Seeing and Saying

Luke 24:36-44 and I John 1:1-3

Introduction

Some people speak in great detail without any personal experience at all.

A little over 33 years ago, when she was obviously pregnant with our older child, my wife, Charlene, was going somewhere here in Taiwan on a train. A woman sat down next to her and, discovering that Char could understand Taiwanese, began to give a lot of advice on pregnancy, childbirth, baby care and related issues. At some point in the conversation, Char asked her, “how many children do you have?” The woman replied that she neither had any children nor was married. That admission subtracted some of the believability from what she was saying.

When we have personal experience of anything, whether it is childbirth, online gaming, biotechnology or whatever, that experience “gives legs” to what we say. If, on the other hand, our experience is “my teacher told me” or “I saw it on the internet” or even “I read it in the bible”, whatever we say will be harder to accept.

I THE DISCIPLES IN THE ROOM WHEN JESUS ATE FISH (Luke 24:36-44)

In the days and weeks after Jesus rose from death, stories began to accumulate and to be shared. First some women, then some men, then groups of disciples. St Paul, who wasn’t there at the time and didn’t see it himself, wrote to a church that Jesus, risen from the dead, had been seen by more than 500 people at the same time! I choose to trust that St. Paul didn’t make up this occasion or number, but the facts that he himself wasn’t there and that none of those 500 left a record for us to read makes his assertion a little “weaker” than a first-hand stories of someone who had seen her own eyes.

If we accept the “sequence of events” in Luke’s gospel as “the way it happened”, then we have a few very busy days. On Friday afternoon Jesus is dead, and before sundown his body is in a tomb. On Saturday nothing much happens, but on Sunday morning a group of women discover that he has risen, and they go tell some men. Later that day, Jesus takes a walk with a couple of men who had heard the news of his rising but hadn’t seen it for themselves. At supper he reveals who he is, then disappears. They run back to Jerusalem to tell the news, and while the disciples are taking about it, Jesus shows up in the room where they were gathered. That’s where WE started reading the story this afternoon.

Apparently the disciples, having been told by the women and then by a couple of other guys, that Jesus had risen, were having a discussion. They were interrupted. Whatever they EXPECTED to see, we’re not told, but what they saw scared them. After all, they knew DEAD to be DEAD, and anything that came after that was “spooky”. They thought this was a ghost. Jesus figured that out and offered his wounds as proof of his identity, and then, to dispel other doubts, ate something in front of them. So, they experienced the risen Jesus with their eyes and ears. This was very physical.

THEY had an experience to tell. St. Luke, who wrote this down for us, DIDN’T have that experience. He was not one of those disciples. He wasn’t there. It was decades later that this stuff got written. He relied on the reports of others (maybe of some of those 500 of whom St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthian church).

Their testimony to what they had seen was powerful enough, it had enough “legs”, that St. Luke, upon hearing it, passed it along to us.

We only read through verse 44. Had we gone on a couple more verses, to 46, we’d have learned the new identity that Jesus gave them, “witnesses”. A witness sees, and a witness says.

II A COMMUNITY OF BELIEVERS MANY, MANY YEARS LATER (I JOHN 1:1-3)

The fourth gospel in the new testament, and the letters 1, 2 and 3 John, emerge not from one guy named John (that’s a church tradition unsupported by scripture) but from a community of people who had been transformed by Christ in them, and testifying their faith as best they could in a situation where they were equally matched or over-matched by people with different religious opinions. The fourth gospel appears to have originated in a situation where these believers were debating with people of Jewish religion, sometimes defending their own faith, sometimes attacking their rivals. The letters of 1, 2 and 3 John come later, in a situation where even among those who have believed in Jesus are disagreeing with people who interpret what happened differently.

There was some considerable time and distance between: 1) what had been seen by those women who went to the tomb; 2) the two disciples on the road with Jesus; and 3) those disciples in the room who watched Jesus eat fish;  AND 4) the folks who have brought us the testimony that we read in 1st John.

The community of these letters (from which we read an introductory paragraph today) had come to faith without being the “first witnesses”. That doesn’t make what they believed, said or wrote any less truthful than the faith of the first witnesses. We have to be careful when we read the words, “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked and touched with our hands. We cannot assume that this group were “first witnesses” or “among St. Paul’s reported 500.” Absent from the verses is any mention of Jesus’ risen body. The testimony is to “the word of life.”

We shouldn’t doubt what they say about the word of life that had been revealed to them, or the fellowship that they came to enjoy with God the Father through Jesus Christ. These are GENUINE things that they experienced. What’s not said here is anything about seeing JESUS with their eyes, hearing JESUS with their ears, or touching JESUS with their hands.

Just like the people who saw Jesus eat fish, and who were “witnesses”, these were also witnesses, but of something else.

Lots of things happen between an event and when it eventually gets reported. And the longer the time between a happening and its reporting, the less we tend to believe it. In fact, if someone else reports it first, we may alter our own “report” or testimony to fit what we’ve heard or read in theirs.

III  PUT DOWN YOUR BIBLE AND SPEAK TO ME ABOUT YOUR LIFE

It’s possible that even St. Luke fell for that, a little bit, as he wrote down the things that we read today in the gospel. In both the story “on the road” (which we didn’t read) and the story “in the room” (which we did read), reference is made to the scriptures that had been written before the crucifixion and resurrection. That is right and proper, but it does lead to a problem for us, now. We want to be accurate about what we believe, so we tend to ignore what the Holy Spirit, who inspired those scriptures, says to us now in favor of what we can turn to in our Bibles.

As an enthusiastic young believer in Jesus 42 years ago I came to Taiwan to share Christian belief with people who didn’t know about my Lord. During my first summer here I shared a room with a student of Cheng-Kung University who was not a Christian. I dearly wanted to “convert” him so that his soul could be saved. I doubt that I even moved him a centimeter closer to believing, but he taught me something that has stayed with me ever since.

