Sunday, May 25, 2008

Consider the Lilies

Consider the Lilies

Luke 12:22-31
Psalm 121
May 25, 2008
© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder

Consider the lilies, how they grow:
they neither toil nor spin;
yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory
was not clothed like one of these.
But if God so clothes the grass of the field,
which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven,
how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!

Experts in New Testament Greek agree, of all the gospel writers, Luke had the most fluid Greek writing style, suggesting a background of education and possibly a relatively high social standing. Like Paul, Luke was probably made constantly aware that the church for which he spoke had a high proportion of people who could no more write Greek than we could, who possessed very little material wealth, who came from backgrounds of poverty and oppression. Possibly through painful encounters with the implications of living the gospel, Luke became aware that it was not his church brethren that needed to learn from his highborn ways as much as it was he who needed to learn from them – even in the midst of their lack of wealth and what we today would call social security. The ancient world was thoroughly unacquainted with things like retirement plans, and life for the vast majority of people, on a material level, could be characterized as a rather desperate hold on what little material wealth they had.

With that kind of poverty in mind – the sort most of us can only imagine from fleeting images we may chance to see on the TV screen – we can learn with Luke from our brothers and sisters in the faith who live full lives in many places around the world, possessing only the tiniest fraction of the kind of material wealth we know. Luke’s gospel message, like ours, is spoken not to a poverty-stricken people in order to keep them in their place, but to a sophisticated world of people, filled with a kind of anxiety that rooms full of material goods can never ease. Knowing that, we may know how Luke understood Jesus’ words when he heard them, and why he passed them on.

We know that these words from the lips of Jesus are not about several things: They are not a reasoned argument against a struggle for self-sufficiency; They do not promote a passive do-nothing attitude in the face of adversity; They do not advocate fatalistic resignation; Most of all, they are not a club which wealthy people can use to beat poor folks over the head in order to keep them in their place. Rather, this passage is more like that most dreaded of examination questions from our school days: the “forced choice” question. Jesus the teacher would want to ask us to choose our ultimate loyalty between God and mammon, between a single-minded trust and an anxious distrust, and then make a case for our choice.

This passage is mostly about things that can be trusted, and serves as an encouragement to us to behave as if we believed these words were so.

Anyone who places even partial trust in material things – social position, personal achievement, earned run averages, won-loss records, Wall Street trends, Social Security, a ten-year-old automobile for midnight rides on I-15, their share of Daddy’s estate – knows the meaning of the word anxiety. It’s not that we can avoid involvement with material things, Social Security, or – many of us – ten year-old automobiles, any more than baseball players can avoid earned-run averages or Wall Street players can avoid the Dow Jones.

These words are not a hymn to resignation. They are an encouragement to remember what comes first. Seek first the kingdom of God. Things can be worried about at their own level of importance. To be a part of God’s kingdom puts some of life’s experiences in perspective, it is to know first of all that we are precious in God’s eyes.

Now that may sound like a pulpit cliché: “we are precious in God’s eyes.” But I doubt it sounds as much like one on a Memorial Day weekend as on some ordinary weekend. Jesus took great pains to let us know that it is so. He was aware that we possess a built-in reluctance to see it is so. Perhaps our reluctance has to do with a merit pay scale view of life. Any mother’s child knows that in this world we don’t get by on other peoples’ good will. What we receive is what we have earned. We may utter pious platitudes about believing in the essential goodness of people, but our experience often gives the lie to that sentiment.

From school days through retirement, modern life is a constant program of performance evaluation. High School transcripts, college transcripts and test scores provide means of entry into employment or professional school. And after all that, following the first few years in a career, job performance begins to outweigh records of academic achievement. Every major company has performance review for employees. Businesses stand or fall on their record of performance. One must earn the trust of creditors before securing a loan, and that respect comes mainly through means of good past performance on loans and payment schedules. How many times have we heard about some outstanding citizen who is said to have “earned the respect and admiration of his fellow citizens”?

