1146) A Sermon for Memorial Day (b)

Vietnam Reflections, by Lee Teter, 1988

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     (…continued)  Four Scripture passages that speak to this issue…

     I Samuel 17 tells the familiar story of David and Goliath.  David, probably only 15 or 16 years old, accepted the challenge to fight the giant warrior Goliath, and David killed him on the field of battle.  God, who many years later punished David severely for the sin of adultery, had no objection to David killing this giant enemy soldier whose army was making war against Israel.  In fact, the text clearly implies that it was God who made David’s unlikely victory possible.

     Romans 13 discusses God’s work through government and the Christian’s duty as a citizen of his or her government.  Verse one says, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”  This does not mean that Kim Jong-un in North Korea and others like him, have been hand-picked by God and have God’s blessing.  What is meant in the passage is that the authority of government in a general sense is an authority that God works through to bring peace and order.  Certainly governments can go wrong, and these verses are qualified and limited in the Bible by verses such as Acts 5:29.  There, Peter said he would not obey the authorities who were telling him to quit preaching, saying, “No, we must obey God and not men.”  

     In day to day life this can all get very messy, and that too is described in the Bible.  Here, in Romans 13 Paul called government the servant of God, but in Revelation 13, that same Roman government a few years later is symbolized by an evil beast which, said John, received its power and authority from the devil.  Government in general is a gift of God through which he can do his work, just like God can work through individuals.  But governments can, like individuals, become evil, and then must be opposed by other governments so that people may be protected.  As I said, this gets messy; and, as Paul said elsewhere, we walk by faith and not by perfect seeing, and so good Christian people might well disagree on what to do and when to obey and when to resist.  But Romans 13 makes it clear that we must at least begin with a respect for the authority of the government.

     It is not my purpose here to examine the justice of individual wars.  Some would have more merit than others.  The need for, purposes of, and procedures followed in the Vietnam War, certainly the most controversial of all our wars, are still being debated decades after the last soldier fell.  There are many who think getting involved in Vietnam was a bad idea from beginning to end; and others who argue very powerfully for its necessity in slowing Communism’s rapid advance.  If now, almost a half century later, the experts are still debating the merits of that war, it would be expecting far too much of an 18 year old draftee to have all the answers in 1967.  Most Americans have simply responded to the call of duty.  But those are other questions for other times.  Today we honor and remember those who were willing to serve in war and in peace.

     In Luke 3 John the Baptist had been calling on people to repent of their sins, change their ways, be baptized, and prepare for the coming of the Lord.  Some soldiers asked John what they should do.  If there was anything wrong with being a soldier, we would have heard about it here.  John was not one to mince words, and if he thought that those men should get out of the military and become conscientious objectors, he would have been the one to tell them, and this would have been the time to say it.  But John says no such thing, and instead tells them to just do an honest job of it:  “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely and be content with your pay” (verse 14).  He did not even say don’t kill anyone, because he knew that a soldier might have to do that sometimes.  Jesus also met a Roman soldier one time, a centurion, one in charge of a hundred men (Matthew 8).  Jesus, like John the Baptist before him, also did not tell this soldier to give up his soldiering.  Rather, he granted the centurion’s request, healed his servant, and then even praised the centurion for his great faith.

     In John 15:13 Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”  Jesus was talking about his own life that he was soon to lay down for his friends, friends that include you and me.  But those same words can be applied to our veterans; those who did or were willing to lay down their lives for others.  We have all been the beneficiaries of those sacrifices, and on this day we honor them.

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I Samuel 17:45-46a  —   David said to the Philistine (Goliath), “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.  This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands…

Luke 3:14  —  Then some soldiers asked him (John the Baptist), “And what should we do?”  He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely— be content with your pay.”

John 15:13  —  (Jesus said), “Greater love has no man than this: to lay down his life for his friends.”

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Lord God of Hosts, in whom our fathers trusted, we give thee thanks for all thy servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country.  Unite all the people of this nation to defend the freedom for which they lived and died.  Grant, we beseech thee, that the liberty they bequeathed unto us may be continued to our children and our children’s children, and that the power of the gospel may here abound, to the blessing of all the nations of the earth, and the thine eternal glory; through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord.  Amen.

The Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church U. S. A., Westminster, 1946, page 317.

1145) A Sermon for Memorial Day (a)

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St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Hanover, Minnesota; May 30, 2016

     Pacifism is defined as “opposition to war or violence of any kind, and the refusal to serve in the military because of one’s beliefs.”  There is, in the history of the Church and in the history of the United States, a long and noble tradition of Christian pacifism.  In every war, there have been Christians, like the Amish and Quakers and others, who when called upon to serve their nation in the military, have said “No, because of my religious convictions, I cannot do so.”  Many of them also said, “I will gladly serve our nation, but I will not serve as a soldier who may be called on to kill another human being.”  Our nation has provided for these conscientious objectors alternative forms of service, as medics or chaplain assistants or perhaps even in some non-military social service.  In other times and places, not in the United States of America, but other places, such options were not always given, and Christian pacifists would go to jail or perhaps even be executed for refusing to serve as soldiers.  One can admire such individual courage and faith, and at the same time appreciate that our government allows such freedom of conscience.

