Total Pageviews

Monday, September 24, 2018

"To Welcome Jesus" (Mark 9:30-37)

Sunday, September 23, 2018
(Much of this sermon borrows from a sermon preached by Dr. Matthew Tennant, Charlbury Baptist Church, England, 3/1/09)

            Jesus says to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”  What does he mean when he says “welcomes a child?”  What does that entail in my life?  How do I welcome children?  In Jesus’ day children were very low on society’s ranking of importance.  Every family wanted children, but once born, they were expected to defer to their elders and to be quiet and respectful.  They did not hold a central place in communal life.
            However, in verse 36 we see Jesus, very intentionally, take a child and set that child among them.  Toward the child, Jesus had an air of tenderness, affection, and great care.  He valued the child.  At the same time, he used the moment to demonstrate how much God valued this one who was pushed to the margin by the cultural elite.  On other occasions, Jesus made time for blind people that the crowds passed by.  Jesus touched the lepers that temple goers fastidiously avoided.  Jesus listened to the women that men ignored.  Jesus welcomed tax collectors and prostitutes; a group shunned by polite society.  His demonstrative love of children and esteem of children is one more example of our Lord and Savior telling us we’ve got it all wrong in how we value people. 
Anyone who appears undesirable or unimportant in our circles gets to sit at the head table at Jesus’ banquet.  So, if we want to be with Jesus, we have to take on humility that demands that we see ourselves on equal footing with all others.  This is not self-hate.  We should love ourselves.  We should be confident.  And we should strive for excellence in all that we do.  But in our valuing of people, we do not set ourselves above anyone, not if we want to be with Jesus. 
As I proceed, a question to ponder is do you want to be with Jesus.  Do you truly want follow him, be his disciple, and live your life totally submitted to His word and to the Holy Spirit?  We all might say we want to be filled with the power of the Spirit and the Love of God. Who wouldn’t want that?  But, do you, do I, want to submit Jesus?  Do we want to live life on his terms?
My brother, also pastor, wrote a sermon in which he compared this passage from Mark to one of Leo Tolstoy’s stories, The death of Ivan Ilych.  I’m going to share my brother’s analysis as a way of looking into the posture Jesus wants us to take with others.

Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilých[1] is a high court judge in 19th-century Russia.  He is a miserable husband, a proud father, and an upwardly-mobile member of Russia's professional class.  Setting aside his dreadful relationship with his wife, Ivan has a good life.  He has an important position with the Department of Justice, and a house that indicates his affluence.  He is very proud of that house and of how prestigious he is.  Ivan consistently strives to magnify his reputation as an important man.  Tolstoy writes that Ivan is “attracted to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly relations with them.”[2]  He’s like Jesus’ disciples walking along the road, arguing about who among them is the greatest.  Jesus tells them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”[3]
Such a thought would be foreign to Ivan who works so hard to appear rich and important.  Working on his house to maximize its eloquence, he falls off a ladder he had climbed while showing the decorator how he wants some new curtains to be placed.  In the fall, he bumps his side on the latch on the window, leaving a bruise.  After a few weeks, the pain in his side does not go away.  Sometime later, he develops a strange taste in his mouth.  After seeing expensive, celebrity doctors, no one can explain or treat his condition, but it soon becomes clear that he is dying.
The frustrating thing about seeing a man like Ivan Ilých go through the pain and struggle of facing his own death is that he is not a bad person.  He is an ethical attorney, a good citizen, an enjoyable friend, an adequate provider, and a fair and loyal employer of his household staff.  He never abuses his power, although he is completely aware that he could.  The life that he built is one of surface value.  No matter what, Ivan keeps up appearances and does not allow anyone into that intimate place of sharing his burdens. 
After he gets sick, the life of surface value that he has built does not include anyone to share the journey through ill-health toward death with him.  His wife and daughter are in their social world and are basically unaware of his struggles.  His friends are shallow relations that are not there for him when he faces his own mortality.  There is no one to minister to his needs in his time of travail.  Some of his colleagues, people who he would have counted warmly as part of his circle, begin looking at Ivan as a man whose job will soon be vacant.
This lack of pity and compassion from his family, his friends, and his colleagues begins to torment him.  No one will give him the care he desperately wants.  His whole life he wanted to be first.  In a sense, he received what he wanted.  He had a high position, married well, had children, and so on.  “At certain moments after prolonged suffering he wished most of all (though he would have been ashamed to confess it) for someone to pity him as a sick child is pitied.”[4]  Yet, he had built the kind of life for himself where there was no one around to do so.  Except, there was one person, the young butler’s assistant Gerásim. 
Gerásim brought Ivan his food.  This was his job.  Gerásim took away Ivan’s chamber pot; this too was his job.  Gerásim did it with humility and a cheerful, life-giving disposition, which was not part of his job.  Gerásim would also lift up Ivan’s leg, sometimes into the night.  This was an activity that relieved some of Ivan’s pain and discomfort, and this was not part of Gerásim’s job.  The really beautiful part is the way Gerásim did what he did.  It was his disposition.  It was the expression on his face.  Ivan apologized for his condition and his needs, and Gerásim smiled, saying, “Why shouldn’t I help you?  You are a sick man.”
Ivan had his position, his house, his reputation, but when facing his own mortality, he discovered that power and prestige gave no comfort.  Now, consider Ivan’s misplaced priorities and the disciples.  They argued about who was the greatest.  Ivan wanted to be known as great.  In our honest moments, do we want that too?  Do we wish people who know us would say how wonderful we are?
I do.  I would be thought of as erudite, a speaker of flowing, inspired words, and a caregiver who possesses a deep well of wisdom and compassion.  I don’t know if you think about such things.  I do. 
Facing his own death, Ivan found that love, compassion and comfort, not greatness and prestige, were what he really wanted.  In his story, a boy named Gerásim, a peasant with no prospects, delivered the Messianic goods.  He did the mundane tasks, like bringing food.  He went above and beyond the call of duty, by holding Ivan’s legs, and he was there.  Gerásim carried out his tasks giving his full attention to Ivan.  This is the ministry of presence. 
Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes a child,” a nobody, one kicked to the curb by society, whoever welcomes that one “welcomes me.”  Do we want to welcome Jesus? Because if we welcome him and spend time listening to him, we end becoming his followers.  If we decide to, in the name of Jesus, welcome the one society has rejected, help the needy, encourage the broken hearted, and move the outcast and marginalized to the very center of our family, our circle of concern; we do that and we do it in the name of Jesus, we’ll look the way he wants his disciple to look.
Follow the story a few verses back from where we began reading.  Before Jesus predicted his betrayal and crucifixion, he had been on the Mount of Transfiguration while with James, John, and Peter.  The other 9 were in a village at the foot of the mountain when a desperate man came running to them.  His son had epilepsy.  The violent Tonic-clonic seizures (9:18) threatened his son’s life.  So, he brought his boy to the disciples of the miracle worker.  And those 9 followers of Jesus, part of his hand-select 12 disciples, were powerless to face down this evil that wreaked this child.  Jesus came and healed the boy (v.25-27).
Fresh off this failure and their inability to understand Jesus’ prediction of his own death and their fear in asking him about it, they proceeded to posture and preen and brag of their own greatness.  Immediately after being humbled, they puffed their chests out in swaggering false confidence. 
And look past our reading to the very next story.  One of the 12, John, sees someone he doesn’t know doing what they disciples couldn’t do: healing and driving out demons.  They were utterly powerless to face the epilepsy demon.  Now, someone else is acting in Jesus’ name, and John wants to stop him. 
Mark’s gospel goes to great lengths not only to highlight the disciples’ failure of faith and failure to learn, but also to show the absurdity of anyone who is not humble.  Before human pain, we must be humble.  Facing demons and disease, we must be humble.  In light of Jesus’ holiness and our sinfulness and weakness, we must be humble because we can only truly welcome Jesus in a posture of humility.  And we can only truly adopt they posture by going out of our way to uplift, respect, honor, and help the most vulnerable and rejected people in our world.  In short, we must truly befriend those who have trouble fitting in and those who have been stepped on over and over in life.  This isn’t charity.  It is relationship.
There was no miracle in Tolstoy’s story.  Ivan Ilých died.  His wife was more concerned with the state of their financial affairs than with the loss of her husband.  His friends bemoaned that they had to find a new partner for their card games.  His colleagues saw an opportunity to fill a prestigious vacancy.
Only the servant boy Gerásim was sad that he was gone.  He had become Ivan’s friend.  Ivan Ilych saw the face of God in the servant who lifted his legs to ease his pain.
We don’t help the needy to end poverty.  Fighting poverty is clearly a worthy goal, one to which we should commit.  That’s true.  It’s just not the final note this morning.  The final note this morning is life-transforming friendship.  When Jesus welcomes the child, he’s telling his disciple and us, you welcome these who are cast out.  Diseased?  Disabled?  An ethnic minority?  A criminal record?  Morbidly obese?  A personality disorder?  Mentally ill?  An addiction?  We are called not just to help but to love, and not just to love, but to befriend all of these.  And when our welcome includes true friendship, then we understand what it is to welcome Jesus.

