Thursday, May 30, 2013

Divine Competence

2 Corinthians 3:1-18
“Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit…” (2 Corinthians 3:5-6a). These words are a great comfort to me. They remind me to give thanks to God for all that I am able to accomplish. They remind me to do my best in any situation and to trust God to bless the outcome. They remind me that it is not I who achieve, but God who achieves through me. Paul’s words free me to worry less about whether I can do something and instead to give thought to how something might be done.

The work of ordained ministers has changed in recent decades. While preaching, teaching, and pastoral care were long considered the primary concerns of clergy, we now find ourselves dealing as much with staff development, budgets, endowments, boards of agencies, volunteer recruitment, fund raising, facilities, in short, administration. There are always plenty of reasons to stay in my office even though I feel like my work should take me into the world meeting needs and touching lives. It really seems that few people can do all that the ministry requires today. But not all ministry is done by “ministers.” Much of what the church is about is best done by lay people, those with the skills and talents needed for such tasks. It is, I believe, a matter of matching the person with the right talents to the job that needs doing. Even then, though, even when we get people pointed in the right direction, it is by the grace of God that they succeed in their work.

Each of us, no matter our skill level, is dependent on God to give us the insight and wisdom, the talent and determination, the skill and imagination necessary to act in faithful obedience. “Our competence is from God,” said Paul, which means not only that we give God glory for what we are able to do, but that we should never waver in our determination, never falter in the face of difficult tasks, because until we try we will never know what God has given us the ability to accomplish. And there is no telling what the Spirit of God will lead us to do next.

Prayer: Lord, only you can give us competence, only you can give us what we need to succeed. Help us, then, to be about your work in the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

For All the Saints

Psalm 15
Several years ago, my wife, the Rev. Dr. Debra Carl Freeman, organized a number of “Prayer Knots” within the congregation we served as co-pastors. One of the practices she strongly recommended for these small groups was regular Bible study using the daily lectionary. After about eight years of participation in one such group, I and another member, Jo Fontaine, began to swap emails each day pointing to verses that had been particularly meaningful or thought-provoking for us. Jo and I were having so much fun communicating our thoughts that I thought maybe others would enjoy getting in on the conversation. So on March 14, 2007 I began this blog. And though it has recently begun to attract a larger number of readers, Jo has always been one of the people I could count on to read it and comment on it. Jo was a little skittish with the internet, so she never actually saw the blog. What she saw was an email of each post that I sent to her as soon as it was written. Even after a change in pastorates lead me to another town, I remained as active as possible in that prayer knot with Jo and our friends HK Stewart and Vivianna McAtee, and I continued to swap emails with Jo.

In recent months, Jo’s health began to decline. She was well into her 90’s and still full of the same insight and wisdom that I had come to value, but finally Jo was not physically up to the challenge. I last met with the group early this past April on a visit to Little Rock. It met one more time after that. Yesterday, I again returned to Little Rock where I had the honor of participating in Jo’s funeral. It will feel strange to post to my blog today, knowing that I will not be forwarding a copy to her, that her thoughts will not arrive in my inbox, that our opportunity for sharing has ended for now. Grace abounds, but not always in ways that we fully appreciate.

I was struck today by the first verse of the morning Psalm: “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1). It is a question Jo might have pondered with great interest in years past. Now, by the grace of God, Jo is a part of the answer. I will miss her, and the gatherings that she, HK, Vivianna, and I shared for 14 years. But I will remain grateful to my wife for organizing “prayer knots,” to the others for participating, and to Jo for sharing her insight and wisdom over the years. She once referred to my wife as the godmother of our prayer group––which was true––but it was Jo who, despite her humility, was the heart of it.

Prayer: Lord, for all the saints who from their labors rest, we give you thanks and praise. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

People of God 2.0

Ezekiel 11:14-25
If you are like me, you can get a little weary of the constant upgrading that goes on with computers and software. Just when I get comfortable with a program or a web site, just when I feel like I finally understand how to use a laptop or iPad, along comes a new operating system, or a new layout, or a new interface. The social media giant Facebook is famous for such changes, but even, the site where I post this blog, has recently undergone a revision. I want to say “Enough already. Stop with all the changing!” But the truth is that there are times and situations where change is not only desirable, it is absolutely essential. One such case is mentioned in our Old Testament reading for today. “I will give them one heart,” says the Lord, “and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20). Let’s call this phenomenon “the People of God (version 2)” because according to the prophet, God’s people are about to be completely reoriented and it will begin in the heart.

This message is profound. Though God created women and men in the divine image, over time even God’s chosen people had become hardhearted, unfeeling and unresponsive to God’s will. Hearts made for compassion and love had instead become like rock, unmoved by the needs of others. The result had been calamitous. By the time of Ezekiel’s writing, the people of God had been spread among the nations, awash in exile. God had not given up, however, and though the situation appeared dire, the Lord promised to restore the people by first correcting their innermost deficiencies. Hearts of stone would be restored to their original loving and compassionate forms. The result of this transformation would be a restored community bound together by attention to God’s will and a renewed relationship between God and humanity. Essentially, all that was wrong with the world would be corrected when the people themselves were remade.

Here the analogy with computers and the internet breaks down because with technology there are obvious adjustments that are made, clear examples of change that are impossible to ignore. But with people, change is not always certain, nor is it always obvious. Indeed, it would be difficult to point to a moment in time where God’s promise to instill new hearts was accomplished. Humanity remains afflicted with sinfulness and a lack of compassion. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, however, has proven that God is firmly committed to upholding the covenant even as God continues to call people to lives of faithful obedience. Perhaps it is in Jesus’ defeat of sin and death that you and I find our fullest transformation as humans, our most pronounced “upgrade.” For in the new thing that God is doing in Jesus Christ, we have been given a fresh start, have been recreated. Indeed, God’s work in Christ makes it clear that things are not what they once were, which is to say that compassion and love are no longer exceptions, they are the rule. For this we can say thanks to God.

Prayer: Gracious and loving God, we thank you for the new beginning you have given us through your Son Jesus Christ and for the forgiveness and hope we find in him. Amen.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Mission Continues

Luke 10:1-17
“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:16). Jesus’ words to his followers found in our gospel reading today play multiple roles. On the one hand, Jesus is speaking to those whom he “sent on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go” (v. 1). But Luke also has the responsibility of speaking to you and me, members of the contemporary church, who have also been sent into the world by our Savior to share the good news and to do ministry in his name. Placed in this context, Jesus’ words should become a great deal more compelling for us.

Imagine reading an email addressed to a stranger—or so you assume. It appears to be from someone in need of help, someone who is counting on assistance, someone who is waiting for a reply. The email is interesting, but not so much so that it makes an impression on you. But then imagine discovering that the email is in fact intended specifically for you, that the person in need of help is calling on you for that assistance, waiting for you to respond. Knowing yourself to be the intended recipient of the email may not lead you to take action in the matter, but you cannot pretend to be uninvolved. You are a part of what is going on here. In a similar way, reading Jesus’ words in Luke 10 as though they are meant solely for his original followers is to ignore the fact that Luke is speaking just as directly to us. We are every bit as engaged in the ministry of Jesus Christ, the evangelism and witness to which the disciples themselves were called. It is through us that others may or may not choose to listen to Jesus Christ, who may or may not accept him as Savior. We are a part of the story, and it is through us that the mission of the 70 continues to develop and to grow.

This is a major reason why the gospels were written in the first place, as an invitation to accept the Son of God in our own time and to follow where he leads us. The world has changed dramatically since Jesus first spoke these words, even since Luke recounted them, but the mission continues nonetheless because this has never been simply an interesting tale. It is a part of our day to day lives, instructions for us to follow as we live our calling to be the people of God.

Prayer: Lord, help us to hear your word with clarity and to respond with urgency, that the world may know the good news of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Patience of Faith

Hebrews 6:1-12
Patience is not always something I do well. I find it irritating when I have to wait, especially when I have no control over a situation. Slow moving traffic and long checkout lines are among the things I dislike the most. As much as I hate to admit it, waiting for God is also on that list. Here, too, I can get impatient to the point of exasperation. At various points in my career I’ve felt that God was not responding to me quickly enough, not giving me a sense of call or direction at the speed with which I wanted it and I became very agitated. (Ironically, I’ve even gotten impatient with God today as I wrestled with this blog post and found the writing to be slow going.) Maybe all of this is why the reading from Hebrews today struck a nerve with me.

