Sunday, March 13, 2011

The S.S. Work and the Call of Grace

Read Romans 3:21-31.

We are sinners in the Land of Sin.   Our people moved here as an act of rebellion.  We had lived in the Kingdom of God, the Land of Righteousness, but we didn’t like the King’s rules.  We didn’t like anyone telling us what we had to do.  So we left.  We established our own land.  It became known as the Land of Sin. 
Eventually, we realized that we were suffering the death penalty for this act of rebellion.  But this death penalty isn’t like death in the electric chair or by being hanged.  It is a slow painful death brought by the anguish and the stench of life in the Land of Sin.  In some ways, it is a permanent death sentence, an ongoing death sentence, a living death, a dead living.
The King has called us back to the land of Righteousness to live with him there.  He wants to make peace with us.  But a great ocean separates us.  Some of us were sick of the poverty and filth of our own land, and we had heard of the riches and beauty of the Kingdom of God.  So we decided to go to the beautiful Land of Righteousness. 
We got into a boat and pushed away from the shore.  It was a sailboat, but we didn’t know how to use sails, so we cut holes in the side of the ship for oars.  We cut the masts down and chopped them into oars.  We named the ship the SS WORK.  And then we began to row our way to the Land of Righteousness.  Row.  Row.  Row!
It was hard work.  We rowed until sweat dripped off our faces.  We rowed until our arms and shoulders ached.  We rowed until our hands were blistered.  We rowed through waves and wind and storms.  Row.  Row.  Row! 
After days and weeks, we could still see the dock where we had started.  “Work harder!” was the cry.  We rowed day and night.  We extended our shifts.  We rowed through fatigue and blisters.  Work.  Work.  Work!
After months and months on the SS WORK, we could still see our own land on the horizon, and we started to fight among ourselves. 
“Why are you resting?  We’ve got too much work to do.” 
“I rowed all last night.  You better take you’re turn tonight.” 
“Don’t tell me what to do.  I work just as hard as you.” 
“If you didn’t take so many breaks, we’d be there by now.” 
“If you were more focused, instead of piddling around with your own selfish games, we would be able to see the Kingdom by now.” 
“If you were more pure, maybe God would help us out here.” 
“Me, you’re the sinful one.  Listen to how you’re judging me.” 
Sometimes, we fought so much that someone got injured and couldn’t row anymore.  That just made us angrier. 
After years and years of struggling, when we could still see the mountain tops of our own land, we had made no more than a few miles of progress on a journey of a thousand miles.  We were out of food.  We were out of water.  We were out of supplies to maintain the ship.  The storms continued to come. 

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Revenge and Redemption - Luke 15

Luke 15:11-32 and Luke 20:9-19

With 5 seconds left on the clock, the quarterback dodged a tackle, rolled out to his right and threw a desperate pass toward Jaime Alejandro. Jaime launched over two defenders to make a one-handed catch in the end zone.
The stadium erupted! People rushed to the field celebrating the amazing catch which earned the Fighting Falcons their first State Football Championship in history. Everyone was caught up in a wave of euphoria - jumping, shouting, crying, hugging.
Everyone - except Jorge. Jorge Hernandez was the other wide receiver. Jorge was sitting in the other corner of the end zone, seething in jealousy. “That pass should have been to me. I was wide open!” As Jaime was carried of the field by cheering teammates and fans, Jorge brewed alone about his long-standing rivalry with Jaime Alejandro. Somehow, although he was just as talented, just as smart, and - in his opinion - better looking, Jorge was constantly coming up short of Jaime.
As the two fastest high school athletes in their city, both Jorge and Jaime qualified for the Regional Tournament in the 400 meter dash. Before the race, Jorge cut Jaime’s shoelace on one shoe. Jaime never noticed until the shoe started coming off around the the second turn. Amazingly, Jaime just kicked it off and finished the race with one shoe. Jaime still finished first and earned a photo in the front page of the city newspaper for the escapade.

After high school, Jorge studied law, and Jaime studied for the ministry. Both were smart and successful, but they took very different paths.
Jorge started his own practice in real estate law and acquisitions. He made his money by buying up foreclosed properties. Jorge slowly became a slumlord, owning half of the worst houses and apartments in the inner city. Jorge developed a reputation for being a ruthless landlord. If you couldn’t pay, you were out - immediately. He accepted no excuses and gave no mercy.
Jorge ventured into dirty real estate deals, bribing bank managers and city land officers. Slowly, Jorge began to develop connections with organized crime. Drugs, gangs, car theft rings, prostitution, gambling - everything from the underworld - had to pass through the back office of Jorge Hernandez. Jorge had his hands in every dirty corner of the city.

