Saturday, April 27, 2013

New and Improved Commandment?

John 13:31-35 
When Judas was gone, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.

“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. 

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

In the film, 42, which is the story about Jackie Robinson, the baseball executive, Branch Rickey, is played by Harrison Ford.  Rickey was the man who spear headed the effort to bring an end to racially segregated baseball and in the film he gives different reasons as to why he makes that effort.  In one scene he makes the observation that his faith is why he is doing this because the Bible tells us eight times to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I’m not sure that Rickey is right about that.  In one way or another, that command to love others shows up time and time again.  In the New Testament alone, one source says it shows up 11 times, and multiple times in the Old Testament.

Way back in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, we are told (19:18), “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Love is the key to the Christian faith.

There is a tradition in the history of the church that the Apostle John, when he was an old man living in Ephesus, had to be carried to the church in the arms of the younger Christians.  Once at the church worship, John was often asked to preach.

I mean think about it – here is John, the last living Apostle.  Here is a man who walked with Christ, ate with him, saw the crucifixion, was there for the Resurrection.  Of course people wanted him to preach.

John could have said something like, “Well you know I remember one day Jesus and I were walking along the beach and he told me this parable that nobody ever wrote in the Gospels, so I’ll tell it to you now.

Or John might have said, “Besides the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus also taught these other prayers, let me share them with you.”

Or John might have said, “Rabbi Jesus, preacher Peter and I walked into a taveran one day and Jesus turned to us and said, “You know, that reminds me of a joke.”  How cool would that have been if John had told some joke, parable or prayer that Jesus had spoken?

But John never did that.  Whenever he was asked to preach, it was always the same old sermon, word for word the same, without change:

“Little Children, love one another.”
As the tradition goes, after a time, the younger Christians became tired of always hearing the same words, asked, "Master, why do you always say this?"

"It is the Lord's command," was his reply. "And if this alone be done, it is enough!"

Now this is a story that comes from St Jerome, one of the early church fathers, but whether it is true or not, what is clear is that Christians are to love others.

Why do we love others?  Because first of all Christ commanded it.  Here in the New Testament lesson for this morning in what amounts to a farewell address, Jesus is telling his disciples that they must obey a new commandment: "Love one another.”

Love is active and real and difficult.  Douglas John Hall of Canada's McGill University notes that the law of Christ makes tolerance not enough:  "It may be good enough, legally and politically, but it is not good enough for the one who did not say, 'Tolerate your neighbor', but 'love your neighbor."

Why do we love?  Not just because Christ commanded it, but because we are loved by God, even though we do not deserve it.  St. John wrote in I John 4:19, "We love, because God first loved us,"

Why do we love?  Because it is a way of life that, while difficult, works.

James Kegel  tells of a story about a young woman named Sarah.  “Sarah came from a family where there was little love. Criticism, fighting, ridicule and violence were the rule. Never spoken were the words, ‘I love you,’ or ‘I am sorry, forgive me.’ Then Sarah found a new self in faith through Christ. She met Jesus and she began to act differently at home. She would stop in the middle of a fight and ask to be forgiven. She began to say, ‘I love you, Mom. I love you, Dad.’ She began giving hugs. She began returning blessings for curses, compliments for ridicule, forgiveness when wronged. Over a period of two years of giving blessings to parents and siblings, the entire family met Jesus and gave themselves to His love. Jesus commands us to love because it will change our lives and the lives of others.”

OK, we get that love is commanded by Christ, practiced by God, and works in our lives, but this command to love is all old news.  Jesus, in the New Testament, says it is a “new commandment” but it feels familiar and old.

Love.  Love, love love love love love.

We’ve heard this in sermons so many times.

It’s old stuff.

Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Yada yada yada.”

It was old news when Jesus gave his farewell address to the Apostles in our New Testament lesson telling his disciples, “I give you a new commandment…”

You ever buy one your brand of shampoo or soap or pizza or whatever and see on the label, “New and Improved.”  You buy it, take it home, use it, and it turns out to be the same old stuff.  You can’t tell the difference.

Is this commandment like that?

Is Jesus saying, “New and improved commandment here, buy ‘em while they last.”

Love one another?

Same old stuff we’ve heard before.  Love love love love. Yada yada yada.

Nothing new here.

Or is there.

Elsewhere we are told to love others, “as we love ourselves.”

Now Jesus as saying for the first time, “love as I have loved you.”

The bar is being raised. 

