Welcome to the July 2013 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 2013
July 1, 2013
“Now therefore be wise, O ye kings: Be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve Jehovah with fear, And rejoice with trembling. Kiss the son, lest he be angry, and ye perish in the way, For his wrath will soon be kindled. Blessed are all they that take refuge in him.” Psalm 2:10-12, ASV
Today is July 1, the 182nd day of this year. There are 183 days left. I know it is cliché to ask the question, “Where did the time go?” But I have to ask the question, “Where did the time go?” This year is half over. Zack’s summer vacation is half over. I am approaching my fiftieth birthday; should I be blessed to reach the century mark in my life, I’m halfway finished with my time on earth. It doesn’t seem like six months have passed, or even six weeks. It certainly doesn’t seem like fifty years. Where does the time go?
It may be hard to see any impact in our lives and work for six weeks or six months, but I think I’ve done some pretty incredible things over the past fifty years. I did well in school as a child, made it to high office in an organization to which I belonged, won a few trophies. I graduated from college and rose in the ranks in the retail world. I married a wonderful man and had two wonderful children who are now grown and making their own lives in the world. I’ve written a couple of books and thousands of devotionals. I’ve created hundreds of crafts and pieces of art. I’ve touched, in some way, more lives than I can ever count.
I can see, much more easily, the amount of time I’ve wasted over the past six weeks and months, and even in the past fifty years. I’ve watched way too many hours of television, played too many video games, and wallowed in too many pity parties. I’ve held onto anger much too long, remembered hurts and bad times with too much passion and forgotten to say “I love you” or “I forgive you” too many times. While I have done good things for others, I’ve missed or refused too many opportunities to do God’s work and speak God’s word in the world.
We’re halfway through the year. We expect to make it to the end of the year and through many more. I don’t think I expect to live to a hundred, but I hope I have many more years to paint and write and love and serve. I want that, but I don’t know what tomorrow holds. We can say we are halfway through summer vacation, but we really do not know what will happen tomorrow. We can’t count on tomorrow to do the things we haven’t done today. We shouldn’t put off the work God is calling us to do now; we are warned in the scriptures that time is short.
Whether we are halfway to the end of the year or halfway to the end of our lives does not really matter. Today is the first day. The past should not be forgotten, we are where we are because of what has passed before now. However, let us now waste time with regrets, but move forward in faith and courage to do what God is calling us to do now. Whether the second half is a moment or eternity, God calls us to be faithful in the here and now. What can you do today? Who can you touch? Who will you serve in God’s name? Who will you tell about Jesus Christ today?
“Jesus therefore said to those Jews that had believed him, If ye abide in my word, then are ye truly my disciples; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. They answered unto him, We are Abraham's seed, and have never yet been in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free? Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Every one that committeth sin is the bondservant of sin. And the bondservant abideth not in the house for ever: the son abideth for ever. If therefore the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed. I know that ye are Abraham's seed: yet ye seek to kill me, because my word hath not free course in you. I speak the things which I have seen with my Father: and ye also do the things which ye heard from your father. They answered and said unto him, Our father is Abraham. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I heard from God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the works of your father. They said unto him, We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.” John 8:31-41, ASV
Meteorological radar is designed to see precipitation as it falls from the sky to the ground. Most radar shows intensity of rain or snow by a variety of colors. Light green is usually the lightest rain and deep purple is a storm with hail. Snow or freezing precipitation is represented by pinks and blues. The radar can be an obsession for those of us who live in areas where severe weather can cause dangerous situations. A heavy storm can mean flooding, heavy wind tornadoes, lightning and hail. We watch the radar so we know whether we should make things secure around our homes. We pay attention and make decisions about whether or not to go out based on that radar.
But the radar is not always reliable. I’ve noticed that the picture is sometimes a few minutes behind or the picture is slightly off from where it really should be. It might seem like the rain won’t hit us for awhile, but it comes much faster than expected. Or, the radar might appear as though the rain will hit us or miss us, but exactly the opposite happens because the picture is slightly off of true.
Another problem with the radar is that it often picks up things in the air and makes it seem like it is raining. We have a cave near our house that is home to the largest mammal habitat in the world. The bats, Mexican fruit bats, number 30 million at the height of the season. These bats all leave their cave at dusk, flying for miles in every direction to eat our mosquitoes and other bugs. There are so many bats leaving the cave that it registers on the radar. Every night a green blob shows up at that spot on the map. It builds for about forty-five minutes and then disappears. There are a few other places around the state where the bats create this anomaly on the radar.
Another situation occurred on Friday with our radar, so troubling to many people that they called the National Weather Service to ask what was happening. The radar around San Antonio appeared as though it was raining, a large area of light rain that covered hundreds of square miles. People looked at the radar and then out the window and knew something was wrong. After all, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. How could it be raining? As it turned out, the anomaly was caused by a cold front that was pushing through the state. The cold front and accompanying wind sent dust and bugs into the air thick enough to be picked up by the radar. Instead of a rain storm, we were having a bug storm.
There is good reason for us to pay attention to the radar maps, particularly when there is a chance for severe weather. We have to remember, however, that it is imperfect. We have to base our decisions on more than the pictures on the screen. We have to go out and look at the sky for ourselves, listen for thunder and rainfall. If we are on the road, we have to look at the conditions around us and as they tell us repeatedly “Turn around, don’t drown.” The radar can be a useful tool, but can be deceiving and dangerous.
We must be careful, also, with the gospel messages we hear in our world today. Those messages are close, but not always true. The false gospels turn our thoughts and our spirits away from the simple truth that Jesus Christ is our Savior. They cause us to run after worldly passions and expect human works to bring us the blessings of God.
The truth—the whole truth—was very important to Jesus. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the simplest message ever spoken, yet it is also the most complicated. The grace of God is a gift of forgiveness, mercy and love and that is simple to know. Yet, the grace of God is useless to those who do not believe they are in need of God’s grace. The whole story is hard to hear, because the Gospel is worthless without the knowledge that we are sinners in need of a Savior. Oh, there are those that preach a Gospel of love that has nothing to do with forgiveness. That gospel can be preached to everyone. But that's not the whole truth. We need to know that we are sinners in need of a Savior for the Gospel to have any real affect.
Sunday, July 7, 2013, Seventh Sunday After Pentecost: Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-7 (8); Galatians 6:1-10, 14-18; Luke 10:1-20
“And the seventy returned with joy, saying, Lord, even the demons are subject unto us in thy name.” Luke 10:17, ASV
I don’t blame the disciples for being proud of their accomplishments. After all, they’d done miraculous things! “Even the demons are subject unto us in thy name,” they said. They credited the power of Jesus, but really did feel a sense of triumph. They did this thing! And, well, we all have moments when we’ve experienced the pride of knowing we did something good. I get it; I probably would feel the same way. The adrenaline they must have experienced when witnessing such miraculous things was probably overwhelming, and it probably gave them a passion to do more. “Send us out there, Jesus, and we’ll clean up the whole world!”
Jesus was pleased and excited for them, but He knew the trap. If they let this get to their head…
That’s what happens to us. We experience something extraordinary, do something awesome, and then we feel like we can overcome the whole world. The problem is that we then forget the source of our gifts, the foundation of our power, the One who has given us the authority to do these great things. Jesus tells the disciples, “Nevertheless in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Our joy is not in the things we can do, but in the reality that we belong to God and will spend eternity in His Kingdom. Our joy is that our names are written in His book. That book does not keep a record of our good deeds or incredible work. It keeps the names of those who believe in Jesus.
We are sent into the world to do incredible things, and God gifts us with everything we need to do it, but we have to keep our focus where it belongs. Our mission in the world is not ever to overcome the world, to do good deeds or make extraordinary things happen. Our mission is to share Jesus with those who need to know His mercy and forgiveness. The other things are good; Jesus sent those disciples into the villages to heal the sick and proclaim the nearness of God. There are those who would take verse 9 tells us that the important task here is the first one: to heal the sick. However, as we look further in the passage, Jesus tells the disciples to proclaim God’s nearness to everyone, including those who reject them.
Jesus said, “But into whatsoever city ye shall enter, and they receive you not, go out into the streets thereof and say, Even the dust from your city, that cleaveth to our feet, we wipe off against you: nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh.” The message of God’s nearness is meant for everyone, healing for those who have received God and His messengers into their town. We often think that what we have to do to share the Gospel is first deal with the physical needs of those to whom we are sent because they will believe once they have been healed and fed.
We might think that if we just did a little healing and a little feeding then they’ll believe and listen to what we have to say, but Jesus knew that it is not true. Look at His ministry! How often did Jesus do incredible things only to be cast out from those places? People even credited Satan for casting the demons out of a man! The works do not make people believe. The people often believed Jesus at first because of what He did, but when He spoke they rejected Him. They did not want to hear the truth of what He was saying.
And the truth is that if you believe in Him, Jesus Christ, you will be saved.
This is a hard message in our world that treats diversity as the Gospel. The Universalist message has crept too deeply into the thinking of too many churches and Christians. We have come to accept the idea that there are many paths to salvation, that we all believe in the same god and that Jesus is just one of those ways. As long as we do good things, treat our neighbors with love and take care of their physical needs, then we will be saved. We rejoice when we see the good works accomplishing something in the world. “Look what we did! We started this ministry. We served a huge number of people. We changed the world.” But how many of those that we reached really believe. When we begin speaking the Gospel, the truth of Jesus Christ, how many of them really receive Him? When we begin speaking the hard words, that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, do they stay or do they walk away?
We’ve seen in the past few weeks that it is much easier to make excuses and to keep on our own path, even when we have experienced the love and mercy of God. Last week Jesus told the three men that following Him would never be easy. “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the heaven have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” “Let the dead bury their own dead.” “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” There is only one path to salvation and that is through the cross of Jesus Christ.
We are not comfortable saying this. We know it. We believe it. But we don’t want to offend anyone, and we don’t want to appear intolerant. We don’t want to be called “Jesus freak” or “Bible basher.” It is so much easier to go out and serve those in need and hope that God will let them know in some other way that He’s the One who has done these things. It doesn’t take long before we forget that He’s the One who has done these things. And we rejoice, like those disciples, over the things we’ve accomplished.
There might be a cross on the wall and a bible on the bookshelf, but the people we serve walk out with full bellies and no more knowledge of the saving grace of God’s forgiveness. We don’t want to tell people they are sinners, some would say we can’t tell people they are sinners. There is no reason to talk about forgiveness if the Gospel is about changing the world by our good works. But Jesus reminds us, “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Our mission, then, is to help others find their names written in that book.
Remember a few weeks we talked about the Parable of the Sower, the story Jesus tells about a farmer casting his seed on the path, rocks, thorns and good soil? The lesson of that story is “Prepare the soil.” When the soil is prepared, then the Word of God falls on it, takes root and grows. Now, two chapters later, Jesus is sending the disciples out to places that have been prepared and the seed has fallen on good soil. Jesus tells them “The harvest indeed is plenteous, but the laborers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he send forth laborers into his harvest.” And then He tells them to stay where they are received and do good things in those places. And then He tells them not to stay in the places where they are not received.
Then Jesus says, “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which were done in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment, than for you.” Good works were done in those places. As a matter of fact, in the previous chapter of Luke (9), we hear the story of the feeding of the five thousand in Bethsaida. That alone should have caused the whole town to follow Jesus, but did it? No, because the message that followed the feeding was too hard for them to bear as we heard last week. We have to leave behind the comforts of life, our homes and our families. We have to reject the world to follow Him.
It is no wonder that the laborers are few.
Jesus tells the disciples how to recognize if the fields are ready to be harvested. Jesus says, “And if a son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon him: but if not, it shall turn to you again.” It is almost as if the disciples could tangibly sense the coming and going of their peace. Can we really see peace rest on someone? I think we can. We’ve all known that person who has such a deep faith that they are not upset by anything. It isn’t that they deny the problems of the world, but they know that God is greater. They know that He is near and that He is in control.
The peace of the disciples may not look like a dove or have a physical body, but we can see peace in the faces and actions of others. Have you ever entered a home where you can feel the tension and stress? Sometimes it takes little more than a kind word and a hug to break that tension and make everyone more comfortable. At other times, the tension is too much to overcome. Everyone is on edge and ready to attack, no matter who gets in their way. A word of peace under those circumstances will not bring peace; it will cause the recipients to lash out. Jesus warns us not to take on the tension and stress.
If the home welcomes the peace, then everyone will experience it. If the home rejects the peace, then we have to remain in the peace which God has given us or we will be tempted into anger or hatred or (like James and John last week) violence. Jesus says, “Wipe your feet and move on” because He knows that we, like James and John, will want to call the fire and brimstone down upon those places because they’ve rejected God.
