Now Let Your Servant Depart in Peace

 

Luke 2: 29-32

Introduction:

Thank you, Rehoboth Church and anyone else who sticks around this morning, for allowing me to stand on your platform today.  Char and I, accompanied by our cat, arrived in the USA not quite two weeks ago. This if the first of many times during the coming months that we’ll be visiting churches that have supported us as missionaries in Taiwan for most of the past 40 years. What you’ll hear this morning is the “first draft” of our goodbye speech. It’ll get better as we move towards the last of the 30 or so churches on our list. Thanks for being willing to hear it “rough”.

Newly arrived as we are here in Michigan, we are also newly departed from our home of so many years. With Simeon in the story that the girls just read for us, we find ourselves saying, “Lord, now according to your word, allow your servants to depart in peace.”

I: Simeon Could Depart in Peace

When we grow older, as Simeon did, letting go of things is more and more common. Dr. Ted Siverns, a Canadian who served as a visiting professor at the Taiwanese college where we lived, told of how, after raising four children, he had his wife, Betty, had house by house moved to smaller and smaller quarters until they retired to a 2-bedroom condominium near Vancouver. Though they reduced their possessions along the way, they confessed that their current place was still “too full.”

Simeon, no doubt, still retained several things, one of  which was the Holy Spirit’s promise that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. The promise was enough. He had no details. He would know the Messiah when he saw him. He probably did not expect a baby.

But when he met Jesus on the day that Joseph and Mary came into the temple to present him to the Lord, Simeon knew that the promise had been fulfilled. He also knew that it was time to go, and he welcomed “going”in peace. We don’t know what he expected upon that departure, but having seen the sign of the promise, he willingly went to the God whom he trusted. And trusting in God who keeps promises, he needed nothing more.

Simeon’s words to God were not just about departing, like going home after a day of work at the temple. He was ready to depart the world. Char and I are not quite that far along, (and we hope that none of you are, either.)

II: We can Depart in Peace

Our own time to depart from Taiwan came on July 31st. (Char had been feted by faculty colleagues of Chang Jung Christian University not long before.)  On the day of departure, we were seen off by faculty, staff and students of Tainan Theological College, where I had taught and where we resided on campus. When we got to the international airport, three hours away, our pastor and the elders of the local church we’d been part of since 2008 met us. (They had been near there for a different event,  and delayed their own return home in order to see us off with prayers and best wishes.  Then 3 staff members from the General Assembly of Taiwan’s Presbyterian Church joined us and remained at our side until we went through the security screening.

We have departed, not because we had seen the sign of God’s fulfilled promise, but because we knew that the time had come. Like Simeon who knew that HIS time had come, and didn’t know what lay beyond it, we have departed in peace, not entirely sure of what lays ahead, but trusting God who saw Simeon through and who carries us every step of the way.

Life can be filled with transitions.

Last spring Amy, a young woman who had been Char’s student for 2 years, sent her an email with ‘an important question’. She asked how to choose a church. She wanted to visit one but had never been before. She wondered if it was OK for a person who had never been to church to go directly? She said that she was interested in Christianity and in Jesus. She was majoring in translation, so considered finding worship or a Bible study in English. Char was both surprised and delighted to get this contact because most modern Taiwanese college students seem to have very little interest in matters of faith or God or religion. It’s certainly not the typical question she gets from her students. Her response was to set up an appointment to chat, which they did soon afterwards.

When they met, Amy reported that she was initially attracted to Christianity through the influence of a classmate when she was in middle school. Her mother had no problem with her checking out a church back then, but her father was against it so she dropped the idea. The family is not particularly religious but keeps some folk religion customs more out of habit than belief. But as an adult in college, Amy felt the freedom to make her own decision about religion. A good discussion followed. Char was pleased to show her all the information about the Chaplains’ Office on the school’s website. There are lots of things she can explore that would be conveniently on campus close to where she lives. There’s even one fellowship group plus an additional Bible study that are done in English and led by a Korean pastor, who was Amy’s teacher for a required class her freshman year. They discussed the problems of exploring faith only in English and not in her own language. There are some English or bi-lingual services available in Tainan that she can consider, but Char encouraged her to think of going to a Mandarin or Taiwanese one as well. Amy discerned the time, and she is following the path to something new.

Theological and Bible colleges in Taiwan have historically operated outside of the structures of the education department. That’s because in the old days there was a lot of political and military interference that the churches didn’t need to bother about. But as Taiwan has become free, the religious schools have begun to seek government licenses so that their graduates can compete with others in the modern economy on an equal basis. Tainan Theological college discerned that “the time had come” about 10 years ago, and last February was approved to accept students into programs that lead to approved Masters Degrees. But it has come at a cost. The entire “college division” disappeared, and with it the younger faces and voices on campus. Numbers have also dipped. Where there were once over 200 students, there are now fewer than 100. These are enough to fulfill the future needs for church leaders, but the place seems lonelier as it transitions to a new format. Students, focusing on academic success, are less involved in formation as ministers and becoming a blessed community.

As for us, well, our time has come. I’m 66 and Char is……(it’s not polite to reveal a young woman’s age in public). We’ve given as much as there is in us to give to Taiwan. We have seen many capable younger teachers, pastors and theological educators who can occupy the spots in the schools and churches that we’ve been serving, and we should not be keeping them back by occupying THEIR space. We have a privilege that Simeon didn’t have. We’ve come to Michigan (just a smidgen below heaven). The Reformed Church has provided us a furnished house in which to reside for the coming months while we visit churches and look for a house in which to retire.  We’re here to: find new places to serve; make new friends; and learn new things.

III: Rehoboth Church is getting a new pastor

Simeon went into an unknown, We’ve come to a known place. Both are transitions. But these aren’t the only changes afoot.

As you at Rehoboth look forward to the beginning of September, the beginning of a new relationship with a new pastoral leader…  like Simeon, you need to continue to look for the signs of God’s presence and revelation. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been part of this wonderful community of God’s people for generations, decades, years, months or weeks.

Look up and look outward. Listen for what God is saying: through the Holy Spirit (as to Simeon); through the fellowship of this community; through the scriptures that you’ll be studying in Sunday school and hearing preached from this platform each week; and in the exciting things that God is doing in this world around us.  But don’t JUST listen. Having listened, follow up with action.

Do whatever God tells you to do. Even, and especially : if that means to welcome an out of town Harley Davidson Riders Club to a barbecue; if it means to accompany a young people’s group going to learn about urban poverty in Detroit; if it means to open your church basement to  a homeless shelter or a refugee family or an Alcoholics Anonymous group; even if it means to  support another missionary family overseas. DO IT!

As you cooperate, congregation, consistory and new pastor, in being God’s church in this place, doing the mission of God locally, regionally, and around the world… don’t forget Simeon. He kept his eyes open and found God’s sign in the LEAST likely place for a Messiah, in a baby brought by poor folks from a distant land.

He saw, he knew, and he obeyed, blessed by God in whom he had trusted.

May the same be true for Rehoboth Church and for all churches of Christ near and far.

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

 

Let us Pray:

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See and Hear

 

A text-based Biblical challenge to mission containing some stories from Taiwan.

Texts: Isaiah 35:4-7     Mark 7:31-37

 

Introduction

Sitting safely here in Coopersville, we regard today as September 9th, and unless it’s your birthday or wedding anniversary, or the day of some other marked importance in your personal or family life, it’s not particularly significant in itself.  But for millions of people of Chinese ethnicity, including most of Taiwan’s population, today is a day of liberation, because it’s the final day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar, “ghost month”.  Starting in 2 or 3 hours, many people who abide by restrictions on activities that are thought to draw ghosts or evil spirits to harm them will once again be free to go swimming, pick up loose change seen on the street, follow a strange sound or pleasant aroma to discover its source, undertake a major trip by plane or boat, whistle at night, tell ghost stories, move to a new house, buy new furniture, get married, have surgery or visit a sick friend in a hospital.

