Welcome to the September 2012 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 2012
September 3, 2012
“The law of Jehovah is perfect, restoring the soul: The testimony of Jehovah is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of Jehovah are right, rejoicing the heart: The commandment of Jehovah is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of Jehovah is clean, enduring for ever: The ordinances of Jehovah are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the droppings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: In keeping them there is great reward.” Psalm 19:7-11, ASV
I recently purchased a craft cart to store some of my supplies. The cart is built for scrapbooking, but I thought it would be perfect for my paints. I had built a different system for myself in our last house, but it hasn’t worked here. I needed to do something that would make all the paint accessible, but also easy to put away. Since I tend to paint several paintings at once, and I use so many colors on each painting, it can get overwhelming to have every color littering my art table. This new cart seems to be working well so far, and I’m glad that I made the purchase.
As with so many things that we buy these days, the cart was in a box in a million pieces. I put it together the other night; it took some time, but was simple to do. I was tempted to do it without the instructions because it seemed self-explanatory. However, I decided to look at the directions, just to make sure I knew what I was doing. I discovered that I probably would have done a couple things incorrectly without the instructions. The cart would still have worked, but it might have been a little wobbly and awkward looking. In the end, it turned out great and is very sturdy.
I have, unfortunately, fallen to that temptation to ignore the instructions, and I have several bookshelves in the house as proof. Those package, do it yourself type shelves have very specific directions about which shelf to put where, and I usually just grab the right size shelf and then discover at the end that I’ve put it on upside down or backwards. Then, because they are cheaply made, I have unfinished sides showing. Does it matter? Perhaps not, since the bookshelves still do what they are meant to do. But they are not right. Anyone who has made that type of mistake realizes how valuable those instructions, as simplistic as they might seem, can be.
We may not need the instructions to put together the do it yourself products we buy, but they certainly help us do it right. What can we learn about this in terms of our faith? Grace gives us the freedom to live apart from the law, but we are reminded in the scriptures that the law was given as a gift. It is like those instruction manuals that come with furniture we have to put together. We might be able to live without it, but everything will come out so much better if we live according to the Word.
The bible is certainly more than an instruction manual. It is a love letter. It is a promise. It is a touch from God’s own hand and words from His own heart. It is living; it breathes the life of the Spirit of God into our hearts and into the world. But it also helps us to live as He has created us to live, with grace and hope and peace. The rules give us guidance about where to put all the pieces so that in the end it is not only functional but also beautiful.
“This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye no longer walk as the Gentiles also walk, in the vanity of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their heart; who being past feeling gave themselves up to lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But ye did not so learn Christ; if so be that ye heard him, and were taught in him, even as truth is in Jesus: that ye put away, as concerning your former manner of life, the old man, that waxeth corrupt after the lusts of deceit; and that ye be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, that after God hath been created in righteousness and holiness of truth. Wherefore, putting away falsehood, speak ye truth each one with his neighbor: for we are members one of another. Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: neither give place to the devil.” Ephesians 4:17-27, ASV
We have lots of very low windows in our house, which we thought would be perfect for the kitties to watch the birds outside. They do get a good view at a few of the windows, and when we have food in the bird feeders, they get a good show. We have the usual finches, doves and sparrows, as well as the occasional cardinal and a few other birds we have not yet identified. We are thankful that we do not have the flocks of grackles we had in our last house. We might even have a woodpecker. We also have squirrels that enjoy running up and down the oak trees that shade the yard on every side. I’m sure if we looked, we’d find other animals around our yard.
We have plenty of neighborhood cats, too. There’s one cat that roams through the neighborhood that looks remarkably like Samson. He even wears a purple collar. He looks so much like our own cat that despite the fact that we know he’s in the house, we look for him whenever we see this cat to make sure he hasn’t gotten out. There’s a number of other cats that we see fairly regularly. They often come to the door at the office, which has window almost to the bottom, so they can easily look inside. Cats have a finely tuned sense of smell, so it is possible that they are aware of the presence of our kitties inside. They spend a lot of time in the office area, particularly by the door where they can easily watch the birds and other activities outside. Our cats do not always notice the visitors, and when they do they react differently.
Tigger generally ignores the visitors. He might watch them, but he stays back and the visitors rarely even realize he’s there. The kittens, Samson and Delilah, are far more likely to make their presence known. We have one particular cat that visits almost every day. She is a beautiful calico who comes in the morning, about the same time each day. She follows a pattern: first she comes to the back door and looks inside. I watched her the other day and she looked toward all the usual places where the cats sit. None of them happened to be in this room that day. After she leaves the doorway, she walks around the house and climbs the deck at the back. She looks in those windows, hoping to find one of the cats nearby. I’ve often found Samson staring at her through the window. Eventually he gets upset that she’s there and he begins to growl and paw at the window. Maybe he wants to be outside, too, but we decided long ago that our cats would stay inside where it is safe.
I didn’t hear the typical growling or other noises associated with our friend’s visit this morning, but she has come so regularly that it has become habitual for the cats to watch for her. I found Sammy sitting by the door this morning and saw Delilah watching the office door at the hour when she usually comes to visit. Looking for her has become a habit, a part of their daily activities. Maybe I didn’t hear the growling because they’ve decided not to be angry at her presence. Maybe they’ve accepted her as part of our family even though she hangs around outside.
Now, I would never compare the daily presence of a strange cat with the tactics of the devil, but the actions of my cats have shown me how easy it is to fall into habits. Whether the calico visited this morning or not, the kittens were obviously looking for her. They may not like that she visits, but they expect it. After a few days of regular visits, they may even enjoy seeing her each morning.
There are many things that we’ve allowed to become a daily part of our existence that once may have seemed bad but now is acceptable. It may be inconsequential, but the most obvious example is language. Fifty years ago you would never hear certain words on the television or in movies. Now there are actors who are known for their unlimited use of those words. It happens to us personally, too. It only takes a few times before those words flow easily from our lips. It only takes a few lies to make them come easily. It only takes a few visits from the devil for us to get used to doing things his way.
The kitty isn’t harming anything by coming to visit us every day, and yet I do whatever I can to keep it from becoming a habit. I know some people who would feel sorry for the cat, feeding it every day until it feels so comfortable that it really does become part of the family. I lost a cat in that way to a neighbor a long time ago, which is one of the reasons why we keep our cats indoors. The calico belongs to someone; she wears a collar with a tag. She may be allowed to wander, but she is not free to be mine, so I don’t want her to get so used to our house that she won’t ever go home. We must beware of those things that are creeping into our lives that are probably inconsequential but not good for us, like language and lies.
Scriptures for Sunday, September 9, 2012, Pentecost Fifteen: Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17; Mark 7:24-37
“Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help.” Psalm 146:5a, ASV
I have to admit that our new house has an extremely grand entrance. As you walk in the door you see high vaulted ceilings and an amazing large living room with beautiful big windows at the other end. Our humble furniture looks amazing in the room, perhaps even rich. The house seems large and when people come they are impressed by how we’ve moved up in the world. It is indeed larger than our former home, in an old established neighborhood and it is worth more than the house we sold.
But it isn’t as impressive if you look closely. There is a lot of work to be done in this house. The tile floors need to be replaced because they are broken and have lifted from the base. The walls all need to be painted. The gold colored faucets all need to be replaced because the brass has chipped away over the years. There is work to be done in the attic, the appliances all need to be replaced, and we need to change several windows and doors. It was because there is so much to do that we managed to buy this house for way below market value. You can’t always judge a book by its cover.
That adage is usually used when referring to people. How many times on shows like “America’s Got Talent” do we look at a person and think we know what type of performance they give, just by their looks? We are often surprised because when they open their mouths to sing or begin to dance a jig, we find that they are actually very talented. At other times we think someone will be fantastic because they have ‘the look’ but we discover that they couldn’t find a note if it was hanging in front of their face. We can’t judge a book by its cover and we can’t judge a person by their appearance.
But we do. I think it is interesting that we have these scriptures just at this time when many churches and other organizations are beginning stewardship campaigns. If you were in charge of a fundraiser, which guests would you want to invite? Would you send your invitations to the government housing complex down the street or to the zip code with the million dollar houses? You reach out to those who you think could help. I suppose many would even say that you reach out to those you think should help. After all, it is the people with million dollar homes that have the extra funds to give away.
While we understand what James is trying to tell us in today’s second lesson, we also know the reality of our financial problems. We know that we have to embrace those who can pay for the repair in our roof or repave the parking lot. We need them to keep our mission afloat. It isn’t that we favor them above others, necessarily. We just do what needs to be done to get the bills paid, right? If that man with a gold ring came into our sanctuary, you know that someone would be very happy to offer a word of welcome and encouragement to become part of the family because we can see the potential. But do we do the same with someone who is not wearing a gold ring?
James is very clear in today’s scripture that we are not to favor the rich man over the poor, and he goes on to talk about the rich spiritual blessings that poor have been given. We see the book has a pretty cover and we look forward to what we might find inside, but we ignore the book that doesn’t look so promising. The trouble is, by ignoring that person is not rich in money, we might just be ignoring the one who is rich in something we need even more. We need a roof on our sanctuary, but don’t we need the gifts that others can give, too? Don’t we need that woman who has a gift of prayer, or the man with the gift to teach? Don’t we need someone who has an unshakable gift of faith to keep us looking toward God? When we favor those with tangible resources, we stop relying on the God who can do amazing things through all people. We make the wealth of a few the god of our ministry and ignore the work God can and does do through others.
Most churches have gotten much better during their stewardship drives of seeking commitments apart from financial. They ask members to fill out time and talent sheets so that they have lists of members they can call on in times of need. Can you build things? Can you plant flowers? Can you sing or dance or play an instrument? Are you willing to teach kindergarteners or high school youth? Do you have a few hours a week to help in the office or the ability to run errands for the staff? These are excellent questions and a great way of getting more people involved in the ministry of the church.
I wonder though, sometimes, whether the stewardship drive is an appropriate time to seek the answers to those questions. How many of us use that as justification for committing a little less of our resources by substituting it with our time and talents? We think, “I’m willing to give an hour a week, so maybe I don’t have to give so much in the offering.” It does encourage those who do not have as much to give financially to be an active part of the congregation, but does it give us an excuse to stop giving money? We have long recognized that the rich will often give money to get out of doing work, but I wonder how many do work to get out of giving money?
