Not Just Another Brick in the Wall

“Not Just Another Brick in the Wall” 1Peter 2:2-10 and Psalm 31:1-5

INTRODUCTION

Apart from your textbooks and your facebook accounts, what do you read? Some of us may keep up on the news from a website, or from a newspaper. Some of us may read special interest magazines about our hobbies or our dreams. There was a period of about 10 years in my life when I read a lot about cars. Every month I’d buy the new magazines about them. Then life moved on, and I no longer bought those magazines.  Decades later, recalling the thrill that reading about cars had given me, I bought a magazine at an airport news stand. Within an hour I discovered that I had lost interest in cars. I no longer cared about driving fast.  A few years later, finding myself in another airport magazine store, I bought a couple of magazines intended for professional writers. After an hour I decided that I wasn’t that desperate.

Across the past few weeks I’ve been reading the novel, “The Lotus Eaters”,  first published in 2010. Part of the story involves the culture clash between a very “individualistic” Californian and a South-east Asian man who believes that he belongs to his family and culture as if he were just another brick in the wall.

In 1979 the British rock band Pink Floyd released a double album entitled “The Wall” which included the song, “Another Brick in the Wall” It was very anti-schooling, and rather adolescent. The MTV video that was eventually made to go with that song characterized British education as mainly existing to turn children into industrial products with no individuality to them, to make them just “another brick in the wall.” Do you feel like that sometimes? Like “just another brick in the wall?”

I: LIVING STONES  1 Peter 2:5-7

From the bit of the New Testament we read today, 1 Peter 2:2-10, we got quite a different vision of what it means to be built into something. In verses 5-7 We are invited not to be “bricks in the wall” but to be “living stones, used in building a spiritual temple.” But, what could that mean?

Stones can be used as symbols for many things in human life. After the Indian Ocean tidal wave of December 2004, the photographs of places in India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia showed absolute devastation and everything not built of concrete or stone as having been washed away. Stones symbolized what endures.

Stones are symbols of death when there’s a landslide, as there was here in Taiwan in August of 2009 when a mountain washed down on a town in Kaohsiung County and 465 people died.

Stones symbolize resistance in the Middle East where, from time to time, young Palestinians find their only way of resisting Israeli soldiers is by throwing rocks.

Stones are symbols of past glories, gone but never to return, in places like Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Pyramids in Egypt.

In these verses we are encouraged to come to Christ, who is described as a living stone, and, like him, to also be living stones who will be built into a spiritual temple.

A “Living Stone?” OK, Christ is certainly life, but US?

So, for the time being, let’s read it this way, “Give yourselves to Christ, for God’s purposes. Don’t throw yourself onto a fire or throw your life away. God wants you alive. God wants you to be part of what God is doing, and that “something” is connected to Christ, who is the most valuable living one of all, and you’re with him.”

People have built up stone walls around the world, and have used stone to make monuments that remain in many places long after the people have gone. The cities in the high mountains of Peru are testimony to great civilizations that built them, but now, except for tourists, they’re empty, and many of the walls have fallen down.  Stonehenge in England sits there, mysterious and un-functioning for whatever it was originally designed to do, some pillars standing, others lying flat on the ground. The great stone heads on Easter Island in the Pacific remain a mystery. The civilization that built them left that place centuries ago. Many of the heads were toppled by those who believed they might have some power. (The “tipping them over” began to happen LONG before the gospel of Christ arrived, so we can’t blame the missionaries.)

II  REFUGE  (Psalm 31:2)

Many stone walls, intended for one purpose or another, have fallen. Stones that were piled up to protect people from enemies have become useless in these days of war by cruise missiles and drones anyway. Even brick walls of fortresses, like the one down by the harbor, made of bricks brought to Tainan from Indonesia about 400 years ago. Though it’s still standing, it protects nothing.

There’s another image we found in our readings today. It’s in Psalm 31:2, where we read NOT of a stone building (living OR dead), but of God as a refuge, a place where persons who are threatened can be safe. “Refuge” is the word from which we get the term “refugee”, which doesn’t mean (as some in Europe and America would have us believe), “an enemy who is sneaking in to attack us”, but “someone who has come away from danger to find safety.”

Whoever the poet of psalm 31 was (lots of people like to imagine it was King David, but I find starting down that path runs us towards fantasy), he or she felt their safety was threatened, and turned to God for protection. In OUR lives we experience threats, too. Though Taiwan is generally friendly towards everyone, foreign people included, from time to time over the past decades there have been seasons during which different groups or ALL people here have felt threatened. Because of highly publicized kidnapping and ransom situations, rich people sometimes felt threatened. At one time, when the persons kidnapped were the children of the rich people, all parents, even those with not enough property to attract a kidnapper’s attention, have felt that their childrens safety was in question, so even people who lived next door to or across the street from a school would escort their kids back and forth every day. A couple years ago all riders on the Taipei MRT felt that they could be attacked by someone with a knife at any time. About 20 years ago when a prominent woman politician disappeared after getting into a taxi in Kaohsiung. The result was that all women feared all taxi drivers for quite a while.

Those are physical threats. We were invited in the New Testament to consider spiritual things. Are there threats to our spiritual safety, too? Yes, but they’re probably NOT from the places we would suspect (from false religions spread by other preachers or from ‘scientific’ professors, from the internet, or from ‘demons’ that come out of the folk religion temples). The threats to our spiritual safety more likely come from the things that are already in us, our anger, our incompleteness, our selfishness, our wanting to hold onto what we have rather than share it.

It’s because of the threats to our spiritual safety that we seek refuge in God. For those of us who don’t regularly evaluate our lives, that’s why we have that little bit at the beginning of worship here every week   “Telling God about our Lives….” It’s there to give us a chance to do on Sunday what we likely forget (or not feel a need) to do any other time during the week, which is to admit that we are far from complete.

In Psalm 31:4 the writer asks God to “keep me safe from the trap that has been set for me…” No doubt whatever trap he or she was writing about was real. In my own life, however, if I were to honestly use these words in a prayer, they would have to be more like, “Keep me safe from the traps that I have set for myself.” I wonder if that might be true for others here, too.

III REDEEMED AND REBUILT  (Psalm 31:5)

        Refugee lives need more than a safe place away from the conflict. There are whole cities in Gaza, in Jordan and in Lebanon, created in the late 1940s, where Palestinian people who were pushed out of their homes in the territory that is now part of the modern and sovereign state of Israel, were given temporary refuge. The places were named “camps” because they were intended to be temporary. In 2017, almost 70 years later, they are still there and still called camps, but the houses streets, wiring and water systems are solidly installed.

One of the largest cities in Kenya is a camp that was created for refugees from Somalia. Some young people now of age to begin university studies were born in that camp and will become adults there.

After an earthquake that devastated large parts of Haiti in 2010 there are people still living in tents provided through the United Nations. Living “under canvas, they are safe from another earthquake making a roof fall on them, but they are still refugees.

When we say that God is our refuge and our defense, our savior (in Psalm 31:2), and reiterate the bit about our refuge (in Psalm 31:3), we are saying more than that God has taken us into a safe place. It has not been God’s intention that we live long in a camp. We have a greater role, a greater future. We are called and equipped to be built into a spiritual temple, as LIVING stones. Our life hasn’t ended, our mission has begun.

The cornerstone of that temple gives us an idea of its design and purpose. It brings us back to what we read from 1 Peter. The cornerstone is Christ, whose purpose was not just to give people a safe place to wait until eternity comes. His purpose was to redeem us (buy us out of our sorry state) and to rebuild us (to make us new creatures) so that we might do some of the same kinds of things that he has done.

In America and a few countries trapped in American culture around the world (Taiwan among them), today is marked as Mother’s Day. We’ve used a lot of pictures of mothers on the screen today, and we’ve used songs with “motherly” themes as our hymns. One thing that will probably be said over and over today in churches that center on Mother’s Day goes something like, “because God couldn’t do it all, so he created Mothers to carry the rest of the load.” I don’t agree with that kind of crap. Mothers, Fathers, Sisters, Brothers, Friends, Enemies…, ALL of us carry the load, and God promises us all refuge, redemption and rebuilding. We are ALL invited to be part of the spiritual temple. We are all commissioned as priests in it.

CONCLUSION

In Christ, we’re more than redeemed and rebuilt. We’re made into a spiritual temple, in which, because we have been chosen to be God’s own people, to be the ones who have received God’s mercy, we serve as priests to and for each other. All people are God’s creation and God’s possession.

Today when we get to the part of the service where we “say a little bit of what we believe,” we’ll hear ourselves saying, and hopefully believing, that being part of that spiritual temple, being numbered among those priests, means we “go beyond legal requirements in serving and helping our neighbor, treat our neighbor’s needs as our own,and care passionately for the other’s good.”

