Jesus, do I have to do this if it’s going to hurt?

1 Peter 3:13-22

Contemporary English Version (CEV)

13 Can anyone really harm you for being eager to do good deeds? 14 Even if you have to suffer for doing good things, God will bless you. So stop being afraid and don’t worry about what people might do. 15 Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of your life.

Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope. 16 Give a kind and respectful answer and keep your conscience clear. This way you will make people ashamed for saying bad things about your good conduct as a follower of Christ. 17 You are better off to obey God and suffer for doing right than to suffer for doing wrong.

18 Christ died once for our sins.

An innocent person died for those who are guilty.
Christ did this to bring you to God, when his body was put to death and his spirit was made alive.

19 Christ then preached to the spirits that were being kept in prison. 20 They had disobeyed God while Noah was building the boat, but God had been patient with them. Eight people went into that boat and were brought safely through the flood.

21 Those flood waters were like baptism that now saves you.[ergo, baptism saves us; the flood saved the Noah family] But baptism is more than just washing your body. It means turning to God with a clear conscience, because Jesus Christ was raised from death. 22 Christ is now in heaven, where he sits at the right side of God. All angels, authorities, and powers are under his control.

 

Can anyone really harm you for being eager to do good deeds?  What’s your answer to that?  Do you put yourself in danger when you do good deeds? Peter evidently thinks that is a possibility because he adds this caveat: “Even if you have to suffer for doing good things, God will bless you.”  So it’s possible to be hurt for doing the right thing.  

Can you think of a time when you did the right thing and it backfired? Have you ever been scolded for doing the right thing?  Have you ever had anybody gossip about you because you did the right thing? 

 

One of my favorite examples comes from the era of Hurricane Katrina.  That hurricane displaced thousands of people and the congregation in DeWitt, like many congregations, was eager to help.  I received a call from a former pastor who had been in contact with one displaced family. John and his twin daughters needed a place to stay; the pastor knew that our parsonage was still empty.  I approached the executive committee of the congregation to ask what they thought. They were all for it. On the next Sunday, we all converged on the empty parsonage with furniture, food, towels, sheets, dishes…you name it. We had a blast getting the place ready. I especially remember a mother and daughter coming with two baskets full of shampoo, cosmetics, barrettes–all kinds of girly stuff.  We  were all excited for John and his daughters to arrive. And they did and we welcomed them with our whole hearts.

Our understanding was that John would look for work and the girls would enroll in school.  The girls did enroll in school.  The rest of our expectations were never met.  John never found a job, and freeloaded off us for about six months.  He went to church once. That disappointed the congregation–it wasn’t about his personal faith, but about his shunning our community. We all felt pretty dumb.  We had been taken advantage of by someone who was pretty much a con man.

But we didn’t feel sorry for ourselves; we told ourselves, we still tell ourselves, that we did the right thing. We took in a family, welcomed them totally into our hearts and community.  We did what we knew was the Jesus thing to do. The response to our hospitality was not what we expected. But we didn’t have control over that.

We weren’t punished for our good deed, but we were disappointed at the lack of gratitude.  Of course, at the annual meeting, some people did scold us for our foolishness.  It was a natural reaction to our human nature to want to be rewarded for every good thing we do.  Peter says that’s not how it works.14 So stop being afraid and don’t worry about what people might do. 15 Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of your life.

That is a minor little story.  The bigger stories were lived by people like Martin Luther KIng, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. Both were murdered because they were seeking justice for not just African-Americans or Hindus, but for all people in their nations.  

 

It is somewhat ironic that this lesson falls on Memorial Day weekend.  Again, think of putting yourself in harm’s way for the sake of doing good.

Think of the soldiers and sailors and airmen we honor this weekend.  Ordinary men and women, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, farmers and teachers, all good people, who would never dream of committing murder, volunteered to learn how to kill.  They rose above themselves to defend a greater good. 

We all know men and women who have been put in this precarious position. Thou shalt not kill vs. the Red, White and Blue.

