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

 

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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

Listen Until You Can Hear, then Continue.

Isaiah 6:1-8

Introduction

Another week, another prophet, another location, another vision. Last week we read about Ezekiel seeing bones in a valley in Babylonia. This week, we read about Isaiah seeing Angels and God in a temple in Jerusalem.

Remember that it’s visions that were being seen, not events that were happening. Perhaps for that reason in these visions, as in the stories that Jesus told, there is more meaning in it than any “factual events” can carry.

Transition

In both Ezekiel’s vision (last week) and Isaiah’s vision (today), a person hears directly from God. As thrilling as this is, it’s kind of scary. Mental health facilities and prisons around the world are filled with people who regularly hear voices, that they believe are from God, and then go act on them. Just two weeks ago a family in Surubaya, Indonesia, acted on what they believed they had heard from God, and bombed some churches. Several people died. Many of the violent mass murder incidents in America in the past 20 years have been done by people who believed they were acting on God’s instructions. There are these kinds of people in all countries, but in America they can easily get guns to use as they “obey.”

All of us need to pay attention to the voices we hear.  We must evaluate what we believe we are hearing (whether we hear anything at all), and judge our possible responses by standards that move us to noble and helpful action. Nobility and helpfulness are NEVER found in murder and terrorism.

I  The angels voices: praising

In Isaiah’s vision he saw many things. First, he saw the Lord. Then, he saw the Lord’s position (high and lifted up) and then the Lord’s clothing, which filled a place (the temple). Then he saw smoke. AND… he saw angels.  They were a particular kind of angel… the kind with six wings (a feature which elsewhere in the bible is only found describing mythological snakes and scorpions).

When we “hear” what these angels say, there are two messages: the first is “Praise God.” We hear them praising God for being Holy (which here means totally, utterly, different from human beings or creation.)

That can be a difficult lesson for many of us human beings. We tend to imagine God to be much like ourselves. Even in the Bible we find mentions of God’s hand, God’s finger, God’s eyes, God’s ears, even God’s nostrils! And we go on to credit God with having thoughts and emotions like humans. God loves, God hates, God likes, God dislikes, God gets his feelings hurt, God grieves, and so on. Because Christianity, Islam and Judaism all say that God is not material, but spirit, we try to avoid making pictures of God (but that is often violated). Other religions, including Taiwan Folk Religion all around us and Hinduism, are happy to paint pictures of the Gods.

Nature religions uphold creation itself as divine. A Christian friend of mine, who mixed his Christianity with traditional nature religion, once said (and I had to translate) “Nature is God”. (I was tempted to translate, “he says, nature is God.”)

The angels praised God for being Holy, totally different from creation. We do well to remember what they said.

The second message was spoken not by all of the seraphs, but by an individual one, and was is of comfort: That angel told Isaiah two things: “your guilt has departed”; and “your sin is blotted out.” This is, indeed, good news. It is something we try to do each week here at Tainan International Community Church. We “remind each other of God’s love”, and rather than you sitting quietly while I get the privilege of sounding angelic, we all say it to each other.

If this is going to be of any use to us, we need to take the story out of the original setting of a vision seen by a prophet in Jerusalem thousands of years ago. We need to make it part of what we do here and now, first regarding God (whom we praise with song each week), and second regarding forgiveness, which we speak to each other each week.

We’ve also got to get this out of church and into our lives in society. We all live in the world. Our praises need to be heard there. Not praises of God, which annoy people, but praises of people who do their jobs well. Whether that is a student, a colleague or even someone who serves you at Seven-Eleven, try to say something like, “Thank you, you did that well.” Let praise be part of your regular speech to other people.

And let forgiveness be part of what you do as you interact with others, because, as weak as we are, we all offend people. Be the givers of forgiveness, be the announcers of forgiveness, to people around you. Don’t get all “religious” about it, but don’t just say, “it was nothing” either. Make it clear to anyone who has offended you that the incident is over, and you are starting anew.

Transition

In the angels’ words, we are directed upward to God in praise, and outward to people in forgiveness.

