Lectionary Reflection: Hebrews 2: 10-18: Brothers and Sisters, Sons and Daughters

            So, Christmas is over.  The wrapping paper and stray boxes are all bagged and set out for the trash man.  The turkey and stuffing did its’ duty and stuffed whoever partook – mostly those who promptly fell asleep on the couches and chairs spread liberally around the television.  The tree is still lit, but if my wife had her way it would be taken down Christmas evening.  The frivolity is done, the joy is over, and the season of giving goes back in the box to await another year.  Time to get back to reality, the cold of winter, the day to day struggles of living.

            Aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents all go their way in a day or so.  Some visitors get tears when they go.  Some get a big sigh of relief, but they are family after all.  So now it is back to the immediate family that sticks around all year, going to school, working jobs, hanging out on the couch.  Well … Christmas is over, right?

            Wrong, actually.

            Christmas day is the first day of the Christmas season.  There are twelve days of Christmas altogether, like the song says.  Sunday, the 29th of December is actually the fifth day of Christmas.  So, have you got your five golden rings yet?  Well, I am sure they are in the mail.

            The Christmas season officially ends on January 6th.  That is the day of Epiphany, when the wise men came to visit, and in fact the visit may have been as much as a year later.  If you read the gospel lesson for the day (Matthew 2: 13-23), you will note that Herod ordered his soldiers to kill every boy two years old and younger; just to be sure he got the child who would be King.  Herod didn’t know the angels came and warned Joseph, so he took Jesus to Egypt to be safe. 

            But the point here is that Christmas is not over.  No, that does not mean we should turn our homes into the Holiday Inn Express for another 12 days.  It does not mean more shopping madness for hit or miss presents, or more cooking madness, or more turkey.  The turkey is endless after only one day.  We already face turkey sandwiches, hot turkey sandwiches, turkey casserole, turkey tetrazzini, turkey tacos and turkey a-la-king as it is.  No.  Instead, it means sharing the spirit of Christmas: peace on earth, good will toward all.  It means loving our family because they are, after all, family.  It means loving our friends and neighbors as ourselves, and considering the poor and needy, the homeless and heartbroken in the earth.  that Spirit of Christmas is not over.

            I was thinking there is a person in my neighborhood who did not appear to have anyone on Christmas.  Being alone is hard at all times, but especially at Christmas.  We need to remember the widows and orphans, and the widowers to be correct about it.  I was thinking of getting a small thing.  I have Christmas paper left.  I might wait until she goes out and then leave it on her front porch.  I could sign it, “From a Christian who is thinking of you this Christmas season and praying that your days may be blessed.”  A scarf or a pair of mittens would not cost much.  Maybe a calendar would do.  Even a left-over Christmas card would say I care.  That is what most people want and need.  Simply to know that someone cares.

            Christmas isn’t over.  We are only now in the middle of the season.  And that makes it a good time to share the message of peace on earth, good will, and love.

            I saw Scrooge this year.  How many of you saw some version of Dicken’s Christmas Carol?  I prefer the 1951 version that starred Alastair Sim, in black and white of course.  This year, there were two lines in particular that stood out in my mind. 

            The first, I am sure, is well known.  When being visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge implies that it is unfair that Jacob should be fettered with chains.  After all, he did nothing so wrong.  He was merely a good man of business.  Marley wails, a perfectly frighteningly wonderful ghostly wail, and then responds.  “Mankind was my business!”

            We know this, kind of instinctively.  Mankind is our business too.  The problem is, how do we work that out in a practical way?  All I can say is most of us honestly don’t do a very good job of it.  We pack up Christmas in many bags and boxes as soon as we can, and put away faith, hope and love, peace and good will, and the spirit of giving – all neatly tied up in a box and set back up on the shelf until next year.  Only the little children have the good sense to complain.  Little children say things like they wish every day was Christmas.

            But then, the second line that stood out to me might not be familiar to most people.  It was said by the Spirit of Christmas Present and might have zoomed by the casual watcher.  He said, “We spirits of Christmas do not live for only one day, but through all 365 days of our year; like the Christ child does not live one day, but every day in the hearts of men.” 

            So, we get to the point probably most of you knew I was headed for from the beginning.  I like the way Ronald Reagan said it: “Let us resolve to honor this spirit of Christmas and strive to keep it throughout the year.”  Christmas is not over.  It should never be over.  Love, joy and peace should be on the plate every time we sit down to eat, even if it is turkey meatballs.  Love joy and peace should be written into the things we need to do today.  Keep the spirit of Christmas alive.

            Now, I know for so many of us that might not be so easy.  Like the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life said, “This isn’t going to be so easy.”  Here, at last, we get to the passage in Hebrews and I think it is instructive for us, because he speaks or the reason Jesus was born in the manger, the son of Mary.  The reason for the season, if you will. 

            He begins by calling those in Christ sons and daughters of glory, made so by the suffering of Christ.  All those who are in Christ are the children of God.  That is you and me.  We are the children of glory, but then, of course, being sons and daughters makes us quite naturally brothers and sisters with Christ who is himself not at all ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.  So we are the children of glory, and also the family of God.

            Now, Christmas is a time for family, and even more than our immediate family, more than our flesh and blood family, it is a time for our church family, or what I prefer to call our real family.  We are the ones who were made a family by the one who was born in the manger.  We are all brothers and Sisters in Christ, and it is right that we should celebrate together.  The Christ of Christmas is our brother after all.

            An elder in a church got word once that a young member was in the lock-up, arrested for DUI.  After church, he sighed and said, “I suppose I better go down and bail him out.”  The man was no flesh and blood relation, so the person beside him asked a very logical, earthly question.

            “Why should you bail him out?  He’s a no good drunk and a bum.  You should let his family deal with him.”

            The elder looked at his companion.  “His family is dealing with him.  He is part of God’s family, our family here in the church.  Instead of criticizing him, we ought to be praying for him that he may have the good sense to seek the help he needs to work through and get over his problems.  But we are not going to abandon him just because he is presently full of sin.  Christ certainly did not abandon us just because we were full of sin.”

            We are family, the real, eternal family.  That means we are here all year long to help one another keep the spirit of Christmas alive all year long.  So you see, it something we do not have to do alone.  We are brothers and sisters, seated side by side every Sunday morning, sharing Christmas every Sunday morning.

            You know, there were time throughout history that Christians way back in the middle ages in Christian communities, and then after the reformation, Christians in various denominations called one another brother and sister.  Brother Bob and Sister Mary.  Sadly, after a generation, the meaning was lost and it became something of a title, like Doctor Jones or Reverend Smith or Brother Tom.  But at the beginning it was an expression of who the people were, family in Christ.  The family of God.  And like any family, we are supposed to be there to encourage one another in love and joy and peace; to hel0p one another, meet one another’s needs, and make sure no one is left out.

            You know, there are a lot of church traditions that many young people think of as silly and a bit strange.  We sing happy birthday to people, note anniversaries and remember those who have passed away.  We share the good things in our lives and also the troubles, and we pray for one another, for family members in need of prayer, and also for friends of the family, even if they are not members here.  We share in the spirit of giving, and give liberally to help support the family and the family home which is the church.  And we encourage one another, not just on Sunday, but throughout the week.  We encourage love, joy and peace.  But when you think about it, that is what families do.

            You know, all families are made up of those who are born into the family and those who marry in, or are like adopted from the outside.  And the young people need to be reminded that every family has a grumpy old uncle and a persnicity aunt and that cousins are not always the ones the young people would pick.  They might refer to Matilda and her children as Aunt Matilda and the freak parade, but they are family all the same.  Likewise, some of the older members of the family perhaps need to be reminded that when they miss church they are in fact missing family time, and we miss them when they are not here.

            So the writer to the Hebrews goes on to explain that Jesus is not a stranger to us.  He brings us together as a family of brothers and sisters, people who might otherwise be strangers in this world, but he, himself is no stranger to us.  He became like us, human, flesh and blood.  That is what the Christ child is that was born on Christmas morning.  But he was born so that he might tell us about the relationship between ourselves and God.  He tells us about God, and invites us to follow after him into eternity.  And then he suffers, struggles with temptation just like we do, and offers us forgiveness, a clean slate every day. 

