Monday, October 14, 2019

Reflection on Luke 17:11-19

I think the gratitude of the tenth leper stems from an amazing realization that can be summed up in words that go something like: “You healed me too.”  It was the gift of being included by Jesus that seems to have brought about that saving faith of the tenth leper. 

It is the same sort of gift of inclusion that a lonely teenage girl on of the side of the dance feels when, out of nowhere, someone comes up, takes her hand, and whisks her away toward the dance floor.  “Someone cares enough to dance with me too?” 

It is the same sort of gift of inclusion that the homeless veteran feels when someone cares to sit down with a cup of coffee to converse, listen, and help.  “You would waste your time on me too?” 

The tenth leper, the Samaritan, the enemy, walks away with the others expecting to be cut off from the healing that Jesus has to offer because that is just what happens when you are a hated Samaritan living in a Jewish world.  But, to his surprise, he looks down and notices that Jesus has included him too.  He too has been healed from his leprosy.  He too has been noticed.  He too has been loved.  He too has the chance at a normal life.  He has been healed too.

Jesus is like that you know.  Jesus actually follows his own teachings and loves the enemy as well as those who are not.  Jesus does not distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving before he sets out to heal.  Jesus heals the Samaritan, even though Samaritans are known to worship in the wrong way, in the wrong place, and associate with the wrong people. 

It is as if Jesus would be willing to go to the cross for people like that Samaritan man.  It is as if Jesus loves the world, and not just those who with the right religion.  It is as if Jesus actually cares that people like him be saved.  And, it is that sort of unconventional and unexpected love of Jesus that causes a saving faith to well up inside the formerly leprous Samaritan.  But, that type of faith does not well up in the other nine.

Just to be clear, Jesus loves and heals all of the lepers.  All ten people, sequestered to the edge of the village because of their leprosy, are healed after they shout out for Jesus to show mercy.  None of them had to prove anything to Jesus in order to deserve this healing.  None of them had to demonstrate their incredible faith in order to be touched by the holy. 

I would like to note even further that the other nine lepers listened closely to Jesus’ words and did exactly what Jesus told them to do.  Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests, as required by their religion to prove that they were clean, and they went away and did exactly that.  They did nothing wrong.

The only difference that I can see between the nine and the one is that only the one Samaritan expected that the gift was not for him.  Only the Samaritan had reason to believe that he would be excluded like every other time.  But, when the Samaritan looked down and saw that he was healed too, he could not help but come back with a heart of gratitude and praise for what Jesus had done.

Now, you cannot manufacture this type of gratitude.  It is like forcing your kids to sit down and write thank you notes for their Christmas gifts.  It is the right thing to do, but the actual sense of gratitude might be somewhat lacking as you force them with pre-scripted words of appreciation. 

The difficulty of showing gratitude does not stop with children though.  I have heard many Christians express how they know they need to be more grateful, but someow fall short. 

They have surely read, as I have, all the studies that show how much better the mental health of people is who show gratitude.  Gratitude makes our brains healthier.  It decreases pain levels.  It allows for better sleep.  It relieves stress.  It reduces anxiety and depression without medication.  And, gratitude can even increase your levels of energy.  But, even with all the scientific evidence of effectiveness and the encouragement from the scriptures, people still tell me that they struggle with making it happen. 

How do you make yourself be grateful?  You cannot just make yourself feel something that you do not feel; can you?

In order to get at that question, I want to point out one more thing that I noticed about the Samaritan that I saw lacking in the other nine.  Maybe you saw it also.  He was the only one who looked down and saw that he was healed.  This is such a small detail, but it is huge.  The other nine lepers walk off, because they were told to, but they walk off without noticing that they were healed.  It is only the Samaritan who looks and notices what God has done.

Here is the thing.  God is at work and doing things in our lives all the time.  There are a multitude of things that you could notice throughout any single day that God is doing.  There are a multitude of things that could cause you to turn back and praise God. 

Those who suffer from acute asthma can tell you how grateful they are for the simple gift of breath.  But, it is only those with acute asthma who look and notice. 

