Welcome to the June 2010 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, June 2010
June 1, 2010
“Pleasant words are as a honeycomb, Sweet to the soul, and health to the bones.” Proverbs 16:24, ASV
We went to visit the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, yesterday. They currently have an exhibit about Walter Cronkite, which includes papers, videos, photos and miscellaneous items from his life. It was fascinating to see his life and career laid out in a timeline, to see his growth from magazine delivery boy to Emmy-winning news anchor.
One of the things that stood out to me as I wandered through the exhibit and read the informational plaques is that everyone agreed he was a natural. He was comfortable in front of the camera; he understood that he was performing even as he was reporting the news. He practiced his copy, timing it as he read through the stories to ensure that it would fit into the time slot. He wrote much of his own copy, based on the research of a hundred and fifty reporters in the field, and numerous people in the office. Even with so many to help gather the news, he did much of his own research and had an incredible list of sources he could contact for information. He was a hardworking man and he did his job well.
The exhibit also touches on his personal life. They have his copy of a University of Texas yearbook, his typewriter and correspondent’s uniform from the world war. They have original manuscripts, papers related to his work and personal letters. He was fascinated by space, and wanted to be the first journalist in space. He entered a competition that included essay writing, with questions like “What do you think a journalist’s job in space would be?” And, “Where do you see the space program in ten to twenty years?” I thought it was interesting how his essay was almost prophetic in nature, goals that might have been little more than science fiction when they were written. His support of the space program earned him a moon rock and left us with several memorable moments in journalism.
One of the video clips showed a portion of the thirty hour report he gave when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. He joked, “I’m a world famous reporter with as much time to come up with words to say when the incredible moment of man stepping onto the moon happened. What did I say? ‘Whew. Boy.’” He was speechless.
He wasn’t speechless very often, and even in his private life, he spoke with eloquence and grace. A letter to his father is on display from his early days as a reporter. He told his father about his experiences, both personal and professional. I don’t recall the exact words, but I was struck by the words he used, language we just use these days. It was wonderful to read, pleasant on the ears and it made me feel good. I turned to Zack and said, “We just don’t talk like that anymore.”
We don’t. As a matter of fact, we don’t write letters like that anymore. We are lucky to get messages that actually spell whole words. With texting, email and instant chat, we are losing the fine art of speech. The kids of today might find that language too flowery, but I am almost certain that the letter was uplifting to Mr. Cronkite’s dad, who was probably often concerned about the welfare of his son. Pleasant words do indeed sound sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.
So, even though we live in an age of instant communication, perhaps we should think twice about the way we say things. It might just be the pleasant words we use that make a difference in the life of our neighbors. To hear that all is well can put a worried soul to rest, and those thoughts put into eloquent words can sweeten a sour body. Today, speak well and make the day brighter for someone. Use words that are pleasant and see how different the day might be.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 6, 2010, Time After Pentecost – Lectionary 10: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17
“Now I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of Jehovah in thy mouth is truth.” 1 Kings 17:24b, ASV
The movie “Over Her Dead Body” begins with a bride, played by Eva Longoria, anxiously surveying her wedding venue, picking out miniscule details that need her attention. She is going crazy with her zealous deeds, unhappy with even the slightest faults. Her groom tries to get her to calm down, but she is the essence of the bridezilla, unwilling to accept less than perfect and unyielding on even the least important details.
She is arguing with the catering staff on a point they had discussed just moments earlier when an old pick-up pulls into the venue with a large ice sculpture secured in the back. She sees it arrive and runs over to make sure everything is perfect. It isn’t. The sculpture is meant to be an angel, but the artist created a figure that simply looks like a woman. “This is supposed to be an angel!” she cries. “It is,” he responds. “But angels have wings. Where are her wings?” she screams. “Angels don’t all have wings,” he explains.
She tries to get others to agree with her, but nobody knows for sure. She insists that her sculpture must have wings and tells the guy to carve a new one. “It takes a long time to carve an ice sculpture,” he tells her. “I don’t care what you do, but that sculpture must have wings. Just carve some and slap them on the back if you have to,” she screams. He refuses to ruin his design, so he places the sculpture back into the bed of his pick-up and starts to back away. She tries to stop him by running behind the truck, and for a moment you think he’s just going to hit her and run over her body. At just the last moment, though, he stops and she’s saved. Then, just as you think it is over, the ice sculpture wobbles and falls on her head, killing her instantly.
It just doesn’t make sense when someone survives one accident and then dies in another. Why were they saved in the first place? I’m not sure I know anyone personally who has gone through such a tragedy, but I am sure that it happens. On the show N.C.I.S., which is a fictional representation of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the story often revolves around a sailor or marine who has recently returned from a war zone. Typically, they are found dead just days after they have returned from overseas, suffering because of some unrelated criminal activity.
I remember that there was a family in the military, some years ago, who had a series of unfortunate experiences. They had been stationed in Florida when a hurricane hit Homestead A.F.B., destroying everything. They were moved to Kansas, as much of their life replaced as possible, and then McConnell was struck by a tornado, doing an incredible amount of damage, including the home of this family. I don’t know what happened to this family, but I would understand if they began to ask “Why?” It just doesn’t make sense for a family to have to suffer over and over again. There may be no good answer to “Why?” but there comes a time when we all ask the question.
The widow of Zarephath asked, “Why?” when her son died. See, she was blessed among women in Zarephath because Elijah the prophet knocked on her door during a famine. Though she was about to make one last cake for her son and herself to eat before they would die of hunger, Elijah promised that they would be fed if only they gave him a cake first. The promise was fulfilled; the jars of oil and flour were never depleted and they all ate for a time. Her obedience to the words of the prophet insured life for her son and herself.
But then her son got sick and died. “What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? thou art come unto me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son!” She saw this as a particularly cruel punishment for some sin. She may have been thinking that her impending death when Elijah arrived at her door was a punishment for something, and she was ready to accept her fate. But then the prophet arrived and they were saved. Was this a sign that God did forgive her? If it was, the forgiveness was not eternal: they boy died from an unrelated disease. For a person who believed in the pagan gods, this must have been a double whammy: the gods played with her faith and then punished her anyway.
I can imagine what she was thinking that day when Elijah arrived. She was a mother, and her first thought would have been to do whatever was necessary to keep her son alive. Though she talked about eating the cake with him, I can see her giving him a larger portion. They both might die no matter what she did. However, if she died first, someone might take her son and raise him as their own. Despite the famine, people might be willing to take a young man, whose strong body might be put to use in the fields. An old woman, however, would be left to die. Without her son, she was as good as dead anyway. So, as a mother, I can see her trying to help him survive even if she couldn’t. Elijah helped them both to survive.
But then the boy died. She would have grieved for the loss of her child, as we grieve, but the grief was even greater in her day. Without her son, she had nothing left; she had no worth in her society and would not have been helped by the neighbors. She would have been left to die. If she’d followed her plan her son might still be alive; she would have suffered the consequences of her sins but he son may have survived to live on. Elijah saved her instead of her son, sacrificing the only thing that might have made her life worth living. In a world where offspring are the only thing giving a woman worth, taking her only son was worse than death. It was eternal death.
“Why?” she asked, and we ask also. Why did the woman have to suffer so much? She didn’t ask Elijah to help her; she was ready and willing to die. He filled their bellies even while their neighbors were still suffering from the famine. Did she believe in the God of Elijah? Was it enough to have a full belly to confess faith in Him? No. She makes no statement of faith in the first part of this story. She simply does what Elijah tells her to do. Then, when her son dies, she is quick to blame Elijah and the God he represents. It isn’t until Elijah and his God gives life back to her son that she sees the truth in Elijah’s words. “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.”
In this story we are reminded that it is not the filling of bellies that will bring true faith in God. We see that true faith comes from resurrection. In resurrection there is restoration: restoring God to His people and people to one another. In this story, and the Gospel lesson, dead boys are given back to their mothers. The return of those children provides not only relief from their mourning, but also a chance at new life.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus and a crowd of His followers were headed into a small town a few miles from Nazareth. They met a large crowd from the town on their way out of the gate accompanying a funeral procession. The dead person was the son of a widow. We know nothing else about the family. How old was the son? What were the financial circumstances of the family? The difference between this widow and the one in the Old Testament lesson is that she had support in her grief. A large crowd walked with her to the graveyard. But would her life have been any different after her son was buried? Would she have support in that crowd when she was alone, or would she lose everything with the loss of her only child?
It is interesting that in this story the woman didn’t seek Jesus’ help. Jesus didn’t even ask about her. He simply had compassion and told her not to weep. The grace we see in the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath is multiplied in this story of Jesus with the widow of Nain. There is, perhaps, no reason for Jesus to raise the son, except that His heart went out to the woman. He identified with her grief and He wanted to stop her tears. She may have faced the same tragedy as the widow of Zarephath, considered as good as dead without her son. But we don’t know that from this story. We know only that Jesus had compassion and restored her son to her.
Jesus was willing to go beyond the usual condolences. I think about those times when I have grieved, crying over some loss. Once I get going, the words, “Don’t cry” don’t help. As a matter of fact, I usually end up crying even harder when someone tries to get me to calm down. But Jesus took His compassion a step further. He not only consoled her with words; He touched the son with His grace. His “heart went out to her” in a very real and life-changing action. He went out of His way to help her, even stepping over the boundaries of proper obedience to the societal and religious rules of the day. He touched the dead person’s coffin, risking His own cleanliness for the sake of one weeping woman.
She never answers Jesus’ gracious action with a confession of faith. The crowds see the miracle and are shocked by it. They praise God and proclaim that Jesus is a great prophet. They might have been reminded of the Old Testament story of Elijah. They saw this as a sign that God had come to help His people. God had been silent for a very long time. The Inter-testamental period (between Malachi and Matthew) was about four hundred years; during that time, God was silent. They were praying for God to speak; they were watching for God to do great things for His people again. The widow did not seek God’s blessing. In Jesus, God reached out and met her deepest need. He even touched the untouchable.
We should note that in Luke 4, Jesus references the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. He says, “But of a truth I say unto you, There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and unto none of them was Elijah sent, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow.” Nain, the city where they met the procession, is visible from Nazareth. Jesus produced this miracle just nine miles from His hometown, a place where they would not accept Him as He was. The people from Nain saw Him as He is: the voice of God returned to His people.
Our psalm for today was written as a hymn of praise at the dedication of the Temple of David. David sang praise that God saved him from his enemies, but it is not a hymn of assurance that there would be no more trouble. David knew that life in this world might mean suffering and pain. David knew that there would be moments in life when it seemed as though God was not present. There are certainly times in our life when it seems as though God has abandoned us. Though faith is great, it is hard to imagine that our God of mercy and grace would allow us to suffer. However, through those times we know by faith that we can cry out to God—not because we think He is gone, but because we know that He sees and understands our pain.
This is the first regular Sunday of Pentecost, and for the next few months we’ll study what it means to be Pentecost people. We have been given the power of the Holy Spirit, who will help us to share God with those who need His grace. We are called to manifest the power of God when our hearts go out to those who are suffering and in pain. He gives us eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to acknowledge the cries of those who need healing and resurrection. It is not enough to have compassion; it is up to us to be like Christ in this world, willing to step up and make a difference, to bring life to the dead and restoration to the people whose lives are broken.
How were the lives of the widows changed by the resurrection of their sons? We don’t know, because their stories end with praise to God. I’m sure their sons died again some day, although probably long after the mothers were gone. The famine in Zarephath eventually ended and life returned to normal for that town. Did it ever return to normal for the woman who came to faith when God raised her son? Life eventually returned to normal in Nain, as people went about their lives again, but did it ever return to normal for the widow whose son was restored to her? They were changed by God’s grace; they experienced the transforming hand of God and were never the same again.
Paul was also changed by God’s grace. He was met on the road to Damascus by a blinding light, during which Jesus Himself called Paul into ministry for the Church. He didn’t learn the new faith from teachers or figure it out for himself. He received the Gospel in a miraculous way, and the son (Paul) who was dead (persecuting the Church) was brought to true life in Christ. He was restored to God and sent into the world to share God’s grace with others. We see in Paul’s words as a reminder that what we do in sharing the Gospel is not by our own strength or our abilities. God’s grace is shared when Christ is revealed in and through us. We can’t feed the hungry and expect God to be glorified unless there is also resurrection. Faith doesn’t come from the filling of bellies, but from the transforming power of God’s Word.
We may never experience God’s grace in such a miraculous way as raising the dead, but we know people whose lives are crashing down around them. We want to help, but it is often difficult to know what to do. We can’t offer them a miracle or even promise a life-changing experience. But we can touch them and give them a word of grace. That’s what we are called to do: be Christ for our neighbors as He is revealed through our lives, offering resurrection and restoration to those whose lives are broken. In resurrection and restoration they will see God and say, “Now I know that you are from God and that God’s word is in your mouth.” They will see His work and proclaim, “To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Jehovah my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever.”
