Monday, February 19, 2024

NASCAR is boring now

I am currently watching the rain-delayed Daytona 500 NASCAR race and it has already made me think of an essay I wrote after the 2012 race. And though today's race is only a few laps on, nothing has changed since then. 

From 2012, with edits for today; let's see if it still rings true by the end of today's race:


Saw most of the rain-delayed 2012 Daytona 500 Monday night, and I have to say that it was an incredibly boring race - except, of course, when driver Pablo Montoya blasted into a jet-engine-blower truck and everything blew up. No one was injured, incredibly, and so I can guiltlessly say that the episode was the only truly entertaining period of the race.

The problem is not new. NASCAR races became boring when NASCAR mandated that every Sprint Cup driver had to drive the "Car of Tomorrow" racer beginning in 2008. That means that all the Sprint Cup races - the big leagues of NASCAR - are basically just one big IROC series, a now-defunct racing series in which, "Drivers raced identically-prepared stock cars set up by a single team of mechanics in an effort to make the race purely a test of driver ability."

The problem with using the COT in NASCAR is that brand distinction (Ford, Chevy, etc.) now means nothing at all. It did back in, say, Richard Petty's day. The cars now are all the same except for very minor and immaterial differences. In Daytona there was a field of 30-plus cars that all had almost exactly the same performance envelopes and so most all the race looked like this [and this is exactly what I am looking at on the screen right now]:

This is only a giant clump of cars in which almost none of the drivers are actually racing except for the handful at the front. Inside the gaggle there is no real racing, just each driver awaiting a screwup by someone else to leave an opening. The problem is that the screwups turn out this way - this was on the 5th lap today:

In the 2012 race, there were several such wrecks. Again, no one hurt, thankfully. In the old days it was rare for NASCAR wrecks to wipe out eight or so cars at a time. It happened, but not much. Now, it's rare when wrecks don't do so. All this does is stop the race (well, what little racing there actually is) for many laps under the yellow. What it does not do is make the race a race when the green flag gets waved again. There are fewer cars to clump together at 195 mph, but it's still just a clump. And so: another such wreck. In fact, the last of these wrecks of the evening in 2012 took place mere minutes before the end, and when it started I thought for a moment that Fox was replaying a wreck from earlier in the race. 

NASCAR blames its multiyear attendance drop on the 2008 recession. Problem is that attendance peaked in 2005 and has shrunk every year since. Both 2009's and 2010's attendance were less than 2003's.

Why? Because the drivers aren't racing anymore; the winner usually just turns out to be the luckiest of the last men standing, having missed being wiped out in a pile up. That means the "race" is boring because viewers are not actually watching a competition, just a high-speed game of Russian Roulette.

Even the wrecks are not entertaining, not because drivers don't get hurt (that's a good thing) but because they are so predictable and frequent that there is no longer a surprise factor in them and all they do is interrupt what little racing there might be. "Look, honey, twelve cars are spinning out of control again. I'll go get that popcorn for you now."

Update: Surely to no one's surprise, this happened today with eight laps left in the race. Seventeen cars were removed from the race. As I said, NASCAR races are now just endurance and luck to be the last man standing. And there was another wreck with two laps to go, taking out four or five cars. 

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Let's hear it for hypocrites!

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar on how to connect with non-religious people. That's the new term for describing the folks we used to refer to as the unchurched. The presenter had arranged for four self-described non-religious people to form a panel for us. Curiously, to be called "non-religious," all but one attended a Christian church and the fourth followed Buddhism. In the Q&A they tried to clarify that what they meant, by calling themselves non-religious, was that they rejected the in institutions of religion, the formally-organized structures of denominationalism, and by strong implication, the basic tenets of historic Christian religion as well. Jesus, it seems, is whomever you wish him to be, rather than a first-century Jew of a particular context and religious heritage. (I wrote about that issue here.)

But at one point the panel and other attendees generally agreed that one of the main reasons the unchurched are well, unchurched is because church people are such hypocrites. I personally think that is maybe the oldest excuse in the book and I am morally certain that one day in Corinth a man approached Saint Paul and told him, “Well, Paul, the reason I won't join your new church here in Corinth is because there are so many hypocrites in it.”

And Paul probably replied, “Come on anyway. We always have room for one more.”

The hypocrisy excuse for staying away from church has got to be the oldest there is. Which only proves what Mark Twain observed, "When you don't want to do something, any excuse will do." And to borrow one of Yogi Berra's malapropisms, if people don't want to come to church, nobody's going to stop them.

But I say, "Hooray for hypocrites!" If you're a hypocrite, you're just my guy or gal. To reverse what Marc Antony said about Caesar, I come to praise hypocrites, not bury them. I am unashamed to admit that I am a Christian hypocrite, and furthermore, I hope every one of you are also.

"Hypocrite" is derived from the Greek, "hypókrisis," or "play acting." It was the description for actors in the Greek theater and refers even more specifically to the masks that certain actors wore to denote different roles, multiple roles being quite common in ancient Greek theater. Members of the chorus - a sort of on stage narrator group - also often wore masks to correspond with the mood, emotion or tome of what they were singing or narrating.

So a hypocrite is literally a "mask wearer," one who hides who s/he really is. It is, as the Greek denotes, play acting. Jesus had a lot to say about play actors, and none of it good. The Jewish prophets spoke against those who made sacrifices one day and cheated their neighbors the next. Isaiah 29.13 says, “The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men'.”

