Sunday, November 26, 1995

Good News!

Lessons for Advent 2 in Year A
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

The prophet Isaiah gives good news:
There will come one upon whom the spirit of the Lord will rest. He will judge with righteousness and destroy the wicked by the breath of his lips. He will make every­thing right, and set the world at peace.
John the baptist gives good news too:
Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand! The one Isaiah spoke of is coming!
This is definitely good news. It was good news to the people of his time…a time of crime, disease, and injustice…a time not much unlike our own. It’s also good news for us. The kingdom of God is at hand. All the horrible things we read about in the newspapers and hear about on TV and radio are not the last word. The kingdom of God is at hand, there will be justice, there will be peace, the evil will be destroyed. Everything will be just fine.

Yes, it’s definitely good news, but do we really understand what it’s all about? Do we really un­derstand what John and Isaiah are saying? I’m not sure that we do. I suspect that there’s just a little smugness in our looking forward to the arrival of God’s kingdom.

Smugness? Us? To borrow a line from the old Warner Brothers cartoons, “Mmm now…it’s a possibility.” In looking forward to justice, to peace, and the destruction of evil, whose perspective are we looking at it from? Perspective makes all the difference in the world. Do we really understand that our perspective is probably not the same as the person sitting next to us. Do we really understand that our perspective is most likely not the same as God’s?

We are smug if we look forward to the arrival of the kingdom of God as the time when all those who have done us wrong will finally get theirs…without considering those whom we might have wronged. We are smug if we look forward to the destruction of those evil people over there…without considering that we may rightly be considered evil by others…and by God. If we have any real understanding of exactly what’s going on here, then we won’t smugly look forward to the arrival of the kingdom of God as the time when our side wins and we finally get what we think we deserve. Rather, we would look forward to it with fear and trembling as the time when God wins, and we have to face the possibility that we will be counted among the unjust and the evil.

But wait a minute. What happened to the good news that I was talking about? How can I say that a proper understanding of the coming of the Kingdom of God requires acknowledging that we may be counted among the unjust and the evil, and call this good news?

Very easily. I can say this because of something else that John said, and that the Pharisees understood. And let’s talk about the Pharisees for a moment. For all the bad press they’ve received in the New Testament, they’re not the bad guys we’ve come to think of them as. Of the four major movements with Judaism during Jesus’s time, he was probably the closest to the Pharisees. So then why do we read so much about the arguments Jesus had with them? For the same reason we read about the few plane crashes and not the thousands of safe arrivals…the disa­greements, like the crashes are few enough that they stand out and grab our attention.

But let’s go back to what the Pharisees un­derstood. They understood another piece of good news that John had. A piece of good news that lay in one very important word. That word is “repent.” John said, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”

What’s such good news about being told to repent? There’s much good news in it. We’ve been given a warning. We’ve been told what is needed for us to enter into the kingdom of God. We have a chance to change. We have a chance to try to change…to look at ourselves, see where we have been unjust, where we have been evil, where we have been obstructions to peace. We have a chance to be honest rather than smug.

John is saying “Repent and God will accept you!” “Repent and you won’t be counted among the unjust and evil.” You have a chance to get in on this deal, but you must face the fact of your own sin and then try to turn away from it. The Pharisees understood this, and that’s why they went to John for baptism.

The kingdom of God is at hand! This is good news. Rejoice…and repent so that you might enter into it.

Sunday, August 20, 1995

Who Do You Trust?

The Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost - Year C
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:18-26
Psalm 49:1-11
Colossioans 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

The psalmist writes that he should not be afraid of the wickedness of those who trust in their goods. He says that they die like everyone else, leaving their wealth to those who come after them.

The writer of Ecclesiastes says pretty much the same thing; that no matter how much we accumulate here and now, we’ll all die and we can’t take it with us.

I remember a TV show when I was a kid. The thing that I particularly recall about it is that it came on during American Bandstand on weekday afternoons. Now, that in itself is not so unusual, many shows on many different channels came on during American Bandstand. What was different about this show was that it came on the same channel. Dick Clark would get started at 2.45, and then at about 2.58 announce that they’d be cutting away for this other show, and then at 3.30 we were back to Philadelphia.