Different peoples around the world have different fears. Different members of even the same family have different fears. When any of us attempt to share a word about our faith in God with anyone else, whether they are already believers or is, using a phrase common among Taiwanese Christians, “a friend who is in the process of being evangelized”, we need to see and take our own fears and that person’s fears into account. With Isaiah, we say to those of a fearful heart, “God will come and save you.”

I What People Fear

Those who first received this word from Isaiah were in a situation of national decline. There were enemy empires all around threatening their nation’s welfare and continued existence. The man on the throne, though a good and faithful follower of God, was something of a nincompoop regarding the international affairs in which his nation was entangled. The prophet Isaiah, inspired by the Holy Spirit, preached to his people, “God will come and save you.”

In the story we read from the Gospel this morning, the people’s problem wasn’t fear, it was fearlessness. Jesus was coming by.  He wasn’t on a preaching trip, just on his way home from a vacation abroad. He wasn’t back at work yet. It was the last day of his vacation. But these folks hit him up for a favor anyway. They had a disabled friend, and Jesus was in the neighborhood. You can imagine them thinking to themselves, “couldn’t hurt!”  Though Jesus did what they wanted, he asked for “just little respect” in return.  “Don’t tell anyone.” But, these folks were unafraid. “Who needs to listen to Jesus?” The more he ordered them, the more zealously they told about it.

In Taiwan, people are afraid of many things. Char and I spent our career there mostly among young people. At Chang Jung Christian University Last year one of Char’s students told of her fear of going home. Though home was on an island half way between Taiwan and China, a place which Char regards as beautiful, this student didn’t want to go there.

You see, Home was where her sister lived. A sister with psychological problems and occasionally suicidal. Their parents had tried and failed to deal with the situation, so expected that their “normal” daughter could “fix” the sister because she was closer in age. Afraid of the expectations, the situation and the responsibility, this woman preferred to stay at Chang Jung Christian University.

“Say to those of fearful hearts”, we read today in Isaiah, “God will come and save you.”

My most recent job in Taiwan was in Theological Education. I’m not a scholar of Old or New Testament, of Church History, Systematic Theology or Ethics, but there was a niche for me in the teaching of the craft of ministry and in language classes. Some of those things deal with fears. 1) To people who arrived at the school deficient in English language ability, I taught a class ostensibly about English, but mainly designed to get them unafraid of encountering things in English. 2) To people who made it far enough through their program of studies to be considered “ministers in formation” I taught things about presence when on the platform (you might, then you might not, be surprised how many people are afraid to stand up in front of others and speak, or sing, or read the Bible). 3) Last year I taught a course basically aiming to get church leaders not to scare the children! 4) There’s also a need to challenge future ministers to make things interesting and relevant to life as we live it. (Being boring is, at least, dependable, so it becomes the default setting for many preachers in Taiwan.)

As we minister and evangelize, we need to see people’s fears and boredom, and we need to hear their input as we design for what we offer.

II WHAT PEOPLE NEED

A couple of years ago at an international consultation on ministry in situations of physical and mental disability in Taiwan, I learned there that many people live quite well within the limitations of their physical and mental “disabilities”. I also learned to keep my mouth shut on matters of others’ disabilities, because I, myself, am only “temporarily abled”. Though I’m not a particularly good listener, I heard that loud and clear.

We may feel that we’re pretty clear on what others, especially disabled people, need. The  group of people who brought their friend to Jesus knew very well that he was deaf and speech impaired. They had their own (but not necessarily that friend’s) ideas of what he needed.

In Isaiah we heard that people were afraid and needed reassurance. In the Gospel story there was that group of “friends” who wouldn’t listen to Jesus. Whether we are afraid, impaired or clueless, we all need to be listened to. Sometimes people carry shame and guilt and being “listened to” is the first step in being set free.

A woman came to Char for an oral mid-term examination interview that turned into something like a counseling session. She had missed many classes prior to the exam. In explaining the situation to Char, she mentioned that after her parents had gone through a rancorous divorce her mother wanted nothing to do with her father and hoped that SHE would stay away from him, too.

The father had recently undergone major surgery, and he needed personal care during his recovery. Since the student lived at home with her mother, she was expected to return home every night. But, loving and wanting to care for her father, she lied. She claimed to have big projects involving class work that necessitated her spending several nights with classmates.

As she talked to Char, she unloaded her shame in having repeatedly lied to her mother.

Char listened to a troubled student, and assured her that she had made the best of a bad situation.

Going around preaching at many local congregations, I often observed that Taiwan churches need “brightening up.” The sanctuaries there, like many here, are used for only a few hours every week. People come for the meeting, sit for an hour, get up, and leave. They hardly notice if the place feels pleasant to be in. So long as the air conditioning is working and there’s enough light to read the scripture from the Bible and the songs in the hymnbook, all’s well. Decoration, well “that would cost money”. So I taught a class in Worship and the Visual Arts. I challenged students to create things out of recycled materials to beautify the worship space for short times. I also demonstrated this in the college. Twice I found sets of 4 cabinet doors with glass in them. I cleaned them up, put in fabric from the cloth market, and labeled them, “God Created Heaven, Earth, the Sea and All things”. One set hangs in a classroom, and the other in a hallway. They are visible reminders that making a church space attractive for visitors and worshippers doesn’t require much craft, creativity or expense. And if, after we left 6 weeks ago, someone takes them down, nothing much has been lost.

III FEAR and NEED in many places

Char and I have come here today to say thank you to you, Coopersville Reformed , for the support you’ve given us since the mid-‘90s. Beyond thanks, we owe you stories about mission life and service in Taiwan, but being here today would be incomplete if we didn’t challenge you to mission in  this place.

More people die every year in Michigan from drug overdoses than from car accidents or firearms. Here where we’re sitting, near the intersection of Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties, we’re not immune to the effects of drug overdoses. An article in the Grand Haven Tribune 3 weeks ago quoted the Kent County Medical Examiner regarding a 67% increase in drug overdose deaths between 2016 and 2017, and he predicted a further rise once the 2018 statistics come in.

Do you know anyone around here who responds to reports about what’s happening in our society with fear? If you don’t, let me introduce myself to you. Char and I have just purchased a home in Ottawa County, so we’re neighbors now.

Beyond the drug crisis in this state, particularly in our local counties, there is poverty all around.   In Ottawa County 9.5% of the population lives below the poverty line. In Kent County the number is 12%. There are many reasons for poverty, some of which are related to economic trends, social structures, addiction issues and disability. If we are friends to people, we’ll see the situations and maybe have some understanding of particular ones. If we have no friends or neighbors living below the poverty line, maybe we need to widen our scope of acquaintances.

When the friends of a deaf man with a speech impediment saw his need and brought him to Jesus, our Lord met that man’s need, putting his fingers in the man’s ears and touched his tongue! There’s no doubt that man also needed to learn the good news of eternal salvation through faith, no doubt the crowd needed to hear that their sin was forgiven and that they had hope of new life through the filling of the Holy Spirit. Although the story we read testifies twice to the fellowship environment: 1) A GROUP of people brought the man, and 2) THEY testified to what Jesus did, BUT there’s nothing in the story about Jesus doing any preaching or education.

We offer fellowship here. We configure worship in both “traditional” and “contemporary” ways so that our friendship be shared more widely, and so that people can hear the word of God preached in a setting that helps them better to hear and participate. We offer education to children and adults. What a wonderful church! And we’re involved in mission! Our mission field includes people who need to find fellowship, people who need to be uplifted by worship, people who yearn to hear the word of God proclaimed, AND people who fear, people who have needs, and people who need to be listened to. That field is present in this building, in this neighborhood and in this town. As missionaries here, each of us needs to practice seeing the needs, listening to the testimonies, and responding to the fears of people around us.

The people who brought a deaf man to Jesus and watched as he was healed could not prevent themselves from zealously proclaiming what they had seen and heard.  We can be like them, if we’re not in bringing people to Jesus, then we can be like that crowd in Galilee by saying to our neighbors, “…whatever you may or may not believe, we can’t help but tell you about our Lord, Jesus Christ, who has done all things well!”

