Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Challenge of Being Our Brother's Keeper

October 17, 2010

Genesis 4:8-9; Matthew 25:40-46

Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way

The Challenge of Being Our Brother’s Keeper

Tyler Clementi is a name we would never know, if not for the circumstances and publicity surrounding the suicide of this young student at Rutgers University.

His death has spurred debate in our society about how we care for and treat others; or perhaps, how we don’t care for others and how we mistreat others.

There is a political side to this debate and it will continue on, I’m sure, for a long time. But when we enter the realm of faith, there should be no debate about how we are to treat one another; we are called by God to treat one another with love. The Old Testament required one to extend care and hospitality to people who were passing through the land, even if it were one’s enemy. The Old Testament writers often reminded the Israelites of their mistreatment and suffering as slaves in Egypt, so they were never to mistreat others (Exodus 22:21; Deuteronomy 24:17). The New Testament is filled with reminders of loving others, with the command of Jesus to love even our enemies being the greatest example (Matthew 5:43-44).

Continuing on with our theme of Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way, this morning we come to The Challenge of Being Our Brother’s Keeper. It is an understatement to say that it can be hard to live together as people. The many factors that divide people – political, religious, social, and economic – can make it less likely that people will care for one another.

But maybe recent events such as the suicide of this young student are helping to bring us to a point of introspection in our society about how we are treating one another. I haven’t gotten my hopes up yet, and I’ll tell you one reason why, aside from the obvious reason that the news is full of evidence that we don’t always treat each other well. I believe that in spite of all the talk of the need to be civil our society really sends very mixed signals. We have a very strange contradiction in our society. On one hand we hear messages of respect and tolerance, but those messages are often undermined by a different message. I think, for example, that it is extremely hypocritical that some media outlets promote a positive message of respecting one another while at the same time making millions of dollars from reality shows whose main premise seems to be the public humiliation of the participants. Forgive my soapbox here, but most of reality television seems to me to be little more than the public humiliation and embarrassment of the participants. So how do you say on one hand, treat people kindly and justly while on the other hand creating an entire format of entertainment based on the humiliation of people? Once you sanction the public humiliation of people it’s only a short step then to more extreme and damaging treatment of people.

Our Scripture readings for today represent two opposing ways of dealing with people. We find Cain, so jealous and spiteful of his brother Abel, that he murders his brother. And when God asks Cain where is your brother Abel Cain responds with a sneer and an arrogance in his voice – I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper? Isn’t that an amazingly cold response? Remember the first time you got that kind of response from one of your children, or the first time you responded that way to your parents? Children are little and sweet and somewhere along the way they develop this mind of their own and one day when you ask something of them and they have a defiant response. Ask them to clean up their room and when they’ve always been compliant they suddenly say, no, and you can’t make me!

Cain gives God a fist-waving statement of I’ll do what I want and nobody can tell me what to do and I’ll not only do what I want but I’ll treat people any way I want. You’re not the boss of me. Things don’t change in humanity. The spirit of Cain, unfortunately, is alive and well in our world today. We see it in the coldness that is demonstrated to others and in the hardheartedness and violence that is so pervasive.

Cain’s words are a declaration of independence from any responsibility toward the care of other people. It is a statement of withdrawing from the calling to minister to others and it is a proclamation of living in self-absorption.

The opposing way of dealing with people is the way of Jesus. In Matthew chapter 25 Jesus talks about the righteous and their pattern of caring for those who are in need of food, drink, clothing; of caring for those who are strangers; of looking after those who are sick and visiting those who are in prison – all the people that are described as the least of these brothers of mine. There is a solidarity that is expressed with those who are in need – Jesus calls them these brothers of mine. They are not anonymous people we pass by or ignore, but people who Jesus says are brothers and sisters to us.

So there are some important matters for us to remember –

Know that everyone is a child of God – even the most low down, spiteful, mean, ornery, hard to get along with, obnoxious (I’m running out of adjectives!) types of people. The Scriptures remind us that we are all created in God’s image, giving everyone a sense of value. But humanity loves to rank people and stratify people according to so many things, and that inevitably leads to a view that some people are of lesser value. And once you see people as being of less value it is a short step to treating them in a harsh and damaging way.

We ought to treat people with dignity and respect – whoever they are. It is not always easy. There are those who abuse the systems that have been set up to help others, but not everyone is out to take advantage. There are people who seem to work hard to make themselves unlovable, but the call of Christ does not let us off the hook on this point.

