Welcome to the October 2014 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
A WORD FOR TODAY, October 2014
October 1, 2014
Scriptures for Sunday October 5, 2014, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-18; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
“Turn again, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: Look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine, and the stock which thy right hand planted, And the branch that thou madest strong for thyself.” Psalm 80:14-15, ASV
We had a rose bush at our last house. We planted it in exactly the right place. The bush was located just under the place where roofs met and the rainwater naturally fell nearby. While the rest of the yard quickly dried out after a rainfall, that spot did well because the water saturated that spot, giving the rose bush plenty of moisture. I tended to that rose bush, cutting the dead flowers and pruning when necessary. It gave us some beautiful flowers over the years.
I couldn’t tell you what type of rose it was, or where it came from. We bought it at a large retail store one day. As with many of those large scale nursery products, the rose bush was probably grafted to a heartier root, possibly for a rose vine. We noticed after a few years that the shoots coming from the roots of that rose bush were different than the original plant. They grew fast and were somewhat wild; the flowers were much smaller. It was pretty and I often thought that I should install a trellis to let it grow. I knew, though, that the wild vines were taking nutrients and moisture from the main plant, so I kept it pruned as best I could.
I’ve often wondered how the vines in today’s Old Testament lesson could grow wild when the vineyard owner so carefully planted good vines in the field. Grafting has been an agricultural technique used since 2000 B.C. It began in ancient China, but was in use in ancient Greece. They were familiar with the technique in Biblical times, since they use the example of it in the scriptures. It is possible that the good vines planted in that field were excellent grapes with less hardy roots that were grafted to a more wild variety that could survive the soil conditions.
Wild grapes thrive in hot, humid conditions and they do not need an extreme winter chill to produce fruit the following year. Domestic vines need cooler temperatures over the winter to provide healthy grapes. Domestic grapevines have both male and female flowers on each plant and are therefore self-fruiting. The sweet, thinner skinned grapes grow in large, tight clusters. Wild grapes require cross-pollination; they grow in smaller, loose clusters of up to forty one inch grapes.
Wild grapes are used in wine-making and for other products, so they aren’t useless. However, wild grapes can cause many problems. They are useful for local wildlife, but can be disabling for other plants and trees. Grape vines grow into the tops of trees by growing up with the tree from the seedling stage or by growing into the canopy from a neighboring tree. The trees can become disfigured or killed when the vines become weighed down by snow and ice, in the winter. The vines can also block light from reaching the tree’s leaves. This slows the tree’s synthesis of food causing the tree to grow at a slower rate. Wild vines in a domestic vineyard can make the good vines unproductive, stealing moisture and nutrients, chocking off the good vines and blocking the sun. It is almost pointless to fight the wild vines when they take over.
I managed to keep my rose bush going for all those years and it was as beautiful when we left as it was when it was first blooming roses. However, I’m not a very good gardener. Oh, I might get into it in the beginning, lovingly planting the plants, but it gets old very quickly. I am not good about weeding or pruning the plants. I love fresh grown tomatoes, and complain constantly at how bad the store bought ones are, but I don’t have the motivation to do all that work myself. It gets harder to keep up with it as time goes on. Something distracts me from the task, or the temperatures just get too hot to be in the garden. I get frustrated when the plant withers or the fruit doesn’t grow. I don’t know how to deal with the critters that manage to get to my fruit before I can harvest. I don’t think I could ever be a farmer.
In today’s story, the vineyard keeper put his heart into the vineyard. He cleared the land, dug the holes, and planted the choice vines. He prepared the rest of the vineyard, building a watch tower and a wine vat. Everything was ready. But grapes take a few years to grow; the first fruit is usually produced in the third season. Instead of yielding good fruit, the grapes were bitter or wild. The Hebrew language here suggests the grapes were not just bitter, but diseased. Bitter grapes might still be used for wine, and might even create a fine tasting wine if properly prepared. Diseased grapes are worthless, unusable. They must be tossed away.
In this passage, the vineyard represents God’s people. Isaiah speaks of the wonderful works of God in creating the nation of Israel. He isn’t like me—a gardener who puts the plants in the ground and then lets them go. He took care of the vineyard. He took care of His people, providing them with everything they needed. He guarded them, protected them, and provided for their every need. No matter how much God did for His people, however, they turned wild. They became dis-eased. They turned from Him and did their own thing. They were no longer constructive for God’s purpose.
Isaiah says, “He looked for justice, but, behold, oppression; for righteousness, but, behold, a cry.” God’s people were not living according to the ways He had established. They had written into the law their own ideas, interpreted God’s law in a way that made it a burden on God’s people. They did not pursue justice, but oppressed the people. They did not live righteously, but were self-righteous. It was not what God expected from His vineyard. So, He let it go. He took down the hedge, tore down the watchtower and let the field be trampled over.
God is the vineyard owner. The story is about Israel, but we aren’t much different. We are like those wild grapes, growing up in the midst of the vineyard that the Lord has planted. We fail. We sin. We go our own way. Despite all that God has done for us, we want to be in control of the world in which we live. In doing so, we often make the wrong choices. This passage does not leave us much hope, as God swore to repay His wayward people with justice. Yet, this is not the end of the story. There is hope because the promises of God reach far beyond our failing. For every curse there is a promise and God is faithful.
The story in the Gospel lesson isn’t much happier. In that story we have another vineyard. This time the vineyard owner prepared the vineyard and leased the land to tenants. Then he went away. When it came time for the fruit to be harvested, three years or perhaps more, the master sent some servants to collect his share. It is possible that the landowner gave the tenants a few harvests before he sent his servants, giving the tenants a chance to produce a hearty crop. The time came, however, that the tenants had to pay their due. It was the landowner’s right to recoup his investment.
The tenants lost touch with their master. After three or more years, they forgot that the land was not theirs, that they did not plant the vines, that they did not build the tower or dig the winepress. They decided that it belonged to them. So they beat, killed and stoned the servants. The master sent more servants, but they did the same to them. Finally, the master sent his own son to collect what was due.
I like to watch “The People’s Court.” Judge Marilyn Milian is a brilliant judge with common sense. She is able to reach beyond the surface testimonies to discover the underlying causes of many of the problems that come before her bench. I don’t always agree with her judgment, although there are things that she has in the evidence that was submitted before the show that we don’t necessarily see. She’s also there, in person, and can better judge the truth of the claims based on more than the edited version we see on television. It is a real court, but it is still television; the viewers don’t always see everything.
I’m always taken aback by what the litigants are willing to admit on national television. Too many of them have confessed being drug addicts (not former), to selling illegal drugs, to doing illegal things, to stealing from their neighbors. They often justify their criminal behavior or have the attitude that it is not a big deal. Many of them will tell the judge that they work better, harder, faster when they are on the drugs. They will say that they deserved to have that item they stole because of something they did for the owner. They will claim that the dog is mistreated and that they were saving it from horrible abuse. They have no proof for these things, of course, but they see the world through the lens of their desire and believe that the world must satisfy it.
The hardest for me, and for Judge Milian, to understand are those litigants that think they are owed things for free. Take, for instance, the many litigants in court cases of landlords verses tenants. The bad guy is not always the tenant; sometimes the landlords expect more from the tenants than is right. Many of the cases involve landlords who refuse to return security deposit. There is often good reason; the tenants leave behind messes that need to be cleaned up and damage that needs to be fixed. Many tenants stop paying rent and the landlord must keep the security deposit to get what they are due. The landlords will sometimes take advantage of the situation, charging much more than necessary to fix the problems. It takes a wise judge to read between the lines of each side, to discover what is truly fair in the end.
What’s amazing, though, how many people think that they deserve something for nothing. Some tenants sue for all the rent they’ve paid because after living there for months they have discovered some sort of problem. They claim that they had to live with rats or bugs, so they should get their money back. Others claim that the rental property was not legal, and so the landlord should give them back what they paid to live there. They’ll often sue for more than they are due, claiming emotional distress or some other justification.
Judge Milian explains to the litigants that court is about making people whole, not about giving them something for nothing. She gets angry with the tenants that insist they should have lived in the place for free and with the landlords who expect the renters to pay for brand new carpeting when the carpets were already extremely old when they moved in. Oh, there are times when the judge wants to throw the book at one of the litigants, to give every penny to those she knows deserve it. However, she makes her decisions based on what is right.
As I read the Gospel story for today, I think about those litigants on “The People’s Court” and imagine these tenants standing before Judge Milian. “But judge, we’ve worked these fields until our hands are raw and our backs ache. We grew these grapes and they should be ours!” They are so willing to fight for what they believe is right that they even beat, kill and stone those who came to collect the rent. “It isn’t fair that he should get all that money and we should be left with so little!”
We don’t know what percentage of the crop the master demands from the tenants, but if we put it in the context of Biblical religious faith, it was probably only ten percent. That left the tenants with ninety percent, and they probably had a couple of free years. Those tenants, like the ones on the court show, forgot that the master did put a great deal of time, resources and work into that vineyard. They would not have a job or a place to live without him. They forgot that it all came from him and that he, too, deserves a piece of the harvest. It is right that he should expect his share.
I shake my head in complete astonishment that the tenants would come to the conclusion that they would inherit the vineyard if they kill the son. These are people who have twisted justice and righteousness to the point of being upside down. Unfortunately, by the time of Jesus, the faithlessness of God’s people came in the form of self-righteousness. They believed that they were guarded and protected by God, that He would provide all they needed. But they expected this to be true not because God was good but because they thought they were. The watchtower was their own interpretation of the Law, the wall was their heritage. They thought they were good because they relied on their own abilities. They did not see how they had turned from God or how they had rejected Him. The leaders had allowed even the Temple to become corrupt. The passage from Matthew occurs shortly after Jesus cleansed the Temple, during those last days of His life. They had made God’s house of prayer a den of thieves and Jesus called them on it. But they were not prepared to accept His word.
In both the Old Testament and Gospel lesson, God is the vineyard owner. In the first, the vineyard is Israel and it is rejected because the grapes are wild. In the Gospel, the tenants are the leaders of Israel who have rejected God but think they deserve to keep God’s kingdom. In the first, God allows the vineyard to suffer the consequences of disappointing Him. He takes down the hedge of protection and allows the beasts and the weeds to take over. It is trampled and devoured. The rain of blessing stops falling and it withers and dies. In the second, God puts out the unfaithful tenants and gives the vineyard to those who will care for it and give Him His due.
We know that spiritually this tells the story of Israel. God gave them the world, but they lost sight of Him. They turned to other gods, they did what they wanted to do. They rejected him by ignoring His servants. The prophets were beaten, killed and stoned, because they did not like the messages they shared. We don’t want to hear that times will be tough, that we have to be obedient. There were plenty of false prophets willing to tell the kings that God was on their side and that they would win every battle. There were plenty of prophets willing to tickle their ears with happy promises even if they had nothing to do with God. God’s real prophets spoke the truth, called people to repentance, reminded them of their sin and warned them of what would happen if they did not turn back to God.
Which message would you rather hear? Would you rather hear a preacher tell you that God wants you to be happy or that you are a sinner in need of a Savior?
Here’s the thing: we might want to hear the happy message, but true happiness is actually found in the other. See, no preacher can promise you a lifetime of happiness and it is crazy if they try. True blessedness is found in the salvation that comes from Jesus Christ. We don’t need Jesus if we can find happiness with our own work. We don’t need Jesus if we aren’t sinners. We don’t need Jesus if there’s no reason to be saved. Those happy prophets and preachers deny our need for salvation and reject the God who wants to save us. The true prophet will call God’s people to the truth that they need Him and that He is willing to save those who humble themselves before Him.
Jesus followed the vineyard story with a hard lesson. “The stone which the builders rejected, The same was made the head of the corner; This was from the Lord, And it is marvelous in our eyes?” When we reject the truth of God in Christ Jesus, we reject that which is the very foundation of our faith. The Jewish leaders had rejected Jesus. They refused to believe that He was from God; they refused to believe that He had the authority to do and to say what He was doing and saying. God sent Him to call them to repentance, to remember the God who had built them into a nation. It was a nation from which He expected great fruit, but they disappointed Him over and over again. They were not the people He meant them to be. They lost sight of His commands and His promises. They went their own way. They demanded that He give them what they wanted instead of giving Him His due.
The word in this passage that has been translated “head of the corner” can be translated in a number of different ways. “Head of the corner” is the literal translation of the word, but that translation is outside our modern understanding. What does “head of the corner” mean? Translators have used the words capstone, keystone and cornerstone. Though these words have similar meanings, they are representative of stones that have slightly different purposes.
A capstone, or coping, is a stone that is used to finish the top of the wall. It is not just decorative; it is also protection for the wall. It helps hold the wall together. Coping stones are larger, or longer, than the bricks and stones used to build the wall, and therefore gives strength to the top. Capstones are also used as lintels, on the top of a doorway. The capstone supports everything above the door and also the posts that create the opening. The entrances to ancient tombs were often created by standing two stones side by side and placing a capstone on top of the two standing stones. I saw one of these doorways in England. The only parts of the structure to survive were the standing stones and the capstone, still standing because it was all held up by the capstone.
Another type of stone used in building is a keystone. A keystone is used in building an arch. It is the central, uppermost stone in the arch, often shaped slightly differently than the other stones to give the arch a decorative touch. I like this translation of the word because of the statement that the builders rejected the stone. The keystone need not be the strongest, largest or prettiest stone. It offers no support to the arch, but instead locks it together. To build an arch, the builder creates a form that will later be removed. The stones are carefully placed along the form. Finally, the keystone is put into place. The arch would fall if the form was removed before that keystone is in place, but once it is there, the arch stands strong. The builders rejected the stone because it was not big or perfect enough to use in a strong and longstanding building. But it can be a keystone.
The third translation is cornerstone. There are two types of cornerstones. When the builders began laying the foundation of a building, they placed one square stone in the corner of the building site, making sure that the sides are perfectly aligned with where the sides of the building were designed to be. All the other stones are then placed in relation to the cornerstone. These stones were often marked and in ancient societies were given spiritual and superstitious power. We no longer normally lay a stone in the foundation of our buildings, so the cornerstone has become a purely informational and decorative feature of buildings. Inscribed with dates and the names of those responsible for the building, the cornerstone stands as a testament to the work of those people.
Isn’t it interesting that no matter how you define the phrase “head of the corner” you can still see Christ in its imagery? Jesus is the capstone, not only a physical and tangible manifestation of the highpoint of our faith but also that which holds together the walls of His people. Without the capstone or coping, the buildings would fall. Without the capstone, the doorways would fail. Jesus is the keystone. He was not the most powerful man or the one with the most earthly authority. He was in no position to rule. He was easily cast away by the leaders of the faith. The scriptures tell us He was abused, beaten and killed. Yet, the Church cannot stand without Him. He locks us together. Jesus is also the cornerstone. He is both the stone laid in the foundation and the stone that testifies to the work of God. Without Him the church would be misaligned, the walls would be uneven and the building out of whack. Without Him we would still not recognize the God of grace from whom we have faith and hope and peace. Jesus is the “head of the corner” in every way, and this is truly marvelous in our eyes.
Again, before we think too highly of ourselves, we are reminded that we are not any more perfect than the Israelites or the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. We forget that everything we have comes from God. We seek out the message that makes us feel good and reject the one that reminds us that we are sinners in need of a savior. We like to go our own way, demand from God what we think we deserve. We reject the people that God sends to give us the truth because we would rather have our ears tickled. The word of a false prophet might sound better, but it makes us like those wild grapes in God’s vineyard or like those tenants who think God owes us His kingdom.
Before we go to the other extreme, thinking ourselves unworthy of God’s grace, we have to remember that everything God has done is not based on the good or the bad that we do. He sent Jesus to die for our sake when we were His enemies! He saved us not because we begged Him to save us, but because He loves us and He is faithful to all His promises. He is the Master and He will ensure that there is a harvest of fine fruit.
Psalm 80 tells the story of Israel, the vine. God brought her out of Egypt and planted her in the garden of His choosing. She did not do well. In the Old Testament lesson we learn that He expected the grapes He planted to grow and prosper, but instead He got wild grapes. Israel’s actions brought bad times upon the land; she suffered the consequences of being disobedient to her Father, but He never left. He heard their cry and restored His relationship with them. They sought His face and He shined it upon them. The Psalm is the cry of God’s people for salvation. “Turn us again, O God of hosts; And cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved.” They knew God’s good works; they didn’t know why they had been abandoned. They didn’t see their own failure, but despite this reality, God did come to their aid. He restored His people and called them to the life He intended for them. Despite His grace, they continued to fail. Despite their failure, He continued to be faithful. He replanted the vineyard and began again.
