Saturday, July 29, 2017

“Surprise Growth” - July 30, 2017

Matthew 13:31-33

“He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’”

            I feel sorry for people who don’t have a place they think of as “the old neighborhood”.  You know what I mean, I hope.  It’s a place that probably never existed the way it does in your head, but when you get together with other people who were there at the same time, you find out you all have the same general landscape in mind, peopled with the same unusual characters, unaware that you are probably also a character in somebody else’s version of the place.

            For my friends and me, one of the people who will always live in the old neighborhood, even though he has gone to be with the Lord many years ago now, is a man named Samuel B. Patchell III.  He was one of those loud, unabashed, intensely social men who thrived by the connections he made.  I am not making this up: he wore a cheap toupee and chomped on an unlit cigar everywhere he went.  He sold insurance for a living and handed out these pocket calendars left and right.  They had bright, shiny gold covers and you saw people pull them out of their pockets all over town.  He made sure that his son and daughter’s friends all had Patchell planners before they got their drivers’ licenses so that when that time came they would suddenly think of him.  This story has to do with kids and cars, too, and will eventually get around to the mustard seed turning into a tree, but bear with me.

            I was home from college one summer.  It must have been 1987 or ’88, but the date was definitely July 3.  That night I went to the movies with a girl from the old MYF group, who was also a friend of Mr. Patchell’s kids, and she drove.  After the movie, we were getting close to my house and one of her tires began making that sound that tells you it’s flat.  We pulled into the driveway and I got ready to change the tire.  I pulled out her spare and then looked for the jack.  There was none.  It was an old car and who knows where it had gone.  That’s okay, though.  I knew we had a jack in the shed and I went up to get it.  While there, I also noticed a whole, big bundle of flags that had accumulated there and realized that it was now after midnight.  It was the Fourth of July, and I had an idea that would turn a dismal end of the evening around.

            After changing the tire, we took the flags – and there were a lot of them – and we went around the block to decorate the Patchells’ house while they slept.  We left flags around the flower beds and along the street on both sides (it was a corner property).  We put them along the driveway and up the sidewalk.  We stuck them all over the place.  Then we started laughing, because we could picture what we knew would happen and (as it turned out) did happen in a few hours.  That would be when Mr. Patchell would get up to let the dog out, open the door, and turn around and scream up the stairs, “Vi!  Vi!  Wake up!  Ya gotta see this!  Vi!  Look out front!”

            That morning, Fourth of July, I told my parents about the stunt and they had to go see it right after breakfast.  It was surprising we hadn’t heard Mr. Patchell shouting, since we were only about a hundred yards away, and I have no doubt the other neighbors heard.  I was surprised, though, that I didn’t hear from his daughter, Joy, who was also home from school, but I would see her later when the whole bunch of us went to watch the fireworks down by the Art Museum.  It was her turn to drive.

            So that night there were about seven of us in the car and I hadn’t said anything.  Joy brought up what had happened.  She had been asleep when she heard her father shouting to her mother.  “Vi!  Vi!  Wake up!  Ya gotta see this!  Vi!  Look out front!”  She was used to her father going off and ignored it until her mother shrieked.  Then Joy got up and looked.

            Mr. Patchell’s old friend Joe had died not long before that, and Joe had always decorated his house in a big way for Fourth of July, so Mr. Patchell became convinced that someone had done this in memory of Joe, and the first thing he did when he stopped shouting was to get on the phone with Joe’s widow and thank her for doing this.  Only, she hadn’t done it.  Then he started calling through his rolodex to find out if any of his fellow Masons or Rotarians had done it.  Nope.  Then he decided it had to have been arranged by his son, who was in the Army in Korea at the time, so he started calling all of Greg’s friends and they all said they knew nothing.  Next, he placed a call to Greg himself.  He called him in Korea, on the other side of the world, to ask how he had pulled it off.  Greg knew nothing.  By 4:00 that afternoon, he had convinced himself that Joe had somehow reached out from beyond the grave to put those flags around the house.  That was the only possible explanation, and Joy was very glad to be out of the house for the night, because she was tired of trying to convince him that they were not being haunted by a patriotic ghost.