Jaime had graduated from seminary and returned to his home neighborhood, which was racked by poverty, crime, and hopelessness. Jaime established a small church and ministry center. Jaime worked with compassion, integrity, and wisdom, so he was able to gather a wide range of partners and resources. His little ministry center slowly grew to address nearly every problem plaguing their community. There was an after-school program, a drug rehabilitation center, a job training center, an adult literacy program, a single mom’s support group, a neighborhood watch group, and a community advocacy program.
It was this last program that stirred the most controversy. ...

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The Simon in Us - Luke 7

Luke 7:36-50

All my life I’ve tried to do the right thing. I listened to my parents (for the most part). I paid attention when my teachers were talking. I didn’t nick fruit from the farmers’ market. I didn’t squelch on my chores. It always bothered me when the other guys talked about women like they were there for the taking. Like I said, I always tried to do the right thing.
Most of all, I’ve always had a hunger for God’s teachings. From the very beginning, when my grandfather told the stories of Adam and Abraham, Moses and David, something stirred within my heart. I learned countless psalms by heart so that I could sing them as I walked along the road or worked in the field.
As I grew into a man, I began to spend more and more of my time in serious study of the Bible. I became more and more serious about doing exactly what God teaches us to do. I longed to prove myself to God as faithful follower.
God’s ways are so beautiful and so good. They have captured my heart. Sure, God’s way is demanding, but isn’t that the point? If it was easy, everyone would do it. As it is, God’s blessings are reserved for those who are willing to work for them. At least, that’s what I’ve always believed.
Like I was saying, I’ve always had this hunger for God’s Word. I’ve made it a habit to listen to all of the great teachers. God’s Word is so deep and so profound that I don’t think we will ever get to the bottom of it. We’ve always got to keep learning.
About 10 years ago, word started to spread that there was a new teacher who had all these fresh perspectives on God’s ways in our world. He taught from the same Bible, but the word on the street was that he was able to get at the heart of it more than anyone in recent memory. Some said he was the greatest preacher in our generation. Others said he might even be a real-deal prophet, like in the olden days.
The truth is that he was a rather controversial character. He was ... um ... unconventional. He challenged some of our long standing traditions and called out some national leaders as fakes. But he put on such humble appearance that many wondered if he himself was a fake. Some people said he was just one more socialist in a long string of power-to-the-people types.
But I wasn’t willing to be put off by other people’s criticisms. Reformers are always unwelcome - especially for the people who need to be reformed! I wanted to see him for myself.

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The Beggar King - Matthew 25

Read Matthew 25:31-46.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was a King who wanted to establish a perfect kingdom of mercy, justice, and love.  He often taught his people how they should live.  He told them they would be blessed and happy if they were humble and merciful.  He told them that if they worked together for a just and peace-filled society, their dreams would be fulfilled.  He taught them to honor God by they way they lived.  He taught them to be kind and generous to everyone, even to those who could not repay them, even to those who were unkind to them.  He told them that the summary rule is to love other people exactly like you love yourself. 
But this King didn’t just teach about love and mercy.  He lived it.  He was widely respected for his compassionate life.  Even though he was King, he seemed always to notice those who were ignored by the others.  He spoke to people with gentleness and respect, even the “worst” people and the poorest people.  He personally bandaged the wounds of people who were sick.  He personally helped poor people find jobs and start working again.  He often gave his coat to someone who was without.  He often shared his food with those who did not have enough, yet he never seemed to run out. 
He told his people that the Kingdom he was establishing was built on these simple principles.  He told them that if they would live this way, like him, the Kingdom he was describing would begin to take shape in their very lives.  He said this perfect, amazing Kingdom would emerge all over the world if only his people would follow his example and live lives of simple, generous love for each other.
His people were very kind to him.  They always treated him with respect and dignity.  They were all glad to have such a wonderful King.  When he spoke to them about the principles of his Kingdom, they all nodded their heads and agreed that this was a good way to live.  Many of them even took sacred vows to live as people of the Kingdom, to live lives of mercy, justice and love. 
However, the King wondered how his people acted when he was not around.  He wondered what they did in the quiet, secret times when they thought no one important was watching.  He wondered if his people were really living as people of his Kingdom.
One day, the King announced that he was leaving on a long trip.  He gathered his people and told them to live according to the Kingdom principles of mercy, justice, and love.  He challenged them to hold each person in high respect and to care for each other with glad and generous hearts.  The people all agreed.
Then, the King left on his trip.  However, he did not go to another land.  The King left the palace and the city alone.  He secretly changed into the clothes of a poor beggar1.  He rolled in the dirt and rocks until he and his clothes were dirty and torn.  Then, he toured his Kingdom dressed as one of the poorest beggars.  He wanted to see for himself how well his people live out the Kingdom principles of mercy, justice, and love.  ...

