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.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Hottest Ticket in the Kingdom ~ Matthew 21:1-15 ~ Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost


I officiated a wedding last weekend.

It happens all the time that I end up sharing funny wedding stories…

I mention the wedding cake that fell apart on delivery…

I talk about the two times I’ve been shot in the head with champagne corks during the toast…

I recall the poor groom, whose tuxedo pants fell down during the vows…

But a lot unfunny things happen, too—and one of the most frequent is the number of guests who promise to come, but don’t show up…

Granted, it’s to be expected that things will happen keep prevent people from coming, like an illness or problem at work.

But it really hurts when invited guests simply shrug off the invitation, either by forgetting or by choosing to do something else “more important.”  Not only does this hurt feelings; families still have to pay to feed and entertain the absent guests.

All too often, friendship and hospitality get abused. 

This is exactly what happens in Jesus’ parable.  A king throws a wedding banquet for his son, the crown prince—and there’s no doubt that this is the hottest ticket in the land.  But not all people respond to the invitation—even after the king’s slaves try to convince them as to what a great banquet this is to be.  They make light of the invitation.  They go off to more important matters.  Some even despise the invitation to the extent that they assault and assassinate the king’s slaves.  This is insane!  (What’s even more insane the way the king “handles” the rejection…)

But he’s determined to fill his banquet hall—and if the invited people won’t come, he’ll find people who will.  So his slaves go out into the streets, and they bring in everyone they could find, both good and bad.

So now, the wedding hall’s full—but there’s one more problem.  A man’s there who’s not appropriately dressed for the occasion.  And when he can’t explain to the king why he’s not wearing a clean shirt, the attendants bind him up and toss him out like a sack of trash.

I don’t know about you, but I find this parable a bit perplexing.  I certainly don’t think I’d want to stick around at a party like this.  Who knows what would happen if I spill my coffee?

But there is a lot of grace in this parable.  Normally, only the wealthy elites would be invited to a royal wedding.  But they make themselves unworthy by refusing the invitation.  Now, the tables are turned: The “least” of their society are now feasting in the king’s banquet hall.  Both good and bad.  What they get is so much more than just free food.  Now, they are part of the royal family.  That’s the real grace here: the relationship.  Bear in mind that weddings in Jesus’ day lasted for a week or more—so this invitation is definitely worth the time and getting fired from a job.  Life will never be the same again.

This is how grace works.  It doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad, least or lowliest.  God lavishes love on you just because.  Everyone’s invited in.

Still, there’s the matter of the guy without a clean shirt.  In all likelihood, most of the people the king brought in wouldn’t have had money to buy a wedding garment.  But in those days, if you didn’t have one, the host provided one for you.  That was basic hospitality—grace, once again. 

But in this parable, we see grace abused.  The people who refuse the invitation and the guy who won’t wear a clean shirt are all guilty of this. 

The thing about grace is that there is a cost that comes in giving it.  If we were to take this parable as symbolizing the marriage of Jesus to his bride, the church; this wedding cost Jesus his life.  But many reject the gift of grace—and the one who gives it, once again for the reason of cost.  Some wouldn’t go, because there were more important things to do.  A few were so determined to get the king out of their way that they killed his slaves.  As for the man without the clean shirt, he was very willing to accept the invitation and free food—but far be it that he’d make the effort to change his clothes.

God’s grace brings sinners like us directly into the family of God.  It washes away our sin and makes us holy, not by our actions, but by the action of Jesus Christ for our sake.  It gives us a clean shirt of holiness.  Grace will raise us up on the last day to live forever in God’s kingdom.  All these gifts we are more than happy to receive.

But grace has a flipside.  It isn’t about you.  It’s about Christ.  Grace inherently eradicates the sin that turns us inward, and takes life as the pursuit of ambitions and agendas.  Sin has no tolerance for anyone or anything that gets in our way.  Sin tells you that you can’t afford to give grace—or receive it if it’s not going to bring you what you want. 

If we’re going to receive grace from God, we’re only going to receive it on God’s terms.  That’s the parable’s “punch.”  We must work out the grace that the Holy Spirit works in.  We must wear holiness through acts of grace and love for our neighbor’s benefit.  I can’t help but feel extremely vulnerable with the words “many are called; few are chosen.” 

But God’s grace begins right here, right now.  You know you’re not worthy of God’s invitation.  You know you’ve probably refused him before, perhaps even shooting his messenger.  You know you don’t have a clean shirt—and you don’t really belong in God’s family.  But right now, none of that matters.  You’re invited in.  If you can be vulnerable enough to believe that you’re life’s not going to be the same when you go into the king’s banquet; that you’re plans might change and that you just might come out healed and restored, say yes.  Come and be his guest. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

An “Old Testament God”? ~ Bible Study blog for September 23


Thus far, the Old Testament has painted a picture of a God who is almighty, holy, wrathful.  God has repeatedly poured out judgment upon his own people in the form of plagues, venomous snakes, and sinkholes swallowing vast throngs of people.  God has enacted judgment upon people for offenses as minor as touching the Ark of the Covenant.  God even punishes Moses for striking a rock twice when God told him simply to speak to it, that it would yield the water the people need. 

But as we move into the New Testament, we see a picture of God painted in the person of Jesus Christ—whom most would agree embodies the Old Testament image of God as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

However, the image of a wrathful God carries into the New Testament, particularly in Jesus’ teachings about “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  It is not difficult to be terrorized by God and question whether or not we are saved.  We’re taught that we’re saved by grace—but the Bible repeatedly tells us that we’ll be judged by our works.

Taking it all together, it can be nearly impossible to love the Old Testament God—and quite impossible not to be terrorized of this God.