     On the other hand, the majority of believers in the history of the church and in the history of this nation have held a different opinion.  Thus, there is also a long and noble tradition of Christian soldiers, followers of Jesus Christ who believed they were serving God by serving their nation, even when that meant taking the life of others.  From the early days of the church there has been what is called the ‘Just War Doctrine,’ which recognizes that in this wicked world there are evil people who seek to conquer and kill and destroy, and they must be stopped.  Therefore, sometimes lives must be taken in order that many more lives may be protected and peace can be preserved.  This does not mean that every war is a just war, and it can all get very confusing.  But it does say that the commandment against killing has to be applied differently in a time of war.  The intent of that commandment is to protect life, and many times wars must be fought and some people must be killed so that many more lives can be saved.

     While I can admire the faith and convictions of the pacifists, and while they may at times be correct in refusing to fight, I do not agree with them.  And certainly, most Christians in most times and places have not been pacifists, but with or without knowing it, have been in agreement with the Just War Doctrine.  Most people, if their lives, families, and homeland are threatened, are willing to put up a fight, rather than submit to the threat.  Jesus did tell us to turn the other cheek, but that has usually been understood as having to do with getting along with others individually, and not intended to direct government policy.

     In fact, the Bible declares that governments must not turn the other cheek.  Romans 13 says that God has given governments the task of restraining evil.  Government is ‘an agent of God’s wrath,’ it says, to bring ‘punishment upon the wrongdoer.’  And how can the government do that work except through people?  And that must include Christians who are told in that same chapter to obey the governing authorities.  This is all far too complex for one sermon, but I want to say a few things about how this applies to Memorial Day.

     Good and honest Bible believing Christians have disagreed on all this, and there is room in the Church for such diversity.  I have never served in the military, but I am not a pacifist, and if I had been called on to serve, I would not have been a conscientious objector.  I have a deep appreciation for all who have served, and am grateful for our strong military.

     There is a quote on this question that is well worth pondering.  It is a little hard to determine who said it, but it has most often been attributed to the English writer George Orwell, who died in 1950.  If he did not say it, it certainly expresses his beliefs.  George Orwell was at first a pacifist, so in one war he was a conscientious objector, serving as a stretcher bearer to carry the wounded.  Then he changed his mind, and in the next war Orwell served as a soldier and carried a gun.  Here is the quote:  “We sleep peacefully in our beds only because rough men stand ready in the night to do violence on those who would do us harm.”  I have also seen it stated in these words:  “Those who protest against violence are free to do so only because others are committing violence on their behalf.”

     This is not to say that every act of war by every nation is always justified.  That is another question.  But Christians must not have a knee-jerk reaction against the violence that soldiers are trained to do.  I do realize I might be preaching to the choir, and that most of you here today are probably already with me on this.  However, I know that many veterans have an uneasy conscience about what they were called on to do in the military, and they should know that one can serve God as a soldier just as well as one can serve God by being a minister.

     As American citizens, we have much to be grateful for to you, our veterans, and especially to those who are not here today because they lost their lives on the field of battle.  The freedom and prosperity we enjoy, and, our government ‘of, for, and by the people,’ have been often threatened, and hundreds of thousands have died to preserve it.  It is still being threatened, as we all well know.  A strong military is needed even in peacetime, and so we remember and honor also those who served in the military and were not called on to go to war.

     Without the sacrifices and service of our veterans over the last 240 years, we would not have survived as a strong and free nation.  I agree with Abraham Lincoln who said a long time ago that the United States of America is the world’s last, best hope.  Therefore, not only for our own sake, but for the sake of the whole world, we want to preserve what God has given us here.

     Not only as citizens, but also as Christians, we have reason to be grateful.  One of the most basic of those freedoms that has to be defended is the freedom of religion, which is, in the history of the world, a rather recent freedom.  If you look around the world today, you see that the freedom of religion is a most fragile and vulnerable freedom.  Even in nations that are attempting to build democracies, religious freedom often takes a back seat to the need to settle ethnic differences.  The religious freedom that we have taken for granted here all of our lives is not automatically guaranteed, and again, we can thank our veterans for its preservation thus far.  (continued…)

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Romans 13:1-4  —  Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities,for there is no authority except that which God has established.  The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.  Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority?  Then do what is right and you will be commended.  For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.  They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

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O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy.  Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines.  This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

1144) One Soldier’s Testimony

This Memorial Day weekend we pause to remember the many soldiers who died to defend our nation and preserve our freedom.  The letter below wonderfully expresses much of what this day is about:  gratitude for sacrifices made in the past, appreciation for what we have in this nation, and the willingness to sacrifice even life itself to preserve it.  Along with that, it is a powerful testimony of faith; a faith that is grateful to God for past blessings (including deep gratitude for the blessings of marriage and family), a faith that puts the present in God’s hands (whatever may come), and a faith that looks forward to a future hope in that place where we will live again.  

