Untangling law, Law and LAW

 

Untangling law, Law, and LAW     

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

I  The law of sin and death

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

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

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

II The Law of Religion and Society

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

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

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

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

III The way of God Which we meet in Christ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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Three Weeks of Independence in Taiwan

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

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

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

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

 

2 July: “Not For Use With Children”

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

 

4 July: “Happy National Day”

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

 

6 July: Evaluation

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

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

 

9 July: Ego Feeding

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

 

9 July: Church Elsewhere

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

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

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

 

11 July: Entrance Exam

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

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

 

13 July: Nearly Front Row Seat.

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

 

14 July: An Interestingly Named Street

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

 

16 July: Preaching to Children

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

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

 

16 July:  Cello Jazz

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

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

Before the Door

Genesis 18:1-5

Fundraising for the Taiwan Church Press   July 9, 2017

 Introduction

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

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

I: Abraham was Visible and Viewing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II Abraham Reached Out and Welcomed

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

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

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

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

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

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

III Abraham Served and Conversed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Printed Materials to help churches be “Abrahamic”

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

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

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

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

 

 

“You Can’t Say THAT in Church”

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s the diagram:

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

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

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

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

II: The Unpopularity of Jesus with some of his contemporaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion:  Wisdom is shown to be true by its results

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

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

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

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

Not For Use With Children July 2, 2017

Genesis 22:1-19    Matthew 10:34-42

 

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

I: SACRIFICE YOUR CHILD  Genesis 22:1-19

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

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

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

II: DENY YOUR FAMILY  Matthew 10:34-39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

 

 

Keep It All, Use When Needed

June 25, 2017

The scriptures are a rich resource for living into and through life situations.

Psalm 86:1-10 and Romans 6:1-11

 

INTRODUCTION

As of last night, I find myself in a position that some of my friends call, “Taiwan Independent.” My wife left the country for an extended trip, and I’m here alone. She has gone to help her parents move to a smaller place. They have been in the same big American house for 30 years: 2 floors, full basement and  3-car garage. It’s full! A lot of the stuff was regularly used. But other is the kind of things we all acquire as we move through life; acquire and never get rid of. They either forgot they had it, or were emotionally attached to it, or thought they might use it later. Char’s sister has been helping them sort the full 2 bedrooms and one “sun porch” on the ground floor:  furniture, book shelves, closets crammed with clothes and drawers that hadn’t been opened for decades. The full basement was full, too. The 3-car garage contained 2 cars: theirs and ours. The 3rd space was filled with lawn mowers machines, snow blowers, and all kinds of tools.

I love my wife’s parents. I admire them for how well they’ve lived on a limited income for many years. BUT, I’m glad NOT to be there as packing, moving, unpacking and settling into a new place happen.

In life we all acquire things, some of which may be useful, others “potentially useful, and others totally useless from the first time lay eyes on them. Any of us who reside in student housing will discover that the things you’ll have to deal with as you leave will far exceed what you brought with you when you arrived.  For people of Christian faith, we have a book that we call the Bible. It is our rule for faith and life, but we only use bits and pieces of it here and there.

I.THE SCRIPTURE AS CANON

There are a lot of words we use for the Bible. The word “Bible” itself is related to the word for “book” in many Western languages. Sometimes we call it “Scripture”, which implies that it was written (scrip = scratch).  When we say it is a rule for faith and life, we use the word “canon”, which means a standard measure, like a “ruler”, by which we can determine if something is straight or how long it is.  Among the tools you have in your desk drawer, you likely have a ruler that you take out occasionally to draw a straight line or measure the size of something. It’s there, but you don’t use it a lot.

Last week I worked with a colleague to hang a large artwork in the library of Tainan Theological College. It’s 3.5 meters wide and 3 meters high. To hang it straight I put a hook in the wall for one end and laid a 4 meter pole on it. My colleague was on the other end, atop a ladder.  To figure out where to put the hook that would hold the other end, I had thought to measure down from the ceiling equal distances at both ends.  He just took out his smart phone, called up an app, laid it atop the stick, and moved his end up and down until the phone told him it was level. He marked the spot and drilled the holes. His “canon” for horizontal straightness is in his phone.

The Bible tells us that it is “canon”. In Psalm 119:9. A poet asks the question, “How can a young man keep his life pure?” and then answers it right off, “By keeping your commandments.”  Here at Tainan International Community Church we sing a short Bible Song every week, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”  We sing it for 2 reasons: 1) To give us a break between reading from the Old Testament and the New Testament; and 2) to remind ourselves that the Bible is a helpful tool as we make our way through life.

