Friday, June 22, 2018

The Cost


Day 5: Luke 14:27-33

Good morning, tektons! Jesus reminds us that every major task costs something. It may be money but it will certainly cost you energy and attention and thought and time. Which are all pieces of your life. Time is one major way of measuring your life, by its duration. Yet it may not be the best way to measure it.

Certainly Jesus didn't think so. He died at 33. But he knew his mission was more important than his continued earthly existence. And he had to know the cost from the very beginning.

Remember how he lived just 4 miles from the ambitious rebuilding of Sepphoris, the gleaming capital of Galilee? And how it is quite probable that Joseph and Jesus, his apprentice, went there looking for work? Remember how we said the rebuilding was necessary because the Romans had destroyed that city when it rebelled? Well, the Romans didn't just destroy buildings. They killed or took into captivity all 30,000 residents. They crucified all the men of the city, some 2000, in one day, all along the road, so that everyone could see what happened to those who went up against the powers that be.

When our Lord was a boy in Nazareth, the bodies were long gone but were the crosses still there? Did the child Jesus pass by them every time he and Joseph went to work? Did he grow up literally in the shadow of the cross?

Jesus knew the cost of going up against the powers that rule this world. And he did it anyway. Because of the good news of the kingdom of God.

To paraphrase General Patton, you don't win a war by dying for your country; you win it by making someone else die for their country. The kingdoms of this world come about through the shedding of the blood of the conquered. Most people don't choose their country. It just comes from whatever side of the man-made boundaries you are born on. And if some ruler wants your country, he conquers it and now you are a subject of his kingdom. You were never asked. That's how the kingdoms of this world operate.

The kingdom of God doesn't work that way. It has no boundaries. Anybody who puts their trust in Jesus and swears allegiance to him is born again as a citizen of the kingdom of God. And wherever followers of Jesus are, there the kingdom is also.

And the kingdom of God is not founded on the blood of the unwilling or its subjects. It is founded on the shed blood of its king, Jesus, who knowingly and willingly took up his cross for us and marched to a horrible death. He so loved the world that he took upon himself the brunt of the evil we unleashed on the world, so that the world through him might be saved. As Paul says, “...he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Corinthians 5:15)

As we read before, “You are not your own, for you were bought for a price.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) If our King took up his cross for us, we should take up our crosses for those he died to save.

Odds are you will not die for your faith, though there are parts of the world where our brothers and sisters in Christ are dying for him. But you are called to deny yourself, to disavow any imagined right you have over your life, and follow Jesus. Your talents, your treasures, your time are his. They are tools on loan for the brief span which is your time on earth so that you may carry on the work he has given us. We are God's co-workers, as Paul said. (1 Corinthians 3:9) We are to build up the kingdom by building each other up and by spreading the kingdom through our words and through our works.

Not that our works save us. As it says in Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10) Works don't save us; they are the natural result of Jesus saving us. We don't do works to earn his love; we do them out of the overflowing love he has poured into our hearts. Remember that the point of becoming a Christian is becoming Christlike. A Christlike person manifests Jesus' self-sacrificial love for others.

Soon you will go back to your home. And in time you may leave that home: for college, for jobs, for love, for adventure. And wherever you go, Jesus will go. He will never leave you or forsake you. And where he is the kingdom, the reign of God, goes. Lay a foundation wherever you find yourself. If someone else has already laid one, build on it. If it's already being built, sign up to help. There is always a place on God's crew!

Let us pray: Lord God, King of the Universe, Heavenly Father, help us to recognize the great cost Jesus paid to make our relationship with you whole. Help us to appreciate the value of what we have received and what others will receive from following your Son. Keep our eyes open for places to build your kingdom and for fellow workers and citizens, even in those perceived as the least of your siblings. We ask these things in the name of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, and through the power of your Holy Spirit, who live and reign with you, Father, one God forever and ever. Amen

You go out into a world of broken lives and broken relationships. You have the blueprint for God's kingdom in his Word. Tektons, gather up your tools, level up your skills, be filled with the Spirit and build something beautiful for Jesus!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Roles and Skills