We must ask who is telling us how to treat others or feel about others? Jesus says the least of these and how we relate to and how we deal with them is the standard by which our faith is judged. The latter part of chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel is a harrowing passage to me. It’s a tough, tough passage because it is a direct challenge to the conditioning we receive from our world about who we value and how we treat those we value or don’t value. We are conditioned to think about people in particular way, and much of the time we are not even aware we are being conditioned to think of people in those ways. Matthew chapter 25 is a plumb line for us, a way of measuring out lives to see how we are treating others.

Remember that we are called into the lives of others. One of the benefits of ministering to others is that it saves us from ourselves and our worst impulses. It’s easy to become self-absorbed and wrapped up in our own lives, but ministering to others is such a benefit for us as it makes it impossible to become obsessed with our own lives and forget about others.

What can we do for someone else? We have to look at the big picture and see the numbers of people that need care, but we have to see the individual picture as well. What can I do for someone who is my neighbor or coworker? And it’s not just physical needs; it’s spiritual needs, and it’s standing with someone who needs someone to stand with them. It’s being with the one who is lonely, it’s expressing solidarity with the one who is an outcast, it’s standing up for the one at school who is bullied.

The other day I was sitting in the waiting room at a doctor’s office. Seated across from me was a mother with a tiny, newborn baby. That baby was so helpless. It couldn’t sit up on its own or even hold its head up. As I was watching that precious little baby an elderly man came in. He had a cane in each hand and was leaning on them very hard. He had a person on each side of him as well, helping him along. What an interesting scene it was, these two people at opposite stages of life, and neither one could make it without someone’s help. I’m somewhere in the middle of those two. Well, maybe a little past the middle, but the reality is I can’t make it alone either. I didn’t get anywhere in life on my own. No one does, no matter how much they believe so. I can say I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps but that’s not true for me or for anyone else. No one makes it on their own. Our lives are interconnected and intertwined in powerful ways and I believe that is exactly what God has always intended. It is, I believe, God’s will and intention that our lives are interconnected and intertwined as a reminder that we are brothers and sisters, and that we are indeed our brother’s keeper.

As a congregation there are many ministries we perform to care for others and to express our love for them. I am grateful for what we do. As the body of Christ that is what we are called to do, and we are called as individuals as well. We are our brother’s keeper; I am my brother’s keeper. We have to face that responsibility as a body and as individuals. May we go, and may we live with solidarity and oneness with our brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Challenge of Faithfulness - October 10, 2010

October 10, 2010

I Kings 19:9-14

Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way

The Challenge of Faithfulness

Bart Ehrman is a professor at the University of North Carolina. The author of numerous books, he wrote a book titled God’s Problem, which deals with the question of theodicy. Theodicy is the attempt to reconcile the belief in an all-powerful and loving God with the presence of evil and suffering in our world. Ehrman’s struggle with the question of evil and suffering led him to eventually reject his own faith and become an agnostic.

You can find many people who have stories similar to Bart Ehrman, stories that come down to the question of faithfulness. By the question of faithfulness I mean this – how do we hold to our faith when faith is so often subject to challenges? What do we do when our faith is assailed by critics or by our own doubts? What do we do when we struggle to give an answer for why we believe? What do we do when we feel let down by our faith? How do we continue to remain committed to faith amidst such challenges?

We are continuing our series of messages on the topic Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way, and today we come to The Challenge of Faithfulness. For our text we read part of the story of the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Elijah is an interesting study, because the most famous story from Elijah’s life is his contest with the prophets of Baal and Asherah on Mount Carmel. Elijah had challenged the prophets of Baal and Asherah to a contest to demonstrate that Yahweh is the true God. On that day Elijah stood before 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah and the nation of Israel, and we see him as unwavering, strong, and determined in his faith. When we read that part of the story we don’t see Elijah as a person who would seem to struggle with faith.

Then we turn the page and a few verses later find him hiding out in a cave. He is in the cave hiding from Ahab and Jezebel, and in that cave he feels so abandoned that he prays to die, which is odd, since he fled to the cave to save his life. His once rock-solid faith and convictions seem to have melted in the face of the challenges that came his way.

What happened to Elijah?