Someone at ABC figured that since American Bandstand was getting such great ratings, they’d stick this new show in the middle of it to give it a boost. You don’t see them doing that much anymore.

The name of this other show was Who Do You Trust? and those of you with really good memories will recall that the emcee was a comedian from Nebraska named Johnny Carson, and his announcer was a former circus clown named Ed McMahon.

But we’re going off on a tangent here. I brought up the show because its title is  my question. Who do you trust? Or rather, where do you put your trust?

The psalmist and the writer of Ecclesiastes tell us that contrary to what all the t-shirts and bumper stickers say, the one who dies with the most toys…or fabric…has no advantage, that person is dead just like the rest of us. What’s the point in working feverishly to accumulate things if we’re all going to die anyway? Is it the old Schlitz mentality that says, “You only go around this way once, so you might as well grab all the gusto”?

Where is our trust if this is what we believe? Surely not in God, and that’s unfortunate, be­cause he offers us so much more than our possessions could ever hope to.

Jesus said that there is more to life than the ac­cumulation of possessions. This is good news. This is wonderful news.

It’s good news because it tells those of us who have little that we’re not out of the game yet. It tells us that contrary to what our culture might tell us, we’re not failures if we don’t have the latest luxury car, the most fashionable clothes, and a hefty bank account. In fact, it tells us that the people who do have all these things might be the failures if they lack the right attitude.

Jesus told about a farmer whose land produced more than he could ever use. I’d like to tell you a different story.

I was teaching a computer workshop at Syracuse University, and on this particular day I was showing the ten or so people in the room how to use a spreadsheet.

Now for those of you who don’t know what a spreadsheet is, the simplest way I can describe it is that it’s a program that lets you do budgets and accounting so that you can keep track of how much you’ve made, how much you’ve spent, and how much you’ll have at the end of the year.

I started out by telling them, “You’ve just won $3 million in the lottery. Now we have to keep track of the money.”

I explained that they wouldn’t get the 3 million in one lump sum, and showed them how to set up the spreadsheet so that it would take any lottery prize and divide it into 20 equal payments. This brought them down to $150,000 a year.

Then I showed them how to set up the spread­sheet to figure out how much they’d have left if 28% of the yearly payout was taken in taxes.

Having gotten this far, I said to them, “You now have $108,000 left to spend this year. What’s the first thing you’re gonna do with it?”

One of the people in the room said, “Let’s give some of it away,” and all of a sudden the whole group was discussing organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Amnesty International, and Covenant House. It was only after they had given away a fair portion of their prize money that they started talking about things like paying back student loans, buying cars, buying houses, taking it easy, and putting some money aside for when the prize payments stopped coming.

These people understood that there is more to life than the accumulation of possessions. They understood that there is more to life than trying to keep as much as you can for yourself. You see, there’s nothing wrong with being rich, there’s nothing wrong with having a lot of nice things…provided you have the right attitude. The rich farmer didn’t have the right attitude. The students I taught that day did.

Where do you put your trust? Is it in things that will only comfort you in this lifetime, or is it in the one who can also comfort you in the next? Do our possessions and our culture’s mad dash to have “more, more, more” blind us to the needs of others, and to our own spiritual needs? Do we spend so much time working for our comfort in this life that we neglect our plans for the next?

Jesus said that there is more to life than the accumulation of possessions. I saw a bumper sticker a few years ago that I really liked. It said, “The one who dies with their sins forgiven wins.”

Where do you put your trust?

Sunday, April 30, 1995

On the RIght Side

Lessons for the Third Sunday of Easter - Year C
Acts 9:1-20
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-14

I don’t like to be wrong. I hate it when I’m wrong. I always want to be right. Big sur­prise, huh? But consider this…I want to know when I’m wrong. How does this square with always wanting to be right? Very easily, you see, the sooner you point out to me that I was wrong, the sooner I can get back to be­ing right.

How many of us grew up hearing from some­one that you should never correct grownups when they’re wrong? Fortunately, I didn’t hear that too often in my family, but when I did hear someone say that, I hated it. It made no logical sense to me…wouldn’t the grownup rather know that she was wrong so she could stop making a fool of herself? Apparently not…in my youthful naïveté I ne­glected to account for the role that ego plays in adults, and the fact that nothing is more embarrassing than to be shown up by a kid. Fortunately, there’s been some progress on that front…in the computer world, most of us, myself included, have pretty much conceded that when the going gets rough, you call an eighth grader…it’s amazing what those kids can fix.