            One of the hardest things I have ever had to do was to tell her what had happened, and then to walk into the Patchells’ house after the fireworks, where everybody was still all wound up, and interrupt her father’s endless retelling of his morning (and it was hard to get a word in with him even when he was calm), to tell him that I was the ghost.  By the way, the next day he made a chart of where each flag had been as he took them down, so that he could put them up in the same spot the following year.

            So, what does this have to do with the mustard seed parable?

            If one small act of attempted humor can get so out of hand, and one excited person (admittedly over-extroverted to begin with) could stir up so many other people, not just from one end of town to the other, but also as far as Asia, within a matter of hours – all of this before social media spread our instantaneous reach – just think what it means when someone gets excited about something that really matters, something like what God has done for them, something like what happens when it’s not a bunch of flags that shows up along a driveway but the love of Jesus that shows up in their heart.

            I love that story in the gospel of John about Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a village well when it was only the two of them around.  He sees all the troubles and baggage that’s in her heart, talks with her about the rough spots she’s been through and probably was still experiencing, and offers her hope for something better and the assurance that he was there for her, even though nobody else in her old neighborhood probably saw her as anyone except a woman who was trouble.  Her response was not to pretend they didn’t know her, but to ignore the story they told her about who she was and to adopt Jesus’ version.  She ran to get people from the village that had rejected her and to tell them,

“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’”  [John 4:29]

They went to see what was happening.  Jesus spent a couple of days with them, and at the end of it

“They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’ [John 4:42]

            The kingdom of heaven surprises us with its intense, sudden, and unstoppable growth that doesn’t come about because of gimmicks and programs (pocket calendars and pens with church names or Bible verses printed on them, visitation plans, advertisements on billboards, and so forth) but when those who have faith like a mustard seed let it grow and do its work.  It happens when people speak up plainly and honestly, not with any self-interest or desire to build up their own ego or sense of achievement, but just to say that they’ve met someone who could understand them through-and-through, who can say with the authority of God himself that they are forgiven and made whole and there is a place in God’s kingdom that is there just for them, a spot in God’s neighborhood where people can see themselves and those around them as part of this great, wonderful, worldwide, unending story of God’s love, and maybe (at least sometimes) all laugh about themselves together and discover there’s a place in their hearts for each other, too.  “Vi!  Vi!  Wake up!  Ya gotta see this!  Vi!”

Saturday, July 22, 2017

“Leaving It to God” - July 23, 2017

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

            Before I get around to Jesus’ parable this morning, I want to remind you of two stories from the Old Testament. 

            In Genesis 18, Abraham gets a visit from two angels who are on their way to investigate what is going on in Sodom, which happens to be where Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family are living.  If things are as bad as reports say, the Lord plans to wipe the place off the face of the earth.  Of course, that would destroy Abraham’s family, since at that point he and Sarah had no children.  So Abraham has a talk with God.

“Then Abraham came near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ And the Lord said, ‘If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.’ Abraham answered, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?’ And he said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ Again he spoke to him, ‘Suppose forty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of forty I will not do it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.’ He answered, ‘I will not do it, if I find thirty there.’ He said, ‘Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’ And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.” [Genesis 18:23-33]

In the event, things did not go well, but before the fire and brimstone started pouring down, Lot and his family were given warning to clear out.

