Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Voice Cries Out

Isaiah 40: 1-11, page 667
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever.
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to your cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might, and God’s arm rules for him; God’s reward is with him, and God’s recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
“Now don’t make me come down there.”
You all know what that means, and the feeling these words gave you in the pit of your stomach isn’t something that you’ve left behind in childhood – you’re reminded of it when the boss calls you into her office, a letter comes in the mail from the IRS and it doesn’t come with a check, or the police officer walks towards your car.
It’s a short distance, but it takes him forever to get there. You compose yourself and get ready to plead your case.
“I’m so sorry officer, I didn’t realize how fast I was going, my mind was on things at home – the baby’s sick, I can’t sleep and I was just trying to get to the drug store as fast as I could. I’m sure you understand.”
Once or twice that may actually work. I met a police officer once who told me the excuse that worked on him back in 1987 was, “Miami Vice is about to start and I don’t want to miss the opening scene.”
More often though, it doesn’t pay to be a police officer who is too understanding or overly compassionate. Therefore, on those unfortunate times when I’ve been pulled over I don’t plead my case, I just wait for my punishment.
I don’t assume that the officer who sits in his car for far too long, walks to my car way too slow, and then looks down on me while I’m sitting in my car brings with him anything less. That would be as foolish as expecting a delivery of hot chocolate on a tray after hearing your mother yell, “Now don’t make me come down there.”
You hear those words and you want to lock the door, but you know that would make things even worse. You see the police officer coming and you pray for an earthquake to hit and divide the earth so that the police officer would be stopped in his tracks.
The last thing you’d want to do is make his paths straight.
However, this is what John the Baptist is charged with doing, but for a higher authority than even your mother. In our first scripture lesson the prophet John the Baptist was sent by God to “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” and so in preparation for the one to come he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Repentance isn’t normally a word used during the month of December, but that’s what John was telling everyone to do – he’s coming soon, so get your house in order, because “he’s making a list and checking it twice, he’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice.”
Or, in other words – the one who’s been yelling, “Don’t make me come down there” is on the way.
The question is, hearing this message out of John’s mouth, what did the people do?
Did they rejoice?
Or did their stomachs sink?
Did they begin preparing their excuses?
Or did they even bother, assuming that the Messiah would be like any other earthly authoriety, not wanting to hear it, not in the business of compassion or understanding, but in punishment?
A lot of people feel that way about God. They hear God described as a father and assume that God must be like the one they grew up with – distant, uncaring, unconcerned.
Some hear Jesus described as a bridegroom and assume that God must be like the one they were once married to – harsh, violent, cold.
And some hear God described as a judge and assume that God must be like the ones they have stood before in court – not wanting to hear their excuses and ready to deliver the verdict.
All three are used in scripture, but in our 2nd scripture lesson there’s another option. Isaiah says that the Messiah is coming – but not as a father, a bridegroom, or a judge – as a shepherd.
I don’t know much about livestock – I might even go so far as to say that I know nothing about livestock. John Satterwhite who happens to raise beef cattle was once driving me around Maury County and pointed out a herd of cows grazing on a hillside. “You see those cows Joe. They’ve been eating grass on that hillside so long that the legs on their right side grew shorter than the legs on their left side.”
Somebody who believes something like that really doesn’t know anything about livestock and that’s me. The author of Isaiah however, he knew more about it, and so describes God as a shepherd, but not just any shepherd, the kind of shepherd who knows how to deal with sheep:
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
That’s how shepherds do it. He takes a lamb in his arms, the lamb’s mother follows right behind, and every sheep follows her.
It’s just like a joke Murray Miles told us last Wednesday night at Bible study: a young boy’s teacher asked him, “if you have 10 sheep and you take one away, how many do you have left?”
“Well none,” he answered. The teacher said, “You don’t know much about arithmetic.” The young boy responded, “You don’t know much about sheep.”
So much of the time that’s the world we live in. The powers that govern our world understand us about as well as that teacher understood her pupil. There were the parents who just didn’t understand, the IRS who is without compassion, and the police officers who don’t want to hear it. Why should we expect anything less from the God of heaven and earth?
Why should we not fear the day of his coming?
Why should we make his paths straight?
Why should we not fear the day of his birth?
It’s because, in him we find something different.
Not judgment, but compassion.
Not punishment, but forgiveness.
Not misunderstanding, selfishness, greed, or brutality – for the one who is coming is not like the authorities of this world who work you until you have nothing else to give, who attempt to control you through fear, who hold on to you as long as you have something that they want.
The one who is coming is like a shepherd, and he will hold you in his arms.
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” the prophet Isaiah cries, for the day is coming, and may the day come soon, that the Lord comes down from heaven to make all things right.
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” the prophet Isaiah cries, for the day is surely coming, when the guilt that you’ve been carrying will be lifted and replaced by the one who says, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” the prophet Isaiah cries, and John used those same words to tell the world, that Christ is coming, not to exact payment for sins, not to beat you down lower than you already are, and not to make you feel the righteous wrath of God, but to hold you in his arms, and to take you home.

Monday, November 7, 2011

He will guide them

Revelation 7: 9-17, page 249
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”
I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.”
Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship God day and night within God’s temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Last Thursday I was invited to compete in a trivia competition over at Central High School. It was a fund raiser for Central’s own trivia team, who, despite their small budget travels around to compete with other schools, attempting to be the first to answer questions concerning math, science, history, English, even religion.
There were buzzers and everything, and several different teams. There was a team of doctors representing Maury Regional Hospital, a team of judges and lawyers, a team of academics from the college, and I was a proud member of the Maury County Archives Team along with Bob, Dorothy, and Dave Duncan.
As soon as Bob asked me to join the team I began guaranteeing anyone who would listen our victory, but this was either over-confidence in our team or under-confidence in the others, as we were soundly defeated by the doctors in the second round.
We stayed for the rest of the event however, and as the doctors and academics from the college competed against each other in the finals I was mostly impressed by both their knowledge of important facts as well as their knowledge of completely useless facts. That was until this question was asked: “Who, in the book of Genesis, lived to be 930 years old and was the father of Cain and Abel?”
Someone guessed Methuselah, then there was silence – no buzzer ringing, no guessing – until the silence was broken by someone from the crowd who yelled, “Ya’ll need to get to church!”
It’s amazing how very intelligent, well read people can miss a question like this one about Adam – but mention anything about an apple and universally all minds recall Eve.
It just goes to show that despite significant Biblical illiteracy in much of the world today, still, deep in our collective memory, are images from scripture, though many don’t realize it’s scripture they’re recalling.
“God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden;” but the serpent said, and Adam and Eve decided to listen, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
This image is everywhere.
During the opening scene of hit TV show Desperate Housewives the main characters stand together all with an apple in their hands, and by this sign we all know that these women are not nearly as innocent as they seem.
The image of the apple is there as well on computers, iPods, iPads, and iPhones, as an apple with a bite out of it has become the iconic symbol of Apple Computers.
Even Steve Jobs, casual adherent of Zen Buddhism, atheist mostly, was well versed in scripture enough to resonate with the image of the apple. According to Andy Crouch, editor for Christianity Today and the author of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that appeared just after Jobs’ death, “That bitten apple was just one of Steve Jobs’ many touches of genius, capturing the promise of technology in a single glance.”
After eating the apple God cursed the serpent, the woman, and then the man, saying, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return.” According to philosopher Albert Borgmann, it is technology that promises to relieve us of the burden of this curse of being merely human, of being finite creatures in a harsh and unyielding world. And all of technology, especially that developed by Steve Jobs, promises to reverse the curse on humanity that resulted from that first bite out of an apple.
Maybe Jobs came the closer than anyone ever has – his technology is so easy to use, reducing all function down to one button, but uses that one button to help you navigate through your entire music library, browse a virtual bookstore, organize pictures, edit video, all while talking on the phone.
His technology is beautiful, and it’s beautiful because he dedicated his whole life to it – as though improving human life through technology were his great white whale. However, I think we may all agree that like Captain Ahab, after pouring his entire self into his goal, he met his fate before truly liberating humanity from anything more than boredom.
The work of his hands – though he gave Apple his all – remains a beautiful technological innovation, but is that all Steve Jobs aspired to be?
Technology, if all it does is aspires to captivate our imaginations, than it is successful. But if technology, even the work of modern genius, aspires to reverse the curse of human kind that began with that apple in the book of Genesis, than only failure awaits.
I have faith enough in humanity to believe that we were the ones who got us into this situation – this life so often defined by struggle and always shadowed by the reality of death - but to get out of it – for that I need faith in God.
It is faith in God that we are bold to celebrate today – faith in God who defies the grave that so many fear – faith in God that allows for celebration as we remember those who have died. For rather than only mourn, today we celebrate all that they have gained.
“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Only as his last breath left him did Steve Jobs come face to face with the majesty of this God, a majesty beyond even what his hands could create. As he left this earth his last words were proclaimed amazement – not at the work of his own hands, but at the work of the hands that he had only just come to know.
May you always be so amazed by the Lord our God.
While the work of human hands can launch into outer space, it was God’s words who called the stars into existence.
While modern medicine can prolong life, only God can give it.
Always give thanks to the Lord your God and to the Lamb. He is our Shepherd, and when the work of your hands finds its limit, entrust yourself to the hands of the Lord your God. For it is God’s hands who will wipe away every tear from your eyes.