“And we want each one of you to show the same diligence,” we read, “so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:11-12). The writer of Hebrews presents us with a dichotomy between spiritual inactivity on the one hand, and diligence, faithfulness, and patience on the other. Put another way, those who, in the words of Isaiah 40, “wait for the Lord” will be sustained in their effort while those who do not are apt to fall away. As is so often the case in scripture, patience is shown to require effort because it is hard work which deserves our full attention.

When I become impatient with what God is doing, I risk turning away from the divine will for my life. I might take matters into my own hands, which is bad enough, but I also might fall into lazy spiritual practices. That doesn’t mean I’m not doing anything. I might be busy with all sorts of activities, but it is what I do to further my spiritual life that determines whether or not I am “sluggish” in the way that the writer of Hebrews uses the term. How do we avoid the trap of impatience with God? According to Hebrews, we work at it “diligently” which I believe could include fervent prayer, acts of generosity and compassion, the study of scripture, regular attendance in worship, participation in the community of faith, and the willingness to share the good news of the gospel just to name a few. This is what it means to actively wait. This is also how our spiritual patience is deepened and any tendency to become sluggish is turned back.

Yes, I get fed up by waiting. Yes, I want things to move more quickly. Yes, I would appreciate it if God moved with a little more urgency as well. But if I am to serve God faithfully I need to live with patience so as not to become sluggish.

Prayer: Almighty God, give us the strength to stand firm in the faith and to await your will to be done. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

God’s Got Soul

Jeremiah 32:36-44
There are a number of places in scripture where God is spoken of in nearly human terms. Phrases referring to “the hand of God” can be found throughout scripture (e.g. Isaiah 5:25) as can those about God’s arm (e.g. Exodus 6:6). There are references to “the apple of [God’s] eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10, Zechariah 2:8) and the call for God to “give ear” to prayer (Psalm 84:8). Perhaps we should not be surprised then by the Old Testament passage for today which includes God’s words, “I will rejoice in doing good to them, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul” (Jeremiah 32:41).

When we use the term “heart and soul” we are usually referring to the entirety of a person, or at least his or her full attention which is undoubtedly what is meant in Jeremiah. God will be completely devoted to meeting the needs of the people, says the prophet, and will be fully engaged in that work. It is, of course, a promise that God is uniquely qualified to make. Few of us have the ability to remain totally absorbed by an activity for a prolonged period of time, but God can and does, throughout history and in countless ways. God focuses all the divine will on creation, on the long process of redemption as fulfilled in Jesus Christ, on emboldening the early church on Pentecost and sustaining it across centuries. Human thoughts wander, interests wane, attention levels fall. New fads rise with disturbing regularity and new ideas clamor for our endorsement. But God remains firmly rooted in the divine work and sees it though to completion. In other words, God has always put heart and soul into the care of humanity.

Then again, the word soul is also used to speak of the intangible nature of an individual, that which makes a man or woman unique in essence and intellect, the creative side of who they are and the very deepest expression of themselves. It also refers to a type of art or music that expresses an authentic humanity, that nearly lives and breaths with pathos. To say that God has soul, then, might be to claim that God knows or experiences the human essence at a truly authentic level, that God understands what it means to be us. And why not? God did create woman and man in the divine image. The fact that we have a soul may simply reflect the fact that God had one to begin with.

Whatever the case, God is in tune with humanity in ways that we cannot fully appreciate or understand, in ways that boggle the imagination and exhaust the mind’s capacity to comprehend. God is with us, heart and soul, guiding us on toward the coming reign, holding us accountable as we stumble, lifting us up when we fall, step by step for as long as we live. Yes, God has soul.

Prayer: God of all, walk with us as we journey toward you so that we may arrive at your new creation and stand in your eternal light. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Do The Right Thing

Romans 12:1-21
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:14-18). I wonder what would happen if we took Paul’s exhortations as seriously as we do some other biblical texts. I wonder what would happen if we challenged ourselves to no longer repay evil for evil with as much vigor as some people of faith use in speaking out against what they consider to be among the more egregious sins. Or if we took Paul’s directions to “live in harmony with one another” to be as essential to a godly life as we hear certain other activities to be contrary to God’s will.

I’ve noticed a tendency on my part to do some picking and choosing when it comes to standards of conduct as a Christian. I’ve also noticed that I’m not the only one. It is terribly easy to make up our own catalogue of dos and don’ts and to add what we feel is appropriate to the list while leaving off some items we aren’t as fond of. The fact is that over and over again in the words of Paul—just as in the words of Jesus before him––the focal point remains love for God and love for one another. With this love comes a willingness to suffer with and to care for those around us. Jesus said that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16), a sentiment echoed by 1 John which says, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God” (1 John 4:16); Paul himself says clearly that “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). It all comes down to love and the harmony, and the shared burdens, and the peaceable living, and the willingness to associate with folks from all classes that comes with it. It all comes down to opening our hearts to God in such a way that we also love our neighbors as ourselves.

As we ponder the word of God and God’s will for all people, we must embrace the entire scope of scripture. Yes, God does offer judgment, does seek to correct our sinfulness, does lead us to a more profound sense of righteousness. But first and foremost God calls us to build a community in love and forbearance where no one is haughty and everyone seeks to live in peace with everyone else. I just wonder what that would look like.

Prayer: Almighty God, may our lives be filled with love for you and for each other, and may we be guided in all we do to build a world full of your grace and peace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Getting Our Work Done

Colossians 3:18-4:18
Many of us are familiar with the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This may be no truer than in the life of the Christian community, especially at the time of baptism. Then it is common for promises to be made, pledges to assist in guiding the newly baptized—whether adult or child––as he or she grows and develops in the faith. One verse from our epistle reading for today, while not referring to a child, does affirm the role the “village” of faith plays in encouraging each of its members to live up to her or his calling. “And say to Archippus, ‘See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord’” (Colossians 4:17).

These words of instruction for Archippus would have been read aloud, meaning that he would likely have heard this admonition first hand. But of equal importance is that the wider community know that it has been called on to hold Archippus accountable. What was the task he had been given? We really have no way of knowing, but that really isn’t important at this point. Nearly 2,000 years after the fact, we may assume that the work––whether it was done or not––has long since passed from importance. What has not lost importance is the job given to the wider community. By grace, we are surrounded by women and men who have been charged by God in a variety of ways. Our job is to help them get that work done.

This past Sunday, three young women were recognized by the congregation I serve as they graduate from high school and head toward college in the fall. Part of our duty as a congregation will always be to remind young people to “complete the task that [they] have received in the Lord.” For some, this task will be to serve the church as a minister or other form of leader. For some it will be to respond to the needs of the world in faithful obedience to God. For some it will be as parents. For some, as teachers or as the sort of business people who function with integrity and honor. Whatever the case, the community of faith will always be integral to the growth and development of its members, if only by reminding them to be all that God has created them to be.

Prayer: Lord God, help us to complete the task set before us, that our faithful service may bring honor and glory to your name. Amen.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why Woe?

Luke 6:12-26
There are times when Jesus, in the words of the old expression, quits preaching and goes to meddling and a portion of our gospel reading for today seems to take us in that direction. “But woe to you who are rich,” says Jesus, “for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:24-26). In one fell swoop, Jesus manages to condemn the wealthy, the well-fed, the joyful, and those folks who have good reputations. Was that really necessary? Did he really need to risk alienating those who seem guilty of nothing more than being blessed?

Apparently so. But condemnation is probably the wrong term to use here. Jesus is really offering words of warning to people who may have become lost in their own circumstances. Wealth is not the point to life, Jesus is saying, nor is a full belly. In and of itself, joy is not a bad thing, but if it blinds us to the larger issues in life it can cause real harm. And anyone “who believes their own press clippings,” or who becomes infatuated with their own public image risks turning away from God’s will in an attempt to remain at the center of attention.

Let the rich recognize how blessed they are and embrace the opportunity to share from their own abundance. Let those with plenty to eat avoid gorging themselves and remember to provide for the hungry and neglected. Let those who are able to laugh share that joy with others. Let those who are highly regarded use their standing in the community to demonstrate a life of humble service and self-sacrifice. In these ways the blessings of God are multiplied many times over and become a source of wealth, sustenance, joy, and esteem for all.

Prayer: Lord, give us the strength to live as faithful disciples of your will in all that we do, for it is in Jesus’ name that we pray. Amen.

Monday, April 22, 2013


Colossians 1:1-14
As a child living in Memphis, Tennessee, I never had the need to ride public transportation. But my mother thought getting around town by various means was an important skill to develop, so on at least one occasion we took a city bus from near our home in midtown to the downtown area. It was only a six-mile ride, but it afforded me an opportunity to see how the transit system worked and that even as a child, it was nothing for me to be afraid of. Our reading from Colossians today creates an impression for me of a trip of far greater significance, one that should be taken very seriously because of its far-reaching consequences.