It is not just that we are to love others as we love ourselves, now we are being told to love others as Jesus loved.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is approached by a teacher of the law.  "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

And that is what we want to know.

We are perfectly willing to love others, as long as they deserve our love.  We love good people.  We might even love evil people as long as they are behind bars at the time.

But when Jesus loved others, he never asked if someone deserved his love.

He loved freely, and abundantly.

We are to love as Jesus loved.

The person who is nice and pleasant to us – yes, we need to love that person.

The person who is rude to us and says something that hurts us – yes, we love that person, just like Christ loves that person.

The person who breaks into our neighbor’s home – or even OUR home.  Yes, we love that person just as Christ loved and died for the thief on the cross.

Those two brothers in Boston?  The one who is dead and the one who is under arrest for the bombing?  Yes, even them. 

This new and improved commandment is not easier – it’s harder.  To love others like we love ourselves is one thing.  We might justify ourselves and make excuses.  We might say, “terrorists are not our neighbors.” 

But this new commandment says we have to love each other – as Christ loved us.  And that raises the bar considerably.  We have to love everyone – AND we have to love them as Christ did.

Not easy.   And there are those times when we don’t like it.  There are times we would like to justify why we should NOT love specific people.  

But this is not debatable.  We love, because Christ said so.  We love because God first loved us.  We love others just like Christ loves them.

Ernest Gordon was a Presbyterian minister who died just a few years ago (2002).  Before becoming a minister he was an atheist. During World War II he served as an officer in the Pacific Theater.  He was captured and held prisoner by the Japanese army.  During the Second World War, history shows that Japan treated their prisoners of war with extreme cruelty.  The death rate was quite high, and at one point Gordon was placed in the “Death Ward” where fellow prisoners took care of other prisoners who were expected to die. 

While in the Death Ward, Gordon was treated by two fellow allied soldiers, both devout Christians.  One of them, Dusty Miller, never met the cruelty of the enemy with anger or discouragement.  Two weeks before the end of the war, a Japanese guard who was so frustrated with Dusty’s sense of calm in the face of hardship, crucified him.  The guard literally put together a cross and nailed the prisoner to it and watched him slowly die.  

In his book, Miracle on the River Kwai, Ernest Gordon described how the Allied soldiers not only cared for their own, but for the guards who were so vicious to them.  Gordon’s book tells of a very moving incident in which British prisoners of war tend the wounds of injured Japanese soldiers and feed them. The Japanese are encrusted with mud, blood and excrement. Their wounds are badly inflamed and infected.  Their own army had left them uncared for, because there were simply not enough resources.  When the British prisoners saw them, they took pity on them, bathed their wounds, and shared with them a little food to eat.

Think of that – these soldiers were caring for their enemies who had starved and beaten them, killed their comrades. God broke down the hatred and conquered it with love.  

The natural thing to do would have been for these POWs to hate their enemies.  But these prisoners loved those guards, as Christ loved both groups.

The natural way to respond to people who hurt us is to hurt them.  Christians, however, respond to the world with Christ-like love.

The natural way to respond to people who cheat us is to strike out against them.  Christians, however, respond to the world with Christ-like love.

The natural way to respond to how things are in this world is to be like the world.  But we are called upon to respond to the world with Christ-like love.

In Boston two brothers responded to their world with homemade bombs and with the killing of innocent people.  They accomplished nothing for their cause.  They accomplished nothing of value.  Their own uncle said it best when calling them losers.  Imagine what would happen if those brothers had responded to their world with acts of love?  It’s true that the world would probably have never heard their names, but it is also true that these two would have made great differences in the lives of those around them.  
And now we are called upon to love those two brothers and their families.  

Because our ability to love as Christ loves is what makes us different from those two brothers.  

The ability of those British POWs to love their enemy guards is what made them different.

It is not easy.

It is hard.

It is Christ’s command, not suggestion.  “Love one another.”

