The Two Loves: Love Your Neighbor As Yourself

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Neighbors, am I right?

In the sleepy little neighborhood where I grew up, we had some really interesting people. Some were quiet and we hardly heard anything from them like George and Jannie across the street. Some had kids the same age as my sister and I, which created a revolving door effect in those houses (and left open doors where flies could get in and cold conditioned air or heat could get out). Most of us in the Stoneybrook subdivision got along just fine, looked out for one another, took care of each other, did the things neighbors do.

But then, there were others.

I don’t know their names, I was too young at the time, but I know they lived directly across the street from us. The mom and dad worked during the day and in the summer time that left the oldest kid in charge. That was akin to leaving a juvenile wolf in charge of a litter of pups in the middle of sheep pen. One fine summers morning, my mother was taking care of things around the house when she began to smell smoke. My sister was still crawling and I was not yet experimenting with culinary masterpieces in the kitchen so my mother began trying to track down the burning smell. She went through the house checking the laundry room, kitchen, every room that had something in it that could start a fire. It was on her way through the kitchen, walking past the back door that she saw the kid sitting on the carport. He was huddled over a pile of something, intently focused on the task at hand. The task, as it turned out to be, was that of starting a fire on our carport.

He never saw my mom until it was too late and she started screaming.

Now, I know there are people in this world whose voice carries, but mother made an art form of projecting her voice over long distances. I believe the farthest I ever got that I could hear her was somewhere between three-quarters and mile from the house. She took a deep breath and let this kid have it from about three feet away. I’m not sure how long it was before the kid recovered, but I’m fairly certain it took a while for the ringing to die down and his hearing to come back. As the kid recovered, his oldest sibling got a chance to hear the tirade and then the parents and then the sheriff and possibly social services – I can’t remember I was too young – suffice it to say, there were many people who learned that it was neither condoned nor appreciated that a grade school kid was setting fires on the carport of the Jarrell household.

We all have interesting stories I’m sure. Neighbors, as you can see and well know, come in a curious variety both good and bad. But the scripture this morning asks some necessary theological questions of us: Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to love them? What is it to love a neighbor as God loves them?

A lawyer walks up to the Son of God…

It almost sounds like the beginning of a bad joke doesn’t it: “a lawyer walks up to Jesus and he says…” While it sounds like the start of bad sermon humor, it’s in actuality, part of the core that leads us in walking the Christian way. A little side-note here, one that I will say many times, Christianity is not about punching a ticket, it’s about taking a walk. If we are faithful in our walk, we will have many moments that are incredible connecting points with God. Remember, it’s a lomg walk, not a quick moment. That said, this is not an unfamiliar story to us. Last week we read the story right up to the parable and stopped. This week, we are looking into the conversation and the parable as we try and understand what Jesus meant by ‘love your neighbor.’

First off, love your neighbor is predicated on the idea of loving God. If we cannot love the Lord our God with all our heart, being, strength, and mind, we are not yet ready to love our neighbor. We will not know how to love our neighbor until we first, know how to love God and second, live out our love for God. After we start beginning to learn the lessons and the lifestyle of loving God, we are ready to begin learning how to love neighbor. That is not to let us off the hook with loving our neighbor. You can’t say, “I have learned to love God so I’m not going to try loving neighbor yet.” Both can be learned at the same time; we simply start by learning to love God first.

As with learning to love God, we must have and keep the right attitude to love neighbor. As we begin to look at what the Samaritan in our story did, we must start with having the correct heart and mind orientation. In other words, we must truly know and experience love as it was intended for us and from that experience pour love out into the lives of those around us. A few short definitions and reminders of love from the New Testament:

  • eros – to covet a thing or person oneself (love for the sake of self / “I love you because I can get something out of it.”)
  • filia – the inclination of strong emotions and feelings for those close to you (brotherly love / “I love you because we have a lot in common.”)
  • xenia – love for the stranger and the foreigner in need (“I love you because you are in need.”)
  • agape – love that exists not for the sake of self, but for the sake of other (“I love you because you are there.”

