Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Put It in a Hole in the Ground

What do you do with something that you want to save and be sure it does not get lost or destroyed through carelessness?  Dig a hole and put it in the ground.  At least that is what the parable of Jesus from Matthew 25:14-30 says someone did with something very valuable.  Those of us who have been in church circles for many years recognize this as the "Parable of the Talents".  If you are not familiar with the story, it goes something like this (paraphrase mine):

A rich man was going on a journey so he wanted to be sure his wealth was protected while he was gone.  So, he called his servants and told them to take care of his riches.  To one servant, he gave 5 talents of gold, to another 2 talents of gold, and to another 1 talent of gold.   (Each talent was worth 10,000 days pay.)  And then the man left on his journey.  So, when he returned, he called the servants and asked for his money back.  They were just the caretakers of the money but the servant who had 5 talents was shrewd enough to invest it and he presented 10 talents to his master instead of 5.  The master praised him and told him he did a good job.  The servant who had the 2 talents also invested the money and presented his master with 4 talents instead of 2.  He also received the praise of his master.  The servant with the 1 talent, though, was afraid of his master and so afraid that he feared if he did not have the 1 talent given to him that his master would be very angry so he dug a hole and put it in the ground for safekeeping.  As he presented it back to his master, he explained this.  Now, instead of the master praising him for giving him back his exact amount of money, he berated him and told him that he should have done as the other servants had and he would be punished for not investing and returning more than he had been given. 

I have always felt sorry for the servant with the 1 talent.  His master had not told him to invest the money and give him a return on his money.  He had just told him to keep the money safe until his return, and he did what was asked of him.  So, why was he being punished for doing what he was asked to do?  The servants with greater sums of money had thought of investing their amounts and doubling the money but this servant simply was a good caretaker of the money and returned what had been given to him.  Should he not at least gotten a gold star or a happy face for what he did? 

The point of the story seems to be that God expects us to use the talents (not money, skills or gifts) we have to enhance the Kingdom of God instead of burying it in the ground.  God has given us many gifts and talents with which to serve God and some who possess gifts or talents use them for God's Kingdom.  They sing and teach and preach and do missionary work and expand God's Kingdom so that others come into it because they have used their talents.  Others, though, are afraid to use their talents.  They are either literally afraid, such as they have stage fright so they cannot talk or sing or teach in front of others lest they shake for fear in their shoes.  Or, they cannot minister to those who are ill or living in poor conditions because they are afraid of germs or illness and think they may catch some disease themselves by exposing themselves to possible unseen dangers.  Fear has kept them from sharing the good gifts God has given them. 

The servant who did not invest his master's money told him that he did not do it because he was afraid of his master.  He knew that his master was hard to get along with and he feared if he lost the money that had been given to him then his master would be angry and would punish him, and that is exactly what happened to him because he did not take a risk. 

So, does God mean for us to stick our necks out and risk what could happen if we invest our talents on God's behalf and for the sake of God's Kingdom OR does he mean for us to dig a hole and fall in it for fear that we may not be able to do what we think we can and we would open ourselves up to public ridicule if we failed?  I think that the parable teaches that God wants us to be brave and have faith that what we do on behalf of God's Kingdom will have positive results. 

Mordecai told Esther in the book that bears her name, "What if God chose you for just such a time as this?"  And today we ask the same question of ourselves and others as we work to bring about peace and justice and love in the world around us.  What if God chose you and me for just such a time as this?  What if we really are the only hands and feet that God has to do work in the world around us?  Will we work on the master's behalf until he returns?   Will we invest ourselves so that we will increase the value of our talents and present them to the master?  Will we just dig a hole and save what we have so that it will be there just as it was given to us?  The decision and the answer is only ours, yours and mine, to give. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Throwing the Baby Out With the Bath Water

I walk two miles each morning around our small town for exercise.  I usually try to get out to walk between 6 and 7 a.m. so I will have time to recover, shower, and have breakfast before going to work.  My walk takes me in front of our local Catholic Church which is usually very quiet and vacant at that time of the morning.  This morning, though, I began to hear their church bells ringing when I was a few blocks away, not the jubilant bells of a wedding or the regular bells calling people to worship or prayer, but mournful bells, one tone, followed about 10 seconds later by another tone, long and slow tones.  This lasted for at least five minutes, I think.  The time was about 6:30 a.m. when the bells began to chime. 