            The baby born in Bethlehem gives us light and life, so we can walk in love, joy and peace every day, not just on Christmas day.  Christ was born and lives not just on one day, but every day in the hearts of his people.  He is a faithful high priest, being just like us, and in him forgiveness and mercy and grace and life have no end.  So the spirit of Christmas: the spirit of giving, of peace on earth and good will toward all, of love and sharing with family and friends should have no end.  That much is up to us.  We are his disciples now. 

            So here we are, waiting for our five golden rings.  I assume they are in the mail.  Then again, they may only be available after we enter into glory.  We shall see …


Lectionary Reflection: Colossians 1: 11-20 Get Out of Yourself

            There are two points here that Paul makes, and they are summed up in verse nineteen and twenty:    19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (NIV)  And what that means is Jesus is God  (Jesus is Lord) – the fullness of God dwelling in him.  Paul speaks of him as both creator and sustainer of us and all things.  And it means that God himself came to us and became human, or as we say at Christmastime, the Word became flesh, and he was perfectly happy to reconcile us to himself, to redeem us, to forgive our sins, to make peace with us by the shedding of his blood on the cross.  Jesus, God came to us so whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  Nothing else is needed.


            The city of Colosse was in the Roman province of Asia, now modern Turkey, roughly 125 miles from Ephesus where Paul was known to preach.  It was near the cities of Hierapolis and Leodicea.  Originally, it grew into a great city, being on the old main Highway, the main trade route through the area.  But by the time Paul wrote his letter, it was shrinking in size and importance, because when the Romans built their interstate, they went through Hierapolis and Leodicea and bypassed Colosse altogether.  I am sure many communities in America can relate.

            Now, the story is a man named Epaphrus, whom Paul calls a dear fellow servant, went to Ephesus, heard Paul preaching, and was converted.  He then took the gospel back home, to Colosse, and founded a church.  But the people of Colosse were typical people of their times, even as we are typical people of our times, and this business about Jesus was all so radical and new, it was not hard to get sidetracked and import ideas from the culture around.  Underline that: the people of Colosse were polluting the gospel by importing ideas from the culture around them.  Paul does not list the errors the Colossians got into, but he infers they were worshiping more than just Jesus, worshiping Angels or Spirits and they were looking for redemption in more than just Jesus – looking to be reconciled to God Almighty through a combination of many things, Christianity and other things mixed in.  Paul says, no.

            In Jesus is the fullness of God.  He not only made everything and sustains everything, but everything was made for him.  Jesus alone in the firstborn and head of the Church – the head of you and me.  Jesus is unique in all of space and time, and he does, and has done, all that is needful for our redemption and reconciliation – to make peace with God.

            So, give up Ramadan and the Hadj and praying so many times per day as if there is some way to earn Heaven.  Speaking for myself, any God who will bless with Heaven a person who blows themselves up an takes a bunch of otherwise innocent lives with them is not the sort of God I want anything to do with.  So give up worrying about what you shall eat and what you shall wear, and keeping all those festivals and rituals and being Pharisaically correct, or as we call it these days, politically correct.  Forget all that stuff.  You are already covered.  And give up worrying about Nirvanah and keeping the eight-fold path, or any other path.  A life full of even extraordinary good works will never come close to heaven.  You can’t get there from here.  In this world, broken by sin, nothing we say or do will ever be good enough or pure enough or righteous enough to get us to Heaven, and God knows this.  That is why God came to us instead, and did it all for us in Jesus.

             God himself came to us and became human, or as we say at Christmastime, the Word became flesh, and he was perfectly happy to reconcile us to himself, to redeem us, to forgive us our sins, our brokenness, to make peace with us by the shedding of his blood on the cross.  Jesus, God came to us so whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  Nothing and no one else is needed.


            I imagine most of you are aware that November 22nd 2013 was the 50th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy.  I don’t suppose that most of you are aware that November 22nd 2013 was also the 50th anniversary of the death of another Great man: C S. Lewis.  some of you may have read some of his works, like the Narnia series, the Screwtape Letters, and possibly Mere Christianity.  He was, in the end, a great man and a great defender of the faith; but you may not know that when he came out of the trenches after World War I, he was an avowed atheist.  He reasoned that it was impossible to reconcile a benevolent God with the cruelty of nature.  Fortunately for us all, he did not stop reasoning.

            In time, he began to see something else in nature, something he could not explain by science or theories or reason itself.  He saw beauty, awe inspiring beauty, and he saw it as a universal human capacity that defied explanation.  One could step out into a fied at night and see the stars laid out, glorious, like a blanket in the sky.  One could drive through the back roads in the fall and see the trees changed in so many colors to reflect the beauty of the sunset.  There was no reason for it.  the appreciation of beauty in nature, the ability to be awed and inspired and no practical benefit whatsoever.  It did not improve natural selection.  It did not square with the notion of a random, irrational universe.  And he concluded it could only be a gift.

            On further reflection, he realized reason itself – our ability to think and understand – also could  not be explained in a random, irrational universe.  It would be like trying to build bricks out of water.  You can go to the ocean, but no matter how much water you use, you are never going to come up with bricks.  With his mind sufficiently open to inquiry, he reasoned that reason could only exist in a reasonable universe, and that suggested something outside of himself, something bigger than himself that he maybe ought to pay attention to.  And it suggested creation by design.  Nothing else made sense.

            The idea that human beings, creatures of enormous complexity, could have come from simple single celled animals made no sense to him.  Reality and Nature work the other way around, forever simplifying, headed toward entropy.  It is the complex in the universe that is made simpler.  The copy cannot be greater than the original.  Again, design made sense; but then Lewis thought the idea of design and a designer should spur scientific inquiry, not the other way around the way some people speak these days.  Without design, without a designer, why should there be any laws in nature at all?  When a discovery is made in a lab, and a scientist decides something is true, in a random, accidental, irrational universe, what is there to believe that same fact will be true tomorrow?  Sir Isaac Newton understood this when he suggested the laws of motion and gravity he discovered were like looking into the mind of God.

            Some people these days say the Laws of Nature alone can explain all things without having to refer to a designer.  When the cue ball hits the rack, the laws of motion fully explain the transfer of energy and the movement of the other balls.  But what science cannot explain is how the cue ball starts moving in the first place.  Lewis understood it takes a person with a cue in their hands to get things going.

            All of this, Paul summed up when he wrote: 15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together  Paul had no reservations about understanding that God, that Jesus designed all things, from complex human beings to the Laws of Nature, and not only creation, but Jesus holds it all together so that what the scientist discovers today will also be true tomorrow. 

            Jesus, Paul says, is the one in whom the fullness of God dwells, and we can see him and know him by the eyewitness accounts we have in the scriptures.  He is the one who came for us, to make peace with us and with all things.  And it makes perfect sense if our minds are open enough to realize there is something, or rather, someone outside of ourselves who is bigger than we are, who we ought to be paying attention to.


            There was one more thing Lewis believed pointed directly to the Creator.  It was morality, which people fifty years ago still believed in, even if they were mixed on the idea of keeping the moral code.  These days, people are more inclined to sneer and attack and ridicule others just for bringing it up.  Who are you to impose your morality on others, they say, as if there is more than one moral code.  Social conventions differ.  Cultural norms differ.  Religious traditions differ.  But morality is the same in every place on earth and has been the same throughout history.  It is well summed up in phrases like, thou shall not kill, thou shall not steal, thou shall not bear false witness, honor your mother and father, and so on.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or as Confucius said, do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.  And where does this universal moral code come from?  For Lewis, the answer was obvious.

            Even those who these days sneer out of ignorance at the whole idea of morality, they still, invariably have an idea of fairness.  People know that life is not fair, and believe it ought to be.  One thing to say in favor of Obamacare is it was meant to make things more fair.  Without reference to the full moral code, specifically, thou shal not steal, thou shall not bear false witness, and depending on whether or not we end up with so-called “death panels,” thou shall not kill and honor thy mother and father may go by the wayside.  On the fairness test, Obamacare fails miserably, but I accept that the intentions were honorable – to make life more fair.  Curiously, the Affordable Care Act was written by progressives, secularists, communists and atheists, but they all had some idea of what might make life more fair.  Again, Lewis asks where this universal idea comes from?  He answers that it can only have been built into the design. 