Those who have lost legs and arms can tell you how grateful they are to have prostheses that restore their lives back to something that looks like normal.  But, it is only those who have lost limbs who look and notice what a gift they are. 

Having your eyes opened to look and see is a gift from Jesus in and of itself, because the faith that gratitude creates comes from the act of stopping, looking, and seeing all that God has done.

In worship we sometimes get to see a young child accepted as a child of God through Holy Baptism.  It is a gift from a loving God that draws the child into a holy family.  Note, that like the lepers, nothing had to be done by the child in order to be given this beautiful gift.  It is a gift after-all.  But, we do pray that throughout the years parents, sponsors, and the church itself will be able to help the children to stop, look, and see the grace of God that has been given.

We help others stop and notice because Jesus stops and notices.  Jesus sees you also.  Jesus loves you also.  Even if…even if you are not the one who is usually included with everyone else, Jesus sees you and gives you healing too. 

May you see the grace that Jesus pours out on you even today.  And when you see, may you hear Jesus’ words:  "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."

Monday, October 7, 2019

Reflection on Luke 17:5-10

There was so much joy the day that the roof of the house was torn open and the paralyzed man was lowered down by rope to Jesus from above.  Not only was the man healed that day, but it was the forgiveness of his sins that had brought it about.  You can almost imagine the huge grin of Jesus’ face as the once paralyzed man skips away for joy with his sleeping mat in his arm.  Forgiveness brings joy.

Again, you sense this same type of joy and love found in the words of tender forgiveness spoken to the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair.  She was simply described in the story as a sinner, but she acts with the deeply moving joy and gratitude of one of Jesus’ forgiven.

And, then there is that sinner hanging on the cross with Jesus who refuses to join in on the taunts thrown Jesus’ way.  Instead, he asks that Jesus remember a sinner like him, and Jesus responds in the middle of this bloody scene with surprising words of joy; “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

There is so much joy to be found in forgiveness.  There is joy found in the amazing freedom of having the weight of your sin lifted from your shoulders.  But, maybe even more important is the joy that Jesus shows in granting that forgiveness.  It is as if forgiveness was the greatest gift that God could think up when considering all the gifts that a heavenly parent could provide the world. 

With all that in mind, I am drawn to ask: since forgiveness brings so much joy to the one who is given the forgiveness, and even more joy comes to the one who grants the forgiveness, why is it so hard to do?

Why is forgiveness so hard?

We are not alone in our struggle.  Just previous to our gospel reading for today, Jesus let the disciples in on the secret of why forgiveness is so powerful: because it does not end.  Jesus teaches in Luke 17:4: “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”  Forgiveness is powerful because it is persistent. 

God’s mercy is like a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in order to find one that is lost, and then rejoices when that lost sheep is found. 

God’s mercy is like a woman who sweeps the floor looking for a lost coin and throws a party when that coin is discovered!  

Forgiveness does not give up.  Forgiveness does not give in.  Forgiveness does not allow anyone to say, “This time around it is a lost cause.”  Forgiveness cannot be defeated by a grave.  Forgiveness will go all the way to the cross in order to save a world that rejects the notion of such amazing love.

But, maybe it is exactly the persistence of love that makes it so incredibly hard.  I do not know about any of you, but when a two year old throws his dinner plate on the floor fpr the seventh time that night, and I need to scrub the food out of the carpeting for the seventh time in an hour (What house designer chooses to put carpet in the dining room anyway?)…after the seventh time I feel like it would be more effective to just say something like, “Fine!  We’re done!  We can always eat again tomorrow!”

If it is that hard to forgive a two year old, imagine how hard it is to forgive over and over again an adult who should know better…who should have figured out by now how to put together some semblance of a life that is decent.  But, no, there are plenty of adults who have not figured out life and they make the same mistakes over and over and over again and need to ask for forgiveness over and over and over again.  The persistence that forgiveness requires is hard.

“Increase our faith!” the disciples cry out.  “Give us more faith so that we can do this!”  “This is hard.”  “This is discouraging!”  “We need more faith!”

