Friday, October 31, 2014

the journey with

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 
There is no denying the fact that we live in an instant gratification, results oriented society.  Our stomach grumbles so we must eat now!  This is why there is a fast food restaurant on nearly every corner.   We get upset when politicians take too long to keep their campaign promises.  What do you mean you haven’t solved all the world’s problems in your first six months in office? What are we paying you for anyway?   We fall victim to get rich quick schemes because we want our money to grow faster so we can retire early.   We take diet pills and drink really horrible smoothies that taste like dirt so that we can lose weight faster.   And if we don’t lose 10 pounds in the first week we are off to some other fad diet.  We live in a world where we want what we want, we want it now and we don’t really want to have to work to get it.  Or maybe we have worked really hard at our jobs, at church or with our families and we get frustrated when things don’t turn out the way we expect or get the appreciation we think we deserve.  What do you mean I have worked this hard and now I have been over looked for a promotion?  I did all this work, and no one even said a measly thank you! It’s not fair!
The church doesn’t escape this part of our culture.  Often times, we only want to do things if we think it will get measurable results like an instant boost in attendance, membership and giving.  We have charities we support but we want to see pictures and hear stories of how they use our money.  We give our time, energy and money but when we don’t see instant results we begin to question…what’s the point?   We want to know how our actions will have an impact.  It is a natural thing to feel this way. 
I know I get frustrated sometimes when I show up for a mission event and they don’t have something specific planned for me to do.  I want to be able to see the results of my efforts as much as anybody else.  Even when I know the point is to just be present with someone I feel like I should be doing something- what can I do to help?  Can I bring you dinner?  Can I help clean your house?  Even prayer sometimes turns into something I can “do” for someone else.   We don’t feel right if we aren't busy and getting results- even if that result is just a thank you or a smile.
Knowing that we live in a culture and a church that feels this way and encourages us to feel this way and knowing that it is easy for me to get caught up in this I was a little put aback to read our scripture for today. 
God sends Moses to the highest peak in the mountains between the wilderness and the Promised Land.  It is a sight for sore eyes!  You can almost imagine what Moses saw. The barren land behind him where they had to depend on God for every meal and in front of him lush green valleys full of date trees, olive trees, pomegranates, Almonds,   grapes… my mouth waters just thinking about it.  Instead of dry parched land he sees rivers and the Mediterranean Sea in the distance.  He is standing on a mountain in what is now modern day Jordan and is able to see every mile of what we now know of as Israel.  He can see a whole country from his vantage point- his country for his nation!   This is perfection; the land flowing with milk and honey.  Then God says the kicker… Thanks for getting our people here but you can’t have it. 
What do you mean I can’t go in?  I would be so angry at God if I were Moses.  I would think…I have worked so hard to get these complaining, aggravating and rough necked people here and now you’re telling me I can’t actually go in? I have spent 120 years following you and doing what you tell me to do and now my pay check’s going to bounce?  This isn’t fair!   I just want to taste one grape, one drop of honey then I will know that it has all been worth it. 
But this isn’t a surprise to Moses.  If I had remembered what came before I wouldn’t have been surprised either.  Moses is told 40 years earlier that he will never enter the Promised Land.  If you remember, they had already arrived at this place once, 40 years earlier.  They sent in spies to scope out the land and yet they didn’t trust God enough to deliver them so God sends the Israelite people back into the wilderness for 40 more years.  Moses knew all along that he would never taste the honey, never walk on lush green pastures, never swim in the rivers of the Promised Land and yet he continued to lead the people of God anyway.   Maybe he thought God would change his mind.  Maybe he thought if I lead them well enough, if I don’t mess up any more, if they start doing what God wants then I will be allowed in.  Maybe Moses was thinking this but I think Moses probably understood what we struggle so hard to comprehend… it isn’t about the results it is about the journey,  it is about following God, loving people, and living into the life that God has so graciously given us. 
This is not an easy thing to understand.  When we go to the local soup kitchen to serve dinner for example… it isn’t about serving dinner.  Yes, it is about providing a service to people who are hungry but it is more than that.  It is about spending time with people who may never feel valued and all of a sudden they see your love for them and Christ in your presence and that you genuinely care about them and recognize that they are valued then their world is changed.  We may not see it.  We may fuss because it is the same people coming in day after day, year after year.  We may think- what’s good does this really do if they still need these services? Their life situation may not have changed but being loved despite their life conditions is heart and soul changing…Sending pencils to students or thank you notes to teachers at the Elementary school may not result in visitors in our church.  We may never even know if they get them but the simple act of freely and unselfishly doing something kind and loving changes not only the receiver of the gift but the giver as well.  
When I go to Venezuela, there are days when I “do” stuff like paint in the clinic or take them things that they cannot find in the stores like Ibuprofen and laundry detergent and yes, I can look at those things and say… look at all the good we did… but I often find that the ministry really happens in the car on the way to the children’s home, at the lunch table or while trying to learn Spanish and teach English with my new friends.  This is when real ministry happens- I may never see some of them again but in our time I saw Christ in their lives and I hope and pray they saw Christ in mine. 
