How We Know Love

 

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1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Some years ago, I was reading the twenty-third psalm and found myself meditating on the phrase, “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The reason this phrase leaped from the gilt-edged page is that I was, at that time, undergoing a personal transformation in my spiritual life. I had come to realize that my spiritual life was haphazard and undisciplined. Perhaps you would describe your spiritual life as haphazard and undisciplined, too. Maybe prayer isn’t something you actually set aside time for; it happens occasionally when it occurs to you. Or when there’s a crisis. And maybe when you realize it’s been a while since you’d last had a conversation with God, you feel rather guilty about it.

That’s where I had been, and so I had begun a spiritual “training” regimen. I felt as though God was disciplining me in his love for me, wanting to train me to be more responsible for the quality of our relationship. In the New Testament, we read in the book of Hebrews, “For the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts” (Heb. 12:6). My response to this was to begin a daily regimen that included waking up extra early each morning for prayer and meditation on scripture. This discipline led to an intimacy with the Holy Spirit that began to heighten my awareness of God’s leading and to inform my preaching in powerful ways. It prepared me to lead processes of discernment with my congregation and others and enabled me to be a more intentional disciple of Jesus Christ.

The prophet Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on his servant the sins of us all” (Isa. 53:6). In chapters 8 and 9 of Matthew, several miracles are grouped together, and at the end of this section on miracles of healing, Jesus stands before a group of people who still were sick, who still were poor, maimed, blind and lame. “When he saw the crowds,” Matthew states, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).

If we look at the world around us, we will find similar flocks of maimed, blind, starving sheep roaming the countryside, continuing to do so without a shepherd. Life is fragile, and we often feel vulnerable in an uncertain world. Jesus said in this morning’s reading from John that the hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolves coming and runs away. The hired hand does this because he doesn’t care for the sheep.

The book of Acts describes the early Church—the Church before the word “Christian” had even been invented yet, by saying, “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all, because there was not a needy person among them. For as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:33-35). These early Christians were determined not to be the hired hand who ran away and left the poor and vulnerable to the wolves, but rather to follow in their Shepherd’s footsteps and, as Jesus had exhorted Peter, to “feed [his] sheep” (John 21).

In this sense, we are disciplined, convicted, as Peter was, by Jesus’ words, every time we dare to lift our eyes and see the plight of the poor and oppressed in the world. Imagine, if you will, the Good Shepherd reaching out with his rod of discipline to smack us—lovingly—on the back of the head. “You’re not feeding my sheep,” he says. “You’re like a hired hand who is only in this for the payoff. You don’t care about my sheep—you’re only a Christian for what’s in it for you!”

Christianity has precious little to do with coming to church on Sunday morning and being fed spiritually—however invaluable that may be to achieving our ends. If that’s what being a Christian means to us—that we’re giving God what we owe Him by showing up to listen to someone like me blather on each week—then we are just hired hands. And that’s a hard thing for me to say because I rather like blathering!

Just prior to the verse about the Lord’s rod and staff that was the object of my meditation, we find these words: “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil for you are with me.” Many of us grew up learning the old King James (or at least the Revised Standard Version) which reads “the valley of the shadow of death.” We read Psalm 23 at funerals all the time, because the deceased is walking through the valley of the shadow of death, and it reminds us that we will, too, someday. But the more modern translation “even though I walk through the darkest valley,” is, to my ears, even more beautiful, because it acknowledges that death is not the only thing we fear. Life is filled with travails that might be called dark valleys. We lose our jobs; we lose our health. We lose our friends; we lose our spouses. And through it all, we need fear no evil, for the Good Shepherd is always with us.

Which leads to a rather curious notion: If sheep follow the sound of their shepherd’s voice, that means that when we find ourselves in dark valleys, it may be because the Good Shepherd led us there! Would a good shepherd do such a thing? I believe he would, if, on the other side of that dark valley, there were green pastures and still waters where he could restore our souls! After my undisciplined spiritual life led to spiritual burn-out and a premature end to my first pastorate, Diane and I spent four years living with my parents, enduring heartache and discouragement. And I have come to believe that this was because God was disciplining me—not punishing me, but training me—to become the pastor He had preordained me to be. I wasn’t who or where God wanted me to be, and the only way to prepare me for the difficult pastoral work that would come next—the only way to discipline me for the work ahead—was to lead me through a dark valley, which, when I look back on it now, I often call my “wilderness period.”

One of the most important aspects of my next call as a pastor was group discernment—something for which I was woefully unprepared before my wilderness period and the spiritual discipline that I learned through it. At the same time that I was helping three church Sessions to discern God’s call to merge their congregations, the Upper Ohio Valley Presbytery found itself in need of discernment. (These days, our entire denomination is undergoing a years-long discernment process with an eye toward serious reformation of the way it functions faithfully.)

In comparing the presbytery’s discerning body to my parish’s Sessions, I came away with a sense of pride. See, the presbytery’s task force addressed the issue early on by saying at a presbytery meeting, “The presbytery is financially insolvent, so we need to change the way we do things so that we can have a balanced budget.” They weren’t wrong, of course, but that was no way to discern God’s will!

My congregation’s Parish Council, on the other hand, engaged in wonderful, faithful, theological wrestling! They struggled with questions of who Jesus is, what the Church is meant to be, and how our understanding of God’s grace affects the way we participate in mission and community outreach. And the reason we approached our discernment process this way was that we knew that our future lay not in “saving our bacon” financially speaking, but in being faithful to who and what God created us to be.

One of the central tensions experienced by churches, by presbyteries, and currently by our denomination, is the tension between what we call the “Great Ends of the Church,” and the notion that “stewardship” is to be equated with “good business practices.” The Great Ends of the Church state that we exist to be “the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.” And yet many churches, presbyteries, and denominations instead employ the so-called “best practices” of the very world that they are called to correct!

The Book of Order further notes that the Church is to undertake its mission “even at the risk of losing its life.” The Church will be following the voice of the Good Shepherd when it stops thinking of itself as an institution (because institutions exist to protect and perpetuate themselves) and revives its ancient self-understanding—that of a community—existing not for its own sake, but for the sake of others, to the glory of God. Jesus didn’t protect himself; he exhibited the kingdom of heaven to the world, even at the risk of losing his life—he laid down his life for his sheep. The first epistle of John reminds us that “This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him” (1 John 3:16-17)?

Imagine if our attitude was such that when someone asked us, “What time does your church’s service start?” our answer was not “10:30,” but rather, “At 11:45, when worship is over and the congregation leaves. That’s when the service begins.” If what takes place on Sunday morning is a “service,” then either singing a couple of hymns and listening to a sermon counts as service to God, and one’s obligation to God for a whole week is fulfilled after just one hour, or worship leaders are rendering some sort of “service” to those in attendance. What the church does together on Sunday mornings is not a service. I don’t “render services.” The service starts when we leave the church, putting into practice the discipline to which God is calling us.

It is time for us to hear the sound of our Shepherd’s voice and follow him, even into the dark valleys—perhaps especially there. It’s time for us to stop being hired hands who don’t care about our Lord’s sheep because we don’t think they’re a part of “our flock,” as we’re reminded that we are not a Christian nonprofit organization, but a Christian community.

The lost sheep of the world—sheep that, for all their waywardness, the Lord still calls his own—can’t sing the 23rd Psalm, and that should make our souls ache. They don’t follow the sound of the Shepherd’s voice, and that should make our hearts break. It should make us want to follow the Good Shepherd into the dark valleys to help lead these sheep into the fold. If we don’t care, if our souls don’t ache, if our hearts don’t break, if we don’t reach out as apprentice shepherds to welcome these lost sheep into the fold—even at the risk of losing our own life—then we’re just hired hands, and not disciples at all.