[1] Leo Tolstoy, Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude (New York: Perennial Classics, 1967), 245-302.
[2] Tolstoy, Short Works, 256.
[3] Mark 9:35b NRSV
[4] Tolstoy, Short Works, 286.

Monday, September 17, 2018

"Worth Your Attention" (Proverbs 1:20-33)

I decided not to preach this sermon in church because I felt I had to address Hurrican Florence. So I did a different sermon.  If there had been no hurricane, this is what I would have preached.

            Visitors to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia often go to the “Post Office.”  Every tourist guide, every Ethiopian hosting a guest from another country inevitably takes the traveler to “the Post Office.”  It’s not because they want you to send letters!
            The streets running in front of the post office and along one side are lined with little booths and shops.  The proprietors aggressively approach every passerby who is from out of town; and, they immediately know who is from out of town.  “Sir, come in.  Buy t-shirts.  Buy ebony carvings.  I give you good price.”
            “No, I’m just looking.”
            “Yes, sir, yes, come in.”  She approaches with artwork or teapots or dresses.  “You like?  I give good price.”
            If you stand on the street, kids selling gum or just begging throng around you.  Someone has taught them just enough English.  “Please sir, hungry,” they say. 
            Be alert.  They’ll sell you cheap, useless trinkets that seem special because you’re in Ethiopia buying them.  They’ll tug at your heart strings.  If none of that works, beware.  They’ll pick your pocket.             
Every hawker selling his wares in that environment is trying to make money, trying to make a living.  Each one is convinced that the money he or she needs is in your wallet.  When you’re there, surrounded by aggressive sellers, who can you trust? 
That’s the question this morning.  Who can we trust?
            The people at the Addis post office are no different than people who come at us right here in our everyday lives in Chapel Hill.  It’s just that the sellers here use methods more effective in our context. 
            Try this.  Go to your email in-box.  Now, go through your spam filter.  Most of those messages marked spam are one of two things.  Either they are from people who don’t know a thing about you and just want to sell you something you don’t need, or, they are from malicious hackers and contain some kind of virus that will wreck your computer or steal your information or both.  Like the Addis street vendors these internet hawkers want money and the money they want is in your account. 
            The world is full of people who come at us without any concern for what’s in our best interest.  In social settings, how do you know who truly wants to be your friend verses the person who thinks he can use you to better himself?  Does he care about you, or does he see you as a piece of meat there to satisfy his carnal appetites? 
            Who can we trust?
            Imagine life is a big city, downtown, a lot of foot traffic; everyone is coming and going.  Everyone is selling or recruiting.  “Sir.”  “You there.”  A thousand voices vie for your attention.  All jostle and shove to gain position so they can be the one to influence you. They’ll influence for their benefit, and maybe for yours, and maybe not.  In this cacophony of noise, who do we trust?
            Christians traditionally turn to scripture to find guidance in God’s word.  It’s a way of preparing to step into the world and enter the fray.  This morning in Proverbs chapter 1, we find help that deals directly with this question of trust, and which path we are to walk.  “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the square, she raises her voice.  At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks” (1:20-21). 
            At the intersection where all of life runs together, count on two things being true.  First, voices from all directions descend on you, intent on using you.  Second, one among those voices is wisdom and wisdom is definitely there for your good. 
            In Proverbs, wisdom is cast as though she were a divine being who aids God in the creation of the world and in sustaining the world.  Some authors and critics take this to be a description of an actual divine being – close to God, but not necessarily God.  Others see this personification of wisdom as a literary technique.  The definition of wisdom begins in Proverbs 1:7.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Fear means reverence for God.  We always consider God’s ways when making decisions because of our righteous ‘fear of the Lord.’  It’s not a sense of terror or dread.  It is recognition that God is ‘wholly other;’ we are not God and can’t really understand God.  Proverbs says that we start on the path of wisdom by adopting the right posture toward God.  We worship and we listen to God. 
            This is easy when we are here in church.  It gets hard when we step out of church, away from the Bible and into the world where an endless flow of ideas passes by us.  At the intersection, we lose focus; with temptations all around us, it’s harder to stay attuned to God’s voice.  Even our idea of wisdom gets thrown out of whack.