Have they rejected God? Perhaps at that moment, but what we do not know is the end game of God’s plan. That town may not be ready today to receive His people or His Gospel, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t one day be able to accept God’s grace. Just as it isn’t up to us to convince them to believe in God by doing good works, it also is not our mission to destroy those who reject Him. There is a harvest taking place, plenty of fruit waiting to be picked. There’s work for us to do today. Don’t try to harvest fruit which is not yet ready. Go to the places where the hearts are ready.
I like tomatoes. I love tomatoes as a matter of fact, but in recent years I have come to hate tomatoes. I hate the tomatoes I buy in the grocery store. Those tomatoes are picked so early, while they are not quite ripe, so that they’ll survive the long trip from farm to store. The expectation is that the tomatoes will continue to ripen at least a little in the truck and on the shelves. Unfortunately, they never really taste like those tomatoes my dad used to grow in our family garden. They are bland and have a texture that could be anything from hard to mealy. Even the ‘vine-ripened’ tomatoes are not very good. I try to go to farmer’s markets whenever I can, and when I do I have the most wonderful experience. I like those tomatoes so much that I’m happy to have just a tomato sandwich.
When we try to make Christians by ‘plucking’ them too early, we get something less than disciples. They might respond to the works, and even listen to the words, but they never really receive them in their hearts because their hearts aren’t ready. But if they reject God’s forgiveness and salvation, it is not up to us to condemn them. God calls us to keep going, sharing the good news with those in whom the spark has already been lit. And who knows, perhaps our visit to that town that rejected us (and God) will be the first step to future faith. Having been confronted by their own sin, they might just be ready for the next laborers with hearts of good soil.
It isn’t our message, but God’s message, that we are sharing. If He is prepared to be rejected because of it, why do we think that we can use human responses to get them to listen and receive it? If they listen to us, they are listening to God. If they reject us, it isn’t us that they are rejecting, but God. We need not take their rejection personally. When the disciples returned, excited about the work they had been doing, Jesus reminded them that it wasn’t their success about which they should rejoice but God’s work in their lives. We do not have the right to boast in our accomplishments, but only in the cross of Christ.
Paul writes, “For if a man thinketh himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.” Sadly, I think we are all guilty of this at some point in our life. We take pride in what we do, pride in who we are, pride in what we think makes us different, perhaps even better, than our neighbor. That’s why it is so important that we stay in fellowship with other Christians. Paul encourages us to help one another keep our focus where it belongs. “Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” We are not to compare ourselves to others, thus establishing our own greatness (just like James and John,) but we are to help each other become great.
Good works will sow greatness, while the message that God’s kingdom is near will only bring persecution. We’d rather move toward greatness than experience the rejection of the world. We justify our choices by insisting that the world will love us and God if we take care of them, but even with full bellies and healed bodies, the world will still reject the forgiveness and salvation that He offers.
This is not to say that we should not help those who are not Christian. After all, God does call us to love and serve others, including our enemies. The warning is that we remember our priorities. What is our mission? What is the goal? Who are we called to serve? We are called to serve God, to tell the world that His Kingdom is near. Sometimes that means that we’ll share a loaf of bread with a non-believer and sometimes it means that we’ll wipe the dust off our feet. The key is keeping God in focus. What is He doing in this place? As we keep our priorities in line with His will, His work will be done.
Paul tells us that we will reap what we sow. Paul writes, “But far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” The successes of our ministries do not give us reason to rejoice. We rejoice in the salvation that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. We rejoice that our names are written in His book. Our mission is to help others find their names there, too.
In the Old Testament lesson, we are confronted by the image of a ruined city. The people had been exiled for some time and were returning home. They remembered the glory of Jerusalem and expected to see gleaming stone and strong walls. God saved them, but when they got back to Jerusalem they discovered that it had been destroyed. Their hope for safety and peace in a strong, safe city was shattered; they found ruin.
Yet, the message from Isaiah offered hope to the people. “And ye shall see it, and your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall flourish like the tender grass: and the hand of Jehovah shall be known toward his servants; and he will have indignation against his enemies.” God will take care of those who rejected His people. God will provide them with peace. “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream: and ye shall suck thereof; ye shall be borne upon the side, and shall be dandled upon the knees. As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you; and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” When we face rejection and worse, there is still hope. God is in control.
Isaiah promised that they would see the day when God’s promises would be fulfilled, there was no reason to feel hopeless. It is easy to feel like the whole world has fallen apart, especially when we look around us and see so much evil. We know that we can’t overcome it on our own, and we don’t know why God isn’t doing everything we ask. But we see what happens when we are witnesses to God’s incredible power. We fall into the trap of believing that we had something to do with it. The disciples thought the hope rested in their ability to overcome the devil.
Jesus reminded them that they would not overcome the devil in their flesh. They would suffer persecution. Yet, in Christ they have a greater hope. They have eternal life in Christ; His blood bought the salvation that would guarantee eternal life.
Instead of voicing our joy over our good works or exhibiting pride in our accomplishments, it would do us well to sing with the psalmist our praise for God. “Make a joyful noise unto God, all the earth: Sing forth the glory of his name: Make his praise glorious. Say unto God, How terrible are thy works! Through the greatness of thy power shall thine enemies submit themselves unto thee. All the earth shall worship thee, And shall sing unto thee; They shall sing to thy name. Selah.” There is plenty of work for us to do, and He is sending us out into the world to proclaim that He is near. With pen in hand, He’s ready to write more names in that book. Are we ready to share His forgiveness with those whose hearts have been prepared to receive Him and His salvation? Are we ready to plant the seeds of grace in the hearts of good soil that He’s prepared?
“Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are. For this cause the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that, if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him; for we shall see him even as he is. And every one that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” 1 John 3:1-3, ASV
I just finished reading the lastest book by Dan Brown called, “Inferno.” The book is mystery drama set against the backdrop of Dante’s ancient epic poem “The Divine Comedy.” This is Dan Brown’s fourth novel starring a Harvard Professor of Symbology Robert Langdon. The books follow Robert as he solves clues that lead him to the answer to some life altering or world changing problem. Throughout the book, Robert describes the symbolism behind some of the world’s most impressive art and architecture. He had an eidetic memory, so when he’s faced with a riddle he can ‘see’ the answer in some piece of art that he’s studied. In this story, his solutions all revolve around the art that was inspired by Dante’s Inferno.
I’ve read all of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books, and I’ve seen the two movies that were made based on the books. The movies star actor Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon and are two hours filled with exciting glimpses into the world of art and the world. The point of the stories are that powerful people, particularly those in religion and government, control the world, but there’s always someone willing to do whatever it takes to overcome that power and change the world. Robert chases after the bad guys and tries to stop whatever it is they plan to do to destroy their enemy. He is led by a series of clues and always saves the world, just in the nick of time. I love watching the movies because they show us these fantastic pieces of art and ancient buildings that are so well described in the books.
As I read this fourth novel, I could almost imagine Tom Hanks speaking the words of dialogue, and I found myself wishing that the movie were already made so I could see what has been described. Dan Brown is very good and painting word pictures, and I can almost imagine exactly what they are seeing on the pages in the book. I even went to the internet last night to find a map of a city, just to see what he was talking about. The books make me want to visit the museums and walk in the footsteps of Robert Langdon to see everything with my own eyes.
Some writers are very good at drawing us into their stories so that we can ‘see’ what they want us to see. We get into those books with the same passion as the characters. Do we do the same thing when we are reading the scriptures? Do we find ourselves longing to walk in the footsteps of those characters, to hear what they hear and see what they see? Do we want to jump on the Internet to find pictures and maps, to try to imagine what it would be like to experience the same things?
There is a huge difference between the world Robert Langdon wanders through and the world that we see in the scriptures. He ‘exists’ fictionally in the world of today. The buildings still stand. The roads are filled with cars; the cities are noisy. We can get travel to the four corners of the world in just hours. The art is hanging in the same museums. The world of the Bible is different, and we do not even know for sure what it looked like. We can guess based on the archeology and on the texts that were written both in the bible and other ancient sources, but we don’t have movies or pictures or even paintings.
But we can put ourselves into those stories. We can hear the voice of God and experience His loving touch. We can seek to understand what God has to say to us today, even though He was speaking to men and women who lived two thousand years ago. Those words, those pictures, those promises are given for us today. The apostles wrote the Gospels and the letters so that we can see the love of God and receive it for ourselves.
“Having therefore such a hope, we use great boldness of speech, and are not as Moses, who put a veil upon his face, that the children of Israel should not look stedfastly on the end of that which was passing away: but their minds were hardened: for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remaineth, it not being revealed to them that it is done away in Christ. But unto this day, whensoever Moses is read, a veil lieth upon their heart. But whensoever it shall turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:12-18, ASV
The story was about a cab driver and the rider who impacted his life the most. He picked up a well-dressed man on York Avenue in New York. He had to hold up traffic at a green light to do so, but he was anxious for the fare because it had been a slow day. As it turned out, it was the best thing he could have done. The man was a customer who liked to make conversation during the ride, and the cabby discovered he was a doctor. The cabby’s son, a fifteen year old, wanted to do something more fulfilling with his summer than another trip to camp, so was looking for a job or someplace to volunteer. The problem? Most people didn’t want to hire a fifteen year old.
The cabby, taking the opportunity to engage this chatty customer asked if he knew about any opportunities for his son. The boy was a great student and very responsible. The man gave the cabby his information and told him to have the boy send his school record. The cabby was excited when he went home that evening. Everyone thought he was joking, but after some convincing the boy sent his grades to the doctor.
Two weeks later, the boy received a letter from the doctor with an opportunity to volunteer at the hospital, assisting the doctor. After a few weeks, the boy was paid for his work. He went back the following summer to work again and given more responsibility. Even after he graduated from high school and went to college, the boy spent his summers working at the hospital. He became very interested in medicine and went on to medical school. All along the way, the doctor provided the boy with letters of recommendation to help him get into his choice schools. Eventually the boy became a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology, and was very successful in his career. The other children also became highly successful in their chosen careers.
In the story the cabby writes, “Some might call it fate, and I guess it was. But it shows you that big opportunities can come out of ordinary encounters—even something as ordinary as a taxi ride.” He credits the doctor with the success of all his children and will never forget him.
I think this is a terrific story, but I also think there’s another lesson found in it. The writer tells us that we can experience extraordinary things in ordinary circumstances, but would it have ever happened if the cabby had not been bold enough to ask the favor of the doctor? I wonder how many others the cabby asked before (and after) meeting that doctor? Did he ask the same question of the businessmen he picked up on Wall Street or the retail managers on Madison Avenue? Did he ask anyone from the theater district on Broadway? He remembers the doctor who answered, “Yes,” but I suspect that the cabby took every opportunity to help his son find a job. Only one said “Yes,” but they only needed one. Would they have found the one if they didn’t have the boldness to ask?
I think the man had guts, and I don’t think I could have been so bold. I’m certainly not nearly bold enough when it comes to sharing my faith and inviting people into the Kingdom of God. I do witness for Jesus, but too often I think I choose to be bold when I know the outcome will be positive. I don’t try when I think I’ll be rejected. If we tell a hundred people about Jesus only one might respond, but would we find that one if we never had the boldness to speak to the hundred? God calls us to be His witnesses, so let us be bold and speak His name to the world so that even one might join us in His Kingdom. We need not be afraid, for the words we speak are from God, and He will be with us in every opportunity.
“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
What is the American Dream? There are those who believe that the American Dream is the cute house with the white picket fence, the perfect family and the expensive car in the driveway. They think it is about accumulating as many material possessions as possible and doing everything they can to achieve the biggest house in the right neighborhood and more than their neighbor.
But this materialism has never really been the American Dream. You might think it is if you watch advertisements on the television or pay attention to the lessons of today’s movies. Whether argued in a positive or negative light (depending on your point of view) many people have put this understanding on the dream. Those who see it positively talk about success and making a better life for our kids. Those who see it negatively consider the American Dream selfish and greedy.
In 1931, James Truslow Adams wrote, "[The American Dream is] that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” (The Epic of America.) In the early days of this nation, the American Dream was lived out by those who left everything to start with nothing to have the freedom to worship and work according to their talents and desires. For them, the “grass is greener” was their driving force; it kept them moving on to a better place. Those early settlers weren’t chasing after material possessions, fame or wealth; they were pursing happiness, security, independence. Fortunes were not won in a day, they were accumulated over time as people scrimped and saved their pennies.
There may not have been one single moment or event when the American Dream became confused with materialism, but perhaps it has something to do with the Gold Rush. Those men (and women) were looking immediate fortune. The Gold Rush was a get rich quick scheme which worked for only a few. Others lost everything in search for a few specks of gold dust. The American Dream became “the Golden Dream,” and our understanding of that dream was lost.
I read an article the other day about today’s young adults and how they are choosing a simpler life. We often hear that idea bandied about a Christmastime as many people decide that they are going to simplify their Christmas. “We won’t have as many gifts under the tree,” they say, seeking to return to the real meaning of Christmas. I’m not sure it ever really happens, at least not to the extent that we hope, but we try. We don’t want to be greedy or selfish; we want to love one another and share our good fortune with them. Sometimes it is hard to draw the line.
