Sunday, October 25, 2009

O Bless Your Heart

Mark 10: 13-31, page 716

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth; anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him.
“Good Teacher,” he asked, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good – except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do no murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him and loved him.
“One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle then for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Peter said to him, “We have left everything to follow you!”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sister or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – and with them persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth; anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
Now what Jesus means here is up for your own interpretation – as the quality of children that Jesus sees as vital for entering the kingdom is not clearly stated.
Some would say that children, unlike adults don’t see race or nationality, and so aren’t susceptible to the prejudices that afflict their older counterparts – so it could be that in seeing all people as equal children are to be emulated. Others would say that to enter the kingdom of God you must become innocent like a child, while still others would look to some instance of children sharing toys and come to the conclusion that you must become selfless like a child, sharing what you have.
Before deciding which quality it is that Jesus is talking about, let me remind you that there’s a word to describe people who use words like “without prejudice” “innocent,” or “selfless,” to describe children: “Delusional.”
As far as prejudice goes, if our daughter Lily could deport all men with beards I know that she wouldn’t hesitate – she has come to the early conclusion that they are not to be trusted, even her bearded grandfather is not to be trusted at all.
And though our little Lily can’t talk yet, she communicates in high pitched squeals and urrrr, but I hear her quite clearly when she demands, “I want my bottle and I want my bottle now! Not in 5 minutes – not when you’re done writing your sermon – NOW!”
So I get it for her – as children are many wonderful things, but above all else, children are dependent, completely and utterly dependent on those bigger and more powerful for their well-being.
Interesting then, that Jesus would urge his followers to emulate children.
But regardless of the peculiar nature of his teachings, people came to Jesus that he might lead them on the path to eternal life. “Good teacher,” a rich man asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good – except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” the rich man declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
Before scripture tells us Jesus’ response to this statement, the author of the Gospel of Mark wants you to know that, “Jesus looked - at this rich man who has apparently never sinned in his entire life - and loved him.”
Now the writer of Mark wrote in Greek about a Palestinian Jew named Jesus who spoke Aramaic, a language that never developed its own literary tradition, but remained an oral derivation of Hebrew only. So these words, first retained as a spoken story told in Aramaic, then translated and written down in Greek, were then translated into English to form the words, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” So it’s possible then, that what we have is a mistranslation of how Jesus actually looked, how Jesus actually felt. In fact, I’m confident that what the author of Mark meant to use to describe Jesus here is an expression Grandmothers in the South say often when their grandchildren do something stupid but they’re too naive to know any better – if this event here with the rich man were taking place here in Lilburn, and Jesus were not a Palestinian Jew but a Gwinnett County Grandmother then the words would not be, “Jesus looked at him and loved him;” but, “Jesus looked at him and said, well bless your heart.”
What the author of Mark didn’t take the time to write down, I assume he just ran out of parchment, was that, “after looking at the young man and loving him, Jesus said to Peter under his breath, this guy thinks he’s never sinned! Can you believe that?”
This rich man goes to Jesus asking, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”
What must I do?
As though this rich man could pull himself up by his bootstraps right up into the kingdom of God. As though he didn’t need anyone to help, as though he could do it all himself, as though he were all grown-up, self-sufficient, and self-secure.
But here is an independence based on an illusion – an illusion provided by the perceived security of affluence – for wealth convinces us all to believe the lie that we are not children dependent on God – we are not dependent on anyone or anything.
Wealth closes our eyes to the insecurity of human existence.
The rich man can’t seem to face this fact – that those fields that provide him so much income would be bear, dry ground, if it were not for the God who provides the rain.
That his property would not be nearly so beautiful and valuable if it were not for the God who prevented the river from rising above her banks – at least most of the time.
And that his life would not be so pleasurable if it were not for God – who keeps that heart inside this man's chest beating – if it were not for God who provides him air to breath and eyes to take in the majesty of creation.
So Jesus asks him to give up his wealth willingly that he might figure it out.
But we’re not always so lucky. We feel safe in our nice houses – but then the water rises and we face the fact that we are victims to the whims of powers bigger and stronger than ourselves.
We feel secure with money in the bank – but should the job market dry up, stock prices drop – should powers out of our control choose to shift the winds of favor - how self-sufficient do you feel now?
We feel as though we may just live-forever – but who knows when the heart that beats in our chest might just stop beating?
So Jesus addresses the disciples as children, not because they are innocent, kind, or unblemished by the prejudices of the day, but because we are not in control of our lives – though we are often blinded to it – we are more like children then we like to admit.
And the rich man isn’t ready to admit it.
He isn’t sick – so he doesn’t need Jesus to heal him – and so he walks away.
He isn’t poor – so he doesn’t need Jesus to feed him – and so he walks away.
He came to Jesus looking for some wisdom – calling him “good teacher” – but when Jesus couldn’t offer him anything, besides urging him to face his own limitation – he just walked away.
“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
How hard it is – but it’s not just hard. It’s impossible.
It’s impossible for you to do it on your own. But the rich man thought otherwise – Good teacher, what must “I” do to inherit eternal life. So you see - the rich man wasn’t looking for a savior either – so he walks away.
Some would say he walked away doomed – but he’s no more doomed than any of us.
For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. It’s impossible in fact. “But not with God; all things are possible with God.”
So give thanks for the one who intercedes on your behalf.
Who grants you the salvation that you cannot earn on your own.
Praise God for the high priest – the one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart and exalted above the heavens.
For he is no good teacher – he is your savior.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Out of the Storm

