Copper Kettle Christians

“There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor.”
Luke 21:25-27 (Common English Bible)
            When Abraham Lincoln stood to deliver the Gettysburg Address, he added two words that were not in the address as originally written. Written on the pages before him were the words, “That this nation shall have a new birth of freedom…” However, when Lincoln actually delivered that line, what he spoke was, “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…” Those two words have now become a rich part of our national vocabulary. However, when Lincoln added those two words, unplanned and freely, it was unusual. What Lincoln sought to do is declare his deep and abiding conviction that the destinies of all people and their governments, including this one, are not beyond the reach and activity of God. It is precisely this conviction that Luke’s Gospel declares. When the unusual appears in the sky and upon the earth it will not be a phenomenon apart from God. It will be an intentional act of God, God “coming on a cloud with power and great splendor.”
            Occasionally, there emerges a fascination and speculation of when the end of the world is drawing near. Some will make observations that seem to suggest that the end is imminent. Luke’s Gospel is not critical of such contemplation of the end – Jesus himself engaging in such contemplation. However, Jesus’ contemplation is not for the sake of marking a date on the calendar. Its purpose is for sanctifying the present moment. Rather than concern for a specific date when the world will end, this teaching has to do with discipleship, what it means to follow Christ both in our behavior and in relationship with others. The “Human One” is returning to earth. Life will not go on forever, day after day, year after year, without some conclusion. All of history is moving toward an end. That knowledge is for positively influencing the decisions made today, decisions of the manner in which we live.
            A significant shift of thought appears at the thirty-sixth verse, “Stay alert at all times.” What does that look like in the lives of disciples today? What spiritual practices or disciplines are available that will keep our eyes focused upon God’s presence and work today? This is a call to intentional activity, not a passive waiting for the end. Here is a summons that we live purposefully, deriving our strength for living faithfully from the exercise of prayer. Spiritual disciplines, such as worshipping regularly, praying daily, learning and applying God’s word, participating in a ministry, and giving financially to the work of the church are means by which we begin to imitate Jesus. They are the means by which we give ourselves over to the work of the Holy Spirit in such a manner that we see the image of God increase in our heart. Simply, such spiritual disciplines are how we take responsibility for our own growth, how we honor Christ’s call to “Stay alert.”
            Richard Gribble tells a helpful story of a woman who made a discovery quite accidentally in her basement. One day she noticed some forgotten potatoes had sprouted in the darkest corner of the room. At first, she could not figure out how they had received any light to grow. Then she noticed that she had hung a copper kettle from a rafter near the cellar window. She kept the kettle so brightly polished that it reflected the rays of the sun from the small window onto the potatoes. She would later say to a friend that when she saw that reflection, and the growth that it nurtured, she realized that she can be a “copper kettle Christian” – she can catch the rays of the Son of God and reflect his light to some dark corner of life. This teaching of Jesus announces that in that last day, each of us will “stand before the Human One.” Perhaps there is no better preparation for that future day than learning to reflect his light in the present.


A Life Unnoticed

“One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury.’”
Mark 12:42, 43 (Common English Bible)