I think the same can be said about the American Dream. What appears to be a quest for ‘stuff’ is, in the mind of the pursuer, a quest for that happiness, security and independence, but for someone without the same drive or abilities, the quest seems greedy and selfish. So, the idea of the American Dream has taken on that negative connotation for many of today’s youth who are afraid that they will never have the same chance. The thing about the article is that these young people, and the writer of the article, seem to think that wealth and accumulation of stuff is the goal of that dream.
The writer says, “The Downsized Generation is creating a different version of the American Dream, one built on simplicity, service, loyalty, and responsibility.” This is not a different version of the American Dream, it is a restoration of what the dream has always been. Those early Americans were not on a question for money or big bank accounts, they sought freedom to live according to their principals, to do what they were called and gifted to do, to be happy and make a new life that would be better for their children and grandchildren.
It is interesting that this ‘new’ dream is one that fits perfectly into the expectations of a Christian life. Perhaps not so strange, after all, those first Americans were pursuing a freedom to worship God and live the life they believed He was calling them to live. Their lives included simplicity, service, loyalty and responsibility. This generation is finding it impossible to pursue the materialistic goals that seem to have become the American Dream and they think they are doing something new, but the reality is that they are returning to the way it was always meant to be. Let us all pursue that dream, the dream of living for God in this world and using our blessings to make our little corner a better place.
“Bless Jehovah, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless Jehovah, O my soul, And forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; Who healeth all thy diseases; Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; Who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies; Who satisfieth thy desire with good things, So that thy youth is renewed like the eagle. Jehovah executeth righteous acts, And judgments for all that are oppressed. He made known his ways unto Moses, His doings unto the children of Israel. Jehovah is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness. He will not always chide; Neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins, Nor rewarded us after our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is his lovingkindness toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, So far hath he removed our transgressions from us. Like as a father pitieth his children, So Jehovah pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; And the place thereof shall know it no more. But the lovingkindness of Jehovah is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, And his righteousness unto children's children; To such as keep his covenant, And to those that remember his precepts to do them. Jehovah hath established his throne in the heavens; And his kingdom ruleth over all. Bless Jehovah, ye his angels, That are mighty in strength, that fulfil his word, Hearkening unto the voice of his word. Bless Jehovah, all ye his hosts, Ye ministers of his, that do his pleasure. Bless Jehovah, all ye his works, In all places of his dominion: Bless Jehovah, O my soul.” Psalm 103, ASV
I am getting ready to take a trip next month. I will be in Pittsburgh for a few days. I will be flying for this trip even though I would much prefer to drive. It isn’t that I am afraid to fly; I just like the adventure of a car trip. The problem is that it would take me longer and cost much more to drive back and forth to Pennsylvania. That would be much too long to take our second car; it would inconvenience the boys too much. So, though I would rather the freedom and adventure of taking my own car, I am going to fly.
Clark Griswold was planning a family vacation. The rest of the family wanted to fly to their destination, to keep the time they had to spend in close quarters to a minimum. It sure is easier to fly thousands of miles than to drive for days to get the same distance. As is typical of all the “National Lampoon” movies, things do not go quite the way Chevy Chase’s character wanted them to go. His wife, Ellen, asked why they couldn’t just fly. “Why aren’t we flying? Because getting there is half the fun. You know that.” The movie is filled with hysterical circumstances as they get lost, run out of gas, meet up with family, visit ridiculous roadside landmarks, have multiple accidents, etc. The “fun” was two movie hours of getting out of trouble.
I remember a trip I took with my mom when I was a young adult. We were headed to Kansas to visit my aunt. We learned a lesson: do not put a sign “Kansas or Bust” in the rear window of your car. We did, and we busted. Our car broke down late at night. Thankfully we were saved by a nice truck driver who took us to the next truck stop. We had the car towed, fixed and we headed back on our way without the sign in the window.
On another trip, when I was moving to California, I had my mom and my cat LaToya in my car with me. We stopped at a rest area in the middle of nowhere, spent a few minutes and then went on our way. A few minutes after getting back on the road I wondered about LaToya. She was nowhere to be seen. We pulled over, looked through the whole car and couldn’t find her. We though she must have jumped out of the car at the rest area. Despite the long distance between exits, we turned around, got back to the rest area and searched again. I don’t know what we thought we’d find, but we had to try. We looked briefly around the rest area and then decided to look more carefully in the car. We found her secret hiding place: inside the seat of the driver’s seat. She was curled up in the midst of the springs. LaToya managed to create lots of fun adventures for us on that three thousand mile trip.
Bruce and I took the kids on several trips across country, and I could write for hours on the adventures of those trips. When Zack was about 8 months old, he learned to stand while we were visiting family and never wanted to get into his car seat again. On another trip, my aunt gave the kids extremely large toys, including a delightful police car with lots of noisy buttons. We blew a tire on a construction zone. Our adventures in Great Britain included a trip through flood waters and herds of sheep. I could go on. Some of my best stories have to do with car trips.
I am flying in August, and I suppose it is possible that even that brief journey will be filled with fun moments. Getting there is really half the fun. You cannot imagine the beauty and diversity of this world if you never spent the time seeing it. Those kitschy roadside attractions are sometimes ridiculous and sometimes surprisingly fascinating. The miles of endless corn fields remind us of how much work it is to grow the products we eat and use every day. The barren deserts are beautiful as are the swamps and forests. The view from a plane window can be amazing, but you’ll never appreciate the purple mountains majesty as much as you do when you have to drive over them on a tiny country road. The journey is always worthwhile.
We might need to rush to the places we are going, but let’s not spend our whole life rushing from one place to another. There is so much we can learn as we take our time going from place to place, stopping to see the beauty and the ridiculous, getting through the troubling moments and moving on, seeing old friends and meeting new people. On each journey we create new stories to tell. Life is too short for us to miss the opportunities to experience everything about God’s creation. So, even though you probably have to rush at times, be sure to slow down and enjoy the world in which you live, after all, getting to wherever you are going is half the fun.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 14, 2013, Eighth Sunday After Pentecost: Leviticus (18:1-5) 19:9-18; Psalm 41; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
“Mine ordinances shall ye do, and my statutes shall ye keep, to walk therein: I am Jehovah your God.” Leviticus 18:4, ASV
We tend to shy away from the Old Testament Laws because we know that we cannot uphold that which God has commanded. We know that God’s grace is greater than our failure and that His Gospel has provided for our forgiveness. Yet, we are given both Law and Gospel for a reason, and it is good to read texts like this one from Leviticus once in a while. The commands which we see in the text have everything to do with loving our neighbor. And there’s no doubt that Jesus commanded that from us.
The lessons of the Old Testament were not set aside or forgotten; they were built upon and surpassed by the words and actions of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are called to be like Christ, to treat our neighbors with love and do what is best for them. Jesus said it wasn’t enough to keep from doing murder, we should not even be angry. It was not enough to keep from adultery; we should be faithful in every way, avoiding even lust. Though Jesus questioned the manner by which the leaders were enforcing the Law, He never made it easier for us to satisfy our flesh. He called His people to live as God intended: in His light, and love, and grace.
The religious leaders had twisted God’s instructions into a set of rules that led them down a path further from God rather than closer to Him. In Leviticus, we are instructed to take care of the poor and the foreigner by ensuring that they receive a portion of the harvest. We should not steal, lie or swear. It is against God’s purpose for our life to oppress our neighbor or cheat those who work for us. We should not take advantage of our neighbors, especially caring for those who are handicapped in some way whether physically or something else. We should not favor anyone, neither the poor nor the rich, but treat all people with justice and respect. We should not gossip or accuse an innocent neighbor.
The Leviticus text reminds us not to hate our neighbor. Hate, in the Jewish understanding, is not like it is defined in our world today. Hate has an angry or violent connotation, but in Hebrew the word means something perhaps even stronger. We should not separate ourselves from our neighbor, which is what we do when we ignore the poor or gossip about our neighbors. We separate from our neighbors when we treat them with unrighteousness.
It is easy to say this. It is easy to talk about loving our neighbor. When Jesus asks us what the scriptures say about how to inherit eternal life, we easily say, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.” But, like the lawyer, we want to justify our actions and we ask, “And who is my neighbor?”
According to the understanding of those religious leaders, there were people who they should hate, people from whom they should be separated: the sick, foreigners, the grieving, and women at certain times of the month. The rules set them apart to keep them clean, to make them right before God. If they touched someone who was unclean, then they could not do the work they were called to do. That’s what was probably happening with the priest and Levite in Jesus’ story.
The priest and the Levite did not do anything wrong according to the Law. As a matter of fact, they were doing exactly what they believed was commanded in the Law. It may have even been difficult for them to pass by, because I believe even the hardest hearts can have compassion. But, they were to remain clean and helping the beaten and dying man meant becoming unclean. They could not serve God if they became unclean. They did not pass by because they had no compassion. They passed by because they had interpreted God's Law to mean that they could not risk their holy position and the people of Israel for the sake of one dying man. Though it is possible they were looking at the situation from a self-concerned point of view, they might have even been thinking about the bigger picture. Mercy for the one would mean that they could not provide mercy for the masses.
Jesus chose the characters on purpose: a priest, a Levite and a Samaritan. The requirements for the priest and Levite to remain active in their jobs made it impossible for them to do any good for the beaten man and the Samaritan was as far from acceptable as Jesus could get. Jesus’ point was not to lift up the Samaritan and make it as if he were the better man, but to show the lawyer that God sees not the sacrifices but the mercy we share with those in need.
The lawyer wanted to justify himself and he thought he knew who God deemed his neighbor. The lawyer knew the law and knew that the law separated God’s people from foreigners and other outcasts. Yet, Jesus told him that our neighbor is the one who is in need, no matter what it might mean for us. The Samaritan was willing to give above and beyond the call of duty, even to the point of making a covenant with an innkeeper so that the man would be treated with mercy.
We also try to justify ourselves when it comes to our relationships with our neighbors. Does any farmer actually leave the corners of the field unharvested for the sake of the poor and the foreigner? As a matter of fact, many farmers post No Trespassing signs making it dangerous for someone to reap that which might be left behind.
How about this one: the text from Leviticus says, “The wages of a hired servant shall not abide with thee all night until the morning.” I have no doubt that most of us do not get paid daily for the work that we do. As a matter of fact, many employers have gone to bi-weekly or even monthly paychecks. It is certainly cheaper to write one or two checks a month, and it is easier to keep the books. I don’t think God is looking down upon all those businesses that have established this way of paying their employees, as long as they are being faithful to the promise of pay.
However, I’ve seen many cases on those television court shows about people who refused to pay those who had done work for them. Whether it is someone hired to do some construction work or a person hired for some service at an event, many defendants decide sometime after the work that they don’t deserve the money which was contracted. They come up with a thousand excuses. “The person did not do what I told them to do.” “The food was terrible.” “My car stopped working after they fixed it.” In the end, the judge usually pulls the whole story. The instructions were never really clear. The food was actually very good but the bride was late and it sat too long in the warming trays. The car didn’t stop working until four months later. The work of the employee might have something to do with the problems, but not so much that they shouldn’t be paid at all for their work. The judge usually does a little “rough justice” and gives the employee some if not all of their contracted payment.
The lawyer was right about what the scriptures say, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.” This is the life we are called and gifted to live. But it isn’t easy, especially in a world where self is raised above neighbor. It is hard enough to keep God in His place, but how do we really love our neighbor as we love ourselves, especially when the world says we can expect our every desire to be satisfied?
The point of this Gospel reading is that we are to love God and our neighbor with everything, even if we have to sacrifice something of ourselves. The focus is the heart, which was considered the center of a person’s whole being. The soul, strength and mind describe the whole person: spirit, flesh and intellect, all centered in the heart. When we consider people from the point of view that they deserve our whole beings, then we will treat that way. But if we consider people from the point of view that we should meet our own needs first, then we’ll miss out on the opportunities to really love our neighbor.
God’s Law was created to guard, guide and protect mankind. Disobedience will mean severe consequences, not because God punishes the doer but because His law was made for our best interests. Neither will we be rewarded for obedience, except in the knowledge that we have done what is right. And this is where we often fail. We become proud over our obedience, giving ourselves that pat on the back for our ability to be good. In this state of mind, righteousness is something to be achieved and faith is dependent on human will. The priest and the Levite were obedient, and they were proud to stay clean for the sake of their work, but they missed serving God in a way that would truly make a difference for the beaten man lying at the side of the road. They were unwilling to give up any part of themselves for the sake of another.
Our second lesson is from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. He begins by commending them for their faith. He reminds them of the Word they heard and the lessons they learned about God’s kingdom. Paul’s letter lifts up the faith of the people in Colossae, but not by thanking them for being faithful. He gives all the credit to the One who deserves it—God. He thanks God for their faith, their love and their hope. He prays that God will continue to fill them with knowledge of Christ and keep them worthy to walk with the Lord.