            Is wisdom some secret, known only to holy men who spend their lives far out in desert places?  The book of Job seems to indicate as much.  Job 28:12 asks, “Where shall wisdom be found?  And where is the place of understanding?  [Human beings] do not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living” (28:12-13).  It seems pretty obvious from this verse that wisdom is utterly unattainable.  But if we stop there, throw our hands up, and decide in defeat that we can never know what’s right, then we’re allowing ourselves to fall prey to the deceptions evil people will use to lure us into their traps.  Job 28 goes on to say, “God understands the way to [wisdom], and he knows its place” (v.23).  The chapter concludes with the same truth given in Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom” (Job 28:28).
            In today’s passage, what caught my eye is wisdom’s desire to be known.  Wisdom goes to the busiest intersection, to the city gate.  Wisdom plants herself where all the people are.  Then, Proverbs 1:21-22 says, “She raises her voice; … she cries out.”  Wisdom does all she can amid the noisy throng to be the voice we hear.  Wisdom wants to be known.  Wisdom wants each of us to stop, be quiet, be still, and listen to her.  She plants in herself in the busiest places of life and calls us from there. 
            Imagine as we go through this reading in Proverbs that the Bible is talking directly to you.  Verse 23, “How long o simple ones, will you love being simple?  How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?”  The one who ignores wisdom is a simpleton, an idiot.  Turning away from wisdom, we are numbered among the scoffers and the fools. 
Over and over Proverbs illustrates that the way of the fool is the path to destruction.  This book sees life as a pathway.  We can be on the right path, the one that leads to life and blessing.  Or we walk the way of the fool.  The way of the fool takes on many appearances, but all lead to loss, destruction, humiliation, and death.
In verse 23, wisdom is insistent.  “Give heed to my reproof.  I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.”  The actual content of this wisdom is not given here, but we find it throughout God’s word.  Psalm 19 is a song of praise, heralding God’s glory in creation and then rejoicing in the way God gives life through the law.  Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are Torah, “instruction.” Abiding by the relational ethics we find there, we meet God, and we have good relations with our neighbors.  What’s more, we feel the overwhelming love of God. 
The rest Proverbs 1 is quite clear in the ‘either/or’ attitude wisdom has.  Verses 24-32 are blunt.  Should we choose to ignore wisdom; say we close our Bibles and forget everything the word of God has for us; we turn from it and step into the world relying on our own good senses instead of the guidance God has given; if that’s’ our approach, wisdom mocks us because all that is ahead is calamity.  That’s the English word in the New Revised Standard Version, verse 26: calamity.  In verse 33, wisdom promises, “those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”  That doesn’t mean life is easy with wisdom.  It just means that in life, whether it be a stressful moment or a relaxed one, we are ease.  Proverbs gives us these choices: listen to wisdom and live in peace, or count on yourself and fall into calamity. 
What wisdom has to say is worth our attention.  But Job 28 said wisdom cannot be found by human beings.  All we can do is “fear the Lord,” and live in reverent worship of God.  But out there, all manner of temptations threaten to seduce and devour us, and it’s hard to live in a frame of worship.  It’s hard to even see God out there. 
For us to hear wisdom in the world, we must fear God; for us to fear God we must have access to God.  Otherwise our faith is vague, unhelpful.  Here Job and Proverbs come together with the Gospel to give the hope we need.  Job said that while wisdom is impossible to find, “God understands the way.”  Proverbs depicts wisdom as standing in the midst of the fallen world, calling to us.
The Gospel – the good news – is that God has come near.  In the person of Jesus Christ, God took on human flesh.  God became touchable.  Jesus made a way for us, scoffers, fools, and simpleton sinners that we are to be in relationship with God through the forgiveness of sins and faith in Jesus.  Wisdom is present because God is present. 
In the midst of the hustle and bustle of life, we focus on Jesus.  We give him our attention, and He enables us to tune out the noise of the world, the temptations and distractions.  He directs us to a path.  Remember, in the worldview of Proverbs there are only two choices – the way of the fool and the way of life.   Because we know Jesus, we know the way of life is life everlasting: the blessing of the Holy Spirit’s presence today and the promise of eternal life in the Kingdom.
It means listening with discernment.  We don’t have to attain wisdom.  Wisdom reaches for us.  We hear wisdom’s voice when we remain in Christ.  So, we remain in Christ.  Read the Bible and do so in submission to the word and with full focus.  Allow your life to be shaped by God’s word, directed by God’s word.  Pray meditatively, shutting out all distractions and quieting the mind so that you allow yourself to hear what the Spirit is saying.
These spiritual disciplines – attentive Bible reading in which we submit ourselves to scripture and meditative listening prayer in which we quiet our minds in order to hear God; these disciplines open us up to wisdom.  And then it is a matter of believing what the Bible promises.  Because we are in relationship with God through Jesus, wisdom will come to us.  As wisdom comes, the way to live lives of love and peace will be shown to us.  And the promise at the end of Proverbs is realized in our lives.  “We live at ease, without dread of disaster.”  We have God’s peace. 

