Monday, November 26, 2012

November 25, 2012 - Think Again: The Possibilities of Gratitude

Luke 17:11-19

The first time I attended a UK football game was in 1984.  Our neighbor at the time came over to tell me he was given two free tickets to the game and asked if I would like to go.  Well, I’m all about free so of course I said yes.  I was so grateful he offered me a free UK football ticket.

He asked if I could drive, since he had the tickets, and I thought that was fair.  When we got to Lexington he told me where there was a great place to park near the stadium, which I thought would be very expensive, but if we split the cost it would be reasonable.  When we pulled into the parking area he said maybe I should pay, because he had provided the tickets.  By this point my gratitude was beginning to wane somewhat, but once we got to our seats and the game started I was happy to be there.  But we hadn’t been there long when he decided we should get something to eat, and guess who should pay for it?  That’s right – me.  And not just once, but twice.  After all, he had provided the tickets.  Later in the season he came over and once again had two free tickets to a game and asked if I would like to go.  I told him I didn’t want to sound ungrateful but I couldn’t afford another free ticket!

Sometimes, it’s hard to be grateful.

As we continue our series of messages called Think Again, today we come to a fascinating historical character.  He’s one of my favorites, and is a person who brought a great sense of gratitude to the world.

Born Giovanni di Bernardone in 1181, his father was furious when his wife named their son Giovanni, after John the Baptist.  His father wanted him to be a man of business, not a man of God, so he renamed his son Francesco.

Francesco enjoyed a very easy life because of his father's wealth, and everyone loved him.  Francesco became the leader of a group who spent their nights in wild and lavish parties.  He was also very good at business, which made his father very happy.  Francesco later decided he wanted to be a knight and go to battle.  He found his chance, but he was taken prisoner and held for ransom.  He spent a year in a dungeon before being released.

After his release he continued to party and even went back into battle, with other knights in the Fourth Crusade.  He rode away on his horse wearing a suit of armor decorated with gold and a long, flowing cloak.

But he only rode one day’s journey away from his home when he had a dream in which God told him he was living his life all wrong and that he should return home.  He began to spend time in prayer and went off to a cave to weep for his sins.

As he traveled through the countryside one day, Francesco met a leper.  Although Francesco was repelled something compelled him to climb down from his horse and to kiss the hand of the leper.  The leper returned the kiss of peace, which filled Francesco with joy.

He eventually came to an old church – the church at San Damiano.  While praying there, he sensed God telling him to repair the church, which was at that time a crumbling old building.  To get money to repair the church he sold fabric from his father’s shop.  His father was so enraged that he dragged his son before the local bishop and the entire town and demanded that his son return the money and renounce his right as his father’s heir.

The bishop told him to return the money to his father and that God would provide.  Francesco returned the money as well as the clothes off his back. In front of the town he said Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father.  From now on I can say with complete freedom, “Our Father who are in heaven.”  Wearing only old castoff rags and barefoot he walked off into the freezing weather, with nothing, but singing because of his gratitude that God would provide for him. 

Even though Francesco had nothing, he believed he had everything.  He went to work on the church at San Damiano, begging for stones, and with his bare hands he to worked to rebuild the church. 

Francesco began to preach and as he did he attracted others who began to work with him.  They slept under the open sky, begged for food – sometimes eating garbage – and always loved God out of gratitude for what they had received.  He taught and practiced that everyone was equal, and no one was greater than another.
Francesco and his companions went out to preach two by two, and some listeners were hostile to these men dressed in rags and talking about the love of God.  Some people even ran away from them, believing them to be crazy.  But they also noticed that these beggars who wore old rags or sacks and walked barefoot were filled with a constant sense of joy.  How was it possible, people wondered, that a person could own nothing and yet be happy?
Francesco believed that he and those who followed him were truly free.  They would not accept money.  He believed that if they had possessions they would need weapons to defend them.  What can you do to someone who has nothing?  You can’t steal from him.
Francesco was only 45 years old when he died, but he left an indelible mark on history.  If you have not yet guessed the name by which we are most familiar with Francesco you may be familiar with is famous prayer –

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

That is the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, who changed the world through the simplicity of his living and the gratitude he expressed each day of his life.

