Friday, February 22, 2008

Third Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (February 24, 2008)

[You might want to look at the first two passes for this week. The first, here, also explains what the passes are about. Here is the second pass.]

Because the Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, John 4:5-42, is so long, I'm not going to do verse-by-verse comments. Instead, a few general comments.

1. In 930 BC, the kingdom of Israel split into two nations. The south, with worship and civic life centered in Jerusalem, came to be called Judah or Judea. Jesus was raised in the hinterlands of Galilee, in the northern reaches of the southern kingdom.

The breakaway nation of Israel, with its worship and civic life centered on the city of Samaria, was the so-called northern kingdom. Israel, also called Samaria for its primary city, fell in 722 BC. (Judah was later conquered in 586 BC.)

But long after the northern kingdom was conquered, the enmity between the two peoples who had been part of God's people, the Judeans and the Samaritans, remained.

The Judeans, with some justification, regarded the Samaritans as faithless perverters of the faith. They looked down their noses on the Samaritans. Contact with Samaritans of any kind was something that Judeans avoided. This is why Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well in the Samaritan village of Sychar is so remarkable. It's the longest conversation of Jesus recorded in the Gospels.

For more on Samaria, see here.

2. Jesus, a Jew, speaking to a Samaritan, as happens in this narrative, isn't the only convention he flouts here. Men were also not supposed to speak to women in public. But Jesus not only speaks with this woman, He initiates the conversation.

3. Typically, scholars and preachers (including this preacher) have seen this woman as a person of loose morals, married five times and now living with another man without a marital commitment. The fact that she treks to the village well at the hottest part of the day also is suspicious, indirect evidence that her loose morals had earned her the shunning of the other women of the village, who would have gone to the well before or after the heat of the day.

But Fred Craddock, writing in his commentary on John, isn't so sure that this typical understanding of the Samaritan woman is right:
To be sure, Jesus knows she has been married five times and now "has" a man who is not her husband, but what are the particulars? Deaths? Divorces? Legal tangles? Or is it promiscuity? We do not know. All we know is that Jesus, as is his custom in [John's Gospel], reveals special knowledge of the individuals he encounters and alerts them that in meeting him they encounter the transcendent. Jesus does not urge the woman to repent or change her behavior.
So, we'll leave questions about the woman's virtue aside for now. This isn't of central importance to the text anyway.

4. My seminary mentor, the late Bruce Schein, writing in his commentary on John, saw a deeper significance to the woman's five husbands. It's based on the fact that the common Aramaic word for husband, baal and its plural, baalim, is the same name used of the false idols many in Samaria worshiped, either exclusively or with other deities. Hosea, a prophet from the northern kingdom, who lived in the seventh-century BC upbraided his fellow Samaritans for being faithless brides who, rather than keeping the First Commandment, had chased after other gods. Hosea had equated idolatry to adultery.

Writes Schein:
The talk of marriage and husbands, baalim, evokes thoughts of the prophet's language and naturally directs attention to the top of the mountain that overshadows them. There is the holy place which Judeans claim has been covered with temples to baalim borrowed from five pagan countries. Here the present worshipers do not truly acknowledge God as their only husband.
Understanding that Jesus isn't really talking about her husbands, but the idols which she and her fellow Samaritans venerate while still trying to be in relationship with God, makes sense of her next comment to Jesus: “Sir, I see that you are a prophet."

5. The theme of "living water" picks up on the Old Testament incident. Water is essential for life. And Jesus can be the source of water that, to those who receive, "will become...a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

6. I like what Craddock says in summarizing the significance of this encounter:
If any wish to be fascinated by this woman, let them be so [at what she does and says in verses 28 and 29]. She is a witness, but not a likely witness and not even a thorough witness. "A man told me all that I ever did" is not exactly a recitation of the Apostles' Creed. She is not even a convinced witness: "Can this be a the Christ?" is literally "This cannot be the Christ, can it?" Even so, her witness is enough: it is invitational (come and see), not judgmental; it is within the range permitted by her experience; it is honest with its own uncertainty; it is for everyone who will hear...
This woman, in fact, with her tentative recognition of Jesus, is a great model for all Christians to follow for sharing Jesus Christ. We don't have to have all the answers. (In fact, the person who claims to have all the answers is a terrible witness for Christ!) We just say, "This is what I personally know of Jesus. But come and see for yourself."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

So, What's the Male Version of a Schlumpadinka?

Apparently, Oprah Winfrey introduced the world to a new word today, schlumpadinka. According to Winfrey, a schlumpadinka "represents, for me, a woman who dresses like she has completely given up…and it shows."