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Practicing Righteousness

 

1 John 3:1–7

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I lost my last remaining grandparent, my Grandma Camlin, in February of 2009. Gram was a woman of deep and ubiquitous faith, raising my Aunt to be a church musician and my father to be an ordained Elder. Her own husband, my grandfather, was a lay preacher (and as it happens, he and I have preached in some of the same pulpits in southwestern Pennsylvania), and she had read through the Bible countless times with Vernon McGee, or, as she called him, “The dead guy on the radio.” On the Saturday before she died, I woke up with the clear and certain feeling that I needed to visit my grandmother that afternoon, and that I should go alone, rather than take Diane and the kids as usually happened.

Imagine my surprise when I went for what would be my final visit with Gram, and she said to me, “Matthew, I want to ask you about heaven. I don’t know how to get there.”
I told her that I wasn’t sure where it was either, but that when the time came, she wouldn’t need to find heaven. Heaven would find her. Some silence went by, and then she said, more quietly, “I don’t know if I’m good enough to get there.” That’s when I knew why I was visiting, why God had put it in my head, “you need to speak to your grandmother alone today.”

I said, “Gram, there’s no such thing as ‘good enough’ or ‘not good enough.’ I’m not good enough for heaven, but I believe I’ll get there anyway. That’s what God’s grace is all about. It’s only by God’s grace that we ever enter his presence, but that grace is all we need.”

To which she replied, “That’s enough talk about Heaven now!”

I still marvel at that conversation, more than nine years later. Here was a woman who had lived a life of faith and commitment, who had raised her family well and instilled in her children and grandchildren genuine devotion to Christ. But as she entered her final days, she was uncertain enough to ask her quiet question. That question is, perhaps, in the minds of many of us: Am I good enough?

The first epistle of John addresses that very question. “If you know that he is righteous, you also know that every person who practices righteousness is born from him,” the author writes. He will return to that theme of “practicing righteousness” in a few verses, but not before he writes this: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are! … Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be.”

Now we are the children of God. Now. With all our imperfections and nagging sinfulness. Now, with our constant flouting of the Sermon on the Mount. Now, with our amazing talent for hating our neighbor and preferring ourselves. Now, with our praising Jesus with our lips and then denying him with the way we treat people who are different from us. Now we are the children of God. We deserve God’s condemnation. But instead, we have been declared children of God.

And if you think that’s amazing, John writes, wait’ll you see what comes next! It hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. What we know is that when Christ appears, we will be like him, because we’ll see him as he is.

Just to set the record straight: right now? We are nowhere near being like Jesus. But someday? We’ll finally be what God created us to be.

In the meantime, what are we to do with ourselves? Are we just muddling through this life while we wait to be transported to someplace better? Not if we understand and believe and live according to what scripture teaches. There are many Christians—too many—who do believe that this world is temporary and disposable; that the only thing that can fix this rotten-to-the-core world is God’s direct intervention—and then conclude that there’s no sense getting involved or even caring.

Friends, that is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s the gospel of something, I guess, but not the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Bible does not describe Christians going to heaven as the end-game of God’s will for creation. What it talks about is the Kingdom of God coming to Earth, and God making his dwelling among us. And Jesus, for his part, doesn’t say, “Believe in me, and receive your all-access pass.” He says, “Follow me; and by follow me, I mean take up your cross—daily—because my Way is better than the world’s way.” You see, Jesus didn’t teach his disciples what to believe; he taught them what to do.

But because he was teaching his disciples to do crazy things like “turn the other cheek,” and “go the extra mile,” and “love your enemies and pray for them,” John knew that just as the world didn’t receive him, it wouldn’t receive his disciples either. That is to say, the actions of those who follow Jesus’ teachings don’t make sense to the world, even though they’re better.

So how do we get from our sinful selves to Christlikeness? My band director used to use a litany with our band to remind us why we practiced two hours a day, four days a week, in order to be prepared for our football halftime shows and Saturday band competitions. “How do we achieve excellence?” he’d ask.

“Master the fundamentals!” we’d respond.

“How do you master the fundamentals?” he’d ask.

“Practice, practice, practice.”

He’d also correct us whenever we used the old adage, “Practice makes perfect.” He knew that wasn’t true, because practicing mistakes, or practicing bad technique would never make anyone perfect. Instead, he would say, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” It was a tall order; Mr. Galvin was not easy to please. But for his efforts, I was a member of a very fine marching band and wind ensemble.

What does it take to be Christlike? It takes practice. John says, “The person who practices righteousness is righteous, in the same way that Jesus is righteous.” In short, this means that it’s not what we believe that makes us righteous; it’s what we do. I know of people who call themselves Christians who are among the most terrible people I know. It’s not what the believe—nor the name the claim—that makes the righteous. John says it’s what one practices that makes one righteous.

What does practicing righteousness look like? The Christian religion has a tradition—thousandsof years old—of what it calls “Spiritual Practices.” These acts of piety are exercises that help a person strengthen their faith, their devotion, their relationship with Jesus Christ and with one another, and most importantly, their “Christian reflexes.” That is to say, by practicing a righteous Christian ethic we become better at it so that when a difficult, or stressful, or challenging circumstance arises, we are equipped to handle it in a Christlike manner.

The world tells us that retribution equals justice. It tells us that we have the right—at least in some states—to kill anyone who makes us feel threatened. But Jesus says, “You must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat, too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two” (Matt 5:39-41, CEB).

The world tells us to take care of our own; to love our family and friends, those who look, and think, and act, and vote just like us. But Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:43-45). Oh! And isn’t that what John has called us: children of God?

“Therefore,” Jesus continues, “Just as your heavenly Father is perfect in showing love to everyone, so also you must be perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Perfect love. For everyone. Including—and perhaps especially—those who are not like you. Love African-Americans. Love Mexicans and other Latin-Americans. Love democrats. Love Republicans. Love evangelicals. Love Muslims. Love Jews. Love Browns fans.

That’s what it means to be righteous. That’s what it means to be Christlike. Jesus loved a Samaritan woman. Jesus loved a centurion of the Roman army sent to oppress Jesus’ own people. Love is the reason for everything the Christian does.

How good at this do we need to be? “Be perfect,” Jesus says, “as my Father in heaven is perfect.” Now, the word perfect doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means. It really means, “Be complete,” “reach the goal.” Interestingly, this verse is translated in the Common English Bible to say, “Just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”

 

In 1985, someone asked Mary Lou Retton about what it takes to achieve a perfect score, as she did in the 1984 Olympics. “Here’s what it takes to be a complete gymnast. [And notice how she used the word complete just like Jesus does when he describes perfection?] Here’s what it takes to be a complete gymnast. Someone should be able to sneak up and drag you out at midnight, push you out on some strange floor—and you should be able to do your entire routine sound asleep in your pajamas. Without one mistake. That’s the secret. It’s got to be,” she says, “a natural reaction.”

 

We will have achieved the goal—our Christlike love will have grown complete—when loving those different from us is our natural reaction.

In order to be a perfect gymnast, Mary Lou Retton trained constantly and relentlessly. In order for us to love others as completely as Christ loves, we must train constantly and relentlessly as well. What are the Christian practices, the spiritual disciplines, that strengthen a follower of the Way of Jesus Christ?

Prayer is the first and foremost discipline. If you are not praying every day, not only prayers of intercession for those on our prayer list, but also sitting silently, waiting for God to speak to your heart, then you’re already off to a bad start. Sometimes prayer is hard; sometimes we’re not in the mood, sometimes God is the last one we want to talk to. But if we don’t start there, nothing else we do will succeed.