How could someone be so content and so happy with so little?  How could someone devote their life to rebuilding a dilapidated old church, working in bare feet and wearing old rags?

That St. Francis gave up so much is a reminder of what Paul writes of Christ in Philippians 2:5-7 – Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.

We have traveled far from the ways of Francis of Assisi.  We have come far, but have we gone the right direction?  Now we are in the midst of a season of conspicuous consumption that probably brings much more anxiety that it brings pleasure.

Luke this morning tells us of these ten lepers who were healed by Jesus, and of the ten only one returns to express gratitude to Jesus.  This wasn’t being healed from a common cold – this was the gift of life.  Lepers were in a long, slow march toward death.  Shouldn’t that draw a sense of gratitude from a person?

I think part of the message of this passage is to make the reader or listener stop and ask have I been grateful for what I have been given?

Many years ago a group of farmers decided to eat their best potatoes and to only plant the small ones. They kept up this practice for many years, even though they noticed the potatoes getting smaller and smaller. They blamed the weather, the beetles, and potato blight.  They continued until their potatoes were reduced to a size not much larger than a big marble.  The farmers learned through bitter experience that they could not keep the best things of life for themselves and use the leftovers for seed.  Even nature teaches us that an open, generous, and grateful life produces blessing while an ungrateful and ungenerous life reduces the blessings of life.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

November 18, 2012 - Think Again: Don't Be Afraid to Speak Up!

Matthew 23:1-5; 13, 23-28

When I was in the 6th grade there was a guy in my neighborhood that decided he would make my life very difficult, and began to bully me.  I was a fairly small kid so I was an easy target.  One of the ways bullies work their intimidation is by having a few of their friends along with them, which is what this guy did.  Bullies also seem to enjoy dragging out their intimidation over a period of time.  For a number of days at school, and on the school bus, he would tell me what he was going to do to me, and his friends would chuckle.  He would stop me in the hall, with his friends behind him, and give me a few shoves or call me a few names, and on the bus would sit behind me and harass me.  And through the process he would be counting down to the day of reckoning, when he and his friends would get off the bus at my stop and attack me.  As the day drew closer I was really worried.  It’s not that I hadn’t been in a few fights before; it’s that I had a perfect record – I lost every one.  I didn’t know what to do.  What do you do when you can’t come up with any solutions and you feel a sense of desperation?  You pray!  I prayed, and in those prayers of my youth it became obvious to me that no matter what those guys did, I should not respond by striking back, which, I have to admit, didn’t seem like a very wise course of action.  But Matthew 5:38-39 came to mind, because we had talked about them at church and they stuck in my mind – You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth.  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  If someone strikes on the right cheek, turn to them the other as well.”  I have to admit, that didn’t sound like great advice to me.  I didn’t want to lose a tooth and I didn’t want a black eye, but this was the advice of Jesus.  On the way home from school that day, I got on the bus, and this guy and his friends came down the aisle.  He slides into my seat and pushes me against the wall of the bus, and reminds me it was the day they were getting off at my stop.  And then he asks me what I was going to do about it.  I gave him my answer – that up to that moment I was still thinking might not be the wisest course of action – but I thought what have I got to lose?  So I looked at him and said I’m not going to do anything.  You can guess his answer – are you a chicken?  Well, I was afraid, but I was trying not to let that show.  My answer just popped out; it was something like this – Jesus said I shouldn’t strike back if someone hits me so whatever you do I’m not going to do anything back.  And I remember his reaction so well.  He had one arm behind me on the back of the seat and the other on the seat in front of us and he started shaking his head up and down, like he didn’t know what to say.  He just kept shaking his head and finally said, okay, okay, okay.  And then he stood up, went to another seat, and never bothered me again.  I couldn’t believe it – I thought, wow, this stuff really works!

There are times in life when we have to stand up and say something, and it is often difficult to do so.  As we continue our series of messages called Think Again, we come to a man who decided to speak up.  His speaking up so altered world history that there is a holiday to commemorate what he did.  It’s not a major holiday, but it’s an important one, nonetheless. 