Job 38: 1-7 and 34-41 page 380
Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. The Lord said, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone – while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”
“Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water? Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
Who endowed the heart with wisdom and gave understanding to the mind?
Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?
Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket?
Who provides food for the raven when it’s young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food?"
Words have a way at getting to the heart of matters, especially when they are formed into questions.
I still remember my childhood Sunday school teacher’s face the day we read about baby Jesus getting circumcised. “Um, Mrs. Smith, what exactly is circumcision?”
“That’s one you’ll have to ask your father when you get home.”
I didn’t really understand why she wouldn’t answer my question, but now I know this technique as an important tactic for deflecting questions it would be better not to answer.
It’s a technique employed by politicians all the time – so if you, like me, are wondering why Senators Saxby Chambliss and Harry Reid, along with Representative Charlie Rangel spent a total of over two hundred thousand dollars on golf, an inauguration party, and a self-portrait when their constituents are struggling to make ends meet…well, just don’t expect an answer anytime soon.[1]
But who would expect the same behavior from God?
God’s response to Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Who marked off its dimensions?” doesn’t answer Job’s question. Job finally meets God face to face after all his suffering, all his affliction, to question God and the fairness of the punishment he has undergone, and God deflects Job’s question, his question that gets at the timeless issue of, “Why do bad things happen to good people.”
Job hasn’t lost his faith. Job has been faithful, and all he wants is an answer.
In some ways silence would have been easier to understand – it would have shown Job that all his faith was in vain - but at least it would have been an answer he could have understood – that the world just isn’t fair, there’s no order to it, and there’s no point in trying to do what is right because there isn’t anyone watching – that there’s no one up there punishing the sinful and rewarding the faithful – as there isn’t really anyone up there at all.
Such is the conclusion many reach in the wake of tragedy – as asking why is the kind of question that rarely leads to resolution – so many people give up asking and give up believing at the same time.
When we consider the great tragedies of human history – the many examples of undeserved suffering – the slaughter of the southern Sudanese by the north, the murder of the Tutsi’s in Rwanda, how the dictator Pol-Pot imprisoned and tortured thousands of his own people in Cambodia; many Jews today who consider the Holocaust know either a God too weak to act or a God who was never really there at all.
The book I’m reading now, a work of fiction called The Book Thief takes place during this time period in a little town in Germany. The hero is a little girl named Liesel, an orphan taken in by an older couple after her father is murdered for being a communist and her mother just disappears all together. She is haunted by the memory of her brother’s death – every night taking her back to the dark day when he died in her arms.
Every night she sees into his empty eyes; it’s the sight of those eyes that scares her awake to find her foster father Hans Hubermann, who Liesel calls Papa, standing over her, stroking her hair or just sitting at her bedside.
On the day Liesel is old enough to connect the dots between the murder of her father, the disappearance of her mother, and the death of her brother, she shouts out to her foster father Hans, “I hate Hitler!”
Her Papa looks down at the ground, then meets his daughter’s gaze again without expression, and --- slaps this girl who he loves more than anything across the face.
In some ways, just about as cruel as a response as there could possibly be.
But how could Hans ever explain to a child the evil complexities of living in Nazi Germany?
A world where mothers disappear into the night, where brothers die in sisters’ arms, and hatred-fueled propaganda applauded while books burn.
Helping her understand was not the point. Keeping her safe was the point.
But this cold refusal, more than anything else is an apology, an apology from a man who would have changed the world for this little girl whom he loved, but only had the power to keep her lips sealed in a world where silence was safety.
You know it’s an apology and not the embodiment of anger, as his hand, once used to strike a silent fear, is back that night, and the next, and the night after that to comfort this young girl when her nightmares finally wake her up from a restless sleep. And we know that if the hands of her Papa could change the world, build up a safe place free from Hitler and his evil, they would.
But Job doesn’t want to be silent – and there’s nothing that God has done to keep him safe – what Job wants is an answer to the question he poses. God, however, knows that there comes a time when the answer to “why” can’t provide the healing that the afflicted really needs.
We want to know why – why is there suffering – why is there bloodshed – why do marriages end – why do children die before their parents – why is there war – why is there disease – why do hearts stop beating – why – why – why?
A God who hears these questions, then responds with more questions, is either a God too busy to mess with the trivial matter of a disgruntled human being – or a God dedicated to getting the faithful back to the business of living.
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? No – and the reason the world is ordered this way is not for you to know.
Where were you when the sun was shining, and a little girl was pulling at your sleeve to go outside? This is your question to answer. Not where was God – where were you?
Were you still in bed while the world passed you by?
Were you still mourning what you lost, wishing it would have been different?
Were you so full of regret that you forgot to live?
Your place is not to ask why – your place is to live. Leave the rest to one who may not answer your question – but who will always be there, stroking your hair, sitting by your bedside, with you as the dawn breaks into a new day.

