Welcome to the September 2011 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, September 2011
September 1, 2011
“But godliness with contentment is great gain: for we brought nothing into the world, for neither can we carry anything out; but having food and covering we shall be therewith content. But they that are minded to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and hurtful lusts, such as drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil: which some reaching after have been led astray from the faith, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” 1 Timothy 6:6-10, ASV
You are in kindergarten again, and today is show and tell day. What do you take with you? The teacher will usually set some limits to this exercise, asking children to bring something that will fit into their backpack. Most children will search their toy boxes for their favorite toys, but sometimes they’ll choose a souvenir from a recent trip or a book they enjoy reading. Some children step out of the box and bring unusual items, especially if they can get permission and help from Mom or Dad. I’ve seen pets and grandmas. Some children will bring a picture of something or someone they love.
Kindergarten is not academic like a college classroom, or even like the upper grades at the elementary school, but every activity has a purpose. They might play for half the time, but that play is teaching the students life lessons: how to share and how to work with others. Games help with physical and mental development. Toys help with coordination. Many activities introduce the building blocks for learning: language, math, science. The fine arts—art and music—develop different parts of the brain. Though we may look in a kindergarten classroom and think it is just a bunch of kids having fun, that fun is filled with purpose.
One purpose of show and tell is to let the child show his or her friends something unique about themselves. But there’s more to it than that. Show and tell is more than just showing a favorite item, it is about telling. When a student stands in front of the class with something they love, they are more willing to speak about it, to tell stories and to open up to the other students. It is about helping build self-confidence and courage to speak publically. It is about developing language patterns so that others will understand what we have to say. Show and tell helps children think about why they like something and how to talk to others about it.
So, you are in kindergarten, and today is show and tell day. What do you take with you? What do you say about it? What does it say about you? Why is it so important that you would risk losing or breaking it to share with others? Why do you love it? What would you do without it?
We usually think about material possessions in a negative light, and there is certainly reason to do so. We can get so caught up in protecting and collecting things that we miss the true joys of life. We put those things before people, and even worse, before God. But our treasures can also help us understand who we are. The trouble comes when we are not content. I wonder how many children are jealous of that child with the brand new video game or that sweet puppy. Are we jealous, too? Do we look at our treasures against those of others and think they are worthless? Or do we rejoice with one another at the many blessings we have to share?
“I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go unto the house of Jehovah. Our feet are standing Within thy gates, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that art builded As a city that is compact together; Whither the tribes go up, even the tribes of Jehovah, For an ordinance for Israel, To give thanks unto the name of Jehovah. For there are set thrones for judgment, The thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: They shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, And prosperity within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions' sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee. For the sake of the house of Jehovah our God I will seek thy good.” Psalm 122, ASV
What are you planning to do for the holiday weekend? This weekend is the last official weekend of summer, a time when families have one last fling. Some go on vacation to the beach, others to the mountains. Campers are headed for the parks. For those who have already started school, the three day weekend is a nice break and for those who begin next week this is the last chance to relax before the work begins. Most workplaces are a little more laid back during the summer since many people go on vacation and the work load is often lighter. The Labor Day weekend is the end of that. Unlike many other holidays, this weekend doesn’t tend to be a time of pilgrimage, when people flock to one particular place for a specific purpose. Labor Day is about having fun and relaxing, resting before getting back into the normal grind next week.
This is often a weekend of pilgrimage for college students, especially freshmen students who are dealing with homesickness. This is the first chance they have to go home, to see parents and siblings, and cuddle with pets. They are anxious for a home-cooked meal and a chance for Mom to do laundry. They want to sleep in their own bed and see their old friends. It is a joyous time, but in some ways it is also a difficult time because things aren’t always the same.
In my house, neither of my college students are able to come home this weekend, but if they did they would find that things are different. I’ve cleaned their rooms. I’ve rearranged furniture. We’ve changed the way we shop and the types of food we keep in the house. I don’t think the changes are shocking—I haven’t taken over either of their rooms as a craft room for myself, although I’ve thought about it. Some kids come home to find everything different, including the attitudes of their parents, especially empty nesters. Not that it is hostile, but parents without children living at home must learn to live differently. They have freedom they haven’t had for a long time, and quite frankly as one in this position, I’m enjoying it.
It is not a surprise that a pilgrim might pray a prayer like the one in today’s passage. They are excited about the trip, excited about going to the Temple, just as a student is excited about going home. Yet, a pilgrim never quite knows what to expect. Will they find the place filled with joy or anxiety? Will everything be as it should? So, as we enter into this holiday weekend, let’s pray for those who are going home, especially for those who might find it is a different place, that there will be peace and joy.
“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. Herein was the love of God manifested in us, that God hath sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man hath beheld God at any time: if we love one another, God abideth in us, and his love is perfected in us: hereby we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit. And we have beheld and bear witness that the Father hath sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God abideth in him, and he in God. And we know and have believed the love which God hath in us. God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him. Herein is love made perfect with us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as he is, even so are we in this world. There is no fear in love: but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath punishment; and he that feareth is not made perfect in love. We love, because he first loved us. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen. And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.” 1 John 4:7-21, ASV
Some form of the word “love” is found so many times in this passage that it seems like a box of Valentine’s Day chocolates spilled on the page. It is so easy to get this word confused with the idea of romantic love that is perpetuated through the February holiday. That love is about warm fuzzies, with googly eyes blind to reality and giggly expectations. We hear the word “love” and we think puppy love or weddings.
But the reality of love is much harder than whether or not to buy jewelry or candy for Valentine’s Day. Even within the realm of romantic love, the task at hand is difficult. We have to love our beloved through thick and thin, good and bad. What happens to romantic love the first time there is a fight? Or when something bad happens like sickness or financial stress? How is that romantic love affected by changes in the couple’s life? Will it hold up to children or a new job? Will it hold up to the empty nest or retirement?
I watch the show “Bridezillas,” although I have to admit that those women frustrate me, some of them even disgust me. They have this attitude that the wedding is their coronation, that the day is about them and them alone. They scream and curse at their grooms, often threatening to cancel the wedding or have it all to themselves. You don’t hear the word “love” bandied about very much, although the way the brides treat everyone, you would think that hate must be a popular word. In the end, when the party is over, they gush over their guy and promise undying love, but will they ever really live in that love if they have such a self-centered view of wedding?
Though some form of the word “love” is used so much in this passage, the one I want to focus on today is “beloved.” John loves the people to whom he is writing, his brothers and sisters in Christ and he wants them to be loved. The work of Christ is centered in love, not the romantic love that leads to a bridezilla wedding, but the kind of love that sacrifices all for the sake of others. That love of Christ is given freely and in abundance to all people. Yet how many of us really dwell in the love of Christ. We might accept that it is in us and around us. We might cognitively confess that we know God’s love. But are we ‘being loved?’ In other words, are we living the life in which we are aware constantly of being immersed in God’s love? Do we experience the presence of God at all times, receiving His grace and letting it flow through our lives?
It is not enough to know that God loves us. We must ‘be loved,” receiving that love which God gives and embracing it. When we do, the love of God will be shared with others, and we will naturally love others the way Christ loves us.
Today’s Word was first written on September 6, 2003. This lesson fits well with the scriptures lessons for this Sunday, which we will study tomorrow, so I decided to repost with some minor editing.
“Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth over the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in lovingkindness. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.” Micah 7:18-19 (ASV)
Corrie Ten Boom is known around the world as a forgiver. She had spent years in a German concentration camp and when it was over she felt that she had forgiven all those who had embarrassed and degraded her over those years. In those camps, the women were unable to take a shower without leering eyes on their naked bodies. The guards never left them alone. The humiliation was great, but she felt she had even forgiven those creeps.
One day Corrie was preaching about forgiveness in Munich, Germany. A man came to speak to her after the sermon and she immediately recognized him as one of those who had humiliated her all those years ago. She suddenly realized that she had not truly forgiven that man. She could not greet him with love or mercy. She could not even shake his hand. She was so ashamed of herself, unable to do what she had preached for so long. The man said to her, “It is wonderful that Jesus forgives us all our sins, just as you say.” She prayed, “Lord, forgive me, I cannot forgive.” She experienced in her heart the forgiveness of Christ and was then able to truly forgive the man who had harmed her.
Our experiences are probably not as terrible as Corrie Ten Boom’s, but we all know people who have hurt us over the years. It is very easy to say the words, “I forgive,” but what happens when we see them again? Can we face them with grace and mercy? Can we even say hello and shake their hands? Can we work or fellowship with them? It is easy to say the words, but very hard to actually act out the forgiveness we give. It is true for those whose faith is weak and for those whose faith is strong. It is impossible for us all without the love and forgiveness of God.
This is the most incredible promise of the Lord our God. He will forgive and not remember our sin. He will have mercy and compassion on His people. He will get rid of the very things that keep us from a relationship with Him. That’s what unforgiveness does; it builds walls between people that can’t be overcome. Corrie’s lack of forgiveness for the guard made it impossible for her to even speak to him. It is even more difficult when the relationship is with someone close to us. Families have been divided, friendships broken and workplaces destroyed because people are unable to forgive one another.
Corrie was ashamed because she thought she had gotten over the humiliation and anger. Yet, as she looked in the face of the one who had done so much harm, she realized that she still hurt. The only way she could forgive him was to realize that she too was a sinner in need of forgiveness. When she prayed in faith that God does pardon those He loves, she knew it was true. Only then could she forgive. She could forgive because she was forgiven.
That’s how it is for all of us. When we face those whom have done us harm, and we cannot even shake their hand, we can pray the same prayer as she did: “Lord, forgive me, I cannot forgive.” He will, for He is faithful to His promises. Our iniquities were trampled under the foot of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross fulfilled this promise. We are forgiven. Sometimes we need a reminder, especially when we cannot forgive another. But when we remember that all our sin has been taken away, that we have been forgiven, we are given the strength to reach out and shake the hands of those we thought we would never forgive.
Scriptures for Sunday, September 11, 2011, Lectionary 24A: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
“Fear not: for am I in the place of God?” Genesis 50:19B
It is impossible to think about Sunday, September 11th without considering the ten year anniversary the bombings in 2001. I’m sure many churches are planning remembrances for services on Sunday. It was a moment that affected all our lives in some way or other, whether directly or indirectly. The attack sent many people back to church, and though it was not a permanent change for everyone, I’m sure at least a few people discovered or rediscovered the grace found in fellowship with other Christians at the foot of the cross.