Day 4: 1 Kings 5:13-18

Good morning, tektons! If you started reading about the building of the first temple in Jerusalem in 2 Chronicles, it sounds like King Solomon did it all himself: “The foundation Solomon laid for building the temple of God was sixty cubits long and twenty cubits wide (using the cubit of the old standard)....He overlaid the inside with pure gold. He paneled the main hall with juniper and covered it with fine gold and decorated it with palm tree and chain designs. He adorned the temple with precious stones. And the gold he used was gold of Parvaim. He overlaid the ceiling beams, doorframes, walls and doors of the temple with gold, and he carved cherubim on the walls.” (2 Chronicles 3:3-7) Of course, Solomon was not a stonemason, carpenter, goldsmith, jeweler or sculptor. As we read in our passage from 1 Kings he used a lot of craftsmen. Because he inspired and oversaw it all, though, the Bible says he did these things, the way we say a director made a film, though if you sit through to the very end you will see in the credits the hundreds of people who created all the elements that made up the movie.

God could do everything he wants to accomplish on this earth himself but he chooses to use us to build his kingdom. Through his Spirit he equips us with talents and skills. He calls us to fulfill various roles throughout the process. Sometimes we think there is just one way to serve God. We think that only ordained clergy are really serving God. But that's privileging those of us with the most visible skills and roles. I could not run these churches by myself. We have secretaries and treasurers and people who look after the upkeep of the building and grounds and people who set up the altar and people who select the music and people who teach the Sunday School and people who make the food and people who visit the sick and people who pray for everyone. Every person has a role. Or more than one.

Just as Paul compared our bodies to a temple of God's Spirit, he also compared the church to a body, with lots of parts and different functions, all under the direction of the head, who is Jesus. All the parts are vital even if their importance is not obvious. We used to think the appendix was a basically useless organ, prone to get inflamed. Therefore doctors doing any kind of surgery in the abdomen would often just remove it without qualms. But now some researchers say it acts as a storehouse for good bacteria, to reboot the gut after a bout of dysentery. Similarly, when cataloging the genes in our DNA, scientists encountered parts they thought were redundant or unnecessary, which they called junk DNA. Now they call them non-coding DNA, because they produce non-coding RNA components which are important in regulating things like the immune system's response to infection and cancer. It is not wise to think that any part of the body is useless and that includes any part of the body of Christ on earth. Which means you. God doesn't make junk.

You are at a time in life when you are discovering your talents and your skills. They in turn will help you discover your role and function in the body of Christ and in building God's kingdom. You may find more than one. And you will likely find them somewhere near the intersection of what you are interested in, what you are good at, what the world needs and where God puts you. It may take a while. I felt called in a vague way to the ordained ministry but I didn't actually get to there until my late 40s. But looking back, I can see that God, like a chess master, was maneuvering me to that point, while making sure I got a lot of experience that would come in handy and would make me wiser and more compassionate and more humble.

They say if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. He made you and knows where you belong and how you work best. He also knows what you need for the tasks ahead and he knows the best ways to hone your skills. So when he calls, say, like Samuel, “Here I am, Lord!” And prepare for surprises.

Let us pray: Lord God, King of the Universe, Heavenly Father, you made us and you equip us and you call us to work with you in building your kingdom. We know you really don't need us on your team and yet out of love you include us. Help us to listen for your call and be open to opportunities to serve you in ways we never anticipated but for which you have prepared us. Keep us flexible in mind and firm in our commitment to follow your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. We ask these things in his name, and through the power of your Holy Spirit, who live and reign with you, Father, one God forever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Living Stones


Day 3: 1 Corinthians 14:12, 26

Hello, living stones! You have probably heard of the shortages of various things that affect our lives. Global warming may make chocolate more pricey as the places where cacao plants grow are becoming less hospitable to their cultivation. The depletion of rare earth metals is similarly going to make cell phones more expensive. But you know one surprising thing whose disappearance is threatening how we live—literally? Sand. It is used in making concrete, which is 70% sand. With the human population of the world growing, we need ever more sand to make concrete for building cities. We are talking specifically river bottom sand, which works much better than desert sand or sand created by simply crushing rocks. Believe it or not, the proper kind of sand is getting so scarce and so expensive that criminal gangs have gotten involved and there is an underground sand market!

