Archive for June, 2011

Shepherds and Freedom

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Jeff Witmer
26 June 2011

We Christians like to think of Jesus as a shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who protects us, retrieves us when we go astray, and leads us. (Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.”) But how do shepherds lead? I’ve never been a shepherd and although I met a shepherd or two when I was in New Zealand, I have not watched one working.

My friend Don Bentley – a retired statistics professor, now ordained minister and some-time archeologist – told me of an experience he had about two years ago. Don was spending part of the summer in Israel, working on a tell (a mound, where an ancient city had been) with a team of archeologists when one morning he saw a shepherd and a herd of sheep moving forward near the tell on which Don’s group was working. Don watched as the sheep walked forward with the shepherd near the back. If the sheep started drifting too far to the right, the shepherd would throw a small stone at the sheep farthest to the right, hitting the outside, right, shoulder of that sheep, causing it to turn to the left. If the herd was going too far to the left, the shepherd threw a stone at the left side of the sheep farthest to the left, making it move to the right.

Thus, leading sheep means following behind them and watching and guiding, not being in front and having them follow. God and Jesus give us great latitude. We are sent in a general direction but can choose how to do things and where to go (within limits).

OK, some questions. Does God exist? Was Jesus the (literal) son of God? Should priests be allowed to marry? What about gays and lesbians; should they be allowed to marry? Who created the Earth, life, the universe? I remember my old friend Fred Gregory talking about the idea that “design” implies “a creator”: You look around, you see beauty, you see patterns, and you say “There must be a Creator – God – behind all of this.” Now, I could talk at length about problems with the idea that “Creation, particularly the human body, is the work of impeccable genius!” but instead I’ll just mention Fred’s response. Fred’s theory is that saying that ‘design implies that there is a Creator’ robs us of faith. Instead, we are able to believe, or to reject, the theory that creation happened as outlined in Genesis. God gave us the freedom to reject God. You are free to believe what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong.

More questions: Do you give money to the church? Do you help friends in need? Do you help strangers?
You are free to act as you wish.

But if we have near total freedom, then who is in control? We are, to a large extent. Everyone likes a strong leader. We feel comfortable when we think someone or something is in charge, making sure that all will turn out as it should.

But to my way of thinking, we should not be so comfortable! We should not think of God being in control of everything. Rather, we are co-creators of the future, working with God.

My grandfather, an Evangelical and Reformed Church minister, had many stories that he used in his preaching. Here is my favorite:
A country pastor was out visiting his ‘sheep’ on a weekday, going from house to house, which meant going from farm to farm. A farmer, seeing the pastor walking up the road, stopped working for a minute and leaned on a fencepost at the edge of his property. When the pastor arrived the two men started talking, with the pastor saying “The crops are coming in nicely this year” to which the farmer said “Yes, we are going to have a good harvest.” The pastor said, “We are blessed that the Lord provides for us” to which the farmer said “The Lord and I are good partners; if you want to see how the Lord does without my help, take a look at the weeds growing on the other side of the fence.”

We are co-creators of the future, but being co-creators means that we have an awesome responsibility, one that we generally shirk. Indeed, it is more than a little scary to think of yourself as being in charge and responsible for things. With freedom comes responsibility. What should we do? How about this advice: Do whatever needs to be done! Hoping someone else will take care of things does not cut it.

It might be comforting to think of God being in charge of everything, but even this can lead to real discomfort when bad things happen. My friend Murray Clayton was listening to the radio on the morning after a severe winter storm in Wisconsin had left a number of cars in the ditch, hearing callers praise God for their save travel, or the safety of family members and friends. He asked “And does this mean that the hand of God pushed those other cars off of the road?!?” Many people have turned away from religion because they cannot reconcile the idea of a just and loving God with the reality of injustice, pain, and suffering in the world.

William Sloane Coffin, when his son died, explained his understanding that God does not cause violent death (although God set into motion a world that very much includes death). He wrote “My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

Bad things do happen, no matter how hard we try to make everything be OK. But know that you are not alone in creating the future, and I don’t just mean that you have God as a partner, I mean that you have the rest of us as partners as well.

We have free will. Bad things happen to good people (and to bad people) because of the choices we make, plus some randomness. Maybe some people chose to live in Joplin, MO, and then a tornado came through, but I count that as bad luck, not as a bad choice. There are random elements of life, many of them. Life is not fair, but so what?
I remember a scene from the movie Contact, which I summarize here. Tom Skerritt’s character gives an insincere apology for a decision, saying that he wishes the world were a fair place, but unfortunately it isn’t. Jodie Foster’s character (Ellie Arroway) replies “I’ve always thought that the world is what we make it.”

That’s my thinking as well. Maybe the Rapture is coming, but so what? Do we sit around and wait? No, we live our lives, acting in faith and love toward others, helping them, now, whether or not there is a tomorrow.

I remember David Hartman as the host of Good Morning America during its first ten years on television. At the end of each show he said the same thing – something that I say to my students at the end of each class meeting when I am teaching. As the hour comes to an end I say to my students “Make it a good day!” I don’t wish that they “Have a good day” although that would be OK. Instead, I give them an assignment of sorts, as if the homework that I assign and the projects and the exams weren’t enough, I give them even more responsibility, and I do it every time I see them. “Make it a good day.”