Unfortunately, though they believed the Gospel they’d been taught, others had joined their community with a different Gospel. False teachings had become part of the message they were sharing. Ritualistic requirements, mandatory self-denial, angel worship, diminution of Christ, special knowledge and reliance on human wisdom (both Jewish and Gnostic) were not only becoming acceptable among the Christians, these ideas were becoming the norm. Paul was concerned that the message of Christ was being lost to the fallible human message that was being integrated into the Gospel. Paul puts the focus back where it belongs, not on human reason but with Jesus, reminding the people of Colossae that Christ is supreme; it is by Him, through Him and for Him that we are saved.
Paul writes, “For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray and make request for you, that ye may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to walk worthily of the Lord unto all pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God…” Though Paul certainly does focus on the grace of God that calls us into a relationship with Jesus, there is a place for the Law to regulate the life we live. Paul prays that they will be able to recognize God’s will and do the things that will please Him.
Which pleased God in today’s story? Was it the priest and Levite who walked away from someone in need to keep themselves clean according to the Law? Or was it the Samaritan who sacrificed his time and his resources for the sake of someone in need? Our works will never save the world; Christ came to save us. But He saved us for a purpose, and that is to continue His work in the world. That means living like we love God and love our neighbor. It is not enough to say we do, our lives should manifest that love in tangible ways that make a difference in the lives of those we meet. That life will not only help our neighbor, but we’ll find that we are blessed by it.
The psalmist writes, “Blessed is he that considereth the poor: Jehovah will deliver him in the day of evil.” We like the sound of that, but we know that it doesn’t mean that we will never suffer. We will get sick. We will be hurt by other people. We will experience hardship. God doesn’t promise that our life will be happy all the time. He promises we will be blessed.
I like the way The Message has translated the first few verses of this psalm. “Dignify those who are down on their luck; you’ll feel good—that’s what God does. God looks after us all, makes us robust with life—Lucky to be in the land, we’re free from enemy worries. Whenever we’re sick and in bed, God becomes our nurse, nurses us back to health.” Now, I know that I tend to shy away from the idea of ‘feeling good’ about the things that we do, but only because that should not be our motivation. Our motivation is to glorify God. But the icing on the cake, so to speak, is that we do feel good when we help someone in need. We are blessed to be a blessing, and then we are blessed when we are a blessing.
The lawyer knew what it took to live as God intended human beings to live. He knew that all the laws were summarized in just two: love God and love neighbor. What he didn’t really want to know is that our neighbor is anyone who needs our help. He wanted to be able to offer good excuses for ignoring the needs of those neighbors who do not fit into his world. He wanted Jesus to justify his failure to respond with mercy and grace.
How many opportunities do we miss because we are caught up in our own selfish pursuits? How often do we justify our failure because we think that helping will make us unable to serve God according to our understanding? Do we walk to the other side of the street because we are afraid of being made unclean, when God has provided us an opportunity to show mercy despite the cost? We shouldn’t ignore those opportunities, in them we will find great blessing.
“Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28, ASV
There are often stories on the news that just want to make you say, “Huh?” They cause you to shake your head or “face palm,” as my son has done often. I’ve heard too many stories of stupid criminals, or people who make stupid choices or peculiar claims. There are websites filled with these stories, including items about conspiracy theories, zombies and other paranormal entities, bizarre world records, relationships gone wrong or even right but just plain odd.
I read a story yesterday that not only made me shake my head and face palm, but it reminded me why it is good to be obedient to God’s Word. Following the commands of God can actually protect us from evil that might befall us. The story was about a man whose neighbors asked to use his pool. The woman asked her husband to return to their home to get her cigarettes and when he was gone asked the man if she could skinny dip. He agreed, and then watched as she swam naked in his pool, amused by her. Meanwhile, the husband did not actually return to their home. He spent twenty minutes emptying the man’s house of more than a thousand dollars worth of stuff, including jewelry and a handgun.
The man may have thought there was nothing wrong with watching the woman in his pool; after all she invited herself into his life by asking permission to do it. However, Jesus tells us that the man who lusts after a woman has committed adultery in His heart. The man learned the hard way that his lust was dangerous to his own person, but that’s not Jesus’ biggest concern. Lust leads to adultery, just as other sins lead to bigger sins. Covetousness leads to theft, anger leads to violence. When we follow our earthly passions like lust, covetousness and anger, we find ourselves bound to the flesh instead of following the God who offers the greater blessings. The man may have enjoyed those twenty minutes, but it made his life far more difficult in the end. And if he was a Christian, his actions did not glorify God.
The consequences of our own lust or greed or anger might not be discovered so easily, but we will suffer consequences, too, especially if we allow even the seemingly harmless inner feelings to affect the way we act. We might suffer in a tangible way, but certainly our sinful thoughts and behavior do not glorify God. And though God has forgiven us those sins of our hearts, our bondage to sin can lead us away from God’s grace into a life that focuses on the satisfaction of our inner desires.
“Let not your heart be troubled: believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I come again, and will receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. And whither I go, ye know the way.” John 14:1-4, ASV
A few months ago, Reader’s Digest published a list of the 100 Most Trusted People in America. The list included many familiar names, but was obviously weighted toward those who are most visible in our culture. The current issue has a letter to the editor about the list, including a breakdown of the types of people we trust. The writer noticed that in that list there were few politicians, most notably no governors or members of congress. He writes, “Add up the actors (12), directors (5), TV personalities (28), and athletes (6), and that’s 51 people, which means that more than half of those on the list put on a show for the public.”
Our conclusions about this number are completely different. The writer of the letter seems to think that this list heavily weighted toward show makers should be a lesson to “drab politicians.” I, on the other hand, question the whole idea of trusting a person whose job it is to make us believe what they want us to believe. Some of those actors, directors and other public personalities might just be exactly what we think they are, and they might truly be the most trustworthy people we know. However, we have to remember that they all have handlers: publicists and managers that work very hard to establish a credible and lovable persona.
At least a few of the names on the list have been found to be untrustworthy in real life, having been caught in untruths and irresponsible behaviors. These blunders are either justified or forgiven and forgotten. Perhaps that is the right thing to do, but can someone who has been untrustworthy be considered one of the most trustworthy people when there are others who deserve the recognition and our trust?
The lesson, to me, rather than calling the politicians to become more like show makers with publicists and managers to make them look better and more trustworthy, is that we should be more careful about who we trust. Is someone who makes their living pretending to be someone they aren’t or people who create false worlds worthy to follow as leaders in real life? Though they are certainly welcome to their opinions and they might have informed and intelligent opinions, are they the ones we should really trust to lead us? Do we really know them? Is what we see in their public persona true? Do we know that their public proclamations are the product of their own knowledge and experience, or are they created to build on their image? Popularity does not make one trustworthy. Trust should be based on more than cultural predominance and perception.
These 100 people may be trustworthy when it comes to the mundane issues of life and our world. The lesson is important for us as Christians. Who do we trust? There is good reason to trust human beings and look to them for leadership, but we must take care to follow those who will lead us down a right path. There is one, however, who is always worthy of our trust. Jesus will always lead us toward God, and the path to God is always the right path. He is worthy not only of our trust, but He is the source of our faith.
The two words are often used interchangeably, but they are different. Faith is something we have, it is a noun. Faith is knowledge and belief; it is a gift given to us by God. Faith leads us to trust, which is a verb. Trust is what we do when we believe in God. Perhaps the problem we have when it comes to trusting those public figures is that we have confused faith with trust. We believe what they say, and so we trust them. Perhaps the real question might be whether or not they are worthy of faith?
“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.” Romans 12:1-2, ASV
The big news for today is that the Twinkie has returned to store shelves. Hostess went out of business several months ago, which left the shelves bare. There were no more Twinkies or Ho Hos, which made a lot of people very sad. It even seemed as though the world were coming to an end, and I think a lot of people who never even bought Twinkies were upset. Another company was able to take over the factories and restore production of the sweet treats, so now people can once again buy them. The anchors on the early morning news I watch made a big deal this morning about having a box of Twinkies and they played on the expectation until the right moment when they could open it and eat one.
I’m not really sure what was so important about that moment; it is like eating a Twinkie is a miraculous thing and that heaven has come to earth because Twinkies are available again. To be honest, I didn’t even miss the Twinkie. I like Ho Hos, so I might buy some when I see them in the store, but I never really liked Twinkies. As a matter of fact, when Hostess products disappeared from the shelves, the shopkeepers were able to replace that product with Tastykakes, which I do like. I’m not sure what will happen now that the stores carry both companies, but I suspect that the shelf space for my favorites will go down because they have to make room for the return of this most product that seems so popular that even has news anchors focused on it.
I didn’t really like Twinkies. They were too sweet, with a flavor that didn’t taste real to me. I laughed because it didn’t take very long for Tastykake to create a similar product. I liked that one a little bit, but not much. Despite my dislike of the old Twinkies and even the recreation by another company, I have to admit that I can’t help but wonder if I should buy some the next time I go to the store. Reports have said that the new Twinkies are a little different. Should I buy them to find out if they are better? I know the answer is “No,” but it is hard to resist the temptation. After all, the whole world is celebrating the miraculous return of this heavenly treat!
We live in a world where we are bombarded by information, often the same information over and over again. It doesn’t take very long before that information becomes part of our whole being. A lie becomes truth if you hear it enough times. How many people are considered heroes not because they’ve actually done something heroic, but because enough people have said that they are? It is far easier to conform to the world than to be transformed by the faith that gives us true life, especially in a world where there is persecution for not conforming.
God has not saved us so that we’ll fall for the temptations of the world. He has saved us and continues to transform us daily to be like Christ. We don’t need to believe everything we hear, even if we hear it a thousand times. We need to believe in God and His Word. There might not be anything wrong with buying a box of Twinkies the next time I go to the grocery store, but I do not have to buy one just because the rest of the world is doing so. God calls us to something better, something extraordinary, something perfect.
“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. For even as we have many members in one body, and all the members have not the same office: so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and severally members one of another. And having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of our faith; or ministry, let us give ourselves to our ministry; or he that teacheth, to his teaching; or he that exhorteth, to his exhorting: he that giveth, let him do it with liberality; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness.” Romans 12:3-8
Yesterday we talked about how we, as Christians, should not conform to the world. I used a frivolous example (Twinkies) to make a very important point. The world offers many things that are not good for us or according to God’s will and purpose for our life, and the world makes those things seem to be the most important things in the world. But we, as saved and gifted children of our Father in Heaven, are called to live differently. We are called to a life of following Jesus, becoming like Him in every way. While that might include avoiding the Hostess aisle at the grocery store, it is more important to ensure that we are not being led by the wrong guide. We should not fall for the tricks and hold true to the Word of God.
But we can’t do it alone. We need others to help us stay on the path. Some Christians have suggested that they do not need a community of believers to have strong faith. They say that they can worship God as well on a mountain as they can from a pew in a church. There might be some power to the private worship of a believer; Jesus certainly spent many hours in prayer apart from the community of faith. But even for Jesus, that private prayer was not enough. He went to the Temple and to the synagogues. He joined with His disciples in worship around the dinner table and in the Sabbath gatherings. He spent time with the disciples in study of the scriptures. He looked to them for strength, encouragement and for everything He needed to satisfy His physical needs. Yes, Jesus the man needed other men and women during His time on earth.
So why do we think we can go it alone? Why do we think that we have everything we need to avoid and reject the temptations of this world? Paul writes, “Do not think more highly of himself than he ought. Think soberly, as God has dealt each man a measure of faith.” We are given a measure of faith, not enough faith to overcome everything. Jesus, the perfect man who had the advantage of being God as well, looked to the men and women who had gathered around Him for help. They weren’t always right, and Jesus did not follow men’s guidance when it went against God’s Will. But He knew the advantages and necessity of living in community.
We need each other because we do not have all the gifts on our own. Each person is given certain gifts according to God’s Will. We each have a place in the whole Kingdom of God. We are all necessary. Just as we need others, others need us. When we try to face the world alone, we not only reject the gifts God has provided for us through others, we reject His calling for us to use our gifts for the sake of the Church. It might be hard for us as individuals to face the temptations of this world, but we can face it together with the community of faith which God has created on earth. He has given us to each other to hold us up, to give us strength, to provide for our needs, to correct and rebuke when necessary. He has given the Church all the gifts necessary and He has drawn us together into one body to meet the needs of each believer. May we all live in the Kingdom and use our gifts in a way that will not only keep us on the path to Christ-likeness, but will help our brothers and sisters in Christ do the same.
Sunday, July 21, 2013, Ninth Sunday After Pentecost: Genesis 18:1-10a (10b-14); Psalm 27:(1-6) 7-14; Colossians 1:21-29; Luke 10:38-42
“When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; My heart said unto thee, Thy face, Jehovah, will I seek.” Psalm 27:8, ASV
How do we respond to the presence of God and His Word?