 

I had coffee with my friend, Joan, yesterday.  We talked about how even though war is evil, good people go to war. Twenty years ago, she preached a sermon on the fiftieth anniversary of the dropping of the bomb. She served a congregation in rural Minnesota, and like every congregation, some of the members were veterans.  One of the questions she asked in her sermon was whether all the destruction of lives caused by the bomb was necessary. Could the war have ended in some other way?  She knew who her veterans were.  Two had served state-side in WWII and had never been in battle. Three had served in battles. One had served in the Pacific, one had bombed Dresden, and the the other had bombed Japan.  All three knew they had personally caused horrific deaths for soldiers as well as civilians.  The two who had never served in battle left without talking to her and didn’t come back for a few Sundays.  The three who had served in battle, the three who knew they were directly responsible for multiple deaths,  came to her and thanked her for expressing what had always been in their hearts for those fifty years: could we have done it differently?  Could we have saved lives?  Did we have to kill? She gave them permission to say out loud what had been haunting them for fifty years.

What is right is not always clear. What is clear is not always right.  Joan also told me about a lecture she had gone to.  It was about evil.  The speaker, Dr. Jeffrey Means from Des Moines University, has written a book about evil and how it works its way into our lives. The book is called Trauma and Evil: Healing the Wounded Soul.  Dr. Means says that evil is like the water that seeps into rock and freezes and thaws and freezes and thaws. It is so insidious that the cracks are not even noticeable at first…and then the cracks become bigger and bigger, just as the evil becomes larger and larger. He says that evil is not a thing, but a process.

The danger of that is that evil becomes a part of our culture, a part of us, without us even realizing it. The challenge for us is to ask “How do we control evil?”  The answer is frustrating: we can’t control evil. But we can control our attitude, our response, our involvement.  Peter says: 17 You are better off to obey God and suffer for doing right than to suffer for doing wrong.

That makes the Golden Rule a little less attractive, doesn’t it?  So, God, if I do good, that might get me some not so welcome results.  This again goes back to Peter’s idea that we are aliens, misfits, outsiders, in a culture whose values are not constant and whose values are often contrary to those of Christians.  As Christians, we are called to be bold enough to do something that might hurt us.  We are called to be  strong enough to do the right thing without expecting a payoff. We are called to be faithful enough to break rules to do the right thing.  We are called to be wise enough to question what our culture tells us is best for everyone. We are crazy enough to defy conventional wisdom when it contradicts God’s wisdom.  

We practice a faith that uses love as its operating force.  But there is another force in the world: the force of evil. When we claim our alien identity, we put ourselves at risk of evil.  Thankfully, we are rarely asked to risk our lives.  But we do risk our reputation. We risk embarrassment.  We risk humiliation.  We risk friendships.  Have you ever had anybody unfriend you on Facebook because they find your opinions offensive?  I have.   And there are certain emails I delete without reading because they always offend me.  I like to think it’s because Jesus told me to. It’s not. It’s tricky to live as an alien.  How do I know what is right and what is wrong? My only hope for figuring that out is to keep this big book open, to keep asking questions, especially to keep questioning my self. 

I find this advice from Peter helpful.  It is demanding advice, but it helps: 15 Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope. 16 Give a kind and respectful answer and keep your conscience clear. This way you will make people ashamed for saying bad things about your good conduct as a follower of Christ. 17 You are better off to obey God and suffer for doing right than to suffer for doing wrong.

It doesn’t make me a martyr. It doesn’t make me an angel or even make me a better person. It makes me less afraid. It makes me more accountable to the One who values me more than anyone else on earth.

Thank you, God, for having my back. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memorial Day Reflections.

 Amazing how the text from 1 Peter fits..to suffer from doing good.  See my sermon for that.

This afternoon Bim and I are watching TURN, about the American Revolutionary War. As I watch the characters make the hard decisions of where loyalty should lie and how they can protect their families as well as stay true to their consciences on both sides, I am less amazed at their courage when I realize that my own political involvement is, first of all, a gift from the people whose lives they are portraying, and second, that my political activism comes in small part out of the same motivation to do something for my homeland. I’ve always been a dove, I’ve dallied with pacifism, but I cannot stay out of politics.  As I said in a little speech at a gathering a week ago, it is both dangerous and unpatriotic to stay out of politics. 

