Sunday, December 28, 2014

Faithfully Ever After ~ Luke 2:22-40 ~ First Sunday of Christmas

Image courtesy of papajia2008 / freedigitalphotos.net

My family has a Christmas Day tradition—or, perhaps, a habit: we turn on the television and watch A Christmas Story as it plays round-the-clock on TBS.

Several times over, we follow the perils of little Ralphie, as his lifelong destiny hangs on whether or not he gets a Red Rider Range 200 Shot BB gun for Christmas.  Even though he nearly shoots his eye out upon receiving it on Christmas morning, he and his BB gun go on to live happily ever after. 

If only life were like a Christmas movie, all of our problems were cleared up in 120 minutes or less and we went on to live happily ever after.

This isn’t exactly the kind of ending we get even with the real Christmas Story…

The last ten months have been a whirlwind series of events for Mary and Joseph, to say the least—from the angel’s visit, the immaculate conception, the Bethlehem birth, to the shepherds’ surprise visit…  But the whirlwind is far from over…

Forty days after Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph travel to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, according to the Law of Moses.  When they arrive, they are met by two octogenarians, one of whom takes the child in his arms and praises God that his eyes have seen God’s salvation.  Once again, Mary and Joseph are amazed.  But the story does not end with everyone living “happily ever after…”  Simeon’s final words are troubling foreshadowing of the rejection and crucifixion Jesus will face.

All told, the life of Jesus’ parents is going to be a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows.  They’re not going to get their happily-ever-after anytime soon.

Simeon and Anna, on the other hand, are singing praise to God.  Like Sarah and Abraham and so many others before them, God made a promise to them—but they had to wait an excruciatingly long time for that promise to be fulfilled; well into what was extreme old age in their time.

We get all these kinds of experiences in our lives as Christians: times of awe and wonder; times of praising and celebration; times of mystery and confusion; times of uncertainty and fear; times of doubt and disappointment; and times of bitter, long waiting.  We don’t ever really arrive at  our “happily ever after;” at least not in this lifetime. And that can be enough to derail anyone’s faith.

But let’s not forget the one fundamental truth of Jesus’ birth—he is born Emmanuel, God-with-us.  He is born into the suffering, the doubt, the questioning, and all the mess of our human existence.  He is born to be our light, shining in the darkness.  No matter where life may takes us, his hand will lead us and his love will support us. 

Today, God raises up Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna as examples of all that the living Christ has been sent to do in your life.  God exercises their faith in the form of devotion.  All four of these persons are ordinary people, who nonetheless commune with God daily through worship, through prayer; through fasting; listening to God’s Word and living in obedience.  God then works through all the ups and downs, and the bitter-long waiting to form them in a faith through which God will lead them to the fulfillment of God’s promises. 

So often in life, it will feel like we’re getting nowhere; just falling deeper and deeper into turmoil and confusion, where we question whether God is truly good.  But Jesus is always leading us forward; a light in darkness.  Through all the ups and downs and long stretches of waiting, his reign will grow continually.  Through it all, the Spirit will be forming you into a faith to see Christ in all the ways he is loving and leading you. 

And in three days, when we close the door on this year, without that happily ever after, we can move forward knowing that Jesus will abide faithfully ever-after. 

Jesus was born to be the one to whom you will cling in this life, no matter what—because Jesus is always holding on to you.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Heavenly Peace for the Sleepless ~ Luke 2:1-20 ~ Christmas Eve


Photo courtesy of papajia2008 / freedigitalphotos.net
A while back, my wife and I came into possession of a rather large stuffed sheep.  At one time, it contained a fragrance that was supposed to relax you and help you fall asleep (something I think would be very useful).  Unfortunately, it doesn’t really smell like anything now.  I suppose you could count it, but that wouldn’t get you very far…

Insomnia has to be one of the most cruel tricks the human body can play against you.  Sometimes, when you need sleep the most, it eludes you—particularly in times of anxiety, and anguish.  On the other hand, when you need to be awake, you can’t fight it off.   Sometimes, sleep feels like a luxury that’s out of reach.

This was indeed the case on a cold night over two thousand years ago.  This was one of what would’ve been numerous sleepless nights for a poor, unwed teenage woman and her husband-to-be.  Both Mary and Joseph would have been subject to intense public disgrace that Mary was pregnant and unmarried. 

Not long after this, the ruthless and bloodthirsty Caesar Augustus decides to flex his political muscles by ordering a global census.  Multitudes of persons, most of whom were very poor, are forced to travel, at their own expense, to the town of their ancestry to register for taxes. 

With the child due at any time, they set out on the ninety-mile trip to Bethlehem that would have taken days. 

When they finally arrive, the time has come for the baby to be born—but there is no lodging available…  A cold, smelly stable will be their only refuge from the night. 

Things were no better for the shepherds.  They were out in the fields, counting sheep—but not to fall asleep.  They had a flock to watch.  The work was grueling and lonely—and their standard of living was no better than the sheep.

All said, this was a dreadful night for everyone.  But then, Jesus is born.  In a dark, cold, sleepless night in a smelly stable…  Angels invite the shepherds in from the fields to witness the sacred moment.  Light is now shining in the darkness.  God has become flesh to live among us.  Jesus is God’s answer to the cries of a suffering world. 

This is what God does: God isn’t silent and removed while God’s children hurt.  When we’re in the darkness, Jesus is born into it.  The light he brings is faith to see that he is with you—forgiving sins, healing wounds, calming anguish, delivering you in trials and temptations; making you new again.  Jesus is the hope of the sleepless—because he’s with you and all people who are weary and weeping, and with all who are working and watching by night on our behalf.  Even when all the world rejects you and you have no home and no place to belong, Jesus will be there. 

Jesus is born for you—so that you may know him, love him, and trust him. 

