Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Deep Hypocrisy

I am a huge hypocrite.  I will freely admit it because I have come to see that hypocrisy is a plague that hits just about everyone, and I mean everyone.

I have become consciously aware of this as discussion about the care of Syrian refugees has become a hot topic after the ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris, France.

In much of the media, those who lean left are chiding many conservative Christians who are adamant about not taking in any Syrian refugees.  There are many left-leaning clergy who are decrying those in government who are saying, "We will not take any Syrian refugees because of threats to safety." Those in the media and those left-leaning clergy are making their appeals based on references to Scripture.

Matthew 25 is referenced.
Exodus 22 and 23 are referenced
Leviticus 19 is referenced
Luke 10 is referenced

Now, I have no issue with citing such verses.  There is clear command in scripture to care for the alien and those in need.  Those who point to Christians' lack of adherence to these verse rightly point out our hypocrisy.

But, some folks miss their own, and many who are chiding Christians for failing to follow scripture are those who have minimized the authority of scripture in the past.

For instance, more than a few of those who are speaking loudly about helping the immigrant and chiding Christians for failing to follow scripture have used the following arguments regarding gay marriage:

The Bible is an antiquated book that is not relevant when it comes to this issue.


The Bible really doesn't condemn homosexuality, and you can read those verses in such and such a manner.  (The exegetical gymnastics done here truly are a work of art.)

So, what prevents some of those "conservative" Christians from using the exact same arguments regarding the reception of Syrian immigrants?  What prevents "conservative" Christians from saying:

The Bible is an antiquated book, and those Old Testament passages were written for a nation that had the Jewish God as its ultimate authority.  The U.S. has the Constitution and is not a theocracy, so Biblical injunctions for a nation to welcome the alien no longer apply.

And Jesus never specifically referenced Syrian aliens.  There is a lot of talk about Edomites and Moabites and Canaanites and Samaritains, but nothing about Syrians.

And Matthew 25 (exegetically speaking) is more about those who are not Christian and how they treat Christians.

And Luke 10 is more about my immediate neighbor in need, not someone who is trying to get into my nation.

What is typically done in many instances is using the Bible to justify one's own particular position instead of allowing the Bible to mold one's own position.  If the Bible's injunctions do not fit with my ideology, I can minimize them by the above methods.  However, if the Bible's injunctions mesh with my own, then I can use them as a hammer to blast my opponents--which is what most of this boils down too anyway, isn't it.

I will find something that conforms to my ideology and then use it to bash those who don't agree with me, usually making them feel contempt for me in the process.

Admit it, those of you who are on the left hand side of things, when "conservatives" use scriptural law to tell you how wrong you are for supporting homosexual marriage or relationships, you get angry with them because you think they are holding you in contempt and are acting self-righteously.

Admit it, those of you who are the right hand side of things, when "liberals" use scriptural law to tell you how you are not caring for the poor and your neighbor, you get angry with them because you think they are holding you in contempt and are acting self-righteously.

And admit it, both of you that you do, in a very real way, have contempt for the other "side."  You think "they" are the ones with the problem, and it is "they" who need to change.  If they would only see things in your self-righteous way, then all would be well. 

And let me ask you both, how is this loving your neighbor as you would love yourself?

Hypocrisy runs deep, doesn't it?  (And if you think I am being hypocritical, read sentence #1 again.)

What is your answer to this problem?  Is your answer, "I will work harder to lessen my hypocrisy?"

Good luck.

The more you try, you will either fall into despair because you know you are unable to meet the standard, or you will become self-righteous thinking that you are doing a good job and others should follow suit.  You will either hate yourself or end up right back where you were in the first place.

Trying harder isn't the answer.

Trusting more is.

Trusting more in the action of the one who was had the authority to point out our hypocrisy because He had none.  Trusting in the one who was without sin when we were full of it.  Trusting in the action of One who laid down His life for us when we didn't deserve it.  Trusting in the One who deeply loves us in the midst of our continued failure.

Because if you know you are a failure, you don't become self-righteous.
Because if you know you are deeply loved, you don't despair.

You hold the two in tension and become humble.

You admit your hypocrisy.
You admit you are no better than those on the other "side."
You admit you are swayed by your ideology.
You admit that you need correcting.
You are less likely to judge the other as the one who needs changing and realize you need to change too.
You know the hypocrisy will never be fully erased, and you throw yourself upon the mercy of the one who truly forgives.
And when you know that forgiveness, you forgive others--even when they don't deserve it.
The cycle is broken.

Because of the Gospel.

Monday, November 23, 2015

If You Could Ask Jesus One Question...

When I returned to this Gospel text this past Monday, a thought hit me like a ton of bricks.  I read through the opening statement of this story and paused.   “As he (Jesus) was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” You know what made me pause?  The question.  What is the question?  For this young man it was, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Look, I’ve been a pastor for just over 15 years.  I have eight years of study in theology and philosophy.  I’ve encountered hundreds of people in those 23 years, and I have never had anyone ask me a question like this.  No one.  Nada.  Nil.  In every conversation I have ever had on a message board on the internet or on my Facebook feed, no one has ever asked or even argued about this question either.  And I am going to go out on a limb here, but I think the limb might just be pretty strong.  It is my guess this morning that when you sitting here in the pews gather with your friends or your family, none of you sit around debating about what you or anyone needs to do to inherit eternal life.  I mean, really, does anyone here anticipate sitting at the Thanksgiving table and debating how a person inherits eternal life?  I am pretty sure the topics will be much more centered on the upcoming ball games and perhaps a what sales are running in the stores.

