Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Challenge of the Future

Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way

The Challenge of the Future

Several churches ago, I was in the balcony of the sanctuary during Sunday School getting the video and audio equipment prepared. Two women were already seated in the balcony – both were raised in that church – and they were having a very animated conversation. The church was considering whether or not to repaint the sanctuary, and the two ladies were expressing their opinions. I wasn’t eavesdropping on their conversation, but I couldn’t miss it and I think I was meant to hear it so I would report their sentiments to the proper people.

One of them made this comment – the day they paint this sanctuary is the day I’m leaving this church. Well, the comment certainly got my attention, as I’m sure it was meant to, and the other person replied why in the world would you do that? I was already wondering that myself, and the answer was very interesting. Because when they paint this church it won’t be the same church I grew up in and I want it to be just like it has always been.

I was trying not to shake my head and be obvious about how I felt about her comment. To be honest, I thought it was just silly. And then, not long after that conversation, something happened that taught me an important lesson. We were in West Virginia visiting my mom, and she told me my home church had installed new carpet in the sanctuary. We took a trip down to the church to see it the next day. My home church has a very traditional sanctuary and it still looks almost identical as it did the day I was born – except for the carpet. The old carpet – and it was very old and threadbare – was a deep burgundy carpet with a nice, understated design – just what I thought of when I thought about church carpet. The new carpet was a very light peach color, with no pad and it was so thin I thought they had spray-painted the floor with peach-colored paint. I couldn’t believe it. I turned to my mom and asked how could you let this happen? I can’t believe it; this is all wrong, and I began this rant. And in the middle of my rant I suddenly heard the conversation back in the other church’s balcony, and I thought I’m doing the same thing as that person. And at that moment I understood what I had not previously understood – both of us wanted to keep those sanctuaries looking exactly the same so we could walk into them and have an unbroken connection with the past. I had found comfort in walking into a sanctuary that looked the same as it did decades before. The world may experience tremendous change, but I could walk into that sanctuary and be transported back to what seemed a simpler and safer time.

The past has a very powerful hold on our lives, especially when the present and the future are full of anxiety and insecurity. This is why we idealize the past – the so-called good old days. There were some great things about the good old days, but the good old days were not always good. After the ice storm of a year and a half ago I heard someone say that after a week and a half of no electricity and using a wood stove for heat and cooking they were reevaluating ever talking again about the good old days.

I believe we should honor and respect the past; we should learn from the past; we should never cut ourselves off from the past. We must honor and remember those who got us to where we are in life. But the future is moving to us and we also have to think about the future and what it means to us.

Last week I began a series of messages based on our theme of Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way. Last week we began with The Necessity of A Challenge and this week we are looking at The Challenge of the Future.

Our text for this morning comes from the book of Exodus, just after the Hebrew people leave captivity in Egypt. They have set off on their journey to the Promised Land and they are suddenly faced with the first of the many challenges that will mark their journey. As they faced the challenge of Pharaoh’s army they immediately began to look to an idealized version of the past and desired to go back – back to captivity in Egypt. They turn to Moses and say was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us into the desert to die…didn’t we say to you in Egypt, “leave us alone, let us serve the Egyptians?” (verse 11). At that moment, and many more times yet to come, the Hebrew people were so afraid of their future they preferred to go back to captivity and slavery.

The future is challenging. The future is scary. The future is difficult. But the future is upon us and it challenges us. I want to consider a few of the challenges the future will bring to us. There are so many challenges we could make an entire series just on this one point, but I selected just a few, which we must look at very briefly. You could make your own list as well.

1. The challenge of a changing culture.

I think most everyone can look around at our culture and ask, what in the world is going on? In some way, we are in uncharted territory. The things we used to see as certain no longer seem certain. The things that were familiar to us are disappearing. We live in a postmodern, postChristian, post-everything age where very few things seem certain any longer.

And into this uncertainty and unraveling step a lot of voices. Much of what we see playing out in politics and the so-called culture wars are a reflection of the uncertainty of our time. There is no shortage of voices stepping into and seeking to fill this void of uncertainty in our culture.

As a church we must bring the voice of God and the spirit to this uncertainty. As the Hebrew people faced a future that frightened them, as they were removed from all that was familiar, God spoke to them and sought to bring them a sense of assurance.

