Monday, December 10, 2012

Now Showing: The Coming of Fire and Philanthropy

Preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2012

Scripture readings: Psalm 97:1-12; Titus 3:1-8

2012 Setting up Nativity Scene, Washtucna Community Church
There was a news story, recently, about the New York City policeman who saw a shoeless beggar apparently living on the street as winter was drawing near. The policeman walked straight into a nearby shoe store and bought some shoes and gave them to the shoeless man.

There were people who were determined to follow up on this story. They tracked down the homeless man and they found that he was not really homeless. He lives in public housing. Being shoeless may have been a gimmick for begging, or it may have been the result of the murky thinking that comes from substance abuse, or it may come from actual mental illness.

The result of this story is that some people are criticizing the policeman for not being smarter than he should have been. Maybe he should have checked up on the shoeless man before he helped him. Or maybe the policeman should have just taken the shoeless man to some agency or charity that would have checked up on him, and not given him such nice shoes that he didn’t deserve.

Some people are definitely criticizing the shoeless man for being shoeless, and maybe for being dishonest. Maybe he is also to blame for being a drunk, or a drug addict, or just plain crazy.

The Main Door
Now I see this story relating to the Psalm we have read and our reading from Titus. The Bible teaches us all kinds of things. It teaches us how to think, how to have faith, how to love, how to live.

Often the Bible teaches us by boiling down issues to their greatest simplicity. It often tells us to see the world as if it was made up of two kinds of people. (Sometimes I boil down human nature to two kinds of people: the kind that throws away old magazines and the kind that subscribes to National Geographic.)

Paul, in our reading from his letter to Titus, gives us a picture of two kinds of people. The surprising thing about these two kinds of people is that they are exactly the same people; in a before and after picture. There is the picture of the kind of people they were before the appearance of the kindness and love of God, and there is the picture of them after the kindness and love of God appeared.

A change took place, “when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared.” The amazing thing that happened was that the kindness and love of God their Savior actually saved them, and this transformed them.

The love of the savior worked. It made a difference. The saving was that they were saved from what they once were, and they were saved for a new life (“the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit”).

Paul often thinks backward, so he has already told us what the new life is like; the life that comes from the God who appeared in Jesus. The new life makes us subject or respectful to law and authority. The new life makes us obedient and ready to do whatever is good.

Church Windows
Notice that Paul tells us that our new life that comes from God makes us ready to do whatever is good. Nowadays the word “whatever” is the word of a person who doesn’t care. But Paul’s “whatever” describes a person who cares about everything; ready to do whatever is good. Otherwise I could say, “I don’t have to do that for you, I am doing enough already.”

You could say that you don’t have to work on your temper because you are already an elder and you are planning to bring a dish to next Sunday’s potluck. “Whatever” includes whatever good things that God loves, not just the good things that you have put on your own personal list. It means being ready to do everything good.

To slander no one, means to speak evil of no one. I always think of what my parents told me when I was complaining about someone or something: “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

We are “to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all people.” Humility, here, translates the same wonderful word that the King James Version translates as meekness, yet meekness is such a horrible word.

My Greek professor, in seminary, defined meekness as the quality possessed by a well-disciplined war horse. Meekness is a strong and beautiful horse that responds instantly to every signal of its rider. In this Greek idea, a war horse would be trained to walk when commanded to walk, to charge when commanded to charge; to turn, to stop, and to retreat, on command.

Meekness tells us to laugh when laughing is the good thing that pleases and glorifies God, and nothing so glorifies God as a well timed and well told joke. Meekness knows when to stop laughing and to be angry, and when to listen, and when to shut up. Meekness knows when to give shoes to a shoeless man. This comes from the new life that the Holy Spirit gives us.

After Paul describes the new life, thinking backwards, he next describes the old life. “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.”

Hangin' o' the Greens
Why would Paul go and remind us of what used to be? I think he does this to make us think twice about ourselves and feel the variety of humility called shame.

I love it. Yes, I can remember back to the time when I used to be foolish; can you? Once I was young and foolish. Now I think I am getting old and foolish. It’s true that there is some real difference (isn’t there?) in the new life; only not enough difference to give us very much confidence.

There is just enough difference between my foolish past and present to serve me as a warning. I wonder if, until I become perfect, there might be something to be gained from an occasional, wholesome sense of shame at the thought of my past foolishness; a little bit of instruction and guidance, perhaps.

What should we think of that old, foolish, hateful and hating self of ours? Don’t you just want to hate it?

Until we become absolutely perfect, I think we are wise to hate it. Why? At least we hate it for safety’s sake (our own safety and the safety of others).

Think about the psalm we read. There are two kinds of people there, in that psalm. One kind is the people who are called wicked, and the enemies of God.

The other kind is the lovers of God. They are called the righteous and the upright. The righteous upright are the one who know how to do the right thing at the right time. They are like the well disciplined war horse that knows its rider’s commands and responds instantly; to go forward, to turn aside, to back up, and to stop.
Doing the Tree

They know how to respond. The righteous life is the responsive life. To be responsible is really simply to be responsive to the situation and the needs around us, as well as we can understand them.

