Wednesday, July 9, 2014

CELEBRATE FREEDOM

On the 4th of July, but other times as well, it is good to remind ourselves that God created us with free will and gifted us with the freedom to use it.  But, of course, we had to foul things up.  When Adam and Eve sinned it opened the door to all kinds of captivities that profoundly affect our liberty.  As Paul put it in Romans 6, we became slaves of sin and slaves of uncleanness.  It is a terrible thing to be a captive.

May Angelou describes it in her poem, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," this way:

A free bird leaps on the back
Of the win and floats downstream
Till the current ends and dips his wing
In the orange sun's rays
And dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through his bars of rage.
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
And the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright
Lawn and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.

In 1776 the politically "caged bird" broke out and declared his independence and so we celebrate freedom each Fourth of July.

The children of Israel were like a caged bird for hundreds of years in Egypt.  But finally God gave them freedom and they have celebrated it ever since in the Passover meal.  Their celebration meal includes four cups of wine which was considered a royal drink and symbolized freedom.  The use of four cups is based on God's promises in Exodus 6:6-8 where four terms are used to describe God's action in achieving their freedom.  First, "I shall take you out"; second, "I shall rescue you";  third, "I shall redeem you"; and fourth, "I shall bring you out as my people."

The third cup is referred to as either the cup of redemption or the cup of blessing and it was probably when they came to this place in the meal when Jesus took the cup and called it "the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you."

When Jesus began his ministry he saw that all people, not just Israel, were like birds in a cage, captives of sin and death.  The first thing he did was to give a defining speech in the Synagogue of Capernaum when he quoted Isaiah 61 and said, in part, "He has sent me to proclaim releases to the captives and ... to set free those who are oppressed" (Luke 4).  Then, as his ministry reached its climactic point, just as he was about to give his life to set the captives free, he gave us a way to celebrate our freedom.  Not with war-like rockets and firecrackers, not with loud, blaring noise, not with some stirring extravaganza, but with the simple elements of bread and wine.  And so let us celebrate our freedom, made possible by his body, given for us, and his blood, shed for the remission of our sins.

Monday, May 26, 2014

REMEMBERING FALLEN HEROES

On Memorial Day and on this Sunday we remember fallen heroes.  The news keeps us painfully aware that war always produces fallen heroes, and I'm sure that we all agree that they deserve to be remembered and honored.

Our national remembering  began when General Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, officially proclaimed May 30, 1868 to be a day of Memorial for soldiers who had fallen in the Civil War.  Flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers in Arlington Cemetery.  However, the southern states did not recognize this day and observed other days for honoring their dead until after World War I when Memorial Day became the day to honor those who died fighting in any war not just the Civil War.

In 1915 Moina Michael, inspired by the poem, "In Flanders Fields," contributed her own short poem that led to wearing poppies in honor of those who died:

We cherish too the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led.
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies.

At this particular moment, at this table, we focus on a fallen hero whose life was given in the greatest battle ever fought, and whose blood, as the poem says, "never dies."  Every human war ever fought is simply a microcosm of the deeper, greater spiritual war that goes on behind the scenes.  As Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the ... spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places."  We are still engaged in this struggle and we come today to remember and to celebrate the fallen hero who won the decisive battle.

It has been said that every war has a decisive battle.  In the 2nd World War the decisive battle came on D Day and the successful invasion of France.  While many battles were yet to be fought, the war was essentially won with that battle.  There were many fallen heroes on the beach whose sacrifice ultimately led to victory.

Today we remember another fallen hero -- but with a difference.  He fell, but rose again, enabling Paul to say in Romans 5:10, "If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, so much more, having been reconciled we shall be saved by his life."  Reconciled by his death -- saved by his life  Death and all of this world's sin and evil met its match on Calvary when Jesus Christ became our fallen and risen hero.  We celebrate victory won for us by our fallen and risen hero.

Therefore, on the first day of the week, on each resurrection Sunday, when we break bread and drik the cup I like to  think it is accompanied by those described in Revelation 5, "... myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might  and honor and glory and blessing."  As you take the Lord's Supper this morning, listen for the Hallelujah chorus.


Monday, April 21, 2014

Thet Magnetic Christ

It seems that people are drawn to winners and not losers.  As an Oregon Duck fan I can testify to that.  After we moved to Eugene in 1978 I began attending the Oregon football games with my brother, Gilbert.  In those days we could park on the street, walk a few blocks, buy our general admission tickets a few minutes before game time and easily find seats in the appropriate area.  Since Autzen Stadium was only about half full we could move at half time to better seats in a reserved section.  Then the Oregon team did something that changed all of that.  It started winning and even went to the Rose Bowl.  The more it won the harder it was to get good seats.  People are drawn to winners, not losers.

When Jesus hung on the cross he sure looked like a loser.  His disciples, at least the men, all fled and one even denied knowing him.  Matthew, Mark and Luke say that a few women watched from a distance.  John speaks only of Mary, a few women, and the beloved disciple being nearby.  It looks very much like Jesus was a loser, and losers are not attractive.