Second, if your Bible has a fine-but-thickening layer of dust on it, then you’re skipping school; you’ll never be a good student of Jesus Christ that way. I don’t care how many times you’ve read it cover-to-cover. You never know it all, and you should never stop wanting more.

Those are the two most basic disciplines that everyone should be doing. But those alone won’t make you perfect lovers of others, as Christ loves perfectly. They’re more like learning to walk before learning to dance. At some point, you still have to say “amen,” close the book, and go practice loving as Christ loves. Prayer and study are like taking Spanish classes where you listen to the instructor, and learn how to conjugate irregular verbs, but never get to practice speaking with others. If speaking Spanish fluently is the goal, then practicing speaking Spanish is the only way to achieve it.

Let no one deceive you: the person who practices righteousness is righteous in the same way that Jesus is righteous. Now we are children of God; it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. But by God’s grace, let us strive to achieve the goal God has in mind for us.

Obstacles to Gratitude: Greed

 

Num. 11:31-34; Matt. 22:15-22

Capitalism-Socialism-and-Greed

Greed is putting one’s trust in accumulation, rather than provision. More specifically, it is trusting our ability to gather in for ourselves, rather than trusting God’s capability to provide us with what we need. In order to illustrate what I mean, I thought we might return to the story of the Israelites, who had just stuck their camp at the base of Mount Sinai in order to continue their journey from slavery in Egypt to the freedom that awaited them in the Promised Land, and who seemed suddenly to conclude that having their daily needs miraculously met by a God who loved them was kind of a drag.

“Hey guys, remember back in Egypt, when we had barbecues and stuff?” they asked. “And we had cucumbers and melons, and leeks and garlic, and all kinds of succulent goodies? Man… it kinda makes me wish we’d never left Egypt in the first place.” Now, I don’t mean to diminish the Israelites’ situation. They were, essentially, stuck eating the same thing every single day, three meals a day. And perhaps God could have seen fit to release a line of… flavored mannas or something. Banana manna. One that tasted like rum punch and coconut, called cabana manna. Or what about “Tropicana manna?” Or one that tasted like charbroiled beef steak, called Montana manna? Or one that tasted like crawfish étouffée called Louisiana manna.

Because according to scripture, for a miracle food, manna really didn’t taste like much. The New International Version of the Bible says, “They cooked it in a pot or made it into loaves. And it tasted like something made with olive oil.” So… manna-coti, then?

 

dry-manicotti
Manna, apparently.

 

We’ve already talked about how the Israelites’ nostalgia for the good old days in Egypt, when they enjoyed a little variety in their diets—slaves who enjoyed a little variety in their diets, let’s remember—was an obstacle to their living with an attitude of gratitude. ‘Cause after all, this really was—no kidding—food which graciously rained down from heaven. There was never a shortage. Everyone was always completely satisfied. Their needs were met.

But eventually, they didn’t just want their needs met, they wanted what they wanted. The classic translation of the opening line of the twenty-third Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” is quite poetic, but it can lead us to a minor misunderstanding. The Hebrew word at the end of that phrase doesn’t mean “want” in quite the way we’re thinking about it presently. It really means “need.” What the Psalmist is extolling is that the Lord is his Shepherd, therefore he will never be “in need.” The same is already entirely true for the Israelites. They have their daily needs met.

We all know the next bit of the story as well: God gets angry at the Israelites for complaining and declares to Moses that the people are going to get so much meat from him they’re going to have to eat it until its coming out of their noses. “You want meat? I’ll give you meat!” he says. And he asks a great question that I hope will stick with you: “Is the Lord’s arm too short?” That’s a brilliant question because I love the imagery. If God can’t do something, presumably it’s because his arm is too short. It’s just too far for the Lord to reach, right? And so he’s going to feed the Israelites meat until they choke on it. He’s going to prove just how long the Lord’s arm is; that is to say, he’s going to prove just how capable God is of providing for their every need.

And then he sends clouds of quail toward the camp. Now, depending on how you translate the Hebrew one could either envision so many quail descending upon the camp that they literally pile up in drifts, or you could imagine them hovering (or at least flying around in circles) about three feet off the ground. Scholars argue over which is the best translation, but to argue over this is to miss the larger point. God didn’t just send the Israelites on a turkey shoot and say, “Good luck!” He made the quail so easy to gather a child could do it. Either they were piled up so that people were practically stepping on them, or they were flying around at waist height, in which case all you had to do was open a sack and wait for them to fly right in! Either way, you’ve got plenty of quail to eat and it has required nothing of you whatsoever. Just like with the Manna, with which God showered the people with bread from heaven, now the Israelites were divinely pelted with poultry.

Now, here’s where we finally get to my present point. What was the reaction of the Israelites? They went out and they gathered quail of course! They gathered quail all day and all night for a day and a half. And when they were done, the least anyone had gathered was SIXTY. BUSHELS. OF QUAIL.

SIXTY. BUSHELS. OF QUAIL!

Minimum!

Per person!

The Bible says they had to spread them out all over the camp—well, yeah, you think?! Sixty bushels or more per person… they’ve gotta go somewhere!

What does this tell us about the Israelites? It tells us that they trust their capability to gather more than the Lord’s capability to provide. They put their trust in accumulation, rather than in provision. The Israelites were greedy, instead of grateful.

 

The Pharisees, Matthew’s favorite foil for Jesus in his Gospel — probably because they were the biggest detractors of Jesus-followers living in Antioch at the time of the Gospel’s writing — laid a trap for Jesus with a little help from their enemies, the Herodians. The thing you have to understand is that the Herodians and the Pharisees were political polar opposites. The Pharisees thought it was unlawful for the Jews to participate in Roman customs in any way (in this instance, to carry Roman coinage because of the graven images on it) and really just wanted to push the Roman occupation out of their territory altogether. The Herodians, on the other hand, were determined to accommodate the Romans, because they wanted to curry favor with their oppressors in order to get ahead in society. These two factions were so diametrically opposed, it would be like the Tea Party teaming up with Hillary Clinton.

There’s a plant in the crowd: someone who asks Jesus the question, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not.” Jesus could smell the trap a mile away, if for no other reason than that the crowd was full of both Pharisees and Herodians! Each faction would have wanted a different answer. The Herodians wanted to hear “Yes,” because they wanted to curry favor with the Romans. The Pharisees wanted to hear “No,” because they believed that to pay taxes to Caesar was a violation of Mosaic Law. On which side would Jesus land?

Before we get to his answer, let’s all have a little confession time. As Americans (or at the very least as Westerners), there’s something deep inside us that wants to balk at the idea that what we have—what we’ve earned—doesn’t belong to us. We worked for it. We earned it. We know best how to spend it. That’s what we tell ourselves. Heck, we Americans even went to war over the offense of taxation without representation, didn’t we? So we also have a vested interest in Jesus’ answer. Couldn’t Jesus give us a valid excuse not to pay taxes? Couldn’t he make conscientious objectors out of his followers?

“Does anyone have a coin?” Jesus asks in response. (And let me stop right there to point out that Jesus apparently didn’t have a single coin on him! The King of kings. The Lord of lords. He hasn’t one thin dime on his person.) He must have gone through life feeling the way I do when I try to shop at Aldi only to realize I don’t have a quarter in the car!

 

ALDI-Quarter-Cart
Clever bastards.

