Monday, May 23, 2011

Signposts . . .

I was at First Lutheran Moline last week when we had one of those discussions that reminds us of our age came up. Unfortunately, it ended up being a great sermon illustration, too. George and Annette and a number of us were celebrating Kaily’s accomplishments as an organist and as a singer at her recital, when George decided to share a conversation he had had with another of the girls who was performing. Everyone here, by now, is familiar with GPS devices. I am told that cars purchased within the last three years usually have them as a standard accessory. Heck, I was reading that my family is fairly normal, at least in the sense that we name our GPS – she has a British voice, so we call her Lizzie (short for Elizabeth).

George was explaining to this young lady that there was a time when GPS did not exist. How did you get to where you were going? In the beginning, we had these papers that were folded up. Driving to places often took two people. One person, usually the man, was the one who drove the car. He managed the wheel and the old device called a clutch. The other person, usually the wife, was responsible for the paper. It was her job to unfold the paper, pretend like she knew where they were on the paper, and give the opposite directions required to get to the destination. If they were to go north, she instructed the man to turn south; if they were supposed to turn left, it was her job to instruct him to turn right or “this way” while in traffic when he could not take his eyes off the road. Eventually, George shared in all serious wisdom, the man was expected to realize that Memphis was nowhere near Chicago nor Kansas City to Minneapolis. Then the man would pull over, turn the paper correctly, re-straighten the folds, and figure out the quickest way to get back on track to the destination. There was no recalculating? she asked. No, he somberly replied, this was not a device but rather paper. It was called a map and it was our job to do the recalculating. That could only be done if you could read the map. Some lines were good or fast roads, others were slower or bad, still other lines might not be roads at all but rather borders, or county lines, or even time zones. And the blue ones were always water. Wow. She replied, clearly impressed by George’s narration. I had heard of Mapquest and seen it on my computer, but I had never met anyone who had ever used it as a primary navigation tool. It was at this point that our beloved Lt. Col. and Senior Warden recognized the need for a retreat and several beers to recover from the shock an awe of discovering how old he really was in his daughter’s friend’s eyes.

Thomas, this morning, is not that different from our young teenager bantering with George, were she to find herself in the dark ages of maps and clutches, or perhaps ourselves. Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Jesus’ response? I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. How would you ever give someone directions to heaven or to where Jesus and the Father currently are? It seems rather hard. We have no address. We can’t punch it into our GPS or computers. It’s an impossible request. Thomas seems right to our ears when he says that we do not know where Jesus is going (went). His question, and ours, might seem right, and Jesus’ answer of no help, but is that true?

Part of Jesus’ purpose for coming down from heaven was to show us how to live in communion with God. Remember, part of Jesus job was to fulfill the torah. Israel could no more live a holy life, a life under the torah, given to them at their redemption from Egypt, than can you or I. Yet, part of the purpose of the torah was to teach Israel, and by extension us, what it meant to live in full communion with a holy, righteous, just, loving, God. Jesus, though, managed to keep all the torah. He lived a sinless, blameless life. You and I might be decent people by modern standards, but we still sin. Jesus did not. In that way, He who knew no sin could become sin and bear our punishment on the cross. He died for our sins so that we could share in His righteousness. He was the perfect offering for us. That is not to say he lived a life with a “holier than us” attitude. As we noticed this Lenten season, the one who should have been judging our need for repentance joined us in the waters of Jordan. Nor was it to declare that God’s righteousness and holiness were misunderstood. No, indeed. When Jesus was confronted by sin, He called it for what it was and called the sinner back into right relationship with God. In this sense, the sense of an example, He shows us the way, the truth, and the life of the believer. How do we find Jesus now? Live a life like He did, to the best ability and grace given us. We study what He teaches, we learn what He would have us to know, and we pick up our own crosses and follow Him!

