October 14, 2016

Give Unto Caesar

It is interesting to note that nowhere in the gospels is Jesus represented as having used money.  Nowhere do the gospels show Jesus using money, yet almost 40% of Jesus’ teaching involves metaphors or dialogue regarding money. 
The Pharisees were basically the good church people of their day, they were concerned with the keeping of the law, with the sanctity of the temple, and with the full restoration of Israel. For this reason they often looked at Jesus with confusion. Jesus taught many things about the Kingdom of God that they agreed with, things like, God will judge evil doers and condemn them. Yet Jesus associated with people who were obvious doers of evil.  The Pharisees could not understand that.  

They were uncertain about exactly how to classify Jesus. He was a teacher who taught that obedience to God was necessary, yet he broke the rules by healing people on the Sabbath.  He was a Rabbi who taught the importance of holiness, yet he kept condemning the very people who seemed to them to be the most holy, people like teachers of the law and the chief priests.

So one day after having decided that Jesus was a danger to their religion, the Pharisees decide to trap him in his own words so that either the people would reject him or the Roman authorities would arrest him. They decided to question him about his position on the poll tax, the tax that every person in the Roman Empire had to pay to Caesar. (see Mt. 22:15-22)

They thought their question was exceptionally clever, and it was. It was brief yet tricky. "We know you are a man of integrity," they said to him (a well-known ploy, butter him up first), "Since you are a man of integrity, tells us, we value your opinion, we want to know: "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
And so a coin is produced and Jesus cleverly turns the table: "Whose Image and Inscription is on this Coin?" "Caesars," they reply. Well then, Jesus says, "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and give unto God what is Gods."

In that statement Jesus reminds us that what we have is dual citizenship. We are citizens of the country in which we live. But the Christian is also a citizen of God’s Kingdom. We are one and at the same time being challenged by Christ to be a good citizen of our country and a good citizen of The Kingdom. 

Society places obligations on all of us, but we must not confuse 
those obligations with our obligation to God.

Maryland bridge photo by J. Royle

September 8, 2016

Christian's and Success

Our society is success oriented. Christian's are not immune to the idea of success, however one might define it in terms of one's own goals. Sometimes we develop unrealistic expectations of the Christian life and of ourselves; and then when our wings get broken, we think our downfall ends our usefulness.

For those who know what it feels like to have your wings broken and fall flat, it helps to remember that even the great ones of faith failed, yet God still found a way to use them:

—  Abraham lied, perhaps to save his skin, yet he is the towering example of faith and is called "God's friend" (James 2:23).
—  Moses stuttered and questioned God's judgment in picking him.
—  Isaac, who was nearly killed by his father, talked his wife into concealing their marriage. (Genesis 26)
—  Rebekah, the first “mail order bride,” turned out to be a rather manipulative wife. (Genesis 27)
—  Jacob, who out-wrestled God, was pretty much a pathological deceiver. (Genesis 25, 27, 30)
—  Noah, the last righteous man on earth at the time, was a drunk who slept in the nude. (Genesis 9:20-21)
—  David, the friend of God, concealed his adultery with a murder. (2 Samuel 11)

Too often we live in a quid-pro-quo relationship with God: "I've been faithful to you, I've worked hard, so please give me this or that."  Or, "I've fallen again; I can't expect anything good from God."  We forget that the whole of our life is grace!

Too many sincere Christians, facing their failures, scold themselves unmercifully and keep asking God for forgiveness. Each follower of Christ should memorize, hang on their review mirror, and make forever the Apostle Paul's success story their own Christian story:  

"There is now no condemnation 
for those who are in Christ Jesus.
(Romans 8:1)

Cissy & The Man photo by J. Royle

August 22, 2016

God's Judgment

Have you ever wondered about God's standard of judgment?  Jesus outlines precisely what is expected from those who hope to share in God's heavenly realm, and he does it by telling a parable about the final judgment.  

Jesus provides for his listeners the scenario of a choice between two ways, two choices, two paths; the right and the left; the sheep and the goats; the obedient followers and the pretending believers. Jesus informs his followers what will separate them from permanently living with or without the king’s presence:

1)  The faithful, he says, will view everyone as a sister or brother in Christ, and will respond with a desire to care for all of God’s children.

2)  The un-faithful, he says, will keep to themselves and cling to what they have, remaining a safe distance from the work that needs to be done.

It’s not easy to accept a parable about the King’s judgment like the one in Matthew 25:31-46, but it is necessary, though, for us to understand the broad truth of its meaning. The lesson I want you to remember is this: God’s judgment does not depend on the knowledge we have amassed, the fame we have acquired, or the fortune that we have gained, but on the help we have freely given.

In other words, the help which wins approval of God is that which is given for nothing but for the sake of helping.  When we learn the generosity which without calculation helps people in the simplest things, we too will know the joy of helping Jesus Christ himself. 

Iron Man Birthday Party

August 5, 2016

Discovering God's Will

Some Christians like to perform a "fleece-test" to discover God's will. Is this a good idea?  Here are some examples of what the "fleece-test" might look like:

I was thinking about getting a new camera and suddenly my old one just stopped working; clearly, God was leading me buy a new one.

I’m still not sure if I’m supposed to move to Canada, so I’m going to put my house up for sale. If it sells within a week, then that’s God’s sign I should go to Canada.

The fleece-test idea comes from the book of Judges where we read about a man named Gideon. In Judges 6 God calls Gideon to be a leader in Israel and to defeat the Midianites who have invaded the country. An angel of the Lord shows up to talk to Gideon. The first thing the angel says, “God is with you..." which was followed by a command,“Go and save Israel."