The man’s name is Martin Luther, and the holiday is Reformation Day. October 31st of this year was the 495th (1517 AD) anniversary of his actions that led to the recognition of Reformation Day.
On that date Martin Luther took an article he had written – Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (better known as his 95 Theses) – that sounds like a real nail-biter, doesn’t it – and nailed it to the door of All Saints church in Wittenburg, Germany.  It was a list Luther had compiled of grievances and questions that he believed must be addressed by the Catholic Church.  At the time, Luther had no idea that he was setting into motion a series of events that became known as the Protestant Reformation.  His simple act of nailing the 95 Theses on the door of All Saints church completely reshaped our world, to the point that had he not done so we would not be sitting in this church today.

One of the many contributions Luther made is the idea of speaking up, of protesting against the things that need to change.  Though Luther never set out to create the movement that became Protestantism, we are Protestants because of him.  The word Protestant comes from protest or protestor.

There are many things that should cause us to speak out, and certainly at the top of the list is the abuse of people. 

Our Scripture passage for today cites a few verses out of a longer passage.  In these verses Jesus is absolutely blistering in his criticism of the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees.  These verses are Jesus’ protest against the way religious leaders such as the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees were treating people. 

Listen to what he has to say.
1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples,
2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses;
3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. 4 They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.
5 But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.
13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.
28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.


Jesus has some real issues with these guys, and rightly so.  They were imposing such a heavy burden of guilt and hypocrisy and judgment and works oriented religion upon people and because they were doing so Jesus speaks up and is absolutely withering in his criticism.

The world, sadly, hasn’t changed much.  People are still being mistreated, and we need to speak out about their mistreatment.

One of the great tragedies of modern warfare is the horrendous violence directed at civilians, particularly women and children.  Violence, and particularly sexual violence, has become a tool used to devastate populations.

Week of Compassion is a partner in Speak Out Sunday – designated as next Sunday – which is a time to bring awareness of sexual and gender based violence both locally and around the world, and Week of Compassion has information on their web site.  But it’s not just in warfare; it’s right here in our own country, and in our own community.  Did you know that in the United States, 1 out of every 3 women are victims of sexual and gender based violence?  One out of every three.  Look around this morning and start adding up numbers and that’s a lot of people. 

Our news media’s current obsession is the David Petraeus scandal.  I wish they would remember there are some other things that bear mentioning.  They are consumed with that story, while they have almost completely failed to mention that within the ranks of the military violence against female soldiers has increased dramatically in recent years.  Those are our mothers, our wives, our sisters, and daughters.  And the added tragedy is that some of our most trusted institutions have failed us in this area – schools, universities, the military, and even churches.  Who will speak up for these people?   We must.  We cannot be silent at the abuse of people.

Can you imagine if some of our greatest social problems got the media coverage to match the Petraeus scandal?  The media is far too silent about many of the struggles facing people.  We get a few mentions of poverty, but it doesn’t get much coverage.  A piece buried in the news the other day was a surprise – do you know what state has the highest poverty rate?  California, at 23.5%.  Not what you expected, is it?  Do you know what state is second?  Florida, at 19.5%.  The recession has exacted a painful, painful toll on people.

There are many people who are forgotten by our larger society.  They live on the margins of life, struggling to get by.  They are the people who fall through the cracks, they are the children who are abandoned, they are the single parents struggling to raise their children, they are the lonely, they are the abused, and they are our relatives, our friends, and our neighbors.

One thing churches have done far too often is to speak against people, rather than on their behalf.  Too many times churches have been quick to point a finger of judgment and too many times churches have been quick to speak words of condemnation.  Imagine the difference if churches were quicker to speak up for people instead of speaking in judgment of them.

Jesus always stood up for others.  He stood up for the woman taken in adultery, when the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees wanted her to be put to death by stoning (John 8:1-11).  No wonder Jesus spoke so harshly to these men – look at what they were willing to do to this woman.  He stood up for the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26).  She was ostracized by her own community and even the disciples were troubled that Jesus spoke with her.  He stood up for the woman who anointed him shortly before his crucifixion (Mark 14:1-9). 