What happened to Elijah is the same thing that happens to all of us at some point in life. Life and the challenges of life have a way not only of wearing us down physically but spiritually as well. As the struggles of life pile up perhaps we begin to wonder, where is God? When we’ve struggled through some difficult losses perhaps we begin to think maybe I don’t need or want God, or maybe God really isn’t there. And we enter our own cave, like Elijah, and we have a crisis of faith and struggle to be faithful.

I think Elijah’s story is instructive to us in some important ways. One is in how God speaks to us, how he comforts us. It’s interesting to compare God’s appearances to Elijah. In the contest on Mount Carmel we see this dramatic fire that consumes the altar, which is a very visible sign of God’s power and presence. And then, when Elijah is in the cave, we see God come to him in a dramatically different way. First there is a powerful wind that tears at the mountain, but God was not in the wind. Next came an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. Instead of coming in a dramatic way, God appears in a gentle whisper, or in the translation we are more familiar with, a still, small voice.

Why did God make himself obvious on Mount Carmel, but in the cave come in such a less obvious manner? Why didn’t God choose the strong wind, or the earthquake, or the fire when coming to Elijah? Why didn’t God appear in a moment of great drama and say Elijah, I will take care of your every problem, I will meet your every need, I will protect you, I am right here with you in a powerfully obvious way?

Perhaps faith that is overwhelmed by God’s strength is not so much our own faith. God could have solved every struggle and met every challenge for Elijah, but would it then be Elijah’s faith that he possessed or would it simply have been a dependence upon God’s demonstration’s of power?

I used to be greatly unnerved by the challenges and doubts of those who rejected faith. To even read their arguments against faith used to bother me a great deal. Perhaps it was a revealing of my own securities, but I mostly stayed away from such things. I have learned, though, how unnecessary that was. I am no longer frightened or challenged by someone’s unbelief or by their challenge to faith. I am not frightened by the Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens of the world or their challenges to faith. And while I wanted at one time for God to make things so obvious to me that it would remove my doubts and fear, what I learned was that would ultimately make my faith weak. Struggle brought strength to my faith. Fear was banished when I learned to embrace a faith that didn’t depend on an obvious demonstration of God’s power or presence. Elijah went into that cave weary and insecure in his faith, but he walked out of that cave a different person, and he did so because God didn’t do Elijah’s faith for him, but rather allowed Elijah’s faith to grow in strength.

The Scriptures tell us of many miracles, but the big, flashy miracles are not how God generally dealt with people. God, even in the Scriptures, is not usually flashy. A parent does not solve every problem for their child, even when they can, because they know it is not ultimately what their child needs. For faith to be faith, it has to be a response of our genuine desire to follow God, even when God is not being obvious to us.

We don’t have to have an answer to every question. We don’t have to have a reason for everything that happens. The Biblical characters were much more willing to live with a level of mystery and uncertainty than we find in our modern age. We live in an age of rationalism, science, and materialism (by materialistic I mean believing in what is material, versus what is spiritual) that demands the explained and the obvious. God’s lesson to Elijah in that gentle whisper was to invite him to embrace mystery and a faith that is not dependent upon every question being answered or everything being perfectly obvious.

Next, we see that God reminded Elijah he was not alone. Elijah was asked, what are you doing here, Elijah? Notice he doesn’t ask why are you here Elijah? The what are you doing question is simple – Elijah is trying to stay alive. But Elijah gives a deeper answer; it is the real answer to why he is in that cave. It’s not just that he fears for his life. Elijah is in that cave because he’s mad at God; he feels as though God has let him down. In his answer, Elijah gives God a scolding. Listen to the words of Elijah and hear his frustration and disappointment – I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too. Elijah feels abandoned. He has been faithful in his calling but he feels God has not been faithful to him.

But God points out to Elijah that he is not alone. In verse 18 he tells Elijah there are 7,000 people in Israel who have not rejected him for Baal. 7,000 people! Elijah is not alone, though he may believe he is.

The difficulty with struggles and challenges is in the way they isolate us. We are tempted to believe we are the only ones who have ever experienced challenge, or struggle, or loss; but we aren’t. Others have experienced those same things and they are people who are our brothers and sisters and they will stand with us and they will comfort us. This is where I find the really big hole in the I don’t need to be a part of a church line of thinking. Yes, you can have the support and love of friends, but to be part of the body of Christ brings you into the care and support of a larger circle of brothers and sisters than we would have on our own.

