Welcome to the July 2014 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, July 2014
July 1, 2014
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known. But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love." 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 (ASV)
I love to go to the zoo. I certainly understand why some people do not like zoos. Throughout history there have been zoos that have treated animals with little care, cruelly locking them in tiny cages to be gawked at and harassed by human beings. Even today there are practical problems at every zoo that cannot be easily solved to give the animals the best life possible. Most zoos honestly try to provide well for their animals and many zoos do much more than just showcase the animals. They have breeding and educational programs that are working with organizations world-wide to supplement the native populations of many of these animals. Some endangered species have actually been removed from the lists because zoo breeding programs have rebuilt their populations successful. The educational programs help us see these beautiful animals up-close so that we can understand why it is so important to protect them in the wild.
I love the zoo because it gives me an opportunity to see many of God’s creatures that I would never be able to see. There aren’t usually lions or tigers or even bears walking down my suburban street. I have seen snakes, raccoons, squirrels, birds, skunks, possums, geckos and insects in my yard. I’ve seen deer down the street. I’ve heard that there are foxes and armadillos nearby. There are other wild animals within miles of my house, but it is unlikely that I’ll ever see one personally. Quite frankly, I don’t think I would want to come face to face with a mountain lion or a black bear without the safe walls of zoo enclosures.
The zoo offers us the opportunity to watch the animals as they interact with one another. We can learn so much from them. Animals are certainly not human, but they have personalities; sometimes they act very human. I think the most fascinating thing is that we can identify many of the animals with people that we know.
I spent more than an hour watching the flamingos (my favorite) the last time I went to the zoo. The flock has been laying eggs and several of them had hatched. There were four chicks; a couple of the chicks were barely a day old. They were adorable little white fluff balls. The two youngest were still being kept in the nest, but two were old enough to roam. I laughed as these tiny (as compared to the adults) birds tried to act like full grown birds. The one tried desperately to stand on one leg, but it was still too wobbly on its gangly legs. The chicks stretched their wings and even acted as if they were trying to fly. They wandered through the puddles looking for food just like mom and dad, even though they were still being fed by the adults.
The most interesting thing was to watch how differently the adults dealt with the chicks. While I could see the familiar relationships of both chicks, the parenting was entirely different. One bird was what we might call a ‘helicopter mom.’ You know the kind; these are the moms that are always hovering over the child, protecting him or her from every danger they might face and every mistake they might make. The other chick, which was never far from mom was given much more freedom. It played freely in the mud and wandered among the crowd of adult birds that mingled in the shade. We know that mom, too, don’t we?
Even with the differing parenting techniques, I could see that all those flamingo parents cared for their chicks. Would we describe it as love, like the love between people? Many scientists would probably say no, pointing to the fact that animals are driven by instinct and self-preservation. I don’t think they’ve spent that much time simply watching the animals. As I watch the animals I can see how God is active in the world around us. All too often we rush through life trying to answer the questions that matter to us. In the process, however, we miss God’s subtle reminders of His love as revealed in His creation.
Love is often misunderstood. The image of love in this world is all romance and physical attraction, but in Christ we know a love that is different. God loved us so much that He gave His Son to die for a people that were self-centered and unrighteous. We are so much like the animals, which is why it is so easy for us to see human characteristics in their antics.
Paul describes the love we know in Christ. Love means being patient, love means giving tender loving care. Love means being happy with what you have and rejoicing with your neighbor for their blessings. Love never fails. We are called and gifted to share His love in this world, as imperfectly as we might. Unfortunately, we can see negative human characteristics in the animals, too: impatience, enviousness, boasting, self-satisfaction and anger. These are the imperfections that get in our way of loving. These are the sounding brass and clanging cymbals which remind us that we are not God. The only true love comes from our heavenly Father. Thankfully He reminds us in incredible ways, like the antics of His Creation, so that we can see His love in real and very tangible ways.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 29, 2014, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 145:1-14; Romans 7:14-25a; Matthew 11:25-30
“At that season Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou didst hide these things from the wise and understanding, and didst reveal them unto babes: yea, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in thy sight.” Matthew 11:25-26
Matthew is a brilliant storyteller. He was an accountant (tax collector) so his Gospel is written from a logical, almost mathematical, point of view. He has organized his thoughts in a way that first reports what Jesus has to say and then shows Jesus living in very real and tangible ways the truths He has spoken. Take, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, chapters five through seven. Matthew has taken the wise words of Jesus, probably spoken throughout His ministry, and put them into a coherent and powerful message about the Kingdom of God and how believers are called to live in it. Any life in God’s kingdom begins with healing, so in chapters eight and nine, Matthew shows Jesus touching the lives of those He is calling to faith in very real ways. There are ten acts of deliverance in those chapters, related to the wisdom spoken in the sermon.
We can see this pattern of discourse and then living throughout the book of Matthew, ultimately ending with His revelation that He would die and then His death on the cross. Jesus didn’t just talk the talk, He walked the walk. Then He called us to do the same.
For the past couple of weeks we saw Jesus sending the disciples out into the world to share the Kingdom and to heal. The texts were from chapter ten. (See, Jesus speaks, demonstrates and then sends.) He warned them that it wouldn’t be easy. In the chapter Jesus tells the disciples that the people would reject them. He warned that the leaders would threaten them. The persecution would even come from the people who are closest to them: their families. Jesus lives these words in chapters eleven and twelve. First the people reject Him. Then the leaders threaten Him. And finally, in 12:46-50, even His family questions His sanity.
Our text from Matthew for this Sunday shows us that Jesus does not send us out in the world alone. It is a moment of comfort in the midst of the frightening reality: He has chosen us, and because He has chosen us, He will ensure that we have everything we need. The work He is calling us to do might seem hard, after all we live in a world that demands exactly the opposite of what Jesus expects. We live in a world that is self-centered, in which people are encouraged to follow their own hearts and do what feels right to them. We live in a world that has rejected God, His Word and even the reality of our human sinfulness. The people in this world do not believe we need a Savior; they have nothing for which to be forgiven or even healed. We will be rejected because the message we bring calls for repentance, humility and self-denial.
It is the one who repents, who is humble and who trusts in someone greater than self who will hear and receive the Kingdom of God. Matthew calls them “little children.” What is it about children that make them so receptive to the Gospel? For one thing, children are innocent. I don’t mean that in the legal sense as in they are innocent of crime or even sin. After all, we know that all flesh, even babies, have inherited a nature that is separated from God. We all, from the smallest to the oldest, need God’s forgiveness made available by the blood of Jesus Christ.
No, they are innocent in the sense that they have no yet experienced the world in a way that would lead them to doubt or to cynicism. This isn’t a lack of understanding between goodness and badness; as a matter of fact, children tend to be much more discerning than most adults. Children still see the good in people. They see the cup as half full. They find joy in places where adults can’t seem to see it. They trust those who are given charge over them. They believe in things that are beyond belief to most intellectual, thinking adults.
It is their innocence, their trust, which allows them to see that which is hidden. We intellectuals tend to think about things to the point of confusing ourselves with details that simply don’t matter. We want answers. We want to know the meaning of life. We want to know our purpose so that we can go out there and do it. We want to understand the mysteries of faith. We debate and argue over the meaning of communion and baptism and the parables, but in doing so we often lose sight of the love of God. I’ve often joked about how I can’t wait to get to heaven so that Jesus and I can sit together over a glass of sweet tea and discuss all the questions I have. I want Him to answer everything that I haven’t been able to answer with my mind.
Here’s the thing: we don’t always need those answers. Children don’t. Children simply believe. Who doesn’t love the child in worship who blurts out “Amen” with passion and enthusiasm in the middle of worship? Who hasn’t chuckled with joy when that little voice begins singing “Jesus loves me” in the back pew during the prayers? What youth minister doesn’t know that the correct answer to every question in the children’s sermon is “Jesus?” Children don’t need to know that Jonah’s whale was probably a big fish or that the fruit in the Garden of Eden was probably not an apple. They know that Jesus loves them, and that’s what matters.
If only we’d live our life with such simple faith. We burden ourselves with this intellectual quest for understanding, when God is always willing to reveal everything to the one who will trust in Him. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. As we trust in Him we discover that we do not have to carry it alone; as a matter of fact, Jesus carries it for us. In His yoke, we find rest.
The Jews thought they understood what God expected. They had interpreted and reinterpreted the Law to the point that it was too heavy a burden for anyone to carry. The picayune details like how many steps they could walk and what constituted ‘work’ made it impossible for the people to see God’s grace through their quest for righteousness, or should we say self-righteousness. Yet, the wise and understanding among God’s leaders thought that this was necessary to entice God to be faithful to His promises. If the people repented, perhaps God would finally send the Messiah. They didn’t trust in God, they trusted in their own ideas and actions.
They missed it. They were so busy trying to be righteous and to intellectually understand God’s Word that they had stopped trusting in Him. They were looking for a powerful, military commander to defeat the Romans. Many came forward as false Messiahs, promising peace through war. There was certainly some Old Testament prophecy that indicated that God would send someone to set them free. They didn’t recognize the prophecy of the humble and peacekeeping king as we see in today’s Old Testament lesson. Perhaps they did; perhaps they did know that the Messiah could be the suffering servant as described throughout the Old Testament. But they wanted a Christ who would do battle for them. The idea of a Messiah bringing grace, forgiveness and peace did not fit their expectation. It isn’t what they wanted.
Jesus did not come with swords and chariots to drive the unrighteous out of Jerusalem. He did not even come to make changes to the temporal world. He came to reveal the kingdom of God. He did this by quietly calling people into His presence, by speaking stories about faith and by touching the lives of those who crossed His path. He did not force people to follow, but rather drew them into His heart and called them to follow. The prophecy in Zechariah was fulfilled on Palm Sunday as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and then Jesus died so that we can welcomed into the Kingdom He was preparing for us. In His death and resurrection, we find true peace. It is a lasting peace because it takes us into eternal life.
This peace is worth our attention and the One who gives it is worthy of our praise. Today’s psalm is prayer of praise of the lovingkindness of God. The entire psalm is an acrostic, a poem in which each verse begins with a different letter of the alphabet. This brilliant poetry is hidden from us in English and our passage is just a part of the entire psalm, but it is interesting to think about the importance of this literary technique. The psalmist literally and literarily found a way to praise God from “A to Z.” How often do we think so much about God’s grace that we can write a poem using every letter of our alphabet? We usually spend our time thinking about how to use our knowledge of God to knock others down or force them to do our bidding. Instead of trusting in God and being thankful for His lovingkindness, we establish rules like the Pharisees and place heavy burdens on our neighbors.
The word “lovingkindness” could be simplified to mean “nice” but that does not describe the depth of the meaning in this passage. Lovingkindness is compassion, mercy: the sympathetic concern for the suffering of another. It comes from the Hebrew word “chesed” which means much more than niceness. It can be described as an action that is not warranted by the circumstances. We think of compassion as meeting the needs of those who need our help, but chesed actually initiates the relationship. It is compassion that goes out even before the needs are known.
Lovingkindness is proactive. God Almighty, through Jesus Christ our Lord, has shown the most incredible compassion of all. His goodness is for all He has made; His love is for everyone. Christ died for sinners even before we knew we were sinners. He died for us even before we were born. God’s lovingkindness is proactive, coming to us long before we even knew we needed it. God has revealed this to those of us who have heard the Gospel like children, trusting in God’s Word above our own selfishness and self-centeredness.
Even now that are many in our world who do not know they need the mercy and grace of God. They do not accept the forgiveness that comes from faith because they do not believe they have anything to be forgiven. They continue to seek answers to questions that do not really matter, attempting to confine God to an intellectual or self-serving role in their life. That often leads to a total rejection of God’s grace, but at the very least it makes a person misunderstand what God is doing and what God can do.