When we look at these forms of love, we see two expressed by the Samaritan in the parable: xenia and agape. The first, xenia, is shown in that the Samaritan is providing care for someone who is not a fellow countryman. If we look deeper, we find Jesus motive for using a Samaritan as part of the story. The lawyer who comes to Jesus is a Pharisee, one who specifically is an expert in the Jewish laws and customs. He is someone who knows what is both legal and proper in regard to the Jewish people. The first two people that Jesus talks about in the parable are of the same group and caste if you will, as the lawyer. They are specifically Sadducees who are most likely going to Jerusalem to take up their appointed duties for a time at the temple, a common enough occurrence. As they travel, they happen upon a man robbed, beaten, and left for dead. The fact that both the priest and the Levite walked past without helping seems appalling to us. To a Jew in the first century, this would probably make perfect sense. For two men going to the temple to serve for a month, touching an injured man would make them ceremonial unclean and unfit to serve for a week at least. The temple would not have enough priests to fulfill its duties to the Jewish people and the greater good would be diminished.

That Jesus would tell the story with someone giving aid to the traveler is not so outlandish, but that the person giving aid is a Samaritan would be. Samaritans saw themselves as the true remnant of Israel, left behind after the Assyrians deported the majority of the upper classes of Israel in 721 BCE. They see themselves as descended from Ephraim and Mannaseh, who remained behind and held to the true tradition of Abraham while the Jews of captivity developed a watered down version of Judaism as a result of being in Assyria and later Persia. Jews of the captivity see them as people who were brought in from Assyria, Cuthah, Aveh, and Emeth, foreigners who were given the land that was rightfully theirs. In fact, in the previous chapter of Luke, James and John want Jesus to call down fire from heaven to burn a Samaritan village that refused Jesus hospitality.

So the Samaritan being the hero has a sting to it for the Jews. But what makes the Samaritan a hero? What does he offer that shows us love of neighbor?

Compassion

If we look at verse 33, we see that the Samaritan had the right heart motivation for the man in need.

“A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion.”

The word here for compassion literally means to have mercy on another person. It is the same word used to describe Jesus feeling for those he healed just before feeding the five thousand in Matthew 14 and the healing of the blind men on the Jericho road in Matthew 20. It is a feeling of deep sorrow for what another person is experiencing and deep desire to do something in response to that.

It’s the feeling that wells up in you, or should well up in you, when you see an images of children from war torn and poverty stricken areas. It is the feeling that drove Mother Teresa to the streets of Calcutta to found centers of care for orphans, this sick, and the dying. Compassion is the root emotion that drives loves for neighbor.

Care

So we feel compassion, the sense of knowing need in others, now what? Well if we follow the example of the Samaritan, we will respond to the need. In the parable, the Samaritan feels compassion, then responds to it:

“The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’” (v.34-35)

Notice here that loving neighbor is not just that we feel something for those around us but that we do something about it. In the same way that the Samaritan responded to the need out his compassion, we too should respond to the needs around us in the same way. It’s reminiscent of the adage, “People don’t care how much you know”, or in this case feel, “until they know” or can see “how much you care.” The Samaritan put his money where his mouth was and not only felt something for the man but did something about it. And what he did about it was to care for the man in all the ways needed.

Being a neighbor

So now we get to the end of the parable and the beginning or for some the continuation of our walk with Jesus. We have to hear and respond to question of Jesus:

“What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” (v.36)

We know the answer, it’s obvious. The neighbor is the one who cares for the man in need without regard to himself. As the lawyer said,

“The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” (v.37)

The one who not only felt something but responded to that feeling with action. And now the admonition of Jesus,

“Go and do likewise.” (v.37)

Go and be a people who are willing to love neighbor not just in thought or word or but to live out a walk with Jesus that ‘demonstrates mercy’ in the real world. Jesus said,

“This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

And

“I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.” (John 15:17)

It’s not just a good thing, not just a good example. It is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets and the commandment of Jesus that we love God and love neighbor. As God has demonstrated mercy to us in Jesus Christ through the ministry of Holy Spirit, let us go and do likewise to others. Amen.

