Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Needs To Be Met

Genesis 21:1-21
One of the more poignant images in the entire Abrahamic tradition is that of Hagar and her son Ishmael stranded in the desert. “When the water in the skin was gone, (Hagar) cast (Ishmael) under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept” (Genesis 21:15-16). God interceded, of course, with water and a renewed promise to safeguard the boy as he grew. But the plight of Hagar, unable to provide for her son and unwilling to watch him die, should remind us all of the very real needs in our world, needs that can and should be met in the name of a loving God.

Prayer: Lord, open our hearts to the needs of those around us and help us to live lives of generosity according to your will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Something Radical

John 6:27-40
I find myself wondering what sort of world it would be if we lived according to our gospel reading for today. "Do not work for the food that perishes,” Jesus says, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27). To work for food that perishes is to worry about today and one’s current needs. We call it “earning a living,” and it occupies a great deal of our energy and time. Some people, of course, are better suited for such activities or have been blessed with opportunities that others do not have. Some folks, for a variety of reasons, are not able to function as well. This can lead to an imbalance in what various individuals have at their disposal, and therefore to a difference in the amount of “food that perishes.” We call this a difference in the “standard of living.” The bottom line is that over time there are those who have less trouble accumulating “the food that perishes” than others, those who have an abundance while others go without.

But what if we stop focusing on “the food that perishes”or on achieving a higher “standard of living?" What if we were to work for the food that endures? Wouldn’t that lead us to some pretty radical behavior, like caring more for others than for ourselves, or accumulating good will and not possessions or letting go of fear and living in openness? Is this what Jesus is calling us to do? And more to the point, are we willing to do it? Just think of the possibilities, of the grace, of the love flowing in all directions. Farfetched, I know. But isn’t that just like Jesus to challenge the status quo and to shake up the world?

Prayer: Lord, help us to care for one another more and to worry about our own need less. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, January 27, 2012

No Way to Run a Campaign

John 6:1-15
Maybe it's because the lengthy process for electing a president is in full swing here in the US, but I found one verse from our gospel reading today to be poignant. "When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself" (John 6:15). While we in America are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to determine the next president, Jesus, who could have been king by acclamation, ran away and hid from the crowds.

I think if I had 60 seconds in which to speak to each of the major candidates for our highest office I would point to this verse and say, "this is what leadership is about. If you really want to make a difference in lives, then follow this example of love and self-sacrifice." But I know that if I really did have the chance to say these things to the major candidates every one of them would thank me for my time and interest and shake my hand. As they did so the honest ones might actually say what they were thinking. "How utterly naive! Don't you know just how complex and challenging the world really is? How can you come to me, point to one verse of scripture, and tell me that's what it's all about?" And they would be right. It is a very naive thing to say in terms of modern politics. But what could possibly be more important than the righteousness of God and the truth of the coming kingdom? And why shouldn't love, self-sacrifice, and a healthy dose of humility before God be requirements for elected office?

And then it hits me! What have I done today to foster love and self-sacrifice and humility? What have I done today to follow in the steps of Jesus Christ? So while I long for someone to follow Christ’s example as a public leader I know that I, too, have a role to play in my own life; we all do. So lead on, Lord, but don't get too far ahead. Your people are awfully slow to follow.

Prayer: Lord, may those who seek to lead do so with true humility and with justice and with love. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Look Up From Your Books

John 5:30-47
Today's gospel reading contains a warning for all of us who take scripture seriously and who trust it to guide us in our lives of faith. "You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life," Jesus says, "and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life" (John 5:39-40).

A few years ago I was asked if I believed in the Bible. After some thought I admitted that no, I did not believe in the Bible. "I believe the Bible," I said, "but I believe in God as he is made known through Jesus Christ." In other words, my faith is in that which the Bible itself points toward which is the love and mercy of God. Am I splitting hairs? I don't think so. I think the distinction is clear, especially the way Jesus describes it in John. If we are not careful we may find ourselves so intent on searching scripture - one form of God's Word - that we overlook the real presence of God in Jesus Christ - the Word of God incarnate.

I would contend that many contemporary communities of faith have become so fixated on what they are reading in scripture that they have failed to notice what God is actually doing all around them, touching lives, making men and women whole, anointing with the Spirit of hope and peace. I do not in any way discount the role of scripture as a witness to the saving grace of God, but I do believe it is worth looking up from our texts now and again - our reading about God's work - in order to see what it is that God is actually doing all around us. God may very well surprise us with the life we seek.