 

 

What happens next is… well… awkward. For the Pharisees, it’s “that moment when” their political opponent asks for a coin you’re not supposed to have, and you pull one out and give it to him. Oops! After all that talk about Roman coinage being an affront to God, here they are in the courtyard of the Temple handing a Denarius to Jesus. Without having to say anything at all, Jesus has already trapped them in their hypocrisy.

But Jesus is the consummate showman, and he has an audience! So he looks at the Denarius as though he’s never seen one before. “Huh… Who is this on the coin? Why, there seems to be someone’s portrait engraved upon it! Whose image is this?” And the word “image” in Greek is icon. Whose icon is on this coin? But we all know—and the Pharisees would have known even better—that asking about the “image” had deep theological implications, am I right? Because we all know—and the Pharisees would have known even better—that we are all made in God’s image! “But who’s image is this?” Jesus asks.

And someone begrudgingly admits, “It’s Caesar’s.”

And Jesus responds, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”

And now this is that moment when it dawns on us that Jesus isn’t talking about taxes anymore. Give to Caesar whatever he’s claimed by putting his own image on it. Give to God whatever God has claimed by creating it in God’s own image. This is bigger than taxes. This is bigger than money. This is a question of what belongs to God.

And if you ask me what belongs to God, I’ll respond by asking you, “What doesn’t?”

See, we’re all a lot like the Israelites. We don’t trust God to provide for us, and so we hoard what we get. We trust our capacity to accumulate more than God’s capacity to provide. We prove by our actions that we’re afraid God’s arm is too short. And then, once we’ve gathered all that we can unto ourselves — no less than 60 bushels full, more than we could possibly need — we brashly argue that no one, certainly not the government, has any right to it. “I earned this,” we say. Which, from God’s perspective, essentially means, “I stood outside with a sack about yay high and waited for God’s blessings to fly right into it.”

We didn’t make the quail in our lives. We didn’t hunt them, we didn’t trap them, we didn’t even lure them. They just showed up in our lives as a sign of God’s abundant provision. And the quail isn’t even something we need. God had that covered all along—the manna was always sufficient. No, God provided not only what the Israelites needed, but also what they wanted. And still, in their greed—in their lack of trust that God would continue to provide for them, they hoarded the gift, and it plagued them. It plagued them! And so that place was called, in English, “The graves of the craving.” Unsatisfied with needs, the Israelites complained for wants. And their greed led to their graves.

What they needed—what we need—is an attitude of gratitude. Greed is a great obstacle to gratitude. We have a hard time participating in God’s abundant generosity to the world, because we cling to God’s blessings. We hoard them. We gather sixty bushels of blessings all for ourselves, and as all those intended blessings begin to pile up and go bad on us, they begin to plague us, because we did not receive them with the right attitude. And that attitude is this: everything we receive in life is a gift from God. We may feel like we went out there, waist-deep in blessings, and had to do “all the gathering ourselves.” We may feel like it was a lot of work to just stand there with our bags open, like trick-or-treating children, and waiting for God to drop quails right in for us. But who do we think we’re kidding? All that we have, all that we are—created in God’s image—is God’s gift to us. Jesus says, “Let Caesar have his little coins.” What belongs to God is far, far greater.

Ask yourself, “What belongs to God?” And then find a way to put it all back into God’s hands.

Obstacles to Gratitude: Entitlement

Matt. 22:1-14

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Among the gospels, Matthew’s ethical teachings are perhaps the most classically Jewish. If I were to distill each gospel down to something akin to a stereotype, I would note that Mark is all about action, Luke is all about grace, and John is all about divine self-revelation. Matthew, then, is all about ethics. That’s not to say that all of those subjects aren’t covered in all of the gospels—of course they are. But each of them also seems primarily concerned with one principle or another, largely due to the context for which the author wrote their gospels.

Antioch was the main center for Judaism after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Matthew wrote his gospel for the instruction of a congregation of Jewish Christians in Antioch—Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah, and who were dedicated to living their lives according to his moral and ethical instruction. In those days, “Christianity” wasn’t a religion (nor was it called “Christianity”); it was a distinctive way of being Jewish— a sect to rival the Pharisees or, perhaps, the Essenes.

Throughout the gospel of Matthew, the author goes to great pains to paint Jesus not only as the messiah foretold by the prophets, but as a “new Moses,” who, like the first Moses, fled the slaughter of innocent children in his infancy, came to the Promised Land by way of Egypt, and ascended a mountain to give the people moral and ethical instruction. Stating that he came not to abolish the law of Moses but to fulfill it, Jesus interpreted the law in a way that honored its spirit more than its letter—a sharp contrast to the methods of his detractors among the Pharisees and the legal experts.

By the time we get to these last few chapters of the Gospel, Matthew’s emphasis on ethics is well-established. Being a Jewish Christ-follower writing to other Jewish Christ-followers, Matthew focused on ethics because the Law continued to matter to his audience. You will not, under any circumstances, find Matthew arguing that we are “saved by grace alone,” as if the way we behave has nothing to do with it. Instead, we witness Jesus teaching his listeners, “A good tree can’t produce rotten fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit” (Matt. 7:19-20), and then closes that thought by noting, “Not everyone who cries, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father.” While Martin Luther would leave many future protestants with the impression that we are saved “by faith alone,” as though believing that Jesus existed and was who he said he was somehow punches your ticket to a blissful afterlife, the Gospel according to Matthew has more exacting standards of discipleship. For Matthew, faith means faithfulness, or one can expect to hear Jesus say on the last day, “I never knew you.”

Which leads us to the last of three parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. The first is a parable about a man who had two sons (no, not those two sons… the other two: one of whom said he would work in his father’s vineyard and never got around to it; the other of whom said he wouldn’t work in his father’s vineyard, but later changed his mind and did the work anyway). Which of those two sons did the will of his father? the one who did the work, regardless of what he might have said at first. The Pharisees got this answer correct when asked, but they did so with chagrin, for Jesus was preaching about how prostitutes and tax collectors were getting into the Kingdom ahead of the Pharisees since, for all their talk, the Pharisees hadn’t yet begun to do his father’s will, while the aforementioned sinners were repenting at Jesus’ invitation left and right.

The second parable followed immediately on the first. Another landowner owned a vineyard, and he entrusted it to the stewardship of tenants. When he sent his servants—on two separate occasions—to collect the produce, the tenants attacked them and even killed some. So the landowner sent his own son, thinking, “Surely they’ll respect him.” But they seized and killed the son as well. “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes,” Jesus asked the Pharisees, “what will he do to those tenants?”

They responded, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.”

“Therefore,” Jesus concluded, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruit of the kingdom.”

As you might imagine, the Pharisees got rather hot under the collar at this point. In fact, they’d have arrested Jesus in order to shut him up, but they were afraid of the crowd because they regarded Jesus as a prophet (and isn’t it ironic that the second parable was a direct address of Israel’s long history of killing the Lord’s prophets rather than obeying his instruction through them?).

Finally, Jesus preaches his third parable—the one linked at the top of this post—full of rather bizarre details. Knowing, as you now do, that this parable is the last of three preached to a crowd of unreceptive Pharisees, you can begin to understand what Matthew was trying to teach to the congregation in Antioch by recalling Jesus’ parable this way. The wedding banquet is a common metaphor for the coming Kingdom of God, and for Matthew’s readers (not to mention us), perhaps no social event is more significant or grander. We can well imagine what a wedding banquet might look like when thrown by a king in honor of his son! But as with all of Jesus’ parables, this one has a twist: the invited guests fail to show. And not only that, they beat and killed the very messengers hired to deliver their reminders! What should be a cause for celebration has become a nightmare of death and destruction as the king returns violence for violence.

