Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Immediate Actions and Eternal Consequences

Our scripture passages speak to us today of things that are both terrible and wonderful.  They speak to us of consequences that are immediate and eternal.  And they remind me of a time when I had the opportunity to sit before a judge who was dispensing wisdom and mercy.

On this particular occasion, my dear wife had been in a fender bender that was the result of a momentary misunderstanding of the actions of the driver in front of her and a confusing traffic pattern.  On advice from others, she decided to go to court and plead “no contest,” as this was a minor offense on an otherwise spotless driving record.  I came with her – expecting to do some work while we waited – and found the bailiff to be quite clear in the expectation that my open note pad was not welcome.  Instead, I enjoyed one of the most interesting days of listening to stories of innocence and confessions of guilt and watching consequences unfold.  In the end, our result was no different from what it would have been if we had just paid the fine, but we learned a lot about people that day. 

One of my favorite cases was a man who had come to his son’s school because he believed that his son had been wrongly punished for his part in a fight.  This turned into a shouting match with the principle and resulted in the Father being escorted from the property by the Police.  The Judge listened with compassion, noting his experiences as a father, and said, “One thing that I have come to realize over the years – when I see those traits in my children that I also struggle with – is that there are times when I am the creator of my child’s problem. As parents, we must be aware of our own limitations and do our best not to nurture them in our children.”  I don’t remember the penalty that came with that judgment – and certainly there was one – but I imagine the words had a greater impact.

The other case I remember from that day was a man in military dress.  His lawyer acknowledged the soldier’s service and dedication and desire to begin a career in the military.  He was asking for leniency, because the young man had been speeding in excess of 100 mph while riding a sport bike on the shoulder of a highway that was gridlocked.  The judge very carefully and sincerely thanked the young man for his service.  Then he said, “While it is admirable that you hope to serve our nation as a career, every career path has a winnowing process to select certain characteristics.  Yours may require high risk behaviors in some circumstances, but when those behaviors endanger others then you have defeated yourself.”  The penalty was lenient, but the truth in his words rang out loud and clear.

These stories represent two things for me that I find in our scriptures today.  The first is the realization that our decisions carry consequences that are both immediate and eternal.  Our decisions and actions reflect our identity and character.  They take root in those we love and echo in eternity. Our actions reflect our understanding of our relationships with others, and they demonstrate our awareness of God’s active presence in this world.

The second thing that I believe these stories share with our scriptures is an expectation that God is moving us toward better things.  God’s constant push and pull in our lives moves us – regardless of our decisions – to let go of things that keep us apart from God.  And God will use any means, even events that may seem harmful, to move us closer to God’s embrace. 

Let me be clear in saying that I do not believe that God causes harmful things like the random attacks of madmen or the intentional abuse of power or acts of violence masquerading as faithful submission.  Those things are the result of the condition of sin.  They are the result of systems of care and social contracts that are broken.  They are the result of individuals making choices that are not in keeping with God’s will.

God is yet involved in all of these things and is constantly moving us toward the doing of God’s will in the presence of those whose selfishness seeks to work against God’s will.  And so the question our texts ask us today is which side of that equation are we on – living in response to God’s grace or living in pursuit of our own desires?

More specifically, our scriptures are deeply concerned about our immediate experience of faithful living today as it relates to the eternal life that God offers us through the revelation of Jesus Christ. 

In II Samuel we find that King David’s indiscretions have finally come home to roost as his son Absalom leads a rebellion that divides the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  Absalom’s death is particularly terrible, and he is seen as “cursed” for dying in a tree hanging between heaven and earth.  Believe it or not, I think this a place where we begin to see why David is called “a man after God’s own heart.”  Even though Absalom may have deserved his fate, David weeps over the loss of his son and even longs to take his place.

It is the longing of God to love us even in our rebellion that eventually led to the cross of Jesus.  And through God’s love that cross – which was supposed to demonstrate the power of Rome over life itself – became a symbol of eternal life in God.  Eternal life is not something that we have to wait for.  Certainly, our expectation is that we will yet be with God after our time on earth is at an end, but our salvation is not limited to the afterlife.  In fact, our salvation has immediate consequences.  It creates an understanding that we are connected to one another, indeed that we are responsible for one another – and even the whole of creation. 

Throughout the letter to the Ephesians, we are encouraged to let go of personal agendas and anticipate the opportunity to build one another up in faith.  In fact, we are told that doing anything less is to work at cross-purposes with God.  So, we too must become open to a winnowing process to move us forward – past our anxieties and fears and into the embrace of God.

