Monday, March 26, 2012

Walking with Jesus Through the Rest of Lent

40 Days...that is what it has been, almost at least.  Lent began way back in late February and now we are almost at its end.  Holy Week is next week.  Palm Sunday is April 1 this year, no fooling!  Next Sunday, we go with Jesus one more time through that dreadful week of his life that begins with his riding on the back of a donkey into Jerusalem, looking rather foolish, big guy that he was saddled on this tiny beast of burden--people waving and shouting and throwing down their coats and palm branches for him to ride over. 

Hosanna!  What an odd word.  You only hear it in church and usually only on Palm Sunday or in a communion liturgy.  Hosanna--it sounds like a praise word that we would use in church, shouting it all happy, smiling as we say it, thinking it sounds like some very holy church-word.  It literally means "Save Us" though.  It is a plea from those lining the streets that day for this most unlikely Messiah to bring his troops out of hiding so that he can conquer the Romans and bring the land back to its rightful owners, the Jews.  Hosanna--the crowd shouted it out as he rode along looking very foolish in the eyes of the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman soldiers who were watching.  How very ludicrous that this Don Quixote of a savior could do battle with anyone much less the forces of the most powerful government on earth at the time!

The palm branches themselves were symbols of defiance against Rome.  They spoke of disobedience in the face of the Roman oppressors.  The waving of the palm branches and the shouting of that word Hosanna might have caused fear or anxiety in the hearts of the soldiers watching this display if the one entering the city had ridden in on a stallion carrying a sword and shield, dressed in armor perhaps.  But the meek, mild mannered, Messiah who rode in on a donkey only brought laughter to those in power who were watching.  They figured that this was only the latest of the crazies that the peasants had put their faith in.  Nothing to fear here...only a good diversion to the boring duty to keep control in Jerusalem that the Roman soldiers had to endure. 

So, we ride into Jerusalem this Sunday and walk with him daily in the city streets, as he turns the tables on the merchants set up in the Temple, as he argues with the religious leaders who are determined to frame him for something, as he plans a special meal with those closest to him, as he prays in the Garden and suddenly finds himself arrested, betrayed by one of those who had claimed to be his friend.  We call it Holy Week.  Jesus must have called it the worst week of his life. 

We are ready for Lent to end.  We are ready to eat the foods we have given up for Lent once again and get back into our routine.  We are ready to say Alleluia on Easter Sunday, dressed in our finery and watch children hunt eggs and gather for our yearly feast and relax with our friends and relatives.  We are ready for the good times to come that follows Lent. week of Lent remains for soul searching and prayer and devotional reading and preparing to go with Jesus on that walk through the Via Dolorosa...the Way of Suffering. 

Each year I want the story to end differently.  Each year I want Jesus to run away into the hills of Judea and return to Galilee where people know him and may even like him and will defend him.  Each year as he prays in the Garden I want him to take off into the distance and live to minister another day.  That is the way we humans do it most of the time.  We choose the easier of the ways....but Jesus is not like us...he considers all  the alternatives and chooses the one that must be done, even if it is the most unpleasant or painful choice of all. 

God help us to not be satisfied with easy choices but to choose and learn and act as God would help us to do, so that truly God's Kingdom will be done on earth, even as it is done in Heaven. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

A New Heart

There is a great movie called "Return to Me" that some of you may have seen.  It starred David Duchovny and Minnie Driver.  It also was one of the last performances by Carroll O' Connor who played a man who ran an Italian restaurant.  Minnie Driver played his daughter who happened to have a heart problem that required a heart transplant.  If she did nto receive a new heart, then she would die.  She was growing weaker by the day and O' Connor would go to mass and pray for her.  David Duchovny played a man who worked at a zoo and at the movie's start, his wife was killed in a traffic accident as they were going to or returning from (I can't remember which) a festive occasion.  As fate would have it (or Hollywood would write it), the wife had signed up to be an organ donor and her heart was given to the Italian restaurant owner's daughter who was in need of a heart.  The man whose wife died mourned for a long time but finally decided to risk going out again and met the woman in the restaurant who had been given his wife's heart (unbeknowst to him) and, of course, they fell in love and wanted to get married.  She somehow learned that she had the heart of his dead wife beating in her chest and almost called the off the wedding but the pair worked through it and they lived happily ever after.  Ahhhh, what a great movie. 