Abraham and Sarah were semi-nomadic; they lived in temporary dwellings and moved with their livestock, spending limited time in one place during which they might plant and grow some crops. They were people of some means, large flocks and even servants, but they had no home except the tents they carried from place to place. This lifestyle was more common in Abraham’s day; it was a way of life that is different than what we experience today.
One thing that was vital was hospitality. The roads were dangerous, and there was not a McDonalds on every corner. Some travelers might go for days without being able to access fresh water or food. The nomads or semi-nomads settled, even briefly, in places where good water was available to take care of their own needs and the needs of their animals. Travelers passing by were always welcome into the camps, and received with grace and hospitality. As we read the text in today’s Old Testament lesson, we know that God was in their midst; this is said to be a pre-incarnation appearance of the Christ. We might think that this is why Abraham went over the top to welcome the guests. Yet, this is how he would have treated any passersby.
Would you go to such trouble if someone came knocking at your door?
I like to entertain. I like to plan and prepare for parties or smaller gatherings and I think I’m a pretty good hostess. No one leaves my home hungry; I usually have a refrigerator full of leftovers. They rarely leave empty-handed, as I usually have some sort of favor to give away and many are sent home with food. Overnight guests are greeted with a comfortable room and a vase full of fresh flowers. I go a little crazy getting things ready for my guests, but I try to do as much as possible before they arrive so that I can focus on them rather than on the task of serving them.
However, it is impossible to be ready for unexpected guests! I’m more than willing to receive those guests, but I’m not sure I’d be as good a hostess as Abraham was for these strangers. I don’t know if any of us would be. Are we ready to prepare a full meal if someone knocked on our door without notice? The meal Abraham served wasn’t whipped up in minutes. They killed a lamb; the process from field to table may have taken hours. I’m sure I wouldn’t roast a lamb for someone who drops by unexpectedly. I have to admit that sometimes I even forget to offer them a drink.
But it was second nature to the people in Abraham’s day. Abraham would not let the men leave until he served them a meal. Was it because he knew he was receiving the LORD? Perhaps, but I think he would have received any strangers with the same grace; and in his kindness, Abraham discovered that his guests were something special. I wonder how many times we miss the opportunities to serve the Lord because we don’t know how to handle the unexpected. Abraham received the LORD by offering his best.
Now, Sarah, might not have been quite so grace-filled. She made cakes just as Abraham asked, and probably did far more than that, and she was busy in the tent the whole time. We don’t see her in the presence of her guests. We have to remember that both Abraham and Sarah were quite old at this point, well beyond the normal lifespan of the time, and even old in our society. She was probably tired and she may have been depressed. After all, what did she have to show for her life? She had no children, no grandchildren. It is likely that the relationship between Hagar and Sarah was strained, and Ishmael’s presence was a constant reminder of her failure.
Though she was probably not invited to talk with the men, it seems odd that she never even greeted them. But she was aware of her guests, and worked to do her part to make them feel welcome. She made cakes and listened to the conversation from behind the tent flaps. The text reads, “And they said unto him, Where is Sarah thy wife? And he said, Behold, in the tent.” They were interested in Sarah, and knew she was in the camp. Perhaps they even knew why she was hiding.
“And he said, I will certainly return unto thee when the season cometh round; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard in the tent door, which was behind him.” How would you respond so something this ridiculous? I would definitely laugh out loud if someone came and told me I was pregnant. Though it is highly unlikely for me at this point, it is not biologically completely out of the question. I certainly hope it will it will be by the time I reach my late 80’s. Sarah responded to this ridiculous suggestion by “laughing within herself.” It was a private laugh, not one of joy or frivolity. It was a laugh of sadness and grief. She asked herself, “After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” It almost seemed cruel: after she went to all that trouble to serve the men, they responded by teasing her. She was so caught off guard by the LORD’s Word that she even denied laughing.
God’s Word is not cruel, but it doesn’t always make sense, and so we often receive it with skepticism and doubt. Sarah’s pain was so deep that she could not see that that Lord had come to reveal that she would see the promise of children fulfilled within the year. She laughed because it was unbelievable. She’d let go of the promise a long time ago. Sarah received the LORD with uncertainty and fear.
I wonder if Mary and Martha knew that Jesus was coming or if He dropped in unexpectedly. Martha, like Abraham, set out to prepare a feast for her guests. Like Sarah, she was busy in the kitchen; she was trying to meet the physical needs of a large crowd. She knew it was her responsibility to provide hospitality to those who came through her door, and she went right to work. It was a daunting task; if you have ever tried to cook for more than a dozen people, you know that it is hectic and exhausting. There are a million things to do, and it all would get done so much better if there were more hands in the kitchen.
But Mary found a spot at the feet of Jesus, listening to His stories and learning about the Kingdom of God. I can identify with Martha; I have had my own martyr moments. That’s what I call those times when it seems like I’m doing all the work and everyone around me is ignoring my cries for help. What I don’t realize that I don’t always ask for help. I get caught up in my aggravation and stress out over every little detail, convincing myself that if I don’t do it, it will never get done. At that point I have already convinced myself that it has to get done or the event won’t be perfect. That’s usually the problem: I put too much pressure on myself and worry about insignificant things. Did we really need to have hand-rolled scrolls with tiny bows for the program? Was it necessary for the green beans to be all the same length? Did I really need to change the color of the table linens because the flowers were a slight shade off?
(BTW, those weren’t real examples of stresses that I’ve experienced in the past, but I assure you that some of them have been as absurd.)
Martha was worried because she wanted everything to be perfect, and it seemed as though no one cared enough to help. Even Mary, who was jointly responsible for receiving Jesus, was ignoring her pleas for help. Did she really ask? Or did she grumble to herself in the kitchen until she was so angry that she took her problem to Jesus? She doesn’t ask Mary; she tells Jesus to command her to help.
I have been in many conversations about this text that inevitably ends up commiserating with Martha. We hostess types understand. We identify with her. We know that the work has to be done. One member of our study asked, “What would those men say if there was no food for dinner?” We laugh and we always focus on the reality that Martha must work if they will eat. But what I have noticed in this text is that Jesus doesn’t tell her she shouldn’t feed them, but that she shouldn’t worry about so many things. Jesus was happy to eat a few kernels of wheat walking through a field; He didn’t need a feast with ironed linens and favors. After all, He can do amazing things with a few loaves of bread and some fish.
“But the Lord answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: for Mary hath chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Martha’s problem is not that she needs help. What she needs is peace. This is not a lesson to justify ignoring the needs of our guests; it is about setting the proper priorities. Martha was anxious and worried; Jesus welcomed her service but wished she would take time to enjoy her guests.
I think it is important to consider this, too. Many women, perhaps like Sarah, prefer to be in the kitchen. They feel needed there, and wanted. Martha lived in a time when women were not respected for their minds and were not encouraged to pursue intellectual discussions. The women knew the scriptures as it applied to their lives, and they were responsible for teaching their children, but they didn’t study the scriptures or talk about theological ideas. Now, Jesus had women among His disciples, so it was not that He pushed her into the kitchen. But there is a mindset, even today, that those conversations belong among the men and that women should just listen from a distance.
I once did a workshop for a women’s group about spiritual gifts. We did spiritual gifts assessments at the end of the workshop and many women were surprised to discover that they had gifts like evangelism, preaching and teaching. In the end, however, those women refused to see those gifts in their own lives. They believed they belong in the kitchen. “Hospitality is my gift,” they said.
It must have been difficult for Martha to see Mary so comfortable in the presence of those men, learning about God. Martha’s cry for help, “Bid her therefore that she help me,” is her response to her fear that Mary was putting her nose into business that should not have concerned her. But Jesus told Martha that it is ok. “Mary hath chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Mary received the LORD with faith. Martha received Him with worry.
How do we receive the LORD when He comes into our presence? He doesn’t want us to hide in the kitchen, or worry that everything isn’t perfect. He wants us to give Him everything, including our time and our faith. He wants us to believe His Word and to live in His promises, knowing that He is faithful. We might identify with Sarah and Martha, responding to Him with fear and worry, but He wants us to be at peace. There will be times when we have to work hard to honor Him, but He wants us to live every moment with an attitude of peace. Even when things are hectic and out of control, peace will keep us focused on what really matters. It will help us let go of the things that really don’t matter so that we will provide for the needs of the world without fear or anger. Jesus doesn’t need us to serve Him. He wants us to enjoy Him.
All too often that is what happens to us. Every day we go out into the world in faith doing what God has called us to do: serve Him by loving our neighbor. However, sometimes our good works can become so self-centered because we think that we are the only ones who can accomplish the work. We set ourselves above those whom we are serving, acting as though the world would stop if we did not do our work. When we work with this attitude, however, we get burnt out and frustrated. We become distracted by the work, forgetting that God does not need us to do these things, forgetting that He comes to us with gifts so that we will take His grace into the world for His glory.
Jesus would have honored her servant heart if she had not been so worried and distracted about her work. He honored Mary not because she was particularly prayerful or studious, but because she had her eyes on Him. She recognized that Jesus was the Messiah and that He provides all that we need. Abraham and Martha were both meeting the needs of their guests, but the difference was in the way they were doing so. Abraham was focused on his guests, meeting their needs as they came. Travelers on the road would certainly need water to wash, food to eat and a cool place to rest. His attention never left his guests. Martha was more concerned with what she was doing than the ones for whom she was doing it. Her work became more important than the presence of Jesus.
Paul writes, “And you, being in time past alienated and enemies in your mind in your evil works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and without blemish and unreproveable before him…” The reason many people avoid being in the presence of God is because they feel they are unworthy. They think that there is some reason that they do not belong there. Sarah hid in the tent because she was old and without hope. She worried that she was to blame for her barrenness. How could she ever show her face to the world?
Martha may not have felt herself to be unworthy to be with Jesus, but she saw her worth in her work. How could she stop serving and listen like Mary when there were still hungry people to feed and dishes to clean? We are all unworthy to be in God’s presence. We should all be afraid. But God invites us into His presence and has made us welcome by the blood of Jesus Christ. He makes us worthy by covering us with His righteousness. The promises and the lessons of Christ are given for all: men and women, Jew and Gentile, young and old. We are all invited to sit at the feet of Jesus so that we will become strong in faith and encouraged in our work. As we grow closer to Him, we will face all our days with peace.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to be Paul? The letter to the Colossians was written from prison. Paul was being persecuted for his faith and for his bold proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He speaks of suffering; there are few who have suffered as much for the Church as Paul. And yet he continued in the work of the Church because he faced the difficulty with an attitude of peace. He was happy to suffer if it meant that the Gospel would make a difference. Paul knew he was given a gift and a calling, and he was not only willing to do the work, but to be at peace in the good times as well as the bad times. He had his eyes on Jesus.
We have nothing to fear. We have no reason to worry. The world might be upside down. We might feel like we are doing everything alone. We might think that there’s too much to accomplish and not enough time to do so, but if we keep our eyes on Jesus we’ll find that we can accomplish everything He has ordained for us to do. See, with our eyes on Jesus, we’ll recognize what is important and what we can let go. With an attitude of peace we will know what really matters in every situation.
How do we respond to the presence of God and His Word?
God calls us to look to Him. The psalmist writes, “When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; My heart said unto thee, Thy face, Jehovah, will I seek.” Mary chose the good part. That doesn’t make Mary better than Martha; it simply means that Mary has found peace in the presence of God. She has work to do, too, but she’ll approach it without fear or worry because she’s spent time at the feet of Jesus.
I was going through some papers today looking for a resource I needed for a project, and I found a number of old stories and poems that inspired me once upon a time. I decided that for today’s Word, I would use one of those. I apologize for not crediting this; I don’t have the original source.
Consider the Themes of the Sixty-Six Books:
“I exhort therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, be made for all men; for kings and all that are in high place; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who would have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, one mediator also between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all; the testimony to be borne in its own times; whereunto I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I speak the truth, I lie not), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” 1 Timothy 2:1-7, ASV
We say prayers for a lot of reasons. I think, perhaps, the most prayers are said to ask God for help. These prayers of supplication (when we pray for ourselves) and intercession (when we pray for others) address the issues and experiences that concern us, like our health, jobs, and relationships. We ask Him to intercede in the world so that life will be a little better.
I think the next most common type of prayer is that of thanksgiving. We recognize that our blessings are given by God’s hand, especially when we see the answers to those prayers of supplication and intercession. I’m not sure we are very good at praying about our blessings when we are comfortable, but we certainly do thank God when His hand is obvious in our lives.