We are called to speak to fear, not to use and manipulate the fears of others. What troubles me so much in our culture today is how many opportunists – religious and political – are seeking to use and manipulate the fears of people. Moses brought an almost singular message to the Hebrew – God will be with us and God will provide. This is why the Exodus is the singular event of the Old Testament and was always remembered – because it was a reminder that God delivered on his promise.

2. The challenge of perspective – having a hospital mentality rather than a fortress mentality.

Some churches see themselves as fortresses against all the terrible things happening in the world. People come to the church to hide behind the walls and to escape all the things they see wrong with our country and our world, and they preach about how the terrible people in our society – the godless politicians, the godless people in the entertainment industry, and all the other kinds of people they invoke in an effort to frighten us. The preaching in those churches is of a style that talks about the sinful people out there, but in here, well in here we’re all righteous.

Other churches understand they are called to be a hospital – to say we are all hurting and we are all in this life together and yes there are terrible things going on in our world and in our country but they don’t try to demonize people and they don’t have an us versus them mentality.

Jesus constantly ran into people who had the fortress mentality. The Pharisees were so offended that Jesus associated with those people outside of the fortress. Why was Jesus associating with those kinds of people? Even the disciples reflected that mentality at times. When Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman at the well the disciples were scandalized – what was Jesus doing talking to someone like that? We’ve got to stay away from those kinds of people, we’ve got to withdraw behind our walls of safety and lob judgments and criticisms as those people.

3. The challenge of engaging a new generation.

The church, it has been said, is always one generation away from extinction.

One of our four core values as a church centers on youth and children. Any church that does not focus on youth and children is signing off on its on death warrant. That doesn’t mean that we ignore other age groups, but we are charged with passing on our faith.

A recent study, called the National Study of Youth and Religion, found, interestingly, that parents and churches are unwittingly one of the reasons why many younger people either leave church or fail to learn how to express their faith in a meaningful way. One of the reasons is what the authors of the study call "moralistic therapeutic deism." Translation: It's a watered-down faith that portrays God as a "divine therapist" whose chief goal is to boost people's self-esteem. Youth want to be given something they can be passionate about, something that calls out to a greater purpose in life, something that engages their hearts, minds, and souls. Something like spending a week at All Peoples Christian Center.

4. The challenge of being missional.

The challenge of the future is to become a missional church. The questions are not how many people do we attract, how much money is being given, how many programs happen here, but how many people are we sending out, how much money is given away, how many of our efforts go beyond the walls of the building.

We were in Washington, DC a little over a year ago, and one morning we were in line to visit one of the museums and a church group from Mississippi was in line in front of us. They all had on T-shirts with the name of their church on the front and on the back each shirt said the church has left the building. I thought that was a great saying.

We are so blessed to have this beautiful facility, but it’s more of a launching pad than an ending point.

5. The challenge of fear.

There are certain themes I return to in my messages from time to time and fear is one of those themes, and I made a very brief reference to it last week.

Love is the most powerful force in our world, but fear comes in a close second. Fear keeps us in its terrible grip and keeps us from being who we were created to be; fear keeps us from experiencing so many of the joys in life; and fear seeks to control us.

It’s interesting how we respond to words. Some words draw from us a very visceral response. When you hear the word love, you just feel good. When you hear the word fear, you can feel the response in your stomach. It’s hard to say the word love in any way that invokes a negative response, and it’s hard to say the word fear in any positive way.

On Friday evening I had the opportunity to worship with the Disciples church at Luther Luckett prison in LaGrange. It’s the only Disciples church in the nation that is located in a prison, although there will soon be a second located in Utah. It was so interesting to talk to the men at the service. There were 63 residents at the worship service, out of about 1,000 in the entire facility. I wondered what it was like for them to come to worship in that environment. The first one I met said I am the longest serving medium-security prisoner in the state of Kentucky – I have been here for 30 years. But his next statement was to say God has given me a life since I came here. The stories were amazing to hear. This was a group of men who had lost everything, but one told me that even though he was behind those walls he had experienced a freedom many people don’t have outside of prison.

Fear is a prison that grips so many people. Fear has built walls around the lives of far too many people.

The future is here, and these are but a few of the challenges that face us, but just as God was with the Hebrew people as they ventured into the wilderness he is with us as well. May we pray.