Despite our failure, He continues to be faithful. We are still not perfect. We still separate ourselves from God and mercy. We still get angry, bitter, frightened, violent and hateful. We aren’t perfect, and we won’t be perfect in this world. Even Paul knew that he had not yet reached the goal. Paul was everything a good Jew should be. He had the pedigree. He was born to the right people, did all the right things. He followed the right rules and was zealous for God. Yet, he realized that none of that mattered. His encounter with Christ broke down the watchtower and the walls and his field was left follow. But Paul learned that everything on which he relied was worthless, and God planted a new vine in that field.
The Jews relied on their own righteousness, finding peace in their own strength and ability to take refuge in their God. But they missed the real grace which was found in Jesus Christ. It is true that we should seek refuge in our God, but the center of our faith is not found in our ability to do so. We are reminded in the Gospel text that Jesus is the cornerstone. He is the foundation on which everything is built. Without Him, we are nothing more than wild grapes. He is the vine. He is the center of our faith. As we grow, the fruit we produce will be sweet and satisfying.
In the beginning Paul went his own way. Well, he went the way of men until he had an encounter with the living Lord Jesus. That encounter led him on a journey that took him to places he never expected. He learned what it meant to have faith, to believe God and to live as He called men to live. He learned what it meant to take refuge in God. His world had been turned upside down, but in that new world, he found peace. Paul learned that he belonged to Jesus and that every day took him closer to the prize, so he pressed on toward that goal. We are called to do the same, to live in the faith, trusting that God will provide all we need. We don’t need to rely on ourselves, because God has done it all.
“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)
A few years ago the dome over the light in my daughter’s bedroom fell to the floor. The screws holding it to the fixture were not tight enough and it was shaken loose when a door slammed. It shattered on the floor creating a mess and my daughter received a few small cuts from the broken glass. We had to replace it. Unfortunately, the store was out of stock. A woman purchasing new lights for her house overheard my conversation with a salesman in the store. She was replacing the same type of lights in her own house and she wouldn’t need her globes. She offered to give us one, gave us her address and told us to stop by later that day.
We tried to pay for it, but I have to admit that her generosity came at a very good time. Every dollar counted right then, and even a ten dollar glass dome was going to be a struggle. “I don’t need it, you might as well take it,” she said. It was a simple act of kindness. We live in a world where we have to be so careful about our information with strangers, so we were especially appreciative that she trusted me, a complete stranger, by giving me her private information.
I read a story today written by a woman who recalled an encounter with her uncle. He was extremely talkative and all the kids in the house avoided answering the phone when the caller ID showed his name. This was especially true during the Renaissance Festival. One day the woman, who was then a teenager, answered the phone. Her uncle was upset because his cat had died. In the next breath, he asked the girl to visit him. For some reason she said yes. “Excellent! The Celtic Renaissance Fair is happening this week,” he said. She convinced her sister to go along, although her sister was not thrilled. When they arrived at their uncle’s house, he showed them around the garden and pointed out all his cat’s favorite places and talked about her with a tear in his eye.
They had a really good time at the festival and though it was hot and exhausting, the girls did not regret spending time with their uncle. With the wisdom of afterthought, the woman realized that her gut reaction to his invitation was an act of kindness. She didn’t know how important it would turn out to be for him and for them. That simple act, an act neither girl even wanted to do, made a very real difference not only in their lives, but especially in their relationships.
Imagine what an impact you have on non-Christians when you make a simple gesture in the name of Christ Jesus. When we live in our faith, openly manifesting the love of Jesus Christ, even risking the dangers of living in this world, we impact the lives of those who cross our path. It might only be a tiny seed, we will probably never see fruit that grows, but a simple act of kindness can introduce Jesus to the world. Wherever we are those little acts of kindness help people see Jesus. We never know how their lives will be changed when we treat our neighbors, and our family, with love, compassion and mercy. God has blessed us, first with salvation and then with everything we need to take His salvation to the world. It will not be easy; we will face difficulties, times of trial, persecution, rejection. However, the power of God is with us and will turn everything to His good. Though we may suffer, God will bring truth out of deception, knowledge out of ignorance, life out of death, joy out of sorrow and great wealth out of our poverty.
“For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be put to shame. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek: for the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich unto all that call upon him: for, Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach, except they be sent? even as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that bring glad tidings of good things! But they did not all hearken to the glad tidings. For Isaiah saith, Lord, who hath believed our report? So belief cometh of hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Romans 10:11-17, ASV
I was at the grocery store the other day when I overheard a mother talking with her child which was probably between one and two years old. The encounter brought a smile to my face because I remembered my visits to the grocery store with my children. I often chitter-chattered with them the whole time, keeping them engaged and quiet. It helped to keep their minds off the fact that we were doing the most boring thing imaginable and that they were trapped in a big metal rolling death trap shopping cart.
I joke, but I loved seeing that mother talking with her child because I know how important it is to give them words. It looks ridiculous to those who do not understand, the children are often too young to comprehend the difference between sliced and diced potatoes. They don’t yet know that Campbell’s soup labels are always red or that $4.99 is a ridiculous price for ground beef. They can’t tell the difference between apples and oranges, and don’t really care. And yet, it is in those moments when our kids learn about these things.
Even more important, they have found, is that children need to hear words. Studies have shown that children who have been talked to in those early years are more intelligent, are better prepared for school and are more likely to succeed in later life. Using a scientific device known “word pedometer” and interview techniques, researchers have discovered that some children hear 30 million more words in the first three years of life. Many parents, like that woman in the grocery store, use every opportunity to talk to their kids. Strangers may think that they are doing so because they lack adult companionship, but the reality is that they are giving the child the one thing that they truly need: words. The interaction, the communication, the seeding of words in the child’s head actually makes a difference in his or her life.
Many parents only talk to their children when it is necessary. “Time for bed,” is followed by silence even while they are interacting physically with the child. The mother who talks to her child will say many things in that few minutes. “Let’s get your jammies. Aren’t these pretty? Do you like the green dinosaurs? Isn’t this soft? These might seem like a meaningless conversation, after all a baby cannot answer those questions. The children who listen to that seemingly meaningless chitter-chatter are far better off than the child who listens to silence. Those who think eight hours of television can make up for a parent’s silence are mistaken. The real human interaction mixes with the child’s maleable new brain matter to enhance development of his or her mind.
Cities and schools are trying to help those children by offering pre-kindergarten and preschool classes for underprivileged children who are more likely to grow up in silent homes. Less wealthy parents are too tired to talk to their children or they simply do not understand the benefits, so their children are less prepared for school. However, those programs come too late. Some children might be able to overcome the disadvantage, but there is no way of making up those 30 million words heard during those brain forming years.
Words matter. We see that in the growth of children, but it is also important in the growth of faith. I get the importance of the quote often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words.” It is generally quoted to teach Christians that it doesn’t do any good to tell people about Jesus if you don’t live the life that He is calling you to live. However, the words matter. A person will never be saved by good works. It is the Gospel—the words of hope and forgiveness that Jesus sent us to speak—that saves. Anyone can give a thirsty man a cup of cold water, and many who do not know Jesus Christ do so. Kindness and good works are a part of the life we are called to live in faith; they are a powerful witness to our faith in God. But like the child in the grocery store, the sinner needs to hear the words. We need to hear the name of Jesus and what He did for us to experience the salvation He has promised.
We are charged with taking God’s grace into the world, to glorify Him and to make disciples of all nations. Faith comes from hearing and hearing from the Word of God. Live your faith in word and deed so that those you meet will be both saved by His Word and will see Christ active in the world.
“It is of Jehovah’s lovingkindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness. Jehovah is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. Jehovah is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good that a man should hope and quietly wait for the salvation of Jehovah. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone and keep silence, because he hath laid it upon him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope. Let him give his cheek to him that smiteth him; let him be filled full with reproach. For the Lord will not cast off for ever. For though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his lovingkindnesses. For he doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” Lamentations 3:22-33 (ASV)
There was a scene in the movie “City Slickers” starring Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby during which they were talking about the best and worst day in their lives. Billy Crystal’s character Mitch told his friends about a time when his wife found a lump in her breast. He said for the whole day they worried and wondered if it was cancer. In the end they found out it was nothing. Mitch said, “That was my worst day.” Bruno Kirby (Ed) said, “But that was a good day, it was nothing.” Mitch answered, “Until we knew, it was a horrible day.” Ed said, “But it ended well.” Back and forth they went arguing about whether it was good because the end was good or if it was bad because the whole day was filled with worry. Ed said, “You are really a glass is half-empty kind of guy” meaning that Mitch always saw the negative and missed the positive.
We are amazed when we look at faithful/faith-filled people who are suffering from some ailment. They are paralyzed and still go to the food bank every week to work. They are sick with cancer and visit the children’s ward to comfort the kids. They are financially strapped but manage to find enough to take a homeless man to dinner. They see the good in the midst of their affliction and do not wallow in pity for their own circumstances knowing that others need help more than they.
One of the most difficult things for a non-Christian to understand is the idea of goodness in suffering. They want to know, “if God is so good, why do people suffer?” They don’t understand that God can make good things come out of terrible times. They can’t grasp the hope we have in tomorrow, especially when it seems like tomorrow will never come. We don’t fear suffering because we know that God will take us through to the other side; we know that the blessings are waiting for us there. They want to call God evil because they blame Him for causing the suffering. They simply refuse to believe in any God because they can’t accept that a loving God would allow any suffering in His world.
In Christ, however, we view things differently. We see the glass as half-full; we see the light at the end of the tunnel. We rejoice, not because we are happy, but because we trust in God. We know that even if our suffering ends in death we will not die because we have eternal life in Christ. We know that God does not plan for us to suffer, but that He will be with us through the suffering that comes from living in this fallen and imperfect world. We know that God makes good things happen out of bad for those who love Him and have hope in His promises.
We all have moments like Mitch; we feel the self-pity that comes with suffering and we question God. Faith means looking at the world differently, however. He gives us the vision to see the world and suffering through His eyes. God is faithful to the end, guaranteeing that something incredible is waiting for us at the end; we have a hope that will not disappoint. We can trust that God will be with us through all the trials we face, not willingly afflicting us but using all our afflictions to draw us deeper into His heart. No matter what happens today, one day we will be with Him in eternity. He is truly a compassionate and merciful God. We can rejoice in our suffering today and walk faithfully in the glass-is-half-empty world with hope and peace, knowing that our glass is really running over with the promise of God’s blessings.
“And he calleth unto him the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and he gave them authority over the unclean spirits; and he charged them that they should take nothing for their journey, save a staff only; no bread, no wallet, now money in their purse; but to go shod with sandals: and, said he, put not on two coats. And he said unto them, Wheresoever ye enter into a house, there abide till ye depart thence. And whatsoever place shall not receive you, and they hear you not, as ye go forth thence, shake off the dust that is under your feet for a testimony unto them. And they went out, and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.” Mark 6:7-13, ASV
I was really active with the kids when they were in school. I volunteered in their classrooms, helped with the Parent Teacher Organization and spent time helping around their schools in other ways. I was usually one of the parents who acted as chaperone on the field trips; I was there for special events. I enjoyed helping the teachers and getting to know the children. Some of the work had wonderful benefits, like the year I was in charge of the visiting author program at the school in England. I had the opportunity to hang out with some incredible children’s authors; many of them even gave me signed copies of their books in appreciation of the hospitality. Kevin Crossley-Holland even took a nap on my couch.
As our children get older, the tasks for volunteer moms get fewer. The teachers don’t really need parental help in the classrooms, and the kids really don’t want their mom hanging around. I had time on my hands when Victoria made it to Middle School, so I started working with a program to mentor other children. Each volunteer was asked to give one hour a week to a child to be his or her friend. The adult and child talk, play games, read together or eat lunch. During the year, the mentor may help the child put together special projects. Some mentors stay with their children for their entire school careers. The mentors give those children some extra support to help them succeed.
Mentoring programs have been around since the beginning of time, although they have been called many different things. Craftsmen learned the trade by being an apprentice to a master. Young people find mentors among their teachers and coaches. College students often have an advisor that helps guide them through their education. Alcoholics Anonymous encourages members to find a sponsor, an alcoholic who is farther along in the program to help and encourage them. As Christians it is helpful to have someone to help us along in our spiritual journey.
Even the greatest Christian leaders began under the teaching and encouragement of faithful believers who guided their faith and ministry. St. Augustine would not even be a Christian if it had not been for his mother’s support. She prayed for him for years, until he finally turned from his wicked ways and was converted. Peter Boehler was a Moravian who showed John Wesley how to have a personal, restful trust in God. Even Martin Luther had Johann von Staupitz, his confessor, who helped him understand God’s grace.
There were those who rejected the work of the Reformers like Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon; the English preacher Hugh Latimer was one of the most vocal attackers. He described himself “as obstinate a papist as any was in England.” A scholar from Cambridge University named Thomas Bilney understood the work of the reformers and prayed that God would use him to lead Latimer to understanding. Bilney himself had come to understand the truth of the Gospel by one line of scripture, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15) One day after listening to Latimer rant about the Reformation, Bilney took him aside and shared that verse. From that moment, Hugh Latimer led the English into the Reformation.
There is some person in all our lives who mentored us in our faith. It may have been a parent, pastor, teacher or friend. These people helped guide our walk with Christ by sharing their faith and understanding. It is because of their encouragement and love that we can do the work God has called us to do. Every Christian is a disciple, born anew to live in Christ and share His Gospel with the world. We could not do it without the help of those who came before.
The disciples had the greatest mentor, our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh. They were the first to then go and share the message of Christ with the world, encouraging others and teaching them to live according to the Word of God. Those disciples went out to make more disciples through the ages to your mentor who shared the Gospel with you. Who will you mentor into a life of discipleship today? Will it be your child, a neighbor or a friend? Will you help a preacher who rants against the truth of the Gospel find a simple faith in Christ? Jesus gave his disciples all they needed, the faith to go out and do His work. He does the same for us, touching us through the lives of those who come before so that we will go out and continue to touch the lives of those who come after. He touches others through His disciples’ lives, passing the faith from generation to generation.
Scriptures for Sunday October 12, 2014, Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:4-13; Matthew 22:1-14
“I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me.” Philippians 4:13, ASV
We had one of those online coupons that you can buy to have a meal at a discount price. There are several different types, but they usually cost approximately the price of an entree and then give you an equal amount for free. This particular coupon was for a steakhouse that costs too much money; we never would have gone without the coupon. As it was, it still cost us more money than we usually would spend on dinner, unless we were going out for a special occasion. We forgot we had the coupon and we had to use it quickly, so we ended up with a fancy meal on a regular day.
Now, we can be absolutely satisfied with a meal at a more practically priced restaurant. The food is usually pretty good and the service pleasant. We don’t need to spend our grocery money for a week to be filled. However, everything was excellent; it was worth the money. The steak, as they say, “was like butter.” It was so tender and tasty; it melted in our mouths. The side dish was delicious and the desert was a wonderful finish to the meal. The cost was too high, but it made an average Thursday night special.
I thought about that meal as I was reading through today’s scriptures, which focus on the great banquet which our Father is preparing for us in heaven. Both Isaiah and Matthew talk about this feast, a wedding feast that will be filled with an abundance of good food. I’m sure that whatever God has waiting will be better than even the best, most expensive meal we’ve ever eaten. My mouth waters in expectation.
I think it is interesting that the scriptures talk about it being a feast like a banquet. I have some memories of those, too. When I was still a teenager, I traveled with a group for a week, visiting cities around our state to introduce our organization to places that would benefit from having us around. We were fed well during our trip, hosted at banquet feasts every day by the local groups who invited us to visit. We didn’t have steak. We mostly had ham; ham is easy to fix, at that time it was relatively inexpensive. The side dishes that go with ham are easy to prepare. The people who prepared the food did a good job; the food was satisfying. It was never fantastic, however. The ham was usually a little dry, the side dishes were not quite hot and fresh. Don’t get me wrong, we were thankful and we were filled, but that’s what I think about when I think about a feast. And God’s feast will not just serve a hundred or so; it will be a feast for all who have waited for God’s salvation. How can He possibly serve so many a feast so great?
