Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Right Down To The Smallest Detail

Romans 16:17-27
How’s this for an odd little verse? “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Romans 16:22). There may not seem to be much by way of theology here, but I happen to think verses like this one are often full of insight if we will only give them a chance to speak. So what is Romans 16:22 telling us?

For one thing, the spread of the gospel has always been a “team effort.” Paul may have displayed extraordinary zeal but there were always people like Tertius working behind the scenes, making sure that things got done. Look at the number of individuals mentioned in this passage alone: Timothy, Lucius, Jason, Sosipater, Gaius, Erastus, and Quartus all join Paul in sending their greetings. Paul was not alone in his efforts; Tertius had a role to play even if it was taking dictation from Paul.

Which brings us to a second point. The fact that Paul was dictating leads us to the possibility that the content of Romans drew heavily on what Paul would normally have said were he speaking directly to his audience. There has always been a place for oratory in the life of the church, for preaching and proclamation, which requires proximity. Paul was far more accustomed to evangelizing face to face than he was by letter, so much so that in his letters he frequently mentions his desire to be present with his readers. The Christian faith is based on relationships as much or more than it is on particular content, a fact the modern church would do well to remember.

Finally, even in this snippet of scripture, Jesus remains the point. Tertius offers his greeting “in the Lord” and not by the authority of Paul, or the church in Ephesus or Corinth, or even the Apostles in Jerusalem. Jesus is always the heart and soul of the message, even when one Christian says hello to another.

The faith is built upon community, connection, and the person of Jesus Christ, all of which are present in Romans 16:22.

Prayer: Lord, may we see your grace in even the smallest details or our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, July 30, 2012

When the Storms Come Crashing In

Psalm 57
The summer after my freshman year in college was event, in part because of the hurricane that came crashing toward our home in south Texas. We lived about 60 or 75 miles inland, which is no considerable distance when you consider the fearsome power of a hurricane, and we watched and we waited to see what the storm would do, how it would affect us. I’ll never forget the sense of loneliness we experienced as the television station we were watching got knocked off the air, leaving us with no eyes to the outside world, leaving us to listen to the howling sounds of wind and rain in relative isolation. The storm eventually passed leaving us with no serious damage, but obviously it is something I still remember vividly.

Based on his words, the psalmist must have had a similar experience. “In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by” (Psalm 57:1b). Of course the storms that the psalmist refers to may not have been weather related. Life presents us with all sorts of storms: home and family can be disturbed by stormy relationships, our jobs sometimes are beset with clouds that can obscure our paths, the sudden rumbling of tragedy can interfere with our day to day lives, and illness or disease can crash on us like bolts of lightening.

The psalmist found comfort in the shadow of God’s wings, and waited attentively for God to respond, because as the psalmist knew there is no storm, literal or figurative, that falls outside the divine power to comfort or protect. Wherever the storms rage, God is there. Whenever we fell overcome or helpless, God is there as well. Events may not turn out the way we would wish, but we know beyond a doubt that God will be gracious and God’s purpose will be accomplished. That is why the psalmist can also say, “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth” (v. 11).

Prayer: Lord, we praise you this day for your care and protection when the storms of our lives overwhelm us. Amen.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Which Would You Rather Have, Righteousness or Food?

Romans 14:13-23
What is it that ultimately gives a community its shape and its resilience? Is it the restrictions and prohibitions that are maintained? Is it dietary customs? Is it the normal manner of dress? Paul answers this question in terms of the people of God when he writes, “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:17-19). Paul would rather have followers of Jesus Christ concentrate their efforts on the fruit of the Spirit, and particularly on bearing one another in love, than on any single law or custom. What God seeks most in creation is lives of joy focused on loving God and one another. When we are able to do this we will meet all the requirements necessary. Don’t be concerned just for yourself, but “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” Focus on “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” which is very different from the sort of rules and regulations that punish or demean others.

We spend a great deal of time condemning others for their lifestyles or for their choices, and in truth there are actions that must be resisted. But if our first response to any disagreement is to lash out at or to pull apart from those with differing opinions we have failed to meet Paul’s terms. Recently I was politely told that the denomination with which I am affiliated has—in the past few decades–moved away from certitude on many points and now seems to offer either/or choices. I accept that as both a fact and a challenge, for it seems to me that what some call certitude is really self-centeredness and bigotry while what some consider to be an unwillingness to commit on issues is really a recognition that there are no quick or easy answers to some questions, and never have been.

But that doesn’t mean we can quit listening to and for the word of God, for it is in an open and honest consideration of others and in a mature and prayerful approach to God’s will that we find the greatest chance to build community while bringing joy to our creator.

Prayer: Lord, forgive us when we reject others for the sake of our own opinions or pride. Help us to hear your word of peace and joy and to live accordingly. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How Am I Poor and Needy?

Psalm 86
Psalm 86 is one of the evening psalms for today, and I have to admit that I have some trouble with it; I’m not sure how to read the words of verse one. “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy,” and right there is where I have a problem. I’m not really sure I can claim to be “poor and needy,” especially if the psalmist is speaking in purely economic terms. It’s all relative, of course. I mean I have more money than some and less than others. But when we take the rest of the world into consideration I must be in the top, well, maybe 25% certainly of wealth. Even as a paperboy back in junior high school I remember being told that I was earning more money than the majority of the world’s population. So in economic terms I don’t feel right claiming to be poor and needy.

