WHEN THE SPIRIT MOVES

May 20, 2018

 

Acts 2:1-6

 

       In high school science class I learned Newton’s laws of motion. One law states that an object at rest will remain motionless unless an outside force moves it. For example, this book will stay motionless unless some force makes it move. Here is proof. [Let it drop.] What force moved this book? Yes, gravity. If there was no gravity, the book would have floated here, suspended in space, the same as you see astronauts floating in space where no gravity pulls them down. Let me give another example for those who have played or who have watched some swing a golf club. A golf ball sitting on a tee does not move unless a golf club clobbers it, or (as I well know from trying to hit one of those tiny balls) unless the wind from a whiff topples the ball. Objects will remain motionless unless some outside force moves it. 

We can apply this law of motion in the physical realm to the spiritual realm as well. Our spirits, our souls remain inert, remain passive until some force moves them.

       I have often heard Christians claim that God's Spirit has moved them. As the old African-American spiritual tune says, “Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray. Yes, every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart I will pray.” The song complies with the law of motion, for the assumption is that my heart remains inert until the Spirit moves me to pray.  I have also heard Christians say that the Holy Spirit has moved them to send money to a missionary or to stand up, clap their hands and sing, or to become a minister, or to bring a home cooked meal to friends. 

       Even though I hear this claim frequently, I am still puzzled when Christians claim that the Holy Spirit has moved them. How can we be sure that it is truly the Holy Spirit moving the preacher on television asking us to send him money and not some desire for financial gain moving him to solicit donations? How can I be sure that it is God's Holy Spirit moving people in a lively worship service and not simply the exuberant performance of the musicians?  How can we be sure that the Holy Spirit is moving in our lives or in our congregations?

       The story in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles is a short documentary recording the first time that the Holy Spirit moved the followers of Jesus. That story is also the prototype of how God's Holy Spirit has moved Christians since. What the followers of Jesus experienced on Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit initially moved them, is an illustration of how the Holy Spirit still moves Christians and congregations today. According to the story in Acts chapter two, there are at least three distinguishing marks of a movement prompted by the Spirit of God. 

       First, when God's Spirit moves, God is honored. Jesus died during the Jewish celebration of their annual Passover festival. Shortly after he rose from the dead on what we call Easter, he commanded his closest followers to remain in Jerusalem until they received the infusion of the Holy Spirit. For the next fifty days, they followed orders. At the end of the fifty days they gathered to celebrate the next annual Jewish festival, known as the Feast of Weeks, of as it was called in Greek, the festival of Pentecost. On that particular Pentecost, Jesus’ small band of remaining followers gathered together in a large room. Suddenly above the din of their conversations, they noticed the sound of the wind picking up. Conversations quickly quieted. The din of the wind grew louder until the walls groaned under the onslaught of the gale force. 

       Someone cried out that a fire had broken out over their heads in the ceiling. Everyone ducked to hide from the flames, but to their amazement the walls did not catch on fire. With fire so near pandemonium erupted. In the chaos everyone started jabbering at once. Here a snatch of Aramaic, there a phrase of Hebrew, there a phrase in Greek, another in Latin. Suddenly everyone in the room was blabbering at the same time. 

       Wanting to escape from spreading fire, those inside started running out into the streets, babbling in languages they had never even studied or even heard. Onlookers, mostly foreigners in Jerusalem for the holidays, could not believe their ears. These native Judeans were carrying on conversations with them in their own obscure foreign languages! The crowds looked on aghast. They had never seen or heard anything like this before. Without even checking the Google translators on their smart phones, the foreigners got the point. They blurted out: "We can’t believe what we are hearing. This is an act of God. God has done great things!" 

That was the first sign that the Holy Spirit was on the move. When God's Spirit moves, God should get the credit. The followers of Jesus had not taken crash courses on conversational foreign languages, so they could not take any credit for their own efforts. A force outside of themselves had enabled them. And they could no more take credit for the movement than a baseball clobbered by Aaron Judge could claim credit for flying out of the park. The laws of physics require that a body at rest will remain motionless unless a force moves it. And when that force moves it, the body cannot claim any credit for the results. Therefore the first distinguishing way to tell when God's Spirit is on the move is that, when the Holy Spirit moves a person or a church, God gets the credit.

       The second feature of a genuine movement of God's Holy Spirit is that when God's Spirit moves, people are moved outward. When God's Spirit touches a person's life or touches a congregation, Christians cannot keep to themselves the gifts God gives to them. The Spirit moves people away from self-centeredness toward helping others.

       As we heard in the story from Acts, on the day of Pentecost the followers of Jesus were gathered together in one place. Then they dramatically experienced the movement of the Holy Spirit on their gathering. The impact of the Holy Spirit literally and physically moved those gathered in the room out onto the streets. When the Spirit moved them, the congregation could not keep the force contained within the room.

       I interpret this physical movement from the room to the street in a figurative way. When the Holy Spirit moves in a person or in a congregation, outward movement will follow. For the impact of the Holy Spirit is not reserved for Christians, rather the movement of the Spirit is intended also to benefit those outside the confines of the church. If the Holy Spirit genuinely moves a person or a congregation, people will move away from solely attending to their own needs, and move toward benefiting others: donating food to the hungry, raising money for at-risk teenagers, sharing the good news, visiting the sick, helping refugees, protecting and defending others.  

A soul tends to be inert, unless acted upon by some force prompting it to move. Such force can come from rousing team spirit or a dangerous mob spirit.  One distinguishing way to tell when God's Spirit is on the move is that, when the Holy Spirit moves a person or a church, God will get the credit. The second is that when the Holy Spirit moves people, they move out of their comfort zones in order to help others. The third is that when God's Spirit moves, lives are changed.

       Back again to our prototype for the movement of God's Spirit as recorded in Acts chapter two. After the initial impact of God's spirit on Jesus’ followers, they went out into the streets. A crowd of bystanders quickly gathered to watch the spectacle of holy-roller Jews babbling on a street corner. Hecklers promptly gave their interpretation of the sidewalk production: "These Jews are buzzed. They are stone drunk."

       What an embarrassing situation for a newly founded religion to be labeled at its first public appearance as a group of drunkards! Unless the Christians wanted to lose all their dignity in the public eye, someone had to speak up in their defense. 

The one to come to their rescue was unexpectedly Peter. This same Peter had, on the night of Jesus' arrest and trial five weeks prior, publicly denied that he had any connection with Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. On Good Friday this same Peter had deserted Jesus’ cause. He had shown himself to be a coward. Yet, fifty days later, on Pentecost this same Peter stands up in front of another hostile crowd and defends Jesus. 

       The infusion of the Spirit changed Peter from a frightened coward to an outspoken advocate. The change in Peter is a pattern for how the Spirit moves people, how the Spirit still changes our lives. As you may have heard, God accepts us as we are, but loves us too much to let us remain as we are. Gently or forcefully, slowly or quickly, the Spirit pushes us away from our old ways toward new ways. The Spirit pushes us to battle our addictions rather than succumb to them, to control our anger rather than lose our temper, to bite our tongue rather than blurt out, to stand up for ourselves or others rather than submit to abuse, to forgive rather than strike back, to pray more and worry less, to stop hurting myself and start protecting my body. 

       A third distinguishing mark of a genuine movement of God's Holy Spirit is that when God's Spirit moves, lives are changed. Such change in our behavior goes along with another old African-American hynm, “I’m going-a sing when the Spirit says sing, I’m going-a sing when the Spirit says sing. I’m going-a sing when the Spirit says sing and obey the Spirit of the Lord.” Obeying the Spirit of the Lord implies that we change our behaviors, from what comes naturally to us to comply with what comes supernaturally from the Spirit. 

Back to my original question: How can we know if the Holy Spirit is moving in our lives or in our congregations? From the story of how the Spirit moved on the first Pentecost, we can discern three criteria to identify when the Spirit is on the move first, God will get credit; second, people move outward to help others; and third, lives will change.

Remember that a body at rest will remain in place until a force sets it into motion. God’s Spirit is a force that sets us in motion, toward worship, toward service and toward change. When the Spirit came upon those disciples on that first Pentecost day, they sensed that a mighty wind was swirling around them. May the winds of the Spirit swirl around us, lifting us up, pushing us outward, and moving us ahead.

TAKING IT ONE DAY AT A TIME

May 13, 2018

Matthew 6:34

“I’m taking it one day at a time.” So I hear nearly every time I turn on a sports channel, whether it be for broadcasting baseball, basketball, or hockey. “Well, we may have lost six games in a row, but we have over 130 games left in the season, so we are taking it one day at a time.” “Well, we may be down three games to none in the playoffs, but we are taking it one day at a time.” “Well, I’m not sure if he will be taking the ice this series since he is still recuperating from that torn ligament, but we’re taking it one day at a time.”   

