Sunday, July 28, 2013

How To Live in a World Gone Mad ~ Genesis 18:20-32 ~ Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Apparently, paying too much for cable television can have disastrous consequences.  Have you seen the commercials?

“If you pay too much for cable television, you feel powerless.  When you feel powerless, you take kung fu classes.  When you take kung fu classes, you want to use your kung fu.  When you want to use your kung fu, you become “the fist of justice.”  When you become “the fist of justice,” you run across rooftops.  And when you run across rooftops, you fall into a dinner party…  Don’t fall into a dinner party.”

Wouldn’t we all like to be the fists of justice, given the way things are in the world?  It really feels like we’re living in a world gone mad.  The rich get richer, the poor get poorer; it’s every person for themselves; the law of the land is “do what you feel.”  Nothing is sacred.  Anything goes.

Has it ever happened to you that just one ignorant person, one lazy coworker, one rude customer, one impatient motorist, one gossipy friend, or one nasty word ruins your whole day?

When we’re wronged, it’s only natural to get mad.  It’s natural to hate the sins, and hate the sinner even more.  And, it’s natural to want to fight back; to wage war against the world and its greedy, immoral ways…  But is that God’s way?  Is that how God wants us to live in a world gone mad?

In our Old Testament reading for today, Abraham was soon to join his brother in what was the unquestionable world capital of evil: a city called Sodom (and its neighbor called Gomorrah).

Joining Abraham were the visitors from God who appeared to him earlier to reassure him that God would be keeping the promise to give Abraham and his wife Sarah a child, even in their old age.

But before they get to Sodom, God has some news for Abraham: God has heard the cries of the victims of Sodom and Gomorrah’s evil.  So God “consults” with Abraham over God’s plans.  Notice whose side Abraham takes: Abraham begs God for mercy for these wicked cities!  For the sake of as few as ten righteous persons in these cities, Abraham argues that God should spare them all.  God, on the other hand, appears determined to wipe the cities off the map—and if we read on into chapter 19, we discover just how evil these cities were.

Abraham’s visitors rendezvous with Abraham’s brother Lot at the city gates, and together they go to Lot’s house.  Suddenly, a mob forms outside of Lot’s door, demanding that Lot hand his visitors over to them—so that they can commit acts of extreme violence against them so disgusting, I cannot possibly describe them from here.  

Apparently there were not ten righteous persons were in the cities—perhaps not even one—because God destroys them both in an inferno of fire and brimstone.

And we must be very clear, here: this was not an act of wrath from an angry God.  This was an act of mercy and justice for the cities’ countless victims; to protect the world from their evil.  In mercy for those who suffer, God does not take lightly the sin of evildoers. 

But ultimately, God’s Word teaches us that when we become the victims of evil, never must we respond with evil.  We are not to enact justice in the form of vengeance against the wicked.  We’re not the fists of justice. 

Do you remember what Jesus said in the presence of his murderers?  “Father, forgive them, for they know now what they do.”  That it is to be our attitude. 

Doubtless this is the most unnatural of responses, because when someone sins against us, we do feel powerless and we want to take the power back.  But this is not God’s way. 

As Christians, we intercede for our enemies.  We forgive as those who desperately need God’s forgiveness.  We show them mercy—because we need God’s mercy.  We pray that God would somehow change their hearts that they would change their ways. 

This is not an act of powerlessness.  Laying down the cause of vengeance is to say, “God, I trust you to sort this all out.  I don’t need revenge, because I have you.”  It’s even okay to be angry and outraged at what people say and do—as long as we lift the outrage to God, rather than hurling it on our adversaries.  God hears your cries and the cries of all who suffer unjustly.  God’s not going to forget what’s been taken from you.  And God will (somehow) make it right. 

And while we intercede on behalf of evildoers, we must join Christ in interceding for their victims.  All around us, our neighbors suffer the ignorance, the prejudices, the greed, and the violence of others.  As disciples, we are to bring them God’s mercy.  It begins in prayer, and the Spirit will lead you from there—to feeding the hungry, and building up all who are torn down by evil persons and evil systems that exist within our culture and our economy to benefit a lucky few at the expense of the many.  The Spirit will give you power to enact God’s mercy to heal broken lives and broken cities.  The Spirit will give you the strength to love your neighbors and care for their needs with the same urgency as you care for your own.

Without forgiveness, without mercy, the human community will tear itself apart.  We will destroy each other.  But with forgiveness, mercy, and intercession, we can take on the problem of evil—and overcome it.  God is on the side of those who need mercy—and those who give it.  This is the way to life and healing.  This is the way to hope.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

While You Are Waiting ~ Genesis 18:1-10 ~ Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

My first real lesson in patience came at age 7.

