Monday, September 18, 2017

Who Are You In Charge Of, Anyway?

"Who Are You In Charge Of, Anyway?"
Romans 14:1-12 (The Message)

Quick.  Think of one person, right now, you want to change or are trying to change.

My guess is that a majority of you thought of your spouse.  If there is anyone people are most likely to make a project out of, it's a spouse.  "I know he or she is not perfect," people think to themselves (or say out loud to a friend), "but I know I can change him or her."  And usually that's when the resistance sets in.  Anytime anyone feels like someone is making them their pet project, they begin building walls of self-protection.  Which then ramps up the activity of the one who is working the project.

In the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin is continually trying to change his father into the father of his own image.  Here are a couple of cartoons of how Calvin is working his "Dad Project:"



Why are we always trying to turn someone else into our project?  Why do we think we should be in charge of someone else's life—or maybe a lot of someone else's—that we think we know better how they should be living their lives?  It's a bit arrogant, isn't it?  And usually a waste of time.

In these words from Paul towards the end of his letter to the Romans, he gives us four reasons why we should not be wasting our time trying to make someone else our pet project.

First, Paul says in verse one, "…they have their own history to deal with."

Here's what that means to me.  Life is about stories.  We each have our own.  We are not living another person's story, nor is anyone living ours.  Other people might be characters in our stories, and we can allow that to happen or not to happen.  But others, who are characters in our story, should not become our own story.  That is how we build and hold on to our individuality—by writing our own story.

History is the past.  History is the story we have already written in our lives that we can not go back and rewrite.  It has been lived.  It is done.

But with the past, it is not just the events of our past that influence us and make up our history.  It is also the meanings we have placed on those events.  What they mean to us and for us.  Someone else may look at our past and the meanings we put on those events and say, "That's not what that experience meant; instead it should mean this."  Or they may try to tell us, "This event really has more, or different, meanings than you put on it."  Others may try to force us rewrite, reshape, or "remean" our past, but ultimately it is our past, our history, our meanings.

And the little word "own" in this verse intrigued me.  "…they have their own history to deal with."  There are two meanings for the word own.  The first is like when we want to get across the sense of our own individuality—our singularity.

And the other sense of the word own has to do with letting others know this is mine.  "I own this."  So when you think of it, everyone owns their singular history.  No one else owns it, or gets to take it over for their own purposes.  You own it.  Or, because you own it, you can choose to get rid of your history.  What does that mean?

You can try to cut yourself off from your past.
You can try to rewrite your past.  That is, choose new meanings for the events of your past.
Or, you can start a new future that is not a part of the stream of your past.

But the point is, as Paul wrote, everyone has a history, and it is their own history, and we are not in charge of anyone's history but our own.

Secondly, Paul wrote in verse five, "…each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience…"

The context here has to do with holy days.  There seemed to be two streams of thought amongst the Christians here.  One, there are holy days, special days set apart for specific celebrations.  The other camp was that all days are holy.

Take our celebrations of Christmas and Easter, for example.  Christmas is based on the solar calendar and the Winter Solstice.  So it is the same day every year.  Easter is based on the lunar calendar and thus moves around to different dates.  Why isn't Easter like Christmas in that it's the same date every year?  And based on some of the details in the Christmas story, Jesus' birth probably happened in the Springtime.  Neither are the authentic dates of Jesus' birth or Resurrection.  So they are holy days to Christians because of what we celebrate, not because of an actual date.

But to others, every day should be a celebration of the Resurrection.  Every day is a new day to be alive, to celebrate the new life we have in Christ, to take each day as a day to be reborn and renewed.  Every new morning is to remember that first Easter morning and what Christ did for us in walking out of that tomb reborn.  Alive from death.

Who’s to say which of these perspectives is the right one?  Is it not a matter of conscience, as Paul wrote?  Is it not a privilege of personal perspective?  Who are we to judge what a person is supposed to believe in these kinds of matters?  What if it is not a matter of either/or but both/and?

Thirdly, Paul wrote in verse seven, "It is God we are answerable to."  We are not each other's master.  Only God gets to do that.  The context has to do with coming to the Lord's Table.  Paul accuses the Roman Christians of interfering with God's welcome to the table.

One of our beliefs that I cherish the most is that we celebrate what's called the open table.  That is, we do not say you have to have certain qualifications to come to the Table and take Communion.  This is the Lord's Table.  How can we refuse anyone who feels the urge and prompting of God to come to this table and accept the bread and the cup?  The invitation is for God to make, not ours.  If you sense God's invitation to come, come!  You are not answerable to the church at this table—or for anything for that matter.  We are only answerable to God in all things.

To make that point even further, Paul wrote that there will come the day when all of us will be "…kneeling side-by-side..facing God."  Notice Paul says we will all be kneeling.  It is not that some will be standing, as if they are better than.

Kneeling has to do with humility.  Humility is the only way to come into God's presence.  Remember Jesus' parable of the praying Pharisee and the praying tax collector?  The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself.  The tax collector knelt in the corner, beat his chest in abject humility while he prayed to God.  All those listening to Jesus' parable would have thought to themselves the Pharisee's prayer, both the words and the posture, were magnificent.  But Jesus said it was the tax collector, kneeling in the corner who went home accepted and embraced by God, not the Pharisee.

God is the one we are answerable to and God alone.  We do not get to have that kind of sway over another person's life either through judgement or praise.

And lastly, Paul says we should not make another person our project because, "You've got your hands full just taking care of your own life before God" (verse 12).  Ain't that the truth!

Notice, Paul wrote, "…your own life before God."  Not just your life, but how your life is "before God."  We need to realize taking care of our own life before God is a full-time, 24/7, everyday job.  So, if you have any time free from that task, you are not living correctly.  If you are not dealing with yourself before God, all the time, and using up your time trying to run other people's lives, you are doing it wrong.

It is not just about trying to manage other people's lives all the time.  It is also making the false assumption you know what is best for others and running their lives accordingly.  Which always ends up not working out very well.  The only one you are in charge of is yourself.  And as Paul wrote, that should be your full time project, making sure your life is completely before God.

If you allow others to live their lives before God, in God's ways, and taking care of your own life before God, then living becomes about celebrating—celebrating what God is doing in and with each of our lives, because that is what is more important.  Life is not about making someone else your project, molding them into your image, but instead giving that task over to God, trusting God to work as God wills, and then celebrating what God does in each of us, for each of us.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Getting Along

"Getting Along"
Matthew 18:12-20

Probably my all time favorite cartoon is Calvin and Hobbes.  One of Calvin’s main antagonists is the bully Moe.









Frame 1:  Calvin is swinging on the playground swing; Moe comes up to him and says, “Get off the swing, Twinky;”
Calvin replies, “Forget it, Moe.  Wait your turn.”
Frame 2:  Moe punches Calvin clear off the swing, and out of his shoes.
Frame 3:  Calvin is laying in a dazed heap, and says to himself, “It’s hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightening.”

It is hard to get along with some people, isn’t it.  It seems conflict and fractured relationships are the norm.  Isn’t it interesting that Jesus assumes that people, including his followers, will hurt each other.  And Jesus assumes that the road back towards friendship between those who hurt each other may not be easy.  He assumes that even wave upon wave of attempts still may not bring healing to the broken relationship.

Jesus knows us so well.  He knows we are divisive, over-sensitive, bickering, petty, angry, contentious, broken people who act way below our God given humanity.  But by giving a way to reconcile and move toward friendship he also knows we have such a great potential to be healers, empathetic and sympathetic, forgiving, grace-full and understanding people who can act according to our God given humanity.  What makes us Christian is not whether or not we fight, disagree, or wound each other, but how we go about addressing and resolving that hurt.

The famous pop artist Andy Warhol decided to spend most of his time watching TV instead of developing relationships.  He equated relationships with pain, so he reasoned that if he had very few relationships, he’d have little pain.  “You can only be hurt if you care a lot,” he said.  Which is a sad way to live.

So, in Jesus’ words, “If a fellow believer (brother, RSV) hurts you...” assumes that the reason you are hurting is because you care a lot about that person.  We don’t get hurt, as Andy Warhol discovered, as deeply by those we don’t care about.  If the used car salesman lies to you about the engine of the car you bought, you may get angry but you’re not likely to be personally hurt.  But if your spouse comes home at 3 a.m. and lies to you about where they have been and what they have been up to, that’s another matter.