I sometimes become annoyed at hearing athletes and coaches quote that saying so often. It has become a worn out cliché. I wish someone could be more imaginative in offering advice when facing an uphill battle. I wish someone could find a proverb more creative, more original. But then, I stop to consider that maybe the reason so many athletes and coaches quote the saying so often is because it is so true, not only in facing challenges in sports, but in facing all sorts of challenges in life. 

Those battling addictions in 12-step support groups recite the saying endlessly. Whether it be at meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous, Over-eaters Anonymous, or Gamblers Anonymous, members realize that overcoming an addiction is a daunting challenge. The likelihood of putting the rest of one’s entire life back together after years of succumbing to the enormous power of a tenacious addiction sounds insurmountable. The challenge of drastically altering my entire future seems so overwhelming that I might as well give up trying before starting. Managing to stop for the rest of my life seems too hard. 

Therein resides the wisdom in taking it one day at a time. If I admittedly cannot muster the strength to resist that addiction for the entirety of my life ahead, maybe I can manage for just today. Like a wise physical therapist or a seasoned fitness trainer knows, even the most daunting physical rehabilitation can feel manageable when broken down into smaller, more achievable parts. One day is more manageable for us than a lifetime, or a month, or simply a week. 

Somehow we regard the duration of one day, one cycle of dark and light, to be our standard and our limit for making it through hard times. This disposition to measure life as a day at a time may account for why two of the most famous prayers — the Lord’s Prayer and the Serenity Prayer — ask God for help specifically for the duration of a day at a time.  

As we recite every Sunday, and as countless Christians recite every day, we begin the Lord’s Prayer by addressing God’s concerns: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Then come the parts that focus on our concerns. And our first concern is for something that we need day by day. We pray to God: “Give us this day our daily bread.” In other words, we ask God to give us enough food to make it through this day. No storing up for tomorrow. A day at a time is the duration we request and the amount we currently need. Making it through today is our focus.

Countless 12-step groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Overeaters Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Debtors Anonymous, often recite during their meetings part of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Most groups stop there, but the prayer originally went on in the next line to say: “Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time.” 

In both prayers, the time frame in which people ask God for giving help is spread over a day at a time. The Lord’s Prayer pleads: “Give us this day our daily bread.” The Serenity prayer pleads: “Grant us the serenity … [for] living one day at a time.” When people in need ask God for help we ask most urgently for enough to make it a day at a time. Whether we are hard-wired or simply accustomed to think this way, we look for help parceled out in segments of one day at a time. Somehow we regard the duration of one day, one cycle of dark and light, to be our standard and our limit for making it through life.

Jesus evidently was well aware of our disposition to measure out time, especially hard times, most naturally in segments of days. In fact, he urged us to face our troubles at the frequency of a day at a time. In his famous Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew 6:33-34, he urged us first to set our priorities on God’s victory over evil: “But seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” 

Then he spelled out one way that priority ought to shape our mindset when encountering troubles.  He advised us: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Jesus had his own distinctive way with words, but in essence he said what we hear quoted so frequently: “Take it one day at a time.” Today will have enough troubles. Try to make it through what you will face today. Don’t take on tomorrow’s problems as well. That will overwhelm you. 

Coping with one day at a time is our psychological limit, and maybe also our physical limit. We live confined within the cycle of darkness and light, within the 24-hour duration of night and day. We use different ways of measuring the beginning of this duration. Our clocks mark the start of day at midnight. 12:00 AM technically begins the morning, long before sunrise marks the start of light. From our everyday experience, however, most people are conscious of the start of a new day whenever they rouse from sleep, whether we get out of bed on weekdays with the alarm clock at 6:00 AM or we stir from beds later on weekend mornings. Many cultures mark the start of day at sunrise, which changes on the dial of the clock from day to day. 

But, according to the Bible’s timetable, measuring the start of a new day begins at sunset. Six times in the first chapter of Genesis, we read the refrain: “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day… there was evening and there was morning the second day”…and so on. We customarily think that day begins with sunrise, when we roll out of bed, heat up the coffee, dress, and head out to work, but, according to the Bible’s timetable, day begins at sunset. As the account said, “There was evening and morning, one day.”

From the Biblical perspective, darkness, not light, signals the start of day. Following that perspective, falling asleep, not waking up, follows closely on the start of each day. Therefore, each day begins pretty much as each human life begins. In the womb we begin in the dark, vulnerable, relying upon someone else to take care of us. 

One of the first lessons I learned about God I learned from my mother who taught me to pray at bedtime: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Some people object to the prayer because it sounds too macabre, too absorbed on death for young children to hear. But, in its defense, this prayer was big enough to cover all the frightful things that can go bump in the dark. Going to sleep was an act of faith, believing that God would take care of me when I was least alert to take care of myself. That all-encompassing prayer covered me from the nightly sleep to my final big sleep, and everything in between. Praying in the dark meant each day I was under God’s care, from start to finish, for, as the Bible says, day starts in the dark. 

Sleeping, which is something we do one day at a time, is a reminder that we are not in control. The sun sets and rises, actually the earth revolves around the sun, on its own timetable with no help or interference from us. Our bodies have needs that we cannot ignore. Our brains have needs that we cannot ignore. To sleep is to admit that we have limits, which in itself is a valuable lesson about life at any age. Hard as many college students try to stay up all night studying for final exams, our bodies cannot keep going. Humans need to rest. Sleeping is inescapable, part of admitting we are everyday creatures living within the rhythm of night and day, a rhythm that is outside of our control. 

According to the Psalm 121:4, God “neither slumbers nor sleeps.” Therefore, it must have been a newfound experience for Jesus to fall asleep, after neither slumbering nor sleeping since before time began. Being like us, he needed to sleep. But, being unlike us, he could sleep on a boat in the midst of a storm, as we heard in Mark 4, because whenever he laid down to sleep, he trusted the Lord his soul to keep. 

During the bombing of London in World War II, a woman was heard asking others to excuse her for having stayed asleep in bed during the bombardment. She said, “Well, I reflect that God does not sleep and there seemed no reason why both of us should stay awake.” 

Nowadays Christians take our bearings about sleeping more from the schedule for night time television than from the Bible. In our way of thinking, sleep is what we do at the end of a tiring day so we have enough energy to make it through the next tiresome day of work. However, within the first chapter of the Bible, we encounter a different outlook on the cycle of night and day. 

In his poem, God Speaks,the French poet Charles Peguy dared to speak God’s mind on our daily routine of sleeping. As he imagined God explaining the reasons for sleep, Peguy wrote:

Sleep is the friend of man.

Sleep is the friend of God.

Sleep is perhaps the most beautiful thing I have created.

And I myself rested on the seventh day…

But they tell me that there are men

Who work well and sleep badly.

Who don’t sleep. What a lack of confidence in me…

They have courage to work. They lack the courage to be idle.

They have enough virtue to work.

They haven’t enough virtue to be idle.

To stretch out. To rest. To sleep.

Poor people, they don’t know what is good.

They look after their business very well during the day.

But they haven’t enough confidence in me

To look after it during the night.

If, according to the Bible, day starts at nightfall, then sleeping is an act of faith. Not as overtly an act of faith as telling others about Jesus or promoting justice or gathering for worship. But we are following Jesus in that he slept. We are admitting our limits, our God given limits, when we sleep. We are trusting God when we fall asleep. We are handing over to God the concerns that occupied our time and thoughts during the day. For sleep is not simply God’s afterthought to compensate for our overworked brains or to forestall fatigue. Sleep, as much as prayer, is part of taking it one day at a time.

HAVE YOU GOT THE TIME?

May 6, 2018

 

Ecclesiastes 3:1-10

This morning I have a riddle for you. Please don’t blurt out the answer when you figure it out. Let me finish before giving aloud the answer. I want you to guess what it is. Here are the clues.

You can lose it and you can find it, but you can never recover it. It can be elusive, yet you can capture it. You can count it, but not collect it. You can manage it or waste it, some people even do it. It can be well spent or frittered away. The less we have of it to spare, the further we can often make it go. It always goes in one direction. It waits for no one but we are irritated when we wait for it.  It can speed up or slow down, and if you can go fast enough, it will stop. You can have too much of it or too little of it, but on any given day everyone has the same amount of it. 

You’ve guessed it? Yes, it is time. We all sense the passing of time. We can lose time watching television, and we can find the time for doing the laundry but we cannot recover the times we were too busy to play with our children. Professionals carefully manage their time, sometimes students waste their time, and convicts are forced to do time. Time can elude us, but we can, so some say, capture time with a camera on film, as when for instance we snap and capture a “Kodak moment.” Time waits for no one, but we can impatiently wait a long time to see the doctor. Although we all live on the same Daylight Savings Time, since Einstein discovered relativity, we have realized that time can move at different speeds. As Einstein said, “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, you think it’s only a minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for a minute, you think it is two hours. That’s relativity.”  

