In His Hand

A day’s wages for an ordinary laborer in Jesus’ time was a single coin, a Roman coin called a denarius. It was small, about the size of a dime, but thicker and heavier and made of silver. The common word for money in several languages, like dinero in Spanish, comes from the name of this coin.

Denarii were generally imprinted with the image of the current emperor. In our text for this week from Matthew 22:15-22, that would have been Tiberius, the successor of Augustus Caesar. In response to a question about paying taxes, Jesus requested and held a denarius like this because it was the amount of a general “head tax” on every man in the empire.

Presumably the question about paying taxes to Caesar was religiously motivated for the Pharisees and Herodians who were trying to trap Jesus. Along with the emperor’s image, the tax coin was imprinted on the front with the title “divine son.” So it might have seemed problematic for faithful Jews to pay a tax to someone with pretensions to divinity using a coin which expressed those pretensions.

Jesus famously derailed the question which might have trapped Him into saying something subversive against the civil government by declaring in verse 21, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…,” to use the KJV language. Caesar’s image is on the coin, so it clearly belongs to him. This call for submission to payment of taxes, even unjust taxes, is often ignored by conservatives who would rather point to Romans 13 to talk about acquiescing to a current governing party or politician while at the same time urging rebellion against taxation and cutting of taxes.

The real cutting edge of Jesus’ answer is the second half of verse 21, “and render unto God what is God’s.” If we are to give to the emperor the coinage on which his image is imprinted, then let us give to God that on which His image is imprinted. In the world of the Bible, it is our own selves which are stamped with the image of God. It is our own very beings which are to be rendered back to their divine owner.

So the thought for the week is how we may practically and regularly give our lives back to God from whom they came, how we may concretely acknowledged His stamped image on us. He intends that His image be manifest in us, that in giving ourselves to Him we look more and more like Him in His love and grace.

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In the World

A novel I was recently reading began with the account of a twelve-year-old boy’s birthday party. He had invited several “friends” from school, but none of them showed up. He wept bitterly on his mother’s lap wondering why they had all rejected him, why no one cared enough about him to come and eat cake and ice cream on his birthday.

Thinking about that birthday boy’s disappointment gave me a side-road into our text for this week from Matthew 22:1-14. As we struggle with disappointment over the loss of Christian influence in America, and even with dwindling church attendance in some quarters, are we like that weeping boy in the novel, bitterly wondering why nobody is showing up and why nobody cares about us? Or will we learn from the actions of the king and his son in this parable, and go out into the larger world to fill those empty places with unexpected guests of all sorts?

I’m wrapping up a series of sermons on a new vision statement our church council created at the beginning of the year:

We are a family
walking with Jesus,
and seeking the kingdom of God,
in the valley
and the world.

That last phrase “[in] the world,” is the focus for this week and this parable solidly connects with it by reminding us that we as a church ought not be sitting around moping that we’ve thrown a party to which no one has come, but that our hearts and bodies ought to be going out into the world around us to welcome in those who most need our invitation.

I came across a sweet true story from a couple years ago about a fifth birthday party for Taliyah Sassmannshausen. Several children gave RSVPs, but only a few adults showed up. Undaunted, Taliyah’s mother got on their Springhill, Tennessee community Facebook page and invited any families with children who would like to come. A bunch of people then showed up to help Taliyah celebrate.

That’s how the Lord intends the story to end for us when we take seriously our calling to go out into the world and bring in all those Jesus desires to be at His party.

(I’ll wait until Sunday to comment on the difficult ending to this parable that appears in verses 11-14.)

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In the Valley

Our Willamette Valley here in Oregon has long been the scene of agriculture. It’s the heartland of grass seed culture. Driving along I-5 yesterday, my wife and I enjoyed looking at the sheep grazing on green fields. And as everyone who lives in the Northwest knows, there is a burgeoning wine industry, with vineyards appearing on slopes all over the valley. It’s a fruitful place here nestled between the Coast Range and the Cascades.

Sunday’s parable from Matthew 21:33-46 pictures a vineyard that is apparently productive. But the tenants who manage it refuse to pay the owner’s share. They kill not only the messengers sent to collect but the owner’s son as well. The allegory with the prophets and ultimately God’s own Son Jesus is clear. Jesus is focused on the leadership elements of Jewish society which have refused to acknowledge the claim on their lives presented first by John the Baptist and finally by Christ Himself.