The Necessity of a Challenge

Meet the Challenge – The Disciple’s Way - The Necessity of A Challenge

The theme of our capital campaign is Meet the Challenge – The Disciple’s Way. I have adopted that same theme for a series of messages that we begin today. Meet the Challenge is a theme for life, because life is full of challenges. There are challenges on a global scale, a national scale, state, community, church, family, and individual. We are surrounded by scores of challenges, and meeting those challenges is the charge and the way of Disciples.

Today I want to begin with The Necessity of A Challenge, which probably sounds like a strange statement, but it is a valid truth about life, I believe – we need to face challenges. We need to face challenges because challenges give us focus, they give us strength, and they help us become the people God created us to be. We will survey some of the stories throughout the Scriptures that tell us of challenges and what we can learn from them.

Today we start with a passage about the calling of the twelve. The gospels have more familiar passages of the calling of the disciples – Peter, James, Andrew, and John beside the sea and Matthew in his tax office – but this one is different. Jesus calls a large group of his followers to him and presents the twelve as his inner core of followers. It is an interesting group, a group that would never come together under natural circumstances; they are far too diverse in outlook and perspective to come together on their own. The crowd must have looked at that group of twelve and thought, you’ve got to be kidding me.

We know that Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen; they were small businessmen. Matthew, we know, was a tax collector. What do small businessmen complain about, among other things? Taxes. Matthew was probably the one who collected the taxes from Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Tax collectors made their living by basically cheating people. Reading between the lines somewhat, I think it’s safe to say that these four fishermen were not thrilled with being brought together with Matthew. We know that Judas Iscariot was a Zealot. A Zealot was one committed to the overthrow – by any means necessary – of the Roman government. Matthew, as a tax collector, worked for the Roman government. To Judas, Matthew was a traitor to the Jewish people and as a Zealot would be committed to using violence or any other means against people like Matthew. These were polar opposites when it came to politics. This was a bigger gap than putting Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama on the same committee. James and John, we know, were sometimes self-promoters. They sought power and glory by asking Jesus to seat them on his right and left when he came into his kingdom (Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45) and the others were not happy about this brazen display of reaching for power. Judas Iscariot – there were two disciples named Judas – was known to steal from the collection on occasion. That’s not a way to ingratiate yourself with a group of people. And what about Peter, James, and John, the three who were obviously closest to Jesus? Do you wonder if there was any jealousy on the part of the others? Why did those guys get all the attention? And then there were the others that are almost never mentioned – the other Judas, Philip, Bartholomew, James, Simon, and Thomas. Thomas gets a mention for his desire to go to Jerusalem with Jesus and then for his disbelief of the resurrection, but the other guys are almost unknown to us. Did they ever feel slighted?

My point is this – I believe Jesus very deliberately chose this odd collection of twelve very different individuals to provoke a challenge. How can you get anything done with a group so diverse? How can you get anything done with a group who under most any circumstances would be at each other’s throats? If you want to get something done, pick people who can at least get along!

But Jesus didn’t do that. What a strange combination he picked – and he picked them intentionally. And you know what’s amazing? How often do you find any evidence in the gospels of dissension among them? Almost never. We know the other ten were unhappy with the request of James and John to be elevated to positions of power, but there is almost no mention of problems in that group. There was no mention of the political discussions between Matthew and Judas Iscariot, which must have been very animated and interesting.

Here’s why I think we don’t see dissension – because the twelve were given a challenge that lifted them above their self-interest and differences. And here’s the great truth about challenges and why we need to be challenged – challenges lift us above the things that threaten to separate us and mire us down in our own narrow self-interests.

Jesus was constantly challenging his disciples – to be like a city on a hill, to love their enemies, to pray for their persecutors – all of these tremendously challenging statements that asked the disciples to rise up the lower parts of human nature, challenges that ask us to seize upon the image of God that is a part of us and to emulate those qualities rather than sinking into the lower part of ourselves.

That’s a mighty big challenge. But isn’t that what we really want, let alone really need? How many of the famous speeches in our nation’s history are famous because they presented a challenge? John Kennedy’s famous words, you know them – ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. FDR’s famous line from his first inaugural address – So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. There’s a challenge – the proposition that all men are created equal. A proposition is an idea, it is a hope not yet realized, a promise not yet fulfilled – but it’s also a challenge – here is what we could be. We are not yet there, but we have moved closer, but where would we be without such a challenge?