That is why he invites you to be joined to him in baptism; to meet him in the Scriptures; to feast on his body and blood at his table; and to pray to him at all times and in all places.  That is why you are invited to give him your life.  Receive Jesus; follow him; and you will see by faith all the ways he brings light into your darkness.  His desire is nothing less for you than to live and breathe in heavenly peace.

Tonight we sing the familiar song Away in a Manger.  Our children sang this so beautifully during our Christmas program on Sunday—and little wonder, because this is a song for all God’s children.

The first half tells the Christmas story—but the second half is a prayer:

I love you, Lord Jesus; look down from the sky and stay by my cradle till morning is nigh
Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask you to stay close by me forever and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in your tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with you there.

May this be your prayer—and know that God will answer it.  No matter what, Christ will bring his light into your darkness, that will comfort and deliver you through the night to the dawning of heavenly peace.

 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Justice of Jesus ~ Isaiah 6:1-4, 8-11 ~ Third Sunday of Advent


Image courtesy of Praisaeng / freedigitalphotos.net
One of my favorite holiday traditions is the Advent Calendar—and not just any, but the Advent Calendar in which, for every day in December, you open up a little door and find a tiny piece of chocolate inside.  There is no sweeter way to count down the days to Christmas.

Too bad life isn’t like the Advent Calendar.  Most of the time, we open up the door to a new day—but find nothing of any delight.  The morning news constantly reminds us that the world is getting harder and harder to live in.  There are troubles in our personal lives—and the fact that everything hurts worse at Christmas.  To top it all off, the hustle and bustle of this time of year seems to bring out the absolute worst in people!  People seem to be grouchier, pushier, and more aggressive as we pursue “the perfect Christmas.”

The world needs a Word from God—and today, Isaiah speaks that Word.  The reign of God is coming, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.  All who mourn will be comforted—and all the nations shall be restored in righteousness. 

This is the very essence of Advent—the coming of a Jesus, who is more than just a redeemer of individuals but a redeemer of nations and societies just like ours, that are being torn apart by human sin.  This is the hope we can all believe in—but not before we confront the painful truth it reveals.  We are sinners—and the problem with sin is that it gets visited upon other people; sometimes intentionally, but other times, totally beyond our notice.  It spreads like a disease all over our communities.  It manifests itself in social and economic systems that benefit a select few at the expense of the many.  It’s the reason why the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer.  It’s the reason for pollution.  It’s the cause of racism, classism, sexism, and all the other “isms.”  It’s the reason why our political system is in gridlock.  We live our lives and pursue our own goods, giving no thought to how these decisions impact others. 

Much of the time, we make no notice of social injustice—until it happens to us.  If it hasn’t already, it will. When it does, everything in your life gets dragged down.  It’s harder to live up to your full created potential.  It’s a stumbling block to your faith.  What’s worse is that it makes it easier to commit sins that make your situation even worse.

Our world can’t go on like this—and it won’t. 

The Advent of Christ is God’s answer to the current chaos and the cries of the downtrodden.  He comes to reclaim this world for God and heal it with righteousness.  He calls us to a forgiveness that dramatically transforms us to live out his righteousness in our relationships with others.  The love of Christ creates justice in the world: because justice is what happens when Christ’s faithfulness to us frees us to pursue our neighbor’s good.  It is a blessed vocation to become your neighbor’s keeper.  When we accept this vocation, the Holy Spirit will be constantly opening doors for you to live out Christ’s love in just about everything you do. 

I love the stories many of you have shared with me about our gift-giving ministries.  Several have said they had no idea what gifts to buy for their loved ones—so they chose to give a gift in their name to someone experiencing need.  I even learned of one person who lost someone special—so they are giving gifts in their memory.  What a beautiful gift of healing.

But it doesn’t need to stop with us!  We all see things happening in the world that anger and distress us, even if they don’t impact us directly.  Yet the Holy Spirit gives us the power to bring about real change.  We meet Jesus in the poor and forgotten—and accept the invitation to be their keeper; their defender; their advocate. 

Advent is dead if we do nothing, or if we sit around pointing fingers and blaming people for our troubles.  Advent is dead if we continue the mad pursuit of our own good.  Advent is the reality of Christ’s love taking hold of our private and public lives; transforming everything with mercy and forgiveness; empowering us and gathering us into the healing of the nations. 

Jesus is born within us and before us, when his love frees us to pursue our neighbor’s good.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Crowd Around the Word ~ Mark 1:1-9 ~ Second Sunday in Advent


What crowd is this who’s come from Jerusalem and all over the countryside?

What about this man—this “baptizer?”  He dresses like Barney Rubble and eats bugs… Why do they follow him (on foot) into the wilderness, miles away from civilization? Why do they listen?  Why do they allow him to baptize them in the murky waters of the Jordan River?

God must be up to something.  Here you have a crowd of people just like us, going through many of the same things we are.  They had duties and responsibilities like we do.  Many were undoubtedly experiencing pains and anxieties that tested their faith.  Some may have enjoyed great prosperity in life—but still, they lacked something that could not be found in power, privilege, and possessions.  Whether they realized or not, they needed a Word from God.  Today, God is speaking,

God knows how much we’re hurting and our world is hurting.  God hears the cries of God’s children; particularly those who are hungry, hurting, and forgotten.  God never acts in secret.  God pulls people in, to listen as God speaks, and to see what God is doing.   God pulls is in to transform our lives, so that God’s plan for your life may come to fruition. 

You are here today because God is speaking; speaking to lead you to Jesus Christ.

But the challenge before us is this: are we paying attention?

