You Can’t Take it with You: Thoughts on what gives us joy and richness toward God.

Luke 12: 13-21

13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

I have a confession to make.

Jesus is talking to me here.

Back when I was just a youngster, with my life ahead of me, I was a true believer in the bumper sticker that read:

He who dies with the most toys wins!

And I wanted to win!

And over the years I have acquired a lot of stuff.

And like most people I know, that stuff consumes most, if not all, of the storage space in my house.

I know I am not alone.

I see storage pods behind people’s houses that are filled with stuff that won’t fit in the house any more.

I read that as of 2009 there is almost 2.5 billion square feet of self-storage space used in the United States.

When our stuff outgrows our house, we rent big barns.

And for what?

When my parents died 4 years ago, my brother and I had to go through all the stuff they had in their two homes.

It has taken us 4 years we are about done.

Almost all the things my parent’s stored were thrown away.

It was kind of sad.

Why did they keep this stuff?

Stuck in an attic or garage or drawer, they never used it.

They never even looked at it.

As we did this, I realized that I would be leaving such a task to my kids.

I have a lot of stuff in the attic and garage.

Who will want it?

Maybe I don’t want to know.

I have a friend who did find out.

She was moving into a new house.

She decided to give to her kids all the things she had been saving for them over the years.

So she pulled out the china and the silver.

To her profound disappointment, her kids did not want it.

They had no interest in caring for fine china or polishing silver.

She sold it to an antique collector.

She still grieves.

Why do we do this?

Why do we fill our attics and pods and self storage units with possessions?

Like me and my parents, I think it is because we think our possessions define our lives.

Prove our accomplishments.

Value our worth.

Things that we hope someone might look at and say: “What a great life he had!”

But then something happens.

We lose a job.

We lose our health.

We lose our life.

And we realize that our stuff is really not so important.

Maybe we look at it and realize that we have spent so much time preserving what we have that it distracted us from something better.

This recognition is probably behind the current de-cluttering movement.

We see it in the TV show “Tiny House Nation” where people live in space that I might look at as a small closet.

Or in Marie Kondo’s blockbuster, best-seller book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

A good portion of this book deals with getting rid of things that are not needed.

This is what Kondo recommends:

First, put your hands on everything you own, ask yourself if it sparks joy, and if it doesn’t, thank it for its service and get rid of it.

Her view is that joyless items just take up time and space in our lives.

They just steal our attention from things that do give us joy.

Which brings me to our scripture reading.

The first thing we need to do before we get to the big barn stuff is to look at the context of the parable.

This is not a parable that denounces wealth.

It does not denounce productivity or the benefits of financial security.

What it does denounce is greed!

Jesus is approached by a man who is having a dispute with his brother.

The dispute is over the “inheritance”.

Jesus attributes the problem to greed.

And Jesus rebukes him.

Jesus says that the value of a person’s life is not based on the stuff the person possesses.

Only greedy people think that way.

So what makes that greedy?

Let’s get to the parable.

A rich man has land that produces abundance.

What does he do with it?

Here is how he thinks it through:

What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?

I will pull down my barns and build larger ones.

I will store all my grain and my goods.

And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.

My field.

My crops.

My barns

My goods.

My grain.

My soul.

It’s all mine!

It is all within my control.

And I will use it for my benefit.

The man’s attitude is entirely self-centered.

There is no thought for the greater good or the greater community.

And just as he is finished with this bigger barn task, God reminds him who is in charge.

Tonight, you die.

And you can’t take it with you.

Now that is a truism, right?

We all know that.

Is Jesus saying that because you can’t take it with you, you might as well share?

It is more than that.

There is an obligation to share.

The Jewish listeners would have understood this quite clearly.

Greed was unconscionable.

It was bad for the community.

Bad for the community because it it left some community members behind.

And that created conflict.

Nothing creates more conflict that a shortage of resources.

So there was an understanding that no one was to be left behind.

Abundance was to be shared.

The Jews knew this.

The ethic of the Old Testament was to care for all in the community.

Caring for them was commanded by God.

And here are some examples of the way the community shared its wealth.

When someone was harvesting their crops, they were to leave the edges of the field unharvested so that the “widows and orphans” could have it.

In addition, fruit that fell to the ground was to be left there so that those in need could “glean” and so survive.

And these people would also have known the story of Joseph who counseled the Egyptian Pharaoh to store up grain from the bountiful years so that it could be distributed to the people in the lean years.

Those who are doing well need to attend to those who are not doing so well.

That is how the community survives.

So when the Jewish listeners heard of this man who hoarded his abundance, keeping it all for himself, they would have been shaking their heads.

This was not what God commanded.

But there is a bigger problem.

Jill Duffield, editor of The Presbyterian Outlook looks at today’s scripture and makes this comment:

We survey our orderly, self-made kingdom and begin to think we have control over not only our barns and the stuff in them, but our lives, too. We mistakenly think our things can influence the state of our soul and the span of our days.

That’s when God cries, “Fool!” That is when God interrupts our monologue and reminds us we get in grave trouble when the only voice we listen to is our own.

“You fool! Do you think these barns are going to protect you? Do you think this stuff is going with you? Do you imagine security and joy and contentment comes from goods?”

