Monday, November 13, 2017

Helping Others

            We have heard Moses give us the Ten Commandments, Jesus offered the beatitudes and in Matthew’s gospel, he tells us about the bridesmaids who were waiting for the bridegroom.  They all had lamps, some of them had oil for the lamps and some didn’t.  When the bridegroom arrived suddenly, those with oil were able to light their lamps and accompany him.  The others were out of luck and couldn’t do much of anything at all.

            Jesus uses this parable to tell us that we need to be ready—not necessarily for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, or for Jesus’ second coming, but simply ready in our lives for what is going on around us.  I think of this when I am at the store, or walking around downtown, or simply driving on the roads around town. We never know what we are likely to encounter when we are living our lives.  Sometimes it is a beggar on the street; sometimes it is somebody in serious trouble who needs our help.  What this parable is telling us is to be ready to do whatever it is that is needed to help people in their lives. 

            Our local paper had a column every week called Random Acts of Kindness, where people tell stories about how strangers helped them out of some kind of trouble.  They always do this to show their appreciation for what random strangers have done to help them.  Often, they don’t know the names of the people who have helped, they just are pleased that somebody cared at a moment in time when they needed help.  I suspect that a lot of the help that is provided to people on a day to day basis goes largely unreported and just anonymously helps whoever needs it.  I think that is what God has in mind for all of us as we live our lives.

            Families are one place where help is often provided.  We are more familiar with each other’s needs in our families.  For people whom we don’t know at all, we need to be able to see the sometimes subtle signs that help is needed.  When we are able to do that, the Kingdom of Heaven comes a little nearer.  I think that is what Jesus is trying to teach us not only with his parables, but with his life.

                  

Monday, November 6, 2017

Let Mercy Rule

            There have been so many tragedies recently.  All of the storms that plagued the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas not to mention Ireland and the British Isles; the earthquake in Mexico and the terrible fires in California that have left so many people without homes and possessions.  We had the horrible shooting in Las Vegas that killed so many people who were simply attending a country music performance; the terrorist driving a truck into the bike lane in New York, killing eight people and injuring a number of others, and the shooting at the church at Sutherland Springs, Texas that killed 26 people. The grieving over all of this has taken us over as a nation and has caused such pain in so many lives.  It is as if we have embarked on a new era, an era of hatred and misery enhanced by egotism and people who just don’t care about law and order and want to create chaos wherever they are.  This is also applicable to the natural disasters that we are seeing since we don’t seem to care about climate change and continue to permit inordinate pollution of our atmosphere.

               In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus begins his sermon on the mount by telling his apostles the beatitudes.  These are great phrases that really sum up the expectations that God has for all of us. One of them reads: blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  Mercy isn’t an easy thing to either give or receive.  Often when we pass a beggar on the street, we do just that:  pass them.  We ignore their signs, their position on the street, frequently sitting down against a post, dressed in shabby clothes and all of the things that tell us of their difficult position in life.  We don’t really think of mercy in these moments, we think only of getting on with what we are doing. 

            Mercy is a two-way street.  I love the verse that goes:
                       
                                                Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat
                                                Please to put a penny in the old man’s hat.
                                                If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do
                                                If you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you!

Here is mercy coming back from the beggar.  We really don’t think of that most of the time either, we are still set on doing what we are about.  But this is the reality of mercy.  It is the interaction that we have with each other, caring for each other, paying attention to our needs, and being aware of the condition that each of us are in.  It is fairly easy to do this with our friends and our relatives, but when it comes to strangers, it is a bit more difficult.  I know that our Lord wants us to care for each other, to be merciful and loving to each other.  When we do this we lessen the amount of stress and hatred in this world and make it less likely that events such as we are seeing in the news will keep happening.  Love one another as I have loved you, said Jesus to all of us when he expressed the commandments of God.  That is our mission as the children of God.  God loves every one of us.  Let us try as hard as we can to love one another.


           

           

                

Monday, October 30, 2017

Love Triumphs

             
            There is a great verse in the hymn Amazing Grace that says:

                        When we’ve been there ten thousand years/bright shining as the sun;
                        We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise/than when we’d first begun.

            That to me is an excellent way to describe the relationship that we have with our God and this world.  We all grow up, grow older and live out our lives doing what we can with our faith.  Sometimes we don’t do very well with our loving.  We neglect people who are in need and marginalize others.  There is a constant argument going on in our society about how those who are in categories that we have created ought to live.  If you are African American, gay, female, Muslim, Latino or Native American you will certainly encounter barriers that might prevent you from living your life in full.  Periodically, we come up with ways to bridge these barriers, but the rhetoric that emerges from the argument is always hurtful and demonstrates how hard it is for us to love one another as our God has loved us. 

