Just Do It 13 August 2017

Just Do It! (In Obedience we overcome Inertia ) I Kings 19:8-18 and Romans 10:5-15

 

INTRODUCTION

We all learn at different speeds, but in classrooms, things often move at only one speed. Some students can’t “keep up” and others get bored.  A man who taught one of my children in elementary school had a method for this. When he set students to doing their own work, he allowed them to move at their own speed. For those who finished earlier, he had other things that they could do in the classroom.  One of those things was the “Take-apart” station, where he had some simple tools and some things that were already broken (old clocks, computer keyboards, small machines and broken toys) for them to explore.

I never had a teacher like that. Maybe that’s why I like to take apart words. Students who are forced to learn English from me spend a lot of time looking at little parts of words. This week, it’s your turn. The word is “inertia”, which means “the condition of being without action”. “in” means “without”  “ert” is related to action, and “ia” means “a condition”.  If we’re talking about physics, it means that something which is not moving, will just stay there, and something which IS moving will continue exactly as it is going unless something stops it. There will be NO change.

We met “inertia” this afternoon in the story about Elijah that we read in the Old Testament. As I read that story, I saw into my own being without action. I found more and different stuff in the New Testament reading. When I overcame my inertia this week and wrote this, I learned some things that might help us all.

I The Fear Freeze

Though there’s no book of Elijah in the Bible, there’s certainly a lot about him. He was so important to the people of Jesus’ time that when he was hanging on the cross and cried out in his native language, Aramaic, some of the people thought he was praying to Elijah. He is so important in Jewish religion today that during the high holy days each spring a chair at the banquet table is left open for him. At the miracle of the transfiguration, when Jesus face shone like the sun, two historical figures appeared with him, Moses (who represented the law) and Elijah (who represented the prophets).

Elijah was indeed a brave man. He confronted kings and queens, military leaders and priests of rival religions. And Elijah never lost. But in this story, we met him while he was running away in fear. He could do nothing while he was frozen by fear that he would be hurt. We met him running away, and listened to him while he was hiding in a cave.  When the voice of God spoke to him and asked him, “Why are you here?”, he sorrowfully responded that he was hiding. As the story goes, God called him out and showed him the power at God’s command, yet, when asked again why he was there, the same sorrow filled reasons were given. He had learned nothing!

Do we act like that sometimes? I know that I have. Something has made me afraid of a coming confrontation, or of a possible failure, or of some sort of trouble, so we “hide from” whatever it is, and, like Elijah, revert to childhood practices and complain.

“I don’t want to go home, because my parents are unhappy with how I’ve been spending my time and money.” “I don’t want to go to class, because the teacher will scold me for poor attendance.” “I don’t want to write the thesis, because one of the committee members is an expert on my topic.” “Nobody likes me. I don’t have to take those risks.”

Elijah was REALLY stuck. Even after he saw the power of God demonstrated in wind, earthquake and fire, he didn’t change his complaint. He was frozen by fear.  But fear isn’t the only thing that has ever stopped somebody.

II The Further Training Ploy (Romans 10)

We read some stuff from the New Testament this afternoon that I usually avoid. It’s in the Bible and it’s good stuff, but I have a hard time figuring out what it means.

I have a friend who lived in Taiwan for about 20 years but returned to America a while back. This guy LOVED Bible readings like the one we did this afternoon. He enjoyed going in there, figuring out the historical situation in which they were written, comparing line to line, and basically “untangling” the knots that he found. But as I listened to him explain the chapters, paragraphs and verses of Romans, I was always left more and more confused. I concluded that I couldn’t really understand what is written there unless I went to the Bible college where he had studied, found the teachers who had taught him, and sat in their classes. After which I might know enough to figure these things out. Basically, I’ve decided that if I’m going to understand Romans like my friend does, I’ve got to go back to school.

So earlier this summer I started, and dropped, an online class in Bible interpretation by a guy who took a completely different approach from my friend.  That teacher, Dr. Walter Russell, is only a couple of years older than me. He has learned a lot about history and culture and holds a very high view of the authority of every word found in the Bible. He explains and interprets it by comparing words here to words there. He always uses the best academic, theological and linguistic tools. I started the class because I wanted to learn those tools and how to use them. I dropped out because I wasn’t learning the tools and their use so much as I was learning Dr. Russell’s conclusions that he arrived at through use of the tools. I concluded that if I’m going to understand Romans like Dr. Russell, I’ll have to go to the school where he teaches and learn his conclusions.

How many of us use “I need to get some more education first” to stop us from doing what needs to be done. There’s nothing wrong with further education. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get better trained or to get a higher degree. Our problem sometimes is that we put off any action on ANYTHING until we have the degree in one specific thing. However, we can do something, which is to “get whatever we can reach now”, and hope for more, later.

At the end of both the Old Testament and the New Testament verses that we read this afternoon the conclusion was similar, and it’s illustrated by the symbol on the front of today’s bulletin and on the screen behind me.  When that symbol is used in advertizing, it often has a slogan with it, the slogan that is the sermon title today, “Just Do It.”

III Just Doing it

Elijah was afraid of the Queen of Israel. He was afraid that her police would find and arrest him, and that she would have him killed. In his fear, he stopped acting as a grown person and began to act like a child. In the story, God confronted Elijah with a demonstration of power, an assignment of duties, and a command to “Just do it”. The stories of Elijah continue for several more chapters of 1st Kings and into 2nd Kings, where he goes up to heaven in a whirlwind. He did what he was told to do, and left behind for us the story of “fear freeze” and its cure.

St. Paul, who wrote Romans, was dealing with questions and problems in chapter 10 which do not necessarily connect to us. They had more to do with the situation of the church in Rome at the time he was writing, situations and conditions of churches and ethnic groups. For that reason, and because I’m not half clever enough to even start at it, I’m not going to try to untangle or explain Romans 10:5-13 this afternoon. I will, however, “get what I can reach”.  Verses 14 & 15 call the original readers, and call us today, to become messengers, telling about the help we have received through the good news that has been shared with us. We don’t have to be able to explain verses 5-13, or ANY verses. We don’t need to go to Bible college or theological school, because our message is simply this, “faith in God has helped me.”

CONCLUSION

Like Elijah, we may be hiding in a cave. Afraid of what might happen if someone notices us. It doesn’t matter how much power God shows in the world and to us, or how much personal word we receive from God, we are afraid and we hide. Or maybe you’re like me, sure that you need more training before you can speak or act, and knowing that you don’t have the time to get the training now, you put off speaking or acting until an indefinite time in the future, when you’ll understand better.

Sometimes, however, the time comes to do something, and to do it now, no matter what the risks might be. There’s a situation that I have to address this afternoon, something that makes me sad to be an American. People advocating race hatred and white supremacy have demonstrated against people of color and people of other-than-Christian religious faith, positions that are in line with the ideology of America’s current president. I do not ask the members of Tainan International Community Church to do anything about this, because you are not Americans, as I am. This is my duty, and I have to “just do it”, and do it today. I absolutely refute the white supremacy ideology of the American men and women who demonstrated for their opinion on Friday, August 12th, in America. I denounce them and their leaders, and I oppose the president whose rhetoric has stirred up their putrid and hateful actions.

You have other missions to “just do”. I encourage you to find them, and to follow God’s instruction and encouragement in them. Both Bible readings we heard this afternoon tell us the same thing. There’s nothing to fear out there. we have sufficient backup power and background to get moving. Our “inertia” has been overcome by the power of God, who, once we are moving, will guide us further, energize us, and carry us through, even as far as a whirlwind to take us to heaven if that’s what’s needed.

Sisters and brothers, “Just Do It.”  we have the training you need, stop delaying.

We’re ready enough. GO

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

A Couple of Interesting Weeks

July 16  Giving Something Away

After church on the morning of July 16th, in a conversation with friends, I grabbed a page of my sermon manuscript and wrote a note on the back of it for them. I was asked, “Won’t you need that later?”  I assured them that it was all saved somewhere on a computer, so it was OK to give the page away as a scrap of paper.  That overconfidence came back to bite me two weeks later.  More below.  

 

July 17-22  Blur

Though it is summer break, and I had no lessons to prepare, the week was the kind of busy time that clergy with two sermons and several other classes sometimes have.  I was “on deck” for one worship service (without sermon) and two workshops for the annual convention of the Taiwan Missionary Fellowship, had a small group to lead at Dongning Church, and two weeks of worship services (with sermons) for Tainan International Community Church on July 23 and 30 to prepare. Office time went by in a blur.  

 

July 17-26  Mansfield Park

For recreational reading I borrowed a volume that contains all of the novels by Jane Austen. First read Sense and Sensibility, and enjoyed it enough to skip to Mansfield Park, which was a bit too slowly paced for my taste, but I finished it.  I started “Emma”, but put it down in preference for catching up with all the New Yorker magazines that had piled up since the beginning of the month.

 

July 23  Dongning Church

I was in the translation booth in the morning. Pretty standard stuff. Then led the international small group afterwards.  In past years, the group had mainly allowed international students from Tainan Theological College who worshipped at Dongning a place to share about their homelands with people from Taiwan. But when there were no more international students, it became a place where members of Dongning who had gone overseas to show their vacation slides.  When I was appointed to lead it, I was told that it was to be about faith development, so we began on a different tack.  

