Saturday, February 23, 2019

"Congo: The Gift of Focus" - February 24, 2019

Matthew 25:31-46

            Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment has a bunch of clueless people standing before the throne of God asking what happened.  Some of them are being led by the angels into paradise and some of them are being herded in the opposite direction, and all of them – those who are blessed and those who are condemned – all say the same thing: “When did we see you, Lord?”

Neither group ever realized the deeper connection that underlies all human interactions.  None of them ever seems to have stopped to wonder whether when they dealt with someone bearing God’s image they might not also be dealing directly with God.  All the same, he was there, whether they knew it or not.  Some of them never realized it because they were too busy caring about themselves, so that they never had the time (or probably even the inclination) to look into anyone else’s eyes and see Jesus looking back.  Some of them never realized it because they were too busy trying to help the person in front of them – but for those people there is hope.

Of course, best of all is to be doing good because we do know that Christ is above all and in all and through all.  As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote,

            “…Christ plays in ten thousand places,
            Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
            To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

Yet we learn that in the ugliest moments of human life.  We learn it where there is hunger and loneliness and fear and sickness.

            Central Africa and West Africa have been through terrible times in the past few decades.  Ethnic feuds have turned into civil wars and civil wars have sent refugees in all directions, destabilizing otherwise calm nations.  Criminals have taken advantage of the chaos, and the chaos has led normally law-abiding people to become criminals.  Add the occasional outbreak of ebola into the mix, and the friction between Christianity and Islam, and you have serious turmoil.

            In the midst of that, among all the horror stories, we keep hearing accounts of people who are doing things like building orphanages and schools, simply because there are children around who need to be taken care of.  No, not everyone reacts this way.  But some do.  We hear about doctors and nurses and ambulance drivers who cared for people desperately and dangerously sick, simply because the sick cannot take care of themselves.  We hear about people sharing their food and their houses with strangers on the run from war, just because they can see on their faces and in their eyes that there is a need that only time will change and they want to buy them the time if they can.  That is time for God to do the real work.

            It is a gift that the Christians of the Congo are able to focus on the needs of the people around them, needs both physical and spiritual.  It is a gift that they have been teaching specifically to us, and by “us” I mean United Methodist Christians in Eastern Pennsylvania, specifically those of us right here today.

            Every quarter, we take half the loose offering that is in the plate on Sunday morning and designate it for a mission project, local or national or global.  This quarter our giving, and all of the giving on Ash Wednesday, will go to help the eye clinic in Mpasa, Congo, and we are joined in that giving by the other churches in Delaware and Montgomery and Chester Counties that make up our South District.

            We’re going to watch a video that was put together to promote support for that work, but I don’t want anybody to watch it in that spirit this morning.  I want to watch it, instead, simply as a witness to what the Lord has done and what the Lord is doing at this very moment, in and through his people.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “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 25:37-40]

Saturday, February 16, 2019

"Peru: The Gift of Humility" - February 17, 2019

John 13:1-5, 12-16

            In 1611, a group of scholars presented King James I of England a fresh, new translation of the Bible.  He had ordered the work and paid for it, and it came with a dedication page that still appears at the start each reprint of the King James Version. 

“TO THE MOST HIGH AND MIGHTY PRINCE, JAMES, by the grace of God, KING OF GREAT BRITAIN, FRANCE, AND IRELAND, DEFENDER OF THE FAITH, etc. The Translators of the Bible wish Grace, Mercy, and Peace, through JESUS CHRIST our Lord.

Great and manifold were the blessings, most dread Sovereign, which Almighty God, the Father of all mercies, bestowed upon us the people of England, when he first sent Your Majesty’s Royal Person to rule and reign over us. [Then it talks about how worried they had been about what would happen when Queen Elizabeth died without a direct heir, but then] …the appearance of Your Majesty, as of the Sun in his strength, instantly dispelled those supposed and surmised mists, and gave unto all that were well affected exceeding cause of comfort; especially when we beheld in Your Highness, and Your hopeful Seed, by an undoubted Title, and this also accompanied with peace and tranquility at home and abroad.”

