Sunday, September 21, 2014

Is God Fair? ~ Matthew 20:1-16 ~ Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I learned one of life’s most important lessons in first grade—and it had nothing to do with reading, writing, or arithmetic…

It began right after recess.  My teacher opened a package of Oreo™ cookies, and gave one to each pupil.

My classmates and I quickly devoured our treat.  When she was done handing them out, I and several others asked for seconds—because we noticed that she had many left over. 

But she said, “no.  I don’t have enough to give everyone two.”  Soon, we began to grumble and whine in disappointment.  She replied, “I didn’t have to give you any cookie!  Instead of saying ‘thank you,’ you’re complaining!  How dare you!

We were so busy wanting more that we failed to see her generosity—and the need to be fair.

We first-graders had no reason to complain—but I think we can all agree that the laborers in today’s Gospel have a legitimate complaint here. 

Some laborers has toiled in the heat of the day for twelve hours—but a few have worked for as little as one hour.  But all are paid the standard wage for a full day’s work.  Surely, this isn’t fair. 

But we must consider the tragic economic realities in play here.

In Jesus’ day, about ninety-five percent of the population lived in dire poverty.  For most, “going to work” consisted of rising before dawn and going to the marketplace, in hopes of being hired for the day.  The laws of supply and demand were never in the laborers’ favor—because there supply of workers far exceeded the demand.  The “usual daily wage” was terrible: just one denarius.  Maybe enough for a family to get by perhaps for a day…  Naturally, the most able-bodied men were hired.  So if you didn’t have work by nine o-clock, chances are you’d be going home empty-handed.

But many remain in the marketplace, on that slim chance of getting work…  Then, the miracles happen.  The landowner comes back at nine, then again at noon, three, and five!  It wasn’t a full day’s work—but even a measly hour’s wage is better than nothing.

Then 6:00 rolls around—and another miracle: all are paid for a full day’s work, regardless of whether they worked one hour or twelve…

Naturally, those who worked just one hour are elated!  Those who worked twelve, on the other hand, are furious—and for good reason.  It’s NOT FAIR!!  No one could argue that.

However, it’s also UNFAIR that the sweat of their brow and the ache of their back brought wealth to the elites, while the laborers lived on the brink of starvation.  It’s not fair that the older and less-able-bodied men didn’t get much work due to circumstances beyond their control.  The world of this parable is full of UNFAIRNESS—not unlike the world we inhabit. 

If you wanted to argue that God is unfair, you wouldn’t have to look very hard for reasons.  Go to St. Jude’s Hospital, or countries where children are dying of starvation.  Go to a homeless shelter, an orphanage, a nursing home, a prison, a war zone. 

But the message of this parable is that God is gracious and merciful.  God responds in love to the unfair and unjust circumstances of people.  God doesn’t make the laborers into royals and rulers, but God does give them what they and their families need to make it through the day.  It doesn’t matter whether they deserved mercy.  They got it because they needed it.

Deep down inside of us, we all want God to be fair.  We want this world to be fair.  We want a just world—and God does too.  God is fair and just—but this life and this world show us only the beginnings of God’s fairness and justice.  Yet God is merciful now.  God’s mercies don’t necessarily make all our troubles go away—but God’s mercies get us through the day.  And when we rise again the next morning, God will be merciful again.  We meet God in those little graces and miracles that pick us up from the pit of despair keep us going.  Faith is all about learning to see God doing good unto us, especially when we don’t deserve it.

But faith is also answering God’s invitation to work in his vineyard.  If, by faith, you believe God has been good to you, you can be a miracle worker—just like the landowner.  You can be generous with the wealth of God’s mercies to you to be merciful to someone else.  Don’t ask if they need it or if they deserve it.  Just say “yes, Lord,” as Christ takes you into the world—to do good with the good you’ve received.  You won’t be able to fix all their problems—but you’ll meet Christ in each other.  God comes to us in the little graces and miracles that get us through and keep us going.

Questions of fair and unfair only leave us sullen and despairing—and we can become so preoccupied by fighting for what’s right and fair us that we never see God.  We’ll never win in the end—and we’ll succeed only in tearing this world apart. 