It’s easy for confessing Christians to evade the force of the parable in the assurance that we have not rejected Jesus. But we may want to consider whether we have produced for our Lord the sort of fruit He desires. Jesus in verse 43 told the elders and chief priests that the kingdom of God would be taken from them and given to people who would in fact produce the proper fruit of the kingdom. With all the abundance that surrounds us here in our valley, we might wonder what fruit we will have to show if our Lord suddenly arrives.

Planting a vineyard is fine, but as people of the kingdom of God let us ask if we have planted fruitfully in this place where we live, both in our individual actions and in our life together as a community. Are we doing things which make a difference for His kingdom here and now?

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Seeking the Kingdom

Yesterday the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that women will soon be allowed to drive there. Their authoritarian government is relenting on one of its long-time restrictions on the freedom of women, although other restrictions will remain in place. Female activists are celebrating this change, as much of the rest of the world shakes its head and wonders how such restrictions existed so long in modern times.

Questions about authority and governments are ancient. Our text this week from Matthew 21:23-32 gives us a peek at how Jewish government leaders in Jesus’ day viewed their authority in relation to His. Verse 23 shows them responding to Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple on or just after Palm Sunday be asking Him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Rather than answer directly about His own authority, Jesus lifted the issue to another level by questioning them in turn in verse 25 about the authority of John the Baptist, whether it was of divine (“from heaven”) or human origin. We smile as we read their internal deliberations in the rest of verse 25 and verse 26. They find themselves caught on the horns of a dilemma between giving John’s mission a divine authority they apparently refused to accept and running afoul of the popular opinion that John was in fact a prophet, a messenger from God.

We today, of course, see politicians often caught in dilemmas between pretty obvious facts and fairly large factions of public opinion. Their failures to negotiate those dilemmas leave them unable to enact any meaningful legislation or accomplish much else. That paralysis, like the paralysis of the Jewish priests and elders which they admit in verse 27, “We do not know,” may sometimes be a good thing, preventing a disastrous grasp of one horn of a dilemma resulting in great detriment to the public good.

Yet paralyzed stasis between two opinions is not the best course when it comes to divine authority. Jesus (and His precursor John the Baptist) came to welcome women and men into a kingdom where they will be truly free. Quibbling about the authority of these messengers only keeps the quibbler from entering into that freedom. The little parable in verses 28-30, and the question which follows at the beginning of verse 31, is Jesus’ teaching that we must sometimes change our minds and held opinions in order to head in the direction of His kingdom.

After announcement of the change in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s policy on women driving, Manal al-Sharif, organizer of the Women2Drive campaign, posted on her Twitter account, “You want a statement here is one: ‘Saudi Arabia will never be the same again.'” The royal family’s willingness to change will have a deep effect on their society, resulting in a new and enhanced role for the subjugated and abused female half of the population.

Jesus told the authorities of His time that they needed to change in order to appreciate the new role an oppressed and abused segment of their society will have in the arriving kingdom of God. In verse 31 He says, “the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

That all suggests to me that as Christians today, if we truly want to follow Jesus’ directions to seek first His kingdom, we will need to look for it in the direction that less fortunate and less reputable segments of our society are headed. We may need to follow today’s outcasts–be they undocumented people, the sexually immoral, the uneducated, or the poor–in order to find our way into the kingdom of God.

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Walking with Jesus

I’ve been backpacking for fifty years. My first trip was with the Scouts to Kings Canyon National Park in 1967. The most recent trip, shown in the picture, was last month as a few of us from our church did a short walk to Indigo Lake in the Oregon Cascades.

As usual in recent years, the pack I carried to Indigo Lake was a bit heavier than absolutely necessary. I took along fishing gear, a Kindle Fire tablet, a star chart, a camera and other items which weren’t absolutely essential to a couple nights in the wilderness. Even the tent wasn’t truly needed because we had clear nights and sleeping under the stars would have been fine.

I know better. My first trips were led by a Scout leader who taught us a pretty minimalist conception of packing. Before our long multi-day excursion each summer, we had to bring our fully loaded packs to a troop meeting for inspection. We emptied everything out on the floor, while older, experienced boys checked it over and told us to leave behind things like a heavy metal canteen (get a plastic water bottle instead) and that extra pair of jeans.