Monday, October 31, 2011

What do these stones mean?

Joshua 4: 1-9 and 19-24, page 196
When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: “Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, and command them, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’”
Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, so that this may be a sign among you.
When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.”
The Israelites did as Joshua commanded. They took up twelve stones out of the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord told Joshua, carried them over with them to the place where they camped, and laid them down there. (Joshua set up twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant had stood; and they are there to this day.)
(19) The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they camped in Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, saying to the Israelites, “When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which God dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”
It’s not quite Halloween, but already, available in the ice cream isle at Kroger on James Campbell Boulevard is Blue Bell’s candy cane ice cream. I’m not complaining, it’s delicious, but it’s still October and it seems like Christmas comes earlier and earlier each year.
When I was 10 it couldn’t get here soon enough. It seemed like the days of December lasted forever and the sooner toy stores provided ideas for my Christmas, list the better.
I assume that’s the point. Stores assume that the earlier they start promoting Christmas the more time we’ll have to think about what we want. And the more time we have to think about what we want, the more we’ll buy. But there’s a problem here. We’re trained to want. Earlier and earlier every year we are trained to gear up for wanting, and when Christmas morning comes, even if we receive everything our heart desires, it’s still hard to turn our brains off wanting.
When I was five, six, and seven – I don’t think it worked this way, but by the time I was 11 something started to change. By the time I was 11, I remember going through all my presents and after unwrapping everything I could see. I’d check under the sofa to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I’d go through my Christmas list in my head accounting for what I received and longing for what I didn’t.
What I didn’t get became the focus of my attention; surrounded by wrapping paper and who knows how many presents, I was busy thinking about what I still wanted.
To stop, look around, and be thankful – that’s what I needed, and it’s too bad I didn’t know how.
That’s the danger in wanting, I think. Once our minds are tuned to wanting it’s hard to shift gears to being thankful. So after longing for freedom during generations of enslavement, after longing for the Promised Land after years of wandering through the desert, the Lord stops the waters of the Jordan and Joshua leads the people in building a monument.
“When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which God dried up for us until we crossed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”
‘What do these stones mean?’ It’s a simple question and one I can easily imagine a child asking her mother, because it’s children who ask just that kind of question. When I was a kid we’d drive under the Richard Hunter Memorial Bridge and I’d ask my parents who he was and how he ended up with a bridge named after him. But they didn’t know.
The same thing might happen to you. Driving down 7th Street towards Trotwood, a curious child might look to her right and notice the 20 foot tall stone monument standing on top of the hill and ask her father, “Who was Pop Gears?” I hope you have an answer, but you may not. Today it’s a little more difficult, because while our children ask the same questions they always have, Joshua’s not here to give us the answer.
‘What do these stones mean?’ These stones mean that before you were born there were people who did great things, who gave of themselves, who crossed deserts, who endured hardship, who sacrificed, who survived so that you might have a better life.
‘What do these stones mean?’ These stones mean that all the gifts you take for granted, all the privileges you enjoy, came from somewhere, and to those who gave you what you have, you should be thankful.
‘What do these stones mean?’ These stones mean that entitlement stands on ignorance, while those who know where what they have came from are filled with something else: gratitude.
This country, this city, this church – they are gifts given by people who came before.
The foundation of this sanctuary, the pews you sit in, and the music you hear – gifts given to the glory of God that you and I enjoy.
‘What do these stones mean?’ These stones mean that the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you. These stones mean that just as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, the Lord dried up the waters of the Jordan for us until we crossed over.
Now here are words of gratitude, and it was gratitude that defined the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land – not longing, not wanting anymore – gratitude.
This is the purpose of Stewardship – that in a world of longing for more, in a world where satisfaction always lies just beyond our grasp, the Lord invites us to give thanks for what we have, to give a portion back acknowledging the source of all our blessings.
So it is gratitude that defines us, even during this recession where all around us we are told there isn’t enough.
It is gratitude that defines us, even in a season of asking, hoping, and longing.
It is gratitude that defines us, because we are God’s people, and for us the Lord dried up the waters; the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for us until we crossed over.
‘What do these stones mean?’ These stones mean that you are the recipient of so many good gifts, and it’s time to acknowledge the source of all that you have been given.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Leave them for her to glean

