Monday, January 31, 2011

How to Heal

Mark 7:24-37
Over the centuries Christians have found much to disagree about, often because we can not agree on the meaning of scripture. The sacraments are a good example. First of all, how many sacraments are there? And even among Protestants who tend to agree on that issue there is a sharp contrast on what the sacraments mean and/or how they should be performed. In the case of baptism it would have been helpful if Jesus simply had said, “when you baptize be sure the person is of age, then fully immerse him or her in fresh, flowing water and only once in that person’s life.” But we receive no such specificity from Jesus, and so we are left to infer things from the various baptism accounts found in the New Testament.

I was reminded of this phenomenon when I read this morning’s gospel account of two healings performed by Jesus. The two stories could hardly be more divergent. The first, in Mark 7:24-30, tells of Jesus and the daughter of a Gentile woman. Initially Jesus declines to heal the girl of the demon that possesses her, but after a brief conversation with the mother Jesus relents. Yet the girl is never in Jesus’ sight and he has no apparent contact with her. In the next account, in vv. 31-34, Jesus is asked to heal a deaf man whose speech is also impaired. In this case Jesus does have contact with the one being healed, touching the man’s ears and putting saliva on his tongue. So, first we have Jesus healing a Gentile girl of a demon without ever seeing her, then a Jewish man who is deaf and unable to speak by touching his ears and tongue. But wait, there’s more! In other accounts Jesus also heals people he sees but never touches, people to whom he speaks whether he touches them or not, and people who simply touch his clothing without his prior consent.

What all of this ambiguity tells us is that Jesus is not the same thing to all people, not “one size fits all”. Jesus is able and willing to meet people where they are and offer them what they need in their particular circumstances. The same is true for us. Jesus Christ is active in our lives, in ways that meet our needs head on, not in some general way that suits all purposes. The Christian faith is still a community faith, called to be the body of Christ at work in the world. But within that body are men and women, boys and girls with particular needs and particular concerns. God knows this, and in Jesus Christ God has responded. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, cure us of what ails us, calm us in the face of what frightens us, and lift us up from what threatens us according to our needs. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Friday, January 28, 2011

God's Shorthand?

Isaiah 50:1-11
There is a wonderful image in the reading from Isaiah today, a rhetorical question that God asks. “Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem?” (Isaiah 50:2c). The metaphor is strong. God’s “reach”, God’s ability to interact with God’s people, is being challenged. With a shortened hand God could not be save or redeem Israel. But God confronts this mindset and dismisses it. Of course God’s “hand” has not been shortened nor God’s reach diminished. God is still at work and still able to touch the lives of men and women wherever they are.

Still, I wonder how often we think of God as “out of touch”, as a relic from bygone days that lacks relevance or power in our lives. There is an old (tired) joke about a minister who holds an offering plate full of that Sunday’s collection. “God,” he says, “I’m going to throw this money in the air. You take all that you want but I’m going to keep what lands on the floor.” If that is what we think of God’s “reach” then no wonder we doubt God’s presence in our world. But this is the God who spoke of writing on the human heart, the God who reached out through prophets and kings, calling, anointing, establishing, who ultimately appeared in the form of Jesus Christ who touched person after person and brought healing and compassion everywhere he went. God’s reach has never been shortened. I think it is we who, all too often, are shortsighted, unable or unwilling to turn to God and to trust what God is doing.

No, God’s “hands” and God’s “reach” remain consistent. It is we who need to be more aware and more willing to look with eyes of faith at the redemption and salvation that God offers us. Then we will see that God has meaning for today.

Prayer: God of compassion and of love, help us to live responsibly as your people, trusting in you and your care for all people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Places, Everyone

Mark 6:30-46
Normally when we read this passage from Mark our attention is drawn to the latter part where Jesus feeds the 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes. But there is much more to this reading that is worth considering. Initially, Jesus had wanted his disciples to have a chance to rest, but when they arrived at what he hoped would be a deserted place they were met by a multitude who had rushed to meet Jesus there. Mark tells us that “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).

I like to imagine this event as a scene in a movie. Jesus’ boat draws near to the edge of the lake already lined with people. Perhaps as he wades ashore they fall silent, waiting to see what he will do. As he begins to walk among them they reach out to him, begin to speak to him in broken phrases: “…heal me, Lord…”, “…Rabbi, what must I do…”, “…are you the one…”. In Jesus’ face we see a mixture of sorrow and of love. He cares deeply for what these people but grieves at their condition. So he motions for silence, and then speaks. Mark says “he began to teach them many things,” and we may assume that parables were involved, and the explanation of scripture. The people will have pushed forward to hear his words and they respond with excitement at what he tells them. The day wears on.