Hmmm. Maybe Winfrey is being a bit sexist. I mean, there are males who seem to have given up on looking human. too. Oprah hasn't yet dubbed these men with names, sort of giving them a pass, don't you think?

But, Oprah isn't the only one overlooking male frumpiness. Society is certainly more accepting of we men who have given up on looking presentable.

Don't believe me? Think of all the sitcoms that feature average-looking guys who dress like slobs, but whose TV wives, when seen in public, appear to have combed their hair and pressed their clothes.

There's a reason for these stereotyped TV couples: They represent, to some extent, the real world. Ralph Kramdens and Jim Belushis who live on your street have managed to win the hearts of wives who, at least outside the house, avoid being schlumpadinkas. But the guys don't even try.

So, shouldn't there be a male version of this word. How about dumpaschlink?

It works for me.

In fact, a few weeks ago, in a busy parking lot, I saw a dumpaschlink. He was changing a tire that had gone flat on his car.

I felt badly for him and for his pregnant wife, who was shivering in the cold waiting for him to finish up.

As I was driving off the parking lot, I stopped and rolled down my window to ask if they needed help. (Honestly, I'm pretty useless when it comes to anything mechanical. But I thought that I'd at least offer.)

"No," the woman said, her teeth chattering in the cold. "My husband is almost finished." I said, "Okay" and glanced over at the man.

Now, of course, no one who's changing a tire in inclement and difficult circumstances is going to look their best. Nor should they be expected to.

But, sprawled on the pavement, this guy's untucked shirt and unbelted pants conspired with his decision to not wear undergarments to create a really unpleasant sight. I wanted to tell him that this was not what Jesus had in mind when He told us to turn the other cheek.

Whether Oprah intends to provide fashion advice to dumpaschlinks, I don't know. From the brief minutes I've watched her show through the years, my guess is that the advice offered would be more hoity-toity and precious than we guys would want to hear or that we'd abide by, in any case. So, here are a few basic rules for dumpaschlinks who'd prefer not being such slobs:
1. Tuck in your shirt.
2. Wear a belt.
3. Wear the waistline of your pants on your waistline. (There's a revolutionary notion!)
4. Wash and comb your hair at least once a day.
But, I suppose, offering this advice is pointless. As long as women are willing to accept the double standard that says a man can be a dumpaschlink but a woman can't be a schlumpadinka, frumpy men will be mooning unsuspecting passersby on public parking lots.

(I will admit that it takes some guts for me to write this because, as I sit at my computer, I'm wearing an old orange sweatshirt, at least ten years old, and a black ball cap that should have been thrown away a long time ago. But I'm not planning on sharing my dumpaschlinkness with anybody tonight.)

The Eyes Have It

Once, on a lazy Saturday afternoon when I was young, I read about how our eyes find it hard to remain focused on anything for long. Our attention naturally flits from one object to another.

This so natural to us, in fact, that if we try to intently gaze on one thing for say, more than sixty seconds, we find it nearly impossible. And, the article said, if we were ever successful in doing so, what we saw would slowly become engulfed by a whiteness that moved from the periphery of our gaze to our focal point.

With too much time on my hands, I tried to do what the article suggested. I picked an object to stare at, stared, and waiting for the image-eating whiteness. After several failed attempts, I saw the whiteness it mentioned. But I found myself incapable of remaining focused on one object. Maybe I have Vision Attention Deficit Disorder. Anybody else?

I thought of that Saturday afternoon from long ago again last night as I read a devotional piece by Martin Luther. Citing Galatians 2:20 and Galatians 3:27 from the Bible's New Testament, he asserts that "faith is an unswerving gaze that looks on Christ alone."

Then, he writes, referencing an Old Testament incident that Jesus himself references in his conversation with Nicodemus, which was read in most Christian churches around the world this past weekend:
"This [unswerving gaze of faith] is beautifully illustrated by the story of the bronze snake which points to Christ (John 3:14). Moses commanded the Israelites, who had been bitten in the desert by poisonous snakes, to look at the bronze snake [which the Israelites had molded and put on a stake, at God's direction] with an unswerving gaze. Those who did so were healed, simply by steadily gazing at the snake alone. In contrast, others who didn't obey Moses looked at their wounds instead of the snake and died."
By way of background, you should know that during their wilderness wanderings, God's people, the Hebrews or Israelites, underwent a series of tests of faith. In that forty-year trip to the promised land, a journey that should have taken eleven days, they flunked every single test. They were constantly diverting their gaze from God and, instead, focusing on their troubles and challenges. They whined that things weren't easy or when things didn't go their way. Their focus on God was so fleeting that they seemed in constant danger of forgetting all that God had already done for them. (I can identify with this brood.)