I imagine Moses did cry out “It’s not fair” to God and when that didn’t work, maybe he then tried to use the dependence card.  Lord, you know how easily distracted they are.  We both know they are going to struggle when they get to the Promised Land.  They need me Lord!  How will they ever survive without me? But this wasn’t going to work either.  At some point Moses had to learn to trust God and trust the Israelite people to use what they had learned.  Joshua was going to be their leader now and no, he was no Moses but it was time for new leadership in a new world and time to trust that God will go with them even when Moses can’t.  Maybe they would squander all that Moses felt like he had created.  Maybe they would waste all the gifts God was giving them in this new paradise.  Maybe they would but maybe it was time to let them do it own their own anyway. 
Our missionary and I talked recently about how to gauge whether or not we had made an impact on the lives of people we meet on mission trips or even while serving in our own community.  Sometimes it is easy- we see a ditch that has been dug, a wall that has been built or cans of food donated.  But often times we are simply planting seeds.  Burying the love of Christ deep in a person’s soul for someone else to water and God to harvest at a much later date. 
Sometimes people resent the fact that what we build doesn’t get used in the way it was intend to be used or we feel that the gift is being abused or the giver taken advantage of and for some that is extremely frustrating.  But our job as Christians, as peopling caring for God’s people is not to dictate their faith or how they use the gifts they have been given but to simply give the gift.  And there is joy in the giving, just knowing that you have shared God’s love with someone else.  Moses is the ultimate missionary.  He spent his life proclaiming the word and will of God to people desperate to know God better.  He spent years walking beside them, going through the wilderness with them, teaching, guiding, shaping and loving a people who at times didn’t really want his kind of love.  But because he walked those 40 years just like they did; He was hungry when they were hungry, thirsty when they were thirsty and tired when they were tired, he could understand their misery.  He walked alongside those he intended to help showing love and compassion not only in the easy times when manna and quail were plentiful but when the desert sun dried their throats and their feet became blistered on the sun scorched earth.  And when it was time for his life to end, he put his faith in God that the work he had begun would be continued through Joshua in new ways he may have never imagined. 
God is not calling us to a check list of obligations that need to be accomplished.  God is calling us to a lifelong commitment to be his missionaries in this world- to walk with those who desperately need a relationship with Christ.  Not just to show up and offer assistance and doing thing for “those people” but to live, work and play with them; building relationships with people whose only contact with Christ may be through you and who need to know they are loved by Christ as much as we do.   
Like Moses there may never be a tangible reward for this life of ministry but the joy comes in serving, in knowing you are living life the way God intended for you to live it, and trusting that God can do amazing things in and through us if only we are willing.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Who does he think he is?

Exodus 17:1-7/ Matthew 21:23-32

I am a little embarrassed to say that one of my favorite TV shows right now is the Big Bang Theory.  Here we have this group of really intelligent scientists who can solve the most complicated mathematical equations but yet struggle to carry on a conversation with Penny, the aspiring actress/waitress next door.  They understand the intricacies of science but yet can’t understand sarcasm or how to tell a joke and yet somehow the most socially inept of them all becomes their leader and of course, hilarity ensues. 
Sheldon is super smart but he is also the most difficult to get along with and the most out of tune with the real world, and yet, he is captain of this crew.  Who does he think he is?  How did get this position of authority?  Why do the others follow him?  You would think eventually they would all get tired of him putting them down, belittling them, stirring up trouble and manipulating them to do what he wants and leave.  But they don’t. 
The temple priests are wondering the same thing about Jesus.  Who does he think he is?  The scripture right before this is the day Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem on what we celebrate as Palm Sunday.  The Jewish people are singing and dancing in the streets as he arrives into town calling him King and the first place he goes is into the temple, stirring up trouble.  This is the day he throws all the money changers out of the temple turning over tables and causing a huge disruption to normal temple life. 
So, when the priests find him teaching in the synagogue the next day they decide to ask him- Who do you think you are?  What gives you the right to come in here and cause all this trouble?  Why are you all of a sudden in charge around here- your invading our territory?   They knew who Jesus was of course.  This isn't the first time they have heard of him. 
This is the first time the Gospel writer of Matthew brings Jesus to Jerusalem but his reputation precedes him.  This is the unlearned man who teaches with authority and wisdom like he knows the scriptures and their meanings by heart.  This is the man who eats with the untouchables of society and heals the sick.  And this is the man who has gained enormous popularity among the people. 