Very few people are asking the question about eternal life.  For the most part, I think most folks don’t worry about the question at all.  I think they either believe that they indeed will have eternal life, and most folks believe they will have done enough to merit it, or they don’t believe in eternal life at all so don’t worry about it.  It’s basically an issue that isn’t on many people’s agenda.  It certainly hasn’t been a topic of conversation in my career.  And here is where the rubber began hitting the road for me.  I started asking myself, “What is the question?”  What is the question that people are asking these days?  What is the dilemma that makes your brain wrestle in wonder and bewilderment?  What is the question that you would love an answer to but have not found anything quite satisfactory just yet?

I do a lot of reading, and I consult quite a few different biblical scholars and preachers.  These scholars and preachers read a lot of cultural pundits who try to read what is going on in society.  They oftentimes talk about what is on people’s hearts and minds, but they nearly always paint in very broad brush strokes.  And when you do that, there is a very real risk of missing what is going on with the people right next to you.  There is a danger of missing what the people in your community are thinking because your community is unique.  I mean, the issues important to our community right here are not the same as the issues facing those who live in downtown Houston, and that is only an hour’s drive from here.  And so I wondered: what is the question for us?  What is the question that we would ask if we could have an encounter with Jesus?

I decided to ask that very thing of our confirmation students this past Wednesday.  Before I delved into teaching class, I asked the 9 ladies and gentlemen who were there to help me with my sermon.  I wrote on the dry erase board the question that you have in your bulletin on that little slip of paper.  “If you had the chance to ask Jesus one question, what would it be?”  Let me tell you something about your sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth graders here: they are very thoughtful.  They have some great questions.  Before I get into some of what they asked, I would like to invite you to fill out that little slip of paper and give it to me before you leave this morning.  I would indeed like to know what question you would like to ask Jesus.  It will hopefully help me tremendously in my teaching and preaching here.  You do not have to sign your name.  There is no need to feel any embarrassment.  Please, simply write your question, and hand it to me.  I cannot promise that I will directly address it immediately, but I hope to wrestle with those questions in the future.

Let’s now look at what our confirmation students asked.  There were a few questions that were easily answered, but let me let you consider three: one of which I will directly address because it ties in to our text today.  Question number one: what is heaven really like?  Question number two: Why did you create us?  And question number three: What is the best thing that we can do?  Pretty deep questions, huh?  I personally thought so, and I want to focus our attention on that last question, question number three: what is the best thing that we can do?  It’s a very, very good question.  It’s a very, very important question.  And I think the answer to that question coincides with the answer Jesus gave that rich young man.  The best thing that you can do is follow Jesus.

You might wonder just how this ties in with the rich young man’s question because his question was about eternal life.  If we read through what Jesus says, particularly after His encounter with this rich man, we see something quite intriguing because Jesus doesn’t just talk about eternal life.  Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, and that Kingdom is not simply eternal life.  It has implications for our lives right here and right now.  Let’s go to the text starting where I left off last week at verse 23.

Jesus looks around at His disciples and the crowd around and says, “Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words.”  The disciples were perplexed for a reason because they had been heavily influenced by the surrounding Jewish culture.  Wealthy people, it was thought, had been especially blessed by God.  It was thought that those with wealth had done all the right things to receive a special blessing by God.  This idea is alive and well today with those preachers who say that if you just believe enough, and pray enough, and do enough of the right things–like cut their church a huge check–then God will rain blessings down upon you.  Not only did this thought penetrate the disciples’ brains, there was also a very practical reason the wealthy were thought to have an inside track to God.  If you were wealthy, you could afford to offer all the sacrifices necessary in the temple to atone for your sins.  You could afford the spotless sheep.  You could afford to offer sacrifice whenever your conscience was bothered.  You could afford to pay your tithes and temple taxes.  Those who were poor had no such luxury.  They could not afford all the temple sacrifices and gifts.  They were on the outside looking in.  This is why Jesus’ comment caught the disciples off guard, and so Jesus repeats and adds a little extra.

“Little children,” Jesus says–an allusion to His teaching about the Kingdom and children just a few verses earlier–“how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God.”  Notice here that there are no qualifiers.  Jesus straightforwardly says that it is hard for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God.  It is not simply achieved.  “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a person of wealth to enter the Kingdom of God.”

A couple of thoughts here.  First, there are some pundits who say that the “Eye of a Needle” was a little gate in the walls of Jerusalem that camels had to kneel down in order to get through.  Therefore, what Jesus is commenting on is the difficulty of getting in, not that it is impossible.  However, the commentaries I consult put the kibosh on this interpretation.  There is no archaeological evidence for this gate.  There is no record of this gate in any ancient sources.  One of the commentaries said it best, “A notable one identifies the “eye of the needle” with a gate leading into the city of Jerusalem before which camels had to kneel in order to get through.  But the existence of any such gate is doubtful.  As Rawlinson says, it has “no authority more trustworthy that the imaginative conjectures of modern guides to Jerusalem.”  No.  Jesus is clear here: He means a camel.  He means a needle.  He means it is impossible.  There is not much wiggle room unless you are trying to make people feel good about themselves, and Jesus is not exactly known for trying to do that.  Jesus is trying to get folks connected with God–with Himself, and He is going to try to break through the barriers which prevent that.