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July the 14th, 1861

Washington DC

My very dear Sarah:

     The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days– perhaps tomorrow.  Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

     Our movement may be one of a few days duration, or it may be one of severe conflict and death to me.  “Not my will, but Thine O God, be done.”  If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready.  I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter.  I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution.  And I am willing– perfectly willing– to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

     But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows, is it weak or dishonorable that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle with my love of country?

     I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last sleep, perhaps, before that of death.  And I am suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart.

     I have sought most closely and diligently for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I love, and I could not find one.  A pure love of my country and of the principles I have often advocated have called upon me, and I have obeyed.

     Sarah, my love for you is deathless; it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

     The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long.  And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us.  I have but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed.  If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

     Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you.  How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been!  How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world to shield you and my children from harm.  But I cannot.  I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more…

     Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

     As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care.  Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood.  Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters.

     O Sarah, I wait for you there!  Come to me, and lead thither my children.

Sullivan

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Sullivan Ballou (March 28, 1829 – July 29, 1861) was a lawyer and politician from Rhode Island, and an officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War.  He was mortally wounded in the first Battle of Bull Run and died a week later.

This letter was never mailed.  It was found in Ballou’s trunk after he died, and then delivered to Ballou’s widow.  Sarah never remarried.  She later moved to New Jersey to live with her son, William. She died at age 80 in 1917 and is buried next to her husband.

The letter is a wonderful expression so many things:  faith in God, love of family, love of country, courage, honor, duty, gratitude to God, and trust and hope in God’s promise of eternal life.

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I Corinthians 13:4-8a  —  Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends…

John 16;19-22  —  Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’?  Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices.  You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.  A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.  So with you:  Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.

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My dear God, if you so desire that this be my last hour, then let thy will be done… and I shall gladly die. Only let your holy name be praised and glorified by my sufferings and death.  If it were possible, dear Lord, I would live longer for the sake of your blessed people.  But if the hour has come, then do as you please, for you are the Lord of life and death.  Amen.  –Martin Luther

1143) Muslim Refugees in Europe Finding Jesus

There are many aspects to the crisis of the influx of Muslim refugees into Europe.  This is one aspect Christians should be interested in.

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By Nadette De Visser, Amsterdam, 5-25-26 blog at www.thedailybeast.com (edited)

     Hundreds of Pakistanis and Afghans have been lining up at a local swimming pool in Hamburg, Germany, to be baptized as Christians.  In the Netherlands and Denmark, as well, many are converting from Islam to Christianity, and the trend appears to be growing.  Indeed, converts are filling up some European churches largely forsaken by their old Christian flocks…

     More than a little suspicion surrounds some of the current conversions, seen by some to be cynical bids to improve the chance of getting asylum.  And, looking forward, it’s potentially quite dangerous for those who embrace the Gospel to return to homelands where abandoning Islam for another faith can be treated as a capital crime.

     Still, many preachers are pleased.  The German pastor of the Evangelical-Lutheran church in Berlin calls the conversion phenomenon “a gift from God.”  In his modest community there are a staggering 1,200 Muslims, mainly Afghans and Iranians, converted in just three years.

     In Hamburg, where German ARD-TV showed the Pakistanis and Afghans lining up to be baptized by the pastor of the Persian Church community, more than 600 people reportedly were received into the congregation.

     There is no reliable overall figure for converts in northern Europe, but judging by reports from different media outlets, it is safe to assume the number runs into the thousands, maybe even tens of thousands who say they want the Gospel, “the good news,” offered by Jesus Christ.

     One young Iranian woman convert told the German news magazine Stern, “I’ve been looking all my life for peace and happiness, but in Islam, I have not found them.”  Another convert told Stern he had found in Christianity an element— love— that was missing from the faith he was brought up in.  “In Islam, we always lived in fear,” he said.  “Fear God, fear of sin, fear of punishment. But Christ is a God of love.”

     Many evangelical communities today… approach their work with missionary zeal…  In the Netherlands and other Northern European countries, such churches are very active giving refugee assistance.  They encourage refugees to accept Jesus in their lives and embrace the Gospel of love.  At the same time, they offer free Dutch lessons and may invite refugees for a temporary stay in Dutch Christian homes.  In many cases this is the first and the only glimpse refugees get into Dutch society outside the boundaries of a camp.