“O Jehovah, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising; Thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou searchest out my path and my lying down, And art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, But, lo, O Jehovah, thou knowest it altogether. Thou hast beset me behind and before, And laid thy hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain unto it. Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, And thy right hand shall hold me.” Psalm 139:1-10, ASV
We took a trip on Memorial Day to Austin, Texas, to visit the state capitol building and view an exhibit about Walter Cronkite at the LBJ Library. It was a nice day with the family all together, something we don’t get to do often enough these days. The exhibit was very interesting: a chance to learn about the life and work of a fascinating man who will long be remembered for anchoring the nightly news and for his interviews with presidents. He was a strong supporter of the space program, won several Emmy’s and wrote books. He loved his family and enjoyed boating. He seemed to be a well-rounded individual, hardworking and trustworthy. It was a pleasure to get to know him through the exhibit.
Of course, the exhibit is going to show his life in a positive light. I don’t know if there were any skeletons in his closet. I couldn’t tell from the stories how his family felt about the long hours or constant travel. He was an anchorman at a time when newsmen were trusted, and he was the most trusted among them. But I’ve become cynical about the news: it is hard to trust anyone on television and radio these days. It makes me ask the question: were there stories that were reported from a biased point of view or fudged information? I think we can believe that Walter Cronkite was really what he appeared to be, but the exhibit does not bring out anything negative. It keeps us at a distance so that we can see only the good.
Now, I like to take pictures that show details. In the LBJ Library, there is a wall of windows revealing the stacks of bookcases holding the boxes that are filled with the papers from Johnson’s years as president. Every box is red with similar markings and a gold seal; the boxes are kept on four floors. It is really beautiful they way it has been designed. At first glance, everything looks perfect: every box in its place. But it is a working library. People do take the boxes off the shelves to reference the papers inside. Whey the boxes are returned, they are not always restored precisely. Some boxes are pushed back further than others. Some shelves have wholes where boxes might have been. Some labels are loose or have fallen off. I didn’t really notice these details when I took some photos of the windows, but they were glaring when I looked at the pictures on my computer later.
At the State Capitol, I noticed the beautiful moldings and other fine craftsmanship. The doorways were hand-carved wood, the floors were polished marble. The columns were topped with intricate plaster capitals, with leaves and swirls. From a distance, these details were stunning. Everything seemed freshly painted, crisp and clean white. I was impressed with how well the building had been cared for over the years. I used my zoom lens to take some super close-up photos of these details. Even on my camera, the details looked great.
When I got home and uploaded my photos onto my computer, however, I began to see the reality of those details. In the close-ups, you can see how the plaster is crumbling. Someone has tried to repair the damages, and it is done well enough that you can’t see the flaws from a distance. But up close, the blemishes are glaring and disappointing.
The capitol is a large building, with millions of nooks and crannies that need attention and repair. It is difficult to deal with every tiny imperfection, so they make it look the best they can and move onto other areas as quickly as possible. It doesn’t really matter—how many people will look as closely as me? The building is still beautiful, the architecture amazing, the details stunning. We just have to be careful about looking too closely.
Isn’t it that way with our lives, too? On the outside, on the surface, we look pretty good. Our public face is what we want it to be. But we are careful about letting people get too close because we do not want them to see the flaws and blemishes which are the reality. But God knows our hearts. He sees all those details we try to hide from others. He knows where our plaster is cracking and where the paint is chipping. He knows where we have gotten lazy and where we just can’t overcome the flaws. We would rather that God not look beyond the surface, because if we can be disappointing to other human beings, how horrible must it be for God to see our faults? But we don’t have to hide from God because He loves us in spite of our failures. He loves us so much that He helps us through, He forgives and transforms us. He can even find ways to use our flaws for the good of His purpose and the world.
“Boast not thyself of tomorrow; For thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.” Proverbs 27:1, ASV
Today is the first day of summer vacation for Zachary. For the next three months we will follow a different schedule. Though we have some special activities planned, our summer actually looks fairly relaxed. Zack will compete in a golf tournament, volunteer at the First Tee and spend some time practicing. He’s scheduled to go to beach camp with the youth group at church, and we are hoping to visit the University of Alabama. We’ll probably try to go to a few of the other colleges he’s thinking about, since he’s now officially a Senior in High School and it is time to figure out what he will do with his life after he graduates. He’s also taking driving lessons.
Perhaps that sounds busy, but compared to summers past, we are looking forward to staying in bed late and relaxing during the day. We’ll go to a few movies and the pool. He’ll hang out with some of his friends and vegetate in front of the television. I’m sure we’ll fill up the time; day by day something will come up or we will decide that it is a good day to take a trip or visit a museum. It is nice to not be bound by a full calendar.
Though the summer will be pleasantly free, Zack does have school responsibilities over the next few months. He has summer homework: work designed to keep the students’ brains active and to prepare them for the upcoming year. We have been printing the assignments and ordering the books so that Zack can get a start on the work early. Three months might seem like a very long time, but the homework will be much easier if he takes the time each day to work on it. If he waits until the last week of vacation, he’ll be rushing to get everything done, unable to enjoy those last few days. The work would be hasty and not as well done as it would be if he took his time throughout the summer.
He wouldn’t be the first student to wait until the last minute to do the summer work. I know that during the first week of schools, students in my kids’ classes are often shocked at the difficulty of the tests on the summer assignments. Either they didn’t do the work or they waited too long, always thinking that they still have another day. Then school starts and it is too late. Nobody wants to waste their summer vacation doing homework: after all, vacation is supposed to be vacation! But some things we don’t like to do have to be done.
It isn’t any different for those of us who are not longer in school. We don’t want to waste our time doing things that we don’t like to do. We put off significant tasks until the last minute, thinking that we have plenty of time to get them done. But then life gets in the way, other important tasks we can’t avoid come up and we have to put off those other things even further. Then one day it is too late. We may not have to take a test like the students at the beginning of a new school year, but there are always consequences to our procrastination.
And so, I will encourage Zachary to keep up with his homework all summer so that when it is time to take those tests in August, he will be ready. We, too, should consider the works that we are being called to do today, and not put them off until tomorrow. There will be something new and exciting waiting for us tomorrow, and we want to be ready so that God will be glorified in all that we do.
“They said therefore unto him, What then doest thou for a sign, that we may see, and believe thee? what workest thou? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, He gave them bread out of heaven to eat. Jesus therefore said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, It was not Moses that gave you the bread out of heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which cometh down out of heaven, and giveth life unto the world. They said therefore unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. Jesus said unto them. I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall not hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. But I said unto you, that ye have seen me, and yet believe not. All that which the Father giveth me shall come unto me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I am come down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the will of him that sent me, that of all that which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one that beholdeth the Son, and believeth on him, should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” John 6:30-40, ASV
I like the Jimmy Dean breakfast commercials that star the Sun. Ok, they are ridiculously hokey, but somehow I always feel good when Mr. Sun has made his friends feel better with a good meal. I firmly believe a good breakfast is a great way to start the day, although I have to admit that those prepared meals are probably not the best way to get it. I am sure, though, that the sausage, egg and cheese muffin is a better choice than a Diet Coke and Pop Tarts.
In one commercial, the planets are trying to move around the sun in the office, but are clumsy and uncoordinated. They are falling over desks and bumping into walls. Mr. Sun makes them all breakfast and they immediately start revolving around the sun as they should. In another commercial, a rainbow is sitting at a desk in an office, looking very sad and worn out. Instead of being brightly colored, her rays are different shades of blue. Mr. Sun wonders what is wrong, but asks if she ate breakfast. She says, “No,” so he microwaves a sandwich for her to eat. As soon as she takes a bite, the colors of her rainbow appear and she stands up energetic and ready for the day. A leprechaun pops out of a tiny door and dumps a pot of gold at the end. All is right with the universe because of Jimmy Dean breakfasts.
Advertising is always exaggerated. We know that a microwave meal can’t put the planets into their orbits. We know that a prepared sandwich can’t make the rain fall or the sun shine. Our day might be a little better because we’ve filled our bellies. We might be a little nicer to our neighbors because our tummies aren’t grumbling. We might be more productive because we have the energy to get our work done. But Jimmy Dean can’t make everything right with the universe. That’s up to God.
The Israelites were hungry when Moses was leading them through the wilderness after escaping from Egypt. They grumbled to Moses about this God who would take them out of the comfort of their homes to lead them in the uncertainty of the desert. Where would they get food? God provided it for them. The manna was literally bread from heaven, sent to earth each night like the dew. The people collected it, made it into cakes and ate enough to survive. But that kind of manna was not enough. As with all food, the tummies grumbled again each day and when they got sick of it, they grumbled again.
It is written, “Man does not live by bread alone.” We do need breakfast. We need bread for our bodies. God provided that bread for His people when they were in need. But it is never enough. The real bread from heaven, the real food that makes everything right with the world, is Jesus Christ. We might get through our day with the bread that fills our bellies, but we need the real bread from heaven to have true life.
“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for me an offering: of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take my offering. And this is the offering which ye shall take of them: gold, and silver, and brass, and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats' hair, and rams' skins dyed red, and sealskins, and acacia wood, oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense, onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate. And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show thee, the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the furniture thereof, even so shall ye make it.” Exodus 25:1-9, ASV
A neighbor once approached me with questions about my church. Her daughter had recently been attending a youth group at a different church and she had visited once or twice. She wasn’t sure if she liked the church and she wondered about the church where we were so active. She saw our faith in action, in the way we lived and in the way we treated our neighbors, and she thought she might like to share in that life. She asked very specific questions about our thoughts on the issues of faith and our practices. She had very firm opinions about certain things and she wanted to know how we approached those issues.
We eventually talked about tithing. I told her that we believe in tithing and that we encourage everyone to tithe, but no one is forced to do so. As a matter of fact, most of our stewardship programs persuade our members to raise their giving on a regular basis until they are able to give the full ten percent. Sometimes ten percent came seem like an unachievable goal, but it is amazing how much people can manage to give when given the freedom to give cheerfully as much as they are able. Some churches require that tithe, even to the point of demanding proof of income to ensure that the members are really giving.
Yes, God wants us to tithe. The scriptures continue to encourage us to give first to God. Jesus expects nothing less than everything. But, when it comes to our offerings, God desires cheerful givers. We are encouraged to give to God first, and to trust that God will provide all we need. It is hard to think this way, but we can grow into that trust as we mature in our faith. Step by step we can raise our giving, not just as our income grows but as we realize we can make do with less. That’s why we encourage our members to raise their giving step by step.
My friend was offended by this idea. She told me she couldn’t attend a church that did not require tithes. Yet, in the same conversation, she admitted that she didn’t attend church because she felt she could not give a tithe. “We just can’t afford to give that much to the church.” So, instead of attending worship regularly and giving as they are able, they’ve made the decision to stay home from church. She is using her idea of God’s demands as an excuse to stay away. I realized at the end of the conversation that she was just looking for a good reason to stay home. She convinced herself that it was better to hide until she was able to give as much as she thought she should, but without beginning with that grain of trust and building over the years, she’ll never have enough ‘extra’ to give to God.
I found it fascinating as I read the stories from Exodus about the building of the Tabernacle. The writer repeatedly tells us that the people gave as their heart led them to give. The requirements for this tabernacle were incredible. They needed thousands of pounds of gold, silver, bronze. They needed fine leather, fabric, yarn and wood. God instructed Moses to use the best of the best for this mobile temple and He gifted the men and women who built the structure. He did not demand or require the offerings. It was not necessary: the people gave more than enough. “For the stuff they had was sufficient for all the work to make it, and too much.” (Exodus 36:7)
We worry that there will not be enough, so we begin making laws demanding what we think should be required of every person. We question the fairness or generosity of each person’s gifts, so we create rules that assume our neighbors should give more. With these rules we take away people’s freedom to be generous and cause them to look for the loopholes. When they are bound to laws, they search for ways around it, even if it means not giving anything to God until they think they have enough. That’s why God wants a cheerful giver, and why God calls us to give as our hearts make us willing to give. It is a matter of trust: He’ll ensure that there is enough, and even more so, for He places on our hearts the willingness to give. Let us give each other the freedom to hear God’s call and respond with the same joy as those Israelites who managed to give more than enough.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 6, 2010, Time After Pentecost – Lectionary 11: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15; Psalm 32; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3
Who is Jesus anyway? He never does what we expect or what is expected from Him. Are we surprised that Jesus might go to Simon the Pharisee’s house? I think we are, because we see how harshly he speaks to the religious leaders in his day. They are self-righteous hypocrites; they are the ones who do not need to see a doctor. They are the ones who do what is right and who come from the right heritage. They think that they are the ones God loves; they think they are his chosen. They don’t need Jesus, why would he bother to eat with them?