This is an unfair and unjust world—but God is gracious and merciful.  In our moments of desperate need; when our lives are in pieces even by our own fault, Christ brings mercy and grace.  He carries us through our troubles and gives us new beginnings.  Soon, God’s Kingdom will purge the world of all death and evil.  Until then, Christ meets us in the morning—and sends us out for labors and mercy and grace.  Today, God is gracious and merciful.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Cross-Shaped Love ~ 1 Corinthians 1:18-23 ~ Holy Cross Sunday

I don’t play the lottery or buy raffle tickets…  The reason: I never win anything…

The only good prize I’ve ever won happened right here in this church—a door prize from our Christmas Banquet in 2012.  I won a stuffed bunny that I gave to Elizabeth.  She named him Earl—and he is the crown jewel in her stuffed animal collection.  That’s it.

If, perchance, I do win anything, I always end up with the kinds of things so useless, you can’t even re-gift them.  Think giant novelty sunglasses, or a basket full of Uncle Sam–themed home accents from the dollar store.

The big cash paydays, first-class vacations and new cars always elude me.

When we approach the Christian faith, we all come with a set of great expectations.  We come seeking the best possible life for ourselves.  We hope that hurts and problems will go away; that dreams will come true; that we’ll be happy.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

We come wanting to discover what we need to do to get saved and go to heaven.  We come to find some incontrovertible proof that God is real.  We want to know the secrets that’ll help us tap into God’s awesome power and make our lives really, really good. 

But we preach Christ crucified—and the cross doesn’t exactly give us what we were hoping to find.

It’s a great symbol of our faith.  It looks nice on chains and necklaces, and on church buildings.

But ultimately, it embodies the brutal and horrific manner that Jesus was put to death by sinners.  It embodies weakness, suffering, and defeat.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t come to church looking for this.  I want a Savior who can help me avoid these things!  I want to know what I have to do to be saved and to be happy.

But we need to stop and pay attention to what God in Jesus Christ is doing here! Jesus isn’t here tragic mistake or spectacular failure.

Jesus is forgiving his murderers.  He’s promising a condemned criminal that he will be with him in paradise.  His blood is shed and his body broken.  With his last dying breath, he cries “it is finished.”

You see, Jesus is accomplishing all things for our salvation.  He gives himself to take away the sin of the world; the perfect sacrifice.  And the cross is more than Jesus wiping out a debt. 

It is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us—that God would become a human being and suffer hell for your sake. 

Jesus is lifted up so that all the world can see that Jesus did everything necessary for you to be saved.  By faith, you take hold of the salvation he gives to you.  God doesn’t lay down requirements.  God gives a relationship—and it is through that relationship that eternal life bursts forth because Christ is alive—living for you, in you, and through you. 

The cross expresses divine love in a way no other faith can—whether it is a means of realizing personal needs and wants, or achieving your way into heaven with good works.  Truth is, God won’t always give you what you want.  And no matter how perfect you may become, you’ll never be able to do enough good works that you can be with absolute certainty that you’re fit for heaven. 

The cross, on the other hand, is all about love.  It’s a sign of truth.  When you commit sin, you’re forgiven.  When you’re suffering, Jesus suffers with you.  When people hate you, God accepts you.  When you pray for God to take your cross away (and God does not), God will do something greater.  When you’re dying, death will not have the last word.  When everything is going wrong, God will have the victory. 

The way to know Jesus is to know his cross—and not just with your mind, but with how you live.  We must live in the relationship with Christ that he initiates.  We meet him in the Word; we speak to him in prayer; we eat and drink his body and blood.  But we mustn’t stop there.

We must live cruciform lives for others—just as Jesus does for us.  Gracious and generous self-giving love for our neighbors, giving thought only to what those neighbors need; instead of what they might deserve or what they might do to us in return. 

The promise—is that just as Jesus’ cross brings life and salvation to the world; we shall both give and receive the divine life that transforms and renews even the most hopeless people in the most hopeless situations. 

Life in Christ is not about you, either what you have to do or what you can get for yourself.  It is the reality of what God in Christ does for you and for the world. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Golden Calf and God's Wrath ~ Bible Study blog for September 11

Tonight, our study continued beyond the giving of the Ten Commandments to the Israelites.  The Commandments lay down God’s demands, in order that the Israelites may receive the fulfillment of the promise made to their ancestor Abraham to receive land and become a great nation.  The people gladly promise to obey.  God then calls Moses back up to Mt. Sinai, where he remains for forty days and nights.