 Copyright 2013 Maynard Pittendreigh

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Time To Decide

Joshua 24:1-15
Then Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, and they presented themselves before God. Joshua said to all the people, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the River and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I assigned the hill country of Seir to Esau, but Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I afflicted the Egyptians by what I did there, and I brought you out. When I brought your fathers out of Egypt, you came to the sea, and the Egyptians pursued them with chariots and horsemen as far as the Red Sea. But they cried to the LORD for help, and he put darkness between you and the Egyptians; he brought the sea over them and covered them. You saw with your own eyes what I did to the Egyptians. Then you lived in the desert for a long time. I brought you to the land of the Amorites who lived east of the Jordan. They fought against you, but I gave them into your hands. I destroyed them from before you, and you took possession of their land. When Balak son of Zippor, the king of Moab, prepared to fight against Israel, he sent for Balaam son of Beor to put a curse on you. But I would not listen to Balaam, so he blessed you again and again, and I delivered you out of his hand. Then you crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The citizens of Jericho fought against you, as did also the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites and Jebusites, but I gave them into your hands. I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove them out before you-- also the two Amorite kings. You did not do it with your own sword and bow. So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.’
"Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."
John 6:53-71
Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever."
He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?"
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, "Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe."
For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him." From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. "You do not want to leave too, do you?" Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
In the Old Testament book of Proverbs, in chapter 30, there is a wonderful verse.The writer says in verse 18, "There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a woman.”
Those are indeed amazing things.I watch the Discovery Channel.
I know all about how the snake is able to slither across a solid rock. But I’ve got to tell you. I don’t REALLY understand it. I know something about aerodynamics, and thermals and wingspans, but when I see an eagle or hawk soaring in the sky, I’m amazed. I don’t REALLY understand it.
I don’t understand women.
Which is not a sexist statement, because I don’t understand men.And I don’t understand children.
I don’t understand the IRS.

Our New Testament Lesson today says the people listen to Christ but they don’t understand Christ. They say, “this is a hard saying. Who can accept it?”
I like that phrase, “this is a hard saying.”
When I read the newspaper, I often want to say, “This is a hard saying.”
When I look at the IRS tax instruction book, I want to say, “this is a bunch of hard sayings.”
And when people listen to Jesus, sometimes he is hard to understand.
He’s on one level, but we’re down here on another level.
This is especially true of John’s Gospel.
The woman at the well encounters Jesus and the Lord says, “I come to give living water.”
The woman doesn’t understand. “Oh really, where’s your bucket? Where’s this water?”
She’s on one level, Jesus is on another. She doesn’t understand.
Or Nicodemus. Jesus tells him, “You must be born again.”
“Oh really. And just how am I going to get back into my mother’s womb and do that?”
He’s on one level, Jesus is on another. He doesn’t understand.

And now we come to this morning’s text.
Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” He talks about the importance of the Sacrament. “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
Jesus talks about eternal life.
He talks about the resurrection of the dead.
He talks about how he and God the Father are one.

And the people understand!
That’s amazing.
I think it might be for the first time this happens in the Gospel of John.Jesus is on one level. The people are on the same level.
They understand.
They might not be able to understand the IRS Tax Code, or Osama bin Ladin, or teenagers – but they understand the theology Jesus is presenting here.

Jesus and God the Father are one.Jesus comes to offer eternal life.

