Clarke Morledge – Thursdays

To The Least of These: Phoebe Palmer

 

Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874). Evangelist and Social Reformer.

Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874). Evangelist and Social Reformer.

On the night of July 29, 1836, Phoebe Palmer had rocked her 11-month-old daughter to sleep, and placed her in her crib. A few minutes later, a carelessly handled oil lamp landed in the crib, pouring hot and burning oil on the child. Within a few hours, the child was dead, and Phoebe Palmer’s life was in bitter agony. This was her third child lost in infancy. Why had God allowed this to happen? This may sound harsh to us today, but Phoebe wondered if perhaps she had loved her child too much, making her daughter into an idol. A year later, Phoebe had a profound encounter with Jesus Christ. Her “heart was emptied of self and cleansed of all idols” and she had come to know the Lord as being her “ALL IN ALL”.

Phoebe Palmer was the firebrand of the 19th century American Holiness movement. Known for her strict and disciplined moral code, such as completely opposing the use of alcohol, Palmer became a passionate speaker and group organizer, laying the groundwork for the later revivals of evangelist Dwight L. Moody. You did not mess with Phoebe Palmer, even if some might think her a bit quirky. On a visit to England, she wrote letters to Queen Victoria pleading that her Majesty’s band not perform on Sundays, the “Lord’s Day.” On the ship crossing the Atlantic, she started several prayer meetings with strangers and chided the male clergy on board for not doing the same.

But there was more to Palmer.

Palmer’s experience with Christ led her to start numerous outreaches to the poor and destitute. She would organize groups of women to assist orphans and prostitutes in New York City’s most famous slum area of the time, Five Forks. She helped unemployed men find work. She worked to start new churches in poor neighborhoods. She took food and medicine to families in need.

In the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus speaks of those who fed him when he was hungry, befriended him when he was a stranger, and gave him clothes when he was without. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.”  Scholars debate over who are the “least of these”. Are they all poor people? Or are they just fellow Christians who are in need?

My sense is that Phoebe Palmer did not bother with such a debate. She simply saw the need and sought to meet it. She wanted to love people, particularly poor people into the Kingdom of Heaven that Matthew keeps talking about in his Gospel. If loving Jesus meant reaching out to people who were lost and hurting, she simply did it.

I wonder. What would it take for you and me to have such desire to share the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven with others like that?

William Tyndale’s Gospel

Woodcut from John Foxe's  The Book of Martyrs. William Tyndale (1494-1536) cries out, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes."

Woodcut from John Foxe’s The Book of Martyrs. William Tyndale (1494-1536) cries out, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”

Are you willing to “go the extra mile” for someone?

If you know what I am talking about, you might know that this phrase,
go the extra mile“, comes from the Bible (Matthew 5:41). But
did you know how this phrase became part of the English language?

William Tyndale (1494-1536) was an energetic scholar, a real brainy
guy, kind of like his fellow yet modern Englishman, Tom Wright, who
wrote our study book for Lent on the Gospel of Matthew.

Tyndale was bothered that his typical neighbor was not able to read
the Bible in their native English language in the 16th century. So he
went about learning ancient Greek and Hebrew and began translating the
Bible into English. Unfortunately, the political and religious
establishment of his day opposed his efforts, so he took it all
underground, fleeing to mainland Europe to complete his work. To his
critics, he announced, “If God spare my life, before very long I
shall cause a plough boy to know the scriptures better than you
do!
” He kept pumping out Bible translations until he was arrested
and burned at the stake for his crimes.

But before he was killed, Tyndale had completely transformed much of
the English language with many of his unique turns of phrases and
idioms. Ironically, almost a good 90% of the famous King James
translation of the Bible from 1611 is all a result of William
Tyndale’s masterful mind. As I have been reading the Gospel of Matthew
these weeks, I come across these classic phrases we use in everyday
language:

salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13)
eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” (Matthew 5:38)
signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3)
all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26)
they made light of it” (Matthew 22:5)

So am I telling you this so that you can simply win some round of Bible Trivia? I sincerely hope not.

The point is that William Tyndale had an incredible passion for the
spread of God’s Word. His faithfulness to God’s calling on his life is
continuing to have an impact on generations of English speaking people
whether they know Jesus or not, hundreds of years after he lived.

Can you read the signs of the times today? We are living in
an increasing Biblically illiterate culture. Do we as believers have
such a desire for God’s Word that it just pours forth from our daily
speech, transforming the world around us?

Are we teaching our children to feast on the words of Holy Scripture,
or do we acquiesce to the lyrics of Lady Gaga that saturate their
minds instead?

We need more people like William Tyndale with a passion for God’s
Word. Tyndale challenges me to incorporate Scripture more and more in
my daily life. I hope that we will not make light of the task
that God has set before us. With Jesus, all things are
possible
when we fill our hearts and minds with God’s Word.

Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of the Tegel military prison

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of the Tegel military prison

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not able to sleep very well for nights.

Bonhoeffer had just arrived in New York in 1939. At the urging of
friends, the young German evangelical theologian was able to cross the
Atlantic ocean, giving him sanctuary from the impending doom that
would become World War 2, as instigated by Hitler and the German Nazi
movement. In the safety of good fellowship, Bonhoeffer would have
been spared the terrors of war and enjoy a life of relative ease.

Yet Bonhoeffer was troubled in his soul.

The difficulty was that Bonhoeffer knew that the lives of European
Jews were in dreadful danger. Two years earlier, he had written a book
entitled, The Cost of Discipleship. This book was an
extended exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 5-7, part
of the focus of our sermon series for Lent. “Only the believer
obeys, and only the obedient believe
,” Bonhoeffer wrote. He knew
that Jesus taught that one must count the cost in order to follow
Christ, and the cost was one’s very life. Grace is indeed costly. But
by fleeing his native Germany for the comforts of America, was
Bonhoeffer going against Jesus by opting for a “cheap” version of
grace?

He told his friend Reinhold Niebuhr: “I made a mistake in coming
to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national
history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to
participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after
the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my
people
.”

Having been in New York for less than a month, Bonhoeffer decided to
go back to Germany. His friends tried to dissuade him and talk some
sense into him. But his conscience was clear. Bonhoeffer boarded the
last steaming ship scheduled to sail back to Germany before the start
of the war.

Like other patriotic Germans, his family expected Bonhoeffer to serve
in Hitler’s military as part of his God determined duty. This he could
not do.

Hitler had to be stopped.

Bonhoeffer was able to finagle his way into becoming an active part of
the German resistance against Hitler. Bonhoeffer smuggled several Jews
out of the country. But most of Bonhoeffer’s contacts on the Allied
side of the war were skeptical and would not trust him.

The cost of discipleship was getting very expensive.

Eventually, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested for assisting in a plot
to assassinate the freely elected and popular leader (become
dictator!) of Nazi Germany, Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer sat incarcerated
in Tegel prison for several years, and then finally taken to the
Flossenburg concentration camp and executed on April 9, 1945. The camp
was liberated by the Allies only two weeks later.

I am not sure I would have the courage that Bonhoeffer did. But
Bonhoeffer understood the cost of discipleship, and once he did, he
was able to sleep very soundly at night.

How well are you sleeping?

Isaiah and the Servant

Persecuted Jews plead for mercy from Ferdinand and Isabella (credit: Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

Persecuted Jews plead for mercy from         Ferdinand and Isabella   (credit:
Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

I have been privileged over the years to have some Jewish friends, particularly of the Orthodox variety. I am still learning quite a bit about Hebrew ideas and culture. I try not to say Old Testament around my Jewish friends, as this might put up some barrier, so I talk of the Tanakh instead. I share about the current season of Lent, but I also inquire about the coming Passover.

It was news to me when I learned that the reason why Jews reject Christianity is not so much because of fears of anti-semitism. Instead, Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah because they believe that Christians have the Bible wrong.I recently heard that many Jews look at Christians pretty much the same way many evangelical Christians look at Mormons: theologically suspicious and half-baked.Okay. I get that.

The passage that N.T. Wright is highlighting today in Matthew 12:1-12 is a case in point. Jesus is quoting from Isaiah 42 about the Servant who will announce God’s justice to the whole wide world. Jews traditionally interpret this “Servant” to be the people of Israel themselves. The Jewish people are God’s chosen one in whom God delights. Isaiah 53 speaks of this Servant as the one who also Suffers.

In the same year that Christopher Columbus made his famous voyage towards the Americas, 1492, Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain expelled nearly the entire Jewish community of some 200,000 people out of the country in order to establish a “Christian” hegemony across Spain. Lives were shattered. Most Americans celebrate 1492. Our Jewish neighbors dread it. If you think about this “Israel as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant” idea, my Jewish friends may have a point.

We as Christians, on the other hand, view this prophecy of Isaiah’s Servant as being fulfilled in the one person, Jesus of Nazareth. As crazy as it sounds to the modern Jew, the one who suffered on the cross on Easter week is the same one who comes to proclaim that “God has become King”, as N.T. Wright puts it, through Christ’s Resurrection.

However, it is not like Jesus was walking around with a clipboard, checking off various prophecies as they were being fulfilled: “Let’s see. Have I done this one yet? Oh, yeah. I did.
Check!”
Instead, it was a continual unfolding of the Truth as Jesus went through his life and ministry. Jesus’ disciples would watch Him in action, look back and then say, “Oh, now we get it! This is what the prophet of Isaiah was really talking about!” The shocking claim of the New Testament is that Jesus fulfills the role of Isaiah’s Servant in ways that Israel never, ever could. How much do we really understand what the Bible says about Jesus as the Messiah? My conversations with my Jewish friends drive me to dig deeper into the Bible. Let us pray that they and others like them might recognize Jesus as their Messiah.