With Moses absent, the nation quickly descends into chaos.  Since Egypt, Moses has been their intermediary with God.  Even though all could see the glory of the Lord “looking like a consuming fire” atop the mountain, the people begin to act that they’ve lost God, since Moses is absent for a long time.  They actually give credit to Moses (and not God) for bringing them up out of Egypt.  So they complain to Moses’ brother Aaron, and ask him to “make gods who will go before us.”  So Aaron gathers up the people’s gold (which was plunder from Egypt; their God-given reparations for their generations of slavery), and he fashions a golden calf.  The people declare the golden calf as the god who brought them up out of Egypt.  This is a blatant violation of the first commandment.

In fashioning the idol and declaring it to be their god, they are refashioning the God into something that God is not—a God whom they can see, touch, and even control.  God has forbidden the Israelites the ability to look directly at God and learn the divine name.  God simply declares, “I will be who I will be.”  By fashioning and worshipping the idol, the people are declaring to God: “you will be what we want you to be.”  Idolatry is any sin that treats God as a means to human ends, rather than God’s ends. 

Needless to say, God is angry and prepared to destroy the entire nation for their idolatry.  Moses intercedes on behalf of the people, and God relents.  But God still punishes the people: the Levites strike down three thousand people, and scores more are struck down by a plague.

God’s punishment of the people is deeply disturbing—and we will see God striking down many more of his own people as the wilderness journey continues.  What kind of God are we to see in the story?

God may appear quite cruel—but we must look at the bigger picture.  God has chosen the Israelites out of all the peoples of the world, in order to reclaim it from the forces of evil that are made manifest through the idolatrous peoples of the world.  Many of these false gods were worshipped with violent and disgusting acts that included human sacrifice.  On the other hand, the Israelites are set apart to be a light to the nations, revealing God’s grace, mercy, peace, and justice.  They are blessed to be a blessing. 

All of God’s acts, even striking down God’s own people as punishment, serve the greater purpose of God’s redemption.  They are struck down so that God’s promises to Israel may come down to fulfillment.  Their punishment serves as an urgent warning to any who would reject God’s graciousness.  God does not take joy in the death of the wicked, but desires for all sinners to come to repentance.  But the door of opportunity does not remain open indefinitely.  God’s Kingdom comes, and nothing can stop it.  Now is the time to be drawn into God’s Kingdom through grace and transformed by it—lest we reject it and become swept away by it.  

Our next Bible study is Thursday, September 18. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Ten Commandments Going Public ~ Bible Study blog for August 28

In our study tonight, the wilderness journey brings the Israelites to Mt. Sinai, where they receive the Ten Commandments, which are God’s covenant with his people.  The people happily promise to obey all the Words of the Lord.  We all know that they will not keep their promise.

We lamented the ways in which God’s Commandments are constantly being broken, and the widespread increases in crime, violence, promiscuity, and vulgarity.  We further lamented that the removal of prayer and Scripture reading from public schools, and the cultural changes that have displaced the church as central in community life.  Even as the Ten Commandments are of utmost importance to community life, efforts continue to see them removed from public spaces. 

The easiest solution to society’s ills would be to recreate the past, which of course cannot be done.  There will never again be Scripture reading and teacher-led prayer in public schools.  It is indeed sad that not all persons share the faith that is so precious and meaningful to us.  That being said, the need for the Body of Christ to teach God’s Word to our children has never been greater.  It is up to churches and families to teach and proclaim God’s Word, especially to our children.  Since church participation is no longer a given, it is up to us as the Body of Christ to serve our community’s children and their families. 

Already, our congregation serves children and families with Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, the junior & senior high school youth group, clothing closet ministry, the fall safety day, and the Easter Egg hunt.  The most important thing we can do is bring children to our church.  Not only will the children learn the commandments, they will learn that they are created in God’s image and are precious in God’s sight, regardless of their race, gender, appearance, economic circumstance, or family background.  They will learn that they are loved and forgiven unconditionally.  By so doing, prayer, Scripture, and Christian faith will be in our public schools—because our children know and love Jesus Christ. 

Another way for God’s Word to exist in the public square is for us as the Body of Christ to enact God’s will by caring for the poor and most vulnerable among us.  Reality is that we are living in a time when the gap between the rich and poor grows greater by the day.  There are so many who are “working poor;” laboring diligently in difficult jobs that are vital to our lives.  God’s will is for us to be our neighbor’s keeper, do everything that is in our power to help meet their needs, and work together for change in our society so that there will be no poor among us (cf. Deuteronomy 15:4). 

We will indeed see as we continue our journey through God’s Word, that obedience to God is lived out not just as merely a matter of worship, but living in love for the neighbor.