Gideon refuses to do it. Instead, he asks for a miracle. So God causes miracle number one—fire consumes Gideon’s dinner offering, but he’s not convinced that he should be the one to overthrow the enemy. So he asks God for another miracle. Here is where the fleece comes in.

Gideon literally laid out an actual sheepskin overnight and asked God to make the fleece wet, but to keep the ground dry.  When it actually happened, he asks God to do it again, but with a twist.  This time, make the ground wet and the fleece dry. Done. Chalk another one up for God.

Drawing encouragement from the story of Gideon, sometimes Christians perform a "fleece-test" in an attempt to discern God’s will.  There is nothing wrong with asking God for miracles; perhaps we should be doing it more often.
But is fleece even necessary? 

Whether it’s figuring out if you should take the job offer, move to another area of the country, have children, buy a car, take a vacation, or start a new ministry, you don’t need fleece—you need faith.

God still performs miracles. God still reveals His power. God still provides direction, but He doesn’t need your fleece to do it. When you think that maybe you should lay out fleece, drop to your knees and pray instead. God is gracious and kind, but He doesn’t perform tricks on demand. He guides in His own ways, on His own terms, in His own timing. We don’t need fleece, or any other trick to figure it out. We need faith in God. A close relationship with God. A life dedicated to God.

July 20, 2016

Trump vs. Clinton in America

Plato once made the comment that when Socrates died his disciples thought that they would have to spend the rest of their lives “as children without the benefit of a parent, and they did not know what to do about it."

In the political Trump vs. Clinton campaign in America, we need the benefit of a parent.  Who should that be?  We need morality. We don't need hurtful name calling. We need acceptance. We don't need a anything goes free-for-all. We need religion. We don't need religious hate. We need perspective and understanding. We don't need disrespect. 

We need a parent to guide America.

Jesus comes along in John's gospel and tells his disciples (all of us), “I will not leave you as orphans." In essence, "I am your parent."  

In the gospel according to John (14:20-21) the disciples, as usual, are a little slow to understand so Jesus says to them, “When I am raised to life again, you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” Looking around the room what does Jesus see?  Nothing but blank stares.  So once again he tries to say what he means, “Those who accept my commandments and obey them are the ones who love me. And because they love me, my Father will love them. And I will love them and reveal myself to each of them.” 

It's as if Jesus is saying ... where people act as I have acted; where people do what I have done;  where people love as I have unconditionally loved; when you do unto others as I have done; when you treat all people with love and respect as I have done; you will finally be where I am and where God is; you will have found Me, your Spiritual Parent.

Our 9 year old daughter in church.

July 6, 2016

Home is Wherever . . .

Home is wherever I am with you.  I like the modern phraseology of that old saying. Many of us find a sense of "home" at particular addresses among loving, accepting people. Others find "home" in the various communities they are connected to in their journey. But wherever it is for each of us, we all need entry and invitation to some place we can call home.

In one sense, to live without a home is to live the curse of Cain. After Cain murdered his brother, Abel, God spoke to him, saying: "Now you are under a curse. . . you will be a restless wanderer on the earth." Cain responded: "My punishment is more than I can bear" (Genesis 4:12-13). To be a spiritual nomad; to have no resting place for one's weary soul, no open door of affirmation or affinity; to have no place to call home—this is surely more than any human spirit can bear.

The Cross of Christ is our invitation (and entry) 
to a place that we can call home, forever.

It extends limitless hospitality to each and every person. Everyone has kinship, "for God was, in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself" (2 Cor.5:19).  God calls all humanity to a house of refuge for every weary traveler. In Christ, God has come to each of us with a personal invitation: "You are invited to my home; all are welcome."

In the classic movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy travels all the way to the Land of Oz before she realizes — there's no place like home. Many of us have traveled near and far chasing after our dreams. Some of us are still away on some distant journey. Others are restlessly wandering. But isn't it good to know that no matter where we've roamed, no matter how far away we have strayed, with faith in God, we can always return home. To the place where God greets us with open arms.

All are welcome at the United Church of Christ.

June 16, 2016

Surrounded by Symbols

In life we are surrounded by symbols.  Some psychologists have even said that the ability to think symbolically is one of the most important things that separate us from animals and make us truly human.

We are equipped with the ability to simplify complicated subjects into single words, gestures and images. Many symbols even have a strong emotional value for us, the flag of our country, for example. Symbols bring out our feelings about our faith. Religious symbols are a way to unite members of a common faith tradition, and to indicate to others the religious tradition they represent:

In Christianity, the Cross and the Lord's Supper are two of the most powerful, emotional symbols. The Lord's Supper invites all to come to the table and receive the life of God, share in the victory of Christ, and enter into the mystery of the Spirit.

In Hinduism, the "Om" (which is made up of three Sanskrit letters) is an important religious symbol.

In Buddhism, the Wheel of Dharma is an important symbol.

In Taoism, the most well known religious symbol is the Yin and the Yang.

In Judaism, the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn, is significant. It is a reference to all those who are “sleeping” (who spend their days without examining the consequences of their actions) that they should arise from their slumber... the voice of the shofar cries out “Awake! Examine your deeds; repent and remember your Creator.

In the LGBT community, to demonstrate solidarity and unity for a common cause, and to graphically represent their vision, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups over the years have used a variety of symbols. 
The rainbow flag has become the most universal.

In Islam, the star and crescent is the best-known symbol. The symbol is not Muslim in origin, it was a polytheistic icon adopted during the spread of Islam. The crescent moon and star symbol actually pre-dates Islam by several thousand years. The faith of Islam has historically had no symbol, and many in the Muslim world today refuse to accept what is essentially an ancient pagan icon.

My trip to Jerusalem inspired me to look more closely at symbols. I challenge you to do the same. What you find may surprise you, even enlighten you.

Joppa, Israel. Photo by Jason E. Royle