Managing time is extremely important to me, as I know it is important to many of you. I suppose that I did go a bit overboard, now looking back, while I was in college when I used to schedule every fifteen minute segment of my week. Sometimes I told my girlfriend (now my wife) that I could fit in a fifteen minute conversation with her on the day after tomorrow in the late afternoon. 

For the next several Sundays I plan to consider segments of time, specifically the periods of an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, and finally the longest period of time, eternity. I will refrain from offering advice on time management, as you heard, I have been known to be somewhat obsessive compulsive when it comes to managing time. Over the past few weeks I have become curious to learn what the Bible says about time. For the next few Sundays I plan to offer some ways that we might learn from the Bible and our Christian tradition in hopes of changing, for the better, our use of time. 

We start with the time span of an hour. We define an hour as one of 24 equal parts in a day, making one hour last approximately 3,560 seconds. In ancient times an hour was defined differently. An hour was 1/12thof the period of sunlight in a day. The twelve parts of any given day were equal in length, but since, as we know, the length of a day can vary from season to season, the length of an hour in the summer was different from the length of an hour in the winter. For the period between sunrise and sunset in the summer is much longer than the period between sunrise and sunset in the winter. On any given day each of the twelve hours would be equal in duration, but an hour in July would be much longer than an hour in February. 

For ordinary people that variation between the length of an hour in different seasons did not make much difference. People woke up at sunrise and went to bed after sunset. There was no need to be consistent about a specific time in the course of a day’s tasks. One could wash the floor at the fifth hour or ninth hour. Which hour you chose to perform the chore did not matter. 

But for Catholic monks in Europe during the Middle Ages this variation in the length of hours from season to season caused problems. Benedictine monks were committed to pray at specific hours for specific lengths of time in the course of every day. If from day to day the location and duration of an hour changed, they could not observe a sense of order or maintain standards for their adherents in nearby towns. The monks engineered a machine that would control the ringing of their bells to designate the standardized times for calling Christian people to prayer. The Latin word for bells was clocca, so the machine for keeping time by ringing the bells on the designated hours was called a clock

Town officials became so impressed with the monks' reliable timepiece that they mounted clocks on towers in the middle of the towns. The clocks became the timekeepers for life in a village. Gradually shop owners, merchants, factory owners, and storekeepers took advantage of the monks’ invention for their business purposes. Clocks called people to work on time and to stay at work until closing time. The clock, which was originally invented in order to remind people to pay attention to God, eventually became a tool for reminding people to pay attention to their jobs. Efficiency and productivity supplanted mindfulness and prayer. 

As I mentioned, long before the monks engineered clocks to strike the 24 hours in a day, back in ancient times, one meaning of an hour was 1/12thof the period of sunlight in a day. People living in Bible times could refer to the first hour of the day, meaning sunrise, or the sixth hour of the day, meaning noontime, or the twelfth hour of the day, meaning sunset. More often those living in Bible times used the word hour in another sense. Besides using an hour to make the length of time, they used the word hourto mark a fitting time, an appropriate time for certain actions. 

There was an appropriate hour for milking the goats. A right hour for eating supper.  A proper hour for cleaning the house. Cleaning the house did not necessarily last for 60 minutes, what we call one hour.  The hour for house cleaning simply meant it was the fitting time to do it, not that it took 60 minutes to finish. 

         We use a similar meaning for the word hour when businesses refer to the “happy hour” after work, which hour at some bars may last as long as 90 minutes or more. (Vita Hamilton used to refer to our custom of serving refreshments after worship as the church’s “happy hour,” which in our case also does not last for precisely sixty minutes.) Every spring this congregation solicits funds for the One Great Hour of Sharing. Our fundraising does not last solely for 60 minutes, but we collect during all seven weeks of Lent.     

Often in the Bible, an hour means the right time for something to occur, whether it lasts 60 minutes or not. For example, sprinkled throughout the Gospel on John, there are about a dozen references to Jesus’ hour. When his mother urges him to change water into wine at a wedding reception, he initially declines, saying “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). When a mob tries to arrest him, the plot fizzles because “his hour has not yet come” (John 7:30, 8:20). Finally at the end of his life, when he enters the city at the head of a ticker tape parade, he says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). At the Last Supper, he is aware that the hour has come for him to pass from this world to his heavenly Father (John 13:1). In his final prayer, he declares that, because his hour has come, he will be glorified (John 17:1). 

Jesus is using the word hourto cover more than a 60 minute period toward the end of his life. His hour includes his crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and return to the Father. His hour covered several days. His hour was the occasion when he did what is fitting, when he did what God planned for him to do. 

In a similar sense Winston Churchill used the word hourin his famous speech (June 18, 1940) when the collapse of France was imminent and the Battle of Britain was about to begin: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Commonwealth and its Empire lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

What marked their finest hour was not the duration of sixty minutes, for the Battle of Britain lasted much longer than that. What marked their finest hour was sacrificially fulfilling their duty to defend home and country. 

Likewise, in the Bible an hour referred to more than a period of sixty minutes, it referred to the fulfillment of God’s purpose for that person at that time. 

This definition for an hour prompts me to recalibrate what we mean by keeping time. Our question is commonly: “What time is it?” “How many minutes are left before the movie starts?” “Have I got time to stop at Starbucks for a cup of coffee before catching the train?”  “How long does it take for this computer to boot up?” “Isn’t it time for Jeopardy yet?” 

We are like the bus driver who told his passengers, “I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that we took a wrong turn and are on the wrong road. But don’t worry, the good news is that we are making great time.” 

For us the going itself, the race in time, is its own reward regardless of where it takes us. Time terrifies us, because there is not enough of it. We want more time. We want to pour a gallon of living into a quart of time. 

The perspective in the Bible about time differs from my perspective. I am obsessed with keeping track of what time it is. I am obsessed with how much I can fit in. The Bible challenges me to consider a different question: What is the time for? The Bible offers little to no advice about being productive; it gives much more attention to being purposeful. What is the time for? 

What time is for is a lot more than what you probably expect me as a pastor to say. As you expect I wholeheartedly affirm that surely some time is for worship, for paying attention to God, for regular prayer and reflection on Scripture. Surely to ignore time for connecting with the Lord puts one on the wrong road traveling at break neck speed. But you surely are not the ones to need to hear that message, since you are here, making this time for honoring the Lord. 

You need to hear a mantra that I learned from one of my college roommates. In the throes of pressing assignments and demanding projects, he repeated over and over, “There is always time to do God’s will.  There is always time to do God’s will.” 

There is time to do God’s will in part because what God wants us to do is more encompassing and more time consuming that what we do on Sundays here. Recall what we heard earlier from the Preacher who published under the pen name Ecclesiastes:

“There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh…(3:1-10).” 

There is a time for everything God wants us to do, because God sees importance and takes delight in everything we do that promotes God’s intentions from the moment of our birth to the hour of our death. We have time to do God’s will, because sometimes God wants us to work and other times to play, sometimes to eat and other times to sleep, sometimes to change the dirty diapers and other times to walk the dog, sometimes to clean the kitchen floor and other times to counsel the neighbor’s kid on applying to college. 

There is no time in our day that is outside God’s concern, although there are sadly many times that are outside God’s approval. When we do what is right and just and loving we are promoting God’s agenda. We can do that any time. 

LAUGHING AT EASTER

Ecclesiastes 3:4

 

         An atheist scientist came to God and said, “We’ve figured out how to make a human being without you.”

         God said, “OK, let me see you do it.”

         So the atheist bent down to the ground and scooped up a handful of dirt. But before he went any further, God stopped him and said, “Oh, no you don’t. Get your own dirt.” 

         The satirist H. L. Mencken once defined God our Creator as a comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh. This morning I want to dispel that fear from laughing at God’s jokes. The great sage who wrote that memorable poem in Ecclesiastes 3:4 reminds us that there is a time for being serious and also a time for laughing. Today is a time for laughing. 

         A young boy told his Sunday School teacher: “When you die, God takes care of you like your parents did when you are alive, only God doesn’t yell at you all the time.”

         “Where is God?” the priest asked a class of preschoolers. One of the little girls became so upset they had to find her mother to calm her down. She explained to her mother, amid many tears, “They can’t find God and I know they’re going to blame me!”

         Laughing and telling jokes at Easter time is an old and wonderful tradition. In the early days of Protestantism, ministers traditionally began their Easter sermons with a joke. In some Greek Orthodox churches, members gather on the Monday after Easter for the purpose of trading jokes. In past centuries, in some Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant countries, Christians gathered for the week after Easter to celebrate at parties and picnics. The faithful played practical jokes on each other, chased each other around their sanctuaries, drenching each other with water, and then they sang, dined, and danced.       