I wonder, however, how many of us pray on a regular basis for the salvation of those in the world who have not yet heard the good news. This is not about praying that our enemies will fail at their evil deeds, but that God will reveal to them the wonder of His grace and mercy. “The Message” translates it this way, “He wants not only us but everyone saved, you know, everyone to get to know the truthwe’ve learned: that there’s one God and only one, and one Priest-Mediator between God and us—Jesus, who offered himself in exchange for everyone held captive by sin, to set them all free.:
Is everyone saved? No, not today, but God wants everyone to be saved. He wants to welcome all men into His Kingdom and into His forgiveness. He wants to have mercy on those people whom we consider outside His grace. He wants to shine His light on the darkness of their lives. He wants to transform them into children, just like us. And most of all, He wants us to pray for them.
If we pray for someone, especially someone who is our enemy, and even more so someone that we do not consider worthy of God’s grace, we will see them through God’s eyes, as yet another person that He wants to save. If we pray for them, God will transform us into people willing to share the Gospel message with them, even if we are afraid. We know that our enemies do not want to listen; we know that those lost in darkness do not even know they need to be saved. Our natural response is to let them wallow in their own refusal to receive God’s forgiveness.
But Paul understands that his job is to share that Gospel message with all men, and he encourages us to do the same. But it all starts with prayer. “First of all…” he says. He knows that we can’t do anything without first kneeling before His throne, especially this most important task. In that posture we are humbled to recognize that we were once among those whom God wished to see saved, but when we were enemies someone prayed and spoke the Gospel to us, too. How can we ignore that God loves them and desires them to be a part of His Kingdom.
So today, let us begin to pray for the unsaved and ask God to guide us to speak His light and forgiveness into their life. Perhaps one day soon they will no longer be enemies, but will be brothers and sisters in Christ, but that will never happen if we do not begin with prayer.
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24-25, ASV
There is an article in this month’s Reader’s Digest about a group of friends. These friends went to college together in Spokane, Washington, and they had an ongoing game of tag during their college years. It didn’t matter when or where or how, but the person who was “It” could tag the other players at anytime. When the time came for the group to graduate, everyone wanted to suspend the game except one: the guy who was “It.” So, the group decided to continue the game. The established ground rules; they even drew up a contract. They have been playing since 1982.
The rules are as follows: No tag-backs and the person who is “It” must clearly identify themselves as being “It.” Whoever is “It” at midnight on the last day of February is “It” until the next February 1st. These men, all of whom are successful professionals including a Catholic priest, lead normal lives for eleven months out of the year, with jobs and families. But beginning February 1st, their families and co-workers never know what might happen. Their stories are so funny that a movie starring Jack Black and Will Ferrell about their adventures is currently under development.
These guys are willing to fly out of their way to tag one of the others. They use wives and co-workers to set each other up. They dress in costume, hide in restrooms, and even have names for some of their more creative tactics. They even work together to tag unsuspecting brothers. They go to extremes to keep the game going and to keep from being the one stuck on the last day of February as “It.”
Here’s just one of the many stories quoted from the article, “Re:you-must-admit-you’re-It contract rule? It can’t always be trusted. One time, Konesky and Tombari, roommates in San Jose, California, were in their kitchen together before leaving for work. Something made Tombari as Konesky if he was It. Konesky replied, honestly, that he wasn’t. They agreed to meet for lunch later that day. Seeing a good opportunity to trick Tombari, Konesky hopped a flight to Los Angeles and met Caferro, who was It, at the airport. Caferro tagged Konesky, who returned immediately to San Jose. Then he met Tombari for lunch and tagged him.”
This story makes these guys sound like children in suits and maybe they are. But in the end there is something really wonderful about this group: they have remained friends for more than thirty years. And they manage to get together on a regular basis. In the article, the author says, “OK, maybe they are a bunch of overgrown kids running around shouting ‘Tag! You’re It!’ But they are also successful professionals, businessmen and spiritual leaders who have taken this childhood game to a whole other level by combining a Peter Pan-ish I’ll-never-grow-up mind-set with the money and wherewithal to pull off the ridiculous. Along the way, the guys have laughed, plotted, grown closer, and kept their inner child well nurtured.” The game has a purpose.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that our Christian fellowship has a purpose: we meet together for encouragement and to be spurred on. We support one other. As we gather together we laugh, plot, grow closer and keep our inner children of God well nurtured. When God saves us, he puts us in a community of his children so that we can have fellowship with one another. True fellowship has the power to revolutionize lives and change the world. This is not just about some superficial love, but about companionship where we are honest with each other and ourselves, we share our deepest thoughts, we are willing to be vulnerable and to accept the help of others. It is a place where the love of God flows. We shoulder each other’s burdens. We are stronger as one body than we are as individuals, and we have a responsibility to be part of each other’s lives.
“And you did he make alive, when ye were dead through your trespasses and sins, wherein ye once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience; among whom we also all once lived in the lust of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest:-- but God, being rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace have ye been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus: for by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:1-10, ASV
Norman Rockwell is a beloved American artist. His homey, comfortable pictures of idyllic life make us yearn for a simpler life. His Saturday Evening Post pictures were always themed with happy events at the request of the magazine because they wanted to give the American people hope in times of difficulty. Many of those paintings were created through the World Wars and all that went along with that time in our history. Yet, he created eventually many paintings for Look Magazine, which gave him more freedom to address the issues of the day. He painted pictures that represented moments from the civil rights movement, some of which were sad and disturbing.
As an artist and illustrator, Norman Rockwell had a gift for bringing life to his characters. There is more truth to that statement than I ever realized. Rockwell didn’t paint people, or moments, he painted stories, and his process was much like the creation of a movie. I recently attended an exhibit at a local museum that displayed not only his work, but also his process. It was fascinating. I’ve admired his ability to paint with such incredible detail, but I would never have guessed how much he put into his work. We often think that artists like Rockwell are so gifted that they can just sit down at a canvas and create. Some are like that, but Norman put far more into the creation of a painting than just paintbrush to canvas.
Norman Rockwell was an artist and illustrator, but he was also a director. His paintings all began as a thought in his head, but before even touching a canvas, he created ‘storyboards’ using photography. He used models, in the beginning professionals, but eventually real people, and photographed them as he saw them in his thoughts. If he wanted people in a car, he photographed people in his studio as if they were in a car. He didn’t photograph them in a car because he wanted to see how their whole body would be positioned, even though the viewer would never see that in the painting.
He often took a hundred or more photographs for just one painting, a feat much more difficult in the early days of his work. He rarely took his own pictures, paying a photographer to do so, but he was completely involved in the process, “directing” the photos as a movie director might direct a movie. He positioned the models, showed them the look he wanted on their face, searched for the exact right clothes, props and locations. He invented ways to make the models look like they were doing something without causing them to have to stand uncomfortably for long periods of time, especially important when he began using his friends and neighbors as models. If he wanted a girl to appear as though she were running, he would prop her feel on piles of books, have someone hold her pony tail and dress behind her as if they were blowing in the wind. The photos didn’t really matter; they weren’t for public display. They were used for information, so that his paintings would be as realistic as possible.
His next step was to transfer his images onto paper. Using a balopticon, which is a type of opaque projector, Rockwell projected his photographs onto a large sheet of paper. With this technique, he was able to control the size and placement of each individual person and prop to tell exactly the story in his head. In one photo, a boy was standing in front of a dresser and the boy was several inches taller. In the painting, however, Rockwell made the dresser tower over the boy, giving an entirely different perspective. As he drew each part onto the paper, he erased and adjusted the other parts so that they would appear to have been part of the same moment.
After he was certain that the parts were in place, he did color studies with paint. He often painted several different versions of the faces until he found the color combinations that he liked best. Every detail mattered. For instance, in the painting “The Art Critic,” Rockwell placed an artist nose to nose with a painting, with a magnifying glass so he can see how the artist created the image. The painting is of a woman who has a look on her face as if she is looking at him. To create the woman’s face, Rockwell took many photos of his model, each with a different facial expression. Then he painted numerous examples of the woman, using different expressions and different colors of paint until he discovered the perfect combination. A photo of Rockwell in his studio during the process of creating that one painting shows at least a dozen mock-ups of that face on his wall. Eventually he made a full size version of the painting on canvas, without the extraordinary detail, to make sure that all his color choices and placement was correct.
When he had everything figured out, he finally painted the story on the final canvas. To any of us, those mock-ups are exceptional art. As a matter of fact, the exhibit I visited had several of these on display and I liked them as much, if not more, than the actual paintings. They often looked like the work of the Impressionists, which is my favorite, because of the lack of detail and the incredible use of color. It was interesting to note that even in the transfer onto the final canvas, Rockwell often made changes. If an arm seemed out of place, he moved it to a better position. In the end he created an image that told a story that we seem to remember, even if it was an experience we did not have. They say a picture paints a thousand words, and I think that is very true of Rockwell’s art.
Now, there are those who create wonderful work in a matter of minutes. They have the gift of being able to sit in front of a canvas and put paint in all the right places so that it appears to be something not only recognizable, but incredibly beautiful. It is not necessary to put so much time, resources and energy to create a story on canvas. Both ways work, and neither one diminishes the creativity of the other.
But as I was wandering through the exhibit about Normal Rockwell, it brought to mind the reality that God is like an artist and that His work isn’t slapped together. Granted, there are some people who seem to become Christian at the spur of the moment, who come to faith in a sudden and overwhelming experience. But the journey of faith for most people is a slow and deliberate process. He transforms us by overcoming our sinfulness one step at a time. Even if we come to faith in some mountain top moment, God will continue to make us beautiful creatures, daily forgiving us of our sin and helping us become the beautiful Christians He has created us to be.
Sunday, July 28, 2013, Tenth Sunday After Pentecost: Genesis 18:(17-19) 20-33; Psalm 138; Colossians 2:6-15 [16-19]; Luke 11:1-13
“And it came to pass, as he was praying in a certain place, that when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, even as John also taught his disciples.” Luke 11:1, ASV
I make prayer beads. I make two different types of prayer beads which I use as gifts or occasionally sell at craft fairs. I’ve even created a pamphlet about prayer and how to use the beads. I use the gifts and craft fairs as an opportunity to talk about prayer and the devotional life. I see it as a ministry, another way to help Christians grow closer to God.
This ministry wasn’t received well the first time I took my beads to a church craft fair. Some of the ladies were offended by them. “We don’t do that.” “We don’t need those.” I explained that I came from the same denominational background and that we can indeed use them, but many of the ladies rejected me outright, not only refusing to buy the prayer beads, but ignoring the other products I had for sale.
I have found in the years that it is important to talk about how to pray with one another. Those conversations are often the same, with people talking about the times and places that they pray. Most families with children talk about prayer times at dinner and bedtime. I’ve heard (and told) stories about praying while driving in the car and while doing the dishes. There are always those who talk about praying all day long, as if God were always there.
It is good to teach our children to pray. The dinner table and nighttime prayers are a great way to bond with our children, to help them see how God has provided for our most basic needs. We use those times to pray with thanksgiving, to worship God and praise Him for His faithfulness. We use that time to raise our needs and concerns to Him. This is good.
It is also good to be prayerful throughout our day. God is always with us, so it makes sense to have conversations in those moments when our hands our moving but our mind is not engaged. Some of my best conversations with God have happened at the kitchen sink or behind the wheel. I have to admit that those prayers are often for safety, since it seems everyone on the roads these days are insane (I’m being a bit facetious!) but those are also quiet moments when I think about the world and my neighbor. I’m reminded of the sick every time I pass a hospital and about specific people when I see stores that sell things they like. I pray when I see emergency vehicles and school buses. A trip to the grocery store can be an awesome adventure in intercession as I see the needs of so many in the passing world. It is good to pray this way.
But is this enough? Is it enough to be in constant conversation with God, knowing that He is right beside us the whole way? While there are some people who find time away from the hustle and bustle of the world to spend time in quiet prayer and contemplation, most people pray on the go. We are too busy and we think that it is enough to recognize God’s daily presence in our lives and talk to Him as a friend who never leaves our side. We think it is ok to raise up a million prayers at the spur of every moment during our day. And yet, Jesus, who was God in flesh, managed to find time alone to pray. He knew He needed that time to focus solely and completely on the work of prayer. He knew that He had to stop doing so that He could not only speak to God, but could also hear what He has to say. Why do we think we can pray any better than Jesus?
And here’s something else to consider. If it is enough to be in constant conversation with the God who walks with us, why did the disciples, who truly did constantly walk and talk with Immanuel, ask Him to “teach us to pray.” Jesus knew, and the disciples knew, that a powerful prayer life was more than conversation with a friend who is by our side. It is a time to stop, to worship, to praise, to thank, to intercede, to listen, to contemplate God’s Word. We might be able to do all that at the kitchen sink or behind the wheel of our automobile, but is that really the kind of relationship we want to build with our Father? Doesn’t He deserve our undivided attention for at least a few minutes of our day?
