Friday, September 30, 2011

Seeking the Imperishable

1 Corinthians 9:16-27
A little later today I will officiate at the funeral of the father of a co-worker. As a pastor, of course, funerals are something I do fairly often; I must have done well over a hundred in my career. But few of the things I do are as meaningful to me as ministering at the time of death. Why? In large part, I think, because the transition from this life to the next is entirely in God’s hands, and we Christians live and die with the promise of the resurrection always before us.

Paul speaks to the reality of the resurrection in our epistle reading for today. “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one” (1 Corinthians 9:25). The imperishable wreath that Paul is talking about is the joy to be found in the presence of God once this life is ended and the life eternal has begun. Clearly our objective is more than an imperishable wreath, like so many silk flowers. But this is a helpful image to keep in mind.

Later today as I share the good news of God’s work in Jesus Christ with those who have lost a loved one I will strive to remind them of the hope we all share, the imperishable wreath for which we long. I will try to offer them a glimpse of grace and I will trust God to be at work through me offering comfort. I will rejoice with them as they remember a friend and relative. And I will grieve with them as they accept the loss they have suffered. And we will do all of this to the glory of God who, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, has paved the way to eternal life for all who are claimed by God. This is the imperishable wreath for which we strive. This is the grace by which we live and die.

Prayer: Lord, in your mercy be with all who mourn this day offering the comfort and hope that only you can give. In Jesus name. Amen.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What’s All the Fuss About Oxen?

1 Corinthians 9:1-15
What clarity Paul provides for the understanding of scripture. “For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned?” (1 Corinthians 9:9; quoting Deuteronomy 25:4). And with that one question—Is God really concerned that much about oxen?—Paul helps us to focus on what is really important in the faith.

No, God’s concern is not strictly for the wellbeing of farm animals. The issue is much broader and much more pressing. If oxen should be allowed to benefit from their work, so should people. Paul of course is staking a claim for himself and those who serve the gospel as apostles, but the point goes much further. One with a generous heart does not begrudge the wellbeing of others, nor does he or she deprive others of what is fair and just. Oh, and by the way, God is the one who decides what it fair and what is just. For example, Jesus used the example of an ox stuck in a well on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5-6). Who would be so callous as to leave the animal there until the next day? Surely then, Jesus healing the sick on a Sabbath was acceptable for it addressed the wellbeing of people.

So Paul isn’t really talking about oxen; he’s talking about what is fair and what is just according to God. How we approach public policy, how we deal with economics, what we do with our income all should be measured by this standard.

Prayer: Lord, help us to care for one another as you would have us to do, so that your justice may guide our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Going to the Dogs

Matthew 7:1-12
Sometimes one verse of scripture can shed light on a completely different verse or section of scripture. In the midst of our reading from Matthew today we hear Jesus say, “Do not give what is holy to dogs…” (Matthew 7:6a). I think one way to understand these words is as a warning not to take the faith lightly but to safeguard it from misunderstanding or misuse. Being judgmental toward others within the community of believers, for example, opens the gospel to contempt by those outside the faith and wastes the opportunity to demonstrate God’s love in Jesus Christ.

What, then, does this tell us about Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman later in the book of Matthew? There Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (15:26). Assuming that the term “dogs” has the same meaning in each instance, Jesus is making a serious claim. He believes that what he has to offer as the Messiah is not intended for those from outside the boundaries of Judaism, that his focus must be on the house of Israel. That changes, of course, with the heartfelt affirmation of the woman, whose faith in Jesus’ ability to heal far exceeds that of many of Jesus’ own people.

So here is the point. The Christian faith should never be misused or taken lightly. But it IS to be shared freely with all who will hear it, regardless of who they may be. The gospel is potent stuff, with the power to change lives and alter perspectives, allowing us to see others the way God intends them to be seen.

Prayer: Lord, help us to hold our faith in reverence and to live the gospel everyday. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, September 26, 2011

What, Me Worry?

Matthew 6:25-34
If I didn’t know better I might think that Jesus was talking directly to the people of Israel as they made their way along the path of the Exodus. “Therefore,” he says, “do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’” (Matthew 6:31). Food and water, of course, were major points of contention between the people and God, with Moses caught right in the middle. Ultimately God provided manna and quails as food for the people (Exodus 16:13-15), and water from the rock at Massah (17:5-7). Did the people of God not learn from this experience to trust God for all of their needs? Jesus seems to think not.

For decades the character Alfred E. Newman has graced the pages of Mad Magazine along with his personal slogan, “What, me worry?” Is it possible that Newman has caught the meaning of Jesus’ words? Is it possible that we, too, should adopt a “what, me worry?” attitude in life? Certainly, as far as our trust in God is concerned we must learn to rely on our Creator by whose hand we are continually guided and cared for. If we have learned anything from our history it should be that God is with us and is ready to offer what we need. Jesus’ advice is to quit asking, “What will eat or drink?” and to start affirming, “What, us worry?”

Prayer: Lord help us to give up our worrying about the future and to trust you to provide for us as you have provided for your people all along. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Is He Kidding?

1 Corinthians 7:1-9
I don’t think Paul was being intentionally funny but the last verse of the reading from 1 Corinthians today sounds a little like a gag from a standup routine. “For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9). There’s on old Henny Youngman bit that goes, “A fellow asked me, ‘Who was that lady I saw you last night?’ I said, ‘That was no lady, that was my wife.’” Paul’s joke is just as good. But did Paul really think marriage would cure passion?

Ah, but that’s not the point, is it? And that is why context is so important in Bible study. One verse may sound like a joke, but when seen in the broader picture its tone changes and the real meaning becomes more readily apparent. In fact, one of the strategies for understanding scripture is to use the general to explain the particular, the whole to help make the individual pieces clearer.