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Not Without the Cross - Matthew 17

Read Matthew 17:1-13.

    OK.  Let me set the scene for you. 
For me, it all started one day when my brother Andrew and I were out fishing.  We see this young preacher named Jesus come walking down the shore.  Andrew and I start talking about him.  He’s been making quite a stir, preaching “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near.”  Something about him just makes sense. 
    Well, lo and behold, when he gets close to where we were fishing, he gets our attention and says, “Hey, Peter, Andrew, come follow me.  I’ll make you fishers of men.”  I’m not sure I can explain why, but Andrew and I both knew we had to go with him.  It was like our life was changing right that moment.  We left our boats, the nets, everything and just followed this traveling preacher. 
    Pretty soon, Jesus wasn’t just preaching.  He was healing people.  He was healing people left and right.  He was preaching and healing, healing and preaching.  He was preaching what we later called “the good news of the kingdom,” and people were bringing him all kinds of sick people to get healed (Mt. 4).
Jesus even healed my mother-in-law when he came over to my place for a visit.  She got up and made him cookies (Mt. 8:14-15).
We still weren’t really sure who Jesus was.  He was obviously a gifted preacher and a faith-healer.  No one around here had ever heard teaching that cut to the heart like his, and nobody sure ever saw anyone heal people like he did.  Jesus was obviously blessed by God to do great things.  He had our attention.  We believed in him – well, sort of.

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The Exiled King - Isaiah 62

Once upon a time, there was a great King, who was just and fair and humble. The motto of his Kingdom was: LOVE AND JUSTICE FOR ALL. He taught his people how to live well. The King helped his people to love each other and to help each other. He taught them that everyone is connected, that one person’s success is a victory for all of us, and that another person’s suffering is a wound in all our hearts. He taught people to live with kindness and mercy – helping the weak, befriending the lonely, hugging the children, celebrating with joy, and encouraging the good in all to flourish and grow. His Kingdom grew, and his people prospered.
However, as is often the case, some powerful people wanted more power. They didn’t like this love and justice philosophy. They believed in the survival of the fittest. They believed that everyone gets what they deserve. The strong should get stronger, and the weak … Well, who cares about them anyway.
This group of power-hunger Powerfuls led a coup d’etat. In a quiet revolt, they sent the King into exile and imposed a new government. Their motto was: FREEDOM AND HAPPINESS FOR ALL. They filled the streets with their propaganda: “Let us throw off those ancient social norms. Let us rid ourselves of the shackles of concern for others. Live free. Pursue happiness above all else. If you want it, do it. If you like it, buy it. If you can’t afford it, work for it and work some more. Anyone can have anything they want if they only work hard enough or smart enough.
Most people gladly accepted this new government and their message about life. It is not easy always being concerned about others. Often that means putting aside what we want – at least for a while. This new way of life was much easier. It was such a relief simply to be concerned about yourself. There was a time of celebrating and revelry in the streets. Wine and women moved freely.  ...

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Sharing the God-Life Together (Acts 16)

Read Acts 15:36-16:15.

    100 years ago, deep in the jungles of Africa, there was a small clearing.  In this clearing was a single village made up of a single tribe.  The people lived off the jungle, eating its fruits and animals.  They had some good times, when there was plenty of food and plenty of peace.  They also had bad times when other tribes took their food and killed their men.  But amid this struggle for life, another enemy rose up. 
People began to get sick.  It started with an itchy throat.  Then, came a mild cough.  It ended with deep, horrendous body shaking coughs that lasted through the night, with their bodies shaking wildly in fits of coughing until finally they moved no more.  The whole village was kept awake at night to the sound of people literally coughing up their lungs.  And as the people got sicker, they also got meaner and sadder.  Fathers began to hit their children.  Women began to lash out at people trying to help them.  Throughout the night, between the coughing, were mournful wails or angry shouts at the dark sky. 
    The people began to call this sickness the dark-death.  Soon, nearly everyone in the village had the dark-death, and it seemed to shut the light out of the people who caught the illness.  The dark-death hung like a dark cloud over the village, shutting out the light from the sky.  No one knew where this disease had come from or how it was spread.  They only knew that it was destroying them, and they had no cure.  Many began to lose hope.  Some abandoned the village to take their chances in the jungle.
    But one group, one small group, the prophets, called the people to hope. ...

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