Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Reflection on Roman 5:1-5

Trinity Quiz:

Question: Of the 268 congregations of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the church to which I belong), how many are named after the Trinity?

Answer: 28

Question: True or False: The Trinity describes God as “one God in Three persons”?

Answer: True

Question: True or False: The persons of the Trinity consist of: “God,” “the Son,” and “the Holy Spirit”?

Answer: False. 
The first person of the Trinity is not “God,” but rather, “God the Father.”  The other persons of the Trinity are “God the Son” and “God the Holy Spirit” because all are equally God.

Question: True or False: The Trinity can be best described as being like water: taking on three forms (liquid, vapor/mist, and ice) but still all water?

Answer: False. 
This is a heresy called Modalism in which God exists in three modes, but never at the same time.  Just like water cannot exist as liquid and ice at the same time, so too did Modalists believe that God could not be Father and Son at the same time. Modalists believed that God had different “modes” (like putting on different masks depending on what was needed at the time), but the church believes that God is all three persons simultaneously.  If this was not the case, who then was Jesus praying to in the garden?

Question: True or False: In the doctrine of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is a manifestation of the Father and the Son rather than being described as fully God.

Answer: False.
The Holy Spirit is a full person of the Trinity like the Father and the Son.

Question: True or False: In Trinitarian terms, all three persons are described as creating the universe rather than just the Father?

Answer: True. 
The Bible describes God the Father as the creator, but also notes that it was God’s Spirit hovering over the deep that was involved in creating at the start of Genesis.  Also note that in John’s gospel “the Word” (God the Son) was there in the beginning and that “all things came into being through him.”  The persons of God are fully involved in every action of God.

Question: What shape has historically been used to describe the Trinity?

Answer: Triangle. 
Beyond the triangle having three points to represent God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the equilateral triangle is able to represent each person of the Trinity in an equal way (all points and angles are the same), yet all points are a part of the same object.  Though this is orthodox, I still maintain that God is not a shape.  You cannot have a relationship with a shape.

Relationships: that is how I actually want to talk about God this Trinity Sunday.  Quite frankly, facts about how God is Trinity can be fun for a quiz, but does not do much to promote the new life that can be found in Jesus Christ.  Probably, the best description that I have ever heard concerning the Trinity is that God is inherently a community.  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, who are all equally a part of this divine community, work together to create, save, and draw more of creation back into that Holy Community.

And, we need to be drawn back in because there are lots of ways that we try to push away the community of God. 

Some people focus only on themselves.  Selfishness is the opposite of being a part of a community, and therefore is opposite to the very nature of God. 

Some people are concerned primarily of making money and they put that first in life.  Think of those who choose to destroy the environment rather than care for it, all to just make a profit. 

In the book of Revelation, John of Patmos (the preacher of the book) repeatedly regards Rome’s destruction of the land and pollution of the seas as being work that is in opposition to Christ.  In other words, when we destroy God’s creation, we are essentially pushing away God’s divine community which thought up and molded the universe in the first place.  When we haphazardly and selfishly destroy creation, we are essentially pushing away what God loves.

There are lots of ways to push away the community of God.  Selfishness does not just take the form of loving money but, as Paul lists in Romans, Chapter One, selfishness can fill us with every kind of “wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.”
You do not need Paul to list off all of those things for you though.  You know very well how destructive any one of these things can be to a community.  

“Gossip,” one of Paul’s examples, can utterly destroy a group of people.  Gossip can consist of either true or false information, but, either way, it is spread without first investigating the truth.  Gossip cares more about spreading the information than spreading the truth. 

Now, if the gossip is false, it is obviously destructive because it injures someone who is innocent.  I think of the farmer who was denied an operating loan from a small town banker because the rumor had hit the banker that the farmer was going to sell all of his cows.  When the farmer heard at the café weeks later that he was going to sell all of his cows, it was news to him!  But, the rumor had already done its very real destruction.

Yet, even if the information contained in the gossip is true, it is still destructive because Jesus tells us to confront those who sin against us; not just talk behind their backs.  Even more, Jesus demands that we forgive 70 times 7 times. 

Gossip does not care about reconciling people, but God does.  God cares that God’s community of people show love to each other because God is a community of love.

