Welcome to the October 2011 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
A WORD FOR TODAY, October 2011
October 3, 2011
“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. In love of the brethren be tenderly affectioned one to another; in honor preferring one another; in diligence not slothful; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing stedfastly in prayer; communicating to the necessities of the saints; given to hospitality. Bless them that persecute you; bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that rejoice; weep with them that weep.” Romans 12:9-15, ASV
My status on Facebook the other day had to do with the fact that I often waited until well after lunch to get out of my pajamas, take a shower and get dressed. I didn’t really need to be in street clothes for the work I was doing on the computer or at my art desk. I was painting and writing, enjoying the fact that I didn’t have any responsibilities that forced me out of the house early in the morning.
A friend yesterday asked me if I was ok. She said she saw my status and wondered if I might be depressed, with the empty nest thing. She told me that was the way she took my message that day and she was concerned about me. I laughed and said that I wasn’t depressed; if anything I was feeling a bit guilty. After all, Bruce gets up very early in the day, goes to the office and works all day, then comes home just hours after I’ve finally gotten dressed. He works so hard so I can stay home and do these things that I love. Granted, I hope one day that my writing and painting will have some financial value, but for now it seems like he’s doing all the work.
It is easy to assume that an empty-nest mom might feel depressed, after all our lives revolve around our kids for so long that it might, at times, feel as though she has no value. Many search for jobs, only to find that employers are looking for someone with experience. They often lose touch with her peers because they are no longer obligated to meet at the sports fields or PTA meetings. Those friendships are built on the children, and when the children are gone the friends find they have little in common. They haven’t connected personally with each other. Even the work around the house has changed: there are not as many meals to cook or dishes to wash. The laundry takes less time and there are no toys on the floor to pick up. Everything about a stay-at-home mom’s life changes when her fledglings fly the coop and it is hard for her to find purpose.
So it is no wonder that a friend might worry that I was depressed, staying in my jammies until noon. I appreciated her concern, but assured her that everything is fine. I’m still working on the motivation I need to get things done in a timelier manner, to take time to write and paint on a more regular schedule. I’m trying not to get caught up in reading a book while ignoring the kitchen floor. I’m trying to figure out how to be focused and not so easily distracted by Facebook and games. Some days are better than others.
We all go through transitions in life. It has been nearly two months since the college students started school. Some of those students are finding it difficult to be away from home, to get used to the new way of life. Newlyweds have to learn how to live with one another. Many people in our nation right now are unemployed. Hopefully at least a few have found new jobs and are getting settled into a new way of doing things.
It is easy for us to look at them from the outside and assume our own ideas about how they feel during these transitions. We might think they are happy or depressed, based on our own experiences. We might put our own words in their mouths or see their situation based on some stereotype. I was glad that my friend asked, because by her concern I could see that she cared. If I were truly depressed, her concern might have helped me feel better. As it is, she’s helped me think through my own situation, to come to some understanding of my feelings.
God did not create us to be islands, facing everything alone. We have others to help us. They help us to see ourselves by sharing with us how they see us. I never even thought that I might sound depressed when I posted my status; I was laughing when I did it. We might worry that approaching a friend about such a delicate subject will be hard. What if they are depressed? What if they are upset by our assumptions? Yet, we have one another for a reason, and we should take our concerns to one another. It might just be that word that will help a person through a tough time when they think they are all alone.
“Be of the same mind one toward another. Set not your mind on high things, but condescend to things that are lowly. Be not wise in your own conceits. Render to no man evil for evil. Take thought for things honorable in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men. Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto the wrath of God: for it is written, Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense, saith the Lord. But if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him to drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:16-21, ASV
Jay Leno has this way of getting the most absurd stories out of his guests. He manages to find pictures from their youth and gets them to talk about the things they did before they were famous. He gets them to reveal those secrets that they would probably rather stay secret. Now, sometimes these stories seem rehearsed, as if Jay asked them for something that would make them relatable to the audience. Sometimes we hold these stars up so high we can’t believe that they are even real, and the stories help them seem like they could be our neighbor, our friend, or even ourselves.
On last night’s show, Jay hosted the beautiful and sexy Evangeline Lilly, stay of the new movie “Real Steel” which is to be released this weekend. She’s starred in other movies and the television show “Lost” and will play an elf in the upcoming series of movies based on “The Hobbit.” She is one of those actresses that men dream about and women envy. She is the last person you can imagine doing something so gross and naturally human as passing gas.
Yet, on the show last night, Jay brought up her years as a flight attendant. She talked about how much power the flight attendant has to make your flight a good, or bad, experience. And then she told the story about the day she had a passenger that was difficult. It was also a day when she was suffering from extreme gas. She said that it is important for the flight attendants to be as gracious as possible, to not do anything that would make the passengers uncomfortable. They had to be aware of their own bodies. “As a flight attendant, you do not let that go when you are on a plane.” But the guy got under her skin and she decided to let it build up until she was right by his seat, and then she let it go, right in his face.
The story might seem shocking, but it isn’t that unusual, is it? After all, despite her goddess-like beauty, she is a human being. Like all human beings, she occasionally eats something that upsets her digestive system. She is also human in the fact that she’s tempted by circumstances to be less than gracious. On a good day, she would have gone to a private place to ease her situation. On a bad day, she decided to take out her revenge in an unseemly and unladylike manner. Is she proud? I do not know. Is it humbling to admit such a thing on national television? I would hope so. Given the opportunity, would she do it again? I would hope not, but we are all human and we tend to face our adversaries with our frail humanness, which is less than gracious.
What lesson can we learn from Evangeline’s story? Perhaps we will see the reality of her first words: flight attendants have a great deal of power over our flying experience. We can also see how our vengeance can affect the people around us. Certainly her gas did not affect only the man; other passengers must have experienced it as well. We can see that our discomfort can lead us to make inappropriate decisions. While we all laughed at the story, we now see her from a much different perspective. This could be good, getting her off that pedestal of fame. But I’m sure many will have a hard time looking at her now without seeing that face she made when she said she let it go. The men will realize she’s not a goddess, and the woman will see that she’s no different than other women.
There might be a positive outcome from this story, but the bottom line is that it is never good to take revenge on someone, no matter what they’ve done to us.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 9, 2011, Lectionary 28A: Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
“And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is Jehovah; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” Isaiah 25:9, ASV
Another fire is burning near Bastrop, Texas, where a devastating fire recently burned thousands of acres and homes. The current fire has threatened some buildings, and families have been evacuated, but so far the flames have only touched wilderness areas. This fire is miles away from the previous fire, but it is still frightening for the people of that city and county. The wounds are too fresh, the fear barely gone, and they are reminded once again how fragile the lives we have created for ourselves really are. There is no silver lining for those who have lost their homes and those who fear for their futures.
There is a silver lining, though, for the forests that are being affected by these fires. Drive through the wilderness areas around Texas and you’ll see that the ground is covered with brush and debris that is dry and making new growth impossible. Forest managers agree that occasional fires help keep a forest healthy because it removes the unwanted growth at the base of the trees that steals nourishment and moisture from the trees and makes it difficult for seedlings to grow. Forest managers will often set a controlled fire to remove that unwanted brush and debris so that the trees will grow stronger and taller. Fire might destroy, but it also cleanses.
Locally, I’ve noticed that one dry creek bed is so overcome by this growth, that we’ll face threats of floods when it finally begins to rain again. The small brush will be pulled loose by raging waters and will then get caught up by the larger trees that have grown. The accumulation of these branches will create dams that will back up the water, perhaps even into someone’s backyard. An out of control fire would be dangerous to those homes, but a controlled burn would help restore that creek bed so that the water will run off safely. The destruction might not make sense to some, but ultimately the cleansing will make things better.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, a faithful person praises God for the destruction of a city. This destruction is said to be of an enemy state, a strong nation that has oppressed God’s people. Now, it makes sense for the people of God to praise Him for His protection over them; He has been a refuge. But the singer goes on to say that the strong nations will glorify God. Why would they do so if God has destroyed their city? The festival to celebrate God’s kingship is given for all people, they are welcome into Kingdom of God even though they were once enemies. Destroying their city freed them from their lives separate from Him.
The cleansing will come not only for those enemies, but also for God’s people; the passage looks forward to a time when God will destroy everything that stands in the way of their relationship with Him; the suffering inflicted by war will be gone. He will destroy even death. All nations will be invited to the feast; through the destruction there will be hope.
Will all answer the call? This is where we take up the story in the Gospel lesson. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem triumphantly and has started the final journey to the cross. He has turned over the tables in the Temple marketplace and upset the leaders with His parables about authority. They know He is talking about them, that He is threatening their place in God’s Kingdom. They are like the enemy in Isaiah, but the destruction will not be to their city, it will be to their mistaken understanding of God’s relationship with His people. They have created a religion that burdens God’s people, oppresses them and keeps them from growing in faith. Jesus is about to change all that, destroying the walls that keep God’s people, and all people, from Him, even death.
The destruction will come on a cross, where God’s Son is given over to death. It makes no sense to us that God would have to crucify the perfect lamb, but it is the only way to save His people. They did not know it, but we do: when the destruction is over, Christ will be raised and all people will be invited to a great banquet.
The wedding feast is for Christ and His Church. We know that ultimately God intended for this salvation was meant to be given to all people, just as we see in the passage from Isaiah. But the invitation was first given to Israel. The scriptures foretold of the time when the Messiah would come. They were given the signs and promises; they knew what they should be looking for. The prophets came and spoke the warnings and the promises, but the people ignored and even rejected them. We have seen the past few weeks how God’s people have gone their own way, following their own wants and desires rather than God’s Word. They killed the prophets, and in last week’s lesson we saw that they would even kill the Son.
At that word, the chief priests wanted to arrest Jesus, but they were afraid of the crowd, and Jesus continued to talk. He told a parable about heaven, taking the message of Isaiah to the next level. Heaven is like that banquet, with fine wine and rich foods, given to the people who are set free from the oppression of the enemy. The enemy is ultimately death, which would be destroyed in just days, and through His own death and resurrection, Jesus would set the world free to be welcome into the heavenly banquet.
Israel is invited first. They are like those who in the parable who would not go. When called a second time, the people responded negatively to the invitation. Some gave excuses why they could not come, others made jokes about it, and yet others grabbed the servants and killed them. The king was enraged; he sent his troops to destroy the murders and their city. Then the king told his servants to go out into the streets to invite guests to the wedding. The slaves went out and invited everyone, no matter who they were; the text even reads, “…both good and bad.”
I wonder if the king destroyed all those who were first invited, or just those who’d murdered the slaves. It is possible that when the servants went to find guests for the banquet, the ones making excuses and the jokers came to realize how important the event was to the king. Perhaps the survivors went along with the other guests who were invited last, and despite their immediate rejection were welcomed into the banquet. Eventually the banquet hall was full and the party could begin.