“Umm… well, yes, Lord, in fact, I did.”

God is given no credit.

God is given no say.

God is simply ignored.

And so while the man is rich in possessions, he is not rich with God.

That is not the Jesus way.

Jesus put it this way:

21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

So what is richness toward God?

I recently read a book called Night Comes, by Dale Allison, one of my former professors at PTS.

He ponders what the world to come might be like.

What do we expect?

We expect to be in paradise.

In the presence of God.

Where no one will be in need.

Where no one is left behind.

Because God’s love for us is abundant.

A place rich in God.

And then Allison points out that Jesus calls on his followers to imitatio dei.

To imitate God.

Sharing the abundance we have already received.

When we imitate God, we are rich in God.

Living as Jesus calls us to kive.

Imitatio dei!

God shares his creation with us.

God shares his son with us.

God shares his spirit with us.

God shares his Kingdom with us.

If we seek the richness of God, we need to be living that way now.

Lives rich with God.

Godly!

Or we can be like the rich man, possessed by our possessions, then we have no time or desire to live the Jesus way.

We miss a richness with God that can give our lives a touch of the divine.

So maybe we need to de-clutter.

Simplify our lives so that we are less concerned with our stuff and more concerned with living a life that is rich in God.

So what does it mean for JMPC?

What does it mean for us to be a people who are rich toward God?

Maybe we need to do a bit of Kondo analysis.

Do we have clutter?

Do we have stuff here at JMPC that produces no joy?

Stuff we can thank for its service and let it go?

Or do we want to keep on storing it – in the event we need it at some unknown future time – taking up our space and our time?

And what of mission and ministry?

Do we have ministries and missions that bring us no joy?

Are there ministries and missions that we can thank for their service and then let go?

What we will keep are the ministries and missions that give us joy and promote our mission statement that we know, glorify and serve God.

These are the things that will make us rich in God.

A richness we can share.

It seems clear to me that we are at a time when we need to de-clutter.

Our contributions are down.

It makes me think that we might not have sufficient joy in what we do here.

There are things that no longer generate passion.

Here is where we need to do some work

What missions are we passionate about?

What are the ministries and mission that give us joy?

That is where we should invest our contributions.

The ministries and missions that no longer give us joy?

We need to thank them for the joy the once gave and let them go.

And we need, as a congregation, to make that call.

Next, we need to ask what new ministries would give us new joy?

We need to get started with them.

Where will the financial resources come from?

They will come from the passion of our faith and desire to be rich in God.

So as we move through the summer season, and begin to think about next year and the next 5 years, maybe we should start with a bit of de-cluttering.

Let’s get our ministry and mission house in order.

We don’t need bigger barns.

We need bigger vision.

A vision of a life rich in God.

 



Mid-Week Meditation: On Building Walls

Building a wall across the border between Mexico and the United States has been a hot button issue in this year’s presidential campaign. Those who support such a wall do so based on the belief that it will stop illegal immigration from Mexico to the U.S. Those who oppose such a wall do so based on the belief that such a wall will be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

Pope Francis said this:

“a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that.”

Francis believes we are better off removing barriers between people rather than separating people them.

Then there is this. History has shown that people move from place to place over time and nothing really can stop that. Superficial support for this can be found on Wikipedia sites on historical human migration.

So walls are bad, right? Well … maybe not.

On our recent trip to Mexico, the Chiapas mission team helped build a wall around a church compound in Sibol, Chiapas, Mexico. My initial thought was why? Why build a wall around a church? Don’t we want to welcome all comers into the church? Isn’t that what hospitality requires? Then I recalled my other trips to Mexico – to Agua Prieta in 2004 and Ciudad Juarez in 2009. One of the architectural features of most Mexican homes I saw was a wall around the property.

I did a bit of research on Mexican architecture. Why were walls so prominent? I found out there were at least three reasons, none of which are particularly surprising.

  1. Security
  2. Property preservation
  3. Comfort

The walled compound was brought to Mexico from Spain. But its utility was unquestioned. From the time of the Spanish conquest, Mexico was largely wilderness in the sense that government law enforcement was limited. Communities and residences needed some protection from lawless outsiders and walls provided some of that.

Moreover, when people came together into communities, there were disputes on property lines. Walls were built to establish boundaries thus preserving the property an individual owned.

Then there was aesthetics and comfort. The interior of the walled compound was not just a “yard with a fence around it”. It was considered part of the living space. There were rooms inside where folks were protected from the weather, and there were rooms outside where folks could enjoy a garden or landscaping. So someone’s home included not just the building, but the entire compound inside and out. The wall functioned like the wall of a house, with door and threshold.

This made me think of Nehemiah. Nehemiah is an Old Testament historical book about the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem after its destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. The people of Israel were in exile. Nehemiah was one of the exiles and was the cup bearer for the Persian King Artaxerxes. There were some Israelites who had visited Jerusalem and returned to Nehemiah with a report. Here is the story.

1… [W]hile I was in Susa the capital, 2one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. 3They replied, ‘The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.’

4 When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.

2In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was served to him, I carried the wine and gave it to the king. Now, I had never been sad in his presence before. 2So the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.’ Then I was very much afraid. 3I said to the king, ‘May the king live for ever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’ 4Then the king said to me, ‘What do you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5Then I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.