The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, part of the Western Wall of the Jewish Temple that was destroyed in 70 c.e. by the Romans. The Western Wall is all that remains of the Temple. Today, Jews of all religious convictions go there to pray. I prayed there, too, the same day I took this photo in October 2007.


Jesus preached stoutly against religious hypocrisy. For example, he said: "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others."

That is, Jesus denounced making a show of praying in public to gain status with others for being pious. We might call it, “competitive piety.” Jesus said to pray in private. Prayer should be meant for God to hear, not for others to see. 

The apostle Paul weighed in, too, in Romans 2.1: “Therefore, you have no excuse, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”

The Bible offers many examples of the hypocrisies of a people of God, some examples are:

Professing love of God while holding bitterness toward persons (1 Jn 4.20)
Going merely through the motions of worship (Mt. 15.7-9)
Claiming the name of Christ without giving Christ true allegiance (Mt. 7.21-23)
Putting on religious airs in front of others (Mt. 6.1)
Professing faith in Christ while not doing the ministries of the church (James 2.14-26)
Placing money and things above God and persons (Lk. 16.13)
Not admitting of sinfulness (1 Jn 1.10)
Using the Scriptures to advance a personal agenda rather than God's (2 Peter 2.1-3)
Complacency in God's grace of forgiveness (1 Peter 2.16)
Not showing Christ in us by the way we live (Titus 1.16)
Seeking the esteem of other persons over obeying Christ (Lk 16.15) 

No matter how you cut it, the teachings of the Bible and of Jesus personally are harsh on hypocrites. So how can I say that I am here to praise hypocrites, not to denounce them? In fact, if non-religious people think you're a hypocrite, you're just my guy or gal.

Why? Because hypocrisy requires the hypocrite to believe in something or someone outside himself. Hypocrisy requires an aspiration to something higher or better than oneself. That is the meaning of the folk saying, "Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue." Hypocrisy is an imperfect, deficient attempt to be better.

Thankfully, I have known very few non-hypocritical people. They were insufferable. They were entirely self-centered, self-directed, self-oriented, self-focused and just plain purely selfish. They recognized no cause, entity or belief higher than themselves, their own desires, wants or needs. You can see, I'm sure, that it is impossible for such people to act hypocritically because they are always looking out for Number One in every situation. They never pretend they are acting in someone else's interests. They don't seek others' approval because they don't fundamentally care about others or what they think.

Very, very rarely is this kind of person found in a church. The church-attending hypocrites over which the seminar attendees clucked-clucked so sadly are not actually hypocritical in the usual meaning of the word: "a pretense of having a virtuous character, moral or religious beliefs or principles, etc., that one does not really possess." Yes, they fall short of what they intend, but their striving is real, not phony, and they try to do better. If they are hypocrites, then so was St. Paul.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
It is deceit that makes hypocrisy what it is. Absent this deceit, there is no hypocrisy, just error or human frailty. That's what the hypocrisy-excuse people don't understand - or pretend not to understand - about church people. What may appear to be church people's hypocrisy is almost always just simple failure to meet the standards of our faith rather than deceit. Why? Because the standard is so high.

For example, Jesus admonished, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).

Or, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … .” (Matthew 5:43-44).

There are many such examples. To attempt but fail to meet such a difficult standard is not hypocrisy.

When I tried to play football in high school, Coach Keaton was clear that to gain a place on the starting squad meant achieving a high level of performance. So, when I, a sophomore, could not run the 40-yard dash in under 4.5 seconds, did Coach Keaton yell at me, “You hypocrite!”? Of course not. He simply shrugged and said, “Work harder.” 

Jesus does not denounce us for trying and failing – if we really are trying. And I think he’s a little more compassionate than Coach Keaton was because while Jesus will tell us to work harder, he will also be our personal trainer – providing we are willing to be trained and submit to the training regimen.

All churches, including my own, are filled with Christians in training and worse yet, they all have Christians in training as pastors. Jesus told us to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. That sets the bar incredibly high. So, if in training to clear that bar we are dismissed by non-Christians as hypocrites, then I say be of good cheer. Rejoice and be glad and let’s have many more just like you!

Vice is easy, virtue is hard. It's no hypocrisy to fall short of a very high standard and such an excellent goal. And I would suggest that people accusing us of hypocrisy have yet to see the log in their own eye, choosing the easy way over the hard way, and pretending it is virtue. So, who are the hypocrites? Well, we always have room for one more.

We should not take religious hypocrisy less seriously than the Bible does, but "Christians are just hypocrites" is merely an excuse to reject the Gospel more than a reasonable observation. The church is a human institution. Name one large human institution that has always lived up to its standards. Law? Medicine? Banking? Politics? No, not even one. 

I also say that we badly err when we try to justify the church. We are not called to offer people the church. We are to offer them Christ. And we should offer Christ as Jesus did, in love of and care for the soul. After all, Paul’s reminder to the church in Corinth two thousand years ago applies to us today:
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what we were when Christ called us. Not many of us were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many born with a silver spoon. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that we are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption (1 Cor. 1.26-30)
And so to anyone who wishes to accuse me of religious hypocrisy, I can only reply as Paul did: 
I have not yet obtained perfection; but I am moving on to perfection because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Friends, I have not reached that goal, but I am not letting my past control me. I press on to what lies ahead, towards better fulfilling heavenly call of God through Jesus Christ.
So however we fall short of the standards of our faith, and fall short we certainly often do, we nonetheless seek a "more excellent way" and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on towards the goal.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

What's your pearl?

