below is a copy of the achievements of the deified Augustus whereby he subjected the world to the empire of the Roman people, and of the expenditures he made on behalf of the country and the Roman people.”[1]

He speaks very highly of himself.  He notes,

“I often waged wars on land and sea, both civil and foreign, in the whole world, and as victor I spared all the citizens who asked pardon.  Those foreign people who could safely be pardoned I preferred to preserve rather than exterminate.”[2]

I guess he was just a big softy inside.  I’ll spare you the endless recitation of his honors and achievements, the list of offices he held and buildings he put up, and how many times the Senate sent him a vote of thanks.  I only want to emphasize the difference between the official and public outlook of the Romans and the thought of the upstart Christians, whose views and attitudes the Romans and their successors have never been able to comprehend.

            Christianity even means something different when it speaks of “the world”.  To Augustus, conquering the world meant expanding his territory. 

“I enlarged the territory of all the provinces of the Roman people that neighbored upon people that were not subject to our empire. …At my order and under my auspices two armies were led almost at the same time into Ethiopia and Arabia… I annexed Egypt to the empire of the Roman people.”[3]

To the Christians, “the world”, as John wrote about it in his letters to the believers, was not a geographical term but referred to a mindset and the actions that flow from it, the mindset and deeds of people like Augustus and his successors, but also anyone who gets caught up in the cycle of power games and pride.  The poet William Butler Yeats spoke of

“The noisy set of schoolmasters, bankers, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”[4]

John’s notion of success was not the same as Caesar’s.  In fact, to John, success meant finding a way out of that endless cycle and stepping away from the game of gimme-gimme, I-me-mine.

            He wasn’t alone in that.  Christians in general saw that to be puffed-up and jealous and ego-driven set the course for great troubles.  Jesus’ own brother, James, wrote to the Church, which has never been immune to the world’s ways:

“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?  You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.  And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” [James 4:1-2]

How many arguments and even fights, maybe, have you seen because somebody who is eager to let everyone else know how important they are comes up against someone else who is just as self-important?  How much time and money and energy are wasted in a group where everybody has to do everybody else one better?

            But if your worth is not connected to things of no ultimate value, if your success is not measured by the clothes you wear or whom you know or where you vacation or how often your name is spoken, or anything like that, then you have begun to step outside the arena where the silly and dangerous games are being fought.  In fact, if your dignity and honor are tied not to what you’ve done but to what God has done for you, then you are in a good place.  If you have placed your entire trust in Jesus, so that you know your place in the universe and in eternity is secure, then you don’t need to play any of those games at all, and the amazing thing is that means you win.

“And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” [I John 5:4-5]

            I learned a lot from people I have worked with while they were in prison.  Some had learned to use a kind of religious slang to describe themselves, and that was never very convincing.  Others, though, would tell their stories with real conviction (pun intended), able to say what it was within themselves that had drawn them into trouble, and they would say it not in a way that sounded like an excuse, but that was more of an explanation.  It wasn’t: “I stabbed the guy because I was on drugs and not thinking clearly,” but more like, “I thought I could get away from my pain by using the drugs, and next thing I knew, I was inflicting my pain on everyone around me.”  Then they would say how they had found someone whose love and caring was able to address the deepest hurts, and his name was Jesus.  And sometimes the group would start singing,

“What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!”

And there would be a time of prayer, of course.  Then at the end, somebody would start a little song that’s really a great song,

                        “for whatever is born of God conquers the world.” [I John 5:4]

The song says,

“In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus,
We have the victory.
In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus,
Demons will have to flee.
Tell me, who can stand before us
When we call on that great name?
Jesus, Jesus, blessed Jesus,
We have the victory.”