Conclusion

We are all called, and I commission you, to become involved in mission to “this world so loved by God”. The world is all around us. In this little corner called Coopersville it is particularly beautiful. Tell that good news, and the words we read from Isaiah this morning will be applicable:  “… the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

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

 

 

When You Come Home    

Ezekiel 2:1-5 and Mark 6:1-4

At home they have to take you in, but they don’t have to like it. You’re always welcome at God’s house.

Introduction:

On the front of our bulletin today, there’s a line from a poem. Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” It was written in about 1905 as part of a story about a farm laborer who had abandoned his job with one farmer at the busiest time of the year to go to work for someone else who could “pay him a little better.” The original employer had felt betrayed, and he promised himself that this laborer would never trick him again. But in the story he opens the door one winter night and finds that his wife has let the man into the kitchen, where he’s asleep by the stove.

The poem is the conversation between farmer and wife. She saw a man who was in need of warmth and shelter. The farmer saw only a man who had betrayed him. The laborer himself, he was asleep. By the end of the poem he died. He had seen the farmhouse as the place where he could die. He knew that they would take him in. They “had to”, because it was “home”. Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.”

Home can have a great attraction to us. But it’s not always a place where we may want to go. Sometime in the early 1980s I met a man who was at the height of his career. He was a pastor, Rev. James something-or-other, and he directed a student ministries center at a State university in the USA. I was just getting started in university student ministry at that time, so asked him about “career path” stuff. He told me that a few years previously, the church where he had grown up, in a middle- sized city, was looking for a pastor. In their search, they invited him to come and preach to them. He considered how it might be very nice to “go home again” and be their pastor. On the appointed day he arrived early, and as he walked along one hall in the church building he met an elderly woman who had been his Sunday school teacher when he was a child. “Oh Jimmy,” she said, “I’m so glad to see you, and I hope that you’ll come back here to be our pastor.” He said that hearing her speak in that way helped him to decide NOT to go there, because though he had grown up and become an adult to most of the people whom he served, he would always be a little boy in that community.

I   Ezekiel going to his own

Ezekiel didn’t have a choice. He was sent to be the prophet to people whom he didn’t choose. These people were the “nobles and high officials” of Judah, Ezekiel’s nation, who had been taken away from home to Babylon after their nation was defeated. They had been “in charge” during their nation’s decline, and they were taken away by the emperor of the conquering empire, in part, to keep them from leading a revolt.

Ezekiel was a priest. His inclusion in those who were carried away to Babylon is natural. His appointment by God to be a prophet is special. Priests and prophets, in that national history, did not necessarily get along. As a priest without a temple in which to do his “priestly work”, he was unemployed. As a prophet, who was to speak God’s word to everyone, his own people and the nations, he had a role. And his role was to speak. We read that in verse 4, God said, “I am sending you to tell them what I, the Sovereign Lord, am saying to them.”

So, he did it. He was sent to tell, but, as we read in verse 5, whether anyone listened, believed or acted on what he said was not his business. Success was not his assignment, speaking was. If the people would know nothing else, they would know that they had been visited by God’s prophet.

The fact that the “book of Ezekiel” exists at all is evidence that some became his disciples and preserved his teachings, but beyond their being preserved and then included in the Bible by later people, not much resulted from his work.

This is not an unusual kind of story in the Bible, that someone comes to a place where he or she might expect welcome and find, instead, indifference or rejection. It even happened to Jesus.

II   Jesus in Nazareth

We found Jesus going home, to that place where they had to take him in. Here at Tainan International Community Church over the past few months we’ve read a lot of stories from Mark’s gospel, and they have brought us to this point. Jesus has been doing his “teacher and healer” thing in other towns not far from where he grew up, and now he has come home.

He went first to the synagogue where, as an adult male, it was his privilege to speak. I imagine that it was like that campus minister whom I met in the 1980s. The hometown boy who had done well in other places and now has returned. At first people were happy to listen for anything he might say, or to be astonished for things he might do.

At first.

But then, like that “Rev. James Something-or-other” who was still “Jimmy” at his home church, the people reduced “Jesus” to “little Joshie”, and they began to take him down. First, they challenged his knowledge, because he certainly hadn’t spoken the kinds of things that were taught by THEIR Rabbi. Then they got after him for other reasons. He was “the carpenter” (not a craftsman, but merely a “tekton”, a technician who got his hands dirty). He was “Mary’s son” (implying that he was not doing his job to support his widowed mother). His brothers were there (doing what HE should be doing) and his sisters (unmarried women for whom he was supposed to find and provide husbands) were still among them.

Jesus came to people who “had to take him in”, but they didn’t have to like it. His own comment was that, a prophet is honored except at home and among his family. (do you notice that he has taken on the role of prophet?)  If we were to read on a verse or two, we’d find that he could do little there because nobody had the faith to accept him for who he was.

We’ve all got homes, don’t we? Will we be welcomed there? That is yet to be seen, isn’t it.

III   We’ll either go home again, or visit there from time to time.

Between 1945 and 1950 tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers were relocated to Taiwan involuntarily. Communication between Taiwan and China was governed by a system of “NO” for almost 40 years. In the late 1980s things began to loosen up a little, and eventually travel to China was permitted to anyone who could afford the ticket. In the early 90s, many of the “old soldiers” who were brought here, remained single here, and had no place to call home were wanting to go back.

When the Kaohsiung Fine Arts Museum opened in 1994, among its missions was “to collect and display local art.” In those early years there was on display a set of three life size wood sculptures entitled, “dreaming of home”. The figures were three old men dressed simply and holding or standing next to some simple luggage. Friends who had seen these sculptures remarked, as I did, “I’ve seen guys like that.”  These were the old mainlanders who wanted to go home again.  Many did, but many came back. The villages of China where some of them expected to find “home” again were no longer the places they had left in the 1940s. They discovered that their origins were there but beyond the money they carried, they weren’t necessarily valued among the relatives that they met. “Home” was in Taiwan now.

It used to be that schools in England offered many short technical and commercial training courses for students from commonwealth nations. It was not uncommon for someone from Pakistan or India to travel to the UK for a few months and come back with a certificate. When they tried to introduce or implement what they had learned, though, they often met remarks like, “Oh, that’s just something that you did on your course. We’re not doing it that way here.”

In many places around the world, women have been moving into the leadership of educational, commercial, governmental and industrial organizations. But what often happens is that though they are respected and powerful at work, they are still the ones who manage the household and see to their children’s education and nurturing needs. When it comes time for either a woman or her husband to leave professional life because a parent is aged and needs care, it’s more often the woman who has to quit.

Ezekiel was sent to his people as nothing less than the voice of God. It didn’t matter to those people. He didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear, so they didn’t listen to him. Jesus came home with the reputation of a healer, miracle worker and brilliant preacher behind him. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t doing what “a nice boy from our little town” was supposed to do. They had no faith in him.

Conclusion

Sisters and brothers, we all come from homes, and many of us look forward to the day when we can return there and find the comfort we once knew along with the respect we hope that we have earned while away. We may get both. We may not. We may need to carve out for ourselves an “alternative home” where we will ALWAYS be welcomed. That “home” may be physical, but it MUST be spiritual

Char and I have received Taiwan citizenship, and our passports will be posted to us sometime in the coming week. If things don’t work out where we’re headed next, we have an alternative physical home. But that’s relatively unimportant compared to the need, that all of us have, of a home for our spirits, which is what God offers us.

There’s a church song that I learned as a child, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”. It’s not about this “home for the spirit”, but does have one line that applies, “The arm of flesh will fail you, you dare not trust your own.” Whatever “homes” we build for ourselves are only temporary.   God invites us every day to put our trust in him, and make our spiritual homes with him eternally. If you’d like to do that, I’d love to talk with you. Any time, any place. Let’s make a date.

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

 

Pressed on Every Side

Lamentations 3:22-33 and Mark 5:21-24

Look for new mercy from God in all situations

Introduction

I seem to be stuck in a time trap. Last week I began by referring to a popular song from 1979, and this week with a novel from 1979. The author is Timothy Mo, from Hong Kong, and the novel, his first, is The Monkey King.