 

So far we’ve had a couple of months when we did a game like “Jeopardy” on TV, where people got the Answers from the things we often use in church liturgically (the Lord’s prayer, the creed, the 10 commandments and the New Commandment) and had to come up with the questions.  There was a lot of laughter as we worked out how to do it.  In June we began using different Bible study techniques.  The first one was to imagine our way into the context of a Bible story. In July we did “draw pictures”.  To keep anybody from having to hold up and explain their own picture, after people had all drawn their contributions they were folded up and put into a bag, from which people drew them out at random and showed the beautiful picture they found.  The verses were about the church.  Curiously, even when the verse said, “you are the salt of the earth”, people tended to draw pictures of buildings with crosses on them.  

 

July 24  Preparations and Promotions

It was a hot and sweaty morning. I mainly spent it cleaning and packing, because I was to be away for most of the week, and wanted the folks staying in the house to take care of the cat to be comfortable.  I also put a box and several bags of books into the trunk of the car for a sale table I had planned for the lobby at the Taiwan Missionary Fellowship convention.

 

The books had been purchased new with the idea that international students might buy them, but 3 years ago the book allowance was handed out at the beginning of each semester in cash, so nobody bought books.  The stuff on my sale shelf has just been getting older and older. So, I cut prices by half.   Probably only sold 30 or 40 books during the week, but that is a bunch fewer books to dispose of next year when we depart.

 

July 26 Morning Worship

At the Taiwan Missionary Fellowship, morning worship is mainly about singing songs punctuated by a few Bible verses and spontaneous prayers. Sometimes the songs are contemporary choruses, and other times tired old hymns (not that hymns are tired and old, but the ones chosen for the group to sing are often both). I volunteered to lead worship one morning and was assigned Wednesday. I chose “new” hymns (from the 90s) and added one of my own (to an old tune). Arranged things liturgically, and enjoyed leading. No preaching, just meaningful worship and meaningful lyrics.  I don’t know if anyone else noticed, or even enjoyed, but nobody complained.

 

July 26  Disability Discourse

Last December I attended a 3-day consultation on Disability Discourse sponsored by the World Council of Churches. It taught me that, being temporarily abled myself, I need to listen to people living with disabilities. So I offered a workshop on the topic at the Taiwan Missionary Fellowship.  I don’t know what people may have been expecting, but what they got was opportunity to talk about their own experiences of living with and around the issues of Disability in Taiwan. About 20 people attended. Many spoke. All I did was moderate, and from time to time ask another question.  

 

July 28  What are YOU reading, and why should WE read it?

Only 5 people attended the workshop on reading and books. It was a good talk. We might have spontaneously had the same meeting without a time and a place, but having both of those got some together who might have missed it otherwise. One guy who attended is really into comic books!  You never know what to expect when missionaries gather.  

 

July 29 Slip and Stretch

I was home from my week away at 11PM on Friday night. The house was dusty, but other than the floors that doesn’t bother me. I decided that beyond laundry I’d just vacuum and mop. I had the downstairs finished and carried the mop bucket carefully up the stairs to do the floors there. When I went back down for the mop, stepping on the damp floor my foot slid out from under me and I took a tumble, pulling a hamstring on the way.  The next day I had to preach at two churches, so I imagined being called “Pastor Gimpy”.  Whether anyone thought of me like that or not, it’s who I was.

 

July 29  Out Back

I was assigned to preach at a church in Pingtung on the 30th to do fundraising for the Taiwan Church Publishing House.  Because I was gone the week before, all of my communication with the church was by FAX and mail.  I received no responses, so on the 29th I phoned the mobile phone number on the letter I’d received from the publishing house. When speaking to the pastor who answered, I learned quite quickly that I’d called the wrong guy. He had no current connection with that church and was quite firm that he was now at the church “out back”.  Since there’s a town in Tainan by that name, I assumed that sometime in the past he had left Pingtung and was now at the church in “out back”.  I was wrong.

 

I got to the church early enough, and in sorting through my sermon manuscript I discovered the lack of the page I’d given away 2 weeks previously.  I found a room and set about recreating what was missing.  When I finished I met a man passing out bulletins, but they were a different color from the one I’d already received. I learned from him that he was from the church that met “out back”, a group that had split from the church “in front” that I was to address. No history was given.

 

Eventually I learned that the church had split a year ago, and the group that left was still meeting on the premises in a room at the back of the facility until they could move out to their own place.  It makes you want to cry.

 

July 29-31 Natural Disasters

A typhoon came through on the night of the 29th, It was headed for central Taiwan but turned northward and landed on the Northeast coast. But the rain from it flooded low lying parts of south Taiwan.  Then, on the morning of the 30th there was an earthquake in Tainan (4-points, but nobody hurt) followed by another typhoon (a mild one) that came through that night. The 31st was a day off because it was raining too hard in the morning for anybody to go to school or work.  Cleanup will start in August.

Finding, Valuing, Responding 30 July 2017

Matthew 13:44-46 &  Psalm 105:1-2  

What God gives us (however we obtain it) is not just ours to keep.

Introduction

As we go through life, we acquire a lot of stuff. Much of it is necessary and useful stuff. Other things can begin to seem unnecessary as time goes by, and eventually we either throw it away or give it away.  In the UK there are “Charity shops”, operated by nonprofit organizations, that resell donated items. Here in Tainan, the Ray of Hope organization operates one of these stores.  There are also shops that act as “go betweens” for people who want to sell things that they are no longer using. The shop doesn’t own the things, but sells them for the person who has placed them there, and keeps a percentage of the sale price for itself. There’s one of those shops on East Gate Road, just east of Lin-shen Road, a little further along from the Catholic Church there and across the street.  There’s another near to the old Japanese Magistrate’s house on Chien fong Road, just a short walk from here. There are also 2nd hand markets, but I don’t know where to find one in Tainan, and, in fact, could only tell you where that market WAS in Kaohsiung 15 years ago. It’s been a long time since I visited it.

Students leaving school after a year or more of dormitory life sometimes advertize  used items on the University Student Association facebook page or on the Tainan Bulletin.

If you need something, looking at these places might save you a lot of money. But, if you’re NOT needing anything, you might come home with much less money in your pocket and many things you never imagined even wanting in your bag.

This afternoon we read a couple of stories from the New Testament about people who found treasure. Jesus used these to encourage us to think of the value of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I   Finding something for which you weren’t searching  Matthew 13:44

The first story is told beginning to end in one verse, was about a person who found something unexpected, beyond his dreams of what might be there. For some reason, this person was digging in a field. We shouldn’t ask too much about why he was digging, but one Biblical instruction might give us a clue. In Deuteronomy the people are told to “have a place outside the camp and go out there, and you shall have a spade among your tools, and it shall be when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and shall turn to cover up your excrement.” That’s only one reason to dig a hole in a field. It could have been for some other reason, but this person, as he dug, discovered a treasure unexpectedly.

I have a friend in Tainan. He’s from the Philippines. “Edgar” is a  musician and a professional choir director. After completing his undergraduate education in the Philippines he obtained a scholarship to do further study at a university in the USA.  He’s in Taiwan now because he was the treasure found by his wife when she, coming from Tainan, went to the same university in the USA to study for her own master’s degree.  Someone once told me that her relatives wondered, on seeing her off to America as a young single woman, whether or not she would find someone there to marry and then settle there. They were quite surprised when the life partner she found was from the Philippines, and she was bringing the treasure back here!

My own two children were born in Kaohsiung. At times when I mention that to Taiwanese friends, they ask if my children are Taiwan citizens. When I say that they’re not, because Taiwan’s government didn’t allow non-Chinese persons born here to take Taiwan nationality in the 80s & 90s, I hear protests. “If OUR (meaning Taiwanese) people have children in America, they are American citizens. What happened to you is unfair.”  When I hear that, I ask, “If an overseas worker from Philippines or Indonesia gives birth to a child here, can that child take Taiwan nationality?” I hear objections. “Of course they can’t!”  The question and the answer reveal some amount of racial prejudice in favor of white people (like my children and I) and against brown people.

The Taiwanese woman who brought the Filipino husband back to Tawan wasn’t looking for him when she went there. But “digging around in university life” while there, she found far more than she was looking for. And her response showed how she valued the treasure that God had revealed to her. If she had married a white (or even a Taiwanese) American, she would have had no problem. Marrying a Filipino meant that she likely had to answer some fairly pointed questions. BUT, her husband has worked his way into the love of that family, of their church, and of the musical community of South Taiwan.

Finding “the treasure in the field”, she gave herself 100% to obtaining it. In this parable, Jesus says to us that the Kingdom of God is that valuable. It is worth everything we are and have to be associated with, to become one with, what God is doing.

II  Finding something for which you have been searching  Matthew 13:45

In the first parable, the “finder” of the treasure hadn’t been looking for it. The other parable we read was longer, it took TWO WHOLE VERSES! We find a person who is actually looking through stuff that is for sale, pearls.  This person is a merchant (one who buys and sells) and knows how to value what he’s looking at. And among the pearls that are for sale he finds one of great value. It is worth more money than he has in his pocket or in his bank account at the moment, so he set it aside with the seller, and went home, turning the value of everything that he had into money so he could return and buy that pearl.

The parables are fairly similar. People find things that they recognize as valuable, and they exchange everything else that they own for these things. The point of the parables is the value of the Kingdom God. The difference between the parables is only in the “accidental” discovery in the first and the “found what I was looking for” in the second.

Understanding the value of life related to God is what we’re being taught here.  I finished reading a 19th century novel last week. It was set among rich, upper-class people in England around the year 1800. When, in the end, a couple of sisters who have been raised and educated to appreciate good manners and good things make bad choices of men (who are rich, handsome and clever, but one of whom has little intellectual depth and the other of which is dishonest) and run away to marry them, these women’s father reflects sadly that he had neglected seeing to it that they had any training in morality and deeper values. He came especially to view the twisted sense of values that one sister had learned from her aunt, whose only concerns were beauty and money.

