Friday, June 29, 2012

Two Strikes, You’re Out

Numbers 20:1-13
When you think of all the things that Moses and Aaron might have done, the sins they might have committed, our reading from Numbers today seems almost silly. “Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them’” (Numbers 20:11-12). This may seem especially severe when this account is set against the backdrop of the grumbling and complaining that the people of Israel have been doing all this time. Moses and Aaron have stood between God and the people on numerous occasions. The Israelites are the ones who have rebelled. Why must Moses and Aaron pay such a steep price for tapping a rock instead of letting God do the honors?

The key lies in the human desire to take control of things while not trusting God to be God. Moses essentially usurped the authority of God and placed himself front and center in the minds of the people. Moses, as a servant of the Lord, should have allowed God to work as God willed. Furthermore, this is no minor situation. Water is the most essential aspect of life, even more important than food. Water is also pivotal in the faith of Israel and later of Christianity. It was out of the waters of chaos that God formed creation, over the waters of the flood that Noah and his family sailed, and through the waters of the Red Sea that the people escaped from Egypt. Whenever water is mentioned in scripture we should pause and reflect on the significance because it is bound to be important. This event is no exception. Moses jumped the gun when he decided to strike the rock and free its water but this was God’s moment and Moses stole the spotlight.

We must let God be God, even if it takes more patience than we think we have, even if it takes greater resolve than we care to display, even if we don’t understand or fully appreciate what is going on. It is the Lord who creates, redeems, and sustains all that is. God can certainly handle whatever it is that lies before us.

Prayer: Lord, give us the patience, the courage, and the confidence to let you carry out your will in our midst, always mindful of your providence and love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Lowly Path to Community

Romans 5:1-11
Matthew 20:17-28
The word of God is incessant in its demand for unity through servanthood. Take today’s gospel reading for example. “But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’" (Matthew 20:25-28). Reading these words I am aware of the human tendency to impute to others the guilt that we are unwilling to recognize in ourselves. The truth is that no one is immune from “lording it over” others, from insisting on his or her own way. And at precisely the moment we turn to point to someone we deem iniquitous we have committed the same transgression ourselves. After all, let the one without sin feel free to cast the first stone.

God shows us another way. According to Paul, “rarely will anyone die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8). Only when we are willing to die for one another—just the way that God suffered death on our behalf—will we know the true worth of all humanity. Only when we are willing to be servants to one another, to meet the needs of the world even at our own expense, will we discover the wonder of community. What can we do for one another today? How can we soothe the pain of those who are suffering? What can we let go of so that others may find fulfillment? These are the questions that should drive our decisions, our conversations, even our prayers. The gospel of Jesus Christ begins in weakness and builds toward godly strength. May we all know the love of God and embrace it even as we embrace one another.

Prayer: Lord, when we feel most victorious, most powerful, most vindicated may we also see and to share the pain of others so that the love of your kingdom may abound in the world. In the name of the one who died for us all. Amen.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Finding the Pony

Romans 4:13-25
The old joke goes like this: put a pessimistic child in a room full of toys and he will complain that the one particular item he wants is not there, but put an optimistic child in a room full of horse manure and she’ll happily begin looking for the pony. Paul puts it another way. “[Abraham] did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body,” we read, “which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:19-21). In other words Abraham may have seen a room full of manure, but that only meant there was a pony somewhere.

I admit that I am too often like the cynical child, able to find disappointment virtually anywhere. But Paul wants me—and you—to take heart no matter what the circumstances. In Abraham, he says, we find not only one who lived by faith, but in whose faith we find a source of strength for ourselves. Like the father in Mark 9:24 I find myself saying, “I believe, help my unbelief,” and God does, time after time, in countless situations. No, I don’t always find a pony, but by grace I know it must be there somewhere.