Ruth 2: 1-16, page 242
Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favor.”
She said to her, “Go, my daughter.” So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech. Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you.” They answered, “The Lord bless you.”
Then Boaz said to his servant who was in charge of the reapers, “To whom does this young woman belong?”
The servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. She said, ‘Please, let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the reapers.’ So she came, and has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”
Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn.”
Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?”
But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!”
Then she said, “May I continue to find favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant even though I am not one of your servants.”
At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. When she got up to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”
It’s amazing what gets left behind.
Take pretzels for example. I bet as many broken pretzels get left behind as fully formed pretzels are produced; but that was before the discovery of pretzel pieces. You can buy pretzel pieces at Kroger, and what they are I’m sure, are pretzels that broke during the production process repackaged and renamed as pretzel pieces – though really they’re just broken pretzels.
It’s not unlike mixing scraps of wood with glue and calling it particle board or mixing up scraps of meat with salt and flavoring and calling it a hot dog – it’s economical using up every little bit, it’s not wasting, and it’s making someone a lot more money than if they were throwing the stuff out or giving it away.
The owner wants to make as much money as possible, so why not take advantage of what’s left behind.
Boaz, as the owner of the field, doesn’t want the reapers who are harvesting his grain to let anything go to waste – he wants them to get all that they possibly can. However, we know from this lesson from the book of Ruth that there is a whole group of people whose survival depends on what gets left behind.
They’re called gleaners, and without any fields of their own, without any other means to provide for their families, the most desperate people in the land follow behind the reapers picking over what they leave behind.
I had never put much thought into what their lives must have been like until John Satterwhite called me out to a corn field on Mt. Pleasant Pike. I was having a great time riding with him in the air conditioned cab of the combine, and then he started talking about how hard it must have been for Ruth and Naomi, and next thing I knew he had me walking behind him gleaning as many corn kernels as I could find for a little hands on education.
Maybe you can imagine it. I wasn’t really dressed for the occasion, but there I was in the middle of that corn field with a grocery bag looking for corn kernels left behind from the combine. There wasn’t much left either – not that I was thinking too much about it, I was mostly just hoping no one I knew drove by.
It’s a little strange to be walking around in a corn field with just a bag, looking through the broken stalks hoping to find something you can eat, but that’s what Ruth was doing. She was out there alone, known to belong to no one, and there’s a reason Boaz orders the young men not to bother her – not only was she in a humiliating position, she was in a dangerous one as well.
Leaving as little as possible behind the reapers worked, as the more they harvested the more money they would make, but the more they harvested the less there would be for the gleaners who followed.
But then Boaz does something strange. When Ruth got up to glean again after mealtime he instructed his young men, “Let her glean even among the standing sheaves, and do not reproach her. You must also pull out some handfuls for her from the bundles, and leave them for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”
I’m sure these young men must have wondered why Boaz was instructing them to do this, and I’m sure they must have thought it was bad business, but profits were no longer his chief priority. He saw Ruth, not as a gleaner, but as a person, and with what Boaz was willing to leave behind she filled her empty belly with parched grain, filled her bag with grain to bring back to Naomi, and survived to became not just a person but a great hero of scripture so revered that her name is listed in the great genealogy of the gospel of Matthew. She survived, but not only survived, joined the ranks of Abraham, King David, and Jesus Christ himself.
She could have been just a gleaner, but with what he was willing to leave behind, with the profit he was willing to sacrifice, she became something else – she became “and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.”
There in the field Boaz was willing to give up a bushel of barley, and with that barley Ruth did more than survive, she became the great grandmother of King David himself.
It didn’t have to happen this way – she could have died nameless, just another gleaner in the field, but because of the kindness of Boaz she became Ruth.
Isn’t that a horrible fate – namelessness? But this is the state of so many who depend on what we leave behind, and the more we keep for ourselves the less there will be for those who depend on what gets left behind.
Last week I was reading Sound Off as I always do. A caller called in the following to the Daily Herald: “I was recently at the intersection of the Polk Home and the Methodist Church downtown admiring the home, the fountains and much hard work the lady does to take care of the flowers there, when I noticed that we had a tour bus (of people) getting ready to go on a cart-drawn ride. And then I looked and I see our permanent homeless resident’s shopping cart full of old clothes and anything else that could be left there. I was so embarrassed. I cannot believe that we put up with him leaving things out in public – especially when we have guests. It’s a disgrace.”
His name is Melvin, but knowing that demands seeing him as more than a disgrace. Knowing his name demands acknowledging the fact that he’s a person; a person who has been fed by the members of this church who are less concerned with the shopping cart full of old clothes that he leaves junking up the prettiest corner in the city and more concerned with leaving enough behind for him to survive.
For a long time there was another who walked the streets of Columbia to the embarrassment of some. Last month she passed away, and while she might have died nameless, just another of the faceless poor, because of the generosity of a handful of members of this church she was given a gravestone that reads “Nancy Oliver.”
I’m sure that money could have gone to something else; members of our church didn’t have to leave that money behind for her – but what a gift it is to remember someone’s name.
Here in this place names are learned. Children in Fellowship Hall, in this sanctuary, in Kroger hear their names called by you – and it makes all the difference in the world.
This is one of the great purposes of the church – to call them by name, and to nourish them with what we leave behind so that their future might be one where they know who they are – that they are known by God and know that God calls them daughter and son.
Moses went up from the plains of Moab, the same land that Ruth called home, and climbed to Mount Nebo where God showed him the whole land that he had only dreamed of, only to learn that he would never cross himself. In this moment he knew that he had been walking across the desert not for himself, but for those who followed.
It’s amazing what gets left behind.
Moses left behind a whole land of promise for his people, Boaz left behind the grain that helped Ruth to survive and become one of scripture’s great heroes.
And what will you leave?
I pray that you will leave behind enough of what you could keep for yourself to feed every homeless person who would go nameless and hungry without your kindness.
I pray you will leave behind enough of what you could keep for yourself so that every person in this room might know who they are in the eyes of God.
I pray that you will leave behind enough of what you could keep for yourself so that every child, every child’s child, down to third, fourth, and fifth generation will be able to come into the place and hear some word worth hearing.
It takes you leaving something behind. It takes you making people more important than profits. It takes you giving up what you could keep for yourself – but what you leave behind may well be the food to feed the heroes of our future.
Next Sunday you will be asked to make your contribution to this church, and I pray that you will consider how much you can leave behind this week. The more you leave behind the less you will have, but the more you leave behind the brighter the future.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Emperor's

