Sunday, February 26, 2017

“Until . . .” (II Peter 1:16-21)

In the Good News Bible, Today’s English Version, our scripture reading begins with these words: “We have not depended on made-up stories . . .”  In our version of the Bible, the New International Version, it reads: “We did not follow cleverly invented stories . . .”  Here, the author--Peter, is continuing his support from his first letter to the Christians in the northern part of Asia Minor by combatting teachings of false teachers who claim to know what is right.  Unfortunately, these teachings often go against what Jesus taught and said, causing the Christians to fall into act of immorality.  Thus it is that Peter takes on those false teachers and what they are proclaiming as the “gospel”.

In the past couple of months there has popped up a new phrase in our vernacular as a society.  That phrase, first used by Kellyanne Conway--one of the chief counselors to President Trump in a press conference, to cover up a falsehood by White House Press secretary, Sean Spicer’s falsehood during a press conference.  Her response to the questions being pressed upon her was that the Press Secretary was giving “alternative facts.”  Now, trust me, this is not the first time in history that “alternative facts” have been used to cover up a falsehood.  No, “alternative facts” have been floating around our society as a people and a nation for many, many generations.  The difference is that we now have a “name” to call these falsehoods.  The fact is that “alternative facts” have been a favorite tool of people everywhere no matter what their political party.  Everyone does it.

That is what Peter is attempting to deal with in his second letter to the Christians in the northern Asia Minor.  Peter is attempting to correct the “alternative facts” with the reality of having been one who witnessed and experienced Jesus firsthand.  In his rebuttal to the falsehoods that these teachers were teaching and preaching, Peter let the people know . . . from first-hand experience . . . that they were wrong.  What the people are hearing are made-up stories . . . cleverly invented stories . . . that pull the people away from Jesus and his teachings.  Peter should know . . . he was there.

In his rebuttal, Peter makes reference to his own experience of Jesus . . . his own experience of the Holy.  He tells the people that he was present when God affirmed Jesus as his Son.  Peter tells the people: “. . . but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’”  Peter is attempting to let the people know that . . . unlike the false teachers . . . he was there.  He was in the presence of Jesus when the transfiguration took place . . . he saw it all.  And, not only that, he was present with Jesus throughout his earthly ministry . . . he is a living witness to the presence and words of Jesus.  Because of this, he should know a false teaching.

Thus it is that Peter takes on the “alternative facts” that are floating around this newly found faith.  The words and teachings that these false teachers are sharing are . . . well, they are wrong . . . they are falsehoods.  To follow these falsehoods, says Peter, is to lead to immorality . . . is to go against the teachings and witness of Jesus.  Peter warns them to not fall into this trap.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my head is spinning.  My head is spinning in this day and age of technological advancement in which we are flooded with an array of sources for information concerning the world in which we live.  My head is spinning so much that I do not and cannot focus as I am being bombarded with an array of “facts”.  There is so much information--both true and false--being thrown around that I cannot determine which is true and which is false.  I feel as if the world I live in is spinning so fast that I cannot even determine what is real and what is fake.  I can’t tell what is true and what is false.  It is so frustrating that I cannot determine for myself which side of the fence I should fall on.

You see, the problem is how do we live lives that are faithful to Jesus and his teachings when we are being assaulted from so many directions as a follower of Jesus.  Yet, at the same time, I imagine that this is not a problem unique to me or you.  It has been going on since the birth of the Jesus movement.  Apparently what the Christians that Peter was addressing are experiencing is not much different than what we are experiencing in this day and age.  In both times, then and now, the question remains . . . how do we shift through the garbage to find the prize?

One of the easiest ways is to go back to the source.  In the case of our faith in Jesus . . . Jesus is the source.  All else is interpretation.  Interpretation is someone’s opinion of what they think is being said . . . that is all that it is . . . opinion.  True, that opinion might speak volumes to us about what that individual thinks, but the bottom line is how well it stacks up to what Jesus is saying.  After all, Jesus is the source of our whole being and our faith.  He is the fulfilment of the prophets . . . prophets who did not speak their words, but shared the words of God.  What the prophets shared about the “source” . . . about Jesus . . . were true.  They manifested themselves in the presence and words of Jesus.  All was from God.  Peter told the Christians that the words of the prophets were certain, and in Jesus they were fulfilled.  Jesus is the source . . . Jesus is the foundation . . . Jesus is the baseline from which we are to live our lives as his followers.  Anything outside of Jesus is a lie . . . is what we are now calling “alternative facts.”

