Monday, September 27, 2010

Help for the Road Home: Trifles

Preached Sunday, September 26

Scripture Readings:
Joshua 5:13-6:25
1 Peter 4:7-19

A man and his wife were walking in a big crowd, and the wife felt her husband slip his hand into hers. She was more than touched by this, and she asked, “You don’t want to lose me?” And he answered, “I don’t want to have to look for you.”

Either way, a husband and wife holding each other’s hand in a crowd is one of those gestures that are the most important things in life; little things, barely noticed things.

Preached Sunday, September 26

Aliens visiting from another planet might consider the holding of hands to be a mere trifle, and overlook how essential it is. John Calvin wrote almost five hundred years ago…”The Lord often, for a time, conceals his own might under weakness, and seems to sport with mere trifles, that his weakness may at length appear stronger than all might, and his folly superior to all wisdom.” (Commentary on Joshua 6:3)
The daily circling of Jericho by the silent armies of Israel was a sort of mere trifle (a little thing): an odd, funny, almost silly. And they didn’t have time for that. God’s people had the big “M” going for them. They had the momentum.

All the towns and tribes of the Promised Land were afraid of them; afraid of what they would do next. Now was the time for action and the attack.

Jericho was not what we would call a city. The ruin of Jericho can be seen today, and it takes about twenty minutes to walk around it. So it was smaller than Washtucna or Kahlotus (at least in the amount of ground it covered, although it was probably much more densely populated and crowded, people living on top of each other in narrow houses of brick and stone, and people from the outlying villages who were holed up there, too, for refuge).

It was the first time God’s people had laid siege to a town, but they had the means to take it. They had Jericho outnumbered. They could climb the wall with ladders. They would lose men in the process but they had more than enough to take their places. The other towns, and the real cities, would topple like dominoes at the news.
They had to do this if whey wanted to make that land their home. Promised Land was supposed to be their home.

Jericho was the front door. God’s people could smash that door down. That would be glory and honor for them, and (you can guess) that was probably the problem.

The Promised Land was home, and home is about intimacy. Home is about relationships. For us, home is life with God; in a thousand little gestures as small as the touch of a hand every day.

It is true that Jericho would be a battle (a very brief, hand-to-hand combat, soon done with battle). But it was also the front door of home. It was to be their home with God, and God, himself, would open the door for them.

But there is this odd little ceremonious beginning: the little twenty minute parade every morning; not a word, not a whisper spoken, not the big silver trumpets but the little rams’ horns that belonged to the Passover feast; and then nothing for the rest of the day, day after day, for six days: take a walk in silence, and then be quiet and wait.

But why bother with this? If God was going to knock down the wall himself, why not get it over with?

What good would this do? How odd, how silly, that must have seemed, both to God’s people and to the people of Jericho who were watching them from the city walls. What were they doing? What were they thinking? The people of God hardly knew what they were doing, and they didn’t know what they were supposed to think.

There were going to be real battles, real sieges, in the future. God’s people would fight with all their might. Sometimes they would win, and sometimes they would lose.

The battles were important. In fact, the battles were crucial, and God was intensely interested in how those battles went. But the battles were not the whole point of this thing about coming home. What mattered most, to God, was the life that took place between the battles; or the life that was made possible because those battles had been fought.

More than wanting his people to come home and fight, God wanted his people to come home and live. Only, sometimes, they would have to fight a battle in order to live, or in order to live well.

They had come home. They were not supposed to be headed anywhere anymore. They were supposed to have reached their goal. The road had been traveled. God had helped them on the road to arrive at home. Their story was no longer supposed to be about going, or about arriving, but about just “being”.

The first five books of the Old Testament are sometimes called “The Law”. In Hebrew the word is “Torah”. Torah means law, but it also means way. You could say that it contains rules for life, but it is just as well to say that it describes a way of life.

For example: the day of rest in the Old Testament is called the Sabbath. Sabbath basically means to stop. Just stop. Stop and be quiet. Stop and enjoy. Stop and play. Stop and worship and be thankful. Stop, and be still, and know that God is God. The Torah, the way of life for God’s people, is for them to be the kind of people who know how to stop.

In Leviticus God’s word told farmers to not harvest their crops right up to the edges and corners of their fields. This was because that part of the crop should be left for the needy to glean and have what they needed to survive. (Leviticus 19:9)
This is not a rule in itself; not a rule simply for the sake of rules. This is the picture of generosity and care for one’s neighbor. It is a picture of the heart of God’s people and a picture of God’s own heart. But it was a picture to be drawn and painted every year (year after year, and generation after generation) until it was indelible, until it sunk deeper than any tattoo and worked its way into their heart.

It was to make the heart like an onion of generosity. You know how you peal away the outer layer of an onion, and (what do you find underneath?) you only find more onion.