This version of the story is quite different from the one that Luke recalls (14:16-24), which is the same story except with none of the violence on either side. In both versions, however, the metaphor is very recognizable: those invited at first have rejected the invitation, and the king has responded by welcoming instead the un-welcomable. This is good news for those hungry and downtrodden who would gladly drop everything to enter the feast being offered to them! None of them can say they deserve to be there—certainly none of them were on the original guest list. And those undesirables are us. See, Matthew’s point is that the people of Israel were invited into covenant relationship with God, but they rejected that invitation over and over again, killing God’s prophets and even God’s own son.

Now, others (both good and evil) were being invited to the party in their place. It’s a fascinating detail of the story that the ballroom is crowded with the good and the bad. Again, it was Matthew who transmitted to us the parable of the wheat and the tares, wherein a landowner instructs his servants not to “weed out” the weeds, since doing so might damage the wheat. “Wait until the harvest,” he said, “and I’ll sort it out then.” And that was Martin Luther’s point during the Reformation: getting invited has nothing to do with our deservedness. But actual discipleshipremaining at the party in the house of the King—requires that we respond to the invitation appropriately. There was one poor sap who showed up without being properly dressed for the occasion; and he was thrown out on his ear. This hardly strikes us as gracious on the part of the king (who is obviously a stand-in for God), but before we get to that, let’s note a couple of other important points worth considering.

First, notice that it wasn’t the servants’ job to decide who should or who shouldn’t receive an invitation to the party. They were instructed to invite everyone, both the good and the bad. Our job as disciples of Jesus is to be ceaselessly and indiscriminately invitational to our neighbors, thus participating in our Lord’s generosity toward them. The host’s job, then, is to sort through who is properly dressed and who is not.

Second, we have no idea—none whatsoever—whether the person who was thrown out was “good” or “bad” when he received his invitation. He wasn’t thrown out because he had a bad reputation, or because he did something disruptive at the party. He was thrown out because he showed up dressed inappropriately. He did not respond appropriately to the invitation (though one could wonder where, in Matthew’s imagination, the poor man found in the street was supposed to find a suit and tie on such short notice, but I digress). This moral/ethical ambiguity is not a flaw in Matthew’s conception of the Kingdom of Heaven—it’s a feature! Here, a man is invited to the feast, only to be cast out for not being properly dressed.

I take this to mean that he took for granted that his invitation required nothing in particular on his part—kinda like those who believe that saying the so-called “sinner’s prayer” gets you a free ticket to heaven with no moral or ethical obligation. Matthew says this simply isn’t the case.

Jesus would make a very similar point in a few more chapters, when he offers my favorite parable about the Kingdom of God: the judgment of the nations imagined to be like a shepherd separating his sheep from his goats. Pointedly, the sheep didn’t know they were sheep; and the goats didn’t know they were goats! The sheep said, “We don’t remember serving you!” to which the Shepherd replied, “When you served the least of my brothers and sisters, you served me.” The goats said, “We don’t remember ever refusing to serve you!” to which the Shepherd replied, “When you failed to serve the least of my brothers and sisters, you failed to serve me!” Matthew’s point appears to be clear: calling yourself a Christian isn’t the point; following Jesus is the point.

As we continue to consider “obstacles to gratitude,” this is perhaps one of the most surprising, and therefore one of the most insidious: entitlement. The Israelites believed they were the people of God (for God had said as much, many centuries earlier), but they rarely behaved as if that covenant was suitably important to them. In fact, the air still resounded with the ringing sounds of God’s carving the Ten Commandments when the Israelites were already worshiping a golden calf. They didn’t just forget as time went by—they were always terrible covenant partners. God was patient and long-suffering with his obstinate people, sending them prophets to remind them of the covenant. But the people ignored or even killed God’s prophets. When God’s own Word made flesh made God’s will as abundantly clear as would ever be done, still it was rejected, and Jesus was crucified rather than accepted as God’s true Word to humankind.

They felt entitled to God’s esteem. They took their covenant relationship for granted, like wedding invitees taking for granted their relationship to the king, and even like the one poor sap who took for granted that the king, in his largesse, would overlook the lack of care he gave to his appearance. If we are to learn anything from this parable, let it be that those who find themselves unexpectedly and undeservedly included ought not to presume upon God’s grace. While we are invited without merit to enjoy the feast which our Lord has prepared, we should never feel so entitled that all we do is show up!

In concluding his parable, Matthew’s Jesus states, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” This seems like a rather odd thing for Jesus to say. What’s the difference between being called and being chosen? If you’re called, are you not, ipso facto, chosen? Matthew uses the word “call” differently here than does, say, Paul. By “call,” Matthew means the initial invitation to become a disciple. When Jesus invited people to join him, many, like the first apostles, did. Others, like the so-called rich young ruler, went away sad. To be “called” for Matthew is not the same as to be “chosen,” which means to be found acceptable at the last judgment.

This is a tricky line we’re toeing, here. Matthew is really rather clear that we will be judged according to our faithful discipleship—that is, to how well we obey our Lord’s moral and ethical teachings. That’s not the cost of admission; but our eternal reward will apparently be dependent upon it.

Paul is able to help us, here. He clarifies that we are saved by Christ’s faithfulness, not ours, that no one may boast (Eph. 2:9). He also points out that our moral and ethical shortcomings will be covered over by Christ’s perfect righteousness—and that is, perhaps, the very best good news any of us could ever hope to hear!

But that still doesn’t mean that we get to coast on Jesus’ faithfulness. Let us be grateful to have received the gift of God’s unmerited love and grace, the gift of Jesus Christ. And let us, even more importantly, wear our gratitude on our sleeves, participating in God’s generosity to the world as Christ’s disciples. We’ve been invited to the greatest party in all the cosmos; the least we can do is wear a tie!

Obstacles to Gratitude: Worry

 

Phil. 4:4-9; Matt. 6:25-34

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“Do not worry about anything,” Paul says.

And to this I’d like to respond: What are you, nuts? I’ve got three kids and a wife. I’ve got a car payment and a mortgage. I’ve got a vocation that always has me looking to the next meeting. I’ve got a congregation full of people who insist on getting sick and ending up in the hospital.

Okay, sometimes.

A few.

Not very often, actually. And none at the moment.

But I’ve got a kid who likes to ride his bike to school. It’s only a matter of time before he falls off, or does something stupid! He’s already had stitches twice in this calendar year! I’ve got a wife who just started a new job. I’ve got friends whose daughter just had open-heart surgery. I leave tomorrow for a church conference at which I will be the music leader.

And Paul says, “Do not worry about anything?”

But then Jesus says, “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life… Stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” It’s a lot harder to ignore Jesus. It’s also a lot harder to argue.

If you’re still unconvinced, though, sing the first couple of lines of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” to yourself, and every little thing just might be alright.

I guess that rather than “Don’t worry,” I prefer the famous maxim of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, “Don’t panic.” Worry is going to happen, or so we tell ourselves. It’s inevitable. What we need to learn to do is not panic our way through life, but learn to remain relatively calm in the midst of worrisome circumstances. Right?

But that’s not what Jesus said.

“Do not worry about your life,” he said. And just in case we didn’t quite the get the point, he gave examples: don’t worry about what you’ll eat, drink, or wear. You know… the fundamental requirements for a life of dignity. Just… don’t worry about them!

There. Do you feel better?

