Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Anchors for the Storm - Scripture Alone (2nd Edition)

Preached on Sunday, August 24, 2014
Scripture Readings: Psalm 19:1-14; 2 Timothy 3:10-17; John 5:24-47
A walk around Ginko Petrified Forest State Park
Near Vantage, WA, August 2014
Many years ago, the great author G.K. Chesterton and some other writers were brought together for an interview. Among many other questions, they were asked what book they would want to have with them if they were stranded on a deserted island. One said he would want “The Complete Works of Shakespeare”. Another said he would want the Bible. Chesterton spoke up and said, “I would choose “Thomas’s Guide to Practical Ship Building”.
Chesterton knew that his life on that deserted island would be driven by a single guiding purpose. If he had access to only one book on that island, he would want it to be a book that matched that driving purpose.
We have been designed and given life, in this world, by God, for a purpose, and God has designed and given life to a book, in this world, that matches our purpose. We call that book the Bible. We call it the Scriptures.
The name Bible means book. Scriptures means the things that have been scripted, written, and brought together for this purpose, in this book. (Actually the scriptures collect in one, single volume a whole library full of books.)
The message of the scriptures, the message of the story they contain, tells us that the God who made us (and who made all things) is a God who loves relationships. The Bible tells us that this God takes delight in the presence of love and faithfulness in these relationships.
Psalm nineteen tells us that God designed his creation to be able to speak to us about him and for him. He made it to bring joy to those who heard it speak, “In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.” (Psalm 19:4-5)
The same Psalm tells us that God has ways (God has patterns) and that God wants these ways to be our ways (our patterns) too. It tells us that when God’s ways are our ways it is life-giving to us. The Psalm says: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul (reviving our deepest life).” (Psalm19:7)
The word law here is the Hebrew word “torah”. Torah often means the first five books of the Scriptures. Even though it is generally translated as “law”, Torah doesn’t mean law in the sense of rules and regulations. It means ways, and patterns, and God’s teachings about those things.
The Book of Genesis, with its account of creation, and with its account of the Lord calling people to be his beloved people, starting with old man Abraham and old lady Sarah, is a book that shows us the ways, and the patterns, and the teachings of God. This is part of the torah. This is part of God’s law.
The events described in the laws of Genesis are the ways of God. They are told to us in such a way as to give us a living experience of God that will revive our life, our soul. God’s ways of creation and calling people to faith are told to us in such a way that will amaze us, and make us wonder all the time. It is told in a way that will give us the light to see great things, and take us out of ourselves and into the light of God’s love.
Moses was the first of God’s people who were commanded to write things down. (Exodus 17:14) The five first and oldest books of the Bible can be called the books of Moses, because they have those things he wrote.
Moses was the one who started God’s writing business, so that God’s ways would be remembered; so that people in the future could meet God and hear God speak through what had been written. In reading what God had done, they could meet God himself, and hear his voice, and live.
Jesus told his hearers what the scriptures were for. He said: “You study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life….If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (John 5:39-40, 46-47)
This Sunday, and in the weeks ahead, we are going to look at five guiding phrases from about five hundred years ago, from the time we call the Reformation. These old, old phrases don’t come down to us as a set. They weren’t dreamed up all at once. They weren’t all designed to meet one great issue. But they all serve a similar purpose. I imagine these guiding phrases to be like multiple anchors dropped from a boat in a raging storm.
The funny thing about each of these phrases is that each one uses the word “alone”: scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and the glory of God alone. They are five things that serve alone. How can all five things be alone? 
Ancient ships often carried several anchors as a protection during storms. When the storm winds were shifting and constantly changing direction, multiple anchors, set in multiple directions, would hold the ship steady as the wind changed. First it might be the anchor from the bow that held them steady. Then it was the anchor from the stern. As the wind shifted, each anchor would be the essential one.