The wall that had surrounded Jerusalem was in ruins and that was a disgrace to not only the people of Israel, but to God. The nation that was the “people of God” was also in ruins. The rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem would be a sign that the people of Israel were resurging in strength and that their God was with them. Artaxerxes understood this and actually helped the wall to be rebuilt. Once the wall was rebuilt the rebuilt Temple was safe and the worship of the living God could be done in security.

So … is a wall good thing?

What does Jesus say about walls? Not much. Jesus seems to understand the necessity of walls for the same reasons discussed above. Jesus’ view of walls seemed to focus on their temporary nature and God’s ability to raze them and rebuild them at will.

Paul talks about walls in a more theological context in Ephesians 2:

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

The only wall Jesus wanted to eliminate was that which separated Jews from Gentiles and from humanity with God. Once that wall was gone, all of us could enter into and inhabit the Kingdom of God. That wall was a dividing wall of hostility, and it had to go so that the peace of Jesus could embrace everyone.

So what does that mean to our Mexican / U.S. wall? To me it means we, like our ancestors, live in a broken and dangerous world where evil people seek to harm us. It is reasonable to take steps to set up boundaries for security, stability and comfort.

But we are also called to welcome the stranger and provide hospitality to those who seek it from us (See: “Hospitality”; sermon from July 24, 2016). It is a difficult line to draw.

Which brings me back to the original dispute. Wall or no wall? Apparently it is up to us to make that call. But when folks come knocking, we had better be hospitable.

Pastor Jeff



Hospitality: Thoughts on our mutual responsibility and Biblical ethics.

Luke 11: 1-13

11He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Several years ago, my daughter studied in New Zealand for 5 months.

About half way into her stint there, she had a 10-day break.

We decided to go see her and check out the country.

It’s a long way from here.

Basically 24 hours in the air.

And that is just getting there.

Once there, you need transportation.

A place to stay.

Food.

Water.

Security.

Some legal knowledge.

Some cultural knowledge.

Some monetary understanding.

An itinerary.

It can be pretty overwhelming.

But I am fortunate.

My wife is a planner.

She plans all our trips.

So when we got to New Zealand, we had a rental car waiting.

We had hotel reservations every night.

We knew where to eat.

We knew water we could drink.

We how to get security.

We knew some legal stuff.

A good bit of cultural stuff.

How to get and exchange money.

We had a plan of activities.

Julz helped.

Books helped.

The internet helped.

Then when we go there, we had:

Cell phones.

Google maps.

Credit cards.

And best of all, they spoke English!

But travel has not always been that way, has it?

Let’s say you were alive in the days of Jesus.

And like Jesus you spent much of your time on the road.

Where would you would stay?

What would you would eat?

How would you find your way around?

How would you stay safe?

What would be culturally appropriate?

What language would they speak?

All these things would be a challenge.

And until you got there, unknown.

But there was one thing you could count on.

When you arrived and you needed help with any of these things, you would get it.

From just about anyone.

It was the culture.

It was the way of things.

You could depend on it.

It was critical.

It was the primary social ethic of the time.

It was called hospitality.

And it was the bedrock of Old Testament ethics.

The Bible Jesus read.

Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology says this:

Hospitality in the ancient world focused on the alien or stranger in need. The plight of aliens was desperate. They lacked membership in the community, be it tribe, city-state, or nation. As an alienated person, the traveler often needed immediate food and lodging. Widows, orphans, the poor, or sojourners from other lands lacked the familial or community status that provided a landed inheritance, the means of making a living, and protection. In the ancient world the practice of hospitality meant graciously receiving an alienated person into one’s land, home, or community and providing directly for that person’s needs.

The principal reason that hospitality like this was practiced was that everyone knew that at some point they would be the outsider looking in.

If you expected hospitality then, you needed to provide it now.

It was what we would call the cultural social safety net.

And it was also commanded by God.

So what does this have to do with our scripture reading?

I mean this is the passage where we learn how to pray, right?

What does the Lord’s Prayer have to do with hospitality?

Plenty actually.

This prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer is, in fact, a demand for hospitality.

This is how folks asked for it.

Look at this prayer.

There is a grand acknowledgement of status.

You God are the one who can help us in our need.

You live in this place that can provide us security and meet our needs.

You are to be honored.

We will do whatever you ask of us.

We will be forever your servants!

Kind of like the hostess gift we are to bring when invited to someone’s house.

OK, now that we got that over with…

Give us food.

Forgive our debts.

Lead us to a safe place.

Deliver us from the local dangers.

Give!

Forgive!

Lead.

Deliver.

No pleases.

No thank yous.

A demand for what is ethically required.

What is reasonably expected.

In a world where hospitality is the paramount ethical and religious requirement, above all things!

That is what Jesus says we are to do when we approach God.

Demand hospitality.

And if you think I am wrong about this, look at the parable Jesus uses for an illustration.

Imagine this:

A man has surprise company.

He has to provide hospitality.

But he’s a bit short on supplies.

So he goes out to his neighbor’s house and asks for help which he expects to get.