Christians who have heard the Word and have seen the light are God’s instruments of His grace and lovingkindness. Through us, all men will know of God’s mighty acts, the splendor of His kingdom. The psalmist praised God so that others might hear of the acts of the One from whom we receive the unmerited favor of His blessings. We, His saints, are called to sing His praise, to speak of the glory of His kingdom. We speak these words not only to praise God, but so that others might hear and believe. These very words are the ones that will cause us the trouble about which Jesus warned. We will face rejection, threats and persecution, not only from our neighbors and the leaders of the world, but even our families.
We say these words anyway because we believe. We have that childlike, innocent trust that God is with us. He will take care of us, even into death. We won’t die, even if our flesh dies, because God has promised us life. Can we explain this with our heads? Can we recite all the scriptures and make it abundantly clear to our neighbors? No. It hasn’t been revealed to us because we are smart enough or knowledgeable enough. It has been revealed to us because we are like little children, trusting in God and taking up the yoke which Jesus Christ offers.
There is a story about an encounter that St. Augustine had with a young boy on a beach. When St. Augustine asked what the child was doing, he answered that he was building a trench. “Why?” Augustine asked. “I am going to empty the ocean into my trench. As Augustine continued along the beach, he thought about the silliness of the young boy’s goal. It is impossible to fit the entire ocean into a small trench on the beach. Yet, we all do the same thing when it comes to trying to understand God. He is much greater than we can even imagine.
In another story, an old man comes across a young boy on the beach, throwing starfish into the ocean. The old man noticed that there were hundreds of the starfish marooned on the sand and wondered what the boy hoped to accomplish. The boy said, “I’m saving the starfish.” The man laughed at how absurd it was for the boy to think he could possibly save the starfish. However, with each toss, the boy saved one life. The overwhelming number of starfish did not stop him from trying to do something for some.
If only we’d live our life with such simple faith.
This is not to say that we should ignore Bible study or stop being theologians in this world. The more we do understand about God and His Word, the better able we are to share it with our neighbors. Unfortunately, we are often so overwhelmed by how much we don’t know about God that we give up. While we are called to the simple faith of a child, we are also reminded that the time should come when we are eating more than just milk. We have to get into the meat. But there is a balance between that simple faith and the intellectual quest of understanding and it is found in our Lord Jesus Christ. The balance is held together by trusting in Him, taking upon ourselves His yoke, which is easy and light. He makes it possible for us to see God as was never before possible. Jesus is God made flesh, a perfect representation of that which was impossible to see before He came. God will always be greater than we can imagine, a mystery in so many ways, but we have a place to start: Jesus. He makes God available to all the little children, and the big children, in a very personal and intimate way.
Paul is absolutely honest. He is often harsh in his letters, saying what most of us think but would never say out loud. He is willing to call a sin a sin and to admit that he is the worst of sinners. In his letter to the Romans, he talks about his inability to be all he wants to be, the perfect Christian, a righteous person. He admits his frailty and his lack of control. He wants to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, but he recognizes and confesses his failure.
We don’t want to be like children. We are independent, intelligent adults. We don’t want to trust in someone greater than ourselves. We don’t want to admit our failure. We might prefer to think about our faith and the things of God in an intellectual manner, but we have to remember that our answers, our opinions, are often self-centered and selfish. They are based on our own very limited point of view. We can fail. We can make mistakes. We can say and do the wrong things. And, as Paul suggests, it is most likely that we’ll do things wrong, especially if we rely on our own power.
We want to be perfect because we think that we can make ourselves right with God. We can’t. We might end up fixing some things, but there are always buried sins that keep us from being truly free in Christ. No matter how good we think we appear, we are still sinners in need of a Savior. Like Paul, we will do what we don’t want to do and we will not do what we want to do. We don’t need to carry that burden on our own. Jesus Christ has already won for us the forgiveness and He stays with us, granting us the strength and courage to be transformed, so that we can be everything God has created and redeemed us to be.
His yoke is easy and His burden is light. So, let us be as children with that simple faith, casting off the burdens that we have tried to carry on our own and taking the yoke of Jesus. He does not burden us with anything He has not first accomplished for us. As we walk with Him, He will teach us all we need to know about the Kingdom of God. There in His presence, we will find rest.
“Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. When therefore thou doest alms, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee. And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites: for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father who is in secret, and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee.” Matthew 6:1-6, ASV
I looked out my office door yesterday afternoon and I noticed a flag flapping in the wind. This isn’t all that unusual; many of the families in our neighborhood display a flag near their front door on a daily basis. We are all being more resolute about the practice this week with the Independence Day holiday tomorrow. Here’s the thing: this flag was not flapping from a neighbor’s porch, it was stuck in the corner of my yard. I wondered if Bruce put it out, but I did not know where he would have gotten the flag, and I think I would have known if it was him. I think he would have found a different place to stick the flag.
When I went outside to get the mail, I noticed similar flags in the corners of other people’s yards along our street. Bruce said that he noticed the flags when he went to work yesterday morning. Someone came along, possibly during the night, and gave us each a flag. It was beautiful to drive up the street this afternoon, with dozens of flags lined up, flapping in the wind.
We might never know who did this small act of kindness, but does it really matter? Oh, it is wonderful to be recognized for our good work. We go to a lot of trouble to present metals to heroes and to give plaques to people who have accomplished great things. It is good to have a volunteer appreciation luncheon occasionally. They all surely deserve a moment of thanks. We’ll hear lots of stories tomorrow about the historic figures throughout the history of the United States who risked everything to create our nation, and they deserve the attention we can give them.
I think sometimes, though, we put too much energy into bringing to light the good works of people who really don’t need or want the recognition. Take, for instance, a task that I do for our church. I’m glad the other members are thankful, but I was extremely uncomfortable to have my name printed in the bulletin every week in recognition of one of those ‘little things.’ It is a task that needs to get done so I do it, I really don’t want everyone to know that I am doing it. There are some things that can remain hidden.
Jesus reminds us in today’s passage that we don’t need to be recognized for every good thing we do. As a matter of fact, most of our good works are simply things that we should do naturally, without thought and without expectation. We might be curious as to who placed the flags in our yards, but they obviously did not want recognition and we should allow them their secrecy. There are definitely acts that deserve acknowledgement. We shouldn’t stop giving metals to heroes or plaques to those who have accomplished great things. But let’s remember that the true joy of good works is found in the act of doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done. We might not be able to thank someone or recognize them for their good works, but we can praise God and thank Him for the kindness of strangers even if they remain hidden from our sight.
“Rejoice in Jehovah, O ye righteous: Praise is comely for the upright. Give thanks unto Jehovah with the harp: Sing praises unto him with the psaltery of ten strings. Sing unto him a new song; Play skilfully with a loud noise. For the word of Jehovah is right; And all his work is done in faithfulness. He loveth righteousness and justice: The earth is full of the lovingkindness of Jehovah. By the word of Jehovah were the heavens made, And all the host of them by the breath of his mouth. He gathereth the waters of the sea together as a heap: He layeth up the deeps in store-houses. Let all the earth fear Jehovah: Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spake, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast. Jehovah bringeth the counsel of the nations to nought; He maketh the thoughts of the peoples to be of no effect. The counsel of Jehovah standeth fast for ever, The thoughts of his heart to all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is Jehovah, The people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance. Jehovah looketh from heaven; He beholdeth all the sons of men; From the place of his habitation he looketh forth Upon all the inhabitants of the earth, He that fashioneth the hearts of them all, That considereth all their works. There is no king saved by the multitude of a host: A mighty man is not delivered by great strength. A horse is a vain thing for safety; Neither doth he deliver any by his great power. Behold, the eye of Jehovah is upon them that fear him, Upon them that hope in his lovingkindness; To deliver their soul from death, And to keep them alive in famine. Our soul hath waited for Jehovah: He is our help and our shield. For our heart shall rejoice in him, Because we have trusted in his holy name. Let thy loving kindness, O Jehovah, be upon us, According as we have hoped in thee.” Psalm 33, ASV
I have had the pleasure of driving across the continental United States of America several times. I have driven every mile of I-80 from coast to coast, and a good portion of most of the other interstate highways. I’ve seen the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve seen the Mississippi River and many others. I’ve stood on the shore of at least one of the great lakes and fished in my grandmother’s backyard pond. I have stood on the mountaintop in the Rockies, and marveled over the landscape at Mount St. Helen’s. I’ve seen the Redwood forests, magnificent waterfalls and rainbows that seemed to stretch all the way across California.
I have driven across Kansas at night, where a single front porch light can be seen from twenty miles. I have driven across Montana, where every exit had a sign for a historic site to visit. It seemed to take forever to get across Montana, which is really amazing because at the time there was no daytime speed limit and I have to admit that I took my car to its limit. I’ve driven, or been stuck in, New York City and Los Angeles traffic jams. I’ve enjoyed the beauty tiny country roads across this nation, and sat in the cafes of small town America.
There is still so much to see. I have to admit that I have not yet been to some of the great sites of the United States. I want to go to Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon. I want to hike at least some of the Appalachian Trail. I want to peer through the fence at Area 51 and see a blooming century plant in the middle of the desert. I want to drive Route 66 and check out the many, many kitschy American oddball attractions along the way. I want to go back to some places I saw as a kid like Niagara Falls and Pike’s Peak.
I have vague memories of a trip to Pike’s Peak, mostly from photographs. I have an aunt and uncle who have lived in Colorado for as long as I can remember, and we went to visit them. Having been on some of the other peaks in the Rocky Mountain range, I can certainly understand how awe inspiring it can be. Katherine Lee Bates was in Colorado Springs to teach a brief summer course and she was deeply inspired by many things during her trip, including the beauty at the top of Pike’s Peak. It was at the top of the mountain that a poem came to her, bringing together her memories of the alabaster buildings at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the wheat fields of Kansas.
The poem, of course, eventually became a favorite patriotic hymn of many Americans. “America the Beautiful” was set to music by Samuel A. Ward. They poem and tune came together and was first published in 1910, although it was first used in 1904. Sadly, Samuel Ward died in 1903, so he never knew that his inspired tune became such a beloved part of American culture and patriotism. The Kennedy administration even tried to give “America the Beautiful” legal status as a national hymn or even as the national anthem.
America is certainly beautiful. Of course, in many ways it is also horrific, ugly, sad and disgusting. Aren’t we all? America is made up of so many beautiful places, but it is also made up of human beings, all of which are all too human. We are sinners in need of a Savior. Katherine Lee Bates understood this reality, and within her song she appealed to God for His healing grace upon our nation. Despite our failures, we also have a heart for good. We respond immediately to disasters with our bodies and resources. We fight for justice. We stand for truth. We pray for our neighbors. We, or at least a large number of us, believe that we are blessed by God to be a blessing not only to one another but to the world. There might be some bad, but there is a lot of good, and for that reason I know that America really is beautiful.
“Trust in Jehovah with all thy heart, And lean not upon thine own understanding: In all thy ways acknowledge him, And he will direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes; Fear Jehovah, and depart from evil: It will be health to thy navel, And marrow to thy bones.” Proverbs 3:5-8, ASV
I watched a program the other day about a favorite movie. It is a movie I’ve seen at least a dozen times, the most recent was just yesterday. The program was about the making of the movie, and it was filled with fun facts. It is amazing to hear about the making of a movie, particularly one that is extremely familiar because it is surprising how much changes in the course of production. This particular movie, it is said, would be completely unrecognizable if you saw it as it was originally planned. Many of the changes came out of the discovery of gifts and talents of the actors, circumstances of filming and the sheer volume of film that was recorded in the process.
The program reported that the director was out of control when it came to spending and filming. He dumped at least half the film, probably much more, on the cutting room floor. One actor was filmed in multiple scenes, but everything was cut except one scene at the end. They followed the storyline as found in the script during filming, but filmed so many other great ideas that the script was thrown away while the new ideas were included. The money people at the studio were so upset by the overspending that the film was almost canceled before it was even finished.
The funniest thing about the film is that the cast were disappointed with the film when it was complete. It was so outside the norm that they were certain it would ultimately fail at the box office. They were very surprised. Even now, decades later, the film is remembered, watched and enjoyed. Many people can even quote the film almost verbatim after having watched it so much. It was so interesting to hear the back story, to see the secrets that lie behind the familiar scenes and dialogue. While no movies stick with the script 100%, this movie allowed the world that existed outside the set to intrude in a way that made the movie so much better. The adlibbing of the actors, the use of real people on the street, and the willingness to make changes to enhance the storyline is what ultimately made the movie a hit. It went against all the advice of ‘experts’ but in the end it worked.