This is sort of shorthand for a larger assignment: Remember the future as you want it to be; then get to work on making those memories true.

The Lord is my shepherd, who invites me to join in creating the future. A future of justice, of love, of beauty, of challenge, and of freedom.

Make it a good day!

It’s the ends of the Earth, not the end of the world.

Saturday, June 4th, 2011

Acts 1:1-14
June 5, 2011
Steve Hammond

It was the wrong question then and it’s the wrong question now. “Is now the time you are going to restore the Kingdom to Israel, Jesus?” the disciples asked. Or as we would say it now, “Are these the end times?”

We just went through this a couple of weeks ago. Some preacher out in California convinced members of his radio audience to get rid of everything they owned in preparation for the end of the world which was supposed to take place on Saturday, May 21st, at 6:00pm in every time zone. I guess it was actually the beginning of the end, it was the beginning of the process that was supposed to take five months when on October 26th it would all be over.

This, of course, was not the first time the end of the world has been predicted. It wasn’t even the first time this guy predicted the end of the world. Previously he had said it was supposed to happen in 1994. This is a time honored tradition that goes back beyond the early days of the church.

Jesus wouldn’t have anything to do with it when the disciples started talking about it. They asked him if he would tell them whether this really was the time. What he told them was that he really didn’t care about that stuff. He wouldn’t give them times and dates, but he would give them the Holy Spirit. And when they received the Spirit they would be empowered to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. Having people bare witness to him to the ends of the earth was much more important to Jesus than the end of the world.

Luke tells us that Jesus spent those 40 days with the disciples after his resurrection in face to face conversations where he “talked to them about things concerning the Kingdom of God.” Forty days is a long time to talk about one topic. And this topic, the Realm of God, The commonwealth of God, the Culture of God, or the Stuff of God as I like to think about it, is where it all began for Jesus. Mark puts it very succinctly in the first chapter of his Gospel “After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee preaching the Message of God: “Time’s up! God’s realm is here. Change your life and believe the Message.”

So Jesus spent 40 days talking with the disciples about the Realm of God, he began his ministry talking about the Realm of God, and his ministry was about the Realm of God. So what did he say about it? What did he show us about the Realm or culture of God? [Talk about it with those folk sitting near you]

What did you come up with? If we are going to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth, we have to know what we are talking about. That means, of course, we have to know what he was talking about.

There’s a lot in these verses at the beginning of the book of Acts that really catches my attention. One comes right at the very end of what we read this morning where it says how the Twelve “agreed they were in this for good, completely together in prayer, the women included.”

The women included. That may be one of the most powerful snatches of a verse in all the Bible. Luke makes sure we knew when Jesus was saying you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth, he meant all of us, including the women.

This was a society, of course, where the women were never included. But for Luke to record Jesus as saying the women were as much a part of this thing as the men, was absolutely revolutionary. This was what the Culture of God, the stuff of God was about. Ever since then, in spite of what Jesus said and taught, the church has been finding ways to exclude women and all kinds of other people. And we’ve done a pretty good job of it.

If we are going to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth, which includes lots of people God not supposed to be that interested in, we have to be an inclusive people. And the first place we have to start with that inclusive witness is where those first men and women who followed Jesus did, in Jerusalem, or the religious structures. That’s another interesting thing about his passage that has always fascinated me. Jesus didn’t send those women and men to the heathens first, but to the religious folk. We’re to tell them the women are included, The gay folk are included. The poor folk are included. People from different races, backgrounds, and situations in life are included. The prisoner, the outcast, the enemy are all included. And those religious folk, we are bearing witness to, of course, include ourselves.

So Jesus spent his last 40 days talking to the disciples, men and women included, face to face about the Realm the Culture, the Stuff of God. He had them all charged up about being his witnesses to the ends of the earth but before they could do any of that they first had to go to Jerusalem and wait.

Waiting is sometimes necessary. But the power of the Holy Spirit does come even when you are hiding out in some room so scared that the same folk who hung Jesus on a cross might come looking for you. But they did wait and they were empowered.

Mike and Heidi shared at study group the other night about all the waiting that took place in their lives as they sought out where exactly to the ends of the earth they were supposed to go. And that happened to be here. And now they are waiting to see how exactly they are being called to go into this part of the world we inhabit and be witnesses.

Do you know what nephylococcygia (nefe-lay-kok-si-jee-ya) means? It means cloud gazing. Jesus didn’t call us to gaze up in the clouds awaiting for his return, like the disciples were doing that morning. Rather, he sends us into this world as his witnesses. It is in this world where we are most likely to see him rather than in the clouds.

The story says Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, which is not a geographical place, but a functional place, a place of authority. God has given Jesus authority. If we are going to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, we have to trust his authority in our lives. Going to the ends of the earth, trusting what Jesus wants for our lives and this world is a much harder proposition than waiting for the end of the world.

There is a lot in this passage. But a couple of people who write a blog called “Two Bubbas and a Bible,” sum it up quite nicely. “The Holy Spirit will come. You will be witnesses. Don’t stand around cloud gazing.” I just would add one more. Include the women and everybody else if we are going to bear witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth.