Friday, February 26, 2016
Before going to
business, a man drove his Rolls-Royce to a downtown New York City bank and went
in to ask for a loan of $5,000. The loan
officer asked if he had collateral. The
man replied, "Here are the keys to my Rolls-Royce." The surprised loan officer had the car driven
into the bank's underground parking for safe-keeping and gave him $5,000.
One week later, the man walked through the bank's doors and asked to settle up his loan and get his car back. "That will be $5,000 in principal and $15.40 in interest," the loan officer said. The man wrote out a check and started to walk away. "Wait sir," the loan officer said. "While you were gone, I found out you're a millionaire. Why in the world would you need to borrow $5,000?" The man smiled. "Where else could I safely park my Rolls-Royce in
for one week and only pay $15.40?" Manhattan
Yes, in this life it doesn't hurt be clever, to be adroit, to be shrewd, to be on guard. We are wary of scams today, like identity theft scams, telephone scams, internet investment scams, lottery scams, credit card scams, vacation/holiday trip scams and elder abuse swindles. Have you ever been the victim of a scam? I have. You feel like a fool.
In our lesson from Matthew, Jesus calls the twelve disciples together to send them out on a mission in the world. To prepare them, Jesus gives them a pep talk, but unlike any pep talk I've heard before. It's not “Come on guys, you can do it, I'm with you, your the best, your the greatest, get out there and give it your all.” It's more like a reality check, a sober warning about their future. Jesus says: “I’m sending you out just like sheep among wolves. So be wise as snakes and gentle as doves.” Other translations read: “Be shrewd or cautious as snakes and innocent as doves.” “Beware! Be vigilant! Watch out! Keep your wits about you! Be kind! Be gentle, keep your eyes open and don't be led astray.”
Jesus juxtaposes snakes and doves and exhorts his followers to imitate them. A cute little gentle warm dove and a cold blooded reptile. Anyone here like snakes? A snake is not exactly a warm-fuzzy figure of speech. I want you disciples to be like snakes and doves. I don't know if Jesus could have found a more striking contrast in metaphors. Boxer Muhammad Ali used to say: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Similar figures of speech don't you think?
Jesus says: “I’m sending you out into a dangerous world. You are like sheep among wolves.” Jesus is being realistic, not pessimistic. He knew his followers would be persecuted in his name. He knew people would try to fool and deceive them. He knew they would be harassed by political and religious leaders. He knew they would be condemned by people. He knew that they would face spiritual warfare from Satan. He deeply loved the disciples. He had trained them for three years. He had traveled with them from town to town. He wanted to give them a sobering picture of what they would face in their mission.
It reminds me of when we went white water river rafting in CO. You first sign a release on your life. The guide then gathers the group together and spends ten minutes telling you of all the dangers you could face on the river, like crashing into huge boulders, large branches that can tear into your raft, getting caught in floating debris and being pulled under your raft, being thrown out of the raft and drowning and then she would say: “OK is everyone already for an adventure?”
What is Jesus saying? Strike a balance in your Christian faith and life. Strive to find that balance. It's a worthy goal. And this takes time, it takes experiences, it takes spiritual maturity. Finding that balance is a mark of spiritual maturity. It takes prayer, turning to God, asking God to help you find that balance in terms of how you deal with people. A balance between wisdom and compassion, between using cold hard logic and being gentle, between your brain and your heart, in order to accomplish God’s purpose in your life. Jesus is saying walk the line between the two extremes of being a snake and a dove. Both are necessary in life.
Jesus is further saying examine your own life. Where are you too much like a snake and not enough like a dove? Where are you too much like a dove and not enough like a snake? If you only act like a snake toward others what’s the problem? You will become cynical, closed-minded and not trust anyone. You will become unfeeling and lack empathy. You will be constantly on guard and wary, ready to pounce on someone if you feel they are a threat. You will become hard and unmerciful so that you won’t be an effective witness to Jesus.