Here is a true story that I read a few years ago. An aging woman decided to move into the city to a retirement home. She had a big sale to downsize. One thing she did was slap a "for sale" sign on her late husband’s pride and joy – a 1963 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing that he had bought in 1972. She remembered that he had told her the Mercedes was collector’s item worth one hundred thousand dollars not long before he had died fifteen years ago, so that’s what she priced it. 

One shopper saw the for-sale sign in the car’s window, and he immediately wrote her a check for twenty-five hundred dollars to hold the car for him for the day. Then he went to the bank and opened a home-equity line of credit. On the way there he called his broker and cashed in mutual funds. Then he maxed out his Visa card on a cash advance. He wound up with a certified check for $100,000 and drove back to buy the car. He knew what the widow did not: in the years since her husband died the car had increased in value to $250,000.

That man was willing to take risks to obtain something of tremendous value. I knew a man in Nashville who told me a long time ago that he was offered the opportunity to become one of the original investors in the franchise license for all Davidson County for Wendy’s restaurants. He turned it down because he did not want to be diverted from the business he had already built up. Later, of course, he wished he had invested.

Would you pay a hundred thousand dollars for an ordinary orange? Eleven millionaires drowned when the Titanic sank in 1912. One who survived was Arthur Peuchen, who left $300,000 in a lockbox in his cabin. "The money seemed to mock me at that time," he said later. "I picked up three oranges instead." A hundred thousand bucks each.

What is of ultimate value to us, so much so that we would sacrifice almost anything else to obtain it? Jesus spoke about that Matthew 13.44-45:

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

In the ancient world a large, flawless pearl would have been something like the Hope diamond of its day. Ancient literature tells of single pearls worth millions of dollars in modern value. When this merchant found such a pearl, he cleaned out his stock and sold his personal possessions to buy it. The merchant apparently did not come out ahead financially; he just changed assets at even value. There is no hint that he sold the pearl later. For all we know, he simply kept it.

But this story is not really about an actual pearl, is it? What Jesus seems to be trying to communicate is the importance of knowing first, what is of ultimate value and second, what will it take to obtain it.

Contrast this parable with the story of a young man, also told in Matthew, who asked Jesus what he needed to do to gain eternal life. After a short conversation, Jesus tells him, "Sell everything you have, give the money to the poor, then come and follow me." But the man said no. Matthew says he went away sorrowful because he had “many possessions.” Jesus offered him ultimate value but the young man declined because, he thought, the price was too high.

Today is interactive sermon day. I would ask that everyone take a moment, turn to your neighbor and talk briefly about what this parable means for you. Pause

Matthew 13 is a series of parables, one right after another. Parables are narrative stories that set up a situation at the beginning, show a kind of “twist” in the middle, and end with a punchline. This parable does that, too, although not very obviously. In fact, I think that all of Matthew 13 from start to finish is one long parable about the kingdom of heaven and what it takes to be in it with the punch line in verses forty-nine and fifty, which tell of severe judgment at the end of the age. It’s quite grim.

So, for anyone who understands the parable of the pearl to mean, “The pearl is the gospel, and we should be willing to surrender everything for the sake of the kingdom,” I shall not disagree. But I also remember what our bishop, Bill McAlilly, likes to say about his son’s soccer coach, who would always ask his players after a goal was scored, whether by his team or the other: “So what? Now what?”

So, say the parable of the merchant is about doing whatever it takes to be in the kingdom of heaven. That’s fine. So what? Now what?

That is the hard part for me because it forces me to ask, “What is my pearl right now?” Because you see, everybody has a pearl. What’s mine? What’s yours?

What is it that I treasure more than anything else – so much that, like the merchant once he gets the pearl, I am not willing to part with it, ever? That’s my pearl. Everyone here has a pearl, also. So, take a moment now and think about the answer to this question: What is your pearl? What is more important to you than everything else? What is it that would make you give up almost anything else to keep? If you are inclined, turn to your neighbor and talk it over.


When I served a church is west Nashville, I did some volunteer ministry at Lighthouse Ministries, a live-in center for men suffering from addiction issues or homelessness. I remember counseling a young man who just would not follow the rules of living there. He said in one session with the director and me that he really wanted to go home to visit his mother over Christmas but of course he had no money even to take a bus to Jackson, Tennessee, where she lived. The director said that funding could be provided, but it was not simply free. He had to follow the rules and go through the process of making his life better. He said that was too hard and there were too many things out of his control. I asked him, “You can make your bed tomorrow morning, right?” He nodded. “Well,” I said, “that’s in your control and it is one of the rules here. Don’t worry about what you can’t control. Do the things you can control.”

His pearl was to spend Christmas with his mother. It was a good goal. I remember a discussion about this parable by Vanderbilt Professor Amy-Jill Levine. She said that after class one day where they talked about this parable, a young female student came to her and said, I know what my pearl was. I did give up everything for it – all my money, all my possessions, I even ended my marriage for it. It was alcohol. I was willing to give up everything I had to get the next drink.

When I ask myself what my pearl is, I also cannot avoid asking, Is that what my pearl should be? Is my pearl a good one?

Professor Levine also talked about leading a Bible study at River Bend Prison and discussing this parable, where an inmate told her that his pearl was freedom, to be released from prison. Another said that his pearl was simply staying alive while he was in prison.