In Numbers 21:4-9, you can read about the Israelites whining once more, this time that they were tired of the food that God was miraculously providing to them. God got fed up and set a bunch of poisonous snakes on them. Israelites were dropping like flies.

The Israelites went to Moses and said, "We've been in the wrong. Pray for us, Moses, so that these serpents will leave us alone."

This is when God gave Moses strange instructions. Strange, but when you think about them, sensible. We're told:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. [Numbers 21:8-9]
The bronze serpent represented both God's law and God's grace for the Israelites. As they gazed on it, they were reminded of their sin and its consequences. But God was also placing on that bronze representation the weight of their rebellion against God.


By acknowledging their sin and believing in God's promise of restoration, those who focused on this instrument of God were healed. Those who focused on their wounds died.

Push ahead from those Old Testament events to the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus some 1500 years later. Jesus compared Himself to the bronze serpent:
"Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." [John 3:14-15]
Whenever I read that passage, I think of what the New Testament writer Paul said of the sinless Jesus, God in human flesh:
For our sake he [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. [2 Corinthians 5:21]
Eugene Peterson renders that passage a bit more clearly for our modern eyes:
God put the wrong on him [Christ] who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God. [The Message]
We all know about serpents. It was a serpent that tempted Adam and Eve to rebel against God's will and through them, plunged the whole human race into a condition we call sin, an inborn, genetic separation from and inclination to go against God. Jesus bore our sin. Looking at Him on the cross reminds us both of the gravity of our sin--after all, it brought about the death of a sinless Savior--but also of the depth of God's healing love. More than a reminder, Jesus' death on the cross is the means by which He gives life. The penalty is paid for our sin through Jesus. And with the penalty paid, all with faith in Him live forever with God! (See here and here.)

God's call to the world is to turn a trusting gaze on Jesus Christ. We will be healed of sin, the thing that separates us from God and have the gift that only God can give, life.

Luther concludes (read these words slowly several times):
...if you want to be comforted when your conscience plagues you or when you are in dire distress, then you must do nothing but grasp Christ in faith and say, "I believe in Jesus Christ, God's Son, who suffered, was crucified, and died for me. In his wounds and death, I see my sin. In his resurrection, I see the victory over sin, death, and the devil. I see righteousness and eternal life as well. I want to see and hear nothing except him." This is true faith in Christ and the right way to believe.
Keeping our focus on God to sustain us through this life and fill us with hope for the one to come isn't any more natural to us than staring on an object for more than a few seconds. Thank God that when we fail to keep our faith focus, falling into sin or hopelessness, we can turn back to Christ.

This is something I need to remember. You too?

[By the way, the American Medical Association's logos, in all of its permutations through the years, is based on Numbers 21 and John 3. Below are some of the logo's various incarnations.]





Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Second Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (February 24, 2008)

[To see what these "passes" are about, go to this week's first one, here.]

[General Comments, continued]
9. Psalm 95: Artur Weiser writes in his commentary on this psalm:
[This] song [was] that portion of a liturgy of the autumn festival in which Yahweh [God's Name, as revealed to Moses, meaning I AM] is revealed as the Creator and Lord of the universe (vv. 4 f), enters upon his reign as King (v. 3) and renews the covenant he made with his people by pledging them anew to keep the commandments he ordained in that covenant (v. 7)...[The] psalm...[was probably] recited before the festival congregation entered the sanctuary (vv. 2, 6). In its first part (vv. 1-7a) it contains a hymn preparing the congregation for their impending encounter with God, the Creator and Lord of the covenant; the second part (vv. 7b-11) comprises a warning from God, calling upon them to obey him and ending in a grave, almost threatening prospect...
10. This psalm is all about the encounter between God and His people that should happen each time we worship.

11. Verse 8 contains a call not to make the same mistake that the Israelites made in the wilderness when they cried out for water, hardening their hearts to God.

12. Romans 5:1-11: William Loader's explanation of this passage is worth reading. It's here. I love this insight from him:
Paul is never far away from dealing with the objections of his critics. One of them is that he is unimpressive and has too many adversities to be able to claim a victorious life with God. Paul meets this objection by turning the complaint upside down. He glories in the fact of suffering. It is the shape of Christ's life and for Paul Christ's life gives shape to ours. His is not a spirituality which guarantees happiness. The peace of which he speaks means something quite different from the absence of conflict. Paul's point of reference is the cross. There he sees God revealed. There he also sees humanity revealed: love poured out.
Contrary to what some so-called Christian preachers say, being a follower of Jesus Christ and living the victorious Christian life doesn't mean all will go well, that we'll be financially succesful, or pain-free. In fact, following Christ will sometimes bring pain and adversity. If you're following Jesus, you can expect the devil and the evil in which this world is immersed will push back. But none of that can destroy the peace we have with God, a peace that begins here and is perfected in eternity.

