Sunday, September 28, 2008

Low Carb Faith

Low Carb Faith

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Romans 14:1-12

Some believe in eating anything,
while the weak eat only vegetables.

I guess they had different things to argue about in churches in Paul’s day than ours, like what was on the after-church supper menu. The weak eat only vegetables...? Come again? How is it that vegetarianism was singled out as a sign of weakness? Was Paul an Atkins diet guy, a three-meal-a-day meat eater, a man of low-carb faith? This is one of those times when it’s important to know the story behind the story.

Paul’s words refer to folks in the first century church who would eat only vegetables because they had religious scruples involved with the consumption of meat, most likely meat that was first offered to idols in pagan temples, then sold in the open markets afterward, a common practice by which temple priests raised money. The problem with consumption of meat from the markets was that you could never be sure that the meat you had purchased hadn’t first been offered up as a sacrifice to a pagan god. So some folks decided to forego meat altogether. We know that Paul wasn’t one of them, in fact he seemed to see it as a sign of weak faith: since he didn’t believe pagan gods existed, he had no problem eating meat, regardless of the source.

The issue seems distant from us now, doesn’t it? As with many church controversies over time, this one eventually faded into virtual irrelevance.

Church people across the centuries are famous for our ability to major in minors. If it was decided that meat-eating was inferior to vegetable eating, what would come next? Vegetable comparison, that’s what: broccoli’s superiority to celery, maybe, or green beans over summer squash.

A low carb carnivore himself, Paul nevertheless saw the need to change the subject.

I love the way our passage begins, the first word of Paul’s instruction to them is one of my favorite New Testament words: “Welcome.” Now, we all want to think of ours as a welcoming church, though it strikes some people, I know it does, as a side issue, not the main thing. But it is not a side issue in the New Testament. Just check the forms of the word “welcome” in any Bible concordance and see how busy it keeps you looking up all the references. My concordance lists 59 places in The New Testament where it is used. It is used more frequently than the word “praise” in the New Testament, more than “compassion,” more than “healing,” and more than “comfort.”

This is good news, really. It’s likely that few of us think of ourselves as healers, probably not many claim to be world-class praisers or are recognized for the vast comfort and compassion we hand out to others. But what does it take to be a welcomer? Well, not all that much, just about anyone can do it, all it requires is an extended hand, a heart that is opened just a crack wider, and perhaps saying the word out loud to others every now and then: “Welcome.” Not a difficult task, yet it receives very high praise as an act of pure gospel in the New Testament.

Undervalued, that’s what I think it is. So, Paul says, “Welcome...” But welcome whom? If we are supposed to throw the door open, run out the red carpet, get the guest room ready, whom is it for? Well, that’s the difficult part in the church, isn’t it? Church is like family, you don’t get to choose your family, your family chooses you, at least sort-of. First our family chooses us, then they are stuck with us. In the church, we are the collection of people who have decided to throw our lot in together in this place to be a church. Maybe we have an idea of the way our fellow church members ought to look, how they ought to act, what sort of clothes they should wear, the kind of manners they should have when they are here, whether or not they should have bacon and eggs or granola for breakfast, and maybe sometimes we look around ourselves here in this sanctuary and mutter under our breath, “Well, whatever I had in mind for the way a church family should look, this sure isn’t it!”

Paul reminds us with that opening word that welcome comes before everything else. We don’t get to choose the way our church family looks because welcome is the first word, not some qualifying test. You are welcome here. Sit wherever you like, there are no reserved seats. Whoever you are, whatever baggage — literal or figurative — you carry in here, you are welcome. Maybe you favor a different hairstyle, maybe you like to say your prayers in Portuguese, or Gaelic, maybe you wear the same tie every Sunday, maybe you don’t own a tie, maybe your blouse could stand ironing, maybe you have just a tad too much starch in your blouse, maybe you find gospel hymns objectionable, maybe gospel hymns are your favorites, maybe you prefer a church filled with stained glass windows, maybe you prefer a church with no windows, maybe you think the organ music is too loud, maybe you think the organ music can’t be loud enough, maybe you wish the ministers would do away with their black robes, maybe its the robes that make you feel you are in church, maybe you think a hundred other things and others think a hundred things that are just the opposite.

No matter, the first word to us, as it was to those Romans in this 14th chapter, is “welcome.” If we were to wonder about our main task in the church, we wouldn’t have to go a lot further than that one word.