The story is set in Macau in the years following the second world war. There’s a young man whose only asset is a Portuguese name (obtained from a distant ancestor but carrying the feeling of privilege in that colony.) He marries into what he thinks is an “old money” Cantonese family, which has properties and businesses. He learns that the only property remaining to them is their ancient mansion. Everything else has been sold or mortgaged, and the businesses are failing. When he meets the eldest male in the family, he notices stacks of newspapers filling the room where the old man drinks tea, smokes and reads. Grandfather throws nothing away. When he finishes a newspaper, he places it on the top if the nearest stack. Though the room is large, there’s no space in it to move about. Anyone who enters is “pressed on every side.” If you choose to read the novel, you’ll find out about this young man’s adventures, how he eventually becomes the head of the family, and how he inherits the house and newspapers in it. (here’s a hint, though, he doesn’t clean things out).

The picture of a person pressed on every side describes Jesus, as we found him in Mark 5 this afternoon. He was going somewhere, but as he walked he was crowded on every side by people. The picture also describes the poetic verses that we read from Lamentations. These were words of hope sandwiched in between words of desperation. With those two bits of scripture in mind, we have sandwiches on the bulletin and the screen today. I hope it becomes obvious why.

I  Lamentations as a sandwich book

“Lamentations” goes by the title “The Lamentations of Jeremiah” in many Bibles. That’s half right. It consists of five sad poems, “laments.” But they are not likely to have been written by the prophet Jeremiah. The tradition that he wrote them comes from the kind of Judaism that was common at around the time of Jesus. It’s said that, when Rabbis were discussing which materials belonged in their Bible and which didn’t, they were feeling sad because Jerusalem and the temple in it had recently been destroyed by the government of Rome. They wanted these poems in their bibles to use in worship. By declaring that they had been written by Jeremiah, they were “qualified” to be included.

The book has a very interesting structure. The first poem is about the sad condition of the city of Jerusalem, which has been destroyed, and the sad condition of the nation, which no longer existed. The second and fourth poems are about the people of that city and that nation, and how miserable they were. The middle poem is by an individual person, complaining about his own misery. And at the center of that middle poem we find the verses we read today, about hope. The people who assembled Lamentations, out of poems by different authors, arranged it in a way that helped them use their national history (of the first time their nation and temple were destroyed by an empire) to reflect on the second time that they were destroyed.

The structure also helps us to think about and consider our own lives. We are often pressed on every side. If, at the center of who we are, there’s a relationship to God, then we have hope of making it through. The poetry reminds us that God’s steadfast love never changes, and God’s mercies never come to an end. If we can trust in that, hold onto that “core” of our faith and life, then we’ll have a way through the hard parts.

II Don’t forget the filling in the sandwich

From the New Testament we only read the first part of the story of Jesus healing a little girl. Her father was the leader of a synagogue, (not the typical kind of person who would bother asking Jesus for favors because Jesus broke synagogue rules all the time. But out of love for his daughter, this man humbled himself and asked. In a “sandwich pattern” this is the first slice of bread. The story gets interrupted by what’s in the middle of the sandwich, a story of a woman needing healing. She gets the healing, and Jesus praises her for her faith. But that’s followed by the other slice of bread in the story. Jesus and the synagogue leader get to the place where the girl is and hear that she’s already dead.

The point is, the faith, demonstrated by the woman in the “story in the middle of the sandwich” is what turns this other “disaster” into victory. Jesus told the man and his wife not to be afraid. They were to continue believing. They did, and the girl lived.

When you look at a sandwich, like the ones on the screen, what you see mostly is bread. That’s as it should be. The tradition about sandwiches is that they were invented by a British nobleman, the Earl of Sandwich. He liked to play cards. He didn’t want to put them down while he ate, so he put some meat and other things between two slices of bread, enabling him to hold his cards in one hand and his food in the other.

When we look at Lamentations, we see the complaints, the sadness, the despair. It’s kind of like beginning to read Bible books that begin with long lists of names. Sometimes we give up and skip on to the interesting bits. Sometimes we give up entirely. That’s very understandable. Chapter 1 of Lamentations is about how a city was ruined. Chapter two continues with how a people have experienced sadness and despair. The writers say that the city’s leaders and people were to blame for their sad condition, but they also complain that God didn’t do the “saving part” to rescue them from themselves and the foreign destroyers. Chapter three gets more personal.  I tell you, after so much of this stuff, I give up too.

So, skip on ahead to chapter 3, verses 22 to 33, which we read today. This is the filling of the sandwich, the really, good part. Steadfast love that never changes. Mercies that are renewed regularly, as often as daily. When life is like the tasteless part of a sandwich that just keeps our hands from getting messy, we need to focus on what is at the center.  In the Jesus story from the New Testament, the center was faith. In Lamentations, it is hope and love.

III Us looking for the mercy to be renewed

Of course, a “sandwich” is not the only way to see a pattern in our lives. Sometimes we might see things as an ascending line: “Every day in every way we get a little better, hey!”  Sometimes we may feel we’re on a downward slope, “If it’s not one thing, it’s two, or three.”  Another way to look at life is as a spiral, “round and round and round it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows.” If it weren’t for the “sandwich” analogy that we’re using today (forced upon us by the Lamentations text), I’d generally think that life was like a wave form, “sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down”.

All kinds of things press us on many sides. Sometimes what’s on one side of our “sandwich” is different from what’s on the other side. Sometimes the same thing presses us from two directions. Consider for a minute the arrangements we might have with family. We are supposed to love everyone, and they are supposed to love us, unconditionally. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes family “honor” presses from one side and family “expectations” on the other. If we can keep love and hope at the center, and we may be better able to make it through these tough times.

Academic life can press us almost beyond our ability to endure. (I can personally testify to that because I dropped out of a doctoral program 11 years ago.)  We may be pushing for the top degree because of a sense of “having to” get there, or because, having begun, it would be shameful to quit or to change to something else. Knowing the reasons why we study, knowing whether or not this is: 1) a calling from God; or 2) a pressure from the devil; or 3) personal ambition; or 4)for the sake of some other person’s honor    may help us see the light at the middle.

Religion is often a breaking point for people. It obligates us to follow rules and tells us that complaining about the rules is “not proper conduct toward God.” In those cases, “God” becomes the oppressor. When your religion oppresses you, it’s time to re-envision God as the one who loves steadfastly, who renews mercies every morning, and to hope in God for the salvation of the world.

Conclusion

For today, though, consider life as like a sandwich. Maybe, if you’re from Taiwan, you would do better to consider life to be like a Bau-tze or a Chang-hwa Meatball. What you see with your eyes is not what’s at the center of things. In life, God’s love is at the center. Look for it, hope in it, and trust in it.

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

Refugees, One and All  

Psalm 9:9-12 and Mark 4:35-41

 

Introduction

Forty years ago, a Rock and Roll band in the USA released a hit song, “You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee.” Lots has been written about the music in the song and the process of recording and releasing it. Some has been written about the meaning of the song’s words, including one opinion that it’s about how “you don’t have to live your life running away from something.” Well, lots of people in our world DO live their lives running away from something.

In Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims run away from their nation’s military, who say that Muslims have no place in a Buddhist nation.

In China, Uighur Muslims in the Northwest are herded into “re-education camps” where they are abused and indoctrinated in how to become less “Turkic” and more “Han.” (which may well involve giving up their religion).

In Kenya, over 200,000 refugees from Somalia’s turmoil and natural disasters wait for things to get better so they can go home. Those camps have been operating since the 1990s.

In Europe, reaction to the number of refugees arriving from Africa and the Middle East has propelled racist politicians to centers of power and threatens to topple governments that have been stable for decades.

In South America, 37,000 refugees left Venezuela every day last month because of the economic and political disasters that characterize that nation.

Australia’s record is mixed. Last year it accepted more refugees than it had in any year since the 1980s, but still there are thousands of people who attempted to get in and were shipped to “Australian funded” camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, which are Australian client states.