And, for those who do not identify with any of Paul’s examples of selfish, idolatrous behavior, he goes one step further.  If you are judging others who do these things (like me right now as I chastise the gossipers), then you too (and me) are no better. 

For in judging, we are standing in the place of God rather than in the place of a human being and we too think too much of ourselves and our values.  In passing judgment, we too are selfish and idolatrous, holding ourselves higher than we ought.  In judging we too are destroying the community of God. 

God cares that God’s community of people show love because God is a community of love.

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” Paul points out.  That is just the truth of being a human.  We fall short of the mark, even if we try to aim right at it. 

Yet, do not forget that God is a community of love.  Jesus Christ brings us peace with God.  Jesus Christ looks at us through eyes of grace and not eyes of judgment.  We are brought into God’s community through grace; not because we deserve to be in God’s community but, because God wants us there. 

By grace you have been saved.  By love you have been saved.  And, the Holy Spirit pours this same love into your hearts because God is a community that wants more and more invited in. 

We are a people of grace, because God is a divine community of grace.  And, that is what is important in life.  And, that is what is important to understand about the Trinity.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Reflection on Acts 2:1-21

One of my theology professors had just landed in Mumbai, India and was exiting the airport when he was confronted by a little boy holding out his hand.  This is typical in India.  Poorer families will send out their children to beg in tourist areas around the city in the same way that I and my brothers were sent out to mow people’s yards during the summer.  It keeps kids out of trouble and to brings in a little money for the family. 

Assuming the professor was American, which he was, the little boy asked for some money in perfect American English.  Trying to get past the annoying kid and onto his bus, my theology professor answered back in perfect German, “I don’t speak English.” 

Amazingly, the kid replied, “That’s OK, I can speak German too,” with a perfect German accent.  The kid got the money.

The persistence of the kid and his linguistic abilities reminds me of the persistence of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.  People from at least 15 nations had gathered in Jerusalem for the harvest festival of Pentecost, bringing gifts of the first fruits of their labor to sacrifice to God at the temple.  Little did they know that God had a gift waiting for them.

Suddenly, a great wind blew over the place.  Little flaming tongues of fire blew in with the harsh breeze and they fell upon some of the native Jews standing in the crowd. 

This was not the surprise though; this was not the amazing part of the gift from God. 

Just as that little beggar boy could talk to my seminary professor in multiple languages; those standing in the crowd were shocked to hear these native Jews with the flaming tongues speaking not in Hebrew, but in the native languages of their own countries. 

The visitors were in a foreign country to celebrate, but it was as if they were at home.  And, as anyone who has traveled to a foreign nation and tried to urgently ask for the directions to the bathroom can tell you, there is nothing better than to have someone who can speak your own language!

I think of a foreign exchange student that I became friends with in High School.  She was from Colombia, and she is now a high paid official at the World Bank, negotiating loans between nations for the building up of global economies.  This girl was (and is) no idiot.  But, while in school, she was sort of treated like one. 

Though she was a genius, she could not convey it in a way that we could understand.  Her English was not yet perfected while in High School and her limited English vocabulary hid her intelligence.  But, you should have seen her face light up when the Spanish teacher sought her out and struck up a conversation.  Having someone who can speak your language can be life changing.

Two of the fastest growing congregations within the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the ELCA, are churches that minister to the drug and alcohol recovery communities.  In these recovery churches, people who have struggled to find new life beyond the drugs and alcohol have found the new life that Jesus Christ can create which forgives sin and builds a new future. 

This is a huge need throughout our entire nation as we fight the opioid crisis, but not just any church or any person can take on such a ministry.  Only those who know the language of addiction, only those who have been through the struggle and have been brought by Jesus to the other side are able to speak to people in ways that give new life from God.  Like the disciple who had been given the gift of the language spoken by the Medes, for the Medes, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has gifted these people of faith with the language of addiction and recovery.  Having this gift of language turns the worst part of these minister’s lives into their greatest gift for the kingdom of God.

You too have been given the gift of a language from the Holy Spirit.  You too are a gift to someone waiting for the healing and wholeness that comes through knowing Jesus Christ.

I know of someone who had been trained as a theatrical actor who later went to seminary in order to learn more about God.  And, after her pastoral training, she took a job (not in acting, because those are difficult to come by), but in managing props at a movie studio. 

