Monday, August 20, 2018

Why are We Here?: Passing Down the Faith to Our Kids

This morning, I would like to begin my visit with you with an extended quote from a very famous theologian and biblical scholar.  I want to give you an advance warning that this particular scholar was a bit colorful in his use of language, and there is no doubt that he would be referred to sensitivity training.  Despite this, perhaps his words have some relevance for us today as we talk about one of the reasons the church is here today: to pass down the faith to our children. 

Now, let’s hear that quote: The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered lately when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare [publish] this Catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form. Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach [so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it]. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians, have been baptized and receive the [common] holy Sacraments. Yet they [do not understand and] cannot [even] recite either the Lord's Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments; they live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs; and yet, now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts.

Does anyone recognize who this theologian and scholar is?  It was Martin Luther writing in the 1500s in Europe.  I’m pretty sure that dumb brutes and irrational hogs comment would have earned him a quick trip to sensitivity training or counseling in this day and age, but that comment aside: do you think the situation that he faced and the situation the church faces today is much different–at least when it comes to the proclamation and passing down of the Christian faith?

There are quite a few points of contact, in fact.  A couple of weeks ago, when I talked about evangelism, I pointed out that our culture has shifted tremendously.  We no longer live in a culture that embraces the Christian worldview.  We no longer live in a culture that promotes the Christian worldview.  50 to 60 years ago, Christianity and the culture kind of walked together.  There was prayer in schools.  The curriculum taught in schools had all kinds of references to the Bible and its stories.  Television and radio promoted Christian thought.  How many of you remember the days when the television stations actually signed off the air?  A few hands are going up in the air.  I remember down in my hometown, when the station signed off the air, it always ended with the prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.  Amen.

Do you know of any local television stations that would be willing to run that prayer anymore?  Do you know of any public schools where Christian stories are found in the curriculum? 

You see, back in those days, the church and Christian families didn’t have to work as hard to instill the Christian worldview in their children.  They could absorb it from the culture and from society.  I think it is a bit safe to say that because of this, the church became a bit lazy in teaching the faith to its kids.  After all, it had an ally in the surrounding culture.  These days, you cannot count on that anymore.  You cannot count on society’s help in instilling the Christian faith. 

Luther couldn’t count on it either.  The society in which he grew up was technically a Christian society.  It was certainly dominated by the church, but the church at that time didn’t really want people to know the faith.  They didn’t really want everyone to come to an understanding of what Christianity was about because they wanted people to simply obey everything the church said.  They did church services in Latin even when no one in the population understood the language.  They preached in Latin.  They read the Latin Bible.  People were told they had to sit in church and take the sacrament or else they would be sent to the fires of hell.  Death was an ever present reality in that day, and folks were terribly afraid of it.  They were terribly afraid of what would happen to them after they died, and if the main authority in society told them there was a hell that must be avoided, they tried to avoid it.  So if the church said, you’d better give money to keep yourself out of hell, folks gave money to keep themselves out of hell.  The church thrived on the ignorance of the people.  So, even though the circumstances between Luther’s day and ours are vastly different, there is still the common thread that a whole lot of people just don’t know what Christianity is about, and our kids are feeling the brunt of it.

In a sermon I listened to, the pastor talked about something he did in his congregation.  It had a powerful effect on everyone in attendance.  I’m a little leery of trying it here, because I don’t know exactly everyone’s situation.  So, here’s what I am going to do.  I’m going to describe what the pastor did, and then I’m going to give us the option of doing it here.  The pastor, in the midst of his sermon asked this question, “How many of you have a child or a grandchild who is not churched or who does not attend church?  If you have a child or a grandchild who is not churched or who does not attend church, please stand up.”  In his congregation, approximately 75% of the congregation stood up.  It was a very effective way to communicate the urgency needed to pass the Christian faith down to the next generation.  I’m not going to force anyone to do this, but what do you think the results would be here?  Do you want to try it?  It’s okay if we don’t, but the point is pretty clear.  Most of us do know someone or we ourselves are folks who have kids and grandkids who do not go to church or for whom church is not important.  We also have kids and grandkids for whom faith is not very relevant to their daily lives in the least.

And we already have the solution to this problem.  We already have the tools available for us to address what is going on.  But first, we have to deal with an assumption: I am assuming this morning that each and every one of us here want to pass the faith down to another generation.  I am assuming that we want our children to grow up to be Christians.  Not everyone feels this way.  There are some who believe that children should be given the freedom to choose for themselves whether or not they want to believe and they do not try to teach any sort of religious belief.  There are others who teach that they don’t care what their kids believe as long as they believe in some sort of religion.  These are important assumptions to deal with, but I don’t have the time to do that this morning. 

I will say this though, and this comes from more than just me.  The most influential folks in passing down the faith to another generation are the parents.  So, parents, if you aren’t teaching your kids, odds are they aren’t going to believe at all.  There are some exceptions to this rule, but overall, those of us who parent are going to have the greatest effect on our children. 

The Bible teaches this clearly.  Our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy emphasizes parents passing the teachings of the Lord onto their children.  The lesson from Ephesians implores fathers to bring their children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.  There are other verses throughout the Scriptures which say the same thing.

Luther understood this when he wrote the Small Catechism.  It was meant for families to teach their children in the homes so that they would have the basics of the faith.  In fact, Luther was a strong proponent of people reciting the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer several times a day and teaching them to their children.