He can because He is God. The feast will be great because He will be celebrating the marriage of His Son. It is not a normal wedding, like those we’ve attended. This is the consummation of all His promises, the fulfillment of Christ’s work in the world, as His bride the Church is fully and completely made one with Him. Death will be swallowed up, tears will be dried. We will have reason to celebrate and this feast is not a party that will end; it will last for eternity as we dwell in heaven with our Father and our Lord Christ forever.
Isaiah writes, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is Jehovah; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” Those who believe in Jesus will receive blessing from the Lord, salvation from our Savior. We will see the day when mourning is turned to joy. We will feast at the victory table. Jesus overcomes even time and space by drawing all believers—past, present and future—into His body, the Church. Jesus is the resurrection; He is our hope and life. He has overcome death and the grave and in Him alone is our hope for salvation.
It seems unbelievable to me sometimes, but there are those who will reject the Lord. There are those who will not respond to the invitation to come to the feast. This is what Jesus is telling the disciples in today’s Gospel lesson. This parable follows the ones from the past few weeks. Two weeks ago we were reminded that those who respond to God’s promises will be blessed, but those who say they believe but do not act will be left behind. Last we the lesson showed what will happen to those who violently reject God’s call to active, living faith. We know from the text that Jesus was speaking to the Jewish leaders; even they knew they were the ones who were being targeted at the time. However, these parables are as relevant today for those who continue to say one thing but do another and those who reject God’s call.
This week God offers an invitation. Isn’t it amazing how patient and purposeful He is with His people? Even as they were trying to find ways to arrest Jesus, He was still trying to get them to see the truth. He tells them the kingdom of heaven is like the wedding feast given by a king for his son. The invitations went out, and like those who said “Yes” but did not do what they promised, the guests refused to come. More servants were sent and ignored. Like the tenants in the vineyard, some of the invited guests even killed the king’s servants. In both the previous stories, Jesus pointed toward those who were deemed unworthy of God’s grace as being the recipients of His promises because they proved faithful in the end. The same is true in today’s passage, where the king rejected those who rejected him and invited anyone willing to come. “Go ye therefore unto the partings of the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage feast.” The servants went out and invited all those they found, good and bad. The wedding hall was full.
This text has been used historically to prove God’s rejection of His chosen people, but we need to be careful to think of ourselves as greater than those chief priests and Pharisees who knew Jesus was talking about them. Jesus is addressing anyone who thinks they are blessed because of their own righteousness rather than God’s grace. This is made even clearer in the final verses of today’s passage. In it, Jesus describes a man who did come to the wedding feast, but who did not dress in the robe given by the King.
We do not follow this tradition in our society, but in those days the host gave clean robes to the guests. They had traveled far on dusty roads. The robes were a gift from the host, so that the guests would feel fresh and clean for the feast. It showed a lack of respect for the host and for the gift to not refuse to wear the robe. It is suggested that the guest was cast out because he had not changed his ways or repented of his ‘grime.’ But we must be careful how much credence we put to that idea. There are many who think that none are welcome who have not yet become righteous according to a set of rules. They say that the guest was one who was still a sinner. Yet, every guest in that room still had the dust and dirt from the road; it was simply covered by the wedding garment. The guest was not cast out because he was grimy and dirty from the road, but because he rejected the gift that had been given.
Matthew writes, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” We tend to read this with some sense of haughtiness, since we who are believers consider ourselves amongst the chosen. We also deem ourselves as ‘one of the few,’ even separated from others who are counted among the believers. We think we are special, set aside because of our gifts and abilities rather than because of God’s grace. It is easy for us to think the verse refers to those who had been invited but who rejected the call to the banquet.
But the verse does not seem to fit in this story. After all, it comes just after a brief aside in which Matthew discusses one guest who has not put on the wedding garments. Only one guest is kicked out, only one guest is sent to the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Of the many who entered, only one is removed. I don’t think Matthew meant to say that the one sent out is the ‘one chosen.’ Instead, we are given something to think about. The person thrown out of the party had entered. He had accepted the invitation and was let in to enjoy the feast. But there was something he did not do. He did not wear the wedding garments.
So, as we consider this story we ponder who fits the characters in this story: who refused to come, who were the ones who came and wore the garment and who came but refused the gift. We might automatically assume that we are one of the “few chosen” but we must be careful not to base that judgment on our own righteousness. We are welcome into the banquet is wholly based on God’s invitation and His gift. If we expect to enjoy the banquet based on our own good works, we will be sadly mistaken. It is only by the gift of the wedding robe, the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that we will be received at the great and glorious banquet which God is planning for us.
The scriptures today are difficult because they can lead to some misunderstandings about God’s grace. Isaiah says that God will “make unto all peoples a feast of fat things” and “wipe away tears from off all faces,” which might lead to some to suggest that this text proves the idea of Universalism. Then we have the problem of the opposite end of the spectrum in the text from Matthew, where “For many are called, but few chosen,” leaving us with the assumption that God is picky about who He will let into heaven, thus causing us to reject those who don’t think deserve an invitation.
They are difficult, too, because we know that we can’t enjoy the great and promised feast without God’s grace, and yet there seems to be a call to action which is required to be welcome. How do we juxtapose these seemingly opposite ideas? What does God require from us?
The Oxford philosophy exam normally requires an eight page essay answer, studded with source material, quotes and analytical reasoning. But one student handed the following back and aced the exam: Oxford Examination Board 1987 Essay Question: 1.1a What is courage? (50 Marks) Answer: This is courage.”
Most of the students went into that exam worried about the question and whether they could come up with eight pages of essay. They were probably given the question ahead of time so that they could be prepared with source materials, and yet they probably spent all the preparation worrying about whether they could come up with an answer that would satisfy the professor. Could they even write eight pages in the allotted time? Would they get a good enough grade? How will this test affect their grade point average?
One student went a different direction. Instead of working hard to come up with a dozen sources, pre-planning the essay and worrying about the test, he or she came up with a brilliant answer. It was courageous to just write, “This is courage.” What is courageous about not doing the work? Courage is trusting that the professor will see the brilliance and humor in the short but powerful answer. It is courageous to do something different even if there is some risk involved. It is courageous to face a difficult situation without worry.
The second lesson text from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of my favorite bible passages. In it, Paul tells us what the Christian life looks like; he shows us what is required. Let’s be clear here, though: these are not acts or works that will get us that invitation to the great heavenly feast. This is how we live as members of Christ’s body. Faith is not enough; faith demands that we do.
We don’t hear what comes before our passage, an entreaty to two women of faith who have come into some sort of disagreement. They are fellow workers, invited to the feast and welcomed with the gift of the robe. They love the Lord, but have a difference of opinion about something. We have all experienced this in some way or another; after all, the church is filled with fallible human beings. Our disagreements are often silly, yet they can be blown to outrageous proportions. Paul says, “Be of the same mind.” He uses this encouragement in many of his letters, reminding the Christians to have the mind of Christ, agreeing with His Word and living the life that God calls Christians to live.
Despite the disagreements that we will have with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we can be one body. We will disagree about politics and about the mission and ministry of our churches. We are a divided people, unable to agree about much. When we begin to discuss real issues, we become separated from one another, breaking the bonds of brotherhood and peace. Each side is passionate about their opinion and we are willing to fight for what we believe to be right and true. Perhaps Euodia and Syntyche had differing opinions about certain doctrines of faith or the direction of the new and growing Church. Things haven’t changed. It would be impossible to find full agreement in the pews of our churches today, let alone between church bodies.
Paul goes on to describe the life that God has called us together to live.
“Rejoice always!” Impossible, we say. If our life was filled with fancy dinners on average Thursdays, perhaps we could be happy all the time. But that’s not what Paul is talking about here. As a matter of fact, it is important to hear this encouragement in context. “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice.” This is not about being happy. It is not about walking around with a smile on your face or laughter on your tongue. It is about rejoicing in the Lord. It is about trusting God and knowing that no matter our circumstances, He is with us. This is living in the promise of that great and promised feast on a daily basis, enjoying that which we have today because it has come from the hand of our Father in heaven. We might not be eating the best steak, but we have food and drink and a roof over our heads. We have love and breath. We have faith, that great gift of God, and we are clothed in His righteousness. We have one another, brothers and sisters in Christ, who will walk with us in the good and in the bad.
“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” This word (reasonableness) can be translated many different ways. It means “thoughtfulness, patience, consideration.” It means to be reasonable with your neighbor. They might disagree with you, but you have to take the time to consider what they have to say. After all, they might not have the same thoughts as you, but they might have worthy thoughts. They see things a different way, and that’s not always bad. We have become a people who are so determined to be right about everything that we won’t even listen to what ‘the other side’ has to say. If we did, if we were reasonable, we might discover that we don’t disagree quite as much as we think we do. And we might discover that there is a very happy medium which will satisfy everyone.
“Do not be anxious.” Again, impossible. I’m a worrier and I will always worry. And yet, as with the happiness, Paul isn’t talking about the fear we have when our kids are late or when a hurricane is roaring our way. That type of worry can be helpful because it causes us to do what we need to do to ensure everyone’s safety. God will take care of us, but if we stand in the path of a tornado, we will probably die. No, this anxiety has more to do about our daily life. God is with us, He is at hand. Instead of anxiety, Paul reminds us to live in God’s presence, to live by prayer and supplication in thanksgiving, trusting that God will hear your requests.
“And the peace of God…” Again, this is not what it seems to be. We think of peace as the absence of conflict. We know, however, that there is always conflict somehow in human relationships. Sometimes the conflicts are minor, sometimes they are world changing. But this peace, this peace of God that surpasses all understanding, is something very different. This is the peace that allows us to rejoice in our suffering, to trust in God even when the world seems like it is about to end. That peace guards our hearts and keeps us walking in faith. It is the peace of God that keeps us in one mind, as one body in Christ Jesus.
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. The things which ye both learned and received and heard and saw in me, these things do: and the God of peace shall be with you.”
When Victoria was a teenager, she came at me often with the typical “whatever” when I tried to tell her something. It became a joke as time went by because I would quote this passage whenever she did so. Now, this is one of her favorite passages. I suppose that’s why I love it, too. The human “whatever” means, “I don’t really want to think about what you are telling me, so I’ll agree half-heartedly to get you off my back.” But in this case, Paul is saying, “These are the things you should think about. These are also the things that you should put into practice.”
See, faith in Christ gives us His mind to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. But, faith is not enough; faith demands that we do. So, the requirement of God is that we think about that which is true and that we live what is true. He requires that we think about what is honorable and so do and so on. “Practice these things,” says Paul. In doing so, we will know God’s peace.
We won’t be saved by the practice of these things. We’ve already been saved. We have received the invitation to the marriage feast, we have entered into the wedding hall, we have been covered with the robe, the righteousness of Christ. What have we to fear? What is there that we must worry? Even if our life should end right now, we will be feasting in heaven with our Father. We are called to be content, to be satisfied, to be happy because we know that God is faithful to His promises.
Finally Paul writes, “I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want. I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me.” This is what is required: to rely on God, to live in trust, to rest in His peace.
The people in our stories from Matthew—the son who said yes but did not do the work of his father, the tenants who thought that they deserved the vineyard so they killed the son, and today’s guests who ignored or rejected the wedding invitation—did not trust in God. They trusted in themselves, in their own rightness. They are like those today who still ignore and reject the God who has offered salvation to all who will believe. Unfortunately, in today’s passage we learn that there are some who accept the invitation but not the gift. They are the ones who are part of the Church but who have not truly accepted the free gift of God’s grace. They think that they are there according to their own works and righteousness. This is why it is so important to remember that we do not earn God’s grace but in His grace we are called to live accordingly.
We will probably worry, but we can look to today’s Psalm for comfort in those times when we are struggling in this world. Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved of scriptures, used over and over again in our lectionary. In the words of the shepherd, we are reminded that God is our Shepherd. He provides everything we need. He takes care of us. He leads us down the right path. He will be with us all the days of our life. He is faithful to His promises. We may not have the words to say in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving as we take our requests to God, but we can look to the scriptures for hope and dwell in the peace that God is our shepherd and that we will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
It all seems impossible, and it is. We can’t do this on our own; we can only live as God requires by His help. His Spirit gives us the faith to trust in Him. He strengthens us to get through the good times and the bad. He makes it possible do the impossible, to be the people He has invited us to be.
“Be ye free from the love of money; content with such things as ye have: for himself hath said, I will in no wise fail thee, neither will I in any wise forsake thee.” Hebrews 13:5, ASV
Today is a holiday in the United States, but unfortunately for many people it isn’t really a holiday. Retail workers never get a free day on this type of holiday; as a matter of fact, most retail stores have special sales days like today. One friend posted a status on Facebook that she was going to start a day care that will be open on holidays like this one for the people who still have to work. See, most of the day cares follow the school schedule, but if the parent has to work anyway, and then they are stuck with finding a babysitter or with taking a vacation day.
It is often inconvenient when a business you rely upon decides to close when you want to use it. There is a fast food chain that closes on Sunday and the joke among fans is that we get our worst cravings on Sundays. There is a craft store that has a similar policy, and I’ve heard people complain that Sunday is the day they can do that kind of shopping, and they are upset that the store would be closed when they need it most. Yesterday, Bruce and I discovered a puncture in our tire and we wanted to go to the tire place that has our tires under warranty, but they were closed because it was Sunday. We had to pay for another place that was open to patch the hole.
I’ve often heard it said, “I don’t understand why they are closed. Don’t they want our money?” That is a comment that makes sense in our world today; after all, in the United States we are all about the quest for more. It would make sense that the more hours a place is open, the more money they will make. It seems like bad business practice to limit the opportunities for people to spend their money.
We learned something very interesting this past week, however. One of our adventures during our vacation was a visit to a factory that makes ice cream. Blue Bell Ice Cream is a favorite treat here in Texas and in many other places. My daughter can’t get it where she lives, and despite the local favorites available to her, she misses it. The company has been around since the early 1900’s, beginning with butter but expanding to ice cream. Eventually they gave up the butter and focused only on ice cream. Their first run was just two gallons! Today they make a great deal more, available in twenty-three states and they are second in production only to Breyer’s, a nationally available brand. Blue Bell makes 70% of their ice cream in the factory located in a small town in Texas, with two other factories supplementing their stock.
Here’s the most interesting thing that I learned during our tour of the plant last week: Blue Bell Creamery really cares about their employees. They have made the business decision to limit the working hours of the plant. They are not open on weekends and they only run two shifts a day. They want to make sure that the employees have plenty of time at home with their families. You might think that they would want to expand their production so that they could become the top ice cream producer in the country. After all, if they worked more hours they could produce more ice cream, and then they could sell their ice cream everywhere!
They are definitely a business interested in expanding as far as possible, but they aren’t willing to do so to the detriment of its employees. They will find ways of expanding, as they have for a hundred years, but they’ll do so in a way that makes life better for everyone, including their employees. And things are good; the employees are extremely happy and they work hard for the company that treats them more than laborers. They have the motto, “We eat all we can and we sell the rest.” This is true; the employees are allowed to eat as much as they want. They can get free scoops in the shop, but there are also freezers full of ice cream in every break room. It must be a good job: family members from multiple generations have worked there for the past hundred years.
The people at Blue Bell and those other companies that inconvenience us by not being open when we want them have learned that they don’t have to chase after the money. They’ve learned to be satisfied with what they have, especially in their employees, and the success will follow. Employees at those retail establishments that are not open on Sunday are much happier than those who work at stores that ignore their needs. They stay around for much longer, they work much harder, and they treat their customers with courtesy.
We can learn the same lesson from those companies. While they might not always make those business decisions based on faith, they have all learned that they will be successful if they do what is right and good. As Christians it is especially important that we live our faith, to do what is right and to be satisfied with what we have. We will discover that even if there are opportunities to expand our work and world, we won’t be successful if we are not considering how our choices affect others. Isn’t it funny how the companies that make decisions for the benefit of employees do well without all those extra hours?