To build you need the proper materials. In rebuilding God's new world, God is using us in two capacities: as helpers in building and as part of the building. Today we are going to explore further the metaphor of us being living stones. You need the right stuff if you are building something that will last. Which means we need to be the right stuff if we are to be the spiritual house for God's Spirit.

When we are baptized, we received God's Holy Spirit. That makes us each a temple or dwelling place for his Spirit. But the Spirit of God is not just a guest. He is the rightful owner. As Paul says, “Or don't you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought for a price. Therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

When you are a guest, you don't take it upon yourself to make changes in the place you are staying. You're not going to repaint, much less knock out walls. But the owner can do what he wants. And let's face it, when you were bought with Jesus' blood, you were a bit of a fixer-upper. Not only repairs but renovations are called for. As Anne Lamott puts it, God loves you just as you are but he loves you too much to leave you that way. You can be so much more.

Without getting into too much detail, what the Spirit wants to make you into, as C.S. Lewis put it, is a little Christ. And becoming a Christlike person is, like all major building projects, not something that takes place overnight. It will take a lifetime. Some days the results will be obvious. Other days, when the Spirit is working out the fine details, it will seem like nothing is happening. And there are too many days when we will get in his way, sabotaging his work in us. But we know what the qualities are that he is trying to bring out in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control. People with those qualities are people God can build his kingdom on.

Let us pray: Lord God, King of the Universe, Heavenly Father, we are humbled that you have chosen us to make into your kingdom. We are amazed that you see in us the possibility that we can in any way be like your Son Jesus. So help us get out of the way of the Spirit's renovation of our lives. Show us the ways in which we can help this project. And keep us from criticizing how slow or seemingly ineffective is your work in other Christians. Keep us focused on our own project because neither we nor anyone else has any idea what you are working with. We ask these things in the name of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, and through the power of your Holy Spirit, who live and reign with you, Father, one God forever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Blueprint


Day 2: Ephesians 2:19-22

Hello, tektons! Yesterday we talked of how we are called to be constructive: building up and repairing lives and relationships. But before you build, you need a plan. Nobody wants to live in a house that was improvised or made up on the fly. First you need a blueprint. You need to know how the home is going to look when its finished or you might leave out something important, like a door or a staircase or a bathroom.

We do have a picture of what we are building: a temple or spiritual house in which we are, in the words of 1 Peter 2:5, living stones. That means we have to, as Paul says, fit together. Stones are carved in order to fit, which typically makes them look uniform. But when I was in Ireland, I saw the Gallarus Oratory,
where stones were shaped but still retain their individuality. Unity doesn't require uniformity. What is important is that each stone is in its proper place and that they all support one another. So it is with the church.

But God has a grander plan in mind. He is interested not just in restoring the bits of the world where the church is but eventually all of creation. In Revelation 21 it says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with humans, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; neither will there be mourning, nor crying, no pain, any more. The first things have passed away. He who sits on the throne says, 'Behold, I make all things new.'” (Revelation 21:1-5)

This is God's goal. In a way, it is a return to his original design. He created this world as a paradise. We have turned it into hell on earth. He is determined to make it a paradise once again. It's right there in the Lord's Prayer: “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Earth is to become heavenly. That is what the symbolism of the new Jerusalem descending from heaven is all about. In the Old Testament, the Temple in Jerusalem was the place where heaven and earth meet. As it says in Isaiah, “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool.” (Isaiah 66:1) The Temple was where people went to meet with God.

Jesus is both fully God and fully human. He is now the meeting point between humans and God. He is the cornerstone of what God is building. And we are all “living stones,” part of the plan. How? We will look at that tomorrow.