In Jesus’ statement the other person is a fellow follower of Christ.  Do we make the assumption in the church that other believers won’t hurt us?  Are we shocked more when another Christian does us harm?  Yet, by saying this, what does Jesus assume will happen in Christian communities?  Jesus doesn’t assume we will all magically (or in a Christ-like way) get along in the church.  We are people, and whenever people get together, Christian or not, there is the possibility that feelings will get hurt.

The reason I included the verses about the lost sheep, is because I think they help create the context of what Jesus is telling us.  That context is about a broken community.  The middle eastern interpretation of the parable of the lost sheep, and why the shepherd goes after the one leaving the 99 is different from ours.  We concentrate on the worth and value of the individual.  That is the American way—the emphasis being on the individual rather than the value of community.  The middle eastern people look at this parable and see the importance of keeping the 100 whole and together.  When one breaks away, for whatever reason, all suffer a lack of wholeness, until that lost one is restored to the whole.

So it is with the fellow believer who hurts you.  It is not just about you and the other person.  The whole community of believers is affected.  To restore relationship and friendship of the hurt individuals is to restore the relationship of all.  Conflict between two people in a congregation or community not only affects the individuals involved but infects the entire community.  If we are the body of Christ, as Paul taught, any disunity between a few, in reality, is the disunity of all.

Often, it comes down to a matter of deciding what’s more important:  winning and being right; or, the health of the relationship.  And just as often, that may be a process not of looking out and pointing the finger at someone else, but looking inside yourself.

Eugene Peterson, translator of The Message Bible, has written a number of books.  One of those is Under The Unpredictable Plant.  In that book he writes about Jonah, and how the book of Jonah is descriptive of our times and our lives.  Do you remember the place at the end of the Jonah story where Jonah is sitting on the hillside waiting for God to incinerate Nineveh (just like Calvin waited for Moe to get incinerated).  But it doesn’t happen because God showed mercy.  This is what Peterson says about Jonah, who went ballistic at God:
What anger fails to do, though, is tell us whether the wrong is outside us or inside us.  We usually begin by assuming that the wrong is outside us--our spouse, or our child, or our neighbor, or our God has done something wrong and we are angry...But when we track the anger carefully, we often find it leads to a wrong within us--wrong information, inadequate understanding, underdeveloped heart.  (page 157)

If Peterson is right, maybe our major, and most important work is not resolving the conflict and tension with someone else, but resolving all the conflict within ourselves.

For example, Henri Nouwen, another of my favorite Christian spiritual writers talks a lot about loneliness and how it is at the heart of a lot of our broken relationships.  His sense is that we all have this inner loneliness, and we carry with that loneliness an expectation that some other person is supposed to make us happy and take that loneliness away.  That expectation puts too much weight on the relationship, especially when the other doesn’t fully take our loneliness away.  Or worse, makes us feel more lonely than before.  We then spin off all kinds of anxiety, creating fractures in our relationships, and the problem isn’t other people.  It’s our own inner loneliness and the expectations it creates that is driving our anxiety and the divisions that anxiety creates.  Ironically, the very thing we desire--closeness and an end to loneliness--gets tragically broken and pushed away.


So, let’s look at Jesus’ way of handling those times when relationships get fractured and how he suggests we handle it.

First, he says go one on one.  I think it’s interesting that Jesus says that the one who is hurt, not the one who did the hurting, should make the first move.  We, if we are hurt, are more comfortable just sitting and sulking, letting our hurt simmer.  Letting it stew.  Maybe that’s the very reason Jesus said that the one hurt should make the first move.  So they don’t let their wounds grow bigger than they really are.

“If he listens...” Jesus says.  What is he listening to?  Your hurt.  Your pain.  How you are feeling.  Your sense of what happened.  The main objective is not blaming, but listening.  It’s not about forming your next rebuttal while the other is talking.  The offending one is the one who is supposed to listen.  It is the offended one who is the one who gets to talk.  The main goal, in Jesus’ words, of this listening is “making a friend” (“gained your brother,” RSV).

For Jesus, mending brokenness, becoming friends, is a deep part of the Christian spiritual life.  Remember when he said, in the “Sermon on the Mount,” if you are at the altar, ready to offer your gift, and you realize that someone has something against you, what are you supposed to do?  You’re supposed to leave your gift there, go make things right with that person, then come back and offer your gift.  For Jesus, mending broken relationships is just as important (maybe more important) than worship.  Or that mending broken relationships is part of your act of worship.  Because how can you worship fully with anxiety and hurt in your heart?  How can you approach worship with a heart loaded down with bitterness?

So, a primary step in creating depth and health in one’s soul, and life in worship, is measured by our willingness and ability to approach someone we are at odds with, one-on-one, and create friendship.

This is not an easy thing to do.  I was reading an article on the Psychology Today website recently.  The name of the article was, “Words That Wound.”  The article outlined some of the ingredients necessary when you are talking to someone else about your sense of being hurt, and coming to understanding and friendship.

The first ingredient in working towards understanding is how accurately you interpret what the other person is saying.  Emphasis is on the word interpret.  It’s not about what you say, but about how closely you interpret what the other means when they are talking.  Often it isn’t what the other person is saying that gets our knickers in a twist, but our interpretation of what they are saying.  What we think they are meaning.  In order for there to be understanding, we need to check out our interpretations with the other person.  “Is this what you mean when you say that?”

Secondly, understanding grows when each person has the ability to be able to predict the impact of your own words.  Again, it’s not about what you say, but knowing as accurately as possible how what YOU say will impact the listener.  How well are you tracking with THEIR feelings, and how much do you care about their feelings?

The final ingredient in communicating with someone after being hurt is called “interpersonal cognitive complexity.”  That’s a mouthful.  What that is about is your ability to be able to express your feelings while at the same time having the ability to be able to process social cues (body language, tone, etc.) accurately.  If I’m talking to (someone in the congregation) and while talking to her, I touch her shoulder, she has to interpret my touch accurately.  She has to decide, “Is Steve being caring or is he coming on to me?”  Some people don’t interpret those kinds of social cues well, and it causes fractures in their relationships.

But when you look at those three ingredients, they are very complex pieces of how healing can happen and relationships restored to a level of friendship.  That’s why the one-on-one piece of Jesus’ advice is so difficult and probably why he suggested the next strategy:  “If he won’t listen, take one or two others...keep things honest and try again.”

Jesus understands if you just put two people in a room and think they can reconcile their hurt, may be unrealistic for every case.  Too often we are either unwilling or unable to heal our situations.  Thus all the “judge” shows on TV these days.  Isn’t it weird that we have turned our broken friendship pain into entertainment?

At this point, things have either hit an impasse, or they have escalated.  There is no detail given by Jesus about what these others, who are dragged into the conflict are supposed to do.  Maybe there were some traditionally Jewish rules of being a go-between amongst people in conflict.  But nothing like that is detailed here by Jesus.

There’s a certain wisdom about NOT putting yourself in the middle of other people’s conflicts.  You have to watch out not to get triangled with you at one point, and the other parties at the other points of the triangle.  The one in the middle always gets squashed by the other two sides.  If you find yourself in the middle, trying to be a go-between, it’s best to promote straight line communication.  No bank shot communication off of someone but directed towards someone else.  That only creates more layers of misinterpretations and misguided meanings.

Get the two conflicting sides together, rather than relay ping pong messages back and forth.    It’s important that they be together and talk to each other.  The go-between doesn’t take sides, but instead uses the tools I mentioned in the one-on-one strategy to help create understanding that can lead to friendship.  As Jesus said, keep things honest and keep trying rather than throwing your hands up and giving up.

Lastly, Jesus says, if listening still doesn’t happen, “tell the church.”  Bring the whole community in on it.  By “the church” Jesus means the congregation.  It’s interesting, and telling to me, that in speaking about moving two people from hostility to friendship, Jesus didn’t go any further than the local congregation.  It tells me that Jesus trusted the more immediate people involved, rather than taking the conflict to a group or a committee, or a level outside (above) the local congregation.

