Tuesday, August 31, 2010

To Tell The Truth

Job 12:1, 13:3-17, 20-27
John 8:33-47
Who is it, exactly, that speaks for God? This question is addressed in both the Job and John passages today, and in each case with strong language. Job accuses his friends of speaking “falsely for God” (Job 8:7), with “maxims (that) are proverbs of aches” (v. 12). According to John, Jesus gives a scathing indictment of the religious people of his day calling them children “of the devil” who is “the father of lies” (John 9:44). This is scary stuff. As people of God, as those who have received the word of God, how do we make sure that we are not speaking “falsely for God” with worthless platitudes or bromides? This is one of those questions that simply never goes away. For centuries the church has had to deal with differences of opinion over how to interpret scripture, what constitutes baptism or the Lord’s supper, who may serve as ordained leaders of congregations and denominations, and a whole host of other issues. And while from time to time we experience a minor breakthrough, the disunity continues.

I want to offer a partial answer to the question today, one that might help us close the gap just a little. In his book, Reading the Bible and Confessions the Presbyterian Way (1999, Geneva Press, Louisville, KY), Jack Rogers mentions a number of principals for interpreting scripture that point us in the correct direction. One of them is what Rogers calls “the rule of love.” If reading a passage of scripture leads us to the conclusion that it is appropriate to hate one another or to act out of disregard for our fellow creatures, then we have misunderstood the passage and should read and consider it more carefully. I think this is what Jesus wanted folks to hear and accept as well.

Beyond that we must never misrepresent the good news of the gospel, even when the truth is challenging to those who hear it, even when a slightly “watered-down” version might sound more attractive to prospective members. There is truth behind everything that God has said: truth to live by, to love by, to strive by, to be aware of, to share with others. And God’s word, when wrestled with on a constant basis, produces good fruit for the entire community. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, may we represent you to others with truth and honesty, that all may come to know your love and abide by it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Looking Ahead, Looking Around

Acts 11:19-30
John 8:21-32
Simon and Garfunkel’s “A Hazy Shade of Winter” begins with the words:
Time, time, time
see what’s become of me
while I looked around for my possibilities,
I was so hard to please…

The lyrics continue:

Hold on to your hopes my friend
That’s an east thing to say
But if your hopes should pass away
Then simply pretend that you can build them again…

There’s a great deal of pessimism in that song, a pessimism that neither Luke,––the writer of Acts, nor John would share.

According to our readings today a prophet named Agabus predicts a famine throughout the world (Acts 11:28). Jesus himself predicts his crucifixion (John 8:28). Christianity has always done a great deal of forward thinking and consideration of what the future will involve. The predictions are not always cheerful, but they always lead to and are permeated by the grace of God. The famine will allow Christians throughout the world to show generosity to the church in Jerusalem. The crucifixion, of course, will reveal Jesus to be the Son of God. So often clarity follows hardship, understanding grows out of struggle. And above it all stands our provident and loving God

But we really must not understate the difficulties or even try to rush past them. A significant aspect of God’s sovereignty is time. The minutes, hours, days, months and so forth, are of as much concern to God as the years, eras, and epochs. To hurry through—what I call wishing our lives away—risks missing out on or ignoring God’s grace at work.

I certainly don’t wish to trivialize tragedy. The flooding in Pakistan has caused devastation to millions and is not to be taken lightly. So has the earthquake in Haiti. But even disasters such as these cannot defeat God’s provident care for us. Ultimately we have the opportunity to participate in God’s work among the people who have been effected. Severe need helps us to discover our own capacity to love and care for others, to pray and to build, to look for the new things being done by God. Do we hope for disaster, death, loss? No! But as Paul beautifully attests in Romans 8, even things such as these cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. We needn’t “simply pretend we can build (our hopes) again,” we need only to trust in God and to offer our lives in faithful obedience in order to see the miracles that God will perform.

Prayer: Bless us, O God, with the ability to trust the future and the great things you will bring to pass. Help us, as well, to respond to our neighbors in their times of need that we may be about your work according to your will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Learning About God

Job 9:1-15, 32-35
Acts 10:34-48
John 7:37-52
Job says a curious thing at the end of today’s passage from that book. “For I know I am not what I’m thought to be,” he says (Job 9:35b). Is Job talking about the view that his friends seem to have of him, or is he talking about the way God is treating him and his own powerlessness to address God? Either way, Job is a man on a journey of discovery. Though he has been made miserable by loss and grief and suffering, he continues to question and consider everything that has happened, looking for answers, or at least a fuller understanding of what God is up to.