The other sense, of course, deals more with His work on the cross and His glorious Resurrection. He who knew no sin became sin. Jesus died on that cross for you, for me, and for everyone whom we meet in our daily life and work. Throughout the Old Testament, God reminded Israel that He desired that no one should die, no single individual should die; rather, He wanted the world to repent and turn to Him, the God and Father of all. The punishment that was required for the sins of all humanity was born by His Son. Now, when you and I and all others sin, all that is required is that we repent and ask Him for the grace to follow more closely in His footsteps. He has paid the price for our failures, our sins, in God’s inscrutable eyes. To be sure, we are still human, we will still continue to sin, this side of the grave. But His work, His sacrifice, makes it possible that you and I might become better disciples as we are matured in our faith. Practically speaking, what does such a life look like?

Like the map user which must figure out where one is in relation to where one should or wants to be or the one who makes a wrong turn while using a GPS, the recalculating has already been done for us. You and I, during the course of our lives, will face countless forks and intersections in our faith journey. Sometimes, we will discern where He is and where we should go. At other times, our discernment will fail us. At still other times, we will choose to ignore our conscience and His voice and go where we want to go. The great news is that He has already recalculated our route and can still direct us to our ultimate destination, eternal life with Him. All we need to do is to repent (again) and start listening to Him and following Him where He leads us.

Can’t we get there on our own or by another route? These words sound so harsh, particularly to our American pluralized ears. Sadly, many Christians have chosen to use these words of Jesus as a club. “You don’t know Him so you don’t get to enjoy His offer.” “Will people get into heaven who do not know Him?” is perhaps the question that worries us. After all, He says elsewhere that He has other flocks. Whatever and wherever those other flocks are, and this is not the reading to discuss them, He makes it clear that they are His. The other flocks are not getting to Him by means of any way apart from Him. By why would we ever risk our salvation, or the salvation of our families, our co-workers, or our friends, on His uncovenanted mercies? Why keep silent when we know the way? Can you imagine ever being given the gift of prophesy to know this week’s Powerball or MegaMillions drawing and not use those numbers? And what He offers is of infinitely more value than the money offered in those lotteries. In a very real sense, He has called you and me and promised to use us, all of our joys and all of our sorrows, as signposts for others to His saving embrace. And it is our job to give those directions to all whom we encounter, whether they know they are lost or not. But, in giving those directions, brothers in sisters, we are called to remind ourselves that sometimes we are a bit lost, sometimes we have forgotten our way, and that we are, in the end, fellow travelers with all whom we encounter, seeking to follow the path He has set before us, trusting that He will lead us, and all others whom He has saved, to be home with our Father forever.



Monday, May 16, 2011

Journeying, eating, and dwelling . . .

We have certainly heard a lot of Psalm 23 over the past few weeks. I think, with the only exception being Tony’s funeral, this will be the 8th time in only 3 weeks or so that many of us have either heard or participated in reading the psalm. Let’s face it. It is one of the best known pieces of Scripture. It’s one of those pieces of Scripture which seems to be as well known by the unchurched as it is by the churched. Why?

For its brevity, Psalm 23 takes up a number of themes. Better still, as with all great poetry, its few words convey all kinds of depth of meaning. For example, one of the messages of this psalm, I think can be argued, is the idea that life is a journey. Certainly, the Hebrews understood much of their existence to be a journey. Often, they referred to themselves as “wandering Arameans,” a clear reference to the fact that Abraham and Isaac and the rest of the first family were called out of their homeland by God on a great journey. Their life in Egypt, both the good times and the bad, was considered a “sojourn.” Certainly their experiences in the wilderness after being freed from Egypt was a wandering. They did get a few generations of life in the Promised Land, but their rejection of the covenant with God earned them the punishment of the Exile. Throughout their journeys, both physical and spiritual, Israel was reminded that they were just passing through. Their focus was supposed to be Yahweh, both in the good times and the bad.

