Friday, November 28, 2014

A Boundless Heart

A Boundless Heart
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24;  Matthew 25:31-46[1]
It seems to me that the more diverse our world gets, the harder it is for us to practice compassion toward the people we encounter. When everybody looks like us, talks like us, dresses likes us, thinks like us, we can easily see them as human beings who have feelings and problems just like us. But the more our society changes, the more we encounter people who look different from us, who talk differently, who dress differently, and who think differently. When we are used to being around people who are basically “just like me,” we may find it challenging to show compassion to people who seem different.
I believe our Gospel lesson addresses this problem. The Parable of the Sheep and Goats is one that many of us know. “I was hungry” is a theme that has echoed throughout the centuries. One of the things I think we have to recognize is that this is a parable. It is story told for a purpose, not a lecture outlining what we’re supposed to believe. It’s not a simple prediction of what’s going to happen to “good” and “bad” people at the end of time.[2] And so our task is to try to understand what is the purpose of this story.
One clue that I find interesting is that both the sheep and the goats are surprised at the verdict.  The sheep are commended for being kind and merciful to Jesus, but they are completely unaware of ever having done anything special.  In response he told them when you were kind and merciful to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were being kind and merciful to me. Similarly, the goats are criticized for not having practiced kindness and mercy toward Jesus, but they seem shocked at such a verdict.  They seem to be among those who thought themselves pious and religious because they were devoted to worship at the synagogue or the Temple, or because they were scrupulous about following the Jewish laws about living lives that are “clean,” or because they were pillars of their religious communities.
If that is the case, we might think that surely some mistake must have been made. But it seems to me that Jesus was saying much the same thing that the prophets said centuries earlier. In fact, the passage we heard this morning from the prophet Ezekiel contains a scathing criticism of the leaders of the prophet’s day, who are identified as the “fat sheep” who have failed to care for the “lean sheep.”[3] In fact, they have positively trampled on those they were supposed to be serving. [4]  And like the prophets before him, Jesus reserves some of his harshest words for the religious pillars of his day.
The reason for that is that if there’s one thing Jesus was good at, it’s cutting through the façade of religious pretense.  No amount of put-on piety could change the fact that many of the most “religious” people of his day were essentially unkind toward others.  In another context, Jesus said that they gave a tenth of everything, even their cooking spices, but they neglected “the more important things of the law, like fairness, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23, NIRV).[5]  At the end of the day, they failed to relate to others with compassion or mercy.  And that is the whole substance of what it means to love God.
I think one of the main purposes for this parable was to remind us that the best measure for the genuineness of our compassion is how we treat “the least of these.”[6] And I think Jesus was trying to point out the hypocrisy of those who were up to their necks in religious devotion but who, when it came right down to it, were incredibly unkind to the people around them. I think what he was trying to do was to make it clear that that when your religion keeps you from practicing basic human kindness and compassion, it becomes a gigantic exercise in missing the point!
In the kingdom where Jesus reigns, what counts is mercy.  That’s what Jesus said when the religious leaders criticized him for hanging out with the wrong kind of people, the “different” people of his day.  He said, “Go and learn what the Scriptures mean when they say, ‘Instead of offering sacrifices to me, I want you to be merciful to others’” (Matt. 9:13, CEV, quoting Hos. 6:6).[7]  The whole point of true religious devotion is to inspire us to be people who are kind and compassionate to others—especially “the least of these.” We cannot escape the fact that, from Genesis to Revelation, God calls us to practice compassion and mercy toward the least and the lost and the left out.
Now, admittedly, kindness and compassion can be difficult—especially when it comes to people who may seem different from us. But no matter how much the people we encounter may challenge us, we are commanded by our Lord and Savior to cultivate genuine love toward our neighbors, all our neighbors.[8] And it seems to me that starts by treating people with basic kindness and compassion, regardless of who they are, or where they come from, or how different they may be from us.