Now, what was Paul adding to that word? Well, just the sort of thing I have been describing. The Roman church was filled with Presbyterians, people who were entirely willing to disagree about anything and everything. Some in the church had been Jews, some had been pagans, some may have been a mixture of the two. Some members might have had scruples about eating meat because most of the meat you could buy had first been offered at one of the hundreds of pagan shrines. So some would just rather not eat meat than chance to eat something which had been made an offering to a god they didn’t believe existed.

Of course, being Presbyterians, others disagreed, saying that meat offered to gods they didn’t believe existed anyway would do no harm, so they ate meat. Paul called the vegetarians the ones who were “weak in faith.” Sounds pretty critical on first glance, but there is another way to look at it. Paul wrote to the Corinthians also and he used this word “weak” this way: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world...”1

Hmmm, it sounds as though weakness comes with higher recommendations than we might first have thought. There’s more: Paul also wrote, “For [Christ] was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.”2 Paul also wrote, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”3

So when he counsels us to welcome those who are weak in faith, it could just be that their weak faith has eclipsed what we thought was the strongest part of our own. The lesson in that is that we are not worth much to the kingdom on our own, we are meant to be a sociable church, an hospitable community of saints, a gathering of the faithful, not a collection of lone rangers who pay each other little heed, and reserve contempt for those we judge to be weaker or lesser in some way.

Here is the rub: Paul said, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” Wow, how lucky for them, the Lord will come along and make them stand, unlike those of us who are able to stand on our own, that wouldn’t be it, would it? No, standing on our own strength is definitely not the main subject of the gospel, not even encouraged in its dark little side chapels. No, before God all are the weak ones, is that not true?

Anyone who thinks they are strong enough to stand before God will one day learn their error. How wonderful that Paul encouraged the building of a fellowship that recognized this from the outset, and set about creating the church as an hospitable place where the welcome did not wait until we became strong, the seat in the pews is not reserved for those who already know their Bible, the singing of the songs is not the personal and private domain of those who know the songs of faith already. If you are today in a church for the very first time ever, you cannot be any less welcome than the person who has occupied a pew in church every single Sunday for the past fifty years.

Paul said, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.” Exactly. If we did, who would need a church? Who would need welcome, who would need to gather? Faith would be a matter of thinking good thoughts, or obeying certain rules, but it would be something we would accomplish on our own. No, Paul says we do not live to ourselves, and it is a lesson that no people on earth have a harder time learning than Americans, who like to think of ourselves as up-by-our-bootstraps people, self-made, rugged individualists. In the face of this sort of thinking, Paul simply holds up a mirror of ourselves in our death masks. “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

The only hope for us is that we live and we die to the Lord. We throw ourselves on the mercy of God in our living and in our dying, and we join in humility with others in the fellowship, whether their hair is parted the way we like it or not, like a beleaguered ship full of sailors for whom the only hope is the Lord who calms the sea for them and leads them safely home.

Why is welcome such an important word? Why do we do this thing, why do we say hello to each other and offer blessings as our first act of worship, why are we called so forcefully to be a fellowship of welcome and hospitality? It is because we have been welcomed. Carrying a load of trouble? We are welcome in this place where we may set our troubles down. Burdened by a backlog of bad things in our lives which we regret? We are welcome here, regrets and all. This is our home because we have nothing to prove here, only our humble prayer for the love of God and our extension of that love to each other is needed here. That is why we do what we do, for the love of God.

Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 I Corinthians 1:26-29
2 II Corinthians 13:4
3 II Corinthians 11:30

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Do No Harm

Do No Harm

copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder
September 21, 2008
Matthew 18:6-14

Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones.

I recently read that back in some of the bad old days of professional baseball’s Minnesota Twins — one of those forgettable seasons when they were losing lots of games — the team was in the middle of long losing streak on the road, and the manager, Tom Kelly, announced, “Before the game tomorrow there will be two buses leaving the hotel for the field. The 2:00 bus will be for those of you who need a little extra practice. The empty bus will be leaving at 5:00.”

Last week we looked with Pastor Linda at the verses prior to this week’s lesson, in which Jesus called a child and placed the child in the midst of the disciples, reminding them that greatness in the kingdom of God is measured by our care for the weak and powerless ones in our midst. Remembering this takes a lot of practice, looking to the almost invisibly weak ones in our midst is not something that comes without effort.

So today, we move into Jesus’ teaching, knowing that the words “little ones” refer to more than children. The symbol of the helpless child in our midst is meant to open our eyes to the presence of any “little people” in our company, the ones the world tends to overlook in its haste to be impressed by those who find themselves impressive. Jesus presents some of his most vivid teaching in regard to this commitment to the least, last, and lost among us.