Why such an emphasis on parents teaching these materials at home?  In the book Total Church, the authors wrote this profound statement: Babies are not just born into families and then left there.  In functioning families, they are nurtured and prepared for adulthood.  For all the talk of peer pressure and the influence of the media, the primary influence on a child is the family.  This is the context in which children learn values.  But not much of that teaching occurs in formal “sit down and listen to Mother or Father for forty-five minutes” contexts!  Most of it is done in life settings as situations crop up.  Most of it happens in conversations as you are out walking the dog or washing the car.  Much of it is in response to events in which someone has messed up, misbehaved, or made an error of judgment–all actions that in some way reveal what is going on in our hearts.  P. 113-114

Our children watch us. They watch us carefully.  They imitate us.  They see what we think is important.  They watch where we spend our time and our money.  They pick up on our likes and dislikes.  They see whether or not faith is really important in our lives. 

Now, it’s no guarantee that faith will become important to them.  It’s no guarantee that because you worship in church your children will worship as well.  But when you not only go to church; when you have discussions about why faith is important; when you have discussions about why God is real; when you have discussions about who God is and what He has done in Jesus Christ; the odds become much greater that your children will share the faith of the church. 

It has been said that the church is just one generation away from extinction.  I’m not exactly sure that this statement is absolutely true, but it certainly is possible if we aren’t serious about passing our faith down to our children.  Fortunately, the church has resources.  We have the catechisms.  We have the scriptures.  We have teachers and youth workers who can not only teach children but who can equip parents to teach their children at home. 

And so, I will leave you with one practical suggestion.  It is a practice that my family and I just started.  For those of you whose children are already out of the house and perhaps raising children, pass this along to them.  Pick a time when you are all together.  Carve out a sacred space.  Take five minutes.  Get a copy or several copies of Luther’s Small Catechism and pick one section–just one.  Read it together.  Go through all the vocabulary.  Make sure your kids understand it.  Ask them what it means.  Get their input.  Help them understand.  Do it daily, and see what happens.  See if light bulbs start going off.  See if your kids start to learn about God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  See if the seeds of faith start to grow within them.  I think you will love what you see, and you will be participating in one of the reasons the church is here: to pass the faith onto another generation.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Why are We Here?: Bible Study

I want to begin this morning by asking a couple of serious questions.  I’m not trying to be a jerk.  I’m being honest.  How do you know that what I preach to you is true?  How do you know that what I tell you about God is true?  I mean, I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, you can leave church this morning after hearing what I say, turn on your televisions at home or get on YouTube and listen to another preacher.  Odds are, that preacher will have something different to say than I did, and while there may be some points of agreement, there will be others of disagreement.  How do you know who is telling the truth?

I mean, most of you here this morning know that I rarely if ever preach about money.  You have never heard me tell you that you are required to “plant the seed of faith.”  You have never heard me say that “someone out there this morning has a $1000 seed that they can give.  God is putting it on your heart right now to give $1000.  Plant that seed.  Step out on faith.  God will bless you in return.”  In fact, I preach quite the opposite when it comes to giving.  I preach, “God has already blessed you.  What you give is your thanksgiving for what God has done.”  Most of you here this morning would not fall for those preachers who do that $1000 seed thing.  But there are a whole lot of people who do.  There are a whole lot of people who dig into their wallets and give those huge chunks of money thinking these pastors are trustworthy and true.  How do you know they are lying?  Is it because I said so?  How do you know that I am right?  I mean, if I am right, why isn’t our giving through the stratosphere because it’s based on grace and generosity and why do these folks have television networks, gigantic facilities that are full of people every week, and book deals out the wazoo?  By that measure, they are very, very successful.  So, why is it if I started doing that, you would probably run me out of here faster than anything?

You could answer, “Well, you are actually preaching from the Bible.”  Guess what, those preachers would argue that they are too.  And here’s how they do it.  They would say, “The Bible says in Luke 6:38, “38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”  You gotta start by giving God something to work with.  When you give, God starts working to give you something back.  And it says again in Matthew chapter 17 “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.  When you plant your seed of faith, when you give your offerings, God is going to move mountains for you.  How much is God going to move for you?  How much is God going to give you?  Well, in Mark chapter 10, Jesus says, “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.”  You may be out $1000 today, but God’s going to bring it back to you a hundredfold!  Do you trust God?  Do you believe in what he says?  Plant that seed.  God’s gonna give it back to you.  Don’t you want God’s blessing?  Don’t you want God to bring a miracle to you?  Send in your money, and God’s gonna do great things for you.”

There you have it in a nutshell.  It’s all based in the Bible with quotes from Jesus and everything.  So, how do you know that what they are teaching is false?  How do you know that when I say that these folks are false preachers leading people astray that I am right and that they are wrong? 

And let’s now add a complicating factor.  You know that I have repeatedly said over and over and over, quoting from St. Paul in the book of Romans, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  I have said over and over again that everyone is a sinner.  That includes the guy sitting in this chair talking to you right now.  I am a sinner.  This means, I get things wrong.  Not just every once in a while.  I get things wrong daily.  Does that mean that I can and do misinterpret Scripture?  Does that mean that I’ve preached things that are wrong?  Does that mean that I go astray when I am trying to preach to you about the Word of God?  Yes.  To all accounts. 

This week as I was listening to a sermon about studying the Bible, the pastor said, “You know, every so often I ask a group of Christians: have you had your understanding of a Bible story or passage radically changed in the past year?” The pastor continued, “You’d be surprised how difficult a question that is for the majority of people. And that’s a problem.  You may wonder why that’s a problem, and so I’ll ask you this question: if you haven’t changed your understanding about any biblical text in the past year, does that mean you understand the Bible and its teachings fully?” 

That question stopped me flat footed.  No, not because I haven’t changed my understanding of a particular biblical text in the past year.  My mind was blown repeatedly multiple times just from preaching the sermon series on the gifts of the Spirit.  However, I was forced to admit to myself that for the first twelve or thirteen years that I served as a pastor, I would have told you that I hadn’t changed my understanding of just about any biblical text.  Now, I wouldn’t have admitted it out loud, but honestly, I thought I understood the Bible.  I thought I understood the stories that Jesus told.  I thought that I had a pretty good grasp of things and didn’t need to delve into them much further.  Oh how wrong I was.  And when I stop to think about it, I could almost kick myself.