Was Jesus wrong then in what he says in John's Gospel about his death?  Three times he spoke of being "lifted up" and the last time actually said, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people to myself" (Jn 12:32-33).  He said this to indicate the manner of his death.  Why does he use this language of being "lifted up"?  What does it mean?  In John's Gospel Jesus often uses words with double meaning, as when he talked to the woman at the well about water.  She thought he meant regular water but he spoke of a water that quenches thirst forever.  In this case, Jesus knew that the word "lifted up" could also mean exalted.

Jesus knew this, in part, because he also knew Isaiah's prophecies so well.  When he began his ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth He used the words of Isaiah 61 to define it (Luke 4).  And here he uses Isaiah 52:13 to reveal what the cross meant to him.  I think he chose his terminology deliberately in order to echo Isaiah's words as he begins this beautiful servant psalm: "Behold, my servant ... shall be high and lifted up and shall be exalted."  The psalm goes on to picture the exalted servant but not in terms of worldly exaltation.  Instead, he describes the suffering servant of God in words that have become very familiar to Christians everywhere:  "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows ... he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed."

For me, Paul summarizes it best in Philippians 2 where he describes how this apparent loser was transformed into magnetic majesty:  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

We come to the table, therefore, on this resurrection Sunday to draw to the uplifted Christ, to see him lifted up on a cross, but also to see him lifted up as our exalted Lord and Savior.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

THE SONG WE LIVE BY

        It is not uncommon for a poet to describe life as a song.  For example, the 16th century English poet, Edmund Spenser, concluded each stanza of a poem with the refrain: "Sweet Themmes runne softly, till I end my song" (Prothalamion).  What is our song?

        One of my favorite novelists, Wendell Berry, is also a poet.  In one poem he reflects on life as he sits in a cemetery.  It begins, The valley holds its shadow.  My loves lie round me in the dark.  There, in that dark valley of graves he considers where his life is going.  Then, in the last stanza he says.

Sitting among the bluebells
in my sorrow, for lost time
and the never forgotten dead, 
I saw a hummingbird stand
in air to drink from flowers.
It was a kiss he took and gave.
At his lightness and the ardor
of his throat, the song I live by
stirred my mind.  I said; 
"By sweetness alone it survives.*

                                                       What is the song we live by?

        A praise song that I really like, one that we sometimes sing in our worship, is titled "10,000 Reasons."  Do you remember this part?

The sun comes up, its a new day dawning.
Its time to sing your song again.
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me,
Let me be singing when the evening comes.

        But what is our song?  And what is it about?  The world has a lot of songs to offer.  There is the seductive melody of materialism.  There is the exciting anthem of applause and fame.  There is the blood-stirring drumbeat of conflict, competition and war.  But those songs have no hope in them.  Their promises are empty ad those who sing them end up singing the blues.

        What is the song that the people of God have always sung?  We can hear it after the Lord saved Israel from the Egyptians when Moses and the people sang:

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and the rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation" (Exod 15:1-2)

        When Isaiah looked down the long corridor of time and saw the Messiah coming he said, You will say in that day, ... behold, God is my salvation.  I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation" (Isa 12:1-2).

        What is our song?  Certainly one expression of it comes from John's vision of the Lamb, standing as if slain, and he reports in Revelation 5:9, "they sang a new song, saying, 'Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.'"

        The Lord's Supper reminds us that the song of our life is one of praise for the Lamb who has given us redemption and victory over evil and the forces of evil.  And so we go from this table, saying with the song writer,

The sun comes up, its a new day dawning.
Its time to sing your song again.
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me,
let me be singing when the evening comes.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

STANDING IN THE BREACh

        Before the devastating exile of Israel to Babylon Ezekiel, in chapter 22, delivered a word from the Lord that was a blistering indictment upon Jerusalem.  He called it a "bloody city" and then described in detail the violence, sexual immorality, idolatry, extortion and corruption within it.  He left no one out.  Princes, prophets, priests and people were all guilty.  In the Lord's eyes, he said, you are dross, a useless slag heap of dross that will be thrown into the furnace and melted into nothingness.

        With the threat of destruction at the hands of the Babylonians on the horizon he added this sad word:  I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none.

        Sometimes it takes only one courageous, righteous man to stand in the breach, stop a great evil and save the land.  Psalm 106:23 points to a time when this happened.  It was in the Sinai wilderness when the Lord was ready to destroy disobedient Israel because they were worshiping a golden calf.  The Psalm says, Therefore, He said he would destroy them -- had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them. 

        As I read the sins of Israel that Ezekiel listed I thought of Paul's equally blistering indictment of both Gentile and Jew that covers nearly three chapters in Romans.  I am afraid that all of us can find ourselves someplace in his description.  He concludes, in part, with these words in Romans 3,

None is righteous, no, not one;
No one understands, no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
No one does good, not even one ...
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

        Can destruction be far behind?  Is there someone who can stand in the breach on our behalf?  Yes, Paul continues in Romans 3, there is one.  God himself has put forth his chosen one, his own son, to provide redemption for all who believe.  As he hangs on the cross he stands in the breach, faces the greatest enemy we could ever have, and wins the victory.  Therefore, we can join Paul as he says later in Romans, We are more than conquerors through him who loved us."

