Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lost and Found

When I worked in public schools as a school teacher and counselor, we always had a "Lost and Found" box in the school office.  It was usually underneath a cabinet somewhere and when a sweater or shoes or jewelry came into the office and no one claimed it, those items were placed in that box in hopes that the owner would show up and claim them.  Many times, items would remain in the box until the school year ended and then if no one claimed them they would be donated to a charity or given away to anyone who wanted them.   Sometimes there would be some really nice items in the box, things that people would surely want to find but for some reason no one came forward to claim them so the things would find a new home somewhere else.

Jesus told parables about things that were lost.  This week we will think about a lost coin that a woman lost in her house and she could not be satisfied until she had swept the house and searched carefully.  When she finally found the coin, then she called her neighbors and told them the good news so they could rejoice with her.  Another parable is about a lost sheep that a shepherd lost, one of 100, but the shepherd that one was so important that he would leave 99 sheep behind to go out and search for the one that was lost.  He also would call his neighbors and friends and tell them about his find so that they could rejoice with him.

In both parables, Jesus sums them up with "there is joy in heaven" over one person who repents and finds his way even though there are many who have never been lost.  The angels in heaven rejoice when this happens.

Many people are lost and do not realize it.  They go through life and live each day but there is a feeling that something is missing and they do not know what it is.  They think that life is mostly complete but in the course of a day there is always a moment when they realize that a gap exists in their life.  They are lost in the sense that something needs to be added and they do not know what it is.  Many times people will describe their lives as "like a jigsaw puzzle with one piece missing".  They cannot put their finger on what it is but they know something is not right.

Jesus' parables about things that are lost and found emphasize that God is constantly looking for us.  When we are like that lost sheep, he values us so much that he will leave everyone else behind just to find us.  When we are like that lost coin, he will search everywhere to locate us and not be satisfied until we are found.  When finally we are located, then God send out the call for everyone to rejoice because finding a lost one is reason enough for a celebration.

We are so valuable to God that God will not give up on us.  God will keep looking until we can be found and then when finally we are in God's view, He comes running down the road to meet us as he sees us in the distance.....oh, that is another parable.  We will save that one for next week.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Busy People are Happy People

"Whatever your hands find to do, do with your might..." (Ecclesiastes 9:10a)

When I was a school teacher, I always thought it was best to keep my students busy, to give them enough work to do so that they would not have a lot of extra time to just sit and decide for themselves how to use that extra time.  Some students could finish their work and have extra time for their own activities and they knew how to occupy themselves.  Other students, however, did not know what to do with themselves if they had a block of time to use as they desired.  Invariably, these last students would get into some mischief or cause a disturbance to happen if they were left to their own devices.  Sometimes, students would complain to me that their workload was too great.  I would pull out the old motto that I use as the title to this post, "Busy people are happy people, and I want to be sure that you are happy."  Usually they would only sigh and frown at my attempt to be funny and return reluctantly to the work that I had given them.

I knew teachers who gave what they called "busy work" to students who finished their assignments.  That "work" usually was pages to be colored or word hunts that had nothing to do with the content of any assignments.  Many students recognized that such paperwork was only used to keep them busy and out of trouble.  I had a third grade student tell me once that she hated coloring because she had to do so much of it during her earlier years of school.  Extra work given to students had to have meaning in order for their to be the incentive for students to complete the assignment.

I think that the writer of Ecclesiastes was telling his contemporaries that there is plenty to be done in this world if we only take the time to look around and identify what is needed and then to set about doing the task at hand.  There are jobs that need completion everywhere and many times we are just the one to do the task at hand.  Either we have the right skills or sufficient energy or a unique talent that can be used to do what is required.  Sometimes it only takes a willingness to serve in order to qualify one for a task.

I love it when people volunteer to do things that they see needs doing.  I love for someone to ask if they can do a job that needs doing because they saw that it was unfinished or had never been begun.  Sometimes a person will simply identify a need but will not make an effort to get the job done.  Volunteering to do the job that has been identified (if one has the skills to accomplish it) brings a task to completion quickly.  The writer of Ecclesiastes would agree, I think, that if you find a job that needs doing, then volunteer to do it so that the problem will be solved.

