Monday, April 30, 2012

Be Prepared

Colossians 3:18-4:18
In seminary I was taught that minsters were virtually the only professionals left who might arrive at someone’s home just to see how they were doing. A doctor wasn’t apt to drop by, nor a lawyer. Even a psychiatrist would be unlikely to make a house call just to see how things were. But it was still considered appropriate for ministers to arrive unannounced. Times have changed. I no longer consider it proper to stop by someone’s home unless they know I am coming, and usually well in advance. There might be exceptions, of course, but if I am concerned about someone my first recourse is normally going to be a phone call through which I may arrange a visit.

But here are Paul’s words to the Colossians. “Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructions - if he comes to you, welcome him” (Colossians 4:10). It’s all rather mysterious sounding. For example I assume the instructions Paul mentions have to do with Mark and not his cousin Barnabas. And what exactly are those instructions? We don’t know, but we do know that Mark (or Barnabas) might simply arrive in Colossae (even Paul doesn’t seem certain) and if he does the church there is to be ready for him.

From the very beginning the church has held hospitality to be an essential part of its ministry. Welcoming one another has always been considered a Christ-like function of who we are. In the words of the the Boy Scout motto we believers are to be prepared, ready to greet one another, open to interruption or intrusion, happy to share whether it be our time or our possessions. Even strangers are to be made welcome as we are told in Hebrews 13:2. Our culture is continually turning in on itself, constantly adding distance between people often with the aid of technology. We can know more and more about someone while not really knowing them at all. But when we open our hearts and lives to one another we find the distance reduced and the barriers removed.

I am not apt to arrive unexpectedly at a church member’s front door. But I do believe very strongly that the church should be open to whatever and whoever God sends our way, be it Mark, Barnabas, or someone else. If they come, we should welcome them.

Prayer: Lord, open us to the unexpectedness of your community and your grace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Getting to the Point

Matthew 4:12-17
If we were to boil down the essence of Jesus’ ministry, the purpose for all he did and said, the focal point of his work, we could find no better verse than this one from today’s gospel reading. “From that time,” we read, “Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’" (Matthew 4:17). Note the sense of urgency. This is not some far-reaching prophetic message, this is a timely word of truth for the world. Note also that it begins with a call for action. Jesus would have his listeners get their lives in order now because God’s will and purpose for humanity is upon them. Jesus, of course, is the embodiment of that will and purpose. Jesus is God’s good news for the world and even when he was rejected and put to death he remained that good news, that word of hope, for in him death was defeated and sin was set aside.

So here we are in April 2012 with a world full of anger and of violence, a world consumed by greed and by apathy. Was Jesus lying to his followers? Was there really no urgency to his words? The answer to these questions remains before us in the person of Jesus Christ. When we believe in God through Jesus we begin to see things very differently. Faith is a lens through which we perceive grace where others see only the ordinary. God is all around us, the kingdom of heaven is as near as the air and just as necessary to our wellbeing. The urgency with which Jesus spoke is still present. The need to get our lives in order remains. When we who would follow Jesus as disciples accept this challenge to live as he lived and to love as he loved we bear witness to the grace of God flowing all around us and filling the world.

The essence of Jesus’ ministry is good news for all people and a very present reality. God is at work and we have the opportunity to join in that work. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord, give us the eyes with which to see your presence, and the will to live as your people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

First Thing First

Exodus 20:1-21
“Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:1-3). It is fitting that the Ten Commandments should begin where they do, with God’s relationship to the people––and the implications of that relationship––made clear. Of all the commandments, however, it is this first one that remains the most difficult to keep.

What is it that motivates us? What is it that fills our lives with joy or purpose? What is the thing that we take most seriously? If our answer to these questions is anything other than God, we have violated the first commandment. Nothing shall come between us and the one true God. God, THE God, must remain first and foremost in our lives. Once this foundation is set the meaning of the other commandments becomes more apparent. For example when our central focus remains on God’s will we see there is no need for idols to serve as good luck charms or totems. If we are focused on God’s will we will be disinclined to substitute our own desires, our own biases and to claim them as the word of God. When we are focused on God we are better able to see the necessity of rest and wellbeing for ourselves and others and to forego the constant drive to achieve or to accumulate. When we are attentive first to God our relationships with others become more meaningful and we begin to better understand the blessings of community and the appropriate ways to live in it.