In the calendar of the saints, Sunday is the saint day for two men, Protus and Hyacinth. They were martyred on September 11th most likely during the reign of Emperor Valerion. Like many of the saints, we know very little about these two men. They were likely brothers, eunuchs in the service of Eugenia, a daughter of a prefect of Egypt and a Christian. Protus and Hyacinth apparently was baptized along with their mistress, fled Egypt with her to Rome where they were captured by pagan authorities and put to death. Their remains have been found in Rome and though the stories of their deaths vary their bodies were definitely burned and laid in small tombs, to be found again in 1845. That’s all we know about these men: that they were killed for being Christian. We don’t have any stories of spectacular acts of faith, of long experiences of torture or even last words confessing faith in Christ. All we have are a few references in early writings and a few charred bones.
We lost a lot of people on September 11, 2001. I’m sure that their names are inscribed somewhere. At the very least there are lists on the Internet and they have been read every year at memorials. I’ve heard stories about individuals, especially those who made incredible sacrifices for others. Books have been written about heroism and compassion. Most of the people who died that day will at least be remembered by someone on Sunday, family, friends, and co-workers. However, most of the people who died that day will be remembered only for the fact that they died that day.
The hard part of this whole thing is the juxtaposition of our scripture texts on this day of remembrance. How do we deal with forgiveness on a day when we are remembering something so horrific and needless? We come into this week’s scriptures with the memory of last week’s message—that God does not desire any to perish and He has called all believers to speak God’s word of forgiveness into the world so that people will be reconciled to one another. This word is not meant only for a select few, but it is given to bring all people into the Kingdom of God. Can forgiveness be found in that moment that filled us with so much grief?
And what does that look like?
That’s perhaps the hardest question to answer. What does forgiveness look like? Must we forgive and forget? Must we treat the offender as if they are our best friend or most beloved family member? In yesterday’s A WORD FOR TODAY I talked about Corrie Ten Bloom and how she faced one of her persecutors, a man who’d mocked her in the showers of the concentration camp. When she saw him, she realized that she had not truly forgiven him, despite her reputation of having forgiven those who’d hurt her in the Holocaust. She prayed for God’s help and only when she recognized how much God had forgiven her could she truly forgive the man.
Would she forget? She would never forget, because the evil that happened to her in that concentration camp had made her who she was. It had changed her. Though we can’t imagine it, it probably made her a much better person because she took her pain, fear and anger, let God transform it into forgiveness, and she took her story to the world. Her story will never be forgotten because it helps others see how God’s grace can restore people to one another.
Perhaps it sounds a like ‘warm fuzzies’ but there’s always a silver lining. God can make good things happen out of the most horrific atrocities. Think about the story of Joseph. Now, Joseph was far from perfect. As one of the youngest among a dozen children, and the first born of the beloved wife, Joseph had it good. He was pampered and he thought himself a little bit better than his siblings. I don’t think he was arrogant. I think he was young and immature, not really seeing the world through their eyes, only through the rose colored glasses that he’d been given by his mother and father. But from his brother’s point of view, Joseph was a jerk. He was spoiled and ridiculous. The dream that he would rule over his brothers was just another sign of his self-centeredness.
They certainly had no right to throw him into a pit, or to pretend that he was dead. It was wrong. It was evil. There is no excuse. They knew that when it came to the time when they faced his authority after their father died. I’m not even sure they realized how much Joseph had suffered because of their deeds. Ruben, who insisted that they not kill him, might have actually made life worse for him. He was taken as a slave, imprisoned on false charges, surely beaten and abused. He was ignored and forgotten.
Yet, all this led to Joseph’s position in Pharaoh’s empire, a position that gave him power and authority. In that position, Joseph managed to save not only Egypt, but also provide for people to the far stretches of the known world. He listened to God, shared God’s word with others and it changed everything. In the midst of drought, there was food because Joseph was faithful. In the end, Joseph’s dream came true. He did indeed rule over his brothers, and his brothers recognized the authority he had over them.
They were afraid. How would Joseph respond once their father was dead? Would he final meet out the deserved punishment for all they did wrong? What they found, though, was an unexpected attitude. “Fear not: for am I in the place of God?” Joseph saw the silver lining in his suffering and recognized God’s hand in it all along. Not that God intended Joseph to suffer, but that God was able to use his suffering for something extraordinary. Joseph put it into God’s hands even though he had the power and authority to dispense justice.
How does that relate to September 11th? Should we, as a nation, let it go, forgive and forget? Should we not judge and punish those involved? What does forgiveness look like in response to the horrific and needless acts of that day? I don’t think this is the time or the place to debate the authority of the governmental response to the attack. There is a place for human judgment, and God does give authority to human institutions to meet out justice. Whether or not we have done, as a nation, what is right is a discussion for another time. In addition, we are a nation of many faiths; our laws are based on Judeo-Christian values, but they are not laws of faith but government.
What we need to consider today is how do we, as individuals of faith, respond to the horror of September 11th? Should I go out into the world meeting out our own justice? Should I punish those whom we deem guilty? Should I condemn the ones I blame for my pain and fear and anger? My grief is not nearly as deep as those who lost someone they loved on that day. The question is much harder for them. They want justice, and deserve justice. But Joseph deserved justice, too. Yet, he knew the One who can give right justice and let it to him.
So, can we live in that same attitude? Can we let God deal with the people who do us harm? Can we, as individuals, remember that God has first forgiven us and as forgiven people in the community of God we must also forgive?
The disciples wanted to understand forgiveness, too. Peter asked, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? until seven times?” Jesus had just finished telling them that their errant brothers should be treated like sinners and tax collectors—not as outsiders, but as those on whom God desires to rain His mercy and grace. Yet, it gets hard to forgive someone over and over again. Peter wonders how long he has to forgive until he does not have to forgive anymore.
Jesus says, “Not just seven times, but seventy times seven times.” I’ve heard that there is a story about a man who took this passage literally and established a record of all the times he forgave his wife. In this play, every time the woman sinned against the man he went to a board, said “I forgive you” and placed a white chalk mark on the board. He had decided that when he reached 490 marks on the board, then he could answer her sin with “POW,” whatever “POW” means.
Jesus was not limiting the amount of forgiveness we are to give, but rather telling us that life in this world means constant forgiveness. Should we even be counting every act of forgiveness, holding on to those acts of compassion as if they are debts that will eventually have to be paid when they’ve been forgiven 490 times? Is that how we continuously pay that debt of love Paul encouraged us to pay in last week’s lesson?
In the Gospel story, the king is having a court of judgment with his servants. One man owes him an outrageous sum, unpayable and yet the king forgives the debt. This would be an easy story to preach if it ended there, because we could limit our message to the mercy of God. Yet, we are not only called to live in God’s forgiveness, but also to forgive others. When the servant left the king’s presence he found another servant who owed him a debt. Though the debt was small compared to the debt he owed, the forgiven servant did not have the same mercy on his debtor, throwing him in jail until he could pay.
The debt God has forgiven each of us is so much greater than the debt of any person who has done us harm. When we refuse to forgive those debts, we assume a role greater than the King, putting ourselves in the place of God. God is just and faithful, He will ensure that everything will be right in the end. Will we see justice for those lost on September 11, 2001? No matter how much is done to punish those who did the crime, the people who lost someone will not gain anything. They will still grieve the loss. They will still remember. They might see punishment, but will everything ever be right? It will in God’s time and in God’s way. That’s why Joseph saw his life of suffering in such a positive way. He knew that God was able to do with pain something extraordinary. So, too, the pain we feel when we think of those thousands lost that day. God can, and will, do something incredible with it.
God does not hold our sins against us. The psalmist writes, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is his lovingkindness toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, So far hath he removed our transgressions from us.” He has removed our transgressions, set us free to live in His mercy and grace. The life lived in thankfulness will not bind the sins of another, but will set him or her free to also live in God’s grace. It is not easy. We know God is just and sin deserves punishment. Yet, that is not our place as individuals in this world. God will seek vengeance on those who have sinned against Him. Yet, He desires all to be set free. He desires all to be saved. He desires all to be reconciled to Him and to one another for eternity, as He originally created us to live. One day, everyone will bow. Until that day we can rest in the hope that God can, and will, use even those tragic moments in our lives to bring His grace to the world.
It is sometimes amazing how similar today’s church is to the churches we read about in the scriptures. The problems Paul and the other apostles addressed in their letters are as common for us today. There are, perhaps, some differences, but I could see Paul writing today’s passage to modern Christians. I can also see him taking this concept and replacing the problems with our conflicts. Disagreement is a fact of human life. We are different people trying to work together in a crazy, fallible world. We have a common goal, but very different visions about how to get there. By the time we get around to working together, our differences are so vast that we can’t find a way to compromise. We think compromise means giving up something that means too much to us.
Many of the Christians in Rome were former pagans. They knew that the meat that was purchased in the marketplace had most likely been sacrificed as part of the ritualistic worship of the pagan community. They did not feel they could eat that meat because they knew the source and why it had been slaughtered. They did not want to support the worship and ministry of the pagan communities, so they chose to avoid eating that meat. Paul knew that though the meat was slaughtered as part of a ceremony that the meat itself was still good and acceptable to God. He also knew that it would weigh on the conscience of those former pagans. So, he treated the issue with grace.
He called the community to join together not based on what they would eat, but on the Christ they worshipped. Eating meat or not eating meat is not a salvific issue. Instead of rejecting or judging one another, the Romans were encouraged to see Christ in their brothers and sisters and to live together in a way in which both could do the work they were called to do as a community of faith. The meat-eaters and the vegetarians all had gifts, gifts that are needed to do God’s Work. To reject or judge others means cutting off a part of the Church that Christ has called together. We tend to think the world must conform to our vision. But the reality is that God has a much greater vision in mind than any of us human beings can imagine, a vision that includes all believers using their gifts for His sake.
Matters of salvation are not up to us, thankfully, because none of us has the ability to truly put aside our own pain, fear and anger to do what is truly right in God’s eyes. That is why we should be like Joseph, and give it to God. He will do what is right. He will take care of us. He will provide the justice we deserve. We might not see it today or even in this lifetime, but in the end He will prove faithful. Our task is only to pass on the grace we received, to live as if we are forgiven and share that gift with others. Forgiveness does not mean that we have to dwell in the same house as our offender; it just means that we recognize that that offender might just be living in the same Kingdom as us.
Forgiveness means letting God decide. Can we do that? Can we be like Corrie Ten Boom and Joseph? Will we recognize the forgiveness God has first given us and pass it on in forgiveness to those who have done us harm? That is the lesson for this Sunday and perhaps that is the lesson that we, as individuals, must learn for September 11th. Then we as a nation can face the reality of human judgment with clarity and peace, judging the crime with wisdom and authority and not fear, anger and pain.