How many of us go about life with a script. We know what we want and we work to make it happen in our own way. We set dates and expectations thinking that we can make the world revolve around our dreams. All too often, however, the world breaks through our expectations and upsets our plans. We are disappointed when we don’t accomplish the things we want to accomplish. We are surprised when plans are put on hold because something has gotten in the way. Sometimes the interruptions are upsetting, like sickness or death of a loved one; sometimes the interruptions are happy surprises, like opportunities that we just can’t ignore. I had a plan, but then I discovered that I did not like the path I was taking. Then my new plans were interrupted when I met Bruce. In the end, the movie that is my life has turned out better than I could ever have imagined.
As I was thinking about this devotion, two quotes came to mind. The first is from John Steinbeck, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” I don’t know who first said the second, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.” Here’s the thing: God isn’t sitting around trying to mess with our lives, He has already seen the end of the movie and He has a much better plan. We might run into problems. We might have unexpected joys. We might be interrupted by the world around us, but in the end the story that God has planned is always better than anything we can imagine. The key is to trust in God and to embrace the unexpected surprises; when we do, we will be incredibly blessed.
“And God spake all these words, saying, I am Jehovah thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them, for I Jehovah thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing lovingkindness unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments. Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain; for Jehovah will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a sabbath unto Jehovah thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days Jehovah made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore Jehovah blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.” Exodus 20:1-17, ASV
Our cats are all unique, and yet they all demand our attention in their own way. Tigger follows me all over the house during the day; he doesn’t necessarily want physical contact, but he wants to be near me all the time. Delilah likes to take naps; we lie on the bed and she cuddles with me. Sammy likes to play. I have to admit that I’d gotten out of the habit of playing with Sammy, and it became obvious in his demeanor. It almost seemed like he was depressed. He over ate, slept all the time and seemed to have no energy. He rarely spent time with me or even the other cats.
We have started playing again. He even asks me by standing in my way, meowing and looking at his favorite toy. I will stop whatever I’m doing and tell him that I will play for a few minutes. I usually set a limit, depending on my work for the day, not that he has any understanding of time. We will play for awhile and then when I say that I have to go do something else, he comes to me and rubs on my legs and then sits on my feet. He lets me go, but he wants me to know that he is happy and that he enjoyed our time together.
We have a problem, though. Delilah likes to play, too. If she hears that we are playing, and it is hard to not here because the favorite toy has a jingle bell, she comes running to join in the fun. I could easily play with both of them, but for some reason Sammy steps back and lets Delilah take over. I try to tell Delilah that it is Sammy’s turn, but… well, she’s a cat and cats don’t really know how to follow the rules of a game. She is a huntress, and when there’s something to hunt, she is going to do it. Whatever play we do manage together helps to build up our relationships and establish the love that makes that relationship one of trust.
Little children aren’t much better at following game rules. It is interesting to play board games with young children who ‘teach’ us how to play. They are very good at making up rules as they go along. The new rules usually benefit the child in some way. When something is about to go against them in the game, the child quickly says, “Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you about this rule…” and they go on to tell you how you have to jump three times on one foot and then turn around in circles until they can move their piece to the place where it needs to go to make them the winner. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but I’m sure many parents out there know exactly what I’m talking about. Rules are important, but sometimes it is fun to let them play the games their way. We don’t always have to win, do we?
The key to being a good parent is to let them have their fun while still training them up to do what is right. It doesn’t take very long for parents to learn the motto, “Pick your battles.” Children have to learn how to lose, but does it have to happen during a game of Candy Land? Playtime has a much more important purpose: to build relationships, allow creativity, produce laughter. Game playing also teaches a child how to follow instructions and obey rules, but sometimes the other purposes are more important, particularly the relationship building.
God had been in a relationship with His people for a very long time, but they had lived in Egypt for four hundred years and under the yoke of slavery they had forgotten Him. He called and sent Moses to restore that relationship and deliver them into freedom.
Sometimes it is more important to establish a relationship, to build up trust in one another before establishing rules. In the case of the Hebrews, God did not sit down with them before taking them out of Egypt. He didn’t say, “If you do this, that and the other thing, then I will save you from this slavery that has you bound.” No, God saved them first, taking them out of bondage and into freedom. It was then, and only then, that He made the covenant with them. They knew He was a deliverer, that He could save His people. They knew they could trust Him. Then God taught them how to live in this new community together. God spent the time in the desert as they walked toward Mt. Sinai, building up His relationship with His people and establishing the love that made that relationship one of trust.
Notice that the Ten Commandments do not begin with “do not” rules. They begin with relationship building rules. It is about putting the One who saved them first in their life, and then those whom God has appointed as our elders. The last few commands are the “do not” rules, but they are meant to be relationship keeping rules. The things we do against other people are the things that cause the brokenness of our world. When we murder, commit adultery, steal, lie and covet our neighbor’s things we build walls between one another. These rules are not given to make our life harder. They are given to keep us right with our neighbors and therefore right with God. In the end, if we keep the first commandment, keeping God first, we will by His nature not disobey the others because we will want to please the One who is our Savior and Deliverer.
“For ye received not the spirit of bondage again unto fear; but ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.” Romans 8:15, ASV
I have a confession to make: I am not very brave. Many of my friends would be quite shocked to know how shy I am, how difficult it is for me to step outside my comfort zone. It takes everything I have to try something new or to introduce myself to a stranger. Now, I’m not so afraid that I avoid other people or run away when approached. As a matter of fact, I am very friendly and open up rather quickly when someone speaks to me. Get me into a group of people where I am comfortable and I’m happy and free to be me. As a matter of fact, I won the “Miss Congeniality” award at a weeklong conference I attended a long time ago. That’s why my friends think I’m crazy when I say I’m shy. They see me when I am comfortable, but do not realize what it took for me to get there.
Now, I would love to be that person who can step out of my comfort zone and do the things I am afraid to do. I wish I had the courage to tell the guy sitting across the table in the waiting room of the dealership service center about my faith or to invite the lady who walks by the house every day to come in for a cup of tea. I’m not even willing to be pushy with my acquaintances: I’ll throw out the idea of having lunch or going on an adventure and then wait. I usually wait a long time; lunch never happens and I go on the adventure alone.
I don’t think I’m that much different than everyone else. We are all afraid of the same thing: rejection. We don’t like to step out of our comfort zone because at least inside we know what to expect. We don’t want to be the first to strike up a conversation because we don’t know how the person will react to what we have to say. We live in a world, sadly, where people are offended by the simplest things. We live in a world where someone can be fired for saying “Have a blessed day.”
It is no wonder that Christians are afraid to share their faith. Jesus didn’t make it appealing, either. We’ve heard repeatedly over the past few weeks how we will be rejected by people, authorities and even our own families. It is so much easier to scatter the seed where we know it will do some good, to share the Gospel with people we know are willing to listen.
I heard a story the other day about how a shortage of hops is going to cause problems for craft beer makers. See, craft beers, which are produced by small independent companies using traditional methods, tend to use far more hops than the mass produced beers for sale. As craft beers rise in popularity due to their uniqueness and stronger flavor, the supply of hops is dwindling. This is good news for the hops growers who are expanding their farms to supply the needs. One farmer said that his crops for the next three years have already been sold out, even before they are grown. He must hope for good growing seasons, and so do the beer producers who will rely on those harvests. A bad weather year and the whole system can collapse.
The hops farmer must do a good job with his planting, which includes not wasting any of his seed. He will take care to make sure every seed lands in good soil so as to produce a full harvest. He will protect his seed and tend to his seed until it is ready to be picked, to guarantee success not only for his business but for all those who rely on his product.
This is how we often think about today’s Gospel lesson. As a matter of fact, a few years ago I was thinking about this parable of the seeds, and the thought occurred to me that we have to prepare the soil. We don’t want to waste our seeds, either. We want to scatter them to a place where they will take root and grow, so we avoid sharing the Gospel with people that we expect will reject it. We share our faith with others who have faith, joining in fellowship with other Christians and “preaching to the choir.” If we preach to strangers our seeds might be gobbled up, withered under the heat of the sun or chocked by the cares of the world. We don’t want to waste something as precious as the Gospel.
Our scriptures for today give us a slightly different perspective, however. Isaiah writes, “For as the rain cometh down and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, and giveth seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.” God’s Word will accomplish what He means to accomplish with it.
I recently went to a state park and hiked the trail to the most beautiful grotto. I took my camera and photographed mossy rocks, cypress trees in the creek and wildflowers growing along the path. It was an unusual, almost foreign, landscape in Texas, which tends to be dry and desert-like. The bald cypress trees are amazing because they grow right in the middle of the water, weaving their roots together to hold each other solid and upright in the moving water. The swamp loving trees make excellent sermon illustrations, not only for their reliance on one another but also by their need for the ever-flowing water in which they live. As in the cypress tree, it is the ever-flowing Living water that gives Christians life.
We had an interesting discussion in Sunday School this week about the promise in Isaiah 55:13, “Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir-tree; and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle-tree: and it shall be to Jehovah for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” We use multiple translations in our class, often comparing the word choices and how they might change the meaning of the text. In this case, we noticed that different versions used different trees: this one (ASV) used fir-tree. New International Version uses juniper. English Standard Version uses cypress. One member of the class, thinking about the swamp cypress which is familiar to those of us in the south, preferred that choice, thinking about the necessity of the Living water for us to grow.
It is interesting, though, that in the case of Israel, it is a different type of cypress. The trees in Israel are actually quite drought resistant. The point of the choice is more about longevity and size. Isaiah says that it will be “an everlasting sign.” The text shows us the difference between plants that last and plants that do not survive. God will plant seeds that will have a lasting impact on the world.
On a side-note, I would like to remind each of us to be very careful about how we choose to interpret the scriptures. We like to find deeply spiritual meanings and symbolism in the text, and there are often times when it is valuable to look for it. We should remember, however, that our interpretation of those deeply spiritual meanings and symbolism is often based on our own experiences and biases. While there’s nothing wrong with the idea that we, like the swamp trees, need the Living water to grow and to live, it is important not to let our limited human understanding limit the reality of God. Scripture interprets scripture, and while God is deep, spiritual and much of the scriptures are symbolic, the Truth of God is simple. Let’s not complicate things with these details that don’t usually matter.
One of the things I noticed during my trip to the state park is that there are some plants that actually do grow in rocky places. It is part of the cycle of nature. These plants find a crack in a rock or a tiny pocket caused by erosion and they take root. They break down the rock as they grow, leave behind organic materials as they die and form soil in which other seeds might fall, sprout and grow. I once saw a tree growing out of deep hole in a rocky shelf along a river; it seemed impossible, but the tree was taller than me and at least a few years old. Somehow it had enough of everything to grow, and as it grows it will continue to make that hole habitable for other plants.
See, we think we can guess where the seeds we scatter will grow, and we choose not to scatter seeds that we think will be rejected or that will be gobbled up, withered under the heat of the sun or chocked by the cares of the world. We don’t know. We never know what God has planned. God’s Word does not return to Him void, and so He invites us to share it with excessive generosity. We aren’t limited the way a farmer is limited. We don’t have to worry about whether our seeds will produce enough crops to cover the needs of our customers. We only have to scatter the seed and let God make it grow.
There a story about Chuck Colson. Chuck was invited into a prison to preach the Gospel. He carefully prepared a message filled with the Gospel to share with those who were lost in darkness and sin. There were two thousand prisoners in the prison and about three hundred were expected to listen to him preach. Chuck would have liked to preach to every prisoner, but he was excited about the opportunity. Several days before he was scheduled to appear, the officials discovered hidden weapons and they locked down the entire prison. When Chuck arrived at the chapel, there were only a few men waiting to hear the message, and they were all Christians. He was discouraged and was ready to just give the men a few words of encouragement.