Imagine yourself riding on a great cosmic bus, one that is taking you and everyone you know—perhaps all of creation—toward a dark and evil place. Whether you know it or not, this is not the direction you should be going. You, and everyone else, need to get off of this bus so you can board another one that will take you in the right direction. What you need is a transfer, a ticket that allows you to change from one bus to another so that you may reach the correct destination. The author of Colossians knew nothing about busses, of course, but he did know about the need for God’s people to travel in the right direction; he also knew that God had done what was necessary to achieve that very goal. “He has rescued us from the power of darkness,” we read, “and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has provided us with a means to change directions, to arrive at the proper location, safe from the “power of darkness,” ensconced in the coming kingdom. Before we had even realized how dangerous our trip was God had already taken steps to save us from it.

This in no way implies that the struggles of life are behind us or that we will not face difficult decisions. Musician Tom Cochrane makes that clear with is song “Life Is a Highway.”

Life's like a road that you travel on
When there's one day here and the next day gone
Sometimes you bend and sometimes you stand
Sometimes you turn your head to the wind

As God’s people we still must learn to “endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father…” (vv. 11-12). The good news is that we are engaged in a winning effort, not because of who we are, but because of who God is and what God is doing for us. The cosmic journey continues toward God’s coming kingdom.

Prayer: Lord, guide us in our journey of life, that we may live in faithful obedience to you and in service to one another. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

So Much Greater Than Fish

Luke 5:1-11
An odd thing happens in our gospel account for today that may challenge our understanding of what God desires for God’s people. Jesus encourages a group of fishermen to cast there nets into the Sea of Galilee. Even though they had caught nothing all night, the men do as Jesus says. “When they had done this,” Luke says, “they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:6-11).

On the one hand, Jesus’ instructions lead Simon and the others to an enormous catch of fish, one that would have provided significant financial reward to them and their families. So we might be tempted to assume that God wishes such financial health for all people, and that when we believe in Jesus we will find ourselves blessed in the same way. But Luke’s account goes on to tell us that just as Simon and the others began to react to the bounteous catch, Jesus invited them to come with him to “catch people” and, according to Luke, “When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.” So much for financial security. Luke doesn’t say that Simon, James, and John negotiated a sale of their fish before leaving, or that once they had sold their boats they departed, or that as soon as they had found someone to operate the business they were ready to go. Luke says that these men “left everything” to follow Jesus.

The truth is that sometimes following where Jesus is going to feel a lot like leaving behind everything we have, everything we know, everything we hold dear or that brings us comfort. Sometime following Jesus requires learning a whole new set of life skills and adapting to a completely new set of assumptions. And whatever reward we are to receive may not come in this lifetime. But that is the lesson we learn from Simon, James and John: when we decide to follow Jesus, the action should be a radical act of faith based on the trust we have in God and not a risk-free outing or an overnight trip out of town. To follow Jesus sometimes means to leaving behind what we think we value most in order to find out there is something so much greater waiting for us.

Prayer: Gracious God, help us to answer your call to discipleship with confidence and faith, leaving behind the lives we know in order to embrace that which only you can offer us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What Exactly Is the Good News?

Luke 4:38-44
The nature of God’s reign is inherently good. That’s one message we find in today’s gospel reading: “But [Jesus] said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’ So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea” (Luke 4:43-44). But what constitutes “good news”? The definition we choose will go a long way in determining how we understand God’s work within human history and beyond. Actually, this term is used a number of times in Luke, from the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah announcing the “good news” of the birth of John (1:19), to the angel’s sharing “good news of great joy” with shepherds guarding their flocks near Bethlehem (2:10). Jesus himself quotes the prophet Isaiah in claiming that his ministry includes bringing “good news to the poor” (4:18), a theme he returns to in his conversation with the disciples of John (7:22). This “good news” then is bound up in the work of Jesus Christ and those, like John, who point toward him.

But as joyous and profound as this “good news” is, it can not be isolated from the reality of the world as we know it. After all, much of Jesus’ time was dedicated to healing illnesses and casting out demons, to calming fears and announcing God’s judgment, to feeding the hungry and restoring the lost. These conditions and needs existed within the created order, plaguing many and making life more difficult. But the hunger and illness and fear in no way preclude the goodness of what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ. To all such cases Jesus brings good news in the form of the coming reign of God. Like a beam of light that ejects all darkness before it, the validity of God’s new creation opens a passage forward. Now lives lived in turmoil have a chance at redemption. Now hurt and anger can be set aside and reconciliation claimed. Angry voices can now be tuned to praise and sharp words to the work of building community.

Jesus shared good news wherever he went. That same good news remains a potent, indeed, all-consuming force for goodness and mercy. When we accept what God is doing now and what God has promised in the future, we prepare ourselves to do our part in changing the world.

Prayer: Almighty God, may we live as messengers of good news and as agents of your gospel until your kingdom arrives in it fullness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Love and Hate

1 John 4:7-21
Like many of you, I’ve been reading news reports about the bombing in Boston on April 15, 2013. While the news is tragic and heartbreaking, I have been disappointed as well by comments left on various websites concerning the role of religion or politics in the event, even though no suspect or motive have been identified. As people of faith, we must take seriously the charges being leveled against us: that we are led to violence by our God; that our faith is one of hate and vengeance which––as one writer claimed––has overseen far more deaths than were caused by Hitler and Stalin combined; that were there no religions the world would be a better place. We need to hear these words not as truth, but as assumptions too often based on the acts of those who claim they believe in the God of Jesus Christ.

And when we have heard these words, we need to read from our epistle lesson for today: “We love because [God] first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:19-21). Granted, to some these are just words on a page which is why we must learn to share God’s love unambiguously and without qualification. We must let the world know, to the best of our abilities, that God is love and that it is because of God that we are capable of showing love for one another even in the face of greatest evil.

One glimmer of hope to appear in the midst of yesterday’s turmoil is the renewed use of a quote from Fred Rogers, a man of faith who dedicated his life to enriching the lives of children. His mother’s advice to “look for the helpers” in scary times has resonated with many. You can find the original video of this quote at:

Rogers is not claiming that all helpers are people of faith, simply that there are always those who will show compassion in times of distress. Our job, as Christians, is to make sure that we are among the helpers, those who renounce acts of violence to embrace ministries of hope and reconciliation. This may not lead others to share our faith, but it will serve the will of a loving God and will help to push back the darkness of evil with the light of life.

Prayer: Lord, we pray for all those who are victims of violence and ask your peace to be upon all people this day, in Boston and around the world, so that all may enjoy your gift of abundant life, now and forever. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Passing Along

Luke 4:14-31
As we read scripture, we are apt to think of Jesus in a lot of ways: as a teacher, a preacher, and a healer; as the Son of God and the word of God incarnate; as the Messiah and the chosen one. All of these titles, and so many more, lead us to think of Jesus as interacting with the people of his day, meeting needs and sharing God’s love. Even when he was filled with righteous anger, it was for the purpose of leading people to God’s will. But do we say when Jesus simply walks away from a situation? Our gospel reading for today offers an example of Jesus doing just that. “They got up,” Luke tells us of the crowd in the synagogue, “drove [Jesus] out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:29-30). Faced with the prospect of being killed, Jesus merely excused himself and took his leave.

On the one hand, this part of the story points to the God-given charisma that Jesus possessed. When he decided that things had gone far enough, Jesus was able to stare down the mob that threatened him and to “pass through the midst” of them. He could never have done that were he not filled with holy authority. But more importantly, we should recognize that this account points ahead to Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. He might have been killed by the crowd in Nazareth that day except that it wasn’t his time to die. Then again, he clearly could have avoided death in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans had it not been God’s will for him to die. Jesus was never merely a victim of the events going on around him, nor was he ever swept up in what was happening. He had a role to play in the work that God was doing, and he accepted that role, and he lived it to perfection.

The crowds at the synagogue in Nazareth that day were unaware of the events that would later unfold for Jesus. But if, in hindsight, they associated what they had witnessed with the crucifixion of Jesus, then they may have wondered how the same man who had walked away from his encounter with them could have been put to death later. The answer lies in the love of God who sent a Son to die, not in a capricious way, but according to the divine will and at the right time. This is why we can also refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” and know that when Jesus suffered it was not by accident.

