Sunday, September 26, 2010

LIVING IN THE SPIRIT OF GOODNESS






“A Question of Goodness”
 A sermon based upon Luke 16: 19-31
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
September 26, 2010,  Proper 21C

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1Co 13:11 KJV).  So goes one of the most familiar quotes from the apostle Paul.

Some of the very first words I thought “as a child” were a prayer.  Some of you memorized it too.  The prayer went: 
“God is great.  God is good.  Let us thank him for our food. 
By his hands, we are fed.  Give us Lord, our daily bread.  Amen.”  

Saying that “God is good” made all the sense in the world to me, because the world immediately around me was good.   I can clearly say that I had a “good” childhood.  It wasn’t perfect, because I as an “only child” I always wanted a brother or sister, so to soften my loneliness I had a few extra toys to entertain myself.  Once, even invited myself to a wedding at our church that was next door, and they tell me I went by myself in my diapers.  Church was good, family was good, the community was good, and I even believed that the world, at least the world I lived in was a good place to be.

GOODNESS CAN BE QUESTIONED
This is “perfectly” good, relatively care-free world of my childhood, all began to change when I started to school.   In those days, I had to walk to school, and mom told me “not to talk to strangers.”  The nice policeman at school, Sergeant Serino, also told us, “If  a stranger ever stops and offers to give you a ride home, don’t get into the car with them.”  Then, it wasn’t long after that, during Halloween Trick or Treating, we were told not to accept “apples” or “homemade” candies from someone we didn’t know, because some child got a razorblade in an apple.   Suddenly,  the world I thought was “good” wasn’t as good I had first thought it to be.   It was then, that I started to “put away” some of my “childish” things, understandings and thoughts because the world was not always good.

Then, there came another awakening that hit closer to home.  My Father was the chair of deacons and treasurer at our church in town. One day, he was informed that the pastor might have been involved in an inappropriate relationship.  Since he and the pastor were good friends, my Father went to him alone and questioned him about the rumors.  Not only did the pastor refuse to talk to my Father, on the following Sunday, the pastor got up in the pulpit and “indirectly” berated “those who were accusing God’s man!”   It what was the most confusing moment of my childhood, when we had to leave “our church” and set out on a journey elsewhere.  I’ll never forget going back at Christmas the next year, because my parents realized I was missing my friends.  I just couldn’t understand “why” we had to leave.   Not long after that, my Father started a business in the country and we moved back to the family farm and to my Father’s home church.   But the whole process of leaving was not good to me.  It was my first realization, that everyone is not as “good” as they seem and that life might not always be as good as I would like it to be.   It was another step in my life, of having to put away that believed to be “perfect world” as one of those “childish things”.  

Some people who discover a lack of “goodness” in the world lose faith, sometimes in people, sometimes about life, and unfortunately, some even lose faith in God.  I’m thankful, that because my parents really were who they said they were, I did not have this kind of moral confusion.   Even though there are moments that I question what is “good”, I never have questioned that there is a good, nor have I seriously questioned God.    Oh, yes, I’ve studied the “Question of God” and I’ve even questioned what I believe about God and I surely don’t have the same understanding of God I had as a child.   Surprisingly, instead of my understanding of God becoming more complicated, it has become very simple.    In fact, one of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, a deep intellectual of the last generation, was once asked by Billy Graham, what is the greatest thought you’ve ever had about God?   The great Swiss theologian answered by quoting an American song:  “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”    I’m too am more sure of God’s love than I’ve ever been.  In this way, I’m still living the best “good” thought I ever had in my childhood.

But In respect to understanding what is “God” and what is “good”, and even what “God’s love means in Jesus Christ,” in many ways, I’m still on a journey.   The apostle Paul, suggest, and rightly so, we will continue on this journey of “knowing only in part” until that day when we move beyond the “smoky glass” into the moment when we “know as we are known” and come to know, “face to face”, as Paul imagines.  We are all on a journey of discovery, adventure, and maturity and hopefully growth in both our understanding of God and our understanding of what is “good”.  

GOODNESS IS MORE OF A QUESTION THAN AN ANSWER
While it might sound “bad” that we need to question “what is good” in our lives, asking questions is often the only way to get to the right answer, not because you get all the answer, nor you  will discover the “final answer”, but by asking the right questions you start learning how to “live the questions” even when you don’t have any answers. 

Looking for the right way to ask the question of “goodness” brings us to our Bible text today.  As we consider the sixth fruit of the Spirit: goodness, we come to one of Jesus’ parables that can cause us to question all kinds of things.  In fact, the serious consideration of this parable once made a man with three doctoral degrees (one in medicine, one in theology, and one in philosophy) leave civilization with all of its culture and amenities and depart for the jungles of darkest Africa?   This man was recognized as one of the best concert organists in all of Europe and it made him go to a place where there were no organs to play.   He was also motivated to give up a teaching position in Vienna, Austria to go and deal with people who were so deprived that they were still living in the superstitions of the dark ages for all practical purposes. The man gave up all these “good things” was, of course, is Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and the single story that so radically altered his life and made him question everything was this very parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

What is it in this parable that can make a person question their life?  In this parable we learn about the unnamed rich man who went to Hell and the poor man named “Lazarus” who went to heaven.   Only one time in this story does the word “good” appear, but the way it appears might also shake us at the very core.      

Consider that his ‘rich man’ is the person who had everything that seemed “good” to him at that time and still seems “good” to most of us today.   Whether he inherited it, earned it, went after it, or just got lucky, this fellow had everything we might call the “good” life.   If he could have, he might have worn one of those patented shirts with the slogan: “Life is good”, because for him it certainly was.   Our text describes him as someone “dressed in purple” (which means he lived like a “king”) and it says that he lived “in luxury” every day.  There is no other way to see into this story, other than to see that this man is the kind of man most people dream of being everyday.  He was the proverbial guy “who had everything” and he had it each day.