The problem is not that they don’t understand. They do understand.
And they come to an important decision.
They decide not to follow Jesus.
It is an amazing thing, but Jesus is not for everyone.
In fact, thousands of people desert him. At the beginning of John chapter 6, Jesus has a congregation of over 5,000. At the end of this chapter, all but a handful have deserted him. If I served a church of over 5,000 people, and later the week, all I had left were 12 – the presbytery and the session of elders would have a few words to say to me.In fact, I think they would be words that I would be able call – “hard sayings.”
And Jesus is hurt. You can almost hear the pain in his voice when everyone leaves him and he turns to Peter and asks, “Will you leave me too?”
But Jesus remains steadfast.
He doesn’t adjust his teaching in order to gain his followers back.
He doesn’t beg them to come back to him.
He doesn’t say, “well, you don’t have to accept the notion that God the Father and I are one – just accept some of my teachings, like the teachings about love your neighbor.”No – Jesus wants people to decide.
Follow me or not.
No half way.
This is a difficulty with Christianity. It demands an act of surrender to Christ. It demands an acceptance of Him as the final authority. It demands a moral standard of the highest level. The disciples were well aware that Jesus had claimed to be the very life and mind of God come to earth. But you have to decide to accept this.You have to accept that Jesus is God.And that is a hard saying to accept.
It’s easy to say, “Well, you know, I believe Jesus was a good man. I believe he was a good teacher.” And it’s easy to stop there.But you know, Mr. Derrick was a good man. He was a good teacher. No one here knows who Mr. Derrick was, because while he was a good man and a good teacher, he was NOT God. He was my 8th grade history teacher.We all know people who are good. They may be good teachers. They may have wisdom. They may be able to do great things.
Jesus was all that – but he was also the Son of God. And that is a hard thing to accept.But you have to decide.In the Old Testament lesson, Joshua stands before the people and tells them all of the great things God has done for them. Then he looks at them and says, “time to decide.” You may find following God undesirable.
Decide today.
Follow him or not. “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”In the New Testament lesson, there comes a moment of decision. Time to decide.And the people in John’s Gospel make different decisions.
For some, deciding means defection.
They outright reject what Jesus is teaching and who he is. They turn back and go home. They never follow him again. Jesus was challenging long held beliefs – but the people didn’t want to examine their old faith. Jesus was headed for trouble, and the people wanted an easier life. You’ve heard of fair-weather friends? People who will stick by your side no matter what – or at least until life gets stormy. Then you look around and they are gone.Jesus had fair weather followers -- half hearted followers. And you can’t decide to follow Jesus half way.You can’t come to church and get filled with warm fuzzies, and then go to work and not live out the Gospel.You can’t accept that Jesus calls us to love one another, and then not accept that Jesus calls us to help the poor.
You have to decide.
Follow Jesus – or not.
For others in our New Testament lesson, deciding means distraction.
Not a focused decision, but a vague, half-hearted, semi-commitment.Our New Testament lesson ends with a foreshadowing of what is to come. Judas. Jesus looks around at the few disciples he has left and says, “one of you is a devil.”
John tells us in his Gospel, “He meant Judas, who was going to betray him.”
Judas could have been a hero, but instead he became a villain.Judas could have been a saint.
Imagine – a world where there are places named, “St Judas Hospital.” Or “St Judas Presbyterian Church.”
Could have been a saint – but he became a shame.
The multitude in this text follow Jesus for a while, but then when they understand what Jesus is all about, they make a decision – the decision is to defect. To leave. To go away from Jesus.Judas follows Jesus and when he comes to a decision point about whether to accept the full teachings of Christ, his decision is also to reject the teachings of Jesus – but unlike the multitude, he doesn’t defect.
He lingers.
He doesn’t believe in his heart.
But he still hangs around the church. He still stays with Christ and the other disciples.We have people who are like that in this and in every church.These are people who come to church, they wear their crosses around their necks, they may drop the lowest denomination of currency they have into the offering plate. But ask them to go grocery shopping for a shut-in and they will say no.Ask them to volunteer with the youth, and they will say no.Ask them to share Christ with someone at work, and they will say no.But ask them if they are followers of Christ, and they will say, “of course I am.”
But – In the New Testament book of James (2:26), we are told, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”And in Matthew’s Gospel (7:20-21), Jesus talked about such people who say they are followers but are not, and he said, “by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus says decide!
Follow me or not!
He says.But decide!
There are others for whom decision means determination!
In our New Testament lesson, we see a multitude of people who have been fed and nurtured by Jesus turn and desert him. Jesus in sadness asks Peter, “will also leave.”
And Peter says “No. Only you have the words of eternal life.”
Peter makes a decision, and it is a decision of determination. Peter makes a decision.
I will follow you.
I understand you and the Father are one.
I understand you claim to give eternal life.
I accept.
I believe.
I will follow.
I am determined.
Peter followed Christ with determined devotion.
There were times, later on in the Gospel, when he failed Christ. After Jesus was arrested, Peter was asked, “aren’t you one of his disciples?”“No. Not me.” Three times he is asked, and three times he denies even knowing Christ.It is a tragic failure, but it is not the end of Peter’s commitment. That failure simply becomes something to overcome.
There are times when Peter was confused by Jesus. He didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to say. Jesus is on one level. Peter is on another.
In Matthew chapter 15, there is a great passage where Jesus is trying to teach his disciples, using a parable. Peter listens very patiently, and then says, "Explain the parable to us."And Jesus responds, "Are you still so dull?" But the inability to understand EVERYTHING Jesus taught did not mean an end to his commitment. Peter remained determined to stand by his decision to follow Christ.
And what about you?
What decision have you made?
Are you like the multitude who decide to desert, because you can’t accept everything that Jesus claims?
Are you like Judas? Your decision is distracted – unfocused. You linger in the church, even though there is no commitment in your heart.
Or are you like Peter?
William Barclay, in his devotional guide to John’s Gospel, says, “Peter’s loyalty was based on a personal relationship to Jesus Christ. There were many things he did not understand. He was often puzzled as anyone else. But there was something about Jesus for which he would eventually be willing to die. In the last analysis, Christianity is not a philosophy which we accept, nor a theory to which we give allegiance. It is a personal response to Jesus Christ.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Volume 1, The Daily Study Bible Series. page 230.)
Joshua, in our Old Testament lesson, said it simply. “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
You’ve got to make a decision.Are you following Christ – or not?
Copyright 2009, Maynard Pittendreigh. All Rights Reserved

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Green Grass - Still Waters

Psalm 23
 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,  he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.
 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

            There is a passage in the Old Testament when a prophet named Jeremiah, who describes a time when people say “Peace, peace, but there is no peace.”  (Jeremiah 6:14)

            There certainly is no peace in our world today.

