Sunday, April 27, 2008

Account for the Hope In You

Account for the Hope In You

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder
Sixth Sunday of Easter: April 27, 2008

I Peter 3:13-22

Always be ready to make your defense
to anyone who demands from you

an accounting for the hope that is in you.

What are you afraid of? People are afraid of different things and have different reactions to their fears. There was a story told about a couple fleeing in their night clothes to a bomb shelter while their block was being flattened during the blitz in London in World War II. They had just reached the street when the woman turned to go back to the house, and the husband, frantic at his wife’s erratic behavior given the circumstances, shouted at her, “Where are you going?!

“Have to go back,” she replied, “forgot my false teeth.”

To which her husband replied, just able to make himself heard above the din of falling bombs, “For God’s sake! They’re not dropping sandwiches you know!”

Different people fear different things. One man’s fear of German bombs was matched only by his wife’s fear of being seen in public without her teeth in place. Different priorities, yet one thing in common: Fear.

What are you afraid of?

There is no sense claiming to be fearless people. We know fear, and we have fears, some that haunt us only on occasion, others that are with us hour by hour. Some may live with the fear that the business will go badly this year, that the medical bills will not get paid, that there might be a continuation of the economic downturn into next year and money in the family kitty will dry up. We may have a gnawing fear that we’ll not have enough money to live on throughout retirement, that we won’t get into the college we choose, that the fan belt we have nursed through four years of our car’s life will finally go bad on the next trip through the Mojave desert.

There are big fears and little ones.

A big fear usually involves things beyond our control, like the state of the economy, or violence in the streets or the fear of world-wide political chaos, some clinics failing to provide a level of medical care we had assumed we could expect, random shootings on city streets.

Little fears have their day too. But at least they appear to be in some ways within our control, or nearly so. We may be afraid:

• that we won’t get the promotion we want...
• ...or that we will, and we’ll have to pack the family and move a thousand miles again;
• that since we missed the deadline for filing form 1040, we’ll have to pay a penalty;
• that the car won’t start;
• that the refrigerator will need replacing;
• that the roast will be burned;
• that the water didn’t get shut off before we left home on a trip.

The list of things the human mind can fear is limited only by the amount of time we have for tallying it.

When Peter wrote, “Do not fear what they fear,” he was echoing the prophet Isaiah1 who wrote to the people in Israel during a fearful time. Nations around them were allying together against tiny Israel. Yet Isaiah wrote, “Do not fear what they fear.” He reminded the people of Israel of the very thing we all need to remember but often forget: that God is Lord over all possibilities; God — not the Syrians, Romans, Americans, or Al Qaeda warlords — God is the true ruler of history, no matter how things appear in the short term.

In I Peter, the hard thing for us to swallow may not be that we should avoid fearing all the things we do fear, but that we should save a holy emotion like fear for the one who has real power over life. Peter said, “Do not fear what they fear...but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”

Dethrone fear of the contingent, the temporary, and instead reverence Christ who rules the world for ever. Don’t reverence, fear, or stand in awe of your tormentors more than you fear God. That certainly is blasphemy. When others seem to have more power to destroy us than God has to save us, it is an overwhelming fear. Peter told his readers and he tells us, decide ahead of time not to give in to such unholy fear. Then, if the time comes, we will be prepared to account for the hope that lives in us because of our faith that Christ truly is Lord of all life.

A sermon which dwells this way on fear may come as a surprise. We believe in a loving God, and this sermon was to have been about hope, if we can judge by the title. Yet fear, paradoxically, is the essence of hope. Knowing what we fear gives us information about the thing upon which we base our deepest hopes.

Lots of famous people have uttered equally famous words on the subject of hope. Miguel de Cervantes best-known character, Don Quixote, said, “Sanity may be madness but the maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.”

Elie Wiesel, survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, once wrote, “…just as despair can come to one another only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.” Christians believe this has come to pass for us in the person and work of Christ among us, human as we are human.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.”