In a way similar to how a ruler is a good tool to have in the drawer and the apps we have on our smart phones can do many things for us, what we read in the Bible is helpful, even when it’s unclear to us, confusing to us, or seems to be of no immediate value for what we’re facing. We read a couple of those places today.

II, A GUIDE TO ST. PAUL IN ROMANS 6:1-11

From Romans we read what St. Paul wrote, responding to those who thought he was too free with assuring people of God’s grace and love. In chapters 4 and 5 he had argued that God’s grace, not human  performance or keeping rules, is what ultimately saves us. Some hearing this made the logical conclusion that IF more sin was met with more grace, THEN the best thing people could do would be to sin more. After all, people like to sin, and God likes to love, forgive and be gracious. So it makes sense. But it’s not how things work. Salvation is by God’s grace, for sure, but sin isn’t the way to grace.

In verses 1-4 we learn some things about what it means to be “in union with Christ”. In the past, we’re told, we were baptized into union with his death, buried with him, and rose with him by the power of God, so that we might live a new life. That new life is free from the power of sin. Does that mean we won’t, or don’t get messed up in sin. NO. We are still far from perfect, which is why every week we spend time during worship  1) admitting our failing, 2) asking God for mercy, 3) reminding ourselves and each other of God’s love, and 4) hearing instruction from “our rule of faith and life” for how we are to live into the future.

The rest of these 11 verses are about our present and future reality. Though sin still troubles us, we are not defeated by it. Though we had once been slaves of sin, we’re free from it. Our sin didn’t kill us, it killed Christ, but he rose again. So we identify with him, and live in fellowship with God through Christ Jesus.

Do I understand that?  Not very well. Not today. Could I understand it? Maybe. If I could, should I spend YOUR time mapping it all out for you? Probably not. Though it is TRUE, it’s not necessarily interesting today. BUT SOME OTHER DAY it just might be exactly what I need. So, I’ll keep Romans 6:1-4 in my Bible for when I feel particularly oppressed by my sin, and verses 5-11 to give me hope for my future.

Through human history there have been people who have “adapted” the Bible because of how they felt about what they were reading at the time. One of America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, twice in his life (in 1807 and 1830) gathered up several Bibles and went at them with a knife. He cut out the parts he agreed with and pasted them into a notebook. If he thought something was not reasonable or helpful, he didn’t cut it out for re-pasting into “Jefferson’s Bible.” Decades after his death, the American government printed 9,000 copies of  “Jefferson’s Bible.” After several years, the ones that didn’t sell were presented, one by one, to new members of the US Senate until they ran out.

In the second half of the 19th century First Wave Feminism in America and Europe met opposition by members of the clergy quoting Bible verses. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a number of other movement leaders went to the scriptures. They found the bits being used against women, and re-wrote them. They also found the bits that promoted equality and re-wrote THEM to strengthen their case. You can still find “The Woman’s Bible” in libraries or buy it on Amazon.

Neither Jefferson nor Stanton needed to do what they did to the Bible. All that was needful for them, and all that is needful for us, is to remember that in the Bible there is storage space for more than we can use at any one time.

III. A PRAYER FOR HELP

Believers through the ages have loved the Psalms. 500 years ago Martin Luther found them the second best part of the Bible, right after the Epistles of St. Paul. Personally, sometimes I get tired of all the complainers whose poetry is found in the Psalms. When I see a Psalm titled, like Psalm 86 that we read this afternoon, “A Prayer for Help”, I’m tempted to skip it. It just doesn’t speak to my present situation. But there are a LOT of prayers like Psalm 86 in the Bible.

In verses 1-5 the poet shows a belief in a “transactional” relationship with God. “I do this and You do that.”  It’s like politics in many countries where those in charge of government, of the courts and of big business engage in “I’ll scratch your back and you’ll scratch mine.”

He starts out pretty well, in verse 1, “listen and answer  because I am helpless and weak.”, but gets all whiny, self-important and demanding for the next 4 verses:

V.2: save me from death because I am loyal to you.

Save me because I am your servant and trust you

V3: Be merciful to me because you are my God

Be merciful to me because I pray to you all day long.

V.4: Make me glad because I am your servant

Make me glad because my prayers go to you.

V.5: Do all of these things because you are good.

Do all of these things because you love people who pray.

