Sunday, September 13, 2020

All in our family

1 John 3:18-22

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 

I speak a lot about the church as family and the clear New Testament affirmation that we are made brothers and sisters of Christ and therefore brothers and sisters with each other. Similarly, our questions are not whether we are a family of God in Jesus Christ; that’s simply a given. The questions are, “What kind of family are we?” and “What kind of family are we becoming?”

All of us know that terrible fights can occur within families. I know a man who was named as the executor of his cousin’s will many years ago. The cousin had never married and had lived around the world. Her estate was not extravagant, but it contained valuable jewelry and attractive works of art. Another cousin soon decided she had been stiffed in the will. Protests and discussion turned into acrimony and accusation. Finally the other cousin brought a lawsuit against the estate and the executor, her own relative. And for what? Another trinket, that’s all. True story.

All in the Family TV: Scene #1Many of you may remember a hit show of the 1970s called, “All in the Family,” in which a newlywed man and his wife lived with the bride’s parents. The father called his son-in-law “Meathead” instead of Michael, which tells you about their relationship right there. One show concerned a dispute Michael and his wife, Gloria, had over a serious issue between them. It was whether they would postpone having their first child so she could go to work to support them while he earned an advanced degree. It turned into a huge row between them. They stopped speaking, pretended the other was not there – well, you know the drill. They were deadlocked.

Such kinds of disputes are all in the family, to be sure.

But we are not to concentrate on the disputes or arguments we have had within our church family, or even the hatred we may have suffered from our brothers and sisters, but on the enduring responsibility of love that we have for one another. A family of God is not to be stifled by bitterness or self‑interest, but galvanized for compassion toward others.

John also reminds us that such love does not come from within ourselves. It is, rather, God's love, which persists among those who remember that Christ “laid down his life for us.” Hence, Christlike love is not simply “word or speech,” says John, but “truth and action.”

The two-millennia dream of Christian peoples has been to build a community of faith, a family of God, that is impelled by an ethic of love more than an ethic of justice. For the enduring duty and the perpetual dream of Christian people is to embody the love of Christ as fully as humanly possible. And generally, usually, most of the time, we do pretty well – at least on Sundays. But I wonder whether how well we are doing the rest of the time. We say on Sundays we go to church, as if the church was a place. What really happens on Sundays is not that we go to church, it is that we assemble the church.

We are the church, wherever we are and whatever we are doing. Christianity is what Christians do, at least in the eyes of the rest of the world. When Christian people pursue virtue, then the church is virtuous. When Christian people give in to vice, then the church is vicious.

The philosopher William James told a story about a woman who came to one of his lectures and explained to him that the earth is flat and rests on the back of a giant turtle. He asked, “What is the turtle standing on?” “On the back of a still bigger turtle,” came the reply. He started to ask the obvious question when the woman held up her hand and said, “Never mind, it’s turtles, all the way down.”

Sometimes I feel Christians too easily disconnect how we are saved with the result of being saved and the collective life we live because of it. It is all one story. There is not one way we became children of God and another by which we became each other’s brothers and sisters and still another means by which we are transformed into disciples of the Lord.

No: it’s Jesus, all the way down.

So let us return to the story of Gloria and Michael for a moment. Near the end of the episode it appeared as if their marriage was in serious trouble. Edith, scatterbrained Gloria’s mother, was addled, naive, overly trusting and forgetful, but she had a heart of gold. Edith sat alone with her son in law and told him the story of her aunt and uncle.

"When I was a little girl," she said, my aunt and uncle had a huge argument because there was no ketchup at supper one evening. My aunt had not bought a new bottle and the old one was empty. My uncle was very angry because he always wanted ketchup on his meat loaf. It turned into a huge argument. They finally finished dinner but the issue was never resolved. For thirty-five years afterward, until my uncle died, things were never the same between them."

Michael interrupted, “Ma, our dispute is not over a bottle of ketchup!”

“I know,” replied Edith, “but would you rather kill your marriage over something else? Can’t you remember how you love each other?”

