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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

God Is Better Than That

"God is Better Than That"
Luke 18:1-8 

How many of you are cat owners? I know your cat is special, the most wonderful cat in the world. But as a former cat-owner, I also know that cats can be really grumpy.

When we got married, Kristen brought a cat to the marriage. That went well. For the first few months, my ankles were always bloody. I'd walk past the cat, but I'd always be too close. The cat did not forgive my trespasses. He'd reach out and pop me with his claws. So I bore the scars in the relationship. 

I was stubborn. The cat was grumpy. I saw myself in a position of power, the payer of rent, the more highly evolved species. The cat did not. We pitted our wills against the other's. Eventually I learned that this was not a battle I was going to win. I learned to respect the cat and the length of his arms. I allowed him his zone of comfort. My ankles healed, and so, in time, did our relationship.


Jesus told a story about a judge who had never learned to respect people's zones of comfort. He saw himself as the possessor of power, the seat of of authority, as being above the people around his feet.

Now, there was also a widow in town. To get the point of this story, you need to know that in this culture, a widow was about as low in the social pecking order as you could go. Women had only as much respect as the husband who, essentially, owned them. Further, women had only as much value as their ability to give birth to children, that is, boy children. So, a widow, in this Middle-eastern culture, was almost of a lower species.

I was once in a Bible study group with a woman who was a widow, and we came across a similar scripture, and she said, "You know, I really take offense at that." And the very smart Bible study leader said, "You know what? You should." Jesus told very offensive parables that were intended to get people to say, "That's just wrong!" And maybe get fired up enough to do something about it.

So, there was also a widow in the town of the grumpy judge. And she was not afraid to use her claws. She had been wronged. So she kept invading the judge's zone of personal privilege. She kept going back, and going back, demanding to be taken seriously. She wanted a hearing. She wanted justice. She wanted fair treatment. She was annoying. She was a breaker of cultural stereotype, and people who break type always cut against the grain. No doubt both the judge and the people of town thought, "She really needs to learn her place."

In another time and place, she might have spoken the words of the seventy-two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who decided to sit down at the front of a bus, "My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest." (Quoted from "Letter From Birmingham Jail, MLK.)

The woman in the story had a sense of justice that was bigger than the judge's circle. Day after day, she broke the barrier, and demanded fair treatment.

Now, to us, the culture surrounding that woman might seem so foreign, so unevolved. But the moment we elevate ourselves, our culture, our behavior, above another's, the moment we lose respect and become a grumpy judge, the scars resurface on our ankles.

The judge got tired of the scars. He said, "Even though I don't fear God or care about people, I will help this widow because she keeps on bothering me. If I don't help her, she will wear me out."


Think about a time when you've been treated unjustly. 

We all have them.

What'd you do? Did you hire an attorney? Did you go to the principal? Did you engage the bully in a battle of wits? Did you haul off and knock some sense into him? 

Or did you weigh the options and see that for the sake of your health, for the sake of your family, for the sake of peace, you'd stay quiet? There are some battles that are just suicide, and you're smart to count the cost before you get into them.

However you chose to handle the injustice, you can still feel the scars, can't you? You remember the scars. They resurface, no matter how hard you work to cover them up and move on. Injustice stays with you. Being treated as less than someone else leaves a mark.

The same Jesus who bore the marks of nails, the scars of whips, the shame of the cross… this same Jesus looked out at the people who heard his story about the woman and the judge. And he said,

Think about what that crooked judge said. "This lady's gonna wear me out, so I'll help her, for my own good."

Jesus said, God's better than that. He said, "Won't God protect his chosen ones who pray to him day and night? Won't he be concerned for them? He will surely hurry and help them."

Jesus wasn't talking to the judges; he was talking to the judged. Jesus wasn't talking to the powerful; he was talking to the victims, the abused, the people who couldn't hide or heal their scars. He was telling them, "No matter what the crooked judges of this world say, God knows. God knows when you're treated unfairly, and it IS unfair. No matter what the treaters say, you don't deserve it. You're not unworthy. You're not less than they are. You're not crazy and you're not wrong. You may not have the power of the powerful, but you're not one hair's breadth beneath them. Injustice is injustice, no matter who you are. God knows this."

Now, it's really easy to slip into a false sense of superiority over this. Like, "I may not be able to beat you up, but God saw what you did, and God's gonna get you for that."

"I may not be able to get you in this life, but God's gonna get you in the next one. You're gonna burn."

I'm not gonna lie to you. Thinking like that feels pretty good. It's really kind of having God as your private security contractor. 