We all know the story of the widow in the Temple who put her last coin in the offering. Jesus raised her up as someone who is willing to give sacrificially, and pointed out that though the others gave far more than her in money, they gave a pittance out of their wealth while she gave her whole wealth. We ignore the poor when we need money because we know they can’t give as much as the rich, but what do we, and they, lose when we tell them it is alright to give in time and talent and not resources? The church loses in so many ways when we judge those books by their covers, relying on the wealthy for money and the poor for works.
We are reminded not to favor anyone, and I’m sure that the churches in James’ day had the same sort of problems that we have today. We see people on the surface and ignore what God has given to us. We favor one over the other. It appears that James saw a tendency toward favoring the rich, a tendency we can see in many churches today. Is it possible to take the other extreme? Can we favor the poor over the rich, too? I think so. We are called to love all our neighbors, rich or poor, and to welcome them into our ministry, giving each as many opportunities to give and to serve as we can. We are meant to find God’s purpose for each believer, to read the pages of each book and encourage each person to give in resources, time and talent as God has called them to give.
We see the world through narrow glasses. We hear what we want to hear. We do what feels good and we walk where we feel comfortable. Jesus didn’t come to make everyone the same. He didn’t come to make sure everyone has the same things. He gives different gifts to different people. He gives different opportunities to different people. Jesus did come to make us all see that we have enough to do everything He is calling us to do. The one with more wealth will be called to give more of that wealth to another. The one with musical ability will be called to lead God’s people in praise. The one who has that unshakable gift of faith is called to stand with God’s people and remind them that God is faithful in all things. Our works will never make things right, but since God has made things right we have been called to be faithful with everything He has given to us.
When James asks “Can faith save you?” in relation to the good works he is describing, he isn’t suggesting that good works will save a person. What he is saying is that those who are saved, who live in the faith that comes from grace, they are the people who will have mercy. If they have faith they will react to the opportunity God has placed before them. If they don’t, do they have faith?
It is so easy for us to say, “I don’t have the time to help you, but I’ll pray.” It is easy to say, “I don’t have an extra dime this week, but I’ll tell my neighbor that you need help.” It is easy to lay the burden of someone’s difficulty on someone else. But could it be that God is giving us a chance to live in faith, knowing that He will provide? When we see a person in trouble that needs a helping hand, do we give them the last five dollar bill in our wallet that we planned to use for lunch, trusting that God would both use the money well and provide for us in our own need?
Too much talk about money, I know, especially since the scriptures today talk very much about God’s promise to make things right in the world. The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah talks about God opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. It talks about making the lame leap and the tongue sing. We see that happening in the Gospel lessons for today. Jesus heals a woman’s daughter who has a demon and a man who is deaf and dumb. He fulfills the scriptures in a very real way.
But faith heals us in so many other ways. Most of us are not lame. We aren’t blind or deaf. Most of us can speak all too well. What sort of healing do we get from Jesus? Or are we healthy, so to speak. Do we walk in the right path? Do we hear God’s Word as He has spoken it? Do we see the opportunities God puts in front of us? Do we speak His grace into the world? Jesus did heal people physically, but His grace does even more. It heals us spiritually, too, so that we can walk in His ways and live by faith. He opens the eyes of our heart and makes our ears unblocked by our own selfish understanding. He gives us the words to say.
We can read and understand the text from James in terms of treating those who are poor with mercy and grace, but we see in the Gospel lesson that Jesus does not make the Syrophoenician woman anything but what she is. And she doesn’t ask Him to see her any differently. She is what she is. All she wants is a crumb. She knows that will be enough. Jesus did what she asked, and though He didn’t call her faithful, His actions tell us that He recognized her faith and the child was healed.
I have to admit that I would love to win the lottery. A hundred million dollars would do a lot to change my life. I have to admit that I buy a ticket once in awhile and hope for the best. I would love to fix this house and make it all it could be, to give it the facelift it needs to be truly grand. I would love the opportunity to put a roof over the head of a congregation or give a fortune to a homeless shelter. I want to do all these things, but I can’t today. That doesn’t mean I should wait until I can. I might not be able to give as much as I would like to my favorite ministries, but I can give something. I might like to have all the time in the world to help everyone in need, but God doesn’t need me to do everything. There are a few talents I wish I had, but God has given those gifts to others.
The lesson we learn from the Syrophoenician woman is to be content with who we are and not worry about the way others see us. We are who we are; are we being the people that God created us to be? The psalmist writes, “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help.” The woman was content with her life, but she wasn’t content with the difficulties her daughter was facing. She was willing to submit herself to humiliation for the sake of another. She was willing to give everything so that her daughter could be healed. Are we content enough with our life that we can sacrifice for another? Will we respond to the opportunities we have been given to help someone else no matter what it might cost us?
We judge books by their covers, and people by their looks, because we are constantly looking for someone who can solve the problems we face. We don’t think that we can do it ourselves, so we turn it over to others. What we forget is that God is able to do what we cannot; He can do it through us even if we don’t think we have enough. When we have faith in God and are content with who He has created us to be, then we respond with faith, knowing that He has given us enough to do the work He is calling us to do. Let’s not favor someone because of their appearance, but encourage one another, everyone, to boldly live in the faith we’ve been given, loving our neighbor with a sacrificial love that is active and alive in this world.
“If then ye were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth. For ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall be manifested, then shall ye also with him be manifested in glory. Put to death therefore your members which are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry; for which things' sake cometh the wrath of God upon the sons of disobedience: wherein ye also once walked, when ye lived in these things; but now do ye also put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, railing, shameful speaking out of your mouth: lie not one to another; seeing that ye have put off the old man with his doings, and have put on the new man, that is being renewed unto knowledge after the image of him that created him: where there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman; but Christ is all, and in all. 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 3:1-17, ASV
Nametags are very helpful and are often used in places of business or gatherings of large people. We use nametags to get to know one another, to make communication easier because we can relate to the person on a more personal level. I don’t really like to wear nametags, but I understand how important they can be, especially in a group of people who are just getting to know one another.
The employees at Morgan’s Wonderland, a theme park that is designed for special needs individuals, wear nametags that not only tell us their names but also give an interesting fact about their life. One likes a certain type of soda. Another is a fan of a music star. Another drives a particular car. These facts are sometimes mundane and sometimes surprising. It is in the revealing of this tiny bit of information that we learn something about the person, not only what they like but also how they see themselves.
We might not always wear nametags, but we do wear labels. These labels help us to know one another, to open the doors of communication, to give insight into our lives. If I tell you that I wear the label of “Mom” then you know you can ask me about my family. I’m always willing to tell you about my kids, but you would never know to ask if I didn’t wear the label “Mom.” I also wear the label “Artist.” I’m hoping that as I bravely wear this label so that others will know that I am an artist, that they will be interested in my art and perhaps even want a piece of it. If you didn’t know I was an artist, you would never think to ask.
I think that we wear more labels today than ever before, not always because we choose the wear them. We see each other not as people, neighbors, friends, but as black and white, conservative and liberal, religious or not. It is helpful to know these things about others because it helps us to know how to communicate with one another. The problem with labels is that they become the wall that divides us. We see each other only by those labels and we treat each other as enemies. We find it acceptable to treat each other poorly just because we disagree or are different.
Now, I would never suggest that I know what it is like to live under the threats of racism, but I have been treated poorly because I am white. My family was visiting another town and decided to have dinner in a favorite restaurant. We were obviously not local and the restaurant was filled with staff and patrons who were black. We were invited to sit but were then ignored. For forty five minutes we waited patiently while other guests were welcomed with laughter and good service. It was late in the evening and the children were very hungry. We finally gave up and walked out of the restaurant to the sounds of sneers.
We were obviously not welcome. We could not explain to the children why. We had not done anything to the people in that restaurant. We weren’t the only family with children in the restaurant. We were strangers who just wanted a meal. We were willing to pay for our food and would have tipped our wait staff well. We could not explain to the children why this happened; there was no good reason. We didn’t even notice that we were the only white people in the restaurant until we’d waited a long time for service. I know: many people have faced racism that was far worse than our one brief experience. Many have been beaten and oppressed because of their skin color. But we are reminded that even the hospitality we offer to one another can be affected by the labels we have placed on our neighbors.
Do we ignore a neighbor because we know they will vote for the other guy in November? Do we hide in our bathrooms when we know the door to door evangelists are in the neighborhood? Do we treat someone with disdain because they wear a different label than us? Those labels can be helpful, but not if they create walls.
God knows the labels that we have attached to ourselves and those that others have attached. He has created us to be individuals and we will disagree about many things. What sort of world would we have if everyone were exactly the same? God does not use those labels when dealing with us personally. As a matter of fact, He doesn’t even notice those labels. To God, we are all His children, no matter what labels we wear. If we are a mom or an artist or white or any other ways we identify ourselves, God sees the person He created us to be. Now, if only we could learn to see each other the same way.
“We speak wisdom, however, among them that are fullgrown: yet a wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, who are coming to nought: but we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, even the wisdom that hath been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds unto our glory: which none of the rulers of this world hath known: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory: but as it is written, Things which eye saw not, and ear heard not, And which entered not into the heart of man, Whatsoever things God prepared for them that love him. But unto us God revealed them through the Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him? even so the things of God none knoweth, save the Spirit of God. But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God; that we might know the things that were freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth; combining spiritual things with spiritual words. Now the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, and he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, ASV
I was reading an article this morning that was very confusing. It took several readings for me to fully understand. The headline read, “Driver thrown from San Antonio tour bus run over by his own vehicle.” Now, I don’t know why, but when I read this, I imagined the man who was thrown from the bus to be a passenger, and somehow his car drove over him. How could this happen? My thought processes were based on the multiple references to “bizarre” which preceded the actual article. The postings repeatedly told me this was impossible and wondered how it could happen. So, of course I put the most bizarre spin on the story.
The actual story is that the driver of the tour bus got into an accident that threw him out of the bus and the bus continued to move, running over him. It was still strange, but not impossible. Cars often roll beyond the crash site and if the driver was in the way, he certainly would have been run over. The man is still alive, but is critically injured and receiving medical care in a hospital.