The disciples are still in awe about this teaching.  They are still astounded because they realize its implications.  If the rich folks can’t enter the Kingdom, then who can?  “Who then can be saved?” they ask.

Jesus responds, “For mortals, it is impossible.  For God, all things are possible.”

This leads us to sheer grace.  For us it is impossible to attain salvation.  Only through God is it possible.  Let’s kind of skip ahead for a moment. How possible is it for you and I to die and then come back to life?  Think about that for a minute.  How possible is it for us to have our hearts stop beating; to have our brain function cease, to have our lungs stop pumping, and then after a period of time–oh, say three days, to come back to life?  Impossible.  But for God...who hung on a cross, who had His heart pierced, who breathed His last and lay in a tomb for three days...all things are possible.  Yes, I have kind of given away the ending, but let’s continue for a moment because I have to get to the question of “what is the most important thing we can do?”

Peter then addresses Jesus.  It’s kind of a smug thought.  Peter tells Jesus, “Look, we’ve done what that rich, young man won’t do.  We’ve left our houses, our families, our incomes.  We’ve left everything to follow you.  What do we get?

Jesus’ response is priceless.  I want you to listen to it carefully.  ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Did you notice these two things: did you notice that Jesus said you must leave everything for His sake and for the sake of the Gospel?  This is quite important because it deals with our motivations.  It deals with the state of our hearts.  Many who proclaim that God will bless you if you believe enough, pray enough, and give enough, do so tapping into people’s selfish motivations.  People only give, pray and believe so that they will get something.  They don’t leave for Jesus’ sake.  They don’t leave for the Gospel’s sake.  They leave for their own sake.  They want all the goods, but they don’t want Jesus. They don’t want the Gospel.  Jesus clearly states that He and the Gospel are most important.  Secondly, did you catch that persecutions are part of the equation?  Did you catch that you will receive houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and fields AND PERSECUTIONS?  We tend to gloss over that one.  Christianity comes with a cost.  Finally, did you notice that Jesus is being very earthy with this statement?  Did you notice that these matters are rooted and grounded in this life?  This isn’t just about eternal life.  Following Jesus has consequences right here and right now.  “The last will be first and the first will be last.”

Let me quote to you Walter Wessel from his commentary on Mark here, “In eternity the rich and the powerful will have the tables turned on them.  Or perhaps it is a warning to the disciples in view of what they said, “we have left everything to follow you”.  They must not conceive of their discipleship in terms of rewards.  Discipleship entails suffering and service; it must be entered on in terms of love and commitment to Jesus, not because of what one hopes to get out of it either in this life or in the life to come.”

Let me summarize this teaching quickly.  Jesus essentially says, “If you want abundant life...life in the Kingdom of God here on earth and in the life to come...give up everything for my sake and the sake of the Gospel.  You will find persecution, but you will find great satisfaction.  Not in earthly wealth, but in a community of brothers and sisters who have homes and land who will share and welcome each other–who love one another; who care for one another; who build one another up; whose hearts have been changed; who are humble; who seek one another’s good.  If you attach yourself to your possessions and striving for such possessions, you will miss out on these things.  You will never notice the Kingdom of God which is growing right in your midst.”

How hard it is to enter into this Kingdom.  How hard it is to grasp what Jesus says right here.  It is indeed easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle because everything about our current culture tells us the exact opposite.  Everything in our culture tells us that the most important thing we can do is work to be the best.  Educate ourselves so we can get good jobs.  Get good jobs so we can earn a lot of money.  Earn a lot of money so we can enjoy life to the fullest while we work and play at a frenzied pace.  Keep earning a lot of money so that you can eventually retire and play around keeping death at bay and keeping the medical profession in business.  This is the fulfilling life.  This is the abundant life.  Work hard.  Play hard.  Become a slave to money.

But it never quite satisfies, does it?  It never quite fulfills, does it?  Something is always missing, and we try to fill it with more.  Jesus says, follow me.  Replace all that stuff with me.  Leave it all for my sake and the sake of the Gospel.  Don’t let your heart focus on all of that?

But how?  How can I not focus on all of that when it is thrust in my face over and over and over?  How can I not focus on it when Christmas is just around the corner and all the shops are telling me I will be happy with cheap stuff?  How can I focus on Jesus when my heart is captured by these things?

Jesus says, “Look at the cross.”  Look at the instrument of death and torture that hangs at the front of this building.  Look at what I accomplished for you on that cross.  It is impossible for you and your heart to walk away from these things.  It is impossible for you and your heart not to notice these things.  Your heart will continue to yearn for these things until it understands the great love I have for you.  Until you know what I am willing to do for you on this cross, you will continue to pursue these things.  Close your eyes and see me dying up here for you.  Close your eye and know that I took your place and have saved you by sheer grace.  Close your eyes and know that you don’t deserve what I am doing for you, but I willingly and gladly do it for you anyway.  Let this change your heart.  Let this change your soul.  Nothing else can love you like this.  Nothing.  For mortals it is impossible.  For God, all things are possible.  For God so loved this world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it.”  And when your heart grasps this.  When your heart knows what I have done, then indeed, you will know that the most important thing you can do is follow me.   Amen.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Humbling Mystery

Why is it that Christians say they are saved by grace and not works?

