Total Pageviews

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Stressed? Pause and Pray

            You’re driving out of your neighborhood, headed to an early meeting.  You didn’t leave the house quite early enough.  Now, traffic ahead of you is stopped.  Oh, no!  A school bus.  And there are 9 kids at stop, lined up, s-l-o-w-l-y boarding.  Yes, it’s the first day, but must each parent give such a prolonged “goodbye”?
            Finally, the bus gets moving, but then, as you turn onto the main road, it hits you.  You have to drive right by the school, which will be backed up with parents dropping their kids off.  Really?  Today?  Ugh!
            You get past the school.  Now you’re sweating a bit.  It won’t look good if you’re late to this meeting.  You’re thinking about the day ahead and don’t really pay that close attention to where you’re going.  Driving on mental auto-pilot, you take the route through town as you have all summer.  Only a few seconds too late do you realize, the university is also back in session. 
School is back in session!
Downtown Chapel Hill is going to be overrun with cocky Tar Heel undergrads crossing the street wherever they feel like it, and 1000’s of other people who seem to have arrived in town en masse for the start of the semester.  Maybe it won’t be so bad, you pray as you near the heart of the city, only to discover it is as bad as you anticipated.
Now, you’re going to be late for the meeting.  And, after enduring the long stare and furrowed brow of your boss, you’re going to have to hear your co-workers chatter incessantly about their kids’ first day. 

            Take a deep breath.  In and out.  Take several if you need to.  The traffic is moving slowly, you have time.  This is the part where you remember that you’re a follower of Jesus.  When you step into the world, your primary calling is to live in a way that shines His light and emits His love. 
            As you sit in traffic, think back to that mom you saw wiping away tears as she ushered her kindergartener onto the school bus for the first time.  This is a big day for her and she’s full of emotion.  Ask God to comfort her and help her through the day.
            Think of that other kid from the bus stop, the one with mussed up hair who kept slapping the backs of the other kids’ heads.  He couldn’t keep still.  What an annoyance!  Maybe he has ADHD and his medication doesn’t work, and that’s why he was constantly wiggling in a way that made everyone around him try to keep their distance.  Maybe he has some other condition.  Whatever it is, if he can’t get it under control, he’s going to be lonely because no one will want to be his friend.  Pray for that child.  And, definitely pray for God to help that child’s teacher. 
            As you make your way through town, there’s someone you did not notice.  It’s a college student who did not get accepted into the program she really wanted.   Now, she wanders toward her first class in a cloud of anxiety.  She’s not sure what to major in, not sure of her future.  She needs to know God has her in His hands.  She may or may not know that she needs that, but she does.  Pray for her. 
            As you pull into a parking spot at work, pray for your co-worker who will talk about her school-aged kids from now until the end of May.  Why does she do that?  Is it because she is so concerned about them and she feels so powerless to help them?  After all, she’s here at work while they are out of her arm’s reach at school.  Pray that God would gently help her let her children grow up.  Pray that God would remind her that this is OK. 
            Finally, when you look into your own eyes in the bathroom mirror at work, pray for yourself.  Why are you missing out on this back-to-school fun?  Are your kids grown?  Is your annoyance really a cover for your sadness because you love your kids and they’ll never be little again and you miss them?  It’s OK.  Tell God you’re feeling a bit and sad ask God to sit with you in your sadness.  He will.   
Or, is your sadness of a different sort? You never had the opportunity to have children and you protect yourself from the pain that brings by telling yourself kids are a bother who just get in your way.  Maybe deep down, that’s what’s really eating at you today.  It’s OK.  As you look into your own eyes, tell God your feelings, your real feelings, the deeper emotion beneath the irritation.  You’ve prayed for the kids and their teachers and parents.  You’ve prayed for the college students.  Now pray for yourself.  Ask God to replace your irritability with compassions and joy, and ask God to fill the empty places in you. 
Let the happenings of today lead you into prayer. 
And tomorrow?  Leave the house earlier and remember not to drive through town!