Our own struggles and challenges can come from any direction. These anchors hold us and keep us from being driven by the storm. They hold us from different directions safely in the center of the purpose for which God has designed our lives. Each anchor holds us in our proper relationship with God in Christ.
We are creatures of God; children of God. But there is a drive within our nature to be rebels, to assert our independence from God.
There is a drive within our nature to achieve a kind of mastery, to make a false picture of ourselves, to make ourselves the one we really worship (as if life were all about us). This drive makes us seek to set ourselves up as a god for others (so that they will give in to what we want). As strange as it seems, even when we believe in God, we sometimes want to be in charge of God himself, because we find God’s independence so frustrating. We use prayer and the Bible as tools or machines to manage God.
Each of these anchors holds us safe in a relationship where God alone is God. Here we are always safe in our real identity as creatures and children. These anchors hold us steady in our real God-related lives.
The heart of the scriptures is a relationship with God in Christ. Paul says this to Timothy: “From infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:15) The whole Bible is about this.
The Scriptures are inspired for the purpose of shaping our lives for our relationship with Jesus, because we are all going to see Jesus.  Paul says this, as he writes, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom…” (2 Timothy 4:1)
One of the dangers is that we will be tempted to change the good news of the Gospel of Jesus into a set of facts or a field of knowledge instead of the voice of the living God. We are tempted to see the Bible as a textbook of information about the Lord. We are even tempted to see the Bible as a textbook about other subjects that are of interest to us. We stop meeting the personal Jesus in the scriptures and we compensate by absorbing facts and ideas.
Some people make it seem like a hard thing to master the facts of the Bible, and they may try to boss others around on the basis of their special knowledge, or they might try to pull others down who seem to know less of the facts and are less able to quote from book, and chapter, and verse.
Others are tempted to give up, because they know that they will never catch up. Those who give up will either follow those who have all the answers, or else they will go away.
Jesus confronted those who denied him because they built up authority over others through their technical expertise in the information of the scriptures. They thought that this mastery would give them life, or make them larger than life. In reality the experts used their mastery of facts as an escape from being prepared and shaped for a life-giving relationship with the Father and the Son.
We have a God who loves relationships. We have a God who created us for these relationships. We have a God who (when we tried to set up life on our own authority, and ruined the world as a consequence)…we have a God who came down in Jesus to live and die for us. He overcame the power of death for us to unite us with himself in a way that depends on him from first to last. He didn’t come to give us words, but to give us himself, yet the words can speak with his living breath to carry him to us.
Since this God gave us the scriptures as the place where we can meet him and live, we want to be sure that we do truly meet him. We want to come to the scriptures so we can come face to face with him and really know him.
But we must get over loving merely what we know about Christ. We want to go beyond the things we know, so that we can love the Christ who knows us. There is just a difference.  Knowledge is great, but love will beat knowledge every time.
When I was a child, I wanted attention. But, more than that, I wanted to be attention-worthy. I wanted to earn attention.
I didn’t want to earn attention by getting in trouble because I wanted people to like me and get mad at me. I found that some of the other ways that kids attracted attention didn’t come easily for me. Athletic skill didn’t come easily, but skills in information and knowledge did.
And so I decided to become brilliant. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Plenty of kids wanted to be great. They wanted to be athletes like Mickey Mantle or Johnny Unitas, and nobody thought the worse of them because of this.
So I wanted to be brilliant. I read, and I read, and I read. I browsed through dictionaries. I sifted through encyclopedias. When I was ten, I had loads of books on history, and archeology, and technology, and science. I had a telescope. I had a microscope. I loved this. It felt so good.
I neglected my school work because it got in the way of acquiring knowledge. I might only be getting a C in a class, but I could answer all the teacher’s questions. I achieved mastery.
But I can tell you that there was no real life in this. Knowledge is great, but love beats knowledge every time. The experts in the scriptures, who achieved mastery through their study and their knowledge, possessed the scriptures. They possessed them, but in the process, they lost the God of the scriptures. They lost Christ. Some of the most seemingly biblical Christians possess the scriptures, but they may have very little to show of Christ beyond their joy in having the facts. 