God is holy, mighty, and immortal.  We’re weak, sinful, and mortal.  We know that no amount of good works can bring us to a level of holiness equal to God.  It leaves us all feeling very vulnerable.  But we are not faced with a hopeless situation.  Therefore, if there is to be any hope of salvation, that salvation must come from God.  It is precisely at this point that God will be “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  God’s grace pours down like rain upon human beings who need divine grace and forgiveness—and know it full well.  The Law leaves us all as beggars before God—and God does not desert us in our place of desperate need.

Therefore, as we continue our journey through the Old Testament, let us be on the lookout for actions of divine grace—because these will not be rare.  God’s goodness is never given as a prize for human goodness.  It is God who is good and gracious—and if there is to be any goodness or righteousness in any of us, it can only come from God.

Make no mistake—we will see actions of Judgment and wrath.  But God’s judgment sets the stage for grace.  Evil must be eradicated for grace and goodness to abound. 

It will appear tremendously unfair that some people will get away with repeated severe offenses, while others are put to death for honest mistakes (like accidentally touching the Ark of the Covenant).  Yet we can know only the beginnings of God’s graciousness.  One lifetime—and one Bible—are wholly insufficient for us to receive a full revelation of God’s grace.  We won’t always be able to explain the ways God is being graciousness, but we can take it as a promise that mercy triumphs over judgment. 

Jesus says, “blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”    When we are poor in holiness and righteousness, God will not leave us to perish.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Good Landlord ~ Matthew 21:33-46 ~ Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

For over a decade I’ve lived in rented homes…which is why the most interesting job I’ve ever had was working for a landlord, cleaning apartment buildings.  When a tenant moved out, I cleaned their apartment to get it ready for the next tenant.  Some days, I had to work really hard—because not all people are good stewards of the landlord’s property.

Some apartments were filthy enough to be considered bio-chemical weapons labs…  Other tenants apparently turned their apartments into a petting zoo.  And one tenant must have had strong moral objection to recycling—due to the nearly ten dozen liquor bottles I found hidden away in cabinets and closets. 

That’s the problem with a landlord-tenant relationship—tenants can and do abuse their landlord’s property.  All the time, we’re given charge over property that doesn’t belong to us: when you go to work; when you utilize a public facility.  This church doesn’t belong to any of us—even though we have a great deal of control over what happens to it.  But the abuse can go the other way, too.  If you own rental properties or a business with employees, you are not without tremendous obligations to your tenants, employees, and clients.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks a parable of tenants who abuse the property of their landlord.  They lease a vineyard from a landowner.  This is a good vineyard, as far as vineyards go: it’s already planted.  There’s a wall around it; as well as a winepress and a watchtower.  Everything the tenants need for a bountiful harvest is provided—all they have to do is tend it.  They would then be entitled to a portion of the harvest in exchange for their labor. 

With sufficient rain, the vineyard would become productive within 4-5 years of planting.  This is probably the time the landlord sends his slaves to collect the landlord’s fruit.  But the tenants assassinate the slaves.  Hoping to finally reclaim what’s rightfully his, the landlord sends his son—but the tenants assassinate him, too, so they can have the vineyard and all its riches for themselves. 

Jesus spoke this parable as a scathing indictment against the chief priests and Pharisees, who themselves were tenants of God.  They were well-educated in Holy Scripture; they had charge over a religious institution that existed to nurture God’s people in faith and community.  But they abused the power and privilege that God had given them.  Instead of bringing God to the people; they exploited the people in God’s name.  They lived lavishly off of the tithes, offerings, and sacrifices of faithful Jews, most of whom lived in dire poverty. 

Jesus knows full well that these religious elites would rather kill him to protect their power and privilege, than submit to his authority.

The reason why is simple human nature: we don’t like being tenants to anyone.  I can say this honestly as someone who’s never owned a home.  We like ownership—because then, we’re in control.  Ownership is the power to use and abuse, as we see fit.  Private property for maximum private benefit

But today, Jesus tells us very plainly that we’re tenants.  Everything we have belongs to God—ourselves, our time, and our possessions.  The world belongs to God.  Therefore, we do not have the right to exploit and abuse what isn’t ours.  Everything we have, we hold in trust.  Everything we have comes from God, so that we can live life and participate in God’s gracious will for the world.  It’s all about stewardship—using what God has given us to build up our neighbors and lead them to Christ.  God wants nothing less than for everyone to live in peace and enjoy their daily bread.

If, on the other hand, we exploit and abuse God’s gifts; and we reject God’s purposes; we’ll be swept away when God’s Kingdom comes. Like it or not, there is a cost to abusing God’s gifts.  It is because of sin that two thirds of the world lives in poverty, while a vast majority of wealth is held by an extreme minority.  It is because of sin that human beings wage war on each other because of race, religion, or any number of reasons.  Most of the world’s problems are manmade.  Civilization cannot exist if it’s every person for themselves.

But in spite of all its problems, this world belongs to God.  It is God’s vineyard—and we are God’s tenants.  That’s good news!  God is a gracious and merciful landlord.  Laboring in the vineyard brings us right directly into everything good that God’s doing for the world!  It’s good to be owned by God. 

We’ve all heard the old cliché that the things you own end up owning you.  That’s true not just for commitments and material possessions, but also for our troubles.  Whether it’s good stuff or bad stuff; the more we own, the more we’re controlled and consumed by that which can bring us fleeting happiness at best.

The life of a disciple, on the other hand, may not be the most glamorous life—because it’s a simple life, lived for the sake of others.  It is a life of trust—for since we God’s own, God will take care of us.  By laboring in God’s vineyard, God will use us and the gifts in our trust to do more than we could ever ask or imagine.