Monday, August 27, 2018

John 6:60-69

Sunday, August 26, 2018

            Though today’s passage is John 6, we begin in Mark 10.  Jesus and the disciples are walking to Jerusalem, Jesus knows this will end in his death.  The disciples do not know that, but they have intuited, from Jesus’ demeanor, that something has changed.  Many around him believed, or at least hoped, that he was going to Jerusalem to assume Israel’s throne.  He would be crowned, throw the Romans out, and then serve as a very human king.  He would re-establish the line of King David and usher in a new golden age. 
            His followers’ minds were on Jerusalem, not their immediate surroundings.  Jesus was always in the present. So, in Mark 10, when the crowds try to hush a blind man who loudly calls out to Jesus, Jesus hushes the crowd. He gives his full attention to the man, named Bartimaeus.  He asks, “What do you want me to do for you” (Mark 10:51)?  We know that Jesus restores his sight, and Bartimaeus in turn follows Jesus. 
            What if, reading imaginatively, we transport the conversation from the pages of the Bible to our lives? Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?”  But he doesn’t say it to Bartimaeus in 33AD.  He says it to you, right here, right now.  What do you want me to do for you?
            ‘Help me make straight A’s this semester?’
‘Give me enough money to enjoy a comfortable retirement?’ 
‘Get my boss to stop riding me so hard?’
‘Get that boy to get off the fence and get me an engagement ring?’
            What do you want me to do for you?
            Does Jesus ask us this question?  Each one of us has our own definitions of success, our own thoughts about what makes life good. As people who go to church, do we suppose Jesus can help in any real way?  Will Jesus help with the GPA, with material comforts, with our relationships on the job, or in our social lives?  Does the faith we claim at church have anything to say with what goes on in the rest of our lives?
            I am not going to promise that Jesus will get the girl or guy for you, will help guarantee that you love your job, and that you and I will retire wealthy.  We don’t find those types of promises in John chapter 6 or anywhere else in the Bible.  Jesus does promise his followers an abundant life.  Do we believe him?  Is that enough?
            What’s the best place to eat out in Chapel Hill? (Allow answers).  My family frequents the Loop, Breadman’s, Elmo’s, and the Mediterranean Deli on Franklin Street.  Why did you pick your favorite spot?  The taste of the food?  The atmosphere?  The people you know you’ll see there?  The familiarity of the place? 
            At the beginning of John 6, a large crowd is thronging to Jesus.  They have watched as Jesus healed diseases that in that day were sure death sentences.  These people knew what they wanted Jesus to do for them.  They wanted to see miracles and to benefit from miracles.  They were attracted by the spectacle.  Others believed, or at least hoped, he might be the Messiah.  Many had been followers of the John the Baptist, and at the Baptist’s prompting left their old teacher to become disciples of Jesus.  And of course there were the 12 he hand-picked to be disciples. 
            They all followed Jesus up on a mountain side to hear him preach.  Jesus looked asked his disciple Philip, “Where are we going to buy food for all these people?”  Philip said 6 months wages would not be enough to feed such a crowd.  Then another disciple, Andrew, introduced Jesus to a boy who was willing to share the lunch his mom had packed, two fish fillets and five pieces of pita bread. 
            Jesus fed the entire crowd from that boy’s lunch, and had 12 baskets of leftovers; such is the extravagant generosity of God.  In a frenzy, the masses decided to crown Jesus as king of Israel, right there on the spot.  Jesus rejected the offer.  He was the king, but not the way they understood. 
At this point the narrative shifts from focus on the crowd, to that group of antagonists in John often referred to as “the Jews.”  They opposed Jesus, but this doesn’t mean all Jews were his adversaries.  Jesus was Jewish.  So were his followers.  So were the people in the crowd.  When John writes “the Jews,” context makes it clear that he means opponents of Jesus, religious leaders who felt their own position threatened by Jesus’ theology.  The leading clergy couldn’t tolerate Jesus’ superior knowledge and dangerous claims about God.  So they schemed to confront him, trick him, and ultimately manipulate the Romans to kill him. 
Both the crowds who wanted to crown Jesus king and the authorities who wanted to silence him were confused by his message. 
In 6:35 he says, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Again, in verse 51, he says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Nothing in Israel’s history involved cannibalism.  Jesus talked about drinking his blood, but drinking an animal’s blood was strictly forbidden in the book of Leviticus.  And there is no thought of ever drinking a man’s blood.  What was Jesus saying?
Recall the book of Exodus.  God led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and on a march to the Promised Land.  Along the way, God sent bread that just appeared on the ground.  It was called Manna, which is translated, “What is it?”  What is this that we are eating?  It is life; that’s what it is.  Bread sent from Heaven to keep us alive so we can become who God is calling us to become.
At first, they were filled with awe at God’s provision.  But their wonder gave way to grumbling as they wanted God to up the ante on works of miraculous power.  Manna wasn’t enough, and they complained (Numbers 11:4ff).  God provided, the people were saved, but then wanted more.  God wanted a relationship of love with his people. Instead of rejoicing in a relationship with God, his people desired earthly thrills. 
The same dynamic is evident in the way John constructs his Gospel, especially here in chapter 6.   When Jesus multiplied the boy’s lunch out in the wilderness, the gathered crowd would have immediately recalled the way God provided manna for their ancestors.  Jesus’ miracle feeding was a godly act that all present would recognize.  They wanted to crown him as an earthly king.  He said, no.  No, I won’t be the king, at least not as you understand a king.  What I will be is your link to a relationship with God. 
Beginning in 6:54: “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
He doesn’t mean a literal eating of his flesh.  He means living life under His lordship, with our eyes fixed on him in all that we do, and with His Spirit in us.  He speaks of resurrection and of abiding in Him.  This connects today with the future.  Jesus is our assurance that today, God will provide both bodily nutrition and sustenance, and relationship.  Furthermore, when the Spirit of Christ is in us, God assures our eternity will be spent in the Kingdom of God in resurrected bodies. 
The crowds around Jesus did not understand all of this. We have the benefit of four completed gospels.  They didn’t have that.  But they knew he wasn’t talking about literally cutting his limbs up for people to eat.  They knew he meant consuming His teaching.  They also most likely perceived that when they argued with him, he in turn compared them to the Israelites in the wilderness who complained against God. 
It leaves us with a question: do we want to complain about the food, or enjoy it?  When we pray, and God provides, do we accept the gift God gives us, or do we send it back?  Remember the opening question.  Jesus says to you or to me, “what do you want me to do for you?”  He will give us what’s best for us. Do we accept what Jesus gives, or do we try to send it back?  Do we look to God and say, ‘yes, Lord, I will live the life you’re leading me to live?’  Or do we say, “No God, I don’t like what you have for me.  I’ll do this my way?”
They complained.  The crowds, the religious leaders, and even many of the disciples: Jesus did not fit into the mold any of them had predetermined for him.  They ran to the wilderness to see Jesus work miracles and crown him king, or to crucify him.  Now at the end of John 6, we see 1000’s become hundreds as they leave in droves.  Jesus tells them, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”  But, they find it hard.  Some can’t understand it.  Others cannot accept it.  They keep leaving until Jesus looks around where there had been 1000’s.  All he sees are the 12 he selected.
“Do you also wish to go away?”  Jesus won’t the change message just because it’s unpopular.  His words are from God and he’ll speak them even if he’s alone in the desert. 
Peter responds, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68).
Where do we find the best eats?  It’s not Breadman’s or the Carolina CafĂ© or Top of the Hill. Those are wonderful places.  But food that brings life is at God’s table.  It’s the beginning of the semester.  People are new to our town, and maybe that includes many of you.  We face new challenges.  As life gets stressful in coming days and weeks, where do we go to be refreshed, strengthened, comforted, and encouraged?  As the world around us ceaselessly tells us we aren’t smart enough or professional enough or capable or acceptable, where do we go to be reminded that we are beloved, that we belong, and that we are God’s precious possessions?
The communion table and the gathering of the church – the body of Christ – is where we are filled; filled with grace and love; filled with the Spirit.  The Lord’s Supper is the food that fills us with Christ.  Bring your mistakes.  Put on Christ and be made perfect.  Bring your regrets.  Drink in Christ and be made new.  Brings your fears.    Consume Christ and be filled with Holy Spirit who gives courage and power.  In Him, there is life. 
All are invited to the table.  Come with the church family and receive the body and blood of Christ.  A hard teaching?  Yes.  Embrace it.  Don’t run from it.  Step toward Jesus as He receives you in love.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