 

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Four Chords and a Cloud of Grace: Art and Worship in the Wesleyan Style

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In a bar, they’re making PB&J’s to put in a sack lunch. When they finish, the group will hear someone talk about their struggle with heroin or paying the rent or depression. The people will console, cajole, and try in various ways to support the person speaking. A speaker stands up and shares a few verses and a message. The people ask questions and the speaker responds to their questions before leading them in prayer and then communion. The next day, the people take the sack lunches to the homeless, who are given a physical meal and then spiritual meal with communion.[1]

And that is Methodist worship on a Thursday night in a bar in Denver.

And some of the people said, Huh?

For most of us worship in the Wesleyan tradition takes on one of three forms revolving around a liturgy: the contemporary, the rural traditional, and formal tradition. A quick reminder, liturgy literally means, “a public service” or a “public act of worship.”[2] And when it comes to liturgy, the contemporary is marked by limited formality and contemporary musical styling with an emphasis on relevancy. The rural traditional is marked by the feel of a relaxed but reverent attention to older hymns and ‘straight to the point’ preaching, with the emphasis on the traditions of the people. Formal traditional is the service that follows the traditions of the Catholic or Episcopal church in that it has an order that you can set your watch to and a formality that focuses on reverence of God and the Church.

Of course we know about these types of churches because almost everyone attends one kind or another as a matter of preference. All are named with the Methodist or Wesleyan brand, but what is really important in Wesleyan worship? What is the stuff that makes it really Wesleyan and really worship? To quote a Kenton Stiles writing about aesthetics,

“It is fortunate…that a Wesleyan discussion of theology, worship, and the aesthetic does not begin and end with Wesley and eighteenth-century Methodism.”[3]

Based on my own understanding of worship and Wesleyan theology, I would advocate two things are necessary for worship to be Wesleyan: (1) sacrament and (2) means of grace.

Sacraments and means of grace

According to Wesley, “a sacrament is ‘an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.”[4] Article XVI of our Articles of Faith says,

“Sacraments ordained of Christ are not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they are certain signs of grace, and God’s good will toward us, by which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm, our faith in him.”[5]

Short definition: a sacrament is an external expression of God’s work in your inner life. As Methodists we celebrate two sacraments – communion and baptism – although it could be recognized that there are many things that show this. Art, poetry, and dance could all be external expressions of what God is doing in the life of a person. Stories and devotionals could be considered sacramental by the same standard.

But if these are not sacramental, they are at the least means of grace. Wesley writes,

“By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.”

Is art a channel to convey preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace? Yep. Is music? Is dance? Absolutely and then some. So if not a sacrament, they are a means of grace.

But what does this have to with worship in the Wesleyan way?

Well, if worship revolves around sacrament and means of grace, we have so much more at our disposal when it comes to liturgy or ‘public acts of worship’ than we use. Think of our friends in the bar and the beginning of the article. They are outwardly preparing food for the homeless of Denver as an expression of what God has done and continues to do in their hearts. Art, poetry, dance, short stories, delivering groceries to those in need, visiting the sick and in prison, caring for the homeless all become acts of worship as outward signs of our inward transformation.

Form is not the limiting factor for expressions of the artistic in Wesleyan worship. Fear is: fear of failure, fear of discomfort, fear of tradition, and other fears that limit our imagination. We simply have to take the gifts that God has brought to us and use them as means of grace to share our faith.

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[1] Our friends celebrating bar church are part of AfterHours, a ministry started by Jerry Herships in Denver, Colorado. For more information, go to: http://afterhoursdenver.org/

[2] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/liturgy?s=t

[3] Stiles, Kenton M. “In the Beauty of Holiness: Wesleyan Theology, Worship, and the Aesthetic.” Wesleyan Theological Journal 32, no. 2 (September 1997): 194-217. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed August 16, 2016).