Because, if we as Christians were truly following the example of Jesus, we would be marching into Syria and Iraq, not with guns, bombs, and bullets, but with the cross, food, shelter, and the necessities of life. 

We would be risking our lives and gladly giving our lives because we had no fear of death. 

We would look into the eyes of the killing machine known as ISIS and say, like Dan Wilkinson in "The Cross and the Switchblade", "You can cut us into a million pieces, and every piece will say God loves you." 

But, we fear death. 
We fear the enemy. 
We cower. 
We fail to follow. 
We are not worthy of the name. 

How is it that we who are so far from following are so deeply loved? 
How is it that such hypocrisy is met with One who lays down His life for us? 

That is the mystery of the Gospel.

A mystery that truly humbles the heart.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Terrorists, Bombs, Borders, and Changing Hearts

    I would like to say two things before I begin my sermon this morning.  First, I will be taking two weeks to deal with this particular text from the book of Mark.  (Mark 10:17-31) The whole text should be read together, but it would take far too long to preach on its entirety in one setting, so we will cover it in two sermons.

    The second thing I would like to say is that I am reworking my sermon in light of the events in Paris at the end of this week.  I actually had my whole sermon prepared last Tuesday before I went hunting, but if I would have preached it, I would have run the risk of seeming unconcerned or deaf to the events in our world.  The other danger is to preach something before having enough time to think things through; however, as I thought about this text, I think it had an awful lot to say about what happened in Paris, in Kenya, and in Lebanon these last few days.  And so, we begin.

    I would like to begin with a few words from Martin Luther.  Some of you recognize his name as the man who kicked off the Reformation in 1517 when he nailed 95 Thesis to the doors of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.  The Reformation caused great upheaval in the church and society at the time as many assumptions were questioned and overturned.  The Lutheran church carries Luther’s name, and he is still considered an important person within our ranks.  One of the things Luther wrote was called the Large Catechism.  It was a book intended for pastors and parents as they sought to delve deeply into the life of faith and pass it down to children.  In the Catechism, Luther wrote at length explaining the Lord’s Prayer, the 10 Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed.  It is to the 10 Commandments that we turn.

    Luther wrote the following as he expounded on the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God...you shall have no other gods before me.”  Notice that the Scripture does not deny the existence of other gods.  No, there are many types of gods, but we are called to follow the right God instead of all the false ones.  Luther tried to help us in this endeavor:

    A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need.  To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart.  As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol.  If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God.  On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God.  For these two belong together, faith and God.  That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.

    Now, what does this have to do with the recent attacks in Paris and other places?  Just this:

    You see, Christians do not have their hands clean when it comes to matters of history.  Christians have had their own episodes when we committed atrocities and mass murder.  If you study history, you remember the Crusades and you also remember the Inquisition.  I would like to submit to you this morning that the reason Christianity engaged in these things is because we were worshiping the wrong god.  We certainly were not worshiping the God who took on flesh and died proclaiming forgiveness for His enemies and blessing those who persecuted Him.  So, what god were Christians worshiping: the earthly, temporal power of the Church.

    You see, during the Crusades, Islam had taken over the Holy Land, and kings and popes believed that territory belonged to the Church.  It was thought that we had to establish the Church in these places and govern and rule.  Christianity must control these lands, and so, we marched off to war to conquer.  We slaughtered thousands of innocents in the process–not because we were worshiping Jesus but because we were worshiping the earthly kingdom.  We were worshiping the kingdom instead of the King. We were bowing to a false god. 

    In much the same way, ISIS and Al Queda are not worshiping Allah.  They are worshiping the caliphate.  You know what I mean when I say caliphate?  It is the idea that Islam should reign over the entire world.  It is the Kingdom of Allah, so to speak.  And if something threatens your god; if something stands in the way of your god; you will do whatever it takes to remove that threat.  So, if in the caliphate only Allah can be worshiped, women have little to no rights, and homosexuals should be killed, a society which teaches religious tolerance and equal rights for women and homosexuals is a threat.  It is the enemy, and it must be removed.  Hence, the bombings and killings.

    Of course, if such bombings and killings happen to France or even to us in the U.S., the response is always bombs and borders.  Whenever we are attacked, we counter the threat by killing, bombing, and bullets, and by establishing boundaries to prevent such people from encountering us.  After 9/11 in our own nation, we went on the offensive by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, and we enhanced our airport security and tried to close much of our borders. 

    Christianity offers a different response.  True Christianity does not seek to use bombs and borders, but instead looks to the heart.  It seeks to go after the false gods and convert people to the true God–even if we are rejected, much like Jesus is rejected in our Gospel lesson.  How does it all fit?  Let’s turn to the text, work our way through it, and try to bring it full circle.