Matthew 22: 15-22, page 24
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.
So they sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.”
And they brought him a denarius.
Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
They answered, “The emperor’s.”
Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
“You can’t buy your friends,” my mother used to say. Maybe Chechnyan President, Mr. Ramzan Kadyrov’s (Ram-Zan Kitty-ruv) mother never told him that, as he recently spent millions to buy himself several celebrity friends to attend his 35th birthday party. Singer Beyonce cost Chechnyan taxpayers 2 million dollars, and also in attendance were other American celebrities Maria Carey, Usher, Jean Claude Van Damn, and Hilary Swank who all came with a price tag of their own. I don’t imagine that the taxpayers were happy, but I doubt any complained, as in addition to having to buy friends President Kadyrov is also a known human rights abuser, accused of abducting and torturing those Chechnyans who have dared question his authority.
The story was on the Today Show last Thursday morning and was focused on these celebrities, many who were urged not to attend the big birthday party by human rights groups. Although it’s difficult to decide who to be most disappointed in, the president whose authority is maintained through force or the celebrities whose friendship can be bought at the right price. But the real losers here are the Cheznian people whose money could have gone to fund badly needed schools, hospitals, and roads, but instead covered a lavish birthday party for a president they don’t even like.
This wasn’t the first time however; so it was for the Ancient Jews in the time of Jesus. Taxes were so despised, so resented, that tax collectors were considered hopeless when it came to salvation, rebellions were frequent but strongly suppressed by the Roman legion, and most of the money was shipped off to Rome. Some of the money did stay in Jerusalem however. It went to pay the Herodians, the Roman puppet government, and pay for Herod’s self-aggrandizing building projects.
The Pharisees didn’t want anything to do with it, and didn’t believe God wanted anything to do with it either. Rather than accept the vulgar coins used to pay the Roman Tax at the Temple, they set up money changers so that coins bearing the graven image of the Emperor could be exchanged for coins worthy of being offered to God; God, who is holy and just, while the Emperor is pagan and oppressive.
They feared Jesus, however. They feared that his popularity was a threat, so they set a trap attempting to “entrap him in what he said.”
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
It’s a well laid trap because anyone for the tax was a traitor and anyone against it was a criminal. The Pharisees were there to condemn him if he was for it, and they brought the Herodians with them to condemn him if he were against it.
It’s as though John Adams were campaigning for the 1st Continental Congress. He stands before Sam Adams and the other organizers of the Boston Tea party, violently opposed to British taxation, as well as the British authorities who are prepared to take down anyone openly opposed to paying tribute to the king.
“Mr. Adams, is it lawful to pay taxes to the king, or not?” someone asks from the crowd.
On the one hand is the treat of being tarred and feathered, on the other, execution for openly questioning British authority.
It’s not too different from asking politicians today about it. Even though most of our taxes will be spent on projects that will benefit us, much of what our taxes go to pay for aren’t representative of our priorities. They don’t go to pay for lavish birthday parties, but they do fund unpopular wars and they would go to pay for an unpopular health care plan.
Politicians don’t want to be labeled as being against taxes for fear of seeming irresponsible, but they can’t be for taxes either, as so many in our nation are sick and tired of it. We look at our pay checks and want that big chunk that gets taken by our Federal and State government back. For this reason the IRS has the public approval rating equal to that of the Cheznian President; we just don’t like to give up money that we’ve worked hard for.
So the question the Pharisees and the Herodians ask of Christ could be just as damaging to any presidential candidate – “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the government, or not?”
“Show me the coin used for the tax,” he says to them.
“Whose head is this, and whose title?”
They answered, “The emperor’s.”
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
He answers their question, but not the way they wanted him to. Is he for taxes? Yes, but that’s not the point anymore. He has avoided the trap himself and used it against them, showing the crowd what it means to be faithful in a time where money is given universal allegiance. Tertullian, a great patriarch of Christianity writing during the early 3rd Century, explains what Christ means – the emperor has a right to what is made in the emperor’s image: the coin; but in the same way God has a right to what is made in God’s image: you.
So much fighting over a coin; so much resentment. It is the fuel of commerce as with it anything can be bought or sold: cars, homes, and land. Some even put their very bodies and souls up for sale, selling their friendship, compromising their values for a price, knowing their worth in terms of dollars and cents.
But is it theirs to sell?
Give to the emperor what bears his image, but give to God what bears the image of God.
These words mean something in a world where human slavery is more prevalent today than before the Civil War – those who believe that bodies can bought and sold, that lives can be bartered for; they are attempting to sell what God already owns.
These words mean something in a world where so much of self-worth is based on salary, unemployment tearing down the foundation self-confidence, as though human worth was susceptible to the whims of the stock market.
These words mean something when a financial recession causes a state of emergency, compromises standards of ethics, causes spikes in domestic violence and child abuse as though money dictated happiness, not realizing that it does only if we allow it to.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they ask him, as though this were even the issue.
For so many it is – so often it’s easier to keep than to give and to go on longing for whatever percentage escapes our grasp – but the deeper issue Christ puts before you today gets to the illusion of ownership, the weakness of the emperor compared to the majesty of God, and the price tag we put on human life.
Today is the first Sunday of the Stewardship Season, but the question isn’t how much do you really need to give, the question for today is how much was God willing to give for you.
In a world where value is assigned, fortunes are made, and money talks, your value has been decided by Christ who laid down his life to prove how much you are worth in the eyes of God. Your worth, your value, has already been determined by the God who died on a cross so that you might live. You, bearing the image of your creator, belong to God and God will not let you go. While the emperor may want more and more and more, God wants all of you, and for you our God has paid the ultimate price.
You, are God’s own – give to God then your life, your whole self.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Matthew 21: 33-46, page 24
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.
Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’
So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
We went to the zoo, and I was watching a young boy lag behind the rest of his family. The boy’s dad kept yelling to him to keep up, but it wasn’t working. Then the dad says, “You mean they just let that gorilla roam around loose in here?”
There’s a big difference between looking at animals when there’s a fence separating you from them and finding a gorilla sneaking up behind you, and I think it’s the same as the difference between listening to one of Jesus’ parables from a safe distance and listening to one of Jesus’ parables suddenly realizing that it’s you he’s talking about.
Chapter 21 of the Gospel of Matthew concerns the temple – in verse 12 Jesus enters the temple and cleanses it by overturning the tables of the money changes saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers.” In verse 18, a fig tree represents the temple, and Jesus curses it for not producing fruit, then the chief priests and the elders ask him “by what authority do you do these things”?
He doesn’t answer directly – instead he tells them a story.
He could have just said, “I am God’s son, the rightful heir to this temple over which you claim lordship, and, having used it to honor yourselves rather than honor God, I have been sent here to put things right.”
But he doesn’t say that. Instead he tells them a story – there was a vineyard and the tenants entrusted with the care of that vineyard didn’t respect the messengers sent by the owner. They beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Then more were sent, but to no avail. Finally the owner said, “They will respect my son,” surely they will respect my son, so I’ll send him. But they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him as well.
“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Jesus asks them.
Assuming this was just a story, they gave him the clear answer: “They said to him, He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.”
But it wasn’t just a story, and suddenly the gorilla that was behind the bars in the zoo is sneaking up behind them as they answer his question before they realize he’s not talking about a vineyard at all. He’s talking about them.
Now, from our perspective this is a pretty good trick. Jesus doesn’t have to come out and tell them they’re doing wrong – they’ve done it for him. He also doesn’t have to threaten a punishment; they pick out a punishment that seems just, only they don’t realize their picking out their own punishment.
And that’s how Jesus is. Rather than tell you what you’re doing wrong, rather than threaten punishment, he’s more interested in your repentance than delivering a stern lecture that’s sure to go in one ear and out the other.
So say he’s trying to tell you something through this parable.
If he is he wouldn’t just come out and tell you, instead Jesus would help you realize it for yourself.
Say you were the tenant and the earth was the vineyard. If Jesus were concerned about you overstepping your bounds, using up more than your share, taking and destroying more than can be replaced, Jesus wouldn’t just tell you to change your ways, to take seriously the damage pollution is doing to the earth, to think more about the environmental impact of our way of life. Instead there would be prophets sent for us to ignore, and then innocent life lost just because we became more interested in preserving our way of life than honoring the God who freely gave us this earth as a gift.
Say you were the tenant and your school was the vineyard. If Jesus were concerned about the way you were treating your classmates, treating some with disrespect, bullying others, and using words that tore each other down rather than built each other up, Jesus wouldn’t just tell you to change your ways, to take more seriously how much damage your words can do. Instead there would be prophets warning you along the way, and then innocent life would be lost because we became more interested in feeling good about ourselves at the expense of others than honoring the God who says that Kingdom belongs to the least of these.
Or say you were the tenant and grace was the vineyard. If Jesus were concerned about your keeping grace, a gift given by God freely but kept selfishly by you, then Jesus wouldn’t just come and tell you to change your ways. Instead there would be warnings ignored, friends lost, and innocent victims hurt because you were incapable of offering others the same forgiveness that you have received.
I think it’s significant that the owner of the vineyard sends the son rather than an army. An army would have been able to seize the watchtower, fight the tenants into submission, take back the vineyard. But instead the owner of the vineyard seems intent on helping the tenants see the error of their ways.
So he sends the son – surely they’ll listen to him – surely they will respect my son.
Ours is not a God of punishment and retribution, though that would have been easier. Instead our God shows us that Christ is hurt, killed, innocently because of the error of our ways.
They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Will he, or will he hope that the son’s innocent blood will be enough to show the tenants that they have gone far enough?
Will God put those wretches to a miserable death, or is God after something more – not punishment, but repentance, change that you choose to make?
Choose then, today, to listen to the warnings, to be aware of the harm that you can do. For when you live your life aware of the innocent Christ who was killed by those who wouldn’t listen, you honor the God who gave you everything that you have.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

