Sunday, August 31, 2008

Good News: We Can Live the Christian Life

(A sermon for Sunday, August 31, 2008 based on Matthew 16:21-28 & Romans 12:9-21. Ninth and last in the series “Good News.”)

It’s something that I suspect that many of us, when we are honest with ourselves, ask: is it really possible to live the life that the Bible puts before us, the life that a Christian is supposed to live?

The answer is yes. But it isn’t easy and anybody who tells you that it is easy is not being straight with you. We will never do it completely on this side of heaven but we have the opportunity to make a lot of progress while we’re here. Still, it’s not easy.

It’s not easy because even if we are Christians we still have to live a real life in the real world. We still face real problems; we still pay real bills; we still encounter real illnesses; we still suffer real losses. Most significantly, we also still confront real people; we have real relationships. The way of the world is that real people in real relationships can do really good things to each other, but the way of the world also is that real people in real relationships can do really bad things to each other.

Being a Christian influences how we will respond to and deal with such hurts because being a Christian influences how we will respond to any and every situation in life. Granted, we may live in denial of the need of and the reality of such influence, but it is necessary and real nonetheless. Methodist Bishop Woodie White was talking about how professing Christians can still harbor bigotry and prejudice. He said that he confronted such a man about that and the man said, “Well, I’m a Christian, but….” White went on to say, “That’s it, isn’t it? Christian, but. There are times when being a Christian is impractical, inconvenient, illogical, even embarrassing—Christian, but.”

Simon Peter was one of the first ones to say “Well, I’m a Christian, but....” He didn’t say it in so many words, but that’s what he said. Peter fell so far and so fast. Just a few verses and apparently not too many days earlier, Peter had made his magnificent confession that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” and had heard Jesus commend his faith and his revelation. Now, though, he hears Jesus call him “Satan.” What happened? What happened was that Jesus had set about to “show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Anna Carter Florence has pointed out the significance of the fact that Jesus “showed” them rather than “told” them. She said, “I suppose Jesus tried to show his disciples in every way a teacher can think of. But how do you show them, without the cross?” [“Preaching the Lesson,” Lectionary Homiletics (August/September 2008), p. 47]

Jesus was trying to point his followers toward the cross; he would keep pointing them toward it until they finally saw it as he hung upon it—which is when they would finally get it. In our text, though, Peter had enough of Jesus’ kind of showing and he said, “I’m a Christian, but….” Well, what he actually said was, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” which meant, “Jesus, you can’t be that kind of Messiah!” Don’t you think, though, that in the back of his mind or maybe even in the front of it Peter was thinking, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to me!” since if it happened to Jesus it stood to reason that it might happen to his followers, too?

Sure enough, after letting Peter have it for trying to tempt him away from his true vocation, Jesus told Peter and the rest of them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Those words mean a lot of things, but they surely mean that being Christian influences how we will respond to everything that we encounter in life. They mean that the God-glorifying, self-emptying, other-serving way that was the way of Jesus is also to be the way of his followers. They mean that the self-protecting, self-serving, self-justifying way that comes naturally to human beings is not to be the way of his followers.

As Philip Yancey put it, “When Jesus was in the garden, he prayed ‘Lord, if there is any other way…’ There was no other way but the hard way.” Here Jesus was trying to tell his disciples that there was no other way but the hard way. The way to which we Christians are called is a radical way, it is a hard way, and it is the only way.

There is some holy idealism here; the standards are high; the calling is lofty. But make no mistake about it: this high and lofty and seemingly idealistic Christian way has to be lived out in the real world. We can’t just live above it all, being “spiritual,” and acting like our problems and struggles don’t exist. The way of the Christian is that we have the real presence of Christ; we have the real indwelling of the Holy Spirit; we have the real presence of God’s love. Those are to change our responses to human situations in radical ways.

Take, for example, the way that we respond when somebody does us harm. What are you going to do when somebody injures you or insults you or angers you? “Don’t get mad; get even,” our human feelings tell us. But consider the challenge that our Bibles, that our Christian faith, that our following of Jesus, put before us:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, given them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)

Vengeance, Lewis Smedes said, “is a hot desire to give back as much pain as someone gave you.” [Forgive & Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), p. 130]

But there are problems with vengeance. For one thing, vengeance betrays a lack of faith in God. If we hold and nurture a grudge until we get to take revenge on someone, then we have admitted by our attitude and by our actions that we don’t believe in the justice of God about which our Bibles clearly teach us. If vengeance is truly appropriate, then God knows that and knows it perfectly. God will do justice; everything really will be all right some day. For another thing, vengeance in the long run does more harm to you than it does to the other person. How does it help you if you compound someone else’s sin by committing one of your own? For a third thing, vengeance leads to a never-ending cycle of revenge that can literally affect your life and the lives of those who love for generations. As Smedes reminds us, “Revenge never evens the score…. It ties both the injured and the injurer to an escalator of pain. Both are stuck on the elevator as long as parity is demanded, and the escalator never stops, never lets anyone off.” (pp. 130-131)

But the main problem with seeking to achieve revenge rather than seeking to offer forgiveness is that it is not the Christian way; it is not the way of Christ; it is not the way that allows love to take hold and do its work. I know it’s hard not to seek vengeance and I know it’s hard to forgive—but remember, we really can live the Christian life, and the Christian life really does affect such real things as our relationships.

A family member once hurt me very deeply. Actually, she hurt my father but in so doing she wounded me. And, she had hurt my father because she believed that he had hurt someone else, which he had, but unintentionally. My father died with their relationship still ruptured. For years I harbored and nursed a grudge against her; my anger toward her acted like an ever-growing parasite in my life, sapping more and more of my spiritual and emotional vitality. She was also not, so far as I know, a Christian. Finally I decided that I had to live the Christian life for my own sake and possibly for hers. Maybe, I hoped and prayed, if I confessed my sinful attitude to her it would have a positive effect. So one day I told her that for many years I had held that grudge against her and that I was sorry. She pretty much threw my apology back in my face. So far as I know she took her hate and anger with her to her grave—but I hope not. As for me, well, at least I had tried. I still did not and I still not feel good about it all, but I feel better that I at least tried to show love and to show grace and to show forgiveness.