Evaluation – measuring up – is part of life, as American as apple pie. We are so accustomed to the idea that everyone gets what they deserve that it is no wonder we are surprised when someone challenges that wisdom. In some ways, Jesus might as well have been speaking a foreign language when he uttered those words about anxiety over the material things of life. What else is there to get quite as anxious about? To our desperate daily chase after the security of material possessions, Jesus uttered a quiet and welcome word of grace.

Birds of the air do not plow fields or plant corn, yet our heavenly Father feeds them. The lilies of the field never had a cumulative grade point average of 3.9, but God sees to it that their clothing is more glorious than anything Paris Hilton has in her closet. If this is so, if mere birds and grass are subjects of God’s great concern, how much more the pride of his Creation, the people whom he has chosen to call his own?

Jesus took our normal expectations and turned them upside down. We might not like a merit payscale, but at least it’s familiar. We know how to act when someone asks us for two or three references. But the idea that God’s care is available to everyone without cost flies in the face of so much of what we spend our lives doing.

Our perspective may be like the story of the farmer and his pious pastor. The preacher looked at his beautifully cultivated field and exclaimed, “What you and God have accomplished!” The farmer replied, “You should have seen it when only God was working this field!”

How like us all that comment is: “I have worked for what I have. What part has God played in bringing home the weekly paycheck?” Yet we consistently miss the point if we think our lives are about our own hard work, or overeating, or a three-day weekend, or even a time to be with family.

Our word from Luke is a word of trust as the best remedy for anxiety.

It’s interesting that our money declares for all the world to see, “In God We Trust”... but it’s the US Treasury Department, not God, that puts its good faith behind our currency. One joker said, “In God we trust: all others pay cash.” Even so, even in its secular, compromised sort of way, that simple declaration on coins and folding money is a way of admitting the limited sort of assurance that money can provide when we start throwing around words like trust.

Those who have lost everything and survived to tell about it generally mention trust in something beyond the material realm in the story of their survival. Psalm 121 is generally loved for the wrong reason. You remember it, it begins with an interrogative statement:

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From whence does my help come?

It is not – and this is important – a declarative statement:

I lift up my eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.

That is because our help does not, ultimately, come from hills or dales or big bank accounts or even lean ones. Our help does not come from beautiful mountain settings, nor lush golf course greens, nor libraries full of books, nor the latest computer system, nor safety deposit boxes filled with securities. No, Luke and the Psalmist with him want to remind us – since we are so prone to forget it – our “help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” That trust in God is just about the only trust worthy of the name. Nothing less will do. Not for long.

I’ll close today with some thoughtful words from an old hymn text by William Cowper1 – a paraphrase of Luke and the prophet Habakkuk2:

[Tomorrow] can bring with it nothing
But God will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe the people too:
Beneath the spreading heavens
No creature but is fed;
And God who feeds the ravens
Will give his children bread.

And just in case lean times threatened the understanding of this hymn, he continued:

Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit shall bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there;
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice,
For while in Him confiding
I cannot but rejoice.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 “Joy and Peace in Believing,” #48, Olney Hymns, Glasgow: William Collins & Co., Printers, 1843, p. 332.
2 Habakkuk 3:17-18.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Shining Lights and Dim Bulbs

Shining Lights and Dim Bulbs
Matthew 5:14-16

A Sermon for the Class of 2008
Baccalaureate Service
Schreiner University, Kerrville, Texas
© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder
May 10, 2008

You are the light of the world.
A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
No one after lighting a lamp puts it
under the bushel basket,

but on the lampstand,
and it gives light to all in the house.
In the same way, let your light shine before others,
so that they may see your good works
and give glory to your Father in heaven.

We all know what a special day this is on which we are gathered, and I just want to pay homage to it by wishing you an early Happy Mother’s Day! Just in case any of you graduating scholars thought this weekend was intended to be entirely about you, I might suggest, if your mom has been able to be here to celebrate this weekend with you, that you take at least a moment today or tomorrow to slip out to a flower shop or candy store. Then you really will be the light of the world - of her world anyway.

