Monday, September 21, 2009

Ambition and service

Ambition/Greatness and humility are often at war in the Christian. Far too often, our selfish desire to be prominent gets in our way to do God’s work. During the course of my sermon preparation this week, I was reminded how such as always been the case.

During the mid 1200’s, the Mongol Empire spanned all of Asia. Think on that for just a moment: all of Asia was ruled by Khubilai Khan. Anyway, during his journey to the Mongol empire, Marco Polo was able to meet the emperor and begin to speak with him. Marco Polo shared his faith as best as he was able, but the Khan no doubt had questions well above Marco’s pay grade. The Khan asked Marco to return to Rome and ask the pope to send 100 men to teach Christianity to his entire court. Marco returned and petitioned the church on behalf of the Khan. Unfortunately, it took 28 years before a single delegate reached the emperor’s court. Cardinals did not want to go for fear that the pope would die, and they would not be considered as a candidate. Bishops refused to go because they would not be considered for the role of cardinal as those positions opened up. Priests avoided the assignment like the plague for fear that they would be passed over when the next bishopric opened up. In simpler terms, the leaders of the church were afraid that the maxim “out of sight, out of mind” would hold sway. Quite simply, they forgot whom they served, and they forgot their vocation. By the time the first delegate reached the Khan and offered to begin his catechesis in the faith, the emperor responded that he had grown old in his idolatry (Douglas Weaver, A Cloud of Witnesses, 52-52).

Think for just a moment how history may have been changed if these so-called leaders of the church had responded timely to the Khan’s request for instruction. Can you imagine how a Christian Asia might look today? Would the evangelism of the empire been much different than that of Rome? Might some wars have been avoided? Might our relations be warmer today because many in the West and in Asia would share the same Lord? Possibly. Of course, human beings would still be sinful, so there would likely still be conflict.

Our Gospel lesson reminds us as well of this desire to be great and what our Lord thought of it, in case we have forgotten part of the meaning of the Incarnation. Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem. He is not looking for acclamation. He is not looking to be served. He is going where His Father commands knowing all too well how this journey will end. Contrast His behavior with that of His disciples. While He works determinedly to fulfill the role He has been asked to play, His disciples are arguing over who is the greatest for the third of six times in Mark’s Gospel (the others being 8:16; 9:14; 9:38; 14:4-5; and 14:29). And He asks them what they were arguing about. They know they are busted. They know He will be disappointed in their behavior. So they remain silent. And placing a child in their midst, Jesus teaches them that His greatest servants will be the ones who serve those beneath the notice of others.

You and I and all His disciples are called to put everyone else before us. If we want to be great by God’s standard of judging, you and I are called to serve others. Specifically, you and I are called to speak up for those who have no voice, to meet the needs of the needy, to be attentive to those of little esteem, to see the invisible among us, and remind the world that there are no insignificant members in God’s family. All were created in His image, and all should be treated accordingly.

The example of the Mongol empire, you might be thinking, is extreme when compared to your seeming sphere of influence. You are not called to evangelize emperors or presidents or chiefs of anything; your work, therefore, must not be as important as others'. Yet, when each of us considers that we are called to help raise up kings and queens and priests in His eternal kingdom, our job is no less important. When we squabble over ambition or try to determine who is greatest among us, just as Jesus’ disciples did this weekend or just as the Roman church did upon receipt of the Khan’s request in the 1200’s, we are possibly condemning others to an eternity apart from God. Considered in that light, our “little” jobs do not seem so little. In fact, God reminded us here that there is no more important job. When we serve others in His name and to His glory, seeds are spread and nourished. And the sinner is given the glorious news of God in Christ and the freedom to repent and serve Him. And when that choice is made by the sinner to serve the God, all of heaven rejoices. Think on that for just a second. By your faithful ministering to the least, the lost, the marginalized and the forgotten in your midst, you can bring a celebration to the Angels, the Archangels, the saints, and all the company of heaven. How insignificant, if you are truly serving Him, could you ever be?

Brothers and sisters, how do you treat the insignificant in your lives? Are they so insignificant that you do not even know they are there? Or has our Lord given you eyes to see them and their plight, ears to hear them and speak on their behalf and speak to them, and a heart full of His compassion that leaves you determined to share His love of them through your selfless service? They are weighty questions to be sure, but then no one ever said raising up kings and queens and priests were easy. After all, it cost Him His life to raise us up.