         Christians joked, danced, and laughed to celebrate that Jesus had risen on Easter. The “Easter laugh,” as some ancient Christian teachers called it, was to celebrate Easter as God’s supreme joke played on that demonic enemy, death. The enemy thought he had the upper hand, thought he had done away with God’s Son once and for all, had locked him up in the tomb, and was free from God looking over his shoulder, when God pulled off the biggest “practical joke.” He sprang Jesus from the tomb. Early theologians such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom, called it the Risus pascalis, the Easter laugh: God laughing. 

         A woman goes to his doctor, worried about her husband’s temper. 

         The doctor asks, “What is the problem?”

         The woman answers: “Doctor, I don’t know what to do. 

Every day my husband seems to lose his temper for no reason. It’s starting to scare me.”

         The doctor says, “I have a cure for that. When it seems that your husband is getting angry, just take a glass of water and start swishing it in your mouth. Just swish and swish but don’t swallow it until he either leaves the room or calms down.”

         Two weeks later the wife comes back to the doctor looking refreshed and reborn.

         The woman says, “Thanks Doctor, that was a brilliant idea. Every time my husband started losing it, I swished with water. I swished and swished and he calmed down. How does a glass of water do that?”

         The doctor replied, “The water itself does nothing. It’s keeping one’s mouth closed that does the trick.” 

         The British essayist G. K. Chesterton wisely noted, with his own sense of dry humor tossed in, that “life is serious all the time, but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in your neckties, but in anything important (such as sex, death, and religion), you must have mirth or you will have madness.” He could have added that mirth and laughter keep us from succumbing in madness to misery. For as the cartoon character Roger Rabbit once said, “Sometimes a laugh is the only weapon we have.” 

         Marital relationships can be a lot like algebra equations. Have you ever looked at your X and wondered Y?

         They say “money talks”…but all mine ever says is “good-bye.” 

         Laughter is as much a part of the gospel as anything we preach. For laughter makes life livable for it awakens a sense, even if only fleeting, that God’s goodness is greater than our problems. Our laughter at Eastertime is a muted echo of Christ’s uproarious laughter when he rose from the grave. Defying the grave then and defying our gravity now, Jesus enjoys a good laugh. 

Laughing came naturally to Jesus. For Jesus knew how to tell a good joke. Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jack Benny, and Billy Crystal were not the first Jewish comedians. Jesus told jokes years before they did. Did you ever hear the joke Jesus told (Matt. 7:34) about a fellow who tried to take a speck out of his friend’s eye while peering through a 2x4 stuck in his own? Or did you hear the joke Jesus told (Matt. 7:6) about a woman tossing a pearl string necklace in the trash for pigs to trample on? 

Or (Matt. 19:24) a farce as outlandish as threading a herd of camels through the eye of a sewing needle? Or, if you think smoking in bed is inviting trouble, then what kind of fool (Mark 4:21) puts a lighted candle under a bed, then lies down to take a nap? What absent-minded waiter (Matt. 23:25) will carefully wash the outside of a used filthy coffee cup and then, without washing the inside, drink from the cup? Or, can you imagine the absurdity of (Matt. 15:14) a blind seeing-eye dog leading a blind person? 

         Jesus told these ridiculous jokes in part because he couldn’t help laughing at the ridiculous behavior of some people, and in part because he wanted people to laugh at themselves and come to their senses. At times, Jesus probably did not know whether to laugh or cry at the stupidity of people. They were so serious about God that they could not see their human comedy or laugh at themselves. 

The pastor’s family was invited to Easter dinner at the Almond’s house. Mrs. Almond was widely known for the delicious dishes she brought to church potluck dinners. Everyone was seated around the table as the food was being served. As usual, it was a feast for the eyes and the palate.

Then the pastor’s youngest son, Peter, received his plate and he started eating straight away.

“Peter, wait until we say grace,” insisted his father who was quite embarrassed.”

“I don’t have to,” the five year old replied.

“Of course you do, Peter,” his mother insisted rather forcefully. “We always say a prayer before eating at our house.

“That’s at our house,” Peter explained, “but this is Mrs. Almond’s house and she knows how to cook.” 

Taking ourselves, our image, and especially our faults too seriously is the work of the devil, not the work of God. The Sioux Indians have a very wise saying. According to their tradition, the first thing people say after dying is “Why was I so serious?”

People need levity lest we take ourselves too seriously. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. The devil, however, fell by force of gravity.” The devil took himself so seriously that the gravity of his self-importance brought him down from heaven into the confines of earth. Defying the grave on Easter and defying our gravity now, Jesus enjoys a good laugh.

         The young couple invited their elderly pastor for Sunday dinner. While they were in the kitchen preparing the meal, the minister asked their son what they were having. “Goat,” the little boy replied.

         “Goat?” replied the startled pastor. “Are you sure about that?”

         “Yes,” said the boy. ‘On the drive home back from church I heard Mommy say to Dad, ‘Remember, dear, we’re having the old goat for dinner tonight.”  

In our effort to uphold the serious side of religion, we have shortchanged our Christian faith, God, and the Bible. We are wrong to exclude from Christianity strains of humor, laughter, and mirth. These are traces of God’s presence. The American novelist Frederick Buechner traces his initial commitment to Christ to a sermon in which George Buttrick, a famous preacher proclaimed that Christ is crowned in the hearts of believers “among confession and tears and great laughter.” It was that final phrase “great laughter” that caught Buechner’s attention and stirred him to pursue Christ.

Religion that is void of laughter is hardly worth pursuing. Genuine religion is intended to lift you up, not drag you down. To help you take yourself more lightly, not more seriously. The devil is the expert at dragging people down. The devil is great at making you feel miserable, about yourself, about life, about your past. The devil is great at making everything deadly serious. 

On the other hand, God wants to lift us up. Laughing lifts us up now and in more ways yet to come. For laughter is an echo of heaven. No levity can last in hell, but there will be endless laughter in heaven.

The Italian poet Alighieri Dante described in The Divine Comedya journey in the afterlife, from the depths of hell up to the gates of heaven. Dante, a brilliant poet, majestically described the ascent, but as he approached the presence of God in heaven, words failed him. As he came closer and closer, he heard a sound he had not heard before during his journey. Pausing, he listened. “Me sembiana un riso del universo,” he writes. It sounds “like the laughter of the universe.” God’s ever-laughing life. That may account for an old church tradition that claims Lazarus laughed heartily for years after Jesus raised him from the dead. That is why Lazarus’ home in Bethany in the Holy Land is called “The House of Laughter.”

An inexperienced pastor was to hold a graveside burial service at the pauper’s cemetery for an indigent man who had no friends or family. Not knowing where the cemetery was, the minister made several wrong turns and got lost. When he eventually arrived an hour late, the hearse was nowhere in sight, the backhoe was next to the open hole, and the workmen were sitting under a tree eating lunch.

The diligent pastor went to the open grave and found the vault lid already in place. Feeling guilty because of his tardiness, he preached an impassioned and lengthy service, sending the deceased to the great beyond in style.

As he returned to his car, he overheard one of the workman say to the other, “I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years and I ain’t never seen anything like that.”  

         “The children were lined up in the cafeteria of a Catholic elementary school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large tray of apples. A nun lettered a sign and posted it on the apple tray: “Take only ONE. God is watching.”

         Moving along the lunch line, at the other end was a large tray of chocolate chip cookies. A girl wrote a note, which she put next to the tray of cookies: “Take all you want. God is watching the apples.”  

         As I mentioned earlier, the satirist H. L. Mencken once defined God our Creator as a comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh. I hope that today you are less afraid to laugh at life and at ourselves.

         The new pastor stood at the church door greeting the members as they left his initial Sunday morning worship service. Most of the people were very generous with their praise telling the new minister how much they liked his sermon, except for one man who said, “The sermon was very dull and boring.”

         A few minutes later the man appeared again, this time muttering, “You really blew it. You didn’t have anything worthwhile to say.”

         A third time the same man appeared in line and said, “I don’t think you did much preparation for that message.”

         Finally the pastor could stand it no longer. He went to one of the deacons and asked about the man who repeatedly criticized his sermon.

         “Oh, don’t let that guy bother you,” said the deacon. “He is a little slow thinking. All he does is go around repeating whatever he hears other people saying.” 

