Prisoner of Your Past?

Acts 9: 20-27

 For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?”  Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah. After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall,lowering him in a basket.

When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.  But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.

Message:

In one of my practical assignments from seminary, I met a man in one of the churches which I will leave unnamed. This man was a full-fledged businessman with deals in real estate and construction. He also had a drinking problem. All this accumulated in a big way and with a huge thud this man’s life came crashing down one fine day. He was arrested by the police for a fraud case in land deals. Once out on bail he had to get grip with his drinking problem. But little by little he started to pick up his life. His huge void in his life was filled by knowing Christ intimately through reading the bible and composing songs. He started prison ministries. He became very active in church which he called his ‘second innings’. He said “I always believe that church is not a museum of righteous people but a hospital for broken and shattered people like me. But all I saw in the church was that people talking about my past and references like ‘Jail Mathai or Kallukudiyan Mathai’ were a community joke. So the place that should have supported me and been a solace for me, held me captive of my past. It is disgusting.” Let me quote Philip Yancey here to give us perspective. In his classic book “What’s So Amazing About Grace” Yancey says men like these ran towards Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself/himself, the more likely they saw Jesus as their refuge. Has the church lost the gift? Evidently the down and out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers. What has happened?”

That is the question we need to ask. What has happened? In the portion that we just read shows the situation of the Post- Conversion scenario of Saul. Once he started to proclaim Jesus boldly as the ‘Son of God’ the expected reply came from near quarters like this “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” (Acts 9: 21) As we know that this very Saul was witness to the martyrdom of Stephen. His zealous attitude had made him a name that sent shiver down the spine. So people definitely had their doubts and held him captive to his past. They were not convinced that a man with such notorious background could change that easily.  At Nazareth where Jesus made bold declarations he too got a similar treatment.    Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” 57 And they took offense at him. (Matthew 13: 55-57a)

Psychologists say that knowing a vulnerable past of a person makes him or her very manageable. This past becomes the yardstick to show the person their place. The label of the past will choke them no matter how hard they will try to be liberated from it. When we read verse 26 we find that this man came down from Damascus, the point of his transformation, to Jerusalem, to join the disciples. The disciples too doubted him and were afraid of him. They kept from him, a safe one hand distance. They were like Nathaniel who asked “Can anything good come out of Nazareth? (John 1: 46) In my interactions in one of the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, one of the participants shared this insight “I have had a sober life for last 8 years. But I am still vulnerable for a relapse into addiction. The greatest trouble or frustration that I have is how people look at us. They keep condemning us. Sometimes I feel it is better to be an alcoholic. At least you are suffering for what you do. By abstaining and trying very hard to lead a normal life, people still hold us captive for not what we are, but what we used to be.”

Let me end this meditation with a real life story of Henry Covington. I read about him in the marvelous book called ‘Have a Little Faith’ by Mitch Albom. Henry has a very terrible childhood with violent neighbourhood, guns, street fights and broken family to deal with. He slept every day fearing rats. Slowly but surely his steps led him to murky life realities. He started to be a drug dealer. Made quick money. He felt guilty, quit it, married his girlfriend. But when he saw his brother earn big bucks he entered again into the world of crime. He went to jail, had bouts of severe addiction related problems. But time and again he encountered Christ that was his rock and comfort. Finally he gave his life to Jesus and turned into a pastor. With his terrible background, there was not much hope. But he started to target those who had a terrible past like him. He wanted a church for those where these so called scum bags would feel at home. He therefore started a ministry called “I am my brother’s keeper” Ministry. He distributed food for the homeless and gave them clothes to wear and when all other pastors shamed the people on streets for their drug addiction, Henry Covington like the ‘Wounded Healer’ would share his struggles to people like Cass and Joe who had similar problems. He opened up his church for the homeless. His congregation was people from the streets. And this is how he preached to them. “Brothers we are all captives of our past. They just look at our past. Even we too get stuck there. Therefore we miss seeing the miracle God has done. What he can do. There are people who know my past. There are people who tell me ‘We know you, you can only cheat people’. I say to them ‘You knew me. You know that person back then. But you are not seeing the person God is making me, who I am trying to become.’ My dear brothers, God is bigger than your past. You are not your past. God is making a way in the desert, and streams by the wayside.”

