Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Freeing Barabbas

Mark 15:1-11
Jesus stood before Pilate, accused of wrongdoing by the religious elite. According to our gospel reading for today Pilate would customarily release a prisoner according to the wishes of the people. Pilate wondered if the people would like to have Jesus released, “But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead” (Mark 15:11). Barabbas was a murderer and a rebel who had been jailed during a recent insurrection and stood in stark contrast to Jesus. But because of the crowds it was Barabbas that Pilate released.

While the vast majority of us will never commit murder or insurrection, there is a rebellious streak in all of us. How often we “release” that aspect of our personalities instead of the goodness that God seeks from us all! Where we could be of great comfort to others we too often think only of ourselves and our own needs. When there is something that needs saying we have a habit of remaining silent, and when we should be quiet we sometimes say too much. “Serve the Lord with gladness; come into his courts with praise,” is what we should say. Too often, though, our murmuring sounds more like “free Barabbas!” We need to make better choices, and we need to allow ourselves to be led by God and not by the culture around us.

Prayer: Lord, help us to serve you by serving others and thus to bring glory to your name. Amen.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Total Lack of Courage

Mark 14:66-72
Peter had sworn that he would never deny Jesus, no matter what. But according to our reading from Mark this morning that’s exactly what Peter did. Bless Peter’s heart, though. The first two times he denied knowing Jesus were not to a person of power or authority, but to a servant girl (Mark 14:67-69). Apparently all of Peter’s courage was gone as was his promise to remain loyal to Jesus.

I’m not making light of Peter’s actions. I can’t honestly say I would have done any better—I don’t know because by God’s grace I’ve never been in that situation. And that’s the warning I take from this account. Words are easy, promises are cheap, but actions are sometimes very difficult. On the other hand, Jesus seems to have known Peter better than Peter knew himself because Jesus had predicted the denial. And ironically there is the good news that all of us need to hear: Jesus knows each of us better than we know ourselves and yet Jesus is willing to die for us, just as he was willing to die for Peter. The disciple may have lacked courage, but the teacher did not, and in the end God’s grace was made clear in the resurrection.

Spiritually we may each be lacking, but God’s love is powerful enough to call us, to claim us, to heal us, to hold us, to save us, and to send us. This we know because Jesus died for Peter…and for you and me.

Prayer: Lord, forgive us when our courage fails or when we do not live up to our promises. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, August 29, 2011

On Feeling Stupid

James 2:1-13
It’s a short phrase that carries quite a wallop, there at the end of our reading from James: “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13b). We should be used to this idea by now. Jesus has made it on a number of occasions. In Matthew 18:21-22 Jesus tells Peter to be prepared to forgive someone seventy-seven times. And in Luke 11:2-4 (as in Matthew 6:9-13) the disciples are taught to pray that their sins or debts may be forgiven as they forgive those who have sinned against them or are indebted to them. James simply amplifies the idea. “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

But this is one of those ideas that seems so counterintuitive to us. “What goes around comes around,” we say. “An eye for an eye,” we quote from the Old Testament, forgetting that Jesus announced a complete reordering of that idea. We believe that judgment equates to justice and are eager to claim our vindication. This is a point on which I stumble quite often. When I feel that I or a loved one have been wronged it takes me quite a while to let go of the hurt and the anger. I want the offenders to know how they have hurt me. I want them to feel the same amount of pain—or more. So I lope along, feeling stupid or inept because I can not exact my vengeance the way I would like to.

How utterly foolish of me! My anger accomplishes nothing except to rob me of the chance to grow in maturity of faith and obedience to God. And how can I expect God’s mercy for me, when I am unwilling to express it to others. Jesus and the author of James each know what they are saying, that they are challenging a common human tendency to “get even.” But they are also offering a better way to live, one in which we live our faith even in the most difficult of times, even in the most challenging of circumstances. Anyone can hold on to anger. But those who have taken the example of Jesus Christ to heart can begin to live with mercy and patience. That’s my prayer for myself today, that I would allow mercy to triumph in my heart and to lead me to a better way of life.