Let us pray: 

“Jesus, I believe you laughed as Mary bathed you and Joseph tickled your toes. I believe you giggled as you and other children played your childhood games and when you went to the Temple and astounded the teachers. I believe you chuckled as all children chuckle when they stump adults. And surely there were moments of merriment as you and your disciples deepened your relationship. And as you and Mary and Martha greeted Lazarus from his tomb, laughter must have been mirrored on your faces. Jesus, I know you wept and anguished. But I believe you laughed, too. Create in us the life of laughter and joy, which can only come from the one true God.” (Based on a prayer by Lois Morgan, printed in Cal and Rose Samra, Holy Humor (Guideposts, 1996) p. 238-239)

SEE THIS SCAR? LET ME TELL YOU THE STORY

John 20:24-31

 

If scars could speak, they could tell some memorable stories. Some stories would be humorous, others deadly serious. Some would be frightening, others funny. 

Let me tell you a story about a small scar on Blaine's left hand, which happened nearly thirty years ago. At that time Lisa and Blaine lived in a small trailer. By small, I mean it was eight feet wide and thirty-two feet long. At that time Lisa was very pregnant. Their first child, whom you know to be Ruth, was due to be born very soon. 

Unfortunately, some water pipes in the trailer were broken, so they had no water until the plumber could come to fix them. Fortunately they planned to go away for a few days to enjoy a short vacation on Cape Cod, where they could cook and bathe. For the time being they did not want to dirty any dishes or pans, so they ate whatever leftovers they could find in the cupboards, mostly candy bars and fruit. Not much for the final weeks of her pregnancy, but fortunately they would soon be on the road to Cape Cod where they could prepare a healthy meal and enjoy some peace and quiet. 

Unfortunately Blaine decided at the last minute to stake up a few tomato plants in their small garden. He had invested much time over the summer tending the plants that he did not want to see flop to the ground while he and Lisa were away. So he trotted off to the garden with his trusty saw, or should I say rusty saw, to cut a few tree branches in order to stake up the plants burgeoning with luscious tomatoes. 

Blaine proceeded to cut a few branches, firmly grasping each with his left hand while sawing mightily with his right. Meanwhile Lisa waited so patiently in the trailer, putting up with her husband’s last minute obsession to protect his tender tomato plants. After a few minutes Lisa was startled to hear her husband’s voice outside the trailer saying ever so calmly, “Don’t worry, dear, I am all right. Just call the hospital and tell them you are bringing me so the doctor can stitch up my hand.”  

This scar can tell a story, about being overly compulsive and underly cautious. Scars can tell stories. Some are funny, others are frightening. Some stories about scars recount painful wounds, other stories recount miraculous healings. 

The Gospel of John recounts a story about scars, the scars Jesus had after his death and resurrection. As you heard earlier from John 20:24-31, Thomas was feeling left out. He had missed seeing the resurrected Jesus. The only thing the other disciples could talk about was how they had seen Jesus, how Jesus had come back from the dead, how he walked through closed doors. Thomas, on top of feeling left out, was becoming tired of all this endless, hyped-up chatter about Jesus’ ghost walking through walls. Finally, he blurted out, “You have all gone loony. You are all hallucinating.  Unless I see and touch Jesus’ scars for myself, I won’t believe a word you are telling me.”

  For the next week Thomas held fast to his ultimatum in spite of how fervently the other disciples tried to convince him that Jesus was alive again. Once Thomas had started pouting about being left out, he could not save face if he changed his mind to fit in with his friends. By the end of the week, Thomas and the other disciples were barely on speaking terms, until Jesus showed up. 

Thomas and the others were just hanging around, when suddenly — poof — there stood Jesus in the middle of the room. The other disciples were ecstatic. They were ready to taunt Thomas by saying, “We told you so,” when Jesus held up his hand and signaled for them to hold their tongues.

Catching the other disciples glaring at Thomas, Jesus quickly said to the bunch, “Let bygones be bygones. Let’s put it to rest and be at peace.” 

Then Jesus turned to face the dumbfounded Thomas. “If you can’t believe I am really the same person, look at these scars on my hands where they put in the nails.” Then, pulling aside his tunic, Jesus added: “If those scars aren’t enough proof, look at my side where they lanced me. Now that you have seen for yourself, who do you think I am?" 

In shock, Thomas gasped, “Oh, my God!“ Then in the next breath, he grasped the truth in what he had exclaimed. He couldn’t stop repeating himself, but this time instead of dismay, he made his famous confession, “My God and my Lord!” 

Quick as a wink, Thomas changed his mind about Jesus, from doubting he was even alive to believing he was divine. Well, actually, the change did not come as suddenly as that. Thomas had struggled over not believing or believing in the resurrection for seven days. The final result came quickly, but the process had taken time. The difference came when he saw the scars. Scars tell stories. In this case, a story that persuaded Thomas to believe Jesus, to believe Jesus was divine, to believe Jesus was hisLord, hisGod. 

Scars always have stories to tell: stories about how the scars came to be and stories about showing the scars; stories about hurts and stories about healings. I wonder what stories Jesus told Thomas about his scars. I wonder what stories Thomas later told. So many stories came from those scars. 

One aspect of this whole story that puzzles me is why Jesus still had any scars. When I imagine what a resurrected body will look like, I anticipate perfection. No more aches and pains. No more high blood pressure and diabetes. No more glaucoma and arthritis.  Instead pure and total perfection. Absolute health. The prophetic vision in Revelation 21:4 predicts that among the resurrected millions eventually enjoying heaven’s bliss, there will be no more mourning or crying or pain. 

If resurrected bodies will enjoy blissful perfection, why did Jesus’ resurrected body still show holes, show scars? Once God did the hard job--resurrecting Jesus from the grave--a complete makeover, including patching up a few holes, would seem easy, small change. Why did God not produce a few layers of fresh wrinkle free skin after restoring a whole life? 

Evidently God did not simply leave the job unfinished. God did not absentmindedly overlook a few details. Presumably God had a reason. Maybe God kept the holes and scars simply to convince doubting Thomas. Maybe Thomas needed tangible proof that the Jesus brought back to life was the same Jesus he had known for three years prior. Maybe, the scars were solely for Thomas’ benefit. 

But that seems a drastic step when all that may have been necessary to convince Thomas was better timing. Jesus could have simply timed his first appearance after the resurrection to the disciples when all, including Thomas, were present, not while Thomas was absent so he might later take a stand on feeling left out. 

Maybe there were other reasons for keeping and showing the scars. Maybe more was intended than to benefit only Thomas. Maybe keeping the scars was intended to benefit more than those who actually saw the scars. Maybe it was intended for those who heard and still hear the story about those scars. For scars have the power to tell stories for as long as the scars last.  

Edward Shillito was an English minister who served in World War I. He wrote a poem entitled “Jesus of the Scars.” In the form of a poem he actually told a story, his story about those scars. Rather than read his entire poem, I will take the liberty to update his poem into modern words to tell you the story.

 

If we have never sought you before, we seek you now;

Your eyes burn through the dark; they are our only stars.

We must have sight of the thorn-pricks on your brow,

We must have you, oh Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;

In the entire universe we have no place.

Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?

Lord Jesus, by your scars, we claim your grace.

If, when the doors are shut, to us you draw near, 

Only reveal those hands and that side of yours;

We know today what wounds are, have no fear,

Show us your scars, we know the horrors.

The other gods were strong, but you were weak.

They rode aloft, but you stumbled to a throne;

But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,

And not a god has wounds, but you alone. 

 

As we heard the Gospel writer John tell the story, somehow seeing Jesus' wounds and scars brought Thomas to believe Jesus was God and Lord. He became convinced Jesus was divine upon seeing those wounds and scars. 

As we heard Edward Shillito tell his story, somehow recounting Jesus’ wounds spoke to Edward Shillito’s wounds. He sensed that a wounded God could speak to his wounds. As long as Jesus has scars, he can still identify with my hurts. As long as Jesus has scars, he can exhibit eventual healing for my wounds. Since Jesus still has scars from wounds, you and I, who are wounded in so many ways, can relate to God. 

Some people find it difficult to believe Jesus was on par with God. It is reasonably easy to believe that he was an exemplary teacher, a great sage, and a profound moralist. But the idea that Jesus was God in a human body, that is hard for many to accept. 

I gather that part of the difficulty comes because they cannot match up what they see in Jesus with what they know about God. Or, maybe the difficulty comes from the other direction. Maybe they cannot match up what they know already about God with what they see in Jesus. 

If you picture God as residing way off in space, distant from us, then it is hard to match up such a God with Jesus. Jesus was too hands-on, too down-to-earth, too much like us. 

If you picture God as immensely strong and powerful, shrinking massive forces into whirling electrons and neutrons, then it is hard to match up such a God with Jesus. Jesus cried when he saw friends hurt. He bled when foes hurt him. 

On the other hand, what if, instead of starting with what we picture God to be like and see if Jesus matches up, what if we start with what Jesus was like and see how God matches up? What if we start with the story that Jesus bore scars from wounds like ours? Then what does God look like? 