[4] http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-16-the-means-of-grace/

[5] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/the-articles-of-religion-of-the-methodist-church#sacraments

The Two Loves: Loving God

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Love in many forms

The immortal bard, William Shakespeare once wrote, “Love is a many splendored thing.” Then in 1960, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant revised that to say, “Love Hurts” and a few years later a Scottish rock had a top five hit screaming about it. More recently, around 1979, Peter Wolf and Seth Justman decided that “Love Stinks” and the J. Geils Band sang about that. And finally, author and cultural critic, Douglas Adams says, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say on the subject of love: Avoid, if at all possible.”

Human beings have a hard time through the centuries just figuring out how to express, understand, quantify, or relate to this emotion we call love. Within the confines of the biblical record, theologian Tom Oord notes, “From Genesis to Revelation and from the early church through today, the Christian story revolves around love.”[1] But just what does that word, love, mean?

What do we mean by love?

The truth is, we don’t really know what we mean by love. More often than not, love is simply understood as a feeling, a sort of wistful desire to be someone because of physical attraction or similar interests. I don’t think that’s an adequate definition of love because most people use this definition and most people have had a difficult time with romantic relationships because of it.

When we get to the heart of it, love means different things to different people. For example, in many parts of the world, love has more to do with duty, action and attitude in a relationship. In others, love is a passion for life and the continued well-being of those around you. The ancient world also varied widely in their definitions. The Roman culture regarded love as something to be controlled. Passion was a sign of weakness so for a Roman to be considered excessively passionate was to be effeminate or unchecked in your emotions. Aspects of personal conduct such as honor and duty were considered greater and to be strived for. The idea is best summed up by historian Paul Veyne who wrote this about Romans, “Love is slavery, but friendship is freedom and equality.

And yet, the Bible says clearly, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” For the next two weeks, we will try to figure this out.

What does it mean to love God?

Will Rogers said, “A educated man is only educated so long as you are discussing the subject he was educated in.” I don’t know educated I am in this subject but I’m going to give it a stab at defining this word love. Love is defined as the innate desire and expression of emotional, intellectual, and/or physical affection or feeling for another person. We don’t feel all of these things for everyone that we encounter. In fact, in most languages other than English, there are multiple words for love that talk about the varying degrees of feeling. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, love is eros (physical love), phileo (brotherly love or liking something), agape (faithful, selfless love), and xenia (hospitality toward others). So you can have an expression of love for hobbies and things we like (phileo), a love for our friends (phileo, agape, or xenia), and a love for our spouse (all of these).

As the lawyer comes to Jesus in our text, we see the Nazarene having his education tested. The idea, I believe, was to see if Jesus could either caught in a false teaching and thereby be discredited or to get Jesus to say something inflammatory enough to warrant declaring him a threat to Jewish and Roman society. Yet time and again, Jesus finds the holes in their arguments and teaches the teachers something about the things that they had taught.

In this case, Jesus is letting the lawyer define the greatest commandment for himself. The lawyer rightly answers by quoting from Deuteronomy – or the second law. Jesus, being the good teacher, applauds his student and then challenges him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live” or maybe a better translation might be, “Do this and you will be full of life.” So what is it that the lawyer should do to have life or be full of life.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart

When we talk about heart in the ancient world, we are talking about the seat of a person’s emotions. We mean that place in the psychological makeup of someone that is driven by their feelings. When Jesus speaks of this in the Sermon on the Mount, he says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart (or your emotional inclinations) will be.” It’s part of a section where Jesus is comparing a desire for the things of the physical world and a desire for the things of the Kingdom of Heaven. If your heart – your emotions – are directed toward the Kingdom, then you have treasures, things of value – that cannot be taken from you, cannot be lost.