Our next Bible study will be Thursday, September 11.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Outstanding Debt ~ Romans 13:8-14 ~ Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

If you know my absolute love for coffee, it may surprise you to hear that I don’t like Starbucks.
My opinion was permanently sealed over ten years ago, when I visited with a friend.  I went in there with absolutely no idea of what I was going to order.

The drink of the month was the Double Chocolate Chip Blended Crème Frappucino.  I asked the talkative and charming barista what it was, and she explained that it was a milk-based drink blended with chocolate syrup and chocolate chips.  As I pondered for a moment over whether or not to partake of this indulgence, she says, “get it.  You deserve it!!”  So I did.  She even talked me into ordering a large (or “venti,” as they would say).

But from my first sip, I was in for a wallop: think instant sugar high plus brain freeze.  About halfway through it, I’d met my match.  I wasn’t sure that I could get up and walk straight.  Hours later, when I finally got home, I wondered if the barista was telling me that I deserved sugar shock and indigestion.

We all get to a point when we owe it to ourselves to take a break; do something we enjoy; to indulge and relax.  This isn’t unusual.  There’s no way around the fact that we need Sabbath—and God wants us to have it.  Not just on Sundays—but Sabbath moments throughout the day.  Most of the time, we can’t claim all of our time and resources for ourselves.  Others have claims upon us—our jobs, our families, the bill collectors, and even the IRS.  We crave that freedom of being in no one else’s debt, and rightfully so.

But then the Apostle Paul writes, “let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love 
one another.”

It’s kind of unusual to think of love as a debt—because we’re accustomed to treating love as a choice.  Yet even as a command, it’s really not all that difficult to be nice and do no harm.  But we must bear in mind the kind of love that Paul is writing about here.  The Bible actually speaks about three kinds of love.  There’s eros love—which is romantic love; there’s philia love, which is love between friends, and there is agape love—which is self-giving, sacrificial love.  This is, of course, the kind of love that Jesus poured out for us upon the cross.  This love is our outstanding debt—and suffice it to say, it is the hardest debt to fulfill.

First of all, how can we be indebted to love persons we don’t know, or those who have no love for anyone but themselves?

We all get to a point that we have so many debts and obligations that there simply isn’t anything left of us to be had.  We become like credit cards—we’re maxed out.  Our cup dries up.  We’re empty vessels. 

Yet God knows that.  God also knows that we’re sinners—and as such, we’ve run up a debt to our Holy and almighty God that we can never repay.  We deserve to die for our sin—regardless of whether we’re a hardened criminal or truly feel that we’re “practically perfect in every way.”  But this is where God’s agape love is poured out for us, in response to our terrible debt and most tremendous need.  The offering of his precious body and blood has wiped out our debt.  All of the sudden, the empty cup is overflowing with saving grace.  Our sins are forgiven; and we’re God’s children forever, bound to God’s eternal reign.  It is then this cup of grace that becomes the source of life and strength, even as everyone and everything makes claims against us.  It is this cup of grace that frees to become servants of our neighbors. 

Agape love is so much more than just being nice.  You are pouring out something beautiful and precious to you to build someone else up.  We saw so much of this happening thirteen years ago on 9/11 and afterward—firefighters running into the flaming towers to rescue innocent people; people waiting hours in line to give blood, but for no other reason than people needed them. 

Our days are full of opportunities to love in this way—and if you need any proof of that, just look around you.  There’s hurting and pain everywhere.  The world is becoming a scarier place to live by the day.  But God-given, agape love can change everything for the better.   It can drive out the fear and hopelessness imprisoning so many of us, as we become living witness to the unchanging reality that Christ is with us.  The power of God’s love will become more real to you as you pour out your precious self—because when you pour out anything in Jesus’ name, he will refill your cup with something even greater.  You will be transformed as you give transformation.

So today, if you’re feeling empty, and you’re love and energy are all dried up, know that the Holy Spirit has brought you here today to fill you up with again.  This is what Sabbath is for—laying aside everything and everyone else making claims upon us, so that Christ can reclaim us and refill us again.  Come eat and drink of the body and blood of Christ, given for you.  Then challenge yourself to be more than nice…  Give something valuable away to the one who needs it; lose your life into the arms of Christ.  God’s not demanding the impossible from you; just what you have and what you can do.  Don’t let anything stop you—because there will always be something pulling you back from this kind of love.  Open up your heart so that God’s grace can flow through.   Even when the debt is great, the love of God will be even greater.