His neighbor’s response?

“I’m in bed with my family.

Don’t make me get up.”

The NRSV does not give a good translation of what Jesus is saying here.

What Jesus says is something like this:

Could something like this actually happen?

And all his listeners would be shaking their heads no.

I would be unheard of.

Shocking!

Shameful!

The NRSV then uses the word “persistence” to describe how Jesus says we are to respond to shameful refusals of hospitality.

Persistence is best understood as shamelessness.

In other words, keep asking because there is no shame in seeking what is rightfully yours to expect.

Hospitality.

Jesus puts it another way:

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

This is how God responds to us.

God will give us what we need!

Hospitality!

So what does that look like?

God’s will being done.

What does hospitality look like in 2016?

A bit like this, I think.

Well, last week 15 people from JMPC and one from Florida went to Sibol, Chiapas, Mexico to help a Presbyterian congregation build a wall for their church compound.

We were travelers on a long journey.

When we got there we were welcomed by our host, Randy DuVall.

He had transportation waiting that took us to a place where we could eat and sleep half way to Sibol.

We were fed … and given coffee!

When we got to Sibol, we were fed lunch, given rooms to sleep in, hammocks or beds to sleep on and a worship service to welcome us.

For the next seven days we were taken care of with food specially made to make sure we did not get sick.

We were given purified water so we could drink.

And we were given places to bathe, though the favorite place was in a local stream.

We were counseled on appropriate conduct and safety measures and directed to places where we could touch base with home if we wanted to.

We were provided immense hospitality.

But we did not come empty handed.

We brought our own form of hostess gift.

To honor them.

We came with supplies.

Cement and VBS materials.

And our labor.

With the cement and our labor, the members of the congregation built the wall.

We did not build it.

They did.

We just mixed the cement, sifted sand, dug holes and hefted block.

It was a mutual offer of hospitality.

Which is what God seeks from us.

Mutual hospitality.

Look at Jesus.

Emmanuel.

God with us.

Jesus.

He came seeking hospitality from us.

And he did not come empty handed.

How did we react?

Heal me!

Cleanse me!

Free me!

Feed me!

Teach me!

And he did.

Divine hospitality.

But then we killed him.

Hung him on a cross.

Not very hospitable.

But Jesus told us how he wanted us to show him hospitality.

Not by doing anything for him.

Show them hospitality, he said.

Feed the hungry.

Give water to the thirsty.

Clothe the naked.

Shelter the homeless.

Care for everyone who needs it.

He tells us that when we do it for them, we do it for him.

When we show hospitality to others, we show hospitality to Jesus.

The problem is that some of these folks are, lets say, a bit scary to us.

Different languages.

Different customs.

Different appearances.

Different religions.

Different cultures.

Whether they live down the street or in some other country.

Jesus says care for them!

And that is as it should be.

Someday, that might be us.

Like the folks we host from Family Promise.

None of them thought their worlds would collapse.

But they did.

It could happen to any of us.

And so we need to stand together.

Martin Niemöller was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.

He said this:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Let me change that a bit:

 

First came the Socialists, and I did not help out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then came the Trade Unionists, and I did not help out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then came the Jews, and I did not help out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then came me—and there was no one left to help me.

We need to provide hospitality because inevitably we will need it ourselves!

And sometimes we have to get out of bed to help.

Or do something else inconvenient.

I had the occasion to experience this once when I was in Vietnam.

I went to a street market and wanted to buy coffee to take home to my kids.

I approached a seller and asked for two pounds of coffee.

We negotiated a price.

He said he needed to go and get it and would be right back.

He was gone a while.

Hen he came back and gave me the coffee for the price we had agreed.

He actually didn’t have what I wanted, but went to a fellow peddler and bought it from him so he could sell it to me.

He made no money on it.

Any profit went to his neighbor.

He might have lost money.

But he wanted to demonstrate hospitality.

And he did.

That is kind of what Jesus did.

We wanted forgiveness.

Entry into the Kingdom.

Jesus said fine.

Give me a minute while I get that for you.

But he had to buy it so that he could give it to us.

He did that on the cross.

And while he hung there, he said to God: “Forgive them”.

And God did.

Then maybe Jesus looked down and said something like: “There you go!”

God’s ultimate hospitality.

Giving us what we need.

That’s what we pray for.

That is what mission is about.

Matthew Skinner puts it this way:

Christians should not pray to get whatever they want. They should pray for God to bring the fullness of God’s reign to fruition. … [T]hose who pray as Jesus taught should expect that God intends to use them as a means toward doing so.

That is what JMPC is called to.

In Malawi.

In Chiapas.

In New Orleans.

In Oklahoma City.

In South Carolina.

In Duquesne.

In Bethel Park.

Going out of our way to provide hospitality.

And it is one of the ways we know, serve and glorify God.



Trust is a Must

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

19 The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

A student is taking a class in ornithology, the study of birds, and it’s a very difficult class with a very ornery professor. He walks in for the final, and he thinks he’s studied up for it, but there’s no paper and pencil questions, no little blue books. He looks above the chalkboard and there are twenty-five pictures of birds, but only of their feet, just the feet of the birds. The professor says, “Here’s your final. You must identify twenty-five species of birds just by their feet.”