Viktor Frankl wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning not long after he was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp near the end of World War Two. The Library of Congress lists this book as one of the most significant books of the twentieth century. Frankl lost his entire family in the camps – his wife and children did not survive.

But Frankl wrote about all the things the Nazis, with all their evil designs, could not take away. He wrote of people who entered the gas chambers praying the Lord’s Prayer or the ancient prayer of the Jews, the Shema Israel. He told of starving prisoners who went through the huts giving their meager bread ration to others near death. Such acts convinced Frankl that a person’s ability to choose one’s attitude, to control one’s inner life, no matter the circumstances, was the single human freedom that no earthly power could ever destroy. So even the worst that this world can throw at us cannot take everything. Frankl did not talk about parables, but he did find his pearl, to be in control of his inner life. And that was how he found freedom in the camps, even surrounded by death at every hour.

What’s your pearl? Should it be?

The error I have made so far in talking about this parable is individualizing it, as if Jesus was talking to and provoking thought in individual persons. Yes, there is a lesson for each of us in this parable and my lesson and yours won’t necessarily be the same. But there is a lesson for us together also, with the same focusing question: What is the pearl of our church? What is the centering and central focus of our life together as the body of Christ? Is that focus what should be our focus?

So, I would ask each of us right now to answer this question: What is it that we do, that if we stopped doing it, would lead us to think we had surrendered a central, vital element of being a church belonging to Jesus Christ? Please discuss with your neighbor.

Here is a second question: Is there anything that we are not doing that, by its omission, is already surrendering central, vital element of being a church belonging to Jesus Christ?

And here is the third and final question, not for discussion but for answering for oneself: Does it matter – does it really, truly matter enough for all of us together – as a church – to do whatever must be done to take hold of that pearl?

These are hazardous questions. If we are honest with ourselves individually or with ourselves as a congregation, we would have to admit that, as W. Edwards Deming pointed out, the main purpose of human organizations is to maintain the status quo.

The first time I thought about this for myself, I came to understand that my pearl was just that: preserving the status quo. I understand that the prospect of change can be disturbing. At the outset it can seem like entering a dark room blindfolded. Yet as Sam Cooke sang in 1964, “A Change Is Gonna Come” whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, whether we are prepared for it or not. And there are only three ways to deal with change:

1.     Make things happen,

2.     Watch things happen, or

3.     Wonder what in the world just happened.

Over time, I came to realize that no matter how wonderful the status quo feels, it is not possible to maintain it. The only place the status quo is maintained is a cemetery. As Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead” and, “God is the God of the living.” To be alive is to change.

So, discuss briefly with one another this question: In the coming months and years, what changes to our status quo are coming? And what would we like the changes to be? Here is a template I use:

First, rediscover and renew our calling from God as Christian ministers and lay people, as individual disciples and as connectional Methodist church people. Jesus told Peter he would make him fish for people. Do we remember when we got hooked by Jesus? Is it still fresh? Or did we get stuck in a rut, which is to say, did we devote our energies to preserving the status quo?

Second, are we intentionally making disciples or just accepting people into membership? We should discern together and put into place together an intentional path to discipleship. It cannot be enough any longer simply to accept people into membership and leave them free lancing afterward. No longer can we say, “We have Sunday School classes and Bible studies and women’s groups and community ministries, and we hope that one of them is right for you.” Jesus did not give us the mission of making church members, but of making disciples.

Of course, we will have to figure out just what a disciple is, but I will leave that for another day.

Third, do we see all the people, including both the people of our fellowship, whether members or not, and the people of our larger community? William Temple observed, “The church is the only cooperative society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members.” I think that’s a bit of an overstatement, since I think we would agree that police, fire and rescue departments and the US military also exist for the benefit of non-members. But Temple’s point is still sound: Jesus didn’t begin the Church in order to convey member-benefit packages to church people.

Now, we do benefit, and very richly. But not in ways awarded by other organizations. Jesus put it this way to his disciples just before he was arrested: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. So, do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Fourth, how shall we preserve that of our church which is excellent and gives glory to God, of which there are many examples? It is true, that as Sebastian says in The Tempest, “What's past is prologue,” but it is also past. We cannot plan for the past, only for a church we will bequeath to our children and grandchildren.

Personally, I am optimistic! After all, Jesus said, "Do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For people who don’t know God wear themselves out themselves over such things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. So, seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, then all those other things will be given to you as well."

Good words to live by and plan with. Thanks be to God!

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Who knows? What we can learn from ancient Nineveh

 Jonah 3:1 10

1 Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: 2 "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you."

3 Jonah obeyed the word of the LORD and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very important city   a visit required three days. 4On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned."

5 The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. 7Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. 8But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. 

"9    Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish."

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

Jonah visited Nineveh during the glory days of the Assyrian empire. From about 885 to 625 BC, the Assyrians dominated the ancient world. As early as 841 BC, Jehu, King of Israel, was forced to pay tribute to the Assyrian ruler, Shalmaneser III. This kind of harassment continued for over a century. Then Assyria brutally conquered Israel in 722 BC.

God called Jonah to go to the heartland of his people’s worst enemy. It was a radical order which would have taxed the obedience of any prophet.