The JC Penney Christmas “wish book” arrived in the mail, just in time for my October birthday.  The wish book was a 200-page paradise of color pictures of everything a person could ever want. 

Surely enough, I found what I wanted for my birthday: an old-fashioned penny gumball machine.  Mom & Dad ordered it for me.  BUT it would not be delivered for six to eight weeks.

So for the next six to eight weeks, I came home after school looking for my package to be delivered.  After a while, that gumball machine became an obsession, that I could not go on living until it arrived.

After what felt like an eternity, the delivery truck finally pulled up in front of the house.  I rush to the door, and it happens: the deliveryman opens the screen door, and hurls my prize possession into the house.  The box bounces off the wall, and falls to the ground with a crash of broken glass. 

I’m crushed—and so is my gumball machine.  I’m even more crushed when Mom sends it back and tells me I’ll have to wait another 6-8 weeks for the replacement.

I once heard it said that a human being will spent one-third of their life waiting.  Sometimes, the waiting will be fun and joyous, like counting down the days until Christmas or waiting for baby to be born.  Sometimes, waiting is just downright annoying, like traffic jams, TV commercials, and lines at the checkout.  But the worst kind of waiting is waiting for God to answer or prayers. 

There’s tragedy or an unmet need that we immediately and repeatedly bring to God in prayer.  We wait, believing that God answers prayer—but those answers don’t come. 

We’ve all been there.

Sometimes, we wait for God to bring on that miracle, and what we get instead is more heartbreak.  More tragedy.  More burdens.  More unmet needs.

Who is this God who loves us so much, but doesn’t answer our prayers?  Who is this God who keeps us waiting—and not for what we want, but for what  we desperately need.  Who is this God who will take away our health; our loved ones; our ability to make a living?  How cruel God can seem for making us wait.  How cruel God can seem for denying our requests.

This was an experience that Abraham and Sarah knew all too well.  All along, they had been childless.  In their day, having a child was not considered a “choice” a couple could make as they do today.  This was expected—and necessary for their survival in their old age in a world without social security.  At the same time, people thought they could speak for God back then.  So if ever there was a couple found to be childless, it was believed that they were cursed by God.  In a patriarchal world, most of the disgrace fell on the woman who “failed” to provide an heir for her husband.

But there’s more to the story than social norms…  God had appeared to Abraham and promised to make of him “a great nation.”  God even changed his name from Abram to Abraham, a name that meant “father of multitudes.”

Yet Abraham and Sarah waited and waited…and nothing happened.  After eleven years of waiting, Abraham takes matters into his own hands.  He takes Sarah’s servant as his wife, and they bear a son—but God says, “no, this is not what I promised you…”

So they wait even longer…nearly fourteen more years—and still, nothing…  Then it happens that three men come along—and it isn’t long before Abraham learns that they’re not just random travelers.  These are visitors from God—here to reaffirm God’s promise once again, though they’d waited 25 excruciating years…

After 25 years, wouldn’t you feel that God had forgotten you?  But even though they are still waiting, God is visiting Abraham and Sarah to reassure them that the promise will be kept.

We all know how powerful an unanswered prayer can be in driving a wedge between us and God.  The burdens and unmet needs that we bring to God in prayer begin to literally suck the life out of us, that we can’t live normally.  Hours become days, days become months, months become decades—with all that hurt; all that frustration; all that pain weighing us down.

But do you see what God is doing here today?  God is visiting Abraham to keep his alive—that the promise will be fulfilled, that their prayers will be answered.

This is what God does as you wait.  This is what God does when the waiting becomes so burdensome that you struggle to keep the faith because you can’t even go on living.  Sometimes we must wait for God’s answers to prayer, but we will never wait for God’s presence.  Whenever we must wait, we shall never wait alone.  God will care for us while we wait.

And sometimes, our prayers will not be answered.  We’ll wait in faith and hope, and by all indications, we’ve been flat-out refused.  But God will never deny us God’s presence—God’s loving, comforting, compassionate presence.

In times of loneliness, doubt, and desperation—your God will visit you.  Therefore we must, against all odds, keep the faith and act on it—so to be with our present God.  We must pray to the present God; we must hear again his Word of promise; we must eat at his table.  We must still do his work in caring for other people who wait for his help, just like we do. 

When we keep our faith and when we act on it, God won’t seem so absent.  Though the whole world waits for God’s promised redemption, God is near now.  We have only to take hold of the hand extended to us and walk with God as we wait on God.  If we do, God will lead us to the fulfillment of God’s promises.  Our prayers will be answered and we will have never waited in vain. 