Prayer: Lord, help us to live by faith and to trust you at all times. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It Depends On Your Perspective

Numbers 16:20-35
Psalm 146
Clearly not all the stories of the Bible are pleasant ones. There are some that we generally do not read to children, and that even adults prefer to skip over. Our reading from Numbers today is one of those uncomfortable passages for many people. “As soon as [Moses] finished speaking all these words, the ground under them was split apart. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households - everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly” (Numbers 16:31-33). How could God do such a thing? How could the source of all love and light cause the earth to open up and swallow entire families? And Numbers is not our only reading today that speaks of God’s judgment. The psalmist speaks in similar terms, saying “The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Psalm 146:9).

But what does God’s judgment mean if there are no consequences to it? How do we take God seriously if there are no ramifications otherwise? To be in relationship with God is to trust God’s guidance, God’s care, God’s providence. We seek God’s active presence in our midst. But God is not a good luck charm or a mascot. God is real and as such has real demands of us. So we could focus on God’s anger, on the acts of retribution that God performs, or we could recognize the grace that plays a far greater role in what God is doing. God had warned Adam and Eve that they would die on the day they ate of the fruit of a particular tree, but when they ate it they did not die; indeed God helped them prepare for life outside the garden. Because of human sinfulness God was determined to destroy all of creation, but then God remembered Noah and relented. Abraham asked God to spare the lives of some who lived in Sodom and Gomorrah and God did. More than once God had the inclination to destroy the Hebrew people in the wilderness but in each case Moses convinced God to let the people live. Finally, when God might have put an end to human life, God instead sent Jesus Christ to die for us. Time after time God has shown more mercy than we deserve, yet God’s judgment remains very real.

So in terms of God’s love we could see the glass as half empty––with lives brought to a sudden end––or we could see it as half full, with even sinners such as you and me given the opportunity to find forgiveness and be restored in our relationship with God and with one another. Personally, I rejoice in the good news of God’s grace.

Prayer: Lord, help us to embrace your love and to recognize your grace in our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Limited God Is No God

Psalm 135
Romans 3:21-31
What are the limits of God’s ability to act? Where are the boundaries of God’s power? Is there any place God cannot be God? People of faith will recognize these as silly questions. God has no limits, no boundaries, nowhere the divine will cannot be exerted. As the psalmist reminds us, “Whatever the LORD pleases he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps” (Psalm 135:6). God is able to act anywhere and in any way God chooses.

Paul, for one, sees how the limitlessness of God affects our lives. “Or is God the God of Jews only?” Paul asks his readers in Rome. “Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith” (Romans 3:29-30). Throughout its history the church has wrestled with lines and boundaries. Who is qualified to be a part of the community? Who is acceptable before God? All too often the body of Christ at work in the world has suffered the wounds of schism and alienation over questions of inclusion and of what it means to be a child of God. Clearly there are activities or perspectives that are inappropriate if one wishes to live a life of faith, but it is just as clear that there are no limits on what God can accomplish in changing lives, renewing hearts, providing increased understanding, and that these things may need to happen to those already within the church.

The call to discipleship is an invitation to allow God to be God, to watch and see what the Lord will do. If we are in too big of a hurry to pronounce the divine intention we will very likely fail to see the mighty acts God is performing already. We may not realize it, but we sometimes place our own limits, our own boundaries on what God can do. Until we embrace the grace-filled implications of God’s limitlessness we will continue to struggle with unity.

Prayer: Lord, help us to serve you and your coming reign instead of our own opinions and attitudes. For it is in the name of Jesus Christ who calls all people to himself that we pray. Amen.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Just Following Directions

Numbers 9:15-23, 10:29-36
Maybe it is because of my experiences as an ordained minister having served eight congregations in various capacities, but I am struck by the manner in which the people of Israel made their way across the wilderness, or at least how they knew when it was time to take another step in the journey. “Whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, then the Israelites would set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the Israelites would camp” (Numbers 9:17).