[1] Bob Keefe, “Leadership PACs keep cash flowing,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Tuesday, October 13, 2009) A1.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Choose Life

Job 1: 1 page 359
In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.
Job 2: 1-10 page 360
On another day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before God. And the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”
Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.”
Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”
“Skin for skin!” Satan replied, “A man will give all he has for his own life.” But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones and he will surely curse you to your face.”
The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.”
So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.
His wife said to him, “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!”
He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”
In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.
I saw a flock of geese the other morning, and to be honest, considering everything that this church faces today, there was a real part of me that was wishing I could sprout wings and fly away with them.
Today we are celebrating our 35th anniversary, and we should be celebrating all the triumphs, all the joys, all the good things God has done in us and through us.
Today’s sermon should be like that of Moses – Moses came with Joshua son of Nun and spoke all the words of this song – he recollected the great deeds of the past.
Remembering the group who met in the Crissman’s living room, then stepped out in faith, began worshiping in a room above a butcher shop, and then finally bought this land, built that building and then this one, and all along the way sang praises to the one who provided a place to worship, a place to worship the God who has worked for our good since the beginning.
From a mountain top Moses addressed the Israelites as they looked over into the Promised Land, but today we find ourselves, not on the mountain top with Moses but in the ash heap with Job.
Today who feels like patting themselves on the back for great deeds done, as our shoulders bear the heavy weight of worry for what will happen next.
In the past two weeks four of our staff have been let go, and four more have seen their salary cut by 15%. We are just no longer an 800 member church and now is the time when we are forced to stop acting like it. Those days are now confined to our rear-view mirror, as we have changed, Gwinnett County has changed, and I dare to say that I am not the only one who has been tempted by the geese, that I am not the only one who’s wished to sprout wings and fly away – to quit or give up.
As Job was afflicted with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head, scraping those sores with a piece of pottery, his wife said to him “Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!”
This question doesn’t bring anything new to Job, but simply verbalizes that part of Job that watched the geese, wanting to sprout wings and fly away from all of this; the part of Job that has envied the geese flying overhead as he sits in the ash-heap, doomed to suffer through a situation he isn’t responsible for and which he isn’t in control over. “Curse God and die!” his wife cries, just give up, just quit, just close to doors, it’s not worth it.
But those doors can’t just close.
When the Yellow River flooded two men fell asleep just outside those doors – their car quit on them, refusing to start in three feet of water. So they started walking at 5 AM, only to be stopped by a police officer on that bridge. With nowhere else to go they lay down just outside those doors.
I asked them if I could call them a cab.
But they still had to wait in soaking wet clothes. It just so happened that Joe Bader gave me several suits months before, two of which wouldn’t quite button; and as they changed into dry clothes Pam McClure, the Pre School Director brought up snacks for them to eat while they waited.
I walked out with them when the cab finally came, and one of them said to me, “We’ve been knocking on doors for a long while, but yours was the only one that opened.”
So can we really just close these doors?
Just close the doors on the community we serve?
Just close the doors on the finest sacred music program in the county?
Just close the doors on youth ministry?
Just close the doors, curse God and die?
Job’s wife is here asking us the question, but I pray that Job is here with us too, providing us with the faithful answer, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”
I look back on our history, and during the good times we are eager to see God’s hand at work, pushing nice families through our doors as they moved out into a land of low crime, new houses, and great schools – but today, seeing God’s hand at work doesn’t take the eye tuned for progress, it takes an eye lit by faith.
We have been waiting for God to act – but I dare say God is acting!
After all – who ever said making it to the Promised Land would be easy!
So Moses addresses the people as they look out into the Promised Land – The law, faith, these are no idle words – “they are your life.”
And in the time where death closes in, tempts us to give up and quit, it is in this time of trial that you, the faithful, must once again choose life.
Choose to believe that in all of this…God is at work.
Choose to believe that it is in the times of trial that God calls forth the faithful to carry the flame of faith into the unknown, uncertain future.
You must choose to believe that it is even now that God is working in you, leading us all into the Promised Land, though all around us words of doubt spring up as though Satan himself were hoping we would give up before our work is done!
So will we simply curse God and die, here on our 35th Anniversary? Hardly! Today is the day when we once again choose life!
We choose faith, we choose hope, and we choose life.
Rise up O Church of God. From the ash heap, rise up, as your new day dawns.