1409) A Wooden Bowl for the Old Man

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By The Brothers Grimm (early 1800’s), from a story told as early as 1535

     There was once a very old man, whose eyes had become dim, his ears dull of hearing, his knees trembled, and when he sat at table he could hardly hold the spoon, and spilt the broth upon the tablecloth or let it run out of his mouth.  His son and his son’s wife were disgusted at this, so the old grandfather at last had to sit in the corner behind the stove, and they gave him his food in an earthenware bowl, and not even enough of it.  And he used to look towards the table with his eyes full of tears.  Once, too, his trembling hands could not hold the bowl, and it fell to the ground and broke.  The young wife scolded him, but he said nothing and only sighed.  Then they bought him a wooden bowl for a few half-pence, out of which he had to eat.

     They were once sitting thus when the little grandson of four years old began to gather together some bits of wood upon the ground.  “What are you doing there?” asked the father.  “I am making a little trough,” answered the child, “for father and mother to eat out of when I am big.”

     The man and his wife looked at each other for a while, and presently began to cry.  Then they took the old grandfather to the table, and henceforth always let him eat with them, and likewise said nothing if he did spill a little of anything.

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Exodus 20:12  —  Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

Isaiah 11:6  —  The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.

Matthew 7;12  —  (Jesus said), “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. 

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Look with mercy, O God our Father, on all whose increasing years bring them weakness, distress or isolation.  Provide for them homes of dignity and peace; give them understanding helpers, and the willingness to accept help; and, as their strength diminishes, increase their faith and their assurance of your love.  This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.   —Book of Common Prayer

1408) Believing Too Little; Believing Too Much

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By Lutheran pastor C. Jack Eichhrost  (Fall 1987 LBI newsletter)

     Most of us have thought that believing too little might be a spiritual flaw, but believing too much can also be a problem.  How so?  Shouldn’t we have faith — and if a little faith is good, why not a lot more; in fact why not more and more and more?

     Actually, believing too little and believing too much may both be forms of unbelief.  Believing too little is the habit of the secularist, the one who lives without relating daily life to God’s action.  The secularist is inclined to live within a closed world of nature; he is content to give natural explanations for almost everything and does not believe in supernatural interventions.  For him, God does not do miracles, because in this world view, miracles are impossible.

     If the secularist is an example of believing too little, what would it look like to see someone believing too much?  Such a person is overly fascinated with miracles and the supernatural.  In the Bible God did indeed perform miracles; he did extraordinary signs and wonders.  But God also acted through ordinary ways.  Because miracles are possible does not mean they are God’s standard operating procedure.

     When God fed the Israelites with manna and quail he gave them a supernatural sign; yet he fed them other ways as well.  Was the food of other times any less a gift from God?  For a time, God fed Elijah in a miraculous way by having birds bring him bread and meat every morning and evening (I Kings 17:6).  But when Elijah had food on a daily basis by other means through the rest of his life, that too was a gift of God and should be seen as such by the eyes of faith.

     Those people who expect God to perform special miracles for them as God did for Elijah are guilty of over-belief.  It sounds like faith, but it is unbelief.  Such people want God acting in spectacular ways just for them.  To say such extraordinary action is impossible or that God used to act that way but now does not, would be wrong.  But to expect God to do miracles for you, is to ask for signs God does not guarantee.  Such an expectation is not what faith should be, because it is not according to what God has made known to us.  Over-belief is living and acting according to our designs for God.  It sounds spiritual, faith-filled, and good.  But it is a wrong belief.

     Under-believing and over-believing feed each other.  Over-believing people are always talking about God’s miracles, giving the impression that God always works that way for people who really believe.  Under-believing people react and are turned off.  They do not want to sound like that or make any claims about God lest they appear to be the same.  Over-believing people thus are encouraged all the more to talk about God in exaggerated ways because their counter-parts do not talk about God at all.  Thus, one reaction feeds the other.

     The early church struggled in a world of unbelief, but it also had to cope with over-belief.  When it was deciding what scriptures were true (for it did have to decide that question) it rejected stories which were falsely filled with the supernatural.  It rejected the story of Jesus stretching a board that his carpenter father had sawed too short.  It rejected the story of how he made birds of mud and then commanded his birds to fly away while his playmates settled for just mud.  Those were stories of unbelief and not of faith because they showed a people that believed too much, and kept adding to the story as it was retold.  But the church did include the feeding of five thousand and the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Jesus did perform miracles as signs of the Kingdom of God breaking in.

     Never yet have I been fed by ravens who carried food to my table, like Elijah.  But always I give thanks for food prepared by loving hands, first by my mother during those years of childhood and in these years by my wife.  That food I receive as coming through an order of nature, but is still from the hand of God.

     Believing too much about God can get us into problems as severe as believing too little.  Those who have believed too much and think they have God in their control, often become cynical when some great jolt shakes the foundations.  Then they crumble.  Those who believe too little are in danger of a God who is only the divine emergency squad to get them out of tight scrapes.

     Blessed are those who struggle to keep true faith, who see God’s hand in all that is good, who have hearts open to all miracles, but who believe in God only as he has made himself known.

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Mark 8:11-12  —  The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus.  To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven.  He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.”

John 20:29  —  Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

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Lord, do with us as seems best in your own eyes; only give us, we ask, a humble and a patient spirit to wait expectantly for you.  Make our service acceptable to you while we live, and ourselves ready for you when we die; for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship/Occasional Services (#467)

1407) I’m Not Perfect, You Know

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     In Matthew 5:48 Jesus says, “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  How are you doing with that?  In the piece that follows, Philip Yancey describes the efforts toward perfection made by some religious groups in American history.  Believing they could do away with sin and create Utopian communities of perfect peace and harmony, the leaders of these groups made a noble attempt to get everyone to keep all the rules, all the time.  It did not work.  Every one of them failed.  Are you surprised?  While Yancey sees no hope for such projects, he does admire the effort. 

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By Philip Yancey in, A Guided Tour of the Bible, 1989, pages 657-658.

     A few years ago I attended a conference at a place called New Harmony, the restored site of a century old Utopian community.  As I ran my fingers over the fine workmanship of the buildings and read the plaques describing the daily lives of these ‘true believers,’ I marveled at the energy that drove this movement, one of the dozens spawned by American idealism and religious fervor.

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Rockers in the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky

     Many varieties of perfectionism have grown on American soil: the offshoots of the Second Great Awakening, the Victorious Life movement, the Shakers, and the communes of the Jesus movement.  It struck me, though, that in recent times the urge to achieve perfection has nearly disappeared.  Nowadays we tilt in the opposite direction, toward a kind of anti-Utopianism. The recovery movement, for example, hinges on a person’s self-confessed inability to be perfect.

     I prefer this modern trend.  I find it much easier to believe in human fallibility than perfectibility, and I have cast my lot with a gospel based on grace.  Yet in New Harmony, Indiana, I felt an unaccountable nostalgia for the Utopians:  all those solemn figures in black clothes breaking rocks in the fields, devising ever-stricter rules in an attempt to rein in lust and greed, striving to fulfill the lofty commands of the New Testament.  The names they left behind tug at the heart: New Harmony, Peace Dale, New Hope, New Haven.

     Yet most Utopian communities— like the one I was standing in— survive only as museums.  Perfectionism keeps running aground on the barrier reef of original sin.  High ideals paradoxically lead to despair and defeatism.  Despite all good efforts, human beings don’t achieve a state of sinlessness, and in the end they often blame themselves, a blame often encouraged by their leaders (“If it’s not working there must be something wrong with you”).

      Still, I admit that I sometimes feel a nostalgia, even longing, for the quest itself.  How can we uphold the ideal of holiness, the proper striving for life on the highest plane, while avoiding the consequences of disillusionment, pettiness, abuse of authority, spiritual pride, and exclusivism?

     Or, to ask the opposite question, how can we moderns who emphasize community support (never judgment), honesty, and introspection keep from aiming too low?   An individualistic society, America stands in constant danger of freedom abuse, and its churches are in danger of grace abuse.

     It was with these questions in mind that I read through the Epistles, charting the motives they appealed to.  I read them in a different order than usual.  First I read Galatians, with its magnificent charter of Christian liberty and its fiery pronouncements against petty legalism.  Next I turned to James, that “right strawy epistle” that stuck in Martin Luther’s throat (too much law and not enough grace for Luther).  I read Ephesians and then I Corinthians, Romans and then I Timothy, Colossians and then I Peter.  In every epistle, without exception, I found both messages:  the high ideals of holiness, and also the safety net of grace reminding us that salvation does not depend on our meeting those ideals.  I will not attempt to resolve the tension between grace and works because the New Testament does not.   We must not try to solve the contradiction by reducing the force of either grace or morality.

     Ephesians pulls the two strands neatly together: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith; and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (2:8-10).  Philippians expresses the same dialectic: “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (2:12-13).  First Peter adds, “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God” (2:16).

     I take some comfort in the fact that the church in the first century was already on a seesaw, sometimes tilting toward perfectionist legalism, and at other times toward raucous freedom.  James wrote to one extreme; Paul often addressed the other.  Each letter has a strong correcting emphasis; but all stress the dual message of the gospel.  The church should be both:  a people who strive toward holiness and yet relax in grace, a people who condemn themselves but not others, a people who depend on God and not themselves.

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Grant me, O Lord, to fervently desire, wisely search out, and perfectly to fulfill all that is pleasing unto Thee.  Order my worldly condition to the glory of your name; and grant me the knowledge, desire, and ability to do what is required of me.  I pray that my path to Thee be safe, straightforward, and perfect to the end.

Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downward; give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out; and give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.

Bestow upon me also, O Lord my God, understanding to know Thee, diligence to seek Thee, wisdom to find Thee, and a faithfulness to the end that may finally embrace Thee.  Amen.

–Thomas Aquinas  (1225-1274)

1406) Admiring Judas

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     I completed my seminary education in December of 1979 and was ready for my first congregation.  I was called to Christ Lutheran Church in Lignite, North Dakota.  Lignite is in the far northwest corner of that wind-blown, barren state.  On a windy, 30 degree below zero day in January, my wife and I and two small children moved into a crooked old parsonage that would be torn down a few years later.  I remember we felt a little bit sorry for ourselves way out there in the middle of nowhere.  But it turned out that the people were wonderful, and pretty soon we felt very much at home.

     Several years earlier, in 1962, Don Richardson began his ministry in a place even more remote than North Dakota.  Don was called to serve as a missionary to the Sawi tribe whose home was far up river from civilization, deep in the jungles of Dutch New Guinea.  The Sawis had not yet advanced beyond the Stone Age, and, they were cannibals and headhunters.  But still Don went there, taking along his wife Carol and their seven month old son.  The Sawis did not eat the Richardson family, but they did continue to make war on their neighboring enemy tribes, feasting on their slain foes and lining their huts with enemy skulls.

     Don and Carol worked hard to learn the complex language of the tribe, and they began to teach them about salvation in Christ Jesus.  There are always barriers to communicating the Gospel to cultures very different from one’s own, but the Sawi presented some particularly challenging problems.  For example, the Sawi culture placed a high value on treachery and deception.  It was a mark of distinction for a warrior to be able to deceive an enemy into thinking he was a friend, and then, when they least expected it, betray and kill and eat them.  So when the Sawi heard the story of the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus they were impressed, especially by the part about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.  But it was Judas, not Jesus, who was their hero.  To them, Judas was a clever deceiver to be admired, and Jesus was a fool to be laughed at.

     It appeared this would be an impossible barrier to overcome.  But one day Richardson learned of the Sawi concept of the ‘Peace Child.’  Even the Sawis and their enemies would at times get tired of killing each other, and for those times they had a ritual for making peace.  War had broken out while the Richardsons were living with them, and after weeks of fighting, the Richardsons began to talk about leaving.  The missionaries had been helpful to the Sawis in many ways, and the Sawis did not want to see them go.  Thus motivated to stop the fighting, the chief of the Sawi tribe agreed to pay the traditional price for peace.  In a generations old ceremony, the chief took his own infant son and placed him in the arms his enemies.  The child would live with the enemy tribe for the rest of his life, and as long as he lived, there would be peace between the tribes.  The chiefs of other tribes then also did the same, giving up a Peace Child of their own to their enemies.

     Don wrote: “If a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted.”  Through this analogy of Jesus being the ultimate Peace Child who will never die, Don was able to reach the Sawi with the truth of the gospel.  They came to believe that this God and this Jesus could be trusted.  Eventually the New Testament was published in their language, and many villagers placed their trust in Christ.