Why did someone from the theatre take the time and spend the money to go to seminary, just to return to the theatrical/movie world?  Because, acting and theatre is her language.  She understands the terminology.  She knows which direction you would need to step if asked to go “up stage left.” 

But, beyond terminology, she understands the unique culture and language of those in the creative performing arts.  And, the Spirit has led her to be a gift to those people.  She can proclaim in a very particular way the good news of the grace of Jesus Christ to a very particular people.

But, you do not have to be seminary trained to do this stuff.  Seminary trained people are just the people I have hung around with who do not care if I share their stories.  The important part of these stories is not the seminary training, but rather the gift of a particular language that the Holy Spirit provides. 

Perhaps, you have been given the gift of knowing an actual second or third language such as Spanish and you can connect in the name of Christ with those who seek asylum in our nation. 

Me gusta bailar en el baño.”  That means, “I like to dance in the bathroom.”  It is the only Spanish I remember from my two years of Spanish in High School, but someone who actually knows Spanish could be a gift from God in that way!

Perhaps, your language is quilting and you can share the good news of Christ Jesus through the block patterns that you put together.  “Block patterns,” that is the extent of my knowledge about the quilting world, so barring a flaming tongue of the quilting language falling from the sky right now, I am not the choice to deliver the good news in that world.  But, you may be!

Maybe your language is dairy farming; or auto mechanics; or hunting, NRA card carrier; or motorcycle culture; or pop music enthusiast; or old guys talking at the diner for breakfast.  I do not speak any of those languages!  I certainly do not speak the language of old ladies at the hair solon, but you might!  And, if you have been given the gift of that language by the Holy Spirit, then you are sent from this church as a gift to those people. 

You are the one who knows the language.  You are the one who can speak of God’s grace, and God’s love for the sinner, and God’s care for the world to those particular people.  You are the one who has been given as a gift of the Holy Spirit to those people. 

Notice, that in the Pentecost story, it is not the divided tongues of fire that are the gift of the Holy Spirit, but rather the disciples themselves (who have been given those tongues and languages) who are the gift to the people at the Pentecost festival.  God provides those followers of Jesus as a gift to those at the festival that they may understand and hear the good news of Jesus Christ.

You too are a gift to someone who needs to hear about the grace of God.  You are a gift to someone who needs their life to become new.  You are a gift from Jesus to someone else who needs salvation.  You are the one who knows how to share the language of God.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Reflection on John 17:20-26