I wonder how this scene would play out in my life, or in yours. How might we respond to Jesus’ presence? What might we say to him, or ask of him? What of his teaching would we take with us when we finally returned home? The truth is we have the opportunity to experience the presence of Christ within the community of faith. In prayer we may speak to God in Christ, may open our hearts and express our deepest needs. In scripture we learn from Jesus, hear his parables and his words of comfort and challenge. This is indeed a scene in which, by God’s grace, we may participate. The stage is set, the action is about to begin, now is our time.

Prayer: Lord God, for your presence in our lives, your continued compassion, your mercy and grace, we give you thanks this day. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Elected To Be A Light To the Nations

Isaiah 49:1-11
In pondering the meaning of the doctrine of election—an understanding of how God calls or chooses people with whom to be in covenant—I find it helpful to remember that election is not just about salvation. It is also a call to service. When God “elects” people it is to work for the coming reign of God, not to enjoy perks of membership.

“I will give you as a light to the nations,” God says, “that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). This is very similar to what God told Abraham, how he and Sarah would be a blessing to the nations. But here in Isaiah there is a sense of burden, or of weight being laid on the prophet’s shoulders. No longer is it enough to call the children of Israel back to God, now the entire world is to be included in the invitation. To be God’s people automatically means thinking beyond ourselves, caring for others beyond our immediate circle, reaching out to the world so that God’s salvation may be known and others may join in the community of faith.

This can be a little overwhelming for sure. But like so many other aspects of faith we never know what we can accomplish with God’s help until we try, until we give ourselves over to the effort, accepting the burden, and serving God by serving one another. We, like the writer of Isaiah 49, have been called as lights to the nations. It is an important task for which God has chosen us. We have the opportunity to respond with gratitude and with zeal. We have the chance to share good news and to make a difference. It is a task well worth doing.

Prayer: Lord, fill our hearts with love and with determination, that we may share your love with the world and may live to your glory. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Learning to Recognize God

Isaiah 48:12-22
Mark 6:1-13
There is an interesting contrast at work in these two readings. In Isaiah we find God identified in a number of ways. “I am He; I am the first, and I am the last…” says God, “your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel; I am the Lord your God…” (Isaiah 48:12b, 17a). We know these names, and variations of them turn up throughout scripture. “I am He” sounds very like the name God uses in speaking to Moses from the burning bush; “the first and…the last” could be right out of the book of Revelation; and the others are even more common. We know God by name in Isaiah. But Mark tells us a story about Jesus’ return home and the lack of faith he encountered there. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters with us?” say the townsfolk (Mark 6:3). “This can’t be a prophet, he’s one of us,” they seem to say.

So what do we say about God and about God’s work in Jesus Christ? Do we recognize God’s presence? Are we aware of the Spirit? Do we know what to make of it all? Our do we get caught up in parochial labels and ideas, putting our own limits on what God should be doing? Sadly, we are often as lost and confused as the people of Jesus’ hometown. Why do we get so crosswise about it all? Why are we so slow to accept what God is doing?

I think it is mostly a matter of focus, of clearing our eyes of everything except who God is and what God is doing. As we begin to concentrate on God’s word and God’s work we are better able to appreciate God’s presence. Then the names, the descriptions of God begin to make more sense. We see how blessed we are to be God’s people and we strive to live out that blessing. The people of Jesus’ hometown tried to trap Jesus in his life as a carpenter, but God set him free to minister to all. Are we willing to have Jesus set free in our midst? I hope so. It will do us a world of good.

Prayer: “Lord, open our eyes that we may see,” and help us to live out the relationship you have created with us in the person of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Stubbornness and Desertion

Isaiah 48:1-11
Galatians 1:1-17
How tiring it must be for God to deal with such fickle people! Our readings this morning from Isaiah and Galatians both express frustration at the unwillingness of God’s people to remain steadfast in the faith. “…I know that your are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass,” God says through the prophet (Isaiah 48:4). “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel…” says Paul (Galatians 1:6). I wonder how many of us would consider it worthwhile to continue caring for such people. But wait a minute—we are those people!

And that is the good news in these verses. God could have turned away and left humanity to its own devices and desires. Instead God remains steadfast in grace and mercy, sending prophets, apostles, and God’s own Son in search of reconciliation. Even now, even this very day, you and I will fall short of what God intends for us. But all the while God is at work in the world, leading us toward the coming reign, drawing out what is best in us and, if we are attentive we will catch glimpses of grace in the everyday events of our lives.