It is becoming more common to actually know people who have received an organ from an organ donor.  My brother is a kidney transplant patient, having received a kidney from a donor several years back.  I also have a church member who received a heart a couple years ago because he had been plaugued with heart trouble for so long and they finally determined that only a heart transplant would save his life.  The new heart has given him much more energy and has made his quality of life much greater. 

The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures for next Sunday is from Jeremiah 31 where God tells the people of Israel that God would make a new covenant with them and would write it on their hearts.  The new covenant would fill them with the knowledge of the Lord and God would forgive them and remember their sin no more.  They would have new hearts, hearts that would yearn to know more about God and to be in relationship with God. 

Lent provides the opportunity to review yearly the story of the people of Israel.  It is a story of covenants being made with them again and again.  First with Noah, after the flood...then with Abraham, after he was called by God...then with Isaac and Jacob and then with the people of Israel after their exodus from Egypt.  The covenant was renewed again and again as the people traveled to the Land of Promise.  Then, as time went on the covenant was renewed in reaction to events that happened in the lives of the people of Israel.  The prophets spoke the word of God to them and let them know that God desired to have a close relationship with them, an individual relationship which was totally new to these wandering nomads who finally settled down in one location. 

This convenant spoken of by Jeremiah was something that the people would have considered ground breaking.  The idea that the God of Israel...Yahweh, the powerful, omnipotent deity, would desire to know individuals in an intimate way was a new concept.  In days past, this God was distant and considered to be unknowable.  Now, God is saying....God wants to know people in an intimate way and God wants them to know all about who God is. 

Modern people of faith are about as confused about who God is and how God can be connected to individuals as the ancients were.  They have heard the stories again and again throughout their lives but believing that God can actually know them in a personal way is not something that most Christians can connect with.  They still consider God to be remote and unapproachable even though they may believe in all that Jesus taught about God.  Many people see a dichotomy between Jesus and God, seeing them as two separate beings (despite our teachings on the Trinity and that Jesus and God are One).  Many people view God as the unknowable mystery while Jesus is our friend.  They forget Jesus' teaching that if you have seen Jesus then you have seen God.  Jesus came to live among humans so that they could see God in the flesh and so that God could understand what it meant to be human.  Both God and humans could then understand what the other was really like. 

It is in the life and teachings of Jesus that we learn who God is and what God wants for human beings as they live their lives on earth.  God wants to write God's covenant on our hearts also, even as he did with the people of ancient Israel.  God wants humans to know who God is and to desire to know more about God than we do by seeking and finding God in the world around us.  God wants humans to have a new heart, a heart that is fashioned by God in such a way that it feels perfectly normal to know that God is present with us at all times. 

Lent is winding down...only two more weeks to go until we begin Holy Week that will lead us to Easter.  Perhaps in the last days of Lent we can be more devoted to our Lenten disciplines and to devoting ourselves things that will reveal God to our lives.  "Create in me a new heart, so I'll give you more than part of this, the life you've given me.  Create in me a new heart, then I will teach and others will know and I will learn..." (words by Gayle Schoepf, 1988) 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Do You Really Want Lower Gas Prices?

It looks like we are on the roller coaster again, with gas prices moving up suddenly overnight again and again.  Just this morning as I began my drive from Weimar to Columbus to go to the hospital to visit a sick parishioner, I noticed the price of gasoline at the two stations near the freeway had gone up a dime overnight.  So, I thought that was the highest I would see today since gas prices are usually the highest right here in our town that you will see anywhere in our area.  I was actually wrong, because when I got to Columbus and made a smart purchase of gas at a station where it was 12 cents a gallon less than in Weimar, I drove on toward the hospital and saw that the stations there near the freeway were actually a dime higher than the ones in Weimar.  That was amazing!  We always have the highest gas prices in the area and suddenly our neighboring town has them ten cents a gallon higher making ours seem like bargain prices. 