As we move through life, even with only the shallowest exposure to religious truth, we are constantly put into situations where the reality of life in relation to God is near us. Sometimes we discover it by accident (a paragraph in an otherwise not religious book, a scene in a movie, a line in a song, a word from a friend,…), and like the man who found the treasure in the field, we cover it back up. Some people go out, make arrangements, and come back to devote their lives to what they have found in “Life-in-relation-to-God”. Some don’t. They cover up what they’ve found, accidentally, tell themselves that it was not really a treasure, and avoid thinking about it.

Others go looking for life-in-relation-to-God.  You’re being in Church today makes it appear that you’re on that adventure. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe you’re here today only for the air conditioning and the snacks afterwards. Maybe you’re here today because a man or woman you’re interested in comes here.

I’m not going to pretend that anything I might say today or any day is “a pearl of great price”. I urge you NOT to give up your life for something just because you’ve heard ME say it. I do encourage you, though, to value the possibility of life lived in relation to God, in whatever it is you do in life as a member of a family, as a friend to people you meet, as a citizen of the nation you call home, and as part of the family of believers known as the church.  

III The persons in these illustrations “secure their possession” of what they’ve found.  But there is much more to do.

The merchant who found the pearl had to set it aside for a while, because he couldn’t buy it with what he was carrying. But he came back and claimed the valuable thing that he had found while looking.  If, in the words of a song we sing here, or in a prayer we pray, or ia scripture we read, you find that pearl, you’re not required to give up everything for it right away.  I encourage you, though, not to just walk away from it.  

In the both parables, the response to what was found was to “go, sell everything, and do what it takes to secure for yourself the treasure you’ve found.”  These were about what we might do for ourselves.

But that’s not the only bible responses we read today.  Several others were in Psalm 105.  They speak to us of how to respond in the direction of God, and of other people around us.

In Palm 105:1(a) (the first half of the verse) we are invited to give thanks to the Lord and call on his name.  I can imagine the guy who found the treasure in the field saying something like, “I went out there with my spade to get rid of something foul, and I found something wonderful.” Thank you God!

Beyond thanking God, Ps 105:1(b) suggests that we share the good news. “Tell people what God does!” Don’t keep it private or secret. You are telling people, NOT IN ORDER TO convert them to Christianity. You are telling people because you’re happy! And when you’re happy, you naturally smile, you naturally let people know. Beyond letting people know, you have no other purpose. So, the suggestions are that we Thank God, and Tell People. After all, you’ve found a treasure.

Verse 2 is similar. We’re encouraged to sing praises to God. Sometimes we mix praise and thanks together. No problem. But if you want to separate them out in terms of what we’ve read from the bible today, think of it this way.  You’ve found the pearl of great price among the ones you were looking at, and you’ve made it your own. So you say something like “Thank you God (that’s thanks). You’re wonderful! (that’s praise).  And the second half of the verse leads us to “tell of all God’s wonderful works.” The “all” here is not “all the people”, but “all the works”. So it’s not just “I found a treasure, I found a pearl,”  but “God has done this, and this, and that, and that, and is doing this, and that, and will do this, and this, and that, and that.”

Conclusion

We’re called today to see in what God does for us the great value of living in relationship to God. So, what we find, we must not just put into our pockets, or cover up. We have a responsibility to evaluate it. Our evaluation of our own actions may bring us beyond thanks and praise, to confessing that we’ve valued God too low, and we’ve turned away from telling others what God has shown us.

And there are many responses. Jesus recommends giving up everything else for it. The psalmist recommends thanking, praising, singing and telling.

As we spend time in prayer this week, let’s reflect on the wonderful treasures God has shown us, has enabled us to find. And then go out and tell somebody about it, not to convert him or her, but just to spread the knowledge a little. Maybe we’ll develop new habits of life.  AMEN

The Minunderstander in Each of Us

 Genesis 28:10-22   and Matthew 13:24-30 & 36-43           July 23, 2017

Making crooked places straight and rough places smooth, is part of Christ’s work in our lives.

 

Introduction

Last year in January the people of my adopted homeland, Taiwan, elected a new president and vice president. In November a new president and vice president were elected in my OTHER homeland, America. All of the candidates for president and vice president in both places were politicians. Many politicians choose their words carefully, because they want us to understand them in a way that leaves them free to do whatever they like, and not be called liars.

Some politicians seem to want to be misunderstood. But there are also people who want to misunderstand. It is to their advantage to get things wrong, because then they are free to do something OTHER THAN what they were told. Children and students are really skillful at purposeful misunderstanding. The guy we met him in our Old Testament reading today, was like that.

I Why Jacob was out there with his head on a rock  

The character, Jacob is complicated. His parents were apparently unhappily married. (Once, thinking that he would save his own life, Jacob’s father told people that his wife, Jacob’s mother, was actually his sister, and gave her away to a local king. The king took her into his harem until he found out the truth, then he returned her. It’s hard to imagine there being any trust OR happiness after something like that.)

Jacob had a twin brother who was a few minutes older and a whole lot manlier than him. But Jacob was smarter, and cheated his brother, sometimes by himself and other times with the help of their mother. After one incident of being cheated, the brother threatened that after their father died, he would kill Jacob.

Among the things that the brother did that made their mother unhappy was to marry the wrong women (he had at least 3 wives). To avoid that happening with Jacob, he was sent far away to find a wife or wives (he came back with 4)in the home country of their mother. It is on this trip, running away from his brother and looking for women, that we met Jacob doing what most of us do every night, sleeping, and dreaming.  

Because this is the Bible we’re reading, we’re going to accept that the report of Jacob’s dream is actually what he dreamed. He didn’t make it up, and it didn’t get written down incorrectly. In his dream he saw a stairway reaching from earth to heaven, with angels going up and down on it. And he heard the voice of the God of his grandfather and his father making promises to him. In those days there were not universities or degrees or big companies with good jobs to offer, so the promises he received were about land, descendants, blessings and protection.

II How Jacob misinterpreted the dream

If you were to have a dream in which God made promises to you, what would you be hoping to hear? If you’re in the middle of a graduate program right now, you might want to hear about successful completion of your courses, passing your thesis defense, and a good job afterwards. If you’re applying to get into a program, you might want to hear a promise of admission. If, like Jacob, you’re looking for someone to marry, you might have some hopes for that, too.

Because we don’t remember our dreams very often or very clearly, it’s possible that what we would understand upon awakening would be something like Jacob, who misinterpreted what we had heard.

Remember what God had promised to Jacob?: land, descendants, blessings and protection.  But what did Jacob understand?  Upon waking, he did NOT say, “what an awesome dream!”  He did not say, “What a wonderful God!” He did not say, “What great promises!” No, he said, “What a place! God is here and I didn’t know it.” (He had some kind of belief in God, most people then believed in some sort of spiritual presence, most people today do, too.) For Jacob the presence of God had nothing to do with God or with Jacob, but with the place. And he believed that he had accidentally bedded down in God’s bedroom. Getting the meaning of the dream and the promises wrong he took actions and he made demands that were incorrect.

As you live in Taiwan, what languages are you using? How much of any local language (Mandarin or Taiwanese or one of the 18 others in use here) can you understand or speak? For that matter, coming to church here where we use English, a second or third language for most of us, how much or little can you understand, and how much do you misunderstand? Outside of home and here at church, I basically operate in Taiwanese, but a lot of people speak Mandarin to me. I often misunderstand.  For example, when using Taiwanese to ask if something can be found on the right side or the left, and someone answers in Mandarin, I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT I’VE BEEN TOLD. So I still have to look on both sides.

In Jacob’s case, misunderstanding God’s promises led to interpreting what he had been told entirely to his own advantage. In verses 20-22, it sounds like he’s programming a computer. “IF 1) you will be with me and; 2) protect me on the journey I am making and; 3) give me food and, 4) clothing, and; 5) if I return safely to my father’s home: THEN A) you will be my God; B) this memorial stone which I have set up will be the place where you are worshipped, and; C) I will give you a tenth of everything you give me.”

So, God made promises to Jacob, not requiring that Jacob do anything in response, and Jacob “made a deal with God”, requiring God to provide protection, food, clothing, and safe return. And if he got it, THEN Jacob would believe in God, and give God a piece of land as big as a stone and ten percent whatever God would give him. Though God’s promises were good for Jacob, his own re-interpretation of those promises set things out EVEN BETTER for Jacob.

Before we judge Jacob too harshly, though, we need to reflect on ourselves. Like him, we, too, often misunderstand things, and we re-interpret them to our own advantage.

III: We don’t get it, either, but it’ll all get sorted out eventually

A lot of Jesus’ teaching was in the form of parables. Most often these were giving examples of what he was trying to teach. They were rarely stories with “hidden meanings”, in which one character or item “symbolized” something else. We read one of those stories today, and, thankfully, we also read Jesus’ explanation of it. Otherwise, being who we are, we might get it wrong.

The writer of Matthew gathered up stuff about Jesus, no matter where and in what situation it may have happened, and grouped things together by themes. In chapter 12 there are miracle stories. In chapter 13 there are two parables with explanations, and 5 parables without. The two with explanations are about agriculture and judgment. The others are about the value and power of the Kingdom of God.

The one WE read concerned a farmer who had servants and an enemy. It was about Jesus himself and his enemy. In the story, the farmer’s servants thought they might go into a polluted field and clean out the bad stuff. In the explanation, Jesus said that’s not the farm-workers’ job while things are growing, but that after the harvest, things would be sorted out.   

