Finding What’s Good Through Knowing Each Other

Psalm 19:8-11 and John 2:13-22

Even Jesus couldn’t be good ALL of the time, so he gathered some friends.


Soon after taking up residence in Kaohsiung in 1982 I reported to the Foreign Affairs Police to apply for an Alien Resident Certificate (this duty didn’t switch to the Immigration bureau until late in the 90s). Having submitted the application and paid the fees, I was on my way out of the building when a man at the door engaged me in conversation, using English (which was good, because I didn’t yet speak ANY Taiwanese and what little Mandarin I had was not very useful). He asked what brought me to Taiwan, and I said that I had come to be a missionary. His response was to tell me his opinion of religion in general. It didn’t matter what religion one had, because they are all the same. Their purpose is to “Make People Good”.

In this, he wasn’t wrong. All religions serve, in part, to make people good. If a person wants his or her children to be “good”, one recommendation is to make sure that they get some sort of religious training. The “new” religion out of China about 25 years ago, which is still illegal in China but is just fine to practice in Taiwan, is known as Falun Dafa, or Falun Gong.  On their banners, billboards and vests, the slogan “Falun Dafa is Good” predominates. It is intended to attract people who see it to explore the teachings of Falun Dafa.

I’d like to draw your attention to the diagram on the screen, which may challenge some common ideas about religion and goodness. If we sort people into the four types suggested here, we can probably say that we know some folks who are in each of them.

  Have religion No religion
Good Have religion & is good No religion & is good
Not Good Have religion & is not good No religion & is not good

So, who or what IS good, who or what WAS good, and did that person who we hold up as “good” HAVE a religion or NOT?  Were the actions which we say are “good” connected in any way with any religion?

It’s easy to say, “what would Jesus do?”, because we have already decided, just because he was Jesus, that he was good, so everything that came from him was good. Sometimes, though, it helps to take another look, and see things from a different angle.


Recently I’ve been reading the Gospel of John devotionally, that is, not to learn from it, but to be inspired and maybe transformed by it. I read a small section every day, from 5 to 20 verses depending on how the stories divide out, and I’ve reached chapter 7. The New Testament story we read today, from chapter 2, caused me to go back and re-think certain things.

The Gospel of John begins with a wonderful and philosophically loaded chapter on the meaning of God in creation and eternity, and firmly links Jesus to all of that. In Chapter 2 we meet Jesus at a wedding, changing water into wine. People do a lot of things with this story to show how Jesus cared about keeping customs, making people happy, and surprising people with GOOD wine. But the next story, the one we read today, finds Jesus in the temple, where he: 1) makes trouble; 2)destroys property; 3) disturbs ordinary business, and 4) causes people to run away.  If anyone were to come into any of our classes, churches, or even a birthday party and do something like that, we would say, “This is NOT a good person.”

But, because we have already decided that “Jesus is good”, we’ve really got some work to do. Let’s note that as he is introduced in the Gospel, he is linked to God’s self expression (the word made flesh) and we are told that he came full of grace and truth. In the story we read today, he shows that he was angry because people were misusing the temple, which was to be a place of prayer, by turning it into a marketplace. (In the comment by the gospel writer found in verse 17, we’re given the Bible verse that makes it all “right”). Keeping the places where people come to pray clean and pure so is a good thing to do. Before entering a mosque, one takes off one’s shoes. When in the mosque, people turn off their smart phones. This is considered “good” behavior whether or not one is a Muslim, and whether or not one has entered the Mosque to pray or to deliver a pizza.

So, Jesus’ actions in the temple that day had a good purpose. But, was he good? He disturbed the leaders. He made a scene. Me made noise, which was not joyful noise, and by making and using a whip, he acted, you might say, violently. THIS IS NOT GOOD!

I guess that, if we were his teacher and giving him a grade, he would not get 100 points.


It’s so easy to say, “become like Jesus and you’ll become good”. You could even print that on a T-shirt. But from the story we read, we can see that not every action he took was necessarily completely good. So, maybe “Jesus only” is not a complete enough response.

We read a few verses from Psalm 19 this afternoon. That psalm, those verses, were written long before Jesus showed up. They were part of the song book used in the places where he prayed and worshipped, and likely were part of whatever religious training he had as he grew from a boy to a man.

“The laws of the Lord are right, and those who obey them are happy.

The commands of the Lord are just and give understanding to the mind.

Reverence for the Lord is good; it will continue forever.

The judgements of the Lord are just; they are always fair.

They are more desirable than the finest gold; they are sweeter than the purest honey.

They give knowledge to me, your servant; I am rewarded for obeying them.”

If we follow the reasoning found here, it is the existence of a set of standards, “the law, commandments, judgments, etc.) of the Lord that has the potential to make people good, and the knowledge of those things that MAKES people good.

And that’s about where we get left much of the time, informed that a set of standards exist, and the only reason why people are not “good” is because they don’t know the standards; they’re ignorant.  When that happens, we encourage people to “come to church” (or the mosque, or the temple, or the monastery) to hear about the standards, come to know them, and then, through that knowledge, to become good. Let’s go back to the diagram for a minute.

  Know about religion Don’t know about religion
Good Know about religion & is good Don’t know about religion & is good
Not Good Know about religion & is not good Doesn’t know religion & is not good

We can’t but conclude that it doesn’t necessarily work with everyone. Not all “not good” people are IGNORANT, and not all “good people” are INFORMED.

“Knowing” in and of itself doesn’t necessarily influence our “doing”. Having a wonderful example, even one so wonderful as Jesus, doesn’t necessarily help us to imitate. We need each other.


It is not enough to live alone with merely a Bible (or any other religious or moral Instruction book) in our hands. We are created for community. Even God, as understood in Christianity, is “3 in 1”, incomplete as a One, unconnected as a 3. God, the one God, requires fellowship internally.

  1. Each and every one of us needs “an other” to hear what we say, so that we can hear, in the other’s response, when (if you’ll allow a musical example) “off key”.
  2. Each and every one of us needs “an other” to serve as an example to us of what it means to “do” good, because we will often live “in the most convenient way” if someone else doesn’t give us an example of how to do what is right. Here’s an example. If the traffic light at the corner is red, do you drive your bicycle or motor scooter through it? Sometimes. But if others have stopped and are waiting for the green, does that influence you to stop? We need each other.
  3. We need “an other” to pray for us, because we are often blind to our weaknesses and defects. That person doesn’t necessarily need to face us down and tell us what’s wrong, but if she or he prays for us, something mysterious and divine, that changes us, may begin to work through our circumstances, something that steers us to the good. At times merely the reminder, “I’ve been praying for you,” might do more than hours of instruction.


If we’re going to be “good” even some of the time, we need: 1) a set of standards (like those we read about in Psalm 19); and we need 2) examples (like Jesus was most of the time). But most of all, we need: 3) “an other” to offer guidance and correction.

Ask yourself, “to whom do I listen for guidance each day?” You may find some of that in quiet time, which might include a religious book, like a Bible. Maybe just the time in quiet will be helpful enough.

Ask yourself, “who is my model for goodness?” We have models whom we imitate in order to be beautiful, popular, manly, womanly, etc. Who is your model for goodness?

Ask yourself, “who prays for me?” Perhaps it’s time to ask someone, “next time you pray, put in a good word for me.”

