Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"My Lord, What a Morning!"

A yearning to be free accompanies the feeling of the status quo and the dissatisfaction that is part of the human experience.  Humans want to be free to do what they desire to do.  They do not want an authority figure to stand over them and tell them what they must do.  They want to make up their own minds on matters. 

Such was the plight of the people of Israel at several junctures in their history.  They entered Egypt as guests of the Pharaoh due to the influence of Joseph who was elevated to a position of power in the government by Pharaoh himself.  Joseph welcomed his brothers and father and all the people of Israel so they could escape the ravages of famine and hunger.  They were fed and kept by the people of Egypt as long as Joseph was alive.  Joseph died and soon a new Pharaoh arose "who did not know Joseph."  Suddenly, the people of Israel were no longer seen as guests but as threats so they were put to work as slaves.  They were made to work long and hard to bring about the many building projects that Pharaoh envisioned for the land of Egypt. 

The people of Israel cried out to the god of their ancestors whom they had heard about in tales handed down by many generations.  They did not know this god but they hoped he would be the source of their deliverance.  And so it was that a man who was named Moses arose and God used Moses to set the slaves free from their bondage with many miracles and signs. 

So, the people of Israel were out on their own in the land God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  It was a rocky and tenuous existence because repeatedly they were threatened by others in the land who saw them as a threat to their own safety and welfare.  The people of Israel became a warring people constantly in battle to protect their land and interests. 

Then, one day the Babylonians invaded their land and destroyed their temple, murdered many people, and took a portion of the population as slaves once again to serve them in their land far away from the land that God had promised Abraham.  The land of Israel lay in ruins and the people who were not killed were held hostage against their will.  Some intermarried with the Babylonians and found a place to begin a family, content to be there.  Others, however, mourned for the loss of their land, their heritage, their freedom.  They cried out to God, as their ancestors in Egypt had done, asking for God to intervene on their behalf. 

"O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil--to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!"  (Isaiah 64:1-2)  Isaiah speaks on behalf of these captives and pleads with God to act justly so that the captives may be set free.  Isaiah remembers the times of old when the God of Israel had done mighty things on behalf of God's People Israel.  Isaiah wonders aloud if the reason for what has happened to Israel is not connected to the sinfulness of the people.  He ends his plea with a reminder to God that Israel is God's People and they belong to God.

People who are enslaved often cry out for relief to whoever will listen.  "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down..."  Hurting people want help from a source of help and want their situations to be resolved quickly.  The people of Israel did it when they were in Egypt.  They did it again when they were in Babylonia.  They did it again when Rome ruled over Jerusalem and finally destroyed the city and its inhabitants in A.D. 70.  They were dispersed into all the surrounding nations to live a life of wanderers until finally they had a homeland once again established in 1948. 

This cry for freedom was part of the African-American experience as well as they suffered as slaves centuries.  They too cried out for God to come to their relief and saw that relief coming through a cosmic event that would destroy their enemies and literally wake the dead.  They saw passages such as Mark 13 as speaking to their own plight in life.  A song arose from among them that spoke to their belief that God would work supernaturally for them---"My Lord, what a morning...when the stars fall from the sky."  The stars would fall, the sun would refuse to shine, and the moon would turn to blood on the great and terrible day of their deliverance. 

It must have seemed to some that all those things happened when the War Between the States finally brought about freedom for the enslaved ones on the many plantations of the South.  When the dust cleared and the bodies were buried, the slaves were set free to live as second class Americans until 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was finally passed.  The road to freedom has been a long one for those former slaves but it still continues daily as civil rights must be claimed in the face of racism which seems it will not die, even in the land of the brave and the home of the free. 

People who are enslaved still cry out for freedom and people see the Day of the Lord as a sign of hope that things can be better than they are now.  God is Still Speaking and God's promise of deliverance has not been cancelled.  God is still working to bring about change even in the midst of new that confounds us daily.  O that God would tear open the heavens and come down to straighten out the evils of our day and to bring about the change that is needed.  Until then, God has people who work with God and for God to do God's Will on earth even as it is done in heaven.  If you believe that you are one of those people, then do not give up and do not lose hope. God is still using those who will be God's hands and feet to bring about justice and equity on the earth for those who cry for freedom. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Least of These

"as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me..." said Jesus the judge portrayed in the Last Judgment parable from Matthew 25, the parable of Jesus for Christ the King Sunday for next Sunday.  Jesus painted a picture of the final judgment when the great king would separate the nations, as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.  One group on the left and one on the right as the king makes the judgment about their eternal destiny.  To the one group, the sheep, the king tells them to enter into eternal joy because they fed him when he was hungry,  gave him water when he was thirsty, clothed him when he was naked, took care of him when he was sick, and visited him when he was in prison.  The sheep responded, when did they do all those things for him?  And he responded that when they did those things for the least of these, you did it to me.