In this way, we fulfill our calling to be living stones, built into a spiritual temple, in which people find refuge, redemption and rebuilding.  AMEN

Shepherd of our Souls

Shepherd of our Souls      1 Peter 2: 13-25   and Psalm 23

Secure in our relationship with God, we can order our relationships to human authorities

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INTRODUCTION

You may, or may not, like visual art. There may be some kinds of pictures you like to see on a wall in a museum or even in your home. But there may be others that, if someone were to give it to you, if you were going to put it on a wall, it would probably be in the closet. If a picture of a person or a thing that be recognized, then which way is “up” and which way is “down” is pretty clear. But a lot of art produced in the 20th century was not “representational”, so unless something came with a big arrow on the back saying, “this side up”, people were sometimes confused.

Henri Matisse who was born in 1870 in France, was an important 20th century artist. He did a lot of painting, drawing, and sculpting. He lived to be 84 years old. In his later years his production took the form of paper cutouts, sometimes framed and other times as murals going all the way around a room. After he died in 1954 many museums around the world put on special showings of his work. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City did one of these in 1961. They got quite embarrassed though, when after Matisse’s paper cutout “the boat” had been on one wall for 47 days, someone was able to point out that the museum had it hanging upside down.

I guess someone thought it looked better that way.

There’s a system that many churches use to determine what parts of the Bible will be read in worship from week to week. It’s called, “The Lectionary”. Not everybody has to use it, and some people are straight against it, but I try to go with its flow here. On a three year cycle, there are four suggested readings for each Sunday: One from the Old Testament, one from the Psalms, one from the Gospels and the last from the rest of the New Testament that’s NOT the gospels. Thinking back over which I’d been choosing since I started here in December, I noticed that I rarely preach from the New Testament (except for the Gospels), so I decided that’s what I’d do today.

My problem began when I discovered that the suggested reading was 1 Peter 2, which has a lot in it about submitting to the authority of emperors and slave masters. You see, as a young lad, I wanted to grow up to be a teenager, and as a teenager I wanted to grow up to be a Hippie. Submitting to authority is NOT part of the atmosphere of either of those goals.

The result is that in preparing this week, I’ve treated the reading from 1 Peter the way that the Museum of Modern Art treated that Matisse artwork. I’ve hung it upside down, (and I think it looks and works better that way.)

I: You have been brought back to follow the Shepherd and Keeper of your souls.

So, starting from the end, we read that we have been brought back to the shepherd and keeper of our souls. We begin with considering shepherds and keepers, and then continue on to thinking about souls.

Though few if any of us have ever seen a shepherd with our own eyes (there’s only one place in Taiwan where we can go to see sheep anyway), we’ve probably got an image of someone not unlike the gentleman on the screen who is involved in taking care of sheep, and especially of the one that he’s carrying. The well-being of all of the sheep is his job. At the time of Jesus there wasn’t any industry, nor all that much commerce, nor were there any universities. Most people were pretty close to agriculture, whether growing of crops or taking care of animals, or just seeing that go on. So a LOT of Bible images come from farming and herding. Jesus compared himself to a shepherd sometimes. The Old Testament the prophets sometimes criticized their nation’s political leaders and priests for being “bad shepherds.”

There are some “keepers” in the Bible, too. A “keeper” protects some sort of an institution and those who reside in it…, an innkeeper takes care of a hotel (there’s one in the Christmas story and another in the parable of the Good Samaritan), a jail keeper takes care of a jail (there are several in the Acts of the Apostles).

Though some psychologists, sociologists and biologists have trouble with the idea of the existence of a soul, it’s fairly clear that the people who brought us the image of God as a shepherd and keeper thought that human beings have souls. What, exactly, a “soul” might be is something for philosophers, theologians, psychologists, biologists, sociologists, lovers and haters to discuss & debate, doubt or believe. If you believe that you are a soul having a bodily experience, then the idea of one who will shepherd and keep your soul is comforting. After all, while we have bodies, there are doctors, barbers, beauticians, trainers and massage specialists to take care of us, and for souls, there is a shepherd and a keeper.

Backing up another phrase, but still in verse 25, note that we’ve been brought back (we didn’t return on our own), back from having lost our way. Don’t go pointing your finger and saying this is about “him” or “her”. It’s true of all of us. And beyond being brought back, we’ve been healed. We needed healing because life is not easy, and like someone who has been attacked and left for dead beside the road, we need to be cared for.

II: God will bless you if you endure suffering even when you have done right.

        Every religion starts someplace. Within every religion, there are different “places” and different ideas on which of them is the most important place to start. My personal favorite starting point for Christianity is that God is love. It can be hard to defend, though, because it can’t be proven scientifically. A skeptic would ask that first I prove that God IS, and then go on to show that God is LOVE. (Other Christians might want to start somewhere else, but NO Christians would deny that there is an absolutely necessary connection between God and Love.)

Buddhism starts with something much easier to prove. You only have to look around and can see that it’s true. “Life is suffering”. Though different groups in Buddhism interpret the “Four Noble Truths” in slightly different ways, ALL of the groups agree that suffering is the first of the four as taught by the Buddha himself.

Of the 13 verses we read from 1 Peter this afternoon, 5 were about suffering. We read that some of the suffering in the world starts from people’s wrong behavior (and the suffering is a natural consequence of that wrongness). But we also read about suffering that comes, not because someone has done anything wrong, but because the wrong person is in charge. When you’re suffering because someone else is harsh to you even when you’ve done no wrong, you’re being like Jesus (who did no wrong, but got crucified). When you find yourself suffering like Jesus, you’re told to endure. Worse than that, you’re told to accept the authority of those who cause you to suffer, to honor them, and to regard their being “in charge” as legal and right.

Originally this letter was written to people whose identity (in the version of the Bible we use here at Tainan International Community Church) is “servants.” In the original language, the word can mean both “servant” AND “slave”. The result, since none of us here is a slave or a servant, may be that we regard the instructions as being for others. When we meet people such as the foreigners who do domestic caregiving and industrial & construction work in Taiwan, we may think that these are Biblical instructions for them, not for us. But we all have “bosses”: teachers, managers, landlords, dormitory supervisors, and parents. We’re told here that we are to submit to these masters, NOT because it will make THEM kinder to us. Not because it will change anything about them. We are to submit, just because we should. That’s not a very satisfying answer, is it? (And maybe that’s why I didn’t like this assigned bit of scripture until I turned it on its head.) We read that when our masters treat us harshly and unjustly, and we respond by enduring, respecting and honoring, then we’ll be blessed by God. If getting God’s blessing (which I want) can be done some other way, without requiring me to endure, respect and honor harsh masters, I’d rather follow that road. But, hey, I generally want to take the easy way out.

III: Do the right thing

One of the biggest companies in the world is “Alphabet”. It owns Google. In fact, Google STARTED Alphabet. When it was only Google, way back in the year 2000, it’s corporate mission statement consisted of three words, “Don’t be evil.” When Google got too big and reorganized as “Alphabet”, making Google just one part of the whole thing, a longer, corporate mission statement was developed. 4 words, “do the right thing.”

“Do the right thing” also summarizes verses 13-17, where we’re instructed to respect everyone, love people who have the same religion as us, and give honor to God and to the emperor. (When this was originally written, the emperor considered himself to be a god, too.) Nowadays, other than the one in Japan, there are very few crowned emperors in the world. But there ARE leaders of some nations who might consider they have imperial power to order people around, have people executed, and to demand respect from the citizens of the places where they rule. Thank God, that’s not true here in Taiwan.

Like the people who work for Google, we’re not to do evil. We’re free to do whatever we like, but to be careful not to use our freedom to conceal evil. We are instructed to do the right thing so that foolish people who would criticize us for having faith might be silenced, they should find nothing to say against us.

There’s a further reason for doing the right thing here. It comes back to that emperor thing. Whoever is in authority: gentle or harsh, honest or corrupt, wise or foolish, has authority and can use it to praise or to punish. We “do the right thing” so that there will be nothing to punish. That’s an ideal. We’re told that it’s God’s design for passing out authority to the people who are in government. Sometimes those people get it wrong. Sometimes they “hang the picture upside down”. Sometimes they have hung innocent people on crosses. Sometimes WE get it wrong, too.

When Christian religion begins with “God is love” and winds through an image like “the shepherd and keeper of your soul”, it is attractive and comforting. I think that’s why I preferred to look at the verses we read today “from back to front”. When I started with “submit to every human authority,” I was immediately both combative and sad. I discovered too many personal memories of loss.