Let us pray: Lord God, King of the Universe, Heavenly Father, we are awed by your creation as it is and wonderstruck at your plan to rebuild your creation, and even more astonished that you invite us to be part of what you are doing. Shape us and help us to find our place in your work. May we support each other in this and all we do. We ask these things in the name of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, and through the power of your Holy Spirit, who live and reign with you, Father, one God forever and ever. Amen

(picture courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

Monday, June 18, 2018

Tekton

The bishop visited this Sunday so I don't have my usual sermon to post. But we are also getting a visit from a mission team of Methodist teens from Valdosta, Georgia. They will be staying at our two churches, working with Habitat for Humanity and other groups helping our islands rebuild from hurricane Irma. So I have crafted a series of devotionals to present to them over the next week.


Day 1:Mark 6:3

The word used to describe Jesus here is the Greek word tekton. It is usually translated “carpenter” and yes, it was used of woodworkers primarily, but it has other definitions as well. It could mean a craftsman or artisan. It could mean a handyman, someone you would call in to do repairs or small jobs. It could also mean builder, which in a rocky land like Palestine, means Jesus could have been a stonemason.

I rather like to think of Jesus as a handyman, a Mr. Fix-it. Partly because Nazareth was a small town, with a population of about 500, about 1/10th of the population of Big Pine Key. So how much business could he do in such a small market? But there would always be a need for someone to make and repair things like tables and plows and fences.

On the other hand, just 4 miles northwest of Nazareth was the city of Sepphoris. Herod the Great conquered it and made it his northern base. When he died, the city rebelled. The Roman governor destroyed it. Herod's kingdom was divided up and Herod Antipas, the son who got Galilee decided to rebuild it into the most opulent city in his territory. This happened during the lifetimes of Joseph and Jesus so it would be natural for them to go there looking for work.

Any way you define it—carpenter, craftsman, handyman or builder—a tekton makes things. He either makes them from scratch or he makes broken things new again. There are those who destroy without any notions of rebuilding and there are those who create and repair. As followers of Jesus, we are called to do the latter. But that doesn't mean we all need to take shop class or go into construction. What is mainly broken in this world is our relationships: our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. And they are connected. When asked for the greatest commandment, Jesus gave two: love of God and love of other people. As it says in 1st John, “If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother or sister, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother or sister, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20) If you truly love God, you should also love those made in his image. And that's everyone, including people we would classify as unlovable. Jesus never said following him was easy. So repairing broken relationships with others and building bridges to people with whom we don't yet have a relationship are part of our work as followers of Jesus.

As it says in Isaiah 58, “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your bones. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” (Isaiah 58:9-12) Like Jesus, we are to be tektons, crafting better lives and relationships.

Let us pray: Lord God, King of the Universe, Heavenly Father, we live in a broken world. You sent your Son not as a rich ruler but as a man who worked with his hands, making and repairing things. You sent him to make us new creations in Christ and repair what is broken in our lives. Help us to live like Jesus and repair the breaches between people and restore what has been ruined. We ask these things in the name of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ and through the power of your Holy Spirit, who live as reign with you, Father, one God forever and ever. Amen.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Power


The scriptures referred to are 1 Samuel 8:4-20, 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1, and Mark 3:20-35.

With great power comes great responsibility.” You don't have to be a geek like me to have heard that maxim. You might even know that it is what Peter Parker's Uncle Ben says to him, which inspires him to use his powers as Spiderman to help people. What you might not realize is that it may ultimately be derived from something Jesus said: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48) The context leading up to this is Jesus talking about his return. It will be unexpected and so some people in charge will be tempted by his delay to take advantage of the power granted them, neglect the needs of others and even abuse them. Jesus commends those who instead use their power and authority to take care of others. “It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns.” (Luke 12:43)

Power is one of the oldest issues human beings have struggled with. When humans lived in nomadic tribes of roughly 150 people, power resided with the patriarch, the oldest living male ancestor. He functioned as ruler, judge and priest. But he also had to be a good military commander because you would have to go up against other tribes over resources like good pasture land and water, not to mention women and slaves. A weak patriarch would not last. In such cases persons with physical power were given or seized power. (The Cherokee had both a war chief and a peace chief, who headed up the red government and white government respectively. They recognized that a good warrior might not be a good leader in peace time. They also had a Medicine Chief to break ties between the two councils.)