            That Jesus is the Creator and sustainer of all things makes sense.  That he is also the head of the church, the firstborn, the decider of what is right, good and true, the decider of life and death, the decider of our purpose, individually and as a church also makes sense.  But to see that, you have to open your mind enough to believe that there is something outside of yourself, someone bigger than yourself who is worth paying attention to.  Jesus, the fullness of God, came to us where we had no ability to go to him.  He came to us to reconcile us and all creation through us to himself.  That is a simple enough idea.  I don’t know why some people have to insist that the Bible is complicated and hard to understand.  Here is another simple idea.  That whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 

            The Colossians needed to be reminded that the one who designed us and sustains us is also the one who redeemed us by his blood on the cross.  The one who was born in a manger for all to see, was raised up on the third day and showed himself to may eyewitnesses.  No one else and nothing else is needed for any reason.  The deed is done.  The position is filled.  No other prophet or charlatan or deceiver or spirit or Angel need apply.

Lectionary Reflection: Luke 12: 49-56, Hebrews 11:29-12:2: This is the Day of Promise

            At the seminary there is an apocryphal story about a young man who sat in the back of the class and kept to himself.  He believed in the God of the Bible and accepted the plain and simple understanding of what the Bible said, including all of the miracles represented in the New and Old Testaments.  He recognized that the reasons his professors gave for discounting the miracles amounted to a kind of modern prejudice, a kind of knee-jerk reaction against anything that could not be replicated in a scientific lab and thus could not be proved.

            This young man heard all about how the Bible was rewritten and edited over the years, how miracles were no doubt inserted later into stories or how simple stories were exaggerated to make it appear like miracles happened.  He heard all the justifications about how God could have worked things out by natural means, if it was God’s will, without having to perform any miracles that defied the laws of physics.  It sounded like common sense.  It was all very convincing, until one day when the Professor was taking about Moses and the red sea.

            “The proper translation of the word is reed,” the Professor said.  “Moses parted a sea of reeds for the children of Israel.  It probably was not much more than six inches deep of water across the whole thing.”

            The young man finally could not contain himself and he shouted from the back o the room.  “Another miracle!  God drowned all those Egyptians in just six inches of water.”

            I have it on good authority that the last days will be like the first.  What do I mean by that?  Well, you can see in Hebrews how the prophets and believers and followers of God in the Old Testament were treated. 

            There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.37 They were put to death by stoning;[b] they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

            These people only hinted of things to come – things believers might expect in the future because these people all lived before the cross – before the revelation of Jesus.  39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised,  The author of Hebrews is clear about that.  Jesus had not yet been born.  He had not yet died for our sin, for our forgiveness and justification.  Jesus had not yet risen on the third day.  Easter, the day of resurrection had not yet happened.  The Holy Spirit had not yet been given. 

            Now, we live in a post resurrection world, and I tell you what went on at the beginning of this post-Easter world is due to be repeated at the end.  You have heard it said that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  I feel, personally, that the human race just likes to repeat things, whether they learn or not … regardless.  Jesus himself said he came to bring division, not peace, and we all ought to be able to read the times.  This is the time of promise, believe me, and it is a divisive time, not a time of peace.

            I have a house full of boys.  This summer there have been five boys, and one girl, all young adults, and a pit bull who could be better house trained if you ask me.  The youngest is seventeen.  The eldest is twenty-four.  They killed my dryer.  They broke the door on the dishwasher, but they are trying to be good and not make too much of a mess.  Ha!  Then there are all of the friends who invade the house, day and night.  I have a small house for ten or fifteen people hanging out in the garage with their guitars, and mandolin, and banjo, or playing video games, or watching old movies on DVD, like maybe some old Disney movies; something from their childhood.  There are times when some of those extra boys pull up a space on the couch or the rug and spend the night – sometimes for three or four nights in a row.  And, man!  Do they know how to eat!

            Not every day, but often a few of them will walk into town and busk for a few hours.  That means they will make music on the street and make a few dollars they can use to go and buy food.  That helps.  I have a small house and no money, so every bit helps.  And though I can’t imagine they make much money in our small town, at least the police don’t bother them.

            Don, one of the regular young men came up to me one evening recently to thank me.  “I don’t know how you  put up with it,” he said.  “I don’t know many people in the Dad generation that would let their house be used like this.”

            I looked at the fellow.  Only two or three of the young men had jobs, and those were strictly part time thanks to the Obama economy and the threat of Obamacare.  A few of them had college educations, but that still did not help them get jobs.  For the most part, their parents called them hopeless, useless losers and threw them out of the house.  “What am I supposed to do?” I said.  “Tell them to get out of my house too and go sleep on the street in the pouring rain?”  I recalled the good Christian woman who made a snide remark about how I had turned my house into a home for wayward boys.  Her nasty tone of voice and turned up nose told me what she really believed.

            This is the first generation in American history that the new generation is worse off than their parents.  Parents in America always worked hard to give their children a better life than they had, but no more.  The jobs have gone away.  Education has left a whole generation in massive debt and financial ruin.  Tens of thousands are living on the streets, homeless, eating out of dumpsters, traveling the country in search of shelter, feeling helpless, hopeless.  One young man called his generation the new lost generation.  Don told me a story.

            “I was recently in New York City, in Greenwich village,” he said.  “It used to be a place for artists.  Now, it is a haven for junkies and drug addicts living on the streets, sleeping in alleyways and doorways.  A local TV station came down and wanted to ask some questions.  The first question they asked me was did I use clean needles,  Can you believe it?  I said I didn’t use any needles.  I said I didn’t use any drugs and they said thank you and wandered away.”

            I thought, one thing that made this house acceptable all summer is the fact that the young people here at least respect the home enough not to trash it – dryer and dishwasher excepted.  To be honest, those were twelve years old and had reached the end of their life expectancy in any case.  But here, the young people are not drinking or throwing loud parties all night long, and they are drug free.  All these young people want to do is make music and be there for each other, to support and encourage each other in whatever way they can.

            Don continued.  “People would give those Druggies in New York money.  That is the wrong thing to do.  I started busking in the early morning, rush hour, and I would take whatever money I made and buy food, and distribute it to the druggies to see that they got at least one meal a day.  I’ve been without food for three or four day on several occasions.  I know what that feels like, but I know it is not like some parts of the world where people go without food for three or four weeks and have no hope that tomorrow will be better.”

            I said, “I don’t know.  I think those kids clogging the streets in Greenwich village are living equally without hope for tomorrow even if they are not quite as hungry.”  Then I said, “You know, wherever you go in this country, there is always a church.  I bet maybe one out of five, at least, would be willing to front you some food.  There is no reason to go three or four days without eating.”

            “I know,” he said and paused to gather his thoughts.  “When I see a cross on a building I have come to see it as home.  I know that at least there I can shelter and sleep in the doorway and no one will bother me.  I have a great respect for Jesus; what he did and taught.  I like how he reduced the big ten to just two, love self, love God, love neighbor.”

            “He did not reduce.  He summarized the big ten,” I said.  Don had the basic idea.  He nodded and continued.

            “I don’t understand what the cross is all about.”

            “The cross is about hope,” I said.  “It is the only thing in all the world that can give hope against the hopelessness and pessimism and despair those kids in the street live in every day.”

            Don nodded again, but then he shook his head, “No.  They have been taught all of their lives that Christianity is for fools and losers.  They’ve been taught that Christians are all racists and bigots and sexist homophobes.  They’ve been taught that Christians want to take over and take away everybody’s freedom and impose their morality on everybody; like Christianity is an evil form of mind control.  They have been taught that Christianity is responsible for all the wars and all the evils in this world.”

            “But that is the opposite of the truth,” I said.  “But you think your generation believes these lies?”

            Don nodded this time with certainty.  “It is all they know.  It is what they have been taught since they were babies.”

            “So they know nothing about Jesus, about real Christianity, or about history, I might add.”

            “They don’t teach history anymore,” Don said.  “They teach social studies, and that is just opinions about life.”

            “So we have a whole generation that believes the opposite of the truth,” I said.

            “Nobody believes in truth.  It is all just opinion.”  Don paused to think again before he concluded, “I don’t know if there is any way to reach kids like that.  I couldn’t stay in New York.  It got too depressing.” 