One of our biggest problems with human communication is that we often put our own interpretation on statements even when the statements don’t need our help. I don’t know why I kept missing the important fact that it was the driver of the tour bus that was thrown out after the accident. I drew a picture in my head that didn’t match the actual picture. It is hard for a driver to be thrown from a tour bus, so I made the victim someone in the back. In my head I made the bus a double decker bus, which would make it easy for someone to be thrown. I pictured the man’s car to be old enough to have mechanical problems, so that it could jump out of park and roll down the hill where it was parked, right into the poor man that had just been thrown from the bus. Then I thought maybe the bus hit the guy’s car, so that when he was thrown from the bus, his car was pushed over him. I know it’s a stretch.
This image was so clear in my mind that I had to reread the article three times to get the right story. I finally read the words in a way that I finally understood that it was the driver of the bus and that the bus was the vehicle that ran over him. I know this story sounds almost as strange as the original story. How could I create such a bizarre and complicated version of this poor bus driver’s experience?
I wonder, though, how often we do the same thing to the scriptures as we read them. We take the simple word of God and make it so complicated that it is difficult to understand. Have you ever read the discussions about Revelation? Or some of the other apocalyptic writings? Have you ever heard someone explain the parables of Jesus in a way that turns it upside down and inside out so that the story says what they think it should say? Do we ever approach the scriptures with a previously established expectation and find a way to make it say what we want it to say? We believe that the Bible is a living book, but sometimes we give it life that it is not meant to have.
It doesn’t make it any easier when we read text like today’s passage from Paul’s first letter to Corinth. What does it mean to say that God speaks to us in our spirits? How do we know that we really understand what God is telling us? Do we know by our feelings? Do we know because it makes us feel right inside? Do we know because we are blessed or because we are suffering? Depending on your point of view, we could prove our rightness either way! We must do is continue to read and study the scriptures from the perspective that the simple answer is probably the right one. We should not let others taint our reading and confuse our understanding with their own words. God will help us understand and we’ll know we are right when we see God glorified and His will being done in the world.
“Take heed, brethren, lest haply there shall be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God: but exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called To-day; lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin: for we are become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end: while it is said, To-day if ye shall hear his voice, Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation.” Hebrews 3:12-15, ASV
Just in case you weren't getting enough election coverage with the current campaign, one of the morning news programs had a story today about the frontrunners for the 2016 election. The report talked about the people in both parties who have made an impact on politics recently who might be setting themselves up for bigger things in the future. The reporter did not suggest that these would be the candidates, but that they might be the candidates and why it seems that way. Much of the report was based on the recent conventions and those who were there, who spoke, and who were obviously absent. The politicians already campaign all the time, so much so that they often do not do the work that needs to be done today. It is bad enough when they start talking about the next election as soon as the current one is over, but should we be talking about an election that will happen in four years even while we are trying to get through this one?
Why do we worry so much about tomorrow that we don’t give our full attention to what is needed for today? We had a conversation yesterday with a man whose children are still rather young, in elementary school. He was asking about Zack and college. The conversation turned to the cost of education, particularly the books they have to buy for their classes. We complained, but wondered how bad it will be for our friend when his boys are in college. If we think the costs are extreme today, what will they be in ten years?
And yet, even as we ask this question I remember asking the same question ten years ago when we were in the same position as our friend. We wondered how we would afford to send our kids to college. It is never easy, and we are extremely thankful that we have enough to do so, but we can’t worry about tomorrow’s bill when we still have bills due this semester. Our friend might do well to plan, to set aside some money for the boys’ education, but it does not good to worry about it today.
I suppose we still hear references to December 21st, especially in jokes, but in the next few months we are bound to hear a lot more about this supposed date of the world’s end. As we get closer to this reported catastrophic moment, many people will be worried about it and wonder what they should do to survive or put off the day. Of course, this is just the latest in doomsday prophecy; it just happens to be a Mayan perspective. However, Christians have been prophesying the end of the world since the beginning of the Church. There are always those who think that the end is near. They preach as if there will be no tomorrow, focusing on the world to come while ignoring the world that is.
Yes, we should be prepared in our hearts for the end of the world as we know it. It could happen right at this minute. We should share our faith with others so that they will be prepared as well. We should look forward to the world to come, but we should not put all our energy into thinking about tomorrow. We have to get through today.
How do we get through today even while waiting for tomorrow? We have faith. We live in faith constantly, hearing God’s Word for us now and doing what He is calling us to do. There is a world to come, a great and wonderful world of eternal life with Christ. It is a life that I long to experience! But there is so much to do today, so many people who need God’s grace, so much love to experience in the here and now. Today, let us hear God’s voice and live as He is calling us to live rather than living for tomorrow as if there is no today.
“Bow down thine ear, O Jehovah, and answer me; For I am poor and needy. Preserve my soul; for I am godly: O thou my God, save thy servant that trusteth in thee. Be merciful unto me, O Lord; For unto thee do I cry all the day long. Rejoice the soul of thy servant; For unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul. For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive, And abundant in lovingkindness unto all them that call upon thee. Give ear, O Jehovah, unto my prayer; And hearken unto the voice of my supplications. In the day of my trouble I will call upon thee; For thou wilt answer me.” Psalm 86:1-7, ASV
Several weeks ago I ordered some charms to be used in a project I’m trying to finish by this weekend. I’ve received notification that the charms have been shipped, but they have not yet arrived in my mailbox. I’ve checked the website tracking page and it is very confusing, posting shipping dates that end the day the package was supposedly shipped. In other words, they are telling me how the items got to a distribution center, but not how they are getting to my house.
I gave the company the allotted amount of time for the package to arrive. The shipping time seemed extraordinary, but you have to take them at their word and allow the system to work. Today was a day beyond the expected shipping time, so I messaged the company. I don’t know what good it will do at this point; even if they were able to send the package today, it’ll take a few days to get here and I won’t have time to finish the project. Still, I paid for the items and I need them to be delivered or I need a refund.
It can be very convenient to order things off the internet, and most of my experiences are very good. I’m often surprised at how quickly things arrive. I prefer shopping in a store; I prefer not having to pay shipping costs. I also like to see and touch the item I am purchasing, to make sure it is exactly what I want. However, there are times when I can’t buy what I want in town. I’ve had to purchase filters for the air conditioner because it needs an odd size. I purchased most of my curtains on company websites because they didn’t carry the size I needed or they did not have enough on the shelf for my needs. I buy books and beads online all the time.
The item I needed for the project was something I could not find anywhere in town, and I looked at a dozen stores. I gave up the search when I found something online. It was not a company I’ve used in the past, but the cost of the item was minimal, so I took the risk. I’ll fight for a refund if I never get the item, but I won’t suffer in through the process. Now I just have to hope that the company gets my message and responds. I have to hope that they will send me a message so that I will know that they are dealing with the situation.
The Internet has made everything very convenient. Some people do all their Christmas shopping on the computer and never even walk in a store anymore. We communicate online most of the time. Some people have chosen to do all their business online, like banking and paying bills. Most job applications are being done online these days. While it is convenient, it is hard to know for sure that the online forms actually make it to the place where they are supposedly sent. We all have had experiences with lost emails and online websites that fail. It is impossible to know if we’ve been rejected because they didn’t like what they saw on a resume or if they never even got it.
I suppose that’s a little like the communication we have with God. We pray and we hope that God hears, but sometimes we don’t know that He has even heard. We are lucky when our prayers are answered in the way we hope, but we live in doubt and uncertainty most of the time because either we’ve prayed the wrong prayers or God has something better in store for us. A lack of an answer does not always mean that our prayers have been lost or unheard. God is not like the Internet. He always hears and He responds. We don’t have to trust those websites on the Internet, and we should do what we need to get what is right. But we can have faith that God knows what is best for us, and even when we don’t hear the answer we can believe that He is doing what is good and right.
Scriptures for Sunday, September 16, 2012, Pentecost Sixteen: Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 116:1-9; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
“And he called unto him the multitude with his disciples, and said unto them, If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Mark 8:34, ASV
A long time ago, I was acquainted with a young lady on the Internet who had decided that she was a prophet. I’m not sure what evidence she had of the position, but she sought out other prophets in chat rooms to discuss the things of God. She was impressed one day with the things I was saying and we struck up a conversation outside the chat room. She was young and willing to learn, and for some reason had decided I was a prophet, too. She looked to me for advice, and understanding. Though I have never considered myself a prophet in the sense she understood, I saw the conversation as an opportunity to help her understand her vocation in God’s kingdom.
She sent me several teachings that she had written, and quite frankly they were horrific. Not only was the theology questionable, but the writing was terrible. She had no grasp on spelling or grammar. Her sentences were confusing and sometimes incoherent. She was young and passionate, and she truly believed she was doing what God had called her to do. I encouraged her, but since she had sent me the writings for review, I gave her some honest opinions about them. I believe I was gentle but firm, showing her ways she could make the teaching stronger and easier to understand. I showed her biblically where she was in error. I even rewrote some of the text to make it usable for her ministry.
She was shocked. In the end I realized that she wasn’t looking for advice. She wanted me to fawn over her wonderful work and tell her that she really was a prophet. I couldn’t do that; she needed to hear the truth because she would be judged by her teaching. She was playing a dangerous game and if she was going to play at being a prophet, she needed to know her errors and experience God’s grace in a way that would help her to be merciful in her teaching. She responded with an attack on my own writing, but she did so with no foundation in the scriptures or even traditional Christianity. Her faith was eclectic, and mix from many different religions and she based her rebuke on teachings from outside the Christian faith. It made me sad to think that someone might be led astray by her teaching and that she would discover the judgment that comes from teaching a false Gospel.
James writes, “Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment.” Prophecy and teaching are closely related and are often mentioned together in the scriptures. Some people are gifted at proclaiming the message of God’s Kingdom, while others are gifted at explaining it. It is vital that churches find those who are gifted in teaching, so that the congregation will learn how to apply the lessons learned from those who prophesy. These are gifts, not something we can grasp for ourselves. They are given by God, and though we can develop the gift, we can’t learn how to be a prophet or teacher of faith if God has not first made it ours. When we try to become something that we aren’t, we face roadblocks and we can’t accomplish what we set out to do. We might want to prophecy and teach, but if God is not calling us to that vocation, we won’t succeed.
Too many people try to be something they aren’t gifted or called to be. They try to teach, but leave their students confused and doubtful. The young lady in the chat room boasted that she was a prophet, but her words proved her wrong and she refused to accept the words of others. I was not the only one who tried to encourage her to seek God’s purpose for her. She most certainly had other gifts that would glorify God, but because she was so focused on being a prophet, she was missing the blessing I God’s call.