Grounded in Love (Job 1:21; 2:11-13)

            I’m not sure how you’ve been doing, riding out this windy, rainy weather that’s come to us from Hurricane Florence.  As I am writing this, 1:25, Saturday afternoon, we have had power and no problems.  I’ve made trips to Walmart.  It’s been OK.
            I know people in Wilmington and along the coast are significantly affected by floodwaters, wind, and rain.  As of this writing, 7 have died in hurricane-related incidents.   It’s a tragedy.  I have no inspired words to make emotional sense of it.  We believe in God and rely on God, and then a natural disaster comes.  Why?  I don’t have a good answer. 
            One of the people in the Bible frequently referenced in times of catastrophe is Job.  God boasted of Job’s righteousness and Satan challenged God on this.  God allowed Satan to harm Job.  Through weather disasters and military assaults from foreign enemies and accidents, Satan, with God’s permission, was able to kill Job’s children and take all of Job’s things.  A key phrase in that sentence is with God’s permission.
            Why would God let Satan do that?  In the 1000’s of years of Bible students combing through the scriptures, the “why” question has never been sufficiently answered.  But know this.  From Job’s perspective, the issue is with God, not Satan. The book of Job has 42 chapters and Satan is off the scene after chapter 2.  Job’s wife, who lost everything just as Job did, loses faith.  She says to her husband, “Do you … persist in your integrity?  Curse God and die” (2:9).
            Curse God and die.  Someone prays fervently in the days leading up to Hurricane Florence.  He has relatives in Wilmington.  For whatever reason, they don’t evacuate.  They’ve ridden out hurricanes before.  They’ve got things at home they need to protect.  They’ve got a parent in the hospital in Wilmington that cannot be moved and they don’t want to leave dad behind.  It’s doesn’t matter why.  They stay.  And the cousin, who lives here, away from the flooding, away from the danger prays for them.
            Then the hurricane comes, power is knocked out, and the cousin loses touch.  Finally, the dreaded call comes.  The one who stayed died in the flood waters.  Does the cousin who prayed so hard now look to Heaven with heartbroken frustration and curse God?  What words does a pastor offer to soothe the ultimate loss?  I don’t know.
            For his part, Job responded, “”Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Frustrated, Satan asked permission to attack Job’s body.  Job was made deathly ill, breaking out in loathsome boils.
            He professes faith even in the face of terrible loss.  His wife blames God and abandons faith.  Read on through the rest of the book, and Job brings his own complaints to God even as his three friends mercilessly blame him for what’s happened.  He needs comfort, and they weigh him down with bad theology that puts all the responsibility for his plight on his own shoulders.  It would be like saying to the people at the beach, “It’s your fault this hurricane happened.  If you had not sinned, it would never have come.”  Job’s friends relentlessly pound this idea. 
            However, before they get started in their misguided diatribes, look at their action in chapter 2, verse 13.  It says, “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”  Sometimes, that is the only response a pastor or a loving Christian friend has.  Sometimes to be a Christian is to sit with another person in their misery. 
You see someone in a terrible mess.  It doesn’t matter who made the mess.  You see the mess and the person who can’t get out of it.  So, you say, “I love you and God loves you.  I can’t think of how to show that.  I can’t think of what to do.  So, I’m going to sit with you in this mess.”  There comes the time to do the recovery work.  Maybe the building needs to be cleaned.  Maybe the church needs to provide supplies to the family who lost everything.  Maybe the building is so damaged it needs to be leveled.  To save money, some the work can be done by volunteers from the church.  We had a bunch of volunteers from here head to Eastern North Carolina last year to do recovery work.  The time for that comes.  But, sometimes, the only we have to offer is presence.  I don’t know what to do.  But I’ll sit with you because God loves you and I think that’s what God wants me to do.
Philip Yancey has spent his writing career trying to see God in the midst of the world’s greatest pain.  Pain produces fear.  The dire forecast of what kind of damage the hurricane might bring sent people in our area into a mania of worry.  I was in Lowe’s hardware earlier in the week.  They had cases of water bottles.  At that point several stores were completely out.  I grabbed one case, but other people had their carts stacked high with cases.  They had enough water for over a month.  The fear of being out of something drove people crazy.
Don’t get me wrong.  Preparation is important.  Many who decided to ride out the storm regret it now, even if they survived.  We should prepare and heed warnings, like the warning to evacuate, but we do not need to be ruled by fear.  Yancey writes, “The cure to fear is not a change in circumstances, but rather a deep grounding in the love of God.  I ask God to reveal his love to me directly, or through my relationships with those who also know him – a prayer I think God takes delight in answering.”[i]
            A deep grounding in the love of God; is that what allowed Job, at his lowest point, to say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord?”  Was he so grounded in God’s love because he had so much, a big family and great wealth?  If he had no children and was a poor man, would he have said that? 
            Is that deep grounding in the love of God what led the author of the New Testament letter 1 John to write these words in chapter 4?  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).  That New Testament letter claims that we are able to live in love and show love because God has first loved us (4:19). The ultimate expression of God’s love is the death of His beloved and only son, Jesus, on the cross for our sins.  Jesus is God’s testimony of love.  When it feels as if our own deaths have come upon us, is the love of God that we have in Jesus enough to help us face it?
            What does deep grounding in the love of God look like?
            Often, it looks like people who show God’s love.  It looks like Job’s friends when they sat with him in silence, before they started blaming him.  Just sitting with him, they were God’s presence.  They didn’t heal his painful condition.  They didn’t bring his deceased children back.  But, they communicated that he was not going through this alone. Their presence said to him, “You are beloved.  We will stand by you.”
            Yancey relays a story from Tony Campolo. 
Tony Campolo was going to a funeral home to pay his respects to the family of an acquaintance.  By mistake he ended up in the wrong funeral parlor.  It held the body of an elderly man and his widow was the only mourner present.  She seemed so lonely that Campolo decided to stay with her for the funeral.  He even drove with her to the cemetery.  At the end of the graveside service, as he and the woman were driving away, Campolo finally confessed that he had not known her husband.  “I thought as much, said the widow.  I didn’t recognize you.  But it doesn’t really matter.”  She squeezed his arm so tightly it hurt.  She said, “You’ll never know what this means to me.”[ii] 