The tragic irony of Christmas in 21st century America is how easily we leave Jesus out of it.  Anymore, we spend nearly one-fourth of the year calendar rushing about; shopping, decorating, working, baking-- all to make for “the perfect Christmas.”  I’m constantly amazed by the things you can hire people to do for you to make the Christmas bright.  You can hire people to stand in lines to obtain those hot-selling gifts.  You can hire people to put Christmas lights on your house.  I recently met a woman who’ll wrap your gifts so beautifully that it would be a shame to open them up.  Her fee: $75 an hour (excluding gift-wrap materials).

For some, however, busyness isn’t the problem.  For some, this time of year only multiplies our sorrows and fears.

But whatever the case—Christ is born for this.  Christ is born for you. 

In this season of Advent, we are invited to listen as Jesus is calling.

Paying attention demands Sabbath—which comes only through a willingness to stop what we’re doing, lay side our plans, and be present before Christ.  He’s born into our lives in the baptismal waters.  He speaks through the Scriptures.  He gives his precious body and blood at the table.  But our gathering here is only the beginning.  Jesus will be going with you into daily life, taking all of your hurts and fears in hand.  He will be offering himself to you in the little gifts and the people who show you grace, even in your hardest days.  But Jesus will also be offering himself to you in the neighbor who’s lost, and hungry, and forgotten; who needs mercy and compassion…

God’s desire for you is nothing less than what we see in this short Gospel story—to bring you to Christ and completely transform your being.  John doesn’t eat bugs and dress like a caveman merely to make a statement…  The people don’t leave behind their lives and livelihoods for nothing…  This happens because God has drawn them into the salvation coming into the world through Jesus Christ.  To them, there is nothing better than knowing Jesus Christ, being born into their lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, and abiding in them constantly by faith.  God is pulling you into Christ, for the very same reasons.  So pay attention and listen—because God hears your prayers and knows your aching for life that the world cannot bring. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Watching & Waiting ~ Isaiah 64:1-9 ~ First Sunday in Advent


Photo courtesy of gameanna / freedigitalphotos.net
Back during my years as a Cub Scout, we had our Cub Scout Promise; our Cub Scout Motto, and our Law of the Pack.  We had to memorize all these—and I still remember them today.  But we also had some unwritten rules …

Whenever we were together, our den mother would frequently say, “a good Cub Scout would do this;” or, “a good Cub Scout wouldn’t say that…”  She did this so often that her words became a kind of inner voice that would speak even outside of scout activities.  It told me to hold the door for adults; pick up trash on the playground; and to always be prepared. 

We Christians certainly have our Laws and rules, too: the Ten Commandments; our Baptismal Vows; and the Civil Laws.  But don’t we also have some unwritten rules than an inner voice speaks to us? 

One unwritten rule we have is that you don’t complain to God.  You don’t question.  You don’t get angry with God.  You don’t accuse God of being silent and uncaring. 

But that’s exactly what the prophet Isaiah is doing today!

The reason is simple—the nation of Israel is in dire straits.  Babylon has destroyed Jerusalem and taken the people into exile.  The prophets told them that all this happened because they had sinned so grievously.  Not too long ago, the Persians conquered Babylon, and the new king sent the Israelites home to rebuild Jerusalem.  But how do you rebuild from nothing?  The people needed a miracle from God, now more than ever.  But none ever came.  After years and even decades of waiting, the people grew weary.  Many believed that God had abandoned them.

Most of us know what they were feeling—and all too well…  Trouble rains down upon you like a flood—and it doesn’t stop.  You pray and you pray and you wait; you wait for that miracle and that deliverance.  But there’s no peace; no direction; no comfort; no hope…  Then we reach our breaking point.  Not only is it difficult to trust God, it is difficult to love God.  You question everything you believe.  You wonder if God is against you; if God doesn’t care, or if God isn’t real…

This is exactly what Israel is doing.  But Isaiah affirms that it’s normal to question; to doubt; and cry out.  It is normal to lament dire circumstances.  It’s normal to do all these things together as a community.   These are all part of the human experience of faith. 

The worst thing you can do is to silence your cries and complaints—because then, you abandon all hope. 

We’re invited to do exactly what the Israelites do here: they let their doubts and questions draw them together—and they cry out to God with one voice.  They confess their sin.  They lament their losses. They look back and remember all that God has done before.  And together, they wait—they wait for God to act, and to be the God they need him to be: a God who is gracious and merciful.

This season of Advent is a time for us to do the very same; to confess our desperate need for God’s mercy and love.  We’re sinners.  We’re hurting.  Our world is hurting.  We need God to tear open the heavens and come down; to forgive our sins; to deliver us from evil; to deliver us from hunger and disease; to deliver us from our despair and lead us in the way of hope.

The truth is that God has torn open the heavens, and has been born into our humanity in a manger.  Jesus is the sign from God that our hurts are not hidden from his sight, and our prayers are being heard.  Jesus is the sign that we’re not alone.  Jesus is the sign that God will act.

So it’s okay to question and doubt.  It’s okay to cry out.  This is one of the reasons why we exist as a community—and this is how we get ready for Jesus.  God will act—and usually not as a thundering display of power and might, but in more subtle, and surprising ways—just like a helpless baby born in a manger. 

So we get ready for God to be who God is.  We get ready for the Holy Spirit to give us a new beginning, lead us forward—to transform our lives in ways we never expect.  We trust; we obey.  We get ready for God to be who God is—gracious, and merciful for Jesus to come and be our Savior.  We can depend on him.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Maximum Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving Message


Photo courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography / freedigitalphotos.net
Years ago, I was traveling with a fellow seminary student for a class trip.  When we arrived at our destination, she caught my attention when she immediately stopped her conversation, crossed herself and prayed, “thank you Jesus for a safe trip…and for my parking space.”