In everything after the “helpless and weak” part in verse 1, the tone is “off”.  I won’t cut this one out of my Bible, I’ll use it to remind myself that nothing I do “scratches God’s back.” These verses model for me what kind of a praying person I SHOULDN’T be.

Verses 6 to 10 are more helpful. The poet begins again with a request to be heard, but for different reasons. It’s not about the poet’s own performance of goodness, but it is about the character of God: who is an answerer of prayers; who is greater than any other spiritual being; who is the creator of all the nations; who is mighty; and who works wonderful things. In contrast, I’m helpless, so I plead with God to hear and answer me.

These verses, like what we read in Romans 6, may not be of immediate need to us in our current conditions. But when we feel helpless and want to turn to God in prayer for help, they may be reminders to us of how NOT to pray, and of the character of the one to whom we address our prayers.

CONCLUSION

There’s an online education website, Khan Academy, where I spend a lot of time. Originally I took an Art History course; watch a video, read an essay, take a quiz. If you ask questions, anybody is free to respond. After watching videos and reading essays for about a year, I began to respond to other students’ questions. When I finished Art History I moved to English Grammar, not taking the course but answering questions.

Not infrequently someone will ask “Why do we have to know this stuff?” Usually it’s a young person who would rather do something other than learn new facts. He or she doesn’t want to spend the effort needed to remember it all. Sometimes as people of faith we are the same way, so we offload the need to know what’s in the Bible to our grandparents, to our Sunday school teachers or to our pastors. It’s just too much for us to keep in mind.

Sisters and brothers, you don’t have to know it all. Though Bibles come in all kinds of translations and many different sizes, they all contain the same stuff. Much of that stuff may be useless to any of us at any particular time, some of which you may never need or be able to believe.

The invitations to us are to be Christians, centered on Christ, and theologians, focused on God. We are not called to be “Biblians”, whose main focus is the Bible. This is a valuable tool, it is revealed by God to be our rule of faith and life. Like the closets, basement and garage at my wife’s parents’ house, it is full of stuff, much of which we’ll never use.  Cherish it, use what you can, leave the rest in storage.  Our title today puts it into 6 words. “Keep it All, Use when Needed.”

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

Stories of Winding Down

Taiwan Independent

Char has gone to America to spend more than a month with her parents. I’m alone (independent) in Taiwan for a while. Just me and the cat. Hopefully he’ll survive my indifference to his species.

 

June 14 What is a Church Member?

Part of church ministry in the 21st century is online presence. Many churches have poorly designed or lazily maintained web pages, which can be years out of date and particularly uninformative. It’s rather amazing, because almost every church prints an up to date bulletin every week.  Setting that aside,  in the class I taught about platform skills (the platform being the place in the church where the pulpit stands) last term, we spent a week talking about how we look on camera, specifically how we may look on a web page video that is intended forthe Frequently Asked Questions section of a church website. For the mid-term examination I assigned everyone to create a 1-to-3 minute video, taking on the character of the pastor of “Happy Jesus Presbyterian Church”, and answering the question “How do I become a member of Happy Jesus Presbyterian Church?”  

 

I was amazed at the ignorance of the students regarding the rudimentary nature of church membership. Some introduced people “how to believe in Jesus.”  Others took the viewpoint, “Just come, and you’ll be part of us.”  When we shared the videos in class I thought I was pretty clear that church membership was not just “being part of the crowd” and loving each other.  I wanted instructions. But, since everyone had learned things about being on camera, making their own videos, lighting, camera angles, sound quality and etc., everyone passed.  

 

For the final I assigned creation of a portfolio based on things we had studied about creative sermon structure AND the submission of two videos, one of which was a re-boot of the midterm. Everyone had a chance to show their work on the 14th, get peer feedback, and consider whether or not they would make adjustments before the final due date on the 20th. When we watched the videos about church membership, I was again astonished. The students did a better job with the picture quality and such, but once again failed to address what it means to be a church member. In the end, they explained to me that the term I used for “church member” lacked the important descriptive adjective, “Communicant.” Had I said that, they’d have recited the rules.  Right.  

 

June 14 Talking to Children in Church

In church in Taiwan, children rarely relate to the pastor at all. I wanted my students to consider what it might mean to do a Children’s sermon, as is not uncommon in North America, and we spent a class session on that on June 7. Part of their final exam portfolio was to do one on camera using a prop. Everyone did something. All but one used props. But only one did a real “children’s sermon”. The others told bible stories. It was the only thing they could imagine doing. Trouble is, the stories they chose (Noah, David & Goliath, the 3 servants with different talents) were far beyond the attention span of a 3-year-old.  