            That’s story #1.  Story #2 comes from the book of Jonah.  The part that gets the attention is the section where Jonah is swallowed up by a whale, or a great fish.  That’s not the juicy part, though.  What had happened before that was that God had told Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn the town to repent its ways.  God would give them forty days to turn things around, or else it would be another Sodom and Gomorrah moment.  Jonah doesn’t want Nineveh to have any warning, since it is the capital of one of Israel’s traditional enemies, Assyria.  He tried to sail in the opposite direction but when a storm arose and the sailors learned what Jonah was trying to do, they threw him overboard.  That was how he ended up inside the fish that eventually swam back to the Middle East and threw him up on the beach, at which point he realized there was no escaping God.  Jonah went to Nineveh, announced the warning, and then watched people repent and God do nothing to punish them.  He sat down outside the city to stew about it and to hope God would act. 

“The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’

 But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’” [Jonah 4:6-11]

And the Bible ends the story right there.  Jonah does not get a rebuttal.  For the sake of the children and animals, even if only for them, God will spare his people’s enemies.

            Now, about this parable that Matthew records: it works out the same way.  The Master’s servants (the Jonahs, let’s call them) want to clear the field of all that is not up to standard – or worse.  The Master is more aware of the possible collateral damage they may do in the process.

“‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest…”’” [Matthew 13:24-30]

            What does that look like?  Well, it may mean learning to hold your tongue long enough for righteous indignation (and I do mean it is truly righteous) to simmer down a bit, and it may leave anyone who really and truly cares feeling cut short, like Jonah.  Jesus said to love your enemy; he never promised your enemy would learn to love you back.  It’s great when that happens, but it’s not a certainty.  It may be for the sake of the children who are nearby and observing, who need a peaceful environment.  It may be for the sake of your own soul, which is probably not going to benefit from long-held anger.  For that matter, your blood pressure and/or your stomach ulcers wouldn’t be helped by it, either.

            A blogger who shows up on a clergy page that I often read had this to say recently about himself.  Please note that I have edited his comments for a general audience.  If his political stance is not yours, just flip it around and the story will apply just as much.  He writes,

“After First Baptist Church of Dallas went all-in on their nationalist idolatry, releasing an official CCLI Christian praise song called “Make America Great Again.” After I heard about an angry white man shooting a black girl with his concealed handgun out of road rage. After Donald Trump released his wrestlemania tweet. …

I’ve been on a roll the last few days on Facebook and Twitter. People are starting to share and retweet my stuff (which always makes me feel strangely uneasy). My creative juices are flowing. I’ve got zeal boiling over like a ripe volcano in my brain. So I was fired up to say something really poignant and devastating. …

But then I found myself last night in a conversation with a military guy who had a conservative seeming haircut and biceps and mannerisms. And his wife has cancer that’s come back for a second time and it’s metastasized all over. And he kept on saying, “The Lord has blessed us so much.” And they’ve got two beautiful kids who were playing with my kids and having a great time in the pool. We didn’t talk about anything earth-shattering. It was mostly just dad small-talk. But he was friendly and humble. He was patient and compassionate with his kids. And talking with him made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

So it got me confused.

What does resisting evil look like? Is it going off on the apostate idolaters who think that everyone else is an apostate idolater …
Or is it relishing and holding up human interaction where ideological categories don’t exist and two dads are just watching their kids swim together?

So if I like the warm and fuzzy feeling I have when I’m just a dad talking to another dad, is that me retreating into my white male privilege and pretending the world around me isn’t a giant dumpster fire? Or on the flip side, am I being a toxic, self-righteous [jerk] who is hardened against God’s love…?”[1]

            There are times when you have to remember that God has promised that in his own way, using his own judgement, his own insight, and his own mercy, he will sort everything out.  In the long run, I suggest that we should all, one way or another, be grateful for that.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

“Doesn’t Jesus Know Any Better?” - July 16, 2017

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

There’s something that bothers me about the parable of the Sower: why does he waste seed planting it where he knows it won’t grow or flourish?  I’ve read the commentaries that talk about the differences between ancient and modern agriculture – we plant very carefully in neat little rows while Jesus’ contemporaries planted by tossing seed out as they swung their arms.  Their system works well enough in fields, but surely they were smart enough to know not to toss grain that had been carefully stored and prepared onto rocks and roads and into brier patches.  With famine always a possibility, why would anybody waste a single grain of wheat?

