A Sunday Sermon: Thinking and Praying for Houston and SE Asia

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This is roughly what I offered my congregation yesterday in light of the devastation that floods have wrecked across our world this week.  It is a bit long but I hope it helps you as you “think and pray.”

Introduction

I want to begin by sharing about how I was awakened to the fact that this Houston tragedy was “the real deal.”  I have been super busy the last three or so weeks, busier than I have been in a long time.   That is a good thing but in my busyness I haven’t been able to pay attention to national headlines as much as I usually do.  That is also a good thing.

So I heard rumors of hurricane Harvey but what I initially read seemed minor.  It appeared to me that Hurricane Harvey was one of those headlines that was exaggerated by the media in an otherwise low news cycle.  Even the articles I did read said that Harvey only barely reached category 4 status before being downgraded to a tropical storm shortly after going over Houston.  That’s all I read and I figured, “no big deal.”

But Harvey’s problem was what came behind it.  Although Harvey itself was not that bad as far as winds go, it was the wettest hurricane on record in the US.  To make it worse, several rain storms followed in its wake so that Houston got hit again and then again and then again resulting in the catastrophe that it now is.  It took me until about Wednesday of this week to realize that this is the real deal.  This is pretty bad.

Right around that time I came across the pictures from southern Asia.  For those of you who don’t know, there are several countries and areas under water all across the Indian Ocean shores.  This started happening in June and has continued to get worse until now when most of the shoreline is uninhabitable along with several inland areas.  Thousands have died due to the flooding and millions of families have been displaced.  Flooding  is a global concern right now.  We have millions suffering in Texas and tens of millions more in Asia.

“Thoughts and Prayers”

About the time the gravity of all this occurred to me, another feeling came over me.  I think  this feeling is common nowadays.  I am going to call it “overwhelmed apathy.”  This is not apathy that overwhelms.  It is apathy that comes from being overwhelmed.  I was so overwhelmed by the pictures, the stories and the amount of neediness that I had no idea how to respond.  So I didn’t.  I shrugged and went on with life.

There is a phrase which “overwhelmed apathy” loves to utter.  It is, “Thoughts and prayers.”  Those of us who are so overwhelmed say this often as a way of trying to convince people we actually care.  Sometimes I wonder if that phrase is thrown about because we have no idea what else to do or to say so we say, “Thoughts and prayers” as a way of trying to signal that we are still decent people.  Thinking and praying are not bad but some people throw that phrase around as a way of trying to convince others they care when they really don’t.  They are more worried about showing they care than actually doing anything that would actually be caring.

Thursday night, about the time the gravity of Houston was dawning on me, I had a conversation with the daughter of a recently deceased mother.  From the minute she answered her phone, I noticed that she didn’t sound so happy.  She sounded like someone who is grieving.  She sounded like a daughter who doesn’t have a mom any more, at least not on this side of eternity.  She also sounded like someone who was completely overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to close out a person’s estate.  It was a rough conversation.

Guess what I heard myself say to her, “Well, our thoughts and prayers are with you.”  I hated myself for it!  It sounded so shallow.  What I hated even more was that I wanted to do something tangible but I seriously could not.  There was almost nothing I could to help other than listen.

In my defense, I have been thinking and praying for this family a lot.  If you were to somehow measure how much time I have spent thinking and praying about the various areas of my life, that family would top the list.  Every time I think about them I offer a prayer for them and that prayer is offered with a tear or two.  I miss their mom and I hurt for their loss.

Yet here is another tragedy which is a lot closer to home than Asia or Houston.  It only involves the fifty or so extended family members but it is no less a devastation.  Death is a tragedy.  I think we are numb to it, especially when people die in their 80’s, but it is no less a violation of God’s original plan for creation.

Actually Thinking and Praying

So that happened Thursday and then Friday morning came.  I was at a worship service and they had an extended prayer time.  Prayer times can be awkward, especially for pastors.  I felt like I had to pray to sound “spiritual” but I didn’t know what to pray for or about.  Somewhere in that, it occurred to me that this was a good opportunity to actually think and pray for Houston and for Asia so I started to think and pray.