Because here is the thing that helped me understand just how much I needed to study the Bible.  Here’s the thing that helped me grasp my need to dig into its depths and go as deep as I possibly could.  This book is God’s revelation of Himself to the world.  In this book, God is telling us who He is; how He acts; and what He desires of us as His creation.  Word of warning: some people do not view the Bible this way.  Some people do not have that high a view of the Scriptures, but the classic view of the Bible is what I have laid out for you.  This why Martin Luther once said, “Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scriptures.”

And when I understood what Martin Luther understood; when I realized that this was God’s revelation of Himself to the world, I knew unequivocally that I could never, ever fully understand this book.  I knew that I could never, ever grasp fully what God was telling me in these pages.  For to understand the Bible fully would mean that I understood God fully, and there is no way I can possibly do that.  There is no way that I can fully probe the depths of who God is and then say, “I know God inside and out.”  No.  Quite the opposite.  He knows me inside and out.  He created me and called me, just as He created and called you.  And the question becomes: do we want to know the one who created us?  Do we want to strive to understand Him?  Do we want to see Him as He has revealed Himself to us?

I think when you ask that question in church, you generally get a resounding, “YES!!”  I think it’s because we know that’s the right answer and the answer we should say.  It’s the answer that a lot of people say because to this day, the Bible is still one of the best selling books every single year.  People buy the Bible right and left.  Then they start reading it and studying it.  Then they put it on the book shelf or the night stand and it starts collecting dust.  Why?

Well, for one reason, the Bible is not an easy read. The Bible becomes very, very difficult to read.  When you start trying to wade through all the ancient laws and rituals described in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, it taxes your brain.  To this day, I still don’t like reading most of those books of the Bible.  Then, you end up with some teachings that make you scratch your head in wonder.  Like the book of Proverbs chapter 26.  These two verses are back to back, please listen to them carefully.  Verse 4 Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.  But then verse 5 reads: Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.  So, which is it?  Don’t answer fools according to their folly or answer them according to their folly?  How do you make heads or tails of this kind of seeming contradiction?  And then, there are the parts of the Bible that we simply don’t like.  There are those teachings and sayings throughout that make us exceedingly uncomfortable–that call us to the carpet–that show us that we aren’t as good as we think we are.  Surely Jesus didn’t mean it when he said that we had to give up all of our possessions to follow Him, did he?  Lump all of that stuff together, and it’s easier just to put the Bible down.  It’s too taxing on the brain.  It’s too taxing on our beliefs.

But it needs to be.  Yes, you heard me right.  Studying the Bible needs to be taxing on our brains and taxing on our beliefs.  I know that’s not necessarily the best push for encouraging Bible study.  I mean, it’s a lot easier to say, “Come join us for Bible study.  We promise not to shake you to your foundation and simply offer confirmation of all your beliefs and thoughts.”  That’s easy, but here is the question: if you are simply being affirmed in your beliefs all the time, are you growing?  If you never have to wrestle with who God is and what he has taught, is your faith stagnant?  Is your relationship stagnant?  Is faith and trust in God simply about being affirmed in what we believe and feeling good about ourselves or is there something more to it?  Does our faith mean that we are challenged–that our weakness as sinners is addressed and that we are pushed beyond our brokenness into a new way of being and looking at the world?

I watched an interesting video that showed up in my Facebook feed this week. 

It was a scene from a movie or television show–I don’t know which one because it wasn’t labeled.  But the video was very, very powerful.  A football coach calls out one of his players to do something called “the death crawl.”  We find out very quickly what that is.  You get down in a crawling position, except your knees do not touch the ground.  A team mate lays down on your back, and you crawl as far as you can down the football field.  The coach looks at his player and says, “I want your best.” 

The kid says, “What, you want me to go to the 30.”

The coach replies and says, “I think you can go to the 50.”

The kid says, “I can go to the 50 with nobody on my back.”

The coach tells him he can do it with someone on his back and then gets in his face and says, “I want you to promise me you will do your best.”

The kid says, “I will.” 

And then they go back and forth for several seconds as the coach demands his very best.  Then, the coach does something unexpected.  He blindfolds his player.  “Why” the kid asks.

“Because I don’t want you giving up when you could go further.”

A teammate climbs on the kid’s back, and the death crawl begins.

What takes place next is sheer torture for the kid. He begins crawling and crawling and crawling.  After a bit he asks, “Am I at the 20?”  The coach tells him to stop thinking about that and to give his best.  Over and over again, the coach yells at him to keep moving.  The kid wants to quit multiple times.  “It hurts.”  “Don’t give into the pain.  Make your mind overcome it.  Keep moving.  Give me your best.”  The kid continues moving stopping to catch his breath as the coach still yells.  “It burns.”  “Don’t you stop, give me your best, your very best!”  The kid’s legs and arms are shaking.  The coach keeps yelling, “30 more steps.  Don’t you quit on me.  20 more steps.  Give me your very best.  Don’t you stop.  10 more steps.”  “I can’t!”  “Yes you can.  Don’t quit on me. Don’t you dare quit.  Give me your best.  Your very best. One more, one more step.” The kid collapses, and the he says, “It’s got to be the 50.  It’s got to be the 50.  I don’t have any more.”

The coach says, “Look up, Brock, you’re in the end zone.”