Storm of Doubt

Rembrandt (1606-1699). The Storm on the Sea in Galilee.

              Rembrandt (1606-1699).             The Storm on the Sea in Galilee.

Jesus “replied, ‘You of little faith, why are you so afraid?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.” (Matthew 8:26)

Have you ever struggled with doubt? I know I have, and I still do.

In Matthew 8:23-34, we read about Jesus sleeping on a boat while he was with his disciples. A storm picks up and the disciples wake him, pleading with him to do something. Jesus speaks and the wind and waves grow silent. The people are stunned.

I would be, too.

The problem is that I live in the 21st century. We have Science, Doppler radar, the Weather Channel, and Google now. By nature, I am
skeptical:

Surely, there must be a natural explanation for the calming of the storm.

Stuff like this simply does not happen.

Perhaps there was some meteorological phenomenon going on that was left out of the story. Perhaps it was just a coincidence. Perhaps the story teller, Matthew, if it even was Matthew, made it all up. The whole story was just a concoction to make this “Jesus” sound more impressive than he really was.

Maybe you never entertain thoughts like these. Maybe you are the type of person absolutely convinced that the Bible never, ever can be wrong. You never dreamed of questioning the Bible.

I really admire that attitude, and I do believe, but it has never been that easy for me.

I suppose it has something to do with my personality. I tend to second guess everything. And I mean everything.

We bought a car last year. The guy said it was brand new. The first thing I did when I got the keys was open up the hood, check the car from top to bottom, just to make sure it was not a lemon and that I was not getting ripped off.

Jesus challenges me in my storm of doubt.

Everything in the Gospels points us towards the last week, the climax in Jerusalem. The earliest Christian confession was simply that Jesus Christ was crucified and then bodily risen from the dead.

Folks, it all comes down to the Resurrection. And if you can believe in the Resurrection, then the calming of the sea is just a piece of cake.

So, if you are reading along in the Gospel of Matthew this Lenten season, and you run across something that raises doubt in your mind, then that is perfectly OKAY. Ask questions.

Ask hard questions.

You do not have to believe everything in the Bible, simply to be able to read the Bible.

Just keep reading.

Matthew’s Gospel points us to the week of Easter with this single, radical claim: Jesus was nailed to the cross, and then raised up from the dead. And if you can believe that Jesus really did that, it will change everything. And I mean, everything.

Ash Wednesday and Lent

Gregory the Great (540-604) dictating the Gregorian chant

Gregory the Great (540-604)        dictating the Gregorian chant

The period of Lent, derived from a 14 century English word for “springtime”, has a long history within Christianity.  In the first few centuries of the Christian movement, believers would spend several days in fasting and preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection at Easter. The Lenten period was eventually extended to forty days, but it got its biggest boost from the sixth century bishop of Rome, Gregory the Great (540-604).  Gregory moved the beginning of Lent to what many Christians now call “Ash Wednesday”, establishing “Lent” as an important period in the yearly calendar of the Western Christian church.

The Chapel is a diverse community of faith, and so the idea of “Lent” for some may sound a little weird, or simply “a bit too Catholic”. So perhaps it might be some consolation to you to know that John Calvin, one of the great Protestant evangelical Reformers and champions of the Bible, considered Gregory the Great to be the “last good pope”.

Gregory the Great grew up in a rather affluent community in Italy with great opportunities for education and family life. It was kind of like growing up in Williamsburg. If they would have had refrigeration back then, Gregory’s Rome might well have had at least one frozen yogurt place per every square mile.

But all was not well in Gregory’s world. When Gregory was just a kid, a terrible plague swept through the then declining Roman Empire, killing a third of the population. Can you imagine what it would be like to lose one out of every three of your friends? It was a grim reminder that life can deal you a tragic blow when you least expect it.

So it is conceivable that Gregory had an important reason for emphasizing the season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, Gregory would mark the foreheads of fellow Christians with the sign of the cross with ashes, reminiscent of Genesis 3:19, “You are dust, and to dust you will return”. For Gregory, this mark of mortality was a reminder to believers that life is a gift that we should never take for granted.

The fasting that is traditionally associated with Lent is not an end in and of itself. Instead, fasting confronts us of the fragility of human existence.   Whenever I fast, even if it just means skipping a few meals during the Lenten season, or giving up some favorite habit for awhile, I become thankful for what I have received from God, particularly for Jesus’ saving work done on the Cross.

I pray, that like Gregory the Great, we may all become soberly aware of what it means to live a life of gratitude.