I don’t know how to solve the problem of the missing day cares on holidays like today. I understand the need, but perhaps we should remember that even our day care workers need to be treated with respect and courtesy. It might not be worthwhile for them to open their doors on those holidays because most of their parents won’t be bringing their children. Perhaps they have their own children who will be home to consider. Perhaps they need that holiday to rest and recuperate so that they will do their work well. They might make more money by being open all the time, but will they really be successful if they can’t do the job well? God does not promise that we’ll be rich or even that we’ll be successful, but it is obvious from these companies who stand on their principles that doing so will not hurt their business at all. As a matter of fact, happy employees and customers are exactly what every company needs to do well.
“Wherefore remember, that once ye, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called Circumcision, in the flesh, made by hands; that ye were at that time separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus ye that once were far off are made nigh in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both one, and brake down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; that he might create in himself of the two one new man, so making peace; and might reconcile them both in one body unto God through the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: and he came and preached peace to you that were far off, and peace to them that were nigh: for through him we both have our access in one Spirit unto the Father. So then ye are no more strangers and sojourners, but ye are fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone; in whom each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:11-22, ASV
Reese Witherspoon played a very blonde sorority girl named Elle Woods who was madly in love with an aspiring lawyer and politician in the movie “Legally Blonde.” When it was time to graduate and move on to post-graduate work, Warner dumped Elle to find a more appropriate woman to be his partner in life. He went on to Harvard Law School, renewed a relationship with Vivian, and old girlfriend who fits the mold perfectly of the politician’s serious wife. Meanwhile, Elle was not willing to give up so easily, so despite her supposed lack of intelligence, she joined the other students at Harvard Law School.
Needless to say, Vivian did not like Elle at all. Elle was the former girlfriend, the competition for Warner’s heart and life. They were completely different women: Elle was a happy, enthusiastic woman who was interested in fashion, parties and celebrity and Vivian was serious, the daughter of a powerful northeastern family who understood propriety and power. The conflicts between the two women were funny as east met west in stereotypical ways.
However, the two women eventually found a common denominator, which happened to be the very thing that had originally kept them apart. As Elle discovered that Law was really a place she could not only succeed but also thrive, Vivian saw her more as a peer rather than a competitor. In one scene, the two women were sharing some thoughts about a case they were working on together and they began to talk about Warner. Vivian found Elle to be a compassionate listener, offering some insight into Warner’s past and personality. They laughed about his failures together. By the end of the movie, Warner saw Elle as the serious and powerful woman that he really wanted, but she refused him. Meanwhile, Vivian realized that Warner was not the man for her. The two women became the best of friends.
Have you ever had a friendship like this? When we first meet people it sometimes seems as though we have nothing in common. The relationship might not begin with conflict, but we don’t see a potential friendship because we are so different. Sometimes they are complete opposites and even though we have nothing against them personally, we find it difficult to be around them. It is funny, though, when we discover that common denominator, we find that the person can become our very best friend.
The Jews and the pagan Christians had nothing in common. They came from very different backgrounds and had very different ideas about life and the world. The Jews even had rules designed to help them avoid relationships with the pagans in the land where they lived. However, Jesus Christ offered something new: a common denominator between very different people. In Christ both the Jews and the pagan Christians were part of the same family. They became citizens of the same kingdom. Despite their differences, they had something greater that could bond them together: the blood of Christ. This is very good news for those of us who were once strangers to the mercy of God. We are given joy, peace and hope by His grace, joined together with everyone who has also heard and believed in Jesus Christ.
Scriptures for Sunday October 19, 2014, Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
“And ye became imitators of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit; so that ye became an ensample to all that believe in Macedonia and in Achaia.” 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7. ASV
One of the advantages to living in a foreign country is the opportunity to purchase things that we would not find in the United States. We bought china right from the outlet at the manufacturer at an incredible discount. The Base Exchange often brought the creators of our favorite collectables to sign pieces. I have a number of autographed David Winter Cottages and Wedgewood items. Many of our fellow service families used their time in England to purchase antiques. We couldn’t afford much furniture, but I did begin a coin collection while I was there. English sixpence were a dime a dozen (almost.) I wasn’t able to afford any really expensive coins, but I did manage a nice collection which I’ve continued since coming home.
One of my best pieces is a Roman denarius. It is from the second century A.D., when Hadrian was emperor, so could not have been in use in the days of Jesus. It was found in England, so it was likely minted there; the English mint did not produce as quality a coin. It was a nice addition to my collection because I’ve been able to show it during Bible studies. Coins are coins, but it is fun to have something so closely identified with the text we are studying.
My denarius has a picture of Hadrian, since he was the emperor at the time of minting. Along with coins and bills from many nations, we have piles of English coins, a few of older monarchs, but mostly those of the current Queen Elizabeth. I even kept a couple British pound coins in my wallet for years. What is interesting about the Queen Elizabeth coins is that she’s been the monarch for so long that they’ve had to change her picture on the coins as she has aged, so there are four different effigies. The old coins are not removed from circulation until they are worn, but are replaced eventually as time goes on.
Numismatics, the study or collection of coins, paper money and medals, is an interesting hobby. The items tell the story of history and of art. The coins help us to better understand the people who used them. Some coins are terribly worn or even cut. The value was in the gold or silver used, not in the coin, so they often chipped off pieces of the coins of proper value to pay for things that cost less.
The hobby might be fun, but we all know that money has a practical purpose in our world today. We can’t live without it. Oh, many of us get away without having cash on hand. We use credit cards or checks. Some have even developed a new kind of currency, the bitcoin, which is digital money. Even banks are focusing on mostly electronic currency, encouraging clients to do as much as possible online. Yet, it is still hard to live without some cash. As a matter of fact, financial experts will often recommend that you do as much as you can with cash. That was our plan during our vacation last week; we paid cash for our meals and most of our souvenirs. I think, sometimes, people are surprised to see cash!
Unlike places like England, the United States currency honors historic figures. The coins also include statements about foundational beliefs about the nation and symbols of things important to its people. In America it would be impossible for Jesus to say “Give to George Washington what is George Washington’s” because George Washington is no longer alive. That is why we do not put pictures of living men and women on the currency and coins; the money does not belong to our leaders; it belongs to the people.
We choose those pictures because those are men and women who were important to our history; they mean something, they are identifying marks. We don’t take the literal understanding of the commandment that says “no graven images” as seriously as they did in Jesus’ day. It is impossible for us to live in a world without money. It is part of our society, a part of our existence. We no longer barter for the things we need. We need money to survive. But for those Pharisees and their counselors, the coinage would have been offensive because it had a graven image. It had an image of the Caesar. It is natural to have a few coins in our pocket, but the Jews should not have had a Roman coin.
They thought that they had found the perfect way to destroy Jesus; there was no good answer to the question. If He said they should pay taxes, then the people would not listen to Him any longer. If He said that they should not pay taxes, then the Romans would destroy Him for fighting the state. Jesus knew what they were doing, so He gave them the best answer: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” In other words, they were to give the idol back to the idolized and give God everything that is good and right and true, for everything belongs to God.
We have been reminded recently in our lectionary that even the government is given to us by God. We might not always agree. We might find life under those governments difficult. We might find it necessary to work against it for justice and peace. However, there is a purpose for that government to be in power, and that purpose is God’s. Perhaps the purpose is to break God’s people out of their stupor. Whatever we think of our government, we can trust that God is doing a work in and through them. Everything belongs to God, even those things that don’t seem very godly.
We see that in the passage from Isaiah. Cyrus did not believe in the God of the Jews, but he was a very pluralistic ruler, willing to tolerate all types of faith even though he claimed no religion of his own. He adopted the local gods of each nation, at as much as was necessary to get the support of those people for his rule. What’s the cost of building a new temple for some god against the benefit of happy citizens? This sounds like the type of ruler that God would rather eliminate because he has no foundation on which to stand, and yet we discover that this is exactly the man God used for His purpose. Cyrus was chosen to be God’s hands in a world that was thrown upside down, to be a savior for the people God loves but who had to be taught a lesson. They turned from Him, followed false gods; they did their own thing. They rejected Him. So, God gave the Babylonians the strength to destroy Jerusalem and take the people into captivity. When the time was right, God gave the strength to Cyrus to destroy the Babylonians and restore His people to their homeland.
We might think that these nations have the strength to do this on their own; after all, the kings were powerful men with mighty armies. They had their own gods, they had their own resources, and they had everything they needed to win the victories that are recorded throughout history. It seems to us that conquest and captivity, destruction and exile are unnecessary in a world where God is in control. Yet, in today’s scripture, Isaiah writes, “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil. I am Jehovah, that doeth all these things.” These are the words of God to Cyrus, words that tell Cyrus of his power and control over everything in the world.
Cyrus was reminded from the beginning that God was in charge. God is God, and there is none like Him. God is able to give Cyrus the power, and God is able to take it away. In doing so, God proves His power and sovereignty over the whole earth.
Jesus says to give Caesar what is Caesar’s but we know that even the money that bears the image of the Roman emperor has been given for God’s purpose. Things might not be as we want today, but we can trust that God is doing a good work in the midst of it. Somehow, in the end, we’ll see God’s hand in it all. Today we might be suffering at the hands of a ruler that does not have the best interests of God’s people in mind, but tomorrow God can use even the most unbelieving leader to bring God’s people home.
We are called as Christians to live in trust and hope. Whatever happens, we can trust that God is in control. We live in hope, not in individuals or even the government, but in God’s promises. Good or bad, our life of faith will keep us focused on what is good and that is God. We may be nervous, frustrated, anxious and possibly angry, and we won’t agree with our neighbors what is good and bad in our world. But we can sing to the Lord that new song, the song of thanksgiving that He is with us through it all.
The story is told of a time when King Alfonso XII of Spain taught the attendants of the courts a valuable lesson in gratitude. He had learned that they were not praying to God in thanksgiving for their food before meals. He held a large banquet and arranged for a beggarly man to crash the party. The guests all came in and none gave thanks to God for the magnificent meal. When the beggar arrived, they sat with bated breath expecting the king to have him thrown out. The man ate his fill, got up and left without a word to the king or the guests. The king overheard someone near him comment about the ungratefulness of the beggar. He rose and told them that they are no different than that man, ungrateful servants who never thank the Lord for their gifts. They are even more disgraceful because they ignore their Creator and Master.
Are we any better? Oh, I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, and that we all live in thanksgiving to God. But how many of us find reasons to complain about the world in which we live. How many of us see danger around every corner and oppression in every boardroom? We sue our neighbors over petty arguments and break relationships for ridiculous reasons. Do we even say “Thank you” when someone has done something for us?
The art of gratefulness has been lost in this day. Thank you notes are a forgotten nicety and many people do not bother to show that they are thankful to their neighbor for the nice things they do. Even worse, however, is that we do not show the Lord God Almighty the praise and glory He is due for all He has done. It is hard to see the joy and live joyfully in a world that is filled with hatred, violence, greed and lust. Yet the whole creation sings of God’s majesty, even the lives of non-believers show His mercy and grace. But those of us who are Christians, who know the depth of God’s love and the peace that comes from knowing Him, are blessed to be living sacrifices for our Lord. Out of our lives flow the living waters that bring salvation to the world. It is in joy to be able to sing to the Lord that new song, the song of praise and thanksgiving for all He has done, even when it doesn’t seem like He is doing anything good. In the end, we’ll discover that He has been doing something extraordinary.
The psalmist writes, “For all the gods of the peoples are idols; But Jehovah made the heavens.” We make so many people in our world idols—sports stars, singers, models—but the definition of the word ‘idol’ is not flattering. Merriam-Webster says an ‘idol’ is “a representation or symbol of an object of worship, a false god, a likeness of something, a form or appearance visible but without substance, an object of extreme devotion, a false conception.” We make our idols; not only are the gods of the nations less than our God Jehovah, they are nothing because they are nothing more than a human creation. They will always disappoint us.
God will never disappoint. Oh, we may find ourselves disappointed with our expectation of God. We put God into our own little boxes; we make Him to be what we want Him to be. We are disappointed when He does not fit our mold, but that doesn’t mean that He has been a disappointment. It just means that we are not seeing Him as He is. It means we aren’t living in thanksgiving and trust.
Paul knew what a danger it was for the early Christians to live in this world. They were surrounded by those who had made idols out of all the wrong things. There were preachers speaking a false Gospel. There were leaders who did not fully understand the new faith. There were those who wanted to see it destroyed. They had to be careful; every generation has had to face people who claimed to be from God, but who twist God’s Word to their benefit.
Paul had taken the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of Thessalonica and they received that message. They gathered together as a community of believers and were growing in grace and hope and faith. Paul could not stay with all the communities he began, but he kept in touch with them through letters and through helpers who visited the congregations and sent word to Paul wherever he was staying. The Thessalonians were doing well. Timothy had sent a good report to Paul and Paul was pleased to hear the good news. There wasn’t good news in every community. Some people preaching another Gospel were speaking against Paul. The Thessalonians faced a similar threat.
They were holding strong, but Paul did not know how long they could last. Would they remember the lessons he taught them? Would they keep the Gospel of grace or turn to another gospel message? Would they believe the lies being told about him by those opposed to his message? People are people; we fall short. The Israelites did, and that’s why they were nearly destroyed by the Babylonians. But God was with them; He sent Cyrus to take them home. We can always trust that God will be with His people, even when we are not completely faithful. We might have to suffer for a moment, but God will always bring us home. He has given us the Savior, and He will remain true to the promises that were won by Jesus Christ.
Paul did not know what might happen next, so he wrote a message of thanksgiving and encouragement to the congregation. He put a seal on the people so that they would not fall from grace and turn to a faith built on works and self-righteousness. So, too, we are encouraged by these words as Paul lifts all those who have heard the Gospel and received God’s grace to a place where we will stand firm in what is right no matter the circumstances we face. Our hope is in Jesus Christ and we are called to live the life of faith that rests in His promise and His forgiveness. Paul calls the people of Thessalonica ‘imitators’ of the apostle and of the Lord. This has continued for nearly two thousand years; we are the next generation sharing the Gospel with our children and our neighbors, imitating what Paul first lived so that the world might see God’s grace. We, too, are sealed so that all we do and say are firmly founded in Jesus Christ.
He calls us to share His glory with all people so that they will know and will turn to Him. We’ve left those idols behind: may they stay there forever. So, will you sing the song of thanksgiving for all God has done, or will you live like Cyrus, welcoming and tolerant of all faiths, no matter what god they worship, silent to the reality of their false gods? God can and will use anyone or anything to bring His people home. We might be facing circumstances that are confusing and painful, but we can trust that God is in control. Perhaps He will send Babylonians our way to set us apart for a season. But we can trust that He will then send someone like Cyrus who will help to restore us to Him or like Paul who will remind us whose we are. The lessons we learn along the way will turn us back to the God to whom we belong and who has never left our side. He is faithfully working in His way to do what is good.
“Oh sing unto Jehovah a new song: Sing unto Jehovah, all the earth. Sing unto Jehovah, bless his name; Show forth his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, His marvellous works among all the peoples. For great is Jehovah, and greatly to be praised: He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols; But Jehovah made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him: Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.” Psalm 96:1-6, ASV
One of the local art museums has an exhibit of Impressionist artists. This exhibit is much different than the last one I attended of the same period, which focused on the American artists who had invaded the beautiful gardens of Claude Monet in Giverny, France. The paintings were beautiful, mostly of the gardens and landscapes around Giverny. Some of the artists eventually focused more on daily life in the permanent homes and settled lives they established in the area.
The exhibit that is being shown locally is a little different. It is called “Intimate Impressionism” and focuses on art purchased by individuals which they used to decorate their homes. Most of the collection belongs to the brother and sister of one family, but a few of the items came from others. All have been donated to the National Gallery of Art, and these paintings are currently on tour around the world. They are much smaller than you usually find in a museum, but it makes since they were purchased for private use.
The exhibit was well organized, taking the visitor through the Impressionist period, from the earliest artists who experimented with new ways of visualizing the world, through the Impressionists, to the post-Impressionists who began adding elements of Cubism, Symbolism and Fauvism. It was interesting to see how the different artists interpreted their surroundings, the light and the color. Of course, the art world in which they lived did not approve of the changes in art, but the artists did not really care. As a matter of fact, they painted for a much different audience. Instead of trying to please the nobility, which was waning at the time, or the critics, they painted for the common man. The Middle Class was blossoming, and people had more time and resources for leisure activities. They could not afford to be patrons, but they wanted art for their homes, so the Impressionists provided paintings for them at a reasonable price. They painted the world they saw, using regular people, breaking all the artistic rules. The common folk could identify with what they saw on the canvas. Today, the Impressionists are some of the most beloved artists.