When the king arrived at the banquet, he noticed a man who was not wearing a wedding garment. During our discussion this week, our class was bothered by the idea that someone would get removed for their clothes. These people were grabbed off the streets and sent to the banquet. They didn’t have time to go home. Many of them probably didn’t even have good clothes to wear. I was surprised to find a commentary that even took this point of view about the passage. The writer said that this is a warning to church goers to give respect to the Lord when entering into His presence by dressing properly. This particular writer was bothered by those who would attend church in blue jeans or shorts. “Take heed,” he said, “Your disrespect for God shows in your clothes.”
But we know that the wedding garment here has nothing to do with the clothing we wear on our flesh. It is the righteousness we wear. The robes of the priests and the leaders were a sign of their position and authority. It was also a sign of their piety. But the robe given at this wedding banquet is not self attained by good works or human effort: it is the righteousness that comes from Christ. The warning in this text is for those who think they can attend church but hold on to their own ways. It is a warning to the hypocrites who claim to be faithful but live faithless lives.
The last verse of this passage is the most bothersome of all, so troubling that many people even ignore it. I’ve searched for commentaries that speak on the subject, but have found little but silence. Matthew writes, “For many are called, but few chosen.” This seems to speak in terms familiar to predestination, inferring the idea that only a few will be welcome in the wedding banquet. The problem with that point of view is that only one is rejected from a gathering of many. How can it be that God is limiting those whom He has “chosen?”
Some of the commentaries point us back to the end of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where Jesus warned, “So the last shall be first, and the first last.” So, we ask ourselves, what does it mean to be chosen? Certainly the synonyms for the word ‘chosen’ in Greek include words like selected and elect, terms that point to this idea of predestination. But the word ‘eklektoi’ can mean exalted or choice or precious. Or specially beloved. If we consider these terms in light of the idea that the last will be first, we can see that this does not remove others from being loved or welcomed, but perhaps there are some who have been raised to special privilege. If we look to the twelve disciples, we can see that is true. Jesus had His close friends, though all were loved and beloved. He had those on whom He could count and those who were still part of the group. Though we know very little about most of the twelve, we know they were faithful even if they were not set apart for greatness.
So, instead of looking at this passage in light of the story of the man who does not wear the wedding garment, we should think in terms of those who came to the banquet. Many will be invited, but few will be set apart. The ones who are humble enough to live as the king demands will find themselves at the center of a marvelous feast. There will be those, like the ones first invited and the man who refused the robe, will find that they are left out in the cold, but God has not limited the banquet to a few. He has provided salvation for all who will take on the robe of His grace.
We who have been saved can join in the hymn of thanksgiving in Isaiah, which praises God for the things He has done, and for planning them long before there was ever a need. God knew at the beginning that His people would need Him. He knew they would fall. He knew they would be overcome. He knew they would face terrible enemies. And He promised to be faithful. He promised to protect them against the storm and the heat of the sun. Knowing that God has promised these things and that He is faithful, God’s people can go forth in faith even through the storms.
Even now we can sing the hymn of thanksgiving because God is still faithful. We can look forward to a day when things are better, knowing that it might not be comfortable or perfect for the moment because we will face times of trouble, but God is in control. He is with us and He can see beyond the moment. He has great things planned for His people and He will not allow us to be destroyed. There is a feast waiting for us, a feast we will enjoy in the day of the Lord. Our salvation is waiting for us on the other side of our fear and pain. Knowing this, we walk through the times of trouble with faith, praising God for all that will be because He has planned it and He is faithful. It might seem like the world has been destroyed around us, but it has simply been cleansed so that it will be healthier and better in the end.
It won’t always be easy. The guests at this great banquet won’t always get along in this life. Take, for example, Euodia and Syntyche, two fellow workers with Paul in the Gospel. They were at odds about something. Perhaps they disagreed about the color of the carpeting. Perhaps they disagreed about politics. Perhaps they had different visions of the mission of their congregation. We are a divided people, unable to agree about much. When we begin to discuss real issues, we become separated from one another, breaking the bonds of brotherhood and peace. Each side is passionate about their opinion and we are willing to fight for what we believe to be right and true. Perhaps Euodia and Syntyche had differing opinions about certain doctrines of faith or the direction of the new and growing Church. Things haven’t changed. It would be impossible to find full agreement in the pews of our churches today, let alone between church bodies.
But Paul says, “Be of the same mind.” Does this mean that we have to agree fully about every detail of our faith? Some might think so, but Paul goes on to talk about rejoicing in the Lord. Was there something special about the people who were welcomed into the banquet? Were they all from the same neighborhood? Did they all come bearing the same gifts? Despite our differences, we can be of the same mind because we are given the same robe and join in the same song of praise. Together we praise God in all circumstances, even when things are not going so well. We share the peace of God as we dwell in the love of God in Christ Jesus, instead of dwelling in our differences. As Paul writes, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good—think on these things.” Jesus Christ is all this, and in Him we can rejoice together, singing praise and thanksgiving to God.
David knew the great and marvelous things God had done when he penned the words to today’s psalm. David knew what it was like to walk in the shadow of death. He knew what it was like to experience darkness. He knew what it was like to suffer the consequences of his failures. But he believed in his heart that God was merciful and right. He trusted that God would make his mistakes into something good. He glorified God at all times, even when it seemed like nothing was going right. I can hear his voice from the caves where he hid from Saul. I can see David singing this prayer when he was mourning over his dying son. I can imagine that David found these words even when God told him that he could not build the Temple. He didn’t try to blame others or get around God’s Word. He simply accepted God’s Word and did what He could, glorifying God not in the building but in the preparation for the work his son would do.
Paul calls us to join in the songs of praise, rejoicing in God’s graciousness even when it seems like nothing is going right. We are welcomed into the banquet, to share in God’s goodness forever. Let us remember, then, that Christ has called us to be one in Him, of the same mind. We won’t agree about everything, but there is something about which all of us can agree—that He has given us the gift of His own righteousness, a robe to wear over our dirty, grimy selves. Out of the destruction, we are drawn together into a banquet of unlimited grace, a feast that has been promised into eternity but which we can enjoy even today. And as we wait, we join in the chorus of our forefathers who experienced the peace and joy of living in God’s presence humbly singing words of praise and thanksgiving.
“Yea, I will give diligence that at every time ye may be able after my decease to call these things to remembrance. For we did not follow cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received from God the Father honor and glory, when there was borne such a voice to him by the Majestic Glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: and this voice we ourselves heard borne out of heaven, when we were with him in the holy mount. And we have the word of prophecy made more sure; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:15-21, ASV
I saw a story online today about a beached whale. Now, this might not have been such a big deal, except that the whale was found 800 yards from the shore in Yorkshire, England. The 33-foot whale could not have possibly walked there itself. We might think that it could have been pranksters, but there was no evidence that the body was moved by people. It would have taken a lot of people with heavy machinery, all of which would have left traces, like footprints or broken grass.
One YouTube blogger has suggested that the only explanation for this beached whale is that it was abducted by aliens and then dropped on that spot. He shows, in his video, the evidence that it is not possible for the whale to have gotten to that spot by himself. He points out a ‘road or footpath’ and a building, which proves that it is grassland, not marsh. He discusses the similarities to cow abductions. He also speaks about other strange phenomenon that has been occurring near the Yorkshire coast. He doesn’t have any logical explanation except that it must be aliens and he warns his viewers to beware if they go to the shore. “Or maybe you shouldn’t go.” Right: the people who follow alien bloggers are the first to go to the scene to check it out.
Scientists have suggested that the reason the whale was found so far from the shore is that the tides were high the day it happened. The whale probably moved too close to shore in search of food, and the tides took her inland. It appears that she fell over, and was unable to right herself, suffocating because her blow hole was blocked. When the tide when back out, she had no chance at all. The blogger suggested that the landscape could not have been marshland, covered in water, yet the whale was found on the banks of an estuary. The scientific explanation is simpler and more commonsensical, so I think I will accept their explanation above that of a UFO conspiracist.
People like to give complicated explanations to simple things, especially the scriptures and the things of God. It might seem like spiritual matters should be harder to understand than earthly matters, so that the unspiritual cannot grasp those things. However, God does not want to be unreachable. If you read the parables, the simple explanation is often the one that Jesus uses. The disciples constantly ask what He means, but when Jesus explains we shake our heads and wonder how they could not have known. Perhaps they, like that alien conspiracist, tried to see something much more complicated than it needed to be. God wants us to know. He hasn’t hidden His grace. He revealed it in Jesus, and continues to reveal it in the lives of His saints who together will find a simple and logical meaning in His Word.
“Put on therefore, as God's elect, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving each other, if any man have a complaint against any; even as the Lord forgave you, so also do ye: and above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to the which also ye were called in one body; and be ye thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God. And whatsoever ye do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Colossians 3:12-17, ASV
The movie “Forrest Gump” is filled with real life footage of real life events into which Tom Hanks’ character Forrest Gump is placed. He’s at dozens of historic moments, with dozens of famous people, doing amazing things which are unlikely for any one person. The story manages to give Forrest credit for everything, making him an extraordinary hero in big things as well as small. What makes this even more incredible is that Forrest is not the type of person you would expect to be a great man. He is not clever or intelligent, sickly as a boy with a below average IQ. But somehow he managed to always be at the right place at the right time, an accidental hero in every way.
In one scene, Forrest was running. Running was the one thing that Forrest did well. When he was young, he needed to wear leg braces, but eventually he grew out of that need and he faced many of his problems with running. At a terrible moment in his life, Forrest began to run. Describing this moment in his life, Forrest said, “That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since I run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama. And that’s what I did. I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going.”
He ran from coast to coast. He ran up mountains and down. He was on the news and everyone wanted to know the purpose of his run. He had no purpose, he just wanted to run. He said, “When I got tired, I slept. When I got hungry, I ate. When I had to go, you know, I went.” And he ran until he was done. People began to follow him, to seek wisdom from him. Everyone wanted something. Some wanted to make a quick buck. Others treated him as some sort of prophet. They were shocked and disappointed at the end when he stopped. When he stopped they asked where he was going. He told them he was tired and that he was going home.
Along the way, Forrest got spattered by mud when a car drove through a puddle. A guy running by his side him at the time had been asking for inspiration for a t-shirt. When he was splashed, the guy handed him a t-shirt and said that he couldn’t sell them anyway. When Forrest handed the shirt back, he’d left an imprint of a smiley face. He said, “Have a nice day,” as he continued to run. The guy looked at it, inspired, and went on to make a fortune selling t-shirts, buttons and other things with the symbol and catchphrase.
Of course, that’s not the way it really happened. The origin of the smiley face has been hotly debated over the years. Apparently Harvey Ball, a commercial artist in Worcester, Massachusetts created the first smiley face in 1963 as a logo for a motivational campaign to make the employees of State Mutual feel good when they interacted with the public and each other. He earned $45 for the work, and never copyrighted it. A Seattle designer claims he created the logo in 1967. Bernard and Murray Spain are credited with making the smiley face famous. They were the first to link the logo with the words “Have a nice day.” They put it on everything they could think of: mugs, posters, bumper stickers and especially buttons. The fad hit in the 1970’s, when the nation desperately needed something uplifting to change the public attitude.