After all, we often point out that the Pharisees would not eat with sinners and tax collectors because sharing a meal is a sign of acceptance and respect. If that was the expectation in the day, shouldn’t we see it from this point of view, too? If Jesus can’t eat with the sinners and tax collectors because the religious leaders do not accept them, shouldn’t he side with those he ministers to and reject the ones who are their oppressors? Shouldn’t he have refused dinner with the Pharisees because he did not agree with the way they saw the world?
Jesus did not reject anyone. He did speak boldly and firmly to those who would listen, that they might hear and be transformed by God’s Word. Those who persecuted and crucified him had lost touch with the God they claimed to worship. God did not reject all the rich or religious, there are stories of several people who are identified by power and wealth who received Jesus with faith and courage. Those whom Jesus judged harshly were judged not because of wealth or power, but because of faith. Perhaps Simon had a spark of faith that Jesus recognized when the invitation to dinner was issued.
We do learn, however, that Simon probably had an ulterior motive when he invited Jesus to dinner. At the very least, Simon wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Who is this Jesus? He probably didn’t seem to be much of anything. Probably didn’t even see to be quite the threat the other religious leaders were afraid he might be. After all, Jesus didn’t have much education and he had little or no wealth and power. He probably wore a decent garment though not spectacular, and his body was most likely clean and groomed, although he was most likely covered in the dust of the road. I’m sure Simon was curious about what he heard about Jesus and wanted to see for himself.
After all, have you ever heard from someone, “So and so is a great preacher” and wondered about the hype? “You just have to read this book because it is so true,” people tell me. I’ve had several experiences with books that have been top sellers; dozens of people have recommended because they were so great, life-changing. Then I read the books for myself and was disturbed and even offended that these books were touted so zealously by Christian teachers. Could Simon have invited Jesus to see what all the fuss was about?
It didn’t take long for Simon to see ‘the truth.’ We don’t know how she managed to be in the company of the men around the table, but a woman of questionable repute fell by Jesus and anointed his feet with her tears. She loved him in a way that was obviously unsuitable for the Pharisees present. Simon thought to himself, “This man, if he were a prophet, would have perceived who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him, that she is a sinner.” Was it a set-up? Did Simon try to catch Jesus in a moment of immoral behavior? Or was the woman willing to risk everything for a moment with Jesus?
In the story immediately preceeding our Gospel text, Jesus told the crowds that John the Baptist was the prophet Elijah promised who would come announce the arrival of God’s promise. The crowds were impressed and were baptized by John, so that they would be prepared for that day. The Pharisees, including Simon, refused to be baptized. They rejected both John and Jesus’ word. But Simon invited Jesus to his home for dinner. Was he seeking a better understanding of Jesus or a way to stop the ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist?
He was definitely not seeking forgiveness. What was that moment like for Simon, the moment he realized Jesus could not be a prophet? Was he disappointed or did he think he had his proof? It depends on how you perceive his motivation. If he was seeking to understand Jesus, the realization that he is not really a prophet would be disappointing. If he was trying to stop the ministry, then he got his proof. I’m not sure we know which the truth is, and perhaps this story is meant to remind us to beware of snap judgments.
David jumped to judgment when Nathan brought him a story. David had bedded Uriah’s wife and she became pregnant. Instead of dealing with the indiscretion honestly, David tried to find a way to cover his sin. None of his schemes worked, so in the end he had Uriah killed. When the time of mourning was complete, Bathsheba became David’s wife. Nathan’s story was about a rich man who stole a poor man’s only lamb. When David heard the story, he was incensed. “That man should die!” he said. Nathan responded, “That man is you.”
David was ready to judge the man in the story, but he quickly saw his own face in the mirror. We are good at recognizing those sins of our neighbors of which we are most guilty, but we tend to ignore them in our own lives. We see the need for our neighbor to seek God’s forgiveness, but we don’t seek it for ourselves. That’s the problem that Simon faced. He didn’t know he was a sinner.
We are the same. In the story, David cast judgment on another and quickly learned of his own sin. He repented and was forgiven. This is the story of sin in our lives. We cast judgment against others and God helps us to see it in ourselves. When we repent, we experience the forgiveness that God has promised. In this we see God’s grace, not only in the forgiveness, but also in the revelation that we are sinners. God tells us so that we can be changed.
What we don’t like about this story is that God then takes the life of the child conceived in David’s sin. We know that God says, “I, Jehovah, thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the third and upon the fourth generation of them that hate me.” But we see God through a New Testament point of view, where God’s grace trumps the curse of sin. Yet, does forgiveness mean that we will never suffer the consequences of our sin?
It is sometimes in the consequences that we truly experience the grace. We learn the lessons that help us to become better people when we have to pay for our mistakes. We experience forgiveness from those we’ve harmed when we have to apologize face to face. We see the world from a whole new perspective when we have to face it with the knowledge of our sinfulness. And then, the next time, we respond differently to the challenges.
We are offended that God required the death of the child in response to the sin. After all, David was already forgiven and God promised to always bless him. How could he allow a child to suffer for the father’s sin? Yet, let us think about what life might have been like for that child. Would he ever have been accepted as David’s true son? Would a pallor of death hang over his life because his mother’s first husband was killed because of him? Could David, and Bathsheba, love the child that had come out of such a horrific affair? The child would hold over them a reminder of their sin, and they would never be free to live in the forgiveness of God’s grace.
It is interesting to see how David responds to this judgment. After the child was struck with illness, David mourned the child day after day, fasting and praying for God’s mercy. The child died on the seventh day and the people of David’s household were too frightened to tell him. They told him the truth when he asked, and at the moment he stopped mourning. They didn’t understand and asked why he mourned while the child was still alive. “And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who knoweth whether Jehovah will not be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
We hear that David comforted Bathsheba and then she became pregnant with another child: Solomon. And Solomon was loved by God. David and Bathsheba, despite their sin, were able to begin life anew. It might seem wrong to us that a child can be so easily forgotten, but sometimes God’s ways are beyond our ways and His grace is found in the works that are outside our expectations. David knew that he was forgiven, but he hoped God would repent of the consequences. When the child died, he accepted the forgiveness and went on with his life.
What about the characters in today’s Gospel lesson? Did Simon hear what Jesus was telling him? Did he understand that he, too, needed forgiveness? What about the woman? Did she receive God’s grace in Jesus’ words?
She did, gratefully showing her love to the One who had mercy. The Pharisees at the table with Jesus, on the other hand, continued to see Jesus as they had seen him: an unworthy prophet. “Who is this who even forgives sins?” To them, only God could forgive sins, and God did so through the priests. Jesus was not a priest. They might have accepted his teaching, might have even welcomed him into their circle, as long as he conformed to their expectations, but they could not see him as he was revealing himself to them. How did Simon react? I don’t think we know for sure. We don’t hear from him again in this story. We might jump to judgment, assuming that Simon went along with the others at the table, but perhaps Simon was one who actually heard. Maybe he was like David, seeing his sin and repenting, receiving the forgiveness that Jesus gave not only to the woman but to all who believe in Him.
The Psalm for today talks about forgiveness. “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven.” Other translations use the word “happy.” We are happy when we are forgiven. We are happy because forgiveness restores our relationship with our God. Christ came to bring forgiveness and reconciliation between God and His people. Jesus welcomed the woman back into a relationship with God. Did Simon find a relationship, too?
The psalmist writes, “When I kept silence, my bones wasted away.” Silence about our sin means torment. But acknowledgement of our sin before God brings joy, because it brings forgiveness and freedom. Though we are sinners, we are given the grace to stand before our God to confess our sin. It is there we find joy and peace because God has promised to forgive our sin. The woman did not care what the people at the dinner thought of her. She only wanted to be near Jesus, to give Him herself in a very real and loving way. The Pharisees thought their worthiness was dependent on good works. The woman knew her good works were worthless without the grace of God.
Peter and Paul were at odds when Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians. Though Peter knew and accepted that salvation was dependent on God’s grace, he allowed himself to be convinced that real fellowship between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles was dependent on traditional practices and regulations. Paul saw God’s grace as not only the foundation, but the substance of the Christian life. Salvation was not just dependent on God’s grace; God’s grace made living the Christian life possible. He knew that if this was true, then nothing could, or should, stand in the way of Christian fellowship. He also knew that if there were requirements for membership, then none were worthy and Christ’s death was in vain.
We are blessed by God not because we are adherents to a particular Law. We are not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. It is faith that saves and in faith our lives are no longer transformed. God’s grace welcomes all those who come to Him in faith. It is faith that saves and in faith our lives are no longer our own. We are Christ’s and He lives within us. Everything we do, we do in faith. Even when we fail, God’s grace holds firm and forgiveness remains. We can’t earn God’s love or keep it ours by our works. God’s grace is ours through faith, not works. He says to us, “I have put away your sin; you shall not die.”
But, we might suffer the consequences of our mistakes. I doubt God will be taking our first born, and we should be especially careful not to blame bad times on our past mistakes. But if we jump off a building, we might just break our leg. And if we touch a hot stove, we will get burned. When we experience suffering, let us look for God’s grace in it. Will we be transformed by the experience? Will it grant us the freedom to live in the forgiveness that God has provided, or will we continue to be burdened by the memory of our failures?
And so, in the words of David, “Be glad in Jehovah, and rejoice, ye righteous; And shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart.” We are not upright because we have lived according to the law or done what is right in our own eyes. We are righteous because God has forgiven our sin and has given us the grace to be transformed into something better.
Who is Jesus anyway? We may spend a lifetime trying to figure that out. And in that lifetime I’m sure we’ll all have moments when we identify with all the characters in our scriptures for this week. We’ll be like David, judging but then recognizing our own sin. We’ll be like the woman who knows she is unworthy but seeks God’s grace anyway. We’ll be like Peter who fell into the trap of expecting the law to work and we’ll be like Paul who knew that God’s grace is meaningless if we have to do something to get it. I think most of the time we are like Simon, not quite certain of where we belong and confused by the many messages we hear. Will we believe Jesus? Will we follow the others at the table? Will we have mercy on the sinners and share God’s grace with them?
Happy are they who dwell in the heart of God, listening to His instructions and following His paths, accepting His forgiveness and seeing the grace in all our circumstances. Faith is trusting in God. Peace comes with faith. We can’t be sure that the woman in today’s lesson is one of the women found in those few verses from Luke 8, but they give us an image of the faithful Christian life: following Jesus and doing whatever they are able to do to continue His ministry of grace. While we might be like David, Peter, Paul and Simon, let us all strive to be like the woman, trusting that God does forgive and then in going forth with thanksgiving in peace to live in the forgiveness He has assured us through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
“And working together with him we entreat also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain (for he saith, At an acceptable time I hearkened unto thee, And in a day of salvation did I succor thee: behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation): giving no occasion of stumbling in anything, that our ministration be not blamed; but in everything commending ourselves, as ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, in fastings; in pureness, in knowledge, in long suffering, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in love unfeigned, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.” 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, ASV
I attended a biblical storytelling workshop a few months ago, and really enjoyed learning and performing a segment of scripture at church. I would love to be able to do more of this, either in church or in other places. So, I’ve been researching different types of storytelling, including string stories, number stories and origami stories. I’ve purchased a few resources and found numerous places on the Internet to help.
One of the figures I wanted to make in origami was a butterfly. I was planning a children’s sermon about the raising of the widow’s son, and I thought an origami butterfly might be a nice way of talking about new life. I was going to pre-make a few to give to the children and then make one while I was talking about resurrection.
It is not difficult to find the instructions for origami figures on the Internet. I found on page that had two dozen different ways of folding butterflies, some that looked identical but used different types of folds. A few were made using dollar bills. I went through the list and tried the different ways. I didn’t like the look of some of the butterflies—they were too simple or not really recognizable as a butterfly. There was one look I really liked, and thankfully a majority of the instructions got me to that end.
And I was very thankful there were a dozen different sets of instructions, because most of them were too hard to understand. As I opened each page, I skimmed through, just to see if it made sense to me. One set of instructions was eight pages long. I skipped that one because it seemed to have unnecessary steps to the same end as some of the others. When I opened each page, I began with a new piece of paper, and tried each step, carefully checking to ensure that I was getting the right look.
The first set of instructions that I tried had nine steps and seemed to be very simple. I followed each step, until I got to the middle of the process and the jump from one step to another didn’t make any sense. I looked at my paper turning it over in my hands; I looked at the instructions, testing possibilities. It didn’t take long for me to give up. After all, I had a dozen or more other instructions to try. I never expected every one to have a roadblock in the middle.