Having now taken many young people in our church, including my own daughters, on backpack trips, I see the wisdom in that minimalist approach. Walking up a mountain trail with everything on your back completely changes one’s perception of what is essential. Carrying less makes for a much more enjoyable journey.

As our church envisions “walking with Jesus,” that backpacker’s minimalism has something to teach us. In the text I’m reading for this Sunday, Matthew 19:16-30, Jesus played “Scout leader” to the rich young man who came to Him. Jesus invited him on a walking expedition, but explained that much of what the young man might have wanted to carry with him was unnecessary and would only burden him along the way.

A little soreness is the only consequence for putting too much in my backpack, but verse 24 makes it clear that the consequences of an overloaded attempt to walk with Jesus may be eternal. I’ve got five decades of experience in leaving behind non-essentials when I hit the trail into the back country. I’m not sure that I’m near so wise about leaving behind what is unneeded and a hindrance when I’m trying to walk with our Lord into His kingdom.

May verse 26 be true for us, that what is impossible for us–leaving behind all our possessions to enter the Kingdom–be made possible by our Lord’s grace. May He bring us safely to the end of the trail, unburdened and freed from all the unnecessary loads we are carrying.

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Family

There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good
She was very very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

Those lines are often thought to be a nursery rhyme, but it’s actually the first verse of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I was reminded it of it as I contemplated this week on my sermon topic. Family is exactly like Longfellow’s little girl with a curl. When it is good, it’s one of the greatest blessings on earth. When it’s bad, it breaks our hearts and even ruins lives.

The topic this week is actually the church as a family. We are taking the Gospel lectionary texts for the next few weeks, readings in Matthew, and spinning them in the direction of the major points of our new church vision statement, which begins, “We are a family.” So this week I’m looking at Matthew 18:21-35 and thinking about the family language in this text on forgiveness.

In verse 21, Peter asks how often he should forgive a “brother” who sins against him. Then after a very pointed parable on forgiveness, Jesus expands the family language to speak of God as “your heavenly Father” and to insist that you must “forgive your brother [or sister] from your heart.”

It seems to me that this text lies right at the heart of what it means for the church of Jesus Christ to be a family. Only by forgiveness is it possible for any family to exist and to have a decent life together. Most of us have at least some experience of strained family relations which have persisted for years, maybe for generations. The only possible healing would require repentance and forgiveness and those spiritual acts haven’t happened.

The church family, which is exemplified and made concrete in local churches, suffers from the same dire need for mutual repentance and forgiveness. Whether it is over huge issues like theology or race, or over petty squabbles about sanctuary furnishings or music, Christians have hurt each other and often made our “family life” as children of God pretty horrid.

The key to it all is buried in the parable which in verse 27 portrays the master/lord of the slave forgiving the entirety of a huge debt. That slave’s subsequent lack of forgiveness for a fellow slave stands in stark contrast to the forgiveness he received from his lord. The analogy is straightforward and powerful. Each and every Christian has enjoyed the huge forgiveness offered to us in the grace of Jesus Christ. That divine forgiveness then becomes the model and the center of our lives in relation to everyone around us. And it is only in the power and memory of God’s forgiveness that we can truly become what our vision statement and God’s Word say we are, a family.

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Common Ground

Nein! That was the essence and title of Karl Barth’s reply in 1934 to an essay by Emil Brunner entitled Natural Theology. Barth and Brunner broke a long-standing friendship over the issue of whether there is any “natural” knowledge of God apart from the biblical revelation in Jesus Christ. Brunner maintained that there is a natural, created capacity in human beings to perceive something of who and what God is, apart from supernatural revelation. It is a “contact point” between the message of the Gospel and natural human knowledge.

Barth’s emphatic Nein! (“No!”) to Brunner’s case for natural theology arose partly out of Barth’s observation of how the church in Germany was becoming complicit with rising National Socialism (the Nazi party). German Christians were accepting that political movement and its social manifestations as a source of revelation alongside Scripture. In other words, much of the German church saw God at work in the ascendant political powers of their day and, in contemporary Christian terms, heard God speaking to them in the Nazi party. That episode in both church and world history should resound with a dire warning for Americans today.