Peter, too, is on a journey of discovery. At the beginning of the passage from Acts Peter expresses a new understanding of God’s grace. “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). This is really an earth-shattering realization, one that will make it possible for the church to spread, not just throughout the Jewish community, but across the face of the known world. Indeed, this one sentence and the ultimate baptism of Cornelius’s household sets the stage for Paul’s ministry to the gentiles.

There may be times when we believe we have God “all figured out”, that we understand or can predict what God will do. The truth is that we simply cannot reach that point in life. God is beyond our grasp, and just when we think we have God in a box, like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who dismissed him on the grounds of his birthplace (John 7:52), God does something so surprising and unexpected that we can only stand in awe. We are all on a journey of understanding, one step at a time, day by day. This is why it is essential to continue studying, praying, listening, worshipping, sharing within the community of faith and outside of it. This is why it is so crucial to keep moving along, with minds open to God’s work and word.

Prayer: Lord, help us to live as those who would learn, so that we never reach the point where we believe we have you all figured out. Amen.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Watch Your Attitude

Acts 10:17-32
I like Peter’s attitude! He has been instructed by God to keep an open mind, to consider no one unclean or profane. So he accepts an invitation to visit with Cornelius and his household, even thought they are Gentiles—a breach of Jewish law. Now all he wants to know is why he is here and what’s going on (Acts 10:29)?

I’m afraid I don’t always respond that well—to God or to people. I ask questions. I resent the bother. I grumble about the inconvenience. I even challenge God’s intentions for me, or whether God is even at work in my life at all. Maybe you are like me. Maybe you hesitate or question as events unfold. If so, I think you and I need an attitude adjustment. But if you are like Peter, if you “go with the flow” (at least in this instance), then good for you.

Think about Abram and Sarai who were told by God to leave their homeland and did so out of faithfulness. Think about Joseph and Mary who were told about a baby that Mary would have and who respected the message. Think about any number of others who have accepted a challenge or stepped out in faith believing that God would explain things when the time was right—or not, but who went anyway. Clearly it is okay to question God. The psalmist made a career out of it. But what Peter did was to worry less about the details and instead to be open to God’s work in his life. What Peter would find, what all of us would find, is a lot of surprises and many signs of grace. That’s why I like Peter’s attitude. That’s why I wish I was the same way.

Prayer: Lord, you call your people to do many things. Sometimes we are slow to respond. Sometimes we offer objections or complaints. Sometimes we look for excuses not to get involved. Help us to overcome our fear, our need to control our lives, our resistance to your grace. Help us to live with open minds and hearts, trusting you to use us in ways we never expected. Amen.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Do We Have God All Figured Out?

Job 6:1, 7:1-21
Acts 10:1-16
If you’re thinking
That I’m thinking
What you’re thinking,
Well I’m thinking
That it’s funny.

That’s a bit of song lyric I’ve been working on lately. While I never intended for it to have theological implications, it may, especially in light of our readings for today. I can hear God now, seated in the divine court, saying similar words to Peter and Job. “If you’re thinking that I’m thinking what you’re thinking…” Actually, Job himself seems to paraphrase Psalm 8, only in a negative sense. The Psalm says, “What are mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4). These words are spoken with wonder and awe. “Wow, God, thanks for noticing us! What an honor!” But Job turns it around. He says, “Let me alone (God), for my days are a breath. What are human beings, that you make so much of them…?” (Job 7:16-17). In other words, “God, leave me the heck alone.”

In the Acts passage Peter finds himself confronted with an array of foods that do not fit the Jewish dietary laws (Acts 10:13-16). “Get up, Peter, kill and eat” (v. 13) , says a voice. “No thanks,” says Peter. “I’ve never eaten unclean or profane food” (v. 14). To this the voice replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (v. 15).

Peter and Job may believe that they have God figured out to some extent. They don’t. Not in the least. As we are reminded in Isaiah 55:8, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. Furthermore, it is dangerous to assume they are. Our lives may have meaning well beyond our understanding. Foods (and people, too) that were once considered unclean are actually creatures of God deserving of respect. Perhaps as God’s people we should work harder at opening our minds to what is possible by grace. Think about it.