Prayer: Lord, help us to forgive just as you continue to forgive us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Hardest Prayer to Pray

Mark 14:27-42
Jesus’ prayer in the garden is, as far as I’m concerned, the most difficult prayer to offer. According to Mark Jesus prayed, “…Yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36b). The depth of obedience, the amount of faith required to utter such words–and to mean them–is staggering. Jesus, grieved almost to death, had already expressed a desire to avoid the passion that awaited him. Then he said, “Yet…,” and with that one word Jesus was able to dismiss his own desires and to embrace God’s will. “Not what I want, but what you want.”

“Yet” is the key to this prayer and the source of the difficulty. It reflects the other path that one would prefer while at the same time resigning oneself to go where God sends. “Yet” is about letting go of who we are and wrapping ourselves in the identity that God holds out to us. “Yet” means turning away from the culture and the society while grasping the cross of discipleship. “Yet” is a word that Peter would not be able to utter that night, for he would ultimately cling to his own view of things. “Yet” should probably be the way we begin all our prayers, but in truth it figures into very few of them.

I wish I was able to pray the word “yet” and to mean it. I wish my faith was that strong and my obedience that total. Meanwhile I take comfort in what Jesus was able to do for, letting go in order to accept the “yet” that God was holding out to him.

Prayer: Lord, help me to be more faithful and more obedient to you that I might accept your will for me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Character Issue

1 Kings 3:16-28
Our reading from 1 Kings today is very familiar. King Solomon was once approached by two women, each claiming a baby to be their child. Solomon discovered the truth by threatening to split the child in half, at which point the boy’s real mother relented in her claim. I’ve read this story a dozen times, and may have preached from it a time or two, but until today I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about the identity of the two woman. Right at the very beginning of the story we are told that they were prostitutes (1 Kings 3:16). So here’s the question: why did Solomon waste his time seeking justice between women of such low moral character? Surely a king had better things to do than deal with two—what shall we call them? Whores?

Or maybe the real question is this: what would we have done? Would we have allowed the social standing of the women or their immoral character to sway our judgment? Would we have told them they weren’t worthy or our attention? While the story really centers on Solomon’s wisdom we can not ignore the fact that Solomon sought justice regardless of who he was dealing with. Surely we should, too. In fact people of faith should always look for the least and the lost, to offer consolation and a better way. The homeless man with a record of petty crime—should we leave him on the streets to fend for himself? The runaway teenager now addicted to drugs—should she have to live with the mess she’s caused? The illegal alien who faces a sudden health crisis—should we deport her? The man lying by the side of the road who represents everything that we hate or mistrust—should we leave him for someone else to deal with?

We know what we are supposed to do. The prophets made it clear, and so did Jesus. Justice is akin to righteousness. In fact the two go hand in hand. We err when we spend our time meting out what people deserve instead of offering what they need. Besides, aren’t we all sinners in constant need of God’s redeeming grace? Solomon’s wisdom is profound, but I would suggest that his sense of justice is every bit as important. And while we can’t all be “Solomons” we can seek to be the people whom God has called us to be.

Prayer: Lord, may we see with eyes of justice and not of judgment, and may we serve you by showing others justice and compassion. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Extravagant Love

Mark 14:1-11
In today’s gospel reading Mark tells us the story of the woman who anointed Jesus with a costly ointment. Some who witnessed the event complained that the ointment could have been sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor (Mark 14:4-5). If that is the case then the woman herself must have had considerable means, for presumably she had bought the ointment to begin with. Her gesture, then, is a demonstration of her extravagant love for Jesus.

How would I rate my love for God through Jesus Christ, as extravagant or as miserly, as generous or as tightfisted? There are times when I feel like I am doing what God expects of me—at least to some extent. But most of the time I know that I have fallen far short of God’s will. And even when I get close to where God would like me to be, I can hardly call my offering extravagant. And if I do love the Lord with heart, mind, soul, and strength is that really a profound gift, or simply the way it should be? What would I be willing to give up for the sake of my faith, what offering would I make?