[More on Friday, I hope.]

Whitman for Vice President?

Whoever the Democrats nominate for president this year--Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, the initial excitement going into the fall campaign will be attached to that party's candidate. That's because, as everybody knows, either nomination will be historic, first woman nominated by a major party or first African-American.

John McCain, straight-talking war hero though he is, will be hard-pressed to negate the Wow Factor the Dems will have going for them. And, as we have seen from the Obama phenomenon, the Wow Factor can propel a candidate to a lot of victories.

So, what should McCain do?

Simply, the Arizona senator, who has always shown a penchant for departing from form, should toss convention aside.

Ordinarily, McCain, who it's alleged is not a conservative Republican, would be expected to choose a vice presidential running mate to solidify his standing among the Limbaugh crowd going into the fall campaign. Advisors will urge him to shore up the base.

Many think that Mike Huckabee has been angling for second place on the ticket by remaining in the presidential race, demonstrating his appeal to social conservatives...although arch conservatives like Limbaugh hate him. If that's Huckabee's game, he needs to get advice from other people. By remaining in the race, he will likely erase the respect thus far accorded him by McCain, turning himself into a thorn in the flesh for a presumptive nominee anxious to unite the party for the fall, if he stays in.

I've previously suggested that a great potential veep candidate to run under McCain could be Senator Joe Lieberman, the one-time Democratic nominee for the same office.

But, there's someone else who, I suspect could help McCain even more: Former New Jersey Governor and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman.

Yes, Whitman is considered by some in her party to be a liberal. Her views on abortion are anathema to social conservatives, to be sure.

But she's a fiscal conservative, a leader of the Republican Leadership Council, and someone who has a demonstrated ability to win votes from independents and Democrats. She has a good record on environmental issues, something that, along with McCain's position on global warming, could negate the Democratic advantages on these matters.

She would do two other things for a ticket topped by John McCain: (1) She would fire the imaginations of the electorate, demonstrating that the GOP too, has people who previously couldn't have been considered for the presidency or the vice presidency, namely, a woman. Having Whitman on the ticket would somewhat the history-changing advantage conferred on the Democratic nominee, whoever that turns out to be. (2) She would bring New Jersey and perhaps other states in the Northeast into play for the GOP, something that hasn't happened for that party in decades.

Some will argue that if McCain, viewed as suspect by some conservatives, brought on a pro-choice running mate, he would be abandoned by conservatives on election day. I don't think so. Where will those conservative votes go in November?

Impressive though Barack Obama is, I don't think that the hard core conservatives Republicans have as their base are going to vote for him this fall.

In the end, the battle will be for the votes of independents. Christine Todd Whitman will help John McCain get those votes.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Task of Huckabee and Clinton: Define Their End Games

Barack Obama and John McCain were the winners of their respective parties presidential primaries in Wisconsin today. Obama appears ready to win the Democratic caucuses in Hawaii and McCain in the Republican caucuses in Washington, each candidate winning the sole contests happening in their respective party.

The math is inexorable. Mike Huckabee cannot defeat McCain for the Republican nomination. And only a collective decision on the part of the Democrats' superdelegates to ignore the verdicts of primary and caucus voters this election season, the political equivalent of drinking Jonestown Cool-aid, would result in a Clinton nomination. In order for the superdelegates to go for Clinton in a big way and deny Obama the nomination he's earning, she will have to roll up massive majorities here in Ohio and in Texas in two weeks. Unless Obama self-destructs, that won't happen.

So, both Huckabee and Clinton need to design their end games.

Clinton Campaign Can't Be Blamed for This



According to NPR, this bit of kitsch wasn't created by the Clinton campaign, but by an overzealous supporter with too much money and too much time.

But, really, is it any worse than this production from an Obama fan?


Can we make hokie videos with our laptops? Yes, we can.

Monday, February 18, 2008

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (February 24, 2008)

[Every week, I try to post a these explorations of the Bible lessons around which worship will be built on the following Sunday. The idea is to help the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. Others may be helped, too, since our lessons are those appointed to be used by what's called the Revised Common Lectionary. That's explained here.]