I love saying things like that – past our anxieties and fears and into the embrace of God and I think it is true and right and important to remember.  Yet our scriptures want us to remember that this faith – this belief that Jesus reveals the heart of God – is very hands on and very practical. 

Jesus wants us to know that he is the literal expression of the will of God.  Devotion to him will fulfill our innermost needs, yet he is also concerned with the very visceral experience of hunger and thirst.  Ultimately, I believe that this passage is about living in expectation of God’s providence.

And we know that God provides, because God has given us our faith in Jesus.  And Jesus offers us a way to understand everything in light of sacrificial love and forgiveness.  And that’s the truly beautiful part of the idea that our actions will echo in eternity. 

Think of it as a ripple in a pond.  Energy is transferred when the rock hits the water and sends waves across the pond.  Eventually the waves get further apart and become unrecognizable, but the energy that created them continues to spread.  According to Einstein’s law of conservation, energy never ends.  It simply changes form.

Ultimately, our actions are like that.  Ultimately they are consumed by God’s will so that all that remains is the love that inspires and moves us.  But, in the meantime, we do need to wrestle with the question of the immediate impact of our decisions.  I’m guessing that most of us will find that we are neither purely following God nor purely rebelling against God. 

Yet all of us – if we are honest – will find that our actions, our relationships, and our faith share a common bond.  And that is the desire to love as we have been loved.  That’s a lot easier to do in situations of charity.  Certainly we need to be generous.  Paul even tells us that our motivation for working should be so that we have something extra to give to the poor.  Still, the harder road is to submit to one another in order to build one another up in love and service.  That is the more difficult path, but we’ve done it before.  I believe we can do it still, but only if we can become aware of our limitations and nurture a love of God instead of a repeating old habits in new relationships.

In this way, we might yet become imitators of One who is so needed in this world; the One who is with us in all things yet so often ignored; the One who would even take the place of a rebellious child like me and you.

Because of this One – who is the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all that exists – what we do and say matters.  Yet ultimately, what matters most is that you are God’s beloved, that God works in and through us, and that it is through God’s love that everything – and everyone – is moved closer and closer toward redemption.  And to God be the glory for that, now and always. Amen.

Permanent or Perishable?

Whenever I read these passages that describe Jesus in conversation with a crowd, I must admit that I can’t help but think of it as a little bit like a Monty Python sketch.  I mean no disrespect to the Lord, or to the text.  It simply seems slightly comical to have a crowd speaking as one with Jesus.  I think that there is some implicit humor in the text, though.
They had all gotten in boats to follow him across the Sea of Galilee.  When they catch up to him they say something like, “Hey, Rabi.  Fancy meeting you here!”  Of course Jesus calls them to account by telling them that they are working awfully hard for something that is not going to last. 

That is the core of the Gospel teaching today – the tension between things that are temporary and things that are eternal.  All of us get caught up in that same struggle from time to time.  In fact, the struggle is so prevalent in our lives that everyone who has ever worked in retail knows how hard their employers work to motivate you, the customer, into confusion over needs and wants.  I can describe it in three words: end cap display.
These are the items at the end of the aisle in the grocery store that demonstrate sale prices for items that are obvious needs – like potato chips and Kevlar plated omelet pans.  Oh, we need these things because sometimes we just have to take care of ourselves, right?

It is true that we need to exercise self-care.  It is true that binge watching an entire season of commercial free TV and eating ice cream make you feel good when you are enjoying them.  Yet these types of things – whatever your vice may be – confuse the temporary with the eternal when they become something that we expect to give us meaning and purpose. 

That can be true of anything that we set up as something to orient our lives around.  Anything that becomes a primary center of value is essentially an idol.  And while my love of sci-fi might be a far cry from the sin of David, it can lead to the same place.  When David hears of the rich man who takes the poor man’s lamb without compassion, he condemns him.  When he realizes that he is as guilty, he does not say, “I have sinned against Uriah.”  Nor does he say, “I have sinned against Bathsheba.”  He says, “I have sinned against the Lord!”

Likewise, in our desire to be complete selves – or just in our efforts to feel better about things – we may find that we have forgotten about our relationships with those around us.  I’m not suggesting that we need to feel guilty for the choices that others make.  I am saying that we must consider how our choices impact others.  And when we find that we have been selfish or neglectful, it is good and right to realize that our sin is not just against our brother or sister.  It is against God.