When you ask a computer to do something, you need both good instructions and good information. There’s an expression, “Garbage in, Garbage out” which means that if either the instructions or the information is polluted, the result will not be satisfactory. We all learn a lot as we move through life. We learn good and bad  instructions for how to live. We learn good and bad information about life. When we look at the mess of the lives we are in, it can be like the field in the parable, in which good wheat was growing mixed with bad weeds. We’re not unlike Jacob, who had good promises (information), but a selfish way of interpreting them (which served as his instructions.)

There were times in my own life when I was certain that to be a Christian meant that one did not drink beer, or smoke cigarettes, or use certain vulgar words in speaking to others. (It was wrong to steal, but was acceptable to cheat on your taxes so long as you didn’t cheat too much.) With those instructions, I sorted out who could and could not be my friends and associates. Unlike the farm-workers in the parable, I tore up good with bad, and destroyed relationships with people whom I now miss. The promise in Jesus’ parable is that it will eventually be sorted out. We should not be too eager to fix things ourselves.

Conclusion:

In the 8 months that I’ve been part of the Tainan International Community Church we’ve used three different prayer response songs.For several months we sang a very traditional version of “Hear our prayer, O Lord.” The picture on the screen then often included an ear. Then for a couple of months we used, “Lord, listen to your children praying” and there were pictures of children. For the past 6 weeks or so, we’ve used an Indonesian song, “ask your God”. That’s our conclusion today. When we’re not sure about the understanding of something, or we’ve figured it out too much to our own advantage, we need to ask God.

In Matthew 13 there are two times that Jesus’ disciples “asked their God” for explanations. One time it was, “Why do you teach in parables?” The other time it was, “Please explain that parable to us.” They did what Jacob didn’t do. They asked. They did what WE need to do, ASK. As we sing in the song, “there will surely be an answer….” We need to ask, because when we “figure it out ourselves,” we’re likely, if not sure, to go wrong. That’s not because we’re bad, but because like Jacob, and like the field in the parable, we’re mixed.  So, for the short term, ask, and for the long term, trust in God. It will be sorted out in the end.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN

Untangling law, Law and LAW

 

Untangling law, Law, and LAW     

Isaiah 55:10-11,  Romans 8:1-11  (July 16, 2017)

We’re not cursed to damnation, but carried to salvation, by God’s LAW

Introduction

My wife, Char, and I do not yet have grandchildren. Char’s sister has 4. The youngest recently had her first birthday. I wasn’t there, but Char was, and I’ve already seen the pictures of last Sunday’s birthday party on Facebook. This little girl, who has the imperial-sounding name “Octavia”, looks very sweet and innocent. I’m sure that she’s free of sinful thoughts and actions. We like to think of babies as being free from sin. After all, what have they DONE that was under their control? But there’s a teaching in Christian Theology that has been around for more than 1,500 years which tells us that babies are sinful from birth. There’s eve a verse in Psalm 51 in which a poet tells God that he was sinful from the moment he was conceived inside his mother.

The teaching of original sin was formulated by St. Augustine, an African man who around the year 400 CE. When young he lived what he characterized as a wild and sinful life In his 20s he came to faith in God. He was a strong philosopher and a good writer. He eventually became a bishop of the church. A man of his times and a man of faith, he looked at society around him, and reflected on his inward experience and read his Bible. He believed that all the things he read in the Bible happened exactly the way they were written down and that Adam and Eve were real people. He eventually put it all together and “explained” things. Of the many things that came out of his thinking, one was “Original Sin”. According to this belief, we have no choice. Being human, we are sinners. We get it from our fathers and mothers. It can only be undone by being baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Different churches have different rules about baptism. The most “free” ones say that any Christian can baptize anyone else, so long as they use water and the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A “middle position” says that this should happen with other believers present, you can’t do it in private, but it can be a “special event” like a wedding. My own tradition says that it should happen as part of regularly scheduled worship where a sermon has been preached. The Roman Catholic Church is more strict. One who baptizes another must be a properly ordained male priest. BUT, when you insert “Original Sin” into the process, you bump up against the possibility that a baby could be born and be sent to hell eternally because of dying before being baptized. In those cases, even the Roman Catholic church allows that any Christian, male or female, using water and the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, can baptize a newborn baby who is about to die.   

Enough of that. I’m not going to defend the teaching about Original Sin, but neither will I attack it too much. It describes the experience of human life in which we see ourselves and everyone around us; wrapped and trapped in sin. How did we get that way? I don’t know. But I’m acquainted with the power of sin in my own life, but rather than a saint from the year 400, I’ll accept the description of a fictional character in a 20th century American novel who put it this way, “You ain’t got to. You can’t help it.”

I  The law of sin and death

  A law can be a rule that we have to follow: you must have a passport to get into or out of the country; you must be licensed if you will drive a car; etc. It can also be a description of a condition which seems always to be true: “The law of gravity” “The law of entropy.” “To each action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The condition we know as “sin” can be seen as one of these laws. Give it a “little l” for the purpose of discussion. Though we don’t have to sin, but we can’t help it. Sometimes it feels like “sin” is the only thing we CAN do.  And sometimes that scares us because living without control has the power to destroy us.

Different cultures have their histories. Mine has the days of the cowboys when White people from the East of the United States took the land in the west of the country from the people who had been there for hundreds and thousands of years. There was little or no set of rules to stop anyone from doing evil to anyone else. The expression “the wild west” means a condition without control.  Other cultures and societies may have similar eras when restraints were weak on the “edges of civilization.” But this is not “lawlessness.” It’s a situation where the “little l law” is the only law. In Romans 8:3 we find it called, “weak human nature” or “sin in human nature”. The original language, translated exactly, says, “flesh” (meaning the fact that we are meat). We find it again in verses 5, 6, 7 &8. We’re told that it controls our minds, results in death, makes us enemies of God and unable to please God.

Life “controlled” by the “little l” law is sometimes described as “a rat race” and as “dog eat dog.”  Often it’s lived by trying to get even with someone whose own  weak human nature has offended your own weak human nature.

II The Law of Religion and Society

Human nature is weak, but it is not helpless. We have the ability to deal with life controlled by “little l” law. We create and enforce “Big L” Law. Often this comes with the power of a religion. “Big L” Law is similar across religions and societies. This leads some people to say, “it doesn’t matter which religion you choose, so long as it makes you ‘good’.”  (and “good” is defined as “well behaved.”)

 When enough people occupy space where “little l” law is the way of life, they will arrange for “big L” Law to be implemented. In the wild west they appointed sheriffs and got the “settled places” in the east to send judges. In Chinese there’s an expression about places where there’s too much “little l” and not enough “Big L” law. “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” Because in our weak human nature, we are drawn to hurting ourselves and each other, human societies have created systems of Law to promote good behavior and punish bad behavior. In the Middle-east, before there was the Bible, there was Hammurabi, a king whose law code looks very much like what we read in the Bible. It’s similar enough so that one can easily imagine that the good faithful people who brought us the Bible used Hammurabi’s code as reference material. But this “Big L” law, though it could promote the good and punish the bad, was still not fully satisfactory. We read in Romans 8:3 today that it could not overcome “little l” law (human nature). That doesn’t mean that “Big L” law wasn’t useful. In verse 4 it’s even called “righteous”. It shows us what is right, and helps us to see where we are wrong. “Big L” Law may push us to obey so that we won’t be punished, but, at least we obeyed. “Big L” Law also clearly points out where we have offended,  and results in us feeling guilty of doing wrong. It’s very natural. Put any of us next to someone who is “righteous”, and it won’t be long before we begin to see our own failures by comparison. But making people obey or feel guilty for not obeying doesn’t really do us much good. We remain “bad people who feel bad about being bad.” At the beginning of verse 3 we’re told that “Big L” law could not do away with sin.  

Sin gets to us first, and becomes the way we live (in the form of “little l” law). “Big L” law comes to us later, and it is no fun. Though it promotes good behavior, it makes us feel bad. As a young man, I feared life by “little l” law, but hated the controls of “Big L” law. Whenever I saw the word “Law” in the Bible, I thanked God that I could live by something else, something better, BUT I COULDN’T FIGURE OUT WHAT THAT WAS! So I settled for the idea of learning and obeying ALL of the rules, even though I hated being controlled by them.  

In Psalm 51:12 the poet asks God “Give me again the joy that comes from your salvation and make me willing to obey you.” That was my prayer, but I didn’t like what followed in verse 13: “then I will teach sinners your commands and they will turn back to you.” Because I didn’t like the idea of a life of following commands,. I was joyless, and worse than that, when I WAS able to follow the commands, I became judgmental of anyone who didn’t keep them as well as I did. I lost friends. Worse even than that, I wasn’t able to keep those commands, anyway.

III The way of God Which we meet in Christ 

This brings us to something that is all through Romans 8:1-11 that we read today, but for which I have to create a different way of writing the word. LAW, all three letters are big ones.

God’s LAW is described in verse 1 as “life in union with Christ Jesus”. In verse 2 it’s described as “the law of the Spirit which brings us life” and the author of these verses tells us that it has set him free from “little l” law. In verses 5 and 6 we about it as “living as the Spirit tells us to” which “results in life and peace.” Verses 10 and 11 assure us that the presence of the Spirit of Christ in us puts us right with God and guarantees us life even though, because of “little l” law, our bodies die.  

I missed this as a young man for a couple of reasons. One was that “little l” law was running me, and the other was that “Big L” law, though joyless, was easy to learn. BUT, because whenever I saw the word “Law” I immediately resisted, so the idea of teaching God’s Law to people put me off. What I lacked, and what I hope we can find today in LAW, is the power of God’s love, which is God’s way and is God’s LAW. Looking around for something to compare it to, I’m settling here for water in nature. (But be careful, because any comparison is faulty.)