              Tom Tewell once shared with me that the deepest brokenness experienced by the homeless is that they go unnoticed. The desire that others see them and acknowledge them, the longing that others acknowledge them as people who share this earth with them, is deeper than the hunger of an empty stomach or the fear for personal safety. Every person longs for a sense of value, for love, and for recognition. The homeless are no different. Nor are the homeless alone in this struggle. People who are older and single, those who struggle with addiction, and the under-resourced all experience the fear of remaining unnoticed. We do not live in the most compassionate of times, and such people join the great shuffle – where our communities move them out of sight and mind. Our full and frantic lives may be partly to blame. We simply do not have the time or emotional energy to acknowledge these people and be available to them.
              Here, in Mark’s Gospel, there are two stories at play, each unfolding simultaneously. The legal experts comprise that cast for the first narrative, a poor widow in a solo performance for the second narrative. In the first story, the legal experts go to considerable effort that others see them for their devotion and sacrifice. In the second story, a widow has probably abandoned any hope that anyone will ever notice her again. There is no attempt by this woman to ensure that people see her. She simply makes her gift to the temple treasury from an impulse of faith, an impulse that discloses her quiet gratitude and trust in God. Jesus notices both, the legal experts and the woman. Yet, what is remarkable in this text is that those who desired an audience received Jesus’ displeasure. The one who did not seek any notice is held-up by Jesus as an honorable example of authentic discipleship.
              The poor widow is invisible – that is, invisible to everyone except Jesus. Moreover, what Jesus sees is that the woman is contributing – however small – to a cause that is larger than her own life. There are “invisible” people in our communities who feel unattractive, have little to offer anyone, and are lonely. The despair that they experience makes moving through each day unbearable. Each invisible person in our orbit presents an opportunity to share the companionship and compassion of Christ. An invitation to dinner, to family celebrations, and even acknowledging their birthdays, proclaims that they are people with dignity and worth. We are the children of a God who notices and protects the unnoticed, and therefore, we are to be agents of Gods’ protecting and providing grace. Additionally, we are to recall that the woman’s gift reminds us that each person has something to contribute to the work of the church.
              Perhaps the deepest impact any church can have on a community is to invest in the lives of persons who may go unnoticed where we live. There is a story in Jewish tradition of a rabbi who was so holy that the rumor developed that on Sabbath afternoons he ascended into heaven to personally commune with God. The rumor grew from the observation that this rabbi simply seemed to disappear from sight in the local community until the end of day. Several boys decided to follow, in secret, the rabbi. Throughout the afternoon and into the early evening, they saw the rabbi go into the homes of the elderly, the sick, and the poor. He cooked meals, cleaned homes, and read scripture to the lonely. The next day the people inquired of the boys; did the rabbi really ascend into heaven? The boys answered, “No. He went much higher.”


Be Glad In the Lord Always

The following meditation was written by Doug Hood\’s son, 
Nathanael Hood, M.A., New York University

\”Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.\”
Philippians 4:4-7 (Common English Bible)
Chorus class was always my favorite part of Vacation Bible School growing up outside of Dallas. Fingers sticky from lollipops and popsicles, arms bruised from roughhousing and Red Rover, we’d sit there in the small choir room sucking in sweet lungfuls of air-conditioning as the Texas sun baked the brown grass and cracked pavement outside. We’d sing as well as any group of sun-dazed kiddies could, sometimes accompanied by a white-haired elder on the piano, sometimes by a cassette tape of a children’s choir tunelessly warbling and shouting their way through song after song. Some I remember fondly, like “Jesus Loves the Little Children” which my missionary mother taught us to sing in English, Portuguese, and Tshiluba. Some I remember rather less than fondly: “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart” always grated on me; its descending verses always made me feel strangely tired and drowsy.
But one of our favorites—and one we’d always sing when we’d inevitably get dragged out before the congregation the Sunday morning after VBS ended—was “Rejoice in the Lord Always.” With its simply, repetitive lyrics and incessantly catchy melody, it became a standard part of our repertoire, especially after one of those white-haired elders figured out you could punctuate the verses with claps.
“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!” *Clap clap*
“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!” *Clap clap*
The parents always loved that. And we did too. (Any excuse to raise an unholy ruckus in the sanctuary, I suppose.) The hymn is a direct quotation of Philippians 4:4, a standard and popular passage for lectionaries, particularly during Advent. With its simple and forceful declaration to celebrate in the nearness and power of God, it’s exactly the kind of easy reassurance and encouragement that makes up the lifeblood of mainline Christianity. Don’t think too hard about the world or one’s suffering. Rejoice! Be thankful! Show gratitude! Clap clap!
Of course, the text\’s context was considerably less cheery. Philippians was one of the many letters Paul wrote while imprisoned by the Romans, and the church itself in Philippi was perhaps faring little better. Settled largely by Roman veterans of military campaigns waged by Mark Antony and Octavian following the assassination of Julius Caesar, this wealthy settlement in northeast Greece was a nerve center of Rome\’s civic religion, revering nearly thirty-five deities. Unlike Paul\’s earlier church plants, Philippi was largely comprised of pagans and gentiles, not Jews. It was the first Christian community in Europe, and the persecution they faced under the watchful eye of the Romans, the constant danger of betrayal and fear, must have been incredible.
Yet Paul tells them not only to rejoice in the Lord, but to abandon their anxiousness. Understand, this was not an act of surrender but one of defiance. This was not a meek and meager apostle writing these words, but a prisoner who knew his execution and martyrdom were both likely and imminent. Notice carefully Paul’s wording: be “glad” in the Lord, not “happy” in the Lord. He isn’t telling the church at Philippi to ignore their persecution but to look beyond it to the Christ that surrounds and embraces them. The promise of Christ—the promise of the empty tomb—is of victory over death and triumph over fear, both from without and within. We trust in a God who hears our prayers and knows our suffering—what a blessing compared to the pagan gods of Rome with their insatiable appetites and capricious moods! We may not know what the future holds, Paul writes, but we do know who holds the future. Clap clap!