She probably had people who were encouraging her to continue to do what she thought was right, ignoring the reality. We all know that there are people who try out for those singing, dance and talent shows that should never have been allowed on a stage. Yet, they go with the idea that they can win the contest because someone has told them over and over again how wonderful they are. They end up being the joke, making us laugh. We wonder how they could possibly think that they are good at singing, dancing or whatever. I know I will never, ever try out for a singing show because I can’t sing, and though I’ve had people compliment me, I’ve also had people tell me the truth. I have just decided that God gave me plenty of other gifts; I don’t need to pretend that I have that one.
But if we tell people that they are good at something that they aren’t good at doing, they miss the opportunity to discover their real gifts and purpose in this world.
Isaiah knew what God wanted him to do, and he recognized it as a gift. We can see in his story that prophet is not a good position to covet. After all, he faced difficult times. He was humiliated, beaten, rejected. Yet, he knew that God sent him to speak His word to the people, and he didn’t let the persecution stop him or lead him to respond in ways that did not glorify God. He trusted in God, and he did what God sent him to do, no matter how the world responded to him. If the young lady were truly a prophet, she would not have felt the need to lash out at those who were trying to help her live by a similar faith.
Jesus also knew what God sent Him to do, but in today’s passage we see that the people around Jesus were not so sure. They thought He was another prophet, like Elijah or John the Baptist. Jesus gave the people no reason to believe these things: He revealed Himself constantly in the words He spoke and the things He did. Yet, the people saw Him as they wanted to see Him. They wanted a Messiah that fit into their expectations. They wanted the world to look like they envisioned.
Now, Peter spoke the right words, describing Jesus as the Christ. In Mark’s version, we don’t see Jesus responding with congratulations on getting it right, or that the Holy Spirit gave him the faith to say it. Mark just tells us that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know that He was the Christ. They already had an idea that’s where He leading them, but He knew they wouldn’t like the reality of what it meant for Him to save them. They wouldn’t like the path that He was walking.
And they didn’t. When Jesus told the disciples that He would be beaten and die, they wanted to stop Him. Peter, who just confessed his faith in Jesus, rebuked Him for His words. Jesus responded, “Get thee behind me, Satan; for thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men.” Jesus came with a different purpose, a purpose that is still beyond our comprehension. He came to die. Jesus told the disciples to keep silent about what they knew—that Jesus was the Messiah—because they still did not fully understand how this was to be.
We tend to have expectations for others that are based on our own perceptions, not the whole person. Perhaps we should ask one another, “Who do you say that I am?” We might find that we get as many answers as Jesus got from His disciples that day. People see us as they know us, and they find it hard to believe those things about us that they can’t see or understand. The disciples couldn’t imagine Jesus as the suffering servant, the one who might sing the psalm as we see it in today’s lectionary. But we also know that Jesus is like Isaiah, trusting in God and knowing that even when His enemies slapped His cheek or pulled His beard, He would not waver from the reason God sent Him.
Jesus tried to tell them. “And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Since the crowds were whispering possibilities of kingship, the idea of suffering and death was far from their minds. Peter rebuked for Jesus. “Don’t say that Lord! You can’t die.” They were just getting used to this idea that Jesus would be near. He could not be near. He could not hear their concerns. He could not heal them or save them if He was dead.
There is no way that Jesus could save us if He remained alive. This is the hardest part of the Christian faith for people to understand. Couldn’t God have found another way? Couldn’t He just forgive us or let us offer some sort of sacrifice? Couldn’t He make the world perfect? The cross doesn’t make sense. And yet, the cross is the center of our faith, whether we understand it or not.
When Jesus said “Get behind me Satan,” He wasn’t saying that Peter is the devil. He is commanding Satan to get out of the way. Peter could not see the reality of Jesus’ identity, despite the fact that he confessed just minutes before that Jesus was the Messiah. He wanted Jesus to be the kind of king that the people expected. Jesus refused to be tempted by a different path. Anything less than the cross would be useless. The cross was His purpose; it was through Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection that true healing, true freedom, true salvation would come.
Jesus says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” God sent His Son to change the world. Now He calls us to follow Him, living in faith that Christ is who He is not who we want Him to be. He gives us gifts to use in the world to glorify God and calls us to live according to His purpose for us. We might face persecution, but we have nothing to fear because He is always near. He died so that He might live forever, and when we die to our own desires and follow Him, we will also live with Him forever.
“For I would have you know how greatly I strive for you, and for them at Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh; that their hearts may be comforted, they being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, that they may know the mystery of God, even Christ, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden. This I say, that no one may delude you with persuasiveness of speech. For though I am absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and the stedfastness of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:1-5, ASV
My mother was a seamstress. She worked for a fabric store for awhile and made many of the samples that they displayed. She also made some of my clothes. I have to admit that I didn’t always like the outfits she created, and even now I look back on the pictures from those years and shake my head. Who would choose that material for a pair of pants? Perhaps it was in style then, but… yuck. She did make some absolutely beautiful baton costumes for my sister and I, though. We had pretty velvet leotards bedecked with rhinestones and fringe, I’m sure they were as nice as we could have bought, and probably cost a lot less money. She also made me several evening gowns that were lovely.
I didn’t learn how to sew so well. I did take a class in Junior High and managed to put together whatever we were supposed to make. I think I created a pillow and a wrap around skirt. I have tried to use a sewing machine in the years since, pushing through a number of Halloween costumes for the kids and craft projects. But I never really learned to use the machine, and each time I pull it out I have difficulty with even the simplest techniques. I can’t seem to make the tension right and I even fail at filling the bobbins. Perhaps the problem is the machine, but I tend to believe that it is my lack of knowledge. I would like to use my machine, not to make clothes, but because I would enjoy making rag dolls for Rag Dolls 2 Love, Inc. This is an organization that creates rag dolls to give to children around the world who are suffering in some way. They are made with very simple seams and inexpensive fabric and are making a difference in dozens of countries.
I’m amazed by those who can do incredible things on their machines. My sister makes quilted items and can create lace and embroidery on her machine. Another friend gave us some dishtowels with embroidered pictures. I’ve seen wedding gowns that have been created by women who have put hours into the sewing of miles of satin and lace. I can slap paint onto a canvas in a way that comes out beautiful, but I could never make something so beautiful as a wedding dress.
One very popular trend is to make quilts out of old t-shirts. The seamstress cuts the print on the t-shirt into a square and then sews the squares into a quilt. This is a great memory project: any student can tell you that they have dozens of shirts from all the events and organizations they attended. I saw one quilt that included t-shirts from years of summer camp. Another was made from different t-shirts from a local college. These quilts are not as easy as you might think because the t-shirts are often made from different material or are worn at different rates, so the seamstress must find a way to put these materials that don’t match together in a way that will wear well throughout the years. Different materials need different tension, sometimes even different thread, so the seamstress has to carefully piece it together in a way that will make them all work together.
Christians are made with lots of different fabric. Some are like satin and lace, others like wool or denim. Some are solid colors; others are covered with bright, intricate patterns. You can’t sew together silk and corduroy, but somehow God does it. He takes old pieces of t-shirts and incorporates them into taffeta. He is able to create something incredibly beautiful out of bits that should never go together. I like the language used by “The Message” for today’s passage, “I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God.” It is God that does this. He pieces us together and is glorified by the Kingdom that we become at His hand. We might not seem to fit together. We might not think we are capable of working as a whole. But by faith we can stand together, trusting that God can do what we cannot.
“The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction; to discern the words of understanding; to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness and justice and equity; to give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion: that the wise man may hear, and increase in learning; and that the man of understanding may attain unto sound counsels: to understand a proverb, and a figure, the words of the wise, and their dark sayings. The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of knowledge; but the foolish despise wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:1-7, ASV
It is raining at our house. I know that it seems like I talk about rain a lot, but we’ve seen so little of it recently that it is a big deal for us. The rain we are receiving is the best in a long; we have gotten more than two inches of rain over the past day or so, and more is expected to come in the next few days. We are thankful for the rain, and so is our lawn.
The rain that came yesterday afternoon was accompanied by lightning and thunder. We have a covered doorway to our house and we have a park bend in this area. I decided to go outside, sit on the bench and watch the storm pass while it was safe. I took my e-reader and I was going to read while enjoying the cooling air and the sounds of raindrops on the trees.
We happen to live fairly close to an elementary school and a junior high. Most of the children in our neighborhood walk to and from school. The storm blew in during the hour that the children were headed home for the day. Though the rain came later, they were definitely on the streets while the lightning flashed and the thunder boomed nearby. I could not tell where the children were, they could have even still been safely under the awning at the school waiting for their mothers to pick them up, but I could hear them in the distance. They screamed every time I saw lightning and heard thunder. I was concerned for their safety, but it made me laugh, especially since the sounds from the group turned to laughter immediately after the scream. I don’t think they were as frightened as they were startled.
I became aware of another noise in the air. A flock of birds in the tree outside our house were chattering so loudly I couldn’t even think. I put down my e-reader and began to listen to all the sounds around me. The birds sounded like they were alarmed, as if they were warning each other that something terrible was coming. After a particularly bright lightning strike, I heard multiple emergency sirens. I heard the cars driving by. One was loud with squeaking breaks, another crunched some leaves.
The sounds changed as the rain began to fall. It was very light at first, barely perceptible. I felt the first drop before I heard the rain. Then there was a light patter on the leaves of the trees and bushes. The song of the birds slowly faded as the drops quickened and the splash of car tires grew as the rain left puddles on the street. The voices of the children were silenced as they made it home or were picked up by their moms. Finally, after watching and listening for a long time, the sound of the rain took over. What amazed me most is that if you listen very carefully, you can hear different sounds. A constant noise came from the raindrops on the leaves, but even that changed as the wind blew. In between those sounds came others: the slap of a drop on a smooth rock, the plop of another in a puddle, the trickle of the water off the roof. Each sound was unique, but I had to stop to listen, otherwise they were lost.