When we talk of loving God with all your heart, we mean expressing the innate emotional affection or feeling for God. We mean turning our emotions toward God and feeling a sense of affection and feeling born of our experience with God.

Love the Lord your God with all your being

Being becomes a more interesting way to love God especially when we realize it is speaking of our conscious self or personality. Our being is that part of us that is uniquely us, the part that makes us individuals and distinct from one another. This is the part of us where our moral compass resides, the part that gives us a sense of right and wrong. So by our definition, it would be to express the innate emotional affection or feeling for God with respect to our moral decisions and attitudes. It is allowing God to be the central arbiter for all of our feelings that are related to our morals with the understanding that our morals should be God’s morals especially if we walk as those following Jesus and “adopt the attitude that was in” him according to Philippians 2.

Love the Lord your God with all your strength

What do you do well? Stop and think for a moment about the things that God has given you an ability to do. My father for instance, has the eye of a photographer. He can look at practically anything and tell you whether it has enough light, the right angle, the right depth, and all the other intricacies to make a scene a good photograph. He studied the science behind it for many years but he also has an innate, natural gift for seeing what is there when others can’t.

When we talk about loving God with all of our strength, we are not necessarily talking about a physical strength but our personal strengths, what the Bible would refer to as our spiritual gifting. According to Paul,

“There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.” – 1 Corinthians 12:4-6

So the definition for loving God with all of your strength in this case might be something like the innate desire of a person to use their natural and innate gifts of the Spirit and abilities as an offering of affection or feeling for God.

Love the Lord your God with all your mind

This one should be obvious, right? The mind is pretty much the mind, that part of our person that is represented by our intellect, our capacity to reason, our ability to think. All true, but not all. The mind in the New Testament understanding of it can also be our disposition, our thought life. It’s just how we think but also what we think about. What we are talking about is all the traffic running through the grey matter. For some this may be considerable and require an intricate system of paths to keep the thoughts from running over one another, kind of like the Los Angeles freeway system. For others of us, this is kind of like a dirt path in the woods. One way in, one way out; no muss, no fuss, no traffic. Either way, the definition of loving God with our mind we could offer would still look something like the innate desire of a person to orient their thought life toward God and the things of God.

One big happy definition

I love a good puzzle and this one has a lot of pieces. Let’s see if we can put them all together into something that makes sense. We are called to love (innately desire and express emotional, intellectual, and/or physical affection or feeling) the Lord our God with all of our heart (the seat of our emotional being), our being (the place of morals and attitudes), our strength (our abilities and gifts of the Spirit), and our mind (our thought life). Quite a mouthful, huh? How about a simplified version – desire and express your affections toward God in every aspect of your life.

Emotions? Check.

Morality? You bet.

Abilities and gifting? Without a doubt.

Thought life? Absolutely.

No stone should be left unturned, no place hidden away and reserved. Everything we are, everything we have, everything we wish to be, is to be made accessible to God and changeable to the discipleship of Jesus and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[1] Oord, Dr. Thomas. The Nature of Love: A Theology (p. 2). Chalice Press. Kindle Edition.

Walking Through the Storm: A Place in This World

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Stop the World and Let Me Off

I remember as a kid the first time I rode the Mindbender. It’s a roller coaster at Six Flags Over Georgia near where I grew up. It goes up about eighty feet then drops into three vertical loops. A friend of mine talked me into it. He was excited and enthusiastic, telling me all about the ride and how it was, at the time, the best coaster you could ride in the park. How we would love it and ride it over and over. I was psyched at first, thinking no big deal, everyone over forty-eight inches tall is riding this thing. Little kids younger than me can do it, so no big deal, right? I got up to the top of the first hill and looked down at the first of the three loops in front of me and thought, stop the world and let me off. It went down the hill and I wasn’t sure if I would throw up or pass out. I had a death grip on the metal bar holding me in the seat, as though my life would end at any given second. I wanted to ride a roller coaster but I was thinking about settling for the one in the kiddie section on the other side of the park.