“But I trusted in thee, O Jehovah: I said, Thou art my God. My times are in thy hand: Deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me. Make thy face to shine upon thy servant: Save me in thy lovingkindness. Let me not be put to shame, O Jehovah; for I have called upon thee: Let the wicked be put to shame, let them be silent in Sheol. Let the lying lips be dumb, Which speak against the righteous insolently, With pride and contempt. Oh how great is thy goodness, Which thou hast laid up for them that fear thee, Which thou hast wrought for them that take refuge in thee, Before the sons of men! In the covert of thy presence wilt thou hide them from the plottings of man: Thou wilt keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues.” Psalm 31:14-20, ASV
I went to a show with my sister in Austin last night, and it turned out to be a very long show. We did not get out of the show until well after 10:30 p.m. and then I needed to drive to drive home. It is well after midnight before I got home. Bruce is out of town for a few days, so I had to take care of the kitties, clean the litter box and give them their evening treats. Then I needed to relax a bit, check my email and Facebook on the computer and wind down from the evening. I read for awhile and finally fell asleep a few minutes after 2:00 a.m.
I don’t use an alarm clock since I don’t have to be awake at any particular time. My plan was to sleep late, to get my full night’s worth of sleep. I had nothing on my schedule, so it was not a problem. I knew the cats might be a problem, but they usually pester Bruce but they tend to leave me alone on those mornings when Bruce is not around. Unfortunately, I did not realize Bruce’s alarm was set to go off at his usual hour of 5:45 a.m. When the kitties heard the alarm, they came running. They began to pester me for breakfast; after all, that bell means that they get food! That’s what they think, anyway.
Of course, the alarm has nothing to do with the kitties, it is meant to wake Bruce so that he can get ready for work. They’ve made the connection because he always feeds them after it goes off. We like to think that our animals are very smart, that they can do things like tell time, but the reality is that they do what they do based on instinct and learning. They know what time to eat because they are hungry and certain things happen regularly. When Bruce comes home late from work, he gives them treats. It is hard when he comes home early, because he doesn’t want give them the treats at that hour, but they expect that when he walks through the door that he’ll give them the treats.
We might have a more developed brain, but we aren’t much different than our kitties. We have learned behavior; we expect things to happen at certain times and in certain ways. We expect mail to be in the mailbox, supper to be on the table, Hobby Lobby to have a 40% off coupon every other week. We expect our favorite television shows to be on at certain times and on certain channels. We expect the school children will be walking home from school around 3:00. We plan our day around these expectations, rushing home for dinner and avoiding the roads when they are filled with children.
We can usually tell what the weather will be like by the signs we see around us. When the wind blows a certain way, we can expect rain. When the hummingbirds appear in spring we know warmer weather is coming. When the walnuts fall from the tree, we know that winter is coming. When these signs appear, we change our patterns. We dig out different clothing. We carry and umbrella. These things come naturally, they are learned behaviors based on our experiences. Just like the kitties expecting food at a certain hour in the morning and treats at night, we expect things to happen as they have so many times before and we find it difficult to cope when it doesn’t work out that way.
Thankfully, the kitties got the hint and went back to sleep fairly quickly this morning. I didn’t get to sleep really late, but I didn’t have to get up at 5:45 a.m., either. They only pestered for a few minutes, but then returned when they heard me rolling around. They trusted that I would feed them in time.
What do we do when the expectations from our own learned behaviors do not come to fruition? What do we do when it doesn’t really rain when we think it will? What do we do when supper isn’t on the table at the usual hour? What do we do when winter doesn’t come? Do we adapt or do we complain? Do we pester or do we trust? The psalmist has come to trust in God. He or she seeks the help of God when things are not going as they expect. Can we do the same?
“Put on therefore, as God's elect, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving each other, if any man have a complaint against any; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye: and above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to the which also ye were called in one body; and be ye thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God. And whatsoever ye do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Colossians 3:12-17, ASV
At a press conference this week, the singer and movie star Madonna received a bouquet of hydrangeas from a fan. Admittedly, hydrangeas are not the most likely flower to use in a bouquet since they are large, delicate and odorous. We’ve had them in our gardens, large bushes that add a spot of bright color and a lingering scent, but I never thought to cut the flowers and display them in a vase. It is not surprising, then, that someone might not like to be given cut hydrangeas as a gift.
Now, this particular gift might not have even been known, since Madonna most certainly receives more fan gifts than she can use. I’m sure most things end up in a closet, donated to the local thrift shop or even in a garbage can. The flowers could have easily been passed off to a staff member to be dealt with. The incident will long be remembered, however, for the response of the star. When she received the gift she smiled and said, “Thank you,” but as soon as he was gone she threw the flowers under the table said to the woman next to her, “I absolutely loathe hydrangeas. He obviously doesn’t know that.”
This particular statement was caught on camera; after all, Madonna was having a press conference at the time. Since then, the clip has made it onto the Internet. Once on the world wide web, nothing is ever lost. There’s no way to take it down. The file was sent to millions of people in a matter of minutes, and is now the talk of the town. Though she was gracious to the fan’s face, she will be remembered for the ungraciousness that appeared behind his back.
What I find most interesting is that this comment has produced a viral sensation beyond the video. People are very quick to search the Internet for things they do not know. It doesn’t take much to send a word or phrase over the top on search engines. On Monday, millions of people searched for hydrangeas. They wanted to learn about the flower. Another place that saw heavy traffic was an online dictionary. Many people wanted to find the meaning of the word “loathe.” I wonder how many were disappointed when they discovered the word means, “to dislike greatly and often with disgust or intolerance.”
We’ve all gotten a gift we do not like. How do we deal with it? Do we smile sweetly and then throw the gift in the garbage with a catty remark? Or do we receive it and find some way of honoring the giver, even behind their backs? Kindness is not meant to be something we do only when we are face to face with people. We are to be kind even when they can’t see it. That’s what it means to live as God has called us to live, in word and deed in light and in darkness. It might not seem very important, especially when the gift is nothing but a perishable bouquet of flowers. So let us face one another with love and love one another even when we aren’t face to face, treating them with kindness always.
“For thus saith Jehovah of hosts: As I thought to do evil unto you, when your fathers provoked me to wrath, saith Jehovah of hosts, and I repented not; so again have I thought in these days to do good unto Jerusalem and to the house of Judah: fear ye not. These are the things that ye shall do: speak ye every man the truth with his neighbor; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates; and let none of you devise evil in your hearts against his neighbor; and love no false oath: for all these are things that I hate, saith Jehovah.” Zechariah 8:14-17
The plaintiff complained that the online leather store was guilty of false advertising. His argument was that since they refused to ship his merchandise at the price ‘advertised,’ then he deserved a judgment of $300. Now, we’ve all worked with computers and we know that mistakes are easy to make. The company explained that they had recently changed computers and in the process some of the information on the website was not inputted properly. It sounded as if the guy might have even made his purchase during the turnover process. We might expect to receive merchandise at the price we see listed on a website, but I think we’ve all learned that mistakes happen and we recognize the difference between false advertising and a computer error.
This guy insisted that he didn’t think it was an error. He said he saw the unbelievable price but he thought the company would get him on shipping. He ordered an extraordinary amount of the product, merchandise worth thousands of dollars. The price that registered was $0.00. When his sale was finished, the total was $0.00. Even when there was no charge for shipping, the man insisted that he should get the product for the price that came up during his sale. He firmly he believed that he should get thousands of dollars of this product for nothing. He knew what it was worth, because he’d paid the price from that company many times before, but he refused to accept that there is a difference between an error and false advertising.
The judge explained that false advertising gets the buyer into the sale and then makes a switch that is detrimental to the buyer. An example of that would be advertising one product for a fantastic price, but then replacing it with a much more expensive product. In the case of this order, the price on the website was obviously a mistake. The man even admitted it during the court case and in emails following the order. He called their attention to the mistake, but then expected to still get the ridiculous price!
Obviously the judge ruled in the defendant’s favor. I think that if she could have legally done so, she would have given the defendant a monetary settlement for being dragged to court over such a preposterous claim. How could he possibly expect to receive a $300 settlement when he had not lost anything?
I would like to believe that all judges are as fair and right as the television judge who made the ruling with wisdom and justice, but I’m not sure that it is true. We have all heard ridiculous rulings where judges award financial settlements that do not fit the supposed offense. They do so not for the sake of justice, but to send a message or teach a lesson. They do so because they have the power to do whatever they choose, lifting high the underdog even if that is not what is truly right according to the law. God is ready and willing to bless those who speak the truth and execute justice and peace. Are we ready to receive those blessings? Are we ready to do all that God asks of us?
“If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassions, make full my joy, that ye be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.” Philippians 2:1-4, ASV
The sign on the local animal shelter read, “Homework eaters available now.” Now, I’m sure the teachers at the school across the street didn’t appreciate the humor as much as me, but I have to admit that I did laugh. I don’t think it is the best reason to get a dog, but with back to school in the air, it was certainly appropriate.
When I got home, I discovered a video online from Marlo Thomas, who happened to be in a park asking strangers “What’s the point in having a pet?” Of course, the clip included humorous answers, or so I would hope. The best answers included the joy that they give, their calming effects, unqualified and whole hearted love, stress relievers. One man said, “I’m sure she’s added years onto my life.” Animals are excited when we get home, they love us and they give us something to love.
A few of the responders thought that animals made a good substitute for human beings. At least a few said that pets were better than children. They are cheaper and easier. One woman said, “They aren’t as intrusive as a mate.” One girl said pets are good for when you just can’t find love anywhere else. The love pets give is certainly easier than that of human companions, who require more of our resources, body, mind and spirit. But can they really replace human companionship?
It might seem so, for some people. I’ve seen plaintiffs on those court shows who have sued someone for harming a pet. They expect not only financial settlements for the costs of veterinary care, but they also demand money for pain and suffering. Unfortunately, in the eyes of the law, pets are property no matter how much we love them. It is truly heartbreaking to lose a beloved pet, but that pain can’t be replaced by a few hundred dollars awarded by a court.
Pets are helpful in that arena, however, as they often serve to give children their first experience with death. Pets also help parents teach responsibility, as the parents can assign chores related to the animals. Pets often provide a first chance for children to care for another individual, to take care of them by feeding, watering and cleaning up after their messes. Pets do keep us company when we are lonely and can be extremely entertaining. In some cases, pets have been lifesaving, as they’ve done some extraordinary thing to save owners. Some pets are necessary to the daily welfare of their people. Those working pets can be the eyes, ears and even hands of someone disabled.
The animal shelter and some of the respondents might have been flippant with their answers, but we do know that pets serve a valuable purpose in our lives. It might be different for each of us, since we each have different needs. In way, my kitties have replaced my children, since they’ve gone off to college. They have become my children and I love to have them around. Yet, they will never really be able to replace my kids. They are calming and make me feel needed. They love me, and the rest of my family, without condition. They play an important role in our lives.