In order to do this, I think we need a heart that is basically open to all people. We need what one teacher called a “boundless heart” to relate to others with kindness and mercy.[9] From my perspective, that means trying to see the people around us--all the people around us--especially those who seem most different from us--as human beings who have feelings and problems just like we do.[10] In fact, the Scriptures call us to see Jesus in the people around us, especially the least and the lost and the left out.[11] When we can do that, then we can freely and joyful feed those who are hungry and clothe those who are naked and welcome those who are strangers to us. Then we can practice the mercy and compassion that come from a boundless heart.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/23/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End, the Beginning, 71: “The point is not the judgement in accordance with good or bad works. It is the identification of the coming Son of man with the hungry and thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.” Cf. also Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21-28: A Commentary on Matthew 21-28, 282, where he points out that the focus of the passage is on the pronouncements in Mt. 25:40, 45, “which in their repetitions of the works of charity emphasize the standard by which people will be judged.”
[3] Cf. Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel, 159, where he says that the context of this passage is the “economic and political exploitation” that occurred in “the upheaval following the Babylonian conquest.” He points out that the language here is similar to that in Matthew 25:31-46, “Disconcertingly, perhaps, the criteria for discrimination is not religious orthodoxy or orthopraxy but care for the weak and disadvantaged--the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the prisoner and the stranger.” 
[4] Ezekiel says, “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost” (Ezek. 34:4).
[5] Cf. S. Westerholm, “Clean and Unclean,” in J. B. Green & S. McKnight (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 131; Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 670.
[6] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.2:507-508, where he identifies the “least of these” as “the world for which [Jesus] died and rose again, with which He has made Himself supremely one, and declared Himself in solidarity.” Many scholars believe that “the least of these” is a specific reference to itinerant Christians who went about without any visible means of support in obedience to Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 10:5-10.  See, for example, Luz, Matthew 21-28, 280-81 and Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 744-45. I find this interpretation overly specific. It seems to me that all of the “least of these” are included, not just specifically Christians or specifically Christian teachers. Besides those cited explicitly in the notes, other advocates of this “universal” interpretation include Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:890-92;  Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, 152–55; Kazoh Kitamori, Theology and the Pain of God, 98–104; Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 194, 200–203; Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator, 71–72; and Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology, 266–267.
[7] Cf. Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 239: “Mercy is a better way of obedience.” Cf. also Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary on Matthew 8-20, 34.
[8] Cf. Desmond and Mpho Tutu, Made For Goodness, 142-43, where they suggest envisioning those we have difficulty being kind toward as children who are themselves vulnerable.
[9] “Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.” Cf. “Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness” (Snp 1.8), trans. by The Amaravati Sangha, Access to Insight, 14 (June 2010); accessed at .
[10] Cf. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 41: “Compassion is born when we discover in the center of our own existence not only that God is God and man is man, but also that our neighbor is really our fellow man. ... This compassion pulls people away from the fearful clique into the large world where they can see that every human face is the face of a neighbor.”
[11] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 127, where he observes that this passage has often been treated ethically, “with somewhat colourless talk about ‘love of our neighbor’.” He continues,  “But it is not only love that is demanded. It is in the first place faith, the faith, namely, that the least of the brethren are waiting in Christ’s stead for the deeds of the just man. It is not that the wretched are the object of Christian love or the fulfilment of a moral duty; they are the latent presence of the coming Saviour and Judge of the world, the touchstone which determines salvation and damnation.” He concludes (p. 129), “the question is not how people or happenings outside the church respond to the church, but how the church responds to the presence of Christ in those who are ‘outside’, hungry, thirsty, sick, naked and imprisoned.” Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:658.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Good Fight

The Good Fight
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11[1]
Like many of you, I still remember one of my first plane trips. I was 17, and I flew from Corpus Christi to Dallas to see my Great Aunt. I had received a neck injury in a car accident, and she was an orthopedic surgeon, so she insisted that she treat me. That flight was very relaxed. It seems that the airlines went out of their way to make people feel comfortable. The plane was only about half full. The whole experience made me think that this was the only way to travel. In fact, I remember thinking that to myself.