This man lived what he certainly believed was “the good life.”   He could have even thought to himself that “having it all” is the only “good” that matters.    He was so “stuck” in his own version of “goodness” that he couldn’t see or imagine there might be another kind of “goodness”.   He had many distractions in life, and he had so much to do to hold on to the good he had, he never entertained the idea of anything else.  He was so caught up in his own life, he never even noticed the beggar, laying right at his own gate, sores all over his body, eating his good “trash”, having no medical care except for the stray dogs who licked his sores. 

You cannot miss the point Jesus is making:  This  “rich man” was so stuck on his own version of “goodness” so he could get, have, live, and keep his “good life” that he had no room for another version of “goodness,” which could include helping this human being at his gate, whom he should have stopped to notice and should have taken time to help, but he didn’t.   It was this man’s own version of “goodness” of taking only taking care of himself, which kept him from considering God’s “goodness” which would have included this “neighbor”.

This brings us to the second part of the story.  This wealthy, rich, man who had more than he ever needed, finally comes to understand another version of goodness than he had ever realized before.  The most disturbing truth is “where” this “rich” man comes to an understanding of real “goodness”.  He’s in the afterlife and in torment, and part of the “torment” is that he can’t go back to correct his own mistakes.   This man who had all the “goodness” he wanted never questioned in his heart what would be good for someone else other than himself.   All his life he remained “stuck” in his own version of goodness, though he had all kinds of opportunities to learn another version of goodness.  Now, in Hell, he’s really stuck.  He’s stuck in his own version of “goodness”, just like he’s always been, but now his “own goodness” can’t help him, nor is anyone else willing to help him.   We are told exactly how stuck he is because he sees the beggar Lazarus, who once laid unnoticed at his gate, now living where he can’t help but notice, living “far away” in comfort, where the angels have carried him.   But the angels didn’t come for him, and he is in the torment of the “grave” (Hades) he has dug for himself, with his own version of goodness, and he is stuck in the “the agony of this fire” and is begging for a single drop of water placed on the “tip” of Lazarus’ finger to cool his tongue.  He has used up all his “goodness” just for himself, so that now there is no “goodness” left when he needs it the most. 

All of these powerful, sobering and unforgettable images of this tormenting death (Hades), we also call Hell, brings us to the most unsettling use of the word “good”.  After we hear the rich man “begging” for a small act of “goodness” toward him, we then read Abraham’s response: “But Abraham said, Son, remember….”   Isn’t this what this guy can’t stop doing.  In Hell, as he suffers all he can do is “remember” how good he once had it, and how bad it is now.   But continue on, it gets even worse:  …”Remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things.”  Notice the extra little word “your”.  While Lazarus only had “bad things” in his life, this rich man had his own version of “good things” in his life.  But now, his life is over.   The ‘luxury’ of living his own version of “goodness” is over, but his own version of goodness continues to affect him.  He now suffers the consequences of living by his “own” version of “goodness”.   It is now, as C.S. Lewis once said, There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'    By getting the “good” that man always wanted, he failed to get the “goodness” that he really needed.

Here we come the most critical question of this text, which makes me ask you, what I must continual ask myself: whose version of “goodness” am I living, right now?    Am I only living my own version of “goodness” or do I seek after, ask for, or knocking upon to door of God’s version of goodness---which we know to call “the fruit of the Spirit of goodness?”  Which kind of goodness have I gone after in my life?  This is the question of goodness Jesus wants us to ask ourselves from this thought provoking story.   What we don’t ever want to do, if we don’t want the “torment” or “agony” of Hell, is to go through this life without asking the bigger question about goodness, than just asking what’s in it for me?   Let me suggest two questions to help you ask the “bigger” questions of goodness, which the Bible continually asks:   

GOOD IS WHO WE ARE TO GOD.  As Christians, we don’t have to guess what is good.  We’ve already been told.  We still have to grow in our thinking, understanding and responding to God’s version of goodness, and part of question about goodness will forever remain unanswered, but we don’t have to “wonder” what “good” is.   We see the answer in the gospels; especially Jesus’ encounter with another rich man.   Do you remember him?   He’s the guy who came up to Jesus asking the right kind of question, though he was still seeking the wrong sort of answer.  He too, had his own version of “goodness” that he would not give up.  

In Matthew 19: 16, this “rich, young, man” came to Jesus asking, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”   Jesus was immediately on to his lack of understanding about “goodness”, when he scolded him, “Why do you ask me about what is good?”  There is only one who is good.  “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments...”

Jesus’ point seems to be that we already know the “right” answer about “goodness”.  The “right” version of goodness should already be “written on our hearts” and should be as “plain” as the nose on our face, since it has been with us since the very first “commandment” God ever gave.   “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul and mind….”    

If you really want to find the good and be good, you will “love” God.   This is what “keeping the commandments” means.   We start “keeping God’s commandments” when we start asking our lives each day:  WHO AM I TO GOD?   This is why Jesus tells this man, if he wants “eternal life”, all he needs to do “follow”.  But this man cannot love God with all he has, because he will not give up his own selfish “version” of goodness.   He will not let God decide what is “good,” but he will only decide it for himself.

Who are you to God?  This is the kind of question, that if you ask it every day of your life, you start living a different kind of life and you start imagining a differing kind of “good.”   I recall in one of my very first “religion” classes in school that the professor, Dr.. Alice Cullinan, asked us a question I’ve never forgotten.  She ask: “Who are you when you are by yourself?”  You should not define yourself by who you are when you are around other people, but you only know who you are when you are all alone, only with God.  Who are you to God?  This is how you begin to find the answer to goodness!   Goodness begins to be defined by asking: Who am I to God?

GOOD IS WHAT WE DO FOR OTHERS  The other part of the “answer” Jesus gave this second rich man; this man has a chance to change version of goodness, but still blows it,  comes as Jesus tells this second rich man, that love for God must also result in love for your neighbor:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  All the Law and the Commandments hang on these two.  (Matthew 22: 37-40).     