“Beloved,” wrote John,

if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”

WI remember what George H. W. Bush reportedly said about broccoli: "I don't like it. And I'm glad I don't like it because if I liked it, I'd eat it. But I don't want to eat it because I don't like it."

Isn't that often how we think of loving one another as Jesus commanded? A counselor once wrote of a client, "He likes everyone in general but no one in particular." And it's easy for any of us to regard another church member the same way G. H. W. Bush regarded broccoli: "I don't like him. And I'm glad I don't like him because if I liked him, I'd have to love him. And I don't want to love him because I don't like him."

On the contrary, in his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote,

Do not waste your time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor. Act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you presently will come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will only find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.

Evangelist Dwight Moody wrote,

   In Chicago a few years ago a little boy attended a Sunday school I know of. When his parents moved to another part of the city the little fellow still attended the same Sunday school, although it meant a long, tiresome walk each way. A friend asked him why he went so far and told him that there were plenty of others just as good nearer his home.

   "They may be as good for others, but not for me," was his reply.

   "Why not?" she asked.

   "Because they love a fellow over there," he replied.

It is Jesus all the way down, and it is love all the way up.

In the book of Revelation, there is a section in which Christ dictates a letter to the churches. The Lord told the Ephesian church that he knew their deeds, their “hard work and your perseverance” and how they did not tolerate evil. “You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary,” Said the Lord. “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love” (Rev 2:1‑4).

Doesn’t that sound like something a wife or husband might say to husband driven by career ambitions and the duty to “provide” for his wife and children? That’s all fine and commendable, but she asks, wasn’t she his first love? Nowadays a husband might make the same kind of complaint to his wife, or for that matter children to their parents. What happened to your first love, and where does that leave me?

Of how many churches today might it be said that they have forgotten their first love?

People of God, friends of God: our first love is Jesus called the Christ! Here, at home, at work or leisure, on the road, and everywhere:

Christ be with us, Christ within us, 
Christ behind us, Christ before us, 
Christ beside us, Christ to win us, 
Christ to comfort and restore us. 
Christ beneath us, Christ above us, 
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, 
Christ in hearts of all that love us, 
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. 
Christ in every eye that sees us, 
Christ in every ear that hears us.

By his grace we are brothers and sisters with him and one another. And by his grace do we love one another. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Prayer and suffering, Luke 18:1‑8

Luke 22:39; 41-42 – Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 41 He withdrew about a stone's throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done."

Here is a meditation on this passage by author Amanda Witt.

   Listen to the phrasing of our prayers: Please heal her – but if not, then your will be done. Please give me a job – but if not, your will be done. Please bring home my lost child – but if not, your will be done.

   We are praying humbly. We are saying that we know that God knows better than we do. But many times our phrasing seems to imply that God's will is always the bad thing – malignancy, poverty, bereavement. We speak as if we think God wants to hurt us, and if we're lucky he'll give us our way and not wreak his terrible will on us.

"Too often," wrote Thomas Merton, "the conventional conception of ‘God's will’ as a sphinx‑like and arbitrary force bearing down upon us with implacable hostility, leads people to lose faith in a God they cannot find it possible to love.”

That is the center of the problem of prayer and suffering.

Let us pray:

Great and holy God, creator of the universe and author of every good work, we praise you for giving us the gift of prayer, that we may approach you confidently. Let us pray from our minds, Lord, that our thoughts may be true and holy. Let us pray from our hearts, Lord, that our souls may be filled with love. Let us pray without ceasing, Lord, that when you come again, you will find faith on the earth. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Are you familiar with the story of the persistent widow? She was an elderly, United Methodist woman whom we’ll call Matilda. She was not able to do all the maintenance that her house needed over time, so she asked her church’s lay leader to arrange for some men of the church to come over and help her out. Time went by and no men came by, so she asked again with no result. Finally, she started calling him on the phone at various times of the day or evening, ignoring his pleas to leave him alone. At last, he could not take it anymore and just to get her to be quiet he persuaded several men to go to her house one Saturday.