So, when I reached the Catholic Church at 6:30 a.m., I saw cars there and people getting out of their cars to go into the church, in the darkness of this new day.  Not a lot of cars but enough that it made me curious why people would be going to the church at 6:30 a.m.  I thought maybe they were having daily mass but that usually meets in a small chapel north of the main sanctuary.  The church was aglow with lights that made the stained glass windows very apparent.  So, a regular service was about to begin---at 6:30 a.m. on a Thursday.  Again, I was puzzled...what could be going on?

Then, I remembered that today is called "All Souls Day" on the Christian Calendar.  It follows "All Saints Day" which was held yesterday.  In Christianity, All Souls Day commemorates the souls of Christians who have died.  Christians pray for their departed loved ones on this day.  Some people visit the cemeteries where they loved one are buried or light candles in their memories.  So, that solves the mystery.  Those early risers were going to the Catholic Church to pray for their departed loved ones and to remember them. 

Part of me was a bit jealous that the local Catholic priest can get his members to come to church at 6:30 a.m.  I wondered what kind of turn out we would have at our local Protestant church if we had a sunrise service at some time other than Easter Sunday.  I figure I would be there alone, maybe accompanied by a musician if we needed one or by my wife, who goes to a lot of church services "to be supportive" whether she wants to go or not.  Even if the service was held at noon on a weekday, attendance would still be poor if not dismal.  What hold does the Catholic Church have on parishioners that we do not have in the Protestant Church?  Why do faithful Catholics respond to worship opportunities when Protestants shy away from them? 

Maybe it has something to do with the word "Protestant" itself.  When the Reformation began over 500 years ago, the reformers were protesting the things that they considered wrong that were being done by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.  Martin Luther knew of at least 95 things so he wrote them up and posted them on the door of the church attached to Wittenberg Castle, a kind of medieval bulletin board, actually.  People read his list and discussion began.  The fires of Reformation began burning and it spread to other European countries and reformers such as Zwingli, Knox, and Wesley began showing up to also protest what they thought was wrong with their particular form of organized religion in their area.  Add King Henry VIII to the list who formed his own church so he could turn up his nose at the Pope and marry Anne Boleyn after getting the divorce he wanted from his first wife, and religion began to look a lot less Catholic and more Protestant. 

Some followers of the Reformers began destroyed stained glass windows and statues in Catholic Churches and Henry VIII closed all the monasteries and convents and claimed their assets, often destroying their buildings too.  Suddenly being a Protestant was rejecting anything that smacked of or reminded one of the Roman Catholic Church.  So, today Protestants are hesitant to reinstate anything that could be seen as Catholic for fear of edging back toward the thing we pushed away from 5 centuries ago.. 

Another reason why Catholics will go to church at "Dark-Thirty" or midday or in the evening on a weekday, is that Catholics are taught that church attendance is required and not going to church is considered a sin that has to be reckoned with at confession.  Some days, such as All Souls Day, are considered "days of obligation" or as a principal of mine referred to times to meet with him "command performances".  You have to go or suffer the consequences.  Days of Obligation bear even a heavier sin penalty than just regular days. 

Protestants did away with requirements of church attendance when we began to teach that Jesus was our friend and we could have a "personal relationship with Jesus."  Suddenly, we were free to go to church or not go to church.  God would understand our need to be elsewhere and if we attend several times a year, or not, Jesus will not impose his will upon us.  We are free to be as nonreligious as we desire since we know Jesus personally and know that he forgives us for all that we do or do not do.  His grace covers it all and that is all that matters.  So church attendance is optional, if at all. 

Has being Protestant become a form of being little or nothing?  Do we still have belief in being connected to something much larger than ourselves called The Church of The Christian Community?  Do we still need what the Church provides as we worship together?  Do our actions speak louder than our words when it comes to belief when we will allow anything to have higher value or precedence over our dedication to and participation in our local church?  Does it even matter to many of us whether or not the church exists when we do not it as enough necessary or needful to even attend its worship services, whether on a Sunday or not?  Just some questions to ponder as we think about why we are Protestants and why our Catholic neighbors will venture out into the dark to attend a worship service when we find that idea ludicrous.  Or do we? 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Bragging Rights

People all need something to be proud of.  It may be their kids, grandkids, home, car, boat, or country club membership.  People need to have something to drop into conversations such as the college they attended or the company they work for.  Openly bragging about something is not usually accepted by others but quietly slipping it into a conversation is accepted modicum in polite society. 