In Saul’s case there was Barnabas who dared to look beyond the past of Saul and was ready to embrace the new creation that God was unfolding. Let us take a moment to thank people who stood by us in our period of crisis. When people wrote us off, there were Barnabases in our lives who were able to see the people we were struggling to become. I have many such Barnabases to thank. They had every right to judge me and hold me captive to my past, but out of grace and divine love they were ready to give me a chance to become a person that God intended. I am a product of such small graces in life. I am sure it is in midst of deep pain of loneliness that Paul realized the love of Jesus and he declared “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” 2 Corinthians 5: 17. My dear friends the new creation is just waiting to happen. Embrace it.

Rev Merin Mathew

Bethel Mar Thoma Church

Kolar Road, Bhopal

have a little faith

Hosanna “Lord, Save Us From Our Self-Love”


Text: Matthew 21: 1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,“Tell the daughter of Zion,Look, your king is coming to you,humble, and mounted on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee

 

Message

Matt Redman is an English Christian Worship leader. He mentions of a time when he was just entertaining and not worshipping. People came and thanked him and he felt this was not worship. He consulted his pastor. His pastor said that they would try a season to do away with the sound system and the guitars. He said “let people come to the Church with their voices and prayers to worship Jesus.” Let Jesus be the focus. The pastor reminded “Let us be producers of Worship and not just consumers.” After a season devoid of guitars and sound system the Church set their focus on following and worshipping Jesus. It is in such a background Redman composed one of the most amazing and meaningful songs “When the Music fades..”. For those who are unfamiliar with the song here is a snippet.

‘When the music fades, all is stripped away, and I simply come / Longing just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless your heart… / I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about You, Jesus.’

When we look at the text we see a juncture in Jesus ministry where he was at the zenith of popularity. People were crowding to see Jesus enter Jerusalem where they spread their cloaks to welcome Jesus coming riding on a Donkey. They were all shouting Hosanna. Hosanna means save us now. Save us from what? If we were to be in place of the people in Jerusalem, if we said Hosanna, what would it mean? Save us from what?

The people who gathered to welcome Jesus were not welcoming the Son of God. He was a political Messiah who they thought would save Israelites from the strong hold of Roman Imperialism. The background of this event was Passover which celebrated Israel’s freedom from Egypt and the clutches of Pharaoh. In such a context, the freedom from Roman Imperialism was envisaged.  The crowd followed a Miracle Maker. He was doing wonders. He is a superstar. They will benefit if he continues. Jesus was their hero who assured them security and hope. When one reads John Chapter 6, we see a prelude to this. When Jesus feeds the Five thousand people throng to make him the king. But when Jesus sits down and teaches his ways we have people deserting him one by one. At this day when people sing Hosanna, the whole city is with him. He has men and woman on his side. But when we fast forward it to the Calvary we see Jesus lonely on the Cross. Where did the people go? Where did the people who removed their cloak and spread it on the ground to welcome Jesus go?

Philip Yancey says that our journey of faith is divided into 3 stages. A)Childhood, B)Adulthood and C)Parenthood.

He says that in our faith journey we develop a childlike faith. We have wonder in our eyes. We have faith and we expect that all things will be fine. God will take care of us and he will protect us. This innocence of the faith is very important. It is this faith that keeps us going. We believe in miracles. But this faith focuses on what good can God do to me? What am I receiving? I am the most important entity.

Adulthood of faith is when we are not convinced about many things. We doubt some understandings of faith. We rebel. We question. We are not satisfied with the answers. We have doubts. We have genuine questions about existence of God. We are not sure if our faith makes sense at all. This is an important part of faith journey. There is space for doubt in our journey of faith. I remember my own rebellions where I questioned the need for church, the need for faith, the need for liturgy. There were times when I found the worship so boring that inside the worship order I kept another book so that I could read it. I strictly do not advocate this but my period of rebellion and questioning were very maturely handled by my parents.