The instructions were put together by people who do origami. Sometimes they were hand drawn and then scanned to put on the Internet. Sometimes they were more professionally published. It didn’t matter. I always came to a point that didn’t make sense; there was always a point that was impossible to get past. There were even videos on YouTube.com that showed the process step by step. I couldn’t even learn it from some of the videos! The person doing the video often held the paper in a way that was difficult to see what was happening. I was getting frustrated and ready to give up, but I finally found one that worked for me. It was a little longer than I wanted, but the author was able to put into words and pictures the hard steps, making them easier to understand.
There is no step by step procedure for coming to salvation; we can’t sit down with a list of things to do and expect to have new life at the end of it. Salvation comes from God’s grace, in God’s way, in God’s time, and it doesn’t always come the way we expect. That doesn’t stop us from trying. We don’t always know how to share the Gospel message with our friends, so we guide them through some prescribed procedure, hoping it will work. Unfortunately, our friends often end up at a roadblock, some ‘step in the process’ that just doesn’t make sense.
It isn’t up to us to write the instructions on how to bring people to Christ. It is up to us to allow God to work through us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We want to give our friends concrete actions that they can do, so that we can see a tangible outcome. We want to know that when we get to the end of the process that our friend is saved. But those steps we demand from our friends are often the very stumbling blocks that keep them from believing in the love and forgiveness of God. So, let us do as Paul has written: living in a way that glorifies God so that the world might see and believe. God will do the work of moving our friends’ hearts.
“For ye, brethren, were called for freedom; only use not your freedom for an occasion to the flesh, but through love be servants one to another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.” Galatians 5:13-15, ASV
I went to the meeting of a local photography club, and the theme of the meeting was “Taking Good Vacation Photos.” The speaker talked about the mistakes most photographers make when taking vacation photos, such as bad lighting, strange backgrounds and inappropriate things sticking out of people’s heads. He talked about how so many vacation photos look the same: everyone takes the “perfect” picture from the same place, often at eye level, and usually horizontal. He joked about how a camera has a vertical setting (you turn the camera Ľ turn.) He suggested trying to get low to the ground or to compose the photo with the subject to one side. He talked about specific problems and possible opportunities we might experience wherever we go on vacation this summer.
He reminded us to look beyond the typical subjects. Everyone takes a photo of the Washington Monument, but what about that fantastic dinner you had at that five star restaurant in New York? He told us to look at the details, to pay attention to the ordinary aspects of our day as we are touring. Wouldn’t it be nice to remember that waitress who treated you so well? The great photo might just be caught in that souvenir shop with all its colorful hats. We collect seashells at the beach: what about collecting photos of seashells at the beach?
I usually take my camera with me when I volunteer at Morgan’s Wonderland. There are often events that should be recorded for posterity like when special visitors come or groups make donations to the park. I’ve also taken pictures of people at play. One of the things I really like to do, however, is take extreme close-up pictures. I had fun one day at the water play area, taking photos of the mechanics that are designed to move the water around. Pipes, faucets, wheels and shooters all provide different ways of moving the water and all are controlled by those playing.
In the center of the area is a Plexiglas dome with several faucets dropping water overhead. The visitors can get under this dome and see the water falling on their head without getting wet. The entire area is covered by canvas sails for shade, and they create a fantastic design above the dome. I took many photos of the dome, shooting up at the falling water. The camera caught the stream of water and the ripples as it rolled off the dome. The sails add shapes and color behind the faucet. I was even able to capture the sun peaking through the sails, which added an extra spot of light.
Now, out of the dozens of photos I took of this detail, only a few came out as I’d hoped. When photographing such detail, it is important to pay attention to every detail. Sometimes the sails were at a bad angle or they lined up in a way that made it difficult to see the flowing water. The sun often created an uncomfortable glare and though the pictures could not be symmetric, some of the compositions were unbalanced.
I managed to get some fantastic photos, at the water play area and elsewhere around the park. There is a super close-up of a carousel horse, a shot of the swings all lined up and a photo of just a small part of one of the statues. I took nine of these photos, framed them and gave it to the park to decorate an office wall. It is cool to see the details that we often miss as we work. But sometimes we get so caught up in the details that we miss the big picture. Morgan’s Wonderland is not about the carousel or the statues or the water play area.
It is fun to study the scriptures in detail, to understand the reasons why and the history behind the stories and lessons given to us by the authors of the Bible. I like to do line by line, word by word studies, thinking about what each word meant to those who first wrote and heard them. It is good to think about what those words mean to us, too. But we can get so caught up in the details of the scriptures that we miss what it is all about. We can argue over the meanings of words or how we should understand the text, but if we don’t see God and His grace in the midst of it, then we have lost our way and our study is in vain. Even while it is fun to pay attention to the details of life, let’s never forget the big picture and the purpose of it all.
“When my soul fainted within me, I remembered Jehovah; And my prayer came in unto thee, into thy holy temple. They that regard lying vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that which I have vowed. Salvation is of Jehovah.” Jonah 2:7-9, ASV
I once had a cat I named Latoya. Latoya came to me when I happened to be at the local mall visiting a friend who happened to be an employee at one of the stores. Another mall staffer found a bag in the parking lot; inside the bag was this kitten. She was understandably shaken by her predicament, very skittish and afraid. I bought everything she would need, took her home and she became part of my life. She never really recovered, remaining skittish around people and invisible to strangers. But she loved me and happily lived with me for many years.
She went with me when I moved out on my own. We shared a one bedroom apartment that unfortunately had no screen on the window. I didn’t open the window often, but when I did I didn’t worry about her. I always thought she was too afraid to go outside. I’m not sure what happened, but she got out one day. I didn’t realize it at first; it wasn’t until after work that I realized she was missing. I was very upset. She had lived indoors for most of her life. She didn’t know the ways of the wild. She didn’t know how to deal with other animals. She didn’t know how to fend for herself. Animals have an inbred sense of survival, but that didn’t stop me from worrying about my missing kitty.
I took a day off work and spent time wandering our neighborhood. I looked under bushes and in cubby holes where I thought she might hide. I couldn’t miss any more work, but I continued to worry about her. Luckily I had a boss who was also a cat lover: he understood my pain. Whenever I was home, I left that window open, just in case she returned. Then one day she was there. She was gone for three days, home safe and sound although a little worse for the wear. It had rained. She got into at least one cat fight. She was very hungry. But she was home. And she never wanted to go out into the world again. I could leave that window open all the time and she didn’t try to escape. When I moved to another house, she never tried to get away. She learned her lesson: she liked the comfort of home and she decided to stay there.
We aren’t all quite that good at learning our lesson. Our scripture for today is taken out of the story of Jonah, one which I’m sure we are all familiar. Jonah was a prophet whom God called to a very important task. Unfortunately, Jonah didn’t approve of the work. See, God wanted him to preach repentance to Jonah’s enemies. Jonah, knowing how powerful God’s word and God’s grace truly is, didn’t want them to be saved. So he ran away. He thought he could hide from God and do better somewhere else. But God doesn’t let us go. He followed Jonah until Jonah agreed to do the work he was called to do. ‘Out there,’ away from the protecting grace of God, was not pleasant. He ended up in a storm, in the sea and in a big fish. In the belly of the fish he realized that he would be much better off doing God’s will, and so he prayed. God heard his prayers, he was saved and then he did the work he was called to do. The people of Nineveh heard God’s word and they repented, then God relented and saved them from His wrath. Jonah knew God would be gracious, that’s why he didn’t want to go in the first place.
We might expect a prophet of God would learn his lesson like Latoya, and that he wouldn’t try to go against God’s will again. However, Jonah didn’t accept God’s loving treatment of the Ninevites with thanksgiving. He ran away and pouted under a tree, disappointed when the city was not destroyed by God’s wrath. He turned away from God to do his own thing. But it isn’t really very surprising; I think most of us are more like Jonah than we are like Latoya. We don’t learn our lessons. We keep trying to run away, even when we know that it is not the right thing to do. We keep trying to escape the things that are right.
“Ye know this, my beloved brethren. But let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a mirror: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth away, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But he that looketh into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and so continueth, being not a hearer that forgetteth but a doer that worketh, this man shall be blessed in his doing. If any man thinketh himself to be religious, while he bridleth not his tongue but deceiveth his heart, this man's religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” James 1:19-27, ASV
I’m the storyteller for the Vacation Bible School at our church this week. My responsibilities do not begin until well into the day, so I usually find myself hovering in a corner during the opening activities. That’s where I was yesterday as the students were gathering for chapel worship. One boy did not stay with his group. He was hanging out in the back of the chapel and he kept putting his papers down on a table.
Now, I’m familiar with the antics of this boy. I’ve seen him act in a similar way in church and at school. He often ignores his parents and does whatever he wants, which is usually opposite what he is supposed to do. So, when I saw him in the chapel, I thought he was doing his own thing, as usual. I told him several times not to set his paper on the table. I repeatedly told him to go back to his group to sit down. The more he insisted on doing his own thing, the more I pushed him to do what I was saying.
What I didn’t realize is that he was trying to tell me something. I had it set in my mind that he was doing something wrong, and I didn’t hear him tell me why he was staying there. He had a special job during chapel, a job that required him to wait in the back and to set down his paper. Though he has a reputation of doing the wrong thing, in this case he was doing exactly the right thing. But I was so blinded by my previous experiences that I wasn’t willing to listen to what he had to say. I heard only my expectations and I didn’t hear what he had to tell me. I jumped to conclusions and opened my mouth without understanding the entire situation.
Our life in Christ gives us the opportunity to treat others as God has treated us. We have the gifts we need to do good for our neighbors, to treat them well and help them. But, despite God’s good graces, we are still sinners. We don’t always see our neighbors as Christ sees them. We don’t always hear what our neighbors have to say. We are quick to jump to conclusions and speak without really knowing what is happening.
This passage from James focuses on our listening to God, and doing what He says. But, we can also see the importance of listening to our neighbors, especially since God often uses their voices to teach us the things we need to learn. We are called to live a righteous life, a reflection of Christ in this world. Our good deeds will never make us better; we’ll always be imperfect while we live in this mortal flesh. Yet, that is no excuse for letting our tongues loose and our wrath free to harm our neighbors. The religious life is meant to be one where we treat our neighbors with kindness, listening to what they have to say and dealing with it (good and bad) with grace.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 20, 2010, Time After Pentecost – Lectionary 12: Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:19-28; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39
“But be not thou far off, O Jehovah: O thou my succor, haste thee to help me.” Psalm 22:19, ASV
Psalm 22 begins, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus cries this verse from the cross, words that do not make sense to us. How can Jesus feel abandoned, especially since He was doing exactly what God intended Him to do? Did He really feel forsaken? Did He really feel alone? We can certainly see why He might have quoted this psalm from the cross. The singer tells how he is surrounded by evil doers who have pierced his hands and feet and cats lots for his clothes. We see those very actions played out in the crucifixion story. But still, we wonder how it can be that Jesus feels alone.
The psalm is more than a cry for help; it is a song of trust that even when we feel alone, God is never far away. The psalmist sings of trusting in God; he knows that God will come through in the end. God will provide deliverance, as He did in the singer’s forefather’s lives. We are thus called to the same trust: though we will experience times when we feel like we are all alone, we can cry out to God knowing that He is never far away. God’s ways are never easy to understand. Even those with deep and abiding faith had times when they cry out to God in wonder, fearing abandonment.
The trouble is this: our faith is not quite so deep and abiding. We become easily distracted by the cares of this life. If we were the ones on the cross, we would probably ask why we have been abandoned; our eyes set on the current trouble, forgetting that there is promise on the other side. God knows what we need better than we do, and we can’t see His grace until we have come through it. We aren’t perfect; day by day we are being perfected by God. Unfortunately, we still fail. We are sinners even while we are saints. The work won’t be complete until the day we meet the Lord face to face. Until that day, we will experience the pain and suffering that is brought on by our sin. We are easily distracted from the goal; our attention is drawn from seeing God’s good works in our lives.
There is one guy in today’s Gospel story that sees God’s grace: the demoniac. His life was out of control: well, out of his control and out of the control of the people around him. He was so out of his mind that he was running naked and living in tombs. Chains could not keep him bound. Demons possessed his body and his mind. When Jesus stepped off the boat, having traveled from the other side, the man met him on the shore. Jesus was in Gentile country, taking the message of God’s kingdom outside familiar borders.
It seems odd to me that the man met him as he left the boat. Was he waiting for Jesus? Was he seeking help? Was he, or the demons, trying to cause trouble for the visitors? Was he, or the demons, trying to shock the new arrivals or demand something from them? Right away, even before the man could speak, Jesus commands the demon to leave Jesus. Jesus recognized something abnormal about the scene and dealt with it right up front. But the demon was not so willing to go.