Mr. Ball was not happy about the commercialization of his logo, believing that the overuse of the symbol made it less meaningful. Certainly over the years, the smiley face has been connected to some less than ideal images, used in public culture in ways that do not uplift or inspire anyone. In 1999, Mr. Ball decided to create a day to smile, to do little acts of kindness that would make others smile. He chose the first Friday in October and named it “World Smile Day.”
Happy Smile Day! What are you going to do today to make another person smile? Perhaps you can give someone a flower or take them to lunch? A phone call or a text message might change a person’s attitude for the day. Can you do a small task at work to make someone’s day a little easier? Will you cook someone’s favorite meal? Wear a smiley face, share a word of grace, give something that will inspire others to smile. Smile! Have a nice day.
Sunday, October 16, 2011, Lectionary 29A: Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
“I am Jehovah, and there is none else; besides me there is no God.” Isaiah 45:5a, ASV
I began my research for today’s writing by searching for information about Cyrus. Cyrus is mentioned in today’s Old Testament lesson and elsewhere in the scriptures, as one whom God chose to do His work in the world. He is remembered as a liberator, as a man who restored people to their homes, particularly the Jews. Though Jerusalem had been destroyed and the Jews exiled by the Babylonians, Cyrus came as a rescuer. He’s named “Messiah,” one anointed by God to carry out His purpose in the world.
There is a cylinder that was discovered which is generally regarded as a declaration of human rights, put out by Cyrus during his conquest of the world. This cylinder has been translated to say that Cyrus orders that all people no matter their race, linguists or religion would be treated as equals, slaves and deported people were given the freedom to go home and all destroyed temples would be rebuilt. This certainly sounds like it fits into the man we’ve come to know in the Biblical story.
As I continued my research, I discovered another website that claims the translation of the cylinder is fake, or at the very least improperly regarded as describing the Jewish return to Jerusalem. The information suggests that the cylinder is describing Cyrus’s work in other nations, but that translations including references to Israel and Judah are mistaken, that there is no mention of the Jews on the cylinder. The claim is that it has been misunderstood to give credibility to the biblical account where there is none.
Does it matter? We often celebrate the discoveries that prove our understanding of God is true, like archeological findings and personal experiences, but do those things really make God real? Do we need to have our hands on the Arc of the Covenant to know that God gave us the Ten Commandments? Do we need pieces of a cross to know Jesus died on one? Do we need written proof on an ossuary to know that the people in the scriptures existed? Do we need corroborating evidence to prove that God exists? God proves Himself day in and day out, although many refuse to see the reality that is in front of them. Nothing we do will change their minds, especially if we rely on questionable sources for our proofs. Now, I don’t know which is true, the source that claims the cylinder proves the scriptures or the source that says the opposite. I can’t rely on one source over the other because I have no way of verifying the information. I have to rely on what I read, and since I’ve found conflicting information, I have to let it go. I either trust the scriptures or I don’t. I can’t prove them by this discovery.
Whether the cylinder referred to the Jews or not, it appears as though Cyrus was the type of ruler who would have seen to it that the displaced Jews were returned to their homeland and their temple restored. He had an attitude of tolerance for any religion, perhaps because he claimed no religion of his own. He adopted the local gods of each nation, at as much as was necessary to get the support of those people for his rule. What’s the cost of building a new temple for some god against the benefit of happy citizens?
This sounds like the type of ruler that God would rather eliminate because he has no foundation on which to stand, and yet we discover that this is exactly the man God will use for His purpose. Cyrus is chosen to be God’s hands in a world that was thrown upside down, to be a savior for the people God loves but who had to be taught a lesson. They turned from Him, followed false gods, did their own thing. They rejected Him. So, God gave the Babylonians the strength to destroy Jerusalem and take the people into captivity. When the time was right, God gave the strength to Cyrus to destroy the Babylonians and restore His people to their homeland.
We might think that these nations have the strength to do this on their own; after all, the kings were powerful men with mighty armies. They had their own gods, they had their own resources, and they had everything they needed to win the victories that are recorded throughout history. It seems to us that conquest and captivity, destruction and exile are unnecessary in a world where God is in control. Yet, in today’s scripture, Isaiah writes, “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil. I am Jehovah, that doeth all these things.” These are the words of God to Cyrus, words that tell Cyrus of his power and control over everything in the world.
However, it is difficult for us to accept that God creates darkness and evil. There are many who would claim that they cannot believe in a God that would create evil, that He is only capable of goodness and love. That’s why so many people would rather ignore the Old Testament and the God that is found there. They are bothered by war and suffering. They are bothered by the idea that God would use death and destruction for His purpose. They are afraid of a God who can create evil, so they prefer to ignore those aspects of His character. The exile was given by God’s hand to His disobedient people. How could the God of love who takes our sin onto His own shoulders be the same one found in the Old Testament?
The answer to our problems is not always as we might expect or desire. We might pray for healing, but find death is the answer. We might pray for a financial windfall, but experience poverty. We might want love and friendship, but discover that God is giving us a moment of exile and loneliness, to help us to see Him more clearly. The world might see this as evil and claim God is not good, but we know that God is able to do miraculous things in the midst of hardship. He can bring great things out of tragedy. He can even save people by using an unbeliever.
Cyrus did not believe in God, but Cyrus did God’s bidding. He restored God’s people to Israel, rebuilt the Temple and established a government that allowed the Jews to worship the God of their forefathers. The time in Babylon had given them perspective, they remembered Him and all that He had done for His people. The people who returned to Jerusalem by Cyrus were dedicated to Him, and ready to serve Him. The evil of the exile brought the greatness of God’s people again, their faith.
Now, in our world today is seems as though many have the same attitude as Cyrus. He didn’t believe in any gods but welcomed and tolerated every god. Perhaps most people will say they believe in something, but they are willing to allow all people to worship whatever god they please. There are even those who believe that we all worship the same god. After all, there is only one God and the God we know has many aspects and characteristics. Who are we to judge our neighbor’s understanding of the divine? Some false gods are easy to recognize, like money or sex or power. But is the god of my new age or pagan neighbor a false god or some aspect of the God we worship that is just different than the God we know from the bible? What about the understandings of God found in faiths found in religions claiming a foundation in the God of the patriarchs?
The question of faith has become part of our daily dialogue, in politics and other forums. What role should faith have in our decisions about leaders? What role should faith have in the public square? What role should faith have in our life outside the church? Should we sing the song of the psalmist and lift the God we know above all other gods? Or should we live in the world like Cyrus, welcoming and tolerant of all faiths, no matter what god they worship? God was able to use Cyrus in a way that restored His people to Him. Might the same be true of those in our world who accept any faith as faith in the same God?
We will find, as we live our faith in the world, that there will be those who will try to exploit faith for the sake of their own desires. Cyrus didn’t treat the Jews kindly because he respected them. He wanted them to live peaceably under his rule. Happy people will not rebel. God used this to His purpose, but there was nothing tolerant or charitable about Cyrus’ work. It was for his own benefit.
The psalmist writes, “For all the gods of the peoples are idols; But Jehovah made the heavens.” Any god that is not the God we know from the scriptures is no god at all. Merriam-Webster says an ‘idol’ is “a representation or symbol of an object of worship, a false god, a likeness of something, a form or appearance visible but without substance, an object of extreme devotion, a false conception.” Not only are the gods of the nations less than our God Jehovah, they are nothing.
The Romans had made Caesar a god. They worshipped him. The Pharisees did not worship Caesar, but they willingly lived in the world that Israel had become, using the money available to do the business of life. We all have to do that. We can’t live without money. We have to use coins to buy our food, pay our rent, and clothe our children. We are paid for our work and pay others for theirs. Money is a part of life. And, apparently, so are taxes.
We’ve seen over the past few weeks Jesus using parables to attack the religious leaders. Last week’s lesson sent them over the edge; they decided that Jesus must be destroyed. But there was no easy way to do so. They knew that the people loved Him. They also knew that though the Romans tolerated their faith and practices, they tolerated everyone’s. His words could not be used against Him in the Roman courts and the Jews could not destroy Him under their own laws. They had to find a way to make Jesus a rebel in Roman eyes.
So, they asked Him a question about taxes. Now, the coins would have been offensive to the Jews because it bore an image of a person. It was an idol, a graven image. It was necessary to change the coins into something acceptable for Temple use, which is why there were money changes in the court of the Temple. Foreign money was exchanged for Jewish currency. A Roman coin with Caesar’s picture could not be used for religious offerings.
Now, the Pharisees asked Jesus, “What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?” They knew this question would trap Him because if He answered yes, it would turn the Jewish people against Him, but if He answered no, they could set the Romans on Him. Jesus found another answer. “Why make ye trial of me, ye hypocrites? Show me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a denarius.”
We don’t pay attention to the graven images on the face of our money, but for those Pharisees and their counselors in today’s Gospel lesson, the coinage was offensive. The Caesar was not only a political power, but was also seen as divine. We don’t pay much attention to the fact that Jesus asked the Pharisees and their counselors for a coin because it is natural for us to have a few coins in our pocket, but the Jews should not have had a Roman coin. They were hypocrites because while they wanted to use the trap to discredit Jesus with their fellow Jews, they lived in the Roman world and used the money, too.
Jesus, knowing their malice, pointed to the picture on the coin. “Who is this?” He asked. They answered that it was Caesar. Jesus answered their question, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s.” We might view this as a statement about separating Church and State, and yet there is something deeper and much more important about what Jesus is saying here. The phrase that stands out is “Give to God what is God’s.” Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and their council was brilliant because it turned the tables. He told them to give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God. In other words, they were to give the idol back to the idolized and give God what is God’s. And, everything belongs to God. When we remember that, we see that even the government is given by God, not as a divine representative of what He wants to accomplish, but as a divinely appointed servant for a particular time and place. Good and bad, God is in control of our world and we can live in trust knowing that in the end everything will be as He intends.
We live in a world that requires that we deal with people and situations we might not want to experience. We are called as Christians to live in trust and hope. Whatever happens, we can trust that God is in control. We live in hope, not in individuals or even the government, but in God’s promises. Good or bad, our life of faith will keep us focused on what is good and that is God. We may be nervous, frustrated, anxious and possibly angry, and we won’t agree with our neighbors what is good and bad in our world. But we can sing to the Lord that new song, the song of thanksgiving that He is with us through it all.
Paul was an apostle of God, sharing the Gospel of Christ with the world. His work took him many places, and he planted church after church. The people of Thessalonica received that message and gathered together as a community of faith. They were growing in grace and hope and faith. Paul could not stay with all the communities he began, but he kept in touch with them through letters and through helpers who visited the congregations. Through one of these helpers, Paul heard that the Thessalonians were doing well. Timothy had sent a good report to Paul and Paul was pleased to hear the good news. This wasn’t true everywhere. Other preachers were sharing their own understanding of God and Jesus Christ. They were claiming to be apostles, but they were sharing a false god.
