Just do something?

Presbyterian pastor and author Rodger Nishioka told of stopping at a grocery store to buy milk after flying in one night from a speaking engagement. It was late, Rodger was tired, there was only one cashier, and the woman in line ahead of him was short of cash. She was sorting through her groceries trying to decide what she could afford. 

“How much does she need?” Rodger asked the cashier, as he made up the difference.

As the woman started to leave, she turned to Rodger and said, “You didn’t even ask me my name.”   

Bless Rodger for telling this story on himself.

Was he helping the woman, or was he solving a problem so he could get home to bed?

What if the answer has cosmic consequences?

The preaching text this week is Jesus’ parable of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus from Luke 16. In all of Jesus’ parables, he’s the only character with a name.

It means “the one God helps.”

In the parable, the rich man lived in luxury while the poor man had nothing. Lazarus longed to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table, but the man gave him nothing. Then the rich man died and went to hell and was in agony. Looking up to heaven, he saw Lazarus resting in comfort next to Abraham. He pleaded with Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers that hell was real. Abraham said that people have had all the warning they were going to get. They wouldn’t believe “even if someone rises from the dead.”

So, what’s the lesson? Help the poor or you’re going to hell?

I don’t think so.

A better question might be, why help the poor?

Why do justice? Why fight racism?

In the midst of multiple crises today, it’s easy to feel helpless. In our desire to “just do something” it’s tempting to latch on to any cause, any movement, that might feel right.

But what do we accomplish when we abandon Christ and his ways?

Nothing that matters.

When we serve, we have a choice to serve in his name, with his heart and his ways, or not.

There is someone who rose from the dead. He’s bringing in a new kingdom; setting things right, and painfully few seem to believe it.

Feeling helpless?

The pandemic has taken away many of the things we relied on for purpose and meaning, and rioting has shaken our faith in our institutions.

We want to do something, but what?

Acts 17 tells the story of the Apostle Paul in the Areopagus in Athens, where the elites of the first century Roman world met to debate philosophy, religion, and politics. The elites listened as Paul explained who the God of the Bible was and how God was the force behind much of what they believed.

So far, so good.

But then Paul told them they needed to repent; God was sending someone to judge the world; the proof was the resurrection. 

End of discussion. Paul and his talk were cancelled. The philosophers thought Paul was crazy.

I wonder if Paul left feeling helpless.

But God wasn’t done. 

Paul wasn’t totally helpless after all; a few people who heard him believed.

Less than 300 years later, the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in recognition of the fact that Christianity had become the dominant religion of the Roman world.

The Gospel changed the world from the margins, not from the places where the elites hung out. Members of the new Jesus Movement had begun sharing their faith with relatives and friends, who shared it with their relatives and friends. People began to see there was something different about them.

Today, Christianity is the dominant religion in the world, and it’s still growing. Growing, not through force or programs, but through the quality of the members of the movement and the relationships they form.   

Friends, we’re not helpless. 

Share your faith. Point to the resurrection. Do it winsomely, fearlessly, and relate it to your audience, as Paul did.

It’s when we feel helpless, and step out in faith anyway, that God does some of his best work.

Seeing stars

This week, my son Patrick and I drove up to Cherry Springs State Park in north central Pennsylvania. The park is mostly a big open field, but people go there from all over the world because it’s one of the few accessible places left that’s almost totally free of light pollution. It’s one of the best places in the world to see stars.

So, at age 68, I saw the Milky Way with my own eyes for the first time.

Even if it had been cloudy and we couldn’t see a thing, it was great to get away with my son. It was nice to do something “normal,” like a road trip, for a change.

In Genesis 15, God was talking with Abram, later Abraham, old and childless Abraham, the one God had chosen to father a new nation. He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:5-6).

We know a bit more than Abraham about the stars, but not that much more. We know what stars are; we know that the nearest one is over four light years away. But we don’t really know how many stars are in our own galaxy (100 to 400 billion), or how many galaxies there are (100 million to 2 trillion).

The God that engineered all that has told us that he’s mindful of us, loves us.   

This week the stars reminded me that God kept his promise to Abraham.

We can trust him too.

God doesn’t cancel people

Coming amid a global pandemic, the injustice and unrest of the last few weeks have led many of us to experience deep feelings of hopelessness and loss. The solutions of the secular culture…the calls for “tolerance,” the calls to “just get along,” the calls “to listen to each other,” to repent of “privilege,” or to “cancel” the offenders, all seem to fall flat.

Haven’t we heard all this before?  

Acts 10 is the story of the conversion of a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Cornelius was kind to the poor and prayed to the God of the Bible. 

But something was missing in Cornelius’ faith.

