Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reflection on Exodus 20:1-17

Here is a riddle for you. There are ten of them, and confirmation students stare at them throughout the entire confirmation class, memorizing every bit of them. The answer? Their toes; they stare at their toes the entire time. You actually thought that they would stare at and memorize the Ten Commandments? You do not remember your confirmation class very well, do you?

We should not poke fun at confirmation students too long though because most adults have a similar relationship with the Ten Commandments. They are something up on the board that we know we should take seriously, but we would rather look at other things instead. For many adults, the Ten Commandments are something that they will go to council meetings and demand that children memorize, but will not take the time to memorize themselves.

By the way, without looking, what is the seventh commandment?

“You shall not steal.”

If it really were that important, would we not know right away without having to look it up? But, for many people, they are something for children to learn. We adults have moved well beyond them.

Strange relationships with the Ten Commandments have not begun in our present age though. Ever since God spoke them to the Israelites from Mount Sinai, people have ignored, distorted, and, misused these ten statements from God. Heck, these words are the only words directly spoken to Israel by God in the Old Testament, and as soon as God was done speaking, Israel’s first request was that God no longer speak directly to them. “We don’t want to hear from God directly any more. You can speak for God from now on Moses.” I guess staring at the toes rather than staring at God’s wishes started with them.

On the other hand, some people have taken these things way too seriously. I think of a friend of mine in High School who was beautiful with long straight blond hair, who I would have actually considered dating until she became “born again.” And, I mean “born again” not in the good sense of Christ saving us in baptism, but in the bad sense of born again to hate and criticize everyone around. This beautiful, sweet, blond girl, overnight became our school’s commandment police.

“You said ‘God.’ That’s against the second commandment.”

“Quit talking about her. That’s the eighth commandment.”

“Don’t you think you are thinking about yourself a little much? That’s the first commandment.”

It was not that she was exactly wrong in what she was saying, but on the other hand her entire existence was just plain wrong. Her drastic change in character was like Jesus standing up from a meal with sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors taking an axe, and saying, “OK, I was wrong about the forgiving thing,” and chopping the people’s heads off.

She, of course, was going to heaven because she knew the Ten Commandments, she could recite them, and she thought that she could therefore follow them. She thought getting to heaven had something to do with accomplishing each of these commandments. Somehow, she had missed the basic concept of salvation through Christ, not works of the Law that even her very own church taught.

Now that I am done making fun of her, and thereby done breaking the eighth commandment, I am going to admit that getting confused by the purpose of the Ten Commandments is something we all do. Some of us ignore them. Some of us use them as a weapon. Some of us think we will get to heaven by them. But, God had a different intention for them. God gave them as a gift, so that your neighbor might have life and have it fully.

Perhaps, the scriptures themselves confuse us; take this story from Mark:

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Right away most of us are thrown off track by the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answer, of course, is to follow the commandments. But, let us not misunderstand what is being asked here. The man is not asking how to get to heaven. The man is asking how to live a life with “the eternal.” The man is asking how to live a life walking beside God: a righteous life. This is not about heaven. I could have dated my beautiful friend if she had only understood this.

So, if following the Ten Commandments is not about getting to heaven, what is it about? Maybe it is about living the good life? “Teacher, I have kept all these commandments since my youth. I’ve not stolen, not committed adultery, I’ve honored my father and mother, I’ve done all of these. I have the good life, yes?”

“You lack one thing,” Jesus essentially says, “follow the first commandment – You shall have no other god – sell what you own and give the money to the poor.”

In the end, the commandments are not even about living the good life. The commandments are about living is such a way that your neighbor can have a good life. The commandments are a gift to your neighbor.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus teaches.

If Lutherans had bumper stickers about the commandments, they would not read “The Ten Commandments: Living the Good Life.” They would read, “The Ten Commandments: Living your life in such a way so that your neighbor might have a good life.” This example alone is why Lutherans do not own bumper sticker companies. That is much too long.

We are given the Ten Commandments so that our neighbor can prosper and have a good life. It is not us who prosper when we choose not to steal, it is our neighbor.

It is not us who prosper when we choose not to sleep with another person’s spouse, it is our neighbor.