Next semester I will teach a 2-unit graduate level course devoted to Children’s sermons. 10 people have already signed up. I’m hoping for good things.

 

June 16 The Final Word

It was the last Friday of the term, so the last time the college met for morning prayers. Dr. Lin Chuan-fen, who had led the social work program for over a decade, was in the pulpit. It was her last time. She has now officially retired.

Dr. Lin has class. Though she is deeply disappointed that her drive for the last 10 years to have the college create a social work program that would be accredited by the government (the current program is not accredited), she didn’t get it. The board and president decided on getting accredited for graduate studies in Theology instead. But Dr. Lin spoke to the community with thanksgiving for the 40 years she has served the school and of the expected sadness that it is to leave. Not a word of disappointment from the pulpit. It has been a privilege to serve with her.

 

June 16 The Final Final

Char interviews each of her more-than-200 students twice each semester, and those weeks are BUSY!  This term the interviews started on Friday the 9th, took in hours on Saturday the 10th, and didn’t finish until Friday the 16th. BUT, they were all done, and the only thing Char had to do was give everybody final exam scores, then average all sorts of little quizzes and other things into final marks for the semester.  The math takes a week. Too many students means too many numbers.

 

June 17 The Man Who Teaches Me

There’s a guy I’ve never met, greeted or even waved to. I don’t know if he’s noticed me at all, but he has taught me some things about myself in recent weeks.     I am at Dongning Presbyterian Church at least three times every week. On Saturday evenings for Recorder practice, on Sunday morning for worship, and on Sunday afternoons to lead English church. If I leave by the back gate I go through an alley for about 20 meters, then make a sharp right for another 15 to get to the road home. It’s at that sharp right turn that I see the guy.

If, instead of making the turn, I went straight, I’d run into him. He stands at the rear entrance to a large banquet hall restaurant, and seems to either direct occasional traffic up and down a parking ramp or monitor the ice machines. I can’t tell. I’ve never actually seen him DO much.

I discovered, though, that he’s been teaching me things. I had taken a negative attitude regarding him, and I didn’t know why. It turns out that first, he’s soft and flabby, his belly hangs over his belt. Second, he smokes, and third he holds his cigarette in a rather “effete” way.  NONE of these things is wrong. NONE of these things says anything negative about him. But I had formed an opinion of him based on them.

I’ve gotta work on myself, and I’m grateful for the lesson he taught, and continues to teach, me.

 

June 18 Donggang

Sometime in April the Taiwan Church Press, where I worked from 2000 through 2003, contacted me asking whether I’d be available to do fund-raising for them in July. That means going to churches and preaching. I agreed, and the assignments began flowing in. July 9, 16 and 30, plus June 18 and August 13. I can use the same sermon every time, so it’s not as if I’ll be struggling to come up with new things to say.  I discovered in the 18th, though, that the travel is what’s going to kill me. Only two of the 5 assignments are anywhere near home. On the 18th I was 60 miles away in a fishing port where the church has been present since 1872. They had two services, the first of which started at 8AM, so I had to be on the road by 6. All went well. They use the “OLD” (1964) hymnal, which I dislike, and even for that the accompanist at the first service couldn’t play the songs I chose. By the second service, I knew my sermon better, (and after preaching a modified version of it that afternoon in English, knew it even better. It’s posted at the blog under the title, Welcoming Wanderers.) Now that I’ve experienced the distance travel part of going out preaching, I’m regretting having agreed to so much of it.

June 20  Should I Volunteer to play the Organ?

End of term worship at Tainan Theological College was on the afternoon of the 20th, followed by a banquet. As I translated for the preacher, I began considering volunteering to be the accompanist, using the chapel pipe organ, once or twice next semester.  I haven’t the foggiest idea of how to actually play a pipe organ, but the preacher on the 20th, who has a Doctor of Musical Arts (Performance) in Pipe Organ, has no idea what to do in a pulpit. I figure it would be fair exchange.

 

June 21  Graduation

Tainan Theological College’s graduation was held on Wednesday morning. Faculty and graduating students, suitably robed, gathered for a photo in the college quad at 8:10AM. As soon as that was over I ditched my robe in my office and hightailed it to the assembly hall, where graduation would start at 9:00. I translated the entire thing, which lasted over two hours. Was so exhausted afterwards that I skipped lunch and took a long, deep, nap.