We are not alone. We need each other, for goodness sake.

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


Continuing with some stories

A letter, sent on February 28th 2018

As we draw near to the end of our lives in Taiwan (5 months from today) we mark many “last times.” Today is Peace and Reconciliation Day, a holiday marking the beginning of massacres carried out by the military loyal to the dictator Chiang Kai-shek back in 1947. The entire thing was “forbidden” to be talked about until the late 1980s, and only became a memorial day in the past 20 years. We have the day off, so there’s time for this note.

The water company has been replacing some big pipes that bring tap water to Tainan. Officially, the water to 350,000 households was shut off for 47 hours beginning on the morning of Feb.26. All was done well, and we experienced no inconvenience. It helps that like many buildings in New York City, homes in Taiwan each have their own water tanks, filled from the main. So long as you use carefully during a shutoff, you can generally “get through”.

When he was shopping last Saturday, Dave noticed what he thought was a sale on toilet paper. At least, people were sure buying large amounts. It turns out that pulp prices have gone up internationally, and a 30% increase in the price of toilet paper is likely to come into effect in a week or two. People were buying out the stocks as fast as more could be put on the shelves. Some grocery store aisles are pretty bare-looking.

Many things sold in stores in Taiwan are packaged in plastic bags. Flour, for instance. A few weeks ago Dave noticed a small hole in the corner of a bag of whole wheat flour that had been in our cupboard. When that bag was gone, and he reached for the “spare bag”, he noticed a larger hole in that one. Last Saturday he bought a bag of white flour and put it into the cabinet. On Tuesday when he took it out, there was a hole in that one, too.  We’ve got a rodent! The cat needs to earn his keep.

Both of us began teaching again on the 26th, our “last first classes.”  Char’s was early, 8:10 on Monday morning. Student numbers on 1st period classes on Monday mornings are lower than other classes. Turns out, though, that after years of teaching students who come in 30s and 40s, teaching a group of 15 is not necessarily easier.

Some students actually get ahead of things. At Chang Jung Christian University, the different language majors in the translation department put on “drama night” every spring. This year it will be on June 5th. A student active in the drama that will be put on in Spanish has already met with Char to get their English sub-titles corrected.  May his tribe increase!

Tainan Theological College began the spring term on the 22nd. Dave translated the opening worship service, during which the chairman of the board preached at high-speed. A new vice-president of the college was installed.  2 days later there was a special service marking the school’s new incarnation as accredited by Taiwan’s government. Given the “educational economy” of Taiwan, this step was necessary. We hope it is worth all the trouble that was necessary across the past 10 years.

As part of the new term, and part of Dave’s last term at the theological college, he has started to offer an evening prayer, Compline, service 4 nights a week. No preaching, no complex music. Prayers, a hymn, a psalm, a scripture reading and some silent meditation. If nothing else happens, the few who attend will find themselves introduced to some structures and perhaps even to monastic-style practices.

At Tainan International Community Church, attendance has been a little lower since many of the overseas university students were away for vacation. But things picked up a little on the 25th. There were 4 Taiwanese, 4 Vietnamese, 4 Indonesians and 2 Americans in attendance. Made for a pleasant mix. Among the Vietnamese, it was the first ever time in church for 3 of them.


Getting back to stories

a letter sent on February 15

So many things were going on in the second half of 2017 that stories from us fell by the wayside.

In the summer, Char went to Michigan for 6 weeks to visit family,  which also included helping her parents move from their house in Muskegon to an apartment in Holland. Not long after returning to Tainan, she began to work on her upcoming semester at Chang Jung Christian University, with its anticipated load of 120 new freshmen  and 70 returning sophomores.

In the fall semester, Dave taught an entirely new course, “Preaching to Children” and repeated “Write Your Personal Catechism.” He also continued translation for all chapel services at Tainan Theological College, taught a “Creative Bible Study Methods” course at a local church, and led a monthly small group at the church where we’re members. At the English-language Tainan International Community Church he continued leading worship and preaching every week. This developed his Power-point and social media skills.

At Christmas, our children Grant and Kate visited with their spouses Katelyn and Gene. We had a packed schedule of events for a couple of weeks. It was an historical event,  the last time for all of  us to celebrate the holidays in Taiwan. By Christmas of this year, it will all happen in the USA.

Now we’re on Winter Break, which includes the holidays for the Lunar New Year. This year we met a real jumble of celebrations.

February 14 was both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. February 15th will bring the New Year’s Eve celebrations, and the 16th through the 21st are national holidays for the New Year.

During our time off, Char has been sorting through  years of accumulation of papers related to her teaching. Those that she won’t need for her final semester before retiring are going onto the recycle truck. She has also been preparing for the spring term and taking time for visits with friends who, like our stories, were neglected during the last months of 2017. The New Year holidays mean that offices are closed, so we’ll work from home. Dave hopes to write letters by hand to the kind folks who have sent us cards and notes over the past several months. He hopes that, after years of using a computer for communication, his scrawl will be legible when received on the other end.

School starts again on the 22nd   for Dave and the 26th for Char.   Char will have 6 classes again,  with most students the same as last semester. Dave will teach two fully new courses: “The Pastor as Educator” and “Sourcing Contemporary Illustrations for Enhancing Preaching.”  He will also lead the service of Compline (night prayers) in the college chapel 4 evenings each week and continue with translating.

The project lurking in the background this semester is preparing to retire. We plan to depart Taiwan on July 31st, 36+ years since our arrival in the spring of 1982. It’s been a wonderful life here. Thinking about leaving it means planning new ways of being, new neighbors, and new opportunities for service.

New Names, Different Ways

Genesis 17:1-17 and Romans 4:13-15   25 February 2018  Lent 2B

New names can imply different directions, not always welcome, but often necessary.


Yesterday Tainan Theological College celebrated becoming a “government accredited school.” There aren’t a lot of big changes, because the degrees granted by the college have been recognized as valid around the1960s. All the way around the world EXCEPT in Taiwan. Now the Master of Arts degree from the college will entitle the one who earns it to all of the same rights and privileges as enjoyed by all other Master of Arts degree holders here in the Republic of China.

A part of becoming accredited by Taiwan’s government involved changing the name of the school. Officially it is no longer Tainan Theological College, but “The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan South Divinity Theological College. Three years ago I met a woman who had taught at Christ College, a small liberal arts school in Taipei that, similarly, had not been accredited for most of it’s existence, but “went through the change” 6 years back. As happy as she was about the accreditation, she didn’t like that school’s new name, “Taipei Christian College”.

Sometimes a name change doesn’t change much other than the name. If you’ve ever flown Korean Air, it’s a company that used to be called Korean Air Lines. While under that name it had a couple of disastrous accidents over the Soviet Union. In 1984 it changed it’s name, but in 1997 another disaster, in which over 200 people died, showed that not much other than the paint job had changed.

I: Renaming to fit the new direction

We read a renaming story in the Old Testament today. Abram, who had been more or less following God’s call for decades, got his name changed. “Abram” meant, “My Father is Exalted”. As wonderful as this may be in showing respect for one’s father, if you’re the guy with the name, your “script” is basically backward looking. If you’re the father who gave that name to your son, it’s really arrogant! The new name, given by God in this story, means, “Father of many nations”. If that name had been given to a baby, it would certainly be future-oriented!

In the same story, Abram’s wife, Sarai, had her name changed to “Sarah”. Honestly, both words mean the same thing: Princess.  Some interpreters have tried to get something about “argumentative striver” out of “Sarai” and “Royal Princess” out of Sarah, but anyone who takes that seriously is stretching the evidence.

Abram and Sarai were an old married couple who had gone through several difficult experiences. Abram hadn’t been the best husband, willing to sacrifice his wife to save his own life more than once. Sarai hadn’t been the most patient of women, bossing Abram around only to change her mind when he did things according to her plan. But there was something in them that God accepted. Like us, they were far from perfect, but were “good enough” for God.

They had waited a long time, and now God was coming through for them. Their “accreditation” (if you’ll allow for the metaphor), involved name changes, and more.

We’re only in chapter 17 of Genesis, which is the first book in the Bible, the book of origins. There are 1189 chapters in the Bible. In the first 16 we find several ways that people dealt with God, These involved: conversation (2,3), sacrifice,(4), deal-making (4), tracing your family tree (5, 10,11), being good (6), obeying (7), and competing (11). None of it worked. In the Old Testament story and the New Testament verses we read today, we’re introduced to a different way.

II: A Different Way: Faith (Romans 4:13 and Genesis 15:6 )

In the bit of the New Testament that we read today, Abraham appeared again. The reference there was not to Genesis 17, but to a verse from chapter 15, where it is stated that “Abram put his trust in the Lord, … and the Lord accepted him.” (I prefer the more eloquent language of more literary translations, “And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

It’s not that God changed a direction, but that Abram took a way different from that which had been handed down to him by his ancestors. Some of those previous ways of relating to God: 1) conversation, 2) sacrifice, 3) being good and 4) obeying, had merit and helped, but NOT ONE of them got to the heart of the matter for people, not then, and not ever since the whenever people began to exist and to attempt to relate to God. “Belief” was the key. In the story in Genesis 17, God announces how things will be.  If we read the order of the chapters as the order in which things happened, then Abram already had been reckoned righteous in chapter 15, but by chapter 17 he’s already began to try to make this into something about keeping rules, being different from other people, location, wealth and a family tree.

Usually I find the writers of the Old Testament to be a lot more direct than St. Paul in the Epistles, but this week I’ve got to hand it to Paul, he got it succinctly. It’s about faith, and nothing else. That was an important thing to write when and where he wrote it, because a small group of Jesus-believers in Rome was being influenced by people whom they admired, people who said, “Jesus is Lord. Faith is necessary, but so are a lot of rules.  Besides which, you’d be better off if you were in our family tree. But you’re not, so we’ll allow you to be “second class.”

For that mixed group of “Jesus believers in Rome”, and for us today, the thing that matters is faith. It’s not a matter of the rules you’ve kept or broken, or of your family tree, or of how little or how much you may have sacrificed. It’s not even a matter of “how much” you’ve believed, it’s just this: “Have you believed?” If the answer is “Yes”, then THAT is what makes you, like Abram, righteous before God.

That is, indeed, good news, so you might expect that those who followed after Abraham, the father of many nations, followed his example, believed, and left it at that. Well, no.

The other ways, the original ways: sacrifice, deal-making, rule keeping, family tree, and all of those sorts of things were and are so “practical” that Abraham’s descendants, even those who came through the “preferred family tree” traded “faith is enough” for: say your prayers, keep the rules, sacrifice, suffer and keep the race pure.

III. The different way for us

And we still do it today.

As a young kid in church, when I began to pay attention to the songs that were sung there, I learned this one:

“When we walk with the Lord in the light of his word,

what a glory he sheds on our way.

When we do his good will, he abides with us still,

and with all who will trust and obey.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

        If you know and sing that song (it has a very singable 19th century tune), the message that you absorb is heavy on the “obey” side and light on the trust. You become convinced that you have to learn all the rules and obey all the rules in order to be accepted by God. If it’s not clear enough in the song’s first verse, then it gets even tighter in verses 2,3 and 4.

The way of God, shown to us in Genesis 17 and Romans 4 today, is life based on belief. The “trust” part is so strong that the “obey” part seems to have been put into the hymn just to fill out the line in the poem.

So, again, the question is: “have you believed?” If your answer is “yes”, then it is because of belief that you have been “reckoned as righteous” before God. The answer can’t be, as some would have it, “My grandmother believed.” (That’s the family tree thing.) The answer can’t be, as others would have it: “I put a lot of money in the offering bag.” (That’s the sacrifice thing.) The answer can’t be: “God and I have an arrangement,” That’s deal-making, and it’s not the way God operates.


If faith, nothing but faith, is the foundation upon which you find yourself accepted by God, then you’re on the way God set out for “Abraham”, the way recommended to the Jesus-believers in Rome by St. Paul.

If you’ve “added something” to faith, even something so high-sounding as: “loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself”, thinking that by doing this “IN ADDITION TO” faith to insure being accepted by God, then you’re doing a good thing, but not a necessary thing. You’re not “wrong”, but you’re “doing the right thing for the wrong reason.”

If you’ve substituted something like “be good, stay clean and pure, make your parents proud, don’t waste money or time, get a good university degree, become rich and give a lot of money away, help out at church, or have substituted ANYTHING of that sort for “believe God”, then you’re running the wrong race.

Many Christians who follow practices of self-denial during the 6 weeks before Easter Sunday are trying to remember how Jesus suffered for us. They do it by a little suffering of their own, giving up a pleasure or two (chocolate, wine, ice cream, something like that).

A different way to go through these weeks is to examine ourselves, not to add some religious practice, but possibly to let go of some unnecessary things. And if those be religious practices that led us in the wrong direction, then so much the better.

Because, from beginning to end, being acceptable to God is about faith, nothing else instead, and nothing else in addition.

Believe this good news and go forth to live in peace.  AMEN

When in Wildernesses of our Own

Mark 1:9-15 and Psalm 25:1-10


There are seasons of life that are just so wonderful we hope they’ll never end. These are sometimes called, “honeymoons”, when no defects are visible and everything is “on the up and up.” If you imagine the thrill of finishing a degree program and walking across the stage to receive your diploma from whoever gives it to you, and having friends crowd around with congratulations and best wishes. People say good things about you, maybe they even give you money!

This must be kind of what Jesus experienced where we met him in the gospel today. He was in the company of a prophet (John) and part of a crowd. And as he submitted to baptism, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, a kind of feathered blessing. And beyond that, a voice proclaimed that he was beloved. You can’t get much higher than that.

At times like that, it’s easy to say something like what we read this afternoon at the beginning of Psalm 25: “To you, O Lord, I offer my prayer, in you, my God, I trust.”

But, those “honeymoon” times are not ALL OF the times.

I The Dark Night of the Soul

The term “dark night of the soul” describes a spiritual crisis in the human journey toward union with God. In the 16th Century it was described by the Spanish monk John of the Cross. In the 19th Century a French nun, Therese of Liseux wrote of her own experience of the dark night, which started with a doubt of eternity. She painfully suffered through a prolonged period of spiritual darkness. While this spiritual crisis is usually temporary, it may endure for a long time. The “dark night” of Paul of the Cross in the 18th century endured 45 years, from which he ultimately recovered. The dark night of Mother Teresa of Calcutta “may be the most extensive such case on record”. It endured from 1948 almost until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief.

In going through these times of “dark night”, these saints of the church basically experienced something that we read in the gospel today, which for Jesus lasted 40 days. And it was nothing that he “fell into” by accident. We read in verse 12 that it was the same Spirit which had descended on him from heaven like a dove in verse 11 that made him go out into the wilderness. He couldn’t blame some enemy or a bad meal or a teacher with whom he didn’t get along. We can’t say that he got too high and mighty and had to be taken down a peg. His wilderness experience was laid upon him as part of his growth and formation.

It does no good at all to say to someone who is suffering that “this is for your own good.” Expressions that someone might grow from adversity, or through hard times, are of no help at all when someone is in the wilderness. Neither is it of any help to look to your own past for reasons why this might be a punishment sent upon you by God or by Heaven (there’s a difference).

A dear Christian friend from Kaohsiung experienced some difficult years in her extended family’s life in the 1990s. Her brother in law had a brain tumor, which robbed him of his musical talent. Her father, a pastor, died from cancer, her brother treated her harshly. She was asking, “What did I do, what did my family do, to cause God to punish us so dreadfully?” There is no answer to that kind of question. There is no point in asking it. We wander through our wildernesses, we experience our dark nights, because that’s how life goes sometimes. Jesus endured his 40 days in the wilderness. Other gospels say that he fasted. Other gospels tell us about the particular temptations he endured. We read from Mark today, so have few details. Maybe that frees us to think of our own situations.

Sometimes a wilderness experience comes to us, as we read in Psalm 25:2b-3 because we’ve experienced defeat by the hand of enemies or from shame over things we have done. The Psalm even allows for the possibility that we are in the wilderness because of our own rebellion. Whatever the reason, and no matter how we or anyone else may try to dress it up as “for our good” or as “growth stimulant”, wilderness time is not good time.

A friend who had worked for a mission organization in the 1970s was required to write a note to his supporters every month. Of course, if someone was having a difficult time, they tried not to admit that too directly. He said that when his colleagues were having problems with their supervisors, they would write to supporters “lately, God is teaching me about patience.”

II Wilderness a difficult time. It is not a camping trip

Jesus’ time in the wilderness was 40 days. During that time Jesus met his adversary. We’re also told that there were wild animals. Like the lack of mention of what he ate (or didn’t eat) and the temptations he overcame, we don’t know much more about his wilderness time.

We’re left to ponder who WE meet in our wildernesses. Those saints of the church, John, Paul and the two Teresas, testified to feeling alone. That’s quite a surprise, given that some of them lived in monasteries or convents, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta was the head of a large organization. Their loneliness and hunger, though, was likely for something more spiritual, it was for a deep communion with God through the Holy Spirit.

When we’re in that kind of wilderness, “wild animals” are not far away. They can take the form of otherwise good things which become sinful. There’s a list going back to the ancient philosophers of 7 deadly sins. It includes Pride, Envy, Anger, Gluttony, Lust, Greed and Sloth. Some of these things are not wrong in themselves, but when they come at us in the wilderness, they can take control. We have probably all met someone who is rightfully proud of something that he or she has accomplished, and someone else who is OVERLY proud of the same thing. Similarly the way we look at and aspire to another’s good luck can turn into envy, our indignation over something may turn to anger, our natural appetite for foods and experiences to gluttony, for sex to lust, for property to greed and for rest to sloth.

In his own wilderness, Jesus was tempted by his adversary, Satan, who sought to derail him from the life to which God had called him. When we’re in our own times of wilderness, we need to pay attention to what is tempting us, to what wild animals are out there to harm us.

The writer of Psalm 25 called out for guidance and help. We find that in verse 5, “Teach me to live according to your truth, for you are my God, who saves us. I always trust in you.” You can be sure that the saints in their dark nights of the soul called out. The 19th century St. Therese (not the 20th century one from India) testified that it was in the deepening of her faith that her doubts were erased.

III Help is on the way

In Jesus’ case, we read that help came. At the end of verse 13 “Angels came to help him.” Through their aid, he was restored, and through the commission that he received in verse 14, he went on to a life of meaning for himself and for others.

There are people who look for angels to come out of the sky with feathery wings and halos around their heads. We get the “wings” from various places in the old testament, and imagine they must be there because New Testament angels sometimes are seen in the air (so they MUST have wings, right?) We get the halos because of artistic styles that put auras around holy people, and eventually thinned those out to halos.

But it’s much more likely that any angels we may encounter will look very much like us. For example, because I’ve been known to drive a bit too fast and a bit too aggressively, I’ve learned to regard anyone who gets in front of me and makes me slow down as my guardian angel.

We have the opportunity to be angels to each other, and to anyone we meet. The point here is that we are not alone. We are watched over by other people, by God, and by “angels” however you might imagine them.

And like Jesus, we have a commission. We are to be involved with, engaged with, the world around us. The 19th century St. Therese lived in a convent, where the rule was you couldn’t talk to anyone else except for a few hours a day. But she was engaged with people during those hours, choosing sisters who looked particularly downcast or “in their own wildernesses.” Through engagement with them, she walked out of her wilderness.

Jesus emerged from the wilderness to take on the duty of telling the good news to people he met. What is your commission? It may be to finish that degree, move to that different job, take up a different habit of spiritual development, or something else. Like your personal wilderness (from which you will emerge, your commission is your own personal vocation, to which you respond.

In all things, remember, as the psalm writer did, who God is. “Righteous and Good… a leader to the humble… faithful in his promises.”


Emerging from your wilderness, do what Jesus did, tell the good news. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN



The Things We Carry

 2 Kings 2:1-14 and Mark 9:2-8

 Influenced as we are by our pasts (and our faiths’ pasts), we move into the future equipped for service to people and to God.



In 1968 Tim O’Brien, a young man recently graduated from college with a bachelors degree in Political Science, was called to serve in the United States Army. He was trained to fight, and sent to Vietnam, where he served in a combat unit in 1969 and 1970.  When his time as a soldier ended, he became a writer. Short stories based on his wartime experiences began to appear in magazines, and in 1990 were published as a collection. The Things They Carried is the first story in the book.

The things that they (his group of soldiers) carried included the equipment (guns and ammunition) that the infantry-men needed to do their fighting jobs, and the radios & medical things required by others who had special responsibilities. Each man also carried some things that he had brought from home to remind him of family or girlfriends, or things they took for comfort. The platoon leader carried a packet of letters from a girl he had known in college. Though she didn’t love him, he re-read the letters and fantasized about his love for her. Other soldiers carried other things: one, a Bible; one, some tranquilizers; one, some marijuana; and others, other things. The Things They Carried linked them to their pasts as lovers, believers, druggies and human beings.

Soldiers aren’t the only people who carry their pasts with them as they move through life. I was on a train in Canada 15 years ago and discovered that I hadn’t brought along enough reading material to last the entire trip. I looked around and saw that someone who had already left the train had forgotten a magazine, so I picked it up and began reading. It was Cosmo Girl, which targeted teenage girls and featured fashion and celebrities. Cosmo Girl was an adaptation of Cosmopolitan, the international fashion magazine for women. One article in the issue that I read was intended for young women headed away to college. It had a list of things that you should pack and bring for your dormitory room, and included, “anything that will remind you of HOME.” Apparently that article was written by someone who had missed home when she got to college.