Where this happens, you can see that their spiritual life is about the techniques for doing things. Or you see the conditions they set for their acceptance of other Christians from other churches. The Jesus who lives in them does not welcome sinners, at least not if those sinners are Christians who interpret the Bible differently. They have romanced the Bible, and its authority, thinking that in doing so they have romanced the Jesus of the Bible. But they have made a mistake.
When we say that scripture alone is our anchor we mean the scriptures as Jesus saw them. The scriptures are the only true portrait of Jesus. The Old and New Testaments both exist for bringing us to him and understanding him.
When I go to an art museum I love to look at the portraits of people from long ago. In the best portraits the people in them look ready to laugh. Or they look ready to step out of the frame and talk to you, or else run their sword through you.
The Bible is the best portrait of all. By the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus does step out of the frame; and he speaks to you. That’s inspiration. He challenges you, and offers his salvation to you: his friendship and lordship.
We say that scripture alone is an anchor for any storm because it offers the whole Jesus. The scriptures don’t just give us the words of Jesus. They give us the work of Jesus. They give us the body and blood of Jesus.
Even the Old Testament, Jesus said, is a place where we can get the whole reality of him. In the Gospel of Luke, after the resurrection, Jesus met his disciples and we read this: ‘He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’ (Luke 24:25-27)
We are tempted to love only a part of Jesus, and not the whole Jesus. There are parts of Jesus we don’t understand. There are parts we may not like. There are parts we are afraid of. There are mysteries about Jesus (about exactly who he really is) that confuse us. There is the talk about sin and forgiveness that we may resist. We are tempted to construct a Jesus after our own image, and in our own likeness; a Jesus built to our own specifications.
Scripture may be misinterpreted, and abused, and forced into the boxes of someone else’s making, or of our own imagination. Scripture alone saves us from the distortions, and the oversimplifications, and the additions, and the subtractions of those who claim to have authority when, all the while, they are only reaching for mastery. Scripture alone protects us from our own temptations to be the master, to be the one in control, and to create a truth of our own invention.
Just because scripture may be misused doesn’t make it imperfect, because many perfect things can be misused. Love itself can be misused. The innocence of another person can be misused.
Scripture, though, in all its strange, confusing perfection is simply there, like a person you may not want to look at too closely for fear that they might look right back at you. Scripture is like a person you have to struggle to listen to because they speak with the heavy accent of a country you don’t know. Scripture is like a brother or sister or an old friend who knows you too well to let you pretend to be something you aren’t, or let you retell an old story in your own favor.
Our relation with scripture alone is like the relationships within a marriage or a family where you never stop learning about another person. It is hard in the sense that you never fully get to the bottom of that other person. After a life spent together, that person will still amaze you and confound you. But this difficulty is not the hardship some try to make of it. It’s only a sign of the blessing of a living, growing relationship.  Our relationship with the Bible is like that.
If there was someone who was always trying to come between the two of you, in order to explain the real message of the one you loved; if there was someone who claimed some kind of authority to speak to you on their behalf; you would know that something was very wrong. Something was either fishy about them, or you were missing something pretty important. This is why we want a direct relationship with God through the Bible. We want a relationship with God where we can say, “Scripture alone.”
Scripture alone can be trusted to give you God in his fullness, just as he is. Scripture alone can be trusted to show you yourself, just as you are; and to show you your true self, as God wants you to be, and how he plans to get you there. Most of all it shows us how humble and patient we must learn to be with such a God.
We meet God in many places: nature, people, books, good sense, and experience, but the scriptures show us the living portrait of God in Christ. It shows us a portrait of God in the manger, in the carpenter shop, on the road, on the cross, and coming out of the empty tomb.