It takes a lot. Forgiveness is a complicated thing. It doesn’t necessarily make everything good, it doesn’t necessarily lead to total reconciliation, and it doesn’t mean lying down and accepting a lifetime of hurt. But it does mean taking our responsibility to lead the Christian life seriously. It does mean taking up our cross and following Jesus. It does mean being the radical disciples that we are called to be.

Are you living the Christian life? Are you following Jesus’ way rather than your own? Are you showing genuine love for others and genuine trust in God that allows you to discard vengeance and to embrace forgiveness?

Perhaps we want to ask for another way than this hard way. But, for the Christian, there is no other way than the hard way that Jesus showed us—the way of the Cross.

Whoops

I had predicted that Georgia would face Clemson in the BCS Championship Game.

This just in from the Georgia Dome in Atlanta: Alabama 34, Clemson 10.

Like I said: Whoops.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Georgia Southern vs. Georgia

My predicted score: Georgia 48, Georgia Southern 10.

The actual score: Georgia 45, Georgia Southern 21.

I'm off to a pretty good start!

Friday, August 29, 2008

On the Jericho Road quoted in Augusta Chronicle Article

My blog post Preacher Get Your Gun is quoted in an article by Kelly Jasper in the Augusta Chronicle.

Good News for MLB Baseball

The standings in the American League Eastern Division, with team payrolls:

Tampa Bay Rays $43,422,997.00
Boston Red Sox (4.5 games back) $133,220,112.00
New York Yankees (10.5 games back) $207,108,489.00.

I love to see a young team with 1/4 and 1/5 the payroll of its rivals come out on top. I hope the Rays hold on.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

My Predictions for the 2008 Georgia Bulldogs Football Season


That's right--predictions for every game. By the end of the season, we'll all know that I'm not that kind of prophet.

August 30--Georgia 48, Georgia Southern 10. I met Eagles' second-year head coach Chris Hatcher when he was the head coach at Valdosta State; I invited him to speak at the Adel Lions Club. He did a good job and seemed a nice sort. I'd like to see the Dawgs go easy on GSU, but when you're ranked #1, you have to beat up on the little guys, just like Florida would.

September 6--Georgia 31, Central Michigan 21. I know nothing about Central Michigan. The Dawgs often struggle against schools against which they ought not struggle, and they might be looking ahead to South Carolina.

September 13--Georgia 38, South Carolina 7. If Steve Spurrier can win an SEC East title at South Carolina, I will finally admit what most people already readily affirm--that he is one of the greatest coaches of all time. He's at least a few years away from being on a level with UGA and UF and Tennessee, though. This will be the Dawgs' first game this year on national television. If they're still ranked #1, they'd better use this game to prove that they deserve it.

September 20--Georgia 24, Arizona State 21. I'm glad that Georgia is starting to schedule some tougher non-conference games. A really top-tier program needs to do that, even though no one should blame an SEC team for loading up on non-conference creampuffs. But a game like this really puts you on the national map and expands your recruiting base. It's risky, though, and this will be a tough matchup on the road.

September 27--Georgia 35, Alabama 14. It won't take long for Nick Saban to make Alabama a national championship contender. Thankfully, it's not this year.

October 11--Georgia 41, Tennessee 17. This is always a tough, tough game for Georgia, and sometimes UT beats a better UGA team. That happened last year. By this time the Dawgs will be starting to believe that they really can win the national title and they will want to prove it to everybody.

October 18--Georgia 21, Vanderbilt 14. A dangerous, dangerous game. There will be the distractions of Homecoming. Worse, the Dawgs play Alabama and Tennessee the two weeks before and then LSU and Florida the two games after. It will be easy to overlook Vandy and you just can't do that. They're tough and getting better. We'll sweat during this one, even in the crisp fall air, and we'll say a prayer of thanks when we squeak by.

October 25--Georgia 35, LSU 28. Another scary, scary game, especially in Baton Rouge.

November 1--Georgia 35, Florida 14. The Gators are still mad about last year. I think--I hope--that it was the beginning of a long winning streak in this series. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that these teams will arrive in Jacksonville undefeated and ranked #1 and #2 in the nation. This may be the most important game in the history of the storied series.

November 8--Georgia 28, Kentucky 18. It shoudn't be this close, but the Dawgs will be exhausted.

November 15--Auburn 21, Georgia 20. I just don't see UGA running this gauntlet undefeated. It is unfortunate that their lone loss will come against one of their biggest rivals; it is even more unfortunate that it will come this late in the season, thereby hurting their chances to play in the BCS Championship Game. Those chances won't be destroyed, though.

November 29--Georgia 41, Georgia Tech 14. Paul Johnson will, I believe, do a good job at Tech, but it will take a few years.

December 6--SEC Championship Game: Georgia 41, Auburn 17. Sweet revenge in the rematch and a ticket to the BCS Championship Game.

January 8, 2009--BCS Championship Game: Georgia 31, Clemson 21. That's right, I said Clemson, not USC or Ohio State. By the way, if Ohio State is the opponent, the score will be UGA 51, Ohio State 10.