Yes, God could walk away in frustration, but that is not in God’s nature. God cares too much to give us up, even to ourselves. Instead God keeps the lines of communication open and remains active in the world. How will we respond to such grace today?

Prayer: Lord, we fail you in so many ways, yet you have continued to love and care for us. For this we thank you and praise your holy name. Amen.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Son With An Upper Case "S"

John 2:1-11
The story of the wedding at Cana is a funny little account. It tells us virtually nothing about weddings, or the institution of marriage, or what Jesus thought about either one. What it does tell us is that Jesus is the Messiah…and that he did what his mother told him to do. “When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you’” (John 1:3-5). You can almost see Jesus roll his eyes and shake his head slowly from side to side. Maybe he muttered, “honestly Mother!” under his breath. But he did what she told him to do.

Now granted, lots of children, even grown ones, do what their parents ask of them. It happens all the time. But not one of them is the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the Light that shines in the darkness. Only Jesus fits that description. To me, then, this is a fascinating glimpse into the family in which Jesus was raised. There is a normality here, an almost mundane quality—or as mundane as turning water to wine can be. Mother and son (and in this situation I think a lower case “s” is called for initially) attend a wedding. A need arises that the mother believes the son (still lower case) can help with. She’s not exactly sure what he will do, not exactly sure about a lot of things apparently, but she won’t take no for an answer. And so Jesus responds and in doing so indicates that he really is the Son with an upper case “S”.

How humdrum our lives may feel from time to time. How ordinary they may seem. What Savior would ever consent to be involved in such mediocrity? Frankly, Jesus would, and does. Jesus, who dealt with family issues, Jesus who was a part of a society and a culture, Jesus who went about an ordinary sort of life for years, this Jesus knows and cares about you and me and the day to day stuff we deal with. The Son with an upper case “S” has a word for all of us sons and daughters with lower case letters, a word of hope and love and future joy, a word of promise, a word of restoration and resurrection. Jesus Christ, Son of God, turner of water into wine, has a word for all of us.

Prayer: O God, we thank you for your continued concern for us and for our lives, even when they seem small and insignificant to us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

PS: I’ll be on a study break for the next two weeks, but will return to the blog on January 24, 2011. I look forward to communicating with you then. Thanks for your interest and your support. Jim Freeman

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Singing With the Sentinels

Isaiah 52:7-10
Revelation 21:22-27
In times of war a town or city wishing to avoid destruction will declare itself “open”, that is offering no resistance to the enemy. Otherwise the gates are locked tight and careful and constant watch is kept. According to our readings today from Isaiah and Revelation the time is coming when Zion, the city of God, will no longer face the choice between surrender or devastation. “Listen!” says Isaiah. “Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion” (Isaiah 52:8). “Its gates will never be shut by day…,” Revelation tells us, “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood” (Revelation 21:25, 27). Taken together, these passages tell us of a time to come when sentinels will share (sing, even) only joyous news and there will be no reason to fear anyone.

Ah, if only that were true today! If only we could step outside our doors and feel completely and unreservedly safe and free from harm. But there are so many things that lurk in the shadows of our world, so many accidents waiting to happen, so many people with ill-intent, so much disease and sickness, so many bad things happening to even the best of people. What gives? Well, both the prophet Isaiah and John, the writer of Revelation, are giving us glimpses of the time to come, the end time when God’s reign will finally arrive in its fullness. This is a hope toward which we are to live, a reality in which we may place our confidence. “The days are surely coming,” says the Lord, and as we grow in trust we become more aware to what God is doing. Indeed, if we observe with all our being and focus with all of our heart and mind upon the grace of God we may find ourselves joining in the song of the sentinels, even in the face of current events. For even now grace abounds and God’s goodness floods our world like a river tops its banks and transcends its levies. And while evil remains a problem (the problem), the growing light of a new dawn indicates that it will all be worth the wait as God’s will becomes more and more apparent. So cue the sentinels and lets get singing.