Theologian Reinhold Neibuhr wrote, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime, therefore, we are saved by hope…”

Poet Václav Havel, arguably one of a handful of true twentieth century political heroes, who managed to outlast the crumbling Soviet empire and bring his native Czechoslovakia into the family of free nations, said, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

How do you envision the essence of hope, how do you account for the hope that the love of Christ places in you?

Biblically speaking, there are two types of fear about which we often hear: The first fear relates to the love God has for us, yet the second often characterizes the response we make to that love. These are fears born of love: of Christ’s ultimate love for us and our inadequate response to his love.

For believers, then, the word hope deals with the deepest longings as well as the most desperate fears within us. It is not a mere sigh, a whim, a casual wish: we hope it won’t be too hot today, that Santa will get to our house next year, that we’ll make the green light at the next intersection; these have nothing to do with biblical hope and aren’t really hopes at all, but fleeting wishes.

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” Dr. Scott Hahn2 in his book, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, shared a story from the deadly 1998 earthquake in Northwest Armenia, which claimed 25,000 lives in a single day. After the quake a distressed father ran frantically through the streets to his son’s school. He had always told his son “No matter what, Armand, I’ll always be there.” His heart sank when he got to the school and found nothing but a pile of rubble. Even so, he ran to the corner where he knew his son’s classroom had been and began to dig with his bare hands. A bystander told him, “Forget it, mister, they’re all dead.” Any of us, in the same situation, might have tried to help a grieving father simply face reality. But that father looked up and said, “You can criticize me or you can help lift these bricks.” A few people of generous spirit helped move bricks for a while, but the situation seemed so hopeless, they soon wandered away. Still the father continued to dig. 12, 18, 24, 36 hours went by. Still he dug. Then he heard a muffled groan. He pulled a board back and cried out, “Armand!” From the hole in the wreckage of the building came a weak, shaking reply, “Papa?” They managed to find 14 of the 33 students still alive. When Armand was finally freed he turned to his friends and said, “See, I told you my father wouldn't forget us.” Our hope is like the hope of that son, only more so. Armand’s father is but a small example of the kind of Father we know through Jesus Christ.

The essence of biblical hope — if the words of I Peter are to be believed — rests in a decision. A decision for the Lord. And that decision remains even when our emotions or our failed circumstances might carry us away from it. It is a conviction that the future and all that will take place in it are already being redeemed by Christ. No matter where our lives may take us, Christ is there ahead of us already, redeeming the times and the seasons in which we live.

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Isaiah 8:12.
2 A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God's Covenant Love in Scripture, Charis Books, © 1998 by Scott Hahn. Dr. Hahn is the founder of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

It's a Big, Big House

It’s a Big, Big House

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder
Fifth Sunday of Easter: April 20, 2008
I Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

Home. It is a recurring theme in I Peter. The idea that the household of faith is the new believer’s home runs throughout the letter. An old friend of mine once gave me a unique definition of home. He said it is the place where you can make it from the bedroom to the refrigerator in the dark. A couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of Robert Frost’s poetic line that home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in. It comes from a poem in which a man comes home to die, though his real family has moved away. Nevertheless, the family living in the house takes him in, proving the New Testament’s frequent observation that home is sometimes more a matter of a chosen family than a biological one.

I think Yogi Berra once said, in his original way of stating the unmistakably obvious, that “Things are more like they are now than they have ever been before.” That’s a little like one of my favorite definitions of home. To me, home is where you feel more like yourself than anywhere else. Some people prove this in a backward way by going to any lengths to keep away from their houses at night, so little do they feel at home there. The cast of characters in the old TV series, Cheers, dramatized that sad fact. Of course, the corner bar isn’t the only substitute for home. Many people feel more at home at work than in their houses. Others may be more at home at the ball park where they are free to say loud and obscene things to players and umpires, behavior frowned upon in many homes but not at many sporting events I have attended.

If our ideas of home are varied, so are the limitations on those who are able to be at home around us. Remember the family or families in the neighborhood where you grew up who always seemed to have 3 or 4 extra children with their feet under the dinner table at night? In my neighborhood, they were the people who could never feel at home unless everyone else in their neighborhood felt that way too. I also remember the cool white house across the street and a few doors down from my family home. From my childhood memory, it was inhabited by pasty-skinned people who always wore starchy-looking clothes. My parents said it was an immaculate home, though I couldn’t verify that. Children, as far as I know, were never allowed inside.