The laws of righteousness and justice in the Old Testament were meant to provide a routine of little gestures and patterns that seemed like trifles; but they would shape the hearts of the people of God into compassion, generosity, and grace. It was meant to shape the hearts of God’s people into the shape of God’s heart.

Life is like a journey, but some stages of life are like arriving. You get married. You get a job. You become a parent. You get a call to pastor a church. You know that this part of life will also be a journey that will take you somewhere you cannot imagine. But you know (or you hope) that here is a place in life where your will stay; where you are home.

There is a way just to be; just be home. This is the way of routines, and habits, and disciplines, and little gestures that you give to those around you. Home is the place of trifles.

When the time comes for me to prepare for a funeral, one of the things I try to do is take time to visit the family of the person who has passed away, and I ask them to share with me stories that I can share to celebrate the person they have lost. I always realize that this is the hardest time to ask people to remember such stories; but I ask them anyway, and some of those stories always come out.

Some of the stories are about challenges and battles that the person fought to overcome, some crisis to be met, some obstacle to face. Sometime there was a need for that person to have the strength to take care of someone, or to stand up for what they believed. Those are good stories.

Sometimes the story is not a story or a battle at all. The story is just the typical thing that this person would say or do every day, every year; that showed the kind of person they were.

We only fight battles so that we and others can live, and live well. At times like Memorial Day, we celebrate the people who fought real battles in real wars, and we remember that the best of them did not do this for glory, but for home; for the orderly lives of people at home, for peace or for freedom. That is what the best battles and wars are all about.

The commander of the armies of the Lord (who met with Joshua on the way to Jericho) is a strange figure. The commander of the armies of the Lord is probably an appearance by the Son of God before he became real flesh and blood in Jesus.
Essentially this commander told Joshua that home itself, and the routines of home, the freedom of home, the intimacy of home, are holy ground. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” (Joshua 5:15) They were home.

In an ordinary family it is the routine that matters as holy ground. What matters is not some grand family trip, but playing together or working together as a family in the yard. I remember being a five year old helping my parents paint the house. What were they thinking? How can a five-year-old paint a house?

What matters is this trifle, this routine: not a holiday feast, but the bowl of oatmeal steaming on the table in the morning, and the meatloaf or the spaghetti on the super table in the evening; and the daily prayer as a family wherever you would do that; and the talks you have about what your are going to do that day, or those talks about life in the evening or driving in the car. The holy ground is listening, and patience, and fairness, and kindness, and faithfulness, and integrity.

In the first letter we have from Peter, he wrote, “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear minded and self controlled so that you can pray.” (4:7)
And what are we to be clear-minded and to pray about?

We are to think and pray about how to, “love others deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8) We are to think and pray how to make our lives redemptive and healing for others?

We are to think about pray about being hospitable to others. That means welcoming and making others feel at ease; not just to strangers, or neighbors, or friends; but even to your husband, your wife, or your children. It means helping and taking care of others.

We are to think about and pray about how to use whatever gifts we have in order to be instruments of God’s grace. We are to live as if we were Jesus. We are to serve as if we were Jesus serving. We are to speak as if we were Jesus speaking.

This doesn’t mean that we always have to be pious and serious. We have to remember that Jesus could say some very funny things; such as asking a blind man, “What do you want me to do for you? (Luke 18:41) And Jesus could do some funny things like turning water into wine. (John 2:1-10)

But the point about what we think and pray about doing is that these things, for us, are to be on our own scale, in our own way. “The end of all things” is a big deal; a big battle. But the point of it all is about our life; how we think, and pray, and love others, and make them welcome.

What matters is what kind of things we are likely to say, and what kind of ways are we likely to serve. Every day, over and over, we talk and we serve. We make people laugh because, over time, they know exactly what we are likely to say and do because we have repeated ourselves so many times. (For instance I have told the joke about the husband holding his wife’s hand any number of times.) This is home. This is our holy ground.

These are all little things, but they are the holy ground of our lives. They are what our lives are really about. These are the surprising things that make our lives matter. Oswald Chambers, a Christian teacher of a hundred years ago, said: “Our job is not to do extraordinary things, but ordinary things in extraordinary ways.”

Our readings from the scriptures tell us how to do little and silly, trifle things: how to walk around a town, how to face the end of all things. There is a secret to both these things. The Lord told Joshua: “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands.” (Joshua 6:2)

The Lord told Joshua that the battle was already won. The Lord had won the battle long before God’s people ever came on the scene.

This is how we are to live: as people who know that the Lord has won the battle. Even if we face the end of all things, we know that God has come down from heaven in Jesus Christ to live for us, and die for us, and rise for us.

In his life and death he faced our battles against temptation, and pressure, and misunderstanding, and contempt, and injustice. In his life and death Jesus carried our sins and faced death itself for us. Jesus rose from the dead and he is the conqueror of our sins. He is the conqueror of death itself.

The most common part of our lives is the little circles we walk day by day and year by year. God loves the little circles of life as much as he loves the great battles and the great journeys.