Don’t miss the way the word “your” contrasts to how Luke used it.  Just as Abraham told the first rich man: “Remember you received “YOUR” good things and this points out his big failure,  Jesus corrects that mistake when he tells him, “Love the Lord God with all YOUR hear….YOUR soul…and YOUR mind …  and then love YOUR neighbor as yourself---that is: make the good of your neighbor as important as the “good things” you go after for yourself, then you will have “eternal life”.   The “good” you need, is the good that you “do”, with God and for others.

That wonderful preacher of the Gospel, Fred Craddock tells of a time when he and his wife, Nettie, Craddock, had a guest in their home, spending the night.  As Fred read the paper, this guest played with their kids and taught them a new game. Fred thought to himself, “How long has it been since I [came] home from work, got down on the floor, and played with the kids and taught them a new game?” He felt himself judged by his guest’s actions.

Following dinner, the guest said to Mrs. Craddock, “I certainly appreciated the meal. That was just a wonderful meal.” Fred tried to remember when it was that he had said that to his wife, Nettie, following dinner. He thinks it was in 1949.  And he was judged again.


The guest went out for a walk and came back in and said, “Oh, those are nice folks next door. I met Mr.Yung and his wife from Seoul. They are a very nice young couple.”
Fred says, “Well, I had heard some Koreans moved in down there, but I didn’t know. When he said their names, I was judged.”

Just a familiar pattern of my own “goodness”, says Fred Craddock. “I Come home, read the paper, and eat supper. Then here comes someone strange, who has a whole different version of goodness.  Suddenly, everything around me looks different, and I think to myself, ‘Where in the world have I been?’” (From Craddock Stories, by Graves, Ward and Craddock, 2001).

We have no indication that the rich man was himself a bad man. He just lived by his own version of goodness and in eternity said to himself, “Where in the world have I been?”   Which version of “goodness” are you going after?    My one hope is that you will stop believing you have the “answer” and will start asking yourself the right questions: Who am I to God?  Who am I to others?  If you want God’s version of “eternal life”, you must ask yourself the question that gets you beyond the “good” you see, so you can see the “good” God sees.

Where do we start looking for God’s version of goodness?   I like the answer E. Stanley Jones gives when he tells of the missionary in the jungle.  The missionary got lost with nothing around him but bush and a few cleared places.  He finally found a small village and asked one of the natives if he could lead him out of the jungle. The native said he could.
            “All right,” the missionary said. “Show me the way.”
            They walked for hours through dense brush, hacking their way through unmarked jungle. The missionary began to worry and said, “Are you quite sure this is the way?   Where is the path?”
            The native said, “Bwana, in this place there is no path. I am the path.”

In a world where there is so much confusion about “what is good” we all need have Jesus as the path to finding God’s version of goodness.  Amen. 



© 2010 All rights reserved Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min

Sunday, September 19, 2010

LIVING IN THE SPIRIT OF KINDNESS

Kindness is not Random!
Luke 16: 1-13
Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
September 19, 2010   Proper 20C

There’s an old story about a young man in Montana who bought a horse from a farmer for $100.
The farmer agreed to deliver the horse the next day. However when the next day arrived, the farmer reneged on his promise.
“I’m afraid the horse has died,” he explained.
The young man said, “Well, then give me my money back.”
The farmer said, “Can’t do that. I spent it already.”
The young man thought for a moment and said, “Ok, then, just bring me the dead horse.”
The farmer asked, “What you going to do with a dead horse?”
The young man said, “I’m going to raffle it off.”
The farmer said, “You can’t raffle off a dead horse!”
The young man said, “Sure I can. Watch me. I just won’t tell anybody he’s dead.”
A month later, the farmer met up with the young man and asked, “What happened with that dead horse?”
The young man said, “I raffled him off. I sold 500 tickets at two dollars apiece and made a profit of $998 . . .”
The farmer said, “Didn’t anyone complain?”
The young man said, “Just the guy who won. So I gave him his two dollars back.”
(As told by King Duncan in a sermon entitled, “There’s Something About Con Men”).

Now this was certainly a resourceful young man.  We might even call him something of a con man.   There’s something about a con man that captures the imagination.  Con men have even become “heros” in many television shows and movies; remember Ocean 11?   Even Jesus made a con man  a “hero” of sorts in of one of his parables.  Such a move makes some Christian’s nervous, but here it is as our Bible text for today.

Most of us know this story as the parable of the Unjust Steward or as more modern translations put it, “The Dishonest Manager”.   The story goes that this manager was doing a poor job managing his boss’ affairs.   The boss got word of it and asked him to come in to give an account.  This guy realizes, now that the truth is out, he’s about to be fired.  So what does he do?  In order to make sure he has some kind of safety net to fall into, he brings the bosses’ debtors in one by one and starts forgiving large portions of their debt.
              “How much do you owe?”  He asks one of the customers on his credit account.
            The customer responds, 800 gallons of olive oil.
“Then make it 400 gallons”.  He does this again taking a bill of 1000 bushels of wheat and making it 800.  Now you get the picture.  He’s not only reducing their debts, but he’s using his bosses’ money to make friends and to assure himself a future.   When the boss hears about it, instead of getting mad and throwing the guy in jail for cheating him out of money, he’s quite impressed with his clever tactics and even praises him for being so clever and smart.   Jesus even “praises” him too, not for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness.  Then Jesus comments: Only if God’s people, “the children of light”, he calls them, were half as smart as some of crooks out there in the world?  Then, he suggests, they too could use material means to make friends and influence people.  That’s the attention getting message Jesus wants us to hear.

When I was reading through this parable again, I was astounded at the application it has for teaching us about the nature of kindness.  You might think it absurd to make a con man a hero of kindness, but don’t forget, I learned this from Jesus. 