He noticed a video camera and thought perhaps he was being recorded for the prison library. He decided to give the entire message as planned in the hope that one day someone might view the video and hear God’s love and forgiveness. After the visit was complete, Chuck was told that the video would be aired to all the inmates at a later time. In the end, every one of the 2200 prisoners saw the video, not just once, but as many as a dozen times. Chuck trusted that God’s Word would accomplish the purpose for which it was sent, despite the disappointing circumstances he faced. He gave the whole Word even though he thought at first it might be a waste of time.
We make decisions about how to share our faith and the Gospel of Jesus Christ based on very human thoughts and expectations. We keep silent because we don’t want to offend. We are afraid because we don’t want to be rejected. We choose to tell only those we think will listen because we don’t want to throw pearls before swine. Yet, God is not concerned about waste because His Word does not return to Him empty. If He intends for His Word to grow on the path, it will. He might actually want it to be gobbled up by that bird. If He intends for His Word to root in the rocky ground, it will. Perhaps the withering of that seed will establish the soil for the next heart. If He intends for it to grow in the thorns, perhaps He knows that the seed is for a cypress that will outlast the thorns and grow to last a thousand years. Who are we to guess what God has planned for the seeds we can sow? He is exceedingly generous and He is able to do the impossible.
Those of us who believe in God find it so difficult to believe that anyone could reject Him. How do you look at the world and not know that it was created by a Creator? How do you see sin and not realize that it takes someone greater than a human being to overcome it? How do you go through your day without knowing that there is a Redeemer willing and able to make things right in the world that you have messed up with your selfishness and self-centeredness?
Over the years, I have seen some pretty incredible things. I have seen a sunflower that grew ten feet high with a head over two feet in diameter. I have seen kittens born. I have seen sunsets that fill the sky with every color of the rainbow. I have seen flowers grow bloom in a pot of rock without any soil to nourish the plant. I have seen babies smile their first smile and toddlers take their first steps. I have seen war and peace, hate and love. My life is no different or special than anyone else’s in this world. We have all witnessed the incredible power of God in the lives of people and His hand moving the whole of creation day by day. It is impossible for me to look at any aspect of this world and not see God’s sovereignty over it. When flowers grow, it is because God sent the sun and the rain. When kittens are born, it is because God has knitted them in the wombs of their mothers. When the sky is filled with color at the close of the day, it is because God keeps the heavens moving according to their purpose as they count the days and the seasons as He designed them to do.
Unfortunately, it is easy to miss God in all these things, many people do. Some outright reject the idea that God even exists. Creation can take care of itself; we do not need something or someone greater than ourselves to explain the way the world works. Others believe that God created everything and stepped back leaving us to go it on our own. After all, doesn’t the suffering of this world prove that God either has no power or has refused to take responsibility? However, it is even in the midst of the pain and turmoil of this world that I see God is still active, loving and powerful.
Though it seems possible for people to do good things on our own, history has proven over and over again that people are for more likely to be selfish. Greed, lust, anger and hatred are natural responses to our experiences. We desire everything that will make us happy. Love, truth, unselfishness and peace are impossible for human flesh. Love brings pain, truth brings persecution, unselfishness brings rejection and peace very often brings death. We could never do it on our own. We need God.
When things become overwhelming for me in this world, I simply remember that God is in control. The psalmist today reminds us that He created all things, and His hand still moves the waters of the rivers and brings life to the fields. He saves us from ourselves, forgives our sins and shows us the ways of righteousness and truth. How can we go through any day, looking at the amazing things that God has done and not praise Him for His mercy and grace? Yes, I’ve seen some incredible things in my life, but God has His hand in it all. He is there in the times of war and the times of peace. He is visible in the beauty and in the pain. God deserves our thanks and praise for all He has done. Let us rejoice and sing today.
And since He is such a great and awesome God, the real question we should be asking ourselves is why aren’t we more bold with our witness in the world? Paul reminds us, “For ye received not the spirit of bondage again unto fear; but ye received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.” We are not alone in this world. God has given us His Spirit. We need not be afraid. We will be rejected; of this we can be sure. Jesus warned us that it would happen. But that is no reason to stop speaking His Word into the world. We might speak to a thousand people and never see faith grow. That’s ok, because it is God who makes the growth. He sends the sun and the rain; He sends someone to tend the heart and others to bring in the harvest. It is never up to us to decide who should hear the Good News because God can and will make it accomplish exactly what He sent it to do.
St. Francis of Assisi is attributed with one of the favorite Christian quotations of many people. “Share the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” The idea that is put forth by this quote is that it is in our kindnesses and our good works that people will see Christ. While there is value in the command to live our Christian faith in real, tangible, physical ways, I see this as a dangerous cop-out. After all, human action will never save another human being. It is only by the name of Jesus that anyone can and will be saved. Our good works are a response to the Gospel, and it might help in preparing the soil for the Word. But they will never know about Jesus unless we tell them about Him. And they will never be saved unless they believe in Him. Lots of people do lots of good works, but God is calling us to do something more. He is calling us to speak His Word, to give a testimony of the great and wonderful works of the God who has created and redeemed the world.
Please join me in this prayer: Lord, make us brave. Give us courage to speak the Gospel to those who cross our paths. Help us to scatter Your seeds everywhere, even in the places we do not think it can grow. Help us to trust that Your Word will accomplish that which You intend and that it will always succeed in doing what You have sent it to do. Abba, Father, remind us that we are never alone, remind us that your Spirit joins with our spirit so that we can speak boldly with joy and praise You even when the work we do brings rejection and pain. We thank you Lord for trusting us with Your grace and for inviting us to be Your witnesses in the world. We ask all this in the name and for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, and ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. For I say, through the grace that was given me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think as to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to each man a measure of faith. For even as we have many members in one body, and all the members have not the same office: so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and severally members one of another. And having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of our faith; or ministry, let us give ourselves to our ministry; or he that teacheth, to his teaching; or he that exhorteth, to his exhorting: he that giveth, let him do it with liberality; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness.” Romans 12:1-8, ASV
A few days ago I talked about my playtime with Sammy. That time is often interrupted by Delilah who wants to join in the fun. Unfortunately, Sammy often steps back and then lets Delilah take over, stealing away the time we have together. I do try to keep Sammy involved, and I try to get Delilah to step back, but they are cats and you just can’t reason with them. It is ok; Delilah needs playtime, too. Yesterday she was wonderfully considerate. She sat on the other side of the room and watched until Sammy was done playing. She came over and joined in the fun when I called her. I know they are cats, but it is nice to see that they are willing, sometimes, to share.
Since the cats have such different personalities, it is impossible to treat them exactly the same. Tigger is allowed the occasional stroll on the deck, especially when Bruce is grilling. Tigger knows to stay close; he never goes down the steps. He goes inside without a fight when it is time. It is his special treat. Delilah doesn’t have a collar. I gave up trying to put it on her after she figured out how to get off and did so within minutes every time. Of course, this means she doesn’t have a jingle bell to warn us she’s around, but I know that she is so much happier without it. Yes, Tigger and Sammy would probably be happier without their collars, too, but they don’t seem to mind it as much as her. Sammy’s special treat is the time he gets to spend with Bruce. They sit together many evenings, especially in the cooler seasons, Sammy settled between Bruce’s legs on the footrest of the Lazy Boy.
Is it fair that Tigger gets to go outside, Delilah gets to live without a collar and Sammy gets to spend so much time with Bruce? Shouldn’t they be treated exactly the same? Unfortunately, many people think that fairness and equality mean that everyone must have exactly the same things. Malcolm X is quoted as saying, “If you have a dog, I must have a dog. If you have a rifle, I must have a rifle. If you have a club, I must have a club. This is equality.” Is it?
How surprising must it be, then, to read these words of Paul which tell us that God measures out faith and gifts according to His grace? God does not give every Christian every gift. God does not even give every Christian the same measure of faith. This is pretty obvious when we look at one another. We all know that one Christian who has extreme faith. They trust in God without even a glimmer of doubt, so much so that we worry that we are less than faithful. Yet, each of us has enough faith because we have what God has given us. Do you know a Christian who has an almost supernatural ability to teach about the scriptures? What about the Christian who seems to know just what needs to be done in moments of crisis? Have you ever been blessed by a preacher who can speak from the pulpit with power and grace?
And now the tough question: have you ever wished you could do it, too? Have you ever been envious of a person’s faith? Have you ever resented the gifts of your fellow Christians? I have, and I think if you are honest with yourself, you will realize that you have too.
Here’s what happens, though, when we begin to envy the gifts of others: we forget to be thankful for the gifts we have been given and then we stop recognizing the call of God on our life. We are envious because we have decided that one gift is greater than another, or that one vocation is more important. We pursue the more important work; we try to develop the gifts that we think are better. We try to be something we aren’t, and in doing so we reject who God has created us to be. Prophecy is not more important than ministry or teaching or exhortation or giving or ruling or showing mercy. Each is vital to the Church and all are given by God in good and perfect measure.
What is your gift? What is God calling you to do? Don’t discern the answers to these questions using the ideology of the world. Don’t choose a gift or ministry just because you think it is more important than another. Whatever God is calling you do to is enough. It might not seem like much to you, but it is vital to the will and purpose of God. In the end you may discover that your simple gift and ministry had life-changing eternal consequences for someone you never met. Then again, you may never know. That’s ok. Just trust in God, do what He is calling you to do. Don’t worry that your gifts or ministry seems to be less important than another. Never be jealous of the measure which God has given your brother or sister in Christ. In the end, it really is all equal, just not exactly the same.
Remember, God gives faith and gifts and ministry according to His grace. He knows us so well that He can provide exactly enough to all who trust in Him. He loves each of us in our uniqueness and He builds His Church on our individuality. God doesn’t have to give us all the same gifts or opportunities to be fair; let us be thankful that He has loves us all and trust that He will provide everything we need.
“For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; it is not therefore not of the body. And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; it is not therefore not of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members each one of them in the body, even as it pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now they are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee: or again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be more feeble are necessary: and those parts of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness; whereas our comely parts have no need: but God tempered the body together, giving more abundant honor to that part which lacked; that there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffereth, all the members suffer with it; or one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof.” 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, ASV
I think one of the most difficult things we face as a church is how to best use our resources for the sake of the world. Individuals have to make choices, too, but we each do so based on our own conscious. I like certain charities and I support them regularly with my money and my prayer. Local charities also get my support in other ways. It becomes more difficult when two or three people are trying to decide what to do with resources. Sometimes family members disagree about which charities to support and how to use our time; we are all limited in some way.
Multiply that by the number of people in a congregation, all of whom have different gifts, callings and priorities. One person is concerned with the building up of the church members; after all if all Christians are truly disciples, then they will go out into the world doing God’s work in very real ways. The people with gifts of preaching and teaching want to focus time and resources on discipleship among the congregation. Others, like those who have the gifts of generosity or mercy, will want to focus more on community service and outreach. They have a desperate need, to be generous and merciful to those in need outside the church.
So we argue. We debate. We put each other down. We even question each other’s Christianity because we think they are ignoring the work of the Holy Spirit. After all, if God is calling me to open a soup kitchen through my church, how can anyone think it is more important to put resources into an education building and Bible study materials? Isn’t one ministry greater than another?
No. One ministry is not greater than another because no gift is greater than any another. God calls us to work together, lifting one another in prayer and encouragement to use our varied gifts to God’s glory. The preacher and teacher are given to help the one who serves stay on the right path while the server is given to remind the preacher and teacher that we have been blessed to be a blessing. Every individual can’t do it all. This is true not only because we have very human limitations, but also because God calls us in different and various ways, providing us with different and various gifts. Should your neighbor’s gifts and calling be quenched because your gifts and calling demand the limited resources of a church?
Many experts on the topic debate whether a church should be inwardly or outwardly focused. This is the difference between making disciples and sending people into the world to serve. Do you see the foolishness of both? We are called to be upwardly focused, focused on God; He will provide us with all the resources we need to get His jobs done. Do you want to do something in the church but find yourself butting heads with others who have different plans? Are you fighting with others to grab every bit of the church’s limited resources without trusting that God will not let His plan fail?
Sadly, many churches become so narrowly focused that they reject the vision, ministry and gifts of people who do not fit into that narrow focus. There is always someone who is stronger, bolder, louder, and more persistent. They convince others to follow them and their ideas. They reject any differences, seeing the Spirit only in those who agree with their priority and demand that everyone put all their time and energy into the project they think is the better one, ignoring the Spirit’s calling in other people’s lives.
But a truly healthy church is the one that recognizes God in all the gifts and callings of the individuals and that trusts that God will bless the congregation that works together to do all His Work. Remember, Jesus never limited Himself to one or the other. He developed His disciples into apostles and He crossed borders into the world to touch the lives of those who did not yet know Him. We are His body in the world, continuing All His work with all the great and wonderful gifts God has given. None is greater than another; we are all vital and important parts that are designed to work together for His glory.
“So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’; as he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.’” Hebrews 5:5-6
Queen Victoria of England was only nineteen years old when she was crowned; until that day she was always under the supervision and protection of someone. Her ascension to the throne was the first time she was free. She rebelled at first, partying late into the night. In retrospect, she considered that time “the least satisfactory time in her whole life.” She eventually learned what it meant to be a good leader, surrounding herself with strong advisors and helpers, including her husband Albert. Together they made nation strong; they prospered in economics, industry, science, culture and the military. All the while she managed to keep a loving home actively involved with her nine children.
What made Victoria a successful leader? How was she able to prosper a nation while maintaining a loving home? At all times she sought the best for her country and people. She did not seek power, but rather humbled herself by consulting her advisors who could help her make the right decisions. Her success was an achievement of character; her reign was one of honesty and simplicity. Her humility did not make her weak; she was a strong leader who ruled in the best interest of her people.
It is so easy to fall into the trap of power. Many kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, bishops and pastors, CEOs and governors think that their position gives them the authority to control the lives of those over whom they rule instead of remembering that they have been called to serve. We don’t even have to be in a position of leadership to fall into the temptation of controlling those around us. We think we know it all, and that eventually leads us to become self-appointed rulers.
Queen Victoria served for sixty-four years and her country benefited from her humble attitude. She knew that she was called to serve those to whom she was sent. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus also knew He was not self-appointed. He was called by God, called the Son of God with God’s own voice. He was not following His own will but the will of the Father. He was obedient to the One who sent Him, and He was made Priest and King. He did not choose these roles; He is the eternal fulfillment of all God’s promises.
“We speak wisdom, however, among them that are fullgrown: yet a wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, who are coming to nought: but we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, even the wisdom that hath been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds unto our glory: which none of the rulers of this world hath known: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory: but as it is written, Things which eye saw not, and ear heard not, And which entered not into the heart of man, Whatsoever things God prepared for them that love him. But unto us God revealed them through the Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him? even so the things of God none knoweth, save the Spirit of God. But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God; that we might know the things that were freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth; combining spiritual things with spiritual words. Now the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, and he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, ASV
I am getting ready for a quick trip to the east coast for a conference and then a day with family. Now, when I plan a trip, I am an organizer. I order visitor’s guides, I peruse the Internet, and I ask friends for advice on things to see. I’ve never been to the city where the conference is being held, and I am looking forward to seeing the history, art and culture. Unfortunately, I’m only going to have a few hours of tourist time in the city where I’ll be staying, so I want to make the most of it.
I had a friend who was planning a trip to England. Since we were living there at the time, she asked my advice. She gave me a possible itinerary for her three weeks. It was full of things to do; she wanted to do it all. I understand why, a trip to England is often a once in a lifetime experience. We were lucky to live there because we had four years to see it all. I can’t imagine trying to see it in three weeks. I cautioned her about trying to schedule too much. I gave her some recommendations of places she could go where she would see more variety in one place. Warwick Castle, for instance, is a wonderful way to see a thousand years of English history in one place. I encouraged her to leave time between tourist sites to enjoy the flavors of the country, not only the food but also the people. Some of our best experiences happened in the unexpected encounters with the local people.
We went out of our way to worship at Truro Cathedral and we had a wonderful conversation with the Bishop of Truro who was so thrilled to see the children at worship. We had an enlightening conversation with the security guard at Stonehenge as he described his theories and pointed out some of the lesser known facts about the ancient stones. I had an entertaining, and yes a little flirtatious, conversation with Gary, a guard at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, who refused to let me see what he was wearing under his kilt because Bruce was standing beside me. We took communion in Westminster Abbey, attended Evensong service in York Minster, and saw the only complete set of medieval stained glass windows in a parish church in England to survive both the Protestant Reformation and the world wars at St. Mary’s Church in Fairford. We heard a Cambridge University choir sing in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral. We celebrated the Fourth of July with some surprised Englishmen at a beach.
We didn’t plan for any of those encounters, they happened because we didn’t fill our time with so many expectations that there wasn’t time to stop and smell the roses. I’ll never regret those conversations even if it meant missing the chance to look at another ruined castle. I’ve often thought at least of few of them were appointments that God scheduled without us even realizing it.
I am doing a lot of planning and research for my trip, but I’m not going to limit myself to a strict schedule when I get there. If I do, I might just miss something even better, like a chance encounter or the best shrimp and grits. There are things I should see, but sometimes the best experiences are the things we happen to see.
They say we should take time to smell the roses. I think that the adage refers to much more than enjoying the beautiful flowers that God created. If we take time to stop, to look at the world around us instead of working so hard to fill every moment of our time, we will notice that there are people and experiences waiting for us around every bend. They are opportunities to share our faith, to serve our neighbors, to invite them into a relationship with Jesus Christ. We need to stop trying so hard to plan and execute the perfect journey and leave room for God to use His miraculous hand to accomplish His work in our lives. He has prepared our way; we will be amazed at what He has planned for us along the journey.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 20, 2014, Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 44:6-8; Psalm 119:57-64; Romans 8:18-27; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
“Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He that hath ears, let him hear.” Matthew 13:43, ASV
The lectionary gives us three weeks from Matthew 13; last week we heard the parable of the sower, this week is the parable of the weeds and next week includes the parables of the treasure in the field, the pearl of great value and the net. At the end of next week’s passage, Jesus asks His disciples if they understand all that He has said. They say, “Yes.” Jesus responds, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
We usually read these parables separately, interpret them individually, and there is value to that practice. After all, every book, paragraph, sentence, word and even “jot and tittle” in scripture are given for us to learn, understand and apply to our lives. The words that we take for granted in the text are often the keys to truly understanding what God is saying. But sometimes it is good to look at the scriptures as a whole, to read our selected passages in context and to understand them in the whole purpose of the writing. A few weeks ago we considered chapter 10 in its fullness. This week we are going to do the same with chapter 13.
Chapter 13 begins (as we read last week) with Jesus going out of the house to the sea where the crowds gathered around Him to listen to Him preach. The image we have here is interesting, and important. Jesus sits in the boat on the water while the crowds stand on the shore to listen. This is not a typical picture of a preacher, is it? We are used to our preachers standing in a pulpit while we comfortably sit in our pews to listen. This is actually a judgment scene; we can see that in the parables Jesus speaks during the discourse, particularly in today’s passage.
Jesus reminds us that there will grow up in our midst people who are not really Christian, they do not truly believe in Christ. This reminds me of a story that I heard that came out of a persecuted part of the world. I don’t recall where, but I’m not sure it matters: this story could come out of any place where Christians are persecuted. A congregation was gathered one Sunday to worship, fearfully but faithfully. The all knew that anti-Christian soldiers could invade their sanctuary and kill them for worshipping Jesus. Suddenly the door flew open and several armed men stormed into the church. They told the gathered crowd that anyone could denounce their faith and leave, but those who stayed would die. A majority of the congregation got up and left. The soldiers closed the door, locked it and sat in the rear pew. The Christians looked at them with questioning eyes. They said, “It is very dangerous for us to worship, so we didn’t want anyone here who were not willing to die for Jesus. Go on with the service, pastor.” Those congregants who got up and left are the ones who would quickly tell the authorities about the Christian soldiers for their own benefit. They are nominal at best, and as Jesus tells us, sometimes they are even planted by Satan.
We don’t like to think about this truth, because we know that Jesus has built His church to commend and encourage one another. We gather to worship together, to pray for one another and to encourage our gifts. We rely on one another to keep us on the right path, but how can we stay on the right path if we are led by those who are purposely leading us down the wrong one? It is no wonder that the servant in today’s passage asks the master if they should pull out the weeds. We don’t want anyone in our midst that will be a risk to our lives, growth, faith, hope and peace.
But God says, “Don’t worry. My seeds will grow and survive and bear fruit, and I will nurture and protect those whom I have planted; the righteous will shine like the sun in my kingdom. In the end I will take care of the weeds; I will pass judgment on the seeds planted by the devil.” See, this is a passage about judgment; in the end the works of the devil will not succeed. The hard part is that we can’t always determine between the works of God and the works of the devil, that’s why God warns us to let Him deal with it. Sometimes we make mistakes in our quest to cleanse the church and we destroy those whom God has planted.
Now, as we looked at chapter 13 at Sunday school on Sunday, one member was extremely bothered by seeing the text as a whole. She didn’t want to know how these fit into a judgment scene. She wasn’t bothered by the reality that there will be a judgment scene, but she preferred to look at these parables as she always had, as comforting promises to those whose hearts are good soil, who are the seeds He’s planted, who are the good fish. We want to see God’s hand as He grows the mustard seed and the leaven. We know it will be hard, but we want to be the one who risks it all for the hidden treasure and the great pearl. But she was upset that she now saw these parables in this new light. There will be judgment, and she feared, perhaps, that she would not benefit the way she had always expected.
Here’s the thing: we can’t just take chapter 13 by itself, either. This message of judgment falls in the middle of the whole story. Matthew is a brilliant rabbi and he tells the story of Jesus, of faith, of salvation in a very ordered and purposeful way. In chapters 1-4 we meet Jesus and learn who He is. In chapters 4-16 we hear what He has to say. The first three of five discourses are found in these chapters, including the Sermon on the Mount (5-7), a missionary address (10) and the parables of the Kingdom. Chapters 16-28 cover the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Messiah. Two more discourse are found in those chapters. The community exhortation is given to teach the Christians how to live together and do God’s work and the final discourse looks at the end times.
During this Pentecost season so far and through the fall our focus has been and will be on this center part of Matthews book. We’ve seen Jesus do miraculous things (the ten acts of deliverance in chapters 8 & 9) to prove that He has the authority to say what He says. We’ve talked about the missionary address and the truth that we will face rejection. In chapters 11 and 12, Jesus lives that rejection, first from the crowds, then from the leaders and from even His own family. That brings us to the parables at the scene of judgment. See, we will all experience judgment, but those who reject Jesus will not like the way the story turns out.
We are reminded of this for two reasons. First, we can fall away. We can be led so far off the path that we will reject Him and what He has to say. I understand why so many prefer the universalist ideology where God saves everyone. We have a hard time, especially today, accepting that a loving God would let anyone suffer the kinds of punishment we see in these texts. Who wants to believe in a God who “shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth?” So these stories of judgment, of law, cause us to cry out to God for mercy. The second reason we hear these texts is because of our neighbors: they might be the ones who are falling away or are being led astray. If we think everyone is saved anyway, why would we ever share the Gospel? Why would we introduce our neighbors to Jesus? Why would we try to help them onto the right path? It doesn’t matter, God will save them anyway.
But we know this is not true because Jesus tells us that some will end up in the furnace of fire. So, as faithful Christians, we are called to share the Gospel of truth with everyone so that they might hear the Word and believe. As we heard last week, we are called to scatter the seed everywhere because God is gracious and merciful. It is up to Him to cause the growth. As we hear in this week’s text, it isn’t up to us to decide who is a fruitful plant or a weed. God will take care of it. Perhaps, and this is my hope, that ultimately everyone will hear and believe, but I’ll leave that up to God.
All we can really do is live in the hope of God’s promises; after all, that is faith. While we are reminded that the law kills, we have the grace of God to comfort us. We are no longer bound by the law, because Jesus Christ has fulfilled the law. And yet, I come back to the verse I quoted earlier, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” We are not meant to throw away the “old”: the Law. We are meant to see it in the context of the “new”: the Gospel. We need both Law and Gospel. Martin Luther had a saying, “Simul justus et peccator,” which means that we are simultaneously saint and sinner. We are at the same time righteous and yet we still sin. We still need the Law to turn us to God even while we have the Gospel to comfort us in our failing. We treasure both.
We need to know there is judgment for the rest of the story to make sense. There is no need of a cross without it.
That’s why we still look at Old Testament scriptures like today’s Psalm. I wrote a few weeks ago about another verse from this psalm; I focused on how it speaks of the law over and over again in many and various ways and that it was probably used as a learning tool for instruction on godliness. The writer may have been a priest who was passionately devoted to the Word of God; he also humbly acknowledges his own failure to live up to it. While today’s passage continues the focus on the word, it is also filled with Gospel.
The English Standard translation of this psalm uses the word “promise” twice. “The Lord is my portion; I promise to keep your words. I entreat your favor with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise.” The first promise is from the writer to God, promising to obey Him. The second seeks God’s faithfulness to His promise. Despite the order of these promises in this text, it is obvious that the psalmist knows that his promise is dependent on the one spoken first: God’s. We cannot by our own power be obedient to God’s Word without faith in God’s promise.
I looked up the word that is translated promise in this version of the text and it has many possible translations. The thing that is particularly interesting is that the word is a verb meaning “to say.” God’s promises, just like His law, are spoken for us to hear. As you read through the entirety of chapter 13, notice how often Jesus mentions hearing. “He who has ears let him hear;” hearing and belief go together. Those who reject Christ and His Word don’t hear because their hearts are dull.
Jesus explains to the disciples why He speaks in parables. Now, we often explain it by saying that Jesus uses everyday knowledge as examples of the kingdom of God. People in agricultural communities know what it takes to grow grain and that a mustard seed is very small. They know that weeds grow in the fields and that seed can’t survive on the path, rocky ground or in the thornbush. The fishermen know what it is like having to throw some fish away because they aren’t suitable for food. They all wish for the treasure that will make their world better.
But when Jesus explains why He uses parables, He doesn’t say it is to make it easier for the people to understand. He says that He speaks in parables because only those with faith will see, hear and understand the meaning. The parable keeps the hidden things of God from those who do not hear with their hearts. Jesus asks the disciples, “Have you understood all these things?” He wasn’t asking if they had an intellectual understanding; He was asking if they believed it in their hearts.
I’ve always laughed at their answer because it is obvious as the story continues that even the disciples do not really understand everything Jesus is trying to teach them. It isn’t until Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit that they truly ‘get it.’ Yet, in Matthew’s telling of the Jesus story, they do understand in the way Jesus wants them to hear: with their hearts. They believe. They follow. They risk everything for the sake of the Kingdom. They trust that God’s promises are true.
The same can’t be said about others. As a matter of fact, chapter 13 ends with Jesus returning home. The people in Nazareth know Jesus and they have a hard time believing that He has the authority to preach and teach. They don’t have faith, and their lack of faith makes Him powerless among them. They don’t hear with their hearts even though they try to hear with their ears. The rejection, the confusion, the misunderstanding continues through the rest of the story, ultimately leading to the only conclusion that can have an eternal impact: the death of Jesus.
Isaiah writes in today’s Old Testament lesson, “Jehovah of hosts: I am the first, and I am the last; and besides me there is no God.” This is most certainly true. There is no god but our God. However, there are lots of false gods, including ourselves. The false gods could do nothing. They had no power. Did the gods create the world or establish God’s people? Can they see the future? Of course not. Can we do any of those things? No.
We look to ourselves, our own power, and our own abilities to control our world. We interpret the scriptures to mean what they want them to mean, to benefit ourselves and we make our world as if we are the god of it. We put our jobs, our relationships, our homes, our churches and even our own bodies, minds and hearts above God’s Word. We think we know the best way to spend our time and our resources. We make our wants and needs the priority and we forget to worship the LORD. But nothing human can create something out of nothing. Our human flesh cannot predict tomorrow. We won’t find comfort in the things of this world.
We aren’t God. We don’t know what God knows. We might face difficulties. We might struggle. We might suffer at the hands of another. And we can’t possibly know the difficulties, struggles and sufferings of our neighbors. All we can do is live in hope knowing that the hope we have in Christ is not just a wish or a dream. Hope in the promise of God is worth waiting for, waiting patiently because God is faithful.
Did we create the world or establish God’s people? Can we see the future? Of course not. This is why it is not our task to remove the weeds from the wheat fields. We do not know God’s entire plan. We do not know what good might come of what has been done in the field or in the world. We can only trust that God is faithful and that His promises are true. The problem of living in the world was not just a problem for the people in Isaiah’s day. Paul’s letter addresses the same difficulties. The people, though they knew the grace of God, still thought they could find comfort in the ways of the world. We are children of God and as such we are called to live by the Spirit, not by our flesh. We have been adopted by God and He is our Abba, Daddy.
One of the most difficult aspects of Christian faith for a non-believer to accept is the idea found in today’s Epistle lesson. It is the reason so many people fell away from Jesus in the end. Paul writes that we are joint heirs with Christ—something we like very much. We like the idea that we have been adopted as children of God, that He is our Abba, Daddy. However, Paul reminds us that as joint heirs in the promise we share in every aspect of Christ’s reign, including His suffering. He writes, “…if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him.”
We create the god we want to worship, often ignoring or rejecting the parts that don’t fit into our idea of a loving God. We set aside the Law holding desperately to that which makes us feel good. But then we lose sight of the whole message, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” We need both Law and Gospel. We will be blessed beyond measure, but we’ll also experience the same suffering that Jesus experienced. We will be rejected, we may even die. In faith we promise to do so, but only because we have trusted in the promise God spoke before we were ever born. It is hope in His promise that helps us to keep our eyes on God even when we struggle with the fear of judgment.
We can’t see or touch or feel the hope we have in Christ. We have been waiting, not so patiently, since the promise was made. The whole creation has been groaning as we await its fulfillment. The world looks no different today than it has for thousands of years. It is still filled with sinners, suffering and pain. Yet, there is a difference because we now live in a hope that does not disappoint; a hope in the promises of God that we will receive in His day. It will be a day of judgment, but we have nothing to fear. We have heard the Gospel, and while we do not always understand intellectually the things we read or emotionally the things we experience, we who have heard with our ears do understand in our hearts and faith is the assurance that God will adopt us into His Kingdom. And we will shine forth like the Son forever.
“Let not your heart be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I come again, and will receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. And whither I go, ye know the way. Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; how know we the way? Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye would have known my Father also: from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.” John 14:1-7, ASV
A friend posted a status on Facebook yesterday about how he was waiting for an answer to a question he didn’t even know he had. It was a cryptic status, we never learned the question or the answer or how it would impact his life. We simply know that there was a question and an answer and it was important enough for him to make a comment on Facebook.
Of course, many people make many comments that aren’t very important. The other day, in fact, I posted as my status on my personal Facebook page: “I should go to the grocery store.” Now, I usually try to be witty or inspiring. I usually try to post a status that says something that will make my friends think or laugh or invite me out to lunch. I like to post statuses that will bring a little hope or joy to my friends who are struggling. The grocery store status was so out of character and so totally mundane that one friend answered with a simple “Ok.”
I love Facebook because it has reconnected me with people who I have not seen for decades. I’m friends with relatives I never get to see. I’ve reconnected with people I knew in High school and it is fun to see how their lives have turned out. I’m friends with people locally, and Facebook helps me see what’s going on in their everyday lives when I don’t get to see them very often due to busy schedules. Sometimes the posts are interesting. Sometimes they are upsetting. We love to hear that our friends are celebrating the birth of another grandchild, but not so much that their mother is in hospice care. I like knowing the good and bad things that are going on in people’s lives so that I can pray for them. I started keeping a notebook near the computer which I often fill with prayers for my friends online. It is good to have this connection.
It isn’t always good, however. Studies have shown that Facebook can have a negative impact. One article from the New Yorker last fall reported about a study that shows that Facebook makes people unhappy. There are multiple reasons for this. One thing is the lack of interaction. After all, it seems like if you have four hundred friends, then at least one of them should like and/or comment on your witty or insightful posts, right? Then you have the problem of the friends who post negatively about something you’ve said. Add to that the envy caused by reading everyone’s good news. How hard must it be for the childless widow to keep hearing how her friends are bouncing brand new grandbabies on their knees? The guy who can’t find a job must go crazy every time a friend complains about a boss or a co-worker. A lonely person can’t help but be jealous every time a friend posts a picture of another night out with friends.
The funny part of this article is that there was another study that came to the conclusion that Facebook actually makes us happier. That study found that we are ‘wired’ to connect to people, and online social networking helps us to do that. We are happy when we share thoughts and ideas that help others. There is a psychological and physiological rush that comes when we post something that has an impact on the lives of others. We are happy when someone likes an article we repost or a photo we’ve shared. We are happy when someone thanks us because our thoughts made a difference in their day.
I suppose it is a matter of how we use the tool. Facebook is extremely addicting. I know. I check my timeline first thing in the morning and multiple times during the day. I usually do it only at home; I don’t have access on my phone. However, I don’t go out all that much and it is so easy to just pop on the computer in between chores or while I’m waiting for the paint on a canvas to dry. One of the studies referenced in the New Yorker article reported that it was better to be actively engaged in Facebook rather than just scrolling through the timeline. It is the engagement that makes us feel good and the passivity, which leads to boredom, which makes us unhappy.
That brings me back to my friend’s answer to the unknown question yesterday. I posted a response to my friend’s status: “The answer is always Jesus.” Everyone who works with youth and children in the church knows that the answer to every question is “Jesus,” but the joke is completely lost on most people who aren’t actively involved in church work. My answer didn’t quite bring the lighthearted laughter that I expected. The responses were thankfully not anti-Christian, but the joke was completely lost on those readers.
The experience could have been upsetting; I have to admit that I’ve made unashamedly Christian comments on posts and have been brutally (virtually) attacked for my faith. I wasn’t so happy on those days. I have to admit that sometimes I wonder why I even bother to continue to post on Facebook, to engage with others who might not receive the Word with the grace with which I posted my comments. I’ve considered giving up Facebook altogether.
Then I think about all the times I’ve been able to share Jesus with people who really need to meet Him. I think about the comments that uplift my friends who are feeling down. I think about the prayers that I’ve been able to pray. I think about the ministry God has guided me to do in this strange and wonderful and addicting medium. I couldn’t give it up because I know that the moments of happiness far outweigh those moments that make me sad. I continue to pop onto my computer between chores or while I’m waiting for the paint on a canvas to dry because I trust that God can use even the virtual world of Facebook to share the only answer that really matters: Jesus.
“Wherefore let him that speaketh in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. Else if thou bless with the spirit, how shall he that filleth the place of the unlearned say the Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he knoweth not what thou sayest? For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified. I thank God, I speak with tongues more than you all: howbeit in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” 1 Corinthians 14:13-19, ASV
I have to admit that I often take advantage of the thesaurus program on my word processor. I often know what I want to say, but I can’t come up with exactly the right word. I will type something that is close and then check the thesaurus, hoping that what I want will be there. Sometimes it takes clicking into several different options to really find the one that fits, and in extreme cases I try a completely different word. Perhaps I should know them all, and while the use of the thesaurus helps me come up with a variety of words, I know I could and should know more.
Reader’s Digest has a page with an activity called “Word Power” which quizzes the reader on words that they might know. The word is listed along with a pronunciation guide and then several possible definitions. Some of them can be fairly easy, especially if the topic is something with which the reader is familiar. Others can be very tricky; there is not always an obvious answer. I do fairly well each month usually scoring at least thirteen out of sixteen, but sometimes my score is embarrassing.