They did do a lot of work. The cleaned out her gutters and cut dead branches off some trees. They repainted some places inside and out and weeded her garden. They edged her sidewalks and sprayed grass killer on her driveway and replaced burned out eave lights, and much more.

The next day Matilda was not in church. And the week after that she was not there. When she was absent on the third Sunday the lay leader asked Matilda’s best friend if Matilda was all right.

“Oh, she’s fine,” came the reply. “But she told me that ya’ll made her house look so upscale that she decided to join the Episcopal church.”

Well, that’s one story of a persistent widow. Jesus told one, too.

Luke 18:1‑8

1 And he told them a parable to illustrate that they ought always to pray without giving up. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who had no regard for God or the opinions of others. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice in my lawsuit.’ 4 For a while he brushed her off, but finally he said to himself, ‘Though I don’t care what God or other people think, this widow keeps bothering me. So I will rule in her favor so she will quit pestering me to death.”

6 And the Lord said, “If even that sinful judge says that, 7 don’t you think that God will give justice to his people, who call to him all the time? Do you think he will drag his feet over their prayers? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them right away! Even so, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Why are so many prayers apparently unanswered? "Apparently" is a sort of dodge, of course, because most of us understand that some prayers get answered in ways we may not recognize. God is not always obvious in his works. Answers to prayers are often subtle.

But that understanding can't be used every time. There are tragedies or suffering that can force us to confront a core issue of faith: if God seems not to heed prayers of the most crucial kind, then exactly why should we believe the Scriptures, which say that we can approach God with confidence? How could Jesus have claimed that God responds quickly to our prayers?

We don't ask such questions outside of the tragic. No one who gets a promotion and raise at work sees it as evidence of God' absence and then decides to throw Jesus under the bus.

It is in suffering that we tend to see God as inscrutable or indifferent when our prayers seem to be ignored. How often have I heard platitudes such as, "God does not put on us more than we can bear," which is nowhere taught in the Bible, or, "God must have some reason for this," which presents God as a sphinx‑like, arbitrary force bearing down upon us with implacable hostility, as Merton said. Do we really think we are pawns pushed around by incomprehensible, divine capriciousness?

Jesus had little patience with the idea that God snuffs out people arbitrarily or even as punishment. In Luke 13 Jesus commented on two recent tragedies. One was that Pontius Pilate had ordered the slaughter of some Galileans who were making their sacrifices. Then there was a building that collapsed and killed eighteen people. Do you think they were worse sinners or guiltier than everyone else? Jesus asked. He answered, “I tell you, no... .”

If tragedy is God’s punishment for sin, the obvious question is, Where would God stop? With the righteous? Jesus refuted the idea that the righteous will not suffer; in fact, he promised it as a consequence of righteousness!

After an Indian ocean tsunamis killed almost a quarter million people in 2004, British journalist Gerard Baker observed the triumphant shouts of the new-atheist movement that the disasters proved God does not exist. Baker wrote (abridged):

   We ask: why would God allow such suffering? A perfectly legitimate question, of course. We know all too well that undeserved pain, injury, disease, and loss of life are daily facts of life for hundreds of millions of people on the planet.

   If, then, what the atheists are attacking is the notion of an all‑seeing, all‑powerful benign deity, constantly engaged in and altering the tide of human events, they do not need a tsunami to prove their point. The knowledge that just one child somewhere was dying of cancer would bring the whole fantasy crumbing down.

   Put it this way: imagine for a moment, that there were not only no earthquakes, floods and storms, but that there was no innocent suffering and never had been in the history of the earth. Imagine if, every time a faulty gene was on its way to being transmitted to an unborn child, the hand of God dipped in and the gene was corrected. Imagine God frantically circling the globe redirecting every train headed for a faulty bridge, reprogramming every failed computer in a hospital operating theatre, and printing money every time some undeserving chap got down on his luck.