So, if you were asked the question, “What’s the point in having a pet?” how would you answer? This might just be an easier question than the one we need to ask ourselves on a regular basis, which is “What is the point of my life?” We spend our lives trying to discover why we are here. What is our purpose? Whose lives are touched by the things that I do? Am I making a positive impact on the world in which I live? Is there something I should be doing that I have not yet discovered?
Our pets are happy to be in our lives, accepting the purpose we have given to them. They chase the balls we throw and eat the food we give to them. They tolerate the petting and sometimes even deem to sit on our laps or cuddle on our beds. They are there when we open the door at night and they follow us to bed. They fulfill their purpose. They may not ever really know what it is they are here to do, but they do it anyway. We might not even realize the reason we keep our pets around, but we know life is better with them. Are we happy to be in this world, even if we do not really know why we are here? Do we do what we can with grace and peace? Do we live with purpose, even if we don’t know what purpose we’ve been given?
Scriptures for Sunday, September 18, 2011, Lectionary 25A: Jonah 3:10-4:11; Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
“One generation shall laud thy works to another, And shall declare thy mighty acts.” Psalm 145:4, ASV
A couple days ago I wrote about a guy who took an online store to court because the price that was “advertised” was $0.00. At first he thought that the company was running a special and that they would hit him with high shipping costs, but in the end his total bill came to $0.00. It was obviously a mistake, and he sent an email to the company making note of it. The company was thankful for the man’s email because it made them aware of the problem which they fixed immediately. Imagine their surprise, then, when he sued them for false advertising, seeking an award of $300 for false advertising. He expected the order, which was worth thousands of dollars, to be shipped to him for free. When it wasn’t, he sought damages. In the end, the judge ruled in the company’s favor, they were not guilty of false advertising.
I make a lot of mistakes on my website. I’ve found links that don’t work and grammatical errors. On one occasion I ended the devotional with half a sentence and the next day I couldn’t even figure out what I meant to say. I’ve hit that ‘send mail’ button only to realize that I’ve sent an email I should not have sent. Computers might be excellent tools for us in this day, but they aren’t without error. Human beings are imperfect and computer space is vast. A company with thousands of items for sale might never know about an online error until causes a problem, as was the circumstance in that court case. Anyone who works on the Internet must have people who are willing to speak up when there is an error and have grace in the process, or companies will be forced to go out of business from the consequences of their errors.
But we like to benefit from other people’s errors. We don’t mind when someone gives us an extra quarter in our change or when the computer makes a mistake that gives us a deal. We are quick to cry out when that price comes up too high, but we cheer when it is lower than we expect. When someone has made a mistake that harms us, we demand justice, but when they make a mistake in our favor, even if it will harm them, we let it go. Sometimes, when the error comes at the hands of someone who has done us wrong, we praise God for bringing justice in an unexpected way.
How often, however, do we see evil when the reality is that the enemy does not even know there’s something wrong? That man who wanted something for nothing decided that the company was evil because they didn’t give him what he wanted. In his mind, justice would be in his favor no matter how it might harm the ignorant party. That’s what happened with Jonah.
Now, Jonah had good reason to hate the Ninevites. They were, indeed, his enemy. They’d murdered his people in border skirmishes and wreaked havoc on their lives. Jonah had no room in his heart for forgiveness. So, when God called him to warn them about their sin so that they might repent, Jonah didn’t want to do it. He ran in the other direction trying to hide from God. He found that it was an impossible task, and after a few days in the belly of a big fish, he went to Nineveh and spoke God’s word to the people.
The people heard and believed. They turned their lives around and sought God’s forgiveness. They did what He required and He had mercy on them. That’s where we join the story in today’s scriptures. Jonah did what he was supposed to do, but even in so doing had some hope that God would do what he felt was right. They were his enemy. They didn’t deserve mercy; they deserved to experience the justice that would benefit Jonah and his people. They deserved to suffer. Jonah was offended by the idea that God could have grace on such a people. “And he prayed unto Jehovah, and said, I pray thee, O Jehovah, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I hasted to flee unto Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repentest thee of the evil.” He knew that God was merciful and he did what he could to guarantee his own justice. When the people repented and God relented, Jonah got mad.
The very thing that God does to make us worship and praise Him is the very thing that makes us most angry. We embrace His grace when it is applied to our lives, but hate when it is given to those who hurt us. Jonah was so angry that he wanted to die. He no longer wanted to live in a world where his enemies were given mercy. He thought it better to die than live seeing God’s lovingkindness given to those that did so much harm to his people.
I think it is interesting that the first time God asks Jonah if he has a right to be mad, Jonah remains silent. He simply left town and went out into the desert. He still had hope that God would do what was right. He made a booth and waited to see what would happen to the city. I suppose we all have hope that our enemies will do something to screw up, to disappoint God and then send Him over the edge. If they screw up, God will certainly see that mercy was the wrong thing to do and will give us the justice we deserve. So, Jonah waited.
While he waited, God decided to give him a lesson in love. He caused a bush to grow up around Jonah, and it provided shade and comfort to him in the heat of the day. Jonah was happy about the bush, but the next day the bush had been destroyed by a worm. The wind blew and Jonah was so uncomfortable that he wanted to die.
The last time Jonah said that he wanted to die, God asked, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Jonah didn’t answer, perhaps because he knew that God was the authority and he had no right to be angry with God’s decisions. This second time he wanted to die, God asked again, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” Now Jonah had something to be angry about and he said so. “Yes, I have a right to be angry. I loved that bush and now it is gone.” God answered, “See, now you know how I feel.”
God cares about all people, and in the case of the Ninevites, He knew that they were ignorant of their sin. That’s why He sent Jonah in the first place. They needed to hear God’s Word and know that they were not living rightly. They needed to know that the way they were treating God’s people was wrong and that God was angry. They needed to know that there was a second chance, and that if they repented they would be saved from the destruction they deserved.
There are many in our world today that need that chance to repent, to turn to God, to hear about His grace. Are we willing to be the voice? Are we willing to give them a chance? Or will we keep the Good News to ourselves so that they will get what we think they deserve?
This takes us to the other tough passage for today: the story of the generous employer. Now, this is not a story that should lead us to the understanding that every employee should get paid the same amount no matter how much they work. It is a reminder that the master has a right to be as generous as he pleases. We should not apply this to modern workplaces; it is not a rule for pay tables. It is a salvation story and the pay is God’s grace.
Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who went out to hire field hands for the day. As the day progressed, the landowner went out to find more and more helpers for the field. Finally, at five o'clock in the afternoon he found a group of workers standing idle on the street. He asked, “Why stand ye here all the day idle?” They answered, “Because no man hath hired us.” He sent them to the field, too, even if it was for only an hour. When it came time to pay the workers, the landowner paid the last ones hired first and he gave them a day's wage. The first ones hired were sure that they would get something special, a bonus for working more hours. However, when it came time for them to receive their pay, it was what they were promised.
The workers thought this was unfair. They had labored a long time through the heat of the sun. Didn't they deserve more than the workers that only worked an hour? They are a lot like Jonah, unwilling to allow God’s grace for those late hires that did not deserve to be paid so well. They fought for their rights, unwilling to take anything less or give anything more to the others. If we think about this story in light of our heavenly reward, don’t we do the same thing? Don’t we decide that our enemies do not deserve to spend eternity with Jesus because they don’t deserve the same grace?
But we are reminded by today’s passages that our enemies belong to God, too, and since He is God, He is the one who chooses what to do with His people. Whether baptized as a baby or converted on a deathbed, all those who hear God’s voice and turn to Him will receive mercy. Are we willing to be God’s voice to those for those to whom we’ve been sent, especially those we would rather not see benefit from God’s grace?
Imagine what it must have been like for Paul. When he wrote the letter to Philippi, he was in prison. Despite his suffering, Paul continued to do the work of Christ. He preached the Gospel to anyone who would listen, including those who were his captors. He was unfairly bound by the laws of Rome and I can imagine that he had many moments of doubt and uncertainty. Like Jonah, Paul probably wondered often whether it was even worth his living to see the pain around him. He had a right to be angry because he was unjustly being persecuted for his faith. Yet, Paul knew that even the time in prison was for the glory of God. The work he could do there would help grow the kingdom and spread the Gospel. Even if he suffered martyrdom, it would be for Christ and His Church. He knew that he still had work to do and while he wanted to receive his reward immediately, he knew the time would come.
It is often said that we will be surprised when we get to heaven and see some of the people who are there. How will we feel? Will we be like the field workers and battle the landowner over his generosity? Will we be like Jonah, so angry that we would rather die than live with them?
God has granted us the privilege of believing in Jesus and suffering for Him. What does this mean for us today? For some, it means everything that goes wrong in their life is some statement by God about sin or His response to our actions or lack of action. For others, every burden is a cross to bear, the suffering they have been called to do for God. Yet, the suffering Christ calls us to is like that of Paul, and of Jonah, to go out into the world and share the message of forgiveness and mercy with those who are dying in their sin. It isn't easy to preach repentance to those who are our enemies. It might mean we will be dealt with unjustly and we might just feel like we would rather die than see their salvation.
However, God has not given us His grace to keep for ourselves. He has given us His grace to be shared, even with our enemy. He may have given you a special message for a friend that you would rather not share. Yet, God will not let go. You can try to run and try to hide, but it won't work. God loves even those who do not love Him and He desires that they hear His word of grace so that they might repent and come to worship Him too.
The psalmist writes, “One generation shall laud thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts.” Like Jonah, we are called to take the message of grace into the world. But we are not given the responsibility to decide who gets how much of our Father’s love. That’s up to God. We can’t pick and choose who we want to hear the Gospel. We can’t decide someone doesn’t deserve to receive mercy. We can’t get angry if we see our enemies turn to God and receive salvation. Whether we are part of God’s kingdom for a lifetime, a day or a minute, those with faith will spend eternity with God.
The Lord is indeed gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We thank God for that because we are as imperfect as our neighbor. We need His grace and mercy as much as our neighbor. How blessed are we that we have received the grace that made us part of God’s kingdom. That grace has given us strength and courage, hope and peace, joy and love that makes our life worth living. We have that grace to get us through the bad times and help us do what is good and right in the world. That grace gives us the wisdom to treat our neighbor with respect and to value them as God does. Don’t we want to share that with others so that they don’t have to wait until that last minute to have what we have enjoyed our whole lives? Who knows, we might just discover our enemies make wonderful friends.