One thing that is rather typical of artists is that they tend to be eccentric. Their life stories are filled with drama and tragedy, poverty and pain. It is not unusual to hear tales of lost loves, promiscuous lifestyles, starvation and illness, mental and emotional aches. One artist was known for making friends easily, but he was as well known for pushing those friends away. Vincent van Gogh was known for cutting off his ear for the sake of love. Though the real story might be different than the myth, van Gogh and other artists willingly suffered for their art.
That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised as I was walking through the museum’s permanent collection to discover that there was at least one artist who had a relatively normal and happy life. Marc Chagall was a Russian born Jew who became one of Russia’s most distinguished artists. He was married to his first wife Bella until the day she died, and the early days of their marriage was the most lighthearted period of his career. One painting is called “Dream Village,” which is an odd name for a still-life of a vase of flowers on a table by an open window, but if you look closely, you can see hidden images in the background. There is even a cow playing an instrument. You can see a young couple flirting across the fence in the upper right corner. It has been suggested that the couple represented Chagall and his wife when they were courting. So many of the artists have strange and sorrowful lives, lost loves or seedy experiences, but Chagall and his wife had a love story for the ages, which is seen in many of his paintings. His marriage to Bella lasted nearly thirty years, ended only by her death.
His life wasn’t easy. He was a Russian Jew who lived during the Russian Revolution and the World Wars. He was separated from his friends in Paris for a long time and heartbroken by the sudden death of his beloved wife. After the war, Chagall wrote the following to his Parisian artist friends, published in a Paris weekly: “In recent years I have felt unhappy that I couldn't be with you, my friends. My enemy forced me to take the road of exile. On that tragic road, I lost my wife, the companion of my life, the woman who was my inspiration. I want to say to my friends in France that she joins me in this greeting, she who loved France and French art so faithfully. Her last joy was the liberation of Paris... Now, when Paris is liberated, when the art of France is resurrected, the whole world too will, once and for all, be free of the satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul—the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity.”
With the encouragement of an art dealer named Ambroise Vollard, Chagall did a series of illustrations on the Bible. He spent time in the Holy Land, experiencing for himself the people of his heritage. It was a challenge for him because he left behind his modernist style to delve into the ancient past. He studied the biblical paintings of another age and immersed himself in the scriptures. He once said, “I did not see the Bible, I dreamed it. Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time.”
Of course, Chagall would run into trouble with the Nazi regime. The modernist paintings were considered degenerate, and were removed from the museums to be replaced by traditional German realism. The German press who had once adored the work of Chagall began to ridicule him in deference to the Nazi agenda. Chagall was in France when the country fell during the war, but thanks to a group who saw the value of rescuing artists and intellectuals, he and Bella were saved. Other artists were affected by the events of the World Wars, and though some chose to remain in Europe despite the danger, nearly two thousand were saved by this operation.
The incredible horror and tragedy of the first half of the 20th century has been on my mind a lot lately. The work of Bonhoeffer has given me some insight into the Church in that time. The history channel and other media have produced shows and movies about the war. There was so much death and destruction. It is said that Chagall’s hometown began with a population of more than two hundred thousand and by the end of the war there were only a couple hundred left alive. The world lost millions, not only Jews, but those who were sick, those who were deemed worthless, those who were seen as degenerate. The Nazis stole so many things. On the grand scheme of things, what does it matter whether a painting was lost?
The psalmist says, “Strength and beauty are his sanctuary.” It might not seem very important to save a few paintings, but where would the world be without art? Where would we be without beauty? Though his devotion to his faith is uncertain, Marc Chagall certainly glorified God in his life, his art and even his faith. He painted the world as He saw it, good and bad. He showed the world the joy of love, the stories of the Bible and the fantastic world of the circus. He saw the world in color; he had a gift for portraying happiness and compassion in his work. He, along with so many other artists, used paint and canvas to share their vision of the world, and though many of them did not even realize they were doing so, glorified God in the beauty, in the stories, in the lessons taught in the strokes.
“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)
There is a museum in England that was once a bustling air force base used extensively during the World Wars. The Royal Air Museum at Duxford has been filled for years with tourists viewing the amazing display of military and civilian aircraft as well as other military vehicles. In one hanger, you can walk through one of the original Concords, which was used for testing in the early days. Another building has tanks and other land vehicles on display. Another hanger has bits and pieces of every sort that they use to rebuild the airplanes used throughout the years.
The American presence in Europe has been an important part of the military history of the last hundred or so years. The curators of the museum felt that there should be a specific place to honor the American service members who fought next to the English military for so many years. Those American airmen fought not only for America, but also the world, so it was important to present their work in a way that they will be thanked and remembered for a long time. The American Air Museum at IWM Duxford stands as a memorial to the 30,000 American airmen who gave their lives flying from UK bases during the Second World War, and also honors those who fought in Korea, Vietnam, Libya, Iraq and other conflicts and battles of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The American Museum at Duxford is an incredible building. Its unusual half dome shape seems to disappear into the earth. The roof is made of concrete. The strength of the material was necessary to support the many planes that are suspended from the ceiling. This building is a masterpiece of logistical engineering, as there are many planes, each carefully placed or hung for the best possible vantage point.
The centerpiece of this display is a B-52. This is a very large aircraft, one that is not likely to fit through the front door of any building, even unassembled. The planners overcame this difficulty in a very creative manner. First, they laid the foundation of the building. Next, they parked the airplane on the foundation. Finally, they built the building around the plane. They had to be very cautious with every step using this method because an accident could destroy the plane. After the building was complete, they moved the other planes into place. It is amazing to see how carefully they are all placed, and you can’t help but wonder how they managed to maneuver the planes into the building with the B-52 in the centre.
The American Museum at Duxford is a beautiful new building, only a few years old. The museum houses the largest collection of US historic military aircraft in Europe, including a vintage B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B-25 Mitchell, P-47 Thunderbolt, and aircraft from the Cold War era such as a B-52 Stratofortress, SR-71 Blackbird and F-4 Phantom. It has been more than a decade since I visited, but they are still doing good work, restoring the old planes using those bits and pieces they’ve collected over the years. Visitors can watch as volunteers careful restore the planes, conserving the past so that we can all remember.
They have expanded their mission to include the Internet with a website for sharing photos, information and stories. They are asking whether visitors to the digital archive recognize the people in photos so that everyone might be identified. It will only get harder to capture the experiences of those wars as the service members and civilians who lived through them die. It might seem incongruous to call this a labor of love; after all it is all about war. But it is more than that: it is about the lives of those who lived, died and survived through the wars that changed the world.
We might like to think of the Church as that beautiful building at Duxford; creatively and well designed, filled with incredible artifacts of days that have long since passed. In a way we are: God laid the foundation of His promises in the Old Testament stories and promises, then fulfilled them with the centerpiece, our Lord Jesus Christ. He built the Church around the work of our Lord, carefully placing every detail to His precise design. While we are like that museum, but the reality is that we are more like the aircraft hanger filled with old junk or that website that is a work in progress. God is constantly building something new out of the old junk; we are a work in progress.
“On the morrow the multitude that stood on the other side of the sea saw that there was no other boat there, save one, and that Jesus entered not with his disciples into the boat, but that his disciples went away alone (howbeit there came boats from Tiberias nigh unto the place where they ate the bread after the Lord had given thanks): when the multitude therefore saw that Jesus was not there, neither his disciples, they themselves got into the boats, and came to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. And when they found him on the other side of the sea, they said unto him, Rabbi, when camest thou hither? Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw signs, but because ye ate of the loaves, and were filled. Work not for the food which perisheth, but for the food which abideth unto eternal life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him the Father, even God, hath sealed. They said therefore unto him, What must we do, that we may work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent. 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.” John 6:22-35 (ASV)
Jesus just fed more than five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and some fish. It was one of the most miraculous things Jesus ever did. For John, it was more than a miracle. It was a sign. Jesus gave them bread to eat, but He was telling them something even more important, “I am the bread of life.”
Bread is a staple around the world. Go into the corner grocery store, even a small one, and you’ll find at least a dozen different types. There is hard bread, soft bread, dark bread and white bread. We can get tortillas from Mexico and sourdough from San Francisco. France gives us croissants and baguettes. Southern kitchens produce biscuits. You can find bread made with cinnamon and raisins, bananas and nuts. Some loaves are small; others are large. Whenever there is a weather emergency we run out to the grocery store and buy a loaf of bread; it is one of the first shelves that empties. Prisoners are given bread and water. Many restaurants include a basket of their signature bread with every meal.
There are those who will tell you that we eat too much bread, or at least too much of the wrong kind of bread, but the reality is that when we think of the most basic food necessities, bread is always on the list and has been in every civilization since the beginning of civilization. Bread is made from grains, ground and mixed with oil or water to make a cake. Of course, modern civilizations have created breads that do more than sustain the body: they taste delicious. That’s the kind of bread I like the best. I have to admit that I tend to eat way too much when I’m at one of those restaurants that serve a freshly made loaf of their signature bread.
The people were fed and satisfied. Their bellies were full and they wanted more from the guy who did that for them. They were not interested in the bread being a sign; they were only interested in having more bread. If Jesus were their king, they could be sure that their larders would be full and they would no longer be hungry. They saw Jesus as a Messiah, but not as the Messiah that was promised to them or that He was sent to be. They were not thinking about eternity. They were thinking about tomorrow.
There’s a reason why Jesus taught us to pray “Give us this day our daily bread.” We need food to sustain our bodies and keep us healthy and Jesus reminds us to seek God’s blessing in all our needs, even the most basic ones that seem to easy to fulfill. Food for the stomach was even a central part of Jesus’ wilderness wandering; when Jesus was fasting, Satan told him to simply make the stones out of bread. We see in today’s passage that Jesus could have done it. Yet, Jesus knew there was bread that was more important. Jesus answered Satan, “Man does not eat by bread alone, but by God’s Word.” Now we see that Jesus is that Word, the real bread that feeds the people the nourishment they need. The people, sadly, missed the sign that pointed to the real reason Jesus came.
Jesus told the crowd not to work for food that perishes but to work for food that endures. They asked, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” They, of course, were expecting Jesus to repeat the Law which was given to them by Moses. They expected to hear a list of rules to obey and things to do. They wanted to receive God’s blessings based on their own actions. That’s the way it has always been. Moses gave them the Law. Moses even gave them the bread from heaven, manna. If Jesus contradicted Moses, then He’d have to prove Himself. The thing is, He did, and they ignored it. They wanted Jesus to be who they wanted Him to be, an earthbound king who would meet their physical needs.
But Jesus didn’t come to feed the hungry or heal the sick. He did those things to prove to the people that He is who He is. The answer to their question is incredibly simple, “This is the work of God: that you believe in the One whom God has sent.” They were confused and the answer, “believe” was unsatisfactory. The Law always gives us an opportunity to do something, to be active in our salvation. We don’t want to rely on something as intangible as faith; we want to be able to prove that we are faithful.
Instead of believing the Word, they insisted on a sign, as if the things Jesus had done were not enough to prove that He is the One whom God has sent. They wanted to put their trust in someone that they could understand and that would meet needs they recognized. Jesus was offering something so much better. They wanted a king who would feed them, but Jesus was giving them a King that would do so much more. They wanted bread that would guarantee a world without hunger or pain, but Jesus was giving them Himself, the true bread from heaven that would give them life forever.
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ that are at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father. We give thanks to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, having heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have toward all the saints, because of the hope which is laid up for you in the heavens, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel, which is come unto you; even as it is also in all the world bearing fruit and increasing, as it doth in you also, since the day ye heard and knew the grace of God in truth; even as ye learned of Epaphras our beloved fellow-servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, who also declared unto us your love in the Spirit. For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray and make request for you, that ye may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to walk worthily of the Lord unto all pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to the might of his glory, unto all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks unto the Father, who made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; who delivered us out of the power of darkness, and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love; in whom we have our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins.” Colossians 1:1-14, ASV
I’ve heard that there is an ancient Chinese proverb that says, “If you save a life, you are responsible for that life,” although some online research this morning has suggested that the origination is not quite that old. As a matter of fact, one expert suggested that the proverb came out of the television show “Kung Fu” with David Carradine in the 1970’s. There is nothing new under the sun, so there is probably some historical context to the idea even though we can’t pinpoint the origin.
If the proverb is true, then what does it mean? It has often been interpreted in movies as meaning that if you save a person’s life, then their safety becomes your lifelong responsibility. The one saved often becomes a sidekick, never leaving the presence of their savior. The relationships often play out another proverb, “If you save someone’s life, they become indebted to you forever.” The sidekicks then serve the savior, although they often get into trouble and the savior needs to save them over and over again.
Another way the proverb can be interpreted is that when you save a person’s life, everything they do from that day on is your responsibility. In other words, if you save a man who becomes a great philanthropist, then their generosity is to your credit. Unfortunately, this can work to the negative, too. If you save a man who becomes a mass murderer, the victims’ blood is on your hands.
Any way you look at it this is a proverb we do not really like. After all, we feel compelled to save someone if we have the ability to do so, but who would want to take on the responsibility for another man’s life, whether in a good and beneficial way or not? And yet, love and compassion calls us to care for the one whose life has been put into our hands, and we can’t just walk away.
I read two separate stories this week about this subject. The first, in Reader’s Digest, was about a fourteen year old boy who was squirrel hunting with his grandfather. As they were finishing their hunt, the boy heard a noise. The grandfather thought it must be an animal, but the boy knew it was not. He went looking for the source of the noise and found an abandoned newborn, dumped on the side of the road. The baby was wet from a morning storm and scratched from the barbed wire fence. They called the police who took the baby to the hospital. She was saved and a month later adopted. The boy never forgot the little girl he found on the side of the road, but he could not find her. She eventually learned her story and sought the boy who saved her life. Fifty-eight years later they met; she was thankful for saving her life and he was thankful that her life, that started so horribly, had turned out so beautifully.
The second story was about a young man who worked for a company with people who were like family. One member of the team became ill and missed work. Several days later, after she had not returned to work, he decided to go to her home and check on her. It was a good thing he did. She was obviously much sicker than she thought and he took her to her doctor. They rushed her to an emergency room where they discovered stage four uterine cancer, she was bleeding to death internally. The friend recovered and at the writing of the article had been cancer-free for five years. The writer noted that even though his friend no longer works in the same department, he remained concerned for her well-being, often thinking of her during the day. Whenever they did meet in the hallways, he asked how she was doing. He said, “You see, I want to be sure she is doing well. I feel an obligation that, since I was there at such a critical time, I need to ensure she leads a happy, productive life. And when I see her in the elevator or I go to visit with her, I am profoundly happy that she has found happiness and satisfaction. If it weren't the case, I would be failing in my obligation, my duty.”
I like his attitude. It isn’t about protecting them forever or even providing for them, but about loving them enough to want them to be happy. He wanted the life he saved to be worthwhile for his friend. The same is true for Paul. While Paul is not the Savior, Paul did take the saving message of Jesus Christ to many places during his missionary journeys. He did not stop caring for the people once they were believers. As a matter of fact, he cared for them even more once they were part of the Church. He wanted to make sure that they were happy, that they were living the life they were saved to live. He wanted to make sure that they were fulfilling the calling of God.
That is what we are meant to do. When we take our children for baptism, we do not just take them to be splashed, we promise that we will teach them the promises of God and train them to be faithful. When we embrace someone into our fellowship through baptism, we promise that we will help them along the path of righteousness, to guide them according to God’s good and perfect Word. We don’t save anyone, only God can save them, but by sharing the Good News we become participants in their salvation and are responsible for their well being. Love and compassion calls us to care for the ones whose lives have been put into our hands, and we can’t just walk away.