Prayer: Almighty God, we thank you for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ, who came into the world to save sinners and in whose name we offer our prayers of gratitude. Amen.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Heavenly Mandate

Luke 3:1-14
According to Luke’s account, John the Baptist gives clear guidance on what one does in order to live a righteous life. “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages’” (Luke 3:10-14). The underlying theme is community, caring for one another and living in right relationship. Those with plenty should care for those in need. Those in authority should be careful not to abuse their power. In fact, all that is required to live a godly life seems to be summed up in John’s admonition to the soldiers, “and be satisfied with your wages.” Those who seek more than they need—be it in terms of wealth or power––are at risk of God’s judgment. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” quipped the old-time preacher. Here, the faithful obedience for which God calls is straight-forward and clear-cut. If you have enough, be satisfied with it as you seek to care for those who are without.

What also strikes me about these words is the complete absence of any human mandate. All the generosity, hospitality, responsibility, restraint, and respect, that John’s words imply are to be established according to the will of God and not because of a governmental decree or social policy. Regardless of what legislatures or agencies may (or may not) decide, the role of the believer is obvious: care for one another in obedience to God. As Paul says of the fruit of the Spirit, “There is no law against such things” (Galatians 5:23b).

How might John’s words inform our living today? For one thing, the people of God must demonstrate the human capacity for generosity and compassion instead of waiting for or demanding it of others. Governments serve a vital purpose and can do many good and essential things. But caring for others and sharing with those in need is too important to be relegated to elected officials. Likewise, while there are many points of disagreement between people of faith, there should be something close to unanimity when it comes to caring for the lost, the lonely, the poor, and the outcast. There are many ways to address the needs of the world, but only one Spirit necessary to motivate our actions.

John lays down an indelible pathway toward the coming kingdom with his challenge to “be satisfied” with what we are given as we work to mend the brokenness of our neighbors. As the old-time preacher reminds us, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

Prayer: Gracious God, help us to live with love and compassion for those around us, meeting needs and mending wounds, and so to live as an example to the world of what it means to follow you

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Step Right This Way

Psalm 66
Walk among the sideshows at the circus or at the fair and you may find yourself enticed by the cries of the carnival barker. A barker, of course, is the person whose job it is to drum up a crowd, to build interest, and to generate as much business for the sideshow as possible. “Hurry, hurry, step right this way. Don’t you dare miss the awesome wonder that is the four-headed cow,” he might say. Or the bearded lady, or the frozen mermaid, or the man-eating geranium. And if we are willing to let ourselves believe the unbelievable, we will pay our money and take a look at what we know cannot be true. For a carnival barker to be effective, he or she must display enough enthusiasm to overcome our natural skepticism, to make us do something that we would not normally do.

Psalm 66:5 has the ring of a carnival barker to it. “Come and see what God has done,” it calls to us. “(H)e is awesome in his deeds among mortals.” There is a great deal of enthusiasm here for what God is doing in the midst of God’s people. “Look here! Step right up! Don’t you dare miss the awesome deeds of God!” What deeds are these? Well for one thing, says the psalmist, God “turned the sea into dry land; (God’s people) passed through the river on foot. There we rejoiced in him, who rules by his might forever, whose eyes keep watch on the nations…” (vv. 6-7). And again––later in the psalm––we are told to “come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for me. I cried aloud to him… (T)ruly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer” (vv. 16, 19).

Call this evangelism Israelite style. It is a charismatic cry to the people to put aside any doubts they might have harbored and to listen to what God has done, both on a grand scale, and on a personal level. It is the sort of invitation offered by Paul throughout the Roman empire as he called men and women to hear and believe the good news of Jesus Christ. It is the sort of invitation offered by countless saints throughout the generations as they shared their own stories and called others to believe as well. It is the sort of invitation that we, too, are called on to offer to the world, baptizing and making disciples, working to overcome the skepticism the confronts our message.

The invitation of the psalmist, and of Paul, and of the church in all generations is an invitation to praise the living God. “Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth,” we read, “sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise. Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds” (vv. 1-3a). When we can respond to God with praise, when we can marvel at God’s awesome works in our midst, then for us the skepticism is less acute. When our hearts are full of praise and worship, then they are also ready to work and minister in God’s name, to feed the hungry, to revive the dispirited, to comfort the distressed, to house the homeless, then we are ready to enthusiastically invite others to come and see what God has done.

The carnival barkers do not remain in one place long. They follow the circus, or head to the next fair, and they take with them the four-headed cow, and the frozen mermaid. The God of all creation remains in our midst and invites us to remain at work with enthusiasm calling others to join in.

Prayer: Lord, guide us by your word and your will to serve you faithfully in all that we do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, April 8, 2013

No Darkness At All

1 John 1:1-10
I have to admit, when it comes time to sleep nothing beats a dark room. It is also easier to watch a movie if the screen is the only source of light in the theater. Astronomers work best when they are well removed from the ambient glow of population centers. For those who still remember pre-digital photography, a darkroom is necessary for developing pictures. These are all reasons why we should approach one of the metaphors used in 1 John 5 with care. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Does this mean that in the presence of God there is no shade to be found? Is there no relief from the constant, penetrating glare of light? Or does this verse really point to something else?

The dichotomy between light and dark is one of the most common in scripture rising, in large part, from the Bible’s pre-industrial setting. Darkness––especially nighttime––caused fear because it was so all-pervasive. Candles or lanterns or torches were of some help in pushing back the gloom, but there was finally nothing to be done but to wait for the sunrise to illuminate the world. So darkness was perceived as evil while light was considered good. To this extent, the metaphor is apt. “God is goodness and in God there is no evil at all,” we might say. But there is a flaw in this reasoning as well. According to Genesis 1 God did create light on the first day, overcoming the darkness of chaos. But God also created evening and morning and called them both good. Night was understood as a necessary contrast to day, allowing for rest and for rejuvenation throughout creation. To this extent, the metaphor is problematic because darkness is a natural part of the created order.

But what if we take 1 John 1:5 more or less literally? What if we assume that God really is light as opposed to darkness? What does that tell us? It tells us that just as light is the source of growth, and daytime is the setting for so much of human accomplishment, God, too, is a source of growth and home to what humanity can and does achieve. And in God there is no ambiguity, natural or otherwise, no grey areas, no blurred edges, no overlapping. God is what God is: light as opposed to the absence of light; energy as opposed to a lack of energy; as central to our existence as the sun is to our being.

God is light the way that God is love, or that God is three-in-one. When we try to approximate God with words, there will always be limitations. But then we step into the glow of inspiration, the illumination of knowledge, and we begin to better understand who God really is: light without any darkness at all.

Prayer: Lord, help us to be illumined by your word and by your will, that we may dwell in the light by which we bless all people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Ins and Outs of the Gospel

Acts 2:36-47
By grace, God has formed a new community of faith in Jesus Christ. This reality is central to Peter’s message on Pentecost as recorded in the book of Acts. Indeed, it is because of this divine initiative that Peter can point to an ever widening circle of fellowship beginning in Jerusalem. “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him’” (Acts 2:38-39).

There’s a song by musician Peter Gabriel that speaks to the natural human tendency to seek out distinctions between people and to shape society along those sometimes artificial barriers. He says:

There's safety in numbers
When you learn to divide.
How can we be in
If there is no outside?

Speaking in terms of the gospel, the apostle Peter refuses to make any such distinctions, recognizing instead that all authority rests with God and God alone. He and the others who had followed Jesus from the beginning sought shelter in the days immediately following the ascension, but now the Holy Spirit had sent them out into the streets to share the good news to all people. There had been relative safety for them in the isolation of the upper room, in the ability to control those who came and went from their midst. But that safety would now be lost to the hubbub of the marketplaces and the roadsides. There no longer would be an “inside” established by the community of faith because whatever “outside” there might be would exist only at God’s will.

The contemporary church serves God best when it embraces this reality, that God’s promise is for whoever God determines. There is safety to be found in small rooms and in closed communities, but as the crucifixion makes so vibrantly clear, the gospel has never been about safety. It is a message infused with risk which sometimes leads to discomfort and even death, but which also leads to the gift of eternal life. By God’s grace the question becomes: can anyone be “out” if there is no “inside?”

Prayer: Almighty God, help us to open our hearts to your message of grace and peace and our lives to the work you would have us do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Now the Real Work Starts

Acts 2:14, 22-32
“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses” (Acts 2:32). Peter’s words to the crowds in Jerusalem on Pentecost are appropriate for the day after Easter because they remind us of the good news of the resurrection, but also of the responsibility that we now bear for sharing that good news with the world. The truth is, if we think that Easter has somehow brought us to the end of something, we are wrong; Easter is, in so many ways, only the beginning.

Think of the empty tomb as a pebble dropped into a pond. From the point of impact, ripples move outward across the water until the entire pond has been stirred. As people of faith, we play an important role in transporting the gospel, conveying the message of Jesus’ resurrection further and further through time and space. It may be by you or me that others are stirred from their placid apathy into lives of discipleship. It may be our actions or our attitudes that help others recognize Christ at work in their lives, that awaken them to the possibilities that God is offering in grace.