So, the question is, how would you feel about listening to and helping resolve a squabble between people as a congregation, if it came to that?


Jesus closes out his comments with an oft quoted statement:  “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  That comment of Jesus is usually quoted when talking about praying or worshipping.  But do you see what he was really getting at in the context of his teaching about reconciling friends?  “When two or three come together (that is come together out of hostility and back into friendship) I am there.”  When people get together and resolve their issues, that’s an indication of the presence of the Lord.

Conflict resolution isn’t about a contest of wills or posturing.  It should be about taking responsibility, making sure we are listening as well as we can, elevating the value of the relationship to a place of higher importance than winning or even pushing what we think is the truth.  It isn’t about judging and disciplining.  It’s about reconciliation.  It’s about coming together, healing our broken relationships with ourselves and others, and then celebrating the presence of Christ when that happens.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Why Must God Be Shouted At?

"Why Must God Be Shouted At?
Exodus 3:1-10


Why does God wait so long?

The Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt for nearly 430 years.  How many of those years had they been wailing to God under the weight of cruel taskmasters?  We look back at the marks of Egyptian civilization:  the Pyramids of Egypt; the Sphinx; great aqueducts; temples and tombs; all of which we now gaze upon, trying to piece together the mystery of how such feats of architecture and engineering could have been accomplished.  Little do we think of the human cost behind the "edifice complex" of those architects and Pharaohs.  People who were pressed into cruel servitude, paying the price with their own blood, under conditions in which even animals were treated better.

We may not be as bothered by that thought if those pressed into slavery were hardened criminals, or the dregs of society, non-productive types who were wasting their lives anyway.  But these were God's own people—God's Chosen.  These were God's Elect, subjected to an ancient gulag that could rival any of those in our day.  For over 400 years, their one, unison cry was for rescue and justice.  400 years is a long time.

Terrance De Pres has written a book titled, The Survivor: An Anatomy Of Life In The Death Camps.  It is an extremely graphic examination of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, weaving the memories of survivors together, trying to find common threads.  In the introduction of his book, Des Pres wrote:
My subject is survival, the capacity of men and women to live beneath the pressure of protracted crisis, to sustain terrible damage in mind and body and yet in those circumstances, remain sane, alive, still human. … Unavoidably, a spectacle of death and mutilation opens upon us, and an endless silent scream rising to a sky forever heedless of (people's) anguish (page v).

In the first Holocaust, in Pharaoh's Egypt, how many of God's people raised their voices to God, and only found "…a sky forever heedless of (people's) anguish."  It is a question that I have heard asked time and time again, by people who may not be slaves to Pharaoh, but they are under severe stress and oppression none the less.

But our question here must be asked a shade differently.  Because our question, arising from Moses' call and the Exodus, is not, "Why does God refuse to act?"  Which is Des Pres' question.  God eventually does act.  God calls Moses from tending his father-in-laws sheep, to herding a people through the wilderness of Sinai, away from oppression, toward freedom.

Instead, our question has to do with the "eventually" of God's actions.  Why does God delay, when it is already too late for some?  How many lives were lost in Egypt?  How many backs were scared?  How many bodies were permanently crippled?  How many spirits were broken?  How many, before God rescued God's people?  In the Nazi version of the Holocaust, over 6 million died before rescue came.

In the parable of the corrupt judge and the widow, even Jesus recognizes God's justice will come, but there is a delay—people still "…cry to God day and night."  In the final book of the Bible, describing the final days of God's recreation of the world, the souls of the believers who had been martyred sit in heaven waiting for God to mete out justice, and exterminate those who had cruelly killed them.  They literally shout at God, from the foot of God's altar in heaven, demanding to know when the persecutors will get theirs.

Why must God be shouted at?  Why must we be plagued with the question of, "How will I know if God will come to my rescue in time?"  How long must I endure?  How loud and long must I shout, before God will pay attention to my situation and "come down and rescue"?

I ask these questions delicately, not to disturb your faith, but only to face a hard reality that many people have shed tears about and lost lives over.  They are not easy questions to ask, nor are they easy to answer.  In my mind, I have run through all the trite answers that people give to such questions, and I have found them wanting.  There are two possible—I don't wish to call them answers—let us just call them "ponderings" that might be of help here.


The first is, to our modern day oppressions, whatever they may be for us individually, we do not fully realize what strength we have, what resources we have at our disposal, apart from God—qualities God has given us by which we might endure.

When I was playing basketball in college, our coach had his doctorate in kinesiology.  He knew everything there was to know about muscles.  All we knew was they ached after every practice.  The coach would push us and push us to levels of development we had no idea existed; but he did.  He knew the resources of the muscle system, and what kind of athlete they could produce.  There was a great amount of aches and pains in the production of those abilities.  We could not argue with the guy, or whine and complain because he was the one with the Ph.D.  The point is, we didn't realize the resourcefulness and possibility for strength that we had until we were pushed.

For some, who are enduring hardships on many levels, God may be slow in coming because God knows we have resources we have not even tapped yet.  Or we are willing to try.  We are not willing to push ourselves to a limit of endurance we do not know exists.

I counseled a young man one time whose main quality of life was despair.  Nothing was going right and his life was circling the drain.  At least in his own eyes.  From my perspective, he had great potential for success, and many things to his advantage.  I tried to point that out to him.  I gave him several specific suggestions about what he could do to pull himself out of his swirling problems.  But each time he came back at me with some lame excuse as to why this or that suggestion would not work.  Yet, in the midst of his struggle, he demanded to know what God was doing all this time—if God had taken a vacation from watching over him.  This young man's final solution to some of his financial woes was to bet on the dog races and hope for the big payoff.  I'm sure you can surmise how well that went.

I think one part of the reason God appears slow in coming to the rescue is that, for many of us, we have not begun to exhaust our options.  We have not exerted enough of our own God given energy.  As John Paul Jones' infamous battle cry goes, "We have not yet begun to fight!"  There are some people who are derailed by the smallest of woes, and to them God might be saying, "You are not to the point of needing Me yet."


My other pondering about the apparent lateness of God's rescue is a thought that dovetails with the one I just offered.  God took the initiative to rescue the people from Egyptian servitude.  But how does God do it?  Through the man, Moses.  "Now I am sending YOU to the king of Egypt so that YOU can lead my people out of that country."  God works through willing (and sometimes, unwilling) people.

I suppose God could have beamed the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, a la Star Trek, and then beamed them down into the promised land.  But that is not how God chose to work.  Instead, God has consistently chosen people to carry out the details of God's plans of salvation, all the way to the Cross and beyond.

I ask myself, How many people walked past the burning bush before Moses came along, noticed, and approached?  How many saw the bush, approached, heard the details of God's mission, and refused?  Because Moses could have refused.  We have to understand that he had that power to say "No" to God.  He tried.  But he went anyway.

The truth is, most forms of people's oppressions can be dealt with through others who are willing to respond to God's initiatives, are willing to get involved, take risks—some of them great—and be part of God's rescue  operation.

The issue, then, is not God's slowness in responding.  Instead, in terms of the people of Israel, God may have been trying to bring about a rescue for 400+ years, but no one was willing to cooperate with God's plans.  It is not so much God's problem, then, as it is ours.

How many people do you know who are really hurting?  Maybe you think they are hurting in some way, but you are not sure, and have not checked your assumptions out.  Think of those people for a moment.  Bring them to a conscious picture in your mind.  What kind of oppression are they under?  What kind of rescue are they crying out for?  What is the level of their suffering?  What kind of slave drivers are lashing their whips across their backs?  Most importantly, though, what are you doing about it?  How are you responding to God, allowing God to rescue them through you?

"I just do not want to get involved."
"I don't know what one person can do."
"It is too risky."
"They do not want my help."
"There is so much pain there; I know that if I get involved, I might end up hurting, too."
And so go many other such rationalizations rattled off in Moses-like fashion.  As we speak our rationalizations, good people continue to be oppressed.

But is not that the real question here—the real issue?  By our inaction, we allow human suffering and injustice not only locally, but on a global scale.  Instead of taking action against others injustice and cruelty, we simply get used to it, fooling ourselves into thinking it is all just a part of life.  And, if it is ever to go away, then God needs to wave God's magic wand and make it disappear.  And where is that God, anyway?  It's all up to God.

Gordon Stofer and I chat every other week or so.  He watches the news.  I read the news on the internet.  We are both upset and frustrated with the world.  Alan Luttrell does not even watch the news anymore, it gets so upsetting.  After about an hour of this, Gordon and I come to the conclusion the world/our culture is totally screwed up and fatally broken.  In the end, we try to think of something funny, so we can laugh and go our way.  But it is messed up out there.  Every level of government has totally lost its way.  People continue to commit heinous crimes against innocents.  In too many countries there are no-brain demagogues with their finger on the button of mutually assured destruction.

It is more than we can take, and we throw our hands up and give up.  How little we think that we are God's agents of change in this world we find ourselves—that we are never to get used to the world the way it is, but to be willing to get our hands dirty in the work of relieving people's oppression.  We may not be called to free the Israelites, but we might be called to take a risk and relieve the suffering of a neighbor, to fight injustice and prejudice in some small way, so that someone might say, "God has come to rescue me, and God has done it through you."

It must be terribly frustrating for God to work rescue in this way.  For in so doing, there is the waiting.  The waiting that someone will come along and see the bush that is burning, someone who is willing to respond to God's bidding.  Certainly we have heard it said, or maybe said it ourselves, "Why doesn't somebody do something!?"  How many times a day must God utter those same words, as cruelties mount up, and we allow them to do so.

Why must God be shouted at?  Why does God delay?  God is probably wondering the same thing about us.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Why Must God Be Shouted At?

"Why Must God Be Shouted At?"
Exodus 3:1-10

Why does God wait so long?

The Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt for nearly 430 years.  How many of those years had they been wailing to God under the weight of cruel taskmasters?  We look back at the marks of Egyptian civilization:  the Pyramids of Egypt; the Sphinx; great aqueducts; temples and tombs; all of which we now gaze upon, trying to piece together the mystery of how such feats of architecture and engineering could have been accomplished.  Little do we think of the human cost behind the "edifice complex" of those architects and Pharaohs.  People who were pressed into cruel servitude, paying the price with their own blood, under conditions in which even animals were treated better.

We may not be as bothered by that thought if those pressed into slavery were hardened criminals, or the dregs of society, non-productive types who were wasting their lives anyway.  But these were God's own people—God's Chosen.  These were God's Elect, subjected to an ancient gulag that could rival any of those in our day.  For over 400 years, their one, unison cry was for rescue and justice.  400 years is a long time.

Terrance De Pres has written a book titled, The Survivor: An Anatomy Of Life In The Death Camps.  It is an extremely graphic examination of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, weaving the memories of survivors together, trying to find common threads.  In the introduction of his book, Des Pres wrote:
My subject is survival, the capacity of men and women to live beneath the pressure of protracted crisis, to sustain terrible damage in mind and body and yet in those circumstances, remain sane, alive, still human. … Unavoidably, a spectacle of death and mutilation opens upon us, and an endless silent scream rising to a sky forever heedless of (people's) anguish (page v).

In the first Holocaust, in Pharaoh's Egypt, how many of God's people raised their voices to God, and only found "…a sky forever heedless of (people's) anguish."  It is a question that I have heard asked time and time again, by people who may not be slaves to Pharaoh, but they are under severe stress and oppression none the less.

But our question here must be asked a shade differently.  Because our question, arising from Moses' call and the Exodus, is not, "Why does God refuse to act?"  Which is Des Pres' question.  God eventually does act.  God calls Moses from tending his father-in-laws sheep, to herding a people through the wilderness of Sinai, away from oppression, toward freedom.

Instead, our question has to do with the "eventually" of God's actions.  Why does God delay, when it is already too late for some?  How many lives were lost in Egypt?  How many backs were scared?  How many bodies were permanently crippled?  How many spirits were broken?  How many, before God rescued God's people?  In the Nazi version of the Holocaust, over 6 million died before rescue came.

In the parable of the corrupt judge and the widow, even Jesus recognizes God's justice will come, but there is a delay—people still "…cry to God day and night."  In the final book of the Bible, describing the final days of God's recreation of the world, the souls of the believers who had been martyred sit in heaven waiting for God to mete out justice, and exterminate those who had cruelly killed them.  They literally shout at God, from the foot of God's altar in heaven, demanding to know when the persecutors will get theirs.

Why must God be shouted at?  Why must we be plagued with the question of, "How will I know if God will come to my rescue in time?"  How long must I endure?  How loud and long must I shout, before God will pay attention to my situation and "come down and rescue"?

I ask these questions delicately, not to disturb your faith, but only to face a hard reality that many people have shed tears about and lost lives over.  They are not easy questions to ask, nor are they easy to answer.  In my mind, I have run through all the trite answers that people give to such questions, and I have found them wanting.  There are two possible—I don't wish to call them answers—let us just call them "ponderings" that might be of help here.


The first is, to our modern day oppressions, whatever they may be for us individually, we do not fully realize what strength we have, what resources we have at our disposal, apart from God—qualities God has given us by which we might endure.

When I was playing basketball in college, our coach had his doctorate in kinesiology.  He knew everything there was to know about muscles.  All we knew was they ached after every practice.  The coach would push us and push us to levels of development we had no idea existed; but he did.  He knew the resources of the muscle system, and what kind of athlete they could produce.  There was a great amount of aches and pains in the production of those abilities.  We could not argue with the guy, or whine and complain because he was the one with the Ph.D.  The point is, we didn't realize the resourcefulness and possibility for strength that we had until we were pushed.

For some, who are enduring hardships on many levels, God may be slow in coming because God knows we have resources we have not even tapped yet.  Or we are willing to try.  We are not willing to push ourselves to a limit of endurance we do not know exists.

I counseled a young man one time whose main quality of life was despair.  Nothing was going right and his life was circling the drain.  At least in his own eyes.  From my perspective, he had great potential for success, and many things to his advantage.  I tried to point that out to him.  I gave him several specific suggestions about what he could do to pull himself out of his swirling problems.  But each time he came back at me with some lame excuse as to why this or that suggestion would not work.  Yet, in the midst of his struggle, he demanded to know what God was doing all this time—if God had taken a vacation from watching over him.  This young man's final solution to some of his financial woes was to bet on the dog races and hope for the big payoff.  I'm sure you can surmise how well that went.

I think one part of the reason God appears slow in coming to the rescue is that, for many of us, we have not begun to exhaust our options.  We have not exerted enough of our own God given energy.  As John Paul Jones' infamous battle cry goes, "We have not yet begun to fight!"  There are some people who are derailed by the smallest of woes, and to them God might be saying, "You are not to the point of needing Me yet."


My other pondering about the apparent lateness of God's rescue is a thought that dovetails with the one I just offered.  God took the initiative to rescue the people from Egyptian servitude.  But how does God do it?  Through the man, Moses.  "Now I am sending YOU to the king of Egypt so that YOU can lead my people out of that country."  God works through willing (and sometimes, unwilling) people.

I suppose God could have beamed the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, a la Star Trek, and then beamed them down into the promised land.  But that is not how God chose to work.  Instead, God has consistently chosen people to carry out the details of God's plans of salvation, all the way to the Cross and beyond.

I ask myself, How many people walked past the burning bush before Moses came along, noticed, and approached?  How many saw the bush, approached, heard the details of God's mission, and refused?  Because Moses could have refused.  We have to understand that he had that power to say "No" to God.  He tried.  But he went anyway.

The truth is, most forms of people's oppressions can be dealt with through others who are willing to respond to God's initiatives, are willing to get involved, take risks—some of them great—and be part of God's rescue  operation.

The issue, then, is not God's slowness in responding.  Instead, in terms of the people of Israel, God may have been trying to bring about a rescue for 400+ years, but no one was willing to cooperate with God's plans.  It is not so much God's problem, then, as it is ours.

How many people do you know who are really hurting?  Maybe you think they are hurting in some way, but you are not sure, and have not checked your assumptions out.  Think of those people for a moment.  Bring them to a conscious picture in your mind.  What kind of oppression are they under?  What kind of rescue are they crying out for?  What is the level of their suffering?  What kind of slave drivers are lashing their whips across their backs?  Most importantly, though, what are you doing about it?  How are you responding to God, allowing God to rescue them through you?