So here’s a much more sensible version of this parable.  Listen!

“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, so he scraped them back with his foot so that the birds would not eat them up.  Other seeds fell on rocky ground the previous year, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil, so he steered away from that area this time. He knew that if they had no root, they would wither away.  Then he marked off where seeds had fallen among thorns in the past, so that he could get back and do some weeding before he planted there.  Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

Now isn’t that better?

Let me ask you this, however – and it’s a series of questions that I ask myself, too, with answers that I don’t always like.  And I’m assuming here that everybody understands and has heard what Jesus calls “the word of the kingdom”.  That is, that God loves his people, every one of them, with all of his infinite being, and himself has taken on the world’s infinite suffering so that the poor in spirit are given the kingdom of heaven, those who mourn are comforted, the meek inherit the earth, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are filled, the merciful receive mercy, the pure in heart see God, the peacemakers are called his children, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake also receive the kingdom itself.  [Matthew 5:3-10]

So, if Jesus is going around, and his Spirit still goes around today, sending out this kind of good news left and right, and if you and I have, presumably, really taken this good news to heart, have there not also been times when

“the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart”? [Matthew 13:19]
“when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word” [Matthew 13:21]
have fallen away?  Or who can say that they have never experienced how

“the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing” ? [Matthew 13:22]
It seems to me that it is not just the world, or society, or life, or whatever you want to name it, that is composed of all these different types of soil.  It’s our own hearts, too, that have all kinds of different conditions.  Maybe at a given point in life on type or another will predominate, but they are all there, all hidden within our souls.  If Jesus is to plant the word within us, and if it is to spring up so that it

“bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty”, [Matthew 13:23]

then some of it is bound to fall into places where we don’t see it doing any good.

            But, you know what?  Sometimes we ourselves don’t know where the good and bad places are until the seed starts growing there.  Just try – I dare you – to keep the weeds from growing in the tiniest crack in the pavement, for even a week.  It isn’t that Jesus doesn’t know where the good seed will not grow.  It’s that we don’t know where it will.

            We look at someone and have in mind the conditions that Jesus rightly points out are dangerous to the good news, and we think we can see their hearts.  But only he can. 

So we see someone who lives in the midst of temptation and we assume we can write them off.  The addict will never be able to escape the trap they have fallen into.  But you know that isn’t true.  Maybe a huge percentage of people will be lost to the dark side that way, but what about the ones who are not?  Do they not count?  And do you know who they are, or how many tries it may take them before “the word of the kingdom” finally takes root?

Or maybe there’s a prominent actor who finds religion or a sports figure who gets saved and there’s this little, cynical voice that says, “No way will this last for very long.”  Maybe a political type starts mentioning his or her faith and we (okay, “I”) start thinking, “Here we go.  Whose vote are you trying to get?”  What if, dare I say this? – it’s for real?  Jimmy Carter isn’t the only one.

Even more than that, don’t overlook Jesus’ ability to change the very conditions that he is up against.  His teaching of the good news was joined together with his living the good news and in an essay called “In Which Life Meets Life’s Enemies”, E. Stanley Jones points out,

“He came that [people] might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.  But three things kept [people] from knowing life; three things shadowed and shattered life – sin, suffering, death.”

(Aren’t those the things Jesus talks about in this parable?)

“All his teaching, all his living, all his miracles, all his tragedy at Calvary were to get rid of these three things.  He hated sin.  He hated suffering.  He hated death. When he performed miracles of healing upon suffering [people] it was not, as some have thought, to attest his claims to divinity.  He healed them because he hated suffering.  He simply could not bear to see [people] suffer.  But he knew he could not rid the world of suffering by individual healing, so he went deeper, went to the utmost limit and at the cross became suffering that [people] might be saved from suffering; became sin that sin might be ended; became death that death might be banished.  He took it upon himself.”[1]

            The Sower knows what he is doing. 

“Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”  [Matthew 13:8-9]

[1] E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of Every Road (New York: Abingdon Press, 1930), 77-78.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

“Playing Games” - July 9, 2017

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

            Sometimes I wonder what Jesus thinks about the Church as we know it.  Part of me looks at what John says about Jesus going to the wedding at Cana and what all the gospels say about how he enjoyed sharing a good meal with his friends and sometimes with people who were not his friends, and I am sure that he would highly approve of such things as strawberry festivals and chili cook-offs and covered dish dinners.  I read about how, from childhood on, he made it part of his spiritual life to travel to festival holy days in Jerusalem, first with his family and later with his disciples, and I get the feeling he would understand why people go to Christian events like music festivals (I’m thinking here about Creation) or various youth rallies.

            But I can also imagine him looking at a church picnic and asking, “Why weren’t the neighbors invited?” or standing there in a crowd of thousands of people staring at a stage and thinking, “Are we here for God or for the music?” 

I can see him getting annoyed with folks like you and me, just not seeing the deep needs that people try to meet in terrible ways, turning to drugs – some of them chemicals that kill their bodies; some of them empty, time-wasting trivia that fill a vacant mind; some of them like the pursuit of wealth or power at any expense that kills their souls.  Matthew [9:36] says that
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
But I can also see him understanding the frustration that comes when, as many Christians do, we do our best to be faithful to the gospel and to share the good news in both word and deed and it seems to be to no effect.  He himself looked at the Holy City and cried.  He said,
“JerusalemJerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  [Luke 13.34]

            In short, I don’t think his reaction to us would be much different from his reaction to the people of first-century Palestine, who could be frustratingly confusing and totally impossible to please, but whom he loved totally.

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, 
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
   we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” 
[Matthew 11:16-19]

            The heart of Jesus’ ministry, and the heart of our own, is to remain faithful to the love of God in whatever way we have known it in our own lives.  The heart of it is to be genuine human beings, because we are genuinely made in God’s image, and genuinely forgiven when we turn away from that, and genuinely restored when we repent and turn back to God, and genuinely blessed when the Holy Spirit says, “Now we have a job to do for somebody else.”  In some cases it calls for some serious, get-real people with a hard-nosed edge.  In some cases it calls for someone who is the good cop.  Don’t think it all falls on you.  You may not be the one for a particular job.  On the other hand, don’t think there is not a role for you to play, because God is not wasteful and isn’t going to let your gifts go unused.

            There’s a man who lives in California whose name is Francis Chan.  Seven years ago he was pastor of a church that was up to an attendance of 5,000 people per week and he had just published a couple of bestsellers and was becoming sought-after on the lecture circuit.  Then he just left it, which confused a lot of people at the time.  Last week he finally gave an explanation, not to his megachurch colleagues, but to an audience of Facebook employees.[1]
"I got frustrated at a point, just biblically," Chan said ... "I'm going wait a second. According to the Bible, every single one of these people has a supernatural gift that's meant to be used for the body. And I'm like 5,000 people show up every week to hear my gift, see my gift. That's a lot of waste. Then I started thinking how much does it cost to run this thing? Millions of dollars!"
"So I'm wasting the human resource of these people that according to Scripture have a miraculous gift that they could contribute to the body but they're just sitting there quietly.” …
"I was like, 'God, you wanted a church that was known for their love. You wanted a group of people where everyone was expressing their gifts. … We're a body.’”
            God didn’t send Jesus into the world to play games, even if the game is called “Church” and his followers are racking up big points on the world’s scoreboard.  (In business they call them market-share and revenue.  In church we say “attendance and budget”, but either way, there’s a danger that what should be indications of faithfulness are mistaken for the faithfulness itself.)  Chan confessed what God was showing him:
“Wanting to hide from ‘that weird celebrity thing,’ he also realized that he missed the old Francis Chan — ‘that stupid kid who fell in love with Jesus in high school and starts calling everyone in the yearbook that he knew to tell them about Jesus because he was so concerned about their eternal destiny.’"
Jesus came so that people, in the Church and outside the Church, could stop playing the games that are so destructive to life here and keep us from its eternal fullness. 
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” [Matthew 10:28-30]
The people Jesus was talking to when he said that knew what a yoke was, and how it worked.  It’s one of those wooden collars that puts two animals together to pull a cart or a plow.  It enforces a kind of teamwork that doesn’t always come naturally, but that ultimately makes the job easier on both animals and gets things done that could not be done alone, under the guidance of the farmer who put them together. 