Water falls on all of us as rain; on good people, bad people, smart people, stupid people, rich and poor. It’s like “little l” law. We all get wet. But after rain falls onto the earth, it runs into streams and rivers which guide it. Streams and rivers are like “Big L” Law. They control the water and carry it to places where it is needed.  God’s way, LAW, is awesome in power. It is like the current in the ocean. There’s one that flows through Indonesia around Timor to refresh the Indian Ocean. There’s another that circulates in the North Pacific, crossing east to west through Kiribati, turning North past Japan and back East to America where it flows south again. Before the days of powered shipping, the currents had as much to do with getting things from “here to there” as the winds.  Currents are deep, powerful, yet gentle.  Like God’s LAW.

How are we to live? If we allow what we read from Romans 8 this afternoon to guide and shape our thinking, we’ll find three sorts of law in our lives. The one that takes hold of us even when we’re still babies is the one with the “little l”. Though nothing requires us to follow it, we can’t not follow. It leads us to competition with each other, and to death.  

The next Law has a “Big L”, and it controls us, but we’re not happy about it. If we succeed with this one, we only find our options (all of which are open in the “little l” law), limited. If we succeed with it, we’ll mainly judge ourselves as good, and everyone else as bad.

Both of these laws operate in us, but neither leads to life, and to life eternal. The wonderful gift of God to us is the “LAW” which we meet in Jesus Christ, who came to us, setting aside the power of both “law” and “Law” over us, and opening the way for us to live by God’s Word (which is much larger than the bible). We remain weak, but we are no longer slaves to “little l” law.  We remain controlled, but though we can’t keep it, we’re not responsible to keep all of the rules in the “Big L” law. Christ’s spirit dwells in us, and we are carried along in the powerful love of God.  

Conclusion

    We read a couple of verses of the Old Testament this afternoon, too. Isaiah 55:10 & 11. The comparison there, of God’s word to water in the form of snow and rain, is helpful.  These things come down from the sky to water the earth. They make crops grow to provide what we need in order to live. And that’s how God’s way is It is FOR us. It is given TO all of us. It never fails to do what God plans for it.

Whatever “little l” law and “Big L” law do in your lives, remember that these are nothing compared to what God’s way, what God’s word in Christ, what God’s LAW in each of us through the Holy Spirit, can do for us, and for this world.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN

Three Weeks of Independence in Taiwan

29 June: It ain’t “My Kaohsiung” any more.

Early in June I was invited to give a short sermon during opening worship for the international “I Love Taiwan” camp run by the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan for youth from around the world. The event happens annually, but this is the first time I’ve been invited.

Saying “Yes” to the invitation was made easier because the camp’s first few days were at a conference center in Kaohsiung, where we’d lived for 25 years. I knew the location and felt confident of getting there without trouble. I even looked at it on Google maps ahead of time and jotted down some directions. But I mis-read too much of what was presented, including what I thought was an estimated travel time of  45 minutes. (It was really something like an hour and 20.) Leaving home late, I proceeded to miss the freeway off ramp and had to circle back. I missed more turns before finally getting to the correct road. When I looked for the place to be on the left, it turned out to be on the right.

I got there only 10 minutes before my part in the program was to begin (I’d been asked to be 45 minutes early). Other than the staff, nobody else knew how poorly I had performed. I hope the sermon was what they needed.

 

2 July: “Not For Use With Children”

When planning to preach, I look first to the lectionary and choose one Old Testament and one New Testament suggestion that I find there. I was NOT entertained to find Abraham offering his son as a human sacrifice in the Old Testament lesson, and Jesus telling how he came to set parents against children in the Gospel. But instead of running to and preaching a comfy psalm or propositional truth from the epistles, I bit the bullet. The sermon is posted somewhere on the blog page, www.aboksu.wordpress.com if you care to see what came out of the thing It’s titled “Not for Use with Children.”

 

4 July: “Happy National Day”

The Chinese Nationalist Party of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek ruled China from 1911 to 1949, and Taiwan from 1945 to 2016. One of its policies was to insert the word “Nation” (the first word in the party’s Chinese name) into as many commonly used phrases as possible. Elementary schools became “Citizen (national people) Small Schools”. Middle schools became “Citizen (national people) Middle Schools”. Chinese characters became “National Words”. The anniversary of the rebellion that began the revolution which put the emperors out of office and the “National Party” into power is “National Celebration Day”. Young people in “citizen small” and “citizen middle” schools were taught that America’s “National Celebration Day” is July 4.  Accordingly, a couple of guys my age sent me “Happy National Day” greetings on the 4th. It brought about interesting discussions. I thanked each for the good wishes, but pointed out that though the USA has national holidays marking Martin Luther King, Presidents Washington and Lincoln, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day and Veterans’ Day, that there is no “National Celebration Day” in America. Members of the Chinese Nationalist Party can call holidays here whatever they want, but shouldn’t re-name and re-construe the meanings of the holidays of other peoples and nations.

 

6 July: Evaluation

The theology faculty met at 9AM on July 6th to go over the academic performance of all students who had been on probation last semester. It also looked at the grades of any deemed “in danger of” being put onto probation or being dismissed before the new school year begins on August 1st. Almost everyone is doing all right. One student has to re-take a course, another needs a little encouragement, but anyone who was previously on probation is now free from restriction. At 10AM the faculty of two other departments joined the meeting and reported on their students.  Nobody was expelled for poor grades.

Another discussion ensued. The head counselor spoke about a ministerial student whose ex-girlfriend (not a student) had contacted her about his conduct. Though his behavior had not been formally reported to the president’s office for action, it has apparently become well known to students and others through social media posts. Nothing will show in his record that can be cited, but he has been asked to take a year off to reflect on his ministerial calling and vocation. This is not a formal suspension, but may turn out to be good for the church.

 

9 July: Ego Feeding

From the time I left the door to the time I got back, 7 hours had elapsed. I’d been to Taipei where I delivered a sermon and presided at Holy Communion. All told, I was “up front” for about 30 minutes. It wasn’t as if the church, which worships in English, couldn’t have found someone else to stand in for their pastor, but it WAS all about me having said “yes” to a request made months ago.  I enjoy preaching, I enjoy presiding at sacraments, I get good feelings from it, but I am wondering whether it’s for the adrenalin rush or not. If you’re interested, you can find the video here: http://www.slpcenglish.org/multimedia-archive/2017-9-7-welcoming-wanderers-genesis-181-15-romans-56-8/  It was a good trip and visit to good people, but too much investment for the adrenalin payback. I’ve one more Sunday trip for this purpose, in October. But maybe not next year any more.

 

9 July: Church Elsewhere

Tainan International Community Church meets in a multi-purpose room at Dongning Presbyterian Church. It’s the right place, because to put 15-20 people in a sanctuary that seats 250 would really look bad, and it would make fellowship difficult.  On the 9th a different group was using that room for a meal, so we had to shift to a classroom next door. No big deal…. We had been told the previous Monday.

Setting up for worship entailed fetching hymnals & bibles, and rearranging tables and chairs so it wouldn’t feel like we were at a lecture. It required using a different computer and projector system than usual. Then afterwards everything had to be put back as it had been before we started. It being summer, there were only a dozen of us in attendance anyway.

The lectionary had offered Jesus pointing out that some people liked neither himself nor his cousin, John, AND some love poetry from the Song of Solomon.  The sermon came out as “You Can’t Say That In Church” and concluded that whether people like it or not, “Touching, pleasing, and delighting are gifts of God.” It was kind of fun to preach, and given that most of the congregation are between 20 and 30 years old, may have hit a mark. You can find it in the blog: www.aboksu.wordpress.com

 

11 July: Entrance Exam

In decades long past, Taiwan’s joint university entrance examination was given during the first few days of July. Results were announced within a week. Bible and theological colleges, not participants in the joint exam, then gave Christian students a chance late in July to test into THEIR entering classes. Though the joint university entrance exam is a thing of the past, and Tainan Theological College’s undergraduate program will completely disappear in 2018, the entrance exam here is STILL sometime after the first week of July. Apparently “God planned it so.”

A change in the application procedure for students hoping to become ministers in Taiwan’s Presbyterian Church cut the numbers of people eligible to take this year’s test. About 10 were examined last April and another 25 in July. (these numbers include graduate students in Church Music and Social Work). I was responsible for the English language placement exam. Students who read the sample questions and Reading Comprehension essay that had been posted on the school web site were prepared. Most of the others seemed either only to have paid attention to the 400 word vocabulary list or to have not prepared at all. A couple were surprised that there had been ANYTHING on the web. I don’t know how many have been accepted for the fall term, but learned on the 17th that I’ll be opening a remedial course for at least 3.

 

13 July: Nearly Front Row Seat.

Every summer a local organization runs a 2-week youth choir camp. Three professional directors meet with students for 10 days of training and rehearsal, then give several concerts. My ticket put me in row 2 of the Tainan Cultural Center’s concert hall. I was so close to the stage that I could hear sotto-voce comments from the directors. I saw three different styles, each of them filled with love that was manifest between the high school students and their directors. The first guy, Taiwanese, almost danced his direction. He was loose of limb and expressive with his hands. The second director, from Norway, was wonderfully playful in how he related to the choir. All of them were just having a good time together. The third guy, a Taiwanese who works in Singapore, seemed more mechanical, but you could see both the love and trust that went back and forth between himself, his accompanist, and his choir. In the future, when going to events like this, I’m going to want to be in the front again. No more cheap seats for me.