"I just do not want to get involved."
"I don't know what one person can do."
"It is too risky."
"They do not want my help."
"There is so much pain there; I know that if I get involved, I might end up hurting, too."
And so go many other such rationalizations rattled off in Moses-like fashion.  As we speak our rationalizations, good people continue to be oppressed.

But is not that the real question here—the real issue?  By our inaction, we allow human suffering and injustice not only locally, but on a global scale.  Instead of taking action against others injustice and cruelty, we simply get used to it, fooling ourselves into thinking it is all just a part of life.  And, if it is ever to go away, then God needs to wave God's magic wand and make it disappear.  And where is that God, anyway?  It's all up to God.

Gordon Stofer and I chat every other week or so.  He watches the news.  I read the news on the internet.  We are both upset and frustrated with the world.  Alan Luttrell does not even watch the news anymore, it gets so upsetting.  After about an hour of this, Gordon and I come to the conclusion the world/our culture is totally screwed up and fatally broken.  In the end, we try to think of something funny, so we can laugh and go our way.  But it is messed up out there.  Every level of government has totally lost its way.  People continue to commit heinous crimes against innocents.  In too many countries there are no-brain demagogues with their finger on the button of mutually assured destruction.

It is more than we can take, and we throw our hands up and give up.  How little we think that we are God's agents of change in this world we find ourselves—that we are never to get used to the world the way it is, but to be willing to get our hands dirty in the work of relieving people's oppression.  We may not be called to free the Israelites, but we might be called to take a risk and relieve the suffering of a neighbor, to fight injustice and prejudice in some small way, so that someone might say, "God has come to rescue me, and God has done it through you."

It must be terribly frustrating for God to work rescue in this way.  For in so doing, there is the waiting.  The waiting that someone will come along and see the bush that is burning, someone who is willing to respond to God's bidding.  Certainly we have heard it said, or maybe said it ourselves, "Why doesn't somebody do something!?"  How many times a day must God utter those same words, as cruelties mount up, and we allow them to do so.

Why must God be shouted at?  Why does God delay?  God is probably wondering the same thing about us.


(If you want to talk back to me about this sermon, join our adult class at CREW, Wednesday night.)

Monday, August 28, 2017

Who Was That Masked Man?

"Who Was That Masked Man?
Matthew 16:13-20

Comedienne Lily Tomlin once said, "I've always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific."  Funny.  But nonetheless true.  Too many people have not been specific enough about the somebody they've always wanted to be.  Too many settle for something less than they should or could have been.  Or chase after being someone that just doesn't fit who they really are.

And some, in the pursuit of becoming that somebody, lose sight of who or what that is.  In a biography of the actor Peter Sellers titled, The Mask Behind the Mask, Peter Evans says that actor Peter Sellers played so many roles he sometimes was not sure of his own identity. Approached once by a fan who asked him, "Are you Peter Sellers?" Sellers answered briskly, "Not today," and walked on.

Don't you feel like that some days?  In the push and shove of life, some days our identity does get lost.  There are days our anger goes full flush and we lose who we are in that red, hot-faced state.  There are days we may be so depressed that self-identity is hard to come by at the bottom of that kind of well.  And there are days we are putting out so many fires, trying to take care of so many people's needs, we forget who we are and that we need to remember to take care of ourselves.

When we think of the identities we have, the kinds of persons we are, the kinds of people we think we are, we must realize that a good part of that identity is not of our own making.  That's often a painful realization especially in the teenage years.

What we soon realize is that others have just as big a part in shaping our identities as we do.  We may not want to admit that, but it is true.  Alistair Cooke was, prior to his death, best known in America as the stately host of the PBS show, "Masterpiece Theater."  But in his native England, Cooke's fame rested largely on his "Letter From America," a 15 minute essay broadcast weekly over BBC radio to more than one million Britons.  When asked hew he felt he was perceived by his two across-the-pond audiences, Cooke responded, "It's comical but true.  I seem to be seen in America as a benign old English gentleman, and in England as an enlightened American."

The point is, no matter how we think we really are, people will have their own perceptions, and act towards us according to those perceptions.  Montaigne once said that, "A man is hurt not so much by what happens as by others opinions of what happened."  That's the sad truth.

We can expand on that statement in terms of our identities.  A lot of times it is not so much who we are as it is people's opinions of who we are that shape our identities.  That's what Jesus is wrestling with in this story that was read from Matthew.  Jesus knew who He was.  But He is not sure anyone else does.  Other people seem to have charge of His reputation and identity through their opinions and conversations with each other.

Jesus can't find that out by Himself.  When people have opinions about others, that have to do with their perceptions of those others, the others are usually not in on those kinds of conversations.  We do not tell others, to their face, how we perceive them to be, what kind of person we see them to be.  We talk about those kinds of things behind others backs.  But Jesus has 12 spies—the disciples—who can infiltrate the crowds and find out what the people are saying about Jesus.

Jesus found out from his opinion poll taking disciples, that there are three general perceptions being held about him by people.  Everyone is looking at Jesus, but coming up with different perceptions.  Those visions of what kind of person they thought Jesus was were attached to two figures from the past history of the Jewish religion, and one who is a contemporary of Jesus.  All three were larger than life kinds of people.

They were Elijah, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist.  They were people who any of us would be proud to be associated with.  Certainly Jesus must have felt that way.  Or would he of?  Why did the people choose these three men around which to focus their perceptions of Jesus?  Why not Moses?  Or Abraham?  Or David?

There are interesting qualities of Elijah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist that may be coming into play from the people's perspective.  I want to highlight those qualities because I think they are still being used in our current evaluation of Jesus.

Let's look first at Jeremiah.  He was, without a doubt, one of Israel's greatest prophets.  He was a spokesman for God during some of the darkest hours in Israel's history.  But this opinion of Jeremiah is one gained looking back on things.  It is after the flow of history has shown us that what Jeremiah said was true, and came about, that we hold him up as a great voice of God.

But what is interesting, yet tragic, is that while Jeremiah was alive, and trying to be a faithful witness of God's word, not many paid attention to him.  And those who did, tried to avoid him.  He was imprisoned.  He was thrown down old wells and left to die in the mud.  But more importantly, no one took him, or his words, seriously.  He was ignored.  No one understood who he really was.  In the end, Jeremiah was stoned to death by his own people.

So, when people said they thought Jesus was another Jeremiah, are they really saying, "Here is a person who is fun to watch, but for the most part we can ignore"?  Are they saying, "His message is interesting, and he's a good storyteller, but we don't have to take him with much seriousness"?

That has to be the majority opinion of our modern, general population towards Jesus.  That Jeremiah overlay upon Jesus is the most prevalent today.  People, for the most part, just don't pay attention to Jesus.  He is not someone who is taken seriously in the modern flow of culture.  People listen to his words but go away as if they had been entertained rather than engrossed by them.  We hear what he says and live as we please.

"Who do people say that I am?" Jesus asked.
"Some say, 'Jeremiah.'" is the answer.

Others said Elijah.  Elijah's life provides some of the best reading in the Old Testament.  He was someone who had God's ear and spoke with God's voice, and summoned the very powers of God out of the sky.

He is reported to have never died.  When he was walking with his protege, Elisha, one day, this amazing fiery chariot appeared out of the sky, drove between Elijah and Elisha creating a whirlwind.  The whirlwind caught up Elijah and pulled him into heaven.

Because of that, the tradition was that Elijah would return to earth as a forerunner to the coming of the Messiah.  Elijah was to pave the way, and be the herald for the coming Savior of the world.

So when people looked at Jesus and perceived him to be Elijah, what they were saying was, "Yes, this guy is important, but he is not the Savior."  They were making the evaluation that Jesus did have some religious significance but that he was only the warm-up act for the real show.

It isn't hard to see the modern applications of that perception of Jesus.  Yes, Jesus is important as a moral teacher, as a spokesman for God, but He is not the great liberator of God, sent to save us from our maladjusted selves.  People can accept Jesus as a great man, but taking that next step of accepting Him as Peter did:  "…the Messiah, the Son of the Living God," that is the hard part.  We can accept Jesus as an Elijah; accepting Him as a Savior makes us squirm too much.