Who does he think he is?  When the priests ask him he immediately proves his authority, not by showing a credential or offering a list of miracles or references, he turns the tables and puts them on the spot. The priests were the ones who were supposed to be in charge.  They are the most learned, well versed religious people in the temple and part of their job was to flesh out all these false prophets who claimed authority so, of all people, they should be the ones who can figure it out. (Feasting on the Word) 
So Jesus asks them a question.  Not about the law, not about scripture, not about him but about John the Baptist. How did John get his authority?  Who was John the Baptist?  This seems to come out of nowhere but they will soon know the connection. 
It would be like asking Sheldon why Penny is mad or how he’d hurt someone’s feelings. He knows lots of information but he doesn't experience empathy and struggles with relationships so he has no way of knowing about other people’s feelings.
The priests knew lots of things about God but this is the one question which they can’t seem to find the answer.  John was one of them, born into the family of priests, given authority the same way they had received their authority from God but they didn't want to claim him because they all thought he was crazy.  They thought he was a fake but because so many others thought he was a prophet, they were afraid of losing their own authority if they denied he was from God- so they did nothing, they refused to take a side.  They couldn't or wouldn't answer the question- Who was John the Baptist?
Since they can’t seem to come up with the correct answer, Jesus being the smart-alack that he is says; then I won’t answer your question either. 
Instead he asks them another question, he tells them a parable that they will certainly know the answer to.    Who is the son that does his father’s will?  The one who gives lip service or the one who does what is asked?  Of course the one who believes is the one who acts.  So once again the tables are turned and it is no longer the authority of Jesus or John the Baptist which is on the line, but theirs. Who do they think they are?  
They had spent their whole lives learning about God but didn't have a personal relationship with God.  They had spent all their time learning but not doing, seeing but not believing, and putting everyone else down for not knowing enough when God was right in front of their eyes. 
We can often be critical of the priests because we know the story.  We know that Jesus is God, we know that John the Baptist was a prophet foretold in the Old Testament, and we know how Jesus loves to take what we think is real and turn it upside down. 
Jesus wants us to see ourselves in these two sons and in the stories of the priests. He wants us to ask ourselves the same question asked of him… Who do we think we are? Are we the person who has a lot of knowledge, talks a good game, recites scripture and claims a Christian faith but then does nothing? Or do we want to be the one who believes enough to act whether or not they know all the right words to say, come from the right family or attend the right church? 
Maya Angelou a now famous writer known as much for her difficult childhood as her poetry and prose was once asked what her greatest accomplishment was.  Her response captures what Jesus is teaching us in this parable.  “I'm grateful to be a practicing Christian. I'm always amazed when people say, "I'm a Christian." I think, "Already?" It's an ongoing process.”  (2002 Palm Beach Post Interview)
Our faith is not something we can accomplish.  It is something that we strive for and work towards; it is in the actions of trying to do the will of God, living, being, working, giving, that we become not just the person who claims faith but the person who is faithful and practices the skills which we hope will bring us in line with the will of God.
The Jewish priests didn't start out this way.  They came from the line of Aaron who was there in the beginning with Moses.  He and the Israelite people, even though they complained, still followed.  Even though they tested God and Moses, they continued to do the work of faith, which for them was stepping into the desert, practicing their faith and learning to trust God more and more with each step they took.  They may have whined and complained a lot but their actions showed their true faith.
Do our actions show our true faith?  Are we giving lip service to God who deserves our faithful actions? 
I think that in the very last episode of The Big Bang Theory, Penny, the ditsy blond with barely a High School diploma, will be the one who solves the problem of String Theory which has plagued Sheldon, the brilliant PhD from the beginning.  It will be something so simple and clear, that has been right in front of his nose the whole time but one he just refused to acknowledge.      
In these stories, Jesus tells us and the priests that the answer we are looking for is right in front of us.  It isn't about how much we know or whether this is your first day in church or 1,000th.  It is about being willing to recognize the authority of Christ and follow his example to love, heal and care for others.  It is about being willing to step into the wilderness of life, knowing that God will provide and be willing to take that next step of faith.  
The word of hope in this scripture comes as Jesus is debriefing them on the correct answer the priests have just giving him.  “I assure you the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you.” 
This may not sound very hopeful to some but these are his examples of people who turned their lives around after accepting the word of God spoken through John, following the example seen in the life of Jesus and told in the scriptures.  They are the ones who know God in this life, and know where Jesus and John get their authority.  In Jesus mind as he tells the parable of the two sons.  They are the ones who said they don’t believe yet have changed their minds and are doing the will of God. 
Jesus tells the priests that these misfits will enter the kingdom first, not because of some preferential treatment but because of their willingness to step out in faith and do God’s will; they in fact see God in their actions and experience the kingdom of God in the here and now.  We don’t have to wait to experience the kingdom of God.  We don’t have to die to meet Jesus.  As we live our lives in service of Christ, as we care for others and show mercy and compassion- this is where God’s Kingdom touches the earth.
Those who believe but don’t act will just have to wait and see but the people who act on their faith don’t have to wait, they see Jesus in the here and now and so can we.