I’m not sure how to answer questions like these. But I do know this, that even when my gift to God is nowhere near what it should be, God’s gift to me in Jesus Christ is far and away more than I deserve and something I can never repay. The woman with the jar of ointment showed what was possible, but Jesus did what was necessary to forgive the sins of the world. And love like that is truly extravagant.

Prayer: Lord forgive us when we do not love you fully, nor show love for one another. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

In a Corner…Or Not

Acts 26:24-27:8
In addressing the King Agrippa, Paul uses an interesting turn of phrase to describe the events surrounding his own conversion to Christianity. “Indeed the king knows about these things,” says Paul, “and to him I speak freely; for I am certain that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). Paul is telling the king about events that were not hidden or obscured, but which were out in the open.

The expression, “not done in a corner” is apt in some ways, but curious in others. There are times when Christians are challenged to be open in profession their faith. Those who believe are to avoid the darkness and to live in the light, are to live with boldness, making the good confession to any who would listen. This was Paul’s own practice, to speak in the synagogues and anywhere else he might find an audience. But there are other elements of the faith that almost seem to require corners. Jesus condemns those who sit in the seats of honor or who pray loudly in the temple or on street corners, who make much of their own practices. Jesus says that it is better to pray in private than to make a show of prayer. Luke’s telling of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple would seem to support a more personal practice of the faith. The one who was justified in that story was quiet and unobtrusive in his prayer.

So which is it? Should Christianity be practiced out in the open as was so often the case with Paul, or should it be a private matter confined to prayer closets, as Jesus seems to suggest on more than one occasion? Of course the answer is yes…yes to both. There are times when our faith will essentially require us to make a public profession of faith, to keep our lamps on the lamp stand so that everyone may see and rejoice. But there are other times when we must remain “in the corner” so as not to call attention to ourselves, leaving our left hand ignorant of what our right hand is doing. As with so much else in the Christian faith it becomes a matter of appropriateness. It is good when we can give glory to God so that the world may see, but there are also times when it is best to stay behind the scenes and to allow the lamplight to fall on others.

As Paul gave his defense before King Agrippa he called attention to the work of God through Jesus Christ. But Paul would also know that at times he himself needed to be alone, to pray, to mediate, to seek God’s guidance in his own life. It is a matter of balance and of spiritual maturity that we learn and develop over time. Sometimes we need to be out of the corner, but other times a corner is the very best place for us to be.

Prayer: Lord God, help us to discern the times when we should act boldly, and the times when we should remain withdrawn, so that in either case we may give you the glory. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Nothing We Haven’t Heard Before

I'd like to wish our son, William a very happy 18th birthday today. We are blessed to have two wonderful children.

Acts 26:1-23
When Paul is given an opportunity to speak before King Agrippa concerning the charges for which he was being held he offered what one commentator claims was a “model defense of Christianity” (New Oxford Annotated Bible NRSV, p. 198 NT n.). “…And so I stand here,” Paul said, “testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place…” (Acts 26:22). In other words, why wouldn’t the Jews accept his preaching about Jesus and the resurrection since they themselves have been waiting for generations to see these very events?

Why indeed? Yet the Jewish leaders resist Paul’s message about the Messiah in part because Jesus did not act the way they thought the Messiah would. They were looking for glory, a restoration of Israel, a dominant national presence. Jesus offered none of that, instead telling his followers to take up their crosses and follow him in faithful obedience. To some this was not a word about the Messiah, this was a story about a wimp. In no way would the leaders of Israel accept this message as long as it included the death of God. But Paul was right. This was nothing new, and if the leaders of the people had simply listened with their hearts they, too, would have understood.

But they didn’t. And what about us? How carefully are we listening to Paul? How much do we even want to understand about this man Jesus? Wouldn’t we rather trust our own opinions, our own assumptions about what God is doing than to follow after Jesus, a convicted blasphemer who died on a cross? Maybe, but Paul is persistent and the truth continues to dawn in our world and in our lives. The one we follow died, yes, and was raised again. We’ve heard it a million times. Maybe it’s time we actually began to believe it, fully, and to trust what God is doing in our world.

