Friday, June 23, 2017

Parable: The Two Debtors

This parable is a good opportunity to work in one of my favorite proverbsthe borrower is slave to the lender.  That one has had my attention for many years.  I don’t like debt.  Perhaps the financial debt owed in the parable is not really the central part.

We could make some connections with Paul’s counsel that the only debt we should continue is the debt to love one another.  That’s a good figurative way to put things as we work out—live out our salvation.  There are some connections to be made to the parable before us, but the story here is perhaps more connected to our human nature.

Jesus told the parable to a Pharisee, and those gathered in his presence.  As we read through this pericope that includes this parable, we discover that the host’s name is Simon.  Simon had invited Jesus to dine with him.  Jesus accepted, arrived, and reclined at the table to have a meal with this man who by all current religious standards was a righteous man. 

To the modern-day reader, it might seem that things were off to a good start; however, Jesus got the second-class treatment. 

In what way?

If a guest was coming to your house, you were expected to greet him.  A kiss or two on the cheek would have been the norm.  As the host, you would offer your guest some water to was his feet.  If you had servants, they would do the washing for the guest.  In a home with a considerate host, he or a servant might offer oil for the head. 

You would at least go through the motions to make your guest feel welcome.  There were basic protocols to be observed.  Jesus didn’t just drop in.  He was invited.  He was an invited guest.  Someone should have made him to feel welcome.

What is it to feel welcome?

When I was assigned to the United Nations there were 20 American officers.  Half of them were Army officers and the rest were Marine, Navy, and Air Force.  My group shared an apartment in Kuwait City that each of us actually stayed in about 2 or 3 days a month when we weren’t in or around the DMZ.  Our schedules varied.

Normally if you got a day or two back at the apartment, you might see a couple of the other residents for a day.  Seldom was everyone there at once, but regardless of whether there was 1 or there were 10 American officers there, there was a greeting and excitement when someone arrived.

On one occasion, I recall being greeted as the 4th or 5th of the apartment’s residents to arrive that day.  Then gradually over the next few hours, the other half of our contingent arrived.  With each arrival, the intensity of the greeting increased.  It was something special.  There was no protocol for this.  It was not required, but the celebration was surely necessary.

If you have ever lived in another part of the world for an extended period, especially in one where your operations were run by the United Nations, there is just something special about getting together with your American friends.  Greetings and excitement built with each arrival, every time. There were no exceptions.  You were always made to feel welcome every time your arrived.

Jesus went to dine with Simon, who had invited him, and he just walked in and reclined at the dinner table.  There is no greeting or fanfare or anything that might indicate that Jesus was not only invited, but welcomed in this place.

At some point while people were dining, a woman of less than reputable character entered the dining area and washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and her hair.  She had some expensive perfume and put that on him as well.

Simon’s thoughts—revealed to us by Jesus—were if this man were a prophet or a man of God in any capacity, then he would know what kind of woman was touching him.  Surely, if this Jesus was a Rabbi, then he knew better than to let any woman touch him.

Jesus knew Simon’s thoughts but instead of just calling him out on what he was thinking, he proffers a story.  Simon agrees to listen.

Two men owed the same money lender money.  One owed almost 2 years wages and the other almost 2 months wages.  Neither could repay.  Think back to the borrower is slave to the lender.  This is not a good position for either man.

Without explanation, the man cancels both debts.  I wish this guy was in charge of our nation’s student loans or at least available the next time I need a new car.  He cancelled both debts.

I think both men were ecstatic.  This was huge.  This man who had made these loans forgave both men their debts.
Jesus asked Simon, “Which one will love him more.”

Simon doesn’t want to stick his neck out too much, perhaps warry of how others have come out of encounters with Jesus.  So he says, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.”

How much more half-heartedly can you answer a no-brainer question like this?  Of course, the one who just had two years wages forgiven loves him more.  That’s within our human nature.  Both surely are endeared to this man whom they owed money and received a clean slate, but two year’s wages; that’s big time.

Jesus does tell Simon that he answered the question correctly, but Jesus does something here that we do not see with all parables.  He makes application to his current audience.

Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.  Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

Simon surely thought himself a righteous man.  He had surely sinned, but likewise he most certainly made the appropriate sacrifices to restore his righteous standing.  Somewhere along the way, he must have overlooked his own judgmental nature.

He surely condemned the woman who came into his house and Jesus who let her touch him.  He should have known better, especially, if he wants to be one of us.

For all of Simon’s education and stature, it was the woman who knew who held forgiveness.  For all of the protocols that had been broken that day, it was the woman who knew what was most important.  For all of the invitations that had been issued for this meal, it was this uninvited woman who had been invited into the Kingdom of God.

All that the self-righteous guests could think of was, “Who is this guy that he thinks he can forgive sins?”

This guy is not playing by the rules!

“Who is this guy that he thinks he can forgive sins?”  Had they truly sought the answer to that question, it would have been a life changing day for them as well. 

Jesus wraped up what we know about this encounter by speaking to the woman.  He has told her that her sins are forgiven.  Next, he told her to go in peace.  Your faith has saved you.

There is a little something to chew on in verses 47 and 50.  Translations vary in verse 47.  Some translations lead you to believe that the woman was forgiven because of her actions; yet, others suggest that her love was in response to her forgiveness. 

Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown.

As her great love has shown are powerful words.  They say that she loved not to obtain forgiveness but because she had been or knew with certainty that she would be granted forgiveness because of who Jesus was.  In this woman, we see both hope and faith producing love. 

In verse 50 Jesus told her that her faith has saved her.  Just as Jesus knew the thoughts of Simon, he also knew the faith of this woman.  She loved Jesus in response to his forgiveness that she had faith to believe would come.  She was already loving him back for what she knew with certainty he would do for her.

We have seen faith in Jesus result in healing.  Now we see it resulting in forgiveness.  This faith produced the acts of love that we witness in this account, and the woman knew how great her forgiveness was.

We could stop right there and know that we have a good understanding of this parable.  But I challenge each of us to have a good understanding of ourselves and the grace that we have received as well.

Are we excited about the forgiveness—the grace—that we have received?  Would we be more excited if someone paid off our mortgage or 5 years of our car payments?

Do we meditate upon our debt that was cancelled by the blood of Jesus?  Does that thought bring joy to our hearts?

While the parable comes from Luke’s gospel, consider the words of John in his first letter.  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

How easy is it to forget the magnitude of the grace that we need day after day and week after week and for some of us decade after decade?  When we forget how great God’s love is, we shrink back from loving our neighbor into the cynical mode of judging them.

We live in a very cynical and caustic world.  Acrimony and vitriol are the order of the day; yet, God’s love and mercy and grace and favor are poured out on us in the middle of a world that does not love God.

The 4th chapter of Revelation takes us to the throne room in heaven.  What a sight!  Seeing One with the appearance of jasper and ruby seated on a throne as John looked across a crystal clear, glassy sea.  I am sure that he was overwhelmed, as we all would be.

And around the throne were four creatures who said or sang day and night:

Holy, holy, holy

is the Lord God Almighty,

who was, and is, and is to come.

How could anyone or anything be prepared and able to sing for all eternity?  Perhaps, the better question is how could we not?  Having all of our debts cancelled—our slate of sins wiped clean—how could we not respond by singing the praises of our Lord God Almighty!

 It might be a new song that we sing, but we will be proclaiming God’s holiness and righteousness and wisdom and glory and we will never grow tired of it.

As we sometimes identify with characters in stories, I hope that we identify more with the woman than the Pharisees in this parable.  The Pharisee took his life and relationship with God for granted.  There was little self-examination.  There was condemnation of others.  There was a matter-of-factness about life in general.

The woman still knew the wonder of life and the magnitude of forgiveness.  She humbled herself before the One who held her future.  Her life may have been a poor specimen of righteousness, but her heart lead her to repentance. 

I hope that we never become complacent in the righteousness given to us.  I hope that we are ready to respond to the grace that we know with love and thanksgiving and joy and praise for our Lord.

While I doubt that there are many murderers or rapists or people that we might regard as truly bad people among us in this assembly; we all have had a great debt forgiven.  We have been forgiven a lifetime of sins, some of which we have not even committed yet.