Would it not be nice if gaining faith was like charging a super powerful battery that you could just plug in and charge up fully so that you can be ready to accomplish the impossible once again?  Would it not be nice if just coming to church once a week were enough to get us going again with no problems or hitches?  Heck, a once a month recharge would be even better!  Jesus, can we shoot for an increase of faith that lasts for at least a month?

We walk around as if faith were something of which you could have more of less.  We walk around as if faith were power packs that you can pick up along the journey to keep the game going longer and make you stronger with some timely upgrades.  Jesus thinks all of this talk is absolutely ridiculous.

"If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.” the Lord replied to the disciples, and to us who think we need more faith…who think that faith is something that can be quantified.  How much faith do you need to do the hard work of forgiving over and over and over?  About one point five millimeters worth of faith is all you need (the size of the average mustard seed).

Maybe, faith has nothing to do with having a certain amount of understanding, or having a certain amount of spiritual strength.  Maybe, faith is simply trusting that when Jesus says forgiveness is immensely important to the salvation of the world and that we should just do it, we will trust him and just do it. 

This does not mean that we necessarily agree that forgiveness will work.  It does not mean that we will feel immensely forgiving in the moment.  It simply means that we will forgive because Jesus said to; just like a slave serves dinner without question; or an ice cream store employee gets the ice cream, not because they like the person to whom they are serving the ice cream, but because it is their job.

And so, sisters and brothers in Christ, forgiveness is our job.  As followers of Christ, we forgive because Christ forgave us and because forgiveness is what followers of Christ do.

We have seen this very thing in the news as the brother of a man who was wrongfully murdered by a police officer, came up to the police officer after her jail sentence was given, embraced the police officer, and told the police officer that he forgives her for taking his brother away from him. 

We saw it when the family and friends of those who were murdered in a southern church by a young man a few years back forgave the young man for such an incredible act of evil. 

Each of these people trusted that forgiveness will save the world.  Each of these people trusted that Jesus knows what he is doing.  Each of these people had faith the size of a mustard seed. 

It is a faith that says, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!"  Forgive as you have been forgiven.  Find the eternal joy that can be found in the simple faith that is forgiveness. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Reflection on Luke 16:1-13

All the guy is worried about is his own survival.  But, at least that is better than what he was worried about just moments before: money. 

What are you worried about? 

I only ask because it is your worry that will control your life.  The dishonest manager is a clear example of what I am talking about.

At one time all the dishonest manager worried about was making money.  The man had been entrusted with keeping a rich man’s estate, and I assume that he was paid well for such a role.  However, the money that he earned must have still left him craving and desiring more because the manager started to squander the rich man’s estate.  The worry and desire for more led the man to take what was not his.

It is kind of like the church secretary and her husband who just a few years back were entrusted with a church’s money.  The couple stole from that church to the tune of thousands of dollars in order to fund their vacations to the Caribbean as well as other luxuries such as all terrain vehicles to drive around their home. 

On the outside, the couple appeared to be the epitome of great church members.  They would be the ones to greet people at the door with welcoming smiles.  They would be the ones who would encourage other people to get involved with things like Sunday School and the church’s soup kitchen.  They would be the ones to enthusiastically run the stewardship program.  Wait a minute.  That should have been the first clue.  No one enthusiastically runs a church stewardship program. 

In the end, the church discovered that the church secretary, who wrote out the checks for the church, was easily able to redirect investment money into her personal account because the church president and chair of finances who oversaw all of the money just happened to be…wait for it…her husband.

The dishonest manager is like them.  At one time, money and all that money can buy was what controlled the manager’s life and his actions.  What controls your actions?  What are you worried about?

I only ask because the punch line to Jesus’ whole story is, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."  In other words, everyone has something that controls their life. 

Everyone has some desire or ideal that is ultimately in control of everything.  Maybe, it is being a people pleaser, and everything that you decide has everything to do with what makes family and friends happy rather than what is good or right.  Maybe, it is children, and everything that you do revolves around what the children want in life and all other considerations have been left out of the equation.  Maybe, it is your career, and all of life’s decisions revolve around what your job dictates. 