Monday, September 14, 2009

Crumbs that become feasts . . .

This summer, in our readings from John and Paul especially, we have considered our outward appearances. Both John and Paul have reminded us that we are ambassadors or representatives of God. As a result, the world often judges God by what they see in us. We should not be too surprised by such an understanding. After all, we have pithy little statements about making good “first impressions” and the like. It is hard, sometimes, to think of oneself as an ambassador for Christ, but Paul and John and other authors in the Bible remind us that such is one of our callings.

This week, however, Mark had us focus a bit internally. While we should always be concerned about the image of Christ that we project (Am I loving my neighbor as myself? Am I loving God with everything that I am), part of our ability to be good ambassadors or representatives is our recognition of our need for God’s saving grace in our lives. In other words, before we can become good representatives of Christ, we need a healthy humility. What do we mean by this and why?

Consider the Syrophoenician woman from this weekend’s readings. Jesus is anything but the warm fuzzy redeemer we all probably imagine. He is on a Sabbath. He is trying to get away from the pressures of His ministry. And so He seeks a household outside His normal stomping grounds. But such is His fame that the woman with the possessed daughter has heard of Him. And He is in her town! Though the Jews were required to remember that men and women were created in God’s image, the other ANE peoples were under no such restriction. This lady’s culture would have droned into her its understanding of her place in life. She had no business approaching, let alone expecting anything from a man, especially a foreign man. Yet she approaches Jesus, a man of reputation, a man considered a prophet of God. Who would not were they in her place? Those of us who are parents can understand her desperation. What would we not do for the safety or welfare of our children?

And look at compassionate Jesus’ response. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the little dogs.” What a jerk! She just needs a bit of help, help well within His means.
And instead He blows her off!

Admittedly, Jesus’ use of the word first in the answer gives us some hope for later, but why on earth would he insult her and deny her request?

But look at her response. In Mark’s Gospel account, this is the first individual to engage Jesus about His work. The Syrophoenician woman does not contest the fact that the children should be fed first. Heck, she does not even fuss at Jesus for seemingly insulting her suffering daughter by labeling her a little dog. She recognizes that He is a prophet to Israel first, but she presumes to instruct Jesus and us about the role of a good master. "Yes, Lord, but even the little dogs get the crumbs from children." Better than Jesus’ disciples (remember, Jesus fed with the loaves and fishes a chapter earlier and they missed its importance), the woman understands that the Jews have priority over the Gentiles, but that the priority is for the purpose of saving the Gentiles.

More amazingly, she tells Jesus in effect that she is not asking for a feast. She does not need to go to Johnny’s Steakhouse or the Hungry Pilot or Mo Brady’s. Her needs can be satisfied by the crumbs from God’s table. His saving power is so great that His crumbs can save! And Jesus does just that. He rewards her faith and her humility by healing her daughter, and her story has been recounted now for countless generations.

The Syrophoenician woman serves for us a stark reminder of the humility we should all have before God. We cannot compel God to do anything. Though this lady’s culture would have taught her any number of formulae and superstitions to get certain benefits out of the gods that they worshipped, she recognizes that Yahweh cannot forced to do anything. Similar to the humility exhibited by Job, this lady reminds all believers of our ultimate fellowship with every other human being whom we encounter. None of us deserve any special treatment. As James remarked this weekend, none of us are deserving of any partiality.

Yet it is this humility which gives rise to the attribute of God which we value the most: His mercy! The Syrophoenician woman understands that she does not deserve Jesus’ intervention. She understands that He cannot be forced to work a miracle for her daughter. But she also understands that if He is so moved, even His briefest offer of mercy will satisfy her need. And so her great humility leads to God’s mercy. Jesus rewards her humility and answers her fondest prayer. Her little dog has become a little daughter of the saving God. And you and I are fed as we read and watch the story unfold.

Brothers and sisters we live in a world that tries hard to convince us of our self importance and self worth. We are captains of our own ships, masters of our domains. We do not need anybody to save us. We can lift ourselves up by the bootstraps, thank you very much. Yet how in charge of our lives are we really? Our material goods can be taken in the blink of an eye. Lifetimes of items can be destroyed a tornado, fire or flood; the prospect of an easy future can be shattered by an unexpected job loss or serious disease or a stock market crash; the sense of companionship can be turned into the fear of isolation by the surprise rejection by a loved one. All these, and countless others, can happen in the blink of an eye.