“What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the Most High God? I beseech thee, torment me not,” the demon cried. Perhaps the demon thought that he was safe in the land of the Gentiles, a place where the God of Israel had little influence over the people. Perhaps that demon thought that the Messiah would not bother with the foreigners and their troubles. But Jesus has mercy on whom He has mercy. He heals those who cross His path, whoever they are. “What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the Most High God?” The demon didn’t think that Jesus belonged in that place or had authority over that man, but the demon was wrong.
The plea is interesting in this story. The demon says, “Do not torment me.” Ironic that it would use that term, considering it has tormented the poor man for a long time. We learn that the name of the demon is legion, because it is many. This poor man has been tormented not by one demon, but by many. Apparently these demons had been set free from the abyss, a place of the dead or the prison where Satan and the demons will eventually be bound for eternity. They wanted to remain free, but in their freedom they are bound to live according to their character: tormenters. What was Jesus to do?
Jesus was in the region of the Gerasenes. This was near the Decapolis, the Ten Cities, but we can’t tell from the story whether the man who was set free from the demons was a Jew or a Gentile. We only know that he had been possessed by demons that caused the man to do horrific things. He was violent and was forced to live a solitary life among the dead. With a word, Jesus set him free from the control of those demons. He was immediately in his right mind, was given clothes and was willing to sit quietly and listen to Jesus speak. It might seem like only one person benefitted from this experience—the man—but the whole community found peace in his healing. Unfortunately, they missed this gift because they could only see how they were affected.
Jesus didn’t send those demons into the abyss; He sent them into a herd of pigs. The pigs responded by running off the side of the hill into the water. This story makes so little sense to us, especially since we like to eat pork. Why would Jesus send the demons into a herd of pigs? How could that be the gracious answer to this situation? After all, those pigs belonged to someone. They were the livelihood of a family or several families. They were the food for a village. How was this the better choice for Jesus to make?
What would have happened to that legion of demons? Where do those demons go when they are cast out of the possessed? Jesus tells us in chapter eleven that when a demon comes out of a man it goes in search of a new home. What would have happened to that legion of demons in a place where the people are unprepared to deal with them? Instead of one out of control man, they may have had dozens suffering from possession. Sending the demons into the pigs saved them from a horrific future. The death of the pigs also meant the death of the demons. Did Jesus really accept their plea? Did He really honor their wishes? Or did He save a city from terror?
But the people could not see beyond their trouble. They lost a herd of pigs. They lost a lot. They were so distracted by their loss that they missed God’s grace in this encounter. When the people saw the power that Jesus had over the demons and their herd, they begged Jesus to leave them. They were distracted from the grace that Jesus had to offer by their sudden loss of the livelihood. The event was frightening to the people because one man’s salvation meant destruction to them. Jesus had changed their lives, but only one seemed to benefit. They saw Jesus as an enemy. They were so focused on the loss of their herd that they missed the Word of hope and forgiveness that Jesus came to bring.
They chased Jesus away, but that one man went and told many about the grace of God. Luke tells us that he “went his way, publishing throughout the whole city how great things Jesus had done for him.” He didn’t just tell one or two folk about Jesus. He went about publishing all the great things Jesus had done for Him. Jesus told him to do this, to share the good news with the people in his home. Jesus cared for the Gentiles of the Decapolis as much as He cared for the sheep of His own flock. He wanted them to know, so He sent a messenger ahead to announce the grace of God. This word spread, and when it came time for Jesus—and the disciples after Him—to visit the Gentiles, the seeds of faith had already been planted. The pig herders had no warning; they had no preparation for the revelation of God they witnessed. They weren’t ready to trust in the God who had so much power and authority.
Unfortunately, we sometimes would prefer to be independent. We feel that we do not need anyone to come to our aid. We want to do it ourselves. Like the man who refuses to stop to ask for directions or the teenager that insists on going their own way, we want the control that comes from doing it ourselves. When we ask another for help, we have to give up a little of that control, and allow them to do things their own way. I think it is even harder to ask God for help, because He is beyond our control. We ask for something we think we need, and God answers, but His help is not always what we expect or want. Sometimes He sends our demons into the pigs because it is the best way of dealing with our prayers. But, we miss the grace in His answers because we are distracted by the troubles that we see when the response is not what we expect.
The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah is the beginning of the end of the book. After sixty-four chapters of warnings, calls to repentance, and promises for salvation, God speaks to the people. They are a people who have found something they think is better than God, things they think will save them better than God. Whether it is neighbor, ally, friend or self, they think they do not need God. They want to go their own way, make their own path, be independent without the helper that is waiting.
God has little good to say about His people in this passage. They do not call on His name. They are rebellious. They walk in a way that is not good. They follow their own devices. They provoke God, make improper sacrifices and offerings. They follow rituals, eat food and do things that are abominable to God. These things are cultic, practices done by the religions that were popular in the day of Isaiah: they were worshipping false gods. God says, “They say, ‘Stand by thyself; come not near me, for I am holier than thou.’” God’s people had declared themselves holier than Him!
God offered help to His people, but they refused. They took control of their own lives and learned about the consequences of their independence. Yet, there is always promise in the Word of God. He would not be silent. Despite their sin, He was still there for them. He was still ready to be their God and to lead them in the ways of righteousness and truth. Despite their hatred, He offered them a promise: someday they would see Him again and they would turn to Him. Someday they would be saved and they would inherit all that He had to give them. That promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
In Christ we see the fulfillment of the promises that God gave to His people in the ancient times. But those promises were not meant for just for them: the promises were meant for all. Faith was not a gift that is limited by borders. Everyone would have the opportunity to trust in God: all the nations. Paul writes, “But before faith came, we were kept in ward under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.” Before Christ we were prisoners of the Law. It was given to Moses to point us toward Christ. Through the Law we discover our inability to keep it perfectly and look to Jesus for our salvation.
Now we are one body in Christ, sons of God through faith. Baptism brings us together into a family, into a community. We can’t live our faith alone. In Christ we inherit the promises that were given to Abraham and we are made part of something much greater. He covers us with His righteousness and we are all one together. As Paul writes, “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female; for ye all are one man in Christ Jesus.”
As we live this life of faith, day by day and step by step, we are becoming more and more like Him. We know that we are called to live in that faith, trusting that God knows best and that His way is the right way. But we still fail. We still try to control our circumstances, do what we think is right. We expect God to answer our prayers in our way and our time. When that doesn’t happen, we feel abandoned. But when we cry out to God, we do so knowing that He will hear. May He give us the strength to trust in His answers, to receive His grace however it may come.
“But the righteousness which is of faith saith thus, Say not in thy heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down:) or, Who shall descend into the abyss? (That is, to bring Christ up from the dead.) But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach: because if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved: for with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” Romans 10:6-10, ASV
We celebrated Easter at Vacation Bible School today. Our theme for this year is “Faith 365” and we are focusing on the seasons of the church year. We’ve celebrated Advent, Christmas/Epiphany, Lent and Easter, and tomorrow we’ll do Pentecost. At story time I told the children the story of the empty tomb from Mark’s point of view, done in a child friendly finger play. I had the older kids join me in the telling of the story, because it is a story that is meant to be told. Ironically, it is in Mark’s version that the women do not tell anyone that Jesus was no longer in the tomb. But we learned that we should not be afraid to tell the story, and the kids had fun joining in on the actions.
After the story, I took out a piece of paper. I learned how to make origami butterflies, and thought I would use it as a way of enhancing the story about Jesus. Butterflies are a symbol of new life, and are often used for Easter. The caterpillars go into the cocoon and in a sense they die, but they are raised again into new life as a butterfly. That’s like Jesus, who died and went into the tomb, but was raised again to new life.
So, I took out the paper and sat down near the group of students. I didn’t really talk about the paper, but started folding it. As I was folding the paper, I asked the children if they understood the story of Jesus. Did they understand why Jesus had to die? Did they know how God raised Him from the dead? Did they understand everything that happened and what the stories really mean? Eventually the children noticed that I was folding something, although they could not tell what it was. I talked about how we have theologians that spend their time studying the Bible, trying to figure out what everything means, and asked again if it mattered. I said it is good to learn about the stories and to try to understand everything, but kept coming back to the idea that it doesn’t matter if we can’t answer all our questions. I talked about how some people just can’t believe in Jesus and the story of the tomb because it doesn’t make sense. It is silly to those who can’t come up with the answers. And then I asked if they believe.
Finally, the butterfly was finished and I asked one more time, “Does it matter?” Then I opened up the folded paper and showed the butterfly to the students. I asked them if they understood how I made the butterfly. “If I gave you a piece of paper, could you make one, too?” They all agreed that they couldn’t. I told them it didn’t matter because they were all going to get a butterfly to take home to remind them of the wonderful thing Jesus did. And then I reminded them that Jesus did it all because He loved them. We don’t need to do anything, to know everything, to understand to experience the love of God. Do you believe?
“They therefore that were scattered abroad, went about preaching the word. And Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and proclaimed unto them the Christ. And the multitudes gave heed with one accord unto the things that were spoken by Philip, when they heard, and saw the signs which he did. For from many of those that had unclean spirits, they came out, crying with a loud voice: and many that were palsied, and that were lame, were healed. And there was much joy in that city.” Acts 8:4-8, ASV
It was a time of upheaval for those first Christians. They were scattered to the ‘four corners of the earth,’ although for the people in that day, it meant they were scattered to places they could reach by foot or boat. Imagine what it must have been like for those first Christians. They were probably not completely happy and satisfied with their lives, because they were living under the oppressive hand of the Romans and they were burdened by the laws of their own Jewish faith, but they were content and safe in their cities and towns. They had food to eat, families that loved them and roofs over their heads. What more do we need?
Then, along came this guy named Jesus, and His message was so extraordinary it was life-changing. They were no longer satisfied with the religion of their forefathers. The ways of the Romans seemed even more oppressive compared to the freedom of the Gospel. They still did not need anything, but they were so passionate about the message of Christ that they could not keep it to themselves. This new faith was dangerous to the status quo of both state and religion, that it became dangerous for the believers to live in their world.
It might have been tempting to just keep quiet; after all, that’s what we do. Though we do not endure the same risks for our faith, we have heard stories in our own day of people who have lost their jobs, their families, and even their lives for speaking about Christ. I can’t imagine many of us will leave homes and families for the sake of the Gospel. Perhaps we aren’t called to that type of life, but could you go if you were sure that’s what God was asking of you? They were scattered because of the danger, but they didn’t let their uncertain circumstances keep them from telling the story. They went on sharing the Gospel of Christ no matter what, despite the rejection and persecution they faced.
I was taken aback by the passage today, not because of anything it says but because it seems so matter-of-fact. Luke tells the tale of Philip as if there is nothing extraordinary about what he was doing. He went out, having been scattered from his home and his family, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to preach God’s Word. He cast out spirits and healed the diseased. And the people believed. The multitudes believed and received the word with great joy. Every sentence in this passage is amazing, and Luke gives it to us as if it is the weather report in Texas in July—as if there is nothing new to say.
We know that the scriptures only give us a fraction of the stories about Jesus and the disciples. We see a few brief moments in their lives and ministry. John says, at the end of his Gospel, that the whole world couldn’t hold all the books necessary to record everything He did. The book of Acts gives us some extraordinary stories about the things that the disciples did after Jesus was gone. Yet, in the middle of it, we have this brief encounter with Philip. We don’t know anything about the healings, or even what Philip had to say. We just know that Philip went on to do the work Christ called him to do: simple, honest and joyful.
Our lives do not seem extraordinary like those of Peter and Paul, James and John. We don’t have a story to tell like Mary Magdalene of any of the others who were healed by Jesus and the disciples. We don’t have experience the persecution and rejection that they did and we haven’t been scattered to the four corners of the known world. But Philip’s story shows us that even if we are living our faith in Christ, no matter how simple it seems, our lives are extraordinary because we are doing what God has called us to do. We may not cast out demons or heal the infirm, but when we share the Word of God with our neighbors, we bring them joy and change the world.
“In that hour came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And he called to him a little child, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye turn, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:1-4, ASV
I used to buy the same style of sneakers every time I needed a new pair. I liked that style, and no other style fit me as well or felt as good on my feet as that style. Unfortunately, that style of sneaker has been discontinued and is no longer available at the store where I shop. I’ve tried checking at other stores, just in case they might still carry them, but no luck. My last set are old and dingy, and they don’t really feel right anymore, but I just can’t give them up.
I’ve tried buying other types, but none of them feel quite right. I cleaned out my closet today and discovered several pair of barely used shoes because when I tried wearing them they just didn’t feel right. I’ll donate them to the food bank or homeless shelter the next time I have the opportunity. The last time I went to the store, I tried on several different types and I think I finally found a style that will work for me. I hope so, because I can’t go barefoot (as much as I’d like to!)