One day he asked me a “faith related” question, and to respond, I grabbed my bible and began turning pages so I could show him the “relevant verse”. When he didn’t accept my answer, and wanted something further, I turned some more pages to find another verse. Finally he said to me, “put down your Bible and tell me what you have experienced.” It was then that I realized that my personal faith was mostly a bunch of linked bible verses through which I’d interpreted it. I believed strongly, but my faith had “no legs.”

What have we witnessed in our lives? Don’t talk about your grandmother, or your pastor, or your next-door neighbor. What have we experienced ourselves, heard with our ears, seen with our eyes, touched with our hands? And for this, I don’t mean visions like Portuguese children had at Fatima in 1917. I mean, how has faith in Jesus made any impression on you in the life you have lived so far.

CONCLUSION

Tell folks THAT. Tell what you have experienced. People who know and like you will listen, and learn, and maybe even come to believe in your experience, and go on to have their own. Don’t keep it secret.

But remember, you’re not responsible to tell people all of the stuff in the Bible, especially the stuff you have personal trouble believing. If someone, in response to your telling your experience, pulls up a Bible verse or story that you have trouble believing, admit it, and then go on to testify that you believe God loves you anyway. We are not people who respond to “The BIBLE” so much as we are people who respond to the gracious invitation to lives of faith that has been extended to us in Jesus Christ.

If you haven’t responded to that invitation, then consider responding positively. If your response to faith has been to believe, then tell someone. But don’t tell them what you HAVEN’T experienced, say what you have seen. Tell what has happened to you.

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

Advertisements

Results Don’t Always Follow Our Plans

Psalm 133    Acts 4:32-35

 

INTRODUCTION

There’s an expression in Taiwanese about plans and results, in English, it goes, “Tiger’s head, mouse’s tail.” It’s used when something starts with a roar, and ends ordinary, or less so. You can see it in application in China, where dozens of “ghost cities” have been constructed in the past 10 years. They are complete with roads, commercial districts, housing districts and even, in some, factories. But the cities themselves are empty, and empty buildings tend to fall apart more quickly than if they were filled with life.

Well, you might say, that’s the result of central planning by government agencies. Private businesses don’t make those kinds of mistakes. But if you had been in Tainan in the 1990s, when the round building at the end of University Road went up, you might think differently. That thing went up, and stood vacant for more than a decade. The department store part of it was operating, but the tall tower was vacant all the way to the top. About 2006 some work began that took more than a couple of years, so for the past 10 years or so, the place functions as a 5-star hotel.

An American movie, “Field of Dreams” was released in 1989. It included the phrase “If you build it, they will come.” The movie itself was very inspirational, but it may have spurred too many people to action.

In 1989 a Christian, Daniel Alamsjah in Magelang, Indonesia, had a vision of a house of prayer for all people. Over the following years he and some of his followers began building a structure that was supposed to look like a dove, but it came out looking like a chicken. They stopped building in 2000, because people weren’t coming to pray. The building is now abandoned in the jungle about 500 kilometers from Jakarta. Now people come, but not to pray, they come to make fun of it.

So, “If you build it, they’ll come.” Not always. Just saying it, or believing it, or wanting it, doesn’t guarantee that it will happen.

I  THE BROTHERS DWELL TOGETHER IN PEACE  (Psalm 133)

And that’s not the only hopeful and inspiring thing that can disappoint.

We read Psalm 133 today, about how good it is when God’s people dwell together in unity and peace.  (1) As true as that is, (and it IS true that it is good when God’s people dwell together in unity), (2) as good as all the words used describing it, (“abundant oil flowing down over the beard and collar…”)  (3) the statement here is really wishful thinking.

Psalm 133 is what is known as a “psalm of ascents”. It fit into the worship of the people who used it as something to sing as they headed up to the temple in Jerusalem to worship at special times of the year. It could even have been one of the songs that the choir of priests on duty at the temple sang as people came 1) up the road, 2) up the hill, 3) up the stairs to the temple. Either way (whether it was the people encouraging each other OR the priests encouraging the people), it comes to us from a people who fought each other tooth and nail.  If we place this in the “first temple” (the one built while Solomon was king), those people living in unity used it for 30 years or less before they split their country in two.  So, let’s place it in the “second temple”, when a mixed bunch of people who had been exiled coalesced with people who had been left behind and re-established a “nation” as a province of the Persian empire. The “never left” bunch and the “came back” bunch argued with each other, and the ones who came back and settled in the land, finding a new rhythm of life with the people they found there, argued over just about everything.

For us now, (a) social class, (b) educational background, (c) gender identity, (d) nationality and € a million other things divide us from each other. If we can find a common identity in that we are ALL people loved by God, and find a way to live in unity, it is so much the better.  We didn’t read it today, but here’s a bible verse familiar to many people, whether they have a “bible” background or not: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  Listen to that: God loved THE WORLD (not just a few people) and WHOEVER (not just a particular class, degree, gender, nationality or religious affiliation).

Do you know anyone who is not part of this world that God loves?  Do you know anyone who is not among the people whom God created?

When we find that we can’t live together in unity, the problem is not with God’s design and desire, it’s something more local to us.

II  A NEW COMMUNITY (ACTS 4:32-35)

We’re in the season of Easter. Last week we began, and we’ll continue until May 9th, considering what Easter means. Basically it starts here: (1)Jesus is risen, (2) all is renewed, (3) We have a new chance. (But, sadly, we still have the same problems).

There’s a story of a man who was shipwrecked alone and lived on a little island for several years. Eventually he was rescued by a passing freighter. The captain asked him about his life on the island, remarked that he had seen three buildings, and asked what they were. The man answered that the building in the center was where he had lived. The building on one side of it was his church, and the building on the other side was his “former church”. As the astronauts said to ground control, “Houston, we have a problem.”

