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Sunday, March 25, 2018

God's Perspective on Humanity - Part 2

Mary Eggers - Woman at the

Last blog I wrote about the value our society places on people of various stations and experiences.  That kind of fawning over the rich and famous, according to the book of James, is simply wrong and ungodly (James 2….in fact, that passage suggests the wealthy and powerful are often the problem!)  But today, what I wanted to tie this discussion up with is a reflection on how Jesus valued the people he met. 

Jesus was with some people who were wealthy, such as Zaccheus, Simon, and a ruler of a synagogue.  But he was also with people who were outcast and poor, such as the individuals suffering from leprosy and the peasants who gathered to hear him speak.  But one of the most interesting stories to me, and one that has become more and more striking as times goes by in life, is the story of Jesus with the woman at the well in John 4. 

When individuals teach or preach from this story, it is often noted that the woman was considered an outcast of sorts in her village, because she is out by herself drawing the day’s supply of water during the heat of the day, instead of in the cool of the morning with the other women of the village.  It is assumed that this low status is because of her multiple divorces and that she was currently living with another man without being married.  She is considered an outcast from the perspective of the Jewish people because she is a Samaritan…the wrong race, the wrong religion, the wrong parcel of land.  The story itself points out that the Jews of those days had no dealings with Samaritans.  In addition, while it did not make her an outcast, it was an issue of social boundaries, the fact that she was a woman and Jesus was a man meant that, in proper etiquette, there should not be any private discussion between the two of them. 

In spite of all these things, Jesus makes a point to spend time talking with this woman.  He makes a point to go through Samaria, rather than take the normal route to Jerusalem, just so that he CAN meet this woman at the well.  He strikes up the conversation, which even surprises her, since she knows that her race is not acceptable to his.  I have often pointed out that, in terms of what happens during Jesus’s life, this woman is a more effective minister for Christ than the disciples, because she goes to the village and brings all the residents back to meet Jesus, while the went into the same village and only brought back something to eat. 

Clearly, Jesus demonstrates that God values people that most of the world would ignore, that he wants to reach out to them, and that he can use them, and he has set an example for us to follow.  But I learned a couple of new things the last time I encountered this story (or, maybe I had noted them before, but just never really thought about what they implied).

The first new insight was that a booklet I was reading at the time pointed out that not only does Jesus demonstrate the value he places on this woman, but this story is actually the longest recorded conversation we have of Jesus with another person!  Now, realize, I haven’t gone to compare and try to verify that, but it sounds about right.  The other long discourses in the Gospels take place in a group setting, such as his discussions with the disciples at the Last Supper.  Do you see what I saw when I heard that?  Both the Gospel writer, and God who inspired that writer, decided that Jesus’s interaction with this rejected and outcast woman deserved to be recorded and preserved more than any other individual conversation he had.  Interactions with the lowly matter!

The second thing that struck me, after rereading the story and thinking about what I learned, is that Jesus demonstrated his valuing of all people in this story in a way that goes beyond the woman.  Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, you may recall, when he met this woman.  After her response, and the people of the village all coming to meet him (people who were ALSO of the rejected Samaritan heritage), the passage says that he then spent two more days just to be with them and to teach them.  The woman had been stunned that the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, would talk with her.  The disciples had misgivings about the experience, as well.  Imagine what they all thought when he not only talked with her, but stayed in what would have been considered an unclean village to interact with this forbidden race for an extended visit! 

Let me close with this simple thought.  

First, others may tell you that you are less then they are, reject you for one reason or another (such as the fact that you have been divorced or your skin is the “wrong” color), or treat you unfairly.  

You may be unnoticed in your world, in your job, in your church, and feel insignificant, especially when you see people fawning over others, the beautiful, the rich, the socially acceptable.  But the story of the woman at the well, especially, shows that God places a great deal of value on each of us, whether anyone else does or not.  Beyond that, the story also demonstrates that God can and will use anyone, who has a willing heart and servant attitude.  This woman responded to what Jesus had taught her, and she chose not merely to keep it to herself, but to share it with others.  I encourage you to do the same.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

God's Perspective on Humanity

Part 1

Have you ever noticed how much some people are treated like they are royalty and more important than others?  Sometimes they have bodyguards assigned to protect them.  Sometimes they are moved to the front of the line.  Sometimes simply the way people talk to them gives the impression that they are very important, as the speakers become obsequious and overly polite.  

Usually, in our culture, the people treated this way are receive that treatment for one (or more) of about three reasons:  either they are famous, or they are wealthy, or they are in positions of power (which are also considered the measure of whether someone is “successful”).  These people receive special treatment while the homeless man at the curb is despised and devalued.  Sadly, whether or not either of these folks are people of good character, people of integrity, trustworthy and compassionate becomes irrelevant in these situations…their entire value of their worth as human beings. 

I will always remember something I read years ago when President Reagan was shot in the assassination attempt.  About the same time, the people who collect and dispose of the trash in Philadelphia were on strike.  The article pointed out that President Reagan had been shot, was lying in a hospital recuperating, and the government continued to carry out all the daily activities that it does…life went on.  But after a short time of striking by trash collectors (sanitation engineers they were called), the city of Philadelphia was shut down, as garbage piled up in the streets.  The article pointed out how it makes you rethink a bit about who REALLY IS important.