            That commandment to love, is the foundation of all scripture.  When Jesus was asked what is the most important commandment, this is the one that he offers to the Pharisees who have asked him the question.  He offers it in good faith because it is true and is the basis for all of the rest of Holy Scripture.  If we can’t love one another, not much else is really possible.

            What gets in the way is our narcissism, our ego centered attitude toward others that comes from our desire to get our own way in most things.  When we can put this aside and care for others and their needs, love has an honest chance to work.

            We live in a time when hate has erupted in almost incredible ways.  A man shoots a large number of people in a crowd watching a country music festival in Las Vegas and we can’t find any reason why he would do this.  The social media platform called Twitter is increasing being used to call people names and pump out false information to the country.  The label fake news is used over and over again to deflect claims of real truth in some of the reporting that is going on in this country.  It is harder and harder to know what is true and what is false in what we are reading and hearing every day in our media reporting and the political response that we receive to it.  There is a design to this.  The deflection of  reporting on real events by those in charge is a way to make us all pay attention to other things rather than what is being said.  Deflection is a great strategy to keep us from looking deeper into the events that are being reported.

            The only answer to hate is love.  That is why Jesus made it the most important commandment; and the one that brings us all closer to God.  Without love, hate triumphs and this world loses a great deal of meaning and hope.  We have a mission to spread love in this world and to defeat the forces of hate.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Face of God

            I’ve always been leery of preachers who want to show me the face of God.  The ones who know so very well what God looks like.  When you look a little closer, their god looks a lot like what they want you to believe.  I think of people like the ones from the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas who love to picket veteran’s funerals with signs that say hateful things.  Their god is not one of love, but of hate and condemnation.

            They, of course aren’t new at this.  During the inquisition, many people were executed for beliefs that were contrary to what the church at the time professed.  In recent times, many African-Americans were lynched in this country simply for being black and free, contrary to the ethos of slavery that existed in many people’s minds.  When I consider these things, it makes me wonder why it is that people want to attribute to our God these things that they believe that are so contrary to what God taught to all of us through Jesus’ ministry and through the works of the church through the centuries when it wasn’t trying to contradict the Word of God.

            Up on Mount Sinai, God gave to Moses the Ten Commandments, God’s word spelled out so that people could understand it.  These were the ways that God wanted humanity to behave.  They are simple rules that we all understand and really don’t want to argue with.  Yes, it is hard to keep them. We all covet, bear false witness, fail to honor our father and mother and to have no other gods before the God who loves us all. 
           
            I spent a number of years with prisoners in the penitentiary who all had committed murder and were paying for that with life sentences.  They had broken one of the most significant of the commandments.  We spent a lot of time talking about that and trying to find ways that they could find forgiveness.  I always thought, while I was doing that, how much we all need to find forgiveness for the commandments that we have broken.  I notice that God doesn’t ascribe any particular importance to any of these commandments.  They are all important to be followed if we are going to do the will of our God.  When we break them, as we all have, we need to find forgiveness and get ourselves back to the place where God’s Love surrounds us.

            After Moses received the commandments, Moses asked God to show him more so that he could describe the person who gave him the commandments.  God told him that he would show to Moses his Glory, but God’s face he could not see.  Moses was tucked into a crevice in the mountain while God passed by.  Moses could see God’s back, but not God’s face because as God said, “to see my face is to die.”

            I know that God was trying to help Moses to understand the depth of God’s glory and the strength and power behind the issuance of the commandments.  It was simply moments later that God told Moses that his people down at the base of Sinai had constructed a golden calf that they were worshipping, and that Moses needed to put a stop to that. 

            It is certainly fascinating the way that we lift up our own prejudices in our worship life.  Like the Westboro people, we want the whole world to come to our way of thinking.  In Matthew’s gospel, the Pharisees seek to trap Jesus, so they ask him a subtle question:  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?  Jesus recognizes the trap and asks them for the coin which they use to pay the taxes.  They show him a denarius, which has the face of the emperor on it.  Whose face is this? asks Jesus. When they reply, the emperor’s, Jesus says to them, then give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God the things that are God’s. This quieted the Pharisees and they left Jesus.  An amazing exchange.  We need always to remember that all that we have and are belongs to God and to create another authority and declare that it is superior is always wrong. We live in a time when hatred is showing up all over the place.  God is Love and Love is how we defeat hatred.  When we remember that, our God is blessedly served.

             

Sunday, October 15, 2017

What Does Love Mean?