            I don’t know anyone who feels at peace.

            We feel fear.

            We are afraid for our military members who are spread over the world, serving in dangerous places.

            We are afraid of the future of our nation.

            We are afraid for where our nation and world are headed.  North Korea rattles its sabers to remind us to be afraid.

            We are afraid of terrorist attacks here at home.  Boston reminded us this week to be afraid.

            We go to the doctor, and we are afraid of what we will be told.

            We take our kids to school, and we are uneasy about what their friends will teach them.

            And then we look at the Bible, and we are given this image of being so free from fear and anxiety, that we become like sheep resting in fields of green grass beside quiet waters.

I  know very little about sheep.  In fact, I have no first hand information at all, it all comes second hand from listening to others talk about sheep.

I’m told that a sheep will not lie down until it has had a sufficient food to eat  Apparently, if a shepherd leads sheep to a field that ran out of grass before the animal’s hunger was satisfied, then the sheep would just start wandering off to find other pastures. So to lie down in green pastures means that all of the basic need for food has been satisfied.

As for the quiet waters, sheep are so skittish that they are afraid of running water.  They prefer to drink from still and quiet waters.

But our world is anything BUT quiet waters.  And our lives never seem to reach the point of calm satisfaction.

In the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, wrote these words.  He was writing of his own day.

He could have been writing about today:

We have heard a cry of panic,
    of terror, and not peace.
    Why has every face turned pale?
Alas! that day is so great
    there is none like it;

How do we find this place of green grass and quiet waters?

Like so much of the 23rd Psalm, the promise is discovered by a spiritual maturity, not a material possession.

We may or may not be able to change the world around us, but we can change the heart within us.

We can’t change the ways of the terrorist.  We can do some things to make our world safer, but not safe.  

The doctor might be able to heal our cancer or restore our sight – but maybe not.

All around us the grass may be dead and dying and the waters may be turbulent, but inside we can find a place of green grass and quiet waters.  Peace.  Peace.

Someone emailed me with a story this week about a 92 year old woman whose family decided it was time to move her into a nursing home.  The family worried about the change, but the woman took on a positive attitude.  On the long drive, the family began to talk positively about the nursing home, talking about wonderful staff, the nice view, the good food.  Finally the woman declared, “I love it.”

Her son said, “But you haven’t even seen it yet.  But just wait, I’m sure you’ll like it.”

“I don’t need to see it,” she said.  “Happiness is something you decide on ahead of time. Whether I like my room or not doesn't depend on how the furniture is arranged... it's how I arrange my mind.”

That is a rare gift! 

I know that there are some folks who never experience peace because they have such a bad attitude about life.

Several years ago, I met a fellow named Andy.

Andy was without doubt the most depressed person I have ever met. 

He was so gloomy and depressed, that he radiated gloom and depression.

All you had to do was to come within 10 feet of the man, and you began to feel gloomy and depressed yourself.

Andy never looked on the positive side.

He always looked on the negative side.

I remember he came to the Men’s Club at the church – and I was serving a very small church at the time.  He came to the Men’s Club and said, “You know, I don’t understand this church.  We never seem to get people interested in our events.  Look at this.  There are only 20 people here.”

Well, I thought – hey – we have 20 people here – that’s great.  There are only 25 men in the whole church.  Besides, the Men’s Club met for breakfast.  On Sunday mornings.  At 6:30 AM.  I was always amazed that anyone would get up that early on a Sunday morning for breakfast.

But that was Andy.  Never looked on the bright side.

One day I went to visit Andy to try to get him out of his gloomy attitude.

He told me he was gloomy because he was so lonely.

I suggested that he invite some folks over, have a small get together, a party.

“Wouldn’t work,”  Andy said.  “My wife wouldn’t want to do all the work to get ready for it.”

I suggested that he have a dinner with just one other couple.