            He got up and went back to the garage to find his guitar, and I thought, thank God that God is still in the conversion business.  Then I thought more about the younger generation.  They have been taught that corporations are evil, business is evil and that capitalism is totally corrupt and only interested in selfish profit.  Energy companies only want to destroy the environment and cause global warming.  Retailers only want to treat their employees like slaves.  Manufacturers only want to go oversees where the slave labor is cheaper.  They have been taught that government is god, the good guy, even though they live on the street in drug induced comas to combat the hopelessness.  Even though their own experience of government does not square with the idea of a benevolent god, they have been taught and believe that government is god and they vote for Santa Clause promises that they will never see in their lives.

            It is a mess, I thought.  And it isn’t likely to get any better in the near future.  Occupy Wall Street was only a mild beginning.  A few sparks here and there and there will be riots in the streets.  Soon enough, this whole nation will look like Detroit, and America will fall as surely as Rome fell in the first days after the resurrection.

            Back then, Rome was like China in a way.  There were authorized religions, and anything unauthorized was subject to persecution.  The Three-Self Patriotic Movement is the official Christian Church in China.  There are government people who decide what preachers can preach and what teachers can teach.  Anyone who follows Christ outside of the official church is subject to prison time – and yet there are tens of millions of unofficial Christians in China.

            You know, Hitler tried to control the church in Germany, with the government there to tell preachers what they could preach and teachers what they could teach.  Dietrich Bonheoffer and Karl Barth wrote the Barmen Declaration as a counter measure.  It was signed by preachers all over Germany who refused to bow their knee to the Nazi regime.  Barth was somewhat safe, being Swiss, but Bonheoffer, you know, ended up in a German Prison.

            In the first days, Christians got away with being a Jewish cult in certain times and places.  But not always, and the persecutions then were horrendous.  Some Romans, not understanding the Lord’s Supper, believed Christians actually committed human sacrifice and ate the flesh and drank the blood.  Christians were crucified or thrown to the lions for refusing to accept Caesar as god.  Christians were killed or imprisoned like the Apostle Paul for worshiping a God that was not the government.  Now, I fear we are rapidly reaching that same point in this country.

            Already, we have hate crimes.  Good Christian people are being sued, finding their lives and businesses ruined and their mouths shut for standing up in favor of traditional marriage being between a man and a woman, for example.  And that is just the beginning.  I don’t know if Christians will again be crucified or thrown to the lions, but get a little more age on the whole generation that has been taught and firmly believes that Christianity is evil and who knows.  Certainly prison is on the horizon.  Christians who will not shut-up in public can be made to shut-up by being locked away.  We live in an Orwellian world where good is being called evil and evil is being called good.

            But let me make one thing clear.  It was not the Christians who took down Rome, despite what the propaganda and force feeding of twisted and slanted information – information that must never be questioned, by the way – given to us in what the educational system calls learning.  It was the Occupy Rome Street crowd that brought the Empire to ruin.  It was the people who demanded from their government-god free homes, food, clothing, education, cars, wi-fi, smart phones and healthcare, and all without their having to work or lift a finger.  And, of course, no government can provide all that for free.  To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, the problem with living off of other people’s money is you soon run out of other people’s money.

            Jesus said, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?

            Back in Rome, the persecutions of the Christians fired their resolve.  When faced with the lions or the cross, plenty of Christians bowed to the government, and later repented, but many did not.  We call them martyrs.  I wonder how it will be this time. 

            You see, this is already the time promised, and I don’t mean the pretty time.  The mass media daily ridicules Christians to no end.  We are all ignorant Bible thumpers, you know.  The Common Core Curriculum being pushed out of Washington gives 37 pages that bend over backwards to paint Islam in a positive light and begrudgingly gives three poor paragraphs to Christianity.  Our own President ridiculed us by calling us Bible clingers.  When it gets to the point of jail time, and it basically is at that point already, how many Christians will bow to government – how many will bow to the Nazis, the soviets, the Chinese, the American government – and how many will choose martyrdom?  The Scripture says in the end times the nominal believers will fall away.  I urge you not to fall.  Though America fall, I urge you all to stand strong.  Against this day, this day of promise which is coming and which we have already begun, the author of the Book of Hebrews suggests this:

            12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.


Lectionary Reflection: Luke 12: 32-40, Hebrews 11: 1-16: Faith in the Heart.

You have heard it said, “The just shall live by faith.  The righteous shall live by faith.”  It is said by the Old Testament Prophet – Habakkuk 2:4.  It is said by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament – Romans 1:17.  It is said in many different ways by Jesus, and repeated here in the book of Hebrews (10:38) right before Hebrews chapter 11 where a whole litany of faithful people are named and praised.

My question has always been, what part of life isn’t lived by faith?

That, of course, raises another question: in what do we put our faith?

What will tomorrow bring?  There is no certain knowledge, even of the next moment from now.  The future is the great undiscovered country into which we are all moving at the speed of light. We all move into the future by faith, believing in all sorts of things, putting our faith in so many things.  We can have hope that tomorrow may be mind-bogglingly wonderful,  but there are no guarantees. We may have expectations, particularly with regard to the people in our life, and we may hope we are not disappointed; but there are no guarantees.

Ultimately, the only way we can move into tomorrow is by faith, not by sight.  All of life is lived by faith, moment by moment.  But in what do we put our faith?  That is the question. To sleep, perchance to dream.

These days, we put our faith in science, in what I call the principle of universal consistency.  In every day of our life, so far, the sun rose in the morning and set in the evening.  Tomorrow may be rainy and cloudy all day so we might not actually see the sun, but we still believe the sun will rise tomorrow morning and set in the evening just like it has always done in the past.  We believe the birds will fly, the fish will swim, the dog will have to go out and the cat will nap.  We believe the universe is a consistent place, and what was true yesterday will continue to be true tomorrow – and though we have no way to prove it, we walk into tomorrow by faith in science – in universal consistency.

Actually, tomorrow, the whole universe might just as easily roll up like a scroll come to the end of the sentence in the last corner of the paper.  The book might close.  Everything might end.  I should say, Jesus might well return to the sound of that final trumpet, but we don’t really believe it because we believe in science and “universal consistency.”  This is our faith.

We also tend to put our faith in other people, famiy, friends, co-workers, neighbors, fellow Christians; but this faith in people often enough does not work out too well.  When my daughter married, she and her husband, being in love, made all sorts of promises to remain faithful for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, for better or worse ‘till death do them part.  But who knows what tomorrow may bring.  I can pray for them, but half of the marriages in this country end in divorce.  We have a divorce crisis in this country of epic proportions.  And more.

People are trying to hold on to their jobs these days.  The smart ones hope the company makes money, that evil profit thing, so they can hold on to their jobs and maybe even, someday, get a raise.    God help you if your boss is replaced.  All those years of buttering up your boss go right down the drain, and if the new one doesn’t like you, there is trouble.

Then, we put our faith in people, like friends and family, but people die.  Did you ever notice?  Parents die.  Sometimes, children die.  Sometimes it happens without warning.  It is disconcerting, to say the least.  Our whole world can be turned upside-down by the people in whom we placed our faith – the people we believe in.  And when death happens, it sometimes becomes very hard to think about tomorrow.  How shall we live?  How can we even think about moving into the future without them?  Yet, we continue to move into the future at the speed of light all the same, not knowing what tomorrow may bring.

There are times, sometimes, when people withdraw.  The conclusion is often that we only have ourselves to believe in.  We might still appreciate others, thank them for their support, if any, and we might even trust them up to a point, but the thinking is we really only have ourselves that we can believe in and depend on.

So the entrepreneur goes out and works hard believing if they want it done right they must do it themselves, and the business fails.  So a person hears the promises of God in the back of their mind and tries to figure out how it is supposed to work.  We lean on our own understanding.  We depend on our own cleverness.  We strive after tangible things like riches, and less tangibles like power and status.  And we fail  And we fall.

But sometimes we are wildly successful, and the pride fills us up, until the day we wake up and fall out of bed because the whole right side of our body is paralyzed from a stroke, or we clutch at our chest for the pain in our heart, or we are diagnosed with inoperable cancer and only have a short time to live.  Then we imagine all the things we lost out on by living for ourselves.  We cry out for Rosebud, but Rosebud is not there.

Don’t get me wrong.  People need to believe in themselves, but as a child of God, as a sinner forgiven, as a pilgrim on the narrow way that leads to life.