    Mark tells us that a young man runs up to Jesus, kneels, and says, “‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This question and the actions of this young man are not innocuous.  What this young man does is actually flabbergasting.  First off, the young man kneels before Jesus.  This is an act of submission.  This is an act of subordination.  The young man is showing extreme deference to Jesus.  There are very few throughout the Gospels who show such deference and humility.  The second thing that the man does is call Jesus “Good Teacher.”  We may think nothing of such a comment today, but in that time, doing such a thing was unheard of.  Yes, you heard me right, no one called any teacher–or really any person–good in Jewish society.  Let me read to you what Craig Evans says in the Word biblical commentary, “There are no examples from the first century or earlier of anyone being called “good teacher” as we have here.”  Think about that.  No examples anywhere of a teacher being called good.  Why? Mark Edwards in his commentary states this, “Rabbis welcomed any number of titles, but only rarely was a rabbi addressed as “good teacher” for fear of blasphemy against God, who alone is good.”  Rabbis emphasized that God alone was good.  No good Jew would call another man good.  It didn’t happen.  Which makes this young man’s comment very, very interesting.

    Which is why Jesus responds in the fashion He does.  “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks.  “No one is good but God alone.”  Now, there are a couple of ways to take Jesus’ response.  There are those who try to emphasize Jesus’ humanity and say that here is evidence that Jesus never claimed to be God.  Jesus clearly is telling the guy that He isn’t God and shouldn’t be called good.  That is a possibility; however, I’d like to suggest that this doesn’t fit with the rest of the text.  In fact, I think a much better reading–true to Mark’s Gospel and the rest of this story is the following: Jesus is warning the young man to watch his words because the man may not like the consequences of where this conversation ultimately leads.  Because if Jesus truly is good, and if God alone is good, well, then this young man just called Jesus God.  And maybe that’s the point of this story.  Let’s continue.

    Jesus continues with His response to the young man’s question, “19You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.”  I want you to note that these generally come from the 10 Commandments.  The only one that is a little different is the command, “you shall not defraud.”  One could argue that this is similar to you shall not covet, but it could also recognize God’s preference for the poor and that one should not accumulate wealth by defrauding the poor.  In any fashion, each of these references picks up on the later commandments.  Please note that the first three commandments are missing from Jesus’ reference.  Again, this is important.  Why?

    The young man responds to Jesus, “Teacher, all of these I have kept from my youth.”  Note that the man did not call Jesus “good” this time.  Maybe the man knows that Jesus skipped a few commandments.  Maybe this made the man a little uncomfortable.  I don’t know for sure, but I do know that this man is confident in his response.  He truly believes he has kept the commandments that Jesus outlined, and here is the kicker, Jesus does not disagree.  Jesus is moved by this man’s testimony.

    As we have gone through the Gospel of Mark, we have seen Jesus become incensed at the Pharisees and scribes and teachers of the law who are huge hypocrites.  We see Jesus become extremely angry with them for acting like they are holy and righteous–for thinking that they follow the commandments and are holy.  Jesus calls them hypocrites and liars, but Jesus does not do this to this young man.  In fact, we are told that Jesus looks at the young man and loves him.  There is no confrontation of hypocrisy.  There is no condemnation of self-righteousness.  Jesus accepts this man’s answer as honest and true, and the word for love affirms this as the Greek word is a derivative of agape–or unconditional love.  Jesus loves this man and his honesty. 

    But Jesus isn’t going to let this young man go away unchallenged.  Jesus is not going to let this man think that he has it all together.  This young man may have commandments 4 through 10 down, but there are three more commandments, and arguably, they are the most important ones.  Jesus has allowed the man to escape the external sins of action, but now it is time to delve down to the man’s heart.  It is time to get down to the root of what makes this young man tick. 

    Jesus says, “You lack one thing; [or dare I say, there is one commandment you are missing], go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

    The Greek is priceless in its description here.  The Greek literally reads, “The young man’s face fell, and he went away grieving because he had many estates.”

    Do you see what Jesus did?  Do you see how Jesus delved into the heart of the matter.  The young man who had come to Jesus was following all the external commands.  He was upright and righteous in the community.  He was seen as genuinely a good guy.  He was kind.  He was generous.  He didn’t sleep around.  He honored his parents.  He did all the things he was supposed to do, but his heart was idolatrous. 

    Jesus, in effect, cut through all the external things.  Jesus cut through all the good things this guy was doing, and Jesus took a laser focus on what this man was living for.  It turns out, this young man was living for his wealth and the status he received as a wealthy man.  Wealth and status was this man’s god, and Jesus confronted that god.  Not only did Jesus confront that god, He offered the young man a replacement.  What is that replacement?  Jesus said, “Follow me.” 

    But it wasn’t good enough.  It wasn’t enough to convince this young man to walk away from everything and follow Jesus.  He just couldn’t do it.  So, is there hope for this young man?  Is there hope for his salvation?  Is there hope that he could follow Jesus? 

    I think so.  For this encounter happened before one very important event.  It happened before the cross.  Why is this significant?

    Let me ask you this: most of you here this morning have had a significant other in your life.  Most of you have been deeply loved by this person.  Most of you deeply love this person.  Even those of you who are widowed understand this.  Did you change yourself for this person?  Did you continue to be the same person you were after you were loved by this significant other?  Of course you changed.  Of course you became different.  When you are loved by a deep and lasting love, you change because you want to show that other person how much you love them.  You want to please them.  You want to honor them.

    When we understand that Jesus loved us with this kind of love, it changes us as well.  When we understand that Jesus went to the cross and died for us when we least deserved it, it changes our hearts.  When we understand that Jesus gave Himself for us, died in our place, and reconciled us to God when we were still sinners, it draws us away from our false gods and sets our hearts upon Him.  We are deeply changed, and it changes the way we look at others. 

