Thursday, May 31, 2012

Trained In Godliness

1 Timothy 4:1-16
“Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7b-8). I preached a sermon years ago in which I proposed a new form of degree, what I called the TIG (Trained In Godliness). It would be awarded to individuals who had followed the advice of 1 Timothy to “train yourself in godliness.” The TIG would indicate that the recipient had demonstrated a desire to better know God’s will for his or her life and to live accordingly.

As the writer of 1 Timothy suggests, physical training is of value. Exercise is crucial for good health and far too many of us spend our time sitting when what we need is to get up and move. But just as the body needs to be cared for so, too, does the soul. Indeed, what we do to further our spiritual health is of greater benefit to us for it bears fruit not only in this life but also in the life of come.

What requirements would one meet in order to receive the TIG? The list would certainly include regular Bible study and attendance at worship, the willingness to share the gospel with others, and generosity with one’s possessions. The person willing to undertake such activities will find themselves far more focused on God’s work and better prepared to respond to God’s call in their lives. In the mean time we should all strive to serve God while rejecting the baseless myths and “old wives’ tales” that lead so many astray.

Prayer: Lord, help us to live as your people and to strive everyday to become better prepared to serve you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Careful Who You Mock

Proverbs 17:1-20
Mixed throughout the book of Proverbs are a number of profound statements that deserve our close attention. We encounter one of such passage today. “Those who mock the poor insult their Maker” (Proverbs 17:5a), we read.

There is no mystery who “the Maker” is; it is God, the Creator of heaven and earth. To mock the poor, then, is an offense to the one who has made all people, including those who suffer from want. To scoff at or demean those in need is like holding up a part of God’s good creation for derision. But what constitutes mocking, scoffing, or demeaning? Is it only when we laugh and point at the less fortunate in our midst that we are objectionable to God? I don’t think so. Mocking the poor is a far more pervasive activity. It happens when we create systems that keep the poor from advancing. It happens when we stereotype those in need as “lazy” or “worthless.” It happens when we make assumptions about what the poor want or need based on our own preferences.

Years ago the elementary school my children attended considered establishing a uniform dress code. One of the claims made at the time was that students faced ridicule based on the quality of their clothing and that uniforms would put all children on an equal footing. This was a noble goal, yet the proposed list of stores where uniforms could be purchased included some of the more exclusive shops in the area, the sort of places poorer families could not afford to go. And while a clothing closet was also proposed––as a source hand-me-downs at the school––the assumption was that children would not recognize the difference between expensive items of clothing on the one hand, and those being worn by a second or third student on the other. I believe that children, especially the older ones, would have quickly noted the distinction, and while I’m sure this was not intended as mockery the effect would not have been what was sought; the underlying problem would have remained. A truly fair policy would have stipulated that all clothing come from the same source. But even well-meaning families with some means would have objected to this provision as limiting their freedom of choice.

The fact is that poverty is not a simple issue to address, but it should not be so readily overlooked either. When we refuse to address the plight of others we are insulting God who is their Maker.

Prayer: Lord, help us all to understand the needs of others and to respond to them with the same grace and love that you give so freely to us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Moving On

Matthew 13:53-58
Jesus’ ministry was an itinerant one. As the gospels make clear Jesus moved from place to place on a regular basis. Sometimes he healed or taught in the towns and villages, sometimes in deserted places. Sometimes he walked and other times he went by boat. His travel also took him to different regions like Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. So it should not surprise us that Matthew includes this bit of information: “When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place” (Matthew 13:53). All this moving around demonstrates that Jesus had no need to be authenticated or validated in his work, no need to be associated with a particular community or institution. Jesus was the Word of God made flesh; Jesus did not need his identity to be strengthened or amplified in human terms.

As contemporary people of faith we should learn from Jesus’ active lifestyle. We should not be so rooted in place, so identified and bound by sign or symbol or structure. Too often we confuse our mission with the places we gather or with the manner in which we worship. Too often we stake out territory as though we were guarding a plot of ground. Jesus moved freely from place to place meeting needs and sharing the good news. Why do we insist on being so stagnant in our living and in our working?

I admit, I enjoy the comfort and the stability of my stationary life. I do not relish the prospect of trudging about, carrying the word of God to venues of all sorts. But if I wish to be a faithful disciple of Jesus I must keep moving, I must be flexible, I must be open to change and to challenge. Jesus’ ministry was an itinerant one. Perhaps our faith should be more itinerant as well.

Prayer: Lord, give us a spirit of openness that we may move according to your will and may welcome others just as Jesus did. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, May 28, 2012

It's Not About People Pleasing

Galatians 1:1-17
What an astonishing claim Paul makes in his letter to the Galatians: “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10c). As a minister I find these words incredibly challenging. Integral to my sense of call are my relationships with individuals. I want to get along with folks and I want folks to get along with each other. I want to build bridges and to knock down walls. I want the church to be one big group hug where everyone finds welcome and conflict is forgotten in the warmth of community. And because I want these things I too often find myself worried about what people think of me, whether or not they approve of my efforts. After all, it is congregation members who pay my salary. Shouldn’t they get what they pay for? Shouldn’t they be pleased with what I am doing?

