Welcome to the July 2011 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, July 2011
July 1, 2011
“Praise ye Jehovah. Praise ye Jehovah from the heavens: Praise him in the heights. Praise ye him, all his angels: Praise ye him, all his host. Praise ye him, sun and moon: Praise him, all ye stars of light. Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, And ye waters that are above the heavens. Let them praise the name of Jehovah; For he commanded, and they were created. He hath also established them for ever and ever: He hath made a decree which shall not pass away. Praise Jehovah from the earth, Ye sea-monsters, and all deeps. Fire and hail, snow and vapor; Stormy wind, fulfilling his word; Mountains and all hills; Fruitful trees and all cedars; Beasts and all cattle; Creeping things and flying birds; Kings of the earth and all peoples; Princes and all judges of the earth; Both young men and virgins; Old men and children: Let them praise the name of Jehovah; For his name alone is exalted; His glory is above the earth and the heavens. And he hath lifted up the horn of his people, The praise of all his saints; Even of the children of Israel, a people near unto him. Praise ye Jehovah.” Psalm 148, ASV
Each year in June, just before the Fourth of July, the want ads are filled with offers for jobs at the local fireworks stands. The owners promise a fortune for just a few weeks of work, thousands of dollars to whomever is selected to operate and manage the shops. I’m sure it is a lucrative business in good years, but it is short-lived and undependable. The owners and sellers must depend on the circumstances, especially the weather, and they can only sell the fireworks for a few weeks a year. That’s why the owners must look for new managers every year. Who can live on just a few weeks of work each year, no matter how lucrative?
This is impossible, particularly when you have a year when you can’t sell any fireworks at all. The drought is so bad here in Texas that not only is the use of personal fireworks banned, even the public shows have been canceled. So many people are disappointed, but the effect will be even greater than the loss of some enjoyment. Many people spend money at those public shows. They pay for parking and buy snacks. They often buy those silly toys that grab the attention of the children. Many are expecting that this drought will dry up more than the ground. It might dry up the pocketbooks of a lot of businesses.
There is no way to diminish the troubles people will face because they can’t earn a living in times like these, and it is no easy thing to see the silver lining in the dark storm clouds. Our troubles are really insignificant when we consider the amazing things God has done. He has created the entire world and everything in it. He has redeemed all of mankind by the blood of Christ. He has brought salvation to our lives, ordained His people to service and promised to do even greater things through His Church. We will suffer. We might have difficult work to do in this world. But no matter what we face, we believe in the God of the heavens and the earth. If only we would spend some time each day just praising God, singing songs of adoration and admiration, we might realize more quickly how inconsequential our troubles really are. As we turn to God in praise and thanksgiving, we’ll see God’s hand in even our troubles and discover the grace He is offering there.
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: According to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions; And my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done that which is evil in thy sight; That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts; And in the hidden part thou wilt make me to know wisdom. Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness, That the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, And blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; And renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; And take not thy holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; And uphold me with a willing spirit. Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; And sinners shall be converted unto thee. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation; And my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness. O Lord, open thou my lips; And my mouth shall show forth thy praise. For thou delightest not in sacrifice; else would I give it: Thou hast no pleasure in burnt-offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: Build thou the walls of Jerusalem. Then will thou delight in the sacrifices of righteousness, In burnt-offering and in whole burnt-offering: Then will they offer bullocks upon thine altar.” Psalm 51, ASV
I saw an advertisement for a t-shirt that had a picture of a fisherman and the words, “Cast me not away.” The ad suggested that this would be the perfect gift for a faith-filled fisherman, with its reminder of scripture and the play on words. Of course, we usually think of the word ‘cast’ in this scripture as in throwing something away, getting rid of it forever. And yet, the t-shirt gave me a whole new understanding.
When a fisherman casts, he throws the line well into the water, but he never lets go. If he did, he’d never catch the fish. The cast puts the fish hook and worm where the fish are swimming, making it much easier to catch than if the fisherman just dangled the line where he stood. The fish will not swim up to the hook, so the fisherman must send the hook out to them.
The psalmist’s fear is that God would cast him away because of his sin, remove him from the divine presence because he isn’t worthy to be there. I don’t know about you, but often feel as though I’m not worthy to be in God’s presence. I could sing this hymn every day for what I fail to do, and what I fail to be. It is good for us to think this way, to accept our sinfulness and seek God’s grace. Yet, do we ever feel like God is abandoning us? If we believe that God would let us go for our sin, our humility becomes unfaithfulness because we stop trusting in God’s mercy.
It is good to confess our sin and seek God’s forgiveness. I think, sometimes, we are losing touch with the reality of sin in our world and our desperate need for a Savior. The Gospel message is often preached as a call to serve neighbor and to love one another, forgetting that the sacrifice of Jesus had a purpose: to save us from our sin. Yes, Jesus taught us to serve and to love. He calls us to do what is right and to fight for justice and peace. Yes, Jesus is our friend and our teacher and our guide. However, without the cross and the forgiveness of sins, everything else is meaningless.
Trusting in the promise of the Gospel, we can still speak the words of this psalm with the knowledge that God has already heard and will not throw us away. And if it seems as though we are being sent away from God’s presence, maybe we should think about it in terms of a fisherman. He’s not throwing us away, He is sending us out to bring in the catch. He is casting us away on a line, never letting us go, but sending us into the world where people need to hear the Gospel message. I don’t think a worm on a hook can do much good, but if I catch just one fish for the Kingdom, then I have done what God has called me to do. Don’t think God is abandoning you if you feel alone. Look for the opportunity to share God with others, speak His Gospel message to them and you’ll soon find yourself being drawn back into His presence.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 10, 2011, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 55:10-13, Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
“Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir-tree; and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle-tree: and it shall be to Jehovah for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” Isaiah 55:13, ASV
I once read a report that claimed that biologically our brains are wired for faith. In other words, the ability to believe in some sort of higher being is inborn. From a lay person’s standpoint, I have no doubt that it is true. I believe God created us with everything we need to believe in Him. The problem, which goes way back to the beginning of time in the Garden of Eden, is that we tend to make up our own ideas about that divine being and we miss the reality.
Take, for instance, our tendency to assume everything is either a punishment or reward. We may not think of it in such blunt terms, but we all do it. Which of us hasn’t said at some point, “She must be in heaven because she was such a good person?” Or, “He deserved to suffer because of what he did.” Blessedness is seen as reward and suffering as punishment. They did it in the Old Testament, they did it in the New Testament and they do it today.
As a matter of fact, I’ve even heard some suggest that the recent unsettled weather is a sign from God that we have sinned, and that we will continue to receive floods, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards and other extreme weather if we do not turn to God and beg for His mercy. We might have reason to turn to God and beg for mercy, but God isn’t sending those weather situations to punish anyone for unfaithfulness. There may be things we can do to help create a safer, more life-giving situation, but the rain that will eventually come on our parched earth will not be a reward for anything we will do.
If this is what the divine spark in human beings leads us to—this idea of reward and punishment—it is no wonder that the atheist and agnostic does not believe. I think, perhaps, this ‘lack of faith’ is an intellectual refusal to accept that some higher power is sitting in an unreachable place meeting out rewards and punishments. It makes sense, if you accept that this is the way God works. And in many religious, it is the way they believe the gods work. After all, if you recall the ancient understanding of the gods, you’ll see that the human tendency is to put the burden of divine blessing on human shoulders. According to those ancient beliefs, the right worship, the right sacrifices, the right actions will receive blessings. It is no wonder that some people decide to reject God altogether than accept that every move we make will be punished or rewarded according to some unknown being’s will.
This point of view is not what we believe from a Christian standpoint. Unfortunately, many Christians still tend toward this understanding. During our Sunday morning discussion on these texts, someone told us that there had been a member of our church who claimed the dry weather in Texas was a direct result of the city allowing Sea World to build a park here. I’m not sure her thinking, except that she saw the drought as a punishment for the acceptance of something she thought was sinful.
So, we ask ourselves what we’ve done wrong to deserve the pain we experience and we receive the blessings as if they are deserved. But God tells us that the rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike. We can’t assume that anything we experience is because of anything we have done or that our blessedness is based on our goodness.
As we discussed the texts for this week in Sunday’s class, we couldn’t help but think about the drought we are experiencing in Texas. The recurring theme of rain watering the earth is hard to take when the grass has turned to dust and the trees are dying. I even heard a report that birds are decapitating other birds in their quest to quench their thirst. Since I found a decapitated bird on the ground one day, I believe the report.
But we go forward with the hope, or more than hope, that the weather will turn some day. When I wrote about these scriptures three years ago, we were at the end of another period of drought. The pounding storms brought much needed moisture to the ground, although for a time the rain came in such quantities that we suffered flash floods. I suspect that when the rain begins at the end of this drought, we’ll have the same experience. If so, then are we blessed when it rains even if it floods? That’s why the whole idea that God rewards and punishes us with nature is ridiculous.
The text from Isaiah is familiar to us. The chapter begins with the call for those who are thirsty to seek God for what He has He offers freely and abundantly. In today’s passage, we are reminded that everything that comes from God is fruitful. It is productive. God is actively involved in His creation, and He is faithful to His promises. His will shall be done, and He will make certain it is. Isaiah tells us in this passage of promise that instead of thorns, the earth will bear cypress and instead of briers the earth will bear myrtles. In other words, instead of those plants that are useless and even damaging, God will make the world productive and useful again.
It is interesting that Isaiah talks of the thorns and so does Jesus. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer sowing seed. Some of his seed lands on the pathway, some on the rocky ground, some in the thorns and some in the good earth. Jesus explains to the disciples that the seed sown on those places will not survive. Those seeds will fail because the seeds are either snatched away or scorched or choked. Only the seeds that fall in the good soil will survive, and not only will they survive but they will produce a hundred, sixty or thirty fold more.