Similarly, you and I as Christians are often reminded that we are “wandering Arameans” and “pilgrims.” What we were and what were are now are not our final destination. At some point, you and I will be re-created and called home to be with our Lord. But, as we journey through both the wonderful experiences of life and its terrible tragedies, you and I are called to keep our focus of God and His promises.

Another beautiful image in these 6 short verses is the promise that God is preparing a table, a feast, for us, sometimes right in front of our enemies. For the people of Israel, this promise was to be expressed fullest in their possession of and continuing existence in the Land Promised to their forefathers and foremothers. For us, of course, this idea is realized differently. Certainly, unless we are among those fortunate to be alive when our Lord returns, we will all walk through the valley of the shadow of death. As I noted earlier, death has touched all of us at least once in the past three weeks, and some of us have been touched as many as 8 times! Death is always stalking us, as are many of the sufferings of this world. How many of us are fighting diseases? How many of us are worried about provision? How many of us wish that certain relationships could be restored?

Just as God fed Israel with manna and quail during their journeys and led them into a land with vineyards and milk and honey (and lots of enemies), you and I are fed in the midst of our trials. Each week, although some of us a few more times than just once, we gather at the Eucharist and remind ourselves of the pledge God has given us. We remember His faithfulness and remind ourselves to trust Him, wherever He leads us. More than infrequently we hear of amazing provision or miracles in the midst of this world, and oh how those stories inspire us! Think of Fr. Jeremy’s story of healings and protection towards the end of Lent. Think of the wonderful stories of how “money appeared” or “bills got lost” or whatever in our midst that allowed us breathing space, rest, in the midst of our cares of provision. How many times do checks happen to appear from those who watch our ministries just when we need them the most? How big is our prayer list because people notice that our intercessors get clear answers from God? And how intent are we in sharing those stories of miracles of provision or of healing? We each need to hear them in the midst of our enemies so that our faith will be strengthened and our confidence in God will be increased. Better still, for just a few moments when we hear of these amazing acts and gifts of God, the jeers and taunts of our enemies, and His, are muted.

Of course, perhaps most importantly, one of the themes of this psalm is the idea that we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Certainly, there is a peek-ahead to the end times, when His people are called home into restored communion with Him; but there is also included here, I believe, a reminder that we are already experiencing some of the benefits of that future state. His goodness, we are promised, follows us all the days of our lives. Just as such a promise would have been hard for a non-Jew to accept in the face of the Exile and any number of persecutions, so, too, might a non-Christian find our claim absurd. You have just talked of death, of disease, of broken relationships, and of privation. How can you claim that you dwell in the House of the Lord? Much as Ann Vosskamp’s book suggests, you and I are called to look for God in the seemingly insignificant events in our life. Maybe we work ridiculous hours each week. But maybe, in the midst of that work, we take time out to spend time with a beloved child or grandchild. Perhaps, if the sacrifices we make while working directly benefit that beloved youth in our life, we can begin to understand a bit better His work on our behalf. Our Father in heaven. Maybe, if we have heard of His actions in the world around us, despite the attacks and hassles of the enemy, you and I might come to look at those bad events in our lives as places where God is most at work in our lives. Perhaps, just perhaps, we may be given eyes to see and ears to hear with excitement how He will redeem the newest problem in our life. In other words, our problems become opportunities for us to see better His handiwork in our lives and opportunities for us to give Him increasing thanksgiving and praise for what He has done for us! That is a dwelling place to which we should all aspire!