With the rising of Jesus from death, church history begins. The Acts of the Apostles tells us of the trials and victories of that church. We read one of the things that they tried this afternoon. They had been transformed by Christ in whom they had come to believe. In the Acts of the Apostles there are many stories about the things they tried. Some succeeded, and others failed. In the 4 verses we read today we got a description of the beginnings of life as a community of property. Being “One” body in Christ, some among them didn’t consider themselves to be worthy to “hold” any property which could be used for the benefit of their sisters and brothers. The apostles, as leaders, accepted the gifts, and we must trust that things were distributed fairly. But, in the long run, this way of being the church didn’t work. (In the very next chapter we can read of its failure.)

There was nothing wrong with the plan. But like the people by whom and to whom Psalm 133 was sung, these people were unable to make it happen in practice.  (A)Though they were, each and every one, transformed by their faith in Christ, (B) yet each of them came into this arrangement with a past filled with: 1) too much humanity, 2)too much fear, 3)too much fighting, 4)too much lying, and 5) too much doubt.

Understanding that biblical people couldn’t achieve unity, should we bother to reach for it?  YES

Understanding that even the original church group in Jerusalem so long ago, though renewed by Christ, yet failed to trust each other, should we seek renewal?  ABSOLUTELY!

Are we likely to be disappointed? Probably

III LIFE AS HUMAN BEINGS

We are wrapped and trapped in DISunity, in our lives as parts of: 1) schools, 2)corporations, 3)societies and even4) families (though in families we try harder to hide it). Retreating into our identity as a community of faith, where disunity is not allowed, is a fantasy. There are cities and towns around the world where churches face each other across the street, or even are found on all four corners of a crossroads, and they will do anything BUT worship with each other.

In the larger world of “one church”, we find ourselves in “you go to your church and I’ll go to mine” situations. And even as we come into church to “be one in Christ’ we bring the disunities of our day to day lives with us. We don’t, we can’t, “put them in storage at the door.”

There are a few things we try to do in here, in the community of faith, that may help outside.

The words of Psalm 133 are testimony to God’s original good design and intent for life as a human society. That’s why we begin worship with a song of praise every week. God has called us to something larger and better than we are. God has called us to oneness. The best word in any church’s name should be “unity” in some form or another. We use “community” here. Even though we fail to achieve it, we reach for it.

The failure to become a community of oneness, even among the people of the early church, is not a fault of the design or of the intention, but of the actors, the people who were part of that church. And our own failure to become one in all things is, likewise, is testimony to our limited ability. That’s why, each week, we spend some time telling God that we once again have failed to achieve liftoff.

Keeping all of that in mind,we let go and entrust ourselves to God, singing “Lord have mercy upon us” every week. Praise, honesty and reliance on God put us on the road toward the unity that those people sang of in Psalm 133.

CONCLUSION

In Christ we have unity, in Christ we share everything, if not yet, then eventually. The 19th century British poet left us this line, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp — or what’s a heaven for?” It’s not a bible verse, but it is a word for us this and every day as we seek to live towards unity. Reach for more than you can conceive of getting, in this case, unity. For it is good to live that way, it is like oil flowing down Aaron’s beard and over the collar of his robe.

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

Fear No More 

Isaiah 25:6-9 and Mark 16:1-8 Easter Sunday

INTRODUCTION

The modern world, in which we live, there are many things that people fear. You can imagine that a web-search for something like, “the most common fears in Indonesia” or “in Taiwan”, might turn up hundreds of articles. All of them basically say the same things, which might vary a little with nationality and social class. The “top ten” lists that I found last week weren’t much help because they had no footnotes. But one article attempted, by collapsing different fears into larger categories, to reduce the list to 5 things.

Here they are:

The fear of ceasing to exist. It’s more basic than the “fear of death.” It’s the panicky feeling you get when you look over the edge of a high building.

Fear of losing any part of our body. The article mentioned that Anxiety about animals, such as bugs, spiders, snakes, and other creepy things arises from fear of having part of your body bit off or damaged by one of them.

Fear of losing our ability to govern ourselves: being immobilized, paralyzed, trapped, imprisoned, smothered, by circumstances beyond our control. It’s about our physical being and about social interactions and relationships.

Fear of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness; of becoming not wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else.

Fear of humiliation, of shame, or of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the Self

Reading about common fears in Taiwan, I learned that it was common last August to fear electric power failure. People depend so much on our computers, phones, air conditioners and other stuff that we can’t imagine having to live without them. Health fears rank fear of cancer first, heart disease second, and stroke third. And many people do not go into business because they fear loss of their money.

Taiwan has changed over the years. You rarely see the walls around peoples’ homes topped with broken glass or barbed wire any more. You don’t see bars on windows even on the ground floor of new buildings. (there are plenty of them on old buildings). Motorcycles are dangerous, but that doesn’t stop people from riding them.

The word we read from the bible today tells us, though, that there are some things which we need not fear any more.

I Because God has prepared for us (Isaiah 25:6)

In the years before the birth of Christ, the people who believed in God to whom we are introduced in the Bible were a minority, even in the land they called home! And home was not a secure place. It was at the crossroads of empires which marched back and forth through and around it to establish their power and to protect their imperial centers from each other. When we read the stories in the Hebrew Bible old testament about Israel and its wars with Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, the Hittites and others, those places cared very little about Israel, Judah and the other Bible lands like Syria, Sidon, Tyre, Philistia, Moab and Edom. The big Empires were looking out for what other big empires would do. They were content to leave the “in between little nations” to kill each other off.

Into this situation, the prophet Isaiah spoke the words that we read today from the Old Testament. His people were afraid of so many things. The exact date of the bits we read today cannot be determined. The words address a general situation, and some of the fears of a nation set among other little nations that fought against each other, and which were always under the threat of being rolled over as one empire went to battle with another.