And then God gave Elijah something to do. Elijah was instructed to go back the way he came – right back through the danger – and to anoint Jehu as the king of Israel and to anoint his own successor as well. That probably wasn’t very encouraging to Elijah, since there was already a king and his anointing of a new one would be seen as an act of sedition.

One of the answers to fear and doubt and struggle is having something to do. Not just anything, but a commissioning by God to step into the lives of others. One of the greatest antidotes to our own struggles is to step into the lives and struggles of others. Caring for and loving others is a great antidote to our own struggles.

Mark Hatfield, when he was a senator, wrote of touring Calcutta with Mother Teresa and visiting the so-called “House of Dying,” where sick children are cared for in their last days, and the dispensary, where the poor line up by the hundreds to receive medical attention. Watching Mother Teresa minister to these people, feeding and nursing those left by others to die, Hatfield was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the suffering she and her co-workers face daily. How can you bear the load without being crushed by it? he asked. Mother Teresa replied, My dear Senator, I am not called to be successful, I am called to be faithful.

She didn’t need the answer to why so many were suffering; she stepped out of her own live and into the lives of others. This is the antidote to our self-absorbed and skeptical world, and it is the antidote to our own lives when doubt and uncertainty wash over us. This is what helped Elijah to get up out of that cave and continue on.

Clarence Jordan was a man of unusual abilities and commitment. He had two Ph.D.s, one in agriculture and one in Greek and Hebrew. He could have chosen to do anything, but chose to serve the poor. In the 1940s, he founded a farm in Americus, Georgia, and called it Koinonia Farm. It was a community for poor whites and poor blacks. The idea did not go over well in the south of the 1940s. People tried everything to stop Clarence Jordan and his work. They tried boycotting him, and slashing workers’ tires when they came to town. Over and over, for fourteen years, they tried to stop him.

Finally, in 1954, the Ku Klux Klan had enough of Clarence Jordan, so they decided to get rid of him once and for all. They came one night with guns and torches and set fire to every building on Koinonia Farm but Clarence’s home, which they riddled with bullets. And they chased off all the families except one black family which refused to leave.

Jordan recognized the voices of many of the Klansmen, and some of them were church people. Another was the local newspaper’s reporter. The next day, the reporter came out to see what remained of the farm. He found Clarence in the field, hoeing and planting.

I heard the awful news,” he said to Clarence, and I came out to do a story on the tragedy of your farm closing. Clarence just kept on hoeing and planting. The reporter kept prodding, kept poking, trying to get a rise from this quietly determined man who seemed to be planting instead of packing his bags. So, finally, the reporter said in a haughty voice, Well, Dr. Jordan, you got two of them Ph.D.s and you’ve put fourteen years into this farm, and there’s nothing left of it at all. Just how successful do you think you’ve been?

Clarence stopped hoeing, turned toward the reporter and said quietly but firmly, About as successful as the cross. Sir, I don’t think you understand us. What we are about is not success but faithfulness. We’re staying. Good day.


When the measure is faithfulness, and not success, everything changes. God didn’t ask Elijah for any great success; he asked for faithfulness. God doesn’t ask us for any great success; he just asks for faithfulness. May we be ever faithful.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Challenge of Forgiveness

October 3, 2010

Matthew 18:15-22

Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way

The Challenge of Forgiveness

Four years ago yesterday a terrible tragedy took place in the community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. A man walked into a one-room Amish school and shot ten girls, killing five of them. It was a shocking tragedy, and it is remembered not just for the terrible violence, but also for the reaction of the Amish community. The leaders of the community said they had forgiven the man for what he had done. The gunman took his own life that day and half the people who attended his funeral were members of that Amish community. They even supported a fund that was set up for his widow and three children.

That act of forgiveness made news around the world, reminding us of how unusual it can be to see true forgiveness in action. All religions teach it (forgiveness), one person wrote, but no one does it like the Amish.

As we continue our series of messages based on Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way, this morning we come to The Challenge of Forgiveness. There are challenges, and then there are challenges. And forgiveness is one of those really, really big challenges. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that every person here this morning either needs to let go of something and grant someone forgiveness or needs to feel forgiven. And some of the events related to the need to either give or receive forgiveness may go back many years.