     The Dutch New Life Evangelical community in Alphen aan den Rijn reportedly saw 50 new converts added to its ranks in one year.  “They were touched by God’s word during the prayer sessions,” Pastor Ab Meerbeek told the national newspaper Trouw.  Most are from Iran and Afghanistan.  They listen to the sermons translated in Farsi on headphones.

     Whatever the reasons are for Muslim refugees to embrace Christianity, their conversions may endanger them if asylum is refused and they are sent back to their countries of origin.  And contrary to popular belief, conversion to Christianity can actually damage one’s chances of asylum in the Netherlands.  “It does not help people, because the Dutch authorities tend to distrust swift conversion,” said (one pastor).   “It can work against you when you are seeking asylum.”

     In Germany, conversion can work to a refugee’s advantage.  “Members of our community are almost always granted asylum,” Pastor Gottfried Martens of the Berlin Evangelical-Lutheran Church told BZ Berlin.  “They can’t go back without danger to their lives in their home country as Christians.”

     This paradoxical fact— converted Christians are more likely to be persecuted than those who stay Muslims, and are thus more eligible for asylum— may explain part of the recent surge in conversions.

     But there are many cases in which personal safety already is compromised before refugees arrive in Europe, says Geesje Werkman of Church in Action.

     “If an Afghan woman comes to you saying she wants to convert because she was raped and because of that she would be stoned, she can be deeply touched and wanting to convert because of a passage in the Bible that says, ‘He who is without sin cast the first stone,’” says Werkman.

     Werkman says she worries about generalizations.  “There is not just one story, there are a multitude of different stories,” he tells The Daily Beast.  “It really doesn’t help if the press writes that the conversions are unreliable, when there are so many different situations, it cannot be reduced to one story-line.”

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I Peter 3:15-16  —  In your hearts revere Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

Romans 12:13  —  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Hebrews 13:1-2  —  Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

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Lord God, no one is a stranger to you and no one is ever far from your loving care.  In your kindness, watch over refugees and victims of war, those separated from their loved ones, young people who are lost, and those who have left home or who have run away from home.  Bring them safely to the place where they need to be and help us always to show your kindness to strangers and to all in need.

–Catholic online

1142) A Forest Growing (b)

     (…continued)  Acts 2 tells the story of the day the church was born.  From that day onward, the church as a movement and as a fellowship of believers has spread out around the world and down through the centuries.  It is an amazing story.  

     But what kind of story is this story of the church?  There are many voices today in the news media, the entertainment industry, higher education, and in politics that are saying that this story of the church is, for the most part, a bad story, something of which Christians ought to be ashamed.

     It is not hard to find examples in church history and in the church today to make that case.  There have been religious wars, the church has at times supported slavery, and Christians have burned at the stake other Christians over minor doctrinal disputes, to cite just a few examples from history.  And there are many well publicized problems today; financial racketeering in the name of Jesus, sexual abuse by priests, the moral failures of high profile evangelicals, and scandals of every other kind.

     But in years past, children grew up with a different story of the church.  Catholic children were named after saints, learned of their lives, and were inspired to be like them.  Protestant children read books like Foxes Book of Martyrs and Pilgrim’s Progress, and learned powerful stories and positive messages about the history of the church.  Today, however, the message is so often only negative, and without a positive and appealing story and message, the church will not survive.  Young people hear again and again how bad the church is, and many want no part of it.

     But there is another way to look at this, one that offers a more complete picture of the church’s story.  There is a Chinese proverb that says:  When just one tree falls, it crashes with a tremendous noise; but while an entire forest is growing, no one hears anything.  The same may be said of the Church.  The church scandal stories that get all the attention are like the trees falling, here and there, with a loud crash.  But we must not let those occasional crashes blind us to the fact that we are in a whole forest, a whole world, which has been and continues to be blessed in a million ways by the growth of the church.  Life today would be much worse if not for the life and words of Jesus, and for the positive influence of the church that grew up from his followers.

     For example, most people do not realize that the Christian church is the largest single supplier of health care and education on the planet.  There are dozens of nations where, unless Christians were there providing education and health care, there would be nothing, because no one else is doing a thing.  Our own country, though becoming more secular, has almost all of its primary health care and education roots in the Christian church.  Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and many other of the nation’s first colleges were started as schools to train pastors.  St. Olaf, Augsburg, St. Thomas, St. Katherine’s, and Concordia are among the oldest and the best around here, and they also were started by Christians.  In the early years of our nation, there was no universal public education, and most children were taught by the local pastor, the only educated man in town.  And health care?  I think back to the hospitals I have visited as a pastor– St. Luke’s hospital in Minot, North Dakota; St. Joseph’s and Immanuel hospitals in Mankato; St. Mary’s and Methodist hospitals in Rochester; and Queen of Peace, St. Francis, Bethesda, and Methodist hospitals in the Twin Cities area.  Their names tell their stories.  They were all started by Christians with support from their churches.  There is a whole forest of education and health care that has grown up all around us that had its beginnings with faithful people of the church.