   Imagine, in other words, if everyone since the beginning of time lived to a ripe old age and died in his bed.

   Such a fair, challengeless world might be a wonderful place to live. But I don’t think that it would be recognisably human. If we have reason to doubt the point of our existence in this world, surely we would understand it even less in that one. And if I were God, and had created Man, I am not quite sure that I would see the point either.

That we should be extremely reluctant to blame God for our suffering does not mean that God is absent from our suffering. Both testaments see suffering as part of human life. Jesus said so too: “In this world you will have trouble,” he said. “But take heart! I have overcome the world!”

Over time – and it was frankly a long time – I came to an understanding that for the most urgent issues of life and death, God has already answered our prayers long ago. Heal my wife's cancer, my child's leukemia, my heart disease – these are serious concerns to be sure, for which a miracle would be welcomed indeed. Yet I cannot justify praying for that which the Scriptures offer no support. There is nothing in the Bible promising God's people a pass on the tragedies of life. Of course, I do pray for healing of the sick and I do pray for the lives of those facing death. Yet, in grappling with the many cases I have encountered, I had to understand that God is not a cosmic vending machine dispensing favors for which prayers are the currency. God is Lord of both life and death, and as Paul wrote, there is nothing in life or in death that can separate us from the love of God for us in Christ Jesus. That is itself an answer already given to many prayers. Though the sufferings of this life are real, they are not permanent. In a profound way, our prayers in such times have been permanently answered already in the incarnation, work, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

With that assurance, the more years I spend in prayer, the less I pray, or see the point in praying, mostly for God to do something, doggone it and the more I pray for God to lead me to do something. I pray less that God will conform to my desires or needs of the moment, no matter how pressing they may be, but that I and others concerned in the prayer‑situation be conformed more to God in the likeness of Christ.

Yet more is necessary, I think. Prayer is only one part of engaging God. In the movie Forrest Gump, there is a character named Lieutenant Dan. He lost both legs in Vietnam and, embittered by his life, finally joins his old subordinate, Gump, in running a shrimp boat off the Louisiana coast. Dan scoffs at Gump's simple faith and sarcastically tells him to pray for shrimp. One day they are caught at sea by a violent storm that threatens to sink the boat. But Dan refuses to seek shelter in the boat’s cabin. He remains high on the mast with the whipping rain and lightning all around, shaking his fist to the storm and yelling at God, "Is this the best you can do?"

Lieutenant Dan is unable to dismiss God as delusion, even though it would be so much easier to do so. He is determined to confront God as God, even to defy God if that is what it takes to encounter him deeply. The two men and their boat survive the storm and over time, Dan finally finds his peace with God.

So many of us decline to encounter God except in storms of life or in pro‑forma occasions such as a minute of silence now and then. We should remember that the prayers of our lips are to be buttressed by godly living for godly purposes. Just as Jesus in the garden, we find that maturity in prayer is not about God doing what we want, but about being willing and empowered to do what God wants even if it makes us recoil. We need remember that the worst thing that can happen to us is not the last thing that will happen to us because Christ has died, Christ is risen, thanks be to God.

The conundrum of life‑as‑prayer is that we come less and less to ask God for a performance as for his presence – come what may. Finally, we realize that God with us and us with God is all the answer God may give us and is sufficient for our need.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Jesus is served

John 6.5-14

When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 

Philip answered him, "Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 

Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 

So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

I will never forget the miracles one day as I was standing almost right next to Jesus. I was just a young lad then, but I recall them vividly.

King Herod had just executed John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin. So, Jesus came to our area, which was out of Herod’s jurisdiction. One day a huge crowd followed Jesus out to the countryside. My father and mother and I were early arrivals, getting space up front. We could hear Jesus talking to his disciples before everyone was assembled.

I had heard that Jesus was a miracle worker. I could not have told you what a miracle was for a hundred shekels of silver. But I know now. I saw miracles before my eyes when I went with my father one day to the countryside to hear Jesus of Nazareth speak. There was an enormous crowd, my father said at least five thousand.