Paul puts a stop to such foolishness. If the goal of the ministry is to please people then it is not really ministry. If all I have to offer others is what they think they want, or worse, what they already have, then I offer them nothing. It is only when I seek the will of God in Jesus Christ that I have something worthwhile to give. Jesus Christ is the corrective for my actions for in Jesus Christ I find the courage to say what needs to be said, to do what needs to be done, to offer what needs to be offered. When I seek to please people the ministry becomes a factor of my life, it becomes all about me. But when I am faithful to Jesus Christ the ministry ceases to be about me, about my opinions, about my need for approval.

Nor are Paul’s words for ministers alone. They are, in fact, a challenge for all people of faith. If the Christian community is to be truly obedient it must offer the world not what the world thinks it wants, or worse, what it already has. It must offer the truth of the gospel and the power of God’s grace with unflinching honesty. The survival of the church cannot be a function of making people happy. It must be about serving the one who came calling sinners into reconciliation with God. Let other entities worry about pleasing people. Our job is to live as servants of Jesus Christ.

Prayer: Lord, give us courage to live according to your will and not as others would have us do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Natural High

Ephesians 5:1-32
“Do not get drunk with wine,” we read in Ephesians today, “for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-20). If you want to find harmony in your life, join in the singing, the “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” being offered up by the community of faith. But do not resort to drinking and intoxication.

What an interesting parallel. On the one hand there is the admonition against debauchery and then, of all the alternatives that might be offered, Ephesians points to the presence of the Spirit that comes to those who are joined in song, the sense of well-being that develops when we praise God with all our heart. Call it a natural high, or musical contentment, or song-based sobriety. Whatever the case we are challenged to turn away from that which dulls the senses and instead to embrace God’s presence in our lives.

Singing is one of those activities that can draw people together. It happens around campfires, at civic gatherings, as a part of family celebrations, and of course during worship. When we sing we take many parts and fold them into one. And when we vocalize our thanks and praise to God our hearts are filled with song too, and filled with the Spirit of God. When we are numbed by our actions we lose touch with what God is doing in the world, but when—in good times or in bad—we sing we are connected to one another and to the Lord. If you want to find harmony in your life, just follow the sounds of praise, and then sing along.

Prayer: Lord, fill us with your Spirit and give us voices with which to praise you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

When You’ve Got Forgiveness…

Matthew 9:1-8
In years past the dietary supplement Geritol was sold with the slogan “When you’ve got your health, you’ve got just about everything.” Jesus seems to differ significantly with that viewpoint. “And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven’" (Matthew 9:2). For Jesus it is more appropriate to say, “When you’ve got forgiveness, you’ve got just about everything.”

The reason I say this is because forgiveness is Jesus’ first response to the paralytic and the faith this man’s friends demonstrated. What Jesus wanted them—and especially the man who was paralyzed—to know was that in their faith they had found right relationship with God and been reconciled to him. This was, after all, the heart of Jesus’ ministry. His preaching, teaching, calling, healing, and exhorting were all focused on restoring the connection between God and God’s people. Everything else followed from there.

Every time that Christian communities gather a typical part of their worship, regardless of where it takes place, is the confession of sins and the assurance of pardon. God’s people are encouraged to acknowledge their failings and to name them before God. This in turn provides the opportunity to hear God’s grace proclaimed. We know we have failed; we also know that God loves us anyway and is working through the love of Jesus Christ to keep the relationship with God open, and that through that relationship all else becomes possible.

When the paralyzed man was brought to Jesus by his friends, Jesus’ first impulse was to assure him of his forgiveness. When Jesus did heal the man it was a further confirmation of God’s love and compassion, proving that when you’ve got forgiveness, you’ve got just about everything.

Prayer: Lord, we have failed you in so many ways. Forgive us, we pray, and help us to walk according to your will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Storms of Untruth

Ephesians 4:1-16
Most of us have been misled at one time or another, told something that was not true as though it were fact. When such falsehoods begin to cascade from person to person they can become difficult to stop. The development of the internet has only made this phenomenon more potent, but rumors have long been a part of our culture. (For an example of how one sort of rumor—celebrity deaths–has played out in the past you can visit this site:

The writer of Ephesians was aware of the problem, too, and warned his readers not to be affected by everything they heard. “We must no longer be children,” he wrote, “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:9). It is the phrase “every wind of doctrine” that offers the most powerful image for me. It refers to fads or crazes, any pseudo-religion that gets passed from person to person. The swell of such falsehood can take the shape of a raging storm blowing in all directions and dislodging even the most deeply held convictions. The immature in faith are the most susceptible to such storms and indeed can be “tossed to and fro and blown about.”