Because of the cultural aspect of this holy day–the egg hunts, the new clothes, the candy-filled baskets–Easter may seem somehow to be a culmination or a fulfillment; what it represents, though, is a starting point. We may have put the decorations into storage until next year, but if we are paying attention we will recognize that the real work is just beginning. Oh, but what joyous, life-affirming work it is.

Prayer: Lord, may the season of Eastertide bring us new opportunities for service and growth as we seek to follow our risen savior. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Seeing and Believing

John 10:19-42
There’s an interesting question raised in our reading from the gospel today. In John 10 we read, “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (John 10:21b). How we answer this question could have significant bearing on our spiritual lives. First of all we should note that query is rhetorical, that it concerns the words that Jesus was speaking when set over and against the works that he was performing. Those who did not accept him as the Son of God doubted his sanity and wondered if he was possessed. But others wondered how someone who was plagued by a demon could perform miracles as Jesus did.

This is the point where the passage becomes particularly relevant for our lives, for in the midst of our spiritual blindness, in the groping about that we sometimes do, seeking a way through the challenges of life, to what do we cling as a source of help? When we become lost or disoriented, what steps do we take to find the way toward home? “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” Or to put it another way, can an idol of our own creation really help us to have life and have it abundantly? Can a self-help formula give us the means by which to fulfill our truest humanity in God’s image? Can self-centeredness or a “me first” attitude really lead us where we need to go for health and wellbeing? No, only God can cure this sort of blindness, for only God offers us the truth we need as well as the strength we need to accept it.

This is not to say that God is limited in means by which to help us. God can and does work in innumerable ways to accomplish the divine will. But by the same token, it is this divine will that we must seek if we are to be cured of the spiritual blindness that clouds our living. Only when we allow God to open our eyes will we truly see.

Prayer: Lord, give us eyes with which to see your work in our world and in our lives, that we may respond in faithful obedience to the call you have set before us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

It’s All About Your Mindset

Romans 8:1-11
“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). Paul’s words to the Christian community in Rome offer a challenge to all who hear them. Before us lie two choices. On the one hand we have all that the world has to offer, what Paul refers to as the flesh. Wealth, prominence, power, easy solutions and quick fixes, all that dulls the mind or numbs the senses to the presence of God: these all belong to the flesh and to follow them leads us away from God and therefore toward death. But there is hope, because on the other hand there is that which emanates from God through the Holy Spirit. To accept the Spirit into our lives, to focus on what it means for us, and to embrace all that it entails leads not only to abundant life in its fullest, but to a sense of peace and wellbeing as well. This is the promise that God holds out to us, even in the most difficult of times.

It is all a matter of mindset, of where we place our priorities, and of how we perceive the world. If we are driven by an overarching sense of competition, of looking out for ourselves first and foremost, of self-satisfaction as a primary motivation, then we have already separated ourselves from God and the community that God is building in our midst for we have embraced the flesh as our guide. But if we are mindful of others, if we give of ourselves with generosity and kindness, if we seek justice for all people and reconciliation among those who are divided, then we already standing on the side of God and God’s will for humanity. This is to live by the Spirit.

The way of the Spirit is not an easy path. It is a challenge that requires great effort on our part. But the ability to live as one of God’s people is a gift to us from God and something that God makes possible. Where will we place our focus? What will be our mindset? Will we choose the ways of the flesh that lead to separation from God, or will we be enlivened by the Spirit and the fullest life we can live?

Prayer: Lord, help us to live our lives according to the Spirit and not the flesh, so that in fullest life we may serve you faithfully. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Journey With the Family

Psalm 34
My father-in-law's health has been less than stellar of late, so naturally I have spent time thinking about him recently, about the impact he has had on many lives as a minister and as a friend. Those lives include mine. The Christian faith really is a family in so many ways; not one of birth or marriage, but one of covenant and community. My father-in-law has done much over the years to help me feel at home in the family of faith and I think of people like him when I read words like those found in Psalm 34. "O magnify the Lord with me," says the psalmist, "and let us exalt his name together" (Psalm 34:3). These are words of invitation meant to make us feel at home in the family of faith. These are words that say "come and share in a life of purpose and joy that can only be found in serving God." They say "come and be a part of God's people, the community of the covenant. Come and belong." These are words my father-in-law has embodied through decades of ministry and discipleship.

Each of us who considers him- or herself a Christian has a different story as to how we came to have faith in Jesus Christ. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, you may have experienced conversion from a life that was leading you in one direction when you experienced a change of heart that led you in another. Or perhaps like Timothy, you may have simply grown up in the faith,  never realizing it was possible not to believe. In any case, there were others who played a part in getting us to where we are today in our journey with God, whether it was friends, co-workers, family members, neighbors, fellow church members, even strangers. Any of these may have touched us at an appropriate time and helped guide us on our way. The end result is that we stand in community, in covenant with one another and with God. We now have the opportunity to reach out to others the way that others have reached out to us, to say with the psalmist, "O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together."

Obviously, we are not the source of the message; it is Jesus Christ who calls us into relationship with God. But we have a vital role to play nonetheless. The community of faith as we know it is always in flux. It is not a rigid, fixed group of people, in lockstep, marching along the road of faith. It is, instead, a changing, dynamic collection of saints at various stages of their respective faith journeys. The joyous call to discipleship, then, is not an invitation to a sit-down, black-tie dinner. It is a "come as you are" affair, a ramble along the road that leads to the coming kingdom. It is a trip that changes us from what we were into what we can be. It is a trip without much in the way of a fixed starting point, but it has a goal: full, self-giving service to God through Jesus Christ. Our words of invitation, addressed to the world, can be the starting point for someone else's trip along the road to the kingdom, and it may be the only invitation that some people ever receive. So let us magnify the Lord, and let us exalt his name together.

Prayer: Lord, on our journey of faith help us to remain open to what you are doing in and through us and to what we may do through you for others. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Monday, March 11, 2013

In the Face of Doubt

John 6:1-15
Listen to the doubts expressed by the disciples when faced by the challenge of feeding a multitude. “Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’” (John 6:7-9). We don’t have enough. There are too many needs to be met. We can’t do it all! According to John, this is what the disciples were saying to Jesus, but he was not swayed by the fears of his followers. He took what they had, a few loaves and fish, and fed the five thousand people who were gathered there…with food left over. It was an act of grace in the face of human need.

How often do we allow doubts to cloud our expectations of what God can do? How often do we look at a situation through human eyes—seeing limited resources and limitless needs––and forget that God sees things differently? We may never know how often has God gone beyond our assumptions creating, claiming, redeeming, sustaining, guiding, healing, loving where we see nothing to be done or no reason to do anything in the first place. It’s an aspect of the feeding story (one of the few that appears in all four gospels) that I often overlook. But it is vital that we allow God to work when and where God wills, that we keep our eyes open in faith, and that we do not close our minds to what is possible in the hands of the Lord.

 Prayer: Lord, ease our doubts and fears and help us to live with hope and expectation of what you are doing in our lives and in our world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, March 8, 2013

It’s Not About Us

Romans 6:1-11
Paul offers us words of great hope this morning in his letter to the Romans. “For if we have been united with [Christ Jesus] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.…The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:5, 10-11). In the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, we have been freed from the power of sin that once overshadowed our present and our future and are now able to live toward the will of God and what God is doing in the world. When we embrace this truth, when we accept it as reality, we find it to be a colossal shift in the meaning of life. No longer is it all about us. Our failings, our shortcomings, our faults are not what define us. We are now defined by the will of God and what God is doing in and through us. We are freed to move beyond our fears and regrets and to walk in the light of a new hope and a new future.

It isn’t easy, of course. We still feel the tug of our former lives clutching at us to draw us back to what we once were. But now, since we have new life in Christ, we also have ample reason to make the effort and to face the challenges. There is reason to hope; it is the certain knowledge that we live by the grace of God who claims us as God’s own and who experienced death for our sake and for the sake of the world. If we have a share in the death of Christ Jesus (and Paul assures us we do), then we most certainly have a share in his resurrection from the dead. So not only does life have renewed meaning—freed as it is from the darkness of sin—but death is no longer to be feared, for with it comes our final restoration in the life eternal, when, by grace, it still won’t be about us, but about God and God’s majestic glory. Our lives, then, belong to God, now and forever.