Now, I usually look at this text from the point of view that it doesn’t do us any good to throw seeds on bad soil. We should, as we are sharing God’s Good News, prepare the soil that is receiving it. We can help people hear the Word by meeting their physical and emotional needs as well as their spiritual needs. As many have said, a man can’t hear the Gospel if his belly is grumbling in hunger. So, it does us well to consider how we share the Gospel message so that they will truly hear it and it will be received in hearts that are good soil.
And yet, as I have been considering the text this year, I can’t help but notice that we really have little to do with making good soil. It isn’t by our power or our actions that people will hear the Gospel. We are like that farmer scattering seed and we do not know where it will land. God does the work of making it grow and of preparing the fields. We simply go forth in faith knowing that God’s Word is like the rain that waters the earth, it is productive. It never fails.
He does this not only for those who will hear what we have to say, but He prepares our hearts, too. What burdens do we carry that make us tend toward that understanding that our lives are filled with rewards or punishment? Do we feel like we deserve the good things? Do we cry “Why?” when we are faced with bad times? Is the faith we have shallow and easy to steal, scorch or choke? How many people have faith, but live a life that is not fully immersed in the scriptures? How many attend church on Sunday and think that’s enough to keep them going? How many think that everything is either a reward or punishment for our righteousness or unrighteousness? It is no wonder that the atheist or agnostic chooses to reject God instead of accepting a faith so shallow.
In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus said, “He that hath ears, let him hear.” Any parent knows the frustration of dealing with a child who has hurt themselves. They react with intense emotions when they are hurt, and it is impossible to understand what is wrong. They scream so loud and so long that they can’t say anything and they don’t hear the calming assurances of those who want to help. A hurt child has ears, but they don’t have ears that hear. They only know that they are hurt and they can’t hear anything that might help make them feel better.
The people to whom Jesus was speaking may not have been screaming children, but they were often as deaf as a hurting child. They heard the words that Jesus spoke in His stories and sermons, but they did not really hear what He was saying. Jesus was sometimes very obvious in the message He was trying to share, giving the people very pointed and blunt information about His mission and ministry in the world. They heard those words from their own understanding and experience. When Jesus talked of the Kingdom of God, they thought He was talking about the restoration of a Jewish independence when He was talking about a different kind of Kingdom.
That’s why Jesus used so many parables to teach the people about how to live as the people of God. Parables help us listen more deeply. We have to look at the story from a different perspective. We might know and understand the earth-bound concepts, like in this one about planting seed, but we have to think more deeply about what it means in our daily lives. What is the seed? What is growing? What are the path, the rocks and the thorns? Certainly Jesus was not giving the people farming advice. He wasn’t a farmer and most of His listeners weren’t farmers. He was giving them a parable to help them see God’s Kingdom in terms that they would understand. But to understand, they really had to listen to what He was saying, not just the words He said.
As we look at the world in which we live, we begin to wonder if God isn’t really just playing with us. Does He really have control? Does He really care? Is He really faithful to His promises? After all, much of what is happening seems to be chaotic and out of control. We see war, natural disaster, failing relationships and every sort of sin perpetrated. How could this be in the design of the Master? And if God is not about punishment and reward, what’s the point of being righteous?
That which God created is good, but from the beginning human nature has tended toward a misunderstanding of God. Even Adam and Eve thought they could control the mercy of God and His Will. That’s the original sin: believing in ourselves above God. Sin brings death and chaos. It seems as though the world is out of control. Yet, we can't help but see God's hand in the world, as love, grace and mercy manifest in the daily experiences of those same humans. Somehow, underneath all the confusion there is a plan, designed by the great Architect Himself. We don't always understand or recognize the direction which He is sending us, or what He will do with us when we arrive. However, we go forth in faith in the hope that He will bring goodness out of our failing. We go forth in faith, knowing that God can make the soil good for planting and growth.
We witness the incredible power of God in the lives of people and His hand moving the whole of creation day by day. It should be impossible for us to not see God’s sovereignty as we look at this world. When flowers grow, it is because God sent the sun and the rain. When kittens are born, it is because God has knitted them in the wombs of their mothers. When the sky is filled with color at the close of the day, it is because God keeps the heavens moving according to their purpose as they count the days and the seasons as He designed them to do. Unfortunately, it is easy to miss seeing God in the world. Many people do. Some outright reject the idea that God even exists. Creation can take care of itself; we do not need something or someone greater than ourselves to explain the way the world works.
Yet, although they may say intellectually that they reject God because they believe that science is better at explaining the world than faith, I think they are actually rejecting a false understanding of God, that understanding that has been part of human existence from the beginning of time. But if, perhaps, they could finally hear the Gospel message of reconciliation and mercy, perhaps they would understand that it isn’t about what we do, but what God does, that makes a difference.
We are sinners, dead in our flesh and unable to do anything on our own. However, God makes our hearts into good soil and plants His seeds into our hearts. He transforms us into us into something new. By grace we are made into new creation that will bear fruit. In Romans, Paul's words are rather harsh. We think we can live on our own and do good works and that it will be enough for us to deserve the blessings of God. But we can't do anything, even share the Kingdom of God, without Him. “For the mind of the flesh is death; but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace: because the mind of the flesh is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be: and they that are in the flesh cannot please God.”
God sends His rain to the earth, to water the earth. It might seem, especially to those living in a drought, that God has forgotten us. But it will rain. At times I wonder if there isn’t a drought of another kind: a drought of God’s Word. But I know He will send His Word into the world and that those who have listening ears will hear. His Word will produce fruit much greater than the seed planted, bringing life to many. There are some paths to deal with, some stones to move and some thorns to eliminate, but God will make it happen. His Word is productive and it accomplishes exactly what He means it to do. He is, in every way, worthy of praise.
The key word in today’s scriptures seems to be water. Rain falls and waters the earth. Water produces a rich harvest. This is especially poignant for those of us living in Texas as we watch the earth die for lack of water. Though we do not believe the weathermen when the promise that we might have a slight chance of rain in week, we do know that God will rain down on us again.
For those of us who have wondered about the drought of God’s Word in the world, we can rest in the knowledge that God will rain on us in that way, too. He has promised and He is faithful. His Word accomplishes what He means it to do. He changes the world and makes it right. He brings life and joy and peace. He is worthy of our praise. Perhaps our sin should earn us some punishment and our works some reward, but God showers blessings on the earth as a memorial to His goodness and an everlasting sign that He is faithful.
“Wherefore thou art without excuse, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judges another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest dost practise the same things. And we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against them that practise such things. And reckonest thou this, O man, who judgest them that practise such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? but after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up for thyself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; who will render to every man according to his works: to them that by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and incorruption, eternal life: but unto them that are factious, and obey not the truth, but obey unrighteousness, shall be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that worketh evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek; but glory and honor and peace to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek: for there is no respect of persons with God.” Romans 2:1-11, ASV
In 1867, a bottle was found in a Paris loft of an apothecary, amongst a collection of medicinal bottles. The jar encased some ashes, as well as some bones and a strip of linen. The bottle had an inscription claiming that the ashes were taken from the base of the pyre that burned Joan of Arc after her conviction for heresy. The bottle was stored in Chinon and honored as relics of the saint. I don’t know what’s happened to the jar, but it was discovered in 2007 that it actually contains the remains of an Egyptian mummy. Even the smell of vanilla confirms that finding. It is probably still kept in a museum, but for very different reasons. The mystery still remains: why was this jar in the apothecary’s items, why were those remains in a jar, why was it inscribed with the claim?
Joan of Arc is a legendary character in the history of France. Her accomplishments were great as she led the French army to victories during a century of war. She was accused of heresy, but the accusations were purely political. Her authority over the French army was based on her faith and a series of visions in which God commanded her to lead the army into war. When she was captured by the British, she was tried as a heretic to destroy her credibility. She was proven guilty and burned at the stake in May 1431. Her body was burned three times to reduce it to nothing so that there would be no question of her death. Then the ashes were thrown in the Seine. The authorities did not want any relics left to be venerated by the people.
The war continued for two decades after her death, but eventually Charles VII, the king of France, regained his legitimacy and chaos in England made it impossible to continue the war. In 1452, the pope authorized a new trial to determine the guilt or innocence of Joan of Arc. After a four year investigation, she was acquitted of the charges. On this July 7, 1456, Joan of Arc was declared innocent of heresy. She became a saint in 1920.
She was found guilty for all the wrong reasons and she was treated without mercy. It was not until it was too late that someone recognized the truth of her life, her death and her legacy. Do we ever condemn people without knowing the whole story? Do we treat them without mercy because we have an agenda? Do we allow our own pursuits to stand in the way of truth? We may not burn people at the stake anymore, but we do kill them in many ways because we are seeking a better outcome for ourselves. We let our need for vengeance and our own ambitions determine our opinions and actions against others. Sometimes we make the wrong choices. We do the wrong things. We seek the wrong justice.
The executioner who put Joan of Arc to death later said that he “greatly feared to be damned.” He knew that his actions were not right. What will happen to us if we condemn people and seek their death for the wrong reasons? What do we deserve if we destroy their lives for our own sense of justice? We know that God is just and right. It might do us well to err on the side of mercy, knowing that God will provide His justice in the end.
“Blessed be Jehovah, that hath given rest unto his people Israel, according to all that he promised: there hath not failed one word of all his good promise, which he promised by Moses his servant. Jehovah our God be with us, as he was with our fathers: let him not leave us, nor forsake us; that he may incline our hearts unto him, to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and his statutes, and his ordinances, which he commanded our fathers. And let these my words, wherewith I have made supplication before Jehovah, be nigh unto Jehovah our God day and night, that he maintain the cause of his servant, and the cause of his people Israel, as every day shall require; that all the peoples of the earth may know that Jehovah, he is God; there is none else. Let your heart therefore be perfect with Jehovah our God, to walk in his statutes, and to keep his commandments, as at this day.” 1 Kings 8:56-61, ASV
We get the magazine “Architectural Digest” each month. This magazine sends photographers into the homes of the rich and famous and show how they’ve decorated with style and taste. Some of the homes are exquisite. The furniture is expensive and beautiful, every accessory perfectly placed. Even the lighting coming through the windows is from the exact moment when it will create an amazing look. The photographers are terrific and careful to compose the shots to highlight the best features of the rooms and the personality of the owners.