Most of us can hear God’s voice when He speaks plainly and clearly, particularly through the scriptures. We see His hand in the love of His people and in the beauty of the creation. We see Him when miracles happen, and when we see good things happen. I’m amazed when millions of people respond to a disaster and when a congregation gathers a pot luck feast, and I know that’s God speaking through them for us. But God’s voice is not always so easy to recognize; sometimes He speaks a private, quiet word for us. Do you hear it when He does? Do you experience His loving discipline or feel His comforting touch? Do you stop to listen for those words that usually get lost in the murmur that constantly reaches our ears?
“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. We who died to sin, how shall we any longer live therein? Or are ye ignorant that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him through baptism unto death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection; knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away, that so we should no longer be in bondage to sin; for he that hath died is justified from sin. But if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him; knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death no more hath dominion over him. For the death that he died, he died unto sin once: but the life that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Even so reckon ye also yourselves to be dead unto sin, but alive unto God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey the lusts thereof: neither present your members unto sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves unto God, as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under law, but under grace. What then? shall we sin, because we are not under law, but under grace? God forbid.” Romans 6:1-15, ASV
Children are amazingly straightforward with their words. We’ve all heard or seen those jokes about children saying the darnedest things. They are funny because they are true, sometimes painfully honest, especially when dealing with death, heaven and hell.
A little girl was talking to her teacher about whales. The teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because even though it was a very large mammal its throat was very small. The little girl stated that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. Irritated, the teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible. The little girl said, “When I get to heaven I will ask Jonah.” The teacher asked, “What if Jonah went to hell?” The little girl replied, “Then you ask him.”
One Sunday morning, the pastor noticed little Alex standing in the foyer of the church staring up at a large plaque. It was covered with names and small American flags mounted on either side of it. The six-year old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the pastor walked up, stood beside the little boy, and said quietly, “Good morning Alex.” “Good morning Pastor,” he replied, still focused on the plaque. “Pastor, what is this?” The pastor said, “Well son, it’s a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service.” Soberly, they just stood together, staring at the large plaque. Finally, little Alex’s voice, barely audible and trembling with fear asked, “Which service, the 8:30 or the 10:45?”
On class photo day, after the children had all been photographed, the teacher was trying to persuade them each to buy a copy of the group picture. “Just think how nice it will be to look at it when you are all grown up and say, ‘There is Jennifer, she’s a lawyer,’ or ‘That is Michael, he’s a doctor.’” A small voice at the back of the room rang out, “And there’s the teacher, she’s dead.”
A Sunday School teacher asked her class, “What do you have to do to get to heaven?” One little girl answered, “Die.”
Now, I’m sure the child did not understand how true her statement really is. Of course, we know that we have to physically die to go to heaven, but as Christians we know that the reality is that we die in another way. In the faith we receive by God’s grace, we also die to self. Heaven comes to those who join with Christ through baptism; we are buried with Christ and we live with Him. While heaven is a place we will go one day, it is not so far away today. When we live in faith we dwell in the Kingdom of God, abiding in and with the Son who died for our sake so that we can live with Him.
“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men.” Matthew 5:13, ASV
We stopped at a country store the other, hoping that there would still be some peaches for sale. As it turned out, there was; the trees had produced one final lot that was harvested that morning. The peaches were small but good and so we bought a basket. We also walked through the store to see what else they had to offer. The shelves were filled with jams and jellies, salsa, sauces and marinades. Most of the products were locally produced, although they also carried a few items that they brought from other sources. We found some Amish egg noodles and a small jar of raspberry jelly to purchase.
I was amazed by one particular display. It had a number of different types of salt. Now, I’ve always known that there were different types of salt besides that which we buy to spice our food. I have salt in a shaker and in a grinder which I use for cooking. I also have flavored salts, like garlic and celery salt which I use in recipes. And we all have a box of course salt in the pantry for making ice cream! Lately I have recently seen more types available in the grocery store, but since I didn’t know how to use the unusual types and colors, I never really paid much attention. I do have kosher salt because several recipes I have used recently called specifically for it.
I was fascinated by the display because the salt was so beautiful: pink, black, chunky, flaky, and smoked. The salt comes from all over the world, enchanting places like Hawaii, India, Italy and France. Some of the salt is so rare that it costs a fortune. One type of salt, I’ve learned, is mined from a cave in India, often in large blocks. Some chefs use the salt blocks for displaying and serving food, so the food is flavored by the vessel.
I’ve found a website that talks about the different types of salt and how they can be used. Certain salts are better for cooking, while others are better for finishing. The site recommends using regular table salt for baking rather than a coarse salt because it will melt into the batter much better. The unusual salts are generally used for finishing because they are beautiful and add unique flavor to the dish. After reading the website, I don’t think I will be spending the money on the more expensive salts because I doubt my palette is developed enough to notice the difference. I have chosen to use salt in a grinder because it tends to be more natural than the highly processed table salt.
For the people in those times, salt had great significance. Salt was very practical, used for flavoring and for preserving foods, but salt also bound people by a covenant. Salt served to guests made a promise of care and protection. I’m sure they did not have as many choices in Jesus’ day. Though the salt may have come from different places, they didn’t have Morton’s for the table. They probably didn’t identify the salt in different categories. They couldn’t buy a dozen different types of salt for their table; they simply bought salt at the market, buying what was available for their money.
Despite our fascination with the many different types of salt, I don’t think we appreciate it as much as they did. Text like today’s verse makes us think about how salt flavors food, and we think we are simply sent to flavor the world with our faith and individuality. However, salt was also used to preserve things, and as Christians we are called to preserve God’s name in the world. Also, as we share the Gospel of Christ with others, our saltiness shares a covenant with the world from God’s own Word, a promise that those who are salted with Christ will be saved.
Scriptures for Sunday, September 23, 2012, Pentecost Seventeen: Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:10; Mark 9:30-37
“Who is wise and understanding among you? let him show by his good life his works in meekness of wisdom.” James 3:13, ASV
What does it mean to be humble? This is something that I ponder on a regular basis. As an artist and writer, I have to find a way to promote my work. How will people know that they can read my words or buy my paintings if I don’t tell them? And yet, I have a hard time promoting myself. I recently made cards to leave out during a craft festival that included the addresses of my Facebook pages, but I was not comfortable doing it. Would people think I was being too conceited? Shouldn’t I be more humble? But is that humility? Is it humble to wait for people to discover your gifts so that you don’t appear to be selling yourself? This is what I ponder.
There is something to be said about trusting that God will use you in ways that take advantage of the gifts you have been given, but does He really want us to sit around and wait until someone else invites us to share those gifts. When we were moving from England to Arkansas, I was asked to give a sermon at our church, testifying to God’s grace in my life. It was the first time I was ever asked to preach. The sermon had a great impact on the congregation and too many people asked, “Why didn’t we know you could do that?” We all lost the chance to benefit from my gifts because of my so-called humility. How many other times have I failed to do what God is calling me to do because I have been unwilling to tell people I can do it?
I think there is a fine line. Too many people approach promotion of themselves in a way that diminishes others. Unfortunately, we see that in political campaigns all the time. Instead of advancing their own gifts and agendas, politicians at every level of government and from every ideological perspective do whatever they can to put down their opponents. Even in this there is a fine line: where do you draw it. How do you run for political office and sell yourself while remaining humble?
James asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you? let him show by his good life his works in meekness of wisdom.” We often misunderstand the word “meekness” to mean weak, but the reality is that meekness is the humble understanding that you are not the greatest. Greatness does not come to those who force or manipulate others into making them great. True greatness comes to those who do what they are called to do in a way that glorifies God, and He will glorify them for their faith. Humility is trusting that God will accomplish His work through us as we go about life doing what we can do. That might mean we have to step out in faith and ‘sell ourselves’ so that others will know what we can do.
Now, the disciples were thinking like politicians on that road through Galilee. They were arguing with one another about who was the greatest. In other versions of this story, some of the disciples insisted on being Jesus’ right hand and left hand men. They wanted to be part of the ruling party and felt they deserved it. They saw themselves as better than the others and thought Jesus should appoint them to the positions of power and authority. Jesus had another way.
Isn’t it funny how children are never shy about telling people what they can do? A three year old who has recently learned the alphabet song has no problem walking up to complete strangers and singing. A five year old who managed her first cartwheel at gymnastics class will perform at every opportunity. A seven year old who has received an A+ on his spelling test will gladly hang it on the refrigerator. Children don’t worry about what others will think; they simply share their talents and they are overjoyed if it makes someone happy.
Children have faith. They approach life from the point of view that if they can do something they should because it might just make life better for someone else. Surely that lady at the grocery store needs to hear the alphabet song! She might not know what letter comes after “p”! And mother’s friends will benefit greatly from seeing a cartwheel on the front lawn at church. How they will benefit doesn’t matter to the child, but surely the world will be a better place because of it!
Jesus knew what they were talking about on the road through Galilee. They were not willing to admit their conversation because they knew that somehow they were getting it all wrong. After all, their master Jesus was talking about suffering and persecution while they were looking forward to being rulers. Though they heard what He said, they didn’t understand and they were not willing to admit their ignorance. They didn’t trust in Jesus; and then they proved that they put their trust in themselves.
So, Jesus showed them the other way. He lifted a little child onto His lap and told them they should believe in His words the way a child does, without fear or worry or anxiety. They should just act in faith, doing what it is they’ve been gifted to do while trusting that God will make it work to His glory. Children aren’t afraid to hold someone’s hand when they are crying. Children don’t worry about whether or not they have the right words, they speak from their hearts. Children talk about Jesus and God and love and peace and hope in a way that we no longer understand because we have lost our innocence. Children trust and believe because they don’t have to be the best or the first or the greatest. Jesus reminded the twelve that they do not need to be the best or the first or the greatest, they simply need to believe. That’s the kind of humility Jesus is looking for in our lives.
James tells us, “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and he shall exalt you.” We don’t have to try to be the best or first or greatest, we just live in faith and do what God is calling us to do and He will raise us up. Do we stop believing when we don’t win that election or sell our stuff? Of course not, because if we do then we were exhibiting a false humility. The truly humble has faith that God is working even when it does not seem like He is. A loss at the polls might mean that there is something more important to be accomplished elsewhere. I might have a bad day at a festival, but that doesn’t mean that no one has seen or liked my work. I might not know for days or weeks or even months, but someday someone from that day might just call and say, “I saw your painting, is it still for sale?”