Peter calls the people to focus upon this.  He tells the people: “. . . and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”  Here the apostle challenges the people to hold what they are hearing up to the standard of Jesus and what he taught.  In doing this the people have a grounding point in which they can weigh what they are hearing.  If what they are hearing does not meld into the words of Jesus or his example . . . well, then, it is a bunch of hooey.  

Until . . . until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts . . . we are challenged to hold all that we hear against the presence of Jesus and his words.  We are to do this over and over again until it becomes a part of who we are as the followers of Jesus . . . we are to reconcile Jesus--his words and actions--against the world we are living in.  We are to do it until we become who God has created us to be.

“. . . until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”  That is the prayer of Peter to his fellow sojourners of Jesus . . . that they continue to strive to hold the “alternative facts” up to the words and actions of our Lord and Savior, Jesus.  In doing this, we begin to understand and incorporate our faith into our daily lives.  This is not easy.  What Peter is asking is that each and every follower of Jesus to do is to step into this “twilight” zone of uncertainty and frustration . . . to compare Jesus--his words and actions . . . to the world in which we live.

Ultimately the bottom line is knowing whether or not our faith is congruent with Jesus.  If it is not, then Peter recommends that we get aligned.  To allow the morning star to rise in our hearts . . . to arise in our being . . . to arise where we happen to be.  That is the challenge then . . . and, it is the challenge now.

May God grant us the courage to truly walk in the footsteps of Jesus.  It is a simple prayer.  May we discover its power in our own lives.  Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

“The Paradox of Faith” (I Corinthians 3:1-9)

It’s a lie.

When I graduated from kindergarten I truly believed Robert Fulghum and what he wrote about everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten.  But, it was a lie.  They made me go back to school.  Told me there was more that I needed to learn.  So, off I went to elementary school.  Six years later, I was graduating from elementary school . . . a scholar of all things elementary.  I thought I was done . . . but, no, they told me I had to go to junior high . . . told me there was still more to learn.

Off to junior high I went.  Three years . . . three more years in the educational system . . . three more years of stuffing my mind with education.  At the end of ninth grade . . . ninth grade graduation . . . I realized the end was there; or, so I thought.  They told me I had three more years.  They told me I had to go to high school.

Reluctantly I made my way to high school.  There they opened my mind to even more education . . . rammed that education stuff right into the ol’ brain.  For three years they crammed that education in, and then, in my senior year I felt I had reached the apex of all things educational.  But, no, I was told . . . there’s more, there’s college.  Higher education.  Not only do you get more education, you increase your likelihood for better wages.  In fact, I was told you really needed to go to college.

After high school I thought there was no way I could learn any more.  Shoot, if we are going to be honest, after kindergarten I thought I knew it all.  But, I was wrong.  Thus it was that I put in my four years in college.  Got myself a degree.  Then, I found out that if I wanted to really be what I wanted to be--which was a minister--I needed to go to more school.  In fact, it was three more years of school . . . three more years of education.  Even after three more years of education, I wasn’t done . . . I even went back to college for another degree.

So, to sum it all up . . . I graduated from kindergarten, elementary school, junior and senior high, once with a bachelor degree from college, once from seminary with a master’s degree, and one more time from college with a second master’s degree.  That is seven graduations.  I am what my oldest granddaughter says is “edumacated.”  And, still, I feel lied to.

I feel lied to because education never stops.  Even after all those graduations, all those diplomas . . . there is still a lot to learn.  Education never ends . . . education is a lifelong journey . . . it never ends until we die.

One of my favorite cartoons was of a student sitting at a desk taking a test.  The question on the test was, define the word “paradox”.  That was the first frame of the cartoon strip . . . the second was the student scratching his head . . . and, the third, was him writing his answer: “Paradox--two of ox.”  Any kindergartner would know that!  Actually, “paradox” is a statement that is contradictory.  The way we talk about and present education is a contradiction . . . learning is a lifetime proposition.  It does not end with kindergarten, high school, college, or the most advanced degrees . . . there is always more to learn.  I know that now, but through the years . . . well, I felt lied to.

This is the point that the Apostle Paul is attempting to get across to the people in the congregation at the church in Corinth.  They might think that they have reached the pinnacle of faith thanks to the teachers that they had, but, Paul knows better.  They are mere “children in the Christian faith.”  They might think that they have matriculated at the top of their class, but they haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what it means to be a person of faith.

Paul points out the signs that show that they have not matured in the faith and that they still have a long ways to go.  He tells them that they continue to live as people of the world . . . that they are jealous of one another . . . that they continue to argue and bicker . . . no, says Paul, you are not there yet.  In fact, he tells them that they are a work in progress, always a work in progress.