This Sunday I will be talking to the kids during our Children's Sermon about how all of us in the church should work together.  There is a kid's song we will sing at the conclusion of the Children's Sermon.  It is called, "When We All Pull Together".  It is an old song I learned when I was a child.  Each person has to have a partner and they hold hands while looking at one another and then pull in rhythm with both hands.  The song says, "When we all pull together,  how happy we'll be.  For my work is your work and our work is God's work, when we all pull together, how happy we'll be."

In God's Kingdom, there is not "my work" or "your work" but there is only "our work" because "our work" is truly "God's work."  When we are enlisted in working for God, then we do not care who gets the credit for doing the work.  We only want the job to be accomplished so that the outcome will be one of love and grace and peace for all in God's world.

Busy hands are happy hands.....as are busy people.  Stay busy, stay focused, stay alert to what is around you so that you can recognize what God would have you to do for God's Kingdom today.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Where's the weed killer?

I am presenting a seven week sermon series about the Parables of Jesus.  Last week we looked at the parable of the sower and how he went out extravagantly throwing seeds everywhere in hopes of a harvest.  Seeds were thrown in places where the chances of their growing into plants were small but the sower threw the seeds all over in hopes that something would happen.  Jesus said that is what the Kingdom of God is like.  It is like that sower, foolishly throwing seeds everywhere hoping that something would grow.  Grace is scattered throughout the world to everyone and the persons who receive the word are like those kinds of soil that either accept the word and grow into fine plants or do not allow the word to grow because of the circumstances of life.

But what if you plant seeds to grow wheat and suddenly find weeds all over among your wheat plants?  What if someone maliciously planted weeds among your wheat just to be mean?  That is this week's parable from Matthew 13 that Jesus tells the crowd gathered to listen.  Someone planted weeds among the wheat and when that is discovered it has to be decided what will be done about it.  The servants suggest that they go out and pluck up the weeds but the master says that they will pull up good wheat at the same time so he tells them to leave it as it is until time for the harvest and then they will be able to tell the weeds from the wheat because wheat plants bow over with weight while the weeds stand straight up since they have little substance to them.  At least that was the situation in the Mediterranean world of Jesus' day.

So, Jesus concludes the parable and explains to his disciples privately what the parable means.  The one who does the planting is Jesus himself.  The field represents the world.  The good seed are the ones who are part of the Kingdom of God while the weeds are the evil persons in the world.  Jesus tells the disciples that if they will just be patient until the end of the age, God will sort out things and evil and good will be divided and the evil will be burned even as the weeds in the parable were.  Then the righteous will shine like the sun.

So, what does this parable teach us about life?  It has something to do with the frustration that many of us feel when we look at the world around us and see so much evil and wonder what can be done about it.  We work for peace and justice and we pray that everything will be set right and it seems that evil abounds even more even in the face of our prayers.  Those who do evil things continue to do them and even all the forces of good working together cannot completely eradicate them.  Jesus words tell us that it is God's work to bring about the end of evil and we have to be patient and trust that God is in control.

There is a movie that began playing in theaters a few weeks ago called, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."  It is the story of a group of retired persons from the UK who decide to move to India to live in what they think will be a retirement hotel and when they arrive they find a run down hotel nothing like the one in the brochures or on the ads.  They complain to the young man who is the manager and he tells them a platitude that is the theme of the movie, "All will be well in the end.  If it is not well, then the end has not yet come."

I think that is what Jesus is saying to us all.  All will be well in the end.  God will take care of us and the whole world but we have to trust God to be the one to make things right in God's own time.  God's time is called "kairos" while we think in human time or "chronos".  We see time much differently than does God.  The time we have living on this planet is so small in comparison to the time of human existence that God has witnessed and will see in the future.  God will make all things right if we trust God to bring it about.  It may not come to pass in our lifetimes but it will happen someday.

