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.