     There is so much more to this forest.  There are whole nations in Africa where the infrastructure and government are completely broken and corrupt, and the only glue holding society together at all is the church.  In South Africa and Rwanda, after civil strife and violence by neighbor on neighbor, the church led the way in bringing reconciliation.  In India, it is the minority Christian church that provides the main opposition to the many injustices of the caste system, even though the church itself faces increasing persecution.  Iran is one of our nation’s worst enemies, and has expressed clearly its desire to annihilate this country.  Yet when Iran suffered a devastating earthquake several years ago, American Christians were there providing massive relief work.  In prisons around the world, the most successful single institution in rehabilitating inmates is the Christian organization Prison Fellowship, founded by ex-con and Christian convert Chuck Colson.  This is not to mention that slavery, which still exists in some Muslim nations, was brought to an end in all Christian nations, including this one, mostly by the efforts of Christians.  More recently, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s was led primarily by the African-American churches, and the primary motivation was the preaching of the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.  What’s more, our own system of democracy, with its goal of liberty and justice for all, has its roots in Christian doctrine.

    We all hear the occasional tree crashing of yet another embarrassment in the church.  In a worldwide movement of two billion sinners, there will much of that kind of noise.  But we must not forget that the world we live in is a better place in countless ways because of the life of Jesus Christ and the influence of his followers, the church.  When one looks at the big picture, it becomes clear that this is not a movement or an institution of which we need to be ashamed.  Its overall benefits have far outweighed its failures.  There is much in the church and in ourselves to be embarrassed by; but even in that we can see one of the church’s strengths.  The Church teaches us to examine ourselves honestly, and to indeed be ashamed where shame is needed, and to repent and pray for forgiveness.

     We must not be ashamed of Christ and His Church, neither should we be proud of it.  Pride has its own dangers.  Rather, again as we are taught, we should most of all, be grateful for all the ways God has, through the church, blessed us as individuals, and blessed the whole world.

     When just one tree falls, it crashes with a tremendous noise, but while an entire forest is growing, no one hears anything.  The church began very small, with a little group of believers, all together in one place, on that first Pentecost Day; and it has grown to what it is today, and has blessed the world in countless ways.  It has done so in so many big ways because, on the individual level, it has touched and influenced the hearts of billions– like the boy in the story I began with.  Slowly, quietly, in ways often hidden from the world, God’s grace has been at work– growing quietly but steadily– like a forest, or like seeds growing in a field.

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Mark 4:26-27  —  (Jesus said), “This is what the kingdom of God is like.  A man scatters seed on the ground.   Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.”

Mark 4:30-32  —  (Jesus said), “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?  It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth.  Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

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Most gracious Father,
we pray to you for your holy Church.
Fill it with all truth; in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it.
Where it is in error, direct it.
Where anything is amiss, reform it.
Where it is right, strengthen and defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, heal it and reunite it in your love;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.

–William Laud, English bishop  (1573-1645)

1141) A Forest Growing (a)

     Captain Marco was an officer in the secret police of the former Soviet Union several decades ago.  He was a cold-blooded, cruel man.  Part of his job was to arrest and imprison Christians who were members of unregistered churches and did not follow the government rules for church membership.  For propaganda purposes, the registered churches were allowed to have ‘some’ religious freedom, but it was a freedom that came with many restrictions.  One of those restrictions was that church members were not allowed to do anything to pass on their faith to another person, not even to their own children.  It was rules like that which made many Christians form their own non-registered churches, even though that meant arrest and persecution if discovered.  It was Captain Marco’s job to find, arrest, and discourage these Christians from continuing to meet.  His way of discouraging them was by imprisonment, beatings, and sometimes torture.

     One day, a twelve year old boy came into Captain Marco’s office.  “What do you want?,” snarled the captain.  The boy was intimidated and afraid and silent for a few moments. Then he overcame his fear and began to speak.  “Captain,” he said, “you are the man who arrested my parents from our church last month, and put them into prison.  Today is my mother’s birthday, and I always buy her a flower for her birthday.  But no one will let me see her, so I can’t give her a flower this year.  However, my mother always told me that Jesus said we should love our enemies and to respond to evil by doing good.  Therefore, I want to give you my mother’s birthday flower for you to give to the mother of your children.  Please take it home to your wife tonight, and tell her that I have forgiven you because of the love and forgiveness of Jesus.”

     Captain Marco, who had watched without caring as Christians were beaten and tortured, was stunned.  He was moved to compassion by such a courageous act of forgiveness by this little boy.  With tears in his eyes, he slowly walked around his desk and went over and embraced the boy.  