Late in the afternoon I went back to the office and retrieved my robe and regalia. On the way home I met the college president, who, noting that I’ll be retiring next year, invited me to give the sermon at graduation. We’ll see if he remembers that in 12 months’ time.

 

June 22  Grades Sent

During the week between the 16th and 23rd Char only went to the university one time, to check on last minute changes in students’ statuses (stati?). She was able to have all of her final marks reported online, printed, stamped and ready for posting the morning of the 23rd. Congratulations. Job well done!

 

June 24  Char’s Departure

Char has been spending part of every summer for the past 5 or 6 years in Michigan with her parents. This year is the same, with a little difference. She left on Saturday evening, taking a non-stop flight to Chicago, and to spend 47 days away. This year is longer because her folks are moving from the house where they’ve lived for the past 30 years to a senior community closer to their eldest daughter, Mary (and coincidentally in the town to which the two of us will retire next year).

The move is all booked. The boxes are packed, the closets sorted, and the house is sold. Char is there to accompany and help with the settling in. This is NOT exactly a vacation, but Holland, MI is much cooler than Tainan, Taiwan. So it should be a break.

 

June 25  Scott Joplin in Church

The recorder group that I’m part of played a few pieces in church on Sunday, serving as the choir. The group is actually a combined set of ensembles…. The kids on soprano recorders, the adults on altos, and playing simple things. The junior and senior high youth play all 4 parts and do more difficult things.  Sometimes we all play together, but this week the youth had toe postlude, which was “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin. As I listened to them, I remembered Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “The Sting” way back in the 70s.  Never thought of ragtime music as church music.  Learned something.

Welcoming Wanderers

Welcoming Wanderers

Genesis 18:1-15 and Romans 5:6-8

 

INTRODUCTION

A long time ago I fell in love with The New Yorker. My initial attraction was to the cartoons. In graduate school I began reading the articles.When I could afford to, I began to subscribe. It comes almost every week of the year. Part of it’s appeal is that reading it makes me feel smarter than I really am.  Among those who write for the magazine, one of my favorites is Malcolm Gladwell.

 

In a recent podcast he mentioned the philosophical problem about stepping into a river. You can’t do it twice, because by the second time you step in, the river has already flowed past you, and you are in a different one altogether. Hearing that made me think of our church. We are always saying “goodbye” to people, because many of us are in Tainan for temporary relationships with colleges or universities.  It’s wonderful to be part of this congregation in ANY week, but we’ll be a different church next week, next month, and certainly a year from now.

 

People leave and new friends join us. But they can only do that if someone reaches out to them. To get here you kind of have to know some secrets. “Come up that narrow lane, go around that staircase and into that door.” Once someone arrives, we’re friendly and welcoming. People can be comfortable. On warm days, we’re even air conditioned! Every Sunday, there are pretty pictures to look at on the screen. The fellowship we have is an important part of human life. The gospel of Jesus Christ that we uphold is valuable beyond our ability to calculate. If we have a shortcoming, it’s that people who don’t already know us can’t see us, and people we don’t already know are often invisible to us.

I: ABRAHAM, VIEWING AND VISIBLE

 

This afternoon we read a story about Abraham and three visitors. If you’re not familiar with the Bible, with who Abraham was in the Bible, don’t worry about it. For our purposes today he was just a guy who lived with his wife in a tent by some trees. In the story three people passed by and he welcomed them to eat with him and visit for a while. In a way, it’s like us as Tainan International Community Church. We borrow space to use for our church activities, and most of the people who make up our group are from somewhere else and only passing through Tainan for a while.

 

We met Abraham sitting at the door of his tent. Every tent, every house, has some kind of a door. Churches usually have SEVERAL doors. We like to think of all churches as places where people are welcomed and made to feel that they have friends. But there are churches in many places around the world that have a problem. The only people they REALLY welcome are those that come to the door where a greeter will extend a hand and welcome them in. Abraham wasn’t like this with his visitors. Abraham was at the door. That was probably the best place to be during the hot part of the day. Perhaps at the door he could feel any breeze that passed by. Perhaps at the door he could be in the shade, rather than out where the sun would shine on him. At the door he was visible to anyone who might approach him (so people who might want to secretly steal from him would be deterred).

 

But “at the door” is a risky place to be, too. People who see where you ARE can figure out ways to get into the places that you cannot see. People who have weapons with which to strike you from afar, throwing a rock or a spear, shooting an arrow or a sling-shot, can aim more carefully because they know where you are.