But if you only act like an innocent dove toward others, you will be gullible, naïve, easily taken advantage of and fooled by people. You will lose respect and you won’t be an effective witness to Christ. You must have tough minds and tender hearts. How is your mind? How is your heart?
We encounter perplexing and complicated challenges today and the right decision is not always clear. We meet all kinds of people, moral and immoral, in this life and we must make judgments about them. I remember Judi Hauser informing our Women’s Association of the latest scam toward the elderly. The phone rings: “Hi, grandma, this is your grandson, I’m in trouble, please send me a check.” Except it isn't your grandson. Texans have a saying when someone tries to pull a fast one and sneak something by them: "This ain't my first rodeo."
Do Jesus' words apply today? Clearly they do. There are people who will use or abuse you, or prey upon you or manipulate you or deceive you. Don’t be gullible or fooled. On the other hand there are people in genuine need of our Christ-centered kindness and mercy and generosity and gentleness as well. Jesus is saying when you follow me, you must embody these antitheses in your life – be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.
Jesus' words apply to me. I recall some years ago when Nancy and I invested some money into a real estate project. I spoke to the CEO who told me he was a former Lutheran pastor, that we would get a good return on our investment, that there was nothing to worry about and that we would be receiving monthly dividends. When no checks came I tried to reach him but he was always out and never returned my phone calls. I finally spoke to a lawyer in my congregation. He asked: “Did you vet him? Did you research him and his company?” I said “No, he told me he was a former Lutheran pastor and that was enough for me.” My lawyer friend shook his head and said, “Alan, stick to pastoring and preaching, why didn't you call me, from now on get my advice before you do any more investing.” I felt like a fool.
Jesus' words apply to grandparents. I recall when our 2 &1/2 year old grandson Wyatt said, “Grampa, let's race.” I said, “OK. Wyatt.” He said: “I'll count to three and then run.” He counted to three and I started running. I looked to my side and didn't see him, so I looked behind me, and there he was looking back at me, laughing and running in the opposite direction. He had tricked grampa. I learned about that little guy that day. I was a little wiser.
Jesus' words apply to parents. Being a parent is a rewarding and joyful role and a responsible and demanding one. Don’t let pride keep you from asking others for advice or help on occasion. Be wise in setting and holding to boundaries, persevere in disciplining when needed and holding kids accountable, so they learn responsibility and respect and consequences. Be constant in loving and encouraging, in being patient and compassionate. Be devoted despite the culture, to raising them in the Lord, and in imparting to them your values, convictions and faith.
Jesus words apply to children. It's sad but necessary to teach our children to be careful and not to talk to strangers. We send children mixed messages and yet we must - to trust people and not to trust people. Why? There are unscrupulous folks who count on our gullibility, on our credulousness, who bet on the chance that we will believe their false story and trust them. But on the other hand, as parents, we want our children to grow to be confident, self-assured, kind, courageous and willing to try new things, we don't want our children to be afraid of everyone and everything.
Jesus words apply to young people. Unquestionably, peer pressure is a reality. Peer pressure can be positive or negative. Peer pressure for sports or academic excellence or school activities or church or family or following Jesus is one thing. Pressure to do get involved with drugs, smoking, drinking, sex, cheating, not studying, dropping out of school, vandalism, gangs is something else.
Young people need to be wise and turn away from peer pressure which run counter to their basic faith and values? They need the wisdom to ask for help or support from parents or adults whom they trust. They need the faith to go to God for guidance and strength.
Jesus says to all who follow Him: “Be wise in your Christian witness.” Be of good courage. Stand up for Jesus. Speak up for Jesus. Look for opportunities to pray or say a word about your faith. But when you witness and when you serve, do it with kindness, humility, gentleness, and compassion.
Jesus demonstrated a tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness throughout his ministry. He traveled to villages healing people racked with disease and sickness. Jesus said to the crowd who were about to stone a woman caught in adultery, and were quoting from the Law, “Let anyone among you who has not sinned cast the first stone.” And one by one, people in the crowd left. Then Jesus said to the woman: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one sir.” And Jesus said: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again.”