    We see that Jesus loved us when we were still enemies toward Him.  And so we love our enemies.  We see that Jesus blessed us when we persecuted Him, and so we bless those who persecute us.  We strive to win others over just like Jesus won us over.  With great love and a firm conviction that He is God.

    Now, there are those who after such atrocities say that the reason Paris and 9/11 and Kenya and Lebanon happened is because of firm conviction in God.  They will say that such conviction leads to hatred and killing.  But it simply is not true.  All of us know who the Amish are.  We know they have a firm conviction and belief in God.  But, you have never heard of an Amish terrorist, have you?  No.  Why?  Because at the heart of their belief is a man who proclaimed peace and non-violence.  At the heart of their belief is Jesus, and they have embodied that belief. 

    This is what we too embody.  This is what we too grasp.  We grasp that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved by Him.”  We are grasped by this love, and we are grasped by a desire to bring that love out into the world.  We are compelled to go out and share Jesus with others so that their hearts may be changed.  May we be willing to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with even our enemies, and may we be willing to face rejection just as Jesus faced rejection. Amen.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Manufactured Controversy (Starbucks, Christmas, and Josh Who?)

Why in the hell is my Facebook feed filled with comments about red cups, a war on Christmas, and the chiding of Christians who should get their priorities in line?

Let me get this straight:

Starbucks decides to remove decorations from its holiday cup...
A FORMER pastor--FORMER, mind you--who is now a SELF PROCLAIMED internet
"social media personality" says this is a war on Christmas and against Jesus.
And Yahoo News, Fox News, CNN, The New York Times, and others run headlines.


Are you kidding me?

Are you really kidding me?

Folks, the war on Christmas is already lost--if there was one in the first place.

I mean, when retailers begin putting out Christmas decorations before the Halloween candy and costumes are put away, there is a problem of priorities.

When you can walk through the largest retailer in the U.S. and not see a single nativity scene in its selection of outdoor decorations, the real meaning of Christmas has been truly left behind.

The war is over.

The true god of this world has already won.  (Need a hint who that god is: $$$)

But, the media needs a war on Christmas.
The media (and certain segments of our society) need to do battle to prove how Christians are short sighted and have their own priorities messed up.
The media (and certain segments of society) need to make headlines, get clicks, and get revenue.

And what better way than to manufacture a crisis?
What better way than to get people to point fingers?
What better way than to get guilt ridden self-righteous Christians to point the finger at militant self-righteous Christians?

Find an obscure former pastor...
Have him criticize a secular business who makes a change...
Write a few headlines...
Pop some popcorn...

And watch how we get duped into fighting.


Over a manufactured controversy.

Instead of the things that really matter.

Are we that dumb?

Monday, November 9, 2015

As a Child

    When I was younger, one of the television shows I enjoyed watching most was America’s Funniest Home Videos.  I think it is still on television; although I watch very little t.v. these days.  I do know that there are a couple of episodes on Netflix, and my son in particular enjoys watching the hilarious antics of people who submit their videos to the show.  I am often intrigued by the award part at the end.  As I ran through the memories of my watching of this show, I thought long and hard about who would oftentimes win the awards at the end.  For those of you who have watched and watch the show, what kind of videos usually take the prize?  Here’s my unscientific, personal answer: cute animals and kids.  The kids probably have the edge. 

    There is something about kids that captivates our hearts.  Even if you do not have children, when you see a bunch of kids gathering together and laughing and smiling, it does something to your heart.  When you see images of children who are hurting or who are sick, it captivates your imagination and causes deep down sympathy.  There is something about our deep sense of humanity that causes us to want to protect, care for, and dote on our children.  That’s one part of us, but you don’t think I’m going to make it that colorful, do you?

    For there is another part of us that absolutely gets annoyed with children.  Don’t think I’m being a kill-joy.  You know it’s true.  Kids are a disruption.  They get loud and obnoxious.  They get pushy and want their way.  They do not follow the spoken and unspoken rules that we have as adults.  They do not allow us to do the things we want to do and say the things we want to say, and they cry and whine and fuss and argue.  And we generally think that they are a generation of spoiled brats!  !  I think in every cultural period, people have worried about the youth of the day being, well, immature.  Consider a few of these quotes from folks who lived long ago:

        They [Young People] have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things -- and that means having exalted notions. They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: Their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning -- all their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They overdo everything -- they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else.  –Aristotle

    "The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress."  (From a sermon preached by Peter the Hermit in A.D. 1274)

    "I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint".  (Hesiod, 8th century BC)

    At this point, you may be thinking that I am laying the groundwork to make a defense of our children and to encourage our children’s ministry here.  Rest assured, I am not.  I am not because the text we have before us from the Gospel of Mark is not about children.  Much like America’s Funniest Home Videos uses children to suck us in and watch their programming, Jesus uses children to teach His disciples an important lesson–a lesson about God’s kingdom.

    Let’s turn to the text.  People were bringing children to Jesus that He might touch them.  This was a common practice in the ancient world.  If people knew a holy person was in town–a priest or a rabbi or other such leader, they would often bring their children to receive a blessing.  Obviously, people had heard about Jesus being in the area, and they brought their kids.