 

At the door is where the church has to be at all times. People can see the cross on the building and imagine that a church meets there. Here in Tainan there are a lot of churches, and a lot of folk religion temples.  It saddens me to go along the streets and see many churches, some in store-fronts, others on upper floors over shops, that have closed and locked iron doors most of the time. Of course, the reason is good. We must protect the piano and the sound equipment, and prevent evil people from misusing God’s property. But it is, nonetheless, sad. All anyone sees is a well-taken-care-of building. At some churches there’s a sign so that people can know when the doors will be open, but otherwise there’s nobody AT THE DOOR.   Folk religion temples are open all day, every day. (About 8 years ago I joined a protest march of pastors, Taiwan activists and Buddhist monks. At a certain point the march stopped for a few minutes, and many pastors in the group ran into a temple to use the toilet. Had it been a church we’d stopped in front of, the door to the building would likely have been locked, and the toilet would not have been available. Many pastors that day thanked God for that temple.)

 

20 years ago I was the pastor of a store-front church in Kaohsiung. I lived about a kilometer away. When I was in my office upstairs at the church, doing “pastor stuff”, I got lonely. One day I discovered that doing my office work, sermon preparation and other things “at the door” (like Abraham) put me into contact with the people in the neighborhood. Being Visible is an important part of our mission to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to our community.

 

II ABRAHAM REACHED OUT AND WELCOMED

At the door you see what’s happening outside. You can respond to any needs that may come up.  When we are deep inside our houses, enjoying the air conditioning, and the television, and there is a car accident out front, or a neighbor’s house catches on fire, we are slower to respond. We may not even know anyone is in need until we hear the sound of the police car or fire-engine.

 

Abraham wasn’t just at the door to stay cool and deter enemies, he was there so that he could see what was happening outside. When three men appeared he ran to them, bowed and welcomed them to be his guests. He spoke to his wife, Sarah, and asked that she prepare a meal, which he then served to them.

 

We might imagine that under the Trees of Mamre (where Abraham had pitched his tent) there wasn’t much going on, so the appearance of three visitors would be a welcome event. If there were few people in the area, it could mean that newcomers were bringing good news. Visitors meant news and entertainment. Of COURSE he would greet them.

 

BUT, if we imagine a place where there were sacred trees that means there was also water, maybe there was a well.  Sacred trees were where people came to worship, kind of like how people in Taiwan not long ago would gather at the temple yard to converse, and children to play.  Abraham did what churches around the world need to do. He did not wait for people to ask to enter his tent, he went out to greet them. He spoke to them, invited them, and persuaded them to spend time with him.

 

We are careful people. We tell children to be careful of strangers. We also have the good news of Jesus and of salvation. We need to find ways to reach out and welcome travelers in the name of our Lord. We do not wait to greet people coming into the church, we bring them from where they are, through our doors, into our fellowship, and into the glorious news of Jesus.

 

But we’re already friendly and welcoming to anyone who comes in here for the first time. Shouldn’t THEY have to make the first move?

 

III: CHRIST’S SACRIFICIAL OUTREACH TO HUMANITY

We like to think of ourselves as a Christian Church. We really don’t have to waste a lot of time considering how to be like Abraham.  Yes, in the Bible and in the history of Islam and Judaism he’s as important as he is for Christians. But Christ is the central figure of our religion. That, in part, is why we read a few verses from Romans 5 this afternoon. Christ sets us an example of how to act towards people who haven’t made the first move. In these verses, “WE” are described as having been “helpless,” unable to care for our own needs.

 

Have you ever felt helpless in the face of something? Those of us who do not speak much or any Chinese might feel absolutely helpless if we get lost in Tainan. Many of us who depend on our smartphones to hold information and files and data might lose heart if we were to drop it over the side of a boat and watch it sink away. What St Paul writes of is the kind of helplessness that people have in the face of the task of being “righteous” before (or, in a right relationship with) God. We just can’t do it. We’re too messed up.

 

It is into that kind of helplessness that Christ has come, even before we reached out to him, even while we deserved nothing that even looks like care of sympathy. Into THIS, Christ comes while we are helpless and sinners, and dies for us, putting us right with God, so that we can live, and live eternally.

 

Being a church that reaches out to people before they come to our door is more than being like Abraham, it is being like Christ. That’s part of what it means to be called, “Christian”.

We bother to do it because, like those travelers on the road who needed a shady place to rest, a meal, and some conversation in Abraham’s time, we can provide it. We bother to do it because it has been done for us.