As many of you know, I recently flew to Calgary, Alberta, to visit my son Michael and his fiancée and her family. I can’t say those flights were particularly pleasant. These days the airports are jammed with people. It feels like you just about have to strip down to your skivvies to get through security. And then they pack you into the planes like sardines. Nothing like the relaxed and pleasant experience flying used to be. I can certainly understand why people who have to travel for their jobs are called “road warriors.” It seems like you have to fight for food, you have to fight for a seat on the plane, and then you have to fight for what little space you have. I’m glad I don’t have to do that much travelling!
I think many of us would say that life itself is a battle these days, not just travel. We fight to make ends meet. We fight to find a job, and then sometimes we have to fight to keep that job. We struggle with relationships to find the right person to spend our lives with, and then sometimes we have to fight to keep that relationship together. We fight to make a better future for our children, and then sometimes we have to fight to keep them headed in the right direction. And just about the time we think we’ve got it made, everything changes, the ground we’re standing on falls away from us, and we find ourselves fighting just to hold on until life settles into a new “normal.”
I think St. Paul knew how hard life can be. He had been through countless hardships, mostly because of his commitment to follow Christ and to proclaim the good news. Part of the message he proclaimed was the promise that one day Christ would return and finish the work of redemption. One day he would set right all the wrongs in this world. One day he would make all creation new again, as it was at the beginning. As you can imagine, that hope was something the early Christians clung to for dear life. In fact, they held onto it so tightly, some of them got their priorities confused and became almost obsessed with the idea that Jesus would return any day.
Paul reminded them, as Jesus had said before him, that their attitude toward that great day of restoration was to be one of watchfulness. He contrasts that with the observation that most of the people in his world were living as if they were either asleep or drunk. They had no sense that their life choices were self-destructive. They had no awareness whatsoever that there could be anything different or better than the life of satisfying their own selfish desires. When you think about it, it doesn’t sound like much has changed. It seems like many people in our world today are simply hurtling head-long from one day to the next, hardly giving any thought to what they’re doing or where they’re headed or what their future may be. And as a result, their lives consist of one tragic misstep after another. And they go on living that way, seeming not to notice the warning signs on the path they’ve chosen. They’re sleepwalking through their lives.[2]
The Apostle calls those of us who follow Christ to wake up from the fog and the haze of living like that, a life that he says is lived essentially in darkness. He says it this way, “for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess 5:-6). Essentially, I think, what it takes for us to wake up and be watchful is to pay attention.[3] We are called to live intentionally. And throughout the ages, spiritual teachers have reminded us that one of the most important ways of doing that is to develop a discipline of prayer.[4]
But St. Paul also calls believers to wage the battle of life in a different way than most people do. It seems that aggressiveness, demanding our way, being assertive or even pushy, having a competitive edge, are all part and parcel of what we think it means to win the battle that life has become. Paul had a different idea about all that. He told the believers of his day to “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thess. 5:8). The Apostle knew that you can’t fight “the good fight,” you can’t wage the battle for God’s purposes in the world without using “the weapons of righteousness” (2 Cor. 6:6-7).[5] 
And here he returns to what seems to be the foundation for all Christian living: faith, hope, and love. We can invest our lives for God’s purposes only as we have the faith to trust that God will fulfill his promises of a new world.[6] We can fight the good fight only as we hold onto the hope that one day that new world will become a reality, and in fact it already is dawning in our lives today.[7] Only when we hold onto faith and hope can we take the risk of loving those around us, all those around us, even those who are difficult to love, especially those who are seemingly “unlovable.”[8] When we have the clarity to see through the haze so many in our culture are sleepwalking through and determine to live our lives in the way of faith, hope and love, then we’ll be “fighting the good fight.”