Twenty-nine years ago this week I moved from Dothan, Alabama to Louisville to complete my seminary degree. I had almost no money when I moved there and no place to live. I had no idea where I was going to stay my first night. After getting settled into an apartment with two roommates I had very little money for food. I would go to a store in Crescent Hill and buy a loaf of bread and a Styrofoam cup of turkey or chicken salad – and I don’t really like turkey and chicken salad all that much – for a couple of dollars, and I would eat it for every meal until it ran out. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner. To this day I really don’t like to eat plain popcorn because of eating so much of it in those days.

But you know what? It was an exciting time. It was a challenge, but I loved the challenge. I think I learned more at that time in my life about faith than at any other time.

We need a challenge. We’ve got a big challenge in our capital campaign, but it’s not our only challenge. You’ve got challenges and I’ve got challenges. May we find what God is teaching us through those challenges.

Being Honest About Ourselves

Being Honest About Ourselves

What is the most common criticism leveled at churches? That churches are full of hypocrites. Who hasn’t heard this criticism? This morning, we are studying a passage from the book of Acts that actually tells us about the first two church hypocrites on record – husband and wife by the names of Ananias and Sapphira.

This is a generally overlooked passage of Scripture. It’s overlooked, I think, because there are some very uncomfortable truths contained in this passage, and we’ll study a few of those truths this morning, all of which fall under the theme of Being Honest About Ourselves.

This passage cannot be separated from the final verses of chapter four. It helps to understand that the earliest versions of Scripture were not divided into chapters and verses. The beginning of chapter five separates the story of Ananias and Sapphira from the end of chapter four, but this is all one story; you cannot separate this great vision of the church in chapter four from the sin and the fate of Ananias and Sapphira in chapter five.

The end of chapter four provides us with a utopian description of the early church. In those verses we see that people were giving freely of their possessions and there were no needs among them, there was great power in the church, the church was of one heart and soul, and the church was growing. It’s a fantastic picture of the early church, perhaps the greatest portrait of the church in all the New Testament. And then it starts to go downhill.

The first word of chapter five is the connecting word - but. The NIV, which we read this morning, uses now, but I prefer other translations that use but. Have you had someone – a boss or parent, perhaps – that said something very positive to you and then said, but... That conjunction takes all the air out of the positive words, doesn’t it? That single word looms large in this story. Things are going along great in the church but...; there is great power in the church ...but. The people are of one heart and soul...but. That one word gives us this great sense of foreboding.

It’s an interesting question to wonder why this story is connected with this beautiful description of the early church. After reading of this idyllic church situation, we immediately read this unpleasant episode involving Ananias and Sapphira.

This is the Bible in its total, unflinching honesty. The incredible honesty of the Bible is, I believe, one of the reasons why the Bible is so trustworthy. If you are simply creating a story you don’t include all the bad parts about the people in the story, but the Bible is absolutely unflinching in its presentation of people; even the people of God. As one author says, in that perfect church there were some imperfect people (Wind and Fire: Living Out the Book of Acts, Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1984, p. 65). Some imperfect people? More correctly – all were imperfect people.

The Bible never seeks to hide the sins and the failures of people – especially God’s people. The Bible is not at all afraid to describe the reality of people’s lives – that we are frail, that we are prideful, and that we are sinful, and the Bible presents us with this mirror because we are not to forget this.

The Bible is the original reality show. If you watch reality TV shows, that’s certainly your prerogative, but I think they are one of the great failures of our country, and here is why I believe so – it’s because they glory in the disfunctions of people, they play upon the failures and struggles and conflicts of people and turn it into entertainment that raises the brokenness of humanity rather than raising the hope for humanity. The Bible is a different reality. The Bible is very plain about who we are as people, but it presents that reality as a tragedy and as something from which God desires to save us. The Bible also presents that reality as a reminder and a warning that sin is always seeking to ensnare us and destroy our lives.

The failures of people, even the people of God, are presented to us very starkly and honestly by the Bible. The Bible is very honest about who we are and asks us to be honest with ourselves about who we are.

For everyone who suffers under the illusion that churches aren’t full of difficulty we can say those people haven’t read the New Testament very closely. Read through the letters of Paul and you will find great conflict and disfunction. Read through the book of Acts and you will find the same. Read through almost every book of the New Testament and you will find the gory details of the difficulties, failures, and sins of people - especially God’s people - on full display.