I immediately had another problem.  I had no idea what to pray.  Everything obvious seemed so cliché, like a million other people had all ready prayed it.  What good would it do to echo popular, overly simple sentiments up to the heavens?  “God be with them.  .  .even though I am sure you are and probably don’t need me to ask so that you can be with them.  God I wish I could do something but they are there and I am here.  God, um this is kind of sad.  .  .Amen.”

I also didn’t know what to think.  These floods are devastating and so senseless.  There is no rhyme or reason to it and the rhymes and reasons others have offered seem so trite and shallow.  When we “think and pray” for such tragedies there is a very real danger we end up as callous as Job’s friends in the ash heap.  “This happened because of sin!”  “You should have moved away from there!”  “Those guys deserved it for not evacuating!”  How cruel can you be?

So I had no idea what to think or what to pray.  I just stood there, overwhelmed and apathetic.

Then another feeling came over.  Even though I had no words to say and no thoughts to think I found that I had an incredible longing, a longing for a world where these things do not happen, a longing for Jesus and his kingdom.  This longing itself was my prayer but it was one those prayers that was too deep for words.  It could only be expressed in sighs and groans.  It is a prayer of lamentation.

Mark 13

Then I remembered Mark 13.  The chapter opens with Jesus leaving the temple.  One of his disciples marvels at the beauty of the buildings.  Jesus plays the role of the downer.  “You see these great buildings here? Not one of them will remain standing!”

They sit atop the Mount of Olives and his core group asks him, “Well when will this happen?  What are the signs that this is about to take place?”  We now know the answer to that question.  In 70AD the Roman Empire, the “abomination that causes desolation” sacked Jerusalem and tore down the temple and those in Judea who went back from the fields were raped, enslaved and slaughtered.  Jesus was right.  The Roman conquest of Jerusalem was a tragedy unequaled too from the beginning and never equaled again (though the Holocaust came close), at least for God’s chosen people.

We know this now but Jesus didn’t answer their question, at least not directly.  Instead he seems to be more concerned that they not be deceived by false answers to the question.  He tells them to be careful not to listen to false prophets or pay attention to false signs.  He say, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end.  For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.”

There is a very shallow reading of this passage and its companion passages in Matthew and Luke that thinks Jesus is telling people that things like wars, famines, earthquakes, floods and pestilences are signs that Jesus is about to return.  The people who argue this have a very inadequate understanding of history.  They seem to think that right up until 1960 there were never any wars, earthquakes, tornadoes or floods.  They think pestilences are this brand new thing.  But trust me, there have always been wars or rumors of wars.  There have always been murderers.  There have always been floods.  There has always been death.  There have always been terrorists and terrorism.  Pick a year in history and you will find a war or a rumor of war.  Far from being new, these tragedies are a very old part of our dying world.

In Mark 13 Jesus is not saying, “See this paradise you live in without wars or famines or hardship or death?  Well in 2017 that won’t be the case anymore but don’t worry I am coming back in 2018!”

Instead Jesus is actually saying, “Don’t be deceived by the false Christs and false prophets who point to wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines and the like.  Those things will continue to happen and unfortunately, must happen.  When they do happen, stay faithful and remain smart.  But when the end of the world does happen, you will know it, because you will see the Son of Man coming on clouds!”

So when we have things like wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes, famines and yes, even floods, they are not a sign that Jesus is coming back soon.  Instead they are a sign that Jesus has not come back soon enough!

The hurricanes and rain storms happening all over the world today are signs that this old, broken world continues to be old and broken.  The mom who died on her bathroom floor one night is a sign for us that death still continues.  The victory is not yet won.  Sin continues to be sin.  Death continues to fight.  Creation still groans under futility, waiting for the children of God to be revealed.  Our bodies are still subject to decay.

God has not yet sealed the victory.

We are still between the times.

Proclaiming Our Hope!

So Friday morning there I stood, between the times, thinking, praying, sighing and groaning my longing for Christ, my hope for the final healing and victory!