On one hand, I would love to have a house that is so beautiful. As I look at the pictures, I often think about the choices I would make for the space. Would I choose those antiques or would I consider something modern? What picture would I put on that wall? Would I organize my trophy case in the same way, or would I use those shelves for something else? I wonder if I could create a space that would be worthy of having the photographers from “Architectural Digest” come to capture the beauty of my own choices.
On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder how comfortable they are living in such a pristine environment. The sofas have names like chaise longue or divan. I’d be afraid to put a cup of tea on the antique tables. The drapes and carpets would take special cleaning. Would I feel like I could sprawl out on the couch in the living room to read a book or push aside the knick knacks to put together a puzzle or play a game with my kids?
I don’t know about you, but even when my house is clean and organized, I always have something that doesn’t belong. There is usually a book or a craft project in the living room. The desk is covered with mail that needs my attention. The kitchen is clean, but there is usually a glass in the sink and a loaf of bread on the counter. My pantry is chaotic and don’t open any closet doors. It is likely you’ll find dust on the horizontal surfaces and dust bunnies under the bed. A pile of magazines, including “Architectural Digest” is waiting to be read in the bathroom. My house isn’t perfect, but it is clean and comfortable. Would I rather have that picture perfect home, or a place that is real where I can live and love and do the things I love to do?
When Solomon dedicated the Temple in today’s passage, he called the people to have hearts perfect with God, to walk in His statutes and keep His commandments. What does it mean to have perfect hearts? What does it mean to walk perfectly? What does it mean to be perfect as God desires us to be? Should we be like that perfect house, with everything in its place and not a grain of dust on the furniture? Or, should we be real, imperfect in flesh but perfect in heart, living and loving and doing the things that God has gifted us to do? Of course God wants us to be righteous, free from sin and the ugly realities of our human nature. But has God created a world where everything is in its perfect place?
A field of wildflowers is beautiful and perfect, but I know from experience that the flowers do not grow picture perfect. There is always a flower that is too tall or too short. There is often a dead bloom right in the middle of a gorgeous bunch. That’s the reality of our world: sometimes a tree grows crooked. That doesn’t make it any less perfect in God’s eyes. The same is true of us. We aren’t perfect, we can’t even strive for perfection. God calls us to be like Him, to be real, to live, love and do the things that He has gifted us to do. It might not always be beautiful, but it will be perfect in God’s eyes, because He sees the world in the light of grace.
“For the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us, to the intent that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly and righteously and godly in this present world; looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a people for his own possession, zealous of good works.” Titus 2:11-14, ASV
When it is as dry as it has been at our house, every chance of rain is a joyous occasion. Yesterday we had one of those rare moments when the storm actually moved over our house, leaving behind it a quarter inch of rain. We saw the possibility on the radar as storms moved from the southeast toward the northwest. We didn’t know at that time whether or not any of the isolated showers would actually make it, but we were hopeful. We could hear thunder and see showers in the distance. I went on the patio to watch.
At one point, as the shower seemed to be coming closer and the wind was picking up, I decided to stand there and wait until I felt a drop of rain. If I’d known anything about rain dances, I might have started dancing in the yard. I waited and watched and prayed. Then the wind hit. The breeze felt good at first, sometimes even cool against the heat of the weather. But the pleasure didn’t last very long. The breeze turned into a strong wind, which kicked up the dust and made it difficult to stand. At one point I even had to grab onto the post to keep from falling over. Then I saw lightning, much closer than I expected. That’s when I decided that I didn’t need to wait for the first drop of rain. The rain began a few minutes later, and we received a delightfully refreshing shower for a few minutes.
Now, as I thought about this experience, I wondered to myself about what lesson we can learn. Of course, on the face of the story, it seems that if I’d just been a little more patient, I would have felt that first drop in just a few minutes. However, it was obviously not a good situation for standing outside any longer. Lightning is dangerous, even if you are under some sort of cover. Though it is likely that it would have struck elsewhere, but it could have found me. The wind was strong, and though I could stand up against it, what would have happened if it had blown something toward me. Could I have gotten out of the way? So, though there is something to be said about patience and waiting, there is also something to be said about the way we wait. It is foolish to stand in the middle of a storm when there is a dry, safe place to be.
God’s word talks about patience, and waiting for God’s time. What does that mean? Paul tells Titus that we should deny all ungodliness and worldly lusts as we wait for the blessed hope. What God has promised and we have received by faith is ours, no questions asked, but does that mean we should take chances with our lives? It is no more sensible to pursue the lusts of our flesh than it is to stand outside in a lightning storm. God has forgiven, is forgiving and will forgive our sin. But sober, righteous and godly living will bring God’s kingdom into our world today, glorifying God and revealing Him through our actions to a world in need of salvation.
The rain was going to come or not whether I was standing there or not. But standing there meant the facing the dangers of the storm. Christ is going to come in His way and in His time, whatever we are doing. Wouldn’t it be better for Him to find us living as He has called us to live rather than foolishly daring the storm?
“Train up a child in the way he should go, And even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6, ASV
I gave the children’s sermon at church on Sunday. For those of you not familiar with a children’s sermon, this is a period of time when we share a message, usually from the lectionary texts, in a language that is much easier for the children to understand. We often use visual aids or do activities that get the children involved. The children’s sermon can be a fun, humorous moment in the service because kids do say the darnedest things. The adults enjoy it, too, not only for the child responses but also because the children’s sermon often makes the concepts in the passages more understandable for them, too.
So, the Gospel lesson on Sunday was the parable of the sower. This is a very familiar parable to even the very youngest among us. Since it is one of the few parables that Jesus actually explains to us, we use it regularly in teaching what Jesus taught. We don’t have to interpret what He meant. He’s very clear about the lesson in the parable, so it is used in all sorts of curriculum from Sunday School and VBS for children to adult forums and at home studies. There is even one of those repetitive and annoying children’s songs based on the story.
For the object lesson, I took a box with some bricks, some rocks and some weeds pulled out of my own yard. I covered the box and had a hand rake and a packet of sunflower seeds visible. I asked the children what they thought we’d be doing that day and they said planting something. So then I showed them the box and told them I was going to plant my seeds in there. Then I asked, “What is wrong with planting my sunflowers in this box?” They were exceedingly forthcoming with the answers. One said the birds would take away the seeds on the bricks. Another said the seeds that might grow in the rocks would be scorched by the heat. A third said that the sunflowers would be choked by weeds.
When I finally asked, “Where should I plant my seeds?” they easily answered, “In good soil.” I was amazed not only by how well they knew the story, but how they even recalled the language we use when telling it. I turned to the congregation and said, “Someone is teaching our children well!” Someone yelled, “Thanks Sunday School teachers!” As it turned out, one of the teachers actually did teach that story in Sunday school that day, and so they remembered what they had heard. I’m sure they remembered it so well because they were already familiar with it, but just goes to show you that when you teach children they do hear and remember what you’ve taught.
Another wonderful moment of the day came later, after the worship. After we talked about the story, I gave each child a miniature greenhouse for growing a sunflower, to remind them of the story and about how God has made our hearts good soil and planted His Word there to grow. As I gave the gifts the kids responded with the usual “thanks” that has become habit, albeit a good one. But after the service, two of the boys came up to me separately and thanked me for the cool gift. It was a pleasure to see that those boys not only knew that they should say thanks, but that they should be thankful. Being thankful means going out of your way to appreciate the people in your life. Someone (their mother, I’m sure) taught them right, and they have proven that they not only learned the lesson but are living it.
As a parent I sometimes wonder and worry about whether or not my children have heard the lessons I’ve tried to teach and whether or not they will live them in their future. The Bible assures us that they will. Oh, we might have to suffer through a few years of rebellion, or cringe at the choices they make as they find themselves and their place in the world. But if we have taught them the lessons of faith, they’ll stick with them and live them as they grow, sharing them with their own children someday.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 17, 2011, Lectionary 16: Isaiah 44:6-8 or Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19; Psalm 86:11-17; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
“I will praise thee, O Lord my God, with my whole heart; And I will glorify thy name for evermore.” Psalm 86:12, ASV
During Advent we look forward to the coming of Christ, both as a baby and as King over all. At Christmas we celebrate His birth and His life. During Epiphany, we talk about the light He shines to the whole world. In Lent we look at our need for a Savior. During Holy Week we experience His willingness to be obedient to God, even to the cross. Easter is a season of celebration, rejoicing over the resurrection and the promise of life for us. These seasons end with Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was given to Christ’s people, so that they might go out into the world to do the work and share the lessons as they were called and sent by Jesus.
So, during most of the year we center our lessons around the story of God and what He has done for us. During the season of Pentecost, the summer months and into the fall, we focus on the Church and what we can do for Christ Jesus and the world. It is a time for building up the body of Christ, preparing each of us for the work Christ has called us to do. Isn’t it sad, then, that those summer months are when people tend to disappear?
How many churches choose to cancel Sunday school classes during these summer months because they know that the children will be away with families on vacation? Summer worship tends to be less structured, often shorter and more casual. Some churches change their worship times, meeting just once when they normally have two or more services. Holidays, picnics, camping, sports and all sorts of other activities are the priority, and worship is set aside for a season. Yet, it is the lessons we learn during these very months that we really need to hear. We think Christmas and Easter are the most important, and it is vital that we know and understand what God has done in Jesus Christ. Yet, we also need to know what to do with that knowledge. It isn’t enough to believe that Jesus was born, died and was raised. What do we do with this faith once it is ours?