But most tribes put both the defense of the people and the day to day governance of them in the hands of one man. And in today's reading from the Hebrew Bible that's what the Israelites want: a king “like other nations.” Samuel, the Spirit-anointed judge who lead the people, is upset but God points out that they people are really rejecting God as their king. He tells Samuel to do what the people want but to warn them that giving one person that much power will inevitably lead to abuse of that power. “You shall be his slaves,” says Samuel of such a king. In this he is anticipating Catholic historian Lord Acton's observation that, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The problem wasn't in the Israelites wanting a king but in wanting one like their neighbors. In the Near East, in places like Egypt, the king was a god or a demi-god at least. As the NIV Cultural Background Study Bible puts it, the Israelites “...want a king who would successfully bring the deity into play so they could carry out their national agendas instead of waiting on the actions of the deity alone (as when he appointed judges over them). They wanted God's power, but not his control.”

In Israel the king was not divine but was supposed to rule as a regent for God, the true King. God actually made provision for a king back in the law of Moses when the Hebrews were just 12 tribes. In Deuteronomy it says, “The king...must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself...He must not take many wives or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate for himself large amounts of silver and gold. When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the priests, who are Levites. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his brothers and turn from the law to the right or to the left.” (Deuteronomy 17:16-20) Of course, the things prohibited here were exactly what the kings of God's people did. Because they could.

As much as the kings of Israel and eventually Judah wanted to play God, they were reminded by the prophets that they weren't really in control of events. People like Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, Micaiah, Amos, Micah, and Jeremiah spoke up for God's standards even when opposed by kings. God had granted their rulers power to do his will, not to do their own will. When the leaders sinned and when the nation followed their example, the prophets pronounced God's judgment on them.

Power is like fire. It is good when fire is used to cook your food and warm your home and light your way. It is bad when you misuse fire to damage and destroy the lives of others. Inevitably when it gets out of control it destroys even the one who lit the match.

A lot of people fail to make the distinction between the  proper use and the misuse of power. They also fail to understand the source of different kinds of power. That's the problem in our gospel today. Jesus is healing people. Back then folks attributed disease to beings invisible to the eye called demons. Today we attribute disease to beings invisible to the naked eye called germs. Anyway, Jesus is, in the language of the day, casting out demons and curing folks. That is undeniably good. Yet his religious rivals, trying to dispel Jesus' popularity, resort to saying that he is casting out demons by the power of the prince of demons, Beelzebub, literally, the “lord of the flies.” It was another name for Satan. So they were asserting that Jesus was doing good by using the power of the Evil One.

Jesus points out the absurdity of the power of Satan being used to fight Satan and then talks about blaspheming the Holy Spirit. A lot of people get this wrong. The Greek word from which we get the word “blaspheme” basically means “to vilify.” Jesus is not talking about a mere slip of the tongue but a frame of mind in which a person calls good evil. How messed up do you have to be to say that healing people is a bad thing coming from a bad place? And if you do see what is clearly the act of a good God as evil, how can you possibly come to him to be healed of your sin? That's why the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is the one unforgivable sin. It is refusing to recognize the source of forgiveness. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to repent and be saved. (Titus 3:5) It is the Spirit who remakes us and enables us to live as followers of Christ. (Romans 8:5; Galatians 5:22, 23) As Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5-6) So if you see God's Spirit as evil you won't let him forgive you and thereby you render yourself unforgivable.

As a nurse I have seen patients who obviously needed medical help refuse it, sign out AMA (Against Medical Advice) and go away untreated. A doctor can't heal someone who doesn't trust him and let him heal them and neither can God. He will not force us; he is the God of love. As C.S. Lewis points out, either we say to God, “Your will be done” or eventually God will have to say to us, “Very well, your will be done. You don't want any part of me. So be it. But by separating yourself from me you are separating yourself from the source of all goodness.” It would be like wanting the light and warmth of the sun without the sun itself. Remove yourself as far as you can from the sun and you will find only darkness and cold.