Prayer: Lord, give us eyes to behold the light of your new creation and the will to join the chorus of praise to your most holy name. Amen.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

When It's One of Those Days

Joshua 1:1-9
Not every day is a “crossing-the-Jordan” kind of day, and that’s a good thing. When I say a “crossing-the-Jordan” kind of day I don’t mean the day we die, though that is one way of understanding it. What I mean is a day where big decisions are made about the big questions in life. On a “crossing-the-Jordan” kind of day you may feel you are being swept along by events as much as taking deliberative steps. Some may call this “crossing the Rubicon”; it’s the same idea. But no, not every day is a “crossing-the-Jordan” kind of day, and that’s a good thing because we couldn’t handle it everyday. But then some days are exactly like that. According to our Old Testament reading Joshua was having one of those days, one of those momentous, everything-will-be-different, nothing-will-ever-be-the-same-again days, because he and the people were literally going to cross the Jordan River into the promised land and their life as the people of God was going to take on entirely new dimensions.

The good news was that they weren’t going alone. “Be strong and courageous,” God told Joshua, “do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). Notice that God did not say “take it easy, Joshua, there are going to be no problems at all. This will be the easiest thing you ever do.” What God did was promise to be there, wherever the people went, whatever they faced. “Be strong and courageous,” God said, which meant to be prepared for hard work. But God also said to stay calm.

I’ve had a number of those “crossing-the-Jordan” kind of days in my life. There are some that I accepted with joy and anticipation and some that I dreaded. Ultimately I’ve come through them with a new perspective, a new understanding of who I am. When I’ve bothered to look I’ve realized that God has been with me throughout. Those days haven’t been easy, but they have been important, essential even, for my growth and development as a person. It’s good to know that the promise God made to Joshua holds true for us as well. God is with us, wherever we go, guiding and sustaining. We may need to be “strong and courageous,” but we needn’t be afraid. Ultimately God will bring us to where we need to be.

Prayer: Lord, bless our faltering steps along the road of discipleship, whether we are “crossing the Jordan” or not, and help us to live to your glory. Amen.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Getting Our Attention

Exodus 3:1-5
I’m not sure it had ever occurred to me, but when Moses first sees the burning bush it causes him literally to change direction. “Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up’” (Exodus 3:3). The trajectory his life was leading Moses away from where God needed him to be. He was herding the flocks of his father-in-law, which in and of itself was not a bad thing. But God wanted him herding the people of Israel instead, and with a “great sight” God got Moses’ attention and eventually got him back to Egypt.

I was working for a large insurance company in San Antonio, Texas when God got my attention and sent me off to seminary in Virginia. What I was doing, the trajectory my life was taking, wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t where I needed to be. And while I never saw a “bush that burned but was not consumed” I did finally get the message by other means. Maybe you know what I’m talking about. Maybe at some point in your life God has pulled you out of the fast lane, or away from the drive thru, or off of a side street and compelled you to change direction, to go where God needed you. A colleague of mine once said that for him the sense of call had always been clearest in hindsight. It was when he got somewhere and looked back that he was able to see that God had indeed been at work in his life. Whatever the case, no matter the circumstances, God is at work fitting individuals into roles and tasks for which they are suited so that the work of the coming reign may go on. Don’t be surprised if, after being jarred by some “great sight”, you find yourself changing directions and doing things you have never thought about doing. It may be God calling.

Prayer: Lord, open our hearts and minds to what you are doing in our midst that we may respond with faithful discipleship and may give ourselves to your work. Amen.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Heaven's Gate

Genesis 28:10-22
John 10:7-17
It is interesting to me how the reading from both Genesis and John make use of the gate as an important image. Jacob sleeps at Bethel and dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder. “And he was afraid,” reads Genesis, “and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’” (Genesis 28:17). Jacob was so overwhelmed by the presence of the divine that he understood himself to be at the doorway to God’s court. How awesome indeed. But the experience, while profound, frightened him. “I am the gate,” Jesus says in John’s gospel. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9). Here Jesus uses the image of the gate much differently. Far from an awe inspiring experience, Jesus offers peace, security, and hope to those who believe in him and enter into God’s coming reign through him.

At first we might be put off by the difference in the way that each reading uses the idea of a gate. Is it the cusp of the divine and therefore a place of holy awe and fear? Or is it an entrance into what God desires for us? Of course the answer is yes to both. Fear before God is always an appropriate attitude, by which I mean to regard with reverence and awe, as one dictionary puts it. This is not a horror movie, but a revelation of what and who God is, and God deserves our full attention, our full respect, a quiet seriousness. But what God wants for us is better seen as a sheep fold, a place of safety and community, of mutual love and support. Jesus offers that to us to accept in faith.

As we begin 2011 and look ahead to the challenges it holds, we should remember to live with reverent awe for who God is and what God is doing, but to also accept with joy the peace and security that Jesus offers to his followers, if not in this life, then absolutely in the life to come.

Prayer: Lord, may we live in that space between reverence and joy, the place where you have called us as your people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.