God doesn’t mind that we take a vacation once in awhile. He’s not going to get upset because we miss a Sunday. We aren’t going to lose our inheritance because we go camping. But as we are enjoying our summer vacation, we should ask ourselves where God stands in our life. Is He first? Is He our priority? Are we concerned about doing the work He has called us to do, or are we too busy chasing a soccer ball? When we choose our own activities above those of God, we are putting ourselves above God.
In today’s scriptures, we are reminded that we aren’t above God. “I am the first, and I am the last; and besides me there is no God.” This is most certainly true. There is no god but our God. However, there are lots of false gods, including ourselves. But these gods could do nothing. They had no power. God asks these ‘gods’, “And who, as I, shall call, and shall declare it, and set it in order for me, since I established the ancient people? And the things are coming, and that shall come to pass, let them declare.” Did the gods create the world or establish God’s people? Can they see the future? Of course not. Can we do any of those things? No.
While Isaiah speaks with God’s voice, the text from the Wisdom of Solomon comes from the point of view of the faithful. “There is no god besides you,” are words that should be on the tip of our tongue at all times. When we think we are in control. When we think we know best. When we choose to go our own way rather than the way God has called us to go, those words can keep us going in the right direction.
We look to ourselves, our own power, our own abilities to control our world. Our jobs, our relationships, our homes, our churches and even our own bodies, minds and hearts are like gods to us. We think we know the best way to spend our time and our resources. We make our wants and needs the priority and we forget to worship the LORD. But nothing human can create something out of nothing. Our human flesh cannot predict tomorrow. We won’t find comfort in the things of this world. That is why we look to the Rock for all that we need.
We aren’t God. We don’t know what God knows. We might face difficulties. We might struggle. We might suffer at the hands of another. Yet, we live in hope while we live in this world, knowing that hope is not just a wish or a dream. Hope in the promise of God is worth waiting for, waiting patiently because God is faithful. I’m sure you are tired of hearing about it, but we are in the midst of a drought. Everything is turning brown from the lack of water: everything, except the weeds. In last week’s lesson, we learned that the seeds that grew in the midst of the weeds would be choked. This is true. The grass, already week from the lack of water, are giving way to the weeds, so much so that most of us don’t want to kill our weeds because at least they mean we have green lawns. We don’t like the weeds because they don’t look as nice as a well manicured lawn would look. But in this drought stricken environment, we might think about how those ‘weeds’ are natural to this habitat. Our neighborhoods would take on a whole different look, but we might find the change would be healthy for the land, saving water and providing for the needs of the natural inhabitants.
This is just one of those ways that we’ve decided that we know better than God. We build these housing developments and install crisp green lawns and matching trees, and then work hard to keep them looking the same. We’ve changed what God created into something we want, using valuable resources in a way that might be seen as wasteful for the sake of our own demands. Don’t worry… I will continue to fight the weeds and keep my lawn green as best I can. But it is worth thinking about, don’t you think?
In this week’s lesson, Jesus tells us about a farmer who planted a field. During the night an enemy planted weeds in that farmer’s field. It was not until later that the farmer’s workers realized that there were weeds in the midst of the plants. They wondered if they should remove the weeds. We are the same, automatically wanting to get rid of the weeds, and for good reason. Weeds take important nutrients and steal the water necessary for good growth. Weeds also tend to grow larger than the crops, taking away valuable sunshine. But, it is easy to confuse a weed and a good plant in the early days of growth, they look so much alike. It is not until the crops grow tall that even the most knowledgeable farmer can tell the difference. By then the roots of the weeds are intertwined with the wheat. It is impossible to pull the weed without damaging the crops.
The farm hands might think they know the best way to deal with the fields, but the farmer knows what is right and good, just as we think we know what is good for our lives, but God really knows best. Sometimes the weeds are beneficial to the fields in which they are found growing. Wildflowers serve to give character to fruit like grapes. Vineyards produce grapes that take on the identity of the plants that are grown around them. If you taste wine carefully, you may be able to identify flavors such as mushroom and lavender in the wine. Some plants become stronger because they send their roots deeper into the soil seeking water and nourishment. A landowner knows the plants, the risks and the benefits and is careful to do what is best for his fields. While it might be good to pull the weeds, we don’t always know which weeds to pull.
Jesus later explains to the disciples that He is the landowner who planted the seed and the evil one is the one who planted the weeds. The field is the world in which we live. We learn through this parable that the children of God will be living side by side with the children of the evil one. We may want to do some weeding ourselves; however we are reminded that we do not know what God knows. We might just think someone is a ‘weed’ when in reality they are doing just what God intends, something beneficial to God’s plans that we do not know or understand.
We can’t tell the difference between those who are true of faith and those whose faith is false. We can’t read their hearts. We see the world through a very narrow point of view and have a difficult time accepting the ideas of those who see the world differently. They might be wrong. Their false ideas and false gods might be obvious. But we don’t know how God might take that person and transform them and their work into something good.
Like the weeds in a wheat field, the truth will eventually come to light. We might be tempted to uproot those we see has coming from the evil one, but in doing so we do not always know the damage we might do to someone who is weak in faith. We do not know how they may actually help us to mature and grow strong in courage and faith. God knows what He needs to do. We are simply called to live as God has called us to live, trusting that our God is just and that He will take care of the wheat and deal with the tares. We may just find that what we thought was a tare is actually someone with whom God has not yet to finish His work. We might just find that we are made better by being in their presence. In the end all will be right, because God is faithful.
It may not seem that way sometimes, especially when we are out there in the world facing the actions of those weeds that have been placed in the field by the evil one. We want salvation to be complete today and the evil to be gone for eternity. However, it is not yet time for the field to be harvested. There is still work to be done. There is still growth to be made among the people of God and people to be saved by His Word. It is hard sometimes. We face difficulties; we suffer at the hands of evil men. However, those sufferings make us stronger. By God’s grace, our roots grow deeper and our stalks grow thicker. The fruit that is produced becomes more and more abundant. We may suffer, but in doing so we identify with the One who has brought us into the Kingdom, our Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the most difficult aspects of Christian faith for a non-believer to accept is the idea found in today’s epistle lesson. Paul writes that we are joint heirs with Christ: we like this very much. We like the idea that we have been adopted as children of God, that He is our Abba, Daddy. However, Paul also writes that as joint heirs in the promise we share in every aspect of Christ’s reign, including His suffering. He writes, “…if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him.” People don’t want to worship a God that calls His people into a life of suffering, because for most people suffering equals pain. Yet, it is in our suffering that we find strength, courage and God’s grace. God is not a masochist who seeks to cause His people to be harmed. But to save the world He came in a manner by which He shared in our suffering and by the blood of Christ we are brought through that suffering to something greater.
We think we know best. We think avoiding suffering must be what God intends. We think doing what feels right is what God intends. We think that we have all the answers, that our point of view is right, that our choices are best for our lives. When we get to the point that we put ourselves first, that is exactly when we have to turn our thoughts to God. Are we really better at deciding what is best? Are we really better at knowing than God?
We aren’t God. We don’t know what God knows. We might face difficulties. We might struggle. We might suffer at the hands of another. Yet, we live in hope while we live in this world, knowing that hope is not just a wish or a dream. Hope in the promise of God is worth waiting for, waiting patiently because God is faithful. The day will come when the weeds will be destroyed. Until that day, we can rely on God to help us live side by side with the world because we have been given the Spirit of God. He will bring us through as no other god can do.
It is amazing how we, when faced with difficult situations, can find the strength and courage through our Lord Jesus Christ to get through. Sometimes those difficult situations even make us stronger. In today’s Psalm, David cries out to God in prayer. “O God, the proud are risen up against me, and a company of violent men have sought after my soul, And have not set thee before them.” He was facing a time of difficulty. However, he knew to whom he could turn. He looks to God to teach the right path, to give him an undivided heart. He offers to praise God, but only as God gives him the grace to do so. To David, the Lord is a kind and compassionate God. He does not see salvation as something he can achieve, but as a gift from God as He turns to His people and grants them the mercy to go forth in faith. “Show me a token for good, That they who hate me may see it, and be put to shame, Because thou, Jehovah, hast helped me, and comforted me.” Our help comes from God and God alone.
So, as we go through this summer, enjoying the freedom we have from work to go and play, let us remember that we have been given a most extraordinary gift. Our faith is something that reaches far beyond the lessons about God to the opportunity to take Him into the world. We have faith to share faith, and we have become children of God so that we might invite others into His Kingdom. It might seem easier to stay in bed on that Sunday morning, or cancel those Sunday school classes for the season. It is more fun to be on the beach or kick a soccer ball than to sing to standard hymns in a stuffy church building, but God calls us to grow. He reminds us that He is our priority, He is our God. He is the One that knows best. Let’s not forget to worship Him and grow in faith as we chase after the things of this world.
“For thou didst form my inward parts: Thou didst cover me in my mother's womb. I will give thanks unto thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: Wonderful are thy works; And that my soul knoweth right well. My frame was not hidden from thee, When I was made in secret, And curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see mine unformed substance; And in thy book they were all written, Even the days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was none of them. How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: When I awake, I am still with thee.” Psalm 139:13-18, ASV
I ran into a friend one day and she told me that she saw me riding a motorcycle with my son on the back. She was surprised. “I didn’t know you rode a motorcycle.” I laughed. “I don’t!” She apparently saw my look-alike, which is not very unusual. I think we’ve all had someone say to us, “I saw someone that looks just like you.” There’s a guy who lives nearby that looks just like my friend’s dad, so much so that I almost thought he had come to Texas on vacation. After the third or fourth sighting, I realized that it was just another person. The resemblance was remarkable, though.