But God requires us to humble ourselves. We are called to throw ourselves at the foot of His cross and admit our need of Him. Like the woman in our story this weekend, who was willing to become like a dog to try and save her daughter with a crumb, we are called to humble ourselves so that we can become His disciple. And the Gospel news is that whoever exercises such a humble faith will receive the bread and mercy of God!

Brothers and sisters, do you see yourself in the story of the Syrophoenician woman? Have you approached God in humble faith? Or have you been, instead, arrogant in your faith? Have you been angry, like Jonah, because God has refused to work the way you demand of Him? Or, have you been confused like His disciples, unwilling to receive His teaching (say 9:35-37; 10:44 for example) and thus seemingly not even getting His crumbs? It is a hard lesson with which to struggle, with which to examine oneself internally, to be sure, but then the rewards of such a lesson are so much better than just His crumbs! The rewards of such a humble faith are the call to His feast. And if His crumbs are so amazingly wonderful and restoring, can you imagine His feast?



Monday, September 7, 2009

Honoring the one who vindicates us . . .

Shame, dishonor -- they are words that seem quaint by modern standards. Sure, the military uses terms like that, but society at large seems to have forgotten their meaning and their importance. We no longer live in a culture which values honor as it once did. Can you imagine the Bernie Madoff’s of the world, the Brandon Marshall’s or Manny Ramirez’ of the world, the Governor Mark Sanford’s of the world, or pick almost any movie star or starlet, or countless others that we could think of would act the way that they notoriously have if, as a society, we cared about honor? To put it another way, if we valued honor, they might have thought before they acted.

As Christians, we are taught that honor and shame and other such descriptives are very important to God. Our Gospel lesson this week reminded us of the importance that God places on honor. The Pharisees and scribes tried publicly to humiliate Jesus by arguing that he was a terrible teacher. They tried to shame Him and His disciples for ignoring the purity code. Jesus’ response was to shame them. He identified them as those about whom Isaiah had prophesied. Better still, in public, and by using the example of corban, Jesus demonstrates to the Pharisees and scribes how they wrongly value their legal expertise over the torah of God. In essence, Jesus tells those who consider themselves to be working on behalf of God that their efforts have subverted God’s will.

Those of us who have been raised or have come to think of Jesus as that “big teddy bear in the sky” or that “wimpy” prophet might be a bit disturbed by Jesus’ forceful and public condemnation of His accusers (though I suspect no more so that the fact that our Lord uses bodily functions to discuss purity and defilement). But it gives us some insight into our relationship with God.

God has promised throughout the entirety of Scripture that whoever accepts Him as Lord, He will vindicate. Our stories of salvation history are replete with examples of the faithful being vindicated by God. Noah, Sarah & Abraham, Esther, Job, Hannah, Mary--the list goes on and on. Better still, God promises that He will vindicate everyone who claims Him as Lord, even those who die. Think of that for just a moment. The Creator of the heavens and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, has chosen to bind His honor to your honor. If you are humiliated, He is dishonored. If you are honored, you bring glory to Him. Such is our relationship with our Father in heaven.

Will bad things happen in life? You bet. Will people take advantage of us as we try to bring honor to His name? Certainly. But the One who raised Jesus from the dead is the One who promises to vindicate each of His adopted sons and daughters. Perhaps, if we thought more in those terms, we might not be so concerned about how the world sees us, and more concerned about honoring Him who first saved us!


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

We are what and who we wear . . .

“We are what we wear.” It sounds like it should have been a clothing add from the 80’s or early 90’s, but it is also a truth that the world recognizes. I was reminded of that fact watching a movie I had yet to see. The movie was Hancock. In it, Will Smith plays a drunken, misunderstood, selfish superhero. Hannah fell asleep, so I did not get to finish it yet, but there was a wonderful teaching in it. The “image consultant” who takes on the cause of Hancock shows the hero the new uniform. Hancock, predictably, is not about to wear the uniform. And the consultant reminds Hancock of the film footage and of the fact that a uniform denotes purpose. We know what firemen and police officers are doing because of what they wear. We can identify doctors, accountants, librarians, construction workers, and countless others by how they dress. Their uniforms give away their jobs. Their uniforms, in a way, give away their identity.