Well, the kid just goes ballistic. He says, “This is crazy! Nobody in their right minds can do this. I thought I was prepared, but I can’t pass this final. I’m not going to take it.” The professor looks at him, “You have to take it. I’m the faculty person. I decide what the final’s going to be. You have to take it.” The kid says, “Well, I’m not going to. I’m not taking the final.” The professor says, “You don’t take it I’ll flunk you.” The kid says, “That’s okay. Go ahead and flunk me.” The professor says, “All right, you’ve failed. What’s your name?” The kid rolls his pants up to his knees and says, “You tell me.”  How do we identify God?

There are those times when you come in to church look at the bulletin and say oh yeah, I’ve hear this a 1,000 times.  The prodigal son, the good Samaritan, Jonah, and of course Habakkuk.  Well, maybe Habakkuk is not as familiar as those others.

At the time of Habakkuk, early 600’s BC there was a lot of turmoil.  Assyria had been the reigning power but now the Babylonians had conquered them.  With the destruction of Assyria Judah become a free country for a number of years.  They were free to worship God and justice ran free.  In 609BC they were defeated by Egypt and a new leader was but in place.  He was an evil and Godless man and injustice ruled the day.

Habakkuk a prophet calls out to God asking how long he will allow injustices.  He cries out that there is violence and destruction everywhere.  He asks God how long the injustices will go on before God does something.  What Habakkuk wants to know is why is God letting this happen, why isn’t God punishing the wicked people?

If we are ever going to understand a prophet Habakkuk should be our guy.  As we look around our country it is easy to wonder when God will return and justice will prevail.  There is a massive amount of violence in our world with Murder, rape, and assault capturing the news headlines daily.  We have gotten justice so confused that often times we assign equal blame to the victims and try to explain ways that could have avoided the atrocities committed to them.  We live in a world where a wealthy teen can drive and four numerous people.  His sentence was 10 years’ probation and no jail time.  Where is the justice?  When a 19-year-old Stanford swimmer is given only 6 months in county jail for assaulting an unconscious woman and many people’s responses became “his life is ruined” and “he worked so hard and it’s all gone after 1 mistake”.  Where is the justice?

Habakkuk reaches out to God asking for justice and is given a response he did not expect.  God tells him justice is coming against the unjust, but it is not what he is expecting.  God will use the Babylonians to destroy Judah and the wicked!  Habakkuk is perplexed by God’s answer, who wouldn’t be.

Why would God use the Babylonians to destroy Judah?  This seem like the most unjust decision of all.  Sure the Jewish people weren’t doing everything that God told them but at least they were trying.  The Babylonians didn’t even believe in God; why should they prosper?

At its core it makes sense to me.  Why should God give the Babylonians power and glory?  They don’t deserve anything, especially over the Jews who were trying (though failing) to follow God.  If anything the Jews should be leaders of the world and conquer the other countries.  They could make them all nations that worshipped God, of course that would work best.

I don’t know if you noticed by the richest and powerful people and nations are not necessarily the most God fearing people.  We cannot judge a person’s faith by how much power they have.  We fight against what some churches call the prosperity gospel, this idea that God gives wealth to the most faithful.  It doesn’t fit with what Jesus came to proclaim.  It doesn’t fit with who God is, God’s character.

It doesn’t make sense to Habakkuk that the unjust aren’t punished and certainly doesn’t make sense to him that the Babylonians should be the instrument of destruction, however, he finds himself in a place of trusting God, though not fully understanding God’s purpose.

In the movie Bruce almighty God decides to go on vacation and put Bruce, a normal guy in charge of being God.  One of the first things Bruce does is sit down to his emails and he is presented with millions of prayer requests.  After feeling spurned by what Bruce felt were unanswered prayers for many years he starts answering all the prayers with yes.  This of course doesn’t work in a lot of ways.  For example, a lot of people’s prayers to win the lottery were finally answered.  However, because so many of them won each of them only get a dollar, creating more outrage than joy.

If many of us could play God we would make sure there was no injustice, we would eliminate evil.  However, do we think about the consequences of our decisions.  Often times we think we know best and question God, and wonder what God is doing.

I have heard many people point to pain and suffering in the world and say that is proof that there is no God.  I see pain and suffering in the world and I see our need for God.  All of this injustice is why Jesus died on the cross and the continued injustice is why Christ will return.

Habakkuk points to the vines, crops, and cattle.  He realizes that utter destruction is coming and he is still thankful for the Lord.  It is because he knows God has promises for him.  In a world filled with injustice and pain Habakkuk clings to God, instead of pushing away.

Recently I read an article about the African Impala.  The Impala are an amazingly athletic creature.  They can jump up to 10 feet high and 33 feet in length.  Can you even fathom those amazing abilities?  However, if you see an African Impala at the zoo they are kept in the zoo separated by the people with a 3-foot fence.  You might wonder how this is possible.  The reality is that the impala won’t jump if they cannot see where their feet will land.

This is easily us in our faith from time to time.  When things are going great it’s easy to thank God for the blessings in your life.  However, are you able to find the blessings in the struggle?  Can you see God in the struggle and jump, or do you doubt in struggle?  Are you imprisoned by fear and doubt, not being able to see God because you don’t know what will happen next or where you will land?