New Season (Hosea 14:1-9)

Sunday, August 19, 2018

            I was talking recently with a woman whose discipline in prayer I greatly admire.  She writes down her prayer requests in a notebook and dates the entry.  Then she reads scripture and prays.  This is how she starts every day.  Whenever, she sees God respond to her prayer request, she writes God’s answer down, next to the original request.  This is how her on-going conversation with God happens.
            I was with her a few weeks ago, and as we talked, I told her of my admiration for her discipline.  She looked at me and said, “O, I stopped doing that about a year ago.”  I was devastated.  She said, “Now, when I get up in the morning, I check my email.”  As we continued discussing it, she committed to a return.  She would go back to her practice of beginning the day in conversation with God.  I committed to spending a bare minimum of 10 minutes per day in concentrated prayer.  And since, I have I returned to Chapel Hill from the visit, I have kept my commitment.  From my correspondence with her, I know that she has too. 
She has returned to morning conversations with God – the God who loves her.  God’s been waiting all along and was ready to welcome her and to welcome me back with open arms.  That’s the theme this morning – returning.  Return to God – the God who loves you.  Return to a life with God at the center.  Maybe this is a life you have never lived before.  Maybe you don’t know what it is to live with God at the center of everything. 
God’s there, in your life, waiting for you to stop fixating on gadgets or new romance or career goals or the miseries you’ve endured.  Gadgets and phones are fun; everyone wants to be able to tell “Alexa” was to do and see her do it.  A new romance is wonderful.  Career goals are admirable.  And personal miseries cannot be ignored.  But God has to be bigger than all of this in our lives; God loves us and will not tolerate being second to anything. 
I titled this sermon, “New Season.”  I don’t mean a new football season, although I, of course, am excited about that too.  No, what I mean by this title is a new season of life.  I was single until I got married at 32.  Life dramatically changed for me.  I had entered a new season and there was no going back to the old me.  Whatever I liked or hated about being single, after January 11, 2003, that was all behind me.  This is what I mean by a “new season.”
It can come for us at any time, but Fall in Chapel Hill is a special time of transition and of the beginning of new eras in people’s lives.  Of course students are back at UNC.  We rent parking spaces to UNC students.  All week, the church office was abuzz with students and their parents coming in to pick up their passes.  Many that Dina and I met are freshman, off to school, away from home for the first time in their lives. 
It’s not just the freshmen who enter a new season.  Upper classman have had a year or a couple of years to get used to Chapel Hill, and now return with a greater sense of purpose.  They come with sights set on the degree and the career that degree will prepare them to begin.  Graduates arrive in town to begin post doctorate fellowships.  New faculty move into town.  Many visiting scholars from other nations have just begun their time at UNC, in Chapel Hill.
The university is an enormous community and when things get rolling in the fall, the entire town feels the difference.  There’s a different vibe.  
Yet, many people in our church family and in our area have nothing to do directly with the university, and yet this is also a time of new things for them.  Anyone with school-aged children will send those little lovelies back to school a week from this Tuesday.  Maybe one of your kids is beginning elementary or middle or high school for the first time; or maybe, kindergarten, for the first time.  If you aren’t associated with UNC and don’t have school aged kids at home, immediately after Labor Day, it’s time for you to go on vacation; everywhere, the rates go down and the crowds are smaller. 
In church, Wednesday night dinner starts back up in September; family missions’ projects start back up in October; Sunday supper clubs get going again.  This is a time for each of us to look deep inside our lives and see what new thing God is doing in us.  We have the opportunity to respond to the grace of God and live life with God at the center; God shapes our sense of self, our identity; God defines all our relationships; and, our idea of success and fulfillment.  We discover what life looks like with God at the center of it all.
It might be odd to talk about a new season as we come to the very last chapter of the words of the prophet Hosea, who we’ve been hearing from all summer.  But, Hosea has been leading us to this point.  Up to now, Hosea has made two major claims.  First, the ancient people of Israel have turned away from God.  They have worshiped idols – statues of stone and wood that neighboring peoples, the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians, have passed off as gods.  In direct disregard of the first of the 10 commandments, Israel had worshiped ‘other gods,’ false gods.  Along with this offense to the one true God, the Creator of all that is, injustice was everywhere in Israel.  The poor suffered greatly.  Hosea drove this point home with the graphic imagery of Israel as a prostitute, unfaithful to her husband. 
Hosea’s second major point, has been to insist upon the absolute dependability of God’s love.  God is angry.  God is hurt.  But God loves Israel.  Though punishment is coming, God will not give Israel up to destruction.  The punishment of exile, which is an event that happened in history, was a part of what God was preparing for Israel: a new season in which the people would once again live in a relationship of love, trust, and dependence upon God. 
In her great commentary on the Minor Prophets, the late Elizabeth Achtemeier, offers a daring interpretation of the exile that Hosea predicted and that ultimately befell Israel.  She likens it to the Jews in slavery in Egypt many centuries earlier.  God led them out of bondage and, eventually, into the Promised Land.  However, between Egypt and Promised Land was 40 years in the wilderness.  There, the only thing the people could do to survive was depend on God.  Achtemeier proposes that Hosea’s words show that exile is a second wilderness.  God is leading Israel there, and there God will once again woo Israel as the object of God’s affection.
God did not need a temple in Jerusalem or shrines at Samaria or Bethel.  God did not ask the people to offer more animals as blood sacrifices.  What God wanted from his people was their love and their trust.  In exile to Assyria in 8th century and then to Babylon in the 6th, the people had been stripped of all possession, all position, and all power.  All they had left was desperate prayer that they lifted to God.  Achtemeier suggests that God caused exile or at least allowed it because we are at our very best when we live dependently.[i]  When we see God at the center of everything and depend on God for success in everything, that’s when we have joy and hope.  That’s when we see the power of the Holy Spirit transform our lives. 
The form of Hosea 14:4-7 is what leads Achtemeier to her interpretation.  The the images that fill these verses come from traditional romance poetry.  God says, “I will love them freely.  … I will be like dew to Israel,” refreshing the people each day.  “… They shall live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.”  God is romancing his people.  But God won’t give such attentive love to a people who ignore his advances.
Israel had flirted with Assyria and her gods, and then Egypt and her gods.  Each insistence of infidelity to the only true God went as badly it possibly could.  Only when the people had lost everything and could see their own sins and could see the evil of the pagan empires that tried to dominate them could they then, finally, focus on the God who is truly all-powerful and who truly loved them.
What distractions have grabbed our attention and caused us to move God out of the center?  What in life has deceived us into thinking we could take our faith and our relationship with God, set it on a shelf, and let God collect dust there as we pursue other interests?  The images of arresting beauty in Hosea 14:4-7 hint at the good God has in store for His people once they have been fully brought back from their sins.  The ultimate fulfillment for Israel comes in the birth, life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s son, God-in-the-flesh. 
He didn’t die on that cross so that it would become a piece of jewelry.  He didn’t come so that we’d make church and faith a part of our lives.  He came to be our very center.  Have you focused on success in school or in career?  Shift that focus!  This is your time, the new season, the day when God moves to the very heart of your thinking.  Set your eyes on Him and let Him bring the success.  O, work hard, for sure!  Study, put the effort in, and strive for greatness; but do it in a way that never allows you to forget that God is ever before you, and ever with you because God loves you so much.
Has your pain or the losses you’ve endured or the frustrations you’ve had to bear become what defines you?  Ambition is one idol that occupies the space God is supposed to occupy in our lives.  Suffering is another.  Many fall to the point that they only know themselves by the daily ordeals they have to endure.  Shift your focus!  It’s a new season in your life, one in which God wants you to flourish and to blossom like the most beautiful of flowers.  To God, that’s what you are.  I know, the pain is still there.  Doctors and the church family should come around you and try to help put that pain behind you.  When that’s impossible, then the community of God-worshipers, the church family, is to help you live with whatever is that makes life such a struggle.  That hurt, that condition, can’t bring you down, because now, you realize God is with you, loves you, and will give you purpose and joy in your life. 
What beginning is beginning in your life today, right now?  Hosea told Israel, “Take words with you, and return to the Lord.”  He meant words of confession and words of faith.  They had brought animals to sacrifice many times.  God was done with that.  He wanted His people to come with words that revealed hearts turned to God in faith.
It is time for us to bring our words to God, words that tell our stories.  Are you a student?  What words tells who you are?  What words do you bring?  Dean’s list?  Scholarship?  Or, failure? Academic probation? 
Are you retired?  Retired people enter new seasons with God; it’s the perfect time.  What words can you bring to God, words that communicate your heart?  Relaxation?  Accomplishment?  Smiles and grandchildren?  Or, worry.  Or, tears, regret, and disappointment? 
Are you new to town, literally beginning a new season?  What words do you bring?  Hope?  Or, uncertainty?
Gather the words that tell your story.  Then, return to the Lord because He is beauty, he is welcome; He gives fruit and shade.  He is a father, and He is love.  Decide today that this is, for you, a new season, one of honesty before God, full confession, and trust; believe that God will make you new and fill you with His Spirit. 
The final word from Hosea – “Those who are wise understand these things; those who are discerning know them.  For the ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them.”