    However, the disciples weren’t exactly receptive to these people.  They rebuked the folks who were bringing their kids.  The Greek word here for “rebuke” is epitimao, which is the exact same word that is used by Mark when Jesus rebukes the demons.  It is the same word that Mark used when Peter rebuked Jesus and when Jesus rebuked Peter back.  It is a very, very strong word that shows the disciples’ almost disdain for the parents who are bringing their kids.

    Jesus becomes indignant with the disciples.  Again, we have another strong Greek word.  Mark Edwards in his commentary says, “The word for “indignant” means “to arouse to anger” that is, to vent oneself in expressed displeasure rather than simply brooding about it.  The object of a person’s indignation reveals a great deal about that person.  Jesus’ displeasure here reveals his compassion and defense of the helpless, vulnerable, and powerless.”

    I agree with what Edwards says, but I think it goes much further than simply Jesus compassion toward the children.  There is more going on.  For if you remember a couple of weeks ago, Jesus had an encounter with His disciples about who was greatest.  The disciples had been arguing about who was greatest, and Jesus gave them an important illustration.  Let me read to you just a few short paragraphs before today’s text from Mark chapter 9, “Then He [Jesus] took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 

    Let that sink in for just a minute or two.  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes who?  And by welcoming JESUS, the One who sent Jesus is also welcomed!!!”  Jesus taught this explicitly to the disciples, and they are failing miserably.  They are failing to welcome not “one such child” but a whole host of children, and so they are rejecting Jesus and by virtue of rejecting Jesus, they are rejecting God the Father.  Is it any wonder Jesus is so indignant??!!!

    Jesus hammers His disciples, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.”  We are not going to spend time on this statement because it is pretty self-explanatory.  However, the next statement is of utmost importance.

    Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

    This statement deserves a bit of time.  For it strikes, not at the hearts of kids, but at our hearts.  If you do not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, you will never enter it.  What does it mean to receive the kingdom of God as a little child.  Does it mean that we are to accept the kingdom of God just like we accept children?   Let’s first understand how children were viewed in ancient Israel.

    Almost all the commentaries agree on this point, and I’m going to go with the best quote on this one.  Again, from Mark Edwards:

    Ancient Jewish society...did not regard children with the same affection (as Western society).  Children, like women, derived their position in society primarily from their relationship to adult males.  Sons, to be sure, were regarded as a blessing from God, but largely because they insured the continuance of the family for another generation–and increased its workforce.  Childhood was typically regarded as an unavoidable interim between birth and adulthood, which a boy reached at age 13.  One will search Jewish and early Christian literature in vain for sympathy toward the young comparable to that shown by Jesus.
    Children were only seen as precious commodities–as those who could contribute in their later years toward the family’s well being.  They were seen as hands for the farm or retirement care.  Little children were a burden.  They only received their value and worth from their parents.  They knew they had no standing.  They knew they had only the value placed on them by their parents.  The majority of them were poor and disenfranchised.  Life was rough and tumble.  It was dog eat dog.  They were not fed first.  They had little or no toys.  They soon learned that everything they received was a gift.  And they learned gratitude.

    Why is this important?  William Lane had an interesting comment in his commentary, one that I think gives a partial answer.  Lane says, “Unlike adults, who do not want anything to be given to them, children are comparatively modest and unspoiled.”  Now, I would have to argue a bit with Dr. Lane.  I would qualify this statement and say that some adults want nothing given to them.  Some adults believe they must work for everything and refuse to accept any sort of free gift.  Some adults are too prideful to admit they need help and assistance.  Some adults want to work for everything they get.  Why?  Because it is their accomplishment; their work; they take great pride in their accomplishments because it is THEIR accomplishment.  Accomplishing much gives them a sense of value and worth, and if they take something without earning it, they feel shallow.

    Of course, this does not encompass all adults.  For we also know there are adults who expect things to be given to them.  There are adults who have a sense of entitlement.  There are adults who believe that they have a right to all sorts of goods and services without having to pay for them because they simply are.  They believe they deserve anything and everything that is given to them.  What is the result of such behavior? 

    The results from both ways are the same: a sense of self-righteousness.  One way says, “I have worked my way up.  I have accomplished all by my own, two hands, and I deserve to be rewarded for my efforts.”  The other way says, “I am good in and of myself, and I deserve to be rewarded for being me.”  Both of these paths are self-centered and self-serving.  One bases worth and value on work.  The other bases worth and value simply on being.  Neither leads to gratitude.  Neither leads to humility.  Both are self-aggrandizing, and you will not enter into the Kingdom of God if you are self-aggrandizing.  You will not enter into the Kingdom of God if you believe you deserve it.  You will enter the Kingdom of God if you realize that you do not deserve it, that you have not earned it, and that it is an undeserved gift given through and by God.

    This brings us right back to Jesus’ comment about children. Remember what I said earlier quoting Mark Edwards: children received their value only through their fathers.  Children received everything they had through their Father.  They realized they were totally dependent upon their Father for everything.  And these are little children!!  They have not reached the age where they become resentful–this is important.  In a conversation with one of my congregation members this week, I was informed that she was engaged in learning about children and how they act before they reach a certain age.  Before they become entangled in all of our problems as adults, they understand gratitude.  They understand sharing.  They understand compassion.  They understand that they receive everything from their parents and guardians.  They understand that everything is a gift, and they have a sense of gratitude and excitement about it.  Little children know their dependence upon their parents; know it is undeserved; and respond with thanksgiving.

