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.