Is it perfect here? Far from it. Has it ever been perfect here? No. Will it ever be perfect here? No. Let us never suffer under the illusion that things are perfect or that we are perfect. Instead, let us confess our imperfections and subsequent need of the grace of God to heal our imperfect and sinful lives. The early church was clearly not perfect, and neither are we. The honesty of the Bible is a very big, very sharp needle that punctures any illusion we may have of being perfect.

So, follow along with me now in chapter five as we go through the story of Ananias and Sapphira. As we begin, Luke has just written of Barnabas, who sold a piece of property and gave the money to the church. Ananias and Sapphira also sell a piece of land but do so with an attitude very different from that of Barnabas.

Luke says that Ananias and Sapphira sell their property but kept back some of the price for themselves. Ananias brings the money to the apostles and Peter immediately confronts Ananias and accuses him of lying to the Holy Spirit, because they kept some of the money back for themselves.

Ananias and Sapphira were not wrong because they kept some of the money for themselves; Peter even says this in verse 4 - While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? It wasn’t a question of how much they were giving; it was that Ananias and Sapphira had conspired together to present themselves as being something they weren’t. That is the textbook definition of a hypocrite - presenting yourself as being what you are not. Ananias and Sapphira wanted people to believe they were giving all of the money from the sale of their land. Ananias and Sapphira were pretending to be generous; they sought to deceive people into thinking they were something they were not; they were pretending to be as generous and committed as the others, but they were not.

John Claypool makes an interesting point about this passage. He says, if they had just said: "Here is where we would like to be - with Barnabas' kind of trust and generosity. But we find we are not there yet.... All we can do now is give part of the proceeds. Would you help us grow toward what we would like to become?"'

The problem is not just the sin in the lives of Ananias and Sapphira; actually, God assumes we will sin and the Bible often shows him being very easy on sinners. In fact, much of Acts shows the power of God healing people who were only marginally connected with the church, if connected at all. And yet here are two people who give to the church and they die.

But Ananias and Sapphira came before the church and sought to deceive the church; they broke their covenant with the body of Christ and God takes that very seriously. We cannot take lightly what it means to live together as the body of Christ. But we often do take that very lightly. We too easily break that sense of one heart and soul that is spoken of in 4:32, we too easily forget that we have responsibility to and for one another, and when we do forget we bring dishonor to the name of Jesus.

The similarities between this event and the fall in the Garden of Eden are really striking. This is, really, a New Testament version of the Garden. The picture of the church at the end of chapter 4 is about as close to a restoration of the Garden of Eden as was possible. But just as in the Garden, it was not to last. It did not last for the same reason it did not last the first time - because of our sin.

Peter called out the sin in the lives of Ananias and Sapphira, not because they were sinful, but because they were dishonest about who they were. Phony spirituality is a deadly disease that can spread throughout the church.

All of us have the capacity of deception and hypocrisy; if we deny this we have already started down the road of self-deception.

And in all honesty, don’t we sometimes practice these very same traits? Maybe in a small way such as when someone asks how are you doing and we say I’m doing great because we wouldn’t dare allow our carefully constructed facade to crumble under the truth that we’re really not doing great? Are we tempted to let someone think we have been more sacrificial or more holy than we really are? How often have we “stretched the truth” to cover up something we have done? How often do we point out the sins of others as a way of diverting attention from our own failures and sins?

What really matters – the appearance of spirituality or the reality of spirituality? Ananias and Sapphira chose the appearance, rather than the reality, of spirituality. They wanted to look as good as Barnabas without paying the price as did Barnabas.

And finally, this story serves as another warning, and it is this – when a church is at its best the threat to undermine it is the greatest. An ineffective church is not a threat to anyone, but a church that is doing what the church was doing in Acts – that is a church that is going to experience a great threat and great temptation.

There is nothing more satisfying to the enemies of God than a crippled church. Take some time today, or this week, and read through the book of Acts and see the threats that were constantly coming against the early church. Those threats were evidence of the power of the church.

May we be as the early church – honest about who we are but honest as well about the power of God that will overcome our sins and give us the strength to withstand the threats that would seek to weaken us.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Importance of the Minority Report

August 1, 2010

Numbers 13:25-33

The Importance of the Minority Report

Democracy, Winston Churchill said, is the worst form of government, except of all the others that have been tried.