Parenthood is that stage in faith when the focus is not I. I grow to get over my self-obsession. I learn that life is all about giving. My parents always sacrificed for me, they had sleepless nights when I was ill, they had confusions about my choices. But their prayer was that I do things pleasing to the Lord.” My child should have what I did not have and my child should grow like I never could” is the wish of a parent. Parent stage of faith is when we practice what Jesus asked ““If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”(Luke 9: 23) I remember that when I was struggling with all my doubts and questions I encountered a special man. I was so obsessed with my act of rebellion that I did not see any hope. I met Dax Mathews at Kamshet Mission Field, which is popularly known as Lonavala Mission. Dax embodies a life of sacrifice and faith. Before joining Maharashtra Village Mission, he was helping tribal communities with livelihood issues by teaching them different techniques of agriculture. He realized that denying oneself and taking up the Cross means to serve people more disadvantaged than us. A person who grew up in urban background went to the villages of Maharashtra and lived with minimum comforts. His only aim was to serve people. Dax does not speak much. He looks very ordinary. But his actions and his convictions have helped me to understand that Faith is about giving, it is about sacrificing and displacing myself from the pedestal of life. Dax today is doing his Bachelors in Divinity from Dharmajyothi Vidyapeeth. His teachers and classmates alike bear witness to the uniqueness of his conviction and passion for mission.

Now to the question where did the people go who sang ‘Hosanna.’ Well they quit as the road to the cross is about denying ourselves. They went away sad like the Rich young man who loved eternal life but could not sell his riches. We also want to follow Christ as long as we get something and how good if we could just avoid the cross. We want Christianity without the Cross.

As a Child, I first saw the game of lemon and spoon in Sunday school. I loved it. In normal athletics I never failed to come last. So here was my sure road to success. Lemon and spoon was slow and I knew I could make it. The race was about to begin. The whistle blew. We with the spoon in our mouth and lemon on top of it, started to race towards the finishing line. As I had hoped I was the first one to reach the mark. I must have done celebrations that could put Usain Bolt to shame. But the man at the finishing line seemed to ignore me. He told me to stand aside. I thought to myself, this man does not know how to appreciate a winner. But before I could start rejoicing again, the Sunday school teacher announced the name of the winners and she forgot to take my name. Or so I thought. I am sure you must have guessed it. I was the first one to reach. But my spoon had no lemon. In my craze to come first i ran fast but had lost the the most important thing. I had lost the lemon

We live in a time where getting ahead of others is important. Success is about getting ahead of others. Religion is about gaining divine favour. Where more than serving others it is more important to know who will go to heaven, who is born again and who is the chosen one. We have finished the race. But we have lost the lemon.

Hosanna “Lord Save us from our Self-love”. Amen

 

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati

 

What’s On Your Mind God? Why Oh Why?

 

Text: Job 2: 11- 3: 4

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him.  When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.  Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. He said:

“May the day of my birth perish,

 and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’ That day—may it turn to darkness;

 may God above not care about it;

 may no light shine on it.

Message:

My wife and I have been deeply disturbed at the course of events that have taken place recently. Robinson Philip, member of my home parish, Immanuel Mar Thoma Church, Vishrantwadi, husband of Soji’s cousin and my church friend Tincy, passed away in a bike accident. This news literally shattered us. I just could not believe it’s true. How could God be so unfair was my first reaction. They have a 11 month old child who was the apple of their eyes. All the people who knew Tincy and know the wonderful person she is felt the pain as their own. Many of my friends asked me over Whatsapp and Facebook, “Why did God do this?” This was my question too. The pain of an unmerited suffering. Tincy had lost her mother and sister. She was finding great bliss in this marriage. I still remember the day when Robinson and Tincy came to wish me after my ordination. Robinson was very clear about his admiration for Tincy. He told us “I am very lucky to have married Tincy. With her in my life, I pray, I read the Bible and experience the joy of knowing God.” At that time Tincy blushed in embarrassment. Soji and I have enjoyed some good moments with them when we visited Pune. It pains us to think of Evan and Tincy. It is in this context that I read John Ortberg’s  ‘God Is Closer Than You Think’ and Philip Yancey’s “The Bible Jesus Read.”