All in all, Uga VII will have quite a rookie season!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

About Preaching

Ideally, preaching will bring the message of one part of the Bible home to the hearer in a vivid, creative way that causes a response of faith, love, and hope in the hearer. The ideal sermon will bring the hearer a new insight into the life situation of the congregation and will proclaim the good news of God's grace in Jesus. But preaching often has a bad reputation, sometimes well deserved. Sometimes the sermon does not relate to the Bible; other times it does not relate to the hearers. But there are plenty of good preachers out there if you look for them. The main point for me as a listener is not simply to condemn or give up, but to look hard for some thought or inspiration that can be helpful in my life. If the sermon is totally unhelpful, I will look elsewhere in the service for elements that are encouraging to my spiritual life.

Bradley P. Holt, Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2005), p. 43.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Back to Basics

One day in 1977, about halfway through my time as a student at Mercer University, while sitting across the dinette table from my father, I looked at him and said, “You’re footing much of the bill for my education, so I think that I should tell you that I think I’m becoming a liberal.” Now, given that my father was a good, hard-working, intelligent textile mill worker and rural Southern Baptist church deacon, I expected him to fall off his chair, throw a salt shaker at me, or tell me that I was never going back to that institution of higher learning again.

Instead, he asked me a question: “What do you mean?”

I responded, “Well, I just mean that I’m questioning a lot of things, wondering a lot of things, and doubting a lot of things.”

He said, “Tell me this—do you still believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?”

I said that I did.

And then my father gave me the greatest single piece of advice that I have ever received in all my almost fifty years of living: “Son, just hold on to that. Everything else will take care of itself.”

Back in 1949, my late mentor Dr. Howard Giddens was preparing to leave the pastorate of the First Baptist Church in Bainbridge, GA to assume the same position at the First Baptist Church in Athens, GA, home of the University of Georgia. He was anxious about making the transition.

“That church is full of professors and administrators from the University,” he told Mrs. Giddens. “What do I have that I can say to them?”

And then Mrs. Giddens gave Dr. Giddens some of the best advice he ever got: “Well, Duke (that was his nickname), don’t those Ph.D.s need to know Jesus, too? Then just tell them about Jesus.”

Back to the basics—that’s what both stories are about. We in the pulpit—we in the Church—need always to remember and never to forget that it’s all about Jesus. Doctrine matters, theology matters, hermeneutics matter—but nothing matters like having a personal relationship with Jesus and following Jesus matter.

That’s why I have lately added something to our liturgy. I still read the Scripture, I still preach the sermon, and I still pray the prayer. But now, after the prayer and before the hymn of response, I say something like this: “Jesus Christ is the Son of God; he is the Messiah; he is the Savior. He came to this world and lived a life of perfect obedience. He died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, he rose from the dead on the third day to give us the assurance of eternal life, and he ascended to the right hand of the Father from where he will come again to judge the living and the dead. He is the way to God. It is he who calls you to salvation today.”

It’s part of my effort to remember the advice of my father and the advice of Mrs. Giddens. Whatever else I do and say, I need to hold on to Jesus and I need to tell them about Jesus.

Getting back to the basics is a continuous and necessary process.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hit Me--25,000 Times!


Over the weekend the hit counter here at On the Jericho Road went over 25,000. So, I've had 25,000 visits over the 18 months that I've been writing here.

While there are many blogs that have much higher volume (and many that have much lower volume), I want all of my readers to know that I am grateful that you take the time to read what I write.

Thanks for visiting and I hope you'll keep coming by.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Good News: What We Do Matters

(A sermon based on Matthew 16:13-20 & Romans 12:1-8 for Sunday, August 24, 2008)

Too many people think they don’t matter. They think that they’re insignificant, that they’re just one of the almost seven billion people who live on this planet and that they’re one of the ones that very few of those seven billion know or care about. Or they think that they’re not good enough to matter, that their sins, even if nobody else knows about them, and even if those sins are the kind that they would never dream of holding against someone else, render them ineffective in God’s eyes.

The truth of the gospel is that every last person who has ever lived, who lives now, and who ever will live matters—the truth of the gospel is that you matter! You matter because God loves you and because God shows that love for you in the fact that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the cross for you.

When you enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ, when you enter into the kingdom of God, you enter into an opportunity to matter even more because when you have a kingdom spirit and when you have a kingdom perspective and when you live a kingdom lifestyle you have the privilege of having a kingdom influence—and there is not a more meaningful way to live. It’s not that you come to matter more to God; it’s that you come to matter more to the people around you and to the world in which you live.

In Flannery O’Connor’s story “The River,” a young son of alcoholic parents is taken by his babysitter to a river baptism. Moved by what he sees, he throws himself into the river so he can be baptized, too. As he comes up out of the water, he hears the preacher say, “You count now.” “You count now”—what a marvelous revelation; what a marvelous reminder! It’s not that we didn’t count before—God loved us already—it’s that in our baptism, in our union with Christ, in our entry into the kingdom of God, we come to live lives that matter.

Peter and the disciples heard it; Paul’s Roman readers heard it; we need to hear it: in Christ, we matter, and if we matter, then what we do, what we say, and how we live matters.

First and foremost, Jesus matters. He is, as Peter said, the Christ, the Son of the living God. It is our affirmation of that truth that makes all the difference, an affirmation that goes beyond our words, an affirmation that goes down into our hearts and an affirmation that comes out in our actions. We need to remember that everything we are as Christians and as the Church, that everything we do as Christians and as the Church, all goes back to our confession of Jesus as Christ and to our living in light of his identity.

Our faith is not a faith just of the high moments, of the special thrill of moving worship, or of the retreat from the worldly to dwell in fellowship with Jesus. No, we have to live out our confession of Jesus in the daily grind of our ordinary lives. As Brennan Manning said, “True spirituality consists in living moment to moment by the grace of Jesus Christ” (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 204, citing Francis Schaeffer). How we live in the moment to moment and in the day to day matters.