God made the wildflowers, and God has made so many of them that we can assume he is like the little child you spin or toss, and they laugh and say, “Do it again.” God loves the little things you do that make you beloved by others, just by being there. Over and over he sees them and says, “Do it again! Do it again!”

This is what makes a home and a family, and this is (after all) the great work that God is at; building a family as big as creation, a family we call the kingdom of God.

Our ordinary lives are supposed to be part of a holy routine that defines who we really are as God’s children. So we need to know that this is the holy ground that God has given us to stand on, and that he has won the battle for us on the cross, and in his resurrection. Sometimes we may wonder if it really matters, but it is enough to just play at God’s trifles, and walk around in circles, and watch and see what God is doing.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Help for the Road Home: Follow-Through

Preached Sunday, September 19

Scripture Readings:
Numbers 11:1-35
Philippians 2:12-18

A wife had a husband who was hard to please. He was a complainer by nature, and he was getting worse. She tried to deal with this by pleasing him; but it was so hard (especially when he got up in the morning).

He always insisted on having eggs for breakfast, and he would only eat them poached or scrambled. But when she scrambled them he said he wanted them poached, and when she poached them he said he wanted them scrambled.

One morning she tried serving him one poached egg and one scrambled egg. He looked at his eggs, and he looked at her, and he said, “You scrambled the wrong one.”

God’s people were real, regular complainers. They had seen amazing things. God had filled the year with his gifts. And they were complaining.

It had been a year since they left Egypt. During that year God had set them free from centuries of slavery. God had made a way for them to cross the Red Sea on dry ground, and drowned the Egyptian army which was hot on their heels.

They were safe, although they didn’t feel safe. When they were afraid of dying of thirst or hunger, in the desert, God provided them with springs of water and with a mysterious and miraculous food from heaven. The food appeared regularly; six days out of seven. They called the food “manna”, which (in Hebrew) means “What is it?” or “Whatchamacallit”.

They had camped at the foot of Mount Sinai and God had given them his laws, along with the summary of God’s law in The Ten Commandments. The people regularly saw the glory of God, and they were led by God in something that looked like a column of smoke by day and a column of fire by night.

Best of all, they had turned around. They were heading the right direction, at last. They were heading north toward the Promised Land. They were heading for home.

When we catch up with God’s people they had just finished celebrating their first feast of Passover in freedom. It was the first anniversary of their escape from Egypt. And God’s people had been complaining almost all the way, that whole year long; murmuring, grumbling, whining, griping; on, and on, and on, and on.

Soon after this, in the thirteenth chapter of Numbers, at God’s command, Moses was going to send scouts ahead to bring a report back, describing the Promised Land to the people. The scouts came back with a glowing report about the land, but they also reported that the people living there already were strong. There was a war to be fought.

And so, in the fourteenth chapter of Numbers, God’s people decided not to go home after all. They decided to go back to Egypt and be slaves again.

It was a struggle. In the end they did not go back to Egypt. In the end they went ahead to home, but that is another story.

One of the miraculous things about the Bible, as the word of God, is that it is often very funny (even where the story it tells seems horrible); and there is something funny here. God’s people were complaining because they were looking back on the good old days when they were given food for free. And just why did they get their food for free? (They were slaves!) How stupid! How crazy they were!

It serves to show just how slave minded they were. Freedom is a lot like true happiness. Freedom and true happiness are alike in this: freedom and happiness are not about being able to do whatever you want but about being able to do what you know is good for you and for others. You are truly free when you are able to pursue what is truly good for you and able to work for what is truly good for others. Others are free when they are able to pursue what is good for them and to work for the good of others.

In Egypt God’s people did not have this freedom. They were slaves. God promised them a home (a Promised Land) where they would be free. A real home (a good home) is a place where you are free not to do whatever you want, but to do what is good (what is truly good) for you and work for the good of the others. Children are hard at work, every day, contributing to the maturity of their parents. Home is where you work to bring confidence, and caring, and encouragement to each other.

In Egypt you did not work for your own good, or for the good of your family, or for the good of your community, or for the good of your neighbor. You only worked for the good of your master; or for the king and for the state.

Still (insanely) the people of God wanted slavery in Egypt. They did not want freedom in the Promised Land.

This is where we see the evil of a complaining nature. God’s people wanted Egypt (which was bad for them). They didn’t want Home (which was good for them). What was bad for them made them happy. What was good for them made them unhappy.

It’s not hard to think of people we know who have messed up their lives by choosing what is bad for them. Sometimes we are like the overweight man who confessed to his friends: “Inside me there is a thin man struggling to get out, but I can usually sedate him with a couple of doughnuts.”

A year before the complaints about the manna, God’s people voted to go home by walking out their doors in Egypt and stepping onto the road with Moses. They chose the Promised Land. They chose the true freedom of pursuing the good. They chose home.