Prayer: Lord, forgive us when we try to force our thoughts on you while ignoring your will for our lives. Amen.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"To Whom Can We Go?"

(I'm conducting an experiment today. After you've read this entry, would you please go to the comments tab below it and post the word "yes"--or anything else you'd like to say. That way I'll know about how many people are reading this on-line. Thanks!)

Job 6:1-4, 8-17, 21
Acts 9:32-43
John 6:60-71
In a way I feel Job’s pain. In my life, as in the lives of others, conflict arises, angry words are shared, and even the important things seem too difficult to accomplish. As such times our bodies may not be covered with sores, bur our souls certainly can be. At such times I’m likely to share in Job’s lament, “What is my strength that I should wait? And what is my end, that I should be patient?” (Job 6:11)

At such times, though, it is helpful to recall accounts such as the one we’ve read this morning from Acts. There Peter heals a paralyzed man named Aeneas (Acts 6:34) and revives a dead woman named Dorcus (v. 40). Acting in the name of Jesus Christ Peter is empowered to touch people at the very place they need healing, and while I’m neither paralyzed nor dead (thank God), I rejoice that God can and will touch me with a healing hand and give meaning back to my life. Soon we are all able to let go of Job’s lament and instead join with Peter’s confession in the gospel of John, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life?”

At the height of the storm, when our pain is greatest and the conflict is most severe, God comes to us and with the power to heal and to make calm. I encourage all who are struggling this day, whether with physical, mental, or spiritual, to embrace in your lives the work that God is doing there, and the love that God holds out to you. In this way alone can we know that our laments will be silenced and our praise amplified.

Prayer: Lord, the conflict and the anger sometimes wash over us like waves from the sea. Help us to call on you and to trust in you name in the future. Amen.

Monday, August 23, 2010

New Bread, New Lives

Acts 9:19b-31
John 6:52-59
Good for Barnabas! While the other leaders of the church in Jerusalem were afraid of Saul and doubted his conversion Barnabas took the risk of trusting Saul and urging the others to do the same (Acts 9:27). Of course this must have taken a great deal of courage. Saul’s hatred of the church was well-known, and it had not been very long since Saul had consented to the stoning of Stephen. But Barnabas saw what God was doing and stepped out in faith to play a part.

Even in the Christian community things were changing rapidly in those days. Old foes were becoming believers. The gospel message was spreading. The church was growing by leaps and bounds. John’s gospel offers a helpful context for understanding what was going on. In Jesus Christ God was giving the world “bread that came down from heaven, not like that which (the people of Israel) ate, and they died” (John 6:58). What had gone before, even the most cherished of memories and traditions, was being reinterpreted. New understanding abounded. Saul was a Christian: would wonders never cease?

Our lives are full of traditions and memories. And while they offer us hope and comfort in many ways, these traditions, these memories, can also keep us from seeing clearly what is happening around us. To “let go and let God” sometimes means letting go of how we understand God and allowing God to reintroduce the divine self to us. This can be a scary experience, but if we respond by taking the risk, we may find that old foes and old assumptions have taken on a new meaning and that life is headed in a fresh new (and exciting) direction.

Prayer: Lord, give us the courage to move ahead by your grace, to trust in what you are doing in our midst, and to live with faithful obedience all our days. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What's the Point?

Job 2:1-13
Acts 9:1-9
John 6:27-40
What pain we encounter as human beings! Even those who worship God face times of loss, sickness, hunger, doubt, fear, anger, blindness (spiritual and physical), and so forth. God seems almost callous in allowing Ha Satan (the Advocate) to torment Job (Job 2). Saul, who was raised to be a faithful (and zealous) Jew. This led him to believe that Christians were heretics deserving of punishment. Yet on his way to Damascus Saul was confronted by the risen Lord and sent into a period of blindness and confusion. If those who seek to be faithful, who even God calls blameless (Job 2:3), can suffer, what’s the point?

The point may be that life by its very nature brings times of trial, and at those times we are best served by trusting in God’s providence and grace to bring us through to a place of peace and contentment. As Job says, “Shall we not receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10) In other words, can God not be trusted throughout our lives, in good times as well as bad times? John Newton testifies to this same sentiment in his hymn “Amazing Grace.”

Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come.
‘Twas grace that brought be safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

“I am the bread of life,” says Jesus (John 6:35). And as such Jesus is the source of grace and fulfillment we need throughout our lives, in good times or bad.

Prayer: Lord, we do not always understand what you are about, but help us to trust you and to rely on your deliverance. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Biting My Tongue

Job 1:1-22
Acts 8:26-40
John 6:16-27
There is a common theme in these passages that relates to trusting in God for one’s deliverance. But more than that there is a willingness to remain silent on one’s own behalf and to trust God to provide what is right and what is necessary. Job suffers such a devastating loss (actually one loss right after another) that the account ends up sounding almost farcical. How could so much violence be done to one family so quickly? Sheep, camels, oxen all killed or stolen? Children killed? Yet, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing” (Job 1:22). Likewise, it is the words of the prophet Isaiah that the Ethiopian is reading (aloud, as was the custom of the time) when Philip joins him on the road through Gaza (Acts 8:32f). In the face of humiliation and injustice the Lord’s servant, “does not open his mouth” (quote from Isaiah 53:7-8). Neither Job nor the servant of the Lord in Isaiah are willing to cry out initially, to take up their own causes, to demand that things be set right! How is this possible?

Jesus offers the proper perspective in John’s account. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27). Frankly, at a time in my life when I feel that my loved ones are being treated unfairly, when I see others doing what I believe to be wrong and apparently getting away with it, I want so much to cry out. I want to make a fuss, to speak words of anger and derision. I want to hurt others the way that I’ve been hurt. But neither Job nor the servant of the Lord in Isaiah resorts to such activity, and Jesus reminds me that I may well “win some battles” but that such effort is wasted because the food it produces does not endure. So I will try to bite my tongue. I will try to refrain from speaking out of anger. I will try to live as Jesus teaches me.

Prayer: Lord, I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, but my eyes have seen your grace. Help me to be a better person and to trust in the food that endures for eternal life. Amen.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Food For Thought

Acts 8:14-25
John 6:1-15
The reading from John this morning relates the story of the feeding of the five thousand (one of the accounts that appears in all four gospels). According to this passage the disciple Andrew comes to Jesus with a boy who is offering to share his bread and fish with the crowd. “But what is this among so many?” Andrew wonders aloud (John 6:8-9). For Jesus, of course, it is more than enough, and the crowd is fed with plenty to spare. As a result of this sign there are those in the crowd who would make Jesus their king (v. 15), so Jesus leaves them before they can act because this is not God’s will nor God’s plan.

In the Acts passage we read of the visit of Peter and John to Samaria. They have heard that Samaritans have come to believe in Jesus Christ, and though they have been baptized have not yet received the Holy Spirit. This may seem like a strange distinction to our modern ears. To us baptism has come to represent the engrafting of the individual into the community of faith. To be baptized is to be marked as one of God’s own. Perhaps it would help if we thought of Peter and John leading a confirmation class for those who were baptized as infants and now wish to be active members of the church. At any rate, with the actions of the disciples the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the Samaritan faithful. When Simon, the former magician who has become a believer himself, offers money for the power to grant the Holy Spirit Peter sets him straight. Simon’s understanding, like that of the crowd who would have made Jesus king, is based entirely on human ideas of power and success. The Holy Spirit is not a commodity to be sold or traded, and not a resource to be hoarded or controlled. Jesus’ true kingship is not based on ordinary politics, but derived from his faithful obedience to God’s will.

How often do we misunderstand what God is about? How often do we see things in human terms: fearing that there’s not enough to go around, looking for a ruler who will meet our needs the way we perceive them, seeking the power to invoke God’s presence? These are dangerous assumptions and desires that Jesus calls us to let go of. He wants us to accept that the truth lies in human weakness. He wants us to understand that the truth lies in trusting God.

Prayer: Lord, help us to seek your will and not our own and to let go of our feeble attempts to control you. Instead lead us to accept your grace and your presence as good gifts which lead to true joy. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

That's Not Entertainment

Acts 8:1-13
John 5:30-47
In John’s gospel Jesus says that the works that the Father has given him to do testify on his behalf (John 5:36). In our reading from Acts this morning it is the works of Philip that testify to the Samaritans. Philip, who along with Stephen was one of the newly ordained deacons of the church, has been driven out of Jerusalem by a “severe persecution.” In Samaria his work is so profound that even a magician named Simon comes to believe in Jesus. Simon had previously been known as someone special because he could perform tricks that amazed people. But Philip does more than tricks, Philip changes lives to such an extent that the glory of God in Jesus Christ is made known.