Jesus' teaching applies to your families, your friends, your colleagues and neighbors. When we can no longer feel the pain of others, when we are no longer moved by human suffering because we have grown callous and hard our own humanity is at stake. And we need to repent and pray to God to warm our hearts and help us feel once again and be able to show tenderness so Christ can use us for His glory.
A woman wrote about being visited by a Christian friend: “You come to me, one who is hurting; you help to soothe my pain. You comfort me, feelings not skirting, and help me make issues plain. You bend to me the helpful, listening ear, confusion flees as birds. You help me make my many thoughts clear by your reflective words. When I faced a very difficult woe, it helped knowing you cared. Your fine encouragement helped me grow as love with me you shared. When I was in the middle of grief, you weren’t ashamed of tears. You gave me such relief and helped release my fears. Your kindness was shown, for through you came advice from God above. You gave honor to God’s holy name and showed me God’s great love. You brought a blessing to this my place. God worked in me through you. I am saved entirely by his grace, and he has made me new.”
Where in your life do you need to be wise? Where in your life do you need to be gentle? A French Philosopher said: “No one is strong, unless he bears within his character antitheses strongly marked.” Pray for God‘s blessing to find that balance in your life, so you can be an effective witness to Jesus Christ in your mission. Amen!
Friday, February 12, 2016
I called my bank the other day. Here is the gist of the conversation:
“Hello, this is your automated customer service center. To continue this message in English, press 1, in Spanish, press 2. I punched 1. Please punch in your account number on your touch tone phone. I punched. Thank you. For account balance verification, please punch 1. To make a withdrawal, please punch 2. To question a charge, please punch 3. To apply for a credit increase, please punch 4. To speak with a customer service representative, please punch 5. To hear these instructions repeated, please punch 6. I punched 5. Thank you.
To speak with a representative about additional features of your card, please punch 1. To report a lost or stolen card, please punch 2. To speak with a representative about any other problem, please punch 3. I punched 1. Thank you. I'm sorry, our office is currently closed. Please call back during normal business hours.”
I pray God's office isn't closed. I pray this is not how it is when we go to God in prayer. No, I know it isn't. In fact, God our creator and Lord is proactive and reaches out to us in the course of our lives on earth.
In this light, let’s turn to our morning story which portrays a profound event in the life of Jesus’ and his disciples: the indescribable, the ineffable moment of Jesus’ transfiguration. Think, aren’t there moments in your life which are explainable? Extraordinary moments. We have difficulty putting them into words. Have you ever experienced such a time?
The joy at the birth of a child is one of those moments. The loss of a loved one is one of those moments. A brilliant sunset or sunrise is one of those moments. An early morning walk along the beach or in the mountains can be such a moment. Having your soul stirred by uplifting music is one of those moments. A moving worship service is one of those moments. When your child says “I love you” and wraps his or her arms around you is one of those moments. There are mountaintop and valley moments throughout life. They often surprise us. They arrive unannounced and change us in irreversible ways. They often move us to silence. Such moments touch the depth of our souls.
Our story from Matthew's Gospel is one such time. Jesus leads his disciples Peter, James and John to a high mountain. And once there, Jesus is suddenly transfigured before them; his face shines like the sun, his clothes become dazzling white, his appearance is radiant. Moses and Elijah suddenly appear and are talking with Jesus. Peter is awestruck and says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Well I should say so. He was in the company of two former Jewish superstars. Moses, the great leader who led the Israelites out of slavery in
Egypt and brought God’s 10
Commandments to them and the prophet powerful Elijah, who with God’s power
defeated the false prophets of Baal and ascended to heaven in a chariot of
fire. These are two giants in Israel’s
Peter, understandably, wanted this magical moment to last forever. He offers to build three booths - one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Realizing they are standing on holy ground the disciples fall to their knees in awe. Then the story says: “A voice said, this is my Son, whom I love. With him, I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
What does this story say to you? I think it says God on occasion, leads us to high mountains. Jesus reveals special experiences from time to time, because we need moments of ecstasy in our spiritual life. I know I do. Life can be devastating. Life can threaten to crush us. Life can be frightening. We need mountain top moments that engulf us. We need glory moments, transcendent moments, special moments in which we sense the holy presence of God. We are created by God to live in fellowship with him and God knows we need such special times, sacred moments, along our spiritual journey.