It is very important to know and understand the words we use. I’ll confess that I laugh when litigants on the daytime judge shows try to use ‘fifty-cent’ words while making their cases but they tend to use them improperly. So, they think they sound extremely smart, but the reality is that the judge and many of the viewers know that they are ‘putting on airs.’ It usually doesn’t help their case; the judge is looking for the simple, honest story. He or she never rules according to a person’s façade, but judges each case by the law.
I decided to go build up my vocabulary a bit today, so I found a word for the day website on the Internet. Now, these sites often post words that have no real communication value for me. After all, I can’t see the need to ever know the word that means “to pass or spend summer in a certain activity (like some animals) in a dormant state.” The word is “estivate.” Isn’t it funny, though, that I’d pick that word when I can’t imagine that there are many people reading this that don’t know the opposite, “hibernate.” And yet, even my spell check has no idea that the word is something real. For some reason we like to know what happens in the winter, but we don’t even realize that some animals go dormant during the summer.
The words for this week are interesting, if not completely impractical for use in my writing. The theme at the website is “word illusions: words that look like they are spelled wrong.” That’s helpful, right? Here are the five words listed for this week: ‘vizard,’ ‘grogram,’ ‘secretory,’ ‘factitious,’ and ‘proem.’ If I used any of those words you would probably chalk them off to another typo (I’m sure there’s at least one mistake in every post!) And yet, if I used them in the context of the meaning, the sentence probably wouldn’t make sense when you changed it mentally to the word you think I meant.
There are more than a million words in the English language, so not matter how many I do know, I know that I will never know them all. That’s ok, sometimes the simple, honest story is better than anything we can create using the best thesaurus. In today’s passage Paul is specifically speaking about the gift of tongues, which is a supernatural gift of speaking in an unknown language. I believe it is a language so old that it has long been forgotten, a true language that only the Spirit of God could speak through the mouth of men.
We can understand that there is another gift of tongues, and that is the people who are able to learn and speak fluently in modern languages so that people can hear the Word in words they understand. This is certainly what happened at Pentecost, as the uneducated followers of Jesus spoke the Gospel in a way that people from all over the known world could understand. I think, too, this idea can be applied to the way we use our own languages, after all, we often find it difficult to talk to one another because we use words so differently. Word meanings often change but it takes time for everyone to use those words in a new way. We hear words differently, some being offended by words that others find normal and informative. I think we can hear Paul’s conclusion no matter what type of tongues we are discussing: if I use a word to share the Gospel that is misheard or misunderstood, then I won’t accomplish the task I was sent into the world to do. Simple and honest, that’s what our neighbors need to hear. The Gospel doesn’t need fifty-cent words or complicated language to change lives. It isn’t our words that save, anyway; it is the mercy of God, the grace of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit that brings life and transformation to those who hear His word unto belief.
“Preserve me, O God; for in thee do I take refuge. O my soul, thou hast said unto Jehovah, Thou art my Lord: I have no good beyond thee. As for the saints that are in the earth, They are the excellent in whom is all my delight. Their sorrows shall be multiplied that give gifts for another god: Their drink-offerings of blood will I not offer, Nor take their names upon my lips. Jehovah is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: Thou maintainest my lot. The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; Yea, I have a goodly heritage. I will bless Jehovah, who hath given me counsel; Yea, my heart instructeth me in the night seasons. I have set Jehovah always before me: Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth; My flesh also shall dwell in safety. For thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol; Neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption. Thou wilt show me the path of life: In thy presence is fulness of joy; In thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” Psalm 16, ASV
I drove over three thousand miles over the past week. It took two days to get to Charleston and two very long days to get home from Raleigh. The trip between Charleston and Raleigh was relatively short, just a few hours. It is a lot of driving for one person in a week and many of my friends were surprised that I would drive. A plane would get me to and from my destinations in a fraction of the time. I probably didn’t save that much money by driving, after all I had to deal with the costs of gas, food and lodging along the way. I like to have my car because it gives me more freedom when I am traveling without having the added cost of a rental car. My car allowed me control that I just don’t have when I fly.
Of course, there are disadvantages. I ran into several severe rain storms along the way, although it affected less than fifty miles out of the three thousand. I dealt with a few traffic jams, although I seemed to have timed this trip perfectly to avoid rush hour in every major city. Even Houston, my nemesis, offered free sailing.
Despite the disadvantages, there’s something really wonderful about a road trip. While I didn’t take a lot of time to smell the roses along the way, I did enjoy the brief moments I snatched. I enjoyed conversations with fellow travelers at the rest areas and with the clerks in the truck stops. I enjoyed passing by the signs for strangely named rivers like the Little Pee Dee River and the Atchafalaya Basin. I didn’t stop at the Swamp visitor’s center this time, but it is a place we’ve stopped on previous trips. There’s always something to learn or photograph at those places. I love reading the billboards along the way.
Many of the billboards are just standard advertising for restaurants and hotels. In the cities you’ll see ads for local businesses. Along the way, however, there’s always some upcoming attraction that had taken billboard advertising to a new height. A favorite Texas rest stop advertises its fabulous restrooms and beaver themed merchandise for a hundred miles. Louisiana is filled with billboards for the Casinos. Throughout the Carolinas there were signs for a cigarette and cigar supercenter and for a wig store. I laughed at the sign that said, “Hi Fashion Wigs.” I’m not sure that there would be anything truly high fashion that advertises with a dozen small signs stuck in the ground alongside an interstate highway.
The best signs advertised the most ridiculous tourist trap, however. I saw at least fifty signs in a hundred miles for a place called “South of the Border.” It is truly kitschy America at its best, and is the reason we take road trips. South of the Border was basically its own little town in South Carolina just south of the North Carolina border. It had a stereotypical Mexican theme with brightly colored buildings, sculptures of a Mexican hat clad man (Pedro) two stories tall and “Mexican food.” I put that in quotes because it was probably not very good Mexican food. I didn’t have time to try it, or any of the other activities like the carnival, reptile lagoon, the hotel, ice cream shop or store with t-shirts. There was also a fireworks stand and a truck stop. I stopped at Porky’s (the truck stop) for some ice and to use the rest room. I found some silly souvenirs and chatted with the clerk a minute. I asked if he knew how ridiculous it was, and he laughed, but was thankful for the job. I think it would be interesting to spend a day wandering through the shops. Apparently there was a good time for this tourist destination, but when I was there it seemed a little like a very colorful ghost town.
Sadly, I’m sure part of the reason why South of the Border is no longer a thriving tourist site is because people do not take road trips like they have in the past. Gasoline is over $3.00 a gallon and air travel is relatively easy, so many families are less likely to take to the roads. Perhaps we’ve also left behind simpler joys of life as we have sought more exciting ways to use our leisure time. A family is far more likely to plan a trip to Disney than to get in their cars to enjoy driving through a swamp and eating ice cream at a kitschy American roadside attraction.
We live in a fast paced world and it is wonderful that we can get from one place to another quickly. I would never choose to drive if I had to rush to the side of a dying loved one, because in doing so I might miss the chance to say good-bye. I wouldn’t want to travel to the other side of the world as they did a hundred years ago, on a boat that took days or weeks through rough seas. Sometimes, however, it is nice to take our time, to enjoy the world in which we live, to see the trees and talk to the strangers who cross our paths.
We are in such a rush to get to where we are going that we miss out on the journey. It is the journey where we learn and grow. This is true of our faith journey, too. It is during the journey that God works on us, changes us, transforms us. Yes, there might be an easy and fast way to get to our destination, but there is so much to be learned during the journey. And God can use even the tough times—the rainstorms and traffic jams—to help us become the people He is calling us to be. The summer road trip is a time to slow down, smell the roses, see the world God has created and enjoy the brief but delightful company of strangers who will pass out of our lives as quickly as they entered. There is joy in this simple way to travel, not only on vacation but through our lives of faith.
“But I rejoice in the Lord greatly, that now at length ye have revived your thought for me; wherein ye did indeed take thought, but ye lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want. I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me. Howbeit ye did well that ye had fellowship with my affliction. And ye yourselves also know, ye Philippians, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church had fellowship with me in the matter of giving and receiving but ye only; for even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my need. Not that I seek for the gift; but I seek for the fruit that increaseth to your account. But I have all things, and abound: I am filled, having received from Epaphroditus the things that came from you, and odor of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God. And my God shall supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. Now unto our God and Father be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.” Philippians 4:10-20, ASV
We complain about the heat here in Texas, and many people will tell you that the humidity makes it even worse, and humidity certainly does make the heat feel far hotter than it actually is. Now, we tend to have humidity as high as 90%, although that happens in the winter months when we are more likely to get rain. The temperatures during that time are far more moderate, sometimes even cold, so the humidity does not cause the same discomfort that it would in the middle of the summer. The air is driest in the middle of August and most humid in late May. Those late spring days can be uncomfortable if the temperatures reach the 90’s.
We complain about the traffic here in San Antonio, and admittedly it can be bad. I’ve learned to avoid certain roads at certain times of the day because the highways are more like parking lots. A local television station posted a survey on their Facebook page this morning asking viewers to talk about their biggest pet peeves with our road conditions. We have trouble spots; so does every city. Some new study apparently claims that San Antonio has the worst driving conditions. I don’t know what other places are being used in the comparison, but as some viewer pointed out, “The people who say we have ‘the worst’ road conditions have clearly never left San Antonio to travel anywhere else. Calling our road conditions ‘the worst’ is a huge exaggeration.”
I agree. I also think that the complaints of humidity in Texas are highly exaggerated. I remember growing up in Eastern Pennsylvania where it could get to be 90+ degrees with 90+ humidity. We did not have air conditioning. I spent most of my summer in the swimming pool, or reading books under the shade of a tree. We lived with it, although I’m sure we complained as much as everyone else does everywhere else.
I went to South Carolina to hear lectures on theological subjects, but I have to say that the best lesson I learned this past week is that I really have no reason to complain. Yes, our road conditions are less than perfect. We have pot holes and road construction. We have too many cars on the road at the same time. We have drivers who can be inconsiderate, self-absorbed and even dangerous. They have all that in other places, too. I was lucky and ran into very few traffic jams, but I spent most of my driving time in Charleston lost among the one way streets, none of which seemed to go where I needed them to go.
Also, our heat can be overwhelming sometimes. The sun beats down harshly and the temperature can reach above 100 degrees. It is much worse on the coast where the warm gulf waters add a lot of moisture to the air. Sometimes, like today, that moisture makes it further inland where we can reach humidity of 60% or so. Yes, it is uncomfortable, but it is not the worst. I was overwhelmed by the heat and humidity of South Carolina, which felt as though it was 120%. I know it wasn’t, but it was bad enough that I was dripping wet only moments after exiting any building. While Texas has higher humility in the cold months, South Carolina has it in the summer months when the heat of the day makes it even worse on the body.
We have a tendency of seeing our own troubles as being so much worse than anywhere else. We have the worst traffic. We have the worst weather. Everyone says, “You don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes, it will change.” And everyone believes that it is most true about where they live. On a personal note, our financial troubles are always worse, our loneliness is greater, and our health issues are more deadly. We complain as if there is no one who has it worse, and in doing so we can’t see how truly blessed we are.. We are so focused on ourselves and how much it is in our little corner of the world that we miss out on the opportunities to minister to those who need our gifts and resources. We don’t realize that our complaints become like a yoke, burdening us and keeping us from the joy of living.