Some folks think of home as a place where ancestors are celebrated. I remember a high school history class in which we were each asked in turn to say something about one of the ancestors in our families who were celebrated by some well-worn family story. I told a few details about the only truly famous ancestor I know, my great great great grandfather Tompkins, who was Vice president when James Monroe was president. The boy seated next to me followed my story with a strange sort of one-upmanship. His great grandfather had been hung for stealing horses. You’ll never guess which story made a bigger impression on the class.

Even though Matthew and Luke go to some trouble to list extensive genealogies for Jesus, I think they knew in the backs of their minds that Jesus was the Son of God whose real family, as he himself said, were not related to him by blood, but rather were those who heard the will of God and went about doing it.1

In John 14 it appears that in Jesus’ view it isn’t human fathers or mothers that matter when it comes to salvation. My friend with his horse-thieving great grandfather and I with my blue-blooded ancestor each have equal access to the only parent that matters, our Father in heaven. It is no wonder that people have found John 14 to be such a source of comfort for centuries. When folks gather following the death of a loved one, as often as not, John 14 is read to comfort them. Why do you suppose that is?

These were the first words spoken by Jesus to his disciples after he had told them that it was necessary that he die soon. Harsh words of reality were then followed by words of comfort about the household of God. “Don’t be worried and upset,” says one translation of these famous words, “believe in God, and believe also in me.” If they believed in God, Jesus said, then believing in him should be as simple as falling off a log. The God who had taken the slaves of Egypt and brought them through the Exodus to the renewal of the promised land, the God who had seen his people carried off to Babylon in exile yet returned to the land he had given them, for this God, redemption seemed to be his hallmark. If we believe God is capable of bringing life where there had been death, redeeming what we had feared was hopelessly lost, time after time making new that which we were certain was done for, if we believe in the God of the Exodus, then we can believe in Jesus. If we believe God brings dead nations, people, ideas to life again, then we can believe that there is more to the life of Jesus than that short 33 years of it which he knew in first-century Palestine.

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Jesus told us that we are his true brothers and sisters. There is ample space, then, for the whole family in the great household of God. If we want to see how big the family is, then we need only to look around. These are our brothers, these are our sisters. If we are in Christ, we are at home with one another, whether our grandaddy was a horse thief or a politician — or both.

In John 14 Jesus said, “there are many dwelling places.” There is no housing shortage for this home. Our home is the wide heart of God — room for plenty more than the ones who have made themselves at home already. All those bad and sometimes tasteless jokes about Saint Peter at the gates of heaven administering a final exam, or asking folks to wait, or placing some high and some low in heavenly condominiums, all these are just that: jokes. They bear no resemblance to the picture Jesus painted of God’s kingdom as a place of endless spaciousness.

We may be like Thomas. We want to know the way to this place Jesus describes. We lack a road map, a compass. How do we get there, Jesus? Like Thomas, we fail to see the forest for the trees. Jesus said, “I am the way.” No need for a map. If you are with Jesus, you are there. So we want to know how to be with Jesus that we may be there already. For this we need only remember the household of faith. If we are in the company of brothers and sisters in faith, we are in the very presence of Jesus. That is his promise.

Over a decade ago now I helped build houses on a mission trip to Mexico with the youth from our church, and they introduced me to a song, popular at the time, by a Christian rock group called “Audio Adrenaline.” Their music, I can testify, more than lived up to the name. But while their music might not be for everyone, the lyrics to the song they taught me struck me as clearly true for the Christian community of faith. The chorus goes:

It’s a big, big house — with lots and lots of room
It’s a big big table — with lots and lots of food;
It’s a big, big yard — where we can play football.
It’s a big, big house — it’s my Father’s house.2

Do you feel the spaciousness of it? Big house, big table, big yard. Big house for worship; big table for the Lord’s Supper; a big yard: a big world in which to live and serve. Plenty of room for everyone, plenty of family for everyone, plenty of work to give everyone’s life meaning. That’s our Father’s house. Welcome home.