The people kept streaming up. After a while, Jesus said to a disciple (Philip, I learned later), “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

Philip glanced at Jesus with alarm. “Where are we going to buy bread!” he stammered. “When did it become our responsibility to feed these people?”

Jesus just sort of gazed at Philip with the same expression on his face that my father gave me when I had said or done something particularly stupid. Philip saw it and glanced at the ground, chastened. But he still spoke. “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

Jesus said nothing but turned to look at the crowd. After a few minutes Jesus preached to us. I don’t recall most of what he said. It was a long time ago. Years later, I learned what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. What he said in the countryside that day was much like that.

It was the miracles that have stayed with me.

My father looked intently at Jesus as he spoke, almost as if he’d never heard anyone preach about God and justice and charity and forgiveness and love and mercy and good deeds and … well, a lot of things. My mother was sitting near me and she was also fixed on what Jesus was saying.

“Bear one another’s burdens,” I remember Jesus said, “for this is how you fulfill God’s commandments. Love the Lord your God with all your soul and all your mind and all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the greatest commandment. Do not return evil for evil, but for everyone who hates you, love them in return. Pray for those who wish you harm, love your enemies, and do good to those who wrong you.” Here he paused and looked frankly rather impishly around while a grin crossed his face, “For in doing this it will be as Proverbs says, like bringing heaps of coals upon their heads!”

The crowd roared at that, my mother and father included. I saw many people clap their hands and nod in agreement. “That’s right!” many exclaimed. “The prophets taught all this, too!”

Before long Jesus stopped preaching and walked into the crowd. Now I understood why so many people had come out. Many were sick, ill, or injured. Parents had brought children for Jesus to bless; some of the children were ill, too. Lame people wanted to walk again normally.

Jesus had great compassion for them. He prayed with most, blessed many, reproved some (but not harshly) and cured many. I knew as I watched that Jesus was a holy man.

By now the sun was getting low. Some of the disciples came to Jesus and said softly (though several of us heard), “This is open country and there is nothing here. It’s getting late. Send this crowd away to the local villages so they can buy themselves some food.”

Jesus said to them, “They don’t need to go anywhere. You give them something to eat.”

At that the disciples looked at each other uneasily. They didn’t know what to say. Well, neither did I. One of them looked at me and I knew he’d must have seen me earlier re-wrapping the bread and fish my mother had given me to carry. I started to push it behind me but it was too late.

The disciple turned to Jesus and said, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 

I could not believe my ears. What did I have to do with their debate? I looked quickly at my mother, who was frowning. I glanced up at my father. He stood with pursed lips and narrowed eyes.

Jesus may be special, I thought, but his disciples aren’t so great. Jesus had handed them a problem and they just ducked it, then tried to hand it off on me, a kid!

Jesus shook his head a little. Then he looked at me with a very kind, indeed, hopeful expression on his face. I stopped trying to hide the five loaves and two fish. Jesus held out his hand toward me, then looked at my father and mother. He said nothing but his face showed hopeful expectation. I saw something else, too. I saw the face of someone I could trust.

Without waiting for my father’s permission, I placed the food bundle in Jesus’ hand. He smiled broadly and squeezed my shoulder. He turned to his disciples and said, “Make the people sit down.”

It took a few minutes. With everyone sitting, they could all see Jesus as he stood. He raised a loaf of my bread toward heaven and gave thanks for it, blessed it and gave it to his disciples. Then he gave them the fish.

The disciples stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do. Jesus still had a loaf in his hand. He took two steps toward me and gave it to me. I held it for a moment, unsure of what to do myself. Then, hesitatingly, I tore off a piece of bread and handed the loaf to my mother. She took a piece and handed it to my father.

I could see my father was torn. Jesus had no permission from him to confiscate that bread. It was dad’s property, and he had the right to keep it. He looked at Jesus, but Jesus had stepped to the other side of the disciples while they imitated what Jesus had done, giving the bread to the people.