What in the world can this dishonest money manager teach us about kindness?

PEOPLE NEED KINDNESS
Several years ago, when I was living in Germany, I had to make a sudden 7 hour train trip across the country on business.  The trip from Frankfurt-Oder to Frankfurt-Main was perfect without incident.  But upon my return trip, when I rushed to make the last train back, the doors were shut, even though it was still in the station.  I attempted to get the ticket agent to let me board, but he told me it was too late.  She said I would have to take another, which would be an indirect route, causing me to arrive home at 5 AM the next morning rather than 11 PM that evening.  

I pleaded with the ticket agent to “please” let me board.  But no, the rules were the rules.  I had to take another train.  The problem was there was no other train; at least no direct one.  Even though my train still sit there 15 minutes and was not full, she would not let me board.  Instead I had to take a bullet train north to Hanover, and then a Russian train to Frankfurt-Oder, which traveled across Germany through the middle of the night.  I didn’t get a wink of sleep, fearing that I would wake up in Moscow where the train was ultimately headed.  

If only the ticket agent, had been kind enough, and even “dishonest” enough to “bend” the rules a little.  But as it seems, the rules were the rules and showing “kindness” or mercy on me and my problem, didn’t seem to be an option.   Where are the “kind” people, who, like this Money Manager, would bend the rules to help somebody in need?

I don’t want you to misunderstand and think that I, nor Jesus, advocate real, lowdown, “dishonesty”, like some sort of “kindness among thieves”?    Jesus didn’t and I’m not.  If you think this, you’re missing the point.  What I am advocating, is what the Bible itself advocates.   I’m saying that if our religion or our righteousness doesn’t exceed and go beyond the laws, the rules, the legalisms and self-aggrandizing, like those harshly imposed rules and laws of the Scribes and Pharisees, which did not take into account the needs of hurting people standing right in front of them, then we’ve missed it.  If we just keep practicing our faith, like religion has a tendency to do, judging, being critical, putting ourselves above others, standing on this position or that position, instead of showing kindness, mercy and compassion, such “unkind” religion and unkind “Christianity” or “unkind” living, is simply not enough to get us where God wants us to go and where we need to go to live God’s kingdom into our world and lives. 

What is it about this con-man’s kindness that made him look so smart, even smarter than many Christians in these days where being crude and rude are in style?   What can we, and other sons and daughters of light, learn about kindness from the likes of this wily and worldly fellow? 

KINDNESS HAS A PURPOSE
One thing Jesus really likes about this dishonest fellow is that he knows what he is doing and why he is doing it.   He has purpose.  He has a plan.  He is doing something “kind” enough to intentionally make a difference both in his life and also in the lives of some other people. He might still be doing it dishonestly and with somebody else’s’ money, but at least he is spreading it around, and helping himself out in the process.  His method is bad, but his goal is good.

Several years ago, in America there arose a cultural social movement known as “Random Acts of Kindness?”  Do you remember that slogan?  “Practice Random Acts of Kindness.”  The whole philosophy was that every day you should take a to do an act of kindness for some unknown stranger for no reason at all.  Just do it and see what happens.   There was even a great movie made which put this on the big screen, entitled “Pay It Forward!”   The idea even follows Jesus’ idea of the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  When you “pay it forward”, or you do a three “random good deeds for strangers, because someone has done a good deed for you, then, before long, as the movie suggests that, before long, if everyone else would just keep do three good deeds and “pay it forward”, we could change the world.  

Great idea.  I’m not knocking it.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with doing “random” good deeds for people.  Even some churches have gotten into this “random” kindness idea.  I know one church that took their youth group downtown and starting cleaning bathrooms in businesses for no reason at all, except to practice “random acts of kindness”.   It’s not a bad way to be a witness.   The only problem I have is that, while it is good, it’s still not quite Christian.  The kindness that the Bible talks about is much more than doing some “random” act of kindness for a stranger for no real reason.   

Christian kindness must be much more than a random act.  We can see that in this story, can’t we?  This con man is not randomly picking people to do them favor’s, or to show them some surprising moment of kindness, in hopes of changing the whole world.  This guy is intentionally going after something that can help save his own skin, while he helps others save theirs.  And there is something better about this kind of specific “kindness”, even with its ulterior motive, that is better than showing someone kindness “randomly” for no real reason at all.   What we need to see is that true “Christian” kindness is about being kind to some very specific people, in very specific “needful” situations, for some very specific “obvious” reasons.  In other words, Christian kindness needs a “name” on it.  If it doesn’t have a specific person or purpose behind it, it’s not quite smart enough to be called Christian. 

How can your kindness be Christian smart?  Well, in order to understand this, we need a good biblical picture of Christian kindness, which has someone’s specific name on it.  We need to see how kindness flows out of a specific love, joy, peace, and patience with someone very specific in mind.  We have such a picture in Romans 12, where Paul recommends those who follow Jesus to follow him in showing “kindness” even to those who might “persecute” them.  Do you recall Paul’s words, beginning in Romans 12.14?   Paul writes:  14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." 20 No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:14-21 NRS).

If this is not a very specific, strange, shocking form of kindness, which has somebody’s name on it, and is not at all random, I don’t know what is.  According to biblical scholars this is the one single unique form of “kindness” that Christianity introduced to the world, which the world had never heard of before.  Being kind, even to those who are trying to hurt you, is either the most stupid idea humans made up, or God gave it to us as part of his saving purpose to bring reconciliation and redemption into the world.

Several years ago, I watched a very interesting movie about the Bosnian war, entitled “No Man’s Land.”  It told of the terrible war and genocide that was going on between Bosnian Serbs, Croatians and the Bosniaks.   In the movie, two soldiers from opposing sides end up accidently getting tied up together with a bomb.  If one tries to free himself from the other, the bomb will explode and both will die.  Also, if one kills the other, the bomb will go off and both will die.  The only way they can both survive is try to help each other, but this is what they don’t want to do.  They don’t want to co-exist.  They don’t want kindness.  They would rather die, but they can’t quite do this either.  They are in “no man’s land” of hate, violence, and unkindness. 