The Bible Lessons:
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

The Prayer of the Day:
Merciful God, the fountain of living water, you quench our thirst and wash away our sin. Give us this water always. Bring us to drink from the well that flows with the beauty of your truth
through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen

General Comments:
1. Each of these lessons are unique and have their own important themes. But a single motif runs through all of them and a single theme unites them.

The motif is water.

In the Old Testament lesson, there is a crisis of faith experienced by Moses and the people of Israel when, during their forty years in the wilderness, they run out of water and see no ready supply at hand. They doubt that God will provide it for them.

The Psalm recalls this incident, calling a later generation of Israelites to trust in God.

In Romans, the apostle Paul uses the image of water to speak of how God's love is "poured into" the hearts of believers through Jesus Christ.

Finally, in the Gospel lesson, Jesus' encounter with a woman at a well is the occasion for Him to describe Himself as "living water."

Water, of course, is fundamental to life. According to Wikipedia. com, "To function properly, the body requires between one and seven liters of water per day to avoid dehydration..." Scientists tell us that while human beings can live for long periods of time ingesting only water. And, of course, water is essential for agriculture. Wars have been fought over water.

So, you can see the point of all this water imagery: God is as essential to life as water AND it's a gift.

2. The theme is one that extends from last week: Faith or, more accurately, trust.

The Israelites, who had seen so many of God's miraculous signs, didn't trust that God would help them in the wilderness.

In Romans, Paul demonstrates to those who think his faith is bunk because his life was so marked by pain and adversity, that a Christian's faith is not based on God making things easier for us in this life. We know that our faith is authentic when, as we trust God, we experience peace with God. Peace isn't, he says, the absence of difficulty, pain, or tragedy, but reconciliation with God through Christ.

At the end of the Gospel lesson, the people of Samaria, enemies of God's people, believed in Jesus as the long-promised Messiah. Faith in Christ can transform anybody from an enemy to a friend of God.

3. Exodus 17:1-7: This incident is recounted in more detailed form in Numbers 20:1-13.

4. The Wilderness of Sin was a place lying between Elim and Mount Sinai. "Sin" doesn't refer to sinfulness. It's thought that the word has to do with a moon-deity worshiped by some Semitic peoples there. It would also appear to be the word Sinai.

5. This incident, in many ways, echoes incidents recounted in Exodus 16. Those involved the desire of the one-time slaves, recently freed from their captivity in Egypt, for bread and meat. Now, they want water.

6. Chris Haslam interestingly points out that earlier in Exodus, God gradually gained freedom for His people through the performance of ten signs, which He did through Moses. Now, in the wilderness, God undertakes ten tests, each designed to demonstrate the faith--or lack of it--of His people. The question is: Do the people believe in God as their provider? As Howard Wallace notes:
The people appear not to have developed much trust in God’s providence from the provision of the manna, for here again, they begin by complaining to Moses that he has brought them out of Egypt only to kill them, this time by thirst rather than hunger.
The upshot is that the people of Israel and their leader, Moses, fail their tests. God is with them. But the generation God sprang from captivity in Israel--with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, who always trusted in God--won't get into the Promised Land. It's their children who will make it.

Their experience and that of Moses point out that even when we repent for our sins and have our relationship with God restored, there are consequences to our faithlessness. Moses, as is confirmed in his appearance with Jesus at the mount of Transfiguration many centuries later, was and is part of God's kingdom. But by his rebellion, his life here was less than God had in mind for him.

7. The staff God commands Moses to use at Horeb is the same staff Moses had used to strike the Nile River (when God turned the water of Egypt into blood) and which he held up when God caused the waters of the sea to part for the escaping Hebrew slaves.

The staff had no magical powers. It was simply what God used at particular moments and at particular times, a means by which Moses was signaling God's presence and power. The act that God performs when Moses strikes the stone with the staff addresses the key issue behind the quarreling and questioning of the people: "Is the Lord among us or not?" (v. 7)

The same issue is addressed, in a different way, in the next incident recounted in Exodus. There, God's people face enemies who want to prevent their advance, the Amalekites. Moses puts Joshua in charge of recruiting and leading a group of Israelites in battle. In the meantime, Moses goes to the top of a hill and holds his staff aloft to God.

Again, the staff isn't magical. By lifting the staff to God, Moses was seeking the help of God. It was a confession that the battle to do God's will--which entering a promised land was--could not be done unless God accomplished it.