As a teenager, though I wanted to grow up to be a Hippie, I didn’t. Partly that was because I was part of a church youth group that emphasized discipline, respect of authority, and keeping the rules. We had to do this or, we were assured, God would punish us. Something about the “hippie” life seemed too undisciplined to me. I was afraid. However, for most of the other young people in that church group, and for many of my classmates at school, the “undiscipline” was more attractive than the “discipline”. By the time we were 18 or 19 years old, it seemed that almost everybody else had left the group, left the faith, and wandered away from the shepherd and keeper of our souls. When I reflect on that process, I see myself not as the most righteous one, but as the most cowardly.

By now I’ve lost contact with most of those friends of my youth. It’s my prayer that the shepherd and keeper of souls might bring them back, NOT to the discipline and authority thing, but to the “care” thing. And that’s where I hope that we, here in Tainan, can start, too.

CONCLUSION

Sometimes turning things around and looking at them upside down looks better to us. Beginning with “you’ve been brought back to Jesus, the shepherd and keeper of your soul, and you’ve been healed,” attracts me to “endure the suffering, including what you’ll suffer from obeying.” That feels better than what I grew up with, “Obey or suffer for not obeying; and, by the way, Jesus is your good shepherd.”

Matisse’s paper cutting and Peter’s musings on authority aren’t the only things that look different when turned onto their heads. We read Psalm 23 this afternoon. Probably half or more of us stopped listening immediately after we heard “The Lord is My Shepherd.” So I ask you to listen as I try it from back to front. Listen for new things that it may be telling you.

“God’s house will be my house as long as I live, with my roommates: God’s love and goodness. There will always be enough food and wine for me and for my enemies. At God’s feast, they won’t be scary, because God’s protection will surround us all and God’s presence will never leave. Even death will hold no fear, because God keeps promises, guides and strengthens. The pool is cool and the bed is soft. It’s all here, provided by my shepherd, the Lord.” AMEN

Three Weeks in One Afternoon

April 16 Easter

As special as I remember it to have been when I was a kid, and as special as I learned it was SUPPOSED to be as a theological student, Easter is still something of a disappointment to me in Taiwan. The Taiwanese church we attend does put on more music, better than usual music, for Easter. The recorder group to which I belong played both the prelude and the postlude, but they were rather simple Western hymn tunes so that we wouldn’t make too many mistakes. Other than the music, though, it was still generally just another Sunday at church. I think the problem must be in me. I guess that I want fireworks or something.

April 16 Easter Banquet

After the English worship service on Easter Sunday afternoon the Tainan International Community Church hosted a banquet at the restaurant around the corner. We pretty much filled three tables (10 people per table) and ate for almost 2 hours. Even though we’d ordered up the “cheapest” set menu that the place offered (around US$200 per table), the food was still very good and the service wonderful.  Cost being what it was, we won’t repeat it again soon, but will keep it in mind for sometime again before the end of 2017, and once again before I retire in 2018.

April 19 Assignments Roll In

Sometime in March I received a “please respond postcard” from the Taiwan Church Press, where I was and editor from 2000 through 2004. The Press has its fund-raising Sunday in July, and was looking for people willing to go out and ask for money (in the guise of preaching a sermon). I agreed to go any time in July EXCEPT for the 9th, on which day I’m already committed to go to a church in Taipei for something else. Starting in the middle of April the requests began to roll in: June 18, July 16, July 30 and at last, July 9, but that will be at the place I was originally going to, and the “asking for money” part will just be grafted onto it. The press is particularly happy about that one, because it means they won’t have to pay for my travel.

April 20 Visit from Afar

Since Char and I started as Reformed Church missionaries in 1982 we’ve had 7 or 8 different supervisors. Some have basically limited their role to checking up that we are actually doing good work and not suffering. A couple of others occasionally told us what work they want us to be doing, and consequently caused some suffering. On December 31 our most recent supervisor retired. He was replaced by a Korean woman who lives in New Jersey. She visited us on April 20th and was very encouraging. Since she will only be our boss until we retire next year, we expect no big changes, and look forward to competent and helpful guidance in the last year of our employment with the Reformed Church.

April 21 Creation Set

Sometimes when you can’t get started on the work you HAVE to do, you turn to something entirely unnecessary just to create momentum. Because I like to do art projects, my workspace, which is supposed to be an office, looks more like a supply closet. There’s a stack of unused picture frames along one wall, some more leaning against another, and there WAS a set of 4 former cabinet doors (complete with glass) against a third wall. On the 21st I turned them into a work depicting God’s creation of the heavens, the earth, the sea, and all things. All it took was taking the “star spangled” cloth off of the office door to represent the heavens and the flower spangled cloth from the top of the desk (complete with spilled coffee stain) to be the earth. A piece of dotted blue print fabric from a box became the sea and something with leopards on it stands in for “all things”. I stapled, glued and taped cloth to the back of the cabinet doors, added hanging wires and took the resulting mess over to the classroom building where it now hangs on the walls between rooms 4 and 5. The entire project, including little “artist labels” took about 90 minutes. It got me moving for the more important projects that I had been avoiding.

April 22  Faculty on Saturday

Faculty members at Tainan Theological College meet once a term for a marathon session sharing the articles or books we’re currently researching and writing. (Key thought, NOBODY is writing a book.) We usually do this on a Thursday evening in October and another in April.  This spring the Thursday evenings all got taken by other things, so we had to spend a Saturday morning. It’s good that we all live on campus! About 20 people gathered in a room where 5 papers were presented. Even for that few, we used 3 hours.

My own contribution was a short piece on diagnosing ecclesial dysfunction, which I saw as more a “disorder” than a “disease”.  Because I came to it by way of things like Avian Flu and the Autism spectrum, people generally thought of it as “cute” and not at all scholarly. They’re probably right.

April 23  Give Us a Hand

Hands were all over the place at Tainan International Community Church, where I preach in English every Sunday afternoon. The assigned Gospel lesson was St. Thomas demanding that he be able to touch Jesus’ hands with his fingers and put his hand into Jesus’ side before he would believe in the resurrection. Picking up on the “hands” thing (Jesus’ nail-scarred ones, Thomas’ seeking ones and our useful ones) I used hands on all of the power point slides and all over the bulletin. People probably got tired of them, but I feel that when you’ve got a good theme, you should hit ‘em with it over and over. By the way, we noticed that in the story as related in the fourth Gospel, Thomas never touched anything. He saw and believed.

April 25  Library Commission (or is that, Permission)

The library at Tainan Theological College was built in the mid-60s. It’s 3 stories high and has a closed central staircase. There’s a grand blank wall in that staircase that stretches up two stories. It is just crying out for something to hang on it. Surveying the boxes of cloth in my office and considering bags of same in one of the chapel storerooms, I came up with an “artistic concept.”

The director of library services and I are simpatico, so I went to him with a design in hand. After I showed him where I’d like to hang the thing and assured him that I wouldn’t fall down and break my neck while doing it, he approved the idea.  Now I just have to carve out the time, wash and iron the cloth, sew it together, and make sure everything is straight.  All but the last of those seem fairly easy, but straight is my weak point.

April 25  Drawing Lots and Choosing Sections

Students in the ministerial training course at Tainan Theological College have to preach to the community before they graduate. On April 25th, those who plan to finish their training in June of 2018 met to draw their sequence lots for the upcoming academic year. These determine who has to be ready in September, and who will have the leisure to wait until June. Because the professor who usually oversees the process will be on sabbatical next year, I’ve been put in charge of assigning the scripture texts. My instructions are to stick with the liturgical seasons. But I decided to give the students a little choice, too. After they had drawn their place in the sequence, they were allowed to choose from one of four options for their week: Old Testament, New Testament, Gospel or Psalm. When the academic office finishes the coming year’s calendar and the worship committee finishes claiming certain weeks for special stuff, the remaining 27 Wednesday afternoons will be parceled out, according to the sequence that the students drew, and I’ll assign the texts according to the portion of scripture they chose: 7 Gospel Lessons, 7 New testament lessons, 7 Old Testament lessons and 6 Psalms. Generally this assignment of texts is met with groans. At least next year the student will know that they had a little bit of a hand in what they got stuck with.

April 26  Chapel Decoration (I)

Late last year I took some of big pieces of cloth from a chapel closet, sewed them together into long strips and then doubled them over and sewed again to form long banners that I hung across the chapel ceiling. After being up there for 2 weeks they had to come down because someone had rented the chapel for a wedding, and the cloth on high didn’t match the decoration scheme.

But those banners haven’t gone to waste. Students now use them like bunting when decorating the chancel for community worship. One guy even used one that I had sewed together from random bits of print and solid fabrics and gave a theological explanation of how the particular combination fit with his sermon!

April 28  Entrance Examination

Twice every year Tainan Theological College conducts entrance exams. The April session is more limited (16 students came). I gave the English exam to 6 of them who are seeking entrance to the ministerial training course (the other 10 want to get MA degrees, that don’t require an English entrance exam). Since hitting on a particular “formula” for how to do the exams 3 years ago, I’ve pretty much stayed with the pattern, testing memorization, translation, comprehension and scanning. But basically I’m testing whether or not people prepare. I’ve learned that they’d rather do  memorization than translation or comprehension part. As a certain president finishes his tweets…. Sad.

April 30 Psalm 116 and Response

What is religion about anyway? Some years back I learned that the “lig” in the word is the same root as the “lig” in ligament, making “religion” something intended to link us to something else. But to what? Belonging to any particular religion has the potential of linking us to other people with the same religion. But what about linking us to the divine?  Using verses from Psalm 116 I explored this with the folks at Tainan International Community Church on April 30th. For the writer of that poem, the link was not about “meeting divine requirements” or “trading something for salvation.” It was about “Response to something that had already been accomplished.” Along the way, the plot of a 1922 novella by F. Scott Fitzgerald got worked into things. I’ve gotta get more concrete this coming Sunday.

May 2  Pre-evaluation

Students preparing to preach to the community of Tainan Theological College for graduation have first to preach whatever they’ve prepared to a few teachers and their senior class classmates. The teachers rotate through the duty, and I’m on about every other Tuesday afternoon at 1:30. I hate it because it cuts my nap short. On May 2 a guy whom I really like was on the spot. He did well enough. He has a good presence in the pulpit, good voice control, and a limited but developing ability at gestures and body language. Like many a beginning preacher, he wants to say too many different things to fit conveniently into one sermon, but the seeds of a capable minister are there.

May 4  Butterflies

In my quest to get chapel decoration at Tainan Theological College off the floor and “up where folks can see it” I’ve decorated the ceiling. Only one student followed up and did that himself. Some weeks ago I put hooks high into the window frames on either side of the hall. Last week I strung heavy duty fishing line between the hooks about 9 feet above the floor. But the chapel is almost 40 feet wide, so the fishing line sags if anything heavy is hung from it, making it unsuitable for banners.

So I thought, “butterflies”. I found some lightweight butterfly-themed and feather decorations at an art supply store and strung them up there. They don’t look particularly good, but the point is to get people thinking of how they could do it better than the white guy with crazy ideas. We’ll see if anything comes of that between now and the end of the semester, or between now and when I’m told to “cut that stuff down.”

May 5  Portfolio Assignment

Among my students there’s one senior, who gets to bug out of class two weeks before his classmates. With that in mind I’ve already put together the assignment for which final grades in “Pulpit Skills and Creative Preaching Design” will be given. Students will have to turn in a portfolio containing 4 written and two video projects. The written ones include a sermon re-edited for dialog preaching, and detailed outlines of 1st person; back to front; and music sermons. For video, they’ll have to revisit and resubmit things that they made for church websites at the midterm and create, preach and record children’s sermon using some kind of a prop. Everything will be submitted through “the cloud” because they need to learn how to do that and  I hate dealing with paper. Getting the final assignment a month ahead of time doesn’t mean that they can begin skipping class, it just means they can begin putting things together.

What Can I Give?

TEXT: Psalm 116:1-2 and 12-19

CENTRAL POINTS: Anything we do to GAIN God’s favor is futile.

What we do in response for God’s favor is for our own benefit.

————————————————————————–

INTRODUCTION  

In polite conversation in society, there are several topics we’re not supposed to bring up. Religion, politics, race, personal wealth, and death come to mind. But we’re at church, where religion is central to our identity and to what has brought us together. We like to feel that we are polite to each other and that nothing we do might make anyone else lose their respect for us because of what they see. We may even dress better to come to church than we do in our daily lives.

But we sometimes offend against what is considered polite, and we do it on purpose. For example, two weeks ago we celebrated Easter, a “life holiday” which follows the “death holiday” that was marked two days earlier. The verses we read from the New Testament this afternoon (Acts 2:22-28) had some pretty graphic things to say about death. Not at all polite. And each week as we prepare our hearts to worship we have a short time in which we admit to God (and in front of each other) that we aren’t perfect. We basically say that we’re failures at living rightly.

It’s wonderful, isn’t it, that after admitting our failure, and asking God to have mercy on us, we have a chance to remind each other that God accepts and forgives us. That’s not the way the world works, and it’s certainly not the way we, as people of the world, would imagine religion to work.

I: The very human Religious Economy of Requirement  

Not all religions or groups within religions are as accepting as God. Some operate by what you might call, “an investment system”. We can understand this very well if we think of how certain of our human affairs are organized. Many of us in church are involved in education, so I ask, when will your university give you a diploma? Did you get it when you arrived? OR, Must you do the study and prove your learning before you get the paper with your name on it?

In the early 20th century, when cars were a “new thing”, the companies that made them often wanted to see the money before people got the car. Sometimes the full price had to be paid before the factory would even begin to build the car. Because a car could cost about as much as a person would earn in a year, few people had the cash to buy one. Workers who assembled the cars might NEVER have enough money to buy one of the things that they were working on. There was one American “captain of industry” who thought of himself as generous because he raised the wages of assembly line workers far above the industry average (he was trying to avoid labor trouble and the organization of a union in his factory). But if one of his workers wanted to buy one of the cars they made, deductions from the weekly pay would be made until enough was “invested”, and THEN the keys and car would be delivered.

That’s how many people imagine religion to work, and that’s how things work in many religions. People go through their lives making “investments” into a “heavenly investment account” and hoping, when finally they leave this world and arrive at whatever heaven their religion teaches, they’ll be admitted through the doors because they’ve met the requirements. If you’ve ever watched a movie or television program where someone wants to get into a popular nightclub or dance party and seen the men at the door who let people in who look “cool enough” and reject others, you might be familiar with the system.

Investment religion leads us to despair. If we know ourselves to be less then perfect, then we’ll never be enough, we’ll live with uncertainty, and die in fear.

This is NOT the religion we heard described in the experience of the writer of Psalm 116 from the Bible this afternoon. What we heard was, “I love the Lord because he hears me, he listens to my prayers, he listens to me every time I call to him.” If “investment” were the system, the poet who wrote the Psalm would have had to write, “the Lord loves me because I’ve so much already on deposit with him.” We didn’t read that in verses 1-2.

II: A Religious Economy of Exchange or Transaction

And what we read in verse 12 was a question: “What can I offer the Lord for all his goodness to me?” Apparently the goodness has already been received. Nevertheless, people will try to get by on the basis of “transaction” or “exchange.”

In 1922 the American writer F.Scott Fitzgerald published a short novel entitled “A Diamond As Big As the Ritz” (The Ritz was a big hotel in New York City). It’s about the adventures of a young man who befriended a classmate at a boarding school and visited his home during summer vacation. The home was in a secret valley deep in the mountains where there was a diamond mine, which included one hill bigger than the Ritz Hotel which was a solid single diamond. The classmate’s family got wealthy on selling diamonds and controlling the market, keeping the secret of their mine by means of  lying, enslavement and murder. The young man at the center of the story eventually learned that, rather than going back to school at the end of the vacation, he would be murdered. But someone escaped and told the secrets to the government, and at the climax of the story the valley came under attack. At that point, the rich father prayed to God, offering the giant diamond in exchange for salvation from having all of his wealth taken away.

That’s “exchange religion”. We see it in the kinds of life in which people: 1) amass wealth which is accumulated but is not enjoyed, or 2) enjoy but do not share wealth. They feel that through a great contribution they’ll be able to exchange their wealth for salvation “if they should ever need it.” Their wealth may be like that in the story, a big diamond, and vast material wealth. But it could also be in the form of accomplishments, honors, diplomas, records of publication, heroic deeds and the praise of many. At some point, the person if there’s a real need, then he or she can exchange the accumulation for a favor because it’s obvious that wealth is good. And if it’s good, then God wants it too. So God (to whom the amasser of “wealth” may never have called before and in whom he or she has never expressed any belief or interest), becomes just another trading partner.

Exchange religion can see God as a big “Santa Claus” or “Father Christmas”, for whom we behave well (during November and December( and to whom we recount our good deeds in those months in the hope that we’ll find gifts under the Christmas tree, or in the stockings, or in the shoes (whatever our culture uses). Of course, once the gifts have been received, we no longer need to behave well, and we’re just as bad as usual from January through October again.

40 years ago a friend who had taught at Cheng Kung University told about a visit from a student’s family at the end of a semester. The family dropped by for a cup of tea, and left many gifts behind upon departure. It was clearly done not so much out of respect for a teacher as in the hope of buying a passing grade for a daughter who was not a very good student. This family were operating on an “exchange” arrangement.

We read in Psalm 116, verse 12, “I will bring a wine offering to the Lord to thank him for saving me.” That’s not an exchange, that’s thanks. If it were an exchange, it would be more like, “I’ll bring God a bottle of wine so that he’ll do something nice for me.”