We all have been forgiven much.  Should we not respond to God by loving much?

Like the heavenly beings surrounding the throne in heaven, are our hearts not already singing:

is the Lord God Almighty,

who was, and is, and is to come.

Today, we don’t wash the feet of our guests or anoint them with oil and lavish them with expensive perfume.  We have other customs and traditions, but our response to great forgiveness is still great love.

The 2017 model for washing the feet of Jesus in response to our undeserved forgiveness is loving God by loving one another.  We must never forget that the command to love one another is rooted in great forgiveness. 

Let our hearts sing  Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, while our hands and feet respond to what the Lord God Almighty has done for us in Christ Jesus with great love for one another.

Part of our discipleship is that we love much.  We love much!

Let our response to God’s grace be great love.


Monday, June 19, 2017

Parable: The Absent Householder

I enjoyed my time at sea while in the Marine Corps.  You go to sleep off the shore of one nation and awaken off the shore of another.  Knowing where you are with relation to other nations is important.  That’s where Marines do most of their training and operations—ashore.  While embarked, the Navy keeps things afloat and headed in the right direction.

The sailors manned watches, generally 4 hours.  The ship’s intercom system—the 1MC—would announced the watch change. 

Relieve the watch.  Relieve the wheel and the lookout.  On deck, condition…

Condition IV was afloat and cruising not ready to shoot anything, aka peacetime.

Condition I was completely ready for action—ready to engage any enemy.

Condition IA was always fun.  That is ready to conduct amphibious assault operations.  If you are a land lover and a little squeamish, then this is not for you.  The ship purposely takes on water in what is called a well deck so that Marines who have been loaded into amphibious vehicles can be spit out into the open sea.

But when you are at sea and the Navy is doing all the driving and the Marines are just fighting to get time in the weight room, Condition IV is what you want to hear.

When you hit the rack, the 1MC will awaken you at midnight and 0400 but once you hear Condition IV, you go right back to sleep.  You know the watch is set and you know that all is well.  You know that the watch is set.

Reading this parable, you might think that Jesus is telling everyone that it’s go on—stay on from now until the second coming.  Nobody is getting any sleep.  But that’s not it.  He is not saying that we should do something so self-destructive.

The owner of the house gave everyone assignments before he left.  Everyone knew his or her responsibilities.  They knew exactly what to do in his absence.  Among those responsibilities was to keep watch.

Some might be assigned kitchen and household duties and others to work fields or winepresses or take care of livestock.  And some assigned to keep watch.  In a small household, few servants might do many tasks and the watch might be rotated. 

The important thing was that everyone continued to do what they were assigned to do and that they maintained a state of alertness.  If you are doing the things that you know to do and have a little security in place, you should be able to sleep at night.

If the watch saw the homeowner coming, he could wake all in the household and they would be ready to receive him on short notice.  It’s not like they didn’t know he would return.  They expected his return.

Visualize a fireman on a night watch sleeping in shorts and a tee shirt who can slide into his firefighting gear in a matter of seconds.  He sleeps but he is ready in a moment’s notice.

The Marine, the fireman, the Christian is ready not because he never sleeps but because he does the things that he knows to do all of the time.  When the condition of the ship goes from IV to I, it’s only a matter of minutes before everyone is ready to do what they have been trained to do.

You can’t do this unless your life is given completely to your purpose.  It doesn’t matter if the homeowner, commanding officer, or the fire chief is around or not.  You know what to do and you do it.  It is a way of life.

Our preparation for the return of our Lord is a way of life.  We sleep, perhaps better than much of the world, but we are ready for his return.

This short parable follows Mark’s text about the signs at the end of the age.  Read Matthew’s 24th chapter for similar context.  Matthew follows what I call eschatology for fisherman with the Parable of the 10 Virgins which again is about readiness.  Mark gives us readiness in the parable of the absent householder. 

We who have ears to hear this parable must keep watch.  We must be ready.  When Jesus returns in his glory, there won’t be time to get our affairs in order.  There won’t be time to get right with God.  There won’t be time to make some last-minute decisions about what really matters. 