Each Sunday, between services, I share coffee with friends at Heinie Jo’s.  Today it was my friend, Jim, and me, sitting at the bar.  Jim and I often harass each other about our differing political beliefs, but the real story is that we agree on more than we disagree.  He comes at politics from an anti-left view, an anti-Obama-style government point of view. You know by now that I am disappointed in some forms of Republican patriotism  Yet Jim and I talk easily and comfortably about health care, about farm bills, about candidates.  My takeaway from today is that we should replace the august chambers in Des Moines and Washington, D.C., with long wooden bars and seat our leaders, alternating Republican and Democrat, on bar stools, elbows on the bar.  Have you ever noticed that bar stools are placed much closer to each other than chairs at a table?  Sitting elbow to elbow on a bar stool requires kindness, balance, and intimacy. We are sitting too close to each other to point fingers. Sitting so close to each other discourages rudeness, discourages argument. Arguing takes space, to allow for shouting and arms flying.  Intimacy demands courtesy.  And courtesy often comes in the form of listening and soft voices. The passion is not any less, but it is not shellacked with bluster or mockery. It is hard to call someone a name or allude to his faults when your hips are practically touching and you can count the hairs in his nostrils. 

 

The one glitch in my plan is that some of our elected leaders might refuse to be seated at the bar.  It is much easier to take a stand and never move if you can build walls around yourself, in the form of papers, staff, furniture.  Boundaries are not accidental and there are lots of ways to build them.  But sitting on a bar stool, shoulder to shoulder, knocking elbows, the boundaries disappear.  Isn’t that what we bystanders wish, in a wishy-washy way, that our leaders would do?  When we say “throw them out,” are we just asking for the majority party to be thrown out? Or are we really wishing to throw out the bad manners, the pomposity, the selfishness?  

In the meantime, Jim and I will question each other’s beliefs, without accusing or mocking each other.We will continue to talk about politics, the science of government.  We are neither scientists nor government officials, but we still believe we have a government-of-the -people-for-the-people-by the people.  We’re the people and we get along just fine.

 

Not Just a Pile of Rocks

Contemporary English Version (CEV)

2 Be like newborn babies who are thirsty for the pure spiritual milk that will help you grow and be saved. 3 You have already found out how good the Lord really is.

4 Come to Jesus Christ. He is the living stone that people have rejected, but which God has chosen and highly honored. 5 And now you are living stones that are being used to build a spiritual house. You are also a group of holy priests, and with the help of Jesus Christ you will offer sacrifices that please God. 6 It is just as God says in the Scriptures,

“Look! I am placing in Zion
a choice and precious
    cornerstone.
No one who has faith
in that one
    will be disappointed.”

7 You are followers of the Lord, and that stone is precious to you. But it isn’t precious to those who refuse to follow him. They are the builders who tossed aside the stone that turned out to be the most important one of all. 8 They disobeyed the message and stumbled and fell over that stone, because they were doomed.

9 But you are God’s chosen and special people. You are a group of royal priests and a holy nation. God has brought you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Now you must tell all the wonderful things that he has done. The Scriptures say,

10 

“Once you were nobody.
    Now you are God’s people.
At one time no one
    had pity on you.
Now God has treated you
    with kindness.

 

 

 

First Peter is a book of instruction for new Christians, but it is just as applicable to us “old Christians.”  

There are lots of graduations this weekend. Those graduations mark the end of the initial educational process for young people.  Some will pursue more education in order to train for future careers; some will go straight into the workforce. Left behind are research papers, textbooks, notes, and exams.  Those papers and books are now artifacts that will gather dust or be disposed of.  New books will be purchased, new notes will be transcribed, new information will be absorbed. Very few of those students will open up a sixth grade or a twelfth grade textbook in order to learn more from it or to better understand it.

In the church, also an educational institution, we have a text book: the Bible. Unlike our high school textbooks, this one is consulted often.  Although many people count confirmation or Sunday School as the end of faith formation, those of us in the pews know that the Bible is not meant to gather dust or be replaced by another text.  We still study this book.

Why?

