Sunday, October 24, 2010

God is Faithful

Joel 2:23-32
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 15-18
Luke 18:9-14

In all three of the readings for this morning, the fact that struck me most was God's absolute faithfulness. I was astounded at how incredibly good God is--and it's everywhere in the readings today: In Joel's prophecy to the people of Israel; in Paul's testimony to Timothy; in the story Jesus tells of a tax collector and a Pharisee praying in the Temple. In all three readings, God's faithfulness is absolute.

We see God's faithfulness first in Joel, as the Lord declares that He will repay Israel for the years that the swarming Locusts have eaten--the locusts which God has sent. You see, as this point in Israel's history, things had been going well. God had been gracious; and people began to think that they did not need God. They began to live as though they did not need God. God was willing to do anything to bring them back. Bringing destruction and restoration is what led to Israel's homecoming.

And what a homecoming it is! God's abundant grace is poured out upon Israel! The threshing floor is filled once again with grain, and the vats are overflowing with new wine and oil. God does not just give Israel enough to fill their vessels; God pours out blessings so abundant, their vessels are overflowing!

We see God's redemption in Luke as well. Jesus tells us that a tax collector who humbled himself before God was justified. A slave to his sin, this man was freed, redeemed by God.

We see also in today's readings that God is faithful to fulfill His promises. Twice in Joel we read God's promise to "pour out His Spirit." This promise was fulfilled, and it is a promise God continues to fulfill today.

Jesus, at the start of his ministry, was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended upon Him, like a dove. Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit and proceeded to preach the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles. God's promise continues to be fulfilled today--pouring out the Holy Spirit upon believers; choosing us for a relationship with Him.

Finally, God's faithfulness is demonstrated in today's readings by His steadfast presence. Paul writes to Timothy that although all had deserted him, the Lord stood by him and gave him strength. Paul was imprisoned repeatedly for preaching the gospel of Christ. Here, he tells us that on the first occasion, no one came to his support. Yet, the presence of God continued to sustain and strengthen Paul. God was faithful, remaining steadfastly by Paul's side--just a s God does for us today.

Our response to God's faithfulness-what happens to us, in us, and how we show that to the world--is also found in today's scriptures.

The first response to God's faithfulness is a radical change of heart. God's call to a change of heart can be found earlier in Joel. As God calls the people to mourn their sin, He declares, "Rend your hearts and not your garments." It was common practice in ancient Israel for people to tear their clothing as a sign of mourning. But God was not concerned with the rituals and outward signs. God did not want Israel to appear to mourn. God wanted Israel to truly mourn--to feel it in their hearts--to radically change the way they lived.

The same can be seen int he parable Jesus tells of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee is so consumed by his own righteousness, he is blinded to his own hard heart. The Pharisee is only concerned with looking righteous--loudly declaring that he fasts twice a week and give one tenth of all his income.

But it is the tax collector, Jesus tells us, who understands what God desires. Standing far off, away from the crowd, beating his breast--the very resting place of his heart!--he pleads with God for mercy, acknowledging his sin. This is a man who so mourns his sin, he cannot even look to heaven. This, this is the man, Jesus tells us, who is justified. Not the one who looks like he does all the right stuff, bu the one who has a heart radically changed by God's grace. (And it is only by God's grace that we acknowledge and mourn our sin).

In experiencing this change of heart, who can help but rejoice in God's goodness, and praise the Lord? In Joel, the Israelites are told that they shall "eat plenty, and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord."

Paul continually gives thanks to God, and declares that to God "be the glory forever and ever."

When we experience that change of heart, when God pours out His Spirit upon us, and we recognize our sin, when we turn from that sin and choose to follow Jesus instead, we are filled with such joy and peace, and such gratitude that glorifying God becomes a very present act in our lives.

This praise of God further encourages us to rely more fully on this faithful God who redeems us, fulfills His promises, and demonstrates steadfast love and care for us.

While other humans will inevitably fail us--leaving us when we most need them, betraying us when we have trusted them with our hearts, breaking promises they have made--God never fails us. And we come to see that we can turn to God with all our needs and desires.

Friends failed and deserted Paul--but Paul relied fully on God.

The Pharisee relied on his own righteous works, but it was the tax collector relying on God's grace who was commended.

Israel sought to rely on only on themselves, but it was God who called them back, offering redemption, fulfilling His promises, and showing His steadfast nature to all of humanity--and all this through the persons of Jesus and the Holy Spirit today.

Those of us here today come from many walks of life, I imagine. But regardless of where we come from, or where we are heading, we can be assured right now, where we are today, that God loves us; that God will do anything to keep us; that God never changes; and that God fulfills His promises.