Until That Hour

“As Jesus left the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Teacher, look! 
What awesome stones and buildings!’ 
Jesus responded, ‘Do you see these enormous buildings? 
Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.’”
Mark 13: 1, 2 (Common English Bible)
Someone once remarked that the reason we stumble through life is that our focus is on the wrong thing. That is precisely the dynamic of this story from Mark’s thirteenth chapter; the disciples’ focus is on the “awesome stones and buildings” (v. 1). Jesus shifts their focus from the present to the future, “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” The disciples had chosen as their focus that day, the wrong thing. Jesus then announces that evil is expanding – that things are going to get worse – and that all disciples had the responsibility to “watch out;” to be ready for the end. Yet, Jesus tells his disciples, “Don’t be alarmed” (v. 7). What Jesus declares is that God is still in charge. Rather than becoming pessimistic about what the future holds, followers of Christ are to be optimistic about God.
This teaching from Mark’s Gospel is an invitation to live today with tomorrow in mind. That is exactly what we do when we wisely invest in an Individual Retirement Account or participate in a company retirement plan – we make a decision today with our retirement in mind. Decisions today are in response to questions such as, “What will my income needs be once I am no longer receiving a paycheck?” Another question might be, “How long do I expect to live?” Both questions affect decisions made today. Jesus asks the same. Jesus is here offering a glimpse of the future so that “until then” disciples may make informed and responsible decisions in the present. Jesus is not satisfied with anyone stumbling spiritually through life. “Here is what the end looks like!” declares Jesus. Decide now how you will move positively toward that future.
Few who lived in Florida at the time will soon forget Hurricane Andrew of August 1992. A class five hurricane, the most forceful and destructive of hurricanes, completely destroyed over 25,000 homes and caused significant damage to another 101,000 homes in South Florida. The day after the destruction, a local news crew arrived in a community where every home was gone, many with only the concrete foundation as evidence that a home was present on a particular site. Every home gone, that is, except one that sustained only minor damage. The owner of that home was in the front yard, cleaning the debris left behind by the storm. The local news reporter approached him with a microphone and a television camera. “Why is it that your house is the only one that stood against the force of the hurricane?” With considerable humility, he answered that he built the house himself, that he built the home according to code that insured that it would withstand hurricane force winds.
Apparently, the builders of the other homes cut corners, saving money by using materials that fell short of code. When the strong winds blew, those homes could not stand. That is precisely the lesson Jesus teaches here. God calls each of us to live lives today deeply rooted in a discipleship to Jesus. The quality of that discipleship prepares us for the coming of “earthquakes and famines in all sorts of places” (v. 8). The end is drawing near. Jesus wants all who hear him to know that we do not have forever. This glimpse into the future is not a call to experience dread and despair. It is a call to focus on living faithfully in the present “just as if” the end will arrive any day. This is not the time to be sloppy in our relationship with Jesus, to be haphazard in our daily time with God reading scripture and praying. “Don’t be alarmed” (v 7) when the world looks hopelessly out of control, says Jesus. God alone will determine the end of time. It belongs to no other power. Our responsibility is to pay attention to God in the present, placing our hope in the Lordship of Jesus Christ who holds the future.