The truth is, most Americans frankly dont worry about those things. We never really need to worry about where our next meal is coming from, or whether we’ll have access to clean drinking water, or whether we’ll be able to leave our houses with clothes on. Then again, many people in Puerto Rico were, until recently, able to say the same thing. We live in a world where some folks worry about whether their 401ks will be enough for a comfortable retirement, while others worry about whether they’ll eat today. Such worries may not be ours, but ours is to discern who God calls us to respond. For surely for our brothers and sisters in places like Puerto Rico to obey Jesus’ directive not to worry, it will be because we, Christ’s disciples, will provide for them.

If anyone had reason to worry, it was Paul. Even as he wrote his letter to the Philippians, he was wearing prison chains, scheduled to be executed for proclaiming the good news. Prior to this, he’d been imprisoned before, nearly stoned to death, thrown out of one town after another, and even shipwrecked on an island! And he responds to all of this by saying, “Rejoice!”

I am not a natural cynic. I’m just not. I don’t just see good in people, I look for it. I give folks the benefit of the doubt, and eat the costs I incur for it. It’s just who I am. So I want to give the benefit of the doubt to guys like Paul, who sings “Rejoice!” while sitting in prison. I want to give the benefit of the doubt to James, the brother of Jesus, who wrote, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2). I want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

And I want to punch them in the face — just a little bit.

And I wouldn’t ordinarily feel that way (maybe), but we recently witnessed (again) the worst mass shooting incident in our nation’s modern history. I say “again” because we just said that last year, following the dance club shooting in Orlando. In fact, if you make a list of the top 32 mass shootings since 1949, thirty of them happened in my lifetime, and seventeen—more than half—have taken place in my 12-year-old daughter’s lifetime.

In response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012, famed author Anne Lamott wrote,

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it although this time, or at least right now, it has come very close. My pastor talks often about our dual citizenship, as children of God, and Goodness, gorgeous and divine, and we are also people with human biographies and wounds and families, living in a world of unimaginable suffering, brutality, madness.

“We are lighthouses of sacred love, and we are a violent species; Cain is still killing Abel…”

Henri Nouwen, in his book called Bread for the Journey, writes,

“Joy and sorrow are never separated. When our hearts rejoice at a spectacular view, we may miss our friends who cannot see it; and when we are overwhelmed with grief, we may discover what true friendship is all about. Joy is hidden in sorrow and sorrow in joy. If we try to avoid sorrow at all costs, we may never taste joy, and if we are suspicious of ecstasy, agony can never reach us either. Joy and sorrow are the parents of our spiritual growth.”

And isn’t that James’ point, when he wrote, “you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance”?

But what about Jesus, who once told his listeners—people who lived a subsistence-level life in a backwater land on the fringes of empire—not to worry about where their next meal was coming from? What about Paul, who implored the Philippians to rejoice, in spite of his own (and perhaps their own) circumstances? How do we not worry, when at times it takes all our energy simply not to panic?

Earlier in his letter, Paul had said, “I will continue to rejoice because I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will result in my deliverance… For me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” All around him (and his readers) the church is being assaulted, the apostles are being persecuted and martyred, and fear reigns in the hearts of believers. Paul’s advice—even as he faces his own death—is dont worry about it.

This post series is about gratitude, and several obstacles that stand in the way of living our lives in and with an attitude of gratitude. In the last post, I talked about how nostalgia is an obstacle to gratitude because it causes us constantly to cast our gaze backward. Nostalgiacs are always pining for the good old days that never really existed, and therefore missing altogether the ways in which the Lord is moving an acting in their midst here and now. Worry causes a similar temporal problem: it causes us constantly to cast our eyes forward. What if I lose my job? What if my kid falls off his bike and breaks his face? What if the roof caves in and we don’t have the money to replace it? What if we don’t recruit new members for the choir? What if we work really hard to make awesome plans and no one shows up?

Sure. But what if none of those things happen, and alllll your worry about the future does nothing more than distract you from the joy that God has prepared for you here and now?

The reason we want to punch guys like Paul in the face is not because they’re eternally chipper and we’re not morning people. It’s because their wisdom is counterintuitive, and we dismiss it before we’ve properly considered it. Just watching the news is enough to make us question Paul’s sanity. “Rejoice while the world burns?” we think. “What is he, nuts? We’ve got plenty to worry about. We should be congratulated for not panicking.” The culture induces us to worry—to panic, even. In fact, the 24-hour news cycle depends on it. If we’re not frightened, worried, swallowing down the bile of panic… we might stop watching the news and… I don’t know… rejoice in God’s presence.

But Paul doesn’t simply say, “Rejoice, because everything’s fine!” In fact, for Paul, nothing is going well. But pointedly, he also doesn’t say, “rejoice in your job, rejoice in your family, or rejoice in your good health.” What he says is, “Rejoice in the Lord.

And you cant. Do that. If. Youre. Worried. About. The future!

We bend over backwards to make ourselves feel better about our circumstances, and to feel secure in our future so that we have less to worry about. That’s why insurance industries exist, right? That’s why 401ks exist. That’s why a lot of people say they own guns. But we put our trust and hope in a lot of places where they dont belong, because they are temporal and therefore temporary. They can all be lost or otherwise taken away. When we put our faith in our instruments of security, we build our houses on sand. We turn to Hagar rather than Sarah. We trust the reports of giants in the Promised Land over the promises of God. We build bigger barns, rather than bigger banquet tables.

What Paul says is, “Rejoice in the Lord.” Paul isn’t telling us to “think happy thoughts.” He tells us that God’s peace surpasses all understanding; and this is precisely because it is too counterintuitive to comprehend with any ease. Paul has witnessed personally the pain and darkness of this world, yet he rejoices nonetheless. He doesn’t worry. And yet he didn’t think his way there; he didn’t logic his way to this conclusion. He trusted. He rejoices not in his worldly stuff, or his own provision for the future. He rejoices in the Lord. Paul declares that the Creator and Ruler of the universe will stand watch over our hearts and protect it from the concerns of this world.

We don’t ignore what’s wrong with the world. As I said above, our call as disciples is to discern how Jesus is calling us to respond to the darkness of the world by allowing his light to shine through us. So we don’t ignore what’s wrong with the world; but neither do we despair. Our confidence is in the Lord. Just like we can never go back to an idealized, romanticized past that never really existed in the first place, neither can we prepare ourselves for every possible contingency of the future. And worrying about it will only distract us—again—from God’s present presence and from the ministry of reconciliation to which God calls us in Jesus Christ.

Ridding our lives of worry isn’t about “reducing stress.” It’s about increasing trust. It’s about having an attitude of gratitude and an eschatological view of the world—that is, it’s about remember in whose hands the world rests, and the promises God has made concerning the reconciliation of the world to him. Rest in those promises and be grateful.

Obstacles to Gratitude: Nostalgia

 

Numbers 11:1-15, 18-20

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The lectionary readings through the month of October lend themselves to reflection upon what preachers fond of rhyme schemes have long called “an attitude of gratitude.” I sometimes try to avoid rhyme schemes, not because they aren’t clever, but because they are, sometimes, contrived—reaching for cleverness and only making it to triteness. But an “attitude of gratitude” is an exception to this tendency; and, indeed, in the Reformed theological tradition, such an attitude is the very attitudinal foundation of the Christian life. Since it is by God’s unmerited grace that we are saved, this realization can only lead to profound gratitude on our parts. And this gratitude ought to lead to our joyous and diligent participation in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in the world. While such participation does not earn us citizenship in the kingdom, we should work as if it does, because that is the work for which we were created.