It matters how we relate to the world. Everything is different—better—more like God intends for it to be—because we trust and confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. It is vital that we live out that trust and confession in our daily lives, that our lives continue to grow and develop in light of our relationship with Christ. As Paul put it, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). We are in the world but not of it; we are citizens of heaven who sojourn on earth. It matters that our daily lives reflect the reality of our relationship with Christ. It matters that God’s grace, our faith, Jesus’ teachings, and Jesus’ example work in us and on us in ways that cause us more and more to do the will of God. It matters that we are growing into people who can change the world rather than remaining people who are being changed by the world.

It matters how we relate to people. We have the privilege and the responsibility to live out our confession of faith in Christ in ways that affect the lives of other people. When Jesus told Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19), he was saying that Peter and those who followed Peter in confessing faith in Jesus would have access to heaven (cf. the translation of Eugene Peterson in The Message: “You will have complete and free access to God’s kingdom, keys to open any and every door: no more barriers between heaven and earth, earth and heaven. A yes on earth is yes in heaven. A no on earth is no in heaven.”) We have access to Jesus Christ himself; we have access to the teachings of Jesus that came from heaven itself; we have the privilege of, with the guidance of Scripture and the Holy Spirit, rightly discerning what God would have us to know and do.

If we live our lives in light of that remarkable, miraculous access to heaven, how can it not change the ways we relate to people? People will come into the kingdom through us; they will see the teachings and example of Jesus taking hold in our lives so that they will be led to the Savior who saved us. Here in the church we will relate to one another in humility, grace, and love; we will not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think (Romans 12:3), we will not think that somehow we are more important than everyone else. At the same time, though, we will not underestimate or undervalue the gifts that God has given us.

Which leads to a final point.

It matters how we relate to the Church. Because we live in a relationship with Jesus who is the Christ, the Son of the living God and because we are being transformed by his grace and his Spirit and his word, we relate to the world and to people in ways that are positive and productive and helpful. One of the ways we do that is by how we relate to the Church—we gladly use the gifts that God has in his grace given us to carry out the privilege of ministry. We gladly embrace the fact that we are all members of the body of Christ, that we are connected through Christ to each other, and we joyfully use our gifts for the good of the Church, for the good of other people, and for the good of the world.
And it matters that we all do exactly that.

We are all on the same team. Last year a very accomplished major league baseball player who had retired decided that he wanted to unretire. Well into the season he signed a contract with a team. He was to be paid an astronomical amount of money to play part of a season. He had not gone through Spring Training with the team. He was given special considerations such as permission to go home to his family rather than to travel with the team on road trips when he was not scheduled to pitch. In my opinion, he was something less than a team player; he was a mercenary who was out to help only himself. Baseball is a team sport, not an individual sport, and a member of the team ought to be on the team all the way.

It’s like that in the Church. God has given us each gifts for the sake of the Church, for the sake of people, and for the sake of the world. We need to use them and we need to go all the way in using them. Why? Because Christ matters and in Christ we matter. Our calling and our mission are vital. What we say and what we do matters in the world, to people, and in the church. God needs us to carry out God’s mission.

What we do matters. Our lives have great meaning because God has saved us and because God needs us. Are we using our lives as God intends?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"Learn Cents"


Julia Sellers has an article in today's Augusta Chronicle entitled "First Graders Give School Tips to New Kindergartners." First graders at Belvedere and Byrd elementary schools in Aiken County, SC (just across the Savannah River from Augusta) were asked to give advice to the new kids. It seems to me that their advice applies to most people in most situations and in most stages of life.

"Know your plus and minus signs and get ready for coloring. Don't scribble because if you mess up they don't give you more paper." -- DANIEL SIMDONDS, 6

"Learn cents." -- EMILY SHREVE, 6

"Need to be nice to friends and play nicely." -- SHANE MCGAHEE, 6

"Be nice to make friends." -- BRADY NUGENT, 6

"Keep up with your bookbag." -- HEATHER SHULER, 6

"Pay attention to the teachers so you know what to do." -- CHRISTIAN O'NEAL, 6

"If you know the language then you can do (the work.)" -- KYLEA MORRIS, 6

"Don't run and push people or punch people." -- JIMMY HENRY, 6

"Learn math so you can go to second grade." -- VINCENT DOUGLAS, 6

"Do homework or you'll fail." -- KACY SWEARINGEN, 7

"They need to be healthy and drink water because it is hot." -- GRAYSON JOHNSTON, 6

"Learn words if you want to read to somebody." -- CHEYENNE BLACKWELDER, 6

"Do your work because you have to be smart." -- BRYANA JEFFERSON, 6

"You shouldn't do bad stuff like knock over chairs." -- ZOIE WEATHERFORD, 6

"Don't throw blocks." -- MADDIE DOUGLAS, 6

Monday, August 18, 2008

Worst Cover Song Ever

Entertainment Weekly has a photo gallery of the twenty worst cover songs ever. They did not include the absolutely, positively, worst cover ever made. The worst one was an atrocious rendition of not one but two classic rock songs. You wouldn't think it possible to turn a Lynyrd Skynryd anthem and a Peter Frampton hit into elevator music, but Will to Power managed to do it.

Oh, and I should also mention that it is one of the top two or three worst videos ever made.



That's my opinion. What's yours? Feel free to leave a comment with your nomination for the worst cover song ever.

All in good fun, of course.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Good News: A Little Grace Goes a Long Way


(A sermon based on Matthew 15:21-28 for Sunday, August 17, 2008)

We’re not accustomed to hearing Jesus talk this way; we’re certainly not accustomed to seeing him act this way. A woman comes to him begging for help for her daughter. Jesus ignores her. She continues begging, now making quite a scene, such a scene that the disciples encourage Jesus to deal with her some kind of way and get rid of her. Jesus says that he came to minister to the chosen people, not to outsiders like her. Still she persists. Then Jesus refers to people like her by a derogatory term, implying that she herself is a dog like the people to whom she belongs are dogs and that it isn’t right to take the food that is meant for the children and give it to the dogs. The woman doesn’t argue the point; “Yes, Lord,” she says, “but even the little dogs under the table get the crumbs that the children drop.”