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

1 Mark 3:33-35.
2 Don’t Censor Me, “It’s a Big, Big, House,” Audio Adrenaline, © 1993, Up in the Mix Music, BMI.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Caring for those Perishables

Caring for those Perishables

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada

I Peter 1:17-25
Third Sunday of Easter: April 6, 2008

We don’t have to be green grocers to know about perishables. Anyone with very much experience in life knows that life itself — for all the strengths we see in living things — is a fragile thing, perishable and, ultimately, perishing. Maybe you remember the old Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. Once Calvin asked his mother to sniff a milk carton to see if the milk was spoiled. He didn’t want to sniff it himself because he thought the expiration date on the carton had to do with those who used it after the date, not with the milk itself, and he didn’t want to take any chances. Isn’t Calvin on to something true there? Aren’t we all more or less aware that every human being, every living thing comes to this world with an expiration date of sorts? Some insects can be expected to live twenty-four hours; barring accident or unforeseen illness, people can expect to live somewhere near the biblical expiration date of “threescore and ten.”1 It doesn’t take a wizard to figure out that life is a perishable thing.

We also don’t have to have a Phd in theology to believe God is beyond this perishing world, that God is eternal, is the Creator who made all the world we see around us, and so, is not subject to its laws concerning decline and death. Any god who was not much more than just a larger version of a human being would not be much of a god. It would be more like the gods of the Greek pantheon, petty little deities with expiration dates of their own which caused them to perish once the people of the Mediterranean world turned themselves over to Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedism. No, we would have to agree that any God worthy of our wonder and especially any God worthy of our worship must be a God who is not subject to the decay and death that the created order experiences. God could no more be part of his creation than a painter can decide to climb into the world of one of his paintings or a novelist can begin making her home in the story line of her latest book.

Once at a Bible study, I asked everyone to think about their own definition of the word “holy.” I Peter makes a good deal of use of that word, so it must be important. But for the life of me, I don’t think I hear that word anywhere but in church. It rolls off our tongues pretty easily because we have ghettoized it into a religious word. We could sing the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” with a yawn, because we have forgotten what it means to call something holy. But if God is really the Creator, and so is responsible for all the world we see around us and a good deal we don’t see, and if one of the best words we can think to describe God is to call God “holy,” then maybe we ought to know what holy means. Do you know the first word someone suggested as a definition for the word “holy”? Separation. Absolutely. God is separate from the creation, outside of it. It’s a difficult concept on which to focus our minds. But clearly, if living things of earth are perishable, expiring, dying, as we know them to be, and we affirm that God is imperishable, eternal, immortal, then God is separate, different, differentiated from us. The Bible goes so far as to say in several places that God is so distinct from the created world that the unshielded presence of God is even dangerous to creatures.

Moses in Exodus, Isaiah before the throne of God in Isaiah 6, the disciples in the boat on the sea which Jesus calmed, all knew that they were in the presence of God and all had the presence of mind to know that God is different, and dangerous, HOLY, and they had the presence of mind to feel what any sensible person would feel: they were afraid because God is holy.

Here is what we know to be true about our own humanity and the holiness of God: we are perishable, but God is everlasting. We are not holy. God is.

If we left the matter there, there wouldn’t be much good news in it, just statements of blunt dogma. We could think of ourselves as the existentialists did, as tragic, doomed creatures living lives void of any lasting meaning, adrift on a dying planet in an accidental solar system, while God remained an observer from a distant heaven.

But the witness of the Bible attests to something that we might not ever have dared to hope if left to our own hopes alone. The Bible, from one end to the other, witnesses to God’s unremitting desire to call the people of the earth into the holiness which characterizes God’s own being. In calling the Hebrews from Egypt to freedom, in calling Israel from faithless practical agnosticism to a faith that was alive, in sparing not even the very Messiah — Jesus — but sending him to die for us, in these ways God has called people to be made holy by actions not their own.