My father shook his head slightly. He really didn’t know what to do. Well, what he wanted to do was not what he knew he should do. He said aloud, talking to no one in particular, “You remember what Jesus said? ‘Whoever has some will be given abundantly more, but whoever does not have much will have even that little taken from them’.”

My father tore off a piece of bread and passed the loaf to the man sitting nearby. This man took it and stared at my father. The other man said, “What did he mean by that?”

My father paused, then said, “I think he meant that in God’s kingdom, we will not get unless we give. If we don’t give, then God take from us even what little we have.”

The other man said, “That’s why you’ve given me your bread.” Then he turned toward the next family and gave the bread to them. “Here, take this. We brought bread, too, but hid it because we wanted it for ourselves.” He motioned to his wife who reached under the folds of her robe and took out four or five round loaves. She and her husband kept one apiece and passed the rest to their neighbors.

I looked around, stunned to see the same thing happening everywhere. People were laughing, some were crying, all were at peace with one another. Indeed, we were all filled with joy! And all around, hands disappeared beneath robes or into backpacks and reappeared with loaves of bread and perhaps some smoked fish.

My mother and father and I came out on the short end because no one offered us any of their food. We had to make do with just the single piece of bread we’d each tore off to begin with. This bothered me a little but it was not possible to stay upset with such spirit all around.

After some time, Jesus told his disciples, “Gather up the leftovers, so that nothing may be lost.”

The disciples picked up a large basket each and went among the people, telling what Jesus had said. Few demurred. The baskets were filled by the time they finished. I laughed at how the disciples had to lug those heavy baskets back to Jesus!

Jesus took a wicker plate and filled it with bread and fish. Then he stepped over to me and handed it to me. It was a big heap of food! Then he gave another plateful each to my mother and father.

At that I heard someone call out, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!”

Jesus’ teachings became suddenly clear. In the Kingdom of God another’s joys become our laughter, another’s pain becomes our tears. One who is naked wears our clothes. One who is hungry eats our food. The Kingdom of God is a sort of spiritual cooperative. When we serve our neighbor in need, we will be served when we need it. When the love of God goes from us, it comes back to us.

Five loaves of bread and two fish. What no one thought would be adequate for God’s work turned out to be far more than enough. A banquet was served that day, a banquet of life and love and grace, almost more than the disciples could carry.

Here are the miracles I saw that day: people’s hearts were changed, barriers were broken, and generosity flowered. Jesus gave to us and it was Jesus we gave one another. If those are not miracles, nothing is!

Are you hungry? Go to Jesus’ table as we did, for it is Jesus being served. And there is no greater miracle than that!

Sunday, July 26, 2020

How to Get Even the Right Way

Have you ever wanted to get even with someone? I mean, have you ever felt you were so wronged or betrayed that you actually imagined ways to turn the tables, to exact retribution, to shame the other and emerge victorious and triumphant?
I've been there. But I learned something through the years. It does not have to be that way and when I chose to set that kind of thinking and acting behind me I found a sense of peace and freedom that I will never surrender merely for a moment's satisfaction or self-justification. It's not worth it.