And, in the end, the people feel lied to.    Think about it . . . give your life over to Jesus and you are save . . . you have hit the heavenly home run and the game is over.  After all the holy celebrating, someone asks you if you are ready to grow in the faith.  Wait a minute . . . the homerun . . . that won the game, right?  Nope . . . there is more.  So the people jump into the study of faith and what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  They take the classes offered by their teachers . . . Paul, Apollos, Peter, and even Jesus.  They learn everything that they are taught, everything their teachers know.  They graduate . . . and, then Paul shows up and tells them that they haven’t even begun to understand and life of faith.

I think they felt like I did when I learned that kindergarten wasn’t the end all to education.

That is the paradox . . . especially when it comes to faith and living a life grounded in faith.  The reality is that it never stops . . . it is a constantly growing, changing part of who we are as the children of God . . . part of who God created us to be.  And, I know that all of you know about this paradox of faith.  I know that you have all experienced it.  Just when you think that you have it all figured out, God reveals another part of the picture for us to consider.  That is the desire of God . . . that each and everyone of us continue to grow in faith and in the faith.

The bottom line is that we are never done when it comes to our education about faith.  During my time serving as a pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation, I appreciated their use of the slogan that Gracie Allen--wife of George Burns--is created with: “Never place a period where God has put a comma.”  It is our human nature to put periods in the journey of our lives . . . capped off as a milestone . . . as the final piece; but, the truth of the matter is that those periods--those ending points--are nothing more than mere respites in the journey of life . . . a chance for us to catch our breath . . . commas . . . before we continue on with the next leg of the journey.

I know that you understand what I am saying.  I have heard many of you tell me that you are not at the same place you were when you first committed your life to Jesus years ago, that you are not in the same place in your faith that you were five, ten, twenty, or even forty years ago.  You have grown in your understanding of what it means to love God and in turn, love one another.  You know that you have grown deeper and wider in your faith and love for God.  You are not the same person who encounter Jesus years ago . . . you have grown deeper in your faith.

Paul wanted the people in the Corinthian congregation to understand that faith in Jesus is not an end product, but a process.  A process that takes a lifetime.  And, because it is a lifetime process, one must constantly be studying, praying, and considering one’s faith in the light of the time that he or she is living.  One must continue to grow.
Now it is true that the call upon each of our lives is to love the Lord with all of our being, and to love our neighbors.  Yet, at the same time, the call upon us is to discover completely who we are created by God and how we fit into this world we have been placed in to live.  We can never reach the end, but always continue to discover the deeper and more intimate relationship we can have with God, one another, and the world.  We can never be complacent in thinking that we are done when it comes to faith.  We are never done.  That is the paradox of faith . . . we are never done.  It might feel like a lie, but the truth is we are never done.

I just wish they had told me this in kindergarten.  Amen.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"The Purpose of Salt" (Matthew 5:13-20)

Salt has taken a bum rap for quite a while now.  It has been demonized.  It has been called the single most harmful substance in the food supply.  This understanding of salt is so rooted in the minds of many that even my own children have picked up this mantra of salt being bad for you.  Not even a week ago, as we began eating our dinner, my son--Eli, shook his head as I salted my food.  When I asked what the problem was, I was told that all of my children were in awe of the amount of salt I use when eating.  My wife, Dana, said they were concerned about my health.

Well . . . I never . . .

I like salt.  It is a natural reflex for me when I sit down for a meal to reach for the salt.  Yes, I know, I should take a bite of the food before salting, but I already know . . . there is not enough salt on the food.  I’d apologize for this faux de pas except that it is a part of who I am as a person . . . I like salt.  At the same time, I understand the concern of my children.  I keep a close watch of the salt I digest.  I watch the results of my  semi-annual blood checks . . . and, at this point in my life . . . I am safely below the acceptable level of sodium--or, salt--in my diet.  Despite my reassurance to my children that I am fine, they continue to shake their heads each time I reach for the salt shaker.  

Salt has taken a bum rap.  Salt is not that bad . . . in fact it is necessary to our health . . . but, it must be taken in moderation.  

In biblical times, salt was overwhelming viewed as a positive resource.  Salt added flavor to food . . . it enhances flavor; and, at the same time it preserves certain foods like meat of fish from spoiling.  In biblical times, before refrigeration, this is how people preserved things.  Being a lover of salt, I can attest that there is no better way to preserve ham than in salt . . . nothing beats a good country ham.  At the same time, salt also helped to purify or cleanse meat through the removal of blood--a forbidden substance according to the Torah.  

The use of and purpose of salt, in biblical times, was well understood.  Salt was seen as important . . . as vital . . . to life.