This roller coaster seems to happen about once each six months or so.  I have my own theory about why it happens.  I do not work for, nor have I ever worked for, gasoline industry groups at all and know very little about what makes the price of gasoline what it is.  I do have a very suspicious mind though and imagine persons within the oil industry getting together now and then and deciding to create a scenario so that they can push the price of gasoline up for a while in order to make a windfall of profits and when the American consumer gets enough of it and begins to make enough noise then they back off again and let the price come down so that the public will be partially satisfied.  I also think that the oil industry wants to condition consumers so that we will get accustomed to paying a certain price and when they boost it up to the point where we yell about it they back down but not below the price to which they have conditioned us. 

So, when gasoline was about $2 a gallon and suddenly Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused a disruption in the oil industry for a while and the price of gas went to $3 a gallon, we yelled and made noise and the price came down again but not below $2.  Then when the price crept back up to around $3 and we got adjusted to paying that, then the price began its climb up again and now it is nearly $4 a gallon, the yelling will begin again and we may see a decline in prices but it will not go below $3 again or maybe even $4 if we can get adjusted to paying that price. 

It sounds like a conspiracy theory hatched by the oil industry executives and maybe it is...or maybe not.  Who knows?  I do know from driving our local roads and freeways that there are still plenty of SUVs and trucks and other gas guzzling vehicles on the road that get very little gas mileage.  I also know that there are lots of cars on the road.  I only drive 15 miles from Weimar to Columbus on I-10 but in that short space today I bet I was passed by 100 cars of more going toward Houston.  I was driving 75 mph so all those cars were going faster than I was.  None were willing to drive the speed limit or close to it. 

So, do we as a nation actually want lower gas prices?  We may say we do but are we willing to make changes in our lifestyles so that we put into practice changes that will help us to use less gasoline.  I really don't think that we as a nation want to make any of those changes.  Some of us drive cars that get 30 mpg or more but we are outnumbered by all those other cars that get 10, 12, or maybe 15 mpg and many of those vehicles have tanks that hold huge amounts of fuel in comparison to our small cars.  When will the driving public finally decide that driving a compact car instead of a behemoth SUV makes more sense? 

Living in a rural area gives us few options when it comes to public transportation.  Living in a city offers the option to ride a bus or take a train or carpool with others.  We can complain all we want about high gas prices but until we are willing to make changes in our own lifestyles that will help us use less gas then we will be at the mercy of whoever decides to set the price at any number they wish.  It is only by using less gas that we are in control of how much it costs us personally. 

We have visited Europe several times in the past couple decades.  I am always amazed at the number of very small cars driving on their roads.  When I rent a vehicle in Europe, it always gets around 50 mpg.  That is important because gasoline in Germany and England and France and the rest of Europe costs about twice as much as we pay for a gallon of gasoline.  The last time we were in Germany we rented a Fiat 500 and it got about 50 mpg.  I rarely had to buy gas and I drove everywhere around Germany.  When I did buy gasoline, though, it cost about 1.37 Euros for a liter of gasoline.  That means a gallon would cost roughly 5.48 Euros.  A Euro in Dollars when we were there took about 1 1/2 dollars to equal one Euro.  So in dollars, that gas actually cost us $8.22 a gallon.  If I lived in Germany and solely used Euros, then it would be that nearly 5.5 Euros for each gallon.  We who visit there help their economy by trading our money for theirs and then buying their products with their money.  Europeans are hurt by the rise in oil the same as we are...but we still spend much less of our income on gasoline then they do each time we all buy a gallon of gas. 