Once there, Jonah goes straight to work. He doesn't look for the local Holiday Inn to drop off his luggage. He doesn't buy a paper to check up on the local news. He doesn't request an audience with the king. He shows no interest in the power structure of the city. He just marches in and for three days he shouts to the Ninevites that their time is limited. Whatever the Assyrians may have thought about him, Jonah got their attention.

Jonah foretells gloom and doom, death and destruction. His voice is not one of woe, but of triumph. Nineveh, the capital of Jonah’s hated enemy, will be overthrown. This is a good deal! These pillaging, plundering and looting Assyrians are finally going to get what’s coming to them, and it’s about time, too!

Jonah is a man of judgment, certitude and certainty. In Jonah’s world there are actions and consequences. This is how things are. No wriggle room, that’s Jonah. How can we argue with that idea? It’s true, isn’t it? if you work hard, you get ahead. If you make good grades, you get into a good college. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. Actions have consequences.

In fact, the promises God are often found in scripture phrased in “if-then” terms. In Deuteronomy we read, “If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of earth. However, if you do not fully obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands, all these curses will come upon you.”

At the beginning of the story, Jonah learns that the wickedness of the Ninevites has come before God. Jonah pronounces doom for the Ninevites, but he never tells them why they deserve it. Presumably, the Ninevites understood why an Israelite and an Israelite’s God would condemn them. There is no word of grace in Jonah’s proclamation. Throughout scripture and in our own experience of knowing God, God’s grace is always pre-eminent. It is prevenient, to use the Wesleyan term. God’s grace always goes before his messengers and prepares the receivers of the message to hear it. As things turned out, Jonah’s imperfect prophecy didn’t prevent the Holy Spirit’s work. The Ninevites were convicted of their wickedness by Jonah’s warning. The whole city repented and was spared.

Despite Jonah’s imperfections, we need people like him. It’s far too easy to become morally, economically, culturally and religiously lazy, even wicked. Especially when things are going pretty good, as they were for the Ninevites then and are for most Americans right now. I am pro-prosperity. I see no inherent moral virtue in poverty. We have nice homes, good schools, good jobs, nice clothes and a high standard of living. These are good things. We have a good life. I don’t mean they are good in some sort of double talking, theologically wisecracking sort of way. I mean genuinely, truly good. But how easy it is to be seduced by the siren song of secular success and forget whence comes our wealth and good life. It’s all on loan from God.

One of the richest persons in the Bible realized this. When Job lost all his wealth, he honestly acknowledged, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, I will leave this world naked. The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. May the name of the Lord be praised.” The Bible is clear about who gives us what we have. Deuteronomy records God’s admonition to the Hebrews in chapter 8. I’m going to slightly—but only slightly—paraphrase it:

Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to keep his commands. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, when your companies grow large and your stock holdings increase and all your stock investments beat the S&P 500, your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God and you may say to yourself, “My power and knowledge have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is God who gives you the ability to produce wealth. If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and bow down to them and worship them, you will surely be destroyed.

We are the wealthiest nation ever to exist. Stupendously endowed with enormous natural resources, fresh water and fantastically productive soil, we have formulated an economic and political system unmatched in all history for material production and comfort. Are we blessed by God? You bet! Yet I fear that as a nation we say, “Our power and knowledge have produced this wealth for us.”

A few years ago survey by the Barna Group discovered that almost two-thirds of Americans agreed that the purpose of life was enjoyment and personal fulfillment and that each person’s responsibility is to oneself. Robert Wuthnow wrote in his book, God and Mammon in America, that Americans are, as a culture, spiritually adrift in making decisions in economics, career choice, workplace commitment, consumerism and charity. Those who described themselves as committed churchgoers often said they had their materialistic and workaholic tendencies reinforced by their religious beliefs and faith training. They live, they admitted, “pretty much the same as those who have no faith at all.”

In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented, “The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent, or often vocal, sanction of things as they are.”

It is sometimes a Christian’s responsibility to stride like Jonah into the hearts of our cities and the boardrooms of the powerful and proclaim, “You are forgetting the Lord your God and are following secular idols like consumerism, perverse entertainment and secular pride. You worship and bow down to them, but the Lord gives and the Lord takes away.” Jesus said judgment comes to those who store up things for themselves but are not rich toward God. Life is more than good food and the body, more than fine clothes.

The Ninevites believed what Jonah told them. From king to pauper, they repented and called upon God. They gave up their evil ways and violence. “Who knows?” they declared. “God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” When God saw they had turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not destroy them.

Now how can that be? God went to a lot of trouble to get Jonah to the Ninevites and now they are spared? Just because of a little sackcloth and ashes and fasting? What’s the deal? Actions, consequences, right? Not here! The dirty, rotten Assyrians beat the rap on a technicality. Jonah sulked and left town.

Well, not so fast. The Assyrians were never ones for small gestures. Their army’s effectiveness would have made William Tecumseh Sherman green with envy. Nineveh was the largest city in the world at the time, almost sixty miles around. Its walls were so thick that three chariots could be driven abreast on top. Fifteen hundred watchtowers were set along the wall, each tower two hundred feet high—oh, yes, the Assyrians made big plans and did things in a grand way.

So it’s no surprise they went for big-time repentance. Their repentance was no pro-forma, half-hearted, mealy-mouthed, “Dear-God-we’re-sorry-please-forgive-us” ritual. It was Super Bowl level, Nobel-prize caliber, Neiman-Marcus catalog, total quality repentance. No public opinion polling. No encounter groups or sensitivity sessions. No city council meetings or legislative deliberations. No Sunday School series or committee meetings. There was no temporizing or excuse making. There was only a collective shock of having been judged by the ultimately righteous God and their desire to turn away from sin.

