Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rethinking James

James 1:16-27
For most of my career as a pastor I have found little enthusiasm for the book of James. My suspicion about anything that smacks of “work’s righteousness” has kept me from seeing the bigger picture. Even the encouragement of my wife (herself a minister) and a dear friend and prayer group companion have not swayed me—perhaps until now. I am feeling more inclined to take James seriously, especially after reading a news story this morning.

Google.com reports that three members of the Westboro Baptist Church staged a protests at Arlington National Cemetery yesterday. The group, which believes God is judging the United States for tolerating immoral behavior, points to the funerals of US servicemen and –women as particular signs of God’s wrath. As it was Memorial Day, three of their members were in Arlington. But an odd thing happened there. Among those who turned out to counter-protest the Westboro folks were self-professed members of the Ku Klux Klan. Cordoned off by themselves, the Klan members distributed American flags and spoke out against the Westboro supporters. I’m not sure what to say about such a turn of events. But I think James offers solid guidance. “…(L)et everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:19-20).

James is offering a blueprint for civil discourse. Listen, gather the facts, weigh the available insight before expressing your own opinions. And when you do speak, let your words be measured, not angry, for angry words do not produce God’s will. There is nothing wrong with having opinions; make sure they are valid. There is nothing wrong with expressing them; be sure to listen more than you speak. There is no reason to get angry; anger leads to God’s will no faster than kindness and compassion. This message seems especially apt for the folks from Westboro Baptist and the Ku Klux Klan, groups well-known for their angry outbursts. But they are also meant for the rest of us. We, too, must listen, remain calm and hospitable, and trust God to be at work in ways that we can not know. I never thought the Ku Klux Klan and members of Westboro Baptist Church would lead me toward a deeper understanding of scripture, but I believe they have. Go figure. And then count me among those learning to appreciate the book of James.

Prayer: Lord, help us to speak less, listen more, and trust you above all else. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, May 30, 2011

It Depends On Who You Ask

Luke 9:18-27
According to Luke’s gospel Jesus was “praying alone with only the disciples near him” when he asked his followers what the crowds were saying about him (Luke 9:18). When they had answered Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” (v. 20). The juxtaposition of Jesus praying followed by his questions is of interest to me. Luke has made a point of setting them side by side. But why? What is the connection? For one thing, in praying Jesus had been talking to God, interacting with his heavenly Father. In doing so Jesus would have encountered the truth: about his ministry, about his coming passion, about the world in general. But in turning to the disciples Jesus would have found supposition, rumor, gossip. John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets raised from the dead, this is what the crowds were saying about Jesus (v. 19), none of which was true. Only when Peter made his profession of faith, that Jesus was “the Messiah of God,” was there a blending of God’s truth with the imperfect insight of humanity. By God’s grace Peter got it right and so put to rest the idle chatter of the crowds.

God had to be present for the truth to come out. God had to be a part of the conversation before Peter or anyone else could grasp what was going on. Jesus represented that place where God’s word and human understanding intersected, a place that remains available to us today. Before we can fully understand our own place in the work of the church we should pray, listen for God’s voice, study scripture, converse with others, and trust the Holy Spirit to guide us in our thinking. We should ponder in our hearts what it means to be a part of God’s people and who Jesus really is, for us and for the world, and then seek to bring that understanding along with us in our day to day lives. Who is Jesus? In a lot of ways, I suppose, it depends on who you ask. But the best answer will only come when we accept the honesty we find in God and allow it to work in our hearts.

Prayer: Gracious God, you have made yourself known to us in Jesus Christ. Help us to make that Jesus known to others in what we do and say today and always. Amen.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Faith, Not Fanaticism

Romans 14:13-23
A brief but important phrase comes at the end of the Romans passage for this morning. There Paul writes, “…for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23b). I find the implications of these words to be far reaching and not entirely clear cut. Throughout the Letter to the Romans Paul has been building a case for faith and how it should guide the life of the believer. In the immediate context he calls on Christians to make decisions based on how they will affect others, not simply on what the believer holds to be true. So faith is not a blind acceptance of a set of principles. It involves consideration and thought, looking beyond our own circumstances to the needs of others. This would seem to make faith adaptable, almost fluid, which makes it more difficult to define.