Similarly, during my studies of Jewish writings in Cincinnati, I ran across what I believe is a very profound insight about the story of Moses’s birth.  The studies I was doing at the time related to the way the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) sometimes made little comments without saying them outright, and pointed out one such comment in that story.  The story of Moses’s birth describes the suffering of the Jewish people, and the decree by Pharaoh that newborn Hebrew male babies were to be killed at birth.  (Interestingly enough, these days it is reported that just the opposite often happens in China, where the girls are killed or given up for adoption and the boys kept.)  But there were two Jewish midwives who chose to ignore the Pharaoh’s decree:  Shiphrah and Puah.  You can read the whole story in Exodus 1. 

The observation made by the writings I was studying was that this text quietly reveals GOD’S perspective of who is important and who is not in a very subtle and interesting way.  The insight can be demonstrated by a couple of simple questions.  

What, does the Bible tell us, was Pharaoh’s name?  

What were the names of the midwives?  

Scholars have debated for years which Pharaoh it was referred to by the scriptures, because the Bible never says his name…EVEN THOUGH EVERY EGYPTIAN AT THE TIME KNEW HIS NAME AND WOULD HAVE CONSIDERED HIM THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE LAND.  

But the names of the midwives, who would have been virtually unknown in the land of Egypt at the time, has been preserved for thousands of years, because it was they, not Pharaoh, who were doing the things God believes honorable and important!

Well, this is going to have to be part one, because it would be too long if I continue.  I started this because there is a New Testament story that brings a similar parallel, and in reading it today, I learned something new I had never really noticed before.  So I will save it for next time, and today simply point out that just because nobody knows YOUR name, and no one treats YOU like you are an important person, while people of highly questionable character are treated like gods, does not determine the REAL value of who you are and what you do.  

God’s perspective that will last into eternity, and by which all people will be judged, is not the same as that of society.  

Remember, Jesus said, “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first,” and that “the greatest among you will be the one who serves.” 

To be continued….

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Facing Regrets


During this Lenten season, our church is focusing on the concept of reconciliation.  And as part of it, remembering passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 where the core description of Christ’s work is summed up in the concept of reconciliation. 

Yesterday, the passage for the day was Genesis 32, where Jacob is returning to his homeland, after being run out of his uncle’s land.  As Jacob heads home, he does so with a great deal of uncertainty, because he knows that his brother awaits him.  In fact, when he sends word ahead that he is coming, and then hears his brother is coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob moves from uncertainty to absolute terror!  He is convinced that his brother is coming to destroy him.  Why does he believe that?  Because Jacob remembers how he had mistreated his brother, and he knows he deserves whatever his brother chooses to dish out.  Suddenly, prayer seems like a really good idea to Jacob!

After all those years of being away, when he hears that his brother is coming out to meet him, his first thought is to the selfish errors of his past.  It is clear that those memories have been haunting Jacob.  During all the time he was helping his uncle Laban, and his uncle was cheating him, I suspect many a day Jacob thought to himself that had he only not done his brother wrong, then Jacob could have been at home with his dad, working in his homeland, working with his own herds there.  But he remembered what he had done that got him into the situation, and as his uncle Laban tricked and cheated Jacob, Jacob began to understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of deception such as he had perpetrated on his brother. 

In the story, Jacob flees Laban, and heads home, but heads toward an uncertain greeting.  Jacob realizes now the mess he has created, but he still heads toward home.  He is told that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men, but instead of running away, he continues to head home, to head directly toward the individual he has wronged and all the consequences of his past actions.  Jacob had lots of regrets, but instead of ignoring them, or running away from them, he realized that he needed to reconcile himself to his past, and to the consequences of his actions.  He had to face the past head on.  So although he must certainly have been tempted to run the other way, he doesn’t.  He is ready to deal with his past, to take responsibility for his actions, to eat a little humble pie, and to lay to rest the regrets that have troubled him for so many years.  And he chooses to do those things whether or not his brother is willing to forgive him….because he is not doing it for his brother’s sake, he is doing it for his own peace of mind, and for the sake of his relationship with God.

Many people I have talked to can name some things they wish they had done differently, or things that they regret in their past.  Some of those people have let those regrets drag them down and keep them discouraged.  Divorced people often express regrets in terms of whether they had worked hard enough at their marriage, or why they hadn’t listened to good advice and not married that person in the first place, or they regret that they didn’t end the marriage sooner and prevent all the years of heartache in a miserable relationship. 

You may have other regrets you live with.  I’d like to make a suggestion today.  As we discussed in worship this week, we can let our regrets weigh us down and fill us with sorrow for the past and fears for the future.  Or, we can choose, as Jacob did, to have the courage to face those regrets, take responsibility for the choices we made and the consequences of those choices, make what amends we can, but then instead of letting those regrets dominate our present, we let them inform our future to help us make better choices in the days ahead.

Life is not structured in such a way that we are given the chance to go back and redo most of the mistakes we make.  But it is structured so that we can learn from those mistakes, and grow into a better, wiser and healthier person as a result.  It takes courage to own up to your own shortcomings, and to go back to the people you have hurt to try to make things right, whether they are interested in hearing it or not.  But a little courage now can go a long way toward a peaceful conscience later.  

Don’t let yourself get dragged down in the swamp of regrets.  Instead, own up to what you have done that you now regret, make amends where you can, accept that you have screwed up just like everyone else, and then let God use those things to shape you into a better person, as he did for Jacob when he transformed him into Israel, the prince of God!