Proverbs 25.21-22 says:
21 If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
    and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
22 for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
    and the Lord will reward you.
It will be helpful, I think, to understand what the context was of the teaching and especially why Paul quoted it. If Paul was arguing for this moral conduct, then he was necessarily arguing against another. What was it?
Paul was writing to the single church in Rome, whose members were both Jewish expatriates and Roman former pagans. The morals Paul was teaching were Jewish morals, and so were the moral teachings of the other apostles – and in fact of Jesus himself. In fact, every one of Jesus' moral and ethical teachings are found in the Old Testament. Paul's instructions to church in Rome would have been familiar to its Jewish members, but not so much to the Roman members because the contrast between Roman ethics and Jewish ethics was stark.
Ancient Romans held that mercy, compassion and unmerited kindnesses to others were vices, not virtues. Roman parents beat their children for showing compassion or mercy to others, even their friends. To win, to prevail, to improve one’s standing even by trampling on others was admired and encouraged in the Roman world. When a Roman was wronged by another it was mandatory that he get even. Better yet, that he retaliated more harshly than he had been wronged.
The ancients’ social system was that of honor and shame. It is the oldest system of human behavior there is. An honor-shame system means that nothing is more important that where one believes he or she stands in society. One’s place on the totem pole is paramount because that social standing affects absolutely everything else. Honor-shame systems have been deeply embedded across the Middle East for thousands of years and still rule there, except in Israel.
An Iraqi explained what it meant this way:
Our sense of honor pervades everything we do. This isn’t the Western definition of honor, it’s more like Hispanic honor of machismo. Perception of manhood is vital and in fact it can be a matter of life and death. A man without honor gets no wife, often no work, and in Iraq he may be shunned or even killed by the own family depending on how grave the offense is. Defending honor is part of our cultural heritage. It is the focal point of everything we do and is jealously guarded. Honor means influence and power, our foremost concern. Less power means fewer contracts, less money, less food, angrier families. We must regain lost honor any way we can, even if it means violently attacking the ones who dishonored us.
This is the way that almost every society in the world was organized for thousands of years. Whether Japanese, Chinese, African, Norse, Southern European or Native American, honor – one’s standing in the order of human relationships – was of supreme importance.
Jesus preached consistently against honor codes and the sinful habits of pride they cause. Luke 14 tells of a day Jesus went to the house of a Pharisee leader to eat a meal on the Sabbath. He saw all the other guests jockeying to sit near the host, the place of honor. He told them that they were risking dishonor because someone more important might come in and kick them out.
“But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Across all human societies, people protect their status one way or another. Social climbing, power grabbing and the jealous guarding of one’s privileges or position are often paramount.
Jesus said no to all that: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The one-upmanship games and mutual backscratching or back-stabbing ways of the world have no place in relationships founded upon Jesus’ teachings. After all, he ate with sinners and tax collectors, spoke in public to prostitutes and other low-lifes, and died strung up between two thieves.
Jesus emphasized rejecting worldly standards by his conclusion of the teaching:
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, so that they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Alan Culpepper wrote, 
Those who live by kingdom standards and values now will not only bear witness to the kingdom but also will be rewarded in ‘the resurrection of the righteous.’ Righteousness, not social position or the esteem of others should be our goal.

God is not interested in where we put our place tag on the tables of life. “Instead, God looks to see that we have practiced the generosity and inclusiveness of the kingdom in our daily social relationships.” The old order offers merely the temporary reward of social position. The new order brings the eternal reward of God’s favor.
So what does it mean to pour heaping coals upon the head of one’s enemy? For a long time I thought Paul meant that when I return kindness for another’s hostility, the other person couldn’t stand being treated kindly instead of meanly and would burn with resentment. But Paul can’t mean that because in Romans 12.9 he says, “Love must be sincere.” We cannot sincerely, lovingly gloat over causing others to seethe with indignation at us -- even if they are jerks!
Let’s take a look at Psalm 140[1], which begins,
Deliver me, O Lord, from evildoers;
    protect me from those who are violent,
2 who plan evil things in their minds
    and stir up wars continually.
Then in verses 9-10 we read this:
Those who surround me lift up their heads;
    let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them!
10 Let burning coals fall on them!
    Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise!
Pretty rough stuff! The psalmist is using the image of burning coals falling upon his enemies to symbolize the judgment of God upon the wicked.
Now, here is Paul in Romans 12.
Dear ones, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The coals symbolize the judgment of God in both Proverbs and Romans. I think Paul is telling us that the commandments of God to treat one another with kindness do not depend on how others treat us. Everyone is liable to a judgment of God, so we must control our own passions first lest burning coals fall on us as well.
The teaching is a Jewish one, so I asked my friend, Israeli Rabbi Daniel Jackson, for an interpretation. He sent back that we are not dealing merely with human enemies here. We are also set upon by temptation to sin. Daniel wrote, “The intention of Proverbs 25 is to direct our attention to ourselves to control our passions, to ensure that in all our ways, we are reminded that we are to be Holy in all our actions and relations.” He wrote:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him bread, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” Honor him; treat him with Holiness. … We are dealing with the Evil Inclination and its cravings. If your evil inclination is hungry and wants you to sate it with “sins”, then feed it the Bread of Torah [The Word of God, the Scriptures-DS]; if it is thirsty, sate it from the Eternal Spring of the Divine.
Then, you are putting coals on its head, which is to say, you have begun the refining process of separating out the dross from the silver.
"Submit yourselves to God," wrote the apostle James. "Resist the devil and he will flee from you" (James 4.7). The most persistent and cleverest enemy we have is the temptations to abandon righteousness as a way of life and holiness as our goal. The way to resist and overcome is to choose godliness over ungodliness and feed the Bread of Life to our inclinations to evil and wrong-doing.
When our enemies are hungry and we feed them, when they are thirsty and we give them something to drink, we have done our duty to God and one another. The others might continue in ungodly hostility, but we have done all that we can do. Retribution, if any, is up to God, not us. Our calling to live as, and lead others to become, disciples of Jesus Christ, does not change.