Prayer: God of all time and space, by your grace you have freed us from the power of sin and death and allowed us to live in and through your will. Bless us today in all that we do, that we may serve you with joy and be a blessing to others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Steady As We Go

John 8:21-32
John Lennon looked at a world of deceit and closed-mindedness and sang “All I want is the truth, Just gimme some truth…” Our gospel reading today speaks directly to that plea. There Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31b-32). But before we consider the question to be asked and answered we need to be sure that we understand Jesus’ intent.

To “continue in [Jesus’] word” and thus be a “true disciple” is about far more than claiming to be a Christian. It is a full-time commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, to the Word Incarnate, to the presence of God in the world transforming lives and pointing toward the coming reign of God in its fullness. It is to accept Jesus as the one who dies for our sins but who also calls on us to take up our crosses to follow him. It is to see in Jesus’ ministry a radical concern for the poor and the oppressed, the marginalized and those who have been cast out. It is to challenge the powers of this world with the light that “shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5). Only in pouring ourselves out so that we may be filled anew by the Holy Spirit and guided by the will of God may can we be considered disciples of Jesus Christ in the fullest sense and therefore know the truth. As people of faith we face a true dilemma. On the one hand, we are confronted with a world that shrugs off our intentions and questions our motives, cynics and doubters who see little good in what we have to offer. On the other hand, we worship a Lord who confronts our half-hearted efforts to live in faithful obedience, offering forgiveness born of divine judgment. We often find ourselves somewhere in between, affirming the faith but not fully living it.

The good news is that Jesus’ words were not a final statement, but an opportunity to push ahead, to “continue on” in our lives of faith, welcoming each day as a new opportunity to serve God as witnessed to the gospel. It is, I believe, the willingness to struggle and to face the obstacles of faith that set us apart from the world. And it is this on-going commitment that leads finally to the truth that only God in Jesus Christ has to offer. The world is full of problems; as disciples we do our best when we do not lose heart but accept the grace we’ve been offered and remain steady in our devotion.

Prayer: Gracious God, may we live our lives in such a way that we offer hope to the world and glory to your name. Amen.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Say What?

John 7:37-52
There is a curious statement in our gospel reading today, one that at first glance seems to contradict other passages in John. “Now [Jesus] said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39). What exactly does John mean by “for as yet there was no Spirit.” Already in this gospel Jesus has made references to the Spirit, most notably, perhaps, in his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3. There Jesus says, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit… The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:6, 8). What are we to make of this? John’s reference to the Spirit in chapter 7 is very likely in terms of the events of Pentecost, when believers would be empowered to witness to Jesus and the Messianic age, of which the Spirit is a sign. At this point in the gospel account, Jesus has not yet gone through his passion, death, and resurrection, what John calls his being “glorified.” Yes, the Spirit has been at work throughout history, and is now at work within the ministry of Jesus. But the church has not yet been given birth because Jesus has not yet complete his work.

I’m sure that, for many, it is tempting to dismiss material such as this as having no relevance in life. The effort to come to terms with the meaning or the purpose of passages like John 7:39 may seem wasted when so many other issues confront us on a daily basis, matters of life or death, matters of poverty or wealth, matters of growth or decay. It is fitting, though, that the subject of this particular passage is the Holy Spirit, because it is in our struggle, our wrestling with the word of God, that the Spirit often meets us face to face and leads us to a richer understanding of faith. Indeed, we who live on this side of Pentecost and the birth of the church have no need to wonder about the presence of the Spirit; it is always at work in our midst reveling the love of God in the most interesting and challenging ways.

According to John, Jesus was, at a particular time in his ministry, pointing ahead to another particular event––Pentecost––which we have passed but which continues to color our view of the world and of God’s activity in it. But the Spirit remains active in our word and our lives in no small part because of the words we read in John through which the Spirit offers us guidance and hope. The very real aspects of these events help us to also view the coming kingdom as real and impending.

Prayer: Gracious God, we thank you for your work in and through the Holy Spirit, not only in history but in our lives today, as well, and in the future which you have promised to us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, March 1, 2013

All In This Together

Jeremiah 5:1-9
Living as we do in an age of divisiveness, perhaps it is helpful to be reminded by the prophet that sometimes we are more united than we realize, and that it isn’t always a good thing. “Then I said, ‘These are only the poor, they have no sense; for they do not know the way of the Lord, the law of their God. Let me go to the rich and speak to them; surely they know the way of the Lord, the law of their God.’ But they all alike had broken the yoke, they had burst the bonds” (Jeremiah 5:4-5). Sin is sin. Disregard for the Lord is a problem no matter where it happens or by whom it is perpetrated. Jeremiah surveyed the people of his day and found that no matter their place in the social spectrum, no matter their level of achievement, no matter how well-educated or politically connected they might be, they still fell short of God’s intentions. Interestingly, the fact that Jeremiah assumes that the poor might be less righteous based on their place in society is unusual in scripture where God continually shows great compassion for the oppressed and impoverished. Of course, the prophet quickly finds that there is no status in life where God’s will is followed consistently.

Finger pointing, it would seem, will get us nowhere. What we need is not more accusations against others, but a thorough self-examination to remind us that we, too, have fallen short of God’s will for our lives and that we, too, whoever we may be, whatever our station in life, must allow God to work in and through us to bring us to righteousness. As Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson today, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). Driving in the car earlier today I experienced a modern interpretation of Paul’s words as I passed cars festooned with stickers in support of one cause or another. I applaud these folks for standing up for their beliefs, but I also hope that in their zeal for a particular cause they do not lose sight of the fact that they, too, need the mercy and forgiveness of God as found in Jesus Christ if they are to walk in paths of faithful obedience and true discipleship.

Perhaps with the realization that sin is a part of every life we may discover a sense of unity and fellowship with others. There is no one who is without sin. No one. And here, if nowhere else, we stand united. It isn’t much, but at least it’s something.

Prayer: Forgive us when we sin against you and against one another, and help us to recognize our need for the entire community of faith. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Back to the Beginning…Almost

Jeremiah 4:9-10, 19-28
The prophet Jeremiah offers a horrifying vision of what God might do in response to the ongoing faithlessness of the people. “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger. For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end” (Jeremiah 4:23-27). Notice the various elements of creation that are mentioned. The earth is “void” and the heavens have “no light.” There is no human presence and even the birds have vanished. There are no plants for “the fruitful land was a desert.” In so many ways this is a mirror image of the creation story of Genesis 1, for here is a virtual undoing of the acts of God at the beginning of time. All that is left is a barren, empty, deserted wasteland, very like the void over which the spirit of God passed before saying, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3).

Yet even in the midst of this vision, this threat of total destruction, there is hope, for God has not forgotten the various covenants, the promises made to Noah, and Abraham, and through Moses: “I will not make a full end,” says the Lord to Jeremiah. Indeed, there is a reminder of God’s grace even in the face of human stubbornness and disregard for the divine will. The utter bleakness of Jeremiah’s vision does not overcome the hope that God holds out, that within a restored creation the kingdom will come in its fullness. In the story of Pandora’s box, the girl, Pandora, releases all that is dreadful and evil into the world. But along with the woe there is also the last thing out of the box which is hope. Here, in Jeremiah, we find a veriation of that story rooted in God’s relationship with God’s people, a story that contains both the judgment of a just God, and the grace of a merciful Redeemer.

God’s anger burns hot, but God will not bring an end to creation, says Jeremiah. Indeed, with the arrival of Jesus Christ and his ministry some centuries later, God reaffirmed the divine commitment to humanity. In the end as in the beginning, we are blessed by the care of a loving God.

Prayer: God of all creation, look beyond the darkness of the world and lift up your light on the goodness that you have established here, that all may know your love and repent of their sins. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Answer the Question

John 5:1-18
I remember a scene from the TV show The West Wing that went something like this:

Man: Do you have a watch?

Woman: It’s 2:30.

Man: I didn’t ask you what time it was, I only asked if you had a watch. You should only answer the question that is asked, nothing more.

The story told in John’s gospel today contains a similar exchange in which the answer given does not match the question asked. “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?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me’” (John 5:6-7). Jesus asked a man if he wished to be healed. Instead of saying yes or no, the man became defensive, offering excuses as to why he was still sick after 38 years. In other words, the man by the pool did not answer Jesus’ question.

Two things come to mind here. First of all, are we answering the questions that Jesus is actually asking us, or are we answering other, less important questions? When Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” are we stammering on about the terrible weather last Sunday morning, or the unexpected expenses we’ve encountered lately, or how difficult it is to find even a few moments of peace and quiet during the week? When Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” do we mention how much we’ve enjoyed the recent Bible study, or how the women’s luncheon was so lovely, or how the grass at the church needs cutting but that we assume someone else will take care of it? The answer to “Do you love me?” should be a resounding “Yes.” And the answer to “Who do you say that I am?” is “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” So why have we put ourselves into the position of having to dodge these questions when Jesus asks them? Why do we get so defensive?