This movie is both sad and funny to watch, because it is so true to life and the way of the world.   Without kindness we cannot survive as a human race.  We can never get rid of everybody we don’t like, nor can we make everyone like us or will we like everyone.  But one thing for sure: we can’t save our own skin or the world by hating or hurting or conquering everyone else.   When we are unkind, even to our enemy, we not only destroy them, but we end up destroying ourselves in the process.  Don’t you remember what happened at Abu Ghraib prison?  Those crazy misguided American soldier guards thought they could treat their prisoners and enemies any way they wanted, even torturing and abusing them; and they believed that nothing bad would happen to them.  What did happen is that when they did not show respect and kindness, even to their enemy, they also destroyed themselves and hopes of peace. 


Kindness, especially kindness to specific people, even to the enemy, is the extreme, radical, revolutionary lesson of kindness that Christianity teaches us, but still even some Christians don’t want to learn it or practice it.   But this is the first thing we can see in this dishonest manager, that showing kindness to others, even for selfish reasons, is better than no kindness at all.  Kindness for any reason, even “random kindness” will ultimately serve a purpose. Christian kindness, however, is kindness that has somebody’s name on it.  It is not random, but specific and intentional, and serves great purpose.  It will either help someone, or it might even come back to “save” your own skin.

ONLY KINDNESS BRINGS THE FUTURE
Could it be that what Jesus wants “children of light” to learn from this story, is not only the “kindness” has a very important purpose, but that the most important purpose is to give us all a future.  Listen to what Jesus says, as he comments and explains the main point he wants to make with this story in verse 9:   “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. (Luk 16:9 NRS).   What in the world the point Jesus is trying to make here?  It still sounds very “shaky” and even a little “shady” doesn’t it?  Here is one of those places in the Bible we need to stop, consider not just the words we read, but the entire context and we need to pay close, close attention to his main point. 

The point Jesus makes is not that Christian should make money dishonestly, nor does he say we should use money earned “dishonestly” for good reasons.  Those conclusions are to miss the main point.   The main point is that in the world, we can’t escape the fact that all money is in some ways tainted by the world.   We can’t clean up everything about money that goes on in this world, but what we can do is decide to use money in ways that “make friends” so it serves the greatest purpose of all---creating an eternal future for us and for the world.  For if you look closely, it is not really the “money” that creates his future, but it is his kindness, and it is his kindness with money, even dishonest money that makes all the difference.

Do we grasp Jesus’ lesson, that it is kindness that creates the opportunity for eternity.  It is God’s kindness to us, while were sinners, and it is also our kindness to each other, that is part of process, creating the opportunity for you to both know and receive God’s grace and goodness into our lives.  Only kindness opens the door to the future.  The kindness you show now is the only thing that can promise you a future when the money runs out.   And it can run out.

Several years ago, I was walking on the street in Berlin, where I saw an Arab woman begging on the street.  In those days, you didn’t see a lot of beggars on the German streets.  I slowed down my walk and noticed people walking by her, trying not to pay her any attention.  Then suddenly, I saw this young teenager, with purple hair, stop, turn around and walk back to the woman.  She then reached down and gave the woman the longest hug.  She didn’t give her any money.  She probably didn’t have much to give.  What she did give the woman was, even when she couldn’t even speak her language, was a message of kindness.  It was as if this was worth all the money in the world and it gave every one of us, who saw it, an amazing moment of kindness and hope.
Kindness has that kind of specific, even saving power in our lives, and it also has an amazing power in other people, even those who are different from us or oppose us.  When Benjamin Franklin was young, he was a self-sufficient, critical, and somewhat arrogant, know-it-all, kind of fellow.  But as he became more mature, and even “smarter”, we might say, he learned something very important, which today, has had lasting value and is called the “Ben Franklin Effect”.   This “effect” eventually helped him develop the skills of a diplomat which he later used as Ambassador to France.   We can read about this in one of his own writings, as he describes how he won over a political opponent by asking him a favor (Politicians today could learn something important from Franklin, especially his other word: “If you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a temporary victory - sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent's good will). 

Here is how Franklin himself learning this “virtue” that had a powerful effect in his life and work:  “I did not … aim at gaining his favour by paying any servile respect to him but, after some time, took this other method.   Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book I wrote a note to him expressing my desire of perusing that book and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days.  He sent it immediately and I returned it in about a week with another note expressing strongly my sense of the favour.  When we next met in the House he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends and our friendship continued to his death.  This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself has obliged.” (From Help.com based upon thefranklinpapers.org)

Did you know that in the Greek language, one of the languages of the Bible, that the word for “kindness” is “chrestos”, which sounds a lot like the name for Jesus as Messiah, “Christos”?  When you say it, you can hardly hear the difference: “Christos” or “crestos”.  It is said that in the early days of Christianity, many pagan people mixed up the two words, calling the first Christians, the “the kind ones”. (“Life on the Vine”, by Philip Kenneson, IVP Press, 1999, 137). 
I don’t think that happened by accident.  The saving Christ is also the kind and compassionate Christ and the ones who follow the Christ (Christos), and live by his Spirit, will also be “kind  ones” (crestos). 