     Don Richardson wrote of his family’s work with the Sawi’s in a book called Peace Child.   The story has also been made into a 25 minute movie, which is a tremendous testimony to the transforming power of God’s grace.  You may view Peace Child here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UysvnI6DhMA

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     In 2012, Don Richardson, then 77, and his three sons, returned to the tribe that he and his wife went to over 50 years before.  An incredible 15 minute film of this visit titled Never the Same can be viewed at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mm6R9EPtMHo

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An interview with Don Richardson:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7n6a0KRcLE

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Romans 5:10 —  For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

Matthew 28:18-20  —   Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Acts 1:8  —  (Jesus said), “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

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Merciful Father, your kindness caused the light of the Gospel to shine among us.  Extend your mercy now, we pray, to all the people of the world who do not have hope in Jesus Christ, that your salvation may be made known to them also and that all hearts would turn to you.  In the name of Jesus we pray.  Amen.  (Lutheran Book of Worship, p.45)

1405) Reduced to Nothing

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By William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, January 31,1999, p. 19.

            It is a sad sight to see someone who seemed to be something reduced to nothing…

            When I first visited him, he was a successful businessman, with a fine home, a beautiful family, and three cars in the custom-built garage.  The last time I saw him, after the trial, he was peering at me through the bars of a state prison and he looked like a scared, helpless, little boy.  It is something to see someone who has been something reduced to nothing.  Something sad.

            Yet, when those who seemed to be something are reduced to nothing, it becomes possible for their lives to be reconstituted into a new something, some new reality outside of themselves and their devising.  Those who once sustained their lives on their own, by their accumulation of success, power, prestige, and glory, in their foolish nothingness, are now free to see a reality greater than themselves, namely, the wisdom of God, in Christ, which is now the word of the cross.  On the cross, Jesus committed his Spirit into the hands of his Father.  When you have been stripped, beaten down, and picked clean, there is nowhere else to go.

            And after the experience of the cross in our life pulls open, stirs up, demolishes our wisdom and power, we are free to encounter a different reality.

            I don’t know wherein your source of self-security lies; that thing on which you lean for support, that security which needs to be ripped from you and brought to nothing by the word of the cross.  Our world has many ways of denying the power of God in the cross and depending on our own power.  I’ve got my diplomas on the wall, my position at the university, my professional titles, my investments and my insurance policies; and you’ve got yours.  And I also know that life has many ways of stripping you down to nothing…

            I pulled up a chair close to her bed.  She was in great pain, flung down by a serious illness that had kept her in the hospital for weeks.

            “I keep asking myself,” she said, “Is this God’s will?  Is God trying to tell me something?”

            “Oh, no,” I said, “God didn’t will this; this isn’t some message from God.  It’s a virus.”

            “How can you be so sure, preacher?” she replied.  “I’m an awfully proud person.  It takes a lot to get my attention.  And think about it—after what God allowed to happen to his Son on that cross, who can be sure what God might do to get through to us?”

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What greater motive could there be to a religious life than the vanity and the poorness of all worldly enjoyments?  What greater call could there be to look toward God than the pains, the sickness, the crosses, and the vexations of this life?  What miracles could more strongly appeal to our senses, or what message from heaven speak louder to us than the daily dying and departure of our fellow creatures?  The one thing needful and the great end of life need not be discovered by fine reasoning and deep reflections.  It is pressed upon us in the plainest manner by the experience of all our senses, by everything that we meet with in life.

–William Law (1686-1761), A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

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Sickness is the everyday, in-life experience of vulnerability, finitude, and death.  Sickness, at its worse, is a foretaste of what it is like to have the world go on without you, to be nothing.  Sickness is a reminder that life is fragile, limited, vulnerable– in short, terminal.  Sickness is a brush with death.

Roman Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor died in 1964 at the age of 39 after a twelve year battle with lupus.  She once wrote in a letter:  “I have never been anywhere but sick.  In a sense, sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow.  Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing, and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”  —Habit of Being, page 163.

A petition from ‘The Great Litany’ in The Book of Common Prayer:

“From a sudden and unprepared death, Good Lord, deliver us.”

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Psalm 31:5  —  Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

I Corinthians 1:18  —  For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I Corinthians 1:27-29  —  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

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Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

–Jesus, Luke 23:46

1404) A Hard Wallop

From Peculiar Speech, by William Willimon, Eerdmans Publishing, 1992, pp. 14-15 (edited).

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Romans 6:3-8  —  Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.  For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.  Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.