Scripture shows us a God who has come to give us a new life in a way that no landscape, and no sun or moon or stars, and no other human being can give you. Here, in the scriptures alone, God himself gives us something we need. He gives us himself.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Great Ends of the Church: The Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World

Preached on Sunday, August 17, 2014
Scripture readings: 1 Peter 3:8-18a; Matthew 5:1-16
Why are we here?
Desert Aire/Mattawa Vacation Bible School 2014
Playing, Praying, and Singing
I mean: why has the Lord gathered us and called us together?  But not just in this building on Sunday mornings: why has God made us belong to each other for life and beyond? God has gathered us into his family in order for us to be his demonstration of the kingdom of heaven.
There is that old Presbyterian list of reasons that’s called “The Great Ends (or purposes) of the Church.” The last of the six reasons on that list is: the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.
Now the kingdom of heaven is the same thing as the kingdom of God (at least because heaven is, sort of, the “capital” or center of the kingdom of God). And yet “capital” gives us the completely the wrong idea, too. The kingdom of God is not like a nation and its government. The kingdom of God is nothing like what you would find in Olympia, or Washington, D.C., or London, or Tokyo.
In the Book of Revelation it says: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” (Revelation 11:15) But this does not mean that there will be the structure of a world government in the kingdom of God. It means that the Lord will rule. The Lord will rule everywhere. That means that everything will be different.
For the people in the Bible, a kingdom was not an organization, or an institution. A kingdom was a king’s responsibility and authority. The relation of an ancient king to his kingdom was like the relationship of a farmer to his farm, or a homeowner to the house and yard and garden. It was the thing they took care of. It belonged to them: and (even more than that) they belonged to it.
A good king had a plan, and he would see to it that the plan was carried out. A good king would make improvements where they were needed. A wise king would repair what needed fixing. They made things work.
The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is something we enter where God makes things work. We do not enter by crossing a line on the map because everywhere that we have ever gone, or will go, belongs to God. We do not enter the kingdom by crossing a line on the calendar because every day we have ever lived, or will live, is ruled by God.
But there is a real sense in which God does not always rule us. When we enter the kingdom, we cross over the line of God’s ownership. We come under God’s rule.
When we come into God’s kingdom, God has a free hand to manage us, to fix us, to improve us, to remodel us, to cultivate us, to do his plan of rotations and cycles upon us: like summer fallow to wheat, seed-time to harvest. 
The church is not the kingdom of God, but the church is the exhibition of the kingdom of God. It is not even an experiment of the kingdom of God: not from God’s point of view. For us, it is an experiment, because we don’t know what we’re doing; but, from God’s point of view, he knows exactly what he is doing. An exhibition is a demonstration of something that God has accomplished or something that God has produced. It’s like an exhibition at a county fair.
God has called us and gathered us together, to show how his kingdom works; to show how he does things, if only we will let him.
I have a satellite dish for my TV reception. There is a channel available to me called the Home and Garden Channel which shows what creative homeowners and gardeners do with what is theirs. Actually, I never watch that channel. But one of God’s reasons for the Church is to be something like his own Home and Garden Channel: the place to show what he does with what is his (assuming we let him do what he wants with us).
In Matthew we read from the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This sermon, this message, describes what the kingdom of God looks like when people enter in. Verses 3 through 10 give us what we call “The Beatitudes”.
It’s an old fancy word. Beatitude means blessing, or happiness, or goodness. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Beatitude and blessing mean: how happy a thing it is, how good a thing it is, to be poor in spirit.
On Jesus’ lips, these blessings describe the goodness of being in a place in life where God can really work; where God can really rule as king (if we let him).
In these eight beatitudes, the first and the last refer to the kingdom of heaven, and that sort of encloses all of the beatitudes into the description of God’s kingdom-work: God’s rule. They are like the top and bottom slice of bread in a sandwich that holds the whole life of Jesus and our life together. The beatitudes are “a kingdom of God sandwich” that gives you the basic flavors of the kingdom: what God is like and what God does.