[i] Achtemeier, Elizabeth (1996), New International Bible Commentary: Minor Prophets I, Paternoster Press (Peabody, MA), p.111.  She writes, “In the future, God will begin a new saving history, leading Israel once again into the wilderness, where he will woo her tenderly, and make her his own.”

Monday, August 13, 2018

"I will not Come in Wrath" (Hosea 11:1-2, 8-9)

HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, August 12, 2018

            We’ve heard much about God’s anger as we have listened to the prophet Hosea.  Now, we come to chapter 11.  In the New Revised Standard Version, at the end of verse 9, we hear God say, “I will not come in wrath.”  God’s fury and God’s hurt have been spoken, but God won’t stop at these broken emotions. God has more to say. “My heart recoils; … my compassion grows. … I will not execute my fierce anger; … I will not come in wrath.”  Punishment?  Yes, God disciplines, but in the end, gives mercy. 
            Hold onto that thought and do not let it go.  However you see yourself, hold onto this.  God loves you.  God has mercy, forgiveness, new life.  God has this for you, for the people around you, for the people who have been hurt by you, and those who have hurt you.  It’s true for me, for all sitting here, and for all people who come to Him in faith.  God’s mercy and love are beyond our capacity to sin; God’s forgiveness exceeds the sins we’ve committed. 
            Hold onto that as I look at the Bible and recent history this morning. 
            Recent history: September 11, 2001 is, for the United States, the defining moment of this young century.  Passenger airlines were hijacked by terrorists and flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  Thousands going about their daily routines in what they thought was safety died violently.  We Americans thought ourselves untouchable by enemy fire, suddenly felt very vulnerable.  We didn’t like the feeling and did not know what to do with it.
            In Dallas, Texas, one American, a white man, thought he knew what to do.  Born in 1969, Mark Stroman was almost 32 when the planes piloted by extremist terrorists hit the twin towers and killed so many people.  By that point in his life, he had a history of criminal activity, broken relationships, drug use (including crystal meth) and prison time.  He was a well-known name in the white supremacist and neo-Nazi circles in Texas.  His daughter said that once she identified who her father was to Aryan Brotherhood racists she met in a bar, they began singing his praises and treating her well.[i]
            He was an uneducated racist with violent tendencies who had never been out of Texas in his life.  He loved America in his own perverted way, and after the terrorist attacks, he decided to join the war on terror by killing Arab Muslims who happened to live in America.  So he went on a shooting spree.  He thought that as a good American, it was his duty to murder Arab Muslims.  He didn’t actually kill any Arabs, but that didn’t matter.  In his mind, as long as he was fighting brown-skinned people, he was showing his love for America. 
On September 15th, 2001, four days after the attacks he killed not an Arab, but a man of Pakistani descent, convenience store owner Waqar Hasan.  On October 4th, he murdered Vasudev Patel.  Mr. Patel was neither Muslim nor Arab.  He was a Hindu man from India.  Again, it made no difference to the one-man American killing machine, Mark Stroman.
            In between those homicides, senseless killings of people who loved America as much as he did, on September 21, 2011, Mark Stroman shot a Muslim man working at another convenience store, Bengali Rais Bhuiyan.  Mr. Bhuiyan didn’t die.  As the pellets fired out of the barrel, he turned his head.  His face was filled with the burning metal and he collapsed to the floor, but he was alive.  After many surgeries, Rais Bhuiyan recovered.  Loss of sight in his right eye was the only permanent damage. 
            Texas law enforcement officers quickly apprehended Mr. Stroman.  The trial was never in doubt.  Mr. Bhuiyan was able to testify, and soon Mark Stroman was on death row.  Prisoners go through a lot of appeals and end up spending years awaiting execution.  That was Stroman’s experience.
            For his part, Mr. Bhuiyan faced multiple surgeries, mounting medical bills, and heartbreak.  He had a fiancĂ© back in Bangladesh, but she ended their relationship.  Depression threatened to set in.  However, this Bengali demonstrated remarkable resilience.  He had already climbed the ranks in the Bangladeshi air force.  He won a diversity lottery which got him his visa to come to America.  Alone and recovering, he tenaciously pursued all the financial aid he could get so that his medical debt became manageable. 
            Then he got work at Olive Garden.  He started as a waiter and worked his way up, slowly increasing his earnings and decreasing his debt.  His heartbreak healed as did his wounds, and he managed to get a technology degree and became a highly paid IT professional.  He also became an American citizen.  He was living the American dream so many immigrants hope can be theirs. 
            However, for Rais Bhuiyan, the changes weren’t just in his body and financial status and national citizenship.  A devout Muslim, he turned inward, and tried to understand who God wanted him to become.  The spiritual breakthrough came when he did something he had, for years, promised himself he would do.  He took his mother on a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.   The trip to Mecca, where Islam started is something all Muslims aspire to do in their lifetimes.   Those who can financially afford the trip take it.  While he was there, praying, reflecting on life and faith, he felt God was leading him to forgive Mark Stroman. 