            Yancey goes on to say, “No one offers the name of a philosopher when I ask the question, ‘who helped you the most?’  Most often they answer by describing a quiet, unassuming person.  Someone who was there when needed, who listened more than talked, who didn’t keep glancing down at a watch, who hugged and touched and cried.”[iii]  Presence.
            The first time I ever saw my dad cry was when I was about 8 or 9.  We would run out of the house when he got home around 6 PM yelling, “Daddy’s home.”  Well, one day, he didn’t come.  And it got dark out.  This was the late 1970’s, so no cell phones.  We didn’t know where he was.  Mom didn’t know where he was. 
            Finally, after 8PM, we heard the garage door open. I went into the garage to greet him.  He had a strange expression on his face.  I had never seen such a look in his eyes.  There was blood all over his overcoat.  He sputtered out, “I couldn’t help him.  I couldn’t do anything.”  And my dad cried.  I didn’t know what to do.  I had never seen this.
            The story came out.  He was making his daily commute home on I-75 from downtown Detroit to 14 Mile Road where we lived in the small town of Clawson.  He saw someone walking on the Freeway get hit by a tractor trailer.  My dad always carried an old army blanket in his trunk.  He stopped the car by the stricken man, and got that old blanket out.  Stooping by the man whose body been run over by an 18-wheeler.  My dad covered him with the blanket and stayed with him so he wouldn’t die alone. 
            Why was Dad crying?  He was crying God’s tears.  This man was a stranger to my dad.  This man was God’s beloved child and God wept at what happened.  God weeps for those who fall in the hurricane’s path.  God weeps with you when life hits you hard. 
            Grounded in love, my dad was the presence of God for a dying man.  Grounded in love, Job’s friends were the presence of God with him as he suffered.  In the aftermath of the current storm, our church will send people to do whatever kinds of relief efforts and clean-up efforts we can to help.  Going and working is important.  Going with a heart of love to be with people in their distress – that’s living grounded in love.  God’s love for us, demonstrated in the sacrifice of Jesus, expresses itself when we are present with people who need to know they’re not alone. 
            None of these words fix what hurricanes break.  None of these words heal the wounds in your life.  These words insist that God is with us and is with you and will stay with you, no matter what you’re going through.  Because I believe in the goodness of God and because I believe His loves overcomes all that we face in life, this is the best I can offer.   God is with us.  And when we sit with those in pain, God is there.