 

CONCLUSION

In our case, it means that this church is neither a secret club, nor is it  an open club with membership requirements. We are a place open to all, essentially without walls.

Being that kind of a place, we should be filled with people in need of the hospitality we provide. Being in this university community, there are many people in need of friendship, contacts, networks and other things we have here, and who may, incidentally, benefit from the gospel as we present it.

 

Sisters and brothers, the fact that there’s a door or two around this room means that it’s easy for people to get in, but it also means that we can go out, and find people to bring in, because what we have here is good for us, for them, for everyone, eternally.

 

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

Someone for Everywhere

Trinity Sunday    Psalm 8 and Matthew 28:16-20

“Don’t settle for less than God, whose reality transcends our ability to imagine and define.“

INTRODUCTION

Graduate students hoping for future careers as university professors or public servants (either elected or appointed) are often encouraged to be careful about the ways they present themselves online, at sites like Facebook, Twitter, and others. Things posted don’t go away, they seem to live eternally in cyber-space.  Hiring committees at universities often contain members who have their “preferred” candidates. These will search out negative information…. posts, pictures, profiles… anything, that could be used to disqualify all who threaten their “favored ones.” If we’re thinking about political candidates, nowadays people dig deep to find evidence that a person once did or said something that would stop voters from choosing her. If the office is gained through appointment and confirmation by a committee, then anything that might embarrass the nominee and the one who nominated her is fair for use in the process.

This has always been so, but it’s worse in the age of the internet, because we leave so much information about ourselves as we move through life, and it is so easy to access. Just ask the Russian hackers who have been so much in the news this year.

The point of starting here is that we need to be careful what we assert to be true, especially if we want to use the Bible to back us up. Today is Trinity Sunday

I : “Baptize in the Name of…” and Reading Back

Trinity is an attempt to come to terms with stuff found in the New Testament. For example, when, in a Bible story, we read about Thomas confessing faith in the risen Jesus, he called him, “Lord and God.” In John’s Gospel we meet Jesus in one place saying that he and the Father are one, and in another place breathing on his disciples and imparting the Holy Spirit to them. If we just take the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, we find all kinds of stuff that doesn’t necessarily fit together well, even with the ways that St. Paul and others tried to work them out elsewhere in the New Testament.

If we go historically, trying to put the writings in the order of their original production during the era that the early church was creating its beliefs and scriptures, we find things that the Church, which didn’t even EXIST before Jesus’ ascended, had come to believe and do written back into the stories of Jesus, sometimes put into the mouth of Jesus as quotations.

The bits and pieces about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit are clearly there in the New Testament, and they form the basis of how Christians have come to understand and relate to God ever since they were written down. But that doesn’t mean that people were clear about the RELATIONSHIPS between the Father as Creator, the Son as Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as Sustainer. The New Testament writers and those who followed them in the early centuries of church history struggled. It wasn’t until sometime in the 4th century that an Asian, Theophilus of Antioch, who wrote in Greek, came up with the explanation “three in one and one in three.” It was even later that an African theologian, Tertulllian, put it into Latin and we got the term “Trinity”. The explanation and the word satisfactorily explain much of what we read in the Bible, but the actual word “Trinity” is not found anywhere between its covers.

So, what are we to do with what we read from Matthew 28 this afternoon, where Jesus is quoted as telling his disciples to baptize people “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?”

In the Bibles we use here at Tainan International Community Church, there are quote marks around the words that Jesus said. The author of Matthew didn’t put them there. Greek written back then didn’t have things like upper and lower case letters. It didn’t have punctuation, and not even have spaces between words! Written Greek of that time looked like someone shouting in an E-mail does today.

We can do several things with what we read, but all of them require that we trust the translators, and keep the original writer in high regard.

Starting with a “highest respect for the author” position means that Jesus actually said exactly these words about preaching and baptizing, and when the author of Matthew got around to writing it down, he accurately reported what Jesus said. The identities of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are clearly set apart from each other. However, this isn’t the Trinity doctrine that we mark today, because the “RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN” Father, Son and Holy Spirit isn’t explained. That didn’t come for a few hundred years.

A “less high regard” for the author has the story being that Jesus told his disciples something about going into the world, preaching the gospel, and baptizing believers. When writing this down decades later, the author inserted the words “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” from the way baptisms were being done in the local church that he was part of at the time he wrote things. This still keeps us in the “early years of the church”, but it reads a current practice back into the “original story”.

