Friday, June 24, 2016

A Light to the Nations

The lectionary reading for today is from Isaiah 49:1-6....

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.”

And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

These verses from the prophet Isaiah are about the call of Israel as a nation to serve the Lord. God's intention for them was that they should be a light to the nations so that God's salvation would reach to the end of the earth. Of course, as Christians we believe that this prophecy, this intention on God's part, was fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah. Through him, God's salvation really has reached to the end of the earth, and the Good News about Jesus continues to go forth to all the nations.

But what about us? What about you and me? Do you think God has called us before we were born? Does God have a special intention, a plan for us? Does God want us also to be part of his light to the nations?

I believe the answer is a resounding "yes"! The question is: "How?"

Perhaps the answer is as simple as being a light to the people we meet today, shining the light of Jesus in word and deed. Perhaps we can begin by simply asking the Lord, "Jesus, shine your light through me to the people I meet today, that they might know your love. Amen."

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Test the Fruit

Our Gospel lectionary reading for today comes from Matthew 7:15-20 ....
Jesus told the crowds, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits."
 This passage raises the question: who are we listening to?

Jesus tells us there are many false prophets in the world. They come to us in sheep's clothing; that is to say, these false prophets come to us claiming to be Jesus' sheep, but they aren't. They are really wolves.

How do we recognize false prophets? Jesus says, "By their fruit you will know them." Is the prophet's life and teaching producing the fruit of the Spirit--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control? (Galatians 5:22-23) If so, then Jesus says you can trust them. 

Jesus also says that every tree that does not bear good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire. In other words, every prophet who is not bearing good fruit is really just another person on the broad road to destruction.

I heard a story some years ago about how one man thought he could get a great parking space at a New York Yankees baseball game. He pulled his car into the VIP parking lot and told the attendant that he was a friend of George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees. Unfortunately for that imposter, the parking lot attendant that day was none other than George Steinbrenner. He was personally investigating some traffic problems at the stadium.

The surprised imposter looked at Steinbrenner and said, "I guess I've got the wrong lot." That guy didn't park in the VIP lot that day or ever again.

The owner knows his friends and the owner determines who gets in the VIP lot. God also knows who his friends are and who the imposters are. And he tells us how we can identify the true prophet. He or she is the one who produces good fruit in his or her life and teaching.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Golden Rule

The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 7:12-14 where Jesus says:
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

I want to focus on the first part of what Jesus says here, what many have called "The Golden Rule".  This is not a disconnected saying. The sentence begins with "so" or "therefore" connecting it back to what has gone before. The underlying logic is that if God the Father works for the ultimate good of all who seek him then his children must work for the ultimate good of others.

Jesus says that this one rule sums up the law and the prophets. This saying is very close in meaning to a statement in the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus often quoted: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). But this is one of the few, and perhaps the only place where this command was stated positively before the time of Jesus.

The command is stated negatively in numerous places. For example, in Psalm 15 and Tobit 4:16.

The story is told of two famous rabbis who lived in the first century BCE. Shammer was renowned for his stern and rigid commentary on the law. Hillel was better known for his graciousness. A Gentile came to Shammai one day and said, "I am prepared to be received as a proselyte on the condition you teach me the whole Law while I'm standing on one leg." Shammer drove him away with a ruler he had in his hand.

The Gentile went to Hillel and made the same offer. Hillel said, "I would be happy to receive you as a proselyte." So the Gentile stood on one leg while Hillel said, "What is hateful to yourself, do to no other; that is the whole Law, and the rest is commentary. Go and learn."

The negative of the Golden Rule is also found in other religions and cultures. Confucius said, "Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you."

There is also a Buddhist hymn that comes very near to Jesus' teaching:

All men tremble at the rod, all men fear death;
Putting oneself in the place of others, kill not, nor cause to kill.
All men tremble at the rod, unto all men life is dear;
Doing as one would be done by; kill not nor cause to kill.

Many other examples could be cited that show the similarity of Jesus' teaching to that of other great religious leaders in other cultures. And if Jesus teaches the same ethic as many other philosophers what is so surprising about that? As C. S. Lewis has said, "There never has been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world.... The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary color, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in."

However, one thing should be noted. The movement from Confucius' statement, "Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you", to Jesus' command "do to others what you would have them do to you" is a great advance.

Confucius' saying has often become the basis for law. Governments can pass laws against people doing to others what they wouldn't want done to themselves. But Jesus' teaching can never be enforced by human law. Governments can't effectively command people to be generous, to encourage the lonely, to forgive their enemies, to help the poor.

Or to give a more specific example: Governments can legislate that people who drive automobiles should do so in such a way that they do not injure people on the roads. But no government has ever legislated that one must pick up a tired pedestrian and give him a lift.

To carry out Confucius' teaching, to refrain from harming others, is not all that difficult; all it requires is inaction. The passive person may not do any harm to his fellow human beings, but does he or she help anyone?