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/16/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End--the Beginning: The Life of Hope, 82. He characterizes the “sleeping” that Paul refers to by saying “Our eyes are open but we don’t see; our ears are open but we don’t hear.”  He continues, “we no longer perceive the real world. We see only our dreams and think that our wishful thinking about reality is reality itself. But this again means that we don’t live wakefully in reality; we are asleep in the agreeable dreams of our fantasy world.”
[3] Cf. Moltmann, In the End, The Beginning, 84. He says, “The early Christians prayed standing, looking up, with arms outstretched and eye wide-open, ready to walk or to leap forward. We can see this from the pictures in the catacombs in Rome. Their posture reflects tense expectation, not quiet heart-searching. It says: we are living in God’s Advent. We are on the watch, in expectation of the One who is coming, and with tense attentiveness we are going to meet the coming God.”
[4] Cf. Moltmann, In the End, The Beginning, 83: “When we pray, what we are seeking is not our own wishes; we are seeking the reality of God, and are breaking out of the Hall of Mirrors of our own illusory wishes, in which we have been imprisoned.” See also Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, 43: “Spiritual wakefulness demands only the habitual awareness of him which surrounds all our actions in a spiritual atmosphere ....”; and Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 68-69, where he says that is the “discipline of prayer” that helps us to come back again and again to “the active presence of God at the center of [our] living.” 
[5] Paul lists them as “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,  truthful speech, and the power of God” (2 Cor. 6:6-7).  Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.4:7: he says that “the armour ... which the Christian is to take and put on is a freedom and power which is neither proper nor available to man by nature, which surpasses him in all its aspects” but it is nevertheless “appropriated to him as a freedom and power” which we must take up. He continues, “What a man puts on when he becomes a Christian is according to Col. 3:10 and Eph. 4:24 no more and no less than—after the putting off of the old—the new man who is created κατὰ θεόν* (according to God) or κατʼ εἰκόνα τοῦ κτίσαντος αὐτόν* (according to the image of the one who created him)” (translations added).
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 337: “The expectation of the promised future of the kingdom of God, which is coming to man and to the world to set them right and create life, makes us ready to expend ourselves unrestrainedly and unreservedly in love and in the work of reconciliation of the world with God and his future.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 107-109, where he discusses the idea that Paul “sets salvation ‘in the mode of hope’” by pointing forward to the resurrection of the death and the annihilation of death itself, but also sees the signs of this hope already in the healing ministry of Jesus.
[8] Cf. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 338: “Faith can expend itself in the pain of love, ..., because it is upheld by the assurance of hope” in God’s promised future. Cf. also Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 209: “As Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.--and the Buddha and Jesus long before them--realized, our best ‘weapon’ for changing the hearts of our oppressors or enemies is to love them. ... Only in this way will liberation come not just for the oppressed but also for the oppressors.”

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 5:11-21[1]
It seems to me that there have been two extremes in the way Christians throughout history have viewed our participation in God’s work in the world. Some have made it out as if everything depends on what we do. It’s as if God got the whole thing started, and then handed it over to us. And if we don’t do it all, it won’t get done. I think that perspective has probably inspired a great deal of effort that comes from guilt, but I’m not sure that’s the best way for us to participate in what God is doing in our world. After all, we are talking about God’s work here. It’s always been my opinion that if God doesn’t “provide the growth,” then what we do will not last. And yet neither do I endorse the opposite view which says that everything is in God’s hands, that God has to do it if it’s going to get done, and that we really have no place interfering in what is essentially God’s business and not ours! That view frees us from the pressure of results, but I’m afraid it lets us off the hook too much. The simple truth is that, for whatever reason, God has chosen to accomplish his purposes in this world through flawed and fallible creatures like you and me!