Prayer: Lord, help us to believe the good news of the gospel, the stories we’ve heard over and over again, with all our hearts and minds. Amen.

Friday, August 19, 2011

How Awful Is That?

Mark 12:35-44
As someone who leads worship on a regular basis I was a bit put off by a verse from Mark’s gospel today. Warning his listeners about the scribes Jesus says, in part, “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:40). Really? Long prayers are morally equivalent to devouring the homes of widows? If this is true then I’m in big trouble. But this is really not the what Jesus is saying. The lengthy prayers that Jesus is talking about are made “for the sake of appearance,” not as a true act of faith. In other words, the scribes often practice a phony religion with prayers intended to attract attention to themselves and not to praise and worship God. And while dubious prayers may still seem mild compared to the eviction of widows, they do point to a greater truth. Our relationship with God says a lot about how we are apt to treat others. If we are praying, or worshiping, or showing up for church just so others will see us and be impressed, then we are really no better than those who mistreat their neighbors and take advantage of the defenseless.

Does that sound familiar? It should. This is just an extension of the gospel reading from yesterday, where Jesus said that love of God and love of neighbor are the two greatest commandments. It is impossible to do one adequately without doing the other as well. Insulting God with meaningless prayers IS the moral equivalent of mistreating one’s neighbors because not loving God is essentially the same as not loving those around us, and vice versa. So, it really isn’t the length of ours prayers that Jesus is warning us about-what a relief!-it is what those prayers say about us, how we feel about God, how we feel about each other.

Prayer: Lord, help us to love you and to love those around us. Amen.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Someone Was Paying Attention

Mark 12:28-34
According to Mark’s gospel, a scribe asked Jesus an honest question, “Which is the greatest of all the laws?” Jesus’ answer was two-fold. First he quoted from Deuteronomy 6 that there is only one God who must be worshiped with every ounce of our being. Then he reminded his listeners to love their neighbors as much as they loved their own lives. “You are right, Teacher,” said the scribe. “You have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’- this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:32-33).

The scribe’s reply pleased Jesus, but it should also encourage us. Christianity is not an impossible muddle of things to do and not to do. Nor is it one giant “NO” as some would suggest. A life of discipleship in Jesus Christ is a life oriented in the right direction and lived along the right path. It is a challenge, to be sure, but it also offers times of joy and of peace, for when we truly share in the lives of those around us and when we strive to put God first in our living we are enabled to live as those freed from the fear of death and open to the forgiveness that God alone offers. Everything else flows from these two principles: Love God above all, and love neighbor with honest concern.

Easier said than done, I know, but these commandments are pretty clear cut and are not that difficult to gage in our living. In fact, pay attention to what you do today. When do you do the best job of following God’s will and when do you fall short? When do you show the most love for your neighbors and when do you struggle to put up with them? With practice I think we can all become more aware of our actions and can become more faithful and obedient to God at the same time.

Prayer: Lord, help us to love you with all that are, and help us to support and care for one another. In this way may we serve you and give glory to your name. Amen.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Sense Of Loss

2 Samuel 18:19-33

"The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, 'O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!'" (2 Samuel 18:33). This is not how one would expect a victorious king to act. Yes, David's son Absalom has been killed in battle despite his father's orders, but Absalom had been in open rebellion against his father. Surely David would be relieved at the death of a would be usurper, and who would have blamed him? But David laments.

God would know how David felt. God's people have long been in open rebellion against their Creator, yet God remains steadfast in love and mercy. Indeed, God allowed the only Son to die for us, granting us salvation in the process. So while we might not fully expect David's response, God responds this way to us constantly. Now maybe it is time for us to respond in grace and peace to one another, to weep at the loss of community and to rejoice when we are blessed to share God's love. Then we, too, may know why David did what he did.

Prayer: Lord God, forgive our lack of concern for one another and help us to seek a community of grace in your name. Amen.