The passage we read from Matthew’s gospel takes us through the difficult question of forgiveness. Jesus begins by talking about the difficult task of restoring a broken relationship. Peter then approaches Jesus to ask, Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? Peter is being generous; not many people give someone seven chances. He is, I think, genuinely grappling with being full of grace and forgiveness. But Jesus blows Peter’s mind, I’m sure, when he responds, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Or, as some translations offer, seven times seventy times.

Many people would hear those words and say, well, Jesus wants us to become a doormat, and I’m not interested in being treated in such a way.

But one of the issues Jesus is addressing is the spiral of hurt that escalates because of a lack of forgiveness. We all know how it goes. Someone hurts someone and the other person responds by hurting them in a greater way and it continues to escalate by drawing in other people and the pain and brokenness deepens. Jesus is saying that at some point we have to be the ones that say we will not be drawn into that cycle of pain and hurt; we will not further the brokenness; we will not further the divide that separates people.

But it also leads us to avoid the danger of the soul-destroying hurt and bitterness that comes when we cannot, or will not, forgive.

Corrie Ten Boom said, forgiveness is to set a prisoner free, and to realize the prisoner was you. (http://christianity.about.com/od/whatdoesthebiblesay/a/bibleforgivenes.htm)

The person most hurt by an unwillingness to forgive is not the person who has offended us; the person most hurt is me. When we are hurt by someone we want justice to be done but what we find instead is a cancer of bitterness eating away our soul. And no measure of justice won’t take away that bitterness.

David Augsburger says it this way in Caring Enough to Forgive, and he writes since nothing we intend is ever faultless, and nothing we attempt ever without error, and nothing we achieve without some measure of finitude and fallibility we call humanness, we are saved by forgiveness. We are saved by forgiveness. What a powerful way to phrase such an important truth. We are certainly saved by the forgiveness of God, but we are saved from so much suffering by not only receiving forgiveness but in granting forgiveness.

I have watched too many people suffer in life because of a lack of forgiveness. They have suffered because someone held over their heads a failure or a hurt and they were never offered forgiveness. It’s tragic that some people want to hold that kind of power over someone else. But more people are hurt by not offering forgiveness. I have watched too many people grow hard and cold with bitterness. They find joy in holding onto a hurt and it smothers and eventually poisons the soul.

When Jesus tells Peter to forgive over and over it’s not a question of being a doormat or being taken advantage of; it’s a matter of cleansing and purifying our soul, it’s a matter of bringing healing and wholeness to ourselves.

There may be something you need to let go of today. Don’t allow bitterness to take root in your soul. Consider this as you hear the story of Phan Thi Kim Phuc (Fan Tie Kim Fuu). You may not recognize the name, but you have undoubtedly seen a picture of her. In 1972 a photo was taken of her that would win a Pulitzer Prize. She was 9 years old at the time and the photo is arguably the most famous photo taken during the Vietnam War. The photo shows her running and screaming when napalm was dropped on her village. Third degree burns covered 75% of her body. After seventeen surgeries the scars are still visible and she still suffers from her injuries. She has traveled quite a path since that day in 1972.

But someone else has traveled quite a path since that day as well. John Plummer was the pilot of the plane that dropped the napalm that day. When he saw the picture he was haunted by the image for twenty-five years. He said that as he looked at the picture he would tell himself, I did that to her. That’s a terrible burden to live with, and it was too much for him. As he searched for something to help with his guilt he began to drink heavily and his life fell apart.

Over time, he discovered the grace of God and became a minister. In 1997, watching the evening news, he saw that picture again and learned that she was still alive. Though she had rarely spoken in public about her ordeal she had been invited to Washington to speak at a Veteran’s Day observance. Plummer knew he had to go and prayed that God would bring them together.

As he stood in the crowd she said if I could talk face-to-face with the pilot…I would tell him we cannot change history. Plummer scribbled out a note, I am that man, and a police officer delivered the note. By the time she was given the note he had made his way to where he was just a few feet behind her. She read it and said, I couldn’t move any more. I stopped and turned, and he looked at me. For years she carried a great deal of anger and hatred because of what had happened to her, but she too had found the grace of God in the intervening years. She opened her arms, embraced him, and as he wept she said, it’s all right. I forgive. I forgive. And over the next two hours they talked and prayed together.

Colossians 3:13 says, Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. As we have been forgiven, may we also forgive.