The US Border incidents of the past months, in which children were separated from their parents and everyone was treated like criminals, are yet another cruel manifestation of the same cultural dynamic.  “We won’t let you live like a refugee, because you should never have left home in the first place.”

I  Fear and Refugee Status  (Mark 4:35-41)

People become refugees for mixed reasons. Often, fear is part of the mix. Since 1951 the United Nations has defined a refugee as: “someone who has left their country due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

We read a story from the gospel today which started kind of like a refugee story. A bunch of men got into a boat to cross a body of water. There were other boats, too. Then a storm blew up, making the men afraid. “…we are about to die.” OK, in the gospel story they weren’t refugees, they were travelers. But their fear of death was very real.

Death by violence: from war, from crime, from husbands or husbands’ families, motivates many people (women in particular) to become refugees.  Here in Taiwan, the existence and use of the 1955 hotline for foreign workers, and the 113 Women and Children Protection hotline for local people show that there are refugees from mistreatment, violence and fraud among us. Calling one or both of those hotlines in Taiwan is like the disciples in that boat waking Jesus with “…we are about to die.”

Whatever the storm may be in one’s life, whatever it is that has caused any person to seek refuge, calling on gods is a natural thing to do. There’s another “boat in a storm” story in the Bible. It’s about Jonah, who, like Jesus, slept while others on the boat feared for their lives in a storm. In their fear, they called on their gods. They woke Jonah and urged him to call on his god, too.

II Taking Refuge in God  (Psalm 9:9-10)

People who fear that they will die, like those disciples in the boat with Jesus and the sailors on the boat with Jonah, call on gods. Soldiers in battle have been known to make promises to God as they bargain to come through alive. When I was a child, the adults around me included many veterans of the second world war. The expression “foxhole conversion” (meaning a sudden belief in God brought on while hiding in a battle position under attack) was common. “O God, save me from this and I’ll serve you forever” is a promise easily made, and often forgotten. I don’t think God holds people to it, though.

The psalm we read speaks to a different “refugee related” role for God, who is described as a “refuge for the oppressed,” and “a place of safety in times of trouble.” We must be careful not to equate “God” as a place of refuge and safety with “the church and its ministers” as places of refuge and safety. In May an Australian Cardinal Archbishop was forced to step down for covering up sexual abuse by clergy when he was a local bishop. Just last week a retired archbishop in the USA had to resign because of his personal abuse of a teenager when he was a young priest decades ago. This kind of abuse is not particular to Roman Catholics.

The organization, GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) has revealed frightening levels of sexual abuse in Protestant churches and church organizations. It has found a “… common thread of institutional protection at the expense of the individual.” Some church leaders fear that news of abuse will stain their institution’s or their personal reputation. They often say, however, that the reputation at stake is that of “Jesus.”

The leader of the GRACE organization tells of encountering sex abuse survivors in tears, who have told him that they can’t pray to God because the man who abused them was praying when he abused them, or he was reading scripture while he was raping them.

To quote the bible to someone who has been abused in a “Christian environment” where they had been led to expect refuge from oppression and safety is like ringing a meaningless bell. We are called to loving listening and active response.

Verse 12 of the psalm asserts that: 1) God has heard the cries of the oppressed; 2) remembers the oppressed; and 3) punishes those who do the wrong. What we and the oppressed themselves wish for is visible evidence of that happening.

III  Taking Notice to those who are threatened around us

It’s often said, too easily, that our eyes are God’s eyes in this world, our ears are God’s ears, and our hands are God’s hands. If we count ourselves among the believers in this world, it’s our job to see, hear and act. We are given the task of making God’s response visible.

In the cases of refugees who have fled disaster and violence, we need to look at the situations they have left, not just at the people who come off of the boats or show up at the borders. We are asked to SEE what they’ve fled.

In the cases of refugees who have arrived at borders and refugee resettlement camps, we have to listen to them tell their stories. We need to HEAR what they tell us about their own fears and the dangers of their travels to the places where they have come to take refuge. Often, as in Greece, Italy, Spain and Malta, they’ve been at peril on land and on sea. Saying “peace, be still” is of NO help at all when we refuse to listen.

In the cases of refugees around the world, and especially of those who in some way contact the many places which we call home, we need to advocate action on the part of organizations and governments that make a way for people to have safety. Taiwan could well become a place of refuge. Buildings and schools stand empty. The economy needs workers. Farmland is fallow. Where are the refugees?

If standing for refugees means that some of us link arms and stand in front of police and soldiers who are enforce something unjust, then we are called to take that kind of action.

Conclusion

In sum, if we determine that we will live as people of God, then we are to stand with the refugees, wherever and whenever they are oppressed. Standing with them, in the face of whatever arguments are made FOR oppression, even (and especially) when those arguments are “scripture based”, puts us with Jesus, who turned to wind and wave, saying, “Peace, be still.” It means standing with God, who hears and doesn’t forget the cries of all who call for safety.

Where do you stand? In response to the Rock and Roll song from 1979 that asserted “you don’t have to live like a refugee”, Christians must say, “maybe you don’t, but we do, because Christ is among the refugees, and we have aligned ourselves with him.”

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

Let Now Thy Servant Depart in Peace 

(In Taiwanese at the Tainan Theological College June 2018 Graduation Ceremony)

Luke 2: 29-32

Introduction:

Thank you, Dr. Wong, and everyone else here for allowing me to stand in this pulpit on this day. Though I still have a few more sermons to preach before leaving Taiwan, this is my final one at Tainan Theological College. The expression in English is, “I’m outta here.”

So, “Lord, now according to your word, allow your servant to depart in peace.”

I: Simeon Could Depart in Peace

When we grow older, as Simeon had, letting go of things is more and more common. Our Tainan Theological College visiting professor a few years ago told of how, after raising four children, he had his wife had step by step moved to smaller and smaller houses until they retired, reducing their possessions along the way. Even so, they still had many things remaining to them.

Simeon, no doubt, still retained several things, including which was God’s promise to him, that he would not die until he had seen God’s Messiah. The promise was enough. He had no details. He would know the Messiah when he saw him. He probably did not expect a baby.

But when he met Jesus on the day that Joseph and Mary brought him to the temple to present him to the Lord, Simeon knew that the promise had been fulfilled.

He knew it was time to go, and he welcomed it “in peace”. We don’t know what he expected upon that departure, but he willingly went to the God whom he trusted. And trusting God who keeps promises, he needed nothing more.

Simeon’s words to God were not just about departing, like going home after a day of work at the temple, he was ready to depart the world. I’m not quite that far along.

II: I can Depart in Peace

My own time to depart from Taiwan is at hand. Those who have served in the military will understand, “there remain only 41 pieces of mantou to me.”

Although I go, it is not because I have seen God’s promise fulfilled, but because God who has always proven trustworthy has shown me a bit of the future in you graduates who sit before me.

I go because my time has come. I’m already 66 years old, and I’ve given as much as is in me to give in Taiwan. I go because there are many capable younger teachers, pastors and theological educators who can occupy my spots at this school and in Taiwan’s church. I should not be occupying THEIR space.

I have a privilege that Simeon didn’t have. I know where I’m going from here. It’s not back to the place where I was born, but to the area where my wife was born. We go there to do something that I’d never imagined before I came to Taiwan… we will accompany an aged parent… something that you may have heard Americans don’t do. But I learned here in Taiwan that this is a right and good thing to do. Thank you for teaching me.  When I get there, I hope to make new friends and learn new things.

Simeon went into an unknown, I go to a known. But these are not the only departures we mark today. After all, it’s graduation day.

III: To the Graduates: Depart in Peace

I recommend to all of you who graduate today that you, like Simeon, look for the signs that it is time for you to depart in peace. It doesn’t matter if you’ve spent one, two, three, four or as many as seven years as part of this community. If it’s your time to depart, you should go, and do so in peace. Go to wherever God calls you to go, if lot is drawn to a remote place or a struggling city church, go there. If you leave this school carrying a diploma to go to a social service agency or to another school, go there. If you leave here to go to a different country where you’ll have to learn a new language to serve, go there!