Is it any wonder that after a lifetime of being addressed this way, day in and day out, King James became the person who gave the world the phrase “the divine right of kings”?  Is it any wonder that the aristocrats who surrounded him and laid it on every bit as thick came to expect their own underlings to treat them in a similar way?  It was just how things were done, and not just in England.  There were places where it was even more extreme in that day, and one was Peru.

            Like the rest of Latin America at the time, Peru was organized into a rigid class system held together with slavery and racism.  So when in 1579, a former slave of African descent had a son named Martin by a Spanish noble who abandoned her and their children twelve years later. The family was desperately poor, but Martin was lucky to be apprenticed at one point to a barber (remember that in those days they were also the surgeons), so he had a skill to support himself, which he had to do by the age of ten.

            When he was fifteen, a monastery in Lima took him in as a servant, and they gave him the job of begging for the support of the monks’ work with the sick.  Apparently, he was very good at it.  He somehow managed to find enough regular support to provide for 160 people each week, usually with something left over, which was distributed to the poor.  Soon his medical skill as a barber came together with his efforts on behalf of the sick and he began to become known as a healer. 

Rather than make his fortune as a doctor, Martin felt that was his calling from God to stay among the Dominicans he was already working for and praying with, to carry on the work that he saw himself as part of, so he asked to be admitted as a lay member of the Dominicans.

            The answer was, “No.”  It was bad enough that he was poor.  It was worse that he was born out of wedlock.  Worst of all, though, Martin’s skin was dark.  He could work with them and for them, but he would never be one of them.  The Constitution of the Dominican order in Peru specifically said, “No black person may be received to the holy habit or profession of our order.”  Case closed. 

            The problem, though, was that God was doing amazing things through Martin de Porres.  His fundraising alone was impressive.  Then he went and founded an orphanage.  But he had an ability the rest of the Dominicans did not to evangelize among people who had no inclination to listen to the Spaniards living in the cloister.  Martin de Porres was able, perhaps because of his skin color, that his own father and the Church used as an excuse to look down on him, to minister directly to the physical and spiritual needs of slaves at the lowest end of the social ladder.  He did all this while still doing chores at the monastery, which is why you can see pictures and statues of him throughout Latin America that show him holding a broom.  In 1603, the monks could no longer not admit him, and they made Martin a lay brother in direct defiance of their own rules because he was clearly showing signs that the Holy Spirit was working through him.

            The gospels tell of a time that Jesus had broken the rules, too: those unwritten rules of conduct that the colonial Peruvians and the scholarly English translators shared.  By the way, we have our own version, that is so familiar we don’t pay attention to it.  It’s what tells us that we don’t have to be polite to someone who is only a waitress, or that the safety regulations that apply to a chemist in a lab aren’t important when it comes to the people on a production line working with the same compounds.  It’s what suggests which neighborhood can be sacrificed for a new stadium or where a new highway should be built.  It’s why we walk past someone sweeping the floor without even nodding.

The way that Jesus broke the rule was that he washed his disciples’ dirty feet instead of leaving it to a servant.  He made them all watch him do it, too.  And when he was done he said,

“‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”  [John 13:12-16]

When his followers have taken that to heart, like Martin de Porres, it has opened the doors to show a world where, say, a president might see no shame in putting his building skills to work at a Habitat site, doing carpentry like Jesus, so that someone who needs a home might have one.  It points to a world where somebody like Yo-yo Ma can perform a concert at an elementary school as well as Carnegie Hall, and where critics might decide that it’s okay to appreciate rhythm and blues alongside classical music.  It points to a world where being a gentleman or to be a lady is not a matter of birth, but of how someone treats other people.