I am going to read each of the beatitudes over again; and then, after each one, I will read a paraphrase of from Eugene Peterson’s “The Message. I hope that doing this will help us understand the amazing words we take so much for granted. Each beatitude shows how God’s kingdom works in our lives.
 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Or: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Or: “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Or: “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.”
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Or: “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Or: “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full’ you find yourselves cared for.”
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Or: “You’re blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Or: “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Or: “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.”
The beatitudes show us the kingdom of God because they show us where, in our own lives, God is most free to work and bring us deeper into his love and power. Where God works with the greatest freedom; there is the greatest hope. These are blessings because these are the places in life where we have the most to hope for from the work of God.
These places are very odd. They are supposed to be about happiness and goodness, and yet they are completely different from what we would expect happiness and goodness to be: spiritual poverty, meekness, hunger and thirst, grief and suffering. These are completely different from where we expect to find happiness.
The happiness of the kingdom of God is like the happiness of salt.
There are a lot of things we can put on our food to make it taste better; things like spices and herbs, or oils, or dressings, or sauces, or butter, or bits of bacon or egg, or garlic. But these are actually food, themselves. At least, they come from plants and animals.
Salt doesn’t. Salt is something completely different from food; but it flavors food and preserves it. It makes food that makes us happy.
We are the salt of the earth when we let God make us, in some way, completely different from the earth; but in a way that fits and makes things better. In the same way, we are the light of the world when we let God make us different from the darkness of the world, in a way that belongs and helps.
How does God make us different? Some Christians used to make themselves different through the things they didn’t do: not dancing, or not going to movies, or not playing cards. But God’s difference makes us different in a completely different way.
For instance something in human nature makes us happy when we judge other people and think how stupid, or bad, or incompetent, or dangerous they are; and how much better than them we are. But Jesus says don’t judge. Which does not mean don’t think about what is right or wrong, but don’t be self righteous. Don’t go around thinking you are better than others. God’s different happiness means not going around looking down on others. This makes us completely different.
Something in human nature makes us happy when we get even with other people. But the happiness of God is completely different, because the happiness of God teaches us to forgive others.
Some Christians try to make themselves completely different by being a doormat for others, but God’s happiness is completely different. God’s happiness comes from standing up for what is right and not giving up, but truly forgiving the wrongs others do against you. That is why God came down from heaven in Jesus to die for the sins of the world; and for your sins and mine: to offer something completely different. It’s what we need. It’s what saves us.
The Sermon on the Mount describes the kingdom of God in a way that would make us completely different from what we see in the news, and from most of the entertainment on TV, and from what we read in the papers. It would make us a blessing, if we listened and entered in.
We could be like an announcer who says, “And now for something completely different!”
The world is always ready to notice something completely different. If you are completely different, the world will respond. People will laugh at you, or put you down. Some people will try to stop you, or hurt you.
Or else they will like what they see, or see what they are missing, and want it. Perhaps they will even ask you about it. Peter says: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)
The older translations describe this hope as “the hope that is in you,” and I think that is best. Hope is not something we “have”, except as a gift or as part of our relationship with the Lord. There is an old way of seeing things (as old as the Bible) that sees us living in Christ, and Christ living in us and bringing the hope along with him; not so that we have hope, but so that hope has us, because Christ has us.
Jesus is also the light of the world, but he gives us the gift and the honor of shining for him. He is the light of the world, and he enables us to be the light of the world. We hope to be a light in this world because the Lord is a light within us.
We hope to be something completely different in this world, and bring a better taste to it because we have found something completely different from what this world can offer. We have found something that brings us joy in the very same life that we share with others.
We have found Jesus. We have been found by Jesus, and Jesus has gathered us together to be his presence in this world. We are the exhibition of Jesus. We are the demonstration of Jesus. We are called to be the presence in this world of something from beyond this world: something completely different, and yet something that absolutely belongs here.