But faith must be focused on the proper object – Jesus Christ – because the alternative is sinfulness. But what does it mean to be faithful to Jesus? How does one live in faith within a community? Paul has been giving us a great deal of information, insight, encouragement, exhortation to do what is just and righteous, to live in proper relationship with God and others. There is a right way and a wrong way to live and a reason to strive toward God’s will lest we fall short.

What then shall we say about these things? Faith is essential to the life of the Christian. But it demands more than blind loyalty which is not faith but fanaticism. It requires us to use our heart, soul, mind, and strength in a constant effort to serve God by serving one another. Who can do such a thing? Paul would say that we can, as long as we pay attention, as long as we struggle, as long as we look beyond ourselves.

Prayer: Lord, forgive us when we allow faith to become something we define, ignoring what you would have us believe and do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Matter of Life AND Death

Romans 14:1-12
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-9). So writes Paul to the church in Rome. His intent is to remind readers that arguing over what days on which to worship or what foods to avoid creates unnecessary division within the community. Judgment belongs to God not to us, Paul says. We, in turn, belong to God in both our living and our dying. Human opinions and perspectives are not the basis for our faith.

There are a number of implications to these words, but I want to point to just one. If, whether we live or die, we are bound up in God, then we must learn to accept others who also belong to God whether or not they act like us, or talk like us or, vote like us, or own a car like purs. We should be far too busy experiencing God’s grace to get tied up in details and lose our way. In short, when it comes to God and God’s relationship with humanity it really is a matter of life AND death, which is to say that living or dying we belong to God.

Prayer: Lord forgive us when we allow the most insignificant of issues to stand between us and others. Instead give us eyes with which to see your love poured out for the whole world.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Is There Really A Choice?

Romans 13:1-14
Luke 8:16-25
At first glance we might see a contradiction between our New Testament readings for today. In Romans Paul says, “(the commandments) are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:9-10). Meanwhile in Luke’s gospel Jesus is told that his own mother and brothers are trying to see him but cannot get through the crowd. Jesus’ reply seems almost dismissive. “But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it’” (Luke 8:21). So what gives? Are we to ignore our own flesh and blood while showing compassion to the wider community? I think not.

In Luke Jesus does not deny his family, he instead expands it exponentially. Not only are Mary and her other children of concern to him, but so is everyone else who strives to do the will of God. Then, lest we turn ourselves inward, Paul reminds us to do no harm even to those who are not a part of “the family.” There are no limitations in these passages. Far from it! In Jesus there is a community available to anyone who would be a part of it, and compassion for those who are not. This is something to think about today as we go about our lives, interacting with friends and strangers, loved ones and those who we do not know. Will we make sharp distinctions between the two? Or will we show love and kindness in each case?

Prayer: God of love, help us to share that love with friend and stranger alike, that your will be done and your name glorified. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Real Love

Romans 12:1-21
Chapter of 12 of Romans can be overwhelming. Paul is clear about what a life in Christ should look like, and the longer he talks about it the more difficult a challenge it becomes. Somewhere between not being “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2) and learning to pray for – not curse but pray for – those who persecute me (v. 14) I feel as though I’m floundering. What human being can even pretend to manage all of this?

But it is also there between not conforming and not cursing that Paul says this: “Let love be genuine…” (v. 9). I’m not sure that we can really sum up all of chapter 12 with this phrase, but it’s a great place to start, because if we are going to really seek the life Paul describes, then we are going to need our love – for God and for others – to be real and not a fa├žade. Once upon a time I worked for an insurance company as a policy service representative. One of the questions we asked when we were taking applications for homeowners’ insurance was whether the house was actually built of brick or had a brick veneer. The difference is important. A house made of brick is more solid, obviously, and more resilient, while a brick veneer is more likely to collapse under stress and leave the interior of the house unprotected. It would seem to me that genuine love is solid and resilient in times of turmoil, while a less genuine love is more like a veneer that is likely to collapse and leave damaged relationships in its wake.