It seems to me that the biblical perspective on our participation in what God is doing in this community and in our world is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. We’re not responsible for everything that happens, but neither can we just hand it all over to God and sit back to watch what happens. I think the concept that best describes our role in what God is doing in this world is partnership. We have the opportunity and responsibility to join with God as partners in what he’s doing in this world. I don’t know about you, but when I think about that, I feel both humbled and overwhelmed!
We see this partnership reflected in our lesson from the Psalms for today. The Psalmist expresses his wonder that God pays such careful attention to the human family in view of the vastness of creation. Then he goes on to recall that we mortals were created in the first place for the purpose of serving as partners with God in his work of creation. He recalls that when God created humankind in his image, he gave them “dominion over the works of your hands” (Ps. 8:6). [2] If you think about this, again, I think it is both humbling and overwhelming. God goes to all the trouble to create a beautiful world full of life, and then he entrusts it into our care! In a very real sense, God created us to be his partners in caring for and sustaining his creation.[3] What an incredible opportunity and responsibility! [4]
Unfortunately, there has been some confusion about this word “dominion.” There have been some who have taken it to mean that we can “rule over” the created order and do whatever we please with it.[5] In essence, this approach gives us permission to tear down and use the created order for our own benefit, regardless of whether what we do actually helps or hurts the natural world.[6] And yet, from a biblical perspective, nothing could be further from the truth! Our calling is to serve as God’s partners in creation, which means it is our responsibility to make sure how we treat the world around us actually preserves and sustains the delicate balance of the natural world.
That is an awe-inspiring calling. And yet there is more to our partnership with God. As St. Paul reminds us, we have not only received the wonderful gift of new life through our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Again we have been given the  responsibility of joining God’s work of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18).[7] We have calling and the opportunity to share this new life with those around us who still feel separated from God, alone and forgotten, lost and left out.[8] Once more, I have to say that the notion that God has called us to be partners with him in “reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19) leaves me feeling humbled and overwhelmed. What an amazing task we all share: “we are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20)! And Paul explains what that means: he says “God is making his appeal through us.” I don’t think that Paul was thinking only of himself. I think he was speaking of all Christians as partners with God in the work of healing our world.
The bottom line here is that there is a balance to be maintained. God’s purposes for this world are not solely our responsibility. The work of creation and redemption is essentially God’s work, not ours. And yet, neither is this work something that God does while we sit back and watch. God has chosen to accomplish his work of sustaining his beautiful creation and his work of reconciling the human family to himself precisely through us. We have been given a calling to be God’s partners in the work he’s doing in our world, a calling that is both humbling and overwhelming.[9]
When we think about our stewardship, it seems to me that what we may or may not give to support the church’s budget is a token of our response to that calling. Our giving through this church represents the level of our commitment to join in the joyful and exciting work of sustaining God’s beautiful creation and bringing all those who are estranged from him back into the fold.  And this commitment is one that calls for all that we have to give--not just money, but also our time, our energy, our intelligence, our imagination, and our love. And when it comes to stepping up and accepting this role as God’s partners, it will take all the energy, intelligence, imagination, and love that we can muster.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/9/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 67, where he reminds us that the Psalmist’s language is a close reflection of the original wording in Genesis 1:26-28.
[3] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 69: “God didn’t just make us; God made us both a representation and representatives of the reign of the Lord to the other creatures.”  Cf. also Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine, 150: “God has graciously invited and commanded us to participate in God’s own creative work in and for the whole world.” Cf. also Donald K. McKim, Introducing the Reformed Faith, 38.
[4] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 185, where he points out that while the Psalmist expresses the idea that “The world and the human being are permeated by the radiating power of diving creation and ordaining,” he also adds that “the insight into this permeation awakens in the event of the revelation of salvation,” which points forward to our calling to be partners in the work of reconciliation.