Have you ever felt out of place in some situation? Invited to the company party as a new employee, you found yourself standing off to one side, nursing a drink, no one talking to you, too afraid of rejection to initiate a conversation. Does that sound familiar? Coming to a strange church for the first time, you venture to the coffee fellowship time only to discover that it appears everyone but you knows someone there and you feel like a fifth wheel, so you slip quietly out a side door?

It’s not just coffee-chatter social situations that give us that out-of-place feeling. On any given Sunday in this sanctuary I would dare say there are people present who feel out of place and who have been fighting against a strong impulse to stay home or leave. It is so easy to think everyone else has it all together in their lives when we see each other all scrubbed clean, wearing our good clothes, sporting happy-looking smiles. We forget there are people among us who are facing the possibility of unemployment, whose marriages are hanging by a thread, whose children have just presented them with the worst news of their lives, who have a loved one facing death, who can’t remember how to pray. We forget the church is not about greatness but about humble service to the least, last, and lost among us, which at one time or another will likely be any one of us.

Our worship should always carry that element. Our culture encourages the alternative idea that the purpose of worship has to do with what I get out of it. I hear that phrase a lot, a lot more than I like anyway. “I didn’t get anything out of the sermon,” or “I didn’t get anything out of the hymns we sang this morning,” or “I didn’t get anything out the prayers today.” Here’s a news flash I have mentioned before, we weren’t praying to you. Where do we get this idea that the worship of the church of God is about what we “get out of it” as individuals? You won’t find that phrase, “what I get out of it,” much less the sentiment it expresses, anywhere in scripture. Yet to hear some folks talk, you’d think it had replaced John 3:16 as the most well-known verse of the Bible.

What we put into it, now that is a whole other matter. That would be a fun exercise to try. “You know pastor, as I listened to your sermon, what I put into it was this thought...” or “as I sang that hymn, what I put into it was the biggest sound I could make,” or “during the prayer, what I put into it was a special prayer for my aunt Edna...” Never mind what we are getting out of worship today, what are we putting into it? Worship in some consumer-oriented churches, churches that have been advised by focus groups and success-driven church management people about what people want, are all about “what I get out of it.” But the worship of the Church of God is different than the worship of the church of Rob. The worship of this church is for the whole people gathered here. The individual’s thing is not the only thing, or even the main thing. That sounds almost like heresy in an era of personal computers and single serving frozen dinners, but the fact is that worship is not essentially about entertaining and instructing individuals. It is not mostly about getting what I want or think I need. The hard news is that it is not just for me. It’s not about what I believe, it’s about what we, the community of Christ, believe together.

If that is true, then we will see the utter, complete necessity of turning toward the least, last, and lost among us. It is such an absolutely necessary attitude in the fellowship of the church that Jesus resorted to the strongest sort of hyperbole in order to make his point. “Does your hand cause you to stumble? Cut it off! How about your eye? Pluck it out!” This language travels down the difficult road of hyperbole and metaphor, with severed body parts littering the imaginary landscape. Some of you may know that when students are going through trials for ordination to become pastors in our denomination, there comes a time when they must stand before the gathered Presbytery and answer any question the presbyters — elders and pastors — see fit to ask. It can be a terrifying occasion. One age old question, sometimes asked, comes right from our reading. One bright day a young candidate for ministry was asked it, “Would you be willing to suffer great personal injury for the glory of God?” After having suffered other pompous, self-satisfied questions of a few members of Presbytery assembled there, he replied smartly, “Sir, I would be willing for this whole Presbytery to suffer some great injury if it would glorify God!”

When Jesus says it would be better for some terrible thing to happen — that an arm or an eye should be lost — than to miss the opportunity to follow Jesus, the emphasis is meant to be on the incomparable joy of being in the community of Christ and not on the amputation. To know Jesus is wonderful, so wonderful that if a person knew how wonderful, he or she would sacrifice extravagantly in order to know him. When one of our friends says, “I wouldn’t miss my son’s graduation for anything,” we don’t usually follow up their claim saying, “Really, would you give up your house? Your family? Your career?” We know they are speaking hyperbolically. The point is not that our friend will arrive at the graduation ceremony destitute and in rags, without eyes or hands. The point is that they think it would simply be one of life’s not-to-be-missed moments. In the same way, there is nothing on earth of more value than being part of the kingdom, and opening that doorway for others. It is something not to be missed, worth whatever we may have to sacrifice to obtain it.