Our story says that God speaks, God communicates with his people! God spoke that day on the mountaintop and the undeniable implication is that God continues to speak to believers today. A young mother writes: “My 3-year-old son, Ian, enjoys the Bible story about Samuel hearing God's voice at night. One evening after reading the story to Ian, I asked him if God had ever spoken to him. To my surprise, he answered, "Yes." "What did God say to you?" I asked. Ian thought and then said in his deepest voice, "Ian! Go to bed!" That explained why Ian settles down more quickly when I'm outside his room and tell him to go to bed.”
Scripture tells of how God spoke to Elijah in a cave out in the middle of the wilderness, not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in a still small voice. Other translations say - “God spoke in a gentle whisper, in the sound of sheer silence.”
God is either alive or God is dead. Our Easter faith announces that God is alive. God loves us with a passionate and unconditional love and reaches out and intervenes in our lives. Scripture says: “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
A Christian writes: “I knew that it was God speaking to me because I was in tune with my inner spirit and my spirit suddenly became light. Years of heaviness were lifted from me. I heard God’s forgiving and accepting voice. A new yet wobbly courage started to live in me, and I became comfortable in my own skin, in my own circumstances. I felt safe and certain and grateful. Nothing around me had changed, but everything was different. I knew it was God’s voice speaking because I could smile once again.”
Second, the story of the transfiguration says this – listen! Why should you and I listen to Jesus? Because God commands it: “This is my Son, whom I love. With him, I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus is the way out of darkness into the light. Jesus is the way out of despair to hope. Jesus is the way out of fear to courage. Jesus is the way to discover purpose and meaning. Jesus is the way into the
. Jesus is lord over all other rulers and
authorities in the world. Christ is the
Head of the Church and is present in both Word and Spirit. Kingdom of God
We should listen to Jesus in prayer, in worship, in meditation, in the teachings of the Bible, through the words of other trusted believers, because Jesus sees things about our lives that we don't see. Because Jesus is concerned about the life you and I are leading.
When artist Sir James Thornhill was painting the inside of
St Paul's Cathedral, he
began walking backward to get a better view of his work. As he inched back, his left foot stood just
on the edge of the scaffold, and he was in danger of falling and breaking his
neck. His helper, instead of screaming
at him, took a brush, quickly dipped it in the paint, and splashed it on the
wall. The artist rushed forward to
reprimand his helper, but when the helper explained his action, Thornhill was
exceedingly grateful. The helper saw
something Thornhill did not see. There
are elements in life that Christ sees that we do not. So we need to go to him, to spend time with
him, to listen to Jesus.
This coming Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our journey through the season of Lent. Keep alert, keep your eyes and ears, your heart and mind open, for you never know when the Lord will lead you to a high mountain. Amen!
Friday, February 5, 2016
Ruby Bridges Hall is an American activist. She is known for being the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in
Louisiana in the late 1950's.
A federal judge had ordered
New Orleans to open its public schools to
African-American children. The white
parents decided that if black children were allowed to attend, they would keep
their children out. The white parents
also let it be known that any black children who came to school would be in for
trouble. So the black children stayed home too. Ruby's parents sent her to school all by
herself at six years old. Every morning
she walked alone through a heckling crowd to an empty school. White people
lined up on both sides of the way and shook their fists at her. But every morning at ten minutes to eight,
Ruby walked, head up, eyes ahead, straight through the mob; two U.S. marshals
walked ahead of her and two walked behind her.
She was the only student who spent the day with her teachers inside that
big school building.