Though the people in Thessalonica were doing well, they were under a similar threat. They were holding strong, but Paul did not know how long they could last. Would they remember the lessons he taught them? Would they keep the Gospel of grace or turn to another gospel message? Would they believe the lies being told about Paul by those opposed to his message? Paul did not know what might happen next, so he wrote a message of thanksgiving and encouragement to the congregation. He put a seal on the people so that they would not fall from grace and turn to a faith built on works and self-righteousness.
We are also encouraged by these words. We live in a world where many, even those in the church, are preaching a Gospel that is not what God intends. They have twisted His word to fit their own idea of faith; they have turned it upside down to fit their own desires. Like the hypocrites who were willing to use the Roman coin for their own benefit while trying to defeat the purposes of God, there are many who are sharing a false faith for their own purposes. Like the Jews who were taken into captivity by the Babylonians, and the Pharisees who were willingly living according to Roman ways, they’ve lost touch with the God forms the light, and creates the darkness; makes peace, and creates evil. God said, “I am Jehovah, that doeth all these things.” There are those who would rather believe in a god that does only what they want Him to do.
Our hope rests in Jesus Christ and we are called to live the life of faith that rests in His promise and His forgiveness. When we sing the praise of God, it is not enough to share only those aspects of His character that suits our desires. God is; there is no other. All others are false gods, and false gods are nothing but idols: nothing. When we fall for the preaching of those who would turn us another way, we follow the false gods that are nothing.
But we are reminded by these stories that God can use anyone, even those whose faith is false. God can use someone like Cyrus to bring His people home, to be a savior to them. He can use the Pharisees to teach us a lesson about idols, and about the true God. He can use the false preachers to point us to the truth about Jesus Christ. He will use the earthly aspects of our world to give us a glimpse of Himself. The problem with accepting and tolerating all faiths is that we remain silent about the reality of God.
He calls us to share His glory with all people so that they will know and will turn to Him. We’ve left those idols behind: may they stay there forever. So, will you sing the song of thanksgiving for all God has done, or will you live like Cyrus, welcoming and tolerant of all faiths, no matter what god they worship, silent to the reality of their false gods? God can and will use anyone or anything to bring His people home. We might be facing circumstances that are confusing and painful, but we can trust that God is in control. Perhaps He will send Babylonians our way to set us apart for a season. But we can trust that He will then send a Cyrus who will help to restore us to Him. The lessons we learn along the way will turn us back to our God and we’ll be ready to do His work again.
“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
I was watching one of those ‘how they do it’ shows last night for a few minutes and I was amazed at how quickly everything moved through the process. That particular show was about bottling soda, and I saw them go through the process of making the cans, and then canning at the factory. Each can of soda went through a long series of steps, although the whole process seemed to take very little time, because the cans moved so fast. They produced thousands of cans every hour.
It seemed like it would be impossible to do quality control along the lines of that manufacturing plant. After all, the cans were moving so fast that it was beyond human ability to see each one. It is possible to pull one out of a bunch and hope that the problems are visible, but if they only checked one out of a hundred, the number of failures would likely be very high.
Built into the system, however, are automatic check points. These systems are designed to find flaws in the cans and to remove the flawed cans from the conveyer. One check point showed the cans moving so fast that I could not tell between one and another, and yet a camera was taking pictures of each one. When the camera noticed a flaw, the can was shot out of the line into a recycle bin. In another spot, the cans were checked by some sort of sonar to make sure they were properly filled. If a can does not hold the right amount of soda, it is shot into a recycling bin. Will a flawed soda can make it through the system? I suppose it can, but I can’t say that I’ve found any.
We move through life much more slowly than those cans of soda. I’m thankful for that, because I can’t imagine what life would be like if we had to rush so quickly. I suppose sometimes we feel like we are rushing through life more quickly than we should, constantly moving from one task to another, changing with such speed that we don’t even see what we looked like each step of the way. It is good that we don’t have machines looking for our flaws, and we aren’t sent flying into a recycle bin if anything is imperfect. Of course, that means that none of us are perfect.
We aren’t like those soda cans. We are each unique and we are formed by our life experiences. Those experiences can cause breaks and marks, blemishes in our flesh as well as our spirit. Those imperfections can be good and bad; they can be for the good and for the bad of our neighbor. We might like to just push our neighbors into a recycle bin because of their flaws, like those machines in the factory, but God works with us in a much different way. He forgives our flaws, He works with our flaws, and He is constantly changing our hearts and our flesh with His word and His light and His love. And so, we can go forth in faith, boldly living with our flaws, knowing that God is constantly working in our lives to make us like Himself.
“For then will I turn to the peoples of a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of Jehovah, to serve him with one consent. From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, even the daughter of my dispersed, shall bring mine offering. In that day shalt thou not be put to shame for all thy doings, wherein thou hast transgressed against me; for then I will take away out of the midst of thee thy proudly exulting ones, and thou shalt no more be haughty in my holy mountain. But I will leave in the midst of thee an afflicted and poor people, and they shall take refuge in the name of Jehovah. The remnant of Israel shall not do iniquity, nor speak lies; neither shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth; for they shall feed and lie down, and none shall make them afraid.” Zephaniah 3:9-13, ASV
Penn and Teller are my favorite magicians. Well, I am not sure that they can be called magicians, even by their own admission. The magicians in the world disclaim them, saying that they ruin the illusion by giving away the secrets. Penn and Teller are often considered the greatest liars because once their secrets are known you can see that the tricks are not illusions but lies. But that’s their point. They want to show how magicians really are just great liars.
I remember watching one illusion where the small guy, Teller, was placed in the path of the left hand tires of an eight-wheeler. The truck drove right over him; there was no way the man should have survived. At the end of the show, Penn explained how the trick worked. The tires on the left side, the ones that ran over Teller, were foam props. The truck remained upright because it was counterweighted on the right side, keeping it balanced. That, in itself, is an amazing trick, but the illusion itself was a lie.
Penn and Teller have created a new television show called “Penn and Teller Tell a Lie.” During the hour, they tell seven stories about some unusual fact. They have video, experts, real time experiments to prove whether or not the facts are real. The problem is that one of the seven stories is a lie. They will tell the story as if it is true, using video, experts and real time experiments, but they are fake. In one episode, they tell the story of a zoo keeper who is attacked by one of the tigers during feeding time. The video shows the tiger maliciously aiming for the man’s neck, while another zoo keeper looks on helplessly, knowing for certain his co-worker was a dead man. Then you see the zoo keeper stick his fist into the tiger’s mouth, punching the back, sending the tiger reeling away. The expert explains, from an official looking room, about the tiger’s gag reflex because he’s a meat eater. Video showed the attack from every angle on the zoo’s cameras.
In the end, the whole story was a lie. The zoo keeper was actually a tiger trainer and the tiger was one of his trained animals. The expert was an actor and the reason the tiger got off the man was ridiculous. They made the story look convincing. They made all the stories look so convincing that it was impossible to tell which one was not the truth. It wasn’t until they showed the clues that they put into the story that we chuckled at how gullible we are to have believed the story. They actually made it pretty clear that the story was fiction, even showing us the same tiger in a picture from a movie in which he was a star! The famous trainer should have been recognizable in the close-up interview. The live feed from the zoo cameras showed one frame that was not even in a zoo.
I look forward to watching the show again. The first episode was difficult because we didn’t really understand the premise. We didn’t realize at first that one of the stories would be fiction. We thought they were taking stories they’d heard and proving, or disproving them. Now that I know how it works, I’ll watch the video more carefully. I will search out their clues, and consider their stories with a more focused mind. Now, I would normally not like something built upon a lie, but I have to admit that I look forward to the challenge of discovering Penn and Teller’s secret. It is good practice and strengthens the mind to discover the truth and the lies that surround us every day. Though the premise of their show is about a lie, Penn and Teller always end with the truth. And though we may face lies all our lives, the truth will ultimately win, because God is truth and God has won the victory over all falsehood.
“For ye, brethren, were called for freedom; only use not your freedom for an occasion to the flesh, but through love be servants one to another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.” Galatians 5:13-15, ASV
I have talked about the show “Bridezillas” numerous times. It is a reality television show that follows a bride during the final week before her wedding. The bridezilla is a difficult, unpleasant and demanding bride, one who requires perfection from everyone and everything, and perfection means exactly the way she wants it to be. She is harsh with her family, friends, vendors, often angry and out of control. It is a wonder that the groom even wants to walk down the aisle with her, but somehow in the end the wedding happens and the bridezilla is usually satisfied.
Now, I can understand some of the responses to the people involved in the wedding. Some of the mothers are momzillas. Some of the bridesmaids are uncooperative and nasty. Sometimes the groomsmen are difficult. Guests can act foolish and do things that will disrupt and spoil the wedding. Since weddings tend to be lavish and expensive events, I can understand why the brides get nervous and adamant about her plans. If you spend tens of thousands of dollars on a party, you want everything to be perfect.
I read an article today about the ten things a wedding guest can do to make it is a pleasant day for the bride and groom. Some of the ideas are proper protocol for a wedding, although not necessarily important. Those are the tiny details that upset a bridezilla that should not really even matter very much. For example, the tradition is that no guest should wear white unless specially requested by the bride. Does it matter? Probably not, but for the sake of the bride and groom, a considerate guest will choose better clothes.
Some of the ideas are common courtesy. One suggestion was “arrive according to the time on the invitation.” I don’t know how it has come into being, but there is apparently this understanding that a wedding will never begin on time. Some people arrive late, expecting that the wedding will start a half hour late. Then, when the wedding starts on time and they miss the beginning, they rudely enter the proceedings with loud comments about how they expected to be on time. Weddings do start on time. As a matter of fact, in some popular forums several weddings are scheduled in a day and so each one must happen on time. Also, the people who work the wedding, like the pastor, caterers and musicians are on tight schedules. You can’t expect the steak to be fresh and delicious if everything is pushed back a half hour because some guests want to be fashionably late.
Each suggestion in the article helps us remember that we are guests and that it is up to us to help keep the day special and relaxed for the bride and groom. It is not helpful to complain to them before, during or after the party about something we thought was wrong. It isn’t good to jump in with our own opinions about music or toasts since the bride and groom have worked so hard to plan the party they want. It is rude to bring unexpected guests because there might not be enough food or space. If the invitation does not mention children, find a babysitter. If the invitation does not mention a guest, come alone. You will have fun with the people whom the bride has invited. Never presume that the wedding or reception is your party. Do whatever you can to make it pleasant and enjoyable for the bride and groom.
It is about seeing beyond ourselves, to put someone else in the seat of importance for a day. Though the advice was given specially about weddings, perhaps there are thoughts there that can relate to our everyday life. Should we try to do this every day, with our family, friends and neighbors? Shouldn’t we think about the clothes we wear and how they might make people uncomfortable? Should we be to places on time so that we won’t disturb the experience for others? Should we keep our mouths shut even when we think we have something important to say or if we have some complaint? Should we live in a way that makes life better for our neighbor?
That’s what the law in today’s passage is all about. We tend to be self serving in our thoughts and actions, but we are disappointed and angry when others are the same. We demand that they meet our needs, but we forget that they have needs also. We expect them to do what we want, to make life perfect for us, but we forget that our own selfishness makes the world harder and harsher for our neighbor. But if we began to look at the world from the point of view that others deserve exactly what we want, we’ll start treating them with the love and respect that we demand for ourselves.