[5] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 70, where he points out the “disparity between the vision of humanity and the reality of human culture.” He says it this way, “Dominion has become domination; rule has become ruin; subordination in the divine purpose has become subjection to human sinfulness. The creatures suffer.” Cf. also Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 196-97, where he says it is a “fatal misunderstanding” to thinking that dominion means the power to dominate rather than the responsibility to care for creation.
[6] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.4.349-50 et passim where he contrasts this perspective with Albert Schweitzer’s views on respect for all of life.
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 64 “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill to the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church, creating the church as it goes on its way.” 
[8] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:826, where he observes that the church’s existence “finds not merely its meaning but its very basis and possibility only in its mission, its ministry, its witness, its task, and therefore its positive relation to those who are without.”
[9] On this balance, cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics CD 4.3:842, where he says that the church “works in the power of His work, of the name hallowed in Him, the kingdom come in Him, the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven in Him. Not in its own power, but in His, its work is neither meaningless nor futile.”

Saturday, November 08, 2014

God of the Living

God of the Living
Matthew 22:23-33[1]
I grew up playing the game “Monopoly.”  In fact, my cousins and I would play it like it was going out of style!  In later years, when I actually read the rules of the game (!), I learned that we had “cheated.”  You see, the game of monopoly operates in a fixed world with a closed system.  There are only so many properties, only so many houses and hotels, and only so much money to go around.  Now, of course, my cousins and I didn’t invent new properties on the board.  But we didn’t abide by the limitations on cash and improvements.  The way we played the game, if a person had the money to buy a house or hotel, they got one.  And when we ran out of cash, we just made more.  We created $1,000 bills and $5,000 bills and we had double hotels on Boardwalk!
When I found out that we had actually “broken” the rules, I began thinking about the world and how it operates.  There are those in our world who operate from the assumption that there’s only so much to go around.  What that usually means is that I have to get mine so that I don’t wind up empty-handed!  And the assumption is also that it leaves others without enough.  When you look at our society in comparison with the rest of the world, it’s easy to conclude that we are hoarding an inordinate amount of the world’s resources.
But there’s also another way of looking at things.  When I shared my analogy with a friend who was in finance, he enlightened me regarding the way a market economy works.  Other systems of economics operate on the basis of the fact that there’s only so much to go around.  But a market economy works on the principle of creating wealth—by starting businesses, by filling a niche that hasn’t yet been filled, by tapping a previously undiscovered source of revenue.  Instead of a principle of “hoarding,” a market economy works on the principle of “investing.” You see a niche, feel a need, or uncover an opportunity.  You come up with a business plan.  You raise the funds you need. Then you risk the whole thing in a new venture.  Will it succeed?  You’ll never know until you make the leap! But if it does, it creates jobs and opportunities that didn't exist before.
I think that illustration from the world of economics has application other areas of life.  In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus was dealing with a group of people who basically operated within a closed system.  The Sadducees, as Matthew tells us, did not believe in things like “resurrection.”[2]  They operated within a closed system—they believed only what they saw and what the past had taught them.  They used the Scriptures as a kind of rule book that strictly prescribed for them what they would and would not believe in.  They were the guardians of the past, the protectors of the status quo.[3]
But when all you have to go on is the past, then death and decay reign supreme. In due time, everything and everyone that ever was, is no more.  If the system is closed, then everything inevitably deteriorates.  But Jesus reminded them that God does not operate within a closed system.  God is the God of the living, not of the dead! The Bible points us to a God whose work in the world is based on promises that point toward a future with hope and life.[4]  Promises like “I will wipe away every tear,” and “they will beat their swords into ploughshares,” and “I am making everything new.”  The Christian faith is at heart the hope that God has begun to do just that through Jesus Christ.[5]  The Christian faith is at heart the faith that God is already fulfilling those promises through the Spirit of Life poured out on all creation.[6]  Our faith insists that from God’s perspective, the fundamental reality that defines us all is not death, but life.