Cornelius had a vision to send for the Apostle Peter. Meanwhile, Peter was having visions too. When Cornelius and Peter finally met, the meaning behind their respective visions became clear. The one true God of the universe had come near in the person of Jesus Christ. This Jesus was reconciling all things—all things—to himself. He’s the judge of the living and the dead, and everyone who believes in him will have new life.

The reconciling work of the one true God, accomplished once and for all in Jesus Christ, brought the most unlikely people together. It could not have happened any other way.

Jesus’ outstretched arms on the cross weren’t just a metaphor for tolerance.

The empty tomb wasn’t just a metaphor for hope.

God had to put to death our prejudices on the cross.

And the worst thing that could ever happen—God dying a horrible death—somehow became the best thing.

God doesn’t “cancel” people, just the sin that divides us.

Lament

What’s your favorite 2020 meme so far?

Here’s a typical one: A picture of a beautiful bride in her wedding dress with the caption, “My plans.” Next is a picture of a zombie apocalypse, with the caption “2020.”

One meme said, “2020 is going to be the synonym for “crazy” for the rest of time.

Remember the good old days when there was just an impeachment going on?

We don’t have the resources to process a year like this, do we?

But maybe we do. What if we learned to lament?

Mark Vroegop is a pastor in Indianapolis. Years ago, he and his wife had a child who was stillborn. Even though as a pastor he’d often walked with people through grief, he and his wife weren’t prepared for this.

Mark had always known that a third of the psalms were laments. But in his grief, he began to read the psalms in a new way. In the psalms of lament, and in the Old Testament Book of Lamentations, he discovered a movement. The psalmist turned to God, complained to God, asked God to act, and trusted God for the answer. Mark realized that in the psalms of lament God had provided a way for believers to move from grief to hope. There was no promise of an easy fix, but there were reminders of God’s faithfulness in the hardest of times.

Mark realized that his church, like so many others, hadn’t taught people how to lament. It had skipped over the psalms of lament in favor of the psalms of triumph. He wrote a very helpful book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament.

This week Mark released a new book to help Jesus followers begin to deal with our current crisis. It’s called Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation. The Gospel Coalition has made a free PDF copy of this book available at https://tgc-documents.s3.us-east-1.amazonaws.com/Weep%20With%20Me/Weep_With_Me_EPDF.pdf

So many of us have been searching for something to do to make sense of this crazy year, to reach out to our friends who are hurting, and to make positive changes in the world.

What if God has already given us a path forward?

What if we started by learning to lament?

God’s power, human power

In August of 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with the speech, “Where do we go from here?” Every person in the country should study it.

But then, we don’t like long speeches, do we? We prefer memes, soundbites, chants, and slogans. We get addicted to the adrenalin that comes from the things that incite our passion. The long, hard, strategic work that actually affects change over time, well, we don’t have the patience for that. 

King reflected on ten years of the SCLC’s work for racial justice across the country.  And in answering, “Where do we go from here?” he affirmed his commitment to non-violence. But at the same time, he challenged ministers and others who reduced the idea of love to a sentiment:

“Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.

“And the other thing is, I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.

“Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.

“Let us be dissatisfied, and men will recognize, that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.

“Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, “White Power!” when nobody will shout, “Black Power!” but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”

This Sunday, I’m preaching on the story of the first convert to Christianity in the Book of Acts: a black, sexually-altered man from a foreign country. For all those reasons, the man would have been excluded from Judaism. He was someone Philip would never have met on his own. It took massive intervention by the Holy Spirit to get Philip to seek him out. But when Philip explained the Gospel, the man was changed.

It was through transformations like this that the church, in the power of the Holy Spirit, transformed the world.

As King said, “Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.”

The light of the Gospel.

What are we here for?

Why did God put us here?

My guess is that few people today have thought about that, and fewer still would come up with the right answer. Some might say, “Because God loves us,” but most wouldn’t know what to say. Nearly 400 years ago, a group of theologians from England and Scotland answered those questions, “Worship.”

It was the height of the English Civil War, and the theologians wanted to create a tool to teach children about God. The result was the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Its most famous line is the very first: “The Chief End of Man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” 

Of course, God loves us, but God created us so that we could reflect back to God a bit of God’s own glory, beauty, truth, and love. We’ve come to expect worship to inspire and teach us; we have high expectations of the music and preaching. Over the years, this led churches to divide over questions of music and style; we expected churches to cater to our tastes. But worship is about God, not us. 

If you’re not worshipping, or if you’re worshipping something besides God, you’re missing out on an essential aspect of life; you’re violating your design.

The Bible says that in the early church there was singing, teaching, preaching, and celebration of the Sacraments, but the Bible gives precious few details about what that was like. Much of what we hold dear about worship is of our design. 

But there’s no doubt that God created us for worship.

God commanded his ancient people to go up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. He commands us still, but because of the work of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ, worship no longer has to be in just one place.

But there’s also no doubt that God created us to worship together.