            Humility is not humiliation – quite the opposite.  Humility carries a dignity sanctified by Jesus.  Humility points to the reign of God, where we are all children of the King.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

“China: The Gift of Courage” - February 10, 2019

I Peter 4:12-16

            There are places in the world where the persecution of Christians because they are Christians is either a fresh memory or a present reality.  What goes on in many of those places is beyond our current knowledge simply because the dangers require Christians to be secretive about their faith, which is nevertheless shared from person to person in quiet, direct witness.  Each time that happens it is an act of courage of a sort that the New Testament seems to expect.
There it is, in I Peter:

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief-maker. Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name.[I Peter 4:12-16]

It is inevitable that Christian faith and the claims of false gods will collide.  We already have to fight against our own internal impulses to sin – which is why there are warnings not to give in to the impulses that can make someone a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief-maker” – so it is no great stretch to see how external conflicts would arise with entire systems of life based on the principle that “might makes right”.  Those are a given.  What is variable with time and place is how threatened the powers that be find themselves, what means they use to combat the subversive teachings of Christ, and how his followers respond or hold up.

            Some regimes consider any sort of religion a threat.  When I was a kid, you would still hear people occasionally refer to “godless Communism”.  I would suggest that it wasn’t “godless”, but that its gods were false.  They had replaced the kingdom of God with the state and pictured Lenin or Mao or Kim Il Sung or Fidel Castro as the savior.  The Chinese government has been going after Tibetan Buddhism for five decades or so now, and has recently built “re-education centers” to try to wring Islam out of the Uighurs in their western provinces.  And they have continued over that whole time, too, to try to control Christianity in places where they have discovered that they cannot eliminate it.

            Let me quote here from a recent article published by the Council on Foreign Relations:

“Article 36 of the Chinese constitution protects freedom of religion. Yet that protection is limited to so-called ‘normal religious activities,’ explicitly stating that ‘no one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the education system of the state.’ These provisions provide authorities with flexibility when determining which religious practices are consistent with party policy and which fall outside the party-state’s guidelines. The constitutional provision goes on to specify that religious bodies cannot be subject to foreign control.  [Translation: ‘Hey, Vatican!  Stay out of this!’]

Underground house churches exist parallel to state-sanctioned Christian churches. These congregations operate outside the guidelines of the government, and their regulation by party authorities is largely determined by local leaders. Much like official Christian organizations, their membership is also growing across regions and demographics, according to surveys by independent polling groups. Fenggang Yang, of Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society, estimates that there are between 93 million and 115 million Protestants in China, with fewer than 30 million attending officially registered churches. Other Christian organizations estimate a higher number still.”[1]

As a result of the growth, the government has recently been pushing back.

“For example, party officials in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang’s city of Wenzhou, known for its large Christian population, have ordered the removal of hundreds of crosses and demolition of dozens of churches that allegedly violated construction regulations, though several had received prior approval from local officials. … In central Henan Province, local government and police officials have taken similar actions, carrying out raids on some churches without warrants and razing others. Other provinces with large Christian populations, including Anhui and Jiangsu, have also undergone crackdowns.”

            Hear again the words of I Peter and ask how Christians in China would hear them.

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is latent on you.

That the Spirit of God rests on them is clear in the way that this suffering part of the church is nevertheless the lifeline for believers in North Korea, who undergo far worse trials even than they do.  An article from the Associated Press claims that

“Most remaining Christians in North Korea likely learned about the religion when they went to China after a devastating famine killed hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s.  Converts were later captured in China and jailed once they were sent back to the North.”[2]

What happens there in those jails?  We can only imagine, and most of it is not good at all.  But we also get glimpses of what kind of sacrifice and courage the Christians of China are teaching the Christians of North Korea.  In the middle of this famine,

“Another, who was jailed after being repatriated from China, described praying silently in his cell after a hungry fellow prisoner shared some precious kernels of corn.”

Surely, this deed fulfills the directions of I Peter [4:19]:

“Therefore, let those who are suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.”

            It also puts some of the times I find myself complaining or groaning into an entirely different perspective.

[1] Eleanor Albert, “Backgrounder: Christianity in China” (Council on Foreign Relations: October 11, 2018), found at
[2] Hyun-Jin Kim, “North Korean Christians Keep Faith Underground amid Crackdowns” (Associated Press: February 1, 2019), found at

Saturday, February 2, 2019

“Greece: The Gift of Study” - February 3, 2019

II Timothy 3:14-17

            Until very recently, literacy has been a rare thing.  According to the U.N., in 2015 the global literacy rate among adults was 86.3%.  In 1970, that was only around 67%, and if you push back to the year 1500, in England only about 10% of men and 2% of women could read.  That seems to have been about the same overall level as in the Roman Empire, although the fact that Roman ruins often show graffiti suggests that the ability to read was spread across classes, like any other skill.  After all, if you can afford a slave to read to you, why waste the time learning to do it yourself?