Be content, even when the humidity reaches uncomfortable levels and the traffic is at a standstill again. God can use those times to do amazing things. You might meet someone who needs a word of encouragement when you pop into the air conditioned store for a respite from the heat and traffic jams are a great time to pray. Always remember that no matter how bad it seems to you today, there is someone, somewhere who is dealing with something much worse and they need you. You have so much to offer that there simply is not time to dwell on our complaints. So, be content, knowing that you are blessed especially when it seems like your little corner of the world is the worst it can be.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 3 2014, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 136:1-9 [23-26]; Romans 9:1-5 [6-13]; Matthew 14:13-21
“And they all ate, and were filled: and they took up that which remained over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” Matthew 14:20, ASV
I’m not a very adventurous eater, although I do try to experiment when I travel. I’m not terribly fond of crab, but I ordered crab cake when I was on the Chesapeake Bay last year. I was sure to have beignets when I was in New Orleans (not that it was a sacrifice.) I eat cheesesteaks in Philadelphia (again, not a sacrifice.) I ate asparaberry shortcake when I traveled to the Asparagus Festival in Stockton California. It is exactly what you think it is: asparagus and strawberry shortcake. It is fun to discover the local food and test it, especially if it is something that you don’t think you like. In Charleston, my quest was to have a dish of shrimp and grits.
I am not a fan of grits. I don’t really like the texture and there is nothing compelling about the flavor. Like noodles, grits are best used as a foundation for something flavorful. The only thing that makes them even palatable is too much cream, butter and cheese. However, I was encouraged to find a place that serves shrimp and grits, just to try it and experience southern cuisine. I went to a recommended restaurant, much too expensive so I chose to go for lunch, and ordered the seafood grits with lobster sauce. It was very good. The seafood, which included shrimp, scallop and lobster, was perfectly cooked and the lobster sauce was delicious. The grits were fine; I’m sure they were outstanding to someone who likes to eat them. They were creamy and not at all gritty. I am glad I tried the dish, but I don’t need to order it again. I am sure that I liked it because it was prepared by a master chef in a restaurant that promises high quality food. I would have been disappointed by the dish if I’d tried it at a chain restaurant or a buffet.
Now, I really like buffets. There are always plenty of choices: several types of meats, overflowing side dishes, multiple offerings for desert. The salad bar usually had many vegetables, fruits and prepared salads to fill any desire. At a buffet you can fill your plate with as much fried chicken as you like while avoiding the mushroom soup. You don’t have to eat what you don’t like and you can eat as much of your favorites and you want. The hard part of the buffet is that there are usually too many things that look too good to pass up. You begin with a heaping spoonful of each item until you realize you are only halfway through the line and you have no more room on your plate! You want a little of everything, but even then there is too much food to eat. How can you pass up the soft ice cream even though you’ve already tried the chocolate cake, the peach cobbler and the cherry pie, not to mention the banana pudding? It never fails: we walk (roll) out of those all-you-can-eat buffets complaining of being so stuffed that we can barely make it to the car.
Now I’m hungry.
The key to getting the most out of a buffet is to make sure that you take just a taste of each type of food, but that is really hard. A bite of cherry pie doesn’t look like very much, and how do you take a small portion of chocolate cake? Our eyes always deceive us. A small taste of anything never looks satisfying, so we pile more on the plate. As we eat we realize that we could have taken half as much food and been more than filled. The advantage of a buffet is that we don’t have to choose just one item off the menu; the disadvantage is that we overindulge.
Sometimes it is better to have a simple meal with few choices. We can pay a fortune for that fancy lunch or be presented with a buffet of delicious food, but sometimes the best meals are those that are shared among friends. I think I might even enjoy grits if they were prepared by the hands of someone I love. We don’t need high quality food or an overabundance of choices to be fed. We simply need food to fill our bellies and nourish our bodies.
Jesus and His disciples certainly did not know what it is like to be faced with so many choices and an overabundance of food. They couldn’t pop into the local Country Buffet for dinner or even run to the grocery store for food to share. Even if they had these options, how could they possibly have served a grand buffet or gourmet meal to five thousand or more people? They couldn’t.
And yet, I wish I’d been there and I suspect it would have been the best, most satisfying meal I could ever eat.
Even though the meal began with the meager ingredients of stale bread and not quite fresh fish, God never does anything lackluster. Remember the wine Jesus made out of water at the wedding at Cana? It was the best wine the steward had ever tasted. I’m sure the same was true of the food Jesus served to the crowd on that hillside. They ate and were satisfied. There were so many leftovers that they filled twelve baskets. Both the wedding at Cana and the feeding of the five thousand show us the miraculous and abundant grace of God, and both serve as a foreshadowing of the greatest meal: the Eucharist.
We think about those fancy lunches and those unending buffets, but isn’t the best meal we eat the simplest? Isn’t the best meal the one we take at the Table of our Lord Jesus Christ, where we receive His body and blood which nourishes and strengthens us in body and spirit? That tiny piece of bread or wafer and that sip of wine will never fill our bellies, but it does something even greater. In that meal we proclaim the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are filled with heavenly peace and joy; we are forgiven and sanctified by His grace. The twelve baskets on that hillside remind us that the meal goes on; it does go on, every time we gather around the Lord’s Table.
Do we really think of the Eucharist as the best meal? We all have stories of those moments when we enjoyed a fancy lunch or an overwhelming buffet. We can tell stories about meals we’ve had with people we love. “Do you remember the time…?” stories often include descriptions of food. We can all tell stories about incredible pot luck dinners we’ve experienced at church. You know the type: there never seems to be enough food, and yet in the end everyone leaves full and satisfied. Yet, how often do we talk about the sacramental meals we take at the altar? Do we even really think about communion as a meal? We wonder how something so simple, so small and so free can have any value at all.
Isaiah writes, “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” How could the water, wine or milk be any good if it is free? Sadly, for many, the Eucharist really does not have much meaning. I’ve even been in the midst of worship planning where some have suggested that we should not do communion because it takes so much time. They think it would be better to fill the hour of worship with catchy tunes and video clips and then serve real food at a potluck in fellowship hall after the service. They haven’t realized that the meal of God is worth far more than tuna noodle casserole. With these words from Isaiah, God invites us into a relationship of trust. He has enough. As a matter of fact, everything is His. We don’t need to pay because He doesn’t need our money. He offers us everything we need out of His abundance, asking only that we believe, ‘buy,’ His Word. He invites us to dine with Him and presents a foretaste of a feast that we can never even imagine.
In today’s story, it seems as though Jesus’ miracle is wasteful. He miraculously fed thousands of people with a hearty meal of fish and bread. The story doesn’t tell us what happened to the leftovers, we just see that God is radically generous. He meets people’s most basic needs, but He also does so with incredible extravagance. When it comes to all His gifts, we see in this story how there are always leftovers—something to share. His blessing goes on and on and on. He blesses us with amazing gifts, some spiritual some very mundane, but all are meant to be shared. Our joy, our resources, our spiritual gifts are given in far greater quantity than we will ever need. In Christ we can be radically generous, too, sharing the love of God with the world.
We often get confused about what we need and what we desire. We need to eat. We desire more than a bite of every good and wonderful thing on the buffet. We need, even more, the Bread of life. We need Jesus Christ who fills us with more than food. He fills our hearts with the desire for the truly good things in life. He was sent from heaven to live, die and rise again to new life so we can freely live in the love and glory of the Most High God. It costs us nothing to partake in the bread and wine which is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and in that meal we will be more than satisfied.
In today’s epistle lesson, Paul was addressing a difficult question—what about the Jews? Paul was a Jew and he loved his people. He knew the blessings of being one of God’s people—the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship, and the promise. Yet, he also knew that they were missing something: Jesus. It was a hard quandary for Paul, to know the people he loved did not know the assurance of faith in Christ, but also knowing that they were beloved of God. How do we deal with this dichotomy?
Paul wished that he could give up his salvation for the sake of his people, but we know that this is not a possibility. Only Christ could provide the salvation for the whole people. Paul could only live in hope, but hope is a solid foundation for our life of faith. In hope we will have the courage to go into a place and share the Good News of God’s mercy and forgiveness despite the dangers we face. Jesus had no time to mourn the loss of His cousin or to settle His own fears of what might happen. He took God’s grace to others.
As we look at the world we often wonder how God is going to manage to fulfill His promises. The chaos and confusion is overwhelming. Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. Things do not happen according to our time and expectation. We have plenty to fear and to worry about as we go through our daily living. Yet, God is faithful and His promises are true. We don't live in fear or worry because He has promised us something greater than this world beyond this day. God does have mercy: mercy and grace gets us through all our difficulties. We might think that the word of God has failed as we wait impatiently for everything to be completed. Yet, there is still work to be done, people for whom God's mercy has yet to be revealed.
There is enough. The overflowing baskets of bread after the meal with the five thousand shows us that God’s grace goes on and on. He can make five loaves and two fish feed thousands and He can make the ministry of twelve men go on for millennia. It continues with us today. We still eat that bread and we still hear God’s Word. We are strengthened for the journey and given everything we need to share with others. There are too many who do not yet know Christ. It is up to us to share Him with them. God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy. He will forgive those whom He will forgive. He will give life to those whom He will give life.
Like Paul, we can hope for those who do not yet know Him. They might be our own people, our own family and neighbors. They might be complete strangers we meet at the buffet line. They might be people in foreign lands who hunger for bread and well as for Christ. For us, the promise begins at the font, but it continues regularly as we join in the feast that God lays before us at the Lord’s Table. There we will be renewed and restored to go out into the world to invite those family members, neighbors and strangers to dine with us. The meal may seem sparse, but in faith it is of more value than the fanciest lunch and more abundant than the best buffet. It is there we meet God in a very real and tangible way and proclaim the life, death and resurrection of the One who gives us true life, eternal life, life in the presence and the Kingdom of God.
“But the unclean spirit, when he is gone out of the man, passeth through waterless places, seeking rest, and findeth it not. Then he saith, I will return into my house whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man becometh worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this evil generation.” Matthew 12:43-45, ASV
The bobber in our toilet broke just hours before I was going to leave on my trip. Toilet repair is pretty simple, especially when it comes to the working parts in the tank. The bobber was broken in a way that required a replacement of the whole fixture, but it was within my handyman abilities. I grabbed a new fixture at the store and installed it. The task didn’t take me very long, and I was glad that I could ensure Bruce would have a working toilet while I was out of town.
Our house is about twenty-five years old, and many of the working parts are original. The metal parts tend to be corroded, and though they work, they are on the verge of breaking. That’s what happened when I replaced the toilet parts. Unfortunately, the water supply pipe was corroded to the point that it only took small movement to create a hole. There was a leak when I flushed the toilet. I thought I had done something wrong, but eventually realized it was the pipe. Newer supply valves have a separate place to attach that pipe, but on this older piece it was welded. There was no way to replace the pipe without replacing the entire valve.
I was afraid to even try making that repair. The valve looked like it could be difficult to remove, risking damage to the pipe that leads into the wall. The water would have to be turned off for the task, and we would have to live without running water until we could get someone to do emergency repair if something went wrong. I didn’t want Bruce to have to deal with a repairman, so we left it go until I came home. Thankfully we have other toilets he could use.
The repairman did the job and all went well, except at the end he said, “I have good news and bad news.” The good news was that the pipe was good and the valve was attached. He put everything back into the tank and had it working. Unfortunately, there was still a leak. The large rubber washer between the tank and the bowl was old and degraded. It needed to be replaced. After a struggle—the nuts and bolts holding the tank to the bowl were also corroded—we managed to get those parts replaced. The toilet finally worked. I looked at the flush handle and realized that I should just replace that piece also, then everything would be fresh and new. I went out and bought the part and replaced it together. Now everything except the porcelain is new, and it works well again.
Isn’t that the way of do-it-yourself repair? You think the task will be quick and easy, but as you fix one thing you find something else that needs to be done. One thing leads to another. It would have been much easier if I had just decided to do it all at once. We installed and removed that original part several times as we did the later repairs.
Today’s scripture is not exactly a parallel to my toilet repair story, but as Christians we spend our lives working at repairing and transforming our lives. Actually, God spends time doing so, and we work with Him to become the people He has created and redeemed us to be. While we rarely use demon language while talking of our failings and sin, we do know that there are bits and pieces in our lives that need to be replaced and repaired. If we only work on one aspect of our life, then another part can break and risk destroying something else. It is important to work to the root, to clean the whole, to make it all right and new. It is important to fill ourselves with the light and love and grace of our Lord, which will leave no room for the demons to come back in to destroy what He has done in us and for us.