“Wouldn’t work,” Andy said.  “People don’t like the kind of simple foods I like.”

I suggested that he go out and visit other people in their homes – just drop by for a visit.

“Wouldn’t work,” Andy said.  “People don’t like you dropping by like that.”

Finally, I suggested to Andy that nothing was going to work because he liked being gloomy and depressed.

Andy agreed.

He was lonely, anxious, restless, never had a moment’s peace, because he was allowing his bad attitude to become a stumbling block in his life.
Some people are like Andy.   They let their bad attitude become a stumbling black in their search for peace within. Others however, seem to find a sliver lining in the darkest cloud.  For example, during the Second World War, General Creighton Abrams found himself and his troops surrounded on all sides.  With characteristic optimism, he told his officers:  “For the first time in the history of this campaign, we are now in a position to attack the enemy in any direction.”
Paul in the New Testament letter to the Philippians tells his readers, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.”
Paul was not sitting on a lanai sipping from a drink with a little umbrella in it while propping his feet on a cushion.

Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison, facing death.

And yet he had this wonderful contentment.  He was not in a state of denial – he knew what he was facing.  Yet he had this wonderful attitude of peace.

Spiritually speaking, he was on a field of green grass, he was beside the quiet waters.

How do you get to that point in life?

While you are in the hospital with doctors puzzling over you, while you are paying bills that stretch your funds to the limit of their resources, when you deal with unemployment or underemployment, when your family is torn by strife, how do you find this promise of Psalm 23?

            Prayer, family, support of the church, developing a discipline, having experienced suffering in the past – all of these are great – all of these are needed – but the first step and the last step and the most important step – is to keep your focus on Christ.

            Christ is the shepherd, we are his sheep.  Don’t let go of that thought.

            So often we are distracted.  Easily distracted.  But in the New Testament, Jesus talks about how he knows his sheep and the sheep know him and listen to HIS voice.

            When the bombs blasted in Boston, it was easy for us to hear the voice of terror.

            When the bullets were fired in an elementary school in Newtown, it was easy for us to hear the voice of an angry, possibly mentally unbalanced individual.  

            When the doctor tells us we have cancer, it is easy for us to hear the mortician waiting.

            But in the midst of this often terrible world, we need to keep our hearts focused on Christ.  He is our shepherd.  He is leading us.  He will comfort us.  
When the armies of Napoleon swept over Europe, one of his generals intended to make an attack on a little town  on the Austrian border.  It was Easter, and as Napoleon’s great army maneuvered nearby, the citizens gathered together  to decide whether to surrender or to attempt a defense, useless though it seemed.  The pastor of the local church stepped forward  and told the people, “We have been counting on our own strength, and that will fail.  This is Easter Sunday, the day of our Lord’s resurrection.  Let us ring the bells and have worship service as usual, and leave the matter to God.”
The council accepted his plan and in a few minutes the bells were ringing, calling the community to gather for Easter services. 
Meanwhile, back at the front, Napoleon’s army heard the bells and got worried.  The triumphant bells sounded like they were announcing joy, not the despair that was actually being felt by the townspeople.  The invaders decided that the bells must be announcing the arrival of Austrian reinforcements.  They broke camp and retreated from the area as fast as possible.
The people of the town had lifted up the problem to God and went peacefully to church, and God redeemed them, granting them peace of mind, and even peace from the invading army.  (History of Feldkirch, Austria
So often, we wring our hands in despair over things that we cannot control.  We worry and we become anxious about the situation.
We need to trust the shepherd, follow the shepherd, and listen to the shepherd:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Blind Faith - Seeing Faith

Acts 9:1-20

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.  As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied.
"Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.  Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus.  For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.  In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!" "Yes, Lord," he answered.  The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.  In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight."
"Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name."
But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.  I will show him how much he must suffer for my name."
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord-- Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here-- has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit."
Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.

A Jewish father was concerned about his son who was about a year away from his Bar Mitzvah, but was sorely lacking in his knowledge of the Jewish faith. To remedy this, he sent his son to Israel to experience his heritage.

A year later the young man returned home. "Father, thank you for sending me to the land of our fathers," the son said. "It was wonderful and enlightening; however, I must confess that while in Israel I converted to Christianity."

"Oi vey," replied the father, "what have I done?" So, in the tradition of the patriarchs, he went to his best friend and sought his advice.

"It is amazing that you should come to me," stated his friend. "I, too, sent my son to Israel and he returned a Christian." So in the tradition of the patriarchs, they went to the Rabbi.