            But there were scattered groups for whom reading was important on a level that lifted it above other abilities.  One of those was the Jews.  They had, like everybody else, their own alphabet and their own way of writing.  It had developed, as other writing had developed in the Middle East, for religious purposes.  Eventually, when successive empires sent them into exile, they took their writings with them and they eventually translated some of them into the common Greek language that was used all over the Mediterranean world.

            It was that version of the collected books that we now call the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures, in a Greek translation, that one Jewish convert to Christianity named Paul, born in the Roman city of Tarsus in what is now Turkey, recommended to a younger Jewish follower named Timothy, born and raised in a similar background.  For the Greeks and Romans and others, to be able to read was useful.  For Paul, it was a tool to reach out to God, and to be transformed. 

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
                                    [II Timothy 3:14-15]

What you can learn from that book, he was saying, can open your mind and prepare you for an encounter with Jesus that will change you for good.  That doesn’t rule out those who cannot read, but if you can read, and have this library of books on hand, you have a head start.

            Not every book is the same, and they don’t all serve the same purpose.  There are legends and there are histories.  There are love poems and there are war chants.  There are lists of people’s ancestors and there are instructions for priests working at a temple that was destroyed long ago.  There are ethical instructions and there are stories about some exceedingly unethical people.  There are declarations of despair and prayers of thanksgiving or expressions of hope.  But when you take them all together, and let them sort of stew together inside you over time, they form a rich nourishment for human life lived in the presence of God himself.

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” [II Timothy 3:16-17]

It’s one of those rich ironies of God that the letter where Paul said that, along with a lot of other writings being set down around the same time, give or take a generation, would themselves come to be considered in the same way and treated with the same respect.

            The strong intellectual tradition of Greece came to mingle with that originally Jewish tradition of honoring the scriptures to create the whole stream of Christian theology.  A thousand years later, an Italian living in England, Anselm of Canterbury, said that theology is “faith seeking understanding”, and it was Christians living in that Greek culture who had set the early example.  Start with faith.  Start with the living experience of the living Savior, then use all your mind’s resources to understand his love.  You’ll never entirely succeed, but the effort itself is part of getting to know him and keeping the relationship fresh and exciting. 

The Greeks who played a large part in the earliest centuries of the Church’s life knew how to do that.  The Creeds that we still honor are their efforts to put into words the mystery of God’s being, and to explain how it is that he has come to us in Jesus, and acts among us in the Holy Spirit.  They hashed them out through long and sometimes heated controversies, always coming back to the scriptures to test what they were saying, those scriptures being

“the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” [II Timothy 3:15]

            Studying the Bible is a discipline that keeps our encounters with God in daily life alive. Real study isn’t trying to pile up facts or sound learned.  Real study is honest evaluation of ourselves and our world in a way that keeps us from living entirely in our heads or entirely in our emotions.  The Bible deals with complex humans and a complex God in a balanced and complete way, and forces us to do the same thing.  A theologian trained in philosophical technicalities might warn us not to put God into a box by saying:

“the ambiguity of religion shows its effect on these processes of reductive profanization, just as it shows its effect in the center of religious self-transcendence.”[1]

But if you want to remember that point, if you want to learn humility before the Lord, you go to Isaiah [55:8-9]:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
            nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
            so are my ways higher than your ways
            and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Even Jesus, when tempted to misuse his power, turned to what Deuteronomy had said about finding guidance beyond ourselves.  In a moment of both spiritual and physical vulnerability, he remembered,

“It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
           but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
                                   [Matthew 4:4]

We should do as well.  We, who are blessed to be able to read those words, should know them.
So, said a first-century evangelist educated both in Greece and in Jerusalem:

“as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
                                                            [II Timothy 3:14-15]

[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), 101.