Living in a democracy, we are very familiar with the principle that the majority rules. The good news of democracy is that we have a vote; the bad news of democracy is that sometimes our vote goes to the losing side. But democracy also has a strong tradition of the dissenting minority. Even when we lose, it is our right to say what we believe and to praise or criticize the winning candidates. It’s a wonderful part of democracy that the minority opinion is allowed free expression. This is a time-honored tradition, for example, at the Supreme Court, where those who hold to the minority opinion can give a blistering dissent, and where time sometimes proves the minority opinion to be the correct opinion.

Did you know that Scripture has some minority reports as well? Today’s message is from one of those reports.

This morning’s text comes as Moses and the people are making their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

Moses and the Hebrew people were in their second year after being released from slavery in Egypt (9:1). It has not been an easy journey for them to this point. There were difficult challenges and the people failed to trust God. But after the months of difficult travel, the conflicts, and the complaining, they arrive at the edge of the Promised Land. This is the land promised generations before to Abraham and his descendants, and now his descendants are so close. It has been about four centuries since God first made his promise to Abraham, so imagine the anticipation in this moment. Centuries of waiting are about to come to an end.

Imagine being part of a people who had been waiting for centuries to see a great promise completed. Imagine that you are in that final generation, the generation that could finally enjoy the fulfillment of that great promise. Imagine being so close to the promise of this land – the Promised Land – that it was within sight. From your earliest memory you have heard the promises of this land. While a slave in Egypt the stories were told. When the lash of the Egyptians was felt across your back you reminded yourself of the promise that one day you and your people would be free of this slavery and would enjoy living in your own land. And now, you are part of the generation that finally arrives at the edge of this land. Wouldn’t you be anxious to go charging across the Jordan River and enter into the land?

Before they would enter Moses has everyone wait while he sends twelve spies into the land to check it out. He instructs the spies to determine if the people living in the land are strong or weak, if they are few or many, if the land is good or bad, whether or not the cities are heavily fortified, to see if the land is productive, and to bring back some of the fruit of the land. (13:18-20).

Notice also this is not the same story we usually think of when it comes to spies being sent into the land. That story comes later in the book of Joshua, when there are only two spies and they are given shelter by Rahab. The episode we’re studying this morning takes place thirty-eight years before the event recorded in Joshua.They could have entered into the land a generation earlier, but they did not.

It is not a great distance from Egypt to the Promised Land. The land of Israel as we know it today is only about the size of New Jersey and modern Egypt is about half the size of Alaska. This is still some distance to cover, but to travel even from southern Egypt to Jerusalem is only a distance of four or five hundred miles. Even with this huge group of people it was not a long journey for Moses to lead the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. It is a journey that need not take forty years.

But the length of a journey is not just measured by physical distance. The length of this journey was much further and much longer than just the physical distance because of the failure of the people to place their trust in God. The story is more about a failure to trust and a failure to have faith. They were physically close, but spiritually they were a million miles away.

When the spies return from their forty day mission and give their report it is a good news/bad news report. They tell Moses and the people that it is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey and showed the fruit they brought back with them. The grapes they brought with them are so large they had to carry just one bunch on a pole between two of the men. The land is rich, productive – all the things they could hope for.

That’s the good news. The bad news then takes the rest of the report, and the news is really bad. The people in the land, they report, are very strong. The cities are very large and fortified and the people are as giants. There is no way, in the opinion of these spies, that the inhabitants of this land could be defeated. As attractive as is this Promised Land, there is simply no way they can move into the land and defeat these people.

But then comes the minority report. Caleb speaks up and says We should by all means go up and take possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it (13:30). Immediately those in the majority throw cold water on Caleb’s belief. We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us (13:31) say ten of the other spies. Upon hearing this, the people went into a state of despair, wept through the night, and then came against Moses and Aaron the next morning demanding to return to Egypt. Imagine, they want to go back to bondage and slavery. The people also decide they need to appoint a new leader, causing Moses and Aaron to fall on their faces in the presence of all the assembly of the congregation of the sons of Israel (14:5). It was a very volatile moment, and then Joshua and Caleb step forward, tearing their clothes in an act of grief. They remind the crowd that the land is an exceedingly good land (14:7) and reaffirm their belief that God will bring them successfully into the land. They plead with the people not to rebel against God, but the people responded with a demand that they be stoned to death.

And then in the midst of this terribly volatile moment the glory of the Lord appeared in the tent of meeting to all the sons of Israel (14:10).