It might not always be easy. I don’t really like to attend craft festivals because every vendor is desperate to win the shoppers’ money. Some vendors are very bold, calling for customers to see them even to the point of stealing them from others. I lost a number of people who were ready to enter my booth area to look around but they were distracted by a neighboring vendor. By the time he was done with them, they had forgotten all about me or they didn’t have time.
Politicians understand the dangers. Those who do try to run a clean campaign are often maligned by the opposition and end up losing despite their humble campaign. But all who live and walk in humble faith will see God’s hand in their life. It might not lead to a sale or a position of power, but they will be blessed by God’s grace. Their life might be as Jeremiah’s, on like a lamb led to slaughter, but God does bring vengeance for His faithful in His time and way. He hears. He knows. And He acts for the sake of those who humbly live in faith.
The humble is he who prays with the psalmist a prayer of trust and faith. “Behold, God is my helper: The Lord is of them that uphold my soul.” David was experiencing tough times, like Jeremiah, persecution and threats from people who were close to him. David was hiding among the Ziphites, which means he must have trusted them to protect him, but they were traitors. David was betrayed, but he was able to lift his voice to God, crying out for salvation from his enemies. In the psalm he sings, “Save me, O God, by thy name.”
The psalm begins with a cry for help, then a confession of trust in God, and finishes with a vow to offer thanksgiving and praise. David is confident that God will save him from his enemies. He comforts himself in the knowledge that God is faithful to His promises. His life was far from perfect. As a matter of fact, Saul continues to chase after David long after He makes the pleas in this psalm. He had several opportunities to take Saul’s life into his own hands, but David continued to trust in God. The words of thanksgiving, “For he hath delivered me out of all trouble; And mine eye hath seen my desire upon mine enemies” would not be fulfilled until later, but he praised God in advance, humbly anticipating God’s vengeance for his sake. He wasn’t worried about the outcome; he knew God would do what God would do.
That’s what it means to be wise like a child and humble in this world, trusting God even when it seems like God is not accomplishing what we hope He will do. The disciples thought Jesus would end up on a throne and they wanted to be right up there at the top with Him. Jesus knew that His journey would take Him in another direction. He was not sent to be king on earth but to be King of kings. That meant walking in faith, doing what God intended without question or worry or fear. It was not going to be easy, but it was necessary for God’s plan to be complete. He had to die so that He could live forever. He had to die so we can live forever.
I know that I need not worry about what people will think when I tell people about my gifts and my work as long as I continue to do it for the sake of God’s kingdom not to bring someone else down. Sharing God’s grace will benefit others, but trying to be the greatest will never glorify God. James reminds us why we fail to receive the answers we desire to our prayers, “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.” The humble Christian is a servant whose gifts are not used to become the greatest, but who walks and works in faith that God will accomplish His good work in our lives.
“I think myself happy, king Agrippa, that I am to make my defense before thee this day touching all the things whereof I am accused by the Jews: especially because thou art expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews: wherefore I beseech thee to hear me patiently. My manner of life then from my youth up, which was from the beginning among mine own nation and at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; having knowledge of me from the first, if they be willing to testify, that after the straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee. And now I stand here to be judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers; unto which promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God night and day, hope to attain. And concerning this hope I am accused by the Jews, O king! Why is it judged incredible with you, if God doth raise the dead?” Acts 26:2-8, ASV
Today’s passage is part of a much larger story about Paul standing before King Agrippa. He is defending himself against the accusations of the Jews. He goes on to talk about his life before Christ and his experience of meeting Christ on the road to Damascus. In response, King Agrippa calls him insane. “Paul, thou art mad; thy much learning is turning thee mad.” Isn’t it funny that it is Paul’s intelligence and quest for understanding that is blamed for his confusion? Because surely he must be confused if the thing they most desire is the very reason they are accusing him!
He continues by pointing out that the king surely knows the scriptures and the words of the prophets, so he must know that everything Paul has preached is true. The king questions Paul’s tactic, “You don’t think you can convince me to be a Christian in a few minutes, do you?” Paul says that no matter how long it takes, he hopes the king and everyone will believe like Paul. “Except for the chains,” he says. The king and his people leave the room and though they have not come to believe in Christ, they know that what he says is not worthy of death. He isn’t doing something illegal. He isn’t condemning innocent people. He is simply telling the story of his faith and hoping others will believe.
The Jews were very hard on Paul, condemning him to death for speaking about his faith. He did want them all to know the truth; it was a truth they longed to hear. They wanted the Messiah. They looked for their Savior. But since Jesus didn’t come the way they expected, they missed Him, and they couldn’t believe Paul’s words. So they tried to silence Paul, and if he wouldn’t be silenced, they wanted him dead.
I don’t think any of us feel that kind of threat when we share our faith with our neighbors, but we are hearing too many stories of people who are being silenced by those who refuse to believe in Jesus. Christians are accused of being intolerant and arrogant when they share their faith because they call for non-believers to repent and turn to the God who can save. He is the one in which all people have hope, though they do not all recognize Him. Christians preach the very thing the world needs, but are rejected for preaching that very thing. We aren’t very different from Paul; people think we are insane, too.
Paul was willing to die if the accusations against him were true, but he knew that the Gospel is what they needed and he wasn’t willing to be silenced. I pray we all have the boldness of Paul to share the Good News of Christ whenever we have the opportunity, even if we are facing accusers or judges that can take away our life.
“For I, Jehovah, change not; therefore ye, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers ye have turned aside from mine ordinances, and have not kept them. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith Jehovah of hosts. But ye say, Wherein shall we return? Will a man rob God? yet ye rob me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with the curse; for ye rob me, even this whole nation. Bring ye the whole tithe into the store-house, that there may be food in my house, and prove me now herewith, saith Jehovah of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it. And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast its fruit before the time in the field, saith Jehovah of hosts. And all nations shall call you happy; for ye shall be a delightsome land, saith Jehovah of hosts. Your words have been stout against me, saith Jehovah. Yet ye say, What have we spoken against thee? Ye have said, It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept his charge, and that we have walked mournfully before Jehovah of hosts? And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are built up; yea, they tempt God, and escape. Then they that feared Jehovah spake one with another; and Jehovah hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared Jehovah, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, saith Jehovah of hosts, even mine own possession, in the day that I make; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him. Then shall ye return and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not.” Malachi 3:6-18, ASV
Helen Keller once said, “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes real happiness. It is not obtained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”
Eric Hoffer said, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”
Kim Hubbard said, “It is pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness: poverty and wealth have both failed.”
Bertrand Russell said, “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensible part of happiness.”
George Burns said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”
Ok, that last one was a bit of humor in the midst of an important subject. What is happiness? What does it meant to be happy? Verse 14 of today’s reading is a sad statement, but one I think many of us can identify with: we call the proud happy. The NIV translation says, “We call the arrogant blessed.” The Message says, “Those who take their life into their own hands are the lucky ones.”
This month’s issue of Reader’s Digest has an article about happiness. An interesting sidebar gives us a history of happiness. When I first say that, I wondered how they could put happiness into a time line, but then I read the list. They began with a quote from Aristotle in 350 BC that said, “Happiness is the best, most noble, and most pleasant thing in the world.” In 1776, the writers of our Declaration of Independence included that all men have the right to “the pursuit of happiness.” Laughing gas was invented in 1799. Books about parenting in the early 1900s focused on children’s happiness. The term “Happy Hour” came into use by sailors in the 1920s. The song “Happy Birthday to you” was copyrighted in 1935. The laugh track for radio and television was invented in the 1950s. The term ‘happy pill’ for tranquillizers was coined in the 1950s. The idea of national happiness and happiness in international relations came into style in recent years.
In 2010, Matt Salzberg said, “My vision of success is based on the impact I can have, much more than the pursuit of money or prestige.” Perhaps Matt was the first one in that timeline to get it right.
The article gives several steps to finding happiness. First, they recommend valuing your relationships. In a University of Illinois study, researchers discovered, “The highest levels of happiness are found with the most stable, longest, and most contented relationships.” Second, those who are happy express themselves. According to a Wake Forest University study, participants were tracked over a two week period and they found that they were happier when they were more outgoing and less happy when reserved or withdrawn.
A study done by the editors of forbes.com discovered that people were happier when they used their money to buy things for others. They gave cash to strangers, from $5 to $20. Half the group was told to spend the money on themselves and the other half to spend it on someone else. Those who bought something for someone else were much happier. The fourth step is to focus on the positive. They recommend keeping a journey and writing down three good things that happen each day. Those who did this found themselves to be much happier. Finally, the article suggests drinking water. Apparently, dehydration can cause mood swings.
I think it is true that happiness comes when we do not put the focus on ourselves, but turn our actions and thoughts to others. Those who take their lives into their own hands are not the lucky ones. God says, “Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith Jehovah of hosts.” They didn’t understand. “How have we turned away?” “How have we robbed you?” God told them that they were focused on the wrong things. They were more interested in themselves and their own happiness. Instead of sharing their blessings with others, they were keeping it for themselves.
Instead of serving God, they served self. “It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept his charge, and that we have walked mournfully before Jehovah of hosts?” They thought it was a waste of their time and resources to serve God. We might think that a new car or party dress will make us happy, but true happiness comes when we love God and live for Him in this world. This doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t have the new car or pretty dress, but let’s remember what matters most. Our happiness comes from living the life God is calling us to live, with Him in the forefront, doing His work in this world.
“And we have the word of prophecy made more sure; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:19-21, ASV
A photo shows a sign for a daycare which is called, “Diana’s PlayPen of Little Genius’s.” Yes, a daycare that claims to raise extremely intelligent children has a blatant error in punctuation and a questionable use of capitalization. Now, I’m not one to judge because I’m sure I regularly make mistakes in my writing. I try to be correct, but I often send these writings out without thorough editing, and I’ve been known to make a mistake or two. I probably make a mistake or two every day. I’m often shocked by the silly things I’ve typed.
I admit that my grammar, spelling and punctuation are imperfect, but is it the same thing? After all, the sign is permanent. It consists of one phrase. It surely went through the hands of several people. Did no one bother to edit? It is bad enough that the owner of a daycare claiming to raise geniuses would make the mistake, but what about the people at the sign company? Shouldn’t someone there have noticed the mistake and fixed it? How could the owner of the sign company allow such a mistake? The sign is raised above the storefront, so even if someone discovered the mistake, they allowed the sign to be hung.