Paul, in his letter to the church at Ephesus, reminds us of this truth this weekend. We are what we wear. And Paul reminds us what we should be wearing and why we should be wearing it. You and I and all Christians, writes Paul, are engaged in a battle against powers and authorities unseen. Our real enemies are then enemies of God who seek to lead humanity from the mercy and love of the cross and the glorious promise of salvation. Some may be seen, but others exist in the spiritual realm, wrecking havoc as they struggle against the Gospel of Christ. You and I and all Christians, therefore, need to dress accordingly. We know we are in a battle, and we had better be prepared. So what do we wear?

Paul reminds us that we wear the armor of God. First, we are given a belt of truth. When we read that, we should hear the world and Caesar’s question “What is truth?” In a pluralistic age which denies any group’s claim to know Truth, we should not be surprised that Paul reminds us that we have been given the Truth. The truth has been revealed to us. We know that God exists, we know that He loves each one of us, through the work and person of Christ Jesus. Better still, we know that Jesus is who He says He is, the messiah, by the fact that God vindicated Him on that Easter morning and raised Him from the dead. This, the world, is not all that there is. There is a Creator, a loving God, who stretched out His hand to save humanity, a humanity which so often determines to save itself and yet fails repeatedly.

Next, Paul reminds us that we wear a breastplate of righteousness. Given that Paul was a lawyer, we probably should not be too surprised that he uses a term like righteousness. For Paul, the term means simply that we are made right before God. Our debts to Him have been paid; our sins against Him have been atoned—through the sacrifice of Christ. As a result, you and I are made sons and daughters of the living God. We are adopted into His family and restored to relationship with Him. And it is fitting that we should carry such good news close to our hearts. When the world tries to remind us that we are not special, that we are not significant, our breastplate reminds each one of us that the Creator of the universe thought us worth the cost of the cross and that we are special to Him.

Our helmet, according to Paul, is a helmet of salvation. We are reminded of the glory which we are promised by God. Yes, bad things may happen in the world. We may suffer from diseases, famine, the sins of others, or even the forces of nature. We may, in fact, suffer to the point of death. Yet each of us has been promised through Christ an eternal salvation. Whatever we suffer for His glory will be redeemed. God will vindicate all His adopted children just as He did His begotten child. We may die for a time, but we will live forever in the presence of our God, our Savior, our Creator, our Father.

Add to all this the shield of faith. In our daily life and work we will be assaulted by these forces and their puppets who rebel against God. Diseases may well afflict us; aches and pains will no doubt assault us; coworkers may use us as rungs on a ladder, companies may dismiss us as heartless institutions are wont to do, we may lack for many wants, we may be persecuted as Paul was during the composition of this letter, at times we may feel like we are in a long tunnel with no light in sight (or worried that the light is a locomotive heading our way), but we can trust that God will vindicate us. Whatever is meant for evil by others in our life, He will conquer for us. We may not know how, we may not see how such redemption is possible at times, but our shield of faith allows us to withstand the arrows and trust Him to act when necessary.

I intentionally left off the sword and the footwear. At a later date, I want to take up specifically the sword He gives us to bear and how we wield it so wrongly so often. The footwear I save for last because it reminds us of our need to be comfortable and well supported as we labor for Him. Speak to any veteran about their supplies and their attire, and you will quickly learn that the shoes are very important. A soldier is near worthless if he or she is suffering from blisters on their feet, if their toes are frostbitten, or if the sweat has led to other problems. The footwear, though seemingly insignificant, is amazingly important. You and I are told to get comfortable in our labors for His Gospel. None of us are given the same gifts and talents, yet we are all called to go forth into battle in His name. While it is true that God may use you in ways that you would not choose (Paul is in chains for no real reason), often He sends us into those places where we are most familiar to testify to His saving grace. Your work or school environment, your family, your social club—all these and countless other places may be the very place He has sent you as His ambassador and asked you to labor faithfully.

We are what we wear – I mentioned earlier that Hancock drove this home for me late last week. While I have not yet seen the entirety of the movie, I have seen enough to guess. I will be sorely disappointed if Hancock’s image is not restored. But we are all confronted with that same question each and every day as we head off to work, or school, or play. What will we wear today? Will we wear the same old same old, will we put on the armor of God and go forth into the battles He has called us? Will we garb ourselves in drab clothing and testify that the world is right, we are not special? Or will we put on His righteousness, His truth, His promise of salvation and go forth as ambassadors of the One who redeems all and has acted to redeem us?