On the other hand, such positive action as Jesus commands is extremely difficult to carry out; it requires self-sacrifice. It can't really be done in response to human legislation. The only way we can fulfill Jesus' Golden Rule is if the love of God burns in our hearts. As the Apostle Paul said, "For Christ's love compels us..." (2 Corinthians 5:14)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Don't Judge!

The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 7:1-5 where Jesus says...
Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
Swiss psychologist Paul Tournier once wrote,

Without being fully aware of it we mentally twist this commandment, as if Jesus had said: "Judge not unjustly." He said: "Judge not." He did not deny that there is a mote in my neighbour's eye, but he asks that I should first concern myself only with the beam in my own. This abdication of all spirit of judgment is extremely difficult for us, and seems like surrendering before evil.
What did Jesus mean when he said, "Don't judge."? Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, believed that Jesus was saying we should not have any courts of law. But Jesus makes no mention of courts of law. He is addressing his disciples. He is addressing individuals, not societal systems.

On the other hand, Jesus' commandment not to judge is certainly not a command to do away with all personal discernment. After all, when Jesus says, "Do not give dogs what is sacred," he is asking us to show discernment isn't he?

I think the answer to what Jesus meant when he said, "Don't judge," is revealed in the meaning of the Greek word that is used here. What Jesus is talking about is condemnation, damnation. He is saying that we should not have a condemning attitude, a damning attitude toward anyone. However, as Paul Tournier says, getting rid of the spirit of judgment, getting rid of the spirit of condemnation, is very difficult.

A school teacher named Dodie Gradient decided to travel across the United States and see all the sites she had been teaching about for years. Traveling alone in a truck towing a camper, Dodie launched out across the country. One afternoon, while rounding a curve on Interstate 5 near Sacramento, California, in rush hour traffic, a water pump went out on Dodie's truck. He vehicle stalled, and she got out to examine the problem. She was tired, exasperated, scared and alone. In spite of the traffic jam her stalled truck was causing, no one showed any interest in stopping to help.

 Leaning up against the trailer Dodie prayed, "Please God, send me an angel...preferably one with mechanical experience." Within four minutes a large Harley-Davidson motorcycle pulled up. It was ridden by a huge man with long black hair, a beard and tattooed arms. With a certain air of confidence, and without so much as glancing at Dodie, the man got off his Harley and went to work on her truck. Within another few minutes the biker flagged down a trucker, attached a tow chain to the frame of Dodie's disabled Chevy, and the trucker whisked Dodie's entire rig off the interstate on to a side street. There the biker continued to calmly work on the water pump.

Jodie was utterly intimidated. She was too afraid even to talk, especially when she saw the words on the back of the biker's jacket: Hell's Angels--California!

As the biker finished his task, Dodie finally drew together enough courage to say "thank you" and carry on a brief conversation. The biker, of course, noticed Dodie's consternation at his own appearance and, looking her straight in the eye, he said, "Don't judge a book by its cover. you may not know who you're talking to."

With that, the biker closed the hood of Dodie's truck and straddled his Harley. With a simple wave of the hand he was gone as quickly as he had appeared.

We all have a hard time NOT judging a book by its cover, don't we?

That's why I think we all need to pray and ask for Jesus' help with this....

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Looking at Our Father

Our Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 6:7-15 ...
Jesus said, "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 'Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
We pick up today where we left off yesterday. This is the central part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is teaching about the three central acts of Jewish devotion: giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. It is in this context that Jesus gives his disciples a model prayer to pray, one that we have come to call The Lord's Prayer.

But first, this text raises the question: "If the Father knows what we need before we ask, then why should we pray?" We actually addressed this question yesterday and saw C. S. Lewis' answer. We pray because in prayer we submit ourselves to be known by God, we "unveil" ourselves, we present ourselves as persons so that we may know God in a personal way.

The Lord's Prayer begins in the most personal way possible, with the words "Our Father". Jesus called God "Abba" which, as you probably know, is the Aramaic word equivalent in intimacy to our English word "Daddy". Through Jesus we are drawn into an intimate relationship with God and invited to call him "Father".

Many years ago, when I was going through a difficult time in my life, I got to a place where I found I could not even pray in my own words. And so I ended up praying the Lord's Prayer every day. One day, as I was praying this model prayer, given to us by Jesus, a mental image came into my mind. As I prayed the words "Our Father", I thought of how my youngest son, who was four at the time, liked having me carry him in my arms with his face toward mine. And as I thought about that image, it was as if the Lord said to me, "Will, let me carry you like that through today, and keep your gaze upon me."

I believe that is what God wants to do with each of us. He is our heavenly Father. He wants to carry us through both the good and the bad times in life. And he wants us to keep our gaze steady upon his loving face.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Giving & Prayer

The Gospel lectionary reading for today is from Matthew 6:1-6. Jesus said,
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 
So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
In this passage Jesus begins to address the three great acts of righteousness, or devotion, or piety that were recognized and practiced in some way by all the Jewish people of his time. Those three acts were: giving to the needy, prayer, and fasting. In our passage for today, Jesus addresses the first two.