Coming at it this way doesn’t make Romans 12 any less daunting; Paul’s words still overwhelm me. But at least I have a place to begin. If I can learn to love God and to love others with a honest and deeply felt love then I think I’m off to a good start in meeting Paul’s other exhortations.

Prayer: Gracious God, we ask that our love for you and for others may be genuine, that we may live in community as you desire. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Remember My Chains

Jeremiah 32:1-15
Colossians 3:18-4:18
Luke 7:36-50
At the conclusion of the letter to the church at Colossae Paul stops dictating to a scribe, takes the writing implement into his own hand, and adds a few words. Among them are these: “Remember my chains” (Colossian 4:18). Presumably he is asking his readers to pray for him in his imprisonment. But is it also possible that he is apologizing for his poor handwriting caused by restricted movement? No matter. Despite his imprisonment Paul is determined to continue sharing the gospel with all who will listen.

The prophet Jeremiah was also imprisoned. He had chosen a time of national crisis to express God’s judgment and been arrested for it. He might have grown discouraged or disgusted, yet when given the chance he offered a sign of profound hope by purchasing a field. The day will come, he was saying, when God’s people will be restored to their land (Jeremiah 32:15). The woman in Luke’s account did not live in literal chains, but she was bound by her reputation which, according to Jesus’ host, was as “a sinner” (Luke 7:39). But even her lowly social status did not prevent the woman from ministering to Jesus or receiving his assurance of forgiveness.

You and I carry chains as well: of sin, regret, loss, anger. We might consider our condition to be more than we can overcome. We might give up and become passive, allowing our faith to dwindle. Or we could remember Paul, Jeremiah, and the unnamed woman from Luke’s gospel, each a person bound in some way yet determined to serve God as best they could. Seen in this light our chains become far less significant to who we are and our opportunities to serve become far more numerous. There are tasks to be done, and by the grace of God we are the folks called to do them. In this way we will find our true freedom.

Prayer: God of freedom and mercy, help us to rise above that which binds us and to embrace the good news of the gospel as a message to share and a path to trod. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, May 20, 2011

“It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”

Jeremiah 31:15-22
Colossians 3:1-11
I hate to even bring this up, but there are a number of Christians convinced that tomorrow, May 21, 2011, will be the day of judgment and the end of the world. If you are reading this some time after May 21, 2011 then I guess they were wrong. Yet today’s readings do offer a word about the new things that God has been doing all along – not the end of the world so much as the end of the world as we know it (to borrow a line from the song by REM), and maybe that’s the real point.

Jeremiah uses an odd example. “For the LORD has created a new thing on the earth: a woman encompasses a man” (Jeremiah 31:22). According to some commentators this means that women will no longer need protection from or by men in order to function in society. In the prophet’s day this would have been a significant change. Colossians takes the idea further. “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Colossians 3:11). In each case the writers see a time when human distinctions will be swallowed up in God’s grace, when the way we’ve always done it will give way to the way God wants it done.

God has always been at work doing new things, challenging perspectives, upsetting preconceived notions, pushing us in directions. I suspect that regardless of what happens May 21, 2011 will be no different. Somewhere tomorrow God will touch a life, will encourage a community, will work through science and art to accomplish some part of the divine will. Somewhere tomorrow God’s grace will be sought and found, God’s healing will have a profound effect, God’s love will be reflected in the love of those around us. These will be new things that God is doing, things that will bring a close to the way it was before. Tomorrow will be the end of the world, at least as we have known it. But then, so will May 22, 2011, and May 23. God continues to act and to create, and frankly I feel fine about it.