So, here’s the question: would you send your child to a daycare with a sign that is so poorly produced? Do the errors give you pause? Does it matter? I don’t know if the people inside the daycare are doing a good job or a bad job with the children, but I do know that punctuation does matter. I might even think twice about using the daycare because of that sign.
Take a look at a few examples where punctuation really matter.
Which is true? Students were asked to punctuate the following sentence: Woman without her man is nothing. Some students answered, “Woman: without her, man is nothing.” Others said, “Woman, without her man, is nothing.” Can you guess who used which punctuation? Surely the females provided the first answer and the males provided the second. Those six words mean two completely different things because of a few punctuation points.
Punctuation can be a matter of life and death. If you were Grandpa, which would you prefer? “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” Or “Let’s eat Grandpa!” I know that I’d rather eat than be eaten. A magazine cover starring Rachel Ray could have used a few commas. The cover showed a picture of Rachel with her Dog and the title “Eat, Ray, Love.” The subtext stated, “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” These are certainly funny examples of the importance of proper comma placement, though I’m sure that neither the grandchild nor Rachel Ray is really cannibalistic.
It is interesting to note, then, that the ancient biblical texts were written without punctuation. They had no such think until several hundred years after the life of Christ. Our translations must include punctuation to make the text understandable, but we must understand that everything about translation is open to interpretation. As a matter of fact, the ancient text did not even include spaces, and in Hebrew there were no vowels. Now, those who were native speakers of the words understand perfectly because they recognized the words within the text. We must be careful, though, to understand our own limitations when it comes to reading and understanding the scriptures.
The problem provides non-believers with an excuse to question every word. “What if the writer intended to say something different? In the assignment to students, both messages are true to those who wrote the answers. And yet we see that they mean something very different. What about the scripture texts? Can one sentence mean two different things? Those outside the Church might think so the way we disagree and debate over the text. But we are reminded by today’s text that the scriptures are not our words, but God’s. It is not up to us to put our own spin on the text but to carefully consider not only what it says in our translations, but what God truly intended in the inspiration.
“There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days; for the child shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner being a hundred years old shall be accursed. And they shall build houses, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, nor bring forth for calamity; for they are the seed of the blessed of Jehovah, and their offspring with them. And it shall come to pass that, before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith Jehovah.” Isaiah 55:20-25, ASV
Sequoia National Park was established on September 25, 1890. One of several national parks that protect the giant ancient trees that still amaze us today, Sequoia is the home of the world’s largest tree (in volume), the General Sherman, and four more of the world’s ten largest trees. It is also where you can find the highest point in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney. There are plenty of other features to see, including Moro Rock (a granite dome), Tokopah Falls, and Crystal Cave. Sequoia was the second area set aside as a National Park, the first was Yellowstone.
The Giant Sequoias, Coastal Redwoods and other Old-growth forests are amazing places, with trees that are bigger than we can imagine and older than we can remember. The General Sherman sequoia is estimated at being 2300-2700 years old. The old known tree on earth is Methuselah, a tree in the Great Basin, and is estimated to have germinated in 2832 B.C. Several sequoias in the Sierra Nevada are more than three thousand years old. There are old growth trees all over the world, including a four thousand year old Yew tree in the United Kingdom and a Mediterranean cyprus in Iran. A clonial colony of quaking aspens in Utah is estimated to be 80,000-1,000,000 years old. In the clonial colonies, the individual trees may be only a few hundred years old, but the roots are much older. One Norway spruce in Sweden is the oldest known individual tree in a clonial colony at 9,500 years old.
Now, as I read Isaiah’s words, “for as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people” I think about these ancient, awesome trees and hope that perhaps the words are true. Could we become as old as those trees? Well, I doubt that any of us will live for hundreds of years let alone thousands. We certainly won’t grow old with the Redwoods or Sequoias. Perhaps, however, God was referring not to individual trees, but those old-growth clonial colonies. Instead of being like a redwood or sequoia, we are like those quaking aspens that have roots that are older than we can remember. While He wants each of us to live our lives to the fullest, He promises that His people as a whole will live as long as the life of a tree.
We are reminded that as individuals we will not last forever. Even those giant sequoias and redwoods die. Though they are now protected from human harvest, they still suffer loss from natural causes. Though they can survive incredible disaster like fire and lightning strike, we still hear about the death of these trees. A 3500 year old pond cypress in Florida was destroyed by fire in January 2012. A sacred formosan cypress in Taiwan collapsed following heavy rainstorms in 1997. The Washington Tree in Giant Forest Grove in Sequoia National Park was once the second largest tree. In 2003 it was struck by lightning and lost a portion of its crown. Since it was structurally weakened by the lightning and fire, the remaining crown collapsed under the weight of heavy snow. It was once 255 feet high and now stands a mere 115 feet. Despite the damage, the tree is not quite dead, and may still live for many years and even centuries into the future. Even still, it will die one day.
So will we, but God has promised that His people will live on. So while we do live as individuals, we are part of something greater, something older. We are part of His Kingdom and in that sense we will last forever. So, let us live together in the promise that what we do for His Kingdom will go on. When we share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, others will join us. They will become part of the Kingdom He has established and they, too, will live forever. The world in which we live may seem to be going up in flames, but we need not fear the future because God has promised that there will be a time when everything will be made right. We will grow old with those ancient forests and live in peace.
Scriptures for September 30, 2012, Pentecost Eighteen: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
“Keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be upright, and I shall be clear from great transgression.” Psalm 19:13, ASV
We are told to be bold. We should be bold in our witness and bold in our generosity. We should be bold in our faith. The Christian boldly trusts in God and follows Christ without fear. The Christian boldly shares the Gospel without concern for how the world will respond. The Christian boldly gives everything for the sake of others with no regard for ourselves because we know that God will provide. It is good to be bold for God.
Dictionary.com defines boldness as, “not hesitating or fearful in the face of actual or possible danger or rebuff; courageous and daring; not hesitating to break the rules of propriety; forward; impudent; necessitating courage and daring; challenging; beyond the usual limits of conventional thought or action; imaginative; striking or conspicuous to the eye.” It is good to be bold, to step out in faith and do what God wants us to do, although it is terribly difficult.
Who wants to face danger or the rebuff of those who do not believe? Who wants to go out of their way to face unknowns or risk the challenges that come? Who wants to step out of our comfort zone to go another way? Who wants to follow a different path than the norm that is uncertain? And yet, this is exactly what God is calling us to do.
But we must be careful because it is easy to take boldness too far. The psalmist today asks God to “keep me from presumptuous sins.” The Urban dictionary defines presumptuous as, “Arrogantly assuming something without knowing all the facts; going beyond what is right or proper; excessively forward; too straight forward--to the point of being harsh and/or abrasive.” There is a fine line between boldness and arrogance.
Now, we can’t allow the world to define our boldness as arrogance. After all, a non-believer will say that we are arrogant for believing that the Gospel is the only way to salvation. An agnostic will call us arrogant for believing in something that they don’t think they can know exists. A person of another faith will call us arrogant for saying that our God is the One and only God and that they must believe in Jesus to be saved. We cannot allow their opinion to form our ministry.
While we must be bold with our witness, we must also beware of how easy it is to fall into presumptuous sins. As I was trying to think of an example of presumptuous sin, my thoughts turned to a friend in a church a long time ago. She was brilliant at coming up with ideas of projects and events we should do. She would present them to the council and everyone would get on board. They were good ideas. When it came time to do the work, she was always too busy. She encouraged people, delegating every task to someone else. We worked hard to make the events or programs happen, pressing on through the details, creating the materials, finding the resources, solving the problems and serving at the event. When it was all over, she would take credit for everything because it was her idea.
Others had excellent ideas, too, but she was never available to help when we chose one of those. She wanted to be in control, and refused to be a part of anything that was not hers. I have to admit that I eventually stopped liking her ideas. I felt like she was trying to control the ministry. I suppose I was trying to do the same when I stopped supporting her. We both took the ministry into our own hands, ignoring God’s hand in the situation. By our attitudes we set ourselves above others and probably missed opportunities to share God’s grace with the world.
In last week’s Gospel lesson, the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest. They wanted to be the one in charge. They wanted to be the idea people. They wanted to sit at Christ’s right and left hands, to rule with Him over others. They were presumptuous, assuming the authority to appoint people to leadership without considering what God intends. Jesus showed them a different way. Instead of trying to be number one, they were to lift the lowly, to give value to those who were considered insignificant.
The conversation continues this week with John telling Jesus about someone who was ministering in Jesus’ name. “He wasn’t following us,” John said. John wanted to control the ministry, and he couldn’t control someone who was outside their group. The same thing happened to Moses in today’s Old Testament lesson. When God rained the Holy Spirit on the elders in the camp, some of the Spirit fell on two men who did not attend the meeting. Joshua was upset. “Moses, tell them to stop,” he said. Moses answered, “Art thou jealous for my sake? would that all Jehovah's people were prophets, that Jehovah would put his Spirit upon them!”
Jesus felt the same way. He told the disciples that anyone doing good works in His name could not quickly speak evil of Him. “For he that is not against us is for us.” Jesus knew that God was in control, and if that man had a gift and was using it to God’s glory, then he should not be stopped. We don’t always know what God has in mind, so we should not stop a ministry because it doesn’t follow us. The sin is to presume that we are can control what God is doing in the world. The psalmist prays that God will keep him from doing that.
In “The Message” the passage is written, “Keep me from stupid sins, from thinking I can take over your work.” We might think ourselves to be wise enough to make decisions for God, but we aren’t. We are constantly seeing the world through our own biases and desires and we want to pursue ministries that fit into our world view. Unfortunately, we tend to look at other ministries with doubt. We question their work. We ridicule the choices they make. We reject the direction they go. We even claim that they can’t be led by the Spirit because they aren’t following us. But are they? Are we guilty of presumptuous sin because we reject what God is doing through them?