How many times do we stop at the 20 yard line?  How many times do we stop at the 30 yard line?  How many times do we get frustrated by the pain of having to think through the Scriptures?  How many times do we want to give up because God keeps throwing curve balls at us not allowing us to get comfortable in our beliefs?  How many times do we want to stay right where we are at because we think this is as far as we can go?  And we fall far short of what we are capable of?  And we fall far short of where God wants us to be?

If we love God and have been touched by the sheer grace of God given through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we long to be what He wants us to be.  We long to do what He wants us to do.  We long to grow in our relationship with Him.  We are willing to do the tough work–to dig as deeply into the Bible as we possibly can so that we can understand Him and his will for our lives.  If that means rethinking a whole host of things, we do it.  If it means discarding what we once thought a particular text meant, we do it.  If it means rejecting what culture tells us is in vogue, we do it.  We are not interested in quick fixes.  We are not interested in what others tell us is right.  We are not interested in our own comfort and satisfaction.  In fact, we are uncomfortable unless we are learning more about God and learning more about Him and His nature.

Ah, and once we do that.  Once we really dig into who God is; once we read His revelation of Himself, we begin to put things in their proper place.  We begin to discover the truth.  We learn to discover what is false.  Take a look at the insert that was handed out to you this morning with the pictures on it. 

On one side, you will see part of a meme that is passed around on Facebook. 

It tries to indicate that one’s perspective is indicative of truth.  Just because you think you are right doesn’t mean that you are right.  That’s just your perspective.  Ah, but if you flip the page, you will see quite another thing. 

You will see that the number that the two guys are arguing about is in a series of numbers.  You will see that there is a context.  You will see that someone had put that number there to be read in a certain fashion.  You can’t take things out based upon your perspective. There is a larger perspective at play.

Now, let’s wrap this thing all together, and hopefully, you will understand why the church is here to study the Bible.  When I gave you the argument for “planting the seed of faith,” like a lot of preachers do, I gave you three different Bible verses.  Each of those Bible verses were removed from their context and cobbled together to get a certain point of view across.  If I place those Bible verses back into their original context the “seed” message falls apart.

I’ll just deal with one of those texts and put it before you to show this.  I’ll read to you Mark chapter 10:23-31: 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. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 27Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’28 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 29Jesus said, ‘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.’

In the midst of that context, does it sound like Jesus is telling you to plant a seed so that you will receive money in return?  Does it sound like Jesus is trying to get you to give $1000 to step out in faith so that God will work with that money to give you a return on your investment?  No.  Not by a long shot. 

We need to be equipped to handle such things.  We need to be able to respond to false doctrine and teaching.  We must be able to understand who God is and what God asks of us.  We must test one another so that we might not be led astray by our own agendas and own sinful natures.  Yes, that means you must study the Bible to challenge me as well.  Only by deeply studying the Bible can you tell whether or not I am telling you the truth.  For the Bible is God’s truth.  It is His revelation, and that’s one of the reasons we are here: to study the Bible.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Why are We Here?: Peace and Justice

Today, as we continue in our sermon series of asking the question: Why are we here?, we come to a topic that can make us a bit squeamish–particularly if we consider ourselves to sit on the right hand side of the political aisle.  But, I don’t think there is any way that a person who reads the Bible can say that this topic isn’t important.  From Genesis to the book of Revelation, there is a call for the people of God to work for peace and justice in the world.

Now, before anyone starts heading for the exits, let me plead my case to you that every one of you sitting here this morning wants a just world.  Every one of you.  The concept of justice is embedded into the very fabric of creation, and you share in that fabric whether you think so or not.  Two points will hopefully illustrate this.

First, I wish I had video screens to show you a video that is on YouTube that highlights justice in the animal kingdom.  There is an experiment that is being done with monkeys.  The monkeys are trained so that when they give the person leading the experiment a rock, they are rewarded with a cucumber.  The guy giving the talk on the video says, “They will do this all day long.”  But then a wrinkle is introduced.  The person conducting the experiment goes to a neighboring cage.  The monkey in that particular cage gives the scientist a rock, and the scientist gives this monkey a grape.  Grapes are considered higher currency for these monkeys.  The first monkey, who received the cucumber, sees the other monkey get the grape.  The scientist then returns to the first monkey and receives a rock.  But the scientist does not give this monkey a grape, the scientist gives the monkey the standard cucumber.  The monkey looks at the cucumber, throws it at the scientist and starts shaking the cage.  He wants his grape!  This is a real, live experiment showing that justice is not simply a human thing.  It’s a creation thing.

Second point: a few years ago, I was in confirmation class talking about justice and fairness.  I asked the kids, “Is the world fair?”   They all responded, “No.”  They knew it.  I think asked, “Do you expect the world to be fair?”  They all said, “No.”  I confess to you all this morning, this answer took me by surprise.  I expected that the kids wanted the world to be fair, but they seemingly denied that they wanted this.  And so I hit them with the following: “So, what you are telling me is that if I tell Kiera here that she doesn’t have to do any more confirmation homework or come to class anymore and I will still confirm her, but the rest of you will have to do all the work or you will not be confirmed, you are okay with that?”  Every single student said, “NO!  That’s not fair.”  And I replied, “So, you do want the world to be fair, huh?”  I think it opened their eyes a little bit.  We want a just world even though we do not have one.

Now, we actually encounter another problem as we continue this foray into justice and peace–because even though just about everyone wants peace and justice, do you think that everyone agrees on what it means to have peace and justice?  Do you think everyone agrees on what justice entails?  Again, I think the answer on that one is no.  This is why we have great difficulty in having conversations regarding justice in our society today.  Some folks believe that justice entails having equal opportunity for all people.  Some folks think that justice entails creating a society which has no bias or preference in its structures.  Some people think justice entails current generations paying for the sins of previous generations.  Some people think justice entails an equal distribution of wealth across all people.  Some people think justice entails equal rights across the board for everyone; while others believe justice means equal rights for those who are citizens of our nation.  I could actually keep going and listing several more ideas, but I think you get the point.  And, of course, my definition of justice trumps your definition of justice any day.  (That was sarcasm, by the way.)