If only God's directions were so clear in my life, if only I could watch to see when the cloud moved and follow it, then many of my concerns would be answered. That’s how I have felt from time to time, and yet in a number of ways God has offered just the sort of guidance I needed. There may not have been traveling clouds, but in other ways I have sensed what God was calling on me to do. Sometimes it was more a matter of affirmation, the awareness that I had gotten where I needed to be by God's will. Other times it has occurred to me that no matter where I was God had a use for me. Besides, God could offer direction all day long but I have to be willing to follow it, to pack up my tent and head out after the cloud if I wish to be where God wants me to be.

Ministers are not the only ones who seek God’s guidance in life. All of us have faced turning points, moments like the one Robert Frost describes in his poem “The Road Less Traveled.” The truth is that God offers guidance in a number of ways to all of us, sometimes at the moment and sometimes later on as we consider things in hindsight, sometimes as a definitive direction and sometimes as the awareness that no matter where we end up there is a role of us to play. God does not always offer the clarity we want, does not always give detailed instructions like a divine version of Mapquest. But God does remain engaged with us and does continue to guide us. More importantly God continues to travel with us so that wherever we go, God’s grace is there as well.

Prayer: Lord, guide and direct your people as they seek to serve you. Give us each the assurance of your presence. For it is in Jesus’ name that we pray. Amen.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Trash or Treasure?

Matthew 16:21-28
If asked to explain why I trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior my quickest answer is usually something along the lines of, “Jesus is the one thing that helps me make sense of my life.” There is a great deal more to it, of course, but that is what I might call a “Twitter-length” response. But then we have a gospel reading like the one today, and to some my answer may seem to lose validity. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’” (Matthew 16:24-26). Why worry about making sense of my life if I am only going to give it away?

Well, that’s the whole point. Jesus says my life is of no value unless and until I am willing to let go of it. By taking up my cross, by following Jesus on the difficult path of discipleship, by giving up on who I am as an individual I become what God created me to be. A recent cartoon showed the character Dilbert being asked to contribute to a co-worker’s birthday gift. In the end Dilbert adds half a piece of chewed gum to a collection that already includes lint and used staples. In cultural terms this is the value of the co-worker’s life: trash. But when we turn from the culture and instead embrace God’s will in Jesus Christ we find our lives to be altogether more important, so valuable that they are actually worth giving away.

Following Jesus Christ, then, gives meaning—and value—to my life. To some I may amount to office debris, but according to God I matter. My life is a precious gift that I have to offer, and that helps me to make sense of things.

Prayer: Lord, grant us the strength to follow Jesus Christ, to live our faith, and to share our lives to your glory. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What Exactly Do We Know?

Ecclesiastes 11:1-8
The writer of Ecclesiastes was a product of his time, and it shows in his writing. For example, in today’s Old Testament passage we read, “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother's womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything” (Ecclesiastes 11:5). The fact is medical science has solved a number of mysteries including the development of life from conception onward, but that does not invalidate the point being made here. Indeed, I would suggest the wonder and the mystery surrounding “the work of God” only deepens as we learn more about human life and the world that sustains it.

There have been medical professionals in just about every congregation I have served, men and women who have demonstrated tremendous faith. These individuals can go a long way in explaining the formation of life in scientific terms, but this in no way has diminished their amazement at all God has done and is doing in our world. Often they believe, in large part, because of what they know and not the other way around. I’ve heard it said that the more we know the more we realize what we don’t know, and that may well be true. We can explain the how of conception, but faith confronts us with even deeper wonder. Likewise, we can explain in great detail to our children “where babies come from,” but until we share with them the love of God at work in human history (and in their lives as well) we have told them less than half the story.

Lost in this conversation may be the most profound claim that Ecclesiastes makes. It’s there at the end of verse 5, where we read that it is God “who makes everything.” Everything from babies in the womb to galaxies at the heart of the universe rely upon the God of Israel for their very being. Even as we come to understand more and more about life and being, we are still left with the realization that God is at work. Why? Well, that’s the real question, isn’t it?

Prayer: Lord, strengthen our faith as you open our eyes to the wonders of your creation. In Jesus’ name. Amen.