Read Hebrews chapter 11 again and consider.  These people were not praised for stepping into the unknown future with faith in science, or their best understanding of the natural world, nor were they praised for faith in other people like faith in government, king and country, or faith in family and friends, and neither were they praised for faith in themselves and their own cleverness in being able to figure it out.  They are praised for placing their whole faith in God Almighty, the maker and the source of universal consistency.  God is the only one who does not disappoint.  And God alone can strengthen our steps and lead us and guide us, in the way – the best way for us if we are only willing to follow.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths. (Proverbs 3: 5-6).  God will pave the way for us, so to speak, if we place our faith in him alone.  What is more, Hebrews tell us: Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.  (11:6).

There are some who refuse to believe that.  There are many more who don’t want to believe it.  There are some who believe it, somewhat, but who still go out to live their lives believing mostly in science and others, or at least in their own cleverness.  But Jesus, as usual, took things a step further.

We are moving at the speed of light into the unknown.  He said, we don’t know when the master, bridegroom or thief will come.  He said, in truth, the last sentence on the bottom corner of the scroll will be written and the whole scroll will be rolled up, one day.  He said, one day the book will close.  He said, watch.  Earnestly seek him, diligently seek him.  Walk in faith, and keep the eyes open.

Jesus, the Son of Man; he said he is coming.  No one knows when, but it may be tomorrow.  Who can say what tomorrow will hold – that great, undiscovered country.  Moment by moment we live by faith.  The question is, while we walk into tomorrow, in what do we put our faith?  It is a fair question.


Lectionary Reflection: Luke 10: 25-37 II: What to Do

            I have read the story of the Good Samaritan a thousand times and I still cannot imagine it.  Because in the final analysis, it is not about doing good for someone you despise.  It is about doing good for someone who despises you, and in some way has some power over you.

            As far as I can tell from the scriptures, the Samaritans probably had mixed feelings for the Jews and mostly just wanted to be left to live their lives in peace.  It was the Jews that hated the Samaritans as corrupt, half-breed Canaanites.  The Jews had the true religion.  The Jews were acceptable to God.  And the Samaritans should not even be touched, like they were lepers, or like they might give off Samaritan cooties.  The thing about the Samaritan woman at the well was she was friendly enough and willing to listen to what Jesus had to say, she just could not believe that Jesus, a Jew, was even talking to her.

            So now we get to the story of the good Samaritan, and it is not about doing good for a person you hate.  This is really not a love your enemies story.  It is about doing good for a person who hates you and thinks you ought to burn in Hell.

            Have you ever known such a person?

            Maybe the popular kid in school who bullied you and made your life miserable  Maybe a family member or so-called friend who makes the whole relationship toxic by practicing the art of verbal abuse.  Maybe a boss who made your life a kind of living Hell because they wanted you to quit rather than fire you.  Or a teacher or boss who enjoyed playing mind games and sending you home full of anger and tears.  Maybe a neighbor or co-worker who goes out of their way to annoy you in one way or another, simply because they get a kick out of being crude and cruel. 

            Have you ever been in a situation, maybe in court, like for a ticket, or in dealing with some government agency where you knew you were in the right and they – the ones in authority knew you were in the right, too, but just out of sheer stubborn, sinful, blankety-blank, the decision goes against you just because they can, just because they have power over you.

            When something bad happens to such a person, the normal human reaction is, “Good.  Serves them right.”  People these days talk about karma, about what goes around, comes around.  And it is perfectly natural to want to see them suffer the way they made you suffer.  But that is not Jesus.

            In Jesus, we are to do good to those who despitefully use us.  We are to accept the blessing of Heaven, because we are not likely to see it in the here and now – it is not likely to go around or come around any time soon – not when they get back on their feet with your help and promptly throw you to the lions.  But Jesus tells us, Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 

            No one ever said living the Christian faith was going to be easy.  But we have the Samaritan example.  Go and do likewise.  That is what Jesus said.  It ranks right up there with go and sin no more.  But here, my heartache is found in sixty years of observing the people of faith.  For far too many Christians in America, I see faith in the heart, but it is a dead faith.  It is not a living faith.  And when it is tried, it is kind of half-baked, or half-hearted, and does not affect the overall course of people’s lives.  Breaks my heart.

            You know, Christian faith is not that hard to understand.  I don’t understand why so many people pretend it is so difficult to figure out.  It is not something we need to draw down from heaven; or cross the ocean to fetch.  It is in our mouths and minds, and by the Holy Spirit, it is in our hearts – not just to think about on occasion, but to live.

            God designed us to live, not just believe, but live a certain way.  Each one of us unique, certainly, but overall the same.  And we are to give it our best shot, life-long.  You know, that endurance and patience the Apostle Paul talks about.  He said we are to live a life worthy of the Lord, and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience,

            I suppose in the end it really come down to another thing Jesus said.  “Be ye perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”  Okay, maybe no one is going to actually live a perfect life.  Only Jesus lived a life without flaw.  I understand that, but I am still going to give it my best shot.

            I pray at night, grateful for the fact that Jesus has taken care of everywhere and everything in which I fell short all day long.  Giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light, as Paul said in his verbosity.  I am grateful that God  overlooks my wrong in being a husband, a father, a preacher, a teacher, a writer, a worker, a friend – and no, I am not going to spell out for you  every way I fall short on a daily basis.  But then I get up the next day:

            You know, I don’t pray for a better day.  The day is the day the Lord has made.  I am simply here to live it.  The question is should I live the day by my faith in the way God designed it and me to live, or by some other way – some broad way that leads to somewhere else? … So I don’t pray for a better day, not even better, please, than yesterday.  I don’t pray that things will go right today, that I will get anything special, that good things happen, that I be blessed or have a blessed day.  I don’t pray for a better day, no.  Instead, I pray that God will help me be a better person.  God, you take care of the day.  You deal with all of the things over which I have no control and let me focus on the one thing I can work on, which is me.  Help me to be a better me and you take care of the rest.    

             Living our faith is not an easy thing.  It is simple enough to understand, but not often easy to do.  Thank God for Jesus who covers me when I mess up, and for the Holy Spirit who tells me what is the right, good and true thing and helps me to do it.


Lectionary Reflection: Luke 7: 36-48 Respond to the Lord?

            Jennifer’s wedding was lovely.  It was fun, or maybe delightful is a better word.  It was so well designed no one went through any awkward moments.  Everything flowed, from the ceremony to the end of the evening.  Lovely, wonderful, and … expensive.  It was extravagant, and more than once I wondered why these two young people, who had been with each other for eight years, did not just sneak off in the middle of the night and do the deed.  I thought, if that money was invested in a house and they would have something to show for it in the years to come.  But no.  That is not how we do things.

            We are extravagant.  We are as extravagant as the woman with the perfume worth a whole year’s wages who interrupted a dinner party to anoint Jesus’ feet with the scent and her tears.

            My sister had such a wedding, ages ago.  (Don’t tell her I said ages ago).  It was held at the country club.  One of two at the time that was approved to hold the US Open golf tournament.  The grooms were not the only ones in tuxedos.  Most of the guests wore tuxes as well  The head of Merryll Lynch International was there.  In fact, the room seemed full of CEOs and CFOs.  It was hard to tell, though, because my sister had everyone in masks, like some masquerade ball in the palace of Versailles.  It was very extravagant.

            My sister came to Jennifer’s wedding.  She flew down and brought my mother who is still struggling with the results of her stroke.  It was good to see them; and yes, my mother is doing well.  She is the stubborn and determined type – traits that serve her very well in the circumstances.

            Now, brother Tom, on the other hand, had what appeared on the surface to be a rather casual wedding.  There were no tuxedos in sight.  But then, he rented an entire health spa in California.  In fact, he and the entire wedding party went skinny-dipping in the natural sulfur hot springs just hours before getting dressed in their jeans and flannel shirts for the ceremony.  My Aunt Jean, my wife and Jennifer in her baby carriage came to visit me on the smoker’s bridge – the only place on the grounds were a person was begrudgingly allowed to smoke.  Aunt Jean’s comment about the naked swimmers that could only be seen in the distance was, “Not my idea of a wedding.”  But don’t be fooled by the casual description of the event.  In its own way, it was just as extravagant and expensive.