As a minister I know the pressure that congregations are under to make themselves known, sometimes by “doing tricks,” offering programs that entertain or meet superficial needs to consumers. That is not the call the church receives from God. The church should be about changing lives, about touching people so deeply that they can never really be the same again, about paying attention to the least and the lost and not the powerful and influential. Until the church accepts the challenge of making disciples instead of making budgets or making itself feel important then it will wander in the desert of isolation from God. But when the church accepts its role as changing lives, even if it means death for the church, then it will truly do the work of the one who sends it.

Philip did the work he was sent to do, and the world could offer nothing better, for the world had nothing better to give. Simon was convinced and turned from his old ways. When will we, the people of God, finally be convinced to do the work of God even if, like our Savior, it kills us?

Prayer: Lord, you have called us from darkness into light that we may share your love with others. Forgive us when we wander into meaningless pursuits. Help us to return to your will and to live our faith with vitality and trust so that others may come to know you better. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, August 16, 2010

“…In Their Own Eyes.”

Judges 17:1-13
The Oxford Annotated Study Bible is helpful in getting a little insight into this interesting passage. It tells us that while the name Micah is short for “who is like the Lord,” this very man (not to be confused with the prophet Micah who will arrive many years later) builds a shrine with an image cast from 200 pieces of silver. The main point of the story seems to come in verse 6 where we are told that “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” These very words will conclude the book of Judges (25:21) and here indicate the sense of disorder and religious chaos that prevailed. We might be tempted to lay this passage beside any of a dozen stories in today’s newspaper and say to ourselves, “See? It’s just the same. Nothing has changed.” But of course, while the world remains wrapped in chaos as a result of sinfulness, we have a King, or rather a King of kings in Jesus Christ. We have a focal point which replaces all the images and idols of our lives and around whom we may build our lives. And while the sinfulness remains in our daily living, God is at work in Jesus Christ drawing the world to God’s self, and reconciling us to God’s will.

Acts 7:44-8:1a
What a dramatic way for the apostle Paul—still called Saul in this passage—to enter the story! As Stephen is stoned to death a young Saul stands nearby, guarding the coats of the participants and approving of the action. How stark the contrast is between Stephen and Saul at this point! In modern terms I’m reminded of the entry of Darth Vader into the Star Wars series of movies. I can still remember black-clad figure stepping on board a captured vessel. “Leave her to me,” he hisses, and you know there could be nothing good in him. Who would ever expect that Vader would later be reconciled to his son and repent of his evil? Indeed, there is not even a touch of foreshadowing here to indicate what will eventually happen. Nor is there any indication of where Saul is headed in his life. In each case we might be reminded of the words of Judges 17:6: “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.” And yet, as we know, God has other plans for Saul that will unfold in equally dramatic ways. The story always belongs to God.

Friday, August 13, 2010

“We Know, We Know!”

Acts 7:17-29
I can sympathize with Stephen in this reading. Week after week preachers like me enter pulpits all over the world to offer sermons based on material that the majority of our congregations will have heard before. This is why sermons can be, according to Fred Craddock, “twice-told tales.” But preaching offers opportunities as well as pitfalls to the preacher. Stephen, a Hellenist or Greek-influenced Jew who has now converted to Christianity, is telling the most Jewish of audiences the story of their faith. You can imagine the council’s impatience. “We know, we know!” they might be saying. “What right have you to tell us our story?” Yet Stephen, led by the Holy Spirit, was placing that story into a new context and challenging all who heard him to listen with renewed attention. Something different was going on. God was at work in a new way that was offering a new interpretation to past events.