What made the sighting of my friend so unusual is that she saw someone who looks like me with someone that looks like my son. Now, it is possible that if she saw those same two people next to us, they’d look entirely different. Her impression would have been based on basic body type and perhaps hair color. Little significance is put on sighting of look-alikes in our culture, although it is sometimes seen as funny, particularly when the look-alike is a celebrity or a dog.
There is a word for this phenomenon, and it is “doppelganger.” The television show “How I Met Your Mother” has taken this idea to an extreme, with one show dedicated to the idea and references at other times to it. The group has managed to locate a doppelganger for each person, although the fifth member (Barney) was more difficult than the rest. The location of this last doppelganger was determined by Lily and Marshall to be a sign that the universe wanted them to have a baby. For them, the doppelganger was to be a omen of good things, and when they thought they were ready for the reality of parenthood, they saw Barney’s look-alike everywhere.
The original meaning of the doppelganger, however, was a portent of evil. The look-alike—in fiction, folklore and popular culture—was a shadow of the real, and often preceded the actions of the real person. The sighting of a doppelganger was sometimes taken as a sign that something bad was about to happen to that person. If someone saw their own doppelganger, it was believed that they would soon die. In the Talmud, to meet oneself meant one was meeting God.
Have you seen yourself? Have you heard from someone that they say you in a place or a time that was impossible? Do you have a doppelganger out there? What do you think of this? Does it make you laugh, or is it a frightening thought? Do you think that the sighting of a doppelganger is a sign of something to come, either good or bad? Do you think that the sighting of your doppelganger should be seen as a sign from the universe for something new or different in your life? Do you ever wonder about the life of that doppelganger, and how different they might actually be?
We may all have look-alikes out there in the world, but there is no real reason to look at them from a superstitious point of view. Seeing a certain doppelganger will not be a sign that this moment is any better or worse for anything than another moment. Even if someone looks like us, we are still unique. Our lives are our own, given to us by God. He sees us, our hearts, and our uniqueness. His gifts are personal, for us to do the things He has called us to do. He has known us forever, and no vision of a look-alike will change what He sees in us.
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, and ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. For I say, through the grace that was given me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think as to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to each man a measure of faith.” Romans 12:1-3, ASV
I need to fill my gas tank today because we are headed on a road trip in the morning. I was sort of looking forward to this trip to the gas pump because the price has been going down. The last few times we’ve filled cars, the price has been $3.29. Unfortunately, the price has gone back up in the past day or two and as of yesterday it was $3.38. I hope it hasn’t gone up again overnight.
Obviously, $3.29 is not a good price for gas. It hasn’t been that long since I cringed when I had to pay over two dollars a gallon. And I can remember even remember paying ninety-nine cents. That was a long time ago, but still within my memory. I’m sure a few of these readers have memories of even cheaper gas. Sadly, I my hopes as we saw the gas went down over the past few weeks was that it would it be less than three dollars. I was very disappointed that it went up again just before we will be using so much gasoline on my trip. But I still breathe a sigh of relief that it hasn’t made it to four dollars.
Can you remember cringing when the price went to a dollar? Two dollars? Do you recall the hope you had that it wouldn’t go over three dollars? Now we pray that it’ll stay at four dollars. I don’t think any of us are expecting to ever see a dollar a gallon gas again. Perhaps we’ve even lost all hope for two dollars. I still hold on to the hope for three dollars, but I’ve come to accept the likelihood that it will stay above that price forever.
It has changed the way I live. I rejected a part time job a few years ago because I knew I would spend more half my scheduled time at work just earning the money to pay for the gas to get me to the job. With other job expenses, the job would have cost me money. I’m less likely to jump in the car and drive to the other side of town to go shopping or have lunch at a favorite store. My husband and I are even considering a move to a new house just to get him closer to work, to save him money on gas and time in the car.
How do we get to the point that we accept what was once considered unacceptable? Could you imagine the uproar if gas had jumped nine cents overnight when we were paying a dollar a gallon thirty years ago? We groaned when it went up a penny. Now it is not unusual to see the price jump a quarter over a week or two. We still groan, but not quite as loud. We’ve come to expect it and we have transformed our lives in acceptance.
What else have we accepted and conformed to in this world? I watch television and think to myself, “That wouldn’t have been acceptable a few years ago but now it is the norm.” Our children are forced to grow up too fast and too early. Food packaging is getting smaller while prices are getting higher. Things and people we have taken for granted are disappearing because they are being replaced by technology. Most of these things do not matter. We pay more for everything today than we did thirty years ago. Some of the old ideas were out of date. There are so many advantages to modern technology.
But the question we ask today is this: where do we draw the line? How far can we conform before it changes even the deepest parts of our spirit? How much can we accept before it changes even our relationship with God?
Scriptures for Sunday, July 24, 2011, Lectionary 17A: 1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
“The opening of thy words giveth light; It giveth understanding unto the simple.” Psalm 119:130, ASV
I was spending a few minutes with my family this morning and I noticed that the box of tissues was empty. I told my daughter, “There are more on the roof.” I meant on top of the refrigerator, but when she made fun of the terminology, I said, “The refrigerator is a house for food.” Now she’s decided that my comment is one of her favorite quotes of all time. So, the original comment was just a slip of the tongue. I must have had the roof of the house on my mind because of something I saw on television, or the word roof was the one that came to me when I was thinking of the top of the refrigerator. But, when you think about it: a refrigerator is like a house for food.
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two different things, using the connecting words ‘like,’ ‘as,’ and ‘than.’ Jesus often used these figures of speech to describe the kingdom of heaven for the people. It helped for Jesus to take something very mundane and knowable to describe the spiritual, divine world of God. The scripture writers, particularly the prophets, tried to put to words what it was like in heaven. They use images that are extraordinary, frightening, and magnificent. We can try to imagine what heaven will be like, even give it descriptions based on our human knowledge. Artists, poets, writers and filmmakers have all tried to find a way to make us see what is unseen.
But everything they create is just a shadow of the real. We won’t know what heaven really is until we experience it for ourselves. But we can hear what Jesus has to say and know what it is like. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us several similes about the kingdom of heaven, continuing the lessons of parables that He began earlier in Matthew. Each story gives a slightly different point of view, a slightly different look at the Kingdom, a slightly different way of thinking about what God intends and expects from His people.
Some of the parables even seem contradictory, like the parables we’ve heard over the past few weeks. In the parable a couple weeks ago, Jesus said that the weeds will choke the plant, and yet last week He said that the weeds must be allowed to grow with the plants that the sower planted. But He tells these stories, and we read these stories, because they all have important lessons for us to learn. There are both times when we should beware of the weeds because they will choke the faint of heart, but we can also rest in the reality that the weeds that grow around us will be taken care of by God in His time and in His way. It is our task to be strong in the faith and to help those who are weak, so that the weeds cannot destroy what God has created.
Helping us to be strong in our faith and to live the life Christ is calling us to live through these parables is the purpose for the other scriptures in today’s lectionary. The psalmist turns our mind to the Word of God. He cries out in longing for God's guidance through His Word. In following His statutes, commands, precepts, decrees, we see the path which will keep sin from ruling over our flesh. We also seek God to teach us His wisdom, wisdom like that of Solomon, so that we might live rightly in His kingdom. We recognize our own frailty and the reality of God’s Spirit and our reliance on Him for even the very faith that keeps our hearts strong in this world.
Each story gives us just a glimmer of what it is like in the kingdom of heaven. Though one starts small and grows while another starts large and shrinks, these tell the same story about the love and mercy of God. Some will understand the story about yeast, while others will know what it is like to go fishing.
Any one of the parables could give us fodder for a sermon or two, but we've been given all five in one day. We could easily dissect the stories; dig into the nitty-gritty details of who is the man, where the field is, what is the treasure and who are the wicked. Someone will understand what it means to give up everything they have for a treasure such as the man who left home and family to marry the woman he loves. The parable of the net might be the hardest for us to understand because we don't want to think of anyone being thrown into a fiery furnace, yet even through that story we learn valuable lessons.
It is a wonder that anyone hears or understands God’s Word. Yet, as we hear in today’s psalm, God opens His Word and shines its light on His people. It is God who reveals Himself to us as we turn to the source of our knowledge of God, to open our Bibles, to read the text for ourselves. For it is as we delve into God’s testimonies, words, commandments, precepts, statutes and law that God is revealed to us most simply and fully and through His Word that we know Him best.
It doesn’t always make sense. I know that every time I struggle with the parables that Jesus speaks, I come up with different ideas. We recognize the reality that we can’t do it without God. That’s what Paul is talking about in today’s epistle. We are weak, but God is able to search even our very hearts and speak the words we are unable to speak. He knows all the things we do not know and He ensures that all things work together for the good of those who love Him. God is truly greater than we might expect, able to make incredible things happen, is more valuable than the riches treasures of earth. Just like those examples in the parables, God is able and He will do exactly what He is promised.
Paul writes, “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?” The work of God through Jesus Christ made us free to live according to His Word. We need not worry about the seeds that won't grow or the weeds that do. We need not concern ourselves about the size of our mustard plant or which fish we should catch. These things cannot keep us from the love of Christ. As Paul writes, “…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Even though the parables say different things about the kingdom of heaven, each one only gives us a glimmer of the whole. We take each of these pieces, like the proverbial puzzle and put them all together to see the whole picture. In the end, what we see is the grace of God. It is God that grows the mustard plant so big, and the Spirit that works through the dough to make it rise. It is God who gives up everything for the sake of the treasure – and you are the treasure. And as in the parable of the weeds, it is not our place to make a judgment about which fish are good or bad, for God will be the ultimate judge.
And that is wisdom. Wisdom is knowing that God is in control, and that He knows best. Solomon could have asked for anything, and I don’t know many people who would make a choice like His. If someone came to you today and offered you the world, how would you want that gift to manifest? Would you like the winning lottery ticket? Or your dream job? Or a soul mate with whom to spend the rest of your life? Solomon didn’t ask for something tangible, he asked for wisdom. He asked to understand God and to use that understanding to serve God’s people. Perhaps that person offering you the world can’t give you something as intangible as wisdom, but God can. God can help you see what He means and how it applies to the life we are living in this world. He can help you understand those parables and how they can teach us the lessons of faith.