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     I was in Mississippi, leading a Bible study of Romans.  I was talking about some verses in chapter six:  “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death… Our old self was crucified… We have died with Christ.”

     We are crucified and already dead, it says.  There were dumb stares from the group of assembled laity.  In desperation I asked, “Has anyone here ever had to die to be a Christian?”

     More silence.

     Then someone spoke.  “When the schools of Jackson integrated, I thought I would die.  I knew enough to know that, on that day, when black children went to school with white, it was over for us.  Our white world was gone.  But now my neighbor, and best friend, is black.  An old world died, but a new world was born.”

     “OK, good.  Anyone else?” I said.

     A lady in the back row spoke next.  “I was always afraid to be in the house alone.  When my husband went away on overnight business trips, I always went with him; and then, after my daughter was born, I took her and we stayed at a friend’s house.  I could not stay alone.  Then my daughter died of leukemia, and I have never been afraid to be alone again.”

     “I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t get the connection.”

     “Well, my daughter’s death felt like the death of me too.  And when you are dead, what else is there to fear?  When you’ve had to let go of the most precious possession of your life, what else could anyone do to you that would be worse?”

     Garrison Keillor tells a delightful story about Sveeggen, a farm boy of twelve, left alone with chores to do in the family barn.  He heard the wind begin to howl and looked out the barn door into a fierce blizzard.  To his horror, he saw the family home engulfed in flames.  Running out the barn door into the blizzard, he became disoriented in the white wilderness.  He knew that he was lost in the snow and would die.

     Then suddenly he saw the house again.  He walked toward the orange glow and warmed himself by the flames.  Regaining his bearings, he then “ran straight into the blizzard and ran smack into the side of the barn, where he spent the night, lying next to the cow, Tina, holding his broken nose.”

     Even into his adult years, Sveeggen never forgot this confrontation with death.  Like those having been baptized, he responded in gratitude, “How kind is God the Father, we were all lost in sin” (just as he was lost in that blizzard).

     Keillor comments: “Having lost his life he entered a new one with a sweet disposition.  He planted trees, raised cattle, married, had seven children, and seldom spoke a harsh word.  His nose was never set.  He pitched ten tons of hay the day he was married.  In their wedding picture, he sits smiling, his eyes bright beside his ruined beak, a man who took a hard wallop and now everything was easy for him.” (Lake Wobegon Days, pp. 207-8).

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Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Book of Common Prayer

1403) Bad White Cop Frames Innocent Black Man; and Then…

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The bad white cop and the innocent black man– why are they smiling?

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     While many non-Christians in our society are becoming increasingly anti-Christian, the power of Christian forgiveness can still astound and inspire everyone.  No other belief system has the equivalent of forgiving your brother “seventy times seven,” much less commands you to love your enemies, and bless those who persecute you.  This radical nature of Christian forgiveness is so startling and so overwhelming, that it made the CBS Evening News.

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Watch the video here:

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/on-the-road-innocent-michigan-man-ends-up-working-alongside-crooked-cop-that-locked-him/

Or read the transcript from CBS:

     It all went down on a block in Benton Harbor, Michigan.  Back in 2005, Jameel McGee says he was minding his own business when a police officer accused him of, and arrested him for, dealing drugs.

     “It was all made up,” said McGee.  Of course, a lot of accused men make that claim, but not many arresting officers agree.

     “I falsified the report,” former Benton Harbor police officer Andrew Collins admitted.

     “Basically, at the start of that day, I was going to make sure I had another drug arrest.”  And in the end, he put an innocent guy in jail.

     “I lost everything,” McGeee said.  “My only goal was to seek him when I got out and to hurt him.”

     Eventually, that crooked cop was caught, and served a year and a half for falsifying many police reports, planting drugs and stealing.  Of course McGee was exonerated, but he still spent four years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

     Today both men are back in Benton Harbor, which is a small town (population 10,000).  Maybe a little too small.

     Last year, by sheer coincidence, they both ended up at faith-based employment agency Mosaic, where they now work side by side in the same café.  And it was in those cramped quarters that the bad cop and the wrongfully accused had no choice but to have it out.

     “I said, ‘Honestly, I have no explanation, all I can do is say I’m sorry,'” Collins explained.

     McGee says that was all it took.  “That was pretty much what I needed to hear.”

     Today they’re not only cordial, they’re friends.  Such close friends, not long ago McGee actually told Collins he loved him.

     “And I just started weeping because he doesn’t owe me that.  I don’t deserve that,” Collins said.

     But he didn’t forgive just for his sake, even for Collins’.  “For our sake,” McGee said. “Not just us, but for all our sake.”  McGee went on to tell CBS News about his Christian faith, and his hope for a kinder mankind.  He wants to be an example; so now he and Collins give speeches together about the importance of forgiveness and redemption.

     And clearly, if these two guys from the coffee shop can set aside their bitter grounds, what’s our excuse?

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     Collins is right when he says forgiveness, and the healing it brings in its wake, has nothing to do with “deserve.”  As McGee, a Christian, understood, we forgive one another because, as Paul told both the Ephesians and the Colossians, God in Christ has forgiven us.  There is a power at work here that even the most hardened skeptic cannot deny.

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Matthew 5:43-44  —  (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.”

Luke 6:27-28  —  (Jesus said), “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Romans 12:14  —  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

Ephesians 4:32  —  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

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O God of love, who has sent us a new commandment through your Son Jesus Christ, that we should love one another, even as you have loved us, the wayward and unworthy, and has given your Son for our life and salvation; grant to us, your servants, in all the time of our mortal life, a mind forgetful of past ill will, a pure conscience, sincere thoughts, and a heart to love and forgive others.  Amen.

The Book of Common Worship, (Presbyterian Church, USA), Westminster, 1906, (altered), originally from The Liturgy of St. Cyril (fourth century).

1402) The Golden Rule (c)

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     (…continued)  The principles for a good and ethical life are not complicated.  There are just a few basics.  Think about it.  Think about what the world would be like if everyone simply told the truth all the time, did not take what did not belong to them, treated each other with respect, and was content with what they had.  One of the striking things about the perfect world of the horses in Gulliver’s Travels was the simplicity of life there.  Gulliver tried to explain to the talking horses about life in England (see #1400).  One of the things I especially remember is Gulliver telling the horses about the judicial system with courtrooms, judges, bailiffs, lawyers, juries, trials, jails, and everything else that goes with our court system, all there and busy every day simply to find out one thing— whether or not people are telling the truth in each case.  The horses could not imagine such a world, just as we cannot imagine a world where the truth is always told.

     The man questioning Jesus in the tenth chapter of Luke is an expert in the Law, perhaps a lawyer (the word used in some translations).  A lawyer’s job is to find his way through the many complications of the law, and they are usually able to find ways to make it even more complicated.  Jesus, on the other hand, was always trying to simplify the law.  In Luke 6:31 he summarized the entire Law in eleven words, words you all know as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  That can be applied to every ethical question, and almost every ethical question can be answered with another question:

How much help am I obligated to give that poor man on the side of the road?  How much help would I want in that situation?

Am I obligated to tell the person buying my house about the termite problem?  Would I want to know about the termite problem if I were the purchaser?

Is there anything wrong with a little harmless gossip about the neighbor’s family troubles?  If I was having the same troubles in my family and people knew only half the story, would I want everyone talking about it and criticizing my every move?

You are nineteen, three months pregnant, and you don’t want to have a baby at this time in your life; should you continue the pregnancy or have it ended?  Are you grateful that your mother did not end her pregnancy with you? 

A friend just made a thoughtless, stupid comment (perhaps unintended) that I find offensive and insulting– should I put him in his place and insult him with a mean, but witty comeback that I have on the tip of my tongue?  Or should I remember all the thoughtless, stupid comments I have made that have been graciously overlooked?

And so on.

     The lawyer in the story wanted to get into a debate about the subtleties of the commands about loving your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus wanted to talk about one specific neighbor who needed help.

     This is all just basic morality.  Christianity is not complete without it.  After all, God created the world and everyone in it, so we ought to be willing to hear from him the details about how this life is best lived.   But those details are not complicated, and most people already know them.  The problem is, we neglect to do what we know is right.  We are weak and we fall into the pattern of living in the ways of everyone all around us.  But Jesus calls on us to obey his Word and then, one decision and one action at a time, live in it.

     God’s amazing grace and abundant forgiveness of all our sins is another part of the story.  That is the story of what God has done for us.  But this mediation has been on what we are to do.  We are to obey God and do what we know is right.

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“We do not so much need to be instructed in morality as we need to be reminded.”