[i] P. Yancey (2000), Reaching for the Invisible God, Zondervan (Grand Rapids, MI), p.83.
[ii] P. Yancey (1990), Where is God when it Hurts?, Zondervan (Grand Rapids, MI), p.195.
[iii] Ibid.

Monday, September 3, 2018

"The Word of God: That's How It Is" (Deuteronomy 4:1-9)

Sunday, September 2, 2018

            When I arrived at Fort Benning, Georgia for army basic training in the 1989, the first stop was the reception station.  We were there a couple of days.  There recruits learn how to stand at “attention” and “parade rest.”  We got our closely cropped hair cuts and received our uniforms.  We were taught the very rudimentary basics of how to act in the military, but we were also warned of how intense life was about become once went “down range,” to our training platoons.  We learned to dread the phrase “down range.”
            On about the fourth day, we loaded onto cattle trucks for the ride to our homes for the next 12-13 weeks, our basic training company.  On arrival, red-faced, yelling drill instructors greeted us with four letter words and the order to “drop” at the slightest infraction.  “Drop” meant, push-ups, a lot of push-ups.  As intimidating as that welcome was, we adjusted to life in Alpha Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 54th Infantry regiment. 
            With a 4 AM wake-up, we did a lot of pre-5AM running and push-ups and sit-ups.  We fired automatic weapons, threw hand grenades, painted our faces with camouflage (that is hard to wash off and leaves a rash), and became intimately acquainted with the M-16 rifle.  After the field training exercise, training for chemical warfare, and the 14-mile rucksack march, we graduated.  We were no longer trainees.  We were soldiers.
            That experience came to mind as I read and re-read the opening verse of Deuteronomy chapter 4.  “Give heed to the statutes and ordinances … that you may live … and occupy the land the Lord … is giving you.  You must neither add anything to what I command you, nor take anything from it” (Dt. 4:1, 2). 
Moses is with the nation of Israel on the East bank of the Jordan River when he speaks these words.  These are the descendants of those who had been slaves in Egypt.  Led by Moses, they passed through the Red Sea, which God opened for them.  In the wilderness on Mount Sinai Moses received the 10 commandments.  After disobeying God, the people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.  All who came out of Egypt died in the wilderness.
Now in Deuteronomy, Moses instructs their children and grandchildren on how to live as the people of God.  When he finishes giving this law, at the end of Deuteronomy, he too will die, and Joshua will lead the next generation into the land to live there as God’s holy people on earth.  At the Fort Benning reception station, the message drilled into us trainees was “welcome to military life.  This is how it is.”  We were not invited to make suggestions.  We conformed.  If we resisted, we pushed the earth until we were ready to get with the program.
In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people, “You have been called to be the people of God.  This law shows you how it is.  Live by this law, and the rest of the world will see not only you, but the God who called you.  Live by this law, and you will draw people to worship God.”
We come to Deuteronomy as followers of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is our lens.  We understand the law through Him.  He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt. 5:17).  Followers of Jesus must be familiar with the Law of Moses.
Of course, we don’t worship in a tabernacle or temple.  The coming of Jesus shifted worship to a focus on sending the community out into the world.  We don’t do animal sacrifice in worship.  We take communion as a remembrance of Jesus – the one final sacrifice. He paid the penalty for sin with his death on the cross.  No sacrifice is ever needed again. 
This in no way alters the ethical teachings of the law or the call to holiness found throughout the law.  In Christ, we are to conform our lives to God’s ways, to walk the path God sets before us.  If we don’t like it, we do not demand that God give us another path more suitable to our tastes.  Deuteronomy 4:2 is clear.  We “must neither add anything to what has been commanded nor take away anything from it.”  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter of the law, not one stroke of a letter, will pass away until all is accomplished” (Mt. 5:18).  The same note sounds in the final chapter of the Bible, Rev. 22:18, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophesy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take that person’s share in the tree of life and the holy city.”
The scriptures can be studied, parsed, wrestled with, analyzed critically, and re-read.  We must use every scholarly discipline available to deepen our understanding of God’s word.  But, we must also conform.  Even if we cannot satisfactorily answer “why” God has unfolded things as He has, we must still submit to His lordship and live by His word, which we find in the Bible.  This is how it is. 