There are other ways of reading these words, I know, and that is what I do. Some days I am bereft of spiritual well-being, feeling disconnected from God, most out of step with the church, confused and concerned about where the world is headed. Other days I may not be in peak physical condition but in need of God’s healing touch in my life. Sometimes I find myself running out of patience with my family, not communicating well, being way too sensitive to what other folks say to me. And boy do I make mistakes! As a minister I don’t always get all of my work done, don’t always get my phone calls returned or my visits made. I don’t always make the right choices, don’t always spend money as wisely as I could, don’t use my talents fully to the glory of God. In all of these ways I am very poor and needy, wanting in what only God can give me, the healing, patience, and focus that I am missing.

So maybe Psalm 86:1 is for me. Maybe I can read the worlds of the psalmist in fresh and exciting ways, looking for its meaning in my life even as I seek to share its meaning with others. In truth we are all poor and needy because we stand in constant need of God’s abiding grace. And in mercy and love God provides that grace to us, opens us to the possibility of lives restored and blessed, allows us to move beyond verse 1, on to the richness of God’s love as found in the fullness of God’s word.

Prayer: Lord, give us what we need so that we may serve you faithfully. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Are We “Sleepy Christians”?

Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 26:36-46
Jesus was distressed to find his disciples literally sleeping at a crucial time. “Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak’” (Matthew 26:40-41). Paul warned his readers in Rome of the dangers of spiritual sleep as well. “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep” (Romans 13:11). In each case the intent is to keep us from becoming “sleepy Christians,” those who snooze when we should be alert and active, tending to our faith and our relationship to God.

This is an easy analogy to pass over without much thought. But what might being a “sleepy Christian” actually mean for us in our world today? Is there starvation, hunger, deprivation to which we fail to respond, injustice against which we fail to speak? Is there a word from the Lord, a call to ministry, a sense of purpose that we have conveniently overlooked? Is there someone crying, or praying, or singing, who would welcome our presence and our comfort? Spiritual and physical sleep may keep us from reaching our full, God-given potential. It may rob us of the means by which to serve our Lord.

There is a time and place for sleep. The body needs enough rest in order to work efficiently. But there is also such a thing as too much sleep. Laziness and sloth may deter us from serving God so we must remain robust! We must remain active and alive. We must live as though the hour is at hand, for according to Paul and Jesus, it is.

Prayer: Lord, help us to rise from our stupor and work for the coming of your kingdom. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Sin Is Always a God Thing

Psalm 51
Today we learn of the horrific events that took place in Aurora, Colorado over night. The shock and anger that we feel in the wake of such violence leads naturally to questions about faith and the reality of God. While some questions cannot be dealt with easily, scripture offers comfort and insight at all times. One of the morning psalms for today makes a profound point: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight…” (Psalm 51:4). To believe in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ is to accept God’s presence in our midst. The psalmist suggests that all sin is committed against God; when we wrong a neighbor or a stranger, when we damage our covenant relationships with others, when we fail to meet our obligations, when we disregard the needs of the poor or the hungry, in every case we are acting against God whose presence in the world makes God a target of all unrighteousness.

This puts God squarely on the side of the afflicted: with the friend who has been cheated, with the loved one who now faces a lack of trust, with those who needed our love and support but did not receive it, with those to whom we offered no care or compassion. But this means that God is also there in the midst of the gunfire, and in the loss of innocence, and in the death of loved ones, and in the chaos of a world that sometimes seems beyond hope. God is with us, so close in fact that God alone becomes the focus of our sinfulness even as God becomes a source of strength and hope.

Most of us will never commit such acts of violence as have taken place in Colorado (or Bulgaria, or Syria, or elsewhere), but we all sin and fall short of God’s will in a variety of ways. The good news is that God is steadfast in love and patience. Far from leaving us on our own to suffer, God stands with us in the hour of need. And now is one of those hours. Lord be with us!

Prayer: Lord God, be a comfort to those who suffer this day and especially those who have encountered violence firsthand, wherever they may be. For it is in Jesus’ name that we pray. Amen.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Joshua 3:14-4:7
Matthew 26:1-16
Recently I had the opportunity to visit a part of the Civil War battlefield at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Like virtually all major battle sites throughout the world Vicksburg is dotted with monuments and markers in memory of those who participated in the fighting. One life-size statue in particular caught my attention. It had been placed at the site in 1912 by the wife and daughter of a Union Army officer. Historians might reflect on this man’s role in the war, but I did not recognize the name, nor do I remember it. Whoever he was, he may well become known best as “one of the guys with a statue.”

By comparison two of our readings for today touch on the role of memory within the community of faith. In the account from Joshua God commands that twelve stones from the River Jordan be gathered and set aside. “When your children ask in time to come, 'What do those stones mean to you?' then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever” (Joshua 4:6b-7). The gospel reading for today speaks tells of the actions of a woman. “By pouring this ointment on my body,” Jesus says, “she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her" (Matthew 26:12-13).

Not to denigrate the role of that “guy with a statue” at Vicksburg, Mississippi, but unfortunately wars come and go and the glory and honor given to participants will in most cases fade with time. The events we encounter in scripture, however, deserve our full attention and to be remembered for what they are, God’s interaction with humanity. What God has done in the past, how God has led the people, and how individuals have responded to God’s work are of greater importance than almost anything else that would claim our attention, for these are the events and actions that set the course for our living and give us courage for the journey ahead. By remembering what God has done in the past, by reflecting on who Jesus Christ was and is, by reciting the words of the Lord and committing them to memory we bind ourselves to God’s will for our lives and to the work of the church as the body of Christ. Remember!

Prayer: Lord, help us to reflect on all you have done in our midst and on all you are doing for us and through us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.