Monday, July 20, 2009

Reflection on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Do you mind if I complain a little this morning? Well, you are going to read it anyway so you better get settled into your chair.

When you were in kindergarten and the teacher asked you what animal you wanted to be when you grew up, I am certain the first one that came to mind was, “sheep.” Yes the ever popular “sheep.” It ranks right up there with “amoeba.”

Of course, you did not answer “sheep.” You answered “lion,” because of is the king of the jungle. You answered “eagle,” because of its majesty and its courage as it dives from heights and plunges unto the water. You answered “giraffe” because it was tall, stood above the rest, and because you had an unusually long neck for a five year old. But “sheep” was chosen as often as “cow.” It was not prime animal want-to-be real estate.

Sheep are dumb. They wander around aimlessly, bumping into things. They stray, walking off into nowhere; having no clue where they are going or what kind of trap they are going to fall into. And, all they care about is eating; eat, eat, eat.

That being said, why would anyone ever consider comparing a child to a sheep? Why would anyone ever consider comparing a grown man to a sheep? Alright! I’m complaining this morning because I do not want to be called a sheep, even though I do bump through life, wander the wrong way, and, let’s face it, I love good food.

We are sheep, and we do need a shepherd. We need Jesus who loves us, directs us in the right paths, feeds our souls, sends us out into the world with a purpose, sends us out to love and serve others, and directs us back to the green pastures to rest. Unfortunately, we are a lot more like sheep than we would want to admit, and we do need our shepherd Jesus.

“Need,” what a terrible word. Who would like to stand up right now and admit that they “need” anything or anyone? Come on, someone stand up and tell us how you just cannot do it, how you are a wimp, how you are too dumb to figure it out, how you are a pansy. Come on! All you proud pansies out there, raise your hands high!

This is not something we like to admit in our culture is it? Have you not failed in our culture if you have not figured out how to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps? Have you not failed if you are not smart enough to figure it all out on your own? Are you telling me that you would have failed as a pioneer on the American frontier? Shame on you.”

But, is it not also true that he who needs no one, has no one.

One thing we fail to remember about history is that the majority of the those lone pioneers did not make it on their own. They either died, or left the frontier with nothing. The frontier is littered with abandoned pioneer houses. In our collective history, we fail to remember that it was the communities of people, the Germans, the Norwegians, etc. who came after the pioneers who made it. They made it through the harsh conditions of the frontier not because they alone could do it, but because they had a whole community with them. Sheep do not do well alone. They get eaten by wolves. Even though we are not used to admitting it, we are sheep, and the Lord is our shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

That was nice to read was it not? I could finish my sermon right there, on that beautiful note. I hear the “Please do” ringing through your heads. But I am not quite done complaining. My other beef with the Lord this morning has to do with his command to lie down in green pastures.

“Sit still.” “Do nothing.” “Just stay put for a second will ya?” is the command that the Lord gives to his disciples after they return from the long, hard days healing and the preaching they were sent out to do. Now really, who should be complaining about the command to rest. If told to just “stay put, do nothing for a while” you would think that most of us would just drop to the floor right there and say, “Wake me next year.” But, that does not happen does it?

As soon as we sit down to rest, we think of what still needs to be accomplished. We toss and turn with the idea of doing nothing. We need to be on the move. We need to be productive. Do you not want us to be productive Jesus? Do you not want us to be out there healing and caring and loving? Do we really need a Sabbath, because there is a lot of better things that we could be doing than doing nothing at all?

Seriously, are you not considered a loser in our culture if the conversation goes like this, “what have you been up to lately?”

“I tried not to do anything worth while today, thank you. I plan to do the same tomorrow.”

That is just wrong.  We need to be on the move. We need to be strong and productive. And, that is fine to a point, but it can go too far. To our inability to slow down Jesus answers, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while."

“You are a sheep, do you not remember?” Jesus implies. “You will wander into dark places. You will run yourself dead. You will forget to listen to wisdom. You will forget to listen to me. Come next to the still waters, rest in the green pastures and listen to my teaching,” says the Lord. “You are my sheep, and I know you better than you.”