So, how can we work towards justice if we cannot agree on what justice is?  How can we work towards a just society if we have all of these competing visions and ideas and we actually come into conflict over those definitions?  And how can we work for justice and peace when we spend more time fighting about our definitions–oftentimes without even realizing it?

This is why I believe we need something outside of ourselves to help us understand what justice truly entails.  This is why I believe we need a transcendent source telling us what justice is so that we do not get caught up in our own self-driven ideals.  This is what Christianity brings to the table when we say that we do not base our ideals of justice on our own understanding, but we base our ideals of justice on what the Bible reveals to us regarding God.  Because God is a God of justice.

Now, at first glance, for those who long for justice, this might seem like a very good thing.  This might seem like a moment to stand up and yell out “Hallelujah!”  But be careful.  Be very, very careful.  You might not like the path that this will travel.  Not at first, at least.  For you see, the Scriptures are very clear that not only is God a God of justice, but God is just.  This means, God is righteous.  God is right.  God can be counted on to ensure that what is fair takes place.  God can be counted on to ensure that when boundaries are crossed, justice is meted out.  God can be counted on to right the wrongs that have taken place.  God can be counted on to make sure that every time a law is broken, punishment is served.  God would not be good; God would not be just if He didn’t ensure that such things would happen.  God wouldn’t be just if He just let things slide and did not care about such matters.

Are you becoming a bit uneasy yet?  Are you starting to think about those times when you didn’t follow the rules?  Are you starting to think about all those times where you laughed at the speed limit thinking that it was just a suggestion?  Are you becoming a bit queasy when you realize that you’ve walked right by homeless people and haven’t given them a second thought?  Are you beginning to be a bit uncomfortable knowing that if you’ve even had a thought about a member of the opposite sex who isn’t your spouse, you’ve committed adultery?  Are you starting to sweat knowing that you have not only listened to gossip, but you have passed it on?  God is just.  God will ensure that justice is meted out.  He will be uncompromising.  He will be severe.  No transgression will be left unpunished.  Do you want justice?  Do you really want God’s justice?

If we understand God, and if we understand ourselves, we would begging not for justice but for mercy.  We would be pleading our case.  We would be begging God not to punish us because we know that if He were to unleash justice on us, we would be in despair.  This is why St. Paul wrote in the book of Romans, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  None of us is just.  None of us is righteous.  None can stand before the holiness of God and claim to be worthy to do so.  Ah, but we are justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forward as a sacrifice of atonement effective through faith.

What that means is this: when God could have unleashed His punishment upon us–and He would have been just to do so; Jesus stepped in a pleaded our case.  Jesus asked for mercy on our behalf.  “But there must be payment for the transgression,” God said.  “Crimes cannot go unpunished, or justice is not truly served.”  And Jesus said, “I will take the punishment on their behalf.  Justice will be served, but let it be served on me and not upon them.”

“But they are still unclean.  They are still unrighteous,” God said.

“Then make them a son; make them a daughter, like me.  I will give them my status.  I will give them my sinlessness.  I will give them my blamelessness.  Therefore, they can stand before you.  Holy.  Righteous.  Redeemed.”  And God agreed.  This is the sacrifice of atonement so that the demands of justice might be met.  But instead of falling on us, it fell on Jesus.  Because of what Jesus did on the cross, we received mercy.

And because we received mercy; because we received something we did not earn; because we received Christ’s righteousness; our hearts are changed, and they burst with love of Jesus.  They overflow with love for Jesus.  They long to love like Jesus loved and live like Jesus lived.  We begin to see with Jesus’ eyes, and we begin to look at the world with compassion towards those who are in need.

When our hearts are right with God; when we have been moved by God’s undeserved love; when we have been moved by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross; our hearts have a special place for the poor; the oppressed; the widow; the orphan; the refugee; the one who is in need.  We understand that God has a special place in His heart for those in need–not just those who are in our tribe or in our circle, but for anyone who is created in the image of God.

Do you realize how radical this teaching of the Bible is?  Probably not.  For many today, this is just second nature, but when God set these decrees down, it was completely and totally radical.  In every culture of the time, there was one set of rules for insiders, and there was another set of rules for outsiders.  You were responsible for treating members of your tribe with justice, but if you were outside the tribe; if you were outside the culture, no such rules governed.  The Judeo-Christian tradition brought universal justice to the table.

And what is that universal justice?  According to my readings and research this past week, there are three areas that make up Christian justice.  There are three areas that emerge from God and filter into the hearts of those who love Him because of what has been done in Jesus Christ:

1) Treating people equally.
2) The widows, orphans, and people who are oppressed are objects of         special concern.
3) Generosity.

Treating people equally means that if you are a coach and you have a rule that states that if you get caught cheating, you will be benched for a game, then if the star quarterback and the worst lineman get caught cheating, they are both benched for the game.  You don’t sit the star quarterback for a quarter and then have him come in and play while the other guy sits out.  You implement the rules equally across the board, no exceptions.

Secondly, the Bible is full, and I mean chalk full of God’s special concern for the widow, orphan, and those who are oppressed.  Our first lesson from the book of Amos lifts this up unequivocally.  11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. 13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. 14 Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.

And there is little different in the New Testament.  We read the Beatitudes earlier with its concern for those who are poor, meek, and peacemakers.  Now, for a quote from the book of James chapter 2.  My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?   I could list many others, but the point is this: God has a special place in His heart for the poor and oppressed and needy.  As recipients of God’s grace, our hearts share God’s heart.