And again, who pays much attention to the warm-up act before the real show?  We paid our money to see the real thing, and if we can make Jesus out to be the warm-up act, then we don't have to take Him with much seriousness, and with only half our attention.

The last of the three people identified with Jesus was John the baptist.  One of the qualities of John the Baptist was shared by the other two men:  John really knew how to stick to his verbal guns.  He, like Jeremiah and Elijah, was fearlessly outspoken about what was right and wrong, what was a proper lifestyle and was not for the people of God, and would not back down on any of their words even if they were spoken against high and exalted rulers.  For Jesus to be associated with that kind of forthright speaking must have been a compliment.

But another quality that John shared with the other two men was that they were all a bit odd.  Their very message, and often the way it was delivered, put them at odds with the social and religious order of things.  Jeremiah walked the streets of Jerusalem bare naked with his arms tied to an ox yoke, and as he walked he would shout out, "As I am, so will Israel be when the Babylonians come in and destroy everything."

Elijah was the bi-polar figure who at his heights called down fire out of heaven and destroyed idol worshippers, and then would turn around and be found cowering and whimpering in a cave, all depressed thinking he was all alone in the world.  And John the baptist—I mean the guy dressed in these weird animal furs like a Neanderthal, and ate bugs for his food.

These guys aren't the kind of people you would invite over for a poker party or backyard barbecue.  We would look at these three and either say out loud, or at least think to ourselves, "He's not one of 'our' kinds of people."  They were strange.  They were odd.  They were non-establishment kinds of men.

The point should be clear.  For Jesus to be seen as a John the baptist, as an Elijah, or as a Jeremiah by the people of his day is to say, "Jesus is a little odd."  Being closely associated with Jesus may knock your social standing down a few notches, so it is something you better keep quiet about.

We steer clear of odd people.  Or we try to.  Like the guy who found a large, mangy looking mutt in his front yard.  On the collar of the dog was a note that read, "If found, don't bother to return."  That is the way it is with the John the baptist types we run into.  It is amazing who we must pass by each day.

In one of Kurt Vonnegut's short stories, he tells about two women.  One is a corporate executive, smartly dressed, driven to be the best, powerful.  The other woman is a bag lady, living in a cardboard box, apparently eking out a living from her collection held in her stolen shopping cart.  At the end of the story, you find out both women are the same woman.

It must be frustrating when you have a sense of your identity, who you are, what kind of person you are, what you are about, but other people, through their misguided perceptions take charge of your outward reputation.  When that happens, there has to be the wish, especially by Jesus in this case, that at least someone out there knows the real truth about who you are.  Someone who gets it.

And in respect to Jesus, the majority will come up wrong.  The majority will always be trying to figure out how to keep Jesus in safe categories, stuck with labels of impotence.

But there will always be a few, a minority, who will really see, who will through direct relationship, take the time and risk the effort to really know this Jesus, whom the world doesn't pay much attention to, treats him as only a warm-up to the real thing, or as a very odd, non-establishment sort of person.  There will be a few who will close their ears to hearsay and gossip, who will look beneath the surface, and discover the liberator, the Son of God.  Are you one of the few?

Monday, August 21, 2017

Breaking The Law

"Breaking The Law"
Matthew 15:1-20

A book titled, Odd Laws, has compiled laws that are still on the books in some states.  For instance,
In Oregon, it is illegal to hunt in cemeteries.  (You might accidentally kill a dead person!)
In New York it is illegal to arrest a dead person or charge them with some offense.
In Massachusetts it is illegal to sell exploding cigars.
In Tennessee, if you leave a person's gate open you can be fined up to $10.
Also, in Massachusetts, it is not legal to stable a horse on the second floor or higher of a building.  (But I guess it is OK to stable your horse if you are in a ground floor apartment.)
And, in Wyoming, it is the law that spittoons be emptied and cleaned daily.
In Lawrence, Kansas, all cars entering the city limits must first sound their horn to warn the horses of their arrival.
Also in Kansas, rabbits may not be shot from motorboats.

It seems there are laws for everything and every circumstance.  As I have just shown, a number of these laws were written to cover some offense that may have been important decades ago, but are not important anymore.  Yet they still remain in force.  And that is the question with these old laws:  who is going to enforce them?  I mean, are you going to put up a surveillance camera at your gate, if you lived in Tennessee, to see who leaves it open and should therefore be fined?

Should these antiquated and unnecessary laws be kept on the law books?  They are laws, after all.  But just because they are laws, does that make them sacrosanct, unalterable, and therefore unremovable?

A bigger, more philosophical question might be, Why do we need all these laws?  What really is the most important thing to remember behind all these laws?

And an even bigger question is, What does God really expect from us?  How does God really want us to be?  Does it matter to God if we break the law, and keep our horse in our third floor apartment?  Or if we do not clean our spittoon every day?  Or, as the Pharisees confronted Jesus that day, if we do not wash our hands properly?  What is most important to God?

Notice that in this conversation, Jesus ends up talking with three different groups of people.  First, Jesus talks with the Pharisees and Teachers who are concerned only with the fine nuances of the Law of Moses.

At this time, Jesus was in Gennesaret.  This delegation of Pharisees and Teachers of the Law of Moses came from Jerusalem.  It was an approximately 90 mile trip.  On foot, it would have taken 3 or 4 days.  On horseback, maybe a day and a half.

This was an investigative delegation, most surely sanctioned by the Sanhedrin, which was the main Jewish ruling council.  This wasn't a sympathetic delegation that was truly interested in Jesus.  Reading Jesus' words to them over and over, it is clear to me that his tone is one of exasperation and frustration.

Certainly Jesus must have been wondering why they came all that way, on foot, to ask him why his disciples don't wash their hands according to the Jewish religious traditions.  Why not a better or more profound question like, Will Wile E. Coyote ever catch the roadrunner?  Or, What is the meaning of life?  Or, Is there life on other planets?  Or, What does God really demand?

Instead, they ask the weighty question about hand washing.  Here is what the law required.  Jewish law requires that the water used for ritual washing be naturally pure, unused, not contain other substances, and not be discolored. The water also must be poured from a vessel as a human act—that is, the water can not flow out of a tap. Water should be poured on each hand at least twice. Contemporary practice is to pour water on each hand three times for most purposes using a cup, and alternating the hands between each occurrence.

But nothing is said about the towel used to dry your hands.  I'm not sure what is supposed to happen if, earlier in the day, unbeknownst to the adults, their kid came by and wiped his nose on the drying towel.  All that hand washing for nothing.

Notice, also, how the Pharisees qualified and substantiated how important it was to wash hands in this way:  “Why is it that your disciples disobey the teaching handed down by our ancestors?"  This is just another way of saying, "We have always done it this way."  To the Pharisees, the only reason hand washing is important is not for hygiene or some other logical reason.  It is only important because it was an ancestral law.  "We have done this for a long, long time."

Jesus' reply uses their rationale against them.  He questions their disobedience to a not long held tradition, but to God's law in the 10 Commandments.  Specifically, "Honor thy father and mother."  The Pharisees got around that Commandment in the following way.  It became Jewish tradition, according to this Commandment, that the children are to take care of their parents until they are dead and buried.  This means take care of them in every way, but most importantly, financially.

But the Pharisees got around that by saying they could dedicate their wealth to God and God's work, and thereby not have to be responsible to their mother and father financially.  They make an oath to God about what they do with their money, and an oath, according to Jewish law was irrevocable.  What the Pharisees had come up with was just traditional law based on one of the Ten Commandments, but the traditional teaching usurped and was given more weight than the commandment itself—which was from God.

So, what the Pharisees and Teachers of Jewish law were saying was, if you want God to like you, you better follow the rules and traditions that have been held on to for centuries.  But what Jesus was replying back to them was, If you want God to like you, if you really want to know what God expects, your heart and God's heart must beat as one, and your thoughts and God's thoughts better be in synch.


Next, the conversation shifts to the crowd.  In the previous chapter of Matthew, we find out that this crowd was made up of "all the sick" in that area, including those who carried or brought the sick.