So, if the religion of the Bible is not “investment” or “exchange”, then what else is there? We’ve exhausted the possibilities of human interaction.

III: God’s Religious Economy of Grace   

Thankfully, we’re not dealing with humans here. We’re dealing with the divine, which is far beyond our ability to measure or even to imagine.

Returning to Psalm 116, we hear the ancient poet telling us in verses 1 & 2 why he loves the Lord, “because he hears me, he listens to my prayers, he listens to me every time I call to him.” The listening is first, and it is continuous. Further along, from verses 13 to 15, we hear, “I will bring a wine-offering to the Lord to thank him for saving me. In the assembly of al his people I will give him what I have promised.” God’s goodness has come first. God’s saving acts have come first. The poet’s plans to bring wine, to offer, to give thanks, and to do it all publically, are responses.

Because we have a hard time “getting” that, we turn to other places in the Bible and find exactly the kinds of “investment” and “exchange” arrangements that we’ve just considered and rejected. Some people quote Jesus’ statement, “store up riches for yourselves in heaven” in support of the idea of investment. Others will point to stories of characters like Zacchaeus the tax collector, who gave half of his wealth. But we’re not dealing only with the limited and narrow teachings of various verses in the Bible. As wonderful as it is, it is not the fullness of God’s revelation. What is in front of us is the economy (the arrangement of resources) of God’s grace. In that set of arrangements, all of the need is on our side, and all of the grace is on God’s side, and it is given freely to us.

We have nothing that God needs, not even if it were so valuable as a diamond the size of a city hotel. There’s nothing we can exchange or return to God for all that has already been done for us, things like: 1) creation of this world; 2) provision of this life; 3) setting us in relationships to others whom we may (or may not) love; 4) giving us the freedom to choose whether we want to relate to people, or to God, or not; 5) listening to us when we are in need; 6) forgiving us for not being perfect; 7) accepting us when we have been completely opposed to everything God wants for us; 8) taking the initiative to meet us; 9) offering us eternity, whether we believe in it or not. This list could go on and on.

CONCLUSION  The Economy of Grace

When we reduce God to something like a captain of industry who will supply our needs only after we’ve invested enough in advance, or to something like a cashier at the store who distributes things when paid, or even to a moneylender who is happy to advance us what we need, but expects repayment plus interest, then we cheat ourselves of the life we found described in Psalm 116 this afternoon.

When we live in relation to God as “anything less than God”, we shrink the scope of our relationships to each other to the size of what WE can measure.

Using the term “economy of Grace” is dangerous, because it brings us to thinking about the ways we earn, save and use money. The English word, “economy” comes from a word in Greek, “oikos” that means “house”. But even that is dangerous, because it can lead us to thinking about buildings and organizations. My trouble is that I can’t think of any better word. So, bear with me.

When we live in God’s economy of Grace as it impacts on our relationship to the divine AND on our relationships with each other, we experience: 1) God’s hearing us, 2) God’s listening to our prayers, 3) God’s saving us from dangers, 4) God’s goodness, and 5) our connection with God’s people. That overflows to how we treat our neighbors, our classmates, our roommates, partners and co-workers, our competitors and our enemies. And when that happens, we experience the goodness of God in the land we live in.

What can we give to God? Nothing that God needs from us. But, we can give thanks, and we can live with each other in the freedom of God’s grace.  AMEN

April 30 Earthquake

Yesterday, the church that I usually attend in Tainan, Taiwan, went on a bus trip to a college campus 15o kilometers away. Those of us who didn’t go on the trip (among whom I count myself) were encouraged to visit other churches.

Worship at the church I attended begins at 10:00 AM. The congregation had largely gathered a few minutes ahead of time, and we were all in the pews when the building began to shake. (It turns out that all of southern Taiwan was shaking.) Nobody jumped up. There were just a few calm comments saying, “earthquake”. After less than half a minute the shaking stopped and things went on as if nothing had happened.

This is not a comment on “the strong faith of Taiwanese Christians”, who aren’t much different from Christians anywhere else. It’s a comment on the level of confidence of the people of Taiwan in the buildings where they live, work, shop and worship. It’s also a comment on the vast experience of Taiwan’s people with earthquakes, which happen somewhere around this nation several times a month (if not several times a week, or even more than once a day).

As an elementary school student in Los Angeles in the 1950s, I was trained for through “drop drills” and “shelter in the hall drills”, ostensibly for dealing with earthquakes, but much more for dealing with anticipated nuclear attacks. I also learned that should my clothes caught on fire I was to “stop, drop and roll”. Here in Taiwan the earthquake drill seems to be “pause, wait, and carry on”. I like it here.

http://www.pageorama.com/?p=taiwan30thaprilquake

http://telegra.ph/The-April-30th-Earthquake-05-01

Give Us A Hand

Psalm 16 and John 20:19-29

In 1970, Aleksandyr Solzhenitzyn, a writer from the Soviet Union, won the Nobel Prize for literature. Fearing that his nation’s government wouldn’t allow him to return home if he left the country, he didn’t go to Sweden to get the award.

Solzhenitzyn had written several novels, but only one of them had been published in Russian, and that’s the one for which he was awarded the prize. His other writings had been hand-typed and carbon copied. They circulated illegally. Because of what he wrote in those, he was arrested in 1974 and thrown out of the Soviet Union the next day. For a few months he stayed here and there in Europe; then moved to the United States, where he HATED the culture. He found American life too soft, American culture too shallow and American people too weak. When the Soviet Union was no more, he returned to Russia in 1994.

In one of his novels there was a character who was an intellectual imprisoned for his opinions. This man did slave labor by day, continuing his linguistic research and scholarly writing by night. His project was to prove that all human languages began from the word for “hand”, thereby connecting language to “work”, showing that he was a good communist, and winning release from prison.

There’s an expression in English with at least two meanings. “Give me a hand” means, “help me,” and “applaud for me”. When someone asks for help, saying, “give me a hand”, and you applaud because she’s already doing a good job, she’s not happy! The Taiwanese expression, “Please add a hand and foot”, means, “help me,” no joke.

I: Jesus’ Hands: John 20:20, John 20:25

In John 20:20 we read that Jesus did four things when his disciples were hiding in a locked house. 1) He came; 2) He stood among them; 3) He greeted them with peace; and 4) He showed them his hands. The disciples were filled with joy at seeing him. Of those four things, only one had to do with their seeing, and it was related to his hands.

When I was a kid, though my father was important to me, I never thought he was in any way important in the world at large. He was a father like all my friends had. One day I discovered a box of the name cards he used in his work (which involved his meeting a lot of people). To me at that time, , having name cards made someone very important.   After I finished my first degree and came to Taiwan, where name cards are common, I had some made for myself, and I felt very important.

At Jesus’ time there weren’t name cards. People knew who he was because others whom they trusted told them about him. When he appeared in that room where his friends  were hiding, though all had heard from Mary that he was alive, and two of them had even seen the empty tomb, there was still a lot of doubt in the air. It seems that coming, standing and greeting were not enough. When they saw the hands, things changed. They were filled with joy! Those hands were marked from his death a couple of days earlier. Those marks that identified him to them as “the crucified one,” now alive again.

Every three or four years since 1982 I’ve gone to America to spend several months. I preach at a different church every Sunday. After worship it’s the custom for the preacher to stand at the door and shake hands with people on their way out. Once I was at a rural church where many members were farmers. When shaking hands with those men and women I realized:  how soft my own hands were and; how large, rough and strong the hands of farmers were. These hands were a sort of name card. They said, “I work with cows; I work with machines; I work with animals; I work!”

Jesus hands were many things to many people. In that room that day, they were his name card. Jesus’ hands said to his friends that he was the one who had been hung on a cross. Jesus was special. His friends in that room were more like us… ordinary folks. One of those ordinary folk’s hands were mentioned in the story, but he wasn’t there the first day. His hands tell us a different story.

II:  Thomas’ Hands John 20:26-27

Thomas was just as physically able to see, hear, smell, taste and touch as the rest of them, but he refused to believe what THEY believed. He insisted on seeing with his own eyes and touching with his own fingers and hands. For him; learning required touching.

People believe many things about many things. Sometimes it comes as a shock when a scientist or scholar expresses a different opinion. We ESPECIALLY don’t like it if the different opinion directly contradicts something we’ve recently used to make a point. Last Fall I taught 3 different courses. In the first session of each course I used the same exercise to help students consider if they learned better by listening, seeing, doing or touching. The exercise was based on some educational theory that I’d learned long ago about individual learning styles. Early this year an educational psychologist published an article totally debunking that set of theories. In the future, I’ll have to develop a new introductory lesson!