In 1521, four years after he nailed those arguments on the church door, Martin Luther stood before the Roman Emperor and leaders of the church to answer charges of being a heretic.  One of the most brilliant theologians of the day, Johann von Eck, asked him this – Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand Scripture?  Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all?  I ask you, Martin, answer candidly…do you repudiate your books and the errors they contain?  Luther’s response has become famous for his bravery and conviction – I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against the conscience is neither safe nor right.  God help me, here I stand.  Amen.
(Word of God Across the Ages, Bill J. Leonard, 1981, Nashville:  Broadman Press, p. 34).

It’s tough to speak up.  It’s tough to challenge authority.  But walking in the way of Jesus means there are times when we cannot be silent.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

November 4, 2012 - Think Again: What's Happening To Us?

Matthew 24:23-26, 36, 42-44

What’s Happening To Us?

In January of 1977 I tried to outrun a blizzard.  As I was preparing to go back to school after Christmas break a warning was issued for a major snowstorm in southern West Virginia and western Virginia, where I would be driving.  I was anxious to get back to school so I thought I would leave a day early and get through the mountains before the storm hit.  Weather forecasting isn’t an exact science with today’s technology, so it was less exact back then, which meant the storm came in early.  I was about halfway through West Virginia when it hit, and it was a major snowstorm. 

I was traveling by myself, and probably should have turned back, but I decided to press ahead.  That wasn’t a great decision.  The snow was falling so fast and hard that very quickly it was difficult to see the road.  By the time I crossed into the western tip of Virginia it was really bad, and by then I was beginning to understand I made a mistake trying to drive through the storm.  I was in the middle of the mountains, with nowhere to stop, so I decided to keep driving.  I was listening to weather reports and heard a report that the interstate was closed behind me, so I knew that if I got stuck I was on my own.

By that time I was beginning to get really worried, wondering if I would end up in a snow bank and stranded on the mountain late at night by myself.  What would happen to me if I became stranded out there?  About that time, I suddenly came upon two tractor-trailer trucks driving side by side.  It was dark, and the snow was falling so hard that I couldn’t see them until it was too late.  I wasn’t traveling that fast, but I was going faster than the trucks.  When I hit my brakes I started sliding and knew I was going to plow right into the back of one of the trucks.  There was absolutely no way I could stop in time to avoid a wreck.

One of the things that really sticks in my mind about that moment was the fear of what was going to happen to me on that mountain in that blizzard.

Have you even had one of those moments?  What would happen to me?  It’s a very frightening feeling, isn’t it?

As we continue with our new series, Think Again, we are considering the question What’s Happening To Us?  There are so many problems facing our world today that it’s difficult not to feel a sense of foreboding about the future.  Do you ever feel discouraged about the state of the world?  Do you worry about the future?

If so, meet the Millerites, a group of people who serve as the historical setting for our message this morning.

The Millerites were followers of William Miller, who began to preach about the end of the world in the 1840’s.  Miller predicted that Jesus would return for the Second Coming and that Earth would be engulfed in fire sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.  Miller was an apocalyptic preacher. The word apocalyptic comes from a Greek word meaning unveiling.  The Bible contains apocalyptic literature, such as our Scripture passage for today.  Apocalyptic literature has to do with the end of time, or an unveiling of the future.  When people speak of apocalyptic events they are speaking of destructive events on a tremendously large scale or of events related to the end of time.

Miller spoke to large crowds, had his writings widely publishes, and eventually as many as 100,000 Millerites sold their belongings and moved to the mountains to wait for the end.  Miller eventually selected the date of October 22, 1844 as the end of time, but when nothing happened it became known as The Great Disappointment.  The reaction of the Millerites varied – some sought to rebuild their lives, some became affiliated with other religious groups, and some formed what would become the Seventh-day Adventists.