–English linguist Samuel Johnson

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Luke 6:31  —  (Jesus said), “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Luke 6:46  —  (Jesus said), “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

Luke 10:36-37  —  (Jesus said), “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”  The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”  Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

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Lord Jesus, give me the faith and the will and the strength to obey you in all things, doing unto others as I would have others do unto me.  Amen.

–Based on the words of Jesus in Luke 6:31

1401) The Good Samaritan (b)

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     (…continued)  Jesus was also a teacher of morality and goodness.  Jonathan Swift himself was, of course, a servant of that Jesus, so in Gulliver’s Travels he was merely passing on what he learned about life from Jesus; and doing so by telling a story.  Jesus also told stories to teach us how to live, and one of the many such stories he told was the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live?”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.  So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

     Did you notice that Jesus isn’t telling us anything new here?  The lesson of the story can be summed up in three words: Help other people.  Jesus wasn’t the first person to say that, nor has he been the only one to say that, nor do you have to be a Christian to do that.  The most important thing about Jesus is not his moral teachings.  Yes, Jesus did teach about obedience and goodness and morality. And yes, he did preach a morality that is beyond even the most famous of history’s moral teachers.  Jesus taught us things like forgiving and praying even for our enemies, and he taught us to do good even to those who do us wrong.  But even those things had been said by a few others.

     What makes Jesus unique is that he is so much more than a moral teacher.  He was the Son of God Himself, here to die for us to forgive us of our sins— because it is impossible for any of us to perfectly fulfill the moral law of God.  God’s commandments were revealed to humanity long before Jesus came to earth.  In fact, Romans 2:15 says that God has written the Law on our very hearts, and even on the hearts of those who have not yet heard of Him.

     So the idea to help others wasn’t new with Jesus.  Neither did Jesus come up with anything new about telling the truth or not stealing or obeying your parents or staying away from false gods or anything else.  It had all been said before.

    What Jesus brought was forgiveness for our failure to obey that moral code, and eternal salvation for all who believed in Him.  That was new with Jesus, and that we can receive only from Jesus.  And no other religious leader rose from the dead to validate their claims and promises, as did Jesus.

     But that doesn’t mean that the story of the Good Samaritan is unimportant.  It just means that it is important for other reasons.  Just because we know what is right, doesn’t mean that we are going to do it.  We all try to get out of it and live only for ourselves as much as we can.  And then we try to justify our disobedience.  We try to convince ourselves that it was necessary, in that situation, to do what was not right.

     The young lawyer who was questioning Jesus in Luke 10 knows very well what is right and what is wrong.  Jesus asked him, “What is written in the Law?”  And the young lawyer answered, “Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and, love your neighbor as yourself.”  And Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”

     But then the lawyer wanted to justify himself, so he said, “But who is my neighbor?”  There is the problem.  The lawyer ‘wanted to justify himself’ (v. 29).

     We all know we should love our neighbor and help each other out, but the lawyer implies that we need to put some limits on that.  We just can’t be helping everybody with everything, can we Jesus?

     But Jesus doesn’t define neighbor and he doesn’t get into the specifics of who we should help and who we don’t have to help.  Jesus simply tells a story, a story of a man who actually needs help, and is in the path of three men who would be able to help.

     What’s more, the one man who does help, the Samaritan, is the last person any Jew would put on their list of ‘neighbors’ to love and serve.  Samaritans and Jews disliked and avoided each other.  But this Samaritan is the one who helped.  At the end of the story, Jesus asked the expert in the law to answer his own question:  “Which of the three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’

     “The one who had mercy,” said the expert.  What else could he say?  And then Jesus told him to, “Go and do likewise.”

     Jesus shows himself to be very different here from that other ancient teacher of wisdom, Socrates.  Socrates taught not so much by telling other people what to do, but by asking them question after question, thus teaching them to think for themselves.  That also can be a good way to teach, and Jesus also teaches that way sometimes.  He does it for a while in this story, asking the lawyer three questions before he concludes this lesson.

     But the difference between Jesus and Socrates is that Jesus does not end with the questions.  He will not allow us to just talk about our faith.  Jesus applies the lesson and gives everyone something to take home and work on.  “Go and do likewise,” Jesus said to him, thus concluding the lesson.