Isaiah’s words in verse 6 speak to something wider than any single nation’s immediate crisis. They are for ALL PEOPLE “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” Whether or not you approve of wine-drinking, don’t get lost in the double mention here, because the words are about the promise of something good to come. A feast for everyone. Not for the winners of the battle, but a vision of no battle. One of the common fears listed as we started today, of “humiliation” is addressed here, and without stretching things too far, we can also see attention given to the fear of a nation’s inability to govern itself.

But there’s more.

II Because God has swallowed up death (Isaiah 25:7)

The people who first received the words of Isaiah so long ago, and we today, are assured that we need no longer fear ceasing to exist. In verse 7 we read that God will “swallow up death.” That addresses the fear of abandonment, of “social death”.

Death is the shroud that is cast over people and nations. In recent years in Western Europe, increasingly “anti-immigrant” political parties have risen up in places like Hungary, Austria and the Netherlands. A racist group, the Alternative for Germany, is on the threshold of power there Germany. One common theme among these is the fear that their essential culture is threatened from outside. It’s not that much different in the United States, where part of the “Trump Revolution” was powered by the resentment of many people seeing a mixed-race black man serving as president for 8 years.

The Biblical response to this kind of move to “cultural preservation” is found in the “all peoples” language of Isaiah. God is not for any of us as particular groups, but for each of us as a person, and for all of us as humanity. There’s nothing “in between”. We can be set free from the fear of “not existing” and from that of “social annihilation” in the promise God makes to swallow up death for all peoples.

“Fear no more,” God said to those people at that time in that place so long ago. God’s promises are for “all people” We, who are among “all people” have read it today, “fear no more,” for God has spoken. (though, I still have a problem with snakes and spiders).

III Most loudly, God has spoken in the resurrection of Christ from death (Mk 16:6-7)

Today is the day when we celebrate not only God’s SAYING “fear no more”, but the SHOUTING of FEAR! NO! MORE! That we meet in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Our New Testament story today was about three grieving and disappointed women who went to visit a grave. They planned to complete proper care for a dead body that they expected to find there. This care had been suspended by the weekly day of rest.They got a surprise. The tomb was open, and the body they met there was not their dead Lord, but a living “young man dressed in a white robe.” They got the news that Jesus, whom they had come to mourn, was alive and had already left the area.

Death had been swallowed up.

Further, they were to go tell the men (the disciples) to go meet Jesus elsewhere. That way, the men as well would have the news that death had been swallowed up.

This is, indeed, good news. It’s as good for us now, with our fears of ceasing to exist, as it was for them, then. What THEY did with the good news is not all that different from what WE do with it. …   They ran away. They said nothing, because they were afraid.

Like modern people who need not fear death, but still have problems with spiders and snakes, they continued to live in fear.

Maybe we do, too. We hold our faith as something private, attempt to live as Christian people in front of others without having to say anything about it. Have you ever heard anyone (even yourself) say, “I let the way I live be a testimony to the faith I have. If anyone asks me about it, I’ll be glad to tell them.” We fear something, being rejected, being humiliated for having faith in a world that is “scientific”, or , we fear being thought of as old-fashioned. What can we do with the good news of the end of the power of death, news that has been shouted to the whole world in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?

A few suggestions:

  • Believe it, even if it doesn’t fit what you imagined. The women who first got the news were, as we read, “seized with terror and amazement”. They had not imagined what they encountered at the tomb, but they believed something amazing had happened.
  • Let that resurrection belief, the freedom from fear, change the way you relate to people and situations. In other words, be changed by Jesus Christ risen from the dead.
  • Tell people of your own experience. Even if they don’t hold to any religion, or hold to a religion different from the one you have, if they know you, and can see how you live, they have to believe YOU even as they hold back judgment on what you have told them about “spiritual things.”

Try something like this: Jesus Christ is risen and lives in me. I have experienced this. Because Christ lives in me, I have strength to encounter THIS and THAT without fear. I’m not yet complete. Christ is still “being formed in me”, and I invite you to watch me as that process works along. I share this with you because in Christ I’ve found joy, and I want that joy to spread around.

CONCLUSION

Sisters and brothers, Christ is risen. This good news is not just for us, or for Christians, or even just for religious people of one faith or another. This good news is for all people. In Christ, God has swallowed up death. We fear no more. We can go in peace.

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

A Mosquito, a cat, some birds & stuff

1. Like many hymnals around the world, the one published by the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan 9 years ago has a section devoted to “Evening Hymns”. They are generally unfamiliar to church members and musicians here because, having no set services for evening, they are not “go to” items. With their many references to twilight, sunset, starry skies or darkness, they certainly don’t fit into Sunday morning worship. When Dave decided to offer evening prayers 4 nights every week at Tainan Theological College this term, he determined to introduce and use these 15 hymns, one hymn per week for the 18 week long semester.

Holy Week was the 5th week of term. Accordingly, each night we sang hymn #421. The text is originally British and the tune local. But it didn’t matter whether we sang it in Taiwanese (2 nights) Mandarin (1 night) or English (1 night), we had a hard time. Before the end of the term we’ll cycle back and re-use hymns 417-419, but, thankfully, not #421 again.

2. When Dave does simultaneous translation in the chapel at Tainan Theological College or at Dongning Presbyterian Church, he dons a set of headphones that entirely cover his ears. That insulates him from distractions so that he can concentrate on what he’s hearing in Taiwanese and turn it into English. There have been many mosquitoes out and about lately, and several congregate in the corner of the college chapel where Dave sits for translating. On a recent Tuesday morning he took his seat and put on the headphones, only to hear a very loud angry mosquito sound. Thinking he’d trapped a bloodsucker tightly against his ear, he snatched things off, but discovered nothing. Puzzled, he glanced in the direction of the lectern, about 12 feet away, and saw a mosquito sitting on the microphone. A few minutes later, when the speaker got up to begin things, there was another buzz upon takeoff, then, blessedly, only the sound of Dr. Loh, who was addressing us.