Matthew says that Jesus called the crowd together.  In other words, he was very intentional in who he was addressing next.  He wanted them specifically to listen to what he had to say.

Most of those in the crowd, being sick, diseased, or touched such people would have been deemed "unclean" by the Pharisees.  Being unclean described, from the Old Testament times, a person or thing who contracted ritual "uncleanness" (or "impurity") from a variety of ways: by skin diseases, discharges of bodily fluids, touching something dead, or eating unclean foods.

An unclean person in general had to avoid that which was considered holy and take steps to return to a state of cleanness. Uncleanness placed a person in a "dangerous" condition under threat of divine retribution, even death, if the person approached the sanctuary. Uncleanness could lead to expulsion of the unclean person from the community. In order to avoid being expelled, the unclean person had to undergo purification.  Hand washing was one of the ways of purification—to become clean again.

Jesus, in one brief statement to the crowd, wipes away all Jewish traditional teaching about what is considered clean and unclean.  Because, as I just stated, the Jewish leaders used their traditional teachings about cleanness and uncleanness to keep people away from God.  Jesus would have none of it.

Hand washing, what you can eat or not eat, whether you have a physical malady or are healthy—all that doesn't matter anymore in the big scheme of things.  Those rules are simply externals.  As Jesus stated in verse 9, "…the (Pharisees) teach human rules as though they were my laws!’”  Jesus alone, as the Son of God, knows what God is and is not interested in.

This must have been great news to the sick and infirm, as well as to those who brought them.  According to Jesus' statement, now it is not a matter of formalistic legislation and tradition.  That is too easy.  Instead it is a matter of the heart:  to love and live with the unlovely and unloveable; to help the needy at the cost of one's own time, money and comfort; to forgive what we think is unforgivable.

What matters to God is not so much how we act, but why we act.  Jesus is saying the how will follow the why, once we get that right.  Legalism and keeping the law can not substitute for, or assume a relationship with God exists.  It just means you are following the prescribed laws and traditions.  And the opposite is also true, to the delight of the crowd:  neither can we assume that some physical or mental condition automatically excludes us from relationship with God.


Lastly, Jesus has a conversation with the disciples.  They were, especially Peter, worried about how Jesus had insulted and offended the Pharisees and Teachers of traditional law.  Instead of trying to patch things up with the Pharisees, to Peter's horror, Jesus insults them even more deeply, making his statement about the blind leading the blind so that both fall into the ditch.

One of my favorite Farside cartoons shows a posse with torches being lead by a bloodhound through a dark forrest.  The bloodhound is thinking to himself, I can't smell a darn thing."  It was evidently important to Jesus that those who are leading others, especially in terms of relationship with God, know where they are going.

The significant question here is, Who is Jesus' intended audience for his blind leading the blind statement?  The assumption is the Pharisees and Teachers.  That would be a safe assumption.  But what if Jesus was doing a bank shot off the Pharisees at his disciples?

Peter kind of gets that it was a bank shot statement.  He asked Jesus the meaning of the ditch parable.  What Peter is really asking: “Are we the ones you are talking about?  Are we the blind?  By taking sides with the Pharisee delegation about them being miffed, are we not understanding something significant here?  Are we, by being sympathetic to the Pharisee rule mongers, missing something important?”

Soon, Jesus will be turning the whole Gospel operation over to the disciples.  If they don't get grace, if they don't get what God is about in God's opened armed embrace of everyone, then they will only become blind guides, leading themselves and others into the ditch.  If they go the way of rules and judgement, of exclusion and hatred, and not love and grace, they will be failures in God's eyes.  Instead of what God wants from us, we will become the hate mongers, the divisive, the KKK, the white supremacists of Charlottesville.  The ditch, and not God, will become our future.


Jesus talked to three different crowds that day.  His message was the same to all of them.  Deciding who is in and who is out of the club is not the way of Jesus, and is not to be the way of Jesus' followers.  Making rules that exclude and demean others is not the way of Jesus or of his followers.  Majoring on the minors is not the way of Jesus or of his followers.  Those who push only the rules of exclusion are only demonstrating the truth that their hearts are empty of love as God loves.  That they have gotten something so basic and so Godly so wrong.  That they are in the ditch.  And the only way to get out of the ditch is to break the traditional laws of hate and exclusion.

Monday, August 14, 2017

If You Want To Walk On Water...

"If You Want To Walk On Water..."
Matthew 14:22-31

One time I was fishing with my Uncle Sonny in Puget Sound.  This one day we put the boat out from Neah Bay, which is on the tip of the peninsula on the state of Washington.  It's the place where Puget Sound, the watery gap between the peninsula of the state and the mainland of the state, meets the Pacific Ocean.

It's a much better ride in the boat if you can get positioned inside the Sound and away from the mouth of the peninsula where the Sound meets the open Pacific Ocean.  This day we were just inside the boundary waters of Puget Sound, but not far enough in.  We were fishing for King Salmon, fish that were as big as me at that time.

I actually hooked one that trip.  It jumped out of the water, full length, and Sonny gave out a shout.  I was pulling back on the pole as strongly as a kid could.  The pole was bent in a perfect letter C.  But it was hard to hold on, and it was hard to play that huge fish for one reason.  The swells.  The swells are huge rolling waves, and they were as high as a two story house.  The little boat would slide up to the top of a swell.  It seemed like we were on the top of the world.  Then we'd slide down the watery wall of that swell and I was afraid we were going to scrape the ocean bottom.

Up and down, and back and forth we'd go, me trying to hold on to the pole, as well as trying to hold down my breakfast.  It didn't take long for me to lose both.  The line snapped and I lost my King Salmon.  And with one more lurch of the boat on a swell, I hung over the side and lost my breakfast.  I drank a lot of ginger ale the rest of the day.  And as far as our fishing luck went, we never had another bite the rest of the day.


The disciples in the fishing boat maybe faced swells half the size Sonny and I rode that day.  They couldn't put up the sail, or the wind would have ripped it apart.  They were rowing.  Rowing on swells that were taking them up and down.  Rowing on whitecaps that were throwing water into the boat almost faster than they could bail it out.  It was not just a scary situation because they were hanging over the side seasick, with a storm blowing.  It was scary because they thought they were literally going to die.

Then, Jesus entered the scene.  Where had Jesus been?  He was at some lonely place praying.  When Jesus went into the wilderness of temptation, he prayed and fasted for 40 days, then the temptations started.  In the Gospel of Mark story of the healing of the demon possessed boy, the disciples asked why they couldn't force out the demon.  Jesus said it can happen only by prayer.  (Mark 9:14ff)  In this walking-on-the-water story, Jesus prayed and then faced the forces of chaos symbolized in the turbulent lake.  Jesus prepared himself to face all forms of chaos and evil in prayer.  Pray first, then stand up to the powers.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great preachers of any time, wrote a letter to a woman in Missouri who had recently had a nervous breakdown.  Fosdick himself had suffered such a breakdown.  Listen to what he wrote in his letter to this woman:
Just one thing more:  There are two techniques for living.  One is willpower and drive.  The other is inward receptivity and spiritual hospitality toward God.  I judge that you have excellent willpower and that you have relied on it, but now you face the baffling fact that in a nervous breakdown your willpower is sick.  What you try hard with has gone to pieces and the harder you try the worse off you are.  Let go and let God in.  You must work on that other technique—receptivity.  As all your physical strength comes not by willing it but by absorbing…so your spiritual strength comes by intake of inward hospitality towards God.

Jesus  was all about making that inward hospitality towards God his main priority.  It was from that absorption of God through prayer that gave him the strength to face all the chaos and evil he did.


This scene that Jesus entered, in this story, is a boat with twelve men scared stiff.  The boat was considerable distance from land.  Land represented safety, so the boat was nowhere near safety.

The boat and the disciples were probably far enough out on the lake that going back would have been just as far as going forward.  But going back would have been with the wind and a quicker journey to land and safety.  On land, they could wait until the storm blew by and then sail calmly to the other side.  Why did they keep rowing hopelessly, slowly, fearfully against the wind?