“And the king sent, and they gathered unto him all the elders of Judah and of Jerusalem. And the king went up to the house of Jehovah, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of Jehovah. And the king stood by the pillar, and made a covenant before Jehovah, to walk after Jehovah, and to keep his commandments, and his testimonies, and his statutes, with all his heart, and all his soul, to confirm the words of this covenant that were written in this book: and all the people stood to the covenant.” 2 Kings 23:1-3, ASV
I’m trying to decide if I want to make one last trip to my local Borders store, which will close forever on Sunday. I’ve been there several times since the going out of business sale started, and I’ve bought way too many books. My bookshelves are overflowing with books I have yet to read, and though I have more time to read these days it is going to be difficult to get through them all. It doesn’t help that I have learned to love my e-reader; it is easier to carry and has some other benefits that you just can’t get from books.
It is sad that the bookstore is closing. Even though I have been reading books through my e-reader, I never stopped visiting the store. It is helpful to peruse the shelves for new authors or to find titles from old favorites. Despite the e-reader, I continued to purchase tangible books because there are always texts that are good to have in hand for research or to share with others. Some of the books I bought over the past few weeks have been specifically purchased for someone else, as gifts or because I think they might enjoy the topic.
Reading has always been important in our house. My children had books in their hands from a very early age. Their first books were cloth, board or plastic, used more for teething than reading, but they learned to hold them in those early days. One of my favorite early pictures of Victoria has her lying in her crib with a Newsweek open over her head. When we went out, there was always a book in the diaper bag to keep the children from getting bored. In church the children opened the hymnals or bibles, even if they could not read a word. They imitated the adults, following along as best they could.
The early access to books made a difference. Both children were very early readers, far ahead of their peers. It was problematic in a few ways. Victoria often had a difficult time with creative writing because she got frustrated by her spelling mistakes. She knew what she wanted to say and she tried to spell the words, but when she read them she knew it wasn’t right. Zack was a frustration to his kindergarten teacher who would read to them by holding the picture book up, facing the class. When we are reading familiar stories, it is easy to skip over a word or ad-lib what the page says. Zack’s teacher couldn’t do that because he was reading along. Despite these frustrations, early reading has helped in making both kids successful in school and in life.
Since I have kids who do read well, I forget that other students are not given the same opportunities. I’m shocked to hear that there are some children who have no access to books in the home. This is even truer today than ever. Instead of carrying a book to occupy a child, many parents will just hand them their iPhone. I heard a story today of a person who bought one for their nine-year old. We no longer read books to get information; we now sit down at the computer and google the topic. We don’t even read whole articles anymore: we read until we get what we want. Journalists know that most people won’t get beyond the second or third paragraph. I know that I will often skim a news story first and look for key words. If it seems interesting, then I will read the whole thing.
There may be many reasons, but the average test scores for reading on the SATs have dropped dramatically over the last decade. This is unfortunate, because reading is necessary for success in everything. It might not seem necessary for a laborer to have reading abilities, but the man or woman who can read will have a better chance of promotion. They can read instruction manuals, do a better job following the directions for materials and tools. They will be able to respond to written orders from supervisors and prove they can work without constant supervision. You can think of similar advantages for any job.
I wonder if this has carried over into matters of faith. If we are so lazy that we aren’t reading books, are we lazy in our Bible reading, too? How many of us read the passages given in daily devotionals like this one, but never open the Bible to read the words in context or go beyond what is found in the email? One devotional I use suggests a multi-verse text, but only publishes a part of one verse. I have to admit that I rarely open the Bible to read the entire text. It is easy to go to church on a Sunday to hear what a preacher has to say about the Bible, but do we read the text for ourselves? It is terrific to have chotchkies with favorite verses around our house, but do we really even read the words anymore?
The people had neither read, nor heard read, the scriptures and they’d lost touch with the God who was their Creator and Redeemer. They were not living according to God’s Law or as the people He had created them to be. They forgot because the scriptures were lost and buried for too long and they suffered for it. Josiah learned of their failure and he ordered the reading of the words. The people stood amazed at what they heard and they began again to live according to God’s purpose for their lives. Have we, perhaps, lost touch with the God who loves us because we have stopped reading the words He gave us to live by?
“So then, my beloved, even as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure. Do all things without murmurings and questionings: that ye may become blameless and harmless, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom ye are seen as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life; that I may have whereof to glory in the day of Christ, that I did not run in vain neither labor in vain. Yea, and if I am offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all: and in the same manner do ye also joy, and rejoice with me.” Philippians 2:12-18, ASV
We have an ice maker in our refrigerator and I have to admit that I use a lot of the ice. I drink tea constantly and use the ice in the tea and in the making of the tea. It is not unusual, when everyone is in the house, for the bucket to dwindle down to just a few cubes. It is not such a problem these days with the kids at college and Bruce has been out of town, so it is just me using the ice this week.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered I was out of ice last night. I thought, at first, that the machine was broken because it was making an odd noise and nothing was coming out. I opened the freezer door and noticed that the bar that turns the maker on and off was in the off position. I don’t know how that happened or when, but it means that no ice was made while it was off. It could have been days. If the machine doesn’t make the ice but I keep using it, I’m eventually going to run out.
That’s how it is for a lot of things. Think about language. How many of us took some foreign language course in High School, but can’t speak a word of it today because we haven’t used it for thirty years? A musician has a hard time getting a good note the first time they pick up an instrument after a long hiatus. It takes time to build up athletic ability after a break in training. I’m still relearning how to use my paint and paintbrushes after thirty years. So many things require constant attention or they end up like the ice bucket: empty.
The same is true of spiritual things. We can’t expect to have a good relationship with our neighbor if we never talk to them, why would it be different with God? In yesterday’s devotion we saw that Josiah restored a relationship with God that had been lost to God’s people for lack of work. They did not pray or study the scriptures. They did not do the things God had commanded them to do. And because they lost touch with Him, He no longer provided them with the blessings that came from living in Him. We, too, can lose those blessings, not because He has left us but because we’ve let the relationship fade. Being a Christian takes work. It takes time, prayer, worship, Bible study communion and community with other Christians.
If we do not, as Paul writes, continue to work out our salvation, we’ll find one day that the ice bucket is empty. So let’s continue to do all those things that keep us close to God, remembering always all that He has done for us. So spend time today reading, praying and worshipping the God of your salvation. Share God’s grace with someone. Live as you have been called to live. Then you may run out of ice cubes, but you’ll continue to experience the blessings of God.
“At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release that which he hath lent unto his neighbor; he shall not exact it of his neighbor and his brother; because Jehovah's release hath been proclaimed. Of a foreigner thou mayest exact it: but whatsoever of thine is with thy brother thy hand shall release. Howbeit there shall be no poor with thee; (for Jehovah will surely bless thee in the land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it;) if only thou diligently hearken unto the voice of Jehovah thy God, to observe to do all this commandment which I command thee this day. For Jehovah thy God will bless thee, as he promised thee: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, but thou shalt not borrow; and thou shalt rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over thee. If there be with thee a poor man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates in thy land which Jehovah thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy poor brother; but thou shalt surely open thy hand unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need in that which he wanteth. Beware that there be not a base thought in thy heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou give him nought; and he cry unto Jehovah against thee, and it be sin unto thee. Thou shalt surely give him, and thy heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him; because that for this thing Jehovah thy God will bless thee in all thy work, and in all that thou puttest thy hand unto. For the poor will never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto thy brother, to thy needy, and to thy poor, in thy land.” Deuteronomy 15:1-11, ASV
On an episode of one of those judge shows, the judge faced a female plaintiff who had loaned a boyfriend some money. This is probably the most common situation, and on this particular episode, the judge questioned her bailiff about why this is always a woman suing a man. “Why, in ten years of doing this, have I never seen a man as the plaintiff and a woman as the defendant?” The point was that the women generally are more willing to take the risk for the relationship. In too many cases, the woman thinks that she can buy the man’s love.
These relationships are often very new, with the loans happening within months, weeks or even days of first meeting. The woman will often take out a cell phone account because for some reason the men never have good credit. The judge usually says, “He didn’t have good credit and you expected him to pay you?” The guy might pay a bill or two, but he always gets behind, and then when they break up a month or so later, she’s stuck with a cell phone bill or a cancelation fee.
The women say that they gave the loan or opened the cell phone account because they wanted to be nice. “He needed it.” The defendant usually claims that the loan was a gift or that he paid her back in other ways. When it comes to the cell phones, they generally say that the woman wanted him to have a phone so that she could keep in touch. “I didn’t want the phone, she made me take it. I never agreed to pay the bill,” he says. The judge gets so frustrated with these cases because she knows that the women are too kind and foolish with their money and the men are manipulative and shrewd. Perhaps the answer to the judge’s question about why it is always women suing men in this type of case is that women are nurturing. They are willing to help those in need. In the end, however, when love fails, they realize that they’ve wasted their resources on someone who doesn’t really care for them and then they get angry. What may have been a willingness to help turns into an expectation for repayment, so they sue.
In the end there may be some truth to the man’s claims that it was a gift turned bad when the relationship ended. The hardest part about watching those cases is that I understand the attitude of wanting to help. If someone asked me for a loan I might say yes, to lend them a hand. Sometimes, especially in times like these, all we need is a few dollars to get through to the next payday. We all run into difficult times, even if we have enough. We might need help if a car breaks down or a family member gets sick. Many people are facing disaster, fire or flood, and might need enough to rent an apartment until the insurance comes through. There are good reasons to loan money to a friend.
In Bible days, people were expected to help one another, and apparently it was common practice to lend money between friends. A farmer might need money to buy seed or a carpenter to buy tools. The loan could easily be repaid at the harvest or when a project is complete. But they also had a practice of forgiving debt at the jubilee. During that year, all debts were canceled, no matter how much is owed. It is no wonder that a neighbor might be hesitant to make a loan in the days before jubilee because they know they’ll never see that money again. Yet, the neighbor is still in need. He still needs food to feed his family and clothes for them to wear.
Today’s scripture does not say that we should not make loans to our neighbors, but it encourages us to look at the loan from a different point of view, the way those women tend to look at it. When we make a loan to our neighbor, we can ask for it to be repaid, and when our neighbor is in need we should help them in any way we can. There may be times when we have to give the money to our neighbor whether they can pay it or not. We have to help our neighbor without condition or expectation. Does this mean that those women should have let the men have the cell phones? No, but the scripture encourages us to help the needy as we are able without concern for repayment.