     I think the young lawyer would have liked Socrates better.  They could have sat around all day just talking about whether or not it was one’s ethical obligation to help a needy man on the road, not ever getting around to actually doing anything.  But Jesus says, “Get at it; there are people who need your help.”  (continued…)

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 Dear God, You constantly pour out Your blessings on us:  help us to be a blessing to others.  You gave us our hands:  help us to use them to work for You.  You gave us our feet:  help us to use them to walk in Your ways.  You gave us our voices:  help us to use them to speak gentleness and truth.  Help us to please You, Lord.  Amen.

–author unknown

1400) Talking Horses (a)

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            The book Gulliver ‘s Travels has been a children’s favorite ever since it was written almost 300 years ago.  In this novel by Jonathan Swift, Lemuel Gulliver is a sea captain who on three different occasions is shipwrecked.  Each time, he finds himself washed ashore on strange and undiscovered islands which no Englishman had ever seen.  Each island is inhabited, but by beings unlike any Gulliver had ever seen.  On the first island, there lives a race of little people, only six inches tall, and Gulliver is a giant among them.  On the next island, there are giants over forty feet tall, and Gulliver is like an insect among them.  On the third island, the people are of a normal size, but there is another, even bigger difference there.  On that island, the humans are like dumb animals, living in the woods like savage beasts, and are not able to speak.  In that land, they are called the yahoos (now you know where that word came from– Swift invented it for this book).  The civilized beings there are the horses.  It is the horses who live in houses and are able to talk with each other and have a civilized life.  Even if you have not read this book, you can well imagine that Gulliver would have had many interesting adventures in these places, making the book a classic for children.

     But the author was not writing only for children.  Swift was a clergyman, and he wrote not primarily for the entertainment of children, but rather to teach adults about such things as human nature, morality, religion, and the good life.  He also included in the book a critical and sarcastic look at English society in the early 1700’s, lampooning its politics, science, churches, and culture.  Therefore, even though people were at first entertained by the format of the book, before long they began to see its hidden meanings, and saw they were laughing at themselves and their own foolishness and sins.  In fact, Swift said he wrote the book “not to divert, but to vex.”

     The most interesting part for me is the final part, in which Gulliver visits the land of the talking horses.  What is fascinating is that these horses have a perfectly moral and good society.  It is unthinkable for any of them to steal, to be in any way mean to anyone, or to be anything less than completely honest.  They do not even have a word for “lying” because a lie is never told among them.  Everyone has complete and total respect for everyone else, and all live at peace, without fear and without harmful vices.  It is a perfect society.  It takes Gulliver a while to get used to talking with horses, but once past the initial awkwardness of that, he doesn’t want to leave them.  When circumstances make it necessary for him to journey back home, he does so with great reluctance and regret.  And then, once back in England, it is difficult for him to again get accustomed to the dishonesty, meanness, and impoliteness of human society that we take for granted.  In fact, Gulliver never adjusts to his previous life, preferring to stay at home alone because he can no longer bear to live with such wickedness.

     Thus, Jonathan Swift, the minister, is teaching his readers about Christian morality in a creative and effective way.  He doesn’t go on and on harshly with ‘Thou shalt not do this, and thou shalt not do that— or else.’  Rather, he simply and winsomely describes a place in which everyone does what is right and there is no sin, and depicts how pleasant it is to live there.  Gulliver can see for himself how wonderful life is in the land of the talking horses.  When he tries to tell the talking horses how life is in England, with everyone trying to take advantage of everyone else by every sort of dishonest trickery, along with damaging their own lives and health and well-being with every sort of vice and sinful pleasure, the horses cannot believe that rational beings would act that way.  And the way Swift describes what we consider normal human life, makes how we live look very foolish and wicked indeed.  Thus, in Gulliver’s Travels, goodness and obedience becomes attractive; whereas so often in our world it often looks as though anyone who wants to be good and do what is right is bound to miss out on all the best life has to offer.

       In this way, Swift teaches both young and old about the blessings of truth and morality and goodness.  (continued…)

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Lemuel Gulliver and the Talking Horses (from an old edition of Gulliver’s Travels)

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Romans 12:2  —  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is— his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Psalm 128:1  —  Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him.

Deuteronomy 30:15-16  —  See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.  For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

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O Lord, we pray that you give us grace not only to be hearers of the Word, but also doers of the Word; not only to love, but also to live your Gospel; not only to profess, but also to practice your commandments; for the honor of your holy name.  Amen.  

–Thomas Becon  (1512-1567)