In my first job after leaving graduate school in 1980, I met a couple, the Ecclestons, at a churches where I had an office. They were deeply faithful people and active in church happenings. Both had grown up in the Roman Catholic church, but each had been divorced. What moved them out of the Roman Catholic church and into the Protestant church across the street was that they had married each other, which they were not allowed to do as Roman Catholics back then. It was wonderful to learn from the Ecclestons as I moved into Christian ministry, but sometimes I noticed that the things that they carried from their Roman Catholic background were different from the ones I carried from my own Protestant religious upbringing.

Wherever we go, we all carry things with us.

I  Elijah was followed by prophets, and Elisha carried his mantle

Today We read the story of Elijah going up into heaven by a whirlwind today. Almost hidden in verse 13 is mention that he didn’t carry his cloak with him as he ascended. It “had fallen from him.” There’s a lot of stuff “left-behind” in the story… PLACES: Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho, the Jordan; PEOPLE: a group of 50 prophets, and a successor. But there are also “things that they carried” in the story. Elisha got the cloak to carry, and the 50 prophets retained their belief in gravity. In verses 15-18, which we didn’t read, they went searching for Elijah’s body, which they were sure had dropped from the sky wherever the whirlwind dropped it.

As the stories in the next several chapters of II Kings go, Elisha became a prophet much like his teacher. He was consulted by kings and leaders. He  consorted with the poor, the diseased and the outcast of his nation, and he taught  the “school of prophets” who served the religious needs of people high and low.

Whether after striking the river with that cloak he ever used it again or not, we don’t know. BUT, he carried with him the authority of the one who had trained him, and the power of the God whom both of them had served.

The story of Elijah going up into heaven in a whirlwind was included in the Bible that Jesus used, and made its way into the new religion based on his life and work. When that religion, which is MY religion, and I hope is also yours, was preached in regions where Greek folk religion prevailed, people who became Christians focused on the chariot, and brought into their NEW religion some habits of their OLD religion. All over Southern Greece there are churches named for “Saint Elijah”. God is worshipped there. The Christian gospel is proclaimed there. These churches stand on mountaintops, where there HAD BEEN temples dedicated to Apollo, the Greek god who crossed the sky daily in a horse-drawn chariot pulling the sun.         Another story of carrying an old religion into a new was in our New Testament reading.

II Peter carried the high places Canaanite Religion (transfiguration story)

We meet Jesus today on a mountaintop, where he has led three of his friends on a little retreat. Up there, where the light is clearer and the sky nearer, he was “transfigured” in front of them. His face shined, his clothes looked bright, and two of the major prophets of his religion were seen beside him. Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah (from the Old Testament story we just read). This story links Jesus, and the religion that grew from his life and work, to the religion into which he was born and in which he grew up. But the story also shows us, in Peter, that the religion of that time also included things that had been carried along, perhaps unconsciously, from further back in his ethnic memory.

The Old Testament history is of a people who invaded and took over land that had been inhabited by other peoples for hundreds of years. Upon entering the land, they were to destroy all evidences of the “resident” religion and replace them with the religion that they brought, a religion that was still “under development” (It hadn’t yet even reached the Beta stage).

But they didn’t destroy everything. It had been the practice of the local people to worship agricultural and sky gods on the tops of mountains. These “high places” are condemned all through the history stories from Joshua through the Chronicles in the Old Testament (a history stretching over many centuries). The repeated condemnations were necessary, because not long after some king on a campaign to purify the land would have them torn down, people would build them up again. Going to the official places for sacrifice and worship, early on at the tabernacle, later on at the temple in Jerusalem, was wonderful, but it wasn’t convenient. The “ready-made” worship centers on the mountain tops were pressed into service. Even King Solomon, who had a worship center (the tabernacle) all the symbols of his religion right next door in Jerusalem, went to “the principal high place” to worship God just after being crowned.

In our gospel reading today, Peter showed himself to be a true son of his ancestors. There on the mountaintop with Jesus, seeing the vision of Moses and Elijah, he brought out what he had carried, the idea that the high place is where you ought to be to be near God. But God would have none of it. In response to this suggestion, Peter heard, “This is my son. Listen to HIM!”


As Christianity spread in that part of the world (you can read about it in the Acts of the Apostles) it encountered and was changed by the religions and contexts it met. In the region just to the north of Galilee, where Jesus grew up, the folk religions included a goddess known as The Queen of Heaven. There was also a myth of the Goddess Ishtar and her son, Tammuz (who would regularly die and rise again). During the sixth century AD, some early Christians in the Middle East borrowed elements from poems of Ishtar mourning over the death of Tammuz into their own retellings of the Virgin Mary mourning over the death of her son, Jesus.

III Habits of thought and being that inform how we live as people of faith

Wherever we go, we carry with us bits of what we’ve learned in the past, and we apply them to what we do going forward. Teachers generally hope that some of the things they have tried to impart to students will remain with them. But, “Carrying things forward” can be a problem, as Peter’s inclination to high place worship was problematic. It can be an opportunity, as Elisha’s use of Elijah’s cloak gave him authority. What is almost always a problem, though, is turning to something in the past that served an oppressive purpose and declaring it to be a necessary part of life in the new religion. You might call it, “Baptizing Bad Behavior”.

Last Monday, February 5th, was the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, a harmful practice that still happens all around the world and is prevalent in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. In some societies there, the practice is endorsed by religious leaders, Christian and Muslim, as being “part of what our religion teaches about proper womanhood”. But those who preach the practice and promote it are lying. Female Genital Mutilation is neither Christian, nor Islamic, nor religious at all. It is a fundamental human rights violation. It is an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls.  Medical evidence shows that Female Genital Mutilation seriously impacts many normal body functions, increases maternal and infant mortality, and can cause lifelong psychological dmage. It prevents women and girls from meaningfully participating in public life to the same extent men do.

Somebody, somewhere along the line in moving from traditional folk religion into Islam and Christianity, retroactively baptized violence against women. They were, and are, wrong.

In the story “The Things They Carry”, the platoon leader realized that daydreaming about the girl he loved (but who did not return his love) kept him from being an effective leader. His distraction led to one of the soldiers in his group dying, so he burned the letters he had carried and buried their ashes.

All of us need, from time to time, to look at our lives, to discern which of our bad habits have been “baptized into our religions,” and let go of things. Hopefully what remains will be what is useful.  God’s voice to Peter was about the new thing in front of him, “this is my son. Listen to him!”


As we do this “reflection and discernment homework” in the days, weeks, months and years to come, the standard, “listening to Jesus” can and should be a guide to us for what is loving, grace-filled, forgiving and accepting.  As we work towards becoming “Christ-like”, let us do so in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN

Words for When We’re Down

Mark 1:31, Isaiah 40:29, Psalm 147:6


Some of us here have experienced life in many different cultures. We can do that without leaving home (the different cultures of different generations in a family), without leaving our communities (where people of the same ethnicity might have distinctly different cultures if the are from different social classes) and, especially, if and when we pair up with a life partner whose “family culture” is different from the one in which we grew up, (even when we’re from the same or similar ethnic or social class backgrounds).