The problem is that they seemed determined to not follow through. They kept un-choosing what they had chosen. When God gives you a good gift, you have to have enough discipline to keep on choosing it. When God gives you the gift of a spouse who loves you, you have to choose that gift every day. When God gives you the gift of a child, you have to choose to be the parent of that child every day; all day long, and all night long. When God gives you the gift of work, you have to choose that work every work day. When God gives you the freedom to rest, or to sit and think, or to learn something new, or the time to heal and mend, or the time to play, you have to choose it.

That is freedom. That is also the way to true happiness and home.

You choose to choose the good and not to un-choose it. This is the discipline of following through. Prayer comes into this discipline of choosing to follow through. Moses was right to pray, even when his prayer was a complaint.

Prayer opened his heart to hear God speak and call him back to the love of the good, which was where Moses would find his God-given freedom. The Lord said, “Is the arm of the Lord too short? You will now see whether or not what I say will come true for you.” (Numbers 11:23)

Complaining is contagious. It began with a small group called the riff-raff, but it didn’t stay there. Everyone caught the contagion bug. Moses became a complainer too. In fact Moses shocks us by how deep his complaint goes, “If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now – if I have found favor in your eyes.” (Numbers 11:15)

Besides prayer, God’s help for Moses was fellowship, which means partnership. Now in our reading from Numbers, chapter eleven: The Lord said to Moses: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people.” (Numbers 11:16) And the Lord says, “They will help you carry the burden of the people.” (11:17)

The basic thing about this group is that they are a team, and they will help Moses. They will help each other. They will carry burdens together.

There is a funny thing about the verse about choosing the elders known as leaders; and you would never notice it unless you had a way of knowing what it said in Hebrew. It is strange because it is redundant, repetitive.

It really tells us (and the King James Version says) that these elders are elders whom Moses knows to be elders. It’s the same word twice. It means elders who are really elders. It means people who are really what they are supposed to be. We need such people.

The help we need for the road home is to have a team of people around us who are what they are supposed to be. A team is not automatically a team just because they practice together and wear the same uniform. A family is not, automatically, a family merely because they have all lived under the same roof or share a name, or a history.

For us to be what God created us to be; and for us to be what God has saved us to be through the cross and the resurrection; we need a team of people whom we can trust to not un-choose being what they are supposed to be. We need a team of people on whom we can depend to follow through, even though they may fumble and fail us at times. These are the people who can help us choose to be what we are supposed to be, so that we can follow through with them.

The first church I served after I was ordained had some really difficult problems. There were some deep conflicts that I didn’t understand. These conflicts caused things to happen that I didn’t understand. It was confusing.

I was also learning to do a lot of things for the first time, and I had a mentor in the person of Dick Cochran who helped me deal with this.

Dick was the pastor of a Presbyterian Church in the neighboring town. He was close to retirement age when I met him, but he took an interest in me. (The way I do weddings and funerals owes a lot to Dick.)

I got a sense of perspective from Dick, and I even learned from him to have just a little bit of a sense of humor about any church I have served, and about my own ministry. I don’t know that I would have learned this without his help. Once I was down at his church talking about something I was working on, and I accidently called him Father.

He was like a father to me. I believe this was actually something he chose to be, and I could depend on him not un-choosing it. I could count on him to follow through.

God told Moses to find a team of people who would play with him and follow through. This is what we all need, and this is why God never called a single person to follow him in solitude: never.

This is what the church is for. The church is called to be a little world of people who are committed to being, for each other, what they are supposed to be; committed to being, for the world, what they are supposed to be.

The church is supposed to be Jesus in this world. Christians often un-choose the choice of being Jesus. Jesus is good and we un-choose his goodness. Jesus is beautiful in his ways, and we choose the other way.

We need to see where this authenticity comes from. We need to see how it can be possible for us to be members of a team in which we can be depended on to be what we are supposed to be.

It is found in the thing that the Lord did with Moses and the seventy elders. Moses had the Spirit of the Lord. God made sure that Moses had a team of people who shared the Spirit of the Lord with him.

This is God’s work, and we can never be what we are supposed to be until God does it. When God came down from heaven, and became a human being named Jesus, and when he lived his life out for us, and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, and rose from the dead, he brought us into himself and made it possible for his Spirit to rest upon us and live in us.

When we look to Jesus, we see the one who followed through in his desire to restore his image in us. We see the one who followed through at great cost to give us new life, to make us people of the Holy Spirit who have the grace of God at work in us. We see the one who enables us to be the people we are supposed to be.

We are people who may fumble and fail, but we are people who can remember to keep on choosing what we have chosen. Jesus, with his cross and his resurrection (so beautiful in his ways), shows us that he can be trusted to be faithful to us; that we can trust him to always be what we need him to be, so that we may have the power to follow through together on the road home.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Help for the Road Home: Heart

Preached Sunday, September 12

Scripture Readings:
Exodus 32:1-35
2 Timothy 1:3-18

A teacher was talking to her class about the human body and she pointed to a little boy’s chest. “Here is where your heart is, put your hand there, and feel your heart beating.” The little boy spoke up and said, “That’s not where my heart is. My heart is where I sit down.” “How did you get that idea?” asked the teacher. And the boy said, “Because, every time I do something good, my grandma pats me there and says, “Bless your little heart.”