Prayer: Gracious God, help us to accept the new thing you are doing in our midst and to embrace your will at all times. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Don'ts and Dos

Colossians 2:8-23
Think back to the story of Peter in Joppa, sitting on a rooftop one day, waiting for lunch. As he waited he experienced a vision in which he was offered all sorts of animals to “kill and eat.” As a devout Jew he declined; to have killed and eaten these animals would have violated the law. But God spoke to him saying, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:9-16).

Now listen to a portion of our reading from Colossians for this morning. “Why do you submit to regulations,” it asks, “‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence” (Colossians 2:20-23). It would appear that Peter and the author of Colossians have been led to a similar conclusion, that it is quite possible to get lost in a profusion of legalities which serves, not to enable our faith, but to obscure it. Devotion to Jesus Christ is not about checking requirements off a list, it is about accepting Jesus as Lord and allowing him to work through us.

Ever notice how young children will make up games as they go along? If we are not careful we may do the same thing, making up “requirements of faith” to meet our opinions and not as a response to God’s will. God calls us to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:25-28) which is all very straight forward if not particularly easy. So maybe we would prefer a lot of rules that we can accomplish on our way to salvation, but that is certainly not what we find in Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Lord, help us to love you with everything we are and to regard those around us with love as well so that we do not get lost in a maze of pointless rules but instead live as your people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Swaying and Standing

Colossians 1:24-2:7
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:6-7).

Christianity is a dynamic faith, fluid enough to meet the challenges of each succeeding generation of believers, yet solid enough to withstand the ebb and flow of history. This dynamism in part allows Paul to speak of both the presence of Jesus Christ in the life of the Colossian congregation, the faith that has been taught to them in particular, and the need for them to abound in thanksgiving, as well as the call for all believers to stand firmly rooted and built up in Christ, to be “established in the faith” (Colossians 1:7). Faith in Christ can be shared, can draw out a profound response, can guide lives and shape individual communities. But it also transcends the powers of the world and creates a secure and lasting structure. I think of it this way: the largest of buildings must sway in the wind to avoid breaking apart, but they must also have a solid foundation lest they topple over.

One of the great challenges we face as people of faith is learning when to sway and to when to stand firm. It is not an easy task and when the church has been most fragmented it is because it has chosen the wrong strategy for the time. When this happens we must go about the business of regrouping, of focusing once again on God’s will, and on living into the call we have received. Then we can learn once more when to sway and when to stand.

Prayer: Lord, you alone are our strength, and you alone are our guide in life. Help us to know what is needed that we may serve you fully and faithfully. Amen.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Physics of Theology

Colossians 1:15-23
Physics was never my favorite subject. There were aspects of it that I really enjoyed, but for the most part I just wasn’t interested. So maybe I’m not the best person to make this statement, but it would appear that our reading from Colossians 1 today, while it may be great theology, is really lousy science. “[Jesus] himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17), we read. It is verses like this one that seem to divide the scientific community from the church and its doctrine.

First of all questions about creation are guaranteed to start an argument. Creationism, Intelligent Design, 300 million years, 7 days; you name it and we people of faith can have a pretty good squabble about it. But here the writer of Colossians claims that Jesus is before all things, not was before all things, is before all things. Then there is this odd assertion, that it is by Jesus that “all things hold together.” I thought that friction, or bonding, or some other concept did that. I thought gravity played a role in keeping stuff where it was supposed to be. I thought there were forces and their opposites that did the “holding together.” What has Jesus got to do with this?

But here’s the good news that we miss if we aren’t careful. What is it that allows science and faith to stand shoulder to shoulder, that gives all people – regardless of their particular perspective – reason to unite? And that is where we discover the miracle, for while there are a million ways to divide us up and to break us off, there is precious little that can put us back together again. But Jesus can, for in Jesus “all things hold together.” For those of us who are Christians what unity we experience comes when in unison we say, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” So maybe our faith is the physics of theology, the recognition that above it all and before it all there is something else, something that counters our tendency to turn against each other. The author of Colossians has given us reason to celebrate! In Jesus Christ we stand together for it is Jesus Christ “that all things hold together.”

