Monday, August 26, 2013

That's Not Fair!!!!

Kid's know all about "That's Not Fair!!!" Adults do too, because we were kids once.  At a very early age children just naturally know when they are being short changed of what ever it is they want. Just imagine the child who got one scoop of ice cream while the other kids got two... or got stuck with strawberry because all of the chocolate chip ice cream was gone. "That's not fair!"

Jesus often uses children as examples of how we are to live as disciples working for the Kingdom of God. "It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs." It's a great analogy because children are completely dependent on their parents or other adults. Their simple and absolute faith is to be admired and is an excellent example of how we are to dwell in Christ. Children are not the best example of faith, however, when we start thinking about their natural, in bred, "That's not fair" radar.

While Jesus often compares the Kingdom of God to children, he uses many other parables and analogies to make the picture for us even richer and clearer.  Faith in the kingdom is not simply like being a child.  In Matthew 20 Jesus throws a wrench in our sweet, comfortable picture of life in the kingdom by telling us a story that flat out offends our American sensibilities. The kingdom is also like workers working in a vineyard, for various amounts of time, but all getting the same amount of pay when the day was over. They all earned the fair wage for working a full day, even those who only worked an hour.  I don't even need to type our gut reaction to that, do I? Just look at the picture of the kid.

In so many ways the story is just not fair.  Stop right now and read it. Here's a link to the text in Bible Gateway. Read it in a couple versions. I bet you can read it ten times and still look a whole lot like the kid in the picture.

So is Jesus just wrong here?  Is there some stretch of an interpretation we can make of this text that will satisfy our fairness radar? Some have made the point that those seeking work would have been hanging around without work because of their great shame and their suffering and not because of laziness.  Does that now make it fair? Maybe it should open our eyes to another reality.

God so loved the world that he sent his only son. He loves us all. Everyone of us: the righteous and the unrighteous; the insiders and the outsiders; the deserving and the undeserving. We simply are not equipped to know what our neighbor, our friend, our colleague, or our enemy has been through. We are in no position to judge. What we learn in Christ is that when he does judge, he chooses to be "generous."  

I like the way Thomas a Kempis puts it in The Imitation of Christ. "In judging others a person works to no purpose, often makes mistakes, and easily does the wrong thing, but in judging and analyzing ourselves, we always work to our own advantage." The workers who worked all day fall into this trap as does the child with only one scoop of strawberry ice cream. They do not know the truth underneath. Instead they simply are blinded by their passionate cry: That's not fair!

God wants our heart and gave us Jesus to show us the way. Our calling is to love and that is hard to do. You don't just wake up one day and decide to turn off the fairness radar. It takes a life lived in Christ daily to get to the point where you can sincerely desire others to receive what you have.

Thomas a Kempis puts it this way: "If you lean more on your own reason or diligence than on the strength of your life with Jesus Christ, you will have only a slim chance of becoming an enlightened person - and if you do, it will happen slowly, indeed. God wants us to conform our lives perfectly to his will and to reach beyond our passions and prejudices through an intense love for him."

The first step to even desiring to turn off the fairness radar is to love God. How do we love God? Pray about it. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

So Great A Crowd of Witnesses

Fifteen years ago I was a rookie pastor called to serve a small congregation in northeastern Ohio. While Faith Lutheran Church, in the harbor of Ashtabula, was far from my friends and family it truly was a great place for me to have my first call. The faithful brothers and sisters in Christ there took me in as a green twenty-six year old single guy, fresh out of seminary. They made me feel welcome and taught me so much. They also challenged me, which was important, because it allowed me to grow.

In Ashtabula, God blessed me with pastor colleagues who were willing to help me and support me with a listening ear just when I needed it the most.  There were only five ELCA churches in Ashtabula County (the largest county, size-wise, in the far northeast corner of Ohio.), which is a reason, I believe, the pastors of those five churches became really close. At the time I thought such camaraderie was just what always happened, but the last decade-and-a-half has taught me otherwise. Clyde McGee in Conneaut, Fred Grimm in Jefferson, David Hofer, just three blocks from Faith in the harbor, and Liz Eaton at Messiah in Ashtabula taught me so much during those early years and I honestly thank God for everyone of them.

Liz Eaton was elected on Wednesday as the next Presiding Bishop of the ELCA and I couldn't be prouder of her. I am grateful for my experiences working her and my other friends as a team to plan confirmation retreats, organize community gatherings after the Columbine tragedy, to talk and sometimes argue theology (Liz and David had some doozies), to cover for one another in case of emergencies, and to work together
for funerals and weddings.  Those experiences cemented within me the belief that the work of being a pastor needs to be collaborative work whenever possible. They had gifts that I didn't have, and visa-versa. They had stories and experiences of faith that opened my eyes to the work of Christ. It was the Holy Spirit that brought us all together for a few years around the time of the new millennium, and it was faith in Jesus Christ that gave us the power to do what we were called to do as pastors.

In Hebrews, the author makes a strong point about the power of faith to us by lifting up the examples of some of the great men and women God worked through in the Old Testament.  In Hebrews 11 we learn about the many things Abraham and Moses where able to do through faith. We also are reminded of the faith of great women like Sarah and Rahab and others who "received their dead by resurrection (Hebrews 11:35)", referring to the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Hebrews 11:1 says this about faith: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." All these great people of God lived their lives by that type of faith. They are among the "so great a cloud of witnesses" who did amazing things through faith, even though, as the author so carefully points out, they did not have Christ to fulfill the ultimate promise of faith: life everlasting.

The Bible contains so many of these great stories of faith. They inspire us and point out God's presence in our own lives. They are "so great a cloud of witnesses" who cheer us on as we move ahead in the Lord. When I look back at my own life, there are so many witnesses who have shared their lives with me and helped me grow in faith. They are men and women, like my friends and colleagues in Ashtabula, who I'm so grateful for. As it says in Hebrews, where there was just not enough space to include the great faith stories of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Sameul, "time would fail me to tell" of all the people God has blessed me with.

But I know as I live by faith today, they are cheering me on, some even praying for me, as I move ahead into the next chapters of my life.  By faith the heroes of the Bible "conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, and won strength out of weakness..." (Hebrews 11:33-34). By faith my friends have also done amazing things. It is through faith in Christ that Liz Eaton is now the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, not through ambition and not through chance.

As we journey through faith it is so important to have a community of witnesses to grow with. Be a part of a church, and allow yourself to be fed through the stories of faith found in your brothers and sisters in Christ. Tell your story as well and let the Holy Spirit create shared stories and experiences you can grow through together.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

If our faith-life is a race... a marathon let's say... then its a race for which we have been cheered on by countless witnesses who have helped us along the way. We are not alone today on this track. Our friends run with us and hand off to us the water and encouragement we need to press on. When the race is ended we will enter the arena (think of the end of the marathon during the Olympics) and so great a crowd will cheer us on. Our faith has not been in vain, it has gotten us this far and oh what a journey. So live by faith today and allow the cheers and support of others help you as are taken to amazing places.