A person with an attitude of gratitude forgives others, even when it is hard to do—even when the forgiven are undeserving—because God has forgiven us, underserving though we are. A person with an attitude of gratitude acknowledges tragedy, but is not overcome by it—either learning from hardship rather than blaming God for it, or being able to conclude that God is good despite it. A person with an attitude of gratitude, her eyes open to the work of the Spirit, is able to focus on the little things that make life better or easier or brighter, rather than on the negative, and attribute them to God. In short, a person with an attitude of gratitude lives the Christian life not out of obligation, but in thanksgiving.

And yet many of us—perhaps even most of us—find it difficult to have this attitude all the time, whether in a moment of unbridled “humanity,” or during a particularly difficult stretch in our lives. And because most of us are somewhat predisposed to attitudes other than gratitude, it often doesn’t take much for our mood to swing from thanksgiving to grumbling about something. Over the next several weeks, we will explore five things that serve as obstacles to gratitude, including worry, entitlement, greed, disappointment, and this morning’s obstacle: nostalgia.

The circumstances of this particular scripture reading come out of nowhere. In the book of Numbers, the author has gone to great lengths for ten straight chapters to record the census of the Israelite people in the wilderness, to describe the consecration of the Levite priests, the commemorate the first celebration of Passover at the foot of Mount Sinai, to remind the reader of the cloud and the fire by which God made his presence known the people, and to note the mighty mass of Israelites who struck camp to march forth under the guidance of God. Now, the author reports, “when the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled.

What misfortunes? This is an entire nation’s-worth of people who had just a year ago been miraculously liberated from a life of slavery and misery (about which they complained so loudly that it compelled God to get involved in the first place); they had been miraculously spared a slaughter on the shores of the Sea of Reeds when Moses split the waters and enabled their escape; they had been given the gift of a moral and ethical code, and made an everlasting covenant with their God; they had been spared God wrath when their adherence to said covenant lasted less than a month; and they had built a lavish tabernacle according to the Lord’s own instructions, where Moses could meet with God to receive further guidance. In all that, what could the people have to complain about?

Yet, complain they did. The rabble-rousers among them began to pine for “good old days” of slavery and misery—you know: the days that caused them to cry out so bitterly their cries reached heaven itself. “We could really use some meat in our diets. Hey guys… ‘member when we used to be able to eat all the free fish we wanted in Egypt? ‘Member all the cucumbers and melons we ate? Oh, man! ‘Member those onions and leeks? ‘Member garlic? Oh, yeah… the food was so awesome in Egypt—so many delicious ways to spice it, you guys! Now all we have is this totally lame, miraculous bread from heaven.

Moses heard this whining coming from every household he passed, and finally had enough. Praying to God, Moses said, “Seriously, man, what you gotta do me like this for? What’d I ever do to you, that you had to go and stick me with these people? Am I their daddy? Am I responsible for every last one of these snot-nosed whiners? Where am I supposed to get meat to feed an entire nation? If this is how it’s gonna be, and if you love me at all, kill me now! This is ridiculous” (Num. 11:10-15).

And although we didn’t read about it this morning, God responded to this prayer in two ways. First, we get a slightly different version of the story of how Israel came to have seventy elders to help Moses oversee the people (thus helping to relieve Moses of the crushing burden of being the only authority figure in the room). Second, God responded to the complaints of the people with one of the snarkiest things you’ll ever hear a major deity say: “You want meat? I’ll give you meat! You’ll be eating meat day after day after day until it’s coming out of your nose!” (Num. 11:19-20). (And I just want to point out that while I’ve obviously been paraphrasing this conversation a little, God does literally say that they Israelites will eat meat until it comes out of their nostrils. No joke.) “Maybe that will teach you not to pine for the ‘good old days’ back in Egypt and reject everything I’ve done for you.”

The complaining only gets worse—in fact, in chapter 12 there is very nearly a civil war of sorts, when Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, question Moses’ authority, saying, “God has spoken through us, too. What are we, chopped liver?”

Which God heard and responded, “Oh no you di-in’t!” and struck Miriam with leprosy. Like you do. (Everyone thinks Numbers is one of those totally lame books of the Old Testament with page after page of who begat whom, but some of the best soap opera stuff happens in this book!)

My point is this: what on earth did the Israelites or Aaron or Miriam think they had to complain about? They’d been liberated from slavery; they’d seen mind-blowing demonstrations of God’s power and might; they’d received fresh drinking water out of a rock; they’d been given a constant supply of bread from heaven in the middle of a desert. But all they could think to say now was “What I wouldn’t give for some meat and some garlic right now!” And just like that, their years of oppression became “the good old days” for no other reason than that their food was bland. The people failed to be grateful for God’s gracious gifts, and questioned Moses’ fitness to lead.

When times change, when life’s circumstances take a turn, it’s easy—even natural—for us to want things to return to what we remember as “normal.” And often, normal is good. Normal is fine. Normal is… well, normal. But often when we pine for what was, we’re not doing so with clear eyes. What we pine for us not our true previous circumstances but a romantic idealization of the past. In fear of the wilderness, and an obvious need for food, the people look back to Egypt and lie to themselves about how good they had it, deciding that it would be better to be well-fed slaves than poorly-fed and free. Their nostalgia blinded them to the presence of God in their present circumstances.

Are we so different? We look at the world around us and are easily dismayed. I hear all the time about how the world—and more particularly our own American society—used to be great. Back when people loved Jesus and had a modicum of respect for one another. Back when there weren’t sports leagues for kids on Sunday mornings. Back when there was prayer in schools. Back when there wasn’t all this social media causing false rumors to spread. Back before there were cell phones distracting everyone from having real conversations. Back when people knew how to speak and write in complete sentences. Without splitting infinitives, or ending with a preposition.

In cursive.

Well, here’s the thing. We’re never going back to the way things were. And in fact, we couldn’t go back there anyway, because that romanticized, idealized past never existed in the first place. As Billy Joel once said, “The good old days weren’t always good; tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” That feeling of nostalgia for the way things were blinds us to God’s presence in the present. Asking, “Why can’t we go back to the way things used to be?” the question we should be asking is, “Where is God moving and acting here. Now.” Where might I see God in my present circumstances? What am I learning? How can I respond to the world around me in a way that glorifies God and makes me a better, more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ? Will complaining accomplish that? Is pining for the past what Jesus would have me do?

God loves us and cares deeply for us. God keeps God’s promises, and the destiny of all the world has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ’s resurrection. We can be reminded of these truths and gratefully look toward—and work toward—the promised reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth unto God (Eph. 1:9-10). If that’s what we have to look forward to, why on earth would we pine longingly for a past so deeply inferior?

We are invited this morning to the Lord’s table—a table that stands at the nexus of time. We break the bread and lift the cup in remembrance of Christ, but not as a way of remembering that Jesus lived and died 2,000 years ago. It is not, after all, a memorial service. Rather, it is an offering of thanksgiving, remembering that Jesus’ resurrection stands as proof that his reconciling work is accomplished; remembering that Jesus stands not in our past, but in our future. Let us approach this great feast—even the liturgical name for which—Eucharist—means “thanksgiving,” with an attitude of gratitude. And then let us minister generously to the world in gratitude as well.

I AM. Are You?

 

TheBurningBush

Exodus 3:1-15; Rom. 12:9-21; Matt. 16:21-28

Award-winning author Jack Miles, once a professor of English and religion at the University of California, Irvine, until his retirement, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book in 1995 entitled, God: A Biography. This fascinating book presupposes that the Hebrew Bible (which is what we call the Old Testament, but in a slightly different order) is a story written with God as the protagonist character. As with any great work of literature, character development is a key component to good story-telling, and it was his aim through the writing of God: A Biography to explore the development of God’s character through the story of the Hebrew Bible.