All Lives Are Mine

Ezekiel 18: 1-4 and 25-32, page784
The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”?
As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.
(25) Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.”
Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. Again, when the wicked turn away from wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die.
Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the Lord is unfair.”
O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!
Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord god.
Turn, then, and live.
I was talking with my friend Andy Crichton the other day; he was on his way to the dentist to have a crown put on a tooth.
“That doesn’t sound like much fun Andy,” I said.
“I don’t think it will be. Have you had anything like this done?” he asked.
“No, I don’t think I’ve had but two cavities in my life,” I answered.
“Well,” Andy said, “you must not go to see the dentist very often.”
The truth is, or so our family dentist used to say, is that I have my Dad’s teeth, and so in addition to regular brushing and flossing I am the beneficiary of good genes.
I’m thankful that genetics has given me good teeth, but I might trade in good teeth for a fuller head of hair, as in addition to his teeth I am acquiring my father’s hair line. Unfortunately, such decisions aren’t up to me – when it comes to genetics you get what you get.
We know this to be true – that so much of who we are is determined without our consent. Many traits pass from parents to children – hair color, skin tone, body shape. To some degree or another, even your athletic ability, personality, intellect, all may be decided before you even had a chance to decide for yourself who you wanted to be.
So we end up with expressions like “a chip off the old block,” “the apple doesn’t land far from the tree,” or “she’s her daddy’s girl” because who we are has to do with who our parents are. The genetic material that knit us together decides for us, and our genes didn’t even think to ask before they gave some of us long legs, slow metabolisms, or quickly receding hair lines.
The Israelites were so convinced of this truth that they believed not only that eye color, skin tone, and height were determined by genetics, they went so far as to believe that even sin can be passed down from mother to daughter, father to son. Hence the expression that begins our 2nd scripture lesson: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
The expression is one of those that are almost from the Bible but not quite. Sort of like “God helps those who help themselves” or “the Lord never gives us more than we can handle,” it is almost biblical.
This expression was probably inspired by Moses, where in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy God claims that some sins are so powerfully bad that punishment for committing them must span not just lifetimes, but generations.
The Israelites, at the time of Ezekiel, took this idea and used it to explain their situation. They were in exile in Babylon, taken there as military prisoners of war, and were stuck, not because they did anything wrong, but because their parents did.
The book of Lamentations, probably written at the same time and certainly responding to the same frustration of life in exile says, “Our ancestors sinned; they are no more, and we bear their iniquities.”
Scripture explains the Babylonian invasion, their destruction of homes, violence towards women and children, and death in the streets as God’s judgment, punishment for their disobedience. As the living were captured and taken forcibly to live in Babylon, they explained the horror as the wages of their own sin.
We don’t think about it exactly that way, but we do believe that the wages of sin is death; that those who live by the sword die by the sword. We don’t call it unfair that those who choose adultery also watch their marriages crumble - not as random misfortune but as the logical result of their actions. The same is true for theft or murder – if you do wrong you should expect to be punished.
But the cruel reality is that not only the one who sinned pays the price.
Children are the innocent victims of their parents’ mistakes all the time, all alcoholism, all drug abuse. They pay the price not for their own sin but the sins of their parents – and so some truth resounds from the proverb: “the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” For the sins of the parents may well go on punishing the children.
But the difference between stating that we bear their iniquities and that sin passes from one generation to another is the role that God plays in the process.
Certainly society has seen it both ways. Across the street from Presbyterian College where Sara and I graduated sits the Thornwell Children’s Home – an orphanage founded by the same man who started the college. Only in the last 50 years have children out of wedlock been accepted, as though God were punishing the children for their parents’ sin.
When our expectations of children are influenced by who their parents are, we’re not so different – expecting little from those whose parents have accomplished little in our eyes and expecting much from those whose parents have accomplished much, as though God’s blessing or curse passed down from one generation to the next. “Well, you know who his father is, what do you expect?” we might say.
So the Israelites didn’t have much trouble believing that God was keeping them there in exile because of what their parents did or didn’t do, as sometimes we believe that the present is completely determined by the past – who we are is totally contingent on who we come from – and the future – our future – is already set in stone as though God already decided.
But it’s God’s role in all of this that we shouldn’t be so sure of, the prophet says. For while you might be so bold to think that the sons and daughters of alcoholism, infidelity, and laziness are stuck in the trap that their parents laid out; don’t be so bold to go believing that God has preordained it to be so.
“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!
Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God.
Turn, then, and live.”
Turn, then, and live, says the Lord – making plain the truth that a new way of life is just as possible now as it ever was.
Turn, then, and live - making plain the truth that who you are has not been decided until it has been decided by you.
Turn, then, and live - making plain the truth that where you come from, your family, even your genes will not determine the course of your future.
Turn, then, and live says the Lord – for the Lord God takes no pleasure in your death and continually celebrates your new life.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jonah's Anger