The impact behind Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 5 reinforces a theme declaring that whatever else may be true about our lives of discipleship, it is true that our lives are not all about us. This is a pretty good word to hear from him, a counterpoint, I suspect, on a day that is really and rightfully pretty much given over to being about you, as you graduate from Schreiner.

When Jesus spoke the words about being the light of the world, he was speaking to people who lived in tiny one-room homes, where the only source of light after sunset was typically a small oil lamp, made from fired clay, with a single flame, about the size of a small candle flame. It would have been set on a lampstand in the middle of the room to give its little light to the entire house. We can imagine how small a light it would give, a single flame in the midst of total darkness. But imagine how futile it would be, as Jesus said, to light such a lamp, and then hide it under a basket. Why would anyone do such a foolish thing? One might as well not light the lamp at all!

Now his point, and mine today, is that our lives may be compared to those oil lamps. My light is not meant for me alone. Nor is yours. Your light - and your life - are meant to be set on a lampstand to give light to others as well as yourself. It sounds simple enough, but it is a lesson our culture has great difficulty learning. I hope your generation learns it better than mine has.

Let your light shine before others. Ours is not a time that has been entirely kind to the idea of the calling of individuals to serve the greater good of the community, though I think your generation may have a better recognition of this communitarian spirit than mine has. But in every generation there is always a temptation to turn away from the idea of service to the community and turn inward.

When Jesus said “You are the light of the world,” he used the plural “you,” as in “all of you are the light of the world.” Here in Texas, the plural form of you still lives in our typically colloquial southern term, “y’all.” The word in Matthew 5 is not addressed to individuals, but to the group that had gathered to listen to Jesus’ sermon. “Y’all are the light of the world,” he said. He might even have said, “All y’all.” A disciple whose light and witness are entirely a personal matter is not a disciple by the measure of these words of Matthew 5.

Jesus phrased his affirmation of us, “You all are the light of the world,” in the present tense. Believers are just what we are. Light is light. A candle doesn’t have to go to light school to learn how to do it. It is as much in the nature of our being as believers to love one another and be light for each other as it is in the nature of light to be bright. It can’t be anything else.

Jesus also said “You are the salt of the earth.” Both salt and light have in common that their form and function are the same. This isn’t true of very many things. A kitchen table can serve as a desk for homework or a stool to stand on and change a light bulb. But salt and light stop being what they are if they do anything different. As Jesus observed, if salt stops tasting like salt, functioning chemically as salt, it stops being salt. If light behaves any differently it stops being light. And if we turn our backs on each other, turn inward, give up on the mutual obligations we all share in building a society, then we have stopped being light, salt, stopped being what we were and have become something else altogether.

And why do we do this, why are we called to be salt of the earth, light of the world, and moreover, why do we respond?

It’s because of “A.M.D.G.”1 We let our lights shine before others because of A.M.D.G. Those four letters were scrawled across the top of every one of J.S. Bach’s music manuscripts. They formed the personal motto of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Often, in older churches, the letters A.M.D.G. appear above or on everything from organ pipes to stained glass windows to furniture.

And A.M.D.G. circumscribes the reason that disciples do what we do, they form the purpose behind Jesus’ words to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. A.M.D.G. helps us remember that what we do and the lives we pursue are not about us. The reason this university stands on these grounds is not to bring glory to students, administration or faculty. Schreiner is here because of A.M.D.G.

A.M.D.G. was the prime motivation in the establishment of some 62 Presbyterian Colleges and universities and 10 theological seminaries in the USA, in addition to Schreiner. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a pretty small denomination, so that’s a lot of motivation. It was also the motivation behind Jesus’ ministry, behind every bake sale to raise money for missions, behind the work of countless teachers, preachers, engineers, physicians, lawyers, elders and deacons and others in places familiar to us and remote places where we are never likely to venture.