            I don’t know what your impression of Islam is.  I know some people – some in our church with whom I have spoken – hear “Islam” and think “terrorist.”  I am telling you, the only person who did any killing in this true story was a white man from Texas who claimed to be a Christian.  A brown-skinned Bengali man, Rais Bhuiyan, looked to the heart of his Muslim faith and heard God tell him to forgive. 
            Make no mistake!  I am a follow of Jesus Christ.  I believe Him to be God in human flesh and the one and only Savior of humanity.  In order to have a right relationship with God, one has to give his heart to Jesus, receive forgiveness in Jesus’ name, and worship him as Lord.
I look into Islam and I see a faith that admires Jesus as a prophet, but does not worship him as Lord.  Anyone who fails to worship Jesus as Lord, in my understanding, is lost.  Jesus Christ is Lord.  We who follow and worship Him cannot accept any confession that comes short of this. 
However, I know God can and does work outside my religious boundaries.  Does God work through Islam to speak to the hearts of Muslims?  All I can do is listen to the stories of real people.  This man was led to do the very thing Jesus commanded.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  Rais Bhuiyan did all of this and he did it to the fullest extent.
While he was healing and growing spiritually, the man who tried to kill him, Mark Stroman, sat in prison with death ahead.  But, as it always does, the execution day was a long time in coming, years in fact.  When Mr. Bhuiyan returned from Mecca, he took up a cause.  He was going to stop this execution. Citing his legal right to mediation with the criminal who harmed him, he worked with lawyers and anti-death penalty advocates to try to keep Mark Stroman alive.   
Mr. Bhuiyan’s quest became an international campaign.  Through a prison pen pal program, antideath penalty activists in Europe came into contact with Mark Stroman while he was in prison.  They became his most ardent supporters.  Stroman’s own children, in their own way loved him, but also, for the most part, did not keep in contact with him as the years on death row went by.  He pined for letters, but they never came.  The correspondence came from strangers who encouraged him, doing it all in the name of opposing the death penalty.  And one the leading the charge to save him, was the victim who survived his attack.
Alas, all the appeals and attempts to find legal loopholes were no match for the Texas legal system’s undaunted quest for finality.  On July 20, 2011, almost 10 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he was executed by lethal injection for the murders he committed in the weeks after 9/11/2001.

Do you remember, from the beginning, what I asked you to hold onto and not let go?  God’s mercy is bigger than our sin.  In the story of Hosea, God is frustrated because the people He has selected as His chosen ones, the people of Israel, have turned away from God to worship the idols representing false gods: the gods of Assyria and Egypt and other ancient peoples.  Along with this idolatry came abuse of power by many of Israel’s kings, and the corruption of justice, especially for the poor.  The poor were exploited as the rich perceived themselves to be untouchable.  And worst of all, the leading perpetrators of the corruption were priests who were supposed to lead God’s people in worship.
Hosea has vividly depicted God’s anger at the conditions in Israel, 8th century BC.  However, now in chapter 11, we see anger cannot be God’s last word.  Yes, the people sinned and yes the nation did go into exile.  But God went with His people.  Their descendants, the Samaritans, were among the first to meet God’s grace in the person of Jesus.  There was suffering in the story, but it leads to salvation and new life in Jesus Christ. 
In the aftermath of 9/11, Waqar Hasan and Vasudev Patel were murdered.  Rais Bhuiyan was injured.  Mark Stroman ended being executed; so much loss in this story.  But out of it, we see grace.  Rais Bhuiyan fought for Stroman’s life.  After the execution, he gave financial support to Stroman’s children in his attempt to end the cycle of hate, violence, and revenge.  He overwhelmed these Texans with his love and he did it for the sake of changing the world, combatting hatred, and glorifying God.
Now, what about my story, or yours?  God sees our sins and sees the hurt we cause to ourselves and those around us.  God pours out love asking, “How can I make you like Admah?  How can I treat you like Zeboiim?”  Deuteronomy 29:23 reports that these cities, Admah and Zeboiim, were destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah.  God’s promise in Hosea 11 is that anger and destruction is not the end for people who turn to Him in faith.  Those cities were consumed, but God’s followers will not be.  “I will not come in wrath,” God says.  God comes in grace.  God is love.
The mercy Rais Bhuiyan showed Mark Stroman is a picture of the love God has for us.  God wants the best for us.  God’s mercy never runs out.  God’s love overflows.  You know your own life story.  I know my own sins and how much they hurt me and the people I love.  You know your own sins. 
What do we do?
We come before the cross of Christ.  We fall to our knees and pray for forgiveness.  We receive it.  And we stand as healed people, washed and cleansed, new creations marked by the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 
Come and lay your heart out before God.  Come and receive forgiveness. 