We think of righteousness as arrogance, but it is really humility. It is holy meekness, in the war horse sense of the word: strength and beauty under control and ready for action.

In our translation these people are called “his faithful ones”, but this is an odd word. The King James Version calls them “his saints” (God’s saints). But this is an even odder word.

They are people with a relationship to love. There is more than one Hebrew word for love, and the quality of faithfulness and sainthood, in this Psalm, is an odd word that works two ways. It works between the giver and the receiver. The giver of this love makes the receivers of this love into his faithful ones. The object of the lover’s love becomes beloved, and that gives to the beloved a new identity.

This word for the love that makes a person faithful means a “covenant love”. It is a love that is based on the promise of the giver of the love. It is a pledge that binds and changes the receiver. God’s people are his faithful ones because they are the target of God’s faithful love: God “covenant-promise love”.

This is the love that makes sinners into God’s faithful. It is the love that we call the grace of God. Paul tells us that this is the sort of kindness and love that God gives us us. “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7)

The Theme is Candy Canes
God’s faithfulness is an inseparable part of God’s righteousness and justice, which (the Psalm tells us) are the foundation of his throne. They are at the very core of what God is as the true God and Savior. This faithfulness based on the foundation of righteousness and justice is part of what makes God truly God.

When the Psalm says that God reigns and rules it means that what God is, and what God does, works. It gets done.

The Psalm tells us that (one way or another) the enemies of God are consumed. First it tells us that they are consumed by fire, and then it implies to us that they are consumed by shame. It is the shame of their choices; the shame of their foolishness.

What about the enemies of God that Paul describes to Titus? Who are they? They are the foolish, the hateful, and the hating.

But think some more about who they are. They are the people who used to be us. And what consumed the people who used to be us? It was the kindness and the love of our God and Savior who appeared to us in Jesus. This consumes our old lives and the Holy Spirit makes us new.

And what happened to those people who were the enemies of God? They became us. What about the fire of God? Sometimes we do burn with shame, and our old self is consumed by that fire. The faithful fire of God’s love makes us God’s beloved.

There is a picture of this in the Old Testament; in God calling Moses to lead his people out of slavery and into the freedom of the Promised Land. God, in his burning compassion, appeared to Moses in a burning bush; a bush that burned with flame but was not consumed by that flame. Moses’ life was changed by his encounter with a flaming God.

In the New Testament the flaming God has not really changed. The glory of the Lord that came shining on the shepherds of Bethlehem, at the birth of Jesus, frightened them because it told them of the arrival of the flaming God.

Another odd word in Titus is the love that is paired with the kindness of God. This peculiar love is called, in the Greek text, “philanthropia” (“philanthropy”). Philanthropy is the brotherly love of the human race.

God made himself our brother when he came into this world as the child of Mary. God made himself our brother in Jesus to love us all with a brotherly love and thus to make us his brothers and sisters. It was a work that began in Bethlehem and it continued all through his life. It was completed through his death for our sins on the cross, and through his resurrection that destroyed the power of death.

We become his faithful ones who will never fail to love him because he loved us into eternity. He loved us into his kingdom that shall never end.
Isn't It Beautiful?

The hatred we read about in the Psalm is the right way to feel about anything that keeps anyone away from this love and sacrifice of flaming God. It is right to hate whatever it is in us that we use to hold God off, at arm’s length, and keep ourselves in charge. It is right to hate, in others, the things that destroy, within them, the image of God that comes from their creation and from God reaching out from the cross to save them.

The psalm tells us that God wants this movement of his faithfulness to be seen and heard by the whole world, even though it can make the world tremble. Perhaps a love that is infinite and absolutely relentless and undefeatable can look as dark as a storm and as scary as lightening.

We don’t always want to receive love from just anyone who wants to love us, and we may seek to drive that love away, or make it ineffective. Even the best children sometimes try to test their parents love. That is the time for parents’ love to burn like a raging inferno, and to show what it is made of by not being driven back.

The great industrialist, robber baron, and philanthropist of the nineteenth century, Andrew Carnegie, said that philanthropy, after all, is about “doing real and permanent good.” A burning love never settles for less.

In the story of the policeman and the shoeless man, how do these two individuals fit the two kinds of people? The policeman who bought the shoes stands for the faithful love of God who seeks to change the life of the receiver of his love. The shoeless man is the kind of person who may be burnt by the fire of love, but whose life may yet change because of it.

Mostly Finished
What about the other people in the story, the ones who followed up on the story, the ones who criticized the shoeless man for being shoeless, and the policeman for giving him shoes? I would say that they are the foolish and hateful people in God’s terrible simplicity of thought.

And who are we?

Aren’t we the people who have seen and heard? Aren’t we the ones to whom the kindness and philanthropy of God our Savior has appeared in the birth of the baby God of Bethlehem?

This is the love that still burns when we touch it. This is the love that wants to make room within our hearts reach itself out through us to others.

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