Jesus declares Let your light shine… but then comes “one of those Jesus stealth-zingers”2: so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. A.M.D.G., letters which appear around all sorts of human efforts in churches and schools, are an abbreviation for a Latin phrase: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam - “To the Greater Glory of God.” They serve as a reminder which human beings need far more often than we’d care to admit, that this life, this world, thousands of hospitals and schools, even this university, they are not all about us, but they are, in the end, all about the glory of God.

Let your light shine before others. In a city where I used to live there was a wonderful old family-owned camera store. Such businesses are mostly relics of the past now. The digital era of photography has pretty much put these places out of business. Still I will always remember that shop, which itself had been there for decades, had been handed down for a couple of generations in one family. The owner I knew then was a man named Keith. Keith was a one-of-a-kind individual, and I used to go into his shop all the time. I bought film there - in case any of us can remember when cameras needed film - had it developed there, shopped for photographic gadgets there, and swapped stories with Keith there because he was, not incidentally, a fine professional photographer. I remember a conversation I had with a friend who discovered that I did all my photographic shopping there, and he said to me, “Why on earth do you go there to buy film and have it developed? Cameras and supplies are cheaper at the big box store and even cheaper if you order them through the mail. Why go to Keith’s for the privilege of buying photo supplies at full list price?”

I replied, “I take my photo needs to Keith, because when you buy camera supplies there, you don’t just get stuff - which as you are so right in saying, you can get anywhere - you get Keith. And Keith is worth the price.” Keith lit his little light in that store, and then he let it shine for others to see and be guided by it.

Let your light shine before others. I pray that each of us gathered here this day will find that letting our lights shine before others so that they will see the good we do, and give glory to God, will form part of our life’s calling.

And, dear graduates, ours appears to me to be a world that could well use the light you have to bring. The task for all of us now is to pray that in today’s leave-taking you will light your lights and let them shine so that those who see your good works will give glory to God.

It is time for that, time to give glory to God, class of 2008. Your time. Light up your lights. And let them shine - in God’s good time, and in God’s good name. God bless you, and Godspeed. Amen.

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Thanks to Michael Lindvall for this idea, from his sermon “A.M.D.G.”, preached at Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City, 10/16/2005.
2 Ibid.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

When Called by a Panther

When Called by a Panther
© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
Seventh Sunday of Easter: May 4, 2008
I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

The panther is like a leopard,
Except it hasn't been peppered.
Should you behold a panther crouch,
Prepare to say Ouch.
Better yet, if called by a panther,
Don't anther. — Ogden Nash

Sometimes we pick up the newspaper or turn on the television news only to hear news of atrocities and murder, violence, and we may say to ourselves and others that it is shocking. But are we shocked? Most of us have become so accustomed to reports of the violent cruelty of our world that we only half listen even to the most horrible reports. Perhaps that is because each of them is invariably followed by “And now this...” after which follow ads about antacids, new cars, or fast food.

Our news is trivialized by the very media which bring it to us. Still, when tragedy or injustice strike us personally, or diminish some member of our family, then we are still capable of a state of disbelief. “How could this happen? If only I had seen it coming...”

1st Peter expresses some thoughts on the extreme social and family costs that were incurred by new Christian believers in the first century, yet he found nothing strange in fiery ordeals that overtook the people of the first churches. After all, Peter was weaned from family, career, home, and even the faith of his parents by his own emerging commitment to Christ. The letter is written from experience: “Don’t be surprised,” it says, “as though something strange were happening to you.”

Commonly, people take any touble as a sign of God’s absence, a strange and unexpected signal that God has turned his back on us. 1st Peter says, “Don’t be surprised.” If we have read the paper, seen the news, how can we be surprised at further evidence that life can be cruel?