But that also leads me to wonder how often our society makes those in need feel as though they must make excuses for themselves. How often do we somehow blame the hungry for their condition, or hold the homeless accountable for living on the streets? How often do we assume those who are poor must have done something (or not done something) that lead to their plight? Do we automatically conclude that those who are sick must have brought it on themselves? Jesus offers no judgment in healing the man by the pool and only calls on him to live a life of righteousness after the fact. Are we not capable of the same mindset, or have our suspicions and our attitudes led us to the place where we cannot see a need without assigning blame to the one who suffers?

I offer those two thoughts today mainly because I am acutely aware of my own failings in this regard. I recognize how often I respond to Jesus’ questions with unrelated answers, and I know I make assumptions and act on stereotypes in relation to those in need. During this season of Lent, perhaps – with God’s help – I can do something about it. Maybe – with God’s help – you can, too.

Prayer: Lord of healing and restoration, help us to answer your questions with honesty and clarity and to meet the needs of our world without judgment or qualification. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

No Exchange Policy

Jeremiah 2:1-13, 29-32
Romans 1:16-25
Portions of two of today’s readings intersect to offer a word of warning for those whose attention is not on God and the divine will. “Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,” we read in Jeremiah, “send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD…” (Jeremiah 2:10-12). In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes the same point clear, saying, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever!” (Romans 1:25). In each case, the issue is one of idolatry, the placing of anything – any aspect of life, any activity, any idea or concept – between ourselves and God. The people of Israel had “changed gods,” according to the prophet, had chosen to serve “the creature rather than the Creator,” in the words of Paul. As a result, the heavens should be “appalled… shocked… (and) utterly desolate,” according to Jeremiah.

While it is easy to place such comments in the past tense and therefore to see them as historic failings, we ourselves must continually be aware of our own focus, that in which we place our ultimate allegiance. The problem, even within the Christian community, is that we find the idolatries of others to be so much worse than those we carry. We easily remove the speck from the eye of fellow believers while the log remains firmly lodged in our own. Why is that? Why is it that people of faith have so much trouble finding common cause on this issue? If nothing else, we Christians should be able to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our day to day lives and God’s help in our effort to cast aside whatever it is that blocks our view of God’s will. We all fall short of God’s intentions. We all have “changed gods” at some point in our lives. We all have been bedazzled by the creature and lost sight of the Creator, if only for a season or for a moment. We all stand in humble need of God’s forgiveness and grace, and it seems to me that prayers of confession should replace words of accusation and acrimony on all levels.

Then, perhaps, once we have recognized our common plight as sinners in need of redemption, we can pray for one another, humbly and honestly seeking what is best even for those with whom we disagree strongly, for God’s glory is certainly not served in our willful disregard for the hurts and needs of others any more than by our inability to remain focused on the one by whose grace we all live.

Prayer: Lord of light and life, we confess that we have not always followed you and your will for our lives. Forgive us when we allow anything to distract our attention from your glory, and restore us in our faithful obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Are We Paying Attention?

Jeremiah 1:11-19
“The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘I see a branch of an almond tree.’ Then the Lord said to me, ‘You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it’ (Jeremiah 1:11-12). At first glance, the most important part of this text may seem to be the pun between the word for almond tree and the word for watching which are very similar in Hebrew. But today what strikes me most is the question that the Lord addresses to Jeremiah. “What do you see?” the prophet is asked. What a profound thing for God to say to anyone. What do you see? How do you perceive your surroundings? What is it that attracts your attention? What gives you pause or causes you to wonder? What do you see? This word from the Lord is an invitation to be engaged by creation and to embrace all that God is doing there.

Indeed, this is a question we should ponder far more often than we do, because it can lead us to some significant realizations. What do you see in your day to day life that indicates God’s presence in the world? What do you see in your friends or loved-ones that speaks of community and fellowship? What do you see in a stranger that reminds you of Jesus? What do you see in world affairs that lets you know that grace abounds? What do you see in your neighborhood that confirms the need for God’s love in ways that only you can provide it?

Recently a church member and I were discussing signs of grace that seem to pop up in our lives in unexpected ways. We eventually agreed that God is always at work –– grace is always in evidence –– but that eyes of faith are the ones best trained to see it. Jeremiah was able to “see” God’s work through as common an item as an almond tree. But we, too, have opportunities to perceive the work of God if only we will look around, open our eyes wide, and take in the grace-filled view. So what do you see, and how does it aid your journey of faith?

Prayer: Lord, give us eyes with which to see you and your work all around us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Care Instructions

Deuteronomy 10:12-22
Our Old Testament reading for today offers a good example of the tension between God’s sovereignty over all creation on the one hand and the divine concern for individuals in need on the other. “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords,” we read, “the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18). To live in relationship with God, then, is to live out the meaning of that tension, God’s sovereign “above-ness” that in no way limits God’s nearness. For example, when we worship God, we should hold these two aspects of God’s activity side by side. Our praise should be heartfelt and joyous, our hymns and prayers sung and spoken with the reverence that is appropriate for the Creator of all there is. But this same praise and worship is dishonest at best and meaningless at worst if it does not lead us to show care and compassion for those around us, if it does not direct our attention to a world full of need and pain. Our day to day lives as well must be guided by the recognition that our majestic God is also an imminent God. Though we might wish to move spiritually from one “mountaintop experience” to another, blinded to the world by the radiance of God’s presence, we walk a false path of discipleship if we do not also enter that world, eyes wide open to the poverty and the injustice that clamors for our attention, and which calls us to deeds of self-sacrifice on behalf of the lost and lonely.

The story of creation tells us in vivid terms that when God brought human life into existence it was as a reflection of the divine image. And the incarnation of Jesus Christ – the word of God made flesh – reveals the willingness of God to enter into human society as one of us and to live as the poorest among us, the most oppressed of our world, live. If, then, we are to give ourselves fully to God and to truly glorify God’s name, we must be willing to follow the divine imperative, recognizing God’s Lordship over all, but humbling ourselves in service to those in need. This is what it means to be the people of God.

Prayer: God of majesty and might, lead us not only to acts of praise and worship, but also to deeds of kindness and concern, that we may fully reflect your love to the world and may rightly serve you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Of Darkness and Light (and Of Shadows, Too)

John 3:16-21
According to the gospel of John from which we have read this morning, the world is divided into two types of people, those who do evil and therefore shun God’s light in Jesus Christ for fear of being revealed, and those who do what is true and therefore accept the light and what it makes clear. John puts it this way, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:20-21). John seems to suggest that the world is made up of clearly defined areas with sharp lines of contrast in between. You either do what is wrong or you do what is true and right; you either sin against God, or you don’t. And depending on your actions you either cower in the blackness of anonymity or you stand confidently in the sunshine of righteousness. I wish I thought it was that clear in real life. It’s not that I want to do what it evil, or that I don’t do what is true, it’s just that all too often I get muddled up somewhere between the two and the results are not what they should be. I love the light, I just can’t always seem to get there. Is there no place for me? Is there no grey area, no area of shadow or shade, maybe not completely in the light, but certainly not completely in the dark either?

Actually, I think that taken as a whole the gospel of John has quite a bit to say about living in those grey areas between sin and righteousness. “Indeed,” says John, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (v. 17). It is true that the light of God in Jesus Christ is a source of judgment as well as grace, but Jesus has been sent, first and foremost, to offer salvation to the world, which I take as a word of hope for those of us standing in the space between light and dark. Jesus is our hope. Jesus is the means by which we strive to leave our sinful ways behind and step into the glow of the coming reign of God. The light of God will defeat the darkness of the world. And by grace, we will find ourselves bathed in the glow of the righteousness of God.

Prayer: God of light, help us as we strive to step out of the darkness and to embrace your will for our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

All Day, Every Day

Hebrews 3:12-19
Ask someone if it is Wednesday (for example), and they may answer, “yes, all day.” It’s just one of those things that people say sometimes. Ask the writer of Hebrews if we should encourage one another to live righteously at any given time and the answer might be a verse from our epistle reading for today: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Deuteronomy 3:13). Based on this verse it would appear that exhortation is a full time job for the Christian community. And frankly, it ought to be.