Jonah 3: 10 – 4: 11, page 861
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and God did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
The Lord appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”
And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.”
Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
There’s probably not a better preacher alive than Dr. Fred Craddock, a minister in the Disciples of Christ tradition who served a church here in town for a number of years. And while he was there, Mr. Bronston Boone, long time member of this church, served with him, leading meetings of that congregation’s elected leaders.
Not only did Bronston drive me down to Ellijay, GA to meet Dr. Craddock, Bronston recently gave me a couple DVDs of Dr. Craddock preaching at a big convention up in Nashville.
Dr. Craddock began by talking about the recession: “Money is in short supply, as are our jobs, but we really suffer because also in short supply are words.”
We need words to explain our situation, to tell the story of how we got here, and we need words to give us a clear direction for how we are going to get out.
But where are the inspiring words? There are plenty of questions; there’s plenty of blame, plenty of excuses and distractions, but not much inspiration, and maybe that’s because no one takes words quite as seriously as deeds.
Words are undervalued, Dr. Craddock says, but we need to remember “that sticks and stones may break your bones, but words…words will kill you.”
If you don’t believe it think about the words of Homecoming season. You have teenage boys up all night amassing the courage to say the words, “Would you like to go with me to the Homecoming dance?”
Those are big, powerful words – so big and so powerful they get stuck on their way out – maybe they get halfway out or maybe they end up never spoken, even though you have teenage girls dying to hear them.
Some people don’t take words seriously. High school boys certainly do though, and I want you to know that I believe words are more powerful than just about anything else.
Think about the words “I love you.” If you’ve never heard those words from a person you needed to hear them from then you know exactly how powerful they are.
All you can eat buffet – some people take those words very seriously.
In sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live – some people take those words very seriously, others, not so much. But regardless, the minister says them and it’s how the bride and groom interprets them that matters.
I’m sorry – it matters how these words are said, but parents make their children say them even if they don’t really mean it because the words themselves have power beyond the speaker’s level of repentance.
Repentance, redemption, forgiveness – we all hear these words, often from me, but what matters is not whether or not I say them – what matters is whether or not you hear them.
Some people hear them loud and clear – those coming to church seeking forgiveness will surely find it if their ears are open and their hearts are willing – as each and every week I say the words, “who is in a position to condemn, only Christ, and Christ was born for us, Christ lived for us, Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us, by the testimony of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.”
Those are good words – good enough that I’ve memorized them so that I can say them with some conviction – but what matters is not how I say the words, what matters is how you hear them.
For some, forgiveness is only serious business when it comes to their forgiveness, and from the belly of a whale Jonah cries out to God for forgiveness. In our call to worship we read that Jonah cries out to God to save him though he knows he doesn’t deserve it.
On the other hand, when it’s the Ninevites crying out to God, Jonah hopes that God won’t listen as forgiveness is something else when it’s the Ninevites.
That’s a horrible quality, really – to believe in forgiveness only selfishly, but that’s how some people are. Jonah goes through the city of Nineveh begrudgingly preaching as all prophets do – God’s wrath is coming. Unlike most prophets, Jonah leaves no room for repentance, there’s only judgment and wrath, but the Ninevites take his words and hear the opportunity for repentance and turn from their evil ways.
This isn’t what Jonah wanted to happen, however, and this attribute also sets him apart from all the other prophets. He is the only prophet in the Bible who hopes that the people won’t listen.
Jonah doesn’t celebrate, then, when he becomes the most effective prophet in scripture, successfully convicting all the hearts of Nineveh enough that they repent and turn from their ways. Jonah was hoping that he might just control the way his words were interpreted. I guess he was hoping that his words would either fall on deaf ears or wouldn’t be taken seriously, that his words would not change a single heart, that his words would mean what he wanted them to mean: “40 days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” But what the Ninevites heard is what matters, not what Jonah said. His words were like forced apologies, they came out empty of conviction, but they were heard loud and clear.
And that’s how words are – they take on a meaning of their own, and sometimes it’s how they’re heard that matters, not how they’re said.
Cancer is a word like that. The doctor who says that word can mean it one way, but it’s how the word is heard by the patient that matters.
It’s hard to hear a word like “divorce” and not think the worst. But from that word one person hears failure, heartbreak, another relief, freedom.
There are some who grow up hearing that you’re not good enough, and it’s difficult not to carry those words around, letting them define you and everything you do, letting the one who said them determine your life’s course. But it’s how you hear the words that matters. It’s how you choose to interpret them that is really holding you back or setting you free.
The Ninevites heard the words “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” and while they could have started preparing for the worst, instead they said to themselves, “Let’s just try. Who knows? God may relent and change God’s mind; God may turn from God’s fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
I pray this day that you will be so bold to go and do the same, not letting the meaning of words be set in stone, but daring to believe that they may indeed be heard a different way.
Hear words of despair, sadness, and sickness and be bold to see in them a reason to hope.
Hear words of condemnation, foolishness, and shame and be bold to hear over and above them words of God’s promise and love.
Hear words like “not good enough,” “can’t be fixed,” and “it’s too late,” and be bold enough to say, “Who knows? God may…God just might.”
Because the truth is, it’s God who gets to decide what happens next – not the one who said the words.
“For I know that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent form punishing.”
Forgiveness is real, and while Jonah didn’t quite want to believe it, God was longing to hear of the Ninevites’ repentance. While Jonah uttered his words without conviction, not believing in the worth of an entire city, God looked down, full of forgiveness, full of love, full of patience, and was only too eager to celebrate their return.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

It's Just That Easy

Romans 13: 8-14, page 162
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Two of my favorite parts of the worship service here are things that we do every week without even thinking about it – we stand and say together what we believe using the Apostles Creed, one of the earliest statements adopted by the Christian Faith, and we pray together as Christ taught us using the Lord’s Prayer.
I love these parts of the service because it’s a rare treat to find yourself in a room full of people who can agree enough to say that we all believe the same thing, not once, but twice.
Human beings are notorious for complicating such simple pleasures as though we were predisposed for seeing room for disagreement.
Maybe you’ve been to a wedding, the groom’s a Methodist, the bride a Presbyterian and when it comes time to pray the Lord’s Prayer you’re not sure whether you need to be forgiven for your debts or your trespasses.
There’s an advantage to keeping things simple, but there’s something about people that makes us want to complicate matters – to take something simple like a candy bar, dip it in batter and deep fry it. People are doing that now at State Fairs and things, and it seems over the top, but this is what people do – we take simple things and make them more and more complicated.
Think about your car – it started out without power windows. But now that we have them, air conditioning, satellite radios, power steering, and heated seats it’s hard to imagine getting by without them, until something breaks and there’s absolutely no way to fix it ourselves and so we long for a simpler time when cars were just cars.
When you add things, when you make things more complicated, you have to be careful because often are things added – for convenience, for the sake of luxury, to be new and exciting - but rarely is anything taken away.
That’s how closets work. Things get added. Everything in my closet is important…or at least it was at one time. More importantly I can’t imagine going through it all to clean it out – now that all that stuff is in there I’m used to it being in there. I know I don’t need it, but I’m not going to clean it all out either.
Taxes work this way too. You start with something simple and you add to it and it gets complicated fast. I’m sure that every tax code we have seemed like a good idea at the time, but today I’m not sure what my Dog License Tax goes to pay for, and I’m certain that now that it’s been established there is no committee in our Federal Government who is going to put it to sleep. Our tax code is like a closet – I’m sure everything there is important – or at least it was at one time – and now that it’s in there it’s never coming out.
In the last 100 years, more than 40 new types of tax have been instituted, and so today there are many who call out for a simplification of the process that most need a professional to understand. The only good thing is that those who know can benefit from the exemptions.
You add and you add and you add – but not all of that adding is bad because you pay less if you can be smart about it. There’s an exemption for children, there’s an exemption for buying products that are considered environmentally friendly, and there are tons of exemptions for religious institutions.
And that’s what we really lose when we hear Paul’s words in his letter to the church in Rome: “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” This kind of simplification sounds wonderful – there’s no need for the whole legal code we find in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th books of the Bible: Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – it’s just this simple – Love one another. But what we lose are the exemptions and I believe we depend more on those than we think.
In the time of the ancient Israelites the rules for life had been added to and amended until there was a law for everything. Just as there were laws against eating shrimp and pork, there were ways to deal with lepers and disease – there were standards for purity that allowed the Israelites to, in the name of sanitation, avoid those with disease, especially those diseases that involved blood.
Jesus, however, has a problem with avoiding people, and when a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, Jesus doesn’t push her away because the Law would have allowed him to. He says to her, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.”
In the time of the ancient Israelites there was such resentment for tax collectors that there was no call to treat them with the love and respect enjoyed by others. There was the idea that some could be despised and resented in the name of unfair taxation.
Jesus, however, has a problem with such resentment, and rather than put them aside as he would have been justified in doing, everywhere he went he was called a friend of prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners.
There were also those who feared mental illness in the time of the Israelites, and there were Laws to provide guidance to deal with such people. That’s how a man ended up chained and confined to the tombs – to protect the village and to protect himself.
Jesus, however, asked him his name. He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” And Christ cast out the demons, though he had every reason to walk on by. He would have been justified in doing so – the Law offering exemptions in such extreme cases.
Paul calls us to go and do the same – to wipe the slate clean and follow this one simple commandment – “love one another.” But there is certainly a multitude of problems with wiping the slate clean. You lose the exemptions, and without the exemptions, what are you supposed to do? What are you supposed to do if you don’t like your neighbor, if your neighbor doesn’t like you? What are you supposed to do if your neighbor hates you, or you hate your neighbor?
What if you are afraid – and loving someone means facing your fears?
What if you are happy as you are and happy with the world as it is – and loving someone means opening a whole can of worms?
What if you are guarded – because loving someone has broken your heart before?
There are a lot of reasons to be scared of cleaning out a closet full of complicated rules, to be afraid of wiping the slate clean and staring into the face of “love your neighbor as yourself”. But more than anything else, we should all be afraid of what’s left at the bottom once you’ve cleaned out all complications, because down at the bottom is the foundation for faithfulness. If you get down to the heart of it all, all the rules, all the ordinances, all the exemptions, you’ll find the reason for obedience.
The Lord said to Moses, “this day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”
Down at the heart of all our perpetual ordinances is gratitude – gratitude to God who spared the Israelites from the angel of death that passed through Egypt. Gratitude to God who led them out and on into the Promised Land. And now, gratitude to God who laid down his very life that we might live. Gratitude to Christ who saved us.
At the bottom of the closet is gratitude – that we are loved despite all the reasons God has not to. All the times God had every reason to give up but didn’t.
All the times good advice would have told God to walk away.
All the times the Law would have provided God with a fine exemption.
In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
You can expect to be forgiven – you can expect to be loved – and so you owe it to God to return the favor.
Thanks be to God – the one who had every reason to stop loving, but never did and never will.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Marks of the True Christian