What caught me by surprise was that this was only a five-minute trip—and hers was the only car in the gigantic parking lot.  I couldn’t help but share my joy at her gratitude, to which she replied, “why not?  Jesus has been with me every step of the way.  And if I can’t find a parking space, I’ll thank Jesus that other people found one.”

As wonderful as her gratitude was, I can’t say that I’ve ever once thanked Jesus for a parking space—and rarely for safe travels, in spite of the 15,000 miles I drive every year.  Usually, my mind is preoccupied with other things. I guess you could say I’m too busy to give thanks.

How about you?  How much of your prayer life is devoted to praising God and giving thanks?  To naming counting and naming your blessings, and thanking God?  Do you thank God at least as much as you ask God?

Whether we realize it or not, a lack of thanksgiving is very harmful to our faith in Jesus Christ.  We see this spiritual malady in our Gospel from Luke…

Jesus encounters ten lepers during his travels…  In those days, leprosy was just about the worst thing that could happen to a person.  Not only was it excruciatingly painful, it was tremendously contagious.  You were legally required to remove yourself from the community and live out in the wilderness.  They had to cry out, “unclean unclean” to warn passersby to keep their distance.  They also suffered the unfortunate condition of being Samaritan—which only added to their uncleanness.  If anyone needed Jesus’ mercy, it was these ten lepers.

They cry out to Jesus for mercy—and they most definitely receive it.  Jesus sends them on their way to the priests, who would pronounce them clean and permit them to go home.  But only one turns back and thanks Jesus.  Only one is not so caught up in the excitement of the moment to realize how blessed he is. 

Notice how Jesus responds to his gratitude—he says “your faith has made you well.”

The other nine of the lepers had to have had some measure of faith to cry out to Jesus as they saw him approach.  But the difference between this one and the other nine is thanksgiving. 

The truth is that the lack of thanksgiving is tremendously toxic to faith. Faith is more than just a set of beliefs; faith is a relationship with Jesus Christ.  This is the gift that the nine lepers run off and leave behind. 

Without thanksgiving, three dangerous things happen to us.  The first is that we grow proud.  When blessings abound, we become intoxicated by them.  We build our lives upon the accumulation and enjoyment of blessings.  We’ll go to extreme lengths to get more.  We get high on our own greatness.  Who is Jesus then but a divine power to be exploited on the way to the top?

On the other hand, when difficult times come along, and blessings crumble, we can become sullen and miserable.  We already know how difficult it is to keep faith when times are tough.  But a lack of thanksgiving can make those times even tougher.

Bottom line—without thanksgiving, we get turned in on ourselves. Love for Jesus grows cold; love of neighbors grows cold.  Our country is heading in a very dangerous direction if we’re too proud, too busy,  or too bitter to be thankful.

Make no mistake: thanksgiving as an obligation.  But more than that, it is God’s gift to us, by which our eyes are opened to the ways that Jesus is loving and caring for us.  When hurts and fears surround us, thanksgiving gives us hope and confidence that God will deliver us.  It is in our thanksgiving that God’s Holy Spirit invites us to enjoy God’s blessings by sharing them with those in need.  This is how we can find lasting joy and peace, no matter what may be going on in our lives.

Truth is that God is so good that we could give thanks 24/7—and still there would be blessings unseen and unnamed.

So challenge yourself this Thanksgiving—to count and name your blessings.  But don’t let tomorrow be the only day.  Name your blessings when you arise and when you go to sleep; thank God for your daily bread when you eat; when you get dressed; when you enter your home.  When you wash your face, remember that you’re baptized; that you’re claimed as God’s own and that your sins are forgiven.  Give thanks for little blessings—so you can see God’s hand in the big blessings.  As God’s abundance comes into focus, go and give generously.  This is the simplest pathway towards a closer walk with Jesus and the joy of the Lord.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Hard to Love? Bible Study blog for November 20


Photo courtesy of Arvind Balaraman / freedigitalphotos.net
As the desert journey continues, so does the cycle of tensions between God, Moses, and Israel.  Since God set apart Moses to deliver the people, the Israelites have grumbled against him time and time again.  Despite all that God promises to do, and all the miraculous signs that God performs, the people continue to distrust God and rebel. 
Tonight’s study proved no exception.  The people once again rebel, this time in disgust over the lack of food, water, and fear that they cannot take possession of the Promised Land.  God’s wrath breaks out against the people.  He vows that those who were twenty years of age or older will not enter the Promised Land.  Later, God sends venomous snakes against the people, and many die.  Even Moses, in his frustration, strikes a rock with his staff—instead of speaking to it, as God commanded.  God punishes Moses for what would appear as a very minor offense.
All told, the God revealed in the Exodus narrative can be very hard to love.
It bears keeping in mind something we learned a while back—the name Israel, in the Hebrew languages, means “wrestles with God.”  No three words could better describe what is happening in the desert.  The people are wrestling with God—because there is nothing else upon which to rely for mere survival, let alone a safe arrival in the Promised Land.  Trusting God’s Word is the only option, save for returning to Egypt, as they often express a desire to do.  But there is so much to fear, so much time that passes, and so much difficulty with every passing day.
Each of us can identify with the people’s struggles.  At some point or another, each of us will find ourselves in a desert of our own—when normal life vanishes away, and all the sudden we find ourselves in a desert of pain, fear, and need.  It is most difficult to love God and trust God.
At the same time, we know the reality of our sin; that we are, in fact, hard for God to love!  But for all the people’s rebellion—and God’s seemingly harsh and brutal punishments for the people’s sin—God never abandons Israel.  God is determined to bring them into the Promised Land—and not just for their own sake, but for the sake of God’s name in all the world.  God is revealing himself, the gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love—through God’s gracious acts—in, through, and on behalf of Israel. God acts for the sake of a relationship between himself, the Israelites, and ultimately, the world.
This relationship is indeed born in struggle.  It grows in a cycle of struggle, sin, rebellion, discipline, forgiveness, and grace.  But God never leaves. 
We are right there with the Israelites in the desert, because their struggles with God mirror our own.  God will be hard to love as we face down our worst fears; when God appears absent; when God appears angry; and when God’s promises feel so far off.  But God never gives up on us.
Part of the challenge of reading these texts is learning to see a gracious God, including when God’s wrath breaks out against the people.  It comes only out of God’s fervent desire to be in relationship with God’s own people—and for God’s gracious purposes to come to fulfillment.  We always need God—and God will always be here.
The only way to the Promised Land is through the desert.  That is a geographic truth—and a spiritual truth.  God can use the desert experiences of our own lives to form and transform us, and nurture us in a right relationship with God.  Though the wilderness is a place of struggle (just as faith is a thing of struggle), it is ultimately a place for God’s power and love to be revealed in the face of overwhelming fears.  The vast emptiness and perils of the desert are tremendous, but in the desert we see that God is bigger, more powerful, and more loving than anything or anyone else.  It is a place of testing—and God will always prove faithful.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Relationship Refuge ~ Matthew 25:31-46 ~ Christ the King Sunday