Prayer: Lord, in so many ways we pull ourselves apart. By your grace put us back together again that we might serve you in a unity of purpose. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Which is Worse, a Withered Hand or a Withered Heart?

Luke 6:1-11
Stories of Jesus disregarding the traditional sabbath restrictions are common. Our reading from Luke this morning includes two such instances, the second being the more poignant.Luke tells us that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue one sabbath (Luke 6:6-11).

Among those in attendance was a man whose right hand was withered. The contrast between Jesus, accepted as a teacher, and a man whose condition would have caused him to suffer a certain amount of isolation from others is significant. So is the presence of those for whom the law was far more important than Jesus’ compassion. As Jesus heals the withered hand the scribes and Pharisees in attendance have their darkest opinions of Jesus confirmed. You can almost hear their minds closing, their hearts hardening. The story ends with the man’s hand restored and the perspective of the scribes and Pharisees withered instead. But Jesus has also put himself in an awkward situation. He has gone from a position of respect –– as a teacher –– to one of disrepute, a man willing to flaunt the law of God. It’s a profound turn of events.

It is typical to try and place ourselves in stories like this one, to see ourselves standing with Jesus and approving of his actions. But the truth is not always that clear cut. There are times when we can get so wrapped up in protocol and tradition, in “the way we do things” that we miss the opportunity to learn something new, even from Jesus. Jesus lived in obedience in God, not in blind acceptance of the law or of public opinion. If we are going to follow Jesus we are going to have to learn to do the same, to concentrate on acts of compassion and not on judgment. We are going to have to trust the teacher.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for your healing touch that mends our hearts and minds even as it leads us toward accepting your will. Amen.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Can We Handle the Truth?

Note: This was actually the post from Thursday, May 12 that seems to have disappeared in the recent Blogger glitch. I'm reposting it for today and will resume posting on Monday, May 16. Thanks for your support and your readership. I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to share God's word with people from over 65 countries around the world. As always, feel free to comment on any post.

1 John 5:13-20 (21)
There is a climactic moment in the film “A Few Good Men” when the character played by Jack Nicholson nearly screams at the one played by Tom Cruise, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” That’s one of my favorite moments in all of film. Our reading from 1 John is not filled with screaming, but it is a profound declaration of what it means to be God’s people. “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true” (1 John 5:20a).

Of course the one “who is true” is God and it is in the ministry of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit that we are given the opportunity to recognize that truth and what it means for us. We cannot fully understand it, cannot grasp it completely, but we can move in the right direction and can allow it to affect who we are. This is not for the weak of spirit. For once we have gazed into the truth, into who God is, we will know things about ourselves that we probably would rather not know. This is a part of the balance that we find in God, the tension between judgment and grace. Part of God’s truth is bound up in condemning us for our failures, holding us accountable for where we have gone astray. But a part of God’s truth is also to be found in the forgiveness we receive from the very same God in whose Son we find our hope.

Can we handle this truth? That’s a good question. There may be times when we must look away lest we become overwhelmed by God’s majesty. But at other times I believe we are able to see and feel the truth like the hug of a loved one or the stirring of compassion deep in the heart, leading us to share what we have encountered. So yes, I believe we can handle it, indeed are called to stand before it and to carry it with us and to be motivated by it. God’s truth is that which endures, and when we wrestle with it we are blessed by the endeavor.

Prayer: Lord, help us to see and to know your truth and to live according to your will. Amen.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bless Her Heart

Luke 4:38-44
I have always been bothered by the brief account of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, found in the reading from Luke. “After leaving the synagogue [Jesus] entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked him about her. Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. Immediately she got up and began to serve them” (Luke 4:38-39). Bless the woman’s heart! First she was suffering from a dire illness of some type, but as soon as Jesus healed her she got up and started waiting on Simon and the others. Now don’t tell me this was a woman’s place, or that the poor dear was simply doing what she loved. I think we miss the point if we see only a woman waiting on a group of men. The truth is much deeper.