To withstand the gale we must become mature in faith by turning our attention to Jesus Christ. In him we find the strength, the courage, and the resolve to remain steadfast. In him we find the community that is his body and the love that binds believers together. The storms will continue to rage around us and untruths will swirl on all sides, but if we cling to Jesus Christ and the power of the gospel we will find the shelter we need.

Prayer: Lord, deliver us from the deceit that lies so close at hand and help us to live with maturity and courage, focused solely on Jesus Christ in whose name we pray. Amen.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Still Work To Be Done

Matthew 8:18-27
The story it a familiar one. Jesus is asleep in the boat as a storm rages all around. The disciples, fearful of drowning, waken him and point out the danger. “Then (Jesus) got up,” Matthew tells us, “and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm” (Matthew 8:26c). The disciples were amazed, Matthew continues, and wondered what sort of man Jesus was.

And then they started rowing. They had to. Jesus’ actions has brought the sea to a “dead calm.” That would mean no wind, which would also mean no sailing. So if the disciples were to get anywhere at that point they were going to have to put their backs into it.

God’s actions in human history often require more than a little follow-up work on the part of God’s people. Moses understand this. In the Exodus the people were led out of Egypt by God’s power but years of effort followed. Pentecost is another good example. The Spirit arrived with the sound of a mighty wind and as divided tongues of flame and the disciples went tumbling into the street. But there was work to be done if the faith was to spread: witnessing to others, building a community, withstanding persecution. To feel blessed by God, to see miracles abound, to find ourselves nurtured and sustained by divine grace is never the end of the story. God calms the storms of our lives. Then it is up to us to put our backs into it.

Prayer: Lord, you bless us in so many ways. Help us to respond with all our strength to the opportunities you give us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, May 21, 2012

No Fear? Really?

Joshua 1:1-9
So much in life can make us nervous or hesitant. There are many, many times when we would rather curl up in bed than to grasp the opportunities that lie in front of us. God seems to address this reality in his words to Joshua. “I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” come to my mind often, but there is a key difference between FDR’s admonition and the words of God to Joshua. They lie in the first phrase where God says, “I hereby command you…” God was speaking to people on the brink of invading the promised land, facing what to them must have seemed an uncertain future. And God commanded them to have no fear, to proceed with courage and strength. How is such a command possible?

On a family vacation during my childhood we visited a theme park with the motto “We Make People Happy.” As we passed the turnstiles we were directed through an archway on which these words were written, and I remember my father’s reaction to this bold claim. “How can you force anyone to have a good time?” he asked with a bit of a chuckle. Being compelled to enjoy ourselves is one thing. But as the people of Israel faced the conquest of the promised land the archway they might have passed though would have been inscribed, “I make people strong and courageous with no fear or dismay.” How is this possible?

The answer lies in this: “For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” The crossing of the Jordan was not something Israel did on its own. The Lord their God was with them throughout. Our lives are lived in isolation. The Lord is with us regardless of what circumstances we face. The people of Israel could accomplish great things but only as they were directed by God. We can do all things, too, through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13). We can rise above our fear and our lack of strength because God stands with us. We can remain undaunted in our living because our hope is in Jesus Christ and not in our own abilities.

No matter what happens today, no matter what events come to pass or demand our attention, we have been freed by God’s presence to live in confidence strength. God makes it so.

Prayer: Lord, we trust in your word this day as we lay claim to your promise to strengthen us and guide us. Bless us in our efforts for it is in Jesus’ name that we pray. Amen.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Taste of Death

Hebrews 2:5-18
What would death taste like? That question comes by way of the writer of Hebrews who uses an interesting turn of phrase in discussing the passion of Jesus Christ. “…(B)ut we do see Jesus…now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). Jesus “tasted death” for all of us. But what does that mean?

Think of the common expression it was so close to me I could taste it. Taste requires proximity and Jesus came into real, physical contact with death. In fact, we might take that a step further and say that Jesus ingested death, took death into his being. For Jesus death became a part of his experience in the midst of humanity, just as real as eating (and tasting) food or drinking water. So death was real for Jesus, so real that it can be described an a sensory experience.

But in tasting death Jesus conquered it which means that we no longer must fear it. Yes, we will die, but to use a similar analogy through Jesus the bitterness of death has been removed. As an exchange student to Turkey in 1978 I witnessed––and for one day participated in––the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Devout Muslims take the required fasting of that season so seriously that my host mother would not sample food she prepared for me during the day, and it bothered her that she could not be sure the food met her standards. Jesus has gone to the other extreme and made the way to eternal life palatable for those who follow him. Because Jesus tasted death we do not have to, not to the extent that he did, and certainly not with any fear.

What would death taste like? By the grace of God it no longer matters.

Prayer: Lord, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ by whose faithful obedience we have been saved from the full grasp of death. In his name we pray. Amen.