Often we wait for God’s answers to prayer.  Never will we wait for God’s presence.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Welcome to the Neighborhood ~ Luke 10:25-37 ~ Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

For ten years now, I’ve only ever lived in apartments.  And in those ten years, my relationships with most of my neighbors have been uncomfortably cordial.

I’ve never had a problem with any of my neighbors, and they’ve never had a problem with me.  But because you share laundry facilities, street parking, and (most especially) walls with these neighbors—you know more about them (and they know more about you) than anyone would care to admit…

I learned that one of my neighbors sings Beatles songs in the shower…

I learned that one of my neighbors was incapable of boiling eggs, when the fire truck came…

I prayed that I would never have to learn how good a shot dear old Mrs. Fishman was, when I learned that she slept with a Colt 45 under her pillow. 

One afternoon, I opened my apartment door to retrieve the evening paper at the same time as my neighbor across the hall—and that day I learned that he cooks his dinner in the buff!

You can’t choose your neighbors.  You can love them, despise them, ignore them—but unless you or the neighbor decides to move, they’ll always be your neighbors.  You will always be theirs. 

From this perspective, anyone with whom your share a space, a place, or time, is your neighbor. 

In today’s Gospel, a lawyer asks Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” 

And since we all share this place called planet earth, and live in this time called now, your neighbor is everyone. 

So how many neighbors would there be in Jesus’ parable?

There’s the robbers—and their victim.  Plus the Levite and the Priest who cross the street and pretend not to see the poor man as he lay in the ditch.  And there is, of course, the unlikely hero of the story: the Samaritan.  In the minds of the people Jesus taught that day, a Samaritan would be just about as repulsive as the robbers—simply because of where he was from.  Yet these are all neighbors—neighbors to love as yourself, no matter how cruel, self-centered, repulsive, or needy they may be.

But at the end of the parable, notice how Jesus repeats back to the lawyer his original question, but with a small twist: “which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

Yes, a neighbor is anyone and everyone—but to BE a neighbor demands something of you.  A neighbor is ONLY as a neighbor does  So yes, we are to be and to do unto our neighbors as the Samaritan does to the man in the ditch.  But we’re not hearing the whole story if we read this merely as a moral tale… 

Let’s think about this Good Samaritan…  He doesn’t just give the poor man a band-aid and go on his merry way.  He goes to him, he cleans and bandages his wounds, and then he brings him to an inn.  He gives the innkeeper carte blanche to do whatever it takes to restore the victim back to health. 

Notice how Jesus makes no moral inventory of the man in the ditch.  He could be a victim of a random act, OR, he could be a scoundrel who just got his comeuppance.  But that doesn’t matter.  In who do we find such lavish love; such compassion; such sacrifice?  Jesus Christ is our Good Samaritan—and we are the person in the ditch; wounded, broken, helpless. 

We are Jesus’ neighbors—and Jesus becomes a neighbor to us by meeting us in the places of brokenness and desolation in our lives—REGARDLESS of whether we are there by our own fault or not…  When Jesus comes to us, he’s not thinking about what we deserve or what he can get from us.  Jesus BECOMES our neighbor so that he may love us. 

Growing up, I always loved watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  Do you know the song he always sang at the start of every show?  “I’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like you…”  “Could you be mine, would you be mine, won’t you be my neighbor?”

That’s Jesus, to you—except he’s not a face on TV.  He has come to earth to be your neighbor and to make you his neighbor.

Not only is he our neighbor, he is our KEEPER in life, so that you’re never alone when you’re scared, helpless, alone, afraid, or ashamed.  He holds all your needs and cares in his heart.  He’s with you as you cry your tears; he forgives you when you mess up big time.  He saves you from all the robbers in the world; the robbers being sin and death.

That’s good news for us—and it’s good news for our neighbors—because the robbers have been doing quite a bit of damage lately.  Many lives are laying broken in our neighborhoods—and we’re no exception.  Everywhere there are people in need.  People who are broken and afraid.  People who no know hope whatsoever.  But the robbers don’t run the show.  The neighborhood belongs to Jesus—and he’s going to have the last word. 

So let’s be neighbors to each other—and be the good news we bring.  Let us who are Jesus’ neighbors join Jesus in driving out the robbers for good.  Let us care compassionately, give generously, and love selflessly.  Let us join with Jesus in bringing new life to our neighborhood.  Let us show our neighbors a warm welcome into Jesus’ neighborhood.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Leap of Faith into Discipleship ~ Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 ~ Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

During my grade-school years, on any given Monday night at 8:00, you could find me in the same place: parked in front of the television—to watch the show named for my childhood hero, MacGyver.

If you don’t know who (or what) MacGyver is, MacGyver is a government secret agent, kind of like James Bond, except he’s traded in his tuxedo and charming British accent for a roughed-up leather jacket and a hairdo consisting of the biggest mullet allowed by law in the eighties.