 

14 July: An Interestingly Named Street

Our daughter, Kate, sent me a scan of a Tainan municipal record from several decades back. It lists the names once given to the streets and lanes our neighborhood. One lane was interestingly denoted as, to put it gently, “Dog Excretia Lane” (it’s earthier in Taiwanese). I HAD to find it. It’s now a paved 1.5 meter-wide winding path behind buildings. I’d been there before, not aware of what I was walking on.  At its terminus I saw what looked like continuation across an avenue. Thither did I hasten.  A man coming out of that narrow space between buildings said that it went no further, and that, indeed at the place from which I had emerged it had once been known as “Dog Excretia Lane.” But on HIS side of the avenue it bore no such name. Apparently he had property values to consider!

 

16 July: Preaching to Children

Starting in September I’ll teach a course on preaching to children. It’s something not often or rarely well done in Taiwan. On the 16th I was preaching at a church for “Printed Evangelism Materials Fundraising Sunday” and was pleased to note that the order of service included a Children’s Sermon. Since the minister of the church is a friend of many years. He’s a creative man whom I really respect. But I was disappointed, because HE wasn’t the one doing the sermon. A friendly grandmother was in charge. She made about every mistake that I want to teach my future students NOT to make. She stood when speaking down at the kids, used a microphone when all the kids were within earshot, talked too much, had too many points, rambled, and basically told them all that God’s intent for them is that they all be obedient to their parents, teachers and pastor while behaving well. Then she prayed for too long.

For the class to come, I’m building lessons even now. I hope that when I see the final projects next January, they will bear witness to the existence of a well-trained cadre of future “Preachers-to-children” in this land.

 

16 July:  Cello Jazz

It’s my week for concerts. A quartet of piano, cello, bass and drums offered up a program “Neither Classical Nor Jazz” at a small concert hall (holds only about 250 people) near home on Sunday night. I almost didn’t go, because I had neither bought a ticket in advance nor figured that after preaching two church services I’d be as tired as I was. But when I discovered myself to be several thousands of steps short of my daily walking goal, out I went.

It was delightful! The players were all university students or recent graduates. The “not classical” music was contemporary, the “not jazz” music was re-arranged standards from the 20th century. The skill on display was amazing.  I hope that, at $6 per ticket, they made back what it cost them to rent the hall.

Before the Door

Genesis 18:1-5

Fundraising for the Taiwan Church Press   July 9, 2017

 Introduction

Thank you, Shuang-lian English ministries for allowing me to be here today and to share with again.  I’ve learned from your website that if I want to see videos of myself looking younger than I am now, I can find myself in your archives. Thanks for feeding my vanity.

Between my house in Tainan and the High Speed Train station there this morning I passed many places where people live, and by several churches.  I noticed that every house has a door, and every church has several. Many churches have greeters at the doors on Sunday mornings to make people feel welcome. We like to think of all churches as places where people are welcomed and made to feel that they have friends. But there are churches in many places around the world have a problem. The only people they REALLY welcome are those that come to the door where a greeter will extend a hand and welcome them in.

I: Abraham was Visible and Viewing

Part of welcoming people is making it easier for them to participate in what we do in church. Another part is sharing our welcome in a way that gets it to them even before they come to our doors.  That’s one reason why we remember literature evangelism and the Taiwan Church Press today.

In the story about Abraham and some visitors that we just read, there were two locations: the first was where Abraham resided, (at the Oaks of Mamre) and the second was where he sat,  at the entrance to his tent.

For our purposes today, it doesn’t matter that this story was about Abraham. It doesn’t matter who he was in history. It doesn’t matter who the visitors were, or what they said or what was promised. All that matters is the story of one guy and how he interacted with some travelers. SO, if you don’t know anything about him, listen anyway.

The weather in Taiwan at this time of the year is rather hot, isn’t it? Lately it’s been rainy, too. In the 21st century, many of us have moved to using air-conditioning to make it possible to get through these hot times.  If you ride the MRT here in Taipei, or any of the TRA trains that go anywhere, you roll along in air conditioned comfort. The same is true when you take the bus. But it wasn’t always so. When I came to Taiwan 40 years ago, there was no MRT. Most trains had fans, but only the top 3 classes were air conditioned. And buses?  If you wanted cooling, you only option was to open the window.

Abraham was at the door of his tent because that was probably the best place to be during the hot part of the day. Perhaps at the door he could feel any breeze that passed by. Perhaps at the door he could be in the shade, rather than out where the sun would shine on him. And at the door he was visible to anyone who might approach him (so people who might want to secretly steal from him would be deterred).

But at the door is a risky place to be, too. People who see where you ARE can figure out ways to sneak around behind you. People who have weapons with which to strike you from afar, throwing a rock or a spear, shooting an arrow or a sling-shot, can aim more carefully.

At the door is where the church has to be at all times. People can see the cross on our buildings, people can read the notice board that says when we hold meetings, people have information, but people need to be attracted. Having a beautiful building is one thing, having the door open is another. Along the streets in Tainan there are many churches, some in their own buildings, some in store-fronts, others on upper floors over shops, that have closed and locked iron doors most of the time. Of course, the reason is good. We must protect the piano and the sound equipment. We must prevent evil people from misusing God’s property. So for most of the week, all that people see is that we have a well-taken-care-of, locked building.  Folk religion temples, in contrast, are open all day, every day. About 8 years ago I joined a political protest  march of pastors, Taiwan independence  activists and Buddhist monks in Tainan. At a certain point the march stopped for a few minutes, and many pastors in my group ran into a temple to use the toilet. Had it been a church we’d stopped in front of, the door and the toilet both would likely not have been available to us. It’s possible that many pastors that day thanked God for that temple.

20 years ago I was the pastor of a store-front church in Kaohsiung. When I was in my office at the church, at the back of the second floor doing “pastor stuff”, I got lonely. One day,  I tried doing my office work, sermon preparation and other things “at the door”. It  put me into contact with the people in the neighborhood. I felt downright ‘Abrahamic.’

Being Visible is an important part of our mission to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to our community.

II Abraham Reached Out and Welcomed

At the door you can see what’s happening outside. You can respond to any needs that come up.  Deep inside our houses, enjoying the air conditioning and the television we may miss things like car accidents out front or a neighbor’s house on fire until we hear sirens.

Abraham wasn’t just at the door to stay cool and deter enemies, he was there so that he could see what was happening. When three men appeared he responded; running to them, bowing to them, and welcoming them to be his guests. He called Sarah to provide refreshments, and he served them.

We might imagine that under the Oaks of Mamre there wasn’t much going on, so the appearance of three visitors would be a welcome event. If there were few people in the area, it could mean that newcomers were bringing good news. Like Taiwan 60 years ago, Abraham’s place didn’t have TV. Like Taiwan 100 years ago, there was no radio. Like Taiwan 150 years ago, there was no such thing as a newspaper. Visitors meant news, maybe even entertainment. Of COURSE he would greet them.

BUT, in a place where there were Oak trees there was water, a well or a spring. Oak Trees were also where people came to worship. This was a place of physical and spiritual refreshment, seeing visitors pass by and pause at the Oak trees of Mamre was not a special thing. Rather like seeing people come along the street outside our church building.

Abraham did what churches around the world need to do, not waiting for people to enter his tent, he went out to greet them, invite them, and persuade them to spend time with him.

But our times are not Abraham’s time. We are careful people. We tell our children, rightly, to be careful of strangers. But we have the good news of Jesus and salvation, so we need to find ways to reach out in the name of our Lord. We can’t wait to greet people coming into the church, we need to bring them from where they are, through our doors, into our fellowship, and into the glorious news of Jesus.

III Abraham Served and Conversed

Our church is visible, we have a sign, a weekly bulletin, and an excellent web site. We  are familiar with the good news of Jesus Christ in our own lives. We have stories to tell (and EVERYBODY likes stories). We’ve got the tools, what are we to do with them?

The story we read began with Abraham making people comfortable and serving them things they would like. He sat with them in conversation. The story continued with what Abraham RECEIVED in this transaction, but that’s not what we’re here about today. It’s not about what we might GET, but about how to go about being the people, the church, whom God has called us to be, and doing that which might best bring the good news of Jesus Christ to people. We need to welcome people to the kind of situation in which they can best hear, understand and accept the good news of God’s love for this world.

In our church lives, we keep bibles and hymnbooks near the door, and may even put the words to the hymns on the screen for people to be able to sing along with us. But there are times in our worship when visitors or less “church-experienced” folks need a bit of assistance in finding things.  I grew up in a church that had a hymnbook and the Bible. The first time I visited a Catholic church, (which also used a printed Mass book), I was confused. Some years later when I visited a church that had Bible, hymmal, prayer book and supplemental song book, I was lost. Praise God, in each case a kind Christian saw my need and provided some polite direction.

Some things we do “habitually” as churches are strange to people from outside. Sometimes preachers like me are so intent on explaining bible beliefs or church stuff that people who are not familiar with the bible and its contents get NOTHING AT ALL.

Sam Shepherd was a famous American evangelist in the 1930s and 40s. There’s a short book of his sermons and other musings, “Extraordinary Living for Ordinary Men” (The church wasn’t into inclusive language back then). In it there’s an essay in which he explains his way of living, It’s entitled, “I stand near the door.” He wasn’t talking about the door of his room or of his church. He meant the “door” between church people and everyone else. He didn’t want to get so far “into” the church and the life of faith that he couldn’t talk to people who didn’t yet believe. But, he didn’t want to go so far out of the door that he would forget the things of faith that gave meaning to his life.

Today we’re considering literature evangelism Sunday and the work of the Taiwan Church Press. Many things that come from the press are EXACTLY the “near the door” stuff that we  and the society around us need.