On CBS radio, Charles Osgood once told the story of two elderly pianists who found themselves in a nursing home, survivors of strokes. One was paralyzed on the left side, the other on the right. Both despaired over the loss of their music, and had no hope of ever playing again. But an alert member of the nursing home staff sat them down together at a piano and encouraged them to play solo pieces together, one with her good left hand, the other with her good right hand. As they began playing together, over time, a beautiful friendship developed.

This is a human illustration of the way God has made his people holy. Were it not for the member of the nursing home staff, both women would likely have lived out their days without the joy of making music. Yet someone set apart, someone separate, no piano player himself, worked their musical redemption. This is just the way God has acted to redeem his people and make us holy. God steps into our hopelessness and grants to us what we had no hope of receiving.

I Peter uses the poetry of Isaiah to make the point plain. “All flesh” — that is, all living things but especially all people — “is like grass...” If you no longer maintain a lawn mower or never cared to, you may have had a more direct experience of the living nature of grass than you would like. But even in the desert we cannot fail to know the truth of Isaiah’s words by the time Autumn arrives. The grass in our yards and parks which thrives so in the Spring will be parched by August, and in no need of mowing by November. Some early Spring flowers are already fading. That is what we are like, though we may last a few more seasons. But then, here is a piece of good news. Amid all this fading and falling and withering, something is eternal, and it is the word of God.

What is more, that word has become our very own word in Christ, and not by any doing of our own. The worship of the church is an essential for us because it is here that we learn the holiness of God, and God’s desire to make his word our own word.

People come to me and say they want to know how to experience the presence of Christ, and I want to say to them — and sometimes do — that the answer of most of scripture is not about how but about where to experience the presence of Christ. Where do I go to know that Christ is alive? The Bible says I go to the sanctuary, to the community, I place myself in the midst of the worshiping people of God. It is in our worship together that we are to know the presence of Christ, as he promised when he said that he would be with us “where two or three are gathered in my name.”2

So Peter also says, “You have been born anew (and here he uses the Greek for actual birth, not the “born from above” of John 3), not of perishable but of imperishable seed.” How? “Through the living and enduring word of God.” If our faith makes us new, what kind of newness is it? Like the newness of life Lazarus found when Jesus brought him to life from the grave, only to die again one day, or is it some kind of newness that really is new? Like a sort of life that has at its core something imperishable?

Two more bits of good news here: God’s Word is living — John’s gospel goes to great lengths to declare that Jesus and the Word are one and the same, a living Word — and this word endures.

So God’s word is described by Peter as living. Fine. But all things that move and have being are living, and they are, like our own fragile lives, doomed one day to die. But the other adjective further describes the word of God: enduring. That is something that cannot be said about any other living thing we know of, not in any ultimate sense. No living thing endures, not finally. But the living word of God endures. How long? The prophet Isaiah answered that centuries before Peter: “the word of the Lord endures forever.” Moreover, that is the very word Peter says was announced to us. It is unlike the perishable nature of the living things we see. This living thing endures, lasts, does not fade, wither, fall like the grass and the flower. Eternity and humanity touch in the space of these few verses, and we learn that our faith in Christ has brought us the very life of God, eternal, enduring, and very, very much alive.

So, finally, what difference does all this make — holiness, perishable and imperishable, living and enduring, being born anew? Finally, the difference this makes in this world is that we have the only reason worth having, as Peter says, to “love one another deeply from the heart.” Make a brief recollection with me of Charles Manson or Jim Jones or Idi Amin, or Al Qaeda for a different view of what it means to be born anew to a different sort of word, a different sort of messiah, where self-proclaimed saviors force-march their disciples into the death house.

Two contrasting ideas of what it means to be holy, to be born anew of imperishable seed are starkly contrasted: the one is based on fear, on loveless separation from the world that the Bible declares God loves. The other declares salvation by a true Messiah who dies to save others. Jesus is the Messiah because now and always he beckons but does not coerce, gives new birth so life may be lived with a new view, not fiery death so that disciples may turn their backs on life and living.

In Christ is our imperishable hope. Having been granted eternity, what prevents us from loving one another and God’s good world without reservation? That’s now the eternal business of our imperishable faith. May God empower us to be his eternal church.

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

1. Psalm 90:10.
2. Matthew 18:20.