But this isn’t about culture shock or culture conflict, it’s about the kinds of feelings that naturally come when one moves between cultures. There are times of exhilaration, and times of near or total depression that accompany it. In those times of exhilaration, we may feel that we can rule the world, but in the times when we’re feeling down, well, we need help.

A hard part of “being down” is the feeling that we’re alone. In 1978 some researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles developed and published a “loneliness scale” (it was revised in the 90s’). As it is used now, it includes 10 questions, each of which is answered by a number from 1 to 4. The average score is between 20 and 25, and any score of 30 or above indicates that someone is likely to have a “High level of loneliness.” If we add “feeling down” to an actual situation of being lonely, then we’re likely headed for problems. One thing we’re reminded of in the scriptures that we read this afternoon is that whether we’re up or down, and especially when we’re feeling down, God notices, reaches to us, and lifts us up.

I  He Sees Needs (Mark 1:31)

On the day we met Jesus in the Gospel today, he’d been busy. He had gone to synagogue and preached, had cast an evil spirit out of a man, and become famous. And all before lunch! When he took a break to have a bite to eat, a person who was “feeling down” was in the house. She was the mother-in-law of Simon, one of the guys who had chosen to leave everything and become one of the first of Jesus’ disciples. But Simon is almost beside the point. The woman who was feeling down had a fever. Like the man with the evil spirit in verses 23 through 26 (who could have had any of a number of conditions, all of which were seen as ‘evil spirit possession’ by the people who brought us this Gospel), this woman’s fever could have been almost anything that laid her low. Jesus saw her need and responded to her condition. She got up, and began to wait on them (that’s the word used in the translation we read here at Tainan International Community Church).

But the is much more meaningful in Greek (the original language of the Gospel). It is the same one used when, eventually, the church appointed deacons. She got up and began to “deacon” them. This woman, known to us only as the mother of the wife of Simon, became the first deacon in church history.

That may not mean much to some of us who come from backgrounds where in a church only the pastor matters, but in many churches, being a deacon means being on the congregation’s board of directors, and in others it is a step one takes on the way to becoming a priest. Deacons SERVE the church and God’s people. “Waiting on” is not a wrong translation of what she did, but it’s a little thin. Jesus didn’t help her to recover from her fever so that she could pour the coffee for the men and clean up after them. He healed her so that she would not be down, and he promoted her to a position of high honor in society and church. She, who never appears in the Bible story again, is the first deacon. A “member of the board of directors”, a “priest in preparation.”

She was down, Jesus noticed, and took her hand, and raised her up. We, likewise, when we are down, are precious to Jesus, whose attention to and intention for us is that we rise up.

II  They Mount Up Like Eagles (Isaiah 40:29)

In this act, Jesus showed himself to be in continuity with the words of Hebrew prophets whose work is collected together into what is known as the book of Isaiah.  Chapters 1-39 of that book are the work of one writer, identified as Isaiah, the son of Amoz. They are firmly rooted in a particular historical framework. Chapters 40-55 are from another time and another person, likewise chapters 56-66. Chapter 40, from which we read today, begins with words of comfort to discouraged people, thought to be the people of Judah still in exile in Babylon, and end with a promise that by waiting, they are in line to be lifted up. “They will rise on wings like eagles, they will run and not get weary, they will walk and not faint.”

On some extended sojourns in the United States over the past 30 years, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling around talking about Taiwan. Two years ago I went there and did all of my travel by train, but previously it was mostly by airplane. On the plane there are those “in flight magazines”, with many ads aimed not a tourists, but at traveling business executives. I recall one year when, no matter which airline I was on, and no matter which month, there were a LOT of ads for a company that published posters and framed art prints with inspirational and motivational slogans to get people to imagine great things and work harder. Many of those pictures were of eagles. Maybe that’s particularly American. I don’t know. But in the context of the prophet’s words today, they could also be Biblical.

In many ways, both conscious and unconscious, Jesus conformed to the words of the prophets found in the Hebrew Bible. Since the time of Jesus, many people of faith have searched the scriptures and found even MORE of those words than even Jesus knew (misinterpreting various things that were not at ALL about him to reflect an anticipation of something about him). We can see the gospel story of Simon’s mother in law as an example of “when you’re down, Jesus cares and comes.” The words of the prophet call us to more patience, to “wait on the Lord” when we’re weak, for the Lord “will” come.

Let’s not pretend that “down time” is in any way good for us. There’s a good reason that we call it “the pits”, and a good reason for psychologists and psychiatrists to identify a condition known as “depression”. Down is down. But we can look for an “up” to come. Wait for it.  Hope for it.

III  He lifts the Humble (Psalm 147:6)

We read a bunch of promises in the Psalm, too, one of which had to do with this same kind or “down-reach and up-lift.”    “He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. The Lord lifts up the downtrodden….” OK, that last verse ends with, “But casts the wicked to the ground.”  It is enough, though, to be reassured of being healed and lifted up, and to hear the assurance that our wounds will be bound up.

“Literature of the wounded” emerged in China in the late 1970s, after the death of Mao Dzedong. It described the sufferings of communist party staff and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 76. It attacked official hypocrisy and corruption. In a more current context in Europe and America, the #metoo and #churchtoo writings of many women who have been sexually harassed and abused in political, business, entertainment and church organizations, exposes the woundedness of many of our sisters around the world.

Being male, I’m standing on thin ice when speaking to women and promising healing and uplift to people who have been abused. Any assurances I might give, no matter how many Bible verses might be piled on them, will ring hollow. Maybe the assurance that “the wicked will be cast to the ground” is the more resonant line in this psalm. We’ve already seen the beginnings of that in the cases of some entertainers and some pastors.

As we hope for their downfall, let’s join the women whose hearts have been broken, who have been wounded and trodden underfoot. Sometimes we hear preachers tell us that, after he ascended, “Christ has no hands but yours”. Well, if that’s so, let’s be like Jesus, reaching out to those who suffer, let’s listen without explaining, and let’s offer the hands that lift them up.

There’s no shame in being down.  And even if you forget that there is ONE who sees, approaches, reaches and lifts, there’s no shame. There is hope, so hold onto that.

Conclusion   Look to God

We may look many places for help, restitution, reconciliation, recovery, and renewal. What we’re reminded of today is that God is revealed to us in uplift, especially when we participate with others in God’s work of reaching, lifting and helping people to soar like eagles.  Wait for it.

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


Listen Up, Folks!

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28


In the 1970s and 80s, an American investment company, E. F. Hutton, (the kind of place where you put your money and ask them to invest and grow it for you) had a series of television ads in which a people in a public place, like a restaurant or on a train. They would be talking about money and investments One would ask the other what he thought was best to do. The second guy would say, “My investment company is E. F. Hutton, and E. F. Hutton says…”  Then, suddenly, everyone around these guys would stop what they were doing to listen. The advert ended, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

I rarely get to feel like E. F. Hutton, but hope that I’ll be listened to tomorrow morning, when I’ll spend four hours “entertaining” and educating some high school students. Their teachers have chosen the topic, which is “star signs”, you know, the idea that if you were born at a particular time of the year, then the set of stars in the sky through which the sun rises at that time of the year controls your destiny.  For religious, scientific and practical reasons, I don’t believe in that crap. I hope, somehow, to bend any in the audience who are inclined to see something in the stars OTHER THAN just stars away from belief of supernatural powers of the sky.