            I actually think it’s kind of funny that Chan went off and started intentionally founding a bunch of small, intentionally non-mega churches, in fact house-churches.  In the speech he gave to the Facebook people he told them, like it’s some new discovery, what people in (and forgive me if I sound smug here, because I am) traditional churches take for granted.  Chan told the people last week,
"Some days I think it was a lot easier when I could just preach, go back and drive off in my car and leave all of them like I will today," he said to laughter among the Facebook employees. "I don't have to care for your issues, you know? … I'll never see you again.
"This is easy. But you have this circle here and you're in each other's lives and no offense, it's not this Facebook — I can just put up what I want about myself. That's kind of like the way church was. It's like let me just show you this one side on Sunday morning and let me just show you the best pictures of me and my greatest accomplishments.
"But when it's family, it gets messy. And you start finding out people's dirt. Just like you know about your brother and sister every Thanksgiving. It's messy because it's family. That's what Christ wanted. And so we fight for it. And it's been a blast."
I’m glad he’s realized that, although if he had just asked you or me, we could have told him.  At least, I hope so. 

            Yes, we drive each other crazy, but go ahead and just laugh about it.  According to the Bible, we drive Jesus to distraction, too, but he somehow still wants to gather us together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. 

            If only we are willing.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

"Water and Welcome" - July 2, 2017

Matthew 10:40-42 

            Two weeks ago I noticed that one of my favorite pair of pants had shrunk in the past few months.  Last fall they fit well, but somehow in the intervening time, the waistline must have gone down an inch or two, because I had to breathe in sharply to make the button do what it is supposed to do.  Later that week, my father (whose observations I otherwise welcome) commented on a bucket of caramel corn that I had picked up down the shore.  I won’t tell you what he said, but those two events, taken together, sent me to the salad bar and the gym. 

I am fascinated by the weight machines and the flashing lights on the treadmills and all of that.  They are mechanical and electronic wonders.  The best fixture of the whole place, however, is over in a corner and facing away from everything else.  It’s the water fountain.  Forty-five minutes or an hour into what might be called “caramel corn reparation therapy”, a second or two spent in its company is incredibly welcome.  Water is so simple, yet so good.  We need it to live, but there are also moments when we realize it more clearly than others.

The strange thing is that there are some folks that don’t get that.  It’s too simple, maybe.  Across the gym there’s a refrigerator case full of other drinks for sale.  They’re loaded up with electrolytes that can be sweated out during exercise and some of them are protein drinks.  There are a few that are bright green and probably glow in the dark.  It wouldn’t surprise me if there were some form of liquid kale lurking there.  Maybe these do some good; I’m not running them down.  But what I really need is water.

One of my professors, David Steinmetz, told a story about how important it is to recognize what our souls need and not to get sidetracked.  He talked about being on a long stretch of interstate on a cold, cold day – probably the stretch of I-81 that runs through eastern North Carolina, which is long and straight and boring and lined for miles with pine trees without a town or even a farm in sight.  He talked about what it would be like to run out of gas there and to roll over onto the shoulder and wait for someone going by to stop.  (Remember, this is before cell phones.)  Eventually, someone pulls over and gets out and says, “I went past earlier and saw you were pulled over.   I felt bad for you in this weather, so here’s a thermos of hot chocolate.  God bless you, brother.”  Then they drive off.  Gee, thanks.