“I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye presented your members as servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity, even so now present your members as servants to righteousness unto sanctification. For when ye were servants of sin, ye were free in regard of righteousness. What fruit then had ye at that time in the things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end eternal life. For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:19-23, ASV
It seems like you can’t go anywhere without seeing a television hanging in a corner. TVs have become so easy to hang and large screens have become so affordable that everyone can put one up in their store or restaurant. I can understand having monitors available in something like a sports bar, so that the big game can be broadcast for the patrons. I find the televisions to be distracting when I go to a restaurant with my family. Instead of talking with one another, our eyes and attention are drawn toward the television. The televisions have a place in this world where we are constantly attached to some sort of technology, but I wonder what we might be missing in the process.
I was in a fast food place the other day and even they had televisions hanging in the corners. We stopped for breakfast, and it made some sense that they had the televisions turned to the morning news programs. Yet, fast food places are not designed to have people sit around long enough to watch even a short television show. Most people would rather just use the drive thru, to take the food and run.
I suppose that’s the point of the televisions: the fast food places are trying to become a place to hang out again. See, if a person gets their food from the drive thru, there’s no chance for extra purchases. But if a family goes inside, gets involved in a television show, then the parents might just buy dessert or extra drinks. If the restaurant is comfortable, if the kids enjoy their stay, parents will return to spend their money there another day.
The next step is to make the television unique to the place so that people might actually go there for the entertainment. That’s what McDonald’s has decided to do. Instead of just putting on the sports or news channel, or finding cartoons for the kids, the fast food chain has decided to develop their own television network. There is no word yet on what might be shown, but recommendations include features about music, entertainment, fashion or nightlife and inspirational stories. Some have suggested including local news, sports reports and stories about the store’s neighbors. Perhaps the network will produce its own unique television shows staring the iconic characters that have been a part of the franchise. Can you imagine a crime drama in which the Hamburgler is captured for stealing today’s special? They’ve already produced some shows which are available on DVD; perhaps they will use those on the network to attract more customers inside the store.
I don’t go to fast food places for peace and quiet, but I have to wonder about this new quest to fill our lives with more noise. It might be a good thing to draw people into the store so that they’ll sit down to eat the meal rather than gobble it down in the car. But then again, is fast food the type of food we really should be eating? Will having a television network available in store really make for a better dining experience?
Now, I don’t mean to imply that a trip to the fast food place will lead to death, though there are some who might say exactly that. I admit that I enjoy an occasional meal at a fast food place. Our freedom in Christ gives us the independence to make choices. The world will try to draw us in, to help us make the choices that benefit their best interests. The question we might ask as we make those decisions is this: though it might be fun and delicious to go there, is it in our best interest to be drawn into the ways of the world?
Scriptures for Sunday, October 23, 2011, Lectionary 30A: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
“But we were gentle in the midst of you, as when a nurse cherisheth her own children: even so, being affectionately desirous of you, we were well pleased to impart unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8, ASV
If you type the word “heart” into your online search engine, the first few hits are likely to be about the physical heart, the organ in our chest. Another top find is the rock group Heart. Go down a little further in the search and you’ll find sites about playing the game hearts and a number of sites dedicated to things with pictures of hearts. Eventually you’ll find organizations with the word ‘heart’ in their name. These organizations are often focused on the physical organ, but many use the word as the source for compassion and respect.
While the heart is the center of the human circulatory system, it is unlikely that most references to it in the Bible have anything to do with the physical organ. For the early Christians and those who came before, the heart was more than a pumping muscle. They may not have even understood the physical characteristics of the heart. There may have been some with medical knowledge, but the common folk would have had little or no knowledge beyond experiencing the pumping inside their chest.
We know far more about the heart, but we continue to use the word in reference to the something other than the physical organ. In today’s world, the heart is the center of our feelings. Love, and hate, comes out of the heart. Good things and bad touch our heart. Our wishes and dreams are the desires of our heart. This might be closer to the idea that was understood by those early Christians. And yet, it is not just about feelings.
For them, the heart was the center of the being, the spirit, the soul, the intellect. They had no better understanding of the brain, so for the people in that day, the heart dealt with everything internal. Prayers came from the heart. Anger and hatred came from the heart. Wisdom came from the heart. Even today there is some of that still present in our thoughts. We learn things by heart. We forgive from the heart. When we are excited about something, our heart is in it. When the opposite is true, our heart is not in it. In today’s knowledge, we know that those things are controlled by the brain, not the heart, and yet the heart is still the center of our being.
The Pharisees asked Jesus a question in today’s passage. This was the fourth of four questions put to Jesus in these days following His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus was well on His way to the cross, but the leaders were still trying to understand Jesus or find a way to destroy Him. This series of passages, which we’ve seen a few over the past few weeks, represent the types of questions the early rabbis asked: law, doctrine, meaning of life and ‘hagaddha’ or seeming contradictions in scripture texts.
We saw the first, a question of law, in last week’s passage. In that passage, the Pharisees asked Jesus whether or not the people should pay taxes. The question was designed as a trick, but Jesus answered shrewdly. He told the Pharisees to give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar. We don’t hear the question of doctrine in the lectionary, but we are surely familiar with the story. The Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, asked about a widow who married seven brothers. “Whose wife will she be in heaven?” they asked. Jesus answered that they did not understand the scriptures and that the resurrected life will be different than that of normal human experience.
The last two types of questions are asked in today’s passage. First the Pharisees, happy to see the Sadducees’ question about resurrection shot down, next asked a question about the meaning of life. “What is the most important commandment?” they asked. Now, you might think this is a question of law, but it is actually a question of purpose. What is our purpose but to live faithfully to the word of God? Jesus answered with two great commandments: to love God and to love neighbor.
Jesus did not give them time to respond; He asked them a question. “Whose son is the Messiah?” They answered, “David’s son.” This, of course, is the right answer, and yet it offers a question of contradiction. Jesus responded, “How then doth David in the Spirit call him Lord, saying, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, Till I put thine enemies underneath thy feet? If David then calleth him Lord, how is he his son?”
They were looking for a military hero, a king in the line of David. Their Messiah would be that man who could sit on the throne and restore Jerusalem to its former glory, to the golden nation that it once was. They were stumped by His question. They did not know how a son of David could be greater than David himself. How would David have called that son “Lord” long before any sons had risen to the throne? This seeming contradiction cannot be easily answered, unless you believe that the Messiah would be someone even greater than David, someone who would do more than an earthly king. The only way for David to call the Messiah “Lord” is if the Messiah were God in flesh.
This is a concept that we have a problem understanding even with our greater knowledge of the world. It is not a fact that can be explained intellectually. It is something we have to believe from our heart. This is the tricky part, since our heart can be fickle. In our hearts we can know love and hate, joy and anger, knowledge of good and evil. If we rely on our feelings, we will be led astray as we follow our own desires and intelligence. Feelings can be deceptive. We might feel that we are doing right, but others will consider what we are doing is wrong. Our gut reactions can lead us to do something that will hurt our neighbor.
If we think of the heart as they did in Jesus’ day, we’ll see that love is not about feelings but about living wholly and completely for God and neighbor. It isn’t about feelings, but about living our purpose in this world. The entire record of God rests upon those two commands. The scriptures of the Jews could be summarized with just a couple sentences. We could spend days, even a lifetime, discussing, debating, interpreting and understanding the Ten Commandments and the other six hundred and three laws, but holiness is not achieved by obedience to a list of rules. Holiness comes in our commitment to living as God has called and gifted us to live.
Love is about commitment. All too many young people today talk of love and rush into relationships that have little basis or commitment. When things go sour, when things do not go the way they want, when their partners fail to live up to their expectation, they walk away. Many people try to test out marriage, to see if it will work. Yet it will never work because they do not go into the relationship with any sense of commitment. Commitment takes work. It means giving heart, soul and mind into the relationship. Love is far more than physical attraction; it is willing to sacrifice for the sake of another, to give one’s whole being into the relationship. It means being holy like God is holy.
How can we possibly be holy? I wonder if I've ever had even one day that could be counted as holy, let alone an entire life. I can’t get through a day without yelling at my kids or thinking unkind thoughts about my neighbor. Some days I can’t seem to get through a minute without doing something that is far from holy. Yet, we are called to be holy. What does this mean for you and me? What does it mean to be holy people of God, called to be like Him in this world?
The Old Testament lesson gives us a list of holy actions as related to our relationships with our neighbors. These rules are about judging rightly and fairly and treating one another as we would want to be treated. In other words, these rules call us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In verse 15 the LORD says, “Do not pervert justice.” He adds, “Do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great.” Justice is not about lifting up one type of person above another, it is about judging fairly. Though it might not seem right according to our politically correct society, sometimes the rich man is right. We are to treat all people fairly, no matter their circumstances.
The next two rules are related. “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor.” We should not harm our neighbor by words or actions. As children we learn that “Sticks and stones break my bones but words can never hurt me,” and yet as adults we learn that slander can destroy a life. If a businessman is slandered, he might lose his customers, leaving his family desolate. A false statement against a teacher can mean removal from the job. A leader who has been slandered will lose the authority of their position. For some, these loses are worse than death.
“Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart.” Do we hate others? I’d like to think that we understand that hate is not good but there are always people who rub us the wrong way. Instead of dealing with the sins and differences between us, we separate ourselves from those with whom we disagree. However, scriptural hate is not like we define in today’s world. When the scriptures says that God loved Jacob and hated Esau, it did not mean that God felt an aversion to Esau, but that God put Jacob ahead of Esau. So, when commanding that we not hate our brother in our heart, God is telling us not to put ourselves above our neighbor. Instead of separating from them, we should find a way to reconcile and restore the relationship.
The instruction about hate is juxtaposed with the next command, “Thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor.” If we don’t, the Lord tells us that we will share in their guilt. In other words, though we would much rather keep our noses out of the business of our neighbors thinking that their sin is not our concern, we are called to rebuke our brother for their sake and our own. If a brother or sister is doing something wrong and we ignore the trespass, we are as much to blame for the harm it causes another. In this case, love means truth no matter how much it might pain us to speak. But when we speak that truth, it is to be done with mercy and grace. We should not seek revenge or hold grudges, but love our neighbor as we want to be loved.
We are called to be righteous, not in terms of moral behavior but in terms of justice, doing what is right and fair for and to our neighbor. We are called to be truthful in the way we deal with our neighbor both when speaking about them and to them. We are called to respect their life, body and soul. We are called to forgive, so that our relationships might grow stronger and our love deeper. That’s what it means to be holy, to be like God. I don’t know if these actions will make it any easier to be holy, but as we strive to be like god in our relationships with one another, we’ll discover that we are better able to live within our God-given purpose.