II  The voice of the prophet: confessing

Back there in his vision, Isaiah, upon seeing the Lord, hearing the angels, and feeling the ground shake under him, is moved to see himself. He doesn’t like what he sees. “Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.” His reference to his lips is not about what he just ate or anything he has said.  It is symbol of the difference between him and the “high and lifted up holy God” whom he has seen.” He knows that he’s not God.  He perceives the vast difference between himself and God. He sees himself as not worthy of God’s notice.

Nobody accused him of anything. Seeing himself as unworthy was his own natural response. He could have crawled into a hole somewhere and hidden. But this is a vision he is having, and he’s not in control of ANYTHING in it, least of all the things he says.

Confession of our faults is natural when we see something or someone that is clearly better than us. Looking at pictures of movie stars, we wonder why we aren’t so beautiful and sexy. Looking at news about famous people, we wonder why we aren’t so rich and powerful. We take vitamins, have surgery, read books about how to succeed and do all kinds of things to make up for our shortcomings. Whether you realize it or not, having plastic surgery is a confession that there’s something wrong with your eyes, nose, or whatever parts of your body you are having altered. Taking extra kinds of nutritional supplements is a confession that you feel there’s something your regular diet is not providing.

When, in his vision, Isaiah confessed his failing, he experienced forgiveness. Apparently he accepted it. We, in contrast, often ask for forgiveness, but then live as if it has not been given.

So, listen to yourself confess, and listen to the words of the angel who said to Isaiah, “…your sin is blotted out.”  Listen to the words the people around you said this afternoon: God’s Spirit is breathing new life in you, opening a new life that is reborn in Christ, leading you into the ways of life. You are forgiven and loved. You are a child of God. Go, follow the Spirit’s leading, and know that God is with you.” For as long as we are carrying around our feelings of failure and deficiency, we are wasting energy that we could be using on Praise to God and people and the service we could be giving to God and to people around us.

Transition

So far in the vision, we haven’t gotten to the most important voice, that of God.

III  The Voice of God, Sending

This is where we must pay careful attention. Many people who “hear voices and go on to do terrible things” get messed up right here. There was a guy in New York City who, in 1976 and 77. He killed six people and wounded several others with a gun. He claimed that he was commanded to kill by a demon that possessed his neighbor’s dog. He kept this message secret. All he’d have had to do is ask his neighbor, or some friends. They would have told him that he was NOT hearing from a demon in the neighbor’s dog. We are part of community. RELY on that.

In his vision, Isaiah heard God talking with the angels who were flying around and praising him. God said, “Whom shall I send. Who will go for us?” God was not talking to Isaiah who was having the vision. There’s another Bible story about God speaking to angels, having a meeting to figure out how to get an earthly king to do something that would lead to destruction. In that story, one angel proposes making all of the king’s prophets tell lies, and God says, “go do it.”

In the story in front of us, God similarly asks the angels, “Whom shall I send?” This is a strange question, because the very word for “angel” in Hebrew (the language that the Old Testament was written in) means, “messenger who gets sent”. God was asking the messengers who to send. And Isaiah impolitely inserted himself into the conversation that he was overhearing. “here I am, send me.”

What would YOUR response be in a case like that? Would you even speak up?

In the vision, Isaiah wasn’t alone to think things over himself. He was at a heavenly council of God and the angels, so his response, if we enter the story, was a public one.

When we respond to God’s call in our own lives, it is something deeply personal, but has a public aspect, too, even if that public is but a small community of like-minded people. We share what we believe we’ve heard from God with other believers, who pray with us and listen for whether or not this seems like something God might be saying. 8 or 9 years ago a woman who had just begun her study at Tainan Theological College told me that God was calling her to be a missionary. I think she had misunderstood, and I’m glad that she was open to sharing what she thought she had heard with others. So far as I know, she’s still in Taiwan.

God sends people to tell the good news in many places, some of which are exactly the places from where we have originally come. (That was true in Isaiah’s situation.) It may well be so regarding each of us.

Remember that “going out” is only one of many things that God sends people to do. We “go for God” when we love, when we care, when we give, and when we praise and forgive people in our every-day lives.

Conclusion

Don’t fear the vision, don’t neglect the call, don’t respond by inaction. Praise, confess, accept forgiveness, forgive, go and do. Be part of a community of faith, be in prayer regularly, and listen to what God, who is totally different from any of us, is saying to you every moment of every day.

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

When the Spirit Wind Blows

Ezekiel 37:1-14

 

Introduction

When Charlene and I first came to Taiwan 1n 1976, that’s when we got acquainted. We were involved in a campus ministry program at the Tainan Student Center for several weeks that summer. Aside from learning about each other (we were married 4 years later) we were learning about Taiwan and young people here and trying to teach some English. Because many of our students didn’t understand English very well, we used simple games (io-xi), children’s games, to teach some things.

The students taught us Taiwan children’s games, too. One of which was “Big wind Blows”.  Generally, when the big wind blows, it takes only one or two kinds of people in the circle (those wearing sports shoes, or glasses, or with long hair, etc.)

But sometimes the big wind blows everyone, and all must move.

I  In Ezekiel’s vision when God’s word comes, and all comes together

The story we read from the Bible today involved wind as part of a vision that the prophet Ezekiel had.  A Canadian friend who served as a visiting professor at Tainan Theological College a few years ago once described Ezekiel as the strangest book in the Old Testament. Maybe he was right.

Before we look too deeply into these verses, we must remember that Ezekiel is not reporting something that happened, but a vision that he had. Yes, he had the vision, but NO, there was no valley of bones like the one we read of. That doesn’t make the lesson untrue, though.

The vision started with a sad picture of a mixed up pile of dry, lifeless bones.

Things in visions mean something. In this situation, Ezekiel the prophet lived and worked among his people while they were in exile in Babylon. There was no internet then, nor TV news, nor newspaper, nor post office. As far as they could know, the homeland they had left behind was ruined, and they were as good as dead. A mess of dry bones was an effective symbol. God’s question to Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” was a fitting question.

In the vision, God’s instruction to Ezekiel was that he should preach to the bones.

When God tells you to do something, what do YOU do? Probably if you can’t run away, you do it. And because Ezekiel was in the middle of a vision that God controlled, he preached.

And the bones came together. Nerves, muscles and skin grew on them.

God’s word has a wonderful way of bringing people together. We use it at weddings, and we use it when families are torn apart at funerals. Skilled preachers, like our own Chia Bok-su, can select the parts that might be best at comforting people and restoring relationships. In a Presbyterian church, our worship is centered on reading the Bible and hearing preaching based on the Bible. It’s our center. We call people to worship with bible verses, and bless them at the end with more. It brings us together.

In this vision, the word of God made things join together, but the word itself wasn’t enough. It got things organized. This was no longer a valley of scattered dry bones, but one of lots of dead bodies. There was no life. So God told Ezekiel to preach to the wind.

2 Wind brings life

In the Old Testament, the word for Wind is the same as the word for breath or Spirit. In this vision, when the wind blew on the dead bodies, entering them, they came to life. We would say it “in spirited” them. They lived, they stood up, and they were named, “The whole house of Israel”.

We experience the wind in Taiwan, most noticeably during typhoons. But not just then. Every day we are blessed by some kind of breeze. At Tainan Theological College chapel, if you open enough windows in the chapel and turn on the fans, you don’t need to turn on the air conditioners (but people like air conditioning, and two electric switches are easier than many, many windows, so, well, you can figure that out.)

Typhoon winds bring destruction, but they also bring life, of a kind. The seeds of many kinds of plants are spread by the wind. In Kaohsiung the Su-ui Road Kapok trees are an example. If the wind doesn’t blow, the ground looks like it snowed. When the wind does blow, it looks as if it is snowing, and the seeds go far away.

Wind spreads seeds so trees and other plants can grow elsewhere, spreading life. In Ezekiel’s vision, the bones, though organized and en-fleshed, are dead until the wind, the breath, the spirit, fills them.