[i] Giridharadas, Anand (2014), The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, W.W. Norton & Company (New York), p. 263.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Religion God Desires

I have heard it said, over and over by people who don’t attend church, “I am spiritual but not religious.”  In certain Christian circles, especially some evangelical expressions of the Christian faith, the mantra goes something like this.  “Christianity is about faith in Christ, not religion.”  And, a lot of famous people spout sanctimoniously this idea: “I don’t believe in organized religion.”
            Is religion a bad thing?  When you hear the word, ‘religion,’ what thoughts immediately come to mind?  Are those thoughts positive and uplifting and hopeful, or is religion something not to be trusted, something that’s dark or manipulative? 
            Here’s the Merriam-Webster online definition of ‘religion’, entry #2: “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” I’m happy for each of us to have our response to the word ‘religion,’ but keep this in mind.  In reading the Old Testament, religion is at the center of the story.  Any time we read the word ‘sacrifice’ or ‘temple’ or ‘priest,’ we’re dealing with the very center of Israelite life.
            The Gospel of Jesus Christ stands on the life that is established in the Old Testament.  Our identity is grounded in who we are in Christ.  So, religion – Biblical religion – is at the very core of who we are if we want to be God-worshipers and Jesus-followers.  And, when the Bible talks about religion, it means religious practice.  Who we are is seen in what we do. 