The thing to know in regard to the weak ones in our midst is that there is nothing in the kingdom scale of items of importance that stands ahead of taking care of the ones who are little in faith, little in ability, little in knowledge, little in experience. Nothing the church fellowship can think to do is more important than welcome and encouragement for those who have little or nothing to offer in return, nothing surpasses the importance of opening the door, of making way for those whom the world scorns as of little or no significance. Jesus really couldn’t be more clear about this. But he went on to try. He shared the wonderful little parable of the lost sheep that was part of our reading. He introduced the parable by declaring, “I tell you that [the angels of these little ones] always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.” Whatever he may have meant by that comment about angels, it at least seems clear “that it is precisely the little, and not the big, who have an abiding relationship with God.”1

When Clarence Jordan produced his Southern vernacular Cotton Patch translation of Matthew almost 40 years ago now, he rendered Jesus’ little parable this way:

[Jesus said] “How do you see it? If a man owns a hundred sheep and one of them strays off, won’t he leave the ninety-nine in the pasture and go look after the stray? And when he finds it, I’m sure that he’s more proud of it than of the ninety-nine that didn’t stray. That’s exactly the way it is with your spiritual Father. He doesn’t want a single one of those little people to be abandoned.”2

Every now and then we need to re-ask ourselves Jesus’ question from the Shepherding 101 class exam: “If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” Would a good, fiscally responsible shepherd leave 99 healthy but vulnerable sheep to manage on their own for a while as he went looking for one that was lost? We have to answer no, don’t we? Who would be crazy enough to hire a shepherd that answered yes?

This serves to remind us that kingdom economics concerning people are not like the economics of the world, the economics we are accustomed to. The very least Jesus expects of us is that we not provide stumbling blocks that drive the odd sheep into the wilderness. It is the odd sheep, the one who seems not to fit, the person who seems most like a nobody in a room full of presumptive somebodies, that person is the very favorite in God’s eyes. And woe to those who do not do all they can to see these things the way God sees them.

copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1 The Parables of Grace, by Robert Farrar Capon, Eerdmans, (Grand Rapids: 1988), p. 36.
2 The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John, by Clarence Jordan, Follett Publishing Co., (Chicago: 1970), p. 61.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

On Breathing and Praising

On Breathing and Praising
Fourth in a Series of Sermons on the Psalms

Copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time: September 7, 2008

Psalm 150

We once counted the words up in a Bible study I led, and found that the word “praise” is used 12 to 13 times in Psalm 150, depending on the translation we read. Apart from the beginning and ending exclamations of praise, there are ten phrases that begin with the word “praise.” Possibly there are that number of sentences beginning with that word to serve as a sort of memory device. A youngster could learn about praising God by counting off the ten praises on ten fingers. We could try it:

Where should we praise the Lord?
[1] Praise God in his sanctuary;
[2] praise him in his mighty firmament!
Why should we praise God?
[3] Praise him for his mighty deeds;
[4] praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
How should we praise God?
[5] Praise him with trumpet sound;
[6] praise him with lute and harp!
[7] Praise him with tambourine and dance;
[8] praise him with strings and pipe!
[9] Praise him with clanging cymbals;
[10] praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

Then, of course, there is the little addendum letting us know who is invited to the praise party: “everything that breathes,” which, at last count, was just about everyone, “praise the Lord.” And did you notice that the “where” question was answered with two phrases, the “why” question with two phrases? The “how” question, though, was answered with six phrases referring to eight different musical instruments and the earliest-known version of the Jitterbug. Throughout the Old Testament, dance is associated with joy and celebration, and probably played a big part in worship in the Jerusalem Temple. The psalmist was pretty excited about music as a means of praise, and the description of musical instruments for worship here is extravagant.

Some folks once declared — and some still believe — that we ought not have keyboard instruments in church, since they aren’t mentioned in the Bible. What a humorless reading of the intention of this psalm that is! The psalm doesn’t refer to pianos and pipe organs — along with saxophones, English horns, bells, piccolos, zithers, harmonicas and electric bass guitars — only because they hadn’t been invented yet. The list of instruments in the psalm is certainly not meant to be exhaustive but suggestive. We are meant to see that real praise involves a lot of music on the widest possible array of music-makers. Picturing this psalm being sung in the Jerusalem Temple, I have in mind an enthusiastic celebration, plenty of volume, and lots of shouting, singing and dancing.

In my English translation, I count only 71 words altogether in the whole psalm. There are even fewer in Hebrew, only 34 words, since in Hebrew you can say a lot with a single word. And you already know the Hebrew word for praise, did you realize that? That’s right, it is the word “hallelu,” as in “hallelujah!” The other part of hallelujah in Hebrew simply means, “the Lord.” So if you knew the word “hallelujah,” you already knew a complete Hebrew sentence, maybe without even realizing it. Out of 34 Hebrew words which make up this psalm, 13 have the word “hallelu” or “praise” built into them. 12 of the sentences actually begin with that word. It seems clear to me that if we have any intention of getting the most out of Psalm 150, we’re going to have to know about praising!