Professor Robert Coles was curious about what went into the making of courageous children like Ruby Bridges. He talked to Ruby's mother, who said: "There's a lot of people who talk about doing good, and a lot of people who argue about what's good and what's not good," but then there are other folks who "just put their lives on the line for what's right."
Which leads to our theme this morning about being a good person, about righteousness. Do we need more goodness and kindness in our world? Do we need more honesty, integrity and morality in the world? Is the pope Catholic? What parent does not worry about her child being bullied or kidnapped? Who does not grieve the tragic deaths caused by drunk drivers? Are we not horrified by stories of greed, corruption or evil, like shooting massacres in schools or movie theaters or in the workplace?
Question - are human beings born good? Is human nature basically good? You might think – well of course, look at a beautiful, sweet, helpless, darling little baby. Conversely are human beings born bad? Is human nature intrinsically bad? How would you answer the question?
Let's look at this question biblically. The Bible does not say human beings are born good; that human nature is basically good. Neither does the Bible also does not say human beings are born bad; that human nature is basically bad. The bible says human beings are born sinners. I refer to the story in Genesis of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. This story is not only about Adam and Eve, it’s a story about humanity; it's a universal story, it's your story and my story. Adam and Eve were created good by God, but then came the fall, which affected all humanity from that day forth; the fall from grace, the fall from God, the fall from goodness. Because of their sin of disobeying God, Genesis says: “The Lord God sent them from the Garden of Eden, God drove them out of the garden.”
Biblically human beings are born as sinners, self-centered rather than God centered, separated from God, in a wrong relationship with God. This is the result of sin. Sinners are capable of being good or bad, of doing good or committing evil.
That's of course why God sent Jesus into the world. God sent Jesus to save sinners, to make us right with God, to bring us back into a right relationship with God. And that act of redemption included instilling in us goodness, righteousness. The Holy Spirit came to change our nature, to transform us, to make us holy, to sanctify us, so that we would become more and more like Jesus himself in our innermost being and outward behavior.
Here's the argument. If human beings are basically good, then logically, we must blame our family, blame society, blame our race, blame our nationality, blame our environment, when we choose to do bad things. We are not really personally responsible. If people are basically good, then you don’t have to teach children morality and respecting authority and obeying the rules, about not cheating and lying and stealing. Why? As they grow they will naturally by their nature become good persons. If people are basically good, they don’t need rules and laws to control their behavior, they will naturally by their nature follow the rules and be good citizens. If human nature is basically good, we don't need the Bible or God or Jesus, because our nature will direct us to always do the right thing.
But if we are born sinners, we human beings need help, we really need to learn and internalize this elemental teaching of Jesus. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” A modern day interpreter put it this way: “Treat other people exactly as you would like to be treated by them.” We of course know this as the Golden Rule. Just imagine what a different world we would live in if everyone followed this single profound rule.
The Golden Rule was not original to Jesus. A Gentile asked a first century Rabbi, Rabbi Shammai, to teach him the whole law while standing on one foot. Rabbi Shammai replied: “Do not do to others what you would not have others do to you.” The man was so impressed that he asked to become a student of the Rabbi. Other Rabbi’s in Jesus’ day taught: “Whatever is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor.”
The Jewish rule was stated in the negative. Jesus re-stated this rule in the positive. This was Jesus’ original contribution. The old rule is basically passive, “don’t do this, don't do that.” Jesus’ rule is active, “do this, do that.” In other words, the old rule can be kept by not hurting another human being. Jesus’ moral ethic summons his followers to be active; to take the initiative, to be pro-active, to do something positive toward others.
Yes, both perspectives are essential in the moral life. Both the positive and negative have merit. They constitute the Judeo/Christian ethic. We think of the 10 Commandments for example – don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t bear false witness. And now comes Jesus rule – do unto others. These are two biblical perspectives on goodness, on righteousness. They both are saying – God created us to be good and Jesus teaches you to be good, to do good, to be righteous in your life.