Now, there is a place for correcting our brothers and sisters in Christ, because we can all be led down dangerous path. Jesus didn’t say that we couldn’t ever turn away. He told the disciples that those who work in His name could not be easily led astray. In “The Screwtape Letters,” C. S. Lewis writes, “Indeed the safest road to hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
Here is another quote, “All these, as I find from the record office, are thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards our father’s house.” And, “And while he thinks that, we do not have to contend with the explicit repentance of a definite, fully recognised, sin, but only with his vague, though uneasy, feeling that he hasn’t been doing very well lately. This dim uneasiness needs careful handling. If it gets too strong it may wake him up and spoil the whole game. On the other hand, if you suppress it entirely – which, by the by, the Enemy will probably not allow you to do – we lose an element in the situation which can be turned to good account. If such a feeling is allowed to live, but not allowed to become irresistible and flower into real repentance, it has one invaluable tendency. It increases the patient’s reluctance to think about the Enemy.”
Screwtape suggested to his nephew Wormwood that he take things slow, do things one step at a time. A person does not commit the great sin immediately; he first commits tiny sins until it becomes habit and then they grow larger. A little white lie might not matter much, but it leads to greater lies that ruin lives. A puff at a cigarette might not seem like a big deal until it has become an addiction to heroin. A boldness in ministry might seem like a good thing until we try to take control of it for ourselves.
James reminds us that we have the responsibility to keep our brothers and sisters focused in the right place. If we see someone falling we are given the authority to remind them of God’s Word. We are called to help one another stay on the right path. Christianity is about forgiveness and inclusion, but it is also about repentance. And we constantly need to repent. How can there be no forgiveness if there is no knowledge of our sin? We are called to help one another see our sin and turn from it, so that we will stay in the loving embrace of God’s grace.
So we walk a fine line. Though we are called to correct our brothers and sisters, and they to do the same for us, how do we keep from crossing the line to presumptuous sin? How do we keep ourselves humble and focused on God’s will rather than our own? We have to pray with the psalmist, “Keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me.” God will keep us on a right path if we keep Him in the forefront.
The disciples wanted to stop the others who were doing ministry. Joshua wanted to stop those given the power of God because they did not things the way he thought was right. But we see in these stories that God does what God does for His own reasons. He knows more than we know. It is presumptuous of us to assume we know more than Him. We are called to trust in Him, to follow Him and to do what we are called to do without fear or concern.
Jesus said that we are all salted with fire. The salt is the power of God to do His work in the world and it comes to us by fire of the Holy Spirit. What is salt? What does it do? How does it relate to ministry? Salt flavors things, but it has a host of other purposes. It is used to heal, to bring blood to the surface of a wound. It is used to preserve other things. It is used to melt ice and to make ice cream. We are told that we are the salt of the world. What does that mean? The salt in us does more than just add flavor; God uses our lives to bring healing and to preserve the faith of others. When we speak the Gospel and heal in Jesus' name, ice cold hearts are melted and unbelievers are made new creations through faith in Christ.
Jesus continued, “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” Sin takes away our saltiness, it destroys peace among brothers. And so we ask God to give us all that we need to live as salt in this world. We seek His continued blessing so that we can do what is good, right and true. It is by His grace that will continue on a right path, doing what is good and acceptable to Him. Salt can lose its saltiness when we try to be in control. So Jesus reminds to stick together, to keep each other salted and on the right path, following God. “Be at peace with one another.”
Ok, so we’ll all run into people in ministry who do things differently than we do. We will disagree about the work to be done. We’ll get frustrated by one another. We’ll probably argue with one another more than we should. We will, unfortunately, sin against one another. We will be bold in ways that are not always deemed right by others. We will try to take control of the ministries in which we are involved, especially if we think another is not following the right path. But let us never presume to be God, because when we do we do our prayers are mistaken.
We are reminded that there is a way forward when we fail one another. We can repent; we can seek forgiveness, healing, and restoration. God will provide that and more. He hears our prayers and answers. And so we pray that our words and our hearts will always be acceptable to God because He is our rock and redeemer. By His hand we will remain salted, upright and free from sin.
“Trust in Jehovah with all thy heart, And lean not upon thine own understanding: in all thy ways acknowledge him, And he will direct thy paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6, ASV
A friend of mine told me that someone she knows attends a church where the pastor is very brave. Every week for the children’s sermon, he gives one of the children a bag with the instruction that they should put something inside and bring it back the next week. He then promises to give a children’s sermon on whatever is in the bag. He has no idea what the child will bring. It is often a favorite toy, but it can be anything and he has no idea what it is until he pulls it out of the bag. My friend told me that one day the child brought a toilet seat. I’m not sure where he went with that children’s sermon, but it was probably quite interesting. Anyone who does a children’s sermon is brave because it is a risk to give children the freedom to speak: you never know what they will say!
We all have stories about those moments, not only in children’s sermons, but also in life. My kids often came up with off the wall statements when in public, sometimes quite embarrassing. But those responses do give us an excellent array of jokes that will make us laugh. We can all use a good laugh.
A joke: When a pastor’s daughter was about three he took her to bed and asked what she would like to pray about. Promptly she answered: “onions.” We prayed about onions and the next morning he asked why she wanted to pray about onions. “Because you said in your sermon that we should pray for things we don’t like.”
Another joke: One day a little girl went to her mother and said, “Mommy I have a stumicache!” Her mother replied, “That’s because it’s empty, dear; you have to put something into it.” Later that night when they had the pastor over for dinner he said, “I have a headache!” The little girl smiled and replied, “That’s because it’s empty; you have to put something into it!”
A third joke: One clergy family decided to let their three-year-old son record the message for their home answering machine. The rehearsals went smoothly: “Mommy and Daddy can’t come to the phone right now. If you’ll leave your name, phone number, and a brief message, they’ll get back to you as soon as possible.” Then, the father pressed the record button and their son said sweetly, “Mommy and Daddy can’t come to the phone right now. If you’ll leave your name, phone number, and a brief message, they’ll get back to you as soon as Jesus comes.”
One more: A pastor was offering a series of children's sermons on the symbols of the church. On one Sunday the pastor was speaking about vestments and asked the question, “Why do you think I wear this collar?” To this question came the response, “Because it kills fleas and ticks for up to 5 months.”
Of course, any children’s ministry person will tell you that there is only one answer to every children’s sermon question.
A joke: Young Assisant Pastor Bill was giving his 427th children’s sermon. “Now kids,” says Pastor Bill, “What’s green, lives in the pond, sits on a lily pad, and hops?” The children looked at each other with vacant eyes as silence ruled that magical time. “Surely, someone has an idea?” Finally, little Susie stood up and said, “Well, it sounds like a frog, but it must be Jesus!”
Another one: During the weekly children’s message, the preacher says to the children, “I’m going to describe something and I want you to guess what it is. ok?” The children all say “Yes!” The preacher said, “First clue. I’m thinking of something that lives in a tree.” The children sit silent. “Ok, here’s the second clue. “I’m thinking of something that is gray and furry.” Children sit silent. “Let’s try another clue. I’m thinking of something that loves to eat nuts.” No one said a word. “I’m thinking of something that has a bushy tail.” Children sit silent. The pastor looks perplexed and finally, little Johnny raised his hand. “Yes, Johnny?” says the preacher. “Pastor,” little Johnny says, “I know the answer is suppose to be Jesus or God, but it sounds a lot like a squirrel to me.”
Our children might embarrass us with their words, but usually their funny responses have a deeper truth. They know that Jesus is the answer to everything. As adults we understand that there is more to the world, and Jesus is not going to choose our dinner or pay our bills. Jesus is not going to vacuum our living room or fold the laundry. He’s not going to take our car to the garage for repair or call the air conditioner guy. He won’t mow our lawn or run the dishwasher. But He is the answer that matters to the real questions of life.
“Preserve me, O God; for in thee do I take refuge. O my soul, thou hast said unto Jehovah, Thou art my Lord: I have no good beyond thee. As for the saints that are in the earth, They are the excellent in whom is all my delight. Their sorrows shall be multiplied that give gifts for another god: Their drink-offerings of blood will I not offer, Nor take their names upon my lips. Jehovah is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: Thou maintainest my lot. The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; Yea, I have a goodly heritage. I will bless Jehovah, who hath given me counsel; Yea, my heart instructeth me in the night seasons. I have set Jehovah always before me: Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth; My flesh also shall dwell in safety. For thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol; Neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption. Thou wilt show me the path of life: In thy presence is fulness of joy; In thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” Psalm 16, ASV
I have decided that the world would be a happier place if everyone just watched a few episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” every day. I know, that sounds silly. It isn’t because the show is particularly meaningful. It certainly isn’t spiritual in any sense of the world. It isn’t particularly wholesome. But the show makes me laugh. Sheldon, a main character, is extremely intelligent, but doesn’t have a clue how to interact with human beings. The other characters often joke about how he is a robot, not a living boy. He’s self-centered and he has no street sense. And yet, Sheldon is trying. He’s learning. He’s growing. After so many seasons, he even has a girlfriend. While his attempts to live within society are often awkward, he does have so many redeeming qualities. He is foolish and childish, but also an unique innocence that makes him endearing.
The bottom line is that the show is funny. It is currently in syndication around on a number of stations, but we always watch from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. It doesn’t matter which episode we watch or how many times we’ve seen them, we always end up laughing for the hour. When it is over, we feel better for it. No matter how bad the day has been, an hour of Sheldon lifts our spirits.
“The Big Bang Theory” is a typical sitcom, so there are conflicts and problems. The characters argue. They fail. They hurt each other. And yet, in the end they find peace and we get a laugh or two along the way. No, I don’t really think a sitcom will solve all the world’s problems, but I do think that perhaps we need to find the joy again.
Now, laughter is not necessarily joy. After all, sometimes laughter is cruel, like when the bullies laugh at a handicapped child. Sometimes laughter is wicked, like when the evil dude laughs at his victims. Insulting and offensive jokes might make someone laugh, but they can be hurtful to others. That kind of laughter will never help. However, the world will be a better place if we all had a more positive attitude. Yes, I know the world is not making it easy. There are plenty of reasons to be afraid and angry. It is easier to be negative when there’s so much wrong around us. An hour of laughter cannot overcome hours of sadness. But if we go about our day looking at what’s good instead of hanging on to what is bad, we’ll experience a peace that is fleeting under any other circumstances.
Yes, I know it is silly to think that a sitcom can change the world. Perhaps it is even silly to think a little laughter will help. But the psalmist tells us that God has chosen us and because He is before us, we can live in the joy of knowing that our path is straight and our foothold is firm. Fear and anger come to those who are uncertain, who are on shaky ground. But joy, laughter and peace come to those who live in the promise of God.