"You won't give me justice? It's OK. God'll get me vengeance."

That's not an impractical way of being. It can get you through the rough days with some secret dignity. But it's a weak dignity. It's really just trading places with the powerful, in a divinely vengeful kind of way. Jesus never goes that far in what he tells the people.

In Jesus's story, the powerful, grumpy judge gives in because he can see the widow's going to just wear him out. He gives in because he can see that if he doesn't he's never going to get any rest. It's in his own self-interest to give her justice. He gives in, not because he gives a hoot about her, but to protect himself.

Jesus does not protect himself. Jesus willingly bears the scars of injustice. And when he does, he shows us that he, that God, is not a grumpy judge. God is better than that. God is a powerless widow. God is a boy teased to self-loathing by other kids. God is whoever has been beaten up and beaten down by crooked, cutting injustice. 

God is in the people who cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When you feel that way, God is in you, too.


We forget. We see so much power and we feel the force of so many grumpy people who don't listen that we forget. God is not the God of the sword. God is not the God of the biggest guns, or the greatest influence. God is not the God of the richest, or the best-looking, or the most famous.

God is the God of the cross. If you want to know what God looks like, if you want to know how God really is, look to the cross.

We forget that. We know it, but we forget.

Jesus said to those who came to him for help, "Won't God protect his chosen ones who pray to him day and night? Won't he be concerned for them? He will surely hurry and help them."

The irony is that God was already right there with those people, standing right before them, talking to them, teaching them, helping them. The last thing in the world they expected was that God would look like them. They never dreamed that God would look like someone who bore scars just like theirs. They never imagined God would suffer injustice just like they did.

We're lucky. We know what God looks like. We just have to remember. We need to remember God's cross when we've been treated unjustly. And we need to remember before we veer into someone else's zone and deprive them of space that's just as much theirs as ours.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

You Can Be a Genius

You Can Be a Genius

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21 NRSV

Are you a genius? You know, like Einstein? Or Sheldon on "Big Bang Theory"? You might think you are. You might be waiting for the world - or your kids, or your parents, or your teachers, or your co-workers - to recognize what a genius you really are. Good luck with that.

The author, Elizabeth Gilbert (http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html), sheds some light on how the meaning of "genius" has changed over the centuries. Back in the days of the Roman Empire, you wouldn't say that someone *is* a genius; you'd say someone *has* a genius. It's an important distinction.

The Romans had the idea that a "genius" was like a house elf or spirit that whispered inspiring ideas to you. Or, if your genius wasn't very bright, s/he whispered stupid ideas that got you in trouble; your genius was more of a demon than a helper. If you had a friendly genius, it would guide you, comfort you, help you accomplish far more than you could on your own.

I don't believe the Apostle Paul ever used the word for genius, but his understanding of how God works sounds as though it's not far from his mind. At the end of his letter to the church in Ephesus, the Roman-Jewish Apostle Paul gives this beautiful benediction:

"Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine…."

When Paul talks about God being at work within us, it's kind of like he's talking about God as a genius. God is the whispering voice that guides, inspires, comforts. We hear God's voice when we're quieter. That's because geniuses rarely shout. God is our shared genius.

If we can get back to the original Roman idea of "genius," it could be kind of exciting. Because even if you're no genius in the I.Q. department, you can definitely be someone else's genius. You can whisper or even shout words of guidance, inspiration, and comfort. You can encourage someone to see things in a new way. You can help someone be better than he or she could ever be on their own. Of course, it's always their choice whether to accept your genius, but you can at least offer.

Go be someone's whispering genius today. Even if you're no genius yourself, listen for the genius of God, guiding, inspiring, and comforting you, able to accomplish abundantly far more than all you can ask or imagine.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What If Jesus Had a Smartphone?

What If Jesus Had a Smartphone?

Matthew 4:18-22. Social Media Version.

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, his phone vibrated and two notification pings from Foursquare told him that Simon, who also goes by the username, Peter, and Andrew his brother were nearby. He texted them a link to his Twitter profile with the invitation to click "Follow me" and fish for new tweeps. Immediately, they joined his nets and got linked in. They left their father, Zebedee, who never stepped out into the digital age, and followed him, "liked" him, "friended" him, subscribed to his feeds, and began to Christian mingle.

A cautionary note to anyone who thinks the above is intended as sarcastic or snarky: it isn't. It's the way people meet and make relationships now. Is it inhuman, disingenuous, and superficial? I don't know; ask a 14 year-old. Or better, text her, and see what she thinks. Because pretty soon, it won't matter what you think. She'll be the one leading the church, however it looks in 2025.


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