If you could be any animal in the world, what would it be? It really is OK to be a “sheep.” A sheep may not be wise, courageous, or great but a sheep trusts in the one who is, the Lord.

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.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Reflection on Ephesians 1:3-14

In the world I see some great contradictions. As I walk around the community, I see some great people doing great, loving things for others. I would say that I see Christ clearly working in them. Yet, they are not a part of any faith community.

One of my friends from college was a very vocal atheist. She would talk about how brainwashed we Christians were, and she would attend chapel periodically, pointing out the hypocracy of its people and its proceedings. Yet, she was the first one to jump on the plane and teach a village in Africa how to survive the dry years in a sustainable way. “Never lose hope, there’s a way,” she would promise them. I saw that Christ had chosen her for a great purpose, but she could not see it. She was the love of Christ, but she could not bring herself to admit it. It was a great contradiction.

Maggie was also a great contradiction of life. I changed her name protect the guilty. Maggie was a member of a church my dad used to serve. This woman made Mussolini look like a pansy. Sunday School teachers feared her coming down the hall to “check in” on their teaching abilities. The woman had driven nearly half of the Lutheran congregation away and, in an indirect way, convinced each of the people leaving that the other church in town, the hard line fundamentalist Bible church, was a seedbed of love. Though this woman never served communion, she would presume to walk up into the altar, stand right next to the pastor, and expect to be served first. Of course, she had some good in her; she knew how to praise…people’s lack of faith. “Isn’t it wonderful you’re here today. I guess once a month might keep you out of hell. Not my decision.”

Somehow Maggie saw the love of Christ in herself, but no one else could. Though she was baptized, we could not imagine why she was in the church. It was a great contradiction.

Of course, that is the rub about Christianity is it not? We have grandiose ideas such as this one from Ephesians that reads, “He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”

The Lord adopted us without even getting to know us first. Christ made the choice to make us his own before night and day, earth and land were even separated. Christ made a choice, and Christ is sticking to it. Even if it means keeping Maggie, Christ is sticking to the choice.

I guess that I can accept that. I may not like it, but I can accept that. I can understand how that sort of choice works. One of the great contradictions in life is that those young adults who find themselves head-over-heals with one another, who choose not to move in together before marriage, statistically have a much lower divorce rate. At first it seems to go against logic. The common thought today is that it would be smart to move in together and test to see whether or not it will work before making such a big commitment. But, the statistics show that it is not so smart. The statistics reveal a higher divorce rate for those who move in together before marriage than those who do not.

I think it is about the choice. Those who choose not to move in with each other before marriage have made a choice to be with this person no matter what their loved one's breath smells like in the morning. They made a choice, and they stick to it. Christ made a choice in adopting us, and he is sticking to it.

In my college theatre shop, during my senior year, there came a new and promising young scenic designer. He was a little green around the ears, he had a lot to learn, and there was a lot that I could teach him. He was not great, but we could all see that he was going to be great. I chose to take him under my care. I chose to let him know all that I had learned; we wanted him to succeed.

Well, there came the day that I learned the amount of the scholarship that had been given him. The thing was three times the amount that I had been given. I am not trying to boast here, but I was great coming into the program! My heart was full of grace and love, but my head was saying, “what the heck!” I had given four years of dedication! What am I chopped liver?

I could have proceeded to ruin this fellow, to put him in the pit with all other scenic scenic design failures, but it was too late. I had already chosen him. He was mine.

Ephesians tells us that Christ thinks that way. The adoption is made. It is final. Christ has chosen us and there is not anything we can do to change it. We cannot show that we deserve it, nor can we destroy it. The choice has nothing to do with us. It is Christ’s choice, and he is sticking too it.