    You will not receive the Kingdom of God unless you receive it as a child. 

    With gratitude.
    With humility.
    Without a sense of having earned it.
    Without believing you are entitled to it.

    How can you cultivate this attitude?

    Did you catch my purposeful attempt to mislead you?  You will cultivate a sense of gratitude and humility if you believe you have received something without having earned it.  You will cultivate a sense of gratitude and humility if you understand that you have received something that you didn’t deserve.   Gratitude and humility comes by knowing you are gifted something without having done anything on your part.

    Christianity calls this sheer grace.  Christianity calls this the act of God on our behalf to bring salvation to us–not because we deserved it.  Far from it.  We didn’t.  In fact, it was our sinfulness that brought Jesus to the cross.  It was our lack of ability to accomplish the following of the Law that required justice to be served.  Someone out there might ask, “Well, what law did I break?”  Think about it for just a moment.  Think about the standards that you hold everyone else to.  Think about how you think everyone else should act in the world.  Do you live up to even your own standards?  I can almost guarantee you, you do not.  None of us do.  There is a universal law that every culture, every religion, and every philosophy holds, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Every culture has it.  Every culture breaks it.  Admit it–you do too.  And if you are judged by that standard, you must admit failure.

    Yet, justice must be served.  And rather than that justice falling upon you, God took on human flesh and allowed justice to be served upon Him.  He took the punishment you deserved because you failed to do unto others.  He stepped in to offer you the Kingdom when you didn’t deserve it.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved by Him.

    By Him!
    By Him!

    Not by your actions and deeds.  Not by any sense of entitlement because you were an important person or being, but by sheer grace.

    No one has room to boast.
    No one has room to hold one’s head high.

    All are failures just as all are deeply loved.  Such a thing brings humility and gratitude–a child like faith.  A faith that comes when you remember what Jesus has done.

    Oh, the text isn’t quite finished.  There is one more verse.  “And Jesus took the little children up into His arms, laid His hands upon them, and He–again we see the weakness of translation, for Jesus doesn’t simply bless them–according to the Greek, He lavishes rich uber-blessing upon them.  Just as He lavishes such blessing upon you through the cross as He bears your sin.  May your heart be moved to gratitude and humility as you come to know the gift of His sheer grace.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

When Troubles Beset Us...

    Perhaps you recognize the title of this post as part of the Gospel hymn “On the Wings of a Dove.”  The entire verse is as follows:

When troubles beset us; When evils come
The body grows weak, and the spirit grows numb
When these beset us; well He doesn’t forget us
He sends down His love, on the wings of a dove.

    I share this with you in the knowledge that many, many within our congregation have been beset with such troubles.  There are many who are struggling with dealing with loved ones who are sick and dying.  There are some who have lost spouses.  There are some who are fighting illness themselves.  There are some who are recovering from surgery.  There are some who have had weird life circumstances cause stumbling and falling.  One wonders why such things happen.

    There is no perfect answer.  Believe you me.  If there was, I would write the book and sit back and enjoy the royalties.  But I haven’t written that book because no answer is satisfactory.  I can tell you a couple that are flat out wrong.  Wrong answer number 1: “Jesus wants you to have victory over such matters.”  One need be reminded, Jesus’ victory came on the cross–through suffering and persecution.  The victory is won, no doubt, but not without a great cost.  Wrong answer #2: If you just had enough faith, things would turn out right.  Please, no one has enough faith.  No one.  This is why we are saved by sheer grace.  We are dependent upon the mercy of God for all that we get.  We don’t earn it by our faith.  Wrong answer #3: God is causing this to test me.  God knows you would fail.  God knows we would all fail.  Our human nature is weak.  Furthermore, if you look at the life of Jesus, you will not see God testing Jesus (that would be a bit redundant).  You will see the Enemy testing Jesus.  It is the Enemy who tries to bring about our downfall by tests.

    Which leads me to offer a few answers that I think help us grapple with trials and tribulations.  Answer #1: When you are seeking to follow Jesus and the Gospel begins to take root in your heart, the Enemy works to steal you away.  The Enemy sets up road blocks and trials to make you question your commitment to Jesus.  Over and over again, we see this plainly in scripture.  Answer #2: We cannot escape our choices.  This is not a popular answer, but it is reality.  It does not cover everything, but if you have lung cancer after smoking for 30 years, this is no surprise.  One must make a distinction between things that we have some part in and things we don’t.  Answer #3: I have no idea what-so-ever.  This is the hardest one to accept because we want a reason.  We want a clue as to why things are happening.  Sometimes, there is just no good answer, and we must hope that God is in the midst of our trials and tribulations working to bring about a positive solution.

    That last sentence is an important one because it demands trust in God.  It demands that we have hope.  It’s a hard thing to have at times, but it is central to our faith.  The cross was the darkest day for the Christian, but it was followed by the light of the resurrection.  Cross.  Resurrection.  Death.  Life.  God worked to bring hope from tragedy, and it is this that we hold onto desperately in the midst of our trials.  May that hope find its way into your heart and mind.  Amen.