What in the world is going on here? There are at least two possibilities. First, perhaps we are getting a look at the very real humanity of Jesus. Jesus was fully human, our Christian faith affirms, and yet, the Bible affirms, he was without sin. This week I confessed to someone my “sin of forgetfulness.” He asked me if forgetfulness is really a sin. I confessed that I really didn’t think it is; it’s just a sign of humanity. So we see Jesus first ignoring this woman; then we see him refusing her; then we see him insulting her. Can we affirm that his behavior may be a sign of his humanity? It is no sin, after all, to be tired. It is no sin to be pressed for time. It is no sin to sense that you are being pulled in too many directions by too many people in too many ways. And—despite the seeming harshness of his words—it is no sin to tell the truth. Being human—even a Christian human—even a human without sin—does not mean that every thought and every word and every action will be all sweetness and light. So here we just may be given a blessed glimpse of the very real humanity of Jesus.

If so, then we may also see something happening to Jesus, something that Grant LeMarquand cleverly termed “the Canaanite conquest of Jesus.” We may see Jesus growing in his awareness of the purpose of his own ministry. After all, we read of in the gospel message that Jesus grew and matured as a boy; don’t people continue to grow in their understanding as they get older? He said, “It appears that Jesus has been turned; he has been confronted with and has learned the meaning of his own teaching concerning ‘mercy’ (see, for example, Mt 5:7; 9:13; 12:7; 23:23)…. In this narrative the Israelite is conquered by the Canaanite.”

The second possibility is that Jesus is putting the woman—and maybe the disciples—through a test. Perhaps he is testing the faith of this Canaanite woman by continually putting her off and even insulting her; maybe he wants to see if she will trust in him no matter what. If that’s what he wants to find out, he certainly does, because she, like those old Timex watches, “took a licking and kept on ticking.” With every rebuff she became stronger and sharper. When all is said and done, Jesus commends her for her faith and heals her daughter.

And what of the disciples? This passage is one of many that, when I read them, I can’t help but wish I could hear Jesus’ tone of voice and see the look on his face. Do you wonder, as I do, if Jesus is testing his disciples’ reaction with his words? When he ignored the woman, was he looking for the disciples to ask him why? When he said the things he said, was he looking to see if the disciples would suggest a gracious course of action? Or, was he, by testing the woman’s faith, showing the disciples what real faith looks like?

Regardless, there are lessons to be learned here and I hope that we will learn them.

Lesson #1: God means for the outsiders to come in.

There is simply no doubt about that. Regardless of why Jesus said what he said to the Canaanite woman, at the end he commended her faith and accepted her as a member of the family of God. Moreover, by the time we get to the end of Matthew, Jesus is instructing his disciples to take the good news beyond Israel and even to the whole world. In addition, the book of Acts and the ministry and letters of Paul and the subsequent movement of the good news across all boundaries and among all peoples make it clear that God intended and still intends for his Church to be inclusive of all who are saved by grace through faith. The good news is for everybody.

Jesus’ ministry while he walked on earth was first and foremost a ministry to Israel. The idea seems to have been that Jesus would summon the remnant from Israel who would in turn spread God’s salvation to all people. It may be that Jesus here seems to us to overstate the restrictive nature of that ministry. I have already said that here we may see displayed the humanity of Jesus. Still, God has his purposes and they were being worked out in what Jesus did and said here. We don’t have the right or the privilege of saying, “If Jesus restricted his ministry to the ‘insiders,’ then so can we.” No, we have the privilege of knowing how the whole story turns out. We have the privilege of knowing that Jesus died for all who will believe. We have the privilege of loving all those out there who need to know Christ. Some of us—perhaps all of us—may still have some growing to do in our acceptance of that reality.

Lesson #2: Humility and trust matter.

This Canaanite woman is one of the most amazing and compelling characters in the Bible. The Canaanites were the ancient enemies of Israel; they were the people whom Israel defeated to gain possession of the Promised Land and they were the practitioners of a religion that was always viewed as a threat to Israel’s faith. But there she came, not only asking this Jewish rabbi to help her daughter but also daring to use the names and terminology that were reserved for those on the inside of Israel’s faith. “Son of David” she called Jesus. Perhaps even more significantly, she called him “Lord” not once, not twice, but three times. Indeed, she was convinced that Jesus was the one who could help her and she was tenacious in her submission to his lordship even as he seemed to put up obstacle after obstacle to her faith.

When Jesus said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” the woman responded by saying, “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ tables.” Now, coming from our modern mindset we would want to say that no one should accept a label such as “dog” to describe themselves; we are concerned about self-esteem and self-worth. But remember: Jesus took her words to indicate great faith. I believe that we can connect that great faith with great humility. It is not that she was accepting a derogatory term as defining for her character; it is that she was willing to accept that God has his ways and that all that she wanted was what could come to her. She was an insistent person, yes—she insisted that she believed that Jesus could help her and that if she would persevere he would help her. But she was not insistent on naming the terms or on maintaining her dignity; no, she would bow before Jesus and she would accept just how needy she was.

And that’s what it takes to come into the kingdom and to be saved. That’s what it takes whether you’re the best behaving person around or whether you’re the worst reprobate in town. That’s what it takes whether you are white or black or brown. That’s what it takes whether you’re American or Russian or Chinese or Iranian. That’s what it takes whether you’ve grown up in the church or whether this is the first time you’ve ever set foot in a sanctuary. You have to accept your need and you have to trust that Jesus can meet that need.

Lesson #3: A little grace goes a long way.