There is an old song I learned as a youth: “They know that we are Christians ( real Christians) by our love.”  That means a love which results in joy, peace, patience and also kindness.  Today, in this text, in the most unusual way, Jesus tells us a story that both grabs our attention and shakes our senses.  In doing so, Jesus remind us that kindness, even for the most selfish materialistic, mammon oriented reason, is not random, but it is the shrewdest, cleverest and most influential virtue or value we could ever put into practice.  Through Kindness, especially the very specific acts of kindness which have somebody’s name on it, especially the kindness we show to those who oppose and persecute us…through showing this very non-random form of kindness, Jesus’s love and saving power is turned loose in a world that can be very cruel, dishonest, and hurtful.  
Bret Younger (In a sermon “Living Towards Hope”  @ www.goodpreacher.com) gives some images of kindness among his very common, everyday images of hope:  He tells of an accountant who gets a unexpected call from an old friend inviting him to lunch… 
A cabdriver, who picked up a fare in a wheelchair and took her to the grocery store for free.   
A ten-year-old got an A on a history test, because her Father helped her study. 
A boy in love pointed out a bright star in the eastern sky to the girl to finally agreed to go to a football game with him. 
A deacon went by the hospital to check on someone he didn’t know. 
A church had a business meeting and nobody got angry. 
An elderly woman got a visit from some teenagers. 
An unemployed truck driver with aching feet went into a church clothes closet and was given a new pair of shoes. 
Someone share a clean joke with and a retired school teacher who laughed out-loud for the first time since her husband’s death….

I know that there are still people out there who like to make news by assuming that “voting right” “arguing right, or even “being right” is the way to save the world.  But I’m just one of those people who “strange” and maybe “shrewd” and “cleaver” enough to believe that it is kindness, not rightness, that is the kind of righteousness Jesus had in mind.  The hymn writer says it best: 
In loving-kindness Jesus came
  My soul in mercy to reclaim,
And from the depths of sin and shame
  Through grace He lifted me.

   From sinking sand He lifted me,
    With tender hand He lifted me,
    From shades of night to plains of light,
    Oh, praise His name, He lifted me!
 .   Amen

   





Sunday, September 12, 2010

LIVING IN THE SPIRIT OF PATIENCE

"Hurry Up and Wait!"
A sermon based upon Luke 15: 1-10
By Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
September 12, 2010, Proper 19C

Today’s text from Luke opens with religious leaders losing their patience with Jesus because Jesus displays too much patience with sinners (15.2). 

In response, Jesus shares 3 stories to illustrate divine patience in some very human situations during biblical times.  We know these stories as the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.  In each story, having patience with sinners is taught from three different angles, with the stakes becoming higher each time. 

Take a look at how patience is taught in each story.  In the story of the lost sheep, the shepherd is patient enough to leave 99 sheep and go after the one.  In the second story, the woman is patient enough to turn her whole house upside down to find one single coin.  And finally, in the last parable, which is outside of today’s reading, but is the one story we relate to most, it is the  unusually “patient” Father who is “waits” on the prodigal to come home.

Each of these very dramatic, unforgettable stories, serve as pointers toward the patience of God with sinners, which is one of the most important teachings found in the Hebrew Bible.   We encounter this saying twice.   The first time is right after the writing of the 10 commandments, in Exodus 34: 6-7, where Moses worships God saying: "The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, 7 "keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and the fourth generation." 8 So Moses made haste and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped.  (Exo 34:6-8 NKJ).  The theme reoccurs again in Nehemiah 9:17 with the renewal of the law.  In both instances patience; the ability to be “slow to anger” flows out of “steadfast love.”  This responds directly with Paul’s own understanding that “patience” follows the fruit of love.

PATIENCE IS BEARING EMOTIONAL PAIN FOR ANOTHER  
When we encounter divine “patience” as the ability to be “slow to anger” or “longsuffering”, we discover that the act of patience flows directly out of God’s character.  God’s patience points directly from who God is as “merciful, gracious,” etc.  In the same way, our own ability or inability to have patience points directly to who we are.    

Think also about how our character develops as our personhood develops.  Babies don’t have much patience, but as they grow in understanding, trust and maturity, patience also grows as they don’t have to cry and scream at everything that does not go their way.  This word “longsuffering” is a very good word understanding what it means to “grow” in patience. To “suffer-long,” means that someone bears the emotional burden of not getting what they want, or they or they take upon themselves the personal pain of being with another person who does not relate to them as they should.  This whole idea of taking being able to bear or take “suffering” upon ourselves is crucial in understanding patience.  When God is patient with us, the prevailing biblical image is that God ‘bears our sin’ upon himself (as Jesus does on the cross).   When we are patient with others, we also bear their failures, faults, and flaws.  When we “bear another person’s stuff,” we participate in the divine activity of redemption and reconciliation. 

Isn’t this how all of life works, on both the physical, emotional and the spiritual levels?  Until you teach and train your body to “suffer” some pain, discomfort, or endure some level of struggle, you can’t make any advancement, gain any benefits.  Stronger muscles grow because we push our muscles to their limit, then we let them rest and repeat the process until they become stronger through the “pain and suffering” we make them go through.   When we want to buy something outside our budget, we have to suffer the pain of “not spending”, or even doing without something, so that we can save the money to buy the desired item we want.  In this way we delay “gratification” (as psychology says) or we accept a little pain or less comfort now, so we can have something we want later. 

In much the same way, when we want to build our social or business skills, we have to endure and suffer to be patient with people, even with people we don’t like.  I’ll never forget my Father teaching me to always have patience with the customer.  You know the slogan, “the customer is always right.”  Sometimes this slogan makes no sense and it is totally wrong, but you have to teach and train your mind to automatically think this way and to detach yourself from your own emotions, so that when your customer loses their cool, you don’t lose yours.  Then hopefully, things will work out and you won’t lose both your cool and your customer. 

In each of these parables, we see can see clearly what Jesus is trying to encourage the Pharisees and his disciples to participate in God’s saving work in the world.  If we are going see lost sheep rescued, have lost coins found, and see lost children come home, we’ve also got participate in the pain that is “out-there” and we’ve also got to be able to accept some discomfort within ourselves.   We have to develop a kind of ‘evangelistic patience’ to bear the pain of risks, of keeping focus and maintaining energy, and we must learn how to pray and to wait on God.    This is not easy.  It sometimes means some suffering, and it sometimes means “long suffering.” 