“Charge them that are rich in this present world, that they be not highminded, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on the life which is life indeed.” 1 Timothy 6:17-19, ASV
A woman checked her lottery tickets and was delightfully surprised to discover she had won! She played the same numbers for years, patiently waiting for luck to go her way and for the balls to fall to her benefit. Unfortunately for the woman, the newspaper had printed the wrong numbers. She was terribly disappointed. Now, the numbers they printed were the ones from the last drawing, so you might think she won anyway. After all, she had been playing the same numbers for years. However, for some odd reason, she had not played her usual numbers that day. She did a quick pick instead. So, the one day her usual numbers were pulled was the one day she didn’t play them. After all those years of trying, she failed when it mattered most.
The day I turned 18, I began buying lottery tickets. I bought one a week and I played the same numbers every time. It took three years, but my numbers finally hit. I didn’t match all the numbers, but I matched enough to win something. After about $1.00 a week for 150 weeks, I won a total of $24.00, the lowest payout in that particular lottery’s history. Up until that day I’d hoped that maybe I would win lots of money. From that moment on, I knew I couldn’t count on the lottery for my future. Oh, I still play once in a while, for the fun of it. And I think about all the ways I could use the winnings. But I don’t plan my budget around that jackpot.
We always think, “If I just had a few more dollars, I would be ok.” It doesn’t matter how much is in our paycheck or bank account, we always need just a few more. You would think there’s a time when we would be satisfied, but it seems like with every zero added to our salary we think we need more. We hope a raise or a financial windfall will change out life, but it doesn’t. We can’t trust that money will make life better. We can’t trust our jobs or the lottery to make us happy and fulfilled. We won’t ever be satisfied if we depend on wealth to do so.
Contentment comes with being satisfied with what you have. If more comes, then contentment continues, but if it doesn’t, we can still be happy in our circumstances. We can’t trust in wealth, but we can trust that God will make sure that we always have enough. Will that be enough to buy the big house or eat out at expensive restaurants? Of course not! Enough means enough for today, enough to live on, enough to share with our neighbor. We might like to think that if only we had a few more dollars then we could share, but God has given us enough. So, when we trust that He will continue to provide enough, we are content and willing to share.
Scriptures for Sunday, September 25, 2011, Lectionary 26A: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-8; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
“Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus…” Philippians 2:5, ASV
Modern signet rings are generally worn by alumni of a school, showing others that they were students. At some universities, the rings are part of an ancient tradition and help alumni connect with others. When they see a ring from their school, they know that they have found a brother or sister. The ritual behind the rings is often elaborate with an event that rivals graduation. Receiving the ring means you’ve almost made it, that you have almost finished one era of your life and are about to embark on a new adventure.
Ancient signet rings had a much more important purpose. The rings were engraved with a family crest or a coat of arms, an identifying picture engraved in reverse that was used to seal documents. A lord or king had a signet ring that established authority. Anyone carrying a message with the seal was accepted as the voice of his master. The seal made it official and the king’s subjects were expected to receive the messenger as if he or she were the king. He had authority to make decisions in the king’s name and the subjects were expected to abide by those decisions. The king gave the authority by marking his chosen with the seal.
As one with the king’s authority, the messenger was expected to make the decision in the king’s and the kingdom’s best interests. In those days there was no such thing as cell phones or the Internet. The messenger could not email the king and ask his opinion. It might take days or even months for a messenger to get from one place to another. It was important that the one chosen be responsible and faithful. Given the seal or even the signet ring did not give the messenger the power to do what he or she wanted, but the authority to do what the king commanded.
Paul writes, “Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross.” These words are from the Carmen Christi or Hymn of Christ. They speak of a mind like that of the king’s messenger: a mind of humility, obedience and self-denial. Christ is like God, is God’s Son, is God, but He lowered Himself to be a servant, to do God’s will for the sake of others. His life was given for the sake of the world, that all might be saved.
The intent of God is that all will come to Him. Does that mean all will come to Him? We can’t possibly know. The scriptures are clear that some will be outside the city walls where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. God does not want anyone to die. He does not want anyone to suffer the fate of the wicked. He is waiting with mercy and grace for all who turn to Him.
We think that we are different than those who lived in biblical times, but we have the same broken hearts and perishable flesh. The people to whom Ezekiel was speaking knew and understood the scriptures from a point of view that they were specially chosen and preferred by God. So, they saw suffering as a punishment for sinfulness. If someone was sick or poor, they were so because they’d done something wrong. Those who were righteous were given the blessings of God. We think with that same mind. When we face some sort of suffering we ask the question, “Why me?” or “What have I done to deserve this?” Then, when our suffering is extended to our children, we accept the proverb because we know that God promised it to be so in the Law. Deuteronomy 5:8-10 says, “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them; for I, Jehovah, thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the third and upon the fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing lovingkindness unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.” So, we see in the Ten Commandments that the sour grapes of our parents will set our own teeth on edge.
There may be something about this proverb, after all, the sins of the father might just cause suffering in the children. A smoker does not know the damage he does to the health of his children. An abuser can cause the abused to become an abuser. We often hear stories of the children of criminals that are left with little choice than to continue the pattern of crime because they have no parents to teach them the ways of righteousness.
However, Ezekiel tells the people, “When the righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and dieth therein; in his iniquity that he hath done shall he die. Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive. Because he considereth, and turneth away from all his transgressions that he hath committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.” God will judge a man or a woman according to their own deeds, not the deeds of their fathers; it is only the person who sins that shall die.
There are those who say that generational sin is unavoidable. The son will continue the sins of the fathers and therefore continue to suffer from it. Yet, we know that it is not true. A son can break away from the lifestyle that sends a father to prison. A daughter can live a life that that does not begin with motherhood too early. We can break away from the past and do what God intends for our lives. The final verse of today’s passage reminds us of God’s hope for all His people, “For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord Jehovah: wherefore turn yourselves, and live.” We can turn and live.
Now, there are those among the people of God who thought it was unfair that the sinners might be saved. We find it hard to accept the lesson of last week, where the generous landowner paid the late workers the same amount as those who worked through the heat of the day. Yet, in salvific terms, the deathbed conversion is as welcome in heaven as the person who was baptized as a baby and who lived the Christian faith for their whole lives. According to the Gospel lesson for this week, the one converted on the deathbed might just be more welcome than the lifelong Christian.
I suppose that doesn’t sound fair, but listen to the words of Christ, “But what think ye? A man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to-day in the vineyard. And he answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented himself, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Which of the two did the will of his father?” So, what’s the answer? Which of the two did the will of the Father? The one who came to obedience late, or the one that said the words but never really obeyed?
The chief priests and elders thought they had the authority to speak for God, yet they were acting on their own authority. They had interpreted God’s Law in a way that made it a burden for the people that was impossible to carry. Even they only carried the burden as far as it was convenient, but condemned the people for their unrighteousness. They took the authority given to them by God and made it their own. Instead of speaking in God’s voice for the sake of the people, they spoke their own voices for their own sakes. They made living for God a self-serving endeavor.
That’s what Jesus was telling them in today’s story. They wanted to know by what authority Jesus was speaking and doing. He turned the question back on them, asking by what authority John worked. They wouldn’t answer because they didn’t believe it was by God’s authority, but they knew that the people would rebel if they said so. Jesus then told them this parable, showing them that the one who truly believes God’s messenger is the one honoring the king. They didn’t believe John, and therefore were like the son that said “Yes” but did not do what was asked. The people believed John and turned to God.
The point Jesus was making is that many people appear to have faith in God and they say that they will do God’s will, and yet they do not turn to Him when He calls. The Pharisees thought they were doing all that the law required of them. They prayed the right way, gave the right amount, acted according to all the rules. However, they did not believe God’s word, the Word in flesh that had come to give them the kingdom of heaven. They said “Yes” to God the Father but rejected the authority of those who came to speak for Him, especially the Son.
However, the sinners and tax collectors initially said, “No” to God and lived their lives according to their own desires, but when Jesus came they heard His message and repented, turning to God. They were like the first son who initially refused God’s grace, but turned and did God’s will. They were also like the workers hired at the last moment, receiving the same grace as the workers called at the first hour.
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ…” That attitude is one of humble submission to God’s Will. As we look at the life of Jesus Christ, and more particularly His death, it is hard to imagine why anyone would die for the sake of sinners. If we truly consider our failures in light of justice as we know it, it was completely unfair for Jesus to die for my sins. Yet, Jesus did not simply die because I can’t control myself; He died because I am separated from my Creator. He died for forgiveness, not for each individual sin but because I am incapable of willfully obeying God’s Word. He died to reconcile God and His people. Whatever has happened in history is no concern; the father’s sin would not kill the child. Christ made it possible for all men to live in relationship with God the Father and to receive his blessings.
The temple leaders ignored John and they accused Jesus. John came with a message of repentance, “Turn to God!” Jesus came with the same message, but He also knew that it was impossible for man to do the will of the Father on their own. It required the suffering and sacrifice of Christ, the final marking of God’s seal, to overcome the chasm that divided us from God. Jesus did the will of the Father, obediently and humbly taking upon Himself the wrath of God so that we might hear His voice and turn. Paul took on that same attitude as Christ, knowing that he could not save anyone by his own power, but that sharing the truth of Christ would bring faith to all who hear and believe. It is by faith we are saved.
We are nearing the end of the season of Pentecost, the time that we look at what it means to be a Christian. An ongoing theme over the past few weeks seems to be trusting God. We trust God to do what is right. We trust God to be merciful. We trust God to be just. We trust God to save. We trust God to lead, instruct and teach us how to live. We trust that God will give us that mind of Christ, so that we can live as He has called us to live.
We trust that God is active in the world today, not a passive being that set the ball rolling at some point in history. He knows each of us. He loves us all. He wants us to be saved. He calls us, guides us, and helps us so that we might also be active in the world today. The first work is to believe, but in faith we continue to constantly work out our salvation. It is not by our own power or authority that we can do this, but it is God who works in us as we humble ourselves before Him. In trust we can pray as the psalmist, seeking His help to do all He has called us to do. God is active for our sake so that we’ll be active for the sake of others.
So let us have the mind of Christ, humble and obedient before God. Let us hear His messenger and turn to Him, learning and following His Word. Let us trust that God is fair, in His way, and that He will be faithful to His promises for our sake and for the sake of the world. For God does not want any to die. He has marked you with His seal and given you the authority to take His grace to the world, for this is pleasing to God.
“Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to accomplish his work. Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh the harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, that they are white already unto harvest. He that reapeth receiveth wages, and gathereth fruit unto life eternal; that he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together. For herein is the saying true, One soweth, and another reapeth. I sent you to reap that whereon ye have not labored: others have labored, and ye are entered into their labor.” John 4:34-38, ASV
I drove to Austin yesterday to shop at a favorite art supply store and have dinner with my sister. Now, Austin is famous for traffic problems, particularly the main road that leads through the center of town. The road passes just blocks away from the state capital and the University of Texas, as well as the heart of the city. It is not surprising that there is a lot of traffic. It is a little surprising that there is always a traffic jam, no matter what time of day, whether early in the morning, late at night or in the middle of the afternoon. We try to avoid it as much as we can, but unfortunately the store I was visiting is right on the highway north of the center of town. I couldn’t avoid it.