I’m not sure we know how to do that kind of repentance today. Many of you may remember a best-selling book of the nineteen seventies called, I’m Okay, You’re Okay. I’ll bet the Ninevites said that to one another before Jonah showed up. It’s hardly a clarion call to repentance. We typically plead for God’s intervention in the mess we’re in now, as if God is a cosmic lifeguard who exists to bail us out of our self-made predicaments.

The Ninevites’ repentance was deep and profound—a genuine conviction of ignoring God and going their own way, doing their own thing. They urgently called upon God, giving up their sinful ways.

Jonah knew what kind of God he was representing. The forty days came and went. Nineveh was still standing. Jonah was so mad he wanted to die. He yelled at God, “I know this would happen! I knew you were a God of love, gracious and compassionate. That’s why I didn’t want to come here is the first place.” The Assyrians knew something about God, too. They knew something about God that it’s easy to forget. God responds to humble, genuinely contrite appeals for mercy. “Who knows?” they cried. “Perhaps God will relent and show compassion.”

The Ninevites took a chance on God. They bet on God’s mercy and love. We should not deride their faith.

Jesus told the story of the prodigal son who sank so low he slopped hogs for a living. The pig slop was better than his own meals. He set out for home, penniless, to ask his father to accept him as a servant. Who knows? Maybe his father will say yes.

A Roman centurion approached Jesus of Nazareth. The centurion’s beloved servant was desperately ill and near death. Who knows? The centurion thought. Maybe this Galilean rabbi really can heal my servant.

Do we have the faith even to ask, “Who knows?” It is true that the Ninevites had a deadline to meet to get right with God. Forty days is not a long time. But how much time do we need? We would be alarmed if we knew we would not live another month, but we are careless even though we don’t know we’ll live another day.

Who knows but that there are people sitting here who are not right with God and realize it? There’s no reason to wait any longer. No more time is needed. Christ’s grace has already brought you to this place, and not by accident. This is a church of the crucified and risen, living Christ, not a social club or civic organization. Our founder was a homeless Jew who was executed as a criminal insurrectionist and religious heretic. He was never on the social “A” list and he wouldn’t have been invited to the Swan Ball. Yet it is through this Christ Jesus that God accounts us as righteous. If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Today is the day. Now is the time.

Who knows? Perhaps God really is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, just as Jonah knew and the Ninevites discovered.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Jesus's Catch and Release

 Luke 5.1-11

1 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.

3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch."

5 Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets."

6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.

8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are partners with Simon.  Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people."

11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

I've always wondered whether Peter knew Jesus, or at least knew about Jesus, before they met this day. If not, Peter seems terribly compliant for a total stranger. But anyone who drew large crowds would have had a well-known reputation, so even if Peter and Jesus had never met before, Peter had surely heard plenty of gossip and rumors and reports about Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus asked Peter a question then gave a command. First, he asked to use his boat as a speaker’s platform. Peter could have said no. But Jesus did not ask Peter to sail into deep water and deploy his nets. He ordered him.

But the command was also a promise. Jesus didn't tell Peter to sail to deep water, let down the nets and maybe you'll get a catch of fish. No, all of this is matter of fact to Jesus: Sail the boat, let down the nets, catch the fish.

Perhaps the certainty of Jesus' voice compelled Peter to comply. The first word he said was, "Master," so Peter willingly put himself under Jesus' authority. He told Jesus it wouldn’t work but he would try it anyway.

So Peter and crew sailed to deep water and let down their nets. Right away they caught so many fish that the nets began to break under the strain. Peter called the boat of his partner to come help. By the time it got there the fish were so many that they filled both boats to the point that the boat started sinking.

What was Peter going to do with all those fish?

That question was not actually on Peter's mind. He fell at Jesus' knees and told him, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" 

Peter would later be the first disciple to announce that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. The germ of that confession formed on a boat foundering from the weight of the fish Jesus caused to be caught. Yet there had been no dramatic command from Jesus' lips; he never stretched his hands over the sea and yelled, "Fish! Come forth!" Jesus simply gave three simple commands, all to Peter, not the fish: sail the boat, let down the nets, catch the fish.

Peter knew who Jesus was all right. And Peter knew who he was himself. He and Jesus were like water and oil to one another in the holiness department and Peter knew it. Jesus knew it, too, but Jesus knew something Peter didn't. Peter saw only his own sin. Jesus knew that inside every sinful person is righteous potential.

Invoking that potential was the trick. Suppose Jesus had gone aboard Peter's boat to preach his sermon to the people on the lakeshore, just as the passage relates, and then, instead of telling Peter to sail the boat, let down the nets and catch the fish, Jesus had merely said, "Come and follow me." Would Peter have gone with him? I think not.

What was different about the enormous catch that made Peter leave everything behind? It was not that Peter realized he was a sinful man; he already knew that, though after witnessing the fishing miracle he knew it more urgently than before. It's not that Peter suddenly knew Jesus to be a holy man worthy of obedience: Peter had already called Jesus, "Master."

I think what made Peter follow Christ after the catch when he almost certainly would never have followed him beforehand was that Jesus gave abundantly to Peter before Peter confessed his sinfulness.

"While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That proves his loves for us."

There is a story of Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City during the Great Depression and all of World War II. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. 

A tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter's husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. "It's a real bad neighborhood, your Honor," the man told the mayor. "She's got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson."

LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, "I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions – ten dollars or ten days in jail." But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and said, "Here is the ten-dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a woman has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant."

The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 – worth 973 dollars today - was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red‑faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

Do you think that the grandmother voted for LaGuardia next election?

It was Jesus' grace, undeserved and in fact unasked for, that overwhelmed Peter. So, Peter fell at Jesus' knees, protesting that he didn't deserve the abundance Christ offered. Jesus said don't worry, from now on you will be catching people for me. Jesus was a fisher, too, but he fished for sinners like Peter, like you and like me.

Here’s another fish story by novelist Frederick Forsyth called, “The Emperor.” It told of Roger Murgatroyd and his wife, Edna, who went to the former French colony of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean for a vacation one summer. Myrgatroyd, a bank branch manager, had never done anything particularly challenging in his life. He became intrigued at stories of an immense swordfish in the offshore waters. The Emperor, as the locals called the swordfish, had often been hooked but never caught, even after titanic battles lasting hours. Experienced deep-sea fishermen were certain that the swordfish was of world-record size: twelve hundred pounds and at least twenty feet long.

Myrgatroyd decides to give deep-sea fishing a try and as luck would have it, he hooks the Emperor about 9 a.m. By noon Myrgatroyd's lips are cracked from sun and spray. His arms are burning with exhaustion from fighting the great fish. Two hours later the charter owner, Kilian, pleads to relieve him at the line for awhile.

"Myrgatroyd opened his mouth to speak. A split in his lip cracked wide and a trickle of blood ran onto his chin. The cork grip of the pole was becoming slick with the blood from his palms.

"My fish," he croaked. "My fish."

More time passed, reeling in and out, keeping the line taut so the Emperor couldn't spit out the hook. "His vision was blurring ... And his body was one searing ache. Shafts of sharper pain ran through his right shoulder where he had torn a muscle. ...

"For another ninety minutes they fought it out. ... Myrgatroyd's exhaustion was moving close to delirium. Muscles in his calves and thighs flickered crazily like light bulbs before they fuse."

After eight hours, though, the Emperor had nothing left. He wore out only slightly before Myrgatroyd would have. Myrgatroyd reeled in the line until Kilian could seize the steel trace that held the hook. Then he slumped in his chair, spent. The boat's crew heaved the huge fish toward the deck, where Myrgatroyd suddenly realized, shocked, that a boy was about to plunge a gaff hook into the Emperor's head.

Myrgatroyd's "voice came out more a raucous croak than a shout. "No!"

"The boy froze and looked down. Myrgatroyd was on his hands and knees looking at the tackle box. On top lay a pair of wire cutters. He took them in the finger and thumb of his left hand and pressed them into the mashed meat of his right palm. With his free hand he hauled himself upright and leaned across the stern.

"The Emperor was lying just beneath him, exhausted almost to the point of death. ... From two feet away the fish stared back at Myrgatroyd. ... it was alive but had no strength left to fight. ...

"Deliberately, Myrgatroyd placed the jaws of the cutters on either side of the steel trace where it was spliced into the hook. He squeezed. Blood came out of his palm and ran into the salt water over the marlin's head. He squeezed again and the wire parted.

"The Emperor stared at Myrgatroyd as another wave washed over him. He shook his tired old head and pushed his spike into the water. The great crescent tail rose and fell and pushed the body forward and down. The tail was the last they saw of him, driving the marlin back beneath the waves."

Kilian turned the boat toward shore. When they docked a boat boy jumped off and ran to the village. Kilian secured the vessel, then helped Myrgatroyd walk onto the pier. "The hem of his shorts had fallen to below his knees and his shirt flapped open about him, dark with dried sweat. A number of villagers were lining the narrow jetty, so they had to walk in single file.

"The first person in line was Monsieur Patient. Myrgatroyd nodded to him and smiled. "Merci," he said.

The old man pulled his hat from head. "Salut, Maitre," he replied.

Myrgatroyd walked slowly up the jetty. Each of the villagers bobbed his head and said, "Salut, Maitre." They reached the end of the planking and stepped onto the gravel of the village street. There was a large crowd of villagers grouped there. "Salut, salut, salut, Maitre" they said quietly.

"What are they saying?" Myrgatroyd whispered to Kilian.

"They're greeting you," came the answer. "They're calling you a master fisherman."

"Because I caught the Emperor?"

The captain laughed softly. "No Englishman, because you gave him his life back."

Do you remember when you got hooked by Christ? And do you remember that he gave you your life back? He suffered immensely while you and I fought him, but we finally yielded. And then an amazing thing: he let us go because the grace of Christ gives us life – our true life, more abundant than ever. Jesus said, “If the Son of God makes you free, you will be free indeed.” And so we are.

That's what Peter suddenly knew one day when he sailed with the Master – that Jesus was a catch-and-release fisherman. And that's why he left everything and followed him.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

"Magnify" - A reflection on Mary, mother of Jesus

There seems a common theme in the Bible that whenever God really wants to break into human affairs with something really, truly new, God goes to women to do it.

Not every time, of course. Women do not figure prominently in Moses’ story, for example. True, his mother successfully protected Moses from Pharaoh’s soldiers, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him, and Moses’ sister arranged for their mother to be hired by Pharaoh’s daughter – all important roles, but narratively not front and center. 