Photo courtesy of 'africa' / freedigitalphotos.net

Brace yourself—Black Friday is this week.

This week, I read that Americans are expected to hit the stores and spend in excess of $600 billion on their holiday shopping.  This most certainly begs the question—what will that staggering amount of money be buying?

Even as we’re spending more money on gifts, we’re becoming more and more isolated from each other.  People are spending less and less time together, as families, as friends and neighbors, even as Christians—while each person goes off and does their own thing…

And with our lives being so hectic and busy already, it is very easy to go and buy things rather than giving ourselves.  Sometimes, it’s easier to invest in stuff than to invest in relationships…

While we spend over $600 billion on Christmas, I also read that it costs only $25 for a family of five in an under-developed country to have access to clean drinking water for one year. 

This is definitely something to think about as Jesus teaches us that all humanity will be judged in accordance with how they care for the poor, hungry, naked, sick, or estranged.  Immediately, his words may strike our hearts with great anxiety.  But we cannot miss the incredible promise here—whatever you do for the least, you do for Jesus.  And because you are baptized into the Body of Christ, the Holy Spirit is already working through you to care for your neighbors in need.  You’re already making a difference—whether you realize it or not.

Yet, Jesus continues to invite you to do even more to serve—because you meet him in relationships through which love is freely given and freely received.  As a child of God, the greatest gift you can give to someone is not the gift with the biggest price tag.  The greatest gift you can give is you.  The gift of being present is priceless, especially in the world we’re living in.  There is nothing you can buy that can replace a listening ear; a warm smile; a compassionate heart; a helping hand.  For a neighbor in need, a relationship is a gift of hope—because you’re not alone.  When there is hope, there is healing. 

Granted, there will always be wonderful opportunities to bless people we’ll never meet.  The Jesse Tree; Heifer International, ELCA Good Gifts; the gifts we’ll be giving to nursing home patients—these are wonderful ways that we can show forth Jesus’ love.  But one of the greatest gifts you can give is yourself. 

Life right now is so very difficult for so many—but Jesus speaks a great promise to us today.  A relationship of love is the gift of hope.  We truly can live in anticipation of his final victory, when he comes to rule over all creation.  So don’t be afraid to love a stranger.  Don’t be afraid to give yourself.  Don’t let the devil tell you “you don’t have time;” “you can’t make a difference;” or “they don’t deserve your help.”  When a child of God goes and serves a neighbor in need, Christ is born in that relationship.  Healing begins.  Peace and joy hope come alive.  You will be blessed in your giving.

 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Fearless & Faithful ~ Matthew 25:14-30 ~ Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost


I began contemplating today’s Gospel at about the same time Elizabeth was watching one of her favorite TV shows, Hell’s Kitchen.

If you’re not familiar, this is a cooking competition of hot-headed, seemingly amateurish chefs.  The host is the mean-tempered, fowl-mouthed British chef Gordon Ramsay.  The grand prize is a coveted executive chef position in one of Ramsay’s famed restaurants.

I can’t help but shake my head of the image of Gordon Ramsay as the wealthy man in Jesus’ parable. 

The story reads like a bad dream: Someone gives me a huge sum of money with the expectation that I make it grow.  Trouble is, I don’t know the first thing about investing.  I don’t have that killer instinct of entrepreneurs like Warren Buffet or Donald Trump.  With no financial expertise and a volatile economy, the easiest and most common-sense thing to do would be to stash it away for safe-keeping.  At least then, you don’t lose.  Or do you…

Trouble was, the wealthy man was not tasking his three slaves to do something they couldn’t do.  Jesus tells us quite plainly that the master entrusted his property to his slaves, each according to their ability.  All three were worthy of their master’s trust.  It’d be the same thing as Gordon Ramsay asking his chefs to cook. 

So the third slave does a very foolish thing by burying his master’s money.  When he’s called to account for his stewardship, he says that he was afraid!  He, in essence, blames his master for his fear!! 

Whether this slave was truly afraid or just making excuses, we’ll never know.  But the thing about fear is that it is the most irrational of human emotions.  Fear distorts reality.  In this case, fear blinded the slave to the fact that he had the ability to put his master’s talents to work in a positive way.  His fear colored his perception of his master!  Perhaps the master wouldn’t have been so angry, if the slave had truly given it his best, but failed…

I remember something my boss told me years ago when I first went to work at the bookstore: he said, “no one gets fired for making mistakes—even really big ones.  But you do need to have a good attitude—and give it your best.”