And finally: generosity.  We become generous in giving–not simply to the church, but to those in need.  As John the Baptist showed when folks were coming to him in the desert in Luke chapter 3: ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’

But the question now arises: how does this play out in a church?  How does this play out in a congregation?  How does this concern for justice hit the road right here at worship?  At fellowship?  In our activities? 

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a sermon where the pastor was preaching on Jesus’ teaching regarding banquets.  Jesus said, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  The pastor asked this question: “when is the last time your church threw a banquet and did like Jesus said?”

And I was struck hard.  When was the last time a church that I was a part of actually did this?  I asked whether or not this congregation had ever done this.  I was surprised to find out: it had!!!  During Lent one year, free meals were offered to people in the community.  Folks came out, and some were overheard to say, “What a great deal.  Free food.  All you can eat.  What a great deal.”  And they didn’t stay for worship.  They came and ate, and the meals were stopped because the church was being taken advantage of.  And here’s the kicker to that: we are.  But here’s the other point: so what?

The point Jesus is making is not that we receive anything from what we do in the world–the point is God gets the glory and those who may not have opportunity to be fed or those who do not have an opportunity to be a part of a community get a chance to.  I mean, let’s face it, we are not going to be able to really influence the structures of society.  We are not going to change the world and the way it works in some grand way.  But we can truly make a difference in the lives of the poor and marginalized who are our neighbors.

How so?  When you throw a banquet, Jesus says.  Invite them to come and eat.  Why?  In my reading this week the authors of the book Total Church managed to really get me thinking when they said the following: At a poverty hearing organized by Church Action on Poverty, Mrs. Jones, a mother who has lived in poverty all her life, described the experience of poverty like this: “In part, it is about having no money, but there is more to poverty than that.  It is about being isolated, unsupported, uneducated, and unwanted.  Poor people want to be included and not just judged and ‘rescued’ at times of crisis.”

What does this mean?  A final quote: A woman told me, “I know people do a lot to help me.  But what I want is someone to be my friend.”  People do not want to be projects.  The poor need a welcome to replace their marginalization; they need inclusion to replace their exclusion; to replace their powerlessness they need a place where they matter.  They need a community.  They need the Christian community.  They need the church.

What a wonderful opportunity we have to share the heart of God.  What a wonderful opportunity we have to help others lessen their marginalization and oppression.  What a wonderful opportunity we have to help them know that there is a place where they matter: where the structures of oppression have no power or influence.  What a wonderful opportunity we have to share and live the gospel.  It’s one of the reasons we are here: to work for peace and justice.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Why are we Here?: Evangelism 2

Last week, I spent a little bit of time talking about one of the important reasons we are here: to do evangelism.  I talked about how evangelism was telling the good news.  I talked about how oftentimes we try to kick the can of responsibility even though every Christian is called to share the good news.  And finally, I spoke about how we can overcome fear by seeing evangelism as a community process instead of thinking that it is all up to us as individuals.  But even after doing all of that, I didn’t even scratch the surface of evangelism.  There is so much more that needs to be expressed, and one of the things that we really need to talk about is: what is the good news?  What is the news that we are called to tell.

You see, we no longer live in a society where Christian values and the Christian story is explicitly told by the culture at large.  I remember when I was a child.  Every year at all the major holidays, television told the Christian story.  At Easter, it wasn’t only the Ten Commandments that appeared during Holy Week.  Anyone else remember the week-long mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth?”  Anyone remember how they told the story of Jesus from his birth to his death and resurrection during the week?  Do the major networks carry that anymore?  No.  The sit-coms that used to grace our television sets used to also carry implicit Christian values.  Most no longer do.  The culture was full of Christian references and Christian ideals.  In a very real way, culture used to do our evangelism for us.  But that is no longer the case.  Our culture is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the Christian faith. 

As a result, fewer and fewer folks actually speak the language of faith.  Fewer and fewer folks have any true knowledge of what the Christian faith is about.  I’ll give you one perhaps very surprising example.  This past week at church camp, I sat in with our boys at Bible study.  These were our 10 year olds.  We were asked to finish the Bible study by saying the Lord’s prayer.  There was one youth there who didn’t know what we were even talking about.  Think about that for a moment.  A youth, who was at least 10 years old, at church camp, didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer.  Can you imagine what he thought when he heard the words: grace, Holy Communion, forgiveness of our trespasses, or even hallowed?  Can you imagine how strange these words must have seemed to him?  Somehow, we must be able to communicate our message in a world that no longer shares our particular way of looking at it.  We must connect with others who are not in our group, and help them see how Christianity offers answers to life’s most meaningful and difficult questions–and how those answers are truly good news.

Today, I’d like to work through how we might share the good news of Christianity in a manner that addresses evangelism in this day and age.  We must be able to have some sort of common-ground starting point.  And I think that just about everyone can agree that this world isn’t quite right.  I think that just about everyone can agree that there are some major problems in the world.  There is war.  There is poverty.  There is murder.  There is theft.  There are people who hurt other people intentionally.  There is hunger.  People are constantly striving for power and position.  Most folks, when they look at the world, see such things, and agree that they need to be fixed.