Go there in service of God. Go there to make new friends (don’t forget to make new friends).  Go there to learn new things. Go in peace. Do not forget that you were part of this community, and that to the end of your lives you remain part of this community. Especially remember that every year in March when someone comes to your church asking for money. Become members of your new communities. Enrich them with how this place has formed you.

Conclusion

All of us: not just graduating students; or old folks who have come to the end of our careers; or prophets from the Bible (like Simeon and others); have to know when and how to let go, how to move on, how to depart. God who is trustworthy stands ahead of us. God’s promise to our parents and teachers has been fulfilled. God’s promises to us are being fulfilled every day. God stands before us, ready to receive us wherever we go next.

Let us sing with gladness, let us dance with gladness.

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

(Response Hymn: “Let Us Sing With Gladness”)

Let us sing with gladness Ho-lak-ki-ma  Let us dance with gladness, Ka-la-u-a-he.

Let us sing with gladness. Let us dance with gladness Ho-lak-ki-ma, Ka-la-u-a-he

Let us praise the Lord God Ho-lak-ki-ma Offer thanks unceasing Ka-la-u-a-he

Let us praise the Lord God, offer thanks unceasing. Ho-lak-ki-ma, Ka-la-u-a-he

Let us trust God always Ho-lak-ki-ma Live in hope all our days. Ka-la-u-a-he

Let us trust God always, live in hope all our days. Ho-lak-ki-ma , Ka-la-u-a-he

Let us spread the gospel, Ho-lak-ki-ma Follow Jesus’ true light, Ka-la-u-a-he

Let us spread the gospel, follow Jesus’ true light. Ho-lak-ki-ma, Ka-la-u-a-he

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QMM-iH479U

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjJ85SQNFdQ

Renewed, by God!

Ezekiel 17:22-24 and II Corinthians 5:14-17   17th June 2018

Introduction

There’s a kind of long-legged bird called a crane. That’s the same word as is used for the piece of construction equipment that lifts heavy things up high. In the 1980s someone suggested that the national bird of Singapore should be the “Yellow Construction Crane”, because so many buildings were going up there. A few years ago, riding Taiwan’s high-speed train through Taichung, I got the feeling that the yellow construction crane might be the city bird of Taichung.

Sometimes new things are made, not by building up from the ground, but by doing new things with something old. If most of a building is renewed, it might be called “reconstruction”. If several things are being “fixed” (rather than replaced), it can be called, “Rehabilitation.”  This word is also used with human lives. People who have had heart surgery take several months of rehabilitation therapy, as do people who have had their knees replaced. People who have been addicted to alcohol or narcotics may go through months of residential rehabilitation programs to figure out why they have become dependent on their “drugs of choice” and how to correct those conditions in order to remain sober and drug free afterwards.

One of the most common rehabilitation programs for addicts comes with the word “Anonymous” in its title: Alcoholics Anonymous; Narcotics Anonymous; Overeaters Anonymous. Sometimes these programs are called “12 step” because of the method used. It was devised, or “created” sometime around 1940, in an age of greater religious faith than we live in today. Five of the original 12 steps mentioned “God” or “A power greater than ourselves.” Over recent decades, as people without a belief in God have become more and more involved in the movement and groups, mentions of God were “edited back”. Because the aim of the movement is to free people from addictions, and not to do a lot of God talk, I think that God, as I understand God, probably doesn’t mind being not being mentioned so much so long as people are being set free and lives are being rehabilitated.

I Breakdown is of Human Origin, Restoration of Divine (Ezekiel 17:11-21 and 22-24)

Because the book of Ezekiel is such a strange part of the Bible, we need to do a little bit of explanation ABOUT it before anything can be said FROM it.  The setting is among a group of people in exile from their homeland after their nation collapsed, in part because of bad leadership and in part because of strong enemies. The nation’s “best people” had been taken away as exiles to the center of the imperial enemy that defeated them, and everyone else was left behind under the leadership of someone set up by the emperor to manage things. That manager broke faith with the emperor, so those left behind were in even WORSE condition than when their original leaders were taken away.

We read the encouraging part from chapter 17, (verses 22-24). But to understand that we first need to consider the 11 verses that precede them. From verse 11 to verse 21, the prophet wrote that these people’s condition was brought to them because of their own failures.

Ezekiel encouraged the folks living in exile to settle down there and cooperate with the emperor. He was against rebellion of any kind. In verses 18 to 21, his message, set as “God is talking here”, condemned the manager whom the emperor had set up and all of the people who served him to die by the sword, because they couldn’t keep their promises.

Then he turned to the people living in exile with a poem.  The verses we read today are about restoration. The symbol is a beautiful tree growing on the mountains. It’s fruitful and welcoming. It symbolizes restoration coming from God, who makes the low tree high and the dry tree green.

In life we meet many disappointments and defeats. We can live looking backwards, finding people to blame when we’ve been disappointed, finding things wrong with ourselves and our performance when we’ve been defeated. Many of us live that way. What this poem about the cedar tree offers us is an image of what we can look for when we trust God for our restoration.

II Christ Broke Something Old to create Something New (II Cor 5:14 & 17)

Looking for pictures to use on the screen and in the bulletin this week, I used the key word, “rehabilitation”.  From what came up, I chose butterflies, which you see on the bulletin. But among the many things that Microsoft suggested was a piece of equipment used for destroying old buildings. That fits well with where we go in the New Testament.

At the very beginning of what we read, verse 14, we were told that Christ got broken. He died. There is no “polite” language here. Dead!  That’s about as broken as you can get. He, one guy, died so that “all” might be recreated.

Why him? That gets us into all kinds of theology, which is better presented in a classroom or in private conversations than in church during worship. But the question needs to be answered, so I’ll try in a very few words. Christian belief, like many other faiths, says that sins must be punished. (Islam is big on this, too.) Based on religious traditions going way back in time, and common to many religions, a blood sacrifice for sins is required. The difference of Christian belief is the idea that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life. So, because he didn’t have to die for any of his own wrongdoing, his death could be for everyone’s sin. He died, and our sin was accounted to him. So now, in terms of any debt we might owe God for being less than perfect, we’re free!

That’s where we come the good news in verse 17, that being “in Christ”, we are new creations, free of whatever could separate us from God.

These verses about “the old being gone and the everything being new” are sometimes misused. A person who has done terrible things, being renewed in Christ, (hallelujah!), may still have debts to pay to people and society.  One cannot say, “Yes, I borrowed money from you before I was renewed in Christ, but now old things are past and gone, and I owe you nothing.” These kinds of things especially apply if a person claims exemption from being punished for sexual harassment or maltreatment because “that happened before I knew Jesus.”  Any human forgiveness going forward requires sincere repentance of and possibly painful restorative justice regarding events of the past. We can’t use “my new life in Christ” (now being in a right relationship with God) as a “get out of jail free” pass in connection to our relationship to society and people.

III  The Life of the Restored

A new creation! This is a wonderful promise. It’s also one of those places where we can become very disappointed.

If we think that we can do it ourselves, the story from Ezekiel stands as a warning, we read the happy part about God planting a wonderful tree, but that followed the terrible part about the broken-down faithless nation. Compare this to a building getting “rehabilitated.” It takes more than putting a fresh coat of paint onto a wall that really needs to be torn down and replaced, we will be disappointed. New Creation is work!

There’s a totally sleazy American man who has been exploiting and abusing women by publishing pornography for decades. I won’t waste your time by mentioning his name here. In 1977, in a legal battle that could send him to jail, he claimed that he had become an Evangelical Christian, brought to Jesus by an evangelist who was the sister of the president of the United States. His “conversion” to Christianity appears to have been all a lie to get attention. He never stopped his pornography business.  The promise of “New Life in Christ” apparently did not apply in his case.

Ezekiel’s poetry of a new tree on the mountain top contains some wisdom, trees don’t grow overnight. New creation is a process. We’re all on a journey, sometimes it feels like climbing a steep hill.  Give yourself time.