     Captain Marco’s heart was now changed by this example of Christian love.  He could no longer arrest and torture Christians.  It wasn’t long before he himself was arrested for disobeying orders, and for trying to learn more about Jesus.

     A few months after the boy’s visit to his office, the former Captain Marco was sitting in a filthy prison cell, surrounded by some of the same Christians he had previously arrested and tortured.  He tearfully told his cellmates about the young boy and the simple gift of the flower.  He now considered it an honor to share a cell with those he had previously hunted and attacked.  

     What incredible courage and forgiveness was displayed by that boy!  How does someone get that way?  Where does such courage, such Christ-like love come from?

     I don’t know any more about this story, but even from this little bit we can be sure of at least a couple things.  First of all, that boy came from a family that was a part of a community of believers, a church; and secondly, in that church and from his mother he heard some stories, and was shaped by those stories.  When giving the flower to Captain Marco, the boy said that Jesus taught us to love and to forgive our enemies.  

     If you belong to a church, you are going to hear that story of Jesus.  And in that story we do hear that Jesus taught us to forgive others, and we see that he himself was an example of such forgiveness.  Even from the cross he forgave his enemies, saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  A couple years later an early apostle named Stephen, while being killed by his enemies, prayed that same prayer for their forgiveness.  No doubt he was inspired by the story of Christ’s forgiveness.  And throughout the history of the church, there have been thousands of other stories of such forgiveness.  To be a part of a community of faith is to hear and be shaped by such stories, as was that 12 year old boy.  Great stories of faith, told and lived out by good and godly people, create, sustain, and pass on the Christian faith.  The purpose of the church is to tell those stories.  (continued…)  

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Matthew 5:43-45  —  (Jesus said),  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Luke 6:32-36  —  (Jesus said), “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners do that.  And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.  But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.  Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

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Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

–Jesus

1140) This Too Shall Pass (b)

     (…continued)  In Luke 16 Jesus told a parable about a similar reversal of fortunes.  The story opens with a rich man who has everything, living in luxury every day.  At this rich man’s gate is a poor man, covered with sores and hungry.  Lazarus is so poor that he longs to eat what falls from the rich man’s table.  He longs for it, the parable says, but he receives nothing.  Jesus doesn’t say anything about the rich man giving the poor man even so much as a crumb.

     In time, both men die, and then the tables are reversed.  The rich man is in agony in hell, but the poor man is with the angels.  Jesus is encouraging his listeners to think beyond just today.  He wants us to see ourselves in this story, and to think about our eternal destiny.  The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his brothers about the terrors of the life to come in that terrible place.  But Abraham says no, that will not be done.  Abraham tells the rich man they have Moses and the prophets (the Scriptures).  If they won’t listen to God’s Word, Abraham says, they won’t be convinced even if someone comes back from the dead to speak to them.

      A little phrase that is repeated many times in the Bible is, “And it came to pass.”  Someone once had a ring made and had inscribed on it some words based on that little phrase.  As a constant reminder to keep this larger perspective on life, the inscription read:  This too shall pass.  Explaining the inscription, the person said:  “This too shall pass; when one is happy, this makes one sad; but when one is sad, this makes one happy.”  Things do keep changing.  When you are in troubled times, just hang on, things will get better.  But this also works the other way.  When all is well and you are happy, just wait, that too will change.  There is trouble ahead for everyone.

     But the Bible adds to this endless back and forth is the eternal promises of God.  We do get jerked around in this life, back and forth between bad times and good, between happiness and sadness.  And if this life is all there is, then the last act is a sad one, and it does end up badly for all of us.  Good King Azariah suffered from poor health for his entire life, and wicked King Jeroboam enjoyed success, prosperity, and luxury; but they both ended up dead and in the grave.

     However, the Bible is always telling us that death is not the last act.  Death does not have to be the end of the play for us, but for those who believe in God’s promises, death is nothing more than the end of the beginning.  The rich man and Lazarus both die, but that’s not the end of the parable.  Life goes on for both of them, and the parable ends not with the grave, but with Jesus’ command to hear and believe God’s Word now while you still have the chance.

     The Bible’s message is a word of hope like nothing else this world has to offer.  This world is filled with countless opportunities for fulfillment and enjoyment, but it will not last.  So the Bible calls us to a much larger world and a much bigger life.  Death, for those who believe in Jesus, is not the end of anything, but merely an interruption before we are ushered into the vastness of God’s greater kingdom.

     “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,” Jesus said.  That’s what it means to be saved– not guaranteed prosperity here, not necessarily being healed whenever we ask for it here, not rewards and punishments handed out precisely according to our good and bad deeds here; but SAVED for all eternity in God’s home, far beyond the ups and downs, mysteries and injustices, problems and confusions of this brief life.