Europeans seemed to learn the lesson of more frugal living through the years because of hardship, war, and economic necessity.  They have mostly adjusted by driving smaller cars that gets much better gas mileage than even our best mileage vehicles.  When will we decide that it is worth the effort to also give up our huge cars in exchange for better mileage ones and to adopt habits that will encourage conservation?  At what price will we decide that making changes is worth the effort? 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Father of Us All

Our church has a weekly Lenten service on Wednesdays during the weeks of Lent.  This year we are studying the book of Genesis and I am presenting a sermon series called, "Portraits of the Patriarchs".  We are discussing the lives of those in the book of Genesis who stand out as very important in the legacy of the People of Israel.  Last week we discussed Adam and Noah, the ones at the beginning and re-beginning of human history, according to Genesis.  This week, we will talk about the patriarch who is considered to be the "Father" of Jews, Christians, and Muslims...none other than Abraham. 

Abraham is the big name in the book of Genesis because he had so much faith in the God that he barely knew that he would travel a great distance without even knowing where he was going and stop when God told him to stop.  Not only that, he had so much faith that he would believe that he would be the father of so many descendants that they could not be counted, much like the stars and the sand on the beach cannot be counted, even though he had no children at the time he received the promise and he was almost 100 years old.  He also had faith that when God commanded him to sacrifice his son, he would obey God and stop when God told him to stop, willing to give up the promise God had made if God wanted him to do it. 

Abraham is the father of Jews, of course, because his son, Isaac, and Isaac's son, Jacob, are considered to be the leaders of the Jewish faith.  Their names are invoked when Jewish people talk about Israel being descendants of "Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."  The covenant of Abraham is extended to modern day Jews to assure them the possession of the land upon which they live.  Abraham is revered as the ancestor of their faith. 

Abraham is the father of Muslims because of Abraham's other son, Ishmael.  His mother was Hagar, the slave woman that Sarah urged Abraham to have a child with since she was childless at the time (and 90 years old).  Sarah had it all figured out and decided that it was better for Abraham to have a son through a union with Hagar than it was for him to be without an heir.  So, Abraham and Hagar brought about the birth of Ishmael and all was good for a short time until Sarah did have a son, Isaac (the miracle child), and then Sarah became very jealous and decided that Hagar would have to leave and take her son with her.  The story of her expulsion is very sad (see Genesis 21 for all the details) but God did not forget Ishmael and provided a great nation of descendants for him also and he became the ancestor of those who claim Islam as their faith tradition. 

Abraham is the father of Christians because Jesus Christ was a Jew and as such he was a descedant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and David.  Christians became adopted Jews because of the covenant with Abraham and their belief in Christ.  Paul explains it all in Romans and Corinthians so that the members of the Early Church could understand that they belonged regardless if they were Jews or Gentiles.  There is one body, he said, and it did not matter the name one wore, because they all shared in one faith through Jesus Christ. 

So, Abraham is the name in the book of Genesis that makes all of us sit up and take notice because he is the leader of three great world religions that make up much of the population of the globe.  So, if Abraham is our ancestor, then why do Abraham's children have so much trouble getting along with one another?  Why do we argue and fight so much?  Why can't we enjoy each other and play as Isaac and Ishmael did before Sarah through a fit and demanded that only her son be left in the camp?  Maybe the answer is contained in that sentence just previous....Isaac and Ishmael played together until an adult because jealous and wanted her way.  Then, the play time stopped and an act of violence followed. 

Abraham has many children and if human beings claimed their connection instead of their differences then perhaps the world would be a more peaceful place to live.  Perhaps if we loved each other as Abraham loved both of his sons instead of being demanding and territorial as Sarah was, then we could accept one another as we are and respect our differences.  Abraham was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but he was given promises by God for land and legacy because God saw something in him that was admirable.  Faith was a key element in the relationship that God founded with Abraham and Abraham trusted in God even when he could not see what God was promising him that would be revealed in the future. 

"For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith."  (Romans 4:13)  Faith is the element that unites humans.  Faith in one another and faith in the goodness of humans toward one another.  Perhaps faith is the essential element that can bring about belief in a time when distrust is so rampant.  Faith is so simple but also so risky and believing is an act that takes courage, especially when it is believing that another human being can be someone that you can trust.