It’s that way with groups of people, too. Until something draws us together, we are scattered, and even when gathered, without some driving force, we are not worth much for getting things accomplished. Sadly, in Taiwan’s current society, that inspiring force is often the motive to get rich or to find amusement. 30 years ago I had an English Bible Study class at a large church in Kaohsiung. My class was upstairs in a classroom. Downstairs, in the church’s assembly hall, a community service class met. Each week there was a different lecture. The topics varied. One night I noticed that the place was full to overflowing. That night they weren’t hearing about how to understand the bible, or have better marriages, or better health, but how to invest money wisely and get rich!

If there’s nothing to draw us together, then the wind will scatter us. But being together, in and of itself, isn’t much better. When we are gathered around God’s word, we find fellowship. When the power of the Holy Spirit is part of that fellowship, we come to life. We stand up, and we are great living force.  We also get a new name, “the church of Jesus Christ.”

3 Through gathering by the word and living by the spirit, we live and move.

Today is the Sunday when churches around the world celebrate Pentecost, or “Holy Spirit Coming Down” day. We remember an event that happened after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. At that event the group of his disciples, women and men together, were filled with the Holy Spirit, and the church began.

That filling of the Holy Spirit wasn’t a one time thing for even those people there. The story told in Acts 2 tells of what happened to a group, but over and over after that we learn that this one or that one or those ones, many of whom had been among that group we met in Acts 2, were “again and again filled with the holy spirit”.  1) For example: in the “church is filled with the holy spirit” story in Acts 2, the main human character seems to be the apostle Peter. 2) Just 2 chapters later, in Chapter 4:8, it’s noted that when he responded to some people who challenged him, “he was filled with the Holy Spirit”.  3) Again in chapter 4:31 the gathered believers were filled with the Holy Spirit at the end of a prayer meeting. It makes me wonder: Did the first filling wear off?” Was it like the gasoline tank on a motorbike, that regularly needs refilling?  As it was with them, it can and should be with us today.

A pastor friend spoke recently about something that happened in his church more than 20 years ago when he and the members of his church experienced the filling of the Holy Spirit as a group one Sunday. I will not deny or oppose their experience, but I don’t think it has to be that way for all of us. That church had a special need, and the “group experience” was what they needed in their little town. As I experience that pastor now, he’s rather ordinary, and his church in that town is rather ordinary now. BUT, 20 years ago, filled with the Holy Spirit… That was dynamite!

In the same way that we cannot tell God what visions to give us or hold back from us, so also we cannot tell God when, where or how to fill us with the Holy Spirit as we seek to live the good news of Jesus Christ in: 1) the places where we live among not-yet-believing neighbors; 2) the places where we work among not-yet-believing co-workers; or in 3) the schools where we study among not-yet-believing classmates.

Because I’m a Taiwan missionary, I often get asked to tell stories about missionaries. For the past 3 months I’ve been spending one evening every week at a church in Tainan telling the stories of missionaries, starting with the Bible and, last Thursday, telling stories of 20th Century women missionaries in Taiwan. Some were single women, some married. But these women, (and also the husbands of the ones who were not married, were generally ordinary people who by the power of the Holy Spirit did great things.) The stories of: 1) dry bones brought together; and of 2) the spirit blowing on dead bodies; and of 3) God’s word going out to all the earth, are not primarily missionary stories. They are stories of ordinary people.

Conclusion

God finds us in the condition that we’re in, and often that can be compared to dry bones. God’s word draws us together. God’s spirit gives us life. But if we do nothing with that life, it is no good to us, or to anyone else, or to God.

When the spirit blows, we need to be like the trees along Su-ui Road: 1) Moving together and supporting each other.. 2) Sowing seeds 3) spreading the word of God, some of what we do will not go far, but other things we do will fly to the very ends of  Taiwan, or even across the sea.

Ezekiel’s vision was given to him for the people of his time. Thank God that it was written down, to inspire us in this time about what God can do.

On Pentecost so long ago, the Holy Spirit filled a group of people, and others noticed. May we, too, for the tasks God sets before us, accept that fulness of the Holy Spirit, and share the good news of the Gospel in our not-yet-believing society.

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

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