The whole world is something far different than almost anybody knows, because it is created and loved by a God who is not afraid to be poor and meek. Our world is created and loved by a God who became human and got himself tortured on a cross and killed for the deliberate purpose of entering into the sins and evils of this world and overcoming them by rising from the dead.
The Apostle Paul writes about the foolishness of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18-25), but he only means that the cross looks foolish because it comes from a completely different kind of wisdom and power than this world understands.
God’s varieties of being poor and meek are completely different from what we imagine it to be. Poverty and meekness are rich because they are about love and being willing to put love ahead of your self. They are strong because they are willing to do whatever it takes to make things right, and to make things work, and to make things good. This is what our God, our king, is like. This is the God who rules us.

We know God is different because he died and rose from the dead for people like us, and for the whole world. We demonstrate the kingdom of God when our way of life is changed because our lives are ruled by the God of the cross.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Great Ends of the Church: The Promotion of Social Righteousness

Preached on Sunday, August 3, 2014
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 58:1-9; James 1:26-2:7; Luke 19:1-10
Youth Group of Foster-Tukwila Presbyterian Church:
Preparations for the Mattawa/Desert Aire
Vacation Bible School, August 4-8, 2014
Earlier in the gospel of Luke (Luke 14:12-14) Jesus says an interesting thing, as he so often does. He says” When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Is Jesus crazy?
Or are we crazy, claiming that we follow Jesus when we don’t think anything at all like he does?
What is Jesus thinking about? For one thing, Jesus is thinking about righteousness; the righteousness of grace, the righteousness that helps people in need. In the Jewish faith, “acts of righteousness” means helping people. It even means giving to beggars (“Alms for the poor!”). Or it means standing up for people in need or giving them what they need.
It happens that Jesus connects this with “the resurrection of the righteous”. And “the resurrection of the righteous” is a huge thing. It’s everything. It’s where we want to be. It is part of God’s goal to basically recreate the universe, and to eliminate all evil, and to eliminate the true source of evil, which is sin (including your sin and mine).
God’s goal goes as far as the need goes: eventually to abolish even the most seemingly natural and inevitable of evils. God wants to abolish death itself, because sin is death. The cross and the resurrection are all about this.
We are not going to talk about all of that. But we are going to think about righteousness.
Righteousness is part of God’s goal, God’s intention, for us. But this righteousness has nothing to do with being better than other people, or trying to act like you are better, or trying to think like you are better.
In the Bible, righteousness is about mercy and grace. It is unconditional love and putting that love into constructive action. That is why Jesus is not talking about being better than others but helping those who need help, and not expecting to be repaid for your efforts.
God’s own righteousness is about loving us unconditionally, and putting that love into action. God’s righteousness is about mercy and forgiveness for us, even though it is beyond anything we can deserve, and even though it is beyond anything we can ever repay.
That is why Jesus tells us to give to those who can never repay us. How can we ever repay him for the cross and the resurrection?
The word gospel means “good news”, and it is good because it is about unconditional love, mercy, and grace. God showed that this was the kind of righteousness he thinks about when he came and died and rose from the dead to give us this unconditional love, mercy, and grace.
The Old Testament prophets thundered against God’s own people when they did not live by God’s standard of unconditional love, mercy, and grace. God expected the people who knew his grace to constructively show that grace to those who needed it. For all the violence of the Old Testament, God wanted the world to be able see a truly gracious people.
One of the great ends or purposes of the church is to promote what is called “social righteousness”. Just as God’s people in the Old Testament were called to create a righteous or gracious society in the world; so Christians are called to care about a righteous, gracious society.
James told his people to take care of widows and orphans, because those were the classic examples of the most vulnerable people in a society. They were some of the people who were least likely to be able to repay any help that they were given.
Along with “aliens” or outsiders, widows and orphans formed the short list of the people that God, in the Old Testament, wanted. They weren’t the only people God cared about. They were only examples. It is never enough to only care about the shortlist.