     If you enter Colorado from the east on Interstate 70 you will not, at first, impressed with the beauty of the state.  It will look like just more of the same empty, rolling plains that you have been coming across for a few hundred miles already.  But it would be a mistake to then conclude that Colorado is not a beautiful state.  You have not yet seen anything of the mountain lakes and streams, snow-capped peaks, towering forests, and the endless kinds of wildlife.  There is much to see and experience in Colorado, and a 15 minute drive in from the eastern border of the state does not even begin to hint at all that is there.

     In the same way, the few years of life we get in our little home on this little earth tell us very little of all the beauty and blessings that are ahead of us in the infinite magnificence of God’s eternal kingdom.  The apostle Paul once had a vision of heaven and wrote that it is far beyond even our wildest imagination.  It would be foolish to conclude from our limited experience here that God is not good or fair.  In this life God gives us only a glimpse of what there is to come.  Amos and Paul and Luke and all the other Biblical writers are always trying to open our eyes and broaden our perspective.  There is indeed another day coming, and even our best days here give just a hint of what that will be like.

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John 11:25  —  Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

II Corinthians 4:18  —  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

II Corinthians 5:7  —  For we live by faith, not by sight.

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Thy Kingdom come.

–Matthew 6:10

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

–Revelation 22:20b

1139) This Too Shall Pass (a)

     Amos was a farmer, called on by God to be a preacher to Israel, during the time of King Jeroboam.  This was a very good time for Israel in many ways.  The economy was good, the military was strong, its borders were safe, and the nation was at peace.  In the Old Testament book that bears his name, Amos describes these good times.  He describes the people as being secure and complacent.  They ate the finest food, lounged around on fancy furniture, listened to good music, and drank wine by the bowlful.

     But all was not well, according to Amos.  Israel was failing miserably as a nation in the most important way.  They were rich in every way, but they were poor in their spiritual life.  They had abandoned their God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt unto the good land that they were enjoying.  Not only had they forgotten the true God, but they had been worshiping all the false gods of the neighboring nations.  They even built altars to the detestable god Moloch, to whom they sacrificed infants by throwing them into fire.  Therefore, Amos’s message is not a happy or a hopeful one.  “Woe unto you,” he said, “for your lounging around and your feasting will come to an end.”

     King Jeroboam was a wicked king.  In II Kings 14:24 we learn that he “did evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not turn away from the sins of his father.”  Yet, God blessed the reign of this wicked king.  Verses 26 and 27 say that God saw how the people had been suffering and God saved them through this Jeroboam.  This wicked king, therefore, was blessed by God with a long and prosperous reign.

     This becomes all the more striking when, in the very next chapter of II Kings, we read about another king.  The nation had been divided by civil war many years before this, and while Jeroboam was king in the northern kingdom of Israel, a man named Azariah was the King of the south.  Unlike King Jeroboam, King Azariah was a good and godly man.  Chapter 15:3 says, “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father had done.”  

     So was this Azariah blessed by God for his faithfulness?  It does not appear that he was.  Verse five:  “The Lord afflicted the king with leprosy until the day he died, and he lived in a separate house.”  There is no further explanation given; just that this good king was afflicted by God with this most dreadful disease.  So, Jeroboam, the wicked king, has one of the most prosperous reigns in Israel’s history, and Azariah, the good king, lived out his days in illness and isolation.

     What’s going on here?

     Well, first of all, we learn from this that the Bible is a realistic book.  If everybody in the Bible who did the right thing had all the best things happen to them, and everyone who was wicked had nothing but trouble, we would have to say, “Well, that’s not how life is.  This is not a realistic book at all.”  But the Bible tells it like it is.  We can all think of people like Jeroboam who are very bad, but get all the breaks; or, like Azariah, are good people, but seem to have nothing but trouble in this world.  What we read in the Bible is indeed true to life.

     But more needs to be said.  The Bible not only describes life as it really is, but it is also, always, telling us that there is more to life than what we see.  The Bible is always broadening our perspective, always reminding us not to think only of ourselves and only of today, but to remember God and to remember eternity.  The Bible tells each of us to remember that there is another day coming.  For some people that will come as good news, and for others, that will be bad news.  

     The nation under Jeroboam were enjoying good times; but the blessings God had bestowed upon them did not inspire them to return to God with gratitude or faith.  They continued with their wickedness and injustice.  Therefore, God sent Amos to condemn them for enjoying their luxury at the expense of the poor in the land, as they were enslaving some of their own people.  God told Amos to tell them that the good times would not last.  Predicting their defeat by their enemies in battle and their being sent away into a faraway land, Amos said that when the bad times do come, “You will be the first to go into exile, and your feasting and lounging around will end.”  King Jeroboam was riding high for now, but, said Amos, his wickedness would, in the end, bring him down into ruin. 