A friend of mine once told me that he dreamed of standing before Jesus after Christ had come again in glory. He said he was prepared to recite the creeds, offer personal confessions of faith, confess his sins, and prostrate himself before the Lord.
But it did not go like that. Instead, Jesus sat down next to him and said, “People live their lives as if they think I will ask them these questions on judgment day:
“Did you get everything in life that you thought you thought you were entitled to?
“Did you get even with the people who did you wrong?
“Were you worried about what other people thought of you?
“Did you hold on to grudges and imagine ways to hit back?
“Did you treat other people based on what they could do for you later?
“Tell, me, is that how you lived your life?”
My friend said that in his dream he had no reply but was filled with remorse. Then Jesus said, “Here is what I really want to know:
“Did my light shine through you in the way you lived?
“Did you forgive the people who did you wrong, even seventy times seven times?
“Were you worried about what I thought of you more than what other people thought of you?
“Did you pray for your enemies and do good to those who did you wrong?
“Did you treat other people on the basis that my love for them was as great as my love for you?
“Tell me, is that how you lived your life?”
I think that’s a pretty tough final exam, but one we need to make sure we pass.
21 If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; 22 for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.
Which is to say, offer them the bread of life and the living water of God. Offer them Christ. It really is so simple as that.


Friday, July 24, 2020

Monday, July 6, 2020

The Official American Hymn Glorifying War

I am a retired Army combat-arms officer and I agree with Laurence M. Vance: "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is blasphemous (at best) and has no place being sung in Christian worship services. It is found in The United Methodist Hymnal but let us pray it will be excised when(ever) the next hymnal is published.

Killed in action soldiers of the Battle of Antietam, near Dunker Church. Why do churches sing a hymn that celebrates wholesale killing and destruction and calls them holy and good?
Read the whole article for a detailed, line-by-line explanation why this "hymn" is best described as a satanic perversion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Here is the conclusion:
The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” ought to be parodied, satirized, and lampooned. It has nothing to do with God or Christianity. It is not a Christian hymn. It does not belong in a Christian hymnbook. It should not be sung in any Christian church — Northern or Southern. It should not be on the lips of any Christian — Yankee or Southerner. It is partisan political paean to bogus history and faulty theology. For much too long Christians have sung this “hymn” with religious fervor while remaining in ignorance as to its history and theology. For much too long pastors and song leaders have included this “hymn” in church services without stopping to consider whether it is an appropriate song for a Christian worship service. Disparaging the singing of this song has nothing to do with being a Confederate sympathizer, or being unpatriotic or anti-Lincoln, but it has everything to do with exercising biblical discernment. Traditions are hard to break, and especially religious ones, but the singing of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is one that must go.
And the sooner the better.

All in our family

1 John 3:18-22 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from t...