I think that how we choose to look at this makes a profound difference in our attitude toward stewardship. In the Reformed Tradition, we believe that stewardship is not just about money, but it’s about how willing we are to see our lives as a gift from God to be invested for the sake of the Kingdom. Remember, investing always entails a risk. If we choose to live within a closed system and assume that there’s only so much to go around, we’re probably not going to be willing to take much risk when it comes to our lives. But if we can look at things from the perspective of God’s open future, a future in which life is the prevailing force, then perhaps maybe we can step out in faith. If we can see the future as one in which our “labor in the Lord” as something that is “not in vain” but rather makes an important contribution to advancing God’s purposes in our community and our world, it puts stewardship in a whole different perspective.
When it comes to how we live our lives, we can choose to play it safe or we can choose to risk it all for the sake of the God who promises to make everything new. If we think that our best is back there somewhere in the past, which means it’s gone, I doubt that we’re going to be interesting in risking anything for God’s Kingdom. But if we can live our lives on the basis of the faith that the “God of the living” is continually at work around and among us to make everything new, then maybe we can have the courage to stake our lives on God’s promises.[7] If we can embrace God’s open future, we have no idea what God can or cannot do in our lives, in this congregation, and in this community. If we can take that leap of faith, perhaps we’ll be more willing to view our stewardship as a choice to see our lives as a gift to be devoted constantly to promoting what the God of the living is doing in our world.

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/2/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 163: “A world without transcendence is a world in which nothing new can ever happen It is the world of the eternal return of the same thing.”
[3] Cf. Douglas Hare, Matthew, 255-56.
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 25: “Hope alone ... takes seriously the possibilities with which all reality is fraught.”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 95: “The gospel is the light which salvation throws ahead of itself. It is nothing less than the arrival of the coming God in the word.”  Cf. also ibid., 171: Easter “endorses and fulfills” the course of Jesus’ life; “the resurrection the beginning of the new creation of all things.”
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Church in the Power of the Spirit, 191: “The presence of the Holy Spirit is to be understood as the earnest and beginning of the new creation of all things in the kingdom of God.” He also says that the Spirit “makes enslaved creation live and fills everything with the powers of the new creation.”
[7] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 642: “Long after the death of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God revealed himself to Moses as the God of the patriarchs. This implies that they are still alive since it would mean little to say that God ‘is’ (εἰμί, present tense) the God of dead men.”

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Sharing Ourselves

Sharing Ourselves
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8  [1]
These days it seems like we’re all trying to protect ourselves from something. Whether it’s crime, or a financial scam, or the latest health scare, it seems that we’re always protecting ourselves from something or someone. And when we go into that protective mode, our “walls” go up, our suspicions are high, and we close ourselves off from those around us. Don’t misunderstand: I realize there are aspects of our world that are frightening and even dangerous. But the question we face as people who practice the Christian faith is how we are going to respond to those concerns. It seems to me that we can either withdraw from everything or everyone around us, or we can find the good in life and open ourselves up the way St. Paul did.
I think that, as we look at our lesson from St. Paul for today, it’s all too easy for us to think of him as “St. Paul the Apostle.” We may even unconsciously envision him as having a halo of holiness visible around his head. But the reality is that St. Paul was a human being, subject to all the trials and hardships and fears that we are. I might even say that because he was constantly putting himself out there for the sake of the Gospel, he may have faced even more challenges with the dangers he faced. After all, as he tells us elsewhere, at one point in his ministry he had actually been pelted with stones and left for dead! I think many of us might re-think our career choice after experiencing something like that.