The story says the boat was being "pounded" (NIrV).  The word in Greek literally means, "tormented."  That speaks not to what was just happening to the boat by the wind and the waves, but also what was happening in the boat.  Everything about this scene speaks about torment, which describes an underlying chaotic and mindless evil at work.  It wasn't just bad weather.  It was something much more malevolent.


And the story tells us that when Jesus arrived on the lake it was "the fourth watch."  The daytime was split up into four watches, four quarterly segments.  The fourth watch was between 2 a.m. to sunrise in the morning.  If you are ever up at 3 or 4 a.m. and you're looking out your front window, what does the world look like at that time?  What kinds of feelings do you have when you're up alone at 3 a.m.?  Add that feeling to the rigors of rowing constantly against the storm and you'll have an inkling as to what the disciples are feeling.

This little detail about the watch lets us know how long the disciples have been in the boat.  Six to nine hours.  Six to nine hours!  On a calmer day they could have been back and forth on the lake at least a couple of times.

Having spent this amount of time on the lake, struggling against a foaming storm, it begs us ask the question, why didn't Jesus come sooner?  In the raising of Lazarus story (John 11) when Jesus heard about Lazarus being ill, instead of going immediately, he delayed for two days.

Then Lazarus died.  Both Lazarus' sisters, Mary and Martha, said to Jesus, "If you had been here our brother would not have died."  Both seem miffed at Jesus' supposed intentional delay.  Jesus told the disciples that he delayed so that they "may believe".

Doubting Thomas had to wait a week for the appearance of the Risen Christ.  So this part of the story makes us face the fact that Jesus did things according to his own timing—God's timing—when everything would be just right.  Even though the timing may not be best according to our own estimation.

It is into this scene that Jesus walked.  On the surface of Lake Galilee.  To a tormented boat, full of tormented disciples, on a tormented lake surface, Jesus walked.  Seeing Jesus, the disciples did what any self-respecting disciple would do—they all screamed like little girls thinking they were seeing a ghost.  Real people don't walk on water, especially when that water is one big storm.

But what other options would you have, looking at that figure out on the waves, if you were a disciple in the boat?  Is it a ghost or phantom?  A hallucination?  Or was it really Jesus?  We have to decide if the gospel writers knew what they were talking about or not, in writing this story down.  Either it happened or it was made up.  Those are the only two options open for us.

So if you think the gospel writers were on the up and up, then you have to ask the next question:  "Why?  Why did Jesus walk on water?  Was he just taking a short-cut home hoping the disciples wouldn't spot him?  Was he playing a prank on the disciples, hoping to scare them out of their tunics (which he pretty much did)?  Is this all just a bit of that Son of God sense of humor ("Ha ha; gotcha!  You all have to change your underwear, don't ya?").

Peter isn't sure.  Notice what he says to Jesus:  “Lord, is it you?  If it is…  "If."  Jesus must be standing still, on top of the water, some little distance from the boat, no longer coming toward the boat.  The only way to find out if it's really Jesus, within the bluster of the storm, is to get close to him.  The only way to get close to Jesus, to see for sure, is to get out of the boat and go see.  Jesus wasn't coming at them; they'd have to go to him.

No one in the boat is evidently rowing the boat toward Jesus either.  They want to know, but they don't want to know.  "Lord, is it you?  If it is, don't come to us; we'll send someone over to you.  Peter, go see if it's him!"  Because part of what's going on here is that if it really is Jesus then the disciples have to reevaluate who Jesus is in a major way.  Before, they may have thought he was a great guy who told fun little stories.  Now he's someone who walks on water in the middle of a storm.

Something else that's going on is that if you want to see Jesus, where do you have to go?  Not to some monastery where he's sitting in front of his prayer candle chanting scripture.  If Peter, or any of the other disciples want to see Jesus, to really see Jesus, they have to get out of the boat and step into the chaos.  They have to step out onto the deep, onto some place where they can get way over their heads very quickly.  They have to step out on the water, where everything is fluid, everything is moving, everything is not steady or solid.  They have to be willing to go into a chaotic world, not stay in the safety of the boat.

And when you realize that, when you ask Jesus if you can step out of the boat, move away from the safety of the church (if the boat represents the church), and you ask Jesus if you can come to him, out there, you better be ready for his answer.  To Peter, Jesus said, "Come."  Jesus didn't say, "No, no, no; that's OK Peter; I'll come to you and the others.  You guys just stay there in the safety of your little boat."  No.  Jesus said, "Come."  "Get out of the boat Peter."

And notice something else.  Jesus didn't promise Peter anything.  "It'll be fine.  Easy peasy.  C'mon Peter.  No problem."  Jesus simply says, "Come," then it's up to Peter to deal with his fears and see what the measure of his faith really is.

Mother Teresa told the story about a young French girl who came to Calcutta to work with the Sisters of Charity.  The girl looked worried.  She went to work in the home for the dying destitute.  Then, after ten days, she came to see Mother Teresa.  She hugged Mother Teresa and said, "I've found Jesus!"
Mother Teresa asked, "Where did you find Jesus?"
The girl responded, "In the home for dying destitutes."
"And what did you do after you found Him?"
"I went to confession and Holy Communion for the first time in fifteen years."
Then Mother Teresa asked, "What else did you do?"
"I sent my parents a telegram saying that I found Jesus."
Mother Teresa looked at her and said, "Now, pack up and go home.  Go home and give joy, love, and peace to your parents."  Then Mother Teresa wrote,
She went home radiating joy, because her heart was filled with joy; and what joy she brought her family!  For if we want others to become aware of the presence of Jesus, we must be the first ones convinced of it.

Peter steps out of the boat.  What's going through his mind?  What would be going through your mind, as you hoisted one foot and then the other over the side of the boat and stepped out on the raging surface.  Would you be asking yourself, "Can I do this?  Am I convinced of that?"

In order to get to the answer to that question, the only way you are going to find out is if you get out of the boat.  And you aren't going to get out of the boat unless you are convinced.  When I'm thinking about some huge project or challenge that I'm facing, I assess my own abilities and strengths.  I compare those assets to the challenge in front of me.  "Can I do it?"

That's what Peter did before and during the point he stepped out on the lake's surface.  He heard and felt the wind.  He took a bracing gulp as he felt the cold water on his feet.  But he also had to be measuring his own faith against the power of the waves.  He's being forced not only to see the waves; he's also seeing his answer to the question, "Can I do this?" and his answer is "No."  That's when he sinks.

If we're honest, that's most of our answers.  Most might risk getting out of the boat, but at the same time that voice in our heads is saying, "I can't do this."

And that's exactly what Jesus wants us to find out.  Focusing only on ourselves we are incapable of handling the chaos of the world.  We ask ourselves the question, "Can I do this?"  No, you can't.  But if you asked the right question, "Can WE (me and Jesus) do this?"  The answer is, Yes.

When Peter began to sink, the story tells us that "right away" Jesus reached out and grabbed Peter, keeping him from sinking.  To his credit, Peter walked out and got close enough to Jesus that Jesus could reach out to him.  Jesus' hand is always ready to catch those who risk coming out into the chaos of the world to meet him and do his bidding—even though we may get over our heads.

After Jesus grasps Peter they have a brief conversation.  "Why did you doubt?" Jesus asked.  The answer is fairly obvious, and Jesus wanted Peter to struggle with the answer.  Peter focused on the wrong question:  "What can I do?" rather than the right question:  "What can WE do?"  Peter focused on the storm and decided he wasn't going to measure up to that.  Had Peter kept his focus on Jesus, the storm wouldn't have mattered.  Peter was so close.

And here's a bit of a twist.  What if Jesus didn't ask his question to Peter, but to the disciples still inside the boat?  What if Jesus was asking why they doubted, and showed that doubt by not getting out of the boat as Peter did?  Then Jesus' question becomes our question—aimed at those who are too afraid or doubting to take their faith outside of the boat, outside the walls of the church, and into the chaos of the world.

Do you want to walk on water?  In other words, do you want to express your faith and not your doubt?  Do you want to be out there where Jesus is, even if it is a scary place to be?  Do you want to be more than yourself, and be that self with Jesus at your side as your strength?  If you want to walk on water, then you'll have to step out of the boat.