I didn’t know how to give a name to what I saw in the heart of God and the heart of Moses through the story of the golden calf. There is a lot to take in. The story runs for three chapters, and we have just read the first chapter of the story.

Did you notice, in that long reading we did from Exodus, that Moses prayed passionately against the expressed anger of God? Did you notice that Moses offered to die for the sins of his people if only God would forgive them? Moses prayed, “Please forgive their sin, but if not blot me out of the book you have written.” (Exodus 32:32)

If we don’t like the thought of the anger of God, and if we do like the thought of the forgiveness of God, do we notice how much we agree with Moses in his prayer? Do we notice how much Moses is like us? If we don’t see this we won’t understand a lot of what the Bible is saying to us.

On the other hand, if we don’t like anger and we do like forgiveness, then we are not at all at home with Moses when he came down from the mountain, and smashed the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them, and ordered the members of the tribe of Levi go through the camp with swords drawn, hacking away at the people. Moses hated the anger of God, but Moses got violently angry, himself.

There is a lot here that mystifies me. The violence of the Old Testament is not allowed for the followers of Jesus. And remember what Jesus said to the disciple who tried to fight off the guards who came to arrest Jesus, the night before his crucifixion. He said, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

It is also true that if the violence that disturbs us in the Old Testament never took place, the people of Israel would never have survived. The books of the Bible that Jesus read would never have been written. And the Jesus we know as the Messiah would never have been born.

I tried to find a word that would pull this story together. I thought of the word “boldness”. There seems to be a lot of that going on in all the prayers and the violence. I thought of the word “passion” because most of the people in the events of the golden calf are very passionate. Certainly God is very passionate; much more passionate than we may care for him to be (which is part of our problem as modern people).

Then I thought of the word “heart”, and I think heart fits the best. There is no heart here in terms of tenderness. No, there’s no tenderness going on in this story, or is there? It isn’t heart in terms of love, though love is there. There is more love than anger in this story, if you look for it.

The word heart pulls the story together in terms of something you put all your heart into. There is the old song, “You Gotta Have Heart.” Heart is what you must have to play a sport well even when your team is losing. Heart is what you need to be a real friend for someone, to marry, to raise a family, to do good work you can be proud of. You gotta have heart. Moses had it. God has it. The people of Israel didn’t have it. Paul told Timothy to have it because he was in danger of losing heart. Paul wrote: “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of a sound-mind/self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:6-7) You gotta have heart.

God’s people in the desert had lost heart. Only God, who miraculously provided for them, stood between them and death by starvation or death by thirst. This was not a comfortable place to be. Who in their right mind can remain calm when God alone holds their life in his hands?

And yet you gotta have heart. To really be alive, you have to be alive even when everything is in God’s hands. This is not the kind of faith that curls up in a ball of surrender. Having heart is what it means to come really alive even when you don’t see the way through. You trust God to show you the way; to show you what to do, and what to say, and even what to think at every critical moment.

There is a group of athletes called extreme surfers. Extreme surfers use the weather satellites to track down rogue waves. These waves seem to defy the laws of physics, and scientists refused to believe in their existence until very recently; in spite of the stories of survivors. These waves can be a hundred feet high and move with tremendous speed and force. Extreme surfers revel in riding these waves.

I heard an interviewer ask an extreme surfer if he ever had a time when things went wrong and he thought, “This is it.” And the surfer answered, “Yes, but not in the sense of giving up to some unavoidable fate. I’ve thought “this is it” in the sense of looking for the way through it.”

God’s people were forced to live on the edge in the wilderness. They started their journey thinking it would be a quick road home. Instead, they were being led through a trackless desert in the opposite direction from home. And now their leader had been gone for forty days without any word; hidden on a stormy mountaintop.

They were riding a wave that they had not chosen. They didn’t have the heart for it. They were afraid. And so they sought comfort in an idol in the form of a calf or young bull.

It is hard to understand what they were doing. Did they think the golden calf was a different god from the one who led them out of Egypt, or did they think they were making a portrait of the real God; something that they could see and understand? So far, the God who led them was completely beyond their understanding.

More than one thing was going on there, and it is clear that the people, themselves were confused about it. But, if we listen to Aaron (since he was the one who made the statue and organized the worship for it) he tells us that the golden calf was an image of the Lord God. The feast and sacrifices that Aaron announced were celebrated in honor of “the Lord”. (Exodus 32:5)

Moses had led them by the authority of a God who made them ride the rogue wave. They had been impressed by this God, and they wanted this God. But they wanted this God in a form they could see and hold in their minds. And they wanted this God without the waves.