I did my shopping and had my dinner. Since the restaurant was several miles from that road, I took another one south toward home. Unfortunately, at that time of day, traffic was bad there, too. I thought to myself several times during the day, “Gotta love Austin traffic.” I was being sarcastic, but the reality is that you can’t let it upset you or you will be frustrated behind the wheel. If you drive in Austin you will, without a doubt, find yourself stuck in traffic somewhere. So, you just have to love Austin traffic.
Imagine my surprise when I came upon a billboard just south of Austin that said simple “I [heart] Traffic.” I don’t know what it means. Or, to put it a better way, I don’t know what someone was trying to sell. I searched the billboard for other words identifying the product being advertised. I tried to look around the area to see if there was some business that might have been connected. I looked to see if there were any other billboards that were tired to the same theme. I couldn’t find anything. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t anything, but in the brief moments I had, I couldn’t find a purpose.
It made me laugh, especially since I’d been thinking the same thing all day long. Perhaps the advertiser simply wanted to make people laugh after a frustrating trip through Austin. It might be part of an advertising campaign and we’ll see changes to the billboard over time. Maybe some radio host is creating excitement for some special event around town. Since I don’t drive there very often, I won’t see what happens to the billboard. So for me, at least, the billboard only served to make me laugh.
We all have a purpose, though we often do not even know what it is. Even if we do, the affect we have on people might be different than we expect. Even the gospel message we give might be heard in a whole different way. For some, Christ brings hope. For others, fear. Some hear about the forgiveness of God with an expectation that He will be faithful. Others are certain they do not deserve any grace. We can share our faith in our own way, but we never know how it will be received. But even if our words fail to have the impact we intend, God’s Word does what it is meant to do. We might not be the one to make the life-changing transformation, but then it is never us. It is always God that does the work; we simply put up our billboards and hope that someone will get it.
“Whence come wars and whence come fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your pleasures that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and covet, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war; ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may spend it in your pleasures. Ye adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore would be a friend of the world maketh himself an enemy of God. Or think ye that the scripture speaketh in vain? Doth the spirit which he made to dwell in us long unto envying? But he giveth more grace. Wherefore the scripture saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble. Be subject therefore unto God; but resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye doubleminded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall exalt you.” James 4:1-9, ASV
I read a joke this morning in Reader’s Digest. A woman went to her priest for help. “Father,” she said, “my female parrots will not say anything but ‘Hey, Cutie. Wanna have some fun?’” The priest said to her, “I can help you with that. I have two male parrots and all they do all day is pray. We will get them together and my parrots will teach your parrots to live a better life.” So, they got the parrots together, placing one female bird in each cage holding the priest’s male birds, who were piously holding rosaries. As soon as they were in the cages, the female birds said, “Hey, Cutie. Wanna have some fun?” One of the male parrots yelled to his buddy, “Frank, put down that rosary. Our prayers have been answered!”
In the joke the parrots got what they were praying for, even though they were praying to fulfill their lusts. We can’t expect God to be so generous! Not that God is less than generous, but we are reminded in today’s passage that we do not get what we want because we ask for the wrong things. How many of us have prayed for that financial windfall so that we can pay the bills we’ve accrued following after our wants instead of asking God to help us be content with our daily bread. Do we ask for happiness, but expect that happiness to come with answers that satisfy our wants rather than just our needs.
Praying rightly takes humility, an attitude that recognizes that God knows better what we need than we do. We might think we need a million dollars or a mate, but what God is providing in each moment is just be what we need to be transformed into the person God has created us to be. We turn away from God when we desire to be or have something different than God intends. And by following our own desires, we become an enemy of God.
That might sound harsh, but the word enemy can mean different things. The neighbor we take to court because their tree fell on our fence is our enemy. The co-worker who takes our promotion is an enemy. The child that decides to follow their own path instead of going the way we hope they will go is like an enemy. See, an enemy is not just an armed opponent on a military battlefield. And enemy can be a foe, an opponent, an adversary, a competitor, an antagonist, none of which are relationships founded on hatred or violence. They are people on the other side of something. In the case of God, He’s on the other side of our desires.
So, instead of praying for the wrong things, let’s listen more closely to what God wants. Our life might not be everything we desire. We might not have everything we want, but by trusting in God’s grace we’ll have everything we need. Who knows? We will discover that the will of God is far better than anything we can imagine.
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as also ye were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all.” Ephesians 4:1-6, ASV
Jack, a character on the show “Will and Grace,” thinks he knows how to do everything, and he claims he’s better at it than anyone. During one episode, his friend Karen needed some cooking lessons and he offered to help. It was obvious from the beginning that Jack didn’t really know how to cook. He set the kitchen on fire and he cooked the salad. The meal was a disaster when Ben, Karen’s lawyer and a friend of Jacks, entered the scene. Now, Ben is apparently great at everything. Ben and Jack bantered about a recent racquetball date where Ben won every game. Jack, at first, made it sound like it was just one win, but by the end of the conversation, we learn that Ben had beaten Jack twelve times, including games he played with a disadvantage.
When Ben saw the disaster in the kitchen, he wondered if he could help. Jack, still certain he was the greatest chef in the history of the world said that Ben couldn’t possibly know how to do it. Ben revealed that he’d been a chef before he was a lawyer and Karen quickly dumped Jack and asked Ben for help. In the end, Jack unwillingly admitted that Ben was a good cook. Desperate to find something which he does better than Ben, Jack challenged him to a battle of tap dancing. Jack got up and pounded out a few steps, obviously not the best dancer of all time. Ben watched Jack and said, “You are right. I can’t dance that well.” Jack left the room, and Karen said, “Who are you kidding. Hit it.” See, Ben is played by dancer/actor Gregory Hines, one of the most incredible tap dancers. He performed a series of fantastic moves, ending just in time for jack to enter the scene again. Ben and Karen were toasting Ben’s tap dancing ability. Jack said, “What are you toasting?” They answered, “Your victory.”
Have you ever known someone like Jack, claiming to be the best at everything, but failing to succeed at everything they do? Perhaps you can identify with Jack, knowing that person who is able to accomplish everything with greatness, like Ben. I think that the extremes are very unusual. Most of us are good at something and not so good at lots of other things. And we are humble enough to recognize that others can do better in those things.
Yet, we can also be very competitive. We don’t like to be one-upped by our friends. It is even worse when it seems like they are able to do everything better than we can. Like Jack, we desperately try to find something we can do to put us on an equal footing. We might have to admit that they are better at one thing or another, but we strive to find something that we can hold up as our victory. It is easy to think the lesson in this is that the Bens of this world should be gracious and hold back occasionally to build up the self-esteem of those who are not as talented. And perhaps we identify more with Ben and should learn that lesson.
However, I think it is important to remember that we do not have to be the best at everything, or even the best at anything. We are called to simply live in the grace God has given to us, to lift up our brothers and sisters so that they will be the best they can be. We are part of one body, and that body works best when each part works together for the sake of Jesus Christ. There might be some who are able to do more incredible things, but that does not mean the others are less because they do ordinary things. Each person has a purpose, and when we follow Christ we will live that purpose by sharing God’s grace with all.
“Whosoever doth not bear his own cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, doth not first sit down and count the cost, whether he have wherewith to complete it? Lest haply, when he hath laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all that behold begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.” Luke 14:27-30, ASV
The other day we went to look at a house that is for sale. We’ve seen this house at the online realty sites for several months and the price has gone down regularly. The house is now for sale at a price ridiculously below market value. We knew, based on the history of the house, that it was going to be a fixer-upper, but the house is only nine years old, in a decent neighborhood and only recently lost its value. We have watched this house for months and though we aren’t quite ready to make the move, we were willing to take a chance if this was the right house for us.
So, we went to look at it and were honestly shocked at the bad condition. When I spoke to the realtor about this house, she told me not to discount it immediately. She suggested that if it needs work, we can possibly write the mortgage loan to include funding for the repairs. She even suggested we could get the price lowered, add the repair loan and get the house for a great price. She threw out a figure and it sounded good to me. Now, she had not seen the house, and the number she suggested was far from reality. I’ve seen enough of those house flipper shows on television to know not to make the mistake of undercutting the budget. The repair costs on this house will easily be equal to the cost of the house itself.
When we first arrived at the house and saw the obvious problems, I wanted to hate it. I still want to hate it. Yet, I still see a house with incredible promise. Every time I think of a reason we should not buy it, I think of a way around it. I couldn’t figure out how to fit our furniture, and then I thought of ways we could make it fit. The configuration is awkward, but a few minor changes would make it even better than our current house. One room would make an awesome studio for me and the problems there are actually opportunities.
Just as I think I’ve talked myself into pursuing this possibility, I think of other costs. It won’t just cost money, it will cost time. Where will we live while the house is repaired? Will the kids be able to adapt to new rooms that will never really be their own? Can we afford living in a house that is beyond our means? Even though the house itself will be within our price range, the potential value will mean higher taxes, utility costs and insurance. These costs can mean the difference between having a wonderful new home and having a horrible burden that we can’t carry.
As we walked through the house, we could see that it became a burden for the current owner. It seems like the person purchased the house as a flip, as many areas are half finished. One room is in the process of being converted to what could be a fabulous bathroom, but it is oddly designed and barely half finished. Baseboards are lying in place but not nailed. Arches are half done, poorly, with rough edges. The paint choices are awful. They chose metallic silver and metallic gold stripes for one bathroom. They love dark colors and stone tiles, which make the house incredibly dark and cavernous.
They have put some thought into their decisions, and they’ve tried to make the house the jewel it could be, but something has stopped the work. Did they finally realize they can’t handle the work? Did they realize, like those flippers on the television shows, that the costs are beyond their means? Did they discover that a few new baseboards and a coat of paint are meaningless if the roof is damaged and the balcony is in danger of collapsing? They didn’t think ahead or count their costs.
The text for today is not about the cost of construction on a house, although we are wise to consider everything before we begin any project. Jesus it talking about the cost of discipleship. What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? What might we have to give up? What might we have to take up? How will our life change because we are following Him? It might seem like there are simple answers to these questions, but are we considering every possibility? Are we willing to step out of our comfort zone? Are we willing to give up everything for the sake of Christ? Are we willing to speak the words or do the works that Christ is calling us to do? Have we considered all the risks and are we prepared to pay the price to be a disciple? Flippers often discover hidden costs on every show and find it impossible to complete the work. How will you respond when you discover the hidden costs of discipleship?