It is really hard when you find that perfect style of shoe and it is discontinued. This happens not only with shoes, but also with everything we can buy. Have you ever found a terrific food item that is only around for a short time at your local fast food place? Or that cell phone that worked perfectly into your lifestyle but gets broken and is irreplaceable? Styles of clothing change, and even though you may really like that certain color or shape, it might not be available the next time you go shopping. My favorite type of toilet paper is nearly impossible to find.
Those who move around a lot probably find this is even more true for them because some products are just not available everywhere. I can’t find some of my favorite foods. Then, just when I got used to the products available in our new hometown, we moved to another place and those favorites were nowhere to be found. The advantage to this lifestyle is that we learn to adapt and we are more willing to try new things. I have to admit, though, there are some things I just wish I could find because I really would enjoy having them.
We don’t like this kind of change because it is inconvenient. I have been sneaker shopping for far too long, and have had to settle for several different pairs of shoes that just don’t feel right. Hopefully my latest purchase will be exactly what I need to feel comfortable as I go about my work and play. Shoes are important because the rest of our body is affected by what happens when we are on our feet, so it is understandable why I’m resisting this change.
But change is good for us. Do I really need to eat those Tasty Kakes, no matter how much I love them? Would I have ever tried some of the local food if I had my favorite restaurants around to visit? Perhaps that new spring color will look even better on us if we are just willing to give up that old color we love so much. We shouldn’t be afraid of change, because it is in the adapting to new things that we discover how wonderfully diverse the world can be. Jesus tells us to change to be more like little children. Children are willing to try new things. They haven’t become so set in their ways that they aren’t willing to do something different. They see the world through unfiltered eyes, experiencing everything for the first time without concern about whether they will every find it again. When we willingly change, we might just find something better: a better way to live, a more Christ-like way to work, a God-centered lifestyle that will change the world.
“And when he came near unto the den to Daniel, he cried with a lamentable voice; the king spake and said to Daniel, O Daniel, servant of the living God, is thy God, whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions? Then said Daniel unto the king, O king, live for ever. My God hath sent his angel, and hath shut the lions' mouths, and they have not hurt me; forasmuch as before him innocency was found in me; and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt. Then was the king exceeding glad, and commanded that they should take Daniel up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no manner of hurt was found upon him, because he had trusted in his God.” Daniel 6:20-23, ASV
I’m planning a trip to Alabama this summer. Zachary is attending a week-long introduction to the engineering department at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I am driving him to the university, and then I’ll spend time touring the area. I’ve been planning every aspect of the trip including lodging and the places I want to visit. I dropped into AAA today to get the tour book for Alabama, and it wasn’t until I started reading through it that I realized the wonderful things I might do for those few days.
The history of the area is diverse, from Native American to Civil War to Civil Rights. I’m planning a trip to Selma and Montgomery where I’ll follow the trail taken in March 1965 with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other protestors. There is an old ghost town nearby which was the original state capital. I’m sure to see plenty of old southern homes, graveyards and churches along the way. I’ll end up in Birmingham one day, I’m sure, although I haven’t decided what I’ll visit that day. One day will be set aside to visit a nature area, a state or national park with hiking trails. I still have more research to do.
One of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make has to do with my lodging. I know exactly what I want for my room and how much I want to pay. I have found the perfect place, good location and all the amenities I’m seeking and I can get it in the price I’d like to pay. However, the good price comes with a no-cancellation policy and I’m afraid to book the room just in case something extraordinary comes up between now and then. I have to decide if I’m willing to take the risk or if I would rather get a decent room for a cheaper price without the fear of losing all that money.
Perhaps I’m thinking it through too hard, but I want to make sure I’ve made the right decision. I keep checking the other hotels in the area, visiting travel sites to read visitor reviews and thinking about the other factors that might make the decision easier. Is the hotel closer to the places I want to visit? Will I have to waste time looking for places to eat or are there restaurants nearby? Will I be comfortable on those days I don’t want to wander too far from my quiet, peaceful retreat?
It would be easy to just book the first room that I found, but I have plenty of time and I want this to be a terrific vacation. I could take the advice of those reviewers and reject the hotels they did not like, but I might just find that their standards are much different than mine. I could have a travel agent make arrangements for me, but I enjoy thinking it through and researching the possibilities.
The king did not think things through. He took the advice of his advisors without considering the consequences of his decisions. He didn’t realize that they had an agenda because they were jealous of Daniel. They knew that Daniel would have to suffer when the king made his decree, but the king didn’t look beyond their flattering words. Daniel was his friend, highly respected and honored in palace. When he realized that he’d made such a terrible mistake, he lamented the possible suffering of Daniel. He waited through the night, hoping that Daniel’s God would really be trustworthy, and when morning arrived he ran to the cave to see if Daniel survived. In the end, Daniel’s God, our God, was trustworthy. The king made a new decree that would honor Daniel’s God and protect Daniel from future danger.
We normally look at this story from the perspective of Daniels trust in God, but we can also think about the king’s rush to a decision that he regretted. Do we think through our decisions, or do we accept the opinions and ideas of others quickly without considering the consequences? How might our decisions affect those around us? Will we hurt someone with our choices? Will we risk our own well-being? I might be going overboard with my research, but I’ll make my decisions in plenty of time and trust that God will be with me as I travel. If some of my choices are not perfect, God will use them to His glory, giving me opportunities to share His grace with those I meet.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 27, 2010, Time After Pentecost – Lectionary 13: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62
“O my soul, thou hast said unto Jehovah, Thou art my Lord: I have no good beyond thee.” Psalm 16:2, ASV
It is easy to become exhausted when you feel the weight of the world is on your shoulders. It is also easy to run away when you think that what you are doing is not worth your time or energy. We think that we are the only ones who care. We think that we are the only ones willing to do anything. We think we are all alone. And that’s when we burn out. That is when we give up. That’s what happened to Elijah.
Elijah was fighting against a people who had turned away from God. They were worshipping the Baals from the top all the way down to the common man. If the king worships a god, the people follow, for the king is powerful and wise. He has the priests to keep him informed of right worship practices. He has the resources to secure everything needed. If the king has an altar prepared, then it must be the right thing to do, correct? The people were led down a wrong path, and they followed willingly because they trusted in their king.
Now, Ahab might have been a decent king, but he married a foreign woman who was very strong and powerful. She insisted that the nation worship the gods of her choice, and had altars erected for that worship. Elijah faced the prophets of Baal alone, but not really alone. He felt alone because he was the last of the prophets of God in Israel. But God was with him, and with God’s help he defeated the Baals and killed all the priests. The powerful Jezebel was upset by this turn of events and vowed to destroy Elijah, leaving him feeling even more alone than ever. He was afraid and ready to quit. He ran away to hide.
You might be able to hide from a wicked queen or incompetent king, but you can’t hide from God. The Lord spoke to Elijah and offered him words of comfort and encouragement. “I am with you.” We might think we need to be among thousands to get something accomplished, but in God’s kingdom all we need is Him. In today’s passage, Elijah is given a bit of hope. “I’m sending you to anoint some helpers, kings and a prophet who will change the course of the nations.” This was enough to give Elijah the strength and courage to continue to do God’s work in the world.
That’s the background for the main story in today’s Old Testament lesson. God has promised Elijah that Elisha would take the mantle of power from his shoulders, and in this story we see their first meeting. Elijah, perhaps tired from the journey or just anxious to be rid of the responsibility, flings the mantle onto Elisha’s shoulders. The mantle, the symbol of Elijah’s power and authority, it handed over to God’s chosen successor. Elijah doesn’t try to hold onto it, he readily passes it on to the next prophet, happy to know that he’s not really alone in this work against the people who have turned from God.
Elisha seems willing to accept the responsibility, but asks for enough time to kiss his mother and father. “Then I will follow you.” Elijah’s answer seems odd. He sends Elisha away. “Go back again; for what have I done to thee?” We might find this to be an odd response to Elisha’s request, especially in light of today’s Gospel lesson, but Elijah just keeps going. It isn’t up to Elijah to convince Elisha to follow. If Elisha is the right man, God will do the convincing. It wasn’t Elijah calling Elisha to follow, it was God. And God will be with His chosen people.
Elisha doesn’t return to the work of his farm; he slaughters the beasts and feeds the people. His first act as a prophet is to sacrifice his livestock and fill the bellies of the people he is about to abandon for God’s work. We might think that Elisha isn’t worth of being the prophet because he’s not willing to drop everything to follow Elijah. And yet, in this story the wait seems to have some religious significance. It was a necessary part of cutting himself from the old life and beginning the new one.
In my reading today, it isn’t Elisha’s pause, but Elijah’s seemingly apathetic passing of the mantle. He doesn’t seem to care. “Come, don’t come. Do whatever you want.” Do we ever feel that way? Do we know someone who feels that way? Even with the personal encounter with God, Elijah is ready for his time as prophet to be over. He goes on as Elisha follows. He encounters other prophets who seem to know that Elijah is finished. They want his job. But Elisha continues unencumbered by Elijah’s indifference and the other prophets’ attention, ready to take over.
Perhaps Elijah isn’t indifferent; he is willing to pass on the responsibilities of office to the one who has been chosen by God. He knows now that’s not alone. He knows that he doesn’t have to do it all himself. He knows that God’s message will go on without him. Sometimes, when we have reached the end of our rope, we simply have to let go and let others take control. We don’t, however, because we don’t think there is anyone who can take our place. We put that burden on many of our leaders, relying on them for everything. I wonder how many pastors finish their years of ministry with the exact same attitude as Elijah. I wonder how often it is our fault that we have allowed this to happen.
God promised Elijah that there would be a remnant in Israel when His latest plan is complete. Elijah found Elisha, but that’s no where near the seven thousand (probably a symbolic number meaning the full measure of God’s chosen remnant,) promised by God. Where were they? What were they doing? They weren’t worshipping the Baals, but they weren’t there to help Elijah. They were also afraid of Jezebel and Ahab. They were also hiding. Do we do that to our leaders? Do we allow them to feel like they are alone in the world while hiding from the things that make us afraid?
There is a cost to following God. There is a cost to following Jesus. The three calls stories in today’s Gospel lesson help us to see that, but Jesus’ response to their responses is completely different than Elijah. In the first encounter, a man tells Jesus that he will follow Jesus wherever He goes. Jesus answers, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the heaven have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” We don’t know how the man received that piece of news, but in context it is probable that it disappointed him. What about the call of Christ makes us question whether or not we should follow Jesus?
Jesus said to the second man, “Follow me.” He wanted to bury his father. Now, this seems like a plausible reason to postpone following Jesus, but it is likely that the man’s father was not yet dead. In other words, the man was telling Jesus, “I’ll be glad to join you when my life circumstances change.” Unfortunately, we often put off following Jesus until a better time. Jesus answered, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” How often do we push aside the work of God’s kingdom to do the tasks of this world that do not change lives or glorify God?
A third man tells Jesus, “I’ll follow you Lord, but first…” In this case, the man just wants to say good-bye to his family. Isn’t that just what Elisha did? Yet, Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” Elisha went back, but he didn’t stay there. He broke all ties, getting rid of his cattle, saying farewell to the people in his town. He didn’t just say good-bye; he left forever. Are we willing to give up everything for the sake of the Gospel?
The cost of following Jesus is heavy. It means giving up everything including the family ties and the work we have think we have to do. It is easy to find excuses to put off the work of the kingdom, but Jesus is not willing to accept excuses. He was on His way to the cross. Time was short and there was too much left to do. Those not committed at that moment would never survive the next test. They would be the ones to fall under the pressure of the crucifixion. They would not have the strength or courage to wait until the resurrection.
When the going gets tough, we tend to fall back into old habits. Take, for example, the smoker who finally manages to quit the habit, only to search high and low for that last hidden cigarette at the first sign of a stressful situation. The men may have wanted to follow Jesus, but Jesus knew that the cost was too high for half-hearted commitment. Following Jesus would require the whole self. No one whose mind or heart was divided, or whose flesh would quickly fall to selfish desires, would be able to stand up against the pressure and persecution they would face.
The Samaritans were enemies of the Jews, half-breeds because they had intermingled with Gentiles through marriage. They did not worship in Jerusalem as did the Jews. Yet, despite the animosity between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus had mercy on them. In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus used the Samaritan as the example of the good neighbor. Jesus treated the woman at the well with compassion and revealed Himself to her there.
The Samaritans weren’t always so welcoming to Jesus. In the first part of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus sent some of the disciples ahead to prepare a place for them to stay. It took about three days on foot to get from Galilee to Jerusalem. The Jews usually took the long way on the east side of the Jordan when they went on pilgrimage for feasts and festivals because the Samaritans were quite hostile to the pilgrims, in spite of the common understanding of desert dwellers the necessity for hospitality. Yet, you can see why they might be unsympathetic to the Jews. If the Samaritans were outcasts, unfit to be accepted as children of Abraham, why should they grant hospitality to the pilgrims? In the weeks before a festival, they could see hundreds of pilgrims—more than they could afford to feed. Why risk your own sustenance for someone who thinks you are scum?