My wife and I have two children but no grandchildren.  People our age usually have grandkids to talk about and to show pictures of to others they meet.  We have no grandchildren pictures or activities to recall but we can talk about our granddog Kiwi.  Kiwi is a Lhasa Apso and cute as a button.  She is so lively and quick and when she sees us after our not being with her for a while she immediately responds and runs rapidly around in circles and bows at our feet as if to show us how happy she is to see us.  She has beautiful long white silky hair that flows down around her head and toward the floor.  She is so human-like that we are always amazed by what she can do when we are with her. 

Is bragging on a dog equivalent to bragging about a child?  It is if it is your dog.  But is bragging even acceptable in society.  Well, we may need to ask St. Paul for advice about that because he brags to the Church at Philippi about all of his religious and spiritual achievements letting them know that he is very qualified to write to them concerning their own spiritual needs.  "If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; at to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless."  (3:4b-6) 

In other words, Paul brags about all of his religious qualifications that he can rightly claim because he entered the Jewish world as a Jew who had all the right credentials based upon family heritage, training, following Jewish practices, and training, even to the point that he became actively involved in weeding out heresy among them and ordering the deaths of those in the Christian sect whom he saw as opposed to Judaism.  He had every right to be proud of himself as the role model for every good and righteous Jew who lived in his day. 

But, then he met Jesus a mystical, strongly spiritual experience that no one else witnessed.  It had such a powerful effect on who he was and what he did in life that it negated all that he may had rightly claimed as his Jewish credentials and changed him into a Christian who could understand the hesitancy of Jews to embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior and Gentiles who may have thought of all this talk about Jesus as fanciful and imaginary. 

Paul's experience with Jesus Christ made him consider what he had bragged about in his past as "loss" or disposable.  His desire to know Jesus in a real and tangible way superseded his need to carry his credentials around as his membership in the religious community.  "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the share of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death..." (3:10)  Even if Paul suffered in his body, he counted it worthy because it would bring him closer to the reality of the resurrection that Jesus experienced and that he preached would be given to all who would put their belief in Jesus as God's Son. 

Paul was not ready to give up and waste away but he was looking forward to the goal set before him so that he could obtain what was important to him.  He was not content to sit back and bask in the glory he may have achieved but was "straining forward to what lies ahead."  (3:13b)  That is what the Christian life is about, after all, keeping on keeping on, as the old saying says.  We continue to follow the truth we have learned throughout our lives and do what we believe is right to do as we serve God and our neighbors until finally we achieve the goal as we depart this life. 

The Methodists have a word for this process.  It is called Santification.  It means being made more holy (complete or perfected) throughout life until finally we "become" what we have believed when we exit this life and begin the next life.  We do not expect to become perfected here in this life but we continue to press forward toward that goal putting aside the cares of life that may try to weigh us down and look to Jesus who is the author and perfecter of the faith. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Stooping to Conquer

This Sunday is called World Communion Sunday on the Christian calendar of the mainline denominations.  That is the Sunday when we think about and talk about what Christians have in common, about what unites us as Christians.  Sometimes finding something in common that we can all agree on is pretty hard.  We all have our individual ideas and we think that our ideas are the best ideas and ideas of others cannot really be as good as our own.  That is part of human nature, it seems. 

This World Communion Sunday, however, we have a passage from the book of Philippians to set us straight.  This passage does not tell us that our ideas are the best or that we can have a good idea to share with others.  It instructs us instead to "be of the same mind."  Wow--Being of the same mind is  a hard thing to do at times.  It means that people often have to agree on one thing or another and reach some form of compromise, leaving behind what one may think is best in view of what another may need or want or think, if that other is someone we need to assist in bringing about what they need or want or think. 

Paul gives the Church at Philippi some strong words to consider when he tells them, "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others."  (2:4)  In other words, consider what others need over your own needs.  Put aside what you may need at the moment in order to meet the needs of others.  We have all done that.  Our actions on behalf of others are often automatic, without considering if we should or should not assist another person. 

There is a sweet lady that I meet at our local grocery store now and then.  She is bent over with osteoporosis but she still goes to the grocery store to buy the things she needs and takes them to her car by herself.  When I see her ahead of me in the line, I always offer to help her get her things to her car, not because I hope she will give me a tip or because she is some special or popular or well known individual or even because I hope this will put one more star in my crown in heaven.  I help this woman with her groceries because it is the right thing to do.  It is the neighborly thing to do.  It is the Christian thing to do.  And you do the same kinds of things for the same reasons.  I am not SuperChristian because I do it.  I do it because Jesus would have done it too if he had been there. 