Life throws a few loop de loops at us as well. It’s the expected unexpected, the things you know could happen, actually happening. One minute we’re standing comfortably in line waiting for our turn in the next phase of life and the next, BAM! Something pops up out of left field and we feel ourselves being lifted off the seat. In that moment we recognize that the roller coaster we’re on isn’t the roller coaster we want to be on.

Do you ever feel like you just don’t belong? Like there’s something not quite right about the world around you? It’s kind of like waking up from a dream and not quite being able to get past the fact that you are dreaming. The feeling reminds me of a line from a song I heard a long time ago, stop the world and let me off.

Mind Bent

Job was feeling a bit like his mind had been bent by the time we get to chapter forty-two. After all the time Job spent challenging God and asking, pleading, begging, for God to speak, the Almighty finally does. And Job is left feeling a bit inadequate in the answer.

Job repeats two of God’s comments and offers responses born of a little more perspective.

Q: “Who is this darkening counsel without knowledge?” 

A: I have indeed spoken about things I didn’t understand, wonders beyond my comprehension.

Q: “Listen and I will speak; I will question you and you will inform me.”

A:  My ears had heard about you, but now my eyes have seen you.

The entirety of Job’s experience was that he spoke about what he didn’t understand and he heard about God but didn’t really know what he had heard until he saw it. Throughout the text of Job, Job cries out to God without answer. His cries seem to go unheard and the only response he gets is from his friends who can’t believe God would ‘punish’ someone who had not sinned. When God does answer, the answer is not what Job expects. God shows Job that the perspective that Job has of the world is limited and finite and that his place in the world is for God to decide as Job is one part, a small part, of the created order. Job realizes that he has a place in the world and that place is as a part of creation as a whole. He realizes that God cares for all of that creation and if God cares about the details of the entire created order, it is up to Job to simply listen and hear what God would have to say. God is saying to Job, “Trust me and let me show you what I have in store for you. Be patient and wait to see what I am doing.”

Too often we decide that our place in the world is a different place than what God has created for us to live into. We try to force our ideas and our beliefs on God and those around us in an effort to define ourselves. We try to act as creator, telling God what he should do with us and how we should live instead of the other way around. We try to make our spiritual world comfortable by proof-texting or cherry-picking religious ideas from the Bible that make us comfortable while ignoring the stuff that we don’t really like or want to do. It’s the mindset of Job’s friends, and in truth the same mindset that Job lives by, in assuming that they know and understand how God sees the created order without seeking God first.

It reminds me of the instructions. You know, the instructions in just about anything that has more than one part. For years, instructions have been packaged and sent with products so that men can ignore them. We don’t need instructions, there’s a picture on the box. All we have to do is make it look like the box, right?

It’s the old mentality that if looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck. So if we put things together and it looks like the box, we got it right. Never mind that there are pieces left over and the thing falls apart the moment you touch it. Never mind the fact that it only looks right from one side because we were looking at only one side of the thing. It looks like the picture so it must be right, right? What we are talking about is a spiritual impatience that drives us to trying to play God. We assume we have big picture view and begin orienting our lives toward it. When God opens the heavens and reveals the wonders of all he has for us we can’t see it because we aren’t looking for it. We are simply looking at what we have created and nurturing that in place of what God has to offer us. We assume we understand things so well that instructions are a waste of time and if we do look at the instructions, we look for the instructions that align with what we think we already know.

Finding our place

In our New Testament text this morning, Jesus has been traveling throughout Galilee and comes to a mountainside. He steps up and begins to deliver what is the centerpiece for early Christianity and for many throughout Christian history, the sermon on the mount. The importance of this passage from Matthew 5 through Matthew 7 should not be lost on us as just another set of teachings. The early church was built on this passage. In fact, if you became a part of the assembly in the first century, you had a sponsor who had watched you live out the principles of this passage for a three-year period. When they had seen sufficient evidence of your faith, you were invited to become a part of the assembly.