But St. Paul didn’t do that. In fact, he seemed to constantly be going from the frying pan into the fire as he went from town to town preaching the gospel. In our lesson for today, he mentions the fact that he had been “shamefully mistreated” at Philippi just before coming to Thessalonica. If we read the story of Paul’s visit to Philippi in the book of Acts, we find that he was arrested and thrown in jail, although it was illegal to do that to a Roman citizen without due cause.[2] I don’t know about you, but I wonder how willing I would be to go on preaching the gospel after spending a night in jail. I’ve never been in jail, so I can’t say for sure. But what I do know is that jails in St. Paul’s day were a far cry from jails today! I think it would be more accurate to say he spent the night in the city dungeon.[3]
And yet, after all that he had already been through, when St. Paul came to Thessalonica, a new town he’d never visited before, he says, “we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition” (2:2). Just exactly what that opposition was, we may not be able to know for sure. The story in the book of Acts mentions opponents who followed Paul from town to town, stirring up opposition against him, gathering crowds to run him out of town. Again, I find it amazing that Paul didn’t just sail away to a quiet place where he could just make tents in peace! But that’s not what he did. He kept right on proclaiming the Gospel because he was compelled by the love of Christ and the calling he had received from God.
What I find even more amazing is that, after all that Paul had already been through at the hands of his opponents in a wide variety of places, he says that he cared so much for the Thessalonians that he was “determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves” (2:8). It seems to me that it’s one thing to share the Gospel. That was taking a great risk in and of itself. But St. Paul went even further in sharing himself with them. He cared for them deeply. He opened his heart to them. And in doing so he made himself vulnerable. But I wonder if that’s not one of the reasons why the gospel took root so well in the hearts and minds of the people there.
We may be tempted to think that St. Paul’s experience doesn’t really have anything to do with most of us. After all, he was an apostle. What can the life of an Apostle teach those of us who are ordinary human beings? Maybe his life and example relate to pastors, but how do they relate to those of us who aren’t walking around with visible halos? Well, I think St. Paul himself answered that question on a number of occasions. He often instructed the people in the churches he was writing to follow his example, because he was striving to follow the example of Christ. In other words, St. Paul didn’t see himself as an example of someone with a special vocation. Rather, he saw his life and work as an example for all believers to follow.[4]
So it seems to me that what it comes down to is how we will respond to the example St. Paul and many others like him have set for us. They faced dangers and criticism and opposition--and many still do today. I think we have to determine what we will do with the dangers and criticism and opposition we face as we seek to live out the Christian faith and share the gospel with those around us. Our natural inclination may be to withdraw into our protective shell and hide from what we fear in our world. But it seems to me that if we’re going to follow the example of St. Paul, in fact if we’re going to follow the example of Christ, we’re going to have to find a way to get past our fears and our tendency to want to protect ourselves. If we want to share the gospel with those around us in our community, if we really want to share the gospel with them, we are going to have to find a way to get past our protective walls. We are going to have to be willing to risk our safety and open our hearts to the people around us. We are going to have to make ourselves vulnerable and share not only our faith but our very hearts and lives with them. It’s a bit scary to do that in our day and time, but I think the only way we can genuinely share our faith is if we share ourselves.[5]

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/26/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 24-25: “The outrage ... lay not so much in their being subjected, Roman citizens though they were, to treatment from which Roman citizens were legally exempt, as to their being publicly stripped and flogged without any inquiry into the charges brought against them.”
[3] Cf. L. Gregory Bloomquist, “Subverted by Joy: Suffering and Joy in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians,” Interpretation 61 (July 2007): 274-75. He says, “Prison in antiquity was not a ‘holding cell,’ but a place to impose greater suffering on the wrongdoer than the wrongdoing itself had caused. We would be shocked by the length of imprisonment for crimes that today would be considered matters either for fines or for a short jail sentence. And we would be shocked by the conditions of the prisons—overcrowding, hunger, chains, filth, inadequate clothing, illness and death.”
[4] Cf. 1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1; Eph. 5:1; 1 Thess. 1:6.  See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.2:576.
[5] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 127: “All human relationships, …, are meant to be signs of God’s love for humanity as a whole and each person in particular. … Jesus reveals that we are called by God to be living witnesses of God’s love.”