We have been shown this love and redeemed by God through Jesus. As such, may we go forward this day with a heart rent for God, with God's praises continually on our lips and in our hearts, relying fully on God to meet all our needs so that in the end, we, too, can declare with Paul, "I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Living in the Land of Pork

Let's face it. Iowa is known for very few things. And we often get mistaken for things we don't have. (Idaho potatoes, anyone?) Corn, soy beans, hog confinements. Well, and potentially deadly eggs of late, but that's another story entirely.

The noble pig. It's a glorious thing. I have always been a fan. Honestly. As a child, it was my dream to own a pet pig. And not a pot-bellied pig, either. I wanted a full on hog.

My father had a farmer friend who still owned livestock, by the name of Jim Looman. Jim was the name of the man, not the livestock, and I'm fairly certain I've butchered the spelling of his last name. We knew him as Big Jim. Many a Fourth of July was spent at Big Jim's farm. And I was to be found in the barn, talking to Blue Eyes, Jim's rather substantial sow, who on occasion had piglets feasting at her teats. Those piglets were my dream--to take one home and hand rear it. I'd name it something wonderful, I'm sure. Blue Eyes, for the record, got her name by virtue of having blue eyes.

I would go home after and dream wonderful dreams of pet pigs. It was glorious!

Even more glorious was the time my mother actually considered bringing me home a piglet. A fleeting thought, to be sure. But it was the stuff of midnight tales after waking from nightmares. My mother had been on her way home one night and the farm about 5 miles up the road had a piglet loose. She passed it, and thought about stopping for it. Instead, she came home, and told me a story about the piglet's adventures in the wide world. I don't remember the story, but I remember that time with my mother, and the moment when just maybe, I almost had a pig of my own.

I still think it would be wonderful to own a pig some day. As an adult, I do realize the somewhat unrealistic hope of having one as a house pet. Perhaps, someday, an acreage, with a dog house, built big enough for a half-ton sow. This is one of the highlights of Iowa.

And so it is, that I have decided to forgive Iowa for it's lapse in providing me access to decent cheese. It has, after all, provided access to some of the finest pork in the world. Probably the finest pork in all of the United States.

And the best way to prepare it follows:

Grilled Pork Chops

3 Quarts water
1/2 cup salt
4 sprigs fresh rosemary (easily my favorite herb)
2 tbls minced garlic
1 splash of lemon juice
2 pinches sugar
6 thick-cut, bone-in pork chops (about 1 lb a piece)

Remove the chops from the bones. Reserve the bones and any additional meat for a later use.

Pour the water into a 1.5 gallon container. Add all seasonings. Stir. Add the pork chops. Refrigerate for 14 hours.

One hour before you are set to grill, remove the pork chops from the brine, pat dry with a paper towel, and allow to come to room temperature.

Prepare your coals for a hot fire.

Cook the pork chops 6-8 minutes per side, turning once.

When the pork chops reach an internal temperature of 152-156 degrees (F), remove from the grill and tent with foil. Let rest 10 minutes.

Eat them with friends, or family. Whichever you prefer.

The ultimate moral to this blog post is:

Brine your pork chops, people. Brine. Your. Chops. You'll thank me later.

Oh, and some might wonder, do I feel bad about eating an animal I dearly love and would dearly love to have for a pet? Not when it tastes this good.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything: 101010. Wait! That's Today!

Corresponding biblical texts:
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

Today’s sermon title comes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a five book ‘trilogy’ which I have to confess, I’ve never read. I do, however, have many friends from many walks of life who have read this series of books, and who love it. As such, there are parts of the story that have become a part of my culture experience. It seems that whenever someone is wrestling with the meaning of life, a Hitchhiker’s fan can be found not too far away willing to holler out, “It’s 42!” In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a supercomputer is built to determine The Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. The computer gets to work on the problem and 7.5 million years later arrives at the conclusion that The Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42. Unfortunately, it seems no one actually know what the Ultimate Question is to which we are given the answer 42.

Now, some of you may be wondering why, if the answer is 42, I have given 101,010 in the sermon title as the answer. Compute code is written in binary, a system of representing text or computer processor instructions by the use of binary, that is 2, number system. The numbers used in binary are one and zero. Thus, in binary, (00)101010 is the equivalent of the number 42, (in Dec/Char). If read as 10/10/10, it becomes today’s date.

I’m sure by now some of you might be thinking, “That’s an excellent explanation of a truly odd sermon title, but what does any of that have to do with church, or God, or us?”