I think that once we have been touched by Jesus, had our circumstances altered and realize that our lives are not what they used to be, then we simply cannot help put reach out to others. “Look what I’ve found!” we might say. It is also in Luke’s gospel that we read of the woman who has lost a coin, who sweeps her house until she finds it, and then calls her neighbors together to rejoice with her (Luke 15:8-10). In her own way, Simon’s mother-in-law is doing the same thing. She is reaching out in response to Jesus. She is doing what she can – serving others – as a way of acknowledging what has been given to her.

If we have been touched by God in some significant way, if the good news of the gospel has brought light into our lives, surely we are called to respond, to act, to share, to give, to make known what we have experienced in some way. Surely it is our feet that are made beautiful by the tidings of joy that we carry to others (Isaiah 52:7). If you have experienced God’s grace in some way, then today is another opportunity to say to others, “Look what I’ve found! Come and celebrate with me!”

Prayer: Lord, may we guided this day to share the good news with others so that more lives may be touched by your grace. Amen.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"Love Will Keep Us Together"

1 John 4:7-21
In the summer of 1975 the musical act Captain and Tennille released their cover of a Neil Sedaka song, “Love Will Keep Us Together.” The song was the number one hit of the year. The author of 1 John might not have appreciated the comparison, but I thought of the song as I reflected on our readings for today. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16b), we read. In other words, it is in love that we are united in God. If we are to exist as a community it must be with love for our brothers and sisters. Love alone – God’s love – can and will keep us together. The emphasis of the passage is on the source of love. In its truest form love is a gift from God. The author of this passage does little to define love except to contrast it with hate. But it is clear that where hate dismembers, love builds up, and this “building up” is what God wills.

Perhaps it is left to Paul to more fully define love as he does in 1 Corinthians 13. There the demands of love are made clear: patience, kindness, endurance, forbearance, etc. This is the love demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus Christ. This is what God desires from God’s people. To do otherwise is to separate ourselves from those around us and, more importantly, from what God is about in the world because “God is love….” Captain and Tennille may not have been thinking about 1 John 4:16 when they recorded their hit, but I suspect that whenever I hear that song in the future I will regard it differently, as a reminder of what God wishes from me and from you.

Prayer: Help us to love one another, O God, just as you love us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Not Just a Theory Anymore

Luke 4:14-30
As Jesus spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth he made an audacious claim. According to Luke, Jesus read from the book of Isaiah promises of good news to the poor, of freedom for the captives and those oppressed, of healing for the blind, of the year of God’s favor. And when he had sat down Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Jesus was not inviting his listeners to join in the effort to bring the prophet’s words to reality, nor was he promising to do it himself. Jesus’ claim was that in that time and place the words of the prophet had come to fruition. They had moved from theory to practice, from possibility to fact. This is why these verses from Luke are sometimes called the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry.

I look around the world today and I see plenty of poor people, all sorts of captives and entire nations being oppressed. I know many people who long for healing but seem to find none. Is this really what God’s favor is all about? Has anything really changed? And then I remember the man, who spoke in the synagogue that day, and I think about what he was willing to do on behalf of God’s people, and I realize that in this man, this Jesus of Nazareth, God was in fact bringing the divine reign into our midst, not as a hope or a wish, but as a rock-solid reality. Despite all the evil in the world, despite the hardship and the oppression, God’s grace continues to flow, sometimes in ripples of kindness, and sometimes in profusions of generosity. For every act of anger or hatred there is still someone willing to step forward and to say, “I believe in the reign of God, that it is fact, that it is now.” And every time a person of faith makes this audacious claim the power of evil is reduced.

This is not a theory. This is not a promise. This is fact. We are living through what Paul Simon called “an age of miracle and wonder” because we are witnesses to the dawn of God’s reign as it creeps across the sky touching all of creation with its radiance and lighting the path forward. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, may the light of your new day light the path we tread that we may walk in your way all our lives. Amen.

Friday, May 6, 2011

“Getting To Know You…”

1 John 3:1-10
“The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know God” (1 John 3:1). I wonder about this verse in light of our contemporary culture. I realize that when it was written there was an enormous majority of people who had never heard of Judaism, let along Christianity. But what does this passage mean today?