Even so, the history of the Jews was replete with instances of God’s advent coming through women. Consider Sarah, long-suffering wife of the original patriarch, Abraham. She reached the end of her ninth decade childless. God had long before given Abraham the promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, but Abraham, the old coot, gave up on Sarah when she was a mere seventy-five and sired a son by a slave girl, Hagar. 

God didn’t let Abraham get away with that. When Sarah was ninety, she gave birth to Isaac, the only son Abraham and Sarah would have. Isaac carried forth God’s covenant promise. Isaac married Rebekah, and they also were childless until their old age, when they conceived twins, Esau and Jacob, and Jacob would be renamed by God as Israel. The rest, as they say, is history.  

Luke's Gospel relates that Mary, betrothed to a man named Joseph, was visited by the angel Gabriel, who told her that she had been selected by God to bear the Son of God into human birth. Joseph was not consulted about this but later learned the truth, that as Gabriel had told Mary, she would be with child by the Holy Spirit. 

After Mary became pregnant, she went to her relative. Elizabeth, and upon greeting her, burst into a canticle of praise that has endured through time as Mary's Magnificat.  

For centuries Christians have remarked on how much Mary’s Magnificat resembles Hannah’s song of praise, related in First Samuel. Hannah was married to Elkanah, a Levite and a priest. For many years Hannah was childless. Hannah spent her years in tears and bitter disappointment. Finally Hannah reached the end of her rope. She prayed near the temple, in her day a rough building of wood, for Hannah lived a long time before King David, who built the first grand Temple. 

Hannah prayed, "O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant's misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life... ."

The prophet Eli happened to be sitting in a chair nearby and saw her utter the words but did not hear her voice. He thought she was drunk and told her, "How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine."

Like Zechariah (Elizabeth's husband), like Joseph, like Abraham, Eli just didn’t get it. Hannah explained what she was doing, and then Eli gave her his blessing. 

Hannah did give birth to a son, Samuel, whom she turned over to Eli so he would be brought up exclusively in the service of the Lord, as Hannah had promised. Samuel led the people against the Philistines, selected Saul as the first king of Israel and anointed David as Saul’s successor. Pretty important guy in the history of the Jews!

From the beginning, the Jews and Christians have understood that God’s will is worked out in history, and that means through the lives and deeds of men and women. Only rarely do acts of nature figure in the working of God’s will. It is what people do that counts, and when God wants to bring something new in human society, he brings forth a baby. And that means God turns to women.

The ancient Jews were just as aware as we how babies are made, but the Jews always credited new births as gifts from God. God’s promise to Abraham pervaded their understanding of what new birth meant. They understood that all new births were accomplished because of the providence of God. The repeating theme of remarkable births "suggests that the people of God come into existence and are sustained in their existence [only] by the grace of God,” not by their own efforts (Marcus Borg). 

There is another facet of the Bible’s remarkable births that is central. It was summed up in what Martin Luther said. The greatest miracle of Mary’s story was not that she conceived, but that she believed. It is her faith which is a model for us. First and foremost, Advent is about faith, to be open-hearted and open minded enough to be like Mary in accepting the gift of grace in God’s own son. 

Among other titles, Jesus is known as the Prince of Peace. I was out Christmas shopping the other day and it struck me that it seems odd that the time of celebration of the Advent of the Prince of Peace is perhaps the most frenzied, harried, un-peaceful times of the year. I started watching other shoppers and noticed that no one was smiling. They were shopping with all the grim determination of soldiers moving toward the battle line. 

Peace has multiple definitions. Jesus said, "Peace I give to you." In this day we certainly pray for the absence of war that is peace. But there can be, and should be, spiritual peace, a wellness of soul even during times of conflict or simple frenzy. One of the most important ways we can find that kind of peace is to do what Jesus taught, to live for a greater cause than ourselves. 

I have a thought experiment for you. Try to imagine next Christmas. Not this Christmas because it’s so close. Think about Christmas 2024. Now imagine that everything you love about Christmas will be just like you want it to be, except for one thing. You are not going to give any presents to anyone. You won’t be sick and so unable to do so. You just won’t give presents. You’ll still go to your family’s big Christmas gathering and everyone will give each other presents, including giving to you. But you will give nothing to others. All you will do is receive gifts from them.

Does the idea appeal? Would you want to spend a Christmas like that? Even a three-year-old wants to give presents at Christmas. It is not the getting that gives joy and satisfaction at Christmas, it is the giving. That’s why we so often have a hard time answering others’ question of what we want for Christmas, and so insistently ask it of others. In our hearts, we know that what we want to get is always much less important than what we need to give. 

At Christmastime, and no other, does our culture widespread focus on giving. That’s a good thing. The joy and peace of Christmas is found in giving. But Christ’s promise is that we may find peace in all times and all circumstances if we give not just our things to others, but our very selves to the One who is ultimate. 

So if Christmas is to be a time of wellness of soul, our giving must be of more than our stuff. The first gift was Emmanuel, "God With Us." And the first Christmas gifts were not the gold, frankincense or myrrh the three magi brought. It was the devotion of the shepherds who brought no presents neatly wrapped. They brought and gave only their hearts and praise. 

What shall you give for Christmas? Yes, give things to one another, but most of all give your love as well. To our Lord, give not only your love but also your life. And you shall have peace, and your soul shall magnify the Lord and your spirit shall rejoice in God your Savior.

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