It is not us who prospers when we choose to come to church on the Sabbath and hear the good news, it is our neighbors who benefits from the love given to us in worship.

The Ten Commandments are not about you. They were never meant to be about you. The Ten Commandment are about loving your neighbor. Perhaps, it is time that we reclaim these commandments, these gifts from God, not as gifts only for children, but gifts for us all to take seriously.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Reflection on Mark 8:31-38

It is not looking good out there. You can see it all over the headlines. The jobless rate has reached a 25 year high and seems to be seeking even greater heights. Just one example of this, Circuit City closed all its doors across the nation sending another 35,000 people home with no job. The stock market appears to have no bottom. Even after government bailouts, banks still do not have enough capital to balance out their balance sheets and get our economy moving again. Locally, more jobs are being cut, and as jobs are being cut, fewer people are buying local products causing more jobs to be cut and the process just continues on and on. Politicians do not seem to know what they are doing…which usually is not that much of a problem in a freedom loving democracy where we are usually better off when government does not accomplish much, but we actually need them to get something right and accomplish it well this time.

You know what people want? People want someone who can see what is going on, who will be bold and decisive, make decisions for the good of the nation, and who will not be derailed by the nay-sayers out there. We want someone powerful. We want someone focused. We want a savior. I do not know if President Obama is that man or not, but many people want him to be. I do not know if Michael Steele is the man who will fix the Republican party and then go on to fix the nation with a fiscally responsible party, but many people want him to be. People want…maybe even need a strong leader who will save us and restore things back to the way they were.

Peter saw this sort of savior in Jesus. He was bold. He spoke his mind. He cut the disciples no slack. He healed the sick. He put the self-righteous Pharisees in their place. Jesus was a natural leader, and Peter saw it clearly.

“Jesus, you are the Messiah, God’s own anointed one,” Peter boldly declares to the excitement of the other disciples and the praise of Jesus himself. Peter has found his savior. Peter has found the one who will lead the Israelites through the wilderness and set them free from Rome. Peter has found a savior who boldly declares that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again?”

What? Jesus, what are you saying? That makes no sense. How is walking straight to you grave going to help anything? That is like President Obama standing before the nation and saying, “A strong president must be scorned, spit upon, and impeached from office. Only in this way, will our nation be saved.” It simply does not make any sense. There is no logic to it. It seems foolish. It is foolish. Ask anyone who is not a Christian and they will tell you, it is foolish.

Peter pulls Jesus aside to point out the foolishness of what Jesus is saying; surely he will see how foolish it sounds. “Jesus, you are the Messiah. You are not a weakling. You are strong and decisive. We need a strong leader. We don’t need yet another person whom Rome will send to his grave.”

“Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” Jesus commands.

“Get behind me.” “Get behind me.”

If you are behind someone, you only have two options, stay there and let them walk off into the distance without you, or follow wherever they lead. It is clear that Jesus does not want Peter to choose the first option of just sitting there and allowing himself to be left behind. “Get behind me,” Jesus says. “Follow me,” Jesus urges.

It is true that we want strong leaders. It is true that we want decisive leaders. But, it is also true that we want leaders who will lead us where we want to go. Who wants to literally take up a cross and follow? Who wants to put their lives on the line in order to follow? Who wants to set out on the road, with their cross, leading to their death, without having any idea where they are going. Does not a strong leader who can simply flex his political muscle and make things in the world all better sound like a much more enticing and effective leader? The truth is most of us want leaders who will take us where we want to go. We are fearful to follow into places we have never been. But, followers of Jesus do not get to go where they want. Followers of Jesus have no idea where God is leading them. Followers of Jesus simply get behind Christ and follow.

Do I have any idea how this economic crisis will end? I have no clue, but, Jesus is leading us, so we follow where Jesus goes.

Do I have any idea where a person’s cancer will lead them? I have no clue, but Jesus is
leading us, so we follow where Jesus goes.

Do I know what your church is going to look like and what it is going to be doing in ten years? I have no clue, but Jesus is leading us, so we follow where Jesus goes.

Do I fear the future? Do I fear that Jesus may lead me somewhere uncomfortable, maybe even painful, maybe to the cross and death? Of course, I fear that. But, who else should I follow? Satan?