 3. A young woman who’s been Char’s student for 2 years at Chang Jung Christian University recently sent her an email with ‘an important question’. She is curious about how to choose a church since she wants to visit one but has never been before. Is it OK for a person who’s never been to church to go directly? She said she’s interested in Christianity and in Jesus, and since she’s majoring in translation, is especially looking for worship or a Bible study in English. Char was quite surprised and delighted to get this email since most modern Taiwanese college students seem to have very little interest in matters of faith or God or religion. It’s certainly not the typical question she gets from her students. In response, Char suggested that they set up an appointment to chat, which they were able to do last week.

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

4. On Thursday of Holy Week, Tainan Theological College held a communion service. Rev. Cheng, the head of the worship committee, designed the service, relocated the communion table from the platform to the floor and scheduled communion for before, rather than after the sermon. He had also selected Dave to be the celebrant. That was fine, but when approaching the table, Dave noted the absence of a microphone of any kind. Thankfully, his own ideas for the service had the congregation doing a couple of the longer prayers, which were printed in the bulletin. He only had to shout a few of the shorter things.

  1. Our 14 year old cat has been having “digestive issues” of late. Things he eats have been coming back up sometimes soon, sometimes several hours later, often in the middle of the night. When we realized that this was becoming a daily occurrence and then even more than that, we took him to the vet. Thankfully, nothing serious was found by blood test, x-ray or physical examination. He’s just old and his digestive system is slowing down. So we’ve changed his food to an expensive age-defying formula for senior cats (no more large, cheap bags of food from Costco!) and are hopeful for improvements. Nonetheless, we’re awakened most nights by certain cat-sounds that alert us to the need to step carefully in the morning. And to watch out for the ants.

6. Outside our living room window there’s a small tree which grows rapidly and often needs trimming. But it will have several weeks of reprieve, because a couple of birds have recently constructed a nest in it. We expect to watch the processes that ensue as eggs turn into chicks, fledglings then young fliers. The tree might appreciate their presence, too.

Look Up and Live

Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

Last week I noticed that the socks that I wear with my cloth shoes were worn out. When I was at RT Mart, where I do the weekly shopping, I stopped by the “sock display” to find something new.  I have rather large feet, so was looking for the “large size”.  But, instead of being marked “S”, “M” or “L”, the ones I selected were marked “F”.  Only after I got home and tried them on did I discover that “F” means, “Free size”, what I had learned as a boy “One Size Fits All”. Well, they “sort of” fit my big feet, but I think they are stretched a bit too far.

Today I’ve stretched something else. I was assigned to go to a church in Chia-yi this morning to preach in Taiwanese and ask for donations to the theological college’s annual fund. I’ve brought the same sermon here this afternoon, attempting to “stretch” it to fit our group. If it doesn’t exactly fit, I ask your patience. I promise you that I won’t ask you for money for the theological college.

Apart from at home and here at Tainan International Community Church, I live, move and have my being in Taiwan using the Taiwanese language. I’ve also come to love some of the proverbs that are part of Taiwan culture, like this one, “Lift your head three feet, there are gods.”

Why would someone want to look up? Maybe you’ve experienced this in your life in Tainan. Everything is near. You can walk many places, but when walking alongside the street, we shouldn’t look up much. The sidewalks are not even, and if you’re not carefully watching, you might trip and fall. And not all people in Tainan who walk their dogs collect the “gold nuggets” that dogs leave behind, so if you don’t look where you step, your shoe might get a particular odor.

I have a car, which I sometimes use, but when I’m driving I don’t look up. I look ahead, I look in the mirror to see what’s behind me, and I look from side to side so that I won’t get hit. BUT, I never look up.

I Look up and live  (Numbers 21:4-9)

Today we read a story from the Old Testament about some people who, because they had NOT been careful where they looked, what they thought, what they said and how they acted, were eventually forced to look up.

On the way from Egypt to the promised land, the people of Israel were not allowed to cross one king’s territory, and they had to walk around. Going around meant delay. Delay made some of them impatient. Impatience made some of them angry. Some of them complained about God. Some of them complained about Moses (their leader) and some of them complained about the food that God gave them every day.

We are sometimes like some of those people, aren’t we? (I’m sometimes like ALL of those people.) When we get impatient with our circumstances, or with God, or with our leaders, we tend to look inward at our dis-satisfaction and to focus on what’s wrong, and in doing so, we forget that there are other things that we should be careful about.

In the case of the Israel people whom we met in today’s Old Testament story, , they didn’t look where they were standing or sitting, and they were bitten by snakes. Some of them died. Others noticed pretty quickly that something was wrong. They brought it to the attention of their leader, Moses, the same one about whom some of them had been complaining.  He talked to God (about whom some of the people were complaining) and got instructions on what to do. In that story, they were given something “to look up to”. And in looking up, they found life.

There are several stories in the Bible kind of like this, something happened once, it got recorded, and we never hear about it again. But THIS story shows up two more times in the Bible. The bronze snake was kept and brought to the promised land. Eventually it was put in the temple that Solomon paid to have built, and later on, people began to worship it as an idol…. Not as a memory of their history, but as an object to worship in hope for their future. A good king had it destroyed (See II Kings 18:4).

II The Snake on the Pole in the New Testament

We heard about it again in the New Testament verses we read. John 3 is a very popular story about a leader, Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night and was told that he must be born again. The verses we read today included many people’s favorite, God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him might not die, but have eternal life.”  I like the verse that follows that one just as much, “God sent his son into the world, not to condemn the world, but so the world might be saved through him.”