Do we realize that when we fully surrender, and give ourselves completely to God’s vision for humanity, we enter the very deepest joy and most satisfying life possible?  Moses connected the law with a life of right, joy-filled relationships with each other and with God.  “Give heed to [this word] … that [we] may live!”  As Jesus fulfills the Law of Moses, He expands our grasp of Moses’ words.  Moses offered life.  Jesus says, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.”  From God’s perspective, the abundant life is one lived in rich, truly loving relationships, and one that is attuned to the voice of the Holy Spirit.  That’s the life Jesus has for us. 
We are to demonstrate love, compassion, and justice in a way that attracts the world.  As we commit ourselves to prayer, to study of the word, to the spread of the Gospel, and to actively working for justice and the uplift of the poor, we mature.  We become more responsive to promptings of the ever present Holy Spirit.  As a trainee develops his skills and becomes and more disciplined until he is ultimately a soldier, we grow in faith to the point we become more and more like Christ.  No longer newborn believers, we graduate to become disciples. 
Both testaments show instances that reveal how flawed disciples are.  David, Jonah, Peter, Paul – they all failed many times.  Followers of Jesus make mistakes and fall off the path.  Yet, when we keep our eyes on Jesus, he draws us back, picks us up, cleans us off, and gives us another chance.  For our part, we grow as we submit to God’s authority and conform our lives to the life the scriptures lay out before us.   
My own experience is that we discover the deepest blessings of God in our relationships.  Heidi Ann Russell is professionally trained theologian who also has a deep interest in science.  Her reading in the area of quantum theory has given her analogies for the way life unfolds when we abide in Christ and order our lives by the scriptures. 
One analogy comes from the notion of entanglement.  Electrons in two different spaces effect each other.  When one acts, the other entangled with it will have to re-act.  Similarly, when we are in Christ, we find ourselves as not simply individuals, but members of a single body: the body of Christ.  First Corinthians chapter 12 uses this metaphor.  I experience something: joy, pain, loss, blessing.  Whatever it is, it happened to me, but the entire community of believers feels the effects.  The church family comes around me to rejoice with me, cry with me, or to try to help me. 
Relationships might not be what comes to mind when you think of the Law of Moses.  Perhaps the first inclination is to hear in our heads a stern voice “You shall not” over and over.  Yes, the law includes some “do’s” and “don’ts.”  But those specific commands exist in the service of the two great overarching commands: “love the lord with all your heart,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”  The specific laws guide us in living into what we are to be, a community of self-giving love.
I studied family systems for three years in my doctorate of ministry program.  A foundational principle in the philosophy I learned was that no individual exists independent of a system.  If someone in a church family complains constantly, we don’t just isolate that person.  We look at the entire church family because we all bear that person’s struggles and dysfunctions.  Heidi Ann Russell notes that we exist in a “field of relationships.”[i]  We cannot know ourselves apart from who we are in relationship to others and to God.  This is as crucial to being a disciple as mastering the workings of the M-16 is for trainee becoming a soldier. 
“This is how it is” can sound like an uncompromising imperative.  Deuteronomy 4:5-6 says,  “I now teach you statutes and ordinance; … you must observe them diligently.”  We are tempted to imagine a life of neurotic worry.  Am I breaking the law here?  Did I sin there? This is not what God intends.  Rather, these words of law from Moses, are, in light of Jesus, an invitation into a life of love relationship with other followers of Jesus.  When we successfully live in love and share Jesus’ love outside the church, those who are not followers will become curious.  Instead of us worrying, we’ll be diligently working on relationships, forgiving, helping, and laughing together. 
Those on the outside will want what’s in here.  Verse 6, [those outside the kingdom] will say “Surely this great nation is wise and discerning.”  Conforming our lives to the path laid out in the word of God brings us peace and draws lost people to Jesus. 
From calling to salvation to submission to the law to living in relationships and sharing of our faith: this is how it is when our lives built on following Jesus. 
My prayer is we will do exactly do that: exist as a people who live in the love of Jesus and share that love with the world.

[i] H. Russell (2015), Quantum Shift: Theological and Pastoral Implications of Contemporary Developments in Science, Liturgical Press (Collegeville, MN), p.68.  She takes the phrase “field of relationships” from Anthony Kelly.