            Brother Tom came all the way from Alaska for Jennifer’s wedding.  He brought his son Ethan, who had just graduated high school, and his daughter Emily, who had just graduated from Stanford in California.  It was good to see my brother and the two natural results of an extravagant wedding.

            Skipping over my wedding, which was in a church, and the reception was in a place my wife’s Italian father picked out, which might have been called Luigi’s, but it was good, and it was expensive in its own way; but Jennifer’s wedding was great.  It was the wedding she wanted.  And everything went off without a problem, so much so that my wife suggested Jennifer go into the wedding planning business.  A very different attitude from the panic she showed the week before.

            Now, in this morning’s passage in Luke we have an example of extravagance that shocks the poor Pharisee, Simon, on several levels.  The woman is a whore, but apparently a successful one considering she had the money to buy such expensive perfume.  But here I am talking about weddings, except actually, I m trying to underline the extravagance of it all.  It is what we do.  We spend to no end on weddings – on a one-time event which offers no guarantees for the future.  Sadly, the success of the future marriage is not determined by how extravagant the wedding is.  But we do it because it is what is important to us.  It was important to Jennifer to have things a certain way, and while she is naturally a frugal person, the cost was not the issue.

            This woman also had something important to her.  She knew who she was, that her life was in ruins, that her life was unacceptable to God, and that in Jesus she was forgiven for all of it.  This was her way of showing gratitude.  She was thankful, and her tears were no doubt tears of joy.

            I used to think, and often read, that when the Great Awakening happened in this country, in the 1700s, almost before the preacher began to speak, people in the pews began to weep and cry out to God for their terrible, sinful lives, and for fear of Hellfire and brimstone.  Now, I am not so sure that was true.  Oh, I believe the Holy Spirit busted down the doors of people’s natural self-defense, and the people got to see just exactly how wretched and sinful they actually were, something that alludes almost all of us almost all of the time, but I don’t believe they cried because they feared damnation.  If the preacher was worth his salt, I imagine they cried like this woman – to know that all of that was forgiven, taken away, not held to their account.  Suddenly they were free of it all, thanks to Jesus, and they could not help but cry for joy and gratitude for their salvation. 

            Simon the Pharisee, who thought his life was more or less on target with God and who was offended by the woman’s presence, didn’t get it.  Jesus was glad to explain it to him.  That made me think.  We can be so extravagant with regard to our children, our loved ones.  How then should we respond to the one who grants us such grace and love?  How well do we respond to forgiveness?  How well do we respond to the one who grants us salvation, even eternal life?  It is a fair question.


Lectionary Reflection: Acts 16: 9-15 Persuasion

            When I look at the early church, and I mean the earliest church, a serious question comes to mind.  How did a dozen or so early disciples even with a couple of add-ons like Paul turn the world upside-down?  I would estimate in less than fifty years the Christian cult grew from a few adherents to perhaps a million disciples covering the whole span of the Roman Empire and beyond.  It is kind of hard to imagine if you really think about it.

            I suppose some would say those first few must have been very persuasive.  But as I said, think about that for a minute.  Peter was an illiterate working class laborer.  Matthew was a tax collector – and no one liked tax collectors – would not be caught dead talking to one.  What?  Simon the zealot converted people by the sword?  I don’t think so.  Thomas?  But he must have been from Missouri.  He would not even believe it himself unless he saw it with his own eyes.  And he was then going to persuade others with just his words?  Phillip and Nathanial, as far as I know, were unemployed vagabonds.   James and John and Andrew bring us back to Peter: working stiffs, and not salesmen.  Which of these might be credited with persuading a million people in a mere thirty, forty, maybe fifty years?  Answer:  Not one of them.

            So then we turn the page and find Paul walking on the road.  He wandered around with Barnabas, sometimes Silas, Luke and sometimes Mark.  But Mark ticked him off and got booted, Barnabas made everybody angry and upset whenever he spoke.  I would like to think they separated amicably.  Luke, the physician hung around, but he became something of a scribe to track the work and not so much an evangelist outside of his writing.  So we credit Paul with bunches of mass conversions?  I think not.

            Paul (used to be Saul) was an intellectual dork, a scholar of the first order.  He studied at the best schools, sat at the feet of the best teachers.  He could probably rattle off scripture at the proverbial drop of a hat.  He knew all the nuances, al the intellectual arguments and all the big words to elucidate the same.  I have no doubt Luke the physician stayed with him because he was the only one who could understand Paul and follow his train of thought.  In a way, Paul reminds me of Doctor E.

            By a quirk of fate, Doctor E (MDiv., DMin., ThD), ended up ministering in a small church in the south side of Virginia.  At least one of his charges, a woman named Alise swore he was the greatest preacher she ever heard.

            “Oh?  You got a lot out of his sermons?”

            “No, nothing,” she said.  “But I decided he must be a great preacher because I can’t understand a word he says.”

            To be sure, it was not Doctor E’s fault.  The poor man was educated way beyond his intelligence.

            Paul, likewise probably had a hard time talking to regular folks.  Here we see him sailing over to Macedonia, entering into Philippi and taking a stroll to the river where he might at least talk to some of the women there.  There were likely any number women, but only one responded, and she was already a worshiper of God.  It doesn’t surprise me.  What could Paul say?  He coud talk all day about Jesus, but they had to know what following Jesus meant in those days.

            “Hi there.  How would you like to become a part of this movement where you can be lowly, despised and hated by both Jew and Gentile alike.  Where the Jews will want to throw you in prison like I used to do to followers of Jesus.  Where the Romans will throw you to the lions if they don’t burn you at the stake or crucify you.  Doesn’t that sound exciting?”

            Seriously, I am sure Paul, when he was Saul, was not the only Jew attempting to stamp out these Christians.  No doubt there were some right there in Philippi.  Paul got driven from more than one town, and stoned  And then there were the Romans.  Don’t think Caesar Nero in 64AD was the only one to persecute the Christians.  Persecutions broke out here and there, now and then throughout the empire.  Yet, by the time Paul got to Rome, there was a big, thriving underground church.  And they were literally underground, down in the catacombs with the bodies of the dead because it was the only safe place to meet.  Where did all these Christians come from?  How did they appear before the evangelist even arrived?

            I have been puzzled.  And the only way I can understand it is with these two thoughts.  First, and foremost, is the one phrase Luke records with regards to Lydia.  True, she was a seller of purple, a color hard to come by in those days which is why it became the color of royalty.  She was an upscale salesperson who dealt with the rich and educated clientele.  She was also already a worshiper of God.  She may have been the only woman there who could understand and follow what Paul was saying.  But Luke does not dwell on any of that.  He gives both the simplest and best answer to Lydia’s conversion.  “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”

            That is the first key, and any examination of those first forty or so years and the massive conversions that took place has to give proper credit to God.  Indeed, Paul himself came to understand that we are saved by grace through faith, and this (faith) is not of our own, but it is the gift of God.  That is, even the faith by which we are converted to Christ is a gift of God’s grace, not something we can whip up.  I understand.  God is the persuader.  We may carry the message, but it is God, the Holy Spirit that moves the heart toward Jesus.  That is fine.  That is how it should be.

            But here, the second point raises its head – and it is rather obvious if you think about it.  The only way so many people could have turned to the Lord, to a completely new and in most cases foreign way of thinking and believing, and in such a relatively short period of time, is if the good news was spread by plain, ordinary people.  The evangelists did little.  There was little they could do without auditoriums and microphones.  Yes, the apostles gave the whole enterprise some stability at the top.  The 4 gospels helped.  The letters written by Paul and various apostles helped.  But it had to be the person in the second pew going home to talk to their neighbor.  And the person in the third pew talking to the people at work.  And the person in the fourth pew talking to their distant relatives.  And the fifth pew talking to the stranger in the street.  And as the Lord opened hearts to respond to the message, soon there was a whole community of believers that surrounded Lydia – and the apostle Paul had long moved on and really had nothing to do with it.

            I have often thought it might take ten or more years of love and encouragement to bring a recalcitrant soul into discipleship.  It might take fifteen years of loving our neighbor as ourselves, fifteen years in the name of Jesus, maybe twenty to make a difference.  But then, I have also thought if every Christian presently alive was willing to make that effort twice in their lifetime – just reach out and bring two people to the Lord, a brother and sister, the young couple living next door, a friend or two from work or from the club,  the clerks where we shop, the people we see on the street every day, just two and the entire planet Earth could be Christian in thirty, maybe at most fifty years.  Think about it.