Scriptures for Sunday October 26, 2014, Reformation Sunday: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
“But now apart from the law a righteousness of God hath been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ unto all them that believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God; for the showing, I say, of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus. Where then is the glorying? It is excluded. By what manner of law? of works? Nay: but by a law of faith.” Romans 8:21-27, ASV
The readers of this devotion are an incredibly diverse group. It reaches to the four corners of the world, literally, and from the entire spectrum of God’s Church. I suspect that there are at least a few people who are not even Christian, either members of other faith communities or even those who do not believe in God. I write to encourage Christians in their faith, but I can always hope that God will use my words to help someone come to know the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is such a blessing to know that the words I write have an impact on such a diverse community. I try to keep my own personal preferences and history out of the writing and let God’s Word speak for itself, but it is impossible to do so completely. I am who I am, and my perspective comes from a very specific place. There are dozens of labels that can be placed on me—American, woman, mother, artist, writer, Texan, military spouse, college graduate, etc.—and they all have contributed to my personality, character and point of view. In faith terms I am a Christian, but I am also a Lutheran. Though I try to make this writing beneficial to my much broader audience, it is impossible for me to not write from that point of view even if it is not specifically named on a regular basis.
Today, with your patience, I am going to be Lutheran. The text for this week are those assigned for Reformation Sunday, the day we remember the work of Martin Luther and the reformers in the sixteenth century. The focus of all four is justification, which was (and is) the heart of Lutheran theology in Luther’s day as well as today. We are made free from the power of sin and death by the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ through His life, death and resurrection. Despite this freedom, we continue to struggle with our human nature which always looks to law for justification. We try, to no avail, to be the saints we were reborn to be, but the sinner in us still has too much control. We are a work in progress, and the only thing that truly saves us is that God saved us; we are saints based on His promises, not on our ability to be perfect.
We all know many people that we can call “good.” There are, of course, some people we can name that are almost saintly, their faith lived out in good works and right action. Yet, even those who appear perfect have imperfections. We are all sinners, sinning against God in thought, word and deed by what we do and by what we leave undone. Sometimes our failure is not willful disobedience, but simply the reality that we live in an imperfect world. We have to make choices, and those choices are sometimes between what is wrong and what is really wrong. Most of the time, though, our sin is a manifestation of the old Adam that still dwells within, turning from God and going our own way.
That’s why Martin Luther taught us to remember our baptism daily. We are simultaneously saints and sinners, freed from sin and death and yet still unable to be perfect. As we remember our baptism, we remember that while our salvation was complete in the work of Jesus Christ, we are still being saved. Some people like to keep a seashell near their bathroom sink so that they will remember daily what God did in the baptismal font. A drop of water on the forehead and a prayer of thanksgiving can begin our day with the promise of God in our hearts and minds. As we go out into the world to face the temptations that will come, we are more likely to be obedient to God if we are armed with that promise. The same ritual can end our day with the reminder that while we certainly did fail, God is still faithful.
See, God has a selective memory. His memory is much different than ours. While we tend to remember the things that we think might benefit our lives and forget our own faults, God sees His promises and forgets our faults. He has laid upon us the righteousness of Jesus Christ and that’s what He remembers at the close of the day. This doesn’t mean that we will never experience the consequences of our failures or that God will not work in our lives to transform us into the people He has called us to be. But we deserve more than a punishment or a lesson; we deserve death. Thanks to Jesus, we will not die; thanks to Jesus, we will have eternal life. Speaking for God, Jeremiah writes, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.” What an incredible promise we hear from Jeremiah in today’s text!
The scriptures are filled with covenants. In Genesis 9, God made a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the world with flood. In Genesis 12, God made a covenant with Abraham that he would be the father of a special people. In Exodus, God made a covenant with Moses and the Hebrews establishing that special relationship and giving them the Law. God made a covenant with David that his house and his throne would last forever. This covenant was a foretaste of the promise of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the King who would reign forever. These covenants were made with individuals, but they were for God’s people as a whole.
In today’s passage from Jeremiah, God makes a new covenant with His people. He promised that the day would come when God’s Word would dwell in their hearts and that every believer would have direct access to God. He fulfilled this promise at the cross of Christ when He provided forgiveness and reconciliation to all those who believe and at Pentecost when He sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in their hearts. He lives within each believer, molding and reforming us each day. We know Him because He has written Himself into our hearts and our minds with His Word.
He is there and there is nothing we can do to make Him any more present than He already is, and yet in faith we are called to a life that pursues God. The response to our salvation is not to sit back and bask in the glory, but to go out into the world and live the faith we’ve been given. Living faith is not about working toward righteousness but about letting the righteousness of Christ flow through our lives. It is about being His witnesses in a world that still needs to hear His Word and know His grace. Sadly, too many of us think that faith is a private thing. Or we think that it is limited to Sunday morning. Or that religion is a duty that if performed correctly will get us to heaven.
We aren’t the only ones; this lifeless faith has been a problem throughout the history of God’s people. There were already people in the days of the Apostles who didn’t understand that they were called to a new and different life. There are always people who are nominal Christians, or Christian for all the wrong reasons. It was happening in the days of Martin Luther. He wandered around the streets of his town where he was a priest, saddened by the lack of knowledge among the people of God’s Word. They didn’t understand salvation; they didn’t live their faith. And because they did not know God or His Word, they were easily fooled into believing in the efforts of men.
A story is told about how Martin Luther came upon a parishioner who was lying in the gutter drunk. Martin scolded the man saying that as a Christian he should not be living this way. The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper, an indulgence, and waved it at him. “I can do anything I want! I’ve been forgiven.” The man had paid a price to receive a ‘get out of jail free’ card and that it didn’t matter what he did. If the pope said he was going to heaven, he was going to heaven. The man was trusting in the word of man rather than the Word of God.
The indulgences being sold by Tetzel and the Roman Catholic Church were a fundraising effort for building a new cathedral in Rome. The injustice of it was bad enough; the Church was building a magnificent cathedral on the backs of the poor. But the spiritual injustice is that they were giving the common folk a very dangerous and unfaithful understanding of forgiveness. They did not have to believe in anything, they just had to buy that piece of paper. The encounter with this drunk was said to have shocked Martin Luther so much that he went home and wrote a list of 95 points, the Ninety-five Theses, which he thought should be debated among the scholars of the day. The next day, on October 31, 1517, Luther nailed those theses on the door of the university church and hoped that the academics would weigh in on his ideas. They were roughly written, Luther’s understanding of many of the points matured over the years, but the page was never meant to be a summary of his entire theology. It was meant to make the Church consider what they were doing and how they were rejecting God’s Word.
Unfortunately, the debate never happened; Luther’s Ninety-five Theses went viral. The printing press was newly invented and someone used it to ensure that Luther’s points would get a wider audience. It was the catalyst for an extreme moment in history, not only in the Church, but also in the world. It was not all good; the peasant’s revolt spilled too much blood. Division in Christ’s body is never a positive thing. But along with the bad came some good.
Luther, of course, was not the only protestor and reformer. He was not even the first. We could talk about the many others; there are probably men and women with which you are more familiar based on your religious heritage. Luther did accomplish some things worthy of note. He wrote many hymns, particularly “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” which is based on today’s Psalm. In it, Luther lays all the trials and tribulations that he and the Church were facing at the feet of God, claiming His power and protection. Though fear was an everyday part of life, there was nothing that could overcome the grace of God.
The test of faith is believing that God is our refuge even when the storms of life are raging around us. Luther risked his life, his home, his family and even his vocation to stand for the truth that he saw in the scriptures. He was excommunicated, threatened and forced into hiding. He lived through war and famine, disease and other disasters. He suffered from physical ailments, too. Through it all, he believed. Martin Luther was in no way perfect. He was arrogant in many ways, also brash and bold and loud. He was a sinner in need of a savior. What makes Luther great is that He found the Savior and He did not waver in his faith and the truth no matter what others did to him. He stood firmly on the Word of God and lived in the grace that God has so freely given to each of us.
Luther knew God’s Word and it was upon that Word that he stood. That’s what he wanted for all Christians. He wanted them to know the God who lived in their hearts, to experience the forgiveness that Christ won for them on the cross. Luther wanted everyone to shine with God’s glory and grace. Sadly, most Christians did not even know the scriptures. Even the priests were sadly lacking in knowledge. They preached, but the Word was missing. Theology was for the academics, the people had lives to live. That’s why it was so easy for Tetzel to sell indulgences. It was much easier for everyone concerned if the Church just granted this guarantee while everyone else just went about their daily lives.
But Luther knew the only way to overcome the ignorance of the people was to give them the opportunity to explore the Word themselves. He translated the scriptures into every day German so that it could be read. While God writes His Word on our hearts, it takes daily delving into the words for it to become a living part of us.
One of Luther’s greatest accomplishments was his Small Catechism. Catechisms existed long before Martin Luther penned the version we know today. They were designed to instruct new believers before their baptism. By Luther’s time, the catechisms included the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments, in that order.
While visiting a congregation, Luther discovered that the ordinary Christians knew nothing about their Christian faith. The pastors were unskilled and incapable of teaching the people. Luther was shocked and determined to write a simple booklet explaining the beliefs of Christians in a way that the average layperson could understand. The pastors and preachers were encouraged to use it word for word so that the people, especially those who could not read, would learn it by heart. People learn through repetition and the catechism helped to write the basic doctrine of Christian faith on the hearts of believers. By holding to the words of the catechism, the priests built on the lessons learned at home and avoided confusion. To Luther, it was not enough for the believer to recite the prayer, creed and commandments; he felt that all Christians should understand what they mean. So, he wrote one sentence explanations answering a simple question, “Was ist das?” which means, “What is this?”
Luther changed the order of the catechism, beginning the booklet with the Ten Commandments, then the Creed, and finally the Lord’s Prayer. This guided the reader through a journey of Law to Gospel, so that they could see their need for grace, confess belief in the only source of grace and then learn how to pray for the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Luther also included explanations about the sacraments as well as prayers and bible passages. There were woodcut pictures representing the bible stories that were specially chosen to enhance the concept of each part of the catechism. The book was a resource for families: pictures for the children, explanations for the adults, beloved Bible stories to pull it all together. By using the catechism, the parents would grow in understanding while instructing their children in the faith. It was an easy to use, in depth handbook for the Christian.
Luther’s intent in his work was not to divide the Church, but to restore her to God. He wanted to help Christians live faithful lives, to recognize the reality of their faith and God’s place in it. He lived in uncertain times. It must have been dreadfully disappointing to see the church he loved to be so misguided. He was not perfect himself, but he understood what it meant to be forgiven. He knew that his future was not dependent on doing what the church said he had to do. His future, his salvation, was dependent on what Christ had already done. He believed God’s word above the word of the Church, and he spoke that word to God’s people. He simply wanted God’s people to be free to know Him, to live in faith and to serve one another.
The turning point for Luther’s faith was a discovery in scripture that was seemingly lost in the teaching of the church of that day. He realized that there was nothing he could do to make himself right with God. He was a sinner in need of a Savior, and only Jesus Christ could bring justification and sanctification to his life. This knowledge made Luther free. It makes us free, too, to live and love and work according to God’s righteousness, following the passions of our heart which by faith will be in line with God's will in this world. He calls us from the inside, through the gift of faith we receive as we believe in Jesus. The new attitude we have in the New Covenant will make us long to be actively involved in God's creative and redemptive work. We need not be forced to do anything to be righteous, for God has made us righteous and in that righteousness we'll do what is right. He has set us free.
It isn’t always easy to know what is right and what is wrong. Was Robin Hood right to steal from the government and give it back to the people? Do the ends justify the means? What is just in our world today? How do we guarantee justice? How do we get that pendulum to stop swinging to the extremes and find the place where there is justice for everyone?
In the epistle for this week, we hear about a group of destructive leaders. Paul traveled extensively, planting churches in many cities. He always moved on to a new place, but he never left the congregations that were gathering and growing in his wake. He had friends who visited, and he even returned occasionally as his scheduled permitted. He wrote letters to the congregations, helping them to grow but also to stand firm. Yet, there was always someone following right behind Paul, hoping to convince the new Christians to their way of thinking, to turn them to a different sort of gospel. Paul had to defend himself and the Gospel he shared with the people in Thessalonica because there were many trying to destroy him and his ministry.
This, too, has happened throughout history. There have always been religious leaders who have led the Church astray to follow their own ideas and ideology. Heretics have existed in every era of history. Bad leaders have done too much damage to the Church. Even today there are those who claim to be working for Christ, but who are working for their own benefit. Tetzel was among those in Luther’s day who was selling a false gospel.
Paul didn’t just lay the Gospel on the new Christian congregations and then abandon them to their own means of growing in faith. He didn’t leave them to be confused by false gospels or assertive leaders. He nurtured the people, kept them accountable, rebuked their sin and corrected their error. He praised their faith and encouraged them to bear good fruit. He thanked them for their work for Christ, for the Church and for him.
Martin Luther realized that his works would never save him, that an eternity in heaven is dependent entirely on the grace of God. In faith we cry out to the God who saves. In that faith we have hope and the freedom to live in His grace.
This revelation spurred Luther to reform the Church. The theses began a reform movement that sought to restore the Church the Christ built. Luther, other reformers and those who followed them were fighting against a body that had lost touch with God’s grace. Religion was much like it was in the day of Jesus Christ, with leaders determined to keep or enhance their positions and power. It was a religion that burdened God’s people with Law, forgetting the center of God’s salvation: the cross. They sold indulgences to raise funds to build a massive new church building in Rome and they did this by feeding the fears of hell that were held by the people. They made the people believe that the only way they would make it to heaven was to pay for it. They even offered salvation for those who had already died: they could pay to free their loved ones who were wallowing in purgatory.
Luther seemed to have found the very meaning of the passage from John: when we are saved we are made free to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. For him freedom was not to do whatever we wanted to do like the drunk in the gutter, it was freedom to be as God created us to be. He never sought division, he sought change. Unfortunately, just like the religious leaders in Jesus' day, the religious leaders in Luther's day had no room for God's word in their lives. And so began the building of walls between Christians that has lasted nearly five hundred years. Yet, even as Luther was willing to risk division by speaking forth God’s grace, he longed for the Church to remain whole. We continue to live in the freedom, reaching out to our brothers and sisters in Christ, so that someday the Church will be healed and made whole once again.
Sometimes we can see a suggestion of that future happening in the world, as Christians of many different backgrounds join together to fight injustice, serve the poor, feed the hungry and heal the sick. In every town there are organizations where various churches can gather their resources to do the work calls us to do. Some groups have found ways to gather together for worship and discussion. We have come together in many ways even while we continue to be divided in others.
The one thing that matters: that we always remain true to God’s Word. Some of our divisions will never be healed because human beings are imperfect, sinners even while we are saints. We will continue to seek to benefit ourselves and ignore God, as human beings have done since the beginning of time. We will forget that God is the source of all our blessings and that we can know Him through His Word. We will chase after men who will teach us what we want to hear and encourage us to do what they say is right. We will conform to the world because it feels right while ignoring the truth of God's Word.
But, we can look at the lives and ministries of faithful people like Martin Luther and be encouraged to stand on what really matters: God’s Word. We can live the life of faith, daily basking in our baptisms and remembering that we are sinners who would never be saints without His grace.
“Now therefore fear Jehovah, and serve him in sincerity and in truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, and in Egypt; and serve ye Jehovah. And if it seem evil unto you to serve Jehovah, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve Jehovah.” Joshua 24:14-15 (ASV)
Type “unfortunate juxtaposition” in your search engine and you will find examples of newspapers and magazines that have published stories and advertisements that do not go well together. In one example, the front page article bemoaned the cost of living which was causing one in five mothers to go hungry so that she could feed her children. On the bottom of the page was an ad for bread with the caption, “Rumbling tummies, Rejoice!” In another example, the paper had a full page article about the capsized Costa Concordia cruise liner right next to a full page ad promoting cruise line packages.
I once received a monthly magazine that had a similar unfortunate juxtaposition. The front cover showed a picture of a starving third world woman, suffering under the oppression of a dictatorship. The article connected to the picture was informing the readers about the need to reach out globally and how to help others. The back cover was an advertisement for a financial company that advises clients on how to handle their wealth. The ad listed all the ways that people can spend their money, such as on new houses or boat and then they encouraged the readers to make the right choices.
Several readers were disturbed by the vast discrepancy between the two worlds on that magazine cover. One pastor used it for a poignant sermon illustration; another reader was confused by the differing messages. A third asked how we might respond after having read the article and the advertisement. What choice will we make? Will we give our money in global outreach or will we put it away for tomorrow? This is certainly a most difficult question we have to ask daily in our world.