The reality is that we live in a world that has fear and injustice.  We see a military coup in Turkey with hundreds dead.  We see a maniac in France who killed numerous people, many of whom were children.  There have been numerous incidents in America and places that we once thought where safe (airports and schools, movie theaters) have all experienced violence.

In our personal lives we will have unrest and doubt.  People will hurt us and the world will do things that we cannot agree with.  We will struggle with time, relationship, and money.  In these times always remember the promises God has for you, for us!  Do not let your fear and doubt imprison you.  Embrace your face and make the jump deeper into Jesus.

The story of Habakkuk is a story of faith, faith in the face of challenges.  Faith that pushes past human understandings and fear and finds itself in God.  Habakkuk doesn’t run from God because of all the bad things in his life.  He sees the bad things and runs to God knowing God will save him.  This is our story as well friends.  Evil is in this world, as is fear and doubt, but so is God.  Which one will you run to?



The Greatest

A young couple moves into a new neighborhood. The next morning while they are eating breakfast, the young woman sees her neighbor hanging the wash outside.
That laundry is not very clean’, she said. ‘She doesn’t know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap’

Her husband looked on, but remained silent. Every time her neighbor would hang her wash to dry, the young woman would make the same comments.

About one month later, the woman was surprised to see nice clean wash on the line and said to her husband: ‘Look, she has learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this?’

The husband said, ‘I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.’

And so it is with life. What we see when watching others, depends on the purity of the window through which we look.

The passages we read earlier are going to lead us 2 two very important things, both in response to reconciliation.  The first thing is how we view other people, and the second is going to be how we live as new creations.

How we view other people is always a little bit skewed.  Like the woman looking through a dirty window we always tend to miss something.  Often times it is difficult for us to look at people and not see something we don’t like about them.  It’s true, we certainly see the good in people, but we also see things we wished they would change or correct.  If you don’t believe me try driving on the parkway at rush hour and tell me you don’t want to tell anyone what to do.

If you’re a parent or if you have ever had a parent you know what I am talking about.  Your parents always seem to view you in this way.  I’m slightly hesitant to share this with you after I told you last week I misspelled my sons middle name but oh well.

My father was nice enough to come over to my house an help me do some major yardwork.  The last thing we had to do was trim some hedges, no big deal they are only 2 and a half feet.  Well I started trimming and about 5 minutes in I accidentally cut the extension cord.  My dad sighed and told me I need to be more careful but he gave me the other extension cord he brought.  Well about 2 minutes later I accidentally cut through that one as well.  It took him all of 5 seconds to launch into dad lecture mode.  “I told you to be careful”, “you have to pay attention to what your doing”, I mean stop me if you heard this.  I walk away from him defiantly and grab my own extension cord and starting trimming again. Well 2 minutes later I do it again.  At this point he probably thinks I’m just doing it for sermon illustrations.  He just shakes his head at me as I drive to the store on a typical extension cord run.

At times like this it is impossible for my dad not to see me as a helpless middle school kid who struggles raking leaves.  And I struggle to see him as a guy who is frustrated his stuff keeps getting broken, and only see him as a nagging dad.

I do this with others as well though.  I see people through their actions and not by their hearts.  Some of this is because I don’t know their hearts, I don’t know their intentions.  If I say or do something to hurt your feelings you shouldn’t be mad at me because I didn’t mean to hurt you.  If you say something to me that hurts my feelings your kind of a jerk.  I just assume you did it on purpose.

However, Paul is telling us that we should no longer regard each other according to the flesh.  I shouldn’t judge you by why you do wrong and you shouldn’t judge me.  Paul’s reasoning for this is simple, it’s reconciliation.  Jesus died for you on the cross so that you could be justified to God again.

The truth is that we cannot and should not take reconciliation lightly.  Jesus died on the cross to reconcile you with God, but guess what he did it for me as well.  And he did it for you sister, and cousin, and father, and the list goes on.  We take it lightly when we accept forgiveness from God, but deny it to others.  Friends please don’t let this happen to you, forgiveness cannot just be a concept it has to be a practice.  If we leave this building today saying that Jesus forgives us and that is amazing but we don’t call someone we are fighting with and tell them we are sorry we aren’t getting it.

Paul tells us that we are new creations, he says “therefore if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation.  The old is passed away and the new has come.  But what does it mean to be a new creation?

To be a new creation you need an internal change, external changes never make new creations.  I can make some external changes and call myself Captain Matt and put on a pilot outfit, but trust me I will not be a pilot and you would not want me flying your plane.  New creations inherently need internal change.

I am always drawn to the saying “it is not the water on the outside of the boat that sinks a ship, it is the water on the inside of the ship.  What is happening in your life right now?  Are you holding on to things that are burdening you?  Do you find that you are spending more time gossiping and less time praying?  What is filling your heart?

As I was thinking about this passage initially I was thinking about younger people or new people converting to Christianity, and certainly it applies to all of us.  However, it seems to have stronger ties to older and more mature Christians.  In Pauls second letter to the Corinthians he is very candid talking about conflict he is having with someone in Corinth.  He describes his 2nd visit to Corinth as painful and spends time in his letter defending himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ.