The staff may be easier to understand for those believers of a more sacramental bent of mind. When it comes to the bread and wine of Holy Communion or the water of Holy Baptism, we Lutherans, for example, believe that something really happens in these sacraments. The presence of God comes down to earth. The Spirit really does move in the water of Baptism to claim the baptized as a child of God. Jesus really is mysteriously present, body and blood, in the bread and the wine. But these elements remain, at the same time, what they were: water, bread, wine. As Martin Luther responds, in The Small Catechism, to the question about Baptism, "How can water do such great things?":
It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost...
Luther writes in similar terms in answering two questions about Holy Communion:
How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?

It is not the eating and drinking, indeed, that does them, but the words which stand here, namely: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins. Which words are, beside the bodily eating and drinking, as the chief thing in the Sacrament; and he that believes these words has what they say and express, namely, the forgiveness of sins.

Who, then, receives such Sacrament worthily?

Fasting and bodily preparation is, indeed, a fine outward training; but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: Given, and shed for you, for the remission of sins.

But he that does not believe these words, or doubts, is unworthy and unfit; for the words For you require altogether believing hearts.
Like the bread, wine, and water of the two Sacraments, Moses' staff in itself wasn't special. But what God did with it for one who faithfully used it in accordance with God's command was special.

8. I find it so interesting here that God shows such patience with the people--and with Moses--in spite of their whininess. Remember, this incident is a test from God. Like many of the tests of faith we go through in life, there will be no Technicolor sign posts saying, "This is a test of your faith." Often, it's only after we've gone through--and failed--a test of faith that we see it for what it was.

The time to prepare for a test is before it comes. We're prepared when, in the good and easier times of life, we rely on God, seek Him out in prayer, read His Word, attend to worship, and seek to do His will. God is close at hand all the time.

[More tomorrow, I hope.]

Some Presidents' Day Readings

Here is a sampling of some of the posts on Presidents and the presidency that have appeared here at Better Living. Happy Reading!

A New Approach to Naming Our Greatest Presidents
The Other Adams
Note for 2008: Dump or Change Presidential Debates
Veterans' Day Reading
Carter's 'Living Faith'
His Excellency, Samuel Betances, and the Promise of America
Bush Takes Oath: Here Are Consequences, Unintended and Otherwise
My Picks for the Four Best US Presidents
The Rest of My Top Ten
The Book I Always Meant to Write
TR: Leadership and the Call to Sacrifice
Garry Wills' Account of James Madison's Presidency
Our Visit to the New Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois
My Four Favorite Lincoln Books
I Like the US Way of Electing Presidents Better
The 'Curse' of Second Presidential Terms
Reflections on JFK's Assassination
Abraham Lincoln Really Was Great
'1776' Underscores Washington's Greatness
Image Making and the Crapshoot of American Democracy
The Dangers of Sanctimony
Schlesinger, Lincoln, and Preventive War
When Presidents Theologize
Would JFK Have Won in 1964?
Gerald Ford: Our Insurance Policy
Clinton and 'Experience'
To Be Normal May Mean To Be Great
Presidential Campaigns Are Too Long
The Grayson Letters and Presidential Health
Interpreting Lincoln's Second Inaugural 'Sermon' (seven parts)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent: Part 4 (Rerun)

[This the final installment of a four-part series I wrote and first presented back in November, 2004. It's being presented in a slightly revised form here.]

She was sixty years old and she was dying of cancer. It had been a long fight with early victories, disappointing setbacks, and now, the end was clearly near.

"Are you angry with God?" I asked her.

"I was at first," she answered honestly. "But then I remembered that He's right here with me. Somehow that helped me."

In the first three installments of this series, I've dealt with the question of why people are subjected to seemingly undeserved suffering. Sadly, suffering happens all the time. Just as it did to the sixty year old woman I visited in the hospital. Just as it happens countless times each day---from hospital oncology wards in every city in America to the scenes of armed battles around the globe. In our world, the innocent do suffer.

Given that reality, "Why?" may not be the right question for us to ask. One of my seminary professors, the systematician Donald Luck, used to say that one question that might more profitably be asked in response to those who ask, "Why?" is, "Why not?"

Why would suffering surprise us?

Why, given what we can observe or experience each day, would we assume that anybody is exempt from suffering?

On this side of heaven, we won't really know why God allows the innocent to suffer. But we can know how to suffer, how to fight our suffering and the suffering of others, how to live and go on in a world where tragedy happens.

We can cope by leaning on the God Who suffers with us. Through Jesus Christ, God knows exactly what it's like to suffer undeservedly.

Seven centuries before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, He was described by the prophet Isaiah:

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. [Isaiah 53:3-6]
The New Testament book of Philippians, written by the first century evangelist and preacher Paul, quotes what some Biblical scholars think is an early hymn of the Church:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. [Philippians 2:5-11]
Through Jesus, God has linked with every aspect of our experience, including our suffering.