I have no clue where Jesus is leading us. It probably will be uncomfortable to say the least. But, if Jesus is Lord, as we say he is, then we have no choice but to follow. I guess we do have another choice, we could just sit and be useless. That is not the life Jesus wants for us. There is nothing enriching in that. So, we stand up, get behind Jesus, and follow. Though I do not know where Jesus will lead, I do promise that the journey will be a life of grace.

All Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyrighted, 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and is used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Reflection on Genesis 9:8-17

The young parents were excited to show me. Dragging me into a small bedroom with a “you gotta come see this quick” attitude and a bounce in their step, they showed me the room created for the son who would be born in just two weeks. The clean, light chemical smell of the paint still lingered in the air and the crisp lines of what they had painted on the walls grabbed the eyes.

Around the entire room were painted blue waves with a couple of birds swooping over them and dolphins happily jumping out of them. Above the crib, floating on the waves was found the boat: Noah's Ark. It was their pride and joy. Animals were painted, sticking their heads out of the Ark with smiles on their faces. There were giraffes with smiles, sheep with smiles, monkeys with smiles, elephants with smiles, crocodiles with smiles, cows with smiles, pigs with smiles, and a Noah at the bow of the boat with…a great big smile. I looked at the parents and they blended in with the latex paint creation they had made, huge smiles on their faces.

“So, what do you think?” they asked expectantly.

“It’s very happy,” I smiled.

Now, do not misunderstand me, I think that children should grow up happy, and having smiles everywhere is one way to make sure that happens. I am aware of the fact that a person smiles when they see someone else smiling. I also understand that the very act of smiling can lighten your mood and improve your life. I am aware of that fact.

But, were the parents aware of the fact that the story of Noah is not a happy story? They forgot to paint all the dead corpses of the entire population of the world floating on the water…with smiles on their faces…of course. They forgot to bring in the special candle that will fragrant the air with the happy smell of dead, rotting animals of the world. They forgot that the Noah story is not all that happy. It is like painting images of the holocaust on the walls of your child’s room with the survivors standing in the forefront with big smiles on their faces; “WooWhoo, I survived.” It is not right. They had painted one of the most disturbing events of the bible on the walls of their soon to be infant’s room. This was not right.

There were two weeks yet. This could still be solved. I looked them square in the eye and said, “I think that…I like the Noah story, it’s cute.”

Aaaauuuugh!!! Strike out! Pastor Jira, you are a wimp! Where are your values Pastor Jira? When will you learn to take a stand Pastor Jira? This whole room painting project was such an airheaded thing to do…and you confront them with, “it’s cute?”

But, it is a good thing that I kept my mouth shut because the couple then said one of the least air headed things I have ever heard. They pointed up to the ceiling, and painted across the ceiling, stretching like giant arms ready to embrace you, from one wall to the other, was a rainbow.

“We want our child to grow up knowing that no matter what they do, God loves him and will not hurt him. Do you see how the rainbow will hug him while he lays looking up from the crib? It’s like God is hugging him at all times. That was the promise wasn’t it? That God would never destroy us again. That God was in it for the long haul, no matter what? That’s how we feel about our soon to be baby. Like God, we are in it for the long haul, no matter what,” the very pregnant mother talked to her belly and smiled.

In an instant, the Noah’s Ark themed room went from one of the most, cheesy airheaded ideas, to one of the most profound and faithful I have ever heard from a young couple. I guess painting a child’s room with Noah’s ark and a rainbow is no different that hanging a Roman torture device on the wall of the room: the cross. It is a symbol of the promise God has made to us. God promises not to destroy us. God is in it for the long haul. The arms of the cross are opened wide to embrace everyone.

It is a good thing to wake up every morning to people and animals smiling at you. It is good for your mental health. It is good for the world to start the day smiling. But, it is an even greater thing to wake up every morning and see, first thing as you stare at the rainbow on the ceiling, that you are embraced by God.

In the rainbow, we see a God who promises to stick it out; no matter how messy the world gets. We see a God who chooses mercy over anger. We see a God who would go to any length for us. We see Jesus who is willing to die for us. How would your day be different if that was the first thing you saw each morning?