Then God looks like someone eager to be close to us, devoted enough to share pain with us, and still strong enough to bring healing for us.  If one day God shared in our wounds, then one day we can share in God’s healing. Jesus still has the scars to show what God intends. Jesus did not need to keep the scars, unless maybe he wanted us to hear the story over and over. 

IMMORTAL COMBAT

Ephesians 6:10-20

 

       A Presbyterian pastor from a fashionable suburb on Long Island described his parish as follows: “When I talk to my people, they talk about themselves as if they are under assault. It is as if they are in a kind of war. Here are people who have got the tools, skills, education, and intelligence to compete well in American culture. But when you talk to them about their children, their marriages, their jobs, it’s like talking to people in combat. They tell me, in so many words, that their [communities’] values have broken down and they don’t know what to do about it.They come to church, not because it’s the ‘thing to do’... They come to church out of desperation.”

       We expect people to take desperate defensive measures in lock down drills, in terrorist raids, in shoot-outs. When people are under attack, they resort to extreme measures. In an instant, they fall prone onto muddy ground. They burrow into foxholes. They huddle in shelters. They pile rubble into barricades. They position their bodies as human shields to protect children against bullets. 

       People under attack take desperate measures to defend themselves, but some of us may not appreciate that for some followers of Jesus coming to worship is a genuinely desperate act. We are especially surprised to hear that such Christians live across Long Island Sound. We expect Christians who are persecuted for their faith in countries such as Sudan, Iran, or Libya, to come to church out of desperation for refuge, but we hardly expect Christians on Long Island to describe their church attendance as a desperate act. 

       We may not sense how desperate their behavior is because we do not realize how much they sense they are under attack. We may not sense how desperately vital coming to worship is because we do not realize how much we are under attack. 

We mistakenly think that being a Christian means being nice. That mentality accounts for why one person proposed, in jest, omitting a long-standing Prayer for Enemies from new editions of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The prayer reads:

"O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

The person proposed omitting the prayer because, “Episcopalians are now so nice that we no longer make enemies.” We could as easily say the same about members of the United Church of Christ, or Presbyterians or Methodists.

For good reasons this room is called a sanctuary. It is a safe haven from the battle, a refuge from the struggles against injustice, violence, and deceit that threaten some of us at work, some at home, some in our own psyches. This is a place for Christians, who like those anonymous Christians on Long Island, are desperate enough to want God to defend them and dispirited enough to need God to inspire them.   

       For those besieged Christians on Long Island, being part of a church is not a leisurely Sunday morning alternative activity when they have nothing more pressing to do, but a struggle to keep one’s head together and one’s heart in tune with God. Sounding quite similar to those Christians on Long Island, the apostle Paul described what it meant to be a Christian in terms of a fight, in terms of a battle.

At the conclusion of his letter to the Christians in Ephesus, Paul challenged Christians to prepare for battle: “Put on the whole armor of God" Paul wrote, "for we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against...the spiritual hosts of wickedness...therefore...gird your waist with truth...put on the breastplate of righteousness...shod your feet with the gospel of peace...take the shield of faith...the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit.” (Ephesians 6:10-20)

Followers of Jesus are to be on alert, on guard, to resist the crafty tactics of all wicked powers, not only at large in the world, but also alive and well in your office and streaming live on our television sets. Christians are to arm for a fight as thoroughly as an ancient Roman infantry soldier was geared for combat. A leather belt or apron, akin to what weightlifters wear, braced the soldier for action. A metal breastplate protected the soldier’s chest and vital organs from injury. Proper footwear enabled one to march quickly or stand firm. A large shield made of wood with a thick coating of leather offered protection, even against archers’ burning arrows. A bronze helmet shielded the soldier’s head. A short sword was a vital weapon in hand-to-hand combat. These pieces of armor were largely needed for defending one's self, not for attacking. 

       The challenge for the Christian was, and is still, not chiefly to press forward, attack and kill, but to stand, to hold one’s ground against the assault of the enemy. These military weapons God dispensed were notintended for Christians to crusade against the Muslims, or stage Inquisitions against the Jews. The weapons that were dispensed by God are for defense, not against human foes with assault rifles and suicide bombs, but against spiritual foes that threaten to undo us and overthrow all that Jesus achieved. 

       We may not be familiar with the terrors and scenes of such immortal combat, but the early Christians in Ephesus knew such threats firsthand. The city was the chief cultic site for the worship of Artemis, the goddess of the underworld who was extolled as the supreme cosmic power able to raise the dead, to heal the sick, and to safeguard regional security. The region was also the center for numerous astrological and magical practices.

       Common people had an extraordinary fear of these hostile “spiritual" powers. Local astrologists, mediums, and magicians offered relief from the oppression of invisible, evil “spirits” by securing contact with departed spirits or haunting ghosts. When people decided to follow Jesus, they faced a dilemma. Was Jesus strong enough to protect them without resorting to the deep, dark magical powers? Is Jesus still strong enough to protect us without resorting to drugs, or drink, or dropping out? 

       Paul considered the consultation of mediums and any forms of spirits to be an affront, an insult to Christ. To ward off the spirits one did not need magic, instead one needed virtues, or armor, in keeping with God’s character, in keeping with truth, peace, and faithfulness.

       Christians at Ephesus realized that they were in for a fight as long as they sought to live out God’s values in their society. The culture around them was not compatible with their newfound Christian convictions. Their culture promoted indulgence, greed, cheating, violence, and lust. The society around them sounds much like ours. Paul warned the Christians in Ephesus not to go out on the streets unarmed. It is tough out there. 

       William Willimon, while chaplain of Duke University, was invited to preach at an inner city congregation. The congregation was entirely Afro-Americans who lived in tenement houses within a few blocks of the church. Willimon arrived at eleven o’clock, expecting to participate in about an hour worship service. Before the preaching, there were six hymns and numerous gospel songs, a great deal of hand clapping, testifying, and praying. He did not mount the pulpit to preach until nearly twelve-thirty. The service did not end until nearly one hour later.

       “Why do these people stay in church so long?” Willimon later asked his friend. “Worship in my home church never lasts much more than one hour.” 

       The pastor smiled. Then he explained. “Unemployment runs nearly fifty percent here. For our youth, the unemployment rate is much higher. That means that, when our people go about during the week, everything they see, everything they hear tells them, ‘You are a failure. You are nobody. You are nothing because you do not have a good job, you do not have a fine car, you have no money.’” 

       “So I must gather them here, once a week, and get their heads straight. I get them together, here in the sanctuary, and through the hymns, the prayers, the preaching I say 'That is a lie. You are somebody. You are royalty! God has bought you with a price and loves you as his Chosen People'” 

       “It takes me so long to get them straight in here because the world out there perverts them so terribly."

       Genuine followers of Jesus--whether in the ancient city of Ephesus or in suburban Long Island, whether in Stamford or in Bridgeport--genuine Christians are under attack. The assault is recurrent, calling into question integrity, sobriety, loyalty, and even sanity. The accusations, whether spoken aloud in our faces or quietly in our hearts, tell us, “You are a failure. You are a nobody. Your life, your family, your reputation, is a shambles. You ought to be ashamed. And you dare call yourself a Christian?” 

       When the hurts and hurries we carry crowd out Christ, the world around us is winning the war. Sadly, we don’t even realize sometimes that we are in danger. 

The forces behind these lies have declared war on Christ and his ways. Why else would they have been so angry with him that they killed him? Because he was such a nice guy? Or because he was such a threat? This war continues, sometimes in ways so subtle that we do not know we are losing until the battle is over. Even worse, sometimes we do not even notice that we are at war.

For those desperate for a safe haven from the battle out there, there is a sanctuary in here. Here is a compelling reason to come to church, not because it is the thing to do, nor because there is nothing better to do on Sunday morning. Come to church out of desperation, desperately needing a higher power to shield and defend you before going back out into the fray. Why else do you think they call this room a sanctuary? 

Watch out when you go out there! Get ready for a fight. 

BEGINS AT HOME

I Kings 1:1-14

As the old saying goes, “Charity begins at home.” In other words, helping others begins at home. We have a God-given duty to nurture the relationship with our spouse, to raise our children, to take care of our brothers and sisters, to provide for our elderly parents. Charity begins at home. If we are serious about following God’s command to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” then the closest neighbors are the persons in our immediate family. Loving our neighbor begins at home. 

The opposite is also true. Hurting begins at home. This certainly is true in homes where a child is beaten or a spouse is abused. But even in wholesome families, hurting begins at home. For rarely do wordshurt as often as they do in homes. Insults, ridicule, snubs, and affronts leave long lasting hidden bruises. Family members, particularly parents, wield tremendous power to hurt their children with words. 