Prayer: Lord God, lead us beyond our own feeble efforts to explain or account for you so that we may come to know you as you would be known. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Faith Made Real

Hebrews 9:15-28
John 5:19-29
The Apostles’ Creed says of Jesus Christ that “he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” The truth of this statement is woven throughout scripture, including our readings for today. Hebrews tells us that “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24). The gospel reading for today adds to this understanding. There Jesus himself says, “For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man” (John 5:26-27).

Jesus is no longer constrained to the human condition, and yet, because the Son of Man lived among us, he is able to relate to us. God’s judgment then, while real, is not arbitrary. Nor is it without mercy. In my own faith tradition—as in many others—the confession of sin is preceded by the reminder that God waits with eagerness to forgive our sins even as we confess them. This is the good news of the gospel, that in Jesus Christ–Son of God, Word made flesh–God was reconciling the world to God’s self.

Prayer: God of grace and mercy, continue to forgive our sins. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What About the Others?

John 5:1-18
Would Jesus really have healed only one person out of many? Would Jesus really have singled out an individual and restored him to health while ignoring others? If we read it a certain way that’s the impression that we might get from our gospel text for today. “Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids — blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?…Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk” (John 5: 2-6, 8-9). That’s great for the one man, but what about the others? What about the other “blind, lame, and paralyzed” people who were there that day?

This is an interesting point to ponder, no doubt, but it is not really what the passage is telling us. The central issue here is that whatever healing took place was done on the Sabbath which caused the religious leaders of the day to be very angry. They could not tolerate the fact that Jesus broke the law of Moses, even if it was for the purpose of restoring fullness to a man’s life. So maybe the real question to ask is why did Jesus not heal the religious leaders of his day of their closed minds and hard hearts? Why did Jesus leave so many people bound to sin and a dependence on the law?

Eventually, of course, that is exactly what Jesus offered to the world when he died on the cross. Jesus gave his life so that those who believed in him - the blind, lame, and paralyzed, along with uptight religious leaders - might find salvation and grace. Turns out there were a whole bunch of folks who needed Jesus’ attention that Sabbath day, some of whom knew it, and some who did not. So which group are we in?

Prayer: Lord, heal us of all that harms us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Difficult Faith

John 4:43-54
According to commentator Lamar Williamson Jr. is his book Preaching the Gospel of John: Proclaiming the Living Word, our text from the fourth gospel today is a story in which a man’s life is transformed by his desperate search for a miracle. “Then (Jesus) came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe’" (John 4:46-48).

For me the challenging part of the text comes in Jesus’ initial rebuff of the official. It is only when the man persists that Jesus heals the son (from a distance) and as a result plants the seeds of faith. But would Jesus really have allowed the son to die had the father not continued to beg? There is no way to tell. We only know what we read which is that Jesus did act and the boy did recover as a result. If nothing else, though, this passage should remind us that faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God is to be taken very seriously. If we want signs and wonders for our own delight, if we seek a good luck charm that we can keep in a dresser drawer for special occasions, if we are only interested in Jesus on our terms (what can Jesus do for me?) then we will find that we have no faith at all. But if we are willing to trust Jesus as Lord of our lives all the time, to remain attuned to the message of the gospel even when it is not to our liking, to allow Jesus to work through us as vessels of grace for others, then Jesus is already calling us to respond.

As difficult as it is, the story about the royal official’s son is a reminder of the demands that faith places upon us, of the claims it makes on our time and talents. Faith, too, is difficult, but as a gift from God nothing is more important in our lives.

Prayer: Lord grant us the faith we need to live as your people all the days of your lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Parenthetically Speaking

John 4:16-26
The translation of scripture into a particular language is not always the best guide to the passage’s intent, but the way the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible renders part of our gospel reading for today is interesting. Jesus is speaking with the woman at the well in Samaria. “The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you’” (John 4:25-26). My question is why is the phrase “who is called Christ” placed in parenthesis? This is not a part of the woman’s remarks—the NRSV leaves the parentheses outside of the quotation marks. So if the woman didn’t pause to more fully define “Messiah,” who did? The answer is the author of John did, or at least the NRSV Bible assumes he did. And if the author of John added the words “who is called Christ” it would appear to be for the benefit of those who will encounter the text in years to come; which, by the way, includes you and me.