But here 1st Peter and common wisdom part ways. Common wisdom might say we should not be surprised at the cruelties of humanity, because that’s the way human beings are. But our scripture describes the events of human experience in the world as a contest of sorts. Goodness and evil do not emerge into an otherwise neutral world. Rather, the emergence of one lays claim to moral territory previously assumed to be in thrall to the other; acts of goodness bring upon themselves reactions from those who stand to profit by cruel or bullying behavior. Moral neutrality is not an option in 1 Peter.

We can be sure that an appeal to the goodness of God does not appear in a morally neutral world, but rather exists as a challenge to those who believe they stand to lose wherever goodness stands to gain.

A distant example: if the drug warlords of Central and South America were left alone to ply their trade, we might not hear much about it except for the evil effects on drug addicted people here in the states. Yet, inevitably, judges who dare to dispense justice in those countries are murdered in the streets, prosecutors and their families are executed. The assertion of goodness never comes into a neutral world, but will inevitably be perceived as a threat to those who have organized their lives around another loyalty. “Don’t be if something strange were happening to you...” The advice sounds strangely modern. There is nothing strange or particularly modern about suffering and evil.

1 Peter creates a telling image. He said that our faithfulness may be challenged by one who strikes with the ferocity of a roaring lion on the prowl, looking for dinner. Yet, astonishingly, verse 9 gives us this encouragement: “Resist him”!

Resist a lion? Doesn’t the very image of the prowling lion call to mind the powerlessness of the early believers, thrown to hungry beasts in the gladiatorial arena in Rome? “Better yet, if called by a panther, don’t anther.” Peter’s words may call to mind the lions’ den in the book of Daniel. “Resist!” What an instruction! And, of course, the natural question to follow is: “How?”

Here’s “what” that we have been given. 1st Peter says, “You know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” The power of resistance is intensified exponentially once we remember we are not in this alone, that the power of the gospel, of goodness, asserts itself around the world. No temporary, local setback will extinguish its light.

20 years ago, when Presbyterian missionary professor Ben Weir was imprisoned by Shiite militants in Lebanon,1 he reported that one of his chief comforts during dreary months of captivity was to save a bit of his weekly bread ration, and on Sundays, in his solitary cell, break and eat it while remembering that Christian brothers and sisters all over the world were doing the same, celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Knowing that others celebrate the same Lord overcomes fear, reminds us that our trials are temporary, that we may call at will on the power of One who is eternal.

1st Peter tells us that God will establish us. The Greek word used there, translated here as “established,” is the one Jesus used when he spoke about the difference between a house with a foundation built on rock and one founded on sand;2 it is the word John used when he spoke about the foundation stones of the heavenly city in Revelation;3 it is the word Paul used when he told the believers in Corinth that the call of a church planter is to lay the right foundation, namely Jesus Christ.4

What are we to do, then, when we are surrounded by lions? We are to remember the very thing on which our faith, our very lives have been built: Jesus Christ. There is no greater way to be established in our faith, to be supported, strengthened, and restored, than to be part of a mutually supportive fellowship of believers, and to find ourselves in the midst of our family of faith.

During the War of 1812 a British warship arrived in Massachusetts to send five boats full of soldiers to take an undefended town. The commander on the warship knew that their success depended on the town’s lack of preparation. As his boats drew near to land they heard a fife and drum on shore. Everyone knew that a fife and drum were used to rally a local militia. Cursing his luck, the commander called back the boats and the warship sailed away. In fact, there had been no militia, just two young daughters of the lighthouse keeper playing fife and drum. The rest of the townfolk had fled in the night. A roaring lion may look like an unbeatable adversary, but the memory of a loving fellowship can provide enough foundation to sustain us, to “establish” us in our faith.

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Hostage Bound, Hostage Free, by Ben Weir, Carol Weir, and Dennis Benson, © 1987, Lutterworth Press.
2 Matthew 7:25 (also Luke 6:48).
3 Revelation 21:14.
4 I Corinthians 3:10-12.