We are to live in right-standing with God now.  The blood of Jesus has done this for us.  We simply live out our salvation as the most important thing that we will do in these bodies of flesh and blood and live in such a way as to bring glory to God.

That’s our readiness.  That’s our watchfulness.

Yes, we are tuned into the signs of the times.  We know the season.  We see the love of many growing cold.  We see followers of Christ being alienated in their own countries.  We have seen this happening here in our own country. 

The time is near, but we do not know the hour.  Jesus told his disciples that he did not know when.  That time belonged to the Father alone. 

Our charge is to be ready.  We are called to, “Watch!”
What does watch mean in the 21st Century?  Here are some synonyms for this part of western Oklahoma:

·      Pop Tarts and Peanut Butter
·      Chewy Tuesdays
·      Vacation Bible School
·      Monthly memory verses and extra readiness for actually memorizing them!
·      Prayer
·      More prayer
·      Continuous prayer
·      Living each day to God’s glory.
·      Being God’s love in action.
·      Feeding hungry people.
·      Sharing the good news.
·      Putting our gifts and talents to use.
·      Kicking worry and anxiousness to the curb.
·      Living in the joy of the Lord—yes even on our worst days.
·      Loving our neighbor.
·      Loving our enemies.  I still wish that one was a typo, but it’s not.
·      Being the light of the world.
·      Being the salt—the God seasoning—of the world.
·      Trusting in the Lord with all of your heart.
·      Regarding our own understanding with a grain or a truckload of salt.
·      Acknowledging God in everything!
·      Staying the course.
·      Pressing on towards the goal—of living for Christ and bringing others to him.
·      To know our Lord and make him known.
·      Visiting the sick and homebound.
·      Trunk or Treat
·      Walk A Block for Jesus
·      Even the Easter Egg Hunt, aka the love ambush.
·      F4
·      Sunday morning worship
·      Love offerings
·      Tithing
·      Loaves and Fishes offering
·      Worship in drama
·      Cooking, cleaning, and enjoying each other while we eat.
·      Partaking of the Lord’s Supper.
·      Making joyful sounds unto the Lord.
·      Rejoicing in the day that the Lord has made.
·      Being baptized and baptizing our children.
·      Fearing only the Lord while knowing that love, not fear is what he desires from us.
·      Reading his word.
·      Studying his word.
·      Knowing his word.
·      Living in his word.
·      Living in freedom.
·      Not being a stumbling block to others.
·      Casting off anything that we know is slowing us down in our race of faith.
·      Bringing food offerings of stuff that we would actually want to eat.
·      Bringing up our children—and the children that we have adopted as a church family—in the way they should go.
·      Staying awake for the whole sermon. 

The list could go on.  Some of these things have a local context.  Some are for every believer, but all have a common thread.  We know what to do.  These are all ways that we live out our salvation in this world as the most important thing we will ever do.  Paul would say that we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  I might say we respond to God’s infinite grace with great gravity.

And these things that I have listed are not extremely difficult or complex or reserved only for a special class of people.
These are the things that I expect to be doing when Jesus returns.  I don’t expect to lose much sleep.  The watch is set.  I know my assignment.

If Jesus comes at zero dark thirty, I will be up and making coffee—good Kona coffee—for him by the time he walks in the door.  I will not be worried about anything else because I am living fully for him every day. 

The watch is set.  We are doing the things the Master has given us to do.  We are ready for his return.

Come Lord Jesus, come!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Parable: The Growing Seed

I think that I am still in Parable of the Talents withdrawal.  It’s like going from driving a Cadillac to driving a Volkswagen Bug, ok a Beatle.  Both have their value, but there was just so much in the Parable of the Talents and this parable is:  Bam!  Here it is.

Jesus had many parables and they likely didn’t register the same with everyone.  The Bible is like that.  Some verses just attach themselves to us.  I don’t know that I have lived a day in the past decade where Proverbs 3:5-6 didn’t pop into my head.

I like the Parable of the Talents because it’s one where we should be motivated to do something.  Now, we look at a parable that’s about things happening whether we do anything or not between point A and point B.