About 30 years ago I was living in Kaohsiung and working at a Christian university student center. For a year or so we cooperated with the Studio Classroom organization on an English Bible Study program. There was a young American woman at Studio Classroom in Kaohsiung, a devout Christian, who one night asked me about John 3:14, because she didn’t know the story of Moses lifting up a snake in the wilderness. Did you?

When Jesus was talking to Nicodemus, a religious leader and teacher who knew his Bible stories, he used the snake on a pole example. His meaning was that,  in the same way that people in the wilderness could look up, and see something that would restore their lives, so Jesus would be lifted up, and in looking to him, people would find life, eternally.  That’s a great promise

III Looking up in Tainan today.

In Taiwan’s history, this nation’s people have been told to look up to many things: Imperialism, Nationalism, Democracy, Capitalism, Progressivism, localism. In churches people have been told to look up to the Law of God. At different times, we’ve been told that by looking up to these different things we would be saved from something or other.

No matter how many people we get into this room, we won’t ever get “all of the people of Taiwan” in here. Our own congregation, Tainan International Community Church, has been meeting here for more than 25 years. Over that time we’ve had many different leaders, some of whom have come from Tainan Theological College, others from other places. We’ve had many different brothers and sisters in this church as part of the ongoing life of “Tainan International Community Church”. When “trained leadership” has been available, that’s what we’ve relied on. In other times we have taken turns leading and guiding so that ministry here has gone continued. In the next few months we will be faced with a search for new trained leadership, or with figuring out a way to continue as a church by taking turns.

Last week we had a visitor from Canada, Rev. Samuel Cho, who is older even than me. I had misunderstood the purpose of his visit. I thought he was here to look at us with the idea that he might consider becoming your next leader. It turns out that he was here to look at me to take a part in a video program he’s thinking of making.

So, we have to start looking up as we seek to support the continued life and ministry of Tainan International Community Church. We need to begin praying for insight into God’s vision for this group. We need to begin inviting new people into the fellowship, new people who will be around after those of us who will soon “graduate and move on” leave Tainan.

We have not been bitten by snakes, but like Nicodemus who came to Jesus at night, we are in need of instruction and guidance. As the snake was lifted up in the wilderness, Jesus was lifted up on a cross. People who looked at the snake on the pole did not die. People, including you and I, who look to the person and the work of Jesus Christ, find eternal life.

Conclusion

Looking to Christ, in prayer and in pleading, let’s begin looking toward the life of our church. Let’s start now, even if you, like me, are only here for a few more months.

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

We Want to See Jesus

John 12:20-23 and Jeremiah 31:31-34

Since people see what’s in our hearts, what do we want to show them?

 

Not too many days ago, the government and the ruling party of a large imperial nation less than 200 kilometers from where we sit in Tainan changed its constitution so that their current president can stay on for as long as he likes. Pictures of that president voting for himself were circulated on the internet. Supporters in his government and party made speeches in his honor. In one picture that circulated on twitter, a member of one group of supporters was seen rolling her eyes as she listened to another supporter go “over the top” in words of praise for the “once president, now president-for-life”.

It is not so much in the words spoken as in the non-verbal speech (like eye rolling) or in the things that are NOT said, that the things on people’s hearts are revealed.

When people gather to celebrate something, to protest something, or to view a spectacle like a football match or a tennis tournament, what is happening may be of great importance to one group only and may not grab the attention of people across the board. For example, in South Africa under the Apartheid system, football was primarily followed by black people, and rugby almost exclusively by white people. As the story is told, after getting out of prison, Nelson Mandela attended a rugby match between a team from England and the South African national team. He noticed that White South Africans were cheering for their national team, and Black South Africans were cheering for England. After becoming president of the country, Mandela made a point of being present and visible at Rugby matches, and of urging all the people of his nation to support the national team. He became a prime example of one who wanted, from the depths of his heart, to overcome the racist separation in his country.

1: OUTSIDE / INSIDE  John 12:20-21

The “Jesus story” that we read from the New Testament today took place “at the festival”. It was a religious holiday marking a time in the history of Jesus’ people when they had experienced God’s salvation. This was something that they wanted to remember for sure, so it was a big holiday. And people from all over that part of the world, both believers-in-God and “people with an interest in” the religion of Jerusalem” came to be part of things there. Everyone was welcome to take part in the celebrations to one degree or another.

Jesus himself showed up… He entered the city in a parade where some declared him to be the coming king. Of course, this met different responses. For those who were “in power”, his arrival was a threat to their position. For those who were “out of power” it marked a chance for them to get in. And for others, who because they were outsiders, it meant nothing special, but they wanted to be “near to things when they happened.”

Among the “believers in God” who were gathered there for the festival, most were local people, but there were outsiders. We met a few of them in verse 20, where they are called, “Greeks”. This could mean a couple of things, that they were actually, ethnically, Greek, OR that whatever their ethnicity might have been, they lived and moved in the world using Greek language and cultural customs. Whichever it was, they were NOT exactly the same, culturally and language-wise, as the local folks.

You can imagine that they looked at what was happening, and who was on which side of the debate about Jesus, and decided that they were more in tune with the “outside of power” people who thought of Jesus as “the coming king” than they were with the “inside of power” people who just wanted Jesus to disappear.

These Greeks, who belonged to neither the outsiders nor the insiders, wanted to get close. Among those around Jesus, they first went to Philip, who, of Jesus’ 12 close friends, was the only one with a Greek name. (The other 11 went by their Hebrew or Aramaic names).

Philip had a choice. When outsiders wanted to get near to Jesus, he could choose to Protect, to Risk, or to Facilitate. His choice would show what was in his heart.