Now, this may strike some of us as odd, since we may tend to think of God as “unchanging, from everlasting to everlasting,” but as a literary critic, Miles does not make this theological assumption—instead, he must work under the assumption that if the story is indeed any good, the main character will develop throughout. He is by no means the first to notice that God’s character does, in fact, seem to “develop” as the Bible’s narrative unfolds, and other books on the subject, sometimes called “progressive revelation,” make for helpful and informative reading. As the book of Genesis moves from start to finish, Miles noticed that God (the character) seemingly learns about himself by observing his own actions and interactions concerning humans. He is infinitely powerful, creating human beings with merely the sound of his voice and making us in his image (which for Miles means that we share his ability to create—including creating more of ourselves). But God also becomes jealous of how successful we are at procreating, and so he first tries to kill humanity (a decision he later regrets), then makes human procreation a significant hardship (another decision that he later regrets), with the exception of Abraham’s descendants, with whom a covenant is formed.

So successful is Abraham’s family at procreating that they soon become an interior threat to Egypt, the country that has played host to them for several hundred years. In his angst, the Pharaoh decides to enslave Abraham’s descendants, and that is where we pick up this story of God this morning: a God who is both all-powerful, and jealous of human power. A God who is all-knowing, but, speaking literarily, doesn’t know anything about himself aside from what he he learns through self-observation.

And while no one knows much about God at this point in the story, one thing that can be said for God is that God keeps his promises. Having promised never again to destroy the world with a flood, he has not done so. Having promised to provide offspring to Abraham, he has provided them. Having promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit Palestine, God raised up Moses to lead the people there. This morning’s first scripture reading was Moses’ call.  Moses went through the ordinary prophetic call-narrative reluctance, asking God, “When I tell the people I speak for the God of their fathers, what if they ask me your name? I don’t know it.”

God answers by saying ‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh. This is commonly translated “I am who I am.” It can also mean “I shall be what I shall be,” which to Moses would mean, “You’re gonna find out who I am, soon enough!” Jack Miles also suggests a third possibility. If you make just one tiny change to one little letter in this Hebrew sentence, the meaning changes dramatically. The difference between the letter that exists and the letter that he suggests is even smaller than crossing a lowercase “L” to turn it into a lowercase “T.” With one miniscule change to a single letter, God could be saying, “I am what I do.”

This hypothesis is important to Miles for two reasons. First, it helps Miles with his biography of God by suggesting that God is making a confession to Moses: God only knows himself by what he does—and that’s how the rest of the world will come to know him, too. His actions precede his intentions. Second, God really does give his name to Moses! By changing the word from ‘Ehyeh to ‘Ahweh, God essentially gives the name he is known by throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: Yahweh. In Jack Miles’ opinion, God says to Moses, “Tell the Israelites ‘I Will Act sent me.’” It’s worth remembering that Miles is neither a Bible scholar nor a theologian—his discipline is literary criticism. But sometimes it’s in engaging in such cross-disciplinary exercises that we hit upon something that gets us thinking.

I guess a literary critic such as Jack Miles would call the Hebrew Bible a “coming of age story,” where the main character figures out who he is. Saying, “I am what I do” or even “I am what I will be” is not the way to show anyone that you’ve already figured out who you are. As the story of the Bible continues to unfold, so does God’s character, if not to Godself (as suggested by Miles), then certainly to the humans who interact with God. And it doesn’t take reading the Bible as a literary critic to come to this conclusion; I have long experienced the Bible as the unfolding of God’s self-revelation to humanity. It seems rather clear to me that our understanding of who God is, and who we are in relation to God and one another, has developed—and continues to develop—over time, and there is ample of evidence of this even within the Bible itself. Where Miles goes a step further—because he can, because he’s a literarian, not a theologian—is his suggestion that God’s character grows and changes over time. And as I already said, there are plenty of instances in the Bible that make this idea plausible, it’s just that I’d rather think it’s our understanding of God that grows, not God, Godself. But Miles’ literary criticism of the Hebrew Bible does not negate its message to us… it only enhances it by highlighting a fundamental truth about our God.

God keeps God’s promises. Whether you like Miles’ characterization of God—whether you like his notion of God’s character “developing”—or not, one attribute of God is, indeed, unchanging in God’s character (even as Miles tells it) and it is the simple yet utterly foundational fact that God keeps God’s promises. God may strike us as mysterious, or unfair, or even capricious in turns; but one thing God always is, is trustworthy.

So trustworthy, in fact, that he sent Jesus Christ—the Word of God incarnate—not only to tell us his will, but to show us how it’s done. Just as he told his disciples, he entered Jerusalem not to overthrow the governing authorities, but to willingly lay down his life. While Peter and the other disciples espoused a traditional belief that the Messiah would necessarily avoid suffering, rejection, and death as he threw off the shackles of Israel’s oppressors, Jesus knew that there were bigger fish to fry.

In my studies, I discovered something I’d not previously known, and that no one could know by reading the gospel in English. As discussed last week, Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” And we read this as a stinging rebuke. I mean, Jesus is calling one of his closest friends “Satan.” Surely we ought not to take that lightly, and surely Peter didn’t. Calling someone Satan strikes us as one of the worst things Jesus could ever say to anyone! But in the very next paragraph—still a part of this same scene—Jesus goes on to say, “If any would come after me, they must deny themselves….” The word for “behind” in “get behind me” and the word for “after” in “if any would come after me” is, in Greek, the same word!

It makes sense when you think about it, right? I mean, if you’re following after someone, you’re obviously behind them. Jesus was neither merely rebuking Peter for having a devil of an idea, nor commanding that Satan get out of his sight (which was always the way I read it). Rather, calling Peter “Satan” is an apt metaphor, because Peter is, in fact, thinking like Satan was believed to think. The old legend about Satan was that he was once one of God’s most favored angels, but was cast out of heaven after pridefully refusing to submit to God’s authority. Now, in the Gospel of Matthew, we see Peter refusing to submit to Jesus’ declared intention: to journey to Jerusalem, there to submit to the authorities. Peter couldn’t countenance such a plan. But, as Jesus rightly pointed out, it wasn’t up to Peter. Jesus was the teacher; Peter was the student. “Like Satan, you’ve forgotten your place!” Jesus was saying. “Fall in line! I’m the one making the rules, here! If anyone wants to follow in the direction I’m leading, they’d better get used to the ideas of self-denial and sacrifice, because that’s where this is headed.”

This is the second time in this scene that our narrator, Matthew, has used word pairs to make a point. Last week, called Peter both a rock worth building upon and a stone to trip Jesus up. And now, Jesus has ordered Peter to “get behind” him, because that’s the only position from which one can “follow” another. The questions laid before Peter and the other disciples are the same questions laid before us: will we support Jesus, or will we be obstacles to his ministry? Will we be part of the problem, or part of the solution?

The Lord said to Moses, “I AM who I am. I WILL BE who I will be. You’ll come to know me by my actions.” God made good on his promises—proved his trustworthiness and the pure light of the content of his character—by taking his judgment upon himself, by being faithful to the unfaithful, by loving the unloveable.

By God’s acts of grace and mercy in Jesus Christ, we have come to know the true character of God; all that we thought we knew previously pales in comparison. And as we answer Christ’s call to join him at his own table, to feast together in thanksgiving as a reflection of the one common humanity for which God created us all, and to be fed with spiritual food in order to continue working with Christ to reconcile the world, we are invited to answer for ourselves the question posed by God—both at the burning bush and in Jesus Christ’s instruction to Peter:

I AM. Are you?