Scriptures for Sunday, October 2, 2011, Lectionary 26A: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-15; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
“Howbeit what things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ.” Philippians 3:7, ASV
It is hard work keeping a garden, not that I have a great deal of experience at it. As a matter of fact, I don’t keep a garden because of the hard work. I’m usually pretty good at the beginning, preparing the soil, choosing the plants, putting them into the ground. I might, occasionally, remember to prune or pull weeds and water, but 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.
The home garden might not take a lot of time, but the gardener must be dedicated. It is even truer for the farmer who works at growing food as a living. The farmer must prepare the land, tilling the soil and removing stones. He must plant the crops and keep them watered and free of weeds. He must build and maintain fences or walls to keep out those who might destroy or steal the fruit. He might even build a watchtower. The farmer must have buildings to process and store the crops, equipment to do all the work. The boundaries, buildings and equipment must be maintained even when there is no crop in the fields. It is a year round task, one that takes commitment.
Unfortunately, the work does not always pay off in the end, often leaving the farmer with barely enough to survive. Too many farmers have to give up because they suffer one too many droughts or locust infestations. When they can’t produce a crop that is worth the work they put into the field, they have to let it go. The fences and walls fall, the fields are left to the weeds and wild animals.
In the Old Testament lesson, the farmer has a vineyard. He has put time and heart into the building of the vineyard, preparing the field and planting good vines. He guarded the vineyard and readied the wine press to created fine wine. But 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.
But that does not mean He stopped loving them. Over and over again in the history of God’s people, they turned from Him and suffered the consequences, but over and over again God loved them back into His heart. He gave them second, third and fiftieth chances: when they cried out, He was never far. He saved them, over and over again, because He is faithful despite their unfaithfulness. In the prophecy from Isaiah today, God warned that they would see the consequences of their unrighteousness and the prophecy was likely fulfilled in the Assyrian invasion of Judah. We know, however, that even though the watchtower has collapsed and the fields have gone fallow, God will hear their cries and restore them. They must, for a moment, live with the penalty of their own turning.
The Psalm for today 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.
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. Last week we saw the leaders questioning Jesus’ authority. Jesus told them a parable about a son who did what was asked and another that never did. Who are the leaders of the Temple? They might see themselves as a son who said “yes” and obeyed, but Jesus did not. He continues this week with a parable.
The language in this week’s story is much like we heard in the Old Testament lesson. The landowner put everything He had into the vineyard, and then leased the land to some tenants. The landowner then went away, perhaps to check on other fields, trusting the tenants to take care of his vineyard. When the landowner sent servants to collect the rent, his portion of the yield, the tenants killed the servant. This happened several times, and each time the servants were killed. Finally the landowner sent his own son, thinking that the son would have more authority. The tenants decided to kill the son so that they could have the field for themselves.
We could spend hours considering how anyone who killed servants and the heir would ever think the landowner would give them the vineyard. The son might be heir, but the landowner still owns the land. This thinking doesn’t make any sense to me. Are there ways which we “kill the Son” while still expecting the Father to bless us?
In this story, the landowner does not give the vineyard to the tenants. As a matter of fact, he throws them out and leases the vineyard to other tenants. We know that the first tenants in this story are the chief priests and the Pharisees, who killed the prophets and who were already scheming to kill the Son. Even they recognized themselves in the story. The new tenants would come from unexpected places. They wouldn’t have their Law or their heritage on which to rely. They wouldn’t be protected by their own righteousness. They would rely on God and for this reason the fruit would be good. The chief priests and the Pharisees did not like what they heard and they began to seek ways to be rid of this Jesus.
We know that this story was fulfilled when Jesus and the apostles took the story of God into the whole world, something which was intended from the beginning. Jesus might have come first for the Jews, but God meant for Him to be the shining light for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. The early church may not have understood that completely, as they fought amongst themselves about how to deal with those who were not Jews but who believed in Jesus. At first they expected the Gentiles to convert to Judaism and then be accepted in the Church.
But Paul recognized the foolishness of this practice. He knew that God’s grace was meant for Jew and Gentile alike. He knew that those things which they were requiring of new believers were self built watchtowers and walls. God had promised to guard and protect them, to keep them and to produce good fruit through them. But like those to whom Isaiah was speaking, the people in Jesus’ day had turned from God. They didn’t trust Him; they trusted themselves and their own righteousness. And they were requiring others to rely on that righteousness instead of God.
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.
We are like the Israelites in Isaiah and the chief priests in Matthew. We are wild or dis-eased grapes growing in God’s vineyard. 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 God’s promises are greater than our failures, and He is faithful.
We’ll fail, we’ll turn from God’s grace, but when we cry out we will find that He has never left our side. He will be there to renew us, to transform us, to recreate our lives. We will fail again, just as God’s people have always done, but He loves us in spite of our selves.
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.
We aren’t perfect, and we won’t be perfect in this world. Even Paul knew that he had not yet reached the goal. But he knew 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.
“For yourselves, brethren, know our entering in unto you, that it hath not been found vain: but having suffered before and been shamefully treated, as ye know, at Philippi, we waxed bold in our God to speak unto you the gospel of God in much conflict. For our exhortation is not of error, nor of uncleanness, nor in guile: but even as we have been approved of God to be intrusted with the gospel, so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God who proveth our hearts. For neither at any time were we found using words of flattery, as ye know, nor a cloak of covetousness, God is witness; nor seeking glory of men, neither from you nor from others, when we might have claimed authority as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle in the midst of you, as when a nurse cherisheth her own children: even so, being affectionately desirous of you, we were well pleased to impart unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were become very dear to us. For ye remember, brethren, our labor and travail: working night and day, that we might not burden any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God.” 1 Thessalonians 2:1-9, ASV
The philosopher Aristippus lived in the days of the Greek tyrant Dionysius. He was a student of Socrates, but took the Socratic doctrine of happiness to the extreme. They Cyrenaic school of philosophy held hedonism as its foundational tenant; they believed that knowledge was relative so pleasure is the chief good. They believed that the only way we could know anything was through our feelings, so the constant pursuit of pleasurable feelings would bring happiness. Pleasure was the chief aim in life; the good man is the one who avoids pain. Aristippus never refused an opportunity for pleasure, even for the possibility of greater pleasure in the future. He said the future is uncertain, so live every pleasure now.
Aristippus spent time in the court of Dionysius in Syracuse. He was willing to do anything to achieve those inner feelings of pleasure, the positive bodily sensations that are brought by wine, drink and sex. He even wore a woman’s dress to a party to satisfy a request by Dionysius. He was known for an affair with a prostitute, and when questioned about it, he said, “Having sex with one who has sex with many is no different from voyaging on a ship that carries other passengers.” He was vain and greedy. When questioned about the tuition he charged for his lessons, Aristippus told the father (who claimed to be able to buy a slave for the same fee), “Go ahead and buy the slave: Then he would have two slaves, the one he bought and his own son.” He was a freeloader, refusing to be ruled or to rule, because he said both made a person a slave to another.
He was a flatterer. It is said that he did well in the court because he flattered the king, and he looked down on the other philosophers and wise men who refused to stoop so low. It is said that one day he saw his colleague Diogenes cleaning some vegetables. He said, “If you would only learn to flatter King Denys you would not have to be washing lentils.” The philosopher answered, “And you, if you had only learned to live on lentils, would not have to flatter King Denys.”
We all want to be happy. If we had a choice, we’d rather go through life feeling good and experiencing pleasure. But is the hedonistic lifestyle really the best way to live? Is it good to flatter your way into happiness? Will you truly experience joy and peace if you pursue that lifestyle where pleasure is the chief aim? Is the life without pain the life of a good man? Is the present pleasure better than the possibilities of the future?
“Who is wise and understanding among you? let him show by his good life his works in meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter jealousy and faction in your heart, glory not and lie not against the truth. This wisdom is not a wisdom that cometh down from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where jealousy and faction are, there is confusion and every vile deed. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without variance, without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for them that make peace.” James 3:13-18, ASV
The greeting card companies have always worked to keep up with the times. Greeting cards have existed since ancient China and Egypt, and were common in Europe by the fifteenth century. Those greeting cards often celebrated New Year’s Day or other holidays. The oldest Valentine in existence has even given a special place in the British museum. Greeting cards are a way of sharing a special word, and usually celebrate a happy event. Cards for birthdays, weddings and holidays are easy to find and often very inexpensive. Modern printing techniques have made it possible to produce large quantities of colorful cards with witting or inspirational messages.
The shelves are filled with all sorts of greetings. You can buy cards that tell someone that you are thinking of them, thank them for something, and wish them good health. You can congratulate someone for almost anything from graduation to baptism to getting a promotion. There are cards for teachers and for students, for parents and grandparents, for friends and your boss. Special days have been created just so you can buy a card to celebrate like clergy appreciation day and secretary day.
In recent years, cards have been created for some more specific events. You can buy a card for your preschooler who is graduating to Elementary school. While Mother’s Day and Father’s Day might not have been specifically created by the greeting card companies, they have certainly taken advantage of the opportunity to sell greeting cards. You can now buy a card for your pet to give to your spouse for that special day. Cards can be sent to celebrate such mundane moments as buying a new house or car. There are cards to say “I’m sorry” or “Let’s hang out.”
You can buy cards to celebrate the birth of a baby, to sympathize over the death of a loved one and to encourage someone who has had a hard time. The signs of the times definitely appear in the greeting card stores, though. Next to the wedding and anniversary cards are cards to celebrate a divorce. Cards are available these days with greetings that are less than nice. There are cards that are brutally honest, about real situations, many of which are less than helpful.
The most recent addition to the greeting card market is geared to the unemployed. The big card maker has a line of “Sorry you lost your job” cards. There are those who think this is a good idea and have used the cards for their own friends. I watched an interview with some people who work with the unemployed, and they were supportive of the innovation. “These cards help you tell your friend how you feel and that you are there for them.”
I have to question that perspective. Does a person who has recently lost their job really need a folded piece of cardboard with a picture and some words? What they need is money to pay their rent and buy food for their family. I heard one unemployed person say, “Instead of sending me a sentiment, send me the cash; that would mean more to me than a card.” Words are simply not enough. It is not our responsibility to say nice things to people who are suffering: we are called to do something for them. We have the opportunity to make a difference in their life, by being there for them in more than word, but also in deed. We might not be able to hire them or even give them enough to pay their rent, but we could help them with a meal, give a gift card, fill their car with a tank of gas. We can help them set up an online account with a job search or call them with ideas we’ve seen when we are going about our day. How much better would a phone call with a job tip be than a five dollar greeting card?