We’re not going to be tested.  We already have documentation of our accomplishment via our baptismal certificate. We didn’t have to do much for that, did we?  Whether you were baptized as an infant or an adult, all you had to do for that was be recognized as a child of God.  

 

Why do we study our faithful text book day after day, week after week? Why do we need to know more?  After all these years, we ought to know it pretty well.  

 

Why are we still reading this book? Why do we still expect and want a sermon every Sunday that examines these words, over and over?  Shouldn’t it be enough to read the lessons, say a prayer, sing a hymn and hit the road?

 

This is what happens when I write a sermon.  I read the text over and over.  I read articles about the text. And then the questions come.  Why?  And then, I have to come up with an answer or leave us all hanging.

 

Twenty-five years ago, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willamon wrote a book called  Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong. That book is still relevant today, just as the Bible is relevant today.  Hauerwas and Willamon have the same take on living as Christian that Peter did back in the first or second century.  You can’t be a Christian and fit in with the culture around you.  

 

In other words, if you want to put your money where your mouth is, if you want to walk the walk as well as talk the talk, you have to alienate yourself from the local culture, from the secular culture.

 

We can’t build a wall around our property. We can’t stay inside with the shades pulled.  We can’t all move into a commune and ignore the rest of the world.

We still have to live in that world. We still have to work and shop and socialize. One lesson the Bible does not teach is “keep to yourself and ignore everyone else.”

 

But we still keep ourselves separate, not through physical means,but through our thoughts and words and actions.

 

That is hard work. It can be exhausting, annoying, defeating, depressing.

That is why we read this book, why we come back Sunday after Sunday, because, we know that together, somehow, we can make this work.  So we keep trying; we keep opening the book.  

 

The good news: we are able to keep ourselves separate, because this book tells us how.  And when it isn’t offering instruction, it is offering encouragement.

 

Our instruction often comes in the form of metaphor, comparing a concept we understand well to a concept that is harder to understand.  Peter calls us stones. Stone is one of the major resources used in the construction of buildings. It is readily available, it is beautiful, but more importantly it is durable and those edifices built with stone are perceived to be safe and enduring.

 

As stones, we provide the structure of the church.  This building is composed of wood and metal.  The Church, the church that endures through manmade and natural disaster, is made entirely of people.

What is the purpose of that church?

1.The church provides spiritual nourishment, not just for the new Christian but for every Christian.

 We continually add to our understanding of what our faith is, who our God is, what is expected of us and how to meet those expectations.

  1. In that church, we continue to grow in faith. It is in community that our faith matures. Without this community, we are like scattered stones. But in community, we are the church.
  2. The church is real, enduring, more than the greatest temple or cathedral ever built, the church endures through wars and storms, through loss and tragedy. The church is present in the world, right now.
    1. We have a movie at the Operahouse right now called “Heaven is for Real.”  It is very popular, partly because people want to know for sure–people want physical evidence–that heaven exists.  As Christians, don’t we already know that?  It can be very tempting to look at heaven as the only part of God’s kingdom that is worth our attention.  Christians who look only for heaven are not aliens, but isolationists.  They fall victim to a malaise that says “the world is a rotten place; the heck with it.  I’ll just tough it out until I get to heaven.”  But there is nothing in the Bible about hiding out and atrophying into a body fit only for fertilizer.

4. The church exists for action, not passiveness. We can wring our hands over this war and that atrocity, over injustice, over ignorance, but we are called to use those hands to help.  Our community, our church is not a monument to holiness. Our church is an institution in the best sense of the word. We are an institution that delivers, that stands for something, that makes things happen, that provides.  Our schools are not just holding pens; neither is the church.  We share the knowledge we have, the good news, and we share that not only in our conversation, but, most of all, in our example.  

It does me good to think of myself as part of something strong, as part of something that is enduring. It makes it easier to be an alien. It makes it easier for me to flex my spiritual muscles and put my hands to work.  It makes it easier to be “different” from the culture in which I’m immersed.  Being a part of this living edifice called The Church gives me confidence and courage.  I am not some rock stuck in the middle of a field or lodged on the side of a hill.  With you, I am something important, something powerful. With you, I am part of the living, breathing, redeeming, transforming church on earth.  Amen.