Paul says that very thing in the passage from Philippians we will study this week in worship.  "Let the same mind be in your that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave..." (2:5-7b)  Paul was getting at the fact that the pre-existent Christ had every right and reason to just remain in heaven with God but he gave us that right and instead became a human being to be a servant to all.  Paul goes on to tell them his readers and hearers that Jesus in human flesh served and then died even though he did not have to.  He chose to do this for others. 

Paul admonishes the Church of Philippi to put aside their selfishness and arguing (and they were doing a lot of it) and "be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" (2:2 b,c).  If they were to consider the needs of others of greater importance than their own needs, then they would act as Christ had to give of themselves for the needs of others and of the entire Christian Community at Philippi. 

Humility and service is what unites followers of Jesus Christ across the globe.  We care about the needs of others because it is what Christians do.  We care about the needs of individuals because it is what Christians do.  We do for others, not just pray or believe for them.  We act on our faith to make things happen locally and around the world.  If Jesus could serve others and give of himself down to the place where he actually gave up his life then those who emulate him will want to follow his role model of service and sacrifice. 

" out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."  (2:12b-13)  God is at work in the world.  God is still speaking.  God's voice is reminding us that the reason the Church of Jesus Christ exists is to be of service to others so that they will understand that God loves them and wants them to love one another as much as God loves them.  When we show God's love through Christian service, the will and the work of God is done in the world around us. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Love and Fellowship, Forgiveness and Grace

What is the issue that you think is so important that you can form an opinion around that is unmovable for you?  What do you consider so important that it is hard for you to be swayed otherwise?  There are many issues that divide people into different camps and often we judge others based upon the opinions we have formed regarding these issues. 

I grew up in a very conservative denomination.  They had rules about just about everything there was in life.  They made judgments about others based upon whether or not others followed their particular rules.  There were the big rules that they shared with other conservative groups--no smoking, no drinking, no cursing.  This particular denomination, however, went much farther then some--no dancing, no going to movies (what they called "the picture show"), no going to plays, no going bowling, no wearing shorts or other clothing they considered "provocative".  So, when one became a member of this group, one had to sign a pledge card that the new member would pledge not to do any of the things that the group looked down upon.  This group wanted to be sure that its members were of one mind when it came to those things that they did not approve.  So, people signed the card and tried to obey the rules but sometimes the rules were broken.  Then, it was the job of the other members to bring the offender back in line. 

I remember when I was in junior high and our school band had a "band dance".  That was a dance for the band members to attend and there was a record player playing the tunes of the 60s and cold drinks and snacks, a fairly harmless set-up for junior high kids.  There were chaperones and adults stationed around the room and what happened that night was pretty mild in comparison to some things that happen today.  I did not dance since that was forbidden by our church so I sat there and watched as my friends danced.  Some of my friends came up to me and asked me if I wanted to dance to which I replied, " I can't.  It's against my religion" to which they replied, "Oh well, it's against ours too but we are dancing anyway."  So, that made perfect sense to me so I got up and began to do those dances from the 60s that required no one to have a partner--the twist, the frug, the swim---some of you will recall what they may have looked like. 

Suddenly, there stood at the entrance to the band hall, a harrowing figure with a frown on its face--my mother.  She had come to pick me up at the dance and take me home because I did not drive in junior high and needed a ride home.  Boy, did I ever get a lecture on the way home.  I was told over and over again how evil dancing was and why we did not believe in dancing.  I was not one to just accept a rule on face value, however, and asked where in the Bible it says that we cannot dance. (It does not, in case you are wondering).  The stern reply was not to ask questions but just to obey the rules. 

This rebel of a junior high boy could not accept that rule and asked the pastor the next Sunday the same question I asked my mother.  He too told me to obey the rules and not ask questions so I did what any lively young man of 13 would do...I danced and went to movies and wore shorts and said questionable words, but not openly, in secret, in small groups, in places where I had to hide the fact that I was doing those things.  I rarely got caught and it made breaking the rules all the more enjoyable.  It became a quest to see how many times I could break the church rules and not get caught. 