[1] Augustus, “Res Gestae” in Meyer Reinhold, The Golden Age of Augustus (Sarasota: Samuel Stevens & Co., 1978), 92-93.
[2] Ibid., 93.
[3] Ibid., 99-100.
[4] from “Adam’s Curse”.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

“Counting from 1 to Z” - April 29, 2018

I John 4:7-21

            I want to start out by asking everybody to try something that will need a pencil or pen and a piece of paper.  You can use the pencils in the pews, and the blank space at the margin of your bulletin.  This is an exercise that I’m stealing from the District Superintendent, who got it from someone else, and maybe you’ve done it before.  If you have, just play along.  Everybody ready?

            What we’re going to do is very simple.  We’re going to count aloud from one to twenty-six, and as we do that, we’re going to write the letters of the alphabet – in order.  On your mark, get set, and…

            How did it go?  This is an exercise that’s supposed to demonstrate the difficulties with multitasking.  We all know someone who claims to be able to talk on the phone, type, and balance their checkbook all at the same time.  Maybe that’s you.  The point is that even if you think you can do more than one thing at a time, you do not do anything as well as when you focus on one activity.

            I John says that one thing should be the focus of our lives.

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  [I John 4:7-8]
That was the focus of Jesus’ life.  He was not here to give new laws, but to help us understand the ways and the reasons that God had laid out from the beginning.  He was not here to establish some sort of kingdom for himself, or to enjoy special honors, or to set up an institution like the Church.  (That part came later, as a means to God’s ends.) 

“God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” [I John 4:9-10]
            Religious people toss the word “sin” around pretty freely.  We speak of sins of commission: doing what we are told not to do.  We speak of sins of omission: not doing what you know you should.  It’s a sin of commission to covet your neighbor’s wealth and a sin of omission to refuse to share your own with somebody in need.  Sin involves choosing something – anything – over the love of God.

            There are those aspects of just being human that hold us back from that kind of single-hearted expression of God’s love.  They may not totally prevent us from loving one another, but get in the way of doing it as well as we could.  Going back to the alphanumerical exercise we did, it is not impossible to write the alphabet and count at the same time.  It is just harder.  It takes more effort.  Jesus himself knew that, as he put it,

“The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” [Matthew 26:41]
For himself, he knew what a struggle it can be – make that what a struggle it is – to foresee the consequences of living by God’s love in an unloving world, and still to go forward on God’s path.  When his arrest and crucifixion were imminent, he needed to take some time to strengthen himself to face them.  He went to the garden of Gethsemane to prepare.  Matthew says,

“He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee and began to be grieved and agitated.  Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ And going on a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.’” [Matthew 26:37-39]
Fear (and sometimes it’s justifiable fear) gets in the way for us.  Jesus had to overcome that, as he had to overcome all sorts of temptations, on his way to the cross.  But he loved us enough to keep on going.

            Back to I John: fear is a major obstacle to living in God’s love, but Jesus has a habit of overcoming obstacles.   “A wedding reception and no wine?  Go get some water.  Five thousand people and nothing for supper but five rolls and two cans of tuna?  Sit down while I say grace.  Sin?  Oh, yes, that’s the really big one… that does get in the way.”

“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear …” [I John 4:17-18]
We no longer need to fear God’s judgment, because Jesus has taken care of that for us.  In turn, the fears that we have about acting according to God’s love instead of according to our self-interest, as real as they may be, can be faced and overcome.

            In fact, those fears can even become an advantage.  I read a story this week about a woman from Pittsburgh named Sloane Berrent who dropped a high-octane business career and went to work with an organization called Kiva that makes microloans to really, really poor people around the world.  She found herself hanging out with folks outside Manila who survive by scavenging in trash dumps, seeing how ten dollars here or twenty dollars there could, in the right hands, make a major difference.  She said,