            I am going to paraphrase the thoughts of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann as he demonstrates how the words of the prophets tie together justice and religion.[i] This connection is one of the primary ways our Sunday morning church practice connects directly with our Monday-Saturday lives.  We think of church giving us a foundation for morals, but the Bible consistently shows greater concern for justice in society than an individual’s morality.  If we intend to live out a Biblical Christianity, we will be driven by a hunger for a right relationship with God and for justice for all people. 
            Referring to the prophet Jeremiah, 22:15-16, Brueggemann writes that caring for the poor is the same as knowing God.  “He judged the cause of the needy … is this not to know me?” Jeremiah asks.[ii]  Later Brueggemann writes, religion was supposed to be the way people entered into relationship with God.  That’s what religion was supposed to be.  However, by the time Hosea came along, religion had become the place where God was disregarded.
            That’s the situation at the beginning of Hosea chapter 6.  The nation and the temple and the religion centers in the north had all turned away from God.  The poor were exploited.  Sexual sin ran rampant.  Hypocrisy was at its worst.  Priests and rich and powerful people would come to worship on the Sabbath and then live with no reverence for God or love for people the rest of the week.
            What kind of faith do we have if we are in church once a week but then the realities of God have no voice in our lives the rest of the time?  This is a fundamental question. 
            At the beginning of Hosea 6, the people are in a desperate state.  Because the people turned away from God and did not trust in God, God allowed invading armies to threaten and ultimately overrun the nation.  Hosea’s prophecy comes shortly before this catastrophe, but the storm clouds loom.  And so, in desperation, the people say, “Come, let us return to the Lord.”
            Go through those opening verse, Hosea 6:1-3.  The people are sorry for their sins, kind of.  They’re more fearful of the consequences of God’s anger than they are remorseful for how they have hurt God and exploited the neediest people in society.  We ended last week with the close of chapter 5 where God said he would rot them as maggots and rip them apart as lions.  Shuddering, they respond with this overture of sorrowful repentance.
            Their words state great faith in what God will do. 
            “Come, let us return to the Lord.  … He will heal us.  He will revive us; on the third day, he will raise us up, that we may live before him.  … His appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth” (6:1-3). 
            It’s all true.  God does receive us when we turn from evil.  God does desire a deep and lasting relationship of love with us.  The opening of Hosea 6 is absolutely right, except it is premature.  God knows the heart, and what He sees in this repentance, is words, not changed hearts.
            Be careful about what you wish for; you might get it.  If today we want the salvation God has to offer, we have to be willing to turn to Him completely.  Chapter 7 expands on how much God can see the rebellion that continues to lurk in the hearts of his people even after these earnest words of repentance. 
He addresses Ephraim in chapter 7, verse 8.  Ephraim was one of the sons of Joseph.  One of the ways of referring to Israel was by referring to specific tribes among the twelve tribes, and Joseph’s tribes were divided into half-tribes named for his sons Manasseh and Ephraim.  We you read references to Ephraim in the prophets, think of the most favored among God’s people.
In Hosea 7:8, describing Ephraim’s weak faith and wavering commitment even as Ephraim repents of rebellion against God, God says, “Ephraim is a cake not turned.”  In other words, Ephraim is half-baked.  Any time the community of faith tries to represent God without working for justice, we demonstrated a half-baked faith.  God has no place for it.  In the opening of Hosea 6, the people beg to be reconciled to God, and it will come, but it won’t be easy.
God responds “What shall I do with you Ephraim?”  What shall I do with you Judah?  Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early” (6:4).  God receives our confessions.  Lord, I am sorry for all the nasty words I said, the bad choices I’ve made, mean things I’ve done, and the hateful thought I have in my head.  I am really sorry Lord.  We say that and God hears and loves us, but God can see us too.  God sees us going right back to all of our sins the minute we finish confessing.  The Lord of the Universe, the creator of all that exists, throws His divine hands up in utter exasperation!  “What am I going to do with you,” God ask furiously. 
In the Bible God displays a full range of emotions.  The middle chapters of Hosea are not the most comfortable place in the Bible to sit.  However, we need to see God here so we know how much our actions, our sins, affect the God who loves and saves us.  We need to know the depths God goes to forgive us and make us new.  And, as we will see, there is a word of life-changing hope right in the middle of God’s angry outburst.
But, first the outburst.  Hosea 7:12-13: “As they go, I will cast my net over them; I will bring them down like birds of the air; I will discipline them.  … Woe to them for they have strayed from me!  Destruction to them, for they have rebelled against me!  I would redeem them, but they speak lies against me.”
Hosea doesn’t end with God’s anger.  God will forgive his people for their sins.  His love never fails.  God will make a new day.  Ultimately, God restores all of creation in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  But there is some hurt along the way.
Anyone who has gone through addiction recovery knows this.  It’s hard to be free from an addiction.  Help is needed.  Often, there are relapses, where the cravings seem more powerful than the love of God, and the addict falls back into deadly patterns.  It takes years, painful years, to break free.  The same can be said when sin comes in relationships.  One person hurts another and trust is broken.  Then comes confession, heartbreaking, genuine tears, and forgiveness.  But even after forgiveness, trust is hard to re-establish.  It’s worth going through the pain because the alternative is to stay in the sin or remain in the addiction.  But, the Bible doesn’t sugarcoat anything.  Reconciliation with God and with people is difficult, lifelong work. 
            How do we as a church exist as a religion in the best sense of the word?  Using Brueggemann’s description of Old Testament religion, how do become the vehicle that carries people into a right relationship with God, a relationship of love, grace, and trust?  Remember, he quoted Jeremiah 22: when we care for the needy, we know God.  In the New Testament, we read that Jesus says that when we feed the hungry and house the homeless, we are doing it for him (Matthew 25).  And in the book of James, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.  Care for orphans and widows is work we do all week long, throughout our lives.
            The justice words that call God’s church to dedicate itself to helping people are the essence of Hosea 6:6.  God says, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”  Sacrifice, burnt offering; this is the procedure of religion and it’s important.  In our context, it would be like the offering, the hymns, the communion; all the things we do in our worship service.  Steadfast love is who we are – agents of God’s compassion.  Knowledge of God?  Brueggemann has already pointed out from his lifelong study of the Old Testament prophets that knowledge of God comes as we work for justice and help the poor, and Jeremiah and Jesus and James and 1000 Bible passages underscore this truth.  
            When we sponsor a child or volunteer with the dental bus or volunteer our time to tutor students or give sacrificially in order to supports missions or advocate for racial justice, we live out the religion God desires.  And we hold the key to our own well-being.  Our happiness comes when our relationship with God is right.  Our relationship with God is right when our religion is true.  Our religion is true when we work for justice. 
            We need not recoil at the idea of religion.  We simply need to live our faith, our religion, all the time, not just on Sundays.  And when we repent of sin, we go into it knowing sin is painful and God is angry.  Repentance is hard work and only takes hold when we have a change of heart.  But God’s love is deeper than his anger.  We’ll see that in future weeks as we continue through Hosea. 
For now, as we come into our time of prayer, fix your gaze on the cross of Christ.  If for you, today is a day of repentance and confession, come to Him.  He will receive you in love.
If for you, this is a time to recommit yourself to serving the poor and working for justice in the name of Jesus as an expression of his Gospel, make the commitment to do that.  And ask the Lord to show you what that will look like in your life.

[i] W. Brueggemann (1997), Theology of the Old Testament, Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p. 613, 644, 677-678.  Brueggemann frequently refers to Israel religion as the ‘cult.’  This is a loaded word as people in our church have come out of oppressive, manipulative cults.  So in place ‘cult,’ I will refer to Israelite religion.
[ii] Brueggemann, 613.