            In the movie, The Ten Commandments, Aaron, played by Edward G. Robinson, urges the Hebrew people at the foot of Mount Sinai to build a golden calf while they are waiting for Moses, played by Charleton Heston to come down from the top of the mountain, where he had gone at the command of God.  God sees all of this and tells Moses that his people are doing a bad thing and that he needs to go down and to stop them.  Moses does this and the people are indeed stunned at their leader’s anger.  

            That story has always puzzled me a bit.  Those Hebrews have been freed from their slavery in Egypt and have been in the desert for a while coming to terms with it.  They are a bit confused as to what circumstances they are in and what is coming next.  Other than a “promised land” that seems to them to be a bit vague, they have no sense of what the future holds.  With Moses away for a while, his brother Aaron takes charge and offers a rationale for their condition.  He asks for all of the gold that these people have as earrings, rings and such, and fashions a molded golden calf from it and tells the people that this calf is the god who has brought them out of Egypt and invites them to worship this newly created symbol.  God is of course furious and sends Moses to break it all up. 

            I’m not surprised at all at the Hebrew’s confusion.  How are they to know what God has in mind for them.  Moses is at that moment receiving the rules of behavior for his flock, rules that they don’t even know about yet.  Aaron is simply giving them an answer for their confusion. 

            I am equally puzzled by Jesus’ parable of the king who was having a wedding banquet to which nobody was coming.  There was no understanding here, either by the king or by the subjects.  The people who were invited killed the slaves who invited them and the king sent his troops to kill them.  Eventually, the king sent his slaves to invite anyone whom they saw in the streets and soon the banquet hall was filled with guests.  The king comes in, sees one man who has no wedding robe, asks him how he got in without being properly dressed, orders him to be bound hands and feet and thrown into outer darkness.  He ends the story with the curious words, many are called but few are chosen.  Why is Jesus telling this parable?  What is he trying to get us to understand?

            In both of these stories, God is expecting some kind of understood behavior from those who worship their creator.  In talk after talk during his lifetime and his ministry,  Jesus tells us that the most important thing that we can do is to love one another.  The primary commandment is to Love the Lord our God with all of your hearts, mind and souls and to love our neighbor as a person like yourselves.  Jesus went on to say that on this primary commandment hangs all of the law and the prophets.

            I think what is going on in these stories is that God is assuming that love will be the foundation on which these people build their lives.  The creation of the golden calf is contrary to that and denies the existence of the God who created the world and all of the people who have been freed.  In the parable that Jesus tells, the king, who is God has invited all of the people to come to the wedding banquet and is astonished that one man has no wedding clothes.  The wedding clothes stand for the essence of love.  That is why the man is thrown out of the banquet.  It isn’t easy to understand, which is why at first these stories confuse me.  Knowing that the God whom we all worship is the God of Love helps me to comprehend what is being said.  If only we all could love one another, this world would be a place of peace and comfort, just like the Kingdom of Heaven.  That is what our creator, and his Son, our Lord have in mind for us.

            What makes all of this come together for me is that shortly after all of this was said comes the confrontation with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes and Jesus’ arrest, condemnation and crucifixion.  God’s ultimate answer to this horrible treatment of Jesus is to create the Resurrection three days later and give us all the gift of eternal life as a result.  What more can we ask of the God who loves us so completely?  Our response is simple; we need to embrace Love as our guiding star and focus on taking care of each other. 
           

           
            

Monday, October 9, 2017

Tragedy and Blame

     There have been a lot of horrible tragedies in the last few weeks.  The devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico that crippled that island.  The earthquake in Mexico that killed so many people and destroyed countless buildings and homes.  The fires in California that has caused so much displacement; and just this past week the horrible mass shooting in Las Vegas by a strange man that killed 59 people including himself and wounded nearly 500 more.  There is no answer for this terrible shooting, no motive, no way to understand what was in the shooters mind.  We can only wonder and grieve.   

            In the wake of these awful things, there has been a tendency to add blame to the list of tragedies.  The mayor of San Juan has cried out for more help from the United States and has received criticism from the President.  Mr. Trump went on to tell us what a wonderful job that he has done to deal with what that island needed. He minimized the lack of timeliness in the efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico and took credit for a “tremendous job”.  