Jesus is the very embodiment of the word compassion, a compound word that literally means to suffer with. Through Jesus, God suffers with us and thereby makes our suffering more bearable.

And He doesn't cut and run when the going gets tough. He promises to be with us always.

He also gives us a family called the Church, people who will rejoice with us and cry with us, pray with us and hope with us, sing with us and be silent with us. This is so important!

More than that, the people who surrender themselves to Christ live and die in the knowledge that God gives life beyond our suffering. He gives everlasting life to those with faith in Him. It makes this life and all that can go wrong bearable. It gives this life meaning and purpose!

Karl Marx, the co-creator of Communist theory, used to taunt believers. He called religion the opiate of the people. It can be. But not for a real-life believer in Jesus Christ!

One of the contemporary heroes of Christian faith is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The South African cleric stood against the evil system of apartheid in his country. Each day brought death threats to his mailbox.

"Why do you do it?" people would ask Tutu. I can't help it, he would say. I can't help speaking out against injustice. Besides, he said, death isn't the worst thing that can happen to a Christian!

Knowing that they are forever in the hands of Jesus gives people a courage and a tenacity for living they wouldn't otherwise have. It doesn't make suffering easier. But it does help the follower of Christ to know that...

they don't suffer alone

they have life beyond the suffering

they, like their Savior, can suffer with others

they have the family of the Church to uphold, encourage, and share hope with them

they know that God will never walk away!

There's a passage of Scripture I've told my wife must be read at my funeral. If it isn't, I'm popping out of the box and reading it myself:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:31-39]
I pray God that He will help me to remember what that verse teaches, come what may.

New Life!

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

John 3:1-17
Today, as we start, I want to tell you that there are three points to my sermon.

Point one:
We all need the new life God gives through Jesus. Every single Christian is a sinner given a new life by God.

Point two:
We can take no credit for the new and everlasting life that comes from God. It is pure gift.

Point three:
We need to keep being born from above.

Let's pray. Lord God: I pray that this morning you would help us to submit our wills to your will so that we can learn to trust You completely. In Jesus' Name we pray. Amen.

It was a Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer some twenty years ago. I was then the pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church near Okolona, Ohio. I was looking forward to going home, getting a bite to eat, and then doing some hospital visits before returning home to finish getting ready for Sunday morning.

The church telephone rang. “Hello,” the voice at the other end of the line said. “Is this the pastor?” After I assured the enthusiastic-sounding man that I was, he began, “You don’t know me. But, my name is Joe Gerken. I used to go to that church when I was a little boy and my ancestors were among the founding members there.”

“I see,” I said, trying to sound interested, wondering what this guy had up his sleeve. “Well,” he said, “my fiancĂ© and I want to get married….” Pause. “And we’ve decided that you should be the one to perform the ceremony right there at Bethlehem!”

Joe Gerken spoke these words to me as though he was announcing that Bethlehem and I had won the lottery! Just imagine it, he seemed to be saying, of all the churches and pastors in the world, you are the ones privileged to have our wedding.

I tried to contain my enthusiasm and asked Joe Gerken, “When would you and your fiancĂ© like to be married?” “Tomorrow!” he said, now taking on the tone of one of those infomercial announcers who say, “Act now!”

When I explained to Joe that that wouldn’t be possible and that I didn’t know of any responsible pastor who would perform their wedding on such short notice, he was shocked. He, after all, was Joe Gerken, descendant of a founding family of the parish! He seemed to think that I should feel privileged that he had picked us for his wedding day.

In today’s Gospel lesson, a man named Nicodemus visits Jesus. I think that Nicodemus felt that he was conferring a privilege on Jesus by visiting Him. After all, Nicodemus was a respected teacher of the Jews, a renowned ruler of his faith. Nicodemus truly did enjoy the sort of high status among religious folks that Joe Gerken thought he could expect from the pastor and people of Bethlehem Lutheran Church at Okolona, Ohio.

But, when Nicodemus comes to converse with Jesus, his mouth full of syrupy words of flattery, amazingly treating Jesus as his equal, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth delivers essentially the same message that He’s been delivering to the unwashed masses who hang on His every word. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus says.

“There are no privileged characters in the kingdom of God,” Jesus was saying. So, first point: We all need the new life God gives through Jesus. Every single Christian is a sinner given a new life by God.

This message from Jesus had to have been jarring for Nicodemus. Jesus seemed to be telling him that he wasn’t such a privileged character, after all. Even he needed to exchange his old life of prestige and privilege, had to trade in all the status and perks he enjoyed, along with his sins and selfishness and presumption, for one simple title, the one that Chip Patterson will receive in the waters of Holy Baptism in just a few minutes: Child of God.