Thomas didn’t need to “see and touch” because of his “individual learning style”, he needed to see and touch because his doubts were aroused. He spoke about fingers and hand because those are the parts of human anatomy best designed for learning from touch. We have the nerve cells involved in touch all over our bodies. So long as they are connected to our brains we can figure out what we’re touching or what is touching us. The special cells that pick up sensations are more common in our hands than anywhere else on our bodies, and more of the brain is involved in interpreting touch signals from the hands than from other parts of our bodies.

Engineers and technicians who design and make artificial hands have solved many problems about how to give a person who has lost an arm or hand some recovery of ability to do physical things, but nothing can replace the sense of touch that is lost with the limb. When we touch, we learn things about the temperature, texture and solidness of what we encounter. We may even be able to tell if it’s heavy or light.

In verse 26 we read that when Jesus came returned to the room where the disciples and Thomas were gathered, Thomas saw, and heard and was invited to touch. Nothing we read says that he actually DID touch. We DO read that in the presence of Jesus he believed and he said so. In the presence of Jesus’ hands, Thomas’ fingers and hands were unnecessary.

III: God’s Hands Psalm 16:5

Jesus once told a woman “God is Spirit,” something that she already knew. (He was “mansplaining.”) The Greek culture around them wasn’t quite so sure. The gods of Greek folk religion were undying and had marvelous spiritual powers, but they also had the same physical desires and psychological weaknesses as the people who worshiped them. Folk religion here in Taiwan and around the world can get like that, too. A believer imagines, “the gods likes the things I like and need the things I need, so it’s both my duty and my privilege to make sure that the gods get what I like, and I can eat the leftovers!”.

Even though biblical religion teaches us that God is spirit, and doesn’t have a body like us, lots of biblical language still uses body parts to describe God.

God’s eyes (Psalm 11:4)

God’s face (11:7)

God’s ear (Psl 17:1, & 6)

God’s lips (17:4)

God’s wings (17:8),

God’s hand (17:14)

God’s nostrils (18:8)

God’s feet (18:9).

In Exodus 33 there’s language about God’s butt, which is said to look like that of a cow.

In the translation of the Bible we use here at Tainan International Community Church, God’s hands are mentioned in Psalm 16:5 ”You, Lord, are all I have, and you give me all I need; my future is in your hands.” Though that’s a good way to interpret the original language, which says something like “You, God, are in charge of what happens to me”, it’s hard to build a case for God’s “hands” on that line.

Remember that when we read the psalms we’re reading the words of poets, who use a lot of expressions that may not be supported by what we’d like to call, “facts”: A poet’s use of a particular word carries meanings beyond facts. A poet using a word like “hands” may be indicating more of her feelings about God’s care than anything about God. However, when a prophet quotes God, we may want to pay more attention. In Isaiah 49: the writer quotes God as saying to people, “See, I have inscribed your names on the palms of my hands” Does THAT mean that God has hands? Not necessarily. It’s God being a poet, telling us that we are loved. OK, IF God had hands, our names would be found written thereon. That’s how much God loves us.

CONCLUSION

The British poet Margaret Cropper wrote a poem in 1975 that holds up an ideal for us.

Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all,

healing pain and sickness, blessing children small,

washing tired feet and saving those who fall;

Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all.

Take my hands, Lord Jesus, let them work for you;

make them strong and gentle, kind in all I do.

Let me watch you, Jesus, till I’m gentle, too,

till my hands are kind hands, quick to work for you.

 

We have a choice about our hands. We can use them to show kindness and love, support and aid. That’s our choice. We can use them to correct people, set them straight, punish them. Our hands can be like those of Jesus in that room, signs of our identity. Our hands can be like those of Thomas in that room, used to get information. Our hands can be like those of God in the psalm, symbols of support, or like the ones from the prophet, reminding us who we love.

Sisters and brothers, whatever else we do with our hands, may yours and mine be used in the service of love.

In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit, AMEN

If you hold at all, hold loose

John 20:17

         Have you ever heard a sentence or saying that seemed so “right” that you’re sure it came from an authoritative place? Like, “That’s so wise, I’m sure that my grandmother was the first one to have ever thought it!” Christian people are often tempted to, and sometimes guilty of, crediting anything “wise” to the Bible. “It’s in there somewhere, I just can’t remember the chapter and verse right now.” So things like “The Lord helps those who help themselves” get into our religion even though they are exactly opposite of what we learn from the Bible.

This week’s Gospel reading (John 20:1-18) included Jesus saying to Mary, “Do not hold on to me.(v.17)” As I pondered that sentence, I thought of a “wise saying” about “holding on”, “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.” To learn more, I did preachers do in the 21st century, I googled it. I found lots of pictures of young cats hanging from ropes (no surprise), and also found the same quote attributed to no fewer than 4 different American presidents and one of the heroes of the American Revolution. Though any of all of them may have used it, it was not original to even a single one. Maybe a cat thought it up.

In the story we found Mary, who dearly loved Jesus, at the end of her rope. For all she knew, he was dead. She had seen it happen, and she knew where his grave was. Like many, or any, of us whose friend has died, she could get no nearer to him than to go to the tomb. So she went, and found what appeared to her to be the scene of a grave robbing: an open tomb and no body anywhere.

She was at the end of her rope. Even the testimony of ANGELS couldn’t change her mind. So when, at last, because of the sound of the voice of the risen Jesus, speaking her name, fell on her ears, she reached toward him, she intended to “tie a knot and hang on.”

But Jesus said, to her “Do not hold on to me.”

I Have To Go

He continued talking, explaining that he couldn’t stay around, “…because I have not yet gone back up to the Father…” He had an agenda, a set of other appointments to keep.

Ever since he started out his life as a wandering preacher, he had a set of things to do. Even being betrayed, tried and executed were things on his list, as was rising from death. He had told people as much, they just couldn’t hear him.

All of these things were done in service of an even greater task, to demonstrate God’s love for the world, that no person who believed in him would perish, but would have everlasting life.

Last week in a class that I teach to future pastors I asked students ahead of time to choose a Bible story that has characters in it, then to choose one of those characters, and then to plan the structure of a sermon preached as if the student was that character.  One student chose the story of David and Goliath, and said she would tell it from the viewpoint of David. Another chose a story about the prophet Elijah, and claimed the part of Elijah. A third chose a story about Joshua, and chose the part of Joshua. We like to compare ourselves to people in the Bible, and usually choose the greater ones. I the story we just read from John 20, we’d likely see ourselves as Peter or the other disciple, the two “who believed”. Or maybe of Jesus, who “had risen”. Few of us would choose Mary, because she was the one who didn’t listen to the angels and then had to be warned away by Jesus because her agenda was to “hold on to” him..

The things we want are so immediate. We want our favorite football team to win the regional championship or the world cup. We want God to make sure that our Master’s Thesis, Doctoral Dissertation or Job Application is accepted. We want the number on our lottery ticket (or on our receipt from 7-eleven) to lead to the grand prize. All of these things are “in” time. But Christ is “above” time, and has a different set of goals.

When we are at the end of our rope, and hear Jesus call our name, and know we have been saved (as Mary did), we want everything else to stop, because nothing matters more than where we are at RIGHT NOW.  That’s why Mary reached for him, and it’s when she heard him say, to her “Do not hold on to me, I have to go.”

They Have to Know

        More than his own having to go, though, was his mission for her. She also had to go. People had to be told, “THEY” had to “KNOW”. Now, Mary had already gone to them once, we read that in verse 2, “She went running away to Simon Peter and the other disciple,whom Jesus loved, and told them….” Wasn’t that enough? Now she had to go again and tell them about the living Jesus. This was good news, but why her, why another trip, couldn’t he just send an angel or something so they could sit down for a cup of tea and some conversation?

No. Jesus mission for her was for the immediate errand, and then for her life as part of that group of disciples that grew on Pentecost and afterward to be the church of Jerusalem.

Jesus has a mission for us even when we’d rather stay. Jesus has stuff for us to say, even when we’d rather keep silent. Though he is “everyplace” and has armies of angels at his command, he sends us, to tell, to act, and to live the good news of the gospel, in the ways we treat each other, in the ways we treat strangers, and in the ways that people we don’t even know see us treating anyone and everyone we meet with and in the love of Jesus.

That seems too hard, especially when, like Mary, you find yourself at the end of your rope……and Jesus says to you, “Do not hold on to me. I have to go, and they have to know.

You Have to Grow

        The name “Mary” is found on a lot of women in the New Testament. Jesus’ mother was Mary, Lazarus’ sister was Mary, and this one, known as “the Magdalene” because of her home town, was a third. Each of them, after her own fashion, loved Jesus, and as he loved (and loves) all people, Jesus loved each of them.