Lectionary Reflection: Acts 11: 1-18 Verify

            It was a number of years ago now when a well known and well respected news anchor of one of the big networks broke a story about then President Bush and how badly he behaved in relation to the draft and Vietnam, the National Guard, and serving this country.  It made the President look like a terrible person and might have ruined his reelection chances except for one thing.  It was not true. 

            The news anchor got the scoop off an obscure website and failed at Journalism 101.  He failed to verify the information.  It turned out the document was forged, and the result was the news anchor was the one who lost his job and had to step down.

            I recall Woodward and Bernstein, their investigation into the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post – the scandal that eventually brought down former President Nixon.  I remember the book and the movie, All the President’s Men, and in particular their hard-nosed editor.  The editor really only had one line in the movie, though he often repeated it.  Is it verified?  Do you have a second source that can back up this assertion, this information?  He was not going to put anything in print that was not verified.  He did the job right.

            My own writing tends to gravitate to fiction, young-adult adventures in the science fiction and fantasy direction.  But when I am not living, as my wife calls it, in my own little fantasy bubble, I am focused on commentaries and meditations on the faith and the scriptures.  I have written a number Lectionary Reflections which I suppose will one day be collected into book form.  I have penned magazine articles, educational materials, even sermons and lectures when I am invited to give my two cents.  I even managed a few lines of translation in the NRSV back in the days when I was being a student and all around intellectual dork at Princeton.  But I never forget the basic lesson.  Verify.

            I am not the journalist, but my father was and my brother is and it is in my blood and pounded into my head.  The testimony of two is true, the scriptures say.  This matters.  Try Wikipedia.  You won’t have to search very far before you find an article where there are notes  asking, “What is the source for this information?”  Verify, verify.

            In our Christian faith we have two sources and two back-ups which can guide us in our days.  The sources are the Holy Spirit, which is not at all understood in these secular, skeptical days, and the Bible – the Word of God, written.  These two must agree before we act as a church or as individual believers.  A great deal of trouble would be avoided if those feelings and thoughts that we believe may be the inspiration of the Spirit of God were only verified first by the Word of God before they were done.  Indeed, a great deal of heresy and foolishness would be avoided as well.

            For back-up, we have 2000 years of Christian teaching, most of which is consistent and clear.  Christians may argue around the edges, like what baptism might be appropriate and why, but baptism itself is not questioned.  Neither is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Neither is the salvation which is grace to us in his name.  Neither is all that really matters in terms of faith and grace and love for God and neighbor.  We have a great cloud of witnesses, as the scriptures tell us.  And then we also have this: 2000 years of church tradition.

            Church tradition is the least reliable back-up, but not without meaning.  Church tradition is the main reason we are divided into so many denominations.  It is the reason there are so many struggles in congregations.  It is the bright young Pastor who comes in with a suggestion and someone on the board stands up and mouths those seven deadly words: “We never did it that way before.”

            Church tradition is the reason those two gentlemen stranded on the deserted island founded the First Baptist Church and the Second Baptist Church. 

            I recall that meeting of the board where they discussed the little graveyard that nestled up to the side of the church.  Some people were determined to see a fence built around the site because the graves were being disturbed by people tromping through en-route to some other destination.  Most strongly wanted a fence and only needed to determine how to pay for it.  But then one stingy scrooge stood up and reasoned this way.

            “I don’t see any need for a fence around the graveyard.  I believe the people who are not in there don’t really want to go in there, and the people who are in there certainly are not trying to get out.”  I suppose some people just cannot stand to spend money.  There is one in every congregation.

            Church tradition is not reliable in itself.  I repeat, the testimony of two is true, and we must always refer to our sources (Scripture and the Holy Spirit), but after 2000 years, it is not a wholly unreliable back-up and sometimes worthy of consideration.  We can all learn from church tradition, even if it is just a new way to share the Lord’s Supper (Communion, the Eucharist, etc.).

            So now at last we come to Acts 11, and what do we find?  We find that Peter is guilty of a serious breach of Jewish teaching and tradition (synagogue, like church teaching and tradition)  Peter went into a gentile house and broke bread with a gentile.  Lordy, Lordy!

            What did Peter do?  He appealed to the sources.  He told how God (the Holy Spirit) showed him what God calls clean, he should not call unclean.  So he went with the gentiles and into the house because God lead him there by visions and angels.  Then he hit the two source notes.  While he was telling them the Word of God (the Good News, the Gospel, Evangel, all about Jesus – source one), the Holy Spirit (source two) fell upon them even as it fell upon the apostles at the beginning.  What could the objectors say?

            They had no more objections.  They said,  “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”


Lectionary Reflection: Acts 9: 36-43 Listen to God

            Peter was still kind of new at all of this.  Ministry itself was a whole new idea.  There were Jewish Rabbis and Elders in the synagogues.  There were no doubt programs of one sort or another, even if informal, for the community that was linked to and associated with the synagogue.  But ministry, in particular in the sense of evangelism, was something new.  The Jews were a people of blood.  They were not trying to convert the heathen.  And while some outsiders became converts to the monotheistic way of life, it was not something the Jewish community strived for.

            Peter, by contrast, was sent out to bring people to the Lord.  He was to evangelize – to tell the good news.  His job, in a sense, was to make disciples  This was different, but as his words and works went out ahead of him, I have no doubt he achieved a certain notoriety – good in some circles and not so good in others.

            Some people strive for fame.  Peter does not strike me as one of those kind of people.  When the disciples in Joppa came to Lydda and asked Peter to come with them, after the surprise of strangers knowing his name, I would guess Peter asked himself, “I don’t know what they think I can do.”   Nevertheless he went with them as a sign of good faith in the growing Christian community.

            What did he think when he was on the road?  Yes, I walked with Jesus, and saw him raised from the dead, but there are hundreds who can testify to the resurrection.  Sure, I know stories I can tell about Jesus’ words and good works, but I am not the only one.  Of course, I have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, but so have all the disciples who have been baptized and received the laying on of hands.  None of that makes me special in any way.  It is Jesus who is special.  It is Jesus whom the people must love and trust.

            I imagine he never thought about this as an opportunity to evangelize – that being such a new concept – and especially since they must have told him plainly, the woman is dead.

            When Peter arrived, he heard the wailing, and probably thought nothing of it.  The country at that time was full of professional mourners who for a coin would stay up all night wailing and weeping for the dead, whether they knew the person or not.  Now, in this case, there were widows who did know Dorcas, and they were quick to show what good things Dorcas did for them.  Frankly, there are many ministers in our day who might jump to a conclusion.  “You see what a good example Dorcas set for you?  Now it is your turn to go out and do good for others in the same way (the same spirit)” … and that would be the end of it.

            That isn’t what Peter did.   He went up to the room, asked everyone to leave, and prayed.

            Now again, there are many ministers in our day who would not ask peope to leave and make a show of prayer.  Not necessarily because they are thinking what makes them look good, or even what their duty might be, but (hopefully) with the notion that their words might offer some level of comfort to the bereaved.  The minister might asked for a miracle, some would certainly, but then they might end the prayer with “Thy will be done.”  That is tantamount to saying that this woman’s death is (obviously) God’s will, so deal with it.

            I know a whole stream of Christian thinkers who hate the phrase, “Thy will be done” at the close of prayer.  They will tell you that the phrase is like a chink in the armor of faith.  They say if you ask for a miracle and expect a miracle, you need to have solid faith and give God no opportunity to do anything different.  Of course, this isn’t faith.  It is more like a magic formula where one wrong word or thought will somehow break the spell.

            But in any case, this is not what Peter did.  Peter sent everyone from the room and prayed  And I wonder what he might have prayed, what I might have prayed in those circumstances. 

            Do you imagine he prayed, “God, give me the strength to deal with this terrible tragedy?”  How about if he added the phrase, “and turn it to your glory.”  No.  Fortitude is a good thing to have, but that is more the kind of prayer a minister might pray on Sunday morning before the sermon … to deal with that terrible tragedy, if you know what I mean.