The typical work week for many is five days or about 40 hours (though for others the requirements are a good deal more). The “exhortation week,” as we might call it, is much shorter: one day. Only that one day is whatever we happen to call “today.” Is the writer of Hebrews trying to make a joke of the matter? I doubt it; the subject is far too serious for that. Instead, I think that the importance of the message is being underscored, highlighted, emphasized, lifted up in a manner similar to what I have just done by stringing a number of verbs together to help make my point. Our concern for one another should be an ongoing and constant aspect of life. Faithful obedience to God’s will is the bedrock of the faith and, so long as it is in our power, we must hold each other accountable and nudge each other along the path of true discipleship. It really does take a village to raise a child as the African proverb says, but within the community of faith that work is not done when the child reaches adulthood. The need for guidance remains, and one mark of our regard for each other should be that we take the time to offer such guidance whenever it is needed.

As a pastor, I ask congregants to tell me when they become aware of pastoral concerns even if they assume I already know. I would rather be told twenty times about the same matter than to find out too late that there was someone who needed my help. Exhortation works the same way. I don’t necessarily like having my faults or my failures pointed out to me, but I would really hate being left on my own to deal with my sinfulness without anyone taking the time to show their love and support. The Lord set aside one day out of seven of rest and charged us to use it. But even on that sabbath day we are called to offer encouragement and guidance to one another so that all may live in right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. So, being a Christian is a full time job and being part of the community of faith allows for no down time. It is just that important.

Prayer: God of love, help us to care for one another and to encourage one other to live in faithful obedience to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Here’s Hoping

Hebrews 3:1-11
There are things I hope for that are, in the grand scheme of life, of little lasting importance. For example, I hope the San Antonio Spurs win the NBA championship this year. As a fan, I would be very proud of that accomplishment and it would give me a certain amount of confidence, I suppose, among other basketball fans. Besides, the Spurs are a model of consistency, led by an outstanding coach and a core group of players who understand the importance of teamwork. So I hope they win the championship. But even if they do, in a matter of months it would mean very little as my life moves on and challenges arise; challenges like providing for my family, or caring for those in need, or participating fully as a citizen of my country. Those are issues that cannot be resolved or dealt with simply because a particular team wins a title. And yet, even these aspects of my life, these challenges, do not approach the level of meaning expressed by the writer of Hebrews. In our epistle reading for today we read, “Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son, and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope” (Hebrews 3:6). True hope, true Christian hope, leads to a kind of confidence, a sort of pride that stands over and above the day to day aspects of our lives –– even the important ones –– because it is focused on eternity and not merely on the here and now. Indeed, to live with the sort of hope that the writer of Hebrews is talking about is to live with no fear of what challenges may confront us, but with a sense of peace and resolve that transcends even the most trying of circumstances because we know –– we know –– that something better, something more complete, something more profound awaits us.

As one whose faith is placed in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, I have the opportunity each and every day to face life with all the energy, all the strength that I can muster, embracing life and all of its ups and downs. Even even if I fall well short of the goals or aspirations that my faith holds out to me, even if I am subjected to ridicule or hardship because of what I believe, I am blessed with the knowledge, the certain hope, that in Jesus Christ God has claimed me and will continue to love and guide me no matter what. And when I allow that to really sink in, when I let that enter into my consciousness in a meaningful way, I realize that I really do have nothing to fear. The confidence I feel is not in my own abilities, the pride I have is not based on anything I have done; it is all based on the fact that in Jesus Christ I am a part of God’s house and as such blessed beyond measure.

I will be rooting for the San Antonio Spurs to win the NBA title in 2013. But regardless of whether or not they do, I will be striving to live my life with the pride and confidence that comes from knowing God is at work in and through me and that something far greater than I could ever imagine awaits me. That is the nature of Christian hope.

Prayer: Almighty God, may we each live out the hope with which we have been blessed, and may we demonstrate our confidence and pride in you to those around us, this day and always. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, February 18, 2013

What a Long, Strange Trip

Deuteronomy 8:1-20
“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (Deuteronomy 8:2).

Two thoughts cross my mind when I read and reflect on those words from our Old Testament reading this morning. The first is the song “Truckin” by the classic rock group The Grateful Dead, which includes this refrain: “Sometimes the lights all shinin’ on me; Other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it's been.” There are indeed times in my life when I have looked back and marveled at what a long, strange trip I’ve been on, the ups and the downs, the challenges and the accomplishments, the doubts overcome and the assumptions proved wrong, the questions answered and those that remain unanswered, the times of light and the hours of darkness. In a number of ways my life (at age 52) has been a long, strange trip, and I’m sure the people of Israel, standing on the cusp of the promised land, poised to enter and, with God’s help, to subdue it, were given cause to think in similar terms. But according to Deuteronomy God had been at work throughout, guiding and sustaining the people and testing to see their intentions. Wherever they had gone, God had been with them, and that fact had made the journey possible. Wherever we’ve gone, wherever our long, strange trips have taken us, God has been with us, too, leading us and making our journey possible.

And that leads to my second thought this morning. A minister friend of mine once spoke of his sense of call as best seen in hindsight. As he had moved from church to church in his career, it was when he took the time to reflect on events and opportunities in his life that he could most clearly recognize the hand of God at work. I’ve experienced the same reality. I’ve found myself wondering why I was in a particular situation as a minister and only after the fact, only when I’ve taken the time to ponder events and opportunities, have I recognized the real reasons that I had been there. As the book of Deuteronomy points out, the people of God finally had reached a place in their history where they could look back, reflect, and fully recognize their journey in terms of God’s actions.

Perhaps as we journey through the season of Lent each of us will be given the chance to look back, to reflect, to consider where, by God’s grace, we’ve been and how God has led us and cared for us. Perhaps we will find time to ponder the journey ahead and behind and note that, no matter how long or how strange, our trip has never been without God’s encouragement. Granted, some trips are longer and stranger than others, but the one God of Israel lies at the heart of them all.

Prayer: Lord God, make your presence known to us that we may remember we do not journey alone, but always in your presence. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Someone, Somewhere

Hebrews 2:1-10
I am always amused by this particular passage in our reading from Hebrews today. “Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?’” (Hebrews 2:5-6). Frankly it sounds like something I would say, especially if I was feeling too lazy to confirm that as a quote from Psalm 8:4. Recently in a sermon I mistakenly referred to Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken” as “The Road Less Traveled.” I was sure I had the right title, so sure that I didn’t take the 30 seconds necessary to verify it on Google. Fortunately, the English teachers in my congregation were gentle in their comments.

The writer of Hebrews did not have the luxury of Google, of course, and may not have been sure of the exact source. But no matter! The verse quoted is apt and to the point, which I think helps to highlight an important aspect of scripture’s power. Scripture does not gain its authority from our mastery of it. This is God’s word; it comes to us with its authority already in tact, its relevance already assured. This is why we wrestle with and allow ourselves to be engaged by passages like those from Hebrews and the book of Psalms, because it is there that we find God’s word for us and for the world. A too-easy comfort with such verses, to me, indicates an unwillingness to be fully impacted by what God is saying. Scripture is hard work, it is long study, it is on-going conversations, it is prayer and reflection, it is honest disagreement and an open examination of preconceived notions. It stands up to and rewards our toughest questions with resilience and strength.

The writer of Hebrews had a message for God’s people. So did the psalmist. But the power of their words comes from God’s Spirit working in and through them. A breezy familiarity with scripture keeps us from appreciating the wondrous power at work there. To me it is far more important to honestly wrestle with words of scripture than to pass by them quickly or with blasé familiarity.

Prayer: Lord, give us ears to hear your word even as we wrestle with its meaning for our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Between Faithfulness and Forgetfulness

Deuteronomy 6:1-15
Throughout the history of God’s people there has been a prevailing trend: when times are tough, we turn to God and seek the divine favor; when times are good, however, it is very easy for us to forget God’s presence or that we ever needed God in the first place. The writer of Deuteronomy warned against just such a turn of events. “When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors,” we read, “to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you…take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 6:10a, 12).

“Take care that you do not forget the Lord.” These are telling words that go straight to the heart of contemporary life. It is so easy in our consumer-driven culture, in this age of the self-made individual, to take credit for who we are and for the blessings we’ve received as if we have done it all by ourselves. Not only does this put us at odds with the divine will, but it also tears at the very fabric of the community of faith. One of the realities that binds us together as Christians is the recognition of our profound need for God and for one another. To forget God, then, is also to forget those around us, their needs and aspirations, their challenges and sorrows. A call to remember the Lord at all times, then is also a call to remember one another. And not just to remember each other, but to continue to care for and show compassion to others as well.

We are blessed in many ways by a God who loves us, watches over us, and, when need be, judges and corrects us. If we forget this, we lose an essential aspect of who we are.

Prayer: Lord God, help us to remember you at all times and to live our lives in accordance with your will. In Jesus’ name. Amen.