2: TO PROTECT / TO RISK / TO FACILITATE? John 12:22

There are many stories in the Bible of people wanting to get near to Jesus. In one, some mothers wanted Jesus to bless their children. The disciples, acting like the security guards who surround Taiwan’s president wherever she goes, stopped people from getting too close. I was once at an event where a “former” president of Taiwan was to speak, and before he even entered the venue, everyone was locked out while the security guards checked the venue for any threats. I had thought that I could go in by a side door to the place where I would sit to translate the former president’s remarks for the foreign guests, but a security guard stopped me. He was very polite, but very firm. Philip could have done that regarding the request of some outsiders who wanted to see Jesus.

He could also have taken a risk that Jesus might, indeed, have had his mind on other things, and be told “no” upon leading them right up in front of his Lord. For all we know, the only Hebrew Jesus knew was that used in worship and for Bible reading, and the only language he spoke conversationally was his mother tongue of Aramaic. Of what benefit would it be for him to stand around with some people pointing fingers, smiling and waving their hands in mutual misunderstanding?

Philip took a third way. He decided to try to facilitate the successful accomplishment of the task. He found one of the disciples who was even closer to Jesus than himself, the guy named Andrew, and they went together.

We really don’t know the outcome of the story. Jesus seems to have accepted the request, but then used it as the beginning of a sermon about the meaning of his upcoming death. If that doesn’t exactly show what was on his heart, it, at least, shows what was on his mind.

People come to church for many different reasons. And they don’t all have to be good. I remember when I was 23 or 24 years I attended Wednesday and Sunday evening events at a church far from the university where I studied and lived. It was NOT even the church that I attended on Sunday mornings. I was interested in a woman there (she was NOT interested in me, though). I wanted to get close to someone at that church, and it WASN’T Jesus.

One thing that all of us here might pay attention to is the possibility that, like those Greeks in the gospel story, people who join us in Church on Sunday afternoons might be wanting to see Jesus. We don’t want to be the ones who prevent that from happening. Like Philip in that story, we need to be those who make it easy.

3: THE SIGNS OF THE TIMES Jeremiah 31:31-34

From the Old Testament, we read a prophecy, made hundreds of years before Jesus showed up, thousands of years before WE showed up. “The days are surely coming,” says the Lord, …   The prophecy spoke to a people long ago and far away who needed a word of hope. It began by retelling a sad history of brokenness and betrayal. It moved through a promise of renewal and newness, and a promise to “write a new covenant (arrangement)” not on stone or paper or clay, but on hearts.

“On” a heart, “In” a heart… in Chinese, it’s the same thing. What God “writes on our hearts” is about our relationship to the promises (and because it’s on “OUR” hearts it’s about our relationship to each other). It is an important part of what is experienced by others when they come into our fellowship here. That’s especially true for people who are here for something that may have little or nothing to do with the faith that we share.

The people at that church where I went because I was interested in a woman welcomed me and made me very much at home, even though what was on MY heart was mainly romantic and even sexual, (and it was rather obvious, too), what was on THEIR hearts was relational and Christian.

Traditional churches with words like “Baptist”, “Methodist”, “Presbyterian” and such in their names in my home country are shrinking. Some of that shrinking has been offset by the growth of contemporary evangelical churches where black and white people fellowship together side by side. That was true until last year. A newspaper article published on March 9th followed one black woman (and quoted a couple others) as examples of many who had been interviewed. This woman had found one of those contemporary inter-racial evangelical churches to be the home for her faith for almost 10 years. The congregation, though mostly white people, included many black people, who found themselves welcomed as equals EXCEPT when racial issues in the wider society made the news. The events surrounding the American presidential election of 2016 convinced her that she was an outsider. She saw that what was on the hearts of the people among whom she had been worshipping for several years was racist. The white people couldn’t even see that, or, upon seeing that, said that their racial opinions and racist words were not important.

CONCLUSION

What is on YOUR heart?

Is it mostly what God has written there? Or, is it mostly what your cultural identity, social class, educational attainment and self-interest have written there?  It will show, somewhere, sometime, somehow. Whether you want to show it or not, eventually, even if you try to keep it hidden, it will come out.

As we move into and through the week ahead, let’s look into ourselves, and look outward at the people around us, making it easier for anyone and everyone to see Jesus who is in us.

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

Since people see what’s in our hearts, what do we want to show them?

 

INTRODUCTION

Not too many days ago, the government and the ruling party of a large imperial nation less than 200 kilometers from where we sit in Tainan changed its constitution so that their current president can stay on for as long as he likes. Pictures of that president voting for himself were circulated on the internet. Supporters in his government and party made speeches in his honor. In one picture that circulated on twitter, a member of one group of supporters was seen rolling her eyes as she listened to another supporter go “over the top” in words of praise for the “once president, now president-for-life”.

It is not so much in the words spoken as in the non-verbal speech (like eye rolling) or in the things that are NOT said, that the things on people’s hearts are revealed.

When people gather to celebrate something, to protest something, or to view a spectacle like a football match or a tennis tournament, what is happening may be of great importance to one group only and may not grab the attention of people across the board. For example, in South Africa under the Apartheid system, football was primarily followed by black people, and rugby almost exclusively by white people. As the story is told, after getting out of prison, Nelson Mandela attended a rugby match between a team from England and the South African national team. He noticed that White South Africans were cheering for their national team, and Black South Africans were cheering for England. After becoming president of the country, Mandela made a point of being present and visible at Rugby matches, and of urging all the people of his nation to support the national team. He became a prime example of one who wanted, from the depths of his heart, to overcome the racist separation in his country.

1: OUTSIDE / INSIDE  John 12:20-21

The “Jesus story” that we read from the New Testament today took place “at the festival”. It was a religious holiday marking a time in the history of Jesus’ people when they had experienced God’s salvation. This was something that they wanted to remember for sure, so it was a big holiday. And people from all over that part of the world, both believers-in-God and “people with an interest in” the religion of Jerusalem” came to be part of things there. Everyone was welcome to take part in the celebrations to one degree or another.