“You shall have no other gods before me.” As God’s people we are challenged to accept God’s role in our lives and to let go of anything that might stand in the way. This is not an easy task but it leads to a life filled with grace and abundance.

Prayer: Lord, help us to keep you first in our lives and to live in faithfulness and fidelity to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Keeping It All Together

Colossians 1:15-23
I’ve heard it said that were it not for friction the entire universe would fall apart. In practical terms there would be no way for objects to remain in contact, which means there would no way for us to grasp things. Transportation would be impossible because there would be no traction between wheels and the road. Friction is essential to our lives.

Paul makes a similar theological claim in his letter to the Colossians. “(Christ) himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). In other words, were it not for Jesus Christ our lives would fall apart. There would be no way for people to remain in contact, no way for us to live in community. Truly loving one another would be impossible because we would have no frame of reference, no guidance, no encouragement, nothing to “hold us together.”

Certainly Christ is essential to the life of the church, which Paul refers to as Christ’s body over which Christ is the head (v. 18). We may speak of “friction” in negative terms from time to time, as in the friction between individuals, a phenomenon which can cause pain and loss. The church is not immune to this reality. But when the church does what it is called to do, and when the church succeeds in its mission, it is because Jesus Christ is holding it all together and making it work.

Paul would be baffled by our modern science, but he is right on target when he points to Jesus Christ as the one who gives shape and purpose to our lives.

Prayer: Lord God, by your grace may we come to know the love and community which Jesus Christ alone makes possible, for it is in his name that we pray. Amen.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

It’s a ‘Third-Day’ Thing

Exodus 19:1-16
Any time something is said to have happened “on the third day” it catches my attention. Our passage from Exodus is no exception. “On the morning of the third day,” we read, “there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled” (Exodus 19:16). In this context the significance of the third day is that the people have been purifying themselves and their clothing for two days in preparation for the appearance of God on the mountain. When the third day arrives the people are warned to stay clear; any human or animal that sets foot on the mountain at that time is to be killed (v. 12-13). Elsewhere in scripture Jonah is also said to have had a “third day” experience: it was the day he was finally spewed up by the great fish (Jonah 1:17; c.f. Matthew 12:40 with its reference to “the sign of Jonah”). And of course Jesus stepped from the tomb on Easter Sunday, the third day.

I don’t want to make too much out of this. The number three carries weight in the Judeo-Christian tradition for several reasons, but sometimes three is just a number. (I recall King Arthur in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” continually confusing the numbers 3 and 5; sometimes numbers are just numbers.) But to be God’s people is to live on the third day, a day of divine power and authority (as in Exodus), of redemption and salvation (as with Jonah), and of an utterly profound transformation (which we find in the resurrection). We have been living all these years and yet on the third day we find ourselves truly alive for the first time, whether we are journeying in the desert, fleeing God across the ocean, or staring at an empty tomb. Wherever we are, faith is a “third-day” reality in many ways.

Prayer: Lord, help us to embrace your grace and truth and to live the joy and meaning of the third day all our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

God Is In Charge

Exodus 18:13-27
1 Peter 5:1-14
Two sections from our readings caught my eye today, one from Exodus and the other from 1 Peter. “You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times…” (Exodus 18:21-22a). “…I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it - not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1c-3). Though these passages are separated by centuries, and though one comes from before the arrival of Jesus Christ and the other from after his resurrection, the similarities are striking. They each stress that the wellbeing of God’s people depends on a proper understanding of leadership. Those who lead are to be honest and devoted to God. They should be willing to serve and yet humble and restrained in that service. They should be able to offer sound judgment and oversight so that the community may function to its fullest potential. And it is clear in each case that God remains sovereign at all times.

Years ago my wife (with whom I was co-pastoring at the time) and I struck up a friendly conversation with a minister from a different denomination, one that does not normally ordain women as ministers. He was not put off by my wife’s occupation nearly as much as he was puzzled by our shared ministry. After a number of thoughtful questions he finally pointed to the two of us and asked, “but who’s in charge?” To which my wife answered, “Jesus is in charge.” The other minister laughed good-naturedly. But my wife was right. Within the community of faith God remains the foundation for all leadership. Those who would serve the church in whatever capacity must be willing to in turn to be led by God’s will. Only then can they exercise the authority given to them.

Humility, dedication, wisdom, godliness; these are the hallmarks of sound leadership. But God is always in charge.

Prayer: Lord, help us to serve you even as we lead others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.