A man scatters seed on the ground.  Did he till it first?  Did he burn off the old vegetation?  Did he turn some goats loose on it?  What did they do before Roundup was invented?  Did he truly just scatter or did he use a first century drill?  It couldn’t be that.  The seed drill wasn’t invented until 1700, by none other than Jethro Tull

We don’t know how much preparation was involved if any at all.  He scattered some seed.  That’s what we know. 
And then because he followed a precise ritual of watching the seed, going through many sleepless nights of worry, and consulting daily with the agricultural extension, the seeds sprouted.  No, that’s not it at all.

What the man did next had no bearing on what transpired between the seed and the ground.  It sprouts, it grows, the stalk shoots ups and forms a head, and the head fills out with grain.

What’s next?  The man comes and harvests the crop.  He harvests the crop.

The parable doesn’t say if it was a good crop, average crop, or the bumper crop of the millennia.  It grew and the harvest came.

This parable is unique to Mark’s gospel.  It complements the other agrarian parables nicely.  The Parable of the Sower or of the soils if you will and the Parable of the Weeds make analogies with things that people knew well.  So too, does the Parable of the Growing Seed.

You have a seed and some dirt and though not mentioned, a little water and sunshine come in handy; and the next thing that you know is that you have life—plant life—but life nonetheless.  This mysterious process eventually produces a harvest.

I want to go back to Proverbs 3:5-6.  Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your path straight.

I don’t plant a big garden these days.  It used to be that I supplied the north end of town with squash whether they wanted it or not.  These days I have scaled back a little but the same thing happens with whatever I plant.  I’m not talking about putting in tomato plants.  I am talking about seeds.

What happens is that I can’t sleep very well the night that I plant seeds in my garden.  It’s not that I am too tired to sleep.  It’s that my mind races in anticipation of what will happen.  I know that nothing is going to sprout by the next morning, but the mystery of the seed sprouting and growing and producing something that will be harvested has begun. 

Things that I can’t really comprehend have begun in my presence.  I can go out of town or camp out right next to where I planted the seeds and the outcome is the same.

I have watched videos of plants growing overnight and I can see and know what happened, and have some understanding of how it happens.  I know the why of such things—it perpetuates life.  I get that.

What is so amazing is that it happens.  God in his infinite wisdom and his precision design of things so small and intricate that we need extreme magnification to start to visual processes designed before the creation of the world.  It just happens.

Sometimes it happens incredibly fast.  I am talking about okra, of course.  I don’t plant much okra anymore.  When I did, I would check for a harvest and find a bunch of little thumb-sized offerings.  The next day I would go to check and I would have two rows full of 18-inch-long pods.  How did they go from way too small to harvest to too large and fibrous to do anything with?

Maybe I was supposed to talk to my plants?  But who wants to talk to okra?

Let’s understand this parable in terms of our lives instead of okra.  So many things happen over which we have no control.  I am not talking so much the rotation of the earth or gravity or when Diet Coke goes on sale.

We have accepted the wonderful gift of grace and live as God’s children and live in his favor and know that there is so much more life ahead of us; yet there is so much that we just can’t figure out.

There is stuff that we just don’t know and sometimes continues to be a mystery to us; yet, somehow, things seem to work out.  We go from scattering seed to harvesting a crop with little comprehension of what happened between point A and point B.

Realize that we are talking about life now and not crops.

We have a neighbor who just won’t come worship with us.  We have invited a hundred times and feel sad that our invitation has fallen on deaf ears.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he has professed his faith or she is on fire for the Lord.  We are not really sure what transpired.  What happened?

We don’t always get the answer, even if you talk to the person.  Sometimes he only knows that now he sees the truth.  All she can tell you is that Jesus is Lord and that’s enough for her.

What happened?

When the Pharisees were questioning the man born blind from birth that Jesus healed.  We find the account in the 9th chapter of John’s gospel.  The Pharisees are frustrated because it appears that Jesus might be legit and they don’t like that very much.  They try to discredit the man who can now see.  This man doesn’t try to make any fancy theological arguments.

All he can say is this man who healed me must be from God.  All I know was that I was blind and now I see!
Paul wrote that we walk by, live by faith and not sight.  The world says that seeing is believing.  Our biblical witness tells us that believing is seeing.