Part of what it means to love someone is to want the best for him or her. Parents learn this about children. At certain ages you just wish they would ALWAYS be like this, and at other ages you can’t wait for them to “grow out of it.” Loving means living with the conditions, good or bad, that people grow through, and taking joy in seeing people develop…. Not freezing them in place like a bee in amber.

It may seem that Mary wanted to hold onto Jesus just as he was that morning by the tomb, but its more likely she wanted him as he had been some time in the past  (though she was “willing” to take him, dead or alive, as she found him that day). Jesus had been changed by crucifixion and resurrection, but there hadn’t been time for her to learn that yet. She wanted to stop herself, and stop him. That was no longer “love” but was “possession”.

Jesus did the loving thing, the hard thing. He set her free to grow.

Imagine two things, both common enough in our Taiwan context. The first you don’t see any more, but there are monuments to it at the Christian girl’s high school across the street. High class women in the Ching Dynasty in China hobbled around on bound feet. When an upper class girl was only 3 or 4 years old her parents would bind up her feet in tight wrappings to deform them and keep them small. The Scottish missionary women who founded the girl’s school across the street were part of a movement that said girls and women should be free, that the upper class cultural norms of the Ching dynasty were barbarity. If upper class families wanted their daughters educated, that school would not accept anyone with bound feet. The monuments over there were given by the Ministry of the Interior of Taiwan’s government, recognizing the school’s role in setting Taiwan’s women free. Their feet could grow, and their minds and spirits grow through the life education and example they got at a Christian school.

The other image is of a boat with an anchor. When a boat is to be kept from drifting, an anchor is cast out and grabs the land at the bottom of the water. But you don’t just stop the boat and let the anchor down. You have to know how deep the water is (let’s say, 10 meters) and let out 3 to five times that much rope from the boat to the anchor. And you have to do it while the boat is moving, otherwise the rope gets all tangled up and the anchor doesn’t hold. If you don’t let out enough line, then when the tide comes in and your boat rises, the anchor will pull away from what it’s holding onto and the boat will drift away. The art is in getting the anchor down at the right time and leaving enough length of rope or chain to hold the boat where it needs to be, but leave it free enough to go where it needs to go. .

Mary needed to keep her faith in Jesus. That was her anchor. She also needed to get some distance, so that her faith could grow, that was her “anchor rope.”

Jesus says to all of us, “Do not hold on to me, you have to grow.”

CONCLUSION

As we grow up we are constantly leaving things behind. Whether it’s the shoes that used to fit, and have been outgrown, or the earlier model of computer or smart phone that is no longer up to standards, or even the things we once believed, but which no longer “fit with” the person who we are becoming.

As it was for Mary, who was told not to hold onto the Jesus whom she had known, and lost, in the past, and not even to hold on to the Jesus who was standing in front of her, so it is also for us. Freedom from the past may be needed for us to fulfill our immediate mission in life, whatever that may be. Being anchored to that which gives life meaning, while free to drift with the movements of current and tide, is ESSENTIAL if we are to grow into the future that God has for us.

Whether you’re near or at the end of your rope, remember that it’s a rope, not a rock, that you’re on. Hold on…. Yes but let God’s Holy Spirit blow you in the direction that you need to drift, and in which you must grow.

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

In Haunts of Wretchedness and Need: Palm Sunday 2017

In July of 1985 a group of 6 young American university graduates arrived in Taiwan to spend a year serving in church student centers related to colleges and universities. The following year, before returned to their homes and lives, they were asked about their experience, including their first impressions after they got off the airplane and were being taken into Taipei for orientation training. One of them, a woman who had grown up on a farm and had almost no urban experience before. She was quick to answer.

After getting off of the plane, and being met by the Taiwanese pastor responsible for her care and feeding the first few weeks, she was put onto a bus to go to Taipei. As she rode along looking at the country where she had signed up to live for the next year, she reported that her thoughts were, “When are we going to get out of the slums?”

Think back on the places you’ve been in the past 7 days…. Your house, your neighborhood, your office, classroom, lab, shops or restaurants that you patronize, streets you’ve walked along, maybe even, because there were holidays last week, tourist spots or graveyards.

Our title today “In Haunts of Wretchedness and Need”, is taken from the hymn we just sang. To call someplace a “haunt” in English is to say that it is a sad place, or maybe a location where bad things happen. In our daily lives, we go into a lot of places, in some of which our needs are met (like to a barber shop for a haircut or to 7-Eleven to buy almost anything) and in other places where we meet others’ needs. Today we’re going to consider how Jesus comes to meet some of OUR needs.

In the church year we’ve come to Palm Sunday, on which we mark Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of Holy Week. By the end of this coming week, on Saturday, all triumph will have been wrung out of it, and there will be only the darkness of a stone-sealed tomb.

Jesus’ week can be seen as having begun with entry to a city, accompanied by a crowd who cheered him on, and ending with entry into a tomb, a “Haunt of Wretchedness and Need.”

JESUS ENTERS IN A PLACE ( THERE AND HERE )

That hymn, Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life” was originally written in 1903. The hymnal we use has a version altered in 1981 by Ruth Duck, an American hymn writer. She removed the patriarchy and exclusive language about Jesus from the first verse and gave us a grace-filled and inclusive option. Her gift reads,

“Where cross the crowded ways of life,

where sound the cries of clan and race,

above the noise of selfish strife,

O Christ, we hear your voice of grace.

That verse, both as originally composed and ESPECIALLY as re-visioned by Ruth Duck, is a fairly good description of the place where the events narrated in both the psalm and gospel lessons we read today.

When a city has a wall around it the gates create “choke points” for people entering and leaving. You’ll find fewer people standing around by the wall someplace between gates than you’ll find moving purposefully, or just hanging around, AT a gate, and like certain government offices in modern life, places like Automobile and Motorcycle license offices, that all citizens must visit from time to time, people of ALL social classes tended to meet at the gates.

Jesus came to a gate in the  Jerusalem wall, where and a lot of people were moving about. The writer of Matthew’s gospel, ever ready to find verses from the Hebrew Bible to prove his point about Jesus, dragged up some from Zechariah.

“ Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The writer of Matthew knew his Hebrew Bible pretty well, but the people of Jerusalem outdid him. They didn’t greet Jesus with the words of a minor prophet, but went to their hymnbook and chose right out of Psalm 118 the word “Hosanna” that they found there, and they used it to call this , donkey riding prophet to be their savior.

Jesus entered Jerusalem to the cheers of that mixed group of Jerusalem visitors, citizens, seekers and layabouts, people of every class. Jesus comes to us on the crowded paths of our own lives. He does not wait until we have time for him. He pays little attention to how we might “expect” things to be. Though he comes “as your king,” he comes “humble”. He’s even willing to enter the haunts of wretchedness and need in your life and mine. He comes to us in our sadness and defeat. Do you recall a Sunday School picture of Jesus standing outside a door and knocking?  It’s one artist’s way of showing his misunderstanding of a verse from Revelation 3:21. Today I want you to imagine the gate or door to your personal “haunt of wretchedness and need” and imagine Jesus, not gently knocking on it, but shouting to you words we found in the psalm, “open to me the gates of righteousness that I may enter through them”

        When Jesus had entered through the gates and into the city,  some of those who greeted him thought he was coming to 1)take control, 2)throw out the social, political and religious elites who led their nation, 3) get rid of the foreigners who were oppressing them, and 4) make Israel great again. But he didn’t enter for that reason, and he didn’t do what those people were expecting.

WHETHER A CITY, A CHURCH OR A LIFE, JESUS ENTERS FOR A REASON

In the psalm we read, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” These words are picked up and reused in the New Testament 5 times, including later in Matthew 21. “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil.”

Today we rejoice in our Lord’s triumphant entry today, but even that is conditioned by remembering how the leaders of his society rejected him. It seems that many in the crowds who welcomed him when he came in may also have been in the crowd that shouted only a few days later that he should be crucified. They had welcomed him in the expectation that he would become a populist political and military leader who would throw the political elites out of power, turn the religion over to the believers, expel the foreigners in their land and make their nation great again.

Recently in this world, the entry of populist leaders in places as far apart as Europe, the Philippines and America has thrown things into turmoil. Thankfully, Jesus came neither to unleash extra-judicial killings (like President Duterte) or twitter storms (like President Trump).

As wretched and needy as politicians’ and nations’ haunts might be, we personally have them, too. They may be emotional, romantic, psychological, religious, financial or political. They may be external to us (about your jobs, marriages, finances, relationships, health, or something like that)  or if internal, relating to your excess or absence of self-esteem, your arrogance or  narcissism or your personal religious faith. Jesus enters these places, but not just to be there. Jesus enters to do what he did immediately after coming through the Jerusalem gate. He goes to the center and cleans things out (look at verses 12 and 13 of Matthew 21). We can hide nothing from Jesus. When he calls, “open to me the gates of righteousness” he means that “righteousness is coming in”, so get ready.