As Jesus comes to the last part of this teaching, he says,

“Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door is opened. Who among you will give your children a stone when they ask for bread? 10 Or give them a snake when they ask for fish? 11 If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”

Matthew 7:7-11

In other words, God knows what is needed. God is aware of the situation and circumstance we live in and it is no surprise to him. As we develop as relationship that asks, searches, and knocks, we are developing a relationship that draws us closer to God. Close enough in fact to be comfortable going to God to ask for what we need but having enough of a sense of the spirit to know what we should ask for. Close enough to seek out understanding and wisdom from God while knowing God well enough to see the difference between our folly and his knowledge. Close to enough to have courage to knock on doors that open into God’s perspective and being willing to make that our perspective, even if it upsets our apple cart.

I’m going to be honest with you, I’ve had a hard time with the sermon this week. I feel a little like I’ve been back to Six Flags and just gotten off the Mindbender. After sharing the news about our new bishop last week, I have had some people come and say they are happy about the news and some come to say that most definitely not happy. But the truth is, regardless of your perspective, we are called to the place God has for us to live into and to serve from. For us, that place is Newcastle and the rest of Weston county. The mission this week is the mission last week and the week before and the week before all the way to the moment when Jesus said, “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” No matter what else happens around us, that is the mission, the driving force of our existence and the central marker for our place in the world. And it is a mission we can live into because it is a mission driven by the real presence of Jesus the Christ, undergirded by the comfort and direction of the Holy Spirit, and created by the hand of God the Father, Almighty, amen.

Walking Through the Storm: Suffering in Perspective

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Newspapers and the world beyond

Every Saturday and Sunday morning of my younger childhood was more or less the same. I woke up before anyone else in the house, got an oversized bowl of cereal and turned on Saturday morning cartoons. Since I got up a few hours before everyone else, I had the TV and the living room to myself. One by one everyone would get up and when we were all awake, we went to the four-way store.

The four-way store was simply the convenience store sitting on the corner of a four way intersection. We would drive the mile it took to get there and my sister and I would run in to the candy rack and pick our weekly treat of one candy bar while my father picked up the Saturday or Sunday newspaper. For many years the candy was the high light of our weekend trip. But then I discovered the funny papers – Peanuts, The Far Side, and Beatle Bailey became a part of my childhood. I would also read the scores on the sports page, but rarely ever the articles. As I got older, I discovered Lewis Grizzard, the southern humorist, and all his stories about life in rural Georgia as well as his social commentary on the world at large.

Little by little, page by page, I learned to read the paper from front page to the weather on the back of the classifieds. As I did, I found a new world. I learned about the Chernobyl disaster in Russia and read about the Challenger crash and all the things that went wrong. I read news coverage of the Soviet Union all the way up to its dissolution in 1991. Beirut, Granada, the Falklands, and every other military action of the 80’s. The world I lived in was smaller and smaller with each article, each newspaper, each passing year, until the news from across the pond felt like the news across town.

A Big, Little World

As we grow in our faith, our spiritual world becomes a bigger place to explore as well. We find the simple, straight-forward beliefs we began with in our early years of faith become a more nuanced, more experienced understanding of God. Job is experiencing this expansion of his world in chapter 38.

After a long discourse between Job and his friends, God speaks into the discussion and sets a few things straight by asking a series of three basic questions: who are you, where were you, and are you able? Let’s look at a few examples of these kinds of questions:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” – Job 38:2

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” – Job 38:4

“Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place,” – Job 38:12

“Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!” – Job 38:19-21

These are pretty straightforward questions, a very direct response to the previous conversations. Ultimately, the question being asked here is, are you man enough to see the bigger picture? Are you able to set aside the discomfort and the pain you feel and look beyond them to something greater?