Yet the necessity of Karl Barth’s resounding “No!” to German Christianity’s subversion by the Nazi’s and our own present need to say a resounding “No!” to similar forces of hate and political subversion of Christianity in America, should not drive us to Barth’s total rejection of a contact point between sinful humanity and the Gospel. Our text for this Sunday, Acts 17:16-34, shows clearly that Scripture itself allows for and values a presentation of the Gospel which makes contact with whatever knowledge, no matter how sparse, humans have of God prior to experiencing His direct revelation in Jesus.

In the heart of Greek culture and intellectual life in the city of Athens, Paul joined in the philosophical discussions happening in the market place. He was brought to the Areopagus (“Mars Hill”) to offer further explanation of the view he was teaching. His speech, which begins in verse 22 and which today adorns a bronze plaque on the side of the hill, begins by establishing a point of contact with existing pagan religious practice in Athens, suggesting that their acknowledgement of “an unknown god,” was actually a seminal recognition of the one true God, creator of heaven and earth.

From that contact point, Paul went on to declare that God is the God of all nations (verse 26) and that they have a common ancestry as human beings. He then quotes approvingly in verse 28 two Greek poets to the effect that all people have their being from God and are His children. He then explains in verses 29-31 that the significance of that common origin in God’s creative work implies a common moral accountability before the Creator. He finally points to hope in spite of a coming judgment because of a man God raised from the dead. The close of the text in verse 34 shows us some of Paul’s listeners becoming believers.

Thus there is definitely room for a natural theology supported by Scripture itself (see also Psalm 19 and Romans 1 and 2). And Paul’s speech shows us that natural revelation itself has at least some answer to Karl Barth’s worries about a perverse natural theology which sets itself up as equal and contrary to the Word of God. Those Greek poets’ understanding of all people as children of God is enough to allow a vehement and unqualified “No!” to Nazis, white supremacists, the alt-right and racism of all sorts. Natural theology and biblical theology are totally in harmony on that point.

Which means that we Christians may have an opportunity now to accept a point of contact with non-believers who are decrying and protesting the new rise and visibility of hate groups in our time. We can show them that their abhorrence of racism, prejudice and terror is in perfect harmony with the Christian revelation which has always taught that all people are loved by God. There’s never been a better time to proclaim Jesus our Lord who died and rose again to demonstrate God’s love for the whole world.

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Noble Minds

Modern Veria (Veroia) in Greece, the site of ancient Berea (Beroea), was the home of one of the oldest continuously existing Jewish communities until the Nazi’s deported all the Jewish quarter residents during World War II. An old stone 17th century synagogue remains as a reminder of the Jewish population and synagogue which were there when Paul visited sometime around A.D. 50 in our text for this week, Acts 17:1-15.

After suffering persecution by the Jewish community in Thessalonica, Paul finds the Jewish people of Berea more “noble” (to use a frequent translation) in verse 11. The word is literally “well-born,” signifying a good character. The NRSV’s “more receptive” doesn’t quite capture the thought, although it was certainly true. The Berean Jews were more willing to listen to and carefully examine the message Paul brought them rather than rejecting it out of hand.

The rest of verse 11 explains why so many modern Christians would like to identify with the Bereans. They “examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.” It’s a picture of careful study of God’s Word to determine the truth of what is being proposed. Of course the “scripture” in the hands of the Bereans were only what we call the Old Testament, and their study was aimed particularly at determining whether the claim that Jesus was the Messiah was true.

All in all, the Bereans portray an intellectual character that does bear imitation by Christians today, not just in their Bible study, but in their admirable combination of openness of mind with critical examination of the claims before them. Either of those two qualities alone often produce deplorable results. Mere open-mindedness by itself makes one a sucker for whatever new viewpoint or fake news comes along. On the other hand, critical thinking operating alone makes one an eternal skeptic, never willing to accept any truth no matter how well established.

As G. K. Chesterton said in his autobiography, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Which is exactly what the Bereans did. Their open-minded reception of the Gospel of Jesus Christ led them to finally close their minds and believe it wholeheartedly.

Contemporary Christians could very much stand to learn this combination of receptiveness and critical thinking centered around Scripture. Innovative doctrinal and ethical claims need to be shown the same gentle-spirited willingness to listen in combination with a tough-minded subjection of those claims to a careful and reasonable reading of the Bible.