The fact is that there are few people who do not know something about the Jewish and Christian faiths, but the issue lies in how that knowledge the way people live. A list of the 10 best speeches in history ranked Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” as number 2 (right behind Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech). Jesus’ “speech” was ranked second purely because of it’s value as moral instruction, not because it was spoken by the Son of God. How many people in the western hemisphere do not know the significance of Easter and Christmas? Yet where is most of the emphasis placed? On gift giving and retail sales. When the Cadbury Co. can say “No bunny knows Easter like we do” it provides an interesting commentary. And the familiar Christmas song “Here Comes Santa Clause” includes the line, “Say your prayers to the Lord above, ‘cause Santa Clause is coming tonight.” How have those two concepts become related? I even remember a time when one of the major oil companies used Noah’s Ark as a promotional giveaway: fill up the tank and receive a set of two animal figures.

The world knows about God. But the world—and too many people of faith—seem content to allow a skewed version of the story of salvation to pass as truth. Easter and Christmas remain profoundly significant without gifts or major purchases. Jesus is the Word of God incarnate; what he says is life-giving not merely instructive. And the stories of faith should do more than prompt consumer choices. They should compel us to reexamine who we are and what we hold as essential. So maybe it isn’t that the world doesn’t know us, maybe it is that we do not know ourselves.

Prayer: Lord help us to live as your people and not according to the world’s version of who you are. Amen.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Just Add Righteousness

Luke 3:1-14
According to Luke, as John the Baptist preached and baptized he began to attract large crowds. Among those who came to him seeking direction for their lives were some unsavory types. As we read, “Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages’” (Luke 3:12-14). According to some commentators we may assume that both the tax collectors and soldiers to whom Luke refers were Jews in the employ of the Romans, and therefore considered traitors. Yet even they were moved to seek repentance. And what does John say to these people? He does not tell them to renounce their occupations. Instead he challenges them to fulfill their positions with righteousness and justice. Tax collectors should take no more than is due to them. Soldiers should be content with their income and not resort to extortion in order to earn more. By God’s grace what they have been given should be enough, John is saying.

Yes, there are activities that are wholly irredeemable. But society would be greatly blessed if people of faith would act with righteousness in the lawful tasks they undertake. I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to apply John the Baptist’s words to modern leaders of government and business. Those who cling to ideology, partisanship, and profitability — be they liberal or conservative –– at the expense of doing what is just are no better than extortionists. The tax collectors and soldiers to whom John spoke had made greed into an idol. Political or economic dogma is just as dangerous. Do the right thing, John says. Be content with what God has given you and act with a generosity of mind and spirit. I realize this is not an easy undertaking (in fact, the easy part is seeing the faults in other people). But if we are true in our desire to repent and get right with God we’ve got to be willing to change, to give up what may seem essential to us in order to meet the needs of others. In whatever we do, we must remain focused on God’s will. Anything else will serve to distance us from the righteousness of God.

Prayer: Lord, these are difficult times that require difficult choices. Help us at all times to live according to your will and to renounce the idolatries that scream for our attention. Amen.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

There Really Is A Choice

Daniel 2:17-30 1
John 2:12-17
I wish I could say that I always trust God with my whole heart, but that is simply not true. There are times when I am drawn off course by enticements or by worldly concerns. At those times I forget that I have a choice in how to live my life, that God offers a better way, that the world is not what it is all about. Verses in two of our readings today deal with the choice that we have between doing things God’s way and the way of the world.

In Daniel we read of God’s wisdom and how it transcends that of the world. “Daniel answered the king, ‘No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or diviners can show to the king the mystery that the king is asking, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days’” (Daniel 2:27-28). No matter how wise the “wise men” may be they are not able to penetrate the wisdom of God. Daniel chooses to trust God and finds the truth. In 1 John the writer implores his readers, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world — the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches — comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever” (1 John 2:15-17). To choose the world is to choose eventual decay and death, but to choose God is to accept the true meaning of life.