            When we look at the Las Vegas shooting, it is easy to find blame.  We certainly want to blame the shooter.  That is our first instinct; but there is a deeper place to look. We really need to find fault with ourselves.  We have created a gun culture in this country.  The Second Amendment to the Constitution speaks of being certain that we permit guns to be in the hands of our militia so that we can all be safe.  In recent years, that amendment’s words have been stretched and interpreted to permit anyone at all to possess a gun, even semi-automatic guns that only have one purpose, to kill people.  I remember NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre saying “what we need to take care of a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” With the probability that the shooter in Las Vegas had some mental issues and the fact that he was high in a hotel and certainly unavailable to anyone with a gun, I know that Mr. LaPierre’s comment has no meaning.  In addition, I’ve never been able to understand how a hunter would take an AK-47 into the woods to harvest a deer for the table, let alone one that has been modified to shoot like a machine gun.  That makes no sense at all.  If we want to assess blame for mass killings, the place to look in inside ourselves. 

            In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he speaks to them of his qualifications for receiving the love of God:  He was circumcised, is a Hebrew, a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church and blameless as to righteousness under the law. Yet he goes on to say that whatever gains that he has because of all of this, he has come to regard as loss because of the presence of Christ among us. Paul is eloquent in speaking about the presence of Jesus Christ in this world as the basis for all of us to be loved and understood by God.  It is not because of what it is that we have achieved, but what has been done for us by our Lord Jesus.  He says that he wants to know Christ completely, his sufferings and his death that he may obtain resurrection from death.  That is a powerful statement from a man who had achieved the highest rank among his fellow Hebrews.  He held the coats of the people who stoned Stephen, the first martyr.  He was on his way to Damascus to further persecute Christians when he was knocked to the ground, blinded and turned into a Christian himself.  Paul was not above assessing blame.  He blamed the Corinthian Christians for fighting among themselves; but this passage from Philippians reaches deep into his heart to show us his true religion.  He holds the Love of God as his highest goal, not perfection in his own life.  That is a lesson that we all need to hear in these difficult times if we are going to ever find resolution. 

            Whatever we decide to do about guns is important.  Blame is not helpful to a solution, it only complicates things.  Let’s lash out at the problem and find a way to get our gun problem in control.  It is possible if we can come together.       

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Depth of God's Love

   
            When we visited the Middle East, we were taken to a remarkable site in southern Jordan called Petra.  This was the home of a tribe of Arabs called the Nabataeans who raided the caravans of merchants who were going from Sheba to Israel.  It is a place with elaborate carvings on the mountains of Corinthian columns as the entry doors to tombs.  It has a long history.  It is also supposedly the place where Moses struck the rock and produced water for his hungry people when they had been in the desert for a long time without water. We rode down into the place on the backs of donkeys and saw the beauty of Petra from the beginning.  It was great to see such a place and it gave me a sense that God is continually present in this world, even when we aren’t very aware of that presence.

            One of the things that amazed me at Petra was the Kodak signs that adorned some of the tables of the people trying to sell things to the tourists.  Petra is one of the most popular tourist sites in Jordan and the local residents make some money selling souvenirs to the people who visit.  Petra also was a place with an elaborate water system, which helped the original residents of the place to fill their needs, which reflects Moses ability to strike the rock and receive water for the use of his people who were very thirsty.

            Our guide for this trip was Nancy Lapp, a retired archeologist who explored many sites all over the Middle East with her husband Paul.  She taught us a great deal about the places that we visited and about the religion that we all professed.  I thank God to this day that we had that trip and that we learned so much from visiting those remarkable places described in scripture that we read about all the time.

            Even though I had had a seminary education, being in the geographical presence of the places described in scripture had great meaning for me.  To travel from Galilee to Jerusalem and to see Nazareth and Bethlehem made a great difference for my education.  I was able to better understand what was said in the gospels and in Paul’s letters because of these travels. 

            Jesus came to us to teach us the extreme love of God.  He spent his time with us contradicting the religious leaders who constantly argued with him.  He told a great parable to show them the extreme of their religion.  He offered the story of the vineyard owner who had two sons.  He asked the first to go and to work in the vineyard and he refused, but later changed his mind and went.  The second son said that he would go and work, but didn’t go.  Jesus asked the leaders which of the sons obeyed the will of the father.  They correctly said that it was the first son.  Jesus said to them that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go into the kingdom of heaven before them because John came full of righteousness and told them about God and they didn’t believe him; but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.  Jesus went on to say that even when you saw it, you didn’t change your minds and believe him. 

            Jesus was telling these leaders about the difficulty that so many humans have with understanding the reality of the Kingdom of God.  This was certainly proved out in the arrest, condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus for again telling all of them the reality of what God has in mind for humanity.  God bless us when we believe and know that Jesus’ teaching was real for all of us in this world, and what our God wants for us all is our presence beside him in his Kingdom.

            Going to the Middle East helped me with this.  I was able to see the vastness of God’s work in this world and appreciate how deeply humanity has been loved through the ages.