They wanted a comfortable God. The golden calf represented potential and strength. They liked that, but the calf was not likely to lead them on the waves.

We want a comfortable God who will not stretch us beyond our comfort. We don’t want to face our fears. We don’t want to forgive our enemies. We don’t want to serve God in ways that are not easy or natural for us. We don’t want a church that reaches out to people who aren’t like us. We don’t want to change, or to see ourselves as others see us. We don’t want to admit where we are wrong or weak. We don’t want to live graciously with the mistakes and weaknesses of others.

We would rather give a comfortable shape to God. But we have a God who would lead us through the desert. We have a God who would come down from heaven, and live a human life as a carpenter; and die a bloody death, on a cross, for our sins; and rise from the dead with everlasting wounds in his hands and feet. When you think about it, there is something unsettling about this God and the road he is likely to show us. Here is a God who rides the rogue wave and would take us with him. Here is a God with real heart.

There is anger in this story, and I don’t like it, but this anger also tells us about having heart. In fact it warns us against the danger of not having it. It tells us that not having heart, in the end, would be fatal. It tells us that nothing less than passion and boldness in our relationship with God will do. We are created and saved to be the children of God; to be the Great King's sons and daughters.

Heaven (as we will find, and as the Book of Revelation tells us) is not for the wimpy. Read the twenty-first chapter of Revelation. There will be no cowards there. It is for the healing of wounds and the drying of tears. It is also a place where his servants will serve. We cannot imagine how and where we will serve until that day when we are all made new. But we are told that the gates of heaven are never closed, and so it is a fearless place. And the gates are for bringing in glory and honor. Heaven is a place for those who have heart.

The anger of Moses and the anger of God are full of heart. Their anger is full of love. It is the anger of a parent who hears their child tell a lie, or say some hateful thing. The golden calf was a lie about God.

We live in a world where it is good to be cool and stay cool and hip no matter what. We live in a time that is ruled by the word “whatever”. We do not love goodness nearly enough. We do not hate evil and injustice nearly enough.

I like the world cool and use it a lot. But there are times when cool is not cool. The danger is this: we do not realize that we can be too cool in the presence of goodness and badness. Too much cool is deadly for the soul, and it earned the deadly anger of Moses and God.

The violence is forbidden to us. But the passion for goodness is absolutely required for us. In the cause of good versus evil we must be passionate with all our heart.

Part of Moses’ prayer was the offer of an exchange. Moses offered his life to God in exchange for the life of his people. There was a lot of heart in that mysterious offer. It was an offer that God did not accept. It was an exchange that Moses was not really qualified to make, but it is the very exchange that God, himself, has made for us. God exchanged his life for ours, to give us new life and a new heart.

I believe that Moses made this daring offer because he knew God. Moses had spent much time with God by now. In Exodus chapter 33 we can read that, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face as a man speaks with his friend.” (33:11)

Moses must have seen into the heart of God, and Moses absorbed something of that heart into himself. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is 2 Corinthians 3:18. That is where Paul says this: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

Moses looked into the likeness of God and saw the cross. He saw God himself as the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) What Moses saw of the cross in God became a part of him.

In Christ we see the face of God and what we see becomes a part of us. Having boldness, passion, and heart in our faithfulness to a God who stretches us and makes us ride the rogue wave; having a boldness, passion, and heart for the beauty of goodness: these are nothing without having the prayer for the daring exchange in our hearts.

This is the prayer of offering ourselves to God for others. We cannot save others, but we can be servants; we can help, and we can look for ways to live, and speak, and work for God in our families, in our church, in our community, and in our world.

The Lord’s Table is where we are fed for the life that is full of heart. It is where we present ourselves as people in the desert who will die of starvation or thirst unless eat and drink from Jesus Christ who is God in the flesh. Here we meet and receive the God who is full of heart for us, and he gives us a heart like his; for the love of God as he truly is, for the love of goodness, for the love of serving others with our lives: because we have got to have heart. We have this heart through Jesus Christ.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Help for the Road Home: Contentment

Preached Sunday September 5, 2010

Scripture Readings:
Exodus 16:1-36;
Philippians 4:4-13

Winter had arrived. It was the end of the school day, and a teacher was helping a little boy zip up his coat. She explained it this way. “The secret is to get this piece of the zipper to fit in the other side before you try to zip it up” The boy sighed out loud and said, “Why is it that I know how to do all the easy stuff, but all the hard stuff has to be a secret.”

Paul said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13)

We know about Paul’s life. We know he lived through just about any and every situation; well fed and hungry, in plenty and in want. He had friends who went through some of these times with him. He experienced the presence of the Lord with him when he went through all these things.

But the secret was not simply given to him. The secret had to be learned. And it was not easy. He learned the secret of living in contentment by being fed but also by being hungry; by living in plenty but also by living in want. It was not easy. Why is it that all the hard stuff has to be a secret?