Radio talk show host Dennis Praeger, a practicing Jew, said: “A lot of people feel that if you don’t rob or don’t kill you are a good person. That’s not true. If you don’t rob and you don’t kill you’re not a good person, you’re just not a criminal. In order to be a good person, you have to do something positive.” Do you agree?
Does the golden rule still have authority today? Do people still try to follow it as a basic moral guide for their lives? I don’t know, I’m just asking questions. The Golden Rule summed up the law and expressed Jesus’ passion for righteous living, for good behavior among his followers. Jesus taught by word and example that his followers are to be good people. Are we as Jesus followers passionate about leading good, moral and righteous lives today? Are we passionate about teaching goodness to our children and grandchildren? Are we passionate about promoting righteousness in our society?
Doing good, shows our love, our obedience and respect for God. It shows we live under God's authority. It is a crucial witness to others. People are far more apt to see Jesus in you and me, to hear Jesus in you and me, if they see us leading righteous lives.
It is inspiring when we see examples of people living righteous lives. I remember some years ago when I was in
Philadelphia. I had gone to visit the Philadelphia Museum
of Art. In front of the museum was a
large gathering of mothers. There were
posters and pictures, gospel music playing, prayers spoken, reporters, booths,
people giving speeches. It was a swirl
of activity. Then I saw shoes lined up
in rows on the steps leading up to the museum.
It turns out that these hundreds of shoes belonged to the sons and
daughters of these mothers who had been killed in violence on the streets of Philadelphia over the
past few years. The moms and dads were
speaking out against inner-city gang violence and drugs. They were grieving the loss of their own
children, and seeking answers to trying to curb the violence and loss of these
young lives. Through tears and
witnessing, they were striving to make a difference in their city.
Why aren’t more people involved in promoting goodness? For many reasons. Some people have become cynical. Why should I be good and follow the rules? No one else does. You can’t get ahead if you’re honest. Only fools and losers play by the rules? And then there is moral relativism, which claims there are no longer any moral absolutes, no longer absolute distinctions between right and wrong. What may be wrong in one context might be right in another context. And there is the universal reality of selfishness, self-absorption, self-centeredness. People lack empathy and sympathy toward others.
Further there is fear. People are afraid to take a stand for righteousness. You may be filled with righteous indignation about some issue. But it’s risky confronting or speaking out against corruption. It’s uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst.
Jesus says: “Do unto others!” Stand up against evil, do the right thing even if it’s difficult, treat others with respect, love your neighbor, sacrifice for a just cause, act fairly and kindly. It may mean buying lunch for a police officer or firefighter, or serving at Sunday Night Ministry and providing meals for homeless people, or bringing a homebound member to church or visiting one of our homebound members or going out to pick up trash on the beach or going out on Graffiti Day to clean up gang signs around our city. It may mean giving someone the benefit a doubt instead of immediately condemning them. It may mean insuring that someone has due process.
Jesus says - “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” This is not a quid pro quo - you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. It's not making deals. Jesus says think how you want to be treated and treat others the same way. Love your neighbor as you love yourself, speak the truth in love, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, pray for your enemy, etc.
Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a committed Christian, coined the phrase “Reverence for Life.” He writes: “While making a difficult 160 mile trip on a small steamer up an African river in 1915, at the very moment when at sunset we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase Reverence for Life. It means that life itself is sacred and our duty is to cherish it. Life is a great gift that needs to be treasured and respected. It includes love and appreciation for life, for God, for other people and the desire to serve them, for all living things, for beauty in nature, and honesty and integrity in all things. The more we have a reverence for life, the more life becomes richer and more beautiful.”
I like what we read in I John: “Little children let us love not in word or speech but in truth and action. All who obey his commandments abide in him and he abides in them. And by this we know that He abides in us by the Spirit that He has given us.” We are able to overcome sin, we are able to do good, we are able to lead righteous lives, because of the forgiving grace of God and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.
Philosopher Edmund Burke wrote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The prophet Micah summed it up well: “God has told you O mortal what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Where in your life is Jesus calling you to put the golden rule into practice?