As God asks Job and his friends these questions, they point us to an understanding of creation that calls us to see a wider world beyond our suffering. I believe one goal, perhaps the major one in God’s speeches, is to remind Job and his friends of their place in the greater universe. By pointing to the grandeur of the cosmos and powerful aspects and creatures of creation, God is telling Job and his friends that they are a part of something greater than themselves.

A good example of this is when God refers to the sea in verses 8-11 of chapter 38. The sea is, as we said previously, is the symbol of chaos and disorder in ancient Semitic and biblical literature. As Job laments his situation, God reminds Job that the seas are under the Lord’s control, “Who enclosed the Sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, the dense clouds its wrap, when I imposed my limit for it, put on a bar and doors and said, “You may come this far, no farther; here your proud waves stop?” As Job has questioned God, God is now putting those questions into perspective for Job. God is not that Job is unimportant of less than worthy of his attention. I think the exercise that we see here is similar to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you…?”

Suffering in Perspective

When we experience suffering, we should not ignore the pain and angst of it but we should put it in the proper perspective. Often, our pain keeps us so busy, so preoccupied with recognizing it and placating it, that we fail to ask big picture questions: What can I learn from this? What is God saying to me in this? Who am I becoming through this? It is only in looking both deeply into our hurting and widely beyond it, that we can truly learn to work through our circumstances in a healthy, spiritual way. Japanese artist and theologian, Makoto Fujimura, wrote:

Willingness to spend time truly seeing can change how we view the world, moving us away from our fast-food culture of superficially scanning what we see and becoming surfeited with images that do not delve below the surface.

– Silence and Beauty

Too often, as Fujimura says, we take the quick glance and the easy answer to our pain. Going back to the beginning of the sermon, we look at the funny pages and avoid the rest of the newspaper. We fail to do the hard work of walking in the fashion of disciples and recognizing that the path we trod is not an easy one and that we are not called to a life of comfort but a life of service. The gospel of Luke records a conversation with Jesus and some disciples something like this:

As Jesus and his disciples traveled along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head.”

Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.”

He replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”

Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”

Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

The writer of the gospel is essentially saying, “this is not going to be easy. The road we walk is hard. The road we walk is rough.” But as we see in the book of Job and as Jesus tells us, we do not walk alone. In John 15, Jesus offers words of comfort on the final night before the crucifixion saying, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” Jesus has not called us to follow him through difficulty and pain alone; he has called us that we might walk with him and learn from him while we deal with the hard things of this life.

I think that’s the key to all of this, ‘remain in me.’ We try to complicate a relationship with a theology. Sure, theology is a good thing for helping us frame our ideas about God, but each of us has a particular, peculiar, relationship with God that is different and unique from that of anyone else. The good, the bad, the indifferent of this life has to pass through the lens of our own personal connection to God. For us, that’s really the big picture, the broader panoramic view of things; to step back from the circumstances and see everything as a n extension of our relationship with God.

I think that’s what God is saying when he asks all the questions of Job. He’s really saying, “I can see the bigger picture that you can’t. Keep walking with me and I’ll show it to you.” I think it’s what Jesus is saying to the disciples in the upper room when he’s telling them about all the things that are coming over the rest of their lives. “Remain in me and I’ll help you see the bigger picture. I’ll show you the God sized view so you can see better.”

Pixels and Pictures

For the first part of my adult life, I worked with computers designing everything from t-shirts to marketing campaigns. One of the first skills you learn is to use is that of the zoom button. Usually it’s found on the bottom left hand corner of the screen and goes up in various increments from 16.5% all the way to 2500% or higher in some programs. At different times in the design process, you have to be able to see the minute detail and the overall image.

For the Christian life to make sense, we have to do the same. There are moments where we will have to deal with the minute details of both suffering and happiness, joy and pain, peace and sorrow, and the overall image of the life we walk with God. Our being able to move back and forth between these two perspectives in a healthy way is the ability to live in harmony with God and neighbor, seeing our circumstances as they are from every angle.

So our question for today is, how are we seeing the world? Are we limiting ourselves to one perspective or can we zoom in and out to get some clarity?