And so we are encouraged to set aside time specifically for prayer. Make an appointment. Establish a place. Turn off any distractions. Use tools that help you keep focused. Prayer beads are just one type of tool that we can use during our prayer time to help us. I don’t know about you, but I have to admit that my mind often wanders when I’m praying. I begin focused and with a list of things I want to talk about with God, and I get a good start until I hear the ticking clock or the phone rings. I remember that I need to make a shopping list for later that afternoon and remind myself that I need to buy milk. I think about my kids and say a prayer for them, but then I think about how I haven’t heard from them in a few days. I hear a siren in the distance and I wonder what’s going on. That reminds me that I need to go to the post office. You see how it goes? Does any of this happen to you?
There may be no way of avoiding some of these mind wanderings, but we can use all the tools available to us to help keep us focused. It is said that the more of your body you get involved in any activity, the better you are able to focus and to retain what you’ve experienced. This is as true about prayer as it is any other activity. This is why prayer altars include candles and incense, beads, music, icons. Engaging all our senses helps us keep our focus on the task at hand: prayer.
And so, I encourage people to use something like prayer beads to enhance their prayer life. Of course, there are many who do not want to use such tools because they’ve seen others who have used them in a way that has no value. They become a crutch, the prayers become rote. That is not the fault of the beads; it is the person praying who must use these tools properly.
The Lord’s Prayer is another tool. Like the prayer beads, many refuse to use the prayer because it has become too familiar. “I’d rather speak to God from my heart.” They don’t want their prayers to be heartless. Sadly, the Lord’s Prayer as we’ve all been taught can become rote. It can become heartless. It can become empty words without understanding. This, again, is not a problem with the words as Jesus taught us, but with our own focus and attention on the conversation.
It is a useful tool for us to use, but in this text Jesus is giving us the themes of our prayers. We begin with God, first recognizing Him and submitting ourselves to His will. We ask God for what we need, and in this Jesus reminds us that we do not need anything beyond today. We ask for forgiveness and then we commit ourselves to living as forgiven people. Forgiven people understand that our sins against God are far worse than anything anyone has done to us and if God can forgive our debts, then we certainly can forgive the debts of others. Finally, we ask God to give us the strength to avoid the temptations of this world.
If our prayer time is limited, then these words help us to focus our prayers on the things that truly matter. There are a million particulars that we can pray about, and God certainly wants us to ask, but Jesus teaches us to pray about the root of faithful living: praise and thanksgiving, supplication, confession and absolution, sanctification.
He also teaches us to be persistent. After teaching the disciples the roots of prayer, He tells them a story. Now, the wording of this particular text is always a bit confusing to me. I have to read it several times for it to be clear. Jesus says, “Imagine that visitors arrive at your door in the middle of the night and you have nothing to give them.” Remember last week we learned how important it was to provide hospitality in those days? The people who were listening would have identified with this story. Jesus continues, “So, you go to your neighbor and knock on his door, begging for something to give your guests because you don’t even have a loaf of bread in your house.” He tells them that even though the neighbor will not get up to give you a loaf of bread because you are his friend, he will do so because you are cheeky enough to go to interrupt his sleep.
In this Jesus is saying, “Go ahead. Be cheeky. Call God Daddy and seek His grace. It’s ok. God will answer the door.”
The story from the Old Testament lesson sees this impudence carried out by Abraham. After feeding the LORD and His companions, Abraham walks them to the edge of his camp. They talk about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Some versions of the lectionary do not include verses 17-19, but I think it is an interesting part of the story. In it God, thinking to Himself, wonders if he should tell Abraham about what is about to happen. After all, he’s headed for Sodom and Gomorrah to destroy it because of their sin. But God knows that He has chosen Abraham to be the leader of many people, the father of nations. Telling Abraham about the plans for Sodom and Gomorrah will give Abraham the opportunity to act as a leader. How will he respond? Will he say, “Yep, they are nasty people. Have fun with that.” Or will he concern himself with the innocents?
God tells Abraham that the cry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great. “I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.” I like this. It is very comforting. God isn’t taking the word of those who are crying out against Sodom and Gomorrah. He’s going to go see for Himself what’s happening. God makes decisions based on His knowledge, on His mercy, on His grace.
Unfortunately, we aren’t so gracious these days. We take the word of others without really looking at the situation fully. We hear gossip and we believe it. We take early reports on the news and we think they have all the information. By the time the whole story is revealed, we have made a decision to condemn someone even though they are not guilty. I find comfort in knowing that God is not going to believe my enemy without first seeing for Himself whether their cries are true. And we should consider His example as we listen to gossip and uninformed reports before we make a judgment against someone.
Abraham knows that his nephew Lot is in that city, and though he has most likely heard the stories about Sodom and Gomorrah’s sinfulness, too, he also knows that there are at least a few people in those cities that do not deserve to be destroyed. “Wilt thou consume the righteous with the wicked?”
There are unintended consequences that come with our prayers. We may have every reason to ask God to sweep away our enemies. We’ve been hurt; we have suffered. We know that God will take vengeance on those who harm His people. We want to ask Him to deal with them, and perhaps God will answer that prayer. However, we do not always know how our desires will impact others. Even our enemies have families. They have spouses and children. They have people who rely on them. They have daily responsibilities. They have debts that need to be paid. Wiping our enemies off the face of the earth might solve one problem, but how will it destroy the lives of innocents?
And so, we are cautioned when praying to ask God, “Wilt thou consume the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham negotiates with God on this hilltop. He asks if God will destroy the cities if there are fifty righteous people. God agrees to leave the city intact if there are fifty. Abraham goes on to ask whether He will do it if there are forty-five or forty. What impudence!
But Abraham approaches God humbly. He knows he’s nothing. He knows he’s dust and ashes. But he knows God will listen. “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: peradventure there shall thirty be found there.” The Lord agrees to spare the city if there are thirty. Abraham doesn’t let it go with that; he asks God if He will be merciful if there are only twenty or ten. God agrees. Unfortunately for Sodom and Gomorrah, the LORD does not find ten righteous people in the cities. He helps Lot and his family escape and then sends the brimstone to burn it to the ground. But in this story we see how God is willing to listen to our prayers and perhaps even change His mind if we are cheeky enough to ask.
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” There is great responsibility in this statement. Do we cry out against the sins of our neighbors knowing that God will deal with them? Or do we, like Abraham, consider those who may be destroyed and beg God for mercy on their behalf? If we use the Lord’s Prayer as the foundation of our prayer life, our prayers will be focused on doing what is good and right and true, not what will satisfy our fleshly desires.
God knows what is right. Jesus makes one more point in the Gospel lesson. “And of which of you that is a father shall his son ask a loaf, and he give him a stone? or a fish, and he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he give him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” God is going to give us good gifts. He is going to give us what we need most.
What we need most is the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit as part of our life, our prayers and our actions will always be focused on God’s Will and whatever is best for His Kingdom.
Paul writes, “As therefore ye received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and builded up in him, and established in your faith, even as ye were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” When we look around at the Church today, we see that there are a great many diverse ideas about what it means to be a Christian. Some think there is value to the use of prayer tools; others think that those tools are nothing more than crutches or memorized words.
There were differences in the early days, too, when the Apostles were building new congregations and establishing the doctrines and practices we follow today. They faced many difficulties. Every city had false prophets who taught a false Gospel. It was no different in Colossus. The false teachers denied the divinity of Christ and they required obedience to ceremonial practices.
Paul wrote to the Colossians to make it clear that this is not the way of the Kingdom of God. This attitude reduces Christ to little more than a good person and raises humans to a level equal to the angels, even inferring that for men to be able to worship God they must become pure and perfect spiritual beings without imperfect flesh. This rejection of all things of the earth also separates us from the love of God given through Jesus Christ because it puts the human ability to be saved above the saving grace of God. Rejection of anything tangible that enhances our prayer life makes us appear to be superhuman. “Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” If the disciples who really did walk with Jesus on a daily basis needed to ask Him how to pray, then who are we to suggest we can do it better without help?
The psalmist understands our need to pray without distraction. When we focus our hearts, minds and bodies on God, we are more likely to hear His voice and recognize with great joy the touch of His hand. We’ll learn to pray rightly so that we’ll ask His Will not our own. It doesn’t matter what helps us focus; we will see and hear and experience Him fully as we use our senses, hearts and minds. The psalmist writes, “In the day that I called thou answeredst me, Thou didst encourage me with strength in my soul.” With these words, the writer recognizes the incredible grace of God in this world. He does answer our prayers. He seeks to do the right thing. He searches the truth and accomplishes what is best for His Kingdom. He has taught us to ask, to be persistent, to be cheeky. He encourages us to seek and to knock and has promised that He’ll be there to open the door. He will, as the psalmist writes, “…perfect that which concerneth me.” His love endures forever and He will complete His work in our lives.
“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.” Psalm 51:7-12, ASV
There is an organization in town that collects old objects and materials to be used by art teachers in class. They are calling it “upcycling.” Rather than simply recycling items, the items are used in new and interesting ways. There are organizations like this all over the country and they’ll take everything from your old paint to used crayons and broken tiles. The things that we think are broken and useless can be transformed into beautiful things.
I collected a box of items as I was recently cleaning my studio. As you look through this box, you might wonder how some of the items would be used. A broken picture frame can be glued and decorated to hide the break. Cracked tiles can be smashed and the pieces used in a mosaic. Old crayons can be melted down and used like paint. There are hundreds of possibilities for old CDs. I could think of ways to use the items in the classroom as I put each into the box, even though I do not think that I would need them any time soon. It is a great way to help art teachers and keep useable junk out of the landfills.
I love the language in today’s Psalm. The writer says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God…” God is an upcycler. He takes broken and useless things, like our hearts, and He transforms them into something beautiful. He doesn’t start with something new, He takes what we already have and works with it until it is new, clean and right before Him. He fills our hearts with His Spirit so that we’ll be the saved and redeemed people He has always meant us to be.
“Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my word: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. He that loveth me not keepeth not my words: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father's who sent me. These things have I spoken unto you, while yet abiding with you. But the Comforter, even the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said unto you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful. Ye heard how I said to you, I go away, and I come unto you. If ye loved me, ye would have rejoiced, because I go unto the Father: for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe. I will no more speak much with you, for the prince of the world cometh: and he hath nothing in me; but that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do. Arise, let us go hence.” John 14:23-31, ASV
I found a number of interesting quotes and stories when going through some of my papers the other day. I quoted one last week, and I thought I would quote another this week. I can’t confirm the quote or the speaker, but I still think there is value in the words. According to my notes, Rabbi Hillel Cohn was the speaker. He said, “The difference between an idealist and a fanatic is this: An idealist is a person who is prepared to suffer for what he believes in. A fanatic is someone who is prepared to make other people suffer for what he believes in.”
I’ve read through numerous web pages with quotes and essays; all had similar statements but which use different words. Some of those quotes even suggested the opposite is true, at least a few said that fanatics were those who were willing to die and to take everyone with them for their cause. The ideas are dependent on the writer’s understanding of the language and perspective. In some cases, I was bothered by their word choices as I felt they were using the words improperly.
A word that came up often during my research is “zeal.” If we thought about the idealist and fanatic in terms of zealousness, than we find there is a fine line between the two. Someone said that the fanatic has a ‘missing link’; they do not know where to draw the line. They do not understand that our passion for something does not require the world to agree with us. Unfortunately, many people have such strong opinions that they are never able to see beyond their own belief to see how their fanaticism might negatively affect others.
It is interesting to look at the synonyms for zealot: supporter, believer, devotee, advocate, fanatic, enthusiast, aficionado, or member. Some of these words can be passive but taken to a extreme they can be dangerous. I think the key is that our passion must be tempered by intelligence and thoughtfulness. When it comes to Christian zealousness, it must be tempered by something even greater: the Holy Spirit.
A story is told about bible teach F. B. Meyer, who once tried to employ prisoners in his firewood factory. All he asked of them was that they do a good job and produce the firewood. The business failed and he had to fire them. He bought a saw, which produced more in an hour than all the men had produced in a whole day. The story goes on, “One day, Meyer had a little conversation with his saw. ‘How can you turn out so much work?” he asked. “Are you sharper than the saws my men were using? No? Is your blade shinier? No? What then? Better oil or lubrication against the wood?’ The saw’s answer, could it speak, would have been, ‘I think there is a stronger driving power behind me. Something is working through me with a new force. It is not I, it is the power behind.’”
Meyer realized that many Christians try to do the work on with their own passion and power, but no matter how much they accomplish, they can’t accomplish anything of value without God’s help. I suppose that’s the true difference, at least in faith, between an idealist and a fanatic. The idealist knows that the work they do is God’s hand working through them, and they recognize that it will get done in God’s time and way. The fanatic doesn’t have the patience to wait for God, so they do whatever is necessary to accomplish their goals. This is why the idealist is willing to suffer for the things they believe, but the fanatic is willing to let others suffer. The Christian idealist is willing to follow God to the cross because they are filled with the Holy Spirit, but the fanatic wants to hang everyone else on the cross because they are trying to accomplish their agenda in their own strength.