I left that church when I became an adult and never returned to it.  It has changed somewhat over the years, becoming more accepting of society and what some in society like to do (they still frown upon dancing and drinking and smoking and cursing though).  They never quite saw that they were judging others based upon the ideas they had about society.  They preferred to brand people as "sinners" because they did the things they found to be distasteful, even if they were not unbiblical.  They shunned people who broke the rules without regard to being repentant for their misdeeds.  They found discipline to be more important than love. 

What rule or opinion do we hold more dear than loving others who may embrace the ideas or break rules that we think should be obeyed?  St. Paul told the church at Rome to allow others to eat what they wished and go where they wanted even if the individual did not agree with it.  After all, said Paul, what is more important is that we love others and extend welcome to them even if we disagree with them. 

We are all brothers and sisters in Christ.  What we have is a bond of unity that exists in spite of the differences that we may hold.  A modern author named Rachel Held Evans describes it this way: "This is what God's Kingdom looks like: A bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good,  but because they are hungry, because they said Yes, and there's always room for more."  I like that.  It describes well what we are about in our Christian family. 

"Come unto me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."  (Matthew 11:28-30)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and More

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."  (Acts 1:8)

What does it mean to be a witness?  We are all witnesses each day because we all see things and report on them to others.  We tell others about our life experiences so we are all witnesses to what happens in life.   We want to share with others about those things and want others to share with us about what is going on in their lives.  If something happens to us that we think is significant or important, then we want others to know about this event so they will understand its impact on our lives.

That is basically what Jesus was telling his disciples as he was preparing them for the day when he would leave them.  Go, and tell others about what you have experienced during the time I was with you all.  Those were the instructions that Jesus gave the disciples as he prepared to leave and return to heaven.

Jesus' closest friends had experienced many things during the three years of ministry with him.  They had seen Jesus heal many people, raise some people from the dead, and had heard him teach all about the Kingdom of God and what it meant to live in it.  So, Jesus was now leaving them and he was telling them to tell others about what they had experienced and learned while they had been with him.  That is one of the reasons why the New Testament exists.  It is a recollection and interpretation of the stories, experiences, and teachings those closest to Jesus had received during Jesus' earthly ministry.  Bible scholars call this collection "The Jesus Tradition".  We have this collection of memories of Jesus to reflect upon as we decide what they mean to us as we live together in Christian community.

Jesus told his disciples to begin at home and expand from there as they shared with others what they had experienced with him.  Jerusalem was home base for them so they were to begin there and then expand through the region called Judea.  They were even supposed to go to those with whom they had animosity or could not agree, such as the Samaritans.  From there, the world was their parish.  They were to carry the Gospel to all who would listen to them.

We share our Christian experience and witness with others beginning with those whom we know well, letting them know what we have learned so that it may benefit them as it has us.  We use all that modern society has shared with us to share our witness with others...the telephone, email, social media and maybe even the old fashioned method of letter writing to tell our story.  We tell it to those who know us best and we tell it to others in the world who may not know us at all.  Our story is personal to us but it is also global because it is a story of truth and beauty that all need to hear.

The reason we can tell the story to others is because we have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the works that Jesus asked us to do.  The Spirit gives us the courage to act and speak and to do it in a way that will encourage others to listen and learn.  We speak as the Spirit gives us the language to use and we rely upon the Spirit as our source of strength and knowledge.

So, go out and tell the story to all who will listen.  It is a story that needs to be shared with all, beginning with those who know it best and continuing to those who have never heard it at all, even in this modern age of communication sources that astound and amaze us.  

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Lessons in prayer, from a dog

He assume his still posture
two feet from the table.
He is not grabby,
his tongue is not hanging out,
he is quiet.

He wants to leap,
he wants to snap up
meat and blood.
You can tell.
But what he does is sit
as the gods
his masters and mistresses
fork steak and potatoes
into their mouths.

He is expectant
but not presumptuous.
He can wait.
He can live with disappointment.
He can abide frustration
and suffer suspense.

He watches
for signals,
he listens for calls
of his name from above.

At hints that
he may be gifted
with a morsel,
he intensifies his
already rapt concentration,
he looks his god
in the eye
but humbly,
sure of his innocence
in his need,
if his need only.

On the (often rare) occasions
when gifts are laid on his tongue,
he takes them whole,
then instantly resumes
the posture of attention,
beseeching, listening, alert,
the posture of hard-won faith
that will take no for an answer,
yet ever and again hopefully
return to the questioning.

Rodney Clapp, author
Christian Century Magazine
February 12, 2008