Our lives are always changing, sometimes in major ways and sometimes in minor ones. But God’s word, animated by the Holy Spirit, remains current. There is relevance to be found if we will listen with open hearts and minds. There is assurance to be gained, judgment to be acknowledged, forgiveness to be received, and good news to be shared. As Sunday approaches this week maybe it is time we begin preparing for an encounter with God’s word. Maybe it is time for prayer and reflection so that when we do enter into the worship life of the church and are confronted with God’s word for our lives we will be attuned to the new things that God is doing. This Sunday instead of nodding to ourselves and muttering, “I know, I know,” we should say, “speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Prayer: Lord, open our hearts and minds to your word so that we may be filled with its newness for our lives and led to serve you in faithfulness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I'm My Own Grandpaw

Judges 4:1-19
Acts 6:15-7:16
John 4:27-42
Years ago Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffe composed a song entitled “I’m My Own Grandpaw.” In it the singer recounts how, by birth and by marriage, the relationships in his life have become so complex that he is now his own grandfather.

Oh, many, many years ago
When I was twenty-three
I was married to a widow
Who was pretty as can be
This widow had a grown-up daughter
Who had hair of red
My father fell in love with her
And soon the two were wed

This made my dad my son-in-law
And changed my very life
For my daughter was my mother
'Cause she was my father's wife
To complicate the matter
Though it really brought me joy
I soon became the father
Of a bouncing baby boy

This little baby then became
A brother-in-law to Dad
And so became my uncle
Though it made me very sad
For if he was my uncle
Then that also made him brother
Of the widow's grown-up daughter
Who of course is my step-mother

The song goes on from there, but you get the drift. Our readings for today are not intended to be humorous, but frankly they get close. The Judges account displays a complexity of human relationships. Samson wishes to marry a Philistine woman (against his parents’ advice). But during the wedding feast she betrays him to her kinfolk. This leads Samson to an act of violence and ends the marriage. In the Acts passage Stephen recounts for the council the history of the Jewish people from Abraham to the time of bondage in Egypt. This, of course, is a tale full of twists and turns, of betrayal and reconciliation, of…well, the complexities of human relationships strung out over generations. The gospel reading from John concludes the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Here, too, there are riddles to be solved, questions to be answered, and social customs to be navigated. Ultimately Jesus is able to bridge the gap between him and the Samaritans by sharing his message with them.

It is common for people in our own day to despair in the breakdown of human society. Divorce, childbirth outside of marriage, economic hardships, the decline of religious affiliations: all of these and many other factors seem to cascade against the family and any sense of a well-ordered community. No wonder we have so many problems in our world. But if nothing else, our three readings should demonstrate that there has never been a time—even within the community of faith—when relationships or community and family life have ever been “easy.” Human connectedness is always complex. But throughout our readings God remains an active participant with God’s people as well. Things can never get too complex for God’s care and concern. And that is really good news because life doesn’t show any sign of becoming less complex any time soon.

Prayer: Lord, things are often a mess in our lives. We find ourselves being pushed and pulled in so many directions and dealing with so many distractions. As Jesus did in Samaria, build a bridge for us today above and beyond the complexities, that we may focus on you and thus be led to live in peace with one another. Amen.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Question of Identity

Judges 13:15-24
Acts 6:1-15
John 4:1-26
Each of our passages today raise issues of identity. In the Judges passage Manoah, soon to be Samson’s father, converses with an angel of the Lord, but does not recognize him as such (Judges 13:16). By contrast the Acts passage tells us that when the members of the council “looked intently at (Stephen)…they saw his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). So Manoah sees an angel and thinks he’s a man, and the council sees a man who appears to them to be angelic. But even more significant questions of identity come in John’s account of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. In the course of their conversation Jesus tells the woman, “If you knew who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Even this is not enough of a clue, though, for moments later the woman asks Jesus, “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob…?” (v. 12)

Most of us have a number of identities based on the number of roles we play in our lives. I’m a husband, a father, a son, an uncle, and a cousin. I’m also a minister and a writer. I am a sports fan and a Facebook user. I’m American, southern, white, Presbyterian, right-handed, an Arkansan who enjoys Cool Whip on pumpkin pie. But at the very heart of my being, right down at my core, who am I really? Once I take off all the masks and identities and characteristics, what do I have left? One contemporary Children’s Catechism begins with the question, “Who are you?” to which the answer is, “I am a child of God.” This is a really good place to begin understanding who we are in our very essence. We are children of God and we bear on us the marks of God’s creative activity, God’s fingerprints as it were. Once we recognize that we are children of God, then the rest of “who we are” can be shaped and ordered accordingly. But if we forget that at heart we are God’s people, products of God’s creation, then we will forever struggle to answer the most basic questions of identity and meaning.