But, in order to fix a problem, you first need to find out what is causing it.  We’ve got to ask the question of why the world is the way it is.  Why do all of these things happen?  What is the cause of the hunger, war, poverty, theft, murder, etc.?  Why do people do bad things to other people?  For the time being, I am going to set aside the question of why there are natural disasters and other forms of evil outside of humanity.  That’s another layer of questioning that we can come back to in just a little bit.  For now, we are going to concentrate on us as human beings because that is where we’ve focused a lot of time and energy over the centuries.  We have tried very hard to diagnose why all of these things happen. And the answers have generally fallen into two categories.  First, there is the thought that humankind is basically evil and that we must curtail that evil.  We especially need to remove as many evil elements from society that we can in order to have a prosperous way of life as free from evil as possible.  There are a few problems with this approach.  First, if you get labeled evil, you are out of luck.  You are branded.  You carry a stigma–one that will never go away.  There is no possibility of reform or rehabilitation.  Just ask anyone who has been convicted of a felony what life is like amongst societies or people who believe this.  Their lives are miserable.  Not only this, but in such a society, you are constantly looking over your shoulder wondering who might be coming to get you next.  Who will rob me?  Who will try to kill me?  Who will try and take advantage of me?  This is no way to live.  Furthermore, how do you account for the good things that people do?  How do you count for the seemingly selfless acts of kindness and goodness that we see people commit on a regular basis?  If people are basically evil, why is there also so much good?

This has led others to the conclusion that people are basically good, but it is societal structures and cultures that warp them and cause them to become evil.  So, if someone commits a criminal act, one needs to dig into that person’s family situation; their educational background; their cultural involvement–somewhere along in the process something went haywire that caused this person to do what they did.  If that something were corrected, then that person would not have done what he or she did.  Such folks oftentimes believe that if we could just produce the right type of society; if we could just pass the right type of laws; if we could just put in place the right educational system; then we could eradicate: poverty, murder, hatred, injustice, and the like.  The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t account for the selfish behavior that is found in infants.  It doesn’t account for people who seem to have grown up in “perfect” situations whose families loved them and provided for them–yet, they have committed horrible acts of violence and hatred.  It also doesn’t account for the fact that we human beings have been trying very hard for thousands of years to construct cultures and systems of government to rid ourselves of violence, hatred, poverty, and the like: and guess what?  They’ve all failed to get rid of all these things. 

Christianity does not offer an either/or answer to this question about human nature.  And Christianity says that both of these two scenarios do not dig near deeply enough in addressing the problem.  For on the one hand, Christianity says that humankind was created good.  We were created whole.  When God made the world, He looked at it and said that it was good.  That includes us, by the way.  But then something happened.  A terrible tragedy befell us.  Even though we were created good, we decided that we were better off trying to make the world work ourselves.  We thought we could have a knowledge of good and evil without reference to God.  We wanted this knowledge on our own so that we did not have to depend on God, and we turned inward on ourselves.  In so doing, the Bible tells us that a power was unleashed in the world.  It is a power that corrupts everything that it touches.  It is a power that turns us away from what is good for all and focuses us on what is good for us.  The Bible calls this power: the power of sin. It is a power that touches every part of creation.  God did not intend for the oceans to rise and flood the coasts.  The power of sin working in the world causes that.  God did not intend mountains to erupt and kill.  The power of sin caused that.  God did not intend illness to strike and kill.  The power of sin causes that.  God did not intend for us to harm one another and cause poverty and hatred and division.  The power of sin causes all of this.  We still have that remnant of good that was in us from creation–that’s why we can do some very good things; however the power of sin has led us to all sorts of selfish behavior and evil as well.  There is no either/or according to Christianity.  There is both/and.

So, how do we lessen the evil?  How do we lessen poverty and hatred and violence?  Let’s think about how we are often challenged to overcome our selfish behavior.  First off, we oftentimes appeal to goodness.  We say, “Isn’t it in your best interest to be good?  Isn’t it in your best interest to live in a society where everyone isn’t killing everyone else?”  At first glance, most of us would say, “Well, sure.  A society were everyone is living in peace and harmony is indeed a very good thing.  A society where everyone shares resources is a very good thing.  We should all do this.”  So, here’s the question: who gets to decide what it means to live in harmony?  Who gets to decide who has enough and who doesn’t?  Who gets to decide what is in everyone’s best interest?  The government?  People?  Those in power with control?  Those with nothing?  Everyone?  The majority?  If you read history, you will note that none of these answers are satisfactory.  And it still leaves one important question: is this really an appeal to goodness, or is it an appeal to self-interest?  And if it is an appeal to self-interest, are we appealing to selfishness?  And if we appeal to selfishness and I am left with a choice: oh, I’m hungry and want to enjoy a Whataburger, but I see that another person is hungry over there.  I know that I only have enough to satisfy my hunger, so is it really in my self interest to be good and share?  After all, neither one of us will then be satisfied, we’ll both just be less hungry.  Why should I give then, if it just lessens the problem but doesn’t solve it?  At least, I will be full.  If you appeal to a person’s self-interest, self-interest will indeed rule.

The second way we can deal with such things is to deal with them through fear.  This is why we have a legal system.  This is why we have police and other public servants.  We try to keep people from doing wrong by imposing penalties for breaking laws.  I’ve used this example numerous times because it’s so true and most of us have experienced it.  You are driving down the highway, and all of a sudden, you see traffic starting to back up.  You look ahead and you see that there is a patrol car driving down the freeway.  The speed limit is 75.  The cruiser is driving 70.  Traffic is backing up.  Why?

Everyone is afraid to pass.  Everyone is afraid to drive by the officer fearful that he or she will pull them over.  Then, the officer exits the freeway and is gone.  What does everyone suddenly do?  90.  They do 90.  Once the threat of fear is gone, folks no longer fear the consequences and head right back to their desired behavior.  My son is in children’s church right now, so I’m going to tell this one on him.  While we were at camp this week, we were sitting down to dinner.  We were talking with some folks from another church and what not.  In the midst of our conversation we talked about doing things we shouldn’t do.  I told my boy that he’d gotten whoopins for being out of line before.  And he smarted off, “Only for the things you know about!”  Ah, how true.  How true.  When the threat of punishment is gone, it’s open season.  In this case laws only work if justice is swift and uncompromising.  I think that we know from history that such justice rarely happens.