And as I cry the tears of hope and groan the compassion of Christ I can boldly proclaim that even though death, destruction and decay still seem to reign, one magic day the sun will be darkened and the moon will turn to blood.  The heavenly bodies will be shaken and we will see the Son of Man coming with great power and great glory.  He will send his angels and gather us up from the four winds!

Likewise, to those of us who have lost loved ones, I can proclaim the hope of the Apostle Paul who said, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”

And to those suffering under natural disasters I can proclaim the hope that John the Revelator offers when he tells us,

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”

And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

If you find yourself “thinking and praying” for the tragedies surrounding us, there might just be three words to offer and they comes from the very end of Revelation, the very end of our Scriptures.  Will you pray it with me, “Come, Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord Jesus.  Come Lord.  .  .”

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Maundy Thursday Reflection: Sheep and Goats and Which One You Are Going to Be

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I grew up having the cross described to me.  They started explaining it when I was two and it continued throughout my youth.  I eventually landed in a private Christian high school where we talked almost exclusively about it and then I went on to College and Seminary where I got degrees in it.

So I know a lot about this cross.  I know all about how it saves us.  It also forgives us.  It secures God’s presence for us.  It promises us an eternity of bliss.  It is both God’s love and the satisfaction of God’s wrath.

Yet it is also so much more than we will ever be able to comprehend.  There are depths to this cross which we may never reach until the New Jerusalem.

With that said, one thing we never talked about regarding this cross is that it itself is an act of judgment.

I was taught it is the exact opposite.  It is a delay of judgment, some sort of satisfaction that delays God’s wrath for a couple millenia until it boils all up inside God again and pours over to destroy us all, well all who are not saved by the blood.  God just can’t help but pour it out all again but at least Jesus delayed it.  Shallow readings of Revelation have certainly fed this view, that God’s wrath is not satisfied, only delayed.

I have come to disagree with all that.  I believe the cross itself is an act of wrath, an act of judgment.  Paul’s letters make this plain.  The most obvious place is Colossians 2:15 which describes the cross as humiliating, a mockery of the rulers and authorities.  He made a public spectacle of them and triumphed over them.  To put it simply, the powers and authorities were judged, weighed and found wanting that day when Jesus died.

This thinking of the cross is perhaps why Jesus’ last teachings before the crucifixion have to do with judgment.  The very last one, recorded in Matthew 25:31-26, is the most blatant.  It is a passage which us good Christians know really well.  It has to do with sheep and goats and heaven and hell.  Anybody who grew up singing Sunday School songs know which one they want to be.

It might be a stretch to call this a parable and yet the metaphors have resonated for millennia and it is a very popular passage from Jesus’ teaching.  Because of its popularity it is so tempting to explain away its bluntness and thus minimize its importance.  But the parable is blunt, obvious and demands a verdict.

Simply put, Jesus teaches that at the last judgment the sheep, those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked, will be welcomed into eternity.  The goats, those who ignored the hungry and despised the naked, will be thrown into hell. There is no other way of reading it.  This is what Jesus said will happen.

And right after he said it, the motions of crucifixion are put in place.  The rulers conspire.  Judas betrays.  Jesus breaks bread and drinks wine.  The guards arrest.  The disciples flee.  The governors judge.  Peter denies.  The soldiers beat.  The cross is carried and the nails are hammered.  The crowd mocks while Jesus breathes his last.

Right after teaching us about the sheep and the goats, Jesus becomes yet one more sheep who is terrorized, tortured and killed by yet more goats.  This is the way things always are and the way they always were.  Goats win.  Sheep lose.  Compassion is stupid.  Tyranny is awesome.  Generosity is foolish.  Selfishness is brilliant.  The strong and the mighty always survive.  The sheep always die.

Yet Jesus, our compassionate sheep, our lover of the poor, our feeder of the hungry, our tailor of the naked, our water for the thirsty rises from the dead!

Jesus’ death and resurrection proves that in the end the sheep do win!  In the end the goats do lose!  In such a way the cross absolutely judges the goats.  It strips them naked and makes a public mockery of them.  Those goats could kill a sheep but they couldn’t keep the sheep dead!  In fact, he rose with power to save those who by faith and the grace of God enter into sheepishness.  The rulers and authorities, the goats, become such a joke after the cross.