“I’m scared every day.  I’m scared people won’t think I’m doing this for the right reasons.  I’m scared since I’m everywhere at once and nowhere all the time I won’t have the opportunity to settle down and  have a family.  I’m frightened something will happen to a loved one while I’m too far off to reach them and I won’t be there for someone who loves me.
But here’s the thing.  I’ve also realized that fear is normal.  If I didn’t get a little tug in my stomach before something big, it wouldn’t be the right thing.  Fear is energy mangled and a powerful motivator, so I just turn it into something positive.  When you’re scared your senses are heightened.  I use my fear to hone my intuition.  I’m alone in a lot of countries and situations people at home wouldn’t be comfortable in, but nothing bad happens to me.  Why?  Because I make smart decisions, but also because I use my senses and I trust my fear to have its place when there is something to truly be scared of.”[1]
            She’s right that there are things and people and situations where fear is like a warning light on the dashboard.  Fear is worth paying attention to.  But if the fear comes from yourself, not from outside, then it is something to be handed over to God so that you can get on with the one real focus of the Christian life without distraction, so you can count from one to infinity instead of one to Z.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us.  Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”  [I John 4:18-21]

[1] quoted in Chris Guillebeau, The Art of Non-Conformity (New York: Penguin, 2010) pp. 46-47.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

“How’m I Doin’?” - April 22, 2018

I John 3:16-24

            When Ed Koch was mayor of New York City, he was known for riding around town, and at random times rolling down his car window to shout at whoever was on the sidewalk, “How’m I Doin’?”  It was an odd way of getting feedback on how to run a city, and it didn’t allow anybody to think things through or to give any kind of in-depth answer, but at least it went straight to the people with no pollsters or spin involved.

            The answer a mayor would get to a question like that is going to vary with the person she or he asks, though.  A lot of people are going to respond based on whether the potholes are being fixed and the trash is being collected.  There are going to be some, though, who are going to have their property values in mind.  Koch was mayor of New York during the AIDS crisis, and a lot of what I read about him this past week when I looked up this one, little, three-word quotation went into his part in the response to that emergency.

            If you really want to know how you’re doing, you should be more specific.  How are you doing what?  Babe Ruth is best known for his home-run record.  He was also a great pitcher, and that gets overshadowed.  In the 1918 World Series, he pitched 29 1/3 scoreless innings, a record that stood until Whitey Ford broke it in 1961.  Off the field, he was known for womanizing and for drinking way too much. 

            How are things going with you?  How are you doing?

            Maybe in one area things are going well, but at the expense of another.  Maybe you have that parenting or grandparenting thing figured out, at least for now.  (After all, it’s different to be the parent of a two-year-old, a twelve-year-old, and a sixteen-year-old.  The job description for “parent” is updated every few months.)  On the other hand, the skills that you gained as a blues saxophonist have totally evaporated from the first moment you realized that the baby needed to sleep.  Maybe your law studies are going well, but you haven’t had time to go to the gym in four months.  You prioritize. 

            How are you doing on those priorities?  If you have to pick between soccer practice and church, which do you go to?  If cheerleading is more important than Sunday School, as it is for a lot of families, how will that play out down the road?  You work hard to provide for your family, but that means that they never see you.  What good is that?

            So much of the Bible is about keeping priorities straight, about not letting the words and the appearances be the end of things, but asking where the real substance is.  It’s about letting our hearts and our deeds tell us how we are really doing, not as the world identifies success, but as God does.  It presupposes that what matters most in life is love, and shows us how to ask how we are doing with that.
“We know love by this that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.  And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” [I John 3:16-23] 

            I keep a clipping under the glass that covers my desk.  When I have too many papers and what-not all over the place, and push them aside, I see it right there and, because it’s under the glass, it doesn’t move and I cannot brush it away (or ruin it if I spill a cup of tea or coffee).  I don’t remember where I found it, but it’s written by somebody named Jim Palmer, about whom I know absolutely nothing except that at some point he wrote a list that has been good for me to see.  The heading is “22 Mistakes I Made as a Senior Pastor”.  They are:

“Putting church over community.
Putting orthodoxy over love.
Putting certainty over wonder.
Putting teaching over conversation.
Putting polished over real.
Putting answers over questions.
Putting membership over friendship.
Putting Christianity over Christ.
Putting knowledge over action.
Putting style over substance.
Putting appearance over authenticity.
Putting functionality over beauty.
Putting religion over spirituality.
Putting numbers over faces.
Putting holiness over humanity.
Putting accountability over acceptance.
Putting heaven over earth.
Putting meetings over relationships.
Putting reputation over risk.
Putting charisma over compassion.
Putting the Afterlife over the Herelife.
Putting thinking over feeling.”