No self-respecting parents want to hurt their children. We want the best for our children, our grandchildren. We want to protect, nurture, and cherish them. Yet, what honest parent can say that he or she has never in an outburst of anger made a demeaning remark to a child? “Why don’t you get grades as good as your brother?” “Can’t you get through one meal without spilling something?” “Look! All the cute girls in your class picture have dimples. It’s too bad you don’t have any.” 

We grown-ups know well the lasting power of words because 30, 50, even 60 years after the event, we can quickly recall wounds that our parents’ insensitive words inflicted on us. Those painful words are on instant replay in our memories. Those painful words hurt again and again. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow correctly observed: “A torn jacket is soon mended, but hard words bruise the heart of a child.”

Words have tremendous power, power to bruise. Hard words, such as gossip, slander, insults, lying can hurt children for a lifetime. But words also have tremendous power to help them. 

A young mother confessed to her pastor an experience in which she learned the power of words upon her child. Because she was frustrated with her son’s frequent misbehavior, she scolded him repeatedly. But one day the boy had clearly shown effort to be cooperative. That night, after she tucked the boy into bed and started downstairs, she heard her son crying. She went back into his room and found his head buried in the pillows. Between sobs he asked, “Mommy, haven’t I been a pretty good boy today?”

“The question went through me like a knife,” the mother said. “I had been quick to correct him when wrong, but when he had behaved, I hadn’t noticed. I had put him to bed without a word of praise.”

A word of praise from a parent has great power on children, even on middle-aged children. A word of praise from a parent has incalculable power. There is an old-fashioned formula for parenting that says parents are supposed to be “heavy on criticism and light on praise.” Whoever coined that formula never asked his or her children what they thought about it. For children, like adults, benefit most from a balanced diet, a balance of criticism and praise.

 Hiam Ginott advises mothers and fathers: “If you want your children to improve, let them overhear the nice thingsyou say about them.” What was the last nice thing your child overheard you say about her or about him? Including your children who now have children of their own?

Ninety years ago John B. Watson was one of the first psychological experts to publish a book on parenting. His book, published in 1928, was entitled Psychological Care of Infant and Child. In his best-selling book on how to parent, he offered a “foolproof” method of child rearing. He guaranteed that, if parents followed his advice, they could produce any kind of child they wanted...”a doctor, lawyer, artist, a merchant-chief.”

Watson’s approach became a popular style of parenting during the 1930s and 40s. Although your parents or grandparents may have never read Watson’s book, they lived in the era that endorsed and reflected his views. I presume that his book was popular because so many people already agreed with his approach. He informed parents that, if they wanted the best results, they should show little to no affection toward their children. He wrote:

“Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning...”

“Remember when you are tempted to pet your child, that mother love is a dangerous instrument. An instrument which may inflict a never-healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter’s vocational future and their chances for marital happiness.”[1]

Some of us were children in homes where Watson’s advice was the rule of thumb. My parents grew up in that type of upbringing. Words of affection for children, words of endearment were not to be spoken. Somehow love was to be understood but never explicitly stated. For a parent to hug and say to a child “I love you” was taboo. 

What was the result of Watson's expert advice on a generation of children? Maybe I should ask some of you who grew up in such an atmosphere. My impression is that many children became adults who sensed they were unworthy of being loved. Some of us still feel that way well into adulthood and middle age.

The wrong kinds of words spoken have the power to hurt, and the right kind of words when notspoken also have the power to hurt. I cannot verify the historicity of the following story, it may only be a made-up story, but it states a truth even if it did not actually happen. 

 King Frederick II conducted an experiment with fifty infants. He wanted to see what language infants would speak if they never had the opportunity to hear a spoken word. To carry out his experiment, he assigned foster mothers to bathe and nurse the infants, but did not allow them to fondle or talk to the babies. No displays of affection were permitted. The observers waited for months to see what words the children would speak instinctively. By the end, the experiment failed dramatically. All fifty infants died. Without words of love each child died. Through withholding words of love, children are still dying. 

To be fair, loving and congratulatory words alone are not adequate to raise a healthy child. A balanced diet is needed for a child to grow up. That apocryphal experience proved that when void of loving words, a child will wither. At the same time, void of words of correction to guide his or her behavior a child will also waste away.

In ancient Israel, King David was a powerful monarch whose word was law. David was also a heroic warrior; his rousing speeches stirred armies to fight. David was a marvelous poet; his psalms have inspired God’s people for centuries. David used words with great power, but in his own home his words were weak. 

As we heard in the story from I Kings, when David became old, too old to perform the duties of his royal office, the court discussed who would succeed David, who would become the next king. Adonijah, one of David’s sons, came up with an answer. He would become the next king. For weeks Adonijah went around the capital city, Jerusalem, boasting to all the citizens that he would become the next king.

What an arrogant disrespectful son he was! While his father is on his deathbed, Adonijan is running around town with 50 chariots parading before him, declaring himself to be his father’s successor. Instead of comforting his father on the eve of his death, Adonijah is congratulating himself on his future royal throne. 

What can account for such arrogance and disrespect? According to the Bible, David himself was to bear some of the blame. For I Kings 1:6 reads: “His father [David] had never at any time displeased him [Adonijah] by asking, ‘Why have you done thus and so?’” 

David had never confronted his son for his actions. We infer from the narrator's remark about David's parenting approach, that David should have questioned what Adonijah did, that David should have asked his son for an explanation when Adonijah did something wrong. The narrator carefully avoids suggesting that David should have criticized Adonijah’s selfish character. This distinction is not hairsplitting. This distinction is invaluable.

To find fault with what one’s child doesis not the same as finding fault with a child’s character. A wise scholar [Johann Paul Friedrich] wrote over two centuries ago: “If a child tells a lie, tell him that he has told a lie, but don’t call him a liar. If you define him as a liar, you break down his confidence in his own character.” We discipline our children (or grandchildren) when we tell them that what they are doing is wrong. We shame our children when we tell them that who they are is bad. 

I grimace whenever I hear parents reprimand their children by saying: “You are a bad boy! You are a bad girl!” When a child misbehaves, the child is not at fault for falling short in being a boy or in being a girl. They are not bad at being a boy or bad at being a girl. They are doing what is bad. They are at fault for doing something bad, not for being bad. 

 Criticizing the child’s character is to wound the child without necessarily correcting the bad behavior. My opinion is that discipline is more effective when parents say: “Son or daughter, what you did was wrong. You are not to do this because...[fill in the reason].” Even as an adult, I can handle criticism much easier when something tells me that what I did was wrong, rather than telling me that I am a fool for having done so. 

God has entrusted parents with a tremendous responsibility, namely the nurture and development of children. Children do not come with built-in self-control and generosity; both must be taught, instilled, and nurtured in children by parents. In the fulfillment of that responsibility, God has given us a great power— words. We can use the power of words to heal or to hurt our children. 

We parents and grandparents must, therefore, be careful how we use words. For according to the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:4, parents are not to exasperate their children, but raise them in the nurture and instruction of the Lord Jesus. Paul combines the two responsibilities of parenting that are so hard to balance: nurturing our children through affection while instructing them through discipline. Children need both to be held in love and to be held accountable for their actions. Probably grown ups need both as well.

Back in the days when Lisa and I were parenting two young children, I occasionally was caught off guard by overhearing my words to them. It dawned on me that most of my sentences were imperatives, telling them what to do. "Clean up that mess." "Do your homework." "Hang up your coat." Far fewer of my sentences were statements, telling them how I felt about them or appreciated them. "I am proud of how hard you worked at school." "I thank you for clearing the table." "You are gifted at music." 

It dawned on me that my words were out of balance. My words were heavy on instructing and light on nurturing. Since children need both nurturing and instructing, I needed to balance the scales. I needed more times saying "I love you," and fewer times saying, "Do your chores." 

If I had been really smart I'd have realized that the same balance applies to relationships with a spouse, friends, even parishioners. People need more than my telling them what to do; people need as much my telling them how much I care and respect and value them. I know that I need it. I guess you do too.   

 Therefore might I suggest two ways to avoid exasperating our children, our grandchildren, our spouse and our friends: first, use more words that voice praise, and second, use words for criticizing a person's actions not shaming their character.  

We grown-ups well know the power of parents’ words to hurt. May our children and grandchildren know the power of words to help.

 

[1]John B. Watson & R. R. Watson, Psychological Care of Infant and Child  (Norton & Company, 1928), pp. 81-81, 87.

DARING WOMEN

 

Exodus 1:8-2:10


Holy Moses! Where would Western Civilization be without Moses?

In all of Western Civilization, he is hailed as the great Lawgiver, the mouthpiece for God when the Lord handed down the Ten Commandments. Moses is the founder of ethics and morality in the Judeo-Christian heritage. He is the great liberator. Sent by God, Moses ordered Pharaoh, "Let my people go!" Moses has become symbolically the liberator for oppressed peoples everywhere. 