"It is amazing that you should come to me," stated the Rabbi. "I, too sent my son to Israel and! he returned a Christian. What is happening to our sons?

Brothers, we must take this to the Lord." They fell to their knees and began to pray and pour out their hearts to the Almighty.

As they prayed, the clouds above opened and the mighty voice of God said, "Amazing that you should come to me. I, too, sent my Son to Israel........"

This morning’s New Testament lesson is about a conversion.  It’s a famous, well-known conversion experience, at least for Christians.  It is the conversion of Paul, or as he is still known at the time of our New Testament Lesson, Saul.

Now one thing you have to say about Paul is that he was a man of great faith.

Before this New Testament Lesson, he is a man of a deep Jewish faith.

After this New Testament Lesson, he is a man of a deep Christian faith.

But that is not the only conversion that Saul or Paul experiences here. 

It is also one of converting from arrogant faith, to mature faith.

Let me share a line from a book I read recently.  Actually, I didn’t really read the book – just the first 50 pages – which is about the time I discovered the book had no plot.  It was dull, it was boring.  But it had an interesting but disturbing line on page 9:  “Ian was sort of conventional about religion.  He always went to church on Sunday.  However – I think he was the only Christian I ever met who was polite about his religion.”

Is that the way the world sees us?

Are we so passionate about our faith that we have become rude and arrogant about our faith?

Well, that was Saul.  He was arrogant about his faith. 

Arrogant Faith listens selectively to the truth

Faith that is arrogant listens only selectively to the truth – it does not listen to the whole truth.

And that was Saul.

Saul was a very religious individual.

He was described as blameless according to the Law of Moses.

In other words, Saul was passionate for God, so he listened to voice of the law and tradition, which was good.

Saul was also a Pharisee among Pharisees, very passionate for the faith of his fathers and absolutely convinced that he was doing the Will of God.

In other words, Saul was passionate for God, so he listened to voice of his community of faith, which was good.

Saul was well educated – Trained at the feet of Gamaliel, one of Israel’s greatest teachers of the day.

In other words, Saul was passionate for God, so he listened to voice of his teachers, which was good.

Unfortunately, of all the voices he was listening to, there was one voice that was missing.  The voice of Jesus.

Arrogant faith refuses to listen to the whole word of God.

Arrogant Faith has passion without compassion

Arrogant faith is also a faith that has a lot of passion, but has very little compassion.

If you have not met people like that, they you have certainly seen them on television.  For example, the Islamic Extremists who kidnap people – mostly innocent civilians, and who hold them hostage and in many cases behead them.  It is so difficult to read about these people in the newspapers, but when we do we often shake our heads in confussion and wonder, ‘how can people who claim to have so much faith be filled with so much hate?”

It is because theirs is not a mature faith, but an arrogant faith.

It has passion, but no compassion.  It is missing so much that true, mature faith ought to have.

Saul was like that.

He was on fire for God.  He was filled with passion.  But his faith early on lacked so much. 

Compassion.  Love.  Understanding – these are things you find in Saul after his conversion, but not before.

He was at the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the church.  And as our New Testament lesson begins, Saul is out there trying to round up those who do not believe as he believes.  He makes them prisoners.

Now, we are not going around killing people – but we have to admit that sometimes our faith is arrogant and lacks compassion, understanding and love.

And this is where we see Saul as our New Testament lesson opens.  He was arrogant.  More than that, he was a man who was full of bitterness and hatred – hated anything and anyone who could be a threat to the things that he believed, and those who would cause trouble for his people and those who opposed the teachings of the high priest and the Law of Moses. He hated those who preached and taught heresy against the Law that had led Israel for so many years.

Saul was on his way to do the Will of God as he traveled to Damascus – at least what he thought was God’s will.

Arrogant Faith is a disappointment to God

While Saul is on this road to Damascus, he encounters Christ, and one of the things he learns is that arrogant faith is a disappointment to God.

Our New Testament lesson put it this way, “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied.

When I hear the voice of God, I want to hear something like, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

What I don’t want to hear is the disappointment in the Lord’s voice, “Maynard, Maynard, why do you persecute me?”

But that is what Saul heard.  The news that the Lord was disappointed in him.

It is a dramatic moment.  Saul, or Paul, thinks Jesus is dead.  And here he is talking to Jesus.

Paul is trying to gather up all of the people who believe in Jesus to punish them.  And here he is, beginning to believe in Jesus himself.