It’s a kind thought.  It makes you feel better.  But it’s not what you need, and in the end you are no better off.  As for the giver, they go away thinking that they have done something good and feeling better about themselves, but they haven’t really improved the situation.  I remember helping to sort through the shelves at a food pantry one time and coming across a whole case filled with jars of capers.  I still have no idea who uses them, and certainly couldn’t picture someone in serious need looking into their bag and seeing: “soup – good!; Spam – okay;  bread – yes; and –hey!—a jar of capers!”

A true gift, one that really becomes a blessing to someone, is a gift that is suited to their needs and to who that person really is.  When that kind of gift is given, it tells someone not only that somebody cares, but that somebody understands what the recipient faces and it tells them that the giver is, in a way, going through it with them.

“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”  [Matthew 10:41]

That’s why it is the gift that pays attention to someone as a person, that shows attention to who they really are and what they really need, that conveys true compassion and blesses both the recipient and the giver. 

“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” [Matthew 10:42]

There’s nothing dismissive in that kind of giving, no sense of “Here you go, now don’t bother me.”  (I call that “telethon charity”.)  Instead, the kind of giving that comes from the heart takes the time to consider what is going on, and may accept feedback if it’s the wrong thing, like hot chocolate when what’s needed is a gallon of gas. 

            Isn’t that cup of water that comes with welcome, in fact, so much loser to what Jesus has done for us?  When I think about how God could have handled the whole issue of sin and forgiveness, I think of how he could just have written us all off.  Or, if he had wanted to, he could have just said, “I forgive you all for everything.  Don’t do it again.”  Or he could have said, “Three strikes and you’re out.”  God is God, and can do as he pleases.  Instead of giving us the brush-off for our flaws and our sins, though, when we are less than he intended, it matters to him.  Our sin touches his heart and so out of his love for us he takes us seriously and chose to work with us.

He took on our humanity in the life of Jesus and showed us what it is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.  He did that, even knowing the pain and sorrow that he would have to face along the way, all to save us from the permanent pains and sorrows that come from turning away from him.  Then he turned it around and said it we ever need him, we can find him.  He’ll be right here. 

            Only – surprise! – he may be right here in the person who has the greatest need herself.  God asks us to do what he has done for us, and when we do that, he is there even if we don’t realize it until he shows us everything at the end of time.

“‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ … ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”  [Matthew 25:35-36, 40b]

This Jesus guy never lets us off the hook, does he?  Then again, he knows what it really means to be in that position.

            There’s a hymn that was written for the 1905 Methodist Hymnal by a preacher in New York City whose name was Frank Mason North.  He was one of the people who helped start two groups that are still going strong, the Methodist Federation for Social Action and the National Council of Churches.  I looked up his biography hoping to find some sort of inspirational episode from his life to share with you, but I found that his life, at least in the retelling, wasn’t all that dramatic.  His letters that survive are mostly to his family and deal with the usual stuff about catching colds and household matters and travel arrangements.  That makes it all the more pointed, maybe, that without some kind of parting of the clouds he could still look out his front door and see Jesus there.  The hymn I mentioned, “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life”, recognizes the human trouble that touches the heart of God, God’s sending of Jesus into human need, and the part his every day disciples now play in going where he has gone.

“…In haunts of wretchedness and need,
On shadowed thresholds fraught with fears,
From paths where hide the lures of greed,
We catch the vision of thy tears.

… The cup of water given for thee
Still holds the freshness of thy grace;
Yet long these multitudes to see
The sweet compassion of thy face.

…Till all the world shall learn thy love,
And follow where thy feet have trod;
Till glorious from thy heaven above

Shall come the city of our God.”