Conclusion: A Call to Recreated Life.

The “….Anonymous” 12-step programs are not instant. The 12 steps take a lot of time, and the groups are always open to people who have failed and had to start over again.

The prophet’s poem suggested that we allow God to do the work of replanting and re-growing us into new life. St. Paul’s words to the Christians at Corinth so long ago, and to us now, encourage us to root our transformations in the work of Christ for us.

Spiritual “new creation” may be instant. It might not be, too. Spiritually, we need to give God time to work on us, and ourselves time to work on the relationship with God. When we seek to be new creations in our emotional, physical and social lives, we KNOW that we’re going to have to work and take time.  It’s not a matter of “I started exercising three weeks ago, but I’m still overweight.”  Exercise is for our health and strength. If it’s going to have a weight-loss result, that will take time. Being a new creation in Christ begins with trust in God to do the work, but also in a commitment to work WITH God as we’re changed.

Be a new creation. Be one of whom it can be said, “all is new”.

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

 

We Do NOT Lose Heart   

Psalm 130 and II Corinthians 4:1-6    10 June

When life stands up against us, we who trust in God do not lose heart.

Introduction

On May 1st, one of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic partner nations, the Dominican Republic, broke relations and moved its embassy to China. This past month has also seen 18 international airlines, including one from Canada and one from Australia, begin to list Taiwan as “Taiwan (China) on their web sites.

Other nations with diplomatic ties to Taiwan have “switched over” to China this Spring, too. Some people here have lost heart. But don’t know upon whom to call.

When we’re children and something bad happens, often the first word out of our mouths is to call, “Mommy…..”  Even as adults we may wish to call that from time to time. Even nations….

I Losing Heart in Psalm 130

Psalm 130, which we read and sang this afternoon, starts “in the depths” and rises. It’s known as one of the Bible’s 15 “songs of ascent”. Some scholars say these were sung by pilgrims coming from somewhere else as they “ascended to the temple” in Jerusalem to worship God. Other scholars think they were used by the Temple choir to welcome the pilgrims up the staircase. And others, who like to count things, note that there are 15 psalms of ascent, and there were 15 stairs leading up to the temple court, so each psalm was for a different step.

With that kind of disagreement about the purpose of the poem, let’s just skip to its content. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!…” The poet cries out as a sinner seeking to be forgiven.

But sinners wanting to be forgiven are not the only people who cry. Today we hear much more from people who have been sinned against, and who seek rescue from those who oppress them, or who seek relief from the conditions in which the oppressors have left them. For example: we hear the cries of the victims of physical violence and war around the world, in Yemen, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Myanmar, and in the Southern Philippines.  These cries are mostly ignored by those who can do something about the situation. OR we hear the cries of women of all races and classes who have been sexually abused and, upon reporting to police or the supervisors of the abusers, even to their pastors, have heard back that they should keep quiet or forgive. OR we hear these cries from refugees fleeing violent societies with their children, only to be sent to different “processing centers” after arriving at the border of the country they hoped would give them asylum. Or we hear this cry from young Africans who were abused on their trip north across the Sahara and risked their lives on rafts crossing the Mediterranean. Once they reach refugee centers in Southern Europe many find themselves turned into sex slaves. These people are in the depths.

For what they have endured, they ask relief. For what they have sinned, they ask forgiveness, and they wait. Psalm 130: 1-6 gives words to their cries.

Sometimes it’s nations that cry out for salvation. The Dominican Republic, which just broke relations with Taiwan, has had a difficult history. Almost as soon as it became independent from Spain in 1822, it was colonized by Haiti. Becoming independent of THAT empire in 1844, its first president stole everything he could. After 17 years, the next president invited Spain back. Eventually it became independent again, but only for 50 years, when America took over for almost a decade. Its past 94 years of independence were interrupted in 1965 by ANOTHER American invasion.

The writer of Psalm 130 turned from crying on his own behalf to God to urging his nation to look to God. Verses 7 and 8 recommend that the nation hope in God, the one who could redeem even a nation from all its sins. I don’t know if that kind of advice would be heard by many societies or nations today, because the context is different. I can’t even say that the people of Israel listened to it thousands of years ago. It stands here as a testimony to us of one poet, who had lost heart, but not hope, advising his people.

II Apostle & Team did NOT lose heart

We need to learn to listen to the cries of people who are in the depths. We NEED to listen. We may need to ACT. We definitely must accompany those who have been hurt.

St Paul and his “team” had established a church in Corinth, a busy city in the Roman Empire. But it was a problem church. The New Testament contains two letters, indisputably by Paul, to that church. Careful reading of these letters reveal that they were only PART of the correspondence between Paul and that church. The “two letters” may even be “three-plus.” It appears that after getting the church started, Paul and his team moved on too soon. The Corinthians could have used some more nourishment before being cut loose on their own.

But there were letters. One (which seems to have been lost) was a warning not to associate with “immoral Christians”. They responded to him (but that letter, too, is lost). Then he wrote “first Corinthians”, which refers to the lost letters. But writing didn’t clear up the problem, so he visited (not a friendly visit, either) after which he wrote again.  Then he sent Titus to visit, and after hearing a report, he wrote yet again.

It was a troubled and troublesome church. But what we read today was that, even with all that history, Paul and his team did not lose heart. They hoped in God’s call to them (verse 1) and in God’s purpose for them (verse 6). Knowing themselves as called by God with a goal in mind, they would continue in their evangelizing work.

III We (those of us here) Do not lose heart

For any of us, it would be very helpful to be so sure of God’s call (a past and present reality) and purpose (a future reality) in each of our situations, wouldn’t it? So let’s switch the “we” from St. Paul talking about himself and his team in THEIR situation to us in our own situations.

Life can stand against us, but we do not lose heart. For some people, family situations can force changes that they don’t want. A man I met 15 years ago was comfortably settled as an immigrant in America, a scholar with a good academic job. Then his father here in Taiwan was old, and the only option was to return here with his wife and two children. He took a faculty position at a National University, and rose to leadership of one of the colleges there.

Of course, it’s not always so smooth. Men and women around the world are often forced into marriages without their consent, all in the name of “family”. In Italy, the “other” Mafia (the ‘Ndrangheta) severely punishes “disloyalty” of daughters or sons.

Maybe here at Tainan International Community Church we are more familiar with the ways in which scholarly and research communities can stand against us. When we’ve already invested so much of our time and effort in pursuit of a degree we might find that the standards of our advisors and principal investigators are designed to benefit the teachers and the school and to use the students as low-paid labor.

And if it hasn’t already broken your heart at least once, romance may yet do it again. We don’t have to follow the news anywhere for too long before reading or hearing about someone who commits a terrible crime against a former lover, or who kills himself or herself over a lost romantic relationship.

Losing heart may threaten us from all sides. Our dreams may crash because life itself stands up against us. What the scriptures we read today recommend to us is that we look to God in all things, especially when life isn’t going well.

Conclusion

This afternoon I hope you’ll stay around after the blessing for a while, because with me sitting in a corner and keeping my mouth shut, some of the members of the church will be organizing us for the future. I’ll lead worship and preach here until July 22, but after that I’m on my way to retirement. My departure date from Taiwan is July 31. Sometimes people ask me who will come to replace me. That’s what you’ll be working on today, approving a “committee” to do that kind of search and arrangement work.

You might want to cry out, “Mommy…”, but I urge you to cry out to God. We’re not in the depths. We have time to think and work and especially to pray. Let’s not lose heart. Let’s do these things together: think; work; and pray. Let’s do them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN

Don’t, but Do

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and Mark 2:23-3:6

Introduction:

For 7 years I lived in Kaohsiung but worked in Tainan.  I rode the train between cities and took the bus in Kaohsiung. One afternoon on the bus a grandmother was holding a little girl, around one year old. The child was lively and curious. She wanted to touch everything. The grandmother scolded her, because these things were all “dirty” and not to be touched. The child learned something… “When with grandmother, touch nothing.” A healthy child is free from being hurt by “dirt”, but grandmother didn’t want anything unclean on this little one.