Even churches have to ask this question. There are always those in the congregation who want to set aside all extra funds for a rainy day. There are others that encourage confident trust in God’s provision, organizing efforts that will use their resources, even to the point of financial struggle, in ministry for the sake of the world. The answer is probably not either extreme. Good stewardship means using all the resources with which God blesses us to both build up the church and reach out to the world. The question to ask is this: are we using our resources according to God’s will and in ways that will glorify Him?
The book of Joshua tells the story of the establishment of Israel in the Promised Land. They had been saved from Egypt by God through Moses, carried through the desert wilderness for forty years. When they crossed the Jordan into their new home, Joshua led them against their enemies so that they could finally gain the inheritance that God once promised their father Abraham. As Joshua’s last official act as God’s servant, he renewed the covenant that was established between God and Abraham. Joshua reminded the people of all God had done for them and called them to commit themselves to His service.
The juxtaposition of the starving woman and the financial ad shows the challenges we face living as saints and sinners in this world. Unfortunately, many churches, especially those who are having financial difficulties, choose to reduce mission funding to save a few dollars. Our choices will indicate where we put our faith. This does not mean we have to reject financial planning or stop saving for a rainy day. God calls us to be good stewards of the many resources He has given us for use in this life. However, we must be careful to keep our priorities straight.
The thing that disturbs me most is that the financial representatives often begin a client consultation with the admonition that we should pay ourselves first. This is clearly not the biblical way of stewardship. This makes our own desires above that of God and our own needs more important than faith. Our choices indicate our priorities and our priorities are our gods. If we are more concerned about buying that new house or boat than we are about sharing our resources with those in need, then we have chosen to follow another god. The choices we make every day may seem to be unimportant, however each choice points to the ultimate choice we have to make between God and the world. Who will you choose?
“God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth do change, And though the mountains be shaken into the heart of the seas; Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, Though the mountains tremble with the swelling thereof. Selah There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God, The holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God will help her, and that right early. The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved: He uttered his voice, the earth melted. Jehovah of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah Come, behold the works of Jehovah, What desolations he hath made in the earth. He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; He breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; He burneth the chariots in the fire. Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. Jehovah of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah” Psalm 146, ASV
I “like” a facebook page where people post photos from the Big Bend area of Texas. You might wonder how there could be so many pictures of a place where there isn’t much but desert scrub and cacti, but it is amazing to see the different perspectives that come from different people’s cameras. Ten people can post pictures of the same ghost town or old cemetery and they will be different depending on the light and the point of view.
There is one photographer, a professional, who has built a home in the middle of nowhere and he posts pictures from his front porch on a daily basis. Again, you might wonder how it doesn’t get boring posting pictures of the same thing day after day. However, every picture is different. The landscape doesn’t change, but it does depending on the time of day. At noon you can see the details in the mountains but as the sunsets those same mountains become nothing but silhouettes. The sunrise fills the sky with one type of color while the sunset is another. The most amazing photos are often of the storms that form on the horizon, with lightning flashing across the sky and rain darkening some places while others are still bathed in sunlight. Clouds in the sky make every picture unique, whether showing puffy white clouds on a bright day or wispy clouds that create a rainbow affect as the sun goes down. He could post a photo of the same view every day of the year and each would be different in some way. And all of them will be beautiful.
We look for excitement. People flock to the cities because there is so much to do. We can choose to go out to dinner at a different restaurant every day of the year. We can visit museums, go to the theater, shop at the malls. There are parks all over our city where you can hike, but those same parks often hold events where you can gather with others who have similar interests. Just yesterday a park offered a viewing of the solar eclipse with professionals who would teach the visitors how to witness the eclipse safely. My favorite news programs have a segment at the end of the week of things we can do during the weekend. There’s always a festival or a charity dinner or an educational event where we can take the kids. We can be busy all the time.
It would drive some people crazy to live where that photographer lives. He can walk around his house and see for miles. There’s nothing to see, however. There are no other houses, no buildings, no streets. He sees desert scrub and cacti, sunsets and rain clouds. He has to drive an hour to go to a store. He’s happy. He has found a way to be satisfied with a life in the middle of nowhere, enjoying the beauty of Big Bend. He doesn’t stay home all the time. He goes to events, he visits the small towns in the area, he goes out to dinner with friends. But he’s just as happy to sit on his front porch and watch the clouds float by.
We fill our hours with busy-ness, but he’s learned to appreciate silence and to see how every moment is unique, even though most of the world thinks his life must be boring. I have to admit that I’m sometimes jealous. His photos are beautiful and they are the manifestation of a life willing to sit still and wait. I would love to be able to sit on that front porch, watching as God transforms the world minute by minute. I would love to be able to sit with my camera focused on a cactus, waiting for a road runner or another bird to pause for a moment. I would love to spend time in a place so quiet that I could clearly hear the voice of God.
We don’t allow ourselves the leisure of doing nothing. Most of us can’t afford to spend the time to watch the clouds float by or to enjoy the changing colors of a sunset. We might pause to enjoy it for a moment, but then we run off to another activity, never realizing that the next moment will be even more beautiful than the last. We don’t turn off the noise of the world around us long enough to hear the voice of God.
Notice that today’s psalm includes the word “Selah” several times. This word is a musical command meaning to pause in the singing for a moment. It means “stop and listen.” It is impractical for most of us to run off into the desert to build a home and a life surrounded by nothing, but perhaps this weekend you will find an hour to spend away from the world. It might seem pointless; it might even seem boring. Yet, you might just discover the powerful presence of God in your life. He has something to say to you, and He wants you to be still and listen. Selah.
“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
A motivational speaker says, “Stuck in a creative rut? Try this: Look to your left and focus on whatever random object is there; then think about how your life or your problem is like that object. It’s a simple exercise, but it can help get your creative juices flowing.” While I am not stuck in a creative rut, I am always looking for inspiration for these devotions. As it happens, when I look to my left, I spy a wall filled with a couple dozen crosses: my cross wall.
I have crosses from all over the world. There is one made with Belgium lace. Another is from Mexico, bought during a mission trip by my daughter as a gift. There are a couple Celtic crosses, one from Peru, many that were given as gifts. There are crosses made of wood, of metal, of beads and ceramics. Some are simple, others are extremely ornate. There are a few other things on the wall, some angels and lilies. There is a Welsh love spoon and some inspiration poems. A few of the items are things I created myself.
In the center of this wall of crosses is a picture that Bruce and I bought many, many years ago. It is a portrait of Jesus, an incredible black and white, pen and ink image glued to a wood plaque and sealed with varnish. What makes the picture amazing is that the image is not drawn with lines or shading, the artist created the image with words. The picture is made using the Gospel of Luke. Slowly and patiently the artist copied the words, perfectly readable (with a magnifying glass.) The picture is created by changing the distance of the letters, so where it is darker the letters are close together and lighter when the letters are spread farther apart. You can’t tell that the picture is made of words from a distance, but it is mesmerizing to hold the picture and read the words with the face of Jesus in their midst.
When I read the article, I knew that the object I would see when I did the exercise would be my cross wall, and I began thinking about the question. When I looked at my cross wall this morning, however, I didn’t ask the question suggested by the motivational speaker. Instead I asked this question: “How has the object changed my life?” How has the cross of Christ changed my life? As my eyes fell on that picture of Jesus, I asked myself, “How is my life different because Jesus is a part of it?”
It isn’t as easy to give an answer to those questions as you might think. There is no way of knowing what my life would have been like if I weren’t a Christian. I don’t have one of those sudden conversion stories where I can talk about life before and life after faith. Jesus has always been there for me. I know in my heart that my life is better because of Him, I just can’t say how. I only know that I am certain that my life would be empty, missing something, if I didn’t believe.
I suppose there are those who want me to have a ready answer to the question; after all, we are called to witness the grace of God to the world in which we live. Those who do not yet believe want to know how their lives would be different if they had faith. They want to know what Jesus is going to do for them. They want to know how the cross can bring the kind of change that we Christians claim. If we can’t tell them what kind of change it brings, how will we ever convince them that it does?
Here’s the thing: it isn’t up to us to convince them. We are sent out into the world to tell them about Jesus. Part of that, of course, is telling them how a relationship with Jesus Christ has impacted our lives. However, it isn’t about what Jesus did for me, or even about a different life. We can’t even guarantee that their life will be different or better. As a matter of fact, sometimes faith makes life more difficult. Even the promise of eternal life has little sway over someone whose life is out of control.
While there might not be a moment to which I can point that says, “I was one person then and another person now,” I know that God is constantly transforming life to be conformed to His. The best I can do is to tell them the story of Jesus. I can tell them that I find comfort and hope and peace in my worst times because I know that Jesus is there in the midst of it all. And as I tell them the story of Jesus, and live in the faith that God has given to me, He will speak faith into their lives, too, until they see how Jesus fills the empty places and gives them what they have been missing.
“The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works; There is none that doeth good. Jehovah looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, that did seek after God. They are all gone aside; they are together become filthy; There is none that doeth good, no, not one. Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and call not upon Jehovah? There were they in great fear; for God is in the generation of the righteous. Ye put to shame the counsel of the poor, because Jehovah is his refuge. Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! When Jehovah bringeth back the captivity of his people, Then shall Jacob rejoice, and Israel shall be glad.” Psalm 14 (ASV)
It is not nice to call someone a fool, although many of the synonyms are even worse. We are taught from a very young age that we should not call someone an idiot, blockhead, dunce, dolt, ignoramus, imbecile, cretin, dullard, simpleton, or moron. A fool is a person who acts unwisely or imprudently; a silly person; historically the fool was a person engaged to entertain with silliness. While we all know that it is not nice to call someone a food, I think we can all admit to having done so occasionally.
Take, for instance, the stories we hear of stupid criminals. That’s another word we are not supposed to use, and yet when you hear the stories, you know it is a true description. There was the fool who decided to rob a home. He had managed clear the place, but noticed an expensive bottle of wine on his way out. He drank it, without realizing the family had used the bottle to store vinegar. He got extremely ill and called 911. Another would be robber entered a liquor store and asked for all the cash in the drawer. He then decided to demand a bottle of scotch. The attendant refused, telling him that he did not look old enough for alcohol. The robber insisted he was, pulled out his driver’s license. The cashier looked it over and agreed the man was old enough. As soon as the criminal left, the cashier reported the robbery, giving the man’s name and address to the police.
There was a guy who decided to rob a liquor store, so he took a cinder block and tried to throw it through the window. Unfortunately, the window was Plexiglas so it bounced right back and hit the guy on the head, knocking him out. The entire scene was caught on videotape. The fools don’t always work alone. In one story, several Boeing employees decided to steal a life raft from a 747 airplane. They succeeded, until they took the raft to a river. Shortly after beginning their ride, a rescue helicopter approached them. He was responding to the distress signal that was set off when they inflated the raft.
One more story: two men made off with a pile of DVDs and video games from a major retailer. They were so sure that they got away with their crime that they spent an hour boasting to each other about their brilliance and laughing at other criminals that get caught. Unfortunately, one of the thieves butt dialed 911 and the entire conversation was caught by the dispatcher who sent the police to where they were hiding. There’s a lesson in that story for all of us: be careful about who you make fun of because you might just be the one who is found to be the fool.
Now, while most of us aren’t trying to steal, rob or cheat people, we all manage to do stupid things. America’s Funniest Videos would have nothing to show if we didn’t. We have moments of foolishness, perhaps bad enough to end up on the Idiot of the Year list. Yet, there is one bit of foolishness that is greater than these funny stories, but there is not humor to it at all. The criminals in these stories got caught due to their foolishness and the consequences were unemployment, illness or prison.
The psalmist tells us that there are none who are good. We are all fools, sinners in need of a Savior, but those who look to Him will experience the forgiveness and salvation that He has promised. The one who says there is no God is not just being silly, they are fools for being unwise and imprudent. They do not realize the consequences of rejecting the One who can restore the “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” This isn’t just silliness, it is unwise and imprudent. They do not think about the permanent consequences of rejecting God. Their life might seem good, even perfect, filled with love and happiness, but it is not complete without the love and mercy of God.
Sadly, those who reject God or foolishly think there is none, call the Christians the fools for believing in a myth or story. They do not see the blessing of living under the care and refuge of the Creator and Redeemer of the world. They do not see the benefit of hope of eternity in the presence of God. They do not realize that our love is false and our good works are pointless unless they come by the Spirit of God. We are, as the psalmist says, “filthy and do no good” without God. But with Him, we are blessed beyond measure, free to be all that He has created and redeemed us to be, no longer fools but filled with the joy and gladness of His grace.
Scriptures for Sunday November 2, 2014, All Saints Sunday: Revelation 9:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
“Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are.” 1 John 3:1a, ASV
Death is a fact of life. Since the day that Adam and Eve chose to believe the word of the serpent and eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we have been cast out into the world where there is suffering and death. Everyone will die, even those who do everything humanly possible to ward off illness and the end of life.
That it is a fact of life does not make death any easier. We suffer the ravages of old age, the sting of dis-ease and the danger of this imperfect world. Death comes in too many ways to list; it comes quickly in the night or lingers for years. Death is often the consequence of our own behavior, but too often it comes from others who by accident or choice have taken life into their own hands.
Most of us don’t celebrate death. Oh, there’s always a fascination with it. Death is the subject of so much of our media, in print, film or television. So many of the criminal and law programs show so many people being shot that it is a wonder our death rate isn’t much, much higher. I regularly say of one show, “There’s always a dead body.” After all, they need something to investigate, right? These shows make fascinating use of modern technology to solve the mystery of the crime. Of course, there are also those shows that deal with the paranormal. There are dozens of ‘ghost hunter’ programs both on television and the Internet. There are movies that recreate the experiences of people dealing with ghosts and other spirits from beyond the grave. There are stories that focus on the dead who aren’t dead, like zombies and vampires. Even National Geographic has zombies on the cover this month.
We do not celebrate when death comes knocking on our door; we experience grief and an incredible sense of loss when someone we love dies. We are exhausted by it, especially if death took a long time coming. We are shocked when it comes by an accident or by violence. We are often afraid of what will happen in our lives, especially if the dearly departed is someone who provided support for us. We do not celebrate these deaths, although we do find the strength and courage to celebrate their lives. When we die, we tell our loved ones not to cry for us, but to go on with their lives. No matter how much we insist on the joy, death will always bring sorrow.
That’s ok, because God never intended for death to be a fact of life. Adam and Eve made a choice, and that choice separated all humankind from the intimate relationship that they had with God in the Garden of Eden. But even while death became the problem, God was already working on the solution. He knew, even from the day of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden that He would make it possible for mankind to have the eternal life He intended. He knew that the Christ would pay the price that would free God’s people from death, guaranteeing those who believe will have eternal life. As Christians we know there is a reason to celebrate the death of one of God’s people: they aren’t really dead. They live on in the Kingdom where they no longer have to rely on hope or faith because they now walk in the Garden again with their Father the Creator.
As Christians, each year we celebrate the lives of those saints who have moved from this world to the next on All Saints Day, November 1st. We don’t really think of this as a multiple day celebration, but it actually begins on October 31st and ends on November 2nd, a triduum honoring the dead which goes back to pre-Christian eras. October 31st we know as Halloween, a vigil service which can include a prayer for light and readings from the scriptures. The possible stories are interesting: the Witch of Endor (1 Sm 28:3-25), Why Christians Reject the Occult, the Vision of Eliphaz the Temanite (Jb 4:12-21), the Valley of Dry Bones (Ez 37;1-14) Living Skeletons, and the War in Heaven (Rev 12:[1-6]7-12). There are Christians who are bothered by the celebration of Halloween, and I have to admit that the focus on evil, death and the occult bothers me too.
And of course, we have to be aware of the pagan roots of these celebrations, after all All Hallow’s Eve did exist before Christianity. So did the pagan roots of other Christian celebrations like Saturnalia at Christmas and Eostre. Christians found ways to adapt those pagan festivals into Christian understanding, though many Christians choose to ignore or reject those celebrations because of it. That’s a debate for another day, but I agree that we must be careful about the choices we make, keeping God first in all our celebrations and avoiding those things which will lead us on a path away from light and life. That’s why the Halloween festivities, with houses covered in fake body parts covered in blood and teenagers dressed as zombies, are so disturbing.