In verse one Jesus states the main principle that he is going to apply to all three acts of piety: "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven."

Performing acts of righteousness to be seen by others was not simply a problem for Jews in the first century. If we are honest, it is a temptation for us as well.

How much of our giving to the needy is done to be seen by others? Merely for the purpose of a tax deduction? Or to make others think more highly of us? Even the way we collect offerings in church has the potential to go awry ... because it is public, visible. We may not sound a trumpet, but we don't mind if others happen to see what we give, do we?

The real question is one of motive: whom are we trying to please? Ourselves? Others? Or God?

It is difficult, perhaps, in our time to do all our giving in secret. Organizations will send us an accounting of our giving with a thank-you note. So maybe we cannot do all of our giving in secret. But that doesn't mean we can't do something quietly, while no one is looking, just to help one other person, close by, who is in need, not a large corporation that is doing some work in a distant land.

And we must ask ourselves some of the same questions about prayer. Do we pray the same way in public that we do in private? Most likely not. There is nothing wrong with public prayer. We need to pray in church, with others, maybe in a home group, or a Sunday school class. Praying over our meal in a restaurant can be a good act, if we do it for the right reason.

But there is something far more valuable about private prayer, isn't there? That is where we can really connect with God. And perhaps if we are avoiding doing that work of private prayer, is it perhaps because we are avoiding God? Are we afraid of silence? Afraid of being alone? Afraid of finding out who we really are when no one else is watching? Of course, God already knows everything about us, so there is no use hiding. But we can choose to withhold ourselves from God, or not. And perhaps that is what prayer is all about.

C. S. Lewis writes in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer...
We are always completely, and therefore equally, known to God. That is our destiny whether we like it or not. But though this knowledge never varies, the quality of our being known can. A school of thought holds that "freedom is willed necessity." Never mind if they are right or not. I want this idea only as an analogy. Ordinarily, to be known by God is to be, for this purpose, in the category of things. We are like earthworms, cabbages, and nebulae, objects of divine knowledge. But when we (a) become aware of the fact--the present fact, not the generalisation--and (b) assent with all our will to be so known, then we treat ourselves, in relation to God, not as things but as persons. We have unveiled. Not that any veil could have baffled this sight. The change is in us. The passive changes to the active. Instead of merely being known, we show, we tell, we offer ourselves to view.
To put ourselves thus on a personal footing with God could, in itself and without warrant, be nothing but presumption and illusion. But we are taught that it is not; that it is God who gives us that footing. For it is by the Holy Spirit that we cry "Father." By unveiling, by confessing our sins and "making known" our requests, we assume the high rank of persons before Him. And He, descending, becomes a Person to us.  (Letter IV)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Love Your Enemies?

Our Gospel lectionary reading for today comes from Matthew 5:43-48. Jesus said, 
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
These are very challenging words to hear from the lips of Jesus and to take to heart, especially in the wake of the worst mass shooting in recent U. S. history. When you heard the news about the shooting in Orlando, what emotions rose within you? Sadness?  Fear? Anger?

Let's take a closer look at that last emotion ... anger. Who were you angry at? The man who committed this horrific crime? ISIS? Perhaps Muslims in general? 

Even worse, do you fail to have compassion for those who died in the nightclub because they were part of the LGBT community? Because they were different from you?

For some of us, this shooting, though distant from some of us, raises the specter of a number of enemies. And we may well wonder, how can we love our enemies as Jesus commands us to do? What does such love even look like? 

Here is what C. S. Lewis has to say about loving our enemies from Mere Christianity....
Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment – even to death. If you had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy. I always have thought so, ever since I became a Christian, and long before the war, and I still think so now that we are at peace....

I imagine somebody will say, ‘Well, if one is allowed to condemn the enemy’s acts, and punish him, and kill him, what difference is left between Christian morality and the ordinary view?’ All the difference in the world. Remember, we Christians think man lives for ever. Therefore, what really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature. We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one's own back, must be simply killed. I do not mean that anyone can decide this moment that he will never feel it any more. That is not how things happen. I mean that every time it bobs its head up, day after day, year after year, all our lives long, we must hit it on the head. It is hard work, but the attempt is not impossible. Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves – to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. This is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.
I admit that this means loving people who have nothing lovable about them. But then, has oneself anything lovable about it? You love it simply because it is yourself. God intends us to love all selves in the same way and for the same reason: but He has given us the sum ready worked out on our own case to show us how it works. We have then to go on and apply the rule to all the other selves. Perhaps it makes it easier if we remember that that is how He loves us. Not for any nice, attractive qualities we think we have, but just because we are the things called selves. For really there is nothing else in us to love: creatures like us who actually find hatred such a pleasure that to give it up is like giving up beer or tobacco.... (Mere Christianity, Book III, Chapter 7)