The Canaanite woman said that all she needed was the crumbs from the table. She knew that those crumbs would be enough. She knew that just a little of God’s grace would go a long way, that it would go all the way to saving her daughter and, I’m sure, saving her, too. I want you to know today that no matter who you are, no matter what you are, and no matter where you are, a little bit of God’s grace is all you need. Maybe you don’t feel like you’re worthy, maybe you feel like you’re too far gone, maybe you feel like there are too many obstacles in the way, but if you’ll just trust and believe, if you’ll just accept God’s crumbs amount to a feast of grace, you can be made whole.

Hear this, Christians: when I say that a little grace goes a long way, that applies whether you’re getting it or whether you’re giving it. I believe that those disciples of Jesus needed to be drawn into this conversation and into this process so that they could see how important it was not only to receive grace but also to dispense it. It was hard for them to love and to accept some folks; it’s hard for us, too. But they weren’t excused from doing it and neither are we. We need to give out the grace that we have taken in.

A little grace goes a long way. Getting it changed our lives; giving it will change them even more.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Preacher, Get Your Gun


We have an interesting and kind of scary political discussion going on here in my home state of Georgia.

House Bill 89 became law on July 1. The new law allows someone with a firearms license to carry a gun into a state park, onto mass transit, or into a restaurant that serves alcohol. Since I don’t tote a gun, I can’t say that I’ll personally feel safer the next time I go to High Falls, ride on MARTA, or eat at Applebees, knowing that I may be surrounded by people who do.

Now comes word that some Georgia lawmakers are considering making it legal for people to carry their guns other places including—get ready, now—onto college campuses and into churches. That’s right—if some of our lawmakers have their way, you’ll be able legally to carry your gun to attend class at Augusta State or to worship at The Hill Baptist Church.

My goodness.

The logic, as expressed by one legislator, is that unlicensed lawbreakers have guns anyhow so there’s no sense in not allowing licensed law-abiding citizens to have theirs with them. I see his point. Who wouldn’t want duly licensed persons to have the peace of mind they need to study algebra or to worship God—the kind of peace of mind that can only come from having your trusty firearm tucked away in your pocket or in your purse?

I can only imagine how my experience of worshipping the Prince of Peace would be enhanced by the warm feeling of blue steel tucked in its holster between my arm and torso. I can only imagine how my trust in God would soar because of my knowledge that if anyone threatens me during my prayers, I could blow him away as fast as you can say “Amen.”

Seriously, though, I do understand the kind of fear that might lead someone to conclude that having guns at church is a good idea. After all, every so often a shooting takes place at a church. It was just a few days ago that it happened at a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville. Some churches have armed security guards; one such guard shot and killed the gunman who attacked parishioners at New Life Church in Colorado Springs in December 2007. No doubt the guard’s action saved lives. And, as unseemly as it is, I can envision circumstances in which a church might have to utilize security guards, and maybe even armed ones, although I’d want to avoid that if at all possible.

I’m not na├»ve. While I believe that the Christian default setting should be peacemaking and non-violence, I also know that we unfortunately live in a world in which the exercise of force by evildoers sometimes has to be countered with the exercise of force. For example, in the movie Tremors, which incidentally is the greatest movie ever made about giant subterranean people-eating worms, Michael Gross and Reba McEntire (yep, Reba McEntire) play a couple whose home is a fortress the basement of which is an arsenal stocked with every kind of firepower short of a tank. And brothers and sisters, believe you me, if that giant subterranean people-eating worm came crashing through your wall like it did through theirs, you’d be glad for every weapon you could get your hands on.

Still, I think that I would prefer to face a giant subterranean people-eating worm with nothing but a slingshot than a congregation of armed Baptists. I mean, we preachers know that we face the possibility of criticism but to know that we are facing the possibility of confrontation with an angry and gun-toting church member raises the stakes considerably.

I might be forced to change my ways. I would hate to have to get my own gun license so that I could go into the pulpit Bible in hand, gun in pocket (to reverse the phrasing of the title of Ross Phares’ excellent book on frontier religion). I would hate to be put in a position where I might end up going down in history as another J. Frank Norris, that (in)famous fundamentalist who shot and killed an unarmed man in his study at First Baptist Church in Fort Worth in 1926 (he was acquitted of murder).

Such a situation would also have liturgical implications. I might have to select my benediction depending on how I perceive the sermon to have gone.

One Sunday I might pray, “The Lord bless you and keep you: the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

But on another Sunday the benediction might be: “Go ahead--make my day!”

Oh my.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Interesting Exchange

McAfee School of Theology ethicist David Gushee wrote an interesting piece following his recent participation in a meeting of educators that was convened by the Baptist World Alliance. In the essay Gushee lamented the absence of the Southern Baptist Convention from the BWA and counseled ex-SBCers to leave their anger behind and to practice forgiveness.

In response, Bruce Prescott, Executive Director of Mainstream Baptists of Oklahoma, wrote an article in which he said that for Baptist moderates to forgive and to seek unity with fundamentalist Baptists would amount to a violation of integrity and to a renewed submission to control.

It's an interesting exchange that's worth the few minutes it takes to read both essays.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Only Human

Twenty-something years ago I was sitting with some family members shooting the breeze. Eventually the breeze blew in the direction of a local minister, a man I had known my entire life but who, let me hasten to add, had never been my pastor. The news that had just blown up about the minister was that he had resigned from his church because of an extra-marital affair. As we were talking about how terrible it was that this man of the cloth had hurt his family, injured his church, and crippled his ministry, the one participant in the discussion who was the least faithful Christian, if she was a Christian at all, spoke the only words that demonstrated any compassion and understanding for the fallen pastor: "Well, after all, he's only human."

A few years later I told that story in an adult Sunday School class as an illustration of how judgmental Christians can be. "Isn't it interesting," I said, "that the marginal or maybe even non-Christian was the only one in the group who understood that ministers are human and fallible and are subject to sin like everybody else is." I can still see the faces of the folks in that class as their looks communicated their lack of agreement with me; I can especially see one lady who closed her eyes and shook her head. Those folks in that Sunday School class did not agree that their pastors were only human.