Romans 12: 9-21, page 162
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
You can get in a lot of trouble if you act without thinking.
You might enter into senseless business deals because of emotional pressure. You might go along with the crowd because in the moment it feels like the best thing to do. You might do something that you know you’ll regret, but you do it anyway because you just want to give in to impulse – in to momentary pleasure without thought for lasting wellbeing.
It’s dangerous – to act without thinking. Your parents told you so. But it’s also dangerous to think without acting.
It’s possible to think and think and think – to think through all the possible problems, to become aware of all the potential drawbacks, to become so fearful of risk that you become immobilized. And this is dangerous too – because without action life will pass you by.
Thinking through all the possibilities – not wanting to commit to early – all the while doors are closing.
So afraid of making a miss-step that no step is ever taken.
Assuming that there is plenty of time while the clock keeps on ticking.
Its dangerous stuff – thinking is. I can think of all kinds of reasons why now is not the best time to potty train our two year old daughter Lily – for one thing she doesn’t want to stop using diapers, but for another thing now is just not the right time. She has a new baby sister to adjust to. We’ll soon be moving into a new house, I hope anyway, and I wouldn’t want her to get used to using one set of toilets then ask her to get used to some that are completely new.
More than that, I know what to do with diapers, so I don’t have any problem telling myself “now is just not the right time.”
But if not now, when?
This is really a good question to ask when you say to yourself, now is not the right time to visit grandma, assuming that she’ll be there forever. Now just isn’t the best time to talk to your children about drugs or cigarettes or whatever else, as though you could protect them just a little while longer. Now is just not the right time to quit smoking – there’s too much stress at work – now is just not the right time – all the while assuming that we are guaranteed more than right now, when really the question is – if not now, when?
Moses surely wouldn’t have denied the fact that his people needed to be liberated from Pharaoh’s oppression – but was he just going to walk away from his flock?
Now’s not the right time – and besides – Pharaoh wants me dead for murder, my mother set me down the river in a basket – there’s nothing for me back in Egypt and here I have a family, a life – maybe later, but now’s just not the right time.
But if not now, when?
Moses had plenty of reasons to put it off – just as you do.
He had a life to attend to. Babies to feed. Times were tough.
But if not now, when? And if not you, then who?
Let love be genuine, Paul says – and maybe this one is easy enough to go along with, but in reality we push this one to the backburner as much as any other – focusing on whatever emergency we face, putting out whatever fire is burning bright while the fire of relationships needs tending. It’s easy to assume that it won’t ever go out, but for how long can you really ask those who love you to wait before the fires start to cool?
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them he says – and I suppose that we always intend to burry hatchets, put an end to harsh words, put aside old resentments – but intentions are only kind thoughts that don’t do anyone any good until they turn into action.
We postpone hard conversations – we postpone forgiveness – we postpone living as we know we should not realizing that time is short and getting shorter.
The bush is burning – as we assume it will burn on forever.
The people are suffering under Pharaoh’s oppression – as we assume that they can just go on suffering a little while longer – but why not put an end to it today?
Moses did have a life as a shepherd – but God had prepared him for a life as a shepherd of his people leading them into the promised land – and you may have a life now – but God has prepared for you a life free from the torment of grudges held tight for too long, forgiveness withheld, and the constant drive for vengeance – and why would you postpone such a life any longer? If not now, when?
Our second scripture lesson for today is from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, and the minister I knew as a child used this passage for his benediction Sunday after Sunday.
At the close of every worship service he would stand before us calling us to leave church going forth as true Christians – letting love be genuine, hating what is evil, holding fast to what is good.
Sunday after Sunday he called us to live life defined by the marks of the true Christian – but it was so easy, and it still is so easy, to believe that now is not the time and that living as we should can wait.
After all – today we live in a world where knowing what to love and what to hate is not nearly so easy as it should be – blessing those who persecute you seems a dangerous proposition indeed, and surely today is not the time for loving enemies – should we go loving our enemies leaving room for the wrath of God we may not live to see tomorrow.
But if we don’t live by these standards today – when will we?
The world is not getting any better – and if there aren’t people out in the world determined to choose another path it never will.
Now is the time. Today is the day.
Let love be genuine – now and forever.