We can find one of the many occurrences of the short list in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. (Deuteronomy 24:17-18) God says: “Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.” (See also Deut. 10:18-19)
You see that the Lord was thinking about righteousness in terms of grace. The story of Israel was the story of God-given grace. God wanted the story of Israel to go on in the same vane by their making their own world into a gracious world. God, in Christ, gives his church the same calling.
The early Christians were noted for taking care of other people’s orphans and widows, as well as their own. They went to the garbage dumps where the unwanted babies were left. These garbage dumps were places that slave traders would visit for the purpose of collecting the strongest babies and raising them as cheaply as possible to sell as future slaves. The Christians took any baby they found, and brought it to their own homes to be raised as their own children.
When their towns were struck by plagues, and everyone ran for their lives, many Christians would stay and take care of the sick, even the pagan sick. When they found someone hungry they fed that person whether they were Christian or not.
The hard core pagans were indignant about the graciousness of Christians because it made the non-Christians look bad. It seemed grossly unfair. Any self-respecting person should have known that everyone was supposed to take care of their own. And why would they ever learn, if you did it for them? The Christians were shameless because they didn’t respect that essential principle. They were setting a bad example for everyone.
The gospel is about grace. The early Christians were very good at giving grace. Even though it was dangerous and illegal to be Christian, the Christian faith spread because grace was contagious, and the good news of the gospel was demonstrated by their grace.
The leaders of the empire blamed the Christians for being gracious. But, when the Roman Empire became Christian, and when the kings of the barbarians invaders later became Christian, you found emperors and kings founding hospitals, and orphanages, and shelters for the poor, and creating other institutions like that. Not that those emperors or kings were all true Christians, or people of grace, but societies and nations that were full of Christians tried to make themselves gracious.
Zacchaeus was not a government official, because tax collectors were independent contractors for the imperial government. The government assessed a province for a certain total amount of taxes and farmed out the collection of those taxes to the highest bidder. The contractor with the highest bid would collect enough to turn over the assessed sum to the government, but he could also collect as much above that sum as he could, and keep the excess for his own profit. That is how Zacchaeus became rich.
Zacchaeus was not a gracious man. He was a traitor because he served the Roman occupiers for his own profit. He didn’t care about anyone but himself. But, when Zacchaeus received grace from Jesus, he changed. By offering to repay his overcharges by four times the amount, he was offering to pay the penalty for stealing, as if he had been convicted of theft in a court of law.
He could have justified paying less if he were only confessing to having made a mistake. He could have claimed that he hadn’t known what he was doing, as a lot of rich and important people do today.
Instead of plea bargaining, Zacchaeus willingly accepted the label of a convicted criminal. He accepted the shame of being a thief. But he was a repentant thief. Jesus changed him into a man of grace.
Even though he was not a member of the government, his change of heart could change the influence of the government in his district, in his province. Christians can do this too and, when they do it, they are promoting social righteousness.
Christians and churches are not always gracious, but graciousness has come into the world through Christians and the church because it comes from Jesus.
The world movement to abolish slavery began with Christians. At first it started with just a handful of public-minded Christians in England during the late 1700’s; with William Wilberforce and John Newton (who was the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”), and a few others. At the turn of the 20th century, Christians worked to protect Chinese girls from sex slavery in the cities and towns of the west coast.
In early modern times the first real movement to clean up sewage and get it out of the streets came from Christians. Laws for safe food and drugs over a century ago came with the lobbying of Christians. Child labor laws came with the lobbying of Christians.
Beginning in the early 1600’s, the Puritans settled in New England. They brought a concern, as Christians, to create a righteous and gracious society, and one of the first things they did was to set up a system of universal, public education. They set the standard for public education in America. This was the work of the church.