So this Maundy Thursday, as this weekend really begins, the question remains, who is welcome at your Eucharist table tonight?  What hungry and thirsty people are you inviting in?  What are their names?  What are their stories?  Who are the sheep?  Are you among them?

If you can’t answer those questions, the cross tomorrow night may find you judged, measured and wanting.

Holy Wednesday Reflection: Bags of Gold and Virgins Who May or May Not End Up Being You

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“It is finished.”  That is one of the more confusing things Jesus said from the cross.  If only we knew what “it” was or is or will be.  Does “it” refer to his life or to our sins or to Jesus’ mission or to the reign of evil or all of the above?  If only we knew what “finished” meant.  Is it “finished” in the way my car was finished when its engine caps cracked or is it finished in the way I finish a dresser top or is it finished the way I cross a “finish” line.

Unlike some of the other things Jesus said from the cross, we don’t have much Biblical context to help us out on this.  Unlike some of the other popular ones, it isn’t a line from one of the Psalms.  The word “finish” is too common in both Testaments and in the Greco-Roman world for any word study to be of much help.  However, the actual Greek word refers to a paying off of debts so there is some help there.

Putting all the confusion aside, the statement is still quite profound.  After all, it is not uncommon, especially in Evangelical Protestant Circles, to look at the cross as a beginning and a wonderful one at that.  The crucifixion happened in the Spring and so Easter has always been celebrated during this wonderful time of the year when everything begins, or rather springs, anew.  This event is about newness, not finished-ness.  It is about beginnings, not endings.

Yet here on the cross Jesus declares an end, a last day if you will.  And it has not been uncommon in 2,000 years of church history to refer to the time after the cross as the “end times.”  “End times” as it was originally used did not refer to destructive times or collapsing times or apocalyptic times.  Instead the word “end” is the Greek word “telos” which refers to something reaching its goal or being fulfilled.  After the cross, we live in times of fulfillment, the times when creation has reached its purpose.  After the cross we stand on the “finish line.”

Therefore, it may not be surprising that Matthew, Mark and Luke record for us that Jesus taught about the “end times” during his last week.  The days before the crucifixion, Jesus told stories and taught parables about the end times, the finishing times.

Matthew 25 records two such parables for us.  The first is about virgins waiting for a bridegroom.  Five forgot to bring oil and so were out buying more when the bridegroom showed, missing him entirely.  The others had enough oil and got to join the wedding party.  The second parable is about investors.  Some of them took the bags of gold the master gave and invested it wisely, doubling their share.  One of them foolishly buried his bag, refusing to invest it for fear of losing it.  He was punished most severely.

At first glance these parables don’t really belong in Holy Week.  In fact, we have another season of the church year where they are taught, namely Advent, which commemorates Christ’s first coming and Christ’s second coming.  The church, through the lectionary, has us read these in December to remind us to be ready for Jesus’ second coming.

Yet in their original context they were some of Jesus’ last teachings before taking up the cross and finishing “it,” whatever “it” was.

Therefore, maybe what we need to hear in these parables during this week is not judgment or warning but promise.  To be sure, the parables were told for judgment, particularly against the religious elite of Jesus’ time.  But we now live in “finished” times.  We now live in the time when the master’s presence is with us through the Holy Spirit.  We confess that God is here, walking and dwelling among us.  But the Holy Spirit is merely a deposit which means God is not yet fully here.  We live at the beginning of the “end times” but still with a deposit, a promise, a guarantee of our inheritance.

Therefore, those of us who have spent this week and the entirety of our lives fasting, praying, longing, studying and, most importantly, loving need to hear the assurance from these parables.  Unlike those who fall asleep or do not prepare, our oil will not run out before the groom’s coming.  Unlike those who have buried their gold in the ground, our bags of righteousness will multiply.  Our faithfulness and our readiness to do good will not go unnoticed.  In fact, the one who notices and rewards them is all ready at the door!

Therefore, I think I can say with confidence, keep on keeping on.  For like the wise investors and the smart virgins, the cross has guaranteed our reward.