Theologian Paul Tillich calls this having an “ultimate concern.”  Each one of us is controlled by some sort of “ultimate concern” whether you are religious or not.  And, these ultimate concerns direct all of our actions and decisions in very specific ways.  The dishonest manager’s previous ultimate concern, money, caused him to squander the estate entrusted to him.  But, once he was caught in his dishonesty and the money was taken away, his ultimate concern quickly shifted to “survival.”

“What will I do now?”  The soon to be former manager asks himself in his last hours of employment.  “I’m a weakling so I can’t go and dig ditches, but I’m also above begging.”  “You know what I will do?  I will make people happy so that they will love me and want to help me out once I am thrown to the streets!” 

That is exactly what he did.  During his last hours of employment the dishonest manager continued his dishonesty and squandered his master’s property even more by forgiving those who were in debt to the master part of their indebtedness.  So, the one guy who owed the master 100 jugs of oil had his debt reduced in the books to 50.  And, the guy who owned 100 containers of wheat, with the stroke of some ink, now only owed 80.  Soon, both the manager and the rich man were viewed as gracious and merciful people by those in the community because of the guy’s dishonesty.

Listen.  Let’s be clear here.  The dishonest, former manager is not gracious and merciful.  He only cares about his own survival.  But, at least his concern about his own survival caused him to do something good.  At least his ultimate concern was no longer money because money was no longer an option.

Money can be so corrupting.  It can lead people to think that they are self-made and make them feel self-righteous. 

“I’m rich, you’re not, and you must be doing something wrong if you also are not rich.  Work harder, care about money more, and you can be rich too.” 

I know that is portrayed quite crassly, but that is how it works, right?  Money and wealth is so powerful of an ultimate concern.  I once talked with a struggling single mother who lamented, “I don’t want to care about money.  I don’t want to focus on money.  But, when you are trying to keep your children safe and fed, I am forced to focus on money all the time.  How do I get more?  How do I spend it wiser?  Where did the kids put my purse?  I don’t want money to be my god, but it is anyway.”

I get it.  I understand.  Even when you do not want to sin, you sin even more.  The Apostle Paul has a lot to say about that in Romans, chapter 7, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.”

But, do not forget that the dishonest manager is commended for at least choosing to help someone through his dishonesty rather than hurt someone.  What I mean to say is: Jesus is able to take your less than honorable concerns and turn them in a way that serves him.  The man’s desire for survival was used to relieve other people’s burdens in ways that his pursuit of money never did.  I guess it all comes down to who you serve.  Who do your serve? 

Serving money never leads to God.  Jesus is clear about that.  But, serving your own need to survive?  Jesus might be able to work with that and transform it.  Serving your need to keep your children safe?  Jesus might be able to work with that and transform it.  Serving your need to make others happy?  Jesus might be able to work with that also and transform that too.  Jesus is able to transform your weakness into something merciful and compassionate and good.  Jesus is able and willing to transform you.

As Paul says in Philippians 3:20-21:  “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”

Jesus was a guy with no money who healed, fed, and forgave everywhere he went.  Ultimately, he gave his life on the cross to show mercy to the whole world.  His focus was in no way on money.  He never accounted for how much money his ministry of mercy needed.  Jesus just did it.  He just showed love and served those who needed him.  Jesus’ focus was entirely on God’s love.

How is that for an ultimate concern?  What if God’s love directed your every action?  What if God’s love was the final factor in your thoughts and decisions in life?  What if God’s love was the final factor in the church’s thoughts and decisions? 

Maybe, just maybe, people would find relief when they encounter you rather than stress.  Maybe, just maybe, people would find love when they encounter you rather than deception and false motivations.  Maybe, just maybe, people would find God’s love, because you have actually allowed God to fill you with that love.

Be devoted to the one who is devoted to you, even to the point of death; Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Reflection on Luke 15:1-10

"All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, 'This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'"

My grandma once taught me, “You are known by who you hang out with.”  The implication of this was, of course, if you ate your school lunch with good and proper people, you also will be known as good and proper.  Then there are the people with whom she would not have me eat lunch: the sinners. 