In our reading of the story of Moses and the people of Israel and their God, the word contentment has not appeared. But the word grumbling has: grumbling, murmuring.

This is discontent. God’s people were never contented. Read the story through, from Exodus to Joshua. They were never content. Their story is full of grumbling and murmuring, all the way from their slavery in Egypt to their future home in the Promised Land.

This was the typical attitude for God’s people: fear, resentment, anger, blame, distrust, unthankfulness; all the symptoms of a chronic discontent. This is their story of the road home, and it is not a pretty story.

We are all created to be at home. What we find, though, is that we live in a world that is very un-homelike; where it is easy to be deeply discontented. Human nature has been shaped on the foundation of having run away from home. This is what comes from the original rebellion of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Our real home includes harmony with God, and with others, and with our true self as God created us to be. And so it is the place of the deepest contentment. But by nature we set ourselves at odds in every way against the will of God, against the well being of others, and against our own well-being. This is sin, and this way of life is enslaving, and addictive, and deadly.

Perhaps all the achievements of our world have been motivated by discontent. But maybe there should be another way.

There is a road home. There is an exodus for us that will take us from slavery to home, to God’s country, to life as it was meant to be; to life abundant and life everlasting. The exodus of the people of Israel is only a prototype; a first step. The real thing is Jesus. Jesus is the way. Jesus is the exodus. Jesus is the road home.

If Jesus is the road, then it will be a very good road. But the Bible tells us that it will turn out not to be the road we expected. It will be a road of: “any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty, or in want.” But it will be a road where we will not go alone. It will be a road where we find what we need. And we will find that it is true to say: “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”

Here is what the road of the exodus was like. God’s people were constantly and faithfully taken care of and provided for; but they could never believe it. God’s faithful care was a fact that they could never hold onto for long. They just could not manage to trust or love the God who led them to freedom. They were chronically discontented.

So they wandered, without trust or love, through a desert where they were free people who were continually enslaved by their own discontent. And sometimes they were fatally enslaved; enslaved to death. This accounts for some of the most disturbing stories of the exodus.

Somehow, in the word of God, the issues of trust and love and contentment are actually issues of life and death. This seems strange to us, but perhaps this is a sign that our priorities are wrong.

There was a miraculous food called manna that kept God’s people going and kept them strong every day of their lives, during those forty years on the road home. Let’s look at some of the lessons we can learn from this miraculous food and from the journey with God where they were strangely fed.

We have to see that God has always taken his people along a strange road on their way home. It has always been this way.

The road home for the people of Israel should have taken them maybe two or three weeks. In the place where we have caught up with them, before the manna came, they had been on the road for a month and a half, and they were nowhere near arriving. They had surely packed wisely for a three week trip, with something extra to spare, just in case.

The reason why the road was taking longer than expected was that Moses was leading them the wrong way. The truth is that he was leading them in the opposite direction of where they were going. This had to be very upsetting to them. How could they be content with that?

It’s true that there was a string of Egyptian fortresses along the direct route along the coast; and there were Canaanite and Philistine cities that stood along the road. It could have led them to war. But what if the Lord fought for them the way the Lord did when he parted the Red Sea and saved them from the Egyptian army. If the Lord wanted to bring them home, why didn’t he just do it?

As I look at the events of the exodus I think God saw the issue of contentment (the contentment that comes from trust and love) as a life or death issue. How could they ever be God’s people without contentment; or without the trust and love that lead to contentment?

Contentment is an ally of faith, and discontent is the sworn enemy of faith. This is the lesson all the way through.

God’s people were discontented because they had carefully counted their supplies before they left the land of slavery in Egypt. And now they were counting the days it was taking to complete the road home. They were counting and calculating every day.

In order to destroy their discontent, the Lord designed the exodus to destroy their obsession with counting and calculating. Their days on the road would run into weeks, and months, and years.

They would have to learn to stop counting the time it took to do anything. They (or their children) would learn to do a thing simply because it was worth doing; not because it was worth their time.

The Lord designed the manna to serve the same purpose. The Lord told them to call it bread from heaven, and it was truly beyond worldly comprehension.

It was crazy food! They learned that you could always depend on it being there when it was supposed to be there; but it obeyed laws of its own that made no sense. You could save it on some days but not on other days. You could slave away for as much of it as you could get, and yet never get more than you could use for a day. We read it like this: “some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.” (Exodus 16:17-18)

It wasn’t fair. How could it be fair to work harder than the others and have nothing to show for it? Now this is truly a dangerous lesson. The message of grace is dangerous and unfair. In terms of the grace and faithfulness of God we do not get what we deserve, we get far better than what we deserve.

The problem goes beyond economics. We are incurable counters, and calculators, and comparers. And this is not good for us.