I said that I always want to be right. I didn’t say that I always wanted my opinion to be the right one. What I’m saying, and it’s a very subtle difference, is that I want to have the opinion that is right, I want to be on the side that is right, and if I’m currently on the wrong side, I want to be corrected. Hey…when I get lost, I ask for directions…I learned that from my father.

We all like to be right. So then why do so many of us hate to be corrected…especially by kids and others we perceive to be outside our area of expertise? It’s an ego issue…we want to be right, so we can’t admit that we were wrong. We’re afraid that the person correcting us is going to show us up. Yet, isn’t that person doing us a favor? After all, he could just as well have let us go on looking like fools. As a teacher I know that you need to be corrected in order to do better. Yet why do so many of us resist correction?

 “Put the net on the right side.” Peter and his companions were experienced fishermen, and could easily have said, “Who is this guy on the shore, anyway?” They had been out in the boat all night, caught nothing, and now some guy they don’t know from Adam tells them to try putting the net on the other side of the boat. Right…big difference that’s gonna make…if there ain’t fish on this side of the boat, there ain’t gonna be any on that side either. How many of us would’ve reacted that way? Yet, Peter and company took the correction, cast the net on the other side of the boat, and voila…breakfast.

Saul was on his way to Damascus to perse­cute some more Christians when he saw the light…really, that’s where we get the phrase from. What made him different from the other members of the religious establish­ment? What was it about him that made Je­sus take the time to say, “Saul, get on the right side”? I’d like to think that it was that he actually believed in what he was doing. He wasn’t concerned about Temple politics, or keeping the Romans happy, or what this fledgling movement might do to his career. He honestly thought that this was a hereti­cal movement. He honestly thought that he was serving God…his God…our God…by get­ting rid of these people. Fortunately, Jesus met him before he did too much more dam­age, said, “Guess again, guy,” and corrected him.

Jesus told Peter and Saul that they were on “the wrong side.” He didn’t tell them in order to show them up. He told them in order to correct them, so that they could get on the right side. Or to paraphrase John 3:17, “Je­sus didn’t come into the world to gloat at our stupidity, but to correct us.” He corrects us because he loves us, because he wants us with him. On his side…at his side.

Notice what Saul didn’t do…he didn’t start out with a whole list of reasons why he thought he was right to do what he did. He didn’t try to make excuses, he didn’t try to justify himself before God. He gave the only really proper response to being corrected, he simply said, “Oops. Sorry.” and then got on the right side, just as Peter and his friends put their net on the right side.

How many of us can accept correction so easily, and without feeling threatened? It’s not always easy for me…just ask Cheryl, she’ll be happy to tell you. How many of us are willing to accept the fact that we need to be corrected by God, and see his willing­ness to correct us as a sign of his love for us? How many of us see correction as his trying to make us better?

Jesus corrected Peter and Saul. But how of­ten do we get corrected? How often do we really allow ourselves to be corrected? How often do we actually ask to be corrected? When we pray, do we say, “God, please cor­rect me if I’m wrong,” or are we more likely to say, “Please let me be right”?

It always amuses me when I hear people give detailed reasons why someone else’s theo­logical point of view is wrong. Usually, what it boils down to is “But I grew up believing it was this way, I was taught that it was this way. And God can’t do things differently than the way I was taught.” Yeah…right. What are you going to say when, not “if”, but when God says to you, “Yo, Deanna…”, “Yo, Steve…”, “Yo, Debbie…you were wrong about this one”? Are you going to argue with him, pointing out how you did the best you could with the information you had at the time, are you going to resist because so much of yourself is tied up in having your point of view be right, or are you going to be able to realize that God still loves you in spite of the fact that you blew it on quite a few is­sues, and is correcting you because he loves you and wants to make you better?

Personally, I look forward to saying “Oops, sorry” quite a bit someday, because then that will put me on the right side…and as I said before, I always have to be right.