God tells Moses that because of the failure of the people to believe that God will deliver them into the Promised Land they are banished to spend the next thirty-eight years in the wilderness. Those who failed to trust God must wander the wilderness until the entire generation is gone. Only two people out of this entire group will be allowed to enter into the Promised Land. Joshua and Caleb are the only two; not even Moses will be allowed to enter the land. Joshua and Caleb were the two of the twelve spies who believed they should enter the land – they were the authors of the minority report and the only two out of this huge group that leaves Egypt who will live to enter the Promised Land.

On the surface, it seems unfair, doesn’t it? But is it unfair? Is it a punishment that God levies against the people or is it an acknowledgement that this particular group of people will not have what it takes to enter and settle the Promised Land? I don’t think it is a punishment as much as it is a granting of the wish of the people. When it came down to it, after all the talk of wanting to be free of Egypt, after all the talk of trusting and following God, they find it was just that – talk. They weighed what was begin asked of them with what they needed to give and then made their decision.

There are some very powerful lessons in this story. One is that not all caution is really caution and not all recklessness is really recklessness. Sometimes fear comes under the guise of caution. I believe in the importance of being cautious. I believe it is important to weight one’s options and to count the costs involved in a decision. But I am also aware of the truth that caution can become something behind which we hide because we are really afraid. Sometimes in churches we proclaim caution when we are really afraid to do what faith calls us to do. We may claim it is reckless to push ahead, but not all that appears reckless is really reckless. Sometimes we claim something is reckless because it allows us to remain safe.

A second lesson is that of the danger of group thinking. Group thinking happens when we are intimidated by a group of people into remaining quiet or going against what is right because of our fear of the group. Some years ago my father was called to a meeting of the elders of my home church. The purpose of the meeting was a highly volatile matter and he traveled to the meeting with a neighbor. On the way the discussed how they would vote and were in agreement to vote against what they thought to be a very harmful motion. When the vote taken the other elder went along with the group and changed his vote. When my dad later asked him why he said he didn’t want to vote that way, but he was afraid to go against the rest of the group.

Group thinking can escalate very quickly, and it sweeps everyone along with it. Joshua and Caleb remained firm in their belief that the people should cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land, even though they were met with great opposition.

This leads to the next lesson – great leadership. Upon the death of Moses, Joshua became the leader of the people. Joshua proved his leadership potential the day he stood with Caleb against this angry group of people who called for their stoning. People need good leaders. Churches need good leaders.

If you read through the church history of almost any congregation you will find examples of leadership. If you walk out of this room and look at the articles from the history of this congregation you will find examples of great leadership.

As we press on to the future God lays before us, there may be voices of fear that masquerade as caution, and there may be a huge majority of people who are skeptical of an opportunity. And that’s when we need a minority report, and that’s when we must listen to the minority report.

The Gift of Hope

July 25, 2010

Mark 5:21-43

The Gift of Hope

When I was in college some of us would travel to the border of Tennessee and North Carolina to climb Roane Mountain. It’s a beautiful spot. I remember hiking to a point on the mountain that was popular with hang gliders. Have you ever watched someone jump off the side of a mountain strapped to a hang glider? It’s one of those moments that makes you feel better about yourself, because you recognize that maybe you really aren’t all that crazy.

It’s an amazing sight to watch someone soar on the wind with just that little piece of fabric and aluminum frame keeping them from plunging down the side of the mountain. I may think it’s crazy to jump off a mountain strapped to a hang glider, but I know it’s possible and almost always safe. But imagine what it was like to be the first person. Imagine the courage (I guess it would be courage) it took.

Why do people do such things? Why would someone strap a bungy cord to their ankle and jump off a bridge, or strap a parachute to their back and jump out of an airplane? I think it’s because we are so in fear of tragedy, and pain, and suffering, and death that we want to do some things that make us feel we can conquer those things. We feel so at mercy to those forces that we are driven to do dangerous things just so we can thumb our noses at tragedy and death and say you didn’t take me today. I looked in your eye today and walked away and showed you don’t have total control over my life.

There is a very thin veneer to life. We go through our daily routines trying to ignore the fact that life is fragile and tragedy may be lurking around the very next corner. One moment life is fine and the next we get a phone call with shocking and tragic news. One day we feel fine and the next we receive frightening news from the doctor. One moment someone we love is here and the next they are gone.

This morning, we study a passage from Mark’s gospel about two individuals whose lives had changed very dramatically. Jesus had crossed the Sea of Galilee and as soon as he steps out of the boat he is met by a man named Jairus, one of the officials at the local synagogue. His twelve-year-old daughter is near death, and while he and Jesus are on their way to his house Jairus receives the news that his daughter has died. Life changed in an instant for Jairus and his family. Along the way Jesus encounters a woman who had been ill for twelve years. Mark tells us that she had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse (verse 26).

Here were two characters who understood how life could change very drastically. One had been dealing with difficulty for many years, while the other was about to enter a life dramatically changed because of loss.

This message – and this passage – is about hope. The Gift of Hope. Hope spring eternal in the human breast, wrote Alexander Pope in 1773, and it is hope that has allowed people to survive through the most difficult of circumstances.

The picture of Jairus at the beginning of this passage is almost difficult to read. Here is a man who comes and throws himself at the feet of Jesus. It’s hard to see people when they reach the point of desperation. My little daughter, he says, is dying. You can hear the desperation in his voice.

And Mark simply says that Jesus went with him. There is no discussion of anything Jesus said; Mark just says Jesus goes along with him. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to walk with people during their struggles. There are times we talk too much. I have been guilty many times of blundering along, trying to give a theological explanation when I should have just kept quiet. One thing I have learned over the years is that people aren’t always looking for an answer; they just need our presence. I remember very vividly when my father passed away and we were at the funeral home and people were coming through the line. My father sang in a choir at the steel mill where he worked, and all the members of that choir came to the visitation in the tuxedoes they wore for their performances. Very few words were spoken as they greeted us, but I didn’t care; I was just grateful they were there.

This was a great gift for Jairus, just to have Jesus walk along beside him. Presence is a great gift in the life of another person. Don’t worry about having the right words to say; just walk with people.

We also notice something that Jesus does not do – he was not judgmental toward Jairus or this woman. Why is it that people who are suffering are often judged for their circumstances? There is a reason. Do you know why people sometimes judge the hurting and those in need? It’s a way of excusing one’s self from an obligation to help. If we can find a way to blame people for their circumstances then we can excuse ourselves from helping them. After natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, there are always some from the religious community who want to judge people, and it’s a very convenient way to be removed from the calling to help people.

By this point in his ministry Jesus was facing a great deal of opposition from the leaders of the synagogues but he didn’t say, you know, you guys have been pretty hard on me down at the synagogue. I can’t help you because I’ve been treated poorly.

And when the woman touched the fringe of his cloak he didn’t say, why didn’t you come to me sooner? Why did you wait until you ran through all your money and tried every other solution first? Why am I always the last resort for people? Why can’t I be the first resort for a change?

Sometimes we stumble around and it takes awhile before we come to the realization that God wants to be present with us and to help us. Notice that the woman came before Jesus, trembling with fear, Mark says in verse 33, perhaps because she thought he’s a religious person, and those religious people can be tough. But Jesus isn’t tough with her, he isn’t judgmental, he isn’t critical; he gives her hope and healing.

I find it fascinating that Mark makes sure we have the story of Jesus dealing with these two people linked together. These are two very different people in, at least in the eyes of society at that point in history. Jairus, as a synagogue ruler, was a prominent person in the community. This woman, not even named, would have been very low on the social scale. She was ill – bleeding for twelve years – and would be unclean. What Jesus saw was not people on different rungs of the social ladder but two people who had very great needs. The need of this woman was as great as that of Jairus, and Jesus was going to meet that need even if it brought about grumbling from his disciples.

To the disciples she remained anonymous – “you see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, “who touched me?” (verse 31). Everybody’s touching you. Let’s just move on.

We live in a world that is always categorizing and stratifying people, and as the body of Christ we must fight that temptation. There are no disposable people in this world, not in the eyes of God.

This story turns out well for both Jairus and this woman. The daughter of Jairus is raised and the woman is healed. It doesn’t always work out that way, unfortunately. Sometimes we beg and plead for healing and it doesn’t come. And when healing does not come, it’s easy to lose hope. But, as one writer says, Christ did not come to do away with suffering; he did not come to explain it; he came to fill it with his presence (Paul Claudel).

Don’t be afraid, just believe, Jesus says in verse 36. He wasn’t just speaking to Jairus, but to us as well.