Today, we’re not talking about star signs. We’re in the season of the church year when we consider how God makes God’s own self known to people like ourselves. And today we read from both the Old Testament and the New Testament about God does that through the words of people who speak for God. I hope that today, you will listen to me as if I was giving information from E. F. Hutton.

I  Words of Prophets

We heard from Deuteronomy, in the Old Testament, about people who would come and speak, declaring themselves to be “Prophets.”  Deuteronomy sits in the Old Testament near the beginning, and is traditionally credited to Moses, the ancient and highest hero of Israel. The beginning verses of Deuteronomy claim that all the words following are those spoken by Moses to the people who were about to cross the river Jordan and enter their “promised land.” I always get a bit skeptical about these claims when I read to the END of Deuteronomy, where the death and burial of Moses are recorded as happening. I wonder, “how did he write those if he was already dead?”

The verses that we read in chapter 18 immediately follow several that warned the people of Israel about following folk religion practices or listening to fortune tellers and people who looked for signs in the stars. They remind the original listeners and readers that God would speak to them through prophets, and that this is in accord with the request of the ancestors, who didn’t want to hear directly from God.  BUT, they also tell people to be careful about those who would come to them, claiming to be prophets, but not speaking God’s words. And they warn anyone who would pretend to speak for God that the penalty for lying in God’s name was death.

Deuteronomy is NOT a transcript of several sermons by Moses given to people about to enter the promised land in about 1300 BCE. Deuteronomy IS a collection of several sermons written by priests and religious professionals in Israel sometime between 620 and 500 BCE. The rules show a developed religion and a settled nation. They also reflect the nature of the “Priests vs. Prophets” conflict in the religion of the time.  Though the priests couldn’t deny the prophets, they COULD limit their influence.

In 1996 Taiwan emerged partially from the bad old days of political dictatorship and held a free and fair presidential election. In advance of that election, anti-democratic forces linked to the “old regime” tried in many ways to prevent Taiwan’s people from really exercising freedom. The Chinese military conducted live-fire drills here and there, and fired missiles to land in the sea (at pre-announced locations) off the shore south and north of this nation. Some ethnic Han “Christian prophets” from overseas (one from Los Angeles, one from Singapore, and there may have been a few others) saw visions of battles and blood.

I knew a Christian man then who sent his widowed mother, his wife, his children and his single sister on a “vacation” to Singapore. While out of the country, they may have been safe, but they could not vote for Taiwan’s future.

The prophets who spoke in 1996 were proven to be wrong. Had Taiwan in 1996 operated by the rules that we read in Deuteronomy today, they would have died for that.

People in our time who claim prophetic abilities often have ways of getting around the things they say. In preparing for tomorrow’s talk with high school students I watched a video of an American scientist, talking about being on a radio program with a woman who used “star signs” to make predictions. He repeated a claim she had made about the American president who was assassinated in 1963 and his brother, who was assassinated in 1968, and claimed that they had all died during lunar eclipses.  When he pointed out that the first one had died when the moon was “a half moon, and eclipses don’t occur during those times”, the “prophet” said that two weeks in either direction was acceptably accurate.

II  Words of Jesus

So, it’s a comfort to come to a story about Jesus, in whom the Word of God was made flesh, coming to live among us, and through whose words and actions God’s meanings are revealed to us directly.

According to the story we read today, Jesus and four other guys came to Capernaum and a few days later went to church (well, to the Synagogue, which was where the folks in that place with one of the many religions followed there met to hear religious teaching and to pray every week.) Jesus preached, and the people who heard him liked what they heard. Compared to what they regularly got, this guy was GOOD!

Then there was a surprise. A man with an evil spirit in him (make of that whatever you like… was he mentally ill, epileptic, drunk, whatever…..????) entered the synagogue and began to make a scene. Jesus took care of the situation. His way of taking care of it was like his way of preaching… He had AUTHORITY!  And people responded as to a prophet.

The old American Television advertisement that was intended to get people to entrust their money to one investment company is nothing compared to this. When E. F. Hutton talks, PEOPLE listen.  When JESUS talks, people recognize and respond to his authority, and lives are saved.

If we apply the standard of Deuteronomy 18, that a prophet’s words should be truly God’s word, or else that one should die, then Jesus comes across as a true prophet, who speaks, and liberating things happen.

III  Words of Prophets in our world Today

Some might claim prophetic power in our world today. In 1870 the first Vatican Council declared that when the Roman Catholic Pope would speak “from the chair of St. Peter” (he didn’t have to be sitting on it at the time that he spoke) his words were “infallible”. There were a lot of politics going on at the time, including the formation of a new nation, Italy, being put together from several smaller nations, including territories that had been directly governed by the church. Anyway, for political reasons, a certain portion of the words of the pope were given the potential to be considered without error. LOTS of restrictions were placed around exactly WHICH words. I grew up in a rather “anti-Catholic” home, where I learned to mock Roman Catholics as people who did not have the freedom to think for themselves. I was taught wrong.  For all the talk about the pope not being able to make a mistake, there have only been 7 times in church history when ANY pope has declared his words to be infallible, and only ONE of those (in 1950) happened after Vatican 1.

Two weeks ago, the Mormon church installed Russel Nelson as its 17th president. Among other titles, he is known in his church as “the Prophet”. Mormon scholars and church members consider him to be God’s spokesman to the entire world and the highest priesthood authority on earth. He has the exclusive right to receive revelations from God on behalf of the entire church or the entire world. I’m not a Mormon, so though Mr. Nelson is certainly to be given respect as the leader of a large organization and an example of morality, I won’t be expecting anything prophetic from him.

Similar to how the needs of the ancients drove what they saw in the stars, our needs can drive us to listen to some things, and to ignore others. But, like E. F. Hutton in the advertisements, When God talks, people listen (or, at least, we ought to).


What we need to do is pay attention, to ourselves, to the world around us, and to the word of God as we hear it through Jesus Christ who dwells among and within us. That may mean taking time each day to quiet ourselves and listen. It may mean that we participate in fellowship with other Christians, (as we have here). It may mean taking time to pray and to read spiritual literature (I can recommend the Bible, but there’s a lot more out there which is easily accessible and greatly beneficial).  God is made real to us through many ways. Words are only one of them. The important thing for us today is that we trust enough to listen when God talks.  You’d do that if it was about your money, but your life here and eternal is much, much more important.  Listen

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



The Time Has Not Yet Come 

Jonah 3:1-5 & 10, I Cor 7: 29-31, Mark 1:14-20,

 God’s self manifestation

We read more than our typical amount of scripture today. In part because the readings were rich in meaning, and in part because each of them shines a different light on how people, over the centuries, have tried to understand the ways in which God shows us who God is and what is going on in history.

There are a lot of cartoon memes that come up over and over. There’s the one with a person or two sitting on a little island with only one palm tree on it, waiting to be rescued. There’s one of two naked people under a tree, and a snake in it. Our meme today is like the one on the back of our bulletin, a guy holding or carrying a sign declaring “the end is near.”