Monday, August 22, 2011

We Have Gifts

Romans 12: 1-8, page 157
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
You’ve all heard about the dangers of low self-esteem. How some, or maybe all of us at certain times, look in the mirror and don’t like what we see, don’t see beauty, intelligence, or creativity, but a person who could stand to look better, work harder, and give more.
What you don’t hear as much about is the flip side of that same coin – high self-esteem. I’m not sure that’s even a real term, but I heard about it once on TV and it’s stuck with me, as there are always people around who seem to suffer from thinking too highly of themselves.
Paul writes, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment,” and he follows this statement with his rational, “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function.”
In our world however, some functions seem to matter more than others. A search of the word “celebrity” on Google will come up with 382 million results, but you won’t have much luck trying to find information about their mothers, without whom they would not exist; their housekeepers, without whom they would not survive; or their agents, without whom they would know what to say or where to go.
There are some people in our world who seem to matter more than others, whose names you know and can remember, but Paul calls us to recognize that humanity is like a body – there are many members with different functions – and while the world might celebrate some functions more than others you must not be tricked into believing that some functions matter more than others.
Take the first two chapters of Exodus for example. Certainly you know who this story is about, the heading of chapter two tells you everything you need to know, it’s the story of the “birth and youth of Moses.” But notice that Moses wasn’t mentioned in our reading for today – he’s not given a name until verse 10. This story isn’t really his story yet – the first two chapters of Exodus is the story of strong women whose names have mostly been forgotten because our world values some functions more than others.
The heroes of this story are Shiphrah and Puah. The king of Egypt said to them, “when you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birth stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”
Maybe even Pharaoh himself valued some functions more than others, believing that only a man would rebel against him toppling him from his seat of power, but here he underestimated two midwives who saved the lives of innumerable boys, saying to Pharaoh, “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
These two are named in chapter one of Exodus, because these two women, Shiphrah and Puah, matter. Without their faith in God, Moses would have been killed at birth.
More than that, by these women we know that Moses was not the first to defy Pharaoh’s orders. He was not the first to stand before the most powerful man in the land without cowering. These two women went before him, defying Pharaoh’s power, refusing to follow his orders, finding a means to execute justice in a time of terror and fear.
But their names could have been forgotten. Moses is the name that we remember today. He is the one who seems the most important, as it is his function as liberator of the Israelites, bringer of the 10 Commandments, and as the guide into the Promised Land that has been valued by generations of the faithful over these two who function as his crafty and brave midwives.
It falls to us then, to remember the names Shiphrah and Puah, because without them there would have been no Moses.
On the other hand, to most people their names will be forgotten. Like mothers or housekeepers or agents of celebrities, it’s not their function as nurturers or promoters that society values, it is the one they nurtured or promoted whose name goes up in lights.
The same is true for so many in our world who live their lives disconnected from reality and ungrateful to those who held them up. Rev. Bill Williamson, longtime pastor of this church was known for saying, “There are some people who we were born on third, but think that they’re there because they hit a triple.” So it goes for the well born who go their whole lives believing that they deserve their privilege, the entitled who believe it is their right to receive gifts and handouts. For some life is easy, blessings overflow. And should they ever ask why, we should pity those who reach the conclusion that they deserve what they have been given.
Paul urges you, “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think,” as those who fall into positions of power, prestige, and privilege without recognizing how they got there miss out on the opportunity to be thankful.
Tina Fey is not a notoriously religious woman. She’s a comedian notorious for her Sarah Palin impersonation and her role as lead actress and writer of the Thursday evening show 30 Rock. But in her recent book she included a prayer titled, “the Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter.”
The prayer begins, “First, Lord: No tattoos,” and it ends with this: “And should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my eyes, Lord, that I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at 4:50 AM, all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its back. “My mother did this for me once,” she will realize as she cleans [who knows what] off her baby’s neck. “My mother did this for me.” And the delayed gratitude will wash over her as it does each generation and she will make a Mental Note to call me. And she will forget. But I’ll know. Because I peeped it with Your God eyes. Amen.”
For Moses there were two incredible brave women, without them he never would have breathed his first breath. Then for him there was a mother who hid him as long as she could before she placed him in a basket and prayed; and then there was his sister who watched the basket float downstream into the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter. His sister was brave enough to suggest that a Hebrew woman be called to nurse him and Moses grew up nurtured in Pharaoh’s house by Pharaoh’s own daughter and his own mother.
Without these women there would be no Moses – so who can say that one gift is better than another.
For you there are others – some whose names you remember while the memory of others has faded. There are generations of faithful, those who witnessed firsthand the mighty acts of God all the way to the forefathers and foremothers of this church who gave us a place to hear the Good News and be saved. We are the recipients of their legacy. Give thanks for them all, because without them there is no you – so who can say that one gift is better than another.
The foolish may go their whole lives thinking that nothing important happened before they showed up on the scene – but those of you who know the truth will remember and be thankful for all those who came before. Those of you who know the truth will face the trials and tribulations of today knowing that generations have passed through hardship before and lived to tell the tale. Those of you who know the truth will enter into the unfolding drama that is the great story of humanity, serving this church as many have served before, giving of your gifts just as so many before you have given.
Rejoice and be thankful – not thinking too highly of yourself, but giving thanks to all those who made you who you are.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Things That Defile

Matthew 15: 10-28, page 17
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”
But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”
He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
This past week I was in Charleston, South Carolina. My grandmother has been in the hospital there for the past few weeks struggling to fight a rare strain of pneumonia, and my grandfather, wanting to be at her bedside each day, needed me to drive him back and forth from the hospital.
One night I fried him chicken wings, and I was reminded of how differently he eats. He grew up in a swamp, more or less, not that that explains it, but I suppose he grew up not wasting anything. When it came to chicken wings I ate the little drum stick part and the flat part with the two bones. He thought this was wasteful, because he on the other hand, in addition to eating both those parts also scrapes the skin of the pointy piece that makes up the tip of the wing that I didn’t even know was edible.
He’s always been like that. His favorite part of the catfish is the tail fin, and at Thanksgiving or Christmas I remember being called into the kitchen as a 7- or 8-year-old where he’d cut off a piece of fat from the roast: “Here you go boy; don’t tell your mother I gave you this.”
The things that go into his mouth aren’t want I would call clean, nor would I call it healthy, but what comes out of his mouth is often something different – “I can’t tell you how proud we are of you Joe,” he has so often said to me.
Then he said to the disciples, ‘Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart…’
What people eat, what goes in their mouths, is largely informed by culture. Here in Columbia, at least until the close of Sam Hills, there were rooster fries. Bushmen in Africa like nothing better than porcupine skin, and my grandfather grew up eating squirrel. But more than that, culture informs not only what we eat, but who we eat with, who we accept and who we don’t, who are worth associating with and who aren’t. So Christ makes this statement about food, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles,” and follows this statement with its application.
Jesus grew up in a time with its own cultural norms, and by those norms he was told what was good to eat and what wasn’t, but more than that, he was told who he should eat with, who should be accepted, and who was worth associating with. When a woman from a certain region came to him shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon,” Jesus didn’t just think on his own, his response was informed by the cultural norms of his own day – “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
That’s not what we expected Jesus to say, but Jesus wasn’t born into a cultural vacuum. The Canaanite people for generations had been defined by where they lived, how they lived, and what they ate. These people were not just considered to be less than the Israelites, they were so low as to be considered dogs. And Jesus, just as he was taught what was good to eat by his environment, he was also taught who was good. Born into a certain family, he knew who was better and who was worse – who got the pork loin and who got the chittlins. He took in these lessons from culture, but it’s not what lessons you take in that matters, it’s not what you take in, what you eat, or where you grew up, it’s what actions that come out that define who you are.
A lot has changed at airports in the last 10 years, but the only change that I don’t find frustrating is the new Dyson Air Blade you can use to dry your hands in the Nashville Airport bathroom. There’s a lot more to be aggravated by – check-points, lines, always being ready with your boarding pass and drivers license, having to take off your shoes and not being allowed to take normal size shampoo. There’s a lot to get aggravated by, but it’s not the environment that you find yourself in at the airport that defines you – it’s how you react to the environment at the airport.
It amazes me how some supremely kind people will still help others to get baggage on and off the conveyor belts or how veteran flyers will explain to those who don’t know what can go on their carry-on and what can’t. How many people will return valuable objects left behind in airport restaurants, say please, thank you, and excuse me, even if they’re obviously running to catch their flight.
Their response to this new cultural norm of airport security says something about who they are, just as Jesus’ response to cultural norms of discrimination says everything about who he is.
In saying, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” we hear the echo of cultural norms of prejudice and racism, the hold that culture has taken on even the Son of God – but when she says to him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” he is invited to speak, not as his culture has taught him to speak, but to speak from his heart. Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
You are all the product of culture. What goes in are standards of not only what you eat, but who you eat with, who you accept and who you don’t, who are worth associating with and who aren’t. However, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
It is not the cultural norms you were born into that define who you are, but whether you live your life never questioning those norms, especially those that discriminate against groups and individuals.
It is not the norms of the household that you grew up in that define who you will be, but it is the choices that you make – to be like them or to be different – that make you who you are.
It is not the words that you heard growing up to describe groups of people, it is not the separation that culture deemed appropriate, it is not the generalizations that you grew up believing were true that determines the future – it is what you do – what you say – that will change the world.