Conclusion: Printed Materials to help churches be “Abrahamic”

By being near the door, Abraham could see those who were passing by, and they could see him. The Taiwan Church News publishes a weekly newspaper. It contains not just “church stuff”, but lots of social commentary and many cultural features.  The press puts out the kinds of theological books that help church leaders to do their jobs better and operates bookstores where churches buy the kinds of supplies that churches use. But it doesn’t print Bibles.

Sisters and brothers, the Bible is EXCELLENT, but it’s a difficult reach for many outside of the community of faith to make.  For folks who are likely to zone out on getting anything from the Bible reading it straight up (folks like me), the church press publishes  the weekly “heart farmer” paper. It contains about four stories each week about the struggles of people of faith. It’s local (Taiwan) and not all that religious. If you read it every week for 10 weeks, you’re bound to find a story that intersects with some issue a not-yet-believing friend has encountered, and then you can talk with that friend, “at the door.” For those of us who want to read the bible daily, the Taiwan Church Press offers the New Eyes Bible Reading guides, which help us not to just read a certain number of verses, but also to understand them as people in Taiwan.

Today in our bulletins there is yet one more printed thing, an offering envelope. Even if you put nothing in here, do use this to remind you to ask God to watch over the Taiwan Church press and other agencies engaged in printed word evangelistic work. As our world goes more and more into the digital age, these agencies have to be transformed into what God has for us next.

Our churches also need to be transformed for the digital world that is upon us already. Let’s not be hiding inside, comfortable where the air conditioning blows on us, and not aware of what our neighbors are struggling with outside. Like Abraham, let’s sit near the door, where we can be part of the action that God is doing. AMEN

 

 

“You Can’t Say THAT in Church”

Matthew 11:16-19  and   Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Introduction

I can freely say something today that 30 years ago would have got me thrown out of Taiwan or landed me in jail. Here goes: “I’m in favor of Taiwan being an independent and sovereign nation.” We’ve been free to say things like this in Taiwan since the mid ‘90s. It’s wonderful progress. We can say anything here. Nearby, in Hong Kong,  things are going the other direction. There are things that you can’t say there anymore.

There are things that you just can’t say in certain places, or among certain people…. Last Sunday the mens choir of a big Texan church debuted a new anthem: “Make American Great Again.” It combines Protestant Christian themes with certain political ideas that have become popular in the USA in the last 18 months. Here in Tainan, WE won’t be singing that song.

Marriage in Taiwan is a “civil” matter. It doesn’t matter how many priests or pastors of whatever religion you may have at a wedding ceremony, they aren’t the ones who “make it legal”. You become legally wed by signing documents at a lawyer’s office which the lawyer files with the court. Though Taiwan’s Supreme Court recently ruled that there’s nothing in the law here to prohibit same-sex marriage, don’t expect to see same-sex weddings in most churches soon, or even in the long run. Even holding an open meeting to discuss same-sex marriage among Christian people invites protest speeches from those who oppose. Last March there was one of those open meetings in the assembly hall at the theological college. It was no surprise to anyone, the event had been scheduled and publicly announced months in advance. It was also no surprise that several hundred protestors stood outside the venue. They didn’t want the topic discussed in a church-related setting. There are things that you just can’t say in church. Whether you’re on one side of any particular issue or the other, you’re bound to make some people unhappy.

I: The Unpopularity of John the Baptist with some of his contemporaries.

John the Baptist was born a few months before Jesus. In his 20s he began preaching in the wilderness between Jerusalem and the Jordan River. In his time, there were about 600,000 people in the land. A few were rich and powerful, some were religious and powerful, but the majority of the people were poor and “locked out of” most religious life.

The rich and powerful people tended to favor the colonial government from Rome, which kept things calm and allowed them to continue being rich, powerful and  “prominent” in both their society and in its official religion. The “religious and powerful” people (there were about 6,000 of them) seemed to compete with each other to interpret their religion and the traditions that had grown up around it ever more strictly. In that way, they kept more and more people “out” and only themselves and their families “in”. To be “pure enough” to belong to this group, one had to prove his or her DNA to be unpolluted by foreign mixing back four generations.

If you belonged to the “priestly” part of the society (if your family was part of that ancestry) more than DNA was involved. It didn’t take a lot of priests to run the temple, and there were more than enough men with the proper ancestry, so only a few were “full-time.” MOST of the men in this family line took turns, going to do “priest stuff” in the temple in Jerusalem for two weeks every year. For a certain number of days before the 2-week duty, and all through it, they had to keep religiously clean, following a lot of rules about what they did with their bodies, what they touched, or even what they looked at.

OK, you’re a priest, and you put up with it for a few weeks a year in order to qualify for the guaranteed income. But the “very religious” people, many of whom were not of the right family to be priests, expanded on that. A good priest would stay that “clean” 52 weeks a year. And a good religious person (whether of the priestly ancestry or not) would try his hardest to be priestly-pure all year. Common people were basically shut out of having much to do with religious life, or to have much to do with God, whose standards were so high.

So here’s the diagram:

Priests who have to be pure sometimes. Have a hard time doing it, but manage for 2 weeks plus some days every year
Non-priestly but very religious people who strive to be priestly-pure all year Consider themselves to be righteous and able to judge everyone else
Common people, neither priests, nor very religious No Chance for you to be right with God

Along comes John the Baptist, preaching “Turn away from your sins and be baptized and God will forgive your sins.” Basically he was offering everyone people a chance to get back into a right relationship with God and get their past records cleaned up. And People came to him from Jerusalem, from the whole province of Judaea, and from all the country near the River Jordan.

There’s a similar story in Chinese religious history. The emperor and royalty followed Confucianism, but it was too intellectual for the common people who couldn’t even read. The social leaders who were not royal followed Taoism, but it required too much study. All that was left for common people was animist folk religion, which met daily needs but didn’t offer anything long-term. Along came Buddhism, from India, promising mercy and salvation. People took to it like it was candy. They not only made it their own, they went as missionaries spreading it to Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

In John’s situation, when some social and religious leaders came to him asking for the same deal he was offering the common folks. He called them “snakes”. He demanded that they show by their behavior that they had turned from their sins. It’s easy to see that John was not well liked by the religious and social leaders. He said the kinds of things that “you can’t say in church.”

II: The Unpopularity of Jesus with some of his contemporaries

The leaders didn’t like John. He was a class traitor. Born into a priestly family, he didn’t do priest stuff. Instead, he became a prophet. He could have been rich and powerful, but he lived in the wilderness eating wild food and wearing rough clothes. He had not been trained. Nothing in the Bible indicates he could even read. But he was a powerful preacher. Common people liked: him; what he stood for; and how he made them feel.

Then along comes Jesus, who admired John but didn’t live like him. Jesus had a house in Capernaum. He wore decent clothes. He ate what other people ate. He didn’t seem to care with whom he shared a meal. He went to parties. He drank wine. He didn’t condemn people for breaking rules. Sometimes his words were harsh, but much of what he said was gentle and affirming. People gathered to hear him teach and preach. People came to him to be healed of diseases. Crowds followed him expecting a meal. He welcomed everyone, even those who were considered unclean by the religious standards of the day: women; sick people; foreigners, local people who had dealings with foreigners, people who handled dead bodies, crazy people, demon-possessed people; even dead people. Jesus was not “anti-John”; he admired John; he preached the same basic message as John (The kingdom of God is near. Turn away from your sins and believe the good news), but Jesus didn’t imitate John.

John had been too “rough” for the social and religious leaders of the time. They criticized him for that. Jesus came along and acted differently, he was too “soft” for the religious leaders, so like John, he, too, was criticized. He, too, said things that “you can’t say in church.”

The verses we read from Matthew today are part of a longer story in which some who followed John (who had been thrown into prison for saying rough things to a political leader) came to ask what they should do. Jesus praised John. Then he described the social and religious leaders of the society as being like children who wouldn’t play either weddings or funerals. Knowing only that they wanted things to continue as they were, they would not listen to either kind of preacher: John OR Jesus. They resisted change, because when you’re in charge, you like things to remain as they are, or you want to go “back”. When you’re in charge, you tell people that there are certain things that “you can’t say in church.”

III: The Unpopularity of the Song of Solomon with people in 2 religions

We read some love poetry this afternoon. It’s kind of surprising to do that in church, isn’t it? But it’s right there in our Bibles. Anybody who has ever heard this poetry read in church NOT at a wedding, raise your hand. None of us? Yeah, this is NOT something that is read in Sunday school or youth group or worship. Love poetry like this has been on the list of things “you can’t say in church” for a very long time.

Finding it in the Old Testament means that it is holy Bible in both Jewish and Christian religions. Leaders in BOTH religions have historically been embarrassed by it. If you read the entire book (it will take you about 30 to 40 minutes, maybe not even that long), you’ll find it full of images of love, food and sex. In the church we talk a lot about love, “love one another,” “Jesus loves me,” “God is love.” We have no trouble talking about food. We often have a problem, though, when in the Bible or in life as it is lived we encounter romance and sexuality. You can’t talk about these things in church. We’re not so sure that we even want them in our Bibles. There was a time in my own life when the book of Isaiah was my favorite part of the Old Testament. One day I noticed that it’s right next to the Song of Solomon, I was embarrassed that my spiritual favorite had such a wildly physical neighbor!