HAVING PATIENCE MEANS DEALING WITH OUR OWN STUFF
However you finally come to define “patience,” it most always implies some form of suffering with or for another.  But now the question comes: how are we able to bear the pain of another when life can be so painful for us already?  Whereas God can “suffer” for us because he has no pain of his own, we don’t have that kind of luxury.  We not only have to “deal” with the “pain” others can cause us, we also have to deal with our own “pain” that comes in life; very often due to no fault of our own.  In order to have patience with others, somehow we have to find a way to cope with our own pain and hurts. 

We can see this need to deal with our own “stuff” first, as we read between the lines in each of the “hero’s” of Jesus’ stories.  Each one had to work through certain types of “suffering” before they could take on the “pain” of the other.  The Shepherd, in order to risk himself for the lost Sheep, has to deal with his own fear of death, or his fear of losing all other sheep.  The woman has to deal with her own loss of time, money and effort, which was probably worth far more than one single coin.   We can most clearly see the “loss” and “pain” in this  Father, who not only had one son who took half of his money and lost it, putting the whole family at risk, but he also had another Son who brought him all kind’s grief and pain because this “elder” son had no “heart.”  (Who would want this elder son taking care of you in your old age?)   What we must not miss is that in order to have patience to deal with any of these “lost” things, there had to be risk taken, effort made, and of course, the acceptance of various forms of personal pain and suffering.  

How can we develop patience, when we all have our own stuff to deal with?  It may seem unlikely, but most people do develop some level of patience in their lives, and amazingly you often discover that people with the most pain develop the most patience.  How does that happen?  One thing for sure, you don’t develop patience simply by just wanting it.  Patience is not simply something you can put on your shopping list.  Patience is something you gain as you develop it as a gift of God, as you character grows, and as you give more and more of yourself to God.  

Think of it this way, if you don’t already have love, joy and peace in your hearts, patience will not grow.   If you don’t want to become a kinder, better, more faithful person, gentile, disciplined person, you’ll keep struggling to be patient with anyone, including yourself.   Patience flows out of the love we feel, the joy we have, and the peace we desire with God and others.  When you are willing to take up your cross and suffer for the sake of the greater good, for the sake of another, for your growth in faith and character, then patience becomes possible.     

Several years ago, when a Church wanted to reach out to troubled children in the city, it already had workers with hearts wanting to take on this challenge.   They were taking a Bus into the city and picking up these children.   While it was one thing to “want” to reach out, it was another thing to actually have to deal with these children who could, at times be very rude, crude, even cruel to the other kids, especially our own “church” kids.  At first, as we launched the ministry, it was a bumpy ride.  Some of the “parents” became very impatient.   What we had to do to work through the problem is give the parents others ways and resources of dealing with their fears and problems.  One thing we did, was to move the regular children’s work to Sunday evening and we announced that the Wednesday evening work would be “missionary” work.   This gave the parents an option and a way out.  Interestingly, the work took off and the major problems smoothed out.  We were able to move ahead, and parents had more patience with the children and with the leaders, because we gave them more resources to help them deal with their fears.   They could not take upon themselves the “pain” of the other children, until they were able to resolve some of their own stuff and provide the emotional resources needed.     

Patience will always be a great challenge for those have great emotional pain, struggles which have not been addressed, or who don’t have the emotional or spiritual resources in their lives.   People are quick to anger, have all kinds of unresolved “stuff” lurking just below the surface, and one single matter that comes at them, unsuspected and unaware, can set them into a mode of anger and wrath. 

 In order grow in patience we have to resolve that which remains unresolved in our own hearts.  Impatient, uncaring people always show the clearest signs they are not doing enough to care for themselves.   Think of it this way.  In a distressed airplane, the stewardess instructs parents to first put the oxygen mask on themselves before they put the mask on their children.  We must take care of matters of our own care, so we can care for and be patient with others.  Maybe the best way to say this: In order to develop more patience with others, first deal with your stuff, and then become more patient with yourself.  As Jesus says, you can’t love your neighbor as yourself, until you have shown care and respect for yourself. 

PATIENCE IS NOT WITHOUT LIMITS.
Another part of growing in patience comes from a different angle altogether.  None of us have unlimited patience, and if we think we do, that could spell disaster.  Constantly giving in to another person’s wrong, stupidity, or weakness is not what patience means.  If we think it is, we are in for a rude awakening.   One day our patience will run out, or we will, or they will.

When we practice patience, like God practices patience with us, there we not only develop the ability to suffer with another, but we also must become sure about where our limits and boundaries are.  Having these “limits and boundaries” is one of the most important parts of growing in patience and keeping our patience.   Do you see what God does?  Notice again in this great text from Exodus where it says:   "The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, 7 "keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children to the third and the fourth generation." (Exo 34:6-7 NKJ). 

God does not have unlimited patience with us.  There is a point of no return, an unpardonable sin, and there is a point where God will “give us up” and let us go.  This is not just God’s way of dealing with us, but it is why God can have patience with us, because he knows that there are limits to he must do.    My Father was one of the most patient person’s I’ve ever known.  But I’ll never forget a warning I got from my father when I was growing up, getting my driver’s license and starting to have my own freedom.   He told me that he loved me, and he’d help me any way he could and all I had to do was ask.  Even if I faced big problems, all I had to do was come to him and he’d help me, if he could.   But then he said this: “But, if you get in trouble at school, or with the law, and if, God forbid, that you’d ever have to go to jail for something that you did and you really did it, I want you to know this one thing and not forget it; I will not come and bail you out.  You will face the consequences.   

God does not have patience on sinners without limits.   Remember, what Jesus said to  the woman caught in adultery.   Jesus forgave her, did not blame her, but then he said: “Go and Sin no more.”   Jesus meant this.  He was giving this woman another chance.  But if she blew it, she would then be on her own.  He could not help her.  