Even as people of faith we will struggle with this challenge. That is why we must not only choose God, but also depend on God for the ability to make the choice. Nor is this a “once and done” sort of thing. The options will continually pop up all the days of our lives. Bottom line: there is a choice to be made – a real one with real consequences – and this is a grace-filled thing, because if there were no choice to be made between God and the world all would be lost. Instead there is a better way, thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, help us choose to follow you in our lives and to live as your people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Completed Joy

John 17:12-19
Our reading from John includes a portion of what is called Jesus’ high priestly prayer. One of the petitions that Jesus offers on behalf of his disciples is that “they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17:13). Two things strike me about this verse. The first is that Jesus refers to his joy. Here he is, on the cusp of his passion, about to suffer and die, and yet he speaks of his joy as a present reality. The second thing that strikes me is that Jesus wishes this same joy for his disciples in as full a measure as he himself possesses it.

On April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King delivered what would be his final sermon, what is now entitled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” At it’s conclusion King makes a startling claim. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” This seems to me to be as close as one might come to Jesus’ prayer in John 17. Like Jesus, King speaks of his joy as a present reality. And like Jesus, King wishes that joy for the congregation that night.

I know that I spend far too much of my time in a fret about the future, about money, about relationships, about time, about hurt feelings. What I don’t spend very much time doing is feeling joy. If Jesus, who knew he was about to suffer and die, and Martin Luther King who may have had a premonition of his death (but who surely knew his life to be in danger) could speak of joy—well, I want some of what they’ve got. And the only way that is going to happen is when I turn my life over to God as fully as I can and I allow God to guide me in the steps that I take. That was Jesus’ joy. King, too, said that he just wanted “to do God’s will.” Now, today, at this moment, it is my turn. By God’s grace I will reach out in confidence that a deep joy awaits me regardless of what happens in my life. Come on, let’s go there together.

Prayer: Lord God, source of all joy, help us to live in obedience to you that our joy may be complete. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Current Events

1 John 1:1-10
As I write these words a small stream has developed in our normally dry backyard. It is a product of recent unrelenting rain. Yesterday, for the first time that I can remember, I was prevented from leading a worship service because of flood waters that made my trip difficult and unsafe. And the rain continues to fall on this part of Arkansas. Then last night came word of the death of Osama bin Laden. This news has caused a different sort of stream to develop around the world, an outpouring of emotion and, in this country at least, relief. I see a connection of sorts between the two situations. If we are not careful we may be carried away in our response to bin Laden’s death the way flood waters sweep away a person or a vehicle.

“This is the message we have heard from (Jesus Christ) and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true…” (1 John 10:5-6). God is light, no matter what may be happening in our world or in our lives. To say we are God’s people and yet choose to live in the shadows is to get it wrong and to go astray. In times of greatest stress or of greatest emotion we must strive more earnestly to follow God’s will, to live in the light. One potential danger that looms for Americans is self-congratulations or gloating. We live in a world as full of violence and oppression today as it was yesterday. The rivers of injustice surge over their banks and inundate peoples of all nations and ethnicities. Storm clouds of idolatry drift above our heads. Darkness remains a tempting retreat from the responsibilities of the light.

How people of faith react in the coming days will be very telling. This is no time to pause in our efforts to build true and lasting community with others. This is no time to take our eyes off the needs of our world. This is no time to speak of “winning” or of “us vs. them.” Such actions will only add to the flood of hatred and mistrust that regularly sweeps our world. Now is the time for honesty, for light, for God’s will. Now is the time to work even harder to reach blessed consensus both at home and abroad, to set aside our differences and to allow our similarities to show us the way to go. Until the reign of God arrives in its fullness the waters will continue to lap at the foundations of goodness. To dwell in the darkness is to give up all hope. These days we need God’s light as much as ever.

Prayer: Lord, you taught us to pray, even for our enemies and for those who persecute us. May your love and mercy be at work in all hearts—ours included—that your will be done. Amen.