What made MacGyver so unique is that he never carried a gun—because he didn’t have to.  His mind was the ultimate weapon.  He had the wits and ingenuity to outsmart his enemies and save the day using whatever stuff he happened to find at the time.  On one occasion, he disarmed two assassins armed with rocket-propelled grenades, using only shoelaces, a paper clip, monkey wrench, and some duct tape.  Another time, he disarmed a nuclear warhead with a tennis racket.  If you’re curious about how he does it, you’ll have to get the DVD on Netflix.

MacGyver could be sent on any mission, without any gear or weapons—yet he’d always get the job done with whatever he found. 

Look at today’s Gospel, as Jesus sends seventy people out into the towns, two-by-two, and you’d think he’s sending out seventy “MacGyvers”– because he allows them to take nothing on their journey, beyond their partner and the clothes on their backs.  There are no pre-arrangements for their room and board; no formal training for the mission.  Just basic instructions: go to a town, enter a house and say, “peace to this house.”  If they’re welcome, they are to go throughout the town, curing the sick and proclaiming the kingdom of God.  The people they serve will then provide their room and board. 

Jesus warns them (in no uncertain terms) to expect rejection.  But in the event of this, they are to shake the dust off their feet and carry on. 

Doubtless this will be the adventure of a lifetime for the seventy—because they’ll be totally reliant upon the grace of God, not just for the outcome of their mission, but even for meeting their most basic needs along the way.  This is how discipleship works.  So what would you do if you were one of those seventy?  Would you go?  Or would you say “no”?

If someone asked you if you thought of yourself as a disciple, would you say yes? 

Most of us have a rather comfortable understanding of discipleship.  We pray, we study the word and come to church, we try and help people, and do what’s right.  We’ll talk openly about our faith if we’re fairly certain it won’t offend people.  In sum, we accept a kind of non-threatening discipleship—so that it won’t disrupt our plans, so that it won’t have us feeling uncomfortable, or get in the way of our other plans.  A discipleship that fits neatly into our crowded lives, so that it’s safe, convenient, and not cramping our style.  Something for “when we have time” and everything else in life is all neat and in-order.  Something for when we aren’t “bone-tired…”

But do you experience discipleship as a radical reliance on the grace of God—and not just for matters related to your faith and your church, but for everything in life?

We can’t overlook the fact that these seventy “apostles” were not unlike us.  They knew the pressures of work and family.  They had weaknesses; they had fears; surely they had their doubts about what Jesus was sending them to do. 

That’s the problem with true discipleship: it will always feels as though Jesus is demanding of us that which we have none to give; as if to pour out wine from an empty cup. 

But discipleship is a life of doing and living according to Jesus’ word—that is sustained by Jesus’ word.  It’s not dependent on our circumstances or our abilities or on us “having it all together.”  It’s a life lived totally by the abiding grace of God.  It’s not so much about what you do for Christ as it is Christ himself coming alive within you. 

And this isn’t a life you choose.  It’s a life chosen for you.  Jesus doesn’t make you a disciple to add one more burden to your busy life.  You are a disciple so that you may know Jesus Christ as he abides with you and as he heals this world… 

It all begins at your baptism—and it goes from there…

So get to know Jesus.  Open the word and let him speak to you.  Eat and drink of his body and blood.  Speak to him your deepest hurts and greatest longings in prayer. 

Get to know his people.  Far too many Christians live the faith all by themselves.  But it doesn’t work that way.  There’s a reason why Jesus sent the seventy out in pairs.  You need other people to encourage you and pray for you.  You need other people to help you discover your spiritual gifts and give you the courage to use them.  And you can never have too many friends in Christ.

As you get to know Jesus, get to know your world.  Do you see things going on around you that really bother you?  Does your heart burn with sadness for people in need?  That burning in your heart is Jesus, softly and tenderly calling you to do something. 

And yes, you’re going to feel powerless to do anything about it.  You’re going to feel as though you don’t have time or energy to make any kind of difference.  But this is where the Spirit comes in.  If your cup is empty of strength and energy and wisdom and time, the Spirit will fill you with grace. 

And rest assured, two things will happen: nothing.  You’ll pour yourself out, and it’ll appear as if you haven’t made the slightest bit of difference.  So be patient.  Trust Jesus and his word. Don’t let the disappointment discourage you.  Be assured that you will come back from the journey just like the seventy—overjoyed at God will do with you and through you.  Someone who’s weak, afraid, broken, without the time or energy—doing incredible works by the Spirit of God.  This is who a disciple is.  This is who you are called to be today.

It’s all about everyday leaps of faith that turn into extraordinary moments of healing and grace.