Perhaps, like most one-syllable words, we think we know what “praise” is when we hear it, but do we really? Did you know that the original meaning of the English word “praise” is “to set a price on”? That’s right, it is a form of the word “appraise,” as in “appraisal,” which anyone who owns a house in this state already knows plenty about. So, for a long time, the word “praise” required other modifiers to make its meaning clear in context. If it meant “price,” then words had to be attached to let us know if our “appraisal” should be high or low. So we hear about “high praise,” “faint praise,” and so on. Knowing the root of our English word, at least we know our word for “hallelu” has to do with value. But the Hebrew word is much richer.

Terms associated with “hallelu” in the Hebrew Bible are such words as “glorify,” “magnify,” “extol,” “bless,” and “rejoice.”

Every believer has to answer the reporters’ questions in regard to our own praises of God. But before we get to asking about where or how, probably we need to have some sense of why. Why praise? Why God? Why me? Psalm 150 dismisses the question with two short phrases: praise God because of his deeds and because of who God is. That may seem less than satisfying, but remember, Psalm 150 follows 149 other psalms with lots of other reasons given for praising God: because, according to previous psalms, by God’s word heavens and earth were created,1 by God’s action, Israel was freed from Egypt,2 because God’s nature is to seek justice for the oppressed and give food to the hungry,3 God turns grieving to dancing and clothes people with joy,4 he grants forgiveness,5 he made known his law to Moses to help guide our lives.6

Why praise God? “Tell me why you love me,” we ask of those who claim to love us. And when they start their list, if it is really love, the explanation soon sounds ridiculous. Explain why there is air, why honey tastes sweet, why the laugh of a baby is so pleasant, why a burst of sunshine after a rainy cool winter day is so refreshing. Eventually all our whys move toward praise because simple thank-yous for specific things just don’t seem to be enough. Words don’t seem enough either, so when we feel praise coming on — whether at a football game or because of a loving kiss — we feel moved toward music and our feet want to dance. When it comes to praise, the arts — music, poetry, and dance — have it all over logic and rhetoric. So where the psalter begins with a celebration of the law in Psalm 1, it ends in Psalm 150 with an adoring celebration of the One who gave the law.

The very first Psalm. Do you remember how it goes? “Blessed are those...whose delight is in the law of the Lord.” The law is about obedience, and before we can do very much about loving God, we first have to know what it means to be obedient — even if the main thing we learn from that is how very disobedient we’ve been. That is what the law is for. But obedience is not the end toward which God is moving us, not ultimately. God is not like the wife of Rumpole of the Bailey, not some fanatical tin pot dictator who requires nothing so much as that she be obeyed. The psalms have moved from the opening in obedience to this closing in praise, because God seeks to move people toward adoration, toward celebration, toward the happy realization that we have a great God who loves us beyond our capacity to absorb it or understand it.

When a young man says he worships the ground his girl walks on, it is pretty obvious that his feelings toward that girl are strong, captivating, that he is overcome by her. Contrast that with our own experiences sometimes when we say we have been in worship. Same word, very different meaning. Rather than strong feelings, we may have failed to feel anything at all; far from being captivated by our love of God, we may only be aware of having been distracted; instead of being overcome, we may have been casual and half-hearted in our worship. Someone once said that, on the whole, the topic of God’s love for us is a great deal safer than the topic of our love for God.

Yet even in our callous, half-hearted distraction, God never fails to love us. Every now and then, the truth of that comes home to us in all its stunning reality, and we sit down and write hymns with titles like “Amazing Grace,” “On Our Way Rejoicing,” “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” We find ourselves in that one certain worship service where worship was, finally, the right word. Every now and then, our praise of God truly sets us free, we really feel it, and we know what it is to sing and to dance and to give heartfelt thanks to God.

A psalm of praise, like Psalm 150, doesn’t express the only mood appropriate to the Christian life. After all, there are many other psalms, psalms of lament, psalms of hope, psalms of supplication and intercession. Yet when all is said and done, the One to whom we have addressed all our laments, hopes, supplications and intercessions is worthy of our praise.

Today is a good day to praise the Lord. And I hope that all our worship together can be characterized by praise. The psalm says that everything that breathes should be caught up in the praise of God. It’s the least we can offer to a Lord as great as ours.

Copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1 Psalm 33:6-7.
2 Psalm 66:6.
3 Psalm 146:7.
4 Psalm 30:11.
5 Psalm 32:5.
6 Psalm 103:7.