Jesus himself showed up… He entered the city in a parade where some declared him to be the coming king. Of course, this met different responses. For those who were “in power”, his arrival was a threat to their position. For those who were “out of power” it marked a chance for them to get in. And for others, who because they were outsiders, it meant nothing special, but they wanted to be “near to things when they happened.”

Among the “believers in God” who were gathered there for the festival, most were local people, but there were outsiders. We met a few of them in verse 20, where they are called, “Greeks”. This could mean a couple of things, that they were actually, ethnically, Greek, OR that whatever their ethnicity might have been, they lived and moved in the world using Greek language and cultural customs. Whichever it was, they were NOT exactly the same, culturally and language-wise, as the local folks.

You can imagine that they looked at what was happening, and who was on which side of the debate about Jesus, and decided that they were more in tune with the “outside of power” people who thought of Jesus as “the coming king” than they were with the “inside of power” people who just wanted Jesus to disappear.

These Greeks, who belonged to neither the outsiders nor the insiders, wanted to get close. Among those around Jesus, they first went to Philip, who, of Jesus’ 12 close friends, was the only one with a Greek name. (The other 11 went by their Hebrew or Aramaic names).

Philip had a choice. When outsiders wanted to get near to Jesus, he could choose to Protect, to Risk, or to Facilitate. His choice would show what was in his heart.

2: TO PROTECT / TO RISK / TO FACILITATE? John 12:22

There are many stories in the Bible of people wanting to get near to Jesus. In one, some mothers wanted Jesus to bless their children. The disciples, acting like the security guards who surround Taiwan’s president wherever she goes, stopped people from getting too close. I was once at an event where a “former” president of Taiwan was to speak, and before he even entered the venue, everyone was locked out while the security guards checked the venue for any threats. I had thought that I could go in by a side door to the place where I would sit to translate the former president’s remarks for the foreign guests, but a security guard stopped me. He was very polite, but very firm. Philip could have done that regarding the request of some outsiders who wanted to see Jesus.

He could also have taken a risk that Jesus might, indeed, have had his mind on other things, and be told “no” upon leading them right up in front of his Lord. For all we know, the only Hebrew Jesus knew was that used in worship and for Bible reading, and the only language he spoke conversationally was his mother tongue of Aramaic. Of what benefit would it be for him to stand around with some people pointing fingers, smiling and waving their hands in mutual misunderstanding?

Philip took a third way. He decided to try to facilitate the successful accomplishment of the task. He found one of the disciples who was even closer to Jesus than himself, the guy named Andrew, and they went together.

We really don’t know the outcome of the story. Jesus seems to have accepted the request, but then used it as the beginning of a sermon about the meaning of his upcoming death. If that doesn’t exactly show what was on his heart, it, at least, shows what was on his mind.

People come to church for many different reasons. And they don’t all have to be good. I remember when I was 23 or 24 years I attended Wednesday and Sunday evening events at a church far from the university where I studied and lived. It was NOT even the church that I attended on Sunday mornings. I was interested in a woman there (she was NOT interested in me, though). I wanted to get close to someone at that church, and it WASN’T Jesus.

One thing that all of us here might pay attention to is the possibility that, like those Greeks in the gospel story, people who join us in Church on Sunday afternoons might be wanting to see Jesus. We don’t want to be the ones who prevent that from happening. Like Philip in that story, we need to be those who make it easy.

3: THE SIGNS OF THE TIMES Jeremiah 31:31-34

From the Old Testament, we read a prophecy, made hundreds of years before Jesus showed up, thousands of years before WE showed up. “The days are surely coming,” says the Lord, …   The prophecy spoke to a people long ago and far away who needed a word of hope. It began by retelling a sad history of brokenness and betrayal. It moved through a promise of renewal and newness, and a promise to “write a new covenant (arrangement)” not on stone or paper or clay, but on hearts.

“On” a heart, “In” a heart… in Chinese, it’s the same thing. What God “writes on our hearts” is about our relationship to the promises (and because it’s on “OUR” hearts it’s about our relationship to each other). It is an important part of what is experienced by others when they come into our fellowship here. That’s especially true for people who are here for something that may have little or nothing to do with the faith that we share.

The people at that church where I went because I was interested in a woman welcomed me and made me very much at home, even though what was on MY heart was mainly romantic and even sexual, (and it was rather obvious, too), what was on THEIR hearts was relational and Christian.

Traditional churches with words like “Baptist”, “Methodist”, “Presbyterian” and such in their names in my home country are shrinking. Some of that shrinking has been offset by the growth of contemporary evangelical churches where black and white people fellowship together side by side. That was true until last year. A newspaper article published on March 9th followed one black woman (and quoted a couple others) as examples of many who had been interviewed. This woman had found one of those contemporary inter-racial evangelical churches to be the home for her faith for almost 10 years. The congregation, though mostly white people, included many black people, who found themselves welcomed as equals EXCEPT when racial issues in the wider society made the news. The events surrounding the American presidential election of 2016 convinced her that she was an outsider. She saw that what was on the hearts of the people among whom she had been worshipping for several years was racist. The white people couldn’t even see that, or, upon seeing that, said that their racial opinions and racist words were not important.

CONCLUSION

What is on YOUR heart?

Is it mostly what God has written there? Or, is it mostly what your cultural identity, social class, educational attainment and self-interest have written there?  It will show, somewhere, sometime, somehow. Whether you want to show it or not, eventually, even if you try to keep it hidden, it will come out.

As we move into and through the week ahead, let’s look into ourselves, and look outward at the people around us, making it easier for anyone and everyone to see Jesus who is in us.

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

Finding What’s Good Through Knowing Each Other

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

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

 INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

I JESUS CLEANSING THE TEMPLE (John 2:13-22)

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

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

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

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

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

II WHAT MAKES PEOPLE GOOD? Psalm 19:8-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III WE NEED EACH OTHER

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing with some stories

A letter, sent on February 28th 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