Now, the idea that sin is not simply an individual thing but rather something that truly impacts the people of God and their relationship with God is found throughout the Old Testament, but it is particularly important for David as the anointed King of Israel.  And as followers of God’s anointed Messiah, it is particularly important for us.

And that is why Jesus wants us to understand the difference between things that are temporary and things that are permanent.  In the midst of this story about bread and hunger is the word work.  Jesus tells the crowd they are working for the bread that perishes rather than the bread endures for eternal life – which he will give them freely.
You can see their confusion.  “We should work for this bread that you’re going to give us?”  They must have gotten it a little bit, because they asked how they could perform the works of God.  “Perform” and “work” are literally the same word in the Greek text.  It’s as though they’ve picked up a new piece of tech and said, “How do you work this thing?”  And Jesus tells them that all they have to do is believe that he is the bread of heaven.

They respond by asking for a sign like when Moses fed the people with manna.  And Jesus simply clarifies to assure them that the manna came from Heaven, just as he had come from God.  Now, it’s important to remember that this story is on the heels of the Passover feast – a time when Jews remember their salvation from slavery in Egypt, and particularly from the plague of death that passed them by.  Jesus is essentially telling them that asking for more bread to eat is short sighted.  Asking for signs from the one whom they are following because he has healed them and fed them and demonstrated God’s love for them is simply missing the point.

Jesus is not simply the one who calls for bread or produces it.  Jesus is the One who is the bread.  He is the one who satisfies our deepest needs, who assures us of God’s presence in all things, and who pulls us into the eternal embrace of the One never lets us go. 
And to those of us who have heard this all before, Paul begs us to lead lives that are worthy of the gift of eternal life given to us by Jesus.  I have to admit, “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” is a little awkward for those of us that believe that our calling as a follower of Jesus is not a merit badge.  We don’t follow Jesus because we are the right kind of people.  We follow Jesus because we are deeply aware of our ability to mess things up, and because of our deep appreciation for the God who inspires us to greater heights!

And God not only inspires us – literally God’s indwelling Holy Spirit is the source of our greatest  thoughts and actions – but God gives us gifts in order to bind us together in love. These gifts are given to empower us in ministry and build the church – not the building or the institution, but the ever present witness to the active presence of God in this world!
Over the past five years the constant question has been, “How can we offer a more faithful witness to God’s grace in this community?”  Although that question can get old after a while, the good news is that this congregation has been asking and answering this question for 140 years. 

In fact, I recently came across a report from 1995 that attempted to answer the question of how well suited our facilities were for meeting the needs of the community around us.  That was the inspiration for the last renovation that resulted in a larger kitchen and renovated offices and meeting spaces.

While we continue to use these facilities to serve the community through our relationships with CUPS, Meals on Wheels, and the Living Sober AA group, we must continue to find ways to be in relationships with those in need, with those in power, and with those who God calls us to encourage and be encouraged by.

More than all of this – or perhaps at the heart of it all – I believe that in receiving forgiveness from the one who is from God we may come to see that all things are from God, even our challenges and limitations. All things, even horrible and terrible things, can draw us closer to God.  If we can remember the difference between the temporary and the permanent, then we can be assured that our sin will not define us, our challenges cannot confine us, and our trials will only refine us so that we become knit together as the body of Christ – which continues to grow in faith and in love.

As we come to the table today and say that the bread is Christ’s body which is broken for us, we are not simply remembering what Jesus did for us.  We are proclaiming what God is doing for us – here and now, in this place and every place.  Jesus is the bread of life, and we come knowing that our sins can no longer separate us from God.  Just as Paul begged those in Ephesus to lead lives worthy of their desire to follow Jesus, so he begs us now; not because we need to earn it, but because of what we have been given.

As we move from the table, I pray that we may continue to deepen our understanding of these gifts together, that we may continue to speak the truth in love, and that all who enter these doors will go out with a renewed understanding of the things that last.  Truly there are only two permanent things in this world.  The first is change.  People, places, even ideas and concepts that we believe to be facts can change.  The second thing is God’s love, which is unchanging.

So, let us frame all things in the unchanging love of God that has been expressed in Christ Jesus.  Let us celebrate the gifts God has given us through the church, and let us demonstrate the unchanging love of God when and where we can.  And to God be the glory, now and always.  Amen.