Here is a petty example of this from my own life. I mail Christmas cards to many people who never send cards to me. I send letters to people who never send them to me. I visit relatives and friends who never visit me. But do I keep track of any of this? Am I a counter, a calculator, and a comparer? And, is this a good and joyful thing? No it’s not!

The question is whether you will work for something if the count is not favorable to your standard of measure. If someone has had a major surgery I will spend hours on the road for a five minute visit with them; to touch them, and pray with them, in person. I do this because I believe it is important. But, see, if you are a counter, a calculator, a comparer, you might wonder if I am trying to gain some kind of leverage with you or with the church by telling you this. Or you might wonder if I am giving the church the best use of my time for the money I am paid. Sometimes counting and calculating is deadly to the working of the Spirit of Jesus who did not count the cost to set us free.

Once Peter asked Jesus “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me; up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21-22) That didn’t mean that Jesus wanted Peter to carry a little notebook around with him so that he could count up to seventy-seven. Jesus wanted to destroy the counter and the calculator in Peter, and he wants to do the same with us, because he wants to give us the gift of contentment.

A man had a quarrel with his wife and he was venting his frustration to a friend. He said, “I can’t stand it. Whenever my wife is mad at me she gets historical.” “Don’t you mean hysterical?” “No, I mean historical. She keeps bringing up the past.” Husbands and wives, and parents and children, and brothers and sisters have to learn not to be counters and calculators.

Maybe a boss has to be a counter in order to do justice between his or her employees. Maybe sometimes we all have to count, for the sake of fairness and justice, but homes and communities and churches where everyone is always calculating and keeping count have no contentment and no faith. They are not on the road home.

Paul says “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” (Romans 13:8) How can you calculate love? How can you count it?

Love is work, and love is infinite in its cost. In the exodus, the direction of the road and the strangeness of the manna were designed to destroy all keeping count. They gave everyone work to do, and chores to do, that came down to earth from God, and followed rules of their own that could not be stored away and counted up and measured by earthly calculations. If you count your duties, and if you count your time, and if you count your good deeds, and if you count your work, you are probably not enjoying them, you are probably discontented.

The manna was also designed by God to make his people stop and rest. One of my best friends retired sooner than I though he should, but he had good reasons. There are probably only two reasons why some people don’t retire: one, because they love and enjoy their work; two, because they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they had to stop. It is good to love what you do, but it is not good to not be able to stop.

Babies are loved, at first, not for what they do, but for what they are. As we grow up we grow confused about why and how we are loved. Are we loved for what we do? Are we loved for our gifts and talents? Are we loved for our looks and personality? Are we loved for service rendered in the past? Or are we loved for our own sake?
When we can no longer do anything, when we no longer even know anything, when almost everything in our lives comes to a stop, are we still worthy of love? Are we still worthy of the labor and time of others?

In part we know ourselves through our work. We know ourselves through our interests, gifts, talents, and knowledge. We know ourselves in terms of a personality that we have more or less constructed that may conceal who we really are. We know ourselves in terms of our experience and history.

But there is a sense in which we do not know ourselves from the heart until we stop and rest. If we cannot face ourselves when we stop and rest we are not truly content. All our actions are an escape from our discontent, which means an escape from true faith and love.

Craig Barnes, who is a great preacher and thinker, went through a life-threatening battle with cancer. At his most incapacitated stage he was desperate because he couldn’t fulfill the responsibilities he felt as a pastor, as a husband, as a father. He prayed about his desperation and his sense of uselessness. Then he felt the Lord say to him, “You are too important to be necessary. You deserve to be loved.” It may be that an accident, or an illness, or unemployment, or grief, or some kind of attack, or some kind of failure in life will force us to stop counting and calculating, and to find the love of God that loves us without condition, and without limits or boundaries, as a child of God.

God never stopped taking care of his people in the exodus, on their road home. That road with its strange turnings and strange food was designed to teach them to go forward in a spirit of rest and contentment.

There was the need to go forward. There was the work of trust and love to do. But they needed to learn to stop, and rest, and be content.

The good news, the message of the gospel, is meant to teach us to stop and rest. Jesus on the cross is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. His resurrection is the victory that gives us a new life of freedom; freedom to find our home. Who Jesus is, and what he has done, is designed to make us stop and find the kind of rest we need to go forward.

The people of Israel had to come to the end of their own resources and supplies, so that they could be fed by the bread of heaven, the food of God. The gift of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection is meant to bring us to the end of our own resources and supplies, so that we can go forward and find a new life fed by the grace of God in Christ. We need to receive Jesus, who is the bread of life, the bread from heaven.

It is not so strange to say that the road home is a life journey that cannot be counted in days, or years, or any amount of effort. It is not so strange to say that our own resources and supplies are not the real food for that road. Jesus is the real food for the road; and Jesus will exceed all our counting and all our calculations. Jesus will outweigh all the sources of our discontent. So it will be true, in the end, for us to say that, “We can do all things through him who strengthens us.”