            Do you think he prayed, “God, give me the words to bring comfort to your people and let them really understand that you are with us, always?”  I don’t think so.  Peter was no intellectual wordsmith, but in the face of the death of a loved one, and it is something we all face at one time or another, there really are not any good words.  Our best words of sympathy and compassion run dry very quickly and often sound hollow even in willing ears.

            Might he have prayed, “Lord, tell me what I can do here.  What can I possibly do in these circumstances?”  I believe that is closer to the right answer, but it is still missing the mark.  You see, all of these prayers have one thing in common.  The focus is on me.  Strengthen me, give me words, tell me what to do. 

            I am convinced Peter never thought that way or was capable of thinking that there was anything he could do, say, or be that would make any difference.  He was a poor, uneducated fisherman, and while not ashamed of that, I feel he carried that to his grave.  What could he possibly be, say or do that would matter here? 

            But there was one thing Peter did know.  He had traveled with Jesus indeed, and watched him work.  He knew there was nothing that appeared certain in this life that God could not overcome.  The blind received sight, the possessed and oppressed were set free, the deaf could hear, thousands were filled with only a few loaves and fishes, and even the dead were raised.  Nothing was impossible for God.  Peter had his own evidence for that when he gave the name of Jesus to the cripple in the gate and the cripple got up and walked.  But precisely because of that, there really was only one thing Peter could ask in prayer.  “God, what is your will?”

            Peter had to turn the “Thy will be done” right on the head of the faith people.  He did not end his prayer with that.  Thy will be done is, I believe, is where Peter started.  “Lord, what is your will here and now, in this situation?  What is your will?”  And I believe Peter stayed there and continued in prayer until he received an answer.

            God might have answered that his will was to let Tabitha sleep (be dead) until the time of the resurrection.  I know in our day, ministers have used that kind of testimony in a kind of evangelism.  But here, God had something else in mind, and Peter listened.  People, if there is one thing to know about prayer it is this: that prayer is not just our talking, it involves, and always involves some intense listening.  And then, when we become and say and do what we hear, miracles happen.  In this case, word was spread all around the town and many people came to believe in the Lord.  Evangel, (good news).

            I believe God answered Peter something like this:  “It is my will that Tabitha be raised.  You tell her to rise, and then bring her to her friends.”  And Peter, at is eloquent best, said, “Tabitha.  Get up.”


Lectionary Reflection: Acts 9: 1-20 Wait on God

          I have new glasses.  In truth, I never had glasses before.  I did not need them to drive.  I still don’t technically need them to drive, but I have one eye that is weaker on distance vision and the other eye is weaker on near vision, and at my age it was putting an unnecessary strain on my eyes.  So I got glasses, and not only glasses, I got bifocals to adjust for both the near and far.  It is an adjustment, to say the least.

          What the nice woman at the eyeglasses place said was instructive.  She said you just have to wear them for a while.  She said, the brain is used to seeing a certain way, and compensating for the weak eyes.  Now it needs to be rewired.  She said, wear them for a while and at a certain point, the brain will go click! and you will see both near and far better and with less strain on the eyes than you did before.  So I did that, and while I knew better than to expect an actual, audible click n the brain, that would have been fun.

          As often as not, faith in Jesus can be much like getting new glasses.  Our brains have been wired over a lifetime to see life, the universe and everything in a certain way.  We all have settled into comfort zones, no two exactly alike, but it is where we live and pass our days.  When we discover Christ, or more honestly when Christ calls to us and we are brought into the universe of Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection, his ascension to the right hand of God, we really should expect that everything will be fuzzy for a while.

          Everything in the distance that was clear enough to where we could drive our car will appear fuzzy for a time.  And the things close up that we were certain about will suddenly be equally fuzzy.  We will have to go out into the world and we will feel uncomfortable for a while.  Oh, some of it may seem perfectly clear, like the idea that Jesus died for my sins … but does any newborn Christian really understand what that means?  Maybe a few – a very few.  Mostly, our brains need to be rewired.

          Look at Saul.

          He was on the road to Damascus, living and breathing hatred for all things Christian.  He was a brilliant student of the Jewish laws and scriptures.  He no doubt had huge sections of what we call the Old Testament memorized.  That was back in the days when people actually used their brains rather than looking things up on phones that are smarter than they are.  But then Paul got blinded by the light.  (Yes, I hate clichés, except in the place where they started).  He got blinded by the light and needed super glasses. 

          His mind, as far as matters of faith, Jewish faith went, was cast in stone.  Suddenly, the stone exploded.  Everything he thought was true about life, the universe and everything was suddenly turned upside down.  It was that old English hymn – the one Cornwallis had the English band play at Yorktown when a bunch of grubby American rebels beat the greatest fighting force on the planet in those days.  “The world turned upside-down.”

          Paul needed super glasses – super bifocals.  And he needed to wear them for a while until his brain went click.  Even after his sight was returned, he stayed with the disciples in Damascus for a time, growing in faith, relearning what he knew,  seeing it all through new eyes, rewiring his brain.

          Of course, in our day we don’t have many Pauls.  Most people do not know what the Bible says and would not know the Scriptures if it bit them, but so many think they know all about Christianity.  Like the atheist who mocks Christians for worshiping their “sky god” as if Christians actually believe God lives in the clouds.  So often the ridicule of the faith is so far off base it doesn’t even make sense.

          Like the unbeliever who verbally attacks the faith and all who believe in that horrible, vengeful, demanding god as if the gospel of grace, mercy and love never happened.

          Like the woman who once told me that Christianity and Christians were responsible for all of the wars and violence on the planet, to which I said, let’s see.  We went into Iraq and Afghanistan to convert the heathen to Christianity … No?  Well, then Vietnam and North Korea were atheist-communists and we wanted to hold the line for the people of faith … No?  I know, Adolf Hitler was a great Christian – no – but he hated Christians, right? – No?  But the Japanese either were Christians or hated Christians … No?  How about Kaiser Wilhelm?  No?  I don’t even know what faith he was.  Lutheran, I suppose.  I know.  The anarchist that killed Archduke Ferdinand at the start of World War I was a secret Christian.  No, an atheist again?  Well then, Napoleon? Or maybe the Civil War where Yankee Christians killed Confederate Christians over matters of faith. No?  How about the revolution?  It was fought because England was forcing Americans to become Christians.  No?  What do you mean taxation?

          The truth is, even in those conflicts that involved matters of faith, like the thirty years war and the crusades, the motivation was inevitably for power, money and land.  Islam has gone to war from time to time and sees that as an acceptable way to force conversions, and sometimes people of other faiths have fought back.  But be fair.  The truth is, most religious faiths, including Christianity, have argued in the main against war and violence.

          And trust me, you don’t even want to bring up violence in this country, because if you listen to the media, you might be tempted to believe the killers are all conservative, right-wing, Tea Party Christians, only that is not true.  Almost all of the mass murderers and assassins of this century (over the last fifty or more years) have been liberal-leftists (or Islamists).  They have been progressives, communists, socialists, anarchists, atheists and not believers at all.

          Yet the woman believes that Christianity is a horrible thing because it incites violence and is responsible for all the wars, and no amount of evidence or even common sense is going to convince her otherwise.  This is the world we live in.  People think they know all about Christianity and honestly know nothing.  And like Saul, they are quick to spew hatred at Christ, Christians, and the Christian faith.  It might be too much to expect God to blind them all with his light.  But it is remarkable to me that God reaches so many – breaks through the barriers of unbelief and misinformation.  You can be sure when that happens there needs to be some serious rewiring of the brain. 

          Paul understood this after a long time.  He told people they needed to be renewed in the renewing of their minds.  He said, in truth, that even then the best we can see will be like looking into a mirror in a darkened room; but it is better than seeing nothing at all. 

          Of course, in our day, when people discover grace, mercy and love, and that Jesus and Christianity are the opposite of the way they used to think, so many can’t wait to get out there and start telling people the good news.  I feel most need to learn a lesson from Paul.  He stayed where he was in Damascus for a time before he started out on the road.  He waited until something in his brain went click!

          He waited first on God, until God was ready to send him out.  I understand the enthusiasm, the excitement when the world turns upside down, but I believe the better path is to wait on God to see what God would have us do.  That involves listening to what God has to say; like maybe the ears need to click into place as well as the eyes.  Next week we can talk about listening to God.