Paul is not talking about the effect of marriage on the relationship of two people. He’s talking about the propriety of human relationships in light of the reign of God and the imminent return of Jesus. If we take the one verse we might not see Paul’s intent. When in doubt, look around.

Prayer: Lord, help us to understand your word for our lives and to live accordingly. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Picking Teams

Psalm 147:12-20
When I was a kid in elementary school one of the more complex rituals we carried out on a regular basis was picking teams for softball or kickball. If you wanted to know where you stood in the pecking order this was a good way to find out. For the most part I was usually somewhere near the middle. And that was fine, so long as I was not picked last.

This isn’t exactly what the psalmist is talking about in Psalm 147, but notice the joy expressed in these verses: “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his ordinances. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 147:19-20). When it comes to being on “God’s team” as it were, the people of Israel were not only picked first, they were the only ones chosen. No other nation, no other people could claim such a distinction. With the children of Jacob alone had God dealt in this way.

Of course, being chosen by God carries with it certain expectations. God expects such a people to respond to God’s word, to live in God’s way, to trust in God’s providence. Even as we have come to understand the Church to be the people of God the expectations remain. But so should the joy! God has not dealt thus with any other institution. And in forming the community of faith God has picked each of us as individuals, not in some sort of pecking order, but in order that we may have life and have it abundantly, and that we may respond to God’s word, to live in God’s way, to trust in God’s providence.

Prayer: Lord, you have chosen us to serve you by serving others. We rejoice to be your people even as we seek your Spirit’s guidance for the living of these days. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Fairness of Creation

Matthew 5:38-48
In the midst of the gospel reading for today Jesus offers a familiar teaching. “…(God) makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good,” he says, “and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45b). These words are intended to encourage believers to treat all people with love just as God does. But if we listen carefully we will also find profound insight into our lives of faith.

If sinners and the unrighteous receive sun and rain (essential in an agricultural society and therefore essential to life) then the opposite is also true. Those who are righteous will experience disasters like drought and pestilence right along with everyone else. Of course, we knew that already. We’ve seen it happen over and over again. Now with Jesus’ help we know better than to make easy assumptions about one another, or even about God. If God is withholding judgment until the proper time, perhaps we, too, should withhold our judgment, perhaps we, too, should go about our lives blessing instead of cursing one another. Elsewhere in Matthew Jesus tells of a field of wheat and weeds growing side by side. It is only at the time of harvest, says Jesus, that they are to be separated (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43). The message is not only for us to live in accordance with God’s will, but also for us to allow God to act when and how God chooses. If Jesus can turn one loaf into many, just think how many weeds God can change to wheat with sunlight and rain.

Prayer: Lord, creation is yours. Help us trust you to be at work through in it as you will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

By the Spirit

2 Kings 5:19-27
1 Corinthians 5:1-8
There is an interesting factor that binds together two of our readings today. In both the 2 Kings and 1 Corinthians passages there is reference to being present in the spirit. “But (Elisha) said to him, “Did I not go with you in spirit when someone left his chariot to meet you?” (2 Kings 5:26); “For though absent in body, I am present in spirit…” (1 Corinthians 5:3).

The community of faith is essentially boundless in these passages. Neither the prophet Elisha nor the apostle Paul were limited by distance in their ability to know and participate in what was going on. Spiritually they were very much present to those from whom they were separated. Pardon the pun but each of them “were apart from the action, but at the same time a part of the action” as God allowed them to be. Their spiritual awareness and their authority gave them the ability to bridge gaps, to discern truths, to offer guidance, and to hold others accountable. In our world of instant communication we may believe we have the same opportunities to reach out to one another, to bridge all gaps, to be in all places as once. But it was a spiritual focus that gave Elisha and Paul insight into what others were doing. We may use all the technology at our disposal but unless we use it according to God’s will we are, as Paul says elsewhere, “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1) whey it comes to interacting.

Elisha and Paul were very much attuned to the spiritual life and allowed that spiritual aspect of their lives to guide their work to the glory of God. May we do the same.

Prayer: Lord, help us to reach out in love to one another, offering encouragement and support according to your will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Pardon Me, Please

2 Kings 5:1-19
Naaman was a general in the service of the king of Aram. Naaman was also a leper who learned there was a prophet in Israel who could cure him. Elisha was that prophet who did in fact heal Naaman of his disease. Afterwards the general acknowledged that the God of Israel was the one true God in all the world and the only God that Naaman would worship. “But,” said Naaman to Elisha, “may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count” (2 Kings 5:18). Elisha then assures Naaman that he may go in peace.

I find this to be an odd moment. On a number of occasions God has claimed to be a jealous, insistent that the people of God have nothing to do with other deities. (Exodus 34:14 even says “…the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” And Exodus 20:5 specifically mentions bowing to other gods as unacceptable.) So why is it that Naaman is given permission to do these things, to attend the worship of another god and to bow with the king of Aram on those occasions? Frankly, I have no idea. When it comes to worshiping the God of Israel it would seem like Naaman should be “all in” or not, as opposed to “in (with exceptions).”

And yet clearly God meets us where we are and our relationships with God are not “one size fits all.” My needs are not necessarily the needs of another, my situation in life is not identical to anyone else’s. For this reason I take comfort in knowing that God relates to people within the community of faith just as we should relate to one another, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses we each carry, offering to do those things for which we are best suited. In his healing Naaman found the truth about God who already knew the truth about Naaman. What a blessing to know that God pays more attention to us than we do to God.

Prayer: Lord, you know us better than we know ourselves. Bless us with what we need to live as your people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.