Our analytical minds want all of the details that go in between.  In proverbial terms, we will call this our own understanding.  But we are a people of trust, of faith, and who can take a little mystery in stride.

Let me fill in a little of what’s happening just to satisfy a little of our own understanding.  I am talking about what is happening in our lives, not with okra.  I still can’t explain okra.  God’s own Spirit is at work in the world today.  The Holy Spirit is alive and well in moving all over the place on this planet and within hearts that some have classified as too hard to penetrate.

This same Spirit that we know well and lives within us, moves like the wind across the street and across the globe and does not feel obligated to send us progress reports.

We have seedtime and harvest in agriculture and don’t always comprehend everything that comes in between. I understand that being a graduate of the finest agricultural university on the planet, we know a whole bunch; but still there is mystery. 

We all get that sunshine and rain and hail that lands somewhere else are good things and there is a good mix of those good things that seems to be just right; but what goes on between the seed and the soil happens whether we sleep all night or binge watch the new season of Orange is the New Black.

We need to understand that God’s Spirit is at work without respect to what we do or do not do.  That does not mean that we can hang up our cleats and say, “The Spirit’s got this.”

We have been given our part—a very important part.  We are commissioned, full of gifts and talents, and expected to produce a return for our Master with our time, talents, and treasure.  We are expected to take the gospel to the ends of the earth and deliver it as passionately as is possible.  It is good news after all.

But what happens in between belongs mostly to the Spirit.  That doesn’t mean that when we have invited someone to come worship with us three times, given them a blue GOD LOVES YOU – LOVE ONE ANOTHER wristband, and every member of their family has been given at least two Gospels of John that we write them off.

Do we say, “OK Spirit, we have done our part; you’ve got it from here?”

No, we continue to share and invite and witness to the lost in the world, but we accept that what happens in between mostly falls into the realm of God’s Spirit.

God has gifted us.  Our Master has commanded us to love and commissioned us to share the gospel, but it is the Spirit who is at work in the world.  We are to live by faith and be able to live with a little mystery as the Spirit goes where the Spirit goes.

Sometimes that is difficult, especially with folks who like to think they are in control.  Control is largely an illusion, at least our control is that way.  I have a very small circle of things that I control.  Other things I might have some influence on, but there is just a whole bunch of stuff that is way beyond what I can control.

Remember that this parable once again makes comparison to the Kingdom of Heaven, in this case the term Kingdom of God is used.  This is a kingdom that grows in the world and which grows inside of us.

Trusting in the Lord, I am just fine with the fact that I am not in control of much of anything.  I can decide to obey my Master, love my neighbor, and share the gospel; but what happens on the other end of these things is out of my control most of the time.

Today, we celebrate Pentecost.  Today we celebrate that the Holy Spirit is living inside of us and walking along side of us, and at work in so many places in the world. 

And I am OK with the fact that the Holy Spirit doesn’t have to check in with me every time someone professes Jesus as Lord and enters into life.  You would think that a tweet here and there wouldn’t be too much to ask, but I can accept that I am not on that distribution list.

I am going to be content to do what I have been gifted to do and commissioned to do and ordained to do, and do these things to the very best of my ability to please my Master and bring Glory to God.

I will do these things with joy in my heart and without the burden of response.  I pray that people receive the wonderful gift that we know in Christ Jesus, but my heart is not encumbered by a response that belongs to them and the Holy Spirit.

I am going to be content that I don’t always get situation reports as to what is happening between seedtime and harvest.  God’s Spirit is at work and that’s good enough for me.

I am going to move beyond just being content to being thankful that God didn’t reveal everything to me at this time because sometimes it seems that I am running my race as fast as I can and I don’t know that I could handle knowing the everything of everything right now.

I am thankful that I get a good dose of mystery with my God.  I am not frustrated about it.  I am thankful that my God is so much bigger than I can comprehend.

Paul would later write that we do have the mind of Christ.  I can handle that.  It is still challenging, but I can handle following my Master and trusting that God’s own Spirit is always at work in me and around me.

I am blessed not to know everything about everything but to live in God’s favor and grace and do those things entrusted to me.