The two questions with which philosophers and theologians have wrestled for eons are:

1. What is the meaning of life?
2. What is the nature of the good/or the good life?

These are questions that continue to be a source of fascination and frustration today. Often we find ourselves asking, “What is the point? Why am I here?” And often, we find ourselves wanting to be somewhere else. The place from which we have come, the place we ultimately heading. Too often, we fail to be content in the place we are currently in.

I imagine this is some of what the Israelites were feeling while in exile in Babylon. They were in a strange place, full of strange people, speaking a strange language. I imagine most of them jut wanted to go home. As strangers in a strange land, they may have found themselves longing for what they had left, idealizing the place from which they had come. This was a common theme in Israel’s history—we see it recorded beginning in the time of Moses, when the Israelites grumbled against Moses, declaring it would be better to be slaves in Egypt than starve to death in the wilderness. They left because of a promised future, but constantly looked back to the recent past.

This is a common theme to be found in pretty much all of human history, I think. As we are in an election year, November quickly approaching, we get to see it played out ad nauseum today. Regardless of you political affiliation, someone, somewhere has an add that seeks to speak to your nostalgic yearning for bygone days, a simpler time, a period of history when all was right with the world. Someone, somewhere is promising that they can bring us back that golden epoch.

Or how about looking to the future, thinking our “real” life will begin when… Who can forget Centrum Silver, the vitamin that assures you that “Life begins at 50?” Really? 50? You mean, I’m won’t technically be alive for another 21 years?

Yet, here’s what God has to say to the Israelites then (and I would wager to us today):

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that thy may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.

In short, God says, “Live your life where you are.”

I remember the first time I really received this message. I was standing in a friend’s kitchen, ready to be done. Nothing was going the way it was supposed to be going. For the record, that means, it wasn’t going the way I wanted it to go. I was looking forward to the day the current circumstances would end, and I could move to the next task. It felt like it would take forever. “I just want this time to be over so I can start my life,” I said to my friend.

“What makes you think you don’t have a life now?” he asked me.

I realized that all of the things I was pining for weren’t guaranteed to come. All I really had was today. Right now. This moment. And I could live in it, or not.

What then, is the present moment worth living for? For Paul, the populist author of Second Timothy, tells us that he has endured everything for the sake of the elect. In prison once again for preaching the gospel of Jesus, Paul seems to have more than adequate reason to pine for the days of old. Instead, he is faithful, accepting the hardships and suffering that result from a life dedicated to preaching the gospel. And what is the gospel, what is this “good news” which seems to be getting Paul into so much trouble? That Christ has died, and was risen, and live; and that if we have died with Christ, likewise we will live with him.

As Christians, we are called to be faithful to this message—that Christ died for us, and in him, we have died to ourselves and been raised to new life in him. We work not for ourselves, but for God. We seek not our own welfare, but endure everything, that all might come to know the power of the resurrected Christ, and obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.

Endurance is hard. Being sure of our faith, can ease the hardship, however. When Jesus came up on the ten lepers in the gospel reading today, it is clear that they had endured much. Following cultural custom, which prevented them from interacting with healthy people, they approached Jesus, but “kept their distance,” calling out for mercy instead. Jesus, showing mercy, commands them to show themselves to their priests—an act required for ritual purity, a step that must be taken before someone who has been healed can share in life with those who are clean—that is ritually pure.

I find this to be an interesting command on the part of Jesus. According to Jewish law, one was to present themselves to the priests, bringing their sacrifice, after they had been healed. These men are still suffering from leprosy as they begin their journey to the temple. And so it is that these men have acted in faith—trusting that they will be healed somewhere on the journey. In the end, like so many of the healing stories to be found in the gospels, Jesus tells one of the lepers, “Your faith has made you well.”

What was it that distinguished this leper from the other nine? What made him stand out such that he alone learned the secret to his healing? He expressed gratitude. Upon seeing that he had been healed, this leper turned back, praising God with a loud voice, he lay facedown at the feet of Jesus, in complete submission to him, and thanked him.

When we focus too intently upon either the past—seeking not to remember and honor where we’ve com from but pining to go back—or the future—not wise planning, but thinking that all of life is to be found there, thinking that life begins there—we forget to be grateful for what we have now.

By choosing to fully live in and engage the present, we have a greater ability to see the blessings in our lives, and to be grateful for those blessings. In choosing an “attitude of gratitude,” and acknowledging that Jesus is the source of good, we bring glory to God. And God will be so faithful to us, no matter what. But it is that gratitude which so often, in my experience, leads other to want to know the secret as well.

Gratitude becomes an opportunity to tell others how good God is. And maybe share with them The Ultimate Answer the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. It’s today.

May we go forward today, grateful for what we have, remaining faithful to Jesus, and living each moment as it comes. In the words of Albus Dumbledore: It does not do to dream and forget to live.