You see, this isn’t a parable about success.  It’s a parable about faithfulness.  We, of course, are servants of God, entrusted with God’s property.  Our time, our selves, our possessions: these are God’s property that we hold in trust.  Being a disciple of Jesus is all about taking God’s gifts and putting them to work according to God’s purposes.

Each and every one of us has been reborn into the Body of Christ through baptism.  God is so invested in our lives as to give us the Holy Spirit, who equips and empowers us to live as God’s people in the world.  You can be faithful to God because God is faithful to you.  We have nothing to fear because we are God’s.

The challenge, then, is for the power of fear to be broken in our lives.  I don’t think we ever fully realize just how powerful fear is, because it exercises so much power in our lives.  Fear co-exists with the want of things other than God.  Most of the time, we reject Jesus out of fear of not getting what we want!  We’re afraid of not being successful; afraid of what people may say or do…   It’s easy to be the unfaithful slave—taking the love and grace of God, and then stashing it away—because we don’t have time…  We’re too tired…  We’re afraid of missing out…  Because we always do it this way…  Because we can’t let go. 

Jesus is a terrible gift to waste—because we really won’t know Jesus if we only give him a small piece of our lives, and keep the rest to ourselves.  To know Jesus is to go and do his work,  according to your ability.  To say yes, take risks, be vulnerable, to stake everything of value and put it where our faith is.  Jesus calls us as disciples to liberate us from the fears that tear us apart, and the worldly treasures that only leave us empty.  Trust God to meet your needs, serving God gracefully by serving God’s people graciously.  Let’s be one Body in Christ, bringing all our talents and treasures together to be a light in this dark world. 

God is faithful so that we can be faithful.  We may not always be successful, but God’s work is done in faithfulness. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Breaking Fear: Bible Study blog for November 13

Photo courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee / freedigitalphotos.net
Tonight, we read of Moses sending spies to explore the land to where God was leading them.  The spies returned with a mixed report: the land was indeed great, but the land was occupied by giant people and giant fortresses.  As word spread, the consensus became that the land “devours those living in it,” and “we seemed like grasshoppers” in comparison to them. Frightened and intimidated beyond words, the Israelites were prepared to choose a new leader and go back to Egypt.  Confronted by their worst fears, they quickly forgot God’s promises, as well as all of the mighty acts God had been performing right before their eyes.

Tonight, we learned that faith is so much greater than just a set of beliefs.  Faith is trusting in the promises of God when all else would suggest that God’s promises are mere fantasy. Faith is trusting that God is greater than all the giants. 

But fear is tremendously toxic to faith.  Not only does faith make God seem so small (or non-existent), fear can make even small difficulties seem huge.  Much of the time, fear exercises so much influence that we say “no” to a life of discipleship without even thinking of it.  When Jesus calls to live out our faith, how often do we say “no” because of the fear of failure?  The fear of rejection?  How often do we put ourselves down, an deny our God-given gifts and talents?  When time, energy, and resources are scarce, and confidence in our abilities is low, how often do we “play it safe,” rather than risking ourselves and trusting in God to provide?

Fear can also multiply the want of things that are not of God, so that we turn our back on Christ and pursue other priorities out of fear of missing out on something good.

We cannot truly know God if we’re not willing to trust God, put God first, and live in anticipation of God keeping promises.

Living in faith means facing our fears head-on, moving forward to take hold of God’s promises, even against all odds.  Faith is remembering that when troubles are big, God is still bigger.  God, who raises the dead, has power and dominion over all the forces of suffering and evil in the world.  Not even death and the devil will keep God from fulfilling every promise to us.  And even though we will indeed fail, make mistakes, and sin, God can use those to teach us and form us according to his desires.  God’s grace is sufficient for every need.

Our next Bible study will be Thursday, November 20 at 7:00, following our evening Word & Sacrament at 6:30.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Leaving Egypt Behind: Bible Study blog for October 23

Photo courtesy of Photokanok / courtesy of Freedigitalimages.net
As the Israelites journey through the wilderness following the Exodus, they develop a very bad habit—they astoundingly look back favorably on their slavery in Egypt!  When food and water become scarce, they grumble and complain that back in Egypt, they ate their fill of the choicest foods (which could not have been further from the truth).  Facing the harsh reality of the desert, and the Promised Land still far off in the distance, they long to be back in the familiar world of slavery.  

Facing difficult and uncertain times, there is always the temptation to look upon the past with rose-colored glasses; to ache for the familiar world of yesterday.  Today’s church is a prime example of this—we look back nostalgically on the world of first half of the 20th century as the golden age of the church.  Back then, the church was central to community life; Christianity was the heartbeat of America; businesses were closed on Sundays; students prayed in public schools; and so on.  Things are profoundly different now.  The future has never been more uncertain for congregations like ours.  Can we recreate the present world in the image of the past?  Do we resign ourselves to the belief that the best days are behind us?  Or do we move forward, facing our fears and uncertainties, trusting that Jesus is leading, that God is providing, and the Holy Spirit is empowering?

It’s hard to believe that God’s people resisted God’s liberation—but we do the same thing, too.  We accumulate and hold onto possessions that not only leave us empty, but burden us.  We resist trying new things out of fear of failure.  We do not challenge each other to new ways of worship and serving for fear of resistance and rejection.  We avoid challenge and change in all levels of our lives—and in so doing, we fail to experience God’s faithfulness.  What’s worse is that we reject neighbors whom Jesus calls us to serve. 


God’s greatest gifts so often come to us wrapped in challenges and changes.  God’s greatest gifts come in unanswered prayers.  God’s greatest gifts come as we follow Jesus through the wilderness.  God’s gifts come when we are liberated from attachments and commitments that bind us in slavery to sin.  When there’s nothing else left to trust, God will be faithful.  The only way to the Promised Land is through the wilderness.  The wilderness is always a place of testing and trial, but God will always prove faithful.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Redefining Blessed ~ Matthew 5:1-12 ~ All Saints Sunday


So many days leave me feeling so weary and so exhausted, that I’d love to be able to open up a door into paradise; leaving every worry behind for a life of total ease. 