Paul tries to live this in his life and ministry. Paul tells the Thessalonians that he worked hard for their sake giving “also our own souls.” He loved them with his heart, mind and soul. He loved them with his whole being. Unfortunately, Paul’s ministry was often disrupted by other preachers intent on perverting the Gospel message. Paul was harmed in Philippi and he wanted to ensure that the people of Thessalonica did not fall for the same false Gospel. Paul reminds the people that he did not require anything of them. He didn’t demand payment. He didn’t ask for gifts. He gave them the Gospel and encouraged them to live accordingly. He loved them so that they might know the love of God fully. He was worried about his fellow Christians, but was firm in his faith.
We are encouraged to do the same. Our task is not just to take the Gospel to all nations, but to also teach the baptized to obey all that Christ commanded (Matthew 28.) We should not give them only a word, but our whole selves. We are called to love them, not just with a call to believe but with an invitation into a relationship with Christ, His Church and us. Part of that nurturing includes learning together how to ensure justice in our world, to keep our leaders in check and to provide for the needs of the less fortunate. Faith is manifested not only in a religious life, but also in a life where all things are done by faith, in faith, with faith. That’s the holy life.
The psalmist writes, “Blessed is the man…” We generally think of happiness in terms that can be expressed with a ‘smiley face,’ a manifestation of good feelings about life. Yet, the most common understanding of the word ‘happy’ according to Merriam-Webster’s diction is “favored by luck or fortune.” That’s blessedness, but the favor comes from something more true than luck or fortune; the favor comes from God. When God blesses, we have reason to be happy. In this beatitude, the happy ones are those who do not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of scoffers. Walk, stand or sit, the blessed one is the person who drinks in the Word of God, meditating on the scriptures like a tree that stands next to a stream drinks in the passing water. The blessed one is he or she who takes the Word of God to heart, lives it with their whole being and does what God has called them to do.
It is all about the heart. Not feelings. Not knowledge. We are called to live God’s purpose in the world, by loving Him and our neighbor with our whole selves, striving to be holy as God is holy. In doing so, our neighbors will see the Messiah and hear the Good News, joining us in our quest for holiness in this world as we wait longingly for the day when we will live eternally with our God.
“And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud, and I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.” Genesis 9:12-17, ASV
Taken directly from the Wikipedia about rainbows: “A rainbow is an optical and meteorological phenomenon that causes a spectrum of light to appear in the sky when the Sun shines on to droplets of moisture in the Earth’s atmosphere. It takes the form of a multicolored arc. Rainbows caused by sunlight always appear in the section of sky directly opposite the sun.”
Also: “A rainbow spans a continuous spectrum of colors—there are no “bands.” The apparent discreteness is an artifact of the photopigments in the human eye and of the neural processing of our photoreceptor outputs in the brain. Because the peak response of human color receptors varies from person to person, different individuals will see slightly different colors, and persons with color blindness will see a smaller set of colors. However, the seven colors listed below are thought to be representative of how humans everywhere, with normal color vision, see the rainbow. The final color in the rainbow is violet, not purple.”
One more: “The light is first refracted entering the surface of the raindrop, reflected off the back of the drop, and again refracted as it leaves the drop. The overall effect is that the incoming light is reflected back over a wide range of angles, with the most intense light at an angle of 40–42°. The angle is independent of the size of the drop, but does depend on its refractive index. Seawater has a higher refractive index than rain water, so the radius of a ‘rainbow’ in sea spray is smaller than a true rainbow. This is visible to the naked eye by a misalignment of these bows.”
Wow, that is too many big words for early in the morning, which is why I just copied and pasted rather than tried to rewrite the text. I have learned to understand the rainbow in much simpler terms: it rains, the sun shines and a rainbow forms when the sun shines through the water. You always look away from the sun to see the rainbow, and if you are lucky enough to be in between the rain and the sun, you’ll see it. A rainbow is made of seven colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. And they are pretty.
One of things I loved about England was the number of rainbows we saw. Since the weather systems on the island tend to be small and fast moving, so the opportunity for sun and rain at the same time is greater than other places I have lived. The rainbows also tended to be much closer than those I’ve seen in Texas and California. That might be a phenomenon of the size of the landscape. In California and Texas, the rainbows were very far away and covered the whole sky. In England, the rainbows covered the whole sky, but seemed to be close enough to touch. After one storm, I even saw where the rainbow touched the earth.
We can think about the scientific reasons for a rainbow or consider the beauty and simplicity of it, but the rainbow also stands as a reminder of something extraordinary. In today’s passage we see God’s use of something so natural to promise something beyond our imagination. Throughout history there have been those who have tried to reduce the great flood to something local and reasonable. A flood that covered the whole earth seems impossible, but to make it a flood that covers only the known world seems logical.
Does it matter? I’m not sure, but I do know that it is difficult for someone who has suffered the effects of a flood to see the promise in the rainbow. It might seem to that person that God is not faithful; after all, He had not been faithful to that family. But the promise of the rainbow is about more than protecting the stuff we collect. That rainbow has appeared to remind us that God will not destroy humankind. We will go on, even when the world around us seems to be falling apart. We can have faith, knowing God is faithful, and live in the hope of what tomorrow will bring. And we don’t need a natural wonder like a rainbow to remind us of that fact, because we have God’s Word. But it is nice to see a rainbow once in awhile, isn’t it? With it we can know in our hearts that God remembers, too.
“Beloved, I beseech you as sojourners and pilgrims, to abstain from fleshly lust, which war against the soul; having your behavior seemly among the Gentiles; that, wherein they speak against you as evil-doers, they may by your good works, which they behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.” 1 Peter 2:11-12, ASV
I saw a picture today of the aftermath of the tragedy in Ohio involving the wild animals that were killed. For some unknown reason, a man who had an animal refuge set the animals free and then killed himself. As the story has continued to unfold, it has been discovered that he had financial difficulties. His love for the animals had put him in debt beyond his ability to pay. His neighbors and friends all reported that he was a kind man who loved animals more than people. He took in the animals to save them, even though he could not afford another mouth to feed. Wild animals like lions and tigers and bears are very expensive to keep, but he didn’t want them to be destroyed.
As we look at the aftermath, our tendency is to try to assign blame. The person most directly at fault is the man who could have made better choices in developing his refuge and he certainly did not have to set the animals free or kill himself. But some have suggested that it is all the government’s fault, either because they put too high a tax burden on the man or they didn’t have enough regulations to keep the man from collecting so many animals. Others blame the police who shot the animals, questioning whether there was a better way of dealing with the problem.
Each person or group bears some responsibility, and yet perhaps this is not a time for placing blame. The whole situation is heartbreaking and the photographs are terrible. This impact on the lives of those involved, especially the man and his family is tragic. The entire disaster could have been avoided, although I can’t say exactly what should have been different. I expect that it will bring about changes to laws and response plans. Some might be positive, others will be hasty. And those responses might never get to the root of the problem, which is ultimately the human tendency to go after their desires despite the impact it might have on others.
I’ve always joked that I would love to have a baby lion or tiger. They are so cute as babies, small and playful. They seem very easy to handle, after all, those kittens are barely the size of a full size adult cat. Most people realize that the kitten will be gone in less than a year and then they’d have to deal with a full size wild animal. That’s why I’ve never pursued the possibility of having a lion or tiger in my home. Some, however, think they can handle the situation. “Oh, it won’t be so bad. I’ll raise the cat from a baby and he will love me always.” That might be true. We’ve seen stories of adult wild cats loving the people who raised them. However, we are always reminded that the animals are still wild, no matter how much they are loved. They can’t be happy living in a small home. They will eventually follow their instincts, escape and hurt someone.
At some point, many people who keep wild animals as pets realize that it is impossible to continue. They discover how expensive it is to feed the animal, and how cruel it is to keep them penned in a small habitat. They have to give the animal away, and those pets end up in refuges like the man had in Ohio. He was a man whose heart was right. He took every animal donated because he knew that if he didn’t those animals might be put to death. Yet, he had no more ability to care for those animals than the original owner. In the end, these animals died anyway, but how much of the blame is being put on those first owners who selfishly tried to have a wildcat as a pet but then abandoned the animals when they could not handle the work?
There might be a place for laws governing the sales and care of wild animals. But this is the perfect example of times when we should consider the consequences of our selfish decisions. If that original owner had thought about what might happen to those animals if they couldn’t keep them, they would not buy them. We might think that our decisions are harmless, but if we continue to make decisions based on our selfish wants, in the end someone will be hurt. And in doing so, we might just put others in a bad position, like the man who thought he had no way out or the law enforcement that had no choice but to kill the animals. All those involved with this refuge will hold on to the pain and guilt of that day forever. Will those who selfishly chose to get an exotic pet even consider their own responsibility?
We may not fully understand what happened in Ohio, and we do not have enough to make judgments on anyone involved, but we can learn much from this story. The decisions we make to impact the world. So, as we make our decisions today, let’s consider the consequences, not only for ourselves but for others. How will this decision eventually affect the world in which we live and the people around us?
“And as they spake these things, he himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they beheld a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and wherefore do questionings arise in your heart? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye behold me having. And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.” Luke 24:36-40, ASV
When I was a mobile disc jockey, I had to carry all my equipment. That included turntables, soundboard, speakers, plus cords, lighting and prizes. I even had a disco ball to hang if it was possible. On top of all that equipment, I also had to carry all my music, which included hundreds of albums and hundreds of 45s. Everything was heavy, and it took me some time to carry it into the venue and get is set up.
My DJ days were long before the digital revolution. Tapes were a possibility, but are very difficult to cue. CD’s were a new invention, and it wasn’t until the end of my working that some of the DJs were trying out the format. I was pretty good at mixing the music; some song combinations were so seamlessly put together that it was hard to tell when one song ended and the next began. I’m not sure I would have been that good with any other musical format.
Bruce and I went to a wedding Saturday night and they had a DJ to play the music. I didn’t get a close-up look at the guy’s equipment, but I know that his table was much smaller than anything I ever used. He seemed to have a computer, and there were several speakers as well as some lighting. He moved his set up quickly from the wedding venue to the dining room where the reception was held. I think he might have had it all in a movable cart that he just rolled from one place to another. I could not have offered that option when I was a DJ; there was simply too much to move and set up with my equipment.
It made me think about how our world has changed. I still have most of those hundreds of albums and 45s. They take up space on my entertainment center and my closet. I also have a record player on which I can play the vinyl. That takes up space, too. Then I look at my children, who keep their entire collection of music on an MP3 player, a tiny piece of equipment no more than a few square inches of plastic. On that player they can hold more music than I have in all my vinyl, tapes and CDs put together. My collection takes lots of space in my house to store, but the children can fit theirs in their pocket.
This is, in some ways, a good thing. If we had everything we owned reduced to no more than a few bites on a computer, we wouldn’t need to live in such big houses. It would be easier to move. It even seems like we do not possess so much. After all, you can come into my house and see how much money I’ve spent over the years on my music. It is impossible to see with the MP3 players. I’m not even sure that the kids know what they’ve spent. And perhaps that’s the problem with modern technology. My kids possess no less than I do, but they have nothing to show for it.