Though other apocalyptic groups existed before the Millerites, it was William Miller and his followers who burned into American consciousness the idea that we are living in the final days, and the primary reason why it was viewed as the last days was because of the depth of the problems facing humanity.  There was such a strong sense of what is happening to us that people believed the end must surely be near.  So pervasive is Miller’s influence that world events and catastrophes continue to be interpreted in light of the impending end of time. 

Every time we are visited by disaster I am asked if I believe it is a sign that the end is near.  I have already been asked if I believe that the destruction of Sandy is a sign of the impending end.  My reply to that question is very simple – no.  Absolutely not.  Jesus makes it very, very plain that no one knows when the end will come.  In Matthew 24:36 Jesus says But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

But there are very legitimate fears about the future of our world.  We possess the technology to destroy ourselves, and it sometimes seems as if we are determined to do so.  Environmentally, we seem to be at a tipping point.  Can the world sustain the billions of people that inhabit the earth?  Is it possible we could suffer a large-scale epidemic?  Some scientists think we are very fortunate to have avoided one thus far.  There are, certainly, many things taking place in our world that should cause concern.

But this morning I don’t want to concentrate on the difficulties facing us.  Instead I want to instill a sense of confidence.

First, the Scriptures seek to calm our fears and anxieties about the future.  When people want a theology about the future, they most often turn to the book of Revelation.  A lot of people, I believe, misinterpret the book of Revelation, and I’ll tell you the number one way to recognize when its being misinterpreted – if it is used to instill fear in people.  The book of Revelation is a strange book to read.  If you have read the book of Revelation you’ve probably scratched your head at some of the imagery it presents.  Let me simply say this about the images and the message of Revelation – rather than seeking to instill fear, it seeks to instill hope and trust.  The book of Revelation was written to a church suffering terrible, terrible persecution, and much of the imagery is a kind of code so things could be said about the Roman Empire without those comments bringing greater persecution.  Those images are also meant to remind people that no matter how bad things may appear, God remains in control.  Those early Christians had a lot of reasons to wonder what was going to happen to them.  They often asked the question, I’m sure, what is happening to us, and why is this happening to us?  The book of Revelation sought to calm their fears and to remind them God was in control, would remain in control, and would always be with them.  There is far too much fear-based religion in our world. 

Second, the world isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In Matthew 24:44 Jesus says the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.  Put it this way – when the end is most expected, that is when it is least likely to happen. So the next time someone starts prattling on to you about the Mayan Calendar and how the end is coming on 12/21/12, just ignore it.  It’s not a prediction anyway – it just runs out of pages!

Third, yes, the world is in bad shape, which is why we are called to make a difference in the world.  So what are we going to do? 

Now, you didn’t think I’d leave you wondering what happened to me in that blizzard did you?  What happened next was one of those moments that will make you shake your head years later.  I still can’t decide if what I did next was totally crazy or totally brilliant.  I didn’t want to have a wreck on that mountain in the middle of a blizzard so I made a split-second decision that probably need a good deal more thought.  Since I couldn’t stop in time, I stepped on the gas.  I realized the trucks had some space between them and estimated that it might be just enough for me to drive between them.  I wasn’t sure there was enough room, but I was hopeful.  Let me add at this point a disclaimer – please don’t ever try this, and I’m especially saying this to Nick and Tyler!

I held my breath, started honking my horn, started flicking my lights between high and low beam, and drove between those two trucks, probably scaring the two drivers half to death.  I tried not to look at the trucks as I went between them because I didn’t really want to know how close it was, and I found myself scrunching up my arms, as though that would somehow help.

Miraculously, I came out the other side, and as I did both those drivers were hitting their horns and flashing their lights at me, and probably saying a few things as well. 

There are many things in our world that bring to us a sense of anxiety, but the message of the Gospel reminds us that God is in control, and because of this we have hope!  Some of you may be in the midst of a storm in your life – God is with you, don’t ever forget that promise.

When you are struggling in life, remember that God will see you through to the other side.  When you are in doubt and feel alone, remember that God is with you.  Remember that God will remain with you.  Will you have fear?  Probably so, but remember that God is greater than any fear we experience.
What is happening to us?  Nothing that will take us out of the hands and the care of God!