Typically, we call that “vacation,” and as such those occasions are sorely limited in our lives—and in this economy, vacations have quickly become an endangered species. 

Even if you are lucky enough to get one, it’s over before you know it—and it’s back to reality, and all its troubles…

But listen to what Jesus has to say:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…  Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are you when people revile and persecute you…

This isn’t what I’d call paradise—yet, for most people, this is real life.  Only a fortunate few will ever get to happiness—at least as the world defines it; a life of uninterrupted health, wealth, and satisfaction.  In Jesus’ day, those persons would’ve been the aristocratic elites.  We call them “the rich and famous.”  But thanks to TV and internet celebrity gossip, we know better.  We also know how evil people can be to get what they want. 

Today, Jesus turns the human understanding of happiness upside-down.  From God’s perspective, you are blessed when you are broken.  You are blessed when people turn against you.  You are blessed when you lose everything.

This is good news on this All Saints’ Sunday, as we are brought face-to-face with life’s most dreadful reality: the reality of death.  And the only thing more unimaginable than our own death is the death of the ones we love; and then facing life without them.

Of all the things Jesus teaches, this is, without a doubt, the most outrageous.  Surely you’d never say this to family who’s lost their home, or to a starving child…  Surely, you’d never say this to someone who’s standing at the grave of a loved one. 

Yet it is in these moments, when we are most broken, most helpless, most afraid—that God becomes gracious to us.  He is the Savior for those who need him the most.  When your life is full of pain, frustration, and anxiety, Jesus takes them and uses them to draw you closer to him.  He dwells in the hurt—and out of that hurt he makes you new again.  When happiness is gone, grace abounds.  Life in Christ won’t always mean happiness, at least as the world defines it, but it will mean hope—because you’re never alone.  The Holy Spirit will be hard at work in your life to show you, by faith, that Jesus is with you.

On this All Saints’ Day, you are invited to be bold—and name before God everything that hurts today.  Name before God all your frailties, your failings, and your hurts.  Be vulnerable enough to recognize your need for grace.  Prayer is where it begins—but it can’t stop there.  We all must work together to build this church into a safe place where we can name our hurts to each other—because the first way Jesus will come to you is in the love and care of your brothers and sisters.  Together, we must immerse ourselves in God’s Word, and listen together as God speaks.  We must encourage one another by bearing witness to what Christ has done. 


As Christ showers us with his saving grace, we must heed his word as to what it means to live blessed.  Life can never again be a pursuit of the happiness we buy or the happiness we call success.  We must work out the grace Jesus works in by being merciful; forgiving sins; striving for peace and justice in all the earth.  Doing good must always take precedence to getting good.  Whether we realize it or not, the Holy Spirit lives and breathes in us to give to others the same saving grace we receive from Christ.

It is the Holy Spirit who makes saints of us.  A saint isn’t someone who’s dead; a saint is someone whom Christ makes alive as a living witness of his grace.  The good that Christ did through those who have died lives on, but our time is now.  The life of true joy is the life lived in Christ who makes all things new.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Reformation of You ~ Romans 3:19-25 ~ Reformation Sunday


Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid / freedigitalimages.net.
Growing up with a sister 2-and-a-half years younger than me was (honestly) loads of fun…

The exception was when an Disney animated Movies arrived in theaters, and all four of us had to go (whether we wanted to or not!).

I was eight years old, and The Little Mermaid was in theaters for the first time.  This was about as far from my personal interests as could be.  And I would watch this movie countless times more, when the Little Mermaid came home on VHS.

What’s most memorable about a Disney movie, for better or worse, are the songs: and for the Little Mermaid, those songs were Under the Sea and Part of that World.  The latter tells the whole story: the Ariel the Little Mermaid desperately wants to be human and live on the land, where she can marry the enchanting Prince Eric and live happily ever after.

They fall in love during a moment of peril—Eric’s ship is caught in a storm, and sinks.  Everyone on the boat manages to escape by lifeboat, but Eric jumps out to rescue his dog, Max—and almost drowns.  That is, until Ariel rescues him and brings him safely ashore.  As strong and dreamy as he was, he couldn’t save himself.  A human being cannot swim across the ocean.

It’s no different for our human condition.  Sin, and suffering are an ocean.  You can’t save yourself. You can’t just swim out of it. 

But our Christian faith is built on this singular promise: that God is gracious.  God does not leave you to drown.  Jesus saves you.  His body and blood frees you from sin’s deadly grip.  No longer can your deepest hurts and most terrible failures control you.  Jesus pulls you out of the jaws of death and puts you into a whole new reality. 

Jesus does none of this because of anything you’ve done. Grace doesn’t see worthiness.  Grace sees only the need—and grace freely gives. 

This is the heart of the Gospel.  This is the truth we celebrate on this Reformation Sunday: that we are saved by grace. 

But the greatest truth is also the greatest mystery—and so much of the mystery remains because there is so much God’s grace exposes about ourselves that we’d rather not admit.

We’re willing to admit that we aren’t perfect—but not to the point that we do harm to others.

We’re willing to admit that we make mistakes—but not to the point of admitting that we’re broken and that we don’t have it all together.

We deny our need for God.  We want to be strong, all-knowing, and wise—fully self-sufficient, able to solve every problem and get out of every jam. 

There isn’t a single one of us who enjoys asking for help or forgiveness. 

But for grace to happen, we must be willing to let go of all that.  The other hard part is letting God be gracious to you but on God’s own terms.

So often, we’re like Prince Eric—sinking in the ocean.  We pray for God to send us a lifeboat—but you get a mermaid instead. 