Think of it this way then: sitting by the well we see Jesus, a Samaritan woman, and everyone who will ever read the account as shared in John’s gospel. That’s us, bound up by the parenthesis, those who can hear the stage whisper, as though the woman herself was saying, “Pssst, I know you’re there, now pay attention,” at which point Jesus himself nods his agreement. Reading scripture should never be taken as a passive encounter. To interact with the word of God is to be subsumed into the story. We may not be characters per se, but we have a role to play. We are to listen, to learn, to grow, and then to share with others which is pretty much what the Samaritan woman did in this story.

John was writing for our benefit, and the benefit of millions of others over the centuries. The parentheses of John 4:25 is just one small reminder that we can not hide unnoticed. We, the readers and hearers of scripture, have been shoved into the scene and given a role to play. This is how story, too.

Prayer: Lord, help us to hear your word and to live out its meaning in our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


John 4:1-15
"Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?" (John 4:12). According to our reading from John this morning a Samaritan woman asked this question of Jesus. In hindsight it is an ironic thing to ask. Of course the Son of God, the Word Incarnate, is greater than Jacob and his sons. But in a contemporary setting the woman's inquiry should probably give us pause. I know that I ask similar questions just about daily. Oh, they are not as pointed, of course, but behind the choices that I make, behind the decisions that I reach, there lies a fundamental conflict.

"Jesus, are you greater than the things I want to buy with MY money?"

"Jesus, are you greater than the rights I claim as a citizen of a nation?"

"Jesus, are you greater than the platform of any political party or any candidate or any administration?"

"Jesus, are you greater than what I think I know to be true about the church before I even ask?"

The answer is always yes, of course, but the fact that I ever find myself dealing with such issues is telling. Humility before the Lord is sometimes tough to manage, but the alternative puts us at odds with God's will. Today we all have another chance to get our priorities in order. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, help me to know you and to follow you with justice, kindness, and a humble spirit. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Days of Flesh

Hebrews 5:7-14
John 3:16-21
What a wonderful expression the writer of Hebrews uses to describe the incarnation of Christ: "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death..." (Hebrews 5:7). "The days of his flesh" is a profound way to think about Jesus' presence in our midst. As we know Jesus was truly human in every way save for sin. That's the "flesh" part of the equation. But Jesus also took human form, was enfleshed if you will, at a specific time in human history, and in a specific place. There were "days" during which Jesus ministered, what we would call Mondays and Thursdays, sunny days and ones when the rain poured, exciting days and dull, drab days. Sound familiar? It should, because this is what being flesh is all about. It is about oversleeping and losing car keys, about worrying when the kids get home late or the iron gets left on. Life is about, well, life. It is messy and contentious and full of uncertainties that turn out fine and certainties that go by the wayside. There is always lots for us to stew over, but we should rejoice because that very stewing was sanctified by Jesus in the "days of his flesh."

Another of our readings for today is far more familiar. It comes from the gospel of John. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16). This is really what the "days of Jesus' flesh" were all about, and none of the messiness, none of the contentiousness, none of the disappointments can in any way put a dent in God's intentions. Do we believe that? Then let us join hands -- greasy, sticky, calloused, sweaty, rough but flesh-covered hands -- and celebrate the lives we have been given. They are a chance for us to live to God's glory. For as messy as they are, our lives are God's gift to us.

Prayer: Lord, bless us this day with the opportunity to serve you with all we have, as imperfectly as it may be, and to love one another as you love us. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Water Birds

Genesis 8:6-22
Our reading from Genesis today includes these words: “At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven…” (Genesis 8:6-7a). I have seldom paid attention to the “other bird” in this story before today. The role of the dove is well established, but what was the significance of the raven? As I wrestled with that question I wrote the following poem which I have called “Water Birds.”

Where is the raven, Lord?
Gone from the ark and no regrets

reckless, fickle,
willfulness with feathers.

The dove
all olive branch and hope

in Noah’s hands is
tame, docile, (cooing?)

This is your Spirit, Lord,
but does it know

the other
the sinner’s bird amongst the carrion

let loose with freedom
as a messenger to no one

the younger son who never came home
and how you, Lord, long for that raven?

Prayer: Lord, make a place in your heart for all your creatures, those who seek your presence continually, and those whose restlessness leads them far from the shelter you offer. In Jesus’ name. Amen.