Paul is a man who has had a blind faith, but now he is literally struck blind by the light of God.

Everything changes here for Paul.  As much as anything, what changes is that his faith turns from an arrogant faith, to become a mature and true faith.

And Saul makes the discovery of what true faith is all about.

True Faith has open ears to hear the voice of Jesus

True faith has open ears to hear the voice of Jesus.

It is interesting that Paul has been willing to listen to so many sources, except Jesus.

He has listened to the Law of the Lord – which Paul dearly and sincerely loved.  It is good to listen to Law of God, but that’s not enough.

Paul listened to the teachers, which is wonderful – but even that is not enough.

Paul listened to the traditions of his faith, and again, that was not enough.

It is never enough to hear all of the voices around you but not to listen to the voice of Jesus.

But God eventually does not give Paul any choice.  God knocks Paul off his high horse, literally and figuratively, and Paul is forced to hear the voice of Jesus.

What do we hear when we listen to the voice of Jesus?

Do we hear arrogance?  No, of course not.

Do we hear hatred?  No.

When we listen to the voice of Jesus, we hear him say, “Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.”

When we listen to the voice of Jesus, we hear him say, "Do not be afraid.” 

When we listen to the voice of Jesus, we hear him say,  "Your sins are forgiven."

When we listen to the voice of Jesus, we hear him say,  "Peace be with you!”

Arrogant faith listens to only a few of those words.

True faith listens to all of those words.

True Faith has open eyes to see the truth

True faith also opens peoples eyes to see the truth.

Sometimes when your faith is so arrogant, you are blind to the truth.  That was Paul.  He was figuratively speaking, blind to the truth.  Which is strange, because he was so passionately on fire for the Lord. 

But that is the way it is with arrogant faith – blind.

Now please understand… when I talk about letting go of arrogant faith, I don’t want you to think that I am encouraging you to have a faith that is so wishy washy, no one, including you, knows what you really believe.

I’m not suggesting a form of political correctness that doesn’t stand up for one’s faith or have a clear understanding of faith.

Let me illustrate this by using something that happens in Paul’s own life. 

Years after his conversion experience, Paul is on a mission trip and he is in Athens, Greece.  He looks around and he sees all these temples to false gods.

Now the arrogant Paul with an arrogant faith would have stormed in and called the Greeks idol worshippers and he would have put them down for their false religious faith.

But having his eyes opened by true faith, he looks around and doesn’t see the false gods as much as he sees that the Greeks are spiritually hungry.  They are in search of God and of truth. 

In Acts, chapter 17, Paul speaks to the Greeks and says, "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now let me tell you about that unknown God, because I know who he is!”

It is an amazing transformation – or conversion for Paul.  He is able to see the bigger picture and approach these people without arrogance.  He communicates the truth of God on their level.  He sees that they may be worshipping false gods, but more than that, they are searching for the true God.

True Faith has open mouth to speak the truth.

Paul also finds in his conversion experience that true faith is not a silent faith.  Our New Testament lesson ends with him proclaiming boldly the Word of God and telling others about how Jesus is indeed the Christ.

There are some people who believe that it is wrong to share one’s faith with another person.

Faith and religion are personal, therefore it is wrong to share the faith with someone else.

Sometimes even parents raise their children this way.  “We don’t want to dictate what our children will believe,” some parents will say.  “We want them to make their own decision when they are old enough to decide.”

That makes no sense to me.

When my son was a child, I didn’t let him make his decisions about what to eat – he would have had pizza every day topped with ice cream every day.

I didn’t let him decide whether or not to go to school, or whether or not to behave.  I was very clear about matters related to drugs and alcohol.

And faith is no less important than these things. 

We baptize infants in this church.  In part because this is what we are taught in Scripture and in our traditions.  But in part because we believe that it is appropriate for us to raise children in the faith – we don’t wait until they are teenagers or adults to introduce them to the faith.

It is not arrogant to teach your children your faith.

It is not arrogant to share your faith with your neighbors.

It is not arrogant to share your faith with strangers.

As long as we do so lovingly and respectfully.  As Paul did with the Greeks.  He wasn’t arrogant, but he shared his faith in words of respect to the Greeks.

True faith is bold enough to share the faith.


God wants all of us to have faith – but what kind of faith do we have?  Is it a seeing faith that is mature and loving and compassionate?  Or is it a blind faith that is so arrogant that even the voice of God cannot be heard?

Copyright 2013, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.
Ministers may use all or part of this sermon in their own ministries.