We see this today. People who prefer lies to truth, who twist themselves into pretzels trying to construe that good things are evil and that evil actions are good. One way to look at evil is as a narrow definition of good. If you see goodness as what is good for you and yours only and not as what is good for everyone, then it is easy to do evil to people and feel that you are doing good. As Dr. Paul Farmer said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” If you exclude from the beneficiaries of your actions Jews, or women, or people of color, or people from another country, or people who speak a different language than yours, or people whose sexuality is different, or people whose religion is different, or people who disagree with you on major issues, then you can do a great deal of evil and think you are doing good. Good for those who matter anyway. That's the way the Nazis thought. That's the way ISIS thinks. That's the way incels think. That's the way racists think. And if they do not wake up and change their minds and seek God, they won't find themselves in his kingdom.

As C.S. Lewis said, the gates of hell are locked from the inside. They are locking out the people they can't bring themselves to love. As it says in 1 John, “Whoever does not love does not know God for God is love.” (1 John 4:8) The power of God is the power of love.

Unfortunately we are in love with raw power and with people powerful enough to impose their will on others. That's why people worshiped their kings and emperors. That's why people worship leaders today despite what the Bible says about not putting your trust in human rulers. (Psalm 146:3-5) But we live vicariously through those who have power, whether it is physical strength, as with athletes, or wealth, as with billionaires, or brain power, as with pundits, or the power of persuasion, as with charismatic preachers and speakers, or even magical powers, as with superheroes. And we give those people millions of dollars, even the ones who pretend to fly and shoot webs or beams from their hands. And we wish we could be one of them. If you were offered the power to make people do whatever you wanted, would you refuse it?

Jesus did. His adversary offered him all the kingdoms of this world if only he would worship Satan. It would be an easier way of becoming King of kings and Lord of lords than the cross. But Jesus wouldn't make a deal with the devil. The ends do not justify the means. Jesus also would not misuse his power to leap off the top of the temple to sway the crowds nor alter the nature of rocks to feed himself. It's not about power. It's about love. The love of God that leads him to give up absolute power and put himself into the hands of those who love power. The love that lets them do their worst to him. The love that is more powerful than the principalities of this world, more powerful than our stubborn human natures, more powerful than death.

In our New Testament reading, Paul speaks of the persistent illusion that the things of this world have any kind of staying power. “For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” The monuments of past civilizations don't endure. Of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, only the pyramid of Giza has not yet disappeared. That's why we prize the few relics that have escaped the ravages of time. Great literature can't be counted on to survive. Literally hundreds of ancient works by classical authors are lost except for references to the them in other works. Kings and kingdoms do not last. The pharaohs reigned over Egypt for 3000 years. There are no pharaohs today. The Roman Empire lasted 1500 years, if you include its successor, the Byzantine Empire. There is no Roman emperor today. Hitler in his arrogance proclaimed a 1000 year Reich. Hitler only ruled 12 years before he shot himself and had his body burned so it wouldn't suffer the same fate as Mussolini's. Similarly Putin is haunted by the ignominious death of Muammar Gaddafi, who led Libya for 42 years, and died at the hands of a mob. He knows his regime will not last forever.

Political power, wealth, fame, talent, intelligence, and these bodies will not last. Why do we put our trust in them? Why do we not put our trust in the God who is love? As Paul says, “...we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure....”

Everything around you is temporary. God's love is eternal and will outlast all kingdoms, all monuments, the mountains and the seas. You know what else will outlast this earth? You. Every one of you. We are created to live forever. As C.S. Lewis put it, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours....Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

That means how we use the power given us and from where we draw our power is of eternal significance. Will we let that power corrupt us? Will we use it to corrupt others? Or will we use the power of God's love poured out in our hearts by his Spirit to encourage and elevate the persons we encounter towards the image of God in whom we were all made, the image we see perfectly in Jesus, who died for all out of his great love. It is in our power to nudge others upward or to try and drive them downward. And what power is offered us! We have the gospel; we have access to God's Spirit; we are members of the body of Christ on earth, God's people, variously equipped with the gifts of the Spirit. That's a lot of power. And with great power comes great responsibility. 