I've thought about that tension a good bit over the years. On the one hand, to state the obvious, ministers are human beings. On the other hand, ministers have responded to a call from God that gives us a special responsbility to bring honor and not dishonor to Christ and to his Church. Like physicians, we are responsible to do no harm. As shepherds, we are responsible to protect the flock. And as human beings, we are responsible to love, to nurture, and to honor our families. Unfaithfulness of any sort, including unfaithfulness in our marriage relationships, can never honor our Lord, our family, our call, our church, or ourselves.

While I recognize the particular demands and responsibilities that fall on ministers because we are ministers, I believe that the most crucial obligations fall on us not because we are ministers; surely all Christians have the same responsibility to be faithful to their families and to their witness to Christ in the world. And I would distill it even more than that--in some ways, the most crucial obligations that fall to us in relation to our families fall on us not because we are ministers and not really even because we are Christians; indeed, the responsibility to be faithful is ours because we are human. To be fully human is to to be loving and mature and responsible in our relationships. I surely believe that we can do that best in Christ because it is in Christ that we have the best opportunity to become fully human.

My point is that while it is true that ministers, like all people, are only human, it does not necessarily follow that to be human means that we must fall and fail in our most crucial responsibilities. Still, when someone does so fall, I am not willing to be judgmental and self-righteous in my assessment of them. There is simply too much that I can't know. I do not walk in their shoes. This much I know--we all fail. By the grace of God, most of us do not fail in ways that destroy our families or our ministries. But let's never forget that we do fail and let's never forget that, by God's grace, it is not necessary that we fail in crippling ways.

John Edwards is not a minister. He is a public figure, though. He is a former United States Senator. He is a former Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidate. He is a man who has watched his wife Elizabeth struggle with cancer. And he is a professing Christian. He is even a Baptist.

And now he has admitted to committing adultery. I guess that some of his crueler political adversaries are pleased. I suppose that the public thinks that it is their right to know such things about a public figure like Edwards. I reckon that some will conclude that Edwards has now lost his right to speak on the moral and ethical issues that confront our society, such as the plight of the poor that he has consistently stressed. It goes without saying that, if he was on Sen. Obama's list of possible VPs, he isn't anymore.

As for me, I will not attempt to pass judgment; such is thankfully not my right or my responsibility. I will say this: as a Christian, my first reaction should be a sense of sorrow and compassion for the Edwards family. I will further say that I will never be comfortable with the idea that we all need to know about such matters; we might be better off if some things were left private. (I suppose I see the point in exposing the hypocrisy of those who have appointed themselves as our culture's moral watchdogs but who habitually practice immorality themselves, but I'm not sure the Edwards situation qualifies.) And I will also say that such a failure does not disqualify someone from doing what good he or she can still do going forward.

Here's the thing: John Edwards, like my minister acquaintance of so long ago and, frankly, like the rest of us, is only human. Indeed, it is at being human that he has failed; he has failed in being faithful to his family and to himself.

We who share his humanity should be sorry--we should be sorry for what he has done and for those whom he has hurt. We should also be sorry for whatever wrong we have done and for whatever harm we have caused. And we should pray for Edwards and for his family and for all of those who have failed to be all that we could and should be--including ourselves.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bumper Sticker Theology

Seen on one today in Hilton Head, SC:

Heck is for People who Don't Believe in Gosh

Doing the Right Thing

In a recent Business Week article entitled "The Ethics of Taking Vacations", Bruce Weinstein wrote,

Taking a vacation from time to time enables you to do your job to the best of your ability, and this is one reason why vacations are an ethical issue. Another reason why it is ethical to take time off periodically is because we simply owe it to ourselves to rest.

I want everyone to know that I believe that we should live ethically and that this week I'm doing the right thing. For me, the right thing looks like this:

Monday, August 4, 2008

So Long, Skip


Long-time Braves announcer Skip Caray died on Sunday at age 68.

Caray, who first came to Atlanta to broadcast the games of the minor league Atlanta Crackers and then worked Atlanta Hawks games for several years, went to work for the Braves in 1976 and was still on the air just a few days ago.

Skip was the son of legendary broadcaster Harry Caray. His son Chip is now an Atlanta Braves announcer and his son Josh is a broadcaster with the Rome Braves of the South Atlantic League. Baseball broadcasting is clearly the family business.

My favorite Braves broadcast team was Milo Hamilton and Ernie Johnson, Sr., mainly because they were the announcers back when I started paying attention and would listen to every game on the radio because the Braves weren't on TV much. But a close second in my affections was the team of Pete Van Wieren and Skip Caray. Pete was (and is) the expert--they don't call him "The Professor" for nothing. Skip was the entertainer; he was a solid announcer but he reveled in pushing the envelope and in trying to make you laugh.

I can find a lesson for ministry and/or preaching in most things, and I found one in a story I read about Skip. He once said that when he was describing a game on radio he tried to keep truck drivers in mind as they drove across country trying to stay awake. That's not a bad metaphor for preaching. We need to keep in mind the members of our congregations as they try to make it through their lives--what can we say to help them and how can we say it so that they will hear it?

So long, Skip. Thanks for being a fan alongside the rest of us.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Good News: There is an Overflow


(A sermon based on Matthew 14:13-21 for Sunday, August 03, 2008)

How do we best bear witness to Christ in this world that so desperately needs Christ? We can do so by displaying something that is in very short supply—compassion—by practicing something that is very seldom practiced—hospitality.