Did you ever notice how hard it is to “get ready for” something that you don’t have on your calendar? A student in his or her last year of university “gets ready” to graduate. The date has been clearly announced in advance. A woman who is pregnant “gets ready” to give birth. Her due date is approximate, but she knows pretty well what month it will happen.  So, how ready are you for an earthquake, for a stock market fall, or for a flood like the one that shut down Taipei’s subway system about 10 years ago?

JESUS ENTERS AT A TIME (THEN / NOW / ETERNALLY)

Before he climbed onto the donkey we read about, Jesus was already getting ready for what was about to happen. His friends weren’t. It was a surprise to them that a donkey was “ready positioned” for the Lord to use.

We celebrate Palm Sunday today in part because that’s what the church calls this Sunday at the beginning of Holy Week, and because it’s a church habit. Whatever special things we do today have been anticipated, and preparations have been made. Over the past 5 or 6 weeks our church has followed the church year and considered aspects of Jesus’ call to die for our salvation.

As we hear from and respond to the words from the psalm, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it,” we come to “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good”  Most of the people who met Jesus at the gate the day when he came in were rejoicing, being glad and giving thanks. They met him with the expectation that he would save them.

Jesus meets us within our time and in our places. And will continue to do so, every week as we worship, every year as we meet him at the gates. As we move into Holy Week, though, many of us may skip over the sad stories of his betrayal, death and burial, and just go from “Triumphant entry” directly to “Triumph over the Grave.”  So beware of the temptation to just be “happy.” Stick with Jesus, through the gates, into the temple, and all through this coming week in which we remember his betrayal, death, and burial. He meets us whether we’re ready or not. He meets us, as is noted in verse 6 of the hymn, “Till all shall learn compassion’s might.” And even then he will not stop meeting us, for he has promised eternity.

CONCLUSION

So today, here, in this room, at this church, in this city of Tainan, we celebrate the joy of the people in Jerusalem who greeted Jesus, arriving humbly on a donkey. We look forward from this triumphant entry to the news we’ll hear next Sunday of his triumph over death, and his promise to us of eternal life. But we do so from places in life which can be described as haunts of wretchedness and need, because that’s often where we, and the people around us, dwell.

The good news is that we don’t have to. The King of Glory waits for us outside those spaces, the Lord of Love joins us in them, and we are saved.

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

Holy Saturday Week in Review

8 April  Haircut

Among the things I’m going to start missing after departing from Taiwan (tentatively scheduled for July 31, 2018) are the NT$100 (US$3.30) barber shops at the hyper marts where I do our Saturday shopping. You feed a bill into a machine and a little piece of paper comes out with your number on it. When your number is called, you give the slip of paper to the barber (that’s how she gets paid at the end of the day) and sit in the chair.  Within a very few minutes, you’re done.  Admittedly, sometimes I don’t get a very good haircut, but the entire operation takes only about 10 minutes every 4 to 6 weeks.  

When I was a teenager and didn’t want to get haircuts at all, my Dad pushed me to get them. When I was a soldier I had to get trimmed up every 2 weeks. Though the way I wear my hair now is probably what my Dad wanted when I was a teen, and is only a tiny bit longer than the Army liked, I still don’t want to spend too much time on the tonsorial part of my life. I’m going to miss the ease of having this done Taiwan style.

 

9 April Taipei Trip

On Palm Sunday I went all the way to Taipei to preach to the English language congregation then preside at Holy Communion for Shuang Lien Church. The elders there had hired Stephen Lakkis, a wonderful Australian guy, to do preaching and pastoral work for their English congregation, but because he’s not an ordained minister in the Taiwan Presbyterian Church (he’s a Baptist), they won’t let him preside at the Lord’s Supper. I would have no problem, but the elders set the tone and pay his salary, so it is as it is. I was able to give the sermon that I had written for use in Tainan “out of town tryout”. With the bullet train, I was up in Taipei in only 100 minutes or so, and on a slightly slower one back in Tainan in 2 hours.

 

9 April Tainan International Community Church

Palm Sunday. Psalm 118 and Matthew 21. Jesus basically said to everyone, “I’m Coming In”.

I notice that I’ve been preaching imperatives lately (“Come Out of There” the week before relative to Lazarus and the tomb.) The Easter sermon, “Do Not Hold On To Me” will be another imperative. I think it will be time for a change.

When 4:30 rolled around, there were only 6 people at church (we usually run about 16 people by the time of the blessing at the end). I tried not to be discouraged. And that was good, because by 5:30 we had a few over 20.  The sermon was better the second time around, partly because I didn’t waste anyone’s time introducing myself. Slowly but surely I’m weeding mentions of myself out of sermons. Now it’s time to get myself out of the liturgy.

 

10 April  IRS

Most years we don’t take in enough money to get us over the “foreign earned income” threshold to pay US Income tax, but we have to report anyway. Last year we were in the USA for 203 days, so we’ll certainly have to pay both the feds and Michigan. Thankfully we have a “tax guy” (whom we’ve never met). He works out of Rochester, Minnesota, and he’s been doing our taxes for over 10 years. He always sends a questionnaire in January, and I always dither around until April to respond. He also always gets an extended filing date in October for us, so we’re never late. On Monday I filled out the questionnaire, scanned paper documents and forwarded electronic ones. He’ll do his magic and get back to us in six months.

Taxation is legitimate. I have some neighbors who don’t seem to think so. They’re amazed that I pay Taiwan income tax as well as reporting American tax. I gently remind them that if my house burns, America isn’t going to send firefighters, and that there are no special american constructed roads in Taiwan on which I drive my car. “Still….” they sometimes say.

In May I’ll join them in reporting income to Taiwan’s tax bureau, and have to ante up for what I’ll owe here. The folks at the tax bureaux with whom I’ve dealt over the years have always been unfailingly polite.

 

11 April  Insurance and Inspection

Our car is more than 20 years old and has to pass inspection twice a year. The insurance has to be in force and good for at least 90 days to get that done. Since it expires in the middle of May, I always pay it before the April inspection. I went to the inspection place where there’s an insurance counter and got it all renewed and up to date (a year’s liability insurance on the car costs about US$40). Then the inspection. Car passed, I was out on the road again, good until October.

 

12 April  Major / Minor Characters

The assignment for the Pulpit Skills and Creative Preaching course this week was to come up with a “first person” sermon. The example I had given people was Oprah, the sister-in-law of Ruth from the Old Testament. I chose her because I wanted a minor character; big things can be built from little material.

Anyway, going around the class to find what people had consen, one student wanted to do David and Goliath, as David;  another wanted Joshua and Moses as Moses, and a third a story of Elijah and a widow as Elijah.  Only one of the six chose a minor character.

We all like to be big. Preachers’ egos are already inflated. No need for more hot air!

 

12 April  Fast Talker

There are not as many seniors this year as there are Wednesday afternoons in the two semesters, so we’re having guest preachers. The college president seems to be inviting pastors of churches with money (we’re building a new library, and flattered clergy might influence their congregations to donate). The guy who came on Wednesday spoke about forgiveness as if it were the eraser on the end of a pencil. Very creative, accompanied by good use of metaphor, video and speech. My only problem, as translator, was that he spoke real fast. I had a hard time keeping up.

 

13 April  Maundy Thursday

Occasionally I get tt do something other than translate in the college chapel. Last semester it was to preach for a communion service, and this week to preside at communion when someone else preached.  I think I’m all “suppered up” for a while. With the service in Taipei last Sunday, the one at the school on Thursday evening and then another at a Taiwanese church for Good Friday, I’ve “dined at the Lord’s table” quite a bit this week.

In none of the three locations did we do the kind of liturgy that I like…. But that’s a matter of personal taste. Maybe later. Likely elsewhere.

 

14 April  Good Friday

The 1st year ministerial training students at Tainan Theological College “do” Good Friday every year. This year they put together a 2-hour programme that had us wandering around campus. You could tell that they recently watched the movie “Silence” because we were given an opportunity to trample on a picture of Jesus.

In the evening Char and I walked over to the Taiwanese church we attend and I translated for about a dozen Indonesian Christians who were present for the Good Friday communion service. Our pastor, who generally preaches for 20 to 25 minutes, went on well past half an hour wringing 7 points out of the topic of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. Personally, I’m overly invested in the “3 point sermon.” I admire his freedom, but still think 7 is overkill.

 

15 April  Trim

Last Saturday was my hair, today our palm tree and other shrubs.  Last week it rained a day or two, and I noticed that people walking past our house had to step off of the paved walkways to get past our shrubbery.  The “kitchen scissors” saw to everything in less than 3 minutes.

 

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