Then, the goats on the left are told to go to eternal punishment and the reason why is that they did not feed him when he was hungry or give him water when he was thirsty or clothes when he was naked or care for him when he was sick or visit him in prison.  They too questioned when they did not do those things for him and his response is when they did not do it to the least of these, then they did not do it to him.

The parable takes the issue of Christian Commitment to the level where it involves action rather than just words.  The meaning of the parable is that people who truly say they follow Jesus have to show their allegiance in the way they treat those around them who are in need.  Just telling everyone that you are a Christian is meaningless in the world of Jesus as King.  Doing what Jesus had been teaching in his years of ministry is what truly separates the sheep from the goats.

Who are the "least of these"?  Is it the man holding the sign on the corner when we go to the city, the man we look at and judge thinking that if we gave him a dollar he would just spend it on booze?  Is it the homeless person laying on the sidewalk whom we walk around or on the other side of the street to avoid because we think we may be in danger if we do not?  Is it the man or woman with all the piercings and tattoos that we see and we cannot stomach how they look much less understand why they would do that to their body?  Is it the woman with several children whom we see in the grocery store line using the food stamp card to pay for groceries and we silently pass judgment on her because we make assumptions about the person we think she is?

The "least of these" could be any or all of these and many more multiplied millions of persons in the world that we choose to avoid because the thought of their plight overwhelms us.  We have no idea how to solve their problems or make them feel better or meet their needs.  So, we would just as soon ignore or overlook them entirely. 

We do act to feed people through our local food pantry.  We do give water to the thirsty by giving to causes that bring clean drinking water to the poor throughout the world.  We do clothe the naked by donating our used clothing to charities that provide reasonably priced clothing in good condition to those who need it.  We also help those who are ill to become well again by supporting hospitals and charities that offer low income families reasonably priced health care.  We visit those in prison by writing to them or supporting prison ministries offered by many denominations and spiritual groups. 

So, we do act through society in many ways to alleviate suffering.  But before we begin patting ourselves on the back, perhaps the real meaning of the parable has to do with whom we see worthy of receiving our care and whom we would rather dismiss because they are not part of our particular group based upon a number of factors.  Do we include non-Christians, members of minority groups, illegal aliens, and persons from countries which our government has declared "enemies of the state" as worthy of receiving compassion?  Do we consider getting involved personally in the lives of some who are needy or put aside those thoughts in favor of doing the other options listed above? 

Amy-Jill Levine is a Professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  She spoke at a conference I attended many years ago.  I was very impressed by her biblical knowledge and the fact that she is a Jewish woman who teaches New Testament.  I wrote to her asking her about how to reconcile John 14:6 ("I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.") with the inclusiveness preached by our churches that God will accept all and not just Christians into eternal life.  She wrote back to me and used Matthew 25 as her text of reply.  She said that she did not discount John 14:6 and agreed that no one would go to the Father except through Jesus but she said this did not mean that one had to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior but they had to act as Jesus instructed them to act.  Her use of Matthew 25 is that God will judge us all on the way we act rather than the words we say.  Did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bring healing to the ill, and visit the imprisoned?  Did we act on behalf of Jesus who taught us the way to live or just speak word of affirmation saying we believed in the way of Jesus?  That answer made a lot of sense to me. 

There are many religious groups that demand confession in Jesus as Lord and Savior, and he is to many who call themselves Christians.  Jesus, himself, however did not tell his followers to speak words of support to his heavenly cause but to act in ways that would demonstrate the love of Christ to all in our world.  The King will be the Judge of all and the King will judge fairly and rightly and in love.  Jesus is the King and he is the only one who can truly serve in that role at the end of the age.   

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?