One of my favorite passages of Scripture comes from Galatians 6,1ff, where Paul ends his brilliant discussion on Christian Freedom.   Paul begins with some final words about helping someone who falls into sin---that is being patient, bearing the pain they cause, and then trying to restore that person.   He writes:   Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.  
2 Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
 3 If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
 4 Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, 5 for each one should carry his own load.
 6 Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.
 7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.
 8 The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Gal 6:1-10 NIV).  

Within in this reading, we see what makes patience possible, both among individuals and within a community.  There is love, understanding, caring, and bearing burdens, but there must also be reasonable “limits” on all this.  If the person does not “start carrying their own load”, then “God is not mocked, whatever a person sows is what a person reaps….”   We be “graceful” toward others, but others must return grace for grace.  If receiving grace does not make a return, this even God’s grace becomes “null and void”.  God also has limits.  This is part of what enables God to have patience with us.  He knows how far he can go, and he can go as far as he can.  We too must know, share, discuss and create “fair” and “just” limits, even on love, grace, and having patience.   Having such limits does not take away from patience, but it enables it.

One of the worst things some people do with those they love is not to clearly define the boundaries, for themselves or for those they love.  This can lead to all kinds of problems of  dependency and dysfunction in our relationships.   Healthy people, healthy families, and healthy communities don’t let just anything go.  They are patient and forgiving, but even that must have limits.  We all have to construct healthy boundaries and responsibilities in order for life and love to be real.  Out of such boundaries, limits, and contracts in life, that we are able to build communities, relationships and lives filled with love, joy, peace and patience with God and with others. 

GROWING PATIENCE COMES FROM GROWING FAITH & TRUST
In the book of James we find one of the most wonderful pictures of learning patience, which comes by way of learning from the farmer.  This image can instruct us well in our own farming communities, even if we are no longer farming ourselves.  

Most of us who read the Bible regularly, realize that James is a very practical book, telling us that if our faith doesn’t have practical works behind it, it is dead.  The book of James is filled with practical wisdom for living out God’s grace in the world.   Near the end of the book, James is writing about a world that is filled with fights, quarrels, arguments, conflict.   Most of all this, says James, stems out of people’s unwillingness to humble themselves before God.   “Humble yourselves… come near to God and he will come near to you.”  This is James’ recommendation at the close of the 4th chapter.  Now, in his conclusion (chapter 5), James warns “wealthy” people who’ve been so busy taking care of themselves and their money, that because they have forgotten to take care of their souls that their luxury will come to an end so that they will soon find themselves  like “animals fattened for the slaughter….”   Again, we see how God has limits and is able to maintain his own patience and be longsuffering with us, because he is also able to let us go and suffer the consequences of our own actions.  

But then, we come to the final part of the text, where James turns to those who’ve been suffering because of the injustice of the world and the wealthy, and this is what James says:
 7 Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains.  8 You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near.  9 Don't grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! 10 Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.  11 As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (Jam 5:7-11 NIV)   Do you know how the “Farmer” in James example learned patience?  The farmer knew that he had to wait, and when he did wait, when he trusted and had faith in the land, the soil, the weather and the season, it would not finally fail him.  He might have a bad year, but the good year will come.  

Finally, for all of us, patience is born out of our ability to trust and have faith.   When you don’t have “faith”, you can’t trust, and when don’t trust, you  won’t see patience growing as a fruit of the Spirit in your life as it grows and flows out of the love, joy and peace that is already being fruitful in your life . 

This week in the news, we’ve all been taken aback, by the pastor in Florida, Terry Jones, whose led his “independent” 50 member congregation to declare Saturday, the anniversary of the 9-11 tragedy, as a “National Burn the Koran Day.”  I don’t know about you, but I could not help but be drawn into this story, as this “unknown” and obscure pastor took the “world by the horns” as he planned to publically “burn the Koran”.   As whole world took notice and pleaded with him not to do this, not because he was wrong in his beliefs about militant Islam, but because he was putting many Americans, including our soldier’s in Afghanistan at risk, the pastor would not back down.  

Again, we can appreciate his concern about militant Islam.  We can appreciate his frustration about  9/11.  We can also appreciate his desire to have the Mosque in New York City moved somewhere else.   What we can’t appreciate, should never appreciate, if we want to remain Christian and true followers of Jesus, is that he lost all faith, not just in Islam, or in people, but he lost all faith in Jesus Christ and God’s way to save the world-- not through deeds of revenge, hate, nor aggression (which burning the Koran would have been), but through mercy, goodness, mercy and abounding love.  What this “pastor” also lost was his patience, not just with Islam, but with the Savior who did not return evil for evil, but had patience and compassion to suffer-long with to overcome evil with good.  

A wonderful contrasting image to this angry, impatient pastor in Florida, is Pastor Steve Stone and the HeartSong Church near Memphis.   This week, while a very impatient Terry Jones was contemplating burning the Koran, members of the Islamic Center in Cordova, Tennessee, were ending Ramadan, as they worshipped in a Christian Church.  Yes, you heard me right.  Muslims were worshipping in a Christian Church.  While their own Islamic Center was still under construction, the neighborly Christians opened their doors, as they said Jesus would have done, allowing Muslims a place to worship. 

How could they do a thing like this?  I like what one woman in the congregation said:  “They may not have the same faith I have, but at least they have faith!”  or as the pastor also said: “We think it is right to follow our Lord and love our neighbor.”   Amen, sister and brother!   You’re my kind of Church---still following Jesus.  (As seen on NBC News with Brian Williams on 9.9.2010).

This is how patience is born in us, when we deal with our own stuff, bear the cross with Jesus, and keep trusting the Lord who gives us the farm and the opportunity to grow the fruit of the Spirit which is love, joy, peace, and also patience….   Amen!


© 2010 All rights reserved Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Mi