We have removed the tangibility of our stuff. It is easy to think that we have chosen a simpler way of life by not collecting so much. The equipment is smaller, fewer pieces are necessary. We no longer need a VCR and a stack of videos; we can order movies from an internet company and show it on our computer or even our phone. I have a complete, mint condition set of Encyclopedia Britannica that I’d like to give away, but no school will take it because it is easier to use digital copies for research. We are losing that sense of touch that we used to have when we changed a record on the record player or held a book in our hands.
Unfortunately, we’ve reduced many of our relationships to digital, too. We text people or email them rather than visit them or talk on the phone. We give virtual hugs, send virtual greetings, and give virtual gifts. The whole social experience of many people is limited to the internet. We are far more involved in people’s personal lives, hearing about every minute of their day, and yet we are farther removed because we do not pursue those relationships face to face.
Jesus had gone through an extraordinary transformation. He’d died, been raised and was something new. He could have proven Himself in a million different ways, including ways that would have impacted the whole world at once. Instead of appearing on the clouds or appearing in the presence of millions, Jesus visited His friends and told them to touch Him. He began the spread of the Gospel in a very personal and tangible manner. Let us remember this before we lose touch with everything by making even our faith digital.
“If therefore they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the wilderness; go not forth: Behold, he is in the inner chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh forth from the east, and is seen even unto the west; so shall be the coming of the Son of man. Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.” Matthew 24:26-28, ASV
There was a story in San Antonio a few days ago of a number of men who broke into a government building. The original stories reported very suspicious behavior beyond that of breaking in to a building. A vehicle nearby was said to have contained materials that might be used by terrorists. The city streets were shut down for hours as bomb dogs searched for anything out of the ordinary. It was a frightening thought that such danger could happen so close to home, but the authorities took care of everything quickly and nothing bad happened.
Later in the day, more information about the story was reported, and the new explanations were anything but sinister. As a matter of fact, the men arrested were said to have been simply drunk. In their intoxication, they had decided that they wanted to see the city from that point of view. This new story even now seems ridiculous, but the reporters have so much more information than they had in those first hours. The evidence that was found was not as they had reported it to be early in the morning. The immediate reaction to the updates was skepticism, but after a few days it seems that their initial reports were wrong and the new story was right.
It is easy to be skeptical when hearing news these days. Communication is so fast, that we jump into speaking before processing what is happening. The second something happens, the reporters jump into their seats on the set and begin babbling about the event, not yet having any facts to go with their reports. They make guesses, sometimes good guesses, sometimes bad, and report those guesses as if they are the truth. Then, as the story unfolds, we learn that it was nothing like they originally reported. They usually jump to the worst case scenario. As they report the new information, they give new interpretations, but the original fears or concerns are still in our minds.
This skepticism appears in other ways, too. I heard news about a friend the other day, but it was so ridiculous that I didn’t believe it could be true. The early reports came with no answers to question because nobody had any. I didn’t know what happened. I didn’t understand how it could have happened. I was shocked, but also uncertain. What if the message was wrong? What if the information was incomplete? The disbelief I feel whenever I hear news reported was the same disbelief I was feeling the morning I heard the news about my friend.
We managed to get through another day prophesied to be the end of the earth. Last Friday was the culmination of Harold Camping’s predictions about the end times, when everything was supposed to be finished. He was wrong about what happened in the spring, although had an explanation for his false information. I have not heard anything about him this week, whether or not he has managed to explain away his mistake. This wasn’t even just the second time he was wrong. He had made similar predictions in the past. How did anyone take him seriously this time?
We have to be careful about what we believe, whether it is on the news, in our personal lives or in our faith. Many people speak before really understanding what they are saying. They make judgments without enough information. They talk as if everything they say is the truth, but change their words when things don’t go their way. As time gets shorter, more will claim to know all the answers. They will make predictions and speak prophecies that are based on the wrong information. That’s why it is up to us to listen, but be wary, of every word. For Christ will come in God’s time, not according to the judgment of men.
Sunday, October 30, 2011, Lectionary 31Aor Reformation Sunday: Micah 3:5-12; Psalm 43; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12 or Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
Today’s message is based only on the Lectionary 31A texts. Visit the archives for Reformation devotions.
“Oh send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me: Let them bring me unto thy holy hill, And to thy tabernacles.” Psalm 43:3, ASV
When I first began writing “A WORD FOR TODAY” and managing my website, several friends suggested that I should use it to make some money. They had recommendations for companies that promise money for clicks. One friend was trying to sell health supplements and wanted me to sign up, too. None of the schemes would take much of my time, and though there was no guarantee for riches, a few dollars a month might have helped my family through tough times. Others suggested that I should put a donation button on my website, seeking financial help with the costs of keeping the website.
It does cost me money. I purposely pay for my online space so that I do not have to have banner advertisements on my pages. I pay for my domain and whatever resources I need to do the writing. It doesn’t cost very much, but in those days when we had difficulty paying our bills, even a few donations might have helped. From the beginning, however, the website was always meant to be a gift. It is one of the ways I’ve been blessed to serve God in this world. It is my offering to Him, and it will never be a source of revenue for my family.
Paul worked hard to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the world. He spent time on the road, and anyone who has traveled knows how expensive it can be. Eating out costs more money than a home-cooked meal. Paul might have found housing with family or fellow Christians, but I suspect he spent many nights at inns, especially when he was traveling from one town to another. He had to purchase tickets for his journeys on ships. He would have had to pay for whatever services others did for him. Though I am sure the Christian community willingly shared themselves with Paul and his companions, Paul was not always in a Christian community. He often shared the Gospel with people who had never heard about Jesus and he could not depend on the fellowship of believers until they believed.
Even then, Paul did not rely on others. He was a tentmaker and he continued to do that work as he traveled from town to town. He earned his own pay, paid his own bills and didn’t take any money for the work he did for the Christian community. The recent texts from 1 Thessalonians brought up the question a few weeks ago about why Paul makes such a big deal about his self sufficiency. It is another one of those ways that Paul sounds arrogant and self-centered to some readers.
We see this again in today’s second lesson. Paul speaks about how hard he worked so that the people of Thessalonica would not be burdened by him. He wanted to make sure that the people knew what he was giving to them was real, not something he was willing to say just to get paid. Paul knew the Word of God was not his to sell; it was a gift from God. Unfortunately, there were others who were not so humble about the gift of the Gospel. Many roaming preachers expected payment, and they preached for their own benefit. They preached a message that played well with the listeners so that they would give the most payment for the words.
That’s what was happening in Micah’s day. The false prophets preached a message of peace when the listeners were willing to feed them, but when the crowd was not generous enough, they spoke of doom and destruction to those who would not pay them. It doesn’t take very long before people give money just to hear what they want to hear. A message of peace is much more palatable than that of war. What are a few loaves of bread to someone who has been promised peace and happiness?
Everyone likes to hear a positive message. No one wants to hear that they have wronged God and that God will allow their world to be destroyed. But the prophets who sold that message of peace were not speaking God’s word. Sometimes we have to face difficult times. Sometimes we have to face the consequences of our actions and those times are not pleasant or peaceful. The prophets were given their gift to help God’s people walk a straight line and live as God had ordained them to live. The kings and the wealthy were never willing to pay for the truth. They wanted to hear the things that made them feel and look good, so they supported the prophets that gave them what they wanted.
There might be good reason to speak a positive message when times are tough. Some prophets may speak about peace because they know dwelling on the negative message will only make the hearer afraid or moved to wrong action. They have good and right motive, but a lie is still a lie. And is it really good to have the world turned upside down because there was no call to change? Prophets are not given messages of warning to make them afraid. It is a call to repentance. God has been known to ‘change His mind.” Take Nineveh, for example. When Jonah got around to preaching the message to the Ninevites, they repented and God had mercy on them. Might the destruction of Jerusalem have been averted if only the prophets told the truth? The blessings would have been far greater if the people had heard the right word and done what God called them to do.
We need to beware of those who expect payment for the Word of God. I used to belong to a mailing list in which prophetic voices shared their visions and prophecies. I was impressed with the words that were shared in the beginning, and blessed by the messages they gave. As the list grew, I found that more and more of the messages I received were selling me something. Even those that included a prophetic message had links to books to buy or conferences to attend. They sold workshops in how to be a prophet. The last time I visited the website, I had difficulty even finding a word from God. Everyone was more interested in selling themselves.
So the inevitable question came out of the discussion at Sunday school: “Why do we pay our pastors?” It might seem like these scriptures put forth an example of pastors working outside the church to support themselves, giving the Gospel to the people for free. That is the model that some churches use, but most have full time pastoral staff that are paid a salary. Are they being paid for the Gospel? Not really. In modern churches, the pastor serves the congregation in many ways beyond being a preacher. They are administrators, worship planners, counselors. They serve the members by performing the rites of passage through life and death. They educate, encourage, admonish. Is it possible that a pastor might lean his or her service toward the money? Of course, pastors are as human as the rest of us. But we cannot expect a pastor to be available 24/7 to do everything we want them to do and support themselves with another job. If the church body would do all the work, leaving the preachers to just preach, perhaps we could return to the model shown to us by Paul. Until that day we have to support our pastors with money as well as encouragement, prayer and support.
The example we see in Paul is more than just one of a man who refuses to be paid for his work among the Christians. Paul encouraged the Christians at Thessalonica to live a life worthy of God. Paul gave a model of self-sufficiency and pride in a job well-done. Someone once said, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” Any vocation is sacred if you’re called to it by God. Could Paul have done more if he’d let others pay the bill? I don’t think so, because in modeling a life of hard work as well as ministry, Paul showed the world that the message of Christ was for all men, not just the religious and intellectual. Jesus’ grace is for the maid and the monk, the janitor and the priest. All who have faith have been called to the same place: to be children of God and to share the Gospel of Christ.
Whether our job is in ministry or in some other arena, we are called to speak the truth of God’s Word and to live a life that praises God. The words we speak may not always be embraced by the listeners, but if it is God’s Word they will be blessed in the hearing. Unfortunately, too many choose to speak words that profit their own lives.
The Gospel lessons over the past few weeks have centered during the week of Jesus’ passion. We’ve heard Him speak parables that demonstrate the worst of human nature and suggest that the religious leaders of the day were guilty of every one. We knew, as we heard the stories, our own guilt and we’ve been convicted of our own twisted sense of justice and mercy. We aren’t living as Christ called us to live.
In just a few short days, Jesus would finish the journey to the cross and the work His Father sent for Him to do. His glory would never be found in the seats at the head of the table or in fine clothes. He was not sent to be popular or famous. He was not sent to gain a huge following or build a great church. He came to reform the religious understanding of His people, to bring mercy and grace. Most of all, He came to die for the sake of those who believe in Him, to take the burden of their sin and banish it forever.
As He drew nearer to the cross, His message became more urgent and more direct. In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus speaks to the crowds about the insincerity of the teachers of the Law. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not.” The teachers do not practice what they preach. They do everything for the sake of appearances. “But all their works they do to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, Rabbi.” For them it was about power, and they held a great deal of power over the people.