The good Jewish people who sorted and selected from among the many writings available to them and decided which ones would be included in the Hebrew Bible debated long and hard about letting this one in. They noted that there is NO mention of God anywhere in it. Some considered it little more than a drinking song. The conclusion of some was to let it in. Some interpreted it as about the relationship between the groom (God) and the bride (the Jewish nation). They made it out to be a retelling of the relationship between their people from the Exodus onward through the exilic experiences and the restoration of the people in the land. A mystical view saw the Song as representing the union of the active intellect with the passive. In general, the contents of the Song of Solomon were considered things you can’t say in church (or, in their case, the synagogue). After the 4th century CE they were banned from the synagogue but permitted for private reading at home once each year.

The good Christian people who, around the year 400 CE, sorted and debated from among the many writings available and decided which ones would be included in the Christian Bible (the New Testament) already accepted the Jewish decision about the Old Testament, so the Song is in the Bibles we use today. But they were embarrassed by it, too. Some interpreted it as an allegory of Christ as the groom and the bride as the church. For many Roman Catholic scholars the bride became the Virgin Mary. Martin Luther saw her as a symbol of the state, and according to this view, in the poem was Solomon thanking God for the loyalty of his people.

To get some perspective, I went to The Oxford Companion to the Bible. The article there, written by a Roman Catholic scholar from America, gives all the basics of the historical arguments about the book and an evaluation of its structure (scholarly stuff) and concludes as follows: it is “a collection of related lyrics, loosely united, composed NOT to teach, but to touch, to please, and to delight.” NO WONDER it’s not read in church.

Conclusion:  Wisdom is shown to be true by its results

Jesus summed it up very well.  “Wisdom is shown to be true by its results.”

Maybe romance endures, our misinterpretations and our embarrassment. Maybe we can conclude our thinking about that today with an affirmation of something that you can’t say in church.

Touching, pleasing, and delighting are gifts of God.  After all, it’s in the Bible.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN

Not For Use With Children July 2, 2017

Genesis 22:1-19    Matthew 10:34-42

 

INTRODUCTION

There are people who, from their earliest years, strive to read whatever was put in front of them. There are others for whom reading was something learned from teachers. Many of us did not enjoy all of the work that it involved. As a kid in Sunday school I had lesson books. At my church, Sunday school happened BEFORE worship, and because I found worship boring, that’s when I would do my homework. If the instruction was to read verses 13 to 26, I would take that to mean 14 to 25 (the ones BETWEEN 13 and 26) because I didn’t like reading! After high school, I began to read for pleasure. If what I read interested me, I could go on and on. If it was an assignment, though, I got bored. Eventually life happened, and reading is now one of my favorite things to do. I’ll read anything, including the instructions that come on medicine bottles, where we often find the phrase, “Not For Use With Children”.

These words occurred to me when some of my students presented videos they made for an assignment to do a Childrens sermon. We’d watched pastors surrounded by children and having a great time learning things like how we’re all the same inside, and God loves us all. Though they had seen it in action, half of my students chose, instead, to tell Bible stories. It’s not a bad idea, but you have to choose carefully. One guy told the story of Noah and the boat full of animals… 2 of each kind. I could imagine a child asking, “Pastor, what happened to all of the puppies and kittens that didn’t go for the boat ride?” Would the pastor announce, “they all died!”? Someone else told about David killing Goliath by the power of faith in God and skillful stone-throwing. He left out the “chopping off the head” part. A third told a parable from Jesus, using coins as props, but I doubt that any child could have followed it.

Recently as Taiwan has moved towards inclusive marriage law, some pastors have joined the crowds who oppose it. They have shouted loudly about what they call “Biblical Family Values.” Whatever the Bible may or may not say about marriage, it’s NOT a good source book on Family Values. We read from a couple of places today that show family situations which are Biblical, but are Not for Use with Children.

I: SACRIFICE YOUR CHILD  Genesis 22:1-19

What little Hebrew I learned started with the story of Abraham obeying God and taking his son Isaac, whom he loved, out to kill him. Where we read in verses 7&8 of them talking on the way TO the mountain, the words are tender and can be understood as evidence of Abraham’s faith. But at verses 9 and 10, we want to cry, “stop!” (and in verse 11, an angel of the Lord did just that).

The story ends well. Isaac lives, the Lord provides an animal for a sacrifice, and preachers through the ages are given a phrase to use, “On the Lord’s mountain, he provides.” Nothing is said at all about any conversation between father and son on the way home. You might well imagine that any time after that when Abraham invited Isaac for a little talk, or to take a walk, there might have been fear and mistrust. And I wonder what might have been said when Isaac’s MOTHER heard about what had happened!

The point is, this story is not for use with children, who MAY be led by it to trust in God, who provides, but to distrust parents, who are willing to sacrifice children on altars. Jews, Christians and Muslims all have this problematical story in our scriptures. In the Holy Quran the son is Ismail Abraham’s firstborn. In his case the knife gets all the way to the throat, which God has made too hard for the cutting. . Ismail is the hero of the story because he submitted to the will of God, which is the central Islamic value. Were I a Muslim parent, I might save this story for when my children were older.

II: DENY YOUR FAMILY  Matthew 10:34-39

It’s scary enough for children in ANY religion to imagine that their parents’ God should ask for a child-sacrifice. Even worse, though, may be what we read from Jesus’ own lips, statements that might not be included on the list “Biblical Family Values” that some pastors in Taiwan have been shouting about recently.

Much of what we read from Matthew 10 this afternoon was upsetting. Among the many titles we use for Jesus is “Prince of Peace”, but here we find him quoted as saying “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world. No. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” As for Biblical Family Values, we find some of the ones that Jesus preached in verses 35 & 36: “I came to set sons against their fathers, daughters against their mothers, daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law; a man’s worst enemies will be the members of his own family.”

That isn’t the “sweet Jesus” whom we want to read about. We prefer Jesus who loves the little children, who seeks out lost lambs, who says that we should be like children if we are to come to him. But it goes on in verse 37: “Whoever loves his father or mother more than me is not fit to be my disciple. Whoever loves his son or daughter more than me is not fit to be my disciple.”

That’s kind of harsh. Perhaps as adults we interpret it so that we are talking about how much we ultimately and eternally love Jesus as compared to the time-limited love we have for parents and children. But these verses are Not For Use With Children.

There’s a church van that I sometimes see parked in the neighborhood where I live. On the side there’s a verse about “honor your parents and have a long life”, which is a biblical promise. But I haven’t seen the words of Matthew 10:34-39 ANYWHERE on a van or car or poster, though.

Telling a child a story of a Father who is willing, for the love of God, to sacrifice a son (whether in a Jewish, Christian, or Islamic context) is scary. The idea that children could be called upon to reject their parents whom they can see, to love God whom they have not seen asks them to forsake even themselves. To assert that there’s something called “Biblical Family Values” requires us to ignore both the Old Testament and the New Testament things we read today.

III: SHOW WELCOME TO ALL Matthew 10:40-42

Any child who has heard the story of Abraham’s interesting behaviors involving parenting and  marriage who rejects Bible teaching for how to be a family, or who has read Matthew 10:34-39, and has looked elsewhere for guidance on how to relate to parents, I’d say, “can’t blame you.” As people around the world are looking for broader ways to define marriage than “one man and one woman”, and for broader ways to define family than “shared DNA”, we look for guidance on what that might look like. And in Matthew 10:40-42, we begin to get a glimpse of it.

We find something that we try to do here at Tainan International Community Church. Welcome people, whoever comes through the door. We may have language problems communicating, but we welcome whoever comes, and we mourn the loss of any who move on, or who don’t come back.

In verses 37, 38 and 39, there were parallel phrases beginning with Whoever…. “Whoever loves…, Whoever does not…, Whoever tries to…, Whoever loses….” Those parallels continue in verses 40-42, where we read, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me. Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes God’s messenger…, whoever welcomes a good man,   whoever gives even a cup of cold water…”  WELCOME is what the followers of Jesus are to be about. He welcomed children, outcasts, sinners, lepers, people who doubted, people who didn’t believe. He welcomed EVERYONE. The only rejection was that of people who rejected him, and EVEN THEY WERE WELCOME TO COME BACK.

It is especially important for us to be welcoming, because this is at the center of Jesus’ Family Values. A Canadian blogger, David Heyward, recently wrote of church experience like this:  “The very reason I decided to go to church again was so that I could meet people. I don’t just mean to get introduced but to actually meet them and get to know them and even form friendships. I’ve been attending here for years and it still hasn’t happened yet.    This church just isn’t interested in community. I think fellowship is its greatest asset. I’m positive almost everybody here is here for the fellowship… But just being next to each other doesn’t cut it. If you’ve been in a bad marriage you’d know that you could sleep in the same bed but be complete strangers. Same here. We sit in the same row and are miles apart. We might smile to each other, say hi, shake hands, talk small talk over a coffee. But it all makes me feel even more lonely. I bet even the pastor’s lonely but it’s so built into the system he’s just as trapped as we are.  Maybe the reason why we all just keep coming is because it’s a promise, as painful as it is, being with people is the next best thing to being loved by them.”

The call and command today is to welcome the stranger, the wanderer, the new student in the dorm or the new neighbor on the block. There’s promise in the verses of sharing a reward, but no information on what that reward might be. Perhaps it is found in the ending of our loneliness, the filling of our need for each other, and the expansion of our understandings of what it means to be living by Jesus’ family values, in God’s forever family. These values are definitely for use with children. They’re better than many Bible stories.

CONCLUSION

Usually when coming to this part of the sermon, I say a few things and end with, “in the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit, AMEN. Maybe I’d follow that with a prayer.  Today, I just ask that we sing our response hymn “Weave us Together in Unity and Love.” It’s our conclusion, our response, and our prayer all in one. We’ll sing it, and repeat it several times. But more importantly, let’s pray it, and live it.

 

 

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