So, if appealing to the self-interest of goodness is limited and appealing to fear is limited, what works?  What actually breaks us out of self-interest and into another frame of reference?  The answer to that is quite easy.  It’s love.  I mean, when you love someone, there is almost nothing you wouldn’t do for them.  If you deeply love your wife and she asks you to wash the dishes every night, what do you do?  If you deeply love your husband and he asks you to wash his clothes, what do you do?  If you deeply love your children, will you not go out of your way and sacrifice your own well being for them?  Of course you will.  Love breaks us out of our own self-interest and desire and makes us look outward towards another–towards a greater good.  I mean, we all know this.  All of us to some extent really believe this.  But here is the problem.  Can you tell someone: love that person over there!?  Can you legislate love?  Can you make someone love someone else? 

No.  Absolutely not.  “You cain’t make a heart love somebody,” once sang the king of country: George Strait.  “You can lead a heart to love, but you can’t make it fall.”  Love is the cure for sin.  Love is the cure for the brokenness of the world.  But you cannot force love.  You cannot write a law to love.  So how can you bring people to love one another?  How can you inspire others to love–not just on an individual level, but on a world-changing level?

I remember when I was about 12 years old.  My grandfather was very sick.  He would eventually need a kidney transplant.  At the time, he was on dialysis.  Now, my grandfather was a stubborn old coot.  There were times when I would really get mad at him.  He missed several of my birthday parties and other family events because we had invited several people who were allergic to cigarette smoke.  We asked grandpa not to smoke, and he replied, “If such and such is more important than me, then I won’t come.”  The first time grandpa said this, his tractor broke down and no one was around to help him.  I thought to myself, “Serves him right.”  Grandpa never said that he loved me or anything of the sort.  He kind of seemed like a grumpy old man. 

One day, grandpa called my folks over to his house.  He took me aside and said, “I have something for you.”  We walked out to one of his sheds, and we went inside.  There sat a self-propelled lawn mower.  Grandpa knew that my dad made me mow the lawn with a simple push mower, and he decided that I needed something that wouldn’t make me work so hard.  So, he bought me this brand new mower.  Now, it might not sound like much to you, but I thought that I had hit the jackpot.  Grandpa put his arm around me, and we walked back to the house together.  I was actually supporting him and holding him up at the time because he was getting weaker from his kidneys failing.  I told him over and over how thankful I was, and then he told me he loved me.  At that moment, I would have charged the fires of hell with a bucket of water for that old man. 

Maybe you know that feeling.  Maybe you know what it is like to be given something unexpectedly, undeservedly.  Maybe you know what it is like to have someone who has not exactly been in your good graces turn around and do something for you that melts your heart.  Maybe you know what it is like to suddenly go from being apathetic or angry to full and overflowing with love all because someone did something for you in such a manner.

If you understand that, then you understand in a small measure what God has done in Jesus Christ because in Him God has acted to win our hearts and fill us with a tremendous love for him.  You see, if we can all agree that sin is a power in this world, and if we can all agree that everyone is influenced by that sin; and if we can agree that none of us fully measure up to living the way that we should, then we can all agree that we have fallen short–not only in the standards of this world, but also in the standards of God’s law.  We have not been the people God created us to be.  If charges were brought against us for not living as we should, we would all be found guilty.  We would all deserve punishment.

But instead of being punished ourselves, Jesus took the punishment for us.  Some folks might object.  They might say that this is an absurd thing to do, but as a parent, I can assure you that we oftentimes pay for our children’s indiscretions.  When they break things around the house, we replace it.  When they cause injury outside the home, we pay for it.  We do it out of love for our children, and Jesus does something similar for us only on a cosmic scale.  Because it is our eternal soul that hangs in the balance.  Deserving of punishment and being found guilty, we would be cast away from God, but He does not want this to happen.  He does not want us to be cast away from him; yet the debt must be paid.  So, Jesus pays it.  Jesus dies for us.  Jesus gives himself for us undeservedly.  We call this sheer grace. 

And when we trust in Jesus’ action, our hearts change. Our hearts are melted as we see the love He has for us poured out for us at the cross.  No longer do we think of ourselves.  We no longer seek our best interest.  Instead, we concentrate on the one who loved us.  Instead, we think of Jesus.  Instead, we reflect upon his great act of love and mercy.  We long to know Him more deeply.  We long to follow his commands.  We long to lift him up to the rest of the world because we know he didn’t just die for us–he died for the world.

When our hearts turn toward Jesus, the power of sin loses its control over us.  The power of sin becomes diminished–no, it doesn’t fully go away.  It still tries to capture us an ensnare us in its grasp, but it cannot defeat Jesus.  Jesus has defeated sin, and Jesus will work in us and through us to bring about God’s will for the world.  Jesus will continue to bless us and clothe us with his righteousness and glory.  He will never forsake us and will give us the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us into that which is good. 

And when the Gospel is shared–when the good news is proclaimed, more and more hearts change.  More and more hearts are freed from the power of sin.  More and more hearts turn to Jesus and begin following His commands.  More and more begin loving God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strengths.  More and more people truly begin to love their neighbors as they love themselves.  Through Jesus, the world  changes.  Through Jesus, the hungry are fed, the thirsty given drink, the naked clothed, the sick healed, the imprisoned reformed and freed.  Through Jesus, wars cease, enemies become brothers and sisters, and new life begins.  This is the good news.  This is what we are commissioned to tell.  It is through Jesus that the power of sin is defeated, hearts are changed, and so is the world.  God has called us to share this story so that His kingdom spreads into this world and that all may come to know His love.  To truly fix what is wrong with this world, the Gospel must be shared, and this is one of the reasons the church is here; to share the good news; to do evangelism.  Amen.