Prayer: God of creation, by whose hands we were pressed into being, help us to recognize our dependence on you and to live as your people. May we also see your love in those whom we encounter, allowing ourselves to be built into a community of faith and light. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Time to Pay Attention

Judges 13:1-15
Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we had detailed instructions about how to act and what to do? Certainly we have scripture, the word of God, and it is central to what God’s people are to be about. But honestly, sometimes we can get tied up in knots trying to figure out what exactly it is that the Bible is telling us. (One easy example is the debate about exactly how to baptize believers.) Why can’t we have a handy, pocket-sized flow chart to carry with us and use to answer any questions that come up? That’s what Manoah, the future father of Samson, seems to want. When his wife tells him that they will have a son he spends the rest of the passage worrying about what exactly they wife are supposed to do with the child. We can almost sense his panic in verse 8 where we read how he “entreated the Lord, and said, ‘O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.’” When the messenger does return he says, in short, “relax Dude. Your wife knows what to do.” No instruction book, just a surprising promise from God that events will unfold and that things are going to change. Manoah might fret and worry, but God was going to act anyway.

Acts 5:27-42
Talk about your surprises. According to our reading from Acts the high priest had the apostles arrested for teaching in the temple. But it wasn’t long before they were able to walk right out of jail and go back to sharing the good news. A funny scene follows the next morning when the apostles are discovered to be in the temple instead of under lock and key. What should the religious leaders do with these people? Should they be tolerated? Are they telling the truth? Or are they to be silenced for spreading blasphemy? I’m sure the high priest and his supporters would have appreciated a memo from God telling them exactly what was going on. Instead Gamaliel, “a teacher of the law, respected by all the people” (v. 34) addresses the council with the advice to let the apostles alone. If what they are saying is false then in time they will disappear. But if what they are saying is true, then the council might find itself in the embarrassing position of opposing God (vv. 38-39). Again, no instruction book, just a surprising promise from God that events have unfolded and will continue to do so, events that are going to change everything. Like Manoah before them, the Saducees, the high priest, and the council might fret and worry, but God was acting and it was time to pay attention. We, too, may fret and worry and wish for detailed instructions, but God is at work in our world today and one of our important tasks is to live in faithful obedience and to let God be God.

Several years ago I wrote a hymn text based on the Magnifecat in Luke 1:46-55. One of the verses, intended to place Mary’s Song into our own time, reads:

God is at work in our lives even now,
Called by Christ Jesus we take up the trowel,
Weapons of war we will beat into plows.
God is at work in our lives even now.

Prayer: God of surprises, we sometimes get wrapped up in our desire to know what is going on. We worry and fret about what it means to be your people. And when we do we can miss the opportunity to share in the work of your coming reign. Help us to trust you and to go where you lead us instead of stewing over the details. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Light That Has Lighted the World

Judges 12:1-7
Acts 5:1-12
John 3:1-21

In his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus says that despite the presence of God’s light people have chosen to dwell in the darkness. This is because their deeds were evil (John 3:19), a fact which the light would make visible. Human “evil,” that which makes all of us crave the darkness and not the light, puts us into conflict, not only with God, but also with one another. And even when we think we know the truth, or how to pronounce “the secret word” (Judges 12:6), we are apt to discover that we are clueless. Nicodemus, “a teacher of the people,” didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about, and the high priest and the Saducees were equally “in the dark” as to the message of the gospel (Acts 5:1f). Too often we would rather assail those who don’t know how to “speak the way we do,” than to lay down our weapons and together share the light that has come, not to condemn the world, but that the world may have salvation through it.

The late George Harrison, a former Beatle, was well-known for his adherence to eastern religion. On occasion his spiritual musings sound an awful lot like Christian teachings. In his song “The Light That Has Lighted the World” Harrison speaks of the human tendency toward darkness:

The thoughts in their heads manifest on their brow
Like bad scars from ill feelings they themselves arouse
So hateful of anyone that is happy or “free”
They live all their lives without looking to see
The light that has lighted the world.

The Son came not to condemn the world but to save it. Would we rather live in the light of truth or cower in the darkness that hides our ill will?

Lord, forgive our tendency to divide, to insist that ours is the proper way of speaking or seeing, especially when it sets us at odds with each other and with you. “Heal our warring madness” and “bend our will to your control” that we may live whole lives, as individuals and as communities. Amen.