     Azariah, on the other hand, being the good and faithful king that he was, would certainly have been familiar with the words of another good and faithful king, his ancestor king David.  David was the author of these wonderful words of hope in the 23rd Psalm:  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you, Lord, are with me… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  FOREVER.  When one has an eternal promise like that, one need not be discouraged by even a lifetime of leprosy.  There was another day coming, and so while Jeroboam had reason to fear the future, Azariah had every reason to be hopeful.  (continued…)

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II Kings 14:27  —  …The Lord… saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Jehoash.

Amos 6:6-7  —  You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.  Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.

II Kings 15:3…5a  —  (Azariah) did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father Amaziah had done…  The Lord afflicted the king with leprosy until the day he died, and he lived in a separate house.

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Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

–Psalm 31:5

1138) Whom Shall I Fear?

Martin Luther King, 1964

Martin Luther King, 1964

By Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), in Strength to Love 

     The first twenty-four years of my life were years packed with fulfillment.  I had no basic problems or burdens.  Because of concerned and loving parents who provided for my every need, I sallied through high school, college, theological school, and graduate school without interruption.  It was not until I became a part of the leadership of the Montgomery bus protest that I was actually confronted with the trials of life.  Almost immediately after the protest had been undertaken, we began to receive threatening telephone calls and letters in our home.  Sporadic in the beginning, they increased day after day.  At first I took them in my stride, feeling that they were the work of a few hotheads who would not fight back.  But as the weeks passed, I realized that many of the threats were in earnest.  I felt myself faltering and growing in fear.

     After a particularly strenuous day, I settled in bed at a late hour.  My wife had already fallen asleep and I was about to doze off when the telephone rang.  An angry voice said, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you.  Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”  I hung up, but I could not sleep.  It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once.  I had reached the saturation point.

     I got out of bed and began to walk the floor.  Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee.  I was ready to give up.  I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward.  In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God.  My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.  The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory.  “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right.  But now I am afraid.  The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter.  I am at the end of my powers.  I have nothing left.  I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

     At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him.  It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth.  God will be at your side forever.”  Almost at once my fears began to pass from me.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything.  The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.

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Psalm 118:5-7a  —  In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and he answered by setting me free.  The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.  What can man do to me?  The Lord is with me; he is my helper.

Psalm 27:1-3  —  The Lord is my light and my salvation– whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life– of whom shall I be afraid?  When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall.  Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though, war break out against me, even then will I be confident.

Psalm 23:4 — Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 

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In all time of our tribulation; in all time of our prosperity; in the hour of death, and in the day of judgement, spare us, good Lord.  

—Book of Common Prayer,  The Litany

1137) The Trinity (d)

     Christians believe, as do Jews and Muslims, that there is one God.  But unlike Jews and Muslims, Christians believe that within that one God are three separate and distinct persons; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Not even the most brilliant theologians have understood this concept of a three-in-one God, but anyone who takes Jesus own words seriously is left with this difficult description of God.  If you feel the need to comprehend completely the nature of God, you are going to be in trouble on this.  But if you, like the disciples and early Christians, are sufficiently impressed by a man who rises from the dead, then you, like them, will be happy to believe in Jesus as Lord, and accept what he had to say about the nature of God– whether or not you can comprehend it.

     Jesus prayed to the Father as if the Father was someone else, but then he said, “I and the Father are one.”  When Jesus was dying he committed his spirit into the hands of his heavenly Father, even though he had said, “I and the Father are one.”  Jesus said, “Believe in me and you too shall live,” and he rose from the dead.  If we think mathematically, we are puzzled.  We think we will have to decide which it is, one God or two?  The resurrection of Jesus gave the highest authority to everything he said, and the disciples believed in what he said about God, whether or not the math worked for them.

     Who led them into this belief?  In John 16:13 Jesus said, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all truth.”  It was, therefore, God the Holy Spirit who led them into that truth, that’s who.  The disciples, good Jews that they were, must have said to each other, “Who?  What’s this, another God?  How is this going to work?”

     But again, the authority of the risen Jesus forced them to deal with it.  Finally, after a couple centuries, the church said, “We give up on trying to figure this out. We are just going to go by what our Lord told us, and so “We believe in God the Father… and, we believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord… and, we believe in the Holy Spirit.”  One God and three persons within that one God.

     Any questions?  Yes, of course there are questions.  But the Bible says that we are saved by believing in Jesus; we are not saved by fully comprehending the nature of God.  So if you believe in Jesus, and you are not overly bothered by the fact that the nature of God is beyond your limited understanding, you will be all right.

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John 1:1-4…14  —  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind…  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 8:23-25a  —  (Jesus said), “You are from below; I am from above.  You are of this world; I am not of this world.  I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.”  “Who are you?” they asked.

John 18:36  —  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders.  But now my kingdom is from another place.”

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