Solomon received wisdom and the whole world. When we walk wisely, listening to God and acting according to His Word, we also gain the world. The prize is not financial or material. We won’t necessarily get the things we want, but we’ll see the world through God’s eyes and recognize the reality of heaven which is not just a place or time in the future, but exists in the here and now where God’s people live according to His Word.
At the end of the lesson, Jesus asked the disciples, :Do you understand all these things?” They answered, “Yes” yet as we see the story of Jesus and His disciples unfold, they did not always understand what Jesus was telling them. Did they really know how the kingdom would expand after Jesus died? Did they truly understand the work that would be done by the Holy Spirit after Pentecost? It is not likely. In this series of parables, Jesus is showing his disciples how to make the old new and fresh, how to preach the kingdom of heaven in a way that the people would see it in their everyday life and understand how it applies to their life. He calls us to do the same.
What gifts do you seek from God? And how will you use them? What is the kingdom of heaven like? How would you describe it? What similes would you use to make others understand how God is big and small, grows and shrinks, separates the good from the bad in His time and way? What weaknesses of yours can God use in this world and what prayers will the Spirit speak on your behalf? What does God see deep in your own heart and know from the depths of your soul?
Today’s lessons help us see more clearly the whole kingdom of God, for He reigns over all. This is why it is important that we seek His wisdom and discernment in all that we do, for in seeking His guidance we will find that He will bless us far beyond what we even ask. All too often, however, we ask God to bless us with the long life, wealth and victory over our enemies instead of seeking God's wisdom and discernment. When these are the desires of our heart, we lose sight of God and His mercy. We forget that all we have is given by God's grace. We get caught up in ourselves and we lose sight of God’s mercy and grace.
He’s so much bigger than we will ever be. His thoughts are so much purer and true than we can even know. Why would we try to hang on to our own strength and reasoning, knowledge and abilities, when God can give us so much more?
My comment today was silly, I wasn’t thinking straight for some reason. Some might even consider it foolish to say that the items are on the roof when they are on the top of the refrigerator. It is certainly unusual to call the refrigerator a house for food. Yet, it doesn’t matter if my grammar is right or if I’ve used all the right words when describing some earthly thing. It doesn’t matter if I sound foolish, as long as I’m sharing the message of God’s grace with others in my life and in my words. I may not think I’m able to do such a time, but I can. Not by my own power, because we’ve seen many times how foolish I can be. But God is able, and He is faithful. He’ll make His Word real through my life in ways I cannot even imagine.
“For, behold, the day cometh, it burneth as a furnace; and all the proud, and all that work wickedness, shall be stubble; and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith Jehovah of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. But unto you that fear my name shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in its wings; and ye shall go forth, and gambol as calves of the stall. And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I make, saith Jehovah of hosts. Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, even statutes and ordinances. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of Jehovah come. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” Malachi 4:1-6, ASV
There is a series of commercials for some car that are very funny. The commercials show some person, a young adult, who is still attached in some way to his or her parents. These kids talk about how dull their parents have become. In one, a man arrives home to a dark house and talks about how sad it is that his parents are so boring. He assumes that they are already in bed, and talks about how his life is so much fuller as he cooks a TV dinner in the microwave. In another, a girl sits at her computer, talking about how lonely her parents must be; after all they only have nineteen friends on Facebook.
Meanwhile, the parents are actually out having a good time. In the one with the man, they’ve taken a picnic to an outdoor event, laughing as they park their wonderful, hip car. In the other, the parents gather with a group of other people, riding bikes through the country and stopping next to their adventurous car. In other words, the pathetic ones are the man cooking a TV dinner and the woman with hundreds of virtual friends on Facebook. Instead of being dull as the kids think, the parents are active, with plenty of real friends.
Now, it is not the car that makes people interesting, but it is all about attitude. The young people assume their parents are dull because they don’t live as they expect people to live. How many people do think that someone with only nineteen friends on Facebook must be unpopular and uninteresting? How many young people assume that the older generations are not active or exciting? Do you assume that your parents or grandparents are in bed by eight or that their lack of interest in technology is a sign that they are stuck in a sad and boring world? Perhaps you might be surprised at the things they do.
Imagine how different the world would be for those kids if they only experienced life like their parents. Instead of being home alone with a TV dinner of a computer full of virtual friends, they might be enjoying the world around them. If they had the same attitude, they might be out with friend enjoying culture and nature, doing something rather than being alone in the dark. Yes, the commercial is meant to make me buy the cool car, but the lesson learned is much deeper. Do we make assumptions about people based not on reality but on our own way of seeing the world? Do we miss something great because we are so caught in our own tiny corner of the world? Are we blind to the blessings found in other points of view because we are so caught up in our own expectations and desires? Will we miss God because we are so caught up in ourselves?
“Now I Paul myself entreat you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ, I who in your presence am lowly among you, but being absent am of good courage toward you: yea, I beseech you, that I may not when present show courage with the confidence wherewith I count to be bold against some, who count of us as if we walked according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh (for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the casting down of strongholds), casting down imaginations, and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ; and being in readiness to avenge all disobedience, when your obedience shall be made full.” 2 Corinthians 10:1-6, ASV
We spent the weekend and early days of this week in Lubbock with Zack, attending his college orientation. The students had meetings with advisors and older students as they learned the campus and figured out their schedules for their first semester. They learned about the other activities on campus, had a chance to enjoy the recreation center and attended resource fairs to get all the information they might need to transition into this new phase of their lives. Zack lived in a dorm, ate in the food court and met many other students. He’s already made a few friends and even discovered others from our area that are taking similar courses.
While Zack and the other students were doing their thing, the university had activities and meetings for parents. Bruce and I attended a few of the meetings, wandered through the resource fairs and visited the offices that were available to help us find answers to our own questions. The meetings for parents focused on topics of most concern, to help parents make their own transitions. We heard from many of the speakers about how we have to let go, that we’ll not have access to our student’s information as we did in public school. The speakers recommended a number of things we should ask our student to do so that we will have the authority to take care of the bills and ensure that our students are taking care of the business of college. Even though there were a few things we could do, the speakers made it clear that we would have to let go. Our students are no longer children: they are adults and have to be set free to learn and grow, to even make mistakes.
Even while we had a dozen people say, “You have to let go,” we had as many people telling us how to continue to be involved. Around every corner and during every meeting, someone encouraged the parents to join the Parents group. They offered opportunities to volunteer. They gave recommendations about how to stay in touch with the student, ways to be encouraging and to support the students in every aspect of their life. I had to laugh several times during the orientation when one person said let go, and the very next speaker said, “Here’s how you can be involved.” It seemed like they were telling us the exact opposite.
The reality is that we both have to let go and we have to continue to be involved in our student’s life. We have to find a way to let them make their own mistakes and follow their own path while encouraging them to be responsible and supporting them in every way we can. We have to do both. It is hard. How do you let go when you know the decision he’s making is going to be disastrous for him? How do you support your student when you are sure they are doing the wrong thing? Yet, now is the time for them to learn, to grow through their mistakes and to find their own way. We can’t keep them behind our wings forever. We have to push them out of the nest eventually.
God could very easily take us into heaven the moment we are saved, to allow us to live in His presence from that very moment and for eternity. However, we have been given faith to live in this world in the here and now, to share the Gospel of Christ with others so that they might enjoy the fruits of God’s Holy Spirit. Yes, it would be nice to live a reality where there are no more tears and pain, where everything is perfect and extraordinary. It would be nice for my son’s life to be perfect from this moment on. But God has chosen to leave us in the world to do His work among the chaos and darkness rather than put us into some utopia forever. He isn’t keep heaven from us, He is giving us a glimpse of heaven even while we live in the world. So, just as a mom has to let go and be involved, so too do we have to live here and hold on to the promise of what will be. We’ll be blessed wherever we are and whatever we do in God’s name, because He has made promises that He intends to keep.
“And no man putteth a piece of undressed cloth upon an old garment; for that which should fill it up taketh from the garment, and a worse rent is made. Neither do men put new wine into old wine-skins: else the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins perish: but they put new wine into fresh wine-skins, and both are preserved.” Matthew 9:16-17, ASV
I had a few hours to waste one day while waiting for Zack to do something. I was too far from home to make it worth the time and gas, so I decided to go out to lunch. There was a restaurant I’ve passed numerous times that I’ve always wanted to try, so I went there. I was able to have a delicious meal and spend most of the time at my table reading a book. It was a great way to spend the time.
The restaurant was nice, but I was a bit surprised with the decor. The restaurant is fairly new, although it did move a couple years ago from a different location. The restaurant looked pieced together with old, mismatched furnishings. It was a little dark, despite walls of windows. Most of the chairs and tables were wobbly, with uneven legs and chipped paint. It was clean and safe, but not what I expected from the façade. I thought it would more like a diner, with lots of bright colors and chrome. The food was excellent, so it didn’t matter that it was more like a dive than a diner.
The funniest moment, and the catalyst for this message, happened when I went into the bathroom. Though it was clean, the fixtures and surfaces were worn and falling apart. I couldn’t keep the stall door shut and the walls were covered with graffiti. But I had no worries about toilet paper. They had an extra large roll of toilet paper; the type that belongs inside one of those big plastic cases. These are used by businesses because they are larger than the normal rolls and last much longer. Unfortunately, the owners of this store didn’t bother changing the holder that was originally in the restroom even though he or she decided to use the less expensive rolls of paper. So, they had the extra large roll stuffed on a normal toilet paper holder.
Needless to say, it was heavy and unwieldy. The roll was fairly new, so stuck out into the stall about a foot. The roll was so full that it barely fit between the roller and the stall wall. It was nearly impossible to get paper off it because it did not spin as it should. It was frustrating to pull at the paper and have it come just one square at a time. The roll did not belong on the roller, and though I’m sure it saved the owner some money, I’m not sure the savings are real when compared to the losses caused by the ill-fitting and improperly used roll. How many rolls have fallen off because the roller wouldn’t work? How many people took the roll off the roller just to get paper, then couldn’t get it back on the roller, so put it on the floor, making it unsanitary for the next person? I don’t know about you, but when I’m frustrated by the toilet paper, I tend to take far more than I really need. That’s money being flushed down the toilet.
Strange topic, I know. But when I was thinking about this roll of toilet paper, I thought about all the ways we cheat to save some money or repurpose something. Repurposing can be good, but it is not always the best choice. The garment and wineskin in today’s passage is old. Putting a new patch on the cloth will destroy the garment because the two fabrics will not wear well together. The patch will shrink with the first wash and rip the old cloth. The new wine will expand in an already stretched wineskin and cause it to break. In both these cases, it might seem like good sense to reuse the old, but in the end it will be a waste.
Matthew spoke these words in response to questions about how to live this new faith in the old ways. They wanted to know why the Pharisees fast but Jesus’ disciples did not. Jesus said that you should not mix the old with the new. He was doing a new thing, it was time to worship God in a new way. Now, Jesus was not suggesting that we should never fast, or that we have to change everything. But, He is reminding us that what we have been given is new and it won’t fit in the old ways. We have to figure out a new way of doing the things that help us to grow our faith. We have to change the toilet paper holder.
“That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life (and the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare unto you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us); that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ: and these things we write, that our joy may be made full.” 1 John 1:1-4, ASV
I have a picture of Jesus hanging on my wall. It is a black and white portrait made in pen and ink. The artist did an incredible job creating the image, with subtle shadows creating the folds of his rob and skin. The face is simple but detailed and the eyes seem to be looking into the very depths of your spirit. He’s neither happy nor sad, with a look of contentment that comes with knowing the reality of God. A slight halo wrings His head which draws the viewer into the presence of the One in the portrait.
The amazing part of this picture, however, is not in the portrait itself, but in the marks that created the portrait. The picture is made entirely of letters, written in varying sizes and thicknesses, thus giving the impression of light and dark, highlights and shadows. Even more amazing is the fact that the letters make words, the words make sentences, and the sentences tell a story. The letters, 105,000 of them are from the Gospel according to St. Luke. I can not find much information about the artist, except that his name is Gwang Hyuk Rhee, an elder of Young Nak Church in Seoul Korea. I do not know if he is still alive, but during his life he created numerous pictures out of bible text. One picture is of Christ with twenty-seven angels surrounding him, each angel representing a book of the New Testament. The scroll is four feet by six feet, and it includes the words from Matthew through Revelation, the entire New Testament. There are 185,000 words, with approximately a thousand words per line.
When Elder Rhee tells his story, he speaks about a childhood desire and prayer that his life not be empty like a disappearing cloud. When he was thirty years old, he says, “I was divinely inspired that a picture of the Lord could be revealed by the printed word of God.” In 1950, during the Korean War, he had to leave his family and then the North and South were divided and he could never return home. It was then that he began his project. He did this for thirty years without anyone seeing what he was doing, as he lived and worked alone in a secluded house. He believes that the work is not his, but is from the Holy Spirit. Looking at it, I tend to agree.
I have never tried to do what he has done, but as an artist, I can see no way that he could possibly plan the picture the way I can plan a painting. Yes, he can draw the outlines. I’m sure after a time he has come to understand how many words and letters it takes to fill in the space. However, the pictures are consistent, and end perfectly at the edge of the paper. My picture is round, which means he had to space everything perfectly. There was no way to take the words further down a page. He had to make it fit into the circle without losing its shape. He is an extraordinarily gifted human being, but as I look at the picture I am certain there is more to it than just an amazing artistic ability. God’s Word has come alive, in a very real way in his art.
It is funny because I’m working on a project right now, a sketchbook with the theme “Along the Line.” I plan on filling the entire sketchbook with pen and ink drawings. Some will be very simple, like a page with a simple line and the words ‘along the line’ written along the line. Others will be more complicated. I’ve wondered if I could do something similar to this extraordinary portrait of Christ. However, I know I can’t put the words of the entire book of Luke into a picture of Christ, that’s just not my gift. I have other gifts, as do you. Elder Rhee used his gifts to do something extraordinary, but we can, too. We each have our own gifts and talents to use to bring God’s Word to life. As we join with the Holy Spirit and obey God’s voice in our life, using the gifts He has given, we’ll find that the work we do is as extraordinary, in a different way, as the pictures done by Elder Rhee. And as our work brings the word of Christ to life, His Word brings others to true life, eternal life in Him.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 31, 2011, Lectionary 18A: Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
“The eyes of all wait for thee; And thou givest them their food in due season.” Psalm 145:15, ASV
I love to feed the birds. We keep several bird feeders around the house of different types to meet the needs of different types of birds. It is more expensive than you might expect, after all, it’s just seed that we give to them. However, they eat the food so fast; we could fill the feeders on a daily basis. I try to throw old bread and other grain foods to supplement the seed, but it seems like there’s never enough food for all the birds.
In the front of the house we keep a couple bell shaped cakes of bird seed, which we have hanging from a chain near a window. The birds love these, and we have a constant stream of different types of birds that come to enjoy the treats. The birds aren’t the only ones, though. Any person who feeds the birds knows about the cunning of the squirrels. It doesn’t matter what type of anti-squirrel paraphernalia you use, they always find a way. I didn’t even worry about the bird bells because they are so far off the ground, available only to those who can fly. Well, if you know squirrels, you know that they can fly without wings.
I was sitting near the window one day and I noticed that the cats were getting a little crazy. The source of their excitement was a squirrel on the sill on the other side of the window. He was eyeing the bird bells, frustrated by the distance. He tried to reach by climbing up the side of the house, but it didn’t work, the bells were still too far away. He tried jumping into the bush below the bells, but that didn’t work, either. I chased him away so that he wouldn’t figure out some way of stealing the bird food.
It didn’t stop him, though. On another occasion, I found him hanging on the bird bell, scratching away to set the seeds free. Then I looked at the ground, to see his mess, and discovered that a second squirrel was there collecting the seed the first one was dropping. On a third occasion, I discovered his trick. He climbed up the side of the house, jumped a few feet into a hanging basket near the bell, then climbed the chain and got onto the bell. I knew I had to do something.
Now, I could have tried to find a way to keep the squirrels away, but I don’t think that would have been easy. They are incredibly resourceful. So, instead, I decided to put seed in a place they can reach, to make it easier so that they wouldn’t ruin my potted plants in the process. I bought another feeder and placed it in the tree. Now I often see them hanging upside down by their toes, picking the seed out of the feeder. Only when that one runs out do they come back to the house and try to get at the bells. The larger birds prefer the feeder in the tree, too, giving more space for the tiny finches and sparrows. Though I don’t always enjoy the cost of feeding the birds, it has become a natural part of our life and I go out of my way to ensure that there is enough food available for them.
The birds aren’t the only ones hungry. I’ve heard several stories recently about how the food banks are desperate for help. Summer is always a rough time for families because the children are out of school and so moms have to ensure there’s enough food for three meals instead of two. Some families even have difficulty finding enough to feed their families one or two meals a day. A third makes it especially hard. So, the food banks are giving out more bags. It doesn’t help that donations are down because more families have less and food costs so much more.
It is easy for us to say that we just don’t have enough to share. It is easy for us to send people away to find help from someone else or someplace else. It is easy to put the responsibility on others to feed the hungry, especially when we aren’t sure if we will have enough for ourselves.
The disciples certainly didn’t have enough for themselves. As a matter of fact, I wonder what they thought they were going to do for dinner. They had nothing but five loaves and two fish. That’s not enough to feed a dozen people let alone thousands. Their own grumbling tummies made it easy to say, “Tell them to go away to the villages to get their own food. Jesus answered, “You give them something to eat.” He put the responsibility on His disciples. He puts the responsibility on us. We are called to feed them.
Even more importantly, we are called to trust that God will use whatever resources we have to feed them. We might think that it is impossible for us to do the work; after all we barely have enough to survive ourselves. Like the disciples, we have a few loaves and fish, but God is able to use even our few loaves and fish to feed thousands. Instead of giving up and letting others take responsibility, we need to bravely face God’s challenges and trust Him to make it succeed. Instead of turning over the responsibility of feeding the poor to a government or demanding others find the resources, Jesus says, “You feed them.”
Someone once told me that the government can do a better job at feeding the poor than the church. He said that the burden is too great, even for the churches, especially since the church is suffering from a lack of resources. Yet, the reality, despite diminishing donations, is that so much of the money sent to the government covers administrative and bureaucratic costs, that the poor and hungry gets as little as ten percent. If I give a dollar to a poor person, that person will be able to buy a dollar’s worth of food. But if I give a dollar to the government, that poor person will get as little as a dime. You can’t buy much with a dollar these days, but you can buy even less with a dime.
I can’t possibly feed every hungry person by myself. But “The Starfish Story” by Loren Eisley can encourage us to try. I can’t possibly feed every hungry person by myself. But “The Starfish Story” by Loren Eisley can encourage us to try. “One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?” The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!” After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said “I made a difference for that one.”
If there were dozens of people helping, more fish might be saved. If we work together, we can certainly change lives. A good charity spends less than ten percent on administrative costs, leaving far more to meet the needs of the people. If we all put our little bits together, our resources will be magnified. If we follow Jesus’ command, “You feed them” trusting in God’s promises, we’ll find we can do amazing things. But we’ve given up. We’ve accepted the lie and handed the responsibility of feeding the poor to others, choosing instead to waste our resources on lobbyists who demand others do the work Christ called us to do. We are like the old man, thinking that we can’t possibly make a difference, so we don’t even try. We are no different than the disciples. We want to send the people away. But Jesus says, “You feed them.”
We can make it happen. We can make a difference for one, two, or even five thousand. If each person ensured the well-being of our neighbors, or even our families, they would not have to turn to strangers for help. If we make it a habit to prepare for hard times, we’ll have enough to share when the need presents itself. An extra can of tuna fish or a ten dollar gift card might seem like much, but Jesus has promised to bless our work. A few loaves of bread can’t feed a thousand, but it can if we trust God.
So, what do we believe? Do we believe the lie that we can’t do it, that the burden is too overwhelming? Do we ‘buy’ the idea that we have to turn the work over to others? Or do we ‘buy’ God’s Word?
Isaiah writes, “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” With these words, God invites us into a relationship of trust. He has enough. As a matter of fact, everything is His. We don’t need to pay because He doesn’t need our money. He offers us everything we need out of His abundance, asking only that we believe, ‘buy,’ His Word. There is no value in the lies we hear, or the lies we tell ourselves. There is no value in doing things our own way or seeking help from human institutions. They can’t accomplish anything because they rely on human strength and resources; they do not rely on God. Who is glorified when a government feeds a poor person? Usually a politician. Who is glorified when you are obedient to Christ’s command to feed the people and trust God to make a miracle with your meager resources?
The psalmist sings, “Jehovah upholdeth all that fall, And raiseth up all those that are bowed down.” When it seems like God is no longer taking care of those that have fallen or those who are bowed down, perhaps we should ask if we have trusted God, or if we have turned over the responsibility to others. And, because we have given up, the people have to look to others for help. They don’t know what God can do because we point toward institutions and human strength as their savior. They don’t know the peace of looking to God to provide all they need and even if they do, we don’t think our meager loaves of bread and fish will do any good, so we send them away.
Paul is concerned about a different type of help in today’s epistle lesson. He wants to help his people, the beloved people of God. He was addressing a difficult question: what about the Jews? Paul was a Jew and he loved his people. He knew the blessings of being one of God’s people: the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship, and the promise. Yet, he also knew that they were missing something, Jesus. It was a hard quandary for Paul, to know the people he loved did not know the assurance of faith in Christ, but also knowing that they were beloved of God. How do we deal with this dichotomy?
Paul continued to tell the story of Jesus, often touching just one person at a time. Some came to know Christ. Some did not. He didn’t let the failures stop him from doing what God called him to do: to feed God’s people with the food that will last forever. He just had to trust in God’s promises. Salvation will come according to God’s Word.
Paul wished that he could give up his salvation for the sake of his people, but we know that this is not a possibility. Only Christ could provide the salvation for the whole people. Paul could only live in hope, but hope is a solid foundation for our life of faith. In hope we will have the courage to trust in God’s promises. We might think that we do not have the resources to do the work God has called us to do. We might think that we can’t make a difference. We might think that it would be better to send those who need God’s grace to someone or something that seems more prepared to give it. But Jesus said, “You feed them.” And so, let us take our loaves and our fishes, our meager faith, and share it with those whom God has sent our way, and He will do miraculous things.
“For it is as when a man, going into another country, called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one; to each according to his several ability; and he went on his journey. Straightway he that received the five talents went and traded with them, and made other five talents. In like manner he also that received the two gained other two. But he that received the one went away and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money. Now after a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and maketh a reckoning with them. And he that received the five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: lo, I have gained other five talents. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy lord. And he also that received the two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: lo, I have gained other two talents. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy lord. And he also that had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art a hard man, reaping where thou didst not sow, and gathering where thou didst not scatter; and I was afraid, and went away and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, thou hast thine own. But his lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I did not scatter; thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the bankers, and at my coming I should have received back mine own with interest. Take ye away therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him that hath the ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away. And cast ye out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 25:14-30, ASV
Today would be Beatrix Potter’s birthday. She was born on July 28, 1866, the first born of a wealthy family. As a woman, she was limited in what was acceptable, and as a highborn woman, the limits were even greater. She discovered rather early that she had some artistic talent, but her parents discouraged her because it was an unseemly vocation. Despite those expectations, she was an exceedingly accomplished and talented person, leaving behind a legacy beyond a few simple children’s books.
Her family spent much time vacationing in the Lake District of England, and she grew to love it with a passion to protect it. With the royalties from her first published book, she bought a farm in the Lake District, and over the course of her life she added other properties to her holdings. She didn’t buy the land to build wealth, but to keep it pure and unspoiled from encroachment and other modern problems. When she died, she gave her property to the National Trust so that it would continue to be protected. Because of her work, the Lake District continues to look untouched and has become a favorite destination for visitors.
We know Beatrice Potter for her delightful children’s books about Peter Rabbit and the other adorable animals in Mr. McGregor’s Garden. Many of those characters and the scenes in her children’s books are taken from her own neighborhood in the Lake District, recreating the characters of real animals that inhabited her farms. As a child, she collected pets, such as mice, rabbits, kittens and guinea pigs, and many of her drawings are based on them. When she was young, she illustrated a book of poetry and shared her drawings in letters to children. Though her parents did not encourage her artist talents, she had other mentors who supported her work. She had to publish her first book on her own, but soon after a publisher took her and her books have sold millions of copies worldwide. The stories have been produced on stage and in film and continue to be a favorite of children around the world.
Besides her fantastic drawings of animals and English country life, Beatrix Potter was a talented botanical illustrator. She wanted her drawings to be used in scientific books on plants and flora, but because she was a woman in that Victorian age, she was not respected for intellectual abilities. When she died, Beatrix Potter donated her entire collection of drawings to Armitt Trust in Ambleside, and they have since been published in books and pamphlets.
Beatrix Potter did not let the world around her force her to conform to the expectations and she didn’t let her failure to overcome those expectations to keep her from doing what she was gifted to do. Perhaps she never saw the success of her botanical drawings, but she didn’t care. She didn’t follow the artistic trends of the day, but drew what she wanted and how she wanted. She didn’t let the world’s “no” keep her from sharing her talents, taking the initiative to follow her dreams and her vision. In doing so, she left behind a legacy of stories, pictures, land and intelligence that will benefit many generations.
What can we do despite the world’s “no”? What talents can we share even when others try to discourage it? What gifts can we use to leave behind a legacy that will make a difference in people’s lives? Beatrix Potter did not hide her talents in the ground, but used them to make the world a better place, and in doing so she experienced great blessings in her own life and success.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was filled, they drew up on the beach; and they sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but the bad they cast away. So shall it be in the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the righteous, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth. Have ye understood all these things? They say unto him, Yea. And he said unto them, Therefore every scribe who hath been made a disciple to the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.” Matthew 13:47-52, ASV
Once in awhile I get an email or see a post about the old days, how things were different. These posts talk about a simpler time, when we caught lightning bugs for fun and ate dinner at the table as a family. I get a little nostalgic when I read about those times, remembering the way it was when I was a child. My kids didn’t experience a childhood like mine, the world is different today than it was forty years ago. I don’t mean to say that it was better then, perhaps they’ve had a better childhood than me. They’ve had opportunities I could never expect and experiences I think I would have enjoyed.
I heard an advertisement the other day that is taking advantage of this nostalgic feeling. The ad is for the beaches of south Texas, and describes what they have to offer in terms that today’s kids understand: as a water park. The ad makes it sound like the beach is just like those water parks that the kids love, only better because it is big and far less crowded. The wave pool is the ocean itself, the beaches go on for miles.
Water parks, which have been around since the 1940’s and 1950’s, have compared themselves to the beach, claiming to be better because you don’t have all that sand and the dangerous creatures that inhabit the ocean. The water is clean and temperature controlled. Over the years, water parks have developed rides to make the park more exciting than the beach. Tube slides, lazy rivers and even vortexes that spins the body around and spits it out into the pool. Some rides use tubes, others are best when the rider just jumps on and flies through the water. Technology has made it possible for water parks to recreate the feel of being at the beach, with wave pools that make the swimmer feel like they are actually floating in the waves without the fears of rip tides.
The water parks tend to be closer to home, and are usually a day trip rather than an overnight vacation. Water parks are available as standalone destinations or as part of other parks and resorts. The major theme parks here in San Antonio have water parks to visit with their day pass. The resorts have built their pools into something much more exciting, using some of the same features as found at the big water parks. It is no wonder that the beaches are advertising. Though I know people still visit the beach, I’m sure the beach towns have lost some of their visitors because people would rather swim in the park than in the real ocean.
So, which is better? Are the beaches better than the water parks because they have miles of sand and are less crowded? Perhaps. I know that the water parks can get go so crowded that when the wave pools are active it is impossible to move around. I know the lines at the tube slides are so long that you might wait an hour for each chance to get wet. I know that the lazy river is not only lazy because the water moves slowly, but because there are so many people trying to float that we get caught up with one another and stuck. But there are reasons why the water park is better. The safety, the close proximity, the cleanliness are all reasons to choose the park over the beach. The old is not better than the new, but the new is not better than the old. Both are fun and worth trying once in a while.
The old or the new, which one is better? Like the water park and beach, it may not be a question of which is better, but rather good to take advantage of what each has to offer. Which is better, the Old Testament or the New Testament? I know I prefer the stories of Jesus and His disciples, but would they even exist if we didn’t have the stories of God’s people from whence Jesus came? Would there be a reason for Jesus if we didn’t have failures of God’s people? Which is better, the Law or the Gospel? I certainly know which I would choose, but does the Gospel have any value without the Law? Can we be set free from nothing? Can we be forgiven for nothing? Can we be redeemed if there is no reason for redemption? The old and new work together so that we might see our sinfulness and receive God’s grace. Grace might trump Law, but without Law there would be no need for Grace. So, we must keep the balance between the two, never putting more value on one over the other. The faithful follower of Jesus will love both the old and new treasures of the Kingdom.