So, when the disciples went to the village, they were sent away. James and John, otherwise known as the “Sons of Thunder” for their quick tempers, asked Jesus if He wanted them to call fire down on the village. The selfish lusts that caused the disciples to make mistakes also lead us to make mistakes in our ministries. James and John were certainly zealous about the work they were doing with and for the Lord. But they didn’t always think through the way they dealt with the people they were called to serve. We can’t imagine calling down hellfire upon those who do not welcome us or our ministry, yet James and John were ready to use their power to destroy a whole village. There is power that comes from being a follower of Christ, yet Jesus does not give us that power to bring harm to people. Instead, we are called to be merciful and filled with grace.
Lives filled with grace and mercy are ordered, free from the burdens of slavery to the chaos of fleshly desires. We are also freed from the need to earn our way to heaven. Paul doesn’t give us a checklist of things we cannot do and things we have to do. He shows us how different life is when lived in the Spirit of God. The irony of life is that we seek the freedom to pursue our desires and yet it is our desires that keep us in bondage. James and John were bound by their anger, so they sought a violent answer to the rejection of Jesus. Life in Christ does not give us the freedom to do what we want, but the new life we have in Him frees us from our desire to follow our flesh. God gives us the faith to produce good fruit, fruit that glorifies Him.
Paul lists the works of the flesh in today’s lesson—fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like. At times these are quite easy to recognize and yet sometimes we do not even realize we are sinning against God with our works. It is easy to see idolatry when the god we are worshipping is a stone figurine. It is not so easy when our idols are our parents. We make excuses, just like those men on the road to Jerusalem: now is not the time, let me take care of something first.
Yet, Christ calls us to be free from our old life. If we keep turning back, we will never be free to preach the kingdom in this world. Instead of being bound by the works of the flesh, Christ lives in us to manifest the fruit of the spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law.”
There is a difference between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit. In the former, we see actions that can hurt and destroy, emotions that bring pain and suffering. In latter, we see the goodness of God shining through the lives of the faithful. We who follow Christ turn away from our old life and keep God before us, trusting that He will accomplish His work through us. Elisha set his face toward doing God’s will by following Elijah. He took the cloak and was prepared to give up everything. Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem and walked forth in faith, knowing that God was going ahead of Him to prepare the way.
It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Trusting in God should be the simplest thing we do, especially for those of us who have been given the Holy Spirit at our baptisms. However, we learn very quickly that it isn’t always easy. Elijah was constantly blessed by God with power, and he even experienced the presence of God in a way that few others have ever known. In the end, even Elijah was burdened by his flesh, afraid to go on and tired of fighting. James and John were in Jesus’ inner circle, but they fell prey to their own anger. We, too suffer from the same temptations. We share in the same failings. We fall under the same burdens. But when we trust in God, knowing by faith that we are never alone, and live by the Spirit rather than the flesh, then our lives will reflect the grace and mercy of God.
David writes, “Thou art my Lord: I have no good beyond thee.” When we follow the desires of our flesh, we turn from the God who gives us all good things. Though we may not bow down at the altar of the Baals like Jezebel and Ahab and the people of Israel, our gods are as dangerous to our well-being. They might not even seem like gods. After all, how can we hold it against someone who wants to bury his father or say good-bye to his family? How can it bad to have a bed on which to sleep or a roof over one’s head? Can our relationships, our homes, our jobs, our lives become like gods to us, taking our attention away from the one true God? Yes, those things and people can become our gods. While our gods might not require our blood, they do tempt us to set God aside while we pursue the desires of our flesh.
The fruit of the Spirit is manifest in the life of the one that says, “Thou art my Lord: I have no good beyond thee.” Dwelling in God’s presence, the faithful are not burdened by the desires of the flesh, but are set free to live in God’s mercy and grace. This is the life that is given wholly to God—heart, soul and body. This is the life that accepts the call of Christ to go and proclaim the kingdom of God.
“For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that ye may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inward man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; to the end that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strong to apprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that ye may be filled unto all the fulness of God. Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus unto all generations for ever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:14-21, ASV
How do you prepare for company? What do you do to make your guests feel like they are at home? We begin by cleaning the house: the floor gets vacuumed, the flat surfaces get dusted, and the kitchen gets cleaned. Someone scrubs the bathroom from top to bottom and we make sure that the hand towels are fresh and the air freshener is working. The kitchen is cleaned and fresh linens are put on the dining room table. We check the pantry for food and the refrigerator for drinks. We plan menus and activities that will make the guests happy. If there will be children, we dig out some toys to keep them occupied.
If the guests will be staying overnight, we put more time into the guest room: fresh linens on the bed and flowers in a vase. We have a basket full of hotel soaps and shampoos just in case they forget something and a pile of postcards are available, along with a pen and some stamps so that they can mail messages to their family and friends. We go to the grocery store to ensure that we have everything available that they might need. We plan visits to those special Texas sites.
While they are here, we make the entire house available to them, including our computer if they need to check mail or play their Facebook games. We take care of their every need, but mostly we make sure they are so comfortable that they feel like they are home. “No need to ask for something, help yourself!” is the way things work at our house. Hopefully our guests do truly feel like they are one of the family, welcome to share in all that we have.
I was reading the book of Ephesians yesterday and came across verse 3:17, “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,” and the thought occurred to me, “Do we make Jesus feel at home in our hearts?” Do we fill our hearts with good things so that He will be comfortable and happy? He is our guest, invited by faith into the very depths of our beings, but our hearts are not always the most pleasant places. We harbor sinful thoughts and forget the good things. We put our time and our energy into living our lives, but we do not take the time for worship, prayer and bible study that will help make our hearts cozier for our Lord Jesus.
We put a lot of time and energy into making our homes a place where our guests feel comfortable. Perhaps we should think about that when we get so busy that we do not have time for the Lord. After all, He’s not just a guest; He has taken up residency in our hearts and He deserves to have a place where He feels at home. Let us all constantly do everything that will make Him feel at home, like one of our family and welcome to share in every aspect of our lives.
“O Jehovah, our Lord, How excellent is thy name in all the earth, Who hast set thy glory upon the heavens! Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou established strength, Because of thine adversaries, That thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger. When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, The moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him but little lower than God, And crownest him with glory and honor. Thou makest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, Yea, and the beasts of the field, The birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, Whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. O Jehovah, our Lord, How excellent is thy name in all the earth!” Psalm 8, ASV
Some of my readers may remember a television show that was popular in the late 1980’s early 1990’s called “Doogie Howser, M.D.” Doogie Howser was a young man who was incredibly intelligent and mature. He moved through school very quickly, having gotten a perfect score on the SATs when he was just six. By the time he was 14, he had graduated medical school and was a doctor. The series showed Doogie as a brilliant doctor but also as a clumsy kid, facing the craziness of puberty even while he was healing the sick. The continuing joke was how many of the patients did not trust Doogie to make good medical decisions, but in the end he always found the right cure for what ailed them. He constantly fought for respect, difficult for a doctor who was still living at home with his parents. His chronological peers were too young and immature; his medical peers were too old.
That period of time between the teenage years and middle adulthood are not nearly as easy as we might like to think it is. I was chatting with some friends the other day and we were discussing how young adult minds, especially the decision making part of the brain, are not yet fully developed, and yet they have reached the age of independence. The irony is that good decision making takes experience, but some of the most important decisions we make, we make them before we have any experience. The questions of career, marriage, children, military service, religious choices and others are made in the late teens, early twenties. Can those young people really make the right decisions?
Perhaps this is why so many cultures have left the decision making to the elders, even for those who are chronologically adults. Arranged marriages often turn out filled with so much more love than those marriages that are based on the physical attraction of youth. Children who follow their parents into a family business are often more successful because they’ve joined an established company. We parents, especially those of us with children in that age range, know that we can make better decisions most of the time than our children, because our experience gives us insight that they do not yet have. Despite knowing that they aren’t physiologically or experientially ready to make the decisions, we know that we have to let them go. They have to make the same mistakes we made when we were their age. Even so, we have difficulty seeing those youngsters as adults and capable of doing what is best.
But God sees His people from a different point of view. In today’s psalm, children are lifted up as the example: the babes sing God’s praises. They don’t just praise God, which makes sense to us, but it is their praise that stops the enemy and the avenger in their tracks. The praise of children is powerful and mighty. I’m not sure we should be sending in the children’s choir instead of the police against someone who is doing something wrong. Yet, God does give honor to the children, and He raises them to seats of glory because they glorify Him.
When we think about it, though, it is a wonder that God chooses any human being to do His work in this world. The psalmist writes, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Now, we know that this passage ultimately points to Jesus Christ the Messiah, yet the psalmist was also referring to you and me. What is man that God would look to us to be His representatives in this world? Who are we that God might listen to what we have to say? Why would the Creator God give any human being dominion over His world?
He does so because He sees us from a different point of view. Though we might make mistakes, He forgives. Though we might turn down the wrong path, He is ready to guide us back into His ways. He is patient and He is kind. Most of all, He loves us and has created us to be His people. We are His children, and as His children He is ready to lift us up as an example to the world. So, let us praise God as children, transforming the world by glorifying God.
“For my soul was grieved, And I was pricked in my heart: So brutish was I, and ignorant; I was as a beast before thee. Nevertheless I am continually with thee: Thou hast holden my right hand. Thou wilt guide me with thy counsel, And afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee. My flesh and my heart faileth; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever. For, lo, they that are far from thee shall perish: Thou hast destroyed all them that play the harlot, departing from thee. But it is good for me to draw near unto God: I have made the Lord Jehovah my refuge, That I may tell of all thy works.” Psalm 73:21-28, ASV
“Oh, woe is me!” Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever feel as though your enemies succeed when you should succeed, taking your triumphs right out of your hands? Ok, perhaps the words enemies and triumphs are a little extreme. But haven’t we all had an experience of loss because someone has done something to get ahead that is manipulative or dishonest?
A few years ago I was looking for ways to earn some extra cash while keeping the flexibility of being a stay-at-home-mom. I discovered several sites where writers are hired on a freelance basis. Topics for articles or essays were posted, and writers were invited to submit articles to be purchased by the requester. On some sites authors could write about subjects they knew, posting the articles for those who are seeking general topics. I sold one or two of my articles on one of these sites, and it gave me the confidence to look for other opportunities.
I found one site that seemed to pay really well, and it seemed to be a little bit more professional than the first one. The writing would require more research, but the money would have been worthwhile. I had to submit a writing sample which was judged by professionals. Once accepted, I was given passwords and encouraged to jump right into writing. I started checking out the opportunities and I was shocked. This particular site was a place where students could go to get research papers for college and to fulfill other coursework. Several assignments were for essays needed for scholarships.
Now, I was checking into this business during the time that Victoria was searching for college scholarships. She was working so hard at her essays and filling out all the paperwork. I was upset to think that I might be writing an essay for a student that could be competing against her for college money. It isn’t right: if colleges discover the essays are purchased the students will be rejected. But, most students will adapt the purchased essays just enough to make them personal. When I realized that I would be doing the work that students should be doing themselves, I knew I could not work for the company.
Yet, many people do work for the company and many college students are making their way through their school years with others doing their work. They’ll get the good grades, receive the honors and triumph over their peers by cheating. It isn’t fair to those students who truly work hard and earn their grades and honors. Though those students may not be enemies, they are not friends if they are willing to cheat to get ahead.
The psalms often tell the story of people oppressed by enemies who have done what is wrong to get ahead. David, Solomon, Asaph (a family appointed to serve in the Temple) often wrote songs that bemoaned the success of the wicked, crying “Oh woe is me!” because of their losses to those willing to do what is wrong to get what was rightfully someone else’s. Yet, in today’s Psalm, Asaph realizes that it doesn’t matter. He realizes how bitter he has become, how foolish he appears to God. His attitude turns around when he remembers that God is with him, guiding him into the right paths. We may be sad because we don’t get what we want, but we can rejoice in what we truly have: God. He will take us down the paths that are right and good and true. He is our strength and in Him we triumph over the things that really matter.
“Or know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with men, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye were washed, but ye were sanctified, but ye were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, ASV
We’ve been watching a show called “True Beauty” where a group of male and female contestants think they are competing in a contest to select the “Face of Las Vegas. These are beautiful people, willing to do whatever is necessary to win the game. It is the typical reality show, with hidden camera views of the contestants talking nasty about each other and scheming behind others’ backs. The thing they don’t know is that contest isn’t just about the looks and abilities visible in the light of day: the judges are looking for inner beauty.