The history of Berea witnesses to the success of such an approach. Modern Veria remains a testimony to minds firmly committed to and closed on the Gospel. At least seventy churches were built there in Byzantine times and forty-eight of them still exist, maintained even through the Ottoman Muslim occupation of the town. As I pointed out two weeks ago, a beautiful mosaic portraying Paul’s Macedonian mission stands in the modern town square. It’s a small city that received Christ thoughtfully and carefully and then consistently stood firm in faith down through ages.

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Jailer Goes Free

This picture is from our family’s visit to ancient Philippi 15 years ago. It is of a crypt, probably a water cistern, mistakenly identified in the fifth century as the jail cell where Paul and Silas were held. It became a place of worship and frescoes were painted on the back walls. Now, though it is not the actual prison, it is an apt reminder of the story and of the practice of incarceration down through the ages.

One of the blights on the face of American society is the surge in private, for-profit prisons that began in the 1980s. The fact there is money to be made by filling prison beds has likely contributed to a growing rate of incarceration. America now has the highest incarceration rate in the world. While the U.S. is home to about 4 or 5 percent of the world’s population, our nation’s prisons and jails hold over 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. Private prisons negotiate contracts that require states and communities to fill 90 percent of prison beds or pay penalties for the empty beds. The profits made are used to expand prison facilities even further.

All that privatization costs the taxpayer, with levies and taxes for prisons being supported as making society safer and getting tough on criminals. Yet as we lock up more and more people, we ourselves are being locked into a system that is costly, inefficient and unjust. We lose our freedom as we take away the freedom of others.

Paradoxes like that are at the heart of our text for this week in Acts 16:16-40. But the paradoxes are also reversals. A slave girl is in bondage to an evil spirit, but after she is set free in verse 18, we see in verse 19 that it is her owners who are truly in prison, the prison of their own greed for the money the girl made them as a fortune-teller. So the slave goes free and it is her owners who are actually enslaved to sin.

Likewise when Paul and Silas are thrown into prison, their good spirits and singing in verse 25 demonstrate their inner freedom. It is the jailer who is so captive to the system that, when the prisoners are freed by an earthquake, he almost kills himself in verse 27, despairing at the loss of his position and at the punishment he will receive when prisoners escape.

The ultimate reversal is when the jailer realizes that he too needs to be set free in verse 30 and cries out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” What follows is a sweet story of he and his family receiving true freedom in Christ.

Lessons abound for us about recognizing our own incarcerations in sin, prejudice, desire and greed. If we imagine we are free when we are doing what is wrong, that is when our imprisonment is deepest and most dire. Thanks be to God for Christ who gives freedom to all, especially to prisoners sitting waiting for Him in the dark.

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Saving Invasion

Fifteen years ago my family saw this mosaic standing in the middle of the modern city of Verea in Greece (that’s Berea in the New Testament). It recalls the first episode from this week’s text in Acts 16:6-15. In verse 9 Paul has a  vision of a “man of Macedonia” pleading for Paul and his companions to “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

Paul and Silas eventually get to Berea in chapter 17, but their first step in that journey was in verse 11, to set sail from Troas in what is now modern Turkey for a landing at Neapolis, effectively the first Christian visit to Europe. From their landing on the beach at Neapolis, they walked north to Philippi, where the first European convert to Christianity was the woman Lydia.

The face of Europe and all world history changed when Paul and Silas landed there at its furthest eastern region. The message they brought would over the next few centuries spread and transform life and culture across the area we think of as the heart of western civilization. Europe became Christian.

Of course, neither Paul nor Lydia could foresee the events that would unfold from their decisions and actions. Paul would have been surprised that modern Berea would one day be filled with churches and that an image of himself would stand there. Neither of them could have ever guessed at the great Christian monastic movements or the Christian establishment of the first universities or the great cathedrals which would rise across the European landscape. They had no inkling of the great missionary movements outward from Europe that would take the good news of Christ to places they didn’t even know existed. They just joined in conversation about Jesus in a little place for prayer alongside the river outside the city.

One lesson here is that none of can really know the extent of what will come from what we do here and now. A little kindness or a word or two about Jesus to a stranger might make a vast difference in how history unfolds beyond our own lives. Or it might just mean the healing and transformation of a single life or family. In either case, God can accomplish huge things through us if we are only faithful and attentive to His direction. As Ephesians 3:20 says, He “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think…”

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