Six short verses--such incredibly, densely-packed verses! Yet they are verses which provide amazing comfort. Though we often forget it, such is part of what they were intended to do. In the order of the psaltery, 23 naturally follows 22. You and I as Christians may know the numbers, but we might forget the meanings. Psalm 22 begins with the Anointed’s words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” While it is by no means a psalm of failure, but rather a psalm that reminds us of God’s promises and powers to act, Psalm 23 reminds us each of the specificity of His promises. Yes, we are on a journey, surrounded and attacked by enemies of God who would like nothing better than to see us stumble or be misled. Yes, death stalks us. But, in the end, God triumphs! Through the death and resurrection of His Son our Lord, you and are reminded that He has the power to see us each safely home and that, from time to time, we will be given glimpses into His future victory. Armed with than knowledge and restored by His food, we are once again sent back out into the world to share His story of grace, His story of love, His story of provision with the world around us. Better still, we are sent as ambassadors to seek others and call them into this amazing relationship and journey with Him!



Monday, May 9, 2011

All we are like Linus . . .

Where do you find your security? It is a question which resonates through the ages. At times, it was gathering within city walls. At other times it was within castles or keeps. At still other times, it was through force of arms. Today, it may seem very different, but the question of security bothers us every bit as it did the psalmist. Over the course of the past week, I have heard hysterical stories and noticed lots of attempts to increase security around us. Heck, even at church, Scott Shovar added some significant plating to the door on the shed to thwart the obvious efforts to break in out there. And we as church members have wondered “Should we lock our doors during worship or just during the week?” to cut down on the incidents of theft. Nationally, of course, we have had to deal with the increased threat to security posed by the killing of bin Laden. If I had a dime for every time ADT or some other outfit called with the line “we were going to be in your area installing security systems and wondered if we might protect you?” I would have a pretty good savings account. I would also have a heck of a lot more neighbors! We can even go to WalMart and buy “security cameras” which do not connect to anything to try that help convince would-be-thieves that our houses are secure. Where do you find your security?

The answer to the question, of course, gives us an idea of our spiritual health. There is no doubt that burglaries can unsettle us. Acts of terrorism or natural disasters, either domestically or internationally, can likewise destabilize society (think of the Fed’s response to 9-11 or Japan’s Fed’s response to the earthquake/tsunami). Even localized events, such as the death of a loved one, can cause us all kinds of angst. The world likes to give us the illusion that we can be the captains of our own ships, the masters of our own domains, but over and over again we discover that such a siren song is illusionary. All it takes is one intentional evil act or an unexpected disaster to remind us just how insecure we really are.

Our psalm this week, however, reminds us that God has assigned our portion and our cup and made us secure. Like everyone else who lives in the world with us, bad things can happen to us. You and I are faced with insecurities every day. Where will my next job come from? How will I keep my house? What if I get sick and lose my job and my family’s insurance? What if my company gets bought out or goes out of business? What if my plane is blown out of the sky? What if a tornado takes my family? What if my daughter or good friend discerns a call to mission in East Africa and is taken from us by an act of terrorism? What if people think I’m a religious freak for mentioning my faith as we talk about these fears at the coffee room or the water cooler? We share the same concerns as those around us.

The big difference, of course, is our response to those insecurities and vagaries and destabilizations. As a result of the Resurrection which we just celebrated and through the empowerment of the feast of Pentecost which we will celebrate in a few weeks time, you and I are commissioned and encouraged to seek Him and find where He has led the way, even if we stand at death’s door. You see, brothers and sisters, joy and peace are to be found only in His arms. We were created to rest in full communion with Him, to enjoy a delightful inheritance bestowed upon us by Him. And He makes that joy and inheritance possible. His victory over death reminds each one of us that nothing can hold sway over our lives for very long. True, the vagaries of life can be painful and seem extended oftentimes, but the truth is that they are only temporary. Only He and His gifts are eternal.

Where do you find your security? Brothers and sisters, if you think you are finding it in your own efforts or those of other human beings, you are too much concerned with things and circumstances and not enough with your Lord! Psalm 16 reminds us that when those security devices and efforts eventually fail (and the psalmist knows they invariably will), He still remains! He still protects! He still lifts up! Better still, unlike those who trust in themselves and their own strength and ingenuity, we can face the vagaries of life, and even death itself, certain in the knowledge that He will redeem us, just as He did our Lord. That, brothers and sisters, is a glorious inheritance. That, brothers and sisters, is a portion and cup worth sharing with others!



Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Thoughts on bin Laden . . .

It is a question which has plagued many Christians since his death was announced Sunday night. But it is a question which has plagued many people outside our faith as well. Police Officers, members of AA, and AFMers have all asked the same question. Those who profess to have no faith in God cannot understand their own ambivalence or feelings of guilt. Some have felt joy at his killing, and then later they have felt guilty about the joy. Others have felt sadness at his death, and then later they have felt guilty for not being “American enough” in their own eyes. How should we feel?

There are no right or wrong feelings about his death, as it seems we have several competing ideas and virtues in light of his death. As Americans, we recognize our country’s right to seek to eliminate those who threaten us. One of the chief functions of civil governments is the protection of its people and its way of life. Certainly, through both word and deed, bin Laden demonstrated that he was willing to destroy lives and our way of life to achieve his own goals and objectives. Most of his public pronouncement included threats of destruction, and he certainly had resources, both financial and followers, to be a credible threat. For that, he earned, I believe rightfully so, the right to be considered a public enemy of the United States of America.

Of course, you and I are also Christians, which means we are only sojourners in this land. This land, the United States, is not the heavenly kingdom promised us by our Father. True, it is infinitely preferred to some places in the world; nevertheless, it, too, pales by comparison with what is being prepared for us. As Christians, you and are all called to proclaim our Lord’s love and His offer of forgiveness and salvation. Thus, gloating over the death of a man such as bin Laden might, rightfully, make us feel uncomfortable. It ought to make us squirm. After all, before our acceptance of His offer, before our baptism in the water and Holy Spirit, you and I were God’s enemies. As His enemies, we were right to expect such an ending. And so, impelled by joyous thanksgiving, we reach out to the hungry, the beaten, the enslaved, the forgotten and remind them of that same offer, hopeful that each one that we meet will make the same wise decision to follow where He leads.

Plus, you and I are told to set our minds on godly things. What if bin Laden or his close friends had repented and turned to the Lord and come down out of the mountains to accept their punishment by secular authorities? Can you imagine the glory and honor to God? It is for that reason that we, as a community, always pray the prayer for our enemies. We know the world would take notice, were the leaders of Al-Queda, North Korea, and Iran to repent publicly and turn to Christ. We also know that our eternal futures, and the futures of all those around us, depend upon our and their answer to His gentle “follow Me.” His followers get an amazing reward; those who refuse Him get anything but. And, having been shaped by the Holy Spirit, we know that God laments the loss of even one of our fellow human beings. The price of their salvation has already been paid, and still so many reject Him. So, in a way, we also feel some sadness and guilt when we see those who have rejected Him perish.

I say guilt over the deaths of someone like bin Laden because of several conversations these first few hours after his reported death. It is easy for us to see someone such as him as an enemy of God and deserving of death. After all, he has killed or inspired others to kill thousands of human beings. And certainly, some of our spiritual forefathers and foremothers inspired some of that hatred in their treatment of his own ancestors. We know those actions to be wrong, with certainty, just as we can easily identify others whom we would classify as evil. But what of those in our midst who do not seem so evil? What of those in our own families, our places of work or relaxation, our neighborhoods, our favorite hang-outs who “don’t have time for God and that religious stuff,” as some have put it? What of those whom we know who reject His call to “follow Me,” but try their best not to harm others, you know, “just in case that stuff is true?” Are we willing to let them stand before the same God as bin Laden without His body and His blood interposed against His wrath? Are willing to say, “I told them once or twice; it’s their problem now”? Are we that willing to give up so easily on those whom we profess to know and to love in our midst? Or, should we not be impelled with all the more urgency to remind them and ourselves that our choices in this life have consequences, eternal consequences when it comes to accepting or rejecting His offer?