What are you going to do with it?

Sunday, May 13, 2018

For Mom

Believe it our not, we preachers run out of things to say. Last week our lectionary texts were again from the gospel of John and the first letter of John and were about love. But I had just preached about love for the previous 2 Sundays and so I was grateful to focus on Rachel's Day. This week it's the same problem but It's Mother's Day. What do I say about Mother's Day that has not been said before? That moms love us and we should love them? That's obvious. So I am going about it in a different way.

When my dad was in his final illness and weeks from death, he asked my brother and I what we were going to say about him at the funeral. So we each presented our eulogies to him so he could read them ahead of time. My dad was clear-minded almost up to the end. My mom is suffering dementia. That's part of the reason I am going to be gone for a few weeks. So I thought I would do the same for her while she can still, I hope, understand it.

My mom was a brilliant woman who, though she had gotten a scholarship to college, was advised by her mother that higher education was not the proper path for a woman. So she became a nurse instead. But she continued to read voraciously and used to go weekly to our local library, take out the maximum number of books they allowed her and then go to a slightly more distant library and do the same. And she read at a phenomenal rate of speed. And she would share what she had learned. So I was always hearing about ideas, research, history and the like. My mom had a great impact on my intellectual development.

Not only did she read to us, she encouraged me to read to my brother at bedtime as soon as I was able. I still have a great reverence for books. Unlike her, I doubt I will read all the ones I have.

There is another way in which my mother encouraged my intellectual progress. She never let a sloppy thought go unchallenged. She didn't tolerate excuses; what you did or didn't do needed logical reasons to back them up. “I don't want to” or “I didn't feel like it” would not fly. Sometimes in life you have to do what you'd rather not or refrain from foolish things you wish to indulge in. You had to have a good reason for not doing what you ought to do and you had to be able to explain it. It made me a very logical and articulate person, though throughout my life I have come to acknowledge that people more often do things not for logical but for psychological reasons.

My mom was responsible for my spiritual interests. Besides more traditional bedtime stories, she also read to us from the Bible, mostly the gospels. It was she who decided that, after years of us not going to church, we needed to find one to attend. And she found a Presbyterian one, whose minister had a PhD and addressed topics with intellectual rigor. His sermons were very learned and very long. Which is why I keep mine to about 15 minutes. In a way, you can thank my mom for that.

Mom also introduced me to my favorite writer, C.S. Lewis. She passed onto me The Screwtape Letters, Lewis' shrewd look at the psychology of temptation and I was hooked. I've read just about everything he wrote. She also got me the Complete Sherlock Holmes for what I think was my 12th birthday. And when the James Bond movies came out she got all the original novels and short stories and lent them to me, paperclipping a note over passages that she deemed too racy, telling me to go to the next chapter. Which I did because at that age the girls in the books were the least interesting part of his adventures.

This passing on of interests was fairly one-sided, though. Mom was never very interested in fantasy, horror, science fiction or other things I was into. She did however take such things into account when making birthday cakes. When I was getting a Lionel train set for my birthday, she made a train of cakes: engine, coal car, boxcar, flat car and caboose, and put them on rails made of licorice. When I got my own clock radio, she made a cake that looked like it. She teased me by showing it to me before it was iced. I tried to guess what my present was by its shape and failed. When I received my tome of Sherlock Holmes, she made a cake shaped like an open book and spelled out “Happy Birthday, Chris” in the Dancing Men code from one of the stories!

Mom was not only a very intellectual person but a creative one as well. Besides her cakes, she experimented with meals and cuisines. We might have Japanese food for dinner, complete with all the proper cups, bowls, and utensils. My brother and I learned to eat with chopsticks as kids.