Let us now look at the passage in front of us. I personally feel that the message of the book of Job has been lost in just reading chapter’s 1 and 2. Till here it is a story of a man who has lost his children, his property, his health and literally everything but still does not complain. What great faith. His statement “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there, The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1: 21) has given a lot of people strength to look at pain in a different light. Even when his wife asks him to Curse God and die, he continues his faith. Now enter the 3 friends of Job who heard the calamity of Job. Seeing Job the ones who came to console wept aloud. Job’s pain became their pain. Job 2: 13 is very powerful where it says ‘Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.’ Imagine sitting with someone saying nothing for seven days. These friends were mourning with Job. This is what Paul says in Romans 12: 15 “Mourn with Those who mourn….” Ortberg says Paul is not asking us to ‘find an explanation to give them why they are suffering’ or ‘Remind them everything is going to be ok, so they can stop crying now’. He asks us to cry with the ones who are crying. That is what the friends of Job did. They gave him the ‘Gift of Silence’. They were with him. I personally believe that being silent and available is the best way of being with the people who have suffered a loss. I remember delivering two sermons in the context of death. I am sure it did not comfort the mourners. What it did was, it deeply disturbed me. My words were hollow and the hope I was giving was shallow. ‘The best way to meditate God’s presence to someone who is suffering is to sit with them in silence.’ And now we turn to Chapter 3. Here Job breaks the silence. He says “God gives, God takes, Blessed be the name of God.’ Well that is not what he says. He says “May the day of my birth perish,  and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’ That day—may it turn to darkness;  may God above not care about it; may no light shine on it.” (Job 3: 3-4). Shocking. He is actually cursing the life that he has. He is now complaining. If we read Job Chapter 3- 37, the major portion shows the complaints of Job. How is that possible? How can a faithful man complain? When one reads the Book of Psalms, we see that the Hebrew name of Psalms is Tehellim which means Praises but the single most largest category of Psalms is not that of Thanksgiving, but that of Complaining. There is no parallel to this in any other religion. Prophets complain to God, Lamentations as a book is full of complaints. Job complains in his desperation. God gives us that freedom. On the Cross Jesus also complains “My God, My God why have you forsaken me”. I am sure Tincy has a lot to complain and she should. That is her freedom. I too, am complaining. I have the right to. We do not believe in a God who is distant from his creation. We believe in a God who on the cross suffered with the creation.

 

What does his 3 friends along with the fourth one Elihu do? They assume to speak for God. They try to tell Job that he is suffering because of some hidden sin that he has not confessed and that is why a Just God has punished you. These friends are like the modern day Evangelists found on TV. When 2 Aeroplanes destroyed World Trade Centre on 9/11, the Tele-evengelists said that “God was punishing America for the sins of gays and lesbians.” When the recent Newtown Connecticut School shootout took place where many children lost their lives we had friends of Job raisng their voices through evangelists saying “One can expect such things if you drive God out of schools. How can he protect them?” I feel nothing is more violent than to pretend to be God. I met a man who had lost his son 3 months ago. He told me “People say ‘God gives trouble and pain to those whom he loves the most. He gives pain only to those who can handle the pain.’ They are just trying to console me. I can’t handle this pain’. In our best intentions we try to make sense by saying good words. But being with the people and praying is the most important thing.

With Tincy, Soji and I along with all the possible well-wishers and friends, grieve the death of Robinson. He was a wonderful human being, and he lives on through Evan and the memories of friendship that he has left behind. Tincy, we promise to be with you. We too do not understand why this happened. But we pray that Jesus who defeated death at the cross through Resurrection, will unite us to him again on that Beautiful shore. Amen.

P.S. Job is a Fabulous Book which deals with the issue of an innocent man suffering. I would urge you to read Job Chapter 38-41. It is simply beautiful.

 

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church

Guwahati