Christianity is a religion of light. Jesus Christ is the light of the world. The All Hallows Eve vigil liturgy and scripture is meant to point us to the light that is Christ who overcame death and darkness. All Saints Day then commemorates the Saints known and unknown. In older times, the Saints honored were local martyrs with ties to specific places. As the Saints became known from parish to parish, the day began to focus on the body of Saints, all those who have been beatified. They are the ones, known and unknown, who have achieved that life that God intended, who have been restored to Him through grace and who lived as God intended. They give us an example of the Christian life, the willingness to follow Christ anywhere and the courage to face even the most difficult times for His sake.
The third day completed the triduum: All Souls Day was a day of prayer for the dead. Prayer for the dead has been practiced in the Jewish as well as Christian faiths for at least a millennium. Most Christians reject the idea of purgatory and question the practice of praying for the dead, and so the triduum of the dearly departed has been condensed into All Saints Day, a day to remember all the saints.
Now, those of us who live in the Southwestern part of the United States are familiar with a Mexican tradition that continues to celebration of All Souls. It is Dia de los Muertos, which translated literally means “the Day of the Dead.” It is a celebration on November 2nd during which families welcome back departed loved ones, sharing the joys of life with them as their memories live on. Creative and respectful altars are set up around town at galleries, cultural centers, cemeteries and restaurants to commemorate loved ones who have passed on. Dia de los Muertos is a combination of the ancient Aztec and conquering Spanish cultures. There are some rituals that cross the line for me, but I love some aspects of the celebration.
In particular I love the party atmosphere, even if they hold their picnics in the cemetery. The Day of the Dead altars are a beautiful reflection of the love that they have for those they have lost. It may seem to those outside the culture that it is a celebration of death, and that there are shadows of ancestor worship, but for most it is a time to share familial love, and to tell the stories of their past. It is a party, not much different than those family reunions that we all love. The biggest difference is that those dearly departed members of the family are invited to the Day of the Dead celebrations.
There is a lot of information in this devotion so far and no real focus on the faith on which our hope and faith are built. Though Sunday is November 2nd, the text for our lectionary is for All Saints Day. We have melded all the ideas of this triduum into the one day, we see the promise of the light overcoming darkness, death destroyed for the sake of God’s people and remembrance of those loved ones who have passed from this world into the next.
This melding of the three days also shows in our understanding of what our celebration on Sunday means. All Saints Sunday is not just a day to mourn our dead and to remember them, but it is a day to remember that we are children of God and that some day we will join those who have come before us to dwell in God’s presence forever. We have seen the light; we celebrate our future at the Lord’s Table, where we will feast forever on God’s grace without the muck of life in our earthly flesh. We remember the great cloud of witnesses that have passed before, but we will also look forward to the day when we will be with them again. We will receive the bread and wine of communion, knowing that it is only a foretaste of the feast which our loved ones already enjoy. We still live on earth still rely on the hope and faith that our beloved family and friends have set aside for the reality of life in God’s presence.
In the Gospel lesson for All Saints, Jesus tells us “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We are comforted by the Word of God that tells us this life is only a momentary journey on our way to an eternity in heaven. We believe and we are blessed. We find comfort in the promise that our mourning will one day come to an end forever as God Himself wipes away our tears.
In our life of humble service we are given the greatest blessing which is that the kingdom of heaven is not just a future hope. It is hard for us to see the blessing in the Beatitudes. Where is the blessedness in poverty, mourning, meekness or hunger? In a world that seeks wealth, fame and power it is hard to understand mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking. These are not seen as strengths, but weaknesses. Finally, it is impossible to rejoice in persecution. Yet, Jesus says, “Blessed are they…” They are the blessed ones, the ones who are receiving the mercy and grace of God.
The hope of faith is framed in this passage by the assurance of God’s presence. In verse three, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In verse ten He says, “Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice that in these two verses, the gift is present: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is not a promise for just the future. The kingdom of heaven IS theirs.
While it is good to remember the Saints (with a capital ‘S’) those men and women throughout Christian history that have lived extraordinary lives of faith, we are reminded on All Saints Sunday that we are all saints (with a small ‘s’), saved by the grace of God, dwelling in the Light which is Christ in the here and now even as we wait for the promise of eternity.
John writes, “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are.” We are children of God, and that is exactly what a saint is. It is the love of God that gives us this grand and glorious title; by His mercy we are adopted into His family and we will inherit His kingdom one day, just as those we have loved and lost have already received their inheritance. We live in the hope of faith that one day we will join them to dwell forever in the presence of God. For now we have to deal with the reality that we are blessed though we are ravaged by the world. Sometimes the blessing is in the suffering, as with those martyrs of old who died at the hands of those who reject Christian faith; they were blessed because though they passed through death into the bosom of God for eternity.
In the passage from Revelation, John writes, "They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun strike upon them, nor any heat: for the Lamb that is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them unto fountains of waters of life: and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes." This is the future hope. Yet even now we live in the kingdom of heaven.
Death does not only come to us when the physical body fails. We go through all sorts of deaths in our lives. We suffer the grief of unfulfilled dreams, the pain of loss when friends move, the sting of sin that touches all our lives. We live in a transient world, especially those who have jobs with mobility. It is not only true of military families, but many people find themselves moving regularly. This is true also of clergy. How many churches have suffered the loss of a favorite leader because it was time for him or her to move on? Congregations go through a mourning process, especially difficult when the move was related to conflict or hurt feelings. Even within the walls of the church we face the difficulties of this life.
People die. Injustice exists. All too many people have no problem stepping on anyone to get ahead in this world. We will suffer. We would like to think that the promises found in the beatitudes will be fulfilled in this life – and they sometimes are. I have found great comfort in the love of my family and friends. I have experienced mercy. Though I have not seen the face of God, I've known His presence and seen His face in the faces of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I've shared in the waters of life and God has indeed wiped away my tears. Yet, I know that I will hunger, thirst and cry again before I pass into life eternal.
The place where we come closest to experiencing the future kingdom of heaven in this world is at the at the communion table when we share the Lord’s Supper. In some forms of the liturgy we hear words like these, “Join our prayers with those of your servants of every time and every place and unite them with the ceaseless petitions of our great high priest until he comes as victorious Lord of all.” Our worship is timeless and the fellowship numbers in the multitudes. On All Saints Sunday, we are reminded that the veil between life in this world and the next is very thin. While there aren’t ghosts kneeling with us as we receive the body and blood of Christ, they are there amongst us, sharing in the same feast and worshipping the same Lord.
The passage from Revelation gives us a glimpse of heaven, strange images unless we see them through the eyes of faith. John writes, “And all the angels were standing round about the throne, and about the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.”
How odd it is that all they will do for all of eternity is fall on their faces in worship. We live in a world that demands entertainment. We fill our schedules with activities. Our calendars are full of appointments. We need something to do constantly, and if it isn’t interesting or exciting, we move on to something different. We can’t imagine spending more than an hour at one activity, let alone eternity.
Yet is it odd? When we are stuck in the confines of time and space, eternity seems like an awfully long time. The final verse of “Amazing Grace” speaks to this very idea. We sing, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.” Eternity is timeless. We won’t get bored praising God because time will not pass and there will be nothing better waiting for us around the bend. It is for this very reason that we need not fear for those who have passed from our lives. They are already enjoying that for which we long: a life in Christ that knows no limits.
On Sunday we will remember those who have passed from this life to the next. We can’t help but mourn, because their lives meant something to us. Our parents, our family, our friends and our neighbors had an impact on the life we lived. They taught us, touched us, comforted us, fed us, showed us mercy and shined the light of Christ. They will be missed and it is good for us to take a moment to join together in this time and place to remember them, honor them and thank God for their witness in our lives.
We stop on this All Saints Day to thank God for their witness. For we were brought into the fellowship of believers as those we loved shared the Gospel with us by God’s grace. We are called to live as they lived, as witnesses so that those who are yet to come will have the opportunity to hear God’s Word and believe. We are saints and that means something. It means we are God’s children, called to a life of worship and praise, of service and justice, of love and peace and joy. Though the life that awaits us after death is greater than anything we can experience in this world, we have work to do.
The psalmist writes, “I will bless Jehovah at all times: His praise shall continually be in my mouth.” These words come from King David who experienced God’s answer to his prayers. He was saved from his enemy and knew that it was God’s hand that was his salvation. We have been saved from an even greater enemy: death. We have the promise of eternal life, of an inheritance beyond anything we can imagine. How much more should we praise God for His grace and mercy? We are called to live a daily life of thanksgiving and praise to God for everything. That’s what it means to be a saint and that is the focus for us all this triduum of the dearly departed or the one All Saints Sunday: remembering that God has given us the Light that overcomes darkness and the Life that overcomes death. Jesus Christ has made it possible for us to dwell now in the Kingdom of Heaven even as we wait longingly to join those who have already received their eternal inheritance.
“And he called to him the multitude again, and said unto them, Hear me all of you, and understand: there is nothing from without the man, that going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man. If any man hath ears to hear, let him hear. And when he was entered into the house from the multitude, his disciples asked of him the parable. And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Perceive ye not, that whatsoever from without goeth into the man, it cannot defile him; because it goeth not into his heart, but into his belly, and goeth out into the draught? This he said, making all meats clean. And he said, That which proceedeth out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, evil thoughts proceed, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickednesses, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, railing, pride, foolishness: all these evil things proceed from within, and defile the man.” Mark 7:14-23, ASV
They were constantly looking for disobedience, especially from people like Jesus and His disciples. They were stirring up trouble, the religious leaders had to do something to keep them down. They could not gain traction with the people, or the revolutionaries would create havoc in their nice, ordered world. They found the disciples eating bread without having washed their hands and they called Jesus on it. “Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with defiled hands?”
Now, we know how important it is to keep our hands clean. Whenever there is an outbreak of some flu or dis-ease, the first thing that the experts recommend is constant hand washing. We can pass the germs on to others through touch, the hands are the most likely body part that will pick up those germs. Though picking up the germs on our hands might not cause us to be sick, we are likely to put our hands to our faces or even in our mouths, which is how we’ll pass that germ into our system. Hand washing before eating is especially important even if we don’t think we’ve touched something contaminated. We can’t see the germs, so we never know what might be there that can harm us.
The hand washing rule is a good one, and though the early believers did not understand why it was a good rule, they could see that those in their community were healthier than their gentile neighbors. They often blamed dis-ease on sin, not realizing that it was the simple act of hand washing that helped keep them healthy.
Science has shown us in so many ways how the laws given to God’s people are good. We know, for instance, that uncooked pork is dangerous to eat. Circumcision as prescribed by God in His covenant with His people; it happens at the best time for the baby’s health and welfare. We know it is important for women’s health to follow certain sanitation practices. Even the rules about quarantine have been proven to keep an epidemic from destroying a community. We certainly know the value of disposing of human waste properly, history has proven it to be true as we recognize that disease ran rampant when the sewage ran down the streets.
Florence Nightingale was a nurse who discovered—or rediscovered—the importance of the simple practice of hand washing. She encouraged sanitary conditions for the sake of both the patients and the medical staff. A sanitary facility meant life for many who might have died from their wounds during war. Today we take these sanitary rules into our hospitals, our kitchens and our schools. Jesus is not telling us in today's Gospel message that we should not wash our hands.
The problem with the question from the religious leaders is that they were washing their hands for all the wrong reasons. In our lesson, Jesus turns His attention to the crowd and says, “Hear me all of you, and understand: there is nothing from without the man, that going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man.” The laws we obey are very helpful for keeping us healthy. We know, after all, that eating raw pork is dangerous and that washing our hands helps keep us well. Obedience to God’s Law does not make us right with God; God is glorified by our obedience because through it the world can see how that right living makes for better life.
God’s people knew they would be blessed by the keeping of God’s Law. They would be different because they would live as man was meant to live. But they fell short. They forgot to tell their children and their children’s children about the Lord and all they had done. They forgot His Law and turned to other gods. They sought the help of other nations instead of trusting in the Lord. Rather than understanding that the Law was a gift, they lived as if they were being rewarded for their good behavior. They interpreted the Law and turned it into hundreds of rules. They made God’s gift into a burden, expecting the people to keep the rules according to their understanding. Their righteousness was self imposed, not a manifestation of God’s grace. And they condemned those who did not live up to their expectations, like Jesus’ disciples when they did not wash their hands.
Jesus responded to the Pharisees by showing them that they have turned away from God, that they are hypocrites, saying one thing and doing another. They claim to honor God with their ritual and ceremonies, but they put heavy burdens on the people that God never intended. It is not the hands that make someone unclean, but the heart. And we see the reality of our sin not in the failure to follow the traditions of men, but in the ways we harm our neighbor.
God’s Law was not designed to be demeaning or humiliating. God’s law gives us the freedom to live within a community of grace, in relationship with God and one another. God invites us to dwell in His tabernacle which is open to the world. Instead of living within a closed set of rules that burden and oppress us, God gives us the perfect Law that frees us to live in love and hope and faith. We are created to be religious, to honor and worship God, to do good works, to live a holy life. But we are not meant to be burdened by men’s laws and worthless traditions. We are invited to dwell in the tabernacle, to abide in Christ who is God living among His people, and to be the kind of people who not only know God’s Law, but also live it fully. We are called to be people who do not add to the word or take away from it, who take care of those in need and who live a life that is good, right and true according to God’s word.
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known. But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13, ASV
It has been said for millennia that the veil between worlds is thinnest on this night. In America, and some other places, this is celebrated with dress-up and candy. Children across the land will go out for a few hours tonight, knocking on doors asking for treats; they’ll fill their bags with tiny Kit Kat bars and Hershey’s kisses. Some houses will give out little toys; some even give out money. My mom always gave nickels, although I’m not sure a nickel would impress anyone these days. Some families try to put a little light in the darkness of Halloween by giving out small bibles or tracts about Jesus.
Many people, of course, still play on the thin veil idea by decorating their homes with scary objects like white sheeted ghosts, humongous spiders and webs or gravestones. Some take it a little further and make the decorations horrific, like the house down the street that has a half of a stuffed body hanging in front on their door, the waistline red as if stained with blood. It can be fun, and I’ve been known to make a big deal about the celebration, with pumpkins too large to carry and a skeleton made from PVC pipe, although I don’t appreciate the displays with bloody gore. I have to admit that some years, including this one, we choose to be the humbug, quietly hiding with the lights down low ignoring the cries for candy from the neighborhood children.
It isn’t that I’m bothered by the holiday; I loved it when the kids were young. I can understand why some families would reject it for the pagan origins and horrific focus of some celebrants, and I’m glad that churches and schools hold harvest festivals so that the children can have fun safely and with a focus on the light rather than darkness. I will miss seeing the adorable little girls dressed as Elsa and the occasional trick-or-treater in some amazing homemade costume, but I get frustrated by those who do not even bother to dress up and those who drive from one neighborhood to another to fill their bags with candy over and over again until they have so much that can’t even eat it all. I even found an article today which lists the best neighborhoods for trick-or-treating.
However you choose to celebrate this day, there’s something to be said about this veil between two worlds. I don’t know whether it is particularly thinner on this night, and I’m not terribly sure I want to meet whatever chooses to cross over into this world from that other. What I do know is that my faith in Jesus Christ has made the veil between this world and the next something very different.
I had my house windows cleaned the other day; I have them done every year. It is amazing how the outside of the windows become clouded by dust and rain spots and the inside of the windows with kitty schnoodle and paw prints. I can still see outside, but the world is distorted and unclear. It takes some time for the clean window to get that way, and I don’t even really notice how dirty they are. After the cleaner finished his work I realized how bad it had gotten. The windows are now so clear that it seems like there is no window. They’ll get dirty again, and the cleaner will have to return. But for now, I can see clearly.
Today’s scripture might seem like an odd choice for today. I could have focused on being watchful or avoiding evil on this night of thin veils. Instead, however, I think we all need to be reminded that as Christians the veil has been lifted. We have access to the other world, not the one of darkness, but the one of Light. We can stand at the throne of God, to speak to Him, to seek His grace because He has already provided it for us. We haven’t crossed over, yet; we still have to pass through death to enter into that eternal life that He has promised.
Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror, darkly…” As I looked out my beautifully cleaned windows, I thought of this passage. I can see clearly, but there is still glass in my way. One day, however, I will cross through and dwell in the world that God is preparing for me. Until that day we live in faith, hope and love. The greatest of these is the love of God, who has pulled back the veil for us now and forevermore. Amen.