Mom kept picking up crafts and hobbies: needlepoint, soap carving, chip carving, jewelry making, painting, Z-scale model trains so small that you could set up a layout of tracks and a village in an attache case and take it with you. She would get very deeply into each of these crafts, getting the instructional books and all the tools and supplies, make a few things and then move on. It got to where we told Mom to stop working on new gifts for our birthdays and Christmas and finish some of the old ones!

As I said, my mom was a nurse and so I had no fear of doctors or medical procedures. But neither did my brother or I get much sympathy when our injuries failed to reach the level of threatening life or quality of life. Possibly because she was head nurse of the recovery room, and had seen much, much worse than our scrapes and bruises. I don't remember her ever kissing boo-boos and making them better, but we did get excellent first-aid.

Mom was just as clinical with her own affliction: hearing loss. She never felt sorry for herself, though she listened to her record collection less and less. She loved music and singing when we were young. She did realize her hardness of hearing isolated her socially. She could talk to people one on one and through lip-reading make sense of the muffled sounds of their voice. But in crowded venues, the general indistinct roar of the crowds made it impossible for her to understand much. My own loud voice and ability to enunciate clearly I attribute to talking to her, as well as my vocabulary. Certain words are hard for the lipreader to distinguish, so it helps to have a lot of synonyms at your disposal.

I can remember just 3 things she did to accommodate her growing deafness. First, she got hearing aids. She had my brother and I tested for hearing loss and thus his was caught early in his life. The joke in the family was “Chris isn't hard of hearing; he just doesn't listen.”

Second, as it became obvious that she would not be able to continue as a practicing nurse, she went to college and got a degree in library science. She took care of the medical library at Jewish Hospital, where she spent virtually her whole career, and later, was their tumor registrar, a key position for any hospital wanting to be accredited for treating cancer. So vital was she that, after years of asking for an assistant went unheeded, she announced her early retirement. She was persuaded to stay on condition that she get an apprentice who could one day succeed her.

Third, she got a helper animal. This happened after a forklift backed over her in a warehouse hardware store. The operator failed to look behind him and she failed to hear his machine. She broke her pelvis in 3 places. Eventually she got a yappy little Pomeranian, named Pretty Boy, to alert her to things around her.

Her disability did get her and the family onto the internet earlier than most people. While we could and did talk over the phone using the Telecommunication Device for the Deaf technology, with the internet we could email each other without the awkwardness of waiting for someone from Missouri Rehab retyping what we said. She bought us our first computer for that purpose.

My mother is largely responsible for who I am: a nurse, a reader, a lover of music, a person equally comfortable with science and theology, a creative person who is also very logical, a person who can bounce back from adversity and deal with it matter-of-factly. I am deeply grateful to her.

We all have mothers. They all have strengths that they have passed on to us and weaknesses as well. But a mother's job is perhaps the most difficult one in the world. We each start as a part of our mother's body. She has to expel that part, in great pain, and then nourish it and raise it and guard it and teach it. She has to take 100% responsibility for its welfare and then, slowly give that up so that her child can become an independent individual. No one gets that completely right. And yet the fact that the majority of human beings do manage to live relatively responsible lives and navigate this world without causing it or the people around them grievous harm is a tribute to the fact that most mothers get it mostly right.

I hope my reminiscences about my mother have sparked memories of your own mother. I hope you see in yourself the gifts of strengths and temperament and skills that she gave you. If she is still in this world, let her know your gratitude for what she has done for you. Forgive her for the ways in which she was not quite up to this impossible task. Show her love for all the love she has showered on you. If she is with God, thank him for giving her to you.

The Bible says we are all descended from one mother. Mitochondrial DNA shows that to be literally true. And yet Mother's Day is just 110 years old, less if we go by the year Woodrow Wilson made it an official US holiday. Odd that it took so long for us to honor the person whose body we once belonged to. And the woman who started Mother's Day, Anna Jarvis, turned against it in less than a decade because of its commercialization. She would rather people expressed their love and gratitude to their mothers through heartfelt handwritten letters.

This is mine to my mom. I hope at this point she understands it or at least grasps the sentiment behind it. And I hope that your mom will feel the same about however you express your love. Because we just don't do it enough. And one day it will be too late.