Higher education for women was promoted by Christians. The great evangelist Charles Finney (who thrived during the early and middle 1800’s, and who was the inventor of the altar call) created Oberlin College, which was the first college in the United States that taught men, and women, and people of other races, without segregation.
In the late 1700’s, and through the centuries in America, Christians developed a concern for not just punishing but for rehabilitating law breakers. They have tried to make prisons more than places of punishment, but also of training and education.
Chuck Colson was a lawyer for the Nixon White House in the 1970’s. He was involved in the Watergate scandal and he was convicted and sent to prison for obstruction of justice.
He could have thought, in his heart, that prison was not the place for him. He could have thought that he didn’t belong there; that he wasn’t at all like the other people in prison.
But he had a change of heart. He identified himself with every prisoner and, when he served his time, he created the ministry of Prison Fellowship, which has a lot of success in changing the hearts of lawbreakers in prison, and assisting their families, and helping repentant law-breakers to live law-abiding lives after they have served their time.
In the area of addiction, Christians were the creators of the twelve-step programs, beginning with Alcoholics Anonymous. Christians looked at the damage done to families and communities by drug addiction and lobbied for laws against the free sale of opium, cocaine, heroin and other addictive drugs.
Christians also tried to change society through programs that did not last. They saw the damage done to lives from gambling, and they lobbied against gambling and made it illegal in every state except Nevada.
Christians got Prohibition passed, temporarily, which was very well meaning of them, but not very successful, and not even very wise. They forgot that Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine.
They proved that it is a risky thing for Christians to try to be holier than Jesus. This is, also, something for us to think about.
Habitat for Humanity, which helps the poor to build and own their own homes, was the inspiration of Christians in the South.
Christians from the Pacific Northwest have organized groups that go to the Gulf Coast of the United States, or to Latin America, to help people build homes and new lives from the wreckage of storms and hurricanes, or from the wreckage of simple, basic poverty.
There are groups of Christians from the Pacific Northwest going to Central America to make life there better for families and children: going to places like Guatemala and building churches, and schools, and homes. Maybe if more American Christians traveled to Central America on a mission there would be fewer kids from Central America coming to the United States, because grace is contagious.
The church is the body of Christ; the hands and the feet of Jesus. When the people who call themselves Christians are transformed by the grace of God they want to bring grace to the world around them.
They work to find ways to make things happen in their communities that show the unconditional love of God. They work to show the forgiveness, the mercy, and the grace of God that they have found in Jesus Christ.
They do this without expecting any recognition or any repayment in return. This comes naturally to them because their own lives have been taken up into the story of God’s grace which they can never repay.
James says: “Listen my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5)
Now those who are poor are not always rich in faith, and those who are rich are not always enemies of the faith. This is easy to see as we read the Gospels and the Bible as a whole.
James says what he does because he is wrapped up in the story of God’s grace. The simple fact of the story is that we are all truly poor; and we are all made rich by the love of God.
Being born again, born from above, comes in seeing your own poverty, and then seeing Jesus, in all his glory, humbling himself, in order to give himself to you in his birth, and on the cross, and in his resurrection. Paul says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)
When we know what it is to receive grace, then we know what it is to want to give grace, and make God’s gracious ways a reality in our country and our world. That is why it is our purpose, as the church, to promote the righteousness of grace, the righteousness that helps others in need, at every level of our world.
This is “the promotion of social righteousness. This is what the Bible tells us to do. Thus says the Lord!

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Clue: Or the Sacred Heart

The factors of our life are not explained
Through common sense or human reason strained
To fit the contrasts of reality.
So intricate is personality,
Our nature will dissent from every plan
To pinpoint who we truly are, to span
Our height and depth and leave the whole resolved.
Only from patient reverence may evolve
A feeling for the curious mystery
Of darksome light and awkward majesty
In everyone, to grope upon the clue
So deeply cut in letters, crimson-hued,
Upon one living heart where beats, alone,
The universal life one with our own.

Dennis Evans, December 1979