Where would world religions be without Moses?

Moses is a founding hero of three world religions. Islam recognizes Moses among its top tier of great prophets, the first messenger to predict the coming of Mohammed. Judaism cherishes Moses as Moshe Rabbenu, "Moses, our Master," the greatest of all Jewish teachers. Christianity honors Moses as the prototype of the Christ, indeed Jesus was considered by many to be a "new Moses."Where would Christians be without Moses? He is more than the hero of the Old Testament, more than the emancipator of the Hebrew people, more than the standard bearer for prophets. He is the forerunner of the Messiah, the Christ. 

Without there being a Moses, there would be no Bible story, no Messiah, no Christ, yet as you will learn today, without some remarkable women, there would have been no Moses.

The story starts long, long ago in the distant lands of the Middle East.  Eighteen hundred or so years before Jesus, Jacob’s entire clan moved from their recently acquired family homestead in Palestine down to Egypt in order to escape from catastrophic famine that threatened their livelihood and lives. At the invitation of Joseph, a son of Jacob who had been appointed to chief-of-state in Pharaoh’s cabinet, the entire family relocated and resettled in the land of Goshen.

For generations they lived in peace and enjoyed the advantages life in prosperous Egypt afforded, until a new political leader came into office, a leader who had no recollection or reason for extending gratitude toward Jacob's descendants. Instead of considering them as an ally, the new king feared them as a threat.In a top-level cabinet meeting, advisors were alarmed upon hearing the latest census estimations. The native Egyptian population was in decline, while birthrates among foreigners, especially among the Hebrews, were exploding. The Hebrew people were making up a larger and larger percentage of Egypt’s demographics.

Pharaoh voiced the fears many ordinary Egyptians felt.

"If we project the Israelite's high birth rate for the next few decades, they will soon outnumber our native citizens. That could be dangerous to the Egyptian lifestyle we have enjoyed for years, not to mention a threat to our national security. If they become more numerous than we, they could lower our standard of living, or carry the swing vote in the primaries, or even ally with our enemies to threaten our safety. We must control them,” urged Pharaoh.  “We must act quickly, without arousing any unfavorable international publicity. We need to control them.”

Pharaoh's first program was to work the Hebrews to death. Through executive order, he conscripted battalions of Israelites to become slave laborers, resettled them in work camps, and set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. The announced purpose was to construct public works projects, but the actual purpose was population control. Pharaoh set a precedent followed by latter-day taskmasters of Nazi Germany, who used similar techniques to resettle and subdue more than six million Jews during the Holocaust. The Nazis, however, succeeded where the Egyptians failed.

In spite of the rigors of enforced slave labor, the Hebrew population continued to climb. Therefore, Pharaoh took a more direct approach. He ordered the midwives who attended the births of the Hebrew babies to practice partial-birth abortions on any male Hebrew babies, while letting the female babies live. The idea of murdering babies was an acceptable method of birth control in the ancient world. The exposure and abandonment of unwanted, deformed or unhealthy infants was acceptable and widely practiced.  In most instances, however, the victims of infanticide were girls. Girls were considered to be less productive members of society, more of a drain on family assets, and thus baby girls were more expendable, whereas boys were valued. Pharaoh reversed the historical trend, possibly to impose an even more grievous infliction upon the Hebrews. 

However, some of the very midwives, whom Pharaoh recruited for killing babies, resisted Pharaoh’s orders. They practiced the first instance of civil disobedience recorded in the Bible. Two midwives proved to be so remarkable, so daring, that the Bible records their names. Shiphrah and Puah defied the order to murder male Hebrew infants.

According to the story, the reason for their act of civil disobedience was that "they feared God" (Exodus 1:17).  They refused to obey the king because they feared God more than they feared the Pharaoh. Their fear of God freed them from their fear of Pharaoh's reprisals. 

We, modern Christians, look askance at the notion that people ought to fear God. We prefer a loving and forgiving God, not one who engenders fear. But, if you had been an expectant Hebrew mother in ancient Egypt would you have wanted a midwife who feared God more or one who, even with a loving God, feared Pharaoh more? I’d prefer the God-fearing midwife. 

An ancient Jewish rabbi on his deathbed (Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai,Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 28b) said: "May your fear of God be as strong as your fear of [men] people." The rabbi was very wise. For most humans fear other people more than they fear God. You have surely noticed that when people are tempted to act immorally, they are more prone to succumb to the temptation if they sense that no other person is watching. Why else do shoplifters scan nearby before they pilfer items? People fear what observers might think or do if they are seen. But rarely, when we are on the verge of doing something wrong, are we hesitant to carry through because we sense God will observe what we do. The rabbi was wise enough to realize that if people feared God even only to the same degree that they fear other human observers, and then they would perform fewer, if any, evil actions.

The fear of God protects us.

Even Voltaire, an outspoken atheist, who himself had no fear or even regard for God, admitted that the fear of God was a means of protecting himself. He is reported to have once said, "I want my lawyer, tailor, valets, even my wife to believe in [and fear] God. I think that if they do, I shall be robbed less and cheated less."

Because those two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, feared God, they protected the lives of helpless Hebrew babies. When Pharaoh learned from his informants that his program of enforced partial-birth abortions did not stem the birth rate of males among the Hebrews, he called the two midwives for an explanation. They offered an excuse, a medical explanation. They said that when the expectant Hebrew mothers entered labor, they dropped their babies so quickly, that mother and baby were gone before the midwives could arrive to assist. The Pharaoh, who evidently had never been present in a labor and delivery room, accepted the midwives' flimsy excuse. Their excuses did not matter; he had another program, a final solution to the problem of the Hebrews.

 

Pharaoh instituted the first recorded pogrom, the first state-sponsored practice of mass murder, genocide. Pharaoh charged all the people: "Every boy that is born to the Hebrew people you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live." Exposure was in ancient times a common way of disposing of unwanted children. But Pharaoh decreed infanticide to be state policy, not for select babies that parents did not want, but for all the infants that Pharaoh did not want (Exodus 1:22). To discharge his bloody plans Pharaoh recruited every law-abiding Egyptian citizen. He authorized every Egyptian to seize and drown the Hebrews' baby boys. 

What Pharaoh never expected was that again some daring women would thwart his plans to subdue the Hebrews! One Hebrew mother defied the Pharaoh's order to expose her baby boy. When her son was born, she hid him from the Egyptian death squads for three months. She was determined that her son would not suffer the fate of so many other innocent boys. As Jonathan Kirsch, a modern biographer of Moses, wrote: "Drawing on resources of courage and ingenuity that make her seem truly heroic, she took it upon herself to defy the will of Pharaoh and deny the baby-killers at least one victim."She constructs a floating basket, seals it with tar, and then puts the child in this miniature ark onto the waters of the Nile. She hopes that the Nile, the same river that claimed the lives of so many babies, will somehow protect hers. The mother's other child, her daughter, another female, secretly watches the basket bobbing in the water.

Then, as if by design, the Pharaoh's daughter comes to bathe in the Nile. The princess sees the basket among the reeds, opens it and sees the child. Upon hearing the baby cry, she caresses him. As soon as she changes his diaper, she realizes that he is one of the lucky Hebrew baby boys still alive. From her hiding place, Moses’ older sister springs into action. Before she can tell if Pharaoh’s daughter will drown the baby in keeping with her father’s executive order, the teenage girl speaks up. She offers to find a wet nurse from among the Hebrews to nurse the crying baby. The Egyptian princess, in deliberate defiance of her father's pogrom, promptly accepts the offer to preserve the child's life. By a providential turn of events, the boy is spared, reunited with his mother and sister, while afforded all the luxuries of Egyptian elite. Luck, or to be more precise, God is on his side. The princess adopts the foster baby, whom she names Moses. Thus, in spite of the Pharaoh's bloodthirsty efforts to destroy the Hebrew people, the one who eventually defy Pharaoh, grows up in Pharaoh's own household. 

There would have been no Moses without these defiant women: the midwives, Moses’ mother, his sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter. The stories of these defiant women set the stage for the defiance Moses later showed. These women promoted life rather than death. The two midwives followed the dictates of conscience rather than comply with the king's partial-birth abortion order. The unnamed Hebrew mother and daughter protected the newborn child rather than subject him to fatal exposure. The daughter of Pharaoh was moved by compassion to guard the helpless baby from her father's evil intentions. The midwives' fear of God, the sister's quick thinking, the mother's resourcefulness, and the princess' compassion thwart the king's murderous plans. 

As I asked at the start, I asked a question: “Where would Jews, Christians, Muslims, ethics, morality, law, art of Western Civilization be without Moses?” To give credit where credit is due, the question probably should be: "Where would we be without these daring women?" Their acts of courageous civil disobedience set the stage for the rest of the story.