Jesus came to bring a different message. He came to be a model of humility, to call His people into a life of service and mercy. He showed the ultimate obedience by dying on the cross and by His grace we see the real glory of God. We aren’t called to die on a cross, but we are called to live according to the word God has given, as humble servants going forth in faith to share God’s love and mercy with the world. Sometimes that means taking the hard road. Sometimes that means facing tough times. Sometimes that means getting your hands dirty, wallowing in the muck and mire of life.
It has been a blessing to be able to provide this ministry without asking for anyone to pay. This does not diminish the work of pastors and other church leaders who have taken upon themselves the yoke of ministry for which they should be paid. They are not selfish in their need for a salary and I’m not selfless in my refusal of money. We are simply doing what God has called us to do, trusting in God to provide for our needs. He provides in so many different ways. The trouble comes when we step outside that trust, seeking profit beyond God’s blessings. Whether our work is paid or whether it is free, it is our reliance on God that stands as a testament to His grace.
The psalmist writes, “Oh send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me: Let them bring me unto thy holy hill, And to thy tabernacles.” The psalmist knows what it is like to live in the fear of abandonment. The prayer begins in Psalm 42, with a cry from one who feels far from God, desolate in isolation. The psalmist wants to be in God’s presence, but is likely far from the Temple, perhaps taken captive by another nation. He feels oppressed and afraid. In Psalm 43, he prays for God’s deliverance; though he has taken refuge in God, he still feels abandoned. He prays for restoration and is ready to follow God home.
At the end, the psalmist asks himself why he’s downcast. “Hope thou in God; for I shall yet praise him, Who is the help of my countenance, and my God.” We need not wait for God to prove Himself to trust in Him. He has been our hope and our help always. It would have been easy for Paul to demand that the Christians pay his way; after all he was working hard to help them create a community of faithful believers. He was a teacher, preacher and organizer. He traveled a long way to share the Message with them. I’m sure he would have appreciated taking a break from his tent work to rest or relax once in a while. I have to admit that it would have been nice to have financial support during those times when we were facing financial difficulty. But sometimes we are called to give what we’ve been given and trust that God will provide the rest.
In what way is God calling you to live that life worthy of Him? Where is He asking you to be self-sufficient? What sort of jobs is He giving you to do without profit in order to share the Good News with others? In what ways are you like those religious leaders who put on a good show but do not mean what they say? In what ways are you being called to be humble, to take refuge in God and hope only in Him?
“Wherefore we henceforth know no man after the flesh: even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more. Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new. But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave unto us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and having committed unto us the word of reconciliation. We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God. Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, ASV
Perhaps you’ve heard this story: “A lady recently being baptized was asked by a co-worker what it was like to be a Christian. She replied, ‘It’s like being a pumpkin: God picks you from the patch, brings you in, and washes all the dirt off you may have gotten from the other pumpkins. Then he cuts the top off and scoops out all the yucky stuff. He removes the seeds of doubt, hate, greed, etc. Then He carves you a new smiling face and puts His light inside of you to shine for all the world to see.’”
I watched a series of shows on the food network recently called “Halloween Wars.” The show was a competition between teams that were made up of a pumpkin carver, a cake designer and a candy maker. Each week they had to work together to create showpieces that fit the theme and highlighted each of their talents. The showpieces were amazing; the contestants were able to do incredible things with pumpkin, cake and sugar.
What I’ve found interesting is that in recent days, pumpkin decorating does not always include cutting and gutting. Many people choose to paint their pumpkins. Others use an embossing technique, removing only the orange skin to reveal the light colored flesh. In one of the challenges on the television show, the contestants didn’t carve the pumpkin at all. They covered it with chocolate, and then carved it to show the underlying orange of the pumpkin.
Pumpkins are beautiful as they are grown. Some pumpkins are tall and skinny, others are short and fat. Sometimes they are perfectly round and brightly colored orange. Other pumpkins are wacky in shape or covered with speckles of green or white. Some grow absolutely humungous and others are tiny. Each one is unique. I suppose that’s another way we are like the pumpkin; we are all unique.
When my kids were little, we visited pumpkin farms whenever we could. I looked for the biggest, most unusual pumpkin I could find. I often chose pumpkins that were too big to carry. Thankfully, the pumpkin patches provided wheel barrels so we could get the pumpkins out of the patch, and then wrestled them into the car. Sometimes my pumpkins were so big I had to struggle with cutting and gutting. In the end, however, the pumpkins were fun; the large size gave me a bigger canvas for extra details. As much as I enjoyed the process, I can’t imagine spending the time on a pumpkin that some of these new techniques require. Some pumpkin carvers spend hours on their masterpieces.
The heartbreaking part of pumpkin carving is the fact that the carved pumpkins are then susceptible to rot. The minute that pumpkin is cut, the flesh begins to mold and it eventually shrivels into an ugly mess. It doesn’t matter how much time is spent on the pumpkin masterpiece, within a few weeks, it is gone. The more flesh that has been uncovered, the faster it will go. I suppose that’s why so many are choosing these other techniques. A painted pumpkin can last for months.
That’s where the analogy of the pumpkin falls short when it comes to the Christian life. We might think that revealing all the yucky stuff will be a bad thing. After all, none of us wants to admit that we aren’t perfect. We don’t want to admit that we need forgiveness and transformation. We don’t want to be changed. We are beautiful, just as we have been created. There might be some truth in that, just as a pumpkin is beautiful as it has grown on the vine. But how much better is a pumpkin after it has been cut, either as a decoration or as a pie! You can’t be the best you are meant to be if you are untouched by the Master. The uncut pumpkin might last longer, but it, too, will wither away. What a blessing it is to be transformed and given a purpose! The best part is the light He puts in us that shines His mercy and grace into the world. And despite the cutting and gutting, we won’t turn into an ugly mess. At God’s hands the change will bring eternal life in His presence.
“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.” Psalm 103:13-18, ASV
I picked this scripture early this morning because I was thinking about flowers. A cold front came through Texas last night; we hit a high in the 80’s yesterday and the temperature dropped thirty degrees in a matter of hours. We woke up to much colder weather this morning than we’ve seen for months. It made me think of the flowers, though we haven’t had very many this year because of the drought. This cold front, or the one we are expecting in just a few days, is likely to kill off the flowers that have survived very soon. The deciduous trees that have survived the drought will begin dropping their leaves. We don’t get much fall color in Texas, but it is likely the peak will be soon. And then we’ll be ready for winter, trees bare, grass golden brown and flowers sleeping until the spring.
I didn’t write earlier today because I had someplace to be this morning. I went to a funeral. I didn’t think about it much when I selected this scripture, thinking more about the end of summer than the loss of a brother in Christ. As I reread the passage when I got home, I realized how poignant it was for us today. The friend we celebrated was a young man, just thirty-three years old. He hasn’t been married very long and has a beautiful one year old daughter. He worked with the youth of the church and was loved by many. His death was tragic, a sudden and unexpected medical anomaly that shocked us all.
The service was beautiful, the sermon was full of grace and the eyes of the congregation were overflowing with tears. It is natural to cry, to feel pain, at the loss of a loved one. It doesn’t matter who it is, how long they’ve lived or how they died, someone suffers. As we walked to our car, though, I mentioned to Bruce how different it is when we attend the funeral of a loved one who has died of old age and the funeral of a young man who has died unexpectantly. We know we will die someday, and though we are sad at the loss of a person who has lived a long and productive life, we can celebrate all they have accomplished. When someone dies too young in a tragic and unexpected way, however, we are reminded at the fragility of our lives and our bodies.
Our pastor said in her sermon, “This was not God’s will.” That’s true. It is not God’s will that any of His children should die. It is a natural part of the life we live in this world. Then Pastor Tracey finished the sermon with this, “I think it’s because Jon was such a bright light in our lives that we feel his loss so deeply. There is a weight of sadness, a shroud of darkness, hanging over us. We all sense that. We all feel that. There’s no use pretending it’s not there. But that darkness is not all there is. Let us remember that the light Jon shared with all of us was not of his own making. He shared with us the light of Christ, through the death and resurrection into which he had baptized, and that light can never be extinguished. Even in our darkness, Christ’s light shines. Joined together in the one body, the communion of saints, let us shine that light for one another, and let us trust again God’s truth: Death and darkness do not have the final word. Christ does. And this is God’s will for us. A light shines in the darkness, even in this present darkness, and the Light cannot be overcome. Thanks be to God!”
Thank you, Pastor Tracey for giving us a word of grace in a moment of sorrow. And thank you, Jon, for reminding us to live fully and faithfully every moment we have.
“For though I was free from all men, I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, not being myself under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, not being without law to God, but under law to Christ, that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak: I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. And I do all things for the gospel's sake, that I may be a joint partaker thereof.” 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, ASV
Zombies are very popular this year. It is typical to hear about horror characters around Halloween. Many channels have been filled with documentaries about haunted places and legendary creatures. They’ve shown documentaries about werewolves, vampires, Frankenstein, mummies and demonic possessions. The shows are created to feed an interest that is certainly highlighted by the Halloween holiday. It seems like the creature of choice this year is the zombie. National Geographic is showing a two hour program about zombies.
Even the government has gotten on the zombie bandwagon. A few weeks ago, a blog post on the Center for Disease Control website warned about an impending Zombie Apocalypse, offering recommendations for preparedness in the event of a zombie emergency. The article, which seems to have disappeared from the website, could have been written about preparedness for any natural disaster. The list was familiar: water, cash, radio and flashlights with batteries, food. They recommended making a plan for dealing with the emergency and arranging a meeting place for family members. Though they used a funny and fictional emergency for the article, it caught people’s attention and made them aware of the need to be prepared for any emergency.
When it comes to preparedness, I suppose most of us don’t think we will need to worry. We are not ready for an emergency to hit us immediately, even though we know the value of having a kit prepared. I wonder how many people in the Northeast were caught unaware by the weekend snow storm. I wonder how many wish they’d had enough milk, bread, batteries and candles in their homes. The same is true of those who are caught in other weather situations. We sometimes have a warning, but even then it can be too late. When a storm looms in the Gulf of Mexico, we run to the grocery store in the hope of buying the things we might need, but we discover the shelves are empty.
We become complacent because we hear the same thing year after year. When hurricane season is just around the corner, they put out the list for storm preparedness. We’ve heard it so many times that we barely even pay attention. The same is true for those in tornado alley and for those who might experience harsh winter weather. We know what they are going to say, so we don’t even read the story. By choosing to title the post “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse” the CDC caught everyone’s attention in a way that the usual article would not. I’m sure a lot of people clicked into that article. I did.
Sadly, I think the world views the Gospel message as they do those constant reminders about emergency preparedness. They’ve stopped listening. We love the Lord and know how life-changing the Word of God is for those who hear and believe, and we want them to experience His grace, too. We don’t understand why someone would ignore something so important, but perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from the CDC in this. Perhaps we need to find a new way to get people’s attention. The Word is unchanging, but the ears who hear it are unique. Paul understood this, and so he preached in a way that reached everyone in a way that would make them pay attention. Zombies might be popular, but Jesus Christ gives life. Let’s find a way that will get that message to the world.