Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When Religion Goes Bad

My mom brought me a dewberry pie for Easter. For those of you not fortunate enough to have grown up in the country, dewberries are essentially wild blackberries. They grow in pastures, along fence lines, and in other out-of-the-way places. Their vines have thorns, so you're likely to get scratched trying to pick some. And of course, copperhead snakes love to coil up in the shade of those vines, so that makes dewberry-picking even more interesting. But they taste so much sweeter than domestic blackberries. Eating fresh-picked dewberries was one of the great pleasures of my childhood. Dewberry jelly was a highly coveted treasure. And a pie or cobbler made from dewberries was by far my favorite dessert growing up. You can have your cheesecake, your bananas foster, your creme brulee. Give me a piece of dewberry pie, and I'm happy. A scoop of vanilla Blue Bell on top took the whole experience to the level of culinary nirvana.

This year, there hasn't been any rain. That means a lot of bad things for people who make their living from ranching or farming. It also means there are no dewberries. No pie, no cobbler, no jelly. But my mom found some vines early in the spring and decided to water them herself. That's where the dewberries in my pie came from. When she told me this, I had already finished my pie. I had enjoyed it tremendously while I was eating it. But when I found out what a rare treat it was, I was even more thankful. I hadn't carefully tended and watered that fragile dewberry vine. I hadn't picked the berries. I certainly hadn't made the pie (the one time I tried, a few summers ago, it did not end well). Yet here I was, enjoying the sweet fruits of my mom's labors. I had no reason to brag, and every reason to be thankful. What a gift!

We just finished Easter season, when we were reminded of the cost of our salvation. The truths of the Gospel should leave us feeling humbly grateful for the precious gift God gave us. We of all people have no reason ever to boast. Everything good about us is because of what Christ did for us. And everything good we will ever receive from Him (and there is so much more He has planned!) will come only when we humble ourselves before Him yet again, and gratefully receive the gifts he gives by His grace. This week, as we continue our series on the parables of Jesus, we'll study some stories that speak of the importance of humility. There's an odd thing about humility; it's one of the most important facets of Christian character, yet I never hear Christians say they want to become more humble. Hopefully this series will help us see the need.

We'll begin with a rather famous story from Luke 18:9-14. Part of the gist of this sermon is that religion, while a good thing, can become tainted. Religion can actually stand between us and the grace of God. Has that happened in the American church? Are we more like the Pharisee in this story than we are like Jesus? Worse still, has it happened in your life? We'll discuss these important questions Sunday. Meanwhile, thank God that He did all the work, and poured out all the blessing on you.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What is Your God Like?

There’s probably no person in the Bible who’s more misunderstood today than Mary Magdalene. There are a great many people today who believe she was a prostitute. That’s the way she’s been depicted in art throughout church history, the way she’s often depicted in movies these days, movies like The Passion of the Christ. But that’s not at all what the Bible says. Best we can tell, this misinformation goes all the way back to 591 AD, when Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon in which he implied that Mary was the same woman as a prostitute who Jesus had transformed. The Catholic church has since rejected that teaching, but it’s still around today. There’s also a persistent rumor that Mary and Jesus were secretly married, and may have even had children. That goes all the way back to the second century with books like the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary, books the early church rejected as spurious. It’s been brought back to life recently by books like The DaVinci Code. It’s amazing to me that we’re still believing stuff whose source is a couple of ancient books that original readers treated as being about as credible as a grocery store tabloid and a mediocre contemporary novel, but that’s where we are. So let me just say it now: There is no credible reason, Biblically or otherwise, to suspect any kind of sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Here's what we know about Mary: She knew Jesus personally. He saved her from a life that in many ways must have been worse than death. And out of all His followers, He chose to appear first to her after the resurrection, making her the first eyewitness of the most important event in human history. This Sunday, we'll celebrate Easter by asking the question: "What is your God like?" I can't think of a more important issue than cutting through the speculation and wishful thinking so that we can get to the bottom of who God really is. No one is more qualified to tell us this than Mary. This Sunday, we'll hear what she would say about Him.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Am I Worth?

Jesus wasn’t just a kind, wise teacher who lived out a great example for us and left us some wonderful life lessons. His life was a rescue mission.

There are hundreds of great rescue stories (have you ever seen The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen and James Garner? Go rent!), but one of my favorites is one you probably haven’t heard. In 1868, Queen Victoria authorized a rescue mission for 53 people, including some missionaries and a British consul, who had been held captive for four years by Emperor Theodore III of Ethiopia in a remote 9,000-foot-high bastion. The invasion force included 32,000 men, heavy artillery, and 44 elephants to carry the guns. Provisions included 50,000 tons of beef and pork and 30,000 gallons of rum. Engineers built landing piers, water treatment plants, a railroad, and telegraph line to the interior, plus many bridges. In terms of the money and logistics involved, military historians say this was an undertaking on the scale of the Normandy Invasion.

Surely old Theodore III thought he was safe and sound way down there in Ethiopia. He never figured Victoria would send a full-scale invasion just to rescue 53 people. Yet that’s just what she did. On paper, it certainly didn’t make sense for Jesus to invade this world, either. But that’s just what He did. This Sunday, we'll continue our study of the parables of Jesus with a look at Luke 11:21-22, a mysterious little parable that tells us quite a bit about why Jesus came...and how much we mean to Him.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Does Prayer Matter?

In January, Sports Illustrated published an article about one of the most time-honored facts in all of sports: The home-field advantage. Every sports fan knows that his home team is more likely to win a game in their own stadium, rink, or court than on the road. But why is that? The authors put this question to some serious scientific research, and their answer was surprising. The home field advantage has nothing to do with athletic performance. Pitchers don't throw harder in front of their own screaming fans, and basketball teams don't shoot a higher percentage, no matter how much we may encourage them. It also doesn't have to do with being comfortable in familiar surroundings, or with the visiting team being tired from the rigors of travel or intimidated by the roar of a hostile crowd. The only demonstrable factor they could find was the referees. They were able to scientifically prove that officials tended to side with the home team more often in close calls. They presumed this was because the officials didn't like to be booed, and so they would unconsciously choose the go with the home team if the call was close.

Is God like a referee? Can we influence His "calls" by praying persistently and passionately? This Sunday, we'll take a look at Mark 11:5-8, a parable which Jesus told in order to encourage us to pray. For comparison's sake, you might also look at Mark 18:1-8, which tells a very different story with the same point. Meanwhile, I was involved in an interesting online discussion that you might want to read. I posted the following question on my facebook page this week: "Why do people stop praying?" I received 30 responses, all of which were very insightful and thought-provoking. Take a look here.