Did you know that Jesus prayed for you? No, I do not mean that Jesus prayed for his disciples in ancient times and since you are a disciple the words sort of cover you also. No, I mean that Jesus actually prayed for you.
After praying for the disciples of his time, Jesus turns his attention toward the future and prays, “on behalf of those who will believe in me through [the disciple’s], that they may all be one.”
It is as if Jesus knew how scattered his followers would become with thousands of different Christian denominations (different flavors of church) dominating the landscape; and even separate churches for those with white skin and brown.
It is like Jesus knew how scattered his followers would become as they struggle to follow Jesus and Jesus’ kingdom, all while being strongly drawn to follow their political and cultural views instead.
It is like Jesus knew how scattered his followers would become as dividing lines between nations become stronger than brotherhood and sisterhood with the family of Jesus Christ in other places across the borders.
A few years back, I was part of a committee that was interviewing teens who were being selected to go on a trip to a foreign nation in order to meet Christian teens in those nations and to do some service work with those teens. The teens were clearly excited about the opportunity, but in our increasingly divided world, a world where fear permeates our relationships (sometimes with very good reason: terroristic threats, kidnapping, drug cartels), some of the parents were less than excited.
“What if something bad happens to them while there are in that country?” one parent asked. “What if they don’t come back? Promise me that they will be safe.”
Now, everyone wants to protect their children. That is a parent’s job after-all. So, I do sympathize with their fear. But, on the other hand, this was a spiritually life-changing opportunity. We asked the parent, “Can you promise us that nothing bad is going to happen tomorrow when he goes to school?”
The parent could not promise us that.
We then asked, “If a Christian child from a church across the seas were to come here for a visit, would you do everything in your power to keep that child safe?”
“Of course, I would,” the parent replied.
“Then why would you assume that your brothers and sisters in Christ in another nation would not do the same,” we questioned. “They are just like you. They are Christians who show the love of Christ and follow the ways of Christ just like you. No one can guarantee anyone’s safety at any time, but when these teens go, they will be living with the family of Jesus Christ.” In other words, "Do not fear, we are all one."
“May they all be one.” Jesus prays. “Just as you, Father, live in me and I live in you, may those who sill follow me in the years to come also live in us.” When we live in the love of Jesus Christ we are one family. That is Jesus’ prayer anyway.
And, this prayer continues to echo even today. Jesus still desires that the entire world might look at Jesus’ followers and see just what godly, sacrificial love looks like. Jesus still desires that the world might look at Jesus’ followers and see a vision of unity and family that goes across family divisions and national borders. Jesus still desires that the world might know that it is loved by Jesus as well as loved by those who gather in his name.
You know what I love most about this prayer of Jesus? I just love the simple fact that Jesus prayed for me. There is something powerful in knowing that you are prayed for. It is more powerful than just being told that we are prayed for. After-all, lots of people say, “I’m praying for you.” Actually hearing the words of the prayer as the disciples did or reading them as we do and knowing for certain that you are not forgotten is one of the most Spirit enriching things that can happen.
A church I used to attend (before I was chosen as one of the few who get the privilege to stand up front and bore people to death for an hour every Sunday morning) used to pray each week for specific families and people in the congregation. This would happen the entire year and, therefore, was a regular practice of that congregation.
Even still, one Sunday when little Morghen in her pretty white Sunday dress heard her name as the pastor prayed, she jumped up and down on the pew and said, “God prayed for me! God prayed for me!”
Granted, she had a little confusion about who God was at that point, but she was not incorrect, God prays for us! Jesus prays for us, and it is, quite frankly, touching and mysteriously powerful to know that the Word of God who breathed life into the universe takes the time to pray for you and me.
So, can I pray for you? Because, like any pastor, I truly want you to have your cravings for the presence of the living Christ in your lives to be a reality. I truly want you to feel to your very core the presence of God’s love; a love that would go through the horrors of torture and death just so that you can have life! I truly want the divisions, the walls that are in your life, to crumble and fall so that we can all be one in God’s family.
Let us pray,
Jesus Christ, our brother, I join my voice with yours as I pray for each person here.
May each one know that you stand beside them.
May each one know that you will love them to the end and beyond.
May each one know that you desire true life for each of them.
Break down any walls that divide them. Unite them as you, Jesus, and the Father are united.
What I mean by that, I guess, is that each may know that they are family with one another, just as they are family with you.
May each person here know that they are never truly alone, and that there is always someone to whom they can turn when the struggles and confusions of life become too great.
May each child here feel your love and the love of their church family surrounding them. May they know they have a home with your people no matter where they find themselves in the world.
And, I ask that each of these people here may get the chance to love the world as you have loved the world. May they be filled only with the wonders of your embracing love.
Lord, Jesus hear our prayer. 

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Reflection on John 14:23-29

"Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”  (NRSV, John 14:23)

There is that word: “home.” 

The man’s childhood home was the place where the 32 year old opioid addict sought refuge.  When his entire life was falling apart because he singlehandedly destroyed all for which he had worked (wife, children, and career), he knew that he was safe when he came home.  He knew that he could start over again and build a new life when he came home. 

"Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” 

Home is familiar.  Home is where you will find unconditional love from your parents.  Home may even still hold some of your clothes from the 70s, 80s or 90s, all of which you can wear in a moment of desperation.  Of course, you could hand them down to your children and expect them to wear the clothes, all in an attempt to cause embarrassment. 

Not that that ever happened…during a homecoming dance…concerning a baby blue suit with a baby blue vest and elephant ear sized collars.  I assure you that in1992 baby blue was not cool.  Just sayin’.

Ok, so there may be some embarrassing things about home, but it is also the place where you learned to love despite anything that was embarrassing.  Home is where most children learn to love period. 

In the rocking chair or the recliner is where you were snuggled close and held tight each time you cried.  It is where your scratches were kissed better and your cookies were baked for you out of love.

It is also the place where you learned to give thanks for God:

Come Lord Jesus,
Be our guest,
And let these gifts,
To us, be blessed. 