A third option, which I must admit I don’t really like, is to imagine that a long time after the author wrote the story as a command to go, preach and baptize, someone else inserted “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” into the text, putting these words into Jesus’ mouth to settle an argument he was having with some other group in his church at the time. Those words have stuck to Jesus’ lips like glue ever since. This way of explaining things trusts the translators, but doesn’t respect the author.

Today we affirm that God is present to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is Biblical revelation. As to HOW the relationship works, (three in one, one in three, co-equal, without rank, etc. ) we have to trust the 4th century theologians and accept some degree of mystery. We have to be very careful about reading contemporary understandings back into the scriptures and claiming them as original. This has happened, on the topic of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You can find it in I John 5:7&8. Compare different English translations of I John 5:7&8. There are about 40 that you can easily access at www.biblegateway.com, and get them all on one screen without too much scrolling. The translations done in the 20th century, that are based on ancient Greek manuscripts, don’t have some of the words that we find in translations done from about 1400 to 1899. Those “earlier” English translations were done based on “not so old” Greek manuscripts. It appears that between the “ancient” manuscripts and the “not so old”  manuscripts, someone added extra words to I John 5:7&8 to give “biblical proof” for his group’s idea about the Trinity.

        I like the mystery of the Trinity. It works for me. As for the relationships BETWEEN Father, Son and Holy Spirit WITHIN the Trinity, I can’t explain much, if anything, for you. But in terms of my own life, the relationships between myself and each of the three “persons” in the Trinity vary with my needs in helpful ways.

When I am in need of protection and assurance, God as “Father” is the most comforting place I go. When I’m seeking a friend who listens, God as Jesus the Son is most precious to me. And when I’m in need of guidance and power for life, the Holy Spirit can’t be beat.

Is that satisfying for me? Only partly. Should it satisfy you? That depends on you.

II “Your Wonderful Name” and Reading Forward

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, you know, was NOT a Christian. The religion of his people is found in the collection of stories, poems, law codes, wise sayings and weird stuff that we find in the Old Testament of the Bible. We read one of those poems today, Psalm 8 was part of the hymnbook of Jesus’ people way back then (and even now). It’s the source material for the hymn we sang as we began worship today, “O Lord Our Lord, how Majestic is your name in all the earth!” For Jesus’ ancestors, and for Jesus himself, there was no “Trinity” to explain. God was ONE. When at worship they said “a little bit of what they believed”. they didn’t use as many words as we do here each week. There said a single sentence, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!”

We sang the first and last verses of Psalm 8 today in our opening hymn, ‘O Lord, Our Lord, How Majestic is Your Name in all the Earth”. Though we may have been a little more “rock and roll” about it than Jesus and his friends in their worship, we mean the same thing they did, that God is wonderful EVERYWHERE, in all the earth. This is not just a little God of one remote province of the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian or Roman Empire. This is the God of ALL the world, whose praise reaches outward to the moon and stars and inward to the mouths of children and babies. Any of us who may be vegetarians may argue with the verses about humans being of greater worth than animals. That would be an interesting discussion. There’s a lot for me to learn from people who regard animals as equal to, or higher than humans, and I have little to teach them.

The point of using this Psalm on Trinity Sunday is to emphasize the ONENESS of God that was part of Jesus’ religion, and is very much at the center of Christianity. In some of those confusing bits of John’s Gospel, where Jesus is quoted as having said, “I and the Father are One”, he was firmly grounded in this “God Is One” belief. He didn’t say, “God and Me and the Spirit makes three.”

Hear O Church, The Lord our God… Father, Son and Holy Spirit…the Lord is ONE!  In practical terms, that means:…

  • When getting a thesis done so I can graduate or getting a job application accepted so that I can stay where I want to be is most on my mind and heart, I don’t mess around with “which person of the Trinity”, I turn to God, who is wonderful in all the earth, and as far as the moon and stars.
  • When the wonderfulness of life is just too wonderful for words, I give thanks to God for help.
  • When terrible things like terrorist attacks in Orlando, Teherah, Kabul, Mosul, London or Paris occur, it is to God I cry for justice and compassion.

CONCLUSION

Did that solve anything? Probably not. What we’re left with, on Trinity Sunday, is not a neatly wrapped up package of answers, but a wonder and a mystery. Too much of human life around us is neatly wrapped up, so the wonder and the mystery are gifts of God for us. We don’t need all of the answers, we don’t even need to understand completely. We are accompanied in this life and eternally by God, whom we know as One in three different ways.

Thank God there won’t be a final exam.

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

 

 

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