For many people, a basic view of God showing us who God is might be printed on a T-shirt, “God’s coming back, and WOW is he PISSED!” Today I want us to look at this from the other end, that, “God has already come and invites us to a Joyful New Beginning.” If I fail to do that, please trust that at least I was trying to get there.

8 days ago, on January 13th, people all over Hawai’i got a smart phone message saying that a Nuclear-armed missile was on the way. Somebody in a public safety department had “pushed the wrong button” on a computer screen. BUT, since Hawai’i is only 15 minutes missile flying time from Korea, many people there began preparing for a sudden end. That end didn’t come. THANK GOD.

“Pushing the wrong button” about the end of civilization as we know it, or the end of human life as we know it, or the end of the world, or the end of all creation, happens frequently. As a person of religious faith, I’m embarrassed that the people pushing that wrong button are often others who have religious faith.

I: Some Get the times horribly wrong

Wikipedia’s List of Predicted Dates for the End of the World has at least 220 items in its “religious” section. They stretch back to the first century. None of them has been right, yet. Here are some recent ones.

A Korean church leader predicted the return of Jesus Christ and the end of the world for October 28, 1992. Some members of the group quit their jobs, others dropped out of universities, and others had abortions to avoid the suffering that was to come. Some married men, wanting to be “pure” when the time came, stopped having sex with their wives.  Well, Jesus didn’t come and the suffering didn’t happen (except for those wives who had been deprived of sex).

In 1997, twenty upper-middle-class families from Taiwan followed their self-trained Christian minister Chen Hon-ming to Garland, a suburb of Dallas, Texas in America. Pastor Chen had predicted the return of Jesus Christ for August of that year, saying that it would be announced on American Television. He chose the town because he thought that the name, “Garland” sounded like “God-land”, so he and his followers would be safe there. They bought houses and cars, wore white clothes and cowboy hats as they drove around town. But Jesus didn’t come back, and they quietly returned to their ruined lives in Taiwan afterwards.

More recently we’ve been treated to the prediction of December 21, 2012 as the end of the world because of a Maya Calendar. And last year, the fictional planet Niburu was predicted by some “prophets” to come and destroy all of the world on September 23rd. When it didn’t happen, the guy who prophesied it apologized for his miscalculation, and changed the date to October 15.  WE’RE. STILL. HERE.

Within Christian churches, a lot of the work on predicting the date of the end of the world builds on a system called dispensationalism. It grew up out of the preaching of a British man, Darby, in the 19th century. He was building on the work of 17th and 18th century British students of the Bible. He traveled around the English-speaking world (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America) preaching his interpretations. In America, the “cause” was promoted by a self-trained Bible scholar, Schofield, who awarded himself a Doctor of Divinity degree and edited a version of the Bible which guided people to make all kinds of “Jesus is coming back on this (or that) date predictions.”

If you hear about things like “the rapture”, “the tribulation” and “the millennium”, you’re hearing dispensationalism. It’s important to remember that this is only ONE way of reading the Bible, and that NOT all Christians are Dispensationalists. In fact, only the MINORITY of Christians use this “system” to view scripture and to say what God is doing in the world. They are a minority, but are a very noisy minority.

II: Some Get the times Not particularly right 

Religious believers who make end time predictions, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Islamic or Buddhist, stand in a proud tradition. It includes St Paul himself.  We read part of his prediction this afternoon in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31. According to Paul, there was not much time left, so “married men should live as if they were not married (whatever THAT meant) and people who were sad or happy should deny their feelings. People in business should buy nothing and sell nothing, because “the end is near.”

Sisters and brothers, even though these words were written by an Apostle and got into the Bible, WE’RE. STILL. HERE. So, how do we account for them?

Paul was a man of his own culture and religious background before he became a Christian. And just as our cultures and religious backgrounds follow US wherever we go, his followed him. He was raised and educated to expect the coming of a Messiah, who would bring about great changes for his people. He came to believe that the Messiah had come as Jesus Christ. In this new faith, he believed the promises of Jesus to return. Putting all of that together, he came to expect that “the end is near.”

Up to the point where he put them all together into “the end is near”, I was with him. But a LOT has happened since then. Maybe the end is not so near. Or maybe his directions for how to deal with Jesus’ coming were incorrect.

Predictors of a “soon coming” end are found elsewhere in the Bible, too. In the story of Jonah, from which we read this afternoon, people were given 40 days. I don’t know about you, but if I knew there were 40 days, I might spend 39-and-a-half of them before making any changes. (I guess I hang around with students too much.)

III: Some discover that “the end” has been cancelled 

The story of Jonah isn’t history. It’s a parable. Written to a people whose ideas about God were very “self-centered”. God only loves us, and everyone else is not good enough for God to care about. When you have that kind of an attitude, you treat “outsiders” in ways similar to how the Burmese are treating the Rohingya Muslims. When you have that kind of an attitude, you campaign for president of your nation with promises of building a border wall, deporting refugees or banning people of other religions from getting visas. Though the story contained in Jonah is set in the 7th century BCE, it was written and spread around in the 4th century BCE, when the Jewish religion was forming, and when it was at its most exclusive stage. “God loves us, and not YOU!” Significantly, though, it is a thoroughly Jewish story. It presents an “opposing view from inside the religion.”

The Jonah story if filled with physical impossibilities and linguistic inconsistencies. But it has profound teaching about the universal mercy and care of God for all people. It is the most “Christian” message of the Old Testament. God is merciful.

We read from chapter 3 today, nothing about a fish, but about a prophet with a message. His was the word of doom. “The end is near. There remain 40 days.” The people heard and responded, and, as we read in verse 10, “God changed God’s mind”.

In the parable that is Jonah, the people of the city are no longer relevant at this point. We hear no more of them. The “end” of the city has been cancelled. We can imagine that they went back to their regular lives, but as a place of righteousness. Or, since we have no information, we can imagine that they moved on, after repenting, to a joyful new beginning.

That word, “repent” is a bit of a problem, isn’t it? It carries with it the feeling of “no more happiness.” No more parties, no more wildness, just Sunday School and Bible Study Class from now on. So it effects how we hear the words of Jesus from Mark 1, “The right time has come…. Turn from your sins and believe the Good News.”

Conclusion  For some, this is just the beginning

Jesus also believed in “the time” that had been coming. But he declared that, in him, it had already arrived. There is no need to continue counting and predicting. He brought good news of God’s universal acceptance of all people. He called on those to whom he preached to believe that good news. Yes, there’s mention of “Repent” in what he said. We don’t discount that.

We can’t put an order of human operations on God’s willingness or on God’s ability to accept anyone. Is “turn from your sin” required first, before you can believe the good news?  OR…, does belief in the good news lead us to changes in life and attitudes, one (or many) of which might be turning from sin…. One or many of which might be kindness toward strangers and neighbors…. One or many of which may involve generosity.

The time has come, but it’s not a time of a bad end. It’s a time of a joyful beginning in which we believe, in which we are transformed, in which we share, in which we care.

Jesus invited all the people of the world to that beginning. And it is our invitation today: The Time Has come. Believe the good news, and whatever God does in you after that, in whatever order things happen, follow God.

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

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