That’s similar to many other things. As children and teenagers we are told not to: 1) watch this kind of movie, 2) read that kind of book, 3) make those kinds of friends or 4) drink certain kinds of beverages. They are forbidden to us. Sometimes for good reasons, but other times just “because I said so.” Being forbidden, they become more attractive, because we, like infants, can be lively and curious at times.

There’s a common story of a mother teaching her son how to bake a ham, a large piece of salted pork.  When putting the ham into the pan for the oven, she first cut off the ends of it. The son asked why that was necessary, and the mother answered, “I think that it makes the ham taste better.” But she knew that she was just making up that reason. Talking with her OWN mother later that day, she asked why. She learned that it was what her mother had learned from HER mother. So, a call was made to the very OLD mother, and the question was, “Why do my mother and I cut the ends off of a ham when we bake it?” The old lady answered, “I don’t know why YOU do it, but long ago the pan I used wasn’t big enough for the ham, so I cut the ends off just to make it fit.”  Rules and commands like “Do this,” and “don’t do that” are often habits of families and cultures, but they can rise to religious importance.

And sometimes we associate ALL rules that restrict our freedom with religion. So, when we want to live more freely, we are forced to choose between freedom and faith. Many people choose freedom over religion. As religious as I am, I often don’t blame them.

I  Religious commands (Deuteronomy 5:12-17)

We read some verses from Deuteronomy today. They were about the Sabbath day and what people were and were not allowed to do on it. Like much of the Old Testament, Deuteronomy was not a “same time” historical record of what happened, but a much later writer’s imagined past. This one was composed around 620 BC by an anonymous writer who was longing for the “old times when everything was good”.  He wanted to “make his nation great again”, so wrote how he imagined things to have been long ago and framed it with a fiction that it was the great hero prophet Moses speaking to their ancestors centuries before.

One part of the teaching was that people were to keep a day of rest each week, which made them different from all the other nations around them.  It was basically there to promote “Protection of the nation from pollution and maintenance of distinction by means of practices, habits, language, DNA, and other stuff. (Marxists see it as protecting property rights.)  When 21st century politicians in Europe, America and Asia call for this kind of “make it great again”, they’re usually promoting racism in disguise.

The ordered day of rest each week can also be seen as a way of respecting working people, who in many class-based societies would be worked to death by the owners of land and capital. That kind of thing happens to some Japanese people in Japan; to migrant workers from the Philippines and India in the Arabian Gulf nations, and to migrant workers from Indonesia here in Taiwan, doesn’t it? The rule could be useful.

Rules also get “modified” when that works to the advantage of those who make and enforce them. When I was a kid, although both my father and my mother smoked cigarettes, I was told at church that smoking was against Christianity. At our church, next to the door nearest the church parking lot, there was a container of sand.  It was there to give smoking adults could put out their cigarettes before coming inside. Many of us kids who were being taught to be “good Christians” had parents who smoked. So the rule was “modified.” Smoking was against God’s rules for Christian young people, but not for Christian parents. I’m surprised how easily I believed that lie, but I’m glad that I did. It kept me from starting to smoke as a young man. Even though the “rule” was a lie, it was a blessing to me. (Lots of research has shown that the younger people are when they develop a smoking habit, the harder it is for them to quit, even when the tobacco is killing them.)

Rules against actions, words or even thoughts are common in many religions. It’s probably not hard for any of us to think up an example or two from our own or someone else’s beliefs.

II VIOLATION OF THE RULES

Sometimes a rule against an act, or way of speaking, or kind of thinking, no matter if it started for legal, moral, health or religious reasons, is the act of someone with power who wants to control us. And even if it may bring some sort of blessing, it’s no easier to follow.

Sometimes EVERYONE forgets how the rule got started, and we follow it blindly, and hate those who break it.

We also read a story of Jesus and his disciples going somewhere on the Sabbath day. (Depending on how far they were going, they may have been breaking the rules, because there was also a rule about how far a person could walk on the day of rest.)

As they went through a field of wheat, some disciples casually plucked some grains, rolled them in their hands to remove the outside, and ate the good parts.They wanted a snack. Apparently taking a few grains from the farmer’s crop was allowed. BUT, some religious rule enforcers found a problem. They told Jesus that his disciples were working on the sabbath, and that showed that Jesus, the teacher, must not be very good. So Jesus taught them a Bible lesson, from a book they knew well, about a king whom they held in high regard. They wanted to talk about a broken rule, and Jesus told them that the rule was not as important as human need.

The author of Mark followed this story with another one about the Sabbath day (on which, we read from Deuteronomy, very little was allowed). This one seems like a setup. It was the sabbath, they were in the “religious education location” and Jesus was present. A man in need was put in front of him, and he acted for the good of that needy person. That drove the rule-keepers so crazy that they began to work with their rivals to stop this new guy.

What we learn from Jesus is that the rules are breakable when there is a greater need. I know an elderly woman who, for religious reasons, does not drink any alcohol. She has lived her entire life not drinking alcohol. Even the churches she has attended all her life use grape juice, not grape wine, at the Lord’s supper. BUT, she tells a story of once, when she was a sick child, her father gave her a spoonful of whisky as medicine. It helped her to sleep. Alcohol was prohibited to her for both religious and health reasons (you don’t give liquor to children) but because her need was greater. The rules didn’t apply.

III  What to DO that shows distinctiveness, respect and blessing

We must consider the rules we follow unconsciously, and the performance we demand of ourselves and others, in the lights of the love of Christ, the reasons for the rules, and what applies to the circumstances we’re in.

In the 1950s a Japanese university student was attracted to a group of Christians at his school. As he learned about their beliefs, he mentioned to another student that he might like to become a Christian. The student recommended that he speak to the foreign missionary who was the group’s spiritual leader. In the conversation they had, this missionary told him that upon becoming a Christian, he would have to promise never to smoke tobacco, drink alcohol, or do many other things that were common practices among his “not-yet-Christian” classmates. He told her that he would think about it. Decades later, with a doctorate in Education and a teaching position at a large American university, he was still thinking about it. The “Christian rules” that one foreign person wanted to make him follow, kept him from fellowship with the people he wanted to join. Thankfully, those rules do not keep God away from any seeker. God reaches around them into human hearts.

The distinctiveness, respect and blessing by which followers of Jesus are called to live cannot be reduced to a set of rules. It doesn’t matter if that set of rules is “Don’t do these things”, or “You MUST do these things.” If there is any distinctiveness at all between a follower-of-Jesus and a “not-yet-follower-of-Jesus”, it should be seen in the way love is extended and accepted.  If there is any “respect” that flows from being a “follower-of-Jesus”, it should be respect for persons (rather than for rank or position). If there is any blessing that flows from being a “follower-of-Jesus”, it is a blessing for all people and for all that God has created, not something that is hoarded for any particular kind of people.

CONCLUSION  Suggestions for living in Taiwan

Our obedience to Christ, and our compassion for all that God has created, become vehicles that carry God’s blessings to everyone. If our obedience blocks compassion, we’re obeying the wrong things.

Living here in Taiwan, we have the opportunity to bless people around the world. No government censor threatens our freedom to use the internet to send encouraging words to anyone. No government inspector reads the letters and cards of blessing that we write, address and stamp before dropping them in the mailbox. No National Security Administration listens to the expressions of love and encouragement that we send to people in need.  And, after we’ve paid our taxes, no government agency dictates how we give gifts of love and charity to people in need.

But, DO we extend those blessings? Being free to, we might not. Having smart phones, we may not even know HOW to send a physical letter, or even the postal address of another lonely international student somewhere else in this country. And if we’re living internationally in Taiwan for a few years, we might know others who are living internationally in other countries, too.  A letter with a Taiwan stamp on it may be the blessing they most need now.

That’s just a small thing. Start there and work on to bigger things. The important things are that we don’t ignore people, and that we do pay attention, sharing the blessings of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, AMEN

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