And, it is the place where you were afraid of the dark, yet learned the prayer that would guard you through the night:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
Guard me safely through the night,
And wake me with the morning light.

In our house, our nightly prayer goes like this:

Jesus, thank you for the day
Keep me safe now as I lay
Show me grace in all I do
And, bless those who need love to,
God Bless…

And, then we list all of the people (and animals) in our life that we love.  Dogs, cats, and even dolphins are prayed for nightly in our home.  In other words, we pray for those people and animals in our life who we would gladly welcome into our home. 

Home is the place where God comes to live with you.  It is the place where Jesus’ forgiveness is practiced (sometimes on a daily basis).  It is also the place where Jesus’ idea of serving others out of love is first learned.  Home is the place that is likely filled with the Lord’s peace.  It is the place that teaches us what living in the grace of Jesus Christ looks like. 

Even if God were to somehow become forgotten in our homes, God promises to find a way to be present, like the faded spot on the wall where the cross once hung years ago.

“Pastor Jira, in no way do I connect with your idea of home,” a teen once told me after I made similar comments elsewhere. 

“To be honest with you, my house is a place of hiding upstairs in my room, holding the blanket over my head, pressing in on my ears, and trying not to hear my parents scream at each other; trying not to hear the words that make the house a house of hatred.” 

Notice that she did not use the word “home,” but rather, “house.” 

“I have never had a ‘home’ where we learned love,” she continued.  When we were younger, my brothers and I learned how to survive as we ate crackers and used screwdrivers to open cans because our parents were too drunk to feed us.  I’ve never known ‘home’ to be a place of love.”

To those of us who have had a great home, but especially to her (and those like her) who have never had a loving home, Jesus gives us a promise.  Jesus promises that he and God the Father will continually come and enter our houses in order to make with us a home.  So, even if you have never known love, you will very soon because Jesus is going to come and make a home with you. 

With Jesus finally setting up a home with you, you will know what it is to be embraced with love. 

If you have never known what it looks like to be served and to serve others out of love, you will very soon because Jesus is moving in and washing your feet and hands before you come to the dinner table. 

If you have never known what it means to be forgiven for doing horrible things to the ones you love, you will very soon because Jesus is moving in and will forgive you, even if you nail him to a cross to die.

As a side note, my younger brother still loves me.  Even after my older brother and I used to put him against the wall and see how close we could come to shooting with our Nerf guns without hitting him, he still loves us.  You see, he learned that when his brothers took aim at him, they missed him…most of the time.  He still forgives us.  Even to this day, every time we gather together, he reminds us of how he forgives us of such trauma.

But, back to nailing Jesus to the cross and the forgiveness that follows.  When God chooses to make a home with you, when God the Father and God the Son choose to step through your door and make their home with you, you learn what eternal love and eternal forgiveness is all about.  You learn what it means to forgive, 77 times over.

Here is the thing, as anyone who has brought someone from outside of the family into their own home knows; your life is changed forever the minute they step through the door.  How you love, how you relate, how you help, how your serve, how you forgive; it all changes.  And, when Jesus steps through your door it is no different. 

“Those who love me will keep me word,” Jesus says.  In other words, those who are found at home with Jesus, know what it is to love the world.  They know what it is to serve the undeserving.  They know what it is to let Jesus’ love and Jesus’ peace guide them in all they do.  They will soon see just how limiting and shallow the imperfect love and peace of the world actually is.  You cannot go back to living that way.  As soon as Jesus steps through the door of your home, you cannot help but try to become a part of God’s family.

I can relate, when I entered into my wife’s family (which is a very a musical family in which every male in the family plays the guitar while the women sing) I had no choice but to learn to play the guitar. 

In the same way, when Jesus enters your home, you cannot help but learn how to love and serve others.  You cannot help but learn how to forgive each other.  You cannot help but learn how to feed and sustain each other.  You cannot help but learn how to love your enemy.  All of these things that are so important to Jesus just sort of rub off on you when Jesus’ abiding Spirit is with you in your home.  That is just what happens when Jesus makes his home with you; your life changes.

By the way, the lives of the people into whose homes you are invited will similarly be changed.  When you dwell in someone else’s home with God’s love, the Holy Spirit will enter there also.  They too will be changed and they too will find their eternal home with Jesus.