“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. And this is the message which we have heard from him and announce unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1, ASV
Here’s the first line of a story I read on the Internet today. “When it comes to lighting, you may want to think twice about dimmers! According to a new study, bright lights make people act less selfishly and instead, more honestly and ethically.” The article went on to tell us about a study in Taiwan that concluded people act more altruistically in brighter light. Apparently, people donated twice as much to a charity when the fundraiser took place in a bright verses dim-lit room. This information could possibly change the way charities plan their events.
There might be something to this. I recently attended a gala that was held at a lovely event place. It was during the evening and the open pavilion was lit with soft light that hung high in the rafters. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, and I can imagine the sight would make the perfect venue for a romantic wedding. Unfortunately, the auctioneer worked very hard to drag every last penny out of the bidders. The auction items went for well below value, and you could tell that the auctioneer was frustrated. He had arranged for several high dollar prizes that had minimum bids, and it took him a lot of time to coax the crowd into donating those figures. Would it have been different if the lighting were better?
I don’t know, but what I do know is that light truly does make a difference. Of course we are less selfish when the light is brighter because we know that we can be seen. Criminals are more likely to choose the house on the street that has no outdoor lighting than they are to choose the one that is brightly lit. Light reveals what the dark hides. Adulterers visit dark restaurants so that they can spend time together without fear of being seen. Conspirators meet in dark alleys to avoid being revealed. Of course, many people will act better in the light because they do not want people to see their failure, and perhaps that’s not the right motivation. But it is a start.
The thing is: for a Christian, we live in the light all the time, even when it is darkness. We are seen all the time, even when it is dark. I would hope that we are not more generous when the light is bright because God always sees what we are doing. Mercy and generosity are not meant to be occasional actions, but everyday living. We might slink off to dark corners to do the things that are wrong, and we might think that no one has seen our sinful behavior, but God has. In the light or in the darkness, our sin can’t be hidden. We are reminded in today’s scripture that we are sinners. As we walk in the light, we will admit out sinfulness and seek God’s forgiveness so that we can be in fellowship with Him and with one another.
“The hoary head is a crown of glory; It shall be found in the way of righteousness.” Proverbs 16:31, ASV
I was watching television with Zachary yesterday when the commercial with Henry Winkler for reverse mortgages came on. I said, “Can you believe that Fonzie is advertising reverse mortgages?” Zachary was in shock. “That’s Fonzie?” Now, “Happy Days” was long before Zachary’s time, and he doesn’t even recall watching it in reruns, so it is a show with which he is not familiar. However, I have talked about it, and Fonzie is certainly an identifiable character. Most people can describe Fonzie as a black leather jacket motorcycle dude with a reputation for being on the edge of good behavior. Fonzie is not a character you’d imagine selling reverse mortgages to the retirement community.
There was a time when taking a commercial was the nail in the coffin of a star. If you saw their face during one of those thirty second advertisements, then you knew their career was over. It was the last resort for many actors. The same is no longer true. There is no stigma attached to endorsing a product. I am still amazed at the stars that are willing to advertise cosmetics and hair care. Some are even creating their own product lines. It is not unusual to see popular television or movie stars selling everything from cookies and coffee to cars and metal detectors. It is no surprise when a rock star sells beer, but who can forget the pantyhose commercial by the football star? They are willing to sell airlines, drugs, underwear, bug spray and fast food.
It was once assumed that these stars took the commercial gigs because they had no other choice. The family needs to eat, and if directors aren’t knocking down their door to offer them movie roles, then they have to do something. That was my attitude when I first saw Henry Winkler on the reverse mortgage commercial. And yet, he is not bored. He’s got several movies currently in the works and he has been directing and producing his own works for some time. He even directs the commercials. He does not need the money, and he’s probably not using the product, so why is he doing the commercials?
As I was looking into this, I discovered that his experience with the product was through a family member. The product helped and Henry wanted to let other people know about the advantages. I read an article that talked about recent ads in which he does a non-scripted interview with the real people who borrow and originate the loans. They explain from a lay person’s point of view the product and the way that it has made their life better. The concept was created by Henry, and it helped him see that it was a good decision to represent the company.
During my research, I can across a question about these commercials. “Is Henry Winkler (Fonzie) in a RETIREMENT commercial?!?!? Okay so I was watching tv and I saw this commercial for a retirement mortgage or something and the spokesperson looked like Henry Winkler and so is it really him????? He caaant retiireeeaaa” (sic). It shocks us to think of Fonzie as being old enough to discuss retirement issues, but we are also surprised to see him doing something so mundane as sell mortgages. It is probably a shock to see that handsome man with jet black hair that played Arthur Fonzerelli with gray. But Henry Winkler has not been Fonzie for nearly thirty years, and in all those years he has played hundreds of other characters. There’s something to be said about the wisdom that comes with age. He was never Fonzie in real life, and he willingly moved beyond that character. As a matter of fact, he refused to be Danny in the movie “Grease” because he didn’t want to be typecast as the Fonzie character. He has a master’s degree from Yale and he’s been married to his wife for thirty-five years. He works with children with learning disabilities. He is not the character he portrayed on television so many years ago. He has grown older, but in the process seems to have grown wiser, too.
We might not want to grow old. We might not want to see our childhood heroes grow old. We certainly don’t want to see those beloved characters become old enough to retire. But there is value to age, and the best of it is the wisdom we gain after having lived life. Today’s proverb is in language that is difficult to understand. NIV says, “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” We don’t want to get older, to look older; we don’t want to have gray hair. But gray hair is a reminder of a life well-lived, a life in which lessons learned are applied to the decisions we make.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 4, 2013, Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-26; Psalm 100; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
“This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 2:26c, ASV
What is vanity? In modern speech, vanity is an excessive belief in one’s attributes, usually physical but it can also be used in terms of abilities or accomplishments. Vanity is boasting without humility about one’s greatness. Carly Simon had a song with a chorus that went, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you. You’re so vain; I'll bet you think this song is about you. Don’t you? Don’t you?”
Historically, the word ‘vanity’ had a slightly different understanding, without the self-centered focus. It meant something more like uselessness. The NIV translates the word ‘meaningless.” The last words in today’s Old Testament lesson seem to say that the hard work and toil of life is without worth, “a striving after wind.” This is a rather depressing thought. Why do we bother if everything we do is meaningless?
But the passage itself does not really say that everything is meaningless. It says something much, much different. The reality is that everything that is done apart from God is meaningless. Chasing after our selfish desires is vanity. Pursuing our own agendas is futile. Promoting our own greatness is a striving after wind. We are nothing without God.
“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” It is so hard for us to think that everything we do has no meaning at all. We work many hours a day, week and month to accomplish our goals. We do it to feed our families and ensure that we have a roof over our heads and clothes for our backs. We pursue activities that we enjoy like sports and the arts. We read books to gain knowledge, follow the news to stay informed. We bond with others for companionship and to have a life that is full of love. We don’t think any of this is meaningless. It means something to us.
Yet, we are reminded that everything comes to an end. We retire from our jobs and others take our place. Our families grow up, our children move on. Though we hope they have learned all the right lessons, they go their own way and do their own things; they see the world from a unique point of view. Sometimes old traditions die as new ones are created. We lose interest in our hobbies and follow the latest trends. Memories fade and knowledge changes. Even our friendships end. In a few generations we will be little more than a gravestone in a cemetery. Eventually everything we have worked for will be gone.
We live in a world where we are expected to chase after good things. We are bombarded with advertisements that tell us our life will be better if only we buy this car or go to this resort. We are encouraged to buy this brand of bottled water or that sort of bread, and we are promised that if we do we will be happy. We work so we can afford these things, but in the end they do not make us happy. We are left unsatisfied, wanting more. This is what it means to strive after the wind.
This is not to say that we should not have water or bread. It does not mean we should not work. It does not even mean that we should not enjoy our life. After all, God has given us life and our life is not meaningless. It is not vanity to put food on the table or even to have a home and a car or go on a vacation. Vanity is working for these things, not God. And while they might make us happy for a moment, God wants us to have something better: joy.
The teacher writes, “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God.” Despite the seemingly cynical attitude of most of this passage, the teacher also knows that there is value in the work that is done according to God’s will and purpose. When we use our gifts and respond to our calling, we’ll find true joy in our work. It will not be toil or a striving after the wind. It will not be vanity. It will have power and purpose, and we’ll really know what it means to be satisfied and happy.
It might seem like there is none happier than the man in today’s Gospel lesson. After all, he has so much grain that it won’t even fit in his barns. He decides to tear down the old barn and build a bigger one. And then he says, “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, be merry.” This is the mistake we make, thinking that our stuff is eternal. Our souls do not need bigger barns and higher piles of grain. Our souls do not need faster cars or bigger houses. Our souls do not even need water and bread. Our souls need God.
I think it is interesting that we see similar language in the verses from Ecclesiastes and Luke. Both talk about eating, drinking and being merry. The difference is that the teacher knows that his enjoyment comes from doing God’s work. The man thinks he deserves to eat and drink and be merry because of his own accomplishments. Which attitude leads to eternal life?
“But God said unto him, Thou foolish one, this night is thy soul required of thee; and the things which thou hast prepared, whose shall they be?” Now here’s the hard part for us: our hard work and toil is not always outwardly selfish. Who among us hasn’t worked hard to make life better for our kids? We scrimp so that they can go to college. We pay for lessons and books and materials so that they can become all they have been created to be. We provide them with a place to live, food to eat and clothes for their backs. This is not selfish. We even save so that when we die, we can leave them with something that will make their lives easier. We buy insurance so that they will not be left with debts they cannot pay. We invest so that they will receive an inheritance. This is neither selfish nor self-centered.
I think it is interesting, though, that the man in the story is storing grain. He has more grain than he can possibly ever use. What will happen to that grain? Will it benefit his children if it is left inside a barn? Will it feed anyone if it becomes moldy or infested with insects? The man’s desire to keep all his grain in a barn was vanity because hoarding it would make it worthless. How much better is it to take the excess, which is a gift of God, and share it with others? Perhaps the man knows what he will do with that grain, but what will happen when he dies? Will his heirs know what to do with it? Will they use it properly? Or will it go to waste?
God asks, “Whose shall they be?” The hard part for us is that we still want to prepare for the future so that our children will not suffer from want. We save to ensure that we’ll have enough to get us through to death without relying on our kids. We insure our lives so that our kids won’t be left with our burdens. There are certainly places in the Bible which encourage this good stewardship of our material possessions. But where do we draw the line? How much is too much? In the end, it isn’t us that will face the question, “Whose shall they be?” Our children will have to deal with it.
Unfortunately, many families do not deal with it well. My parents did not leave us much, but they left us enough and as executor of my father’s estate it was up to me to make sure that everything was rightly divided. It was easy. We had no squabbles. I think if I’d handed my brother and sister each a dollar they would have accepted my judgment. We didn’t fight over the dishes or the furniture. I’ve heard stories of families that had to go to court to settle disputes. They fight over every penny and end up hating one another.
I can see that in the Gospel story. In that day there were well defined laws about inheritance. The oldest was given a double share of the estate to carry on the family name and business. All the other children received a single portion. The man who approached Jesus was probably the younger of the two, and he felt entitled to an equal portion. “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus was neither a judge nor an arbitrator. Perhaps the inheritance laws were not always fair. Perhaps there was good reason why the brother needed the help of a judge.
But Jesus was concerned about something greater: greed. “Take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” We strive to have more because we think more will make us happy. The reality is that we will only find joy in contentment with what we have. We are truly happy when we acknowledge that we have enough and that it all comes from God’s hand.
Paul writes, “Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth.” We are called to live a life that rejects the attitudes and actions that are vanity like “fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” These are self-centered and a striving after wind. But God has made us new. In Christ we are transformed into a new creation, gifted and called to live for Him. Paul reminds us that we are not alone in this, that all those who believe, no matter who they are, become part of Christ and will share in His glory. This is why we were created; this is our reason for life, this is where will find joy.
The fruit of our toil, when used solely for ourselves, is meaningless and vanity. Yet, money itself is not bad. When we are rich toward God, we give the fruit of our labor to honor Him. The same is true of our time and talents. The life lived well is the one that is lived for Him. “When Christ, who is our life, shall be manifested, then shall ye also with him be manifested in glory.” Instead of rushing through life filling our barns with grain that will eventually spoil, joy is found when we go forth in faith and do God’s work in the world. This is our purpose, the reason for our blessings.
“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” It doesn’t have to be. The life lived in praise and thanksgiving of God is the life that experiences true joy. The psalmist writes, “Make a joyful noise unto Jehovah, all ye lands. Serve Jehovah with gladness: Come before his presence with singing.” We all know that our work is not toil when we are doing something we love with an attitude of joy. So let us all praise God every moment of every day, living and working for His glory. This is not vanity or a striving after wind; it is a gift from God’s own hand.