Each week the contestants face a challenge that they know about and a challenge that they don’t know about. With every challenge comes a test: will they pass the test? The main challenge is judged by the general public, the people who experience the contestants up-close. The hidden challenge is judged by the judges and ‘spies’ who have been placed in the challenge by the show’s producers. In one challenge, the contestants were asked to choose an outfit that shoes another side to the contestant. One contestant brought out his inner Elvis. Another a cowboy. Yet another a French maid. The contestants then danced inside Plexiglas boxes on the Vegas strip and the public voted for them by putting gold coins into a slot.
The hidden challenge on that day happened in the shop where they purchased their costumes. Each contestant was given the same amount of money and a shopping assistant who helped them find the perfect outfit and accessories. As they were shopping, the assistant (the spy) found items that would be perfect for the outfits but were too much money. After the purchase, the cashier disappeared into the back room and the assistant gave each contestant the chance to steal that perfect outfit. “Go ahead. Put it in your back. They won’t know.” Most of the contestants refused. But a few accepted. One willingly stole an entire outfit worth hundreds of dollars. That outfit won her the main challenge: the public really enjoyed watching her dance in her box.
Since she won the challenge, she was saved from elimination. As the weeks have passed, that particular contestant has failed every hidden challenge. She was the worst person on the show, willing to do everything and anything to win. She was arrogant and self-centered. She was also hated by almost every other contestant: not a great attitude by the other contestants, but understandable. Her attitudes and actions proved her heart was not in the right place. Every week we hoped she’d end up in the final elimination because we knew that she’d never go on, but she seemed to win or do well enough to survive every challenge.
There was hope a few weeks ago. She lost the main challenge and ended up facing the judges. We were sure she would be going home. Unfortunately, that week another contestant broke the rules of the show by texting her boyfriend. No cells phones allowed while they are competing. So, both contestants who faced the judges were saved. She went back to the house to compete another day. We were loudly disappointed (as loud as the guys usually are when their favorite sports team does something wrong!) We couldn’t believe that she survived another week, because there was no question which one would go home. We could not believe her luck.
Last night she failed the hidden test again, and we could not help hoping that she’d also fail the main challenge. Fortunately, she did and we cheered when we heard she was going to the final judging. Bruce called out, “That’s not very nice!” but I reminded him of all the times he’s cheered against those sports teams he doesn’t like. He understood. Sometimes we like to see the wicked get what they are due. She did get kicked off the show.
After the contestants learn they are leaving, they are given a peak into the reality of that reality show. They are shown clips of their failures and their nasty attitudes. They see themselves as the judges have seen them over the weeks. At first they are asked, “Do you have inner beauty?” and they usually answer, “Yes, I think so.” But most of the contestants realize as they are watching the clips that there is ‘stuff’ that needs to change in their hearts. Will they? Who knows? At least one contestant didn’t care: he said, “This is a contest. I was doing what I needed to do to win.”
The contestant last night did not have any change of heart. As a matter of fact, she walked out on the judges when they began to show her the clips. “I don’t need to watch this. I am the face of Vegas.” Even when faced with her own sinfulness and selfishness, she refused to see it. She only cared about herself and her outer beauty. The show tries to show the contestants ways to make their life better and ways to make the world better by being all they are meant to be. Most of them are humble enough to accept the correction and rebuke. There is a chance for them to change. There is hope that they will do what is right the next time they are faced with the challenges and temptations of life.
So, we live in hope for all men, that God will work in their hearts and transform them into the people He has created them to be. Despite this hope, some will never change. Some will remain wicked. We live in this world full of sin and we may suffer at their hands. We can only live in trust and hope that God’s promises are real. The wicked might win the challenges in this life. They may succeed even when they have lied and cheated, but in the end they will not inherit the Kingdom of God. We can live in hope that they will be changed by God’s love and mercy. We can face them with grace and love and trust in God’s promises. We do so with the knowledge that we, too, have been wicked. We have failed. We have lied and cheated and done what is necessary to get ahead. But God’s grace changed us. And He can change others. He makes everything right.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 4, 2010, Time After Pentecost – Lectionary 14: Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-8; Galatians 6: [1-6] 7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
“Oh bless our God, ye peoples, And make the voice of his praise to be heard; Who holdeth our soul in life, And suffereth not our feet to be moved.” Psalm 66:8-9, ASV
In Luke 9, Jesus sends the Twelve into the towns to share the Kingdom of God. He gives them the instructions to take nothing and to stay in one place until it is time to leave. If the people in the town will not receive them, then they should shake the dust off their feet and leave. Obeying this command takes a great deal of trust, but we expect that the Twelve have the faith and knowledge to do so with confidence. It is easy to wonder what this story has to do with us. We are not the Apostles. We might be willing to follow Jesus, to use the gifts we have been given in our every day lives, sharing God’s kingdom with the people we meet along the way.
But do we think this command is meant for us, too? Do we think Jesus is calling us to go out into the world with nothing, to stay in stranger’s homes as long as we are able, to share the Kingdom of God with faith, trusting that God will take care of our needs? It is tempting to think that this command is only for the Apostles, that God isn’t calling us to such a big commitment.
Yet, in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is making a similar command to a larger group of disciples. Jesus wasn’t followed by just 12 men. He had dozens of followers, perhaps hundreds if you include women and children. There were at least seventy (or seventy-two, depending on the version) followers who were sent on a similar mission. The instructions were similar: do not take any money or extra clothes. They were to travel light and trust in God.
I can’t travel light. It isn’t that I don’t trust God to take care of me, but I need my stuff. Now, I can definitely live without as much as I have in my life. I often joked that it would be fine if the movers lost our entire truck. We’d just start over and I would probably enjoy replacing everything with something new. Would I have been happy if it had happened? Probably not, but I don’t think I’m so attached to my stuff that I couldn’t live without it.
However, I like to pack for my trips. I like to make sure I have everything I could possibly need. I take appropriate clothing for every occasion and weather condition. I pack enough snacks for the car to feed an army. I take hygiene items I rarely ever use. Should I take a swimming suit, even if I’m sure there isn’t a pool? Better take it; you never know what might happen. I have a stack of books prepared for my next vacation, even though I’m not planning to have that much time to read! I gather plenty of money even though I can easily find an ATM or use a debit card. I need black shoes, white shoes and brown shoes so that I have matching shoes for whichever outfit I decide to wear. By the time I’m done packing, the car is full and there is barely room for us to sit!
My preparation goes beyond packing. I plan every possibility while I’m there. I’m headed to Alabama in a few weeks, taking Zack for a camp at the University of Alabama and I’ll have several days to myself. I’ve been surfing the Internet for ideas of activities to do while I’m there, downloading brochures and gathering information. I’ve been to AAA for my maps and I’ve had mechanics check my car to ensure it will be safe to drive. It took days for me to decide on which hotel to book so that I would be comfortable and in a convenient location for my travels.
I’m not sure what I’d do if Jesus told me to go without any money or bag. I am sure I could survive without so much stuff, and I have managed to pack more lightly for certain trips. But I like to be prepared for everything and anything. I like to know where I will be sleeping and how to get to the best places to visit. I like knowing where every rest area is along the way, so I’m hoping that I won’t ever be sent on this type of mission.
It’s easy to say that God doesn’t talk to His people this way or command them to serve Him with the same trust and confidence. However, God does talk to us and send us out into the world in ways that aren’t quite comfortable. What we learn from this lesson is that in every circumstance we are called to trust in God. He’ll be there for us, preparing everything along the way. Sometimes we’ll be rejected, but even in that He’s made everything ready. He’s given us the strength to go on, to pass by those who aren’t willing to receive us and go on to share His message with those who are ready to hear.
I think it is interesting that Jesus says, “And if a son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon him: but if not, it shall turn to you again.” It is almost as if the disciples could tangibly sense the coming and going of their peace. Can we really see peace rest on someone?
The peace of the disciples may not look like a dove or have a physical body, but we can see peace in the faces and actions of others. Have you ever entered a home where you can feel the tension and stress? Sometimes it takes little more than a kind word and a hug to break that tension and make everyone more comfortable. At other times, the tension is too much to overcome. Everyone is on edge and ready to attack, no matter who it is that gets in their way. A word of peace will not bring peace, but will cause the recipients to lash out. It is important that if we enter into a place like this that we do not take on the tension and stress.
Jesus promises the peace will return, although I can’t imagine that there is only so much peace to go around. If the home welcomes the peace, then everyone will feel it. If the home rejects the peace, then we have to remain in that which God has already given us or we will be tempted into anger or hatred or (like James and John last week) violence. Jesus promises that the peace will return so that the disciples, and us, will be aware of its presence even when there seems to be no peace.
We may not be sent into the world as the disciples, but we are called to take the message of the Kingdom into the world in which we live. We might be able to take our purses or extra shoes, but we still need to trust that God is doing the work. We also must remember that it isn’t our message, but God’s message, that we are sharing. If He is prepared to be rejected because of it, why do we think that we can use human responses to get them to listen and receive it?
If they listen to us, they are listening to God. If they reject us, it isn’t us that they are rejecting, but God. We need not take their rejection personally. When the disciples returned, excited about the work they had been doing, Jesus reminded them that it wasn’t their success about which they should rejoice but God’s work in their lives. “Nevertheless in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” God has indeed given us the gifts to bring transformation and reconciliation to the world. But we do not have the right to boast in our accomplishments, but only in the cross of Christ.
Numbers are important. We keep track of many different numbers in the Church. How many people belong to our congregation? How many attend on a regular basis? How much money do they give to the ministry? During stewardship campaigns we are given dozens of different charts noting how many people give how much money and how much we can do with every cent. We keep track of growth and losses, and often compare ourselves to other congregations. “This church is doing well, but that one is having trouble. What is the first church doing right and the second church doing wrong? What should we do to be like the first church and not like the second?”
I remember when I was actively ministering on the Internet that there were some who made a big deal about keeping track of their successes. “I saved two people today.” I never understood that attitude. After all, how did he or she save anyone? “Isn’t it God that saves?” I would ask. They would answer, “Yes, but,” and explain that it was due to their work that the person was saved. Though the language seemed to give the credit to God, these people still hold on to their personal success rather than God’s work in the situation.
Isaiah tells the people to rejoice in Jerusalem whether they are glad for her or mourn for her. Whatever the circumstances, rejoice for Jerusalem. Again, this is about trusting in God’s promises, knowing that whatever the circumstances on this day, God will be faithful. Things may not seem so great today, but God has everything under control. Rest in that promise, rejoicing that God will make all things right in His time and in His way. In the end, we will receive all the good things we expect from the God who provides everything we need.
The Jews were constantly reminded of God’s grace as they remembered the works of the past. They turned back to the Exodus over and over again in their worship and in their calendar. Their feasts and festivals pointed back to what God did in those days, proving to the world that He is indeed God. As they also look forward to the promises to come, they knew that God could do everything and that He was faithful because of what He had done in the past. As we can see in the Psalm today, the Exodus is constantly acknowledged as the center of the Jewish faith and the foundation of their life as a people. In remembrance of the Exodus, despite the current circumstances, they can rejoice because God’s word is true.
We don’t look to the Exodus for our faith, but we constantly celebrate the Resurrection as the work of God that gives us the confidence to live in His promises. His good work on the cross, in the life of Jesus and in overcoming sin and death is the center of our faith and the foundation of the Church. We have become part of a kingdom, not like the nation of Israel, but a family of people living in hope and peace together. Living as one, we are called to work together for the sake of the Gospel and for the benefit of one another.
Paul tells us that we should help our fellow Christians through their difficult times. When a brother or sister in Christ sins, we are called to teach them the truth in love and gentleness. He warns us to be careful, because it is so easy for us to fall to the temptation to use and abuse our brethren who are fallen, to call down fire and brimstone on their lives and ministries. We are to preach the Gospel and leave judgment to God, for He is the perfect judge of all.
Paul goes on to say that we will reap what we sow. When we call down the hellfire on other ministries, our own will go under the lens. Is our ministry perfect? Are we spotless? Do we focus our attention on ourselves; is the spotlight on our gifts? Or are we rejoicing in what God has done? Paul writes, “But far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” The successes of our ministries do not give us reason to rejoice. We rejoice in the salvation that comes from faith in Jesus Christ.
We might find ourselves called into a situation that is not comfortable, sent into the world without the things we think we need to do the work that God commands. Let us ever be mindful of the fact that God prepares the way; He goes before us and makes everything ready. He is with us in rejection and He draws us together in peace. But most of all: let us never forget that it isn’t our words or our ministry or our peace that we take into the world. It is His. And He is faithful. He is in control. Our successes are His glory and our failures will be overcome by His grace. In this we can rejoice, remembering the deeds He has done which give us the confidence to live in the expectation of His promises.