Of anything, this is all I wanted that wonderful atheist friend of mine to understand. She was right when she made fun of us. We were a bunch of hypocrites who preached loving one another Sunday morning and then left church to go be rude to waitresses at the diner afterwards. She was right about us. But where she was right was also where she was wrong. The faith is not about us. The faith is not about her. Christ has made his choice. There is nothing I or she can do about it. What I really wanted her to see is that Christ had obviously chosen her also. Scriptures say that “God is love.” And, she was very loving; sacrificing her life for others in Africa; it was obvious that Christ had chosen her. I just wanted her to know that. Maybe one day she will.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Reflection on Mark 6:1-13

“Who does he think he is?” This is the response as translated in “The Message” version of the Bible heard from those in Jesus’ hometown when they see Jesus’ healings and miracles. If we were to hear these people’s reaction to Jesus today, that is what we would hear.

“Who does he think he is? It’s just Jesus, you know, Jesus, the son of Mary. I heard that Joseph isn’t even his father. No, it’s true. Look at him, strutting about. I remember when he couldn’t even hit a nail with the broadside of a barn. Miracles! Ha! The only miracle is that he’s still alive. Jesus, who does he think he is?”

You know how these people think. You have run into these people before, haven’t you? They would see Jesus amaingly stilling the storm with three simple words and they would respond, “It’s a good thing the storm calmed down when it did. Look at Jesus…the idiot’s standing up in the boat. Everyone knows you don’t stand in a boat!” When the loaves were multiplied to feed 5000 people, they would quip, “it would be nice to have some bruscetta with this, the bread’s a little stale.” And upon discovering the empty tomb, “Dang, I didn’t think it was possible, he really was late for his own funeral.”

You know how these people think. They will go through their entire day blind to everything God is doing around them. Jesus is just Jesus. Miracles are completely missed, and the bread before dinner is cut too thick. They would never see Jesus as God’s Son, their healing as God’s handiwork, and their thick bread a gift in a world where so many starve with nothing.

Maybe, I should just stop there. Because, if I continue, I think that it might get a little personal. Because, if I continue, I might have to consider how often I’ve taken time to see the work of God throughout my day.

Really? The thick bread wasn’t the cook’s hatred of me, but was a really a gift from God? Really? The dollar that I plunked in the cute little girl’s can truly helped a cancer patient live one more day? Really? The dollar would have helped just as much had I put it in the old, overweight, sleepy guy’s can? Really? The great opportunities of freedom and education that our nation provides is not just a gift of God to me, or to us, but to the whole world? Really? We should share? Really?

Maybe, I should stop, before I really get into it, before I really start pointing out the missed gifts, the missed opportunities, the missed works of God, and the missed challenges. Maybe, I should stop before I really get into it and start stepping on you. It might just cause you to say, “We knew him from the start of his ministry. We helped to shape him. Who does he think he is to talk to us like that? The hypocrite, who does he think he is?”

I could just shut my mouth now. It would stop me, but it wouldn’t stop God. God would still be working wonders for you, whether you saw it or not. God would still be working wonders for your enemy, whether you liked it or not. Jesus would still be sending out despicable, “no faith” people such as the disciples (that is what Jesus calls them in the gospel of Mark after-all) to say wonderful things and to do amazing works, whether you liked them or not.

I just heard from Mike. He was an acquaintance from a long time ago. I would say “friend,” but I’m not sure that I ever wanted to claim him that close. The guy proudly referred to African Americans with the “N” word, spoke openly about the need to kill all gays, and Jews, and women who didn’t know their place in the kitchen. He thought all the way from the first Gulf War that the way to solve the Iraq problem was the nuke-em all, and he didn’t care that children would be killed at the same time. He felt up girls in the halls of the school and swore allegiance to the flag of the white states of America. The guy was a little behind the times.

But, I did spend time with him, talk to him, and laugh with him since he was in a lot of the same activities as me. However, I learned one thing during all that time: there was no convincing him otherwise of his harsh beliefs. Most of us who knew him were convinced that he had little to “no faith,” “no love,” and “no sign of God.”

As I was saying, I just heard from him. He is now a soldier in Iraq. He related a story from earlier in the war. On a mission, he saw a little girl playfully running toward open gun fire. This “no faith” man, this “nuke-em all” guy, this hate filled being ran into the open gun fire and grabbed the little Iraqi girl, swinging her around the corner into safety.

"Just who does he think he is?"

Maybe, he is a disciple of Christ. Maybe, all of us are, if we were to just look close enough.