It’s a joy to come together again this week, still a bit distanced, but together as God intended. 

Forgot their name?

Why is it that we forget someone’s name the moment they’re introduced to us?

In the wake of the racial unrest sweeping the country, many voices have called for the need to listen to each other. But what actually seems to be happening is that we yell at each other instead.

Why is that?

Luke 10 says that an expert in the law once came up to “test” Jesus. He wasn’t asking for a legal opinion or for legal advice; he was trying to catch Jesus in a mistake. He had no interest in learning from Jesus, only in making himself look good.

Luke 10:29 tells us the man wanted to “justify himself.” 

The parable Jesus told the man in response to this self-justification is called “The Good Samaritan.” 

In reading the story of the man who stopped to help someone who was helpless and dying by the side of the road, it’s easy to miss the reason why Jesus told it.

Self-justification is an ancient problem.

We all want to appear knowledgeable, appear smart, appear to be in control. When we’re introduced to someone, we’re more worried about what we look like, what we’ll say next, than in really being present for the other person.   

Forgetting their name is the least of our problems. 

Both, and

In his powerful book, Under Our Skin, Benjamin Watson talks about the power of the media to shape our perceptions. On Sunday, March 6, 1965, 600 blacks led by Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to march from Selma, Alabama to the capital in Montgomery to protest voter registration practices. In what became known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers beat the marchers with clubs as they crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge.

When the images of the atrocities were broadcast on TV, white Americans were horrified. Public opinion galvanized against the troopers. When the marchers tried again on March 21st, they were 2000 strong. Along the way, they were joined by people of all races from across the country. When they reached the steps of the capitol, their number had swelled to 50,000.

Watson said that for him, the enduring images of the march were the faces of women, which reflected “fear and faith, hurt and hope; their eyes, focused on changing the reality of life, perhaps not for themselves, but for their children; their lips, prayer for deliverance, not so much from the white state troopers as from a life and future of indignity.”

Then Watson asks, what is the impact of images of “black people burning cars and raiding convenience stores?” Images like those have the power to undo “the purpose, spirit, and progress” peaceful marchers fought for in Selma.

Images have the power to both unite and divide, don’t they? 

Today, we tune into the cable channels and social media platforms that support our point of view. What passes for news are often “canned shouting matches that only deepen people’s entrenched positions.”

Maybe we should turn off our screens and focus on some images from the Bible.

Long ago, Moses asked God, “Show me your glory.”

God replied, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you.”

And what is the “goodness” of God?

God put Moses in the cleft of a rock and put a hand over Moses’ face, so that Moses could only get a glimpse of God’s back. The image of God’s face would have been fatal.

As God passed by, God said in Exodus 34:6: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished….”

One might be able to tell where we stand by what channel we tune into, but we can’t manipulate the image of God to our support our point of view.

God is both loving and just.

Maybe the most powerful image of all is the cross, where both the love and justice of God were satisfied.

Liquor stores and sanctuaries

There’s no shortage of Christian advice out there on how to deal with the crisis. Some of the best is from NT Wright, one of most compelling Christian scholars today. His essay in Time last week, adapted from his upcoming book, God and the Pandemic, is worth a read.  https://time.com/5837693/should-churches-reopen-thinking-about-exile/.

Wright says that for the last 300 years in the global west, religion has been reduced to a private matter: “what someone does with their solitude.” Given this assumption, it’s not much of a leap to conclude that worship should have no place in public life. Hence, liquor stores are deemed “essential,” while “ancient, prayer-soaked sanctuaries” are off-limits.

If religion is simply a human construction, a system of thought like philosophy, or a guide for better living like Chicken Soup for the Soul, then churches ought to be on an equal footing with liquor stores. Both are human constructions where you go for escape.

But this Sunday, Christians observe Pentecost, the day when God poured out the Holy Spirit on the early believers.

If it really happened, and I believe it did, it means that faith cannot be a private matter. The Holy Spirit is in and through everything. People who tell you to “keep your faith to yourself” are proselytizing for their own religion. 

Religion may be a human construction, but the Christian faith is God’s construction.

Sure, many systems of Christian thought have sprung up over the centuries, but the Christian faith is not primarily a religion. Christianity is following the living God who really is loose in the world.

The living God can be found in liquor stores and sanctuaries. Neither will contain him. Tom Wright knows why:   

Church buildings are not an escape from the world, but a bridgehead into the world. A proper theology of “sacred space” ought to see buildings for public worship as advance signs of the time when God’s glory will fill all creation. Christians should therefore celebrate every way in which the living Lord whom they worship in church buildings is out and about, bringing healing and hope far beyond the visible limits of church property.

Jesus does not need church buildings for his work to go forward. Part of the answer to the question, “Where is God in the pandemic?” must be, “Out there on the front line, suffering and dying to bring healing and hope.”