When Paul is speaking to the church in Corinth he is speaking to some people who don’t like him and are trying to hurt him.  Yet Paul speaks of forgiveness, reconciliation, and being a new creation.  He is not talking about being a new creation to a teenager or young adult, though it applies.  He is talking to the elders in the church, the people in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s.  He is saying the old you is dead, your are a new creation.  He is saying you took Jesus in your heart because of the grace he has given you, now what?

I have heard it a lot of times before “he is just stuck in his ways” or “she is not going to change now”, but why not.  I knew a man in his 60’s who was just a surely old man, his words not mine.  What I want to tell him is do you know how much God loves you?  You’re a new creation, don’t be who you were.  You see you might get to retire from teaching, or the post office, or any other job, but you don’t retire from God.  God still has an amazing purpose for you.

However, this purpose can only be accomplished if you change the internal and not the external.  If you hear this message and decide okay Matt I will help out at VBS next year and I will come to church more then you missed the point, see that is changing the external.

If you hear this message and go pray for people in your life who have hurt you, then you are changing the internal.  If you are able to go to someone and apologize for your anger, gossip, selfishness, etc and ask them for forgiveness your changing the internal.  If you call someone you have spoken to in a long time and tell them you love them, even though they hurt you then you are changing the internal.

 

See reconciliation isn’t easy, but it was never meant to be.  Jesus came to earth and was mocked, beaten, and crucified by the ones he came to save all so that we could be reconciled with God.  Because of that you are new creations, because of that I am a new creation.  Don’t be who you were, be who God wants you to be.  Loving others and loving God.  Amen.

 



Kids Klub is Back

Welcome back Kids Klub and our other Youth Groups.  We are glad you are back.  January 11th– 5:00-7:00. The church has been quiet without you.  Enjoy your time with your family.  See you soon. — Kids Klub Staff



Thoughts on Louisiana, Minnesota, and Dallas!

As I prepare for departure for a trip to Mexico to help a local Presbyterian congregation in a building project there and to teach VBS to their children, I am overwhelmed by the events these past few days in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas. Such tragedy. Such violence. Such fear (which generates hate). I have spent the morning praying while packing and trying to put into words how horrible these killings are. I am struck by a couple things.

First, anyone who tries to suggest that any of the victims somehow deserved to die because of who they were or what they or others had done in the past is simply wrong. These comments in my view seek to excuse the inexcusable. Demonizing the victim to justify a killing is only necessary when the killing itself is so horrifying that we need to invent a reason for it because to believe it was a malicious act of hate or discrimination is just too disturbing to contemplate. We don’t want to believe we live in such a world. But it seems we do.

Second, we have lived this way since the fall. We just have IPhones that let us see it more clearly now. I remember growing up in the 60s. The Vietnam war was at it’s height. It was an unpopular war in part because we were seeing it on TV. Graphic pictures of war were more than many could bear. The pressure increased to bring the war to an end. So when we went to war in later years, while there were impressive pictures of bombs going off and destroyed enemy locations, there were no pictures or videos of bloody carnage that I recall. Why? My recollection is that there was an effort to screen such things from us by the military because many believed pictures of the horrors of war would be counterproductive to the war effort. We are less disturbed when there are no pictures. So now we have videos of people being killed for reasons that are – well there appear to be no reasons. Such pictures and videos are becoming more and more common. It will be interesting to see how we respond to these pictures and videos. Perhaps they will create a moment when we actually talk about how the events depicted can be eliminated. Even the President says that might still take several lifetimes. How sad.

How are we to respond as disciples of Jesus today? Is there anything we can do to make a difference today?

Jesus says that the peacemakers are blessed. So we must do what is necessary to bring peace. Even if it is just a little peace. A moment of peace. Because while we can’t stop all violence, conflict, fear and hate, we can do something. Something for the Kingdom of God. Something. Maybe just a small thing. Because when we do that small thing, we bring God’s Kingdom just a bit closer.

Some time ago I read a book by Leonard Sweet. I can’t think of which one it was but in it he talked about how we live in a universe where everything is connected. Quantum theory. He said that if that is true, when we do something good for just one person, we do it for every person. And maybe now is the time to do something good for someone else. Because everyone will be touched, even if just for a moment. Use these events, and those like them, to do something that creates a moment of peace between two people, or more.

But it is a bit harder than it sounds. It is easy to have a peaceful moment with a group of friends, doing good things for each other, and sharing some fellowship. Good stuff, really! But the kind of peace I am talking about is a moment with someone who does not look, act or speak like us and does not live where or like we live. How do we do that?

Some years ago at seminary I had many conversations with my friend Reggie, who is black. I am a white Anglo-Saxon protestant. I have never – ever – had to deal with the kinds of things Reggie has. Over our conversations I learned that I could no more sympathize or empathize with him than I could with an alien being. His life and his issues were so foreign to me. Anything I said sounded condescending, self serving of just stupid. Cultural cross communication is often beyond our capability.

Then there is the issue of location. How can I try to reach out peacefully to someone of another race, nationality or religion when they don’t live anywhere near me?

There are no easy answers. And I have few.