Yes, of course, we are all sinners and need the forgiveness of God, but this was not the classification of sin that she was talking about.  She was talking about cheats and turncoats and drug users.  You do not sit at the lunch table with them, because if you do, you are considered one of them.

Jesus appears to be making the simple lunchroom error that every Jr. High student of any worth inherently knows to avoid: sitting with the wrong crowd.  “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  You can almost hear the accusations dripping from their lips.  It is as if Jesus were a criminal himself.  It is as if Jesus himself were to come to no good.  It is as if Jesus might be hauled away by the authorities and executed.  If only the Pharisees and the scribes knew the end of the story.  But, they do not know the end of the story.  They only know that Jesus eats with bad people…with sinners; “tisk, tisk.”  Yes, my grandmother actually said, “tisk, tisk.”

The Pharisees and scribes see the world as good and bad.  They see the world as black and white.  They see the world just as my grandma had taught: good people…sit with them; bad people…do not sit with them.  My grandma also taught that you can marry a rich woman as easily as a poor one.  I did not listen to that gem of advice, but I think that the former lesson sank in a little deeper than I would like to admit.  I think that sometimes I do look out on the world and throw people into the categories of good and bad.

For example, once at a church picnic, I saw a young couple drive up in an old pickup truck with their four young children.  Did you catch what I said?  A couple was driving all of their children around, stuffed into the front seat of an old pickup truck.  Those children wore no seatbelts, and certainly did not sit in age appropriate (required by law) car seats.  I shook my head in disbelief as they got out of the truck to go play in the park, and continued eating my turkey and mustard sandwich with all of the other good people of the church. 

A little later I looked up to see that the parents had gone off on their own to play basketball while their children were…well…they did not even know where their children were, they were not watching!  Terrible people.  I settled into conversation with those who knew better and promptly forgot about those sinners until in the middle of the night when my mind wandered to them once again causing me to jump awake and realized with horror one simple truth: Jesus invites sinners to eat.

I am a pastor!  How could I be so stupid?  I am a Christian!  How could I be so dumb and inconsiderate?  How could it be that I did not invite this sinful family over to eat with us?  The answer is easy really: it is because I saw them simply as that: sinful, hopeless people.  Jesus, on the other hand, did not categorize people this way.  Jesus simply asked, “Are these people lost?”

"Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who [is found and turns his life around] than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who is found and [turns her life around.]"

The question I ask when I see people is: are they good or bad? 

The question Jesus asks when he sees people is: “Are they lost?”  And, if they are, then they need to be found.

I should have gone and found those children.  I should have gone and found those parents.  I should have invited them to eat with us.  Maybe I did not because I, like the Pharisees and scribes, also am lost. 

Being lost can do that.  It can cause you to forget that everyone is precious to God. It can cause us to forget that Christ somehow does not feel complete unless Christ finds everyone who is lost.  

Just like a shepherd is no shepherd at all if he loses his master’s sheep.  Christ is not who he promises to be if he fails to search for the lost.

Just like the woman frantically searches the house to find her lost coin; the piece of dowry that fell away from her headscarf or hip scarf that shows her worth in the ancient world; Christ frantically searches for us, the lost.

Shepherds are not complete without all of their sheep.  Women of the ancient world were not complete without their entire dowry. Parents are not complete without all of their children. Siblings are not complete without their brother or sister. God is not complete as long as God’s children are lost.

God definitely recognizes when a child is missing from the dinner table. Just as our own parents would be devastated if we did not show up at the table when we were young, God too is devastated when we fail to show up.

In fact, God is so passionate about finding us that God sent God’s only son to the earth, to risk his life to find us; to save us from the darkness; and to bring us out of the blackness of sin into the light of resurrection.

So, I guess that means that we are a once lost but now found people.  We are the people who once wandered away from God. But, that is not the important part of our story.  The important part of the story is the part where we are found.  The important part of the whole story is that Christ came to find us, grab us by the hand, and raise us up.  We are a found people who are loved by God.  That makes us a finding people who have the heart of Christ.  We are a once lost but finding people who search and search and search until all are found.