Maybe you’ve got a list of your own like that someplace.  You don’t have to tell anyone else about it, unless it helps, but it really would be a good idea to run over something like that in a prayerful and reflective way and then to ask the Lord, “How’m I doing?”

            If you don’t already have that kind of list, let me suggest one that not only lays out areas worth working on, but what you can expect to come out of them.  I cannot take credit for drawing this one up, either.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  [Matthew 5:3-12]

About those “Blessed are” things: How’s it going?  Well, I hope.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

“Repentance and Forgiveness” - April 15, 2018

Luke 24:44-49

            Someone who was once trying to weasel out of a situation where he had been caught cheating on his wife found himself being questioned intensely and publicly.  Somebody pointed out that he had denied activities that were pretty clearly substantiated, saying, “There’s nothing going on between us.”  He insisted he had been truthful because when he was asked the affair had already been cut off.  It would have been different if he had said that nothing ever had gone on.  In his own words, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

I’m also about to make – for better reasons – the point that the word “is” is important.  In this case, I’m looking at one verse at the end of Luke where Jesus tells his disciples

“that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” [Luke 24:47]

Shouldn’t that be: “repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed”?  The verb is “to be”.  Conjugate that as the rare grammatical form called a circumstantial participle: “I am to be/ You are to be/ He, she, or it is to be/ We are to be/ You are to be/ They are to be”.  Here that is used as the auxiliary to the main verb, which is “to proclaim”.  

            “To proclaim” is what I won’t get around to doing if I get tangled up in this stuff any longer, so back to the real point:

“that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” [Luke 24:47]

That “is” tells me that what looks to me like two items, “repentance” and “forgiveness”, are one item, not two.  They are a package deal.  I can look at the car and the tires separately, but I am not going to buy one without the other.  When I talk about the car, the tires are understood.

            Repentance and forgiveness are two sides of what we call people to experience, and of what we experience in our own lives.  To turn away from evil opens us up for God’s forgiveness, and God’s forgiveness leads us to turn away from evil.  It works both ways.  The old life has come and gone.  Something new has begun.  If you would experience the new, you have to leave the old behind, and if you are feeling the tug to start over, you should know that the hold of the former ways is broken, and its power is gone.  Sometimes the two parts of that are working simultaneously.  The Holy Spirit can do things however it chooses, and always knows best.

            One of the best preachers – and by “best” I mean most effective in calling people to new life in Jesus – in the United Methodist Church today is a man down in Houston whose name is Rudy Rasmus.  He shares the story of his life pretty freely, and does it best in his own voice, so here is the version that is on YouTube 

            Did you hear in that how the repentance and the forgiveness go together?  Be sure that they always do.  It took him years to extricate himself from the life that he had actually grown up in, but once the process began it rolled on and on.  It took five years of his wife praying simply for God’s love to show itself in him.  When that began to show itself, it happened in fits and starts.  Repentance and forgiveness were both there.  Together they came to lift him out of what he called “some dark places”.

            Jesus told his disciples to let people know about that freedom, that it can be theirs.  If God can (and he did) raise Jesus out of the dark grave, you can be sure that God can (and he will) raise us out of the dark places our sins lead us, and take away the sin that leads us there in the first place.

            That is the power of the cross and the power of the resurrection.  My prayer today is for each of us to know both.  Consider this, if you will, an altar call.  Consider this an opportunity to let the Spirit of Christ find just the right place within your heart to begin the process of renewal that begins and never ends, that lets you say with the apostle Paul,

“by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain” [I Corinthians 15:10]

and to assure others that, wherever they may be on the path,

“the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” [Philippians 1:6]

and to share what you have seen Jesus do in this world that he loves so deeply, because

“You are witnesses of these things.” [Luke 24:48]