The psalmist says it this way: "Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.  Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.  Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.  (Psalm 37: 1-3)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Lessons We Learn From Our Dogs

I am very much a dog lover.  I love dogs, every breed, large or small.  There are some dogs that I like better than others, of course.  That is the way life works.  We prefer some things over others even if we love or like an entire genre of things.  We own two small dogs, one is a Yorkshire Terrier who is about six years old.  His name is Bo or his whole name is Mr. Bojangles but we call him Bo for short.  He is very small, weighing only about 5 pounds.  Our other dog is Bushy, a mixed terrier breed with ears that go up like a fountain and a corkscrew tail that goes over her back when she is happy.  She was a rescue dog and her age is unknown but sources who knew her in the past say she could be 20 years old.  She is nearly death and somewhat blind but is a happy dog over all.  Bushy stands nearby when I eat meals.  She is always ready in case a food should hit the floor or in case I should hand her a bit of food.  She watches me eat and is ready to try anything in case I should give her a bit of food.  Bo is happy to have a small piece of bread and then he goes to lie down until we are finished with our meal.  He is content to just be in the same room with us when we eat.

I came across a poem recently that compares humans with dogs and how we relate to God much as dogs relate to humans at meal time.  It is written by Rodney Clapp and was published in the February 18, 2008 edition of Christian Century Magazine.  I will type it here and leave it without comment so you can read it and then reflect on its meaning for your own life.

Lessons in prayer, from a dog

He assumes 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.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Weeds, Flowers, and Other Plants

Years ago, way back in the 1970s, there was a song popular on Christian radio, which I actually listened to in those days, about weeds.  I cannot remember the singer but I remember most of the words of the song.  The refrain said, "Weeds, we are born weeds, full of sinful nature and strife, weeds, just ugly weeds, planted in the garden of life."  The idea behind the song is that all humans are like weeds, not too pretty to look at, and not really worth growing, but we are planted in this life so we have to keep living and growing and maybe we can be transformed into a "pretty flower" someday.  "You can be a flower, if you let the Lord be yours, and you won't be a weed anymore."

Jesus told a parable about seeds and how they are planted here and there.  The method of planting seeds in the ancient world was by broadcast planting, where the one planting simply threw a handful of seeds and the seed would land here and there with the hopes that some seed would grow a good and useful plant.  Some seeds fell on the path--not a good place as they became lunch for hungry birds.  Some seeds fell on rocky ground, again not a good place because due to the lack of the proper amount of soil they would grow fast and wither fast, scorched by the hot Mediterranean sun.  Some seeds fell among thorns that choked them to death.  Finally, some fell on good soil with just the right growing conditions and those seeds brought about a harvest of abundance.

Jesus' listeners would have been very familiar with what he was describing.  Most of them had done broadcast planting because that was the method of planting common to them.  They had known all of those conditions that had stopped their plants from growing.  Now and then, however, everything worked out okay and they reaped a bumper crop of what they wanted to grow, enough to supply them and their neighbors with grain or vegetables.

Jesus used this illustration to explain why life works the way it does.  Why do some people respond to God's love so quickly and grow up into a lively, strong plant?  Why do some people turn away from God's Word and fail to connect, lacking the roots needed to understand and grow?  Why do some people simply reject God and the love God has shown to them, wanting to live without God at all in their lives, withering and dying spiritually?

Parables were used to describe the Kingdom of God by Jesus.  The parable of the sower is one of the few that Jesus actually interpreted for his listeners.  Jesus said that the different types of soil represent the different kinds of people and the seed is the word of God that is planted in their lives.  People allow the cares of life or the desire for wealth or power to get in the way and they do not internalize God's Word when they hear it.  Some people hear the Word but lose track of it when things happen to them that they cannot understand and they "fall away."  Some hear the word and understand it and their lives bear much fruit.  This is Jesus' own interpretation of the parable.

I love to try to grow plants.  You understand the word "try" because sometimes despite my best efforts, the plants either never materialize or they grow and seem to be doing well and then suddenly take a nose dive.  Maybe I did not enrich the soil before I planted them.  Maybe I gave them too little or too much water.  Maybe I did not consider that our hot Texas climate is not the proper one for plants such as them and they died quickly.  The plants represented promise and hope, that they would bring about something good that I would enjoy.  The planter did not know what was best for them at times and their fate came about due to my ignorance.  Regardless of my best intentions, the end result is not always fruitful.

Jesus' lesson in the parable has to do with life and faith and understanding.  We may plant and someone else may water but it is God who brings about the final result.  In our own lives also, we do our best to live good lives but sometimes we must trust God to bring about the best for our lives and for the lives of others we love.  Life is complex at times but simple trust in God helps us to know that God will guide us as we live so that our lives will be fruitful and abundant for God's Kingdom.