        For him we give thanks as we partake of this bread, which he said was his body given for us, and of this cup which he said was the new covenant in his blood, shed for the remission of sins.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

IS YOUR HARP IN TUNE?

        David Pavlovich is a professional harpist who has played in hospitals many times, first in the San Francisco bay area and now in Arizona.  He wrote a book, Music In Hospitals, in which he provides many inspirational stories about how music, especially live harp music, aids the healing process.  However, he says, there is this joke about harpists: "We spend half our  lives tuning and the other half playing out of tune.  Its true.  The modern harp is a very delicate instrument. ... Oxygen, gravity, humidity and temperature creation continually affect the tune of the harp" (p 47).

        In biblical terms a hospital full of sick people is like the world we live in, a world full of sick people.  Sin affects all of us to one extent or another.  Like a hospital that includes all ranges of illness, from the barely sick to those near death, the world of sinners includes all kinds of sinners, from compassionate servants like Mother Teresa to genocidal monsters like Adolf Hitler.  As the Bible says, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23).  First John 1:10 puts it more bluntly, "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar ..."  

        And yet, we humans are part of the creation which Paul says in Romans 1:21 demonstrates "His eternal power and divine nature."  Or as he put it in Eph 1:11-12, we who are chosen and privileged to receive His blessing are chosen explicitly to live "to the praise of his glory."  In other words, God, as the Great Musician, wants to use us as his instruments to play the kind of music that brings Him glory, attracts others to Him and brings healing to the world  Thankfully, He is able to use instruments that are always at least a little out of tune.

        The only person who was ever totally in tune with God's will was Jesus and think of what beautiful music the Great Musician was able to play with him:  the soothing notes of his comforting presence, the challenging music of his teachings, the sad strains of his crucifixion, and the triumphant anthem of his resurrection, all combining to make a world-healing symphony.

        In Revelation 14 there is a picture of heaven where multitudes of the redeemed, thousands and thousands, are standing with the Lamb.  John hears a loud sound.  He listens and then he uses three ways to describe it.  He said it was "... like the sound of many waters, and like the sound of loud thunder, and the sound that I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps."

        Doesn't that vision make you want to keep your harp in tune ... to keep your life in tune with God's will?  We go out of tune so easily.  Today, now, at this table we can listen again to that one whose life was perfectly in tune with God and tune our lives to His.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

GIVING THANKS

      If you are asked unexpectedly to pray at your family's thanksgiving gathering it might be well to avoid what one man said. Ben Witherington, in a book on the Lord's Supper, tells of a particular thanksgiving dinner at his aunt's house in Statesville, North Carolina.  He wrote, "As we were all sitting down, she asked by father to pray impromptu over the meal she had been preparing for many hours.  Somewhat flustered and unprepared he prayed, 'Dear Lord, please bless our sins and pardon this food in your son's name.   Amen.'"  (Making a Meal of It, 17).

      It is no surprise that  prayer on Thanksgiving day, said with family gathered at a table covered with delicious food, would express heartfelt thanks.  But what of other days, in other circumstances?  Prayers have a way of getting at the heart of a matter.  If you want to know how you feel about life, you might examine your prayers, especially prayers offered when you face a crisis of some kind.

      Jesus was very much aware of the crisis he faced when he met with his apostles in the upper room.  He knew the danger he was in.  What was his prayer at that time?  Three Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, along with Paul in 1 Corinthians, record what happened at the meal.  There are variations in the wording, in the sequence of events, and in other aspects of their descriptions, but one phrase is found to be the same in all accounts.  It is simply this" "when he had given thanks...".  Whatever the prayer went on to say, at the heart of Jesus' prayer was thanksgiving.  Jesus must have been at heart a thankful person.

      Through the centuries since then four terms, all based on NT passages, have been used to name this observance.  One is "the bread breaking," or "breaking of bread," based on Jesus' words and action in the upper room.  Also, we call it "communion," which translates the Greek word used by Paul in reference to it.  We also call it "the Lord's Supper," based on the evening meal Jesus had with  his disciples in the upper room.  The fourth is a term you and I, in our non-liturgical tradition, seldom use but it is probably the most common name used throughout the world: "Eucharist."  It comes from that phrase, "when he had given thanks."  In doing  this, Jesus provided a model, not just for how to observe communion, but how thanks can be a way of life expressed in prayer.

      I am not saying that we should start using the word "eucharist" more often, although that would certainly be appropriate, but I am saying that our observance here should express a thanksgiving that carries over into all of life.  The former secretary of the United Nations, Dag Hammerskjold, must have had that kind of outlook on life because shortly before his untimely death he said something that could very well be our prayer at this table, or on Thursday at the family table, and at all times of life -- especially times of crisis.  He said simply, "For all that has been, thanks; for all that shall be, yes."