After laying the Beatitudes upon the people, Jesus tells those who are gathered that they are the “salt of the earth.”  Jesus calls the people this in light of their relationship with God . . . in their willingness to step into that intimate relationship with God . . . in their commitment to fulfill God’s call to restore the Kingdom of God.  Jesus calls them this in the hope that they will embrace the essence of salt . . . that they will bring flavor to the world in which they live . . . that they will preserve the foundation of their faith . . . and, that through it all, they will purify the world to be closer to the Kingdom of God.  In other words, Jesus sees them as a necessary role in fulfilling God’s desires . . . through Jesus . . . through each of them.  In this, Jesus sees them living their lives in faith as a positive influence.

Jesus see the people as being salt in the world in which they live.  In the way that the people live in honoring their covenant with God . . . to love God completely, to love one another, and to bring God’s kingdom into reality . . . Jesus sees the people as the essence of what is needed in their time and place.  If the people live up to their saltiness . . . to their covenant with God, they will fulfilled the will of God.  God invest God’s self permanently in the world, not through salt alone, but through the breath and life of each one of  God’s children--each created in the image of God.  Because of this, the people become the spice of life . . . the essence of God’s will.

It is the commitment to God’s will that is important when it comes to one’s saltiness as a follower of Jesus.  It is one’s willingness to stand for God’s will in the face of society’s or the world’s will.  It is doing that which brings God’s will into reality when it clashes with the world’s reality.  It is standing up for what God wants.  But what happens when that commitment wanes . . . is forgotten . . . or is ignored?  Well, then, Jesus tells us that the salt has lost its flavor . . . lost its saltiness.

This passage of scripture has bothered me for a long time.  It has bothered me because salt does not lose its saltiness . . . salt is salt no matter how antiquated it might be. Yet, here is Jesus talking about salt losing its saltiness.  Losing its saltiness results in it being “thrown out and trampled by men.”  But, the bottom line is that salt cannot lose its saltiness!  Is Jesus presenting alternative facts?  Not really.  What Jesus is implying is that once a person has lost his or her commitment to his or her faith in God . . . well, that person has lost effectiveness . . . purpose . . . and saltiness.  They are no longer good to the cause of God’s will.

If people who proclaim faith in God through Jesus’ example and life cannot live and fulfill that proclamation, then they are of no use to the will of God.  In such a state they should be thrown out . . . removed.  In such a state they are not fulfilling God’s will . . . they are useless.

Okay, Jesus understood that not everyone understood his metaphors and allusions, thus he sometimes gave a second picture in hopes that his followers would understand.  Thus it is that we have the statement about the “light”.  Not only does he call the people the “salt of the earth”, he also tells them that they are the “light of the world.”  This point that he is attempting to make is so important that he is willing to give more than one example in hopes that the people would understand.

Light shines out to reveal.  Light allows people to see.  As such, light is a perfect metaphor for what Jesus thinks about commitment of the faithful to God’s will.  It is the faithful’s task to reveal and allow people to see God’s desire and will for all of creation . . . for all of humanity.  But, like salt, light is of no use if it is hidden or put out.  The light must shine in order for it to be useful and successful.  

The point that Jesus is attempting to convey is that faith, if it is not used, is of no use to God or to the one proclaiming it.  Faith must be liberally shaken into the fabric of life . . . into the daily mechanism of life . . . into the fray of life with all that it has to offer.  Faith must shine upon the world and reveal to it the will of God.  If it cannot be, then it is of no use to God.  If it is of no use to God, then it must be removed . . . removed for the other faithful to step in.  Jesus warns against faith losing its purpose, desire, and commitment . . . losing its saltiness . . . losing its light.

Those were the words of Jesus for those gathered around him at that point . . . and, they are the words for us gathered here in this sanctuary.  And, with those words, we have been forewarned.  We are to be a people of faith who practice living God’s will, as demonstrated by Jesus, on a daily basis.  We are to hold the world in which we live up against the teaching and word of Jesus . . . the will of God . . . and see whether or not it fits.  If it doesn’t . . . well, are we willing to step out and be that salt, to be that light, that challenges the status quo of the world we are living in.

In these tumultuous times that we live, are we being salty?  Are we being the light?  Are we living up to the commitment we promised when we came into a relationship with God through Jesus?

Whether we like it or not . . . salt has a purpose, especially in Jesus’ understanding of salt.  We are to enhance the flavor and to preserve the will of God.  Anything less . . . well, anything less is useless.  God does not see any of us as useless.  Go forth and be salty . . . go forth and shine the light of your faith in the darkness of the world.  It is our choice . . . may we chose wisely.  Amen.