Nicodemus, this teacher and ruler of the Jews, probably wasn’t sure that he wanted to become a child of God. He was probably content with being a grown-up who got to do whatever he wanted to do. And he couldn’t have been too keen on the notion that he, just like all the other sinners Jesus interacted with each day, needed to get a new life.

More than anything, probably, he didn’t want to accept God’s new life as a free gift. The truth is, it goes against the grain for all of us. We’d like to think that we deserve the riches of heaven, as well as the accolades of others. Back in our Bethlehem days, Ann and I, along with another member of the congregation, ran a five-week Bible and Catechism school for the eighty-five young people in the third through eighth grades. It was part of their Catechism training, which including weekly school-year Catechism classes for the sixth through eighth graders. We had the kids for chunks of whole days. So, we would have break period when we played kickball.

Once, I divided the kids into teams. I set up brackets. But they were different from brackets as ordinarily organized. In this tournament, the losers advanced to the next games and the two losingest teams were the last ones playing. One of the kids, who later went on to play college football was frustrated by this system. "How will we know who the winner is?" he asked. "We won't," I told him. "Oh."

Under this topsy turvy bracketology, the losers wore the crown, the unworthy ones were the champions, and the kids who couldn’t run, jump, throw, or keep up with others were the winners, the ones who don't earn the laurels get them. Just like the kingdom of God that belongs to all with faith in Jesus!

Steve Taylor, a Christian rock singer, with a satirical wit, says, “Jesus is for losers.” And he’s right. If you’re like Joe Gerken or Nicodemus, certain that God is privileged to have you on His team, certain that you’ve got a handle on righteousness, there’s no place for you in the kingdom of God. And if you are part of Christ’s Church, you know that you can’t take credit for it. It really is a gift!

“Very truly,” Jesus tells Nicodemus, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Water and the Spirit of God will come together again this morning in the baptism of Chip Patterson. The result: Chip will become a child of God.

It will be tempting for Chip to brag about this event. It may be tempting for parents to boast of their decision to have their children baptized or to go through Sunday School and Confirmation. I’m happy when people make choices like these. But the fact of the matter is that the Holy Spirit is the One Who impels us toward God. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit,” the New Testament tells us. Point two: We can take no credit for the new and everlasting life that comes from God. We can’t take credit for our faith. It’s pure gift.

Martin Luther used to say of the people who made up the born again Christian movement of his day, “The problem with you people is that you aren’t born again enough!” He was right. This is part of what Jesus is getting at in the Bible’s most famous verse, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That word that we translate as believes can be more literally rendered as, is believing.

The idea is that the believer is trusting God, not just because she or he was baptized or confirmed back in the day, but because they’re actively trusting Jesus Christ today, in this moment. Jesus is their Lord now and they are trusting Jesus moment to moment.

For the Christian, being born from above, receiving new life from God, is something that happens every day.

Of course, because new and renewing life from God is a gift over which we have no control, we can’t decide to be born again. But we can, like a child about to be born who has no control over the contractions that will happen in labor, respond to the promptings that position us to be born anew.

We do that when we let the Holy Spirit convict us of a sin for which we need to repent, convince us of our need of God’s help, prompt us to turn to Christ and let Him love us, worship when we’d rather sleep, serve when we’d rather sit. Martin Luther called this “living in daily repentance and renewal.” Point three: We need to keep being born from above.

Some days, in times of Scripture reading and prayer, I come close to God and see the blazing light of God’s purity and I see my darkness.

I see my sin and His grace.

I see His power and my weakness.

I can hardly believe that God, the maker of the universe, bothers with me, loves me, and gives me new life.

And often, in light of all this, I say, “Thank You, God, for not striking me dead as I deserve. It’s the judgment my sin has earned me. Thank You for the gift of life with You forever!”

The God we know in Jesus Christ is truly awesome!

Three points.

Point one: There are no privileged characters in the kingdom of God. We all need the new life God gives through Jesus.

Point two: We can take no credit for the new and everlasting life that comes from God. It is pure gift.

Point three: We need to keep being born above, letting the Savior Who put religious teachers in their places and Who accepted even prostitutes and extortionists, put us in our places in His kingdom. We need to let Him accept us and make us His forever.

Keep believing in Jesus. You'll never go wrong doing that! Amen!

[I frankly don't remember the name of the guy who telephoned me twenty-some years ago. But Gerken was a common name in those parts. Even had I remembered the fellow's real name, I wouldn't have used it in a sermon.]