But I do have one. When the opportunity presents itself, listen to those unlike you. Hear what they are saying. What are their concerns, fears, goals, desires? And then repeat what they say back to them so they know you heard and understood (while not necessarily agreeing, which is not required). Then ask that they do the same for you. You might get to know them, even when not agreeing, and its hard to be afraid of someone you know. Its hard to hate someone who took the time to listen to what you had to say.

I know there is a good deal of anger over these events. I am angry, too. But rather than just venting anger and vitriol, maybe do something good for someone in honor of those who died, in an attempt to make a bit of peace. Stop and listen. Bring the Kingdom a mite closer.

For me, I will go to Mexico and try to do something good for those who travel with me and those I meet there. I hope to spend most of the time listening to and learning from people who are not like me. In this way I (we) might be peacemakers for a time.

 



Midweek Meditations: Why I go on mission trips.

I have been going on mission trips for some years. It began when my son started going on youth trips. I went along as a chaperone and for one trip, the cook for 75 people. The last trip we went on together was to Mexico. Agua Prieta. There, for the first time, I learned what a mission trip was really all about.

There are scriptures aplenty encouraging us to go and make disciples. The most important is Matthew 28:

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

We are to spread the word about Jesus. To baptize and teach. We are to tell them the Good News about our reconciliation to God through Jesus.

But that is not all.

We are also called to render assistance to those in need. That is what Jesus commends in Matthew 25:

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”

But there is more.

When we go and do these things, we learn. We learn about culture, economics, religion, politics, gender, race and too many other things to list here. We learn that people who do not look like us, act like us, speak like us are not all that different from us.

But as a disciple of Jesus, some of my favorite experiences have come on mission trips to Christian communities. I have learned and experienced things I could never have in my home town. And I have been enriched by them. My faith has grown stronger. And so while I went to be a blessing, I was blessed.

Here are some examples:

In Malaysia I had the opportunity to visit a longhouse out in the jungle of Borneo. There I heard the story of a miracle that caused the chief of the longhouse to become Christian. A well loved woman had become a Christian. The chief had allowed worship services in the longhouse so he could see what she found so important. A local “witch doctor” said he was putting a curse on the longhouse and shortly thereafter the Christian woman died. As is the custom, the body was to be buried quickly. The longhouse was then moved to avoid the curse at the same time so the body did not get buried. When they finally started the burial ceremony, they noticed that she was smiling in death and that she had not decomposed during the delay. The chief took this as a sign that Jesus was with her and became a disciple.

In Malawi I was taken to an overgrown cemetery on the outskirts of Blantyre. I was told that the original Scottish missionaries from the early 1800s were buried there. I was told that when these folks packed to go on their mission trips, they packed all their belongings in their coffins because they knew that they were likely never to return to Scotland. They didn’t. And there they are, in a small overgrown cemetery in Malawi where no relative was ever able to come and say goodbye. These folks are revered in Malawi.

In South Sudan I was a witness to one of the first Presbyterian General Assemblies to take place after the birth of South Sudan. I had been to the General Assembly for the PCUSA about 6 months before and was amazed at the similarities. They did what the PCUSA did. Worship, pray, read scripture, argue, and vote! I also had the opportunity to attend a worship service in a refugee camp filled with dispossessed Ethiopians. I have never seen such a joyful, noisy, uplifting worship service in my life. Hundreds in attendance. Ethiopian refugees living in South Sudan! One of the South Sudanese there said, “Can you imagine how bad it is in Ethiopia when these people thought it would be better here in South Sudan!” And afterward, we ate together though food was not plentiful. I was amazed and thrilled and inspired.

In Vietnam I watched as a group of Presbyterian pastors gathered in a room above a restaurant where we were to teach them how to conduct Bible studies. There was an element of danger because we had no permit and the gathering was illegal. Yet we worshipped, sang and prayed together for three days. On one occasion, a young man came up to the room and demanded to know what was going on. Without hesitation I turned and said, “We are having a family reunion! Are we related?” I am not sure why I said that. I bore no resemblance to him or anyone else. He looked a bit puzzled. Then he left. It was not until later that I realized he might have been inclined to report us, but apparently never did.

But the lesson I have always learned on these trips is that I know very little about the lives of my fellow disciples of Jesus who are from far off places. Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is that it is inappropriate to feel like these people “have so much less than we have.” Whenever I think that I notice that the children, for the most part, are pretty happy. I also note that the adults are pretty hospitable and rarely ask for anything. I also notice that these folks are more than capable of taking care of themselves (and us). As I said to a young American woman in Agua Prieta who was crying over the poverty she perceived, “They are happy! Maybe we are crying not because they have so little, but because we have so much.”

So why do we go? To demonstrate Christian community and fellowship and unity. We go to learn, to help if needed, and to encourage each other.

So now I go to Chiapas, Mexico with 14 other folks from John McMillan Presbyterian Church. We will help build a building (which means we will carry stuff for the local folks who will actually do the building) and to teach a VBS to the kids (not because they don’t know the Bible stories – they do – but because it’s fun). And we will learn. Something. What will we learn? I don’t know yet, but I am sure it will be worth preaching and writing about.

See you on the 17th.