If we are going to be like Jesus, if we are going to live a life like Jesus, then we are going to display compassion. Lots of things get in the way of showing compassion. After all, we all have our own problems, we all have our own griefs, we all have our own struggles—we all have our own lives. I would not want you to hear me saying that we should not tend to our own hurts and wounds; clearly, for our sake and for the sake of those closest to us, we should. But we cannot let the problems that should unite us with all humanity serve rather to isolate us from other people.

Jesus was fully divine and fully human, but make no mistake about it—he was fully human as well as fully divine. And so, when Jesus received word that John the Baptist, who was not only his forerunner but his cousin as well, had been beheaded by Herod Antipas, he attempted to go into seclusion for a time. Such an attempt was perfectly understandable and perfectly appropriate; Jesus was grieving his colleague and family member and he was no doubt pondering the implications of John’s death for his own destiny. No one could blame him for seeking time alone.

But the people found him. Jesus had taken a boat to the other side of the lake but when he got there the crowds were waiting for him. He did not send them away. Rather, he had compassion on them and spent all day ministering to their needs. You get the impression that even at those times when Jesus’ own grief and his own troubles were overflowing, his compassion overflowed all the more. Perhaps his own struggles fueled an even greater empathy with others who were struggling.

Have our lives been flooded with the compassion of Christ? If so, then his compassion that floods our lives should be flowing out in compassion for others. True, we have our struggles, too, but we have experienced the grace of God in the midst of our struggles; we know the love of God in the midst of our troubles. The people in our lives, the people in our town, the people in our world, the people all around us, are looking for a sign that someone cares and if they can see that we do, they just might get a glimpse of the compassion, love, and grace of God.

I said at the beginning that we could bear witness to Christ by displaying compassion and that one way we could display compassion was to practice hospitality. That’s what Jesus did. At the end of the long day, when his disciples wanted to send the crowds away so that they could get something to eat, Jesus instead wanted to feed the folks right there. He wanted his followers to feed them! Now, let’s not be too hard on the disciples. They were concerned about the people, too. They knew that they would be hungry and they wanted to send them off to find something to eat. But Jesus wanted his followers to practice hospitality; he wanted them to play host to those in need and to share what they had with those in need.

But the disciples did not have much to share. They thought that they had even less than they had. “Here is all we have,” they said, “five loaves of bread and two fish.” It was the equivalent of the Fish & Fries meal at Captain D’s. As we eventually find out, there were 5000 men plus women and children who needed to be fed. Understandably, then, the disciples asserted that what they had was not enough. They had taken stock of the needs and they had taken stock of their inventory and they had very reasonably concluded that what resources they had were not enough to provide adequate hospitality to the people who were there.

Isn’t that the way we all too often are? Don’t we as Christian individuals decide that the gifts or resources that we have are just not enough to meet the needs of the people around us? And it’s understandable—we take stock of ourselves and we say, “What can one person do?” Or we say, “What can I do with what I have?” Whatever our logic, though, we conclude that what we have is not enough. Don’t we as a church all too often conclude that the gifts or resources that we have are just not good enough or are just not adequate to provide adequate hospitality to those in need around us? And it’s understandable—we take stock of ourselves and we say, “What can a church our size do?” Or we say, “What can a church with our demographics do?” Or, “What can a church with our resources do?”

Well, whether we’re talking about individuals or a church, the answer is the same; we take our resources—whatever they are, however meager or plentiful they are, whether we think they amount to anything or not—and we place them in the hands of Jesus. We accept that Jesus is our Lord and that as our Lord he calls us to show compassion like his and to practice hospitality like his—that he expects us to love, to accept, and to help people and that he expects us to expect that he will bless and multiply whatever we have so long as we are using it for his glory and to share his love and grace. When Jesus took those five loaves and two fish and blessed them and broke them and gave them back to his disciples to pass out to the people, it was enough. When Jesus takes whatever we have to offer and blesses it and gives it back to us to give to the people, it will be enough.

Notice, though, that when Jesus took what the disciples offered and blessed it and they gave it away, it was not just enough—it was more than enough. Do you see what happens as the disciples offer their meager resources and Jesus blesses them and then the disciples pass the blessed meager resources back to the community around them? They went from having not enough to having enough to having more than enough! By the grace of Jesus, there was an overflow!

I wonder—what did the disciples do with the twelve baskets full that they collected? What did they do with the overflow? I hope that they went into town, found people who needed food, and passed it out among them. I hope that they gave it to a Roman soldier who had become weary and famished while manning his station. I hope they took it to the leper colony outside of town. I hope that they gave it to pilgrims as they passed through the area. I hope they took it to the houses of the tax collectors and sinners.

Let’s tell the truth—we have, by the grace of God, more than enough. We have been blessed with the love of God; we have been blessed with the grace of God; we have been blessed with the gifts of God; we have been blessed with more than our fair share of everything we need to be the church and to do the work of the church. We have an overflow. The only question is, what are going to do with the overflow? What do we do with the abundant love, with the abundant grace, with the abundant compassion, with the abundant gifts, and with the abundant help? Do we “invest” it in ourselves? Or do we spread it around to others?

You see, because we have been given much, we too must give.

You see, grace added to grace leads to an abundance of grace.

You see, we have a tremendous overflow out of which to share.

How can we not?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Something that McCain & Obama Ought to Think About


It's from Thurston Clarke's new book The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America:

Because Kennedy had managed his late brother's 1960 presidential campaign and served in his cabinet as attorney general, he understood that following a crude and divisive campaign with a high-minded presidency would be difficult, and healing a morally wounded nation after running an immoral campaign would be impossible. Because he understood this, his campaign is a template for how a candidate should run for the White House in a time of moral crisis. (p. 2)

We are living in a time of national moral crisis and we need our new president to have a "high-minded presidency" that will help in "healing a morally wounded nation." Therefore, we need to let the candidates know that we expect them, their surrogates, and their mouthpieces to run an honorable and moral campaign.

We really, really need it.