This is where today’s Church is: we look back fondly on a time when Christianity was the heartbeat of America.  Every Sunday morning, America got out of bed and went to church.  There was prayer in the public schools; businesses were closed on Sundays; people had morals and values unlike today.   The vibe now is that the church is dying—because new generations want nothing to do with us.

I doubt there’s a single one of us who wouldn’t love to see our society go right back to that.  Yesterday is gone—but God is still gracious.

It happens that God’s grace really grabs us in those times when we know we’ve failed and that we’ve sinned grievously.  Grace grabs us when everything we’d built our lives upon vanishes from our sight, and we’re treading water in the treacherous, shark-infested seas.

When grace happens, God won’t always give back something we’ve lost, anymore than God will undo our mistakes or turn back time.  Grace is all about re-formation—meeting you where you are, and then doing something totally new and unexpected so that you may become what God desires for you. 

The reality of grace grabs hold of us as we heed these simple words: “be still, and know that I am God.” It’s the same thing if you’re finding yourself adrift in the sea, or lost in the woods staring down a grizzly bear: when you’re afraid and you panic, you only make things worse.  Fear is one of the most irrational of emotions, equal only to pride—both blind us from seeing what is truly real.  We are sinful and broken creatures who cannot free ourselves. But Jesus can. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

God in Your Wallet ~ Matthew 22:15-22 ~ Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost


Image courtesy of Gualberto 107 / freedigitalphotos.net
It’s a good thing the words “In God We Trust” appear on the dollar bill…if for no other reason than that there is nothing more treacherous in life than money…

The Bible teaches us that the love of money is the root of all evil.  Greed creates wars and crimes.  Greed rips apart countries, communities, families, and churches.

Money is unquestionably our greatest cause of stress.  It comes only through the ache of our back and the sweat of our brow.  It is entirely possible to work ‘till you drop, and still not have enough. 

You have taxes, rent, mortgages, utility bills, medical bills. 

Then you have to worry about recessions; inflation; the national debt; a stock market in free fall…

Money is the world’s biggest problem that will never go away. 

Needless to say, money (or the lack thereof) was a just as much a scourge in Jesus’ day.  Jews would have hated taxes even more than we do.  Most working people barely had enough money to live on.  Still, they had taxes to support the Jewish religious establishment, PLUS an annual tax to the Roman Emperor, levied on men and women as young as teenagers.  One denarius—a whole day’s wage.  (That may not sound like much, but when you have nothing to begin with, it’s excruciating—especially when you’re paying it to an ruthless, oppressive Roman government.)

And who’s face was on the coin you used to pay?  Tiberius Caesar’s—along with the inscription “son of god.”

Jesus’ enemies thought they found the perfect trap for Jesus with a question about money.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

If he says it’s lawful to pay for taxes to Caesar, he’s guilty of blasphemy.  Remember—Rome is the enemy.  Rome is evil.  On the other hand, if he says that it’s not lawful, he’s guilty of treason against the Empire.  Both of these crimes were punishable by death.

But listen to Jesus’ answer: “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, give to God what is God’s.”  Jesus’ answer does more than just humiliate his opponents; he reveals God’s answer to the scourge that money creates. 

The images on money reveal a very honest truth—your money doesn’t belong to you, even if it’s in your wallet.  You know how it says “this note is legal tender for all debts, public and private?”  You only have it because you owe to someone else, be it the IRS, the landlord, Wal-Mart, or the gas company.  Money and the stuff it buys is so easily here today, and gone tomorrow.

At the same time, does it sound like good news when Jesus says “give to God what is God’s?”  Most of us probably groaned when we heard those words, because we know that we should give more, and perhaps we feel guilty because we don’t.   Raising up the topic of money and giving in church only serves to bring more aggravation into what is already a sore subject for so many of us.

But do you know what contains the image of God?  YOU DO!!!  You bear God’s image because you belong to God.  God created you!  Therefore, you give to God YOU—all that you have, all that you are, all that you will be.  The reason why Jesus teaches us to give it all to God is because God created you for a purpose.  God created you to be loved.  You are the apple of God’s eye, so precious that he gave his only son for you.  You were made to love God.  And, you were created to bear God’s image in the world—to reveal to all the world God’s mercy; God’s forgiveness; and God’s abounding steadfast love.  We give ourselves to God so that God’s purposes may be fulfilled, both TO us and THROUGH us.

Giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s is just a fact of life.  Like it or not, there will always be taxes, bills, greed, and worries about money.  The love of money—and the lack of money—can wreak all kinds of destruction on human lives and the world God created.  But in giving to God what is God’s (which is everything), the promise is life. 

So before you worry about money—and before you go spending it on something other a necessity of life, do this:

1)      Stop and give thanks to God for every good gift in your life.  If you’re finding this hard to do for whatever reason, start by looking at yourself in the mirror and saying, “I am made in God’s image.  I belong to God.  I am beloved and accepted.  I am forgiven.”

2)      Then name before God everything that’s lacking; everything that’s aching; everything for which you need grace.

3)      Then rise up, trusting that God will be doing good unto you today.  But don’t let it stop there.

Anything that God provides in abundance is a gift to be shared—and what you have in abundance, someone else may not.  We’re used to hoarding and holding on for dear life everything that’s good, for fear of losing it or missing out.  But we can work as brothers and sisters to build a better life for all. 

Our clothing closet is a great start.  Out of God’s abundance, the needs of many are met. 

In the same way, God has made you rich with something good—something through which God can create new life.  You will always find more life and more joy not in what you keep to yourself, but in what you share.  God can do more with that one hour; that one tithe; that one listening ear; that one piece of clothing; that one single act of kindness—than you can ever imagine if you kept it to yourself.